HC Deb 18 March 1960 vol 619 cc1627-30
Mr. A. Evans

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if in view of the fire at Older-shaiw Road, London, N.7, yesterday, caused by a drip-feed oil stove, resulting in the death of three children, he will expedite the preparation of the proposed regulations relating to the safety of these appliances and extend them to appliances already in use by the public.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. R. A. Butter)

I am sure that it would be the wish of hon. and right hon. Members in all parts of the House that I should express our sincere sympathy with the families of the children who lost their lives in this tragic fire. I have received only preliminary reports, and until further information is available and the inquest has been held, the cause of the fire cannot be regarded as established.

As regards the last part of the Question, I do not think that the House would expect me to add to what I said yesterday in view of what I have just said in answer to this Question, but I must say it is difficult to ensure Chat any new legislation or regulations could be enforced in relation to heaters already in use.

Mr. Evans

I am sure all of us will join in the expression of sympathy made by the Home Secretary. May I ask him if he will try to take some action in regard to the large number of these dangerous heaters now in use—said to be 3 million? Will he consider issuing an official and formal warning of the dangers of this type of oil stove, particularly with a draught from an open window or door which may cause an immediate, uncontrollable fire? Will he consider issuing a formal and official warning to all who at present use these heaters?

Further, would he not agree that the makers of these dangerous stoves have at least a moral obligation to replace them with a non-dangerous model without charge to the public? May I further ask the right hon. Gentleman if he can say how soon he will be able to take powers to regulate the manufacture, in this country at least, of this type of heater so that future models will be safe?

Mr. Butler

With reference to the first point made by the hon. Member, I think it would be useful to take the opportunity of his Question again to repeat the warning to these 3 million—or it may be fewer—households in which this form of drip-feed heater is at present in use. On being informed by my noble Friend the Minister for Science that he had received a report from the D.S.I.R. on this danger, I took the first opportunity, on Monday as the hon. Member will remember, to issue a national warning. I was greatly obliged to agencies such as the wireless, the television and the Press for the manner in which they brought this to the attention of the public. I am grateful for what the hon. Member said about risk of draughts in regard to heaters and the danger from those already in use.

In regard to the makers, we must try to consider their point of view as well. There has been a great deal of reference in the Press to their difficulties. They have at any rate said that they will ensure that heaters manufactured in future will conform with the new British Standard, which will toe ready very shortly. The new standard will require protection against draughts up to 18 miles per hour—a new requirement which was suggested in the recent Report of the Joint Fire Research Organisation. They have also said that they will modify unsold heaters—another advance for which we should be grateful to them—to bring them up to the new standard prescribed.

In answer to the third point, they say they will offer facilities to the public, where required, to modify the heaters which the public have in use. I do not think we can insist by law in any way I know of that that should be done free of charge, but they have offered to do it. Therefore, the makers have done as much as they could.

The hon. Member's final point was how soon could a further step forward be made. As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) yesterday, we must have the standard ready and then decide, in the light of any information I can obtain from the Committee now sitting, whether we should make regulations on the basis of these oil heaters, or go further in relation to broader appliances used in the home or rely on the present standard being enforced. On that I hope to give early information.

Mr. Fletcher

I should like to associate myself with the expressions of sympathy to the Islington families which have been bereaved as a result of the unfortunate fire last night. I am sure the House will appreciate the full statement the Home Secretary has just made. I agree with him that the manufacturers have been most co-operative, and I hope that as a result of the warnings which have now been uttered there is very little risk of any more of these dangerous oil heaters being sold to the public.

The problem, however, which is still acute, exists with regard to some 3 million families who have bought oil heaters and, in many cases, are dependent upon them for heating their homes. It is to be contemplated that, as a result of these warnings, in many cases they will be reluctant to use these heaters until they have been adapted or modified.

May I therefore ask the Home Secretary this question: I have seen certain correspondence from the D.S.I.R., and I understand that there are processes and devices which will enable existing oil heaters to be modified to render them either safe or, at any rate, less dangerous. But it looks as though there is some problem about the patent position in connection with these devices. Will the Home Secretary give an assurance that everything possible will be done to remove any technical difficulties which exist in order to enable manufacturers to supply the public with such devices or adaptations as are required to enable the existing oil heaters which have been purchased by the public to be rendered safe?

Mr. Butler

Yes, Sir. As a result of two conferences which we have held with the manufacturers, it appears that their expressed intentions go as far as can be reasonably expected, but that, of course, must relate to modifications which they know they can make to makes of heater of which they are aware. The one loophole is that we could not guarantee that it would cover any imported heaters. That is why I think this matter has not yet been brought to its final conclusion. But it means that the great majority of the 3 million heaters could be dealt with, thanks to the manufacturers' undertakings.

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