24th January 2019

OPSS marks first birthday

This week marks the first anniversary of the Office of Product Safety and Standards (OPSS), a division of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) set up to protect consumer interests. We spoke to Chief Executive Graham Russell about its strategy and its future.


By Matthew Chapman
Freelance writer for JTS
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The Office works with Trading Standards departments to provide coordination and leadership but local authorities in Great Britain and District Councils in Northern Ireland still have their responsibility for enforcing product safety
We are focused on ensuring UK regulators continue to have access to the information they need to identify and take action on unsafe products

One year in, the OPSS has, in its own words, “grown rapidly, creating dedicated national capacity for product safety while taking forward work on supporting small business growth and implementing the Industrial Strategy vision of simplifying regulation”.

But has it been a game changer for product safety?

Consumer group Which? has been lobbying for the OPSS to be spun out as an independent regulator in the mould of the Food Standards Agency, and has expressed disappointment this has not come to pass.

Nevertheless, the possibility of the OPSS becoming an independent regulator is still on the table.

“We have been asked by ministers to consult on options for the Office going forward, including becoming an arms-length body,” says OPSS Chief Executive Graham Russell. “However, the priority was to get the new Office up and running as quickly as possible.

“We are working with local authorities to provide dedicated national expertise on product safety challenges.”

Russell would not reveal how many people are part of the national incident management unit, but says it is in growth.

He adds: “We currently have a core team who will work with policy, enforcement, science and technical specialists to form a wider incident response structure, if and when an incident is declared.”

Some 31% of the Office’s £12m annual budget goes towards dealing with incidents and enforcement.

Supporting role

Many local trading standards teams are currently suffering from a lack of funding as local authorities are prioritising more vote-winning issues over Trading Standards.

This has arguably led to a lack of scrutiny of dangerous products. However, the OPSS has not been set up to directly intervene where local authorities fall short.

“We want to be clear that we do not compel local Trading Standards teams to take action and nor do we wish to do so,” says Russell. “The Office works with Trading Standards departments to provide coordination and leadership but local authorities in Great Britain and District Councils in Northern Ireland still have their responsibility for enforcing product safety.”

As part of its commitment to provide local Trading Standards teams with advice on technical issues, the Office is working with laboratories to provide access to free product safety testing.

A major concern is what will happen following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU because data exchange with the EU about unsafe products is still subject to ongoing Brexit negotiations.

There is a danger Trading Standards teams will no longer have access to institutional apparatus such as RAPEX that allows the product safety system to work. Nevertheless, the UK is currently in the process of developing a dedicated data exchange for Market Surveillance Authorities, which will allow them to co-ordinate responses to threats and is expected to launch in March.

“We are focused on ensuring UK regulators continue to have access to the information they need to identify and take action on unsafe products,” says Russell. “This will ensure we are able to continue to identify threats and coordinate rapid responses to those threats, targeting the interception of high-risk products, including imports.”

Another major function of the OPSS will be to undertake projects that attempt to understand why product recall rates are so low, according to Russell.

The OPSS Strategic Research Programme is also researching a number of practical product safety measures, including indelible marks on products that withstand fires and more effective identifying of unsafe products being sold online.

Russell says that alongside a number of longer-term projects, the Office is also working on several consumer campaigns, which included the launch of campaigns around laser pointers, fancy dress costumes and fireworks before Christmas.

While the good intentions of the OPSS cannot be questioned and there is undeniably progress being made, the fear is that the Office still lacks teeth.

And until it bares its teeth the manufacturers and purveyors of dangerous products are arguably able to maintain business as usual.