I beg to move,
That this House has considered the importation of faulty electrical goods.
May I say what an absolute pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies? I am very pleased to see you in the Chair today, and you may be aware that I am speaking today as the recently elected chair of the all-party parliamentary group on home electrical safety.
Today we take electricity for granted. Unlike gas, it is everywhere; it is in every room in our homes. Electricity created a United Kingdom that was able to shake off the cobwebs of the first industrial revolution. Today, electricity supports the economy, provides jobs, helps British businesses, and is used for practical and recreational purposes in homes across the country. However, I am not here to give a historical lecture on the value of electricity.
As I say, we take electricity for granted. However, in taking it for granted, we often forget its power and perhaps more importantly its danger. This debate is about how we make electricity and its use through electrical products safer in this country. Often, however, safety is being undermined by cheap, poorly constructed, substandard or blatantly counterfeit electrical goods. All our constituents are at risk from electric shock; from a fire in their home that is caused by one of these products; or even from death.
I will focus today on several issues: the importation of counterfeit and substandard products; their sale, which is often via the internet; the safety of legitimate electrical products; and enforcement of the law.
How do we prevent these faulty items from appearing in the marketplace? How do we help to protect British businesses and consumers? A UK charity, Electrical Safety First, which has been of great support to me in preparing for this debate, campaigns to improve awareness of how to use electricity and electrical products safely, and I sincerely commend its efforts in that regard. It has informed me that across the country around 70 deaths each year are caused by electricity, which is more than one death per week. Sadly, these deaths are usually not reported in the media, unlike deaths from gas. Incidents involving gas cause headlines, even though they kill only around 18 people each year. Electrical Safety First has also informed me that each year about 350,000 people suffer some form of electrical accident in their homes. Of course, many of these accidents will be caused by the misuse of electricity, but many others will happen because people have been sold a product that is either substandard or blatantly counterfeit.
Electricity is being exploited by rogue individuals who sell substandard or counterfeit electrical goods to UK consumers. This trend is being fuelled by the internet and a lack of monitoring of sales: sales from well-known websites; sales from fake websites that are not based in the UK but appear to be; and sales through fulfilment houses, which are based in the UK.
My interest in this subject began following the tragic case of one of my constituents, Linda Merron, who sadly died as a result of a fire in her home in March 2015. The Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service said that the fire was caused by a faulty electrical product—an electrical air freshener that was bought by Linda through eBay. Linda lost her life because of a small imported electrical item from China that had enormous and tragic consequences for her and her family.
Such a tragedy could quite easily happen to any one of us. Many homes throughout the UK will have electrical products in use that are either substandard or counterfeit. When I talk of a substandard product, I am talking about those products that are poorly designed or constructed, that could even have live parts openly accessible and that could cause a fire. When I speak of counterfeit electrical goods, they are not just almost always substandard but actually mimic a major brand’s products. Often they look identical, including having identical packaging, and consumers are frequently unaware that they are dangerous, both to themselves and to UK businesses, which will lose out because of the trade in fake goods.
Of course, there is legislation that should have ensured that that particular item in Linda’s home was safe to use, and all imported items should comply with that legislation. But are the laws working? Have they kept up with the development of the internet? Are they stopping faulty items from being imported through the major internet shopping sites? I do not believe that they are. I say to the Minister that I am no expert when it comes to the legislation and I am sure that he is not either, because it can get rather technical. However, I understand that the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 1994, which is a mouthful to say, the Plugs and Sockets etc (Safety) Regulations 1994, and the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 exist to ensure the safety of the public and to help to prevent faulty electrical products from circulating in the UK market.
I appreciate the response given to me in July 2015 by the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise when I tabled a written question on the efficacy of the Plugs and Sockets etc (Safety) Regulations 1994 in regulating online trading of electrical products. I was informed that the Government believe that those regulations continue to act as a practical and robust means of keeping both unsafe electrical products and those that do not have a safe means of connection to standard UK power sockets out of the UK market. But how would Linda Merron and all those individuals who buy items online know that? After finding items that are not appropriate for use in the UK, that are substandard, that cause injury or even tragic deaths, I ask: is the legislation robust enough to prevent tragedies such as the death of Linda Merron?
In fact, it is not just substandard and faulty items that are a concern. Counterfeit electrical goods are now big business. They are sold openly online, often through sites such as Amazon, Marketplace, eBay and Alibaba, a site I recently discovered that sells job lots of items to UK-based buyers, who then sell them on.
Electrical Safety First published its report into the increase of counterfeit electrical goods, “A shocking rip off”, in November last year, just before the main season for buying electricals online—what we now commonly call Black Friday or Cyber Monday. The Minister will know that counterfeit electrical goods present a threat to the consumer, undermine UK business and legitimate manufacturers, and can be very dangerous, posing a risk of causing fire or serious electric shock—even electrocution. I agree with the report’s view that it has never been easier for counterfeit electrical products to enter the UK marketplace.
We need to recognise that the internet is fuelling the growth in the sale of faulty items, with sellers appearing, then disappearing, in quick succession. Also, legitimate sales websites, such as Amazon, Marketplace and eBay, are falling foul of these unscrupulous sellers, as are Facebook and other social media channels. Faulty items are being sold openly.
I am not suggesting to the Minister that the Government should regulate the internet—certainly not—but those companies that facilitate these sales must do more to prevent dangerous, substandard and counterfeit electrical goods from being sold in the first place. They know who the sellers are—they are their own customers—but what are they doing to stem the flow? More than £90 million is now spent on counterfeit and substandard products each year, and in 2013-14 customs officials detained 21,000 consignments of fake goods at UK borders.
That is all part of the huge increase in the number of counterfeit, substandard or faulty products being imported into the UK. Over the last three years, there has been an increase in the use of social media to advertise these products. According to Electrical Safety First, a quarter of people interviewed said that they had seen fake products being openly advertised on social media websites. Furthermore, 24% had knowingly bought a counterfeit product and 21% had done so to save money.
Those activities are damaging British businesses and costing jobs, and big brands—some of the most popular of which are NutriBullet, BaByliss, ghd, Dyson and Apple—are suffering from the might of the counterfeiters. Electrical Safety First mentions in its report that it obtained a fake NutriBullet through eBay as part of its research. When a locked rotor test—a test that simulates something such as nuts or a mass of ice jamming in the blender—was carried out, the fake appliance caught fire. That potentially would have caused a fire in someone’s kitchen.
