HC Deb 09 December 1985 vol 88 cc737-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lennox-Boyd]

11.35 pm
Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

With 13 shopping days left before Christmas this is a timely occasion to debate the importation of consumer goods, many of which are dangerous. Each year about 7,000 people in Great Britain die in home accidents—more than are killed on the roads. An estimated 3 million sustain injuries which require medical attention. This is too high a toll in human suffering and cost to the community. A proportion originates directly through the use of dangerous imported consumer goods.

I appreciate that the consumer has certain safeguards through regulations under two statutes. The Consumer Protection Act 1961 imposes safety requirements on prescribed goods and or requires that they be accompanied by specific warnings or instructions. Examples are the Toy (Safety) Regulations 1974/1367, which require that toys shall not have sharp edges or spikes and that there is no possibility of children swallowing glass eyes from a toy's face; the Pencils and Graphic Instruments (Safety) Regulations 1974/226 which require that pencils and paint on pencils should not contain more than a certain amount of lead; and the Babies' Dummies (Safety) Regulations 1978/836 which set safety standards.

Under the Consumer Safety Act 1978 goods can be required to conform to certain standards and persons can be prohibited from supplying goods which are not considered to be safe or which do not meet certain safety requirements.

Two examples of appropriate legislation under the Act are the Novelties (Safety) Regulations 1980/958 and the Novelties (Safety) (Amendment) Regulations 1985/128, which prohibit persons from supplying balloon kits containing benzene, tear gas capsules, and so on, and the Food Imitations (Safety) Regulations 1985/99 which prohibit persons from supplying toys, erasers, and so on, which look like food, smell like food or flowers, or taste like food.

I appreciate that prohibition orders have been introduced under the 1978 Act, such as the Toy Water Snakes (Safety) Order and the Expanding Novelties (Safety) Order, but they cease to have effect after 12 months unless the Government seek to renew them.

There is worrying evidence concerning a Japanese novelty known a "Grobots", "Grobugs" or "Grobeasts" which grow from about one and a half inches long—up to 200 times their size in water. They have become the subject of after dinner conversation in some households. However, if accidentally swallowed by a child, such a toy could cause a serious throat or stomach obstruction requiring surgery.

A prohibition notice was placed on the importing company on 21 November. That was not exactly speedy, since it was almost a fortnight after the first newspaper report was published.

That action illustrates the inadequacy of the present arrangements. It closes the door after the horse has bolted. It has not stopped the dangerous product entering the country. It has not stopped its distribution among the trade, or its retail sale. It does not prevent another company from importing the product. If the Expanding Novelties (Safety) Order had been renewed, none of this need have occurred and children would not have been placed at risk

The penalties are inadequate. Contravention is an offence punishable by a fine up to a maximum of £2,000 and up to three months' imprisonment. Surely £20,000 or more would be more realistic, taking into account trade profits and the risk to which children are exposed.

The Department can ban a product, but its name can be quickly changed. It can ban by compositional structure, but analysis takes time. It can also give a general warning. Indeed, the Association of Toy, Stationery and Fancy Goods Wholesalers is operating a code of conduct—a dangerous toys early warning service—for its members and retail customers. Its members and local trading standards departments are notified about toys which are found or thought likely to be dangerous. It immediately informs its members who advise the retail shops. This is admirable, but it lacks legal sanction and—to judge by the way that defective goods enter the United Kingdom before Christmas—it is inadequate.

I place on record my thanks—which will be echoed throughout the House—to the Yorkshire Post for its investigatory campaign into unsafe imports. It has done a public service by highlighting such dangerous products as illegal toys, cheap, second-hand tyres and household goods.

I will give some examples; of imported consumer goods on sale, starting with toys. There are bicycles, the front forks of which collapse; a soft toy, filled with small pieces of foam rubber, split and the pieces of foam created a hazard to a child; a mobile telephone with jagged edges on its metal bell; wooden toys with excessive lead in the paint with which they were coloured; a plastic gun, the plastic bullets from which shot through the air with excessive force; a toy crow, the face of which was held on with nails; a zig-zag toy with a sharp spring which trapped the fingers; a cloth doll found to contain a broken machine needle in its head; a teddy bear in a cage with a high lead and chromium content; water snakes from Taiwan which contained contaminated water; dolls with spikes in their heads. I have seen one, the head of which easily came off to reveal a nasty four-inch spike; and a drumming teddy bear from China with loose eyes, sharp edges and a high lead content.

