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Domestic Premises (Lighting And Electrical Installations)

Volume 930: debated on Wednesday 20 April 1977

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3.33 p.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable local authorities to require the installation of artificial lighting by means of gas or electricity in all habitable rooms within their area to require the maintenance in good repair of such installation; to enable improvement grants to be paid for the removal and replacement of defective electrical installations in domestic premises; and for connected purposes.
This Bill, which I can assure the House will be printed—assuming that I receive the leave of the House—is meant to make a contribution to home safety in this country. It is not in itself the complete answer to the problem that I shall outline, but at least it will be a start.

In fact, in my view this is a question which the Government ought seriously to look at and to concern themselves with. The longer they delay, the worse the problem becomes, and lives could be lost while the Government do nothing. The present position is that where an owner, or an owner-occupier, wishes to renew defective electric wiring in a house but cannot afford to do so, he can seek an improvement grant. But, as the law stands, such a grant for rewiring repair would be classified as a repair rather than improvement. Therefore, the grant can be given only if improvements to the same value as the repair are carried out in the house. In other words, if the rewiring were to cost £200, the occupier would be required to do other work, to be classified as improvements, to a further value of £200—making £400 worth of work altogether.

If the local authority then made a grant towards that work, the maximum grant it could give would be £200 or 50 per cent. of the cost. In practical terms it is not possible to get a grant merely for the purpose of rewiring a house. The grant system is therefore discouraging rather than encouraging with regard to the rewiring of property in this country. In fact, the applicant, as my example shows, receives no grant.

The second aspect of the problem is that there is no specific regulation in this country which enables a local authority to require a reluctant landlord to renew defective wiring. It may be argued, and could be said, that either Section 9(1) or Section 9(1)(a) of the 1957 Housing Act takes care of that situation. But those powers can be used only if the local authority takes note of, and requires, the carrying out of work to remedy other defects found in the dwelling. In other words, on a complaint about defective wiring an inspector may, in order to get the wiring repaired, have to require all kinds of other work to be carried out and thus defeat the immediate and most urgent task, namely, the rewiring of the property.

The present powers are at best clumsy. In a letter to the hon. Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Mr. Callaghan), dated 30th November 1976, the Minister admitted that
"There is none"
—that is, no power—
"which specifically provides for the repair of electrical wiring".
It will be of interest to the House to hear that in a recent survey of 21 local authorities—members of the North-Western Home Safety Council—it was found that between them they used no fewer than nine sections of seven different Acts to try to effect repairs to wiring. Of those nine sections, only one Act was specifically designed to effect such repairs and that was a Private Act of 1958 by Manchester Corporation.

In that survey many authorities indicated that they risk only informal notices. In other words, because of the weakness of the existing law they are not prepared to have their notices requiring rewiring tested in a court of law. Local authorities have a duty placed on them to ensure home safety. What my Bill attempts to do is help them in that task.

The whole matter has been raised with the hon. Member for Middleton and Prestwich and myself by the Rochdale Metropolitan District Council. It surely is a fact that all houses built prior to 1940 which have not been rewired must be suspect and, hence, a potential safety hazard to the inhabitants. The Central Electricity Board recommends a check every five years while the Institution of Electrical Engineers has stated publicly that the insulation of all electrical installations done over 25 years ago must be regarded as suspect.

In a letter to Rochdale Council on 29th September 1976 the Department of the Environment
"accepts the importance on grounds of safety for the replacement of worn-out wiring."
Yet the cost of rewiring is usually well over £200 and nearer £300. Since, in order to attract grant, one has to spend double that amount, more and more houses which require to be rewired are not being done. The irony, I understand, is that under Section 13 of the 1961 Housing Act, houses in multiple occupation can be compelled to have installations of gas or electricity in proper working order. Is it therefore not strange that councils do not have similar powers in respect of private or council-owned dwellings which are occupied by one family? Indeed, local authorities have no specific powers whatever to request an owner to provide artificial lighting in any room of a dwelling-house.

I had hoped that my Bill would have removed all these serious weaknesses and gaps in the existing law. The draftsman of the Bill, a Mr. Alistair Webster, to whom I am indebted, has found, however, that to cover them all would require a major Bill, and a Ten Minutes Rule Bill is inadequate. Therefore, my Bill is confined to granting local authorities the right to allow grant for the purposes of rewiring and wiring maintenance, not-withstanding that no other work is to be done in a property.

If the Bill were to become law, it would be a considerable step forward. I hope that the Government will find time for the Bill, which surely must be non-controversial and certainly is in the interests of the safety of people. It is a modest step forward. I want to see the Government tackle this problem realistically and in a wider sense. Meanwhile, I hope that the House will this afternoon help the Government to take a faltering step towards that absolute necessity by allowing me the Bill. I now seek the House to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Cyril Smith and Mr. Jim Callaghan.