The Whirlpool Appliance Fire Safety scandal is nothing short of outrageous that given the overwhelming evidence, the sheer numbers of at-risk and defective appliances in UK homes that Whirlpool continue to show complete lack of accountability and responsibility.
This following transcript was from a Commons debate in April 2017 (26 April 2017, Volume 624) titled:
Whirlpool: Product Safety System –
[Ms Joan Ryan in the Chair]
Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Whirlpool and the product safety system.
Thank you, Ms Ryan, for the opportunity to open this debate today in Westminster Hall on a subject that I have become heavily involved with and extremely concerned about during the last year. May I also say what a pleasure it is to experience your chairing of a debate for the first time? I am sure it will not be the last.
This issue affects many people across the UK and I am very pleased that hon. Members from throughout the country are here today. Members will probably recall that I led an Adjournment debate last September on tumble dryers, as a direct result of a tragic incident in my constituency. On 19 August 2016, Debbie Defreitas, a constituent of mine, was in the kitchen of her home on the seventh floor of Shepherds Court, an 18-storey block of flats overlooking Shepherd’s Bush Green, when she became aware of a burning smell. Her Indesit tumble dryer, which is a make owned by Whirlpool, was running and had caught fire mid-cycle. The fire subsequently tore through the block and 120 firefighters had to attend the scene to put out the blaze.
The incident resulted in 100 families being evacuated from the block and 26 were found temporary accommodation in hotels that night. Luckily, there were only minor injuries, but London Fire Brigade has said that if the fire had happened late at night the outcome would have been far worse. It is clear from other fires caused by white goods that such incidents can lead, and indeed have led, to tragic loss of life. It is a great relief that that was avoided at Shepherds Court.
Today, five of the flats affected remain out of action and the tenants from those properties are still in temporary housing provided by Hammersmith and Fulham Council. Although those tenants are being adequately housed, they experienced substantial trauma and upheaval as a result of this incident, as I am sure people appreciate. I visited the block last weekend. Most residents are now back in and the local authority has redecorated the floors, but the legacy of the fire will last for many years.
Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the shocking thing about this situation is that Indesit knew for 14 months that there was a problem, and it took action from Trading Standards, which issued enforcement notices, the Local Government Association and a pressure group to get notices sent out to the small number of people that Indesit knew had these machines, telling them they should unplug them and not use them again until they had been repaired?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and I am also grateful to the large number of Members attending this debate, which shows the degree of interest in the subject. I will go through what happened—hopefully not at great length, but with some precision—to show just how culpable Whirlpool has been and to outline the specific tasks that we want the Government to ensure are carried out, so that there is no repetition of last year’s fire and this particularly serious issue is resolved.
The key point is that my constituent had followed Whirlpool’s safety advice to the letter, which at the time of the fire was:
“You may continue to use your tumble dryer whilst waiting for the modification, however we require that you do not leave your dryer unattended during operation”.
Ms Defreitas was supervising her tumble dryer when the fire broke out, as she had been advised to do. However, in reality many people would not do so and why should they? In the 21st century, manufacturers should make products without fault that do not pose a risk to life and property. Although it is perhaps inevitable that products are occasionally faulty, in such instances a manufacturer must take immediate action to inform consumers of the fault, and it must also issue an immediate and full recall. Anything less is hugely irresponsible.
Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate on an issue that has had an impact on the lives of many people throughout Britain and also in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that Trading Standards must be forced to do a lot more in relation to this issue, and that currently there is a serious gap between faults that manufacturers and suppliers of electrical goods know about, and what consumers are aware of?
I absolutely agree and I know that a number of Members from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, some of whom are here today, have been putting a lot of pressure on. I hope that pressure will continue, because clearly the current Trading Standards regime does not work. That is why we need the Government to intervene and not simply say that this is a matter that can be resolved at local authority level.
Given that the Shepherds Court fire was more than eight months ago, I am disappointed that I have had to come back to the House today to raise the matter again, as I had hoped that by now both the Government and Whirlpool would have taken action to remedy this situation. Unfortunately, however, there has been little progress: Whirlpool has not properly rectified the problem; and the Minister and the Government have not acted decisively. As a consequence, I believe lives are still at risk.
In particular, Whirlpool’s complete lack of accountability and responsibility for those consumers whose daily lives have been—and indeed are still being—put at risk, is simply unacceptable. The company’s behaviour throughout this whole process prompts the question of why anyone would want to buy a Whirlpool tumble dryer, or indeed any other product made by the company, in future.
Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for securing this debate. I have a constituent who has a very similar story to the one he has just outlined. She asked me not to reveal her name, but she was using her tumble dryer and it actually exploded. Flames went up and hit the roof. We talk about the consequences of such fires for people’s lives. She lost pretty much everything and unfortunately she was not insured. This happened some time ago and she is still living with the consequences. All that time, as the hon. Gentleman said, Whirlpool seems to have been completely ambivalent about the consequences of these incidents for people’s lives.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because I believe that Whirlpool is cynically trying to delay everything from legal actions on liability through to inquests, to resist what in the end will undoubtedly be very substantial payments that it will have to make. However, the consequences of these incidents, particularly for poorer people who may not have insurance and who—as is the case with some of my constituents—have lost all their belongings as well as their homes, are absolutely devastating.
Since the fire in Shepherds Bush, Whirlpool has failed to answer the most basic questions in my correspondence with the company, and its letters in response are often written not by the company itself but by its PR agency, Ketchum.
Alberto Costa (South Leicestershire) (Con)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, particularly given the experience of one of his constituents. Of course, the hon. Gentleman and I have been in correspondence on this matter over a number of months. When I first raised this issue, I did not just raise it on behalf of constituents; I myself happen to be the owner of one of the tumble dryers in question.
I never revealed to Whirlpool that I am an MP. Why should I? I should be treated just like any other member of the public. When I first contacted Whirlpool about this issue as an MP, it did not have the courtesy to respond to me. When I first received a letter from Maurizio Pettorino, the managing director of Whirlpool UK, in September 2016, in which he profusely apologised for not having responded to me in the first place but only after I had raised the matter in the House of Commons, he said to me that in my South Leicestershire constituency there were 5,000 customers affected by this situation.
Joan Ryan (in the Chair)
It is a very long intervention.
What does the hon. Gentleman say about the fact that I then received a letter dated 28 March from Mr Pettorino, which told me that 16,900 of my South Leicestershire constituents are affected by this situation?
I thank the hon. Gentleman; since his own personal experience of this matter, he has been assiduous in pursuing it. In response to his question, frankly I do not think it would have made much difference if he had originally said he was an MP, because when MPs have attempted to get Whirlpool representatives to come to this House to speak to Committees and all-party groups, they have refused to attend. His story does not surprise me, and the different figures that he cites are a sign either of Whirlpool’s incompetence or that they simply do not care what they say.
I am incredibly frustrated by Whirlpool’s lack of engagement with MPs and its refusal to co-operate with them. That is despite the fact that we continue to hear in the press of tumble dryer fires across the UK almost daily. London Fire Brigade sent me details of a fire that it attended last weekend. The occupants of a flat with a faulty tumble dryer—it was a Hotpoint tumble dryer— managed to escape, but a 96-year-old woman in the flat above had to be rescued and taken to hospital by firefighters.
