Judith Donovan: Give consumers a choice over going online

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AS a successful and proud Yorkshire businesswoman, I understand the need for companies to innovate and find new ways to engage their customers.

In an increasingly competitive market hampered by the financial difficulties of recent years, this drive is even fiercer than before. But as a company, every decision or change you make should reflect the priorities of the people with whom you do business. It is foolish to make assumptions on their behalf or even worse, tell them what they need.

The impact of the internet on our everyday lives has led to a breadth of opportunity and convenience for many people. The readiness of Big Business to adopt this technology is to a certain extent admirable; it shows a willingness to embrace new and interesting ideas. We see this every day in banks and utility companies asking their customers to move to online billing, for instance.

In my daily life, I do lots of public and charitable work which brings me into contact with people who have concerns about the move to paperless bills and statements, and even greater concerns about their right to choice being removed.

As an individual this makes me worry for the welfare of those that may be disadvantaged. As a business owner, the lack of consultation concerns me.

Statistics show that there are large sections of our society who are not equipped for a move to an entirely online service, and we feel that their needs should be considered and protected.

Research (and our own common sense) tells us that a lot of people still don’t have access to online services, or, if they do, aren’t computer literate or confident enough to use them. There are 7.1 million UK citizens who have never used the internet – a huge number. Given this, and the fact that 33 per cent of UK households do not own a PC, a move online potentially leaves a significant number at risk of losing track of their finances. In many rural areas broadband provision is patchy. For some consumers, when it comes to handling their financials, they simply prefer paper.

This is the reason we have started the ‘Keep Me Posted’ campaign, a partnership of leading charities, businesses and consumer groups.

An increasing number of banks, utility and media companies only provide their customers’ bills and statements online but new research shows that 89 per cent of people in Yorkshire and Humberside are demanding the right to choose how they receive this information. This independent research undertaken by Opinium for Keep Me Posted also found that 66 per cent of us in this region find it unreasonable to be charged for paper statements. A worrying 32 per cent admit that they often forgot to check their statements online, and a further 34 per cent found it easier to keep track of their finances in print.

Our campaign is calling for organisations to offer consumers the right to choose by adopting our ‘right to choose’ pledge:

Offer all of their customers the choice of receiving information through paper correspondence as part of any standard offer.

Refrain from penalising in any way, any customer for preferring to receive information through paper correspondence.

Only cease the sending of information in paper correspondence to a customer after (and not before) the customer has specifically, voluntarily and individually opted out of receiving information on paper.

Only change the frequency of information sent to customers in paper correspondence after (and not before) the customer has specifically, voluntarily and individually agreed to the change.

Refrain from making the availability of online information to customers necessarily conditional upon having to give up their access to paper correspondence.

Make available to customers easy mechanisms whereby a customer who has chosen not to receive paper correspondence can opt back in without penalty.

People interested in finding out more or joining the campaign can visit our website www.keepmeposteduk.com. Alternatively they can, of course, write to us for an information pack at: Keep Me Posted, Freepost, PO Box 72064, London, EC4P 4DZ.

• Judith Donovan CBE, from Kirkby Malzeard. is chairman of the Keep Me Posted campaign.