HC Deb 07 May 1956 vol 552 cc973-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Oakshott]

10.39 p.m.

Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

I am glad that I have been lucky in the ballot for this subject, although I am not quite sure which Department has the responsibility for the subject of deaths from accidents in the homes. There is an Inter-Departmental Committee; I do not think it meets more often than four times a year, but it serves a very useful purpose in what is known as "passing the buck". When an M.P. asks a Question, it is the responsibility of no particular Department to answer it. Ultimately, after having been shuffled around from one Department to another, I was told that they were all co-ordinated by the Inter-Departmental Committee on Accidents in the Home under the Home Secretary.

The position in Great Britain in regard to death from accidents in the home is shocking, and the indifference of the Minister is appalling. Indifference can be a very cruel thing indeed, and it is no use hon. Members opposite shaking their heads—I think the statistics which I am about to quote will convince them. This Inter-Departmental Committee reported last in 1953 that During the ten years, from 1940 to 1949 over 60,000 people died from accidents in their homes compared with about 48,000 deaths on the roads … It went on to report that each year there had been in the home more than a thousand more fatal casualties than on the roads.

The position has worsened. Last year I asked the Minister of Health for figures and he told me that in 1953 there were 4,493 deaths on the roads and 5,895 in the home. Again referring to what I call "passing the buck" and the difficulty of extracting information, the Minister of Health told me that the figures for 1954 were not available, but from the Central Statistical Office's Annual Abstract I culled the following information. In October, 1955, there were 5,010 people killed on the roads and the number killed by accidents in their own homes was 7,723. It also gave the figure for the previous year—although the Minister of1956 Materials of Health could not do so in the House. The number of those killed at home in that year was 7,029. Again, therefore, we have a terrific increase in those deaths. Industrial accidents, by the way, numbered 1,522.

Perhaps I may now turn to the source of this increase. I do not want to mislead the House. Death from burning accidents is by no means the chief or the highest cause, but it is increasing. Each year the figure of deaths from burning is getting higher in spite of the fact that just three years ago we had the Heating Appliances (Fireguards) Act by which we insisted that no electric device, or even paraffin or gas stove, could be sold unless it was fenced and protected. But if we take no steps to prevent inflammable material being sold, then, in spite of the well-guarded fire, the well-protected radiator, it is quite possible that a lady sitting 2 ft. away can be burnt to death by her house-coat going up in flames. It is quite possible that, in spite of guarding the fireplace in the bedroom, if an electric radiator is left on, fenced though it may be, some material out of which curtains and bedspreads are made, 2 ft. away, can flare up 100 inches vertically within ten seconds. No wonder the very efficient staff at our Department of Scientific and Industrial Research say that, although they try to obtain accurate information at every hospital about the cause of death from such accidents, they are unable to do so because some materials flare up and leave no trace.

As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade is no doubt aware, time and again I have had incorrect replies from his Department when I have sought information on the subject of flammability. Perhaps I should say that I shall refer to material as flammable and non-flammable, so that we do not get confused. Whenever I have made inquiries I have been told that the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research is pursuing investigations. I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation from the director of our station at Bore-ham Woods, and I spent a most interesting day there. I met the director and the gentleman who introduced what is widely known as the Lawson test.

It appeared to me that no one on the Front Bench opposite knew of the valuable, accurate and detailed work that this Department was doing, or if it was known, it was intended to be kept secret. What did I find? The tests are so accurate that they know exactly how long every material takes to burn in a vertical line of 100 inches. The materials to which I have referred—those light rayons and so on which are used to make light bedspreads, house-coats, evening dresses and curtains—burn 100 inches within ten seconds.

The material which causes the most deaths in Britain is not the light rayon. It is the material most in use, which is used by mothers for their own and their little girls' night-dresses and for grandmother's night-dress. It is many months since a member of my own family, a surgeon in the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, appalled at what he saw, told me "If you cannot get non-flam material, put the little girls into pyjamas."

