Cosmetics (Consumer Protection)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd August 1978.

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Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Lambeth Norwood 12:00 am, 3rd August 1978

I know about hexachloroethane. I learnt about that during the first week I was a Minister. I learnt it through an intervention of my hon. Friend.

There is the ability within the regulations, if there is a suspect substance, to advance beyond the scope of the regulations and to ban or to make provision for that substance.

My hon. Friend mentioned chloroform in toothpaste. The possible health risk is under consideration by an expert advisory committee of the Department of Health and Social Security. I shall consider what action, if any, needs to be taken when its advice is received. There is no need to delay the making of the regulations on that account. Cosmetics are not the prerogative of women. I cannot imagine that some of our early prizefighters used perfume, but nowadays the sweet scent of victory is something that one has to splash over oneself.

However, cosmetics can be harmful and, as my hon. Friend said, they can be lethal. There is a gap in our safety legislation which the regulations will fill. I hope that this will give some reassurance. My hon. Friend said that an item might be missed from regulations or that a product might become suspect in the future. I am sure that she will be reassured by what I am about to tell her.

The regulations will impose a novel comprehensive and important duty upon manufacturers, importers and "own brand" retailers—namely, a duty not to sell, or possess for sale, a cosmetic product liable to damage human health under normal conditions of use. Whatever the details of the regulations, there will be an overriding duty of care coupled with a criminal sanction. The details of the regulations will stipulate that cosmetic products may not be formulated with any of more than 350 listed substances. A list of permitted colouring is also provided.

Provision is also made for the marking of containers or packaging with information as to the identity of the manufacturer or seller of the product and batch marking, which will facilitate the tracing of any non-complying products. There will be the same facility to trace products as we have seen in the recent tinned salmon case. Furthermore, any particular precautions to be observed in the use of the product must also be explained to the consumer.

The directive enables member States to prohibit provisionally the marketing of any product which is considered to be a hazard to health, even though it complies with the existing requirements of the directive as regards composition, labelling, and so forth. If medical advice indicated that any particular substance, although permitted, was hazardous, we should take the appropriate action—if necessary by means of new regulations under the Consumer Safety Act 1978.

Among the products covered by the regulations are soaps, creams, lotions and oils for the skin, make-up products, perfumes and toilet waters, bath salts, foams, depilatories, deodorants and anti-perspirants, hair care products, shaving creams and lotions, toothpastes and lipsticks and—appropriately, since we are going on vacation—sunbathing products.

Just a few months ago there was considerable publicity concerning the use among Asian families of eye cosmetics which contain lead sulphide called surma. Such products probably present little risk to health when used as intended, but there is an obvious danger of ingestion, particularly by children. The cosmetics regulations will prohibit the use of lead and its compounds—with certain exceptions for small concentrations of lead acetate—and this will mean that the sale of these products will be illegal.

The regulations will also provide that cosmetic products containing certain known allergens must be labelled with the name of the substance concerned. Consumers who are sensitive to these substances will therefore be able to avoid purchasing unsuitable goods. I hope that that goes some way to meet my hon. Friend's concern about these substances which consumers might wish to discriminate against because they are allergic to them.

The introduction of these safety regulations does not mark the end of our work on cosmetic products. The European Commission is continuing to hold discussions with member States, consumer organisations and the cosmetics industry with a view to the production of lists of substances which are safe for use in cosmetics. These will be "positive" lists which will in due course be substituted for the existing "negative" lists. This has been a massive task, involving the study by toxicologists of data concerning the use of many hundreds of substances, many of them exceedingly complex chemicals. When the directive is amended to take account of this work, we shall be under an obligation to amend our own regulations in similar fashion, and this we shall do following consultations with all interested parties.

My hon. Friend asked not only about the banning of surma and its illegality but about steps taken to inform people about the danger of using it. I have done a television programme on the subject, although I do not say that that is enough. Officials in my Department have sent warnings to all consumer protection enforcement authorities, and we have had the co-operation of community relations organisations and immigrant language newsapers in getting the message across. We have done whatever we have been able to do to make the cosmetic illegal and to warn people of the dangers of using it and also against bringing it in, perhaps as a result of a holiday on the Indian sub-continent.

Finally, the cosmetics regulations are just one example of a series of consumer safety regulations being made this year. Regulations relating to the labelling and packaging of hazardous substances and to the manufacture of babies' dummies have already been made. I hope shortly to make a further set of regulations on the safe construction of prams and pushchairs. Work is also in hand on regulations to implement a Euratom directive under which the use of ionising radiation products will require prior authorisation.

This all adds up to a considerable speeding up of measures under consumer safety legislation. From the introduction of the Consumer Protection Act in 1961 until the end of last year, 14 sets of regulations had been made. The making this year of a further four sets indicates the importance which I attach to protecting British people from hazardous products which still find their way on to the market.

This is not to suggest that in general British manufacturers ignore the wellbeing of their consumers. They do not. Many companies carry out extensive testing programmes before introducing new products. Moreover, it is our policy to secure voluntary co-operation in resisting shoddy, dangerous workmanship, and in the overwhelming majority of cases such co-operation is freely and willingly given. But safety regulations arc essential to set the standards by which responsible manufacturers and traders can operate and to enforce reasonable practice in the instances where carelessness or the desire for quick profits may lead to the marketing of dangerous goods.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising these matters and I wish her and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a happy vacation—and that is not just cosmetic.