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Window Blinds

Volume 473: debated on Wednesday 12 March 2008

It is good to have you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow. To save your blushes, I shall not go to the lengths that two of my colleagues went to yesterday in welcoming you to the Chair.

Today there has been an important piece of business in the House. This debate might lack the grandeur of the Budget, but in some people’s eyes it is much more important. Budgets are important, but they are not a matter of life and death. This issue is a matter of life and death to some people following the debate, although others might think it trivial and see looped blind cords as just another household object that they might not even notice.

It is commonly accepted that the household is one of the most dangerous places, and is where the vast majority of accidents occur. When one thinks of household accidents, one thinks of people falling down stairs, being scalded with water or slipping in the bath, but looped blind cords are also a danger. For those who do not know what they are, and perhaps imagine them to be more grandiose than the words suggest, let me explain. They are the cords used to raise, lower or tilt window blinds, and they are usually looped. Some blinds have separate cord designs, but many people are reluctant to use them as they can lead to confusion when operating blinds. Also, separate cords can be tied into a loop, thereby causing the same danger as looped blind cords.

The real issue is not ease of use, but the threat that looped blind cords can pose to young and vulnerable people. A chilling statistic is the estimate that 20 children in the United Kingdom have lost their lives in the past 10 years because of looped blind cords. I confess that I had never considered the dangers of looped blind cords before, and I am sure that that is true of many. When I discussed the issue with my wife, she told me that when my children, who are now adults, were tiny, she tied up the blind cords because she was aware of the inherent danger that they posed. Perhaps that shows how strong a mother’s instincts can be.

The issue has been forcefully highlighted in my constituency by the tragic death of two-year-old toddler Muireann McLaughlin, who died on 5 February this year when she became tangled in a window blind cord in her bedroom. The statistics show that that incident was by no means isolated. In 2004, another toddler lost his life when he became tangled in a window blind cord in Dalgety bay, in Fife, which is only 25 miles from where Muireann lost her life. Last year, a 10-year-old from Uddingston, Lanarkshire, died in the same manner. Families and communities have been rocked by those tragedies.

I pay tribute to the Alloa Advertiser newspaper, in my constituency, which is running a local campaign and has launched a petition to ban looped blind cords. The petition has more than 2,000 signatures and is growing by the hour. The other day, I read some of the comments on this issue, and saw that there is support in all parts of the UK for a ban, and even international support in the United States, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Norway and New Zealand. Scottish councils are also signing up and supporting the campaign.

Many of us will be able to cast our minds back to when our children were young and we looked around our homes for dangers. The stairs, cooker, kettle and cleaning materials are obvious dangers to keep away from young children, but it can be only luck that incidents have been avoided by millions of families. Tragically, families such as those in my constituency have had their children taken from them far too soon. I have spoken to Muireann’s grandfather, and I do not imagine that anyone can understand the hurt and devastation that the family is feeling. It must be difficult for them to come forward at this time, but they have issued a call to the industry and the Government to tackle this issue. It is sad that tragedies such as Muireann’s case in Menstrie have to occur before we take up such issues and call for a ban. I hope that the Minister and the Government will listen to those calls and will give a commitment here, today, that they will begin the process of banning looped blind cords.

I am not an MP who likes to ban things just for the sake and the fun of it, and I have heard from some quarters that such a ban would be another example of the nanny state, but I cannot accept that argument, as it is surely the first duty of a Government to protect their citizens. Are we living up to that responsibility if, on average, two children a year in the UK lose their lives because of a design factor? That is an unacceptable figure, and we must do more—or, more accurately, we must do something.

We in the UK have fallen behind: both the US and Australia have banned looped blind cords, the former more than 10 years ago. A ban in this country is long overdue, and I have been pursuing Baroness Morgan, who has responsibility for the British Standards Institution, for a meeting. Unfortunately, I have yet to receive a reply from her, but I am glad that my colleague the Minister is here to respond to the debate. I firmly believe that the best way to address the issue is to create a new British standard for the blind industry that removes looped cords. However, I will stand corrected if my hon. Friend feels that there is a better way of effecting change.

