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7 Feb 2007 : Column 960

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Michael Foster.]

7.26 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): In many respects I wish I were not here to speak about the dangers of carbon monoxide gas, and perhaps in some respects I should not have to be here to speak about those dangers. The last occasion on which we debated the subject of carbon monoxide was in 1998, at about the time I joined CO-Gas Safety, a charity set up in 1995, dedicated to raising awareness of carbon monoxide poisoning and supporting the victims and families of gas-related accidents and deaths. Neither I nor the charity’s dedicated president, Stephanie Trotter OBE, ever imagined that we would still be here, nearly 10 years later, banging the same drum to raise awareness of an entirely preventable killer. For that is what it comes down to: every death caused by carbon monoxide is one death too many. There has been a great deal of talk in the last 10 years about a co-ordinated approach to carbon monoxide, but we have yet to see any firm action or actual funding committed to it.

Carbon monoxide is a deadly poisonous gas which cannot be heard, seen, tasted or smelt, and can be tested only with equipment such as a flue gas analyser. It can cause death within two minutes of high-level exposure, and low-level long-term exposure can cause brain or neurological damage resulting in some victims’ being confined to a wheelchair for life. People with carbon monoxide poisoning are often told by their GPs that they have a virus, or perhaps are suffering from myalgic encephalomyelitis.

The dangers of using unsafe gas appliances, and any unsafe appliance powered by a fuel that burns coal, oil, petrol or wood, have been highlighted in the media recently following a number of tragic cases—particularly that of the young brother and sister aged six and seven who died while on holiday in Corfu last October. The truth is that such deaths happen here, in our own constituencies up and down the country, but they are often under-reported. There is no automatic test of dead bodies in the United Kingdom like the test that happens in France, for instance. In 2003 a pathologist missed carbon monoxide in a previously healthy 11-year-old, until his parents—who had nearly died themselves—demanded that they and he be tested for carbon monoxide poisoning.

This debate is timely for another reason. Today, 7 February 2007, sees the first meeting of an industry working group on carbon monoxide which CORGI, the national gas safety watchdog, is co-ordinating. I have to say that I fear it will be yet another meeting with more talk and bluster to compensate for, or cover up, the lack of action that we have seen for many years. Co-ordinated approaches have been discussed, committees have met and sat, and since 1997 we have seen all sorts of initiatives, but what is actually required is funding to establish a much-needed awareness campaign. Why do the Government not force the fuel industry to provide those funds? Centrica last year announced a profit of £1.5 billion.

The Health and Safety Commission made two much needed recommendations in 2000, neither of which have been implemented. Why? The first recommendation
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was to impose a modest levy on gas suppliers to provide funds for publicity about the dangers of carbon monoxide, and the second was to ensure that the gas emergency service has, and uses, equipment to test appliances in respect of carbon monoxide emergencies. Those two recommendations seemed very positive, and yet now, seven years later, they have not been taken up.

Let me put some matters into perspective. A mere £1 levy per household per year would generate about £22 million which could easily fund a television warning campaign about carbon monoxide poisoning. That could be the type of television campaign that has been successful on the different dangers of household fires, smoking, and drinking and driving. How many households today do not have, or know about, smoke detectors? They are everywhere. There are not many households that do not at least have access to at least one smoke detector. Yet most home owners are totally unaware of the existence of carbon monoxide detectors; the cost of an audible such alarm is a mere £20, and it could save countless lives.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on all the work he has done with the Carbon Monoxide and Gas Safety Society—the CO-Gas Safety Society. I moved a ten-minute Bill many years ago, one of the aspects of which was to examine the possibility of the automatic installation of carbon monoxide detectors, particularly in houses in multiple occupation—HMOs—and holiday homes, which can often be a major cause of problems.

Mr. Breed: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because I entirely agree. HMOs—particularly student accommodation, where often gas appliances are not properly maintained—are vulnerable households, and we know that students often do not realise the importance of ensuring that such appliances are properly and regularly maintained.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I commend to him a firm in my constituency called Caroline Stuart International Ltd, which distributes “spot” carbon monoxide detectors. They are the size of a credit card. Should we not make holidaymakers aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide in the places they are visiting, because if they could take a credit-card sized “spot” carbon monoxide detector with them on holiday, many lives could be saved?

Mr. Breed: That sounds sensible. I had not heard of such detectors. They would be useful not only for people who go abroad, but tourist accommodation in our own country sometimes has faulty gas equipment and if people holidaying at home carry that detector, they will be able to spot that with the “spot”. That ought to be part of the greater awareness campaign.

Mr. Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate. On HMOs, two of my constituents— Michael Frosdick, aged 19, and Keith Reynolds, aged 17—died in the same flat in 2003 as a result of a poorly fitted gas fire. The father of Michael, Brian Frosdick, said that if anything positive was to come out of the deaths of his son and his friend, the public must be made aware of how important it is to fit audible carbon monoxide detectors.

