HC Deb 30 May 1960 vol 624 cc1135-44

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. George Craddock (Bradford, South)

On 3rd March last, I raised with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade the question of the number of accidents in the home arising from the wearing of inflammable clothing. On that occasion he indicated to me that this was a matter which was receiving serious consideration. He said that his right hon. Friend hoped that widespread use would be made of flame-resistant materials. That is an important statement, but it is also important that the Government should give full support where new fabrics are being discovered which make for safer use in the home.

A further question which I put to the hon. Gentleman was concerned with the Ministry's engaging in a publicity campaign to make known the non-flammable material that is available. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman replied that there were certain characteristics about these treated fabrics which together with their prices created difficulties. It is important that I should now point out that this morning I received a letter from a lady who has two children aged two and three years. She says that she is finding great difficulty in obtaining nonflammable materials to make nightdresses for her children. She has written to the Cotton Board and also to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and she has now been put in touch with Proban, which has promised to provide her within a few days with the length of material she requires.

We learn from the Press and on television of the mounting number of accidental deaths and of serious injury, some of them causing a lifetime of impaired health, as a result of the use of these materials. It is our belief that many of these cases could be avoided. In 1958, the British Safety Council carried out a survey and reported that on average 1,500 people died and over one million were injured by fire each year. More than half of the hospital cases are caused by accidents resulting from the wearing of inflammable clothing, and the majority of the victims are children. Eighty per cent. of the hospital cases suffer deep psychiatric as well as physical injury and 30 per cent. of these cases are children under five years of age.

The large figure of one million cases of injury includes slight injuries as well as major injuries. I would point out, however, that the difference between a minor burn and a serious one is very slender. A little girl may strike a match which burns her finger, with the result that she drops it on to the floor. In that case she is merely slightly burnt. But if that match had fallen on to her inflammable dress the result might have been very serious.

I have before me details of a case concerning a girl of nine, whose photograph was sent to every hon. Member a few weeks ago. No less than 31 per cent. of her skin was destroyed when her nightdress caught fire. The photograph was taken four days after the first grafting of strips from her own skin and the skin of her stepfather. Many more operations, over a number of years, will be necessary to deal with the injury.

In these days we must remember that there are many different ways of heating our homes. In the old days there was only coal, but we now have electric heaters, gas fires and oil stoves. Oil stoves can be moved about by almost any member of a family. They can be put into different rooms, and moved from point to point in such rooms. People entering a room may be unaware of the position of the stove at that moment and may cause a draught which makes the flame extend outside the guard.

I now turn to the Interim Report of the Committee on Consumer Protection, often referred to as the Molony Report. On page 8, the Committee reports: that the main victims were children under 14 and people over 65, two-thirds being females; that full skirted, loose garments presented a much greater risk than narrow or close-fitting ones; that fabrics with a flame-resistance rating below 150 could not be recommended as giving worthwhile protection. Paragraph 32 refers to the fact that garments should not be bleached, and goes on to suggest that the present loophole which exists in the legislation should be removed, and paragraph 33 says that: there have been suggestions that the use of flame-resistant fabrics should be a statutory requirement, at any rate in certain forms of clothing, e.g., children's nightwear. The idea makes some appeal. I therefore bring this to the attention of the House, as a matter of considerable importance.

I now turn to a report made by Proban Ltd. on 5th March. This report mentions that a new and improved flame-resistant finish has been developed by Proban Ltd., a firm consisting of the Bradford Dyers' Association and Albright and Wilson. The object of the exercise was to co-operate in a research programme aiming at the development of a process for imparting durable flame-resistance to textile materials. All it had was a nominal capital of £1,000. From 1954 to 1959 it suffered an accumulated loss of £136,000. In addition, the parent companies have spent a further £170,000 on research and full scale trials of textile machines. That makes a total loss of £306,000, and it is expected that they will spend a further £100,000 in the next two years. Now that the firm has reached the stage when cotton and winceyette can be processed so as to be non-flammable and safe for children to wear we should give it full marks for the exercise and the expense in which it has been involved.

It is important, in conclusion, to refer once again to the dangers of inflammable materials. Consumer Advisory Council representatives of the British Standards Institution took a trip to the shops in London a short time ago and bought fourteen different kinds of material—nylon, winceyette, cotton winceyette, cotton rayon, and so on.

It is extraordinary what happened as a result of applying the British Standards Institution test No. 3121, which defines fabrics of low flammability as those which either do not burn at all or burn so slowly that there is time to extinguish or remove the burning garment. Only the nylon clothes and the flame-proofed winceyette, the Proban fabric, passed the test. That was a surprising result. Let us see what happened to the other ten fabrics. The spun rayon took two second to ignite, and the flames reached the top of a 36-inch nightdress in three seconds. In another it took five seconds, in another eight seconds, and in another only ten seconds to envelope the nightdress. There was only one nightdress out of the ten that did not go up in flames in under twenty seconds.

