Consumer Rights Bill could offer more protection for broadband speeds
PROPOSED amendments to the Consumer Rights Bill, published today, could offer consumers better protection when they experience poor broadband speeds.
The current bill includes the statutory right that services, like broadband, decorating or house cleaning, should be provided with "reasonable care and skill".
But, the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee said today, that measure does not provide sufficient consumer protection.
Instead, BIS want a requirement that services must be able to achieve the result promised by the service provider.
"Ultimately, consumers are less interested in whether a service was conducted with reasonable care and skill than whether it achieved the stated result. The law should reflect this," Adrian Bailey MP, Chair of the Committee, said.
In that case of broadband, that could mean that consumers who don't achieve the speeds they're promised in advertising or expected speed tests would have a right to end a contract if the service didn't meet those promises.
Currently, customers have little recourse if speeds aren't what they expect.
The Consumer Rights Bill aims to simplify and modernise consumer law, including ensuring that consumers are compensated when firms make unrealistic service promises they cannot keep.
The Government hopes that the new laws will put an extra £4 billion into the economy over the next ten years.
What is 'satisfactory quality' broadband?
Broadband providers, as well as many other service providers, might be less than happy with today's proposed amendment, however.
Moving from a fault based approach, where consumers have to show that a business hasn't provided a service "with reasonable care and skill", to an outcome based approach puts much more pressure on businesses to provide information to consumers at the point of sale.
It also opens up a new question of what constitutes a 'satisfactory quality' service.
The case of broadband speeds appears clear cut - you can get the speeds or you can't - but look more closely and it's more complicated.
So, for example, in their response to a Government consultation on this bill BT asked, "could a broadband service provider be said to not have provided service of satisfactory quality due to the user experience in the home?"
A 7Mb connection is a standard now and adequate for most users, BT said, but with 7Mb users wouldn't, for example, "be able to have two teenage children engaged in separate interactive online games whilst the parents are
streaming a video on demand in HD or 3D."
In that circumstance, would the broadband not be regarded as satisfactory quality or is the end user using the service in an unreasonable way?
Businesses not aware of requirements
Consumer groups have hailed the Consumer Rights Bill as a huge win for ordinary people but a poll released last week suggests that getting businesses to grips with the new rules may be an uphill struggle.
The law firm Eversheds found that 74 of the 200 business leaders they spoke to didn't know what impact the Consumer Rights Bill would have on their businesses.
If, as Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which?, hopes, changes to the law are going to bring rules "into the 21st century and make it easier for people to understand their rights and challenge bad practice" service providers will need to be made aware of their obligations, too.
Having said that, however, it's still early days.
The new laws were first proposed in June but these are only amendments to the draft bill published 14 November and the bill probably won't become an Act until mid 2014 at the earliest.
As we've seen during the implementation of legislation like the Consumer Credit Direction what is written in the rules and guidelines and the way the law is actually implemented and affected consumers are two very different things.
The two are different in an important respect, however.
While the Consumer Credit Directive was pushed through from the EU this legislation was home grown and has many supporters in parliament who will be looking for reassurance that consumers are actually better off after the laws have been rolled out.
That could prevent the rules becoming watered down later.