Poor UK enforcement of laws protecting consumers from unsafe products
We would expect that product safety standards ensure everyday products will be safe to use, but a new review has revealed gaps in UK regulations, according to the National Audit Office (NAO). These regulations are in force to protect consumers from harm caused by unsafe products, from house fires caused by faulty electrical appliances to toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in cosmetics.
The review reported a recent study from the BEUC network (European Consumer Organisations) which found that two thirds of products brought from online marketplaces fail safety tests, with risks including electric shock, fire and suffocation.
The challenges the review identified ranged from a lack of capacity and staffing in trading standards, to a failure to keep pace with online trends. This includes online stores and social media sites, which can be used by anyone to sell products, but are not responsible for the safety of goods sold by third parties.
Enforcing chemical safety laws in products
These findings echo research by Unchecked last year which found that only half of British local authorities undertook any chemical testing of consumer products for the presence of chemicals above legal limits, in the previous three years. CHEM Trust found a similar result when we carried out research in 2018.
More recently, the ENDS report uncovered minimal reporting by British local authorities of products considered dangerous to the public due to breaches of chemical safety rules – compared to hundreds made across the EU. It calculated that so far this year, the EU has recorded 264 reports of products containing chemicals that are banned or above legal limits – such as Chinese-made plastic toys containing the banned phthalate DEHP – compared to only five products reported by the UK.
Post-Brexit gaps in enforcement
Previous CHEM Trust research has shown the UK has been highly dependent on other EU countries for assurance that products on the UK market are safe, with the risk of lower compliance with chemical protection standards post-Brexit, unless steps are taken to mitigate this. NAO estimates that the new responsibilities for product safety taken on by the UK, as a result of EU exit, will cost regulators £9 million a year, such as goods checking needed at some ports and borders.
Plugging the enforcement gap
The view of CHEM Trust is that the UK Government must act to plug this post-Brexit enforcement gap, otherwise we run the risk of consumers here in the UK being less protected from products containing chemicals that are banned or above legal limits. There needs to be much more enforcement of the law and reporting of enforcement activity, as well as prosecutions for chemical safety breaches, to underpin existing laws that protect us from harm. For further information on UK REACH, the UK’s post-Brexit regulation of chemicals see our Brexit webpage.