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Looped Blind Cords

Volume 543: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood.

Probably the worst bereavement anyone can suffer is the unexpected death of a child; it leaves a wound among their loved ones that will never heal—a wound made up of grief, regret and longing for a life that has been lost.

In January, my constituent, Tracey Ford, had just such a nightmare experience when she checked on her infant son, Joshua, whom she had put to bed only an hour before. She went to check on him because he always kicked all the blankets off, and she did not want him to be cold. She said:

“I remember walking into his room and it looked as if he was sitting up looking out of the window…I scooped him up in my arms and he was freezing cold and as limp as a ragdoll. Then I saw the cord from the window blind was wrapped around his neck. It was the worst moment of my life. My beautiful baby was so full of life and energy and I just knew he was gone.”

Such experiences are not common, but they are not rare either. At the time, Tracey Ford wrote to me, in February, four other children in the United Kingdom had died by becoming entangled in a window blind cord. The most vulnerable children are those who are the same age as Joshua, who was 23 months old. They are at that wonderful time of life when they are speaking well, doing more and running round. They are curious and playful, and if they see a looped cord hanging down, it is natural for them to play with it.

The number of such deaths in the United States in a 14-year period was 252. The most worrying thing about the 22 deaths that have occurred in the United Kingdom since 1999 is that the majority have occurred in the past two years. There has been great concern about the issue. To an extent, the industry has done conscientious work, and it has made efforts to make the cords safer. Work has also been done in the European Parliament, but the process of changing standards is slow. We have made progress in various areas to make sure that our children are at less risk. Sadly, however, this debate is necessary because there has been an increase in the number of deaths. Tracey Ford asked me with some feeling, “Why did nobody warn me? Why was I not told about this?” That cry could come from other parents in the same position.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. It is a good debate to have, and our sympathy lies with the parents who have lost their children in these tragedies. Does he agree that the slow process that he describes is unacceptable? We were able to resolve the issue of electric sockets, which children put their fingers into, by capping them. Some time ago, three children died in an unused freezer, but it was possible to resolve that safety issue immediately by putting safety catches on freezers. Surely, in this day and age, progress on this issue should be faster.

I think that it should. We all recall the campaign about the tops of ballpoint pens, which some children swallowed and choked on, although, again, the cases were rare. There was a simple technical remedy. Similarly, there are many technical remedies to the problem of looped cords. There are alternatives that can be used, and the industry has acted, but it has acted slowly. Those involved are defensive about their profits and their competitive position, and we all understand that. However, there is no question but that the lives of innocent children are of supreme importance, and that is what should be considered.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) for his work on this issue, which he raised in 2008, and I am glad that I signed the early-day motion that he introduced at the time. He has run his own campaign on the issue, and he will speak about that in a moment.

We must, however, all ask ourselves whether we have done enough. If we had, the number of deaths would be diminishing, but it is not—it is going up. We must all look at the issue anew and decide which is the best way forward. Alternatives are available, but they are not seen as essential. It is still possible to go into a shop and be sold the most dangerous types of cord—the ones that have caused the most deaths. Alternatives are available, but is the industry pushing them in the way that it should?

I am extremely grateful, as I think all Members are, to the “Daybreak” television programme, which has taken up this case. I pay tribute to those involved and to my constituent, who has bravely come forward and said, “I want the legacy of my Joshua to be the hope that no other child will die in this way.” She is working for a situation in which every parent and grandparent will see the danger in their children’s bedrooms and nurseries and take action to remove it. The “Daybreak” programme is working with safety organisations to ensure that that message goes out.

The purpose of the debate is to make sure that people know about the danger posed by the cords in their homes, and it is the existing ones that pose the greatest danger. There are reckoned to be 250 million cords in British homes, and most of us would be astonished to find that there are perhaps a dozen cords in our own homes—they are almost universal, and they are all potential hazards for our children.

The lesson that we must learn is that we need publicity. We need more action from the Government. They have not been idle in these matters—indeed, they have been active—but they have a predilection for not introducing new regulations. I am not suggesting that we need legislation to tackle all our safety problems, and legislation may not be necessary now. However, the evidence staring us in the face is that what we have done in the past has not been adequate. We need a new impetus from the Government, who should publish information about the danger posed by these cords and, if necessary, put pressure on the industry to make sure these dangerous cords are no longer available and no longer on sale.

Order. Has the hon. Gentleman the agreement of the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and the Minister to speak?

Yes. Thank you for allowing me to make a contribution, Mr Hood. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) for securing the debate and adding his voice to those calling on the Government to do something of substance on this matter, and “substance” is the key word.

