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Electrical Products: Online Sales

Volume 663: debated on Tuesday 9 July 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the regulation of online sales of electrical products.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am pleased to have the opportunity for this short debate. The Minister knows that this issue is of deep concern to me, especially given an incident in my constituency in March 2015, in which my constituent, Linda Merron, died in a house fire after buying an electrical product on eBay. Since then, I have campaigned to improve how the likes of eBay, Amazon, Alibaba and Facebook allow the sale of unsafe electrical goods directly to the public.

Does the hon. Lady agree that, with online marketplaces, it is much harder to trace supply chain operators? Transparency can be almost non-existent. Consumers may often be under the impression that they are buying from the marketplace directly, rather than from a trader. Does she agree that we must do something to regulate this online industry through enhanced legislation?

I most certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman; it is rare that I do not. That is exactly why I set up the all-party parliamentary group for home electrical safety: to help to find solutions, particularly for this wild west of electrical goods sales, whether the goods are fake, unsafe, second-hand or recalled. I pay tribute to Electrical Safety First, which helps with the administration of the all-party parliamentary group, brings together several important stakeholders, and campaigns tirelessly to prevent electrical fires in people’s homes.

I pay tribute to the full extent of the hon. Lady’s work in this area, for which, I am sure, we are all grateful. Does she agree that it is shocking that 80% of fires in Scotland are caused by faulty electrical goods? People who buy these goods are often not aware of the danger that they are bringing into their home. Does she agree that we need a public education programme as well as better regulation, particularly of online sales?

I certainly do. Anything that we can do to help to prevent any fire is of the utmost importance.

The Minister will be aware of the all-party parliamentary group’s recently published report, “The Problem with Online Sales of Electrical Products”, which I sent to the Department. It followed consultation with Electrical Safety First, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, the Anti-counterfeiting Group, the Local Government Association, London Fire Brigade and others who attended all-party parliamentary group meetings. I also reached out to the online platforms Amazon and eBay, to request their input into the report. Only eBay responded, and I am grateful to it for doing so. Its representatives attended a session of the all-party parliamentary group, at which they gave a presentation. I am disappointed by the lack of engagement by the online sales platforms, and their total disinterest in helping to find solutions to these problems.

I will always remember the words of an Amazon executive who sat in my office and, when challenged, said, “We are just a landlord”, washing the company’s hands of all responsibility. So far as I am concerned, Amazon is totally disengaged, showing a complete disregard for consumer rights, safety and the work of the Office for Product Safety and Standards. The Minister needs to tackle these online platforms, just as she has tackled Whirlpool in recent weeks.

I thank my hon. Friend for the case she is making in her own inimitable style. Does she agree that more needs to be done not only on online platforms, as she mentions, but on second-hand sales between individuals, to create a much safer environment for the sale of electrical goods?

Yes. It terrifies me when I see second-hand shops selling electrical goods that we do not know the provenance of. That brings me on to a really important point about Whirlpool.

The Government say that they take issues of consumer safety very seriously, and recently took unprecedented action on unsafe tumble dryers. Overnight, Whirlpool issued a 21-page list of 650—or thereabouts—recalled models. Have the Minister and her Department looked at the list? This morning, I saw numerous listed machines on Amazon, Facebook and eBay. The TCFS83BGP is one example, and anybody looking on their phone will find numerous models on sale today, even after the recall.

The Minister needs to take immediate action to stop these sites selling recalled models. Will she commit to an immediate review of the list, and to stopping those online platforms selling those machines? Will she also commit to enforcement action against any company allowing the placement of unsafe products on the market? As Electrical Safety First highlighted in its briefing to MPs for the debate, many sites sell recalled and substandard electrical goods.

Despite eBay’s willingness to engage, there are many significant problems on that site. In recent weeks, Electrical Safety First informed me that was to intervene in a case involving an eBay listing for non-UK CCTV equipment. The product did not comply with the low voltage directive for CE marking, or the Plugs and Sockets etc. (Safety) Regulations 1994—the plug did not comply with BS 1363, as required by the regulation, making it illegal—and there were no manufacturer markings.

