Being Heard Post-Brexit – Keeping our Seat at ANEC

In my last blog writes Arnold Pindar I talked about the need for the major decisions on Brexit to be taken before our negotiators can finalise the myriad of details that remain to be addressed and how we needed to maintain our strong connections with the institutions that do this work.

Example

At a broad level, the UK government’s white paper on the future relationship between the UK and the EU suggests the UK intends to maintain “its robust programme of risk-based market surveillance to ensure that dangerous products do not reach consumers”. Hence, to ensure ongoing cooperation between the UK and the EU27, they are seeking access to systems such as the Rapid Alert System for consumer protection and unsafe products (RAPEX) and the Information and Communication System for Market Surveillance (ICSMS).  Fingers crossed, they will be successful in these aims.

Lower Profile Perhaps but still Valuable

I think we should also be concerned about other much lower profile but valuable areas of cooperation and support between EU Member States related to consumer protection. I want to come back to the point I made in that last blog where I mentioned the need for the UK consumer voice to be heard in ANEC, the European Consumer Voice in Standardisation, both at the policy and technical levels. We want:

  • agreement in principle for UK membership of ANEC to continue.
  • agreement on how UK membership will be funded post Brexit.

Who Pays for our Seat?

As ANEC is funded from the European public purse, it will not be possible for us to be represented on the General Assembly of ANEC unless funded from the UK. We at NCF certainly could not pay and I am pretty sure our colleague UK consumer organisations don’t have the money either so government/tax payers will have to fund that particular subscription. And they better hurry up and write that cheque.

ANEC Elections Looming

If there is no agreement at the top level to maintain the status quo in all EU institutions and operations post 29 March 2019 as part of a transition arrangement and we can’t or don’t renew our sub, we are out of ANEC. Their General Assembly (GA) is elected for four years and a new GA will be elected in May 2019, potentially without UK consumer organisations being eligible to vote and be represented.

ANEC is just one example of a valuable cooperation that benefits consumers right across Europe. I would like to know of other examples where there is a need to ensure that we do not lose the opportunity to continue to benefit from such cooperation as we leave the European Union – get in touch!

 

 

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BREXIT : COMPROMISE, FUDGE OR NO DEAL?

Months ago writes Arnold Pindar, I was told that the discussions on Brexit withdrawal would go right up to the wire and then agreement would be achieved between the EU 27 and the UK.

Having negotiated in Europe since 1977 this did not feel right to me. As a Department of Trade and Industry (now BEIS) civil servant, working at times almost weekly in Europe, negotiations have always developed from drafts of the planned Directive or Regulation, usually but not exclusively proposed by the European Commission. Although there were key issues of substance, the vast majority of the negotiations were at the detailed level. Hence, my unease how things would turn out.

However, I do remember when privatising a DTI information service where I, as the manager of the service was concerned about the details, my boss insisted that we deal only with the principles until we had a commitment from the company that was to take on the work.  He was right. Once we had agreement in principle, I was able to negotiate all the details to ensure that the service had the best chance of survival in the private sector.

Big Decisions First

Hence, I am coming around to the conclusion that it is essential to take the big decisions on Brexit before arguing the details. But my concerns are twofold:

  • Firstly, are we able to achieve a satisfactory top-level Brexit agreement that will maximise benefits and minimise losses?
  • Secondly, is it possible to handle the myriad of details without serious omissions and errors in a timely fashion as we leave the EU?

Understanding Cultural and Legal Differences

In negotiating internationally, it is necessary to understand the cultural and legal differences between our nation states. In the United Kingdom we look for compromise that as far as possible meets the needs of all interests. Taking the Germanic nations as an example, their culture looks on compromise as “fudge”. When you negotiate with Germany you need good data. If your data is superior to that supplied from the German side, they are more willing to accept your position than to come to a compromise agreement that has elements of both sets of data. Other European cultures then simply add to the complexity of negotiations from their cultural perspectives. (I am not qualified to comment on the added issues arising from the different legal structures in the nation states.) Therefore, there are immediate difficulties for these top-level negotiations between the 28 member states of the European Union.

Within the UK we have politicians and indeed the population as a whole holding very different views on a successful way forward on Brexit. Even at the top level, the issues are so highly technical and complex that decisions of principle are exceedingly difficult. This has resulted in huge difficulties for us to achieve the compromise solutions we normally favour to put forward to the EU27. So the danger of ‘no deal’ is a very real threat.

