HC Deb 13 May 1960 vol 623 cc840-8

  1. (1) The Secretary of State may by regulations provide—
    1. (a) for requiring oil heaters of such class or description as may be specified in the regulations, or any component part of an oil heater, being a part of such class or description as may be so specified, to comply with such standards of safety as in his opinion are appropriate to reduce or prevent the risk of fire;
    2. (b) for requiring oil heaters of such class or description as may be so specified to bear by means of such a label or such other means as may be so specified, instructions on such matters as may be prescribed as to the working and use of the oil heaters;
    3. (c) for any other matter for which regulations are authorised under this Act.
  2. (2) Regulations made under this section may contain different provisions for different classes or descriptions of oil heaters or component parts of oil heaters and, in the case of regulations made for the purposes of paragraph (a) of the foregoing subsection, may prescribe the means for ascertaining for the purposes of this Act whether any oil heaters or component parts comply with the requirements of the regulations.—[Mr. Nabarro.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

2.29 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

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

I think that some explanation is due to the Committee at the outset for the reason behind the substitution of this lengthy Clause, which bears the names of several hon. Members from both sides of the Committee, for the original Clause in the Bill, and also of the similar proposals to follow as set out on the Notice Paper.

The Committee will remember that the Bill was read the First time on 15th March and a Second time on 1st April, without debate on that occasion. Since 1st April we have had the benefit of two important publications. The first is the interim Report of the Committee on Consumer Protection, Cmnd. 1011, which appeared after the Second Reading and in the early days of April. The second is the British Standards Specification 3300, which appeared a few days later. Those two documents have a profound influence on the legislation which my hon. Friends and I seek to achieve.

Technically, the new Clause is equivalent to Clause 5 in the Bill. Apart from the drafting, the only material differences are as follows. First, the new Clause says: The Secretary of State may … instead of "shall"— … by regulations … That is in accordance with general practice, as, for example, in Section 5 (1) of the Heating Appliances (Fireguards) Act, 1952, and is generally considered constitutionally appropriate.

Moreover, it would be inconsistent to require the Secretary of State to make regulations and, at the same time, make those regulations subject to annulment under Clause 6 (2). The new Clause is particularly important because it confers powers for the making of regulations to give the minimum standards of proficiency and safety in respect of all new oil-burning appliances manufactured and distributed in Great Britain after the date of the coming into effect of such regulations.

The scope of the regulations is expressed in subsection (1, a) of the new Clause in rather more general terms than in Clause 5 (1), which the new Clause is designed to replace. Subsection (1, b) of the new Clause gives an additional power to require oil heaters to bear labels containing prescribed safety instructions, and I shall justify that before I sit down. Subsection (3) of Clause 5 becomes subsection (5) of the new Clause. This is merely the removal of a subsection from one Clause to another.

It will be recalled that the Home Secretary has no powers at present, and until this legislation reaches the Statute Book, to prescribe these minimum standards of proficiency and safety in regard to domestic oil-burning appliances. Those powers will be con- ferred on him by the new Clause and such regulations as he may decide to make under it.

I should say a word, in this connection, about the recommendations made in the documents to which I alluded a few moments ago. The British Standards Specification 3300, published about a month ago, is particularly comprehensive and penetrating in all the technical requirements which it would impose for reaching a higher standard of proficiency and safety in these oil-burning appliances. But a British Standards specification is only optional upon manufacturers. Whereas this specification replaces a much earlier one, British Standards Specification 2049 published in 1953, and notwithstanding the higher standards in the recent publication, it is still only optional upon manufacturers and it cannot pretend to cover the contingency of imported oil heaters and burners of various descriptions.

The purpose of the new Clause is to make it obligatory upon manufacturers to conform to the regulations, and, having regard to the hideous toll of accidents and the widespread fires which have resulted from hazards caused, in the main, by these domestic portable oil heaters, I think that the Committee would agree with me, unanimously I believe, in feeling that there must be an obligation by Statute to impose these standards and that the matter should not be left on an optional basis.

The requirements of the regulations in the context of the British Standards Specification would be very comprehensive. They would cover, for example, all contingencies arising from the three main hazards with these oil heaters to which I alluded when being granted permission by the House to bring in the Bill on 15th March. I summarise these today, for the sake of brevity, in saying that the hazards fall into three groups: first, severe draughts causing flaring of these oil burners and heaters, which is a major cause of fire; secondly, the overturning of oil heaters; and, thirdly, corrosion of the fuel container, which causes the liquid fuel to escape, with grave fire hazard when the burner is alight, and, in conjunction with it, the method of fuel injection. If the regulations—I feel confident that they will—follow the high standards prescribed in British Standards Specification 3300, those hazards will very largely be subdued.

