HC Deb 29 January 1982 vol 16 cc1157-67

Order for Second Reading read.

1.52 pm
Mr. John Forrester (Stoke-on-Trent)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill has the twin virtues of brevity and understandable language, although, in view of what the Minister said about the previous Bill, parliamentary draftsmen may look upon that as a drawback rather than a virtue.

Nobody can be anything but appalled to read of the astonishing number of household tragedies and the misery that is caused by accidents in the home. Six thousand people per annum die and 1 million people are injured in their own homes. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents booklet "Safety in the Home", about 200, 000 babies and toddlers are taken each year to hospital for treatment for accidents that they have suffered in the home. Therefore, the home is obviously not the safest place in the world to be.

It has been estimated that, of that terrible toll of misery, about 11, 000 children in 1978 needed hospital attention for poisoning or suspected poisoning by household products. A pilot check under the home accident surveillance scheme suggests that that toll is rising by about 15 per cent. per annum. We cannot allow this to go on indefinitely without attempting to check it when there are means by which it can be reduced.

We are all familiar with the containers with child-resistant tops which are used for asprin and paracetamol, and have been in use since 1976 following the regulations introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals). I pay tribute to him for his help with the Bill. The present Minister for Health extended the scheme last March on a voluntary basis to cover other solid doses of medicine on prescription. When he brought in the scheme he said that it would cost the DHSS as estimated £1.2 million, but defended the scheme on the basis that it could save the National Health Service that amount of money because less hospital and doctors' time would be taken up in treating patients poisoned by analgesics.

It costs the country a great deal of money to treat children for accidental poisoning, and much of this money could be saved. That is not to mention the traumatic effects on the parents and the children. I was talking to a doctor from a casualty unit in Birmingham yesterday, and she said that there had been a huge fall in the number of cases since child resistant containers were introduced for medicines. It has been estimated that accidents have been reduced by about 60 per cent.

The United States of America has had legislation since 1970 requiring child-resistant containers for a wide range of medicinal and household products. In that country, accidental child poisonings have been reduced by 55 per cent. since those containers were introduced. Other countries have legislated or are considering doing so because of that success story. The United States of America has successfully overcome many of the doubts that are still raised about the containers in Britain. People accept them and use them. Suitable containers and closures have been developed for the various products in the legislation.

The Bill is a modest extension of the provisions that are already in force. At this stage I suggest that only turpentine or turpentine substitute and pesticides should be included as they are two of the worst offenders. However, the Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to add further items to the list as and when it is thought desirable and circumstances determine that it should be done. The reason for not including a much wider range is to minimise any opposition and to give sufficient warning and time for manufacturers to come to terms with the requirements for the future.

I have heard objections that we do not have a suitable standard and that therefore the Bill is premature. I do not accept that. British Standard No. 5321 of 1975 details the methods for testing for children aged up to 51 months and for older people. A number of closures have already gone through that procedure and have been found acceptable. There must be many closures in use in Europe and America that could be used for the purpose and are acceptable.

The Bill does not try to fix a date for it to come into force, but leaves it to the discretion of the Secretary of State. It specifically lays it down that the Secretary of State, after consultation with the British Standards Institution, should determine the standard. A period of two years would not be unreasonable and should give all the parties concerned sufficient time to arrange matters accordingly.

There has been criticism that the closures now in use are difficult for the elderly, those with arthritis or disabled people to open. That can be a problem, so the Bill allows for the smallest in a range of containers to be packed in conventional bottles to meet that need. It may be open to some abuse, but the risk is not very great. It is a provision of the American legislation that seems to have worked successfully. Those conventional containers would carry a message that they are not to be used in households where there are young children.

It has been suggested to me that child-resistant containers will encourage people to decant liquids into other bottles, such as lemonade bottles. People do that now. A Department of Trade survey suggested that in 29 per cent. of poisoning cases the material had been decanted. That means that in 71 per cent. of cases it had not been decanted. People are more likely to transfer a liquid to another container if they buy large quantities. I confess that I have done so myself. No doubt many people will continue to do so. However, I take the view that when people see a child-resistant container for a household product they are more likely to be made aware that it is a dangerous substance than when they see a conventional container with an ordinary screw cap.

The great virtue of the Bill is that it will not cost the Government any money. It is estimated that child-resistant containers will cost an extra 1p or 2p on a product. As it is estimated that households buy about 18 bottles of household products in a year, that would mean 36p on a household budget in a year. That is a small price to pay for saving a child from a lifetime of discomfort. It could save the Government a great deal of money on the National Health Service. As the Bill stands, dealing as it does only with turpentine and pesticides, the cost will be nowhere near 36p a year.