There is a real risk to life and limb here. The Local Government Association has reported that firefighters are now attending three fires a day caused by tumble dryers. Figures I received from the London Fire Brigade ahead of this debate show that there have been 1,520 fires caused by tumble dryers and washing machines since 2009 in the London fire authority area alone. Overall, in London—I refer to London not because this is not a problem across the country, but because the London Fire Brigade is one of the few to have retained a research department following cuts to fire services, so it is able to collate and act on information—tumble dryer fires increased by 24% between 2015 and 2016.
On the wider issue of product safety, each year between 250 and 300 house fires in London are caused by white goods. We know from organisations such as Electrical Safety First, which is a charity that campaigns for our constituents to use electricity safely in the home, that electricity is the cause of many house fires and that fires caused by electricity are increasing. The Minister must therefore look closely not only at the issue with Whirlpool and tumble dryers, but the wider context of fires caused by all white goods and electrical goods, such as mobile phone chargers and refrigerators. Just this week, we had an inquest into the death of someone who sadly died escaping from a fire caused by a fridge-freezer.
It is clear from the statistics that the Government must get to grips with this escalating problem. There are far too many unsafe electrical appliances in our constituents’ homes. Has the Minister spoken to the Home Office about the rising number of fires caused by electrical goods and the effect faulty tumble dryers are having on the figures? What does she intend to do to reduce the number of fires and protect consumers from these faulty goods?
I am not the only one who has raised these issues in the House, as is clear from the number of Members here today. We just heard from the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa). He spoke in my previous debate of his total frustration with Whirlpool as one of their customers. He called then for the resignation of the managing director, and I doubt he has changed his mind. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on home electrical safety, has raised the issue several times with the Minister and has been excellent in raising awareness among MPs.
I am sad to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) is stepping down as an MP, but as Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee he has tried to engage with Whirlpool with limited success. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), who sadly cannot be here, and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is here, have also been instrumental in supporting the campaign and in coming with me to meet the Minister. Many Members have tried to engage with Whirlpool and the Government, but they have been ignored and have received answers that are simply unacceptable.
I think my hon. Friend is personally responsible for protecting and saving the lives of many people who have these risky appliances. I think we all owe him a debt of gratitude. Our hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) has also been raising this issue, but I wrote to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy asking about the final report on the recall system, which the working group on product recalls and safety was commissioned to do. I was told that the report had been received and would be published in due course. Given the impending general election, we cannot wait for another two months and let this drift. Is it not right that the Minister should give us the decision today on what the Government will do to protect lives?
Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments and for raising that issue. I will conclude my speech by putting that matter to the Minister. If, when the new Parliament is elected, we still do not have satisfactory answers, I hope that whoever then chairs the BEIS Committee will pursue the matter with the Government and Whirlpool.
Having mentioned many Members, I want briefly to pay tribute to the campaign organisations, without which we simply would not have got this far. It is invidious, because some always get left out, but they include Which?, Electrical Safety First, the London Fire Brigade, the LGA and the Chief Fire Officers Association. They have all been extremely helpful in keeping the issue on our agenda and ensuring we are properly briefed. In particular, Which? has led a campaign specifically on Whirlpool’s unwillingness to undertake a recall. That resulted in a change in Whirlpool’s safety advice in February. Last December, Which? sought a judicial review into what it regarded as failures by the trading standards team overseeing the case in Peterborough. As Members may be aware, Peterborough trading standards has been acting as Whirlpool’s advisers, and the review would have looked into whether Peterborough trading standards acted lawfully in this capacity. Which? said at the time:
“We believe that the way Whirlpool has handled the tumble dryer safety issue is absolutely appalling and to add insult to injury Peterborough Trading Standards has failed to do its duty to protect consumers. We have decided to step in and take legal action because we want Peterborough Trading Standards to properly protect Whirlpool customers and carry out its role as an enforcer of product safety laws.”
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab)
Is it the case then that Which? forced Peterborough trading standards’ hand and moved the issue on as a result of the threat of judicial review?
Absolutely. Trading standards and Whirlpool had to be dragged kicking and screaming. Peterborough trading standards said Which?’s action was premature, which is extraordinary given what happened in my constituency. In February, Peterborough changed its mind and finally issued an enforcement notice. After resistance and presumably after it took legal advice, Whirlpool changed its advice to consumers, at last telling them to stop using the faulty machines. The London Fire Brigade and many others had been advising that all along. It is clear that if it was not for Which?, the previous advice would still be given to consumers, putting them and their families at risk. While that change of advice was a step in the right direction, it is simply not enough. The organisations I have mentioned, along with my hon. Friends and I, want to see a full recall of these faulty machines, and we will not rest until that has been implemented.
Finally, in terms of acknowledging who is on the side of virtue, I would like to say—Members do not always do this—that we have had huge support for a full product recall not only from the public, but from the media. I must mention Alice Beer of ITV, as she is here and has done fantastic campaigning work, as has Lynn Faulds Wood. The Daily Mirror, The Sun, The Guardian, the BBC and ITV have all taken the time to provide ample coverage of this issue, and the petition I set up calling for a full product recall has now reached the magic 100,000 signature mark. If the matter is not resolved by the time the new Parliament comes in, I hope it will be considered for a fuller debate on the Floor of the House.
It is clear that the issue is not going away, and the public are incredibly dissatisfied with the response they have had. The Minister said in my previous debate that she was satisfied with Peterborough’s actions at that time, so will she please explain what discussions the Government have had privately with Trading Standards and Whirlpool since that debate? What is her assessment of Peterborough trading standards’ actions now? Does she recognise that Peterborough trading standards was wrong last year when it failed to take effective action against Whirlpool? Does she believe that it is now right to have done so, albeit only when threatened with legal action? Does she accept that the Government played no part in that and can take no credit, but that they have an opportunity to act now?
The Minister’s brief includes consumer protection, but for her to be able to claim that she really does protect consumer rights, we need substantive action. At the moment, we are leaving many people with dangerous tumble dryers in their homes. What discussions has she had with Whirlpool recently? When will she acknowledge the daily problems that people are having with their tumble dryers, which they are now told not to use because of the risks to life and property? How many more lives need to be lost before firm action is finally taken? Is this not just the tip of the iceberg of a wider problem with white goods and recalls that needs to be urgently addressed?
That brings me to the BEIS working group. We have already had one review—I mentioned Lynn Faulds Wood —which made very sensible recommendations, such as creating a single register for all product recalls, which the fire brigade has long been calling for. However, that was ignored by the Government and another review was set up. In the previous debate, the Minister said that the working group was
“primarily focusing on three work strands: establishing a centre of excellence, or official website…considering how to ensure that we have more reliable, detailed guidance on product recalls, which would, I hope, improve the rate of recall from its current one in four success rate; and establishing a mapping process whereby all organisations involved in product recalls can have access to better data and information sharing.”—[Official Report, 13 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 875.]