When the Minister makes his contribution, we will no doubt hear about the product safety awareness campaigns that have gone on in recent years. However, if they had worked, as my hon. Friend said, Joshua and other children would not have died in such a horrific way. I thank all those who have made an effort to tackle the issue, but it has been far too little, far too late.

In December last year, I prepared a brief for the former Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs at his request. That brief started by saying that 16 toddlers and babies had died in the UK since 1999, as a result of strangulation by dangerous looped blind cords. However, that brief is out of date, because the figure is now 22, and perhaps even more. There have been 11 deaths since 2010. Those 22 children were all loved by their mums and dads, brothers and sisters, and grannies and granddads, but they are dead because of window blinds. What are we doing to prevent such deaths? In my eyes, we are simply not doing enough.

I got involved in this matter in 2008 after Muireann McLaughlin, who lived in Menstrie in my constituency, died in a looped blind cord incident in her bedroom. I have since worked with her parents on the issue, but, four years later, these things are still happening.

Through my actions, the issue was brought to Parliament in a 2008 petition in which 3,500 people called for tighter controls on the manufacture of blinds. As my hon. Friend said, there were early-day motions in 2008, and three early-day motions in 2010 also highlighted the danger. I raised the issue with the Leader of the House in 2010, and on 12 March 2008—more or less four years ago, in this very place—I led a debate on the issue. Sadly, I could repeat that speech of four years ago today, because too little has changed. I have to ask why. I do not understand the reasons, although I shall try to contribute to their consideration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West has done much in his speech to raise the general plight; but I want to focus on three things in the time that I have left that give some light for progress. First, I urge anyone who has not done so to read a communication from the European Commission, Health Canada and the Consumer Product Safety Commission in America, dated 15 June 2010. I assume that the Minister is conversant with it. It states that the CPSC is aware of 120 fatalities and 133 non-fatal incidents in the USA since 1999, that Health Canada has received reports of 28 strangulation deaths and 23 near strangulations since 1986 and that in seven European states 90 children visited emergency departments because of looped blind cord injuries in 2002. It goes on to refer to two UK deaths in 2010 and one in 2008—that of my constituent—one in the Netherlands in 2009, and two in Ireland, one in 2009 and one 2010. There were deaths in Germany as well; but there were more deaths in the UK. As I have said, the number stands at 22, and the poignant thing is that 11 of those have occurred since 2010, even after all the work that has been done.

The three organisations’ statement called for

“a swift and comprehensive process that concurrently eliminates the risk factors causing deaths and injuries from all types of corded window covering products”.

As far as I am concerned, that needs a complete product re-design, which is what I am calling for. That leads me on to the industry itself.

I fully grasp that, as my hon. Friend said, 250 million blinds with looped cords are in properties today. I acknowledge the dangers that they pose, but that is not a reason to do nothing about new products. I have spoken to the industry about designing out the need for cord operation. Bearing in mind that in 1969 we put a man on the moon, it is bizarre that 40 years later the brightest design minds in the western world cannot come up with a gearing mechanism to make cords unnecessary and allow operation via wands to be extended. I guarantee the Minister that, unless he kicks the industry up the backside, he and his successors will be back here in future years, answering questions about why they have not protected our children and grandchildren.

I recognise that there is an international aspect to this matter, with manufacturers located all round the world, but I thought that as the world got smaller and institutions worked together the safety of citizens was paramount. The industry will not change its blanket production methods unless it has to. I refer the Minister back to the letter from CPSC, Health Canada and the European Commission and urge him to use it as a basis for a complete product overhaul—not tinkering around the edges—so that all new products no longer have such a silent killing facility.

The Minister will no doubt talk about snap connectors and tie back cleats as safety products, and I shall consider each one in turn. A snap connector can work as long as it is in place, but when it keeps snapping with excess pressure, as it is designed to do, many people tie the two cords together. They omit the snap connector and, hey ho, they have an unsnappable looped cord. Manufacturers and installers have even said to me that they get repeated phone calls from customers saying that their blind is broken. When they go to the house, they find that the snap connector is broken. They fix or reassemble it, and they get the call again. Eventually, for many reasons, the snap connectors are done away with and the cords are tied together, resulting in a looped blind cord and a deadly, silent killing facility.

What about tie back cleats? Yes, they are fine if they are used and cords are wrapped around them; but we should get real. That does not happen all the time. What about when the cleats are removed for decoration and never put back in place again, for various reasons: “I forgot,” “I don’t have any kids,” “I don’t use it anyway.”? Again, there are dangerously hanging looped blind cords: that silent killer again.

