Francis Muscat, CEO of the Gibraltar Office of Fair Trading since its inception in 2015, explains the role of The Office of Fair Trading (OFT). “It is a statutory regulator established by Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar and its main purpose is to regulate businesses, but only businesses which are otherwise not regulated by another enactment.”
“By regulation what we mean is that we licence businesses, so in order to do business in Gibraltar you need to have a business licence and we are the authority that issues those licences,” Francis says. “We also carry out a consumer protection function to ensure that our consumers are well treated, that the legislation is adhered to and that consumers are protected and their rights are upheld by businesses, but as well as these we have other responsibilities relating to money laundering and anti-terrorism financing.”
As part of its on-going Consumer Awareness program, the OFT were recently at the Piazza to raise awareness of ‘Travelling in the New Normal’. “We raise awareness of key consumer issues throughout the year, and in April we focused on travel as a result of the many enquiries and complaints at the office regarding issues with travel post-Covid and post-Brexit,” Francis states.
During the course of the year, the OFT Consumer Awareness team hold other outreach events, including one focusing on second-hand car sales coming up in May and another during Halloween about toy and costume safety. The busiest period for the OFT starts with ‘Black Friday’ which is the commencement of the most intense annual period of consumer spending, then comes Christmas and of course the January sales. Francis comments that this year the OFT is using more social media and outreach and really trying to make those very bespoke to Gibraltar based on the complaints and queries that they receive.
There is no doubt that coronavirus has changed the way we travel and during the height of the lockdown the OFT received a large number of complaints with regard to travel cancellations. Francis says that in June last year they issued consumer guidance, updated in November, on what to do whether it was a local travel agent or a third party provider, what the rights are in law and how people can go about claiming back money or get redress for those travel arrangements. “If the third party provider is EU based we will probably know enough about it that we can give a bit of guidance, but even if it is not or if you want a bit more specific help, we can probably direct you to the right authority in that country,” he says.
“More recently we have been receiving queries regarding whether consumers can or cannot travel, and we have been approached to see whether there are any issues that need to be borne in mind before booking,” Francis confirms. On the back of those queries, the OFT has created a checklist of things that people may want to take into consideration. “Brexit is not the easiest thing to have navigated through and it is particularly difficult after you add Covid and the lockdowns into the mix,” he says. People are anxious to start travelling again and it is worth remembering that it is not the same as previously, so the advice from the OFT is something that consumers should think about beforehand to avoid being disappointed.
Restrictions regarding travel are changing daily and because it is such a fluid scenario the OFT has compiled guidance on everything that should be borne in mind before going away, whether that is to Spain or further afield, including driving licences, changes to pet passports, changes to E111 and healthcare.
Francis confirms that the main thrust of the majority of complaints to the OFT concern goods or a service bought from shops or businesses in Gibraltar. “This usually surrounds goods not being as described or not fit for purpose,” he says. “Maybe the consumer is having issues with the trader and they want us to try to assist them, but it is very important you should know that by assist we mean that we will engage with the consumer to find out what the information is and then engage with the trader, but at the moment we can’t play a mediatory role.” The OFT is only there to try to prevent practices which may cause consumers harm, and this often results in the consumer getting redress.
The OFT also has a good relationship with traders. “We conduct inspections quite regularly and check things at the premises from which they are operating, and whenever we go we always offer the opportunity for them to ask any questions.” Francis says that sometimes before a consumer even comes to the OFT, they will get a call from a trader in advance stating that they have an issue and asking for guidance on their rights. “There are obviously some more contentious matters when we have had to take enforcement action, but those seem to be very few and far between and we can normally avoid them by engaging and just making sure that the traders understand what their legal obligations are,” he states. “At present we have four or five ongoing investigations and these are things that could end up going to court, but we have a system of approaching it incrementally where the enforcement gets more significant the less unsatisfactory the response.”
The OFT is not just there for consumer protection issues but also for businesses. “Remember that if you are doing business in Gibraltar you will need a licence of some sort, probably one of ours, but if you approach us we are more than happy to let you know the right authority to handle that for you.”
In the near future a new Fair Trading Act 2020 will come into place. “It has to be debated in Parliament, but we expect that it will go through and it is a significant improvement for the service users, from the public perspective, for the consumers and businesses perspective,” Francis explains. “It will make our role easier to perform for the benefit of the people we protect by way of example and we should have a more mediatory role once it goes ahead.”
Francis says that this will enable the OFT to provide more holistic protection for consumers. “The Act also deals with cottage industries and artisans, so that if you have a turnover of less than a certain amount (which is yet to be subscribed in regulation), you don’t require a licence and you just need to register with us, so that will substantially facilitate matters.”
“As well as a News section on our website, which we keep up-to-date, we have a general Consumer Protection page and we also have an Awareness page containing guidance documents for businesses and for consumers.” It’s also worth checking out the OFT social media platforms. “Every month we pick a topic that we are focusing on and put little snippets of what the guidance is, with links to the full guidance on our website, so if you want to stay abreast with consumer topics in Gibraltar, that’s the place to go.”
The ‘Travelling in the New Normal’ leaflet handed out at the Piazza is a condensed version of the full guidance that can be found on the OFT website, and if you already have the leaflet just click on the QR code to take you straight there.
“We generally are a Regulator that really tries to get our businesses to comply and we are trying to assist them into compliance rather than coming after them with a stick – that is not our approach – we really want to encourage them to comply,” Francis states. “For consumers, we literally will assist with anything that they come up with – even if it is not ours and we can’t assist we will go beyond what are our limits to try to ensure that they get some sort of redress.”
Francis and his team of twelve are always on hand to answer questions, whether that is when they are out and about holding awareness events at the Piazza, via the phone lines, email, in person at the office, or even by Zoom. “We are very flexible,” he states. “Just know that we are always here, you can always approach us and we are more than happy to assist,” he states. The OFT office is based at Suite 975, Europort, or go to the Contact Us section on the website.
More information can be found here: www.oft.gov.gi