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My hon. Friend suggested that, in the past 10 years, up to 20 children are reported to have lost their lives in the UK as a result of incidents involving looped blind cords. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills does not keep records of child deaths attributable to blind cords, so I cannot confirm whether his figure is correct. However, even one death arising from such an incident must be a cause for considerable public concern.
As my hon. Friend will appreciate, I am relatively new to this subject, but before I address the regulatory position in the UK, I shall say a few words about international comparisons. He talked a great deal about the situation in the United States and Australia. As I understand it, despite heavy campaigning in the US and Australia for the banning of such products, a complete ban did not result in either country. Instead, other means of addressing the problems were found. In the US, a meeting on the subject was held between the Consumer Product Safety Commission, to which he referred, which conducted a study on window cord strangulations, and the Window Covering Safety Council, the membership of which is made up of major US manufacturers, importers and retailers of window coverings.
Following that meeting, the WCSC agreed to eliminate loops from the production of all window cords. As I understand it, the industry reacted to the campaign and moved away from using the looped cord mechanism. The US Government did not need to place a legal prohibition on such products; the CPSC has worked with US businesses to develop a voluntary standard that sets out performance requirements and includes alternative devices and test methods to address strangulation hazards associated with all types of cords on window coverings.
In Australia, the Government issued a product safety order banning the sale of hazardous looped cords to manufacturers, installers, suppliers and retailers in Western Australia and New South Wales. However, as I understand it, looped cords continue to be allowed provided that they are 1.6 m above the base of the blind when lowered or that an alternative safety mechanism is used, such as a tension device. The order also encourages suppliers and manufacturers to provide alternatives to systems that require looped cords. In that case, a hazardous cord appears to be defined as being longer than 1.6 m, and therefore potentially within the reach of children, or without a safety mechanism, if required, such as a tension device.
Both the US and Australian policies have focused on alternative mechanisms that can be used on blinds, rather than on the imposition of a complete ban on looped cord products. They have succeeded in eliminating hazardous looped blind cords using the legal structures in those countries and by working with industry.
My hon. Friend wants to know how that compares with the UKs position. The UK has responded to safety concerns associated with blind cords. As soon as it came to light, in 2004, that the safety and performance requirements of blind cords could be improved, the UK standards committee initiated work to improve them. Through the committee, we have led Europe by putting forward amendments to European standard EN 13120 that are equivalent to the safety requirements in the US standard and in the Australian product safety order. The UK has led the way on this in Europe, and other
EU member states have accepted our proposed amendments to the current standard. It is expected that the revised standard will be ratified in July.
I should like to provide some details about the process, and I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and officials to discuss the matter further. In the UK, looped blind cords are covered under the general product safety regulation, which sets out general safety principles. European standard EN 13120 is the standard that sets out the detailed safety requirements to support the GPSR. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is responsible for the GPSR and has been heavily involved in the development of the standard. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is responsible for sponsorship of the British Standards Institution and for standardisation policy. BSI, as the UKs national standards body, represents the UKs views in Europe.
The CEN, which is the relevant European standards organisation of which BSI is a member, developed the standard that currently sets out the performance and safety requirements for internal window blinds. The performance and safety requirements will have been set by representatives from industry, consumer groups and others with an interest at the European level. In the UK, BSI set up a committee of technical experts, industry and consumer groups and Government officials to provide the UKs input. BSIs role is to facilitate the process and feed the UK position into the European forum. BERR and its officials have been heavily involved in the process and have steered its content.
As I indicated, in 2004, as soon as it was apparent to the Government that the safety requirements of the standard could be improved, the UK committee recommended a revision to EN 13120, and the subsequent amendments to the standard have introduced stronger warning requirements concerning the risk of strangulation to children. They also set requirements for design features or accessories that allow cords to be kept out of reach of children.
Gordon Banks: I fully understand that there are facilities and mechanisms in use today that will keep cords out of the way of tiny hands, but the difficulty is that they are in some way temporary. They are not integral to the blind but fixed to a wall. Something that is screwed to the wall might be taken off when someone is decorating but not put back on when they have finished decorating, therefore raising the possibility of a looped blind cord hanging down. That would result in the blind not being installed correctly to the standard. There are inherent problems with the safety mechanisms that we have today.
Ian Pearson: I appreciate the point that my hon. Friend is making. When the UKs proposed amendments were considered in Europe, they were compared with the US standard and the Australian product safety order to ensure that the European standard was as comprehensive as possible. I invite him to look at the proposed standard. It is being consulted on at present, and perhaps we can meet to discuss whether it is appropriate and proportionate.
My hon. Friend should note that the amendments to the European standard focus on the design of the product and on improving labelling on products. His
contribution to the debate is important, because communicating the potential hazards of looped blind cords that are already in peoples homes is important, and we have various organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents that do just that.
