[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered product safety and fire risk in residential premises.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Main. I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate; given how many colleagues have turned up to support it and speak in it, I will take no more time than I need. I have timed my speech at eight minutes.
I pay generous tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who has led a determined parliamentary campaign on these issues, supporting the attempts of the London fire brigade, Which? and Electrical Safety First to improve product safety. I am grateful to those organisations for the material that they have supplied for the debate; to the Library for the debate pack that it produced yesterday; and to the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, which weighed in this morning. All the safety organisations agree on what was and is needed.
I do not need to say very much about the scale of the problem. Three fires a day in the United Kingdom involve tumble dryers; more than 4,000 fires in 2016 were caused by faulty appliances and leads; and 2,000 fires in London between 2011 and 2016 involved white goods. The Grenfell fire was started by a fridge-freezer, and deaths have occurred elsewhere, too—one in 2010, five in 2011, two in 2014—as a result of similar sources of ignition.
I am pleased to see the Minister in her place. She is well liked and respected across the House, and much is expected of her. The Library debate pack generously details her efforts: correspondence and meetings with Whirlpool and others in the sector, press notices, written statements, meetings with colleagues, parliamentary and other questions, steering groups, working parties, support for Register My Appliance Day, and more. Those are all commendable, but many of us want a conclusive, robust and ambitious Government response, and it will continue to reflect badly on this Administration if one does not come soon. As London fire brigade’s letter states:
“There has been over three years of reports and recommendations but as yet no action from Government…the review of the UK product recall system was first announced in November 2014. This was then launched in March 2015 with consumer champion Lynn Faulds Wood leading the review which reported in February 2016 with a series of recommendations. A steering group was then set up to take these forward. Following the Shepherds Court fire, a new working group to replace the steering group was set up in autumn 2016 which published its recommendations in July 2017.”
The Government are due to publish their response at any time; I would be grateful for an update from the Minister. Yesterday, in her latest letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, she repeated her expectation of an “autumn response”. When I was Minister for time at the Department of Trade and Industry—not many people know that there is a Minister for time, but it was me once—my office once promised an “autumn response” in an answer to a parliamentary question. When I inquired what that meant exactly, I was told it meant “by 21 December,” which was the date of the end of the Session that autumn. Will the Minister clarify whether the response to the working party will come in late December or early November?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He has been a champion for product safety. Does he agree that the Whirlpool tumble dryer revelation is a warning that the electrical sector needs to heed before there is loss of life? The Government must play a part by enforcing codes of practice on an industry that is managing to fly under the radar.
The hon. Gentleman makes the central point to which I am sure all Front-Bench spokespeople will refer when they wind up the debate. I will come on to Whirlpool’s response and the central recommendations of the Faulds Wood report.
Page 7 of the Library debate pack includes an interesting detail that had previously escaped me: if people have used their credit cards to buy faulty equipment, credit card companies could be held liable. The credit card companies may therefore sue manufacturers for faulty goods. I have not heard that point mentioned in any of the debates so far, but if the credit card companies weighed in and threatened to sue Whirlpool, that might be a game-changer. That is not within the scope of this debate, but I mention it as an aside.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I am an officer of the all-party group on fire safety rescue; our erstwhile chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), is also present. We all know the terrible devastation that a white goods fire can cause, but can the hon. Gentleman put an economic figure on it? It is sure to be a costly figure for the country.
I have to confess that I do not have a figure. Most of the evidence that I have seen from the organisations that have briefed us relates more to public safety and the risk to life, but other hon. Members may very well be able to provide a figure. Looking round the Chamber, I think I see all the officers of the all-party group on fire safety rescue, who are all hoping to contribute as the hon. Gentleman has done.
The recommendations of the Faulds Wood review state:
“There is a need for the creation of an official national product safety agency…There should be an official trusted website…There is an urgent need to improve funding, training, resources and procedures for…the enforcement authorities”.
Which? makes the point that trading standards officers have 260 pieces of legislation to enforce, and product safety is therefore not a priority. It further states:
“Local authority trading standards cannot be expected to hold to account multinational companies for product safety incidents of national concern”.
That is surely true. Indeed, it was under pressure from Which? that Peterborough trading standards officers took action against Whirlpool, following the Shepherd’s Bush fire in 2016. Whirlpool updated its safety advice to consumers, warning them to stop using their machines until they are repaired. However, the modification programme it initiated did not have the capacity to deliver. In April, the Minister reported to the House that Whirlpool had resolved 1.5 million of the 3.5 million affected machines, and in October the Government spokesperson in the House of Lords reported that the figure stood at 1.7 million. It would be interesting to hear an update from the Minister today.
There are clearly big issues to address, not only for consumers but for retailers, manufacturers and the Government. As consumers, we need to recognise that completing product warranty forms is in our own interest; I understand that anecdotal evidence suggests that people do not complete them for fear of receiving unwanted sales literature, although personally I think it has more to do with laziness. According to the Library,
“YouGov research showed that just over a third of us currently register our appliances.”
Retailers should be required to register customers’ purchases and personal details for safety recall purposes. Those details must not be used for promotions—although in this age of information sharing and data capture, it is almost impossible for any of us to avoid sales material and promotions.
London fire brigade has a number of simple requests to manufacturers, and these requests are supported generally. They include changing fridge-freezer construction to protect insulation materials from components that could catch fire; better permanent marking of model and serial numbers, so that appliances can be identified after a fire; and using capacitors in fridges and freezers in a way that prevents them from starting fires. Which? also mentions non-flame-retardant backings for fridge-freezers.
Finally, what should the Government do? That is obviously the biggest challenge, especially with a Government who—with respect—are set against any new regulation on business. I have already mentioned the key recommendations of the Faulds Wood report for a national safety agency, an official trusted website and better enforcement; all its other recommendations flow from those. As an aside, all the safety organisations have raised concerns about what will happen after Brexit, not only to our own safety standards and markings, but to information sharing with other countries on advice, failures and recalls. It would be helpful if the Minister could also address that issue in her wind-up.
In conclusion, I am told by the London fire brigade that there have been 14 such fires in my constituency in recent times. I have referred to some of the other regional and national statistics, including those on fatalities. I understand that this is the fifth debate on this subject since March 2015. We have also had two Government reviews and there is an ongoing working group. There have been three major incidents in tower blocks since 2009—Lakanal House, Shepherds Court and Grenfell—all of which had an electrical source of ignition. The Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had a hearing yesterday to explore these issues and I hope it will soon launch a major inquiry. Of course, we still await the Government’s conclusions on their latest review, as I have mentioned.
