17th December 2019

No such thing as an ‘everyday’ tragedy

Following the publication of the first part of the Inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Sarah Caughey rejects the notion that an electrical fire which claimed 72 lives could be described as an ‘everyday occurrence’

By Sarah Caughey
Head of Policy at CTSI
When it comes to product safety, commonplace household electrical goods should not and must not pose commonplace risks to the health and lives of consumers

Those of you who attended the CTSI Symposium in Brighton this year will have watched the hard-hitting video on regulatory crises which featured in the plenary sessions. (If not, you can view it at journaloftradingstandards.co.uk). The stark scenes and devastating stories featured are hard to forget. They are an unfortunate reminder of the importance of product safety regulation and enforcement, and the role of the trading standards profession.

How can we ensure that lessons are learned and actions are taken to prevent future reoccurrences?

I am among the many consumers in the UK who had one of the 5.3 million defective Whirlpool tumble dryers in their home. Perhaps you were too. I watched over its workings with a wary eye and was fastidious about fluff removal until it was replaced. While my dryer did not cause any issues, other people were not so fortunate. It is estimated that there could still be up to 800,000 unmodified machines in homes across the country.

In The Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report, chairman, The Rt Hon Sir Martin Moore-Bick, concludes that “…the evidence, viewed as a whole, leaves me in no doubt that the fire originated in the large fridge-freezer”. The Inquiry Chair continues: “A fire originating in an electrical domestic appliance is not an uncommon event; the important question for this Inquiry is how an ordinary domestic fire could have had such catastrophic consequences for the whole building and its occupants.”

When delivering his statement to the House of Commons on the report, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated, “In short it was the cladding that turned a routine and containable kitchen fire into a disaster of unprecedented proportions.”

No ordinary household fires

It was an electrical fault in an everyday appliance which set in motion the series of events leading to a national tragedy on the night of June 14, 2017 which claimed 72 lives. Phase 2 of the Grenfell Inquiry will consider the use of a “highly combustible cladding system” on the building which the report finds was “the primary cause of the rapid spread of fire up, around and down the building”. Addressing the safety concerns around the use of such systems is of paramount importance, and the completed inquiry will have significant consequences.

When it comes to product safety, commonplace household electrical goods should not and must not pose commonplace risks to the health and lives of consumers. Defective products and their consequences should not be – or be seen to be – ordinary or routine. If my tumble dryer had gone on fire, I would not have thought it to be ordinary or routine. And I don’t imagine many consumers would. As Lynn Faulds Woods has stated, “unsafe products still blight too many lives with thousands of unnecessary injuries, accidents, fires and even deaths every year”.  Home Office statistics indicate that of the 26,610 dwelling fires with accidental causes in 2018/19 in England, the second largest cause category was “faulty appliances and leads” which caused 15% of all accidental dwelling fires.

Working to ensure that faulty products do not enter the supply chain is one of the key roles of trading standards. Yet for years the profession has been subjected to cuts which have reduced services to a husk of what they once were while still being responsible for discharging duties under more than 250 pieces of legislation (and growing). This disparity has not just appeared overnight. CTSI and others have repeatedly called attention to the simple fact that cuts to trading standards put consumers at risk.

The UK consumer product recall – An independent review by Faulds Woods in 2016 declared there was “an urgent need to improve funding, training, resources and procedures for market surveillance – the enforcement authorities whose job it is to make the system work effectively”.  The report highlighted the cuts to trading standards, and concluded, “as a result there are few – if any – resources in parts of the country for market surveillance”.

While the establishment of the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) may be heralded as the panacea for the product safety regime, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee made clear in The safety of electrical goods in the UK: follow-up inquiry of November 2019 that this does not negate the imperative to support local trading standards: “The introduction of OPSS also did not change the roles and responsibilities of Local Trading Standards (LTS) or other market surveillance authorities,” said the report. “In our previous report, we noted that LTS budgets had been significantly cut and their services in many cases severely diminished. We are therefore concerned that while money has been invested in a national product safety body, as we recommended, this has not been accompanied by additional funding for LTS, who are the eyes and ears of the OPSS. While LTS now have access to OPSS support in areas such as training and research, their funding problems have not been addressed. This questions their ability to carry out surveillance and enforcement activities at a local level.”

Furthermore, the Committee notes their surprise that the struggles of LTS have not been addressed and demands that “the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy must stop hiding behind cuts elsewhere and take responsibility for LTS and work with others across Government to ensure it is fully funded.”

The disparity between the importance of the roles played by trading standards in protecting consumers and the ongoing cuts to services must be rectified. Just as product safety failures should not be seen as ordinary or routine, neither should the ongoing cuts to trading standards.

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