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In respect of HMOs, does the hon. Gentleman agree that establishing a national database of registered or licensed private landlords is one initiative that should be taken up? After all, it is now incumbent on people to register dog kennels, but it is not incumbent on us to register HMOs.

Mr. Breed: I entirely agree. Simple measures could be taken to increase awareness of this issue and to ensure that detectors are fitted and that such appliances are regularly maintained. Those are relatively simple steps that would save lives.

The all-party parliamentary group on gas safety, which published its report “Raising Carbon Monoxide Awareness” last September, pressed the Health and Safety Executive to introduce a zero fatality target for carbon monoxide poisoning; I wholly support that. It acknowledged that the figures on those affected by carbon monoxide poisoning short of fatality are limited, and that the real figures might be much higher than the current estimates. The Minister will doubtless tell the House that the number of such deaths has fallen, but that is nowhere near the worrying truth. Carbon monoxide is not tested for at the scene of a death, and even if its presence is suspected, it can cost up to £1,500 to investigate all the appliances that are potentially responsible. As I said, GPs rarely test for carbon monoxide, and in any case, such a test is usually undertaken some hours or days after exposure, leading to the danger of false negatives. Emergency services and hospitals must use carbon monoxide devices to establish levels of carbon monoxide poisoning in potential victims, but there should also be free testing of appliances, which is the surest and safest way to determine whether carbon monoxide poisoning was an effective factor in a death or injury.

It is scandalous that although the gas emergency service has a duty to make people safe from carbon monoxide, which one cannot smell—as well as from gas, which one can smell—it has no equipment to test for the presence of carbon monoxide. That is like having a radiation emergency without a Geiger counter to detect it.

Another serious issue raised was that of illegal gas workers. Some 55,000 businesses, employing around 111,000 gas-fitting operatives, are registered with CORGI. However, estimates from CORGI, which recently undertook research into illegal gas work, suggest that up to one in five gas workers may be unregistered. That means that up to 25,000 illegal and potentially dangerous gas workers are operating in the UK. These are shocking figures, and there needs to be a crack-down. The Government must make sure that regulations to stamp out these illegal workers are enforced, and that the necessary funds are provided.

I return to the 2000 recommendations, which were not implemented. Attempts were made by the Health and Safety Commission to “impose” them voluntarily, but they unfortunately failed in the face of non co-operation by the industry. Seven years later, we now have the recommendations of another gas safety review undertaken by the HSC. The main recommendation is that CORGI or an equivalent body should take responsibility for many aspects of gas safety, including raising awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide. Interestingly, there is no reference to the non-implementation of the 2000 recommendations. However, it is clear that this is a
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massive challenge for whatever body is given that responsibility. A major TV campaign has been needed for decades. It would be nice to think that a mandatory levy is not necessary, but the truth is that a voluntary levy simply has not worked.

CORGI already suffers, in a way, from a conflict of interest. It regulates the gas safety industry on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive, but it also relies on its own membership—those gas fitters who are registered—for its income. An example of such a conflict of interest could be a complaint made by consumer X, who may have been poisoned by the installation made by gas installer Y, who is a CORGI member. How would CORGI regard that conflict of interest in trying to resolve the problem? The onus should surely rest on the gas industry as a whole.

I have already mentioned the lack of solid figures on the number of deaths caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. What I can cite instead are some startling figures, based on University College London research, that were referenced in the HSE’s press release of last October. The research found that 23 per cent. of homes had one or more defective gas appliances. Some 8 per cent. of homes were judged to be at risk of dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, and 45 per cent. of homes had received no information on the dangers of carbon monoxide. A higher prevalence of problem appliances was found in the homes of vulnerable people—the young, the old and those in receipt of benefits. The simple truth remains: carbon monoxide poisoning is entirely preventable. That means that even one more death is one too many. It must surely be time now for real and immediate Government action to tackle this problem, which has been with us for far too long, once and for all.

7.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I congratulate the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) on securing this important debate. It has given the House an opportunity to consider an issue that he rightly identifies as of high importance. We have been actively pursuing renewed solutions, and the fact that so many hon. Members have attended this debate is an indication of its importance.

I know that many hon. Members have had experience of similar situations to those that the hon. Gentleman has highlighted. I certainly am only too aware of the problems that can arise from defective gas appliances, because two of my constituents, young students in their 20s, died from carbon monoxide fumes from a portable room heater. The hon. Gentleman identified the tragic deaths of the two children, Christianne Shepherd and her brother Robert, on holiday in Corfu. I am especially pleased to note that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Ed Balls), has joined me on the Treasury Bench, because those two children were constituents of his and he has had much contact with the families concerned.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): British tour operators’ guidelines state that carbon monoxide checks should be carried out every three years. Does my hon. Friend agree that annual checks should be carried out on properties abroad by British CORGI-registered fitters to ensure that the tragedy that befell Christianne and Bobby Shepherd never happens to any other family on holiday?

