/ Home & Energy

We need a Consumer Enforcement System we can rely on

The consumer rights framework is the backbone of everything we do. Since 1957, we’ve existed to make consumers more powerful. For us to succeed, we need a consumer rights system that works.

Update: 15/04/2019

There were 34% more product safety alerts in 2018 compared with a decade ago.

With more products than ever before being declared unsafe, it’s clear that an already failing consumer enforcement system needs a major shake up to ensure that people aren’t left at risk from dangerous products in their homes.

Which? News: we’re calling for a product safety shake-up

If it is to make people’s safety the number one priority, the Government must secure access to the European alert and information sharing systems after Brexit, as well as introduce major domestic reforms to ensure consumers are properly protected from unsafe products.

Original Convo 05/02/2019

We want a system that makes sure that consumers are protected from harm – whether that’s scams or food safety risks. And if things go wrong for consumers, companies need to take responsibility and be held to account, rather than passing customers from pillar to post, or hiding behind the small print.

Understanding the challenges consumers face and removing these barriers is central to our daily work. Which? has played a big part in helping to shape the UK’s current consumer rights framework.

Read more: Broken system means faulty products could pose greater risk for UK homes

From the appointment of the first Minister for Consumer Affairs to the Competition Act, Consumer Rights Act and creation of the Food Standards Agency, Which? has been leading the way in campaigning for protections for consumers.

A failing system

Regrettably, it’s well recognised that the enforcement system that underpins this framework is failing. Conscientious, dedicated individuals work hard to uphold the current system, but they face a losing battle against a broken regime.

Consumers have never had more choice or more convenience. The digital revolution has put billions of products and services at our fingertips and in this fast-paced marketplace, where new challenges for consumers are always emerging, everyone still wants, and deserves, to be treated fairly.

The current regime simply isn’t good enough and leaves consumers exposed and at risk of harm. In these uncertain times it’s more important than ever that we have systems we can rely on, with the flexibility to adapt to new consumer realities.

Seven changes

The case for change is clear but it’s not enough to just look at individual aspects of the system or to tinker around the edges – we need a wholesale overhaul to properly protect and empower consumers.

The government is looking at the consumer landscape through its Modernising Consumer Markets Green Paper, which is a welcome move. They must get this right and take the opportunity to deliver fundamental reform that will shape the consumer landscape for years to come.

In this report, we highlight the weaknesses of the current system and proposes seven changes to create a regime that will protect consumers effectively.

These proposals include expanding the role of the Competition and Markets Authority, and giving independence to the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS), as well as wider supporting changes for a more effective regime for the future.

At Which? we’re constantly questioning every aspect of consumer life to see if things can be made better. The government needs to take this opportunity to make things better for consumers.

Comments

Thanks for this Convo, Caroline. The report looks very good but what I would like to see is Which? taking action that results in progress. Looking back at the history of Which?, valuable progress has been made but nowadays Which? remains good at identifying problems but not always achieving action. I will focus on a couple of examples where I would like to see some real progress:

From the report: Powers can also vary across the UK because of devolution. In Wales and
Northern Ireland, food businesses are required to display their hygiene
ratings, given to them following local authority inspections. But mandatory
display has not been made a requirement in England (or in Scotland where a
different hygiene rating system currently operates).

This discrepancy has been mentioned in the magazine and in Convos. When I have visited Wales I have seen food hygiene ratings of 5 used to encourage customers, and it obviously encourages other traders to pull their socks up. Having spoken to environmental health officers, some businesses are allowed to continue to trade with a rating of zero or one, with no indication on the door to make customers aware. This can be confirmed by looking at published hygiene ratings and the dates they were awarded on the Food Standards Agency’s website. I would like Which? to push for mandatory display of food hygiene ratings on all premises.

Some of have been pushing for years for Which? to push for adequate funding of Trading Standards so that if we, as individual consumers, find a problem, appropriate action will be taken. I was very disappointed to learn that National Trading Standards is there to support businesses and not to help consumers. Last year I discovered that if I spot something that is clearly dangerous on sale there is little chance of doing anything unless I have purchased the product. Some Which? Convo members have pushed for Which? to take action against companies that sell products with the wrong type of plug. This is not just a convenience issue but can present a real danger, depending on how the purchaser deals with the problem. As far as I am aware, Which? has not even contacted Trading Standards or the Office of Product Safety and Standards. Here is a link to one of the Convos about this problem: https://conversation.which.co.uk/home-energy/plugs-two-pin-british-amazon-electrical-appliances/ The problem is getting worse and I can give examples of UK companies openly selling products fitted with incorrect plugs.

