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Office for Product Safety and Standards — [Sir David Amess in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 9th May 2018.

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Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities) 2:30 pm, 9th May 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the role of the Office for Product Safety and Standards.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.

The Minister will be familiar with my interest in electrical safety and, in particular, household electrical goods. I am sure he has familiarised himself with all my previous debates and correspondence on the issue. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the new Office for Product Safety and Standards, and I am keen to hear from him what he will do with some of the serious issues around product safety, and specifically electrical goods. Disappointingly, there has been no parliamentary scrutiny of the functions of the office to date, and I was disappointed that no Minister came to the House to explain what it would be. It was irritating that the Government made the announcement on a weekend; perhaps today we can hear an explanation for that.

The previous Minister, Margot James, came to the all-party parliamentary group on home electrical safety in December last year, to explain and to listen to the way forward that members of that group wanted. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work as Minister and her willingness to listen to parliamentarians and stakeholders about the changes required to electrical product safety in the UK.

The APPG on home electrical safety is an excellent forum for many parliamentarians and stakeholder attendees to discuss the priority issues concerning electrical safety. Stakeholder attendees include Electrical Safety First, which assists me with the administration of the group, the London fire brigade and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, of which I am a vice-president, the Anti-Counterfeiting Group and others. I would like to think that our combined effort and knowledge have kept these matters high on the parliamentary agenda.

Special mention should also be given to my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who have both worked for a long time to protect people from fires and white good damage in their homes. The APPG’s next meeting is next Tuesday, and I extend an invitation to the Minister to come and listen to a presentation from eBay on what it is doing to prevent counterfeit electrical goods from being sold on its platform—an issue that has got wildly out of control in recent years and, if I am honest, piqued my initial interest in the subject when I held my first debate on this matter in this very room.

I welcome the creation of the office, which is long overdue, and I hope it will help not only to co-ordinate across Government, but to bring together a range of stakeholders to help and advise the office, such as Electrical Safety First, the British Standards Institution, the fire brigades, CTSI and Which?, and many others that are on the frontline of preventing fires caused by faulty products, and that exist to educate the public. The office now needs to reach out to those organisations. I question what it will do to engage stakeholders.

The Minister will be aware that I have previously corresponded with the Department on what I think should be the priority areas. Although I appreciated the Minister’s response, I wonder whether today is an opportunity to share when the strategy will be published and whether electrical product safety will be a priority.

Electricity is one of the biggest causes of fires in our homes, but I see no real Government strategy to help mitigate that risk. Is the office working on a cross-Government strategy? The Home Office has its own “Fire Kills” campaign, but there needs to be a longer, sustained campaign, which Electrical Safety First has been calling for. What is the priority consumer campaign to prevent electrical fires in the home—or where is it? I would like to know what discussions the office is having with the Home Office about fires caused by faulty electrical goods. The Home Office seems to have its own unit, and now the Office for Product Safety and Standards exists, so where is the co-ordination? Can we have some reassurance that there will be joined-up thinking?

I note from the office’s website that one of the first announcements last month was on teaming up with BSI, the UK’s national standards body, to launch the first Government-backed code of practice for product safety recall in the UK. That is a welcome step and is backed by Government, but can the Minister outline whether there will be a Government campaign for consumers on product safety in the strategy? Although initiatives such as “Register my appliance” exist, where is the Government-backed consumer campaign on electrical goods?

There have been significant consumer awareness campaigns from organisations such as Electrical Safety First and the London fire brigade, particularly on plastic-backed fridges, white good fires, counterfeit electrical goods and why recalled goods are openly being sold. The office must get to grips with that issue. From my personal perspective, I do not think it is right that counterfeit electrical goods are sold openly online by the likes of Amazon and eBay. As I have said, the latter will be given an opportunity next week to reassure the APPG meeting, but Amazon has consistently refused to engage and washed its hands of any responsibility, and even though it was invited to next week’s meeting it has declined to respond.

At the last debate, the previous Minister promised a roundtable discussion with Apple, BaByliss, ACG and others to discuss the serious problems they face with counterfeiting and its safety aspects. I keep saying to Ministers that this goes beyond intellectual property; it is about the safety of the public. It is about fire in their homes. It is about the death of my constituent Linda Merron, who bought an electrical product on eBay that burned her house down. It is unacceptable that eBay and Amazon can sell goods that are unsafe and basically get away with it. That would not be allowed on the high street, and the issue will only get worse with the collapse of high street electrical stores such as Maplin, which shows that consumers are increasingly buying online. I want to hear today that the office will tackle those companies that break the law by selling substandard, counterfeit or recalled products.

A closely related problem is the private sales of electrical goods via eBay and Amazon, particularly on Amazon Marketplace. It is my understanding that the Consumer Rights Act 2015 does not cover private sales, so anything faulty could be sold person to person without legal protection. Can the Minister look into that and perhaps write to me about the situation regarding private sales of electrical goods between two individuals, their rights and the consumer legislation? If there is a loophole, I would expect the office to look at it.

It is all very well my calling for greater attacking of the issues and enforcement, but who will enforce this? As the Local Government Association stated in its trading standards review, between 2010 and 2015 there have been cuts of more than 40% to local government, and trading standards has taken the brunt of those cuts. As CTSI has informed me,

“the Office for Product Safety and Standards is a step forwards for consumer protection in the UK. However;
there is still a pressing need to ensure frontline trading standards services have the resources to fulfil their duties to protect the public as was noted by the BEIS Select Committee, Lynn Faulds Wood and the National Audit Office.”