HL Deb 19 December 1985 vol 469 cc930-7

1.37 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 19th November be approved. [3rd Report from the Joint Committee.] The noble Lord said: My Lords, the very real dangers associated with the flammability of nightwear have been the subject of legislation for some period of time. I am sure that noble Lords will readily appreciate the desirability of keeping the legislation up-to-date and wherever possible improving the level of protection afforded to the public in general, and especially the young.

There have been regulations governing the rate of flame spread in children's nightdresses since 1964. The current regulations—the Nightdresses (Safety) Regulations, which were made under the Consumer Protection Act 1961 and have been in force since 1967—make two main requirements. First, children's nightdresses must meet the flammability requirements of British Standard 3121. Secondly, adults' nightdresses which fail that test must carry the warning label "Keep away from fire". However, while those regulations have helped reduce the number and severity of accidents, their provisions have been largely overtaken by developments in the intervening years. They include the passing of the Consumer Safety Act 1978, with its wider powers of enforcement, and the development of a newer and slightly more stringent flammability standard—BS 5722—that is capable of producing more reliable test results over the wider range of fabrics now used in nightwear.

As required by the Consumer Safety Act 1978 the department has consulted a large number of trade, consumer, medical and enforcement bodies on the scope of the proposed new regulations. As a result, some changes were made. In particular we have brought pyjamas into the scope of the regulations in response to well-argued representations by consumer bodies and have lengthened the period before the regulations come into force to 15 months, to allow the trade to make preparatory adjustments. The draft before your Lordships therefore, commands a wide measure of support from trade and consumer bodies alike.

The main features of the draft regulations are that they use British Standards that are more relevant to today's fabrics; children's dressing gowns as well as nightdresses will have to meet the flammability criteria; all other nightwear will have to carry a label indicating whether or not it meets the flammability requirements; they tighten up on the use of threads and trimmings, which can affect the flammability of the garment; and they require newspaper and magazine advertisements as well as mail order catalogues to carry information about the flammability of the nightwear shown.

The proposed new requirement that children's dressing gowns, like nightdresses, will have to meet BS 5722 should not cause undue problems for the trade. It is broadly in line with guidelines that were issued in 1970 on the use of fabrics in gowns. We have however exempted children's cotton terry towelling bathrobes from mandatory compliance since that would require them to be treated with a flame retardant chemical that would affect their absorbency—an essential feature in a bathrobe.

The labelling system we propose to adopt is similar to that which is currently in force for upholstered furniture. All nightwear—with the exception of children's nightdresses and dressing gowns that must meet the test—will have to carry a label indicating its fire performance. Nightwear meeting the test will be entitled to carry a label stating "Low flammability to BS 5722". Nightwear failing the test will be required to carry a label warning "Keep away from fire". This will enable consumers wishing to purchase safer nightwear to identify it easily. It will also be of benefit to the elderly, who are more vulnerable to fire risks.

The use of threads and trimmings can seriously affect the flammability performance of even resistant fabrics. The 1967 regulations banned the use of higher flammability threads and trimmings below the waist and elbow in children's nightdresses. We now propose to extend that requirement to the whole garment, so that children's nightdresses and dressing gowns will have to be manufactured totally from low flammability materials. Similarly for children's pyjamas and adult nightwear, suppliers will not be able to use low flammability label unless all materials are of low flammability.

Requiring mail order catalogues and newspaper advertisements to carry information about the fire performance of nightwear shown is a new idea, and one that we intend to use in the future where regulations allow consumers a choice. Recognising that mail order traders operate an excellent on-approval scheme, we gave very careful consideration to whether they should be required to include that information in their catalogues. However, we felt it important that their customers should be able to register their preference at the outset.

The proposed regulations will therefore ensure that consumers are better protected and informed. The cost to trade will be small. With better information, consumers may in the longer term alter their buying patterns in favour of safer nightwear. In this respect, the regulations are an important step forward. I invite your Lordships' House to approve the regulations.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 19th November be approved. [3rd Report front the Joint Committee.]—(Lord Brabazon of Tara.)

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for giving an explanation of this order. In the course of his remarks, he has taken pains to emphasise that the regulations themselves ought to impose the minimum inconvenience on the trades involved. Indeed, he said that he was satisfied by consultation with the trades concerned that the regulations would not unduly inconvenience them.

While agreeing with the thrust of the regulations as a whole—and your Lordships will know that the procedures of this House and of another place do not permit of their amendment—and although the advantages gained by passing them are significant, they are not in the ultimate degree decisive. We feel that in this area in particular, the time has come for the interests of the consumer and not those of the trade to be dominant.