I know that there have been EEC directives on the packaging and labelling of dangerous substances. The Minister said in April that she would introduce regulations later this year. In an announcement on 30 October the Secretary of State confirmed that the regulations would be brought forward. Many people are now asking the reason for the delay. No doubt the Minister will be able to tell us.

We should not be thinking in terms of labelling, closures or education. There should be a three-pronged attack to tackle the problem head on. Obviously, the children about whom we are talking are not those who are able to read labels. Parents need reminding constantly of the dangers in the home and in that little cupboard under the sink. In an ideal world, parents would put all dangerous household products out of the reach of small children, into cupboards that are securely locked all the time, but we are not in an ideal world. That may be the world towards which we should be working, but in the process of getting there people may need some help.

I know that pesticides are overseen by the pesticide safety precautionary scheme. They may be the safest that are available, but that does not mean that they are entirely safe and that we would not benefit from further safety measures.

It may be argued that the Consumer Safety Act 1978 gives the Government power, by regulation, to require child-resistant containers to be used. The wording of that Act may be such that it contains almost unlimited powers, and therefore it may be argued that the Bill is not necessary. I take the view that there is a need to do something now. The Bill concentrates the minds of all those with immediate responsibility for the issue. In the debate, all the arguments for and against can be put to the test. Further, the public can be made aware again of the dangers in the home. Perhaps they will participate in the debate and make their views known to us.

I know that some people object to the measure, but it is supported by many hon. Members on both sides of the House. I have received messages of support from Sir Douglas Black of the Royal College of Physicians, Dr. Howard Baderman of the Child Accident Prevention Committee, Mr. Keith Taylor of the Health Education Council, Mr. R. T. Hewitt of the Royal Society of Medicine and Mrs. Janet Upward of the National Federation of Consumer Groups. There has been qualified support from Mrs. Maclean of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. I understand that RoSPA is mainly concerned about an acceptable standard for the closures. As the Bill allows the Minister to determine that, we could meet its objections. I know that the Consumers Association is undertaking more research into the problem before it will feel able to give its support.

In the RoSPA booklet "Safety in the Home", which was recently published by the Department of Trade, the Minister wrote an introduction in which he said: Home safety is a matter of great importance but dangers are often underestimated by the public until they themselves have an accident. Governments sometimes have to save people from themselves—from their neglect, absent-mindedness or just ignorance of the potential dangers. The introduction of child-resistant containers for household products would bring home to people the potential dangers of the products that they are buying and using. They are not the complete answer, but together with labelling and education they could make a significant contribution to safety in the home.

2.5 pm

The Minister for Consumer Affairs (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Forrester) on his good fortune in the ballot. I commend him for choosing to show his concern—a concern I share—on a valid point of great public interest and concern, and for the moderate and extremely constructive way in which he has presented his Bill.

I am, of course, only too well aware of the many tragic accidents to children from poisoning reported every year that arise from such ordinary household products as cleaning and polishing agents, disinfectants, solvents and paints, and even such an innocent-seeming product as furniture polish.

Many right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that this is something about which I feel so strongly that I introduced a Ten-Minute Bill in 1972, which would have required warning labelling symbols to appear on dangerous household products of this kind, and I produced many examples on that occasion. That Bill was unsuccessful, but, as I announced to the House last year—the hon. Gentleman mentioned this—I now intend introducing very strict regulations during the current Session which will require warning labelling of these dangerous products.

I intend the regulations to cover all products which might present a hazard, particularly to children, with the exception of products such as pesticides which are adequately dealt with elsewhere. I shall return to that point later. The regulatons that I intend to introduce will, in part., implement EEC directives which seek to harmonise legislation on dangerous substances, but I assure the hon, Gentleman that I intend to extend them to cover certain household products which are not covered by the directives.

The hon. Gentleman complained, by implication, about the amount of time being taken. I assure him that it is the problem of getting the drafting correct, acceptable and practical which has caused the delay. The matter is being pursued with the greatest urgency.

I firmly believe that the main responsibility for ensuring that children do not swallow dangerous products must, in the first place, rest with the parents, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is not a perfect world and they cannot be expected to take this responsibility without the right information and advice as to the dangers involved.

