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Public Interest News: Energy recovery fee / Canada: Land of payday loan opportunity / Flyers’ rights / Energy marketers / Net throttling / Travel Industry Council of Ontario / Basic basic TV

Car rental fees: Air conditioning excise tax, vehicle license fee, road tax

(PIAC 20/05/09) “Ever heard of the energy recovery fee. We find three giants charging the fee, so what’s it for? Budget, Hertz and Avis tell us it helps cover costs like utilities, oil and grease,” the National reported on May 14.

“Not all car rental outfits are tacking on this fee,” CBC’s Erica Johnson reported. PIAC’s Michael Janigan told Johnson: “It should go into the price. The cost of doing business is reflected in the price of what you pay and that enables a consumer to compare apples to apples in the market.

Canada lagging on payday loan regulations

(PIAC 20/05/09) Two years ago the federal government turned over regulation of the industry to the provinces. Loans under $1,500 are exempted from the maximum interest rates allowed under the Criminal Code, the National Post reported on May 18.

In the United States “there are 15 states that already effectively prohibit payday loans through caps on interest rates for small loans. Others are considering similar legislation. … ‘Canada is going in the opposite direction,’ said John Lawford, counsel for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa. ‘It is disappointing that the federal government washed its hands,’” the Post’s Shannon Kari reported.

“The most contentious area remains the maximum fees that will be permitted. Four provinces so far have decided on fee caps that will take effect later this year. Ontario and British Columbia are permitting total fees of well over $60 for a typical $300 loan to be repaid in 14 days, at a time when interest rates are at historic lows. The fees are nearly 15 times what a credit card company would charge.”

Flight rights: PIAC praises airlines’ first step

(PIAC 20/05/09) “A leading consumer advocate is welcoming plans by Canada’s four largest carriers to enhance travellers’ protections by making a federal bill of rights legally binding. Michael Janigan, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said yesterday that the carriers should do more, but praised them for strengthening an airline code of conduct, allowing the Canadian Transportation Agency to decide restitution for consumers, effective by mid-June,” the Globe and Mail reported on May 5.

“We’re finally seeing something other than window-dressing,” (Janigan) said. Air Canada, Air Canada Jazz, WestJet Airlines Ltd. and Air Transat – which belong to the National Airlines Council of Canada – say if they fail to deliver on commitments under the Flight Rights Canada program announced by Ottawa last September, the CTA will be empowered to hold the carriers to account,“ the Globe’s Brent Jang wrote.

While Janigan supports the airlines’ move he says the private member’s bill creating stronger protection for airline passengers, which passed second reading May 13, is needed. The bill includes a provision to include all fees in the advertised price.

Competition Act: PIAC and Option Consommateurs support amendments

(PIAC 20/05/09) In testimony to the Senate Committee on Banking, Trade, and Commerce on May 14, PIAC and Option Consommateurs urged support for the amendments to the Competition Act which were included in the budget implementation bill (C-10).

“While the Bill is not perfectly tailored to the needs of consumers, it represents a genuine attempt to make the promotion of competitive markets and enforcement of prohibitions against anti-competitive conduct a priority,” Michael Janigan, PIAC executive director testified.

“Deterring anti-competitive conduct as proposed here is not the heavy hand of government in operation; instead it is supportive of open markets and less regulation. The fact is a lot of money can be made by misleading the public or unfairly stacking the deck against competitors,” Janigan said.

Unless government have the tools at hand to prevent such conduct from being rewarded, three unfortunate things will occur:
1. preventing informed choice and possible innovation;
2. enabling inefficiency in the delivery of that product or service; and
3. ensuring that incumbents have little incentive to become more productive.

Net throttling: Only for good

(PIAC 20/05/09) On April 30 PIAC filed a response to the initial submissions made for the CRTC’s net throttling hearings which will be held in July. Acting for the Consumers’ Association of Canada, the National Anti-Poverty Organization and Option Consommateurs, PIAC asserted “internet traffic management may be here to stay but it can be tamed.”

“The best method of ensuring the proper functioning of the Internet as we now know it in Canada is to require that all ISPs use their DPI boxes and similar technologies (if they employ them) only for good and not evil. What is evil and what is good is the Commission’s job to decide,” PIAC counsel John Lawford wrote.