Meanwhile, the average success rate for an electrical product recall is apparently between 10% and 20%. We all know, including our major safety organisations and the Government, that that is just not good enough, because lives are at risk. What can the Minister do about it?
I look forward to hearing the contributions of fellow Back Benchers and the responses from the Front Benchers. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to raise this issue.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate. He has real expertise in this area. He was a first-class Fire Minister, as indeed was the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), who is sitting next to him. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for whom this was a constituency issue in 2016, and he has not let the matter drop. In the light of the disaster at Grenfell, I am sure that I share with colleagues a sense of optimism that, at the end of the debate, our excellent Minister will leave us with a positive plan of action.
In this debate, what I term white goods are large electrical goods used domestically, such as refrigerators and washing machines. I have been provided with an excellent brief by the secretariat of the all-party fire safety rescue group, Mr Ronnie King, and by Electrical Safety First, a UK charity dedicated to reducing and preventing damage, injuries and death caused by faulty electrical goods.
In 2016, 1,873 fires were caused by domestic electrical white goods, which is a truly shocking figure. Five fires a day in the UK are caused by electrical goods, and three a day involve tumble dryers. Of course a fridge-freezer was the initial cause of the Grenfell Tower disaster; the inquiry into that is taking evidence, and we will see where that leads us.
Electrical Safety First proposes that the Government provide free mandatory electrical checks for homes in tower blocks. Colleagues might say, “Free checks are all very well and good, David, but who’s going to pay for all this?”, but perhaps we could come up with some innovative ideas; I could ask the Minister how we could address that.
Housing associations and local authorities should have a legal responsibility for ensuring free mandatory electrical safety checks, including of fixed electrical installations and appliances in properties. Housing associations and local authorities should keep a register of the white goods contained and operating in their tower blocks, regardless of an apartment’s tenure, and should ensure that tenants register those products. The cost of that is enormous—between £48 million and £60 million over five years, which is a huge amount of money—but again, I say to the Minister that we might be able to come up with an innovative way to deal with that cost.
Current policy, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows, is that there is an “expectation” that landlords will keep electrical installations safe, but we all know that there is a vast gap between an expectation and ensuring that a policy is delivered.
Does the hon. Gentleman not think it important that the safety checks be compulsory, not mandatory? If we are thinking about ways of introducing them, let us look at what we do about gas safety checks: every landlord has to provide a certificate.
I hope that the House will unite in the view that we cannot compromise on safety, and I very much agree with the hon. Lady’s point, which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will take on board. As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse said, it is simply not good enough for these products to go unchecked for years in socially rented properties.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith told the House about a serious fire in Shepherd’s Bush in 2016 that was caused, as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse said, by a faulty Whirlpool tumble dryer. Whirlpool was aware of the fault but failed to recall the products, instead advising customers not to leave them unattended and saying that repairs would be carried out in due course. That does not seem good enough, really. Most Members present attended the Adjournment debate on this issue in September last year.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills established a working group on product recalls and safety in July this year, and I congratulate the Government on that. Its key recommendations are: having centralised technical and scientific resource capability, to support decision making and co-ordination of activity in local authorities and the businesses they regulate; having a detailed code of practice that is informed by behavioural insights research; and considering establishing central capacity to co-ordinate product safety corrective actions. Furthermore, it was recommended that manufacturers and retailers work together, through standards-setting bodies, to develop technological solutions to product marking. Finally, the registration by consumers of appliances and other consumer goods with the manufacturers should be encouraged, to make corrective actions—including product recalls—more effective. Of course, to go back to the earlier point, it is compulsion that the House is looking for, but I understand that it is pretty difficult to frame a law that achieves that effect.
In August this year, the London fire brigade wrote to the Government on the anniversary of the Shepherd’s Court disaster. The Total Recalls campaign aims to: make white goods safer by having a single, publicly accessible register of product recalls, including of international products; publicise recalls better, to reduce confusion; publish risk assessments when a fault is identified; ensure greater regulation of second-hand appliances, which is very important; change the way that fridges and freezers are manufactured—a big ask—and ensure that all appliances are marked with model and serial numbers. Also, sleeping risk should be included as a factor in risk assessments.
Dany Cotton, the London Fire Commissioner, says:
“How many more devastating white goods fires does there have to be before the Government makes it easier for consumers to check whether their fridges and freezers are on the recall list?...This is not the time for further reports and recommendations, it’s time to take action.”
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will understand the slight sense of frustration there.
In 2014, a coroner at the inquest of Santosh Benjamin-Muthiah, who died after a fire caused by a faulty Beko fridge-freezer, recommended a series of measures to improve product recalls. These changes are yet to be made. The review has been ongoing for almost three years, and as yet there have been no substantial improvements made to the system. It is about time that we acted on the group’s recommendations.
As we have heard, in September a press release from Which? referred to a fire in Wales that killed two people, which was caused by a Whirlpool tumble dryer. Neil Gibbins, the chairman of the group, has said that “significant progress” is being made. There has also been talk about the publication of a standard PAS—publicly available specification—7100 form, which would set out the process for monitoring product safety and the actions that should be taken if something goes wrong. That idea is under consultation, and I believe that the steering group is meeting on 8 and 9 November. The PAS will give guidance to enforcing bodies to help them work with the product supplier to achieve a successful resolution to a safety issue. The report also highlighted the need for additional specialist resources to help provide guidance and enforce it if necessary. Neil Gibbins said:
“I am anticipating an update on this from our BEIS colleagues at the next meeting of the working group, scheduled for Nov 28th …We must ensure that British Standards continue to be devised and updated by people who have access to the best possible information to help them make decisions, and that agreed standards are applied, and where they are not, action is taken.”
Jeff Williams, a former offshore engineer with responsibility for fire safety systems, wrote to the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse to say:
“Connection between faulty goods and cladding, for example a tumble dryer may be in action a yard from flammable cladding—you cannot make flammable materials safe by using fire barriers—the only solution is to use non-combustible materials.”
I am vain enough to say that our all-party fire safety rescue group does good work, and if we had been listened to, I believe that the Grenfell disaster would not have taken place. I do not want to be giving interviews after there is a fire in a school, to find that our recommendation that all new school buildings have sprinklers fitted was ignored. The voices of the hon. Members for Poplar and Limehouse, and for Hammersmith, should be listened to. The figures are shocking. We had the recommendation from the working group and from London fire brigade. Now is the time for action. We do not want to read terrible headlines yet again in our newspapers in the months and years to come.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). As a member of the all-party fire safety rescue group, I identify entirely with everything they said, and without being boastful, we have made warnings that have not been heeded.
