The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published its “Protecting consumers from unsafe product” report, which lays bare a multitude of challenges faced by the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) and local trading standards officers, shining a light on an ineffective regulatory system.
How is the level of risk changing?
The report highlights a changing risk landscape with some eye-catching statistics:
- 1 in 3 products are now bought online
- Almost 1 in 4 businesses are unaware of their product safety responsibilities
- Only 17% of consumers surveyed considered product safety when making purchases – price and ease of purchase being deemed of greater importance
- 9 in 10 adult internet users estimated to use online marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay and Etsy
- 15% of products now feature ‘smart’ capabilities.
Clear deficiencies identified
The OPSS was established in 2018 in response to changes to product safety risks to consumers, with the aim of regulating consumer product safety at a national level. Local trading standards teams work with the OPSS and still regulate at the local level, undertaking most enforcement activities.
The report reaches the following key conclusions on the current state of the product safety regulatory regime:
- The OPSS lacks the data it requires to identify and address risks posed by unsafe goods
- The OPSS struggles to reach some businesses and consumers to prevent harm from unsafe products
- There is evidence to suggest many companies find safety regulations difficult to understand and smaller firms are harder to reach and influence
- Consumers may be purchasing goods with a misguided assumption that because they are available online, they must be safe
- There is insufficient coordination between the OPSS, local authorities and other limbs of government
- Gaps in the regulatory framework make it harder to protect consumers from new risks
- Online marketplaces are currently not responsible for the safety of goods sold on their platforms by third parties
- Responsibility for product safety remains with the individual product sellers – these can be small businesses, ‘home sellers’ or companies based abroad, all of which are deemed more difficult to reach from a compliance perspective.
- ‘Smart’ capabilities can be a force for good in improving product safety but may also leave consumers exposed to hacking attacks
- The regulatory regime lacks resources, capacity and skills to meet the challenges, including enforcement – the OPSS had a modest budget of £14m in 2020-21 whilst local trading standards services have suffered a 39% real-terms reduction in funding over the last decade
- The government has not set out a clear vision or detailed plan for UK product safety regulation.
Pressure building for coherent product safety regulation strategy
The PAC has requested proposals within six months from the OPSS and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy on how to address gaps in the current regulatory regime, in particular looking at the problems posed by online marketplaces and ensuring regulations keep pace with changing product technologies.
Following Brexit, a number of regulatory functions which were previously carried out at EU level now fall to UK regulators and the UK will no longer recognise the EU’s CE mark which indicates compliance with product standards. These changes also impact the regulatory regime.
The PAC has also requested a timetable on the next UK product safety regulatory strategy, indicating that the strategy should set out what type of regulatory system the UK will implement to meet the challenges.
It remains to be seen how the regulatory regime will be shaped in the future, but changes are coming – watch this space.