Consumer groups have taken aim at a Federal Government proposal to overhaul the way telcos handle disputes with customers, accusing Communications Minister Mitch Fifield of trying to downgrade the role of the sector’s independent umpire.
Senator Fifield launched the first stage of a review of the way telecommunications companies deal with aggrieved customers yesterday, saying new rules were needed to ensure telcos were held to account for resolving consumer complaints quickly and effectively.
The proposals drew fire from consumer groups, concerned suggestions the role of the industry-funded Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman could be downgraded.
The issues paper, authored by Senator Fifield’s department, proposes setting up an external dispute resolution body.
Although it would have greater powers than the TIO to force telcos to fix service problems, and could order them to pay compensation and even fines, it would be allowed to deal only with “complex complaints”.
Before complaining to the new body, consumers would first be required to have exhausted the internal processes at their service provider.
No such standard is required for the intervention of the TIO, which refers about 90 per cent of complaints back to the telco.
Consumer groups came out in the TIO’s defence yesterday, saying that, though it was industry-funded, it was effective.
Australian Communications Consumer Action Network chief executive Teresa Corbin said the industry ombudsman had delivered well for consumers since it was set up.
“Consumers do not need any obstacle to make it an even longer process to get their complaints resolved,” she said.
Even the TIO took the unusual step of querying the proposal yesterday. Ombudsman Judi Jones and independent chair of the organisation’s board, Patricia Faulkner, put out a joint statement yesterday saying 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 in dispute resolution,” the statement said.
Senator Fifield said the proposals were aimed at making telcos more accountable to consumers.
“The existing complaints-handling regime is almost totally reliant on industry self-regulation,” he said.
“Controls on industry behaviour are largely contained within industry codes, monitored by a regulator required to give industry every opportunity to remedy its own behaviour; and the independent TIO is owned and funded by industry.
“Consumers are fed up with poor service and inadequate safeguards when their telco fails to address a complaint.”