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Leaving the EU: Mobile Roaming Charges

Volume 654: debated on Thursday 7 February 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on mobile roaming charges abroad in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Delivering a negotiated deal with the EU remains the Government’s priority, and that has not changed, but I am sure the House will agree that we must prepare for every eventuality, including a no-deal scenario.

For that reason, we have taken a number of steps as a Government, working with businesses, consumers and devolved Administrations, to make sure that we deliver the best possible outcome in the event of no deal. The Government intend to legislate to make sure that the requirements on mobile operators to apply a financial limit on mobile data usage while abroad is retained in UK law. The limit would be set at £45 for each monthly billing period, which is the same limit that is currently in place. We would also legislate to ensure that customers receive alerts at 80% and 100% of their data usage so that all users can carefully manage that data usage. These would mean ongoing clarity and certainty for consumers.

I know that there is also a concern on the island of Ireland about the issue of inadvertent roaming. This is when a mobile signal in a border region is stronger from the country across the border. The Government intend to retain through UK law the EU roaming regulation provisions that set out how operators must make information available to their customers on how to avoid inadvertent roaming.

The Government are working hard to make sure that everyone is prepared and ready for all outcomes, and I encourage all businesses to read our technical notice, which we published last summer, on mobile roaming in the event of leaving without a deal. We should be clear, however, that surcharge-free roaming for UK customers may continue across the EU as it does now, based on operators’ commercial arrangements.

Leaving without a deal would not prevent UK mobile operators from making and honouring commercial arrangements with mobile operators in and beyond the EU to deliver the services that their customers expect, including roaming arrangements. The availability and pricing of mobile roaming in the EU would be a commercial question for the operators, and many of them, including those that cover more than 85% of mobile subscribers, have already said that they have no current plans to change their approach to mobile roaming after the UK has left the EU.

I hope the steps that I have set out today will reassure the House that the Government are committed to a smooth and orderly transition as we leave the EU. In our telecoms sector, as in all sectors, we are making plans for all outcomes as we leave the EU. That is the role of a responsible Government, and that is what we will continue to do.

Yesterday, while my team was mapping out a potential cross-party approach to tackling the online harms caused by surveillance capitalism, what was the Secretary of State doing? He was trying to slip out a policy change of national significance that clearly warranted an oral statement to the House. We must thank the HuffPost website that the Government did not manage to sneak it out without scrutiny at the Dispatch Box, and we must also thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question.

When mobile roaming charges were scrapped in 2017, it was a great day for consumers. Tens of millions of British holidaymakers travelling to EU countries were told that they were able to “Roam Like Home”. Before then, many had been burnt by huge and unexpected bills for trying to access their emails or sending pictures to their families back at home. As a nation, we were spending a third of a billion pounds just to use our mobiles on holiday. It was so bad that in 2016, the then Minister for the Digital Economy, the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), said that

“by realising these changes, we’re going to save British consumers millions of pounds a year.”

Today’s announcement shows once again that this particular Secretary of State and this particular Government will cave in to the lobbying might of telecoms companies rather than listening to the voice of consumers who are set to lose out. He said that mobile phone operators had said that they had “no plans” to raise roaming charges, but he and I know—and, more important, voters know—what that phrase really means.

The reason the EU introduced free roaming in the first place was the fact that the telecoms companies could not be trusted to give consumers a fair deal, so let me ask the Secretary of State some questions. Why has he decided that the price of no-deal Brexit is better paid by consumers than telecoms companies? What binding commitments has he asked companies to give to ensure that consumers are not hit by high roaming charges in the event of a no deal? Can he guarantee that if, by luck or by skill, the Prime Minister gets her deal through, consumers will not pay roaming charges in future? When has he summoned the telecoms chief executives to talks at the Department, and if he has not done so, will he do so this weekend to ensure that consumers can receive their guarantees?

This is how holidaymakers have been hit by Brexit chaos. First, the value of the pound has plummeted, thus increasing the cost of family holidays. Secondly, we will have to pay for visas to travel to the EU. Thirdly, we will be hit by a Brexit bill to use our mobiles abroad. If the Secretary of State does not want to go down in history as the Minister for the Tory triple whammy tourist tax, I suggest that he adopts a different course.

The hon. Gentleman expressed a commendable interest in my diary for yesterday. Let me remind him that I was having meetings on the subject of online harms, which he and I had discussed on what I thought was a cross-party basis some time before he made his speech yesterday. I was also spending some time discussing problem gambling with the banks and with the all-party parliamentary group on gambling related harm, which is led by his hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris).

