Page last updated at 00:38 GMT, Friday, 21 November 2008

How safe are your Christmas presents?

By Kevin Peachey
Consumer affairs reporter, BBC News

Counterfeit guitar
This might look like a Gibson, but it does not play like one

The shining Gibson guitar was going for a song on the internet, but any expert could hear it did not play like the real thing.

You might not expect musical instruments to be among the haul of counterfeit or dangerous goods seized by trading standards officers.

But there it stood among the dangerous toys, poorly padded biker jackets, straighteners that singed users' hair and even bottles of vodka.

The display also raised questions about the quality of protection for consumers from shoddy goods in the run-up to Christmas.

Top of those concerns for the Trading Standards Institute (TSI) is clarity over the CE mark - a logo on products that shows it meets various European health and safety requirements.

It also wants a central database listing accidents and injuries caused by unsafe products.

Toy story

The most likely cause of injury from a toy comes from tripping over it, yet every parent wants to know their children are safe when they open their presents this year.

Counterfeit goods
The present economic climate could make consumers more vulnerable to cheap, shoddy or unsafe products
Ron Gainsford, Trading Standards Institute

The nightmare scenario was faced by the parents of British boy Connor Dean O'Keeffe.

The seven-year-old was found dead by his mother on the floor of an apartment in Thailand during a holiday after using his games console charger.

Since then, Buckinghamshire trading standards officers have discovered thousands of unsafe chargers that have arrived in the UK from China.

All have carried the CE mark, prompting officers to declare that "self-regulation of the CE mark is broken".

The TSI - which speaks for departments across the UK - is calling for a wholesale review of the CE marking system.

It says that consumers commonly misinterpret this as a safety or quality mark when its primary function is a stamp allowing free movement of goods across the EU.

Yet a spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) said that the CE mark was part of a "highly successful" regulation scheme that boosted trade across European borders, and eased the burden of bureaucracy on businesses.

Manufacturers still face the prospect of legal action from consumers if any product they make proves to be dangerous.

If used properly the CE mark is printed on a product by a manufacturer to indicate that it meets EU rules. In the case of electrical equipment and toys these include essential safety requirements.

But TSI chief executive Ron Gainsford believes these checks are too diverse. Toys, for example, only need to undergo self-assessment by manufacturers, whereas protective clothing needs independent scrutiny.

Another quality mark for toys is the lion mark. This is used by members of the British Toy and Hobby Association - but is not compulsory. The group does stress that there is a responsibility on parents to pay attention to age notices marked on products.


The market for cheaper, occasionally dangerous, goods is expected to grow during a downturn.

Shop around and check the price, place and person
Look for a lion mark or age restrictions
Get a receipt
You've no rights to return clothes if they do not fit
Internet shoppers have a seven-day returns right

"The present economic climate could make consumers more vulnerable to cheap, shoddy and unsafe products. We believe that change is long overdue to protect the public from dangerous goods," says Mr Gainsford.

That change, he says, should include reversing a decision to stop collecting national statistics on home and leisure accidents.

Between the 1970s and 2002, a database with information from 18 hospitals was used to spot accident trends ranging from scolds to choking cases.

A BERR spokesman says that data collection was ended in 2002 as part of a "re-focus of department priorities". Instead the department wanted to concentrate on specific accident prevention publicity campaigns and tightening up the law on product safety.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa) has control of the historical data.

"As each year goes by, it gets more and more out of date," a spokeswoman says.

In a report to be published soon, Rospa will call for a return of accident data collection at hospital emergency departments.

One problem to overcome is the pressure on hospital staff's time, that would only increase with this extra paperwork. Trading standards officers say they do not have the resources to gather the data.

Any new system would probably need funding from the Department of Health and BERR, and under Rospa plans would start with pilot projects.

European experience

They could look to Europe for ideas, where a group of countries have signed up to an injuries database.

Contaminated toy
Toy safety is a concern for parents across the world

The European Commission revealed this week that more than half of the toys, electrical goods and cars that triggered safety alerts were imported from China.

It accepts that Chinese imports have come under greater scrutiny since millions of toys were taken off the shelves amid fears of the lead paint content and choking risks from small magnetic parts.

In the first nine months of this year 366 alerts were triggered in Europe as a result of toy safety issues.

The Commission signed an agreement with the Chinese authorities this week to strengthen the transparency and monitoring of imports.

It is designed to prevent some of the items on display, alongside the fake Gibson guitar, ever making it onto the shelves.

These included toys, such as a scooter which easily came apart, to a golf club with a fake brand name, and a chocolate fountain in which the electrics were not adequately sealed.

Tips for shoppers include paying greater attention to the "price, person and place" in any transaction.

Online shoppers generally have seven working days to return shoddy goods for a refund, although perishable items such as flowers and food cannot be returned.

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