No-deal Brexit could revive mobile roaming fees, minister confirms

The government has formally announced that UK nationals could face high roaming charges for using their mobile phones in the EU in the event of a no-deal Brexit, after the news was quietly disclosed a day earlier.

Answering an urgent question from Labour in parliament on Thursday, the culture secretary, Jeremy Wright, said that if there was no deal there would be nothing the government could do to prevent companies from imposing roaming charges, though voluntary agreements had been sought.

The shadow culture secretary, Tom Watson, said the possible return of roaming charges, which were abolished in 2017 around the EU, showed that ministers had opted to “cave to the lobbying might of telecoms companies rather than listen to the voice of consumers who are set to lose out”.

The news first emerged on Wednesday in a statutory instrument, a form of secondary legislation. This was not announced in parliament but was reported by the Huffington Post, prompting Watson’s urgent question.

Notes published alongside the legislation, the mobile roaming (EU exit) regulations 2019, say consumer groups urged the government to maintain there would be no roaming charges in the event of no deal. They add: “After careful consideration, the government decided not to adopt this proposal.”

In response to Watson’s question, Wright said the maintenance of surcharge-free roaming for UK customers would now depend on “operators’ commercial arrangements” in the event of no deal.

He said: “The availability and pricing of mobile roaming in the EU would be a commercial question for the mobile operators, and many mobile operators, including those who cover over 85% of mobile subscribers, have already said they have no current plans to change their approach to mobile roaming after the EU leaves the EU.”

If roaming charges were introduced, the government would introduce rules to ensure UK users were alerted once they reached £45 in a month, and would have to actively choose to pay more.

Watson said assurances from mobile operators that they had no plans to reintroduce charges was not enough. “He and I both know, and more importantly voters know, what that phrase really means. The reason the EU introduced free roaming in the first place is because the telecoms companies could not be trusted could not be trusted to give consumers a fair deal,” he said.

Wright replied: “The reality of situation is this: when we leave the European Union it will not be possible for the UK government to enforce upon EU mobile phone operating companies our rules and expectations.

“So if they choose to charge at a wholesale level, for British mobile phone companies one of two things happens: either that cost is passed on to those who are using their mobile phone abroad, or that cost is spread across all mobile phone users on that network. That’s the choice.”