Jacqueline Minor confesses she is a ‘bad consumer’. The youthful 61-year-old admits she has never switched anything – not even her bank account or energy company – despite encouraging people to do precisely that while working in the European Commission.
And just like any other ‘regular person’ (who may also have neglected their ‘good consumer’ duties), she enjoys the simple things in life: her garden, her new puppy – a dachshund-lab mix – and trips to the theatre and cinema. What perhaps makes her different, though, is her commitment to consumer issues – despite her recent retirement. After being approached by CTSI’s ‘leading lights in policy’ early last year, Minor couldn’t refuse the invitation to advise the institute’s Brexit Think Tank (BTT) – a service she is giving for free.
“I would be the designated ‘rapporteur’ in EU jargon,” Minor laughs. “I’m just an adviser… there to give them the benefit of my very limited wisdom. I just sort of float in and float out.” Her self-deprecation belies her wealth of knowledge on all things EU. A lawyer by training, Minor has spent a lifetime working in various guises at the European Commission, dealing with consumer and intellectual property issues and becoming director for consumer policy in 2008.
In the early days she even acted as official translator for Baron Cockfield – an ‘architect’ of the single market – and former trusted adviser to Thatcher, whom colleagues later claimed had gone ‘native’. But it’s perhaps for her role as Head of Representation in the UK that Minor is best known. Dubbed the toughest job in the country – and a ‘poisoned chalice’ by some – David Cameron appointed her to the role just before announcing his intention to hold an in-out EU referendum in 2013.
Having weathered that storm, she retired from the post early last year and is now enjoying her new role working with trading standards experts on the BTT. The issues involved are legion and complex. Take the example of mobile roaming charges on mainland Europe. It’s one of the many reciprocity issues that Britain could lose out on – depending on which type of withdrawal agreement is struck.
As Minor points out, the UK could allow EU members to roam on our networks but, without an agreement, there’s no guarantee it will work the other way. It’s the same for air passenger rights: we can embody current rules in UK law, but that won’t help a UK citizen who’s travelling with Air France if there’s not an agreement with the 27 remaining member states to reciprocate.
As Minor says: ‘There’s a whole range of rules that depend upon everybody participating, and if we move out [of the EU] then there’s no guarantee. It might work, we don’t know yet.” Much will depend on the type of deal we get but, according to Minor, resolving these types of issues – and more – will be difficult, because many of those raised by Brexit are ‘part and parcel’ of being part of the single market.
On a personal level, Minor thinks the government is ‘throwing an enormous amount away’ by saying, from the off, that we’re not going to be in the Customs Union or the single market, without having done a thorough exploration of the consequences of that. She adds: ‘They’re throwing away all the benefits of size and shared expertise, shared understanding – scientific understanding in terms of health, hygiene, safety of food stuffs and consumer products.
“It’s all done on the basis of the best scientific evidence distilled from scientists working in 28 countries. They’ll no longer have access to that. In terms of enforcement, just sitting around a table and sharing that expertise is valuable, and you can put in place bilateral arrangements. But the great strength of working within the EU is that people get to know each other.”
Two EU-wide networks that Britain will no longer have access to alert officers to dangerous products and unsafe food. ‘The UK would no longer have the benefit of those systems, although the goods might well still be reaching [supermarket] shelves, whatever the arrangements,” explains Minor.
Britain’s access to other types of networks for enforcing consumer rules has also been thrown into doubt. For example, if a UK citizen travels abroad and experiences a consumer problem, the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network ensures the enforcement authority in that member state will take on board their complaint and act upon it. However, instigating a similar system post-Brexit is not guaranteed. This way of working also generates ‘knowhow’, with people sharing how they approach problems. That, too, could be lost in a post-Brexit world.
