Scrapping EU rules could leave travellers stranded without compensation

It’s worth repeating – again and again – that Brexit was to be a beacon of opportunity and a gateway to prosperity for British business.  

Putting aside the inconvenient truth that this is something which has not even remotely come to pass for the vast majority of UK firms, there is also the very real fear that such opportunities would come at the expense of consumers.

‘Red-tape’ is a term which has become one of the defining phrases of the entire Brexit episode. Rarely properly defined, it’s most famously been associated with noisy vacuum cleaners, curvy cucumbers and bendy bananas. 

Such claims and myths have proved an unwelcome distraction. The truth is that, for some businesses, one of the most appealing things about Brexit was the opportunity it would present for them to operate without vital regulations that uphold key environmental and consumer protections.

The Liberal Democrats have been clear that the December 2019 general election provided the government with a mandate to leave the EU on the terms negotiated by Boris Johnson. However, this must not be used by the government as carte blanche to tear these protections up in order to curry favour with huge corporations who regard such essential measures as irritating hurdles 

Despite our protestations, the government has nonetheless entered a shameless race to the bottom on what it deems cumbersome regulations. One of the more recent and concerning instances has been government plans to reform compensation rules for domestic flights in the UK. 

Analysis conducted by Which? estimates the new system – as proposed by the government – could save airlines tens of thousands of pounds for a single flight. At the same time, compensation for customers could plummet to a quarter of its current amount, with the average sum that each passenger would be entitled to dropping from £220 to just £57.

Put another way, if an average full flight from Gatwick to Belfast was cancelled or had a long delay, the airline is currently legally obliged to pay £39,600 in compensation. Under the proposed changes, this would drop to just £9,900.

The new system, which was put to a Reforming Aviation Consumer Policy consultation by the Department for Transport (DfT) which ended in March, would replace EU261 rules. These permit passengers to claim the £220 once their flight has been delayed by three hours. The new system, however, would represent a shift closer to the Delay Repay system used in rail, and would instead see compensation offered based on the ticket price and length of delay.

I have written to Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State for Transport, urging his department to reject these potential changes. I also encouraged him to bolster protections in the area as a way of providing greater – not fewer – protections to consumers in the aviation industry. 

Far from being burdensome red-tape measures, they are key in ensuring timetables run without delay or cancellation. These changes, if implemented, could leave consumers delayed, or at worse stranded, without adequate financial compensation. They could also open the door to grossly unfair practices such as overbooking.

We can’t say for sure what other laws the government have in their sights, but earlier this year they did introduce the ‘Brexit freedoms bill’, with the intention of simplifying the process of amending or removing some of the “bridging” laws that have been preserved to provide legal certainty in a period of legislative and regulatory upheaval. 

The new bill would represent a much quicker, easier route for the government to remove laws it deems unfavourable. At the time of announcing, the government suggested that data protection laws, public procurement, subsidy control regimes and environmental regulations were areas that could be bolstered through a reshaping of the regulatory framework system. 

The irony is, of course, not lost on many. Far from unleashing the true potential of British businesses, Brexit has been a nightmare of titanic proportions. Collapsing trade with the EU, soaring food prices and never-ending queues of lorries at Dover can all attest to that. Before Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, gets stuck into the British statute book, he would do well to speak to small business owners up and down the country, and perhaps observe their reactions when told of the government’s intention to once again try and “solve” the red tape “problem”. 

“Burdensome” red tape is a misnomer. Far from being a headache that must be squashed, it is something that helps protect our environment, that puts in place essential checks on businesses for the benefit of consumers. Red tape, in another universe, may well have prevented the government from losing billions of taxpayer’s pounds on poorly set up procurement systems at the beginning of the pandemic. 

In a desperate scramble to paint Brexit as a success, we must not allow the government to use it as a gateway to scrap important regulation. With environmental obligations to achieve and consumers to protect amidst a crippling cost-of-living crisis, the stakes are simply too high. 


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