It would be great to have some positive feedback.

Wavechange mentions eating establishments and food hygiene ratings while not compulsory in Scotland they have a Food Hygiene Information Scheme –
https://www.foodstandards.gov.scot/consumers/food-safety/buying-food-eating-out/food-hygiene-information-scheme
Input the business and a result comes up.

It is a requirement for premises to be inspected, as stated on the website you mention. There are only two results: Pass and Requires Improvement, but I have no idea how these compare with the 0 to 5 range used in the rest of the UK. Sadly there seems to be many in the Requires Improvement category and often for a few years and a depressing number classified as Waiting Inspection.

The ratings for Scottish premises are also covered in by the system used by the Food Standards Agency: http://ratings.food.gov.uk

Yesterday, here in the Principality, the Daily Post published the full names, locations and pictures of food businesses that only gained a “1”, the next-to-lowest score. Certainly has an effect on businesses.

We definitely are still calling for mandatory display of hygiene ratings across the UK. As Wavechange has pointed out this is very effective in driving up standards. Which? first called for hygiene ratings to be introduced because there was evidence from other countries (some US states, Toronto and Denmark) that these schemes incentivise compliance as well as enabling people to make informed choices. There is also now clear evidence from Wales that the requirement for businesses to display their schemes has driven hygiene improvements (and unsurprisingly when display is voluntary, only the better performers tend to display their ratings). We will look for opportunities to push for this in the legislation that is going through Parliament.

Hi Sue – I had assumed that when display of prices in Wales became mandatory it would not be long before the UK followed, but that has not happened. The only progress that I have seen is that local businesses that have received a rating of 1 or 2 have very quickly arranged for another inspection and achieved a 5 or at least a 4. On the other hand I have seen businesses who have achieved a rating of 5 and not bothered to display this.

It is disappointing that I have seen few examples of businesses using a good rating to encourage customers.

At one time I was keen on businesses using hygiene ratings on menus and on their websites but having seen higher than actual ratings used online and in print, maybe it is best to encourage customers to look at the FSA app or website.

FSA are keen that we should report errors to the relevant council but I think it would be easier to have a single number/website for reporting mistakes.

Thanks for letting us know that there are some countries that are ahead of the game.

I first posted these comments in The Lobby, so I’ll now transfer them to where they belong:

Which? have published an excellent report “Creating a successful enforcement system for UK Consumers”
https://www.which.co.uk/policy/consumers/3851/ukenforcementsystems

It gives an excellent overview of the current system, its weakness, and proposes ways a better system could be implemented.

We certainly need a central body to oversee all the different sectors that need monitoring and enforcing – food safety, product safety, banking, on line traders….. and we certainly need better, simpler and cheaper ways for an individual to have their rights upheld. The small claims court should be a last resort; alternative dispute resolution seems a far better solution for many.

One problem may be trying to do too much too quickly, and having just one body handling everything – inevitably priorities will be set.

In my view we need, for example, for product safety one national body tasked with accumulating complaints and data and deciding when there are sufficient common ones to start investigating and taking action. Amazon 2 pin plugs, Indesit et al tumble driers, for example. However, individuals need direct access to such a body to register their problem and to see what problems are accumulating and what action is being taken. Transparency.

We also need local standards organisations to deal with local problems – unfair trading, food safety for example. I believe local Trading Standards are still the right people to handle this – why discard their expertise and organisation? However they should be taken out of local authority control for both policy and funding and supported from central funds. I’d organise them at county level. They should also be responsible for monitoring decisions made nationally that affect businesses in their area.

This will need proper funding of course. But it is of great importance.

