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Safety of Electrical Appliances

Volume 578: debated on Monday 24 March 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Harriett Baldwin.)

I hope, Mr Speaker, that you will consider that, on the first day of United Kingdom home safety week, it is appropriate that I raise the concerns of my constituent Martin Squires, who on 6 January 2012 did what hundreds of thousands of families in this country will undoubtedly be doing this very evening—he went to bed having first programmed the dishwasher sited in his kitchen. The dishwasher caught fire, and Martin believes that it is only by chance that he and his young family were not burned to death as a result.

That is bad enough, but in his attempt to come to terms with what happened to him and his family and to get to the bottom of its causes, Mr Squires has since become much more concerned with the safety of all those of us using white goods. I think it is true to say that he feels extremely let down both by the manufacturers and by the recall system for faulty and dangerous goods. In his own words,

“I purchased a product in good faith with hard earned money from a reputable company, which with hindsight was a potential death trap that they planted in my family home. As each month goes by I feel angrier with Hotpoint and the UK recall system. Hotpoint knew they had a problem with this product before my fire and whilst they started to contact customers in October 2012 they did not make the problem public until April 2013.”

He has found the system for recalling faulty products to be piecemeal, inflexible and designed, in essence, more to secure the profits of the producers than to protect the public. In fact, we know that the system is entirely in the hands of the manufacturers who produce the faulty and potentially lethal goods in the first place.

The Electrical Safety Council, which, as one might imagine, has done an enormous amount of work in this area, suggests that Mr Squires’ experience is far from unique, with such appliances causing over 17,000 domestic fires and 40 to 45 deaths in this country each year. Yet over 1 million appliances that are known to be faulty may remain in use in UK homes as we speak, every one of which has the potential to start life-threatening fires, as in my constituent’s case, or to emit gas, poisoning people as they sleep, as happened to Richard Smith and Kevin Branton, two young men who, as reported to this House in a recent debate and as shown in the Official Report of 11 March 2014, died in their sleep when a Beko cooker gave off carbon monoxide. This is a serious situation which it might be felt the Government of the day would want to play a part in mitigating. Perhaps I may come back to what I think the Government could and should do to improve matters.

First, I would like to look at the recall system that is supposed to operate when a safety risk to customers is discovered. It appears, at best, to be extremely flawed. The onus is on the manufacturer who produced the faulty product to initiate and organise the process, which, on average, leaves 80% of these defective and dangerous goods unreturned or unrepaired. Underfunded local trading standards services are responsible for enforcement and even have powers to order recall, but they rarely use them. Such other sanctions as there are appear to be derisory. Why is that the case when 1 million recalled goods are still in use in customers’ homes, and when 17,000 fires and up to 45 deaths a year result from that fact?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important matter to the Chamber for our consideration. I have sought his permission to intervene. In Northern Ireland, a new scheme has been brought in by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to retrain electricians periodically to make them aware of new regulations and the safety of electrical appliances so that they can use their expertise to advise their customers. If that scheme has not been introduced on the UK mainland, does the hon. Gentleman think that it should be?

The situation is so bad that any scheme that could make a positive contribution and improve it would be welcome. I am grateful for that information, because I did not know about that scheme.

Things appear to be much better in product areas as varied as motor vehicles and food. I cannot speak for the Minister, but I understand that the Government say that the difference is due largely to the lack of traceability in electrical goods, as opposed to motor vehicles. Apparently, neither the manufacturer nor the retailer has sufficient information about the vast mass of people who purchase white goods. How, then, can we have a customer safety system that depends on exactly that knowledge? If traceability is the key to stopping fires and deaths, a quite different system must be introduced.

In my view, we need a third-party organisation with which people can register when they buy white goods. That would overcome the reticence of customers in giving their personal information to manufacturers or retailers, no doubt for fear that the data will be used or abused to bombard them with advertising and for other commercial purposes. Will the Government consider such a development? Will they consider a much more radical model that takes the process of recall out of the hands of the manufacturers altogether, so that it can be undertaken entirely in the interests of the consumer and their safety, rather than in the commercial interests of the producers?

I point the Minister to the American system, where the Consumer Product Safety Commission does just what I have suggested. As far as one can tell, it produces much better results for the consumer and their safety than we manage. I am not known for advocating the wonders of American practice generally, but our system is failing UK consumers and they have a right to expect better. In our system, commercial interest is allowed to determine how, at what pace, by what means and, indeed, if at all a manufacturer meets its responsibilities to recall defective products.

The trading standards service in my area reported to me at least one recent example of a manufacturer refusing to issue a recall notice at all, even though the trading standards service and the local fire service considered that it should. Neither of those agencies, whether individually or collectively, had the ability to force the company to act. The Chief Fire Officers Association says that it is

“very concerned about the number of faulty products in people’s homes.”

