Gloria Hunniford, Angela Rippon and Julia Somerville investigate whether Britain's sofas are as fire-resistant as the labels claim after the terrifying experience of a woman whose furniture caught alight. Are the industry tests and regulations designed to keep us safe still up to scratch?
Content of the programme with my analysis in italics:
Over the past few years Trading Standards have found that across the UK, there is a high rate of sofas failing the match test. As David Ellerington explains, by 2014 the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (as it was then called) was so concerned about the high failure rates it commissioned Trading Standards to undertake a survey. The results showed that these concerns were 'well-founded'. For example, David reports that in the North East there were 'significant' failures in childrens' furniture. He also says, "The national results were even more damning," - an 84.3% failure rate across the country. A significant number of these items were sold with the correct labelling. David says, "This is very worrying, in terms of the failure rates."
So, what's been said here is that the Department for Business had received reports from various Trading Standards departments that the match test was failing. It was concerned enough to commission a survey from Trading Standards. This found a failure rate of 84.3%.
The programme then asks how can it be that so far on from the Woolworth's fire (in 1979) that inspired the Furniture Regulations, furniture is failing the tests. Then I'm introduced as a fire safety regulations expert who left the official government review because changes weren't/aren't happening fast enough.
On camera, I explain how the Regulations were brought in at a time when most furniture materials were natural - cotton, wool, wood; and weren't designed to cope with highly flammable modern materials such as polyester. I explain how many manufacturers place a fibre wrap layer between the cover and the fillings but this introduces oxygen which means fabric set alight by a match/small flame will not go out within two minutes as the lab test dictates.
It's important to note here that the 84.3% failure rate found by Trading Standards is separate to the failures caused by the addition of a fibre wrap layer. This is because when Trading Standards test, they strip off cover fabric from a sofa and test it without any fibre wrap layer that may be present in the finished product. In other words, the overall failure rate is even higher than 84.3%.
I go on to explain how another cause for concern is retailers' practice of selling customers (at extra cost) anti-stain treatments. These are very pervasive, designed to last for years, but are highly flammable.
As mentioned elsewhere on this site, FIRA and the BFM tried to excuse this practice by claiming that the Regulations only apply to 'virgin materials'. Absurdly, they were saying that cover fabrics and fillings must comply with the separate flammability tests but when assembled together, manufacturers can add solutions that make the entire product flammable! Lawyers at BIS ruled against this: stating that the flammability tests apply to the finished product at point of sale. FIRA and the industry was informed about this but as of today, retailers are still selling customers stain-repellent applications.
The programme then reports that I left the civil service in 2016, frustrated at lack of progress. I say on camera that our sofas are far more flammable than we were led to believe.
There is then a quote from the British Furniture Confederation, starting with this:
"While the Regulations have been fundamental in reducing the number of deaths and injuries in house fires . . . "
Elsewhere on this site, I analyse the BFC's press release on the same subject. On this programme they once again dodge the issue to hand, i.e. that the current match test mostly doesn't work, and it is supposed to be the main defence against furniture ignition. The BFC has known this since at least August 2014. Therefore, you would think it might be questioning the assertion that the Regulations have been saving lives. This claim was based on the findings of the Greenstreet Berman statistical report in 2009. However, the report's finding that the match test was saving just over 5 lives a year was based on the assumption that the match test worked. The BFC now knows it doesn't.
The BFC goes on:
" . . . owing to changes in materials and processes brought in, it too would like to see the rules fully revised . . . "
Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? And to be fair, the BFC has been pushing the government since at least 2004 to fully amend the regulations. However, that was when everyone thought the Regulations fundamentally worked. We and the BFC now know the match test at least doesn't. The real question, therefore, is what has the BFC been doing about getting the match test put right and removing serious risk to its members' customers?