Those are important facts which show the risks children and ladies run in the home. I hope that the Minister will give us some indication of what the Government intend to do. I ask the Minister to consider the independent tests which have been made and give Government backing for the labelling of safe materials. I hope that he will also consider enabling shops which sell these safety materials to put up the appropriate notices, and that the Board of Trade will assist in the advertising campaigns to see that the testing of these materials is kept up to standard.

10.14 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. John Rodgers)

I would like to commend the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. George Craddock) on his choice of subject for this debate, and on the way in which he presented his case.

Fire accident is a topic on which much concern has lately been expressed in the Press and elsewhere, and rightly so. Far from seeking to play down any alarm which such statements may have created, I hope that what has been said here tonight will help to drive home to parents the grave dangers which can arise and the steps which they can take to reduce them.

All of us on both sides of the House approach this subject with a keen awareness of its importance and of the suffering and tragedy which are involved. I hope this short debate will do something to draw the attention of manufacturers and makers-up, retailers and the general public to the steps that can be taken to improve the present situation.

The latest figures available suggest that in 1958 between 80 and 90 children under 15, and two-and-a-half times as many old people, died as a result of burns by clothing in the home. There are no reliable statistics of non-fatal incidents, but I recall figures from a Birmingham hospital some years ago which suggested that for every one who dies, seventy, I think the figure was, are injured badly enough to require hospital treatment.

When I examine these statistics, I cannot help noticing two important features. In the first place, three-quarters of these child deaths arose from contact with a solid fuel, gas or electric fire of some kind, as the hon. Gentleman said. We can reasonably hope that there may be a steady improvement in this respect as the provisions of the Heating Appliances (Fireguards) Act, 1952, become felt. On that, the Government have done what they can. What we cannot do is stand over every parent in the home and force him to buy, maintain and faithfully use a proper fireguard, but it is little enough to ask of a parent who cares for his child's life.

The second significant fact that emerges from the statistics is that deaths of girls outnumber those of boys by more than four to one. For this, it seems to me, there are two possible explanations: that little girls are more likely than little boys to gaze into that still too prevalent menace, the looking-glass over the fireplace—and that they wear skirts which swirl into the flames, instead of trousers. Here again, parents—and this is something that must be in their hands alone—could make a really significant improvement if they dressed their young daughters in pyjamas rather than in nightdresses, and if they only took down the mirror over the fireplace.

Last year, following a great deal of careful study by the British Standards Institution and elsewhere, we specified in the Fabrics (Misdescription) Regulations, minimum requirements for fabrics claiming to be flame-proof or flame resistant. Now there are certain textile fabrics which, in their natural state, seem able to meet these requirements. I understand that the heavier woollen fabrics, nylon, Terylene and perhaps one or two others, may do so.

But I must add that this is not necessarily so if there is a blend or a trimming of other fabrics, and it may not be so if certain finishes are applied. Unfortunately, these are not materials which parents usually choose for their children's nightwear. A leading firm in the man-made fibre field has been conducting research and now have on test a fibre which, I understand, is highly flame resistant. They expect to have it on the market in a year if the tests prove successful, and they claim that it would revolutionise the whole problem of providing flame resistant clothing. Cottons and rayons—and I am talking now of the range which includes winceyettes, probably the first choice of parents—are a lesser fire risk if they are given one of the chemical treatments now available.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Molony Committee referred to the problem of flammable clothing materials in its interim report (paragraphs 28–34) which has now been presented to Parliament. This report reminds us that present legislation on the subject is confined to the Fabrics (Misdescription) Act, 1913, with Regulations made thereunder in 1959. This makes it an offence to attribute the quality of flame-proofness or flame resistance to a fabric or garment which does not reach the prescribed standard in that respect.

The Committee considered the suggestion that the use of flame-resistant fabrics should be a statutory requirement, at any rate in certain forms of cloth; for example, children's nightwear, the point which the hon. Member is making tonight. What the hon. Gentleman did not say was that they were, however, unable to recommend compulsion at this stage.

There are, to my knowledge, three processes available which can render certain fabrics flame resistant to the degree specified in the Fabrics (Misdescription) Regulations. The companies concerned have, I am told, devoted a great deal of time and large sums of money to their development, and, it is only fair to add, have done so without any great response from the buying public. Materials treated by these processes have been handled by various retailers in a manner which should have proved a fair test of demand.

But what happened? Did parents rush in to buy? Alas, no. The public response was bitterly disappointing—"negligible" is the only word to describe it. Why was this so? We are told that it was to be explained by one or both of these reasons: that the treatment made the cloth hard or harsh to the touch or that the treated fabrics were more expensive.