Hair straighteners are commonly counterfeited, with a number of the premier brands, particularly ghd, faked. A genuine item usually retails for £100, but counterfeits are on sale on market stalls and on the internet for between £30 and £70. I have seen the packaging, and can testify to the fact that fake ghds are packaged so well that it is very difficult to tell the difference between counterfeit and genuine.
Fake Apple products are probably the most popular of the counterfeits entering the UK, chargers in particular. I am certain that most hon. Members, probably unknowingly, have in their possession a counterfeit Apple charger, and I put my hands up and say, “I know that I have”. According to Electrical Safety First, those were the items that were shown to be most dangerous during testing. I am told that a genuine charger contains more than 60 individual components, while a counterfeit has at best 25, and some have as few as 19. The charger casings are also a cause for concern, as they are often only clipped together and not properly sealed, meaning that the user can access live parts and that moisture can enter the product. During testing, the products also had a greater probability of heating up and catching fire. The plastic used in counterfeits is often not the polycarbonate used in the genuine article but an acrylonitrile butadiene styrene—ABS—polymer, which is less resilient and has no fire retardant properties. The London fire brigade reports that the material gives off a thick, toxic smoke when burning, which poses additional hazards.
Therefore, is the legislation robust? Has it kept up with sales over the internet? I do not believe it has. I hope that the Minister will consider working with the all-party parliamentary group on how we all can not just raise awareness with our constituents but come forward with a strategy to tackle the issues, working with the likes of eBay and Amazon to prevent the sale of the items. Clearly, it is not possible for the average consumer to tell the difference between a genuine and a counterfeit article. Consumers do not have X-ray machines to tell them what components are inside—although, worryingly, I understand that you can buy an X-ray machine from Alibaba. That is how ridiculous the situation with online sales has become.
Of course, trading standards, prevention and enforcement are a big part of the solution. City and County of Swansea Council, with which I have spoken at length, has had its own difficulties with fulfilment houses that operate locally and sell on substandard and counterfeit goods but, given the funding cuts, it now has to prioritise the most dangerous articles to remove them from sale. It was only at Christmas that we saw the significant problems of house fires caused by substandard hoverboards imported into the UK—my assistant fell off one and broke her wrist. That is why we need experts working at ports and at airports such as Heathrow, where much of the mail with items bought on the internet enters the country.
The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise helpfully replied to me on 13 July last year, through a written answer, when I asked what steps the Government were taking to prevent counterfeit electrical products from being sold in the UK, to protect customers from electrical accidents:
“In February this year the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills pledged an extra £400,000 to help trading standards officers prevent dangerous goods being sold in the UK, and this includes £182,000 for its ports and borders project which is improving surveillance”.
That is welcome, but is the level of funding really enough? Can the Minister confirm whether the Secretary of State intends to extend the funding, given the cost to UK businesses if the goods enter the market? Trading standards are essential, including on the frontline at ports, but what about online? Is the Minister able to explain what support the Government are providing to officers for enforcement regarding the internet? What help can the Department give to trading standards to assist them in working closer with the likes of Amazon and eBay and to do more to remove offending electrical items that either are not compliant or are fake? How does he intend to tackle the scourge of fulfilment houses?
I appreciate that the Department has recently carried out a review of trading standards, but I believe that more needs to be done, with investment in officers who can look online, and work with the likes of eBay and Amazon to prevent the items from being sold in the first place. Perhaps the Minister can outline specifically what the review considers. If knives, pornography and other dubious articles are not allowed to be sold on the websites, the same should apply to substandard electrical goods that can kill.
I am mindful that the debate is about the importation of faulty electrical products. It is a great sadness that many appliances that used to be made in the UK are now made overseas. That manufacturing provided significant employment for our constituents, particularly in Wales—I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) will touch upon that in his contribution. I am certain that when the goods were produced here they gave local people skills and jobs, and they benefited both the local community and the companies that were making the components in the United Kingdom, not in countries such as China. How do we know that the component supply chain is of good quality and, most importantly, is safe?
I note that the Department recently published the Government’s response to Lynn Faulds Wood’s review on product safety, but will the Government’s direction address what Lynn sought to achieve? Lynn has been at the forefront of campaigning on product safety, particularly on electrical goods, since the 1980s when she coined the phrase “potential death trap”. With recent events with Whirlpool tumble-dryer fires and the importation of other faulty electrical products, are the Government seeing the issues as a priority?
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have recently raised concerns on the issue, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) wrote to me as chair of the all-party parliamentary group about her concerns for the safety of her constituents and asked what action was being taken. The Minister knows that Whirlpool has issued a safety notice on some of its tumble dryers, but it is not calling for a product recall. I do not seem to have seen a Government response to the concerns, so can the Minister give us reassurances today about public safety and the recall system in this case? Is it acceptable that consumers will have to wait such a long time for repairs to their imported machines? He will know that the Chartered Trading Standard Institute has said that 11-month waits are unacceptable when the machines are potentially dangerous.
Can we also ask therefore whether manufacturers in the UK—not just Whirlpool—can have absolute confidence that components in these appliances are of sufficient quality? What market surveillance is being done to protect consumers, and what traceability is there of components in appliances that are manufactured abroad but sold in the UK? What comparison is there between recalls of goods manufactured in the UK and recalls of those manufactured elsewhere? Those are a few questions that the Department needs carefully to consider.
My hon. Friend is opening the debate powerfully. Two years ago, the House was dealing with the Consumer Rights Bill. I tabled amendments and new clauses to the Bill, precisely to address the issues of the safety of electrical goods and recalls, which were well supported by the then Member of Parliament for East Lothian. However, the Government tried to say that there was no issue—there was no gap, there was no problem—despite all the figures and all the evidence showing that there was.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comments, and I am sure any speech he makes later will reflect his thoughts.
Members of the House can help through the APPG on home electrical safety to find solutions and raise awareness. I am not sure whether the Minister has seen a counterfeit electrical product up close, but I hope he will join the APPG later this year. We have an event planned that will look at examples of counterfeit electrical goods that have been gathered. Perhaps then he will understand better.
In conclusion, the importation of faulty electrical products is an increasing issue, fuelled by the internet. It is costing lives. How many more incidents will happen before action is taken? How will trading standards be able to tackle the issue in an era of increasing change and with cuts to officer posts? I hope the Minister will give reassurance today that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is treating the importation of faulty electrical goods into the UK seriously. Government must have a role to play, even if it is only one of co-ordination. Action is needed now to protect our constituents and businesses in the UK. I hope he intends to outline how he can help us to achieve that.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this important debate. She is the chair of the all-party group on home electrical safety, of which I am also a member.
