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House of Commons Hansard
Regulation of Materials used in Notice Boards
24 October 2018
Volume 648

[Albert Owen in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered regulation of materials used in notice boards.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and to see the Minister and her Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien), in their places. If nothing else, more people have asked me about this debate than about any other Adjournment debate I have had in this place—I have had a few in my time—so I shall explain. I do not expect the Minister to answer all the points I make, but I am sure that she will read the debate subsequently and we can do something about it. However, I am grateful to have secured the debate, even though the title is rather delphic.

The subject came to my notice because a business in Stroud that makes notice boards from recycled materials came to see me. Although this is at one level a trade matter—I shall not mention the business by name, for obvious reasons—at another level it is more than that, involving safety, competition and fairness. I shall concentrate on two areas: first, the safety regulation of notice boards; and secondly, the implications for small businesses, particularly in my constituency.

Notice boards are everyday things. They are in almost every building, can be purchased in so many different ways and are relatively cheap, so people do not think a lot about them. When shopping online, the important product information is frequently so unimportant that it would not hold a consumer’s interest for long. Nevertheless, notice boards are subject to safety considerations. In the case of fire safety, post Grenfell we certainly know about some of the implications. I do not suggest that Grenfell was anything other than a tragedy; today we are talking about something of much smaller import, but the inside of buildings still matter as much as the external fire safety issues.

What drew my attention to the subject, and why I feel so strongly, is that the materials that some companies use to make notice boards are also, in other contexts, advertised as firelighters. Something that we would want to be safe and secure is also available to people to set fire to, in a completely normal way, as a firelighter. That really drew my attention.

In the United Kingdom, all wall linings—including notice boards—fitted to public buildings must conform to one of two standards: the European BS EN 13501, class D; or the national BS 476, parts 6 and 7, class 3. I understand, however, that the majority of notice boards fitted in schools are made from a material that meets the lower European standard, class E. Again, the manufacturers of the material note that it has a supplementary use, as a firelighters, which is bizarre, to put it mildly.

In addition, research shows a substantial difference in fire spread between the highest and lowest-performing materials on the market. I want the Government to take note of that, because all such materials should be as fire-proof as possible. The EN 13501 standards measure the fire index growth rate—FIGRA, to use the more acronymic description—and tests indicate that non-fire-rated materials can have FIGRA values of 500% of their fire-rated equivalents. In other words, the notice boards can be set on fire very quickly, and they will burn.

Notice boards sold online are not only vague on standards and descriptions, but are sold in the same category as fire-tested boards tagged as school supplies. In other words, there is no discrimination between the different types of board, even though in my opinion there should be. For consumers shopping online for their classroom, such vital differences are in essence hidden—they have to know what they are dealing with. There is a clear concern about that because schools and others are faced with cuts—even though austerity is now over—and they tend to look at what is cheapest and most readily available. Safety measures, however, can be compromised by cost and availability—the cheaper substitutes are available online, with all the usual people we know about, whether shopping in convenience stores or, more particularly, online.

The task of eradicating all flammable materials in schools would be exceptionally hard, if not impossible, but the particular danger presented by notice boards is that their primary method of fire spreading is with a convection current. According to the 2006 fire safety risk assessment for educational premises, fire spread by convection is the most dangerous type of fire spread and is the cause of the highest number of injuries and deaths.

The most recent fire statistics from the Home Office show that since 2010 more than 4,100 fires have occurred in primary and secondary schools in England, which is more than 500 a year. Most of those are preventable fires. According to the most recent Local Government Association research report on the impact of fires in schools, there is usually a higher number of fires than 500, but they are not always reported as full-scale ones. Also, metropolitan areas tend to have a higher number of incidents, and a third of all school fires start during school time, which is particularly concerning. People studying and the staff may be affected, perhaps by inhaling whatever is burning. That in its own way is a high risk, and some 90,000 children a year are affected by school fires.

I am concentrating on schools, because obviously they are one of the biggest users of notice boards. The notice boards that fail to meet fire safety standards end up not only in highly populated public buildings such as schools, but in nursing homes. My staff carried out some quick and dirty research in nursing homes in Stroud and, to their alarm, they found that many of the boards that had been bought were not of a fire-proof standard.

