A German friend could not believe it when she first came to London and bought a washing machine for her flat (actually, she couldn't believe that she needed to buy a washing machine for the flat - but that's another story). The appliance was delivered, she went to plug it in, and found the traditional three bare wires poking out at her. It took several phone calls, to the suppliers, manufacturers, trading standards officers and the electricity board showrooms (and to her grandmother in Hannover!) to persuade her that this wasn't some ghastly confidence trick but was, in fact, standard procedure.
British electrical goods were simply not supplied with the plugs necessary to ensure their safe connection to the mains supply. Why? Would the new owners object to the colour of the plug, and prefer to choose their own? Was there a suspicion that buyers had their own secret electricity supplies, with a strange non-standard wiring system?
No, the reason was cost. The manufacturers reasoned that, on a washing machine retailing at pounds 400, they could save 50 pence on the plug and, since there was no regulation saying they had to provide one, they left it off. Capitalism at its glorious best.
How many people have been electrocuted as a result of this policy? The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) used to report an average of 200 plug-related accidents every year, a handful of which caused fatalities. The safe fitting of the three wires into the standard British plug is not a simple task, even for those blessed with nimble fingers. For many, it can be daunting. It's easy to mix up the brown and blue wires, which can mean that even if a main fuse blows, the brown wire remains live.
And the worst case I have seen is where the green-and-yellow earth wire was mixed up with the blue neutral: the metal bedside reading lamp worked, but if anything had gone wrong, its owner may not have climbed out of bed the next morning.
Meanwhile, my German friend, with admirable teutonic logic, simply demanded that the man from the electricity board showroom came round and fitted the plug for her, which he meekly did.
It was only in 1996 that RoSPA's campaign resulted in the mandatory fitting of plugs to all new appliances. However, some of the plugs used are the old re-wireable variety, manually fitted in the Far East, and accidents can still occur. RoSPA's advice is only to buy appliances with factory- fitted moulded plugs.
When even New Labour is talking about easing the strictures of "red tape" on businesses, let's be thankful that European health and safety regulations, and a proposed harmonisation of the electricity supply system, should mean that no-one in the future will have to risk their lives fitting a plug to a new toaster.