The UK Government has announced a new National Office for Product Safety and Standards, albeit with a relatively limited annual budget of just £12 million.
The OPSS will identify consumer risks and manage national responses to major product recalls, coordinating Trading Standards and local authorities. Its work begins immediately, and its first priority is to set up a national incident management response capability and to improve the Government’s product recall website. The OPPS covers general (non-food) consumer goods and does not extend to products which already have dedicated agencies (such as medical devices).
The OPSS gives the UK dedicated expertise to lead on national product safety challenges for the first time, according to the Government, which clearly has ambitions for the nascent team. The OPSS will also provide consumer-facing product safety information and interface with industry on enforcement. Whitehall considers it will help prepare for Brexit through regulation of border imports (though precisely how is unclear).
Some have questioned whether the move goes far enough: the consumer watchdog, Which?, has demanded an independent national body with stronger consumer protection powers. Indeed, there is little evidence of any prominent teeth amongst the fanfare. However, longer term the Government will apparently consider upgrading the OPSS into an arm’s length independent body, so they may yet materialise.
The creation of the OPSS implements a recommendation of the Working Group on Product Safety and Recalls, which called for a “centralised technical and scientific resource capability” to coordinate local authorities and industry.
The Government established the Working Group in 2016 in the wake of the Shepherd's Bush fire to recommend practical changes to white goods safety, and it brought together experts from trading standards, consumer groups, industry and the fire service. It made a number of other recommendations, including a centralised hub to coordinate product safety actions, which were broadly welcomed by the Government in January 2018, with Andrew Griffiths, Minister for Small Businesses and Consumers, hailing a “fundamental shift” in the Government’s approach to product safety. It remains to be seen whether this rhetoric will translate into seismic change in practice, especially given funding constraints.