Around a year ago or so, Ofgem introduced new rules to simplify contract renewals for micro-businesses to stop suppliers using underhand tactics to roll them into expensive long term contracts.
Now end dates and notice periods for fixed-term contracts must be printed on bills and statements of accounts, and retailers told they can give notice any time before the termination date. When any contract is signed, terms and conditions must be issued within 10 days.
This prompts us to ask why other sectors can’t follow suit.
We know of retailers who haven’t realised that a signature was unnecessary for a contract to be binding. They gave agreement verbally, through an exchange of emails or even by just visiting a website. For others, an agreement they believed to have terminated by email has been rolled over because this did not satisfy a clause that said notice must be in writing.
It is feasible that the small print of a contract might not be read as thoroughly as it should, but as many have found to their cost it is vital to do so.
No-one should be pressurised into signing an agreement without time to consider the full implications. Are sales targets achievable and will there be surcharges if these are missed? What are the consequences if the business is sold midway through a contract?
The NFRN wants fairer treatment, with two-way clauses that are not supplier-orientated; cooling off periods so contracts can be cancelled without incurring penalties and clearer information so retailers are well aware of what they are signing up to. Copies of contracts should be available within 14 days of being signed and small print should be anything but, and actually presented in a font size that is clearer and easier to read.
The NFRN will continue to push government to ensure that all markets operate more transparently and competitively and that there is sufficient regulation in place to protect small businesses from unfair practices. We will be calling for the appointment of a small business ombudsman too.
In the meantime, please never take the small print in a contract for granted. Yes, it might be complex and boring but read it, make sure you understand and, if necessary, challenge it. It could save you a lot of grief.