(2 years, 5 months ago)Commons Chamber
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on his decision to recall 500,000 unsafe tumble dryers manufactured by Whirlpool UK.
The Government take the safety of electrical products very seriously. For our children, relatives and families, we all want our homes to be places of safety and security. I provided an update to the House at departmental questions last week on the most recent steps taken by the Office for Product Safety and Standards in respect of Whirlpool tumble dryers. This follows the OPSS review of the actions taken by Whirlpool in relation to its corrective action. The findings of the review were published on 4 April. The OPSS review examined in detail the modification programme put in place by Whirlpool as well as technical documents supplied by Whirlpool. The review concluded that the risk posed by modified tumble dryers is low.
The Office for Product Safety and Standards produced a list of required actions for the business to take, and Whirlpool was given 28 days to respond, outlining the actions that it would take. The response received from Whirlpool was considered to be inadequate. As a result, the OPSS has written to Whirlpool to inform the company of its intention to serve a recall notice under the provisions of the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 in respect of the unmodified tumble dryers that remain in homes in the UK. As required by law, Whirlpool was given 10 days’ notice of that intention, which allowed it time to submit its views prior to the service of the recall notice or to seek arbitration in line with the provisions in the GPSR. Officials in the OPSS are reviewing Whirlpool’s response to determine whether it fully meets the requirements laid down in the draft recall notice.
At this time, all enforcement options remain on the table, including serving a formal recall notice. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further while the legal process is ongoing, but I will update the House in due course. It is important to stress that consumers who have had their affected tumble dryers modified can continue to use them and that those with an unmodified affected tumble dryer have been urged to unplug them and to contact Whirlpool. I encourage all consumers to register their appliances to ensure they receive updates on product modification and recalls. The OPSS will continue to monitor the situation closely and will take any steps it deems appropriate to ensure that consumers in the UK continue to enjoy the high levels of protection they have come to expect.
I thank the Minister for her response, although, given the lack of action by Whirlpool, and indeed the Government, over a four-year period, there are many questions to be asked. If they cannot all be answered today, I would be grateful if she could write to me and perhaps meet me and other interested Members, as this is clearly an ongoing matter.
The fire that destroyed 20 flats in a 19-storey block in my constituency in 2016 was one of hundreds of fires caused by over 100 models of tumble dryer manufactured between 2004 and 2015 by companies now all owned by Whirlpool, but when I met Whirlpool a couple of weeks ago, it could not even say how many reports of fires it was receiving each week. This is the most serious consumer safety issue for many years. At one stage, it was estimated that one in six households in the UK had a faulty Whirlpool tumble dryer in use. Why has it taken four years to reach this point, despite repeated requests for recall from the fire brigade and others? What steps will the Government now take to ensure that unmodified dryers are recalled? I heard what the Minister said, but anything less than a recall now would be considered wholly inadequate.
What is the basis for the estimate of 300,000 to 500,000 unmodified machines in service, given that 5.5 million were sold and only 5,000 have been modified since Whirlpool estimated itself that there were 1 million unmodified dryers in December 2017? If it goes ahead, how will the recall process work, as a matter of law and in practice, given that, as the Minister said, it is unprecedented? What progress has the OPSS made on setting up the recall database that we were promised would be live by the end of this year? What further advice is being given to the owners of Whirlpool tumble dryers? Why has Whirlpool still not published on its website the list of model numbers affected, and why is it refusing to give one to Which? and Electrical Safety First? Why did the advice change from the OPSS? It seemed quite happy with the advice in April. Will the Government look again at the modification process and at the evidence compiled by Which? saying that the modified machines are still liable to catch fire?
Finally, does the Minister agree with what her predecessor, the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), said in asking the planted question last week, which is that there remain grave concerns about the “straightness” of Whirlpool? What will the Government do about this company, which has flouted the rules here? Is it not time to get tough?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern, specifically for his constituency, given the desperately sad incident that occurred there. He is absolutely right to ask these questions and raise these concerns, as would any consumer be who believed they were at risk.
