BLOG – The Complexities of Product Safety in the 21st Century

A Consumer Commentary  – the Complexities of Product Safety in the 21st Century

In preparing a detailed response to the BEIS, Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) consultation: UK Product safety Review : Call for evidence[1] the National Consumer Federation has needed to consider some fundamental issues for product safety in the very complex world in which we now live. As a precursor to our submission, the following short paper indicates the basis of our thinking and key points we believe need to be addressed.

The Nature of the Beast

When it comes to product safety and the related product liability, what is a ‘product’?.

Many purchases involve something that comprises a number of components often from different manufacturers.   When might each component be considered a ‘product’?  When a transaction takes place?  A product may embody other products each with its own safety assessment on which the final manufacturer/seller relies (e.g. compliance with individual product standards) but their safe use in combination must also be assured.

Your Smart Phone

Your phone comprises hardware and software – an operating system and apps compatible with the operating system. Safety depends on all of these being compatible, and the continued availability of support, be it batteries or software updates.  Issues for consumers can arise if the components of a consumer product have different safe or useful lives.  Can a smart phone be considered safe if it has a useful life of, say, 5 years but support of the operating system ceases after 2?

Safety has a time element. This is clear in products like vehicles or more particularly aircraft where regular schedules are set out for maintenance and replacement to ensure continued safe operation.

There are clear parallels with building materials where their safety depends on where and how they are deployed.  The onus must be on the constructor (of buildings, aircraft etc) to satisfy themselves that the components they deploy are safe in the way they have been used.

 

The NCF response to OPSS

1.The NCF starting point is the ISO 10377:2013[2] definition for a consumer product.

“2.2 Consumer Product

Product designed and produced primarily for, but not limited to, personal use, including its components, parts, accessories, instructions and packaging.”

This needs to be enhanced with clarity over the role of ‘digital’ product functionality as a component.

 

2. Consumer products going digital

2.1 For the 21st Century consumer products include digital functionality that brings with it new issues such as: enabling remote control; the ever-changing nature of software and hence, product functionality and performance; control involving use of algorithms for control in complex situations; and interactions between humans and automated control as control passes between them or requires joint actions. All complicated by the security of access to products to prevent malicious use.

2.2 To address such digital issues new functional safety by design principles[3] should be applied for safe design, reducing the risk of physical harms through design for foreseeable use, misuse and malicious use by 3rd parties.

2.3 There is the need for a clear duty of care provided by the manufacturer for consumers across the product lifecycle from design to end of life. Installation and maintenance, product design upgrades, market surveillance and retrofits all figure strongly in such care being exercised effectively.

2.4 The role of 3rd party products needs to be considered in overall product operation. There are products that interoperate to provide overall usefulness, and also the actual integration of products, such as adding voice control from the likes of Amazon, Google or Apple.

2.5 We also have to ask ourselves “What is Safety?” It should be beyond physical harm. Safety is defined in dictionaries as “the state of being safe from harm or danger” supplemented by the definition of the main impacts of harm – physical, financial, psychological, sexual, neglect and self-harm[4].

2.6. There are also a number of more detailed issues to address:

  1. Unsafe products on sale online
  2. Conformity assessment and accreditation
  3. Product liabilities for the manufacturer and others including liability over the product lifecycle and short software support timescales
  4. Consumer to consumer sales
  5. Product safety incidents databases
  6. Regulatory effectiveness including enforcement and the consumer right to redress
  7. There are closely related issues for consumer homes safety to ensure that what is built is safe and then that safety is maintained over the life of the building.

