Mike Wood: Safety of electrical goods can’t be left to producers

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AS part of United Kingdom home safety week, it is appropriate that I raise the concerns of my constituent, Martin Squires, who on January 6, 2012, did what hundreds of thousands of families in this country will undoubtedly be doing this very evening – he went to bed having first programmed the dishwasher sited in his kitchen. The dishwasher caught fire, and Martin believes that it is only by chance that he and his young family were not burned to death as a result.

That is bad enough, but in his attempt to come to terms with what happened to him and his family and to get to the bottom of its causes, Mr Squires has since become much more concerned with the safety of all those of us using white goods. I think it is true to say that he feels extremely let down both by the manufacturers and by the recall system for faulty and dangerous goods.

In his own words: “I purchased a product in good faith with hard earned money from a reputable company, which with hindsight was a potential death trap that they planted in my family home. As each month goes by I feel angrier with Hotpoint and the UK recall system. Hotpoint knew they had a problem with this product before my fire and whilst they started to contact customers in October 2012 they did not make the problem public until April 2013.”

He has found the system for recalling faulty products to be piecemeal, inflexible and designed, in essence, more to secure the profits of the producers than to protect the public. In fact, we know that the system is entirely in the hands of the manufacturers who produce the faulty and potentially lethal goods in the first place.

The Electrical Safety Council, which has done an enormous amount of work in this area, suggests that Mr Squires’s experience is far from unique, with such appliances causing over 17,000 domestic fires and 40 to 45 deaths in this country each year.

Yet over one million appliances that are known to be faulty may remain in use in UK homes as we speak, every one of which has the potential to start life-threatening fires, as in my constituent’s case, or to emit gas, poisoning people as they sleep, as happened to Richard Smith and Kevin Branton, two young men who died in their sleep when a Beko cooker gave off carbon monoxide.

I would like to look at the recall system that is supposed to operate when a safety risk to customers is discovered. It appears, at best, to be extremely flawed. The onus is on the manufacturer who produced the faulty product to initiate and organise the process, which, on average, leaves 80 per cent of these defective and dangerous goods unreturned or unrepaired.

Under-funded local trading standards services are responsible for enforcement and even have powers to order recall, but they rarely use them. Such other sanctions appear to be derisory. Why is that the case when one million recalled goods are still in use in customers’ homes, and when 17,000 fires and up to 45 deaths a year result from that fact?

In my view, we need a third-party organisation with which people can register when they buy white goods. That would overcome the reticence of customers in giving their personal information to manufacturers or retailers, no doubt for fear that the data will be used or abused to bombard them with advertising and for other commercial purposes. Will the Government consider such a development? Will they consider a much more radical model that takes the process of recall out of the hands of the manufacturers altogether, so that it can be undertaken entirely in the interests of the consumer and their safety, rather than in the commercial interests of the producers?

I point to the American system, where the Consumer Product Safety Commission does just what I have suggested. As far as one can tell, it produces much better results for the consumer and their safety than we manage.

I am not known for advocating the wonders of American practice generally, but our system is failing UK consumers and they have a right to expect better. In our system, commercial interest is allowed to determine how, at what pace, by what means and, indeed, if at all a manufacturer meets its responsibilities to recall defective products.

The trading standards service in my area reported to me at least one recent example of a manufacturer refusing to issue a recall notice at all, even though the trading standards service and the local fire service considered that it should. Neither of those agencies, whether individually or collectively, had the ability to force the company to act. The Chief Fire Officers’ Association says that it is “very concerned about the number of faulty products in people’s homes”.

The responsibility for those goods obviously rests with the manufacturers, the importers and the retailers. The system to reduce the threat and protect the public safety is diffuse, unclear and too open to conflicts of interest.