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Mrs. McGuire: I would not wish to disagree with what my hon. Friend says, although there is always an issue about whether one can impose a regime on another country. However, the tour operators have significant leverage to ensure the introduction of some of the safety measures that my hon. Friend has highlighted.

Tragically, deaths abroad will continue, but as the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall suggested, we have serious poisoning issues closer to home, including in the home, where people expect to be reasonably secure. On behalf of the House, I extend my sympathy to the victims of carbon monoxide poisoning and their relatives and friends, especially those who have been bereaved and those who continue to suffer long-term ill health effects—an important point which was raised by the hon. Gentleman.

The Government welcome the work of the all-party gas safety group in helping to raise awareness of gas safety dangers. I wish to record the Government’s appreciation of the valuable work done by the campaign groups, such as CO-Gas Safety, of which the hon. Gentleman is vice chair, in publicising the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning and the measures that people can take to protect themselves. It is all too easy to sideline campaign groups, but that would be the wrong response here. CO-Gas Safety does an excellent job in helping to raise public awareness of gas safety risks and carbon monoxide poisoning especially.

A new cross-Government group has been established, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted, to support a cross-ministerial group on gas safety, as announced in a written statement recently. That is the sign of the seriousness that we attach to the issue. For more than 20 years, domestic gas safety has been controlled within the framework of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. In that period the regime has undergone many reforms aimed at tightening gas safety standards for domestic consumers.

A key feature of the regime since 1991 has been the legal requirement that anyone undertaking work with a gas fitting or service pipe must be competent. If the work is done as part of a business, that business must be registered with the Council of Registered Gas Installers, the HSE-approved body, and it must employ only those fitters who are properly trained and certified as competent.

In 1994, specific gas safety duties were placed on landlords to maintain appliances in rented accommodation in safe condition and to have them checked annually. I hope that the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall will accept that that was in response to a real worry about gas safety standards in rented property—an issue raised also by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone).

Many landlords take their legal responsibilities in respect of gas safety seriously, but some do not. There is no doubt that some tenants are at greater risk than others. As my hon. Friends the Members for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) and for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) noted, the people most at risk are students and young people in houses of multiple occupation.

Thankfully, there has been a downward trend in the number of deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning
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over the past 10 years, but I accept the understandable concern raised by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall about the lack of post-mortem evidence. Over the same period, the number of dangerous gas fitting incidents reported to the HSE has decreased by more than 50 per cent. That is a good record, given that this country has 22 million households, but it is still not acceptable. We can and must do more to improve the situation. Sixteen needless deaths are too many, and the House will understand the anguish that people suffer when family members are killed by something that is preventable.

Raising public awareness of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, and of how people can reduce it, is the only effective way to resolve the problem. I call on the industry to exercise leadership and to do much more than merely delivering the key gas safety messages. This debate is a good opportunity to remind the public about those messages. Householders should arrange to have their gas appliance regularly checked for safety by a CORGI-registered installer. Appliances should be installed by competent people, and should always be used correctly. Carbon monoxide fumes are produced when there is insufficient air to allow the complete burning of the gas, and that is why it is most important to ensure a good air supply. Gas appliances should never be used if there are any signs that they are not working properly. The signs to look out for include yellow and orange flames, soot or stains around the appliance, and a pilot light that frequently blows out.

Approved carbon monoxide detectors with an audible alarm are highly recommended, but they should be regarded as a back-up precaution. They are no substitute for regular servicing by a CORGI-registered installer.

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include tiredness, drowsiness, headaches and breathlessness. I have a personal understanding of that, as my daughter, when she was a student, came home one night and complained of headaches and drowsiness. Fortunately, we knew what action to take, and were able to identify that the gas fire in her student accommodation was not working properly.

Mr. Kemp: On that point, will my hon. Friend have discussions with her colleagues in the Department of Health about how we can raise awareness of these matters in the medical profession? The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can in many ways resemble the flu, especially at this time of the year.

Mrs. McGuire: Of course I will. We need to work together to ensure that all the bases are covered.

When things go seriously wrong, the HSE normally takes enforcement action against the culprits. Gas safety cases make up about 6 per cent. of all prosecutions mounted by the HSE, which is a significant proportion given the wide range of industries covered by the HSE’s remit. Landlords have been imprisoned for gas safety failures and substantial fines have been imposed in some cases. The message from this debate is that such offences will not be taken lightly; a landlord can end up in prison.

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