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Consumer Safety (Amendment) Bill

Volume 477: debated on Tuesday 24 June 1986

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7.48 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—( Baroness Gardner of Parkes.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Before Clause 1, insert the following new clause:

( "Offence of supplying unsafe goods.

  • .—(1) A person shall be guilty of an offence if he supplies or offers or agrees to supply goods or exposes or possesses for supply goods which do not provide the standard of reasonable safety which a purchaser is entitled to expect taking into account all the circumstances including—
  • (a) the presentation of the goods;
  • (b) the use to which it could reasonably be expected that the goods would be put;
  • (c) the cost of the goods; and
  • (d) the state of scientific and technical knowledge.
  • (2) The Secretary of State may make regulations containing such provisions as he considers appropriate to specify standards of safety in relation to prescribed classes of goods and it shall be a defence to a charge of committing an offence under this section to prove that the goods complied with such standards in relation to the hazard in question.
  • (3) It shall be a defence to a charge of committing an offence under this section to prove that the goods complied with safety requirements in relation to the hazard in question.").
  • The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I speak also to Amendment No. 2 relating to Clause 2 and Schedule 1. The two amendments hang together.

    By way of explanation I should state that the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, who spoke on behalf of the Association of County Councils at Second Reading and who should have been here tonight to speak to these amendments on behalf of the association, unfortunately is not able to be present. As I happen to be vice-president of the ACC, I have been asked to speak briefly on these matters today.

    I do not intend to press any of these amendments to a Division because I am quite aware of parliamentary protocol and procedure in respect of the Bill making progress in another place, but I shall be grateful to have the Minister's observations. The ACC has asked me to say that if the Bill is not amended it could set unfortunate precedents for the expected government safety legislation which it hopes will include a duty to trade safely and will relate to product liability. The aim of the Bill to enable dangerous goods to be kept off the market can be achieved, the association believes, by workable compensation provisions and a 72-hour detention period.

    The amendments are moved, as the House was reminded at Second Reading, against the sombre background of some 3 million people requiring hospital treatment for injuries sustained in accidents in the home, of whom about 7,000 die. Many of these accidents are avoidable, like the death in Leeds last Christmas of a five-year old child who died from playing with an imported toy pony. I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak on this matter in company with the promoter of the Bill, the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, and I am delighted to share her interest.

    I know that MK Electric, which is the largest employer of labour in Edmonton, and a firm which must be known to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, will have as much interest as anyone, and I notice from the report of the Second Reading that there is a wide range of consumer bodies which are interested. Equally I am certain that many trade and commercial bodies have their own reputations to protect. I know that only last year MK Electric celebrated having made 1 million safety plugs, and Alec Fletcher, who was then a Minister, went along and congratulated the company on its standards. I look forward to what the Minister has to say and I beg to move the amendment.

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

    Since the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, has invited me to make some comment on the new clause which is Amendment No. 1, it may be for the convenience of the Committee and indeed my noble friend if I do so at this stage.

    This clause seeks to introduce a version of the general safety duty that is proposed in the Government's White Paper on the safety of goods. Perhaps I may say at this juncture that I am glad to note that the noble Lord opposite is taking this opportunity to probe the Government's intentions in this matter. Let me make it absolutely clear that we are committed to introducing a general safety duty. We shall do this in conjunction with legislation to implement the European Community directive on product liability at the earlest possible opportunity.

    While I can only applaud the intention of the noble Lord in putting forward this new clause at this stage, in an attempt to introduce the general safety duty now, I must say that in our view it is not appropriate to extend the current Bill, and I think that the noble Lord accepts that. This Bill is about the enforcement of existing consumer safety legislation. I think that to include this new and wider offence would be very difficult. The inter-relationship between the general safety duty and the product liability directive is very complex and I assure the Committee that they can only be dealt with sensibly together.

    It may be helpful if at this stage this evening I say a few words as to why these complexities will arise, because I think it may help us when we come, perhaps a little later, to discuss the wider implications which are in the back of our minds. As the clause is drafted—and I have no quarrel with that—it leaves a number of points unclear, quite apart from the unanswered questions about its relationship with the product liability directive.

    For example, what is to be the scope of the new offence? Is it intended to cover all goods, including goods intended for the workplace—these are already covered by the general duty in Section 6 of the Health and Safety at Work Act—or is it really intended just to cover consumer goods, as is our proposal for a new general safety duty? Why is there a reference to a purchaser of the goods in line 4, when the offence is geared to the supply of goods which may not involve a sale as such and which may be of concern to many users of the goods other than the purchaser? At what time is the state of scientific and technical knowledge to be relevant? Is it at the time that the product was first put into circulation? What measures for enforcement will apply, given that the definition of relevant provisions does not include this? Would commission of the offence also attract civil liability? Those are just a very few of a great number of questions that will have to be answered, and those answers will not be very easy to arrive at, if we are to introduce a sensible, workable and enforceable provision as complex and far-reaching as the general safety duty.

    So with all respect to the good intentions behind the clause, I say to the noble Lord that I am happy that he does not intend to press this amendment. I hope that he and those with whom he discusses these matters, and indeed my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes also, will perhaps do a little more work on the wider range of questions which will have to be answered and to which we shall provide answers, as I say, when we bring forward our legislation. As I said at the opening of my remarks, this will be just as soon as parliamentary time allows.

    I thank the noble Lord, Lord Graham, for moving the amendment, which is an interesting one, and I also thank the Minister for his reply. I am not happy with the amendment as it stands because it seems to me that although very naturally it would be put forward by the Association of County Councils, it is placing the onus on the trader and removing the onus from the inspectorate. This of course would suit the county councils, particularly in view of the less favourable points about the number of hours and whether the authority would be liable if the goods proved to be satisfactory. So I can see that they have cause for concern.

    This amendment seems to me to aim at moving responsibility soundly away from the county councils and on to the trader. I think that the trader does have a responsibility, and I see the point in the amendment of the words:
    "taking into account all the circumstances."
    So there are ways out. However, it seems to me that as the amendment is drafted it will be better considered (as I hope and believe it will be) when we look at this matter in a much wider context at a later stage. I think that at the present time this Bill aims simply at taking a first step of introducing the means of slowing down the presentation of goods and having the opportunity to inspect them. I am grateful that the noble Lord does not intend to press his amendment.

    I am grateful to the Minister for what I think is a sympathetic response to the intention of the amendment and I also thank the noble Baroness for her reception of it. The noble Baroness is absolutely right, and her final words were very pertinent. What we have in the Bill is a first step; and there is the promise of even more to come. I hope that, as the Minister said, between now and then even more work can be done upon it, so that what we shall have in future will be even better than that which we have now in draft. I am very grateful to the noble Lord. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

    Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

    Clause 1 agreed to.

    Clause 2 [ Power of Commissioners to detain goods]:

    [ Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

    Clause 2 agreed to. Remaining clauses agreed to.

    Schedule 1 [ Schedule to be substituted for Schedule 2 to the 1978 Act]:

    [ Amendment No. 3 not moved.]

    Schedule 1 agreed to.

    Remaining schedule agreed to.

    House resumed: Bill reported without amendment: Report received.

    My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 20 minutes to nine o'clock.

    Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

    [ The Sitting was suspended from 8 until 8.40 p.m. ]