Skip to main content

Fuel Safety

Volume 326: debated on Tuesday 23 February 1999

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

5.20 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the installation of carbon monoxide detectors in certain premises; to raise public and professional awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning; to make new provision with respect to the maintenance of fuel appliances; and for connected purposes.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to present this Bill. I became involved in this important subject following the death of a constituent who was 19 years old, a student at Durham university and a talented and admirable young woman. She died in a rented house in multiple occupation because of the inadequacies of the heating equipment. That was the second death of a 24-year-old student in my constituency, because two years previously another student, Glen Haliday, died.

Thank my hon. Friends and other hon. Members who are present in the Chamber, many of whom are here because they have had similar experiences in their constituencies. They have had to sit down with the parents and loved ones of those who have lost their lives through carbon monoxide poisoning. I know that there are people observing our proceedings today who have also recently lost loved ones through similar terrible tragedies.

The Bill is in memory of those who have died, as well as an attempt to prevent such deaths in future. It is a sad fact that, statistically, every Member of Parliament will at some stage in their parliamentary careers have to deal with a similar tragedy in their constituencies. Recently, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), four people—a mother, father and two young sons—died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The Bill is a reasoned, long-overdue and sensible measure. That is endorsed by the support that it has received from my hon. Friends and from Conservative Members, Liberal Members and the minor nationalist parties. I am grateful to all those who have supported the Bill.

The Bill is in three sections. The first would provide, initially, for the installation of carbon monoxide detectors in houses in multiple occupation. The second part would place a duty on the Government to raise public and professional awareness of the dangers, and the third would make new provision for the maintenance of heating equipment and introduce tougher penalties for those who abuse it.

I accept that carbon monoxide detectors are a second line of defence, but they are important. We must ensure that all equipment in the home works correctly, but detectors should be installed as a second line of defence. I would like to see in Britain the same culture for carbon monoxide detectors that we have for smoke alarms. Twenty years ago, smoke alarms were costly and rare. Today, they are relatively cheap and many houses in Britain are much safer because of their installation. We should develop the same attitude to carbon monoxide detectors. That would help to reduce their price, although they are relatively inexpensive at the moment at around £30.

Before I came into the Chamber at 2.30 pm, I talked with a Mrs. Smith whose husband tragically died 10 days after their house had been checked by an engineer.

Everything appeared to be in working order, but carbon monoxide—an evil, silent and insidious killer—had crept through and killed Mr. Smith. So detectors are important.

Another case of which I am aware involves a Mr. Nigel Cullen, who had read about the existence of carbon monoxide detectors. Part of the problem is that not many people know that audible detectors can be purchased, as can other equipment that will shut down the supply if it detects the gas. Mr. Cullen read about the detectors in the Nottingham Evening Post and decided to buy one, which he sent to his daughter, a student at Newcastle university.

Mr. Cullen's daughter shared a house with four other people. As soon as the detector was fitted in that house, it registered carbon monoxide present at 10 times the danger level. There is no doubt that that detector at least prevented Mr. Cullen's daughter and her housemates from becoming seriously ill, and it may have saved their lives.

The press has been criticised in the House over the past couple of days, but some newspapers with which I have been involved—such as the Nottingham Evening Post, the Sunderland Echo, The Northern Echo and The Journal—have played an important part in recent months in raising public awareness and making sure that lives are saved.

My second intention with the Bill is to raise public awareness. I am grateful to this Government, and also to the previous Government, for spending some money on television advertising. A campaign is running at present, and hon. Members may have seen it over recent weeks. That is another factor in helping to raise awareness, as is the inclusion in 20 million gas bills of a leaflet with a helpline number which people can contact if they are worried about the problem. Public awareness is important, and Parliament should place a duty on Secretaries of State to ensure that major safety campaigns take place.

Professional awareness is also important, especially in the health service. We must ensure that there is good co-ordination between health service professionals. One of the problems is that carbon monoxide poisoning is very slow. Because its symptoms include headaches and sickness, it is often mistaken for influenza and can be hard to identify, even for people in the medical profession. The question of public and professional awareness is therefore very important.

Finally, the Bill would require landlords to ensure that equipment is checked annually. Such maintenance is vital: no one would get in a car that had not been MOT-ed, for fear that it was dangerous. We should have the same attitude to equipment in the home, which should be installed by qualified people. Landlords who want to install such equipment on the cheap, and play God with people's lives, should suffer the consequences.

Legislation is not tough enough, and we need to send out the message that we will not settle for anything less than the highest standards, which are needed to protect the most vulnerable people in our society. I accept that carbon monoxide poisoning does not respect class or housing tenure, but the evidence is that those at the bottom end of the housing ladder are more likely to suffer from it.

With the indulgence of the House, I should like to make a further point. When we think of carbon monoxide poisoning, we tend to think in terms it happening as a result of faulty gas equipment. However, the problem is not confined to gas equipment. On 5 February, I received a letter from a woman with whom I used to work before I became a Member of Parliament. The letter states:
"Dear Fraser,
On January 7th 1999 my partner, Michael Price, tragically died of carbon monoxide poisoning. He was only 45 and we were looking forward to marrying and having a family. The source of the poisonous gas was a blocked flue from a stove in his sitting room, which was burning anthracite. I applaud your efforts to introduce awareness of the need for safety and the extended use of alarms to detect carbon monoxide. I would especially urge you to take this opportunity to point out very strongly that gas appliances are not the only potential source of carbon monoxide. Too many people are unaware that the burning of any fuel which creates a carbon deposit"—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he has used up his time. In view of the House's crowded schedule for the rest of the day, I must ask him to finish.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Let me simply say that carbon monoxide can come in many forms. I ask for the House's support.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Fraser Kemp, Mr. Alan W. Williams, Mrs. Llin Golding, Mr. Vernon Coaker, Mr. Neil Gerrard, Mr. Paul Keetch, Ms Jackie Lawrence, Mr. David Ruffley, Mr. John Swinney, Mr. Stephen Hepburn, Mr. Roy Beggs and Mr. John Cummings.