Thank you very much for inviting me here today, and thank you to the National Consumer Federation for hosting a conference specifically on our withdrawal from the European Union.
I should start by saying that I have a strong personal attachment to consumer rights and consumer protection. My father used to boast that he was one of the early members of the Consumer Association; and much to mother’s consternation, he kept almost every copy of Which? to prove it.
Of course, much has changed in the world since the late 1950s and 1960s. For example, if we were not here to discuss our relationship with Europe, I suspect we would be discussing something else equally profound and that’s the impact on consumers and businesses.
Before I joined the Government, I saw first-hand what this has meant for consumers and businesses, working both for a large retailer and, more recently, a retail bank. Social media, the power to shop whenever you like, wherever you are, gives consumers information, influence and a voice like never before. All of which is, in my mind, a very good thing.
And now, against that backdrop of seismic change, we are contending with another change; our withdrawal from the European Union.
Consumer groups’ concerns
Looking at the agenda for today’s event, I know some of the issues that are concerning you. I’d like to thank you for having raised them with us.
We all agree that a key part of securing choice and affordability for consumers is promoting competitive markets. The UK’s competition regime is rightly considered one of the world’s best. Robust enforcement of that regime by the independent Competition and Markets Authority will continue after we exit the EU.
A number of you have also told us how important it will be for consumer voices to be heard, and their interests understood from the outset.
I, and my fellow ministers across Government, read with interest the letter from Which?, Money Saving Expert, and the Citizens Advice Bureau. And, with our colleagues in BEIS, we are certainly looking forward to further engagement, following the Brexit roundtable which many of you attended in December.
This ongoing dialogue will be crucial because of the importance of the points you’ve raised, namely ensuring consumer rights are maintained; and that we continue high standards of product safety and our robust system of consumer enforcement.
So let me try to address some of these issues, but before I do that, I’ll start by setting out the Government’s approach overall.
A unique partnership
Amidst all the noise and speculation about the negotiations, I’d like everyone to remember two simple things.
First, we want to do a deal with the European Union. We believe a deal is in our nation’s interests, and in Europe’s interests. As has been said before, we may be leaving the EU, but we are not leaving Europe. Its prosperity and security has been interwoven with ours for centuries: that’s not going to change.
As the Prime Minister has said, what we are looking for is a new, deep and special partnership. A partnership that spans both trade in goods and services and wider links – covering security, for example.
And unlike other nations that have negotiated trade deals with the EU, we find ourselves in a unique position. We have been a member of the EU for over 40 years.
Most of our regulations and standards, and many of our laws, are completely aligned with the European Union. All of this gives us a very firm bedrock on which to build this new partnership – a partnership that we will negotiate very mindful of the benefits and the protections that consumers in the UK currently enjoy.
The Great Repeal Bill
Obviously EU laws and regulations are interwoven with many of these protections and rights. So the first. and critical, thing to say is that we are going to convert EU law, as it applies in the UK, into our domestic law on the day we leave.
This will mean that, wherever practical and sensible, the same laws and rules will apply immediately before and immediately after our departure.
Furthermore, the case law of the rulings of the European Court of Justice, as it stands on the day we leave, will be taken into account by British courts. That also ensures certainty and protects rights.
For consumers, and that’s all of us, this means that the rights and protections that are derived from EU regulations and directives; ranging from food labelling to unfair contract terms, will continue.
To do this, we will be passing the Great Repeal Bill. This Bill will repeal the European Communities Act, convert EU law into UK law and give the Government the power to correct any legal anomalies, so our statute book functions properly from the day we leave.
Now I know that some people are saying that we should tear up some of the regulations as we leave the EU. Well, we’re not going to do that, for a number of reasons.
First, the vote to leave was a vote to leave, period. Leaving means ensuring that Parliamentary sovereignty is unquestioned, and putting Parliament, and where appropriate, the devolved legislatures, in control.
Once that has happened, it will be up to elected representatives in those institutions to decide what to do. That’s for another day. We’ve enough to do in the meantime.
And the second reason we have taken this approach is certainty. Change is always unsettling, and the more we can do to lessen that uncertainty the better. That’s the case for businesses, and for consumers.
To that end, we have made it clear in last week’s White Paper that the power to enable corrections to EU law will be limited. It is not a vehicle for policy changes, but it will give the Government the necessary power to correct or remove the laws that would otherwise not function properly once we have left the EU.
And the third reason for this approach is that, on the day we leave, it will be beyond doubt that our standards and regulations are the same as in the EU.
And that brings me onto the issue of standards. For the question is, even if our regulatory system is completely aligned with the EU’s on the day we leave, what happens then?
Again, let me take a step back. Our aim is for the UK and the EU to continue to trade freely and without friction. While much of the debate often focuses on tariffs, what matters as much to businesses and obviously consumers, are non-tariff barriers, especially on issues such as standards.
