Price control is “not the focus” of the 99-page draft Consumer Protection Act, 2019, said Junior Trade Minister Sharie de Castro (R-at large), even though she acknowledged that price gouging after Hurricane Irma was one of the main motivators behind the call to reintroduce the bill.
At a meeting on Tuesday at Maria’s by the Sea, Ms. de Castro reassured a crowd of about 50 business owners that consumer protection shouldn’t be confused with price control.
“We’re trying to create an atmosphere of an open market for fair trade and fair competition,” she said. “It’s not about price control; it’s not to tilt the scale in any one direction or in favour of any individual, but holistically looking at the approach to take this agenda forward.”
According to Lizette George, a senior policy analyst in the Premier’s Office, although the act does not contain any provisions for price control, it does protect consumers from inflated prices.
“It addresses the fact that prices cannot be manipulated in any negative way,” she said.
She went on to explain that the bill requires more accountability from businesses by requiring a paper trail, or, as stated in the act, “a written, durable record of each transaction to the con- sumer.”
Prices must be clearly marked on all products under the law, and a variety of other conditions must be met. Sellers face criminal penalties for violating those conditions. Furthermore, she explained, the bill allows the government more leeway in enforcing trade practices.
“Let’s say we have a disaster,” Ms. George said. “What that would seek to do is give the minister the authority to put certain regulations in place in terms of ensuring that there is no price gouging. So it does not specifically say price gouging in the act. It only speaks to suppliers [being] prohibited from manipulating the prices.”
In a separate meeting on July 10 at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, Premier Andrew Fahie (R-D1) also explained how the requirement to keep a written record can protect consumers from high prices.
“You can hold them to the price that they give you, because this act now protects you as a consumer with the agreement you get, providing too that when you pay them you also get a receipt,” he said.
The government is holding a series of meetings with business owners and the wider community to gain input in preparation for the second and third readings in the House of Assembly this week.
The bill is based upon a framework from the Caribbean Community in an effort to “harmonise laws within the region,” according to Ms. George. Under it, the Trade Department — which would be renamed the Trade Commission — would be responsible for administering the 99-page act, which consists of 12 sections: preliminary, administration, investigations, consumer rights, duties of suppliers, unfair trade practices, unfair terms, product liability, consumer safety, recall of goods, distance selling and miscellaneous topics.
The bill also contains provisions for enforcement, Ms. de Castro told attendees.
“Of course we will have consumer protection inspection officers will go out to the different businesses to look at things like pricing, dates, etcetera,” she said. “There is a process already dictated within the act that speaks to how this entire act is upheld.” She explained that a tribunal — made up of both consumers and business owners — would respond to any complaints filed
with the commission.
Reasons behind bill
Ms. de Castro described how various governments had been struggling to get the act off the ground since 1995, adding that it had been “written, rewritten, updated, spoken about, forgotten and the list goes on.”
“Of course, after the storms of 2017 we saw an urgent need” for such a “huge and necessary act,” she added. “We campaigned on consumer protection, and based on the data that we’ve gathered … we are taking the lead [in bringing forward the act].”
Mr. Fahie explained that changing times necessitated the implementation of the law.
“Most persons don’t know each other like they used to, and the protection of persons cannot be based on you know Tom’s mother, and she could discipline him,” said Mr. Fahie. “So now the time comes where legislation has to be put in place to police the businesses and the economy so that persons can have recourse and businesses can have recourse if things are not going correctly.”
One question that arose during the session was about whether the penalties for breach of contract would apply to airlines or ferries that cancel, which officials said would be taken under advisement.
The bill also does not apply to landlords or renters, according to the premier, who explained that they would be covered under separate legislation.
The bill received a first reading in the HOA on May 17. However, explained Ms. de Castro, instead of putting it forward for its second and third readings, the government chose to first solicit feedback from the community before moving any further.
A similar bill, which was much discussed in the months after Hurricane Irma, was previously pushed forward by the former government in April 2018, when Cabinet approved a potential framework for it, but it was never introduced to the HOA.