On a chilly Monday afternoon in late November, an email landed in my bulging inbox with information about a “potential safety issue”.
“Hi there,” it began. “I wanted to make sure you were aware of an Indesit repair programme.”
Tumble dryers sold in the UK over the course of 11 years were in danger of causing a fire and needed to be made safe. I would later learn that there were 5.3 million of them.
Dramatic proof was provided this summer when one machine, awaiting a repair, caused a huge tower block fire which left families homeless and needed 120 firefighters to bring under control.
On a basic level this is a story about clearing the build-up of fluff from dryers. On a much more serious level, it is a lesson in how much, or how little, we are told about dangerous, potentially lethal, appliances in our homes.
That understated original email message was an opaque window into a saga that one MP described in Parliament as “corporate malpractice on a grand scale”. A government minister also said in the Commons that people had been killed by these machines.
The starting point of much drama and debate came in 2014 when the biggest appliance manufacturer in the world, US-based Whirlpool, bought the Italian company Indesit.
Consumer groups had long warned of the danger of defective white goods. After reviewing the products under its ownership, Whirlpool decided to alert authorities in the UK and Europe of the safety issue with some dryers under the Hotpoint, Indesit and Creda brands. It subsequently added the Proline brand to this list.
These appliances were sold for more than a decade from April 2004 to September 2015. They were being used by families in Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain, as well as the UK.
The problem was that excess fluff could catch the heating element in the machine and cause a fire.
What Whirlpool did next has been the source of furious debate among MPs, consumer groups and, to a degree, the company itself.
‘Under the radar’
Major companies with various sites in the UK have a home authority trading standards department with whom they work on product safety. In Whirlpool’s case this was Peterborough Council’s Trading Standards team.
Whirlpool and Peterborough Trading Standards agreed on a repair campaign to modify the dangerous products, instead of a full product recall.
Had they decided on the latter, customers would have been given a refund, a replacement or a partial refund for older models. In all likelihood owners would have been told to stop using these dryers completely. Action would be required fast.
The repair programme that was instigated has received massive criticism, with cases of people being told they must wait well over a year for an engineer to visit.
Andy Slaughter, the Labour MP for Hammersmith, says that choosing a modification programme created a massive logistical task for Whirlpool, but is evidence that the company wanted control of the process.
He condemned Whirlpool’s response to the safety risk as a whole as operating “under the radar”.
“If this wasn’t so dangerous, I’d have some sympathy for [Whirlpool],” he says.
That danger was made spectacularly clear with a fire in an 18-storey block of flats in Shepherd’s Bush in August. Flames ripped up the side of the building, 100 families were evacuated, and 50 people spent the night away from their homes.
Some of those families are still unable to return to their damaged flats. Investigations by the London Fire Brigade found the fire clearly started in a tumble dryer.
Mr Slaughter points out that the Defreitas family – in whose seventh-floor flat the fire started – was following Whirlpool’s instructions. The company has said the affected tumble dryers can still be used, but should not be left unattended.
The victims in this case are not the only ones in disbelief that these products were not recalled.
Emma McGrath, whose Hotpoint dryer caught fire and left the kitchen of her home in Ayrshire as “one big black room”, says the appliances should be recalled fearing for others who may use these dryers at night.
What we know
Exactly how the decision was made to undertake a repair programme, rather than a recall, has been extremely difficult to establish.
The company’s risk assessment of the fire hazard of these tumble dryers has not been published.
For six months, I have attempted to gain access to correspondence between Whirlpool and Peterborough Council’s Trading Standards department in a bid to shed some light on the deliberations. The two parties have very different levels of resources, according to Mr Slaughter, but was any pressure put on local officials by the international corporation?
Twice my request under Freedom of Information laws was refused. On one occasion the few pages of correspondence that the council said it would consider releasing were described as of “little or no value”.
Finally, following an appeal to the Information Commissioner, I was sent 140 pages of correspondence between the two. Some were mundane, many were redacted. At times page after page in a row were entirely black.
However, what some of the correspondence does convey is a keenness from Whirlpool to publicise the fact that there would be no recall.
