HC Deb 10 May 1990 vol 172 cc486-500 10.11 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Eric Forth)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 7480/89 and the Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Department of Trade and Industry on 3rd April 1990 relating to general product safety; and supports the Government's view that any directive should be restricted to consumer products, that products covered by specified directives that concern safety should be excluded from the general directive, and that any additional burden on businesses should be kept to the minimum. I welcome the fact that the Scrutiny Committee considered the draft directive to be an important document which should be debated on the Floor of the House. It is certainly an ambitious proposal from the Commission—in my view, too ambitious, as I will shortly argue—and if it were adopted it would affect virtually all sectors of industry. It is an attempt by the Commission to establish a Community-wide system of general safety legislation that it hopes will improve overall safety levels and consumer confidence within the single market.

Let me say straight away that the objectives of strengthening confidence in the single market and ensuring adequate levels of protection are something to which the United Kingdom can give wholehearted support. Indeed, no member state has a better record than the United Kingdom in terms of implementing and enforcing safety directives. But what concerns me is that these laudable objectives should not be compromised by unacceptable rules and requirements that do little to improve safety. It is also worth stressing that, in Britain, we are fortunate to have one of the most comprehensive and yet flexible systems of safety legislation anywhere in the world, never mind the Community; we therefore have much to offer the rest of the Community in discussing such issues.

The Commission suggests a general obligation on producers, importers and, in certain circumstances, others in the supply chain to supply only safe products. That would apply to all products, not just consumer goods, wherever used, and would therefore apply to those used in the workplace, on the farm, in the street, in hospitals or indeed anywhere else.

The Commission has also tried to set out procedures for handling safety problems, particularly emergencies at Community level. That would in some ways build on existing systems of notification and for the transfer of information on unsafe products between member states. But it also envisages the creation of a new committee to oversee the workings of the directive and any difficulties that arise.

The directive is a far-reaching initiative that would cut right across many existing arrangements for dealing with product safety. The approach adopted by the Commission did not reflect the legislative systems in any one member state, and was an effort to draw in various ideas and elements from a number of sources.

In September 1989 we issued a consultation document which asked for the views of business groups, consumer organisations, enforcement authorities and many individuals and companies in the United Kingdom. At that stage, the Government did not express a firm view on any aspect of the proposal, preferring to seek opinions on an open basis.

A large number of responses was received which provided an interesting mix of attitudes. There was not a clear split between the business and consumer interests; far from it. Many business representatives saw considerable merit in improving safety levels throughout Europe, and were confident of being able to compete effectively on the basis of high EC safety standards. However, they were also very concerned about the additional burdens being suggested and what appeared to be overly bureaucratic controls and procedures.

The United Kingdom has considerable experience of this type of legislation, both in the consumer area and in the workplace under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. We have, therefore taken a full and constructive part in the debate so far. But experience also tells us about the potential problems and considerable differences of view which have separated the Commission and most member states. Most member states would prefer to set out the general principles but to leave some flexibility to member states to draft their legislation in such a way as to ensure that their courts will interpret the legislation in a similar way.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I am interested in what my hon. Friend is saying about the implication of the regulation for the United Kingdom. How does this sit with the policy or principle of subsidiarity, which is becoming recognised as a tenet of European Community policy?

Mr. Forth

That is an important question, and I shall touch on it later. If my hon. Friend is not satisfied, I hope that he will jog my memory. Suffice it to say at this stage that this is a general framework directive which seeks to underpin the principles of the single market, and therefore probably does not clash with the principle of subsidiarity. My hon. Friend may want to return to that point when I have completed my remarks, if I have not satisfied him.

As a result of the diverging approaches of the different member states, it has not been possible to agree a revised text of the directive that meets the concerns of all member states and the Commission. The explanatory memorandum that I submitted to the House on 3 April 1990 included a revised draft of the directive prepared by the French presidency—which left office at the end of last year —which was the basis of discussion at official level over recent months. It takes into account the points agreed in principle at the 9 November consumer Council, but it was, and remains, very much a draft for discussion and has not been accepted by either the Commission or any member state. Various redrafts have also been submitted as working documents, most notably a recent attempt by the Irish presidency to produce a compromise text, and within the last few days we have heard that the Commission is also preparing a new text.

