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Building Regulations (Electricity and Gas)

Volume 549: debated on Thursday 6 September 2012

[Relevant documents: Tenth Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, Session 2010-12, HC 1851, and the Government Response, CM 8369.]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady, and to introduce the report of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government on “Building Regulations applying to electrical and gas installation and repairs in dwellings”. It is hardly a short title to trip off the tongue or a subject to get the heart racing, but it is nevertheless an important subject for people’s safety in the home. We are trying to prevent householders from doing the wrong thing, particularly inadvertently, or creating serious difficulties for themselves.

Before I proceed any further, I welcome the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) to his new position and congratulate him on his appointment. I look forward to many further opportunities for us to discuss this and other matters relevant to the Select Committee. I have known him for many years and have engaged with him on a number of subjects, although not this particular one. I have a lot of respect for him, and I very much hope that we can continue to make progress on the matters before us as well as others. It is entirely appropriate at this stage to mention the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), who used to be the Minister dealing with this issue. He came to the Select Committee and gave us the Government’s response. I place on record our appreciation for his work in this area.

I will not detain the House for long. Having taken evidence—our report is evidence-based—the Select Committee reached a consensus about the way forward, which is broadly reflected by the Government in their response. There are one or two details that I will address and an area of disagreement that I want to highlight, but by and large the Government’s response was positive. That has not necessarily been the case with all our reports, so this occasion will not quite be a baptism of fire for the Minister. I accept that this is a complicated policy area, and I do not necessarily expect him to be able to relate to every aspect in detail. When the Committee considered it, we found ourselves on a fairly short and sharp learning curve trying to get our head around the technical aspects.

I will divide my remarks, as our recommendations and report are divided, into gas and electricity. They have common features, as do our recommendations, but equally, there are differences in how the two operate. In some ways, gas involves more complicated arrangements, because of the relationship between Gas Safe and building regulations. I will not try to explain it in detail during this debate, and I do not necessarily expect the Minister to do so either, but the arrangements are complicated.

We received expert advice that despite the complications, by and large, the arrangements work reasonably well. The one difficulty—I will come to it when discussing our recommendations—is that if we as politicians have trouble getting our head around the relationship, heaven help the ordinary member of the public who is having work done in their home. By and large, individual householders put their trust in the person or organisation they employ to do the work, and assume that everything will be okay.

The key to several of our recommendations on gas is simply raising public awareness, whether about ensuring that an installer registered under the Gas Safe scheme is doing the work, the importance of notifying authorities to get approval under building regulations for the work or the potential for carbon monoxide poisoning, the silent killer. It is important that public awareness of those issues is raised. We mentioned them all and called on the Government to embark on more high-profile programmes and work with the industry to increase public awareness, and the Government accepted our recommendations.

My hon. Friend will know that I am a long-term anorak on this issue because the little boy of a wonderful constituent of mine died overnight as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning by a faulty boiler and a gas leak from next door. I am a long-term campaigner. We were pleased with the report, but we were less pleased with one aspect of the Government’s response, namely the division between the two Departments. The Department of Energy and Climate Change was positive about the green deal meaning a carbon monoxide detector in every home, but the Department for Communities and Local Government was not as positive. We wanted to knock the two Departments’ heads together so that deaths and serious injuries from carbon monoxide come to an end or are drastically reduced.

I pay credit to my hon. Friend, who has been a long-term campaigner on the issue of carbon monoxide, the potential for problems and the need for alarms to be fitted. He has done that work over a number of years. He drew my attention to the issue well before we began the Select Committee report, and his credentials are unmatched by anyone else in the House. I was going to come to that point later, but I will raise it now, because it is important. It is the one clear issue of disagreement in the whole report.

The Government have accepted that carbon monoxide alarms should be fitted where new solid fuel appliances are fitted or where, as part of the green deal, a change in a property’s air-tightness is assessed by the installer of heating or energy efficiency systems, but not, as a general rule, where a new heating appliance such as a gas fire is fitted in a property. The Select Committee disagreed. We took evidence, and virtually all the evidence we had proposed that alarms be fitted whenever new relevant heating appliances were installed.

Our evidence suggested that, as a minimum, 12 to 15 deaths a year are due to carbon monoxide poisoning. The reality is that because it is a silent killer and because people, especially elderly people, often have other symptoms that might be deemed relevant to their death, carbon monoxide is not always identified as a problem when someone dies. There could be other deaths that should properly be attributed to carbon monoxide but are not recorded as such. Thousands of people are admitted to hospital each year—maybe only to accident and emergency—suffering the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. Again, they are not necessarily all identified as such at the time.

That is an area of difference between the Government’s response and the Committee’s recommendations based on the evidence that we took. I know that the Minister is new in his post, and I do not expect a different answer from him today, but will he take another look? It is an additional complication to say that apart from solid fuel fires, where work happens in a house, air-tightness must be assessed, and only in those circumstances will a carbon monoxide alarm be deemed necessary. It is an undue complication. The public will much more easily understand that if they fit a new gas fire, they should install an alarm. The two go together.

The cost of an alarm is a few pounds. On top of the cost of the gas fire and the fitting, that is a very small amount. The idea that that is somehow extra red tape and bureaucracy is not true. It is a very small additional safety measure that could save the lives of 15 people a year at the very least. It might save more, and it might stop other people from becoming injured. Will the Minister take another look at it?

I associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), with whom I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on carbon monoxide. I particularly welcome paragraph 27 of the report, which says:

“We recommend that the Government co-ordinate a concerted effort by the various industry organisations to continue to raise public awareness of carbon monoxide poisoning, to be overseen by the Government.”

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the newly named all-party carbon monoxide group will launch the all fuels carbon monoxide awareness forum in October—just next month—to bring together all those who are running campaigns on carbon monoxide. That should make public awareness campaigns much more synchronised and effective. It is good that the Minister now knows that.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I congratulate him on his important work on the matter over the years. There is no difference between the Government and the Committee on our recommendations on awareness. The question is simply about mandatory fitting of alarms when all kinds of new heating equipment are fitted.

The one aspect of the awareness campaign on which the Government seemed a little less than enthusiastic was our recommendation about making things clearer to the public and trying to ensure greater understanding of the public’s responsibility concerning notification and building regulations on appropriate work. The Government said that awareness campaigns must make it clearer that people have a responsibility to use registered installers for gas work, but then said that they do not want to introduce confusion by referring to building regulations. The next recommendation to strengthen compliance with building regulations did not seem to fit with that approach. Perhaps the Minister will have another look at that, because awareness in general is needed, but that includes awareness of the responsibility on householders regarding building regulations, as well as the responsibility to ensure that a registered installer does the work.

That is a complication in the scheme, and everyone accepts that it is a necessary complication, but it is necessary to explain it better. The Committee was alarmed to hear that 50% of work on gas appliances in the home could be done illegally. That work might involve small jobs, or it might be that work is not registered or reported even when it is done to a proper standard, but that was a concern. We recognise that awareness campaigns, as well as the clampdown on the enforcement of building regulations, to which the Government agreed, are important.

Anoraks of the world should unite on this matter. What is really worrying is that with all the public awareness in the world, the fact is, as all the research that I have done as chair of the Skills Commission shows, that it is terrible that the consumer does not know whether the person coming into their house to do gas or electrical work—the position is a little better in the gas industry—is competent. It is almost impossible to tell. Training and qualifications are all over the place.

There is a problem with gas and electrical work, and I will come on to that. On gas, the Government response said that 81% of people were aware of the need to use properly qualified and registered gas engineers. There is probably a greater instinctive understanding among the public that gas can be dangerous and that work should be done by someone who knows about it. I suppose the counterpoint is that if 81% of people are aware of that, 19% are not. That 19% could be putting at risk not just their house, but their neighbour’s house. Greater awareness is necessary.

In response to another recommendation, the Government said that a programme of measures is needed to strengthen enforcement of the regulatory regime. We welcome that response, and they have promised to report in due course on how successful such measures are.

Turning to electrical work—and this was something that, in addition to the carbon monoxide issue, triggered the Committee’s inquiry—it was possible that the Government would water down part P of the building regulations. I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) in his place, as he has campaigned long and hard on the matter. I do not pretend to be an expert, but he is, and he understands the regulations backwards. It was an important step forward when the regulations were introduced. All the evidence to the inquiry was that they had been successful, had improved electrical safety in homes, and had ensured that more electrical work, although not 100%, was done to a proper standard. The Committee made it clear that it did not want any diminution in the application of the regulations and the requirement to comply with them. The Government accepted in their response that they did not want to water down safety measures, but said that they were still considering the consultation.

I want to pick up one issue on which the Committee was absolutely clear, and to obtain some assurance from the Minister. Having heard the evidence, we said that it would be completely wrong to water down in any way the requirement to use someone belonging to the competent person scheme or to notify the authorities for building regulation approval when electrical work was done in bathrooms, kitchens or outside. There is a potential safety risk, and I should like an assurance from the Minister. I hope that he can give it today, but if he cannot perhaps he could give a quick response in writing to the Committee. It is really important. There have been tragedies in the past, and I think that they have affected the families of hon. Members. That is one reason why the regulations were introduced. If just one socket is badly fitted in a kitchen or outside, someone could be killed. That is the truth of the matter, and we must be very, very careful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) referred to the importance of public understanding. The Minister is on a learning curve, as was the Committee, and when we asked our first questions it was with quite a lot of ignorance. We asked about the responsibility on householders, and whether, if they employed a properly qualified electrician, it was the electrician’s job to ensure that everything was done correctly. The answer was no; it was the householder’s responsibility. It is not necessary to ask 100 people in the street to know that 99 of them probably do not know that. Of 100 members of Parliament, 99 probably would not know that. Some members of the Committee said that they had had a kitchen fitted, but were not sure whether the person who came along to fit the sockets was a member of a competent person scheme, although they were probably a qualified electrician.

When members of the public go to a kitchen supplier saying that they want a couple of sockets here and there, and new light under the cupboards, they do not ask whether the person who will do the electrical work as part of fitting a new kitchen is a member of a competent person scheme, whether the work complies with building regulations, or whether it is necessary to notify the council about the work. They are probably more interested in whether the new kitchen looks nice, what the price is and whether they are getting good value for money, which is understandable. The Committee made it clear that the rules should be specific about work in these areas, that there must be compliance with the regulations as they stand, and that work should be done by a member of a competent person scheme or conform to building regulations if substantial work is done anywhere in the house.

