New Product Safety Office – steps for a change

The UK’s product safety regime has come under increasing pressure in recent years. A series of high profile product safety incidents, including the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower last year, have led many to question whether the rules governing the manufacture and supply of consumer goods is up to scratch.

The issue was put in the spotlight in January when a House of Commons Select Committee raised alarm at what it described as ‘woeful’ product safety practices by certain manufacturers. It also criticised the government for its ‘painfully slow’ improvement to the UK’s product safety regime.

Four days later, the Local Government Association (LGA) – the representative body of 370 local councils and all fire and rescue authorities across the UK – raised concern around the level of public awareness of product safety issues. It called for the creation of a centrally managed database of all product recalls for consumers to access.

New product safety office

In response to these concerns, the government has announced a range of policies to improve the UK’s product safety regime.

The most significant of these is the creation of a new Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS). The OPSS will be responsible for all areas of general (non-food) consumer product safety, except for those areas where regulators already exist, such as vehicles, medicines, medical devices and workplace equipment.

The purpose of the Office will be to provide dedicated expertise to lead on national product safety challenges. This will include:

  • Coordinating response to national product safety events;
  • Pooling intelligence from local authorities and other bodies to help identify emerging issues;
  • Providing advice to teams working at ports to help target high-risk imports;
  • Providing product safety information and advice to consumers; and
  • Forming an open dialogue with business in order to help inform regulation and enforcement.

The government says that the OPSS will be launched immediately and its capability developed over time.

One of the OPSS's first tasks will be to respond to calls for a central product safety database for consumer electrical equipment. Photograph: Flickr

Central recall database

One of the first tasks of the new body will be to respond to calls for a central product safety database. According to the LGA, 516 appliances have been recalled since 2007. That figure does not include non-electrical products. However, at present, there is no central register providing details of these recalls for retailers or consumers to access.

It is intended that, by the end of 2018, the OPSS will have launched an extensive data hub of all corrective action and recall programmes affecting consumer products, including a searchable product register to help consumers and retailers identify specific product models and batches which are affected.  

Customer engagement

This theme of identification and communication is further supported in the new policy. The government has urged manufacturers, retailers and standard-setting bodies to develop better techniques for product marking, identification, and customer registration. It has promised to support industry with research in this area through the OPSS.

This is to be welcomed. One of the key factors in the effective handling of a product safety event is the ability of manufacturers, distributors and retailers to identify and isolate affected product lines, production periods and batch runs. That is particularly the case when components are sold to multiple suppliers.

Another is the ability to then engage with consumers in possession of the affected products. It is therefore important for all those in the supply chain, including component supplies, to regularly assess their ability to identify and isolate specific product runs and shipments, and communicate with particular groups of consumers in the event of a recall.

The government has urged manufacturers, retailers and standard-setting bodies to develop better techniques for product marking, identification, and customer registration. Photograph: iStock

Primary authority

A third priority for the OPSS will be to promote greater take up of Primary Authority partnerships with local authorities. Primary Authority is not only of relevance to those involved in the manufacture and sale of consumer goods, but all those with safety compliance obligations. However, the Government intends for the OPSS to work closely with local authorities providing assured advice as a ‘Supporting Regulator’ on product safety. The government says that it expects the number of business partnerships to grow to over 250,000 by 2020.

Real change?

Calls have been made for reform of the UK’s product safety regime for some time. For manufacturers, distributors and retailers who work hard to ensure the safety of their products, reform to the UK’s product safety regime should be welcomed.

However, it is not yet clear what effect the proposed changes will have beyond what already exists. The government’s proposals may mark only the beginning of reform to the UK’s product safety regime.

While the new proposals focus on creating a more centralised approach to the development and dissemination of product safety information, they do not give the newly created OPSS any regulatory powers. This is something that many have called for and which the Government states it will consider in the longer term.

Manufacturers, distributors and retailers of safe products have little to fear from current or future proposals. Indeed, they should take the opportunity to put themselves at the forefront of regulatory changes, which are likely to be consulted upon in coming years in order to protect and enhance the reputation of their markets.

James Morrison is solicitor at Ashfords