The UK government’s Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) has recently launched its first “strategy on product safety”, covering the period 2018-2020 (the Strategy, available here).
The OPSS was established in January 2018 in response to recommendations made by the government’s Working Group on Product Recalls and Safety, which had itself been set up in response to concerns around the existing systems for monitoring product safety risks and, in particular, the effectiveness of product recall procedures. The OPSS’s brief includes providing support and advice to local authority Trading Standards teams and co-ordinating work across local authorities where action is needed at national level.
The activities of the OPSS are not intended to change the current legal framework covering product safety. There are also no changes to the roles and responsibilities of local Trading Standards and other market surveillance authorities. However, the OPSS is expected to improve co-ordination between regulators and other stakeholders and to ensure greater awareness and clarity in respect of existing rights and obligations.
The OPSS’s actions to date include working with the British Standards Institute to draw up a Code of Practice for Product Recalls. It has also been involved in specific projects and campaigns in relation to products including white goods, “button batteries” and laser pointers, and has used its technical and scientific capabilities to provide ad hoc guidance to local Trading Standards in the context of specific investigations and enforcement actions.
The Strategy is intended to provide further details of the OPSS’s core activities and to expand upon what it hopes to achieve during its first few years of operation. It also forms part of the government’s wider “Industrial Strategy”, which purports to maintain and build upon consumer protection while facilitating an innovative and competitive environment for business.
The Strategy identifies four central objectives:
- Analyse – Making the best use of scientific evidence, incident data, risk and intelligence in decision making;
- Inform – Helping consumers make informed choices and give businesses the information they need to comply;
- Enforce – Using the full range of tools and powers to maintain protection, fairness and confidence; and
- Build – Putting in place an infrastructure that equips the UK for future challenges.
The document then identifies a list of key actions which are intended to give effect to the objectives and will form the basis for the OPSS’s work programme during the relevant period. These are further detailed in an accompanying delivery plan, which sets out specific timescales (the Delivery Plan, available here).
The planned activities include:
- Developing tools and guidance to assist businesses and local authorities in improving risk assessment procedures and providing a peer review service to validate local authorities’ risk assessments.
- The use of behavioural science to improve understanding of consumer and business behaviour, including testing which forms of communication work best with different parties.
- Supporting consumer awareness campaigns in relation to specific product safety hazards and wider issues, such as the dangers posed by counterfeit products. There will also be a new website to provide consumers with reliable information and advice about product recalls.
- Working with industry to provide timely guidance and supporting “primary authority partnerships”, whereby local Trading Standards provide regulatory advice and expertise to businesses.
- Providing local Trading Standards with improved access to specialist scientific and technical guidance.
- Providing increased support for local authority enforcement teams at ports, borders and other points of entry to ensure that unsafe goods are identified as they enter the UK.
- Establishing a new national incident management team for the largest and most critical product safety incidents.
- Ensuring appropriate preparedness for Brexit – for instance, ensuring that existing EU legislation is properly transposed into UK law and addressing any issues in respect of how these rules will function after Britain leaves the EU.
Alongside the Strategy and Delivery Plan, the OPSS has also published a strategic research plan (link) and an incident management plan (link), which sets out a procedural framework and institutional responsibilities for managing large-scale product safety incidents (the Incident Plan). We will cover the Incident Plan separately in a future post.
While the Strategy identifies a variety of positive and worthwhile goals, including the promise of additional support and guidance for manufacturers and other industry stakeholders, the real test will be whether the OPSS can achieve these outcomes with the limited resources at its disposal. In particular, if the OPSS is successfully to address the concerns which led to its formation, it will need to avoid seeking to achieve too much at once. We think that it should focus on encouraging greater consistency and co-ordination amongst those primarily tasked with applying existing consumer protection legislation (i.e. mainly local Trading Standards). The Strategy contains a number of sensible measures in this regard.
Strengthening national capacity for product safety: Strategy 2018-2020