More bite needed in consumer protection

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2008, 12:00am

The Consumer Council has long been criticised for being toothless - it has no enforcement power. Of course, it has been instrumental in securing, over the years, greater legal protection for consumers and promoting awareness of their rights. Its product testing and research, published in its monthly magazine Choice, has become a must-read for smart shoppers. Its name-and-shame policy has forced many unscrupulous businesses to change their ways or shut up shop.

However, there is a need for an international city such as Hong Kong to modernise consumer protection under a single set of laws. The recommendations the council published yesterday represent - if they are accepted by the government and enacted - an unprecedented and broad legal framework to enforce such protection. They are long overdue. Parallel to the government's own legislative amendments to target unfair practices between businesses, the consumer protection laws would make the city a fairer and better place for commerce. The government should now expeditiously study their viability, consult the public and legislate.

In most advanced economies, such laws have long been available. Not so in Hong Kong. There is piecemeal legislation and enforcement agencies for specific commercial sectors, but many sectors do not have them. This has resulted in cracks and loopholes enabling, for example, slimming adverts to make unrealistic claims, pay TV and telecom salespeople to use unethical tactics, and others to make inaccurate representations. As an international tourism hub, our reputation depends on the trust of consumers and visitors. But, as last year's expose of tour after zero-charge tour of exploited mainland tourists showed, trust and reputation can quickly evaporate after only a few well-publicised incidents.

What the council proposes is to outlaw seven common abusive trade tactics in all commercial sectors, and a speedy and cost-effective channel to resolve disputes, backed by the full force of the law. It has proposed a single body to enforce them. For example, high-pressure sales tactics, insufficient information and inaccurate advertising - whether in selling insurance or flats - would be subject to legal sanctions. A customer could seek redress from arbitration via a new consumer tribunal or through civil action. These laws would also serve as a deterrent and standards to regulate trade behaviour. However, professionals with their own regulators, such as lawyers and doctors, would be exempt.

The council has wisely left it to public discussion as to whether it or a third party should be the enforcer. Certainly, it has the experience and expertise necessary for such a role, but it may be perceived as too much of a consumer advocate. Traders, too, are entitled to fair and unbiased hearings. As a result, the council has suggested either setting up a new independent statutory body or expanding the role of the Customs and Excise Department. These are details that can be finalised later.

Some businesses may resist the proposed changes, but they should be made aware that fair trade and better consumer protection will enhance their service standards. In the long run, it will benefit them all.