§ '(1) Where safety regulations prohibit a person—
- (a) from supplying or offering or agreeing to supply goods or from exposing or possessing goods for supply; or
- (b) from supplying, or from offering or agreeing to supply or exposing or possessing for supply, goods in respect of which information is not provided as required by the regulations,
§ (2) Where safety regulations require a person who makes or processes goods in the course of carrying on a business—
- (a) to carry out a particular test or use a particular procedure in connection with the making or processing of the goods with a view to ascertaining whether the goods satisfy other requirements of the regulations; or
- (b) to deal or not to deal in a particular way with a quantity of the goods of which the whole or part does not satisfy the test or does not satisfy standards connected with the procedure.
§ (3) If a person contravenes a provision of safety regulations which prohibits the provision of inappropriate information relating to goods either by means of misleading marks or otherwise, then, subject to the following provisions of this section, he shall be guilty of an offence.
§ (4) A person who commits an offence in pursuance of the preceding provisions of this section (hereafter in this section referred to as "a relevant offence") shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months and a fine of an amount not exceeding £1,000.
§ (5) Where the commission of a relevant offence by any person is due to the act or default of some other person, the other person shall be guilty of the offence and may be charged with and convicted of it whether or not proceedings are taken against the first-mentioned person.
§ (6) It shall be a defence to a charge of committing a relevant offence to prove that the accused took all reasonable steps and exercised 1825 all due diligence to avoid committing the offence; but if in any case the defence provided by this subsection involves an allegation that the commission of the offence was due to the act or default of another person or due to reliance on information supplied by another person, the person charged shall not without the leave of the court, be entitled to rely on the defence unless, within a period ending seven clear days before the hearing, he has served on the prosecutor a notice giving such information identifying or assisting in the identification of the other person as was then in his possession.
§ (7) Safety regulations may contain provision—
- (a) for requiring persons on whom a duty is imposed by virtue of section 4 of this Act to have regard, in performing the duty so far as it relates to a provision of safety regulations, to matters specified in a direction issued by the Secretary of State with respect to that provision;
- (b) for securing that a person shall not be guilty of an offence by virtue of subsection (1)(a) of this section unless it is proved that the goods in question do not conform to a particular standard;
- (c) for securing that proceedings for a relevant offence are not begun in England or Wales except by or with the consent of the Secretary of State or the Director of Public Prosecutions;
- (d) except in relation to Scotland, for enabling a magistrates' court to try an information in respect of a relevant offence if the information was laid within twelve months from the time when the offence was committed and, in relation to Scotland, for enabling summary proceedings for a relevant offence to be begun at any time within twelve months from the time when the offence was committed;
§ (8) Safety regulations shall not provide for a contravention of the regulations to be an offence.'.—[Mr. John Fraser.]
§ Brought up, and read the first time.
§ 11.6 a.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection (Mr. John Fraser)
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
§ Mr. Speaker
With this we shall consider the following amendments to the new clause: Amendment (a), leave out subsection (3).
Amendment (c), in subsection (4), leave out '£1,000' and insert '£500'.
At the same time we shall consider Government Amendments Nos. 21, 32, 33, 39, 40, 41, 42, 58, 59, 83, 87, 89 and 94.
§ Mr. Fraser
Perhaps I may say a few words which put the clause in context. The Bill gives flexible and, where necessary speedy procedure and powers to protect consumers from death and injury caused by products, from which there is an appalling toll. It is to be seen in the context of the amount of injury that there is, not always because of carelessness by manufacturers, but quite often because of carelessness by consumers. Those are circumstances in which information and warnings may be as helpful as the safety of the product itself.
Since 1945 almost as many people have died in accidents in the home as died on the battlefields in the last world war. When we are considering amendments, we need to look at the whole matter in that context. The House gave full approval to a Bill to protect children against pornography and being photographed for that purpose. Children are among the most vulnerable and this Bill protects both the young and old against other kinds of injuries, which can leave scars not on their minds but on their bodies and can disable them for the rest of their lives.
But it is necessary not only to look at the protection of the consumer but always to strike a balance between the needs and practicalities of industry as well as the safety of consumers. Some criticism was expressed in Committee and outside the House about the structure of what is now Clause 1—not the new clause, but Clause 1. The criticism was to the effect that under that clause regulations would prescribe not only safety standards but the offences and defences and could even shift the burden of proof.
I promised that I would consider that criticism. I have done so, after full consultation with the hon. Member for Tyne-mouth (Mr. Trotter), and as a result of listening to the criticisms and as a result of the consultations I put forward the new clause.
Subsection (1) creates in the substantive legislation the offence of supply contrary to safety regulations. The offence will be not in the regulation but in the statute itself. Subsection (2) creates offences of failing to test for safety, but only where regulations are made. The offence is in the Bill and not in the regulations.
1827 Subsection (3) introduces a provision about misleading marks—offences again to be in the Bill and not in the regulations. I know that hon. Members are concerned about this. There are two evils at which the regulations should aim. First of all, there is the entirely misleading stamp on goods. I came across, for instance, some Brazilian crackers the other day which had on their side the insignia:Approved by Her Majesty's Inspectors of Explosives.Those crackers had not been so approved. It was misleading to put that on the side of this tiny firework. That is the sort of thing at which we should aim in subsection (3).
There is also the problem of the manufacturer or importer who places upon an article a sign or insignia which is very much like an approval sign and which is put there to mislead the public. Both of these matters ought to be able to be dealt with by regulation.
§ Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)
To reassure me and the general public, may I ask the Minister to state whether, under existing regulations, there are sufficient powers to deal with a blatant abuse such as that which he has described? Can action be taken to prevent statements such as those he has referred to on the Brazilian crackers?
§ Mr. Fraser
As I understand it, there are powers to make regulations concerning information on packages but the powers to make a prohibition notice or order do not exist. If there was a highly misleading sign on a consumer product and it was necessary to deal with the matter speedily, the powers concerning prohibition orders and notices could not be exercisable under current legislation. That is one of the loopholes with which the Bill deals.
§ Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow)
This is, in effect, a Second Reading debate on what is clearly an important and complicated clause. Would it not be helpful if the Minister, before going into what is in the new clause, told us what the law is now and how matters are being enlarged or safeguarded?
§ Mr. Fraser
Frankly I do not want to go as wide as that. The new clause ensures that the offences and defences, and the way in which the burden of proof 1828 must lie, are contained within the statute. This is in answer to criticisms raised in Committee and outside. I do not believe that there are substantial changes as a result of the new clause. It ensures that people know what sort of offences can be created and what are the defences available to them. The changes in the law come in later clauses and broadly speaking concern the new power to make a prohibition notice or order and the power to require warnings. I have not brought out all of the changes. Those are the changes which take place and they come in later clauses.
I jump now from subsection (3) to subsection (8). This provides that no new offences shall be created in the regulations. Again, that is an assurance sought in Committee. It is now given. Subsection (4) deals with penalties. I believe that these are appropriate. They are the same penalties as are contained in the Trade Descriptions Act. I know that the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) has tabled an amendment on this point. I believe that, on consideration, it is right, that if there is a penalty of £1,000 for an offence under the Trade Descriptions Act, the same penalty should apply to a breach of the safety regulations.
