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Brexit: Consumer Rights Policy

Volume 778: debated on Thursday 9 February 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to protect consumer rights after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

My Lords, we are working with a range of stakeholders to understand the impact that withdrawal from the EU will have on consumers. We will work to ensure the best possible outcome for UK consumers. Wherever practical, the great repeal Bill will convert current EU law into domestic law to give consumers as much certainty as possible.

My Lords, the EU has been good for consumers: we have the European health card—there are some 26 million in the country—safe food and products, because of the European rapid alert system; lower mobile roaming charges; and compensation for delayed flights. But despite what the Minister says, none of those can be entrenched in the great repeal Bill, because they depend on our negotiations with the remaining 27. Regrettably, consumer interest does not appear in the 12 negotiating principles in the Government’s White Paper. Will someone in the Minister’s department or another department undertake to set up the same meetings with consumer reps as are taking place with industry, so that consumer interests can be embedded into our negotiations for our relationships with the EU 27 after we leave?

My Lords, the great repeal Bill will incorporate consumer protections in the European Union into UK domestic law, wherever it is practical. Noble Lords may shake their heads at that but of course it is “wherever practical”; if we were to say that we would incorporate it where it is impractical, the noble Baroness would be the first person to point it out—this is a perfectly common-sense approach. In terms of ensuring that consumer interests are properly represented, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is having regular meetings with consumer representatives and we will ensure that consumer interests are properly represented in the negotiations.

My Lords, is not the Minister being, unusually, a little complacent in his answers? The total apparatus of EU protection and consumer laws is more extensive and robust than in any single member state, with very few exceptions. If it all has to be unpicked through the very questionable repeal Bill process, it will take a long time anyway. If we end up bringing all these things back in—which we will have to do—then we might as well stay in the single market and under the consumer protection laws, instead of favouring a dodgy view of national sovereignty that last existed in 1910.

I do not underestimate the complexity of the Brexit negotiations, which is why we all accept, I think, that the implementation of those negotiations will be phased over time. However, in a number of areas of consumer protection the UK regulations are stronger than those in the EU.

My Lords, online scams and internet fraud are rapidly increasing, as my colleagues in trading standards know only too well. Will the Minister tell the House what protection will be offered to UK consumers buying faulty goods across borders once we are no longer part of the EU and no longer involved in developing the EU’s digital single market?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an interesting point. It is going to be difficult. I cannot foresee the outcome of the negotiations; all I can say is that we understand the issue she raises. We have already demonstrated through our support for the alternative disputes resolution and the extra money we are putting into the Chartered Trading Standards Institute that this is an issue that we take very seriously.

My Lords, will the Minister say when he will share with the House what is practicable to be included in the great repeal Bill and what is not? Will he also share the result of the inquiries that he says the department has been conducting about the value of this, and has he, by any chance, read the previous Government’s balance of competences review, which went into great detail on this sector?

The noble Lord asks when we will share the issues around practicalities. That will emerge during the negotiations.

Of course it will emerge over the next two years. It would be absurd for me to stand here to explain where all the issues that might arise over the next two years will arise. As the Prime Minister has said, the Government will keep Parliament fully informed of developments throughout the next two years.

My Lords, the EU is currently planning the digital content directive, which will give EU-wide protection to consumers on digital content. Unfortunately, the current draft conflicts with UK consumer rights legislation. Since, after we leave, we will have to continue to sell into the EU, can the Minister assure us that the Government are putting all their resources into getting this right, to end the current legal uncertainty?

I can assure the noble Lord that we are doing everything we can to clarify the situation. He mentioned the consumer rights legislation. The Consumer Rights Act is generally recognised by consumers here as an extremely good piece of legislation, and we will be working to have as much of a free market within Europe as we can.

My Lords, does my noble friend not think that it is very sad, and a counsel of despair, that with all the expertise in this House and the other place, it is not possible for this Parliament to devise a scheme that will protect the rights of British consumers?

My noble friend is right: there are legitimate concerns over such a big change. However, we should be relatively optimistic that we can sort them out in the best interests of British consumers.

My Lords, will there need to be a separate agreement on air flights into European Union countries to replace the existing one within the single market, which allowed Ryanair, EasyJet, British Airways —all the British carriers—to fly millions of people in over the years cheaply, successfully and easily? Unless a separate agreement is negotiated with the European Union we will not be able to do that.

My Lords, there is such a mutuality of interest in continuing the existing arrangements that it would be very surprising if we could not negotiate an agreement. I cannot tell the noble Lord whether we will need a separate agreement to do that but I will write to him.