Consumer Rights Bill

Written evidence submitted by David Peacock  (CR 22)

There is a need to increase consumer protection regarding dangerous electrical accessories.

1. Summary: The BS 1363 system of plugs and sockets, as enforced by the Plugs and Sockets etc. (Safety) Regulations 1994, has ensured that the UK has a level of domestic electrical mains connector safety unparalleled elsewhere, but this is subject to a number of threats. These include unregulated socket covers, counterfeit plugs, inadequate enforcement of the existing regulations, and sub-standard plug-like devices which are not subject to the Plugs and Sockets Regulations. There is also inadequate regulation of online traders, particularly those operating under the auspices of various online marketplaces which disguise the true nature of many electrical products on offer, as well as the actual identity of the trader and origin of the goods. This submission makes some suggestions for much needed improvements in both regulation and other aspects of consumer protection.

2. About me: I am an electrical engineer, a Fellow of The Institution of Engineering and Technology, and the co-founder of two electrical safety groups, FatallyFlawed and PlugSafe, both are concerned with threats to the integrity and safety of UK domestic mains plugs and sockets. FatallyFlawed campaigns against the use of unnecessary and unregulated plug-in socket covers, misleadingly claimed to be child safety aids. PlugSafe identifies counterfeit UK mains plugs and other substandard plug-like devices sold for use with BS 1363 sockets. Both groups are entirely voluntary, raise no funds, and have no connection to commercial entities concerned with selling electrical accessories. In this submission I am commenting on behalf of FatallyFlawed, PlugSafe and myself.

3. BS 1363 Plugs and Sockets – Regulation

4. The system of UK domestic plugs and sockets to British Standard 1363 is generally agreed to be the safest in the world, it was designed in the 1940s to be inherently child-safe, a feature which other countries have started to introduce only recently. Statutory Instrument 1994 No. 1768, The Plugs and Sockets etc. (Safety) Regulations 1994, requires standard plugs to comply with BS 1363, however it does not apply to other plug-like devices. This is a matter of great concern as the standard is (correctly) written in a manner which closely defines the dimensions of a plug, and requires that sockets are made to accept compliant plugs. This means that if non-compliant devices are inserted into compliant sockets there is no way to predict what will happen, such non-compliant devices can damage sockets and/or result in a combination which fails to meet a satisfactory level of safety. There needs to be an effective method of regulating all devices sold for use with BS 1363 sockets.

5. Socket Covers (child protective devices)

6. The use of socket covers is unnecessary in the UK because BS 1363 has, from its inception, required automatic shutters which block access to live parts when there is no plug inserted. "Socket-outlets to BS 1363 are the safest in the world and have been since they were first designed in the 1940s.  Socket protectors are not regulated for safety, therefore, using a non-standard system to protect a long established safe system is not sensible." This is a quote from an article by Mark Coles, Technical Regulations Manager at The Institution of Engineering and Technology. (See references) There is no standard for socket covers, which is not surprising as they unnecessary.

7. None of the major safety organisations recommend the use of socket covers. Some local authorities and some individual officials (such as health visitors) encourage parents to use them, despite the fact they are unregulated. Their advice is not based on any research and is believed to result from ignorance of the facts and influence from other countries which do not have the same level of safety as the UK. Ofsted has reminded all inspectors that "Inspectors should not set actions or make recommendations in relation to the use of socket covers and should not refer specifically to these in their reports." (See references)

8. There are no socket covers which comply with BS 1363 dimensions, and, currently, no regulatory requirement for socket covers to provide the same level of protection which exists for an empty socket, or a socket with a BS 1363 plug inserted. There is good evidence that all currently available socket covers significantly reduce or even negate the inherent safety protection of a BS 1363 socket and there is potential for permanent and probably unseen damage to sockets which can create fire and electrical shock hazards. Many of these hazards resulting from the damage caused by socket covers will only take effect after the use of the socket covers is discontinued; this means that such damage is very unlikely to be attributed to the use of socket covers by the forensic investigation of a fire. The lack of regulation is completely illogical. It has been suggested by BIS that the General Product Safety Regulations provide a route for Trading Standards to take action, but in the absence of a standard for socket covers it is very difficult for TS to act effectively to control those products which cause damage or otherwise degrade the safety of a socket. There is a serious need for socket covers to be included within the regulatory system.

9. Other plug-like devices

10. Although there are relevant standards for other plug-in accessories, such as chargers, air fresheners and travel adaptors, those standards do not in themselves require that these items are made to the correct dimensions specified for a plug, this also hinders Trading Standards as they are required to use scarce resources in proving a problem exists, whereas for standard plugs there is a very simple remedy – if they do not comply with the BS 1363 plug dimensions they are illegal.

