What does triggering Article 50 mean for our consumer rights?

Flags of Great Britain and European Union

When Theresa May triggers Article 50 on Wednesday, she starts a countdown that will see the UK leave the EU in 2019.

During the run-up to the referendum, Brexit campaigners complained of 'red tape' hampering British business, claiming that as much as two thirds of British law is derived from the EU.

It's not a claim that stands up to fact-checking: it includes product regulations as well as laws, including plenty that don't even affect the UK - standards for olive oil production for example.

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But all the same, there's no doubt that much consumer law, including rights we've been used to for years, is derived from European legislation. So where do we go from here?

Product protections
There's concern that chasing trade with the US will mean accepting the US's far lower levels of food safety. It would mean we'd have to put up with unlabelled genetically modified food, for example, along with chicken washed in chlorine, and meat from animals permanently dosed with antibiotics.

And more general consumer rights could be under threat too.

"For over 40 years, EU consumer policy has led to a strong set of consumer rights and protections," says the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC).

"Across the EU, consumers can return a good they purchased online within 14 days of the sale. Chemical products need to meet robust safety standards before being marketed in the EU. Thanks to the cooperation between market watchdog bodies, unsafe products can be removed swiftly from any shop in the single market. Food products can only carry health claims if they are scientifically proven (for instance 'this product will strengthen your immune system'). It is unclear how Brexit will impact on these achievements."

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However, the most important thing to note is that, thanks to the Great Repeal Bill, all EU law is enshrined in British law for the time being, meaning that your rights won't change for at least the next two years.

And, depending on the terms on which we leave, the chances are that much consumer law will stay the same afterwards. If the UK wants to continue trading with the EU - a far more important market than the US - we will need to carry on offering similar levels of consumer protection.

"However, over this period, uncertainty will remain over live EU issues," says Marzena Lipman, policy manager with the Citizens' Advice Bureau.

"This includes the EU regulations which were adopted by the European Parliament, but have not been implemented yet in the UK law such as the EU data protection rules, the revised Payment Service Directive; or other regulatory proposals which are in the pipeline (for example the EU telecoms regulations)."

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Meanwhile, many rights that we currently enjoy when travelling are under threat - and the bad news is that these are much less likely to be retained after we leave the EU.

Passenger rights
EU legislation sets a minimum level of protection over issues such as delays, cancellations, damaged luggage or special mobility needs. For example, under EU rules, passengers can claim compensation for certain flight delays within the EU and between EU and non-EU airports.

Whether or not we keep these rights depends on the deal Theresa May signs. If, like Norway for example, we sign a constitutional treaty with the EU without being a member, passengers will continue to receive compensation for delayed, cancelled or overbooked flights. However, under the hard Brexit May has signalled she's planning, most of these rights could vanish. While passengers flying into the EU would in theory still have some protection, they might have to go to court in another country to receive compensation.

Health benefits
Currently, the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) entitles UK citizens to free or reduced-cost treatment in other EU countries. It's highly unlikely that this system will be continued unless EU citizens are given equivalent access to the NHS.

Phone roaming charges
Over the last few years, the EU has gradually forced phone companies to reduce their roaming charges - and to pledge to eliminate them altogether by June this year. However, once the UK leaves the EU, companies won't have to offer this to UK citizens - and if they don't have to, the chances are they won't.

All in all, many Brexit campaigners have been keen to get rid of what they see as a European stranglehold on British law. However, it's worth remembering that, like the 'red tape on businesses' that gives disabled people equal employment rights and guarantees sick pay and maternity pay, most consumer law brings far more benefit than harm to British people.

As a result, organisations such as Which? and Citizens Advice have pledged to keep fighting to retain our rights, whatever May decides.

Says Citizens Advice: "Whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, Citizens Advice will work with the government and other stakeholders to ensure that consumer protections remain strong post Brexit."

10 consumer rights you should know
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10 consumer rights you should know

The law states that any goods you buy from a UK retailer should be of satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose and last a reasonable amount of time.

This applies even if you buy items in a sale or with a discount voucher. You may have to insist on these rights being respected, though.

Useful phrases to use when you want to show you mean business include, "according to the Sale of Goods Act 1979" and, if it's a service, "according to the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982".

Some shops will allow you to exchange goods without a receipt, but they can refuse to should they wish.

If the goods are faulty, however, another proof of purchase such as a bank statement should work just as well.

If you attempt to return goods within four weeks of the purchase, your chances of getting a full refund are much higher as you can argue that you have not "accepted" them.

After this point, you can only really expect an exchange, repair or part-refund.

The updated Consumer Credit Act states that card companies are jointly and severally liable for credit card purchases of between £100 and £60,260 (whether or not you paid just a deposit or the whole amount on your card).

Anyone spending between these amounts on their credit card is therefore protected if the retailer or service provider goes bust, their online shopping never arrives or the items in question are faulty or not as described.

Start by writing to the agency asking it to either remove or change the entry that you think is wrong. It will investigate the matter and find out whether you have been the victim of ID theft or a bank's mistake.

Within 28 days from receipt of your letter the agency should tell you how the bank has responded. If the bank agrees to change the entry, they will authorise the agency to update their records. They should also send updates to any other credit reference agencies they use.

You can also contact your lender directly to query a mistake. If the lender agrees to the discrepancy, ask them to confirm this in writing on their letterhead and send a copy to the agency, asking them to update your file.

The FOS settles disputes between financial companies such as banks and consumers.

If a financial organisation rejects a complaint you make about its services, you can therefore escalate that complaint to the FOS - as long as you have given the company in question at least eight weeks to respond.

The FOS will then investigate the case, and could force the company to offer you compensation should it see fit.

Bailiffs are allowed to take some of your belongings to sell on to cover certain debts, including unpaid Council Tax and parking fines.

They can, for example, take so-called luxury items such as TVs or games consoles. However, they cannot take essentials such as fridges or clothes.

What's more, they can only generally enter your home to take your stuff if you leave a door or window open or invite them in.

You are therefore within your rights to refuse them access and to ask for related documents such as proof of their identity. If they try to force their way in, you can also call the police to stop them.

Private sector debt collectors do not have the same powers as bailiffs, whatever they tell you.

They cannot, for example, enter your home and take your possessions in lieu of payment.

In fact, they can only write, phone, or visit your home to talk to you about paying back the debt. As with bailiffs, you can also call the police if you feel physically threatened.

Thanks to the Distance Selling Regulations, you actually have more rights buying online or by phone than on the High Street.

You can, for example, send most goods back within a week, for a full refund (including outward delivery costs), even if there's no fault.

You will usually need to pay for the return delivery, though. The seller must then refund you within 30 days.

We enter into contracts all the time, whether it be to join a gym, switch energy supplier or take out a loan.

In most cases, once you've signed a contract, you are legally bound by it. In some situations, however, you have the right to cancel it within a certain timeframe.

Credit agreements, for example, can be cancelled within 14 days. And online retailers must tell you about your cancellation rights for any contract made up to stand up legally.


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