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Chancellor Philip Hammond’s consumer protection announcements

14 March 2017

The Spring Budget is not usually an occasion for tackling the nitty-gritty of consumer protection, but last week the Chancellor promised a number of Government initiatives likely to impact upon consumer-facing businesses.

At a time when the Conservatives are positioning themselves as the party of consumers and ordinary workers, brands need to be aware of how such changes will affect their business requirements over the coming years.

Philip Hammond said in his Budget: “We will shortly bring forward a green paper on protecting the interests of consumers. But ahead of the green paper, we will take the first steps to protect consumers from unexpected fees or unfair clauses, to simplify terms and conditions, and to give consumer bodies greater enforcement powers.”

The Green Paper – promised “shortly” – is expected to look at particular markets that are not working efficiently or fairly for consumers.

The more immediate measures announced by the Chancellor will entail:

  • making contract terms and conditions clearer, shorter and simpler for consumers to understand, with key terms and conditions made more obvious (pre-Budget briefings from Treasury officials apparently indicated that mobile phone providers, online retailers and financial institutions will be particularly in the spotlight, but not to the exclusion of other sectors);
  • clamping down on so-called “subscription traps”, where consumers unexpectedly go on paying for a product or service when a subscription is renewed or a free trial ends, or because credit card “continuous payment authorities” are difficult to cancel; and
  • empowering the Competition & Markets Authority to more easily fine brands that are guilty of misleading or mistreating consumers.

The Government has said that it intends “legislating at the earliest opportunity” to give the CMA its new powers to impose fines, but it is less clear how swiftly the other proposals would become law. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy ran a call for evidence last year on the issue of contract terms and conditions, but it is likely that there will be some form of further consultation before legislation is brought forward.

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