The importance of the subject cannot be overstated. In my constituency in South Lanarkshire, which is home to the headquarters of the Scottish fire and rescue service, 214 house fires were caused by faulty electrical items in the past five years alone. That accounts for 13% of all accidental house fires during that period. Further south, the London fire brigade estimates that there is, on average, one fire in the capital caused by faulty white goods every day. Faulty and substandard electrical goods pose a real safety hazard. They can overheat, catch fire or cause electric shocks.
The problem of counterfeit electrical goods is becoming more prevalent. Modern technology has changed consumer habits and counterfeit goods have greater and more widespread availability. Research from the charity Electrical Safety First shows that a quarter of people have seen fake products openly advertised on popular social media sites. Thousands of items are now advertised every day on such sites, which have fast become counterfeit marketplaces. Perhaps the rise in social media is a key factor in the huge increase in the number of counterfeit and substandard electrical goods coming into the UK. I would like to see the Government working closely with social media websites to counteract the sale of such goods. Trading standards faces increasing digital challenges, and it is only through working with sites acting as digital marketplaces that proper enforcement can take place. There has been a boom in the trade in counterfeit versions of must-have electronics. The number of fake mobile phones seized has risen by more than 50%.
The message that buying counterfeit electrical items is a risk not worth taking does not seem to be getting through. The demand for fake items continues to rise despite the risk to personal safety, which can sometimes prove deadly. Without a more accurate picture of the problem, however, it is difficult to know how it can best be tackled. I hope the Minister will consider conducting an assessment of the number of counterfeit electrical goods being imported into the UK, so that the full extent is laid bare. We need a greater understanding not only of the scale of the problem, but of the trends in popular items and marketplaces. A real strategy needs to be brought forward, and the trading standards review must include consideration of online shopping and the importation of faulty electrical goods into the UK. One thing that the hon. Member for Swansea East did not mention was that many people are now buying retro items online. They are a must-have, but the problem is that we do not know whether such items adhere to electrical safety.
Trading standards has become incredibly localised, and it is time to rethink that and ask how best we can enforce against illegal sales of counterfeit and substandard electrical goods, particularly over the internet. In addition to enforcement, public awareness should be utilised as a key method to combat the trade in such items. We are all no doubt aware of the craze last Christmas for so-called hoverboards, which the hon. Lady mentioned, and the many reported occurrences of fires starting while those devices were charging. Supply chains are increasingly globalised, and when such product crazes with huge demand come around, substandard products can be distributed to consumers much faster than ever before. It is important that consumers are fully aware of the risks posed. The problem with buying fake electrical items is that people do not know what they are going to get. There are records of people being electrocuted and seriously burnt by fake phone chargers.
We need to get the message across that buying counterfeit electrical items is a risk not worth taking, as it could risk a person’s safety or worse, their life. According to research, about 2.6 million adults in the UK say they have knowingly ignored a recall notice. Some 77% of people say they would be more likely to respond if they understood the potential dangers. More work clearly needs to be done to better educate people on the risks, which underlines the need for a modern approach to trading standards to complement the traditional localised model.
I hope that the Minister will respond to some of the points I have raised. In particular, I would like some answers to the following questions. Will he commit to conducting an assessment of the number of counterfeit electrical goods being imported into the UK? That would be the first step towards supporting trading standards in tackling the problem. I also wish to see an undertaking to subsequently bring forward a strategy to deal with the issue. Can he provide more detail on how online sales of counterfeit electrical goods through social media channels are tackled? Do the Government work with the likes of Facebook to counteract such sales? If not, will he commit to looking at that as a priority?
How will the Government ensure that all electrical goods sold to UK consumers, including online, are compliant with British electrical standards, such as the Plugs and Sockets etc. (Safety) Regulations 1994? Will the Government ask the large online auction sites to work with sellers and have a charter mark for safe electrical goods? Will the Minister give an overview of the activities undertaken to raise public awareness of the dangers posed by counterfeit electrical goods? What is being done to foster greater understanding of the risks of electrocution and fire from buying electrical goods that have not been built to a sufficient standard? It is our duty as parliamentarians to highlight the dangers and to do our best to keep our constituents safe. I thank the Minister for listening, and I look forward to his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am pleased to take part in this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing it. As I mentioned before the sitting, I apologise for not being able to stay until the end. I have to attend a Public Bill Committee.
I, too, am a member of the all-party group on home electrical safety, and I come to the debate because of the historical links that my constituency had with electrical appliance manufacturing for many years. I would therefore like to focus my remarks on issues to do with product safety and how the importation of electrical products may be damaging business and undermining consumer confidence in the UK.
In Merthyr Tydfil, we have a proud history in the manufacture of washing machines. The Hoover factory opened in Pentrebach in my constituency in 1948 as part of the Labour Government’s work to ensure manufacturing advances in the UK after the war. Hoover’s major global expansion saw factories making washing machines in Merthyr Tydfil and its famous vacuum cleaners being manufactured in Scotland. Hoover soon became the market leader in the UK because the products were made here to high standards and were not imported.
Hoover’s UK manufacturing in Merthyr Tydfil gave people jobs for life. Many generations of my constituents worked in the factory. In 1973, Hoover’s 25th anniversary in the town, 5,000 people were employed making washing machines, tumble dryers and dishwashers. Perhaps bizarrely, in the 1980s, as the Minister may recall, the Sinclair C5 vehicle was made in Merthyr Tydfil, although that mode of transport had a quick demise. Manufacturing in the UK had reached its peak, unfortunately. Tragically, it has been allowed to drift away and we now rely on imports.
On 14 March 2009, manufacturing came to an end in Merthyr Tydfil with Hoover’s closure, which meant that 337 people lost their jobs. The site is now virtually empty. The headquarters remain, along with a warehouse facility. Despite the closure and the decision to move production to the far east, Hoover is still revered in Merthyr Tydfil by its former workforce. Appliances were built locally, giving jobs to the local economy and benefiting people’s lives.
I do not want to focus just on Hoover’s decision, as devastating a blow as it was in 2009. Many other manufacturers have decided to send production overseas and now import electrical goods into the UK. How can we be sure of the credibility of the component supply chain to large companies, and how do we ensure proper quality of the finished product and that it is built to last? When production was in Merthyr Tydfil, Hoover benefited from local component manufacturers, which in turn benefited from Hoover. Hoover had greater control over the supply chain and was able to assess whether components were of sufficient quality.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East has already mentioned the issues with tumble dryers that many of our constituents face. Given the wet weather in Wales, many of my constituents rely on tumble dryers, many of them made by Whirlpool, which owns the Hotpoint and Indesit brands. As we know, Whirlpool has issued a safety notice for its large air-venting tumble dryers, owing to a fire risk. The Minister will be aware of the ongoing issues, as the matter was raised in Business, Innovation and Skills questions last week. The manufacturer has advised that the machines should not be left unsupervised. Some 4.3 million machines need to be fixed, so it is clearly an enormous task for the company.