There is little wonder in that if the situation nationally is the same as the situation in my area of west Yorkshire, where the number of house fires is decreasing, in large part due to the professionalism, expertise and work of the fire service, but the number of fires caused by electrical goods remains stubbornly high. Chief fire officers have also said that they believe the recall system to be “unsuccessful and inadequate”.

The situation is that tens of thousands of dangerous and defective goods are left in people’s homes, causing 17,000 fires and up to 45 deaths a year. The responsibility for those goods obviously rests with the manufacturers, the importers and the retailers. The system to reduce the threat and protect the public safety is diffuse, unclear and too open to conflicts of interest.

I have some questions for the Minister about what the Government might do in the face of this threat to the public. First, will the Government ensure more traceability for electrical goods and consider a third-party agency to overcome the customer reluctance to provide details at point of sale? Secondly, will they investigate systems such as that in the US, where the onus for recall is essentially out of the hands of manufacturers? Thirdly, will they greatly increase the penalties, which are currently derisory—fines of £5,000 for multinational companies—given that the lives of my constituents and many others have been put at risk? Fourthly, will they start to collate data—it is ludicrous to me that they should need to start to do this—from, for instance, the 200 or so trading standards services and the fire services about the full extent of the dangers posed by these electrical products? Fifthly, will the Government listen more to people such as my constituent Martin Squires? He has had enormous difficulty in getting anybody to listen to the dangers that his family were put in and the lessons that he thinks should be learned. He wants the interests of consumers to be considered, not just those of producers, so that people’s lives are put less at risk.

Finally, to be helpful to the Minister, perhaps I might suggest that she introduce some of those suggestions as amendments to the Consumer Rights Bill which is making progress through the House.

I apologise for my voice being about an octave lower than normal: it is part of the tribulations of having small children who breed germs.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) on choosing this subject for debate: it is a very important issue. As he said, it is an important consumer issue, and I am replying to the debate as the consumer affairs Minister. The specific case that he raises clearly illustrates how serious it can be when things go wrong, and shows how important it is to get this area right. We all want to ensure that the electrical appliances that people buy in the UK are safe, and that people know they can trust what they are buying. The evidence shows that modern appliances from reputable sources are inherently safe, and they are much safer than older appliances.

As the hon. Gentleman said, for the more than 26 million households in the UK the fire statistics for the latest year available show that there were 21 fatalities related to electrical appliances and cables. It is a small number, but clearly each case is a tragedy and we cannot be complacent. We need to make sure that we reduce the fatality rate further.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted the Consumer Rights Bill, and we had a lengthy debate on this issue in Committee. It was a very interesting debate, and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who is in his place, tabled a new clause on the subject, so it is an issue that has been considered quite recently. I know it is of interest to a number of Members across the House, including the two Members from Northern Ireland who are in their place, the hon. Members for Foyle and for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

The way people buy electrical products is changing, and this was debated during the passage of the Consumer Rights Bill. Traditionally, people bought electrical goods by going into physical shops on the high street. Consumers were able to look at the products, see clearly what was being offered and ask questions of the retailer to assure themselves that the product was what they needed. They were more likely to know the sort of shop it was, the price and whether they could trust the retailer. That is a very different market from the one that is emerging.

The wider use of the internet has meant that distant selling has become more common, and that brings a number of issues with it. Many reputable manufacturers and retailers supply products online—I am sure many of us have purchased items in this way—but consumers can end up buying products from less reputable suppliers who deal in products that are sometimes of poor quality and unsafe and which perform badly. Such suppliers can use the internet to avoid their liabilities and responsibilities to customers. Customers are often not as well informed about the products they are purchasing, or about the person from whom they are buying, as they are when they go into a physical shop. As a result, the relationship between consumers and retailers has changed over the years.

In a very small number of cases, manufacturers will identify problems with the appliance after it has been sold and there will be a product recall—or, more correctly, a “corrective action”. Manufacturers, including importers, and distributors, such as retailers, have a duty in consumer protection legislation to ensure that the products they place on the market are safe, but corrective action is sometimes needed to remove a risk that has been identified. This includes a range of options depending on the issue, such as providing customer information and, as a last resort, recalling a product. This is complex and often very expensive.

