Is anybody listening about Brexit & Consumer Rights?

The Long Read: In this latest article, Frank examines the state of Campaigning and what needs to be done to advocate the Brexit Consumer position!

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Brexit Consumer Rights Campaigning

Frank examines what has happened since the Referendum and how messages are delivered; what is the future for UK Consumers?

Within a month of the EU Referendum result, I had already done numerous radio interviews about the consequences of the decision and its affect upon Consumer Rights.

Presenters were frustrated about what appeared at the time to be uncertainty and the continual circular arguments; I predicted that if they or their listeners thought that the issue of Brexit was going to disappear anytime soon, they would be sorely disappointed!

Fast forward to 2018 and that prediction has definitely lived up to its expectation.

In media terms, I have experienced a disinterest about the mechanics of explaining how it will affect the ordinary person in the street, often because they are concerned of upsetting one side of the vote or the other, or because they think that the issues are too complicated for their listeners.

We have begun to see that Westminster politicians, wedded to the ‘will of the people’ argument, are now coalescing around a soft option, presenting that as a potential victory, delivering a result for all. I may be a cynic, but this also presents those same politicians with the opportunity of satisfying their ‘leave’ constituents, that they delivered ‘brexit’ and for those that voted ‘remain’ that they did the best that they could; is it now time for another Referendum?

As if to demonstrate this, I saw a debate the other evening on Channel4 News (4.34) between two labour politicians in which Caroline Flint MP, described the debate as consisting of either ‘hard-line Brexiters’ or ‘hard-line Remainers’, which polarised the debate and that somehow we all had to meet in the middle. Caroline; come-on, how are those labels designed to heal the wounds of this ‘decision’ and are they not on the same level as those that produce the labels of ‘Remoaners’ or ‘Xenophobes’? In my view, the use of such terminology, from whichever side, is a crude mechanism to condition or model the listening audience!

Throughout my ‘career’ of commenting on Consumer issues, I have been free of political ties and patronage, so I can present an objective overview of the issues; that objectivity has been on show since before, during and after the Referendum. It is completely irrelevant that I voted to Remain, because as readers will see, in the coming weeks, I shall produce a draft Bill of Parliament, in which I demonstrate how Consumer Rights can be protected and enhanced within a ‘Brexit-Britain. This is the essence of debate, being able to see the other point of view, highlighting deficits and where the tide of history may be against you, offering workable solutions to mitigate the harder effects of policy.

Irrespective of what you are campaigning for, when looking at the landscape of law-making/policy-making and how it affects ordinary citizens, you have to define what is good or bad, what is beneficial and what is not and try to present a solution; the brexit decision is no different.

I have been campaigning for the last 20 years, advocating victims and consumers detrimental experiences and experiencing a greater success in Europe than at Westminster. In that time I have met many campaigners, many producing their own campaigns as a result of some injustice or family tragedy.

I have observed that first comes the flurry of action, followed by the satisfaction derived from promises, then the realisation that promises will not be met, frustration, anger and either slipping away quietly from their original purpose or becoming vociferous and being seen as ‘extreme’ in that purpose.

I have sat in the salons of Europe and the meeting rooms at the Palace of Westminster and have watched as Campaigners have harangued and at times have been verbally abusive to their targets, including their fellow campaigners.

In all of this, the one thing that all campaigners fall victim to at one time or another (including me), is the advice offered to them, that they should keep the issues simple; rarely are Civil Campaigns simple. Each campaign offers its own uniqueness and complexity that often requires a solution to match.

I have recently monitored the online twitter commentary on brexit and discovered that whether you voted to ‘remain’ or ‘leave’, that commentary ranges from positive action, to despair and in some cases insult. What the campaign’s rarely display are real examples of how Joe Blogs is going to be affected when he shops for food in the supermarket, makes contracts with companies outside the UK, to buying that gleaming car from his local car-dealer.

