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White goods recalls: it's time to make things black and white

Consumer lawyer campaigner Jill Paterson looks at Coroner Walker's recommendations to overhaul household appliance regulation in the UK

Posted on 02 October 2014

The inquest into the death of Santosh Benjamin has been really important in highlighting the problems with the recall system in the UK.
To think that an appliance in this family’s home, a Beko fridge freezer, was the cause of the fire that took this man away from his family is terrible. And the scary thought is that it could happen again. A Which? survey found that faulty appliances are the cause of some 3,700 domestic fires every year. Manufacturers should get it right.
Coroner Walker confirmed that he would be making a number of recommendations to the Government. If implemented together, the recommendations have the potential to radically overhaul the way in which all household appliances in the UK are sold and regulated.
I really hope that as a result of this inquest, the Government will take a look at the regulation and recall system in the UK and take steps to change that to make manufacturers more accountable for the products they are putting on the market.
Over the coming days I’ll be going through each of the recommendations in detail and updating this post.

Recommendation 1 – development of a national product recall website

Coroner Walker’s first recommendation focuses on the need for a simple, easily accessible website where all UK product recalls can be registered and checked by consumers.
The issue: If you were asked to check whether an appliance in your home was safe, where would you look? Google, maybe? Trading Standards, perhaps? Or possibly even the manufacturer’s website, right? And therein lies the problem. In the UK there is no uniform approach to the listing of potentially dangerous appliances that are subject to product recall notices. So if a consumer was to check one of the above websites and not find any information in relation to their appliance, they may assume, perfectly reasonably, that the appliance is safe.
The solution: A website that lists all UK consumer product recalls. Manufacturers would be required to use this website to list all of their recalled products. This comprehensive list would provide consumers with certainty as to whether or not their appliance is subject to a product recall notice.
An added incentive: By forcing manufacturers to list all of their recalled products in one place, it could help further inform consumers about whether any appliances in their home pose a safety risk. It is also a starting point to make sure that companies cannot hide commercially embarrassing problems with their products. Consumers would also be able to identify makes or brands that they may wish to avoid.

Recommendation 2 – identification of appliances

Coroner Walker’s second recommendation deals with the identification of products following fires, over which the London Fire Brigade (LFB) raised serious concerns during the Inquest into the death of Santosh Benjamin.
The issue: At the Inquest the LFB gave evidence that, in a number of incidents involving fridge freezers, the make/model of the appliance had been unidentifiable due to the severe heat and fire damage the products had sustained.

Without being able to reliably identify appliances that have been the cause of fires, it is difficult to identify trends in problems with particular models, lots or brands.  Fire-proof identification will allow fire brigades across the country to record the causes of fires more accurately.

In turn, this will allow manufacturers and Trading Standards to ascertain the scale of any particular problem and to assess whether it poses a risk to consumers. It will stop the cause of fires from being anonymous and lead to greater consumer safety.
The solution: A mandatory, permanent stamp to be embossed on each appliance showing the manufacturer, make, model, batch and serial number. Simple.

Recommendation 3 – increased sanctions

Coroner Walker’s third recommendation will look to toughen the sanctions manufacturers and retailers face for failing to notify about their unsafe products.
The issue: Quite rightly, in addition to civil product liability claims, manufacturers and retailers could face criminal prosecution for breaching their obligation to notify enforcement authorities when they know that a product poses a risk to consumer safety. This area of law is governed by the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 (GPSR), which set out that manufacturers and retailers can face a maximum fine of £5,000 and / or imprisonment for up to 3 months for these offences.
In the Benjamin Inquest evidence was heard that the cost of a large-scale product recall could be as much as £11 million. There is a huge disparity between the cost of a recall and the maximum fine.
There are also time limits imposed for bringing prosecutions under the GPSR (either within three years from the commission of the offence or 12 months from the discovery of the offence by the prosecutor, whichever is sooner).These time limits can pose an insurmountable barrier for enforcement authorities seeking to bring prosecutions.
The solution: Increasing the penalty to an unlimited fine and / or two years imprisonment and scrapping the time limits for bringing prosecutions. This will hopefully make manufacturers think harder when they are deciding what to do about a potential safety risk.