We carried out the review at the behest of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), who ordered a review of the Whirlpool modification process in 2018. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the review looked at the effectiveness of the technical modification and the adequacy of the outreach programme. It concluded that the risk was low, and was further reduced by the modification. Following the review, we issued a 28-day notice letter to Whirlpool, specifying issues on which we wanted more information and assurances. We were unsatisfied by its response, which is why, on 4 June, we issued a letter of intent of notice of a recall.
Following conversations that I had with the hon. Gentleman last week, he wrote to me at the end of the week asking for a meeting. As I said to him last week, I should be more than happy to meet him to discuss any of his concerns about the ongoing process. My absolute intention is to ensure that we hold companies to account when we do not believe that they are carrying out their legal obligation, which is to place safe products on the market.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to be concerned about the future prevention of fires. I can tell him that, according to Home Office data, there were 224 fires caused by tumble dryers in 2017-18, a 10% reduction on the previous year’s figure of 808. We will obviously do all that is required to ensure that consumers are kept free of harm. We are following due process, in line with the regulations, in order to ensure that Whirlpool carries out its obligations.
I am more than happy to answer any further questions from the hon. Gentleman in detail as the process continues, and, as I have said, I am also more than happy to meet any colleague at any time.
Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on his relentless campaigning, and for securing this important question.
The Government stated their intention to initiate a recall notice to Whirlpool on 4 June, but that only became apparent in the House during topical questions to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on Tuesday 11 June. Can the Minister explain why she did not come forward with a statement about the decision, which she has described as “unprecedented”, but which she considered not to be “unprecedented” enough to inform the House about it?
The issue of Whirlpool and its faulty products has been one of the biggest consumer safety issues for many years. The relevant fault affected more than 5 million tumble dryers under brand names that are now owned by Whirlpool UK, which were manufactured between 2004 and 2015. I welcome the recall notice regarding the 500,000 unmodified products, but I am seriously concerned about the millions of modified Whirlpool products that are still in people’s homes, and whose owners have reported fires and faults despite the modifications. Which? spoke to more than 30 owners who have said that their “fixed” tumble dryers have caught fire, or have produced smoke or a smell of burning. There are millions of those modified machines out there in people’s homes. Consumer safety must be our utmost priority, so will the Minister demand a full investigation of those reports, and go further by demanding a recall of the modified products too?
In April, the Office for Product Safety and Standards published findings of its inquiry into Whirlpool’s handling of the risk of the machines. It found that the risk of fire was “low”, and therefore no recall notice action was taken. Which? considered that the “inquiry is fundamentally flawed”, and that
“it appears to favour business interests over people’s safety”.
The investigators failed to speak to any affected Whirlpool customers as part of the review, and further failed to verify the history of the 28 Whirlpool dryers that it tested, which meant that it was unable to draw conclusions about when the machines had been modified and by whom. The inquiry was published in April and the Minister’s subsequent contradictory decision to issue a recall notice obviously raises serious questions about the OPSS. Will the Minister clearly outline why she came to a different decision from the OPPS in April? Does she now believe that the OPSS investigation was fundamentally flawed and will she announce an investigation into that review to look at whether it was properly undertaken and there are lessons to learn for the future?
I must start by outlining that the protection of consumers, the safety of consumers and the safety of products placed on the market are of utmost importance to me and this Government. I did indeed update the House last week in response to a question about the action that we have taken in regards to Whirlpool; it is part of a legal process, as I have already outlined. All complaints about modified or unmodified tumble dryers that have been duly registered were included in the review. The review was significant: it looked at many areas, took all the data into account, and carried out the assessments, as the hon. Lady has outlined, and I am absolutely satisfied that the review undertaken by OPSS was appropriate and robust.
I have not taken a different decision from OPSS. We were very clear. OPSS wrote to Whirlpool after the review outlining areas where it wanted a guarantee of further work. Whirlpool had 28 days in which to respond. It responded, and the OPSS reviewed that information and was not satisfied, finding that the commitment was inadequate. We therefore decided to issue a notice—an intention to recall. As I have outlined today, we will be reviewing what has been submitted by Whirlpool. There is no intention to put, as has been suggested, big business over the needs and safety of consumers, and we will not do that. Fundamentally, the safety of people in their homes is of utmost importance to me and the Government and I will do everything in my power to make sure that large companies and manufacturers absolutely comply with their legal obligation to place only products that are safe on the market. If they fail to do so, this Government will take appropriate action to hold them to account.
