Online marketplaces must have a “duty of care” to their customers when it comes to the sale of faulty electrical and consumer goods, a group of campaigners, charities and MPs has said.
In a letter sent to the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, the campaigners called on the Government to widen the scope of the proposed Online Harms bill to include the sale of illegal or unsafe goods on the internet.
Carolyn Harris, the MP who is organising the campaign in her role as chairman of a parliamentary panel on electrical safety, said online marketplaces did not always have robust complaints procedures and that consumers were not always clear whether an item was being sold by an independent seller or the website itself.
The letter has been signed by MPs, including former Tory minister Sir Iain Duncan Smith, and organisations including the London Fire Brigade, Electrical Safety First and consumer group Which?.
Ms Harris said she had seen examples of electrical goods which created a fire risk being sold online.
“The bill should look at all of these things and make it difficult, if not impossible, for firms to sell them,” she said. “Many online firms are questionable in their duty of care."
She pointed to the case of a constituent called Linda Merron who died in a fire in 2015, caused by a faulty air purifier she had purchased for £90 online.
Lesley Rudd, chief executive of Electrical Safety First, said: “An unregulated system where profit can exist at the expense of consumer safety isn’t fit for purpose.”
Ms Harris said marketplaces should be made responsible for the safety of the goods they sell. She said they needed to act swiftly to remove potentially dangerous goods when they are flagged and should make it easy for consumers to complain.
The Government’s white paper on online harms layed out the intention to create a statutory duty of care on online firms, but was prompted by potentially harmful content posted on social media.
It proposed a “non-exhaustive” list of harms, which included the sale of illegal goods, and it is not intended to duplicate existing laws or regulation.
The legislation is being finalised and the Government is expected to respond later this year to the white paper.
Some marketplaces already have processes in place designed to protect consumers.
Ebay said it takes “the issue of product safety and counterfeit goods extremely seriously” and works with regulators while going “above and beyond the legal requirements”.
A spokesman added: “Each listing features a simple report function whereby any user can report a listing if they suspect it may be unsafe or counterfeit.”
Between March 2019 and March this year its filters automatically blocked four million listings on product safety grounds, she added.
An Amazon spokesman said that "safety is a top priority" and that it has "industry-leading tools to prevent unsafe or non-compliant products from being listed".
A spokesman for Wish said that all of its merchants are required to follow local laws and safety standards wherever their goods are sold and that buyers can report suspected dangerous items via email. The site has technology to automatically flag potentially dangerous listings before they go live, she said.
One 35-year-old woman from Devon emailed Wish twice to report a faulty kettle she had purchased on its site.
When the kettle arrived it had a Chinese plug, with an adapter. The woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said she had been surprised at this, but that it had been mentioned in the small print of the listing when she double checked.
After several weeks of use she noticed what she described as a “blue current” around the plug and found the adapter had melted her socket.
She said: “It freaked me out because there wasn’t any smoke. It could have been melting for days and wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t seen the current.”
She reported the incident to Wish twice and said she did not receive a reply, although the seller was removed. However, weeks later the same product was still being sold by other sellers on the site.
After being contacted by the Telegraph, Wish removed the listings and refunded the customer. It said that the agent who received the complaint asked the customer to “open a ticket in the app” but she did not do so.
The firm is looking into how the complaint could have been handled better.