The last few months have been a real learning experience.
January: BBC1's "Fake Britain" broadcasts a half hour programme in which they buy a bunch of mattresses and sofas, test them and of course they fail. Big names, too, like SCS, Argos, Homebase, Tesco and others.
The day after the show I get a phone call from Phil Reynolds at FIRA, actually gloating. FIRA had been on the programme, doing all the testing work. But of course besides being a test house, FIRA is also a trade organisation for furniture companies. Phil was delighted that lots of his member companies, spooked by the show, were rushing to FIRA for extra testing. Ker-ching.
FIRA is the main opponent to the new match test, by the way, even though they say they're not.
Trading Standards told me they've busted the country's biggest chemical treatment company several times for fabrics that fail the match test. They believe this is down to undertreatment and that it's systematic in the industry.
Roger White of Clarkson Textiles (treatment company) was also behind the "Fake Britain" show. Along with Jessica Alexander of the National Bed Federation and FIRA. They managed to encourage the programme to point to dodgy Chinese imports as the reason for so many failures. Which is interesting in light of our Minister, Jo Swinson, having written last year to Clarkson's MP, Andrew Stephenson, to point out that in fact these failures are mostly down to treatment companies, as Trading Standards will attest.
Whatever the motives behind "Fake Britain", it causes panic amongst retailers. Just as we're approaching the run-in to the consultation we'll be issuing on the new match test. Some may call that coincidence . . .
Anyway, in order to help mitigate the panic, Steve and I decide to go on the road, to undo FIRA's shenanigans as best we can. So far we've visited DFS, Furniture Village, SCS and the Home Retail Group (Argos, Habitat, Homebase). Every visit has gone well. Usually a bit uncomfortable to start with but by the time they've had the chance to get all their questions answered, they're much more positive about the new test.
Manufacturer/retailer X is spitting blood over FIRA. So much so, they've taken away a huge amount of testing work from them. They also told us in confidence that XX of treatment company XXX had just visited them. He'd played them a video he'd made in which he'd tested one of their sofas and it had failed the flammability tests (nicely linking to "Fake Britain" of course). He'd threatened to put it online unless they gave him all their treatment business. We watched the video and Steve was able to point out how this guy had not conducted the tests properly and told them exactly how to tell him to F-off. They were very grateful.
Then FIRA and the BFC went to visit the European Commission, worried about what Richard Hawkins had said in our workshop last December - that new disposal rules were coming in which would require sofas to be safely (and expensively) disposed of at end-life. They posted online a report of the meeting which included these comments:
"Nobody likes flame retardants!"
"The Commission have give up trying to raise EU standards [to match the UK's]."
"End-life of furniture is coming and will be a huge problem."
Later, they will also tell me that they'd tried to illicit sympathy from the Commission by pointing out that we have a mountain of sofas to dispose of in the UK. The Commission just said, "Tough - that's your problem."
Of course, I've been telling them for over a year that the Commission has turned against flame retardants and why that is one of the reasons we need to reduce them in UK sofas. But I guess they're used to getting their own way in the UK furniture world and probably didn't expect the Commission to be unimpressed with their bluster.
Steve and I are now convinced that FIRA no longer, if it ever did, believes the new match test won't work. Their true motive is to delay it, so it will rejoin the rest of the amended regulations that are due to appear a year or so after the match test. This will nullify the threat to them of a successful match test that will be credited to BIS/Intertek, not them. And of course they can boast to the industry that they engineered the result.
Steve is a technical wizard and some of his understandings about how and why the new test will work are simply not appreciated by most. FIRA spends so much time hyping itself, attending Brussels meetings, etc, that it is actually rather dumb at times on the technical side.
It hasn't been lost on companies that FIRA sold out their own members on "Fake Britain". They gambled, essentially: wanted to be seen as at the centre of the industry, helping to expose foreign dodgy goods, but they foolishly believed "Fake Britain" when it assured them it wouldn't name names. But of course it did, and most of them were FIRA members.
Having said all that, I still can't really fathom why Phil Reynolds would phone me to tell me FIRA was profiting from its own members' panic, caused by FIRA. I mean, we get on well, have even been out for drinks together a few times after EU meetings. Possibly, he wanted to show me that FIRA are in control of the future of the new test, not BIS.
Back to today. FIRA held a workshop at their centre in Stevenage, to discuss the new match test. Originally, Steve and I weren't invited. But I guess Phil must have realised that would look rather silly and he sent us an invitation late yesterday. Mind you, he was still pulling tricks today, e.g. hadn't asked us if we had slides; told us we weren't the main speakers (!); insisted that David King - a vociferous if technically inarticulate opponent of the new test, representing the foam industry, who of course have a huge finger in the furniture pie - would speak after us.
It's mystifying that most people are still not joining up the dots. I guess it's just too much trouble. One or two are seeing the light, however. X at XXX phoned me recently from a BFC dinner at the House of Commons (no invitation for BIS). He was angry because FIRA were telling everyone how they were going to rubbish the new match test (despite telling BIS that they are behind it). "I really want to punch someone [from FIRA]," he said.
Here are a few more dots, mostly from today's workshop (to about 50 manufacturers, retailers and others), that may or may not join up:
Tristine Hargreaves of FIRA giving a talk on the fall-out from "Fake Britain" and what FIRA believes can be done about it (other than taking on extra testing work from its spooked members, that is).
Jessica Alexander giving a talk about the National Bed Federation's new membership audit scheme; telling us that Tristine is one of the auditors; and announcing the independent audit body that will oversee it: BM TRADA, of which FIRA and the NBF are part!
When John Lord and I met FIRA recently, they told us that they too wanted to introduce a similar scheme of other furniture products.
In short: FIRA and the NBF stitch up their own members by fingering them to "Fake Britain"; profit from the panic-induced requests for extra testing that results; then introduce an audit scheme that will extract even more money from them. One word that comes to mind is 'protection'; the other is an object you see either end of a tennis court.
My relationship with John Lord is not going great. He's still telling me that he can't (won't) upgrade my post, even though I'm doing work at the level of the next grade (easily) but he will give me a recommendation for going for promotion elsewhere. I try to get him to see that I naturally want to see the new test through, and get the rest of the amendments in after that. Also, he and I both know that no one else is going to have my enthusiasm and, crucially, will almost certainly not develop the expertise to work effectively with Steve. But what he's really saying is that the system is paramount and if we reward your hard work, Terry, with an upgrade that allows you to continue in the same job we'll be challenging the system, which in Whitehall is all about developing one's overall policy skills, not actually becoming something useful. John actually said he's a career civil servant and only took the BIS job because it will help him further it.
Steve's view of John is that he's a 'Polyfilla man', someone who spends all his time pasting over the cracks rather than dealing with the fundamental problems. How true. I asked him why FIRA hadn't tried to poach him. He laughed and said because they wouldn't be able to control him. Which is also no doubt true. Seems like we're both anti-system at heart.
And with my conspiracy hat on, I might just be wondering why John is willing to lose me so close to consulting on the new match test, when that would so greatly benefit the chemical industry.