I want to concentrate on a particular area of concern, which is the safety of cables used in construction projects. I am indebted for what I am about to say to Tratos, a company that produces cables in my constituency. It has concerns about the way that the flammability of cables is classified in this country, and strong views about how that can be improved.
In July this year, a construction products regulation came into force, as a result of which all cables sold in the EU must now adhere to new, improved common standards. That should result in safer, consistent building regulations, and, as a consequence, improved public safety. The EU has not been prescriptive in specifying which classification of cable performance should be used for buildings and infrastructure. Instead, it is the responsibility of the regulator in each EU member state—which in this case is the Minister—to determine what that standard should be. I will advance the argument that the standard we are adopting is not good enough.
The Minister’s Department has not specified which class of cables should be used in buildings. Instead it requires all electrical installations in buildings to comply with British standard 7671—a minimum requirement that is equivalent to European class E. That allows more flammable cables that are less resistant to the spread of flames to be used in this country, and means that the UK is no closer to having a safer building environment for any buildings that use cables of that kind. Construction products regulation presents a real opportunity to ensure that the cables used in buildings and infrastructure are safe. Tratos has a manufacturing capability in my constituency, and it has declared that all CPR for fire cables should meet at least European class CCA, as that would ensure much greater safety.
I am sure that Members and the Minister will have seen images of cladding tests that show that the lower the classification, the quicker the fire spreads. There is a similar testing process for cables, which shows that the CCA category is much more resistant. The result is almost identical to that for cladding. The higher the specification for the cable, the less quickly the fire spreads.
The right hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. Would he make that point about all white goods? My understanding is that it is primarily washing machines and tumble driers that are the first to go up, and that a higher percentage of them do so. Is he talking about all electrical goods, right down to washer-drier combos, microwaves and so on?
At the start of my remarks I identified entirely with the two previous speakers, and I wholeheartedly agree with everything that they said on that subject. I then said that I intended to speak specifically about cables used in buildings.
Tratos does not see the argument for introducing the CCA standard as if it were a sort of gold plating or a gold standard; it sees it simply as a good way of reducing the risk to public safety. It cites two reasons for that. First, it would ensure that regular plant auditing and regular audit testing of cables from the production line takes place. On a visit to the Tratos plant production facility in my constituency, I saw how rigorously it conducts its own testing. It also argues that if we introduce that standard, the reaction to fire would be better because there is no continuous flame spread, there is a limited fire growth rate because of the resistance to spread, and there is a limited heat release rate.
Tratos suggests—I wholeheartedly endorse this—that the UK regulator stipulate a minimum requirement of European class CCA for CPR. That is higher than at present, and will therefore provide better public safety. It also suggests a programme of market surveillance for CPR and cable compliance, to ensure that substandard cables are eradicated from the market. I understand that some countries produce inferior cable standard products, and export them to this country, where they are relabelled as meeting the British standards classification, although that does not by any means approach the European standard that we expect.
In the wake of Grenfell, it is timely to look at all aspects of regulation—white goods is clearly one of those, as is cladding and other factors in building, such as building layout and so on. All those things must be considered, and I argue that the standard of fire resistance for cables should be added to that list, because potentially, such cables could lead—I hope they do not—to another disaster on the scale of Grenfell.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Main. I wholeheartedly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate. He said some nice things about my expertise and the length of time that I have wrestled with this issue, but that is a fraction of what he has put in.
I am grateful that the chair of the all-party group on fire safety rescue, the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), who we have heard from, and the chair of the all-party group on home electrical safety, my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who I hope we will hear from, are both here. I acknowledge the many organisations that have supported us in these campaigns, such as Electrical Safety First, Which?, the London fire brigade and other fire services, and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. I apologise if I have forgotten any. They are very different organisations but they have an interesting unity of view on what needs to be done. I hope the Minister is listening to that view as well as to the individual arguments. I wish to emulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse in his precision, but that is not my strong point.
Yesterday, I attended the evidence session of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, which is looking at this issue. I congratulate the Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on that revealing and interesting session. I hope the Minister and her civil servants will find time to look at it.
This debate is not about one company, one product or even one type of goods—white goods or any other. Product safety goes a lot further than fire risk, and fire risk goes a lot further than individual products. My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) mentioned cabling. I was involved in a BBC investigation earlier this month that revealed the rather frightening figure of 4 million metres of unsafe cabling from a now defunct Turkish company installed in residential premises in the UK. That may partly be down to the Health and Safety Executive, which realised that 11 million metres of faulty cabling was out there and tried to ensure that it was not used, but did not go ahead with a compulsory recall. There are echoes here of what happened in the white goods cases. Clearly, the danger of cabling buried in walls as a potential fire risk is in some ways even greater than the danger of goods that are on display.
As I say, this issues goes a lot wider but I will concentrate on three events that concern white goods manufactured by the Whirlpool company. Whirlpool is not the whole story but I do not think that is coincidental. All three have already been mentioned, so I will not labour the points, but I will briefly go through them to draw some more general conclusions and put some questions to the Minister.
The first tragic event happened on 10 October 2014 when two men, Bernard Hender and Doug McTavish, died at their flat in Llanrwst. The preventing future deaths report has yet to be published, but we have the transcript of the coroner for north Wales’s narrative verdict from 1 September. That inquest concluded:
“On the balance of probabilities, the fire was caused by an electrical fault in the tumble dryer in the laundry room of the flat”.
That was a tumble dryer manufactured by the Whirlpool company. I have read the whole of that verdict. It took three years for that inquest to report, and it is incontestable that the delay was partly because of Whirlpool bringing forward often spurious points such as whether the fire was caused by spontaneous combustion. That attitude, which was also shown with regard to the next fire I will talk about, is extremely regrettable.
Although the precise electrical fault was not identified, there is strong evidence to suggest that it was not the known safety fault in Whirlpool tumble dryers—the collection and ignition of dust and lint—but an electrical fault in the door mechanism. In evidence yesterday to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Whirlpool said that about 20 such fires have been identified, but there has been no product safety notice, let alone a recall notice, in relation to that particular fault.
