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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:42 pm on 9th May 2018.

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Photo of Andrew Griffiths Andrew Griffiths Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 3:42 pm, 9th May 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Sir David, with your vast experience of this place. I congratulate Carolyn Harris on securing this important debate, and I am grateful to hon. Members from both sides of the House for their thoughtful input. The hon. Lady is a true champion for her constituency, as I know from my work on the private Member’s Bill in relation to parental bereavement. She has made a huge contribution to the lives of people across our country, and I commend her not only for the work that she does, but for the way in which she does it.

Let me be clear that there is no doubt about the Government’s commitment to maintaining the highest level of consumer protection. I have a wide and varied brief. As the Minister responsible for small business, consumers and corporate responsibility, I cover postal issues, competition policy and retail. I lose track of the number of things that should be on my business card, but it would not fit in my pocket if it had everything on. I reassure the Chamber that consumer protection is of the utmost importance, however, and if anything keeps me awake at night, it is ensuring that this country has a product safety regime that keeps us all safe. The Government’s commitment led to the first ever national technical expertise to support local authority trading standards teams in their vital work of enforcing product safety.

There were some questions about the announcement in relation to the Office for Product Safety and Standards. I put my hands up; it was my first week as a Minister. I thought it was better to get the information into the public arena and for people to be aware of it. If there are suggestions that I should have come to the House or done it differently, I take them on board. We are always learning.

I announced the establishment of the Office for Product Safety and Standards on 21 January. That announcement responded to the central recommendation made by the working group on product recalls and safety. That group was set up by the Government to advise on the practical steps that could be taken to enhance the UK’s approach to product safety. It identified a need for a national technical and scientific resource to support decision making in local authorities and in the businesses they regulate. We will deliver that national capability through the Office for Product Safety and Standards. I have high ambitions for what the office will be able to achieve, and I am determined that the capability will be established quickly.

Since establishing the office, we have taken steps to deliver improvements, which I will say more about shortly, but it might be helpful to remind hon. Members where the responsibilities within the product safety regime lie, so we are clear about exactly where we should expect the office to deliver improvements. It has not been set up to do what others are already doing or should be doing.

Businesses are legally responsible for ensuring that the products they place on the market are safe, and for taking effective action to address any issues that arise once those products are in circulation. The Office for Product Safety and Standards does not take those responsibilities away from businesses, nor does it lessen them in any way. It gives us the scope to better enforce those requirements more consistently across the country.

Day-to-day enforcement of product safety is led by local authorities, which have teams of officers on the ground across the country, as we have heard. In that role, they provide vital services, such as being a point of contact, giving advice to consumers and businesses, and leading on investigations into potential non-compliance. I pay tribute to the work that trading standards officers do across the country. The establishment of the office does not move, alter or reduce that role. Local authorities remain front and centre in the delivery of effective protections.

The office will provide additional support for those local teams, who will be able to draw on the national testing facilities, leading scientific advice and technical expertise to help them to deal with the complexity of the issues they encounter. We have heard about the challenges in relation to resource, but this is a new, additional resource of additional expertise to help and support those trading standards officers across the country.

To clarify, the new office will have a budget for new product safety activities of an additional £12 million a year. As I said earlier, the budget for the first year in operation, 2018-19, is about £25 million, which includes £9 million of additional funding. In the following year, that £9 million will increase to £12 million. Those are substantial amounts of resources. The office will employ about 290 people, of whom 180 will be existing staff and 110 will be new posts. I hope that reassures right hon. and hon. Members.