Today’s report from the National Audit Office (the NAO) finds that while The Office for Product Safety and Standards (the OPSS) has made good progress strengthening the consumer product safety regime, it faces major challenges regulating safety in a changing marketplace.
The extent to which product safety regulation can protect people from harm depends on whether it keeps pace with changes to the way goods are bought and sold. Buying online and selling from home have become more prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic, and pose different risks from sales made on the high street. New product types can also raise safety concerns – for example, from unsupervised operation of ‘smart’ devices.
In January 2018, the government established the OPSS to strengthen the regulatory regime and take leadership on product safety issues.1 It works alongside Trading Standards services which regulate and enforce locally, and other organisations such as the British Standards Institution and Border Force.2
The regulatory regime relies on influencing industry to comply with product regulations, but some businesses are unaware of their responsibilities. Businesses do not need to provide evidence of compliance to the OPSS or Trading Standards before selling to consumers, and only limited product checks are made at the border. The OPSS research found that 24% of relevant businesses thought they had no product safety responsibilities.3
Consumer engagement with product safety is weak. The OPSS’ research estimates that only 17% of consumers consider product safety when making purchase decisions and consider it less important than price or ease of purchase. Regulators’ efforts to influence consumers have been limited to specific campaigns, such as on fireworks and Halloween costumes, rather than being driven by an assessment of gaps in consumer knowledge or efforts to improve general product safety awareness.
Product safety regulation has not kept pace with trends in online commerce, where there are gaps in regulators’ powers. Online marketplaces are now used by around nine in ten adults. These platforms are not responsible for the safety of goods sold by third parties. A recent study on potentially risky products from online marketplaces found that 66% failed safety tests, with risks including electric shock, fire and suffocation.
The OPSS has made impactful reactive responses to some high-profile national product safety issues since it was established. It intervened in ongoing issues with Whirlpool tumble dryers, and implemented a robust recall process that further engaged with hard to reach consumers. During the pandemic, it examined the safety of hand sanitisers and face coverings sold online, and removed over 550 listings of non-compliant products.
However, the OPSS does not have the data and intelligence it needs to fully assess consumer risks. Most of its national incident responses have been reactive to pressing issues, rather than resulting from a broader assessment of risk. In 2021, it initiated a national response related to small, high-powered magnets that join together if swallowed, and can require surgery. Problems with the product were first identified long before the OPSS was established, but it only intervened in February 2021 after gathering the data to determine there was a national issue. Its data strategy is at an early stage and the NAO found it was less developed than in other government organisations.
The government does not yet know the full product safety implications of EU Exit. Regulation previously carried out by the EU is now the sole responsibility of the OPSS. An estimated 2.8 million lorries arriving at Dover, Eurotunnel and Holyhead will be in scope for product checks, up from around 100,000 currently. The OPSS estimates its regulatory responsibilities will cost an additional £6 million per year, while requirements at ports and borders across the UK will cost a further £3 million.
The OPSS is at the end of its initial three-year strategy and is carrying out a review seeking to ensure the regime is fit for the future. It has made progress replacing databases the UK previously accessed within the EU single market, and establishing a national incident management team. The OPSS is now considering how product regulation can more effectively adapt to changing risks.
The NAO recommends that, when considering the future of consumer product safety in the UK, the OPSS works with other parts of government to ensure regulators have the powers, tools and capacity they need to enforce product safety effectively, including online. This should also address any challenges facing the UK’s product safety regime as a result of EU Exit.