Following the fiasco surrounding recent recalls of unsafe tumble dryers, the House of Commons ordered a meeting to discuss the UK’s product safety and product recall regimes. The Business Committee invited Charlie Pugsley of the National Fire Chiefs Council, Pete Moorey, the Head of Campaigns for Which?, and Martyn Allen, the Technical Director for Electrical Safety First, as the three expert witnesses to investigate the issue.
The white goods industry’s handling of this incident “has highlighted flaws in the UK’s product safety regime which is fragmented and poorly resourced,” began Rachel Reeves, Chair of the Business Committee. “Their delayed and dismissive response to correcting these defects has been inadequate,” she added.
After the negative impacts of austerity on trading standards were established, one solution emerged from the discussion.
A Central Product Safety Agency?
The Business Committee referred the witnesses to the independent 2016 review by Lynn Faulds Wood, which recommended the creation of an official national product safety agency, to show leadership and co-ordinate the product safety system. Wood used the UK’s Food Standards Agency as an example of what she had in mind. This approach was received favourably by the witnesses.
“We have found that, when consumers are aware they have an unsafe product, they are often not sure where to go. Should they go to the retailer? Should they go to the manufacturer? They are pushed from pillar to post. We have seen that situation with some retailers that are not aware of their own responsibilities, and they do have responsibilities under the Consumer Rights Act,” said Pete Moorey of Which?
In response, Charles Pugsley of the National Fire Chiefs Council added, “I am sure if all the honourable colleagues went and asked 10 people, ‘Where would you go to check a recall?’ they would get 10 different answers.”
There was found to be over 30 different websites where consumers could access product safety information. The consequent confusion has caused recalls to be only 10-20% effective, with millions of potentially unsafe products remaining in consumers’ homes.
In January 2015, a government backed scheme was introduced to try to resolve this. The Register My Appliance portal directed consumers to the registration pages of companies supplying over 90% of large white goods sold in the UK. However, due to its incomplete, fragmented, and non-compulsory nature, the scheme was not sufficiently effective. At present, only about 33% of electrical products are registered.
An Automated Registration System?
The main reasons for the low levels of white good registration, according to government-funded research, is an ignorance of the benefits of registration, misperceptions of the difficulty of registering, and a fear of information being used for marketing. The witnesses speaking with the Business Committee recognised this:
“We need a system that is simple to operate and simple for consumers, ideally at the point of sale. The information provided needs to be divorced of any marketing information, so it is held for safety purposes only, to contact them in the unlikely event that there is an issue,” said Martyrn Allen of Electrical Safety First. He continued, “If we can drive up registration rates by having a simplified system with data held centrally – which is what consumers described to us when we did the research a couple of years ago – we would be likely to have more successful recalls.”
This would be achieved with new legislature, forcing businesses to keep track of the location of their appliances. “We have lots of requirements on manufacturers to have traceability up and down the supply chain, but from the point of sale out to the consumer, there is nothing,” said Martyn Allen.
In conclusion, The Business Committee admitted that they have not yet explored in detail all the arguments relating to the establishment of a national product safety agency, but said it seems on the surface a sensible way to address generic safety issues, particularly given the uncoordinated and fragmented nature of existing arrangements. Both the Chartered Trading Standards Institute and the Local Government Association have maintained that improved central support for local Trading Standards could be instituted straightaway. So, the white goods industry might see new legislature implemented soon.The Business Committee | publications.parliament.uk