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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Volume 534: debated on Wednesday 2 November 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I feel privileged to be able to introduce a debate on the Government’s policy on preventing carbon monoxide poisoning.

I think you will agree, Ms Dorries, that many of the best campaigns in this House derive from constituency experience and the constituents who come to us with particular problems. About 10 years ago, a little boy, Dominic Rodgers, was found dead in bed by his mum, Stacey Rodgers. He had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 10 years of age. He had been killed by a faulty boiler in a house next door—the gas had leaked across from one premises to the next. At that time, I promised that young lady that I would never give up campaigning against unnecessary deaths by carbon monoxide.

Over the years, through the all-party parliamentary gas safety group and in other ways, we have had a constant campaign to try to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries from carbon monoxide poisoning. Many people do not realise how prevalent they are. The group has just had a major inquiry, chaired by Baroness Finlay. The latest statistics found in evidence that, every year, approximately 4,000 people are diagnosed by accident and emergency departments as having been poisoned by carbon monoxide. If they were poisoned by carbon monoxide, that means that they could have died from it.

I was talking to a casualty surgeon this week, at the launch of the Baroness’s report. Simon Clarke, an accident and emergency consultant from Frimley Park hospital, said that the other week he had a young woman come in who was not dead but severely affected by carbon monoxide. The two budgerigars in the house, however, were dead. Interestingly, I read a recent report that people do not keep budgies and canaries much these days—except in this case. The old use of the canary in the mine was to prevent the miners from being trapped by rising carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a very real problem that we face in this country. Many people do not recognise it because it is a silent killer—carbon monoxide is odourless and we cannot tell when it is around. The poisoning symptoms are tricky, and people might feel that they have a heavy cold or the flu. They might present themselves to their GP or even to A and E, but be sent home to the very environment that can kill because the symptoms are not recognised. We need a fully trained work force carrying out regular inspections in rented and owned property in this country.

When I started campaigning, the real problem was student accommodation, particularly if not very good landlords had not inspected the gas appliances, which became neglected and ceased to work properly. Time and again, we read of tragedies involving students dying of carbon monoxide poisoning. The regulations were changed, and landlords now have to inspect their property annually and have the appliances in such accommodation checked every year. What a fantastic lifesaver! We now rarely hear of students or people living in rented accommodation suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. Yet that regulation does not apply to ordinary people’s homes.

We are keen on warm zones and green zones and all the good things we do to insulate our homes, such as having double or triple glazing, cavity wall insulation and thicker stuff in our lofts or attics, to make our little domestic idylls warm and cheap to heat. At the same time, however, we block out all the draughts and incoming fresh air which, often, saved us from carbon monoxide poisoning in the old days. Both this Government and the previous one had programmes to improve people’s ability to keep warm at low cost, but at the same time we added to the danger because less fresh air was coming in. This week in London—they are still in the city I think—we had a wonderful couple, Ken and Kimberly Hansen, whose young daughter of 17 died of carbon monoxide poisoning two years ago when she was at a sleepover at a friend’s house. Ken and Kimberly are from Buffalo, in up-state New York, which gets very cold in winter. As our winters get colder, we will have the same problem, with people again trying to keep warm and cut down energy bills but not venting through chimneys any more, so when it gets cold they block off that bit of air that seems to cause a draught in the apartment or house and then, of course, the carbon monoxide kills.

Deaths can also be caused when people to whom we refer, probably disrespectfully, as “cowboys” are not properly licensed to attend to gas appliances in the home such as boilers and other vectors.

We are considering not only gas but solid fuel, such as wood burning stoves or barbecues. My next-door neighbour the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) will be saying something about barbecues, because he lost a constituent who used a barbecue on a camping holiday only this year. All forms of gas—propane, bottled gas, liquefied petroleum gas—kill people as well, with approximately 50 deaths a year from all sources, of 4,000 reported cases in A and E.

If people go on holiday—to France—they should take a portable gas detector. I do not have a portable one with me, but one for the home, which is still quite small. In France, there were 200 deaths last year from those little gas heaters that the French are so fond of in their bathrooms and kitchens. An early-day motion tabled by the all-party group, appropriately in July, was intended to make people aware of what was happening.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a great danger to our constituents. What we really want is regular servicing by properly trained engineers, and that annual check in all homes if we can have it. If we cannot have that, in the short term, we really need a detector in every home—such detectors are cheap. I sometimes ask the financial and insurance community why on earth a home insurance policy would be given without a detector in the home. The detectors can cost as little as £15 to £25, and they should be given to everyone who buys a home insurance policy or gets a mortgage. Forty-five thousand people a month in the spring and summer change their house, so why does a detector not go into a house every time one changes hands? I would like dual use with a smoke alarm, but a detector alone would be a great lifesaver. We have run the campaign for 10 years and I have become very intolerant of the slow approach. We want the detectors in the short term—now.