Subsection (5) provides that where the commission of an offence under subsections (1) (2) and (3) is due to the act or default of some other person, the other person shall be guilty of an offence and proceedings may be taken against either or both. That is very much in line with current law. Not only is the retailer liable; the importer or the producer of a product is liable as well. There may well be circumstances in which it is much more appropriate to take proceedings against the producer or the importer rather than the person who has innocently been selling the product.
The Committee wanted defences set out in the primary legislation and in subsection (6) the defence of diligence is set out. The requirement that the accused should give notice containing information identifying the person whom he alleges by his act or default caused the commission of the offence is designed to enable enforcement officers to investigate such designations before trial. What it amounts to is that if someone comes to the court and says "It is entirely someone else's 1829 fault not mine" prior notice of that defence must be given.
Subsection (7) sets out the provisions which may be included in safety regulations. Two of these are designed to ensure that where regulations are made in very general terms consistent enforcement can be maintained. Again, this meets the criticisms and concern expressed in Committee.
Paragraph (a) of subsection (7) enables the Secretary of State to provide in regulations that he may give directions to enforcement authorities while paragraph (c) provides that regulations may provide that a prosecution may be brought only by or with the consent of the Secretary of State or the Director of Public Prosecutions. This latter power will be exercised only where it is not possible to impose specific requirements in regulations and where the power to give directions would be inappropriate or inadequate to secure consistent enforcement.
Where regulations impose requirements in very general terms it will be possible to provide in regulations by virtue of subsection (7)(b) that compliance with a specified standard is deemed to satisfy any requirement for the purpose of criminal liability. If such provision were made and if goods complied with the specified standard a supplier would not commit an offence of supplying goods which do not comply with regulations.
This is an extremely important assistance to industry. The professional engineer, the quality controller and the designer can very much better understand a standard that is written in their language rather than one written in the legal language of regulations. I know that industry very much welcomes the ability in future to legislate by reference to standards and to know that compliance with a standard will be a defence to a charge concerning breach of the regulations.
Subsection (7)(d) sets out the provision set out in Clause 1(2)(i) as currently drafted. It enables the time limit for prosecutions to be extended from the usual six months to 12 months. If a retailer is found to be selling dangerous goods which are in breach of the regulations it may take some time to discover where production takes place and to find the producer or importer. That is one of the reasons why the period allowed 1830 for prosecution has been extended to a year.
Amendment No. 21 deletes from Clause 1(2) those provisions which are rendered unnecessary by the new clause while Amendments No. 58 and 59 make adaptations of the new clause for its application to Northern Ireland.
Amendment No. 32 is self-explanatory. If a matter comes to trial the person whose defence is that of blaming someone else has to give seven days prior notice of that defence. Amendment No. 33 is purely technical, bringing the wording of Clause 2(4) into line with the wording of a similar provision in subsection (4) of the new clause. Amendments Nos. 39, 41, 42, 83, 87, 89 and 94 are consequential upon the introduction of the new clause. I believe that I have dealt with the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Pudsey dealing with penalties and I hope that I have satisfied the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope) in respect of his Amendment (a) to the new clause.
§ Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)
I welcome the new clause. The Bill is a fairly complex piece of legislation. There was a limited amount of time available for drafting before Second Reading. There has fortunately been a considerable time available thereafter for consultation, and very wide consultations have been held. About 300 firms and organisations were asked for their views. I am gratified to be able to say that some excellent comments on the original draft were received.
There was general concern as to the way in which I drafted the Bill originally. The new clause, which the Minister has kindly helped to draft, through parliamentary counsel, deals with these problems. In particular, as the Minister has outlined, it delineates the offences and the defences.
It is perhaps unfortunate that the rules of the House require us to consider the new clause before we consider Clause 1. In the new clause we are talking about the offences against safety regulations which we have not yet considered because they are in the original Clause 1 of the Bill. I assure the House that the re-drafting is very much in line with the fears that were expressed by the Confederation of British Industries and many other 1831 organisations that the original drafting was too wide.
There is general support for the principle of consumer safety. It is interesting that the existing consumer safety measures were both private measures, introduced in 1961 and 1971. In the Bill I have sought to plug the loopholes and expand the powers necessary to deal with the problems of consumer safety in the light of the experience which has arisen since 1961 and 1971. I shall be expanding on that later today. The offences and defences are, in my judgment, best delineated in the Bill and not in the regulations. That was the original proposal in my first draft.
The amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) would reduce the fine from £1,000 to £500. I can assure my hon. Friend that I did not pluck a figure out of the air. The figure is in line, according to the legal authorities, with that for similar offences now being introduced in other similar legislation.
I turn to the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope), who added very considerably to our discussions in Committee. Unfortunately, he cannot be with us this morning as he had a prior engagement in his constituency. He would have very much wished to take part in the debate, having shown great interest in the Bill since its early stages.
In my opinion, my hon. Friend's amendment would be unhelpful, in that it would prevent powers being taken to deal with the position where misleading information on an article is given. One can envisage the sort of position that might arise. Indeed, the Minister gave one example relating to Brazilian crackers, where the inference from the wording was that the article had been passed. That seemed a little blatant—perhaps almost actionable— but one can envisage other cases where clever words could be used about a product indicating that it had approval, and implying to the public that it had official approval when that was not the case. I feel, therefore, that my hon. Friend's amendment, well intended as it is, would not be helpful in attaining the object of the Bill.
The new clause is wholly in line with the views expressed as a result of the considerable consultation which has been 1832 held over the last couple of months since the Bill had its Second Reading, and I welcome it.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
I apologise that I was not here at the beginning of the debate and perhaps have not heard an explanation from the Minister with regard to the new clause. But I am a little puzzled by subsection (8), which reads:Safety regulations shall not provide for a contravention of the regulations to be an offence.I am puzzled about the legal effect of that, because the wording at the beginning isTo move the following Clause:—(1) Where safety regulations prohibit a person—and so on. Those are all contraventions. What is the legal effect of subsection (8)? What does it mean?
§ Mr. John Fraser
What it means is that the regulations may not create new offences. If my hon. and learned Friend will look at subsection (1) of the new clause, he will find that the breach of a regulation is an offence by virtue of the primary legislation. The concern of people inside and outside the House was that there should be such a wide order-making power that one could not only prescribe safety standards for goods but also prescribe the offences in the regulations. The offences are now contained in the primary legislation and not in the regulations.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me, but it seems to me that the legal effect is that subsection (8) is in direct contradiction to the rest of the new clause.
§ Mr. Jasper More
This is clearly an important piece of legislation. A great deal of thought has gone into the drafting, and the whole House must applaud the objectives which it is concerned to secure. At the same time, it is our duty, in thinking of it from the point of view of our constituents, to consider the implications for certain categories of citizens.
I have particularly in mind the retailers, especially the small shopkeepers who, if I read the new clause properly, will be caught and liable quite as much as anyone else in the chain in passing on any of 1833 the goods which it is sought to prohibit. We ought to be concerned in this House to see that some protection is given to them and that they do not find themselves unwittingly liable under these complicated provisions.