I congratulate both the OPSS and the Minister on having the cojones to hold Whirlpool to account, because there is no doubt that Whirlpool has been shifty on this and the Minister has called it out, so I say well done. Does she agree that it sends a clear message to business that either they have to put their house in order and ensure that their products are safe or the Government will act and have a product recall?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and acknowledge his role in instigating the review of Whirlpool’s modification programme last May. Let me reiterate that the law is clear: manufacturers have a responsibility to ensure that only safe products are placed on the market, and appropriate action must be taken when a safety issue is identified. We will make sure that any organisations placing unsafe products on the market are forced to comply with the law, and we will continue to hold them to account.
This matter does not seem to have been handled well, either by Whirlpool or by the UK Government, from start to finish. Surely our first priority should be, as the Minister said, to protect our constituents and ensure that they are not at risk from fire. If there are still 500,000 unmodified products out there, and if the risk of them going on fire is 1%, we are looking at a potential of 5,000 fires. If the risk is half that, we are still looking at 2,500 fires and the risk to life that comes with them. What assessment has been made of the risk from the modified tumble dryers? Concerns have been raised that modified dryers are also continuing to go on fire.
The other thing I am confused about is why the Government took so long to take action, given that this issue was first recognised by Whirlpool in 2015. If it takes the OPSS and the Government so long to undertake a review and put sanctions in place against a company, there is surely an issue with the system. Will the Government, as a result of the issues raised, look at the product recall system in general and ensure that a review is undertaken, so that we no longer have such incredibly lengthy waits when products are recalled, and so that the Government can take action more quickly than they have done in this case?
As I outlined earlier, the review of Whirlpool was a review of the modification programme. It looked at the effectiveness of the technical modifications and the adequacy of the outreach programme. The review concluded that there was a low risk from unmodified machines, and an even lower risk from modified ones. The wider review was concerned with the actions that Whirlpool took to resolve any risk of lint fires in its machines. I believe that its findings were robust and proportionate. The info that was provided to us via Which? and “Watchdog” and the testing carried out by Which? were also featured and taken into account in the review. However, the review very much focused on the technical effectiveness of the modifications.
The reason that this has taken so long, as the hon. Lady suggests, is that we followed due process in carrying out a substantial review, making our assumptions and providing Whirlpool with laid-down notice to come back to us with what it would do to rectify the situation. I would just highlight that part of enforcing consumer and product safety involves ensuring that we carry out a review when we believe that manufacturers are not fulfilling their obligations under the regulations, and that we follow due process in doing so. We will continue to do that where there are concerns about any product that is placed on the market. We will ensure that organisations and large manufacturers comply with the law.
All too often in my previous life I saw the damage, despair and devastation—not to mention the risk to life—that fire can bring to a family home. Will my hon. Friend confirm that product safety and standards remain a priority for this Government, and that manufacturers of white goods such as Whirlpool must act promptly and responsibly when faced with the evidence of goods not being fit for purpose? This journey of risk has been unacceptably long, but I thank her for the robust action that she has recently taken.
I thank my hon. Friend for that, and I note his particular interest in this as a result of his past career. He is absolutely right to suggest that we will ensure that large manufacturers such as Whirlpool comply with the regulations if they find that a technical change needs to be made to their products. We expect them to take appropriate action where a risk has been identified. This is indeed a priority for this Government. It has been a priority since I have been in post, and we will continue to ensure that these organisations comply with the law.