Every year—and perhaps we shall hear the same again this Christmas—fatalities and serious injuries are caused by reason of presents purchased in good faith and given to children and to adults, without the consumer knowing that they are seriously flammable under certain conditions. Every year we hear the same stories of serious injury and fatalities, particularly during the festive season when such articles are given as presents. The time has arrived when the interests of the consumer must be dominant, and those of the trader must be subordinate, to the safety of the consumer and the individual.

In that connection, I am bound to draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that the amended regulations themselves do not come into operation until 1st March 1987, which is some 15 months from the end of the current year. I must protest against that. I must protest at the delay before the regulations come into force.

As the Minister has said, there is a long history of progressive improvement over the years of regulations concerning the sale of nightwear in particular and of similar wear. It cannot be that people who trade anywhere in the United Kingdom are unaware of the hazards that are faced by the individual through the sale of garments that can be lethal under certain circumstances. There is therefore no case to be made for continued postponement of the regulations.

When it comes to enforcement, the noble Lord, when discussing a previous regulation, said that the Government were bringing out a White Paper so that in future enforcement officers would not only have the right to seize goods for testing but would also have the right to seize the goods themselves and prohibit their sale—a power that they do not possess at the moment. That is of course the defect of these regulations. I am amazed that it has taken so long for that point to be appreciated.

It is not sufficient for a law enforcement officer going to a place and upon inspection finding there flammable garments, or garments that he has every reasonable cause to believe are flammable, to have the power to remove the garments for testing. There should be the power, and quickly, for him to seize the lot and to ensure effective prohibition of their sale regardless of the effect of that action on the particular trader concerned.

Trade is the means by which vast numbers of our citizens live, and nobody wants to restrict trade as such. But the considerations of trade and the fortunes of a particular entrepreneur measure nothing when compared with the fate of children, adults and older people who purchase items of nightwear in good faith, without realising, in spite of the fact that there has been a publicity campaign on this subject, the hazard they present.

I observe that the prohibition does not apply to second-hand nightwear. This brings us into a very difficult area because these days there is an ever increasing number of impoverished people who tend to buy second-hand apparel. Why should they not be protected in a similar way to people who buy new garments? That is a defect in the regulations.

Finally, I come to the question of enforcement of even these regulations. The noble Lord said, when we were discussing a previous item, that these matters are in the hands of the local authorities and that some 1,500 people throughout the United Kingdom are engaged upon them. Has anybody made an assessment of the number of retail outlets in the United Kingdom habitually marketing goods of this kind? Has anybody considered whether 1,500 people represent an adequate number to ensure surveillance, not only of these regulations but of a whole series of similar regulations related to safety? Are the Government really satisfied, even on the assumption that the powers of the enforcement officers will eventually be adequate, as to the number and the facilities?

We are in an era of severe limitation on local authority expenditure. Indeed, we learnt yesterday that the percentage of government grant related aid given to local authorities has reduced substantially over the past six years, and it is still reducing. Is the noble Lord satisfied that local authorities in the various areas concerned have adequate funds to pay for these very necessary services? Those are the questions that arise.

In this country we have a habit, which has developed increasingly over the years, of passing legislation—some of it excellent legislation—which lays down the law with admirable clarity. For example, Sections 68 and 69 of the Companies Act 1980 prohibit insider dealing, but the powers of enforcement are apparently nil. Exactly the same applies to regulations of this kind. The thought is excellent, the text is excellent, but what is very often lacking is the will and the means to enforce the legislation. I hope that by drawing attention to this particularly sensitive area of nightwear the Government may be persuaded to learn their lesson and make quite sure that the regulations are enforced, and enforced in time; and in this particular case a long time before March 1987.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, to save time I should like to say that we support both the nightwear safety regulations and the regulations concerning pushchairs which we shall deal with later.

It is a very good idea to tie some of these regulations to British standards, but we must remember that many British standards are really the lowest common denominator. Manufacturers and the standard-making process are dominant. It may be that in many cases an acceptable compromise is reached. There are, of course, areas where this does not occur and where the consumer's voice is not strong enough to secure what ought to be done. I do not say that this applies with either of these two regulations, but I recall—I think it was at least 10 years ago—when I sat on the BSI committee which dealt with pushchairs. We waited for the regulations to come out and, looking at the dates, I think it took the Government some five years to get round to it.

There is another aspect we should remember. The regulations and the standards are bound to be capable of improvement as time goes on and so these amending regulations, introduced with speed, are very important if the consumer is to get the best deal possible.