She also mentioned that that work would take two years, and that was a year after Lynn Faulds Woods had reported. We were told to expect an interim report at Christmas. Four months later, there is no sign of that report. Where is it? Has it now been buried as a result of the general election, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) suggested? When will the Government take action to protect consumers? Will they include any of Lynn Faulds Wood’s recommendations, such as the creation of a single register for product recalls?
Brexit also raises a number of issues for the Minister’s Department about important EU electrical safety regulations and consumer regulations that we need to ensure are maintained in UK law. Will the Minister confirm where the report is and whether it will include considerations on Brexit? What is her Department doing to ensure that we maintain important EU consumer laws when we leave the European Union? My concern is that her Government will seek to deregulate consumer protection, rather than increase it, as they are seeking to do with environmental regulations.
Returning to the faulty dryers, do the Government know how many unregistered machines are still out there posing a risk? We know that millions of affected Whirlpool machines are missing from any registration scheme. What are the Government telling Whirlpool to do to ensure that consumers do not use those machines in the meantime? We were told that there was press advertising; I cannot say that I saw it, and it was certainly not sustained over a period of time. Do the Government have any faith in Whirlpool’s modification programme, particularly given that some consumers have reported that their dryers continue to catch fire after modification?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s generosity in giving way a second time. I witnessed my own tumble dryer being fixed. Whirlpool claims that the modifications have been tested by independent experts. Which? informs me that it has not been forwarded any of the details associated with those tests. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in the interests of transparency and consumer protection, that information should be shared? If it has been shared with the Government, I urge the Minister to share it as soon as possible, so that we can identify whether the modified tumble dryers, let alone those that still await modification, are safe.
I am grateful for that point, because one of the features of this issue is how secretive Whirlpool has been, to the extent that it still does not publish a full list of the models affected. It appears to put what is left of its public reputation before the safety of its customers.
I ask the Minister to make these inquiries, as Whirlpool is not responding to individual Members. How does it intend to compensate customers for the losses they have suffered through fires that have already occurred? When is it completing its rectification programme? Is that rectification or replacement programme itself safe? Importantly, how will it raise public awareness? London Fire Brigade estimates that there could be as many as 3 million machines still out there unmodified, with owners who simply do not know, unless they have been lucky enough to see a news programme or are perhaps members of Which?.
This has gone on for far too long; delays are costing lives and destroying people’s homes, as we saw in my constituency. Whirlpool is a brand seriously damaged by its own incompetence and a series of own goals—a lack of engagement and an ignorant and arrogant attitude to its customers and Members of this House. It is a textbook case in how not to do it.
The Labour party will introduce measures to improve the product safety and recall system if we are elected on 8 June. I appreciate that the Minister might today be responding for the last time in her post. I know that she has taken an interest in the issue and I hope she can answer some of the questions. Will the BEIS working group’s report be published before the election or has it become less of a priority? Why have we not heard anything about it? Why has Whirlpool failed to engage with MPs and the Government? Will the Government push Peterborough trading standards to implement a full product recall, as they should have done months ago, before any more lives are lost?
The Whirlpool tragedy should be a watershed. Perhaps a million machines have been modified. Perhaps, as Whirlpool estimates—it is only an estimate—another million have gone out of service because they are redundant, given that the problem dates back to 2004. However, there are potentially up to 3 million machines still out there. Can we have an assurance from the Minister today, finally, that this will act as a catalyst for a proper registration scheme and a proper recall system?
One of the most shocking aspects for me, other Members and constituents is that we believed that there was an effective system of product safety in this country. The Whirlpool tragedy has exposed that there simply is not—but it is possible, because it happens in the US and in other countries. If the Minister is to have a legacy in this job, it could be to commit this or a future Government to saying they will go forward with a proper system of registration and recall, as well as ensuring that the disaster that is the Whirlpool scheme is finally put to rest.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I commend the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for bringing forward this issue, on which he has been a champion in debates in the House, including in a shorter Adjournment debate, when he fully put forward the issue and was supported by many of us here today and those from further afield. I thank him for bringing it forward today and am fully supportive of his purpose. He gave much detail on what has happened, and I will try to give my speech without repeating it.
I have had constituents in my office who are anxious and concerned about being told, “Just stay in the house,” when the machine is in use. Let me set the scene with an example of one constituent. My constituent and her husband work full-time jobs and also work some additional shifts to pay the mortgage. She leaves the house with her two-year-old and her one-year-old baby at 8.30 am. She returns at 6.30 pm, gives the children their dinner and bath and has them in bed for 8 pm, at which stage her 18-year-old babysitter takes over, to allow her to go to her evening meetings. She does not have the time to sit for the washing and drying cycle to complete, and cannot leave an 18-year-old in charge of a fire hazard with sleeping babies upstairs—that is unrealistic.
Her option is to sit and watch the washer-dryer cycle throughout the night. That is certainly ridiculous, but it is the reality of what the firm wants people to do, as the hon. Gentleman set out in his introduction. Is it a joke? No, it is not, and that is why in Westminster Hall today, with the Minister in her place—she has a very wide-ranging portfolio, given what she was here responding to yesterday and what she is doing today—we believe that legislation needs to be put in place that makes firms accountable and protects consumers, which it quite clearly does not at this moment in time.
I read the very succinct briefing provided by Which?—I am sure we have all had sight of that. Where a product could cause a risk to life or serious injury, Which? expects it to be promptly recalled by the manufacturers. What could be clearer or simpler than that? Yet we have firms who clearly disregard that and have a blasé attitude in how they respond. I ask again: how can we make those firms act with the urgency that we really need? All right-thinking people expect that, but we must make what is expected from manufacturers crystal clear.
As we know, Whirlpool acquired the Indesit Company, including its brands Hotpoint, Indesit, Swan, Proline and Creda, in 2014. In August 2015, Whirlpool informed Peterborough trading standards, as its primary authority partner, that up to 5.3 million dryers in the UK were affected by a fault discovered in more than 120 models. The magnitude of that number! The 5.3 million dryers in more than 120 models is nearly everything it has. Why has it not been coerced, persuaded or made to act more quickly? Those driers were also at risk of catching fire and required urgent modification to address the problem.
In August 2015, the company admitted what had to be done and notified trading standards, but the number of driers and models is very large. By 2016, about 750 fires had been reportedly linked to Hotpoint, Indesit, Proline, Swan and Creda tumble driers. Of course, since then there have been even more. A fire in a tower block in Shepherd’s Bush—I am sure the hon. Member for Hammersmith or other hon. Members will talk about it—left 50 people unable to return to their homes. The London Fire Brigade found that it had been caused by an Indesit tumble drier. We could see the horror that it caused on TV: it did not affect just one person, but all the other residents of the tower block. There are other examples—the fire brigade gave us one. Does Indesit not realise the danger? We do as elected representatives, and the people who own the driers and those whose homes have been damaged certainly do as well.
Which? found that those affected have been forced to wait far too long for a repair or replacement, and that customer service staff have given incorrect and potentially dangerous advice.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that some of the machines have been sold on? When houses go up for sale, electrical goods go with them, and perhaps the second owners do not appreciate that the machine they inherit with their new home is dangerous, so they will not be looking to see whether it should be repaired.