11. Both FatallyFlawed and PlugSafe believe strongly that socket covers and other plug like devices should be regulated in the same way as standard plugs.

12. The sale of mains plugs, cord sets including mains plugs, and other electrical products for connection to mains electricity:

13. The Plugs and Sockets etc. (Safety) Regulations 1994 requires that domestic mains powered appliances are fitted with a standard plug conforming to BS 1363. This requirement is often ignored by on-line sellers and many products are sold with European (and sometimes American) mains plugs instead of UK standard plugs. To help reduce this widespread flouting of the current law, PlugSafe believes that all online sales descriptions for products covered by the regulations should be required to state that they are supplied with a standard UK plug conforming to BS 1363, or alternatively are fitted with an approved conversion plug as permitted by the regulations (note: the regulations do not permit conversion plugs supplied unfitted, and other types of adaptors). Consideration should be given to requiring suppliers to state full details of the plug or conversion adaptor supplied (manufacturer, approval details and rating).

14. PlugSafe volunteers engage in identifying plugs and power cords which do not meet the requirements of the Plugs and Sockets etc. (Safety) Regulations 1994, and provide information to Trading Standards departments to allow them to take corrective action. By this means we have found that a major source of such items are the UK internet marketplaces where illegal products are offered by both local and foreign independent suppliers who use such marketplaces to advertise their goods, relying on the marketplace operator to handle the payment transactions, and sometimes also the warehousing and shipping. As a general rule we have found that marketplace operators are inefficient at policing the sellers who use their services, and routinely fail to spot products which are illegal.

15. PlugSafe has also noted that there are significant differences in the way that marketplace operators react to being notified of illegal goods being offered on their websites. Some operators offer a means for customers and potential customers to report such offerings of illegal goods, but as a general rule the operators are very unlikely to take any action based on such reports. When a report is made via Trading Standards some operators take immediate action, although others do not. There is at least one major marketplace operator which simply ignores the law, despite having major UK investments in warehouse facilities. We have noted that this is true not just for illegal and substandard electrical accessories, but also for such things as CS spray, Pepper Spray and Mace, all of which are proscribed under the Firearms Act. The latter has been the subject of a BBC "Watchdog" investigation, but the practice continues. See references.

16. PlugSafe recognizes that there is general customer confusion about operators who are web retailers in their own right, as well as offering marketplace facilities. Marketplace operators offer a mix of their own products, products from third party sellers who use the marketplace fulfilment services, products from third party sellers shipping from their own UK facilities, foreign third party sellers who use independent UK warehousing and shipping facilities, and foreign third party sellers who ship directly from abroad, often Hong Kong or China. More needs to be done to ensure that consumers are fully aware of who they are dealing with, where the seller is based, and where the goods are coming from. Consumers should not be left in any doubt as to with whom they are entering a contract, and who is responsible for delivering on that contract.

17. It is common on at least one of the major marketplace operator websites for there to be a choice of all of the various supplier types for what purports to be a single product listing! A product listing will be accompanied by reviews submitted by existing purchasers, but there is no way of identifying which review relates to which supplier, and there may be as many as 50 suppliers on a single listing. In fact it is common that accessories may have a generic description and when multiple orders are placed against a number of different suppliers on the same listing the actual products received may all be from different manufacturers, which clearly negates the reviews posted.

18. In a typical case which I have worked on in the days immediately prior to writing this submission we received a consumer report about a power lead supplied with a battery charger ordered from the major UK internet marketplace. This lead had an illegal plug which does not meet the BS 1363 standard in any way, it even has no fuse. We see a number of variations of this type of non-rewirable moulded plug, and invariably the attached flex has undersized conductors which can easily break and overheat leading to both fire and electrocution risk. In this case there were 5 suppliers offering the listed product, and the customer had chosen the most expensive because it was fulfilled by the marketplace, although not sold directly by them. Also of interest was that in this case the product listing illustrated a power lead with a completely different plug, but the illustrated plug was also clearly identifiable as being of a different, but also illegal, design!

19. PlugSafe has noted that one of the results of its actions in visually identifying thousands of unsafe product listings, which TS officers have then caused to be withdrawn, has been an increase in the number of product photographs in which the plug has been obscured, this makes it difficult for even a consumer who understands the issues to realize that an unsafe device is being offered.

20. To ensure that consumers are provided with sufficient information to properly compare electrical accessories offered by online vendors, and that Trading Standards officers have sufficient information to identify counterfeit and sub-standard electrical goods, we suggest that the following provisions be made:

21. It should not be permitted for multiple suppliers to offer fulfilment against a single listing, customer reviews should be allowed only for a specific product from a specific vendor.