It was only as a result of the charity’s work that the consumer was able to get her money back, as neither eBay, nor trading standards nor Citizens Advice were able or willing to help the purchaser. The listings are still available, and the seller is still selling non-compliant products. I am of course happy to pass to the Minister the details provided to me by Electrical Safety First. However, the issue I go back to every time is: why do the online sales platforms not have basic checks and algorithms in place to proactively comply with the law? Why can their algorithms not prevent recalled and non-compliant electrical goods from being uploaded?

To prevent cases like this, the all-party parliamentary group report recommends five specific areas of action. First, online marketplaces enable the sale of counterfeit and substandard electrical goods with little effective oversight or transparency. The all-party parliamentary group and I believe that legislation should be introduced to ensure that online marketplaces take responsibility for what is sold on their sites. Sellers must be clearly identifiable and accountable, and there should be a legal responsibility on online marketplaces to remove counterfeit and unsafe products as soon as possible, and to co-operate fully with enforcement agencies.

Secondly, although enforcement agencies, on the whole, have sufficient powers, they need the resources to enforce them properly. The Government should ensure that all enforcement is adequately funded, reversing funding cuts where necessary, especially post Brexit. Thirdly, there needs to be improved co-operation and information sharing between different tiers of enforcement and with online marketplaces. Jurisdictional limits and the reach of the different tiers of enforcement bodies are insufficiently clear, and are a barrier to effective enforcement. Although the large organisations under discussion have primary authorities—an example is eBay working with Westminster—the OPSS should be given the task of co-ordinating and improving interaction between enforcement agencies and online marketplaces.

Fourthly, online marketplaces benefit from the UK’s product safety regime and so should contribute towards its operation, in a similar way to other industries. The UK Government should consider how online marketplaces could contribute to enforcement and should lead conversations with major marketplaces on the issue.

Fifthly, consumer education must be improved. It is key to reducing the risk from counterfeit and substandard electrical products. The UK Government should work with stakeholders to ensure greater consumer awareness through national advertising campaigns.

As part of the OPSS strategy, there is a workstream on combating unsafe, counterfeit electrical goods and second-hand electrical sales. I am aware that the OPSS is working on a funded project with Electrical Safety First on the latter, but I would be grateful if the Minister would inform the House of the following or, if she is unable to do that today, write to MPs to provide us with an update. Can the Minister tell us where we are in the OPSS strategy with implementation and preventing sales of unsafe electrical goods online, particularly in relation to the Whirlpool example that I have just raised? When did the Minister last meet representatives of the online sales platforms to discuss self-regulation? For example, why do the platforms not have systems in place to not allow people to upload listings of recalled Whirlpool tumble dryers, items with plugs that are not compatible with BS 1363, items that originate from abroad and so on? What action is the OPSS taking with the online platforms to immediately stop the sale of recalled Whirlpool tumble dryers on these sites? Had the Minister actually thought about that scenario? Will she take enforcement action against companies that allow the sale of recalled items, especially Whirlpool tumble dryers?

When will the Government commit additional resources to bodies such as Thurrock Council that are on the frontline in protecting the public from unsafe electrical goods being brought into the country and then sold via eBay, Facebook and Amazon? Will the Minister commit to new regulations on online platforms to prevent them from selling non-compliant, unsafe and recalled products online? Will she commit to attending the APPG to discuss the recommendations of the report in greater detail, and to discuss how we can go forward in resolving these problems, especially the persistent illegal activity of online sales platforms selling unsafe, non-compliant and recalled electrical goods?

The measures in the APPG report are the result of a combination of a wide range of stakeholders’ views. I hope that the Minister and her officials will now work with the group to bring forward solutions to ensure greater protection for consumers, and to ensure that online marketplaces act legally and, after today’s discovery, responsibly.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this important debate. She is incredibly passionate about this issue and, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for home electrical safety, has played an important role in keeping a focus on it. Her commitment to electrical safety is to be commended.

I want to make it clear from the outset that in my 12 months in this post, I too have taken electrical safety and the safety of British consumers extremely seriously. It has been a focus of mine; I have spent a lot of time working on it in my day job within the Department.

It is clear that there is considerable interest among hon. Members in this issue. They have personal, and in some cases tragic, reasons for that interest. I again thank the hon. Member for Swansea East, and I thank the hon. Members who intervened on her for participating in this short debate.