I have letters from surgeons, some of whom I have interviewed. I should like to read some extracts from one letter which says: …pthe cheaper materials are far more liable to blaze up than wool and nylon which smoulder, that is the cheaper the garment the more dangerous it is. The children from poorer overcrowded homes are therefore most likely to be burned as a result of their clothing catching fire. Then she tells me that in one case 85 per cent. of the child's skin was burned, and she adds: She died after two weeks. The other two are still alive, one 55 per cent. and the other 65 per cent. burned. Even if these children recover, which is unlikely, they will be in hospital for months. They have already suffered the terrible ordeal of the initial accident and are now undergoing a long, painful and extremely trying illness with many anaesthetics and operations. Later she says: … sometimes one wonders if it has been a service to the child to keep it alive. That very noble surgeon of Belfast, Mr. Norman Holmes, stimulated his committee into taking £1,000 from the endowment fund, and Belfast has done great work. Another one, Mr. Tough, of Glasgow, and Mr. Wallace, of Edinburgh, a month ago told us that we were murderers. We people in the House of Commons were murderers. Mr. William Gisson, the noted surgeon of Birmingham, Mr. Leonard Colebrook, and others are immensely perturbed by our apathy.

I have spoken of the dangerous materials. I do not fully agree with the surgeon who said that it was the cheap stuff. I myself would buy this kind of material and I know many other families who would. It is not cheap flannelette but a union, a winceyette. It is flannelette mixed with cotton, and according to the D.S.I.R. it goes up in flames 100 inches in 50 seconds. Now one understands why the night-dress simply goes right up in flames before anyone knows anything about it.

One has to see the demonstration to be shocked. Perhaps it is unfortunate that I cannot demonstrate to hon. Gentlemen opposite, but it is shocking to see. The D.S.I.R. go on with ten seconds between each material until they reach what they call the figure of merit, that which has passed the test. The material which passes the test is pure wool, and so does pure nylon and pure Terylene. The operative adjective is "pure," because it is when the mixtures are introduced that the danger arises.

I know the kind of reply I shall get from the Department tonight. It will be that it is impracticable to have a label "highly flammable," yet the United States of America decided last year to do this. They introduced legislation that this should operate throughout the United States. I have since been told from the Ministry of Works, representing the Lord President of the Council, that we have progressed—no thanks to the Government but thanks to, shall I say it, private enterprise—thanks to certain firms which have been spending a great deal of money on research on flame-proof material.

I am very glad indeed that these much used materials, winceyette, even more well-known flannelette, and other highly popular fabrics, can be made up non-flam, but while I have been told by the Government that the British Standards Institution will further these objects, will help firms, and produce a label of standard, we are still faced with the fact that those that flame most readily are not to be labelled. When my husband brings in a bottle of cleaner to clean a suit I notice it is stated on the bottle, "Keep away from the open flame." I do not see why protection should be so limited, and why we should not protect the women and children.

I should like to speak much longer, but I am afraid I have taken time enough. I hope we can have some further assurance that something will be done to ensure this vitally necessary protection.

10.56 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade(Mr. Derek Walker-Smith)

We are obliged to the hon. Lady the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Mann) for raising this important subject here tonight. It is one in which she is well known to have taken an interest for a very long time. While I must deprecate some of the strictures which she made in her allegations at the beginning of her speech of lack of co-ordination and indifference, I welcome the rest of it. I must assure her right away that there is no lack of co-ordination and certainly no indifference in what is recognised to be a very serious problem. I appreciate the presence at this late hour of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin). who has also taken a continuing interest in this matter, both before coming into the House and subsequently.

The hon. Lady started by giving some indication of the gravity of accidents in the home. She correctly quoted the figure for 1953. The figure for 1954, which will be published shortly, is not quite as large as she suggested: it is 6,617. However, it is sufficiently larger than the figure for 1953 to bear out her general contention as to the increase of accidents in the home. The figure for 1954 of fatal accidents caused by fire in the home is 600. Of those 600, 341 were caused by clothing catching fire. Out of those 341, 290 were of the female sex and 138 were elderly or old people. These figures show the particularly pathetic fact, in what is inevitably a pathetic and sad subject, that old people and children are the main sufferers. There are no precise statistics of non-fatal accidents by burning in the home, but, of course, the figure must be a large one.

I am able to tell the hon. Lady—indeed, she will already know it, by reason of having visited the Fire Research Station—that inquiry is going on into the causes of these accidents, and we expect the results to be published next year, 1957, which will mean that we shall then have for the first time reliable informa- tion about burns in relation to the flammability of fabrics.