I wonder what Which? are doing with their report? Hopefully entering into a constructive dialogue with government ( perhaps they’ll make progress once Brexit is over and done with – if ever).

and….
malcolm r says:3 February 2019
I’m not sure why Which?’s press release has such a dramatic headline:
Consumer enforcement system on verge of collapse, Which? warns
3 February 2019
The UK could be left exposed to increasing levels of food poisoning, scams and potentially even deaths caused by unsafe products unless the broken consumer enforcement system is radically overhauled, according to a new report from Which?.”

Nothing has suddenly happened, as far as I know, to cause a catastrophe. Underfunding has simply reduced the level of enforcement and this now needs to be put right. A total change and reconstruction might be an answer but is not necessary if we build on what we have, add better integration and improve dispute resolution.

[Copied from The Lobby 2]

Thank you for posting this, Malcolm. I haven’t yet read it line-by-line but it seems to be a very good policy outline – possibly too good for the government to implement. It offers a range of options for organising consumer protection, together with the pros and cons of each, and I would have thought one of them would be acceptable without too much deliberation.

I hope the restoration of front-line trading standards competence and capability is given serious consideration because I feel the citizen needs local recourse to information, advice, and effective enforcement. Bearing in mind the Whirlpool fiasco, there has to be a better way of dealing with problems and recalls in products from multi-national companies and there are recommendations for this using the CMA as a foundation stone.

I am not convinced that the OPSS has distinguished itself sufficiently to justify its continued existence as a unit within government so I support the creation of an independent authority but I am always a bit doubtful of the value of putting several functions under one body. It might be convenient administratively but it makes each service more remote and they can lose their place in a bureaucratic hierarchy.

I would have liked to see some reference to the role of quality assurance systems in promoting product conformity, reliability, and manufacturing consistency. It can have its weaknesses [i.e. it can ensure strict compliance with a low specification] but more investment in quality could eliminate many of the after-sales problems that occur and lower the cost of [or extend the life of] warranties. The international market place has added to the complexity of obtaining good and well-made products, especially in the lower and middle ranges where a multitude of suppliers are prone to cut corners to secure sales.

I was interested this morning to hear that the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) has managed to get the major hotel booking sites to agree not to use misleading language and eliminate pressure selling tactics. The leader of the CMA came on BBC Breakfast to explain what they’d achieved.

What was slightly worrying, however, was when he admitted that the CMA cannot levy fines for non-compliance, having instead to go to court, and that they’d given the hotel sites until September the first – seven full months – to change their behaviour. Things certainly move fast, here in Blighty…

Which? has published a short press release about hotel booking sites this morning: https://press.which.co.uk/whichstatements/which-responds-to-the-cmas-announcement-of-major-changes-for-hotel-booking-sites/

The Government did acknowledge in its Modernising Consumer Markets Green Paper that the lack of fining powers by consumer enforcers was a gap and needs to be addressed. We strongly supported this in our response and will do as this is taken forward. At the moment, the CMA can for example levy fines in competition cases, but not for consumer law breaches. Other enforcers such as Trading Standards should also have these powers as part of their different tools.

Neil says:
6 February 2019

I think its disappointing that Which have not engaged with Trading Standards before publishing this report.

Experience would suggest that centralising enforcement reduces the number of direct enforcement interventions. The report refers to the HSE but compare the prosecution figures for the HSE against those of Environmental Health. Remove the show stopping accidents that hit the headlines from those figures and the numbers drop even further. HSE have a very poor reputation amongst officers operating at a local level.

The other factor thats been ignored is that is that the majority of consumer fraud occurs at a local level and is often committed by more transient and hidden traders that national regulators struggle to keep up with. The recent horsemeat in burgers scandal was a result of a weakened food sampling capacity at a local level that left the FSA chasing its tail.

The report seems to suggest Trading Standards should step away from consumer fraud. Reducing local capacity in favour of a national approach is something we will do at our peril.

I think we need both local and national services for Trading Standards. If you have a complaint relating to a national or international company I don’t think that it makes much sense for the local Trading Standards office to handle this. National Trading Standards provides a service for companies and not for you and me. I did not realise this until I contacted NTS.