Finally, I want to ask the Minister bluntly why his colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who has responsibility for consumer affairs, and a former Business, Innovation and Skills Minister have refused to meet me about this matter. The former BIS Minister, who is now the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, gave that response in August 2010, and the Under-Secretary has repeated the position as recently as February this year. I am more than a little disappointed. In 2010, I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on the issue in Government time and his reply was rather embarrassing for him. He later had to backtrack from it. Sadly, the Government have got form on the issue and I cannot for the life of me understand why. If the Under-Secretary had met me in private, perhaps his colleague would not be here today in the public glare, having to explain the Government’s refusal to meet me.

I welcome the product safety information provided at the point of sale. I welcome the work done by the British Blind and Shutter Association and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents to highlight the dangers of cords; but as I have said, that is simply not enough. Looped cords must be designed out of production, and it is interesting that the British Retail Consortium supports that call in a brief prepared for the debate today. Only when that danger is done away with can we begin to draw the matter to a close.

If the Minister does not move on the issue, he and his successors will find themselves back in such forums, explaining why children are still being killed by looped blind cords and why the Government are not protecting the most valuable asset that we have in this country—our children.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on securing the debate and raising the profile of this issue. I think it is fair to say that many of our constituents are not aware of the scale of the problem. That is a valuable part of the debate. I thank him also for his heartfelt plea, on behalf of his constituent, echoed, rightly, by the work done over the years by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), to raise the profile of the issue in industry as well as among constituents. On a personal note, I want to express my sincere condolences to the family of Joshua Wakeham. When we listen to the description given by the hon. Member for Newport West of the horror of finding a young family member in that appalling circumstance, it is difficult to know what to say. As the hon. Gentleman said, his constituent’s words, “Why did nobody warn me?” need to echo in our ears. I am not the Minister directly responsible, but I take that point seriously.

I will relay the request for a meeting, from the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire, to my ministerial colleague. He is new to the office, and I do not know what circumstances may have meant he did not feel able to meet him; but he is a reasonable man, and I shall make sure that he is aware of the repeated requests that the hon. Gentleman makes on that point.

To turn to the core issues about new blinds, designs and consumer information, I shall try to set out information that will be helpful. It will move things along and perhaps update hon. Members about where we have got to; but it will also include key information that may help fellow hon. Members when they talk to their constituents about some of the issues behind the dreadful set of incidents in question.

Window blinds have been with us in their various guises for many years, but we have not been that familiar with the nature of the hazard, for younger children particularly, until more recently, perhaps with the 2004 incident, which I was certainly aware of. The hazard has obviously been persistent. We heard of the dreadful incident in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire, involving Muireann McLaughlin, who I believe was just two years old. Then in February 2010 there were two deaths within five days: those of Lillian Bagnall-Lambe and Harrison Joyce, who was just three. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has highlighted the statistic on which most of us would perhaps rather not dwell, but on which we should reflect: 22 children have died in the way in question since 1999—two incidents involved curtain cords, but it is the same problem. Eleven of those died since 2010, which is an appalling rate. A comprehensive approach is needed, both to the tens of millions—potentially hundreds of millions—of cords, and, indeed, chains, that are in homes now, and to how to stop deaths in future, and design out the problem.

Let me say where the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is coming from on this issue. Our role is to ensure that we set the legislative framework for consumer protection and for the broader issue of safety. As hon. Members will know, blinds are not regulated by specific safety legislation. They come under the General Product Safety Regulations 2005, which implement the broader directive within the EU. The question is how do we ensure that homes with those fitments can change them and have the information about changing them and using them. Furthermore, how do we ensure that future blinds and cords are designed in a way that reduces, if not removes altogether, the risk that has been described in this debate?

When the Department looked at the standards in the general product safety directive, it found them to be inadequate and in need of substantial amendment. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire was right to say that the matter needed not tinkering around the edges, but a fundamental change to the design standard, in a way that changes production design and development worldwide. One frustration is that trying to achieve that worldwide change in design, which is crucial if we are to root out the problem, has taken a lot longer than we would all like.

What would the Minister say to the British Blind and Shutter Association? In a meeting with us, it turned around and said, “If we knew how to do that, we would all be very rich men. We have been trying to do that for ages, and we have not come up with anything.” I do not think that there is a desire within the industry to do what my hon. Friend and I want and what, I think, the Minister wants. The industry needs a kick up the backside from the Minister.

Sometimes that works. Sometimes a persistent unwillingness not to take no for an answer is the same, but we may be talking about the same approach. I will perhaps use less vernacular language on this occasion. We now expect the European standard to be in place next year. In fact, I am reasonably confident—enough to put it on the record—that we will get it next year. We had pushed for it to happen this year. Importantly, it will ensure that internal blinds with exposed cords will either not be able to form a loop or they will have an integrated safety device to protect against the risk of strangulation.

