HC Deb 23 February 1989 vol 147 cc1270-6

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

11. 31 pm

Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South)

Most Adjournment debates are very specific—specific to a constituency, specific perhaps to an individual situation. Many of them involve complex issues where the hon. Member speaking requires a great deal of time, probably more than he gets, to marshal his case and advance his arguments. But my debate tonight raises a matter that vitally affects every household, every person, in the country and yet is a matter of the utmost simplicity. It concerns safety in the home.

The common myth is that, when we have shut our doors to the outside world, we have immediately entered a safe and secure environment. Nothing, I am afraid, could be further from the truth. Putting aside for one moment the dangers that come from criminality—the burglar, the housebreaker or perhaps even worse—the true position is that in terms of personal safety the home is one of the most dangerous places to be.

One of the most common forms of accident is that which occurs in the home itself. These home-based accidents arise from many causes, but a small though significant proportion involve electrically powered products. Some arise from the goods themselves, because of faulty manufacture. Others, though, are the result of faulty wiring of the appliance to the plug that connects the machine to the electricity circuit.

Every year in this country there are approximately 2,000 non-fatal accidents involving electric plugs, which necessitate medical treatment. The June 1988 edition of "Care in the Home", published by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, illustrates some of the more tragic cases. A 55-year-old woman died when she touched a live washing machine because there was a loose wire in the plug. A boy of 14 died using an electric iron because the earth wire in the plug touched the live pin, making the iron live. These are tragedies that could possibly have been avoided, particularly where the cause was the faulty wiring of the plug to the electrical appliance.

Frankly, I am surprised that there are not more such accidents, because an estimated 75 million domestic household appliances are sold in the United Kingdom every year. I say this because some of the evidence of ignorance in these matters is a little startling.

A random survey of 45 homes carried out by the Consumers Association found that 43 had at least one that was incorrectly wired and 25 per cent. of those plugs also had wrongly fitted fuses. A larger and more independent survey involving 1,000 people found that 198 of those questioned—nearly 20 per cent. —did not know how to fit a plug to an electrical machine. It also showed that 761 of those people did not have a clue about the correct fuse rating required for the electrical appliance concerned.

To their credit, the Government have not stood idly by. They have recognised that they have a role to play and have acted to deal with part of the problem. The Plugs and Sockets Etc. (Safety) Regulations 1987—not exactly bedtime reading, but very important none the less-now require all 13 amp plugs supplied in Britain to be approved by an authorised body. That is a major advance. They deal with potentially lethal plugs which were previously allowed into this country from abroad. I welcome those regulations.

However, while those regulations are designed to ensure that plugs that are sold are safe, they do absolutely nothing to overcome the problems inherent in the faulty wiring of a plug by a consumer. No matter how good or safe the plug, it is of little use if the person who wires the plug to an electrical appliance does it badly or incorrectly.

I can do no better than quote the consumer safety unit at the Department of Trade and Industry, which noted in a report in 1984: The connection of a flexible cord to a mains plug by an unskilled user is fraught with danger.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, you may welcome the arrival of a new domestic appliance at home with the confidence that you can respond to your wife's request that the plug should be fitted with ease and safety. If that is so, you have my admiration. I am not in that happy position. The question of who is to fit the plug in my home is a matter of spirited debate, which I inevitably lose. I certainly fall into the category and the description of the "unskilled user" in the report from the Department of Trade and Industry.

The answer to the problem in my house and in thousands of houses around the country is very simple and there to be taken. We do not simply need safe plugs; we must have safe plugs and safe wiring of plugs to the appliances. That can be achieved very easily, quickly and simply by compelling the provision of moulded-on plugs by manufacturers of household electrical equipment. That would ensure that plugs are fitted correctly and safely, and are equipped with the correct fuse rating and that the purchaser is saved the time, effort and most importantly the potential danger, of having to fit the plug to the equipment himself.

Moulded on plugs are undoubtedly safer because all the internal wire connections are crimped. There are no internal terminal screws which can be worked lose and no cord grip screws to pull away. The only working part accessible to the consumer is the fuse, which is mounted externally and which can be changed in seconds in the event of a fault.

Faced with what I believe are those compelling facts, what are the arguments that have persuaded my hon. Friend the Minister, and in fairness his predecessor, to take no action to force manufacturers to fit moulded plugs to electrical equipment along the lines that I have suggested? The first argument which I know will have great appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister is that all this smacks of the nanny state and that we would be imposing a burden on the manufacturers to compensate for the sins of the purchasers who should be able to fit plugs properly to electrical appliances. Is it not such a simple job, runs that view, that it is no part of Government's function to ensure what people should, or more properly should not, leave off their products?