There must be more public awareness. The Government accepted that it is a matter for them, local councils, and the industry. The Committee also recommended, and the Government accepted, that something must be done about toughening up the competent person scheme, the concern about conflict of interest, and ensuring that organisations receive levies from the companies and individuals who are part of the scheme. There could be a conflict. The Government have accepted that, and that they must toughen up the requirements and introduce more vetting organisations. There is agreement about the need to toughen up the rules. The whole industry, including the Electrical Safety Council, which expressed concern about watering down the regulations, should be involved. We must raise awareness.

To speed things up, and perhaps reduce costs when small amounts of electrical work were involved and the electrician doing the work was not a member of a competent person scheme, we suggested that a registered scheme member could come and sign off the work. We thought that that would be a safe change that the Government might be prepared to consider.

Finally, I mention the major retailers, to which the Committee has written suggesting that more could be done to alert the public to the requirements. Much of the illegal work might be done by householders buying electrical sockets from a DIY store, thinking that they are competent to fit them in their own home. Alternatively, it could be carried out by a small tradesperson buying sockets to fit a kitchen, then putting them in, even though they are not classed as a competent person under the scheme.

The other day, we met the British Retail Consortium, B and Q, Homebase, John Lewis and Travis Perkins, to discuss their roles and responsibilities. When new products come online, or when existing products are changed, those retailers will now look at getting an agreed form of words across the industry. Companies will opt in on a voluntary basis but hopefully, 100% will volunteer, so that recommendations on installation requirements can be put on goods or packaging, perhaps accompanied by signs in the store, if retailers want them, or on their how-to cards or websites. Specific information will be available to individuals—whether they are householders or small tradespeople—about the requirements when fitting electrical sockets and other items of electrical equipment in potentially dangerous areas, or when it is done on a large scale as part of the major rewiring of a house. That will ensure that people know a competent person must be used, or that the matter should be reported for building regulations approval.

We think that retailers can do more. We were pleased that the companies we met agreed in principle to talk within their industry about reaching a voluntary agreement, meaning that they can be part of raising public awareness. That is not the solution in itself, but if the industry, Government, councils and the Electrical Safety Council can do more to make the public aware, we can save lives, which is very important.

It is a complicated issue. The reality is that instinctively the public assume that if a person is employed, it is up to that person to do the job properly. We have to get over to householders that the responsibility lies with them. We must explain the basic things that need to be done, in order to ensure that those responsibilities are carried out properly, so that people’s safety and that of their families is not compromised in any way.

First, I draw attention to my interests as declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Secondly, I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster), to his new post. I have known him for many years—I will not go into the detail of how we put our lives at risk in a context with strong health and safety connotations—and, on the back of that, I know that he will be sensitive to and aware of the significance of the issues that we are discussing. I wish him every success in his new role. Thirdly, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Committee Chair, on an excellent report that addresses a difficult, complex subject.

Building regulations are not necessarily the best known or most popular area of policy. Even among MPs, as my hon. Friend rightly said, there is probably widespread ignorance about the implications of the regulations which, nevertheless, play a huge role in not only improving the standards of building work, but protecting the public from unnecessary risk of injury or death. Given the important role of building regulations, we should take them very seriously, as the Committee has done. Its report is excellent and I am glad that it appears to have had some impact on the Government’s thinking. I hope that we can take that further today and in the months ahead.

Among the changes in which I was involved when I was the Minister with responsibility for building regulations—more than a decade ago—were improvements to part B, on fire safety, and part M, on access to buildings, for which I earned the opprobrium of a heritage lobby, which described me as the greatest enemy to the English doorstep ever. I will pass over that point, however. We also looked at part L, on thermal efficiency and energy performance, and changes over the past decade have made enormous advances on energy efficiency and the response to climate change.

During my time as the responsible Minister, I was surprised to discover that no building regulation related to the safety of electrical installations. There were regulations on virtually every other area of building work in which public safety was an issue but, extraordinarily, electrical installations were not included. The recognition that lives were being lost—not only due to electrocution, but because of fires caused by defective electrical installations—was a real stimulus to look closely at the need to bring electrical works within the ambit of building regulations and, in 2005, Parliament eventually agreed that part P should be introduced. I am glad, because all the subsequent evidence shows that there has been a significant reduction in the numbers of fires, injuries, and deaths attributable to electrical installations in buildings. That gain was highlighted not only in the Committee’s report, but by virtually every witness who gave evidence to the Committee, so there is a large measure of agreement that part P has helped to improve the quality of electrical installations, reduce risk, save lives and avoid injuries.

The Government’s proposal, as part of their deregulatory agenda, that part P might be revoked was a concern to all of us who care deeply about the subject. I welcome the fact that the Government’s response to the report sets out that they no longer propose to revoke part P. In my view, doing so would have been a foolish, retrograde step. However, the language in the Government’s response still gives cause for concern that the impact of part P could be significantly weakened.

Given my right hon. Friend’s experience—and, even more appropriately, because he is the Member for Greenwich—it is worth saying that although many people in the coalition Government do not like regulation at all, we should all be proud that not one person died during the recent Olympic construction work, which is absolutely a first, compared with what happened in Greece, Sydney and Beijing. That was due to good regulation, and the balance between good management and regulation.

On part P, the word on the street, and from people I trust in the industry, is that the Health and Safety Executive is trimming the part down and rationalising it, rather than getting rid of it.

