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Gardening Equipment (Safety)

11 am

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South) (Lab): I first thank Mr. Speaker for giving me such an early date for this debate on the safety of gardening equipment and consumer protection. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Would right hon. and hon. Members please leave the Chamber quietly to enable us to continue our debate?

Mr. Donohoe : I see that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), is in his place. I look forward to his contribution and trust that it will be positive. I also recognise that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) is in the Chamber. If he wants to, he can intervene at any point in the debate, because I know that he has a constituency interest in the matter.

By way of background, I shall say something about the gardening industry in the United Kingdom. It may come as a surprise to many people to hear what the industry is worth. It has a turnover of some £5 billion a year, so it is a buoyant and—if hon. Members will pardon the pun—a growing industry, employing some 200,000 people. In addition, 20 million people in Britain regularly participate in gardening. That industry and recreation is enormous and growing by the year; growth looks set to continue for many years to come, as more and more young people become interested in the pastime of gardening. It is therefore highly important to look at the question of consumer protection and the safety of gardening equipment in a different light.

I have said on many occasions that the industry is a sleeping giant that requires a voice, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members can start that process in the Chamber, and show that there is a need to focus attention on safety in gardening. It would be right, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for me to declare an interest: I am the secretary of the all-party group on gardening and horticulture. I am, some say, mad, but I am a keen gardener—so keen that I was out cutting my grass at the weekend, unlike, I would have thought, many other Members—and that gives me first-hand knowledge and information on how urgent the issue is and why focusing attention on consumer protection and safety of gardening equipment must be debated.

The purpose of the debate is to ask the Minister for reconsiderations and suggestions, as well as to look afresh at some of the initiatives that have been taken in his Department. One such initiative was the introduction some years ago of a statistical evaluation of household and gardening safety—known as HASS, which stands for home accident surveillance system. I know many people in the industry who were extremely disappointed when, in May 2003, the Department of Trade and Industry announced that it would no longer collect such statistics, and that that work was being terminated and passed out of the Department. That is, quite simply, wrong. I cannot understand the decision to terminate what was almost the bible of the industry, particularly given the increased activity in gardens across the land.
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I do not like to use a lot of statistics, but sometimes, as in this case, they are important. Let us consider the fact that 1.5 million householders in 2005 will attempt to cut their hedges using a ladder as a work platform, probably with a powered cutter but without acknowledging any safety requirements. I would argue that that is a dangerous practice. The statistics show that at least one person per week is likely to die as a result of falling off a ladder, and urgent action on that is required. If hon. Members consider that 337,000 individuals in one year have attended accident and emergency units because of accidents in the garden, they can understand some of the reasons behind my arguments. The use of powered equipment is growing. If we consider that hedge-trimmer accidents have increased by more than a half in the past five years—that is shown by extrapolating old statistics—we start to see the problem that I am trying to address. I would not argue that we should unnecessarily introduce any level of the nanny state.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Would my hon. Friend describe some of the injuries that can be sustained as a result of such accidents? One that comes to mind is electrocution, but are there other injuries that people can suffer?

Mr. Donohoe : The list is endless; my hon. Friend is right. As he was at the vanguard of the campaign on the issue of high hedges—legislation has now been introduced, which I will touch on later—he is aware of some of the inherent dangers in cutting down high hedges. I know that he secured some debates around the subject.

In 1996, the Department of Trade and Industry undertook a garden safety campaign and produced a leaflet on the question. It was a fantastic leaflet, embracing all the hazards that one could find in the garden. My hon. Friend has already asked where else there would be accidents. As well as step ladders, there are all sorts of new electrical tools, while barbecues take place in almost every garden in the summer. There are swings in gardens, and fences—the list goes on and on.

I ask the Minister at the very least to have his Department consider reinstating the leaflet and putting it in all garden centres. To back that up, it is also important for the home accident surveillance system statistics to be reinstated. Instead of being reactive, the Department should become proactive on the subject of garden safety. There is no doubt that there is a need to protect the public. The DTI is responsible for public safety, but it does not seem to demonstrate itself. The data that we had, which were useful in the Department and even more useful outside, would be used by many in the industry. They highlighted some of the dangers in the garden, but the focus of that has been lost. What we are getting is a growing number of people in danger.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe) : I want to clarify the position on the HASS statistics. They have not ended, in the sense that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents is now taking over the responsibility. That is in light of work carried out in the Department of Health.
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I will mention that more in my speech, but I did not want my hon. Friend to run away with the idea that the statistics are no longer available. They are available, but not through the DTI.

