HC Deb 13 May 1987 vol 116 cc347-9
Mr. Williams

I beg to move amendment No. 48, in page 13, line 12, leave out 'that person' and insert 'any such person'.

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

With this we may take the following amendments: No. 35 in clause 34, page 30, line 8, leave out `and'.

No. 36, in page 30, line 10, at end insert `; and (c) it is shown that the officer did not have reasonable grounds for exercising the power'.

Mr. Williams

The Minister will appreciate that amendment No. 48 is purely exploratory, to give him a chance to put in the Official Report certain exchanges that we have had, to which other people should have access.

Amendments Nos. 35 and 36 have been tabled because of the concern of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. The Minister will be well aware that the compensation arrangements in the Bill are so wide that the authorities feel that they will constitute a disincentive to enforcement. They have suggested legitimate amendments to try to establish that the liability for compensation should lie where an enforcement authority has acted improperly. It seems to me that this is a fair and legitimate narrowing of the provisions. I hope that the Minister will look sympathetically at the amendment.

Mr. Howard

The circumstances in which local authorities should he liable to pay compensation have been much debated, both on the present Bill in another place and on its predecessor, the Consumer Safety (Amendment) Act 1986, for which we are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory). The present Bill does nothing more than consolidate the provisions of that earlier Act. In the light of their history, it is useful to recall why the provisions are in their present form, since they represent the outcome of considerable earlier debate and a change in the provisions in favour of enforcement authorities.

The new powers of suspension and forfeiture were suggested in the White Paper, "The Safety of Goods", published in 1984. That suggested that, because of the sweeping nature of these powers, compensation should be payable to traders wherever there was no conviction under the safety legislation. Compensation would not be paid when there was a conviction.

During the passage of the Consumer Safety (Amendment) Act 1986, it was suggested that such a compensation provision did not sufficiently reflect the practical difficulties that trading standards officers might face. We listened to those representations, with the result that the circumstances in which compensation would not be paid were substantially widened. Those new circumstances were enacted in the earlier Act and they have been consolidated in the present Bill.

It would be wrong to suggest that compensation will almost always be paid; that is simply not the case. Two conditions must be satisfied. They are that the goods have not contravened any safety provision—that is, that the goods are safe—and that the exercise of the relevant power of seizure is not attributable to any neglect or default by the person seeking compensation. The second condition is very important. It includes not just specific failures to meet obligations under safety legislation, but any act or omission which, in the circumstances, is blameworthy. It could include, for example, an unreasonable unwillingness to provide an enforcement officer with information about or access to the goods. In the light of this, I suggest that the circumstances in which compensation will be paid are relatively narrow.

The amendments put forward by the right hon. Gentleman, although expressed differently from the amendments to clauses 14 and 34, in practice would have a similar effect. The important question is what should happen in those unfortunate circumstances where goods are seized and nobody is to blame—the goods are safe; the trader has acted reasonably; and so has the enforcement officer. Such circumstances could arise where the enforcement officer relied quite reasonably on information supplied by a third party.

The effect of both amendments is that, in those circumstances, the trader should bear the loss. The Bill, as it stands, provides that the enforcement authority should bear the loss, and that is quite right. It is surely wrong that in providing powers for enforcement authorities to halt the supply of unsafe goods, we should do so at the expense of the innocent trader. We are simply not prepared to create a new burden of this kind on business.

Similar provisions concerning suspension of the supply of goods were enacted in the Consumer Safety (Amendment) Act 1986, which has been in force for eight months. It would appear that not one practical example is available to the right hon. Gentleman of a case where a local authority has been inhibited from taking action because of its concern over compensation. Yet, as is well known, the powers of suspension have been used.

We have moved from the position in the White Paper, but we do not believe that it could ever be right not to compensate the innocent trader. There does not seem to be any evidence of a practical problem here. I hope that, in the light of that explanation, the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Williams

I am disappointed by the Minister's reply. While I can see the substance of many of his arguments, it remains that there may be a serious impediment to the import of modern, highly technical products, particularly new products.

Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

I press my hon. and learned Friend a little further on this matter. He was well briefed in connection with my Bill, the Consumer Safety (Amendment) Bill, as it then was. I put great pressure on the fact that local authorities, if they wished, would be empowered to take action against goods that they considered to be within the remit. My hon. and learned Friend challenged the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) to produce evidence. The cases are far too numerous to bring to the attention of the Committee this evening. Many people, adults as well as children, will suffer this year and have suffered hitherto, not only because of the restrictions in the Consumer Safety (Amendment) Act 1986, but if this Bill goes on to the statute book in its present form.

The budgets of local authorities are limited and there are limitations in the Consumer Safety (Amendment) Act. Regulation 5(1) states that it shall be the duty of each weights and measures authority to enforce— these are the three key words—"within its area" the provision of the safety regulations.

If a product is considered to fall within the limits of this Bill my hon. and learned Friend has suggested that the goods must be found and tested in the local authority's area. If they are found and tested in another area, that does not comply with the consolidated legislation being proposed to the Committee. That is a serious defect and loophole in the legislation which will be pursued.

I invite the Minister to answer the substantive criticism about the amount of insurance that local authorities will need to take out, because trading standards departments Would have to put forward a sizeable amount of money. I feel that the Minister is unduly favouring manufacturers, particularly those who promote look-alikes. We are not talking about the good and bona fide products which have been tested properly; the Minister is championing the shoddy, poor products, particularly those from the far east and the Third world, which is not honourable.

Mr. Williams

I endorse the point made by the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory). Two thirds of the toys sold in Britain are imported and there is a vast influx at a time such as Christmas. As we have to make progress, for reasons that everyone well understands. As it is not our wish to delay the Bill in the limited circumstances available to us this evening, although the Minister has it wrong, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 15 to 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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