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words about my constituency. I am very proud of it, and particularly of its role in hosting six of the Olympic events, in which Team GB did extraordinarily well. I am also proud of the wider achievements of the Olympic construction process, which involved no fatalities. That was an extraordinary record compared with international competitors.

My hon. Friend talks about the HSE, but responsibility for building regulations rests with the Minister and his Department. The HSE obviously has an interest, but my understanding is that it is not open to the HSE to water down part P of the building regulations. If it proposes to do so, I hope that someone will talk to it quickly and say that such responsibility rests with the Department for Communities and Local Government, and specifically the Minister who is responding to this debate.

The Government’s response sensibly backed away from their initial proposal to revoke part P, but it still left grounds for concern that the part’s impact could be significantly weakened. The Government’s response is silent on whether they might exclude certain categories of electrical work, including that taking place in higher risk locations, such as kitchens, bathrooms and gardens. The Committee considered such a proposal and strongly rejected it, as the Chair of the Committee emphasised.

Frankly, the Government’s response is evasive and couched in language that raises justified concern that they may well be intending to do what the Committee urged them not to. The report’s clear recommendation is:

“we do not endorse any diminution of Part P, taking minor works in areas of higher risk such as kitchens, bathrooms and gardens out of its reach.”

Paragraph 25 of the Government’s response says:

“The Government agrees that any changes should not unduly diminish safety. The Government will consider all responses to the consultation in relation to Part P and electrical safety carefully before implementing any changes.”

There are two grounds for concern. First, there is no specific reference at all to the clear recommendation not to proceed with an aspect of the Government’s earlier set of proposals: to remove from the remit of part P minor works in high-risk locations such as kitchens, bathrooms and gardens. The second ground for concern is the use of the weasel word “unduly”. I know the Minister well. He is a plain-speaking person who speaks his mind, so I hope that he will ensure that the weasel word “unduly” is deleted, because there should be no diminution of safety—full stop. In high-risk locations, minor works can be just as lethal as major installations in any location. A minor work that is done incorrectly in a kitchen can kill people.

During the parliamentary debates that led to the introduction of part P, reference was made to a particularly sad case, which was also cited in evidence to the Select Committee from Paul Everall, the former head of the building regulations division at the Department, who is now the head of LABC—the organisation representing local authority building control departments. The Chair of the Committee has also referred to this case, which involved the daughter of an MP who was electrocuted due to unsatisfactory wiring in a kitchen. That illustrates just how lethal faulty works are, even if they are of a minor nature, so can we please have no weasel words about not “unduly” diminishing safety, and no suggestion that somehow minor works can be excluded without extending the risk to the public?

Having said that, I would be the first to agree that if we can reduce the cost of compliance with regulations while maintaining safety, we should certainly explore that option. There is growing consensus that the answer probably lies in enabling DIY installers to have their work certified by a member of a competent person scheme, rather than having to obtain building control approval in all cases. The industry supports that proposal, the Select Committee supported it and LABC also appears to be supportive. It appears to be common sense, and it holds out the prospect of making real savings and reducing the burden of regulation without weakening safety. That should be the objective, so I hope that the Minister will follow that route.

One benefit of part P has been the extent to which it has led to a substantial increase in the number of contractors belonging to competent person schemes and thus being subject to regular checks and regular pressure to raise their standards. Before the introduction of part P, only 13,000 contractors were members of such schemes, whereas I understand that the figure is now about 40,000. That suggests that some 27,000 more contractors enrolled in competent person schemes.

The Committee’s report highlights a point about the independent supervision of competent person schemes, but the Government have accepted its recommendations on that, so we can look forward to the operators of such schemes probably having to secure UCAS accreditation, which would be a sensible response to the concern. The key point is that more contractors should be encouraged and persuaded by a variety of means to become members of competent person schemes so that they are subject to regular checks. That would ensure that standards of performance continually improved.

Another key issue is public awareness of the requirements of part P and the implications of undertaking DIY electrical work. As the Chair of the Committee emphasised, the householder is the person responsible, but who can tell how many people are really aware of that? Very little is done to remind members of the public of their obligations and the risks associated with such DIY activity.

The Committee emphasised the importance of better information to extend public awareness and suggested the mandatory labelling of relevant electrical fittings with health warnings. The Government’s response to the report shied away from mandatory labelling and instead put faith in voluntary action by retailers and others. There is not much hard evidence to support the Government’s optimism that that will have the desired result that retailers will do the right thing and ensure that they do much more to bring to the attention of members of the public who are purchasing electrical fittings the fact that there are certain obligations and risks of which they need to be aware.

After I discussed this with the Electrical Safety Council, Daniel Walker-Nolan, the policy and research manager at the council, sent me a note. I shall quote it because it is relevant:

“With regard to DIY retailers providing information to consumers on Part P, there is a mixed picture. Some don’t, B and Q in particular do not appear to mention it in any of their literature. There is some very basic information provided by certain companies such as Homebase but in our experience, generally retailers don’t actively draw attention to its existence or promote it. It would be interesting to see what evidence the government can cite to support their claim. Anecdotally, I’m informed that some retailers did actually promote information on Part P when the requirements were first introduced but stopped doing so quite quickly thereafter because it was having a negative impact on sales.”

That is a cause for concern. I hope that the Minister will reflect on it and take further advice to determine what more can be done to ensure that members of the public are alerted to their responsibilities and to the risks of undertaking electrical DIY work without ensuring that it is checked as compliant with the requirements of part P.