I thank the hon. Lady for that very wise intervention. I had not given much thought to that. Sometimes the machines are sold on, but where is the follow-on? How does the company find out about those people? The people who have got them know about the problem from the adverts on TV, the stories in the papers and so on, but in many cases they do not know that they have something dangerous sitting in their home. The hon. Lady is right. We are trying to be positive in our questions to the Minister, but perhaps she will give some thought to that issue.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith spoke about home fires, and the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) spoke about some personal examples. There is a record of damage, and the company admits that there is a problem, so surely it should be held to account and should award compensation to people who have had massive fires in their flats and properties. Let us be honest: it is only for the grace of God that people have not been injured or died as a result of this issue.
Whirlpool has not acted in the best interests of consumers. It resisted a recall of the affected models and failed to repair and replace affected machines in a timely way. The affected consumers were told not to use their tumble driers. When someone is told not to use their tumble drier, they expect the company to come and repair it or replace it with something that works correctly.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that regulation is an issue? A series of recent product safety issues have brought into sharp focus the need for proper regulation and enforcement. Does he agree that the Government should focus their attention on that issue, too?
I thank the hon. Lady for those comments.
Clearly, the issue for us all is safety. As I said, it is only by the grace of God that nobody has been injured or killed. It is unrealistic to expect consumers not to use their tumble dryer for months on end, so it is possible that further fire and safety incidents will occur as a result of continued usage. Whirlpool should issue a full recall of all affected models immediately. If there are 5.3 million dryers, we will get them all back. If there are 120 models, we will work on that and get it done.
Which? reported that one in five—22%—of the affected customers surveyed in April 2016 were still waiting for their machine to be repaired or replaced. Does the company have no sense of urgency or safety? Are these issues lost on it? The Minister must be able to feel our frustration and anger. Other Members who speak after me will reiterate that. We need to be on the ball to ensure action is taken.
A third of customers who had their dryer repaired or replaced said they were dissatisfied with how the manufacturer handled the situation. I’ll tell you what, if I had been waiting since 2016, I would be very dissatisfied. I would be wondering what the company was doing and whether it had got the notification of the repairs to be done in a tray in a locked room where nobody ever goes. Six in 10, or 62%—it is rising all the time—of those who were surveyed for the first time in November 2016 and had decided to wait for a repair were concerned about using their tumble dryer, so the vast majority of those who own those dryers are concerned. One quarter—26%—of affected customers were told that they would have to wait longer than six months for their tumble dryer to be repaired. If only it did take six months to have it repaired, at least we would have a date. One in five—22%—were told that the wait would be between three and six months. Where is the company’s understanding of the inherent danger that those delays compound?
I will conclude with this comment because others wish to speak. We must ensure that consumer protection legislation is in place to deal with this issue. Current legislation allows that to take place. I believe the power is with the Minister: she can do this. I respectfully ask her, in the short time she has, to ensure that action can be taken after the election. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that this does not happen again. I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith and all those who have come to Westminster Hall to support the safety not only of my constituents but of people throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, who rely on legislation to force manufacturers to do the right thing. The fact is that we have to force them. I believe we must deal with this issue.
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. We have this pleasure very infrequently, but I am very pleased that you are presiding over business today. I am also pleased to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) not only on securing this important debate and on his excellent speech, which comprehensively detailed all the issues he has been working on, but on leading the campaign to hold Whirlpool to account and to ensure that this matter is not forgotten in Parliament. He has done a sterling job and we all owe him a debt. He led a group of us to meet the Minister last year shortly after the fire. I have to say that the meeting was very reassuring. The Minister was very positive and made all the right noises and promises. It is therefore a trifle disappointing to say the least that, although we expected a report at the end of last year, we are still waiting for her conclusions. I hope that she will offer us some more assurances today. She clearly got it—she knew that there are deficiencies in the system, and she clearly wanted to do something about the issue—so I look forward to her comments.
I want to thank three organisations that sent us briefings: London Fire Brigade—not because I am a former employee, but because it provides a great research service on such issues, as my hon. Friend outlined—Which? and Electrical Safety First. Their briefings are essentially consistent on the major issues, but they emphasise different points. For example, they agree on the need for a single register for all UK product recalls, they are all unhappy with the present system, and they all criticise Whirlpool’s performance. The London Fire Brigade also states that organisations such as insurers should be under an obligation to have evidence that a fire has been caused by a faulty appliance to inform Trading Standards. Notwithstanding the weakness of Peterborough trading standards, many trading standards offices are excellent. At least if the information is in the public domain, matters can be taken forward.
The London Fire Brigade also requires that all appliances should be marked with the model and serial number, so that they can be identified in the case of a fire and matters can be taken forward as a result of working out what caused the blaze. The cause can be tracked down, traced and dealt with.
Electrical Safety First makes various key points—the gap between faults known to manufacturers and suppliers and the awareness of consumers is too great; there should be transparency and shared information. ESF says there should be a more efficient recall system, similar to the one in the United States. It requires a Government website—perhaps the Minister will comment on this—so that consumers can check whether their goods are at risk.
There should also be increased product registration—a matter we discussed with the Minister—but the evidence is clear that people do not fill out product registration forms when they buy goods because they are frightened they will be bombarded with sales literature and marketing information about future products from the companies from which they procured the goods. We are all sensitive to that. We do not like cold calls and trashy leaflets coming through our doors. People should be able to register at the point of sale and therefore be advised of recall. According to ESF, the recall success rate is 20% or below. It is very worrying that people do not understand that they own products that could jeopardise them, their families and their homes.
I will conclude shortly, because I know that a lot of colleagues want to speak and time is limited, but I want to mention two paragraphs that Which? has drawn attention to. Which? stated:
“Where a product could cause a risk to life or serious injury we expect it to be promptly recalled by the manufacturers. We do not believe this is happening in the case of Whirlpool’s fire risk tumble dryers given the known risks. Which? believes Whirlpool’s handling of the tumble dryer safety issue is unacceptable and exemplifies the weaknesses of the product safety system and the need for the system to be reformed. Which? wants Whirlpool to issue a full recall of their affected dryers and Government to reform the product safety system”—
a point that was so well articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith. Which? also states—this was the matter that I intervened on him about—that Peterborough trading standards was forced into taking action because of the legal action that was taken in the judicial review. In that instance, that is a very unsatisfactory situation. My last point, and the most worrying one, is that it should not need a judicial review or the threat of legal action to force a trading standards organisation to force an international, respected manufacturer to protect its customers against the risk of fire and the risk to life, limb and home.
I look forward to the three Front-Bench responses to this debate, particularly the Minister’s, because she has shown a clear interest in this matter. She gets all the issues and is the only one in the room who has the power to take this matter forward. I hope she can give us more reassurance today.
Corri Wilson (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (SNP)
I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for securing this important debate and for the work that he has done on the topic so far. I am relieved that this debate has finally been granted and pleased that I have the opportunity to take part. For some time I have been deeply troubled by the dangers posed by Whirlpool-owned tumble dryers and Whirlpool’s lack of response. I hope that today’s debate will be a wake-up call for both Whirlpool and the Government. They must act now.
