HC Deb 13 May 1960 vol 623 cc861-70
(1) An officer of a local authority authorised by them in writing in that behalf may, subject to the provisions of this section, on producing if so required his authority, inspect an oil heater for the purpose of determining whether—
5 (a) it is an oil heater which, or any component part of which, is of a class or description to which the requirements of any regulations under this Act apply, and
(b) if it is such an oil heater, the oil heater, or any component part of it, complies with any such requirement as aforesaid,
10 and, subject as aforesaid and on producing if so required his authority, may inspect a component part intended for but not embodied in an oil heater, for the purpose of determining whether—
(a) it is a component part of a class or description to which the requirements of any regulations under this Act apply, and
15 (b) if it is such a component part, it complies with any such requirement as aforesaid.
20 (2) A local authority may, subject to the provisions of this section, purchase an oil heater which, or any component part of which, is of a class or description to which any requirements of regulations under this Act apply, for the purpose of the carrying out of a test whether the oil heater, or component part, complies with any standard of safety prescribed for the class or description of oil heater or component part to which the oil heater or component part belongs, and a local authority may, subject as aforesaid, purchase a component part, intended for but not embodied in an oil heater, being a component part of a class or description to which any requirements of regulations under this Act apply, for the purpose of determining whether the component part complies with any standard of safety prescribed for the class or description of component part to which it belongs.
25 (3) Any such test as is referred to in the last foregoing subsection shall be carried out, at the expense of the local authority, in such manner as may be prescribed by regulations under this Act, by such person or body as may be authorised by or under the regulations to carry out such a test.
30 (4) An officer of a local authority shall not by virtue of subsection (1) of this section, inspect an oil heater or component part, and a local authority shall not, by virtue of subsection (2) of this section, purchase an oil heater or component part, unless the oil heater or component part is kept on premises in the area of the authority for the purpose of being sold or let in the course of a business.
35 (5) Any person who wilfully obstructs any person in the exercise of his powers under subsection (1) of this section shall be guilty of an offence.—[Mr. Nabarro.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

poses. Any local authority officer, without any particular skill in fire escape matters or fire fighting, will readily be able to ascertain whether a particular appliance does or does not conform with the Regulations, because the necessary details will be clearly set out on the label.

I shall, however, between now and Report, look into the rather technical point raised by my hon. Friend, which I clearly understand. I shall certainly have to take advice upon it, but I hope that he will accept the new Clause as drafted, at least for the time being.

Mr. Vosper

This Clause follows closely on the Money Resolution, and if my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris) is correct in his apprehensions, it would be the Money Resolution rather than this Clause that is at fault. I should like to hear what my hon. Friend has got to say on the next new Clause before I comment on that point.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

Mr. Nabarro

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

This proposed Clause is equivalent to Clause 2 of the Bill, but whereas Clause 2 would enable local authorities to inspect and test oil heaters, the new Clause will authorise local authorities only to inspect oil heaters and components for the purposes set out in subsection (4) and to purchase oil heaters and components for testing, but will require the actual testing to be done at the expense of the local authority only by authorised bodies which might or might not be within the compass of the local authority organisation itself.

My intention here is that a limited number of appropriately equipped laboratories, which might be provided by a few of the larger local authorities, or in other eventualities by entirely separate technical organisations, should be approved by the Home Secretary, and the local authorities who do not themselves possess approved testing facilities should send any heaters required to be tested to one of those laboratories.

I pause for a moment to say that the testing of oil heaters and burners is a very highly technical matter. There are in the country today only a few laboratories appropriately equipped to test them. I name the British Standards Institution Laboratory recently established, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and one or two of the large city authorities which might be able to undertake testing work of this kind. The intention is that my right hon. Friend would list those laboratories and then enable any local authorities in the country requiring an oil burner or heater to be tested to send them to one of those approved laboratories.

Subsection (4) of the new Clause has the effect of limiting the local authorities' power to inspect and purchase oil heaters to those on the premises of traders or manufacturers in the area of the local authority itself. It is expected that in practice the manufacturers or, where foreign heaters are imported, the importers in their own interests— because retailers will expect some warranty that the heaters which they are being asked to sell conform with the law—will themselves normally submit specimens of such heaters to the approved laboratories for testing purposes to which I referred.

Some understanding will have to be arrived at between them, the local authorities and the approved laboratories, under which a local authority before submitting a heater will inquire whether the same model has already been tested so that unnecessary duplication and testing will be avoided. That should not prove difficult, because many of these oil heaters are mass-produced and once a type has been approved by a laboratory it follows that any similar testing will be carried through as a matter of normal routine. Thus the amount of testing required to be done at the instance and expense of local authorities may well turn out to be very small and limited, though important. At the same time, the local authorities' power to have heaters tested will remain in the background as a valuable safeguard and insurance that due care is being taken to comply absolutely with the law.