 

The National Consumer Federation’s full submission to the consultation will be made available on the NCF website.  www.thencf.org.uk

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/uk-product-safety-review-call-for-evidence

[2] ISO 10377:2013 Consumer Product Safety – Guidelines for suppliers

[3] ESF/NCF – Safety by Design Principles for Consumer Goods and Services with automated control features that affect physical safety (i.e. software controlled functionality)

[4] http://www.actagainstharm.org/what-is-harm

 

BLOG – Community-based energy projects

Community-based energy projects

As a consumer organisation, our historic roots are in local groups of consumers and citizens coming together to improve things for people of that particular locality (and beyond). So, the projects described below are of great interest – not just for the fact that they are local, but also because this is an area of our national life which NCF is focussing on for the coming year.  Net Zero is a key component of our, our children’s and our grandchildren’s futures – a project of concern for every UK consumer. The approach described here starts in the right place – in the community and driven by trusted local people.

Wolverton Consumer Energy

Wolverton is a former railway town in Milton Keynes. The housing is very varied, with a large proportion of Victorian housing built for the railway workers.  There are approximately 3,200 housing units and one of the highest levels of fuel poverty in the country.  About 10 years ago local inhabitants set up Wolverton Community Energy (https://wolvertoncommunityenergy.uk) to work on energy efficiency. WCE concentrates on demonstrations of good practice, advice and guidance and recommendations of grants and support.  Membership is open to all in the community: they pay a £1 membership fee and are expected to be involved from then on.

Their projects cover:

  • A demonstration of energy efficiency in a Victorian home
  • Training of local suppliers in the installation of solid wall insulation and local school projects to train children to learn about solid wall insulation
  • Spreading information about energy efficient appliances
  • Measuring changes by surveying before and after insulation
  • Running shows for the community where installers bring in examples of solar panels
  • Giving advice and guidance on how to make your home more energy efficient
  • Helping people to decide what is possible for them to do to save energy in their homes
  • Supporting the Green Deal project by carrying out a full assessment of the needs of 46 Wolverton residents, of whom 39 eventually had installations
  • Running a volunteer home energy screening survey
  • Helping people to understand gas and electricity bills
  • Planning a Future Energy Show with trusted installers taking part.

The main feature of WCE is that it is run by local people who are trusted -and not by energy suppliers or builders with vested interests. This personal involvement is essential to the success of the project.

Another Milton Keynes community-based initiative is Milton Keynes Community Energy (http://miltonkeynescommunityenergy.co.uk). They began with a core group of locals plus a few experts and identified the focus of their activity – to make homes more energy efficient. They then accessed funding and support and designed their legal structure.  The lessons they learnt were that they had to be stamina champions, that the local authority can be supportive but also frustrating and that partnerships and relationships are all important.

National organisations that can help locally

Another Milton Keynes-based energy initiative is the National Energy Foundation (http://www.nef.org.uk) which coordinates a consortium of community-led renewable energy projects and organises a super homes network all over the UK, including one in Milton Keynes.

Useful information is available from the Energy Saving Trust (https://energysavingtrust.org.uk) – its section On the Path to New Zero is particularly interesting.

What local community energy projects do YOU know about?

Milton Keynes is not unique! It’s true that we’re a relatively new town where community-based projects seem to thrive. But there is so much useful information and support of different kinds out there. Everyone, all over the country, needs to find ways to save energy, make their homes more comfortable and contribute towards Net Zero by 2050.

So, check out what’s going on in your community and decide what YOU can contribute!

MEMORIES OF MAURICE HEALY

MEMORIES OF MAURICE HEALY

The news of Maurice Healy’s death has saddened many – not just because of the qualities of the human being that was Maurice but because with his passing the ranks of the first movers of what we were proud to call the consumer movement grow ever thinner.

Jeremy Mitchell has written of interviewing Maurice for a job back in the earliest days of Which?  The interviewing panel were astonished at the quality of the candidate and were even more astonished when he accepted the job abandoning the glittering forecasts of his progress in the Civil Service.

Maurice turned his back on certainty and the future predictable and set sale in the decidedly risky boat that was Which? magazine in its earliest days and stayed on. He was Editor of Which? when I arrived in 1969. He had been a project officer and then Editor of Motoring Which? It was a time of expansion of the magazine stable – Motoring was succeeded by Money and then Gardening and Travel.