I have focused on part P for obvious reasons, but I add my voice to those of hon. Members who have emphasised the need to do more to tackle the problem of carbon monoxide poisoning. The obvious case for doing more to prevent unnecessary deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning, and, in particular, to get more carbon monoxide alarms into homes where risks exist, has rightly been highlighted by the Committee. I hope that the Government will consider that further, because this is, again, an area where lives are at risk.

I hope that the Minister will enjoy his time with responsibility for this—shall we say—recherché area of policy. As he well knows, individual Ministers, individual politicians and individuals’ choices can make an enormous difference. In this area, we are talking literally about a matter of life and death. As he pursues his responsibilities, I hope that he will be mindful of the very real impact that an individual Minister can make to improve public safety and save lives.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I, too, start by welcoming the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) to his new ministerial post. I am sure that we will joust cheerfully across the Chamber and this room on a number of occasions.

I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) for bringing in the regulations in the first place. He has done a lot to protect and enhance public safety. However, I have to say that by the time I had reached page 3 of the Select Committee report, I was beginning to wonder whether I was actually so pleased that we had part P, because this is not an area that is easy to grasp. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me when they understand that today I have had a range of planning matters to deal with. I am, nevertheless, pleased that we are having this very important debate.

I again thank the Select Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe—

Apologies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) for yet another excellent Select Committee report. I thank the Select Committee for undertaking the report. Given the Government’s wish to consult on changing part P and part J of the building regulations, an in-depth analysis was essential to look, in particular, at the extension of the range of simple jobs that could be carried out without notifying building control, and at possibly revoking, or at best watering down, part P. The Select Committee has done us all a great service with the report it produced.

I welcome recommendations 1, 4, 5, 11, 12 and 13, which all relate to raising public awareness of the potential dangers of gas and electrical works. As we heard from many Members, good public awareness of the potential dangers of such works and of the responsibilities on homeowners could ensure that such works are carried out responsibly and could contribute to an improvement in safety standards. It is important that the report emphasised raising public awareness and doing everything possible to ensure that homeowners are aware of their responsibilities. If we went on to the street outside and took a random sample of people, we would find that a number of them would not be aware of their responsibilities, so the task to be undertaken is huge. I am pleased that the all-party group on gas safety is setting up a forum to bring together organisations working to raise awareness of public safety. I hope that that happens quickly.

I also welcome recommendation 2, which proposes strengthening the enforcement powers. That would enable local authorities to bring prosecutions up to three years after the completion of work that is found to be sub-standard. It would serve as a greater deterrent to cowboy workmen, and I hope that it will come into operation swiftly.

Recommendation 3 deals with carbon monoxide alarms, and I know that the all-party group on gas safety has taken up that issue: the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said earlier that he would set up a new forum to deal with it. All MPs are concerned about carbon monoxide poisoning, which is a problem in my constituency because of the many students in private lets. It is important that they are protected, and I would like the legislation on carbon monoxide strengthened, not weakened.

The hon. Lady and I know the value of Select Committee work, because we served on one together for a long time. Students often used to be the victims in cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, but when we introduced a regulation that required an annual check on a landlord’s premises—without one, a landlord would finish up in prison if one of their tenants died from carbon monoxide poisoning—the problem involving students almost disappeared. Is it not odd that no annual check must be carried out in an ordinary homeowner’s premises? We have seen deaths shift from tenants to the regular homeowner.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which strengthens what I said about the need for regulation. We strongly wish to ensure that the regulations are not watered down in any way. Indeed, there is a case for extending them to other categories.

Recommendations 6 to 13 deal with part P. All Members will have received an important briefing from the Electrical Safety Council. More than any other information I received, it highlighted that the result of the regulations being in place is an excellent safety record. That is a very strong argument for keeping them as they are. The ESC said that in its opinion, part P

“Contributed to 17.5% reduction in fires…Nearly 20,000 more electrical contractors are having their competence assessed and samples of their work checked regularly…It is easier for householders to identify competent electrical installers…85%”

of its members

“said Part P should be retained but with some amendments/improvements…53% had seen an improvement in the standard of electrical work since Part P was brought in…96% said that DIY work should not be excluded from the need to notify…Only 4.19% found that the standard of work carried out by non-Part P Registered Installers was ‘usually good’”

compared with over 64% of members

“finding that the standard of work carried out by Part P Registered Installers”

was good. That clearly seems to demonstrate that part P regulations work effectively, and I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

Recommendations 8, 9 and 10 relate to changes to the competent person scheme. A number of people think that the scheme could benefit from reform. We will be interested to hear what the Government will do about it. Although the Government’s response acknowledges the importance of raising awareness, I am concerned about the lack of a specific plan or a time scale to bring that greater public awareness about or to initiate activities relating to it. Will the Minister clarify what action he will take?

Recommendation 3 recognises the difference that carbon monoxide alarms can make and discusses the Government’s new green deal. The detail of what the Government will do on it is not clear. It looks as though rules on carbon monoxide alarms will not go beyond the existing housing regulations. I noted that when the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), gave evidence to the Select Committee, he said that he did not think that there was a case for requiring carbon monoxide alarms in all dwellings. Bearing in mind what was said earlier, it is important that the Minister looks at the matter.

