By Claire West

New rules on consumer rights to protect online shoppers and boost consumer confidence in buying in other Member States were backed by Parliament on Thursday.

MEPs approved changes to the draft law but decided to postpone their final position with a view to reaching an agreement with the Council.

MEPs' strong backing for Parliament's proposed changes to the law, led by rapporteur Andreas Schwab (EPP, DE), will be the basis on which MEPs will try to reach an agreement with Member States.

The new EU law should cover almost all sales, whether made in a shop, by phone, by post or online, says Parliament. It will update existing rules to take account of growth in internet sales and provide better protection for online shoppers.

The rules, as backed by Parliament today, would significantly strengthen consumer rights especially as regards information, delivery and withdrawal from contracts, whilst also clarifying rules on digital downloads and cutting red tape for small and medium-sized enterprises.

The right to make informed choices

It should be clear to consumers from whom they are buying, exactly what they are buying and how much it will cost when shopping online or ordering from a catalogue. The identity and address of the seller must always be clear, say MEPs.

The new information rights will also put an end to hidden charges, such as those associated with the "pre-ticked boxes" sometimes used in internet sales. In addition, the buyer will have to knowingly accept the total price before a sale is concluded.

Delivery and responsibility for the parcel

Delivery is where many consumers experience disappointment. Under the new rules, any good or service ordered at distance, must be delivered to the buyer within 30 days, otherwise the consumer will have the right to cancel the purchase. The trader is responsible for any damage or loss of the good during delivery.

14 days to change your mind

The new rules will stipulate a 14-day EU-wide withdrawal period for distance and off-premises sales (where the consumer cannot see the good before buying it) during which consumers may change their minds. If they regret the purchase, for whatever reason, they can send it back.

Where the price of the good is more than €40, the trader must pay the return postage. All expenses must be refunded to the consumer within 14 days after withdrawal. However, consumers must be able to prove that they have returned the good, states an amendment adopted by Parliament.

If the seller fails to inform the consumer about a withdrawal right, the period for withdrawal must automatically be extended, to three months, says the Council, or to one year, says Parliament.

The new rules also aim to close a gap in existing EU legislation, by extending the consumer's right of withdrawal to home party sales and on-line auctions. However, auction purchases may be returned only if they were bought from a professional seller, not from a private person.

Digital goods, such as music, films or software programmes, will be exempted from the right of withdrawal. The sale will be regarded as concluded from the moment downloading begins.

No extra red tape for small firms

To avoid creating administrative burdens for the local grocer or the workman doing home repairs, Parliament voted to exempt "day-to-day transactions", where the good is delivered "immediately", from the information rules.

For "mixed contracts", involving both goods and services, such as a glazier replacing a broken window with a new pane, at a cost of less than €200, the information need not be in writing, but can be delivered orally, says a Parliament amendment.

For urgent repairs, such as a burst water pipe, the 14-day right of withdrawal will be unnecessary and should not apply, Parliament says.