Whirlpool initially refused to admit fault with any of its machines. Its advice then changed to the astonishing recommendation of watching the machine while it was on. Frankly, I think people have much better things to do with their time than watch a tumble dryer. People are now advised to unplug the affected appliances and refrain from using them. That is a clear admission of fault. If Whirlpool has recognised that its machines pose a fire hazard, why are they still in homes up and down the country?
Although Whirlpool has carried out maintenance on some machines, there are hundreds of thousands still to be looked at, and an estimated 3 million more that have yet to be identified. On top of that, it is not even certain that the maintenance carried out is an effective solution. Whirlpool’s response to the issue has been too little, too late. To check whether a machine is one of the models affected, people have to search through various pages on the Whirlpool website where the information has been buried under promotions and advertisements.
The consumer group, Which?, has found that those lucky enough to be made aware of the fault are being forced to wait for months to have their machines repaired. More than a quarter of people were told they would have to wait, as we have heard, up to six months. People’s lives are at risk and the response has been totally unacceptable.
In my constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock I have seen the damage that such inaction has caused. I was contacted last year by a local family whose home had been completely destroyed by a fire caused by a Whirlpool tumble dryer. The family, already struggling to make ends meet in austerity Britain, were left homeless with only the clothes on their backs. Having lost everything, Whirlpool offered them £175 in compensation. That is an absolute disgrace. I strongly urge the Government to show some humanity for once and ensure that all those affected by fires are properly compensated.
The No. 1 job of a Government is to protect the population. Despite repeated calls for action, the Government continue to sit on their hands, offering small snippets of advice to Whirlpool, while millions of homes across the UK live with potentially life-threatening appliances. There is no time to waste.
Last year the Government rejected two petitions relating to faulty tumble dryers: one on the basis that it was unclear what was being requested from the Government, and the other because it was not something the Government were responsible for. Well, the Government can no longer shirk their responsibility. Whirlpool and Trading Standards have the power to recall faulty products, but so do the Government. A new petition, which has now been signed by more than 100,000 people, is crystal clear. The Government must urge Whirlpool UK to recall all faulty tumble dryers immediately, or step in themselves.
The Whirlpool issue also raises broader questions about the future of consumer protection in the country. As was mentioned earlier, EU legislation currently requires that all appliances meet specific standards relating to product safety, environmental impact, and consumer protection. As is the general theme of Brexit, we have absolutely no idea what the Government plan to replace it with. I think even the Government do not know.
The Government have a duty to ensure that consumers are not put at risk following Brexit and that legislation is more robust than it has been under EU rules. The Whirlpool issue is just one example of the UK’s inadequate product safety and recall system. I therefore urge the Government to use Brexit to introduce a new national regime that puts the safety and rights of the public, not the profits and interests of companies, at its heart.
Although I understand that the Government’s energy is now focused elsewhere, the Whirlpool issue cannot go on any longer. With up to 5.5 million faulty tumble dryers sitting in homes across the UK as we speak, the stakes could not be higher. I therefore urge the Minister to take immediate action in agreeing a full recall of all affected appliances and to ensure that families, such as the one in my constituency, whose lives have been torn apart by this matter are fully compensated. It is the Government’s duty and it is the right thing to do.
Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I am pleased to take part in this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing it.
Along with other hon. Members here, I am a member of the all-party group on home electrical safety, so I declare that interest. I have come to the debate because of the historical links that my constituency has with electrical appliance manufacturing over many years. I will therefore focus my remarks on issues to do with product safety and how faulty electrical products are damaging consumer confidence in the UK.
In Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney we have a proud history of the manufacture of washing machines. We led the way for many years, making the post-war kitchen appliances modern and convenient. The Hoover factory opened in Pentrebach in my constituency in 1948 as part of the Labour Government’s work to ensure manufacturing advances in the UK after the war. Hoover soon became a market leader in the UK because the products were made to a high standard and were not imported, unlike many of the products manufactured today. By 1973, Hoover’s 25th anniversary in the town, 5,000 people were employed making washing machines, tumble dryers and dishwashers. Manufacturing in the UK had reached its peak. Unfortunately and tragically, it has been allowed to drift and we now rely on cheaper imports.
In March 2009, manufacturing came to an end in Merthyr Tydfil. The surrounding area, including my constituency, is still proud of the legacy of appliances being built locally, giving jobs to the local economy, and benefiting people’s lives.
I do not want to focus just on Hoover’s 2009 decision, devastating as that blow was. Many other manufacturers have also decided to send production overseas, and now import electrical goods into the UK. How can we be sure of the credibility of the component supply chain to large companies, and how do we ensure proper quality of the finished product and that it is built to last? Perhaps our departure from the European Union will offer an opportunity for us once again to galvanise the great range of talent that remains in the UK manufacturing sector and to encourage our trusted British brands to return manufacturing to the UK. Perhaps the Minister will give her view on that. The car industry has been supported, but what about UK white goods manufacturers?
As we have already heard today there is a serious ongoing issue with Whirlpool tumble dryers, which is still having a huge impact on many of our constituents. Given the often wet weather in Wales—
Well, it certainly is in parts of Wales; so many of my constituents rely on tumble dryers, and many of those are made by Whirlpool, which owns the Hotpoint, Indesit and Creda brands. Figures from South Wales Fire and Rescue Service show that over the past two years seven fires have been caused by tumble dryers in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. Across south Wales there have been 43 fires, with more than 55% of those attributed to the Hotpoint, Indesit or Creda machines sold by Whirlpool. Those cases highlight the serious failure in product safety across the country. It seems that a well-known, trusted manufacturer has been allowed to place on the market potentially dangerous machines that have the ability to cause serious damage, injury and worse. What will the Minister do to ensure that the products that are manufactured overseas and sold in the UK are safe?
Through our membership of the European Union we have benefited from a range of legislation, cross-border working and co-operation on product safety, market surveillance and consumer protection to ensure that only products that meet strict minimum safety standards can enter the marketplace; additional safeguards have been created for our constituents and they have been provided with rights to redress when things go wrong. What work is the Minister doing with colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union to ensure that that can continue after Brexit?
I understand from research undertaken by the charity Electrical Safety First that there has been an increase in the number of second-hand goods sold online via social media, including a large number of white goods. Vulnerable people, including those in my constituency, who now have less disposable income owing to Tory austerity, may now buy a second-hand product rather than a new one. The item may be unsafe or previously have been recalled by the manufacturer—something that neither the seller nor the buyer may be aware of. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) said, such things may be acquired through moving home. Will the Minister look at the number of previously recalled second-hand goods that have been sold, to find out the impact on product safety and on the safety of our constituents in their homes?
What will the Minster do to reassure us and our constituents that the Government are taking the issue seriously? What are the Government doing to ensure that product safety legislation is fit for purpose? I understand that Whirlpool is struggling to contact a large number of people who may have one of the faulty machines in their home. What work is the Minister undertaking with Whirlpool to ensure that those machines are found and that our constituents are kept safe? One of the Minister’s roles is to ensure consumer safety. Will she now demonstrate that it is possible for our constituents to be confident that manufacturers will take responsibility for their products, and that they will act to prevent more of the incidents with tumble dryers that have happened recently, the consequences of which have been so devastating? I hope that the Minister can provide answers to my questions.
Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing the debate. Mine will be a speedy speech, as I have crossed out three quarters of it already. I want to say a big thank you to Electrical Safety First, which has been the secretariat for the all-party group on home electrical safety, of which I am proud to be the chair. I am grateful for all it has done.
The continuing problem with tumble dryers is becoming increasingly serious, and we are now at a crossroads; the Government must intervene. The issue is not just about the fact that machines are faulty; I can tell the House of a case in Wales where there was loss of life. Last weekend the Welsh media reported on the deaths in 2014 of two young men, in a tumble dryer fire caused by a Hotpoint machine. Time is running out for Whirlpool to rectify the wrong.
I appear to be the only person in the debate who has had a face-to-face conversation with Whirlpool. It happened last year, and was with not the managing director but, if I recall correctly, a communications officer, or perhaps the head of communications. I have refreshed my memory of the meeting from my notes, so that I can share it with the House today. The representative provided me with a short background to the situation, stating that, while the number of machines affected was 5.3 million, because of the period of time that has passed, the number likely to be still in use is 3.5 million. The individual was keen to highlight that the company had proactively approached Trading Standards about the matter, rather than waiting, and that all the actions taken had been approved by Trading Standards. That was of course with reference to Peterborough, although we had no further discussion about Peterborough at the time.
The representative stated that Whirlpool had sent out 3.5 million letters to those for whom it was possible to get contact details, and the company at that time expected to complete 640,000 modifications. It had given itself until March 2017 to complete the modifications—a deadline that I am confident has not been met. The representative informed me that to undertake the task Whirlpool had recruited the services of 1,500 engineers—so many that, in the company’s words, there were now no more qualified engineers available for it to recruit. I was advised that the company had increased the options for those affected, who could receive a replacement machine for either £50 or £20, depending on whether it was being delivered, and the old machine collected, or whether they were to pick it up from a recognised retailer.
Throughout the meeting, I persisted in arguing that the matter should have resulted in a full recall. In response Whirlpool highlighted the fact that the tumble dryer market in the UK is about 1 million units a year, and that it is responsible for more than 50% of that—something that makes the situation all the more terrifying. When I asked about its advice that machines could be used, I was told that they could be used but not left unattended; but the company gave that advice with regard to all electrical appliances, anyway. It seems a little strange to me.
Another thing that was highlighted was that the company believes there is a customer blame issue, to do with consumers not following the advice given in product instructions about caring for the product—emptying the fluff collector, in this case. Apparently people in other countries are much better at that. Whirlpool did not want to blame consumers publicly, but the company believes that more should be done to raise awareness of the need to care for products.
Since the meeting, my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith and for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) and I have been in regular correspondence with the company, seeking clarification of specific issues and requesting meetings. As yet, nothing has happened. I wrote as the chair of the all-party group, requesting someone from Whirlpool to attend a meeting, but my office had to chase up the correspondence for two months. It transpired that communication between Whirlpool and its public relations company had been lost. Why is a PR company answering letters from MPs on behalf of a company? Why does not the managing director’s office deal with us directly? I find that attitude to the House contemptible.
I am going to leave out much of the rest of what I was going to say in my speech—apart from telling the House about an interesting tweet that I had at the weekend, from someone who is not a constituent. He sent me a photograph of his tumble dryer being repaired, 18 months after he brought it to Whirlpool’s attention. He was delighted that it was being repaired, but he told me that he has an acutely autistic little boy, who has spent the past 18 months believing that the tumble dryer is a very dangerous piece of equipment. He cannot now convince his child that the machine is safe. Anyone with experience of working with people with severe autism or similar health issues will know that the anxiety that that little lad is now experiencing, having had one of the defective machines in the house, is causing trouble not just for him but his family.
I thank the Minister for her positive responses to my correspondence and the little notes on the bottom. I appreciate that she has taken everything that I have hounded her about very seriously. I am surprised by the Department’s reluctance to publish the working party report, which I understand the Minister has had sight of since Christmas. I can only hope that the sensible measures that Lynn Faulds Wood outlined will be in that report.
We must not allow any further delays in either the publication of the report or action against Whirlpool. The Government must step in to ensure that protection and guidance for consumers is paramount. Whirlpool must take responsibility, and it must be made accountable, by facing us MPs or being answerable to Ministers, or in the law courts. It must be accountable now.
Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (SNP)
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing this important debate. He made some valid points, one of which was about loss of belongings in fires, which we do not take into account in a big way but which causes great distress. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) mentioned that the petition has now reached 100,000 signatures. I hope we will be able to debate it in the Chamber after the general election.
I say not only as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on home electrical safety but as an MP with constituents who have real concerns about the safety of electrical products in their homes that this debate is important. I also speak out on behalf of constituents who may be unaware of potentially dangerous appliances in their homes and trust the systems that should protect them. We should do all we can to reduce the number of house fires caused by faults in electrical equipment and appliances. Statistics supplied to me by Electrical Safety First show that, of the accidental house fires caused by electricity in my home council area, South Lanarkshire, in 2015-16, 12%—24 house fires that could have been avoided—resulted from an electrical fault.
Reform of the product safety system is not a panacea—there is much work to be done to tackle the trade in counterfeit electrical goods, for instance—but it would play an important role in reducing risk for people and families across the UK. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) spoke about second-hand goods being bought online due to financial constraints. We need to help ensure that people are kept safe in their own homes.
The Whirlpool debacle exemplifies why it is crucial that we get this right. We have heard that, following its 2014 acquisition of Indesit, including the brands Hotpoint, Swan, Proline and Creda, Whirlpool identified that up to 5.3 million or 5.5 million tumble dryers in the UK were affected by a serious fault, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned. That fault in more than 120 models meant that those appliances were at serious risk of catching fire. Which? reports that by 2016, around 750 fires had been linked to those tumble dryers. As we heard from the hon. Member for Hammersmith, a significant fire in a tower block in Shepherd’s Bush, which we all heard about due to media reports, was found by London Fire Brigade to have been caused by an Indesit tumble dryer. As he said, the legacy of that fire will last for years.
Troubling though that is, the handling of this debacle since it first came to light is even more worrying. We heard from the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) about his personal experience with a tumble dryer. It was only when he revealed that he was an MP that he actually got a proper response, which is ridiculous, but he has shown great perseverance. It shocked me that Hotpoint revealed to him that there could be 16,900 affected customers in his constituency. That is a shockingly high number.
Mystery shopping investigations by Which? looked into Whirlpool’s handling of the modification programme for faulty tumble dryers and found that affected people are being forced to wait far too long for repair or replacement. Alarmingly, Which? also discovered that incorrect and potentially dangerous advice was being given by customer service staff. Which? deserves recognition for its efforts to keep Whirlpool customers safe, and particularly for securing action against Whirlpool by Trading Standards in February, which resulted in the company being required to update its safety advice warning to consumers to instruct them to stop using their machines immediately and unplug them until they are repaired. I am sure we all agree with the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) that Trading Standards must do more.
