My Lords, the Government have undertaken a significant amount of work to assess the impacts of leaving the EU. We are committed to maintaining high standards of consumer protection and close co-operation on enforcement. Under the withdrawal agreement, all existing rights for UK consumers will remain the same until the end of the implementation period.
I thank my noble friend the Minister for his response, short though it was. The Chartered Trading Standards Institute runs a centre called the UK consumer centre network, which assists consumers in cross-border disputes with EU traders. Since it was formed just 11 years ago, it has handled more than 100,000 cases. The UK centre is currently co-funded by the UK Government and the European Union. Can the Minister assure the House that, as we leave the European Union, the Government will fully fund the UK part of the centre so that it can continue its excellent work?
I thank my noble friend for that question. As she will be aware, we have been dealing with consumer affairs quite a lot this week and debated this matter in relation to the Select Committee’s report only last night. In that debate, I made it clear that, in the event of a no-deal exit, the Government have committed to fund the UK European Consumer Centre for at least one more year until March 2020. That will obviously be kept under review during this year.
My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, I declare an interest as a former president of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. It is clear to all of us in the sector that consumer rights and protections have been continually strengthened through our membership of the European Union. Why do the Government not value the cross-border enforcement work that the UK European Consumer Centre promotes? Why will they not guarantee beyond one year’s financing—as the Minister has just said—the work of that centre in advising UK consumers at this time of enormous anxiety to them and businesses? Is there any chance of the Government funding beyond one year this very important centre for consumers?
The noble Baroness, who has great experience in this field, is right to draw the House’s attention to the high levels of consumer protection that we have in this country. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for stressing from the Liberal Democrat Benches only yesterday that they are higher in this country than in most other countries in the EU. Obviously, as the noble Baroness will be aware, we want those protections to be maintained—that is what we have made clear—and we do not think that consumers should see any immediate differences in protection between UK law and that of the member states immediately after exit. It is quite right and proper that UK enforcers should continue to co-operate with their colleagues in other EU states wherever possible. That was also something I was keen to stress in yesterday’s debate.
My Lords, I am getting a sense of déjà vu all over again as this is the third time this week that this question has arisen. I do not believe that the Minister has managed to answer the question once, so will he indulge me again? How will British consumers be protected—if and when we leave the EU—regarding the terms and conditions of purchase before we buy, and afterwards in the event of purchasing faulty goods?
My Lords, I too feel like this is the latest in a series of number 11 buses coming along together. I have been keen to stress on all occasions—on Tuesday, yesterday and today—that UK consumers should not see any immediate difference. As always, they should continue to read the terms and conditions and I am grateful to the noble Baroness for reminding them of that. They should take advice where appropriate from Citizens Advice and, as I said in response to my noble friend Lady Wilcox, there will still be funding for at least one year for the UK European Consumer Centre. We will consider whether to extend that during the course of the year.
My Lords, the Minister has used the phrase, “immediate effect” on two occasions. Does he recall that in October 2016 David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, said that there would be no downside after Brexit, only a considerable upside? In light of yesterday’s debate, in which the Minister participated, and the report of the EU Justice Sub-Committee, which showed that we are essentially dealing with damage limitation in respect of consumer protection, does he think that Mr Davis’s views were very wide of the mark?
My Lords, the noble Lord will remember other remarks in yesterday’s debate about how long a week is. October 2016 is a very long time ago. I merely reiterate that there will be changes, and we want to make sure that they are as minor as possible and that UK consumers continue to have their existing protection.