The recall has been far too long coming. As soon as Whirlpool became aware of the problem, it should have acted immediately and recalled every affected machine. As it is, it has sat back and waited years, and consumer safety has been at risk, with the Government finally stepping in last week. The public are rightly terrified of the danger that could be sitting in their homes. People who contact Electrical Safety First, Which? and other consumer bodies are struggling to find assistance because Whirlpool has refused to publish a list of the affected machines. Instead, members of the public have to wade through a series of hidden steps on the Whirlpool website to try to establish whether they have a potential fire hazard in their home. Why has Whirlpool been allowed to get away with that? A list should be readily available, so will the Minister commit to ensuring that Whirlpool publishes one immediately?
We are following due process, and we are taking action. This has been an ongoing piece of work. When issues with the modification programme were raised, my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), instigated the review, and OPSS has been working since then and has been in continual communication with Whirlpool. It is vital that we follow due process and, whether the organisation involved is small or large, that we ensure that any action is proportionate and correct. Any consumer with concerns about the tumble dryer in their home can get in touch with Whirlpool by entering the serial number and model to check whether their product is affected, and we encourage anyone who is worried about the product in their home to contact Whirlpool immediately.
I do not talk about this in public a lot, but I lost my father in an electrical accident when I was 10, and there has not been a Father’s Day in 40 years when I have not wished that he was still here. Consumer safety must come first, and I thank the Minister for the action she has taken. We have some of the strongest consumer safety standards in the world, but enforcement is sometimes challenging. Will she therefore take this opportunity to consider ways of strengthening the enforcement, and will she examine whether the penalties for producers are effective and strong enough?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I am sorry to hear about her father, particularly since this urgent question comes the day after Father’s Day. She is absolutely right. This action serves as a warning to manufacturers that if they put unsafe products on the market, this Government will act to make them comply with the law. The beauty of the OPSS, which this Government set up in January 2018, is not only that it is a national body that takes responsibility for national crises, but that it supports local enforcers on the ground with scientific and research-based knowledge. I assure my hon. Friend that we are taking the matter seriously, and this is a warning to manufacturers that we will enforce the law if we believe that they are not complying.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on his dogged pursuit of this consumer scandal. Is not too much onus being left on consumers to understand the potential risks to their machines? If half a million Whirlpool machines are still unmodified, how exactly are the Government tracking progress? If they proceed to recall, which they should, how will they ensure that Whirlpool is successful in getting the message through to the owners of all those machines?
The hon. Lady raises an important point on how we reach consumers, and part of the review covered the adequacy of the outreach programme. Our review found that Whirlpool needs to do more in that space, which is exactly why we issued a notice for Whirlpool to tell us what it will do further on the intention to recall. Whirlpool had time to respond, and we asked for further information on how it will get that information out to consumers. That will be a key part of how we review anything that Whirlpool submits to us, and the process will be ongoing if the recall notice is served or if Whirlpool decides to undertake a recall itself.
We ought to recognise that Whirlpool took over Indesit Hotpoint in 2014. It identified the problem in 2015 and has been trying to take action, but not fully adequately.
Will the Minister ask Whirlpool to make sure that the website better identifies the EU product safety site, as with Creda, Proline or Swan? Will she also ask the search engines, especially Google, to feature product recall information on the first search page, preferably even before the advertisements? Finally, will she indicate that safe products have a green dot inside the door? If people want to know the serial number and model, that is also inside the door.
I thank my hon. Friend. As he requests, I will ask Whirlpool how it can make its website more user-friendly. I cannot give him any guarantees on Google’s actions, but I am sure that is something we can take forward. He has previously raised his final point in the House, and consumers will therefore have heard him. I reiterate that, if consumers are concerned about the products in their home, they can go on the website and call the Whirlpool helpline. If their tumble dryer has been modified, continued use is a low risk. We recommend that unmodified dryers are unplugged and not used and that Whirlpool is contacted.
By the Government’s own admission, there are 500,000 unmodified machines in existence, which equates to around 700 per constituency. The Minister has just reaffirmed that the Government’s advice is to unplug these machines. How are those 700 people in Delyn supposed to know that?
The right hon. Gentleman outlines that there are 500,000 machines, which is not a Government estimate—we have used data to estimate the number of dryers still in people’s homes. As I said to the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), Whirlpool has an outreach programme to communicate with individuals who have not yet contacted Whirlpool and who it believes to have faulty equipment.
