A matter of choice

Dianne HayterDianne Hayter defends those consumers who prefer paper billing and statements 

Tonight in the Lords, ex-Minister Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes will open a debate on the difficulties faced by those who are effectively fined for wanting a paper rather than electronic bill. It is a clear example of the need to defend consumers’ rights – especially where they cannot “shop around” to get a better service. 

If every energy provider or phone company starts charging for paper, rather than electronic, bills (or to pay by cash rather than online), these suppliers are effectively adding a fee over which consumers can’t negotiate. Yet, a bill is an essential component of the service, not an ‘optional extra’. These charges are not just the price of a stamp: for TalkTalk it is £1.90 a month, for T-mobile £18 a year. These might seem small fees to some people, but it is yet another cost of living burden for others. 

Who is most likely to have to pay to retain paper statements? The elderly – only one third of over 75s have browsed the Internet; but also the seven million adults who have never used it. 

Even young people are not immune. One in ten of those not in employment, education or training (so called NEETs) felt “out of their depth” using a computer and four in ten 15-24 year olds prefer paper statements. Households with online bills are less likely to check them, so more likely to miss a payment or fall into debt. And perceived risks from the Internet make some people reluctant to hold financial information online, with one in four new users saying they never shared personal details online. 

Indeed, it is notable that there is no call for a move to electronic billing change from consumers, with eight out of ten thinking they should have a choice.  

And it’s not just about bill-paying. 

Just printing off online statements may not be regarded as official, and certainly not as proof of address. So people who need a paper copy for tax purposes, or as evidence of a transaction, may then have to pay – with banks already charging up to £10 for duplicates. There are other reasons that people want proper copies. Students and flat sharers need a paper bill so that they can all see who owes what, rather than giving control to one person. 

But the real issue is this: why do service providers consider users merely as a cost? Why should they be able to save money by charging consumers without whom they would not be in business? The average bill includes £53 of profits for the company – the least the providers can do is send an invoice detailing how much to pay, and for what.

One half of those with no access to the Internet are in the lowest socio-economic groups – exactly the ones who will have to pay for paper bills.  

So the government needs to tell us is what they are doing about all of this. ‘Consumer Rights’ is not simply about the provision of a good service, but about proper invoices being sent to those whose payment keeps the business running. 

Baroness Dianne Hayter of Kentish Town is Shadow Consumer Affairs Minister in the Lords

Published 25th November 2013

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