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[January 19, 2014]
We'll focus on consumers and competition - Miliband: Citizens Advice and Which? to help set agenda Labour calls for new code to regulate pub companies
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Ed Miliband offered himself as a champion who could stand up to vested interests yesterday when he promised that consumer groups would help develop the annual programme of work for the government's new competition authority.
Miliband's aides said they were seizing Conservative ground, reminiscent of the rhetoric of Teddy Roosevelt - the turn-of-the-century Republican US president who offered the voters a square deal to fight "predatory wealth".
Miliband said on the BBC's Andrew Marr programme that under Labour plans, bodies such as Citizens Advice and Which? would work with the Competition and Markets Authority to define a programme for the year ahead. The idea is to highlight areas that parliament and the business secretary should be focusing on.
"We need a system in place to shine a light on broken markets," he said, adding that competition was the best way to defend consumers. He said "too often regulators have been captured", pointing to the example of energy. He promised legislation to ensure that consumer bodies were at the heart of setting the annual agenda of regulatory bodies.
Labour said it would introduce an annual competition health check, led jointly by consumers and the competition authorities, to ensure regulators and politicians act when markets do not work in the public interest. It would build on the Consumer Protection Partnership, set up in 2012 to identify harm to consumers, but it would include consumer organisations rather than just statutory bodies.
The commitment came after Miliband called last week for greater competition in the banking sector. He said Labour would "go into the election as the party of competition, the party of the consumer, the party of hard-pressed families, the party of working families".
The Conservative party questioned whether this commitment to competition extended to schools and hospitals. They also asked how this could be squared with the Labour conference call to bring the rail franchises back into public ownership.
But Miliband said Labour would pursue the theme of broken markets further this week, challenging the government's failure to force the giant pub companies to treat pub landlords fairly, which led to a huge wave of pub closures. Labour will call for a statutory code to guide and regulate the relationship between the pubcos and their licensees. It is the third January in a row that the government has been brought to the Commons to discuss pubco regulation. The code will ensure that every landlord has the choice of whether to go free-of-tie, allowing licensees to operate in a more competitive market.
Elsewhere in the interview he said the next Labour government "wants to get the current account into balance by the end of the next parliament and we want to see debt falling". Asked if Labour wanted to eliminate the deficit by the end of the next parliament, he said: "We do want that to happen, yes. It is a tough commitment and it will involve cuts and difficult decisions." Labour officials insisted the party had set out this timetable before, as well as its commitment to match coalition pledges on current spending in 2015-16, the first year after the election.
Miliband said he could not at this point say if Labour would support a deficit reduction bill likely to be tabled by the government in the autumn. That code of fiscal stability is designed by George Osborne to reveal that Labour is not committed to reducing the deficit.
He also defended the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls. "He has the toughness to stand up to people who want more spending when actually it is going to be tough for Labour. He is going to be the shadow chancellor going into the next election." He refused to commit to a 50p top tax rate, but said he wanted a fairer system, promising that at the time of the election the party would be clear about the distribution. He was equivocal about the progress he would make with the trade unions on reforming the union-party link but he said he was looking at changing the rules for the party leadership elections.
"I want to change the relationship with individual trade unionists in the Labour party. I want them to be able to make an active choice about whether they are affiliated to the Labour party. Changes are going to happen." Asked if this would lead to changes in the Labour leadership election rules, he said: "I do think we do need to look at those rules, and that is something that is being looked at as part of this review." Ed Miliband said that Labour would introduce an annual competition health check, led by consumer groups (c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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