HC Deb 13 May 1960 vol 623 cc848-59

  1. (1) If any person in the course of a business sells, or lets under a hire-purchase agreement or on hire, or has in has possession for the purpose of selling or letting, an oil heater and either—
    1. (a) the oil heater, or a component part of it, does not comply with any standard of safety prescribed for the class or description of oil heater, or as the case may be, component part, to which the oil heater or component part belongs; or
    2. (b) the oil heater does not bear instructions in compliance with the requirements of any regulations made for the purposes of sub-paragraph (b) of section (Safety standards and instructions for use of oil heaters) of this Act,
      • he shall, subject to the provisions of this section, be guilty of an offence.
  2. (2) If any person, in the course of a business, sells, or has in his possession for the purpose of selling, a component part intended for. but not embodied in, an oil heater and the component part does not comply with the standards of safety prescribed for the class or description of component part to which 849 it belongs, he shall, subject to the provisions of this section, be guilty of an offence.
  3. (3) A person shall not be convicted of an offence under subsection (1) of this section if he proves—
    1. (a) that the sale or letting was carried out, or he was in possession of the oil heater as the case may be, as the agent of a person who was not acting in the course of a business or as the servant of such an agent; or
    2. (b) he reasonably believed that the oil heater would not be used in Great Britain; or
    3. (c) in the case of a letting on hire, the letting was incidental to the letting of premises; or
    4. (d) in the case of a letting under a hire-purchase agreement he had at no time possession of the oil heater and only became the owner thereof at the time of entering into the agreement; or
    5. (e) in the case of any letting, the letting was lawful at the time the hirer or the hirer's predecessor in title obtained possession of the oil heater;
      • and a person shall not be convicted of an offence under subsection (2) of this section if he proves that the sale was carried out, or as the case may be, he was in possession of the component part, as the agent of a person who was not acting in the course of a business, or as the servant of such an agent or that he reasonably believed that the component part would not be used in Great Britain.
  4. (4) A person shall not be convicted of an offence under paragraph (a) of subsection (l) of this section or subsection (2) thereof in relation to an oil heater or component part if he proves that he had reasonable cause to believe that the oil heater or, as the case may he, component part, complied with the standards of safety prescribed for the class or description of oil heater or component part to which it belongs.
  5. (5) Regulations under this Act may contain such provisions as appear to the Secretary of State necessary or expedient for authorising the sale, letting or possession of oil heaters or component parts manufactured before the coming into operation of the regulations, or for authorising the sale or letting of oil heaters or component parts for such purposes as may be specified in the regulations, and a person shall not be guilty of an offence under subsection (1) of this section if he proves that the sale, letting or possession of the heater was authorised by those regulations, or of an offence under subsection (2) of this section if he proves that the sale or possession of the component part was so authorised.—[Mr. Nabarro.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Nabarro

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

This Clause is the equivalent of Clause 1 of the Bill. Apart from drafting, it differs from Clause 1 in only one or two material respects. It does not, as Clause 1 does, refer to imports. The reasons are that a prohibition of imports is not considered to be necessary, a prohibition of sales by itself, I am advised, being technically sufficient.

It may be said, of course, that from time to time heaters are bought by British people abroad and brought into the country individually and used in those people's homes. I am advised that that happens in so few cases that it would be almost impossible to provide for it by legislation and that, in any event, it would create certain difficulties with the Customs. What I am concerned to do is to prevent foreign manufactured oil burners and heaters from being imported into the country for resale, and I am advised that the new Clause would prevent any substandard heater—that is a heater which does not reach the requirements of the regulations about standards of proficiency and safety—being resold.

Subsection (1, b) adds the offence of selling a heater which does not conform to the labelling requirements, recommended in the Interim Report of the Committee on Consumer Protection, to which I referred earlier, and which are now indispensable in the arrangements which we propose to make. The new Clause deals separately with the sale of components for oil heaters and burners, and that is substantially a matter of drafting with which I shall deal later.

Subsection (4) gives a person prosecuted under the Bill for selling a defective oil heater or component the defence that he had reasonable cause to believe that it complied with prescribed safety standards.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

Will the hon. Member deal with subsection (3, b)? I know that it is in the original Bill and it now appears in virtually the same form. But why is it not an offence to want to set someone on fire in Northern Ireland or France while it is in Great Britain?

Mr. Nabarro

I will deal with that later. I will first complete what I was saying about subsection (4).