Mr. Donohoe : But sometimes if we pass on information such as that, it tends to get clouded and lost. It is that aspect that we need to address, and that I ask the Minister to address. There does not seem to be a proactive approach.

The use of ladders in gardens will inevitably increase. I mentioned the legislation on high hedges that will be introduced in the autumn; such hedges mean that the use of ladders—a dangerous practice—will become more likely. If people prop up a ladder against a hedge, pick up a hedge trimmer that needs two hands to operate, balance on the ladder, and then lean back to cut, that is an illustration of all the things that are wrong and that need to be addressed. It is crazy for people to do that.

I believe that the Minister was involved in industry, as I was. I started as an apprentice in 1965 in a shipyard and was educated about the need to wear a hard hat and gloves, and tight clothing. All of that was drummed into people. Increasingly, however, young people have never been in that sort of environment. In the 1960s and 1970s the people who gardened may have been from the shipyards, the dockyards, the mines and the factories, but we are now dealing with a public who, for the most part, had never had a tool in their hands before they started gardening. Moreover, they have had no instruction in how to use such tools; no one takes them on courses. It is that fact, more than anything, that leads me to suggest that tighter regulation should be introduced and applied. I do not want restrictions to be placed unnecessarily on the individual. However, for common-sense reasons, we must examine the industry and its practices, as well as the householder who uses the equipment. Change is required, but the whole issue must be addressed.

In conclusion, I will make a few pleas and ask a specific question. There should be an obligation on the DTI and the Government to ensure greater protection of consumers in this area. I ask for a reinstatement of the Government use of the HASS statistics and an assurance that the statistics are to hand in-house. I would like the garden safety leaflet, which was issued so successfully in 1996, to be reissued, and I would like the Department to take a more proactive stance on the whole issue of garden safety.

11.13 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) on securing the debate, and welcome the fact that he has brought this matter forward. It is an important issue, and he eloquently made clear the effect on our constituents. As the Minister responsible for consumer affairs, I am greatly interested in the points that he raises. I may not today be able to give him all that he seeks in relation to the issue of garden safety, but I will certainly take away and consider many of the things that he asked me to do.

We should reflect on my hon. Friend's important airing of this issue in the context of his involvement in gardening throughout his time as a parliamentarian.
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Hon. Members will know that gardening is a subject that is close to his heart. He helped to ensure that the BBC's "Gardeners' Question Time" was broadcast from the House of Commons Terrace and, in 1997, he named a new variety of rose after the then Speaker, Betty Boothroyd. He is also, as he said, the secretary of the all-party group on gardening and horticulture. I recognise the good work that he does to foster better communication between the industry, Parliament and our constituents. He was right to point out the effect of the industry—it adds £5 billion to the economy—and the employment opportunities that it creates.

The timing of the debate is appropriate. As we move towards the end of February, many people's thoughts inevitably turn away from winter, when we are more inclined to survey our gardens from the comfort of our own homes, and towards the warmth of spring, which is a time for preparation and sowing—and ultimately to summer, when we can enjoy the fruits of our work. Already, here in London, we can see the first shoots of green that will, in a short time, become bright yellow daffodils. As nature refreshes its own palate, the gardeners among us look forward to the next project in our everlasting quest for the perfectly manicured lawn, the neatly coiffured hedge and the reddest roses—although, as I represent a Yorkshire constituency, perhaps that should be the whitest rose.

As my hon. Friend said, the garden is a place to be enjoyed, a place to leave behind the stresses of day-to-day life and, given the time, a place to snooze with the Sunday newspapers—not that my hon. Friend would do that. As he said, the lawn does not cut itself, the hedge does not get trimmed by looking at it and the roses need regular tending. Regular maintenance is not seen as a chore by the gardener, but as part of a relaxation process. With common sense, all those jobs can be undertaken swiftly and safely by the enthusiastic amateur, and a whole industry has grown up, as my hon. Friend said, around the activity to supply the right tools, the hardiest and most beautiful plants and any manner of garden accessory that it is within the capability of man to design.

Despite the idyllic picture, it is sadly a fact, as my hon. Friend says, that accidents in the garden can and do happen. Based on the most recent available figures from the home accident surveillance system data, it is estimated there were about 2.7 million accidents in homes in the UK in 2002, some 300,000 of which occurred in the garden. Approximately half of those accidents involved people aged between 15 and 64 and about a third involved children aged up to and including 14 years old. By cause, the highest proportion of accidents—about two fifths—involved slips, trips and other falls. About one quarter of injuries in the garden occurred as a result of being struck by a moving or other object, and three in 20 resulted from pinches, crushes, cuts, tears or punctures.