Thanks to the ‘Regulating our Future’ initiative, larger companies have been entrusted with looking after food safety. This could lead to more opportunity for food fraud and a general decline in standards: https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2018/07/uk-food-safety-reform-during-brexit-creates-additional-risk/

Hi Neil, I wanted to assure you that we did engage Trading Standards, as well as a range of other interested groups, as we developed our proposals. We do recognise in the report that Trading Standards within local authorities should continue to have an important role in enforcement – but are concerned that at the moment, their ability to do this can vary enormously depending on where you live. They also have to deal with such a broad range of legislation and deal with national as well as local issues. We therefore want a better balance with stronger national regulators and the right mix of expertise at national, regional and local level. The Chartered Trading Standards Institute did put out a supportive statement in response to our recommendations, including the following comments from their Chief Executive, Leon Livermore: “We are calling on the Governments to commit to reforms that prepare consumer protection and business support for the 21st century. Frontline trading standards services make up the foundations of robust national enforcement, and CTSI agrees with Which? on the need for greater central support and accountability.”

Reading the section on Action through the courts

There are many situations that need government intervention rather than going to court.

If you get a dodgy builder or home improvement trader who does a bad job, who takes money without finishing the job, who overcharges vulnerable folk, the only recourse open to us is through the courts. We could well win, but are unlikely to actually receive financial recourse or satisfaction and the trader will carry on scamming people.

We should be able to go to a government body who investigate and act on our behalf. They should have the power to put the situation right, obtaining refunds on our behalf, ensuring the dodgy builder pays for another builder to complete the work.

This could have a knock-on effect of weeding out and removing dodgy builders/tradespeople. Investigate their accounts and discover they pay no taxes, a photographic wall of fame naming and shaming locally to stamp them out. Fines would help pay for the government body.

This needs to be done at local level, but also under a national umbrella to catch dodgy tradespeople moving elsewhere.

I agree with the last sentence. Local Trading Standards (but under a National TS body) should be funded to deal with these problems. The problem with small traders is they may choose not to have the means to pay up – the courts can impose a settlement but not ensure it is paid.

A local register of builders (in this case) who have been found to perform unacceptably would help the process being repeated.

Trading Standards Officer says:
16 February 2019

If you want TS or some organisation to deal with all sorts of civil disputes then you better start writing some checks – some massive checks in the hundreds of millions of pounds that it would need to offer such a service nationwide.

As a TS officer my view is that we need local officers with a local focus but management at a National level setting priorities. I think we need to be taken out of local authority control because its an absolute postcode lottery shambles.

Regarding the CMA, the way they operate is not the way we want TS to operate at a national level – they are too slow and they are more about strcutural issues rather than individual traders – you will note their enforcement action often deals with many businesses in the same industry such as secondary ticket sellers.

The OFT were meant to operate as a national regulator in some areas but they were slow as well.

The National Trading Standards do various things but I think people overestimate what they do. Generally if you have a massive case at a local level you can ask them for funding to help but there is stil la big onus on you to do a lot of the legwork – which many small TS depts cannot do.

I think people also under estimate how much time and effort it can take to take a case to court. We once prosecuted a rogue tarder who ripped off around 15 people. I don’t know what the cost of investigating was but it was at least in the region of £80,000 for expenses and officer time and that is without legal fees which could have been another £10,000. Some TS depts don’t even have a yearly budget of that much.

” Child car seats that are illegal to use in the UK are available to buy from eBay, Amazon and AliExpress, despite repeated warnings from Trading Standards and Which?.

Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/02/why-are-ebay-and-amazon-still-selling-killer-car-seats/ – Which?…………………..
Online marketplaces cannot continue to turn a blind eye to dangerous and illegal products being sold on their sites.

So why do we not make these businesses, that provide a portal for dangerous products and profit from their sale, responsible legally for the products they promote and prosecute them when they fail?

@cnormand, Caroline, can these people be prosecuted? If not, should Which? campaign for a change in the law that makes them liable?

This is something that we are currently looking at. We have made it clear that we expect these companies to take responsibility and make sure that unsafe products are removed from sale. Their legal responsibilities are currently being reviewed as part of a wider update of legislation on enforcement and compliance – and it is important that this reflects the changing nature of market places and the role they now have within them.