Our first duty as elected Members must be to ensure the safety of those we represent. It is important that consumers should have a choice when it comes to buying all kinds of products. In today’s world, more and more of us are turning to online retailers when we purchase all manner of things, including electrical products. The changing ways in which we consumers purchase goods, including online, pose specific challenges in relation to protecting consumers. For a traditional market, the law is clear: manufacturers and importers have a duty to place only safe products on the UK market, and distributors have a duty of care when it comes to the safety of electronic products. The online marketplace makes it possible for consumers to sell to other consumers. That clearly presents new challenges. We recognise those challenges and are working with the platforms to address the issues.

The OPSS is taking forward a number of strategic projects aimed at understanding and addressing cross-cutting safety issues to deliver better protections for British consumers. One of those is rightly focused on tackling the challenges of online electrical product sales. The OPSS, working closely with a number of key stakeholders—including Electrical Safety First, which the hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned, and major online retailers—is bringing together those with specific expertise in this area to make the system work more effectively. The project is at an early stage, but a first strand is focused on evidence gathering, so that we can really understand how and where electrical products are being sold online. That work will form the basis of ensuring that we have the best system in place to protect people when they buy goods in online or offline marketplaces.

In addition, the OPSS is working with local authorities to ensure that checks are being made by sellers on products being sold online to determine whether they are subject to a recall. If a business is found to be selling recalled products, the OPSS will inform the business of its findings, so that the business can take immediate steps to remove the product from sale.

Will the Minister recognise that in the current climate, the financial pressures on local authorities make it more difficult for them to have the capacity to deal with some of the issues that she is discussing?

When we are talking about such a wide brief as consumer product safety, there will always be pressures on budgets, but the OPSS is working with local trading standards, with scientific, technical support. It is providing support, through training, to trading standards, to enable local authorities to carry out the job that they have been tasked with doing.

The hon. Member for Swansea East asked a direct question about Whirlpool and the published list of recalled models, and I want to address that straight off. If products on the recall list are being sold on online platforms, that is absolutely wrong, and I will instruct our officials to ensure that those online platforms are made aware of those products, and that the products are withdrawn, as I have outlined. The hon. Lady will appreciate, because she knows this area very well, that this is ongoing work. Market surveillance—the identification of illegal and unsafe products—is not a job done today or tomorrow, with one list. Market surveillance is ongoing, and is how we continue to protect consumers. It is right that our policy and research evolves. This is work that we do independently as a Government to ensure that consumer safety is always our top focus.

The Minister has talked about fines and punishments for people selling illegal or unsafe products online. Does the product safety and standards unit monitor particular sites, or does it wait for the public to make representations about them? I am interested to know how the sites operate and how they are monitored. Where does the intelligence about illegal or unsafe products come from?

As part of the OPSS’s ongoing work, it has developed a database through which information is shared with online platforms when we are alerted to problems and particular safety concerns. That list is changing every day or every week, as new illegal products are registered. It is an ongoing piece of work, and part of what we are doing weekly to combat people who act illegally by putting illegal products on the market, and also to ensure that unsafe products that are being marketed are removed from sale. I have already outlined that this is a big challenge; it is something that the OPSS is very mindful of. That is why it is included in the first part of the workstream about understanding the extent to which such products are sold and how that can be moved forward.

A further strand of this work relates to online sales in second-hand electrical goods. OPSS is gathering evidence on the extent of the second-hand electrical goods market across the UK, so that it can provide advice to sellers on their responsibility when selling second-hand goods online.

Has the Minister’s Department seen the listings put up overnight, and has it taken action to remove Whirlpool products from online platforms?

That is a conversation that I did not have with my officials prior to the debate, so I am unable to give a direct answer. However, I have already outlined that the list has been published on the website and has been shared with our enforcement agencies. Where products on the list are being sold by online platforms, our enforcement bodies such as OPSS or trading standards—whoever is available or appropriate to deal with it—should absolutely ensure that they are removed from sale. That is a sensible thing to suggest, and I am sure the hon. Lady would expect me to say nothing less.

