Leaving the EU: Consumer Protection — [Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:30 am on 10 October 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford 2:30, 10 October 2017

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the effect of the UK leaving the EU on consumers and consumer protection.

It is an honour to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank the Minister for coming this afternoon, and the many consumer organisations, businesses and others with an interest in consumer affairs that have written to me in preparation for today’s debate.

Consumers are key to the country’s prosperity. Consumer spending is more than £100 billion every month. Consumer confidence is vital for our stability and growth, so consumers must be a central part of the Government’s plans as we negotiate our future relationship with Europe. Leaving the EU without an agreement on many consumer issues would risk causing real problems for many people in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

I am glad that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union have spoken about putting businesses and consumers at the heart of the Brexit negotiations. We have not yet seen detailed policy papers from either side, so this is a welcome opportunity to look at some of the details. It is essential that the Government work with consumer organisations as well as businesses. I understand that the Minister has invited consumer organisations to join her in stakeholder meetings to consider the issues, and I am grateful for that.

Recent research by the consumer organisation Which? showed that consumers’ top priorities for Brexit negotiations relate to maintaining lower prices, especially in key sectors such as energy, food, fuel and consumer goods. Our consumers are used to shopping across borders, and nearly half of British trade is with Europe, so it is absolutely right that the Government seek a deal with Europe that maintains as much stability as possible, avoids unnecessary financial shocks and keeps trade as friction-free as possible, otherwise costs will increase.

Consumer protection is also vital for maintaining consumer confidence. The UK has more than 40 years’ experience of working with the EU on consumer protection. European directives and regulations give consumers protection on issues such as unfair terms, aggressive selling, and poor quality and unsafe products. Those bits of European legislation not only protect British consumers when we shop in our domestic market and in other EU markets but, importantly, give EU citizens rights when they come here to buy from British organisations. It is important that there is no regulatory cliff edge and that the relevant EU legislation is brought on to the British statute books using the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, so I was pleased to support that Bill in the recent vote. The Bill will mean that there is no change to the body of EU consumer protection law when Britain leaves the EU.

However, consumer protection is not provided by legislation alone; it is underpinned by product standards and market surveillance networks. In Europe, CE marking means that a product meets the safety standards required by law. It covers technical products, products used by children, electricals, building machinery, medical equipment and many other products. It has been suggested that the CE mark could be replaced by a more global standard, but global standard setting in many areas is still limited and lacking in detail. Given that nearly half of British trade is with the EU, any large-scale divergence on standards could lead to technical barriers for British businesses trading in Europe, which is why the vast majority of British manufactures want to keep a common marking scheme for standards, to avoid unnecessary costs.

However, we know that standards can be a tool for protectionism, to lock others out of a market, and it is important that British manufacturers retain a seat at the table where decisions are made. I hope that the Minister can update the House on the state of discussions regarding the future relationship between the British standards bodies and the European standard-setting bodies. Will we be able to retain our seat at those tables?

Changing the standard-setting regime would also raise questions about consumer safety. When I was a child, I lost my father in an accident that was caused by an electrical good. That would not happen today. The fire at Grenfell tower was started by an electrical good. This is not a time to drop safety standards. Consumers must be protected by strong safety standards, on our exit from the EU and afterwards. I am delighted that Ministers have said that we will not be responsible for lowering standards as a result of Brexit and have committed Britain to continuing to be a global leader on safety standards.

As well as those standards, we have the networks and authorities that are necessary for ensuring that the standards work and are enforced. The UK is part of the Rapex network—the rapid alert system for dangerous non-food products—which means that other countries are notified when dangerous toys and goods are found on the market. That makes it easy for trading standards across the country, in Essex and elsewhere, to take dangerous goods off the market quickly and keeps consumers safe. There is a similar system in the medical world; the pharmacovigilance network ensures that medical authorities and drugs companies across Britain are notified if a patient has an unexpected response to a drug, which helps to keep patients safe.

As part of Europe, we take part in the consumer protection co-operation network, which allows a British authority to ask an authority in another country to begin an investigation if it thinks that standards have been abused or consumer protection law has been broken. That is being used to help hundreds of British consumers involved in the French leaseback scandal, many of whom may have lost their life savings, and it helps to keep our financial products safe.

It is in the interests of consumers on both sides of the channel that we not only retain the European legislation but continue to be part of the co-operation networks that support it. It would be helpful if the Minister confirmed that the deep, special and bespoke partnership that the Prime Minister has mentioned will lead to exactly that type of co-operation.

I am not saying that EU consumer protection laws are perfect; in many areas, they are not, and Brexit will provide us with an opportunity to look again at burdensome areas. Anyone who listens to commercial radio stations will be used to the incredibly long terms and conditions that are read very quickly at the end of every radio advertisement for a mortgage or a financial services package. Apparently, less than 4% of consumers actually remember any of those details. That is all laid down in the consumer rights directive, and we may choose to diverge on such details. That is precisely why it is important that we have an ongoing mechanism for talking about future legislation and for enabling divergences.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The hon. Lady is making an incredibly powerful speech that I think everyone in the Chamber is glad to be able to hear. She made the point that high product safety standards and consumer protection are good for customers, and obviously they are. Does she agree that they are also good for British businesses? When our businesses go to those high standards, that makes them competitive globally because of their reputation for providing goods of high quality.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

I agree, and I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Interestingly, when the consumer organisation Which? surveyed British businesses, it found that those businesses, too, want to ensure that consumer interests are properly considered and maintained as part of the Brexit negotiation. That is precisely why British manufacturers say, “We want to continue to be part of the product-setting networks. We must have a seat at the table when they are agreed.” There are non-EU countries where manufacturers and standard-setting bodies are involved in the negotiations on the standards. It should be perfectly possible to maintain that in a deep and special relationship. It is in the interests of both parties.

It is also important to remember that consumer legislation continues to evolve. We need to ensure that legislation keeps up with the digital age. The digital world is increasingly borderless: our consumers are buying products not just from local retailers but, increasingly, from large global retailers, so it is important that we have international agreement on consumer issues. As I have said, the global forums for setting standards, particularly on digital consumer issues, often lack detail. Therefore, co-operation with Europe is necessary.

A key part of digital trade relates to the use of data. The ability of consumers to use comparison sites and to get consumer feedback means that they are increasingly empowered and informed. Our consumers need data.