I know that the hon. Gentleman cares about both those subjects and would wish me to spend time on them, but he need not worry, because I have also been spending some time on this subject. Having done so, I can tell him that it will be discussed by this House because this is an affirmative statutory instrument. The Government have set out their view that it should be an affirmative statutory instrument, which will give the House an opportunity to debate this subject, so the hon. Gentleman or one of his colleagues will be able to discuss the matter in some detail when that debate is reached.

The hon. Gentleman says that we are caving in to the mobile phone operators, but the reality is that when we leave the European Union—that is what is going to happen, because the Government and the Opposition, if I understand their current position correctly, intend to respect the outcome of the 2016 referendum—it will not be possible for the UK Government to force our rules and expectations upon EU mobile phone operating companies. So if those companies choose to charge British mobile network operating companies at a wholesale level, one of two things will happen: either that cost will be passed on to those who are using their mobile phone abroad, or it will be spread across all mobile phone users on that network. That is the choice.

The decision we have made is to ensure that consumers are given the best possible protection in the event of leaving the EU with no deal. I have made it quite clear that that is not the Government’s intention, however. We worked very hard to get a deal, and we would be grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s help on that, but it is important to recognise what we can do and what we are doing. We are making sure that those elements of the current EU regime that can be transferred into domestic law are transferred into domestic law. Making sure that consumers cannot spend more than the amount that is currently provided for in EU law without understanding that they are doing so is an important consumer protection, as is letting people know how much of their data they have already used. That is what we can do, and that is what we should do in the event of no deal.

If the hon. Gentleman is concerned, as I am sure that we all are, to avoid some of the unpleasant consequences of no deal, the good news is that he can help. He and his colleagues can vote for a deal. We are still waiting for the Opposition to take a responsible position on avoiding the no-deal consequences that they come to the House to complain about.

Of course, we have a competitive market, but that is perfectly compatible with providing consumer protections. Where there are sensible consumer protections in place under EU law and we can transfer them into domestic law, that is what we should do. In this case, that is what we are doing.

The other thing we could do to avoid these charges is not to have Brexit at all. What the Government’s 85% statistic tells us is that 15% of customers will definitely be charged extra while roaming in the EU. Last week, Money Saving Expert said that just two out of 12 major mobile firms have committed to keeping roaming free and that two thirds of people think it important to have no roaming charges when they go abroad. The Government’s impact assessment focuses on the cost for mobile operators rather than the cost for consumers. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the additional cost to consumers as a result of this change?

The Government have not been upfront about this. They have not made a statement on the Floor of the House without being dragged here to answer the urgent question tabled by the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson). I am glad that he has asked this question, but the Government could have been more proactive in explaining to consumers what they expect to happen. The Secretary of State has said that this will be done by an affirmative statutory instrument that will require debate, so will he ask the Leader of the House to make time for such a debate on the Floor of the House, rather than it being debated in Committee? If this is such an important issue and if the Government are not trying to duck and dive, he should agree to it being debated on the Floor of the House.

Lastly, what is the Secretary of State’s understanding of the position of people who live in Northern Ireland and work in Ireland, or vice versa, in relation to roaming charges? It seems to me that there is almost no way for them to avoid roaming charges unless they choose to have two mobile phones. Have the Government considered those people when making this decision?

The hon. Lady accuses us of attempting to hide the matter, but, as I said, the Government intend to conduct a debate on the statutory instrument using the affirmative procedure. That does not represent hiding. The provision will appear in all the normal processes of the House, and the House will have the chance to discuss what should be done through that Delegated Legislation Committee.

As for whether 15% of mobile phone customers will inevitably pay roaming charges, that is not quite what I said. I said that mobile network operators that cover 85% of consumers have said that they have no plans to introduce roaming charges. It does not follow that the operators covering the other 15% have specifically said that they do. They may have said nothing at all.

Turning to Northern Ireland, I said that there is a legitimate concern about inadvertent roaming, and there are measures that can be taken. Those measures are already reflected in the EU regulation, the key parts of which that we can replicate we seek to replicate. We will ask operators to do all that they can to prevent inadvertent roaming, and there are several ways in which they might do so. Exactly how they do so will of course be a matter for them.

