HC Deb 09 May 1986 vol 97 cc415-20 2.10 pm
Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

I beg to move amendment No. 1. in page 2, line 4, leave out subsection (1) and insert—— '(1) A customs officer may, for the purpose of facilitating the exercise by any enforcement authority or officer of such an authority of any functions conferred on the authority or officer by or under the safety legislation, seize any imported goods and detain them for not more than forty-eight hours. (1A) Anything seized and detained under this section shall be dealt with during the period of its detention in such manner as the Commissioners of Customs and Excise may direct.'. As drafted, clause 2 would enable Customs officers to detain any goods for up to 72 hours. The amendment limits the maximum detention period to 48 hours, makes one or two minor technical changes and removes a technical inconsistency in the Bill, as reported.

Subsection (2) now includes a definition of "Customs officer" although there is no reference to that term in the clause or elsewhere in the Bill. The amendment rectifies that by introducing a reference to "Customs officer" in the new subsection (1). It also makes it clear that goods detained under that clause shall be dealt with in such manner as the Commissioners of Customs and Excise may direct.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I am sorry that the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) should have felt it necessary, under gentle persuasion from the Government Front Bench, to move this amendment. I do not want to go over the ground that we covered in Committee, although I suspect that I shall do so.

The Committee rejected a similar amendment on two separate occasions. Indeed, I suspect that the second vote was inadvertent rather than a commitment to the Government's case. Consequently, it is remarkable that the sponsor of the Bill should have to accept an unnecessary watering down of it. But behind the Minister's charming smile and smooth tones was the iron threat: If that disagreement is not resolved during our debate, my hon. Friend's ambition to put the legislation on the statute book during the present Session may be in peril."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C; 30 April 1986, c. 5] Thus the Minister said that for a mere extra 24 hours he was willing to consider wrecking a Bill that is accepted and welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, with the exception apparently of some members of the Government.

Some rather peculiar arguments were adduced in support of the Government's case that the time should be limited to 48 hours, not 72 hours. My hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) will find it incredible that our suggestion of 72 hours to inquire into teddy bears and imported dolls was rejected by the Minister on the ground that all those potentially unsafe toys would pile up at Britain's ports and so prevent our normal trade. It was a preposterous proposition, although he had the good grace to look shame-faced even if he did not sound it.

The Minister then decided that bigger guns were needed, and he called in aid the treaty of Rome, Brussels, the Commission and the whole paraphernalia of the Common Market against that extra 24 hours of inspection. We were told that giving an extra 24 hours would put us in breach of the rules. The Minister could not tell us why that was so, because he had not asked anyone. He admitted that there had been no consultation, and he did not know whether his own figure of 48 hours would be acceptable.

Mr. Ian Mikardo (Poplar and Bow)

Is my right hon. Friend or the Minister aware of what the French get up to by delaying things at ports when it suits them? They operate what is virtually a non-tariff barrier to imports. In one case everthing has to be routed through a little customs post in Poitiers and a long backlog builds up. In another case it is demanded that a container should not contain a mixed load, so every container has to be opened. It is nonsense to suggest that we should be inhibited by Common Market rules.

Mr. Williams

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who was not able to follow the discussion in Committee. That is why I draw his attention to some of the peculiarities in the arguments. We told the Minister that if he happened to be in France, far from quivering at the prospect of being arraigned before the European Court, he would be donning his best suit to be presented with the Croix de Guerre and some kisses for having found yet another way of restraining trade from outside France. However, the Minister does not want heroism; all he wants is to capitulate to the commercial interests lobbying his Department.

The Minister said that the first two days were needed only to inspect papers. We never got to the bottom of the matter. He said that there would be no investigation, and he added that the preliminary inquiry would include the identity of the importer, the likely destination of the goods and preliminary checks on any documentation, test certificates and so on. That, apparently, is not an investigation in the Minister's parlance. The Minister said that it might be necessary for enforcement authorities to make a telegraphic check on information from an exporter in a different continent or where weekends or public holidays make it especially difficult to obtain information quickly."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 30 April 1986; c. 12.] We told him that weekends last for 48 hours and that 48 hours was all that the amendment allowed. We also said that, because of the time zones, another 12 hours had to be added because offices in other parts of the world might not be open. We argued that a gap of 60 hours was needed to have a reasonable chance of making contact. The Minister was unimpressed and unpersuaded.

