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Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2008

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

On 28 January 2004 it snowed in High Peak—that is not unusual at this time of year. The snow was so heavy that school buses were summoned and children sent home. My constituent, Mary Ann Bailey, then aged 15, went to a friend’s home in Hadfield, near Glossop, for the afternoon, with others. At 4.40 that afternoon the emergency services found Mary Ann and a friend, Martin Taylor, dead at their friend’s home.

The previous week a valve had been replaced on a gas boiler in the room below where the young people died. It had been incorrectly fitted, by one Jason Barton, and as a result the gas pressure was too high and the gas was not burning efficiently. Carbon monoxide was being produced by the boiler and it killed the two young people. Two years later a jury failed to agree—for a second time—on a charge of manslaughter against Mr. Barton for his negligence. Instead, he was convicted of a breach of health and safety legislation. He was fined just £2,000 and had his CORGI registration removed.

The Health and Safety Executive stated in evidence that 36 properties where Mr. Barton had worked had gas installations which rendered them either “at risk” or in “immediate danger”; and that 120 acts of faulty workmanship had been identified in Mr. Barton’s work over just 12 months. The judge at Nottingham Crown court said that Barton should have gone to jail. The judge also regretted that the law said that Barton could only be fined, and that the fine had to relate to his ability to pay. Prosecutions for negligence in this field too often fail to convict and I know that that is of great concern to those interested in gas safety.

In November 2007, another constituent, pensioner John Froggatt, sat down with a friend to share a whisky in a caravan in Bamford in the Hope valley. Again it was a cold High Peak night. Although he did not intend to stay out for long, the gas heater was switched on for warmth. Two days later, the two missing pensioners’ bodies were found. It is believed that the heater was in good working order, but that a mouse had built its nest in the flue over the summer, preventing the products of combustion from escaping from the caravan. Carbon monoxide had built up and killed both men in what was likely to have been a slow, but relatively painless death.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on presenting this important debate and the caring way in which he is dealing with these terrible tragedies. Our hearts go out to him and his constituents.

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have in my constituency arguably the best, and certainly the largest, park home site in the country on Canvey Island. Park homes and caravan owners need to be especially vigilant about carbon monoxide. Does he agree that it is vital that appliances are properly serviced and that caravan owners purchase an audible carbon monoxide alarm to act as a second line of defence against CO poisoning?

The hon. Gentleman is right, and if he will bear with me, I will list the demands that I wish to make of my hon. Friend the Minister.

Ten years ago one person died each week from CO poisoning on average; today it is one a fortnight across the country as a whole. But four in four years in High Peak alone is way above the average. Last year only eight people died from CO produced from mains piped gas—making it the best year on record—but proportionately higher numbers of deaths arising from CO are produced from the burning of coal, wood, oil and other domestic fuels. How can it be justified that gas is subject to proper regulation and licensing of fitters, but those other fuels are not? And why is the enforcement of high standards of gas fitting so inadequate?

All deaths from CO, including all four of those in High Peak recently, have one thing in common—they were avoidable. None of those four would have died had the house or caravan concerned been fitted with CO detectors and alarms. I will return to that point later. Suffice it to say for now that more than half of mains gas-related carbon monoxide incidents over the years come from open flue gas appliances. Open flue gas central heating boilers, of a type which have not been installed since 1993 but which are still common in older properties, account for more than half of all deaths from CO poisoning in that time, says British Gas.

CO is a highly toxic, colourless, odourless gas. It is produced by the combustion of fuel in poorly ventilated areas. It is the potent element of car exhaust emissions in confined spaces, which explains the use of car exhaust as a means of suicide. I occasionally find my past as a biology teacher of use in this place and I can tell the House that CO binds to haemoglobin in the blood as carboxyhaemoglobin 200 times more strongly than oxygen. Normally, haemoglobin binds loosely with oxygen in the lungs and then releases oxygen to the brain, muscles and other tissues in response to an oxygen deficit. Carboxyhaemoglobin, by contrast, is a stable compound that does not break down readily at all.