That is a cause of serious concern because, according to the Home Office’s 2017 fire statistics, people over the age of 80 are almost three times more likely to die in a fire than people under 80. According to the statistics, between 2010 and 2018 there have been nearly 3,500 fires in nursing homes in England. If dangerous materials keep making their way into those buildings, we can only expect casualty numbers to rise. As the UK has an ageing population, we must be extra careful to have the right procedures to protect people.

In addition to the public health aspect, the lack of regulation has resulted in unfair competition for local and small businesses—the company in my constituency being a classic example, because its materials are fire-proof and therefore more expensive. The Minister should not ignore loopholes for the sake of shortcuts in the market that might have life-threatening consequences.

Small businesses continue to struggle against large companies that sell non-compliant and often dangerous products online. The owner of another Stroud-based business, when asked about this, said:

“I am not against fair competition and indeed I believe businesses thrive on it, provided the rules are the same for all. Goods supplied from non-UK/EU operators can more easily evade safety and other compliance regulations as well as in some cases, VAT”—

we shall leave the VAT issue to one side—

“Of even greater concern is the potential danger from such products, whose manufacturer or supplier is outside the jurisdiction of the UK market surveillance authorities”.

An example is given in a recent study by the UK Lighting Industry Association that showed that of six domestic light fitting parts purchased at random through that model, five posed a real threat of electric shock. In that case, the fulfilment house claimed that responsibility for compliance and safety laid with the overseas supplier, not the fulfilment house. If that is correct, it means there is little to prevent those products from entering the UK market and posing a risk to consumers. Meanwhile, businesses that invest in premises and manufacturers from which we collect VAT are unable to compete on a level playing field.

The purpose of my speech is to ask the Minister to investigate, to ensure that safety is of prime concern and that there is a level playing field in the way in which materials are made available, particularly for public buildings. They should be properly advertised, safe and meet all the proper conditions that we would expect them to be subject to. In preparing for this debate, I wrote to the Education and Skills Funding Agency, to draw its attention to how schools provide their notice boards—largely on a cost basis—so that it takes account of whether those notice boards are fire resistant.

I have some specific suggestions for the Minister, which she may not be able to respond to now but hopefully she can look into them. The Building Bulletin 100 design guidance should be updated to require all boards to be fitted in schools to be fire safe to European BS EN 13501 class B standard or national equivalent, not the cheaper and easier ones that many seem to get through that loophole. That simple rule should be applied to all new build and renovation projects, to substantially reduce the fire risk, and it would be relatively easy to implement. It is not retrospective; it is looking forward.

The cost impact is relatively low. I will not go through the complicated figures but the difference is not huge, although it is substantial for the businesses that are trying to compete. Companies must promote clear advertising to avoid confusion and potential danger, particularly for schools but also nursing homes and other public bodies, labelling what the safety requirements imply.

Lastly, school fire risk assessment guidelines should be updated to ensure that existing boards are checked and brought into conformity with the building regulations—at a minimum, fire safe to BS EN 13501 class D standard or national equivalent—within an appropriate time period. At the moment, I am more interested in going forward, but there is a level of safety checking that needs to be done retrospectively. I will be interested to hear what the Minister proposes.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and not to be grilled by you this afternoon. I thank the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) for securing this debate—people often pronounce my constituency incorrectly as Rochester and Stroud, so it is nice to respond to the hon. Member for Stroud this afternoon.

I am pleased to speak in a debate about safety. This Government take product and consumer safety incredibly seriously. Government’s first duty is to guarantee the safety of their citizens. In my role as Minister I focus on product safety and standards, an area that I have a particular interest in, having spent my life dealing with products for sale on the market prior to joining the House of Commons.

I will give the hon. Gentleman an update on where the Government are. In January, the Government launched the Office for Product Safety and Standards, to deliver the highest level of protection for consumers and to build confidence in our regulatory system. In August, the office published its strategy for product safety, detailing how it will achieve its goals. It now has in place a dedicated intelligence unit that assesses information from a variety of sources to monitor trends and identify potentially unsafe products on the market. With a £12 million funding upgrade, it now has an operational budget of £25 million a year.

