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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 22 March 2016

[Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Faulty Electrical Imports

9.30 am

Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the importation of faulty electrical goods.

May I say what an absolute pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies? I am very pleased to see you in the Chair today, and you may be aware that I am speaking today as the recently elected chair of the all-party parliamentary group on home electrical safety.

Today we take electricity for granted. Unlike gas, it is everywhere; it is in every room in our homes. Electricity created a United Kingdom that was able to shake off the cobwebs of the first industrial revolution. Today, electricity supports the economy, provides jobs, helps British businesses, and is used for practical and recreational purposes in homes across the country. However, I am not here to give a historical lecture on the value of electricity.

As I say, we take electricity for granted. However, in taking it for granted, we often forget its power and perhaps more importantly its danger. This debate is about how we make electricity and its use through electrical products safer in this country. Often, however, safety is being undermined by cheap, poorly constructed, substandard or blatantly counterfeit electrical goods. All our constituents are at risk from electric shock; from a fire in their home that is caused by one of these products; or even from death.

I will focus today on several issues: the importation of counterfeit and substandard products; their sale, which is often via the internet; the safety of legitimate electrical products; and enforcement of the law.

How do we prevent these faulty items from appearing in the marketplace? How do we help to protect British businesses and consumers? A UK charity, Electrical Safety First, which has been of great support to me in preparing for this debate, campaigns to improve awareness of how to use electricity and electrical products safely, and I sincerely commend its efforts in that regard. It has informed me that across the country around 70 deaths each year are caused by electricity, which is more than one death per week. Sadly, these deaths are usually not reported in the media, unlike deaths from gas. Incidents involving gas cause headlines, even though they kill only around 18 people each year. Electrical Safety First has also informed me that each year about 350,000 people suffer some form of electrical accident in their homes. Of course, many of these accidents will be caused by the misuse of electricity, but many others will happen because people have been sold a product that is either substandard or blatantly counterfeit.

Electricity is being exploited by rogue individuals who sell substandard or counterfeit electrical goods to UK consumers. This trend is being fuelled by the internet

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and a lack of monitoring of sales: sales from well-known websites; sales from fake websites that are not based in the UK but appear to be; and sales through fulfilment houses, which are based in the UK.

My interest in this subject began following the tragic case of one of my constituents, Linda Merron, who sadly died as a result of a fire in her home in March 2015. The Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service said that the fire was caused by a faulty electrical product—an electrical air freshener that was bought by Linda through eBay. Linda lost her life because of a small imported electrical item from China that had enormous and tragic consequences for her and her family.

Such a tragedy could quite easily happen to any one of us. Many homes throughout the UK will have electrical products in use that are either substandard or counterfeit. When I talk of a substandard product, I am talking about those products that are poorly designed or constructed, that could even have live parts openly accessible and that could cause a fire. When I speak of counterfeit electrical goods, they are not just almost always substandard but actually mimic a major brand’s products. Often they look identical, including having identical packaging, and consumers are frequently unaware that they are dangerous, both to themselves and to UK businesses, which will lose out because of the trade in fake goods.

Of course, there is legislation that should have ensured that that particular item in Linda’s home was safe to use, and all imported items should comply with that legislation. But are the laws working? Have they kept up with the development of the internet? Are they stopping faulty items from being imported through the major internet shopping sites? I do not believe that they are. I say to the Minister that I am no expert when it comes to the legislation and I am sure that he is not either, because it can get rather technical. However, I understand that the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 1994, which is a mouthful to say, the Plugs and Sockets etc (Safety) Regulations 1994, and the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 exist to ensure the safety of the public and to help to prevent faulty electrical products from circulating in the UK market.

I appreciate the response given to me in July 2015 by the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise when I tabled a written question on the efficacy of the Plugs and Sockets etc (Safety) Regulations 1994 in regulating online trading of electrical products. I was informed that the Government believe that those regulations continue to act as a practical and robust means of keeping both unsafe electrical products and those that do not have a safe means of connection to standard UK power sockets out of the UK market. But how would Linda Merron and all those individuals who buy items online know that? After finding items that are not appropriate for use in the UK, that are substandard, that cause injury or even tragic deaths, I ask: is the legislation robust enough to prevent tragedies such as the death of Linda Merron?

In fact, it is not just substandard and faulty items that are a concern. Counterfeit electrical goods are now big business. They are sold openly online, often through sites such as Amazon, Marketplace, eBay and Ali Baba, a site I recently discovered that sells job lots of items to UK-based buyers, who then sell them on.

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Electrical Safety First published its report into the increase of counterfeit electrical goods, “A shocking rip off”, in November last year, just before the main season for buying electricals online—what we now commonly call Black Friday or Cyber Monday. The Minister will know that counterfeit electrical goods present a threat to the consumer, undermine UK business and legitimate manufacturers, and can be very dangerous, posing a risk of causing fire or serious electric shock—even electrocution. I agree with the report’s view that it has never been easier for counterfeit electrical products to enter the UK marketplace.

We need to recognise that the internet is fuelling the growth in the sale of faulty items, with sellers appearing, then disappearing, in quick succession. Also, legitimate sales websites, such as Amazon, Marketplace and eBay, are falling foul of these unscrupulous sellers, as are Facebook and other social media channels. Faulty items are being sold openly.

I am not suggesting to the Minister that the Government should regulate the internet—certainly not—but those companies that facilitate these sales must do more to prevent dangerous, substandard and counterfeit electrical goods from being sold in the first place. They know who the sellers are—they are their own customers—but what are they doing to stem the flow? More than £90 million is now spent on counterfeit and substandard products each year, and in 2013-14 customs officials detained 21,000 consignments of fake goods at UK borders.

That is all part of the huge increase in the number of counterfeit, substandard or faulty products being imported into the UK. Over the last three years, there has been an increase in the use of social media to advertise these products. According to Electrical Safety First, a quarter of people interviewed said that they had seen fake products being openly advertised on social media websites. Furthermore, 24% had knowingly bought a counterfeit product and 21% had done so to save money.

Those activities are damaging British businesses and costing jobs, and big brands—some of the most popular of which are NutriBullet, BaByliss, ghd, Dyson and Apple—are suffering from the might of the counterfeiters. Electrical Safety First mentions in its report that it obtained a fake NutriBullet through eBay as part of its research. When a locked rotor test—a test that simulates something such as nuts or a mass of ice jamming in the blender—was carried out, the fake appliance caught fire. That potentially would have caused a fire in someone’s kitchen.

Hair straighteners are commonly counterfeited, with a number of the premier brands, particularly ghd, faked. A genuine item usually retails for £100, but counterfeits are on sale on market stalls and on the internet for between £30 and £70. I have seen the packaging, and can testify to the fact that fake ghds are packaged so well that it is very difficult to tell the difference between counterfeit and genuine.

Fake Apple products are probably the most popular of the counterfeits entering the UK, chargers in particular. I am certain that most hon. Members, probably unknowingly, have in their possession a counterfeit Apple charger, and I put my hands up and say, “I know that I have”. According to Electrical Safety First, those were the items that were shown to be most dangerous

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during testing. I am told that a genuine charger contains more than 60 individual components, while a counterfeit has at best 25, and some have as few as 19. The charger casings are also a cause for concern, as they are often only clipped together and not properly sealed, meaning that the user can access live parts and that moisture can enter the product. During testing, the products also had a greater probability of heating up and catching fire. The plastic used in counterfeits is often not the polycarbonate used in the genuine article but an acrylonitrile butadiene styrene—ABS—polymer, which is less resilient and has no fire retardant properties. The London fire brigade reports that the material gives off a thick, toxic smoke when burning, which poses additional hazards.

Therefore, is the legislation robust? Has it kept up with sales over the internet? I do not believe it has. I hope that the Minister will consider working with the all-party parliamentary group on how we all can not just raise awareness with our constituents but come forward with a strategy to tackle the issues, working with the likes of eBay and Amazon to prevent the sale of the items. Clearly, it is not possible for the average consumer to tell the difference between a genuine and a counterfeit article. Consumers do not have X-ray machines to tell them what components are inside—although, worryingly, I understand that you can buy an X-ray machine from Alibaba. That is how ridiculous the situation with online sales has become.

Of course, trading standards, prevention and enforcement are a big part of the solution. City and County of Swansea Council, with which I have spoken at length, has had its own difficulties with fulfilment houses that operate locally and sell on substandard and counterfeit goods but, given the funding cuts, it now has to prioritise the most dangerous articles to remove them from sale. It was only at Christmas that we saw the significant problems of house fires caused by substandard hoverboards imported into the UK—my assistant fell off one and broke her wrist. That is why we need experts working at ports and at airports such as Heathrow, where much of the mail with items bought on the internet enters the country.

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise helpfully replied to me on 13 July last year, through a written answer, when I asked what steps the Government were taking to prevent counterfeit electrical products from being sold in the UK, to protect customers from electrical accidents:

“In February this year the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills pledged an extra £400,000 to help trading standards officers prevent dangerous goods being sold in the UK, and this includes £182,000 for its ports and borders project which is improving surveillance”.

That is welcome, but is the level of funding really enough? Can the Minister confirm whether the Secretary of State intends to extend the funding, given the cost to UK businesses if the goods enter the market? Trading standards are essential, including on the frontline at ports, but what about online? Is the Minister able to explain what support the Government are providing to officers for enforcement regarding the internet? What help can the Department give to trading standards to assist them in working closer with the likes of Amazon and eBay and to do more to remove offending electrical items that either are not compliant or are fake? How does he intend to tackle the scourge of fulfilment houses?

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I appreciate that the Department has recently carried out a review of trading standards, but I believe that more needs to be done, with investment in officers who can look online, and work with the likes of eBay and Amazon to prevent the items from being sold in the first place. Perhaps the Minister can outline specifically what the review considers. If knives, pornography and other dubious articles are not allowed to be sold on the websites, the same should apply to substandard electrical goods that can kill.

I am mindful that the debate is about the importation of faulty electrical products. It is a great sadness that many appliances that used to be made in the UK are now made overseas. That manufacturing provided significant employment for our constituents, particularly in Wales—I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) will touch upon that in his contribution. I am certain that when the goods were produced here they gave local people skills and jobs, and they benefited both the local community and the companies that were making the components in the United Kingdom, not in countries such as China. How do we know that the component supply chain is of good quality and, most importantly, is safe?

I note that the Department recently published the Government’s response to Lynn Faulds Wood’s review on product safety, but will the Government’s direction address what Lynn sought to achieve? Lynn has been at the forefront of campaigning on product safety, particularly on electrical goods, since the 1980s when she coined the phrase “potential death trap”. With recent events with Whirlpool tumble-dryer fires and the importation of other faulty electrical products, are the Government seeing the issues as a priority?

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have recently raised concerns on the issue, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) wrote to me as chair of the all-party parliamentary group about her concerns for the safety of her constituents and asked what action was being taken. The Minister knows that Whirlpool has issued a safety notice on some of its tumble dryers, but it is not calling for a product recall. I do not seem to have seen a Government response to the concerns, so can the Minister give us reassurances today about public safety and the recall system in this case? Is it acceptable that consumers will have to wait such a long time for repairs to their imported machines? He will know that the Chartered Trading Standard Institute has said that 11-month waits are unacceptable when the machines are potentially dangerous.

Can we also ask therefore whether manufacturers in the UK—not just Whirlpool—can have absolute confidence that components in these appliances are of sufficient quality? What market surveillance is being done to protect consumers, and what traceability is there of components in appliances that are manufactured abroad but sold in the UK? What comparison is there between recalls of goods manufactured in the UK and recalls of those manufactured elsewhere? Those are a few questions that the Department needs carefully to consider.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): My hon. Friend is opening the debate powerfully. Two years ago, the House was dealing with the Consumer Rights Bill. I tabled amendments and new clauses to the Bill, precisely to

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address the issues of the safety of electrical goods and recalls, which were well supported by the then Member of Parliament for East Lothian. However, the Government tried to say that there was no issue—there was no gap, there was no problem—despite all the figures and all the evidence showing that there was.