As to present safeguards, it is true that there are no statutory regulations requiring an indication of flammability prior to sale of materials, but there is some protection in various Statutes. There is the Fabrics (Misdescription) Act, 1913, and the Children and Young Persons Acts, 1933 and 1952. None of these, of course, is of much practical effect, but the Heating Appliances (Fireguards) Act, 1952, is of considerably more beneficial effect in that it prohibits the sale of heating appliances for use in the home unless fitted with adequate fireguards. That is a provision which will have increasing importance as the old unguarded fire appliances are replaced by new ones with adequate fixed guards in accordance with statutory provisions.

At this time and against the background of the present position, there are two major requirements facing us. The first is to finalise the standard method of tests for flammability. The second is to improve action for safeguarding against flammability. As to the first, two tests are being investigated at present. There is the British Standard test, 476, Part 2, to which the hon. Lady referred, and there is the test used in the United States under the Flammable Fabrics Act. Those two tests are being studied and compared by a committee of the Textile Institute, co-operating with the British Standards Institution and the Fire Research Organisation. It is most important to settle the form of test as soon as possible, and I hope that that will be done.

Mrs. Mann

I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will not adopt the American test, which is very much inferior to ours

Mr. Walker-Smith

I appreciate the shortcomings of the American test, but it is not for me to anticipate the findings of skilled bodies such as these. What I am urging them to do is to come to a speedy decision so that we can get on with taking the most effective action.

There are various forms of action which are possible, but I cannot enter upon all of them in an Adjournment debate because some would require legislation. There is, for example, the possibility of compulsory labelling. I do not shrink from that for any doctrinal reason, having regard to the fact that this is a matter of life and death, but as the hon. Lady will appreciate, the marking of fabric, even if compulsory, could not of itself be an effective solution because the mark of the grading is likely to disappear as soon as the fabric is made into garments, and any prohibition of the sale of unmarked garments would require legislation, which I cannot discuss now.

Then there are the anti-flame finishes. At present there are three proprietary finishes with which fabrics are treated. They are "Proban," "Erifon" and an anti-flame finish for nylon net produced by John Heathcoat, Limited. We welcome these developments, and I should like to take this opportunity of stressing upon manufacturers the importance of expanding and cheapening processes in this field.

When all is said and done, however, education is as important as anything in this matter, particularly when so large a proportion of those who suffer are unfortunately children of tender years. Educative processes, plus the effect of the Heating Appliances Act, to which I have referred, can help greatly. I should, of course, indicate that the Heating Appliances Act does not cover open fires burning solid fuel, but common sense dictates that they should be properly guarded in the same way as the Statute requires of electric fires. In this sphere of education I should like to pay my tribute to the work of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents of which I believe the hon. Lady is a Vice-President.

In conclusion, I would say that the Government are fully seized of the importance of this problem. I can assure the hon. Lady that we are not in the least complacent about it. Progress is being achieved, and we want to see it accelerated and improved on. I am not in a position to go into the question of possible legislative changes, by reason of the fact that I should be out of order if I attempted to do so on the Adjournment, but I would say that the Government would not exclude the possibility of legislation if it is seen to be required in order to increase the safety of the public.

11.5 p.m.

Mr. John Rodgers (Sevenoaks)

Apart from the strictures on the Government which the hon. Lady expressed—which I think are quite unwarranted—I should like to support her in her attempts to bring to the attention of the public the danger of these materials which flare up when exposed to fire. If I understood her rightly, she said that only pure wool, pure nylon and pure Terylene were safe, but the processes mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend are of such a nature that cotton, viscose wear, linen and jute are equally safe if treated with these anti-flame finishes. It is not true to say that only pure fibres are safe. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will consider the possibility of introducing the various methods which he mentioned, such as compulsory labelling, in order to protect the public, because there is an appalling death rate from fire in relation to some of these materials.

Unfortunately, it often happens to the poorer section of the community, because these anti-flame finishes add anything from 25 per cent. to 50 per cent. to the cost of the materials. I share my hon. and learned Friend's wish that research and increased sales will make these anti-flame finishes cheaper and available in greater quantities to the entire public.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Eleven o'clock.