The second event, which particularly concerns me, is the very serious fire at Shepherd’s Court on 19 August 2016. Late on a Friday afternoon, that 19-storey block of flats was fully evacuated and 50 people were made homeless, some temporarily and some for a long time. According to the fire brigade and other experts, it was only through luck, the circumstance of its happening in the afternoon and the quick and professional response of the fire services that there were no serious injuries or deaths on that occasion. In the view of the residents and their lawyers, Whirlpool has dragged its feet, notwithstanding that from an early stage it was clear that the particular fault—the one that is subject to a product safety notice but not a recall—in the 5.5 million Whirlpool tumble dryers that were manufactured over 13 years and sold in the UK caused the fire. That is not in dispute. A year on, however, we are no nearer to an admission of liability or to any action taken by Whirlpool to deal with the people who, in many cases, lost their entire life: their belongings, their furniture and their flats, when they left because of that fire.
The third and most tragic event is the Grenfell Tower fire, which happened on 14 June. We knew quite soon after the event that it was caused by a Hotpoint fridge-freezer that was manufactured by Whirlpool. We still do not know much more about that. I am grateful to the Minister for answering my most recent correspondence on this subject before the debate. Her response goes some way towards dealing with some of the points that I would have raised, but it also raises further questions. I will try to be concise in saying what those are and if she can answer them today, that would be helpful.
In relation to the product safety notices for the Whirlpool tumble dryers, it is right to acknowledge that Whirlpool has gone to considerable lengths to modify those dryers—1.65 million of them, according to the Minister’s letter. There are other issues that I will not go into today about the speed at which that was done, how that was done, whether that is sufficient and whether further problems result. That is a substantial programme of modification, but 5.5 million dryers were manufactured. Whirlpool’s own estimate—it has to be an estimate because no one knows how many have worn out, been put out of use by other methods or possibly burnt out without causing a fire—is that at least 1 million are still in use in the UK. Which? and other organisations estimate that the figure is probably nearer 2 million. Certainly a substantial number of tumble dryers with a known fault that has caused hundreds of fires are still causing a problem, probably in every constituency in the United Kingdom.
Notwithstanding whatever efforts Whirlpool has gone to—the Minister will doubtless say that the success rate in identifying a faulty product is about 40% compared with the typical 20%—this fault is so serious because of its potential risk to life and property and the number of dryers that more has to be done. It is absolutely clear that Whirlpool is not in the mood to do more. I pray in aid for that the evidence that it gave to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee yesterday.
It was remarkable that Whirlpool turned up at all because in the two or three years of various all-party groups and Committees asking it to attend, it has studiously refused and sent out the same standard letter. The Minister may want to say more about its attitude, but in terms of its accountability to Parliament, it has been extraordinarily disrespectful and continued, in the view of Committee members, to show that disrespect yesterday. It sent not the managing director or anyone with the competence to talk about the technical side of its programme, but effectively its PR man, who was able to answer very few of the questions, even the quite basic questions that I could answer. I urge the Minister to look at that and to deal with Whirlpool in the light of the attitude it continues to show.
We cannot sustain the position whereby there are 1 or 2 million highly unsafe products probably in daily use. Let us not forget the background: this company, against all professional advice, refused even to tell its customers not to use the machines. There is a great suspicion that that was because it could not cope with several million people suddenly saying, “I can’t dry my clothes any more.”
I heard only the evidence from Electrical Safety First, Which? and the London fire brigade at the BEIS Committee yesterday. From what my hon. Friend describes, the way in which Whirlpool answered the questions will surely feed the appetite of the Select Committee to have a full inquiry so that it can summon Whirlpool and interrogate it to get full answers rather than the dismissive ones that seem to have been given yesterday.
I am not sure the Committee has reached such a conclusion, but I sincerely hope it does. If anything will have encouraged it, it was the desultory way in which the manufacturers dealt with the matter yesterday.
Whirlpool’s view over months and years was that it was perfectly all right for customers to continue to use the machines, provided they were in the same building and awake—not even in the same room. It persisted with that view even against the evidence from the Shepherds Bush fire where the victim, my constituent, was in the same room when the fire started and took every possible correct action: pulling the plug out, calling the fire brigade, shutting the door, and doing everything they could to prevent the fire from spreading. It took another six months for Whirlpool to change its advice and only, as has already been said, under threat of legal action from Which?, which I applaud. It was disgraceful to see Whirlpool pretending yesterday that that was not the cause of its change of policy, but that it just suddenly lighted on the fact and, after a couple of years, decided to do that. I think all Members will be angry at the dismissive attitude that was shown.
What are we going to do about the Whirlpool situation, specifically in relation to Grenfell? I am grateful for the Minister’s clarity in saying that the broader issues to do with the cause and spread of fire are matters for the public inquiry. We accept that. As I understand it, the specific issue of a fault within the model of fridge-freezer identified is a matter for her Department. I will press her a little further and ask when we will know that. We knew quite quickly that it was a fridge-freezer, which model it was and which flat it was. We know the model number, so that indicates to me that it was not completely destroyed. I would hope that by now there was some indication, because there could be a variety of faults. It could be within the fridge-freezer, it could be to do with its use or the cabling or anything of that kind. If it is a fault in that model or similar models of fridge-freezer, that needs quick action in terms of product recall and product safety notices.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech, but there are two others who wish to speak and I will be calling the Front-Bench speakers at half-past.
I am grateful, Mrs Main, for your very gentle chiding. I will bring my remarks to a close.
I have concentrated on the specifics, but my final point is on the generalities. The Minister said that the working party group will report in the autumn. We look forward to that, but we are already disappointed by the fact that the group’s ambitions do not go far enough. There are three key issues that the organisations I have talked to are concerned about. The first is effective registration, so that when white goods are sold, we know, as far as possible, where they are. The second is recall and better attention to proper product recall when things go wrong, as in the Whirlpool case. The third, and perhaps most important in many ways, is enforcement. With the best will in the world, given the job they try to do under difficult circumstances and with limited resources, local trading standards organisations are not enforcing. I therefore wholeheartedly support the Which? campaign for a national body to deal with and oversee such matters. I await the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on his passion and championing of this matter. I am the chair of the all-party group on home electrical safety and I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
This is the sixth debate we have had on this or closely related subjects since March 2015, when the then Minister, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), offered very reassuring words, particularly on counterfeit electrical goods. But those words have proved to be empty, especially when it comes to trading standards helping to prevent products from entering this country. Can they really do that when some trading standards budgets have been cut to £200,000?
We have debated Whirlpool and its tumble dryers and consumer rights, but when are we going to stop debating and start taking action? I have asked numerous questions about legislation, and on paper it appears the legislation is robust. Is it simply not being enforced? Why? Because local trading standards have been decimated by the Government’s austerity policies.
