HC Deb 21 June 1974 vol 875 cc941-6

Order for Second Reading read.

3.44 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

In the few minutes left to me, I want to draw attention to the main aims of the Bill. It covers a very wide range of products which are used by men, women and babies and children. The number and use of these products is constantly increasing. In recent years consumers have been demanding to know more of what these products contain, but at the present there is no indication on the container, on the label or in any promotional material what the ingredients are.

I am constantly being approached and written to with complaints that constituents have been unable to identify ingredients which have caused them to have a rash or spots, for hair to fall out, for eyelids to swell up, and for various other problems to develop.

Doctors also have complained to me that although they have been treating patients for these kinds of troubles and allergies derived from toilet preparations, they have been unable to discover the cause of the trouble from the toilet preparations manufacturers, and so they have not been able to advise their patients satisfactorily.

Only two days ago a friend told me that her family had given her a birthday present of a beauty course and after she had had this beauty treatment she was unable to see for a week because her eyelids were so swollen. Neither she nor the beauty salon had any idea what particular ingredient had caused the trouble.

The deaths of babies in France a short time ago from the excessive use of hexachlorophene in baby powder illustrates dramatically the dangers which can arise where there is insufficient care in the making of toilet preparations.

In the Bill I am not questioning in any way the known high standard of the cosmetic manufacturers in this country. I am merely seeking to give users the essential information for which they ask, and which they need, and I believe that it would be beneficial to reputable toilet preparation manufacturers if this information were provided.

The Bill is a short enabling measure. It gives power to the Home Secretary to make regulations in regard to the declaration of the specific name of ingredients in toilet preparations. There is no time limit proposed in the Bill within which the Home Secretary must make the regulations. I have deliberately left that open because in Clause 5(2) provision is made for the Home Secretary to have discussions with the trade as to the form the regulations shall take. It is obviously desirable that there should be adequate time for these discussions, and for representations to be made.

The penalties for not complying with the regulations are in line with penalties in other consumer protection legislation introduced in recent years and enforcement, as with other consumer measures, is by the weights and measures authority.

I wish to give my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary an opportunity to comment on the Bill, but I am anxious to draw attention to the difficulty we face in this matter because of discussions going on in the European Economic Community. Draft directives are at present under discussion in the EEC. There has been discussion on whether there should be a negative list of ingredients which must not be used because they are harmful, or a positive list of ingredients which can safely be used. A directive has, in fact, been produced relating to hexachlorophene. It states that, where appropriate, labels have to indicate that hexachlorophene is being used.

The discussions in the EEC are in a fluid state and no final decision has been taken. I emphasise that the discussions are taking place in the main between representatives of the trade and officials of the various governments, but I believe that the consumers' voice must be heard in these discussions as well. Therefore, I hope that the Bill will go through both on its own merits and as representing the consumers' point of view. I hope that it will become law here and that at the same time it will act as a spur to the EEC to do likewise and to produce a directive on similar lines.

3.49 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Dr. Shirley Summerskill)

The House is well aware of the deep concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) to safeguard the interests of the consumer. She is a persistent campaigner on the subject. I believe that she has introduced no fewer than five Bills on the matter since 1965. This Bill is another example. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as the House will be, for providing this opportunity to consider the labelling of toilet preparations as a contribution to consumer safety.

I heard my hon. Friend's speech in introducing her Bill under the Ten Minutes Rule. Some of the points I make may have a bearing on that speech as well as the speech she has just made.

My hon. Friend has explained why she thinks it essential that every toilet preparation offered for sale should be labelled to show its ingredients and be accompanied by appropriate instructions about its proper, and safe, use. Her argument is that a declaration of the ingredients enables the cause of allergies or other adverse effects to be more readily identified; to help the consumer in her choice of product, for example, by enabling her to avoid products which contain particular ingredients, and, in general, to provide immediate information to enforcement authorities and others concerned with watching constantly over the health and safety of consumers. The need for adequate instructions on use is, I think, self-evident.

I am quite sure that no one would disagree that toilet preparations—and, for that matter, all other consumer goods offered for sale to the public—should be safe when properly used for their intended purpose, and that principle is an essential part of the Government's consumer protection policy.

Apart from the law relating to the sale and description of goods generally, there are at present few controls relating specifically to the safety of cosmetics and toilet preparations on general sale to the public. The basic statutory safeguard against the inclusion of dangerous substances in cosmetics rests in the Pharmacy and Poisons Act 1933, under which the sale and use of poisons included in the Poisons List, prepared by the Poisons Board, are strictly controlled. Among other requirements, the container must be labelled in a prescribed manner showing, among other things, the name of the poison and, in the case of a preparation, the proportion of the poison to the whole. In practice, very few listed poisons are ever used in cosmetics, but this essential safeguard remains.

I should add that my hon. Friend rightly expressed concern some time ago about certain lipstick dyes thought to be carcinogenic. I know that this is a concern of many women, particularly in view of the large number of different lipsticks which are constantly being put on the market, but the Poisons Board considered the matter and came to the conclusion that control under the 1933 Act would not be justified. Obviously the board would reconsider any fresh evidence on the risks thought to be associated with the substances concerned or on new substances thought to offer a serious risk to health.

In her previous speech, my hon. Friend raised certain specific points concerning VCM, HCP and Ponceau MX. Following the research in Italy which showed that vinyl chloride monomer—VCM—in fairly low concentration in air could produce cancer of the liver in rats, we consulted our medical advisers, who told us that this gas should be considered as carcinogenous to man or to woman.

It is know that VCM has been used in some countries, but not in the United Kingdom, as a propellant in aerosols. There is no evidence that aerosols containing VCM have been imported but, as a precautionary measure, the Home Office has written to trade associations representing importers, wholesalers and retailers asking them to advise their members of the need to ensure that any imported aerosols which they may offer for sale do not contain this particular propellant gas.

Hexachlorophane was in use for many years as an anti-bacterial agent in a wide range of medicinal products, disinfectants, toiletries and cosmetics before studies undertaken in the United States suggested that if could be absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream and cause brain damage. The outcome of these investigations was considered by the Department of Health and Social Security, which recommended certain precautions relating to the use of HCP in medicinal products. About this time a number of babies died in France as a result, it is believed, of being dusted with baby powder which accidentally contained a high percentage of HCP.

Following discussions between the Home Office and trade associations about the use of HCP in non-medicinal products, it was agreed that this substance should not be used in making baby products; that, in other products, the level of HCP should be 0.1 per cent. for preservative purposes only; and that products containing HCP should be labelled, "Not to be used for babies". This agreement was given ample Press publicity and the manufacture of baby products containing HCP was discontinued early in 1973.

The third substance specifically mentioned by my hon. Friend was Ponceau MX, which is used as a colouring agent in cosmetics. In 1970, when my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) first asked about it, it was not easy to provide information immediately concerning its use because inquiries eventually revealed that perhaps only one United Kingdom manufacturer was using the colorant, and only to a very limited extent. We were informed at the time that the manufacturer was likely to discontinue the use of the substance and we are not aware that it is being used in cosmetics. The United Kingdom cosmetics industry tend to use only those colouring agents whose use is permitted under food safety regulations. Ponceau MX ceased to be used in food wrappings in 1970.

My hon. Friend rightly expressed concern about these carcinogenic fears, and I hope that I have managed to put her mind at rest—

It being Four o'clock, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER interrupted the Business.

Whereupon Mrs. JOYCE BUTLER rose in her place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put, but Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question, and the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.