I understand that our constituents will have to wait potentially 11 months or more for appropriate repairs to be made to the faulty imported appliances. How many fires could break out in that time? Can the Minister give us an assurance as to what his Department is doing? Has he, or have his ministerial colleagues, met Whirlpool to discuss the issue?
What is even worse is that the company is trying to sell its customers who contact them with concerns a new tumble dryer for £99 that is also subject to safety concerns. As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East highlighted, the Government tasked Lynn Faulds Wood with reviewing product safety, and the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise said in the Government’s response to that review that she takes the issue very seriously. I am pleased to note that. However, the Whirlpool issue is a key case that needs to be given serious attention, and quickly. The UK charity Electrical Safety First, which campaigns to protect consumers from electrical accidents in the home, has provided a briefing to the all-party group.
Given the time available, I want to move on and flag up the issue of hoverboards, which the trading standards department in my constituency, along with others across the country, has recently dealt with. As the two previous speakers have highlighted, we know that more than 15,000—88%—were unsafe and detained at the border, but I am concerned about those that got through. That issue had much publicity across the country at the end of last year. Some of the stories we have heard are deeply worrying, and I want the Minister to consider what more can be done to raise awareness of the issue.
It is a challenge to do five minutes, but I will do my best, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this debate. She focused comprehensively on the subject.
I think it is important that we give thought to the 13 people killed in Brussels on the metro and at the airport, and to the many others who have been injured. Prayerfully, physically and emotionally, we commend them all in our hearts and thoughts at this time.
To come back to the debate, 24% of household fires in the past five years were caused by electrics, as hon. Members have said. Irresponsible behaviour and accidents can happen, but the majority of cases are due to faulty electrical equipment. People’s lives and livelihoods are literally at stake as a result of the trade in faulty or illicit electrical goods. In December, my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) tabled an early-day motion, which I was happy to sign, urging families and friends to take extra care and be aware of electrical safety, especially in the homes of elderly relatives and friends, during the Christmas period. We had a chance to highlight the issue at a reception here. It is important to use our positions as public representatives to raise awareness of the risks and urge people to take heed of warnings, but, no matter how aware people are of the risks, there is still the problem of electrical faults that happen without any human error on the part of the consumer.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who is no longer in his place, has been a champion for consumer safety and I commend him for his hard work. More than £90 million is spent on counterfeit products each year, and in 2013-14 customs officials detained some 21,000 consignments of fake goods at UK borders. In just one operation alone, almost 170,000 dangerous and counterfeit goods were stopped from entering the UK by border staff at Dover docks in one of the biggest ever hauls at the port.
As hon. Members have mentioned, the manufacturing base in the United Kingdom has long eroded. Manufacturing has gone to the far east, China and eastern European countries, where the same levels of control are not as apparent as they are back home. That has been a disappointment not only because of the jobs that have been lost, but because the quality of goods cannot be secured in the way that we would like.
There has been a huge increase in the number of counterfeit and substandard electrical goods coming into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. These counterfeit products follow the trends in must-have items. The must-have item is incredible; everybody must have it irrespective of what it is. The number of fake mobile phones seized has risen by more than 50%, as have other top electrical fakes, including hair straighteners, which I do not have to use, and games. Those are simply examples of things that people want. Despite campaigns to heighten awareness of the risks of counterfeit electrical goods, 24% of people have knowingly bought a counterfeit product; 21% would consider buying one to save money; and 16% do not think counterfeit products would put them at risk.
Clearly, the public have to be educated. They have to understand what might happen. By and large, if they buy it cheap, they buy a problem as well. Is legislation robust enough? Shortly, I will come on to the things that trading standards have said we must do. We need a two-pronged approach to continue and strengthen the campaigns to raise awareness, but the Government must have a role in this, too. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. I know we will get a robust response from him, and also from the shadow Minister as well.
The UK’s electrical safety experts, Electrical Safety First, want to see a review or an assessment of the number of counterfeit electrical goods being imported into the UK and a strategy from the UK Government to support trading standards to tackle the problem. Electrical Safety First is largely considered the most reputable in the sector, so it is worth listening to its recommendations, which are important. It is calling for a proper assessment of the number of fulfilment houses and their involvement with the distribution of counterfeit/substandard goods; ensuring that all electrical goods sold to UK consumers, including those sold online, are compliant with British electrical standards such as the Plugs and Sockets etc. (Safety) Regulations 1994; asking the large online sales auction sites to work with sellers and have a charter mark for safe electrical goods; and ensuring that the trading standards review includes consideration of online shopping and the importation of faulty electricals into the UK and how trading standards can enforce against illegal sales of counterfeit and substandard electrical goods.
We need to address the issue of eBay purchase when the driver for the person on eBay is what is cheap rather than what is best or safe. Electrical Safety First also recommends that the Government ensure the product safety recall system is robust, and it supports the setting up of the steering group by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure a way forward to protect consumers. Those are not unreasonable requests. Indeed, further to my earlier point, there is only so much that raising awareness and taking care can do. Accidents and incidents still happen that could be prevented by better Government action to tackle the issue of faulty and counterfeit electrical products.
Parliamentarians need to come together and raise awareness in all constituencies throughout the country, and the relevant bodies, both public and private, need to play their part, but it is also clear that further Government action is needed. There have been fatalities as a result of counterfeit and faulty electric goods. Awareness campaigns can only do so much. We need action from the Government to protect citizens from the harm of counterfeit goods and action to bring to justice those who import and distribute these goods.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing it. Unlike her, I will give a bit of a history lesson. The first people who are documented as having dealt with electricity were the ancient Greeks—Members are going to enjoy this.
The ancient Greeks realised that when they rubbed pieces of amber with a cloth to polish them they got sparks. They had no idea why, but they quite enjoyed the effect. In ancient Greek, amber is called elektron, which is where we get the word “electricity” from.
Some big names in electricity include Alessandro Volta, Luigi Galvani and Benjamin Franklin—they all played around with electricity. I mention those greats of electricity because none of those scientists had any idea of how electricity was going to be used. It was used for after-dinner entertainment—for example, small experiments were conducted instead of having a conjuror. The Victorians found some uses for electricity, one of the first of which was lighting. They realised that if they had a table cloth with electrical elements running through it, they could plug the prongs of a table lamp directly into the table cloth and light the dinner table. That sounds great—until a drink is spilled on to the table.