Subsection (6), to which the Minister referred, contains the words:It shall be a defence to a charge of committing a relevant offence to prove that the accused took all reasonable steps and exercised all due diligence to avoid committing the offenceHow far would that protect a small shopkeeper who, in total innocence, accepted or brought one of these articles for sale without any means of knowing the possible dangers of the article in question? Ought there not to be some provision in the legislation by which a shopkeeper or retailer can be protected? Is it not possible that some scheme could be worked out whereby goods could be labelled as certified safe under the test of this legislation? That would at any rate provide some safety, some security, for a small shopkeeper. I should like the Minister to tell the House whether this has been looked into, because it seems to put an impossible burden on a large number of potentially innocent people.
An enormous amount will be done by way of regulations. This, I take it, will be done in terms of the general power conferred on the Minister in Clause 1. I imagine that, in order to cover all the possible situations which the legislation is designed to protect, the regulations may have to be complicated and may have to be numerous.
The House is entitled to ask the question which we ought always to be concerned to ask in these cases: when these regulations are issued, will they come to us by the negative procedure or the affirmative procedure? We have an excellent Committee which looks into these regulations—I take it that these will be Statutory Instruments of the ordinary kind—and this is a matter that we should be concerned to know.
We ought to look rather hard at subsection (7) of the new clause. It reads:Safety regulations may contain provision…for requiring persons on whom a duty is imposed by virtue of section 4 of his Act to have regard in performing the duty so far 1834 as it relates to a provision of safety regulations, to matters specified in a direction issued by the Secretary of State with respect to that provision.That seems to introduce a new feature into what we call subordinate legislation. Apparently, obligations can be put on a citizen by means of regulations which are themselves triggered off by means of a direction issued by the Secretary of State. The Bill seems to make no limitations at all on the power of the Secretary of State to issue directions of this kind. I think that we are entitled to a more detailed explanation of what this would involve.
§ Mr. John Fraser
The power to give directions is a power to give directions to the enforcement officers and not to members of the public. It was brought in upon us that to ensure consistency of enforcement, there should be a power of direction to the enforcement officers. It is not an arbitrary power to give directions to members of the public or to small shopkeepers. It is a power to give directions about the way in which certain regulations are enforced, and that is for the benefit of industry and trade. It is not to their detriment.
§ Mr. More
I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention. It is always awkward to be debating the new clauses first, and it may be that I have not looked with sufficient care at the Bill. If I understand the Minister aright, he is saying that Clause 4 related not to the public but to officials whose duty it will be to enforce.
There was some discussion about the fines. I am conscious that we live in an age of inflation and, whether we put in £500 or £1,000, are we involved in any general or special provision whereby these maximum fines can be increased if inflation continues to increase even at the optimistic rate now forecast by the Government?
§ Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)
I must first apologise to the House and to the Minister for the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) is not able to be present today. She had a long-standing engagement which she was unable to break.
Having said that, obviously there are no sides of the House in relation to this measure. We are dealing collectively, I trust, with the much-needed overhaul of 1835 consumer protection legislation. It has a long history of requirement, and I think that the Minister will agree that many of the Bill's provisions go back to the hazardous products legislation of 1973 and that there has been a consistent need since then to bring into line consumer protection legislation.
If we are to do this effectively in relation to the clauses and amendments before the House, we have to recognise that in the special circumstances of a Private Member's Bill we are limited in the extent to which we are able to expound our arguments. The Government must take some portion of the blame upon themselves for not finding time of their own to bring together this necessary compilation of consumer safety legislation. However, I do not say that with any sense of bitterness. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) on having the sagacity to choose this topic, which is long in need of new legislation.
We are dealing with New Clause No. 1 which has now appeared in two different forms on two consecutive days. There was a draft on Monday of this week, which was subsequently altered on Tuesday, and I think that that is symptomatic of the considerable rush in the production of these new clauses and of certain amendments that were required. It is also symptomatic of the fact that under the Private Member's procedure there was only a formal Second Reading with no argument in debate, and a Committee stage which lasted only one sitting of the Committee. So it is not surprising that we find ourselves having to deal on Report with a considerable number of amendments, many of them generated by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth and by the Government, who are clearly giving him full support in securing that his measure reaches the statute book.
New Clause No. 1 is a very wide-ranging amendment, and it is rightly related to the regulations which were discussed in Committee and to deciding that it would be better if they formed part of the Bill. I support that as a matter of principle. However, there are a number of questions which arise from it.
Subsection (7) of the new clause, which deals with safety regulations, might have easily been more appropriately placed in 1836 Clause 1(1) or (2) instead of being introduced as a new clause, and I shall be interested to hear from the Minister why he feels it necessary that the safety regulations should be handled separately.
I assume that New Clause No. 1 will take its place in the Bill as Clause 2, so that it follows immediately upon Clause 1 which deals with safety regulations in respect of goods. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that.
I turn to two specific matters in relation to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope), who, again, is unable to be here today. He tabled Amendment (a), and he did so with a fair point in mind. It was to draw attention to this definition of "inappropriate" information. The Minister gave an example of what he felt would be inappropriate information, and I concede that there are many marks or descriptions of products which could be held to be undesirable and against consumer interests. But the definition of what is appropriate and inappropriate is somewhat novel.
I do not know whether "appropriateness" is a term in law. The Minister has the advantage of me not only by his professional qualifications but also by the advice he receives. But I think that we ought to ask him whether the idea of appropriateness or inappropriateness is a novel one. I can understand "correct", "true", or "false", but what is appropriate and what is inappropriate?
My hon. Friend also had in mind who decides what should be appropriate or inappropriate. The general drift of the Bill is that the Secretary of State, no doubt on advice, would decide the definition of an appropriate or an inappropriate piece of information. But as this is a fairly novel procedure, I think that the House is entitled to a more detailed explanation.
My own amendment (c) relates to the fine. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) has already drawn attention to the question of the small shopkeeper, and the rate of inflation. But I did not place this amendment on the Order Paper for that reason. My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth is recommending a level of fine that is comparable with those in other pieces of legislation.
1837 Although the Trade Descriptions Act deals with what goes on at the point of sale, we are covering a much wider concept in the Bill. We are dealing with safe and unsafe products. The liability for their arrival at the point of sale is shared to some extent, or it may rest completely with, those who manufacture and produce the products that are found to be unsafe or dangerous. We shall discuss the definition of that term at a later stage.
A trader inadvertently receiving, at the long end of the chain, an article which carried "inappropriate information", may not be quite as culpable as a trader seeking to deceive under the Trade Descriptions Act. Is the Minister satisfied that he is not being too swift and simple in applying a standard rate of fine? The trader may be quite unwittingly in receipt of goods that are subsequently recognised as unsafe for sale to the public. That offence is quite different from one under the Trade Descriptions Act, and possibly a more modest fine could deal with it. I realise that we are dealing with optimum figures—a maximum fine of £1,000 or a three-month sentence. I urge the Minister to consider that we are dealing with people who probably have a lesser degree of culpability than those who offend under the normal operations of the Trade Descriptions Act.
We understand what the Minister has in mind in bringing forward New Clause No. 1. We welcome the idea that the regulations and the powers attached to them should be confirmed as part of the Bill. I draw the attention of the Minister to a minute error in drafting in line 33 of New Clause No. 1. Reference is made to "this subsections." Surely he means "this subsection". Perhaps the fact that I can locate only a singular error of drafting in a new clause which has been totally redrafted twice in 24 hours and rushed through so quickly is a tribute to the achievements of the noble professionals advising the Minister.
We accept the intention of the clause and during the passage of Report stage we are anxious to ensure that the Bill is clear and sensible. One of the problems about the short time available is to ensure that such a complicated piece of legislation goes through with a maximum amount of careful consideration.
1838 I appeal to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for a reasonable ration of Celtic charity if we find ourselves discussing some amendments which may verge on matters more appropriate for discussion on Second Reading. But our Committee stage was reduced to one day and we found that there were certain matters that should be aired subsequently at greater length than is usual at Report stage.
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Mr. Tim Smith (Ashfield)
It is particularly appropriate that we should be discussing a measure of consumer protection today, because it is exactly one year to the day since I was elected by the consumers of Ashfield. The key issue at my by-election was prices—that is the subject that brought me to this House. Since then I have followed matters of prices and consumer protection with particular interest.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) on introducing this Bill. It is unfortunate that it should have been left to him to introduce it, but it is a growing practice for Private Members to be expected to introduce measures which would be more appropriate for the Goverment. However, because of the Government's legislative programme, they are unable to do so.
The way in which the Bill has been dealt with so far has also been unfortunate. There was no Second Reading debate and the Committee stage came so quickly that outside organisations had insufficient time to consider the implications of this very complicated measure. The Government did not address themselves to the fundamental issues involved, and as a consequence we are considering the new clause—one of substantial importance—today. The new clause meets one of the most important points raised at Committee stage—the fact that the Bill as originally drafted left almost all the key issues to be dealt with by regulations.
It is quite wrong that criminal offences and defences to these offences should be left to regulations. I welcome the new clause as it makes a considerable improvement, even though I think that the Bill is still unnecessarily complicated and will be bureaucratic in its operation.
1839 I have sympathy with my hon. Friends who want to see subsection (3) removed. The words "inappropriate information" are somewhat novel, and it is not clear what they mean. I wonder whether the Trade Descriptions Act would cover this subsection. I understand that a prohibition order would not be appropriate for the Trade Descriptions Act, but I am not sure whether it is relevant at all.
It is always open to the Secretary of State or the Minister, if it appears that a product such a crackers, for example, comes to his attention as being labelled in a misleading way, to use the normal publicity channels to draw the public's attention to the fact. I think that this would be sufficient to have the desired effect without embarking on the action proposed in the Bill.
§ Mr. John Fraser
I give the hon. Member an assurance that if a warning or non-statutory action would have the desired effect, of course that is the way in which we would proceed. The use of regulations or statutory action is a last resort.
§ Mr. Jasper More
My reading of the subsection is that it is aimed at the offence of misleading. It says:either by means of misleading marks or otherwiseIt would be better for the subsection to read:If a person contravenes a provision of safety regulations which prohibits the provision of misleading information.Surely that is a term which would be intelligible and capable of absolute definition in a court of law. The word "inappropriate" is hopelessly vague—too vague, in fact, to bring before magistrates or law courts.
§ Mr. Smith
I agree that my hon. Friend's proposed wording would tighten up the subsection and make it more specific. It would eliminate the word "inappropriate" and also the words "or otherwise" because it is not at all clear what sort of marks that would refer to. That alteration would be very important.
§ Mr. John Fraser
First, I should like to deal with the points made by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More). The hon. Gentleman, and his hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw), wants a gradation of offences for the retailer. If we tried to do that, we should have an unduly complicated provision. The maximum fine is £1,000. I should think that magistrates will take into account the degree of blame which attaches to a retailer in fixing the amount of the fine. However, that is not the retailer's only protection.
The other protection is the defence of due diligence. It is not possible to exempt the retailer from liability in all circumstances. There will be cases where the retailer has to rely on information supplied to him by his wholesaler or manufacturer because he cannot carry out a test, because the goods do not appear to be inherently dangerous or because he is not put on notice of the possible danger. Therefore, he relies on what seems credible notice or instructions. In such cases, the defence of due diligence may be sufficient and there will be no question of a fine being imposed.
But circumstances can vary. Goods which did not appear to the retailer to be dangerous and for which he was at first able to rely upon the care and diligence of the wholesaler or producer may change in their nature if he is put on notice that the goods are dangerous. For example, recently we issued a warning notice about gondolas which could cause electrocution.
§ Mr. Jasper More
I may be ignorant, but I have heard of a gondola only in the context of Venice. What is a dangerous gondola?
§ Mr. Fraser
Perhaps I should move away from gondolas, because of the possibility of death in or from Venice. That is an example which might lead to proceedings.
I shall take electrical product X. A retailer may have no reason to believe that electrical product X is dangerous, but subsequently a warning notice may be given about that electrical product which tells the public and retailers that it has a potential danger. Once that has happened, the retailer has a greater responsibility to exercise diligence and care than previously, when he had no notice. That illustrates the difficulty of trying to 1841 have any kind of complete exemption for the retailer. The due diligence defence is available and there is the discretion of the court in the way that it fixes the penalty.
§ Mr. Fraser
Yes. If goods are kept for so long that the insulation on the electrical parts wastes away, there would rightly be responsibility on the retailer.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether it would be an affirmative or a negative resolution. In a later debate I shall advise the House—this is unusual, because it has been the negative resolution procedure since 1961—in view of feelings which have been expressed, to accept the affirmative resolution procedure for general regulations. I shall not trespass on a future debate.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the fine was high enough. One hon. Member suggested that it was too high and another suggested that it might not be high enough in the light of inflation. The Government's record on inflation will be pretty good in future. The level of fines is reviewed from time to time in the Criminal Justice Acts. I think that is the right place for a review, as happened in the Criminal Justice Act 1977.
I am told that the clause should be placed after Clause 1. That will be done.
We then had the argument about the word "appropriate", or "inappropriate". The word "appropriate", or "inappropriate" relates to regulation-making powers. There is no question of anyone being prosecuted because information on a product is by itself appropriate or inappropriate. The precise information will be spelled out in the regulations. Those regulations would be preceded by a long period of consultation with consumers, producers and those in the trade. In other words, the word "appropriate" permits the inclusion in regulations of specific obligations or prohibitions on what kind of information should or should not be there.
1842 I was asked whether the word "appropriate", which has been chosen, was in the law already. It is not, but I hope that it will be in future in this Bill. The word "appropriate" is rather wide, but it is necessary. For instance, it may be necessary to specify not merely the dangerous properties of goods and details about how such goods should be used, but in some circumstances who should be contacted in the event of an accident. One notices that vehicles conveying dangerous products carry not only a warning of the danger, but details of telephone numbers to ring in case of an accident. The word "appropriate" is wide enough to include that kind of information. There will not be an offence of being inappropriate. The offence would be to breach a specific obligation which was spelled out in the regulations after a good deal of consultation.
§ Mr. Tim Smith
Is the Minister saying that the words "appropriate" and "inappropriate" will not appear in the safety regulations?
§ Mr. Fraser
I do not say that the words will not appear, but the regulations will have to spell out with particularity what is intended to be made either obligatory or prohibited.
§ Mr. Giles Shaw
The Minister made an important point about "appropriate" and what it might mean. Will he consider including the definition, as he described it, in Clause 8—"Interpretation"—so that we may know what this new term means? If he could also include in the interpretation clause the fact that this is a subject for discussion and agreement, as he implied in his opening remarks, that would be helpful.
§ Mr. Fraser
On the latter point about this being a matter for discussion and agreement, that obligation is made clear and will be strengthened even further by other amendments to the Bill. Of course, there must be prior consultation. I cannot do more than promise to think about whether the word "appropriate" should be defined. But it carries no further obligation. I shall certainly consider the hon. Gentleman's remarks.
§ Mr. More
I think that we should be clear about this matter. This subsection 1843 specifically creates an offence. I did not follow the Minister when he implied that "inappropriate" would not be of the essence of the offence. Surely the supplying of inappropriate information is the gist of the offence. Is not "inappropriate" the word on which the courts will have to rule? Is that not so on the reading of subsection (3)?
§ Mr. Fraser
I do not think that is the right reading. Subsection (3) beginsIf a person contravenes a provision of safety regulations which prohibits the provision of inappropriate information relating to goods either by means of misleading marks or otherwise".The obligation has to be spelled out in the regulations. It does not arise solely as a result of subsection (3). It has to be translated into the regulations.
§ Mr. Fraser
I think that it is easier to deal with the matter by way of example than by concept. If a regulation were made which permitted or required the display of the reversed epsilon, the imprimatur—I really dare not say this in the presence of the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate)—of the European Community for the safety of a product, it might be right to say that any mark which resembled, was intended to mislead or appeared to be like the official reversed epsilon mark which allows the free passage of goods throughout the member States, should be debarred. That would be "inappropriate information" because it would give the impression that it was an approval stamp when there was no such approval.
§ 12 noon.
§ Mr. Michael Neubert (Romford)
I am at a disadvantage in considering this new clause because I have not previously taken part in the proceedings on the Bill since I was not a member of the Committee. I approach the Bill with a degree of diffidence. I waited for the debate on the new clause before advancing one or two views.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) on having taken on the measure. Essentially, 1844 it is a long overdue Government measure. I wish my hon. Friend well with it. I hope that it will make rapid progress. That we had no debate on Second Reading is an advantage. However, if one draws an analogy with the Unfair Contract Terms Act, that is also a disadvantage, because there is no opportunity for hon. Members to explore the provisions of the Bill in principle. This new clause enunciates some broad principles. It deserves and requires adequate scrutiny by both those who served on the Committee and those who did not. I have read the proceedings of the Committee. It went through in one session, lasting two hours. There is, therefore, a need for further examination of the Bill's provisions.
Subsection (3) of the new clause has aroused most interest. The Minister explained that this provision is required to cover a possible gap in present legislation. This is becoming a frequent and somewhat alarming trend in legislation. There are too many overlying layers of legislation, duplicating the principal provisions of enacted statutes, solely in order to plug a small gap. A valid cause for complaint among the long-suffering public, professional people and those who have the onus of implementing legislation is that we are over-burdening this small island with reams of paperwork and legislative provisions.
I make one complimentary comment about the Minister. He has seen it to be an advantage to introduce into the clause both the nature of the offence and, unusually, the nature of the defence, rather than leaving this to regulations. All too often in relation to consumer legislation is the set of regulations not only left for later but not even prepared in draft at the time that the Bill is published. This makes it difficult for hon. Members to consider the implications. It is right that we should have a detailed New Clause No. 1 which sets out the offence and the defence to it.
I turn to subsection (3). The Minister gave an illustration of Brazilian crackers being marketed as having been approved by Her Majesty's inspector of explosives. I hope that he was referring to Christmas crackers and not cheese biscuits. The prospect of exploding cheese biscuits is alarming, and itself a justification for the Bill.
1845 If such Brazilian crackers are imported, go through the various stages of inspection and eventually arrive at the retailer, it is, as the Minister acknowledged, difficult for the retailer not to accept them as being what they appear to be at face value—namely, a familiar and homely product which has been available for many years and which appears to conform to such safety requirements as seem reasonable in the circumstances.
That being so, I wonder whether the provisions will catch the wrong person. Perhaps there is too much of a burden placed on the man at the end of the line. Perhaps the check should take place earlier.
I understand that according to the new clause the safety standards will be the responsibility of the local authorities. That means that the check will be left until far too late. Surely, if such a claim is made, it could be tested at the port of import. Otherwise one would find that the goods had been brought into the country and distributed through the chain to retailers, and were being sold by general retailers and market traders. Only when an incident occurs are the dangers discovered.
I have noticed that such goods as electrical gondolas, for instance, have been imported from the less developed countries. They have not, on the whole, come from the leading industrial nations of the Western world. One must look carefully at the nature of the offence, the person who is liable to be guilty of such an offence, and the penalties that are to be imposed on that person. I agree with my hon. Friends that we should seek greater clarification on this. It might be a legislative commonplace that the person who commits an offenceshall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months and a fine of an amount not exceeding £1,000".Does that mean, in legal language, that a guilty person will be liable to both imprisonment and a fine? In everyday language, if it were intended that these should be options the phrase "and/or" would be used. That is familiar, and would be easily understood. To say that a person will be liable to a term of imprisonment and a fine means that both are effective in all cases. If that is so, it seems to be 1846 a harsh penalty, particularly in the circumstances which I have outlined involving an innocent and possibly reputable retailer observing high standards.
I concede that these are maxima for imprisonment and fines. In my constituency there is a long-established and successful market, which has been there for many hundreds of years. Defective and dangerous products are often sold in places that are not subject to the same constraints as apply to established traders selling from retail premises. I believe that the penalties are rather disproportionate.
It is not inconsistent with that view to ask whether the £1,000 fine and the maximum three months' imprisonment are the going rate. It would be interesting to know what other offences involve similar penalties. One could then judge whether they are in line and whether we are imposing unduly onerous penalties.
I mentioned earlier the enforcement provisions under subsection (7). The Minister has made it plain that the Secretary of State will be responsible for giving a direction in relation to enforcement of these regulations when they appear. As I have also indicated, my understanding is that the enforcement officers will be those commonly known now as trading standards officers working for a weights and measures authority such as a local authority, and the enforcement of these provisions will be by the local authority.
I should like some reassurance that there will be uniform application of such enforcement. Again, I have a very recent experience which gave me some cause for apprehension. Hon. Members will know that I sought to introduce on Tuesday of last week a Private Member's Bill under the Ten Minutes Rule to regularise the position that has arisen from lack of uniformity of enforcement of a duty imposed upon local authorities. In this case, it related to the Shops Regulation Act.
My point was that some traders are able to open after hours for the organisation of promotional evenings on their own premises. This is done in many boroughs, but is not allowed in my borough. The reason for this disparity of treatment is solely that local authorities themselves see the matter differently. Some see themselves as having scope for such 1847 approval. Others see the law as imposing on them a duty not to allow such promotional evenings.
§ Mr. Jasper More
My hon. Friend has raised a most important issue. I had occasion in the Chamber some three months ago to raise, by way of a Ten Minute Bill, the question of enforcement by local authorities. This related to the case of a fishmonger who operated in two adjacent local authority areas and was prosecuted and severely fined in one area on the issue of labelling of food. Since then I have taken a particular interest in this matter. I have been at pains to look at shops in different local authorities' areas. It appears to me that there is a total diversity on this issue. Quite clearly, not all local authorities are enforcing the law in the same way. Clearly, this could be of importance in the context in which my hon. Friend is now speaking.
§ Mr. Neubert
That adds another illustration of the problem that I can foresee in the application of the Bill if it becomes an Act. Again, my knowledge of the position is that successive Governments having imposed considerable duties on local authorities, in particular in this area, not all the present provisions, under current legislation, are carried out by weights and measures officers and trading standards officers. Inevitably, they have to adopt a priority of their own in choosing what work they carry out and what work is not carried out and to which, by necessity, they are obliged to turn a blind eye.
Therefore, I seek a further explanation of the direction to be issued by the Secretary of State, rather than, in the case that I have cited, a general provision of the law, which has been on the statute book for very nearly 30 years, and of the degree to which that direction will have a greater force to ensure that the provision of the new clause is carried through.
§ Mr. Tim Smith
I wonder whether my hon. Friend could enlighten me on one point. I am not quite clear whether this diversity between different local authorities arises because of a shortage of staff and, therefore, an inability to be able to enforce the various regulations, or because of some defect in the regulations themselves, the consequences being that there are a number of different interpretations.
§ 12.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Neubert
My answer to that would be "Both". In the particular illustration that affects me and my constituency, which I have cited, and which was the subject of my Ten Minute Bill, it relates to a different interpretation of the same provision of the law. But I know that many of the present obligations of weights and measures authorities are not observed, or at least, are observed very infrequently.
Although we are here dealing with what would be more specific and more urgent issues—namely dangerous products, in relation to which a minute lost might mean a life lost—none the less, I make the point because it is relevant. We could have a situation develop in which, the direction having been given to carry out this provision, a dangerous product appeared on the market, perhaps being not widely available but available in certain parts of the country. Local authorities might move in to outlaw such a product and ban its sale and others might not be quite so punctillious or prompt in doing so.
I should like to revert to the question of the duplication inherent in the new clause in making it an offence under this Bill, whereas one would think it more appropriate that an existing Act would do the job in most cases.
On the question of inappropriate information, there is wide scope for disagreement about what is a properly exercised care in the issuing of information and what is not. It has been my experience, in the question of labelling products, and how they should be used—this could apply very much to the Venetian gondola—that the instructions are often in appalling English. I say that meaning that they are obviously drafted by people of the native tongue of the country from which the products have come. When they seek to explain to a fairly simple-minded layman such as myself what is intended, they are often incomprehensible. Although I do not have examples with me, I am sure that all of us have had the experience that it is not always clear how the product should be used.
Therefore, on the question of inappropriate information, I can see that there will be considerable scope for disagreement. After all, an offence must imply intention. Having been warned, not to 1849 respond to that warning would obviously be an offence. But I am thinking more of the inadvertent offence which arises under the new clause.
§ Mr. More
In fairness to foreigners, I think that they do their best to translate into English as much as they can, but they are not always successful. I remember lunching once in a restaurant in Turkey. The whole menu was translated for our benefit from Turkish into English, and there was one special lunch advertised as a lunch for educated shepherds. We took that to be a ploughman's lunch.
§ Mr. Neubert
My point does not relate only to the translation, but I think that this is a common fault in regard to many complicated products, particularly electrical products. The instructions do not always explain matters in language that people can understand. I find very often, just as with the signposting of some important route across the country, that very often one reaches a point in the instructions on how to use or how to assemble the item concerned when there is a gap in the sequence of instruction and one is left somewhat bemused as to what to do.
In the new clause we are providing a considerable duplication of legislation. The Minister said that the Trade Descriptions Act, for example, would cover a great many of such offences that would arise under the new clause. As I understood him, he said that it could well be that the instance cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More)—I forget the exact illustration—would be covered by such legislation, but that this Bill would provide the further opportunity of a prohibition order.
One can see that this is attractive to the Minister. As he said in Committee, he has responsibility. In matters of consumer safety, they may literally be matters of life or death. He wants to be able to exercise responsibility properly. But I question whether it is wise for us to seek to close every small nook and cranny—every possibility—by means of new legislation of this weight and complexity. Surely, in life there will always be some small instances, which perhaps cannot even be foreseen now, which will not be within the scope of legislation. If we seek by our legislation process to cover every contingency, we shall continue to 1850 overburden the working public. That is not to their advantage.
§ Mr. Tim Smith
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) has not got the point about the Trade Descriptions Act. I asked the Minister whether the Act would be relevant in the context of subsection (3). Unfortunately, the Minister did not deal with that point when he responded. It would be helpful if we were told the answer.
§ Mr. Neubert
In Committee reference was made to medicines. The Minister conceded that most of the necessary provisions were provided by the Medicines Act. He said that medicines, as would be expected, were already covered considerably by present legislation, as, quite rightly, they should be. None the less, to make sure that no door was left open and that there was no opportunity for anything to slip through, the Bill was made to cover that area as well, in connection either with the labelling of medicine or the safety closure.
It seems to me that the new clause is a considerable steamroller further to crack a nut that has already been substantially cracked. The intentions of the Bill are wholly good and to the advantage of the public. I hope that, subject to such critical comment as they may receive today, those intentions will eventually be enacted.
§ Mr. Moate
The Minister sought to put the new clause into context. I do not think that, in the context that he described, there will be any quarrel with the objectives of the legislation. We are faced with a massive and unacceptable level of accidents in the home. There are products on the market that can cause injury when purchased by the consumer. When it is seen that there is a threat to safety, particularly of children, it is understandable that there is outrage and anger. If there are hazardous toys, inflammable materials, sharp or protruding parts of toys or anything of that kind, it arouses the anger of people. It is right, therefore, to ensure that there is legislation that allows the Government's enforcement officials to act promptly to prevent the sale of such dangerous goods. About 7,000 people die every year in the home. One realises from that figure how considerable is the problem.
1851 However, in passing may I say that I would have been more impressed by the Government's posture had they sought to introduce this legislation. That would have been a greater testimony to their determination to deal with the matter rather than leaving it to Private Member's legislation. I would have been more impressed by the desire of the Government to protect human life had they maintained their resolve to introduce seat belt legislation, which, alone, would save about 1,000 lives a year and prevent 10,000 serious injuries on the roads. Their failure to do that is a continuing cause of anger and disillusionment with the intentions of the Government as regards life saving. They have failed.
Therefore, whilst I welcome the Bill, we should record that it has been left to my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth (Mr. Trotter) to introduce the legislation. I congratulate my hon. Friend on that. Nevertheless I emphasise that this is not the sort of legislation that should be dealt with on a Friday as a Private Member's Bill.
The new clause demonstrates the inadequacy of these procedures. In many respects we have been talking about matters that should be considered in Committee. Yet on Report, we are faced with a new clause. It is more than a new clause. It is almost like a new Bill. We are having a Second Reading on the broad principles of a matter which deserves minute attention by a Committee. The Bill will leave the House and go to another place, and I hope that the other place will do its job, as one would expect. However, how are we to know, without minute examination of the new clause, whether there are other defects in it?
I welcome the principles of the new clause. It is eminently right that we should try to incorporate in the Bill as many specific matters as possible and try to avoid the dreadful trend of giving to the Government more and more regulatory powers. I say that as one who sits on the Joint Select Committee on Statutory Instruments.
I have been encouraged by references to that Select Committee during the passage of the Bill. I am glad that the Government acknowledge the important role of that Committee. It is not my part in that Committee that deserves such 1852 recognition. It is particularly the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page).
§ Mr. Moate
I am glad to note what the Minister says. Despite that, the House should be careful about placing too much faith in the power of a Select Committee of that kind. Though Government Departments usually respond readily and promptly, that it not always the case. In the last report of the Select Committee there were plenty of criticisms of Government practices. However, Departments generally try to respond readily to representations and requests of the Select Committee. In the Standing Committee on the Bill, it was said that it was much better to leave the question of consultation procedures to be supervised by the Select Committee of the House rather than to put it into the Bill itself.
§ Mr. Fraser
I said that it was much better that the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments ensures that the consultation procedures have been carried out properly rather than the High Court. I said that it was a matter for the House of Commons rather than for the judiciary.
§ Mr. Moate
I was not seeking to distort what the Minister said. It is beyond the powers effectively of the Select Committee to enforce consultation procedures. We cannot in every case examine the detail or ensure that consultation procedures have been properly carried out. That is all that I am seeking to say. I am glad of the recognition given to the Select Committee, but I do not suggest that the House should place too much reliance on it.
It is gratifying that, on this occasion, the Minister has listened to the views expressed and has tried hard and successfully to incorporate in the original Bill many of the specific matters. I hope that he will encourage his colleagues to do likewise. It is also encouraging that he volunteered the point that he wished to make the general regulations subject to the affirmative procedure. I would question only his use of the word 1853 "general". We are talking about the safety regulations. I do not know whether the safety regulations would also be subject to the affirmative procedure. If that is so, it would deal with certain of the points made by my hon. Friends.
Many of the safety regulations would be technical and specific. If they are as narrow as that, perhaps they need to be technical and specific in order to introduce all the elements to satisfy the professional people who will have to apply these standards. Perhaps in that sense they would not be general regulations but would be subject to the negative procedure. Therefore, such matters as the use of the word "appropriate" or "inappropriate" would not receive the scrutiny that they deserve.
§ Mr. Trotter
I can assure my hon. Friend that the general regulations would be included. What may be excluded—it is up to the House to decide on later amendments—is whether the affirmative resolution procedure is appropriate for speedy action to secure the removal from the market of particularly dangerous objects.
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Moate
That is helpful. I look forward to the later discussions.
I give a broad welcome to the principle in the new clause and I thank the Minister because it is a helpful recognition of the importance of allowing the House to lay down these matters in legislation rather than leaving it to subsequent regulations.
However, even now the Bill leaves wide open the question of the powers at a later stage. It still gives enormous regulation-making powers to Departments, and this is an alarming trend. I go along with what my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) said about the danger of such steamroller legislation. I accept that we must have effective means of controlling hazardous products, but the consultation document issued by the Department includes in the introduction the reassuring statement:Generally, the present system works well.That is an important statement. Having accepted that there are many injuries in the home, some of which could be 1854 avoided, it is incumbent upon the Minister and the promoter of the Bill to demonstrate that there is no way of closing the loopholes by specific legislation. If there are loopholes, they should be closed instead of our taking these sweeping powers with considerable legislative and legal effects.
This is a broad-ranging Bill which will affect every manufacturer, retailer, trader and importer in this country. Everyone dealing with trade will have to read the Bill carefully to understand its impact. The effectiveness of the law will be tested over many years. The Bill will have far-reaching consequences.
Is it necessary to do it on this scale? I am not saying that it is not, but I am a little worried that we are taking such wide-ranging legislative powers to deal with matters that could be dealt with in specific legislation which would be much clearer in its impact on people in trade in this country.
§ Mr. Neubert
Will my hon. Friend draw attention to the point that has struck me that, although the Minister, in Committee and earlier today, prefaced his remarks by indicating the enormous number of accidents in the home, it is important to put the matter in perspective and to realise that the Bill will not cover a great many of those accidents?
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) said that in the list of reasons for accidents in the home, drugs took seventeenth place and playthings sixteenth place. Many of these dangerous products are the sort of inferior toys produced in cheap labour countries. We must put the matter in perspective. We are not dealing with all such accidents. That adds force to my hon. Friend's argument.
§ Mr. Moate
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that point. I think that the Minister said that these accidents are not always due to faulty manufacture but are sometimes due to the carelessness of consumers. Any objective analysis would, I suspect, show that the vast majority of accidents are due to human carelessness. That is a matter of great regret, but it would be misleading if we thought that any legislation could make a dramatic impact on the number of accidents in the home.
1855 We should be raising hopes too high if we said that this legislation could deal with anything more than a minority of accidents in the home. I do not quarrel with that aim, but I am not sure whether the Bill is the right means of achieving that aim. However, I have only an element of doubt and it does not make me feel that the legislation should not go through.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rom-ford was concerned whether the Brazilian crackers mentioned by the Minister were not cream crackers. I think that we can be fairly sure on this point. I cannot believe that the sale of biscuits would be encouraged by a statement on the side of the box that the biscuits had been approved by Her Majesty's Inspector of Explosives.
§ Mr. Moate
No, not even bangers and mash. I was a little worried about the Minister's response when that point was made earlier. I should like to feel that he believes that existing powers are sufficient to enable him to take prompt action. I deduced from his answer that he felt that the powers were not sufficient to enable him to take prompt action in preventing the sale of dangerous goods.
It will be some time before the Bill is on the statute book, and hazardous products sometimes get on to the market. I hope that, despite what the Minister has said, consumers can feel reassured that they can look to the Government and local authorities to take prompt action if such goods appear on the market.
I referred earlier to the overall effect of such wide-ranging legislation. The new clause offers a defence to retailers of due diligence, but I wonder whether this helps shopkeepers, because they can have little control over the goods about which we are talking. In the nature of their business, they rely to a large extent upon their traditional suppliers, manufacturers and wholesalers.
What due diligence does a shopkeeper have to exercise to ensure that a product is safe? Shopkeepers receive a large amount of stock and have to look at it fairly casually. They cannot dismantle the goods, but have to rely upon labels 1856 and statements made on the packets and assume that they are safe. There is little difference between normal diligence and due diligence.
§ Mr. Fraser
I do not know why the hon. Gentleman makes out that small shopkeepers are a load of zombies. Of course they are not. They have heavy civil obligations as a result of the Supply of Goods (Implied Terms) Act 1973 passed by a Conservative Government. If anyone is injured as a result of their selling the goods, they are absolutely and strictly liable for a breach of the civil obligations. Shopkeepers who let things pass through their hands, relying on one person selling to another, already have civil liabilities.
I wish that the hon. Gentleman would not portray shopkeepers as being semi-morons. They are intelligent men who read the newspapers and have some idea of the possibilities of danger. I hope that he will not portray our nation of shopkeepers as being men of limited intelligence.
§ Mr. Moate
That was the most extraordinary interpretation of what I said. Anyone who can read that into what I said must be a devious sort of magician. I said no such thing and meant no such thing.