Consumer Catastrophe

Which? has just published a report Brexit no deal: A consumer catastrophe? I fully support their conclusion that:

“…a no deal situation would have severe consequences for consumers, even if comprehensive contingency planning could be achieved in time.”

I also support the Which? four tests which are essential for consumers in any exit deal. viz:

Which? four tests for a successful Brexit for consumers are whether it:

  • Limits the potential for price rises and increases in the cost of living.
  • Maintains or enhances the current high safety standards.
  • Maintains or enhances consumer choice of a high-quality range of products and services.
  • Supports consumers with a system that ensures their rights and access to redress.

It is, therefore, essential that the UK achieves a Brexit agreement. But will it be a UK understood compromise or a fudge? Whilst we define things differently to the Germanic nations, we in the UK do not like ‘fudge’ by our definition. For us the word represents an unsuccessful compromise where no one can live with the proposed solution. This appears to be where we are with the Chequers proposals. And yet to reach agreement in Brussels we are going to need to compromise further and potentially further fudge our position.

Mechanisms for Future Engagement

The second of Which?’s four tests highlights one specific point of detail resulting from the UK decision to leave the EU. Considerable trade will continue between the UK and the EU post Brexit and hence, businesses will need to meet EU laws and regulations to trade there. It makes no sense for safety regulations to diverge between the EU and the UK in the future. This results in non-tariff barriers to trade and additional costs for consumers. To maintain some influence on future safety and trade legislation it is essential that businesses maintain membership of EU trade bodies and that consumers maintain membership of EU consumer bodies including ANEC, the European Consumer Voice in Standardisation, where we have opportunities to influence related consumer law. As ANEC is fully funded from the public purse, the UK cannot continue in membership unless a mechanism for future engagement is agreed. My attempts to address this point with UK Government have resulted in silence or more recently a bland statement that our membership would be a good thing!

So are we looking at a situation where we have to negotiate a detailed set of regulations but no longer have the access to the institutions or processes necessary to negotiate the outcomes that consumers and industry need?

 

BUILDING TRUST IN ONLINE CONSUMER REVIEWS : AN NCF SUCCESS STORY!

The National Consumer Federation (NCF) was delighted to be present on 6 September 2018 when the British Standards Institution (BSI) launched the international standard BS ISO 20488:2018 Online Consumer Reviews – principles and requirements for their collection, moderation and publication.

Timely and Global

This standard is timely and being international, recognises that online purchases are often cross border, thus needing a global approach to standardisation. It is vital that there is a rapid take up of the standard and every encouragement should be given to scheme providers to meet the requirements and accept the guidance given by the standard.

NCF Showed the Way

In 2013 the NCF commissioned a report Trust schemes for consumers: What ’good’ looks like which established a benchmark for what ‘good’ looks like for consumers and demonstrated that none of the trust schemes we looked at met all of our six key recommendations. We then initiated a meeting held at BEIS, London to bring all the businesses and other stakeholders involved in customer feedback schemes together with BSI. Our recommendation from that meeting was that there should be a standard to ensure that consumers could trust the feedback provided by customer feedback schemes.

feefo Review

feefo has undertaken reviews of the consumers’ perspective of online reviews. Their research indicates just how quickly the use of online customer feedback has developed since our report. In their latest report 94% of consumers said that they check reviews when looking for a product or service. This is a substantial increase on the 75% found in their research last year. Conversely their research indicated that 89% of those surveyed said they were worried about fake reviews, which again is a big increase compared with the 75% who gave the same response last year.

Not just seen but believed

These worrries underline the need for early and wide adoption of this standard.  A couple of blogs ago we were talking about banks having to display in-branch their customer satisfaction ratings and how the way they collected their data underpinned the credibility of the ratings. This sort of information for consumers should not only be seen – it must be believed.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Cutting EU Ties’ – NCF shares concerns spelt out by Trading Standards

A new report from the guys at the sharp end looks at how cutting ties with the EU affects all of us and in particular the work of Local Trading Standards Officers who are in day to day contact with consumers and businesses.  The CTSI (Chartered Trading Standards Institute) points out that transposing EU law into UK law is only the start of maintaining consumer protection.