Finally, I again emphasise the importance of enforcement. Of course, our present enforcement is totally inadequate. It is no good sitting back and saying, "Life is wonderful. We have the regulations." This applies particularly to electrical safety where unsafe goods come into this country and there is simply not sufficient manpower in our enforcement services to pick them up quickly. People introduce and sell dangerous goods, make a quick profit, and off the market they go. I earnestly say to the Government that it is no good hiding their heads in the sand and imagining that enforcement procedures are adequate or even sufficient to keep out the worst examples.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, for their contributions to the debate on these regulations. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, and, to some extent, the noble Viscount said that consumer interests should be dominant in these matters. Of course, we take a considerable amount of advice from the consumer associations. Indeed, they have a very important role to play.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, asked why we could not bring in the regulations less than 15 months ahead. I have to tell the noble Lord that obviously the industry must be allowed some time to adapt. One cannot just condemn stock on the shelves—at least, I hope the noble Lord would not encourage us to do so—and not allow it to be sold. I must also point out that these are amending regulations to the 1967 regulations, which will remain in force until the new, improved standards become operative. The 1967 regulations are already quite stringent in themselves. All we are doing is making them even more effective.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, asked why second-hand nightwear is not included in the regulations. The answer is basically very simple. Each item of second-hand nightwear would have to be regarded as an individual item unless it retained its original labelling which, over a period of time, I hope would happen. But the test for these items is by means of fire to destruction and so it is not practical to test every item of second-hand nightwear by destroying it by fire.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, asked how the number of enforcement officers compares with the number of retail outlets. I do not know how many retail outlets there are selling these items, but I must tell the noble Lord that our first aim is that such goods should never reach the retail outlets. That is why we take every possible step to inform manufacturers and importers of these types of goods, so that they do not reach retail outlets in the first place.

The noble Lord asked whether I was satisfied that the local authorities have sufficient funds to maintain their forces of trading standards officers. It is, of course, a matter for the local authorities as to how they allocate their funds. I see no reason why they should not have them.

The noble Lord also said—as did the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, but perhaps not to the same degree—that powers of enforcement are apparently nil. I do not agree with that. As I have said, we hope that, on the whole, these goods are stopped before they even get to the shops. Having said that, obviously a few will slip through. It is up to the local trading standards officers to make sure that they are discovered. As we well know in these matters the public has a part to play, as do the media. If anybody suspects that a shop is selling goods of this kind then they should of course inform their local trading standards officer.

The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, made the point that the British Standards were indeed capable of improvement. This is precisely what this regulation does: it brings in an improved standard for nightwear. If I may go slightly ahead (because the noble Lord mentioned the pushchairs order, which is coming up next) that regulation, too, has exactly the same effect.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him whether he realises that probably one of the biggest problems in the safety of goods concerns goods which are imported? At the moment it does not seem that anybody can take sufficiently quick action on goods which suddenly come in for some firm which makes a quick profit and then disappears overnight. Will the noble Lord take this particular point seriously?—because that is how the worst of the unsafe goods arrive on the market.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the noble Viscount is quite right, and I am glad that he has pointed out that most of the problems come from imported goods rather than from domestically produced goods. I certainly take note of what he says. The Customs and Excise have powers, and I know that they do their best to stop the importation of this kind of merchandise.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I am sorry that I must press the noble Lord a little further. Is he saying that the Customs and Excise will be adequately staffed to enable this particular interception to take place? The noble Lord will recall that over the past few years the number of Customs and Excise officials has been reduced. This seems to be another instance, aside from the drug problem, which cries aloud—

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I suppose that the noble Lord does not realise that he is out of order.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I stand corrected by the noble Lord. I am not aware that in asking a further question I am out of order, but if I am then the Chair will no doubt draw my attention to it and I shall immediately comply. I still ask the question.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord is mistaken about that, too. It is for the House to regulate itself and not for the Chair to act. The fact is that the noble Lord was speaking for a second time during the course of this debate without the leave of the House.

Lord Bruce of Donington

Then, my Lords, if I may ask the leave of the House to put these questions, I should be obliged if the House were to accord me that facility. In the meantime, I ask the noble Lord to answer those particular questions.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I take note of what the noble Lord says. I draw his attention once more to the White Paper on the sale of goods, which proposes new powers to seize and detain unsafe goods. I take the point that he is making about the numbers of Customs officers. I cannot give him the figures at the moment. The White Paper proposes that the Customs and Excise should be given powers to supply details of imports to the enforcement authorities. We must hope that we can find time to legislate on the White Paper as soon as posible.

On Question, Motion agreed to.