We recommend that anyone who buys any kind of electrical appliance should register it so that the manufacturer can easily contact those who have a particular product—this is not just for Whirlpool but for any kind of electrical product that is sold. It is vital that consumers take the time to register their purchase so it is easy for the manufacturer to contact them if any faults or problems are found with the machine.
I congratulate the Minister on the action she has taken. One of the first cases I received as a newly elected Member of Parliament was on the safety of tumble dryers; the issue came up at my first surgery. As a member of the Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I have to say that I have been singularly unimpressed with Whirlpool’s attitude to this problem. Part of the problem lies in trying to find where these machines are, so is the Minister entirely satisfied with our current system for the registration of appliances in this country? It is sometimes very difficult to find serial numbers and model numbers, especially where appliances have been fitted in kitchens or utility rooms, for example. These are real, live issues. Is she satisfied that this system is adequate for purpose?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. He is right to raise concerns about whether the system is suitable, and whether all appliances are easily identified and registered. We definitely need to look, on an ongoing basis, at whether some of the products being placed on the market are easily identified. He is right to highlight the issue with built-in appliances, as it is sometimes difficult to remove them to get the serial number. As I have said, I recommend that all consumers register their appliances on the registermyappliance site. We will keep all information under review, but I remain determined to ensure that where manufacturers do not comply with the law we will take enforcement action. That is why I am pleased to be standing here today outlining the steps we are moving through to make sure that we comply with the regulation on the enforcement.
With an estimated 700 affected appliances per constituency, it is not surprising that I have been contacted by a number of constituents affected, including Linda Thomas, who was advised to contact Peterborough trading standards, it being the trading standards body responsible for this Whirlpool issue. She tells me that she feels very much that Peterborough trading standards are
“on the side of Whirlpool and ‘not the consumer’”.
What assessment has the Minister made of the impartiality of Peterborough trading standards, in the light of the emails revealed by the BBC as a result of freedom of information requests?
Trading standards, in Peterborough or anywhere else nationally, are carrying out, every day, the important work of enforcing safety issues; they are taking lots of enforcement action. I, for one, am very proud of and grateful to trading standards officers, who sometimes work in challenging circumstances but do some fantastic work. One reason the OPSS was set up was in January last year was to look at product safety and standards, and it was the body that carried out the review of the Whirlpool modification programme, working with regional trading standards, including Peterborough’s. Trading standards do have the ability to work with the OPSS on the scientific research and data, using the expertise the OPSS brings to help them carry out their duty locally. Therefore, I very much disagree on this; action taken by any enforcement body is being taken on behalf of the consumer, not in the interests of large manufacturers.
My hon. Friend asks when his constituents would have a replacement. I would say that the affected tumble dryer should be modified, but any action must be taken swiftly. The particular circumstance, the age of the model and the brand of the model would dictate which action Whirlpool takes.
I thank the Minister for her comments, but I am still extremely concerned that 500,000 machines are at large. As the chair of the all-party group on disability, I am particularly concerned about whether notifications have gone out in accessible formats, because if people have disabilities they might not see a fire so quickly or be able to leave their homes so quickly should one start. Will the Minister speak to Whirlpool and make sure that the notifications are in formats that are accessible for all?
The UK may well have one of the strongest consumer protection regimes in the world, but does the Minister agree that things need to be under constant review? Can she assure me that the OPSS has sufficient resources, powers and skills to do what we expect of it?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that the OPSS has the powers and funds necessary to carry out its work. The beauty of the OPSS is that it is absolutely focused on product safety and standards. Part of its £12 million per annum funding is for building scientific and technical expertise. It works with trading standards locally and nationally and provides the national leadership required on national issues such as this one.
The Minister will know that registration rates for white goods are typically less than 30%, which means that more than 70% of people typically do not register their products. That is understandable—they are frightened of being sold to or contacted for lots of other reasons—so surely it is now time to take the onus off the consumer and have a central register, from the point of sale, that can be used only in the event of a recall.