However, there are a number of crucial points of principle that should guide our attitude to this directive. The first is what has been called the principle of subsidiarity. Put simply, where possible, it is for member states to decide on specific policy options, and it is only where there is a genuine Community dimension that action at EC level should be considered.

It is arguable—I put it no stronger at this stage—whether this directive is needed at all. The Commission suggests that it is vital for the completion of the single market and that the extra confidence it will give consumers will be essential in creating cross-border trade. This case has so far not been made, and given the very different methods employed by member states in protecting their citizens, it could equally well be argued that the disruption and extra costs that could be caused by such a directive might in practice be unwelcome to both consumers and businesses alike.

We need to consider whether the directive will actually lead to an improvement in overall safety levels, bearing in mind existing safety legislation—especially in the United Kingdom—and the impact of the new product liability directive. Again, there is a serious question over the general approach.

The Commission's role is also a major factor to consider here, especially if its involvement could lead to bureaucratic procedures that might slow down the ability of enforcement officers to take swift and effective action against unsafe products. We must remember that member states and their enforcement agencies will usually be best placed to decide on any appropriate action, as they have to date under article 36 of the treaty of Rome, and the Commission will rarely have the necessary expertise or experience—to say nothing of resources—to second-guess enforcement officers directly involved in a specific case.

The next point must be the very wide scope of the original Commission proposal. The Commission said that it decided to include all products because the same criteria for safety apply to all goods—wherever used—and because the difficulties of providing a workable definition of a consumer product were too great. This is clearly nonsense on both counts.

The United Kingdom has comprehensive safety legislation covering consumer goods and those products used at work, but we have long recognised that the circumstances in which the goods will be bought and used are completely different. Differences in skills, training, supervision, access to servicing and advice all point to different treatment, and that is reflected in the fact that the respective provisions and their enforcement differ in many respects.

Moreover, the Consumer Protection Act 1987 provides a perfectly acceptable definition of a consumer product, which can obviously be used as appropriate in other member states. Where there are grey areas—and they do, of course, exist—it is easy enough for the enforcement agencies involved to sort them out between them.

The United Kingdom and virtually all other member states have pressed strongly for the directive to be restricted to consumer goods. That was agreed by Ministers at the 9 November consumer Council, and the French presidency text includes a suggested definition. It needs more work, but it is unfortunate that the Commission still seems to be intent on staying with the wider, and in our view unworkable, coverage of its original text in the face of almost united opposition from all Community countries.

The overlap between the directive and other specific safety directives also caused much concern during the consultation exercise. It must be wrong in principle, as well as confusing in practice, to have different layers of legislation applying to the same product. The Commission envisages the new directive as acting as a sort of blanket that covers all products and fills the gaps between specific vertical and "new approach" directives. What this approach ignores is the fact that in some cases the safety of a range of products has been considered in detail by a group of experts on them. There is real concern that the blanket approach may well disrupt the carefully constructed balance of interests for certain products.

Our view is that the most sensible way of removing uncertainty is to exclude products from the general safety directive entirely if the safety of those products has been covered already by another specific directive. If there are gaps in the protection afforded to consumers in respect of those products, it is for the specialist groups to consider the matter again. It is not for others to try to apply additional controls by another door.

The Commission has attempted to find a definition of a safe product that acknowledges the fact that it is impossible to ensure that all products are absolutely safe. A knife, for example, has a sharp edge and therefore will always present a risk of injury. The Commission's definition includes many features that are similar to those used in our Consumer Protection Act, but in some cases it has gone too far.

The most important problem is that there is difficulty in finding a sensible definition that will be interpreted in a similar way in all member states. Work goes on to find a compromise, and we must insist that any definition makes it clear that a sense of reasonableness has to be involved, and that in some cases a residual risk will inevitably remain —albeit with adequate warnings for the user.