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

As has already been said, my hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. She talks about consumers making informed decisions. Does she see an opportunity with Brexit to take things further? One of my campaigns is for the opportunity to expand country of origin food labelling to allow consumers to make a more informed choice. We could expand the products that country of origin food labelling could be applied to.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

Consumer choice is key, and I will discuss food standards, especially when I talk about trade relationships with other parts of the world. Being able to make a consumer decision increasingly relies on being able to access data, to go on to a database and to work out where to make a purchase in a digital world. The free flow of data also underpins digital streaming services, retail loyalty cards and use of cloud computing services. Without the free flow of data, businesses—but also consumers—would find themselves at a disadvantage.

Later this week, we will debate the future of data post-Brexit in the main Chamber. I contend that it is extraordinarily important for British and European consumers that we continue to have a free flow of data post-Brexit. Without that, British consumers will find that they cannot access information or comparison sites in anything like the detail they can at the moment, and many European companies will find significant barriers to their own business. There is no world trade agreement on digital data flows, so it is important that a decision is made on that area.

Another area I want to speak about in detail is the travel sector, because unless agreements are made in favour of consumers on travel, they will face significant impacts. For many consumers, the main impact of Brexit will be what happens on their holidays. The rest of Europe remains the most popular destination for British travellers. In 2015, British citizens made 32 million trips to the rest of the EU on holiday; EU citizens made 9 million trips to Britain. Two hundred million passengers fly through British airports every year.

As we all know, unless negotiated, the UK will lose access to the EU common aviation area, which risks affecting both flights from Europe into Britain and flights in the UK. There are also the many aviation agreements—more than 50—that the EU has with the rest of the world on airspace issues. It is imperative that access to airspace and landing rights is negotiated. Last week, we saw 100,000 people having problems with flights when Monarch collapsed. If there is no agreement or action on flights, tens of millions of consumers will be affected. That is why it is so good that the Government have started work on the areas that will be most affected if there is not a deal.

Aviation safety is also really important. The UK is currently covered by the European Aviation Safety Authority and, unless we continue to be a member of that, the Civil Aviation Authority will have to set up an equivalent, which would take time. That is precisely the sort of issue that needs a decent, long, thought-through transition period so that safety is not risked due to a cliff edge of uncertainty. Furthermore, today under EU law when flights are delayed or cancelled, passengers have a right to reimbursement or repatriation. It is important that we know soon whether those rights will continue. Airline tickets go on sale about 10 months before the first flights, so from next summer the airline companies will be trying to offer flights in a post-Brexit world and they need to know what rights go with their tickets.

Furthermore, non-air transport issues need to be considered. Today, British drivers are covered by the motor insurance green card, which means that we can drive from our homes across to the continent using our own motor insurance and that, if we have an accident with someone from elsewhere in the EU, the insurance will cover claims and compensation. If the green card arrangements are no longer in place, drivers may need additional insurance cover, which is especially important not just to individual consumers but to the freight transport sector.

I was glad to hear in the Chamber yesterday that another issue for travellers seems to have been resolved: the European health insurance card. There are about 27 million EHICs in the UK and last year those cards would have been used by more than 200,000 British travellers. Both sides—Europe and the UK—have said that they wish that to remain. It needs to be agreed in detail, but that does show that progress is being made on these key issues.

The final issue for travellers I want to mention is mobile roaming. This summer, my children certainly cheered when they got on the plane and found out that they would be able to use their phones without additional costs. Abolishing roaming charges has been especially popular with younger people. I know how extraordinarily tricky it was to negotiate that, having played a part in the negotiations myself. A deal on roaming and other digital issues needs to be a key part of our future trade agreement with the EU—and indeed of all future trade agreements.

Brexit gives us the opportunity to create new consumer-focused trade policy. That brings many benefits. Trade agreements bring consumer choice, variety, lower prices and the right to be able to buy products from many different countries of origin, including our own, as my hon. Friend Julian Sturdy correctly pointed out. However, we know that consumer confidence cannot be taken for granted. There have been many recent reactions and protests by consumers against trade agreements, particularly the proposed EU-US trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. As a member of the European Parliament, I remember receiving more than 10,000 emails over one weekend, nearly all of them different, about TTIP.

Consumers recognised the benefits of cheaper goods and services, but they also said firmly that this should not come at any cost. In particular, the public would be concerned about any drop in standards on food or animal welfare products. That is why Jo Swinson and my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer are both right to point out that it is in the interest of businesses to maintain standards, but also important that people know where their food especially is coming from.

The TTIP experience shows the problem of a disconnect between the public and the negotiators on trade issues and points to the need for transparency. It shows that the public and consumer organisations need to be involved in trade negotiations. It is important that those of us who want to continue to have a free market economy and free trade with the rest of the world prioritise the opportunities from the consumer’s perspective.

That is why it is important that we focus on issues such as mobile roaming and the real barriers that travellers face, so that they can see we are focused on the issues that consumers focus on. Brexit offers an opportunity for both the UK and EU to rethink and reset our approach to how we trade with each other and those across the world, but it will only retain the support of the public if consumers and consumer protection are put at the heart of the policy.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 2:51, 10 October 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate Vicky Ford on securing the debate and on her obvious passion for consumer issues.

There is often a good deal of complacency in this country when it comes to consumer protection. We often take it for granted; we only really think about our rights when we need to enforce them or seek compensation, and we expect it to be there. This country has quite a good record when it comes to consumer protection law. After all, did we not invent it in the 1970s, at the same time that we established the Office of Fair Trading? That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but we are highly regarded internationally for our consumer protection initiatives and—most pertinently in this debate—we have had an important influence on the scope of EU consumer protection legislation over the decades of our membership.

On many occasions, we have gone even further than the EU has required, as with the right to reject a product. As the consumer body Which? has pointed out, the limit is 30 days here, while the EU directive requires only 14 days. That is all very good, but as investment advisers like to warn, “Past performance is not an indicator of future results.” Many people are worried that the post-Brexit era will give us less to crow about. Certainly, many consumer bodies are worried that we could see a real watering down of consumer rights. It is not just consumer bodies that are worried: the Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee, in its ongoing inquiry on the subject, has observed that there is now a shadow hanging over consumer rights, with the Government’s approach to negotiation serving to

“cast doubt over the continued application of this significant body of EU law that protects the consumer rights of millions of people in the UK.”

