Millions of British holidaymakers are facing a ‘Tory tourist tax’ under a no-deal Brexit, Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson has declared.
Watson hit out after culture secretary Jeremy Wright admitted the government could not guarantee that mobile phone users would avoid the reintroduction of data roaming charges should the UK crash out of the EU next month.
During an Urgent Question in the House of Commons, which was sparked by a HuffPost report revealing the plans, the cabinet minister conceded he’d been warned by telecoms firms that any hike in their costs from EU operators would mean higher bills for everyone.
Wright insisted that many companies had ‘no plans’ to jack up rates that were capped by the EU in 2017, and pointed out that the best option to avoid any uncertainty was to back the PM’s Brexit deal.
But Watson pointed out that when the UK introduced its ‘free roaming’ rules two years ago, ministers had said consumers would save “millions of pounds a year”.
The government laid little-noticed draft regulations before parliament on Tuesday, which confirmed that consumers would face immediate loss of data charge protections should the UK quit the EU without a deal on March 29.
Watson demanded ‘binding commitments’ from telephone giants to protect consumers, but said the fault lay at the door of Theresa May’s government.
“This is how holidaymakers have been hit by Brexit chaos: one, the value of the pound has plummeted – increasing the cost of family holidays; two, we’re going to have to pay for visas to the EU; three, we’re going to be hit by a Brexit bill to use our mobile abroad.
“If he doesn’t want to go down in history as the minister for the Tory triple whammy tourist tax, I suggest he takes a different course.”
Last week, the consumer website MoneySavingExpert.com revealed that just two out of 12 major mobile phone firms had committed to keeping roaming ‘free’ after Brexit.
Watson said Wright had tried to “slip out” the changes without a proper statement to MPs. “We must thank the HuffPost website that they didn’t manage to sneak it out without scrutiny at this despatch box,” he said.
The Labour MP said the government had “caved” to the “lobbying might of telecoms companies” rather than listen to consumers.
“He said that mobile phone operators have said they have no plans to raise roaming charges - but he and I both know, and more importantly voters know, what that phrase really means,” he went on.
“The reason the EU introduced free roaming in the first place was because the telecoms companies could not be trusted to give consumers a fair deal.”
In a note accompanying the secondary legislation – the Mobile Roaming (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 – ministers admit consumer groups lobbied hard for a new scheme to maintain the current arrangements.
But “after careful consideration, the government decided not to adopt this proposal,” it states.
Several MPs, including the SNP’s Kirsty Blackman and Labour’s Barry Sheerman, said that the real issue was the way ministers had tried to use a ‘statutory instrument’ to sneak out an unpalatable proposal in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Wright said he would not be ‘hiding’ the issue and would hold a debate in the Commons, with a vote to follow.
Tory MP Mike Wood asked if consumers could take action against phone firms that changed the terms of their contract. Wright suggested phone users could exit their contract if there were any changes.
The data roaming plans were also raised in the House of Lords by Labour’s Baroness Smith, who warned that businesses as well as tourists would be hard hit.