The hon. Member for York is hiding his bruises. I understand that his arm was twisted. I am sorry that he submitted to intellectual torture, because the Bill is good and the 72 hours provision stood in its own right. As it is not our wish to do anything to delay the Bill's progress, but merely to highlight the sordid manoeuvring behind the scenes to diminish and dilute what started as a good Bill, until the Minister got his paws on it, I thought it worth enlightening my hon. Friends about how devious the Government have been.

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 moving this amendment, which corrects a technical inconsistency in the Bill as reported and, more importantly, reduces the maximum period of detention by Customs and Excise from 72 to 48 hours.

This is a relatively minor change but one which, in my view, is very important to reduce the risk of successful challenge to the Bill under article 30 of the treaty of Rome. This article prohibits measures which have the effect of restricting imports, and although article 36 of the treaty permits exceptions to this rule on the grounds of health and safety, any measures taken on those grounds must be strictly proportionate to the health and safety risk in question.

The Customs detention provision is not intended to be sufficient to enable enforcement authorities to subject goods to detailed scientific tests, but merely to allow them to make preliminary inquiries about imports, to arrive on the scene and, if appropriate, to exercise their own powers to seize or suspend the goods.

I had initially thought that 24 hours was sufficient—and, therefore, that a longer period would be disproportionate—for this limited purpose, but I have been persuaded by the strong arguments of my hon. Friend and of the National Consumer Council and local authority associations that up to 48 hours might be necessary to deal with the awkward cases. I am not persuaded that there is any case for increasing the period to 72 hours, which would run a great risk of being disproportionate to the purpose that it is intended to achieve. Therefore, I urge the House, in the interests of safeguarding the measure as a whole from successful challenge in the European Court, to accept the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Order for Third Reading read.

2.20 pm
Mr. Gregory

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

This Bill is the product of my keen interest in protecting consumers from the consequences of dangerous and unsafe products as well as of my being successful in the ballot for private Members' Bills.

I realise the complexity of such a Bill. It contains 17 clauses and two schedules. Injury, and indeed death, can result from unsafe products. That is why it is vital to bring forward proposals outlined in the White Paper on the safety of goods. Each year, about 7,000 people die in home accidents, which is a greater number than those killed on the roads. Furthermore, an estimated 3 million people sustain injuries which require medical attention. That toll in human suffering cannot be allowed to continue.

Dangerous consumer goods, especially items that have not been checked for safety, contribute substantially to those appalling figures. The tragic consequences can be devastating—the death in Hull from an imported Polish light bulb and the death before Christmas of a five-month-old child in Leeds from playing with a far eastern toy pony.

Understandably, the media have highlighted the aspect of toys covered by the Bill, but the scope in consumer terms is much wider. It embraces all areas for which there are existing consumer regulations, such as faulty electrical products, unstable pushchairs, children's nightwear and cosmetics.

I shall cite three examples of dangerous goods on sale. First, decorative table lamps containing tricholoethylene which has been banned since 1980, which caused the death of two young boys; secondly, steel splinters from imported hammers, which caused at least four people to lose their eyesight; and, thirdly, painted dolls which contain 120 times the legal limit of lead. This week, the BBC programme "That's Life" drew to my attention drinking mugs in the shape of dogs and birds which, it is understood, contain up to 20 times the permitted lead level. Those items were imported from Hong Kong.

The Bill implements important proposals in the White Paper of July 1984 on the safety of goods. I hope that in the autumn we shall hear an announcement in the Gracious Speech of a major consumer Bill which will cover the key element of a duty of safety, because that goes beyond the remit of a private Member's Bill.