Under United Kingdom consumer legislation, we can take action at all points in the supply chain. That enables enforcement officers to take action where they can be most effective. At the moment, the directive is restricted to manufacturers, importers and others in the supply chain whose activities affect the safety of the products. It is not at all clear what this will mean in practice and there is clearly the possibility of confusion in deciding how far individual companies are responsible. Our objective is therefore to try to retain the right to apply sanctions at all points in the distribution arrangements, where necessary providing adequate defences for particular circumstances.

The enforcement of directives is increasingly becoming a matter of concern throughout the Community—certainly in the United Kingdom and the Department. Responding to the consultation document, businesses frequently made the point that their competitive position would be improved by more uniform implementation and enforcement of directives throughout the Community and in each member state. This is a difficult issue, because there are dangers involved in a move towards more centralised control of enforcement powers and techniques.

More could be done to reduce the current unevenness —to put it mildly—and to promote more consistency. The Commission's original proposal suggests a list of powers in an illustrative annex. The French presidency text draws the powers within the body of the directive. I would argue that the list is too long, but there are strong arguments for including certain minimum controls in the text of the directive. That would mean that all member states should at least be taking similar action, which would provide a minimum level of harmonisation.

Controls such as taking arid testing samples of products, collecting information on potentially dangerous products, the power to ban a product and to require suppliers to warn customers about serious risks, must be the cornerstones of any effective product safety regime, and there is much to be said for having them as part of the draft directive so that they apply to all member states.

The original proposal from the Commission would have involved a number of additional burdens on business. Chief among those was the requirement that the safety of products should be monitored at all stages of production and distribution and throughout the foreseeable time of use. Responsible companies will clearly take steps to ensure that they are aware of the risks presented by their products. The impact of the new law on product liability has also focused minds wonderfully well on the need to have in place adequate safety and quality controls.

However, again a worthwhile objective is largely ruined by a proposal that is far too prescriptive and detailed. These additional requirements would do little to raise overall safety levels but they would certainly increase administrative burdens and therefore costs to the consumer. Any new requirements on business must be kept to the absolute minimum, consistent with providing the appropriate level of safety.

The Commission's suggestions for action at Community level in serious or emergency situations would involve the creation of a new product safety committee comprised of representatives from member states. The way in which it would operate is rather complicated, but essentially the committee would be asked to discuss safety problems and to make recommendations on suitable measures to deal with the hazards. In certain circumstances, member states would be required to take agreed measures—even if they did not wish to do so—representing a considerable departure from current practice.

So far, the Commission has failed to justify the need for such a committee, or to demonstrate why it should have the powers suggested. It is for discussion whether there is a need for some sort of group at Community level to advise member states on unusual cross-border safety problems. But we are against any committee with the sort of role suggested in the Commission's text as it stands. Also, whatever procedures or institutions might be set up at Community level, it is of paramount importance that they should not result in cumbersome or bureaucratic systems that interfere with sensible enforcement action by member states.

These seem to me to be the main areas of contention raised by the Commission text. As I said earlier, the United Kingdom has considerable experience in this field, and we have played a constructive role in the discussions so far. Our views have the support of most other member states, particularly those who also have a well developed system of consumer safety legislation. The Commission has come forward with a proposal which, in spite of worthy objectives, is simply too ambitious in scope and raises many difficult problems for all member states.

We shall continue to work within the various working groups and in the Council of Ministers to overcome the difficulties, but it must be said, and I hope that the House recognises, that there is still much work to do before the directive can be ready for adoption. I hope that the House will agree that the Government have taken the right line in negotiations so far, and I invite the right hon. Members present to support the motion.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

I inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition and his hon. Friends.

10.26 pm
Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

I beg to move, as an amendment to the motion, to leave out from first `safety' to end and add `and regrets that the Government is seeking to restrict the directive and limit consumer rights.'. The debate is on one of the most far-reaching pieces of consumer legislation that has been considered in this country. It proposes a blueprint for extending consumer rights in the 1990s throughout Europe and it offers to provide a high standard of protection for the public against dangerous goods. Sadly, it does not command the wholehearted support of the Government. In the motion that the Minister moved, the consumers' interest takes second place to the Government's prejudiced priority for their beloved free market interests. The aim of the directive is to prevent dangerous goods from abroad from being given free and unlimited access to the United Kingdom and European markets. It is unfortunate that such a measure does not command the support of the Government.