We can all laugh at that, but such ridiculous—possibly very creative—inventions were no more dangerous than some of the goods that are currently on sale. When current goes through any wire it generates heat. We need the correct flexes to cope with the current going through them. That is why we have different flexes for different purposes. One of the problems with counterfeit goods is that they do not necessarily have the correct flex for the appliance, which means that when the appliance draws current the flex can heat up and melt, causing a fire. That is one of the big problems with counterfeit goods.
For consumers, price is often a great driver. I just did a quick check of the internet. I do not have an iPad charger with me today. Were I to go to a local retailer and buy a genuine iPad charger, it would cost me £15 for the plug and £15 for the wire—a total cost of £30. On Amazon today, I can get a charger and wire that looks like an Apple charger for £8.99, including postage and packaging. That is what drives many consumers to take risks—especially low-income consumers who are trying to get goods that they think are going to do the job for them. Genuine retailers, especially those selling things as simple as a charger, must look at their pricing. I am not suggesting that they can produce an iPad charger for a knock-down price of £8.99, but £30 to charge my iPad seems a little excessive.
Sites such as Amazon and eBay should take responsibility for the goods sold on their sites. It is not just about iPad chargers. The hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned ghd straighteners. Let us say a genuine set comes in at £100. I might want to buy a set without realising that they are counterfeit: I might think it is just a good deal. I might buy them, not at a market for £30, but online for a “Today’s special deal” of £90. That is close enough to the right price for people to think the straighteners are genuine. They pay the money, thinking they got a good deal, but in fact they got a death trap. Online marketplace sites must take responsibility for the goods and sellers on their sites, and the Government must take action against retailers whenever the goods they are selling are not up to standard.
Finally—despite my history lesson, Mr Davies, I am keeping to the time limit—it is important to raise public awareness. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, it is not enough just to talk about the recall of particular items. Tell the public the reasons why and what can go wrong. Give them photos. Make them aware and educate them so that they can make informed decisions about the goods they buy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate and thank her for her effective presentation of all the issues, many of which have also been covered by the colleagues who have followed her. I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). We southsiders are always happy to learn from the north of the city and, having learned, take the lead and show the way. I will try to copy her timekeeping as well, Mr Davies.
I am secretary to the all-party group on fire safety and rescue. Several colleagues present are active in the group. The next meeting is at half-past 1 today, but I understand that colleagues might be conflicted given what will be going on in the Chamber at the same time. I express my appreciation to Rob Jervis-Gibbons and his colleagues at Electrical Safety First for their briefing for this debate. I do not intend to repeat the many issues raised so clearly and effectively by previous speakers, so I expect my contribution to be brief. I look forward to the responses from the Front-Bench spokespersons, especially that of the Minister, who this morning has to be not only the authentic voice of the Conservative party but its only voice. Given the importance that the rest of us attach to the debate, that is a wee bit sad. That is not a criticism of him or his Department. As has been articulated, we are all looking for reassurance on this matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East has raised the important issues: brand imitation, substandard products, the risks from online sales and unscrupulous sellers, and the ability of trading standards officers to respond to growing risks in the face of budget restraints and cuts. Additional risks are posed by consumers who do not respond to manufacturer recalls, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned. He cited the very worrying statistic that only 10% to 20% of recalled products are returned or repaired. ESF’s analysis found that consumers did not respond because they were worried that they would be targets for future marketing campaigns. Although that sounds strange, it has a realistic ring to it. Manufacturers have to address that worry.
Given the growing threat, I am interested to hear how the Government feel they are doing in protecting the public. As has been mentioned, ESF estimated the counterfeit trade to be worth £90 million in 2013-14—in that year alone, customs detained 21,000 consignments at UK borders. I have several questions for the Minister that are similar to those asked by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier). In fact, I think some are the same as hers, which should save the Minister’s time. Hopefully he will be able to provide responses.
Do the Government believe that the ESF analysis covers the scope of the problem, or do they think it is far more serious? The lack of a proper assessment leads to concerns that perhaps the figures are even worse than those in the public domain. Do the Government have a strategy to support trading standards officers in tackling the problem? What efforts are the Government making to tackle online sales of dangerous products? What liaison has there been with online companies and social media sites?
When was the last review of the legislation covering these areas? As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East said, and as ESF highlighted, the legislation is from 1994—well before the explosion of internet trading. Are the Government confident that the law as it stands is robust enough for the present day? Have they reviewed the recent trend of fires in domestic premises caused by electrical sources? If so, what evidence did they find? If not, will they do so in conjunction with the Minister for Policing, Fire, Criminal Justice and Victims?
I do not for a second question the Government’s intention; they take this matter very seriously. We simply seek reassurance that we are doing everything possible to ensure that the good people on the frontline have the resources and tools they need to do their job and protect society. As many colleagues know, I was in the London fire brigade for 23 years before I was elected to represent my constituency. Fire service personnel will always put themselves at risk to deal with fires, but despite the efficiency of the British fire service 70 people died. The fire brigade cannot protect everybody, so the Government must ensure that things do not get that far. The purpose of today’s debate is to ensure that matters do not come to such a tragic end. However consumers buy electrical goods in the UK, they must be able to do so in the confidence that they are not buying a product that could harm them or their family.
It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I am pleased to take part in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing it. I must declare an interest: I was formerly the secretary of the Scottish Accident Prevention Council, so I am keenly aware of many of these issues. For the record, I have never used hair straighteners—faulty or otherwise.
Households face the continuing challenges of squeezed incomes and rising prices for essential goods and services, so consumers are increasingly vulnerable to making distressed purchases. Many are tempted to buy fake and often faulty electrical goods. Like others, I am particularly worried about my constituents on low incomes. The elderly and others in disadvantaged situations are particularly susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous businesses seeking to benefit from consumer vulnerabilities.
Inferior electrical goods pose a host of dangers to the public, and often leave behind a legacy of safety concerns and property damage, about which we have heard today. As other hon. Members highlighted, counterfeit electrical goods follow consumer trends—fake Fendi handbags cannot really injure people, but a faulty fake washing machine can kill people in their beds with smoke and fire.
Fake items often contain faulty parts that can overheat, catch fire or cause electric shocks. Like many other hon. Members, I have read the Electrical Safety First report, “A shocking rip off”, which found that a key reason why fakes are sold so cheaply is that they often have no short-cuts, lack specific components or contain substandard ones. According to the charity, the increasing sophistication of fake production means that often the only way of identifying items as counterfeit is by checking their internal components, but that is not on many of my constituents’ minds when they make a purchase, particularly if they do so online.
