Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Life and death consumer issues are not a ‘laundry list’

CI Senior Policy Advisor Robin Simpson reports from the UNCTAD Ad Hoc Expert Group Meeting on Consumer Protection discussing the revision of the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection

To start at the end, CI is pleased with the initial outcome from our meetings on the revision of the UN Guidelines forConsumer Protection (UNGCP). We were broadly content with the outcomes regarding financial services (FS) and e-commerce that have been trailed from the start by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) (the ‘guardians’ of the Guidelines) as the two major issues for incorporation into the UNGCP.

But our position has been consistent that these two issues should not be incorporated to the exclusion of other pressing issues. Neither should they be defined narrowly; they should include, for example, data protection, digital products, and financial remittances.

Inserting only FS and e-commerce would leave the bulk of the Guidelines untouched from 1985 until the next revision in …when? 2030? So we are pleased that the conference also agreed to consider a list of other issues which includes data protection, cross-border trade (still very vague), tourism, collective redress (also called ‘class actions’) integration with other governmental policies, public services including water and energy and the principle of universal service, transport, real estate (housing) access to knowledge, and abusive advertising.

Furthermore, after a pointed intervention from CI, the conference also accepted to look at the idea of a standing commission of the UN to scrutinise the application of the UN Guidelines at national level.

We have volunteered for working groups on FS, e-commerce, ‘other issues’ and the UN Commission. So a good result, right? Still too early to say. We await with interest the UNCTAD report on the meeting and the interpretation of the proceedings by the French presidency which chaired the meeting superbly. 

Despite the diplomatic language, there was an unspoken divide. The richer countries argued for restricting the revision to the two preselected issues. The rest of the delegations pushed back, arguing either for other issues that appeared in the eventual list, or, as we did, for a more comprehensive approach with nothing ruled out at this stage.

Not that the rich countries were entirely in agreement with each other. The US and Germany were poles apart on the inclusion of data protection (Germany) or its exclusion (US). But both wanted the overall scope kept down, with the US, perhaps as a slip of the tongue, describing the list of other issues as a ‘laundry list’ and suggesting that the revision process should concentrate on ‘mainstream’ consumer issues.

We objected to the term ‘laundry list’ which, we said: “belittles the issues involved. Indeed the entire UNGCP could be described as a laundry list. The whole point of the UNGCP is that it is a comprehensive document, which spans the entire horizon of consumer affairs. Instead of seeing the breadth of issues as a problem we should embrace it as a strength.”

We cannot accept that such life and death issues as universal access to water and electricity supplies, for example, are seen as a rather annoying distraction from ‘mainstream issues’ such as FS and e-commerce. For such was the tone of many official delegations – “how can we possibly deal with all these topics?” was a common refrain. In fact, the Guidelines make very brief reference to each sub-sector, and we have demonstrated in our amended version how this can be done. 

We must bear in mind what the Guidelines mean to our Members. They are seen as setting the standard for consumer protection worldwide. Sadly, the tone of too many participants was that this was a chore that had to be disposed of with a minimum of fuss. As we said in debate: “If the breadth of the Guidelines were considered in 1985 the way it was being discussed today, the UNGCP would never have been drafted at all."

1 comment:

  1. Response to CI Blog report by , Robin Simpson:
    I am in Consumer Protection for the last 30 years and am heading the organisation, Binty, registered as a Trust in Delhi (India). I am, of course, not yet the member of CI despite best efforts - largely because Binty cannot afford the annual fees.

    Coming to the point, Robin Simpson reports from the UNCTAD Ad Hoc Expert Group Meeting on Consumer Protection discussing the revision of the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection on Consumer Protection discussing the revision of the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection in CI Blog is an interesting insight into the working of the UNCTAD Ad Hoc Expert Group and the divide between the thought process of the official delegations from the rich and the consumer bodies particularly from the poor nations.

    I appreciate the CI’s position that two issues should not be incorporated to the exclusion of other pressing issues. To the other pressing issues I would like to add one more and, that is, must carry a ‘treaty’ signed by the UNCTAD with the developing nations particularly the government of India for (1) ‘making the government department of consumer affairs at the federal and state levels an independent ministry/department without any other charge, (2) the bureaucrats in the departments must be trained appropriately in the tackling of consumer issues before postings, (3) must have a consumer welfare fund mandated by a legislation in which all recoveries made on account of overcharge of prices, charging of excise duty and taxes on sales not due, and the penalties levied should be deployed to provide economic support to consumer organisations, (4) strengthening of the legislated bodies like Consumer Protection Councils as we have in India under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, where consumer issues must be discussed and mechanism developed to carry out the required researched, analyses and report for consideration of the government for taking any economic decision that should help growth of industry and manufacturing, (5) because of the lack of authentic consumer organisations in countries like India the alternative is the formation of consumer clubs – duly equipped with Information Communication Technology equipment – at school, college, and university levels for a later date spin off to have informed consumer activists.

    In India we have a big issue with bureaucrats and politicos who when speaking to consumer activists say, “Do as you are bidden, and get what you are offered with an attitude of take of leave it.” I hope I have made the point for carrying it forward to UNCTAD for signing a treaty with the governments to carry out the decisions arrived at the discussions with CI.