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House of Lords Hansard
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Brexit: Consumer Rights Policy
12 December 2016
Volume 777

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have held with representatives of consumer bodies about the continued protection of consumer rights following the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.

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Ministers and officials frequently meet representatives from a range of consumer bodies to discuss issues of the day, including EU exit, and we will continue to do so. Details of ministerial meetings are published quarterly on the GOV.UK website. The Government see no reason why the UK’s departure from the EU should have significant adverse effects on consumer rights in this country.

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My Lords, we read at the weekend that consumers are already worried about what this will mean for their prices—but there are other rights at risk, such as consumer redress being possible in this country for goods made abroad, victims of accidents in another member state being able to use our courts to pursue insurance claims, air passengers getting compensation for delays and cancellations, and also the many others we have because we are part of a consumer alert system for faulty or dangerous goods. So may I ask the Minister to agree to undertake an audit of EU consumer protections that are at risk after Brexit, and also to meet relevant consumer organisations to see how to reduce the risk of losing those protections?

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My Lords, next week the Secretary of State for BEIS is chairing a round table with representatives from a range of consumer bodies and charities, and academics, to discuss, among other things, the impact of EU exit on consumers. These are exactly the sorts of issues that he will want to look at. Of course, the great repeal Bill, which has already been mentioned, will convert EU consumer law into UK law wherever practical, and we will want to ensure that cross-border enforcement is effective, and that our ADR landscape is preserved. These are important aspects of a consumer framework which is very strong: we should be proud of it in this country.

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My Lords, if we leave the single market, will not some of the real problems for consumers be over online and mail order purchases? When consumers no longer have the right to bring actions here against EU suppliers post-Brexit, what is the Government’s cunning plan? Is it for consumers to run around with small claims in all the other EU member states?

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We will want to work to ensure that enforcement is effective across borders. There is, of course, a mutuality of interest here, because online goes both ways, and there are issues online, such as cyber and counterfeits, which need to be addressed. We are continuing to develop the digital single market in our ongoing work in the Competitiveness Council, and our enforcement regimes are well respected. The noble Lord is right to highlight this area, but I am optimistic that we can find a way forward and that there will be opportunities to do things better, from the studies that we shall be doing and the work that we shall be taking forward.

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My Lords, the Minister said that EU consumer law would be converted into domestic law where it is practical. Could she give the House an example of where the Government consider it will not be practical to do so?

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That is a difficult question to answer—I am always straight. What I would say is that, as I mentioned earlier, we have planned a series of engagements with consumer bodies. That applies right across Whitehall, so that, for example, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury has been talking to consumer groups—because, of course, financial services are very important—and there have been talks between MoJ and the Legal Services Consumer Panel. It is clear to me that we will be able to highlight, well before March, the particular pinch points, so that in our negotiations we will know which are the important areas that we need to preserve. This is an important piece of work, and I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments.

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My Lords, we do not need to wait for Europe to part company with us—there are already problems. Ryanair has already given an indication of its intention that claims against it by passengers should be made in Irish courts. If I may say so, there is a lot to be done now with consumer rights that is not happening. My personal recent experience was that the telegraph and postal system refused to give a cash refund for faulty goods that it supplied until I suggested that we went to court. It has now said that it will pay. This is happening on a wide scale to those who are making online purchases from companies which are doing rather less than they should.

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In general, consumers enjoy strong protections in this country, and we want to seek to preserve those. But where markets fail—the noble Lord has given an example—and competition is not as strong as it needs to be, they may not get a good deal, and the Government will not hesitate to take steps where we need to. We are bringing forward a Green Paper in the spring of next year that will closely examine markets that are not working fairly for consumers. It will look at both specific markets and cross-cutting items, and I look forward to hearing more on those sorts of issues so we can ensure that they are properly looked at as part of that process.

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My Lords, British holiday- makers have a history of being ripped off by mobile phone companies while on holiday abroad through communication and data charges. Europe has thankfully sorted this out over the past couple of years, and the charges will be the same. Will the Government insist that British communications and mobile telephone companies keep to that agreement in future so that the rip-off stops and the service remains equitable for British consumers?

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I am glad that the noble Lord mentioned roaming, because it is one of the key advances that general EU effort has achieved in recent times. When you go to Europe now, depending on your provider, you can sometimes get your calls within your contract, which I have been fortunate enough to experience. In general, consumer regulations in the area of telecoms will not be affected by EU exit—and, of course, as I have said, the market is changing. However, I assure the noble Lord that roaming, and the benefits of that, will be an important ingredient in influencing our thinking in our exit negotiations.

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My Lords, given that we have agreed to participate in the Unified Patent Court, does my noble friend agree that this is an indication of how we can participate in various European organisations, even post-Brexit, to the benefit of consumers?

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I entirely agree with my noble friend.