Maurice had the knack of making issues at once important and also fun. The smallest details involved intense debate –  I have a memory of hours spent on some recondite aspect of yoghurt – then an exotic unknown foodstuff rumoured to keep Georgians alive to be a hundred years old. Did the verifiers (the people with the job of checking all the facts and assertions in the magazine content) let that one through?

Maurice’s move to the National Consumer Council after it was founded in 1975 still made use of his leadership and editorial qualities to say nothing of his love of parties and lunchtimes in the pub (those were the days) but an interesting new dimension was added to his repertoire – policy development. At the centre of much of his thoughts were the consumer principles at the centre of our consumer philosophy.

He was now operating in the public sphere and dealing with issues on a much broader canvas than editing Which? articles on Yoghurt. This period saw the production of important work well researched, well written and very well received in consumer and other circles. The banking report is worth singling out and the work on Ombudsmen. General economic policy was developed with for example the concept of consumers getting value for money from state enterprises being discussed in a 1979 publication The Consumer and the State: Getting Value for Public Money.

This work was evidence-led policy making at its best. However the quality of its work was not in the end sufficient to ensure the NCC’s survival. Renamed Consumer Focus it was formally abolished in 2014.

After retiring from NCC Maurice was awarded the OBE in 2001 and continued to be involved in a number of consumer related activities – Chair of the Insurance Ombudsman and in the standards world – the work of BSI and ISO. Arnold Pindar worked closely with Maurice when he was Chair of BSI’s Consumer Policy Committee and also Chair of ISO/COPOLCO the Consumer Policy Committee of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). He remembers him chairing a very difficult conference with some very poor speaker and being impressed by the clarity and comprehensiveness of his summing up. The secret of this success?  “I wrote my summary last night!”

Consumer affairs was not his only focus. The Healy family had suffered the tragic loss of one of their daughters, Kate, who died at the age of 16 of a heart condition while on a school trip to Wales. Maurice’s response as ever empathic and practical was to qualify as a bereavement counsellor offering comfort and help to those in need.

How to sum up – to work with friends is fun; to work with good and very competent people a great boon; to produce good work to the benefit of others is enormously satisfying. To meet and work with someone who embodied and promoted all these elements was the great joy of my life. I and many others will miss him and our sympathies go out to José his wife and his daughters Jess and Lulu.

Colin Adamson

Seize the Day – a time to train for Net Zero Homes ?

Pete Eisenegger writes: It’s a pandemic. Consumers are being cautious. People are losing jobs.

Meanwhile Global Warming continues and the need to adjust and bring our carbon footprints down becomes ever more pressing. As is the need for energy efficient homes. Building new modern homes to the standard needed is easy compared to upgrading the houses we have inherited from generations ago. Bringing them up to the Net Zero standard is another job entirely. This is the Retrofit Challenge.

We at the NCF and others have shown that the UK needs many more pairs of hands in the building trades to cope with the anticipated demand for retrofitting our homes to be Net Zero. These are skilled jobs fitting insulation and cladding, in some case putting in better boilers, then installing solar panels and heat pumps.

The aim is to retrofit 27 million of the 29 million UK homes by 2050. That’s 900,000 a year or 17,000 – 20,000 a week depending on when the UK is ready to fully roll out retrofit and how many working weeks there are in year.

That’s equivalent to about all the homes in Dorking every week, or if you live further north, about every home in Selby Town each week.

And to pay for it, consumers – our children and our children’s children – will be borrowing and spending hundreds of billions of pounds over 30 years (  not a typo, a hundred billion is a number with 11 noughts )

It is said that up to 300,000 additional jobs will be needed for Net Zero Homes retrofit. However those people and skills are not yet in place.

Right now consumer demand is depressed, so NCF says, isn’t it time to prepare, recruit and train up all those trades skills we will need ?

Let’s invest in the unemployed from all backgrounds and build the trade skills needed to be able to catch up with the retrofitting we will need to meet the 2050 targets ?

Let’s act now and make the UK capable of delivering that key Net Zero Homes national objective.

Are you a Covid-19 Duck ?