Many of the substances that lead to poisoning may appear to most people to be harmless. Indeed, they are harmless if they are not misused. Others may appear so to some people. Certainly many ordinary household products, as the hon. Gentleman said, are kept under the kitchen sink and not out of the reach of children in the way that medicines usually are.

At the moment, many such products—this is the important point—do not carry adequate warning or any warning symbol. As he said, many young children. who are the ones who are harmed by these products, cannot read the warnings. This is the point of the simple symbols which can be taught to children as the highway code is taught. One of the matters that we are considering carefully in the regulations is making the symbols as simple as possible so that young children can be taught them and can understand them very easily.

Several thousand children a year are taken to hospital as a result of having swallowed or inhaled such household products as the hon. Gentleman and I have described. The number of additional cases which are dealt with by family doctors is not known. It is true that many of these accidents are only of suspected poisoning, and that in many cases no real harm has been done—either the child has not actually swallowed any or has swallowed such a small amount that no harm has been done. But the shock and fright which have been caused to the parents, and the trauma of a hospital visit for the child, involving possible treatment and often a night away from home, are sufficient in themselves to emphasise the need for something to be done.

Much more importantly, there are cases in which corrosive or poisonous substances do real harm, and we know that at least one or two deaths a year result from this. I have personally met the nurses from Great Ormond Street children's hospital who have nursed children suffering terrible internal injuries and who appealed to me for warning labelling. However, I must emphasise that, in my view, the best way to improve this situation is by giving parents the right information to act upon, and by providing warnings that children can assimilate.

Parents must be made aware that products contain dangerous ingredients; they must be warned to keep such products out of reach of their children; and they must be told what to do in the event of an accident. By this, I do not mean advice on first aid, as medical experts now believe that first aid rendered by the amateur can often do considerably more harm than good. But product labels should say clearly, where necessary, that in case of accident medical help should be sought immediately, and the container taken along. I cannot emphasise this too much. It is most important, as in this way doctors can quickly discover what the ingredients are and take the necessary action.

My regulations will, therefore, require that all dangerous products will be labelled conspicuously with a hazard symbol, such as the skull and crossbones or a flame symbol in bright colours so that they cannot possibly be missed by either parents or children. This will be accompanied by warning words such as "Harmful" or "Highly inflammable" and various risk and safety phrases giving further advice. These will include phrases such as "Harmful if swallowed", the all-important—this cannot be emphasised too often—"Keep out of reach of children", and advice on taking the product to a doctor in case of an accident.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

What the right hon. Lady has said is most helpful. When will the House have a chance to look at the form of the regulations and to comment on them? I do not mean necessarily the finalised form.

Mrs. Oppenheim

As soon as possible. Obviously, consultations have been taking place for a considerable time. I am most anxious to introduce these regulations. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that.

Mr. Fraser

This is a sore point. Three years ago, I asked the right hon. Lady's Department to send me copies of consultative documents and it has never done so. Perhaps the consultative document could be put in the Library, especially when a Bill such as this is being introduced. It is a frequent complaint of hon. Members that they are the last to see such consultative documents. As a result of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Forrester), the matter will now take more prominence and, in view of what the right hon. Lady is likely to say about the Bill, it would be helpful if the consultative document could be placed in the Library.

Mrs. Oppenheim

I apologise if the hon. Gentleman has been spurned in that way. I shall look into the matter and see if I can help with his request.

In my view, this form of warning in a way that cannot be missed is the essential approach in dealing with the problem. It will be clear from what I have said that I entirely sympathise with and support the hon. Gentleman's intention of reducing accidental poisoning of children, but I believe that the regulations I am preparing are much the most important step in that direction.

However, I am so anxious that every possible step should be taken to prevent child poisoning and potential tragedies which might be avoided that I am considering the possibility of introducing child-resistant closures on household chemical products, in cases where it may prove to be desirable, practical and feasible, in the regulations to which I have referred. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North may not have realised, although I think that he probably does, that powers already exist under the Consumer Safety Act 1978 to require child-resistant closures for household products, so no new legislation is necessary and it is possible that his Bill could undermine the powers in that Act. To that extent, therefore, the Bill would serve no purpose and might actually do harm.

The Bill would also oblige the suppliers of pesticides and turpentine and turpentine substitute expressly to market their products with child-resistant closures. For reasons I shall now give I believe that this would be wrong and would certainly be unacceptable to the Government. I would add that, so far as I am aware—the hon. Gentleman drew attention to this—the Bill does not have the active support of any of the major consumer bodies including RoSPA.