The directive offers the opportunity of establishing a mandatory framework for marking and tracing dangerous products, random safety testing of goods, comprehensive recording and assessment of safety aspects of consumer complaints and for all firms to appoint a consumer watchdog to monitor their product safety procedures. Unlike the Minister, we do not believe that that is too long a list. The Minister summarised the merits of the proposals last month when he said that the directive gives business the power to monitor the safety of their product at all stages of production, distribution and use. Only a Minister in this Government could go on to say that such admirable and clear aims were unwelcome and unduly burdensome on both businesses and member states.

On 3 April the Minister wrote of the directive: progress on many of the key issues would be difficult. He was too modest. He failed to claim the full credit that was due to him for his efforts to water down the directive. For him, the key issues are those which threaten to impose higher standards of safety on business. It is an irony that in a debate on consumer protection the Government seek to pursue three themes—to restrict, not expand, the product safety directive; to exclude products from its protective jurisdiction; and to minimise the burden on business. We have a Government who, when faced with supporting the consumer or business interests, always side with business against the consumer. Even in cases where business joins the consumer in pressing for tougher safety laws, we have a Government with a bagful of excuses.

The Glass and Glazing Federation has been pressing for the past six years for regulations to ensure that only safety glass is installed. Most of the 20,000 accidents that happen each year with glazing would be avoided if the right glass were used in the right place. For six years the glass industry has been campaigning for the Government to make BS6262 mandatory and for six years the Government have blocked that. Even when the industry is crying out for tougher mandatory standards, the Government have dragged their feet and obstructed that important consumer measure. That is why it is no surprise to learn that the Government seek, in the motion, to weaken, not strengthen, an important product safety directive.

The Minister's Department has admitted that a range of products would be exempt from the safety provisions if the Minister succeeded in restricting the definition of goods covered. The consumer will have no protection under the Government's version of the directive against a wide range of potentially unsafe products such as motor vehicles, pharmaceuticals, tobacco, aircraft, gas, food, water, second hand goods or any product that business believes is for export. All are exempt.

The Minister might think that it is all well and good to exempt such goods, and for us to export our unsafe goods, but in reality the existing law is not coping and stopping other countries from sending hazardous products here. The Consumers Association has drawn attention to a dangerous heater manufactured in West Germany, banned from sale there, that was exported and sold in Britain this year. The Government want cars to be exempt because they are not used just by consumers.

The Minister says that he welcomes the Europe-wide initiative. Why then does the evidence that his Department gave on the matter to the House of Lords Select Committee on European Communities read like Custer's last stand? It has page after page of objections, and not just on this or that part of the directive. The Minister's Department told the Committee on 21 February that the whole thing was "over ambitious". It said: We do not feel that this directive is going to make any real contribution to improving consumer safety". The Government like to boast about how advanced they think this country's laws are. When the border controls have disappeared and a multiplicity of goods for the consumer, business and agriculture are traded without restriction between nations, when food, medicines and all manner of products can be shipped across half a continent with no frontiers or checks, this directive will prove to be the consumer's main line of defence. The weaker the Minister makes it, the more vulnerable our consumers will be. That is why the Consumers Association has asked for all the consumer protection measures listed in annex 1, inserted under the French draft, to be made mandatory rather than merely illustrative, as the Government want.

The Minister claims to have consulted consumer groups, but he has not listened to what they have to say. He has argued for the directive to be limited to consumer products only. For him, there is no need for further legislation. On 3 April he said: For non-consumer products there is a wide range of existing safety legislation which provides comprehensive protection from unsafe products. That is not the view of any consumer organisation. The National Consumer Council wants all products to be treated equally when it comes to safety, not just to be limited to consumer products—a phrase that would keep all the Euro-lawyers talking for a decade.