As I know that my hon. Friend is particularly interested in ladder safety, let me record that the proportion of garden accidents resulting from falls from ladders was minimal at around only 2 per cent., or approximately 6,000 accidents, which in the context of a population of 60 million is one person in every 10,000. However, I am aware of the horrendous cases that have come before us regarding how people use ladders and it is right that my hon. Friend raises that issue with us.
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Generally, it is estimated that about 15 per cent. of all garden accidents—44,000 in total—involve the use of garden tools or equipment, and high on the list were lawnmowers, strimmers, hedge trimmers, spades, shovels and forks, secateurs, shears and even the humble flowerpot. Detailed research undertaken in 1996 showed that few accidents involved the use of garden chemicals. It is estimated that in 2002 poisoning and the effects of chemicals accounted for just over 1.5 per cent. of all home accidents.

It is easy to get carried away with such statistics. The fact that HASS recorded injuries from hedge trimmers and flowerpots in the same categories shows the enormously wide range of accidents that can occur, from the potentially dangerous to the not very serious. Raw numbers do not tell the whole story. Some of the accidents in the statistics reflect the fact that children at play will and do fall over and bang into things, and that will continue regardless of the precautions that are taken by the most safety conscious parents.

Some accidents in the garden, as in all walks of life, are avoidable and stem from the adoption of poor behaviours and bad practices. Garden accidents are thankfully mainly minor, with the most serious generally being fractures sustained during a fall. However, there is no doubt that the greater use of gloves would avoid some of the cuts and abrasions and other injuries, as would protective footwear.

The nature of a small number of garden fatalities, which are predominantly among young adults, varies from year to year. Many of those result from the use of accelerants on bonfires and barbecues, but some involve tragic child-drowning accidents in garden ponds and pools. My hon. Friend is right to raise such issues from the aspect of consumer protection and it is in that vein that I will be considering the many things that he raised with me.

My hon. Friend wrote to me last year, enclosing a letter from Mr. Kitching of Haygate Engineering Co. Ltd, manufacturer of the Henchman range of access platforms, who expressed concern about a fatal gardening accident that was reported in the Daily Mail on 5 August; that was a particularly horrific accident involving a chainsaw and a ladder. A man with a chainsaw still running fell from a ladder on to his wife who sadly died of her injuries.

Mr. Kitching has also been in direct contact with the Department about advertising for ladder safety devices that shows ladders being used in the garden to gain access to the top of hedges for the purpose of pruning them with two-handed power cutters, which he maintains is an unsafe practice. Like my hon. Friend, he argues that the Department should reissue the guidance and notes that it previously published on the safe use of ladders and stepladders.

I have personal experience of cutting the hedge with a power tool while on a ladder. Had it not been for the safety circuit breaker, I might not be here to respond to my hon. Friend. Clearly, I am concerned about how accidents can occur in the simplest of situations. The message in the 1996 basic safety guide remains the same, and the "Ladder User's Handbook" and its companion "Stepladder User's Guide" are both still available on the
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Department of Trade and Industry website. Again, I shall consider what my hon. Friend has asked me to do in respect of that.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I am the MP for Mr. Kitching, to whom the Minister referred. The Minister says that the information is available on the website, but the proposition put to him by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) was that the leaflets should be available in the stores that sell the equipment. Will he consider that option?

Mr. Sutcliffe : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. I shall come on to the role of producers, shops and so on. He is right—that route should be considered, and every product should be sold with safety advice on how to use it.

Mr. Donohoe : This morning, I took the opportunity to go on to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents site. I spent a good half hour looking for the information and statistics but have still to find them. I was able to get them dead simply on the DTI website, but it is almost impossible on ROSPA's site.

Mr. Sutcliffe : I am sorry to hear that. The decision to move the HASS statistics was based on a resource issue when the Department of Health was producing statistics about hospital and doctor visits. Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents wanted to take on HASS. In the spirit of my hon. Friend's request, I shall investigate further and find out what the problem is.

I hope that I, as the Minister with responsibility for consumers, and the all-party group on gardening and horticulture will develop a relationship and deal with some of these issues in a practical way that helps consumers and the industry. I agree with my hon. Friend that we do not want to issue regulations that burden and restrict the industry, that stop people enjoying their gardening or that prevent products that people want to use from being introduced. I know that he wants to strike a balance.