As I am sure you will know, standards are written by various bodies. There are international bodies, such as UN-ECE, setting standards for cars. There are also independent European bodies, such as CEN, CENELEC and ETSI.
And there are British bodies, such as the British Standards Institution, which provides a UK voice into those European bodies and adopts common standards. When companies abide by European standards, therefore, these are often, but not always, standards developed by non-EU bodies .
They’re also created increasingly at the global level, through bodies like ISO, IEC and ITU. British industry and the BSI will continue to play a leading role in the international standards organisations, and we encourage British consumer groups to continue to make their voice heard in these organisations after we exit.
I am delighted with the work we are doing with BSI to ensure that our future relationship with the European Standards Organisations continues to support a productive, open and competitive business environment in the UK.
When we leave the EU, it is clear that, as the Prime Minister wrote in her letter to Donald Tusk last week, we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy. What is also clear is that we will need to agree with the EU a means by which we, and the EU, manage the evolution of our regulatory frameworks to enable trade.
Whilst the Prime Minister has been clear that we are seeking a deep and special partnership with the EU, we are examining examples of regulatory mechanisms in recent trade agreements so we can best understand the problems and challenges, as well as the potential solutions. For example, the Canadian-EU trade deal establishes a forum for regulatory cooperation.
And we also recognise the importance of effective market surveillance systems in helping support the enforcement of product safety and offer protections for consumers buying goods across borders.
Getting this right is obviously important and you will have seen that the Prime Minister has proposed that these regulatory frameworks should be an early priority for the negotiations.
And as those negotiations proceed, let’s not forget that:
- the UK will still be a member of many international fora crucial for consumer protection, such as the International Standards Organisations and CODEX Alimentarius for food safety
- the BSI’s future membership of European bodies is distinct from our membership of the EU, as CEN and CENELEC are private organisations
- crucially, and as I have said before; on day one, our regulations and standards will be completely aligned with those of the EU
Redress and enforcement
Knowing that something you buy is meant to meet a certain standard is one thing: but what happens if things go wrong and you want to seek redress?
It’s obviously critical that in today’s digital age, whether it’s UK citizens booking a holiday in the EU, or EU citizens buying a product from the UK, people have confidence in making a purchase.
I can’t go into detail on this as how we do this will also be a matter for negotiation. There are areas of our law that require reciprocal cooperation with the EU.
For example, this might be ensuring that tourists travelling from the UK to the EU, or EU to the UK, have the same level of protection to which they have become accustomed. This I would argue is in the interests of all involved.
The Government fully understands the complexity of these issues and the fact that I haven’t gone into detail on them here doesn’t mean that we don’t recognise their importance.
We are determined to cooperate closely with our EU partners on these issues, and on the enforcement of consumer rights across the EU after we leave.
So: pouring EU law into UK law; standards; redress. These are just some of the building blocks of our approach to the many consumer issues we face. But our withdrawal from the EU raises a plethora of others, which I am sure you will discuss today, but let me touch briefly on two.
The first is data protection. Here, again, the UK is 100 per cent compliant with EU regulations. The first step in maintaining stability of cross-border data transfers is the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the UK by May 2018, ensuring a shared and higher standard of protection for businesses, consumers and their data.
When considering the changing European data protection landscape, and the UK’s position in it, we are committed to finding arrangements that offer both simplicity and legal certainty to both businesses and individuals.
A second issue is food safety, which is obviously essential for all of us. British food is renowned and respected for its high standards of animal welfare, safety, and traceability.
Maintaining consumer confidence in the safety, choice and price of food must be a priority in the UK’s negotiations to exit the EU and these high standards will not be diminished once we leave.
Those are just two issues; there are many more. And, as I said, I very much hope that your organisations will flag to BEIS and our department specific concerns you might have on other topics. Given the complexity of the issues, we welcome detailed, practical suggestions on how to address the challenges we face.
But it’s easy to think about Brexit just in terms of challenges. That would be wrong. And it would also be wrong to think that preserving EU protections through the Great Repeal Bill means that consumer protections might stagnate.
You will all have seen the Government’s plans for a Green Paper to seek views on consumers and markets, and some of you have contributed to its development, for which I’d like to thank you.
This Green Paper, to be published shortly, will be an important opportunity to examine markets that are not working efficiently or fairly. And we will carry on pushing for innovations at the international level.
I’ll end by saying this. Consumer protections are crucial for consumer confidence and a strong economy.
A lot of you here today have insight into the key concerns of consumers, and so you can provide invaluable advice to us in Government, so we understand fully consumers’ needs.
Our door is wide open to hear your thoughts on how we can achieve these shared goals and give consumers a voice in our negotiations.
We want to hear your views and the views of your members. We want to work with you, alongside business, to build a strong economy and a society where everyone feels valued and included and has a chance to do their very best.
Thanks for inviting me, and thanks for listening.