We need to ensure that manufacturers are developing and introducing features that will improve the safety of the product. Additionally, amendments to the standard ensure that manufacturers label their products so that installers are aware of risks and how they may be managed. For example, as my hon. Friend said, blinds that have loop cords should not be near beds, cots or furniture, from where children may easily reach them. To the best of my understanding, the amendments are equivalent to the safety requirements in the US standard and the Australian product safety order.
As I indicated, the amended standard is expected to be ratified in July and will then be adopted in the UK towards the end of the year. The key feature of the process is that it is driven by consensus, which is important, in that it takes account of the views of all the relevant groups, including consumer safety groups.
The then Department of Trade and Industry, now BERR, as the guardian of the GPSR, considered the option of making regulations under section 11 of the Consumer Protection Act 1987 in order to improve the safety of blinds. The aim of the Act is to help to safeguard the consumer from products that do not reach a reasonable level of safety. The Act is important to all those with an interest in the safety of products that are put on to the market. It provides any Secretary of State with the power to introduce safety regulations if that is deemed necessary to protect the health and safety of consumers.
As BERR is the guardian of the GPSR and the policy on product safety, this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. BERR would need to consider the full impact of any proposal to put in place a national regulation, but the normal way in which such things are done is through the GPSR.
Additionally, any proposal to introduce new regulation would be subject to the provisions in directive 98/34/EC, which has put in place a process that European member states must follow so that national technical regulations do not create a barrier to trade. I am sorry to go into so much detail, but it may help to give sufficient information to those who are passionately interested in the issue, as I know people are.
Any proposed new regulation would also need to be considered in the context of whether there is a need to go further than what is provided for in the amended standard. The updated European standard is imminent, and it will support enforcement action taken under the GPSR, so there is no immediately obvious case for introducing specific regulation.
Let me reiterate that the proposed amended standard not only tightens the warning requirements but sets out requirements for safety accessories or design features so that the cords are kept out of reach of children. Therefore, if the design of the blind requires a looped operating mechanism, the revised standard requires manufacturers to introduce means of limiting risks by incorporating them into the design of the product.
Improved public information is, of course, extremely important. The British Blind and Shutter Association, whose members have been part of the process to revise the standard, have been actively promoting the safety of blinds within the UK and will continue to do so. Information has been featured in direct communications to members and in articles in trade journals and general journals such as Household, Home Parent and Parent and Child, but I am sure that there is more that we can do by working with the industry.
In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. It is right that we communicate the potential dangers of looped blind cord mechanisms. I am happy to meet him in conjunction with officials. I hope that he is reassured that the regulations that will be introduced imminently will be a significant improvement, but of course he and I will want to review them to be absolutely satisfied of that fact.
The county of Norfolk has seen substantial economic success over the past decade or so. It has also seen significant population growth and growth in the amount of vehicles driving on its roads. I will return to that in a moment, because it is particularly relevant in respect of the A47, which is Norfolks key east-west trunk road.
Only 25 per cent. of the A47 is dualled and much of its dualling dates back to the 1970s. For example, the Kings Lynn southern bypass, the Swaffham bypass and the Dereham bypass were all built in the 1970s. We are talking about roads that were built nearly 30 years ago. Since then, we have seen the opening of the Norwich ring road, which links with an important part of the A47. Under the last Conservative Administration, the important Tilney-Wisbech stretch of the A47, which is dual carriageway, was opened. More recently, the Thorney bypass was opened. However, roughly 75 per cent. of the A47 is still single carriageway.
I should like to mention the sheer folly of building new bypasses of single carriageway standard, as happened at Narborough and Wisbech. More recently, under this Administration, we saw the absurdity of building the new Hardwick flyover to single carriageway standard.
The impact of busy single carriageway traffic rumbling through villages is significant. Let us consider some of the villages in my constituency on the route of the A47. For example, the communities of Middleton, East Winch and West Bilney are totally cut in half. Children going to school have to cross that road every day, and people going to shops and pubs face exactly the same challenge.
There is no question but that single carriageway roads are substantially more dangerous than dual carriageway roads. On Monday, a lorry turned over on the Acle straight. On Friday last week, there was a fatality on the A47 at Narborough, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) and that road was closed for a substantial period. Of course, when busy single carriageway roads are closed, there have to be diversions. Such diversions are time-consuming and put a huge amount of strain and pressure on local villages. Often, the diversion routes are totally unsuitable. We are talking about some 23,000 vehicles a day being pushed off a busy trunk road on to minor roads.
Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): The accident in my constituency, which my hon. Friend described, illustrated a wider point that we need to deal with in Norfolk. Our trunk roads are unfit and unsafe for the traffic that they carry in the 21st century. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is about time that the Government woke up to the fact that, if Norfolk is going to realise its true economic potential, they must recognise that those roads are of national, not just regional, importance and that proper upgrading and proper funding for them should come from central Government?
Mr. Bellingham: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I will deal with that point in a moment. The Government are forcing ever-larger growth figures for housing on Norfolk, yet they are not supplying the infrastructure that is vital for those growth figures.
