Whitehall ‘not moving fast enough’ on product-safety reform

Public Accounts Committee chair voices concerns about pace of progress with 2021 review
Concerned: Dame Meg Hillier

By Jim Dunton

12 May 2023

An influential committee of MPs has questioned the pace at which government is working to tighten rules on product safety amid the continued growth of internet shopping.

Dame Meg Hillier, who chairs parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, said yesterday that Whitehall is not moving fast enough to bolster standards for consumer goods, an area overseen by the Department for Business and Trade and the Office for Product Safety and Standards.

Ahead of an evidence session on the handling of Covid support grants, Hillier asked DBT permanent secretary Gareth Davies what progress has been made with the government’s Product Safety Review consultation, launched in March 2021.

Davies told MPs there will be a further consultation that will look at “a number of issues” as part of the review.

He said it will look at, among other things, ways to ensure there is a “level playing field” between online and physical retailers; supply-chain assurance; and “proportionality” between the way health-and-safety rules apply to different products in different circumstances.

Davies said DBT is hoping to publish the consultation imminently, but is looking for slots on the No.10 "grid" used to schedule announcements.

“It should be in reasonably short notice,” he said.

Hillier pointed to her committee’s autumn 2021 report on the work of the OPSS – which flagged numerous concerns about funding and skills at the fledgling regulator – and said MPs had been struck at the time by the need for rapid action.

She said an evidence session for the report had heard about “terrible things” happening to children in relation to products purchased online – one example being small magnets that cause intestinal damage when swallowed.

“It seems like there is a big gap between 2021 and 2023 with still a further consultation to go,” she said.

“I’m just worried that Whitehall’s not moving fast enough on something that’s been around for a long time as a problem.”

Davies said the new ministerial team at DBT – which was created from the Department of International Trade and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in February’s machinery of government changes – is “very focused” on product safety.

However, he said he could not give an estimate of how long it might take to for any rule changes to be enacted because it is too early to say what legislative changes will be required.

Hillier responded: “The wheels of Whitehall move slow. We’re behind the department getting the work done, we’re just frustrated about how long it’s taking to deliver.”

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