In March, in partnership with the British Standards Institution, the office published the first Government-backed code of practice on product recalls. We have trained more than 300 trading standards officers to identify products and implement that code. That means that we will be better prepared to deal with product safety incidents and support manufacturers in preparing for potential incidents.

The Government are determined to be a world leader in how we deal with regulatory frameworks. A couple of weeks ago I was at the international regulatory delivery conference, which hosted professionals from more than 60 countries. That is an example of the things that we will continue to do to be leaders in this field.

The hon. Gentleman raises concerns about the safety of notice boards in particular. The points he makes are extremely important; he rightly points out that boards can be found in schools, hospitals, doctor’s surgeries, university halls of residence and workplaces up and down the country. It is vital that products of that kind are safe and remain safe. By law—under the General Product Safety Regulations 2005—manufacturers have a responsibility to put only safe products on to the market. That applies to any product that is intended for or likely to be used by a consumer, including where the product was originally intended for professional use. Products must be safe for any reasonable foreseeable use and the materials used must also be safe.

Furthermore, where manufacturers or distributors identify a safety issue with a product that is already on the consumer market, they must take action, which may, where appropriate, include a recall. If notice boards are for sale only to businesses or public bodies for use at work, they will be caught by the Consumer Protection Act 1987, which applies to all consumer products and products used in the workplace. It places liability for any damage caused by an unsafe product firmly on the producer or importer. The Health and Safety Executive also has a role in ensuring that workplaces are safe. I am aware that a number of universities have banned the use of noticeboards or otherwise restricted their use. My understanding is that that is due chiefly to the fact that in the event of a fire, noticeboards hold a lot of paper and therefore present a risk.

The hon. Gentleman has a keen interest in schools, which formed a major part of his speech. Having also been a teacher for many years, I am sure we agree that schools must be a safe place for all pupils, teachers and visitors. It was quite shocking to hear his statistics about the number of fires that have taken place. There are already strong protections in place: all schools must follow strict fire safety regulations, including a fire risk assessment that is designed to ensure that they are as safe as possible and well prepared in the event of a fire. In addition, all new school building projects must comply with building regulations, including on fire safety. That is independently checked by building control or other such inspectors before buildings are occupied.

The hon. Gentleman referred to fire safety; the horrific and tragic fire at Grenfell last year was a shocking and terrible event. It is right that the Prime Minister ordered the full public inquiry, which is now under way, in the aftermath of the fire in response to concerns raised about the external cladding on tower blocks. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government commissioned Dame Judith Hackitt to conduct an independent review of the regulatory system for buildings and fire safety. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is responsible for the safety of building products and is leading on the Government’s response. In a statement in the House following the publication of the review, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government made clear the Government’s support for the principles outlined in the report.

On the specific things that the hon. Gentleman said he would like me to investigate, in my experience fire safety regulations and standards are extremely complex and depend on the particular product or market in question. This debate is very important—it is absolutely right that Members should bring such issues forward and challenge the Government about how we will improve standards and conditions. I was interested in his point about the different fire safety grading of products, so I will happily investigate that.

The fundamental objective of the new Office for Product Safety and Standards is to use intelligence and work with trading standards locally so that we do better at identifying bad products or areas where further action is particularly needed. I am extremely hopeful that the OPSS will achieve that, especially as it starts to implement its strategy. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for a level playing field. He is absolutely right that consumers need to know that the products they buy meet minimum standards and that they must be fully aware of the risks associated with those products.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. I hope he is happy with the commitment I made. As the new Minister for small business, product safety and consumer protection are a particular focus and interest of mine. I reiterate the Government’s firm commitment to ensuring that everyone has access to safe products in their homes, schools and workplaces. I am extremely grateful to him for raising his concerns. I am interested to know about the company he mentioned—perhaps we can discuss that outside the Chamber.

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I am sure they will write to you.

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Yes—that would be good. The Government will continue to do all we can to deliver the highest levels of consumer and product safety, and to use trading standards to combat illegal products that come on to the market. I thank the hon. Gentleman again.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.