Consumer Action Law Centre responds to today’s meeting of Australian Ministers of Consumer Affairs:

 

On Debt Vultures

 

  • Consumer Affairs Ministers acknowledged that addressing the conduct of debt management firms will require a coordinated Commonwealth policy approach.
  • The Commonwealth will commence work in 2018 to determine the merits and feasibility of debt management firms coming into the financial services regulatory framework. States and Territories will provide full assistance to identify data to support this work.
  • Ministers also noted a consumer education campaign would be developed as an interim measure to raise awareness of the costs and potential risks involved in using debt management firms and raise awareness of alternatives to debt management firms for consumers.

Quotes attributable to Gerard Brody, CEO

“Long-overdue reform of Debt Vultures is finally on the agenda. So-called ‘debt management’ firms have been flourishing in a regulatory gap, preying on people struggling to make ends meet.” 

“Today, consumer affairs ministers from around Australia acknowledged that a coordinated policy approach is needed, with work to commence on the merits of bringing these companies into the financial services regulatory framework. We welcome this response from ministers, and encourage quick action on this issue. It’s time to close the loophole and bring these businesses into line with other types of financial services.”  

 

On the Review of the Australian Consumer Law

 

  • Consumer Affairs Ministers agreed to clarify that the consumer protections that apply to unsolicited sales can apply in public places (for example, shopping centres).
  • Ministers agreed to significantly increase the maximum penalties for breaches of the Australian Consumer Law. Individuals will be subject to a maximum penalty of $500,000, while companies will be subject to a maximum penalty of:
    • $10 million;
    • three times the value of the benefit the company received from the breach; or
    • 10 per cent of annual turnover in the preceding 12 months.
  • Ministers also asked officials to undertake regulatory impact assessments for seven additional reforms, including improving rights to refund and replacements, applying unfair contract term protections to insurance contracts, and introducing a general safety provision.
  • Ministers also supported further research into an unfair trading prohibition and the role, nature and impact of unsolicited selling in the Australian economy.

Quotes attributable to Gerard Brody, CEO 

“We have been receiving complaints from Victorians being ripped off by unsolicited sales for years. It is great to see Consumer Affairs Ministers commit to further work in this area. We want to see an ‘opt-in’ requirement, which would mean you would have to follow up with a business to confirm you want to go through with a purchase. This help people avoid being pushed into signing up for products they don’t want or need by door-to-door salesmen and telemarketers’.” 

“We strongly support increasing penalties for breaching Australia’s consumer protection laws. The current penalties have not been big enough to deter bad behavior, and everyday Australians have paid the price. Until now, fines have been considered by some companies as simply the cost of doing business. These reforms will give the regulator the firepower it needs to ensure businesses play by the rules.” 

 

On retirement villages

 

  • Ministers noted recent media reports alleging unfair practices against older Australians in the retirement village sector. Ministers acknowledged that some jurisdictions have recently implemented and continue to move ahead with reforms that will improve consumer protections.
  • Ministers agreed to direct CAANZ to undertake further investigation into the regulation of retirement villages including identifying any regulatory gaps that allow unfair practices to occur.

Quotes attributable to Gerard Brody, CEO 

“The problems in this sector are not just limited to retirement villages. The entire retirement housing sector mess needs to be mopped up.” 

“Residents and their families have been dealing with excessive fees, complex contracts and poor training and accreditation standards for too long. Residents should be able to enjoy their retirement without having to worry about being treated like cash cows.” 

“Residents and their families must currently take their dispute to a court or tribunal if they are unable to resolve it with the operator directly. Many people simply don’t have the time, expertise or resources to do this, so there is no access to justice for them. That’s why we need an ombudsman so that residents can have their disputes with operators resolved quickly, cheaply and fairly.” 

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