If we consider the Minister's critics, we see that the Townswomen's Guilds, the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Age Concern support article 2(a). The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-East (Mr. Lightbown) may snigger at that, but they and 27 other organisations represented by consumers in the European Community group argue against the Government's attempt to restrict the directive's scope to certain goods only. The Minister may be correct when he claims that there are some effective directives that already cover individual types of product. That is not the issue here. But what if there are? It is better to be safe than sorry. Medicines, food and food products are excluded from the general safety duty in the Consumer Protection Act 1987 and the unamended directive would therefore apply. The Consumers Association has already drawn attention to the unsatisfactory procedures in the Netherlands and Italy for withdrawing unsafe products. Such goods can be sent to Britain. A directive limited to consumer goods does not provide comprehensive cover and protection for the United Kingdom consumer. A general product safety directive would do that.

The Minister rightly mentioned the burdens placed on industry. No one can seriously ignore that, nor do we seek to ignore it. However, it is not unreasonable to expect industry to subject itself to the closest scrutiny on product safety. Many British firms lead the world in monitoring the safety of goods at every stage of production from design to sale. If such high standards can be met by British firms, why should other businesses at home and abroad get away with second best?

The Confederation of British Industry has said that achieving harmony in monitoring the safety of widely diverse products may pose problems. The directive does not seek harmony in monitoring so much as high safety standards. Firms that currently have effective monitoring procedures should have nothing to fear, but the existence of a requirement to monitor product safety will in itself heighten the awareness of other businesses to such procedures.

If some countries have lax laws, the standards that prevail along the whole production process may well be lax, whereas if they know that tough standards have to be met, they will gear themselves to meeting those standards. That is the crux of the argument. We want every encouragement to be given to promoting the highest standards of safety throughout Europe. We can no longer afford to argue for the lowest common denominator and delude ourselves into thinking that our laws will insulate our consumers from dangerous foreign products. They will not, and that is why we want the highest possible standards to be set across the widest range of goods, with proper monitoring.

It is astonishing that the Department responsible for consumer protection could tell the House of Lords Select Committee on 21 February: We are still of the view that the United Kingdom protection would not be enhanced by the General Safety Product Directive. The directive strengthens our laws and rectifies certain defects. The major criticism of the Consumer Protection Act 1987 is the development of risk defence that arises from part I of the Act. The Government insisted on the inclusion of that and it weakens consumer rights. The directive would remedy that. Some countries do not have strong powers for recalling unsafe goods: the directive should have such powers.

I know that the Minister will have studied the comments of consumer groups about the directive. I hope that he will ensure that their views are communicated to the Commission and that he will seek to ensure that in its final form the directive does more to reflect the views of consumer organisations. If he does that, he will make a better law and gain considerable support.

10.37 pm
Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) has moved a negative amendment. It is indicative of the lack of interest by the Opposition in consumer matters that seven to eight times as many Conservative Members are here at this fairly late hour to debate product safety. Once again, there is no sign of the Liberal party or the SDP. No doubt by this time members of those parties are tucked up in bed with improving literature and cocoa.

I should like to discuss three matters—the scope of the draft directive that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs so ably moved, the general duty, and enforcement. I am sure that my hon. Friends will give a warm welcome, rather than the carping one that we have heard from the Opposition, to the fact that the directive will extend the style of the Consumer Protection Act 1987 to foods and medicines and will spread the general approach to other EEC states.

If enacted, the directive will be a major boost to consumer confidence in the general internal market. The sooner it can be implemented, the better, and attempts to limit its scope to consumer goods will weaken the universal safety advantages that the directive seeks to achieve.

The directive establishes a general safety duty. Our essential concern is that it does not appear to place a specific duty on manufacturers and suppliers to supply safe goods. Under article 3, it is left to member states to take all necessary measures in order to ensure that only safe products are placed on the market. That leaves the directive open to implementation in different ways in various member states. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether the directive can include a clear requirement for member states to impose the general safety duty on suppliers of goods.

