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 have given the amount of money that will be available from central government for National Trading Standards and for Trading Standards Scotland. Obviously, as I made clear, other matters are a matter for local authorities.

I turn to engagement with stakeholders. We have continued to engage regularly with consumer groups, despite what the noble Baroness had to say, and we will continue to do so; we have recently had two ministerial round tables. The noble Baroness said that I would come with a briefing setting out a long list. She has received a letter containing our meetings with the appropriate authorities and she seemed to imply that most of those meetings were not adequate. She is right: I have come with a long list. I am not going to read through it all, partly because—I have to admit that this is my own incompetence—I see that the list that I have come with starts at the beginning of 2018 but only goes up to June 2018. There will be many more going beyond that.

The point that I wanted to make is that this is not just a list of Ministers from my own department, although they appear as well; there are Ministers from other departments such as DExEU, the DWP, Defra, the DfE and DCMS. Even the Treasury has been gracious enough to see people. I am sure that that will continue. I feel that we have engaged and will continue to engage in order to ensure that there is the appropriate protection in the right way and that we listen to everyone’s concerns.

I shall deal with some of the specific concerns raised in the course of the debate, starting with those raised by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. I am grateful to him for alerting me to them, as they are very important. He wanted an update on CEN and CENELEC and what we intend. As I think he will be aware, the British Standards Institution, the UK’s national standards body, is independent of the Government, but we are working together to ensure that our future relationship with European standards bodies continues to support a productive and open competitive business environment in the UK. The members of CEN and CENELEC have agreed a transition period until the end of 2020, to resolve their membership criteria and find a form of wording that continues to include the BSI as a full member.

The noble Earl wanted an update on the efforts to achieve good civil justice co-operation and participation in the Lugano Convention. The political declaration on the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK provides a positive basis for discussions on this, and we remain committed to future co-operation with the EU on civil and commercial matters, recognising that it is in our interests to co-operate with international parties. The UK will continue to prioritise joining Hague 2005 in our own right and seek to accede to the Lugano Convention. The UK will engage with EU partners to ensure that these important issues, which provide essential protections for systems, are a focus of the detailed negotiations to come.

I also want to address some of the concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, including those she alluded to last night when we were dealing with EU exit regulations, particularly the consumer protection regulations. She asked about information sharing and noted how vital it was for product safety and alerting other authorities. She asked whether that will continue and wanted assurances that we would retain access to RAPEX, the EU rapid alert system for dangerous non-food products. Information sharing with other countries is one of the most important ways that we can help to protect consumers from unsafe products and it is in all our interests that EU and UK market surveillance authorities continue to share information. Work is under way to explore options for maintaining information sharing across borders as part of our ongoing partnership. We will also ensure that the UK’s market surveillance system continues to be robust following our exit from the EU.

The noble Baroness also asked whether we would be just waving goods through to avoid congestion at the border. Again, I assure her that we continue to take the issue of consumer product safety seriously and are committed to ensuring that only safe products are placed on the UK market now and in the future. Our robust programme of risk-based market surveillance will continue to include the ability to intercept products as they enter the UK, check products already on the market and gather information through a variety of intelligence sources. If there is a no-deal exit, EU and UK product-safety legislation will be aligned on day one, and therefore we do not anticipate significant changes in risk initially. She also asked about EHICs—I think I have one of those cards in my wallet at the moment—and I will write to her about that, if I may, as I will have to take advice from the Department of Health and Social Care in due course.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, was worried that we would see a watering down of consumer rights after Brexit. I make it clear that we want to continue to maintain close co-operation with the EU on consumer enforcement, as I think I have made clear throughout my speech. We will seek to do that as part of the future economic partnership.

I accept that cross-border enforcement co-operation might become more difficult in the event of a no-deal exit, but we have retained all the necessary powers for our enforcement bodies to continue protecting consumers in the UK courts in cases of infringement of retained EU consumer law. The exact impact on consumers will be difficult to predict because the scale, nature and severity of infringements will vary. It will also depend on the degree to which UK and EU enforcers are willing and able to co-operate with each other. As I made clear, we will obviously continue to work with consumer groups and enforcers to monitor the impacts and to respond as necessary.

Lastly, I will touch on the Competition and Markets Authority, which the noble Baroness referred to, and whether it is prepared for a no-deal exit. We remain confident in the CMA’s ability to be ready for exit day. It continues to plan for such an outcome. BEIS continues to work closely with the CMA to ensure that that is the case. As the noble Baroness will remember, in the Budget back in autumn 2017, I think, my right honourable friend the Chancellor committed £3 billion over the next two financial years to help departments, which includes the CMA, and the devolved Administrations prepare for the UK’s exit from the EU. The CMA is recruiting additional consumer protection staff, which amounts to a 25% increase in its capacity in anticipation of more complex cross-border consumer protection work. The vast majority of those roles have now been filled.

I hope that I have dealt with most of the questions. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, I will write to her on her question about the EHIC. If I find that there are other matters that I need to write on, I will do so. I again thank and congratulate the noble Baroness on—as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, put it—her happy sub-committee. I thank and congratulate all those who participated in the debate and give the assurance that continued effective consumer protection and enforcement after EU withdrawal remains a priority for Her Majesty’s Government.