Trading Standards and consumer rights were in the spotlight yesterday evening (6 February) in the House of Lords as peers came together for the second reading of the Retained EU Law Bill (REUL).
REUL would involve rewriting thousands of pieces of legislation derived from the UK’s membership of the EU by 31 December 2023. This legislation includes vital consumer protections, food and product safety laws and regulations affecting animal health and welfare, as well as laws safeguarding the environment and workers’ rights.
During the debate, which saw peers from across the House express forthright views about REUL and its implications, CTSI President Lord Lindsay said: “CTSI and its coalition of partner organisations see considerable merit in the opportunity to reappraise and update the legislation and regulations that underpin Trading Standards and consumer safety. However, they are deeply concerned about the practicability of doing this comprehensively, with due process and to good effect, across such a vast swathe of legislation, given the proposed sunset deadline at the end of the year and the minimalist approach to consultation and parliamentary scrutiny.
“CTSI, alongside organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, the Child Accident Prevention Trust and Electrical Safety First, is therefore calling for the proposed sunset deadline of 31 December 2023 to be revisited. Their understandable fear is that, with thousands of pieces of vitally important but often complex legislation needing to be reviewed, rewritten or sunsetted, mistakes, omissions and contradictions are inevitable. This in turn could result in key protections for consumers and businesses being undermined or lost.
“More specifically, CTSI and its partners are concerned that the Bill creates a lack of clarity around Trading Standards’ duties to enforce laws vital to ensuring the safety of products such as toys, electrical appliances and cosmetics; could weaken fair trading rules that protect consumers and law-abiding businesses; could undermine rules that ensure the welfare of animals and the UK’s ability to export animal products to EU member states; could result in diminished information requirements for food provenance, allergens and use-by dates; could make convictions for consumer rights offences unsafe if the laws that underpin them are not clear and coherent; and poses a threat to life due to differences in technical metrology definitions in the healthcare sector, on the road and at sea.”
REUL, the brainchild of former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, was also broadly criticised for its laissez-faire approach to parliamentary scrutiny and the democratic process. Last week the House of Lords’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee published a report describing how REUL “runs directly counter to the principles of parliamentary democracy”.
In his opening remarks at yesterday’s debate, Lord Fox said that REUL “hands huge powers to ministers at the expense of elected MPs” and that “far from creating higher standards, it can only keep them the same or make them lower”.
Baroness Chapman criticised REUL for “bringing chaos to rights and standards”, describing it as “reckless, unpopular, and worst of all, unnecessary”.
“Business does not want an uncontrolled bonfire of regulation; the truth is that good regulation enables business and trade… it raises standards,” she added.
Lord Liddle described REUL as “one of the silliest pieces of legislation ever to come before Parliament”, adding that “the only thing this legislation allows is a lowering of standards”.
Baroness Altman said: “Neither business nor consumers want this Bill. It would leave our country and its framework of rules, laws and protections in a state of prolonged uncertainty.
“The overarching soundbite seems to be ‘regulations must be bad, so we have to get rid of them’. But ‘regulations’ are basically another word for ‘protections’. Indeed, regulations can be drivers of growth,” she added.
Former CTSI President Baroness Crawley commented: “At a time of unprecedented economic woe in our country, with food banks doing a roaring trade and exporters on their knees, the Government think it is a good idea automatically to revoke or sunset most retained EU law at the end of the year, law which underpins so much of the daily life of the country.
“It is law which underpins the common framework, the process by which the new UK internal market is being built post-Brexit; consumer laws which protect consumers from scams and rogue traders – as a vice-president of CTSI, I see that the Bill as it stands could make convictions for consumer rights offences unsafe – as well as laws on food safety, product safety, animal health, intellectual property and weights and measures regulations. If I remember rightly, it was a row over weights and measures in a market square in Tunisia that led to the Arab spring. Goodness only knows what this reckless legislation will lead to.”
While CTSI has affirmed that following the UK’s departure from the EU there is an opportunity for responsible legislative reform which should be embraced, it has expressed concerns about the possibility of effectively reviewing much of the legislation by the current deadline. CTSI Chief Executive John Herriman wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister in November 2022, in which he said: “As the country wrestles with a cost-of-living crisis which every day brings increasing levels of consumer harm, rushing to scrap the very laws which serve as a bulwark against the rising tide of threats seems at best short-sighted and, at worst, recklessly irresponsible.”