It is unclear how the arrangements for the permanent monitoring of products will work. The products need to be monitored across the EEC states. With regard to the enforcement mechanism, are we sure that countries such as Greece and Portugal have the same concerns as national authorities in this country? The status of the indicative list of powers for national authorities is not clear. I hope that they will be minimalist rather than simply indicative. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, who has wide experience of EEC matters, will consider including hired goods in the directive.

The United Kingdom appears to be alone in wanting the general duty requirement to apply to all suppliers and for sanctions to apply at any point in this chain. Other states want that to be largely restricted to manufacturers and importers. I hope that the Government are supported in their wish and that retailers are included in the scope of that general duty.

On enforcement, there is no Community dimension to the banning of dangerous products. In my time in the House, I have been involved in legislation on foam-filled furniture. My hon. Friend the Minister acted speedily and it is good to know that all new foam-filled furniture now has to comply with the new legislation. There is some concern about second-hand foam-filled furniture, and I hope that the trading standards officers will deal with that as effectively as possible.

My hon. Friend was sympathetic to the all-party delegation that I led on the danger of glass-topped tables. It was sad that a little youngster on the outskirts of York died because of unsafe glass in a glass-topped table. My hon. Friend, without any lethargy, has pressed on and is looking to the British Standards Institution to produce a new specification—full marks to him and to the Department for that. Those two specific items were lacking in the Opposition's credibility on consumer matters.

It will be helpful to have an EEC-wide rapid notification system for the exchange of information on dangerous products. The sooner that is introduced, the better. I hope that we shall not have to wait for implementation of the directive.

10.43 pm
Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

I welcome the broad concept of the directive and what my hon. Friend the Minister said when he introduced it. He may remember that, on occasion, I have spoken briefly on the subject of product liability. However, I am not so much concerned with that tonight, because we are not really dealing with the fringes of technology, where we seek to give specific encouragement and protection to firms that are trying to push forward the frontiers of scientific application to production. Instead, we are considering the question of consumer goods.

I accept my hon. Friend's point about costs. That must be relevant. I have some sympathy with the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths), who moved the amendment on behalf of the impressive list of absentees who claim to have so wide an interest in consumer safety. I agree with him that the basic issue of consumer safety is of great and significant importance. It would be a pity if the Minister gave the impression that the Government were seeking in any way to water down what would be worthwhile safeguards for British consumers.

But there is the danger that, with a multiplicity of levels of protection, far from improving the protection of the consumer, the situation could be so complex and potentially expensive legally that the consumer would lose his protection. That would apply in national consumer protection, in terms of EC directives covering particular ranges of products and, now, in the more generalised directive that we are discussing.

The question of cost does not apply only to manufacturers in reaching safety standards. I imagine that most manufacturers would welcome high safety standards, so long as they are applied equally to all their competitors. After all, high safety standards of the final product reflect the high quality of that product during its production.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

The Minister has a fine track record both in implementing European directives in United Kingdom legislation and ensuring that they are enforced. Does my hon. Friend have any qualms lest, if these provisions become too complex, other European countries which are perhaps not as good as we are in enforcing such directives will not enforce them?

Mr. Griffiths

My hon. Friend reinforces what I am saying, which is that the responsible manufacturer—and the responsible retailer who sells the product and the responsible Government who enforce the legislation— benefits most from the universal application of firm regulation, properly enforced. That is why I agree that we cannot do everything in one blanket directive, because of the innate complications of the issue with which we are dealing.

There are some areas in which it is essential to have clear and straightforward safety objectives in the European Community—particularly after 1992, when the flow of goods will be easier and, we trust, more advantageous to consumers in that they will enjoy a wider range of goods—not only for goods which have their origins in the EC but for those which are imported and sold in the EC. They must be subject to the same degree of regulation, particularly as we have seen recently a weakening of the old-fashioned style of stamping, listing the country of origin. We do not have the protection that we used to have when the origin of goods was readily recognisable.

