The Beginning Of The End Of Travel Consumer Rights?

22/09/2016 11:27

The 24 June 2016 will be a day remembered when all the certainties that we had enjoyed as Citizens and consumers disappeared. Throughout an often polarised campaign, the protections we enjoy as consumers barely got a mention. It was difficult to raise the consumer agenda above the 3 or 4 headline-grabbing topics, on how we enjoy a very fine balance of law and rights for both Industry and consumers.

Throughout the debate, I was asked to 'guess' the cost to consumers in the event of a so-called 'brexit'. After careful modelling, I had come to the conclusion that an average holiday would cost an extra £400 - £500 per year for a typical family of 4; that of course was based around a looser 'membership', not a complete 'brexit'!

A few weeks ago, the impact of holiday costs came home to me and my family, when my wife was suddenly taken seriously ill. My wife was admitted to hospital and had to undergo emergency surgery. Whilst she had her own crisis to deal with, I had to manage the day-to-day reality of dealing with a health service in a foreign land. Fortunately, I was equipped with my wife's European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) and our Travel Insurance. The process was seamless - we are EU Citizens, we had the EHIC card and our Insurance Company helped to deal with hospital administration. My wife's treatment was catered for primarily with the EHIC card, paying for 80% of the treatment, the remainder will be paid for by the Insurance Company. It may seem obvious to state, but without these various 'protections', it could have delivered a small but significant financial blow to our family.

So why is this personal story important? Well, throughout the EU Referendum Campaign, much was made of the possibility of the UK becoming members of the European Economic Area (EEA). If we became one of its members, not a great deal would change for us as consumers, and importantly, we would still have access to free or low cost medical treatment, through our EHIC cards, within the EEA Member Area.

The grand tour of Europe by UK politicians since the 24 June, has clearly led to the conclusion that having access to a Single Market without adopting all of the 4 pillars of freedom (people, goods, services, capital), to be now a fantasy, which is why we now hear about politicians having 'open minds' to other possibilities.

Consider further the 'red-lines' apparently stated by Boris Johnson in which one area, the ending of EU legislation applying to the UK, bears the most important of all implications; this would affect just about every single piece of consumer legislation produced in the last 40 years!

So we have the potential prospect of witnessing our removal completely from Europe with no EEA option; consumers would be cast adrift in a world in which redress for their consumer problems would come via the Law of Contract and I believe a government intent on creating a de-regulated state in the hope of attracting business to the UK.

So when I examine my initial 'guess' on holiday costs, I now have to adjust that figure to suit the new 'reality', which is that Travel Insurance is about to become a whole lot more expensive if the UK takes this 'independent' route. When an insurer calculates the cost of insurance, they will have regard to not just the individual's circumstance but also where you are travelling to; one relevant factor in Europe is unquestionably the EHIC card. As insurer's do not currently have to foot the whole medical bill, a 'brexit' will change that dynamic and I suspect the price!

If I had to guess, I would suggest that travel insurance could rise by about 20%. So, an average £20 policy, could produce an increase of £4 per policy purchased by my fictitious family. That may not sound a lot, but given that we are probably about to experience a great deal of economic uncertainty, families will be looking at every penny they spend!

But a 'brexit' consequence does not just stop there; if regulations disappear, what happens to that holiday consumer product if there are no laws to protect the consumer? How will consumers navigate all that legalese and at what cost will it cost them to put things right? Are we to become an 'insured' nation, at the mercy of the whims of those same insurance companies and their exclusion clauses, when those who deliver a shabby service should be held to account?

There is no doubt in my mind; we are reaching that critical junction when all Consumer Rights are now under real threat - the question is, who will defend those Travel Consumer Rights in this brave new world?