It has never been easier for counterfeit products to enter the UK marketplace, given the number of internet-based sales portals and social media marketplaces. Anyone with a bank account and internet access can import products from anywhere in the world. I do not want this debate to be about preventing them from doing so; that is not what we are talking about. At the same time, the resources of the agencies tasked with tackling the counterfeiting menace are being spread even more thinly, as alluded to a moment ago.
Faulty electrical products are thought to cause billions of pounds-worth of damage every year, both from the economic impact and from the fires and injuries they cause when they malfunction. Although the figures for fires caused directly by counterfeit electrical products are hard to come by, fires caused by electrical products are responsible for nearly 3,000 domestic house fires in Scotland alone per year. The average cost of a house fire is estimated to be about £44,500. Even if only a small proportion are due to faulty electrical goods, the direct financial impact is likely to be significant, leaving aside the human cost of such fires.
In my constituency—the one and only West Dunbartonshire—between 2009 and 2015, more than 11% of all accidental house fires were caused by faulty electrical items. I was further worried to learn that Citizens Advice Scotland reported a 17% increase in annual calls from consumers who have concerns about electrical products. Although much has already been done to tackle the importation of faulty electrical goods into Scotland and the rest of the UK, those figures show that there is a real need to fully understand the issue and to deal with it sooner rather than later. In liaison with partners, including Electrical Safety First, the Scottish trading standards services are working hard to identify and take robust enforcement action against the supplies of faulty electrical products.
In my constituency, West Dunbartonshire trading standards officers work tirelessly to protect consumers from imported and often unsafe electrical products. In the run-up to Christmas 2015, they prevented 1,000 non- compliant hoverboards—that ubiquitous item—from entering the UK. We have all read about the safety issues surrounding that newest fad gadget. In that case, it was deemed that the boards contained faulty plugs, cabling, chargers and batteries, which could have led to the devices overheating, exploding or catching fire.
Recently, the West Dunbartonshire trading standards office, like many other trading standards offices across the UK, has been contacted by worried consumers who have fire safety concerns about recalled tumble dryers. One of my constituents who has responded to the recall has been told that they will get their modification visit in May 2017. That is a scandal. They are supposed to continue to use the potentially dangerous product in the meantime or to take up the company’s generous offer of a new machine for £99 in place of modification.
The Scottish Government have proposed to the Smith commission that consumer protection be fully devolved to Scotland. I ask the Minister, why is it not? Why are we not helping consumer protection organisations to work together across the rest of the UK? More importantly, why are we not bringing consumer protection closer to the consumer?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to the staff at Electrical Safety First—in particular, Wayne Mackay for the briefing that he gave all of us. I will do all I can to share it with members of the public, because it contains a lot of interesting information about electrical products that they would not necessarily know from comparing two items.
I also pay tribute to the Scottish fire and rescue service, which works with Electrical Safety First and does lots of community outreach work, including home fire safety visits to inform people about the risks in their own home and to draw attention to such items. They are free to members of the public in Scotland and are well worth doing. I pay tribute to the many trading standards officers around the country who work incredibly hard to highlight these issues. In Glasgow, a lot of work is going on in the Scottish Anti Illicit Trade Group and the Scottish National Markets Group. Glasgow’s scientific services department does much testing of these items, which is really important.
There has been an interesting change in the way that such items reach us over the years. Previously, we might have picked them up in a market or a small shop, but since the legislation was introduced in 1994 there has been a move to online shopping. At about that time, eBay and Amazon were founded. We could not have predicted the increase in the volume of online shopping and the way that trend changed over time. A lot of hon. Members have talked about that. When people buy things online, it is difficult to ascertain their quality and legitimacy. The legislation is ripe for review. We must address those issues, because those changes to the market could not have been anticipated in 1994 when the legislation was introduced. The work that has been done to highlight these various issues is very important. The hon. Member for Swansea East talked about monitoring these issues and the sale of such items, and I support her call for action. The Government must do something about this.
Although it is important that we all raise public awareness in our communities, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, that is not enough. We can raise awareness as much as we like, but without the legitimacy of legislation to crack down on traders on popular websites such as Amazon and eBay, we will be stuck. Nothing will help our consumers more than legislation. If illegitimate sellers suffer no penalty for what they are doing, they will continue to do it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said that it was important to have a full investigation of trading standards throughout the UK to see where there are gaps and to ensure that people are protected equally around the country.
Another interesting issue is that of retro items, older electrical goods that people want to have in their homes but might fall foul of the legislation—perhaps they were made just before 1994, or are much older. Such items are being sold and kept in homes, although people might not realise the potential difficulties because of the safety standards that are not present.
The advertising issue is significant. During the speeches, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and I were looking online at such advertising, and the products are all described as genuine. People should not be fooled into thinking that “genuine” means genuine in such cases, because they simply cannot be so.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) spoke passionately about the history of manufacturing in the country and in his constituency, with particular reference to the Hoover factory. That is a critical point: when we employed people locally in the UK to produce the goods, we all had a stake—we knew, or we could trace the supply chain back to, the people in the factories. Everyone had an interest in ensuring that the products or their components were safe and legitimate, because everyone knew who would be buying the end product. Producing locally has an impact—people know who will buy the products, and we can all feel more secure when we have a stake in their production.
I pay tribute to the people in my constituency, in Cambuslang, where we had a Hoover factory that started in 1946. As my hon. Friend said, people have a personal pride in what they produce. As soon as the manufacturing left the UK and went abroad, we had no safeguards as to quality. It is a bit like the steel industry today: we do not know what the quality of the steel coming into the UK is. More than 2,000 people in my constituency worked in the Hoover factory—I pay tribute to them. In fact, I thought that the word for a vacuum cleaner was a hoover, because it was so well known.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. A side issue is the unknown conditions in which those items are produced; we do not know the standards for the factories that staff are employed in and, often, stories in the media show factories to be a kind of sweatshop. People employed in such conditions do not have the same stake in ensuring a quality product at the end of the day. They are being exploited as much as consumers in this country are being exploited.
The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned the must-have items, and that they drive demand is an important point. People are persuaded to buy cheap and cut corners in order to meet the demand and to make their consumer choice.
We also need to think a bit more about the points about price, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West said. There is a cost involved in buying any product, but it seems that many of the big, legitimate companies retailing electrical goods know that too and they are putting a premium on many of their products; they are making a significant profit on these items and, as a result, people choose the cheaper route. The big retailers need to be a bit more responsible about their marketing and the price points they choose.