Playing by the rules
Fundamentally, Brexit’s success will boil down to how seriously other large producers view the UK market; will they kowtow to any new UK rules on, say, the height from which toys can be dropped without smashing? Personally, Minor thinks not. “In reality, if you’re a big toy manufacturer, you’re going to look at the UK market and say ‘we don’t want to change our rules just for a market that size’, so probably EU rules will apply [to Britain] but we’ll no longer have a role in shaping them. And CTSI won’t be able to feed back its on-the-ground-experience to UK government representatives [within the EU].”
About 95 per cent of toys that reach the EU market now come from China, so, as Minor puts it: ‘It’s good to have the kind of elbow power of a body as big as the EU to say to a Chinese manufacturer “these are the rules you will apply”.’ However, Brexit shouldn’t just be viewed in terms of its threats, says Minor. It presents opportunities, too.
To explain, she takes the example of a Chinese toy manufacturer which currently has three testbeds for dropping toys from set heights – usually one for the EU, one for the US and, sometimes, one for Australia. Minor says that, if some large manufacturers are already catering for a market the size of Australia’s – which is smaller than the UK’s – there is hope that they may create a fourth testbed for bespoke UK rules. This is why Minor advises that Brexit shouldn’t only be characterised as a threat. “That’s why Brexit, in some ways, is not a one-way street,” she adds.
Clout vs agility
But the fact remains that no-one actually knows how seriously the UK’s eventual new rules will be applied, if at all. She says: “If you’re doing something as a group of 27, you have a lot of trading strength. The downside is you have to get 27 [member states] to agree on what those rules should be, and that can be time consuming. As the UK, you won’t have the clout, but you will have the agility.”
Fears that Britain’s consumer protection laws will be diluted are played down by Minor, who describes that scenario as ‘unlikely’. She explains: “Everything the government has said in its white paper – which everybody has now forgotten – did say they intended to maintain the highest possible standards of consumer policy. And, to be fair, the UK has always had a fairly good reputation in terms of consumer policy, it’s not a country where government… views [it] with great suspicion as bureaucratic, obstructive and cost creating. I don’t think the British government has ever seen it like that.”
A particular pressure of being a member state at present is the increasing lobbying from business to create more ‘maximum harmonisation’ of legislation across the EU, which effectively shapes laws in favour of business and erodes consumer rights. Maximum harmonisation means every member state applies the same laws to an issue, regardless of local conditions, whereas minimum harmonisation sets a threshold that members can improve upon.
“There has been fairly constant pressure from business to move from minimum to maximum because, for business, it’s much easier if you have a standard set of rules to apply throughout 27 or 28 countries,” says Minor. ‘The difference I think – which is a problem throughout consumer policy – is that business is well organised, well equipped and well funded to make its voice heard. It’s much harder for the consumer voice to be heard because a large part of it is voluntary, so it’s not as well funded. They can’t hire the skilled lobbyists in the same way.”
Hierarchy of remedies
Ironically, while Minor was working for the EU she was partly responsible for a recent attempt to standardise laws across all member states, which would have created a universal ‘hierarchy of remedies’ for defective goods – and taken away the consumer right in the UK for an automatic refund.
“I think UK consumer bodies were always among the strongest in saying ‘why should we sacrifice our better situation in the name of harmonisation and to facilitate pan-European trading by businesses? Why should we consumers in the UK give up some of our rights?’ In this instance, the UK held out to preserve its citizens’ rights. We got beaten. We went back to minimum harmonisation – having a threshold, but allowing different countries to be more generous in granting rights to consumers. It was quite a battle. But there are new proposals on the table now about online sales, where the arguments are perhaps stronger for saying we should have a single set of rights.”
While the pressure for greater maximum harmonisation will disappear, Minor says leaving the EU won’t eradicate pressure from business on ministers to ‘redress the balance between consumers and businesses’. “But at least you won’t get that pressure to harmonise, “she adds, “which inevitably means some bits of the traditional package of consumer rights might be eroded.”. Minor accepts the referendum delivered a result that now has to be acted upon, but she wouldn’t be surprised if we end up queuing to rejoin the EU in five or 10 years’ time – particularly if we leave without a deal. By the time you read this, we should all know how much closer we are to achieving that elusive trade agreement