Ombud wants oversight of new home warranty program
TORONTO - The private company that administers Ontario's new home warranties is seen by the public as a "puppet'' of the home-building industry, Ombudsman Andre Marin said Tuesday as he accused the Liberal government of turning a blind eye to problems with the program.
In a special report, Marin delivered pointed criticisms of the way Tarion Warranty Corp. deals with consumer complaints, as well as what he called a lack of oversight of the company by Ontario's Ministry of Government and Consumer Services.
"The government told Tarion to get its act together, but on the other hand, the government is very much engaged in puffery when it comes to the public: you know, everything's under control, we're keeping an eye on it,'' Marin said in an interview.
"The government, although it knows about the issues, it very much tries to pretend that they're under control, but they're clearly not under control.''
Marin said new homeowners who are unsatisfied with Tarion's handling of their cases have virtually nowhere to turn; 199 families who complained to the ministry about Tarion got no real help from the government, the report noted.
"It gives the clear impression among the public in Ontario that Tarion is a puppet of the building industry,'' Marin said.
"It may not be a fair impression, but as long as there is no oversight, checks and balances, people lose faith in the system.''
Frustrated homeowners can try going to Ontario's Licence Appeals Tribunal, but Marin called that a "narrow, technical and legalistic board'' that is of little help to consumers because it doesn't investigate complaints.
Marin called Tarion "a chronic underperformer,'' and said there was a disconnect between what the government is saying about the warranty program and what the situation actually is.
"We're led to believe that this ministry is keeping Tarion under a microscope, while in fact Tarion is orbiting out in the galaxy and the government is keeping an eye on it through a telescope,'' he said.
"The first step is to come clean. If the government doesn't want to get involved publicly in overseeing Tarion, don't pretend that you are.''
Consumer Services Minister Ted McMeekin bristled at Marin's suggestion, saying Tarion had agreed to his requests to become more consumer friendly and would set up an in-house consumer advocate to deal with homeowner complaints.
"We're not pretending anything,'' McMeekin said in an interview.
"We've intervened with Tarion and had many discussions with them about some improvements we'd like to see happen, and they as recently as four or five days ago responded in writing that they're prepared to implement (the improvements). There's no pretend in that.''
Tarion did not agree to an interview Tuesday to respond to the ombudsman's criticisms, but issued a statement promising to follow through on his report and recommendations.
"Tarion is committed to providing unbiased warranty service to Ontario's new home purchasers,'' a Tarion spokesman wrote in an e-mail. "We will review the ombudsman's report closely and provide whatever assistance the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services require.''
McMeekin said he doesn't see a need to give the ombudsman's office oversight of Tarion -- something Marin noted it has been asking for since the 1970s -- but promised the ministry would quickly clarify its relationship with Tarion on a website so consumers know the government's role in the new home warranty program.
"Why did it take Mr. McMeekin this long to actually change his website when he knew the ombudsman was reviewing his ministry's relationship with Tarion?'' asked Conservative critic Lisa MacLeod. "That begs the question, are you doing your job or are you just taking a wait and see approach?''
NDP Leader Howard Hampton said the government should give the ombudsman's office the power to investigate Tarion itself, not just the company's relationship with the government.
"The ombudsman's office has a lot of talent, experience and ability and we should make use of that,'' Hampton said. "I think they should have the authority to look into these kinds of things.''