Brexit: Consumer Protection (European Union Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:38 pm on 16th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 9:38 pm, 16th January 2019

My Lords, I join other speakers in offering my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, on chairing the EU Justice Sub-Committee and on producing this report. I also congratulate her on chairing what the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, described as a happy committee. I congratulate, too, on all their work the noble Lords, Lord Anderson, Lord Judd and Lord Cashman, and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, as I do the members of the committee who are not able to be here. When she goes away, the noble Baroness will, if nothing else, have the praise of her noble friend Lord Judd, who described her as someone who had views, and I am sure that all of us would echo that. All of us who have known the noble Baroness for some time know that she is certainly somebody who has views.

It is my pleasure, indeed my joy, to respond on behalf of the Government—it is late but we will, I hope, be finished by 10 o’clock. I welcome the focus of the committee, which has been on consumer protection. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for emphasising the very high standard of consumer protection that we have in UK law. It is useful to point that out. Maintaining and enforcing this protection effectively remains a government priority as the UK withdraws from the EU.

The report was published in December 2017, which, I accept, is now quite a long time ago. The Government responded in a timely fashion in February 2018, almost a year ago. I will not go through the response produced by my colleague Andrew Griffiths at that time. It is now on the record and has been referred to in the debate. I can only apologise for the fact that it does take time for some of these reports to get debated. It might have been the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, who said during this debate or the previous one that we have had time and should perhaps have used other evenings for debating some of these reports. These are matters beyond my pay grade, and for the usual channels. I apologise, but we are having the debate on this occasion.

What has been happening this week will not have escaped noble Lords. My noble friend Lady Williams referred to the old adage that a week is a long time in politics—this week somewhat longer than others, even though it is only Wednesday. In the context of this debate and the timing of the EU exit process, obviously things change; there are many questions to be answered on what will happen next. I am unlikely to be able to address them all in detail during my 20 minutes or so of winding up. What I can say is that the withdrawal agreement still offers a time-limited implementation period during which UK consumer protections based on EU law will be retained; this meets our main aim of an orderly Brexit delivering the stability and continuity that consumers and business both need and demand.

The terms of the future relationship will continue to be a matter—dare I say it, as colleagues have done on earlier occasions—for negotiation. We are aiming for high levels of cross-border co-operation on consumer issues as part of our new relationship with the EU. As a responsible Government, we continue to prepare proportionately for all scenarios. In order to minimise disruption, our preparations for a no-deal scenario are focused on maintaining continuity in the short term for businesses and citizens; for example, the Government have committed to funding the European Consumer Centre for at least one year in the event of a no-deal exit. Consumers will be able to contact this service for help and advice until at least March 2020. We have also progressed legislation under the withdrawal Act to ensure that consumer law will continue to function effectively after exit day.

As the Government made clear in our written response, we recognise the importance of effective cross-border enforcement co-operation and information-sharing systems in protecting consumers. I can reassure the House again that the Government are fully committed to negotiating the best possible deal with our partners to deliver this. We want UK consumers to be able to buy with confidence from traders in the EU, and vice versa. The way that consumer protections apply when buying cross-border in future, and how reciprocal arrangements would work, are a matter for the negotiations. The political declaration on the framework for the future relationship sets out that the UK and EU will work together to safeguard high standards of consumer rights.

I shall say a little about national regulatory and trading standards bodies. On the role of national regulators, the Government are working closely with stakeholders across the consumer protection landscape to ensure that enforcement remains effective after EU withdrawal. We work hard to make sure that national, regional and local enforcement is joined up. National Trading Standards supports its local colleagues in sharing intelligence and handling complex or wider-ranging issues that span local authority boundaries. The Government have also set up the Consumer Protection Partnership, which helps enforcers and consumer advice groups to work together to pool information, identify new issues and make the best use of their resources.

On funding, about which the noble Baronesses, Lady Burt and Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, all expressed some concern, it is important to be clear about the different funding streams. Local authorities are responsible for their own finances and recruitment, and are accountable to their local electorate. That means that spending and resourcing decisions for individual trading standards are a matter for each local authority, and they will determine their own priorities. In addition, two national bodies, National Trading Standards and Trading Standards Scotland, have responsibility for prioritising and co-ordinating cross-local authority boundary enforcement. Combined funding from my department for those two organisations is just over £14 million per year in 2018-19, enabling serious regional and national level breaches of consumer law to be tackled effectively.