I might add that this new Clause and its drafting has given rise to a great deal of anxiety among my hon. Friends and myself to try to find the highest common factor of agreement between all the interested parties in this Measure and also to deal with the highly technical aspect of this matter.

3.30 p.m.

We have arrived at the conclusion that the arrangements for enforcement set out in the new Clause are likely to be practical and satisfactory and to commend themselves to local authorities. They should provide a sufficient check to ensure compliance with the safety regulations. They should, I think, assure reasonable uniformity of enforcement. They will be applicable equally to manufactured oil appliances of British origin and of foreign origin.

Nevertheless, I readily confess that these conclusions are tentative only. The appropriate local authority associations are being consulted about the contents of the Clause, notably on the subject of enforcement. My present advice is that they are sympathetically inclined towards the general proposal but they have not yet had full time to consult all their constituent members. I conclude, therefore, by saying that the precise arrangements must remain open until Report. If there is any amendment necessary on this difficult technical matter of testing these appliances, I will make it the subject of an appropriate Amendment later.

Mr. Doughty

I beg to second the Motion—

The Deputy-Chairman

This is not the first time that the hon. and learned Gentleman has used that expression. In fact, no seconder is required.

Mr. Doughty

In view of the time, Sir William, I will say no more.

Dr. D. Johnson

Is it your intention, Sir William, to call my Amendment? If not, I should like to speak on the Clause as a whole.

The Deputy-Chairman

Yes, it is the intention that the hon. Member's Amendment will be called in due course, after the Clause has been read a Second time.

Mrs. McLaughlin

This new Clause will be a very important part of a very important Bill. I welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) has said about looking at it again, if necessary, in considering the full details of its provisions which local authorities have not yet had time to study. There are, however, one or two points which must be made clear now before we accept the Clause and send it forward as part of the Bill.

British Standards Specification 3300 will be a compulsory standard and, as such, will be much more satisfactory than any of the voluntary ones we have had hitherto. Voluntary standards are not always acceptable to the public and sometimes they are not put across to the public as they should be. In 1957, a bulletin was issued by the Fire Offices Committee of the Fire Protection Association on the chief causes of fires caused by portable paraffin heaters. It was said in that bulletin that the chief causes of such fires are: failure to follow the manufacturers' instructions; use of the heater in an unsuitable position; careless handling of paraffin, and use of inferior heaters. It is hoped that the following recommendations will assist users to avoid accidents. In spite of that and other publicity, users did not avoid accidents, principally, I think, because they did not understand and were careless. I believe that the compulsory standard now instituted will make the public aware of the need to be careful.

In paragraph 24 of its Report, the Molony Committee says: We think that having come this far"— that is to say, with the new British Standard— there may be a risk that it will be assumed that recent action has covered all the reasonably remedial hazards of the paraffin heater; and conversely it is possible that the public will unfairly (and to its own detriment) regard such heaters, even when suitable remedial action has been taken, as unduly dangerous. It is important to draw attention to the fact that what we are doing now is designed to do away with what has been a major hazard in causing fires during the last few years.

The importance to the public of this matter is quite unimaginable. There are many millions of oil heaters in use, and they are of very great value to people generally. We cannot avoid oil heaters being used, since they are cheap to run and, in many cases, the only means of heating, particularly in a country area where no other suitable method is available.

This is a very important aspect of the matter, and I hope that no local authority will imagine that it can undertake the testing itself. This is a highly technical matter, and a considerable number of members of the Home Safety Group have visited various laboratories to see tests carried out. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Dr. Johnson) and myself this week went to one of these laboratories, Aladdin at Greenford, to see where, under suitable testing conditions, a very highly satisfactory degree of safety can be achieved. This is not the case in every laboratory run by a manufacturer or local authority. It is important that we should encourage local authorities to support my hon. Friend's proposal so that testing is carried out only in approved laboratories.

Mr. A. Evans

I am sure that the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) is right in suggesting that testing should be carried out by specialist bodies. I am also sure that most local authorities would make it their business to go to a body which specialises in this type of testing.

This proposal, however, places another burden on local authorities. Possibly this is not directly germane to the proposed new Clause, but it has a bearing. It is true that it is not a big task. A local authority will only have to get the heater from the manufacturer, retailer or wholesaler when it thinks that a test is required and take it to the testing authority. In adding extra duties to local authorities, it should be remembered that they are already very much burdened with tasks placed upon them by Parliament.

It is within my knowledge that in some of the big cities, certainly in the Metropolitan area of London, it is not possible for a local authority to recruit the necessary number of public health inspectors. Many of them are below their standard strength of health inspectors because they are not available to do the necessary work. We should bear that in mind and I hope that the appropriate Department of the Government— it would not be the Home Office in this case—will take note that, when we place extra duties on local authorities, we should help them to recruit the necessary officers to carry out the work that we give them to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time.

