15th January 2018

Matt Allwright: Product Safety

Matt asks what happened to all the progress we made just a few decades ago


By Matt Allwright
Matt is a journalist and presenter of the BBC’s Watchdog and Rogue Traders
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It seems crazy where we are right now with product safety. If you can bear to, let’s revisit the horrific Manchester Woolworths fire of 1979, in which 10 people died when polyurethane sofas caught alight. After that, everything changed. Furniture became flame retardant and shops took bars off their windows. Then Lynn Faulds Wood’s fantastic work convinced me that things really would get better: oven doors wouldn’t burn me, pen tops would no longer choke kids, and never again would I mis-wire a used plug when buying something electrical. The improvement curve could only continue skywards.

What went wrong? Why am I still reporting on exploding electrical products, toxic cosmetics and flammable sofas? Was the progress made in the 80s and 90s just a dream? It’s not hard to identify one part of the problem: a flood of products from the Far East, which don’t seek to meet the standards developed by conscientious men and women in white coats. And I don’t need to tell you that most council trading standards departments are so skeletal they could serve as Hallowe’en decorations.

But we’re not just looking at the failure of product safety as it applies to container loads of unbranded Chinese hoverboards. There is enough evidence that major manufacturers are not only producing failing products, but also brazening it out when widespread failures are found. I would mention names, but here’s the rub: doing so could bring lawsuits from global brands, which would bring the publication to its knees.

That same fear is writ large on tiny trading standards offices across the country. Taking on a major manufacturer is outside their expertise, potentially financially ruinous, and something they have to combine with their many daily duties, such as protecting residents from dodgy tree surgeons and the hooky booze sold in corner shops.

Super Lynn did brilliant work on this subject a couple of years ago, producing a report with three simple recommendations to build a robust national response to product safety failures. She’s just talked me through what’s happened since then and it’s a sorry tale of shirked responsibility, crab-like ministerial side-stepping and endless circular meetings. It’s one reason she turned down an honour she richly deserved.

The result? Product safety has been kicked well and truly into the long grass. Until, that is, Grenfell Tower, and the suspicion brought to bear on a fridge in a flat in northwest London. Of course, we are still waiting for a verdict on exactly what happened and why, but if this is our generation’s catastrophic version of Manchester 1979, we shouldn’t let the moment to act slip through our fingers.