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Column 124contacts were made with student organisations, special leaflets were issued for landlords, and general leaflets were issued to the general public. However, when I asked several of my colleagues whether they had noticed gas safety week last September, the majority said that they had not. That is the problem.
Several years ago, when people died in similar circumstances, a major national campaign was instituted. I recall television programmes along the lines of current programmes about fire prevention. Those programmes graphically illustrated the results of bad gas appliances. I hope that the Minister will tell us of measures that will follow along those lines. I hope that there will be measures to protect young people in flats.
With regard to enforcement, section 11 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 needs to be followed more rigorously. New regulations could strengthen matters to ensure that the tragedies to which I have referred do not recur. The Health and Safety Executive's pipe gas sub-committee, which may sound old-fashioned and boring, want to table amendments as part of the HSE's review to make it a statutory obligation on landlords to ensure that appliances are serviced properly. I hope that the Minister will tell us that the Government will be prepared to accept those changes in the regulations. The Building Regulations Advisory Committee wants to introduce regulations to ensure that notifications of the construction of flues to local authorities is made a statutory requirement, so that local authority inspectors can ensure that flues are not blocked by debris and that the proper materials have been used to ensure that flues are safe.
I hope that those are the kind of regulations that the Minister supports. However, in the near future, two factors could aggravate the situation we already face. I understand the reason for the reduction in the number of gas showrooms. That is a financial consideration for British Gas, which wants central showrooms in large cities.
I am concerned that there are fewer gas showrooms where people can pick up leaflets offering proper advice. In addition, gas showrooms no longer ask to install the appliances that have been purchased. People who work for British Gas may not install those appliances. Instead, people will be given a list of firms--admittedly Confederation of Registered Gas Installers firms--which will fit those appliances.
If British Gas does not install appliances, I am concerned that there will be a tendency for people to revert to do-it-yourself. If someone is not told that British Gas is going to install an appliance, that person might think, "I'll buy the appliance, and I'm sure that I can fit it myself : it's very easy." I am worried about that, and I hope that the Minister will deal with those problems.
I am also worried that, even though firms may be CORGI-registered, those who come to work on the equipment may not be properly qualified. I hope that the Minister will look at ways to ensure that everyone knows that, when a fitter comes to fit, repair or maintain an appliance, he is properly qualified and has had the proper training.
I recognise that the Conservative party has a problem with regulations. I accept that its philosophy is to abolish regulations. But Conservatives must realise that some regulations are necessary and serve a purpose. I think that I can disagree with the Under-Secretary of State for Employment about whether there is froth on beer. I think that I can become much more passionate than her about
Column 125whether I should have a decent head on my beer and whether I should have a full pint of beer. But there is a big difference--we are talking not about froth on beer, but about people's lives. I am sure that the Minister, and Conservative and Labour Members, will share my concerns about the safety of gas appliances. I hope that the Minister will try to give me answers tonight that will help to put my mind at rest.
As my hon. Friend said, we are talking in the context of unnecessary deaths. There were two unnecessary deaths in my constituency a year or two ago. Richard Peace and Beth Allard died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas water heater. They lived in a purpose-built flat that was not covered by regulations governing houses in multiple occupation. They were not living in student accommodation, and so had not received some of the publicity that has been distributed through student unions.
I was shocked to discover afterwards that the same company that owned that property also owned more than 50 other properties in adjoining streets. It seemed likely that the same unqualified builder who had been responsible for the work on the purpose-built flat had also done work on the other properties.
Despite efforts by the local authority trading standards officers to have surveys carried out, three or four months after promises had been made by the property company, the officers were still waiting to hear that checks had been carried out. Within three days of the deaths, I was told that the landlord was trying to retrieve the keys from the police in order to re-let the flat.
That may have been an extreme case, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East said, we know that, on average, 30 to 40 deaths occur every year. I am sure that everyone wants not merely action after the event, but action to prevent such incidents. My hon. Friend identified the issues that we must examine, including awareness. Campaigns have been conducted, and I pay tribute to people such as Anne Watkinson and the Gas Safety Action Group. As a result of tragedies that they have suffered, such people have done much to raise awareness of the problem. Students are becoming more aware because of some of the work that has been done in universities.
Many people think that gas safety involves leaking gas. In fact, a majority of the accidents and fatalities involve carbon monoxide poisoning, not gas leaks--virtually all of them occur in the home, predominantly in private rented accommodation. I agree with my hon. Friend about the need for large- scale and continuing publicity. It needs to involve lots of people, including the gas companies and the Health and Safety Executive.
I hope that the Government will consider how they could help with publicity, such as more high-profile television campaigns. Even where leaflets exist, it is a question of getting them to the right people. My local gas company considered sending out leaflets with bills. That is fine, but bills do not necessary go to the tenants or occupants. They may go to the landlord, and not be seen by those who need to see them.