I have mentioned the US, and it might be useful to give some background to what happened there in the hope that it will be replicated here. A study by the USA’s Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that the total number of window cord strangulations in the US between 1981 and 1995 was 359—nearly one child a fortnight. In 2002, the campaign group, Parents for Window Blind Safety, was set up, and it still monitors the blind market for possible dangers. It aims to educate the public, support affected families and assist in correcting manufacturing defects. A ban on looped blind cords would not be a silver bullet that would solve all the problems: we need regular monitoring of the industry to ensure that it is as safe as it can be.

No one can eliminate accidents, but we can limit the chance of them occurring. We need to remain vigilant and to strive always for safer products in all walks of life. I looked at the Parents for Window Blind Safety web page when I was writing my speech, and I was very moved by the pictures of the young children, mostly toddlers, who have lost their lives. I thought to myself, “What an absolute waste of life. What might those children have grown into if they had been given the opportunity?” Each child had their own unique story and background, but, sadly, the outcome was the same for all of them. If a ban can prevent just one such tragic incident from occurring, it will be worth while.

It is disappointing that the industry has not moved to solve the issue voluntarily, as I have no doubt that it will be aware of what its counterparts are doing in America and Australia. I hope that public awareness of the campaign will encourage the industry to consider the issue, but there will always be manufacturers who try to increase their turnover by using cheaper designs. That is why I believe that a universal UK standard is necessary for the safety of toddlers and to ensure a level playing field in the industry. Surely, there must be a safer way of raising a blind than using a looped cord, and it cannot be beyond the wit of UK design to invent a safer, but effective, method. I hope that we can demonstrate some leadership here today. Families are looking to the Minister to show the will and desire to tackle the issue. I know that Muireann’s family are watching the debate right now, and I hope that what they hear meets their expectations.

On Monday morning, I met the manufacturer of the blinds that were fitted in the McLaughlins’ home. I met a man who was distraught and who blamed himself in the days after the tragedy. He had questions running through his mind for weeks about whether he could have done anything to avoid the tragedy. He did not come up with any answers. This was a man who was following the acceptable standards in the UK. He cannot and should not be blamed. It is the industry as a whole and the British Standards Institution that need to address the issue. When a tragedy occurs, such as the one in Menstrie, there are always people left behind who are gripped by worry and angst. We should spare a thought for them, too.

Change would be a minimal imposition on the industry. Removing looped blind cords will make no difference to the function of the blind. The industry could easily make the transition to protect the young and vulnerable in our society. The solution must be a UK-wide ban on such cords at the point of manufacture and import into the United Kingdom. However, that will still leave millions of such cords in our homes. In a sense, they are a ticking time bomb, and, sadly, there is every chance that they could cause another death, even if we banished them here today. We need to ensure that the dangers are communicated to all corners of the UK in the hope that parents, and those caring for vulnerable people, will at least cut the blind cords now, or replace them with tension snap mechanisms. What guarantee do we have that they will do that? There is none. That is why action is required at a national level to ensure that blind manufacturers are forced to change the design.

Blind manufacturers and installers provide some guidance to point out the risks to new buyers, but is that always the case? Who can answer that question? Do parents always take notice of such guidance? Who can answer that question? Do parents always have the time or the inclination to attach hooks to keep the cords out of reach of tiny hands? We cannot rely on such flimsy guidance and hope that it will be adhered to. We need to act from the top. I have heard some people say that banning these cords will mean little as there are so many other dangers in the household. Although I agree that there are many such dangers, we need to do all that we can to limit them. Looped blind cords serve no specific purpose that cannot be designed out and changed easily into another type of mechanism, most importantly into one that is less dangerous. We need to eliminate needless dangers and to remain vigilant.

I said previously that the best way to address the issue is to create a new British standard. The BSI is renowned worldwide, and its kitemark symbol is one that carries a great deal of trust, integrity and respect in society. Its information supply and training is second to none. I have experience of working to British standards in my previous business life before I came to the House. I have no doubt that if the BSI were requested to look into blind cords, it would be thorough and professional in implementing those instructions. The BSI has thousands of certification marks that have saved lives throughout the UK. It is my hope that it will make the blind industry, which seems to have been overlooked in some instances, much safer in future.

The BSI’s motto is, “Raising standards worldwide.” It appears to me that standards worldwide have been raised, but that we need to match them in the UK for all our sakes and to protect families from tragedies, such as the one that occurred in Menstrie in February. I am eager to hear what the Minister has to say on the issue. I want him to be aware that there is an air of expectancy in the country about the words that he will deliver. I hope that we will not be left disappointed. I trust that he will be happy to meet me to discuss the issue at some point in the not-too-distant future.

