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Consumers: Vulnerable Consumers

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 29 October 2013

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect vulnerable consumers, including the elderly and those without digital skills or broadband access, who are being charged by organisations for receiving bills and statements through the post.

There are already provisions in place to protect the more vulnerable. Utility regulators take steps to assess the quality and affordability of services for customers, including the vulnerable. Should companies wish to charge more for a paper bill they must make such charges transparent in advance and ensure that they reflect only additional processing costs incurred. The Government are increasing online access by accelerating broadband rollout, promoting simple bank accounts and increasing digital skills to use electronic payments.

I thank the Minister for his appreciation of the problem, but is he aware that 16 million people—and 4 million disabled people—are not on the internet? Even if they were, the cost of printing and ink is such that the companies are pushing the charges back on to the consumer. Extra charges and discounts add up to quite a lot a year. Does he agree that every consumer should be able to choose a paper copy of communications and bills from media companies, energy companies and so on without being penalised? Will he press the relevant regulators—Ofcom and Ofgem—to ensure that consumers are not so penalised?

Interestingly, this is not an area where regulators receive many complaints and more vulnerable customers often have access to special tariffs. However, the noble Baroness raises an interesting point. I understand, for example, that BT charges £1.50 for paper bills, which relates largely to its broadband customers who clearly have internet access and can receive bills online. We believe that the charge is reasonable, covering costs such as printing and postage. Customers using a BT basic telephone service are not charged for paper bills.

Is my noble friend aware that the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, is to be congratulated on raising this issue? The problem is very widespread. The Government are not to be congratulated. People of all ages often choose not to go online even if it is available to them. Charges are made by the utilities because you have to use that very expensive telephone line, which has the most often-played recording of all time which starts, “We are encountering an extraordinary level of calls”. That means the call will cost even more. That is only one of the things that consumers have to put up with. The excuse given by all who make those charges is that it is more efficient and they can therefore charge lower prices. I have not noticed that happening. This is an urgent matter and I hope that the Government will take it seriously.

My noble friend makes a good point that clearly some people still wish to receive bills through the post. However, a number of organisations across the UK offer free IT skills training and cater for the elderly and disabled, including the UK online centres funded by the Skills Funding Agency. We are keen to encourage more people to go online.

My Lords, I do not speak much in this House but I am here regularly. As one of the younger Members of the House of Lords, I very much agree with the Question and the mood across the road there. I am still with the quill. I am computer illiterate and therefore hopeless at answering some of the mail and bills I get. Will the Minister please address the question posed?

I have noted the noble Lord’s point. For the most vulnerable people the most important thing is that the right advice being available for their particular circumstances. For example, Citizens Advice and the Money Advice Service are there. Paper bills might not always be the best choice but, I say again, I recognise that some people will always require bills sent through the post.

My Lords, with an ageing population where a very large part is getting much older, including me—I actually use a computer but do not always want to use it—the Minister is underestimating the importance of people not necessarily wanting to use the computer and the far too many, perhaps, who actually cannot. There is no point offering courses if they are really not up to it. The Government should listen to this.

I reassure the noble and learned Baroness that I am very much in listening mode and say again that some people will always genuinely want to receive bills and statements through the post. Companies certainly recognise that. The issue is that if that is the case and there is to be any change to contracts, I need to give them a decent amount of time under the legal protection to do that.

My Lords, the Minister has responded somewhat defensively on this issue. Could he please listen? We are talking about 7 million adults, largely elderly, and vulnerable and disabled people who cannot have access to the net, and many rural areas still do not have good broadband. These are very serious issues. Companies are pushing people in the wrong direction, for example, by renewing contracts over the internet. People are not aware of this and then learn, some months later, that money has been taken out of their accounts to renew a contract they did not know about. There are big issues involved.

Again, I note the point made by my noble friend. It is worth pointing out that providing information only online could, in certain circumstances, amount to indirect discrimination unless it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Consumers have the choice not to access the internet, but that choice may mean paying for a paper copy.

My Lords, it is not a matter of lifestyle choice whether or not people prefer to use the internet: for many people it is a question of poverty. Some 44% of the older people who are not online, when asked why, said that they could not afford it. Does the Minister agree that this is adding to the disadvantage they already experience by virtue of being old and poor, and making it worse?

I certainly note the comment that the noble Baroness made. It is in line with the other comments that have been made today and has been firmly noted.

My Lords, if the utilities were capped as to the length of a telephone call they could charge for—to, say, a couple of minutes—would they not then have a pressing interest in cutting listening to this awful recording rather effectively?

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that there is nothing in the so-called consumer rights Bill that the Government will be imposing shortly to deal with such issues? Will he therefore open discussions with representatives of consumer organisations and the Opposition to make sure that the Bill will increase rights and not just codify them?

We are not planning to include anything specific but the consumer rights directive is being implemented as part of the programme. This will mean that suppliers should obtain consumers’ express consent to any extra charges. They should not use a tick-box approach that requires consumers to untick boxes in order to avoid charges.