Some observers have taken comfort from the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which will transfer all directly applicable EU law on to the UK’s statute books. But what does this guarantee? The Government’s stated intention is that there will be no loss of protection while we remain in the EU, but that only gives us until March 2019, or a little longer if transitional arrangements are made, and what happens afterwards is uncertain. Will the various protections be unpicked over the coming years, perhaps to secure favourable bilateral trade agreements with countries that value consumer protection less highly than the EU? Or will they be reduced in a misguided belief that business simply regards consumer rights as barriers to trade and red tape? We must avoid that race to the bottom at all costs.

Ministers have not made enough effort to reassure us about their long-term aims. While a business forum has been established with the likes of the British Chambers of Commerce, the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors and others, there is no such equivalent when it comes to consumers. There are many expert consumer bodies out there, including Which?, Citizens Advice and MoneySavingExpert, but they do not feel that they are being properly consulted on what is needed after Brexit. Will the Government now commit to establishing a working group with these bodies and with legal services groups such as the Law Society?

We need a real commitment to putting the consumer at the heart of the Brexit negotiations. That commitment is all the more necessary because it is a question not just of domestic rights, but of international ones, as we have heard. The critical issue for many consumers is how they will be protected when they buy goods from the EU, as they often do when they use internet sites such as Amazon—the 1974 protection is outdated on the credit card rule for internet purchases—or when they are travelling or holidaying abroad and want to hire a car or rent a hotel room.

What are the Government doing to ensure those reciprocal and cross-border rights? There is much discussion in the EU negotiations about people’s right to live and work in the EU and the right for EU residents to live and work here, but precious little about cross-border consumer rights. We have heard about mobile phone roaming fees, which were recently capped, and the EHIC. We have to secure these rights post-Brexit. They have been hard won. We cannot lose them.

The issue of reciprocity and cross-border rights must be an absolute priority, because this is the area where there is most uncertainty. At the moment, UK citizens are protected by various EU legislative measures when buying goods and services, such as the consumer rights and ecommerce directives, but after March 2019 that protection will not be automatic. I agree that we should look at these rights. We need to ensure they are updated to face the modern world. Unless agreements are reached with the EU, there is a real risk that consumers might not be able to enforce their rights in other member states. I hope we will not return to the days when the streets of Spain were more like the wild west, peopled by timeshare cowboys. When I was at the citizens advice bureau, I had a client who had bought three timeshares, one after the other, because the sellers of the first two had assured him that the agreements were cancellable. He ended up with three timeshares, having to negotiate Spanish law.

Some of these cross-border protections will depend on the UK’s continued co-operation with Europe-wide agencies, such as the European Food Safety Authority, the European Aviation Safety Authority, as well as the CPC, which is vital in detecting and stopping illegal commercial practices. We have collaborated well in the past: problems have been highlighted and enforcement has been co-ordinated. We must ensure that UK consumers continue to benefit from, and have confidence in, the high standards guaranteed by working with them. It would be good to know what the Government are doing to ensure that such collaborative work continues and whether they are working towards establishing a mutual recognition agreement on standards.

Enforcement is the watchword. Rights are of little use unless they can be enforced. Local trading standards officers are the foot soldiers when it comes to ensuring that unsafe counterfeit goods are stopped at the point of entry, but their vital work has been greatly undermined by funding cuts, as pinpointed in last year’s National Audit Office report. EU withdrawal will naturally add even greater complexity to their work. If they have to inspect every truck coming from the EU as well as those coming from outside, there will be a complete blockade of our ports. The Government must ensure that trading standards work is properly funded and that officers can continue to work closely with their international counterparts. For example, questions remain over the future of cross-border safety alerts via Rapex, which covers dangerous non-food products, and access to the CPC, which has already been mentioned. If nothing is done, we could be facing a genuine crisis as vital surveillance and enforcement are pared back.

As I said earlier, this country has a proud record on consumer protection law, but there is real danger that it could be weakened as we leave the EU. None of us would want to see those hard-won rights negotiated away. As Jo Swinson said, it is not just about ethics; it is also good economics. Consumers spend £100 billion in the UK. They are the vital ingredient of business success. If they are not confident that the contracts will be fulfilled or that they can get redress if things go wrong, they will be far less willing to enter the market in the first place. After all, who are the end beneficiaries of trade agreements and fundamental to their success? Consumers. Unless they have the confidence to buy goods and services knowing that they are protected, any trade agreement is not worth the paper it is written on.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire 3:00, 10 October 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I commend my hon. Friend Vicky Ford on securing this debate. I will keep my comments brief, but as this is the Brexit Parliament, I welcome this opportunity to debate this important issue.

It is entirely right that as we go through the process of exiting the EU we should legislate to protect UK consumers and consumer rights. Indeed, the UK already goes beyond the minimum standard required by the EU in a number of areas. For example, UK consumers can reject goods that do not conform to the contracted sale within 30 days and receive a refund, whereas in the EU a refund is available only after replacement or repair. That is just one example, but the principle that we hear espoused to support it is already enshrined in UK law, so we need to use that example to make sure that we continue to protect UK consumer rights.

I recognise some of the comments from my colleagues in opposition, but I think that we should try to focus on Brexit as a real opportunity to strengthen consumer rights in many areas where the UK leads the EU and leads internationally, rather than raising red flags and—I do not want to use the word “scaremongering”—always focusing on the negative things that could happen, rather than the positives that the UK could put forward by operating internationally.

A prime example is the Consumer Rights Act 2015, which I referenced earlier. Introduced by the Conservative-led Government, it resulted in a marked strengthening of consumer rights in legislation, and it provides the precedent Members may seek when looking for reassurances from Conservative-led Governments on consumer rights. Among the safeguards provided, some of which I mentioned earlier, is the increase from seven days to 14 days in which consumers can return any item bought in a shop, online or over the phone. More crucially, the Act ensured for the first time that consumers were protected on the purchase of digital content, such as online films, games and books, with the clear right to replacement or repair, which is important in an increasingly digital world. I am assured that the Government are focusing on the right policy, securing the right direction of travel and legislating accordingly to make sure that we are leading the EU, not following it.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire

I would like a few more minutes to develop my point.

The other legislative bulwark to consider is the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. The Bill will convert all EU law into UK law wherever practicable when the UK leaves the EU. In practice, that means that wherever UK law does not already legislate beyond the existing EU minimum requirement, that minimum requirement will become UK law the moment we leave the EU. I think I speak for most of my colleagues when I say that there is little appetite for lowering standards once we leave the EU. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, in its current composition, is designed to provide consumers and businesses with continuity and to provide guarantees of consumer protections that are based on EU law and, as I mentioned earlier, UK law.

