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Interchange Fee (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018

Volume 795: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2019

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 22 November 2018 be approved.

Considered in Grand Committee on 15 January.

My Lords, I wish to press the Minister further on these regulations, not in respect of the impact assessment, which in relation to these regulations was de minimis, but in respect of the fundamental issue of the interchange fees that will be charged as a result of these regulations to holders of UK credit and debit cards when they seek to use those cards in the wider EEA. Of course, I would have raised this issue in the Grand Committee last week but for the fact that the Grand Committee and the Chamber were both debating EU no-deal regulations at the same time, and, even with my many abilities, I cannot be in two places at once.

The big issue that arose from the debate was that the Government have chosen to apply the caps on fees applying to debit and credit cards which can be charged to traders only within the United Kingdom. They are not proposing to apply those caps to the wider EEA, even in respect of holders of UK credit and debit cards, who could therefore be subject to higher charges either directly by being charged surcharges by traders when they seek to use their cards on the continent or by those higher charges being passed on to traders, who will then put up their prices.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted, who had played a significant role in the European Parliament on the original interchange regulations that led to these regulations, raised a whole series of concerns in Grand Committee about their asymmetric application. She raised exactly the concerns that I have raised as to what might happen to holders of UK credit and debit cards within the wider EEA if these regulations are passed. She probed the Minister on this crucial policy decision; we are told that these are just rollover regulations but a crucial change is being made to the policy position in respect of credit and debit cards once these regulations go through: the caps on credit and debit cards will now apply only within the United Kingdom; they will not apply within the wider EEA. Holders of UK credit and debit cards could, as I said, be faced as a result of these regulations with a very substantial change in the position after 29 March and be subject to higher charges.

It came out in the debate in Grand Committee that this was a policy choice by the Treasury. It would have been perfectly possible for the Treasury to decide that we would continue to apply the same caps to UK issuers of credit and debit cards within the wider EEA—the same caps as apply within the UK—but a policy decision had been taken not to do so because of the decision to go for symmetrical rather than asymmetrical regulation. I bring this out because it is a huge policy issue; it could have a very significant impact on the lives of British people when they seek to use their credit and debit cards across Europe after 29 March in the event of no deal.

In the normal course of events, this House would seek to debate—at some length, I should imagine, given the interests at stake—this policy change. It would have been subject to proper analysis and scrutiny, but instead there was a 15-minute debate in Grand Committee last week and we are now being invited to pass these regulations on the nod. Why? Because of the urgency of passing no-deal regulations. That situation seems wholly unsatisfactory. The very least I can do on behalf of the wider public is to draw out these issues; the public need to be aware that they could face increases in prices or in their credit and debit card charges after 29 March, purely as a result of these interchange regulations.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising that point. It was a point of debate on a technical matter relating to whether you treat a country as a third country, which we believe we have no option but to do since we will no longer be in the European Union. At the end of what was a very constructive debate, with some assiduous scrutiny in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, I undertook to write to the noble Baroness copied to the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, responding to precisely that point. I can confirm that I did that this morning; the letter went off and a copy is now in the Library. I would be happy to make a copy available to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, as well if that would help.

My Lords, I am sorry to intervene again, but that response could not be more unsatisfactory. Noble Lords seeking to engage in the debate this afternoon on this fundamental issue are supposed to rely on a letter sent to two noble Lords this morning and placed in the Library of the House—a letter of which none of us was aware and could not conceivably have been aware of when we came into the House. That is the basis on which we are supposed to agree fundamental changes to the law, which could have a big impact on holders of credit and debit cards after 29 March. I place on record once again that, when you probe beneath the surface, this no-deal planning that we are engaged in—which is supposed to be technical—involves, if we have no deal from 29 March, fundamental changes to the terms of trade in respect, here, of just one aspect; a whole load of others are coming. All this has been smuggled in with no debate and no proper scrutiny; we are expected just to take the word of the Minister that he has properly considered it.

The issue at stake is not a question of explanation; the Minister can explain it for as long as he likes. The fact is that there is a fundamental change of policy taking place. That fundamental change could lead to higher prices being levied on UK holders of credit and debit cards after 29 March, in the event of no deal, if they seek to use those cards on the continent. It seems wholly unsatisfactory that we should agree to that situation with no debate whatever.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, makes a very serious point. We have only just achieved the abolition of these charges on credit cards, for which the Government tried to claim credit when in fact it was an EU regulation that achieved it. We are effectively being told that, not only with no deal but possibly even with a deal, these charges could or would be introduced. I believe this should be much more fully debated. The noble Lord has a point when he says that something as fundamentally radical as this, which the public will be very cross about when they find it happening, should not go through just on the nod.

Motion agreed.