Carolyn Harris: I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comments, and I am sure any speech he makes later will reflect his thoughts.

Members of the House can help through the APPG on home electrical safety to find solutions and raise awareness. I am not sure whether the Minister has seen a counterfeit electrical product up close, but I hope he will join the APPG later this year. We have an event planned that will look at examples of counterfeit electrical goods that have been gathered. Perhaps then he will understand better.

In conclusion, the importation of faulty electrical products is an increasing issue, fuelled by the internet. It is costing lives. How many more incidents will happen before action is taken? How will trading standards be able to tackle the issue in an era of increasing change and with cuts to officer posts? I hope the Minister will give reassurance today that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is treating the importation of faulty electrical goods into the UK seriously. Government must have a role to play, even if it is only one of co-ordination. Action is needed now to protect our constituents and businesses in the UK. I hope he intends to outline how he can help us to achieve that.

Several hon. Members rose

Geraint Davies (in the Chair): We have a limited amount of time. Front Benchers will start to contribute at half-past 10, so it would be helpful if Members can try to keep their comments down to around five or six minutes.

9.51 am

Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (SNP): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this important debate. She is the chair of the all-party group on home electrical safety, of which I am also a member.

The importance of the subject cannot be overstated. In my constituency in South Lanarkshire, which is home to the headquarters of the Scottish fire and rescue service, 214 house fires were caused by faulty electrical items in the past five years alone. That accounts for 13% of all accidental house fires during that period. Further south, the London fire brigade estimates that there is, on average, one fire in the capital caused by faulty white goods every day. Faulty and substandard electrical goods pose a real safety hazard. They can overheat, catch fire or cause electric shocks.

The problem of counterfeit electrical goods is becoming more prevalent. Modern technology has changed consumer habits and counterfeit goods have greater and more widespread availability. Research from the charity Electrical Safety First shows that a quarter of people have seen fake products openly advertised on popular social media sites. Thousands of items are now advertised every day

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on such sites, which have fast become counterfeit marketplaces. Perhaps the rise in social media is a key factor in the huge increase in the number of counterfeit and substandard electrical goods coming into the UK. I would like to see the Government working closely with social media websites to counteract the sale of such goods. Trading standards faces increasing digital challenges, and it is only through working with sites acting as digital marketplaces that proper enforcement can take place. There has been a boom in the trade in counterfeit versions of must-have electronics. The number of fake mobile phones seized has risen by more than 50%.

The message that buying counterfeit electrical items is a risk not worth taking does not seem to be getting through. The demand for fake items continues to rise despite the risk to personal safety, which can sometimes prove deadly. Without a more accurate picture of the problem, however, it is difficult to know how it can best be tackled. I hope the Minister will consider conducting an assessment of the number of counterfeit electrical goods being imported into the UK, so that the full extent is laid bare. We need a greater understanding not only of the scale of the problem, but of the trends in popular items and marketplaces. A real strategy needs to be brought forward, and the trading standards review must include consideration of online shopping and the importation of faulty electrical goods into the UK. One thing that the hon. Member for Swansea East did not mention was that many people are now buying retro items online. They are a must-have, but the problem is that we do not know whether such items adhere to electrical safety.

Trading standards has become incredibly localised, and it is time to rethink that and ask how best we can enforce against illegal sales of counterfeit and substandard electrical goods, particularly over the internet. In addition to enforcement, public awareness should be utilised as a key method to combat the trade in such items. We are all no doubt aware of the craze last Christmas for so-called hoverboards, which the hon. Lady mentioned, and the many reported occurrences of fires starting while those devices were charging. Supply chains are increasingly globalised, and when such product crazes with huge demand come around, substandard products can be distributed to consumers much faster than ever before. It is important that consumers are fully aware of the risks posed. The problem with buying fake electrical items is that people do not know what they are going to get. There are records of people being electrocuted and seriously burnt by fake phone chargers.

We need to get the message across that buying counterfeit electrical items is a risk not worth taking, as it could risk a person’s safety or worse, their life. According to research, about 2.6 million adults in the UK say they have knowingly ignored a recall notice. Some 77% of people say they would be more likely to respond if they understood the potential dangers. More work clearly needs to be done to better educate people on the risks, which underlines the need for a modern approach to trading standards to complement the traditional localised model.

I hope that the Minister will respond to some of the points I have raised. In particular, I would like some answers to the following questions. Will he commit to

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conducting an assessment of the number of counterfeit electrical goods being imported into the UK? That would be the first step towards supporting trading standards in tackling the problem. I also wish to see an undertaking to subsequently bring forward a strategy to deal with the issue. Can he provide more detail on how online sales of counterfeit electrical goods through social media channels are tackled? Do the Government work with the likes of Facebook to counteract such sales? If not, will he commit to looking at that as a priority?

How will the Government ensure that all electrical goods sold to UK consumers, including online, are compliant with British electrical standards, such as the Plugs and Sockets etc. (Safety) Regulations 1994? Will the Government ask the large online auction sites to work with sellers and have a charter mark for safe electrical goods? Will the Minister give an overview of the activities undertaken to raise public awareness of the dangers posed by counterfeit electrical goods? What is being done to foster greater understanding of the risks of electrocution and fire from buying electrical goods that have not been built to a sufficient standard? It is our duty as parliamentarians to highlight the dangers and to do our best to keep our constituents safe. I thank the Minister for listening, and I look forward to his response.

Several hon. Members rose

Geraint Davies (in the Chair): Order. The opening speech was 20 minutes, and I will need to allow about 10 minutes for each of the three spokespersons at the end, so Members have about five minutes each.

9.58 am

Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am pleased to take part in this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing it. As I mentioned before the sitting, I apologise for not being able to stay until the end. I have to attend a Public Bill Committee.

I, too, am a member of the all-party group on home electrical safety, and I come to the debate because of the historical links that my constituency had with electrical appliance manufacturing for many years. I would therefore like to focus my remarks on issues to do with product safety and how the importation of electrical products may be damaging business and undermining consumer confidence in the UK.

In Merthyr Tydfil, we have a proud history in the manufacture of washing machines. The Hoover factory opened in Pentrebach in my constituency in 1948 as part of the Labour Government’s work to ensure manufacturing advances in the UK after the war. Hoover’s major global expansion saw factories making washing machines in Merthyr Tydfil and its famous vacuum cleaners being manufactured in Scotland. Hoover soon became the market leader in the UK because the products were made here to high standards and were not imported.

Hoover’s UK manufacturing in Merthyr Tydfil gave people jobs for life. Many generations of my constituents worked in the factory. In 1973, Hoover’s 25th anniversary in the town, 5,000 people were employed making washing machines, tumble dryers and dishwashers. Perhaps bizarrely, in the 1980s, as the Minister may recall, the Sinclair C5

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vehicle was made in Merthyr Tydfil, although that mode of transport had a quick demise. Manufacturing in the UK had reached its peak, unfortunately. Tragically, it has been allowed to drift away and we now rely on imports.

On 14 March 2009, manufacturing came to an end in Merthyr Tydfil with Hoover’s closure, which meant that 337 people lost their jobs. The site is now virtually empty. The headquarters remain, along with a warehouse facility. Despite the closure and the decision to move production to the far east, Hoover is still revered in Merthyr Tydfil by its former workforce. Appliances were built locally, giving jobs to the local economy and benefiting people’s lives.

I do not want to focus just on Hoover’s decision, as devastating a blow as it was in 2009. Many other manufacturers have decided to send production overseas and now import electrical goods into the UK. How can we be sure of the credibility of the component supply chain to large companies, and how do we ensure proper quality of the finished product and that it is built to last? When production was in Merthyr Tydfil, Hoover benefited from local component manufacturers, which in turn benefited from Hoover. Hoover had greater control over the supply chain and was able to assess whether components were of sufficient quality.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East has already mentioned the issues with tumble dryers that many of our constituents face. Given the wet weather in Wales, many of my constituents rely on tumble dryers, many of them made by Whirlpool, which owns the Hotpoint and Indesit brands. As we know, Whirlpool has issued a safety notice for its large air-venting tumble dryers, owing to a fire risk. The Minister will be aware of the ongoing issues, as the matter was raised in Business, Innovation and Skills questions last week. The manufacturer has advised that the machines should not be left unsupervised. Some 4.3 million machines need to be fixed, so it is clearly an enormous task for the company.

I understand that our constituents will have to wait potentially 11 months or more for appropriate repairs to be made to the faulty imported appliances. How many fires could break out in that time? Can the Minister give us an assurance as to what his Department is doing? Has he, or have his ministerial colleagues, met Whirlpool to discuss the issue?

What is even worse is that the company is trying to sell its customers who contact them with concerns a new tumble dryer for £99 that is also subject to safety concerns. As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East highlighted, the Government tasked Lynn Faulds Wood with reviewing product safety, and the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise said in the Government’s response to that review that she takes the issue very seriously. I am pleased to note that. However, the Whirlpool issue is a key case that needs to be given serious attention, and quickly. The UK charity Electrical Safety First, which campaigns to protect consumers from electrical accidents in the home, has provided a briefing to the all-party group.

Given the time available, I want to move on and flag up the issue of hoverboards, which the trading standards department in my constituency, along with others across the country, has recently dealt with. As the two previous speakers have highlighted, we know that more than

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15,000—88%—were unsafe and detained at the border, but I am concerned about those that got through. That issue had much publicity across the country at the end of last year. Some of the stories we have heard are deeply worrying, and I want the Minister to consider what more can be done to raise awareness of the issue.

Geraint Davies (in the Chair): Jim Shannon, you have five minutes.

10.4 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a challenge to do five minutes, but I will do my best, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this debate. She focused comprehensively on the subject.

I think it is important that we give thought to the 13 people killed in Brussels on the metro and at the airport, and to the many others who have been injured. Prayerfully, physically and emotionally, we commend them all in our hearts and thoughts at this time.

To come back to the debate, 24% of household fires in the past five years were caused by electrics, as hon. Members have said. Irresponsible behaviour and accidents can happen, but the majority of cases are due to faulty electrical equipment. People’s lives and livelihoods are literally at stake as a result of the trade in faulty or illicit electrical goods. In December, my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) tabled an early-day motion, which I was happy to sign, urging families and friends to take extra care and be aware of electrical safety, especially in the homes of elderly relatives and friends, during the Christmas period. We had a chance to highlight the issue at a reception here. It is important to use our positions as public representatives to raise awareness of the risks and urge people to take heed of warnings, but, no matter how aware people are of the risks, there is still the problem of electrical faults that happen without any human error on the part of the consumer.

The hon. Member for Foyle, who is no longer in his place, has been a champion for consumer safety and I commend him for his hard work. More than £90 million is spent on counterfeit products each year, and in 2013-14 customs officials detained some 21,000 consignments of fake goods at UK borders. In just one operation alone, almost 170,000 dangerous and counterfeit goods were stopped from entering the UK by border staff at Dover docks in one of the biggest ever hauls at the port.

As hon. Members have mentioned, the manufacturing base in the United Kingdom has long eroded. Manufacturing has gone to the far east, China and eastern European countries, where the same levels of control are not as apparent as they are back home. That has been a disappointment not only because of the jobs that have been lost, but because the quality of goods cannot be secured in the way that we would like.

