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Column 1260that companies that get involved in waste disposal as an enterprise in itself for profit may occasionally be motivated to attract more profitable business.
For example, when the Karin B was cruising round the North Sea the Minister said that if we had had the best facilities we should have been very glad to take its cargo and dispose of it. In a pure free-market economic sense, and possibly even in an environmental sense, there might be some plausible merit in that argument, but I do not think that it is politically or publicly acceptable. The Government should simply acknowledge that fact.
The public feel that, certainly until such time as we have the whole issue of waste management fully under control, we should not be taking waste from other sources. I think the Minister will find that, if things do not change rapidly over the next five years, more incidents of that kind will simply create greater and greater public resentment, and she will find her job becoming somewhat unacceptable. That is obviously a matter for her to judge, but I feel that she should accept what I am saying.
The hon. Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost) has said that we in the United Kingdom are fairly low in the pecking order of countries that burn their waste. The amount burnt in the United Kingdom is 10 per cent., compared with 31 per cent. in Germany, 32 per cent. in the Netherlands, and 37 per cent. in France. So we have very considerable room for improvement. On the whole, provided that it can be done efficiently and safely and with minimal pollution, and that the appropriate action is taken to ensure the right standards, incineration is preferable to landfill, for many of the reasons that the hon. Member for Erewash gave. I do not think that he will be surprised to know that I endorse his commitment to perhaps replacing existing plants, not only to ensure that they are more efficient but to link them with electricity generation and possible district heating schemes.
I know that the hon. Gentleman suffered from what might, from his point of view, have been embarrassing publicity because of his declared interest. I would say that he is at least one Member who--even if he is making money out of it--has a consistent and long-held interest, and is respected on both sides of the House for the depth of his commitment and for his particular expertise. In some ways he has been rather more unfairly attacked on that score than other hon. Members on other occasions. This is, in my view, a legitimate area of concern. I know of local authorities that would like to expand district heating associated with the disposal of rubbish in their area, and I hope that the Government will give a positive lead to encouraging such a move.
That raises a point already touched on by the hon. Member for Stoke-on- Trent, North : the ability of local authorities to provide the finance to upgrade or improve their provision. The hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory), who has now left, intervened to suggest that there was no clear message. I thought that there was a fairly clear message : if local authorities are to become involved--both sides of the House seemed to acknowledge that they should, and should continue to be involved--they need some indication that they will be able to fund any investment that they propose to make, particularly if they are being constrained by either European Commission directives or directives imposed by the United Kingdom Government.
Authorities have, I think, become considerably resentful of finding themselves required by laws, whether
Column 1261European Community or United Kingdom Government laws, to take actions that cost money on either the capital or the current account, and then being accused by the Government of overspending and profligacy and faced with what is in many cases unfair criticism. The Government must be prepared to play the game, and-- particularly if they want to follow through their own claimed commitment to give environmental issues a high priority--to recognise that such issues should be properly accounted for when local authorities are framing their capital and current spending budgets.
One or two cases have been highlighted of significant pollution and possibly even illness related to existing plants. The briefing material for the debate suggests that the country is in a fairly poor state in this regard. I am glad to say that a plant that caused considerable concern in Scotland, the Rechem plant at Bonnybridge, has closed, although it was closed not because of environmental or public concern but for economic reasons.
That plant had become a cause celebre illustrating the problems of living near a not fully controlled plant that was disposing of toxic waste. There was an upsurge of twinning in the area among both cattle and humans, as well as illnesses and irritations and the suggestion of a significant incidence of abortion among cattle. That seemed statistically to be directly attributable to the plant, and appears to have stopped since it closed. Such problems cause genuine public anxiety, and demonstrate the need for increasingly raised standards. I notice also that there is considerable concern about the quality of disposal and incineration by hospitals. I have a list of the "dirty dozen" hospitals that fall well below standard : Canterbury, Greenwich, Camden, Norwich, Cardiff, Welwyn, Sheffield, Dundee, Hemel Hempstead, Kettering, Bradford and Gateshead. I do not know whether the Government acknowledge those examples as problems ; if they do, do they feel that something should be done about them? What will the Minister's Department do--or does she consider it a matter for the Department of Health?