The practical effect of subsection (4) is that a retailer of an oil heater or burner will normally be secure from prosecution if he sells in good faith a heater which, for example, bears the seal of approval of a reputable body. That seems reasonable, because an ordinary ironmonger cannot be expected, other than from the details shown on the label, to ascertain whether the heater which he is offering for sale does or does not reach the required standards. On the other hand, if, for example, a manufacturer gives a worthless guarantee, he would be culpable at once and would be prosecuted under the Bill and subject to the penalties which it sets out.

Subsection (5) of the new Clause is equivalent to Clause 5 (3) of the original Bill. The drafting change is made because it seems more appropriate for that matter to be dealt with as an exception to the general prohibition to the sale of heaters which do not conform to the prescribed safety standards. Generally, it seeks to prevent sub-standard and dangerous heaters finding their way to the market. I was particularly interested in the intervention of the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans) earlier, for what I am about to say precisely fits the point he made.

On 18th March, 1960, the Daily Herald reported: Three more children die in a fire. And again the killer is a drip-feed oil heater. The Daily Herald went on to say: We took Mr. Evans on a tour of heartbreak house, where children wept, hysterical mothers sobbed and even men cried. After hearing first-hand accounts of the 29 minutes of terror he stared in shocked disbelief at the charred shell that was once the home of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Chung and said: 'The Government must act.' 'This is the third oil heater fire in ten days'. This was a disaster in a crowded quarter of the hon. Member's constituency, not dissimilar to the disaster at Ware in Hertfordshire where, similarly, three small children were similarly burned to death through a similar cause. The contents of the second new Clause are absolutely indispensible to preventing the sale of substandard oil heaters.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) referred to subsection (3), which says: A person shall not be convicted of an offence under subsection (1) of this section if he proves— (a) that the sale or letting was carried out"—

Mr. Hale

I was referring to subsection (3, b)— he reasonably believed that the oil heater would not be used in Great Britain.

Mr. Nabarro

I believe that that is lifted from earlier legislation of a similar character. Speaking from memory, I believe that the same words appear in the Heating Appliances (Fireguards) Act, 1952. In the course of the ensuing speeches, I will look up the reason for that. I am not absolutely certain why it is there, but there are very respectable precedents for it. The 1952 Act sought to do something similar to what we are trying to do, but in that case it was the adding of fireguards to heating appliances, especially to prevent children's clothing from catching fire. I will look into the point and hope to be able to satisfy the hon. Gentleman.

3.0 p.m.

Mr. A. Evans

The hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) is quite right in attempting to place the responsibility for the distribution of heaters which do not comply with the safety standards upon the sellers of those heaters. I wonder whether he has given any thought to the considerable stock of heaters in the hands of distributors which probably will not comply with the regulations when the House has approved them. I understand that the number of defective heaters which have been manufacturered and may be in the possession of distributors is considerable. It has been said that 3 million to 4 million of these heaters are either in use or in the distributive channels.

It is difficult under the Bill to do anything about those in use, but we should face the problem which exists of dealing with those heaters which remain in the hands of wholesalers and retailers. Presumably if the new Clause is accepted it will be the responsibility of those who have these heaters which will be defective under the regulations to attend to those defects and to put the heaters in a state which complies with the regulations. I hope that one of the promoters of the Bill will say something about that aspect.

It will be seen from subsection (3, c) that it will be a legitimate defence in the case of a letting on hire if it is shown that the letting was incidental to the letting of premises". It seems to me that that may let out people upon whom we should seek to place responsibility. If a person knowingly lets premises in which there is a defective oil heater, I think that he is showing more than negligence. I think that the hon. Member for Kidderminster should seek to amend the Clause to make it incumbent upon a person who lets premises to ensure that those premises do not contain a defective oil heater for use. Will the hon. Member consider that and perhaps put forward Amendments to cover the point? He could very well improve the Bill by placing an onus upon a person who lets premises to see to it that there is not a defective oil heater for use in those premises.

Mr. Doughty

I beg to second the Motion.

I have considered the Clause with some care, because the penalty Clause in any Ball is the important Clause. Without it no Bill would have any effect. I recommend the Clause to the Committee because it places the liability fairly and squarely upon those upon whom it should be placed—the persons responsible for the sale of an oil heater which does not comply with the requirements. The Clause also applies to the component parts, which may be just as dangerous as the heater itself. It seems to me that the Clause covers the dangers which we shall have in mind when the House passes the Bill.

