Jeff Salway: Beware Brexit threat to financial safeguards

Nicola Sturgeon: more questions than answers

Nicola Sturgeon: more questions than answers

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The SNP’s “100 questions on Brexit” wasn’t supposed to be exhaustive, but it was revealing all the same.

Raising important questions on trade, economic impact, business and workplace rights, it was a useful attempt to shift the debate to some of the specifics of Brexit and, as promised, underline “the sheer scale of uncertainty facing Scotland and the rest of the UK”.

However, the section on personal finances was notable only for its brevity, being comprised of three distinctly vague questions that felt crowbarred in as an afterthought.

One was about security of jobs, mortgages and the economy “if Scotland were to be pulled out of the EU”, another questioned the impact on defined benefit pension funds, and the third on affordable housing. It was a token effort, at best.

But sympathy is due to whichever adviser was tasked with putting this document together. The full list of Brexit concerns around our household and personal finances is a long one, yet the SNP’s failure to mention any of them reinforces the suspicion that no-one knows or understands what they are – which is a dangerous state of affairs.

While the costs and benefits of EU membership to consumers have never been properly quantified, it’s undoubtedly strengthened our protection in financial services. The most obvious direct examples are the EU directives setting out standards that all member states must meet. Most recently they include the Payments Accounts Directive, which forces the UK’s major banks to offer basic accounts to eligible customers. The Consumer Rights Directive (which strengthened our protection when it comes to repairs, replacements and cooling-off periods), the Consumer Credit Directive and the Unfair Contract Terms have also been beneficial to most of us at some time or another.

Those rules are now enshrined in UK legislation, although other changes, such as flight delay compensation and the ban on mobile phone roaming charges, apply across all member states. That will also be the case for data protection rules being fully implemented in 2018 and which will significantly bolster rules in areas such as data breaches and privacy.

There’s also Mifid 2, which will allow savers and investors in the UK to finally see how much they’re paying for investments and what they’re actually paying for.

That’s just a handful of examples. Quantifying the effects of EU legislation on our finances is problematic because of the difficulty in separating out the direct impacts from the indirect.

Much of the legislation derived from the EU is now part of UK law and so isn’t dependent on remaining in the EU. There’s an argument that some of it could be made more relevant to UK consumers in a post-Brexit world. But Hard Brexit increases the likelihood that companies, trade bodies and politicians will push for a bonfire of regulations, a slashing of the mythical red tape that will leave us all worse off.

The loss of single market status could pose serious risks to consumer protection. Those wanting a roll-back of EU law and a watering down of consumer rights are already in full lobbying mode. They’ll get what they want too, unless we better understand what needs to be preserved.

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