Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Radio Equipment (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2023, which were laid before the House on 17 January 2023, be approved.
I think it would be helpful if I started by providing some of the background to this instrument. The instrument we are debating today relates to radio equipment, which is defined as any electrical product that emits or receives radio waves for the purposes of radio communication; this includes products such as mobile phones and smartphones. The regulations implement Commission delegated regulation (EU) 2019/320 in Northern Ireland and enable it to be enforced.
The radio equipment directive is an EU directive requiring that specified essential requirements be met by radio equipment placed on the EU market or put into service in the EU. The directive also permits the Commission to place additional essential requirements on radio equipment manufacturers. The directive was implemented in UK law in 2017 by the UK’s Radio Equipment Regulations 2017, which have been subsequently amended to reflect the fact that we have left the EU.
Under the current terms of the Northern Ireland protocol, Northern Ireland remains subject to EU law for radio equipment. So, while the Radio Equipment Regulations 2017 apply across the UK, some provisions apply differently in Northern Ireland. Today, the Prime Minister is due to make a statement on the protocol in the other place, which my noble friend the Leader of the House will repeat in the Chamber tomorrow.
Delegated regulation (EU) 2019/320 was issued by the Commission in 2018, adding to the essential requirements in the directive and requiring smartphones to be able to transmit their location data in calls to emergency services. This instrument seeks to amend the UK’s Radio Equipment Regulations as they apply in Northern Ireland to reflect the new essential safety requirements for smartphones. This will enable the regulation to be legally enforced in Northern Ireland, as required under the current terms of the Northern Ireland protocol.
If it is helpful, I will now explain in more detail how this instrument will achieve its purpose. Under the Radio Equipment Regulations, the overall objectives for how radio equipment must be constructed before it can be placed on the market are set out in the essential requirements. This instrument adds the new requirement for smartphones to be capable of transmitting their caller location in emergency calls to the existing essential requirements in the Radio Equipment Regulations 2017 as they apply in Northern Ireland. The additional essential requirement extends the scope of an existing offence in the Radio Equipment Regulations for manufacturers in relation to non-compliance with the essential requirements when placing products on the market. In addition, the instrument amends the regulations covering conformity assessment processes in the Radio Equipment Regulations 2017 as they apply in Northern Ireland. As a result, manufacturers will need to ensure that their products are assessed by EU notified bodies as being compliant with the regulation.
As set out in the legislation, not complying with this new requirement in Northern Ireland will be a criminal offence. However, I assure noble Lords that prosecution will occur only in very rare circumstances, if at all. This level of action will be taken forward only where it is absolutely necessary to protect consumers from unsafe products or address persistent or deliberate non-compliance. Enforcement officers will continue to take a proportionate approach to compliance and enforcement activities, in accordance with the Regulators’ Code. In most cases, we expect that compliance will be achieved without recourse to the use of criminal penalties.
I will now set out the impact for business of this instrument. The Commission’s own assessment suggested that the impact on smartphone manufacturers will be minimal. In part, that is due to the technical solution already being anticipated by the market, but it is also because nearly all new smartphones have the required capability already. Indeed, the European Commission’s assessment in its 2018 Explanatory Memorandum was that a technical solution incorporating global navigation satellite systems and wi-fi signal-based information was available in more than 95% of all smartphones at the time of writing. We expect that to be even higher since 2018.
I assure noble Lords that the Government are not aware of any additional concerns from smartphone manufacturers in relation to the regulation since its EU adoption in 2019. I draw attention to the engagement conducted by the European Commission during the development of the regulation. To raise awareness on this instrument and its requirements, and to support business compliance, officials are liaising with the Northern Ireland district councils responsible for enforcing the radio equipment regulations there. We are making sure that they have all the necessary information to do so. In addition, industry guidance will be made available online by officials in the Office for Product Safety & Standards to ensure that businesses have what they need to understand how to comply with the regulation.
We are not currently considering introducing a similar requirement for Great Britain. The main reason for this is that, as I mentioned earlier, the European Commission’s assessment of the regulation sets out that almost all new smartphones currently on the market already have the technical capabilities required by it. We see no reason to mandate the requirement through legislation in Great Britain, given that existing widespread adoption. However, we will keep this under review.
This SI is necessary to give effect to Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2019/320. The UK is required to implement that in Northern Ireland under the current terms of the Northern Ireland protocol. The regulation requires that smartphones placed on the EU market from 17 March 2022 must be able to transmit their location data in emergency calls. This SI enables us to give effect to that requirement by amending the UK’s Radio Equipment Regulations 2017 as they apply in Northern Ireland. This will enable the new requirement to be legally enforced. As I highlighted, we expect that any prosecutions will be in only very rare circumstances, if indeed at all. I commend this instrument to the Committee.