Trading standards police online marketplaces such as eBay and Amazon, which fall short of complying by allowing counterfeit goods to be sold on their sites. The Minister knows that electricity is one of the biggest causes of fires in the home. Clearly, some consumers misuse products that can cause fires, but how many fires have been caused because manufacturers, such as Whirlpool, have refused to take appropriate action? How many are as a result of online sales?
What discussions has the Minister had with the Home Office about fires caused by faulty electrical goods? What is the strategy to cope with it? Where is the “fire kills” campaign? It has been very quiet recently. The Minister has been co-operative in her approach and has been willing to meet and engage on the issue, but what is the way forward now? The Lynn Faulds Wood review, which had excellent recommendations, is being ignored. We have had a working group and a recent report, but what is happening now? When will the Government stop having reviews and working groups and start taking action? How many more fires and incidents involving white goods and substandard and counterfeit products do we need to have before the Government take the right measures?
We need a public body that protects consumers, such as the Food Standards Agency. I firmly believe that such a body would not only protect consumers, but act as a central point for co-ordination.
I recently met Apple as I wanted to understand the issues with counterfeit mobile phone chargers, especially when I have seen them myself. Apple informed me that it has a particular issue with Amazon, which it alleges is selling counterfeit Apple products. I am looking forward to Electrical Safety First’s report, due shortly, which will highlight how unsafe counterfeit chargers really are.
In the interests of fairness, I met Amazon yesterday, who tried to reassure me on what it is doing to prevent counterfeit electrical goods from being sold on its site. I put to it Apple’s accusation that it had been directly selling on its site counterfeit Apple products: a matter, I understand, that has been the subject of a lawsuit in the United States. In the UK, consumers are confused. How do they know that an Apple product is an Apple product when they buy on these sites? It is unacceptable and the Minister needs to look at online sales urgently. Perhaps a conversation with Amazon and Apple would be beneficial.
Although I have concerns about some of Amazon’s selling practices, it is not all bad; I believe that it has a good product recall strategy. It holds the appropriate information to recall products quickly and effectively. However, I do not believe that the service extends to notifying customers who have bought counterfeit products. If global companies are engaged in disputes about whether counterfeit goods are being sold, what chance does the consumer have of identifying counterfeit products online? The potential risk to their homes and families is too important for such a speculative approach.
I reiterate my previous call for a dedicated operation to identify counterfeit and substandard goods—something similar to Operation Jasper. It is, I accept, important to tackle counterfeit handbags and clothing; but they do not kill people. Electrical goods are different, and the consequences can be devastating and tragic. Given those serious concerns, will the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee today that she will now consider a full-scale operation to tackle online sales of electrical products? I know that she will attend a meeting of the all-party group in December, but in the meantime will she meet me and a delegation of manufacturers that are victims of online electrical counterfeiting? That will enable her to understand their problems. Consumers deserve our protection, and they deserve to be safeguarded.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for obtaining this important debate. It has been good to hear from fellow members, from both sides of the House, of the APPG on fire safety rescue. The Grenfell Tower fire has brought fire safety to the top of the agenda yet again, but it has been at the top of the agenda before, and we all need to make sure that we are not here again next year or the year after, re-running the same arguments. It is time for action, and I am sure that the Minister is in listening mood.
A number of product safety issues to do with the recall and fire safety of domestic appliances led to two recent Government reviews—the Faulds Wood review, which my hon. Friend outlined earlier, and that done by the working group on product recalls and safety. Concerns have been raised in Parliament and elsewhere about the recall of Whirlpool tumble driers. Only yesterday, in an evidence session held by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Whirlpool’s communications director admitted that an estimated 1 million faulty tumble driers, which are at risk of bursting into flames, are still in people’s homes. It took six months for the company to decide to change its advice to consumers, after an Indesit model caused a serious fire in Shepherd’s Bush. No one was killed in that blaze, but 100 families were evacuated and 26 were accommodated in hotels owing to the extent of the damage. It is considered that had that fire happened during the night, there would have been a number of deaths.
The manufacturer is not going to act quickly to recall models. I suggest that it is time to legislate to force it to do so. The consumer protection organisation Which?, Electrical Safety First and the fire brigade all agree that an overarching product safety body is needed to help protect consumers and advise them on what to do when products are faulty and potentially dangerous. Will the Minister give us her view on that sensible suggestion?
The Select Committee also heard from Leon Livermore, chief executive of the Trading Standards Institute, who told MPs that council funding cuts had affected the work of local trading standards services, slashing the amount of market surveillance they were able to do. He said:
“The current product safety system is already under pressure and won’t survive Brexit”.
If we cannot rely solely on trading standards departments to keep people safe, we need regulation. This is not regulation for regulation’s sake; the issues are important. There were 1,873 kitchen fires caused by white goods in 2015-16, and the London fire brigade reports that in London there is a fire a day involving white goods—and there have been deaths and injuries. Even so, it seems that the Government have yet to implement any safety recommendations made by the London fire brigade following the Whirlpool fire.
On the issue of fire safety in general, Electrical Safety First was calling for stronger regulation for many years before Grenfell. It has looked into the issue and says that mandatory electrical checks for homes in tower blocks should be free. I believe that that is right. It estimates that making electrical checks of all homes in tower blocks might cost about £10 million pounds a year. That is a lot of money, but it is not really a cost—it is an investment and will save money in the long run. It will also safe lives. House fires are a cost to us all.
At present, regulations specify an “expectation”, as we have heard, on social and private landlords to keep electrical installations safe. However, that language is very vague and should be clearer. The truth is that more can be done to reduce the fires caused by domestic appliances in England. As the Minister will know, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 gave the Secretary of State powers to impose proper duties on private landlords to ensure that electrical safety standards are met for the benefit of tenants across the country. Until that happens, people are safer, with greater state protection, if they live in temporary bed and breakfast or a house in multiple occupation than if they live in a privately rented home. That cannot make sense. Will the Minister let me know when the Secretary of State intends to publish and bring into force the fire safety regulations for the private rented sector? I am sure that the Minister has listened to the experts on the issue. If she has not already had a meeting with Electrical Safety First, I ask her to do so, to look at their costings and see how we can move to a system of mandatory electrical checks for homes in tower blocks.
Finally, will the Minister commit to continuing to work on a cross-party basis to ensure that this will be the last time we have to ask in the House for proper regulation on fire safety?
I am very pleased to speak in this important debate on product safety and fire risk in residential premises. I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for bringing it to the House.
