Product Recall Database

– in the Scottish Parliament on 25th September 2019.

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Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-17805, in the name of John Mason, on the need for a product recall database. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes that the UK Government has served Whirlpool, which manufactures domestic appliances, with a notice to recall faulty tumble dryers; understands that this comes four years after the company issued a safety warning regarding some of its Creda, Hotpoint and Indesit devices; believes that research by the consumer charity, Electrical Safety First, suggests that only 10 to 20% of recalled products are actually returned or repaired, largely due to consumers being unaware of the recalls, and notes calls for the creation of a centrally-managed product recall database, which could allow consumers in Shettleston and across the country to check that their appliances are safe.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to lead off in this evening’s debate on an issue that I believe has potentially dire public safety consequences.

First, I thank all the members who supported the motion and are in attendance. I realise that some members might be reluctant to put their name to motions in my name, but I am grateful to those who have done so.

I also thank Electrical Safety First and Wayne Mackay, the organisation’s deputy public affairs manager, who is in the gallery and who is a constituent of mine, for all their work in highlighting the issue and preparing for today’s debate.

As the motion mentions, central to the debate is the Whirlpool recall. I will provide some background. In June of this year, the United Kingdom Government ordered the recall of Whirlpool’s affected tumble dryers in a highly unusual move. More than 169 Creda, Hotpoint, Indesit, Proline and Swan—brands that are all owned by Whirlpool—tumble dryer models that were made between April 2004 and October 2015 could pose a fire risk. The fault in the dryers could lead to fires if excess fluff comes into contact with the heating element.

Just two weeks ago, Whirlpool said that it had found 65,000 of the estimated 500,000 potentially dangerous flawed dryers, which it began recalling on 22 July after dozens of blazes. However, no accurate data can be provided, as low registration rates mean that it is not possible to give a definitive figure or location for the machines in question. The fact remains that hundreds of thousands of tumble dryers that are at risk of catching fire are still in use eight weeks after Whirlpool began recalling the faulty machines. The affected dryers are claimed to have been responsible for at least 750 fires over an 11-year period.

The recent events involving Whirlpool’s tumble dryer recall only amplify the failings of the current product recall system in the UK. Research by Electrical Safety First shows that product recalls are woefully ineffective—on average, they achieve a success rate of between 10 and 20 per cent, compared with a rate of between 89 and 98 per cent for recalls of cars and light goods vehicles. That means that there are potentially thousands of recalled electrical items still in Scottish homes. As most of those products have been recalled because they could lead to electrical fire or shock, they present a serious risk. In 2018, in Scotland alone, more than four fires a week were caused by white goods such as dishwashers and tumble dryers, so concerns around the safety of white goods have—understandably—increased.

The fact is that consumers are rarely aware of recall campaigns. Product recalls are often complex, and it can be difficult to trace the customers who own the recalled item. Many will not have provided contact details when they purchased the product, and others may have moved or passed the item on to a friend or family member.

Without contact details for customers, manufacturers have to broadcast details of the recall through retailers or through a range of traditional media and social media channels. Electrical Safety First has been calling for a centrally managed product recall database, which would allow consumers in my Shettleston constituency and beyond to check that their appliances are not subject to a recall. It would certainly make accessing information much easier for consumers. I understand that the UK Government has—at last—promised to introduce such a measure. I am interested to hear whether the Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills has had any discussions with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about timings for the measure’s introduction, and about why it took so long to reach the decision.

There are also concerns about recalled dryers being sold by private sellers on various online marketplaces. A number of affected Whirlpool tumble dryers have been found for sale on popular online platforms. Unfortunately, model and serial numbers are not mandatory fields when listing an electrical appliance for sale via online platforms, so a consumer may be unaware that they are buying a recalled product, and some sellers may be unknowingly selling one. That situation emphasises the need for much more to be done to increase public awareness of recalls, particularly for online retailers. It seems to me that product registration is key to that.

According to Electrical Safety First, faulty electrical products are responsible for more than six fires a week in Scotland. It also found that only a third of people in Scotland register their electrical products. MSPs do not fare much better—apparently only 37 per cent of MSPs claim to register their new electrical purchases.

