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Whirlpool Tumble Dryers: Product Recall

Volume 798: debated on Monday 17 June 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question given by my honourable friend the Minister for Small Business:

“The Government take the safety of electrical products very seriously. For our children, our relatives and our families, we all want our homes to be places of safety and security. I provided an update to the House, at departmental Questions last week, on the most recent step taken by the Office for Product Safety and Standards in relation to Whirlpool tumble dryers. This follows the OPSS review of the actions taken by Whirlpool in relation to its corrective action. The findings of the review were published on 4 April.

The OPSS review examined, in detail, the modification programme put in place by Whirlpool, as well as technical documents supplied by Whirlpool. The review concluded that the risk posed by modified tumble dryers is low. The Office for Product Safety and Standards produced a list of required actions for the business to take and Whirlpool was given 28 days to respond, outlining the actions that it would take.

The response received from Whirlpool was considered to be inadequate. As a result, the OPSS has written to Whirlpool to inform the company of its intention to serve a recall notice under the provisions of the General Product Safety Regulations 2005, in respect of the unmodified tumble dryers that remain in homes in the UK.

As required by law, Whirlpool was given 10 days’ notice of that intention. The 10 days allowed Whirlpool to submit its views prior to the service of the recall notice or to seek arbitration in line with the provisions under the GPSR. Officials in the OPSS are reviewing Whirlpool’s response to determine whether it fully meets the requirements laid down in the draft recall notice.

At this time all enforcement options remain on the table, including serving a formal recall notice. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further while the legal process is ongoing. I will update the House in due course.

It is important to stress that consumers who have had their affected tumble dryers modified can continue to use them. Those with an unmodified affected tumble dryer have been urged to unplug them and to contact Whirlpool. I encourage all consumers to register their appliances to ensure they receive updates on product modifications and recalls.

The OPSS will continue to monitor this situation closely and will take any steps it deems appropriate to ensure that consumers in the UK continue to enjoy the high levels of protection they have come to expect”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, while thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement, I find it rather complacent. Whirlpool and the Government have rather dillied and dallied over this, despite tumble dryers causing a third of fires started by appliances; that is probably three per day.

Even now, with a belated recall covering only 500,000 of the affected machines, there is no list of the models available and Whirlpool refuses to release these details. The Minister urges people,

“with an unmodified, affected tumble dryer ... to unplug them and to contact Whirlpool”.

But consumers do not know whether their dryer is one of those affected, and even the charity Electrical Safety First has been denied the list. So consumers have first to find a serial number, which is not always easy, and then go on to a website and type in the serial number to even see whether their machine is affected. This is not good enough. Will the Government either compel Whirlpool to come clean with a list of the affected models, or publish the list themselves, because we know they have it?

My Lords, I am not sure where the noble Baroness gets her figures, but they were faintly alarmist. She claimed that a third of all fires caused by domestic appliances were caused by tumble dryers. The figures I have show that the number of fires caused by domestic tumble dryers is coming down. There were only 724 last year, down from 808 the previous year—a 10% fall. I am told that in the figures for 2017-18, if you take all domestic appliances, some 16,000 fires were caused by electric appliances—so tumble dryers did not cause a third of them, as the noble Baroness claimed.

I will not defend Whirlpool, but it has mounted a fairly large operation to try to identify where the appliances are. It is reckoned that Whirlpool has got to something like 50% of the tumble dryers that need to be looked at, and there are probably another 500 or 1,000 or so to get at. We welcome Whirlpool’s response on what it is doing to identify those machines, get at them and make the appropriate modifications. As I said in the Statement, the number of fires in modified appliances is significantly lower than in those that have not been modified. I must repeat that the manufacturer has the responsibility to ensure product safety, and it should be for the Government—which is what we have done here—to take the appropriate action to hold it to account.

My Lords, I have one small point and two questions. My small point is that I am very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, is in her place, because she has been fighting this campaign for as long as I can remember. Whether she regards this as progress we will see when she rises to her feet.

I turn to my first question. I know that the Minister has been trading numbers with the Labour Benches, but the government information is that 750 fires in the last 11 years have been caused by tumble dryers. Bearing in mind that we are very close to the anniversary of the Grenfell fire, will the Government confirm that they are taking all steps to ensure that tumble dryers in tower blocks will no longer provide any threat of further fires?