There is a clearly a problem, as we have heard. Electrical faults and accidents cause three quarters of all house fires in Scotland alone, according to Electrical Safety First. In England, more than five fires a day are caused by faulty white goods. We certainly need a better recall system for faulty or potentially faulty products. Currently, it would seem that the system is not working. The success rate for recalls is rarely more than 10% to 20%, despite the huge risks of electric shock, fire or even death that faulty electrical items can present. That suggests that thousands of dangerous items remain in unsuspecting people’s homes across the UK. The recall system across the UK must be improved. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) pointed out, the debate is about much more than one product or company; it is a much wider issue. I am sure that the Minister was listening carefully to the well-made points about cabling that were put by the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth).
From what I have heard in this debate, we can all agree that there must be a single, publicly accessible register of product recalls, which will allow consumers to be aware of products in their homes that could put them at risk. If people can find that important information all in one place—independently produced, full, clear and transparent—I am sure that it will be trusted. A one-stop shop for recalls and safety notices, where consumers can check their products, report incidents and seek advice will, over time, save lives. The UK Government launched such a one-stop shop last year, but it has been criticised as difficult to navigate, and it does not contain all product recall information in one place. I understand that there has been confusion when consumers are directed to other sites listing recalls, none of which is comprehensive. I know that the fire service has been pressing for a one-stop shop that is easy for consumers to use, clear and comprehensive.
Which? has campaigned for an end to the current fragmented system. It has called for a national body to be established, with responsibility for ensuring that manufacturers keep households safe and ensure that dangerous products are not in people’s homes, in the light of the risk that they clearly pose. That idea was mooted by Lynn Faulds Wood in 2016. She was commissioned to undertake a review of consumer product recalls, but her findings were dismissed by the UK Government on the grounds of cost. Since then, many of us have feared that the Government have failed to comprehend the scale of reform required for a reliable product safety system. I am sure that the Minister will reassure us on that.
We also need more education about the risks associated with faulty electrical items. Electrical Safety First has revealed that nearly 2 million adults have knowingly ignored a recall notice, citing reasons such as inconvenience, reluctance to manage without the product and a real underestimation of the risks associated with continuing to use it. It should be noted—I think this was mentioned earlier in the debate—that there seems to be a reluctance among some consumers to register products, as they do not wish to hand over their personal data in case those are used for marketing purposes. Surely we can tackle that by forbidding companies from using information from product registration for marketing opportunities. That cannot be beyond the wit of this Parliament.
In addition, product recall campaigns must be more innovative and creative about how they attract the public’s attention, so that they can penetrate the public’s consciousness much more deeply. I think we can all agree that the lack of a national body with responsibility for consumer product safety means that the current system is necessarily fragmented. With Brexit on the horizon, overhauling the UK’s consumer enforcement regime is an even greater priority. We must do that before even greater stress is loaded on to an already weak system. Brexit may be an opportune time to review the regulatory regime and address its weaknesses, and I hope the Minister can offer us reassurance on that. The challenges are real. These products are coming from a wider range of countries, with differing levels of product safety regulation and compliance checks. That makes ensuring product safety much more complex in an already weak system. Before Brexit happens, we need a new national body with responsibility for consumer safety.
The number of domestic electrical fires is increasing, sadly, and as we have heard this afternoon the most recent and tragic example of that was the Grenfell Tower fire. The review process has been ongoing for almost three years, but we still wait for substantial and meaningful change that will help protect consumers, as the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) so eloquently pointed out. As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse said, the working group on product recalls and safety, building on the work started by the recall review steering group, finally published its report in July this year, but its recommendations do not represent the fundamental reform needed to fix the broken system of product recall. I am persuaded that the only meaningful way forward—it is pressing as Brexit looms—is the establishment of a national body with responsibility for consumer product safety. The clamour for that cannot be disregarded any longer.
The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) might be interested to know that in Scotland, statutory guidance has been given under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014. It imposes a new duty on landlords to carry out electrical safety inspections of installations, fixtures and fittings. That came into force in December 2015. The Minister will want to look carefully at that, because in England there is only an expectation of safety inspections. She may wish to consider imposing a similar duty on landlords in England. That issue was of concern to the hon. Members for Southend West and for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce).
Before I conclude, I should mention the dangers of counterfeit goods, which were eloquently spelled out by the hon. Member for Swansea East. Those dangers are particularly important as Christmas approaches. Everyone loves a bargain, but counterfeit goods are now easily available across the internet, and those goods are not put through the same vigorous safety checks as legitimate items. Often they are very dangerous. Consumers often have no notion of how much danger electrical counterfeit goods pose to them and their families. We have a job of work to do in highlighting those dangers to the often unsuspecting consumer, who is simply looking for something that may seem like a bargain but which in the end could cost them more than they could possibly imagine. I am keen to hear what the Minister has to say. I am particularly keen to hear her thoughts on plans for a national body with responsibility for consumer product safety.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate. I also commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) on highlighting the danger of electrical cables. I am sure the Minister was listening carefully to that part of the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse is a distinguished former firefighter, and I think I speak for everyone when I say we are grateful for the expertise he brings to the debate around fire safety. That expertise was reflected in his contribution today. I also thank Members for their insightful, thoughtful and often harrowing stories of constituents who have faced the consequences of a fire as a result of faulty white goods. We can all agree that it is a terrifying thought, and we all should do everything we can to stop such things happening.
It saddens me to say that residential fires caused by white goods have become all too familiar, with devastating consequences for families across the UK. In my home town of Sheffield, faulty white goods caused 103 fires in residential homes between April 2014 and March 2017 according to the South Yorkshire fire and rescue service. In London, we have seen the horrific effects of such fires. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) detailed so eloquently the Shepherds Bush fire in 2016, which left 50 people unable to return to their homes. Subsequently, we have had the tragedy that shocked the nation—the Grenfell Tower fire. Both fires are thought to have been started because of faulty Whirlpool household appliances. We have heard today about the attitude shown by Whirlpool in dealing with this immensely serious issue. Such horrendous incidents have brought into sharp focus the fact that our product safety system is not fit for purpose, and an urgent and serious overhaul is required if consumers are to be confident once again that the products they buy are safe to use.
For most consumer products in the UK, it is the responsibility of businesses to ensure conformity with the general requirements set out in the EU’s general product safety directive and implemented by the General Product Safety Regulations 2005. The power to enforce product safety law and oversee product recalls falls to local authorities’ trading standards bodies. However, it is becoming increasingly evident that the deep and continued cuts to local authority budgets since 2010—according to a study commissioned by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, they have led to some local authority services being cut by 50%—have widely diminished the ability of trading standards to properly inform and enforce product safety measures.