 

There is a test for Covid-19 according to the BBC Radio 4 programme More or Less and it is based on the old saying …

 

If it walks like a duck, sounds like a duck and looks like a duck … it’s probably a duck.

 

What the radio programme delved into was the accuracy of the tests going on now for Covid-19. There are, it seems, some dodgy results.

We are getting false results since the amount of virus particles captured by swabbing may be too low to register in the test. First of all, this can be because swabbing both the back of the throat and nose can be a bit ‘iffy’, and secondly because the amount of virus in those of us who are infected varies over time,  so the amount of virus particles captured by swabbing may be too low to register in the test.

The More or Less programme gave a typical figure for ‘someone has Covid-19 but tested as not having Covid-19’ (called false negatives in the jargon) of about 30%.

So as we move forward about 1 in 3 people tested will be told to be cautious and then start back into community life but may still have the infection. 

Government advice has been that if you look like a Covid-19 Duck with your symptoms then it is best that you assume you are a Covid-19 Duck and self-isolate immediately and check your symptoms.

We have to ask, why tracing is based on test results that can come days after symptoms first appear and fall short of 100% accuracy, when, as the NCF propose, tracing can be automated much more and should start as though you had the virus the moment you start  showing symptoms ?

The NCF has proposed to the Select Committee on Health and others that Covid-19 tracing apps are based on giving individuals their own Covid-19 contact information starting with contacts that have suspect, but not yet confirmed symptoms. That information should be on their smartphones to start with, and then perhaps on more devices over time as Singapore is doing.

If you let people know anonymously and automatically that they have been in contact with someone with suspect symptoms that allows the public to take early precautions in their own lives. NCF estimate that this should be 6-7 days earlier than the current test then trace working by the NHS. Time is critical in tracing activity and this could make a significant difference to the overall effectiveness of the whole system.

It is worth commenting on the range of symptoms that those with Covid-19 can display. They are many and various and it is quite possible that a person might display them due to something completely different. So the NCF approach may well result in people being notified with quite a number of false alarms from those who aren’t actually Covid-19 Ducks

(called in the jargon false positives).   

So the NCF approach may be cautious but faster and thus safer, and people will learn from their own experiences and detailed contact information if and when suspects turn into confirmed Covid-19 contacts in a few days

We want to see the NCF guidance supported and strengthened with automated notification of suspect symptoms contacts that would enable people to look further back than 48 hours. People would then be better protected to keep overall levels of infection down and, as we have proposed, work better with local authorities.

Let’s get tracing all those Covid-19 Ducks!

 

Peter Eisenegger

Brexit : Keep our safety legislation!

Support for Regulation

Research finds that there is a high level of support for regulations among younger people that voted to leave the European Union. The majority of respondents expressed a preference for maintaining or increasing regulations across diverse areas of public life. The research indicated strong support for keeping or strengthening EU-derived regulations – both among younger Leave voters who voted Conservative in December 2019, and those who voted Labour.

This public opinion research was carried out by Uchecked.uk to test attitudes to regulation, deregulation and enforcement of regulations among young adults in Great Britain who voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum. We might have expected these voters to have embraced a “bonfire of the regulations” to release businesses from their bureaucratic burdens, as was championed during the Brexit referendum debates. But this is clearly not the reason for them to vote “out”

Wrong Legislation Repealed

Arnold Pindar, NCF Chairman says: “Throughout my career, when dealing with consumer safety, successive governments have tried to find ways of reducing bureaucratic burdens on businesses. However, they appear to always target the wrong legislation to repeal. This and previous research by Unchecked.uk has shown that consumers/voters recognise the need for effective safety legislation. Also, in my long experience, businesses need a ‘level playing field’ of safety legislation that protects them from selling unsafe products but ensures that they can compete fairly in the marketplace.”

During the Brexit debates, David Davies, then Brexit Minister, stated that Brexit must not result in a race to the bottom. To compete in the world markets, the United Kingdom needs to compete on quality, and this also means on safety.