The UK leads not only in consumer rights and consumer protections, but in several international agreements where we are not in an official union. One example is the base erosion and profit shifting initiative that is being pursued through the OECD, where the UK has played a leading role in helping to strengthen tax avoidance measures around the globe. That proves to Opposition Members that we do not have to be in a formal union to do the right thing and promote consumer and institutional interests around the world.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I welcomed the hon. Gentleman’s praise for the Consumer Rights Act, which he rightly says was introduced during the 2010 to 15 Parliament. As the Liberal Democrat Minister who introduced that measure, in a Department led by a Liberal Democrat Secretary of State, I gently say to him that it was not just a Conservative achievement.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire

I did say Conservative-led, but quite right—the coalition did a number of good things.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

I just want to point out that it is this Government who have been leading work on digital consumer rights, so we need to give some credit to the Conservative leadership during the 2015 to 17 Parliament.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; I always support giving praise where it is due.

I would like to end by highlighting the position of the Prime Minister and the Government. Only last week that was highlighted at the Conservative party conference, when the Prime Minister said that

“while we are in favour of free markets, we will always take action to fix them when they’re broken. We will always take on monopolies and vested interests when they are holding people back.”

Furthermore, in the Conservative manifesto a specific commitment was given to make sure that markets will

“work for consumers, as well as producers—with competition keeping prices low and encouraging new product development”,

while tackling issues such as

“poor information, complex pricing and exploitative behaviour”,

which prevent all markets from

“operating efficiently for the benefit of all.”

We realise that that is far from complete. To achieve that, we have set out a range of steps that we intend to take to further strengthen our consumer protection, in addition to the progress that has already been made and which I outlined earlier. I hope to work with Ministers and colleagues across the House to ensure that, as we debate the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and then the substantive Bills that will follow on customs and trade, we prioritise strengthening the hands of regulators and online consumers, making terms and conditions clearer—an issue that is recognised by consumers and institutions across the United Kingdom—and strengthening the powers of consumer enforcement bodies to include fines against companies breaking consumer law, and delivering redress for wronged parties. The desire and intent to protect consumer rights is clear and we must ensure that we carry on in that manner as we go through and complete the process of leaving the EU.

Photo of Darren Jones Darren Jones Labour, Bristol North West 3:07, 10 October 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and I congratulate Vicky Ford on securing this debate and on her excellent opening remarks. I declare my interests, as in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: previously I was a legal counsel at BT responsible for, among other things, consumer law compliance.

The UK is a leader in consumer rights, exemplified, as Luke Graham said, by the Consumer Rights Act 2015, in which we went above and beyond European requirements, but that direction of travel has been, in my view, driven by the European Union. As we prepare for Brexit, whatever that might mean, it is vital that we protect both our current legal framework and our future policy commitments to maintain strong consumer protections in the UK. If we maintain access to the European single market, as is my preference, ensuring equivalence in consumer law in the future will be vital.

In my previous role, I attended the annual consumer law conference in Brussels, hosted by the European Commission. I was there on behalf of not only business but consumer groups and other stakeholders. It was agreed, among a very large group of stakeholders, that the consumer law framework provided by the European Union and legislated for here in the UK was pretty good. The key issue, however, was enforcement of those consumer rights. It is vital that we keep that in mind in this Parliament too, not only through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, but in what we do next, after the date of Brexit.

I have had the pleasure, or misfortune depending on one’s viewpoint, of rewriting and simplifying consumer terms and conditions for TV, broadband, mobile services and such like, hence my declaration at the top. Having to take out liability clauses, disclaimers and warranties and trying to reach, as I did in that example, for Plain English Crystal Marks and simplifications for consumers brings us lawyers out in a bit of a cold sweat. We must call on businesses in a regulatory-friendly manner to innovate in the way they communicate with customers. We know that customers tend not to read even a short number of pages on terms and conditions, so how can we ensure that, where the law already provides, they are made aware of particularly onerous terms? I, for example, commissioned a short video explaining that in two minutes. Whether anybody watched the video, let alone read the terms and conditions, time will tell.

From my own experience, we must have two aims—first, that customers understand what it is they are signing up to, which is the law today, and secondly, that they know how to enforce their rights and that they choose to do so. Although this is an issue across many sectors, I will make some remarks today about the airline industry, which is topical because of the issues with Ryanair in recent weeks. As the hon. Member for Chelmsford said, millions of constituents across the country fly to the European Union every year. Although we must protect important safeguards on cancellations and flight delays through Brexit, we must also remember the enforcement of domestic consumer rights.

Many of our constituents suffer the annual annoyance of additional charges for printing boarding passes, booking seats, or getting a bag on to a flight when they thought those things were included. Many airlines market through comparison websites, which may require further regulation in future. They show the single fare-only price without the additional charges. So when customers think about getting the best deal for their flights, sometimes they are unaware that the airlines may be bulking out their revenues by stinging customers with additional charges at the point of service.

Additional charges in themselves are not unfair or a problem, but when many customers do not know about them until it is too late or have no idea how to enforce their rights when they have been subjected to unfair treatment, such charges become a problem. I myself have experienced that problem. On a recent flight to Iceland with WOW airlines, my wife and I were forced to pay £75 to get our on-board luggage through the departure gate. That was more than the price of the ticket itself. As a consumer rights lawyer, I said, “Don’t worry; let’s pay the fee. I’ll complain and get a refund. I know this consumer law business.” However, I faced a bit of a problem.

It transpired that the acceptable size for on-board baggage on WOW airlines is significantly smaller than for other budget airlines, but the online order journey did not make that clear. I have a penchant for terms and conditions and compliance with online order journeys and am particularly astute at watching out for such things, but I was unaware of that difference. I challenged WOW airlines when I returned from a lovely trip to Iceland, but the customer service was awful. I had copy and paste responses to my question. Clearly, other customers had challenged it because the company gave copy and paste answers. When I challenged the detail of the answer, I was told that the company would no longer speak to me.

I therefore complained to the ombudsman. The consumer ombudsman, which is a voluntary organisation for certain sectors and businesses, approached the airline, but it refused to take part in the voluntary scheme. I then drafted a letter before claim setting out in detail, on a lovely Sunday afternoon, how the airline had breached consumer law in the UK, and I sent it to the chief executive officer in Reykjavik. Normally at this point I get a response, but on this occasion I got no response. I still hold that the additional charges point on baggage, where WOW airlines does not make it clear that its size restrictions are smaller than for other budget airlines, is a breach of consumer law. I feel that I and my constituents and others are due a refund for an unenforceable charge. Having raised the issue with the airline’s customer services team, the ombudsman, the chief executive and now Parliament, I look forward to a response.