We have been running a series of campaigns to raise consumer awareness on keeping safe. This is being done in partnership with the leading consumer bodies, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, Electrical Safety First, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, Netmums and the Child Accident Prevention Trust. I was lucky enough to visit the CTSI symposium a couple of weeks ago, where I met many of those organisations. As part of the programme, OPSS and those organisations are planning a specific consumer campaign targeting issues that relate to online sales. I am sure that hon. Members agree that consumers are better able to protect themselves when they have the information and are aware of the risks.

OPSS is working to address the challenges posed by the operation of fulfilment houses. New types of businesses have emerged, and it is recognised that we need to do more online. They provide a range of services to online retailers. This work aims to combat the distribution of unsafe and non-compliant products in the UK supply chain via fulfilment houses. OPSS is working closely with local authorities and trading standards, and is targeting those businesses that choose to place unsafe or non-compliant products on the market without regard for the safety of their customers. This is an ambitious, two-year project. Our early work with national trading standards, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Border Force and local trading standards has already identified targets.

The project is bringing together OPSS, local authorities, HMRC and the Intellectual Property Office to develop a multi-agency approach to tackling the new risks that the new model of sale and delivery poses to UK consumers. OPSS has been working to understand the scope of the challenge facing trading standards from fulfilment houses, and it has developed an up-to-date intelligence profile to ensure that activity in this area is targeted at the appropriate businesses. As I mentioned, the scale of this project is significant, and it has the potential to make a serious impact on the sale of unsafe products online. Projects on this scale bring together local and national bodies, and that is one of the reasons why OPSS was created. We now have the capacity and focus to identify and tackle issues on a national scale.

Although there are many challenges from online sales, a number of which the hon. Lady has outlined, many online sales businesses already have strong relationships with trading standards and work with them to ensure the safety of the consumers to whom they sell. Businesses with primary authority relationships with an individual trading standards department know that they have available to them an expert source of assured and tailored advice on complying with consumer product safety regulations. Working closely with trading standards can help online sellers identify and address at an early stage product safety issues that may arise. E-commerce marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay are uniquely well placed to play an important role in product safety. A significant number of electrical products are sold through these platforms, which have systems to track these products.

The hon. Lady mentioned that Amazon has yet to engage with her and the APPG, but eBay has. Amazon and eBay have strong primary authority relationships in place. In both cases, the partnership has established robust systems to monitor products and sellers. Should non-compliant or unsafe products be identified, there are arrangements in place to ensure that product listings are removed from those sites quickly. I want to make it clear that we are under no illusion about the scale of the task. Those companies are among the largest in the world, and we cannot afford to be complacent about dealing with them.

As this is a global issue, OPSS is encouraging major online retailers to sign up to the product safety pledge that was initiated by the EU Commission. Under the pledge, online retailers commit to taking specific actions on the safety of products that are sold on their platform by third parties. The aim of the scheme is to improve the detection of unsafe products before they are sold to consumers, or as soon as possible afterwards.

I have spoken about the work that OPSS is doing directly to tackle the risks from second-hand and online sales, but it is important to remember that local trading standards are the main enforcers of product safety up and down the country. They play a hugely important role, and OPSS has been working with them to provide the technical and scientific advice, data and intelligence that supports their work every day. OPSS has developed a new product safety database to capture and share information on unsafe goods, so that risks can be identified and action taken as quickly as possible. It is already being rolled out across trading standards, and OPSS provided £500,000 last year to fund the testing of products by trading standards. We have increased that sum to £600,000 for 2019-20.

The hon. Lady asked many questions on issues such as additional resources and changes to the law. She will appreciate that this is the first time such questions have been levelled at me. I am more than happy to attend a meeting of the APPG, as I indicated I would; unfortunately, diaries have meant that I have been unable to. I will happily write to the hon. Lady with further detail on that, or we can have a meeting to discuss the issues—whichever way she prefers to communicate with me.

I want to reiterate that this is “job not done”. This is about how we evolve in a changing market and ensure that importers, manufacturers and marketers place safe products on the market. The onus is on the companies to ensure that they place safe products on the market. We will do all we can to ensure that we continue to monitor products and try to protect consumers as best we can. That is something that I feel very strongly about.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing forward this important issue. I understand her passion and am desperately sorry about what happened to her constituent. I look forward to constructive conversations with her in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.