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12 Mar 2008 : Column 95WH—continued

11.19 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Ivan Lewis): It is always a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I will not make the mistake of naming the leader of any political party—if the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) had simply said “the great leader”, she would have avoided the need for Mr. Bercow to intervene.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I am sure that there is tremendous consensus from all parties on the points that she has made about the impact of dry macular degeneration on the quality of people’s lives. There is no doubt that we owe those who suffer from macular degeneration the best and that, too often, the system in some parts of the country does not respond to the challenges faced.

I will try to address the issues raised by the hon. Lady. My only gentle disagreement with her is that, although the Conservative party consistently talks about the importance of decentralisation and the local devolution of accountability and responsibility—both in terms of the management of public services and clinicians on the front line—Conservative Members come to the House and demand ministerial intervention from offices in Westminster and Whitehall. I gently say to her that to have that vision and view of how public services should operate nationally and then to give a slightly different impression to constituents is perhaps usual during parliamentary and constituency duties, but it is not entirely acceptable.

I accept that people such as Mr. Nutty deserve better and that they do a tremendous job in bringing together people who have similar difficulties. As well as medical intervention and the health service fulfilling its responsibilities, I believe in people who have similar challenges and conditions coming together to support one another and press public services. That is a very powerful way to achieve improvements and changes to public services. For example, you, Mr. Bercow, have been heavily involved in raising in the House the profile of the needs of disabled children and their families. As a consequence of the pressure from parents and families who are supported by parliamentarians, we have a much more progressive and advanced approach to meeting the needs of those families. The concept of mutual support and of people who use public services applying pressure to improve standards and quality is incredibly important.

The hon. Lady asked about community equipment services. Last year, we recognised that community equipment services in most parts of the country are not working well—they are not efficient and they do not give people speedy access to the equipment that they need. We believe that, if the systems that underpin the provision of community equipment are reorganised, available resources will be used more effectively and people will have speedier access to equipment. That is why we have started reforming the provision of community equipment and, in certain areas, have trialled a new model, called the retail model, which essentially attempts to simplify the whole process—from assessment to receiving community equipment. In the next few months, we
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hope to roll out that model throughout the country. The difficulty is that to impose a one-size-fits-all system on every local authority is simply not within our gift, so we have trialled best practice in simplifying the process—from assessment to delivering the equipment that people need. We believe that we have identified a model that does that. I would have hoped that the hon. Lady had asked the local authority—the local NHS—in her locality whether it intends to apply the principles of the retail community equipment model, so that people such as Mr. Nutty and those in a similar position with dry macular degeneration have access to the equipment that they need.

There is also a resource issue, and the hon. Lady asked all sorts of questions about the way in which NHS resources are deployed. The vast bulk of NHS resources have been deployed to create a situation in which waiting times and lists are at a record low. Some 90 per cent. of people who actually use the NHS, rather than simply reading about it, say that they have a high level of satisfaction with the service that they have received. There are more doctors and nurses than ever before. Advances have been made in the NHS, and the hon. Lady should therefore have been a little more balanced in her presentation. On her point about the use of resources, it is important to reform and reorganise the system to deal with the issue of community equipment and to make the best use of resources.

Anne Main: I accept that there must be prioritisation in the use of resources; as the Minister says, decisions have to be made. May I ask for his view on whether CCTVs should be made available?

Mr. Lewis: We cannot have the following approach to the NHS: make the money available, allow local primary care trusts to make the right commissioning decisions based on their population needs and on non-negotiable national priorities, as well as allowing them to make the decisions about the needs of their local populations, and then stand up in the House and issue diktats on certain types of equipment. Having studied the new approach to community equipment, I really believe that, if local authorities and primary care trusts in every part of the country adopted the new model, it would free up considerable resources. I assume that those resources could then be used to purchase the equipment that people require for their individual needs. I am not a clinician, and although it would make me incredibly popular to make sweeping statements that every individual should have access to a particular type of equipment, I am not sure that it is appropriate for a Minister to make those kind of commitments.