DANGEROUS PRODUCTS ONLINE
Last year I did some web searches and found examples of dangerous electrical products on sale on Amazon and eBay, just from the photos on these website. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to have a product removed from sale by an Amazon marketplace trader and discovered that unless you buy a product, it’s very difficult to get action, and Amazon did not take action. The product in question is still shown on this page, though there does not seem to be a link to it: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Metre-Kettle-Mains-Power-Cable/dp/B01GG2P64U/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_pl_foot_top?ie=UTF8 One of the reviewers wrote: “it is a substandard product. it did not meet the UK’s electronic requirements and was failed the electrical safety test in my college.” The partially sleeved earth pin is the most obvious problem and would mean that metal-cased products would not be earthed and could cause an electric shock if a fault developed.

A quick check for dodgy products on eBay produced this example of a potential dangerous mains lead:
Source: eBay listing: https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/UK-PLUG-TO-IEC-KETTLE-LEAD-POWER-CABLE-3PIN-for-PC-COMPUTER-TV-PRINTER-COPIER-1M/312482509965?hash=item48c168b48d:m:mlXzD08QETi9Gmr1nG8XTfQ

The problems include:
> No fuse, meaning that the lead is a fire risk. The shape of the plug is a good indicator of this problem
> Partially sleeved earth pin, so a risk of electric shock in even of a fault
> CE mark. Standards-compliant UK 13 amp plugs are never CE marked
> The shape and construction of the plug pins does not look right

At the time of writing, the eBay trader has 100% positive feedback. 🙁

These problems are not uncommon and here is some useful information: http://bs1363.fatallyflawed.org.uk

I would very much appreciate some feedback from Which? Lauren Deitz managed to get one dangerous product removed from the Amazon website last year.

Sadly, not all dangerous electrical products can be recognised from photos.

Here is a recent video explaining the problems with these dangerous plugs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KMrWupFQt4&t=172s

Today Which? issued this press release:
“Which? response to NAO report on consumer regulation
20 March 2019
Caroline Normand, Which? Director of Advocacy said:

“Consumers need regulators to protect them from harm and hold companies to account when things go wrong. However, trust is severely lacking across a number of essential markets because people don’t believe their interests are being put first…….“.

But no link to the NAO report. Here it is:
https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Regulating-to-protect-consumers-in-utilities-communications-and-financial-service-markets.pdf
and their own background information:
https://www.nao.org.uk/report/regulating-to-protect-consumers-utilities-communications-and-financial-services-markets/#

I do hope Which? will provide links when they issue a press release.

Sapa says:
18 April 2019

I bought a brand new paint sprayer from an ebay seller. When it arrived it was totally unsafe, bare electrical plates even. I asked for my money back. I had to haggle to eventually get a refund and they are still being sold. It was in another country, there has to be safety standards for instances like this but I don’t know how they can be enforced. It was brand new, not 2nd hand.
However, the main danger I think we face is not faulty electronics sold from cage homes but is actually Glysophate that is poisoning us now that we buy so much fresh produce from supermarkets.

Dave Bennett says:
18 April 2019

Lets just go back to the standards we had before they got watered down by the EU and their logic let’s take the country with the lowest standards and use that ie the Ce mark while our lion 🦁 mark be far surpassed it.

Regarding products, European (EU) Standards (EuroNorm – ENs) are based on standards from the International Electrotechnical Commission and the International Standards Organisation (bodies to which BSI contribute in developing standards) and adopted in the UK as BS ENs. To the best of my knowledge they have not been watered down, but you may know differently? They are regularly updated to reflect changes that might take place in, for example, technology.

Where we are lacking is in the enforcement of the regulations that reflect these standards, thus letting distributors large and small off the hook when they pass on non-compliant,unsafe and dangerous products to the unsuspecting consumer.

CE marking is effectively a declaration of compliance with the relevant standards applicable to the product. It could be months or even years before dangerous products are discovered and action is taken to remove them from sale. When will we realise that this system is not adequate?

What CE Marked products from reputable manufacturers are or have been non-compliant with the relevant safety standards?

Generally a dangerous product will reveal itself very quickly – overheating, electrically unsafe for example. When a delinquent distributor passes on such products from a delinquent manufacturer (who will cheat/bypass/falsify the system) we need an adequate system – one that we can access to report such products, one that can act quickly to track the unfortunate purchasers and one that will severely penalise the distributor.