" . . . and while [the BFC] is delighted to see there is progress on that . . . "
What progress? As detailed elsewhere on this site, the furniture industry is only too aware that there has been absolutely no progress made by BEIS over the past five years or so and there is not likely to be any in the near future either. This is a double-lie by the BFC since it also knows only too well (confirmed to me by FIRA) that BEIS's 2016 consultation proposed nothing like the Regulations being "fully revised", i.e. it left out huge chunks of the Regulations altogether and what it did include was deliberately vague and contentious, ensuring no progress is likely. The BFC then goes on to contradict itself anyway by stating:
" . . . recent proposed revisions [September 2016] don't fully address many of the important issues . . . "
I agree! However, here the BFC is doing what monoliths often do which is to make vague statements sound like facts but without supplying the important detail. What 'important issues' in other words? Well, I suspect one reason it doesn't want to list them is because it would then either have to mention the failing match test - which would automatically raise the question of what is the BFC doing about it - or not mention it which in itself would be damning.
" . . . so it remains fully committed to helping update them in a way that's meaningful, enforceable, future-proof and continues to protect consumers and the emergency services."
Where do we start!
'Fully committed'? The BFC has done precisely nothing to put right the failings of the current match test, other than to block implementation of the new test that would put things right. It has also done nothing to get its members to alert the public that they are selling dangerous products.
'Enforceable'? The BFC is well aware that Trading Standards informed BEIS a few years ago that it can no longer enforce the match test because it doesn't work.
'Future-proof'? The BFC doesn't of course say what this actually means. However, it has done nothing to support the implementation of the new match test which is in fact future-proof, in that it allows for innovation. Instead, it has doggedly supported the current match test which, apart from not working, is guaranteed to ensure the continuation of large amounts of FRs in our furniture.
'[C]ontinues to protect consumers'? The BFC knows that consumers are currently at great risk from the failing match test, both from fire and poisoning via flame retardants that don't actually do their job anyway.
'[C]ontinues to protect the emergency services'? UK firefighters suffer cancer rates far higher than normal, almost certainly due to the high levels of toxic fumes they face when FRs in products burn. The BFC could certainly help their cause by doing something about getting the match test changed. But that would upset their cosy status quo with the chemical and flame retardant industries, of course, not to mention reduce the handy trade barrier that their members benefit from, which the Regulations create.
A Few Further Thoughts About the Programme:
Credit to the BBC for raising the issue of a serious threat to public safety and in presenting the evidence for it so succinctly.
However, while I understand time is always at a premium, it's a shame the BBC cut out the parts of my interview where I talked about the problems with FRs. On camera, for example, I showed a typical sofa cushion treated with FRs. In this case, it was about two years old but had never been used, sat upon, etc. I opened the zip on the cover fabric to show inside the filling material nevertheless covered in black FR dust. The treatment industry claims its coatings last longer than the cover fabric itself. But everyone knows this is a lie: their treatments start wearing off as soon as they're applied. Which not only means we're all getting poisoned by FR dust in our homes, our sofas are clearly not match-safe anyway.
I feel the programme also went a little easy on BEIS. Yes, you can just about read between the lines to see that the government should have put things right by now. But the truth is this:
- Trading Standards alerted BEIS to very high failure rates in the match test
- In 2014 BEIS was concerned enough to commission Trading Standards to undertake a survey (I was actually responsible for this)
- Trading Standards reported an 84.3% failure rate BEIS went out to consultation on a new match test that would put this right (in August 2014)
- That test was blocked by the chemical industry and its friends, working through weak and possibly corrupt civil servants.
- Under pressure from the press, BEIS consulted again in September 2016 with exactly the same new match test. As of March 2019, nothing has resulted from this and it is likely that nothing will.
Viewers may also be interested to learn that FIRA refused to take part in this programme. This is very strange since a) FIRA loves the publicity of appearing on TV, and b) FIRA appeared on the very same "Rip-Off Britain" series just last week. I leave it to readers to guess why FIRA wouldn't want to appear on this particular edition.