Such an argument, which has its place in certain circumstances and with which in some cases I would have sympathy, ignores the fact that the Government determined the standards that should apply to plugs. It ignores, too, the simple fact that those who purchase electrical products may not have the understanding, skill or competence to fit plugs to the appliances. They may be elderly, blind or physically or mentally disabled. They may have arthritis or similar diseases in their hands. What are they to do? They can rely on a friend, go to the expense of engaging an electrician or, worse, try to do the job themselves, perhaps inadequately or unsafely.

All that is unnecessary. The potential dangers are unnecessary when the requirement for the plug to be fitted before purchase could easily be done on the production line in the factory at no additional expense, for the plug would be paid for when the machine or appliance was purchased, rather than at a later stage.

The second argument against my proposal is similar to the first. It is that it imposes compulsion rather than encouragement on manufacturers to fit moulded plugs. The problem with merely encouraging them, rather than effectively telling them, to do so—leaving it to their discretion—is that manufacturers are unlikely to feel that they should do it if other manufacturers will offer a marginally cheaper product by not fitting the moulded plug.

By requiring all manufacturers to fit moulded plugs to their products, we would ensure a common cost base line, giving no advantage to any manufacturer and, above all, providing a service to all purchasers.

The argument which the Minister has already used against my proposal—he used it when replying to questions in the House in December—is that between 5 and 10 per cent. of households still use the old 15 amp round pin plug and socket. For those households, he said, there could be a problem of expense and inconvenience.

I understand that official statistics were last collected by the Electricity Council about 10 years ago, when figures similar to those mentioned by the Minister were found; 92 per cent. of homes, the council said, had 13 amp square pin plugs and 8 per cent. had round plugs. But those are old figures on which to base a view. Figures released in 1984, only five years ago, by the Electrical Installation Equipment Manufacturers' Association showed that only 3.6 per cent. of its sales were for the old 15 amp system, and that figure is likely to be considerably less five years on, in 1989.

I am sorry if my proposal would cause some inconvenience to a tiny proportion of households, but the Government have rightly acted in other areas of policy when it has been right to do so for the majority. And even for the small minority who would be adversely affected, the safety argument is overriding.

A number of manufacturers in this country on a voluntary basis now fit moulded plugs to their products, but they are a small proportion and, generally, we are at variance with the practice overseas. Moulded-on or pre-wired plugs are standard in most other parts of the world—in the United States, in Australasia and in the Common Market—but here in Britain we stick to the same old obstacle course for any consumer who buys an electrical product.

It is ironic that the Minister's Department is rightly proclaiming the need to get with it for 1992, to have common European standards and to follow EC directives, sometimes at considerable inconvenience to our people, yet here is a proposal which would be of tremendous advantage and where we should be following our European friends.

If I had suggested to the Minister before he bought his last motor car that it would come without tyres and that before he could use it he would have to buy the tyres in another shop, take them home and fit them himself, he would have regarded such a proposal as absolutely barmy. That is how I and the majority of people, particularly housewives—this affects them greatly—regard the present situation with electrical appliances and the need to fit plugs to them.

Tonight, my hon. Friend has a chance to act. He may recall a programme from years ago, when we were all much younger, called "Housewives' Choice". My hon. Friend has had a distinguished parliamentary and European parliamentary career. He has been given many names by the Press Gallery, some favourable, others less so. If he is determined to act positively tonight in the way that I have asked him to, he will for ever more be known in this place as the "Housewives' Choice".

11. 47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Eric Forth)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg) on obtaining this Adjournment debate, and pay tribute to his commitment, and persistence in pursuing this matter. In view of his sincere interest and involvement in it, I hazard that he will continue to do so in future.

My hon. Friend has conceded that any proposal of the sort he has made would result in the introduction of new legislative burdens on industry and would fly in the face of one of the Government's prime vehicles for the creation of wealth—that is, deregulation. My hon. Friend recognised that difficulty. The objective is to stimulate enterprise and individual initiative to meet the demands of the market place by removing, when necessary, controls on the trading environment and in doing so giving the consumer the widest choice at the price he is prepared to pay.

It is only in exceptional circumstances that there can be any departure from this approach. Considerations of safety could be such a case, but only when the market does not provide sufficient protection for the consumer. The safety issue in this instance is that the provision of electrical appliances without plugs attached could lead to consumers placing themselves at risk from the wrong connection of the plug—a point that my hon. Friend covered in some detail.

The results of surveys of domestic households have not shown up any significant number of poor or incorrectly wired plugs. The important point is that, despite such instances, the evidence shows that a very small number of accidents which involve plugs occur. In the latest year for which home accident surveillance system figures are available—1986—of the total of about 100,000 accidents reported by the twenty participating hospitals, only about 82 are identified in which plugs or adaptors were specifically involved.