I recognise that child resistant closures have an important role to play in medicines where a voluntary code exists. I understand that there is evidence that following their introduction there has been a reduction in accidents. However, there may be difficulties, differences and disadvantages in extending their use to household products across the board.

Unlike medicines, household products are in daily use throughout the year in all households, and any hon. Members who have fought as many battles with CRCs on pill bottles as I have—I have frequently lost fingernails and suffered even greater injuries as a result—will surely agree that we must think very carefully before rushing to fit them on everyday household products that are often used many times a day.

In my experience, many of the CRCs at present used on medicines are so difficult to use that they put some people off. There is a real danger that the use of such closures on household products may encourage people not to replace the cap at all or, worse still, to transfer the contents to another container, often a lemonade bottle, which they know can be opened easily.

In my experience, I do not believe that the design of CRCs used on medicines in this country is among the best or most effective that I have come across. I have no doubt that I shall have the industry down on my neck for having said that.

I would therefore want to consider carefully the type of closures that were available and their suitability for particular household products—what is suitable for medicines may not be suitable for bleach, for example—and to ensure as far as possible that they were less adult-proof than many.

I would want also to be selective about the products for which CRCs might be appropriate. In the Bill CRCs are required for pesticides, turps and turps substitute. It is true that turps and turps substitute figure at the top of the list of suspected child poisonings. However, 50 per cent. of the reported accidents occurred when, as the hon. Gentleman said, the product was not in its original container. That is not unexpected as turps is used, for example, for soaking paint brushes. It is poured into something like a jam jar and left with the brushes soaking in it. That will always be so. I do not see how it can be used for the purpose for which it is provided if it is still inside a child-resistant container. It is then that the child comes along and decides to use it. A child-resistant closure on the original bottle of turps would not help in reducing these accidents. A strong warning of its potential danger is likely to be more effective in encouraging parents to keep it out of the reach of children, whether decanted or not.

Pesticides are a special case because for the past 25 years their marketing, packing and labelling have been closely controlled through the pesticides safety precautions scheme, a formal agreement between the Government and industry. Under the scheme the Government give clearance for the marketing of a pesticide only after detailed scrutiny of scientific data and only when they are satisfied that provided the necessary precautions are followed the product can be used without significant risk.

In granting or withholding clearance under the scheme the Government look to the independent and expert advisory committee on pesticides for advice. Special attention is given under the scheme to pesticides intended for home or garden use, and only formulations of low toxicity are cleared for marketing for such uses. Therefore, a child would have to consume vast quantities to come to any harm. They are normally available only in relatively small containers, and it is a standard requirement that all labels should bear the phrase "keep away from children". These arrangements have ensured a good record of safe use and no serious harm should result from accidents or deliberate misuse. There is, therefore, no need to require CRCs for pesticides.

The type of control for pesticides has not proved practicable for household products generally—it would not, for example, be practicable to require products in daily household use to be sold in minute quantities. I am not prepared to require CRCs for certain products today but I am prepared to consider the case for CRCs for particular products. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that each one must be considered on its own merits after taking account of all the practical difficulties. For instance, several household products need careful handling and are sold in containers designed to avoid contact with the skin—perhaps by providing a special pouring lip. All the CRCs that I have come across involve quite difficult manoeuvring with the hands, which might easily present a hazard in itself if the product was inadvertently spilled in that way and would certainly make it more likely for the contents to come in contact with the hands, if a CRC had to be removed before the container was used.

Another important point is the question of the elderly and disabled. The Bill, to the credit of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North, acknowledges the problems which CRCs present for such people, but fails to solve them. As I said, I find many of the CRCs in current use almost impossible to open and they must be much more difficult for the elderly. I have even heard of one elderly lady who regularly asks her grandchild to open her medicines for her.

That demonstrates another point that is often forgotten: CRCs are only designed to be child-resistant. Many children find them a challenge and are perfectly adept at opening them. Yet the presence of a child-resistant closure may lull parents into a false sense of security, so that they omit to keep such containers out of the children's reach despite the fact that the children may be able to open them.

It is not sufficient simply to provide, as the Bill does, that the smallest size in any brandline may be sold in a container without a CRC. What is then to stop those with children taking the smallest size off a supermarket shelf?

Mr. Forrester

I omitted to say that that was a slight risk, but the legislation in the United States of America seems to get over that problem.

