MEPs want stronger consumer rules for seniors, children

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This article is part of our special report Vulnerable Consumers.

Europe’s consumer laws fail to protect the most vulnerable people, say member of the European Parliament who called for tougher measures to prevent senior citizens, children and the disabled from being victims of rip-offs or aggressive marketing.

With overwhelming support, the European Parliament has adopted a resolution last week (21 May), saying EU consumer legislation should give buyers an arsenal of rights and protections.

Current EU laws include a directive on unfair business practices and a directive on consumer rights that went into force in 2011.

But MEPs say not enough has been done for those who face targeted online advertising or people who don’t have access to internet-based consumer information and complaints services.

In the resolution, prepared by Spanish MEP María Irigoyen Pérez (Socialists & Democrats), the Parliament notes that efforts to help those with disabilities “is clearly insufficient.”

“The Commission is aware of its present shortcomings and has focused its approach on information is focusing its efforts of consumers,” Pérez said during a Parliamentary debate in Strasbourg on 21 May, a day before the resolution was adopted by a show of hands.

She said such efforts fall short of protecting people who don’t have the ability “to assert themselves and sometimes to understand the information they receive,” or don’t know their rights “particularly when it comes to cross-border trade and e-commerce.”

However, the resolution also notes that the "diversity" of vulnerable situations "hinders a uniform approach and the adoption of a comprehensive legislative instrument".

"European legislation must address the problem of vulnerability among consumers as a horizontal task, taking into account consumers’ various needs, abilities and circumstances," the resolution said.

Patchwork of policies

Other MEPs have expressed concern that laws vary widely across the EU, noting that there is no standard on marketing alcohol and tobacco to children or young adults.

“Some countries have strict regulation and some have some liberal approaches, and I would like to see a common approach in Europe,” Emilie Turunen, a Danish MEP who serves as the Greens’ spokeswoman on the consumer committee, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Some food and beverage manufacturers have launched their own marketing standards that restrict advertising to young audiences and have enlisted support through organisations like the International food and Beverage Alliance.

John Dalli, the European commissioner for health and consumer matters, said the Commission’s new Consumer Agenda – unveiled on 22 May after the vote – would address some of the Parliament’s concerns.

“The Commission wholeheartedly agrees that it is important to address the vulnerability of consumers and this will be reflected in the Consumer Agenda,” he said.

The Pérez report is non-binding and presents the Parliament’s recommendations to the Commission’s Consumer Programme 2014-2020 as well as the Consumer Agenda. It was approved by the full Parliament on 22 May after being adopted by the consumer committee on 26 April.

Boosting the single market

Consumer protection has become a major focus for the EU executive and Parliament as a way to nudge wary Europeans to shop across borders and through the Internet. The Commission estimates that in 2010, 100 million Europeans – one-fifth the EU population – had problems with fraudulent sales or faulty products in the common market, putting a damper on expansion.

The Parliament approved on 15 November 2011 a broader resolution on consumer rights that defined vulnerable groups and a definition of those covered – the elderly, the needy as well as those with mental and physical disabilities.

One of the leading concerns of Pérez and other resolution advocates is that Europeans with limited access to the internet may be discouraged from seeking information – for instance, through the European Consumer Centres Network – or filing complaints through Web-based portals.

Amongst the other provisions in the resolution adopted the Parliament, MEPs:

  • Recommend educational campaigns on diet and health aimed at children who, according to the resolution, may be exposed to targeted advertising from food and beverage companies.
  • Urge members states to provide free services for vulnerable or disabled consumers who pursue alternative dispute resolution in the case of consumer complaints;
  • Call for special services aimed at people with disabilities, including those who may not be able to hear or read information on their rights, and those who do not have computers.

MEPs largely backed the resolution on vulnerable consumers, citing different reasons during a plenary discussion in Strasbourg on 21 May.

French MEP Philippe Juvin (European People’s Party) hailed the vote, saying: "The different types of vulnerability must be taken into account, beyond the classic acceptation of vulnerability based on a physical or mental handicap. It implies the inclusion of the vulnerability of a situation, exogenous to an individual, linked to the interactions between the individual and his environment.

"It is also essential to reinforce the legal corpus, the effective respect of the vulnerable consumers' rights and their capacity to take the right decisions in an autonomous way. The consumer needs to be informed in an adequate and efficient way, and the professionals must be given a sense of responsibility and play an important role in that field," Juvin said.

Romanian MEP Elena B?sescu (European People’s Party) cited austerity measures, market reforms and utility price increases in her country. “This mean that many consumers, particularly poor consumers, need protection from liberalisation,” she said.

Slovak MEP Jarslov Paška (Freedom and Democracy) said more should be done to protect children from pressure to buy less healthy foods. “In European schools, we have vending machines located near canteens and refectories selling soft drinks and chocolates. Perhaps we could adopt a regulation stating that the products sold in such vending machines should be replaced by healthy products such as fruit.”

BEUC, an umbrella organisation representing national consumer groups at European level, welcomed the Commission's new Consumer Agenda but warned that "the proof will be in the pudding" as consumers expect the EU to swiftly follow-up on its promises. "The litmus test will be the introduction of an EU-wide collective redress system that would benefit Europe’s 500 million consumers,” BEUC said.

Several initiatives aimed at extending rights to buyers and shoppers across the EU’s internal market – rights aimed at fostering cross-border shopping and internet commerce.

Amongst those being reviewed are the Consumer Programme 2014-2020 and the Consumer Agenda.

The EU executive in November 2011 proposed the Consumer Programme 2014-2020 with four main goals:

  • Improve product safety through monitoring and enforcement;
  • Expanding public awareness campaigns on consumer rights;
  • Ensuring that EU consumers have a common set of rights, such as the right to receive product information and guarantees;
  • Better enforcement of consumer laws by EU and national authorities.

On 22 May, Commission Vice President Viviane Reding, in charge of justice and fundamental rights, and John Dalli, the health and consumer commissioner, proposed a Consumer Agenda that would allow Europeans to seek out-of-court resolution in cases of fraud or disputes over quality and delivery of goods and services acquired in another EU country.

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