Rules without Resources – Ineffectual

Rules without resources for application, advice and enforcement are rendered ineffectual. Trading Standards departments face new work loads, yet their resources have more than halved since 2010. Key networks linked to the EU will be lost and many regulations require reciprocal agreements and action from the EU 27.

Real Jeopardy

CTSI identify as a key threat the present lack of clarity in what will be required and the time to implement whatever finally emerges.  Life outside the single market alters many relationships across e-commerce. Without agreement there could be critical losses of information exchange on issues such as unsafe products. The Government has committed to enhancing product safety and standards but CTSI says that without continued co-operation from EU27 (bad deal or no deal) ‘our product safety system is in real jeopardy’, including agriculture and food products. UK exports to the EU will need to demonstrate continued conformity EU standards. Any divergence from EU standards by the UK may prejudice such trade and place a significant burden on inspections of imports, again down to TSDs.

The 2/3 of UK travel abroad is to EU countries, enjoying a range of protections. Reciprocal health care, compensation for delays, cancellation and insolvency and phone roaming rights are key when looking at consumer protection in the future.

Consumer rights have no value unless they can be enforced, either by actions against traders in the UK or through consumers receiving redress.  UK needs to retain clear processes for resolving disputes across the EU.  Similar issues apply to weights and measures.

Opportunities in Future?

There are opportunities in no longer having to apply EU law, provided trade with the EU is not compromised. Some consumer law is over-complex.  Some lacks clarity or is multi-layered. But as we have said before, we need both to hang on to what we already have for starters and make a contribution to keeping standards high in the future.

Better Consumer Future North of the Tweed?

The Scottish Government have launched a consultation on the role and remit of a body they are calling Consumer Scotland.
The reasons quoted in the doc for the exercise are

Evidence has shown that, in specific markets, Scottish consumers behave differently and have different needs from consumers in the rest of the UK. The reasons for this have not yet been fully analysed or understood as there is not, currently, a rigorous on-going assessment of Scottish consumer harm. There is no dedicated mechanism delivering improved, targeted outcomes for Scottish consumers.

This consultation is seeking to gather views on the proposals for a new consumer body, called Consumer Scotland. This will be an investigatory body, tasked with carrying out a strategic review of consumer welfare to identify areas of harm that require in-depth inquiry to identify causes and recommend solutions.

If you are interested in responding you have until 28 September this year. Make this first job of the new term? As a source of inspiration for any comments you might have, Jeremy Mitchell has submitted his own thoughts circulated on the day he celebrated joining the infant Which? 60 years ago. His comments contain a very useful summary of the shape and structure of an independent consumer advocacy body that would make sure that the consumer voice is heard – a cause dear to NCF’s heart of course. These features will be familiar to our consumer readers – independence, a good and predictable (known three years in advance) level of funding, particular focus on vulnerable and more. One point Jeremy makes extremely strongly is that this new body will not be a forum for discussion between representatives of the consumer interest and business. Do you agree? Why not? Is this not a perfectly valid activity for a consumer organisation?

How Does Your Bank Rate?

 

Have you been and had a look round your branch for this vital consumer information ? I have not but then I have not set foot in a bank branch for many months now. However if you do then have a look for the customer service league tables. Are they lurking behind a pillar way back in the branch or proudly displayed as you come in? Ironically enough, you won’t see the winner displaying its info because First Direct does not have any branches. (Is there a clue there?)Two ‘Scottish’ banks Clydesdale and Royal Bank of Scotland come bottom. I had a look on the Barclays website and could not find the table anywhere – found the news about their Modern Slavery Statement. Good to know but not at the forefront of the retail customers’ routine day to day concerns.
Whatever you think of the individual rankings, I think this publication is a significant event when customer-based data and its importance is fully recognised. The institutions affected will have to learn how best to use this information for their own purposes and not just treat it as another poster in the branch. Many companies routinely display Trust Mark or similar ratings based on opinions volunteered by users. The bank league tables are based on a questionnaire sent to and answered by a random selection of current account and small business customers. More details about the survey and how it was done can be seen here

We welcome this becoming universal practice with robust and credible customer ratings for satisfaction and readiness to recommend routinely published in shops, on websites, where-ever. More please

Smart Meters: Could Try Harder?

Just as a Fitbit does not of itself make you fit, we are now learning that smart meters, those devices that are supposed to give consumers a live display of how much gas and electricity they are using, do not automatically make you smart or indeed save you energy.