I suggest that there is a problem in the Minister's attempt to use the phrase "consumer products", which is not an exact term in European usage. It may be that we know what we mean by "consumer goods" in the Consumer Protection Act 1987, but European countries have different definitions, and we will find it difficult to reach agreement on the matter with our European partners. Many items produced and purchased by individuals for their own use are utilised in further economic activity. If those goods prove to be unsafe and lead to consequential injury, loss or damage, that is just as serious a matter as if the products were seen as being for industrial or commercial use even though they are listed as being consumer products.

National legislation, including our own, can leave grey or uncertain spaces. For example, some products are sold which appear to have a therapeutic value but which make no particular medical claims, so that they do not fall under the restrictions which would affect drugs and medicines. I think particularly of those products which are sold as slimming aids and as some sort of aphrodisiac or sexual enhancer. At present, the United Kingdom law in that area is inadequate. That matter needs considering. With the wider range of products which will be available in future some kind of blanket directive covering those areas— [Interruption.]Was the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) seeking to intervene on the matter of sexual enhancers?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I wondered whether the hon. Gentleman had tried them.

Mr. Griffiths

I have no need. I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I have been tempted by the hon. Gentleman, which I know is unusual for him.

The important fact is that there are grey areas which need to be covered by a blanket directive. Therefore, I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister's recognition of the need to limit the scope of the directive, but we need some consumer protection for the person who buys products which do not fall directly under national legislation or the directive.

I welcome what my hon. Friend has said tonight. He put his case strongly, but I hope that he will keep in mind the fact that there are areas where we may be able to learn something from European concepts. It may be that it is in partnership that we shall bring about what we all want —the ultimate safety of the consumer.

10.52 pm
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) and no doubt if I were of his political persuasion I could have said that there was no relationship between the interests of the consumer and the interests of the producer, but with my experience of satisfying a general public I know that there is a great and important relationship between the interests of the consumer and those of the producer or manufacturer.

Again, had I been of the same political persuasion as the hon. Gentleman I could have deceived myself into believing that people can be protected from themselves, but they cannot. What distresses me so much about the documents before us today is that so much of what is contained in them is an attempt to protect people against their natural judgment and instinct. That is a triumph of hope over experience, and in complete contrast with the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Minister, whose remarks I applaud.

My hon. Friend the Minister was critical of the fact that so much of what is before us for consideration today is so prescriptive in detail. The European Commission makes the same mistake time and again, seeking to be prescriptive of everything that we do in the Community. That will eventually be its undoing. Whether the butter-fat content of milk is this, that or the other matters not a jot or tittle to me or to anyone else in the land, but the European Commission continues to follow its prescriptive line.

The Community and the House should concern themselves with what I would describe as the macro-issues. In the past 12 months, we have seen a remarkable phenomenon—eastern Europe has thrown off the shackles of socialism and wants to join a free market. That presents the Community with an enormous challenge, and how it meets that challenge will be of monumental importance throughout the world for the lifetime of many hon. Members. Economic and monetary union is another macro-issue—and now, as a result of pressure put on us by the leaders of other Community nations, we are being asked to consider political union. I am prepared to discuss such issues into the small hours, but I am not prepared to discuss mundane and prescriptive details—and nor, I am sure, is my hon. Friend the Minister.

In an earlier intervention, I observed that much of what comes out of Brussels nowadays thoroughly undermines the principle of subsidiarity, within which the Government have committed themselves to the policy of economic and monetary union. At every turn, the Commission shows that it does not understand the meaning of that principle, let alone subscribe to it. That is why I shall support the Government today.

10.57 pm
Mr. Forth

This has been a brief but invigorating debate. I thank my hon. Friends for their supportive comments and I will ponder on how the details can best be incorporated into our approach to the directive.

In reply to my hon. Friends the Members for York (Mr. Gregory) and for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), may I say that I am still concered about the extent to which existing directives are uniformly and effectively enforced throughout the Community. I hope that the House will agree that there is little point in our labouring long and hard to devise more and more directives, even if the aim is to underpin the single market, if we are not convinced that existing directives are being properly implemented.

