Exiting the European Union (Consumer Protection)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:07 pm on 2nd April 2019.

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Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 4:07 pm, 2nd April 2019

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. Just to recap, the geo-blocking regulation is an EU regulation that came into effect on 3 December 2018. It is important to note that, up to the end of February, no claims had come forward to the Competition and Markets Authority. It does not apply to transactions that take place entirely within one EU member state.

The geo-blocking regulation prohibits certain forms of discrimination in the single market, specifically: blocking access to, or forced redirection away from, a website on the basis of an internet user’s location in the EU; discriminatory terms of access, which include but are not limited to price offered, on the basis of a customer’s location in the EU when selling goods delivered across a border but still within the EU, wholly online services, excluding copyright materials such as e-books, streamed movies, music and video games, or services delivered in a specific location, such as hotels and theme parks; discrimination in payment terms on the basis of a customer’s location.

The geo-blocking regulation could not function properly on a unilateral basis in a no-deal scenario. Effective enforcement outside the UK would be very difficult, because the UK would no longer operate within the EU’s consumer protection co-operation network or enforcement agencies. EU regulators would no longer be obliged to bring actions against businesses through EU mechanisms for cross-border co-operation. UK civil and commercial judgments, which were alluded to in the debate, would no longer be automatically enforced in the EU member state’s court, and the UK Government cannot unilaterally enforce the geo-blocking regulations throughout the EU without help from regulators in other member states.

Even if the geo-blocking regulations were not revoked, a no-deal exit from the EU would lead to a loss of protection for UK customers while imposing the same level of obligation for UK traders. The provisions of the geo-blocking regulation do not apply to transactions that occur solely within one country, so there is no benefit to retaining the version of the regulation that applies to the UK.

Let me outline the concerns relating to not revoking the EU regulation. EU consumers would receive preferential treatment in respect of UK traders, while UK consumers would be unlikely to receive any reciprocal benefits from EU traders. That is why we are proposing the revocation of the regulation. Revoking will preserve UK rights. It will not strip consumer rights, which will be lost in the event of a no-deal Brexit, but the regulation would continue to impose obligations on UK traders, with no benefits for UK consumers.

Let me answer some of the shadow Minister’s questions. He is concerned about the effect of this statutory instrument in a no-deal situation. I say to him: please support the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement. We have been extremely clear that we would like to uphold and maintain the highest standards of consumer protection in the UK. If we agree to the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, we will be able to satisfy our ambition as a Government to maintain high consumer protections and to be able to enter into agreements and negotiations with the European Union so that we can maintain cross-border co-operation. That is what I would very much like to do. We should not only engage in the mutual exchange of information and evidence but work on a framework so that we can work collectively with the European Union on the wider detriment to consumers.

The shadow Minister asked about the impact assessment. He has rightly expressed concerns about impact assessments throughout the no-deal SI process. I have on many occasions tried to explain to him the reasoning behind what the Government have been doing in relation to some of these SIs. On this particular SI, we assessed the impact of the instrument to be de minimis because the costs are below £5 million. As the shadow Minister will know, that means that, in line with the better regulation framework, we did not need to carry out a full impact assessment. The assessment was that the maximum impact could be £1.2 million, based on around 75,000 businesses having to familiarise themselves with the new rules.

The shadow Minister also asked about consultation. On bringing forward this regulation, he wanted to know who we had spoken to and who we had engaged with. As he alluded to, we have consulted and spoken to business representative organisations, including the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Retail Consortium, and the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment. The feedback was that they had no strong views on these regulations. However, we did publish a technical notice on 12 October 2018, which clearly laid out our plans for geo-blocking in the event of a no deal.

Let me re-emphasise a point. We have heard a lot today about a potential loss of rights for consumers. I have always been clear in any Committee in which I have spoken on bringing forward no-deal legislation that, whatever the outcome, we are both prepared for and committed to delivering on the high standard of consumer protections that we already have in the UK. We also have a track record of consumer protection in this country and of going above and beyond; in fact, many of the consumer protections in this country go further than those of the European Union.