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Minister Pat Breen TD on Ireland’s National Consumer Dialogue for the ‘New Deal for Consumers’ package launched by the EU Commission

Good afternoon, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen,

First, I want to thank the European Commission for hosting this event here in Dublin today and I think it is important for us to have a national dialogue on the ‘New Deal for Consumers’ package which was announced by Commissioner Jourova last April as it undergoes technical scrutiny in the EU institutions at present. I am pleased to see a very strong panel of speakers here today drawn from advocacy, business, academia, regulation and enforcement and I am sure that they will stimulate an active debate about the protection of the consumer both in today’s digital economy and in the physical retail world.

Protecting consumers today is as much about ensuring that they have access to relevant information on product performance and safety issues, remedies, rights and dispute resolution mechanisms as it has providing national statutory enforcement structures to protect consumers from unfair and damaging behaviours by some traders. Consumer protection is an increasingly important part of the EU agenda with the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union specifically recognising the need to “promote measures focussed on minimum standards of protection for consumers across the EU in areas such as consumer sales, unfair contract terms, distance sales and sales which take place off the trader’s premises. It is a positive development that we see a significant acceleration in legislative initiatives that specifically serve to increase the consumers awareness of and access to relevant information and for effective tools for stopping harmful behaviours by some traders and providing consumers with a method to seek redress when their economic interests have been harmed.

The two proposed Directives which make up the package are both useful and timely and I would like to thank Commissioner Jourova for investing her time and political capital in bringing them forward.

The “New Deal for Consumers” aims to facilitate coordination and effective action from national consumer authorities at EU level and reinforce public enforcement action and better protection of consumer rights. It follows on from the results published in May 2017 by the European Commission of its Fitness Check of a number of the most important pieces of consumer protection legislation and a separate evaluation report on consumer rights. The evaluations found that while EU consumer law overall was fit for purpose, there was a need for targeted legislative changes to address certain identified shortcomings in the Directives and to take account of developments in the digital sphere. A specific requirement was identified for improved enforcement and enhanced redress options for consumers. The evaluations also indicated that there was a need to reduce the regulatory burden on traders in some areas.  

Over the last decade we have seen significant changes in the way consumers and businesses conduct their business due to advancements in digital technology and methods of online commerce. As the nature of consumer markets are changing to reflect consumers’ changing lifestyles and preferences and we see business changing its methods of operation to facilitate this demand for greater individuality and responsiveness, we have to ensure that consumer protection laws are up to date and fit for purpose to ensure that consumers can be assured of the necessary legal protections when they conduct business both in the online marketplace and on traders’ premises.

We have seen first-hand with the digital commerce revolution that consumers are exposed to a range of risks and challenges not previously envisaged when they commit to purchasing goods and the subsequent scenario of consumers left looking for answers when traders fail to live up to their contractual commitments. The source of much of our recent consumer protection legislation has been the EU and it has created rights and obligations for consumers and traders to ensure that the large imbalance in economic power and information asymmetry between them is addressed and the balance kept in check. It is important that our consumers equip themselves with the right kind of information before they decide to buy and that they are clear what rights and remedies they have available to them, if things go wrong. It is also important that consumers know that they can call on a strong and well-resourced independent consumer and competition body which will look into things if their consumer welfare is harmed by unacceptable commercial behaviours by a trader. In Ireland, we have the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC in brief) which is the independent statutory agency for ensuring that markets are open and competitive and where consumers are protected and empowered and businesses actively compete. The strength of a body such as the CCPC is that it has responsibility for monitoring many areas of commercial activity in Ireland which impact on consumers and it has a strong network of connections with sectoral regulators such as the Central Bank, COMREG and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities where it can ensure that consumers have a strong voice when circumstances arise that adversely affect the consumers’ welfare. The CCPC is also networked at European level with the European Commission and national enforcement and compliance authorities of the other 27 Member States and this ensures that the CCPC has good intelligence and understanding of developments and risks that may affect Irish consumers or behaviours by an Irish based trader which may affect consumers elsewhere in the EU.