In air with 21 per cent. oxygen, which is the normal level, a CO level of just 0.1 per cent. can cause half of the haemoglobin in the blood to bind permanently with CO, which means that the blood rapidly and permanently becomes unable to deliver sufficient oxygen to our muscles and brain. Last October in the House of Lords I joined David and Mary Jane Worswick, the parents of Mary Ann Bailey, at an event to mark the launch of the second carbon monoxide awareness week. I expected to meet other bereaved families, but there were actually very few of them. Most of the dozens of people present were victims of non-lethal CO poisoning.

Some 200 cases of such poisoning are identified every year but many others go undiagnosed, because doctors do not routinely check for CO poisoning, because dead bodies are not routinely checked for CO poisoning as they are in France, and because symptoms vary from person to person and are easily confused with other causes. For example, 90 per cent. of cases of carbon monoxide poisoning produce headaches, 50 per cent. cause nausea, 50 per cent. cause dizziness, 30 per cent. cause tiredness, and flu-like symptoms are reported in 20 per cent. of cases. In more serious cases palpitations are found as well as chest pain. Collapse, unconsciousness and death follow.

Those attending the event in the Lords exhibited a variety of medical conditions associated with brain damage due to oxygen starvation caused by CO poisoning. Many had physical disabilities such as being unable to walk and many had lost their jobs through disability, while some reported severe personality problems. Patient UK confirms that 200 people a year survive significant CO poisoning but long-term damage includes kidney failure, heart attack, blindness due to retinal bleeding, brain damage due to swelling of the brain, loss of memory, personality changes, irritability and incontinence.

CO awareness week was launched in 2006 with a view to raising awareness of CO poisoning among medical practitioners and the general public, thereby tackling its causes. University of London research published by the Health and Safety Executive in 2006 shows that 23 per cent. of homes—one in four—have one or more defective gas appliances. Some 8 per cent. of homes—2 million houses, which are home to 4.5 million people—are at risk of dangerous levels of CO while 45 per cent. of homes had no information on or awareness of the dangers of CO. Problem appliances are most likely to be found in the homes of vulnerable people.

CORGI has also published research. It found that 28 per cent. of CO deaths are caused by faulty or poorly maintained appliances. It confirmed that CO poisoning is not spread evenly across society, hitting some disproportionately with 27 per cent. of incidents occurring in rented accommodation while 50 per cent. of victims are elderly or children. More than half of all incidents, or 53 per cent., take place between November and February each year.

British Gas reports that residents of flats and terraced houses who maintain their equipment properly are nevertheless subject to an additional risk of CO poisoning from poorly maintained equipment in neighbouring properties, with the CO coming through the walls. Some 55,000 businesses in this country are registered with CORGI, including many sole traders, which represents about 120,000 gas fitters. CORGI says that perhaps 20,000 people in this country carry out gas fitting, servicing and repair but are not registered. Some of those people will be qualified and their registration will have lapsed, but many will be untrained or inadequately trained, while some will have been removed from the CORGI register for negligence or malpractice. Those 20,000 people clearly represent a much higher risk to the public than CORGI-registered operators. It has been calculated that unregistered and possibly illegal gas workers are 32 times more likely to be involved in a serious CO incident than a CORGI-registered installer.

British Gas reports that, of the 43 million gas appliances in this country, 14 million are gas boilers, of which 3.4 million are serviced under contract by British Gas’s 8,600 qualified engineers. Another 3.4 million appliances are serviced regularly by other CORGI-registered operators. That means that 7 million gas appliances are not serviced at all, are not serviced regularly or are serviced by an unregistered engineer who is not qualified to do the work. To complement those figures, 3 million gas appliances are sold every year, but CORGI operatives install only half of them.

I welcome the news that, as of last week, the company Part Centre—a major supplier of materials to the gas fitting industry—will supply parts only to purchasers who have a CORGI registration. I call on other companies to follow suit, and for the scheme to be extended to complete appliances and to appliances that burn other carbon fuels. I commend to the Minister early-day motion 462 tabled by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on this issue.

