Concerns and criticisms have come from the telecommunications consumer lobby group Australian Communications Consumer Action Network and the industry lobby group Communications Alliance. The TIO has also commented on the proposals.
ACCAN has expressed its strong concerns at the government’s proposed rules changes, particularly any changes to the current role of the TIO in resolving disputes.
The government’s proposals include setting up an External Dispute Resolution body to deal with complex complaints, that would lead to changes in the setup of the TIO, but ACCAN says it has strong concerns about a “reduction in the remit of the omdubsman”.
She says the TIO has been “delivering well for consumers, so it would be a backward step if the Government’s review resulted in changes that diminished its role and made complaints more difficult to resolve from a consumer perspective”.
“The TIO satisfies the benchmarks for industry-based dispute resolution schemes, and has the support of the consumer movement. These benchmarks have served consumers well and industry-based External Dispute Resolution schemes (including TIO) have been 'perhaps the best step forward in consumer protection in the last 30 years’, according to Gerard Brody, from the Consumer Action Law Centre,” Corbin notes.
“In fact, consumer advocates in the last year advocated strongly for this model to be adopted in the finance sector with the new Australian Financial Complaints Authority – this is something the government supported, and the benchmarks were put in legislation. We see no case for changing the industry-based EDR model right now.
“Telecommunications is a complex area that every consumer needs to engage with, none more so than at the moment when the whole community is switching over to NBN-based services. The last thing consumers need is for avenues of independent redress to be reduced.”
Corbin says telco complaints are very high because the regulatory regime has been a “light touch for too long” and she says the focus needs to be on service providers’ internal complaint handling, effective customer service guarantees and a “stronger more enforceable Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code, rather than reducing consumer rights to redress”.
In a straightforward comment on the government’s proposals, the TIO issued its own statement saying it believed the assertions and ideas set out in the paper need to be tested.
“In particular, we will be testing the propositions that consumers (especially vulnerable consumers) will have the capacity to work with providers in the model being proposed, and that a new body is needed to achieve greater independence dispute resolution,” the TIO said.
And the Communications Alliance said further scrutiny was needed on the proposal to “remove the TIO and replace it with a new External Dispute Resolution body”.
While welcoming the “long-awaited commencement” of the government’s review, CA chief executive John Stanton said the proposal for changes to the dispute resolution steps “could be readily accommodated by amendments to the TIO’s existing processes, if the proposal is deemed to have merit”.
“The TIO is fiercely independent, with a strong independent chair, independent directors and even numbers of directors with consumer and industry experience – it is funded by industry fees, but not controlled by industry,” Stanton observes.
“Whether the cost and disruption inherent in dismantling the TIO and replacing it with a new body can be justified to achieve change that can happen in any event, needs to be critically considered.”
Stanton also noted that while the consultation paper spoke of rising TIO complaint volumes, the level of complaints had actually fallen significantly in recent months.