Consumers who do not register their appliances clearly cannot be contacted by the manufacturer in the event of a fault or safety concern being discovered. Registering at the earliest stage, such as at the point at sale, seems like the best solution to me. There is a considerable lack of awareness of the key purpose of registration forms, as well as of the process for completing them, which currently seems to put people off registering products. Many consumers seem to associate product registration with ensuring that they have the warranty, or with extending the warranty, rather than with helping to ensure their safety. Consumers also need reassurance that product registration will not lead to their data being used for marketing purposes. Registering a product is easy and takes only a few minutes. I hope that members will support a campaign that will be launched by Electrical Safety First next month. Supported by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, it will promote an easy guide to product registration. I am sure that members will be contacted with the relevant details.

There is clear evidence to support the mandatory registration of products at the point of sale in Scotland and the UK—so that manufacturers know where their customers are—and the creation of a centrally managed product recall database, which would give consumers a single place to go to check for recalls.

The Scottish Government has shown that it is prepared to take action to enhance consumer safety. In 2015, for example, electrical safety protections for Scottish private sector tenants were introduced, while their counterparts elsewhere in the UK are still not afforded the same safeguards. In addition, good work is already being undertaken in Scotland to raise public awareness of issues with product safety, such as the Government-funded Citizens Advice Scotland consumer helpline, which provides clear and practical advice on all consumer issues.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service continues to work closely with Trading Standards Scotland and key safety groups to ensure that the public is made aware of any emerging safety risks. I understand that, through the white goods working group, which is chaired by the SFRS, a successful campaign was recently launched outlining the dangers of white goods fires and the importance of product registration. Last week was trading standards week, which was organised and promoted by the Society of Chief Officers of Trading Standards in Scotland and had a focus on product safety.

While I appreciate that the powers to tackle issues relating to electrical product safety are largely reserved, the Scottish Government has taken on responsibility for consumer advice and advocacy. Could more be done to support and enhance the awareness activities that I mentioned? Electrical Safety First suggests that there may be opportunities to tackle some of the issues through the Consumer Scotland Bill, which aims to establish a body—consumer Scotland—and give it the powers to provide advice, represent the views of consumers, collect information, organise research and carry out investigations. For example, the bill could ensure that consumer Scotland has the function of co-ordinating the dissemination of information to consumers around major recalls of electrical products that present a significant risk.

I look forward to hearing other members’ speeches and—of course—the minister's response.

Photo of Tom Mason Tom Mason Conservative

I am delighted to speak in this debate on behalf of the Conservatives. I welcome the opportunity to speak about the need for a product recall database, and I thank John Mason for securing the debate.

As the Parliament knows, in June, the white goods manufacturer Whirlpool was ordered to recall 500,000 potentially faulty products. The recall related to faulty tumble dryers that had caused fires. Aberdeen has first-hand experience in that regard: in September last year, a faulty tumble dryer caught fire in one of the city’s most popular Italian restaurants.

The recall notice was ordered by the UK Government. Whirlpool’s initial and—frankly—poor solution had been to advise customers not to leave products unattended while in use, which might inadvertently have given some customers the impression that their machines were safe to use. In February 2017, Whirlpool changed tack and advised customers that if they were in any doubt about their appliance being faulty, they should stop using it and unplug it—wise advice, at least.

It was only after an intervention by the Office for Product Safety and Standards that Whirlpool was notified that it must issue a product recall of tumble dryers that had not yet been modified. Under the recall, consumers with unmodified affected tumble dryers were entitled to a replacement new machine, which would be delivered and installed—with the old one removed—at no cost. In addition, Whirlpool committed to a significant customer outreach campaign.

However, the consumer charity Electrical Safety First argues that the UK recall system is inefficient, given that the average success rate of an electrical product recall in the UK is between 10 and 20 per cent, which means that potentially millions of recalled electrical items are still out there.

It is in that context that John Mason has proposed the creation of a centrally managed database that allows consumers to check that their products are safe. I am not convinced that such a database would go beyond the structures that are already in place for product recall notification. There is a Government-run website—productrecall.campaign.gov.uk—which lists products that have been recalled.

The issue is consumers’ lack of awareness of recall campaigns. Perhaps more time should be spent on solutions that raise awareness of product recall campaigns, as opposed to spending taxpayers’ money on setting up a centrally managed database.

Another failure of the UK recall system relates to the tracing of faulty products. Whirlpool has managed to replace only 65,000 out of 500,000 faulty machines, which means that potentially thousands of unsafe and hazardous products remain in Scottish homes—the places where people should feel most safe.

