Need for new consumer goods rules now

Written By: Jim Fitzpatrick
Published: November 21, 2017 Last modified: November 21, 2017

Three fires a day in the United Kingdom involve tumble dryers; more than 4,000 fires in 2016 were caused by faulty appliances and leads; and 2,000 fires in London between 2011 and 2016 involved white goods. The Grenfell fire was started by a fridge-freezer, and deaths have occurred elsewhere, too – one in 2010, five in 2011, two in 2014 – as a result of similar sources of ignition.

We want a conclusive, robust and ambitious Government response, and it will continue to reflect badly on this administration if one does not come soon. As London fire brigade’s letter to the government states: “There has been over three years of reports and recommendations but as yet no action from Government … the review of the UK product recall system was first announced in November 2014. This was then launched in March 2015 with consumer champion Lynn Faulds Wood leading the review which reported in February 2016 with a series of recommendations. A steering group was then set up to take these forward. Following the Shepherds Court fire, a new working group to replace the steering group was set up in autumn 2016 which published its recommendations in July 2017.”

The recommendations of the Faulds Wood review state: “There is a need for the creation of an official national product safety agency … There should be an official trusted website … There is an urgent need to improve funding, training, resources and procedures for … the enforcement authorities”.

Consumer watchdog Which? makes the point that trading standards officers have 260 pieces of legislation to enforce, and product safety is therefore not a priority. It further states: “Local authority trading standards cannot be expected to hold to account multinational companies for product safety incidents of national concern.”

That is surely true. Indeed, it was under pressure from Which? that Peterborough trading standards officers took action against Whirlpool, following the Shepherd’s Bush fire in 2016. Whirlpool updated its safety advice to consumers, warning them to stop using their machines until they are repaired. However, the modification programme it initiated did not have the capacity to deliver. In April, ministers reported that Whirlpool had resolved 1.5 million of the 3.5 million affected machines, and in October the Government spokesperson reported that the figure stood at 1.7 million.

Incidentally, if people have used their credit cards to buy faulty equipment, credit card companies could be held liable. The credit card companies may therefore sue manufacturers for faulty goods. If the credit card companies weighed in and threatened to sue Whirlpool, that might be a game-changer.

There are clearly big issues to address, not only for consumers but for retailers, manufacturers and the Government. As consumers, we need to recognise that completing product warranty forms is in our own interest. I understand that anecdotal evidence suggests that people do not complete them for fear of receiving unwanted sales literature, although personally I think it has more to do with laziness. YouGov research showed that just over a third of us currently register our appliances.

Retailers should be required to register customers’ pur­chases and personal details for safety recall purposes. Those details must not be used for promotions – although in this age of information sharing and data capture, it is almost impos­sible for any of us to avoid sales material and promotions.

London fire brigade has a number of simple requests to manufacturers, and these requests are supported generally. They include changing fridge-freezer construction to protect insulation materials from components that could catch fire; better permanent marking of model and serial numbers, so that appliances can be identified after a fire; and using capacitors in fridges and freezers in a way that prevents them from starting fires. Which? also mentions non-flame-retardant backings for fridge-freezers.

Finally, what should the Government do? That is obviously the biggest challenge, especially with a Government who – with respect – are set against any new regulation on business. We have also had two Government reviews and there is an ongoing working group. There have been three major incidents in tower blocks since 2009 – Lakanal House, Shepherds Court and Grenfell – all of which had an electrical source of ignition. The select committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had a hearing yesterday to explore these issues and I hope it will soon launch a major inquiry. Meanwhile, the average success rate for an electrical product recall is apparently between 10% and 20%. We all know, including our major safety organisations and the Government, that that is just not good enough, because lives are at risk.

Jim Fitzpatrick, a former firefighter, is Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse. This is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate