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RIGHT OF CENTRE: Boost rights with action

Hallam Hope

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The Fair Trading Commission has been working assiduously to ensure that consumers understand their rights and options in the event of a grievance.
Barbados has a two-tier approach to dealing with consumer grievances. The commission handles basic grievances while more legal and detailed matters are handled by what is essentially a quasi-judicial body.
Certainly, there is ample room for improved publicity which would be more effective in informing ordinary citizens of past representation and how their rights could be represented. But generally, Barbadians seem to have an understanding that they have an option to take a grievance to either of these two bodies to get financial or some other satisfaction as far as their rights go.
The commission has at times been pilloried in the public domain, sometimes unfairly. As consumers we expect the world from a statutory corporation that is doing two jobs, compared with other countries where there are separate institutions with more staff dealing with competition, consumer affairs and regulation.
Perhaps this is because the regulator has not been as engaging as it should be with consumers in providing them with better quality information, rather than diplomatic responses and academic material.
A stronger and more engaging public image is needed.
Radio and social media should be utilized more effectively in ways that the public can ask questions and get practical responses to complaints.
Personally, I have repeatedly been unhappy with the limited amount of time given for intervenors who have no funds to respond to technical matters that affect consumers in their pockets.
Barbados does not need a Freedom of Information Act for more detailed information to be provided to consumers and greater explanation of the methodology behind a decision.
We are intelligent people and the most sophisticated issues can be broken down into simple language.
Consumer rights would also be taken up a notch if serious, independent consumer research and public activities were supported by funding, as is the case in Jamaica. There, the funding has no strings tied to it and service providers foot the bill.
It is unreasonable to expect serious consumer intervention for consultations and regulatory hearings when there is no funding for research. The rights of consumers are undermined because they cannot afford? to participate meaningfully.
For example, a consumer complaining for years about high electricity bills or spikes that seem unreasonable should be entitled to a thorough, independent investigation at a technical level.
There needs to be billing based on monthly electricity meter readings to give consumers greater confidence and transparency.
At the regulatory level the use of a price cap should be considered, given that electricity is likely to remain a monopoly for some time yet.    
Price caps serve as proxies for competition until competition arrives. The use of price caps for electricity regulation is in vogue internationally. One of the potential benefits to consumers is that price increases or decreases are linked to inflation.
Change cannot be placed entirely at the doorsteps of the Fair Trading Commission to do more with fewer resources. Perhaps it is timely to conduct an independent review of the resources, both human and financial, as well as the future roles of this institution.  
While the commission needs to go beyond patting itself on the back, Government should also consider being more engaged in policy and practice.