There has been a huge increase in the number of counterfeit and substandard electrical goods coming into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. These counterfeit products follow the trends in must-have items. The must-have item is incredible; everybody must have it irrespective of what it is. The number of fake mobile phones seized has risen by more than 50%, as have other top electrical fakes, including

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hair straighteners, which I do not have to use, and games. Those are simply examples of things that people want. Despite campaigns to heighten awareness of the risks of counterfeit electrical goods, 24% of people have knowingly bought a counterfeit product; 21% would consider buying one to save money; and 16% do not think counterfeit products would put them at risk.

Clearly, the public have to be educated. They have to understand what might happen. By and large, if they buy it cheap, they buy a problem as well. Is legislation robust enough? Shortly, I will come on to the things that trading standards have said we must do. We need a two-pronged approach to continue and strengthen the campaigns to raise awareness, but the Government must have a role in this, too. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. I know we will get a robust response from him, and also from the shadow Minister as well.

The UK’s electrical safety experts, Electrical Safety First, want to see a review or an assessment of the number of counterfeit electrical goods being imported into the UK and a strategy from the UK Government to support trading standards to tackle the problem. Electrical Safety First is largely considered the most reputable in the sector, so it is worth listening to its recommendations, which are important. It is calling for a proper assessment of the number of fulfilment houses and their involvement with the distribution of counterfeit/substandard goods; ensuring that all electrical goods sold to UK consumers, including those sold online, are compliant with British electrical standards such as the Plugs and Sockets etc. (Safety) Regulations 1994; asking the large online sales auction sites to work with sellers and have a charter mark for safe electrical goods; ensuring that the trading standards review includes consideration of online shopping and the importation of faulty electricals into the UK and how trading standards can enforce against illegal sales of counterfeit and substandard electrical goods.

We need to address the issue of eBay purchase when the driver for the person on eBay is what is cheap rather than what is best or safe. Electrical Safety First also recommends that the Government ensure the product safety recall system is robust, and it supports the setting up of the steering group by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure a way forward to protect consumers. Those are not unreasonable requests. Indeed, further to my earlier point, there is only so much that raising awareness and taking care can do. Accidents and incidents still happen that could be prevented by better Government action to tackle the issue of faulty and counterfeit electrical products.

Parliamentarians need to come together and raise awareness in all constituencies throughout the country, and the relevant bodies, both public and private, need to play their part, but it is also clear that further Government action is needed. There have been fatalities as a result of counterfeit and faulty electric goods. Awareness campaigns can only do so much. We need action from the Government to protect citizens from the harm of counterfeit goods and action to bring to justice those who import and distribute these goods.

Several hon. Members rose

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Geraint Davies (in the Chair): Order. Thank you, Mr Shannon, for your words about Brussels. I am sure that all our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and the people of Brussels. I call Carol Monaghan.

10.10 am

Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing it. Unlike her, I will give a bit of a history lesson. The first people who are documented as having dealt with electricity were the ancient Greeks—Members are going to enjoy this.

Geraint Davies (in the Chair): You only have five minutes.

Carol Monaghan: The ancient Greeks realised that when they rubbed pieces of amber with a cloth to polish them they got sparks. They had no idea why, but they quite enjoyed the effect. In ancient Greek, amber is called elektron, which is where we get the word “electricity” from.

Some big names in electricity include Alessandro Volta, Luigi Galvani and Benjamin Franklin—they all played around with electricity. I mention those greats of electricity because none of those scientists had any idea of how electricity was going to be used. It was used for after-dinner entertainment—for example, small experiments were conducted instead of having a conjuror. The Victorians found some uses for electricity, one of the first of which was lighting. They realised that if they had a table cloth with electrical elements running through it, they could plug the prongs of a table lamp directly into the table cloth and light the dinner table. That sounds great—until a drink is spilled on to the table.

We can all laugh at that, but such ridiculous—possibly very creative—inventions were no more dangerous than some of the goods that are currently on sale. When current goes through any wire it generates heat. We need the correct flexes to cope with the current going through them. That is why we have different flexes for different purposes. One of the problems with counterfeit goods is that they do not necessarily have the correct flex for the appliance, which means that when the appliance draws current the flex can heat up and melt, causing a fire. That is one of the big problems with counterfeit goods.

For consumers, price is often a great driver. I just did a quick check of the internet. I do not have an iPad charger with me today. Were I to go to a local retailer and buy a genuine iPad charger, it would cost me £15 for the plug and £15 for the wire—a total cost of £30. On Amazon today, I can get a charger and wire that looks like an Apple charger for £8.99, including postage and packaging. That is what drives many consumers to take risks—especially low-income consumers who are trying to get goods that they think are going to do the job for them. Genuine retailers, especially those selling things as simple as a charger, must look at their pricing. I am not suggesting that they can produce an iPad charger for a knock-down price of £8.99, but £30 to charge my iPad seems a little excessive.

Sites such as Amazon and eBay should take responsibility for the goods sold on their sites. It is not just about iPad chargers. The hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned ghd straighteners. Let us say a genuine set comes in at

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£100. I might want to buy a set without realising that they are counterfeit: I might think it is just a good deal. I might buy them, not at a market for £30, but online for a “Today’s special deal” of £90. That is close enough to the right price for people to think the straighteners are genuine. They pay the money, thinking they got a good deal, but in fact they got a death trap. Online marketplace sites must take responsibility for the goods and sellers on their sites, and the Government must take action against retailers whenever the goods they are selling are not up to standard.

Finally—despite my history lesson, Mr Davies, I am keeping to the time limit—it is important to raise public awareness. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, it is not enough just to talk about the recall of particular items. Tell the public the reasons why and what can go wrong. Give them photos. Make them aware and educate them so that they can make informed decisions about the goods they buy.

Several hon. Members rose

Geraint Davies (in the Chair): Order. Your timekeeping and history were commendable, Ms Monaghan. I call Jim Fitzpatrick.

10.16 am

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate and thank her for her effective presentation of all the issues, many of which have also been covered by the colleagues who have followed her. I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). We southsiders are always happy to learn from the north of the city and, having learned, take the lead and show the way. I will try to copy her timekeeping as well, Mr Davies.

I am secretary to the all-party group on fire safety and rescue. Several colleagues present are active in the group. The next meeting is a half-past one today, but I understand that colleagues might be conflicted given what will be going on in the Chamber at the same time. I express my appreciation to Rob Jervis-Gibbons and his colleagues at Electrical Safety First for their briefing for this debate. I do not intend to repeat the many issues raised so clearly and effectively by previous speakers, so I expect my contribution to be brief. I look forward to the responses from the Front-Bench spokespersons, especially that of the Minister, who this morning has to be not only the authentic voice of the Conservative party but its only voice. Given the importance that the rest of us attach to the debate, that is a wee bit sad. That is not a criticism of him or his Department. As has been articulated, we are all looking for reassurance on this matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East has raised the important issues: brand imitation, substandard products, the risks from online sales and unscrupulous sellers, and the ability of trading standards officers to respond to growing risks in the face of budget restraints and cuts. Additional risks are posed by consumers who do not respond to manufacturer recalls, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned. He

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cited the very worrying statistic that only 10% to 20% of recalled products are returned or repaired. ESF’s analysis found that consumers did not respond because they were worried that they would be targets for future marketing campaigns. Although that sounds strange, it has a realistic ring to it. Manufacturers have to address that worry.

Given the growing threat, I am interested to hear how the Government feel they are doing in protecting the public. As has been mentioned, ESF estimated the counterfeit trade to be worth £90 million in 2013-14—in that year alone, customs detained 21,000 consignments at UK borders. I have several questions for the Minister that are similar to those asked by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier). In fact, I think some are the same as hers, which should save the Minister’s time. Hopefully he will be able to provide responses.

Do the Government believe that the ESF analysis covers the scope of the problem, or do they think it is far more serious? The lack of a proper assessment leads to concerns that perhaps the figures are even worse than those in the public domain. Do the Government have a strategy to support trading standards officers in tackling the problem? What efforts are the Government making to tackle online sales of dangerous products? What liaison has there been with online companies and social media sites?

When was the last review of the legislation covering these areas? As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East said, and as ESF highlighted, the legislation is from 1994—well before the explosion of internet trading. Are the Government confident that the law as it stands is robust enough for the present day? Have they reviewed the recent trend of fires in domestic premises caused by electrical sources? If so, what evidence did they find? If not, will they do so in conjunction with the Minister for Policing, Fire, Criminal Justice and Victims?

I do not for a second question the Government’s intention; they take this matter very seriously. We simply seek reassurance that we are doing everything possible to ensure that the good people on the frontline have the resources and tools they need to do their job and protect society. As many colleagues know, I was in the London fire brigade for 23 years before I was elected to represent my constituency. Fire service personnel will always put themselves at risk to deal with fires, but despite the efficiency of the British fire service 70 people died. The fire brigade cannot protect everybody, so the Government must ensure that things do not get that far. The purpose of today’s debate is to ensure that matters do not come to such a tragic end. However consumers buy electrical goods in the UK, they must be able to do so in the confidence that they are not buying a product that could harm them or their family.

Geraint Davies (in the Chair): Thank you for your brevity. To continue the melody of Celtic voices, I call Martin Docherty-Hughes.

10.21 am

Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP): It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I am pleased to take part in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on

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securing it. I must declare an interest: I was formerly the secretary of the Scottish Accident Prevention Council, so I am keenly aware of many of these issues. For the record, I have never used hair straighteners—faulty or otherwise.

Geraint Davies (in the Chair): Nor have I.

Martin Docherty-Hughes: Households face the continuing challenges of squeezed incomes and rising prices for essential goods and services, so consumers are increasingly vulnerable to making distressed purchases. Many are tempted to buy fake and often faulty electrical goods. Like others, I am particularly worried about my constituents on low incomes. The elderly and others in disadvantaged situations are particularly susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous businesses seeking to benefit from consumer vulnerabilities.

Inferior electrical goods pose a host of dangers to the public, and often leave behind a legacy of safety concerns and property damage, about which we have heard today. As other hon. Members highlighted, counterfeit electrical goods follow consumer trends—fake Fendi handbags cannot really injure people, but a faulty fake washing machine can kill people in their beds with smoke and fire.

Fake items often contain faulty parts that can overheat, catch fire or cause electric shocks. Like many other hon. Members, I have read the Electrical Safety First report, “A shocking rip off”, which found that a key reason why fakes are sold so cheaply is that they often have no short-cuts, lack specific components or contain substandard ones. According to the charity, the increasing sophistication of fake production means that often the only way of identifying items as counterfeit is by checking their internal components, but that is not on many of my constituents’ minds when they make a purchase, particularly if they do so online.

It has never been easier for counterfeit products to enter the UK marketplace, given the number of internet-based sales portals and social media marketplaces. Anyone with a bank account and internet access can import products from anywhere in the world. I do not want this debate to be about preventing them from doing so; that is not what we are talking about. At the same time, the resources of the agencies tasked with tackling the counterfeiting menace are being spread even more thinly, as alluded to a moment ago.

Faulty electrical products are thought to cause billions of pounds-worth of damage every year, both from the economic impact and from the fires and injuries they cause when they malfunction. Although the figures for fires caused directly by counterfeit electrical products are hard to come by, fires caused by electrical products are responsible for nearly 3,000 domestic house fires in Scotland alone per year. The average cost of a house fire is estimated to be about £44,500. Even if only a small proportion are due to faulty electrical goods, the direct financial impact is likely to be significant, leaving aside the human cost of such fires.

