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Column 1273That is how I and the majority of people, particularly housewives--this affects them greatly--regard the present situation with electrical appliances and the need to fit plugs to them. Tonight, my hon. Friend has a chance to act. He may recall a programme from years ago, when we were all much younger, called "Housewives' Choice". My hon. Friend has had a distinguished parliamentary and European parliamentary career. He has been given many names by the Press Gallery, some favourable, others less so. If he is determined to act positively tonight in the way that I have asked him to, he will for ever more be known in this place as the "Housewives' Choice".
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Eric Forth) : I congratulate my hon. Friend thMember for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg) on obtaining this Adjournment debate, and pay tribute to his commitment, and persistence in pursuing this matter. In view of his sincere interest and involvement in it, I hazard that he will continue to do so in future. My hon. Friend has conceded that any proposal of the sort he has made would result in the introduction of new legislative burdens on industry and would fly in the face of one of the Government's prime vehicles for the creation of wealth--that is, deregulation. My hon. Friend recognised that difficulty. The objective is to stimulate enterprise and individual initiative to meet the demands of the market place by removing, when necessary, controls on the trading environment and in doing so giving the consumer the widest choice at the price he is prepared to pay.
It is only in exceptional circumstances that there can be any departure from this approach. Considerations of safety could be such a case, but only when the market does not provide sufficient protection for the consumer. The safety issue in this instance is that the provision of electrical appliances without plugs attached could lead to consumers placing themselves at risk from the wrong connection of the plug--a point that my hon. Friend covered in some detail.
The results of surveys of domestic households have not shown up any significant number of poor or incorrectly wired plugs. The important point is that, despite such instances, the evidence shows that a very small number of accidents which involve plugs occur. In the latest year for which home accident surveillance system figures are available--1986--of the total of about 100,000 accidents reported by the twenty participating hospitals, only about 82 are identified in which plugs or adaptors were specifically involved.
The general injury record has to be seen in the light of the growing number of electrical appliances used in domestic households over the past ten years and the consequent demand for plugs. The plug manufacturing industry acknowledges some growth in output over the period and estimates that, in the past year alone, approximately 50 million to 60 million plugs were manufactured. In addition, there is a large net import of a further 10 million to 15 million plugs. Twelve million of
Column 1274those were fitted to appliances before sale, leaving a balance of nearly 60 million plugs of the re-wirable type coming new on to the market.
A proportion of the total would be for industrial use, but there is no escaping the fact that of this large number of plugs, a substantial number must be connected to their appliances by domestic customers--and that only represents the plugs added in the year. I would hesitate to estimate the number actually in use and the number that have been switched from one appliance to another in the year, but given these vast numbers compared to the number of related injuries, it is difficult to conclude that the process of connecting a plug needs a code of practice to ensure its safety- -in spite of my hon. Friend's figures. None the less, we are not complacent and want to continue to strive to improve the situation. But I must stress that the intrinsic safety of electrical products and particularly the aspects concerned with wiring the plugs are not a major source of concern compared with other hazards to users.
My hon. Friend asserted that this matter was a cause of major concern among housewives, but produced no evidence to support his assertion. It is not unreasonable to say that, in a matter as important as this, assertion is not enough--evidence is required. This leads on to the issue of whether other factors may already be beginning to contribute to an overall improvement in safety in this area. My hon. Friend generously acknowledged the introduction of the Plugs and Sockets Etc. (Safety) Regulations 1987. We would claim that they effectively cleared the market of unsafe and poorly constructed plugs, certainly those of new purchase, which in the past have been considered to be a contributory factor in a number of accidents. In addition, harmonisation of product safety in Europe has also led to technical developments which do not rely on the earth connection to provide protection against electric shock. Inadvertent contact between the earth and the live connection in the plug has featured frequently in accidents of this type. The most notable feature is that the flexible cord that connects the appliance to the supply has only two cores instead of three, so there is less potential for miswiring the plug. The use of non- metallic or plastic enclosures has has also provided more protection.
Finally, a substantial and growing number of consumer products is available on the market place with plugs fitted, if consumers wish to make that choice of product. It is true that most of these products tend to be at the higher cost end of the market, but the impetus is there to encourage this development towards the lower end. I shall return to that in a moment.
Apart from the safety aspects, the universal adoption of fitted or moulded on plugs for electrical appliances and goods would have adverse economic implications for some consumers. My hon. Friend touched on this. The most significantly disadvantaged group would be consumers whose mains electrical system is still on the old round pin standard. Here there is slight dissent between myself and my hon. Friend. I stick to the estimate of 5 to 10 per cent. of households. My hon. Friend produced new figures which we will want to consider in order to check which are more reliable.
My hon. Friend might concede that, even if the figure were as low as 3.5 per cent., that would still leave a large number of households with round pin plugs. Those would tend to be older houses, probably with occupiers in lower income groups. Therefore, we must give special
Column 1275consideration to the hardship which might be caused by the arbitrary introduction of fixed plugs which would not be suitable for round pin sockets. Although we may disagree slightly about the numbers, I still believe that we should pay close attention to the needs of these people, because they might be the most vulnerable if there were to be an arbitrary change.
Other arguments revolve around the inflexibility of the length of lead which might be introduced by my hon. Friend's proposals. It is noticeable that we are talking about the more expensive products, where the cost represents a smaller proportion of the total cost. That may be accompanied by a marketing promotion effort. The relative cost burden of my hon. Friend's proposal on the less expensive appliances would be even greater. Again, we must take that very much into consideration. The fact that consumers are perhaps more conscious of cost than convenience in that segment of the market and that the manufacturers' response to market behaviour is to provide what the consumer wants--a cheaper product with no attached plug--should also be borne in mind.
As I mentioned earlier, there are signs that manufacturing industry is moving in the direction of
Column 1276attaching plugs where it feels that there is a consumer demand that it can meet. That is very much in tune with what my Department and the Government feel should take place. I recognise that some sectors of the appliance industry will believe that they would be at a competitive disadvantage without the support of some kind of mandatory prescription. I do not consider that a mandatory approach would be justified at this stage, but this does not exclude the possibility of exploring other methods by which industry might, in collaboration with the distribution or retail sector, provide such a service to meet public demand. I am sure that the industry will take note of the points my hon. Friend has made in the debate. I hope that the debate will allow further consideration to be given not just by the House but by the industry to the points which my hon. Friend has made and to the points which I have made in reply in the hope that there will be a voluntary move, not involving compulsion, towards a solution which will help consumers and the industry alike. Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at six minutes before Twelve o'clock.
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