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Online Sale of Goods (Safety) Bill

Volume 726: debated on Friday 20 January 2023

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I should start by saying that the private Member’s Bill process provides an opportunity to champion an important cause. Over recent years, one of the many causes that has stood out to me has been consumer safety. The reason is very simple: we are all consumers. Every single one of us, and our constituents, are potentially affected by the sale of unsafe products. Concerningly, many of us, and indeed many of our constituents, are unwittingly being sold unsafe products on online marketplaces by third-party sellers.

A survey commissioned by Electrical Safety First found that 73% of customers did not know that online marketplaces were not bound by the same product safety laws as high street retail units. Sadly, many of the products sold on online marketplaces are unsafe and non-compliant. Investigation after investigation, by Electrical Safety First, the British Toy and Hobby Association, and Which?, has found this time and again. The Government’s own research, by the Office for Product Safety and Standards, also shows the same.

This cannot be right. It cannot be right that high street shops are subject to product safety regulations but online marketplaces are not. This is bad for shops, because of unfair competition, but worse for customers who buy unsafe products. Consumers deserve equal protection, regardless of where they shop, and the Government appear to agree, having made several commitments to consumer safety. In the Government’s response to the call for evidence on product safety, they committed to ensuring that only safe products can be placed on the market, both now and in future. The Government also committed to ensuring that the product safety framework is fit for purpose.

However, that is currently not the case. As I will set out, unsafe products continue to litter online shopping platforms, but also people’s homes. The current product safety framework does not, therefore, ensure that only safe products can be placed on the market now, let alone in future. As a result, the product safety framework is sadly not fit for purpose. That is particularly the case where products are sold on online marketplaces by third-party sellers. As a result, the Government are failing on their commitment to ensure that the UK is the safest place in the world to buy online.

Indeed, even in the EU, the USA and Australia, there is movement towards regulating online marketplaces and safeguarding consumers. For instance, in the EU, the European Council and the European Parliament have reached a provisional agreement on the EU’s general product safety regulation. The GPSR seeks to ensure that products sold on online marketplaces are safe and also includes specific requirements in relation to online marketplaces. For instance, these platforms will have to co-operate with market surveillance authorities when they detect a dangerous product on them.

Once the GPSR is enacted, online consumers in the UK will be less safe than similar consumers in the European Union. As it currently stands, the Northern Ireland protocol would also mean a divergence in product safety between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Consumers in Northern Ireland will be protected by the GPSR, but consumers elsewhere in the United Kingdom will not. Without similar or enhanced protections, mainland Britain risks becoming almost a wild west, with unsafe products being peddled to unwitting consumers.

There are similar proposals afoot in the United States. The United States Congress has introduced federal legislation in the form of the INFORM Consumers Act, which will require high-volume sellers on online market-places to provide identification information, which will ensure that a seller can be identified if a product safety issue were to arise. Similarly, in Australia, the voluntary product safety pledge provides Australian consumers with additional protections, including commitments from online marketplaces to remove unsafe products within two business days.

In introducing the Bill, I wish to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of digital regulation and consumer protection. In doing so, I hope that the Government will achieve their commitment to ensuring that the UK is the safest place in the world to be and to buy online. It is an enabling Bill that allows the Government to show a commitment to make regulation about the safety of goods sold online within one year of its being enacted. That allows enough time for the product safety review to be completed, which I am sure will, once again, highlight the significant stakeholder and public support for better regulation of online marketplaces.

I hope all hon. Members agree that the desire to keep our constituents safe extends beyond party politics—it is about doing what is right for our constituents. That is the intention behind the Bill: to keep our constituents safe and to save lives. It is well documented that unsafe products can have devastating consequences. The tragic death of Linda Merron in Swansea was caused by an unsafe electrical product bought on eBay. Her death demonstrates the real consequences of vulnerable consumers buying unsafe electrical products from third-party sellers in online marketplaces. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for championing the cause after Linda’s death.