Indeed, there is often a lack of knowledge within trading standards departments on what advice to give manufacturers and the appropriate action to take if faulty goods have been identified. That is no wonder, given the reductions of up to 56% in the staffing of trading standards bodies since 2009, according to National Audit Office figures published in 2016. Incidentally, the lack of expertise within trading standards bodies, as well as their lack of knowledge of the advice to give and action to take, has given manufacturers the flexibility to decide for themselves what action to take. That, of course, is often not in the best interests of consumers and safety.
In the case of Whirlpool, potentially dangerous advice has been issued about the safety of appliances and the circumstances in which to use them. In a Westminster Hall debate on 26 April 2017 led by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, we heard about Whirlpool’s total lack of responsibility and accountability. As a result of the lack of expert knowledge and enforcement, we are seeing the vast failure of the product recall system, which is simply not working.
According to Electrical Safety First, an average success rate for an electrical product recall in the UK is between 10% and 20%. That means there could be millions of recalled electrical items still being used in UK homes. There is not a single register for UK product recalls readily accessible to the public online, which makes it difficult for consumers to check whether appliances they have in their home are subject to product recall. That means not only that dangerous products may still be in people’s homes but, worryingly, that those same products are sometimes being sold in second-hand shops. Does the Minister agree that there needs to be much better regulation to control the second-hand selling of any product subject to a recall notice? In the United States, is it illegal to sell something under recall, and fire investigators in London, for example, have found dangerous appliances subject to a product recall being sold in second-hand shops, which is of great concern.
The bruising evidence requires serious action. People’s lives are on the line, and we ought to do everything we can to ensure that the products they buy are safe to use. There has been a series of reviews and recommendations of the current product safety regime. In March 2015, Baroness Neville-Rolfe launched an independent review into the consumer product recall system, led by the consumer champion Lynn Faulds Wood, who is widely respected in consumer protection. Her key and central recommendation was that
“an official national product safety agency...to show leadership and coordinate the system, promoting, protecting, informing and empowering business and consumers”
be created. Sadly, the Government’s response was that they do not
“believe that setting up a new public body in the current financial climate would be an effective use of taxpayer’s money.”
Can the Minister inform us what assessment the Government made of the cost to the taxpayer of setting up such a body, what that cost was, and whether other sources of funding for the body were considered?
In 2016, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s working group on product safety was launched. When it finally published its recommendations in July 2017, shortly after the Grenfell Tower disaster, I was dismayed by its half-hearted response to what consumer groups such as Which?, Electrical Safety First and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute had been calling for. The report did not acknowledge that real change is needed in the product safety regime and did not go far enough in ensuring that consumers would have easy access to information about the products they buy or that proper enforcement mechanisms would be in place to remove faulty goods effectively from the market.
There is pretty much a consensus among consumer bodies that the product safety system is not fit for purpose, and that a centralised Government agency, as proposed by Lynn Faulds Woods in 2016, is necessary to co-ordinate and enforce product safety laws. We also saw that broad consensus displayed yesterday in the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. Will the Minister explain why the Government are so intent on resisting that common-sense approach, backed by a wide variety of consumer bodies and consumer champions?
Leaving the European Union will bring about its own set of opportunities and challenges for UK consumer protection, but thus far we have heard very little about the Government’s plans for consumer protection after March 2019. In a Westminster Hall debate on 10 October about the effects of the UK leaving the EU, it was clear that the Government had side-tracked consumer issues in the negotiations. As I said then, consumer protections did not feature in the Brexit White Paper, or as any of the 12 negotiating principles.
I am particularly concerned, and it has been strongly expressed to me, that the ability and robustness of the current product safety regime to withstand the pressures of the weight of the EU consumer rights laws that will be transferred into the UK is questionable. There is therefore an even more urgent need to seriously overhaul the UK’s product safety regime to ensure that consumers can easily access information about product recalls in a single place, and to co-ordinate and strengthen the enforcement mechanisms available so that consumers are properly protected after Brexit and beyond.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing today’s important debate. I know that he has long championed product safety, drawing on his great expertise in fire safety, and it is a matter that he and I have discussed outside debates such as this.
Every injury and fatality in the fires that have happened recently is of course an absolute tragedy for the families and friends of those affected. No one can fail to be moved by the tragic stories of those affected by the fires in Grenfell Tower and in Llanrwst, or by any of the other fires that have been mentioned today. I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) reported about the three-year inquest into the two tragic deaths at Llanrwst and the critique he made of Whirlpool’s involvement in that inquest. Those are some of the reasons for my commitment to improving the system, so that we have fewer tragic cases such as those we have heard about in today’s debate.
I have picked up on the sense of urgency now required of the Government and I understand the frustration that some hon. Members expressed at the pace of change. I am aware that it is more than a year since I have been the lead Minister in this area and more than a year since the fire in Hammersmith that prompted the latest wave of concern. One of my first actions as Minister was to bring together fire safety experts and stakeholders in the expert working group on product recalls and safety. I am sorry that the recommendations have disappointed the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), but virtually all the organisations—with the exception of Which?—that she said were frustrated by some of the proposals not going far enough are members of the group and have the opportunity to input into the recommendations and the follow-up. Having received the group’s report, we are now at the stage of taking the actions needed to deliver improvement. I have been asked by several hon. Members, not least the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, when we will publish our response. We will do so later this year, hopefully by the end of November or in early December.
However, we are already making improvements that have been recommended by the expert group in a number of key areas. One such improvement is the new code of practice on recalls and corrective actions being developed by the British Standards Institution. That will help manufacturers and enforcers follow best practice on recalls and make them more effective in future. The consultation on those proposals closed last week, and we expect the code to be available by the end of the year. That will provide important clarity to businesses about how we expect them to prepare to deal with incidents involving unsafe goods, and how they should work with trading standards and my Department in the event that a recall or corrective action programme is necessary.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse and many others who spoke today mentioned Lynn Faulds Wood’s call for a national product safety agency. The working group has also called for more central capacity to support consumers and local trading standards agencies on product safety and recalls—something that the London fire brigade and Which? have also been seeking. We are now actively considering how that can be delivered, and we will address that particular recommendation later in the year in our response to the working group’s report.
