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Select Committee on European Communities Report


Letter from Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Committee, to Nigel Griffiths JP MP, Parliamentary for Competition and Consumer Affairs

  Your Explanatory Memorandum of 26 February 1998 on this document was considered recently by Sub-Committee C.

  We welcome the Commission's proposal to put the financing of consumer policies on to a proper legal footing. On the matter of Community objectives, notwithstanding the wording of Article 129A of the EC Treaty, we consider it essential that consumers should not simply be provided with information but should also have proper access to information. As you may know, this is a principle to which the Select Committee attaches considerable importance.

  I should be grateful if you could let us know the outcome of your Department's consultations with consumer groups, including the National Consumer Council. We should also like to hear your further views on subsidiarity (paragraph 14 of the EM), in the light of the discussion at last month's Consumer Council.

7 May 1998

Letter from Nigel Griffiths JP MP, Parliamentary for Competition and Consumer Affairs, to The Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Select Committee on European Communities

  Thank you for your letter about the Explanatory Memorandum I laid before Parliament on 26 February 1998 on this document. Officials have been canvassing the views of consumer organisations, and the Consumer Council briefly touched on this proposal on 23 April over lunchtime discussions.

  The UK welcomes the principle of putting Community consumer policy spending on a legal basis. This is in line with current UK policy, where all significant spending should be put on a clear legal base. I should emphasise that discussion on this dossier is still at an early stage. The opinion of the European Parliament, a pre-requisite for Council agreement, will not be ready until September at the earliest. As a result, work on this dossier will fall to the Austrian Presidency, when there will be further scope to clarify how this proposal will work in practice and to seek improvements as necessary.

  As Presidency, we held initial discussions at working group level in February where Member States broadly welcomed the proposal but sought clarification from the Commission on a number of points. In particular, Member States were keen to ensure the consistency of this proposal with the Commission's future priorities, to be published later in the year. The Council legal services were also asked to give an opinion on the legal basis for the proposal, and on whether the proposal is consistent in all its provisions with the principles of subsidiarity. This legal opinion is still outstanding, but we expect it to be forthcoming when discussions resume later in the year.

  As for consumer organisations, most of their views are broadly in line with UK thinking. On 20 April I met representatives of the major UK consumer organisations, including the National Consumer Council (in which you expressed a particular interest), the Consumers in Europe Group, and the Consumers Association, to discuss the items on the agenda of the 23 April Consumer Council. The Bureau Europe¡en des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC) has provided views in writing. Whilst all these groups welcome the Commission's intention to give greater transparency and clarity to Community consumer policy activities, they have expressed the following concerns, which are broadly in line with the points raised in my 26 February Explanatory Memorandum:

    —  the framework document should be linked with a consumer policy action plan, so that these two documents can be considered together;

    —  the Commission funding priorities and criteria should be made more transparent.

  In addition, the consumer groups have expressed concern about funding levels and criteria. Understandably, since they will be beneficiaries from this programme, consumer bodies would like flexibility on the proposed 50 per cent ceiling on Commission funding for projects, to take into account the more limited resources of smaller consumer groups. BEUC has also suggested time targets for project approvals to reduce delays, and flexibility to extend funding beyond the proposed one-year limit to provide continuity. Finally, the consumer groups felt that projects relating to the legal interests of consumers should be made eligible for support.

  On the specific point you raised about the importance of consumer access to information, I entirely agree; this is a key priority the DTI supports. For example, we have commissioned research to find out what information is available to consumers on their rights and responsibilities, how it can be accessed, and the level of consumers' knowledge of consumer law in the UK. We also provide financial support to the national network of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which are a very important source of information for consumers. The DTI, in conjunction with the Commission and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, is currently exploring the possibility of new service offering consumer information on the European marketplace using the existing Citizens Advice Bureaux network already familiar to consumers. This networked service would be the first of its kind in the EU, since traditionally the service has been offered from a single site, thus limiting access to consumers. This service will certainly contribute to the accessibility of consumer advice, and I expect to be able to confirm these plans shortly.

18 May 1998

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