Tomorrow, with my colleagues and on an all-party basis, I shall promote a symbolic Bill, which privately I call Dominic’s Bill after the little boy who died in my constituency, to demand a carbon monoxide detector in every home in the United Kingdom. That would save us from many deaths and many cases of poisoning through carbon monoxide. I have to tell you, Ms Dorries—I know of your interest in health—that even cutting down long-term exposure that is not fatal would be a great breakthrough, because all the research shows that any exposure to carbon monoxide influences health and ability to function and can damage brain function.

I do not want to detain the Chamber, except to say that the campaign came from constituents and from a brave young woman, Stacey Rodgers, who instead of turning in on herself and destroying herself as many of our constituents do when they have a tragic loss, started campaigning, as did that American couple. She has been campaigning for 10 years, going into schools and doing something; there is no one better than her at explaining to young people the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.

In a sense, we have reached a day of celebration, in that the “Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning” report came out on Monday, and Baroness Finlay should be given all the credit for it, although there was also the work of the people who gave evidence. The Minister had input into the report, so he must pretty much approve of the 17 recommendations and I hope that he will take them on board. I also hope that he will look at our Bill. Let us get some action. Let us cut the deaths and the exposure to carbon monoxide, and let us do something practical for the short and the long term for our constituents.

May I check with Mr Sheerman and the Minister that it is okay for Mr McCartney to speak—you have cleared it?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. Thank you for allowing me to speak in this important debate about a topic that involves saving lives. I pay credit and honour to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), whose constituency adjoins mine and who is co-chairman of the all-party gas safety group. We have both, tragically, had the deaths of constituents from carbon monoxide poisoning, the most recent occurring only this summer.

A number of carbon monoxide incidents in the country and throughout Europe were caused by the inappropriate use of barbecues. Barbecues were used in tents or under awnings, which perhaps seems practical when it is raining, but people were not aware of the carbon monoxide implications. The result was tragic for Hazel Woodhams from Slaithwaite in my constituency near Huddersfield. She was on a camping holiday in Norfolk when she died. The charcoal barbecue that had been used to cook on had filled the tent with carbon monoxide overnight—it had been brought inside the tent to keep it dry overnight. Her partner was also poisoned. He is still on sick leave after nearly losing an arm due to poisoning, and his kidney was damaged as well.

Even when people are aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide, they often associate them with appliances in the home and are unaware of the deadly carbon monoxide that barbecues can produce. Portable barbecues and charcoal packaging usually include a warning not to burn a barbecue indoors, but most do not give an explanation why. People may believe that it is due to the risk of fire, but they may not be aware of the deadly risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. A clear, meaningful warning would help draw the consumer’s attention to the potential hazard.

I will finish my contribution to this important debate by asking the Minister whether he agrees that retailers selling barbecues for boating or camping have a duty to warn customers of the dangers of carbon monoxide. Will he help us and the all-party group on gas safety to promote the use of carbon monoxide alarms at the point of sale of barbecues?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) for the work that they and the all-party group have done. The commitment that the group has shown, both in producing the report and in raising awareness of the dangers, is enormously valuable.

As the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, this is an area where MPs working away over a period of time can genuinely influence change, as they clearly have done already. On a personal note, the first thing I did after visiting the all-party group last year was buy a carbon monoxide alarm, so I echo his comments about the desirability of doing that. I am sympathetic to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley about retailers, and my officials and I will look at what options are available to us.

We are very much aware of the threat that carbon monoxide poisoning can pose to people in their own homes, and of the devastating impact it has on people’s lives when things go wrong. Both Members spoke movingly about the terrible consequences of getting this wrong, and about the twin tragedies in their constituencies. I suspect that we would find similar tragedies in constituencies up and down the country. It is a tragic waste, often of a very young life, when such tragedies occur. That is why we are committed to supporting a range of measures taken by industry, health care professionals and others to prevent such tragic incidents occurring. That includes ensuring that we have appropriate regulation. I am not always a great fan of regulation, but regulations to ensure that we have properly trained gas engineers are entirely appropriate, as is raising public awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning and working to improve early diagnosis of the symptoms. We wish to see that built into the training for any professionals.