Some of the evidence from the safety councils and evidence given to the Select Committee mentions the cost of carbon monoxide alarms. If they were bought in bulk and distributed through the local authority, the cost to homeowners could be significantly reduced. I am not suggesting that the local authority pay for them, but they could be obtained through a local authority buying in bulk. I would like the Minister to think about such a scheme.

Most people take out home insurance—an immense amount of money is spent on advertising home insurance policies on television—so would it not be sensible for the Government to lean on insurance companies to say that unless there is a smoke detector and a carbon monoxide alarm in a house, it will not get insured? That would save an awful lot of worry and work. They cost only £15 to £20 to put in, so why are we still waiting for pressure to deliver a safe environment in the home?

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. That measure is one of a number that the Government should consider to increase the uptake and use of carbon monoxide alarms. Following this report, I hope that the Government will come back with a range of actions that they will take to raise public awareness and increase the use of alarms, where that is possible.

As we have said, the issue is very important: we want to ensure that public safety is maintained and to avoid fatalities and injuries when possible. I am not totally happy that the Government are relying on a voluntary agreement with retailers in relation to the public being given more information when they buy electrical goods or seek to have them installed, particularly in the areas of higher risk—kitchens, bathrooms—that we have talked about. I know that the Electrical Safety Council has welcomed the Government’s initiative to get retailers onboard through a voluntary agreement. If that voluntary agreement does not produce real action by retailers, will the Minister look again at that area?

Finally, I, too, have noticed what the Health and Safety Executive has said about the whole issue, including its concern that regulations dealing with gas and electrical safety are not in any way reduced or watered down by the Government. I know that the Government are still looking at the evidence and considering their approach to part P. While they do so, will the Minister look very closely at the evidence produced for this debate and the evidence contained in the Select Committee’s report?

May I advise the Minister that I understand that the Chairman of the Select Committee would like a brief opportunity to respond at the end of the debate?

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. It is also a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and I, too, look forward to friendly jousting over the weeks and months to come. I want very much to thank all hon. Members who have spoken, all of whom have considerably more knowledge on these issues than I have had.

I want to put firmly on the record from the start that, as hon. Members have said, although the issue has been described as complex and recherché and as one that really matters only to people in anoraks, it is vital and crucial. I was delighted to hear the reference made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) to the specific example of how, more widely, health and safety regulations have played a key role in ensuring the fabulous result on the Olympic park. The work done by the Olympic Delivery Authority has been phenomenal, but that is in part because it built on existing regulations, to which it had to have significant regard. We will all, regardless of our party political allegiances, also be grateful for the fact that Paul Deighton is to be brought into the other place and will contribute to party policy.

I want to make it clear that a really important point was made by the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), to whom I will no doubt refer many times later. It is that there is a total lack of awareness, in many places and for many people, about the responsibility of home owners and the crucial need to get that message over. Perhaps this debate, in its own small way, will contribute to doing so.

I congratulate the Select Committee on its report and its Chairman on his excellent work. I am particularly grateful to him for his very generous opening remarks about my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). When he was in my post, my hon. Friend took building regulations extraordinarily seriously. He was a great advocate for them—so much so, that one of his first actions was in relation to them. He recognised not only their importance, but the need for them to be properly maintained and to remain fit for purpose. For that reason, in July 2010, he initiated an opportunity for people to comment. Alongside the parallel work done in the Cabinet Office, through the Your Freedom website, that enabled him to develop several proposals that have become the subject of further consultation.

As the House will know, the problem is that when there is a consultation, some people come along and say, particularly about part P, that they want to get rid of regulations, and some say that they want to extend them and their scope. In the light of such mixed views, it became clear that we needed to explore how further to improve part P. We worked with the industry to understand its concerns, and that led to the set of proposals contained in the further consultation on changes to building regulations that was published by the Department on 31 January.

A comment was made about the HSE looking into part P. If I am wrong about this, I apologise to the House—I am a new Minister—but my understanding is that the HSE has no responsibility for building regulations, so I was somewhat taken aback by that remark. During the consultation, the Select Committee decided to inquire into this area, which was very welcome and timely. We very much welcome the report, which has provided more evidence for us to continue to consider.

I want clearly to say that I am going to disappoint all hon. Members present, but also in one sense to please them as well. I will disappoint them by saying that we have made no decisions on any of the issues. We are continuing to consult and to consider, and no decisions have been made. We will make them as quickly as possible. I hope, however, that it will please people to know that my mind is not closed on any issues that have been raised, and I immediately promise that all of them will be considered carefully—not only those raised today, but those raised by other people.

I am delighted to see the Minister in his place—we have known each other for a very long time—and I welcome him to his post. May I say that we are delighted that he has not made up his mind?

I may have been wrong about the HSE. In this House, not many people admit that they might have got something wrong. I had just picked up that the HSE might have been fiddling around in the area, which is not one that I know well. What I know well is that the message is simple, is it not? We do not want people to die unnecessarily from bad electrical installation or from carbon monoxide poisoning. We know a lot about that, and may I extend the hand of friendship and say that, if there is anything that the all-party groups on common monoxide and on home safety can do, we will be happy to do it in talking, helping and supporting the Minister, as he learns his brief?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The Chairman of the Select Committee said that when it studied the issue, it was on a steep learning curve, although it had several weeks in which to do so. I am on an even steeper learning curve, having had less than 24 hours to try to master the brief. In doing that, the one thing that I have learned is that the issue really is very important.