May I deal with two points which have been made by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) and the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans)? The first concerns the phrase in subsection (3, b), that the oil heater would not be used in Great Britain". I do not say that this is the reason, but a possible reason for this provision is that foreign countries may have their own regulations. The oil heater might be made for sale abroad and it might comply with the foreign regulations or those of Northern Ireland whereas for some technical reason associated with those regulations it may not comply with the English regulations.

Mr. Hale

Various countries have various moral standards. In relation to anything which is made a penal offence, it has always been our rule that if a foreigner commits an offence here, he is subject to our laws, and if we commit an offence in a foreign country, we are subject to their laws. I believe 'that this paragraph weakens the Bill and makes more difficulties without having any advantages.

Mr. Doughty

A similar situation arises in respect of lights on motor cars. Certain heights and widths are laid down in different countries, and car manufacturers do not necessarily comply with British standards when the cars are to be sold abroad. It may be the same in this case. Countries abroad may have different requirements, different standards, and, for all I know, may use different kerosene. We therefore want to leave manufacturers free not to comply with some aspects of British standards though they will have to comply with the standards laid down by the countries to which the heaters are exported.

The hon. Member for Islington, South-West asked about paragraph (c). The property which is let furnished with all the furniture and fittings is not the property contemplated in the paragraph. We are trying to prohibit the sale or letting on hire purchase. If somebody lets a house for a week or a year complete with all its contents, it will be hard to come down on him if among the things that were let with the house, such as a grand piano, a sofa, and beds, there was an oil heater which did not comply with the standards. That is not the type of case with which we are endeavouring to deal.

I do not want to go through all the terms of the Clause. I hope that it will provide the necessary teeth when the Bill is passed by the Committee.

Mrs. Patricia McLaughlin (Belfast, West)

I intervene briefly on two specific points. First, the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) said that heaters bought abroad which did not match our standards might be used in Great Britain. He mentioned specifically the question of heaters bought in Northern Ireland. When the Bill becomes an Act it will not apply to Northern Ireland, but legislation there will shortly follow the legislation here.

The second point is about oil heaters in the pipeline so to speak. I understand that all reputable oil heater manufacturers have given assurances that they will do their utmost to get in as quickly as possible oil heaters at present out for sale. They will be brought in and modified at cost price. That should encourage all the owners of oil heaters which do not at present match up to the necessary standards to send their heaters back for modification.

There is bound to be a time lag, but I have been assured, and I have every reason to believe, that every reputable manufacturer will make this a real issue and is determined that no heater is sold which does not match up to the new standards.

Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Subsection (1) says: If any person in the course of a business sells, or lets under a hire purchase agreement … As the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) said, this will catch everybody who makes an appliance, or sells it wholesale or retail. I wonder, however, whether another group of people will come into this business who may not be caught.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans) said that there are about 3 million oil heaters, some of which would not conform to these new standards. This may encourage some of the "wide boys" who happen to be floating around our population these days to go to houses, particularly those in country districts, and ask the housewife whether she has an oil heater, and say to her, "Oh, no, this is now illegal. You ought not to have it". He will then undertake to carry out some modifications, not the kind of modifications to which the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin) referred, which I understand will be carried out by manufacturers, but modifications which will still not bring the heater up to the required standard.

If that sort of thing happens the person who is doing this dirty business will not be caught by the word "sells", because he will not be buying or selling equipment. He will probably undertake the operation on the basis of a service charge, or something of that kind. I have often wondered whether we covered this point in some of our other legislation. It happened in the case of safety helmets for motor-cyclists. Some of us tried to have the word "manufactures" inserted as well as the words Sells, or lets under a hire-purchase agreement … in the Road Traffic Bill, but we were told that "sells" would cover "manufactures".

I am wondering whether, between now and Report, the right hon. Gentleman would consider this point and see whether some other word, such as "rebuilds", might be inserted. I do not know what the legal word would be, but we want to ensure that if any operations of this kind are undertaken we shall be able to catch people who are deliberately defrauding the housewife by purporting to put heaters into proper shape, according to the standards to be laid down.

I congratulate whoever drafted the Clause for including the provision contained in subsection (1, b), which at last ensures that these heaters will have instructions for their use attached to them. It will be remembered that when the Consumers Advisory Council tested some of the oil heaters, at about the same time as all this activity was getting under way, it found that although the previous British Standard recommended that information should be provided and attached to the heater, in most cases it was not so provided or attached. I am glad that this recommendation is now being given statutory force.

