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Health and Consumer Protection

Events - Assembly of consumer associations in Europe - Conclusions

Conclusions of Workshop 1 on the Consumer Policy Action Plan - Rapporteur : Jim Murray (BEUC)

Introducing the proposed three-year Consumer Policy Action Plan, Marina Manfredi said it was based on three main themes:

- A stronger voice for the consumer and consumer organisations

- A high level of health and safety

- Full respect for economic interests of consumers

About forty speakers intervened including many from the candidate countries - some disappointment was expressed that the Action Plan did not give more attention to the external dimension.

There was a warm general welcome for the Action Plan and for the consultation procedure being followed by the Commission - including this seminar.

For most of the time the discussion developed on a general level but the following points were common to many interventions:

1. Resources for consumer organisations are everywhere a problem, resources in terms of money skills and means of access to decision-making.

2. It was noted that the budget did not match priorities. Many things had to be done with a very small budget but within the budget it was not clear that budget allocations matched priorities on access to justice for example, particularly in cross-border cases.

3. The question of integration was raised in many ways:

- Is this a Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General plan? (No, Marina Manfredi explained it was a Commission plan.)

- How to ensure that other DGs would be involved and that consumer organisations and, in particular, the CC would be consulted and involved in the work of other DGs?

4. On the consumer/industry dialogue there was universal scepticism. Some said it might work at national level in some countries but at EU level? At the very least, there should be a clear legal framework, carefully defined and clear objectives, good follow up, and means of appeal in cases of any difficulty.

5. There was (unsurprisingly) strong agreement on the need for a high level of health and safety. Some dissatisfaction was expressed with a purely science based approach and a number of speakers argued for a wide application of the precautionary principle. (We were informed that Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General is preparing a paper on the precautionary principle, for consultation with consumer organisations and others - to be published very soon.) Among specific health and safety problems, antibiotic resistance was mentioned, not just in the context of animal use but in the wider context of human use, animal use and use in plants.

6. Education and (quality) information was also seen as important, both to prevent problems from arising and to empower consumers to defend themselves. The need for education about marketing techniques and on consumer values was also noted.

7. Many people spoke in favour of action for vulnerable consumers - those who were in a relatively weak position because of such factors as low income, age, disability, civil or cultural status (refugees or recent immigrants, for example). This was perhaps the issue that people most felt was absent from the Action Plan.

8. I think also that many speakers felt that more attention should also be given to access to justice, particularly in cross border cases.

9. While issues of health and safety were raised by many speakers, there were some who argued strongly that we must not neglect the need to defend consumers economic interests - in relation to financial services and means of payment for example.

10. Towards the end, discussion turned to the first two more specific themes, a stronger consumer voice and a high level of health and safety. Speakers spoke of the need for more consumer influence in standardisation (especially at national level), for research support for consumer organisations and for a stronger Consumer Committee.

11. The question was raised as to what action was appropriate for the Commission and what should be the responsibility of national or regional level, but there was no time to consider this issue. We were left nonetheless with a good overview of the situation and views of a very wide range of consumer organisations from all over Europe.

Released on 17/11/98

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