“CE marking is effectively a declaration of compliance with the relevant standards“. Not “effectively“, it is a declaration…. It must be backed by evidence of compliance with all the relevant standards – the manufacturers’ responsibility. The EU distributor is responsible for ensuring that such documentation is complete, valid and true. They are legally liable if this proves not to be the case. Hence the need to exact stringent penalties on irresponsible or criminal distributors who import unsafe, dangerous and non-compliant products. We need to make sure it is not financially worthwhile.

We cannot stop determined, delinquent or incompetent manufacturers from cheating the system if that is their policy. We can do a lot more to prevent the goods being distributed in the EU/UK.

David Sloan says:
18 April 2019

I think the government is a little to blame as well because the cuts and lack of personal on the front line where these goods come into the country that is why these people who send the faulty goods or unsafe foods know Britain is an easy target talk about the thin red line.
David

DerekP says:
18 April 2019

…and yet, because cheap products are appealling, folk buy them.

Mikeyc says:
18 April 2019

I think its time to look seriously into this situation, also investigate the CE marking system, I don’t believe it has a great deal of value as a reliable safety ‘marker’ used on many products. With respect to the products that carry the recognised International Approval marks, far too many are copied, i.e. the marks are counterfeit.

Chris says:
18 April 2019

Hi sorry but I thought the government announced our borders were being kept safe by custom and border control yet still importing dodgy goods! So it’s still a case of neglected policy or evading the issue, so no change there then.

For virtually every product that a domestic consumer needs to buy there is a reputable manufacturer producing safe and reliable goods. They won’t necessarily be the cheapest in the market place but if a product is considerably cheaper than a comparable one made by the better companies there will be a reason for that, and compromise on safety, quality and performance is to be expected. Poor goods can only be imported economically if there is a demand for them. Cheap goods are often a false economy.

The better retailers also only sell safe and reliable products and will withdraw from sale products that fail on safety and performance grounds. Buying goods for which safety is critical from unknown suppliers is generally not a good idea.

There is no point in paying over the top for goods unless there is a feature with exceptional appeal but paying too little can be risky. Consumers have a responsibility to buy wisely. If a product is defective the better retailer will provide a remedy as they have a reputation to protect.

I have had a kettle and a food processor catch fire whilst in use in the last year or so, both from well known, reputable brands although I wonder if the kettle bought from Amazon was a fake.

Too many shoppers cannot resist a bargain, so as long as cheap products are for sale, people will buy them. Far too many will be given away as presents to recipients who could be ignorant of potential dangers.

I can’t remember what it was called now, but I once joined an online shopping company that sold many unknown branded items with prices well below familiar brand names. No need to spend £xxx on a product when you can buy one from us at £xx. I suppose it was like the TV shopping channels with only 1000 to sell so get in quick before they go. They appeared to sell out very quickly.

Very difficult to change human nature John.

I agree, Alfa, but if people buy shoddy products can they legitimately complain? There is plenty of information out there to help consumers make sound buying decisions. The problem with consumerism is that it tempts people to buy things they don’t really need and to constantly seek out a bargain. People who prefer to buy things sight-unseen from an unknown trader and with an incomplete product description and dodgy reviews are asking for it really because there are good, reliable and trustworthy alternatives.

In general – although there are exceptions – I feel I can trust purchases from Amazon itself [if I do a bit of homework] but I don’t feel so confident buying from one of the Amazon Marketplace traders or placing an order not actually fulfilled by Amazon.

Consumers in the UK are entitled to buy safe products, irrespective of price and where they buy them from.

I remember the photos of Alfa’s kettle and have no reason to believe that this was a fake product. Thankfully, kettles are not on for long and usually not left unattended. It would be interesting to see any photos you took of the food processor, Alfa.

All relevant products must meet appropriate safety standards irrespective of price. It is illegal to sell unsafe products (that do not meet UK/EU regulations) in the UK. Price should normally determine such things as features, life (durability), quality but not safety.

We should be focusing on how to prevent such illegal items being distributed, and that starts with the distributors. If only a consumer could report an unsafe product to Trading Standards (for example) and know that it would be investigated and, when appropriate, action taken.