My hon. Friend also spoke passionately about the history of electrical items. It is absolutely true that electricity has always involved risks; the difference now is that we ought to have legislation in place to control them. In our era, we understand the risks—in particular, with physics teachers up and down the country, we understand a lot more about how electricity works, as well as its accompanying risks. We need to be a lot more careful about how we control electrical products in this country.
I am glad to welcome the contribution made by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is a former firefighter of 23 years’ service. I served on the board of the Strathclyde fire and rescue service, which does a great deal of outreach work as well and would echo what he said about house fires. Firemen do not want to have to rescue people from house fires resulting from something that could have been prevented far further down the line.
There have been two serious house fires in Glasgow in the past week, and the people affected are very much in my thoughts and those of my colleagues in Glasgow. I do not yet know the cause of the house fires, but if there is a way to protect people and prevent house fires—as my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) said, they cause so much damage—given both the human and the financial cost, there is work that we must do.
On the matter being devolved to Scotland, work going on shows that there is a will in Scotland to tackle the issue of counterfeit goods. A lot of good practice is happening in Scotland, but we are mindful of the ports around the country—we are on an island and can control, to some degree, what comes in through our ports. I would like to see greater investment in that. As we see from media reports, when things are stopped in port, they can be taken out of the market altogether.
One other point to throw in is that people are now importers of goods themselves. They can get around the ports and so on by ordering things from abroad. A constituent of mine even ordered a Taser over the internet and had it delivered to his house—to be clear, he immediately took it to the police. If people can order something such as that, ordering a plug charger or something is pretty easy. I want to see more control over what we can order ourselves and over what can be imported.
Again, I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East for securing the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I, too, associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the people in Brussels. Our thoughts are with them today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate. I wish every success to her all-party group on home electrical safety. The issue is really significant, and in common with many Members throughout the House I pay tribute to Electrical Safety First, not only for its briefing but for the work it has done in the past, and I am sure will do in future, to highlight this important subject.
As we have heard, there is clearly a problem with the importation of faulty electrical goods, which seem to be flooding into the UK at the moment. As the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for Strangford said, however, we do not know how many electrical goods are being imported into the UK. I want to see an assessment of the amount, because what is caught at ports and borders is a small part of the overall number.
More than £90 million is spent on counterfeit products each year. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, the issue is partly one of intellectual property—many of the goods imitate those of well-known manufacturers, which have spent years building their reputations and garnering good will. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) spoke passionately about how the Hoover factory was integral to his constituency and about the pride people felt in that product.
Even now, undercutting the real thing damages legitimate businesses, wherever they are. Of course, the customer suffers. Made of cheap materials and shoddily put together, counterfeit goods perform badly and often break down, leaving the customer dissatisfied and out of pocket. More importantly, however—certainly to the debate today—such goods are not only substandard, but often dangerous to use. There is a real risk that they will increase the number of domestic fires. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) knows well the associated risks and the cost of domestic fires, whether human or economic.
As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, over Christmas there was a spate of stories about counterfeit electrical goods—NutriBullets, hoverboards, dangerous hair straighteners, Apple accessories and so on. According to Electrical Safety First, more than 17,000 domestic fires a year in this country are caused by faulty appliances, with 40 to 45 deaths. Surely they should be more preventable.
Of course, it is easy to say that customers should be a bit more careful and check what they are buying, but often it does not occur to them that what they are buying could kill them. People tend to trust implicitly goods bought on trusted internet sites, assuming that they must be legitimate to be accepted on to sites such as eBay. We need more legislation to make websites responsible for the products that they sell.
People assume, like when they buy a fake leather bag when on holiday in Turkey, that they are simply getting a good deal, because the real thing seems overpriced. As we heard from the hon. Members for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), people on a low income always want to save money on goods, and the real thing is often overpriced. Many people—a quarter of people—buy fake goods knowingly.
We need more public education. I admit that I spent the weekend checking my iPhone chargers to see whether they are genuine, and it is really difficult to tell. What are the Government doing to increase consumer knowledge of the dangers of counterfeit goods and, equally importantly, of how to identify them? I had a magnifying glass out to look at some of the chargers to see whether the words were spelt correctly and whether they had a CEE notice. Surely, as the hon. Members for Strangford and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned, a charter mark would be an extremely sensible move so that such items are easily identifiable.
On consumer protection and the need to ensure that goods do not find their way into Britain, we have heard about the ports and border agents. Counterfeit goods should be quickly confiscated if found. However, we need to look again at product recall. Only last month the consumer campaigner Lynn Faulds Wood completed her independent review, in which she branded the product recall system as “out of date” and not working well enough.
Many people have mentioned the case of the Hotpoint tumble dryer that caught fire and destroyed a house. Two weeks on from news breaking of the Hotpoint, Indesit and Creda tumble dryer safety alert, the manufacturer had still not listed the affected products that potentially posed a fire risk. When a safety risk is discovered, the onus to initiate recall seems to be entirely on the manufacturer. That is not effective; the onus needs to be elsewhere. Certainly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse and the hon. Member for Strangford said, people do not always fill in the little cards to register their goods. Why not? Because they assume, like everything else, that they will get loads of manufacturer information landing on their doorstep daily.
What happens to those who move house? No one keeps manufacturers up to date—I cannot remember doing that—which is why I support Lynn Faulds Wood’s central recommendation for a national product safety agency, endorsed and backed by the Government. It would be good to know whether the Minister feels that would be effective. Surely it is no coincidence that recall works so much better for unfit food, for which we have the Food Standards Agency.
Underlying the central recommendation is a call for improved funding and resources for enforcement agencies. We have heard a lot about how legislation needs to be strengthened, but it is no use having legislation unless we enforce it. Trading standards in particular has had huge cuts under this Government and the coalition Government—it has suffered a 40% cut since 2010. Some offices report a halving of staff; in fact, I have heard of offices that have only one staff member to protect the public.
In a recent exchange with me, the Minister said:
“Trading standards services are merely one of the enforcement mechanisms for consumer rights. Consumers can enforce their own rights, as established by the Consumer Rights Act, and trading standards services are working more efficiently across the country.”—[Official Report, 15 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 781.]
I would be interested to know how he believes consumers can enforce their own rights when they are not aware of problems with faulty and unsafe electrical goods, or of the criminal rogue traders who deliberately flout the law. I would also like to hear what evidence he has for his statement that trading standards services are “working more efficiently”, given that the Government decided not to publish the trading standards review completed before Christmas, which undoubtedly found that trading standards are under-resourced.