I recently carried out a survey of residents in High Peak. We have had about 650 replies but some arrived too late to be included in my analysis. Of those replying, 95 per cent. had gas boilers and 20 per cent. used other carbon fuels, so it is clear that some people have more than one system. In addition, 92 per cent. had smoke detectors in their homes, while only 34 per cent. had CO detectors. In fact, that compares well with the national figures of 83 per cent. for smoke alarms and 21 per cent. for CO alarms.

Only 3 per cent. of respondents to my survey had a CO detector that was portable for holiday use, and I remind the House that two British children died from CO poisoning in an incident in Corfu a couple of years ago. Thanks to the organisation CO-Awareness, I am now able to distribute free of charge 10 CO monitors with audible alarms to constituents who replied to the questionnaire and who do not already have such an alarm. I shall be giving them out in the next few weeks.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Many hon. Members have had to deal with the consequences of CO poisoning, and many people have been killed by what is a silent killer. Will he comment on the recent initiative in my constituency that was launched by Councillor Joan Carthy, using money from the strategic initiatives budget? In partnership with the Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service, the initiative ensures that CO detectors are fitted when fire safety checks are carried out on houses where vulnerable people live. We anticipate that 750 such detectors will be installed in four local authority wards. Is that not a tremendous example of how local authorities can work in partnership with the fire and rescue services to get CO detectors fitted in homes?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree that it is a very welcome initiative. I have not heard of one on that scale before, and I hope that it is a precursor of things to come.

Only one in five respondents to my questionnaire were tenants and most of them thought that their landlords had their central heating system serviced regularly, although I cannot be sure that the work is done to the legal standard. Every incident of CO poisoning that I have described could have been prevented by the use of electronic CO detectors with an audible alarm. For the record, they are much more reliable than the cheaper black spot detectors, which have no alarm. Because CO incidents can develop in minutes or hours, black spot detectors cannot be relied on to draw attention to danger when it arises.

Before I complete my remarks, I wish to pay tribute to those who have assisted me in preparing for this debate. They include my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) who, in his role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on gas safety, organised the event last October, and my colleagues who have intervened so constructively tonight. I should also like to thank CORGI, British Gas, CO-Awareness and its president, Lynn Griffiths, as well as the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, the practice of Russell Jones and Walker, and the people of High Peak who responded to my survey. In particular, I want to pay tribute to the steadfast commitment to the cause shown by David and Mary Jane Worswick, my constituents from Glossop who lost their daughter to CO poisoning almost exactly four years ago.

In summary, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take action on six fronts. First, I hope that she will act to ensure a greater awareness of CO issues among householders, landlords, tenants, housing authorities, tour operators, emergency services and doctors. Secondly, given that one person in seven moves house each year, I hope that she will act to ensure that having a working CO monitor is compulsory when every house is built. That requirement could be included in building regulations. In addition, I hope that she will ensure that CO monitors are made compulsory when every house is sold, a provision that could be included in home information packs. Will she also ensure that CO monitors are required when caravans and mobile homes are sold or advertised for rent, as proposed by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), and when tenancies are changed? The advice from British Gas to prospective tenants is that if a landlord cannot show them a current gas safety certificate, they should not move into his property.

Thirdly, will she encourage the industry to phase out smoke alarms in favour of combined smoke and CO alarms for domestic use at an affordable price? Fourthly, will she redouble efforts to replace all open flue boilers with the more energy-efficient and less dangerous balanced flue variety, especially for vulnerable groups? Fifthly, can she reduce the level of illegal gas fitting by enabling a greater chance of securing meaningful convictions for those whose action or negligence contributes to CO poisoning? Finally, will she ensure that installers of oil and solid fuel boiler systems are brought under a mandatory system of registration comparable to that which applies to gas installers?