Sure, the debate highlights the issues with a growing gravitas, alleged lies about post-brexit benefits (note this morning’s headline in the Telegraph in which they offer that the PM is now apparently talking about a ‘dividend’ from brexit for the NHS, but the strapline reveals this will happen through taxation, borrowing and EU Funding returns), misuse of data, alleged foreign interference in our democratic process and so on; but the debate is short on demonstrating what it actually means to Mr & Mrs Blogs!

With that in mind, I have sought since June 2016, to examine and comment on the issues at stake and I have concluded that there is little desire to examine detail, to explain, to understand how this decision could potentially affect your life. In fact, there is more analysis and engagement on talent shows and the latest fad, ‘Love Island’, than on fundamental issues that will have an impact on our day-to-day activities.

Throughout my campaigning career, I have always reached out to other campaigning groups, simply because if there is an opportunity to understand and advocate for a cross-partnership of campaigning, then I will do so. I recently met the Campaign Group - SODEM (Stand of Defiance European Movement), who stand dutifully outside Parliament, each day that it is in session, calling those of a like mind to action and our politicians to account.

I discovered within them a passion and a solid belief that the vote in June 2016 was flawed and therefore did not give the British people a fair analysis of the issues.

I was interested in their recent endeavours whereby they interview Westminster politicians, asking them how will brexit benefit the British people. Watching their camera-phone interviews reveals a range of reactions, from obvious irritation to a cryptic or a rude response to the question. However, when you listen to the ‘value’ responses, they amount to nothing more than aspiration, with no detail on how they intend to deliver on the promises made.

But then this has been the tone of the debate since June 2016, no detail and whatever the political flag (with the exception of the Scottish Nationalists), generic aerosol comments are made about protections and this is the case for Consumer Rights. 

From my perspective these encounters only present further questions and a lack of recognition or acceptance, that such generality will deliver uncertainty of the laws being carried over and a real risk to rights posed by deregulation. If Consumers want to understand what government is doing about rights and how the future will look, then they should look no further than the debate about access to Justice, both Criminal and Civil, to see the fundamental changes being made, with barely a whisper of opposition within Parliament!

I have met the SODEM Campaigners twice outside parliament, to examine their understanding on how a brexit will affect Consumer Rights. I have been witness to a succession of abuse towards them from passing black-cab drivers to people passing by offering an illogical and rude opinion about these protesters beliefs. That is the nature of our democracy; argument, discussion, disagreement, but it should be also about a wider and more detailed engagement of the issues.

In my first meeting with these Campaigners I promised that I would return and provide an on-camera interview, to answer the question of how brexit will benefit the British people from a Consumer perspective.

On-camera, I answered this question by relating it to the experience of Consumers.

I explained that it was not clear that it would provide any benefit; I then referred to my evidence.

I talked about the difference of Consumer involvement in the law-making process. My experience and that of other Campaigners was that there was a big difference in being able to access policy-makers and politicians at Westminster by comparison to Brussels. Industry at Westminster has a revolving door whereas Consumers do not.

I offered that all this was important because we are engrained in a Single Market and all our laws, which Ministers and UK Parliament agree to at an European level, govern the reality of how Consumers engage in that cross-border market and our rights therein; just because we may leave the EU, will not make any difference in how we will buy our goods in the future.

I expressed the view that one of the greatest threats to the continuance of existing Consumer Rights was to be found in the so-called Henry VIII clauses in the Bill currently passing through parliament; my fear was that post brexit, our Consumer Protections would be subject to an arbitrary ‘red-line’ policy adopted by government and Ministers.

One aspect that concerned me was the lack of real political comment on Consumer issues; the mantra is that everything will be OK, there will be no change, but, there is no real political explanation, no examination, politicians do not speak to Consumers!