I should like to quote Adrian Gunson, the Norfolk county council cabinet member for planning and transportation, who commented last week on the problems and challenges arising due to single carriageway stretches of the A47 carrying large amounts of traffic, and on the cost to the local economy of accidents that happen on those stretches of road:
Quite apart from the loss of life and limb in accidents, any sort of incident in these single carriageway stretches of the A47 has a serious effect on travellers, businesses and surrounding communities. This is happening month after month, year after year. The cost is probably incalculable, yet many of these accidents would not have happened if the road had been dualled.
I should like to deal with the growth figures for Norfolk, in respect of which one should not miss out Cambridgeshire, because the A47 goes through a substantial part of Cambridgeshire as well. Looking at the greater Norwich area, which includes Norwich city council, Broadland district council and South Norfolk district council, the figure for housing increases between 2006 and 2026 is 40,000 dwellings, and some 35,000 more jobs are anticipated. That is a huge number of extra people along an important part of a vital trunk road.
Recently, the go-ahead was given for the construction of Yarmouths east port and outer harbour. That will lead to a substantial amount of extra freight traffic coming on to the A47. In fact, there will be a significant number of extra lorry movements, as freight traffic is concentrated on the new east port at Yarmouth, away from some of the other east coast ports in East Anglia.
The housing requirement for Fenland district council in Cambridgeshire between 2001 and 2024 is another 12,250 homes, with the market town of Wisbech expanding by more than 4,000. In Breckland, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), although a lot of the growth will be concentrated along the A11 corridor, there will be substantial growth in Dereham, Swaffham and Narborough. Again, a lot of extra pressure will be put on the A47.
In my constituency, the housing requirement increase for the borough council of Kings Lynn and West Norfolk between 2001 and 2021 is 12,000 new homes, increasing to 14,400 by 2026. Kings Lynn will be named as a regional transport node. Kings Lynn is, as the Minister will know, a key centre for development and change. Furthermore, the council has submitted a bid for Kings Lynn to become a new growth point. As the Minister will also be aware, we have a major brownfield site scheme, encompassing quite a lot of the old industrial area of South Lynn, which is known as the Nar Ouse millennium community housing project. The Minister will know that a development cap of 450 units has been imposed on that project by the Highways Agency, even though its total potential is 874 housing units. The agency needs to be satisfied that there will be traffic improvements before lifting the cap. Of course, the A47 is vital to that project, because the community is just on the edge of the A47 South Lynn bypass.
We are seeing already a huge amount of overload on single carriageway stretches of the A47. I have done some research into figures on vehicle movements on some of those stretches. Along the Guyhirn to Wisbech B198 stretch of the A47 in Cambridgeshire, there are more than 24,000 daily vehicle movements. I understand that the normal threshold figure for the Government to decide that a dual carriageway should be built is 11,000 vehicles, although I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong. More than 20,000 vehicles a day travel along many stretches of the A47. We need serious action on that stretch of road, the whole way from the A1, west of Peterborough, to Great Yarmouth.
I want to touch on the discussion, which has been somewhat vexed of late, about the trans-European network. The A47 from Yarmouth through to the A1 at Peterborough is part of a strategic trans-European networkthe TENthat links various European cities. However, within the TEN designation, there are also priorities axes that are more likely to receive European TEN-T funding. The A47 is not currently regarded as a priority axis.
I wrote to the Minister a while back to ask why the A47 was not a priority axis and, in particular, why it had not been made a priority axis in the light of the go-ahead for the Yarmouth outer harbour and the figures for extra housing and development that the Government have imposed on Norfolk. The Minister wrote back on 7 February, saying:
I can confirm that the A47 between Great Yarmouth and the A1 near Peterborough remains part of the Trans-European Network (TEN-T) and this status has not been amended.
However, he did not explain why it is not a priority axis. Unless it is a priority axis, it will not attract extra funding from Europe or, possibly, even from the Government. Will he therefore answer that question today? All MPs with Norfolk constituencies regard it as an incredibly important matter.
We need from the Minister and the Government a firm commitment to dual the entire length of the road. We already have some good bypasses that are dual carriageways. If anyone goes along those stretches of dual carriageway, they will see for themselves how much safer they are, but then they will hit a bottleneck of single carriageway. We therefore need a firm commitment from the Minister.
Without making a key list of priorities, I shall note the really bad parts of the road. The Acle straight is very bad. The Blofield to North Burlingham stretch is very bad. The Middleton, East Winch and West Bilney stretch in my constituency is very bad. The North Tuddenham and eastern stretch to the west of Norwich is particularly bad. The Narborough bypass, where the accident that I mentioned took place last Friday, was absurdly and foolishly built as a single carriageway. It is a fast, new and wide stretch of road, but it is a single carriageway, so given the volume of traffic, it is a very dangerous stretch of road. The Great Yarmouth third river crossing was a priority for improvement to dual carriageway standard, as was the A47 going west of Peterborough through to the A1. The A47 is Norfolks key east-west axis, and we really want action on itnot promises or fine words, but a commitment to action.
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