Toys are not alone, even if they are more topical. Other dangerous consumer goods which the United Kingdom has imported include curling brushes from Hong Kong with poor wiring which made them electrically unsafe; an electrical amplifier from Taiwan which was electrically unsafe; hammers, drills and saw blades from the far east which shattered when used; cosmetics from Taiwan which contained excessive levels of heavy metal; a Rinko Pool filter of Japanese origin which was electrically unsafe and caused one death last year; medical first-aid kits from India which should have contained sterile dressings but were found to be contaminated; a car jack from Taiwan, an estimated 35,000 of which were sold in the United Kingdom, collapsed on a user causing hand injuries, rightly highlighted by the Consumers' Association. Indeed, that organisation in its current issue of Which? magazine records how two children died through such dangerous imports. In one case, a three-year-old died after swallowing and choking on the wheels of a toy lorry kit from inside a chocolate egg. In another, a nine-month-old baby girl was strangled last Christmas in the elastic of a cot toy.

A relatively new safety standard for toys has been introduced by the British Standards Institution. It covers the mechanical and physical properties of all types of toys for children up to 14 years old and specific requirements for small toys for children under three years of age. While producers of goods complying with BSI standards attach kite and safety marks to their products, foreign manufacturers and importers do not have to comply with that code.

In recent days a product named "Snow Flakes" has been brought to my attention. I showed it to the Minister just before the debate began. It is an aerosol container which allows a pine-scented spray to give the appearance of snowflakes. It is dangerous and should immediately be banned because not only is the container inflammable but anything it sprays becomes inflammable. Will I wait another fortnight, until after Christmas, before hearing good news about that? I hope not.

Yesterday the Mail on Sunday illustrated a toy racing car powered by a live hamster, a form of cruelty which is almost inconceivable. I am pleased to learn that this American product was totally withdrawn from sale this morning.

I have shown that there is real concern about the range and potential danger of many consumer goods. Nobody wants to be a killjoy at Christmas, but it is clear that the festivities of some will be marred by injury caused by unsafe goods.

What can be done? The Government explored the possibility in their White Paper on the safety of goods published in July 1984, yet its recommendations have not been put into legislative form. I had hoped that it would be foreshadowed in the Gracious Speech, but it was significantly omitted, although I appreciated the pressure on the business timetable.

I have, as a result, sponsored an early-day motion, which has the support of 110 right hon. and hon. Members from all parties, this Adjournment debate and a private Member's Bill. I hope the Minister will say that he will support that measure.

Surely, the cardinal switch that we should make to protect the consumers is to place the legal responsibility on the importer. He should have the duty of care. We should expect an importer to check the safety of goods before placing an order. For example, an importer of goods with a potentially high lead content should send one off for a laboratory analysis and that evidence should be presented to the Customs and Excise on entry of the goods. The Customs and Excise officer should be able to pass confidential information on to the trading standards officers. Enforcement staff should be able to seize and control dangerous goods.

I welcome the EEC draft directive on product liability, and the proposal relating to toys in particular. I hope that the Government will take the lead in Europe in this sector. We need to stop dangerous imports from reaching the shops. It is unrealistic to have to wait until a complaint is made following the use of the products. By that time, the goods have been passed through the country. The point of entry is the correct stage to stop these goods, and I hope that this course of action commends itself to my hon. and learned Friend, and that, notwithstanding the pressure on Government time, he will support my endeavours.

11.45 pm
Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) in his admirable cause. I have a certain amount of sympathy for my hon. and learned Friend the Minister, who has to work in an extremely problematical sector. At times, it is difficult to be fully objective in deciding what is dangerous and what is not.

Every year, family tragedies arise from dangerous goods that should never reach our shops and stores. I shall add only one product to the list that my hon. Friend the Member for York has already given the House. Hon. Members may have seen the television series "Shogun", in one episode of which a group of assassins in dark masks and capes were extremely adept at hurling spiked discs, with lethal effect. I have sent one of these instruments of death to my hon. and learned Friend. They are easily obtainable in London, and are manufactured in Taiwan. I have heard through the usual channels that the case is to be investigated, not merely by the Department of Trade and Industry but by another important Ministry. I am now waiting agog to find what the Chinese symbols on these objects mean.

I join my hon. Friend in expressing the hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will use his talent to direct his attentions to finding a simple and quick method of removing dangerous toys from the shelves of shops. If necessary, there could be a quick application to magistrates. I emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend, that the onus should be on the importer. I have been in manufacturing for many years, and I see no difficulty for an importer, when he has placed an order with a manufacturer, insisting that a sample is sent. It can then be submitted to an inspector so that the importer can be reasonably satisfied that he is not importing dangerous toys. I am sure that will go a long way towards minimising the number of tragedies that occur.

11.48 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Michael Howard)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) for raising this important topic on the Adjournment of the House.

I know that many people have expressed concern that, from time to time, unsafe consumer products imported from abroad find their way on to the market place and then into our homes. It is right that we should be concerned. Consumers are right to expect that the goods that they buy—wherever they were made—afford a reasonable level of safety, and conform to relevant safety legislation. Our manufacturers are also right to be concerned that the importation of unsafe goods represents unfair competition for them. It may be that the foreign manufacturer is unaware of our safety requirements, or that he is cutting corners on safety to undercut his competitors on price. The net result is the same—whenever unsafe products from abroad find their way into shops, it is against the interests of both United Kingdom industry and United Kingdom consumers.

We should not forget, of course, that in the United Kingdom we enjoy an open economy and that the consumer benefits greatly from the freedom of choice represented by the ability to buy goods from all over the world. Many importers perform a valuable service to consumers in this country. In some cases British manufacturers are themselves importers as they find that the best way to provide their customers with the goods that they want is by drawing on manufacturing resources overseas as well as on their own factories.

But the safety of our imports is of major concern to me. It has been estimated that as many as 80 per cent. of the total number of consumer safety complaints made to trading standards officers concern imported goods. There are, of course, wide powers already available—and frequently invoked—to prevent unsafe imports from reaching the consumer. My hon. Friend the Member for York referred to the Consumer Protection Act 1961, which empowers my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State to make safety regulations covering specific classes of goods. The Consumer Safety Act 1978 modified and extended these powers. The later Act widened the range of requirements which could be imposed in safety regulations, and gave new powers to the Secretary of State to prohibit the supply of goods and to require suppliers to issue warnings. Enforcement of consumer safety legislation was vested in trading standards departments of local authorities.

My hon. Friend also referred to a number of instances when those powers had been used. I certainly intend to ensure that they continue to be used whenever it is appropriate to do so. For example, there has been much concern in recent years about the safety of poor quality electrical plugs and sockets, many of which come from the far east. We are therefore preparing new regulations to prohibit the supply of dangerous plugs and sockets. When the regulations are in place, plugs and sockets will have to comply with relevant British Standards and it will be illegal to supply imports which fail to meet those standards.

But regulations do not—and cannot be expected to—cover every type of consumer product. Where there are no specific regulations, the Consumer Safety Act allows my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State to make prohibition orders or issue prohibition notices to ban the supply of any goods he considers are unsafe. These powers were introduced to provide a procedure whereby dangerous products, whether manufactured in the United Kingdom or abroad, could be withdrawn from the market quickly without going through the inevitably lengthy process of making regulations.

I should of course make it clear at this stage, however, that the vast majority of goods on the market are not dangerous and that the vast majority of traders are responsible and do not need the force of prohibition orders or notices to persuade them to remove from sale goods that are shown to be dangerous. Problems are usually resolved in informal discussion between trading standards officers and the traders concerned. There was a problem recently, for example, with certain Japanese metallic marker pens containing xylene, the fumes from which could cause eye irritation. As my hon. Friend is aware, importers voluntarily agreed to add warning labelling of those items advising that the pens should only be used in a well ventilated environment.

But from time to time, where traders have not co-operated, stronger action has been necessary. As my hon. Friend mentioned, early last month I banned an importer by means of a prohibition notice from supplying a range of expanding novelty items made in Japan. My hon. Friend was not entirely satisfied with the time scale by which that ban was brought into effect, but it is right that where it is possible to proceed by voluntary action, every effort should be made in an attempt to do so. Initially at any rate, we should seek to achieve our objectives in that way. That was our initial approach in the example that I have mentioned. The supplier of these expanding novelties—dignified by the name of Grobugs—was not prepared to co-operate and a prohibition proved necessary.

The legislation that we have currently available has prevented the supply of many dangerous imports. Many potential injuries have been avoided and, no doubt, lives have been saved.

Nevertheless, we recognise that despite all the existing powers, more needs to be done to ensure a safe market place. Experience has highlighted the absence of preventive prodecures for identifying and halting the supply of unsafe goods, particularly imported goods, before they reach the shops. That has been apparent in many cases, for example when large numbers of unsafe electric curling brushes, imported from Japan, were on sale in the United Kingdom a few years ago. The brushes contravened the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations, and many traders were prosecuted. But the case made it clear, however, that further powers were needed to halt dangerous items higher up the chain of supply. It was with such problems in mind that we issued last year a White Paper on the safety of goods. It contained a number of proposals designed to prevent dangerous goods, particularly—though not exclusively—imported ones, from reaching the shops.