I gave several examples of how I expected problems to present themselves. In the first instance there was the problem of how you implement EU law; EU law provides cross-border solutions, but by all accounts, the UK will be a third-party country and therefore not able to enjoy access to those solutions. An example was to be found in the current European Small Claims Process. Because UK Consumers often buy goods and make contracts with companies based on mainland Europe, if something goes wrong, they can pop into their local county court and begin and run an action for complaints of up to €2,000. In order to allow continuance of that Consumer Right, it is going to require a reciprocal agreement between the UK and EU Members States and this could potentially lead for the need for Consumers to access an appeal process, mindful of European Law, up to the European Court of Justice; can you see the problem?

I expressed the view that the changes that will take place, will introduce Consumers to greater difficulties on resolution and will cost them more time and money!

I then flipped the coin of my argument; what if politicians are serious about protecting current Consumer protections; what would they have to do to achieve this goal?

I suggested that Westminster politicians would have to provide radical solutions, such as ensuring that rights were truly enshrined in law, introducing the obligation for Consumers to sit on boards of companies, putting Consumers at the heart of policy-making by giving them equal access to the law-making process.

I concluded however that the likelihood of this happening was remote. There is a lack of political will or indeed understanding of Consumer issues, but more concerning, was that I had concluded that the inaction and lack of engagement was really masking the real agenda; deregulation. This was an important point because there sits within the European Union a recommendation (it has yet to be implemented into EU Law), that Consumers should be able to form a cross-border group action, where common legal issues or complaints arise; this was something that Industry and the UK government (perhaps the Parliament), intent on a ‘deregulatory’ agenda would fear. There was only one way to bolster Consumer confidence in the whole brexit process and that was for government to commit to entering into reciprocal agreements to build confidence; that was a huge task because of the sheer volume of agreements that would be required!

I would estimate the interview on-camera lasted 4-5 minutes.

After I had delivered the interview, we discussed the length of the commentary. I explained that Consumer issues were complex and there was no easy explanation; I had boiled the key points down to a minimum.

I confess I went away a little disappointed and wondering whether anyone actually wanted to hear the detail of the difficulties that ordinary citizens will face; surely we need to lift our heads up and start to have that serious conversation? 

Perhaps now is the time for all single-interest Campaigners to have that conversation about brexit and its affects. We could start with those affected by Carbon Monoxide, those concerned about the toxins we are exposed to on a daily basis from the fuel used in our homes. We could speak to the pilots, crew and passengers affected by the exposure to chemicals within an aircraft’s environment, or how about holiday Consumers affected by fumes on cruise ships, sexual assault and disappearances. We could talk to those affected by the stringent interpretation of rules at airports when trying to carry their diabetic-pumps, or perhaps those campaigning for reduction in sugar in foods. We could talk to those affected by the suspicious deaths of their loved one’s abroad and how the UK ‘interpretation’ of cross-border rules are rarely considered; we could speak to the many young people affected by crime in holiday resorts, often with serious consequences. We could hear from those affected by fracking or the run-off waters from airports. The list is endless, but can you see how their stories and experiences could demonstrate a Westminster deficit and how a brexit could fundamentally affect any action they could take? I can tell you that Europe is not perfect, but from an action, policy and law-making perspective, there is more progress being taken on some of these issues that is or will be evident from the UK parliament!

I have met many Campaigners, some whom have campaigned for many years, in one case, for over 40 years and still Westminster politicians have not changed one single comma, let alone a word of the legislation, that will deliver safety to Consumers; that is the reality facing post-brexit Consumers! 

I think this point is important and here again, I am going to make another prediction: If you think that brexit is difficult, that it is too difficult to explain or understand, then stand-by, hold on to your hats, because you are in for the ride of your life when you speculate, engage and wonder how you are going to manage the Westminster Waltz; so-called sovereignty is about to deliver a huge disappointment compared to the progress that has been made over the last 45 years!

It is the ordinary Consumer’s experience, their problems, their reality that will change the debate in this country; it is a story that I shall continue to tell.