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Product Safety: Freezers and Refrigerators

Volume 791: debated on Tuesday 8 May 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to strengthen legal safety requirements for fridges and freezers sold in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, we believe that Britain’s product safety requirements are among the strongest in the world. Manufacturers have a legal responsibility to place safe products on the market. The UK is leading on proposals to enhance the standard for fridges and freezers at an international level.

My Lords, the recent Which? report said that current safety standards are not fit for purpose and that its tests have resulted in “Don’t buy” recommendations for 250 models, most of them from household names accounting for 45% of the market. In particular, Which? advised not buying plastic-backed models. While we await the appropriate report on the Grenfell Tower blaze, what actions will the Government take to reassure consumers and support the findings of the Which? report?

My Lords, I am of course aware of the Which? report. It made it quite clear that most or all of the fridge freezers it referred to did meet existing standards. The Which? report was looking at enhanced standards. The Government will certainly look at that and are working with Which? and other parties. This is why I stressed in my opening Answer that seeing whether even more stringent standards can be set has to be done internationally. But those products certainly meet existing standards—which, as I said in my original Answer, are among the safest in the world.

My Lords, this worries me. I declare an interest in that a close friend of mine escaped with her life when she woke up in the night to find that her fridge was on fire. Although the brilliant London Fire Brigade was there within minutes, her entire flat was gutted. The firefighters who got her out and put her safely in the back of the ambulance guessed what make her fridge was and said, “Tell your friends never to buy one of those”. The firefighters know this; that is why the London Fire Brigade has been campaigning for the last five years for a ban on those kinds of fridges. If they know that, do the Government not know that, and will they not protect us?

My Lords, all fires are potentially disastrous and it is right that the noble Baroness should highlight that point. The number of fires that have been caused by fridge freezers is very small indeed—something like 2% of all domestic fires—and the number is declining. We are aware of the concerns, which she rightly highlights, about products with plastic rather than metal backing. That is why we are looking at strengthening standards in that area. As I made clear, I think that our standards are already very high, and all the fridges meet those standards. The Which? report, rightly highlighted by the noble Baroness and her noble friend, said that we should possibly look at strengthening those standards. That is what we are doing.

My Lords, in view of what has been said, I am very glad that the Government have set up a new Office for Product Safety and Standards, and am grateful for my invitation to visit it. On from fridges, what is being done with the many hundreds of thousands of outstanding Whirlpool tumble driers, which also pose a fire safety risk? I believe that the Minister must be on the consumer’s side in these matters.

My Lords, I think I have used the expression, “The consumer is always right” on other occasions. We are on the consumer’s side. My noble friend will be aware that my honourable friend Andrew Griffiths has already had discussions with Whirlpool and made his concerns clear. This question is related not just to fridge freezers but, as my noble friend is well aware from her experience as a Minister in this department, and I am grateful for the work she did, to other items as well. We want to look at all the standards and make sure that we continue to have the right standards and that they are as stringent as possible.

My Lords, the Minister is of course aware that his noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, has led a continuous charge on this and related issues since she ceased to be a Minister. Does he accept that there is a suspicion that the failure to take proper action over this and related issues is an indication that, as a result of Brexit, government decision-making elsewhere is paralysed?

My Lords, I totally and utterly reject that accusation. We are doing a great deal on this front. However, I agree that my noble friend has done a great deal on this—and not just since she left government. She led the charge on this as far back as November 2014, when she announced the original review of the UK product safety system.

My Lords, I think one should share some of the credit. The Minister’s noble friend did a great deal of work, but the Opposition were also involved in trying to get the new Office for Product Safety and Standards set up. The Government are saying that we lead the world in terms of our standards, but, if these standards are linked to roughly 60 fires a week in the UK, how many deaths is it going to take to get them to change their mind on this? We have a new body, the Office for Product Safety and Standards. It has a wonderful website with a list of things it can do. When is it going to do something, and does it have the power to change the way people manufacture these dangerous machines today?

My Lords, I will echo the noble Lord in saying that it is not just the work of my noble friend and pay tribute to the Opposition Front Bench, other Members of this House and another place and, for that matter, Which? magazine for highlighting problems here. Obviously any electrical equipment has the potential for danger. That is why we want to get the right safety regulations in place and why we are looking at tightening them. That is why we want to make sure that proportionality is considered in all these matters and that is why I highlighted the fact that only about 2% of fires are caused by fridge freezers. There are other products that need looking at. We will continue to look at our safety standards, keep them under review and make sure that they continue to be the safest in the world.

Will the Minister go back to the mantra that he gave to the House a few minutes ago? He said that the consumer was always right. That really is arrant nonsense if he begins to think about it. It is not right when it comes to unhealthy eating, which is why the Government seek to intervene. It is not right when people are forced to pay very high interest rates on loans. It is not right when it comes to alcohol consumption levels, and it is certainly not right when it comes to massive stakes on fixed-odds gambling machines—so can I persuade him not to issue that mantra again?

No, I am afraid the noble Lord will fail in that, because I believe that the consumer should be provided with adequate information to make an informed decision on all these matters, whether they be excessive amounts of food, which might interest the noble Lord, alcohol or whatever. The consumer can then make their decision. Allied to that, there should be adequate protection in terms of goods of this sort, so that the consumer is not endangered in matters where they would not be able to make an informed decision.