I believe that we can look anyone in the eye with confidence and pride, knowing that in this vital area of consumer protection we have probably the best system in the world. Our regulations are detailed, they are developed after consultation, and they are implemented and enforced by independent, expert and professional trading standards officers who report to local authorities rather than to central Government.

Our blend of expertise and independence underpins the regulations, which in turn enforce the directives. I suspect that all my hon. Friends—and, for all I know, Opposition Members—share the Government's fear that the directives are not implemented uniformly throughout the Community. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind in debates of this kind. Otherwise, we shall be kidding not only ourselves but—much worse—the consumers of the European Community if we suggest that they will obtain better protection through measures such as this. It is vital to take that into account.

My hon. Friend the Member for York and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) referred to the safety of glass. I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. He knows that we are concerned about the matter and are considering it carefully. I thought that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South was less than fair, if not uncharitable, in suggesting that the Department of Trade and Industry was not dealing with the matter. We are indeed dealing with it, but we are reliant on the independent British Standards Institution to come forward with effective standards which we will endorse as quickly as we can so as to put in place the glass and glazing safety regulations that the hon. Gentleman wants. In his comments, including his allegations that unsafe heaters could come in from other member states, he did not seem to understand fully the way in which the existing provisions work. If a product, from wherever it comes, can be shown to be unsafe, it can be taken off the market under our existing national regulations. I am sure that he understands that. No doubt his comment was made inadvertently and he may like to withdraw it on another occasion.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

The point that I made came direct from the Consumers Association. The Minister will have studied carefully the association's evidence to the Select Committee on European Legislation. It maintains that this year heaters, which were illegal under the safety standards for sale in Germany, were on sale in this country. I was drawing attention to that. I believe that a tougher directive would address the problem properly.

Mr. Forth

I yield to none in my admiration for the work done by the Consumers Association, but I do not necessarily take all its documents as texts for my speeches. The hon. Gentleman should look critically at what the Consumers Association says and not accept everything produced by it as suitable material to be used from the Opposition Front Bench. Perhaps he and I could deal with the matter in correspondence as a separate issue if it still troubles him after the debate.

The hon. Gentleman profoundly misunderstood the discussions which have already taken place. I was at pains to emphasise, and I re-emphasise, that many other member states of the Community share the reservations that I have outlined to the House. In the preliminary discussion in the Council of Ministers in November, the majority of member states shared our reservations—indeed, some were more vehement than the United Kingdom—about the scope of the directive, its ambitiousness, and the extent to which it is unlikely to be effective for various reasons. It is unfair for anyone to suggest that the United Kingdom is alone. We have many friends in favour of our argument to make the measure effective and workable. We are all moving forward in that direction.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) for his comments. He was right to emphasise the point about multiplicity not necessarily giving viability, if I may put it in that multi-syllabic way. The definition of consumer goods may be a problem. We are happy that it is workable in the English language and in our own tradition, but I accept that it may be more difficult to get it into a workable state across the entire spectrum of European languages and cultures. That will be dealt with in working up the details of the directive.

My hon. Friend made some points intriguingly and hauntingly, if not hintingly, on pseudo-pharmaceuticals. He mentioned slimming aids and aphrodisiacs. Tempted though I am to get involved in a dialogue with my hon. Friend about aphrodisiacs just after 11 o'clock on a Thursday evening, I will resist the temptation. I suspect that these are probably matters for my hon. Friends in the Department of Health and in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but I will consider the points more carefully and perhaps write to my hon. Friend to tell him what is being done about these matters as he speaks for many people in voicing concern about them.

Finally, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) for his vigorous approach to the directive and his support for the tone of my remarks and the content of the motion.

We have had a useful debate which has been helpful to me. I hope that the House, having heard what I have to say and having listened to the contributions of my hon. Friends and of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South, will feel able to support the motion.

Amendment negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 7480/89 and the Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Department of Trade and Industry on 3rd April 1990 relating to general product safety; and supports the Government's view that any directive should be restricted to consumer products, that products covered by specified directives that concern safety should be excluded from the general directive, and that any additional burden on businesses should be kept to a minimum.