I am grateful that, as well as part P, the Committee looked at part J. Although it did so, we have concluded that, as the regulations in part J were most recently updated in October 2010, there is probably no need to change them. That is why I want to concentrate on part P, which covers the safety of electrical installations and applies, of course, only to dwellings in England. Certain types of work need to be notified to a building control body unless they are carried out by an installer who is registered with an authorised competent person self-certification scheme. Such schemes oversee the competence of their members, and membership allows the members to certify their own work.

Our proposed amendments to part P, set out in the 2012 consultation, were aimed at reducing bureaucracy and costs for electricians and DIY-ers, particularly for those who do simpler jobs, such as installing additional socket outlets. We also looked at how local authorities could be allowed to step away from a situation in which they currently act, unnecessarily, as an administrative middleman.

The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) deserves huge praise for his work on the introduction of part P, and I thank him for it. I especially want to thank him for giving me some advance notice of what he intended to say today. I know that he is concerned about changes to the type of work covered by the regulations. He is also concerned about the weasel words that have been used so far. Although I must disappoint him in this area, I will try to give him a degree of comfort. While we are looking at changes to what work is notifiable, they will not affect the general requirement that all work must be carried out safely. I hope that that gives him a little comfort, but we will have further discussions about the concerns that he has raised.

The right hon. Gentleman has also been concerned about the defined competence scheme, which, for those who are not entirely familiar with it, relates to specific types of electrical work that are often carried out by general trades people, such as the electrical works associated with the installation of a boiler. We are aware of the calls to end such a scheme, which would effectively force people to join full competent person schemes. As with so many issues that we are debating, this is a complex matter. I can only assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will consider very seriously his comments on that issue, and we are grateful to him for making them.

Let me push the Minister a little further. He said that although he had an open mind and was still considering whether there might be changes to part P, there would be, if I remember his words correctly, an obligation that all work should be carried out safely. However, without the remit of part P, that guarantee cannot be met. If works are outside the remit of part P, no one will necessarily know whether or not they have been conducted safely. Will he clarify those remarks and say whether I am interpreting his words correctly, because that would give me great comfort?

The right hon. Gentleman knows me extraordinarily well, and he has also occupied the same position as me. He knows that there is no possibility whatever, having spent a long time coming to a form of words that I can give him, that I will, on the hoof, change them. None the less, I am grateful to him for his suggestion. Perhaps, on a future occasion, I may end up uttering the very words that he has sought to put into my mouth, but, at this stage, he has not yet succeeded.

On exactly that point, the Minister said that he was considering the extent of the work that might be notifiable. He did not explain the scope of work that might be required to be done by a competent person. Was there a reason why he said one and not the other?

I fear that the Chairman of the Select Committee is pushing me as hard as he might, but I will go to this stage and no further. If it gives him any comfort, I do genuinely understand the point that he has made.

Making the public and home owners aware of electrical safety and their own liabilities is crucial. We have already agreed with the Committee in its report in June that new conditions of authorisation, which will require scheme operators to promote and publicise the benefits of competent person schemes, will be put in place. We are also looking at other ways in which we can go further. We see considerable merit in the scheme providers working in partnership with retailers, manufacturers and one another. We will look into that and ensure that the measures that they take to promote the schemes are as effective as possible. However, I am not convinced at this stage that further legislation is required for such things as the labelling of electrical products.

The hon. Member for City of Durham asked me whether, if there was clear evidence that a voluntary code was not satisfactory, we would be prepared to consider an alternative route. The answer is yes, but there is a long way to go before we have such evidence. I hope that the industry and all its relevant parts will come together to work effectively on those issues.

Has the Minister thought about a time scale for the operation of a voluntary code? In other words, if it is not working, would it be reviewed after one year, three years and so on?

The straight answer is no, but I will go away and think about it.

The new conditions of authorisation also provide that each scheme must be independently audited, which sits well with the Committee’s recommendations for stronger, independent scrutiny of the schemes. The Committee also considered whether registration of electrical installers should be mandatory, as it is for gas installers, and concluded that that was not justified. The Government welcome and concur with the Committee’s views on the matter.

The Select Committee report asks on a number of occasions for the Government to report back, within two years, on the progress that they have made in carrying out a number of its recommendations. The Government have agreed to do that, and we will be monitoring the outcome of any changes made to part P and will report back to the Committee, within two years of when any changes take effect, as set out in the Government’s formal response.

With respect to gas safety, the building regulations cover the installation of combustion appliances, such as the provision of chimneys and hearths and energy efficiency. However, safety with gas itself is controlled through the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations. On the face of it, like so many issues, that can seem complex, but there are obvious reasons why such a volatile fuel should attract greater scrutiny than other sources of heat.

Under the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations, any engineer carrying out gas work for financial gain or otherwise must be registered with the Gas Safe register, which is operated independently and overseen by the Health and Safety Executive. Installers who are on the Gas Safe register can self-certify their work, which would also be caught by building regulations. That ensures that any legislative overlap does not manifest itself in practice, and that competent installers are able to carry on their business without undue bureaucracy.

In their evidence to the Select Committee, officials from the register suggested that they could improve their work in relation to building regulations. There is a particular concern that many registered installers are not making the necessary notifications under building regulations—the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East, made that point—and that is something that my officials continue to work with officials from the register and with the Health and Safety Executive to try to resolve.

