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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:42 pm on 9th May 2018.

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Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling 2:42 pm, 9th May 2018

I am grateful to the chair of the Select Committee—I have the privilege of serving on it—for her intervention. She is absolutely right, and I share all those concerns—specifically in relation to the Which? report of recent weeks that suggested that Whirlpool customers were being advised that they could continue to use their defective models, even though they were known to be defective and presented a danger to the safety of the people who lived in homes where they were in use.

Similarly, I am also concerned to hear that the BBC and Which? have reported that some of the machines that have had their defects corrected have then caused fires. This is a significant issue and, as I said earlier, is something that should concentrate all our minds—particularly those of Ministers. I am sure that the Minister will wish to address these specific issues in his reply.

Questions need to be asked, and it is vital that the regulatory regime that we have meets the need that we currently place on it. As we take more products into our lives and rely more on technology, the more we need a regulator with teeth. The new Office for Product Safety and Standards is a promising development, but it will need to be tested against reality—the lawyers and the corporate spin machines that defend the spin cycles of the manufacturers.

I should at this point deviate to tell the House that I had a most interesting experience in the last few minutes while visiting a constituent of mine who is here in Parliament. She is at a drop-in event in Portcullis House sponsored by Genetic Alliance UK, which is a charity that works to improve the lives of patients and carers. I told her that I was coming to Westminster Hall to participate in a debate on tumble dryers—that is how I expressed it, even though the debate is broader—and she volunteered that her tumble dryer had been faulty. It was a different make from the one I have discussed. She returned the machine and was offered £100 and a new machine, but that machine was faulty. This product seems to have endemic issues.

I hope Members will forgive me if I dwell a little more on an issue that has bothered me a great deal since being elected: the apparent ineffectiveness of regulators. For example, Ofgem constantly failed to take on the electricity markets, which were obviously broken, and I have found Ofcom to be generally unresponsive to the wireless telephony and broadband connectivity issues of my rural constituents. The list goes on. The debate is not about that, but I am concerned that the new office could be another ineffectual regulator—toothless, ineffective, and sometimes even, sad to say, supine—instead of a body that the Government, and us as parliamentarians, have put good faith in to defend the best interests of people.

In some cases, regulators fail not because they do not have enough power but because they lack the will and suffer from organisational atrophy that causes inaction. The regulator in this field, the OPSS, must not fail. If it does, there is the possibility of lives being lost—actually, that is beyond a possibility; it is a fact—consumers being ripped off with faulty goods, and untold damage being done to property.

The situation regarding Whirlpool, which I have already mentioned, is one in which our Select Committee expected action on the part of the company. To our knowledge, that has not been forthcoming. Its actions have been inadequate. Instead of responding to the concerns that we raised with it and those of my constituents and others who have raised issues with me that I have passed on, it has resisted action and, in my view, done the bare minimum that it can get away with. An activist regulator would put paid to the inaction, and a test of the ability of the new regulator will be how it pursues this. It is essential that when questions are raised about products, companies act transparently. That is what we would expect, and what we would expect a regulator to insist on.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the debate.