The hon. Lady is making a compelling case. Does she agree that Trading Standards should also look at Whirlpool’s delay in dealing with repair requests? People should not have to wait an inordinate time suffering a great deal of worry and concern.
No one would disagree that it has been far too long. People are still using these appliances and could be at serious risk, so I take the hon. Lady’s point.
Since becoming aware of the issue, Electrical Safety First has argued that the product safety notice issued by Whirlpool was inefficient and has called for a full recall so that at-risk machines are repaired or removed from homes. When there is such a risk to consumer safety, there is no excuse whatever for Whirlpool not to act in the best interests of consumers, yet it cannot claim to have done so, since it has resisted recalling affected models and failed to repair or replace affected machines quickly. Regrettably, corporate operations seem to have got in the way of consumer wellbeing, as we heard from several Members.
The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group, mentioned that a PR company, not Whirlpool itself, seems to be answering MPs’ letters. That is absolutely shocking, but it is therefore unsurprising to learn of the Which? findings. A third of customers who had since had their dryer repaired or replaced said that they were dissatisfied with how the manufacturer had handled the situation. As we heard, a quarter of affected customers have been told that they will have to wait longer than six months, which is shocking. That is not an acceptable way to treat consumers, and it certainly is not a responsible way for the company to handle the situation.
There is also a serious gap between faults that manufacturers and suppliers of electrical goods know about and what consumers are aware of. The product recall system in the UK is complicated and, unfortunately, self-regulated. There is clearly the potential for unsafe products to be left in people’s homes, and that is exactly what is happening. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) made the good point that many of these tumble dryers may be passed on in house sales and their new owners may not be aware of the major issues with them.
All that has led to the current situation with Whirlpool tumble dryers, of which there are millions in people’s homes. Companies such as Whirlpool do not even know where faulty products are or who owns them. That is shocking. We evidently need a much more efficient product recall system, and it is incumbent on us all to ensure that that happens. We need to put in place a proper system in which manufacturers and retailers co-operate to encourage consumers to register their products at the point of purchase.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) mentioned that consumers are put off registering electrical products because they see it for what it often is: a marketing exercise for companies. Product registration must be primarily for safety purposes, and that should be made clear to consumers when they buy a product. Statistics show that 61% of consumers would be more likely to register a product if they knew that they would be contacted only for the purposes of safety. Electrical Safety First advocates the creation of a dedicated Government website similar to that in America, which centralises all information on product recalls, and where consumers can report concerns and obtain advice. The Whirlpool debacle, and the Shepherd’s Bush tower block fire in particular, should serve as the impetus to move on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock shared a shocking story about a family being made homeless after their home was completely destroyed and being offered £175 in compensation—fellow hon. Members gasped at that story. I hope the Minister takes all of this on board. We cannot wait for another serious incident to occur. I have today put on the record these concerns and potential solutions, and hope that the Minister responsible following the general election, whoever that is, will see fit to take them forward. We all want that commitment from the Government today. Failure to act will undoubtedly lead to loss of life in the future. We must do all we can to avoid that eventuality.
Gill Furniss (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing this important debate and on his actions in leading this campaign. I also thank hon. Members present for their thoughtful, eloquent and constructive contributions. We agree that being faced with a fire in one’s own home is a terrifying thought. We have heard some terrible stories—particularly of the deaths of two young men that my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) detailed so eloquently.
Overall, I am very disappointed that we are in this situation at all. Whirlpool’s actions have been wholly inadequate—that is the best way I can put it—and the Government have not done nearly enough to remedy the situation. That such a serious failing of consumer protection has happened calls into question the whole product safety regime. That is all the more disappointing because, as other hon. Members outlined, the Government commissioned an independent consumer product recall review by Lynn Faulds Wood in 2015, which was published on 18 February 2016. The Government’s response to that review was sadly limited. Where is the interim report that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith mentioned? I hope the Minister can explain.
We have very little certainty over what will happen to consumer protection standards throughout the Brexit process. We have certainly been given little comfort in that regard—it seems at this point that consumers will not be championed during that process. Other hon. Members spoke of the horrendous danger and extremely serious consequences of fires in tumble dryers and other white goods and electricals. That Whirlpool has not issued a full recall at this point in time is staggering. It must fully recall the affected tumble dryer models now, before Parliament dissolves, because lives are still in danger. Peterborough trading standards and the Government should intervene and urge Whirlpool to issue that recall.
We must also see a serious reform of the consumer protection regime. I hope the Minister will outline the steps she will take in that regard because, when people’s homes are destroyed by fire and their possessions turned to ashes, when people have died due to white goods and electrical fires, and with the state that the product recall and product safety regime is in, it is unconscionable that we should continue as we are. What assessment has the Minister made of an independent national system to monitor and enforce consumer protection?
Organisations such as Which? have done a vast amount of good work in investigating and bringing attention to this issue. The Government would no doubt prefer that work to be done by external organisations, but they have a duty that they are not fulfilling. Statistics from Electrical Safety First show that the success rate of an electrical product recall in the UK is typically below 20%. Will the Minister explain what steps her Department has taken to improve that abysmal recall rate?
The product recall system is not working. Customers do not register because they rightly suspect that they are asked to so that they can be spammed by companies about future products. If consumers had confidence that product registration was only for recalls and safety concerns, we might see some change. Electrical Safety First has argued for a centralised website for product registration similar to that in America. Perhaps a similar approach could work here. Many hon. Members asked the same question.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith described the extent to which Whirlpool has avoided engagement, dialogue and responsibility. Again, it has been left to consumer organisations such as Which? to pursue legal action. While Peterborough trading standards should have enforced the appropriate actions by Whirlpool when the faults became apparent, instead Which? had to take it to court to get it to act. Only then did Whirlpool take the straightforward step of updating its product guidance. Does the Minister find that the actions taken so far by Peterborough trading standards to be sufficient and appropriate?
We need a robust product safety system that is fit for purpose. Anything less will continue to endanger people’s lives. Be assured that a Labour Government, if elected on 8 June, would prioritise reform of the product safety framework to protect consumers, and to make companies such as Whirlpool take proper responsibility for their products. The people of Britain deserve better, and we should make no apologies for preventing further incidents and fatalities. Please deal with Whirlpool robustly.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Margot James)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing this important debate and echo the remarks of hon. Members about his spearheading of the whole campaign.
We have made considerable progress since I last had the opportunity to engage in a debate on product safety. However, I see from hon. Members’ remarks, to which I have listened carefully, that that has perhaps not been communicated as effectively as it should. Allow me to put that right. I reiterate that the Government take consumer product safety extremely seriously. On the safety issue identified in Whirlpool tumble dryers, I and my officials have been in regular contact with Whirlpool and its management. I must say that I have been shocked to hear the extent to which Whirlpool has not engaged with other hon. Members; I think that it might come to regret that. I hope that, in the new Parliament, it will manage to put that communications issue right.
I met the chief executive of Whirlpool and emphasised the need to resolve the situation quickly and pushed the company hard on meeting its obligations. I have repeatedly pressed it in further correspondence on the need to ensure that consumer safety remains paramount and that consumers have accessible routes to resolve their issues with the company’s products quickly and effectively. I am concerned about the number of unregistered machines still on the market; as hon. Members have mentioned, second-hand machines and people moving into homes with an existing machine and not realising the safety issues make it a complex situation. I will come back to that when talking about the working group that we have set up.