Legislative proposals from the EU such as the proposed Regulation for Mutual Recognition of Goods within EU Single Market, the EU regulation on Unjustified Geo-blocking and the current draft Directive on Representative Actions contribute to the goals of the Digital Single Market Strategy (DSM) by creating a clear, transparent and stable legal environment for online Business-to-Consumer (B2C) service providers and their business users, to tackle market fragmentation and to allow all players to tap into the new market dynamics under fair and balanced conditions and with an appropriate degree of transparency. Ireland is committed to the digital agenda and, in particular, to the pursuit of the EU Digital Single Market (DSM) strategy. Digitisation is increasing on a vast scale and Ireland continues to be regarded as one of the EU’s digital frontrunners. Ireland fully support the overall DSM agenda and the Government sees obvious synergies between digital policy initiatives at EU level and national policy.

In particular, I want to underline the benefits to SME businesses that the DSM will bring in terms of market access and opportunities for growth. In helping to progress the DSM strategy, Ireland wants to continue to strive for outcomes which are pro-trade, pro-enterprise and pro-innovation.

Very recently, we have seen new legislative measures come from Brussels which will afford consumers and national enforcement authorities new rights and responsibilities if consumer welfare is adversely affected by a trader’s unfair commercial practices. In December next we will see the new regulation on Geo-blocking enter into force which will outlaw unjustified geo-blocking by traders in one Member State against EU customers in other Member States based on their nationality, place of residence or place of establishment. At the moment, my Department is working on implementation measures for the entry into force in January 2020 of the new Consumer Protection Co-operation regulation. The new CPC regulation will provide Member States with the necessary structures, powers and procedures to ensure that the national enforcement authorities can deal effectively with widespread infringements of consumer protection laws which carry the risk of harming consumer welfare on a wide scale.

I welcome the publication of the new package of measures which will seek to further strengthen the protections available to European consumers whether they shop online or in the main streets and shopping centres of our towns and cities. I think the draft  Directive on Representative Actions brings the possibility of offering a strong consumer protection tool in mass harm situations. In Ireland, we need to discuss the practical implications and operation of the proposed methodology with interested parties who may be comprehended by it and others who may be affected by its introduction. As regards the draft Directive on the better enforcement of consumer protection laws, I think that the proposed changes offer a significant overhaul of key parts of the consumer acquis and we will work closely with the institutions in Brussels to advance the technical work on the file.

It is also encouraging to note the IMCO Committee of the European Parliament is progressing its consideration of the package and the European Parliament Rapporteurs for the file have recently submitted their draft opinions on the two draft Directives to the Committee for discussion.

In relation to data privacy for consumers who purchase goods online from traders’ websites and elsewhere on the internet in good faith, I think there has been a gap in this area for some time and it is an area that I have been concerned with as the responsible Minister for Data Protection. Question marks have surrounded the issue of how personal data is collected and what happens to it after the consumer volunteers it to 3rd parties. I think the entry into force of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018 will be positive for consumers who interact on traders’ websites regularly and for traders in relation to their obligations and responsibilities for the data that they collect under the regulation. I would urge consumers to familiarise themselves with their rights and the responsibilities of traders towards them under the regulation and to be alert as to how much of their personal data is actually necessary to provide in order to allow them to engage in online commerce. The regulation combined with an active involvement by Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner in overseeing data privacy for Irish citizens will help to strengthen consumers’ trust and belief in committing personal data to traders’ websites when they want to make purchases online.

Then finally turning to international trade and the need to strengthen the internal market for both consumers and businesses, there is no doubt that the European Union needs a strong vibrant and cohesive internal market. We need to ensure that European businesses can thrive in the internal market and that European consumers can avail of good choice and value for money when they purchase in the internal market. As the prospects for the international trade environment grows more uncertain, it is vital that domestic businesses across the EU can access a strong internal market and that EU customers can have trust and confidence when they choose to deal online with traders elsewhere in the EU.

I look forward to hearing the contributions of the other panellists on this important topic and to the general discussion that will follow.