Recommendations 4 & 5 – consumer registers

The fourth and fifth of Coroner Walker’s recommendations look to improve the information obtained and stored about consumers who purchase domestic appliances.
The issue: We believe that manufacturers should employ all possible means available to them to contact consumers who have purchased a product which poses a potential risk to their safety. This should include phoning, writing, emailing, social media and visiting the homes of consumers, to mention but a few.

In fact, all the means that they use to advertise their products so effectively in the first place! Unfortunately, this is not currently the standard practice. Indeed, there is no “standard” practice (see my blog on recommendation 7 for more on this).

Manufacturers quite often rely on website notices and advertisements in local papers/retailers to announce a product recall. This is clearly an ineffective means by which to recall a product. It’s no surprise that the majority of consumers are left in the dark about product recalls.
The solution: At the point of sale retailers will be responsible for obtaining consumers names, addresses and/or telephone numbers and/or email addresses – rather like the system currently in place when purchasing a television. 

In future, therefore, if a product requires recalling, manufacturers will have easy access to data about where their products are. This will facilitate quicker and more direct contact with consumers, and should greatly enhance awareness of product recalls.

Recommendation 6 – requirement that fire brigades report to Trading Standards

Coroner Walker’s sixth recommendation will be to make it a requirement that all fire brigades across the country report fires caused by domestic white goods appliances to their local Trading Standards authority.
The issue: Fire Brigades and their firefighters do a fabulous job in protecting people when the horror of a house fire happens. Work also happens behind the scenes, including forensic analysis and fire prevention.

We think the London Fire Brigade (LFB) did excellent work in their attempts to highlight to Beko the potential problems with the particular model of fridge freezer involved in the Santosh Benjamin fire. Unfortunately, however, the appliance was not recalled until after the tragic death of Mr Benjamin.
There is currently no obligation for fire brigades to report incidents involving kitchen appliances to Trading Standards. The upshot of this is that whilst a handful of incidents do get reported, Trading Standards still only see a very small percentage of the overall number of incidents and are not in a position to make informed decisions about any trends that might be occurring.

Under the current system, manufacturers and suppliers may know of emerging problems with their products, but it is their choice about what to do with that information.
The solution: In conjunction with the recommendation that all white goods carry a fire-proof stamp, the requirement for all fire brigades to report to Trading Standards will assist in quickly identifying trends of products associated with fires throughout the country.

This will allow Trading Standards to gain an appreciation of ‘the bigger picture’ and to work with manufacturers in taking the necessary steps to get products recalled effectively, enhancing consumer safety.

Recommendation 7 – Code of Practice

The seventh of Coroner Walker’s recommendations will be the implementation of a Code of Practice regulating the way in which manufacturers and retailers recall products. 

The issue: There is currently no formal regulatory framework governing the way in which white goods are recalled in the UK.  This has resulted in an inconsistent approach to recalls being taken by various manufacturers and retailers of kitchen appliances across the country. We do not think that this properly protects consumer safety. Manufacturers and retailers should be doing everything in their power to keep consumers safe from their potentially dangerous products. It seems that they’re no strangers to publicity, until it comes to product recalls.

The solution: The implementation of a Code of Practice dealing with how product recalls are carried out by manufacturers in the UK.

It is hoped that the implementation of such a code will encourage manufacturers to follow a best practice model in getting the message out to consumers if there has been a product recall that might affect their safety. It is also envisaged that this code will bring recalls up to speed with modern technology, to take advantage of modern communication mediums such as social media.

The code will hopefully set a much needed benchmark by which the actions of manufacturers/retailers in carrying out recalls can be compared.  Non-compliance by manufacturers/retailers could be met with sanctions (see recommendation 3).

Importantly, a more consistent approach across the board should make product recalls black and white for the consumer.