The Government's Consumer Rights Bill currently making its way through Parliament aims to consolidate, simplify and modernise consumer law to make it fit for the 21st century. Its failure, however, to cover the recall of electrical products - a long-ignored issue that has impacted significantly on consumers and businesses alike - is a major flaw.
Product recalls occur when a safety risk is discovered. In recent years we have seen a number of high profile deaths and injuries occur - as well as damage to property - when recall notices have not reached consumers. Sadly we should not be too surprised as, on average, recalls fail to retrieve 80-90% of affected products. It's not just consumers who are at risk; the reputational damage created by badly handled recalls can also affect the financial bottom line of businesses.
The Electrical Safety Council, which has campaigned tirelessly on this issue, has undertaken research indicating the scale of the problem. Around half of all accidental fires in UK homes are electrical, with 85% of these attributed to electrical appliances. With 266 electrical product recall notices issued in the last six years, and manufacturers often producing hundreds of thousands of units, the ESC have estimated that one million recalled products are still in use across the country. Indeed, a survey conducted by Which? found that almost a quarter of consumers have owned a product that was subject to a recall. It is little wonder that the Chief Fire Officers Association has also raised serious concerns about the current system.
This is why, during the House of Commons' consideration of the Consumer Rights Bill, I argued for an amendment that would give consumers the right to expect the relevant manufacturer or retailer to take all reasonable steps to inform those at risk from a dangerous or potentially dangerous product, as soon as possible. The Government argued that such protection is already provided under provisions contained in the General Product Safety Regulations. However, they offer no explicit requirement or timeframe for product recall; nor do they specify that the consumer has a right to expect a recall to occur when the situation demands such action. Put simply: manufacturers and retailers have too much discretion over when and how to deal with dangerous products.
The amendment would also have placed a duty on Government to monitor safety incidents caused by recalled products and provide estimates of how many items remained unaccounted for. At present there is no single Government agency responsible; local Trading Standards have powers to enforce recalls but seldom do.
I would like to see appropriate penalties for ineffective recalls. Currently the penalty for a company that knowingly markets a substandard or dangerous product is minimal - just £20,000 or 12 months in prison - while the fine for a delayed or inadequate recall action is only £5,000 or 3 months imprisonment. This is a drop in the ocean for most manufacturers and it is telling that no prosecution for an inadequate recall has ever occurred.
By voting down my amendment last Tuesday, the Government missed a clear opportunity to address these important issues. I am now calling on Ministers to provide an alternative solution to help improve recall rates and prevent more tragedies befalling unsuspecting consumers. We need this sooner rather than later; the longer we leave it, the greater the chance of it being too late for some.