The Consumer Ombudsman should have the same power to act whether a business operates in Finland or in another member state.
Last year and this year the EU's member states have been busy implementing the new system for cooperation and mutual assistance between national authorities responsible for the enforcement of consumer protection laws. Cooperation is based on the relevant Regulation and is coordinated by the European Commission. The member states must report infringements to a database and offer to help an authority in another member state in cases where a business operates in more than one country.
The goal is to improve the enforcement of measures taken by authorities to protect consumers' interests and prevent businesses from continuing practices in other countries after these have been found to violate the law in any one of the member states. This is meant to avoid the distortion of competition for law-abiding businesses and build consumers' confidence in the internal market and cross-border trade.
The Regulation on consumer protection cooperation has its roots in the Green Paper on European Union Consumer Protection that was published in 2001, which noted that the enforcement of consumer protection legislation was fragmented and that a legal framework was needed to improve cooperation between enforcement authorities. Practically every stakeholder and particularly businesses supported the Commission's views. Stakeholders generally agreed that such a framework would help ensure the smooth functioning of the internal market and strengthen consumer protection.
The Finnish Consumer Agency serves as Finland's single liaison office and coordinates cooperation among Finnish enforcement authorities. Compliance with 15 laws is presently being monitored within the framework of cooperation. In addition to the Consumer Agency and the Consumer Ombudsman, twelve other Finnish authorities take part in the cooperation network.
During the nine-month period from 1 January to 28 September 2007, the member states sent each other 52 requests for information (Finland sent 3 but received none), 57 requests for enforcement measures (Finland sent none and received none) and 22 alerts (Finland sent none but received 9). These generally concerned misleading advertising or contract terms in distance selling.
Amendment of the Act on the Consumer Agency
The Regulation harmonizes the monitoring of the application of consumer protection legislation, requiring that the competent authorities have the investigation and enforcement powers necessary for the application of this Regulation. In Finland this means that the Act on the Consumer Agency must be amended to include a section that gives the Consumer Ombudsman the right to carry out on-site inspections and to request help from the police. The Consumer Ombudsman already has all the other powers that are required by the Regulation. There is no need to amend legislation applying to authorities in specific sectors.
A bill to amend the Act on the Consumer Agency is presently being considered by Parliament. The bill restricts the right to carry out on-site inspections to the investigation of intra-Community infringements. The Consumer Agency would like to see this right extended to the Consumer Ombudsman's market surveillance work in general, since the restriction could lead to difficult interpretation problems in practical situations. Sometimes it may be hard to say to what extent provisions are based on Community legislation and to what extent they are purely national legislation.
Nor does it make any sense for the Consumer Ombudsman's powers to be broader for cross-border infringements than for domestic infringements. This would create an anomaly whereby consumers in other member states would have more protection than Finnish consumers.
Treating businesses fairly also requires that the Consumer Ombudsman's powers should be the same regardless of whether a business operates inside Finland's borders or elsewhere in the EU. It would be clearer if the Consumer Ombudsman's powers did not depend on what particular law a business infringes.
It should be noted that, on the basis of product safety legislation, the Consumer Agency already has the right to carry out on-site inspections and request help from the police.
A model in which the right to carry out on-site inspections would be restricted to cross-border infringements and the monitoring of only specific legislation would lead to a disparity in the legal position of consumers and businesses according to whether they operate within Finland's borders or engage in cross-border trade within the EU. The result would be that the Consumer Ombudsman's powers would be narrower for suspected domestic infringements than for cross-border infringements. More attention should be given to ensuring fair treatment.
Regulation on consumer protection cooperation
Commission decision on mutual assistance
List of competent authorities and single liaison offices in the member states