I made special reference a few moments ago to marking, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Dr. D. Johnson) is particularly interested in this topic I should make my intentions perfectly clear. There was nothing in the original Clause 5 which would exclude in any way the possibility of the Home Secretary including within the scope of his regulations prescribed methods of marking to last the length of life of the appliance itself, but I thought it advisable to refer here specifically to marking or, in other words, the labels on new appliances distributed, and that will find a place later in the Bill.

I think that "marking" will cover a wide variety of requirements, and I summarise them today by saying that the manufacturer's name or trade mark would appear on the label; the manufacturer's type number similarly; the number of the British Standards specification to which the appliance conforms, No. 3300 in this instance; a warning against the use of petrol instead of kerosene, or, in other words, the requirement that suitable fuel should be employed; a warning against carrying the appliance when alight; a warning about the need for adequate ventilation; a warning about protection from draughts; and a warning against placing the appliance where it can be knocked over. All of these are matters of major importance in connection with marking and the affixing of a label within the requirements of the regulations to which I have referred.

I turn for a few moments to the interim Report of the Committee on Consumer Protection, published a few weeks ago as Command 1011, which is generally referred to, from the name of the Chairman, as the Molony Report. In paragraphs 22–27 inclusive there are valuable comments upon the hazards arising from the sale of sub-standard oil appliances. While I do not wish to weary the Committee by dealing with each point to which the Report refers, I should mention that it makes a special reference to the importance of labels being affixed, which it alleges was not contained in the original Clause 5 which the new Clause is designed to replace. In fact, the regulations under the original Clause 5 could have covered the point of affixing labels, but I think that it is so important, especially in view of what the Molony Committee has wisely said in this context, that we ought to be quite specific in the Bill.

Finally, I will say a word about imports. The need for an obligatory standard is undoubtedly to seal the gap that could otherwise be created by substandard heaters being imported into the country, and though there is no reference in the Clause to the word "imported", it will appear later. I merely wish to make it perfectly clear at this stage that we are dealing in this Measure, and in this case, with regulations governing the sale of these heaters, and, therefore, almost overwhelmingly imported heaters, as they would in the majority of cases have to be resold, would be covered by the new Clause.

It will be seen that the Clause is supported by hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the Committee, and I hope, therefore, that it will commend itself without dissension to the Committee.

Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)

I beg to second the Motion.

I commend the Clause to the Committee as being one which provides a practical and sensible means of enforcing the very necessary regulations that we all hope will be made to ensure the safety of oil heaters.

I do not wish to appear in any way alarmist, or to frighten those who are the owners or users of oil heaters that do not comply with the British Standards specification so recently introduced. Having seen certain experiments made on a number of well-known types of oil heaters, and the great rapidity with which they flare up and leak their paraffin when subjected to draughts, I am quite certain that the Committee will believe me when I say that some form of regulations is required so that the safety of people can be increased and they may be saved some of the very great dangers to which they have been subjected in the past.

It would not be right to ask this Committee to go into every detail of what the regulations should be, what draught speeds they should be able to withstand, and the exact nature of the construction of heaters. In this type of matter, I am quite sure that I am right in saying that it is usual for the Committee, when considering a new Bill, to be quite content to leave these matters to the appropriate Secretary of State. It would also be quite wrong to anticipate what these regulations will be, but they must, of course, cover the three matters to which my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) referred and, above all, the danger of flaring up when subject to draught, in some cases, quite a small draught, as well as the danger of spilling fuel and catching fire when overturned. Indeed, there is also the fact that they must be made more than usually difficult to overturn, and they should also provide for the proper and not overhasty or unskilled design and construction of these heaters in the first place.

I am sure that the manufacturers, as much as everybody else, will welcome the regulations—provided they comply with them, and, of course, they will— as giving their products a better name. greater popularity, and, I am sure, greater use throughout the country. This new Clause will enable regulations to be made to cover these matters, as well as the fixing of labels and instructions referred to by the Molony Committee, to deal with the proper use of materials and the putting together of those materials in the construction of the heaters, and the use of such devices as will enable them to withstand draughts and matters of that sort.