Electrical Safety First’s solution to the problem is the mandatory registration of appliances at the point of sale. The intention is to aid the tracing of faulty products, but the approach gives rise to concerns about data protection and does not solve the problem of locating dangerous products when consumers have changed their contact details or address.

Moreover, only a third of Scots register electrical appliances. I presume that promotion and further awareness of the existing service, register my appliance, would lead to more registration.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak in the debate. No one can fault the intention behind calls for a database. However the UK has some of the most stringent product safety laws in the world. A central database has merits, but better use could surely be made of the existing structures. It is for the Scottish Government to raise the profile of product safety in a way that protects consumers’ personal data and reduces the cost to the taxpayer.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I thank John Mason for securing the debate and drawing members’ attention to this important issue.

I have to confess that the safety of household appliances is something that we all, largely, take for granted, especially when we buy our appliances from well-known, highly reputable companies. Tumble dryers, for example, are so commonplace for most households that we cannot remember not having them—that is, until there is a fault that can have disastrous, life-changing and even life-threatening consequences.

Recalls are an important means of safeguarding consumers from dangerous goods, but we must do more to make the public aware of recalls.

We have all heard the horror stories of a faulty washing machine or tumble dryer that has resulted in a family home burning to the ground. Therefore, we would think that consumers and those in the industry would pay more attention to the quality of products and to broadcasting the recalls of items when a fault has been found. However, as John Mason pointed out, research from Electrical Safety First shows that only around 10 to 20 per cent of recalled products are returned.

I suspect that that is, in part, due to a lack of consumer education and information about which products have been recalled. More can be done. The Whirlpool recall, as mentioned in John Mason’s motion, is a colossal failing. As he said, it is a recall of all tumble dryers that were sold under the Hotpoint, lndesit, Swan, Creda and Proline brands between 2004 and 2015. Those are household names.

Industry experts estimated that, when the recall began, around 800,000 tumble dryers were at risk, yet the recall announcement has gone largely unnoticed, leaving consumers in the dark and at risk. As John Mason also said, to date, only around 65,000 tumble dryers have been returned, despite the appliance being named as the cause of at least 750 fires over the 11-year period in which it was being sold.

I am aware of comments in the media from Whirlpool executives that state that the recall has been five times more successful than an average product recall—as if that gets them off the hook. They also state that, since problems started to arise many years ago, they have resolved 1.7 million customer issues concerning those tumble dryers.

However, the fact that we need to have this debate to raise awareness of the recall shows that Whirlpool can and must do more. It must ensure that a larger percentage of the public is aware of the possible risk that the tumble dryers pose. It needs to make information about the recall easier to access. I know of constituents who have phoned and phoned but not managed to get through. It is not an easy thing to do.

Therefore, I echo the concerns of my colleague Rachel Reeves MP, who chairs the Westminster Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. She has said that the modification process that Whirlpool offers, whereby a Whirlpool engineer comes to the person’s home and fixes possibly faulty products, is not as good as it should be. Customers who have concerns about the quality of their product, even after modification, should consider a complete replacement. When the consequences can be so destructive and severe, we can never be too careful.

Unlike the Conservatives, I welcome calls for a centrally managed product recall database. Without such a database, it is hard for consumers to check whether things that they have bought are safe, which leaves potentially dangerous, recalled products in homes and leaves consumers in danger.

A database would make it much easier for members of the public to find out whether their appliance is affected. It would also ensure that the companies engage and that people are not left hanging on the phone.

If constituents think that their tumble dryer could be faulty, the advice from organisations such as Citizens Advice Scotland is to unplug the dryer immediately, report it and get it replaced. In every other aspect of our lives, we take safety seriously. Our approach to appliances should be no different. I hope that the minister supports that co-ordinated product recall database and I look forward to hearing how he can encourage such action.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Presiding Officer, I offer my apologies. I spoke to your colleague about the fact that, when I bid for this slot, I did not realise that decision time would be moved back. The moment I have finished speaking, I have to flee.

The subject in hand is a substantial issue. I am trying to work out whether I am one of the 37 per cent of MSPs who register their appliances. The answer is, “Sometimes I does and sometimes I doesn’t.” I suspect that that is true of most people, because it depends on all sorts of random things. Without question, there is difficulty in tracking down white goods that are in consumers’ premises or being carried around with them—there have been recalls of mobile phones—that require to be recalled.