I am concerned to hear of the experiences of some consumers who have registered their machines with Whirlpool and who have faced unacceptable delays in having their machines modified.
The advice given to one of my constituents was to unplug her tumble dryer, to plug it back in only when she was going to use it and to then watch it. I do not know if the Minister has ever tried to move a tumble dryer or washer dryer when the plug is at the back, but it is not something that can be done. The manufacturers have to take far greater responsibility for keeping our families safe than they do at the moment.
I agree with the hon. Lady; that is not practical advice.
Whirlpool has, however, been taking action to address the concerns that we have debated this afternoon. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) is the only one among us, apart from myself, who has met Whirlpool. What Whirlpool said to her is largely right, in terms of what it has lived up to following the proposals that its representatives made when they met her some time ago.
Whirlpool has increased its engineer workforce by 50%, allowing it to resolve approximately 100,000 cases per month. It has now exceeded the number of cases that it anticipated resolving when it met the hon. Lady. It has modified more than 1.5 million machines—almost 90% of the total number registered with the company—but, of course, that leaves 10% unresolved, to say nothing of all the other machines out there that nobody knows of. Whirlpool now employs the UK’s largest technician workforce, at 1,700-strong, which is almost three times the size of the next largest one in the country.
In response to demands for a full recall, I understand the attraction of that proposition, but the key must be to take whatever action is most likely to achieve the outcome we are all aiming for, which is to ensure that consumers are protected from unsafe products. That may be statutory recall in some instances, but other forms of corrective action, including making modifications to products in a consumer’s home, may be more proportionate, appropriate and effective in other cases. It is often better and more effective to encourage a company to accept its responsibilities and take action proactively.
I appreciate that time is short, but on that point, will the Minister give way?
I will give way to my hon. Friend, who has reappeared.
I had important constituency business to attend to. The Minister is correct in saying that modifications at home might be the correct course of action. Indeed, I witnessed a modification to my tumble dryer. However, the issue I have is that Whirlpool is not disclosing to Which? or to any of us the independent expert analysis stating that such modification makes the tumble dryer safe.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend has not had satisfaction from Whirlpool on that. Whirlpool wrote to me on 4 November outlining its engineer training programme and auditing programme of the machines that it has modified. I am happy to share that correspondence with him and other hon. Members.
We hear from industry and other experts that recall programmes typically have a success rate of resolving between 10% and 20% of affected products. In this case, Whirlpool’s resolution rate is over 40%, which is well above the industry norm. We can therefore posit that the action taken by Whirlpool in co-ordination with Peterborough trading standards has achieved more in terms of resolving cases than recalls typically achieve, meaning a greater number of consumers have been protected from potential harm.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way once more. There is more material that Members will be interested in.
We are talking about 5.2 million machines and 120 different models. Is there a timescale for how many years it will take for resolution to be arrived at and all those machines to be repaired or replaced?
I can only reiterate what I have already said. Of those machines, 1.5 million have already been modified, and only 10% of cases registered with Whirlpool are outstanding. Whirlpool is modifying machines at roughly the rate of 100,000 per month.
The role of Peterborough trading standards has been discussed. That team has ensured that Whirlpool has taken responsibility for resolving the issue and agreed actions deemed proportionate to the level of risk. The initial risk assessment was peer-reviewed and agreed by two other trading standards departments, at Norfolk County Council and Hertfordshire County Council. As a responsible regulator, it has kept the issue and the evidence under continuous review and made decisions accordingly. It issued enforcement action to ensure that Whirlpool gave clear advice to consumers not to use the product before it had been repaired, and it has been in close contact with Whirlpool to agree and oversee the corrective action programme.
I note hon. Members’ comments about Whirlpool’s motivations and the extent to which it was moved by the threat of judicial review. It is impossible for me to comment on that speculation, but I would point out that Whirlpool had already resolved the majority of those 1.5 million cases prior to the threat of judicial review, which was later removed. As a result of Peterborough’s actions, Whirlpool did not, as Members implied, sit on its hands; it commenced a programme of corrective action back in November 2015. I have covered issues about Whirlpool’s customer service, so I will move on.
I want to acknowledge the remarks of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) about the manufacturing of white goods. I was sorry to hear of the manufacturing losses in his constituency, but I am pleased to report that Whirlpool tumble dryers and some of its other white goods are manufactured not abroad but in Bristol.
I will turn to the working group on product recalls and safety. I take to heart the suggestion by the hon. Member for Hammersmith that the Government should look at the safety of all electrical goods and not just tumble dryers. That brief has been given to the working group. An online hub of information on product recalls, known as “Recall Central”, has been developed on gov.uk. That follows up one of Lynn Faulds Wood’s recommendations, cited by the hon. Gentleman.
When I took on the product safety brief, I reviewed the remit of what was then called the recall review steering group. Like the hon. Gentleman, I considered two years far too long to wait for discernible improvements in the system. In October, I rebooted the group and established the working group on product recalls and safety to develop credible options for improving product safety and the recalls system, setting a more challenging timetable of six months. I asked the working group to focus in particular on identifying the causes of fire in white goods and the action needed to reduce that threat.
The group is better resourced than its predecessor. Officials in my Department are supporting the group and are in regular contact with the Home Office about fire prevention. The group consists of experts in the fire services, trading standards, consumer groups and industry, including Electrical Safety First. The chair, Neil Gibbins, has extensive experience of fire safety, as former deputy chief fire officer for Somerset and Devon, and a background in enforcement.
I am grateful to Neil Gibbins and members of the working group for their work. They submitted their initial recommendations in December, which were published on gov.uk. Each meeting has had its notes published on gov.uk, and hon. Members can visit that site. The group submitted its full report to me earlier this month, which might explain why I have not yet published it, in less than the six months given to it. If it had not been for the Easter recess and the calling of the general election, I would now be planning the publication of the report. The group has already commissioned the British Standards Institution to develop a code of practice on corrective actions and recalls to improve consistency and transparency.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) raised the issue of consumer behaviour and attitude, which is very important. The working group has commissioned consumer behavioural insights research, which I gather has almost concluded, to help ensure that the code of practice, and indeed the whole process of encouraging and motivating consumers to register their appliances, is taken forward in the optimum way.
I must leave time for the hon. Member for Hammersmith to wind up the debate, so I will conclude. In terms of Brexit, I would like to reassure Members that the Government have absolutely no intention of watering down consumer protection and consumer safety. The opposite may well be the case. I would also like to reassure the House generally that the Government take these issues very seriously indeed, and I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s concluding remarks.
There is only time, in half a minute, to say a profound thank you to all the Members who have taken part in this debate. I really do appreciate their support and the work they have done. I also want to say to the Minister that the issues of liability, compensation, whether the replacements and repairs are sufficient, what will happen to the unregistered machines and, above all, a robust system of registration and recall, will not go away. I hope she will continue to pursue them. I place that on record so that, whether it is her or someone else responsible, we can pursue those issues in the next Parliament. It is vital that we do so.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).