The issue is not just about my story. In advance of this debate I posted a survey online to ask my constituents to tell me their stories, which were broadly similar. Most of the affected customers who completed my survey were annoyed about the additional baggage charges and also about seat reservations. Of those charged for their baggage, 75% had used the bag that they used for on-board storage with other airlines, and they did not know they could not use that bag on the airline that imposed the additional charge. Some 60% did not know about the charges at the point of booking, or they might have measured the suitcase. Again, these are unenforceable additional charges under consumer law.

To make matters worse, nearly 60% of complainants paid the fee, but then did not complain. A clear majority had no idea that they could go to the Civil Aviation Authority or others for support. Of all the customers in my survey who did complain, only one received a refund. Everybody else was either fobbed off or ignored.

Behind the statistics are families going on their holidays. Many of my constituents who use budget airlines and rely on other similar services save up throughout the year for a special time with their families during the summer holidays. It is a major expense in the annual budget of those consumers. The way in which the families are being treated is unacceptable.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his passionate story about his holidays, but does he agree that it is in the consumer’s interest to have choice and opportunity? Although there may have been drawbacks in some of the budget airline experiences, to be able to fly at a cost they can afford is a huge benefit to consumers. We need good consumer protection and information, but not if the cost becomes unaffordable and consumers simply cannot afford the flights.

Photo of Darren Jones Darren Jones Labour, Bristol North West

But the issue with unaffordability comes at the departure gate when customers who use comparison websites and book flights they can afford based on the ticket price alone have no choice but to take the flight and go on their summer holiday with their children or go home. That is why additional charges need to be highlighted effectively and why families need the ability to enforce their rights.

One family told me a story about when they turned up at the airport in Bristol. They had not printed their boarding passes and were told they needed to pay £70 for them to be made available. If that was not bad enough, they then realised that they needed to pay an additional £75 for their children to sit next to them because they had not paid for the seat reservations. Why should families have to pay to make sure that their children can sit next to them and pay for the printed boarding pass when it is perhaps available on their phone? Again, those customers knew nothing about the charges and were stung as a consequence of the lack of compliance with consumer law.

Some sectors are better than others in their compliance with consumer law. The best brands, as we have heard this afternoon, understand that building consumer trust is good for businesses and that putting the customer first is therefore a sensible strategy. Under the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 and the Consumer Rights Act 2015, with the introduction of the concept of digital goods and services, we are making strides forward, but we must recognise that the law is already becoming out of date in the way in which the new digital economies are working.

To go to my original point, as we prepare for whatever Brexit means for the UK, it is vital that we not only protect our current framework of consumer law but that we work with our European colleagues to enhance the enforcement of consumer rights. We must continue to lead the debate as markets rapidly change and ensure that we protect our constituents not only under current law and in current markets but in future. I look to the Government to help us deliver that.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Labour, Weaver Vale 3:18, 10 October 2017

I thank you, Mr Streeter, and Vicky Ford for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

When it comes to Brexit, discussions here and in the media have tended to focus on high-level questions on trade deals, investment or diplomatic treaties. Important as the Brexit questions are, and the consequences will of course ultimately be significant, they are questions that can sometimes seem a little removed from the day-to-day life of many of our constituents. Today’s debate matters because it concerns something that has an immediate and constant relationship with almost everything that individuals, families and businesses do in my constituency of Weaver Vale and elsewhere. There is little more important in day-to-day life than having confidence in the quality of the food we eat, the effectiveness of the medicines we rely on, or the safety of the toys our children play with.

I want to pay particular tribute to the work that one of our north-west MEPs, Theresa Griffin, has been doing on this issue. Theresa and colleagues work every day on the detail that matters—in stark contrast to what we heard only yesterday from the Prime Minister, who made it clear that, 15 months on, the Government are no further forward in dealing with the detail that every hon. Member requires. Indeed, I should acknowledge the work that the hon. Member for Chelmsford did on these matters as a Member of the European Parliament.

Of course this debate is vital not just for consumers, but for businesses. One of the many fantastic features of my constituency is the range of its economy and industry—things that affect everyone. The logistics and distribution companies in Weaver Vale need certainty about what Brexit means for cross-border transport of the parcels and goods that they deliver. Household names in the pharmaceutical industry rely on the research and innovation work at Daresbury, and their success and prosperity is dependent on consumers having confidence in their products. I have every confidence that the famous Roberts Bakery will continue to produce some of the best bread anyone will taste, but to continue to be successful it will, like every food manufacturer, need certainty about the frameworks that it is working with.

As to one of the biggest challenges—the safety and value of data in the digital age—my constituency is affected at almost every level. At one end of the spectrum, many individual householders in Weaver Vale are currently locked in dispute with broadband providers about the quality of their service—or in some cases the complete lack of it. The EU is committed to achieving speeds of 1 gigabit per second by 2025. By contrast, the UK’s ambition is a mere 10 megabits per second—a hundredth of that speed. We are told by some members of the Government that we need to be “ambitious” about Brexit, but my constituents are being given 1% of what they might otherwise have been entitled to.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

On the point about inadequate broadband—and, indeed, the mis-selling of broadband—perhaps I may bring to the hon. Gentleman’s attention the fact that during negotiations on the telecoms directive the Brits pushed for stronger regulation, to make it against the law for anyone to mis-sell broadband and promise higher speeds than they could get. The Europeans refused to introduce that measure. Brexit gives us an opportunity to take new measures on behalf of consumers, especially on issues such as broadband.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Order. Interventions should be brief.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Labour, Weaver Vale

Of course, my point was about speed; I sincerely hope that we will go beyond the current Government’s snail’s pace ambition and not only match but, in time, exceed the ambition of the EU. On that point the hon. Lady and I probably agree.

I was talking about my constituents getting only 1% of what they were entitled to, but at the other end of the spectrum my constituency is also at the digital forefront. For example, Sci-Tech Daresbury is the home of the Hartree Centre, an initiative leading on the application of high-performance computing and big data. It also houses many leading digital and tech companies. Its ambition is to expand the data storage/archive capability at Hartree. Those organisations have made it clear to me that the UK cannot significantly differ from the EU in terms of future data protection laws while maintaining any kind of working relationship. It is welcome that the Government appear committed to incorporating the general data protection regulation into UK law. The lesson must be how that important aspect of EU law can be expanded into other protections. However, the risks to the UK’s position as the digital hub of Europe, from leaving the EU, remain profound. I will work closely with Daresbury and the many tech organisations based there to make sure that any adverse effects of Brexit on the services developed and provided there will be minimised.

