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Are paper billing fees unfair? Government plans to investigate

Are paper billing fees unfair? Government plans to investigate

If your bank, utility company or telecommunications provider charge you extra to receive paper bills, the Australian government may want to hear from you.

A consultation paper has been recently released, with Minister for Small Business, Michael McCormack, calling for submissions:

“There has been a significant shift away from paper billing in recent years, yet not every Australian consumer has the means to access digital billing and it is unfair to punish them for being unable to do so.”

“Better outcomes and protections are needed for those consumers who do not have the option to transition to digital bills and who can least afford to be penalised.”

The situation:

Power and gas bills, phone and internet bills, bank statements and so on, have all traditionally been delivered to consumers in paper format via postal or courier services. The costs of preparing and sending these paper bills have traditionally been absorbed by the business.

In recent years, digital delivery of bills and bank statements has become more common, with digital bills being seen as simpler and cheaper to issue, more convenient for both companies and consumers, and more environmentally friendly than paper bills.

The problem:

To encourage customers to transition from paper to digital bills, some companies have begun applying penalties for sticking to paper bills in the form of fees.

According to the Keep Me Posted Campaign from TSA Limited cited in the consultation paper, the price charged for paper bills in Australia varies from $1.50 to $2.75 per bill.

mobile bill

While some Australians stick to paper billing out of personal preference, other disadvantaged Aussies lack the ability to access digital bills, and could be being unfairly penalised as a result.

These disadvantaged Australians can include those who:

  • have a low income;
  • have a disability—e.g. an intellectual, psychiatric, physical, sensory, neurological or a learning disability;
  • have a serious or chronic illness;
  • have poor reading, writing and numeracy skills;
  • are homeless;
  • are very young or old;
  • come from a remote area; or
  • have an Indigenous background.

While some businesses offer exemptions on paper billing fees for disadvantaged Australians, there are concerns that these vulnerable consumers may find it difficult to access these exemption programs.

Possible solutions:

Options for governmental intervention to protect disadvantaged Australians from being unfairly targeted by paper billing fees being considered by the consultation paper include:

  • An industry led consumer education campaign
  • A prohibition or ban on paper billing fees
  • Prohibiting essential service providers from charging consumers to receive paper bills
  • Limiting paper billing fees to a cost recovery basis
  • Promoting exemptions through behavioural approaches

The Federal Treasury is currently seeking consultation on the matter from individuals and businesses, with submissions due by 22 December 2017.

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