The Gas Safe register also has a programme of consumer awareness campaigns to raise public awareness of gas safety risks. Those include national TV advertising campaigns, as well as national and regional press and radio campaigns. However, as the Chairman of the Select Committee and others have said many times, householders are ultimately responsible for their homes and potentially liable to correct any unlawful work. Nevertheless, the message is clear—to protect themselves, householders should use only Gas Safe-registered engineers.

I know that the Minister is new to his post, but evidence given to Baroness Finlay’s committee, which was looking at the long-term effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, showed that with Gas Safe and registration, it is still possible for someone to be a taxi driver one day and 10 days later to be going into people’s homes as a gas fitter; as I say, that is evidence, not just my view. Using the register is not as easy and as safe as everyone might think. There is Gas Safe, but there are some real problems about the training of gas engineers, as there are about the training of electricians.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for drawing my attention to that issue again. It is another thing that I shall be putting in the basket of things that I will have to look at following this debate.

May I also say that I welcome the news of the establishment of the all-party group on gas safety, which has looked at carbon monoxide? I have no doubt that it will have a particular role to play in raising awareness about the dangers of carbon monoxide.

Much has been said already about carbon monoxide alarms. That issue was considered at some length by the previous Administration as part of their review. We agreed with the changes that they proposed and we introduced them in the summer of 2010. However, I suspect that I will disappoint a number of people by saying that that review concluded that it would be disproportionate to require carbon monoxide alarms in all new homes. Research found that the risk from carbon monoxide poisoning is far lower for modern gas appliances, due in large part to their increased safety specifications. Therefore, we have no plans to extend the requirements in building regulations for carbon monoxide alarms, but we will still promote their voluntary use alongside the key messages regarding regular maintenance by registered installers.

Reference was also made to the green deal, and to issues such as retrofitting and so on. We will continue to look at the issues that were raised in respect of the green deal and in due course we will bring forward proposals.

I will end by thanking members of the Select Committee in particular for the work that they have done on this very important issue. As we have seen, clearly there is much that we have agreed on already, particularly the benefits of raising public awareness about gas and electrical safety. We will continue to consider all the proposals from the Select Committee and other proposals that we have received during the period of consultation. I look forward to working in the future with all Members who have shown a particular interest in this issue, so that we can achieve a safe environment which is, after all, what this has all been about.

Thank you, Mr Brady, for calling me to speak again.

I shall just make one or two points very briefly, to pick out key issues from the debate. I congratulate all right hon. and hon. Members who have come along to Westminster Hall today. They have made very telling and informed contributions to a debate about what is in the end, despite the technicalities involved, a very serious matter indeed that affects the lives of everybody in a home in this country.

As the Minister has just said, there is clearly a lot of common ground between what the Select Committee proposed and the Government’s response, in terms of the need to strengthen the enforcement of the Gas Safe scheme of building regulations with regard to gas installations. The Government have accepted that, in terms of improvements to the competent persons scheme in part P and in terms of raising public awareness. The Government have accepted those things in principle, although we obviously want to see the details. They have also said that they will produce a report to the Committee in due course outlining the measures that have been undertaken and their effectiveness. That is important, because in the end it is the effectiveness of these measures that really matters.

There are just three key issues that, as yet, we have not yet got complete agreement on. First, I was a little disappointed to hear the Minister’s last comments about carbon monoxide alarms. It seems to me that such alarms are a very low regulatory burden. There is a very small cost involved, and such alarms can save lives.

The Minister did not read out these words in the Government’s response:

“However, we will continue to keep this under review.”

I would have thought that the time when a new Minister comes in is the best time to have a review of an issue such as this. I ask him again, especially given the small cost involved, to simplify the issue—with new heating installations, a carbon monoxide alarm should be fitted. The two things go together; installing them together seems to make common sense. I ask him to reflect on that point again.

Secondly, regarding the possible amendments to part P of the building regulations, I will come back to the response that he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford). My right hon. Friend rightly identified the word “unduly” as being perhaps the key word there. The Minister’s assurance about not compromising safety was welcome. Obviously, we want to see how that objective will be achieved. If he is suggesting some extension of the competent persons scheme to allow a member of the scheme to sign off work done by another electrician, that might be a way forward. Obviously he is not going to commit himself at this stage, but clearly he has accepted that that is potentially a sensible way forward. It may be what he is thinking about.

Thirdly and finally, there is an issue that, again, we might be making progress on. If we can get voluntary agreements to work, that would be desirable. As I mentioned earlier, members of the Select Committee met retailers the other day and representatives of the British Retail Consortium have gone away to see if they can get agreement from their members. If the consortium comes forward with a robust scheme about advising members of the public who buy certain electrical equipment of the need to comply with the regulations, that would be a major step forward, and the consortium’s members can advertise such a scheme on their websites and on notices in their stores. If that scheme works, that is fine.

However, what the Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) about what would happen if a voluntary scheme failed was really helpful. The fact that he could not give a time scale is understandable at this stage, but the fact that he said that if a scheme fails there is the long-stop possibility of regulation might concentrate the minds of retailers and others, and encourage them to develop a robust voluntary scheme that actually works. If that happens, that would be a very good way forward, and the Minister should be congratulated for at least beginning his ministerial task by perhaps nudging retailers and others in the direction of voluntary arrangements, which would remove the necessity for him to act in the future.

Once again, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have participated in the debate this afternoon, and we look forward to hearing further comments from the Minister on these matters in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.