The same is true for unsafe toys: two-year-old Rebecca nearly died after swallowing magnets from a non-compliant toy purchased on eBay. The magnets were so strong that they linked together in her body and ruptured three parts of her intestine. I pay tribute to her mum Samantha for drawing attention to the risks that unsafe toys present. In 2020, a fire in the Kent’s family home was caused by a laptop charger bought in an online marketplace, and in the same year, a fire in the Firth’s home was thought to be caused by a battery pack bought in an online marketplace. In 2021, a fire in the King’s family home was caused by a phone charger bought in an online marketplace.

There is a common pattern here of consumers—our constituents, as well as their loved ones and homes—being put at risk by unsafe electrical products sold in online marketplaces by third-party sellers. That cannot and should not continue.

The hon. Member mentioned button batteries. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) has been running a fantastic campaign to ban them altogether or at least to make them safer. Will he reflect on that more broadly? It is not just about selling them online. A child of one of my constituents swallowed one of those small batteries; thankfully, they survived, but it could have been much worse. Will he support that campaign?

I could not agree more. That is just one unsafe element of electrical goods bought online, but I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Investigations by Electrical Safety First and others have, time and again, found unsafe products listed on online marketplaces by third-party sellers. In one investigation, Electrical Safety First found unsafe devices on online marketplaces that claimed to save consumers energy. Not only were those devices ineffective in saving energy, but they were unsafe. In other investigations, it found 60 unsafe e-bike and e-scooter chargers listed on online marketplaces, and white goods that had been recalled for safety concerns listed for sale on online marketplaces. I apologise if I sound repetitive, but I hope that shows the urgent need for the Bill.

The solution that the Bill provides would be welcomed by consumers, experts in the field and the reputable part of the industry, particularly high street retailers. Another survey commissioned by Electrical Safety First found that 85% of consumers want the United Kingdom Government to ensure that online marketplaces are bound by the same regulations as high street retailers. The Law Commission noted that current legislation is “unclear” and that it provides consumers with “very limited rights” on online marketplaces. The National Audit Office has found that there are gaps in the powers to regulate online marketplaces. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee found similar results: it stated that online marketplaces were

“a significant source of potential product safety harm.”

It is now time to truly level up and ensure that consumers are safe, regardless of whether they are shopping in online marketplaces or high street shops. If the Bill does not progress through the private Member’s Bill process, I urge the Minister to take those justified concerns on board and to bring forward measures to rectify the hole in consumer safety regulation. I strongly commend the Bill to the House.

Order. The Minister has indicated that he would like to speak early in the debate. Of course, that does not prevent other Members from coming in afterwards, should he finish before 2.30 pm.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) on securing a Second Reading for his private Member’s Bill, which is on an important issue for hon. Members on both sides of the House, and it is certainly important for me. I and the Government greatly sympathise with the points he made. We know that this is a hugely important issue.

As the Minister for business, the No. 1 thing that I seek to achieve for all businesses is a fair and level playing field. That is good for our businesspeople and good for our consumers and citizens. We must try to establish and maintain that.

As a new business Minister, I did not know what might come under my portfolio. One of my first meetings was with the Office for Product Safety and Standards, which I thought might be quite dry, but it was far from it. I could see what hugely important work it does and how earnestly its officials go about their work. One of the first things we discussed was how we are about to undertake a product safety review—the hon. Member was right about that—looking at many issues, including some of those that he rightly raised. We discussed how although, I think it is fair to say, we would look on many of these online marketplaces as retailers or distributors of products, they argue that they are marketplaces and that other businesses distribute products in their marketplaces. I do not think that is the whole picture.

Clearly, there are a number of different practices. Amazon, for example, will look at a business selling products in its marketplace, see which products sell well and undertake to sell them directly. For me, that indicates work as a distributor or retailer rather than simply as a marketplace. In that first meeting, we looked at that, and I had a number of questions for officials, who understood that I want to be pretty robust and ensure that things are fair. I did not understand why we would expect, for example, a hardware store or a high street retailer to ensure that the products that it was selling were safe and conformed to British safety standards—UKCA or CE marking—and yet not expect that of Amazon. Those were some of the questions that I had.