Column 126Another issue is legislation and regulation. Houses in multiple occupation are better covered by regulation than other sorts of private lettings. I am aware of the proposals which the Health and Safety Executive has put out to consultation for amendment to the gas safety regulations, which would put a duty on landlords to ensure that gas appliances were kept in a safe condition, and would prohibit the future installation of open-flued appliances for space or water heating in accommdation designed for sleeping purposes. But that does not get rid of existing installations.
Perhaps we should consider how British Gas or CORGI-registered businesses could be encouraged to offer free safety checks. They may say that that is not good business, but if, at the same time, it were used as an opportunity to suggest that people should convert to balanced-flue apparatus or similar safer appliances, it could bring in some business that would compensate for the free checks. I agree that we need tougher action against landlords. Incidently, on a small point that has nothing to do with carbon monoxide poisoning, when trading standards officers look for unsafe gas appliances, they have the power to enter a shop, find a gas cooker that looks unsafe, impound it and have it checked by the gas board. If it is unsafe, they can then take action against the seller. I was astonished to discover, just a couple of days ago, that my local authority was being charged £500 for one gas cooker to be checked for safety purposes by the gas board. As my local authority said, it would be cheaper to buy the cooker and throw it on the rubbish tip, but it was afraid that that might encourage a market in second-hand gas cookers, which it did not want to develop. Ultimately, whatever legislation we have, awareness is critical. Checks and regulations will prevent some of the problems, but both arms are needed. What do the Government intend to do, and will a statutory instrument put into effect the Health and Safety Executive's recommended changes to the regulations?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Miss Ann Widdecombe) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Hepple) on securing this debate. He is right to say that this extremely serious subject concerns both sides of the House. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on his intervention.
In the time available to me, I shall endeavour to deal with the three areas identified by the hon. Member for Nottingham, East and taken up by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, which were awareness, tougher enforcement and the need for further regulation. If, however, because of pressure of time, I do not deal with those issues to the hon. Members' satisfaction, as always when a serious issue has been raised, I should be happy to meet or correspond with them on the subject. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is responsible for health and safety, would also be only too glad to do so.
On additional regulation, if I have time I shall explain that the approved code on training and the CORGI registration scheme are helping to improve overall standards in the installation and servicing of appliances. But the Health and Safety Commission believes that even more can be done to improve safety. In August last year,
Column 127it published a consultative document that was designed to strengthen the 1984 regulations on safe installation and use, and, of course, provide greater protection to the public. We heard one example of the proposals, but it might be helpful if I ran through the gist of them.
First, the proposed regulations would require all landlords to maintain gas appliances properly and regularly. Secondly, landlords and other businesses would be required to use only CORGI-registered companies for maintenance and installation work.
Thirdly, the proposed regulations would restrict the type of gas appliances which are installed in sleeping accommodation, including bedsits. Our experience of accidents suggests that open-flued central heating boilers and open-flued or flueless water heaters should not be installed in bedrooms. In addition, it is quite cheap and easy to fit gas fires with detectors which cut the gas supply if there is a risk of carbon monoxide escaping into the room. The proposed new regulations would reflect those points.
Fourthly, the proposed changes would introduce for the first time the same levels of control on the use of liquefied petroleum gas as on piped gas. As the hon. Member for Nottingham, East may be aware, LPG is the type of gas that is used in more remote rural areas and in holiday caravan parks.
The Commission's proposals have received strong support from those who have commented on the document, ranging from student bodies, through local authorities, to the gas industry itself. The Commission is considering the revised regulations and a supporting approved code of practice, with the aim of laying regulations before the House in the summer. I am confident that these new regulations will add significantly to the safety of gas.
I now turn to the question of publicity. But before doing so, I should say that all hon. Members wish to express sympathy to the young people to whom the hon. Gentleman referred and, indeed, the two other young people who have been mentioned in this debate. In the first case, it is sub judice. In the second case, proceedings are being considered, so I cannot comment in detail. Certainly any cutting short of life is a tragedy, but for young people, and especially in the case of brothers, our sympathy goes to the bereaved families concerned.
My fellow Ministers and I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the importance of ensuring that people are aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning froom gas appliances. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister of State will shortly be meeting a delegation of those bereaved through carbon monoxide poisoning. They will discuss the current and proposed action by the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive to reduce not only the number of deaths but the number of incidents caused by such poisoning. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, the problem with carbon monoxide is its insidious nature. Early symptoms of poisoning can easily be confused with influenza, and include headaches, general debility and nausea. Detection is much more difficult because the gas is colourless and tasteless.