In my constituency—the one and only West Dunbartonshire—between 2009 and 2015, more than 11% of all accidental house fires were caused by faulty electrical items. I was further worried to learn that

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Citizens Advice Scotland reported a 17% increase in annual calls from consumers who have concerns about electrical products. Although much has already been done to tackle the importation of faulty electrical goods into Scotland and the rest of the UK, those figures show that there is a real need to fully understand the issue and to deal with it sooner rather than later. In liaison with partners, including Electrical Safety First, the Scottish trading standards services are working hard to identify and take robust enforcement action against the supplies of faulty electrical products.

In my constituency, West Dunbartonshire trading standards officers work tirelessly to protect consumers from imported and often unsafe electrical products. In the run-up to Christmas 2015, they prevented 1,000 non- compliant hoverboards—that ubiquitous item—from entering the UK. We have all read about the safety issues surrounding that newest fad gadget. In that case, it was deemed that the boards contained faulty plugs, cabling, chargers and batteries, which could have led to the devices overheating, exploding or catching fire.

Recently, the West Dunbartonshire trading standards office, like many other trading standards offices across the UK, has been contacted by worried consumers who have fire safety concerns about recalled tumble dryers. One of my constituents who has responded to the recall has been told that they will get their modification visit in May 2017. That is a scandal. They are supposed to continue to use the potentially dangerous product in the meantime or to take up the company’s generous offer of a new machine for £99 in place of modification.

The Scottish Government have proposed to the Smith commission that consumer protection be fully devolved to Scotland. I ask the Minister, why is it not? Why are we not helping consumer protection organisations to work together across the rest of the UK? More importantly, why are we not bringing consumer protection closer to the consumer?

10.26 am

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to the staff at Electrical Safety First—in particular, Wayne Mackay for the briefing that he gave all of us. I will do all I can to share it with members of the public, because it contains a lot of interesting information about electrical products that they would not necessarily know from comparing two items.

I also pay tribute to the Scottish fire and rescue service, which works with Electrical Safety First and does lots of community outreach work, including home fire safety visits to inform people about the risks in their own home and to draw attention to such items. They are free to members of the public in Scotland and are well worth doing. I pay tribute to the many trading standards officers around the country who work incredibly hard to highlight these issues. In Glasgow, a lot of work is going on in the Scottish Anti Illicit Trade Group and the Scottish National Markets Group. Glasgow’s scientific services department does much testing of these items, which is really important.

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There has been an interesting change in the way that such items reach us over the years. Previously, we might have picked them up in a market or a small shop, but since the legislation was introduced in 1994 there has been a move to online shopping. At about that time, eBay and Amazon were founded. We could not have predicted the increase in the volume of online shopping and the way that trend changed over time. A lot of hon. Members have talked about that. When people buy things online, it is difficult to ascertain their quality and legitimacy. The legislation is ripe for review. We must address those issues, because those changes to the market could not have been anticipated in 1994 when the legislation was introduced. The work that has been done to highlight these various issues is very important. The hon. Member for Swansea East talked about monitoring these issues and the sale of such items, and I support her call for action. The Government must do something about this.

Although it is important that we all raise public awareness in our communities, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, that is not enough. We can raise awareness as much as we like, but without the legitimacy of legislation to crack down on traders on popular websites such as Amazon and eBay, we will be stuck. Nothing will help our consumers more than legislation. If illegitimate sellers suffer no penalty for what they are doing, they will continue to do it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said that it was important to have a full investigation of trading standards throughout the UK to see where there are gaps and to ensure that people are protected equally around the country.

Another interesting issue is that of retro-items, older electrical goods that people want to have in their homes but might fall foul of the legislation—perhaps they were made just before 1994, or are much older. Such items are being sold and kept in homes, although people might not realise the potential difficulties because of the safety standards that are not present.

Jim Shannon: Some of the advertising on eBay and Google advertises a genuine product. However, an Apple product cannot be genuine if it is only £2.89—let’s be honest. Perhaps the Government need to look at the advertising as well.

Alison Thewliss: The advertising issue is significant. During the speeches, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and I were looking online at such advertising, and the products are all described as genuine. People should not be fooled into thinking that “genuine” means genuine in such cases, because they simply cannot be so.

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) spoke passionately about the history of manufacturing in the country and in his constituency, with particular reference to the Hoover factory. That is a critical point: when we employed people locally in the UK to produce the goods, we all had a stake—we knew, or we could trace the supply chain back to the people in the factories. Everyone had an interest in ensuring that the products or their components were safe and legitimate, because everyone knew who would be buying the end

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product. Producing locally has an impact—people know who will buy the products, and we can all feel more secure when we have a stake in their production.

Margaret Ferrier: I pay tribute to the people in my constituency, in Cambuslang, where we had a Hoover factory that started in 1946. As my hon. Friend said, people have a personal pride in what they produce. As soon as the manufacturing left the UK and went abroad, we had no safeguards as to quality. It is a bit like the steel industry today: we do not know what the quality of the steel coming into the UK is. More than 2,000 people in my constituency worked in the Hoover factory—I pay tribute to them. In fact, I thought that the word for a vacuum cleaner was a hoover, because it was so well known.

Alison Thewliss: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. A side issue is the unknown conditions in which those items are produced; we do not know the standards for the factories that staff are employed in and, often, stories in the media show factories to be a kind of sweatshop. People employed in such conditions do not have the same stake in ensuring a quality product at the end of the day. They are being exploited as much as consumers in this country are being exploited.

The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned the must-have items, and that they drive demand is an important point. People are persuaded to buy cheap and cut corners in order to meet the demand and to make their consumer choice.

We also need to think a bit more about the points about price, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West said. There is a cost involved in buying any product, but it seems that many of the big, legitimate companies retailing electrical goods know that too and they are putting a premium on many of their products; they are making a significant profit on these items and, as a result, people choose the cheaper route. The big retailers need to be a bit more responsible about their marketing and the price points they choose.

My hon. Friend also spoke passionately about the history of electrical items. It is absolutely true that electricity has always involved risks; the difference now is that we ought to have legislation in place to control them. In our era, we understand the risks—in particular, with physics teachers up and down the country, we understand a lot more about how electricity works, as well as its accompanying risks. We need to be a lot more careful about how we control electrical products in this country.

I am glad to welcome the contribution made by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is a former firefighter of 23 years’ service. I served on the board of the Strathclyde fire and rescue service, which does a great deal of outreach work as well and would echo what he said about house fires. Firemen do not want to have to rescue people from house fires resulting from something that could have been prevented far further down the line.

There have been two serious house fires in Glasgow in the past week, and the people affected are very much in my thoughts and those of my colleagues in Glasgow. I do not yet know the cause of the house fires, but if there is a way to protect people and prevent house fires—as my hon. Friend the Member for West

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Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) said, they cause so much damage—given both the human and the financial cost, there is work that we must do.

On the matter being devolved to Scotland, work going on shows that there is a will in Scotland to tackle the issue of counterfeit goods. A lot of good practice is happening in Scotland, but we are mindful of the ports around the country—we are on an island and can control, to some degree, what comes in through our ports. I would like to see greater investment in that. As we see from media reports, when things are stopped in port, they can be taken out of the market altogether.

One other point to throw in is that people are now importers of goods themselves. They can get around the ports and so on by ordering things from abroad. A constituent of mine even ordered a Taser over the internet and had it delivered to his house—to be clear, he immediately took it to the police. If people can order something such as that, ordering a plug charger or something is pretty easy. I want to see more control over what we can order ourselves and over what can be imported.

Again, I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East for securing the debate.

10.36 am

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I, too, associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the people in Brussels. Our thoughts are with them today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate. I wish every success to her all-party group on home electrical safety. The issue is really significant, and in common with many Members throughout the House I pay tribute to Electrical Safety First, not only for its briefing but for the work it has done in the past, and I am sure will do in future, to highlight this important subject.

As we have heard, there is clearly a problem with the importation of faulty electrical goods, which seem to be flooding into the UK at the moment. As the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for Strangford said, however, we do not know how many electrical goods are being imported into the UK. I want to see an assessment of the amount, because what is caught at ports and borders is a small part of the overall number.

More than £90 million is spent on counterfeit products each year. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, the issue is partly one of intellectual property—many of the goods imitate those of well-known manufacturers, which have spent years building their reputations and garnering good will. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) spoke passionately about how the Hoover factory was integral to his constituency and about the pride people felt in that product.

Even now, undercutting the real thing damages legitimate businesses, wherever they are. Of course, the customer suffers. Made of cheap materials and shoddily put

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together, counterfeit goods perform badly and often break down, leaving the customer dissatisfied and out of pocket. More importantly, however—certainly to the debate today—such goods are not only substandard, but often dangerous to use. There is a real risk that they will increase the number of domestic fires. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) knows well the associated risks and the cost of domestic fires, whether human or economic.

As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, over Christmas there was a spate of stories about counterfeit electrical goods—NutriBullets, hoverboards, dangerous hair straighteners, Apple accessories and so on. According to Electrical Safety First, more than 17,000 domestic fires a year in this country are caused by faulty appliances, with 40 to 45 deaths. Surely they should be more preventable.

Of course, it is easy to say that customers should be a bit more careful and check what they are buying, but often it does not occur to them that what they are buying could kill them. People tend to trust implicitly goods bought on trusted internet sites, assuming that they must be legitimate to be accepted on to sites such as eBay. We need more legislation to make websites responsible for the products that they sell.

People assume, like when they buy a fake leather bag when on holiday in Turkey, that they are simply getting a good deal, because the real thing seems overpriced. As we heard from the hon. Members for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), people on a low income always want to save money on goods, and the real thing is often overpriced. Many people—a quarter of people—buy fake goods knowingly.

We need more public education. I admit that I spent the weekend checking my iPhone chargers to see whether they are genuine, and it is really difficult to tell. What are the Government doing to increase consumer knowledge of the dangers of counterfeit goods and, equally importantly, of how to identify them? I had a magnifying glass out to look at some of the chargers to see whether the words were spelt correctly and whether they had a CEE notice. Surely, as the hon. Members for Strangford and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned, a charter mark would be an extremely sensible move so that such items are easily identifiable.

On consumer protection and the need to ensure that goods do not find their way into Britain, we have heard about the ports and border agents. Counterfeit goods should be quickly confiscated if found. However, we need to look again at product recall. Only last month the consumer campaigner Lynn Faulds Wood completed her independent review, in which she branded the product recall system as “out of date” and not working well enough.

Many people have mentioned the case of the Hotpoint tumble dryer that caught fire and destroyed a house. Two weeks on from news breaking of the Hotpoint, Indesit and Creda tumble dryer safety alert, the manufacturer had still not listed the affected products that potentially posed a fire risk. When a safety risk is discovered, the onus to initiate recall seems to be entirely on the manufacturer. That is not effective; the onus needs to be elsewhere. Certainly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse and the hon. Member for Strangford said, people do not always fill in the little

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cards to register their goods. Why not? Because they assume, like everything else, that they will get loads of manufacturer information landing on their doorstep daily.

What happens to those who move house? No one keeps manufacturers up to date—I cannot remember doing that—which is why I support Lynn Faulds Wood’s central recommendation for a national product safety agency, endorsed and backed by the Government. It would be good to know whether the Minister feels that would be effective. Surely it is no coincidence that recall works so much better for unfit food, for which we have the Food Standards Agency.

Underlying the central recommendation is a call for improved funding and resources for enforcement agencies. We have heard a lot about how legislation needs to be strengthened, but it is no use having legislation unless we enforce it. Trading standards in particular has had huge cuts under this Government and the coalition Government—it has suffered a 40% cut since 2010. Some offices report a halving of staff; in fact, I have heard of offices that have only one staff member to protect the public.

In a recent exchange with me, the Minister said:

“Trading standards services are merely one of the enforcement mechanisms for consumer rights. Consumers can enforce their own rights, as established by the Consumer Rights Act, and trading standards services are working more efficiently across the country.”—[Official Report, 15 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 781.]