If the quality of life of someone with dry macular degeneration would be clearly and considerably enhanced and improved as a consequence of having access to a certain piece of equipment, the local NHS should do everything possible to make that equipment available. However, I do not run every local primary care trust or local authority. We have to accept that we ask people in those organisations—leaders, managers and commissioners—to make difficult decisions.

Anne Main: I would just like a little clarity. The Minister says that, if the equipment would make people’s lives better, the local NHS trusts should make it available, but how does the funding work in relation to social services and providing the equipment?

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John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. I inform the Minister that less than two and a half minutes remain.

Mr. Lewis: The issue is about assessing each individual’s needs and considering what would make the most difference to enhancing that person’s quality of life—in this case, a person’s ability to live independently and have as full a life as possible. Obviously, if the determination is that a particular piece of equipment is required, the people making the decision have to consider the available resources and make the right decision.

Part of getting the best use of resources is having a far more joined-up approach between the local NHS and the local authority. I urge the hon. Lady to ask the local authority and the primary care trusts in her local community some hard questions not only about their processes, practices and policies as independent organisations, but about how they propose to have an integrated approach to meeting the needs of a whole range of groups—in this context, people with dry macular degeneration. She should challenge local commissioners in the local authority and primary care trust. Instead of asking Ministers in Westminster and Whitehall to issue central diktats, she should use her influence and her passion on this issue to ask fundamental questions of her local authority and primary care trust.

The hon. Lady obviously genuinely cares about the matter and has spent a lot of time with people who have articulated the difference that could be made to their quality of life. To support that, the Government have instituted a radical reform of the way in which community equipment is provided, and I hope that that will lead to change not just in a few local authorities and primary care trusts, but throughout the country. I believe that people with dry macular degeneration deserve the best possible support and the best quality of life. It is clear what we expect of local PCTs and authorities in the commissioning and provision of equipment.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Four o’clock.

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Window Blinds

4 pm

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): It is good to have you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow. To save your blushes, I shall not go to the lengths that two of my colleagues went to yesterday in welcoming you to the Chair.

Today there has been an important piece of business in the House. This debate might lack the grandeur of the Budget, but in some people’s eyes it is much more important. Budgets are important, but they are not a matter of life and death. This issue is a matter of life and death to some people following the debate, although others might think it trivial and see looped blind cords as just another household object that they might not even notice.

It is commonly accepted that the household is one of the most dangerous places, and is where the vast majority of accidents occur. When one thinks of household accidents, one thinks of people falling down stairs, being scalded with water or slipping in the bath, but looped blind cords are also a danger. For those who do not know what they are, and perhaps imagine them to be more grandiose than the words suggest, let me explain. They are the cords used to raise, lower or tilt window blinds, and they are usually looped. Some blinds have separate cord designs, but many people are reluctant to use them as they can lead to confusion when operating blinds. Also, separate cords can be tied into a loop, thereby causing the same danger as looped blind cords.

The real issue is not ease of use, but the threat that looped blind cords can pose to young and vulnerable people. A chilling statistic is the estimate that 20 children in the United Kingdom have lost their lives in the past 10 years because of looped blind cords. I confess that I had never considered the dangers of looped blind cords before, and I am sure that that is true of many. When I discussed the issue with my wife, she told me that when my children, who are now adults, were tiny, she tied up the blind cords because she was aware of the inherent danger that they posed. Perhaps that shows how strong a mother’s instincts can be.

The issue has been forcefully highlighted in my constituency by the tragic death of two-year-old toddler Muireann McLaughlin, who died on 5 February this year when she became tangled in a window blind cord in her bedroom. The statistics show that that incident was by no means isolated. In 2004, another toddler lost his life when he became tangled in a window blind cord in Dalgety bay, in Fife, which is only 25 miles from where Muireann lost her life. Last year, a 10-year-old from Uddingston, Lanarkshire, died in the same manner. Families and communities have been rocked by those tragedies.

