Mr. Speaker, I thank you sincerely for the opportunity to make this all-important policy statement, as Caretaker Minister for the Ministry of Trade and Industry, on behalf of the Government of President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, on consumer protection in Ghana, one of the most important right issues in a free market like ours.
Mr. Speaker, exactly one month from today, on 15th March 2023, the world will be celebrating Consumer Rights Day, a day set aside to raise global awareness about consumer rights and needs, to advocate for the respect and protection of the rights of all consumers, and to protest against market abuses and social injustices that undermine consumer rights.
Mr. Speaker, the issue of consumer protection, though of recent development, has been the concern of governments from ancient times. In most traditional societies, families produced for themselves majority of the goods they consumed. And, for the goods they could not produce, a barter system ensured a fair exchange of goods for goods, to balance what each family could produce.
With increasing trade in barter, there was the need to regulate trade to ensure what was generally termed “measure for measure,” and promote fair trading of goods.
In the United Kingdom, for example, as far back as the tenth (10th) century, under the reign of King Edgar, prior to the Norman Conquest, a law was proclaimed to control the weight, measure and prices of wool. In subsequent years, similar enactments were made for bread, corn, meat and a host of other essential commodities. But it was the Sale of Goods Act of 1893, which formed the basis of present-day consumer protection in the United Kingdom.
In the United States, Mr. Speaker, consumer protection is usually traced to the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914, which established the Federal Trade Commission to, amongst others, regulate unfair methods of competition in commerce.
Today, Mr. Speaker, most countries have Consumer Protection Policies and Legislation that secure the rights of consumers against unfair practices, such as Australia’s Competition and Consumer Act, 2010; Canada’s Consumer Product Safety Act, 2010; the UK’s Consumer Rights Act, 2015; South Africa’s Consumer Protection Act, 2018; and India’s Consumer Protection Act, 2019.
Most jurisdictions also have special bodies that deal with consumer protection, such as the Competition and Consumer Commission of Australia, the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission of Nigeria, the Competition Commission of Kenya, and the Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore.
In our case, Mr. Speaker, attempts to protect consumers predate our attainment of independence, with statutes like the Weights and Measures Ordinance, 1896 (Cap 188) and the Control of Prices Regulations, 1949 (No. 25 of 1949). These attempts continued after independence, with the enactment of the Rent (Stabilisation) Act, 1962 (Act 109), Price Control Act, 1962 (Act 113), and the Sale of Goods Act, 1962 (Act 137).
As remarked by the venerable jurist, His Lordship Justice Date-Bah, in his article titled Legislative Control of Freedom of Contract, and I quote, “The Control of Prices Act, 1962, was the statutory weapon adopted by the government to combat the market forces in the interests of consumers and the economy.”
Mr. Speaker, despite these efforts, we have not been able to develop, over the years, a single legislation for the protection of consumers. Currently, our legal and regulatory framework for the protection of consumer rights is fragmented in difference pieces of legislation, amongst them being the Public Utilities Regulatory Commission Act, 1997 (Act 538), the National Petroleum Authority Act, 2005 (Act 691), the Electronic Communications Act, 2008 (Act 775), the Public Health Act, 2012 (Act 851), and, recently, the Ghana Standards Authority Act, 2022 (Act 1078).
This phenomenon has led to the creation of different bodies, with different jurisdictions, over different aspects of consumer protection, such as the National Communications Authority, in respect of electronic communications; the National Petroleum Authority, in respect of petroleum products; the Energy Commission and the Public Utilities Regulatory Commission in respect of the supply, distribution and sale of electricity and natural gas; and the Bank of Ghana in respect of banking services.
Mr. Speaker, this state of affairs has long been recognised as undesirable. It has led to a significant part of the market remaining unregulated in terms of consumer protection, leading to a constant violation of consumer rights without adequate remedy.
In those areas that seem to be regulated, there are instances of jurisdictional conflict among the various regulators, leaving the consumer with no remedy. In short, consumers are not getting value for money.
For example, today, it is not uncommon in our country, to enter shops and see signs like “Goods sold are not returnable.” So, what protection does the man who buys clothes from this shop, which do not fit, get? What is the remedy given to the woman who buys a phone charger, and gets home only to notice that it does not work? And what protection is given to someone who consumes food or beverage and suffers injury thereafter?
In most cases, consumers who seek to vindicate their rights have to resort to the courts, relying on common law principles of contract and tort, which impose a higher evidentiary burden on the consumer.
For example, in the case of Nana Tabiri Gyansah III v Accra Brewery (Suit No. H1/368/05, decided by the Court of Appeal on 10th March, 2006), a consumer who bought two bottles of Castle Milk Stout and suffered injuries after consuming half a bottle of the drink, was left without any remedy, on the grounds that he could not prove the negligence of the manufacturer.
In the words of the Court, “the plaintiff did not lead evidence to establish a nexus between his permanent and temporary health injuries and his consumption of the defendant’s manufactured castle milk stout.”
Mr. Speaker, these complexities, coupled with the general lack of consumer awareness, lack of access to the courts absence of low-cost, quick, and accessible fora and methods for resolution of consumer complaints, low levels of consumer activism, and considerable institutional capacity constraints, require a legislative intervention to ensure that the rights of consumers are adequately protected.
The respected Professor of Law at the University of Ghana, Professor Christine Dowuona-Hammond, was spot on when she concluded, in her 2018 article on Consumer Law and Policy in Ghana, as follows: “The overall consumer protection regime in Ghana remains inadequate and uncoordinated in the absence of a comprehensive and harmonized policy, legal, and institutional framework.”
The need for such legal framework has long been recognised. The Ghana Trade Policy, 2005, for example, proposed the establishment of a Consumer Protection Authority to facilitate consumer redress, establish codes of practice on advertising and labeling, educate consumers on their rights, strengthen consumer-oriented organizations, and ensure effective representation of consumers on decision-making bodies. This was re-echoed by the Consumer Protection Policy of 2016.
Mr. Speaker, the State is required, by article 35 clause 2, to seek the welfare of all citizens. And, as a respected member of the international community, we are enjoined by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to institute a functional consumer protection regime to protect consumers, as well as enshrine their rights in the marketplace.
It is to fulfill these obligations that Government, under the able and distinguished leadership of President Akufo-Addo, is working rigorously to ensure the passage of a Consumer Protection Law.
I am happy to announce, Mr. Speaker, that in the coming days, I will be signing a Consumer Protection Bill, which will be laid before Cabinet for its consideration and approval, and, subsequently, for the consideration for this august House.
In this regard, kindly permit me, Mr. Speaker, to pay glowing tribute to officials of the Ministry of Trade and Industry for the tireless work they have undertaken in getting the Bill this far.
The overarching object of the Bill is to protect, secure and defend the rights of consumers, through a structured institutional mechanism and legal framework, that will ensure that consumers play a significant role in keeping erring businesses in check, promote competition, and ensure regional integration through digital trade and e-commerce.
Mr. Speaker, the days when people depended on what they produced are long gone. Today, everyone depends, to some extent, on goods and services provided by others.
The market dependence of consumers has increased considerably, making it imperative for us to protect consumer rights. With the coming into force of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), and as host of the AfCFTA Secretariat, consumer protection law is more important now than ever.
The Government of President Akufo-Addo is fully committed to the passage of this law. It is my hope that when the time eventually comes, after the Bill has passed through the scrutiny of the eagle-eyed Cabinet of President Akufo-Addo, this august House will fully support Government to pass this very consequential legislation.
I thank you Mr. Speaker.