Another interesting aspect of--in my view--the lack of a co-ordinated environmental approach, and the reason why I think a different ministerial structure may be necessary, is that a series of questions that I tabled recently asking each Government Department what it was doing to advance its concerns and involvement in environmental matters were all referred to the Department of the Environment, which rather defeated the purpose of my questions. It is, of course, fairly standard ministerial practice to pass the buck, but the Government must do a little better than that when such questions are tabled. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North also mentioned--correctly, within this debate--recycling. Recycling and air pollution are connected issues. In my view, where there are no other sources, rubbish should be burned, rather than used for infill, and should be burned in an efficient and non-polluting way, preferably with useful by- products, but we must raise our performance on recycling. I want to quote a specific example, which is of great concern to my own area and to people employed in my own constituency. Together with the hon. Members for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) and for Aberdeen, South
Column 1262(Mr. Doran), I was recently lobbied by Davidson's paper company in Aberdeen. The company is very concerned about the shortage of waste paper, which is its prime raw material and which can crucially affect its business. The Government, through the Scottish Development Agency, may be sponsoring a new development--which is not confirmed yet--that will use recycled waste paper as its raw material. Given that the Davidson's plant is funamentally dependent on waste paper, the consequence will be to mop up all Britain's surplus of current recycled waste paper. That will create a shortage that will force up the price of waste paper, unless action is taken, and could threaten the existence of the Davidson's plant in Aberdeen.
Davidson's employs 650 people directly and is now trading at full capacity and extremely profitably, manufacturing lining papers for plasterboard as its prime product. I am sure that the Minister can appreciate that there is a serious cause for concern and that it would be a blow if such a plant closed. According to the management of Davidson's, Britain's record of recycling waste paper is almost the worst in the European Community--only Ireland's record is worse--so we should be doing more. Our performance in this respect is 29 per cent., whereas in Sweden, which is a major competitor in paper, the figure is 70 per cent. The Minister will recognise that there is considerable room for closing the gap. That would be economically beneficial, as well as environmentally and ecologically sound. Having just returned from the European Commission and having heard comments from Members of all parties, I believe that these take note debates on European Commission directives are an unsatisfactory way for the development of policy to proceed. I believe that the House should have more input in the production of such directives. We have late-night, poorly attended debates simply to take note of a directive, in which the House has had no input, on a
take-it-or-leave-it basis--in fact it is a take-it basis, because we are not allowed to leave it in practical terms under the treaty, rather than under the powers of the House.
These issues need to be brought up properly and I hope that the Minister will fight for more time in the House to give hon. Members an opportunity to debate directives before they are finalised. There are hon. Members who have useful contributions to make and, although the Minister may be proud that she has amended the directive, it would be helpful if hon. Members of all parties had some input in the process. That might even strengthen the Minister's hand as well. Having said that, I am glad that we have a debate, although it is unfortunate that it is in circumstances in which important issues are swept under the carpet. We shall have to return to them. However, I hope that our comments have been of some help.
Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North) : This debate takes note. The truth is that we should all take note of the fact that when we speak of energy efficiency, savings or waste, the House is empty, whatever the hour. It is important, when we discuss directives such as this, that we make some attempt at input, albeit after the paper is written. Each
Column 1263hon. Member who has spoken so far has found me nodding in agreement, but--alas--we are, as always, too few to make this the stimulating debate it should be.
The word "waste" is, in itself, the wrong word to use. The opposite of waste can be "saving", just as it can be all sorts of things. But the one thing about waste in the world of energy is that it is truly wasteful. It is truly wasteful to take stuff and churn it up a chimney and destroy it, even if it is cleaned en route. There is so much that could be saved. Ask anyone who has worked on the bins when an undergraduate. It is amazing how much there is to be picked up among what the rest of us throw away. We live in a rich society. We are more wasteful than would have been imaginable a century or so back. We are rich beyond the dreams of those in the Third world, yet we waste and waste.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost) promotes the sensible cause of combined heat and power. If we must incinerate, for goodness' sake let us use the heat for something useful. Many years ago in the county of Devon, we built a refuse incinerator to burn waste. We could and should have used it to heat the adjacent factory sites which cost too much to heat but the heat went up the chimney and all the factories used fossil fuel, oil or gas. They used none of the waste, which still rises to the sky.
