Conal Gregory – 1985 Speech on Dangerous Imported Goods

Below is the text of the speech made by Conal Gregory, the then Conservative MP for York, in the House of Commons on 9 December 1985.

With 13 shopping days left before Christmas this is a timely occasion to debate the importation of consumer goods, many of which are dangerous. Each year about 7,000 people in Great Britain die in home accidents—more than are killed on the roads. An estimated 3 million sustain injuries which require medical attention. This is too high a toll in human suffering and cost to the community. A proportion originates directly through the use of dangerous imported consumer goods.

I appreciate that the consumer has certain safeguards through regulations under two statutes. The Consumer Protection Act 1961 imposes safety requirements on prescribed goods and or requires that they be accompanied by specific warnings or instructions. Examples are the Toy (Safety) Regulations 1974/1367, which require that toys shall not have sharp edges or spikes and that there is no possibility of children swallowing glass eyes from a toy’s face; the Pencils and Graphic Instruments (Safety) Regulations 1974/226 which require that pencils and paint on pencils should not contain more than a certain amount of lead; and the Babies’ Dummies (Safety) Regulations 1978/836 which set safety standards.

Under the Consumer Safety Act 1978 goods can be required to conform to certain standards and persons can be prohibited from supplying goods which are not considered to be safe or which do not meet certain safety requirements.

Two examples of appropriate legislation under the Act are the Novelties (Safety) Regulations 1980/958 and the Novelties (Safety) (Amendment) Regulations 1985/128, which prohibit persons from supplying balloon kits containing benzene, tear gas capsules, and so on, and the Food Imitations (Safety) Regulations 1985/99 which prohibit persons from supplying toys, erasers, and so on, which look like food, smell like food or flowers, or taste like food.

I appreciate that prohibition orders have been introduced under the 1978 Act, such as the Toy Water Snakes (Safety) Order and the Expanding Novelties (Safety) Order, but they cease to have effect after 12 months unless the Government seek to renew them.

There is worrying evidence concerning a Japanese novelty known a “Grobots”, “Grobugs” or “Grobeasts” which grow from about one and a half inches long—up to 200 times their size in water. They have become the subject of after dinner conversation in some households. However, if accidentally swallowed by a child, such a toy could cause a serious throat or stomach obstruction requiring surgery.

A prohibition notice was placed on the importing company on 21 November. That was not exactly speedy, since it was almost a fortnight after the first newspaper report was published.

That action illustrates the inadequacy of the present arrangements. It closes the door after the horse has bolted. It has not stopped the dangerous product entering the country. It has not stopped its distribution among the trade, or its retail sale. It does not prevent another company from ​ importing the product. If the Expanding Novelties (Safety) Order had been renewed, none of this need have occurred and children would not have been placed at risk

The penalties are inadequate. Contravention is an offence punishable by a fine up to a maximum of £2,000 and up to three months’ imprisonment. Surely £20,000 or more would be more realistic, taking into account trade profits and the risk to which children are exposed.

The Department can ban a product, but its name can be quickly changed. It can ban by compositional structure, but analysis takes time. It can also give a general warning. Indeed, the Association of Toy, Stationery and Fancy Goods Wholesalers is operating a code of conduct—a dangerous toys early warning service—for its members and retail customers. Its members and local trading standards departments are notified about toys which are found or thought likely to be dangerous. It immediately informs its members who advise the retail shops. This is admirable, but it lacks legal sanction and—to judge by the way that defective goods enter the United Kingdom before Christmas—it is inadequate.

I place on record my thanks—which will be echoed throughout the House—to the Yorkshire Post for its investigatory campaign into unsafe imports. It has done a public service by highlighting such dangerous products as illegal toys, cheap, second-hand tyres and household goods.