At present, trading standards officers have the power to seize and detain goods for ascertaining whether safety requirements have been contravened, but only if they have reasonable cause to believe that such provisions have been contravened. It is proposed that trading standards officers should have the power to detain goods which they believe have not been supplied in the United Kingdom, for the purposes of ascertaining whether the goods satisfy safety requirements, including the proposed general safety requirement. That will allow them to detain imported goods to see whether they are safe, whether or not they already have grounds for believing that they are unsafe.

In addition, trading standards officers are to be empowered to require first suppliers to produce any relevant documents, such as test certificates, evidence of quality control procedures and so on, so that trading standards officers can ascertain whether safety requirements may have been contravened.

Powers of seizure are at present limited to the taking of samples for the purpose of testing or use as evidence. They do not permit authorities to halt directly the sale of goods, even where there are strong reasons for believing that the public may be at risk. The Government propose to empower trading standards officers either to suspend the supply of, or, if necessary, to seize, goods that are in the supplier's possession. That power could be used against anyone in the chain of supply, from the importer down to the street trader.

Local authorities are usually aware of manufacturing and retailing activity in their locality, but often have difficulty in identifying importers. It is, therefore, proposed in the White Paper that Customs officers should be authorised to provide trading standards officers with information about consignments of goods imported into the United Kingdom. This information will be extracted from that already collected by Customs and Excise for entry purposes. It will enable authorities to have warning of the arrival of goods, and valuable information about recent past imports, and, if appropriate, to investigate their safety further with the importer or, if necessary, to seize or suspend unsafe imports at the point of entry. Trading standards officers will be under a duty to respect the confidentiality of information received from Customs and Excise.

Another major proposal is the introduction of a general safety requirement. All suppliers of consumer goods will be required to ensure that their goods are safe in accordance with sound modern standards. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will be empowered to approve particular published standards for the purpose of this requirement. Suppliers will be required to comply with the standards, or to show that their products afford at least an equivalent level of safety. That will be a significant advance over the present system of piecemeal regulation, as it will cover product areas not covered by safety regulations, and should prove a flexible form of requirement which adapts easily to changing technology and safety standards.

Some people have called for even more stringent measures. But the Government consider that first suppliers, including importers, should be allowed to retain flexibility in choosing how to set about ensuring that their goods meet safety requirements. It is, therefore, not proposed to introduce a rigid requirement that first suppliers must carry out specified checks. Nor is it proposed to introduce across-the-board compulsory-type approval or certification schemes. But the counterpart of flexibility is responsibility. First suppliers who rely on other suppliers for the specification of products, or materials, for finished products should consider carefully the degree of confidence they place in their source of supply. They should not rely on information supplied by another person unless they have taken reasonable steps to verify that information.

The new measures that we propose will be particularly potent weapons in the enforcement officers' arsenal. They have been welcomed by industry and consumers alike, and I assure the House that we are planning to introduce them as soon as the parliamentary timetable permits. No one was more disappointed than I that we were unable to introduce them in the present Session.

As for the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend, we shall have to wait and see exactly what it contains. I am keen to have all the measures proposed in the White Paper on the statute book as soon as possible, and am sympathetic to my hon. Friend's cause, but I cannot tonight give him any specific assurances about the degree of assistance that we shall be able to offer him. In the meantime we are not standing still; we are making good use of our existing powers and will continue to do so whenever the need arises. Work is, of course, proceeding on updating British Standards in advance of the general safety requirement.

Safety-conscious firms abroad who wish to export their products to Britain will have nothing to fear from our proposed measures. They will not be used to discriminate against imported goods in favour of British goods but they will be used to weed out—we hope at the dockside—any dangerous goods from abroad which at present can be intercepted only at the point of retail.

My hon. Friend referred to the recently adopted European Community directive on product liability, which should also help to curb the import of unsafe goods. The main purpose of the directive is to impose throughout the Common Market a system under which manufacturers and importers will be strictly liable for damage caused by defective products that they put into circulation. We hope to implement that directive alongside the proposed new consumer safety legislation. My Department has issued a consultative document seeking views on the detail of implementing the directive.

My hon. Friend also referred to the import of toys. We are indeed anxious to secure a European directive on toys, although progress in relation to this has not been as speedy as we should have hoped.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) referred to a weapon which is said to be incendiary but which he, in fact, handled. I am not sure that that added to the safety of the procedure. He is right to say that I have passed responsibility for it to my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Home Office, because it comes within the definition of an offensive weapon, although I cannot promise him that that Department will afford him the services of translation of the Chinese characters which appear on the surface of the item, as he would apparently desire.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for York in congratulating the Yorkshire Post on its excellent work in drawing the dangers of unsafe consumer goods to the attention of the public. I hope that the debate will play a part in achieving that objective. The consumers themselves have an important part to play in being alert in endeavouring to ensure that the goods that they purchase and use are safe. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Twelve o'clock.

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