I would be interested to know how he believes consumers can enforce their own rights when they are not aware of problems with faulty and unsafe electrical goods, or of the criminal rogue traders who deliberately flout the law. I would also like to hear what evidence he has for his statement that trading standards services are “working more efficiently”, given that the Government decided not to publish the trading standards review completed before Christmas, which undoubtedly found that trading standards are under-resourced.

Figures released by trading standards in March 2015 showed that more than 6,500 items a day were detained, and that nearly two in five interventions at ports and borders identified unsafe or non-compliant items— 64% of all LED lamps tested were unsafe. That is thought to represent a very small proportion of the volume of such products entering the country. Again, we need an assessment of that, and the enforcement agencies need resourcing. The £400,000 is welcome, but that is for National Trading Standards. It is often local trading standards offices that are the first port of call for worried consumers, and they are dropping in numbers.

This is not about cheap fake handbags that will not kill anyone; it is about counterfeit and dangerous electrical goods, and about the recall of goods that have been found to be dangerous. I finish with a quote from Lynn Faulds Wood’s review, which found

“the lack of adequate market surveillance to be a major problem in the UK, possibly the biggest problem.”

10.45 am

The Minister for Skills (Nick Boles): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, on this sad day. I associate myself with the comments about the victims in Brussels. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing the debate

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and making such a comprehensive and thoughtful exposition of the issues that not just worry her but led directly to the death of one of her constituents. I also congratulate Electrical Safety First, which has clearly done a superlative job of engaging with Members from all parts of the House and providing them with compelling briefing.

In the debate, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) got to the heart of the matter—the question of whether the arrangements we have to protect consumers are fit for purpose in the age of the internet, with globalised supply chains, where enforcement at a very localised level, as she called it, does not really address some of the bigger problems and sources of risk. It is for that reason that we did not feel that the previous review of trading standards had gone far enough: it did not really address her question. That is why a more fundamental review, not so much of trading standards as such, but of consumer protection in an internet age has been launched by my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise. In the meantime, I will explain in the brief time available what the Government are doing with trading standards and other enforcement bodies. I hope thereby to answer most of the questions posed to me in the great range of excellent contributions from hon. Members.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills provides £14.5 million a year to National Trading Standards and to Trading Standards Scotland, which use that money in large part to focus on the problems of faulty goods, counterfeit goods and the various different ways, whether through fulfilment houses or online trading sites, in which they find their way into the country. National Trading Standards has a safety at ports and borders team that focuses in particular on the physical import of those goods, but there is also close work between National Trading Standards and major sites such as Amazon, eBay and Facebook, which are clearly one of the main ways in which consumers are being sold either faulty or counterfeit or both faulty and counterfeit goods.

I will give one vivid and recent example of the enforcement action being undertaken. Operation Jasper involves 63 local authorities’ trading standards officers and has led to 4,300 Facebook listings being taken down, 12 premises raided and 200 warning letters sent to other traders. That is the kind of proactive enforcement that we want to see. I am sure that there is always more that can be done, but National Trading Standards and local trading standards are working closely with sites such as eBay, Facebook and Amazon on such measures. As another example, some brands of hoverboards and LED Christmas lights—items that were mentioned in the debate—were removed from eBay last October as a result of enforcement activity by trading standards.

The question of counterfeit goods is in a sense a subset of the issue we are debating, rather than a different matter. Some of the goods in question are not counterfeit; they are just faulty. Others are counterfeits but not faulty, and some are both. In September 2013 the coalition Government launched a dedicated intellectual property crime unit, run by the City of London police. That has been taking action against sellers who use Facebook, and those who use the more traditional route for counterfeit goods—the much-loved tradition of car boot sales. In legislation in 2014 we introduced a

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criminal sanction against the sale of counterfeit versions of goods that have registered trademarks or patterns, to give legitimate producers a greater enforcement ability against those who persistently flout their intellectual property rights.

I want briefly to mention fulfilment houses, because they are one of the routes through which faulty and counterfeit goods can make their way to the consumer. As the hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned, there is one such fulfilment house in Swansea that has been the subject of enforcement action by trading standards and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. That action is continuing, but it has led to a large quantity of non-compliant goods being removed from sale, including unsafe electrical products and counterfeit goods. I hope that that goes some way to reassuring hon. Members that there is quite a range of enforcement activity—some that is more traditional, as well as other approaches that address the new globalised problem created by the internet. We should acknowledge, as I think we all do in our own lives, the massive opportunities that the internet has brought us.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am not sure whether the Minister mentioned the timescale for the review of trading standards. Can he suggest how long it will last and what the outcome might be?

Nick Boles: I do not know off the top of my head, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about that, and to copy in other hon. Members who have attended the debate. We have quite a range of expertise in the debate, and it would be useful to have contributions from hon. Members on both sides, including, perhaps, representatives of the Scottish Government, who I know also do a great deal of work on the question.

Martin Docherty-Hughes: The Minister mentioned the problem of the internet. Does he recognise that the internet is also a hope for the future, in relation to consumer rights and protection? People can put reviews on eBay and Facebook, and there are greater opportunities through technology than we have been giving credence to in the debate. I hope that the Government will take cognisance of the changes that are coming in technology, in the next 20 years, because what we have seen so far will pale into insignificance.

Nick Boles: I entirely agree. Before I took the intervention from the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) I was coming on to the fact that, for all that the internet has created opportunities for criminals and those who would abuse freedom, it has nevertheless also created even greater opportunities for legitimate

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traders and consumers. As the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) says, there are opportunities through the internet to share information about suppliers who have failed to live up to their obligations, and products that do not do what they are supposed to do, or are counterfeit or faulty.

In the debate, several hon. Members picked up on the idea of introducing a new charter mark, but I want to warn against viewing that as a panacea. As hon. Members will be aware, electrical goods are already required to carry the CE mark, and the problem is that lots of people fake that; so introducing a new charter mark would not itself necessarily deal with the problem. I presume that people would fake the new mark just as they did the previous one. It is more a question—and perhaps this is what was being suggested—of asking social media sites and trading platforms such as eBay, Facebook and Amazon to take responsibility themselves for having the kinds of review information that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire mentioned, and to be proactive not just in taking products down but in kicking traders off their sites. Of course the traders would all go off and set up in a new guise two months later, and return to the sites, but consistent and persistent work to try to prevent consumers being ripped off or put at risk is needed. I assure the hon. Member for Swansea East that the Government will continue to work with her and other Members, and Electrical Safety First, to try to ensure that we have the problem under control.

Geraint Davies (in the Chair): Because of excellent time keeping, I can call Carolyn Harris to wind up.

10.55 am

Carolyn Harris: Thank you, Mr Davies. As a fellow Swansea Jack it is with great pride that I have served under your excellent chairmanship today.

Today’s debate has demonstrated a depth of concern and strength of feeling about an important issue. I, like other MPs, pay tribute to Robert Jervis-Gibbons and Phil Buckle of Electrical Safety First for their excellent guidance, and their determination to bring the issue to the fore. I sincerely thank all hon. Members for their contributions. It has been an absolute delight to spend the morning with them all. I urge the Minister to work with Members and the all-party group to raise awareness, protect consumers and, potentially, save lives.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the importation of faulty electrical goods.

10.56 am

Sitting suspended.

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War in Yemen: First Anniversary

11 am

Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the first anniversary of war in Yemen.

I am grateful for the opportunity to hold a brief debate as one of the ways to mark one year of the dreadful human suffering that this poor country has witnessed. I am also grateful to all those who have taken time to attend the debate this morning.

Yemen is a country of just under 26 million people, with a land area comparable to that of the state of California. It occupies part of the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, and its position means that it has always had immense strategic importance; it guards the narrow entrance between the gulf of Aden and the Red sea. Certainly since the building of the Suez canal, that route has been of immense importance to nations much further afield than the immediate middle eastern area.

There are records of civilisation in Yemen going back at least 5,000 years, and probably significantly longer. Yemen was almost certainly the location of the biblical kingdom of Sheba. It has been known for great wealth, great pomp and great power. Today, sadly, it is known for quite the opposite. Its nearest land neighbours are some of the wealthiest empires on the planet, and I ask Members to bear that in mind when I go on to talk about the desperate plight facing tens of millions of ordinary men, women and particularly children in Yemen.

For most of the country’s history, Yemen has been divided. In the 19th century, the British used military force to take over part of the southern area around Aden. Until then, most of Yemen had been under the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans remained in the north until their empire fell at the end of the first world war. British rule in the south continued until 1967. A few years later, the south came under Marxist rule, closely aligned to the Soviet bloc. When the Soviet bloc then collapsed in 1990, the two halves were united again, at least nominally.

However, the tension, suspicion and regular outbreaks of violence between north and south Yemen that marked the latter half of the 20th century have continued unabated since the country was notionally combined under a single ruler. The present war started after the Houthis, one of the main factions in the country, attempted to overthrow the rule of the President. The President is still recognised as such by influential neighbours such as Saudi Arabia, and also by the United Nations and most of the international community.

It is quite common for those looking for a simple answer to characterise the conflict as simply a dispute between Sunni and Shi’a Islamic forces. It is probably true that that element is part of the reason why Saudi Arabia has taken such a keen interest and has sought so hard to exert influence—sometimes by peaceful means and sometimes not. Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it is not comfortable with the idea of a Shi’a Government being present on its southern border with Yemen.

Yemen is a country that is still deeply divided. There is no right or wrong answer as to who should be regarded as the legitimate ruler just now. Democracy has never really flourished in either part of the country,

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certainly since it was unified. There were elections of sorts, but there has never been a time when the rule of the ballot box has prevailed for any length of time over the rule of the bomb and the bullet. If we were to ask the ordinary citizens of Yemen now who they want their Government to be, those who were not too scared to speak out would, in all probability, say, “Just give us peace. Give us stability, and we’ll worry about who our Government is later.”

It is important to recognise that the fact that the deposed President is still regarded by the UK and others as the legitimate President has been used by some powers to justify taking a one-sided stance in the dispute and conflict. For me, there are serious questions as to whether either faction can be regarded as fit to govern. Claims of appalling abuses of human rights and crimes against humanity—the use of deliberate starvation of children as a weapon of war, for example—have been laid with significant credibility at the feet of both factions, and we need to ask the question: would it be acceptable for either of those sets of war criminals to take charge of the country when there is an end to the present conflict?

There is a lot of uncertainty and no definite right and wrong answers as to who the Government should be. One problem is that going back to the days of empires, colonial powers and so on, it is hard to find a single period when anyone who governed Yemen cared very much about the 25 million to 26 million people who live there. I do not think that either of the factions now fighting for control of the country are really that interested in the welfare of civilians.

In the background, and moving very much into the foreground, is al-Qaeda, which has had a presence in Yemen for a number of years. It has taken advantage of the instability and the conflict to seize more and more territory. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as it now styles itself, is probably the most powerful, influential and dangerous element of al-Qaeda anywhere in the world. We should be concerned about that, and we should be looking for a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict so that different sides in the dispute can start to concentrate on removing al-Qaeda and the threat it carries.

An indication, perhaps, of just how complex and often incomprehensible the whole situation is are the credible—and I believe thoroughly accurate—accounts that Saudi-led coalition forces have fought alongside al-Qaeda forces at times during the conflict. If a war leads to Saudi forces and al-Qaeda fighting on the same side, it should tell all of us that we have to think very carefully about how we get involved.

