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OFT sets industry a tough new task

John Bridgeman is bowing out as Director General of Fair Trading with another blast at the motor industry, this time for “unacceptable quality” in car servicing and repairs. He claimed car owners were being ripped off to the tune of £170m a year.

After a five-year term Mr Bridgeman will be replaced next month by Bank of England chief economist Prof John Vickers, 42.

It is the third time in four years consumer concerns have prompted the Office of Fair Trading to investigate the motor industry, following the used car study in 1997 and last year's new car prices inquiry. On each occasion Mr Bridgeman has been highly critical of an industry struggling to patch up a tarnished public image.

The latest inquiry found nearly 40% of garages provided an unsatisfactory service, with some repairs “potentially dangerous”. A spokesman said there was “a feeling that existing codes of practice were not good enough”.

The report, he said, was equally critical of small independents, national chains, franchised dealer workshops and manufacturer-branded outlets.

The OFT proposed: * A high-level taskforce to prepare an agenda for action within six months. * Manufacturers to provide car owners with servicing checklists to ensure necessary work is carried out. * Fixed-price quotes before starting work - invoices to detail work and time taken. * Investment in staff training. * Trading standards officials to get tougher with garages. The OFT spokesman was confident that Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers would approve the taskforce, which could be set up within weeks.

If the taskforce did not succeed, “more drastic measures” could be taken. “The Government is free to consider legislation but we are confident a taskforce will be successful,” said the spokesman.

“The taskforce will set standards and benchmarks, making it easier for local authorities and trading standards to target garages falling below expectations.”

The spokesman ruled out tougher trading standards claiming they “already have quite a bit of power”.

The RMI, which expects to play a leading role in shaping guidelines, believes the taskforce should come under the OFT's area of responsibility, though it is more likely to report to the DTI.

Sue Brownson, president of the RMI's National Franchised Dealers Association, said consumers should demand fixed price quotes on servicing and repairs. This would help them to shop around for the best deal, answering one of the OFT's criticisms.

Mrs Brownson said the taskforce should encourage repairers to “take more refresher courses - they must update their training annually” to keep ahead of technological developments.

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