HL Deb 26 March 1987 vol 486 cc299-304

3.46 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth, I beg to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 25th February be approved. [13th Report from the Joint Committee.]—(Lord Trefgarne.)

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, is not here to move his Motion. Nevertheless, on behalf of the Opposition perhaps I may speak to the regulations and hope that he will be present in the Chamber to answer the points that I raise.

The regulations are made under the Consumer Safety Act and refer to plugs and sockets. They contain a number of measures which, although they have been through the normal processes of consultation as indicated by the regulations, raise one or two problems for your Lordships to consider.

As I understand the matter, the Consumer Protection Bill, which recently passed through your Lordships' House and is going to another place, will replace the Act under which these regulations are made. My first question to the noble Lord is whether the regulations will be continued if the Consumer Protection Bill is enacted, as we hope it will be, or whether a new series of regulations will be issued under Part II of the Consumer Protection Bill, as it now stands, dealing with the general safety requirement which we debated on a number of occasions in your Lordships' House.

Secondly, I should like to ask the noble Lord how far the Government and the European Community have proceeded with standardisation of plugs and sockets and electrical fittings generally throughout the Community. As many noble Lords will know, it is extremely irritating to go from one country in the Community to another and to have to carry what is known and described in the regulations as a "travel adaptor". In other words, it would make sense that at some reasonably early stage the European Community should decide on standard fittings which would be applicable throughout the Community. That would avoid the difficulty, particularly for business travellers, of arriving in Brussels, Paris or Frankfurt and finding that the electric razor does not fit into the socket provided in the hotel.

My third question, which embraces a number of questions, concerns the text of the regulations before your Lordships. First, regulation 5(1), referring to standard plugs, reads: Subject to the following provisions of this regulation, a standard plug shall be a kind approved by a specified person.". The specified person is defined in Schedule 2 of the regulations and includes the Secretary of State. In other words, if the regulation is agreed to, the Secretary of State can approve a standard plug which is different from the kind described in previous regulations and in these regulations. Will the noble Lord confirm that here we are dealing with some kind of enabling provision which will allow the Secretary of State to decide at some time that the standard plug should be changed? That is what I understand the regulation to mean.

Turning to regulation 3(3) referring to electrical devices to which the regulations apply, it reads: In the case of a plug or socket inside or forming an integral part of electrical equipment and required to conform to a British Standard referred to in Schedule 3 to these Regulations, the Regulations only apply to the extent that it is practicable to do so". I should be grateful if the noble Lord will offer some comment to your Lordships on the meaning of the expression, that it is practicable to do so". Can anyone who decides that he will not conform to this regulation plead impracticability and what are the criteria which will be adopted to make that judgment?

Turning to Regulation 9 dealing with information requirements, paragraph (6) states: It shall not be a sufficient compliance with this regulation to give information in a language other than English". Is it not also proper that information should be given not only in English, but in languages which may be necessary for those citizens of the United Kingdom who are not wholly familiar with English and indeed the parliamentary English—if I may put it like that—in which the regulations are couched?

I speak not only for the Welsh language, but also for languages used by ethnic minorities to whom these regulations will be of very great importance. It seems to me important to have it clear and explicit in the regulations somewhere that information shall be given in language and languages that are understood by all citizens. It would be a great mistake if instructions are given in English when, for example, the Pakistani community would only understand instructions in Urdu. That is a serious point and I hope that the noble Lord will answer it.

Schedule 1 paragraph 4 introduces us to a new expression, that is the "Europlug". "Europlug" itself is a pretty odd expression. Those of us who are accustomed to speaking in plain English have some difficulty in understanding exactly whether or not the "Europlug" will appear in future in the Oxford English Dictionary. Nevertheless, a "Europlug" is exempt from these regulations because it is an excepted electrical device, provided that it: is marked with or accompanied by a warning that it is not suitable for use in a UK mains socket". Again I come hack to the question of language, and whether the instruction which will be provided alongside the "Europlug" will be clearly comprehensible to all citizens of the United Kingdom.

Paragraph 6 of Schedule 1 refers to a "travel adaptor". Those of your Lordships who travel abroad will be familiar with the kind of adaptor that we all have to carry in order to make sure that the appliances that we have in our luggage can be plugged into any socket almost anywhere in the world. I am a little concerned that a travel adaptor should be exempt from the present regulation. I find it odd that in the United Kingdom travel adaptors can be sold whether or not they are dangerous or potentially dangerous. I believe that that is a gap that needs at least to be explained, if not to he filled.

Those are the comments I have on the draft regulations. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to satisfy me on the points that I have raised, in which case we shall raise no objection to the regulations being approved by your Lordships.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I point out to the Minister that there have been many occasions on which I have expressed disappointment at a lack of consultation on matters proceeding through the House. On this occasion, I sought the views of M. K. Electric because it is the largest employer of labour in Edmonton and is very heavily involved and affected by these regulations. I was told that there had been a long period of consultation, not only with the company directly, but also with the various trade associations. The Minister is obviously looking forward very much to satisfying my noble friend. I can assure him that those at the sharp end who are directly affected by the regulations have certainly given me to understand that they are satisfied that their interests—the interests of the consumer and the industry—are fully protected and taken into account in the regulations. The Minister should note that and be grateful.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Lucas of Chilworth)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. Lord Williams, for his reception of the regulations that my noble friend invited the House to approve.