A Minister and his Meter

Now that even Mike O’Brien, the minister who introduced them has admitted to ditching his own as he ‘hardly ever looks at it’ one has to ask: Why and how were they introduced, and do the benefits live up to the claims?

The National Consumer Federation has argued for years that ‘real world’ experience is often discounted when product and service regulations are being discussed.  Also, as the Grenfell enquiry is showing, too many technical ‘experts’, too much Panglossian thinking, too little common sense, is leading to costly and sometimes dangerous mistakes.  Without a strong, independent, consumer voice at decision-making level, it’s the ordinary person who loses out.

Life’s Too Short and Savings Too Small?

Mike O’Brien is typical of consumers who have more important things to do with their time than to constantly check the smart meter and analyse whether a saving has been made. In the consumer world we know that change only happens when we have the knowledge and tools to improve, not just knowing what’s wrong.  Like the Fitbit, the smart meter doesn’t help us use less power, it only shows us what our usage actually is.

We don’t need a smart meter to tell us that we need to switch lights off when we leave the room and a smart meter won’t stop us putting the kettle on when we want a cup of tea.  No wonder EU reports have indicated that savings from smart meters are quite small, European national reports putting them at between 0.6% and a maximum 4%.

Unlike other European countries where network providers run the schemes, the UK has put the top six energy companies in charge of the roll-out, spending £11billion pounds of public (our) money on a programme that is already over budget and behind schedule.  A move which has been described in an independent BEIS review as ‘a mistake with profound consequences.’  These are the very companies who have a commercial interest in maximising, not minimising, power usage.  The consumer voice in this decision-making is rarely and barely heard.

Verdict Now

On present performance our smart meter roll-out would not score too highly from a consumer point of view.  We are already paying the bill well before we seen the benefits (if any). So mid- term report card:  Could try harder?

Watch This Space

Stand by for a report from Colin Adamson who is getting his installed on September 17th. This is the second go since the last time the installers missed their own appointment. Stay in all day and nobody turns up! How was it for you?

 

These blogs reflect the views of members of the National Consumer Federation on consumer issues of the day . The views expressed are not the settled policy of NCF. Comments are welcomed. They will be moderated before posting.

 

 

 

Cross Border Parcel Deliveries

On 12 April 2018 the European Council adopted rules on cross border parcel deliveries to boost e-commerce. During the drafting of the legislation, on behalf of ANEC (The European Consumer Voice in Standardisation), I provided the European Parliament with evidence of:

  • The lack of transparency around pricing
  • Damage to goods in transit
  • Problems relating to third party courier services
  • Poor communication
  • Irresponsible delivery

I later assisted the European Parliament in drafting amendments to the legislation to include these consumer requirements and ANEC helped the Parliament to maintain these amendments through to the adopted legislation against opposition from the European Commission.

These rules will greatly benefit consumers and increase consumer confidence in cross border purchases, especially but not only, in e-commerce transactions. They will provide information about different delivery options and delivery tariffs will be published on a website, which will help users choose the best rates. Increased transparency should help create competitive pressure. The new rules are expected to be of particular benefit to consumers and small retailers, who do not have the bargaining power to negotiate better rates.

This is an important success for consumers where we have influenced draft European legislation to ensure that consumer protection measures are adopted that would otherwise not have been included in the Regulation. Consumers should also be grateful to Lucy Anderson MEP, rapporteur for the legislation at the European Parliament, for championing our consumer interests and maintaining that support against opposition during the passage of the legislation through EU adoption procedures.

Brexit Postscript
This blog demonstrates that ANEC provides an effective mechanism for consumers to influence European legislation that is related to the organisation’s primary role of providing a consumer voice in European Standardisation. From the United Kingdom perspective, European Standards will continue to be important for UK consumers and British businesses in providing a high level of consumer protection, especially where businesses are exporting to the EU. UK consumer organisations are very keen to ensure that we maintain membership of ANEC and continue to have an influential role in the development of European Standardisation and related legislation.

Arnold Pindar
Chairman,
National Consumer Federation

Is Lift and Shift Enough?

Margot James an ex-Minister for consumer rights (how fast they come and go) got it about right when she said ‘when we leave the EU we will be leaving a system of consumer rights and protection..which sits very well with the needs of consumers in the United Kingdom.’ The House of Lords European Union Committee took her up on this to ask the question whether this will be the case post-Brexit? The Government says yes pointing to what was then called the Great Repeal Bill which “will preserve the relevant EU (consumer protection) law ….It will help ensure that UK consumers’ rights continue to be robust after we have left the EU”. This is the ‘Lift and Shift’ approach whereby we just take into our law a good and effective body of EU law that protects consumers well.

