Exiting the European Union (Consumer Protection)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:23 pm on 2nd April 2019.

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Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay 3:23 pm, 2nd April 2019

I thank my hon. Friend for his, as always, thoughtful intervention. I suspect many of us would not particularly want to rush to help them, shall we say, pay a lower rate of tax in the Irish Republic. During my time on the Public Accounts Committee, I had the joy of discovering that a “double Irish” was nothing to do with a whiskey order and a “Dutch sandwich” was not something I would eat with it—in terms of tax avoidance work.

For me, this is a question of how we can sensibly reflect in legislation the unique position on the island of Ireland. The current geo-blocking regulation provides protection, and there is reciprocity between the two jurisdictions, to ensure that each side’s shopping outlets and businesses may trade without discrimination. The purpose of the new regulations is to prevent the establishment of an operation that charges a different price—as in my CD example—or that blocks a customer living in a particular country from buying, or applies different terms and conditions to their transaction. It is worth noting, however, that there are some exemptions around items that are not permitted for sale. For example, in Germany and Austria there are strict denazification laws to prevent the sale of certain historical items. In addition, an item such as a toy train set from the era, if sold to the German or Austrian market, must not carry certain symbols from the disastrous Nazi regime that devastated those countries in the 1940s, along with most of western Europe. So there are some tweaks that rightly reflect the law in those nations, but in general the purpose of the regulations is to prevent unfairness.

I return to the point I was making earlier. For me, the regulations are about ensuring that the system in Ireland allows trade across the whole island of Ireland, where we would want to see that type of system in place, not just for sensible economic reasons but in view of the ongoing peace process—ensuring that the single market online across the whole of Ireland may continue. It would be bizarre if we agreed a workable set of alternative arrangements that released the backstop in years to come, but put a barrier around the sale of goods online.

In services, we may well look to move on—change our position to exploit our huge advantage, particularly in financial services, across the world, with trade deals. I am particularly excited at the prospect of a trade deal with the parties to the requests for a comprehensive agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership; there is very strong demand there. Given that we are revoking the current arrangement with the European Union on the basis of a potential no deal, I hope the Minister is considering how, if we do not have no deal, we could look at the type of regulation that might be of benefit and might allow insurance products and so on to be continued.

I am conscious that I have been speaking for a little while. I reassure hon. Members that I do not intend to break one of my records for length of contribution. I recognise that the Scottish National party spokesperson, Drew Hendry, wants to speak; I have no intention of talking him out.

There are a few reasons why we need to look at approving the regulations today. I am very much a fan of free trade. It brings prosperity. It brings down barriers, interlocking economies. Let us be candid—the reason that the European Coal and Steel Community was established was to interlink economies, and the geo-blocking regulations are part of doing online just what we did with coal and steel back in the 1950s. The idea then was that if the German steelworks were dependent on French coal, there would obviously be an issue if a conflict broke out. The theory was that creating a single market and having these types of regulations would ensure that that continued online and that consumers would benefit. They could buy from the best source in the cheapest and most efficient way, or perhaps in the way that provided the best quality, rather than finding themselves blocked out because of price differentials in the markets. In many ways, that might be a slightly unfair practice. I have used the example of CDs. Why should a CD cost more than others produced in the same factory—taking out distribution costs that are very similar—just because it happens to be sold in a different place? It often becomes clear that this is being done to milk consumers where choices are more limited.

This statutory instrument is necessary, but it is sad that it is necessary. Those who keep saying that they do not want no deal also seem not to want many of the deals that are on offer, or seem to want to propose a deal that is reliant on something that they keep voting against. That is not a logical position, but this statutory instrument represents a logical position. It would be absolute nonsense to impose a burden on British companies that is not shared by the other countries in the European Union. It would be bizarre, for example, if I had to comply with legislation ensuring that my website and online shopping offer were open across 27 countries when businesses in those countries were no longer obliged to do that.

It is right that we should pass this measure today and ensure that it becomes law, so that we have an orderly statute book, but there is a better option. Rather than saying, “I don’t like no-deal SIs because I don’t like no deal”, people should come up with a clear alternative that does not require the withdrawal agreement—[Interruption.] I hear the usual cheer from the Scottish National party Benches. SNP Members would like to revoke article 50 because they see that as the way round this, and they are correct in the sense that we would not need the withdrawal agreement. Members can be consistent in voting against the withdrawal agreement while saying that they do not want no deal if the outcome would be no Brexit, but they cannot keep turning up in the Chamber each day for a groundhog day debate and saying that the Prime Minister should do everything in her power to avoid no deal if they will not do the one thing in their power to prevent no deal, which is to walk through the Aye Lobby the next time the withdrawal agreement is put to the vote.

I will support this statutory instrument because in the end I would be prepared to accept no deal rather than no Brexit. However, I hope that in the very near future we will get an agreement through the House that provides the basis for a future relationship that makes sense and can be taken forward.