A report published today by the National Audit Office (NAO) examines the extent to which the UK's consumer product safety regime can protect consumers from harm, keep pace with changes in the wider environment and particularly focusses on the role that the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) now plays since inception in 2018. Read on for our take on the key points...
In the extensive report, which you can download here the NAO makes a number of key findings, the most notable of which we think are:
- The current safety requirements in the UK are almost good enough but still can't keep up with tech: The report notes that the current UK safety requirements are widely considered to be appropriate for most products but there is a challenge in staying up to date with new information and new products e.g. smart tech. These observations are interesting in light of the OPSS's current major review to update the product safety regime.
- 24% of businesses don't understand their product safety obligations: OPSS research found that 24% of relevant businesses thought they had no product safety responsibilities. A further 7% were unsure which requirements applied. This gives us over 30% of the market that are likely to be non-compliant and, rather terrifyingly, 21% of consumers recently surveyed by Electrical Safety First said they would knowingly buy a fake or substandard electrical product for a saving of 50% or less. Clearly, there's work to be done to bring these numbers down and we anticipate OPSS will be keen to rise to that challenge.
- Consumer engagement with product safety is weak: OPSS research estimates that only 17% of consumers consider product safety when making purchase decisions and think it less important than price or ease of purchase. But we would urge product manufacturers not to be disheartened, looking at the statistics more widely – 56% of consumers consider quality when purchasing, and good product safety helps make good quality products, and 40% consider the brand – we all know too well that brand can be badly damaged by product safety incidents.
OPSS has had a reasonable start but is new and still
developing: The report finds that given its new
status, the OPSS has made meaningful steps towards addressing
immediate issues it has faced since establishment in 2018. However,
in the NAO's opinion, there is still some work to be done by
the OPSS to strengthen its role, and the NAO recommends that the
OPSS work with other government bodies in order to ensure that it
has the powers, tools and capacity needed to enforce product safety
effectively. In particular, the following were proposed as issues:
- Keeping pace with challenges presented by online commerce – the development of UK product safety regulations has not matched evolving trends in online commerce. In particular, the report focuses on the fact that online marketplaces acting as intermediaries are not responsible for the safety of goods sold by third parties and that 66% of risky products sold on online marketplaces failed safety tests.
- Better coordination with local Trading Standards – staffing and capacity challenges in Trading Standards present risks to the sustainability of the regulatory system and there is still work to be done in improving coordination between local Trading Standards and OPSS, with some reported instances of both organisations looking into the same product/business.
- Acquiring more data and intelligence to assess consumer risks – it is recommended that OPSS develops its data strategy to spot problems as they arise, as we are currently seeing in respect of OPSS's national incident response to small high-powered magnets
- The government doesn't yet know the full product safety implications of Brexit: but estimates new responsibilities will cost regulators £9 million a year but a full analysis has not yet been concluded. Our view is that seems rather light....
The OPSS has responded positively to the report, indicating it will use the report's recommendations as it develops a new regulatory framework to protect consumers and help ensure businesses understand their obligations. With that in mind, we think the OPSS will continue to take a more proactive approach to regulation and enforcement, particularly with regard to obligations attaching to online marketplace platforms, and also seeking to work closer with local Trading Standards organisations on potential product safety issues. Given OPSS's direction of travel to date this is unsurprising, but it does reinforce the fact that the UK is keen to be seen as a leading product safety regulator.
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