I will give some examples; of imported consumer goods on sale, starting with toys. There are bicycles, the front forks of which collapse; a soft toy, filled with small pieces of foam rubber, split and the pieces of foam created a hazard to a child; a mobile telephone with jagged edges on its metal bell; wooden toys with excessive lead in the paint with which they were coloured; a plastic gun, the plastic bullets from which shot through the air with excessive force; a toy crow, the face of which was held on with nails; a zig-zag toy with a sharp spring which trapped the fingers; a cloth doll found to contain a broken machine needle in its head; a teddy bear in a cage with a high lead and chromium content; water snakes from Taiwan which contained contaminated water; dolls with spikes in their heads. I have seen one, the head of which easily came off to reveal a nasty four-inch spike; and a drumming teddy bear from China with loose eyes, sharp edges and a high lead content.

Toys are not alone, even if they are more topical. Other dangerous consumer goods which the United Kingdom has imported include curling brushes from Hong Kong with poor wiring which made them electrically unsafe; an electrical amplifier from Taiwan which was electrically unsafe; hammers, drills and saw blades from the far east which shattered when used; cosmetics from Taiwan which contained excessive levels of heavy metal; a Rinko Pool filter of Japanese origin which was electrically unsafe and caused one death last year; medical first-aid kits from India which should have contained sterile dressings but were found to be contaminated; a car jack from Taiwan, an estimated 35,000 of which were sold in the United Kingdom, collapsed on a user causing hand injuries, rightly highlighted by the Consumers’ Association. Indeed, that organisation in its current issue of Which? magazine records how two children died through such dangerous imports. In one case, a three-year-old died after swallowing and choking on the wheels of a toy lorry kit ​ from inside a chocolate egg. In another, a nine-month-old baby girl was strangled last Christmas in the elastic of a cot toy.

A relatively new safety standard for toys has been introduced by the British Standards Institution. It covers the mechanical and physical properties of all types of toys for children up to 14 years old and specific requirements for small toys for children under three years of age. While producers of goods complying with BSI standards attach kite and safety marks to their products, foreign manufacturers and importers do not have to comply with that code.

In recent days a product named “Snow Flakes” has been brought to my attention. I showed it to the Minister just before the debate began. It is an aerosol container which allows a pine-scented spray to give the appearance of snowflakes. It is dangerous and should immediately be banned because not only is the container inflammable but anything it sprays becomes inflammable. Will I wait another fortnight, until after Christmas, before hearing good news about that? I hope not.

Yesterday the Mail on Sunday illustrated a toy racing car powered by a live hamster, a form of cruelty which is almost inconceivable. I am pleased to learn that this American product was totally withdrawn from sale this morning.
I have shown that there is real concern about the range and potential danger of many consumer goods. Nobody wants to be a killjoy at Christmas, but it is clear that the festivities of some will be marred by injury caused by unsafe goods.

What can be done? The Government explored the possibility in their White Paper on the safety of goods published in July 1984, yet its recommendations have not been put into legislative form. I had hoped that it would be foreshadowed in the Gracious Speech, but it was significantly omitted, although I appreciated the pressure on the business timetable.

I have, as a result, sponsored an early-day motion, which has the support of 110 right hon. and hon. Members from all parties, this Adjournment debate and a private Member’s Bill. I hope the Minister will say that he will support that measure.

Surely, the cardinal switch that we should make to protect the consumers is to place the legal responsibility on the importer. He should have the duty of care. We should expect an importer to check the safety of goods before placing an order. For example, an importer of goods with a potentially high lead content should send one off for a laboratory analysis and that evidence should be presented to the Customs and Excise on entry of the goods. The Customs and Excise officer should be able to pass confidential information on to the trading standards officers. Enforcement staff should be able to seize and control dangerous goods.

I welcome the EEC draft directive on product liability, and the proposal relating to toys in particular. I hope that the Government will take the lead in Europe in this sector. We need to stop dangerous imports from reaching the shops. It is unrealistic to have to wait until a complaint is made following the use of the products. By that time, the goods have been passed through the country. The point of entry is the correct stage to stop these goods, and I hope ​ that this course of action commends itself to my hon. and learned Friend, and that, notwithstanding the pressure on Government time, he will support my endeavours.