Mrs. Oppenheim

I have seen the legislation in operation in America and there is nothing to stop someone from taking such containers. The containers only state that they are not made for households in which there arc children. Anyone as short-sighted as I am would be unable, without spectacles, to read that label on a small bottle. Unlike medicines, household products are sold from the shelves. Medicines are usually handed to those who have prescriptions. However, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that such supervision would be impracticable.

For those reasons, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that, while the Government share his aim to reduce child poisoning quickly, they consider it premature to require child-resistant closures for particular products and that they are less likely to prove effective than the regulations in preparation. I reiterate that I am considering the addition of certain requirements for CRCs, should that prove, in certain cases, desirable and practicable. The Government are prepared to employ those powers where they are satisfied that that would be practicable. Given the undertakings, that I have made and the impending regulations, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be prepared to withdraw his Bill.

2.22 pm
Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

I had not intended to speak, and I shall be brief. I do not mean my next remarks as a criticism, but I hope that the Minister will be more specific—if not now, in the near future—about when the regulations under the Consumer Safety Act 1978 will come into effect. Hon. Members would appreciate seeing the proposals in draft and that would assist my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Forrester).

I do not disagree with the Minister's comments on the powers available under the Consumer Safety Act. By using the word "rigid", my hon. Friend is defining anything that is not rigid as unsafe. That is one of the Bill's problems, because the reference to rigidity might act as a restriction on the variety of materials used for child-resistant containers, rather than the other way round.

The House congratulates my hon. Friend on his fortune in the ballot and, particularly, on highlighting the subject of the Bill, even if legislation does not come to fruition. He has done the House a valuable service in giving us an opportunity to hear the Minister's proposals for further labelling and packaging regulations. While she was speaking, I thought that she might be justified in ensuring that all sink cupboards are labelled. Perhaps the proper place to put the safety warning is on the cupboard under the sink, saying "This cupboard should not be used" if children are around the house—or at any rate if the cupboard contains products that are likely to be dangerous. That is where lethal doses of such products are likely to be found—apart, of course, from the medicine cupboard in the bathroom.

That brings me to a serious point. Accidents to children can often be prevented, not only by safe packaging and labelling—sometimes there is too much labelling, so much so that people no longer take any notice of what labels say—but, and this is much more important, by care and foresight on the part of parents and babysitters. My recollection is that many of the accidents involving medicines that befell young children took place when grandparents were babysitting and mistook, let us say, camphorated oil for gripe water—or the other way round. Foresight and care on the part of those who have children in their custody count as much as labelling and safe packaging, the importance of which, of course, I seek in no way to diminish.

My hon. Friend has done a valuable service in highlighting the problem, and, although I do not entirely agree with his Bill, it has served to air the subject.

2.26 pm
Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Forrester) on his good fortune in the ballot and on the subject that he has chosen. However, I regret that I, too, do not entirely agree that this is the best way to resolve the matter.

What the hon. Gentleman said about the number of children who are sent to hospital each year—I think that it was 11, 000—is horrifying. It is even more horrifying that the figure is increasing by no less than 15 per cent. per annum, so it is a serious matter. I accept what he said about saving on hospital costs. One has to take that into account in considering road accidents, and clearly the cost of treating children in hospital is important.

I am worried by the fact that, to an increasing degree, children are managing to deal with child-resistant caps. The caps are much less of a hindrance to children, even at the early age of 3 years, than they are to some older people, who have to wrestle with a cap that has often been used before. After these caps have been used a number of times they tend to be recycled and are then difficult to open, whereas early in their life it is quite easy for children to open them if they are sufficiently determined and have the time. These caps can be a great nuisance and hindrance, particularly to old people, and when that happens they try to decant the contents into another bottle or ask for that to be done on their behalf.

The prime responsibility is properly that of parents. Parents must take care and look after their children, because there are many hazards, apart from bottles in the home, such as electric lights, and so on. It is wrong to try to take too much responsibility away from parents. We should make it clear to parents how important it is to know the contents of bottles.

When I was young, bottles that contained poison were of a certain colour and shape. I do not know why the reeded shape and dark colour of bottles that used to contain poisons is no longer common practice. It was a ready and suitable method of telling parents that they had to be careful about what they did with the bottles and that the under-the-sink cupboard was not an appropriate place to keep them.

I should like to think that my right hon. Friend's comment that the matter is being dealt with through a consultative document means that the document will be brought forward as soon as possible so that hon. Members can debate it and see whether any action needs to be taken. My right hon. Friend has made clear her determination, wherever possible, to extend the use of child-resistant caps to other products—

It being half past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 30 April.

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