§ 4.4 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Corporate and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Francis Maude)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the fire resistance of domestic upholstered furniture.
It is estimated that 90 per cent. of furniture on sale to the public is filled with polyurethane foam. The increasing use of this relatively cheap material since the 1950s has brought comfortable, upholstered furniture within the reach of many people who could not previously afford it.
There has been concern for some 20 years about its fire sa1fety. In '1980 the Government introduced the Upholstered Furniture (Safety) Regulations, which require all domestic upholstered furniture to resist ignition by a smouldering cigarette. Since well over half of all furniture fires are started by cigarettes, this measure addressed the principal problem. This was then, and remains, the strictest fire safety regime in the world. Ireland is the only other European country with any legal controls over the fire safety of furniture.
However, concern has remained. The present regulations certainly improved ignition resistance—that is, that furniture became more difficult to set on fire—but the nature of the foam in widespread use is that once lit it burns with immense ferocity and speed, generating exceptional heat and emitting toxic fumes. Notwithstanding its fire performance, its comfort and low cost have made foam-filled furniture extremely popular with customers. Therefore, Governments over many years have consistently been reluctant to prohibit its use in the absence of reasonably priced, safer alternatives. Recent developments have altered this.
In July 1987 I issued for consultation a set of documents describing measures to improve significantly our already high level of protection. We received many responses, most of which expressed support for the principle of basing the regulations on a code of practice. Different views were expressed about the content of the code of practice and about how quickly new regulations could or should be introduced. I am grateful to all those who responded.
Public attention has been focused on this issue by the spate of tragic deaths in house fires over the holiday period, and I know that the whole House will join me in expressing sympathy for the bereaved families. Some of the fires involved foam-filled furniture. It has not been possible to ascertain whether such furniture pre-dated the implementation of the present regulations in 1982, but in view of the widespread concern, I thought it right to inform the House at the earliest opportunity of the Government's intentions.
It is my intention that the regulations will make it illegal to use standard quality foam under any grade of cover from the end of February 1989. There has been some debate about the fire-resistance qualities of high-resilience foam. I am satisfied that it provides better protection than standard foam, in that it is less easily ignited, but once lit it burns in much the same way as standard foam. Therefore, I am not satisfied that the advantages that high resilience foam carries over standard foam are enough to justify its continued use. Accordingly, the regulations will outlaw its use from the same date. Combustion-modified 24 high-resilience foam will therefore be the only permitted foam from that time. This material has recently been developed and was commercially launched only last year. It ignites more slowly and gives off fewer fumes than the foams in common use. Therefore, it is recognised by experts as providing greatly superior fire resistance.
As far as covering materials are concerned, I have concluded that we should eventually require them all to meet the match ignition test. This will be a requirement from the end of February 1990.
These regulations will be made under the Consumer Protection Act 1987, which prescribes penalties of fines of up to £2,000 and imprisonment of up to six months, or both, for each offence. Local authority trading standards officers are responsible for enforcement and have been fully consulted. The classification of components and code of practice basis of the new regulations will make them substantially easier than the present law to enforce effectively. The code of practice will also have advantages of flexibility. If and when new materials or combinations of materials are developed, the code will enable consumer choice to be widened, while maintaining safety standards.
I understand that representatives of chief fire officers have suggested a ban on standard and high-resilience polyurethane foam from 1 January 1989, which is two months earlier than the date that I have announced. I do not believe that that earlier date is feasible. The effect of introducing a legal requirement earlier than industry can meet would be to interrupt the supply of furniture to the public and to put at risk the 35,000 or more jobs in the manufacture of components and in the manufacture and distribution of finished furniture, but because of legitimate public concern on this issue businesses will have to adapt much more quickly than they consider acceptable. I plan to issue the regulations in draft at the end of next month. By the end of February next year it will be illegal to sell furniture filled with standard or high-resilience foam, and by a year later, the end of February 1990, all covering materials for upholstered furniture will have to meet the match test.
These new regulations will ensure that upholstered furniture sold in future will be substantially safer than at present. However, this can be achieved only at a cost, which must eventually be paid by the customer. Estimates of the additional cost vary, but I am confident that the keen competition that exists in the furniture trade will keep them to a minimum.
There will remain for some years in many homes furniture bought before even the present regulations came into force in 1982, and no new regulations can remedy that. Nor will furniture meeting these new higher standards be entirely safe. It remains essential, therefore, for every householder to exercise the utmost vigilance to prevent fires from starting in the first place, and if a fire does start, the safety of the occupiers will be enhanced if a smoke detector is installed. These are now relatively inexpensive, retailing at some £10 to £15, and I strongly advise their installation.
§ Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)
I join the Minister in expressing deep sympathy to the relatives of those who died so tragically in the spate of fires over Christmas and the new year.
I welcome, with significant qualifications, today's statement, which surely marks as profound and justified a climbdown as has ever been made in consumer safety. 25 I pay tribute to the campaign that has been vigorously waged by many people, including chief fire officers, who had the courage to speak out when they might have remained silent.
Am I right in saying that the effect of today's statement is that all standard polyurethane foam is to go within a period of 14 months, contrary to the Minister's original proposals, which allowed it to be used for three years, that high-resilience foam is to go altogether, contrary to the previous proposals, which allowed it to be used indefinitely, and that ignitable covers are to go altogether after two years, contrary to the proposals that allowed them to be used indefinitely? Am I right in saying that the effect of these changes will be that after two years there should be only safe foam filling within fire-resistant covers and that any combinations of covers and filling should pass the full British Standards Institution 5852 test? Chief fire officers and others wanted more immediate action, and the only reason for delaying action was the difficulty experienced by the industry in gearing itself up to meet the changes.
The Minister's proposals were published on 1 July last year. Will he confirm that as long ago as 1 September 1987 the Greater Manchester fire service told him that the proposals were inherently defective because high-resilience foam had been tested and found wanting, that that view was unanimously agreed by the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Associations and that months ago, the British Standards Institution said that it was refusing a classification for those proposals?
Will the Minister also confirm that on 30 September the Crown Suppliers, the Government's own furniture suppliers, condemned the proposals in forthright terms and said that they represented simply what the furniture industry wanted, and that that was confirmed by the Home Office and the Fire Research Station? Is it not correct that the Minister's Department has known for months that those proposals were inherently defective? Only in the last two weeks, following a public outcry, has any effective action been contemplated. Will the Minister confirm that that is correct?
Will the Minister comment on what I was told today? I shall accept his assurance if he says that what I was told is incorrect. The proposals are the product of a Government working party set up by his Department. Will the Minister comment on the following information, which I was given today: that the working party included only one fire officer from anywhere in the country, that there was no representative from the Crown Suppliers, the Government's own experts, and that more than 20 representatives from the furniture trade attended the meetings of that working party? Will the Minister also comment on a specific point that was put to me today, that the minutes and reports of those meetings were drawn up by the furniture industry?
The general lesson that can be drawn from that sorry episode, no matter what welcome we give to today's proposals, is that in future, when the Department is faced with a conflict between the safety and security of millions of consumers and the commercial motives of a particular industry, it should put the public interest before vested interests, no matter how well connected.
§ Mr. Maude
The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) could afford to be a little more generous. He referred to the proposals as a clirnbdown. That is arrant nonsense. 26 This is the first British Government to take any action on polyurethane foam furniture. The Government of his party did nothing for five years, well after the problem was recognised, and well after public concern was expressed. When the deputy leader of the Labour party was Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, he presided over a period of glorious inaction. This Government are the first to introduce measures that are the toughest in the world.
My proposals today go substantially further than that. Last July, proposals were issued for consultation. The hon. Gentleman has gone through some of the responses to the consultations. The purpose of consultation proposals is to hear what people have to say about them. It should not surprise anyone that we have listened to what has been said. Since before mid-October people have been making comments which have been very helpful. As a result, and as I have announced today, we have issued substantially extended proposals which I hope will be widely welcomed.
Combustion-modified foam has been available commercially for only a few months. It was commercially launched only last year. There is no possibility of its being made available in commercial quantities for some months to come. The date, that I have announced is the earliest possible. There is much work to be done by the industry to ensure that safer covering materials with fire-retardant properties will be available in the necessary quantities. The tests to be applied to those materials are the British Standards Institution tests. I hope that the BSI will work on the development of a range of fire development tests that will extend the sophistication with which those tests can be applied and extend the classification. I hope, also, that the BSI will devote attention to achieving that result as quickly as possible.
The proposals mark a radical step forward. The hon. Gentleman referred to the working party, which included representatives from the industry, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, a very distinguished fire officer. It produced proposals for consultation. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the House will join in welcoming what represents a substantial step forward for public safety. I stress that the proposals will not make every home safe, because homes will continue to contain furniture that was bought even before the present tough regulations came into force. There is nothing that any Government can do to remedy that. I hope that, although the proposals are tough and provide the best protection in the world by a long way, people will not be lulled into a false sense of security. The need for vigilance in every home remains as strong as ever, and I hope that people will pay heed to that.
§ Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)
My hon. Friend may be surprised to know that the furniture industry will welcome his statement. This morning I was at a meeting of the furniture industry, which thought that the date might be earlier than my hon. Friend has proposed. One reason for the delay in implementing the proposals is that the foam has not been available. Even now there have been no commercial trials of the new foam, nor are the manufacturers able to say with satisfaction that they will 27 be able to produce furniture under the new regime within the time scale. They want to do so, but they are subject to the actions of the furniture manufacturers.
As the regulations will deal with coverings, will they apply to curtains, drapes, loose covers and other items within the home that use similar materials? If that is the case, it will represent a fundamental change and go far beyond what is presently expected.
§ Mr. Maude
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I am delighted to hear that the furniture industry feels that it can meet the timetable. If I could be persuaded that a swifter timetable could be met, I would be delighted lo alter the time scale accordingly and bring forward the date on which the regulations come into force. I am open to persuasion on that matter. The regulations will not apply to drapes, curtains and other materials. They will relate solely to upholstered furniture.
§ Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)
On behalf of my party, may I also express condolences to the families who have suffered so grievously? In particular, as Welsh affairs spokesman for my party, I express sympathy for the great tragedy that occurred at Merthyr Tydfil. I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, will call the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), and I should like to be associated with his remarks. As recommended by the fire officers, we desire that no further standard foam should be used from 1 January 1989. The welcome flexibility shown by the Minister should be implemented if the furniture industry is prepared to bring forward the date of enforcement.
The Minister should consider an educational programme for householders on fire prevention. He should publish a code that householders can put in their homes so that youngsters can learn the fire code early in their lives.
I believe that there is a conflict of interest between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Home Office over the responsibility for fire prevention. I believe that the Home Office should take over that responsibility, so that a more objective set of rules can be placed before the nation.
§ Mr. Maude
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about the bereaved families. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who made similar remarks, and I am sure that the whole House shares those sentiments.
There are real problems about introducing the regulations earlier than is proposed, because there is a long lead time. The regulations will come into force and operate at the point of sale—the point at which furniture will be available in the shops for sale to the public. Obviously, manufacturers need time to adapt. The safer, combustion-modified, foam is not available in commercial quantities at the moment. Manufacturers of this foam need to gear themselves up to produce it in adequate quantities. An enormous number of suites of upholstered furniture are produced every week and the demand will be substantial. I do not believe that it would be practical to introduce the regulations earlier, but I am open to persuasion. If the industry can persuade me that it is feasible, I shall be only too glad to do so.
§ Mr. John Ward (Poole)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his remarks. I do not believe that he needs any lessons from anybody in the House, because he has listened and reacted in a way that some of us wish some of his predecessors had done.
When my hon. Friend has had time to reflect on the comments made in the House today, will he give attention to two other areas? The first is imported furniture, which I hope will be dealt with in the regulations. Secondly, will he consider providing that, when furniture is sent back for re-covering, new quality foam must be used, and the old foam must not be re-covered?
§ Mr. Maude
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous comments. The regulations will certainly impinge on imported furniture. In fact, they will make it easier for trading standards officers to enforce the law in respect of imported furniture. Indeed, the Consumer Protection Act 1987 gives customs officers the power, at the point of entry into the country, to seize goods that do not meet adequate tests.
The regulations will certainly impinge on the recovering of furniture. I am not sure of the position regarding the use of foams, but I shall look into that and let my hon. Friend know as soon as I can.
§ Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)
As one who attended the funerals last Friday of Mr. Watkins and four young children who died on 1 January, I basically welcome the Minister's proposals. Given that the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) has said that the furniture industry could beat the Minister's proposed deadline, would it be possible to meet the chief fire officers' deadline of 1 January 1989?
Did I hear the Minister aright, that anyone who breaks the regulations will be fined only £2,000? Is this not the time to impose much heavier penalties on those who break the new regulations?
§ Mr. Maude
On the hon. Gentleman's first point, if it is possible to beat the deadline and for the fire officers' suggestion of 1 January 1988 to be met, I shall be delighted to adapt the regulations accordingly. However, I should need persuading that such a change would not put at risk the jobs of the 35,000 people employed in the industry.
