Taking Consumer Advice to Communities

  • Robyn McDonald
Consumer Affairs

Grand Hall
Parliament Buildings

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for joining us today for the launch of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs new community-based consumer service.

It is an initiative that takes advice and information to communities.

We live in an information age and it is easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of information around us.

Finding and accessing the information you need can often be difficult.

We aim to make it easier for consumers.

So it is important that the Ministry of Consumer Affairs makes sure that consumers have ready access to information, advice and assistance.

As you can see here today, we have one of our consumer education videos being shown, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs page on the Internet and of course, the wide range of publications which are available.

We have much information available, but we need to ensure that it reaches consumers.

In my view, New Zealand leads the world in consumer protection legislation with the Consumer Guarantees Act and the Fair Trading Act.

We need to make sure that New Zealand consumers and traders know and understand about their rights and responsibilities, and that we work together towards a more fair and informed marketplace.

It is quite clearly the role of the Ministry to achieve this.

And it is important to keep reassessing the way resources are managed and to see if there are better ways of helping consumers.

We have to make sure that consumers are empowered with the right information.

Helping consumers to help themselves.

And it means that the Ministry must keep in touch with its clients - consumers and traders.

It is about responding to the needs of those clients and what better way to keep in touch than to develop a more community-based approach.

This new service will ensure that New Zealanders most needing help in dealing with consumer related problems, will have easier access to advice and information.

The Ministry identifies three target groups - low income, Maori and Pacific Islanders.

As I said earlier, we need to make sure resources are better used to reach key target consumer groups.

Before taking this decision, the Ministry consulted with community groups to ensure that they could better know and meet the needs of these groups.

A recent review undertaken by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs highlighted the restrictions of the national toll-free telephone advice service provided.

Whilst around 50,000 callers use the service annually, it has meant that the Ministry was only reaching a small proportion of consumers, and very few low income consumers.

Ministry staff have only been able to undertake a very limited range of other education and information work because of the need to staff the advisory telephone service.

Therefore the national toll-free number will be replaced with this new initiative.

And from my own experience in budget services, I know how important it is for these consumers to know and understand their rights.

I have had to advise and help many people work through their financial commitments particularly where they have used credit, without understanding the full implications of the contract.

And I have seen first hand, how ill-informed consumer decisions can impact greatly on their household discretionary income.

It can also be very easy to be taken in by advertising without knowing what questions to ask and how to deal with "the fine print".

Yet, once these consumers and the businesses they deal with, know their rights and obligations, and understand the consumer issues, it can have a very positive impact on their household budget.

Considerable support is also provided to consumers through the excellent work of community organisations such as, Citizens Advice Bureaux, Community Law Centres and the Budget Advisory Services.

I acknowledge that there is concern, particularly from Citizens Advice Bureaux, over a possible increase in workloads with this change in direction.

I will continue to discuss these concerns with Citizens Advice Bureaux, as well as monitor the changes both within communities, and the impact on community organisations.

I am also discussing the issues with my Ministerial colleagues.

However, this new community-based service will mean that the Ministry of Consumer Affairs can work more closely with community agencies by increasing the training and resources available to them.

That commitment has been made.

And the Ministry will continue to be a back up for these organisations by providing them with a hotline to Ministry staff.

However, the key aim remains to ensure that the Ministry of Consumer Affairs does meet its objective in the operations area. To inform, educate and advise consumers less informed on their consumer rights.

The Ministry of Consumer Affairs will also ensure that information on consumer rights is more widely available through libraries, traders, the Ministry Internet web page, and community organisations.

I welcome this new community-based service which will be known as the Consumer Information Service, and I am pleased to launch the service today.