I pay tribute to the Alloa Advertiser newspaper, in my constituency, which is running a local campaign and has launched a petition to ban looped blind cords. The petition has more than 2,000 signatures and is growing by the hour. The other day, I read some of the comments on this issue, and saw that there is support in all parts of the UK for a ban, and even international support in the United States, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Norway and New Zealand. Scottish councils are also signing up and supporting the campaign.

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Many of us will be able to cast our minds back to when our children were young and we looked around our homes for dangers. The stairs, cooker, kettle and cleaning materials are obvious dangers to keep away from young children, but it can be only luck that incidents have been avoided by millions of families. Tragically, families such as those in my constituency have had their children taken from them far too soon. I have spoken to Muireann’s grandfather, and I do not imagine that anyone can understand the hurt and devastation that the family is feeling. It must be difficult for them to come forward at this time, but they have issued a call to the industry and the Government to tackle this issue. It is sad that tragedies such as Muireann’s case in Menstrie have to occur before we take up such issues and call for a ban. I hope that the Minister and the Government will listen to those calls and will give a commitment here, today, that they will begin the process of banning looped blind cords.

I am not an MP who likes to ban things just for the sake and the fun of it, and I have heard from some quarters that such a ban would be another example of the nanny state, but I cannot accept that argument, as it is surely the first duty of a Government to protect their citizens. Are we living up to that responsibility if, on average, two children a year in the UK lose their lives because of a design factor? That is an unacceptable figure, and we must do more—or, more accurately, we must do something.

We in the UK have fallen behind: both the US and Australia have banned looped blind cords, the former more than 10 years ago. A ban in this country is long overdue, and I have been pursuing Baroness Morgan, who has responsibility for the British Standards Institution, for a meeting. Unfortunately, I have yet to receive a reply from her, but I am glad that my colleague the Minister is here to respond to the debate. I firmly believe that the best way to address the issue is to create a new British standard for the blind industry that removes looped cords. However, I will stand corrected if my hon. Friend feels that there is a better way of effecting change.

I have mentioned the US, and it might be useful to give some background to what happened there in the hope that it will be replicated here. A study by the USA’s Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that the total number of window cord strangulations in the US between 1981 and 1995 was 359—nearly one child a fortnight. In 2002, the campaign group, Parents for Window Blind Safety, was set up, and it still monitors the blind market for possible dangers. It aims to educate the public, support affected families and assist in correcting manufacturing defects. A ban on looped blind cords would not be a silver bullet that would solve all the problems: we need regular monitoring of the industry to ensure that it is as safe as it can be.

No one can eliminate accidents, but we can limit the chance of them occurring. We need to remain vigilant and to strive always for safer products in all walks of life. I looked at the Parents for Window Blind Safety web page when I was writing my speech, and I was very moved by the pictures of the young children, mostly toddlers, who have lost their lives. I thought to myself, “What an absolute waste of life. What might those children have grown into if they had been given the opportunity?” Each child had their own unique story
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and background, but, sadly, the outcome was the same for all of them. If a ban can prevent just one such tragic incident from occurring, it will be worth while.

It is disappointing that the industry has not moved to solve the issue voluntarily, as I have no doubt that it will be aware of what its counterparts are doing in America and Australia. I hope that public awareness of the campaign will encourage the industry to consider the issue, but there will always be manufacturers who try to increase their turnover by using cheaper designs. That is why I believe that a universal UK standard is necessary for the safety of toddlers and to ensure a level playing field in the industry. Surely, there must be a safer way of raising a blind than using a looped cord, and it cannot be beyond the wit of UK design to invent a safer, but effective, method. I hope that we can demonstrate some leadership here today. Families are looking to the Minister to show the will and desire to tackle the issue. I know that Muireann’s family are watching the debate right now, and I hope that what they hear meets their expectations.