If those measures had been taken, my constituents Mary Ann Bailey and John Froggatt would be with us today. Mr. Froggatt would have been looking forward to his 73rd birthday in 2008, Mary Ann to her 20th. In one respect, these two have been spared a lifetime of the sort of disability, brain damage or incapacity that others have suffered from this completely avoidable source of poisoning, but that is little consolation to their families. They want to hear that the Government have learned lessons from their misfortunes, and that steps will be taken to ensure that deaths and injuries from carbon monoxide poisoning continue to fall.

I begin by commending my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) for securing this important debate. It has given the House an opportunity to revisit the issue of gas safety in the home, to which the Government attach considerable importance. I also acknowledge the attendance of colleagues from all parties across the House—the hon. Members for Colchester (Bob Russell), for Castle Point (Bob Spink), and for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) and my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp). It is unusual to see so many colleagues at an Adjournment debate at the end of business.

The policy lead for this subject falls to my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton. He has taken a close personal interest in gas safety and is working closely with the Health and Safety Executive towards improvements for gas consumers. Like other hon. Members, I would like to offer my deepest condolences to my honourable Friend’s constituents at High Peak, David and Mary Jane Worswick, who tragically lost their teenager daughter, Mary Ann Bailey together with her friend, Martin Taylor, to carbon monoxide poisoning almost four years ago, and to the other families sadly affected, to whom my hon. Friend referred.

I am all too aware of the problem that can arise from defective gas appliances. As my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East highlighted, many of us have had experience of CO poisoning incidents. Some six years ago, two of my constituents—two young students—living in rented accommodation died from CO fumes from a portable room heater. Indeed, when my daughter was sharing a flat as a student she was fortunately able to recognise the early symptoms of CO poisoning. It is something that touches us all.

Let me assure the House that the Government are committed to playing their part in improving gas safety. 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 resulting regime has undergone many reforms aimed at tightening gas safety standards for domestic consumers. As my hon. Friend has readily acknowledged, this legal framework has set the scene for a significant downward trend in the number of deaths due to CO poisoning from gas installations over the years. The most recent HSE figures provisionally show that there were eight deaths from CO poisoning related to gas installations during 2006-07—the lowest figure on record. This compares with 16 for the previous year, and, as my hon. Friend highlighted, 10 years ago, the figure was more than three times that number.

It is important to put on record that the figure of eight relates to mains gas, so deaths such as that of Mr. Froggatt in his caravan would not be included in that figure.

I take my hon. Friend’s point, and I recognise that mobile homes and caravans are a particular issue, as hon. Members have highlighted. We need to recognise the context: 22 million households, mobile homes and other places of abode use gas appliances. I suppose that we have to recognise that we have an encouraging, improving record, but we must also recognise that we cannot desist in our efforts to ensure that gas safety improves. The gas industry, gas safety campaign groups, and a host of other people, including many hon. Members, have helped to achieve that improved record, and I pay tribute to them for those efforts.

However, as my hon. Friend explained, the Health and Safety Executive figures refer specifically to deaths related to gas installation work, and do not take account of carbon monoxide incidents arising from other fossil fuels. Those other incidents are no less important; they, too, involve human suffering. More needs to be done to improve public awareness of the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning from all fossil fuels, and to raise awareness of the benefits of using carbon monoxide alarms in the home. I shall come back to that subject.

Although the legal framework has provided a context for improving gas safety over the years, unfortunately there are still cases in which the law has not been followed. Sometimes gas fitters are not registered or competent to carry out gas work safely. As has been said, sometimes landlords do not take their gas safety responsibilities seriously, and sometimes members of the public attempt do-it-yourself gas work, with dangerous consequences, or fail to get their appliances properly maintained by competent installers.

When things go wrong and there are serious breaches of the law, enforcement action will be taken. Gas safety cases make up about 8 per cent. of all prosecutions brought by the HSE. They involve actions against landlords, individuals and installers. Registration with the Council for Registered Gas Installers, or CORGI, is a legal requirement for anyone installing or repairing fittings or appliances in homes. The aim of the gas installer registration scheme is to improve standards in the industry, and to help the public find and use safe and competent tradespeople. The HSE will hold all installers, registered or unregistered, to account for their actions if their work is found to be dangerously incompetent. If someone is not registered, it does not mean that the HSE will not pursue them if their work is dangerously incompetent.