I also want to thank Muireann’s parents for their actions following their daughter’s tragic death. They donated two of their daughter’s heart valves for transplant, thereby ensuring that other lives will be spared even if their daughter’s could not be. I am heavily involved in a campaign to increase the number of organ donors and to move towards an opt-out system. However, the McLaughlins’ courage should be recognised here today.

Before I sit down, may I urge my colleagues to show their support for this cause by adding their names to my early-day motion 1115, which calls for the designing-out of looped blind cords? It currently has the support of 25 colleagues. It will be a lot easier to sign the early-day motion and support the campaign than to stand here at some point in the future, arguing for further change after yet more tragic deaths. I thank you for your patience, Mr. Bercow, and await, with anticipation, the Minister’s remarks.

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Ian Pearson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) on securing this Adjournment debate on looped blind cords and on the fair and reasonable way in which he introduced his remarks. I am, of course, aware of the recent tragedy in his constituency that prompted this debate, and I am sure that all hon. Members join me in extending their deepest sympathies to the McLaughlin family, who face such a tragic loss as a result of looped blind cords. The safety of any product is paramount, especially when the consequences of inadequate safety requirements could be tragic.

My hon. Friend suggested that, in the past 10 years, up to 20 children are reported to have lost their lives in the UK as a result of incidents involving looped blind cords. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills does not keep records of child deaths attributable to blind cords, so I cannot confirm whether his figure is correct. However, even one death arising from such an incident must be a cause for considerable public concern.

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, I am relatively new to this subject, but before I address the regulatory position in the UK, I shall say a few words about international comparisons. He talked a great deal about the situation in the United States and Australia. As I understand it, despite heavy campaigning in the US and Australia for the banning of such products, a complete ban did not result in either country. Instead, other means of addressing the problems were found. In the US, a meeting on the subject was held between the Consumer Product Safety Commission, to which he referred, which conducted a study on window cord strangulations, and the Window Covering Safety Council, the membership of which is made up of major US manufacturers, importers and retailers of window coverings.

Following that meeting, the WCSC agreed to eliminate loops from the production of all window cords. As I understand it, the industry reacted to the campaign and moved away from using the looped cord mechanism. The US Government did not need to place a legal prohibition on such products; the CPSC has worked with US businesses to develop a voluntary standard that sets out performance requirements and includes alternative devices and test methods to address strangulation hazards associated with all types of cords on window coverings.

In Australia, the Government issued a product safety order banning the sale of hazardous looped cords to manufacturers, installers, suppliers and retailers in Western Australia and New South Wales. However, as I understand it, looped cords continue to be allowed provided that they are 1.6 m above the base of the blind when lowered or that an alternative safety mechanism is used, such as a tension device. The order also encourages suppliers and manufacturers to provide alternatives to systems that require looped cords. In that case, a hazardous cord appears to be defined as being longer than 1.6 m, and therefore potentially within the reach of children, or without a safety mechanism, if required, such as a tension device.

Both the US and Australian policies have focused on alternative mechanisms that can be used on blinds, rather than on the imposition of a complete ban on looped cord products. They have succeeded in eliminating hazardous looped blind cords using the legal structures in those countries and by working with industry.

My hon. Friend wants to know how that compares with the UK’s position. The UK has responded to safety concerns associated with blind cords. As soon as it came to light, in 2004, that the safety and performance requirements of blind cords could be improved, the UK standards committee initiated work to improve them. Through the committee, we have led Europe by putting forward amendments to European standard EN 13120 that are equivalent to the safety requirements in the US standard and in the Australian product safety order. The UK has led the way on this in Europe, and other EU member states have accepted our proposed amendments to the current standard. It is expected that the revised standard will be ratified in July.

I should like to provide some details about the process, and I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and officials to discuss the matter further. In the UK, looped blind cords are covered under the general product safety regulation, which sets out general safety principles. European standard EN 13120 is the standard that sets out the detailed safety requirements to support the GPSR. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is responsible for the GPSR and has been heavily involved in the development of the standard. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is responsible for sponsorship of the British Standards Institution and for standardisation policy. BSI, as the UK’s national standards body, represents the UK’s views in Europe.