My Lords, thanks are due to the Minister for introducing the purpose, scope and effect of this legislation. I am a late substitute for my noble friend Lady Blake, who is unable to be here because of family illness; I am sure we hope that everybody gets well soon. Substitutes did not help Newcastle United yesterday; we lost, as you know.
The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee said:
“The purpose of this instrument is to implement an EU Regulation in Northern Ireland (NI) which requires all smartphones placed on the EU market to be capable of transmitting caller location.”
Asked whether the Government considered introducing an equivalent requirement for smartphones placed on the market in Great Britain, the then BEIS department told us that,
“having engaged with UK industry representative trade bodies, it did not see any reason to ‘mandate a technical requirement through legislation that is (i) already adopted in almost all new smartphones and (ii) is not directly related to product safety’.”
As the Minister said:
“The Department said that it would keep its position under review.”
We support this statutory instrument. We are fulfilling a treaty commitment and working to ensure that Britain is a country where international laws are respected and followed, which I am sure is something that most of us believe in on all sides of the House.
According to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, one of the biggest challenges facing the emergency services is determining the location of mobile callers. Ambulance service measurements show that, on average, 30 seconds per call can be saved if the precise location is automatically provided. Several minutes can be saved where callers are unable to describe their location verbally due to stress, injury or simply unfamiliarity with the area they are in, so it is no overstatement to say that technology saves lives. The faster a patient is located, the faster the emergency services can reach them—they are not very fast at the moment, but I hope that that will improve—and the faster they can receive treatment.
The question must therefore be asked of the Government: why has the legislation not been introduced in England, Scotland and Wales? I note the Minister said that 95% of smartphones meet the requirements, but I wonder what assessment he made of the incremental cost of introducing this legislation. Given that a legal requirement would have a minimal impact on manufacturers, can the Minister assure me that the department has made a thorough assessment of the potential of placing this standard on a legal footing in the rest of the United Kingdom?
Another relevant issue raised by the draft statutory instrument is its relationship to GNSS and the European-owned Galileo system. The EU regulation introduced by this instrument requires all smartphones to be compatible and interoperable with the Galileo system. It raises questions concerning the UK’s technological sovereignty following our expulsion from the Galileo programme. In 2018, the Government threatened to spend the entire UK science budget on duplicating Galileo because they had bungled negotiations on Galileo with the European Union. Four years on, the Defence Committee reported,
“with tens of millions of pounds money spent, the Government appears no closer to coming to any conclusions about development of the UK’s own space-based Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) capabilities.”
Perhaps the Minister could update us on the PNT development: when we might expect it and, possibly, what the costs will be.
In outlining the rationale for requiring Galileo compatibility in smartphones, the European Commission argued for the importance of securing the independence and resilience of emergency services within the European Union. I hope that the Minister understands and agrees with that objective. What work are the Government doing to ensure that emergency services in the UK are similarly resilient?
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lennie. With regard to being a substitute, he is a very good one but, like yesterday, I am on the opposite side to him. I thank him for his valuable contribution.
For reasons that I will summarise, it is vital that the statutory instrument comes into force in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord asked why we have not carried out an impact assessment. An impact assessment has not been prepared for this SI because measures resulting from the Northern Ireland protocol are out of scope of the assessment. The Northern Ireland protocol has already been given effect in legislation through the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, which added provisions and powers to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.
The noble Lord also asked why the UK does not implement this in Great Britain and whether the UK does not value its emergency services. As I said, we have no current plans to do so but we will keep this under review. It is important to remember that we are debating today an SI implementing an EU delegated regulation, which sets out EU requirements and is based on EU priorities. We have left the EU and discussion of the UK’s future plans for caller location requirements for smartphones is outside the scope for today.
The instrument is needed to give effect to Commission delegated regulation (EU) 2019/320, which applies in Northern Ireland, as we are required to do under the current terms of the Northern Ireland protocol. The instrument amends the UK’s radio equipment regulations as they apply in Northern Ireland to enable the new requirement for smartphones to be legally enforced in Northern Ireland.
Although this instrument will widen the scope of an existing offence in the radio equipment regulations, this is expected to result in prosecutions only in rare circumstances, and only when it is necessary to protect consumers from unsafe products or to address persistent or deliberate non-compliance. As I mentioned at the start, in the great majority of cases we expect compliance will be achieved without recourse to the use of criminal penalties.
I highlighted the EU Commission’s assessment of this regulation in 2018, which was that the impact on smartphone manufacturers is anticipated to be minimal. This is because nearly all new smartphones already possess the technology, and it is increasing. The Commission engaged industry during the development of the regulation, which it adopted in 2019. We are not aware of any concerns from smartphone manufacturers in relation to it. I commend this draft instrument to the Committee.