Product safety watchdog lacking tech skills and data
New challenges faced by regulator include overseeing smart technology
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The Office for Product Safety and Standards is “not fit to address the challenges it faces”, and us suffering from of technology skills and access to data, MPs have said.
A report from members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said that while the consumer protection regulator, which was established in 2018, had reacted well to some known product safety issues, it was hampered by “limited” data and intelligence and “weaknesses” in the UK's overall product safety regime.
It said that the regulator also lacked a full picture of investigation and enforcement activity carried out by local, council-based trading standards services, and was currently unable to align its work with local interventions. The report said local trading standards services had seen their budgets cut by 39% over the past decade and now varied “significantly” from area to area.
MPs acknowledged that the OPSS, which is part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, had seen its operations budget for product-safety rise from £10m in its first year to £14m in 2021-22.
But they noted that from 2022 it will be taking on responsibility for regulating construction products as part of the government’s programme of reforms following the Grenfell Tower fire, meaning it would require “new capacity and skills, particularly in software, engineering and science”.
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MPs said the additional responsibilities for the safety of building materials, being taken over on behalf of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – rebranded this month as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – were significant.
“It is vital that the OPSS is properly funded to develop this new responsibility quickly and effectively,” they said.
The report said the new responsibilities came on top of a range of other challenges faced by the “relatively small” regulator, including new functions prompted by Brexit and challenges posed by technology changes and online retailing, which can make it harder to hold small vendors to account.
PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier said 2017’s Grenfell Tower fire, which was triggered by a fire in a faulty fridge-freezer and fuelled by a list of construction-product and building regulations failings, was a stark example of issues at the heart of product safety – but not the only area for concern.
“Weaknesses in the UK’s product safety regimes were horrifically, doubly exposed in the Grenfell tragedy, but there is also reason for serious concern about ‘everyday’ risks - in everything from toxic children’s toys to the 15% of all products that now contain some ‘smart’ technology that can open a door to hackers,” she said. “With massive new responsibilities following exit from the EU and now including building materials, we simply cannot be confident that the UK’s product safety regime will prevent the next tragedy or widespread harm or loss of life, or even know where it’s coming from. UK consumer protection must be properly funded to get up to a speed and strength fit for the task.”
In addition to calling for better resourcing for OPSS, MPs also said the office needed to work more closely with BEIS, DLUHC and other relevant departments to address concerns around the long-term sustainability of the trading standards workforce. The committee said OPSS should explain how it would resolve the issue in its response to the report.
A BEIS spokesperson said the UK had some of the highest product safety standards in the world and the department was committed to ensuring that only safe products could be legally placed on the market, both now and in the future.
“While we recognise the concerns raised, we are addressing this by building an even more agile and advanced product safety framework in a recent call for evidence, providing comprehensive support for trading standards, setting up a product safety database enabling councils to share critical product safety information in real time as well as a dedicated strategic research programme to track emerging product hazards,” they said.
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