I will address some of the practical issues, which might be helpful for what happens in future. It is all very well publishing lists of serial numbers, but it is not very obvious where the serial number is on a lot of white goods. If it is anywhere, it is probably at the back, covered in three to five years’ of grime. A person has to haul out the equipment to find the number and they then find that there are four or five labels saying different things with different numbers on them. Which one is the serial number? I have a little suggestion: it would be very helpful for the serial number to be on the front of a device and in a font size such that someone of my age can read it.

We also have an issue with finding people. We could require—I am not trying to identify whether the responsibility lies with Westminster or us; that is neither here nor there—the recording of all but the last digit of a postcode of the person buying a white good. Why would that be useful? First, by excluding the last digit, there would be a big enough cohort so that individuals could not be identified. A full postcode is between one and 100 people—well, one and 99, strictly speaking. Typically, recording all but the last digit would give a cohort of 750. If we know that X number are in that cohort, we can find them. Also, if we know that, overall, we have managed to find 10 per cent of the sales, we do not know about nine of them, and we can then go and do something about that.

Statistically, there are ways in which we can use information to home in on where the people that we do not know about are likely to be. Advertising to everybody in the population is very expensive and ineffective, and there would be difficulties if only a tiny percentage—the number may be right at the decimal point—of people have the goods. There is work that statisticians and others could do on the issue.

Having a database would certainly be useful. Many people would simply not use electronic databases. However, it would be useful to the citizens advice bureaux, retailers and service engineers and to MSPs when they are answering their constituents’ queries, or even taking the unsolicited opportunity to make comments to people.

It is disappointing that goods have to be recalled, but it is inevitable that that will happen. When engineering is involved, a proportion of a product will inevitably fail at some point in its life for reasons that are unexpected. I have been contacted in relation to my car. The manufacturers knew where I was, so they could write to me. When it comes to white goods, the situation is much more difficult.

Photo of Bill Bowman Bill Bowman Conservative

Apart from Jackie Baillie’s little dig at us, I think that I could probably agree with virtually everything that has been said.

I will not go through chapter and verse, but will just comment on one or two of the issues that have come up. I, too, wondered about the 37 per cent of MSPs, and who asked whom, when. I certainly support Electrical Safety First.

I see that Stewart Stevenson is disappearing from the chamber. I recognise what he said about going behind the fridge to try to find the serial number. A car’s vehicle identification number is put on the windscreen, where people can see it, as members will know if they have ever had to look for one. The manufacturers know that the number should be seen. Such things can be done.

Several people mentioned getting people to fill in information and keeping it up to date. Those who have looked after a database will know that it is fine when it is set up, because there is lots of enthusiasm, at that point. The issue is how to keep it up to date. It is not the case that goods stay in one house: white goods and other products can move from one address to another, for example when the owner sells them. Whose obligation would it be to keep the database up to date?

It helps to start with a quality product in the first place, because it will have fewer faults. I was interested in Jackie Baillie’s comments about the campaign not being particularly well run. That is inexcusable. Once a process is started, it should be followed through thoroughly, and the means of running it should be effective.

The motion raises what, to me, is a point of common sense; any product that is sold into the consumer domain should have a means of recall that ensures the consumer’s safety in the event of fault. However, in the event that a national database is established, a stipulation needs to be made on consumer privacy—as someone said—so that recalls can be issued only for safety reasons. We all know about the general data protection regulation issues that arise from making people’s data available without their permission.

I believe that the UK has some tough consumer protection laws, which require a manufacturer to contact anyone who has purchased a product that has subsequently been withdrawn.

Something that has not yet been mentioned is that we are moving into the era of the internet of things, in which a fridge, for example, is not just a stand-alone item but is connected to the internet. That will happen more and more. It will be a case of Big Brother not exactly watching us, but at least knowing where appliances are, and from that, if there is an issue, being able to contact the person or to flash up the information that there is a reason why the appliance needs to be investigated. I throw that out as something that could be helpful, going forward.

I would support the use of a national consumer database, but I will be interested to hear from the minister how he sees that working in a practical way, so that we do not just see something being set up then withering on the vine, in terms of keeping data up to date.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I join other members in congratulating John Mason on securing this important debate. He said at the outset that he sometimes detects reticence among members to sign up to his motions. I read the terms of this one and, although as a minister I am not allowed to sign motions, I readily and heartily endorse the sentiments in it.