Figures released by trading standards in March 2015 showed that more than 6,500 items a day were detained, and that nearly two in five interventions at ports and borders identified unsafe or non-compliant items— 64% of all LED lamps tested were unsafe. That is thought to represent a very small proportion of the volume of such products entering the country. Again, we need an assessment of that, and the enforcement agencies need resourcing. The £400,000 is welcome, but that is for National Trading Standards. It is often local trading standards offices that are the first port of call for worried consumers, and they are dropping in numbers.
This is not about cheap fake handbags that will not kill anyone; it is about counterfeit and dangerous electrical goods, and about the recall of goods that have been found to be dangerous. I finish with a quote from Lynn Faulds Wood’s review, which found
“the lack of adequate market surveillance to be a major problem in the UK, possibly the biggest problem.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, on this sad day. I associate myself with the comments about the victims in Brussels. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing the debate and making such a comprehensive and thoughtful exposition of the issues that not just worry her but led directly to the death of one of her constituents. I also congratulate Electrical Safety First, which has clearly done a superlative job of engaging with Members from all parts of the House and providing them with compelling briefing.
In the debate, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) got to the heart of the matter—the question of whether the arrangements we have to protect consumers are fit for purpose in the age of the internet, with globalised supply chains, where enforcement at a very localised level, as she called it, does not really address some of the bigger problems and sources of risk. It is for that reason that we did not feel that the previous review of trading standards had gone far enough: it did not really address her question. That is why a more fundamental review, not so much of trading standards as such, but of consumer protection in an internet age, has been launched by my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise. In the meantime, I will explain in the brief time available what the Government are doing with trading standards and other enforcement bodies. I hope thereby to answer most of the questions posed to me in the great range of excellent contributions from hon. Members.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills provides £14.5 million a year to National Trading Standards and to Trading Standards Scotland, which use that money in large part to focus on the problems of faulty goods, counterfeit goods and the various different ways, whether through fulfilment houses or online trading sites, in which they find their way into the country. National Trading Standards has a safety at ports and borders team that focuses in particular on the physical import of those goods, but there is also close work between National Trading Standards and major sites such as Amazon, eBay and Facebook, which are clearly one of the main ways in which consumers are being sold either faulty or counterfeit or both faulty and counterfeit goods.
I will give one vivid and recent example of the enforcement action being undertaken. Operation Jasper involves 63 local authorities’ trading standards officers and has led to 4,300 Facebook listings being taken down, 12 premises raided and 200 warning letters sent to other traders. That is the kind of proactive enforcement that we want to see. I am sure that there is always more that can be done, but National Trading Standards and local trading standards are working closely with sites such as eBay, Facebook and Amazon on such measures. As another example, some brands of hoverboards and LED Christmas lights—items that were mentioned in the debate—were removed from eBay last October as a result of enforcement activity by trading standards.
The question of counterfeit goods is in a sense a subset of the issue we are debating, rather than a different matter. Some of the goods in question are not counterfeit; they are just faulty. Others are counterfeits but not faulty, and some are both. In September 2013 the coalition Government launched a dedicated intellectual property crime unit, run by the City of London police. That has been taking action against sellers who use Facebook, and those who use the more traditional route for counterfeit goods—the much-loved tradition of car boot sales. In legislation in 2014 we introduced a criminal sanction against the sale of counterfeit versions of goods that have registered trademarks or patents, to give legitimate producers a greater enforcement ability against those who persistently flout their intellectual property rights.
I want briefly to mention fulfilment houses, because they are one of the routes through which faulty and counterfeit goods can make their way to the consumer. As the hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned, there is one such fulfilment house in Swansea that has been the subject of enforcement action by trading standards and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. That action is continuing, but it has led to a large quantity of non-compliant goods being removed from sale, including unsafe electrical products and counterfeit goods. I hope that that goes some way to reassuring hon. Members that there is quite a range of enforcement activity—some that is more traditional, as well as other approaches that address the new globalised problem created by the internet. We should acknowledge, as I think we all do in our own lives, the massive opportunities that the internet has brought us.
I do not know off the top of my head, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about that, and to copy in other hon. Members who have attended the debate. We have quite a range of expertise in the debate, and it would be useful to have contributions from hon. Members on both sides, including, perhaps, representatives of the Scottish Government, who I know also do a great deal of work on the question.
The Minister mentioned the problem of the internet. Does he recognise that the internet is also a hope for the future, in relation to consumer rights and protection? People can put reviews on eBay and Facebook, and there are greater opportunities through technology than we have been giving credence to in the debate. I hope that the Government will take cognisance of the changes that are coming in technology, in the next 20 years, because what we have seen so far will pale into insignificance.
I entirely agree. Before I took the intervention from the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) I was coming on to the fact that, for all that the internet has created opportunities for criminals and those who would abuse freedom, it has nevertheless also created even greater opportunities for legitimate traders and consumers. As the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) says, there are opportunities through the internet to share information about suppliers who have failed to live up to their obligations, and products that do not do what they are supposed to do, or are counterfeit or faulty.
In the debate, several hon. Members picked up on the idea of introducing a new charter mark, but I want to warn against viewing that as a panacea. As hon. Members will be aware, electrical goods are already required to carry the CE mark, and the problem is that lots of people fake that; so introducing a new charter mark would not itself necessarily deal with the problem. I presume that people would fake the new mark just as they did the previous one. It is more a question—and perhaps this is what was being suggested—of asking social media sites and trading platforms such as eBay, Facebook and Amazon to take responsibility themselves for having the kinds of review information that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire mentioned, and to be proactive not just in taking products down but in kicking traders off their sites. Of course the traders would all go off and set up in a new guise two months later, and return to the sites, but consistent and persistent work to try to prevent consumers being ripped off or put at risk is needed. I assure the hon. Member for Swansea East that the Government will continue to work with her and other Members, and Electrical Safety First, to try to ensure that we have the problem under control.
Thank you, Mr Davies. As a fellow Swansea Jack it is with great pride that I have served under your excellent chairmanship today.
Today’s debate has demonstrated a depth of concern and strength of feeling about an important issue. I, like other MPs, pay tribute to Robert Jervis-Gibbons and Phil Buckle of Electrical Safety First for their excellent guidance, and their determination to bring the issue to the fore. I sincerely thank all hon. Members for their contributions. It has been an absolute delight to spend the morning with them all. I urge the Minister to work with Members and the all-party group to raise awareness, protect consumers and, potentially, save lives.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the importation of faulty electrical goods.