My party is supportive of a Brexit that puts jobs first and protects the rights of workers and consumers. It is therefore vital that the Government take the issue seriously, every step of the way. It is comforting that the hon. Lady obtained the debate, as that shows that some members of the governing party realise how crucial the issue is. I commend her on doing so, and hope that her colleagues in government will respond appropriately. The safety and quality of the services and products consumed by my constituents in Weaver Vale depend on it.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 3:25, 10 October 2017

I want to echo the thanks that Mike Amesbury expressed to Vicky Ford for obtaining the debate. We must not underestimate, among the various aspects of Brexit, the importance of consumer protection. That vital matter is so wound around and ingrained into our daily lives that there is a danger that we may take the protections for granted but, as Yvonne Fovargue has pointed out, that must not happen.

Currently, the rights of consumers are enshrined in EU law, so naturally there is bound to be concern and uncertainty about what will become of those rights and the responsibilities of businesses post-Brexit. We need clarity. At the moment, the UK has to comply with EU consumer policy and law, which is estimated to affect about 90 pieces of legislation, making a body of EU law designed to protect consumers. However, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill currently progressing through Parliament would repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and copy all EU legislation into UK law. The concern is that repeals, amendments and revisions could then be made to consumer law by any Government as they saw fit.

The lack of clarity and the uncertainty about Brexit is a cause of great concern, since we simply do not know what leaving the EU will mean for consumers or businesses. Will the UK stay in the single market? It looks as if that will not happen, so the rights of consumers in the UK will not be enhanced or keep pace with the rights of consumers in the EU. That could leave them exposed and lacking protection. Consumers are already feeling the Brexit pinch even though we have not yet left the EU. The devalued pound is pushing up inflation, and that alone has reduced purchasing power. Most consumers do not think too much about consumer protection until they need it. We need only look at the recent cancellation of Ryanair flights to find a good example of why consumers benefit from being part of the EU single market, and from sharing rights and protections across the EU. The personal example given by the hon. Member for Chelmsford brought that point home strongly. Darren Jones also touched on the issue, and outlined various sharp practices indulged in by some airlines.

Fundamentally, a lot of minds would be put at rest by an end to the uncertainty—by the knowledge on the part of consumers that the UK Government are willing absolutely to guarantee that consumer rights and protections will not be watered down post-Brexit, and to provide specific assurances of that in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. We need a cast-iron guarantee that current protections derived from EU legislation will remain in force. I fully understand the Government’s position that they do not want a

“black hole in our statute book” and that they will convert EU laws into UK laws. However, no one can predict the longer-term impact of Brexit on consumers, since we do not know what the UK’s future relationship with the EU will look like, or even whether the UK will retain any access to the single market.

What can be said is that following our withdrawal from the European Union, EU consumer protection legislation and that of the UK are likely to drift apart over time. I fully concur with the hon. Member for Bristol North West and the hon. Member for Chelmsford, who discussed the evolution of consumer law. Even if the UK adopts autonomously all EU legislation in the field of consumer protection, the interpretation of such legislation will vary, as UK courts will not be subordinate to the European Court of Justice, despite what Luke Graham said. We do not know what kind of divergence will take place.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire

Does the hon. Lady recognise that the example that I used showed the UK going above and beyond what the EU was putting forward? If she would like to be “Stronger for Scotland”, perhaps she would begin by engaging positively with those details and looking at the opportunities we have, rather than always looking at the negative and trying to do the UK down.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs)

I listened very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, because I had this point in my head. He cannot negate the legitimate concerns that I have raised by simply saying, “We’ll always go one better.” I will give him a concrete example. There are fears in some quarters of a race to the bottom—for example, on food safety. The Secretary of State for International Trade has said that he is completely relaxed about a diminution in food safety. People cannot simply hide all the time behind the notion that the UK will always do something better than anything that is offered by the EU. That is asking us to take too much on trust.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs)

I will press on if the hon. Gentleman will permit me.

Consumers in the UK spend £1,160 billion each year on goods and services, and about £14.8 billion is the estimated value of consumer detriment that needs to be tackled by consumer protection bodies. That is with the current protections; diminution of any of those protections can only increase consumer detriment and undermine consumer confidence.

With increasingly complex and wide-ranging threats—in particular, a rise in e-commerce and scams—consumer protection needs to be as robust and match-fit for the modern world as it possibly can. The UK consumer cannot be left behind post-Brexit. I contend that remaining a member of the single market would guarantee that UK consumer protection law moved in line with that of the rest of the EU and would certainly reassure consumers and businesses that the current framework would continue to keep pace.

Regardless of what the future relations between the UK and the EU finally look like, the laws governing relations between consumers and businesses are vital to the future success of the UK as a whole. Consumers must have confidence in the purchases that they make, be confident about safety, and be confident of redress if anything goes wrong with the goods that they purchase; they must be confident that their rights as consumers are enforceable. My concern in relation to the uncertainty surrounding those rights, which will be subject to the whim of the Government of the day, is that the rights may be diluted or eroded over time as the EU moves ahead in this area, leaving the UK consumer rights agenda behind the curve, looking outdated and not fit for purpose in the modern world.

I hope that the Minister can provide cast-iron assurances that protecting and maintaining consumer rights is firmly on the Government’s agenda as Brexit unfolds, because consumers have a right to expect nothing less.

Photo of Gill Furniss Gill Furniss Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Steel, Postal Affairs and Consumer Protection) 3:33, 10 October 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate Vicky Ford on securing this important debate and particularly her eloquence and passion in introducing it. I also thank hon. Members present for their thoughtful and constructive contributions, which have vividly highlighted the importance of consumers to the UK economy, but also raised serious questions about what Brexit means for consumers and consumer protections.

Each month, consumers in the UK spend £100 billion in the economy, supporting local businesses, our manufacturing services and employees. Many of the consumer rights that we enjoy are embedded in EU legislation and institutional arrangements. I am disappointed by the Government’s approach to consumer concerns and by their refusal to set out the foundations of consumer protections post-Brexit.

