The Competition and Markets Authority could be given the power to fine firms that overcharge or mislead customers, under new rules proposed by the government.
The changes would empower the regulator to issue fines on businesses for poor behaviour without having to go through the courts. Which? welcomed the move as a deterrent to misleading practices and excessive charges.
Find out what is being proposed and how it will affect you.
What powers would the CMA have?
Under the proposed rules, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) would be given the power to decide for itself whether a company had broken consumer law, without needing to bring an action in court.
This means the regulator would be able to fine businesses that harm consumers through excessive charges, misleading offers or confusing practices. In particular, the CMA will seek to tackle subscription models that are easy to enter, but hard to exit. The CMA has also said it would act in other markets, like secondary ticketing and unfair clauses in care home contracts.
The government hopes these fines would deter businesses from taking advantage of their customers, and allow the CMA to intervene earlier and more quickly where consumers are at risk.
Prime Minister Theresa May said: ‘For far too long, many big companies have been getting away with harmful trading practices which lead to poor services and confusion among customers who have parted with their hard-earned cash.
‘The system as it stands not only lets consumers down but it also lets down the vast majority of businesses who play by the rules.
‘It is high time this came to an end and today we are confirming our intention to give much stronger powers to the CMA, to strengthen the sanctions available and to give customers the protection they deserve against firms who want to rip them off.’
The new powers will be included in the government’s upcoming Consumer White Paper, which will soon be released for consultation.
- Find out more: Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008
Other powers to tackle loyalty penalty
In addition to the new CMA powers, the government also announced it would introduce legislation to tackle the ‘loyalty penalty’ in mobile phone contracts – the excessive sums customers pay for sticking with the same provider.
The legislation said it would consider giving regulators like Ofcom and the Financial Conduct Authority more scope to stop loyal customers being overcharged, if the regulators’ existing powers are deemed to be insufficient.
It has also proposed legislating to ensure mobile providers stop charging customers the same rate once their handset has been paid off.
The move follows a super-complaint by Citizens Advice, which called on the government to better protect customers who were losing out up to £1,000 a year by failing to switch providers.
Which? calls for action on loyalty penalty
The government’s actions to tackle unfair practices, including the loyalty penalty, were welcomed by Which?.
Caroline Normand, Which? director of advocacy, said: ‘Action to impose fines on firms that harm consumers through excessive charges, misleading offers and confusing practice can’t come soon enough and should act not only as a deterrent, but as an incentive to give consumers a fair deal.
‘We also welcome much-needed new powers for the CMA and other regulators to finally clamp down on the ongoing bad practice of excessive, so-called loyalty penalties, which cost consumers billions of pounds a year.’
Do you believe these powers will stop businesses exploiting customers? You can share your views at Which? Conversation.
What if a firm has mislead me?
At the moment, the proposed rules are not yet in effect. However, you can still complain if you think a company has misled you, or included an unfair clause in a contract.
Your first step should always be to write to the company, outlining your issue and explaining why you think you should get your money back or the term shouldn’t be enforced.
After that, you may be able to take court action or use dispute resolution if you believe the company owes you money. Alternatively, they may bring a suit against you if you refuse to pay because you believe a term is unenforceable.
You can also report a company to the CMA for poor practices, using this form, as well as your local trading standards department. In some industries, there might be another regulator who oversees those business – for example, Ofcom for telecommunications matters or Ofgem for energy.
- Find out more: how to complain about unfair contract terms