The level of fines was set by the Consumer Protection Act 1987, and I should stress that there is the alternative of six months' imprisonment. Indeed, that imprisonment can be imposed in addition to the fine. Fines can be imposed of up to £2,000 for each offence. Therefore, if furniture is found that does not meet the new standard and trading standards officers prosecute in respect of more than one article of furniture, those fines can be cumulative and add up to a substantial penalty in total.
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
I welcome my hon. Friend's proposals, which will undoubtedly save lives. Does he agree that it is not always easy to strike a balance between the ideals of an accident-free world and the limitations of current practice? If there is doubt, my hon. Friend is right to put the safety of citizens before the otherwise beneficial interests of a deregulated industry.
§ Mr. Maude
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has made a good point and I agree with him. I must stress once again that, whatever the Government do by legislation and regulation, we cannot make the world a safe place. To a large extent, the safety of individuals depends upon the 29 behaviour of individuals. I hope that the tough measures will not induce any sense of false security. Individuals' safety will largely continue to rest in their own hands.
§ Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)
The Minister's announcement represents perhaps the biggest change in policy in the eight years of this Government. On 6 October 1987, the Minister wrote to me saying that it would be wholly impracticable and undesirable if he took steps to ban the use of standard polyurethane foam, and he went on to give the reasons why. That letter was sent to me before the end of the consultation period. Unknown to me, that letter was also sent when the Minister had received from the Crown Suppliers a detailed analysis that showed that what he had said in his letter was completely at odds with the evidence provided to him. At the same time—
§ Mr. McCartney
May I just finish this point, Mr. Speaker? At the same time, the industry was trying to scupper the arrangements.
Will the Minister arrange an urgent meeting between the fire officers and the foam manufacturers to introduce a time scale that will enable the regulations to come into force by 1 January next year? The foam manufacturers have said that they could have the foam in the shops by 6 September — that was announced this morning on Thames Television.
In a debate in the summer of last year I asked the Minister seven questions in relation to the promotion of fire detectors and other measures. I ask the Minister to reconsider those matters and to introduce proposals to further the issue of fire detectors and to consider other related fire safety aspects in the home. Without those arrangements, the toll of death will continue.
§ Mr. Maude
The hon. Gentleman has made a number of points. He spoke about the timing of the regulations. Some parts of the industry have suggested that the time scale could be shortened, but other parts have suggested that it is already far too short. One must try to get the balance right, because there is no benefit to the public in taking steps that require and involve the chain of supply of furniture breaking down. That would have an undesirable effect on jobs.
With regard to changes of policy, we issued consultative proposals, and we listened to what was said in response to that consultation. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that. I know that he has expressed views about several of these matters over some months. He referred to smoke detectors. They are now relatively cheap, and I hope that people will use them. However, none of those measures on its own adds up to complete safety. Even in total they do not add up to complete safety. That will continue to depend very much on the behaviour and vigilance of individuals.
§ Mr. Conal Gregory (York)
As lethal polyurethane foam has been banned from prisons, Government buildings and, indeed, airlines, I congratulate my hon. Friend on extending the ban to domestic furniture, following my Adjournment debate on that specific subject on 1 July. Britain cannot accept a death toll that results in some 300 people a year dying from domestic fires. Sections of the United Kingdom furniture industry have been dilatory and have dragged their feet on this issue. I understand that already some 10 children have lost their 30 lives from causes related to toxic fumes since 1 January. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to praise the manufacturers who, against the trend, have produced alternative safe upholstery, and the retailers who have offered it to the public?
Will my hon. Friend review the penalties if they prove to be inadequate? He referred to the Consumer Protection Act. Reputable dealers will, of course, comply. Trading standards officers need a greater fist in this matter than the inadequacy of the present £2,000 plus the six months. If my hon. Friend gave the matter maximum publicity, I am sure that the announcement that he has made, which has been so welcome to both sides of the House, would carry weight.
§ Mr. Maude
I pay a sincere tribute to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned responsibly and constructively on the issue for some years.
My hon. Friend referred to a ban on standard foam in Government buildings. That is not quite correct. Safer foams have been in use in contract furnishings generally for some time. I understand that the Crown Suppliers use standard grade polyurethane foam in some furniture, but in combination with materials that meet a higher standard.
I pay tribute to the firms that offer safer furniture to the public. I welcome the steps that have been taken by the industry to develop safer materials, but it is one thing to offer safer materials and furniture to the public and another to require the public to buy it. The unhappy experience has been that the availability of safer furniture and the labelling system introduced under the present regulations have not led to a significant uptake of safer furniture by the public. I hear what my hon. Friend says about penalties. If it seems that the penalties that the Act offers at the moment are not adequate to ensure compliance with the regulations, we shall look at that again, and we are prepared to be flexible if necessary.
§ Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
Wall the Minister confirm that under section 3 of the Consumer Protection Act there is the prospect of claims being made against manufacturers because of the new provisions on product liability? If trading standards officers are to enforce the new regulations, will the Minister tell the House how many extra officers will have to be appointed, and how much money will be available to the county councils to implement that requirement? The new goods will cost more money. Will it be possible for the social fund to be enlarged to enable those who are dependent on benefits to afford the new furniture, or will the regulations mean that there will be no prospect of people on low incomes being able to afford this furniture?
§ Ms. Walley
Will the Minister make arrangements for smoke detectors to be made available to those who cannot afford the high cost of the new furniture? Finally, will regulations be made to cover secondhand furniture and the sale of secondhand furniture?
§ Mr. Maude
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The product liability provisions will apply to furniture. This will add a considerable extra sanction to the criminal 31 penalties that the regulations will invoke. Trading standards departments have a responsibility to enforce the present regulations, and they will have to enforce the new regulations, but they will be easier to enforce effectively than are the present regulations. It is a matter for local authorities to decide how they apportion money for their various responsibilities.
The hon. Lady referred to the extra cost of furniture. She is right. The regulations will involve an increase in the price of furniture, and there is nothing that one can do about that, although I have expressed the hope that competition will keep the extra cost to a minimum. The hon. Lady will have to raise her question about the extra burden on the social fund with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.
Smoke detectors are readily available and are now relatively inexpensive, costing no more than £10 or £15 each. I think that that puts them within the budget of most households.
The regulations will not apply to secondhand furniture. It would be virtually impossible to enforce a regime in that way. Sadly, it will not be possible to impose the regulations on secondhand furniture. That reinforces my point that the public must remain vigilant about that furniture, exercise great caution in buying cheap secondhand furniture, and inform themselves of its fire properties.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. In view of the pressure on business, I shall allow questions to continue until 4.45 pm; then we must move on.
§ Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North)
My hon. Friend will know of my interest in the matter and my support for strengthening these regulations since the tragic death of nine people in a fire in my constituency on Christmas day 1984. In passing, it is right to pay special tribute to a man whom I met on that morning at that gutted house, Mr. Bob Graham, the assistant chief fire officer of Greater Manchester fire brigade, whose work on this issue has been significant in pressing forward with changes in the legislation. That work deserves special tribute.
I ask my hon. Friend to take most seriously the matter of smoke detectors and to consider the request made by chief officers. In particular, will my hon. Friend consider a scheme whereby the introduction of those detectors might be related to the sale of properties after an introductory date? It would be a simple way of ensuring the enforcement of the introduction of detectors. I am sure that it would be welcomed by many people, who see smoke detectors as the next stage in fire safety, without necessarily making people feel that they are safe in their house without making proper precautions against fires starting in the first place.
§ Mr. Maude
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the interest that he has taken in this exceedingly difficult issue over some years. I share his view about the work of Mr. Graham, the distinguished fire officer who has contributed greatly to the debate on the issue.
I shall consider my hon. Friend's suggestion on smoke detectors, but I have reservations about compulsion—requiring smoke detectors to be incorporated in homes from now on. As with any such measure, there is a serious 32 danger that the installation of such devices could induce a sense of security which is unjustified and lead people to believe that if they have a smoke detector they do not need to worry about fire safety. None of those measures can replace the vigilance that every householder and house occupier should exercise.
§ Mr. Jim Callaghan (Heywood and Middleton)
I welcome the Minister's statement as a move in the right direction to save lives. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the whole House will join me in conveying sympathy and condolences to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd), who lost his mother in a similar fire last week. Her funeral is tomorrow.
I have in my constituency of Middleton the headquarters of an international rubber company, British Vita, which today announced that it has a new fire resistant foam, which it will now put on the market. Will the Minister contact the firm to evaluate the claims that it has made, in the hope that that can save lives?
§ Mr. Maude
First, of course I join the hon. Gentleman in expressing our deepest sympathy to the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) for the loss that he suffered over the holiday period. All our sympathies were engaged by that tragedy.
On the other matter, I am delighted to hear what the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan) said. The impact of the announcement that I have made will be such that many parts of the industry will constructively and innovatively examine ways of increasing fire safety, and that is very much to be welcomed. I shall certainly ensure that the company that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is contacted so that we can see what it is producing.
§ Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)
My hon. Friend has rightly acknowledged that many homes will continue to contain this dangerous foam furniture. I am sure that he will be just as keen to acknowledge the debt of gratitude that the whole country owes the retained fire services. Is my hon. Friend aware that the minimum training period for retained firemen, on whom rural communities such as the Isle of Wight depend so heavily, has remained unchanged for more than 30 years, at two hours a week?
§ Mrs. Rosie Barnes (Greenwich)
May I add my condolences to the many families that have been bereaved by domestic fires during the Christmas period? I hope that, in other instances, we shall not have quite so many sacrificial victims before action is taken.
I welcome the Minister's statement and would like to hear his comments on two aspects which I am not sure were covered by his proposed regulations. The first concerns the testing of foam in combination with fabric, simulated leather or whatever other materials are used in the construction of a piece of furniture. Such a regulation has been called for by the British Standards Institution, because a combination of ingredients can be far more flammable than any single ingredient. Will furniture be subjected to the test of a naked flame, and not only to that of the equivalent of a smouldering cigarette, which, I understand, has been the practice to date?
§ Mr. Maude
I shall take the hon. Lady's last point first. Yes, furniture will in future be subjected to a much stricter test than that of the smouldering cigarette. From 1990 all covering materials will be required to meet the match test, and all foams of a combustion-modified nature, which will be the only ones permissible from February next year, will have to meet the British standards test.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for joining the rest of the House in expressing condolences, but I think that her remarks about the time that it has taken for the regulations to be introduced are a little unfair. The problem has been known for many years. This Government were the first to take any action, and for five years during the last Labour Government, when the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection was the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and the junior Minister in that Department was the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), nothing was done.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
How does my hon. Friend intend to apply these important new standards after 1992, when the internal market of the European Community is completed, bearing in mind that seven, if not eight, of the current member states have standards that are less tight than our existing ones? Is it the view of the Government, and has my hon. Friend secured the view of the Commission, that after 1992 it will still be possible for a member state to restrict imports from other member states on the basis of national safety rules and regulations?
§ Mr. Maude
My hon. Friend has raised a serious and important point. Before the regulations are brought into force, they must be approved by the European Commission, and it is possible for other member states to raise objections to them if they believe they will restrict the free trade in goods within the internal market. Our level of protection will be, as my hon. Friend said, substantially ahead of any in the rest of the Community. My hon. Friend has mentioned a problem that exists, and we shall have to meet it.
§ Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)
What are the implications of the statement that the Minister has made for the labelling of furniture? As he will be aware, labelling is at present wholly unsatisfactory. It cannot be applied by shop assistants. They do not like it, and do not understand the red and green labelling for furniture that does, and 34 does not, pass the match test. The labels are frequently torn off by people inspecting the furniture, and when putting them back the staff invariably put the green label —for passing the match test—only on leather furniture, and will not put it on any fabric furniture. To be on the safe side, they even put it on fabrics that pass the match test. Because of the uncertainty, they do not replace the label, when it is torn off, on any fabrics.
Will no labelling be required because all furniture will be safe in 14 months' time—or 12 months' time, if the Minister is persuaded by the comments made by some Members representing the views of the furniture manufacturing industry? Will he institute a good educational programme for shop assistants, so that they understand the real implications of the labels now in use and of those that will be used after the regulations come in?
§ Mr. Maude
The hon. Gentleman is saying that the present labelling requirements have not been the success that it was hoped they would be. That was partly because the industry did not, perhaps, take the labelling initiative as seriously as it might have done, and partly because the public did not inform themselves about the labelling. Under the new regulations, because all furniture will have to meet high standards, labelling will become of less importance. However, we shall have to examine the issue to see how the new set of proposals impinges upon labelling requirements.
§ Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)
The Minister will be aware that Mr. Elton, the chief fire officer of Tyre and Wear, and his colleagues, have advised that fire and smoke detector alarms should be fitted. Many of the people who die in our fires each year are elderly—the group least able to afford the alarms. Will the Minister make the money available to local authorities or voluntary organisations to enable them to fit free smoke detector alarms in the homes of all elderly pensioners who are unable to equip themselves with the apparatus?
§ Mr. Maude
It is broadly up to local authorities—within statutory limits — to decide how to spend the resources at their disposal. Smoke detectors, as I have said several times today, are now relatively inexpensive, and I do not believe that a price range of £10 to £15 puts them beyond the means of many households. The potential benefits in terms of fire safety make them a worthwhile investment.