I am sorry to use the word "waste" so often, but it is worth mentioning it because the great problem with the directive is that it will achieve precisely what it sets out to avoid. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) about the market, although we disagree on how the market should work. Most of the refuse incineration plants that I know, if not elderly, have had some jolly hard wear and over a five-year period the money will be used but it will not be used logically. It would be far better to be generous and use the new, clean forms of incineration rather than saying, "Here is a loan sanction. Here are a few hundred thousand pounds to bring up to date the technology of the last decade and even further back." The money could be used, but what would happen? I suspect that the outcome will be simple and straightforward. It will not be worth while--market forces again--to incinerate waste, so it will literally be driven underground. There will be more landfill sites. Again, I mention the humble totter, or the student who picks up the odd thing from a dustbin. Anyone who has seen the countryside around our great towns knows how wasteful we are--how we dump bedspreads, mattresses and anything else that we can get rid of because it might cost us too much to dispose of it in any other way. I fear that this directive, which is excellent in principle--it tells us to be more careful and to be cleaner-- will simply drive people to find cheaper and more awful forms of disposal. The vessel that plied the seas trying to find somewhere to dump the rubbish of the world, was only one example. It was the one that was noticed. I wonder how many are not noticed. I give a word of strange and almost sorrowful warning.
The directive refers to domestic rubbish. In the large village of Yelland, quite near Barnstaple, our excellent South West water authority has obtained permission to burn the bits and pieces left over from the sewage works. The residents are up in arms because the chimney is 30ft tall, but it is a good sensible authority and it has obtained planning permission. Such schemes will not be covered by
Column 1264the directive, which clearly excludes municipal waste. Article 1 tells us that we are talking exclusively of waste which
"by its composition, can be considered to be equivalent to domestic waste to the exclusion of chemical, toxic and special waste and sewage sludge."
I must be honest : these are far more horrible things than any domestic waste, even though our plastic bins, bottles and cartons may be a mess and a nuisance. The directive will make it impossible ever to build an economic incineration plant in the future. We shall need such plants, but we shall not get them because, as someone once said, "You can't buck the market." Within the advisory papers, it is mentioned that the directive may catch those refuse-derived fuels. There are, for example, the fuel pellets an incredibly sensible way of using waste--which are compacted and burnt. If by accident those fuels are caught in the directive, there is something very wrong with the drafting, which we, of course, cannot amend.
Three years ago, I suppose, the world was full of energy-efficient breakfasts. The intention was that we would save a fortune by energy efficiency, but the sad problem for breakfast time--and, I am sure, for the energy-efficient bacon and eggs--was that we came towards the witching hour and we began to talk about how to dispose by burning. We are a truly wasteful economy. Incineration is not a logical answer unless everything else has been redeemed, reused and recycled. Waste is wasteful unless we do something sensible and useful with the waste products.
Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield) : I shall be as brief as possible so as to give other hon. Members the opportunity to speak because those present are interested in this problem. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) and the Minister on their contributions. I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North, to this debate because she is a member of the National Society for Clean Air, as I have been for many years, so we have a particular interest in pollution.
I welcome the directive from the EEC on what we should be doing about pollution, but I disagree with some of the points that have been made and especially with the hon. Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost) when he said that we should have more landfill and less incineration.
Mr. Haynes : No, I will not give way. To save time, I will clarify the position. The hon. Gentleman was obviously saying that if we have incineration we must do it properly and efficiently and not waste the heat produced. I believe, however, that we should do away with landfill altogether.
Mr. Rost rose--
I disagree entirely with landfill because I have had years of experience on local authorities with responsibility for collecting refuse and dumping it. We have had experience of landfill in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Crooked
Column 1265contractors have been using the same areas as the local authority and dumping toxic waste. That practice is not confined to Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire--it is nation-wide. Apart from possible toxicity, what is dumped is also filth. Often the dumps are near domestic properties, which is not pleasant for residents and there are usually complaints. I visited my local authority to look at the list of residents who had complained about nuisances such as rats all over the place. That is not good for health, it is not good for pollution control and the sooner we do away with landfill disposal of waste the better off we shall be.
I agree with the views expressed by the hon. Member for Erewash about incineration. We need to improve our system of incineration. It needs to be used efficiently. We need all the new equipment available to enable us to deal with it efficiently and at the same time to contribute towards the heating of domestic properties and to help industry as well. In so doing, we would also be helping the economy. One of the problems that I fear is that the Government will slowly but surely destroy local authorities. If the Conservatives continue in office after the next General Election, which God forbid, they will destroy the local authorities. They are taking away the services one by one. The local authorities will have nothing to do and their responsibilities will be shoved into the hands of the private sector. Then we shall have problems with incineration.
One matter which concerns me but which has not been mentioned so far is the massive reduction in the number of Her Majesty's inspectors in all Departments, especially in relation to energy. There has also been a massive reduction in the number of inspectors of mines and quarries. If we are not careful, it will happen again--we need Her Majesty's inspectors to keep everybody on their toes, in the interests of people who need the service.
In north Derbyshire, property was blown to smithereens because of the combustion of methane. Luckily, nobody was killed. That type of thing can happen with landfill. That is why I am against it. The Minister does a lot of travelling in the course of her job, and she is interested in it. The Minister for Roads and Traffic, the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), probably travels in a different direction in his job relating to roads, road safety, and so on. Obviously, they do not get together very often, but they must do sometimes, if only when they get to bed. When they have a little discussion at bedtime, I hope that they will discuss motor vehicle pollution. I am concerned about lorries, buses and deregulation. There are some real spivs on the roads. We must do something about the problem. I hope that the Minister will have a word with the hon. Gentleman about it one of these nights when they go to bed. 11.15 pm
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : My hon. Friend the Minister and I have taken a little bit of stick from the parliamentary sketch writers in the past few days. Although her loss was certainly my gain, I am certain that I speak for everybody who was on the delegation from the Isle of Wight who went to see my hon. Friend. Such was the charming way in which she received us and listened to our problems about waste-derived fuel, that, on that occasion, her gain was the Isle of Wight's loss.
Column 1266I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) participating in the debate. It is the first occasion on which she has led a debate for the Opposition. I took part with her in the first World Service debate about the Tory green initiative. I want to throw not a pebble but a pellet into the pool. I have been something of a financial agnostic in terms of waste-derived fuel. I have no argument with anything that has been said tonight about incineration, but I have serious doubts about the economy of first pelletising rubbish before it is burned.
Although I can appreciate the desire to find some use for the contents of our rubbish bins, as my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost) mentioned, there is considerable concern about the problem of dioxins. I direct the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to the Department of Energy's energy technology support unit, which views refuse-derived fuel primarily as an energy source rather than a method of waste disposal. It has written to the Department of the Environment and said that there should be a temporary exemption from the conditions of this EEC directive on emissions from combustion of waste to allow appropriate control measures to be assessed.
It has stated that refuse-derived fuel will be burned in industrial scale combusters, designed or modified for its properties, and set up to minimise emissions to levels equivalent to those generated by combustion of oil, gas or coal when conforming with existing pollution control requirements of member states for those fuels. We have had to take considerable advice from the Warren Springs laboratory, and we have had to install some tall chimneys to allow waste-derived fuel pellets to be consumed in boilers, because of the problem of dioxins. It is extraordinary that we have an environmental initiative for the conversion of the contents of our rubbish bins to pellets for combustion purposes, but, at the same time, we are saying that we need some relaxation of emission controls to allow those pellets to be burned.
Surely that is an extraordinary state of affairs. Because of sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions from power stations, we are spending £170 million cleaning up the emissions from 12 of our major coal-fired power stations, but, to start on this method of converting rubbish, we are considering relaxing emission controls. That is contrary to our policy of cleaning up the environment. We ought to address that matter seriously before adopting the EC directive.
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley : This has been a constructive, useful and wide-ranging debate. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me if I return to the subject of the draft directive before spreading more widely.
In her remarks, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley), whom I too welcome to her position, suggested that the Government had not taken many steps on pollution, especially air pollution. But we are bringing forward a coherent and integrated series of measures to deal with waste. With regard to air pollution, many plans were in hand well before the draft directive was produced.
For some time we have been aware of the need to strengthen controls on incineration. We had already proposed domestic changes before the directives appeared. In December 1986, in the first major review of air pollution
Column 1267control policy for 30 years, we produced a consultation paper that proposed that municipal waste incinerators should be included with new processes to be brought under the control of Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. This would involve their becoming subject to a system of prior authorisation and being required to use the best practical means to prevent or render harmless any noxious or offensive emissions.
The responses to this 1986 consultation paper generally welcome the proposal and are very much in line with these measures. We aim to lay regulations before the House shortly to implement the change. The requirements of the new plant directive are generally in line with those standards that Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution would have imposed on new plants in any case, through its well-established system of national consultation with industry on the best practical means of minimising air pollution from each category of scheduled plant.
In the light of her remarks about air pollution measures, is the Minister concerned about the letter that I have here from the National Society for Clean Air, which suggests that the reorganisation inside Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution might well lead to a further reduction in morale, and resignations? Can the Minister assure me that those concerned in Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution with air pollution will continue at the same strength?
Mrs. Bottomley : Indeed I can, most robustly. The pollution inspectorate has been mentioned often during the debate. I want to make two things clear. First, when we are dealing with pollution that goes into the air, into the land or the water, it is essential to have an integrated approach. The purpose of the proposals planned for our green Bill is that we should have legislative backing for an integrated system of pollution control.
Secondly, there have recently been a further 13 appointments to the pollution inspectorate, many of which are to deal with wastes. I am convinced that I can reassure the hon. Lady robustly on those fronts.
There has been some discussion about the relative merits of landfill and incineration as means of waste disposal. My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash and many others have referred to that. Properly controlled and conducted, landfill is a safe and dependable means of disposal for most of our domestic waste, about 88 per cent. of which is disposed of in that manner. Some 10 per cent. of domestic waste is incinerated, but, as I have explained, all the municipal plants were built in the late 1960s and early 1970s and now need updating or replacing.
We expect to see landfill continue as the main disposal method, but we want improved operating standards, which means a concentration on larger sites and the disappearance of the small bad-neighbour sites. Unit costs for landfill are bound to rise, but that is a price that local authorities must be prepared to pay in the interests of the environment.
In some regions where there appears to be a prospective shortfall of landfill sites towards the end of the century, there are already suggestions that a new wave of municipal incinerators may come on stream, as well as those which will be required to replace plants in some areas as the new standards have to be met.
Column 1268There is no doubt--I appreciate the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash who is particularly knowledgeable and experienced in this area--that the new plants will need to be planned on a large scale and developed to highly sophisticated standards to be economically and technically viable, which will require co-operation and planning between local authorities. There are many interesting and important prospects there for co-operation with the private sector.
One feature of the new plant is bound to be the inclusion of suitable methods of recovery of heat or the generation of power. At present that is a feature of only five of our municipal incinerators. In the rest of Europe 80 per cent. of domestic refuse incinerators have some form of heat recovery. We need to catch up on such possibilities for turning our refuse to good use when the opportunity arises, and I know that that will be greatly welcomed.
Many hon. Members have had a rather sterile debate about whether waste disposal should be undertaken by the private or the public sector. It is essential that, wherever waste is disposed of, and whichever sector is responsible, it must be regulated properly and the regulations must be properly enforced. Often, after a particular incident, proper steps are not taken and enforced.
The Government's proposed new legislation for waste generally proposes the establishment of waste regulation authorities to take over from the waste disposal authorities. We are not removing that duty from local authorities. Those who suggest that the Government want to see the end of local government should take heart from the fact that, as a result our consultation on which was the most appropriate authority to deal with waste regulation, we have decided that the local authority is the right and proper one.
It is essential that the site dealing with the waste, whether it is an incinerator, a landfill site or anything else, should be properly regulated. There is no question of turning a blind eye on the private sector any more than on the public sector. That is what the public expect, and that is what the Government will make sure they receive. The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) spoke about hospital incinerators, on which some hon. Members have questioned our intentions. They are, along with other specified waste schemes, specifically excluded from the remit of the directive, but we expect further proposals on that from Brussels. As part of the changes that we are making for domestic reasons, we intend to bring large clinical waste incinerators, those capable of burning more than 1 tonne of waste an hour, under HMIP control immediately. We further propose to strengthen control on all smaller clinical waste incinerators. I hope that that will reassure the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to paper recycling. His remarks will be noted by many. We are particularly interested in paper recycling and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), is currently organising a series of initiatives to draw attention to the increased prospects of that business and to develop it further. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) made a series of remarks with not all of which I agree, although I hope that he will take confidence from the increased staffing at HMIP. With regard to his questions about emissions of motor vehicles, this is one of the few subjects about which I speak from time to time to the
Column 1269Under-Secretary of State for Transport. Indeed, I hope he will feel some hope that the campaign for unleaded petrol is now taking off and meeting with a great measure of success.
These two draft directives extend the useful work achieved by the Community through the air pollution framework directive in encouraging harmonisation of environmental controls on key sectors of industry. They offer significant benefits to the environment of Britain and to the Community and I have pleasure in commending them to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of European Community Documents No. 5142/88 and the Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Department of the Environment on 20th February 1989 on air pollution from municipal waste incineration plants ; and calls upon the Government to support the introduction of appropriately stringent controls on air pollution from such plants.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.)
That the draft Industrial Training Levy (Construction Board) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 30th January, be approved.
That the draft Grants to the Redundant Churches Fund Order 1988, which was laid before this House on 7th November 1988, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.
That the draft Matrimonial and Family Proceedings (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendment) Order 1988, which was laid before this House on 1st December, be approved.
That the draft Matrimonial and Family Proceedings (Northern Ireland) Order 1988, which was laid before this House on 1st December, be approved.-- [Mr. Dorrell.]
Question agreed to.
That Mr. Barry Porter be discharged from the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services) and Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. David Hunt.]
Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Dorrell.]
Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South) : Most Adjournment debates are very specific--specific to a constituency, specific perhaps to an individual situation. Many of them involve complex issues where the hon. Member speaking requires a great deal of time, probably more than he gets, to marshal his case and advance his arguments. But my debate tonight raises a matter that vitally affects every household, every person, in the country and yet is a matter of the utmost simplicity. It concerns safety in the home.
The common myth is that, when we have shut our doors to the outside world, we have immediately entered a safe and secure environment. Nothing, I am afraid, could be further from the truth. Putting aside for one moment the dangers that come from criminality--the burglar, the housebreaker or perhaps even worse--the true position is that in terms of personal safety the home is one of the most dangerous places to be.
One of the most common forms of accident is that which occurs in the home itself. These home-based accidents arise from many causes, but a small though significant proportion involve electrically powered products. Some arise from the goods themselves, because of faulty manufacture. Others, though, are the result of faulty wiring of the appliance to the plug that connects the machine to the electricity circuit.
Every year in this country there are approximately 2,000 non-fatal accidents involving electric plugs, which necessitate medical treatment. The June 1988 edition of "Care in the Home", published by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, illustrates some of the more tragic cases. A 55-year-old woman died when she touched a live washing machine because there was a loose wire in the plug. A boy of 14 died using an electric iron because the earth wire in the plug touched the live pin, making the iron live. These are tragedies that could possibly have been avoided, particularly where the cause was the faulty wiring of the plug to the electrical appliance. Frankly, I am surprised that there are not more such accidents, because an estimated 75 million domestic household appliances are sold in the United Kingdom every year. I say this because some of the evidence of ignorance in these matters is a little startling. A random survey of 45 homes carried out by the Consumers Association found that 43 had at least one that was incorrectly wired and 25 per cent. of those plugs also had wrongly fitted fuses. A larger and more independent survey involving 1,000 people found that 198 of those questioned--nearly 20 per cent.--did not know how to fit a plug to an electrical machine. It also showed that 761 of those people did not have a clue about the correct fuse rating required for the electrical appliance concerned.
To their credit, the Government have not stood idly by. They have recognised that they have a role to play and have acted to deal with part of the problem. The Plugs and Sockets Etc. (Safety) Regulations 1987--not exactly bedtime reading, but very important none the less--now require all 13 amp plugs supplied in Britain to be approved by an authorised body. That is a major advance. They deal
Column 1271with potentially lethal plugs which were previously allowed into this country from abroad. I welcome those regulations.
However, while those regulations are designed to ensure that plugs that are sold are safe, they do absolutely nothing to overcome the problems inherent in the faulty wiring of a plug by a consumer. No matter how good or safe the plug, it is of little use if the person who wires the plug to an electrical appliance does it badly or incorrectly.
I can do no better than quote the consumer safety unit at the Department of Trade and Industry, which noted in a report in 1984 : "The connection of a flexible cord to a mains plug by an unskilled user is fraught with danger."
Mr. Deputy Speaker, you may welcome the arrival of a new domestic appliance at home with the confidence that you can respond to your wife's request that the plug should be fitted with ease and safety. If that is so, you have my admiration. I am not in that happy position. The question of who is to fit the plug in my home is a matter of spirited debate, which I inevitably lose. I certainly fall into the category and the description of the "unskilled user" in the report from the Department of Trade and Industry.