The consumer groups cite the Telecommunications Act to define this narrow scope. Subsection 27(2) forbids unjust discrimination, undue preference or advantage to any customer or to an ISP (or TSP) itself. Section 36 forbids interference with the content of any telecommunication or influencing the meaning or purpose of telecommunications. Section 36 has a built-in process to allow the Commission, upon application by an ISP (or TSP), to permit such interference with the telecommunications signal.

Ontario energy marketing: PIAC says the benefits are dwarfed by problems

(PIAC 20/05/09) “Ontario isn’t doing enough to protect consumers from deceptive tactics used by door-to-door energy sellers. The province opened its doors to competition in natural gas in 1997 and to electricity in 2002. Ontario tried to jump-start energy competition, but ignored the way that competitors built their market share, says Michael Janigan, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. ‘The benefits associated with having this stuff going on are dwarfed by the problems associated with it,’” the Toronto Star reported on May 10.

“The Ontario Energy Board is falling behind on the job of policing the conduct of energy sellers. The board received 2,126 complaints about marketers in the first quarter of this year – up from a quarterly average of 1,500 last year – but rarely lays charges. It fined two retailers this year for failing to follow market rules. This was the first penalty since 2003,” the Star’s Ellen Roseman wrote.

PIAC supports TICO’s handling of Conquest Vacations sudden closure

(PIAC 20/05/09) “The fallout for travellers stranded abroad as a result of last week’s collapse of Conquest Vacations vividly shows the necessity for the maintenance of travel provider operational rules and a compensation fund to prevent travellers from being out of pocket. However, the revelation that the regulator, the Travel Industry Council of Ontario, was aware of Conquest’s financial difficulties prior to its closure has engendered some misplaced efforts to claim that TICO should have prevented or lessened the fiasco by warning consumers earlier,” Michael Janigan, PIAC general counsel and executive director wrote in an opinion article published by the Toronto Star on Apr. 24.

“Conquest was a big tour operator whose winter travel packages were sold to some 85,000 travellers annually. When TICO investigators discovered a problem with Conquest’s working capital in March, TICO could have decided to issue a public warning about the state of the company’s finances, notwithstanding that all customer money in trust was properly accounted for. Such a warning would have been the equivalent of a death sentence for Conquest, and would undoubtedly have led to its immediate demise, once again jilting travellers,” Janigan wrote in the Star.

Option consommateurs: Une période minimale de grâce sans intérêt sur les achats à crédit

(PIAC 20/05/09) Déjà le ministre Flaherty promettait, en janvier dernier, au moment du dépôt de son dernier budget, de limiter les pratiques commerciales nuisibles aux consommateurs. Ottawa indiquait alors qu’il comptait imposer aux compagnies de carte de crédit une période minimale de grâce sans intérêt sur les achats à crédit,” SRC Nouvelles a rapporté le 23 avril.

“Les associations de consommateurs déplorent que les grandes compagnies émettrices de cartes de crédit exigent des taux d’intérêt frôlant les 20 %, alors que la Banque du Canada a multiplié les annonces de baisse de ses taux directeurs. Taux directeur qui atteint désormais 0,25 %.

“Option consommateurs, pour sa part, estime qu’il est contradictoire de justifier par le risque des taux d’intérêt élevés quand les compagnies de cartes de crédit offrent elles-mêmes leurs produits aux consommateurs à risque,” SRC Nouvelles a rapporté.

PIAC to release a new study on consumer protection

(PIAC 20/05/09) The Public Interest Advocacy Centre will soon release a report comparing the state of consumer protection in the European Union with Canadian federal and provincial equivalents. The report analyses Canadian protection in accordance with the EU’s document “Ten Principles of Consumer Protection”. “We’re very pleased with the report,” says Michael Janigan, PIAC Executive Director and General Counsel. “It will help all of us who are encouraging governments to pay more heed to their responsibility to protect consumers and to adopt European examples where appropriate.”

The report was written by PIAC researcher Esteban Uribe. It was funded by the European Union External Relations Directorate. Media members and the public will be advised of release details when they become available.

Concern grows over self-policing by airlines

(PIAC 20/05/09) “Ottawa’s push to let air carriers police the safety of their own operations marks a “dismantling” of regulatory oversight in this country and is a disaster in the making, a Parliament Hill forum has heard. In sometimes moving testimony, pilots, union officials and relatives of air crash victims yesterday gave a damning condemnation of Transport Canada’s ongoing move to shift responsibility for safety onto the airlines and air taxi operators,” the Toronto Star reported on April 22.