Compete on Quality: No reduction on Safety

From this research and our observations at the NCF, we call on the government:

  • to maintain and where necessary increase regulations to ensure the UK competes on quality and
  • to ensure that there is no reduction in standards of safety as trade deals are negotiated with the European Union, USA and other countries.
The full report is available at Unchecked UK.

Something for our Brussels negotiators to bear in mind if they can tear themselves away from cod (with an extra portion of chips please).

Covid-19 : Trust Us More

The new apps being deployed to trace and track Covid-19 are a chance for more user participation to make the whole tracing scheme more effective. All it takes says Peter Eisenegger who leads for NCF on Consumer Digital Concerns would be a little more functionality and choice for their smart phones.

This would allow us as consumers and citizens to take even more sensible decisions about our behaviours, the precautions we take and co-operation with whatever rules are in force at the time as well as improving the level of uptake of Covid-19 tracing apps.

The key is TO TRUST THE PUBLIC.

More Information

The current strategy, adopted by the Government, has a centralised resource deciding that your Covid-19 contacts are creating risk and that your health conditions make you vulnerable. You are then notified to take care accordingly. This keeps us short of information. The NCF believes that with more processing of our Covid-19 contact data privately on our own phone, giving much more insightful information, we can be empowered to take better care of our own safety, and that of our fellow citizens, so avoiding Covid-19 health problems.

More Suppliers

We would also like to see more than one supplier because in our experience consumers react to a range of choices positively by being readier to buy. One often quoted set of figures took choice from no better than 10% for single choice to 66% combined uptake for a two-choice option between different, but similar, products. We should avoid putting all our eggs in one basket. The special apps could offer benefit both in the home and our workplaces such as schools, care homes, factories, offices and so on.

The more people can adapt the app for their own circumstances the more useful it becomes. This positive experience will then help reduce consumer fear of apps designed for the public good which may seem to seek to pry into and control our lives.

Standards at Home and Abroad

We also have to think internationally for when we can travel abroad again  where we may still need to trace  Covid-19 contacts in the places we visit and  manage the infection risks of such travel. So an additional aid to reassuring us as citizens has to be national and international standards for basic contact information anonymization and sharing between Covid-19 tracing apps to enable communication between different apps/phones/networks.

You can see the full paper here

CONSUMERS TO MASTERCARD “GIVE US £14 BILLION BACK”

Consumer Rights Argued at Highest Level

On 13-14 May 2020 at the Supreme Court, former Chief Financial Ombudsman, Walter Merricks CBE, took a class action on behalf of consumers against Mastercard to the highest court in the land. The action was taken with support from a small group of consumer experts, amongst them Arnold Pindar NCF Chair.

The claim is that unlawful card fees were passed on to shoppers through higher prices from 1992 to 2008. The case was thrown out by the Class Action Tribunal in 2017 but was successful at the Court of Appeal. Due to this being an important test case for the working of the relatively new Consumer Rights Act, the Supreme Court will determine whether the claim can proceed.

£300 Each?

Walter Merricks claims £14bn on behalf of United Kingdom consumers. If successful, an estimated 46.2 million consumers could each receive a handout of about £300.

The new Act makes it easier for consumers to seek compensation by giving them six years to bring a case and by enabling anyone forming part of the suing ‘class’ to be a part of the case.

The class action follows on from a case in the European Court in which Mastercard was found guilty of restricting card payment competition which harmed consumers and retailers. Mastercard was fined €570m by the court.

‘Errors in Law’

On behalf of the claimants, Paul Harris QC expertly claimed that the Tribunal had made errors in law in dismissing the original claim. One difficulty for the claim is that we cannot say exactly how much each individual claimant (of the 46.2 million!) is owed. It is not just those with a Mastercard account that we claim are owed compensation but everyone that bought from a store or service that accepted Mastercard payments. As Mastercard have argued, the overcharge was passed on, or spread across, by e.g. supermarkets, to all their customers, not just those using their credit cards.