I thank the hon. Lady for that suggestion. I will commit today to making that a topic for discussion at the Consumer Protection Partnership, which is the group of organisations that sit together to consider consumer protections. Perhaps we can look into whether that would be more beneficial for consumers. I reiterate that the Government have a recall website that gives the details of all white goods that are subject to recall or fire risk. All consumers should register their appliances. It is down to the manufacturer to make sure that the products are safe, but if consumers take the simple step of registering their goods in the first instance, when they buy them, before any changes are made, that is the best way forward.
Might not many of these tumble dryers have been resold in the second-hand market? If so, what is the Minister doing to assess the dangers of the resale of such machines, bearing in mind that local authority trading standards have been decimated by Tory austerity cuts?
As I have outlined, it does not matter whether the product is second hand or has been with its original owners since purchase. If a dryer is affected and is unmodified, consumers should contact Whirlpool. I reiterate that when the OPSS carried out its review of the modification programme, it took all the data into consideration and the risk was deemed to be low and further reduced for modified tumble dryers. I therefore urge any consumer with a tumble dryer in their home to look to see whether it is one of the products affected and make contact with Whirlpool.
The Minister has said that modified machines are low risk, yet last year the BBC’s “Watchdog” live consumer programme uncovered cases in which machines had caught fire even after being fixed. Can modified machines be deemed to be low risk, even though they catch fire?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about modified machines. When any information or testing that had been carried out at any particular event by “Watchdog” or Which? was submitted to the Department or to the OPSS, it was scrutinised and looked at during the review of the modification process. The outcome was to put the risk level at low. However, anyone who has a concern about any machine should contact Whirlpool. In actual fact, if anyone has any concern about any electrical appliance within their home, they should stop using it and contact the manufacturer.
A number of my constituents contacted me with their concerns about Whirlpool. With Electrical Safety First research pointing to the fact that only 10% to 20% of recalled products are ever returned or repaired, we should perhaps consider looking at a statutory basis for online retailers to contact people who bought products online, because they certainly will have a means of contacting their consumers—they will have email addresses and other details for the products that have been dispatched. Perhaps that could be an easier way for some retailers to contact people to get that recall information to them.
I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting that point. One of the issues that we considered in last year’s review was the outreach programme. There are many ways in which Whirlpool should be able to contact the people who have bought its products. This is very much the responsibility of the manufacturer, and it is one of the reasons we are taking so much care with this review, and why we are asking so many questions. It is the responsibility of the manufacturer to make sure that it has a programme that is sufficient to reach its customers. We are dissatisfied with what it has done. That is why we issued the intention to issue a recall. She is absolutely correct: Whirlpool should be using everything at its disposal to make sure that it contacts anyone who has purchased its product by any means necessary.
The Whirlpool situation has highlighted a problem exposed by the Electrical Safety Council about the difficulty of identifying the owners of the defective appliances it recalls. Can the Minister say a little more about what progress has been made on requiring the registration of purchase of electrical goods at point of sale by the retailer, rather than by consumers registering afterwards? Consumer registration patently does not work, and the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) is not a new one; it has been knocking around for years and the retail industry needs to own up to its responsibility.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I know that he has a particular interest in this matter. He will know that, when I last sat in front of him at the meeting of the all-party group on fire safety, I was very clear that if action needed to be taken I was not fearful of taking such action. As I tried to outline to the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), it is a valid suggestion, and I do agree that we need to look at it. That is why I have said here today that I am prepared to bring that to the Consumer Protection Partnership to see whether we can progress it further. He is absolutely right: we need to do all we can to ensure that consumers are protected, but fundamentally I am here today to talk about holding Whirlpool to account, and I am proud to be standing here and doing that. This Government want to ensure that, no matter how big manufacturers are, we will still make them comply with the law.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I have outlined, anyone who has one of the brands that are affected—Hotpoint, Indesit, Swan, Proline and Creda, manufactured between April 2004 and September 2015—should go to the Whirlpool website and put in their model and serial numbers to find out whether it is an affected model. If they do not want to go on to the website, they should ring Whirlpool’s helpline.