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Energy: Gas Safety

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What actions they will take to ensure that the gas industry improves the United Kingdom public’s awareness of gas safety issues and in particular awareness of carbon monoxide poisoning.

My Lords, it is vital that the public are made aware of the dangers of CO poisoning. On 27 November, I called a meeting with senior figures in the gas industry. They have made a commitment to new action on gas safety campaigns, with efforts to be co-ordinated by Corgi. I will lead a ministerial group and the Government will take a keen interest in the outcome and improved gas safety.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Given the recent near tragedy in Gateshead of a classroom of schoolchildren being poisoned by carbon monoxide gas, and the need for the gas industry to give clear and consistent advice on gas safety, will my noble friend press the six major gas energy suppliers to ensure that they give that clear and consistent message and that they help Corgi, as the energy’s watchdog, to pursue its excellent campaigns, which have seen a decline in the number of deaths from 50 to 18 in recent years?

My Lords, the latest figures show a further reduction to 16 deaths—but that is 16 too many. The figures also show around 200 serious injuries. My noble friend referred to the Gateshead incident, into which investigation is continuing, although, clearly, we were all very concerned to hear of it. There is no question but that we need to encourage greater awareness of CO poisoning risks and that the industry has a major role to play. I will certainly take his words to heart on that matter.

My Lords, will the Minister press the gas board, or whomever else he is speaking to in these energy authorities, to instruct people to have some type of monitor? My family gave me a carbon monoxide monitor, which seems fine, and they tell me that a less expensive variety is available. However, the danger with all these monitors is that, if they expire and people do not know that they are no longer functioning, they are almost worse than if people did not have them. Will he be sure to cover that point?

Yes, my Lords, the noble Baroness is right: audible CO detectors have a very valuable role to play. If they meet the British standard, they will function effectively. I understand that, if the battery runs out, a noise makes it clear to the owners that the detector is no longer running. The noble Baroness is certainly right: part of the awareness campaign is about encouraging people to invest in such detectors.

My Lords, have the Government undertaken any specific activities in respect of students moving into new houses or others who live in houses that will change occupation quickly, to ensure that those users are informed about what is going on? If there is a lack of funds, would not the gas suppliers be excellent bodies to fill that hole?

My Lords, I certainly agree that the gas industry as a whole is very well financially resourced. I am sure that it is able to invest in CO awareness campaigns providing the information that the noble Lord mentioned. It is worth making the point that the regulations were extended in 1994 to place requirements on landlords to maintain gas appliances in properties available to rent, which provides some protection in the case of students. On the more general issue, the Health and Safety Executive is conducting a review of gas safety, and I will ensure that that comment is passed to those conducting the review.

My Lords, I declare an interest: my pilot light went out. I know that we are talking about an extremely serious situation here, but my pilot light went out. When the light was put back on, the company said that we should have a monitor, such as the one to which the noble Baroness referred, to ensure that the house was safe. However, that cost £60 plus. Of course, I borrowed the money off my good friend Lord Davies of Coity, but other people cannot do that. Are the Government concerned about people in our society who would find that cost hard to bear?

My Lords, I am most sorry to hear about my noble friend’s pilot light; I am sure that we all express our concern for him. However, the action that he took was quite right. It was right to call in a qualified operator to look at it, and the operator was certainly right to encourage him to invest in a CO detection alarm. I do not think that £60 is the current rate; I think that the alarms can be bought for between £20 and £30. However, I take his point that poor people may find that rather difficult. Various schemes are already in place to help such people with gas equipment generally, but my noble friend’s point about CO alarms is important and I will make sure that the Health and Safety Executive looks at it in the context of its current review.

My Lords, many years ago, in the days of coal gas, many individuals attempted to commit suicide by putting their head in the gas oven. Nowadays, natural gas contains such a minuscule concentration of carbon monoxide that that is no longer feasible. However, as has been said, it is clear that inadequate ventilation and improperly maintained gas appliances carry the greatest risk. One problem is a delay in diagnosis and recognition of what is happening. Are the public generally aware that carbon monoxide combines with haemoglobin to give a bright red colour and that one of the earliest signs of carbon monoxide poisoning is that the individual is bright red in skin colour?

My Lords, we think of nothing else in Kings Heath. The noble Lord is quite right that there is an enormous lack of awareness, as has been shown by research commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive. That is why it is important that the industry is encouraged to finance some publicity campaigns. It is also right that health professionals need to be aware of the impact of CO poisoning and to be able to identify it. Part of the review process will be about the kind of information that needs to be given to health professionals, too.

My Lords, may I press the Minister a little further on carbon monoxide detectors? Would he join me in encouraging the suppliers to ensure that all their customers have such things and to supply them for free, if necessary, which was the point made on the Back Bench behind him?

My Lords, that sounds like an excellent idea and I would be very happy to put that to the gas companies concerned.