It would be quite wrong to weary the Committee with the full nature of the British Standards specification referred to. It will, I know, be carefully studied by the Home Secretary and his advisers. One knows that British Standards specifications have no legal authority at all. but that everybody treats them, and quite rightly so, as being of the greatest importance, and treats them with very great respect.

I do not want to take up an undue amount of time, because one looks at the clock and at the number of Amendments before the Committee and hopes that they will all be dealt with before four o'clock. I should like to express the hope that the new Clause will receive the Committee's welcome and approbation.

Mr. Albert Evans (Islington, South-West)

I wish to say a word or two in support of the new Clause. I am sure that the Committee would entirely agree that some action should be taken to lay down general standards of safety in the manufacture of these oil heaters, and I am sure we all agree about that.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) upon his intention. As I understand, the operation of the new Clause is dependent upon action by the Secretary of State, and unless the Secretary of State decides to come to the House with regulations this new Clause would be inoperative. What we are saying to the right hon. Gentleman in this new Clause is that there is obviously a need for regulations, and inviting him to introduce them. I hope that this short discussion will induce the Secretary of State to act as promptly as he may and lay the necessary regulations before the House.

2.45 p.m.

Dr. Donald Johnson (Carlisle)

I should like to say a word in welcoming and supporting this new Clause, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) has moved in his usual able and eloquent fashion, and also in appreciation of the support of the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans) who, I understand, had such a distressing experience in his own constituency.

Perhaps we welcome this new Clause so much because, when these fires and accidents occur with these heaters, they are of a particularly terrifying and disastrous character, and because it is the more helpless sections of our community, children and old people, who are affected by them. Whereas those of us who are interested in this question of home safety tend to rely on exhortation and encouragement, and only wish to resort to legislation when it is absolutely necessary, we feel that in this instance legislation of this character is demanded. I think that I can speak both on behalf of myself and the other members of the Parliamentary Home Safety Committee in welcoming my hon. Friend's new Clause.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dennis Vosper)

This Bill was not debated on Second Reading, but I have no intention of trying to make the speech that I might have made on that occasion. As this is a substantive Clause, under which my right hon. Friend will make regulations, I should say, of course, that the Government welcome the Bill and will give it their support.

Indeed, they have done that by moving a Money Resolution and in helping my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) in drafting the Amendments to the Bill. In case any hon. Member may think that my hon. Friend has changed his mind in any great respect since the introduction of the Bill, I should say that most of the Amendments are designed simply to bring the Bill into the commonly adopted form for Measures of this kind.

Since the introduction of the Bill, the very important Molony Committee has reported, and the provisions of the new Clause was its principal recommendation. I congratulate my hon. Friend on anticipating the Committee in that respect. One point which my hon. Friend did not make, but which perhaps should be made, is that throughout the consideration of the Bill and the drafting of the Amendments consultation has taken place with the interested bodies, particularly with the oil appliances manufacturers' associations, which, I understand, subscribe fully to the Bill and to the Amendments which are being made to it.

On behalf of the Home Office, I must say 'that that organisation has been most co-operative and most anxious to meet the requirements of the Molony Committee and of the Report to which my hon. Friend referred. It has, in fact, already anticipated in part this Bill and the regulations to be adopted, in that the prototypes for the coming year are in accordance with B.S.I. standards to which my hon. Friend referred.

The only point which I think I should make to the Committee is on the question of the regulations, because, of course, the words used in the new Clause are that the Secretary of State may make regulations. There is no significance in the change from "shall" to "may", as the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) knows. It is standard practice, and we have debated that point on the Offices Bill. It is the intention of my right hon. Friend to make regulations which will conform approximately to British Standards Specification No. 3300, but there may be some points of variation, as B.S.I, standards do not necessarily lend themselves exactly to regulations. It is my right hon. Friend's intention to make these regulations and once again to do so in consultation with the trade and interested parties. As soon as the Bill has made some progress, those negotiations and consultations will take place. There is no desire in any way to hold back on this legislation, and the sooner we can make progress the better.

The only other new point is that about the labelling and instructions. That arises again from the Molony Committee, and it is a very welcome addition to the Clause. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster for responding to the various proposals to modify his Bill in some respects, and particularly in this Clause, which is now in a very workable form.

Question put and agreed to.

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