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It is, yet again, a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Sir David, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris on securing this important and extremely topical debate. I also thank the all-party group on home electrical safety, Which?, Electrical Safety First, and the BBC’s “Watchdog”—I apologise to anyone who I may have missed, because many people are interested in this issue.
The safety and security of their citizens must be the No. 1 priority for all Governments, but in recent years we have witnessed a series of fires that have haunted the nation. The Grenfell tragedy is suspected to have been caused by a faulty fridge freezer, although, as several hon. Members have said, we are still waiting for the independent inquiry to verify that. My hon. Friend Angela Rayner has raised with Ministers the tragic case of the Wilson family in her constituency. John Wilson was killed, and his wife and daughter seriously injured, in a house fire and explosion caused by a faulty fridge freezer. The model in question was known to be a fire hazard and was subject to a product safety notice. However, the family had not been informed, and the coroner found that the manufacturer had not taken sufficient steps to warn customers. Those are just some of the tragic stories.
After years of reviews and consultations, in January the Government finally announced the creation of the Office for Product Safety and Standards, a new body that will
“enhance protection for consumers and the environment”.
Given its name, I was somewhat surprised when I checked its website and found that “product safety” featured at the end of its list of priorities. Indeed, when scrolling through OPSS’s social media account, there is little mention of the steps that it is taking to enhance product safety, or how it is tackling current product safety issues. I am therefore delighted to join other Members in seeking clarification from the Minister about what the scope and nature of the OPSS will be.
That the product safety regime is out of date and not fit for purpose has been evident for some time. As my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter said, only a couple of weeks ago after a widespread investigation by Which?, it was revealed that, further to previous investigations, companies such as Whirlpool are
“failing to give full and appropriate safety advice when contacted about fire-risk tumble dryer models”.
That is a clear breach of Whirlpool’s legal obligations under the safety notice and could mean that it is breaking product safety law.
That investigation is part of an ongoing two-year campaign that calls for a full recall of those unsafe products. The fact that the matter has not yet been properly resolved represents an abdication of the manufacturers’ and the Government’s duties to consumers. The OPSS presents an initial opportunity to ensure that that is dealt with, but despite the Minister’s promise to get to work right away, there has been no response. I understand that the body is still new, but if that reflects how it will operate in future, that is disappointing and a far cry from what consumers need to protect themselves against faulty goods. Shockingly, 1 million Whirlpool tumble dryers subject to a safety notice are still in the homes of consumers, and I fear it is only a matter of time before the next tragedy.
I have some pressing questions for the Minister. Is the OPSS looking into the claims made by the Which? investigation, and, if so, what steps is it taking to respond to that urgent investigation? Will the Minister set out clearly the process through which this body will deal with any future investigations? I am pleased that the Government are soon expected to launch their strategy for the OPSS—my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith strongly expressed his views on that. Will the Minister confirm the timeline for the publication of the strategy and outline its key priorities?
Given the shambles around the product recall system, I urge the Minister to ensure that part of the OPSS’s remit is playing a key role in dealing with product recalls swiftly. More broadly, the strategy must also address how the body will work with local authorities on the ground. Since 2010, they have suffered severe cuts, as the Government’s consumer Green Paper admits. On page 57, it says:
“the capacity of Local Authorities to take national cases has reduced. Two-thirds of English local authorities have reported not having the expertise to cover fully the range of statutory duties required of trading standards teams. For example, only half of authorities now have specialist skills in e-crime, a national priority area.”
The Government openly admit that they are letting consumers down.
Undoubtedly, the lack of resources has left trade bodies bereft of the crucial expertise they require to deal with such cases, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue. The Government’s strategy should set out how they will close the gap in the enforcement mechanisms, so that trading bodies are sufficiently supported to enforce consumer law.
I understand that work has already begun on a database of unsafe products, to which my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick eloquently drew attention. However, there is little detail about it. How are the Government conducting the database? Will we be able to see which goods have been recalled? Who will have access to the data? How will third parties be able to access the data in a responsible manner? I hope the Minister will answer those questions in his response. Furthermore, the database needs to be in place by
Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend Gerald Jones, raised the issue of second-hand goods and online purchases. How will the Government address that important issue?
The OPSS is a step in the right direction but it does not go far enough in addressing the fundamental issue of the product safety regime. Clearly, the current policy is out of date and not fit for purpose. If we are to keep citizens safe, the Government must take firmer action now.