Good and Better

The UK can claim credit for helping create this body of law. Indeed in many cases UK law has gone beyond what was agreed at EU level. In some cases we were ahead of the game with laws we already enjoyed here inspiring later EU action. One simple example of ‘better in Britain’ quoted by Pete Moorey Head of Campaigns at Which? was that in Britain we can reject a product for up to 30 days if there is something wrong with it. Under that Directive at EU level, that is limited to 14 days”. As an example of how UK experience and expertise influenced EU law, Lewis Shand Smith the chief Exec of Ombudsman Services referred to what the report calls the ‘specific UK influence over the creation of the legislation introducing Alternative Dispute Resolution for consumer disputes”. Again, a proposed Directive on digital content draws heavily on the Consumer Rights Act passed here in 2015.

So that’s alright then?

Not really. The issue that worries consumer organisations and others like the Trading Standards people and national regulators like the Competition and Markets Authority is the maintenance of the infrastructure that unites and informs consumer protection action across all the markets of the EU. One example quoted of successful European-wide co-operation was the agreement by five leading EU car rental companies to introduce four improvements in their service addressing consumer problems like whether you need that extra (and bloody expensive) insurance. Standards organisations although standing outside the formal structures of the EU, aim to harmonise standards and so reduce non-tariff barriers to trade across the 34 member countries so we must keep a seat at that table. It would be a very good idea to maintain consumer safety and stay part of the food safety regulator as well as medicines and aviation agencies.

Is your NEB stuck at the border?

How do we stay up to date and in line with new regulatory ideas and actions after we leave the EU? What happens when UK standards conforming to the European ones clash with those of another trading partner eg the elephant on the block the USA with its chlorinated chickens and hormone-fed beef. What happens when our wonderfully named NEB (national enforcement body) e.g the CMA can no longer rely on the cross-border enforcement system established under the Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) Regulation?

No Guarantee

The Minister told the Committee that “the Government was keen to assure everybody that there will be no dilution (of consumer protection rights) on account of our leaving the EU.” The question that goes unanswered is how can we maintain access to the mechanisms that make it happen across the whole EU? Nothing is ‘absolutely guaranteeable’ (the Minister’s words) when it comes to the new reciprocal relationships. The bodies who need those relationships to develop policy and enforce the law are feeling the pinch with resources being squeezed already. How hard is life going to be post-Brexit? Certainly as the Financial Conduct Authority said, it will “involve some very hard choices”.

“Brexit: will consumers be protected?” by the European Union Committee of the House of Lords published 19 December 2017.  HL Paper 51

 

Brexit and Food Standards

Besides a backbone of food safety laws, the EU has some useful systems in place which help to keep our food safe. For example, the European Food Safety Authority advises on risk, there is a rapid alert process for sharing information on food problems and also some shared monitoring of food. For example, EU member states commit to check samples of many staples for pesticide residues.

If the UK remains part of these processes and continues to apply very similar food standards legislation, the challenge will come if the UK negotiates trade deals outside the EU. Other countries and trade blocks have built up their own legislation and systems, which may differ from ours in important respects. We would not want to see our standards weakened.

In 2000 I worked with consumer organisations, the UK government and EU Commission to establish the Transatlantic Consumers Dialogue. The idea was to give consumer organisations on both sides of the Atlantic a say in any EU-US trade negotiations. The TACD is still going strong and sets out some helpful principles for food in trade deals, for example:

  • Leave responsibility for food issues with food rather than trade experts
  • Keep and be guided by the precautionary principle (which leads us to err on the safe side)
  • Maintain monitoring, inspection and testing

It is even more vital now that consumer voices continue to be heard on UK food standards and trade issues. Besides consumer organisations and networks like the TACD being active, individual consumer representatives sit on many government committees. These committees are likely to have an increased role as more decisions are taken in the UK rather than the EU. NCF will be watching how the committee landscape develops, calling for full consumer representation, and offering networking opportunities to consumer members.

Ann Davison

Ann is a member of NCF’s food group and its communication committee. Ann established the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue. She was awarded UK Woman of Europe 2000.