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National Audit Office report: Protecting consumers from unsafe products

Protecting consumers from unsafe products

This report examines the extent to which the UK’s product safety regime protects consumers from harm, focusing on the OPSS.

Background to the report 

Until 2018, consumer product safety regulations were enforced entirely by local Trading Standards services (or by environmental health teams in Northern Ireland). These services, which in England spent £143 million in 2019-20, sit within local authorities and are locally accountable. During the 2010s, it was widely considered that this local system was not well-equipped to deal with increasingly complex national and international product markets. This was highlighted by high profile problems with Whirlpool tumble dryers identified in 2015, and the fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017 that originated from a fridge freezer. 

In January 2018, the government established the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS), a new office within the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), to bring national capacity and leadership to product safety issues. The OPSS’s product safety operations budget has grown from £10 million in its first year to £14 million in 2020-21. Its national role includes identifying and assessing product risks and intervening directly on nationally significant, novel or contentious issues. The OPSS works alongside Trading Standards services, which still regulate at local level and undertake most enforcement, and other stakeholders such as the British Standards Institution and Border Force. 

 

Scope of the report  

This report examines the extent to which the UK’s product safety regime can protect consumers from harm and keep pace with changes in the wider environment, focusing on the role and work of the OPSS. In scoping our study, we worked with the OPSS and other stakeholders to develop an evaluative framework for what good product safety regulation looks like. As the OPSS was created only in 2018, we do not expect the new arrangements to have achieved full maturity in all areas. Nevertheless, we have used this framework to assess progress in key areas and identify priorities going forward. 

This report covers: 

  • preventing unsafe goods from being purchased – by setting appropriate product requirements, ensuring businesses comply with those requirements, and influencing consumers to avoid buying unsafe goods; 
  • responding to product safety problems – by identifying problems as they arise, intervening quickly to address them, and learning from experience to make future interventions as effective as possible; and 
  • adapting to new and changing risks – including those arising from EU Exit and technological developments. 

 

Report conclusions 

The OPSS has made a good start in addressing the immediate issues it faced: it has made impactful interventions on national issues, including strengthening high-profile recall processes for household appliances, provided new forms of support for local regulators, and developed new databases to prepare for EU Exit. 

However, the product safety regime faces major challenges to keep pace with changes in the market. There are gaps in regulators’ powers over products sold online, local and national regulation is not well coordinated despite improvements, and the OPSS does not yet have adequate data and intelligence. The OPSS is currently consulting on how to ensure the regulatory framework is fit for the future. Until it establishes a clear vision and plan for how to overcome the challenges facing product safety regulation and the tools and data needed to facilitate this, it will not be able to ensure the regime is sustainable and effective at protecting consumers from harm. 

 

Publication details:

ISBN: 9781786043757 [Buy a hard copy of this report]

HC: 294, 2021-22

Published date: June 16, 2021