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Mobile Roaming Charges

Volume 795: debated on Thursday 7 February 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“Delivering a negotiated deal with the EU remains the Government’s top priority. This has not changed. However, I am sure the House will agree that we must prepare for every eventuality, including a no-deal scenario. We have taken a number of steps as a Government, working with businesses, consumers and the devolved Administrations, to make sure that we deliver the best possible outcome for mobile users in the event of no deal.

The Government will 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 as the one currently in place. We will also legislate to ensure that customers receive alerts at 80% and 100% of data usage. These measures would mean clarity and certainty for consumers and would make sure that they are able to plan their spending and usage accordingly.

I know that there is also concern on the island of Ireland, and in some other areas, about the issue of inadvertent roaming. This is when a mobile signal in a border region is stronger from the country across the border. So, the Government also 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. I encourage all businesses to read our technical notice on mobile roaming in the event of leaving without a deal, which we published last summer. This is one of 106 technical notices to help businesses understand what they would need to do in a no-deal scenario so that they can make informed plans and preparations.

However, we should be clear 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 making and honouring commercial arrangements with mobile operators in the EU—and beyond the EU—to deliver the services their customers expect, including roaming arrangements. The availability and pricing of mobile roaming in the EU would be a commercial question for the mobile operators. However, many mobile operators, including Three, EE, O2 and Vodafone, which 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 leaves the EU.

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

Well, my Lords, that sounds extraordinarily complacent and very much, “Not me, guv”. Has the Minister seen the report on the Huffington Post UK website about proposals from his department that pave the way for major increases to mobile phone bills for UK citizens travelling in Europe post Brexit? Our businesses, manufacturing firms, struggling SMEs and new start-ups are already having to prepare for how they will do business in Europe post Brexit. This will be a bitter blow for those companies marketing their products or looking for investment in the EU.

Is this not just another cost to British businesses from the Government’s mishandling of Brexit? In effect, it is a trade tax. Given the similar proposals in the statutory instrument on credit cards forcing higher charges on UK businesses, does the Minister really understand the impact that this double whammy is going to have on UK enterprise? Will he commit today, in the interests of UK plc, to withdraw both of these orders and think again?

My Lords, I think that there may be some misunderstanding about this. The Huffington Post commented on an SI that was laid which is a no-deal SI. The best way that noble Lords and Members of the other place can prevent these changes happening is to agree a deal. However, if there is no deal we have to face the inevitable consequences of that. A lot of the issues that have arisen not only with this subject but with other SIs stem from not distinguishing between the effect of the SI itself and the effect of leaving the EU. In this case, it is not fair to say that we have not prepared for that. In fact, the technical notice that outlined all these considerations was issued in September. It is not a question of simply withdrawing the instrument; if we are no longer in the EU, we will not be able to prevent EU operators increasing charges to UK operators. They will then have to accept those higher charges, which inevitably will be passed on to consumers. The issue is that if we leave the EU we will not be able to participate in the harmonised wholesale roaming prices, so I do not accept the analysis of the noble Baroness. That is why it is not possible to withdraw the SI, if we are acting responsibly in the event of no deal.

My Lords, the best way to avoid these changes is of course no Brexit. Surely the Minister will agree that the slashing of mobile roaming charges in the EU is one of the biggest successes for British consumers, travellers and businesses? British Ministers and MEPs played a big part in this triumph to stop rip-offs and nasty surprises on bills. Now the Government intend to steal this benefit from British citizens, even though they think it likely that costs will be passed on to consumers through the choice they have made. Why have the Government chosen—and it is a choice—not to impose a retail roaming price cap? Is this deregulation policy a foretaste of the Government’s intentions in other sectors? What estimate have the Government made of the total extra costs for a British holidaymaker arising from the reintroduction of roaming charges, the loss of the EHIC card, likely increases in the cost of travel insurance and EU fees for a visa-lite? Should the Government not put this choice back to the British people so that they can decide whether they want to Brexit at all?

I do agree with the noble Baroness on one thing: this has been a great benefit since it was introduced 18 months ago. Of course, it did not exist until then. When we decided to leave, there were inevitable consequences. What I do not understand from her question is how she thinks, within the powers available to the UK, we could do something different. If we set a retail price cap, UK operators will have to accept all the increased charges and as sure as anything, those will have to be passed on to all consumers. The difference is that she would penalise all consumers, while this measure affects only those who roam in the EU.

My Lords, I think it fair to say that over many years, British MEPs were involved in this progress for the consumer. It is one of the great benefits we got—however else people might feel about this—from our membership of the European Union and the work that was done in the European Parliament. I know there are some restrictions on what my noble friend can do. However, great powers are available to the Government in their dealings with the telecommunications companies—most of which are international, based not just in Europe but here in this country—to make it clear that we do not expect them to penalise those who have these hard-fought-for benefits, to make up for which other allowances have been made to the telecommunications companies.

I agree with my noble friend, and that is why we are retaining in UK law the requirement for them to notify their customers about the amount they spend on roaming per month at the same limit expressed in pounds sterling as is currently available, putting into law that they have to notify their customers when they reach 80% and 100% of their data usage and requiring them to take reasonable steps to prevent inadvertent roaming. We understand that they have responsibilities and that it is a consumer benefit, but that is why we are doing that. We have had constructive discussions with the telecoms industry. Partly because of the competition environment in this country, unlike in some others, consumers have a choice. At the moment, as I said, those that cover 85% have said that, despite the changes that would happen in a no-deal Brexit, they have no plans to increase. They will accept the increased costs while they can.

My Lords, as my noble friend on the Front Bench said, this is exactly analogous to what is in a statutory instrument waiting somewhere in this House on credit card use outside the UK. When that issue came before sifting committee B a few weeks ago, we noticed that the restrictions on charges were only for UK use. Our advisers had already been back to the Government to check why this was the case. We were told it was a conscious decision by the Treasury to allow extra charges on UK citizens using their credit cards in Europe. In other words, it could be stopped. This is exactly the same situation, and it is not good enough for the Minister to say, “Oh well, we will see competition”. The fact of the matter is that the idea was to transfer EU law for our citizens to be exactly the same on 30 March as on 29 March. In this case, it is not. We are deliberately allowing people to be ripped off, and it is a conscious decision by the Government. We were informed of that, and in due course we will get the chance to debate the credit card issue.

First of all, I point out that this did not appear at the sifting committee, because we made the conscious choice to allow this to be an affirmative SI when it could have been a negative one, so we are not trying to evade—

I am glad the noble Lord, from a sedentary position, admits we have been generous on that. I have not noticed a lack of scrutiny from him on other SIs. Moving on, it is not true to say that this is a conscious choice to penalise consumers. If we are not able to participate in the EU harmonisation of wholesale prices, there are inevitable consequences of that. This SI therefore tries to retain the benefits for consumers that are able to be put into UK law, which we are doing, bearing in mind that we will no longer be part of the EU single market.

My Lords, surely the Minister could agree that “no plans to”—his words—is not the same as a guarantee. In the EU we have a guarantee of no additional data roaming charges or voice roaming charges outside our bundle. He is not providing any guarantee at all, and it is about time he did.

That is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the position. Currently, we have a guarantee because we are part of the EU single market. If we leave the EU single market, which is what this SI is about, we will not be able to provide that guarantee. Therefore, I am incapable of giving the noble Lord the guarantee that he asks for. We have been completely open about that. That is why I said that the four companies have no plans for increases. Of course there is no guarantee about that, and we would not be in a position to command it if we are not in the EU. The issue is not about the SI but about the consequences of leaving the EU.