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Clause 2

Volume 116: debated on Wednesday 13 May 1987

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Liability For Defective Products

I beg to move a manuscript amendment, in page 2, line 50, leave out "industrial" and insert "initial".

This amendment returns to an issue that we discussed at some length in Committee. I do not intend to delay the House for long now. However, the Minister will recollect that there was some support from the Conservative Benches for our argument that the Bill missed the opportunity to extend protection to the consumer with regard to the supply of foodstuffs. We regret that the Minister has narrowed the protection afforded by the original directive whereby the only exemptions would be for foodstuffs that had not undergone initial processing. The Minister has limited protection and included the term "industrial process".

We have had extensive discussions on this point and we believe that the Minister has missed an opportunity. We have given an undertaking that we will facilitate the progress of the Bill, and we do not want to delay it for this item. However, had this been a normal Report stage, we would have had a considerable debate and probably a vote on this issue. Although we are not hopeful, we want formally to make the effort to give the Minister the opportunity to recant even at this, the last moment.

The preamble to the directive explains why we have chosen the words that are in the Bill. Perhaps it would be for the benefit of the House if I quoted the relevant passage in the third recital:

"Whereas a liability without fault should apply only to movables which have been industrially produced; whereas, as a result, it is appropriate to exclude liability for agricultural products and game, except where they have undergone a processing of an industrial nature which cause a defect in these products".
That makes it clear that the reason why we have chosen to use the words "industrial process" in clause 2(4) is that they more accurately represent the intentions of the directive.

Perhaps I could begin by dealing with the use of those words and then say why I recommend the House to reject the amendment to line 50. We have departed from the words of the directive only when it has been important either to clarify the intentions of the directive or to use words which are more readily understood in the United Kingdom. In this case there are two reasons for us to use the words that we have used. The first is the intention of the directive as set out in the preamble which I have just read. I should also remind the House of the overall intention of the directive which is to harmonise the law for defective products that have been industrially produced. If we had used the word in the directive — that is, agricultural produce which had not undergone an "initial" process— we would not have conveyed the intentions of the directive that it is the industrial nature of the process which is important, not its place in the sequence of processes.

The second reason for using the words "industrial process" is that the words "initial process" could easily be interpreted to mean that, while the initial processing of agricultural produce might put that produce outside the exemption, subsequent processing—that is, the second and third process to which the produce may be subjected —might not be caught by the exemption. Although this was obviously not the intention of the directive, it could be so argued on a strict interpretation of the wording of article 2. We have avoided that potential lack of clarity by using the words that we have. They have the additional advantage of reflecting the intentions of the directive.

For those reasons, I hope the House will reject the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third reading read.

8.11 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am glad that we have been able to complete consideration of the Bill in such an expeditious manner, no doubt having something to do with the rather unusual circumstances in which this takes place.

I pay tribute to the co-operation of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), who has confirmed the welcome that he gave the Bill on Second Reading by the way that he has assisted its passage. This legislation has been welcomed by both sides of the House and has been enthusiastically greeted by consumers and producers alike. I have great pleasure in commending it to the House.

8.12 pm

May I repeat our welcome to the Bill? We regret that one or two improvements that we and other hon. Members suggested have not been included, but it would not have been our wish to see the Bill fall because of those differences.

As I observed earlier, it is good that we have managed to continue a consensus approach on consumer issues, as we have done over a great many years. It has meant that the public have benefited from consumer legislation which is not continually threatened with repeal and alteration for political reasons. Therefore, we welcome the Bill. It could have been better but we are glad that it is completing its proceedings.

8.13 pm

I should like to record my welcome for the Bill on behalf of my constituents. I believe it to be a very important and valuable piece of legislation and I am glad that it has been possible to carry it in this Parliament.

I am glad also that my hon. and learned Friend has taken account of some concerns expressed by those engaged in research in the pharmaceutical industry. They are particularly happy with the provisions of clause 4(1) (e)dealing with the state of scientific and technical knowledge. If this so-called state-of-the-art defence had been deleted, many companies in the pharmaceutical industry, three of which are in my constituency, would have been deterred from marketing potentially valuable novel products, whether intended to treat currently lethal conditions such as AIDS or lung cancer, or painful or disabling states such as arthritis, schizophrenia or senile dementia. I am glad that my hon. and learned Friend has responded to those legitimate concerns. Because of the consumer protection which the Bill provides in so many ways, there will still be every encouragement to develop new medicines for the benefit of the health of the people.

8.15 pm

I would also like to welcome the Bill. On behalf of my constituents, I have one broad question which I would like to ask the Minister. I have in my constituency, in Wisbech, a prestigious printer by the name of Balding and Mansell which is concerned that it may be blamed for textual errors in its printing. The British Printing Industries Federation wrote to the Minister and received a reply which said:

"It seems to us reasonably clear that the Directive does not apply to mis-statement."
I would simply like the Minister to make it clear that it is not the intention of the Bill to do so.