The general injury record has to be seen in the light of the growing number of electrical appliances used in domestic households over the past ten years and the consequent demand for plugs. The plug manufacturing industry acknowledges some growth in output over the period and estimates that, in the past year alone, approximately 50 million to 60 million plugs were manufactured. In addition, there is a large net import of a further 10 million to 15 million plugs. Twelve million of those were fitted to appliances before sale, leaving a balance of nearly 60 million plugs of the re-wirable type coming new on to the market.

A proportion of the total would be for industrial use, but there is no escaping the fact that of this large number of plugs, a substantial number must be connected to their appliances by domestic customers—and that only represents the plugs added in the year. I would hesitate to estimate the number actually in use and the number that have been switched from one appliance to another in the year, but given these vast numbers compared to the number of related injuries, it is difficult to conclude that the process of connecting a plug needs a code of practice to ensure its safety—in spite of my hon. Friend's figures. None the less, we are not complacent and want to continue to strive to improve the situation. But I must stress that the intrinsic safety of electrical products and particularly the aspects concerned with wiring the plugs are not a major source of concern compared with other hazards to users.

My hon. Friend asserted that this matter was a cause of major concern among housewives, but produced no evidence to support his assertion. It is not unreasonable to say that, in a matter as important as this, assertion is not enough—evidence is required.

This leads on to the issue of whether other factors may already be beginning to contribute to an overall improvement in safety in this area. My hon. Friend generously acknowledged the introduction of the Plugs and Sockets Etc. (Safety) Regulations 1987. We would claim that they effectively cleared the market of unsafe and poorly constructed plugs, certainly those of new purchase, which in the past have been considered to be a contributory factor in a number of accidents.

In addition, harmonisation of product safety in Europe has also led to technical developments which do not rely on the earth connection to provide protection against electric shock. Inadvertent contact between the earth and the live connection in the plug has featured frequently in accidents of this type. The most notable feature is that the flexible cord that connects the appliance to the supply has only two cores instead of three, so there is less potential for miswiring the plug. The use of non-metallic or plastic enclosures has has also provided more protection.

Finally, a substantial and growing number of consumer products is available on the market place with plugs fitted, if consumers wish to make that choice of product. It is true that most of these products tend to be at the higher cost end of the market, but the impetus is there to encourage this development towards the lower end. I shall return to that in a moment.

Apart from the safety aspects, the universal adoption of fitted or moulded on plugs for electrical appliances and goods would have adverse economic implications for some consumers. My hon. Friend touched on this. The most significantly disadvantaged group would be consumers whose mains electrical system is still on the old round pin standard. Here there is slight dissent between myself and my hon. Friend. I stick to the estimate of 5 to 10 per cent. of households. My hon. Friend produced new figures which we will want to consider in order to check which are more reliable.

My hon. Friend might concede that, even if the figure were as low as 3.5 per cent., that would still leave a large number of households with round pin plugs. Those would tend to be older houses, probably with occupiers in lower income groups. Therefore, we must give special consideration to the hardship which might be caused by the arbitrary introduction of fixed plugs which would not be suitable for round pin sockets. Although we may disagree slightly about the numbers, I still believe that we should pay close attention to the needs of these people, because they might be the most vulnerable if there were to be an arbitrary change.

Other arguments revolve around the inflexibility of the length of lead which might be introduced by my hon. Friend's proposals. It is noticeable that we are talking about the more expensive products, where the cost represents a smaller proportion of the total cost. That may be accompanied by a marketing promotion effort. The relative cost burden of my hon. Friend's proposal on the less expensive appliances would be even greater. Again, we must take that very much into consideration. The fact that consumers are perhaps more conscious of cost than convenience in that segment of the market and that the manufacturers' response to market behaviour is to provide what the consumer wants—a cheaper product with no attached plug—should also be borne in mind.

As I mentioned earlier, there are signs that manufacturing industry is moving in the direction of attaching plugs where it feels that there is a consumer demand that it can meet. That is very much in tune with what my Department and the Government feel should take place. I recognise that some sectors of the appliance industry will believe that they would be at a competitive disadvantage without the support of some kind of mandatory prescription. I do not consider that a mandatory approach would be justified at this stage, bat this does not exclude the possibility of exploring other methods by which industry might, in collaboration with the distribution or retail sector, provide such a service to meet public demand. I am sure that the industry will take note of the points my hon. Friend has made in the debate.

I hope that the debate will allow further consideration to be given not just by the House but by the industry to the points which my hon. Friend has made and to the points which I have made in reply in the hope that there will be a voluntary move, not involving compulsion, towards a solution which will help consumers and the industry alike.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes before Twelve o'clock.