I also join Mr Mason in welcoming Wayne Mackay from Electrical Safety First to the gallery. I have engaged with that organisation in the past: I record my thanks, and those of the Scottish Government, for the work that it undertakes.

All of us here today, and those who are not here—virtually everyone in the country—will have bought white goods at some point. Some might even have remembered to register them. I have to confess that I am in the 63 per cent who do not, so I commit to doing much better in the future. When we purchase such goods, we should be able to do so with confidence that we will not be put at risk. Jackie Baillie was right to say that we should have that expectation. However, we know that it is not always the case. Many people are left unaware that they might have a dangerous product in their home.

The point has been made by Electrical Safety First that only a third of Scottish consumers register their products, which contributes to the difficulty in recalling faulty items. Currently, no more than 20 per cent of items are recalled successfully. Even in high-profile cases, such as the obvious one of the Whirlpool tumble dryers that was mentioned, there might still be hundreds of thousands of faulty machines in UK homes, as John Mason said. On that specific case, the latest figures that I have seen show that, as at 10 September, 65,000 of the tumble-dryers in question had been located by Whirlpool, with more than 400,000 still unidentified. That shows the scale of the challenge.

I will set out some of the activities that the Scottish Government is engaged in.

Earlier this year, the Minister for Community Safety launched the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s white goods fire safety campaign, which provides clear advice on how to reduce the risks of fires that start from white goods. That is a salient reminder of all the good work that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service undertakes to protect communities and keep people safe.

We are committed to ensuring that everyone lives in safe, inclusive and resilient communities. One part of that is our determination to reduce the number and impact of house fires that start with white goods. I support the white goods partnership approach, which includes the Scottish Government, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, trading standards departments and Electrical Safety First, working with communities. It is by working together with a common aim that we can best reduce the number and impact of white goods fires.

I urge everyone to take the simple step of using registermyappliance.org to get alerts should faults be identified in their white goods, and to check Electrical Safety First’s website for product recalls and advice on what to do with a recalled product. That is an important way to raise awareness. We should, of course, use it and encourage others to use it.

However, I agree that a product recall database would be a more comprehensive measure. I was a bit confused when Tom Mason said that he is unconvinced about the need for such a database, given that the office for product safety and standards, which is part of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—which is, of course, under the administration of Tom Mason’s party—has committed to establishing such a database. I agree with Tom Mason that the database will have to build on what exists, but there is a commitment to do that.

I agree with John Mason that there should not be a delay in building that database. He asked what engagement there has been between Governments on the matter. There has been engagement at official level, but I commit to follow up directly with the relevant UK minister, who I think is Kelly Tolhurst, and will be happy to update members who have participated in the debate on the response.

There were a number of useful suggestions that I will also follow up with Kelly Tolhurst. I will take up points that were made by Stewart Stevenson in his usual detailed and forensic fashion, and points that Bill Bowman made about the ease with which product information can be displayed on items: he made a really useful suggestion. I see that Mr Bowman is surprised by that. He made a useful suggestion about utilisation of what we call the internet of things, so I will avail myself of the opportunity to explore that with Kelly Tolhurst. It could be a straightforward way to deal with some of the concerns that have been raised.

We have committed to establishing a body called consumer Scotland. The Consumer Scotland Bill is before Parliament, and I look forward to pursuing it. I believe that the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee recently closed its call for evidence on the bill and will start to scrutinise it, so I look forward to engaging with the committee.

That organisation is designed to be primarily investigatory, but it will be able to provide information on consumer matters, including on products that present a significant risk. I think that John Mason suggested that consumer Scotland could have responsibility for dissemination of information directly to consumers. I am not convinced that we are empowered to legislate for that, but I am happy to explore the issue. It is a useful suggestion and I undertake to explore it as we progress the bill.

I welcome the work that has been done to protect consumers, whether that is raising awareness of the dangers of faulty goods, as Electrical Safety First has done, or the work on the proposed database that we have debated this evening. We can all play our part in ensuring maximum protection from harm for consumers. We are doing that in Scotland by creating consumer Scotland and through the electricians working group, which I chair, and the funding that we provide for the consumer helpline, which we will always continue.

I will take away some of the points that have been raised, and I look forward to updating members who have taken part in the debate, and any member who wants to contact me, on where we get to on that.

Meeting closed at 18:49.