What there can be no room for any doubt about whatsoever is the desperate plight of tens of millions of ordinary men, women and children just like us in Yemen. Save the Children provided a helpful briefing for us a few weeks ago, and I will quote some of its figures. It is producing a much more detailed and up-to-date report tomorrow; I do not want to pre-empt that launch, other than to say that the report does not change very much Save the Children’s description a few weeks ago of the severity of the situation. It has reported, as have others, that more than 2,000 children have been killed or seriously injured in the past 12 months. The initial report states that

“1.3 million children under the age of five are suffering from acute, life-threatening malnutrition.”

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It continues:

“In 2015, more civilian deaths and injuries from explosive weapons were recorded in Yemen than in any other country around the world.”

Yemen is the most dangerous place in the world in terms of civilians being killed by bombs and missiles. It is also regarded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and, I believe, by Save the Children as the country with the most people in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Estimates of the number of people who are in a life-threatening situation through a lack of humanitarian aid start at around the 10 million mark. As I said, 1.3 million children under five are suffering from life-threatening malnutrition. For a four or five-year-old, the time it takes to go from life-threatening to too late is not very long at all. We have to act, and we have to act now, to establish safe and secure routes for food and other essential supplies to get to those children, their families and their parents.

There have been reports—again, reliable ones—that when explosive weapons have been used in built-up areas, 93% of the casualties have been civilians. If that is the case and attacks keep happening, we have to ask ourselves: is that really accidental? Is it really unintentional? It cannot be claimed to be unforeseen, and my view is that anyone who undertakes any act of violence when civilian casualties are foreseen or foreseeable must be held fully responsible for wilfully and recklessly causing deaths.

Jo Cox (Batley and Spen) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely discussion. As he will be aware, the UK is Europe’s largest donor of humanitarian aid to Yemen, but at the same time the UK is also the largest arms supplier to Saudi Arabia. Does he agree that it would be great to have an answer from the Minister today about how the Government can reconcile that stark contradiction?

Peter Grant: I am grateful for that intervention, and I agree entirely. I do not remember the exact figures— I have them somewhere—but I can say that UK emergency aid to Yemen is measured in the tens of millions, whereas UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are measured in thousands of millions. The disparity is stark.

I come to the question of arms sales. The Government have previously defended them, essentially by saying, “We can’t find any evidence that weapons from British sources have been used actively in this oppression and in killing civilians,” but that is not good enough. The United Nations panel of experts has identified 119 cases in which Saudi-led coalition forces have undertaken military action in breach of international humanitarian law, either because they have deliberately targeted civilian targets or because they knew that by attacking military targets, there was a significant risk that civilian targets would be affected. That is why we are seeing schools, hospitals, roads, railways and mosques—the very fabric of society in Yemen—being destroyed.

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): My good friend mentions hospitals in Yemen. Does he share my horror that Médecins sans Frontières hospitals in Yemen have been hit by projectiles and missiles, and that even

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ambulances have been hit as part of the conflict, putting at risk medical staff and the people they are desperately trying to help?

Peter Grant: Again, that is a very valid point. It seems to me that whereas Governments the world over—if they are doing anything—are siding with the Saudi-led coalition, the only people who are really putting themselves out to help those in the most need of it are organisations such as Médecins sans Frontières, Save the Children and other non-governmental organisations. Many of them put their staff and volunteers at enormous risk and many of them, including Médecins sans Frontières, have seen colleagues lose their lives in air strikes, which I do not think can credibly be laid at the door of anyone other than the Saudi-led coalition.

I draw Members’ attention to an answer given on 10 March to a written question from the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who is one of a number of Members who have pressed the Government on aspects of the conflict. He asked specifically what the response of the Government of Saudi Arabia was to the representations that had been made about the attack on the hospital and about a number of other reports of attacks on civilians and breaches of human rights. As is so often the case, the Government provided a reply but not an answer; they gave no indication that they had had any response at all. I ask the Minister today: in response to United Kingdom representations, have we yet had a substantive answer from the Saudis explaining specifically the destruction of the Médecins sans Frontières hospital?

My view is that it is not enough to say that we cannot find proof that the Saudis have done this deliberately, or even that the Saudis have done this at all. It is not enough to say that we cannot find substantive proof that weapons or weapons components—some of which are manufactured by Raytheon in my constituency, incidentally—have been used. By this time, there should be conclusive evidence that they have not been used. The UK Government’s position appears to be, “We are not going to investigate it particularly carefully; it is up to the Saudis to investigate what their military forces are doing.” What kind of system of international justice would we have if an accusation of mass murder was investigated only by the accused person?

Jo Cox: The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. As he will be aware, a recent UN panel of experts found that all sides in the Yemen conflict have committed serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, yet at the UN Human Rights Council, the UK Government and Saudi Arabia blocked the establishment of an independent international commission inquiry into the allegations. Does he agree that it is now time for our Government to push for that independent international UN commission of inquiry so that we get to the bottom of these crimes against humanity?

Peter Grant: Absolutely—and I should say that questions have been asked about how exactly the Saudis got that position on the Human Rights Council and who wielded influence. That is possibly a debate for another day, but Her Majesty’s Government still have questions to answer in that area.

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I want to give the Minister as much time as possible, because I am aware that responses to Westminster Hall debates fall into two camps. One is when a Minister gives a reasoned, thoughtful and helpful response, and although they are perhaps not able to give commitments, they certainly recognise that concerns have been raised and give an undertaking that the Government will seriously consider the representations that have been made, which the House no doubt accepts in good faith. The other kind is when a Minister reads a brief that could have been prepared and read by anybody, and really takes us no further forward. I hope that the Minister’s response today is of the former kind, because we need answers, including the answer that has not come yet to the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. What responses have the Saudis given, as of today, to the serious and urgent questions that the Government asked them several weeks ago about reports indicating that the Saudi-led coalition is in breach of international law? What responses have they given on the bombing of the Médecins sans Frontières hospital, for example?

Of the 119 documented cases where it appears that Saudi-led coalition forces have committed war crimes and acted in breach of international law, can the Minister point to any one that he is satisfied has been properly investigated? The Saudis are investigating in general terms, and it is quite clear that they will not take it on themselves to investigate individual incidents. If nobody investigates individual incidents when there are accusations of war crimes, the war criminals will get off scot-free.

Most importantly, I want a commitment from the Government that they will use their full influence to call for an immediate and lasting ceasefire across the whole territory of Yemen, because until that happens, we cannot start to get essential food, medical and other supplies brought into the country. Yemen relies heavily on imports for its food, fuel and other life essentials. I commend the Government for the action they were able to take to ease the blockade that was imposed on the main port of Yemen, but we still have to ask how anybody could blockade the major port in a country that relies on imports to feed its children and not stand accused of deliberately using the starvation of children as a weapon of war. Whatever else may come out of the investigations into individual military airstrikes, I believe that those who sanctioned the blockade and those who helped to enforce it have a case to answer. I want to hear a commitment from the Government that they will press for those responsible to be brought before an international court if evidence can be found against them.

We have to turn off the tap to stop the bath from overflowing. If we operated a country sports shop and heard claims that one of our customers was shooting children as well as deer in the forests, would we wait for them to be convicted, or would we say to them next time they came in, “We are not selling you any more bullets”? There are surely enough credible, documented cases for the United Kingdom Government to say immediately, “We will no longer provide weapons of war, or the components of weapons of war, until we have cast-iron evidence that none of them have been used for the killing of children in Yemen.” Otherwise, all those who have condoned the military action in any way, whether they are brought to account soon or much later on, will be faced with the accusation, “I was hungry and you cut

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off my food supply. I was sick and you bombed my hospital. I was a child and you denied me the right to grow to adulthood.” If we have done this to the least of these children, we have done it to the creator of these children. There is no more time for prevarication. There can be no more justification for complicity, direct or indirect, in the killing of Yemen’s children. There should be an immediate ban on the sale of military equipment of any kind to anyone involved in this carnage.

11.18 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood): It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I very much welcome this debate, which is one of a series we have had—and, I hope, will continue to have—that scrutinises what the Government are doing with the international community to assist people to see the atrocities and tragedy taking place in Yemen, and not least to raise the profile of what is happening there, bearing in the mind the other challenges that we face in the middle east. I very much congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on securing this debate.

The UK counts itself among Yemen’s strongest friends, with a relationship, as the hon. Gentleman outlined, that dates back centuries. Aden was the main refuelling stop for ships between Britain and the far east and many Yemeni immigrants form some of the oldest Muslim communities in the UK, particularly in the port areas of Liverpool, South Shields and Cardiff.

Yemen is the poorest country in the middle east. For some years now, the UK has taken the lead in trying to tackle poverty, support state institutions and address the dire humanitarian situation. Furthermore, peace and stability in Yemen matter to the UK because that is the best way to mitigate the terrorist threat emanating from the Arab peninsula. Well-established groups in Yemen, such as AQAP—al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—and now Daesh, are a threat to our national security and we remain resolved to tackle this.

Regarding the conflict, the House is aware that Yemen had been making steady progress towards improved stability. A Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered initiative back in 2011 committed all parties to talks, to a new constitution and to national elections, but regretfully the Houthis stepped away from the talks. They chose conflict instead of consensus and in September 2014, with support from forces loyal to former President Saleh, they staged a takeover of the legitimate Government of President Hadi and took control of key state institutions. That was clearly unacceptable, but also a clear violation of the 1994 Yemeni constitution and the principles of the 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council initiative.

The legitimate President of Yemen, President Hadi, called for help to deter Houthi aggression. A Saudi Arabian-led regional coalition responded to enable the return of the legitimate Yemeni Government. The UN then passed Security Council resolution 2216—the House has become very familiar with it—condemning the unilateral actions of the Houthis and the destabilising actions of both the Houthis and former President Saleh.

The Houthis consistently failed to implement commitments made in the so-called peace and national partnership agreement of September 2014. Houthis

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and pro-Saleh forces seized territory and heavy weapons across the country. They are holding the Minister of Defence and other senior members of the Yemeni Government under house arrest and have shown total disregard for the welfare of civilians. They have also failed to adhere to UN Security Council resolutions.

It is important to remember that this is the context of the Saudi Arabian-led coalition’s military intervention. Saudi Arabia and the coalition have played a crucial role in reversing the military advance of the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Saleh. I want to make it clear that the UK is not part of the Saudi-led coalition. We are encouraging the coalition and the Yemeni Government to use their military gains to drive forward the political process.

I can share with the House the fact that in recent days there has been some encouraging progress. We have seen de-escalation along the Saudi border in the north and prisoner exchanges. We welcome the announcement on 17 March by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition that it intends to scale back its military operations in Yemen. A political solution is the best way to end the conflict and to bring long-term stability to Yemen.

The hon. Gentleman raised human rights violations. Hon. Members have mentioned several alleged violations of international humanitarian law by actors in the conflict. We are aware of the allegations that have been made by a variety of sources, including the UN panel of experts in its recent report. We looked at that very closely and take the allegations seriously. However, as I shared with the House, the report was conducted by people who did not enter the country, but used satellite technology to make their assessments, so we must place that in context with our ability to do our own assessments. The Ministry of Defence monitors incidents of alleged IHL violations using available information, which in turn informs our overall assessment of IHL compliance in Yemen.

I have previously committed to raising the allegations with the Saudi Government and did so most recently on my visit to Saudi Arabia and with the Saudi ambassador last month. I will continue to raise any such concerns. It is of course important to determine the facts of any incident and the Saudis set out their own internal investigation procedures, which are very welcome, at a press conference on 31 January.

Hon. Members also raised the issue of arms sales, but I ask whether the humanitarian situation would be any better if the UK were not selling arms to Saudi Arabia and that country was not engaged in supporting President Hadi. The hon. Member for Glenrothes questioned that. Without the coalition, the Houthis would have pressed down to the port of Aden and the scale of the humanitarian disaster in that country would be a lot worse than the one we are facing now. The fact is that the Houthis have been forced to the political table, and we now see the potential for a ceasefire because of the stalemate.