“While federal officials have claimed it will add a layer of scrutiny, it comes as Transport Canada is cutting back its own audits and inspections of aviation companies, the forum was told. “This is a plan about making it look good … in fact, the actual activities and actions of oversight will not occur,” said Greg Holbrook, national chair of the Canadian Federal Pilots Association, whose ranks include pilot inspectors with Transport Canada. The federal government has been introducing “safety management system,” to sectors of the aviation industry, a process that lets individual firms rather than federal inspectors oversee their operations,” the Star’s Bruce Campion-Smith wrote.

PIAC opposes Aeronautics Act amendments (not yet re-introduced during the 40th Parliament) mandating safety management systems.

Basic TV should be basic: Cable providers should pay for over the air channels

(PIAC 21/04/09) The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) has called for a review of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission decision which refused over-the-air (OTA) carriage fees,” Straight Goods reported on Apr. 13.

In a letter to the Minister of Canadian Heritage James Moore, PIAC proposed cable and satellite service offer a much reduced package of basic service. The new basic service would be costed by Commission and be subject to a price cap like basic telephone service. Included in basic service, local OTA broadcasters would receive carriage fees in the same way as other channels frequently owned by cable and satellite companies.

“Our plan will help the 4 million Canadians who only receive OTA television when analog OTA is eliminated in 2011. It’s ridiculous that Canadians have been paying higher prices for TV at a time when it is supposed to be competitive,” Michael Janigan PIAC general counsel says. Janigan also notes both the CBC and the local broadcasters proposed a much reduced basic service package,” Straight Goods reported.

Tell the CRTC what you think about net neutrality: April 30 deadline

(PIAC-21/04/09) The Public Interest Advocacy Centre welcomed the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) decision to create a public consultation on whether Canadian Internet Service Providers should be allowed to “throttle” or otherwise slow down or influence the Internet traffic passing through their networks. This is an aspect of the debate over what is known as “net neutrality”.

The CRTC launched an online public consultation on March 31, 2009, open until 30 April 2009 to solicit public comments in the course of a formal proceeding about the throttling issue. PIAC on behalf of several consumer groups has already made formal submissions, as have many other groups and ISPs.

“I think the CRTC realizes the importance of what the Internet means to consumers,” said John Lawford, counsel for PIAC, who argued that ISPs be prohibited from deciding what Internet traffic they let pass and how fast, on behalf of consumer groups Consumers Association of Canada, Canada Without Poverty (formally, the National Anti-Poverty Organization) and Option Consommateurs.

“Finally individual Canadians can let the Commission know if they want the Internet to remain open and free to all applications and services or closed like the cellphone market and priced accordingly,” Lawford said. The CRTC is expected to make a decision by fall 2009. However, PIAC notes that consumers also may attend the oral public hearing on this matter, July 6-9, 2009 at the CRTC hearing in Gatineau, Quebec.

PIAC’s submission is at crtc.gc.ca/public/partvii/2008/8646/c12_200815400/1030499.zip

Credit card debt fuelling bankruptcies: Option Consommateurs

(PIAC-21/04/09) “Credit card debt is the main factor in 80 per cent of the rising tide of personal bankruptcies, a Senate committee probing Canada’s credit and debit payment system heard yesterday,” the Toronto Star reported on March 27.

“The financial institutions are increasingly leaving aside their social responsibilities,” said Genevieve Reed, head of research and advocacy for Option Consommateurs. Whereas a few years ago, mortgage defaults were the main factor in bankruptcy cases, now it’s credit card debt, Reed said in an interview following her appearance. Personal bankruptcy rates jumped 22 per cent in January, over the year-ago period, according to federal data released this week,” the Star’s Dana Flavelle reported.

Utilisez la marge de crédit hypothécaire avec parcimonie: Option consommateurs.

(PIAC-20/04/09) “Une marge de crédit hypothécaire peut être obtenue tant lors de l’achat de la propriété qu’au renouvellement du prêt hypothécaire. … Dans le cas d’une marge de crédit hypothécaire établie à l’achat d’une résidence, les institutions financières exigent généralement de l’acheteur une mise de fonds initiale équivalant à 20 % du prix d’achat de la propriété,” Les Affaires a rapporté le 11 avril.

“Même si les taux d’intérêt sont faibles actuellement, il faut utiliser la marge de crédit hypothécaire avec parcimonie, car la résidence principale sert de garantie, rappelle Karine Robillard, conseillère chez Option consommateurs. ” Il ne faut pas oublier qu’il s’agit d’une forme de crédit qui permet de réemprunter. Cela peut être dangereux,” Pierre Picard a rapporté.