Mr. Nabarro

The British Standards Specification No. 3300, on page 6, says: Instructions for the safe use of an appliance shall be supplied with the appliance. They shall state that the appliance shall use kerosene (paraffin) and shall state the average fuel consumption in pints/hour or hours/gallon. A warning shall be included against the use of fuels other than kerosene (paraffin). Any special precautions necessary for the safe use and operation of the appliance shall be included. There is also a separate label requirement. I feel confident that the regulations eventually drafted and laid before this House will at least embody the standards laid down in BSS 3300. I am sure that the hon. Member's point will be met.

I agree that where these appliances have been in use for some time, people suffering apprehensions as to their safety may desire to have them modified. In many instances they will be old appliances, which do not readily lend themselves to modification by the manufacturers, and nefarious activities might develop. So far, however, we have not found any means of dealing with heaters in use, except for those which my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin) referred to as being in the pipeline—in other words, in the channels of wholesale and retail distribution but unsold to the consumer. Those the manufacturers are taking back.

If I may correct the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) on one point—the number of heaters in this category is not 3 million but 12 million.

Mr. Darling

There are 3 million of the drip-feed type.

Mr. Nabarro

There are 12 million of all kinds, and we are seeking to cover all new oil appliances, whether of the old convector type or the drip-feed type. I can assure the hon. Member that between now and Report I will consider this point together with my right hon. Friend the Joint Undersecretary, in order to see if we can provide for it, although I must say that I am not very sanguine about it.

Mr. Vosper

I know that the question of imports has worried some hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) is quite correct in saying that the Clause as now drafted covers imports. The reason for drafting the Clause in this way is that it provides a more satisfactory way of dealing with the matter. To try to catch imports via the Customs authorities would be a very difficult matter from the point of view of enforcement. Further, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is anxious not to set a precedent in that respect. The only possible imports that could now come through are those purchased abroad by individuals, who then bring them home. Such private imports would be difficult to catch under any form of Bill or regulations. I would only hope that anyone who purchases an oil heater abroad would have it inspected by the local authority in the country before using it.

3.15 p.m.

The other point to which I wish to refer is subsection (3), which has worried several hon. Members. I think I am right in saying that all these provisions— paragraphs (a) to (e)—are taken from the Fireguards Bill, 1952, which was introduced by my hon. Friend. They follow that Measure exactly, although it is possible that they may require a certain amount of reconsideration.

I would like to look again at paragraph (a), which is designed as a safeguard for auctioneers who are not held to be responsible under the Bill. I am advised, however, that there may be a loophole or way of abuse there which should be safeguarded. Equally I am advised that owing to the change in hire-purchase arrangements paragraph (d) might need rewording. If it does, I am sure that my hon. Friend would be willing to incorporate an Amendment on Report.

Regarding the quite proper intervention of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale), I think that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) was quite right in saying that these are detailed regulations which would be applicable in this country but might not at the moment be applicable in other countries, and manufacturers exporting might be in some difficulty. However, we will have regard to the point raised.

In reply to the point raised by the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans) concerning paragraph (c), may I say that I appreciate his concern about that, but I think that it would be difficult, if only for reasons of inforcement, to cover what he has in mind in that respect. The hon. Gentleman also referred, of course, to stocks at present in the shops. As I think he knows, sales of these oil drip-feed heaters has virtually ceased since the danger became public, but the manufacturers, as my hon. Friend has just said, have arranged to convert these stocks to accord with British Standards Specification No. 3300. In fact, they are arranging to do that during the summer months, so I hope that sales will recommence in the autumn and will accord as near as possible to the regulations to be introduced.

Mr. A. Evans

Does it cover all the manufacturers?

Mr. Vosper

That is the important point. It covers those who are members of the Oil Appliance Manufacturers' Association. There are at the moment a few manufacturers outside that Association, but I would hope that they, too, would conform to this point.

As far as those appliances in the hands of individual people are concerned, the manufacturers have made arrangements to have them modified, but it is disappointing how few people have availed themselves of that facility, possibly owing to the expense involved. A comparatively small proportion have come forward and asked for the modification to be made. That is something which cannot be carried out by legislation or regulation, but perhaps this is an opportunity once again to repeat to those who have drip-feed oil heaters to have a look at them and to suggest to them that they should be modified. I support the Clause, of course.

Question put and agreed to.

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