The Government failed to mention consumer protection in their Brexit White Paper in February. They did not dedicate one of their 12 negotiating principles to consumers and consumer rights, and that barely had a mention in the Prime Minister’s 5,357-word speech in Florence. In addition, the Government continue to threaten that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, which could mean the UK crashing out of the EU and being forced to accept World Trade Organisation rules, which dictate tariffs on food of up to 62%—that is for beef—and on other goods such as cars. It will come as no shock that one third of consumers think that they will not be represented in the Brexit negotiations.

The Minister will say that the UK has played an important role in consumer protections, and I agree. The UK has often been a beacon for consumer protections in the EU and also globally, with countries across the world looking to us for our consumer protection laws, and we should be proud of that. However, consumers have been left with little assurance about whether, beyond Brexit, they will continue to enjoy the same rights and protections, or what the Government’s Brexit agenda will mean in this regard. Constituents across the country are asking, “Will it result in the UK being forced to accept chlorinated chicken from the US? What will be the overall impact on food and safety standards? What enforcement structures will be in place to support consumer protections?” There is much more they are asking about, as they do not have any clarity on those critical issues.

To begin with, there is deep concern about the current drafting of the Government’s key legislation, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. That Bill—in particular, clause 7—goes beyond the ability of Ministers to make technical changes and enters the murky waters of giving Ministers carte blanche powers to “prevent, remedy or mitigate” any “deficiency” in EU law, with no clear criteria about what that means. In effect, they can make whatever changes they see fit behind closed doors without proper parliamentary scrutiny. If left unchanged, that could have a devastating impact on consumer protections, with Ministers effectively able to bring about wide-ranging change on consumer issues such as food, product safety standards, approval systems and oversight of financial services. The uncertainty about the direction of consumer protections after Brexit leaves consumers in limbo about their rights and protections. This is not a question of simply copying and pasting the legislation from the EU into UK law; it is far more complicated with regard to how we apply the law.

Once we leave the EU, the Government maintain, we will be leaving all the EU bodies, so from the point of our departure, the consumer protection legislation of the EU and that of the UK are likely to drift apart, as interpretations of such legislation will differ. As a result, there is little clarity about questions of jurisdiction, conflict of laws and enforceability after Brexit, with the Government making no effort to clarify those issues.

For example, it is crucial that we maintain cross-border consumer protection so that consumers have the confidence and security that the products they are purchasing are safe. Consumers no longer operate within geographical boundaries, so a key tenet of the Brexit negotiations should be to maintain current protections but also to maintain co-operation agreements to maintain the existing rights when people are dealing with companies based in other EU member states.

As the head of consumer policy at Citizens Advice said in evidence to the Justice Sub-Committee of the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union,

“It is one thing to say that the rule of law applies, but if there is no right to compensation when travelling abroad, or purchasing from an EU trader, if the cross-border agreements are not there to back it up it is not worth as much as it would suggest.”

We have still not heard anything from the Government about what cross-border co-operation post-Brexit will look like. Will the Minister lay out the Government’s position? Furthermore, the current UK consumer protection regime is under severe strain after seven years of Tory budget cuts to local councils. For example, the current domestic products safety regime is not fit for purpose and needs urgent reform, yet at every opportunity the Government have dismissed calls for such changes. The Government’s working group report into product safety, published on 20 July, was disappointing and refused to acknowledge that real change was needed in the product safety regime. It offered no serious proposal to ensure that proper enforcement mechanisms were in place to remove faulty goods from the market. That raises serious questions about the robustness of current enforcement regimes and their ability to withstand the pressures from the weight of EU consumer rights laws, which would be transferred into UK law. We have had no clarity from the Government about what agencies they intend to establish, how much funding that will require, or what their roles and powers will be when breaches of consumer law are found.

Warm words will not cut it. We cannot trust this Government’s vague assurances that consumer protections will be safeguarded when they will not even properly engage with consumer groups. When I asked the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union how many times he had invited and met consumer groups to discuss negotiations on the UK leaving the EU and their implications for the consumer in the UK, his response was that Ministers and officials have met with consumer organisations such as Which?, MoneySavingExpert and Citizens Advice, and that they have plans to host a roundtable with consumer groups. All of those organisations have expressed frustration to me about the difference between engagement with businesses and with the consumer side, with the latter receiving very little attention from senior Government figures. Lip service has been paid to consumers, but there have not been any tangible outcomes in action from the Government, as no consumer and Secretary of State level roundtable or working group has been established. Finally, 16 months after the EU referendum we have yet to see a detailed plan about when this consumer roundtable, which the Secretary of State mentioned in his reply to my parliamentary question, will be held. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Order. I call the Minister to respond. If she could leave two to three minutes for the initiator of the debate to wind up, that would be great.

Photo of Margot James Margot James Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 3:42, 10 October 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the impact of the UK’s exit from the European Union on consumers.

First of all, I congratulate my hon. Friend Vicky Ford on tabling a debate on this very important issue. As the Prime Minister has made clear, most recently in her speech in Florence last month, the UK’s vote to leave the EU was not a vote to abandon our relationship with the EU. We want to maintain our deep and special partnership with it. We are leaving its institutions, but we remain a close ally, and we are committed to working with it to secure the best outcomes and to maintain strong consumer protections.

As hon. Members have made clear, consumers are crucial for UK prosperity. Household expenditure accounts for around 60% of our economy. In 2016, 83% of UK consumers used the internet to order goods or services, and 23% used it to order goods or services from another EU country. Engaged, confident consumers stimulate competition in markets and drive responsible business practices, benefiting businesses and consumers alike. This is crucial to ensuring that our economy works for everyone, which is a key objective of our industrial strategy, which will put the UK in a strong position for the future.

British people do not want shoddy goods or services and we will ensure consumers are protected from dangerous products and unfair trading practices. Making sure consumers are protected, wherever and however they purchase goods and services, is a top priority. As Yvonne Fovargue pointed out, the UK has a strong history in its own right of protecting consumers. The Consumer Rights Act 2015 updated the laws governing every business selling directly to consumers and gave consumers clear rights. UK consumers have also relied on domestic laws in advance of EU legislation; for example, laws outlawed unreasonable contract terms almost 20 years before the EU legislated to ban them.

