On Thursday 19 February, Mr Rod Sims, Chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), launched the ACCC's 2015 Compliance and Enforcement Policy, setting out the ACCC's compliance and enforcement priorities for 2015.
Since 2012, the ACCC has released its annual Compliance and Enforcement Policy, which explains the ACCC's strategies to achieve compliance with the Competition and Consumer Act 2010. The announcement of the ACCC's priorities provides an indication of likely areas of enforcement activity by the ACCC. As such, it enables businesses to reassess their exposure to competition and consumer laws, including those covered by the ACCC's priorities, and review their existing practices, policies and procedures to ensure that they are aligned to their exposures.
The ACCC's 2015 Compliance and Enforcement Policy outlines the following 11 areas of enforcement priority.
Truth in advertising
By prioritising truth in advertising, the ACCC seeks to protect consumers from being misled and honest traders from being put at a "competitive disadvantage". The ACCC has indicated that it will "prioritise those matters where misleading claims are made by large businesses with the potential to result in significant consumer detriment, or where the conduct is likely to become widespread if the ACCC does not intervene".
Health and medical sectors
Competition and consumer issues in the medical and health sector are a new priority for the ACCC. The ACCC intends to "increase awareness within the medical profession and the broader health industry about both rights and obligations under the law".
The ACCC has indicated a focus on restrictions on doctors in regional areas from providing services to competing facilities, as well as unconscionable conduct and misleading or deceptive conduct by medical professionals.
Cartel conduct impacting on government procurement
Investigating cartel conduct is an enduring priority for the ACCC. In 2015, the ACCC will focus on cartel conduct affecting government procurement. The ACCC has identified a particular vulnerability in this area "due to the large budgets and unique processes". The ACCC intends to target this behaviour by raising awareness with government agencies, anti-corruption bodies and the police.
Industry codes of conduct, including the Franchising Code and the Food and Grocery Code
In the wake of changes to the mandatory Franchising Code of Conduct, which provides increased powers for the ACCC to issue infringement notices where they have reason to believe there has been a contravention of the code, and to seek penalties for serious breaches of certain provisions, the ACCC has stated that it "will be taking a stronger line to protect small firms by ensuring compliance with industry codes of conduct".
The ACCC is also addressing the implementation of the voluntary Food and Grocery Code of Conduct, which is intended to "address unfair practices in the grocery sector".
Minimising the supply of unsafe goods
The ACCC is prioritising product safety, focussing on good practice in the manufacture, sourcing and quality assurance of consumer products. The ACCC warns that while finished goods from countries with lower production costs may provide cost benefits, there are potentially large hidden costs. "Where the quality of products is variable or deteriorates, the products can become unsafe for consumers and expose suppliers to the costs of recalls and possible legal action".
The online marketplace continues to be a priority for the ACCC in 2015. The ACCC has highlighted its concern with "significant delays by online businesses in addressing consumer complaints about either the product itself or delivery". As such, the ACCC will focus on improving responsiveness to customer concerns.
Highly concentrated sectors
"Competition and consumer issues in highly concentrated sectors will remain a priority". According to Mr Sims, declarations made late last year by the Federal Court in relation to Coles' unconscionable conduct towards suppliers "sets a benchmark for conduct which can be applied to other businesses and other sectors". The ACCC has indicated that the fuel sector will be an area of interest in 2015.
In 2014, the ACCC introduced a new focus area, being disrupting "scams that rely on building deceptive relationships and which cause severe and widespread consumer or small business detriment". With assistance from other agencies and intermediaries such as dating sites and financial institutions, this area will continue to be prioritised by the ACCC in 2015. "The project currently involves using financial intelligence to identify Australians who are sending funds to West African nations".
In 2014, the ACCC prioritised misleading carbon pricing representations. This will continue in 2015, with the ACCC focussing on "finalising its role in ensuring that carbon tax cost savings are being passed through to consumers".
The ACCC has been using social media "to help inform and empower Indigenous consumers to stand up for their consumer rights".
Vulnerable and disadvantaged consumers
The ACCC has stated that it will not hesitate to take enforcement action against businesses that attempt to exploit vulnerable or disadvantaged consumers for commercial gain. This warning is particularly aimed at "unscrupulous sales people" targeting older consumers and "deceitful operators" taking advantage of consumers with culturally or linguistically diverse backgrounds, who have recently arrived in Australia, and are unfamiliar with their consumer rights under Australian law.
As well as these specific 2015 priorities, the ACCC has reiterated that cartels, anti-competitive agreements, misuse of market power and product safety are enduring priorities because of their impact on competition and consumer welfare.
The release of the ACCC's 2015 Compliance and Enforcement Policy provides businesses with an opportunity to:
- reassess their exposure to competition and consumer laws and, more specifically, the areas covered by the ACCC's 2015 priorities; and
- reassess their practices, policies and procedures, including the adequacy of their compliance procedures to effectively manage risk in these areas.