Skip to main content

Lithium Ion Batteries: Fire Safety Standards

Volume 819: debated on Thursday 3 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what fire safety standards are applied to lithium ion batteries in e-bikes, e-scooters and mobility scooters; and whether such batteries are safe to use and be charged in buildings.

My Lords, the product safety regulatory framework places obligations on manufacturers to ensure the safety of consumer goods, including the batteries used to power them. In short, the law requires that batteries used in such products must be inherently safe, regardless of where they are used, charged or stored. To support them, manufacturers may choose to apply standard EN 62133-2, which specifies requirements and safety tests for the safe operation of portable, sealed secondary lithium cells and batteries.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I have a different EN number, which I will not bore the House with. He will be aware of a number of fires allegedly caused by lithium ion batteries in cars, on bikes and on scooters, which have caused house fires and one on an Underground train. One manufacturer told me that

“unless we can prove that a product has caused serious accident or injuries, there is no priority from Trading Standards to do any pro-active checks”.

Is not the answer to have proactive checks, as I believe they do in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, for about 10 years to prevent these illegal imports causing more fires, allowing the development of lithium ion batteries to continue safely?

The noble Lord highlights an important point. I am devastated that our EN numbers do not match, but I would be happy to compare them afterwards if the noble Lord wishes. It is vital that we carry out checks on illegally imported products; the fire that he referred to was caused by something not in conformity with UK standards. We carry out checks on a risk-based approach where required.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that if these e-scooters are privately owned, they are illegal, so they should not be taken on to the train in the first place?

No, I do not. If they are privately owned, there is a prohibition on riding them on public highways, but there is nothing wrong with taking them on trains if permitted by the train operators.

My Lords, e-bikes and e-scooters are a great innovation, but it is the wild west out there. A lack of regulation and enforcement is giving them a bad reputation. There have been e-scooter trials and the assessments are now complete for many places, so there is no longer any excuse for government inaction. Will the Minister undertake to work with Department for Transport colleagues to commit to an early date for tighter restrictions on both imports and the way in which these vehicles are used on our roads and pavements?

I do not share the noble Baroness’s enthusiasm for banning e-scooters. The Department for Transport is considering options for how best to regulate them and to crack down on their illegal use, which we are all concerned about. New measures being considered will be designed to create a much clearer, fit-for-purpose and fully enforceable regime for regulators.

My Lords, as we make the transition to net zero, we are going to need to rely on batteries more and more. Some 156 out of the world’s largest 211 battery factories are in China, which owns and controls enormous swathes of the supply chain. If we are going to get security of supply in batteries, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that that is going to happen?

The noble Lord makes an important point. The access to minerals and rare earth required to make batteries is a source of considerable interest to the Government. We are looking closely at where supplies can be obtained. He will be aware of the number of recent announcements on car batteries now being manufactured in gigafactories—or they will be—in the United Kingdom, but it is an important issue, and we need to bear it in mind.

My Lords, when introduced and managed well, e-bikes and e-scooters can be part of the solution to many of the world’s urban transport and health issues. In fact, this morning I cycled in on my Scott e-bike, which got me here ahead of a lot of the other traffic. As my noble friend Lord Berkeley said, the solution is simple: better regulation and better enforcement. Do Her Majesty’s Government have any plans to introduce further enforcement and regulation which will help deliver good-quality batteries and good-quality bikes and scooters on our streets?

I am delighted to hear that the noble Lord came in today on his e-bike. I am unable to resist the opportunity to say that perhaps he could have a word with his friends in the trade unions, to allow us all to come in on the Tube if we would like to at the moment. As I said earlier, the Department for Transport is considering options for how best to regulate e-scooters and crack down on their illegal use.

My Lords, as there is time in the schedule, can I invite the Minister to reconsider his reply to me? He accused me of calling for the banning of these vehicles, when I specifically praised their innovation. I asked for regulation, not annihilation.

If I heard the noble Baroness wrong, I apologise of course. We support responsible regulation. If that is what she supports us in doing, it is welcome news.

As one who does want annihilation, can I ask my noble friend to ensure that when these wretched machines, which go up to 40 mph, are on the roads, they are all properly registered and numbered, with their drivers fined if they are not wearing helmets?

I am not surprised that the noble Lord supports annihilation. I do not agree with him. E-scooters represent great opportunities for urban mobility. Yes, we need to regulate them properly, ensure that they are used safely and of course ensure that riders are safe, but they offer a responsible commuting option for many people.

My Lords, however these things are regulated, we are building up a massive resource of batteries that one day will have to be disposed of, with the environmental risks that they bring as well. What assessment have the Government made of how in the long term we will deal with what could before too long become a problem?

The right reverend Prelate makes an important point but, of course, better than disposing of the batteries would be to recycle them. A number of technologies exist to enable batteries to be reused, recycled and repurposed. There are a number of instances of electric car batteries being reused as portable electricity storage devices in the home.

My Lords, what incentives are the Government offering to householders with solar PV panels to install batteries so that they can become more self-sufficient in their electricity generation, including charging their electric cars where that is possible?

It is an important point. We offer an attractive tariff for consumers who generate their own electricity to export to the grid but, as that tariff is lower than that for which they would have to buy the electricity themselves, there is an incentive, if possible, to store it and reuse it. As we get more EVs, we will see their increasing use as storage devices, and companies will start to offer an attractive tariff to enable electricity to be released from those at times of busy demand.

My Lords, going back to the right reverend Prelate’s question, how many facilities for recycling batteries are there in the UK, and what is being done to make sure that we have end-to-end design technologies in this country?

I do not have figures for the precise number of battery recycling plants in the UK. I am aware of some developments in that field, but I do not have the precise numbers. The noble Baroness makes an important point: that we need to ensure end-to-end recycling and reuse.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his earlier response to me, but he will be aware that in the last month two train companies have banned electric bikes and scooters being taken on to their trains. That has now been withdrawn, but it was done because London Fire Brigade’s press release was a bit unclear about the risk. This goes back to the lack of a firm specification for and firm enforcement of the quality of batteries so that there is no misunderstanding. It has upset a lot of people.

I think that there was one incident on one Transport for London train, which was caused by an illegal product—it was not even properly regulated. In what I thought was a gross overreaction, Transport for London then banned e-scooters, but other train operators allow them. It is obviously a matter for individual companies to work out the risks, but a relatively tiny number of incidents have been caused from the more than 1 million that we estimate are currently in use.