The hon. Member made some interesting points about what other jurisdictions do in this area and how, when they are made aware of a product not meeting a certain standard, that product has to be removed quickly. I think that, potentially, we should go further than that and require marketplaces to ensure that such products are not on their sites at all, ever, and that they check to ensure that they do not appear and, indeed, remove retailers who have transgressed.

I am glad that the Minister raised that point. I raised examples of other jurisdictions for what could be done, but I concur that, if those measures would not be strong or robust enough, the Government should introduce regulations to clean up the market completely.

It is important that we look at other jurisdictions for best practice, but not limit ourselves by that if we think we can go further. Amazon plays a very important part and we welcome it as a retailer which, like eBay, Etsy and others, many of us use. We welcome its investment in this country and its services. It adds to the consumer offering, which is absolutely what we should be supporting, but nevertheless it needs to be fair.

I had a meeting with Amazon—it is fair to say that that was a pretty robust meeting—in which we discussed some of these issues. Following the meeting, I received a lengthy letter from Amazon—I am happy to share it with the hon. Gentleman—about some of the work it undertakes to remove businesses that do not operate appropriately on its site. Like me, he will be very keen to read about the measures it is undertaking. They are welcome, but as I say we should go further and that is what the product safety review will identify and deal with. It is fair to say that some of our current safety rules are not made for the digital age we are in today and we want to ensure that they are.

The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned some tragic cases, including those of Rebecca and Linda. I have heard about some cases, too. As my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell) set out, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) has undertaken a campaign on button batteries following the tragic death of Harper-Lee, who swallowed button batteries. There are many things we need to do in this space to make sure the world of online purchases is safer.

E-commerce has revolutionised global supply chains, facilitating new business models and transforming how products are bought and sold. Internet sales have grown significantly over the past decade, based on consumer demand. Over the past 10 years, shopping online has almost quadrupled. In 2011, just 8% of all UK retail sales occurred online. By 2021, 31% took place online. The trend was accelerated by covid-19, when online shopping became a lifeline for many people. Online shopping has continued to form a higher percentage of retail sales than before covid-19. Within that growth, the rise of online marketplaces, as we have discussed, has been a very notable trend. They include Amazon Marketplace, eBay, Etsy, Wish, AliExpress and many others who provide services for third-party sellers to advertise and sell their products to consumers. That has brought benefits for both businesses and consumers. For businesses, it is easier to sell their products across the world and, often, to trade at lower cost. For consumers, there is greater choice and convenience. However, the rise of e-commerce has also created challenges.

I want to be clear on the law. Existing laws already require that all consumer products must be safe before they can be placed on the UK market, however they are sold. However, the current legal framework for regulating the safety of products was not designed with online business models in mind. That means that in online supply chains the responsibility for ensuring safety may not always be clear. The traditional boundaries between manufacturer, importer and distributor can become blurred. In particular, there are understandable concerns about the ease with which unsafe products can be sold by third party sellers on online marketplaces. As well as presenting a risk to consumers, this potentially places businesses who play by the rules at an unfair disadvantage.

This is a challenge not just for the UK, but one that is witnessed across borders and shared by many jurisdictions around the world. The hon. Gentleman set out some of the measures that have been taken in other jurisdictions to deal with this important issue. As I have said, the Government, too, recognise the need to address it. In fact, we are opposing the Bill—I am sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman—precisely because we are already taking action. That includes both ongoing regulatory action and reforming the product safety framework through our product safety review.

I regret that the Government are not supporting the Bill, but to a certain extent I am heartened by what the Minister has just said. Of course, though, he will expect me to hold him to account on that.

I am very happy to be held to account by the hon. Gentleman, whom I consider to be a friend as well as a Member on the Opposition Benches. I am very keen to work with him on this issue and include him in my discussions regarding the review of the consultation, to make sure that he can hold me to account and that we get to the right place.

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 24 March.