22. Sales descriptions of all mains plugs should be required to include the following information for the plug: manufacturer’s identity and type reference, approval body, and approval license number. (Note: The Plugs and Sockets etc. (Safety) Regulations 1994, require standard plugs to be clearly marked with the information regarding the approval of the plug to BS 1363. BS 1363 itself requires that plugs are marked with the identity of the manufacturer.)

23. It should be required that all electrical accessories offered for online sale should be illustrated by photographs which clearly show the following features: A general and clear view of the product; The actual markings (type, manufacturer, approvals etc) with sufficient resolution to be easily read; In the case of a mains plug, or other device intended to be inserted into a mains socket; a clear view of the plug pins; and in the case of a mains socket, or device incorporating a mains socket, a clear view of the face of the socket(s).

24. It should be a specific offence for online marketplace operators to facilitate the sale of illegal items.

25. Online marketplace operators should be held directly responsible for refunding the cost of items which are not in accordance with the sales description, eg when a legal plug is described but an illegal plug is supplied. It is also important for there to be a freepost return mechanism for misrepresented goods. Note that travel adaptors and power cords are sometimes sold for around £1 with free delivery, but the minimum cost for an individual to return an item by Royal Mail is £2.60!

26. Consideration should be given to prohibiting online UK marketplaces from facilitating the direct shipping of mains related electrical goods to UK consumers from outside the EU. Currently, direct shipping from China and some other countries is a preferred way of circumventing UK customs controls.

27. Online retailers and online marketplace operators should be required to draw consumers’ attention to information regarding the importance of ensuring that they only insert approved devices into sockets, and assisting consumers in identifying counterfeit or substandard products. Such information should be linked from every product listing requiring connection to mains electricity. The information would preferably be provided by a third party such as the IET, Which? or the Electrical Safety Council.

28. References – Socket Covers

29. FatallyFlawed website: www.fatallyflawed.org.uk

30. IET article: "Socket Protectors", Mark Coles, Technical Regulations Manager at the IET
http://electrical.theiet.org/wiring-matters/44/wall-socket-protectors.cfm?type=pdf

31. IET article: "The Remarkable Evolution of BS 1363" (explains importance of plug dimensions)
David Peacock FIET, Co-founder of FatallyFlawed
http://electrical.theiet.org/wiring-matters/49/bs-1363-plug-and-socket.cfm?type=pdf

32. Specific information on socket contact damage caused by socket covers with wrongly sized pins:
http://www.fatallyflawed.org.uk/html/size_matters.html

33. Specific information on socket shutter damage caused by socket covers: www.fatallyflawed.org.uk/html/socket_damage.html

34. Report prepared for ANEC (European Association for Consumer Representation in Standardisation): "Child protective products – protective function of socket protectors, hob guards, locks and locking devices", Erica Waller, Swedish National Testing and Research Institute
http://www.anec.org/attachments/r&t005-04.pdf

35. Ofsted policy on socket covers, "Early years inspection and regulation", September2011, p11
http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/filedownloading/?file=documents/other-publications/e/Early%20years%20September%202011.pdf

36. References – Counterfeit and Sub-standard Electrical Accessories

37. PlugSafe website: www.plugsafe.org.uk

38. IET article: "Fake electrical goods", Rebecca Pool
http://electrical.theiet.org/wiring-matters/46/counterfeiting.cfm?type=pdf

39. IET article: "Buyer Beware, many plugs and chargers – often obtained online – pose a serious risk to users", David Peacock FIET, Co-founder of PlugSafe
http://electrical.theiet.org/wiring-matters/47/counterfeit-plugs-chargers.cfm?type=pdf

40. Sample compilation of electrical accessory listings on Amazon Marketplace (March 2014):
http://www.bs1363.org.uk/Amazon.co.uk_sample_illegal_products_March_2014.pdf

41. Sample compilation of electrical accessory listings on eBay (March 2014):
http://www.bs1363.org.uk/ebay.co.uk_sample_illegal_products_March_2014.pdf

42. Which? article and discussion on illegal supply of appliances with two pin plugs instead of UK standard plugs;
http://conversation.which.co.uk/energy-home/plugs-two-pin-british-amazon-electrical-appliances/comment-page-1/

43. Archived copy of a BBC Watchdog report on Amazon selling CS and Pepper Spray
http://web.archive.org/web/20111210085752/http:/www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/watchdog/2008/12/amazon_marketplace_offering_da.html

44. Sample compilation of Pepper Spray listings on Amazon Marketplace (March 2014):
http://www.bs1363.org.uk/March2014_sample_listings_Pepper_Spray_etc.pdf

March 2014

Prepared 5th March 2014