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EXCLUSIVE: UK: New watchdog to eye repair garages

By just-auto.com editorial team | 27 May 2008

Britain's garage trade is to be overseen by a new watchdog aimed at cutting the GBP4bn of dodgy repairs said to be carried out each year at the country's estimated 20,000 repair and service garages.

The watchdog, effectively a body for self-regulation, will start operating on behalf of consumers in August after pressure from two British government bodies, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and National Consumer Council.

Its creation marks the culmination of several years of wrangling between the government, consumer pressure groups and the car industry over how to regulate repair garages.

Called the Motor Industry Code of Practice for Service and Repair, the scheme will be administered by a new company called Motor Codes Limited run by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), the key car industry trade body in Britain.

Its head will be Chris Mason, a motor trade veteran, who also runs the SMMT's similar arbitration programme for disgruntled buyers of new cars.

"We aim to give this scheme real teeth and capable of quickly resolving and sorting out problems," Mason said.

Garages will pay GBP75 (about $150) to subscribe to the code, which will bind them to agreed operating standards and create a clear complaints procedure.

"We don't want to make it too expensive, so garages can't opt out by saying the cost is too high," Mason added.

Significantly, the code is backed by the country's garage trade body, the Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMIF). "We're behind this 150%," chairman Alec Murray told just-auto.

The code will be supported by a national phone helpline capable of handling 100,000 calls a year. Mason said this is more capacity than the code is likely to need.

"There were about 24,000 complaint calls to government bodies like Citizen's Advice last year, although we expect this to go up when a high-profile scheme like this gets promoted nationally."

Garages caught up in complaints will be expected to fund the solutions themselves — there's no financial pot or insurance system underpinning the code.

If the helpline can't resolve complaints, they will be escalated to a disputes conciliation procedure. The last resort is a legally-binding arbitration procedure.

Although Mason hasn't signed-off the details, the OFT is pressing for the code to specify a rapid resolution for problems.

"We're probably looking at around three to four weeks for the conciliation process and within 10 weeks for arbitration," said Mason.

Around 5,500 garages — about one quarter of the national total — are claimed to have signed up for the code already and Mason said the target is to have 10,000 signed up within 12 months.

"That'll be a pretty big achievement," he said.

Although the code is voluntary, Mason believes that consumer pressure applied via the code's publicly-accessible website will persuade many garages to sign up.

Members will be rated on the web site with details of problems and unresolved issues over services and repairs shown as black marks against their names.

A similar process makes up the 'feedback' system used on the Ebay auction web site to allow buyers vet sellers.

Together with an audit every two years, carried-out without prior knowledge, the website will allow motorists to choose the highest-rated service outlets in their area.

Julian Rendell