Seniors, homeless could struggle with B.C. election ID requirements

(PIAC-21/04/09) Students, seniors and the homeless could have a more difficult time voting in the B.C. election because of new rules requiring them to prove their identity and place of residence, civil rights lawyers say. … Attorney General Wally Oppal said the changes were made to ensure that only those people entitled to vote do so. “These requirements are modelled on recent changes to the federal law and help to prevent voter fraud while still ensuring voter accessibility,” he told the legislature last year,” the Times Colonist reported on Apr. 13.

“But Jim Quail, a lawyer with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said neither the federal nor provincial governments has produced any evidence of widespread voter fraud.
“So this is essentially a solution in search of a problem,” he said. Quail, who is challenging the federal law in B.C. Supreme Court in June, said Canadians have an absolute constitutional right to vote and the new rules create unnecessary obstacles for the homeless, students and others without a stable address,” the Times Colonist’s Lindsay Kines wrote.

“A lot of these sources of documentation that are taken for granted by the people who make these laws aren’t available to some groups in our society,” he said.

Suit planned against drug makers

(PIAC-20/04/09) “A Quebec consumer-rights association is planning an $8-million class-action lawsuit against eight drug makers of children’s cough and cold medications, claiming that they engaged in false advertising. Option Consommateurs contends that the companies knew all along that their over-the-counter syrups and chewable tablets did not relieve cough and cold symptoms in children under the age of six, as advertised,” the Montreal Gazette reported on March 25.

“Those corporations sold drugs that are simply ineffective,” Maxime Nasr, a lawyer for Option consommateurs, said in an interview Wednesday. “The labels for those products clearly stated that they were useful for children under the age of six when, in fact, that is not the case,” the Gazette’s Aaron Derfel reported.

Consumer groups appeal $650,000,000 phone fees

(PIAC-21/04/09) A one-day appeal hearing at the Supreme Court of Canada, concerning the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) Decision on the fate of some $650 million collected from rates charged to residential phone users (took place) on March 26. The monies were collected in the period from 2002-2006. Consumer groups such as the Consumers Association of Canada and the National Anti-Poverty Organization (now Canada Without Poverty) brought the appeal, with the assistance of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre,” Mediacaster Magazine reported on March 26.

“They say the money was collected from local rates that were made higher by the CRTC during that period to encourage competition in local phone service, so the remaining amount of $650 million of the excess rates, maintained in telephone company deferral accounts, should be rebated to residential local ratepayers. In 2008, the CRTC said half of the money should be spent on telephone company broadband operations in remote areas and the rest returned to ratepayers. Bell Canada has also appealed, but it is saying that all of the money belongs only to the telephone companies,” Mediacaster reported.

The Supreme Court of Canada is expected to render its decision in June.

BC’s badly broken welfare system

(PIAC-21/04/09) On April 13 Tyee reported: “The good news is the provincial government is promising to fix the welfare system. The bad news is they broke it really, really badly and much damage is already done. “A lot of these problems have been really bad for seven years,” said Sarah Khan, a lawyer with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre. “Many of them have been chronic since 2002.”

“The problems go back to the period after Premier Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberal Party first formed government. As the Tyee reported in a 2004 series, Campbell’s reforms led to a huge drop in the welfare caseload. While the government claimed the drop was from people going back to work, much of it with the help of private job placement companies, there was plenty of evidence the new rules were being used to rule ineligible people who would previously have gotten help.

“We think the increases in homelessness are directly attributable to the problems identified in (Ombudsman Kim Carter’s Last Resort) the report,” Khan said. Had the Liberals fixed these problems years ago, or not created them in the first place, she said, “There’s no way we could have seen the levels of homelessness we see now,” Tyee reported.

Consumer bankruptcies spike in January

(PIAC-21/04/09) “More than 10,700 consumers in Canada declared themselves insolvent in January, a jump of 23.1 per cent compared to the same month in 2008. For the 12-month period ending January 31, 2009, 117,704 consumers had declared themselves insolvent, a 16 per cent year-over-year jump,” Canwest News Service reported on March 25.

“These numbers represent people who almost certainly will be unable to be part of the economic recovery” said Michel Arnold, executive director of Option consommateurs, a Montreal-based non-profit consumer advocacy group,” Canwest’s David Akin reported.

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