Peter Grant: Just for clarity, will the Minister say whether the UK Government’s view is that there is no credible evidence that the Saudi coalition forces have been involved in actions against international humanitarian law?

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Mr Ellwood: No, I did not say that. The hon. Gentleman is leaping and almost putting words in my mouth. I want to make it clear that we have discussions with the Saudi Arabian regime and say that if there are alleged violations, they must be looked into. The Médecins sans Frontières hospital is an example of that and of when the regime should put its hand up. We have experienced this in the past in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq when collateral damage took place. It is important that procedures are in place to make sure the hand goes up, investigations take place and the necessary reparations are made. We do not want violations glossed over, which is why we are firm with every partner in the coalition to make sure they are clear about their targeting processes.

Jo Cox: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Ellwood: I am running out of time, but I am happy to give way.

Jo Cox: Given the growing number of serious allegations, does the Minister believe it would be right for the UK Government to call a pause in arms exports to the Saudi Arabian regime until we get to the bottom of those allegations? Would that not let him sleep at night?

Mr Ellwood: What would make me sleep at night is making sure people come to the table. We are now embarking on that, thanks to the work of the UN envoy and those involved in the discussions. That is the direction we are heading in. Yes, there are allegations and we make it clear that we are doing our own assessments to understand whether the equipment we sell has any participation in that and indeed whether the violations are by the Houthis or the Saudi Arabians.

I was pleased the hon. Lady recognised—the hon. Gentleman did not mention this—that another adversary is in breach of many humanitarian laws, not least the use of child soldiers and so on. This is not to exonerate any alleged breach or violation or the fact that they must be looked into. In its resolution in October 2014, the UN Human Rights Council made it clear what the process would be. It offered UN assistance to make sure violations are looked into and a report will come back to the council in the next month.

Peter Grant: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Ellwood: There are two and a half minutes left. This is the hon. Gentleman’s debate and I will give way if he wants me to, or I can conclude.

Peter Grant: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I think he misunderstood or missed part of what I said. Let me be clear: I believe that both sides in this conflict are guilty of appalling crimes and that neither is fit to take over the Government of Yemen. I do not make a distinction between good war criminals and bad war criminals. There is only one sort of war criminal in my book.

Mr Ellwood: I am glad I gave way and that the hon. Gentleman was able to place that on the record. It is very much appreciated.

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In the limited time left, I want to say that the British military have some of the highest standards in the world governing our conduct in armed conflicts, including with regard to civilians. We have drawn on our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and we certainly want to share that with other nations, but we are not part of the targeting process in Saudi Arabia or the coalition.

The humanitarian response is important, but also complex. As the hon. Gentleman said, 82% of the population is in need of assistance. That is why the Government have pledged more than £85 million to date, making it the fourth largest humanitarian donor.

The Government are doing all we can to support a meaningful peace process and to seek an early political resolution to the conflict. At UN-facilitated talks in December 2015, the parties committed to further dialogue and that offers some hope for the future. We continue to support the UN special envoy in his efforts to convene those talks over the coming weeks and to review the ceasefire.

The Government’s position is clear: the conflict in Yemen must end and the humanitarian situation must be addressed. The legitimate Yemeni Government must be allowed to return to the capital. A political solution remains the best way to end the conflict, to bring long-term stability to Yemen and to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. All parties must engage constructively, without pre-conditions and in good faith. We are working closely with diplomatic channels to make this political solution a reality and to bring this devastating conflict to an end.

Question put and agreed to.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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GPS and Heavy Goods Vehicles

[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered GPS satellite navigation and heavy goods vehicles.

This is an increasingly complex issue because of the proliferation in recent years of devices and, more importantly, software available across Android, Apple and Microsoft-driven smartphones. The issue is not new but has been bubbling in the background for well over a decade. In-vehicle information systems, or IVISs, have received Government attention over the years, including in the Road Traffic (Driver Licensing and Information Systems) Act 1989 and the Driver Information Systems (Exemption) Order 1990, which concentrated on a licensing scheme for providers of real-time on-the-move information, such as Trafficmaster.

There was also a Government consultation in 2006, which sadly received just 111 replies. The results of that consultation were published in May 2008, but there were no firm recommendations for action. However, the sat-nav problem was highlighted in the consultation. In those days, very few heavy goods vehicle-only systems were available, which shows how technology has moved on at an exponential rate. The report concentrated heavily on the safety issues of—this is quite bizarre nomenclature—the human-machine interface, or HMI. There was subsequently one welcome legislative amendment, in 2011, giving local highways authorities the ability to implement advisory signs without formal traffic orders needing to be made.

On 6 March 2012, the Department for Transport hosted a “Delivering the best information to all in-vehicle satellite navigation users” afternoon. It was intended to encourage appropriate sat-nav use, local authority involvement with the mapping companies, and consideration of using the insurance market to force HGVs to require appropriate HGV-robust sat-navs. That is especially important when hugely expensive bridge collisions occur, as happens in many constituencies. Those collisions can stop train services while the damage is assessed. That has not been an uncommon occurrence on the north Kent line running through Strood.

Kent County Council, as the highways authority for Kent, issued a freight action plan in October 2012 to cover the four-year period from 2012 to 2016. It highlighted the problem, unique to Kent, of having the active cross-channel ports of Dover and Sheerness, the port of London, the then fully operational Ramsgate port, and the channel tunnel. Kent has a uniquely high level and density of foreign trucks on its roads because of the port activities, and that presents unique problems. The KCC action plan highlighted inappropriate sat-nav use and particularly the necessity of appropriate advertising of strategic road use across the county.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), told the House on 20 July 2015 that legislation might be an inappropriate and bureaucratic means of addressing these issues. Despite a number of

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years considering the problem and despite the numerous initiatives, the problem persists, and it is my contention that it is getting worse and more widespread than ever. The A257 Sandwich to Canterbury road suffers from inappropriate HGV use, and, importantly for the historic fabric of our nation, there are far too regular occurrences of economic standstill in the historic town of Sandwich as inappropriate vehicles that have absolutely no cause to be there become literally stuck, sometimes for hours.

I apologise in advance for the technical nature of my next comments, but I think it is worth while to lay out the framework of the advanced wizardry behind this now routinely used technology. The global positioning system comprises 31 US satellites orbiting 12,500 miles above the Earth. The system became fully live in 1995, but was available before then at lower levels of accuracy.

James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is making an excellent speech on a subject that is important to my constituency. He mentions the wizardry involved. He may be interested to learn—I will talk about this later—that one of the houses in my constituency that is most frequently damaged by HGVs was used for the set of the Harry Potter film. Unfortunately, that wizardry is not available to us.

Craig Mackinlay: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am sure that if we asked just about every Member of the House, they would be able to cite similar problems of historic buildings being hit.

I will develop a little further my point about the technical wizardry. The GPS concept is based on time and the known position of specialised satellites, which carry stable atomic clocks that are synchronised to one another and to ground clocks. The satellites’ locations are known with great precision. The GPS receivers that we all have on our phones and cars and wherever else also have very accurate clocks. GPS satellites transmit their current time and position, and a GPS receiver, looking at multiple satellites, solves a complex equation and determines its exact position.

As can be imagined, given the usefulness of such technology, it was designed in the US primarily for military use, but its use rapidly spread to marine navigation and has now spread to road navigation, as accuracy levels are now down to 5 metres or less. The system is free to any user on the planet who has a GPS device and it must be considered a true gift from the United States taxpayer to the world. Other countries have replicated the system, or tried to replicate it. There is the Russian GLONASS system, and the European Galileo system and Indian, Chinese and Japanese equivalents are in progress. However, I doubt that any of those new variants will ever overcome the dominance of the US GPS system, obtained through reliability and dependability. There is of course the downside that the US Government could at their discretion turn off the system for civil use at any time. One can imagine that at times of global instability that might be done, but it has never happened thus far.

It was not too many years ago—perhaps 15 years ago—that I was looking with some wonderment at the new gadgets that were appearing on friends’ car dashboards. TomTom was an early market entrant, and for many it

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became a status gadget, along with early in-built dashboard models in premium cars. However, it became clear within a year or two that they rapidly became out of date as new road schemes came into being. Updates for such machines were cumbersome, were often subject to expensive upgrade charges and, in the case of in-built systems, were sometimes available only at main dealers.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for initiating this debate on a pertinent issue. He makes the point about devices losing their accuracy as new roads are built. It is also still a problem that they cannot tell how big or small a road is. In my constituency there is a place called New Smithy, near Chinley. Wagons continually get sent down the road there. The county council, which I rarely have a good word for, has done what it can with signage, but devices lead drivers down to a low bridge that they cannot get under. They have to turn round and they knock the bridge, and the costs of having to keep repairing the bridge are ridiculous. That is all because of sat-navs not being able to tell that there is a low bridge under which drivers cannot get their wagons.

Craig Mackinlay: My hon. Friend highlights exactly what the debate is all about. I will be coming to exactly that issue in a moment.

There are now a host of portable devices—they are actually called nomadic dedicated devices—that people can put in their pocket and in different vehicles that they own. They are available at varying costs, with new brand names now commonplace in the market. TomTom was a market leader in the early days. Now there is Garmin, which was traditionally a big player in the marine navigation market, and there are names such as Mio, Navman, Magellan and many others. The price of those machines for car use is now as little as £50. For larger screen sizes, the prices can be up to £250.

The market has changed, because we now have the ability to download smartphone software, often for free, across the major phone operating systems. A search of Google Play or Apple’s App Store would reveal a huge choice of available software. Some is free if one is prepared to accept adverts, and some is free for a limited trial period. There are also fully paid systems, but even those are at a remarkably low cost, sometimes of less than £20. Practically every personal digital assistant device that we own—smartphones, iPads, other tablets—now has GPS functionality, and they can all support such software. Many operate on the widespread Google Maps application, which, as with everything Google, is becoming dominant.

James Cartlidge: I want to go back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) made. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) is talking a lot about technology, and I must admit that I do not have the same level of expertise that he does. Is there any sign in the industry that the technology is reaching a point at which, without us having to legislate or regulate, it could tell a driver, “This road is inappropriate relative to the size of your vehicle”?

Craig Mackinlay: If my hon. Friend will let me continue just a little bit further, I will address the potential solutions.

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We all realise the dominance of Google in our lives and on every machine that we own. Google Maps is a widely used application, but the downside for many of us is that it needs data transfer and use while on the move. That is not particularly helpful for people who are travelling abroad, given the data charges for foreign use. Software-based systems—the dedicated TomTom-style devices—have underlying, in-built maps called geographic information system data. They are installed so that there is no mobile data use. That is often the underlying framework used by nomadic and smartphone devices.

I think the solution lies with the base maps that the systems use. Only a few are actually used. A market leader is Navteq’s SDAL map, which is now called HERE. The Tele Atlas system drives TomTom and provides Apple Maps with its data. Of course, Google Maps has its own system. There is also an open source system called OpenStreetMap. There are 100 or more software variants that can run across different types of map data, and there is interchangeability in some software and devices so that they can accept and read any maps, from wherever they are sourced.

Royston Smith (Southampton, Itchen) (Con): I appreciate my hon. Friend giving way and congratulate him on securing the debate.

The emergency services sometimes have a problem if, for example, a road has been cut in half because something has changed, with a housing estate being built or something of that nature. However, they tend to make that mistake only once. Can something be done along the lines of what the emergency services do, so that updates to roads can be fed in to the companies that supply us with devices?