I was talking about the handbooks that are available on the DTI website, which I am sure my hon. Friend will access straight after the debate. As I said, they were not designed to deal with every specific use of ladders but are general guides that bring together expert advice on choosing and using ladders and stepladders. They aim to lessen the risks to individuals from ladders and other products in the marketplace—for instance, the other options that were available to the constituent who had the nasty accident.

In particular, the guides set out the importance of choosing a ladder that is the correct height and strong enough for the task being undertaken. They point to the benefit of leaving one hand free to hold on while working, and to the dangers of over reaching, to which I referred earlier. The guides also focus on the importance of proper setting up to ensure that the ladder or stepladder is in the correct position and that it is secured, generally by tying it to a stable fixed object. They are a useful tool for the public, and we must ensure that there is maximum awareness of the issues.
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Several guides that cover safety in the garden more generally are available on the DTI website. "Guide to DIY Safety" and "Painless DIY" are two publications that offer helpful advice on, for example, the use of residual current devices that will protect the user—me, for instance—from an electric shock in the event of accidentally cutting through a trailing electric lead with a lawnmower or other cutters. There is further guidance on ladder safety and on the use of chainsaws, hedge trimmers, shredders and brush cutters, and there are pages on "Gardening without Tears". "Sowing the Seeds of Safety" identifies 10 tips for keeping children safe in the garden, and our garden safety guidance offers more hints and tips, in particular on the safety benefits of keeping the garden tidy, putting tools away after use, locking the garden shed and maintaining pathways, and on the risks associated with barbecues, bonfires, ponds and paddling pools—all of which people would want to use but which can be dangerous if not used properly.

In this area where ultimately guidance and the Government can go only so far—safe behaviour cannot be learned from a quick flick through a leaflet—common sense has to come into play. Guidance helps us, as do safety instructions provided with the tool or ladder, but we cannot pretend that the DTI issuing leaflets will lead to an end to accidents in the garden or in the home. It will not. We must accept that only through changed behaviours and the responsible use of equipment are we likely to see a reduction in avoidable accidents.

We must ensure that consumers have rights and that they are protected. We also need to ensure that consumers understand that they have responsibilities too. However, I accept that some gardening accidents may result from products that are inherently unsafe. All consumer products placed on the market are required by the General Product Safety Regulations 1994 to be safe in normal or reasonably foreseeable conditions of use in keeping with the characteristics of the product. The regulations also require that warnings are provided where the risks that the product presents are not obvious.

Enforcement authorities, which are usually local authority trading standards departments, can act to suspend unsafe products from the market and prosecute the producer or distributor for the breach of the general safety requirement. We are currently consulting on revised regulations that implement the 2001 EC directive on general product safety. One of the main changes is that in future the authorities will, as a last resort, be able to order the recall of dangerous products from consumers. In future when any product, such as a tool, that is designed for professional use comes on to the general consumer market, its safety in a consumer's hands will be judged against the General Product Safety Regulations.

That covers the point that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) raised that producers of tools should be more aware of the information that consumers need. The DIY leaflets at B&Q, for example, show how to deal with a tool in a particular circumstance. I suppose that we should try to move towards safety leaflets being available alongside tools that are for sale in such outlets. That is where the development of consumer protection will move forward. My hon. Friend may be aware of Consumer
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Direct, which is a telephone hotline. I attended the opening of its call centre on the island of Lewis. People can ring for advice about products, product safety and consumer rights.

There are already moves in the DTI to highlight the issue of safe products and consumer safety. That reflects the changing role of the DTI. I do not want to score any political points or to make this matter partisan, but other parties want to end the DTI. That would be a bad step for consumers. We have changed the role of the DTI in consumer protection over the past two years. From 1999 to 2002, the Department mounted a major safety campaign, "Slips, Trips and Broken Hips", highlighting the problems of falls, particularly of elderly persons, and worked to raise awareness of the risks and consequences. That work was taken over by Help the Aged, with seedcorn funding from the DTI in 2002. There are also our annual firework safety campaigns.

The spirit in which my hon. Friend has raised the issue will get us to look again at certain matters. I am not sure that the HASS statistics can be reinstated. I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk through the reasons why we did what we did on that and where we believe the figures are available, notwithstanding his comments about the ROSPA website. We will look seriously at the question of the leaflet. There may be resource issues, but there may be other ways of achieving the same end. Again, we will explore what can be done. I agree with my hon. Friend that we have to be proactive rather than reactive.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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