The answer to the problem in my house and in thousands of houses around the country is very simple and there to be taken. We do not simply need safe plugs ; we must have safe plugs and safe wiring of plugs to the appliances. That can be achieved very easily, quickly and simply by compelling the provision of moulded-on plugs by manufacturers of household electrical equipment. That would ensure that plugs are fitted correctly and safely, and are equipped with the correct fuse rating and that the purchaser is saved the time, effort and most importantly the potential danger, of having to fit the plug to the equipment himself.
Moulded on plugs are undoubtedly safer because all the internal wire connections are crimped. There are no internal terminal screws which can be worked lose and no cord grip screws to pull away. The only working part accessible to the consumer is the fuse, which is mounted externally and which can be changed in seconds in the event of a fault.
Faced with what I believe are those compelling facts, what are the arguments that have persuaded my hon. Friend the Minister, and in fairness his predecessor, to take no action to force manufacturers to fit moulded plugs to electrical equipment along the lines that I have suggested? The first argument which I know will have great appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister is that all this smacks of the nanny state and that we would be imposing a burden on the manufacturers to compensate for the sins of the purchasers who should be able to fit plugs properly to electrical appliances. Is it not such a simple job, runs that view, that it is no part of Government's function to ensure what people should, or more properly should not, leave off their products?
Such an argument, which has its place in certain circumstances and with which in some cases I would have sympathy, ignores the fact that the Government determined the standards that should apply to plugs. It ignores, too, the simple fact that those who purchase electrical products may not have the understanding, skill or competence to fit plugs to the appliances. They may be elderly, blind or physically or mentally disabled. They may have arthritis or similar diseases in their hands. What are
Column 1272they to do? They can rely on a friend, go to the expense of engaging an electrician or, worse, try to do the job themselves, perhaps inadequately or unsafely.
All that is unnecessary. The potential dangers are unnecessary when the requirement for the plug to be fitted before purchase could easily be done on the production line in the factory at no additional expense, for the plug would be paid for when the machine or appliance was purchased, rather than at a later stage.
The second argument against my proposal is similar to the first. It is that it imposes compulsion rather than encouragement on manufacturers to fit moulded plugs. The problem with merely encouraging them, rather than effectively telling them, to do so--leaving it to their discretion--is that manufacturers are unlikely to feel that they should do it if other manufacturers will offer a marginally cheaper product by not fitting the moulded plug. By requiring all manufacturers to fit moulded plugs to their products, we would ensure a common cost base line, giving no advantage to any manufacturer and, above all, providing a service to all purchasers.
The argument which the Minister has already used against my proposal--he used it when replying to questions in the House in December--is that between 5 and 10 per cent. of households still use the old 15 amp round pin plug and socket. For those households, he said, there could be a problem of expense and inconvenience. I understand that official statistics were last collected by the Electricity Council about 10 years ago, when figures similar to those mentioned by the Minister were found ; 92 per cent. of homes, the council said, had 13 amp square pin plugs and 8 per cent. had round plugs. But those are old figures on which to base a view. Figures released in 1984, only five years ago, by the Electrical Installation Equipment Manufacturers' Association showed that only 3.6 per cent. of its sales were for the old 15 amp system, and that figure is likely to be considerably less five years on, in 1989.
I am sorry if my proposal would cause some inconvenience to a tiny proportion of households, but the Government have rightly acted in other areas of policy when it has been right to do so for the majority. And even for the small minority who would be adversely affected, the safety argument is overriding.
A number of manufacturers in this country on a voluntary basis now fit moulded plugs to their products, but they are a small proportion and, generally, we are at variance with the practice overseas. Moulded-on or pre -wired plugs are standard in most other parts of the world--in the United States, in Australasia and in the Common Market but here in Britain we stick to the same old obstacle course for any consumer who buys an electrical product.
It is ironic that the Minister's Department is rightly proclaiming the need to get with it for 1992, to have common European standards and to follow EC directives, sometimes at considerable inconvenience to our people, yet here is a proposal which would be of tremendous advantage and where we should be following our European friends. If I had suggested to the Minister before he bought his last motor car that it would come without tyres and that before he could use it he would have to buy the tyres in another shop, take them home and fit them himself, he would have regarded such a proposal as absolutely barmy.