With regard to the recalls website and registration, we recognise that consumers need access to the best recalls information to keep their homes safe. We have upgraded the Government recalls website on gov.uk, as urged by hon. Members, to make it easier for consumers to check for recalls and to register their appliances. We know that more can be done, should be done and needs to be done, and we are working to deliver further improvements to the website.
As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned, the success rate of recalls is thought to be as low as 10% to 20%. We have heard a lot of criticism of Whirlpool’s response to fires, but its success rate is now more than 50%, in terms of machines it has either modified or recalled. I responded to the question asked by the hon. Member for Hammersmith earlier this week by letter, but this morning Whirlpool let us have the most up-to-date figures for its tumble dryer modification programme. Whirlpool has provided the figure of 1.7 million machines that it has now modified or replaced. It has therefore resolved almost all the registrations that have been made, so the numbers are not likely to rise significantly until more consumers register their appliances.
One reason why recalls are not always—virtually never—as effective as they should or could be is the difficulty in contacting owners and getting them to respond. Some people respond very quickly. Some were contacted by Whirlpool up to 10 times and still failed to register their machine or take the necessary next steps.
People can protect themselves by registering their appliances with the manufacturer so that they can be contacted quickly if their products are subsequently subject to any corrective action or recall. We have made that easier by including registration links on the central recalls website. Now, if people register their email address, they can get an automatic notification of any product that has been put on recall since they registered.
Safe homes are not only delivered through effective recalls of electrical products; they are also delivered through planning and building regulations that require buildings to be of a safe design and construction. That involves meeting fire safety regulations that require houses of multiple occupation to fulfil fire safety standards, a product safety system that requires all domestic appliances to be safe when they are sold, and appropriate action to be taken when faults are found.
The right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) made some important points about the cabling of buildings. I will follow up with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, who have responsibility for building regulations and construction products, and make sure that either they or I write to him in response to his points.
Several hon. Members called for product safety checks in tower blocks, including the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) and the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, I asked the working group to advise me on the merits of that approach for tower blocks. The general view of the working group was that there were logistical and technical difficulties. The chair wrote to me and said that there was some interest in the approach, and he reported that a number of members of the expert group
“have been in active discussions with housing associations, community groups and fire and rescue services to consider and identify best practice”
for checks in tower blocks, but there were “logistical and technical challenges” to the approach of mandatory safety checks. He said that,
“most general safety checks of electrical goods…may not pick up a range of potential issues or problems in an appliance. It would be more effective to concentrate any outreach activity of this nature on checking appliances against recall lists, and registering appliances for any future safety alerts.”
Fire and rescue services already have good community safety programmes in place, with more than half a million home visits each year. I will explore with colleagues in the Home Office the possibility of using those visits to provide information and advice about registering appliances and checking against recall lists, as per the advice from the chair of the product safety group. We believe that is likely to be more effective in identifying any potentially unsafe goods than visual checks on them.
There has been some criticism today of standards for electrical appliances, including for fridge-freezers. It is important to remember that standards are not the law; the law requires products to be safe. The standards themselves are updated regularly to ensure that they reflect modern technologies and so that safety can be continually improved.
As hon. Members will know, my Department has been working with the London fire brigade and others, through the British Standards Institution, to improve the international and European standards for fridge-freezers. My officials recently met the Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Appliances to discuss how we can increase levels of fire resistance in those appliances, as well as the director of standards at the BSI, and Which?
The European standard is currently being reviewed and the BSI has submitted proposals for amending the standard to CENELEC, the European standards organisation that is responsible for the current standard. That will be considered at CENELEC’s next meeting later this month. Officials are continuing to seek views from the Government’s chief scientific adviser on revisions to and interpretation of the standard, and recently met the chair of the BSI technical panel for fridge-freezers.
Will the Minister say whether, as part of that investigation, action is likely to be taken to phase out or get rid of fridge-freezers with plastic backs, which is a particular concern raised by Which? and the London fire brigade? I expect the Minister has seen the same videos as we have of the extraordinary spread of fire through plastic-backed rather than metal-backed fridge-freezers.
On fridge-freezers, would the Minister also address the Grenfell point? When does she think we will know the actual cause?
The answer to the question on timing is that the safety inspections have been completed on the particular fridge-freezer that led to the fire. The report on that investigation will be published very shortly; I will ensure the hon. Gentleman has a copy immediately after it comes out. I am sure that the aspect of the capacitor, and the insulation in which the capacitors are often placed, will form a part of the report, as well as of the discussions that the BSI is having at European level.
The hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran and for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough talked about Brexit and asked for reassurance on our intentions. I am pleased to be able to reassure Members that our priority is to continue the UK’s strong history of protecting consumers, to ensure that consumers can rely on safe products now and in the future. We will ensure that, as part of our relationship with the European Union post Brexit, we maintain close links with the existing European consumer protection bodies.
As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse recognised in his speech, it is important that we all play our part in keeping people safe in their homes. The Government must get the framework right and ensure that there is appropriate enforcement to support businesses in compliance. Manufacturers and retailers must comply with the law by not placing unsafe products on the market and by taking the proper action if products are found to be unsafe. Consumers also have an important role to play in making sure their homes are safe, following safety advice and registering their domestic appliances so that they can be quickly contacted should a problem be identified.
I am mindful of the challenges presented by second-hand machines. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) also raised the issue of counterfeit electrical goods. I accept her invitation to meet manufacturers to hear about their concerns first hand.
I understand the calls to do more and to do it faster. As hon. Members will agree, it is important that the changes we make deliver protections that work, and that we address the concerns as urgently as we can, within the constraints of making sure that they are the right solutions. We know that more needs to be done. I believe the actions that we are now taking will improve safety, and I agree with hon. Members that we definitely need to do more.
I am grateful to have a few seconds to finish off the debate. The Minister knows that it has been one-way traffic pretty much all the way through, with Back Benchers who are members or officers of the all-party parliamentary group, ably led by our friend, the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess); there were also members from the all-party parliamentary group on electrical safety, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). We even had an audience from the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who kindly gave her time to come and support the debate, which was very welcome. We equitably shared the time—with the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). That was totally understandable because he has led the campaign from the start and had a lot more to say than the rest of us. We are grateful to him.
We look forward to the Minister’s conclusions being published in late November or early December. We should perhaps ask a parliamentary question to identify exactly what early December means, but that is only teasing. We hope it will be an oral statement, though there will certainly be a written statement. There will be pressure to submit an urgent question to get this on to the Floor of the House. I am grateful for all the contributions, including from the Front-Bench spokespeople.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).