Finally, I suppose that I should give SNP Members some credit. At least they are clear about what they think of Brexit. They do not want it, and I understand that. Unfortunately for them, however, the people of the United Kingdom, voting as the United Kingdom, decided in the majority that they wanted to leave the European Union. This Government intend to honour their decision, as Parliament said that it would, but there are consequences to a no-deal exit from the European Union that the Government seek to mitigate, and this is one of the instruments by which we seek to do so.

Does the Secretary of State agree that consumer protection is behind his announcement today and that that has been the great strength of the way in which he has approached this issue?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is right. The Government have a responsibility, where we can, to continue consumer protection measures that currently reside in European law but that we think are sensible and desirable and that we will transfer into our own law in the event of our departure. Of course, as he will know, if there is a deal that includes an implementation period, the position will continue exactly as it is now during that period, which is one reason why such an implementation period and such a deal are desirable and one reason why it would be good for the Opposition to take their responsibilities seriously in this regard.

The Secretary of State says that the Government intend to lay the provision as a statutory instrument and that it will therefore be debated in the normal way. However, he will surely know that an enormous backlog of statutory instruments must be passed by 29 March and that appropriate levels of scrutiny will be challenged. Knowing that we lack the time to scrutinise every single statutory instrument in time for Brexit, what words of comfort can he possibly have for consumers in my constituency?

I am unsure what the hon. Lady is suggesting. Is she suggesting that the Government should operate by fiat and pass the measure without consulting Parliament at all? I do not think that that would be the right way forward, even if it were feasible. This matter can be addressed by statutory instrument, and the Government intend to do so. We chose to use the affirmative procedure so that the House will have the opportunity to discuss the matter. It would seem that I am being criticised by the SNP for not allowing enough debate and by Labour for allowing too much.

There is a sense of groundhog day when Members on the Treasury Bench who voted for the deal face complaints from those who voted against it about the prospect of no deal. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what discussions the Government have actually had with mobile network operators about getting a resolution to this issue, rather than just playing politics?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I forgot to say in response to the hon. Member for West Bromwich East, who was concerned that the Department had not had such conversations, that we have had discussions with network operators to ensure that we understand their intentions and to talk about what they will do next. Of course, what they decide to do will in the end be a matter for them because, as I have explained, it is not possible for the UK Government to restrict the activities of European mobile network operators. However, they have made their views clear, and the Government are doing what we can to smooth the path of a no-deal exit, but we would all agree that it is better to avoid one. The best way to do that is to vote for a deal, and that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) is doing. Let us have a bit of company from Opposition Members.

If there is no deal, it will be because the Government have made a conscious choice to go down that route.

Has the Secretary of State attempted to assess the cost implications if some of those companies that say they have no plans at present to introduce roaming charges do, indeed, do so? Has he assessed the associated costs of losing the European health insurance card, of difficulties in securing travel insurance and of the visa charges that have been mentioned? How much will that cost British consumers going on holiday?

The costs of health and travel insurance are a little beyond the ambit of this urgent question, but I repeat the point that what the Government can do is to ensure that any additional costs to consumers that occur as a result of a no-deal Brexit—we fervently hope to avoid that eventuality—are limited in any way that the Government can properly limit them. The best way we can do that is to make sure that consumers know when they have reached a certain point of spending so that they can make their own judgment on whether they wish to go beyond that point. The real concern that consumers generally express is that they do not know when they are running up these very large bills while using their data abroad, which is precisely what we seek to avoid. We have chosen exactly the same point at which to make that notification as already exists in the EU regulation.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that, across the world, many comms companies are monopolies. Despite that, roaming charges have been abolished across the world—it is not limited to the European Union. Does he agree that, actually, this is an opportunity for consumers in the UK to get an even better deal as we leave the European Union?

My hon. Friend makes the fair point that by the operation of the market that exists in this country, even if it may not exist everywhere else, consumers will be able to make a choice. It may be that some mobile network operators will choose not to impose mobile roaming charges and others choose to do so, in which case the consumer can make a judgment about the importance of this matter.

Have the Government not already had an opportunity to put their deal to the Commons and failed dismally to get the support of even their own Back Benchers? Why do not the Government look seriously at the Leader of the Opposition’s proposal today to seek consensus and avoid no deal?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the invitation to the Leader of the Opposition to engage in constructive discussions was offered some considerable time ago. Of course the Government will consider what the Leader of the Opposition says, but if we are to avoid no deal, the way to do it is to get a deal. We will continue to discuss how we might do that with the Leader of the Opposition, but in the end, every single Member on both sides of the House, if they dislike the consequences of no deal, has a responsibility to decide that they will personally take responsibility for doing what they can to prevent it.