The majority of industry recalls are undertaken voluntarily by manufacturers, as the hon. Gentleman said, because they are keen to avoid or minimise damage to their brand and to make sure that they put something right—they rely on the trust of consumers for their brand to be successful. There is a comprehensive legislative framework in place for product recalls, which is underpinned by guidance. There is also comprehensive best practice at both UK and EU level. Consumer protection legislation requires manufacturers to have a process in place to identify problems that consumers experience, so they have a feedback system. If a manufacturer of a consumer product becomes aware that it has placed an unsafe product on the market, they are obliged to tell the market surveillance authority, including trading standards, so they do have that responsibility.

Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman suggested, trading standards can insist on a recall. They have the power to ensure that a recall takes place under the general product safety regulations. This power is rarely needed as manufacturers usually do the right thing and set up a recall voluntarily, but trading standards can enforce one if they believe it is necessary. Recalls are often complex. As the hon. Gentleman highlighted, the biggest problem facing manufacturers and retailers is that it can be very difficult to trace customers. Customers often do not provide contact details when they buy a product. The difference between cars and electrical goods is that the owners of cars are in a big database and it is very easy to trace them. People are generally more loth to hand over all their contact details to the manufacturer when they are buying a toaster, so it can be much more difficult to trace them.

Consumers have the option of providing their details via warranty cards, generally for large appliances. There are, however, all sorts of reasons why they do not do so and the hon. Gentleman highlighted many of them. For many smaller items, the option is not generally available. Even if the consumer did complete the warranty card, he or she may have moved house, or changed his or her contact details for some other reason. Products are often a number of years old when the recall takes place, and contact details will have often have changed because of that. The consumer may even have disposed of the appliance by giving it away, scrapping it or selling it, and that makes recalls extremely tricky, because it is difficult to establish where products are.

I think that, in general, the legislative framework is effective and appropriate. Strict consumer protection legislation requires electrical products that are supplied to be safe, and there is legislation that places a civil liability on suppliers of appliances and producers in the event of any injury, death or damage to property. There is also legislation prohibiting misleading or untrue statements by those selling products, which covers consumers who are buying products through distance selling—over the internet, for example. So the legislation is there, but, as the hon. Gentleman emphasised, the implementation is all-important.

The Government are trying to improve market surveillance. We have funded projects to improve surveillance at United Kingdom ports with the aim of detecting non-compliant and counterfeit products, and reducing the number of such products that come into the UK. We are also trying to improve the sharing of information between authorities, and have launched a product safety focus group. We are encouraging the use of intelligence from the fire services, which are often an extremely important source of information that others do not have. Until fairly recently, we were not making very good use of that information. Through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the UK is working in Europe to improve the sharing of information between the authorities in different countries. As more and more people buy and sell products across borders, particularly in Europe, we want to ensure that that information is shared as well.

Will the Minister say something about the role of the electrical contractors who supply the appliances and have to conform to the law?

In the case of appliances that are manufactured in the UK, the responsibility lies with either the manufacturer or the trader. In the case of appliances that are imported, the importer is liable for ensuring that they are in compliance with British law. All products that are sold in the UK must conform to British safety regulations. Traders are then responsible for ensuring that the goods that they sell to consumers are appropriate and safe, and comply with those regulations. It is clear that consumers will be protected by a number of different pieces of legislation so that they cannot fall into any gaps.

We are working with the Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Electrical Appliances on an industry initiative to encourage consumers to register their appliances, because the number of people who respond to recalls is extremely low. If more people register their appliances and ensure that the details are up to date, the recalls will be more effective. The leading appliance manufacturers—there is a great deal of money behind many of the big manufacturers—are trying to encourage product registration, and have committed themselves to using the power of their marketing programmes to show consumers why it is worth registering their domestic appliances.

I hope that that will debunk some of the myths identified by the hon. Member for Strangford. Many people think that they will end up on some junk mail list and be sent a load of stuff that they do not want after handing over their contact details, and do not complete the warranty forms because they do not understand why the information needs to be held. It was quite illuminating during the Committee stage of the Consumer Rights Bill to hear a number of Members say “I had no idea that that was why we were asked to fill in those cards.” If we can make people understand why it is important to provide the information, more of them will do so, and recalls will become much more effective. We are working with the manufacturers and also with trading standards and the fire service, and with consumer groups, too, because they have a very important role to play in helping consumers understand why this is important and worth doing.

This is a very important area. Although 21 deaths is quite a low number, every one of them is a tragedy and it is still far too many. As the hon. Member for Batley and Spen highlighted, as well as those tragic deaths there are also injuries and significant damage to property. We want to try to reduce that as much as possible.

I believe that the legislative framework is right, and we are working very closely with enforcers, consumer groups, the fire service, manufacturers and retailers to try to ensure we share best practice, tighten up enforcement to make sure that is effective, and in the long run make corrective action, including recalls, more effective, so that we can reduce the number of tragedies and consumers are properly protected under the law.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.