EXPERIENCES IN EUROPE AS CONSUMER CHAMPION
Arnold Pindar writes:
Over the last 20 years my role has been to seek improvements to consumer protection through the consumer movement. I also continue to work on European and international standards. This personal work has obviously played a part in shaping with colleagues the preferences and policies of the NCF.
We hoped that our discussions and conclusions might help inject a note of realism and relevance into the debate. Unfortunately the debate sadly appears to have become more rancorous and emotional. Nevertheless even at this late stage, I believe re-telling the facts of the impact of consumer representation might help reduce the temperature and introduce some semblance of the realities of making things better for consumers. The issues often will appear niggly and boring – actually they often are niggly and boring. But cumulatively they build markets that consumers trust and whose outputs they can enjoy with confidence.
From 1977 I represented UK Government at European Commission and Council Working Parties developing Directives aimed at harmonising trade. More recently I have represented UK consumers in Europe, mainly through ANEC, the European Consumer Voice in Standardisation. Throughout the period I have also been involved with formal standardisation work through the British Standards Institution and the European and international standards organisations.
Going back to basics for a moment – when the UK joined the Common Market in 1973 there was a need to bring together national regulations to remove what is called “non-tariff barriers” to trade. Individual EEC member states had experience of accidents that harmed consumers and had developed legislation to reduce the chance of those accidents reoccurring resulting a hodge podge of national regulations that manufacturers/importers/exporters had to meet in order to sell their products in any particular Member State. Added to this, approved test methods differed between countries resulting in extra costs for businesses.
One Regulation, One Test
My job, as a representative of the UK Department of Trade and Industry (now BEIS), along with many others, was to bring together the differing regulations and to develop/confirm test methods that had the confidence of all member states. This reduced the costs for business in knowing that they only had one regulation and one test method to follow in order to sell their products throughout the common market.
The huge benefit for consumers was that by bringing regulations together, the safety of consumer products was enhanced. For example, if the UK had very good regulations on one aspect of safety, perhaps mechanical safety, and Germany had good regulations on another aspect, say chemical safety, putting the two strengths together resulted in very much safer products. Of course, safety would have improved over the years without these initiatives but the process accelerated consumer protection throughout the expanding European market.
A second major advance took place in about 1984 when “the New Approach” was adopted in Europe. Up to then, detailed safety requirements and test methods had to be negotiated in Brussels by government representatives to be adopted in legislation. Progress was slow due to the legislative process. Any necessary changes to legislation due to new information e.g. an advance in test procedures, resulted in long delays in adapting legislation to technical progress. The New Approach placed essential requirements in legislation but allowed all the detailed requirements and test methods to be developed by European Standards System (through the European Standards Organisations, CEN, CENELEC and ETSI). This was particularly beneficial for consumers who have the right to be represented on standards technical committees but do not have direct representation at the legislative level.
Result: Better Consumer Protection
However, one example where we have had influence on legislation and on which I wrote a previous blog (April 2018) is that of cross border parcel deliveries where, presenting ANEC research data to the European Parliament, resulted in significant amendments being made to the draft Regulation to ensure that consumer protection measures were fully included.
Of course, there are also some disappointments. For a number of years, I have been trying to influence the European Commission to introduce legislation for fire safety in hotels and tourist accommodation. The Commission has been supportive in this endeavour but has failed to convince the politicians in a number of the Member States, including the United Kingdom, to support an initiative. Some years ago, the European Commission held meetings in the Members States to test views.
I attended the meeting in London and was disappointed to hear that the UK would not be supporting the initiative. The reason given was that we had appropriate legislation covering hotels and tourist accommodation in the UK. At the meeting I asked the UK Chairman if this meant that UK citizens were equally protected when travelling in other European countries. He did not reply but promptly closed the meeting.
EU Tries Hard
Without Member State support, the European Commission then did the best they could by inviting the European Hotel associations to develop a Charter and methodology for fire safety in hotels. This work progressed and I was member of a consumer panel providing consumer advice to the project. However, the trade bodies failed to agree on a Charter. I believe this was due to such a document being seen as quasi-law in some countries and hence, too restricting for the hotel trade to accept. They did make progress on the methodology but again this fell short of providing the assistance that many small to medium sized enterprises really needed.
EU has worked for consumers
So overall my experiences are that enhanced consumer protection has been achieved and is a success story for the European Union. It started from a need to bring together the many non-tariff barriers to trade but is now focused on developing the European single market. There is still much for the EU to do for consumers, especially in harmonising the safety of services, but in spite of some disappointments and occasional setbacks working together across the EU has been very beneficial in the areas of which I have experience.