On Monday morning, I met the manufacturer of the blinds that were fitted in the McLaughlins’ home. I met a man who was distraught and who blamed himself in the days after the tragedy. He had questions running through his mind for weeks about whether he could have done anything to avoid the tragedy. He did not come up with any answers. This was a man who was following the acceptable standards in the UK. He cannot and should not be blamed. It is the industry as a whole and the British Standards Institution that need to address the issue. When a tragedy occurs, such as the one in Menstrie, there are always people left behind who are gripped by worry and angst. We should spare a thought for them, too.

Change would be a minimal imposition on the industry. Removing looped blind cords will make no difference to the function of the blind. The industry could easily make the transition to protect the young and vulnerable in our society. The solution must be a UK-wide ban on such cords at the point of manufacture and import into the United Kingdom. However, that will still leave millions of such cords in our homes. In a sense, they are a ticking time bomb, and, sadly, there is every chance that they could cause another death, even if we banished them here today. We need to ensure that the dangers are communicated to all corners of the UK in the hope that parents, and those caring for vulnerable people, will at least cut the blind cords now, or replace them with tension snap mechanisms. What guarantee do we have that they will do that? There is none. That is why action is required at a national level to ensure that blind manufacturers are forced to change the design.

Blind manufacturers and installers provide some guidance to point out the risks to new buyers, but is that always the case? Who can answer that question? Do parents always take notice of such guidance? Who can answer that question? Do parents always have the time or the inclination to attach hooks to keep the cords out of reach of tiny hands? We cannot rely on such flimsy guidance and hope that it will be adhered to. We need to act from the top. I have heard some people say that banning these cords will mean little as there are so many other dangers in the household. Although I agree that there are many such dangers, we need to do all that we can to limit them. Looped blind cords serve no specific
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purpose that cannot be designed out and changed easily into another type of mechanism, most importantly into one that is less dangerous. We need to eliminate needless dangers and to remain vigilant.

I said previously that the best way to address the issue is to create a new British standard. The BSI is renowned worldwide, and its kitemark symbol is one that carries a great deal of trust, integrity and respect in society. Its information supply and training is second to none. I have experience of working to British standards in my previous business life before I came to the House. I have no doubt that if the BSI were requested to look into blind cords, it would be thorough and professional in implementing those instructions. The BSI has thousands of certification marks that have saved lives throughout the UK. It is my hope that it will make the blind industry, which seems to have been overlooked in some instances, much safer in future.

The BSI’s motto is, “Raising standards worldwide.” It appears to me that standards worldwide have been raised, but that we need to match them in the UK for all our sakes and to protect families from tragedies, such as the one that occurred in Menstrie in February. I am eager to hear what the Minister has to say on the issue. I want him to be aware that there is an air of expectancy in the country about the words that he will deliver. I hope that we will not be left disappointed. I trust that he will be happy to meet me to discuss the issue at some point in the not-too-distant future.

I also want to thank Muireann’s parents for their actions following their daughter’s tragic death. They donated two of their daughter’s heart valves for transplant, thereby ensuring that other lives will be spared even if their daughter’s could not be. I am heavily involved in a campaign to increase the number of organ donors and to move towards an opt-out system. However, the McLaughlins’ courage should be recognised here today.

Before I sit down, may I urge my colleagues to show their support for this cause by adding their names to my early-day motion 1115, which calls for the designing-out of looped blind cords? It currently has the support of 25 colleagues. It will be a lot easier to sign the early-day motion and support the campaign than to stand here at some point in the future, arguing for further change after yet more tragic deaths. I thank you for your patience, Mr. Bercow, and await, with anticipation, the Minister’s remarks.

4.15 pm

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Ian Pearson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) on securing this Adjournment debate on looped blind cords and on the fair and reasonable way in which he introduced his remarks. I am, of course, aware of the recent tragedy in his constituency that prompted this debate, and I am sure that all hon. Members join me in extending their deepest sympathies to the McLaughlin family, who face such a tragic loss as a result of looped blind cords. The safety of any product is paramount, especially when the consequences of inadequate safety requirements could be tragic.

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