I know my right hon. and learned Friend will not be tempted into offering legal advice on the Floor of the House, but what protection might be available to consumers and businesses who entered a contract on the basis of free calls, texts and data while roaming if operators are tempted to change the terms of those contracts mid-term?

My hon. Friend is right that I have a natural reluctance to offer legal advice not only on the hoof but for nothing. My understanding, and I will write to him after making sure my understanding is correct, is that changes in contractual terms during the term of a contract give the consumer the right to exit that contract.

The Secretary of State needs to remember that the Government’s deal was voted down across this House, by two thirds, so it is no good coming here to lecture the Opposition alone. He also needs to understand that the best way to protect consumers who use mobile phones abroad is to look at what is in the letter from the Leader of the Opposition today, because it offers the best way forward to come to a deal and protect consumers in the future.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should all do what we can to avoid no deal, but I hope that he also accepts that it would not be responsible for the Government to make no preparations whatsoever for a no-deal eventuality. What we are discussing here, at the request of the hon. Member for West Bromwich East, is a proposal the Government are making, through a statutory instrument, to make provision to ensure ongoing consumer protections in a no-deal scenario. It does not in any way suggest that that is the Government’s preferred option, but it does suggest that responsible Governments prepare for possible outcomes.

I commend the Secretary of State for his calm and rational approach to this issue. When I renew my mobile phone contract, I am bombarded with various offers about how cheaply I can use my mobile phone abroad, both in and outside the EU. When I arrive in a foreign country, I am bombarded with text messages from my provider about various packages to make things cheaper. Why would they possibly want to price their customers out of a lucrative market by not continuing these customer-friendly arrangements?

My hon. Friend is entirely right about that, and this is exactly why many of those mobile network operators have said that they have no intention of doing as he describes.

Given the disaster of no deal and the apparent inability of this Government to ensure that our holidaying constituents have the same benefits as they do at the moment, does the Secretary of State agree with Alex Neill, the director of home services at Which?, that companies must be “absolutely clear” about the extra costs they are going to pass on to the consumer? How much notice should they give, as we are only a few weeks away from the Easter holidays?

Again, the hon. Gentleman will get agreement from me that it is better to avoid the consequences of no deal. I cannot accept that it is not sensible to prepare for them in case they happen. If he wants to avoid them, there is a sure-fire way to do so. I grant that he is responsible only for his vote, just as I am responsible only for mine, but we should all take responsibility on an individual basis for making sure those consequences do not come about.

I know we are all worried about roaming overseas, but may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to look at the signal at home, because too many people do not get a mobile phone signal in our country? Indeed, we cannot even get one in many places in the House of Commons. Will he examine access to roaming charges, as his predecessor, the current Home Secretary, did, and allow people who cannot get a signal to roam on to other domestic networks?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that. He and I both stood for election on a manifesto that committed us to reach 95% of the UK landmass with a mobile phone signal. I am determined to ensure that we meet that target, and to do so we will rule nothing out that may achieve our objective.

I have quite a lot of time for the Secretary of State, but if our Front-Bench team had not asked this urgent question, we would not know what was going on. He may not know this, but I am very popular with my Whips; I spend a lot of time in Committee Rooms upstairs dealing with statutory instruments relating to the withdrawal from the EU. These are little rooms, where measures are quickly pushed through; Ministers gabble through as fast as they can and the scrutiny is deplorable. Let me mention two issues we dealt with recently. The first was insurance for uninsured drivers, where the measure went through the other day and people will not be insured when they go to Europe. The second was air safety, and the Minister gabbled through without knowing the details. This is about parliamentary sovereignty. Today, the Secretary of State says the backdrop is that we all have a vote, so why is the rumour running round Westminster today that the Prime Minister has reneged on the vote next week?

First, let me say that the respect is entirely mutual, not least because the hon. Gentleman has a well-deserved reputation as a scrutineer of legislation in this House; as he says, he does it a lot. The point here is that there has been no attempt to hide this; we are talking about a statutory instrument presented to the House so that it can consider it in the usual way. When it gets to the point of considering the statutory instrument, the House will of course have to decide how long it wants to take over it, but the objective is not to hide it; the objective is to make use of the powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which Parliament decided we should have, to correct deficiencies that arise as a consequence of our EU departure. We are doing it here to make provision for what would happen in a no-deal exit and to make sure that consumer protections we can roll over, we do roll over. I hope that will command the support of the House.