There is a well-established, strong regulatory environment in relation to gas safety and exposure to carbon monoxide. It is a legal requirement that installation and maintenance of gas appliances be undertaken only by a suitably qualified and Gas Safe Register engineer. There are also legal requirements placed on landlords to ensure that they exercise a duty of care over their tenants. That is absolutely right. An annual check of gas fittings and appliances is required, and appliances must be maintained in a suitable manner. Those measures are important in providing protection for the public. When they have their boiler fitted or checked, they can be assured that it is done by a competent and properly trained professional. If that does not happen, the consequences can be devastating for the lives or welfare of individuals and families, as we know from too many bitter experiences.

It should be on the record that we do have a system. Unlike New York state—we were talking about comparisons only this week—we have a regulatory framework, which is delivered by the Gas Safe Register. However, the Minister is aware of how many cowboys are out there. They are not registered; they do work on the side, and they do it very badly. We must be aware of the many who hire such people.

The hon. Gentleman is correct. We have shifted the Health and Safety Executive’s focus away from monitoring low-risk, unproblematic business areas so that it can concentrate more of its efforts on the rogues out there in a whole variety of sectors. Our regulatory regimes should focus on the people who act as cowboys, as the hon. Gentleman says, not simply in one area but in a variety of areas. That is where we must make a difference.

Gas Safe Register operates the statutory registration scheme for gas engineers. There is now a good kitemarked list of registered engineers. We have the highest ever total of people—more than 130,000—now on the list. It is quick and easy to find a Gas Safe Register professional who can do the job in a proper, effective way. There is no need for anyone to turn to a cowboy, but that does not mean that it does not happen. There are industry-backed schemes for other fuels such as oil, and there is the heating equipment testing and approval scheme for solid fuels. That enables consumers easily to find professionals with the appropriate qualifications, so that they can make sure that fittings are safe.

Will the Minister take on board what one of the witnesses who gave evidence to the inquiry under Baroness Finlay told us when I was part of the team? He told us that things may look good on paper, but he knew of cases where someone who was a taxi driver one month was a gas fitter a month later after satisfying the gas-fitter regulations.

There are often anecdotes, but it is always difficult to know how substantial they are. I believe that we have a good system. I do not claim that it is flawless, because I do not think that such a system has yet been invented by mankind. Clearly, it is important to ensure that the training provided is of an appropriate quality. That does not mean that people cannot change careers, but I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that people who make such career changes need to have the appropriate skills, particularly in such a sensitive area.

The message to the public is simple and compelling. We can avoid the devastating consequences that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley described by using people who have the requisite skills, training and certification. In that way, families can be certain that the person who has done the job is not operating in an unregulated environment. It is certainly not sensible to hire cowboys, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield rightly pointed out.

Of course, as we have heard today, and as we see in the report, there is a big challenge to get the message out. One of the report’s contributions was to underline again the nature of the challenge in building awareness of the issue. We have made good progress with smoke alarms, but we have much further to go with carbon monoxide alarms.

It is worrying; we have smoke alarms in 85% of homes, but the figure for carbon monoxide detectors is still languishing at 18% or 19%, which causes serious concern.

It does, and that is why the work done by the Gas Safe Register organisation is tremendously important. We have given it the task, as did the previous Government, of running communication campaigns and undertaking other activities to encourage the use of its services to raise awareness of the dangers. There have been major campaigns targeting particularly vulnerable groups, and we recently had the first gas safety week. Also, there are other influences. The hon. Gentleman will have seen the recent “EastEnders” storyline relating to carbon monoxide poisoning. If we can get that kind of media penetration into the public consciousness, we have a real chance of building awareness in a way that Governments struggle to do. Something that people see in a soap opera on a Tuesday night has much more impact.

The Minister is generous in giving way. One of the first campaigns that I got involved with in Parliament was on seat belts, and I organised and drove through legislation on that. This is a good moment to mention Jimmy Savile, who sadly died the other day; he was a great part of that campaign. However, even despite “Clunk-click, every trip,” and all the television advertising, we never got more than 35% of people wearing seat belts. Wherever we advertise, and regardless of “Coronation Street”, “EastEnders” or whatever, we will not increase the number of people using gas detectors unless we bring in regulation. Is the Minister willing to consider legislating for every home to have a detector?

We have rules relating to landlords and tenants, and I would be happy to consider such a measure in those cases. It is difficult, however, for Governments to instruct the public about what they should do in their houses, and we do not have such regulations for smoke alarms. I will certainly take the hon. Gentleman’s point away and give it due consideration.

Is there not an alternative? I know that the Government do not like regulation, but could it not be put in law that a house could not be insured unless it had a gas detector? That would make insurance companies deliver on the measures that I have suggested. As I say, why should insurers and big mortgage providers not ensure that every home has one of these cheap items?