We have demonstrated our commitment to high standards for consumers by going beyond EU minimum standards in a number of other areas. For example, the UK led the way in protecting consumers purchasing digital content in the 2015 Act, before the Commission brought forward its proposals on digital content later that year. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford, who played a key role in the development of that consumer protection framework as chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection. Her scrutiny of EU proposals has been crucial to ensuring the law works for citizens and businesses alike. As she knows, the UK has worked closely with the European Commission, and in the Council, to develop a robust regime.

While we remain an EU member, we are continuing to fulfil our obligations fully and in good faith. We are setting the agenda where we can, to ensure that our legislation remains fit for purpose in the digital age. For example, the Digital Economy Act 2017 includes important measures to protect consumers and the UK’s position as a world leader in the digital economy. It includes protections against spam mail, and against children easily accessing online pornography, just as protections exist offline.

At EU level, we have secured general approaches in the Council on two pieces of consumer legislation this year: the digital content directive and the consumer protection co-operation regulation. Both files will increase consumers’ protection when buying online and set clear obligations for traders and businesses. Those are just two examples of how we have achieved robust protections. We will seek to continue working closely with the European Union on issues such as information sharing and enforcement co-operation.

We have a proud history of protecting consumers, but I agree with hon. Members that that should not make us complacent, following our exit from the European Union. I turn to our plans to protect UK consumers through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. The Bill will ensure that we exit the EU with maximum stability and provide certainty for businesses and consumers. It will ensure that UK consumer protections based on EU legislation are clearly retained, and that when a consumer buys from a trader based in the UK after exit, they can rely on the same rights that they currently enjoy. The way consumer protections apply internationally in the future is a matter for negotiations. However, our starting point is that we must continue to have effective protection for consumers, particularly those buying across borders, and we will work with the EU to secure the best possible deal for consumers in that respect.

Hon. Members have raised the question of how well we are working with stakeholders. I am disappointed to hear that, according to the shadow Minister, Gill Furniss, stakeholders have been frustrated in their desire for ministerial attention, and I can assure her that I will do my best to put that right. It is essential that we work with stakeholders to understand the impacts on consumers of the UK’s exit from the EU. As the hon. Lady pointed out, Minsters and officials have met a range of stakeholders, including Money Saving Expert, Citizens Advice and Which?, and in April 2017, when he was in post, Lord Bridges of Headley opened the National Consumer Federation’s consumer congress, which explored how we can secure the best outcomes for consumers after Brexit. I am pleased that Which? has been conducting an in-depth analysis of the range of impacts that EU exit will have on citizens.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford mentioned some important areas for consumers, showing what a wide-ranging and integral issue this is. Flights, data roaming, insurance: it is vital that we have the complete picture of consumer concerns. That is why I agree that talking to consumer groups and businesses is vital. I have invited consumer groups and the devolved Administrations to meet me and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, so that we can hear their views and discuss key EU-exit issues. I look forward to continuing that engagement.

A number of other issues were raised concerning travel protections. Consumer protection for flights based on EU law will be retained in the EU withdrawal Bill, meaning that British consumers will be able to rely on the same rights after we leave the EU as they have now. On advance booking, it is a high priority to identify new arrangements at least 12 months before we formally leave the EU, to ensure legal certainty for consumers.

More broadly, maintaining liberal access to EU markets is a high priority for the Government. We recognise the importance of air services to the health of the economy. Darren Jones spoke with great knowledge about that subject and others relevant to this debate, reminding us that we must ensure that our post-Brexit consumer protection is fit for the future. I hope that his justifiable complaint against WOW Air is resolved.

The hon. Member for Makerfield raised a valid point about the future of our connection with the Rapex rapid alert system for dangerous non-food products. Intelligence sharing will remain vital post-Brexit, and we are working already with the EU to explore options for maintaining information sharing across borders. I agree with her that it is vital.

Various hon. Members mentioned product safety. Maintaining high standards for product safety is a high priority for the Government. I was asked specifically about the state of discussions on whether the British Standards Institution will continue to be involved in European standards setting. The BSI, the UK’s national standards body, is independent of Government, but we are working with it to ensure that our future relationship with the European standard-setting bodies continues to support a productive and open competitive business environment in the UK. They are assisting us as we roll out improvements to the product safety and withdrawal regime. The European standard-setting bodies, such as the European Committee for Standardisation, are not EU bodies, although they have a special status in the EU.

We remain committed to securing the best deal for UK citizens during the Brexit negotiations. That is as true for citizens as consumers as it is of any other aspect of their lives. As I said, the UK’s framework already sets high standards, and the EU withdrawal Bill will ensure that EU-derived protections are enshrined in existing UK law. Our aim is no reduction in protections for UK consumers after EU exit. It behoves us all, and certainly me while I am responsible for consumer protection, to work hard after EU exit to ensure that our consumer protection regime continues to be an example to the rest of the world. That will be a responsibility for future parliamentarians, but I certainly sense from the remarks made in this debate that we are all concerned not only to put in place a regime that is as good as it has been throughout our membership of the European Union, but to work to continue to improve it and ensure that it is fit for the future environment.

We recognise that for protections that rely on co-operation with, or action by, EU member states, negotiation is needed, and we enter those negotiations with ambition and some optimism. We start from a strong position of trust in one other’s institutions, and a spirit of co-operation stretching back many decades. Through open and honest dialogue with our European partners, we remain committed to achieving strong outcomes for consumers through the Brexit negotiations, and to continued co-operation with EU consumer protection sources of information, and to sharing, post-Brexit. With that, I hand over to my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford 3:54, 10 October 2017

I thank all colleagues who have taken part in this debate, and especially the Minister for answering it. The UK has a strong history of consumer protection, and I am delighted that she has committed to its continuation with no reduction in consumer protection. I am also delighted to hear that we will continue to share intelligence with our neighbours to ensure that consumers are protected, and that we are committed to very high standards.

In this debate, food and animal welfare standards in particular were raised numerous times. Those are, of course, competencies of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The first time this Parliament when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs took questions from the House, I was honoured to be drawn to ask the first question. My question was whether we would maintain high standards for food and animal welfare post-Brexit; he said yes. It is a key part of consumer protection that we do not mislead our consumers. We should not mislead our voters. This Government are committed to maintaining high standards for consumer protection, animal welfare and food. I thank the Minister again for saying that those would remain priorities.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the effect of the UK leaving the EU on consumers and consumer protection.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

We now move on to our next debate, as I see that the protagonists are here. Would Members leaving please do so quietly? This is a half-hour debate, which seems to be extremely popular; fortunately, I am not chairing it. If colleagues will take their positions, we will move swiftly on.