HC Deb 05 June 1991 vol 192 cc268-9
10. Mr. Illsley

To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what representations he has made recently to the Economic Community regarding regulations on the safety of furniture.

Mr. Leigh

I visited Mr. Van Miert, the Commissioner responsible for consumer protection, on 17 May. We discussed matters arising from differences between the regulation of fire safety of furniture in the United Kingdom and the Commission's proposals for a directive on the fire behaviour of upholstered furniture. My Department has just received confirmation of a decision taken by the Commission not to proceed with the proposed directive on the fire behaviour of upholstered furniture pending research into the feasibility of suitable test methods.

Mr. Illsley

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer and for the information that the directive has been postponed. In view of continuing research, will he ensure that when the directive comes back for consideration, United Kingdom law on the safety of furniture is not weakened by the acceptance of lower standards? Will he especially ensure that the regulations contain a water-soak test on the permanence of chemical finishes to upholstery materials? Will he also ensure that ignition resistance and fire spread levels are equal to those set out in United Kingdom legislation?

Mr. Leigh

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. There was absolute cross-party agreement on this issue. We were determined firmly to take up this matter with the Commission. We said that we had the strongest standards in Europe and that we had imposed them with cross-party support and would not accept any directive which lowered them. It is a victory for both sides of the House and for the fire service and the industry involved that the directive has been postponed. We shall make it clear to the Commission in the two or three years grace that when the directive is reintroduced it must be based on our excellent standards.

Mr. Conway

Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the British furniture industry for its co-operation in the implementation of the regulations, especially with regard to clear labelling which, of course, enables consumers to see exactly what they are buying? As Britain and Ireland are the only two member states to have such regulations, will my hon. Friend assure consumers and the House that we shall continue to press to make sure that such regulations apply throughout the European Community?

Mr. Leigh

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Plainly, when we receive the directive we must ensure that it is based on our standards. It is vital for the industry and for consumer safety that there is no question of any dangerous foam-filled furniture being imported. Our trading standard officers can stop such furniture coming in and there is no question of a legal challenge to our very high standards.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

Does the Minister realise that his failure to champion and secure tougher measures on foam safety means that many furniture manufacturing jobs and companies are at risk and that hundreds of thousands of foam-filled items of furniture can be imported? The matter can be challenged in the European Court and we should have had a settlement by now. Why have we not secured an effective and tough directive?

Mr. Leigh

Not for the first time the hon. Gentleman, who shadows me, appears to have devised his question before he heard my answer. I have made it clear that the Commission has withdrawn its directive. We cannot force the Commission to impose a directive now on our European competitors based on our high standards. All we can do is what we have achieved. We have prevented the Commission from introducing a directive which would have lowered those standards. Therefore, I repeat that the Commission's decision to withdraw the directive is a victory for both sides of the House. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has sought to make a party-political point out of the matter.

Mrs. Peacock

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments on the furniture industry, but will he confirm to the House that in that industry he includes those in Britain who manufacture beds? Will he ensure that their high standards are maintained and not watered down by Europe? Will he also ensure that any goods that are not up to those high standards are rejected at our ports?

Mr. Leigh

The directive concerned our regulations on foam-filled furniture and in that respect my hon. Friend is right.