In a class action arguing overcharging for purchasing e.g. mobility vehicles (part of a previous case), it is possible to determine the exact loss for each individual claimant from receipts. In this case, it is argued by Walter Merricks that a pragmatic decision will be needed to share any compensation fairly amongst the many claimants.

Virtual Justice and a Verdict

The Supreme Court hearing was carried out on line by video conferencing due to the pandemic, which was rather strange to observe as you could only see the speaker and not the reactions to the submissions by others in the court. Having heard the submissions for and against the case, the Court is expected to give their ruling in the coming weeks.

Zero Carbon for 2050

Monica Shelley asks if anyone’s putting it into practice

I attended the Zero Carbon by 2050 congress (see full report) and it set me thinking about the practical implications of what all the experts who spoke defined as the actions necessary to achieve the aims they spelt out. I wondered, in particular, what might happen in the area where I live and what the responsibilities of the local council might be.  It seems to me that whatever regulations the government might provide, whatever specialist firms there might be to inform retrofitting and however many loans and possibly grants might be made available, in the end it was down to the local authority to make these things happen.

What is my Council doing?

Inspired by the presentations and discussion at the Congress, I wrote to the Milton Keynes Council member with the responsibility for housing and regeneration. I asked, in particular, what Council policies were in place to motivate house owners to retrofit their homes and how council-owned housing was to be updated. To what extent is council housing currently under construction designed for maximum energy efficiency?  No reply as yet. I think these are the sorts of questions, and probably more,  that need to be put to local councils.  I am sure that they have other matters on their minds just now, but these issues are not going to disappear.  Or will the Zero Carbon by 2050 ambition be revised, ignored or even forgotten?

 

Lynn Faulds Wood – An Appreciation

We were all very saddened to hear of the death of Lynn Faulds Wood , due to a stroke. Lynn was a good friend to the National Consumer Federation and a tireless advocate for consumer rights. Lynn chaired the British Standards Institution’s Consumer and Public Interest Network. In this role, she also represented consumer views on BSI’s Standards Policy and Strategy Committee.  She was a great champion of the consumer in the development and use of standards.

Colin Adamson adds a personal memory of Lynn Faulds Wood

The consumer movement had two popular or should that be populist figureheads – Esther and Lynn. Rantzen and Faulds Wood both had the knack of creating campaigns that attracted not just the support of many but galvanised the people with the power to act, to intervene and change things for the better in the consumer interest. 

I will always remember that West Coast (Helensburgh not California) drawl as she drew you in to hear the latest scandal or horror story. She had a genuine sense of indignation that the years could not dampen – things that struck the rest of us as ‘a pity and let’s move on’  sparked a campaigning instinct in her that both exposed crime and crook – she was physically very brave – and followed through to get things changed. 

Whether it was a man with an axe exposed for the consumer criminal he was or kettles with too short  – or was it too long? – flexes, she brought a freshness and a sense of authentic anger and passion to issues that gathered support and promoted action. If Lynn was interested, then the topic was by definition interesting. If she said it was wrong and needed changing, that was what happened and we are not just talking faulty toasters but strongly defended areas of professional life like surgical process and practice. 

I remember a Sunday afternoon walk with her and John and my then wife – they all worked in TV. I had been looking forward to a wine-fuelled occasion laced with TV gossip about who was seen leaving the BBC club with whom – we are talking a while ago – and was not at all prepared for the direction the conversation actually took – the detailed rundown on the state of her colon and the kind enquiries after the health of mine seasoned with spot on observations on the conservatism of clinicians. She and John were the impeccable media pair – both professional to the core and protective of each other’s reputation but looking to be bigger than the issue. Once Faulds Wood was on your case, beware. Her mannerisms made her the parodist’s dream but if that was the price of fame and a tribute to victories for the consumer, so be it.

Implacable but polite, confident in her case and cause but never self-important she illuminated the consumer cause and we all have reason – and more than one probably – to give thanks for her work and offer our heartfelt sympathies to John and her son Nick.