May I press the Secretary of State on no deal? What binding commitments has he demanded of telecoms companies so that our consumers are not ripped off this summer by higher charges?

Again, I should set out what I think the position is. Were we to say to mobile network operators in this country, “You may not impose roaming charges on your customers who travel to the European Union,” that could not prevent European mobile network operating companies from charging UK mobile network operating companies money, and that money would have to be paid by somebody. If we say to the mobile network operators in this country that they may not pass that charge on to their roaming customers, they will undoubtedly pass it on to all their other customers instead. The problem is that, when we are outside the European Union, as we will be, we are no longer beneficiaries of the European Union regulation. We are taking as many elements of the regulation as we can and transferring them into domestic law. That is sensible planning and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will support it.

The Secretary of State just said that we are no longer beneficiaries of EU regulation. It was not until the EU acted that the mobile companies got rid of the dreaded mobile roaming charges. How many mobile companies have come to the Secretary of State and said that they will voluntarily not put these charges on to consumers?

On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, I said that 85% of consumers are covered by mobile network operators that have said they have no intention of reintroducing charges. What he says is undoubtedly and self-evidently true: if a country is not a member of the European Union, it does not benefit from provisions that cover members of the European Union. The hon. Gentleman will recall that there was a debate in 2016 that took us some time, and these arguments were deployed on both sides. The UK electorate made a decision and we are enacting that decision. In the process, if there are consumer protections that we can and should continue, that is what we intend to do. That is what the measure is about.

As far as I can tell, we are discussing an urgent question about whether mobile roaming charges will apply after our departure from the EU. I will repeat what I have said already: we should all want, when we have the opportunity, to exercise our democratic rights to prevent no deal and vote for a deal instead. If that does not happen for any reason and no deal occurs, the Government intend to be ready for it. We intend to give consumers the protection that we still can and look forward to the Opposition’s support in doing so.

The abolition of roaming charges was just one of the ways in which the European Union stood up to the tech giants in the interests of ordinary consumers. Given the Government’s absolute reluctance to do the same—they are only now looking to address online harm and are still completely ignoring algorithmic control and data exploitation—will the Secretary of State commit to matching evolving European Union tech regulation, or explain why not?

I am afraid I do not accept the hon. Lady’s premise. It is not true that the Government have only now started to talk about online harms: we produced a Green Paper on internet safety some considerable time ago and we have talked about it repeatedly. The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) and I have discussed exactly the tone of the Government’s likely response and the hon. Lady will see a White Paper shortly. I am sure she would expect that we approach this subject in the proper way, so that when we produce the actions that we intend to take they stick, have effect, are robust and achieve what she and I both want to see.

Given that an affirmative statutory instrument can allow only a vote for or against it, will the Secretary of State give the Opposition early notice of what is in that SI to see how the Opposition can improve on what is being put forward?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, SIs are laid before the debate so that Members of the House can consider them. In this instance, he has had a fairly substantial sneak preview because much of what I have said will be the content of that statutory instrument, but he will certainly be able to see it before the debate occurs. I hope that that will give him the opportunity to see that it is sensibly based and demands his support.

Is it not the case that this Government are, yet again, trying to hold Parliament to ransom by threatening a no deal when it is in their gift to rule it out immediately, and they should do that, as it would be an act of criminal negligence on their part to proceed with a no-deal situation? That is the reality that we are facing. No one in this country—or certainly a majority in this country did not vote to roll back the European Union’s progress on abolishing roaming charges. This Government should immediately look to compromise with Parliament to reach an agreement that is practical, instead of prioritising the integrity of the Tory party over the national interest. Is that not exactly what this Government are doing?

First, let me thank the Minister for his answers. Norway and Liechtenstein have so-called free roaming agreements in place already, so it can happen. He referred to steps taken to address roaming charges for consumers in Northern Ireland and the close proximity of the Republic of Ireland. Will he confirm the steps that consumers in Northern Ireland must undertake, and are the Republic of Ireland and the EU open to finding an agreement?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he says, this is a real concern, but it is one that other places have also wrestled with and found practical solutions to. I believe that the same thing can be done on the Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland border. It will be up to each of the mobile network operators to speak to their customers about exactly how this should be done. What we can do in government, and seek to do through this statutory instrument, is place on them the obligation to do so, so that people are not accidentally caught by what would be, again, an undesirable scenario in which this kind of accidental roaming might take place. If he will forgive me, I will not set out the details for each individual mobile network operator. We set the expectation and then each operator must speak to their customers about it.