My second question, which is not surprising coming from these Benches, is: will the Minister confirm that, whatever the terms of Brexit—whether it is with no deal or a new deal—the health and safety issues regarding tumble dryers will be as strong as they are today with regard to imported dryers?

My Lords, all I can say is that I await my noble friend’s question in due course. As for the number of fires caused, I quoted the figure, saying that some 724 last year were caused by tumble dryers but that that was a decline. One must remember that any white goods are going to have a risk, and the important thing is that manufacturers ensure that they are as risk-free as possible. That is why on this occasion, as I said, we want to hold Whirlpool to account and ensure that it gets to as many machines as possible to make sure that they are dealt with. However, it is right and proper that we not only deal with tumble dryers where there is a problem but ensure the safety of all other white goods.

On the question of our exit from the EU, I assure the noble Lord that the department will make sure that safety remains an absolute priority in dealing with these matters. Ensuring that we have a robust system of market surveillance to make sure that we can protect our border from unsafe products will be a priority for the department.

I was very glad to hear of the recall, albeit it is rather late in the process. It is, I think, three and a half years since these fires were first identified, and I hope we will learn from the process.

I have two questions for my noble friend. As the department knows, because they were very helpful, I have two Whirlpool tumble dryers. In fact, they are Hotpoint; as noble Lords will know, Hotpoint was taken over by Whirlpool, a US company. The second was modified only after my meeting with the Minister. In the Statement my noble friend suggested that the risk from modified tumble dryers was low. There have been examples of fires in modified dryers, though, so how can the Government be sure that they are safe? Modifying the dryers is quite a long process, as I observed it for two hours on my lawn.

My second question, which I think is the more important one, is: is the system for the recall of white goods good enough, given the danger to the British consumer if there are fires? What changes have the Government made, or are they planning, to ensure that we can sleep safely in our beds?

My Lords, on my noble friend’s first point, I can confirm, as I said in the Statement, that the risk from modified tumble dryers is low. I cannot quantify it, but I can repeat that assurance. It is certainly an improvement on what was there before. As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, one can never remove all risks with white goods; obviously, any electrical product inherently has some danger. However, we must do what we can—or rather, manufacturers must do what they can—to ensure that all products are as safe as possible. It is then the Government’s job to hold those manufacturers to account.

My noble friend also asked whether the system was good enough. We will always keep the system under review. We introduced the Office for Product Safety and Standards a little over a year ago and we will monitor how it is going. If one looks at the figures for domestic fires, including those caused by electrical products, and sees their steady decline, one can say that we are heading in the right direction. This has been happening for some time.

My Lords, the National Fire Chiefs Council, which is the council of the country’s chief fire officers, does not think that the scheme is good enough. Since 2017, it has been asking for a single government-backed recall register for white goods. Why are the Government still dragging their feet on this and not doing a proper assessment?

My Lords, there would be considerable difficulties in setting up such a register, but we note what the noble Lord and national fire officers have said on this matter and we will consider it. I think we have a pretty good system. We set up the OPSS in January last year. As I said, we will continue to monitor how that works and do what we can to hold manufacturers to account.

My Lords, if the chief fire officers, the Fire Brigades Union, trading standards officers and a number of other consumer groups have all been incredibly critical of the system we have had for not just three and a half years but many more, with companies such as Whirlpool getting away with it, can we really say that the system is satisfactory? Can the Government not do a proper review and ensure that these goods are not risking lives? I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, for raising the fact that a white goods issue started the Grenfell fire—that all seems to have gone rather quiet. I do not think the Government have a sense of urgency about this. In light of the comments from all those who actually know what they are talking about, who are asking for better safety regulations, the Government should sit down and do their job.

My Lords, I reject the noble Baroness’s accusation that we are being complacent on this matter. It is not my job to defend Whirlpool and I accept that it has not been as fast as it might have been, but the Government have certainly held it to account. Whirlpool has at least got to some 50% of the tumble dryers it is looking at, which is far better than any other similar recall process; I understand that 10% to 20% is normally expected in programmes of this sort. Whirlpool has made progress, but the Government feel it can do more and that is why my honourable friend took the action she did and why we are holding it to account.

House adjourned at 6.29 pm.