While the Health and Safety Executive believes that people are generally aware of the risks of gas explosion, it believes that there is much less appreciation of the dangers
Column 128of carbon monoxide. It has advised a number of recent consumer interest television programmes, and the publisher of the popular magazine Bella , in the preparation of features about carbon monoxide poisoning.
It has also established a gas safety awareness working group to co-ordinate a coherent programme of public information. This draws members from a number of interested bodies, including British Gas and Calor Gas, the Gas Consumers Council, the Gas appliance manufacturing industry, CORGI, the consumer safety unit of the Department of Trade and Industry, and the Health and Safety Executive.
The first fruit of this activity was a joint campaign between the Health and Safety Executive, British Gas, the Gas Consumer Council and CORGI in autumn last year--at the start of the academic year and of colder weather. It was aimed particularly at students and other young people living in rented accommodation. Three different leaflets were produced, plus a poster intended for display on college or university premises. British Gas contacted every college in the country, and enclosed copies of the leaflets and posters, and the HSE wrote to every local authority.
That campaign was featured on television and radio, and in national and local newspapers. British Gas printed 400,000 copies of the leaflet, aimed at young people, called "Is there a deadly killer in your digs?" All those were issued, and a second print run was needed. Another leaflet was directed at landlords, aimed to make them aware of their responsibilities.
The HSE will be encouraging the gas industry to maintain those efforts. For example, the next campaign will include medical professionals among its targets. It will seek to ensure that they are on the look-out for early signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. Both hon. Members referred to enforcement action against landlords. In addition to action to increasing public awareness, the HSE can and does use its powers to prosecute landlords who endanger the safety of their tenants. Manchester city council was fined £25,000 following the death of a tenant after an appliance had been poorly installed by one of its workmen. Oldham council was fined £30,000 following its failure to maintain an appliance. A private landlord in Yorkshire was fined £15,000 following the death of two tenants.
I mention those cases to show that enforcement action is taken very seriously. In the two cases raised, hon. Members will know that such action is being taken and may be taken.
In the short time left, perhaps I can address the general issues raised by the debate. Gas provides 18 million householders with a cheap and efficient means of heating their homes and cooking. If properly used, the public can have confidence in its safety. We must all be aware, however, that it has two main dangers. First, a leak of gas may cause a fire or explosion. Secondly, when the by-products of burning gas are not properly vented to the outside atmosphere, that leads to carbon monoxide poisoning.
In the past five years, between 40 and 50 people have died each year in gas accidents. The greater proportion of those deaths have, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, East rightly said, been from carbon monoxide poisoning. In 1992-93, the latest year for which we have figures, 39 people died from carbon monoxide poisoning related to faulty gas appliances. A further 170 incidents of non-fatal
Column 129poisoning were reported. The main reasons for those tragedies were the poor initial installation of an appliance or a lack of regular maintenance.
What are we doing to reduce the risks and bring down the number of deaths and non-fatal incidents? Although there is no cause for complacency, a great deal has already been done. Deaths have decreased from 1,200 a year in the 1960s and more than 300 in the 1970s. In 1984, new regulations controlling the safe installation and use of gas were introduced. Those regulations set out very high standards for such matters as gas emergency controls, the safe use, testing and purging of pipes, and the installation and siting of appliances.
Also in 1984, responsibility for gas safety passed from the then Department of Energy to the HSC, which is an independent body. Its members are drawn from those with experience in industry, trade unions, local authorities and consumer protection. They have taken forward action on a number of fronts.
In 1988, the HSC published an approved code of practice about standards of training in safe gas installation. This describes the core elements of training courses needed to train a competent fitter. I accept what the hon. Member for Nottingham, East said about monitoring not just the company and the appliances but the fitters who are responsible for the installation and maintenance of those appliances.
Column 130In 1991, following advice from the HSC, the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) (Amendment) Regulations 1990 came into force. They require all gas installation businesses to register with a body approved by the HSE. At the moment, the only approved body is the Council for Registered Gas Installers, CORGI, which inspects each business annually. Each business must be registered. More than 45,000 businesses have registered.
CORGI can recommend improvements--for example, it has required that more than 20,000 operatives to undertake extra training. It can also remove incompetent businesses from its register. That is not an empty threat-- about 10 businesses a month are deregistered. For self-employed installers, removal from the register means loss of their livelihood.
I have explained that the approved code on training and the CORGI registration scheme are helping to improve overall standards. I have already addressed the forthcoming proposals for increasing safety. I have explained what measures have been taken for increasing public awareness, and I have examined, briefly at any rate, what enforcement action, controls and registration criteria exist. I repeat to hon. Members that, if there is anything that I have not covered, I should be delighted to do so on a future occasion.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at Twelve midnight.
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