In addition, the standard will set out that clear and obvious safety information has to be provided at the point of sale on the packaging of the product, on the product itself and in the accompanying instructions for use. There will also be new requirements for the safety devices intended to be retrofitted to existing blinds. I will touch on the issue of snap connectors in a moment.

We are working with business, but we must ensure that we do not just wait for that standard to be in place. Over the next couple of months, with the help of the BBSA, we will write to 6,500 businesses—manufacturers, designers, retailers and installers—to ensure that we do not wait for that deadline to come in and then discuss what we need to do about it; we need to start pushing people in that direction now. I accept that they will not all be willing to adopt one method until they see the final detail, but that is no excuse for doing nothing in the meantime. What we can do is to push and accelerate that progress to ensure that UK industry is ready ahead of time. The redesign of products to remove the reliance on looped cords and chains is essential. We must try to ensure that we get that accepted—well, it is accepted—and developed.

The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire mentioned the retailers who are a crucial part of the supply chain. We have worked with RoSPA, the Child Accident Prevention Trust and the Trading Standards Institute because we need to inform retailers and their staff that they should be able to source safer blinds, which would be a simple thing for the retailers to undertake, and I welcome the remarks made by the British Retail Consortium. We also need to ensure that parents, particularly those who may be expectant or with little ones, have information at the point at which they are purchasing the product. We have worked with the industry to get the retailers in and to get those matters under way, and we are planning to have a further summit later this year.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the matter of the joint letter of 15 June 2010 involving the Europeans, the Canadians and the Americans. The key is getting the various standards organisations to adopt a consistent and clear approach that the whole industry can adopt. The decision to adopt the European standard from next year will help to accelerate that, and we are working hard on that issue. To get that fundamental shift in the whole industry, we need to demonstrate—I think that we are nearly there—that we have a clear global change in standards. In that way, we will remove the problem wherever the products are made.

I will give way. I did want to turn to those blinds that are currently in use, which is obviously a big issue.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reasonable response on this issue. We all know from past experience that industry is reluctant to change. Usually that is for good reason. If a company has to retool, that means expense and problems that it would normally seek to avoid. Perhaps we could give the industry some incentive. For example, companies could become more profitable if they were selling cords that were guaranteed to be safer than the ones from the past. Perhaps the Government could give them some encouragement in that regard so that we can have blinds marketed that avoid the use of a loop and that are inherently much safer.

I understand that point. My inclination is that the industry, whichever industry it is, should be willing to do this without us having to dangle in front of it tax relief or something of that nature. I am not dismissing the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I suspect that the clarity of the regulatory framework will tip over the action. There is no reason why, in the interim, we should not be persistent in challenging the problem.

I will give way very briefly. I do want to get on to the broader points, because there are some important safety issues that I want to raise.

Let me go back to the point about retailers. A few minutes ago, the Minister mentioned trading standards. May I say that I sat in a fatal accident inquiry and heard trading standards officers say that they did not know how many blind manufacturers, installers or retailers there were in their patch and that they did not go and inspect them and that they did not know anything about such workplaces? Trading standards officers have a big role to play in any changes, and they need to be empowered and financed in a way that enables them to enforce what the Minister wants to see happen.

That is a good point, and I will ensure that I bring it to the attention of the Consumer Affairs Minister because he may want to raise it directly with the individuals concerned, including those involved in trading standards.

Let me turn to the crucial issue, which affects many households, of the blinds already in use. We respect the fact that parents cannot watch their children every minute of every day. As part of action in this regard, it is important to make available simple guidance that people can follow to help prevent some of the accidents that we have talked about. I am talking about moving cots away from windows where blinds are fitted; assessing each blind to ensure that the cord or chain is not within reach; and fitting the safety devices—there are strengths and weaknesses with cleats and so on that we need to be aware of, but routine use of such devices can reduce the number of accidents. These simple actions matter as does ensuring that the issue is promoted. Let me flag up the fact that both the BBSA and RoSPA have distributed more than 750,000 safety brochures and packs, and we have been willing over the last year to support them in their promotion, particularly the safe at home programme. Alongside the work of the retailers and the change of the design of future products, it is important that we send out a consistent message. I strongly applaud not only the safety organisations but hon. Members who have contributed to this debate and the media in helping to get the message across that there are some basic, simple preventive steps that will make a difference.

I am aware of time, and I am grateful to both hon. Members for raising the issue. As a Government, we feel that we must tackle the design of the new blinds and promote the safe use of existing blinds as a combined effort. More needs to be done and the pace needs to be accelerated. I will certainly take back all the concerns that have been raised today to my colleague, the consumer affairs Minister.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.