Last week, the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industry Strategy Committee raised alarm at what it described as 'woeful' product safety practices by manufacturers of consumer goods.
In particular, the Committee's criticisms focused on the failure of one leading manufacturer of tumble dryers to allow over a million defective appliances to remain in circulation more than two years after the identification of a defect that has led to at least 750 fires since 2004.
Included in the Committee's criticisms was what it described as a 'painfully slow' improvement to the UK's product safety regime by the Government. This was of particular concern given the identification of electrical goods as the cause of several high-profile and devastating fires, including that at Grenfell Tower in June 2017.
Yesterday, the Government announced a range of policies to improve the UK's product safety regime. The most notable of these is the creation of an Office for Product Safety and Standards ("OPSS").
The OPSS will be responsible for general (non-food) consumer product safety. It will not cover areas where regulators already exists, such as vehicles, medicines, medical devices and workplace equipment. Its remit will also not include construction products, which are currently being considered by another Government review.
The purpose of the Office is to 'provide dedicated expertise to lead on national product safety challenges'. This is said to include:
- coordinating responses to national product safety incidents;
- pooling intelligence from local authorities and other bodies to help identify emerging product safety issues;
- providing advice to teams working at ports to help target high-risk imports;
- providing product safety information and advice to consumers; and
- forming an open dialogue with business in order to help inform regulation and enforcement.
The OPSS will be launched immediately and its capability developed over time. One of the first tasks of the new body will be to upgrade the content and functionality of the Government's product recall website. It is intended that, by the end of 2018, the OPSS will have launched an extensive data hub of all corrective action and recall programmes affecting consumer products, including a searchable product register to enable consumers to make more informed choices on product purchases.
Are the changes sufficient?
There is mounting concern around the UK's product safety regime. Last week's Select Committee report sought to highlight serious known safety concerns that are said to have been allowed to remain unaddressed, in some cases, for years.
For manufacturers, distributors and retailers who work hard to ensure the safety of their products, these proposals should be welcomed. However, all parties involved in the supply of consumer goods should be aware that the proposals announced yesterday are likely to mark the beginning of potentially significant reform to the UK's product safety regime.
Whilst the new proposals focus on creating a more centralised approach to the development and dissemination of product safety information, they do not give the newly created OPSS any regulatory powers. This is something that many have called for and which the Government sates it will consider in the longer term.
Manufacturers, distributors and retailers of safe products have little to fear from current or future proposals. Indeed, they should seek to take the opportunity to put themselves at the forefront of regulatory changes which are likely to be consulted upon in coming years in order to protect and enhance the reputation of their markets.
That said, retailers, distributors and manufacturers would do well to consider now their policies and procedures on preventing and responding to product safety events. This should include:
- the traceability and identity of specific components in their products;
- the integrity and accountability of their supply chain; and
- the ability to engage and communicate with its customers.