It has been over two years since the news first broke about Whirlpool’s fire risk tumble dryers, and in those two years we’ve seen some shocking failures in the UK’s product safety system.
Giving evidence to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee, I pressed the committee to launch an inquiry into product safety and to finally hold the government to account for its inaction that has left millions of consumers unnecessarily at risk.
As some of you will know, in August 2015, Whirlpool informed Peterborough Trading Standards (PTS) that up to 5.3 million tumble dryers in the UK were affected by a fault.
These machines were at risk of catching fire and required modification to address the problem and by 2016 around 750 fires were reportedly linked to Hotpoint, Indesit, Proline, Swan and Creda tumble dryers.
The manufacturer has consistently resisted calls for a recall of the dangerous products despite the clear potential for tragedy. Instead, it launched a repair programme despite having limited capacity to deliver this commitment due to the scale of the problem.
More than a year after the issue first emerged, people were facing lengthy delays waiting for a repair of their potentially dangerous dryer. And all the while Whirlpool dangerously advised customers to keep using their dryers. That was until we issued an application for judicial review against PTS, which soon after saw PTS issuing Whirlpool with two enforcement notices to instruct consumers to unplug their machines until they were repaired.
In Parliament, we heard from Whirlpool that around a million of these fire-risk dryers are still in people’s homes.
The failure of PTS or the Government to respond to this risk and not force Whirlpool to recall these dangerous products has revealed significant issues at the heart of the UK’s product safety system.
The independent challenge necessary in the product safety system was lacking because PTS didn’t properly carry out its role as an enforcer of product safety laws. And Ministers failed to grasp the scale of the issue, leaving people with dangerous products in their homes.
Subsequent concerns about a different fault in one of the same affected tumble dryers was highlighted in the Llanwrst fire inquest, and safety issues related to non-flame retardant backings on fridge freezers, have provided further evidence that the product safety system is broken and needs urgent reform.
These incidents have raised fundamental questions about the ability of the current product safety regime to adequately protect consumers. Our system is failing because the UK enforcement regime is simply not fit-for-purpose.
In the UK we have a highly fragmented system, heavily reliant on local Trading Standards, without the necessary resources of expertise to police the product safety system. These local Trading Standards offices are responsible for ensuring compliance with 260 pieces of legislation.
As a result, there is an over-reliance on companies to self-manage compliance (including for recall) and an emphasis on light touch regulation.
Finally, there is a lack of coordinated intelligence on potential product safety issues. Trading Standards simply aren’t equipped for this type of market surveillance.
Product safety system
Sadly, there is little to suggest the government has grasped the scale of the problems facing our product safety system. In 2015, it commissioned Lynn Faulds Wood to undertake a review following a fatal fire caused by a faulty Beko fridge-freezer, but has ignored the most important recommendations from that review.
These issues must be addressed urgently. Our enforcement regime must be effective now. As we prepare to leave the EU we enter a more complex trading environment and we must be able to ensure the safety of products coming from new markets.
I called on the committee to launch an inquiry. I also repeated our call for a new national body to take responsibility for ensuring manufacturers get dangerous products out of people’s homes quickly. All of the panellists who gave evidence to the select committee agreed with our call for a new national body, remarkably this also included Whirlpool and the Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Appliances.
Update 1 November: Speaking at a Parliamentary debate on product safety this afternoon, the Consumer Minister Margot James revealed that our calls for a new national body and how to deliver an increased central system were under consideration. The Minister also announced that the government would publish its response to the Working Group on product safety’s recommendations before the end of the year.
Update: 1 December 2017
Whirlpool has stopped replacing its fire-risk tumble dryers, but continues to offer a modification for affected models.
The Telegraph has just revealed it has found that the manufacturer quietly stopped the scheme back in October. This news comes despite the manufacturer admitting, in Parliament on 31 October, that around one million of these dryers are still in people’s homes.
Since the safety alert issues hit the headlines in 2015, we’ve been shocked by what we can only describe as multiple failings on Whirlpool’s part to sort this issue out fully and promptly.
Our Managing Director of Home Products and Services, Alex Neill, said:
‘It is completely unacceptable that Whirlpool has shut down its replacement scheme for these dangerous tumble dryers. It is irresponsible that despite one million households potentially still using an affected machine Whirlpool seems unwilling to do everything possible to deal with this issue.
‘The Government must step in and force Whirlpool to fully recall the remaining tumble dryers.’
Over 100 models of Hotpoint, Indesit, Proline, Swan and Creda tumble dryers bought before October 2015 are at risk of catching fire. Those with fire-risk dryers still in their homes are now left with the only option of awaiting a free modification.
Do you want the government review the product safety system? How would you want the system changed?