However, by answering in that way, the Minister has indicated that powers already exist to bring to account the careless retailer who sells dangerous goods. I was saying that, generally, the retailer is the least culpable party in the dispensing of dangerous goods because he is so reliant upon the wholesaler and the manufacturer. There are limits on how far he can go to check the safety of the goods that he sells.
Obviously, there must be reasonable diligence, but the shopkeeper is so limited that "due diligence" is not a very strong phrase in this respect. Might there not be a case for grading penalties as has been suggested by my hon. Friends?
We should try to remove some of the fears of small retailers that, although they could not be regarded as guilty in any other sense of the word, they could be charged and found guilty within the terms of the Bill if it becomes an Act.
In regard to subsection (6) of the clause, I would point out that if a person were 1857 to rely on the defence that the commission of an offence wasdue to the act or default of another person or due to reliance on information supplied by another person",The Minister said glibly that it seemed eminently reasonable that the prosecution should have prior notice that that is the defence. I imagine that that is reasonable generally speaking, but that it is not always the case. If the prosecution has a year in which to decide to bring proceedings, it is reasonable to say that within seven days of going into court the defendant must have given notice that he intended to rely upon what would presumably be the frequent defence—that he was relying on information given by other people or that the offence was due to the neglect of another person? The provision appears to be restrictive. Although it would normally be in order, I believe that that defence should not be ruled out on the ground that proper notice had not been given. Could that point be examined?
The hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman) mentioned subsection (8), which he said contradicted the rest of the clause. He is an hon. and learned Gentleman and one has considerable respect for his powers of observation. It is clear—and I approve the intent—that new safety regulations shall not introduce any new offence.
I am sure that the House will applaud that, but when we are faced with the bald statementSafety regulations shall not provide for a contravention of the regulations to be an offence",one senses a contradiction between that and the preceding provisions. Why could one not simply say "Safety regulations shall not provide for the introduction of any new offence"? That would have made the point clear and would not give rise to subsequent disputes in court. Therefore, the hon. and learned Gentleman had a point, and it should have been answered.
The last point relates to appropriateness, which has already been examined in some depth. However, I am not sure that the question was satisfactorily answered. The Minister gave one example. He said that frequently it can 1858 be required that there should be a notice stating the name and address of the people whom one should contact in the event of such a requirement. If that were omitted, presumably the Minister would regard that as an error or contrary to the regulations.
But that would represent the omission of appropriate information, not the inclusion of inappropriate information. We have not yet had a clear example where inappropriate information could be given which could be the subject of an offence. It seems to me that one should link inappropriateness to misleading information. If there is an intention to mislead, let us include the word "inappropriate". But that word which has not yet been interpreted in law. If regulations are to be laid at a later stage, there will be little scope for arguing the meaning of "inappropriate" or "appropriate" and it would be better to delete the word. Perhaps my hon. Friend could improve that wording.
Although I have some hesitation about the procedures for examining a Bill of this importance, I welcome the clause and, generally speaking, offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth on the way in which he introduced these provisions.
§ 12.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Trotter
It is unfortunate that because of the way in which the business of the House proceeded we were prevented from having a Second Reading debate on the Bill. Therefore, it was inevitable and advantageous that points should have been made this morning, because the redrafting of these provisions has led to much relevant discussion. The 1961 legislation took 17 hours of parliamentary time, and until this morning this Bill had occupied only two hours in Committee. Inevitably, there is much still to be said today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ash-field (Mr. Smith) thought that there was not enough time between the Bill's formal Second Reading and its going into Committee. The contentious nature of the Bills that were to be dealt with ahead of this legislation meant that an unduly long period elapsed. The date set for the Second Reading was on my birthday, 27th 1859 January, and the Bill went into Committee on 12th April. A period of 10 weeks elapsed between one stage and the next.
In that period, hundreds of people were written to and asked for their views. I spoke to a large number of organisations and consulted them on their fears and worries. Therefore, there has been a great deal of consultation.
The need for balance in the Bill was very much in my mind from the earliest stages. There was clearly a need to extend consumer safety legislation. The practice since the 1961 and 1971 Acts came into force has revealed some glaring loopholes. There is no doubt in my mind that those needed to be plugged. For example, there is now no means for the taking of urgent action to stop dangerous goods continuing to be supplied on the market if the supplier does not co-operate. Most suppliers are horrified if they find that they are selling anything that is dangerous and they co-operate, but a few do not, and there is now no speedy method of dealing with them. The exercise is protracted and long drawn out. The Bill seeks to introduce provisions to deal with the position.
The CBI and other manufacturing organisations have told me that business men are punch-drunk at the amount of legislation that pours out of this building week by week. I have been very conscious of that fact, but I believe that this Bill provides the minimum needed to deal with the problems of consumer safety. It is unfortunate, but there is no way of drafting legislation that will apply only to the sharp character who wishes to take advantage of the customer. It has to apply to everybody.
Although the Bill may be complex in its terms, I believe that it will be simple in its operation. The regulations will be self-explanatory. If there is a regulation applying to the lawnmower industry, it will be self-explanatory and the manufacturers of lawnmowers will need to go no further than that regulation to satisfy themselves as to the requirements.
The use of the Bill will be limited. The previous practice has been for there to be voluntary consultation, and the Minister has assured me that that practice will continue.
There have not been all that many regulations in the past dealing with 1860 safety. They total about 14 or 15, and there are perhaps another half-dozen in the pipeline. There has been a rate of one or two regulations a year. I do not see that there will be a flood of regulations following the enactment of this Bill.
These regulations are preventive. They set down the standards to be followed by toy manufacturers. Toys were covered by regulation for the first time in 1974. Once those standards are established the industry will know the parameters within which it should operate. Other parts of the Bill deal with the enforcement of provisions in respect of those who have not complied with the regulations, or who are selling dangerous objects not covered by safety regulations.
We cannot legislate for carelessness. The statistics show an extraordinary range of objects with which people injure themselves. For example, 162 people were injured by dogs in one year. I defy any hon. Member to draft a Bill to prevent that. Furthermore, 101 people injured themselves with fruit or vegetables. Again, I cannot see how we can legislate against that happening. There were 71 cases of injury with money. I suppose we could make our coins with dissolving metal. Having regard to the fall in their value, that might even be considered appropriate. Sixty people injured themselves with dustbins, and here again I doubt that any regulation could deal with that.
But, however that may be, there are many cases of people being put at risk by the sudden release of dangerous goods on to the market. To give one example, there was an electric panel radiator imported into this country not long ago. I should add that many of these offending products are imported, as one of my hon. Friends said, from the lower-wage countries of the world. These electric radiators were designed to be used on a 220-volt supply, not 240 volts, but imported they were, and the surface temperature of some of them when in use went up to 150 deg. Centigrade. Plainly, there was considerable danger.
That is an example of the need for powers of this kind if people are bringing into the country objects of such potential danger.
I believe that the Bill strikes a balance between, on the one hand, the genuine 1861 concern of business not to be beaten over the head with excessive legislation and, on the other, the consumer's need for protection.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Clause read a Second time.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)
I understand that the amendments to the new clause are not to be moved.
§ Clause added to the Bill.