Dr. D. Johnson

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Clause, in line 5, at the end to insert: as indicated by a suitable marking to be prescribed by the regulations".

The Deputy-Chairman

Perhaps it would be convenient if, with this Amendment, could be taken the Amendment to leave out lines 9 to 37.

Dr. Johnson

Thank you, Sir William.

I must apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) if I appear to be the only hon. Member out of line with the Bill. Perhaps he has a certain fellow feeling, even though it is his Bill. I realise the difficulty of time and that we want to get the Bill through. I shall, therefore, endeavour to be as brief as my Amendment.

The purpose of the Amendment is to restrict further the operations of local authorities and, instead of having the power to test, merely to inspect to see whether heaters are properly marked in the manner indicated by my hon. Friend's first new Clause. The Amendment is the result of fears expressed to me by various quarters, principally manufacturers. These fears have, to some extent, been allayed by my hon. Friend's remarks, so that I do not intend to press the Amendment. None the less, I hope that my hon. Friend will be definite in allaying these fears. It is proposed to give fresh powers to local authorities, and we cannot visualise how they will be operated.

I hope that I shall not be too much out of order if I remind my hon. Friend of some of his remarks on the Finance Bill with regard to the matter of another £50 million on the rates this year. During discussion of the Finance Bill, we had the noble and virtuous Dr. Jekyll of our national economy watching for unnecessary local authority expenditure. I am hoping that today I do not detect another personality creeping out, a wicked Mr. Hyde, who has tendencies in the opposite direction.

I am bound to visualise the effect of this and the possible operation of Parkinson's Law on a Measure of this kind and the fear that we may get oil heater enforcement officers surrounded by appropriate new departments in town balls, and that sort of thing. I hope, that this is merely a creature of my own perfervid imagination. I hope, however, that my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster will give assurances that in the operation of his Bill there will be no loopholes for that kind of thing to develop.

Quite apart from expanse and interference with citizens' rights, it is essential from the manufacturer's viewpoint to have only two or three centralised testing places. A manufacturer cannot construct and operate his establishment and his works if an oil heater is to have one standard in say, Burnley, and another, perhaps, in Bodmin. We must have centralised standards that are fair to manufacturers. We had a similar kind of difficulty in the world of book publishing. A book which might be all right in Burnley could, perhaps, be con-sidered to be obscene in Bodmin. That kind of danger will arise if the testing is spread too widely.

I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will have these question very much in mind before, finally, his Bill passes into law. I hope he realises the possibility of such dangers in this kind of legislation and that in these matters of home safety and safety for consumers, what we basically have to do is to teach people to be sensible and avoid constructing a large bureaucratic machine merely for the purpose of keeping people safe in their homes.

Mr. Nabarro

I reply shortly to the two valuable points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Dr. J. Johnson). Subsection (1, b) of the new Clause which has been added to the Bill this afternoon contains stringent requirements in regard to the affixing of labels for the length of life of the appliances. The major reason for the addition of the Clause was to give emphasis to the labelling requirements.

I am entirely with my hon. Friend in wishing to avoid unnecessary expense to local authorities or to manufacturers or others concerned with the distribution and sale of oil heaters and appliances. I foresee—I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary does, too— that the number of laboratories approved for testing purposes will be very small —the British Standards Institution laboratory in Hertfordshire, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and two or three other major local authority laboratories. With those few words of reassurance, I hope that my hon. Friend will not press the Amendment.

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Vosper

Enforcement, of course, is a matter of real difficulty, to which the Home Office has given much consideration. In many ways it would be nice if inspection enforcement could be done at the point of production, but that would be difficult to achieve because there is no one, really, to do the inspecting.

Originally in the Bill, my hon. Friend gave this power to the local authorities. The reason for amending it is that many local authorities, as all hon. Members have said, may not be able to carry out the testing part of the operation. Therefore, power is given to the local authority to choose a heater and have it tested in an approved laboratory. The hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans) is worried about the burden put on local authorities, while my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Dr. D. Johnson) is worried about giving them too much power.

However, I think that we can all agree that because of what will happen, which will be that the manufacturer will have the heater tested in an approved laboratory, and will put a seal on it, with a kite mark, the local authority will be able, on inspection, to see if it is an approved heater and will be able to check whether it has already been tested in an approved laboratory. Therefore, on rare occasions only will it need itself to purchase heaters and have them tested. Thus the power about which my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle is a little apprehensive is only a residual power, and will be used, I think, on exceptional occasions only.

I think that this is probably the right approach to the matter. The local authorities have had only a few days to examine the proposal, and it is only fair that they should have further opportunity. We may want to come back to this on Report.

Dr. Johnson

In view of the ample reassurance given me by my hon. Friend and by my right hon. Friend, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment to the proposed Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause added to the Bill.

Clauses 1 and 2 disagreed to.