Ahead of this year’s election, we’ve asked political parties for their policies on five key consumer rights issues. We’ve also surveyed Consumer NZ members for their views on the issues: of the 4965 members who took part, the overwhelming majority want action to improve consumer protection.

Electricity prices

Despite more than two decades of electricity market reforms, consumers are yet to get reliable assurances that they’re paying a reasonable price for their power. Latest figures from Statistics NZ show electricity prices rose another 4.5 percent in the year to June, outstripping the inflation rate of 1.6 percent.

We asked parties what they’d do to improve price transparency. Most agreed changes were needed but their policies varied widely – from general statements of support for simpler bills (United Future) to buying back power companies (Mana and New Zealand First).

We also asked what action the parties would take to ensure vulnerable consumers can get assistance and aren’t disconnected if they’re having difficulty paying their bills.

The National Party said it remained concerned about the high levels of disconnections but believed “proactive customer management” by retailers was the most effective way of addressing the problem.

Labour said it wanted mandatory guidelines to protect vulnerable consumers. It also pointed to its proposals to reform the electricity market and create a single buyer, arguing this would reduce power costs for all households.

The Green Party planned to review assistance grants available from Work and Income to ensure people get help when they need it. The party also said it would abolish fixed-line charges and introduce progressive pricing to keep bills down.

Of the other minor parties, Mana supported regulating electricity prices and requiring retailers to assist vulnerable customers. The Maori Party backed an annual power rebate for low-income households and increased investment in heating and insulation.

OUR MEMBERS’ VIEWS: 89 percent agree or strongly agree that price transparency needs to be improved so consumers can assess whether prices are reasonable.

Rest home care

We’ve been reporting on serious shortfalls in rest home care since 2009. Given the evidence of ongoing problems, we believe it’s time for an independent inquiry to investigate the funding and regulations that would be necessary to ensure rest homes deliver consistent high-quality care.

We asked the parties whether they’d support an inquiry. Three of the minor parties (Mana, New Zealand First and United Future) said “yes”. Labour said it would establish a working group to investigate funding and regulation of the sector. National gave us a firm “no” to an inquiry.

OUR MEMBERS’ VIEWS: 87 percent agree or strongly agree an independent inquiry into aged care is needed.

Supermarket regulation

New Zealand’s supermarket trade is one of the most concentrated in the world, with two big chains dominating. Concentration in any market brings with it inevitable risks and we think a mandatory code of conduct is needed to protect the interests of consumers and suppliers in this market.

We asked the parties if they agreed. Five parties said yes: Labour, the Greens, Mana, the Maori Party, and New Zealand First. National told us it would support a voluntary code. United Future was the only party to say it thought existing protections were good enough.

OUR MEMBERS’ VIEWS: 83 percent agree or strongly agree a mandatory code of conduct is needed for supermarkets.

Product safety

Overseas trends show product-safety risks are increasing. One of our major concerns is the safety of products for children: our tests continue to find products with serious safety faults. Despite evidence of problems, there are very few mandatory standards.

We asked the parties what they’d do to improve product-safety laws and whether they’d support making more of the safety standards for children’s products mandatory. Most said “yes”. We hope that means there’ll be action on this issue after the election.

OUR MEMBERS’ VIEWS: 73 percent agree or strongly agree that government investment in product safety needs to be increased.

Consumer law enforcement

Long overdue changes to the Consumer Guarantees Act and Fair Trading Act finally made it into law this year. The changes give consumers extra protections against unfair practices and also give the Commerce Commission more powers to prosecute dodgy dealers.

We asked the parties if they supported an increase in the commission’s funding to enable it to enforce the new laws effectively. Parties agreed the commission should be adequately funded, although none were able to put a dollar figure on what they thought was sufficient.

OUR MEMBERS’ VIEWS: 80 percent agree or strongly agree the government should increase funding so that enforcement agencies can do their job.

Other issues

We also asked members whether there were any other consumer-protection issues they wanted to see action on.

Insurance was one of them. The switch to sum-insured house insurance has put the onus on consumers to work out the rebuild cost for their home. But that’s not easy. Our recent mystery shop of companies that offer rebuild estimates revealed big differences in their figures. We’ve called for the government to investigate problems in this market to prevent consumers being left severely underinsured.

Irresponsible lending was another issue raised. Several members wanted to see a clamp-down on loan sharks and other dodgy finance providers. Changes due to take effect next year will finally require all lenders to ensure their lending is responsible. The changes are long overdue and we hope they’ll help clean up the sector. We’ll be keeping watch.

Food labelling was also singled out by some members. The government recently announced it’s backing the health-star rating system, which is designed to give consumers “at-a-glance” information about the nutritional value of packaged food. Star ratings range from half a star to five stars (the more stars the better). But the rating system is voluntary. If manufacturers don’t take it up, we think it should be made mandatory.