Craig Mackinlay: On the Navteq website, the public have the ability to put in new data as they arise. The company will then check those data and, if it is satisfied with their quality, they will become a new variant of future maps that it produces. Everybody is able to update those maps on a regular basis. It comes down to the fact that the data are out there if one could only find them.

For anybody who uses such systems, other data sources can be laid over the map data—often speed camera information or locations of points of interest such as museums, restaurants or even petrol stations—but, again, another problem creeps in. There is a huge black market out there of free downloads across so-called torrent sites, and that is becoming a huge industry. Therein lie the problems of accuracy and reliability, and questions about whether the data driving the devices are actually up to date at all.

Within a huge majority of the systems with which we are now becoming familiar, choices are available, including voice type and whether the data are required in metric or imperial. One can set up advanced warning alerts, choose whether travel is on foot or by car and decide whether one wants to take the shortest route, the fastest route, or a route with or without tolls. Wrong data or out-of-date devices are issues. If that is applied just to driving in a car, the worst that could possibly happen is that it could lead to a fine if entering a changed road layout, for example. In HGVs, the problem—and this is at the heart of the debate—can be infinitely more serious.

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On that point, I come to the key issue. The use by HGV drivers of those cheaper car devices—available for £50, as I mentioned earlier—is all too common. That is compounded by smartphone software that is designed for car use only and, overlaid on that, the use of out-of-date map data that are perhaps downloaded illegally or from dubious sources. I am pleased to say that the problem is not largely seen across the UK lorry fleet. I pay tribute to the Freight Transport Association for its attempts to encourage its 15,000 members to buy HGV-compliant devices. It even has its own industry specialist shop, and provides a high level of advice to its members. I am pleased to say that common sense prevails across its wide membership and influence.

I do not particularly want to single out foreign drivers as the main culprits, but the example I want to present is from Sandwich in my constituency. I am sure that in almost every constituency in the country there are instances—such as those that have been raised by hon. Members today—of HGVs too often using inappropriate roads. A common excuse is usually advanced, and it always runs something like, “Oh, my sat-nav told me to.” After that, there is often a mad struggle for Google Translate to solve the communication problem.

Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. These issues might sound trivial to some people who do not have constituencies that are constantly affected by them. In my constituency, the A170 runs up Sutton Bank and there are two one-in-fours divided by a hairpin bend. There are two incidents there a week with lorries having to back up all the way into the village, often causing damage to property and huge tailbacks for several hours. Does my hon. Friend know the combined economic costs of all these issues nationally?

Craig Mackinlay: My hon. Friend makes a very good point about not just the physical damage that occurs to road structures and historical buildings, but the economic cost of hours of tailbacks. One could probably make a reasonable guesstimate of what that cost would be in an individual place but, as my hon. Friend points out, this is happening in virtually every town in every constituency on a weekly basis.

Andrew Bingham: My seat is very rural so we have all the economic difficulties but there are also safety issues. Wagons are being shoehorned down lanes such as Mainstone Road, which is related to the problem in my constituency that I have already mentioned. Large wagons go down little lanes and roads, often at times when schools are turning out and so on. There is a safety issue as well as all the inconvenience, and the problem is particularly acute in rural areas.

Craig Mackinlay: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Not only do we have physical damage but we have the economic costs and the serious issue of road safety in areas that should not be affected by having such huge lorries in the wrong places.

Sandwich in South Thanet is the best preserved medieval town in the country—I am sure other Members will be on their feet claiming the same of towns in their constituency—and HGVs have caused damage to its roads, kerbs, signs and, perhaps more importantly, its

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historical buildings. There is a particular junction—Members will realise the historical nature of Sandwich—called Breezy Corner, and just a little way away is a barbican dating back to 1539 and an ancient toll bridge. Those structures are damaged on an almost weekly basis. In addition—and this addresses the economic points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake)—40-foot HGVs are completely unable to negotiate the tight corners in such an historical town, which often leads to the complete blockage of the town for many hours while emergency services attempt to sort out the mess. That is time that the emergency services, particularly the police, could and should use to deal with other issues.

The A257, the Sandwich to Canterbury road, is served by lots of little feeder roads, some barely wide enough for a car. That is just within 10 miles of Dover so, again, it is commonplace to find foreign HGV drivers slavishly following their sat-nav’s guidance after selecting the shortest route option.

Royston Smith: My hon. Friend rightly mentions the physical damage to buildings and the economic damage, but there is also the emotional damage and the frustration caused to residents when lorries constantly drive into residential areas.

Craig Mackinlay: My hon. Friend makes the perfect point. I have many residents in Sandwich who are fearful for their property and for their very life, and he raises that problem well.

I would never call myself a luddite, but consulting a good old-fashioned road map always seems to result in greater awareness of my location and how to get to my destination. When using a sat-nav, I am reduced to the state of a compliant zombie, like an automaton at the wheel doing exactly what I am told by the artificial voice from the machine. “Turn left in 300 yards,” and so on. I am sure hon. Members have all felt the same.

I have consulted various retail websites and—this is the important point—HGV-compliant sat-navs are available. For instance, the TomTom Trucker is available at £290, with little obvious difference in screen size or functionality from the car model available for a third of the price. As part of my research before the debate, I consulted a nationwide haulage company, R Swain & Sons. The company’s head office is in north Kent and I know the owner, Mr Bob Swain. He explained the approach taken by his business. He uses no sat-navs at all in his fleet—not one—but he ensures that his drivers are provided with maps and given time to plan their routes before setting out. I know of no instance where one of his lorries has caused such problems.

Of course, it is easy to highlight in Parliament the problems that we face, but I like to come at such problems with potential solutions. In this case, there are six potential solutions. We could implement legislative change to force the use of the right HGV-compliant sat-navs. If we go over and drive in the continent, we face the requirements under French law to carry high-vis jackets, reflective triangles and alcohol breath testers, and we accept those requirements as the rules of that place. I do not propose the mandatory use of sat-navs so that they have to be carried by HGVs, but I suggest that, if they are used at all, they should be compliant

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and suitable for the vehicle or else face potential forfeiture once found not to be appropriate.

I have encouraged Kent County Council’s highways authority, and I would do the same for all highways authorities, to ensure that maps of Kent that clearly highlight strategic road routes that should be used, and clearly mark the towns and villages that should be avoided, are provided free at ports of entry. With the implementation of an Operation Stack truck-stop solution coming to Kent in due course, providing such maps could serve a useful double purpose. I imagine that advertising sponsorship could be found to defray or cover the costs of such maps.

I would like to see greater use made of the freedoms of the December 2011 road signs measures so that local areas can clearly advise of dangers ahead. As a Government we could encourage data standards for the submission of data by the highways authorities to the mapping companies, because those companies are key. It is frustrating that all the data are known for every road in the country—be it heights, widths or road changes—but they are not being appropriately consolidated and provided to the mapping companies.

I recommend a benchmark standard for the sat-nav manufacturers and software providers to which they should be encouraged to adhere. The benchmark would include—this is the key—a mandatory lorry option across every single device. There is already an option to choose whether one is on foot or in a car, so let us add a mandatory lorry option. That would require manufacturer and software producer buy-in to a voluntary industry code of practice.

I would also like to see a widening of local authorities’ civil powers to levy fines outside of the police’s powers. We have seen a general reluctance among authorities to enforce fines across borders on foreign lorries, as we have seen with Transport for London, the congestion charge, the Dartford crossing and general parking enforcement. It sounds good, but it might not prove as effective as imagined.

I close by highlighting that we face an unprecedented free-for-all in current sat-nav use, with inappropriate devices and software in play across many HGVs—mainly, I am sorry to say, foreign ones. I am not one for draconian legislation, but our towns, villages and historical locations need protection. I would be happy to work with the Department for Transport to find a workable and practical solution and I look forward to the Minister’s comments.

2.57 pm

James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) on securing this timely debate. I am here because I receive constant email correspondence on the subject, which I regard as one of the biggest issues in my constituency.

In the past couple of weeks, we have had a major incident in Sudbury, a big market town in my constituency, which I will address in a moment. The purpose of my speech is simply to emphasise that there is a problem that we need to address. My hon. Friend has come up with many interesting solutions, and I will not pretend to share his technical expertise, but I will emphasise what is happening in my constituency.

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Lavenham is a fine medieval village. I will not be undiplomatic and get into a competition about how it compares with Sandwich, but suffice it to say that they clearly share a great and ancient heritage that is threatened by HGVs. I recently received an email about Lavenham from a chap called Tony Ranzetta, who lives in Water Street—his house dates back to the 15th century and was used in the “Harry Potter” films. He says:

“Along the A1141 as it enters the village of Lavenham, is a unique set of houses, the longest uninterrupted terrace of medieval hall houses in England, followed by one of the hall houses owned by the Earl of Oxford and recently forming much of Godric’s Hollow in the Harry Potter films.”

I do not know the significance of Godric’s Hollow. My wife and daughter are very keen on “Harry Potter.” The email continues:

“The wider issue of the risk to our heritage across the county and the opportunity to use this current issue and the incident in Sudbury as the spur should only be grasped if it leads to the establishment of a county wide approach to diverting heavy goods traffic from ‘heritage’ villages and towns. We need to show a united and strategic front in the face of a problem shared across the county.”

Another resident of Lavenham, Mrs Simonetta Stonehouse, lives in one of the most beautiful houses on the High Street there. She recently wrote to me, saying:

“HGVs travelling through Lavenham High Street mount the pavement outside our house then negotiate the left turning into Water Street. I’m sure you are aware that the Swan Hotel”—

a famous and ancient hotel—

“has been damaged on numerous occasions, our property has also been hit. Houses on Water Street are regularly damaged and not so long ago a car was written off by a six-axle 44-tonne vehicle. It is not only the damage that these vehicles are doing to our medieval village but also the issue of safety to the residents and tourists.”

I was recently in Lavenham and witnessed an HGV of extraordinary proportions—I have never seen a lorry that big—attempting to go down Water Street, which is very narrow, although unfortunately technically an A road, which is part of the problem. The houses on it, including the house to which I referred, are beautiful and ancient. Lorries are scraping past them and tearing them to pieces, and it is incredibly sad to see. That is the heritage of the constituency that I represent, and I have come here to stand up for it and to find a way to protect it. Lavenham is also one of our biggest tourism draws, and I worry about the damage that could be done. Tourists do not come to villages to see massive HGVs go through them. The lorry on that occasion was an articulated lorry, but I am not sure how articulated the driver was.

Another village that is similarly ancient and has the same problem, and which probably creates as much correspondence for me, is Clare, a very pretty village on the Suffolk-Essex border. Only last week, I received the following email from a man called Bob Verguson, who did not know about this debate:

“We, the villages/residents along said A1092 Baythorne End to Long Melford road, require a stop to the 55 feet, 60-ton articulated lorries that are destroying our communities and infrastructure. The only lorries we should see in Clare are those delivering along the A1092 or along local side roads leading off the A1092, this is sadly not the case as approximately 92% of HGVs are passing through without stopping, merely using this road as a short cut…Clare alone has approximately 160 listed buildings”.

There is a pinch point in the village where lorries struggle to get through.

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We see it all over the constituency. Nayland is another beautiful village near the Stour with the same problem, as are my two main market towns, Sudbury and Hadleigh. In Hadleigh, the problem is in Benton Street, which is narrow but is the main route by which my constituents access the A12 and Manningtree mainline station in order to get to London or Chelmsford. It has been a long-running problem. We thought that we might have solved it when I got Highways England to put new signage on the A12 to make clear the weight suitability and to say that HGVs should not use that route, but they continue to do so because of sat-nav, which is of course the same thing sending them down inappropriate roads in Lavenham.

I have had an email from a lady called Sue Monks, who lives on Benton Street. She makes a point about safety. In an incident two weeks ago,