Monday, 12 November 2012

We need Consumer Protection laws

Since Independence, Namibia’s lawmakers have been preparing laws to make all our citizens equal and to ensure that our rights are protected. They have scrapped discriminatory laws and created laws that give us access to equal opportunities. Thanks to these efforts by our parliament, all of us know exactly what our human rights are.

As part of the efforts of creating equal opportunity for all, the government ministries and institutions have concentrated on bringing laws and regulations that assist in sharing the wealth of the business community amongst the black population. These laws have covered ownership of businesses in various sectors such as farming, mining and fishing as well as lifting of restrictions on certain business areas which excluded the majority of Namibians.

One of the major partners in these efforts has been the chamber of commerce and industry. The NCCI was instrumental in getting one voice for business and has become a partner for development. In exchange, the government has helped the chamber by channeling grants and donor funds, and even gone so far as to purchase them a building in Windhoek for their operations. It is good that Namibia has become a country friendly to business, but what about the protection of the consumer?

We hear about consumer protection but hardly do we ever hear exactly what that means to us as a person. The question you have to ask is, “Who do I need protection from?”

According to Wikipedia - “Consumer protection law or consumer law is considered an area of law that regulates private law relationships between individual consumers and the businesses that sell those goods and services.” Unfortunately, Namibia’s lawmakers have failed to create the laws necessary to protect its consumers. This needs to change.

A recent example of this is the decision by NAMFISA to “remove the Consumer Credit Chapter from the Financial Institutions and Markets Bill. The scope of the Consumer Credit Chapter was deemed too wide and necessitates considerably more research in order to develop a comprehensive policy for consumer credit in Namibia.”

The history of this law makes one realise that Namibian consumer is being ignored.

History of the Consumer Credit Chapter
In 2006, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Economics, Natural Resources and Public Administration invited the public, banks and the private sector to discuss what can be done to make banking more affordable for the majority of Namibians. At the meetings, it was agreed by various presenters that we need legislation that will cover competition issues, but just as important would be the need to have consumer credit legislation. The Parliamentary Committee then tasked the Ministry of Finance and its institutions to prepare legislation in this regard.

After 6 years of consultation, meetings, road shows and various legal drafts, NAMFISA has removed the legal provisions which would cover what types of credit agreements would be allowed, the registration of credit providers, rules for the listing in credit bureau and the registration of debt counsellors.

More importantly, they will no longer include the following rights of the consumer:
  •  Right to apply for credit
  • Protection against discrimination in respect of credit
  • Right to reasons for credit being refused
  • Right to information in plain and understandable language
  • Right to receive documents
  • Protection of consumer credit rights 

The laws we need
The laws we need in Namibia have to cover the following issues:
  • Product liability - Businesses who make products must be held responsible for the injuries those products cause;
  • Unfair Business Practices – These should include looking at leasing of property and the increases in rental prices, the settlement of insurance claims and debt collection when there is a default;
  • Guarantees – Forcing sellers to provide a money-back guarantees to consumers if they wish to return a defective product
  • Consumer Credit – Regulation of credit bureau (such as ITC and Compuscan), assistance with debt counseling and repairing of credit reports, consolidation of loans and regulating of credit that can lead to bankruptcy
  • Small Claims Court - This is a court of law where ordinary people can handle their own cases. It is not necessary to have a lawyer (and their costs) as the forms are meant to be a kind of do-it-yourself where you fill in the blanks. The court has less formal and less complicated rules and procedures than the Magistrates Court
  • Privacy Protection –At present the Constitution guarantees only Physical Privacy. The storage of personal and business information (Informational Privacy) must have legislation that will prevent misuse of this information. In addition, the individual in Namibia must be able to access any, and all, information that is stored by the state (public institutions).

Namibian Telephone Numbering Plan

Your telephone number belongs to you. This is a basic accepted principle by any consumer. After all, who would dial your number unless they wanted to speak to you?

It should therefore mean that you can keep your number even if you change your provider from Leo to MTC or even from a mobile company like MTC to your home telephone. The idea that your number belongs to you is called number portability and the method of implementing this is through a National Telephone Numbering Plan.

As a consumer, you have an attachment to your number. After all, you give out on your CV, to your friends and family and to creditors. If you change your telephone service provider, you will have to face the inconvenience of learning the new number, changing your documents and making sure everyone knows your new number. This inconvenience has a financial cost and could be important in forcing you to stay with your service provider, even if you are unhappy with the service, or can get a better deal from another provider.
Being able to change your provider without changing your number gives you, as the consumer, the power and the right to choose the telephone service provider that makes you happy with it price, service and products.

Since 2002, most countries around the world have opened their telecommunications markets to competition (that include a national numbering plan), which has accelerated the deployment of telecommunications services more quickly and cost-effectively than past monopolies have achieved. For example, the European Union (EU) Universal Service and Users’ Rights Directive (2002/22/EC), Article 30 — effective since July 2003 — imposes on all EU member states the following obligations:
“Member states shall ensure that all subscribers of publicly available telephone services, including mobile services, who so request can retain their number(s) independently of the undertaking providing the service:
• In the case of geographic numbers, at a specific location; and
• In the case of non-geographic numbers, at any location.”

The Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia (CRAN) is mandated to establishing a numbering plan and to require mobile number portability by 2013. According to a recent advertisement, CRAN s looking for sufficient information to justify the implementation of number portability taking into account consumer needs, ensuring fair competition in the market and economic feasibility.
CRAN will have to establish a numbering policy that provides a legal, legislative, and regulatory basis for competition. Then CRAN ust decide on numbering and dialing schemes, services, technologies, and billing and tariff methods that support its chosen numbering policy. Lastly, it must also establish a fair, neutral office for numbering administration.

From discussions with CRAN and industry representatives, it is obvious that certain telephone providers would prefer not to have a numbering plan implemented. The argument being put forward is that the plan has not worked well in some countries because of the costs involved, the implementing agency not being technically capable, etc.

It is understandable that CRAN should look at the costs or other issues involved for the providers as they will put these costs on to us as the end user. However, the power granted to the consumer to change providers will force cheaper prices and a better service which is the ultimate reason for the establishment of regulatory authorities that need to “take into account consumer needs”.

As consumers, we often do not have the regulations or protection we need because we lack an adequately funded organisation that will look after our needs and address issues such as the national numbering plan to ensure that government and its regulatory authorities such as CRAN  Electricity Control Board, etc do “take into account consumer needs”.

This needs to change.