One email reads: “…one further question from the Whirlpool side if I may – is there a way at all of possibly weaving into this sentence in any way that: ‘this is not a recall campaign…”
Another calls for some agreed wording that states “this activity is correctly a REPAIR campaign and not a RECALL…”
Some wording is agreed, but trading standards stress that this may only be used in conjunction with a general explanation of its officers’ advisory role.
It is understood that, legally, the trading standards department would not be able to order a recall owing to the small number of fires in proportion to the total number of “at risk” machines.
They would potentially have had to prove in court that the repair programme was an insufficient response.
Other documents released by the council cover email discussions about the possibility of meetings with Whirlpool’s global product safety director who was retiring, and his replacement.
A batch shows trading standards teams keen to help vulnerable customers. One, for example, prompts an engineer visit as a priority after it is pointed out that an owner is receiving end-of-life care with 24-hour oxygen and cannot leave the house without the help of paramedics.
A worried family member writes in March: “We could not bear to imagine what would happen if a fire from this product was to occur, which my dad has explained to Hotpoint, but to no avail as he was told it would still be around July time before they could come and fix the faulty item.
“Obviously my father is extremely worried and upset about this as with my mum’s illness he has to do at least two loads of washing a day.”
Ultimately, whatever the information that has been released, there is a great deal that remains blocked from our view. That includes the risk assessment conducted by Whirlpool.
The explanation for this is that the information was shared on a purely confidential basis and that placing it into the public domain would “have a significant reputational impact on Whirlpool and would prejudice Whirlpool’s commercial interests on a number of levels”.
Moreover, Peterborough Council says that disclosing confidential information could deter Whirlpool and other companies from voluntarily raising safety concerns of other products with trading standards officers.
So, without information such as a risk assessment being available, it has fallen on some of those dealing with the fires to raise concerns and challenge Whirlpool’s advice.
They have included the fire service which, through the Local Government Association, has urged owners of these tumble dryers to unplug the dryers and stop using them, arguing that they are “unwittingly playing Russian roulette”.
Following the Shepherd’s Bush investigation, Dave Brown, the London Fire Brigade’s director of operations, said: “This fire has highlighted just how dangerous faulty white goods can be. Disappointingly though, Whirlpool have still not changed their advice to consumers.
“We are now appealing once again for them to change their advice and bring it into line with our own. Thankfully there were no serious injuries in the Shepherd’s Bush fire but we may not be so lucky if it happens again.”
Even within trading standards there have been calls for the government to get involved. Leon Livermore, chief executive of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, told the BBC that central government had powers to “force people into recalls” and that it should “take action before someone dies”.
Consumer group Which? has also entered the debate, demanding government action, as has the Business Select Committee, which has demanded more explanation from Whirlpool.
Most recently, Consumer Minister Margot James has accepted that more action is needed from Whirlpool to reassure the public. Previously, she had said that Whirlpool’s repair programme was a “creditable performance” and that the company was making a “concerted effort” to deal with the safety of appliances. She was also told that recalls generally only have a 10% to 20% success rate.
Yet, during a Commons debate last month, she said: “Although statistically the risk of the 5 million machines that have been sold may be very low, people have been killed by them.”
Under pressure from MPs and following a review of the system of recalls, she has promised action within weeks on white goods’ safety through a new working group on product recalls and safety. This will take over the work of an industry-led steering group which was expecting to report back in two years’ time.
The membership of the new group has yet to be announced.
Throughout it all Whirlpool has retained a consistent line.
“The safety of consumers is our number one priority and we are committed to doing everything we can to ensure that the tumble dryer modification programme is carried out in a safe and timely manner. We continue to co-operate fully with the relevant regulatory authority as progress of the campaign is regularly monitored and reviewed,” it says.
It adds that it has increased the number of engineers dealing with these repairs. Customers can check their dryer by using the model checker on two bespoke websites – for Hotpoint customers and for Indesit customers – or via a free helpline on 0800 151 0905 for the UK or 1800 804320 for the Irish Republic.
Originally found athttp://www.bbc.com/news/uk