Some landlords and people undertaking gas work who have blatantly failed in their responsibilities have ended up in prison for causing deaths from dangerous gas appliances. Recent HSE initiatives against unregistered gas installers have led to the courts imposing sentences that generate significant local and national publicity on gas safety issues. Of course, that strengthens the deterrent to others who might think that they can install gas appliances. Sentencing is obviously a matter for the judiciary and the courts within the legislative and regulatory framework set by Parliament. Ministers and the HSE agree that the sentences or fines for health and safety offences can be too low, and do not always reflect the seriousness of the failure, as my hon. Friend has said.

I should like to express my sympathy to Mr. and Mrs. Worswick for the protracted proceedings in their case, and for what was undoubtedly a wholly inadequate outcome, given the terrible circumstances of their daughter’s death. As my hon. Friend may be aware, we have tried to introduce legislation to increase sentencing powers through the private Member’s Bill route. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) is yet again to introduce a Bill to increase sentencing. If successful, it will raise the penalties for health and safety offences, and will make imprisonment more widely available for serious offences.

I hope that all Members of the House, including those who raised technical or procedural issues to talk out a similar Bill that was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) will think seriously before they do so again. We want to see the Bill enacted.

I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak that the Department of Health is committed to helping prevent deaths caused by carbon monoxide poisoning and to raising awareness of the dangers of poisoning. The chief medical officer has made a point of regularly bringing the issue of CO symptoms to the attention of the medical profession—for example, through his regular updates. The Department of Health recognises, as my hon. Friend indicated, that more needs to be done, working with the medical community, to raise their awareness of CO poisoning, and to provide practical advice on recognising symptoms to help them better diagnose CO poisoning. This is important, as CO poisoning can sometimes be confused with other ailments, such as flu. Recognising the symptoms of CO poisoning is not always easy.

I welcome the Department of Health’s decision to put out a call for funding research into carbon monoxide poisoning. Research undertaken by the Health and Safety Executive as part of its 2006 review of the domestic gas safety regime suggested that problems with chronic carbon monoxide poisoning may be more widespread than anticipated—a point made by my hon. Friend. The new Department of Health call for research asks for proposals to investigate the incidence of carbon monoxide poisoning, both acute and chronic, and further work to help define the extent of the population at risk who use cooking or heating appliances that are faulty or installed incorrectly.

Will the Minister convey my thanks and the thanks of many fire authorities in Britain for the help that the HSE has recently given with the production of 400,000 leaflets to raise awareness of the dangers of the silent killer, so that when fire checks take place in local communities, people also get information about the dangers?

Indeed. I know that a great deal of work on the matter has been done by the HSE and the fire and emergency services.

The research will also call for proposals to assess the number of people experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning by looking at how many are admitted to hospital suspected of non-lethal poisoning, plus the number subsequently diagnosed. This will cover carbon monoxide poisoning from gas and other fossil carbon-based fuels. The results from the proposed research will help to give us better evidence on what is happening with CO exposure and inform us about what more needs to be done.

I emphasise that although the evidence shows that the existing arrangements have helped to improve safety standards, the Government accept that more needs to be done. I welcome the new industry initiatives to exercise leadership in raising public awareness of the risks of other fossil fuels, as well as gas. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, these other fuels also present CO risks. The messages are similar to those for gas, and the public need to be fully aware of them.

My hon. Friend raised specific issues, which I shall try to deal with. I shall follow up and write to him about those that I cannot cover now. We need to reinforce the message that householders should arrange to have their gas appliances regularly checked for safety by a CORGI-registered installer. Gas appliances should always be used correctly. They should never be used if there are any signs that they are not working. Approved carbon monoxide detectors with an audible alarm are highly recommended—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at one minute to Eleven o'clock.