A large conference room in the basement of BIS's headquarters in Victoria Street, London. I'm sitting on the platform with Steve and Kevin Nimmo to my left, John Lord [real name: Phil Earl - since publishing this piece I've decided that he does not deserve anonymity] and Nicole, who is here to learn more about the Furniture Regs, to my right.
We're facing about 100 stakeholders, seated in rows before us. I recognise most of the faces. Steve and I have been on the road for some months, visiting furniture retailers and manufacturers, British Standards groups, universities, other government departments. The atmosphere is odd: a slightly uneasy combination of anticipation, perhaps a touch of fear and potential challenge. I've spoken to lots of people before we started; Trading Standards are positive, retailers mixed and the many that I've known for years have appeared friendly enough.
12 days ago, BIS circulated the consultation documents to around 500 people. While many of those present today knew what to expect in terms of the new match test, most probably didn't anticipate that we'd also provide so much material demonstrating that flame retardants are a big risk to health and the environment.
I'm thinking that it's strange that anyone would not want this new test, given it benefits pretty much everyone except the chemical industry. However, in the months to come, I'll realise that the chemical industry has deep pockets. Also, Steve and I will uncover more scams perpetrated by the furniture industry. One of these involves the fact that FIRA and others keep claiming that savings from reducing FRs will only be a few million, not up to £45m per year that BIS analysts have predicted (and that was on the conservative side). FIRA has also mumbled occasionally about how the new test will actually lead to more flame retardants, not less.
Later, we'll discover that what they probably mean is that the levels of undertreatment in the industry are not only more widespread than we realised, but also the amounts undertreated may well be much higher too. Well, if you're going to cheat, you might as well really cheat. Ironically, then, because the new test is not vulnerable to undertreatment scams, it may well mean that manufacturers do indeed end up using more flame retardants than now, because they're undertreating by over 50% - the amount our new test saves!
We've invited Kevin Nimmo to chair the event. He retired recently but is still highly respected in the industry. For many years he chaired the British Standards group for furniture flammability, that Steve and I are members of, and he is still an advisor to the London Fire Brigade. As usual, he is dressed immaculately and radiates calm.
Steve looks a little uncomfortable which may be on account of the fact he's having to wear his Intertek tie today. John Lord looks evasive but with his normal slightly smug aura absent for once, possibly on account of the fact he will have to address this audience at some point and we both know he's remained rather ignorant of the technical aspects of the Regulations.
Kevin starts by thanking everyone for attending. Then he talks a little about the history of the new test; how it was discussed at British Standards; why the current test has always had technical problems. He is also complimentary about my efforts to finally get some amendments to the Regs on the table.
John Lord says a few words but they don't make an awful lot of sense. On the one hand he talks about how the new test should bring many benefits, but on the other makes quite a lot of noise about how important it is that they all use the consultation process to let us know about any problems they may perceive with the new test.
Then I talk about the regulatory history and apologise, once again, for the fact that the new test has been produced in advance of the rest of the amendments but point out that we now have a safety problem to put right with the current test and, besides, the furniture industry will get its savings a year earlier. I'm still puzzled why this twin point doesn't seem to please them very much.
Steve then gives a technical talk which includes a new set of flow diagrams outlining the requirements of the new test. This produces perhaps oddly strong reactions in some, with a couple of people almost demanding to be given copies of the diagrams. Steve of course agrees but perhaps we're seeing a strange kind of almost-anger that once again, he has produced excellent technical back-up work in support of the new test, instead of screwing up.
The day wears on, mostly through open forum. As expected we get the flame retardant industry reps advocating 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it,' causing us to point out once again that in fact the current match test is broke.
As usual, everyone who speaks from industry does so entirely from their own perspective. So it is that once again we have the baby products reps talking about how their prams, buggies and car seats should be removed from the scope of the Regulations. They are losing business via internet sales to EU countries that do not have the cost of meeting the requirements of the Regulations. On the point that if they get their way, prams etc will become flammable, they offer a range of reasons why this won't be the case, without it has to be said actually proving that it won't be.
One person's rather indignant speech will have more meaning for me in a few months' time. He represents a company I'll call Last. He goes on at some length about how the new provision for flammable materials close to the surface is unworkable. He says it will mean testing thousands of components which will be massively costly. Once again, Steve explains that isn't the case: that each material need only be tested once by one company and the result will stand forever for everyone else. But our man doesn't seem to want to understand. Steve, as he's done with others, very calmly says he doesn't understand why anyone would defend including flammable materials in their sofas.
And that's the nub of it, really. We've come up with a test that overall is safer than the current one. It takes care of perhaps the biggest safety issue - one that was not so problemmatic when the regulations first came into force, when most materials used in sofas were naturaly flame-resistant. But as the years have passed, manufacturers have increasingly stuffed all kinds of flammable materials in their sofas - cardboard, hessian, plastic - and many very close to the cover, e.g. around the arms. Which means, unless you manage to drop a match or cigarette in the centre of one of the big seating cushions, your sofa is very likely to go up in flames.
Yet we've had people, like Last, argue that the new modified test for these flammable materials close to the cover is going to cost them big time. It isn't. As DFS told us, after testing all there materials in an afternoon with Steve, it will cost just 'pennies' per sofa, hugely off-set by the savings they'll make on reduced flame retardants.
In other words, they don't like change. They don't care about safety, only continuity. They aren't willing to use new designs and materials.
Later, I will meet someone from Breast Cancer UK who is concerned about FRs in furniture. In the course of our conversation she tells me that she received an email from Last, a couple of months after our consultation, telling her that they had to recall her sofa. While it complies with the Furniture Regulations, Last said, it 'doesn't contain enough chemicals'. She was baffled by this. When the Last lorry came to pick up her sofa the driver asked her why it was going back. She told him because it didn't have enough chemicals, and he said, "Oh, I've had to pick up loads of those."
So, it seems as if the fury shown by the Last man at our open day was not because he didn't understand the new proposal. Clearly, his company had decided that when the new requirement for materials close to the cover came in, it would expose the fact that the current and past stock was flammable. That and possibly also undertreated. Therefore, that they were in danger of being sued. Of course, it's quite possible that other furniture companies did the same thing. At least until they found out the test was being delayed, possibly permanently, at which point they could relax once again about selling flammable products.
After the long day is over, I accompany Steve to the back of the building so he can have a smoke. "How do you feel?" he says.
"Pretty shitty, actually," I reply.
"Me too," he says, "but I reckon that's a good thing."
"Because it means we aced it."
I believe he's right but something about the overall atmosphere today has got me worried. Up to now, I'd believed that it was just a case of people thoroughly understanding the benefits of the new test, then coming round. Yet there were quite a few here today who for whatever reasons seem doggedly determined to stick with the old regime.