I praise the hon. Gentleman for his work in encouraging insurance companies to act, but it becomes quite problematic if Governments start instructing insurance companies in law, and telling them what they should put in their policies. I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, but it is about the degree to which coercion is used and measures are imposed on society. This issue is one of many challenges that society faces when it comes to the health and welfare of individuals, and we must decide where to draw the line between regulation, advice, guidance and encouragement of the kind that is provided in various campaigns. I am not giving him an absolute no, but I am not sympathetic to the idea of an all-encompassing regulation. It is difficult to legislate against all the different risks to society.

The Minister and I work well on these issues, but let us return to seat belt legislation. Would he remove the regulation on seat belts for adults?

A lot of people were, but I would not change it. We introduced seat belt regulations for the back seats of cars. The issue is about where we stop legislating against risk in society, and where we start. As for my preference, on such issues, particularly when we are talking about requiring people to have something in their homes, I am instinctively in favour of the work done by the hon. Gentleman and the all-party group to encourage people to do things differently.

As I have said, I will happily look at all the recommendations in the report, and I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has said today. We will also look at whether there are further things that we can—and should—do. Work is already under way on some of the conclusions in the report, and that is right and proper. We share the common objective of trying to ensure that people do not tragically lose their lives through carbon monoxide poisoning. The question is how best to do that, and the work carried out by the hon. Gentleman and his group has given the Government a timely reminder about a number of other things that they might consider doing.

A real opportunity is coming up with the green deal; 27 million homes will be improved with Government help and money. The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), was helpful and amended regulations on the green deal—well, they were amended in the House of Lords—to ensure that if a house becomes airtight as a result of the green deal, it will be obligatory to put a carbon monoxide monitor in it. We will soon see a change in the way we look at homes in this country, because smart metering will provide a chance for every house in the country to look at how its energy is provided.

The hon. Gentleman makes some sensible points. I have committed to looking carefully at all his comments and recommendations, and at the content of the report. I will not give him an instant reply, but I share his objectives, and we should try to mitigate the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning whenever possible and prudent to do so.

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to his constituent. When I attended a meeting of the all-party group last year, I saw a number of people from different areas who have engaged with this issue because of tragedies that they have suffered. We owe it to those people to look at the best ways to ensure that such tragedies do not happen to other households and families. I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that I will look carefully at all the recommendations in the report and at his comments this afternoon, and consider further sensible and prudent measures that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of tragedy striking elsewhere.

We must also look at the health care arena. The hon. Gentleman made the point that early diagnosis in an A and E department or a doctor’s surgery is extremely important in ensuring that somebody who has been exposed to carbon monoxide is helped, and that their condition does not become worse so that they potentially lose their lives.

It is crucial that medical professionals are aware of the risks and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, so that they can provide early and effective diagnosis. A lot of work has already been done to increase that awareness and knowledge. Three years ago, in 2008, and again earlier this year, the chief medical officer and nursing medical officer wrote directly to all GPs and accident and emergency consultants about carbon monoxide poisoning. Those messages also contained an algorithm developed by the Health Protection Agency to aid diagnosis. Similarly, earlier this year guidance was issued to smoking cessation clinics on the detection and diagnosis of carbon monoxide poisoning from sources other than smoking. Just last month, GPs and other health professionals were alerted to the new estimate of the number of people who attend A and E departments each year displaying signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. There is, therefore, a concerted and ongoing programme to raise awareness and keep the issue on the agenda for front-line health care professionals. That is an important part of the support and strategy that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the all-party group believe need to be implemented.

Much has already been done, and the hon. Gentleman has had considerable influence in this area over the years. We recognise, however, that there is more to do, and that continued efforts are required to prevent tragedy striking as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. The group’s recommendations in the report are enormously helpful, and we will consider them carefully with our officials. As I have said, some of the recommendations are already in place, and work is being done to make changes. New thoughts and ideas will be considered carefully as a team, and we will respond in detail on issues that have been raised, setting out what we believe we can and cannot do. We intend to do everything that we can, and we recognise the importance of the issue.

I will give one last little prod, which I know is not necessary because the Minister is a good colleague on these matters. Carbon monoxide detectors carry VAT, as do flue gas analysers. I know that it is difficult to remove VAT, but it would be a step forward if people did not have to pay that tax. Would the Minister’s colleagues in the Treasury consider that? These days, a lot of our constituents are in much more danger of carbon monoxide poisoning when they travel to France and other countries. I know it is difficult, but is the Minister talking to the European Union and the European Commission about what is being done to protect people in other parts of Europe?

I think the hon. Gentleman will have to talk to the Treasury on the tax front. I would like to sort things out in this country first, but I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s message filters through to Brussels.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.