I shall answer some of the questions that he has addressed. The products that are covered by the regulations are currently subject to the provisions of the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 1975 and the Electrical Equipment (Safety) (Amendment) Regulations 1976. However, because of the generality of the provisions contained within these regulations and the nature of many of the defects in the products, effective enforcement has proved to be both time consuming and expensive in relation to the cost of the products themselves. Consequently very many more defective products are reaching the hands of users than ought to be the case. We have decided therefore to introduce these new regulations which will he specific to plugs, sockets, fuses and adaptors which are in common domestic use. Our Community obligations which deal with the safety of electrical products under the low voltage directive does not include these products within its scope. It is therefore possible to present draft regulations which provide a precise and effective method of ensuring that only safe products are supplied to consumers.

The noble Lord's first question related to the Consumer Safety Bill which will shortly be before another place. These regulations will automatically be reiterated in the new Act and suppliers complying with the provisions of this legislation will have a legal defence to the provisions of the Act in respect of the general duty to supply safe goods as well as to the particular regulations.

Then the noble Lord asked me to comment on the relativity of standardisation in the Community. All I can say to the noble Lord is that international standards have made some progress, but there is no international consensus on the implementation of any changes in a number of countries throughout the world. The problem is not so much the standardisation of the plug, but more the sockets into which they fit—

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord. My question related particularly to the European Community and whether there was any possibility of standardisation within the Community. I was not asking about the world-wide situation.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I expanded this point so that the noble Lord, or perhaps another speaker, would not come back and ask me what would happen in the rest of the world. What I was saying about the international standardisation applies also to the Community. I said that the problem here was not the plug but the various sockets. Those would all have to be changed and that would require households throughout not only the Community but the whole world to change all their sockets. This is not at all practicable at this stage.

I do not take these points necessarily in the order in which the noble Lord put them to me, but he asked about Article 3 of the regulations, in particular paragraph (3). That was the case of a plug or socket forming an integral part of electrical equipment. He asked me what I meant by "practicable to do so". "Practicable" has its ordinary natural meaning, which is that if a plug or socket is incorporated within the appliance itself, as distinct from being attached to it externally, then there might very well be problems in conforming to the British standard. But there are of course the other regulations to which I have referred with regard to electrical equipment, under which the safety of the equipment as a whole would be caught.

The noble Lord also asked me about the Secretary of State approving something which is not necessarily covered by a British standard. He asked whether this was an enabling provision and in what situation I would see this happening. The situation in which I see this happening to give one example, is with what we commonly call a 13-amp power plug. Noble Lords will know that normally the back is taken off and the three wires to be connected are stripped of their covering, cut to the various lengths, one to fit in the earth which is at the top of the plug and is longer than that which fits normally on the left-hand side, which is the negative side, and the right-hand side which goes into the fuse side, the positive side. These are all different lengths.

It may well be that a manufacturer may devise a plug which requires the wires to be put into a standard block terminal so that all the wires are of the same length. There may be no British standard for that. For the British Standards Institute to issue a standard might take two or three years of testing, and then this appliance which I am describing may be approved. Rather than delay, it is thought that it is better to give approval, if appropriate, where there is no obvious danger and where the general principle conforms to an already tested piece of equipment. This is an instance of that kind where approval may be given by one of the people who are specified in the schedule.

The noble Lord also addressed himself to the information requirements, in particular Article 9, paragraph (6), where he thought that it was necessary to provide that all the languages, or certainly most of those spoken in the United Kingdom, might be included in the information to be given. Some consideration was given to this and frankly it was not thought necessary because if one then accepted this, one might end up with some 17 or 18. As noble Lords will probably recognise, normally equipment of this nature, particularly that which has an international connection or even a European connection, carries information basically in four languages: English, German, French and invariably Spanish. It is not thought necessary.

I take note of what the noble Lord says and will give some further thought to that, as indeed I shall to his comments on Schedule 1 in relation to the Europlug. Again, he asked whether I was totally satisfied that the instructions would be comprehensible to a United Kingdom citizen. I think that from our consultations with manufacturers and importers—and this is important—I can be satisfied that such information and instructions will be comprehensible. Already since our discussions with importers it has been noticed that changes have been made, both in the manufacture and also in the instructions where these items come from overseas; and they come from Eastern bloc countries, from China as well as from a number of other countries.

The noble Lord then addressed himself to paragraph 6 of Schedule 1 and the question of travel adaptors. Travel adaptors embodying technical requirements which are the concern of the countries in which they are connected do not necessarily meet the same requirements for safety but they may nevertheless be adequately safe when used in that country. For that reason they have been exempted.

That takes me to the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, for which I thank him. I confirm that consultations have covered a wide range—the complete range—of interested parties from the Health and Safety Executive and the Consumers' Association. The Department of Trade and Industry's Standing Advisory Committee on electrical products, which includes trade unions among its members, has been fully consulted. In fact, it was they who felt that regulations of this nature should be brought forward.

I understand the interest the noble Lord has in his named supplier or manufacturer. It may be of interest for noble Lords to know that some 30 million plugs are sold annually in this country and it is increasingly evident that the design, the quality and the pricing of English-made products of this nature are taking a larger share of the market.

I think I have addressed myself to all points which both noble Lords have made, and I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.