Supported by the National Consumer Council, I have introduced a Bill which seeks to create new powers for enforcement authorities to act against unsafe goods at the United Kingdom factory gate and at the point of entry to this country. Instead of trading standards officers having to track down suspect goods at every conceivable retail point—an impossible task—they will be empowered to prohibit such goods getting into the wholesale trade.

Reputable traders will have nothing to fear, as they will have carried out safety checks before placing their orders. The Bill is aimed at catching the unscrupulous. That is why it has wide-ranging support from bodies such as the National Consumer Council, the National Federation of Consumer Groups, the British Standards Institution, the Confederation of British Industry, the Consumers' Association, the Welsh Consumer Council, the Scottish Consumer Council, the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, the Institute of Trading Standards Administration, the Association of County Councils, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the British Toy and Hobby Manufacturers Association.

In conjunction with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), we have all worked hard to produce a set of measures which, by promoting more effective enforcement of existing safety regulations without inadvertently punishing the innocent trader, will bring significant benefits to consumers and reputable businesses. There is provision for the payment of compensation in the unlikely event that goods which are suspended from supply turn out not to contravene safety regulations.

The Bill makes a timely and constructive contribution to consumer safety. It tackes an important problem in a realistic way. It is vital to protect life and limb. If the Bill becomes law during this Session, it will catch this year's Christmas trade.

2.24 pm
Mr. Mikardo

I am glad to see the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) looking so cheerful this morning after the Labour party captured control of York yesterday. That must be causing him much worry when thinking about his role in the next general election.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) said that the one changed provision was a result of arm twisting by the Minister, and so it was. The first private Members' Bill debated last Friday was hijacked by the Government from the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters). The first private Members' Bill we considered this morning was hijacked by the Government from the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie). In nearly 40 years as a Member, I have never known any Government who behaved so badly to private Members and private Members' Bills. The Government escape their responsibility for introducing desirable legislation by letting private Members introduce Bills and then cutting them to ribbons and turning them into Government Bills. That did not happen as badly with this Bill as it did with the other two Bills to which I referred. Those two Bills were virtually completely different from the legislation to which the House gave a Second Reading. I hope that that undesirable practice will not continue much longer.

2.26 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend (Mr. Gregory) on introducing this excellent legislation. He drew No. 20 in the ballot for private Members' Bills, which was hardly favourable. However, he has done everyone a great service by introducing the Bill, which is particularly welcomed by my constituents in Basildon.

The House will remember the publicity that my hon. Friend gained before Christmas with respect to various products. If the Bill prevents just on fatal accident, it will be more than worthwhile. I extend my heartiest congratulations to my hon. Friend.

2.27 pm
Mr. Williams

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory). As he is well aware, we welcome the Bill's intentions, I think that the hon. Gentleman would be gracious enough to acknowledge that the fact that it appears that the Bill will reach the statute book is due to the help he has received from Government and Opposition Back Benchers.

I should like to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) that, unfortunately, the Bill's career does not differ from his description of other Bills. The Under-Secretary of State tabled on the Order Paper motions to delete 10 successive clauses from the Bill. The Bill is no substitute for legislation covering the general duty on safety of goods, which is what we wanted, but it is welcome as an interim measure.

The Under-Secretary of State said that the Bill had had to be diluted because the EEC' said that the time taken for inspections had to be proportionate to the problem confronted. The hon. Member for York spoke of children facing maiming and possible loss of eyes or their lives. It is therefore ludicrous to suggest that the extra 24 hours—the hon. and learned Gentleman forced the hon. Member for York to delete that provision—would have made that much difference. We welcome the Bill, even in its weakened form.

2.28 pm
Mr. Howard

Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) who does not seem to me to look like a hijacked person might be expected to look.

In response to the observations of the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) about yesterday's elections in York, may I say that the relationship between an amendment which was moved this morning and the vole in Committee shows that provisional votes do not always provide a sure guide to the eventual outcome.

The Government intend to introduce a general safety duty as soon as possible. I commend the Bill to the House and wish it godspeed on its way to the statute book.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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