The hon. and learned Gentleman may remember that, in 1979, Longman published a chemical textbook in which it got wrong a proportion between two totally unpronouncable chemical elements; it printed that the proportion should be 2:30 instead of 2:3. A school had a major explosion as a result. Of course Longman, who printed the book, would be responsible. I would simply like the Minister to say that it is not an intention of the legislation to hold a printer responsible for textual errors.

8.16 pm

I simply wish to raise a point to which I referred on Second Reading. I had tabled amendment No. 26 for consideration in Committee, but in view of the circumstances with which we are faced and the knowledge that we would not divide on it, it seemed inappropriate to press it.

The foundry industry made it clear that it was not satisfied with the wording of clause 4(1) (f). I have had a letter from my hon. and learned Friend, in which he has explained that he thinks that the concern of the industry can be dealt with under the terms of his letter. We hope that the interpretation which is placed on those words by the Minister will prove to be correct. This is an important and serious matter. If the Minister's interpretation were to turn out not to be correct, and if the matter proceeded to court, no doubt we would have an opportunity to correct the position in subsequent legislation.

8.18 pm

I heartily welcome the Bill and praise the work of my hon. and learned Friend at this late hour in this Parliament in seeking a dialogue with the Opposition and other parties in bringing the legislation to fruition. The Bill will be in the interests of consumers, including my constituents. We should not lose sight of the cardinal point, that each year some 7,000 people die in Great Britain in home accidents, a greater number than are killed on the roads. In addition, more than 3 million people sustain injuries which require medical attention. Clearly, with those devastating figures before the House, we must address ourselves to consumer safety.

In many ways, this is a blockbuster Bill because we are dealing with the entire concept of safety at the stage of purchase. Furthermore, we have given greater resources to local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland. I note the response from my hon. and learned Friend that that greater provision has increased from £60.9 million in the financial year 1983–84, to about £72·6 million in 1985–86. However, notwithstanding those extra financial provisions, there are still some remaining doubts and queries. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will consider them in the time that remains to us.

The new power of suspension of the threat of compensation is still a worry, especially where the tests can be carried out only by designated test houses. I understand that it can take three weeks for the official test reports to be received. The House has not had a full chance to examine the ramifications of that. So that the enforcement authorities are not discouraged, the strict rules on compensation need to be relaxed, either by an exemption from the compensation provisions, if an authority can demonstrate that it had acted reasonably, or for a limited period. I recommend a time limit of seven days during which an authority can arrange its confirmatory tests. In other words, compensation would not be available during the initial period if the goods were later found to comply.

I am not clear from the Bill who should receive the suspension notice. Perhaps my hon. and learned Friend can advise us. Is it the importer, the haulier or the warehouse owner? Can suspended goods be moved to another warehouse without any breach? In such a situation, there is no requirement for the local authority to be informed in advance of such a move, but vital goods can be properly supervised. These and other matters would, had the normal legislative process taken its course, have been examined week upon week and no doubt into the midnight hours. However, it has all been concertina-ed into a few days. The period of 48 hours is inadequate to determine whether goods might be suspect and whether that amounts to time for seizure and detention.

For a long time, I have felt that improvements in consumer safety are overdue. However, in this Parliament and with this major Bill, we have taken a step forward, not only for the consumer but also for the bona fide producer and retailer. I believe that that will be widely welcomed, and I commend it to the House.

8.22 pm

I am grateful for the remarks that have been made and for the welcome that the Bill has received from hon. Members of all parties. Two specific points have been made which call for a reply from me.

The hon. Member for Cambridge, North-East (Mr. Freud) asked for an assurance that it was not intended that the type of printing error to which he referred would give rise to liability under the Bill. I am happy to give him that assurance, although that may be rather less useful than the observation that I made in the letter to which he referred— that it is reasonably clear from the language of the legislation that that should not be its effect. Having regard to the attitude of the courts to the deliberations of this House, the clarity of the language, rather than any statement of intention, is likely to be of greater assurance to those who might be affected by such provisions.

In answer to the specific question posed by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) as to whether suspension notices should be served on hauliers, shopkeepers or importers— I believe that those were the three categories that he identified — it depends on the circumstances, and especially on who had possession of the goods at the relevant time. It would be possible to serve a suspension notice on any or all of those categories, i f they were the people in possession of the goods.

Naturally, I am delighted that we have been able to make progress and to complete the Bill's consideration in this House and I am grateful to all those hon. Members who have contributed to its speedy passage.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.