The Communications Consumer Panel and EU consultations

The Communications Consumer Panel was established within the new Office of Communications in the UK in 2003. It is based upon the Communications Act 2003 as an independent policy advisory body on consumer interests in telecommunications, broadcasting, and spectrum markets.[1] The Communications Consumer Panel is composed of members with expertise in consumer issues in the electronic communications sector, representing different geographical areas of the UK.[2] The Panel advises the regulator Ofcom on consumer and citizen interests in electronic communications, working with policy-makers and industry stakeholders.

The UK experience has illustrated, in particular, three channels through which the Panel can promote consumers’ interests. First, the Panel participates in the decision-making process with the regulator before political or regulatory measures are taken. This increases consumers’ involvement in regulatory processes, giving them an early opportunity to influence the debate. Secondly, the consumer panel is active in bilateral meetings with consumer stakeholders, and creates a consumer forum on electronic communications, bringing together different consumer organizations. Thirdly, the Panel is a promoter of new consumer instruments that may influence policy-makers. For example, in 2006 the Panel developed the so-called ‘Consumer Interest Toolkit’, which can control and effectively increase consumer considerations in policy-making. The Toolkit consists of a series of questions that regulators should ask themselves to ensure that consumer interests are appropriately considered throughout the organization or in a particular policy area. Such an instrument thus serves a double purpose: it forces regulators to build consumer concerns into their systems, and allows them to assess whether they have identified and implemented consumer interests in their policy.[3] A review in 2008 showed that this tool had influenced Ofcom’s decision-making, and had been successful in improving consumer interests within the UK regulator. In particular, Ofcom has evaluated its policies with this tool and has consequently adapted its regulative measures.[2]

The Communication Consumer Panel could be an effective model for other Member States and for the EU in order to achieve a coherent consumer interest policy. In the EU a number of consumer consultative groups already exist. In 2004 the European Commission established FIN-USE as an independent expert consumer forum. Its mandate is to strengthen the role of consumers and small businesses in the EU financial services sector.[5] FIN-USE provides opinion and recommendations to the European Commission on initiatives influencing financial services users to improve policy-making in this field. Furthermore, it identifies core financial services issues.

Another long-established institution of this kind is the European Consumer Consultative Group (ECCG), established by the European Commission in 1973. The ECCG, which during its operations developed sub-groups in several fields, such as for competition policy,[6] was established precisely to address insufficient participation and representation of consumers in EU law-making.[7] The ECCG meets four times a year and is mainly composed of one representative of national consumer organizations per country, and one member from each European consumer organization (BEUC and ANEC).[8]

Following a review which highlighted the need to improve efficiency and openness, the ECCG was reformed by the Commission, by means of Decision 2009/705/EC. Article 2 of this latter re-stated the objectives of the ECCG, affirming that this serves, inter alia, for general discussions on issues related to consumer interests, and advises the Commission on issues relevant to EU consumer policy. The reformed ECCG will assist in representing general consumer interests, enabling an informative dialogue with the Commission and thereby integrating the consumer’s voice in EU policies. For example, following its remit, in 2011 the ECCG provided advice to the Commission regarding some issues in contract law.[9]

This formal establishment of a consultation requirement and consumer advisory groups shows the willingness of the EU to promote participation of all interest groups in law-making procedures. Although this will certainly provide information to law-makers on consumer-related issues, it is not clear how powerful this influence will be. One factor which could be helpful in this regard is a regular review procedure by the EU institutions, showing if and how the ECCG recommendations were taken into account. This would provide more transparency and accountability, enhancing the practical value of the consultation tools.

Further consolidation of these instruments, ultimately benefiting participation, could also be obtained by the creation of further specialized sub-groups similar to the UK Communication Consumer Panel, which could provide detailed advice in technical consumer law areas, such as in electronic communications law. This would make it more likely that both consumer and citizens’ interests are better taken into account by national regulators.

To summarize, the required consultation mechanism proposed in the ‘Citizens’ Rights’ Directive is a clear indication of a commitment of the EU to a broader, more politically involved, consumer concept. For the electronic communications sector in particular, the establishment of an independent consumer panel would further enhance consumer representation in regulatory decisions.

  • [1] See also H. Beuchler, ‘Landerbericht Vereinigtes Konigreich’, in Keftsler & Micklitz (eds),Kundenschutz auf liberalisierten Mdrkten (n 2), p. 365.
  • [2] For more information see the website of the Communications Consumer Panel: .
  • [3] Communications Consumer Panel, Capturing the Consumer Interest. A Toolkit for Regulatorsand Government, February 2006; see the website of Communications Consumer Panel: .
  • [4] For more information see the website of the Communications Consumer Panel: .
  • [5] See the FIN-USE website: .
  • [6] See e.g. the Commission Decision of 14 September 2009 setting up a European ConsumerConsultative Group, OJ L 244, 16/09/2009, pp. 21-4.
  • [7] On legislative participation of consumers in financial services see J. Mendes, Participation inRule-Making,A Rights-BasedApproach, Studies in European Law (Oxford: OUP, 2011), pp. 302-3;on interest representation see also J. Greenwood, Interest Representation in the European Union(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
  • [8] .
  • [9] .
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