The CEN, which is the relevant European standards organisation of which BSI is a member, developed the standard that currently sets out the performance and safety requirements for internal window blinds. The performance and safety requirements will have been set by representatives from industry, consumer groups and others with an interest at the European level. In the UK, BSI set up a committee of technical experts, industry and consumer groups and Government officials to provide the UK’s input. BSI’s role is to facilitate the process and feed the UK position into the European forum. BERR and its officials have been heavily involved in the process and have steered its content.

As I indicated, in 2004, as soon as it was apparent to the Government that the safety requirements of the standard could be improved, the UK committee recommended a revision to EN 13120, and the subsequent amendments to the standard have introduced stronger warning requirements concerning the risk of strangulation to children. They also set requirements for design features or accessories that allow cords to be kept out of reach of children.

I fully understand that there are facilities and mechanisms in use today that will keep cords out of the way of tiny hands, but the difficulty is that they are in some way temporary. They are not integral to the blind but fixed to a wall. Something that is screwed to the wall might be taken off when someone is decorating but not put back on when they have finished decorating, therefore raising the possibility of a looped blind cord hanging down. That would result in the blind not being installed correctly to the standard. There are inherent problems with the safety mechanisms that we have today.

I appreciate the point that my hon. Friend is making. When the UK’s proposed amendments were considered in Europe, they were compared with the US standard and the Australian product safety order to ensure that the European standard was as comprehensive as possible. I invite him to look at the proposed standard. It is being consulted on at present, and perhaps we can meet to discuss whether it is appropriate and proportionate.

My hon. Friend should note that the amendments to the European standard focus on the design of the product and on improving labelling on products. His contribution to the debate is important, because communicating the potential hazards of looped blind cords that are already in people’s homes is important, and we have various organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents that do just that.

We need to ensure that manufacturers are developing and introducing features that will improve the safety of the product. Additionally, amendments to the standard ensure that manufacturers label their products so that installers are aware of risks and how they may be managed. For example, as my hon. Friend said, blinds that have loop cords should not be near beds, cots or furniture, from where children may easily reach them. To the best of my understanding, the amendments are equivalent to the safety requirements in the US standard and the Australian product safety order.

As I indicated, the amended standard is expected to be ratified in July and will then be adopted in the UK towards the end of the year. The key feature of the process is that it is driven by consensus, which is important, in that it takes account of the views of all the relevant groups, including consumer safety groups.

The then Department of Trade and Industry, now BERR, as the guardian of the GPSR, considered the option of making regulations under section 11 of the Consumer Protection Act 1987 in order to improve the safety of blinds. The aim of the Act is to help to safeguard the consumer from products that do not reach a reasonable level of safety. The Act is important to all those with an interest in the safety of products that are put on to the market. It provides any Secretary of State with the power to introduce safety regulations if that is deemed necessary to protect the health and safety of consumers.

As BERR is the guardian of the GPSR and the policy on product safety, this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. BERR would need to consider the full impact of any proposal to put in place a national regulation, but the normal way in which such things are done is through the GPSR.

Additionally, any proposal to introduce new regulation would be subject to the provisions in directive 98/34/EC, which has put in place a process that European member states must follow so that national technical regulations do not create a barrier to trade. I am sorry to go into so much detail, but it may help to give sufficient information to those who are passionately interested in the issue, as I know people are.

Any proposed new regulation would also need to be considered in the context of whether there is a need to go further than what is provided for in the amended standard. The updated European standard is imminent, and it will support enforcement action taken under the GPSR, so there is no immediately obvious case for introducing specific regulation.

Let me reiterate that the proposed amended standard not only tightens the warning requirements but sets out requirements for safety accessories or design features so that the cords are kept out of reach of children. Therefore, if the design of the blind requires a looped operating mechanism, the revised standard requires manufacturers to introduce means of limiting risks by incorporating them into the design of the product.

Improved public information is, of course, extremely important. The British Blind and Shutter Association, whose members have been part of the process to revise the standard, have been actively promoting the safety of blinds within the UK and will continue to do so. Information has been featured in direct communications to members and in articles in trade journals and general journals such as Household, Home Parent and Parent and Child, but I am sure that there is more that we can do by working with the industry.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. It is right that we communicate the potential dangers of looped blind cord mechanisms. I am happy to meet him in conjunction with officials. I hope that he is reassured that the regulations that will be introduced imminently will be a significant improvement, but of course he and I will want to review them to be absolutely satisfied of that fact.