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E-scooters and E-bikes: Battery Fires

Volume 831: debated on Tuesday 27 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to address the number of fires caused by lithium-ion batteries in e-scooters and e-bikes.

My Lords, the Government are committed to ensuring that consumers are protected from unsafe goods through our product safety framework. We are undertaking a programme of activities on the fire risks associated with lithium-ion batteries for e-scooters and e-bikes. These include establishing a safety study to understand evidence for enforcement and public safety information; carrying out research to inform future regulatory activity and guidance on safety and standards; and working with fire and rescue services, among others, on safety messaging.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but I believe more urgent action is needed. After all, fires caused by lithium-ion batteries in e-scooters and e-bikes have quadrupled in number since 2020, costing millions of pounds and resulting in eight deaths and 190 injuries. Landfill sites are also experiencing a huge surge in lithium-ion battery fires, yet unsafe batteries and chargers are still being sold and there is no effective campaign to ensure safe recharging or disposal. So, with headlines such as, “Why do e-scooters and e-bikes keep exploding?”, fire services, councils, insurance companies and safety campaigners, including Electrical Safety First, are calling for more urgent action. Will the Minister agree to a meeting to discuss industry-developed solutions so that action can now be taken quickly?

I thank the noble Lord for that follow-up question. I assure all noble Lords that officials in three government departments are collaborating to address the issue of fires associated with e-scooters and e-bikes—specifically, the Office for Product Safety and Standards inside my own department, the Department for Business and Trade; the Home Office, which is interacting with fire services; and the Department for Transport, through the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles. Officials are proactively seeking the input and expertise of stakeholders from fire and rescue services, the National Fire Chiefs Council and London Fire Brigade, including their scientific advisers. Indeed, on 13 June, the Home Office hosted a meeting of senior officials from the relevant departments, London Fire Brigade and the National Fire Chiefs Council to further discuss the issues and the work which is under way.

My Lords, is there not a very simple answer to these wretched e-bikes and e-scooters: to ban them? That would solve at least part of my noble friend’s problem.

I thank my noble friend for that welcome intervention. You might argue that this is the response of the consumer to messages about climate change—that the consumer is embracing the concept. Not only are they a cheaper mode of transport but they are much better for the planet. It is actually illegal to use an e-scooter on a public road and in spaces set aside for pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders—including pavements and cycle lanes—unless it is under licence. There are licences at the moment to allow trials to take place in 32 local authorities, in order to collect information to allow the DfT to work out how to proceed with this mode of transport.

My Lords, unlike in England and Wales, e-scooters are illegal on the roads in Northern Ireland, but that has not stopped their use, with an e-scooter rider left in a critical condition last month after colliding with a car in east Belfast. Furthermore, just last weekend, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service issued a warning after attending a spate of e-scooter fires caused by lithium-ion batteries. In the continuing absence of an Executive at Stormont, can I ask the Minister for an assurance that any future legislation brought forward by His Majesty’s Government relating to Northern Ireland does not include the legalisation of e-scooters?

I thank the noble Lord for his question on that specific matter in relation to one part of the United Kingdom, but this is not a UK-central issue: it is an international issue. New York is considering the whole gamut of proposals; its fire department has implemented a range of activities, which our Office for Product Safety is looking at. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has announced that it will hold a forum on 27 July to look at lithium-ion batteries and e-bikes after an increasing number of fires and fatalities. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has outlined lithium-ion batteries as one of its product safety priorities, while Barcelona has imposed a six-month ban on e-scooters on public transport and Paris has banned rental e-scooters. We are not alone in considering how to deal with this modern technology.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister tell us how many e-scooters are in legal circulation? Private e-scooters are to be driven only on private land, including car parks and private property; rented scooters are the ones that he referred to under pilot schemes. How many will go on to become permanently rented, lawfully and with a licence? Will licences soon be issued for privately owned e-scooters as well?

I thank my noble friend. I do not have the precise number so I will write to her. She is absolutely right: it is currently illegal to use an e-scooter on a public road. It is legal to use an e-scooter on private land with the permission of the landowner. Any person using an e-scooter on a public road is breaching the law and committing a criminal offence so can be prosecuted. The Government are providing e-scooter trials in 32 local authorities, as I said. These trials are taking place and will continue until the end of May 2024. Transport for London has banned the carriage of e-scooters and e-unicycles on its premises and services, so this is being regulated heavily. In the meantime, the trials continue.

My Lords, can the Minister kindly tell the House what methods other than lithium are being researched and how much the Government are spending on researching alternatives to lithium in batteries?

That goes back to my department, the Department for Business and Trade, where the Office for Product Safety and Standards has established a safety study precisely to understand the data on and evidence of risks in the sector, as well as the alternatives; this will inform enforcement action. Specifically, the noble Lord will be pleased to know that a project is going on at the Warwick Manufacturing Group, which is part of the University of Warwick, in which intense conditions are being created to examine further the science and technology around this issue and the safety of lithium-ion batteries in personal light electric vehicles. Where the Office for Product Safety and Standards receives a notification that these products present a serious risk or need to be recalled, such notifications will be promoted on the product recalls and alerts websites, on social media and via stakeholders. I do not have a precise number on the amount for research, but I will write to the noble Lord with that figure.

My Lords, in reviewing the success of the trial periods, will the Government consider parking, particularly of these dockless vehicles, and the impact on people with impaired vision and disabilities when such vehicles are left on pavements?

My Lords, the fire risks associated with lithium-ion batteries go beyond their use in e-bikes and e-scooters, adding to their wide-ranging risk in residential environments. Fire incidents caused by such batteries can also have severe environmental consequences due to the hazardous materials involved. Do the Government have any plans to work with manufacturers and recycling organisations to develop effective recycling and disposal methods for these batteries, ensuring that they are handled responsibly and minimising their impact on the environment?

I thank the noble Baroness and say absolutely yes on all counts. This is all part of the ongoing review. The work being done with the fire service is collecting information to find out how much of the risk is caused by the batteries versus the way they are used by the consumer in the household and whether they are being charged in the right way and in the right place. The consultation is ongoing and the results are imminent. We are fully cognisant of those risks.

My Lords, fires are one problem, but poor design of e-scooters means a low centre of gravity, ensuring that a lot of people who have accidents have head injuries. The Minister talks about studies and plans. The trials have been going on for years. Can he give us a date when the Government will actually do something about this problem?

The consultation has started and will be published imminently. The findings will be made available. Generally, it is not the Government’s position to ban all dangerous items. Some modes of transport are more dangerous than others, but you choose your own mode of transport. Certainly, when it comes to affecting the public and increasing danger, that is exactly why the law prohibits these vehicles other than in a legal trial. With three departments working on this, I can safely say that the Government are alive to these issues.

My Lords, the Minister will recognise that lithium-ion batteries are used in a variety of products and not just e-scooters. What steps are the UK Government taking to ensure that we have sufficient supplies of lithium-ion, and are those supply chains from sources that do not involve modern slavery?