27th November 2019

Interview: Graham Russell

We speak to Graham Russell, CEO of the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS), about consumer protection in a world experiencing rapid technological advancement and political uncertainty.

By Temoor Iqbal
Freelance writer for JTS
If local teams have concerns over an importer or manufacturer in their area, then advice, while useful, might not be enough – it’s important to test products to provide independent verification of their safety
We need to look to the future in terms of artificial intelligence and internet-connected goods

What is the OPSS’s main role? How does it differ from trading standards?

The OPSS has three main responsibilities: to protect people and places, to enable businesses to thrive, and to help consumers make good choices. It was formed in January 2018, in response to emerging product safety challenges such as technological advancement (e.g. artificial intelligence and 3D printing) and increasingly complex supply chains.

Product safety is a system with a number of key points: it starts with standards that allow manufacturers to make safe products, whether in the UK or abroad, and encompasses how those products are bought, sold, used and disposed of. At all those points in the cycle, there are regulations to ensure people are safe and businesses can thrive. Local authority trading standards teams have frontline responsibility at all these points, and the OPSS’s job is to support them. For example, we provide funding for scientific testing of products, free training for trading standards officers through the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI), and access to British Standards. We also undertake a lot of research to make sure the product safety environment is forward looking and prepared for new challenges.

Finally, there are issues which are of such nationwide importance and so public that the OPSS will (in agreement with the relevant local authority) take the lead in resolving the problem. The recent Whirlpool tumble dryer recall is a good example of this; following initial work with Peterborough City Council, the manufacturer worked with the OPSS on nationwide corrective action on tumble dryer models that posed a fire risk. As a result, since June, 500,000 people have used a webpage set up to check if they have one of the affected models, and 90,000 have come forward to say they do have one. Against this 90,000, around 55,000 cases so far have been resolved by free upgrades, modifications, replacements or refunds.

What have been the OPSS’s main achievements since it was established?

Recently, we’ve done a lot of work with charity Electrical Safety First and local authorities on products (especially second-hand electrical items) from online marketplaces, in order to give consumers the same safety and confidence from online channels as from traditional sales routes. This has taken the form of training for local teams to ensure they’re properly equipped for these challenges, research to identify future trends, and a joint intelligence piece currently underway to identify and plan for future risks.

We’ve also been focusing on testing and checks; in 2018/19, we enabled local authorities to carry out thousands of tests on products such as cosmetics, ladders, toys, slides, lasers and fireworks, through a £500,000 budget. The message was that if local teams have concerns over an importer or manufacturer in their area, then advice, while useful, might not be enough – it’s important to test products to provide independent verification of their safety. This serves to reassure consumers, but can be very costly, so OPSS support has been really well received by local authorities and we’ve increased the amount available this year.

Away from frontline enforcement, we’ve also looked to improve the resources available to regulators and businesses, including working with the British Standards Institute (BSI) on the world’s first standard on product recalls. This is important as, prior to the standard, the law required businesses with product issues to take action, but provided no guidance on how to do that. This sits alongside our consumer empowerment work, including campaigns to help increase safety around button batteries, blind cords and Halloween costumes. In the last quarter of 2018, two million people had access to our campaigns, and we particularly appreciate the work local authorities did in terms of promoting them through local media channels.

How is the OPSS preparing for future challenges?

In terms of approach, our key tenet is to be intelligence-led, and we’re working closely with local authorities and through the Government Agency Intelligence Network to gain a strategic picture of challenges and longer-term consumer concerns. Fireworks are a good example – ministers are keen to protect people from the dangers, but also understand that people enjoy them, so they’ve asked the OPSS to build an evidence base to understand the risks, environmental issues, noise concerns and potential for misuse. The aim is to help the government and devolved powers make effective decisions to protect and support businesses and consumers.

In terms of specific challenges, there are a number of issues on the horizon. For example, the government published its Industrial Strategy last year, which raised a number of concerns for the future, including an ageing society that’s increasingly mobile in old age. From the OPSS’s point of view, the challenge is making sure products are and remain safe in this context, allowing people to benefit from improved old-age health without an increase in accidents and injuries. Technology, as we discussed earlier, is another area of concern; we need to look to the future in terms of artificial intelligence and internet-connected goods. If you can remotely turn on a fireplace, for example, we need to work out how it can be prevented from burning down the building.

What is the OPSS’ role in Brexit contingency planning? How are you coping with the uncertain climate?

First and foremost, our role is to make sure the law is ready and applicable to every possible scenario, so that consumer and business protections continue unbroken. One of our major pieces of work has been to develop a piece of legislation that’s ready, in the case of a no-deal Brexit, to bring all EU product safety legislation into UK law. We’re also looking at the issue of database access. Currently, UK regulators have access to such EU platforms as the Rapid Exchange of Information System (RAPEX), which allows rapid alerts to be shared on unsafe products. Of course, it’s possible that Brexit might end that access, so we need to be prepared. To that end, we’ve built a series of equivalent databases, already being trialled by local authorities, which will allow frontline officers and regulators to quickly access and share product safety information.

We’ve also created a full suite of guidance for businesses working with frontline officers, in order to ensure that businesses understand their responsibilities under the various exit scenarios. This will help them continue trading in a manner that is, crucially, safe for consumers. In the last period, we had 10,500 enquiries from businesses, and we sent 5,000 businesses per week to the Government’s guidance pages. Businesses regularly state that Brexit creates uncertainty for them, so one of our goals is to provide them with as much certainty as possible. Finally, we have provided training for local authorities and frontline officers throughout the Brexit process, and we will continue to do so. We’re currently rolling out a programme of seminars across the country, so local authorities know what Brexit means for them, and so that we at the OPSS know what their concerns are. This is vital in terms of ensuring that officers on the ground are able to provide consumers and businesses with the information and clarity they need.

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