It has to be admitted that an unfortunate side effect of the treatment has been to impair the "handle" of the cloth and rightly or wrongly parents may well have been tempted to prefer the softer untreated material for contact with a child's tender skin. But I understand that there has now been a further technical development, at least in one of the processes, Proban, which they claim virtually eliminates the adverse effect on handle. I hope that this is so, if it is, then there remains only the question of price. My information is that what the processes add to the cost of, say, a nightgown for a small child is approximately the price of twenty cigarettes. I noticed a headline in one of the London evening papers the week before last, "Is four shillings too much for safety?" I ask the question, "Is it?" Are we to think that the parents of this country set no higher value than that upon their own children's lives? I find it hard to believe. Only those who do not appreciate the dangers could begrudge this expense.

Our task, therefore, is to educate—to conduct a propaganda campaign, if hon. Members will—and here I agree with the hon. Member for Bradford, South. But it is difficult to coerce people. Now why is this? If we were to contemplate compulsion and the banning of the sale of garments, we could not extend it to fabrics that would be made up at home. I hope the hon. Member agrees.

I turn now to the question of publicity. This is where the task lies. I am glad to see that in recent months the Press, T.V. and radio have been doing a great deal to that end. I hope that they will keep plugging away at the theme, for what people find week after week in the columns of the papers or on their screens is more likely to make a real and lasting impact than anything else.

This is a case in which, as much as in any other, I should dearly like to see some way in which we, the Government could help, instead of standing on the sidelines and cheering others on. There have, indeed, been suggestions that tax- payers' money should be spent on an advertising campaign to persuade people to ask for fabrics which are either naturally flame-proof, or flame resistant, or have been rendered so by one of the commercial processes now available.

Frankly, I must say that I do not think that this is a right purpose for the spending of the taxpayers' money. But I am very attracted by the idea of a special campaign warning mothers of the dangers and appraising them of the availability of these new finishes and possibly new fibres which may come on to the market.

I think we are all agreed that some educative and sustained publicity would be very valuable. The only difference between us is whether this should be undertaken by the taxpayer or by those who ultimately hope to profit by the exercise, namely, the makers of the fibres, the makers-up of the garments and the distributors who sell the children's nightwear in the shops.

I hope that one of the results of this debate tonight will be that all concerned will seriously consider the possibility of such a campaign or campaigns, but, of course, to be effective it is essential that these garments should be stocked widely so that when the mother is buying nightwear for her children she can easily purchase garments which have been treated with a flame-resistant finish.

I should like to suggest in no partisan spirit that the hon. Member might use his great influence with the Co-operative movement and the big retail stores to give a lead towards stocking flame-proof children's nightwear, possibly to the exclusion of the non-flame-proof pyjamas and nightgowns. I hope that they will also consider advertising to draw their customers' attention to the availability of this merchandise.

For the last ten years a large chain store whose name is a household word have not sold cotton nightdresses for children but only pyjamas on the grounds that accident statistics have shown that nightdresses of a fast-burning fabric are too dangerous. They have sold brushed nylon nightdresses with some success. After having tried and rejected a number of chemical treatments for cotton fabrics, they are now of the opinion that Proban's latest process is satisfactory from both the safety and "fabric handle" angles. They have placed an order for several thousand yards of treated fabric and hope to have nightdresses made from it on sale before long.

I now came to another suggestion, that we ought to know more about the composition and performance of goods that are offered on sale, particularly in the field of flame-proofness and flame resistance. This part of what is called "informative labelling" is another matter which the Molony Committee is to consider. I shall, therefore, make a point of asking it that when it has the problem of informative labelling before it, the Committee will take into account the particular suggestions which have been made tonight to see whether any special steps are required to mark such merchandise as being flame-proofed or not. I also hope that the Committee will consider whether this should be incorported in the sewn-on label and not merely stated on the swing ticket. This consideration should also include whether or not flame-proofed material should be dry-cleaned. This should be stated.

There is no question that the subject of our debate is supremely important, from many aspects. I earnestly believe that the debate we have had tonight will help to make all those concerned more aware of the dangers and possible methods of overcoming them. If at any time, possibly after the Committee on Consumer Protection has reported, we at the Board of Trade see any way of furthering the efforts that are now being made to produce suitable materials and get them into use I can assure the House that we shall not hesitate to take any steps which may be required.

Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

The hon. Member said that in his view it is not right to spend the taxpayers' money on a Government-backed publicity campaign to tell parents and shoppers what they ought to look for when they are buying. Will he take into consideration that the hospital treatment and everything associated with the treatment of children or adults when they are burned is a charge upon public funds and part of the charge for the National Health Service? The savings which we obtained would therefore be of great value to the taxpayer. A little of the taxpayers' money—looked at purely from this material aspect—spent on a Government-backed publicity campaign of this kind would be money very well spent.

Mr. Rodgers

I appreciate that if we could, by one way or another, induce all parents to buy flame-resistant finishes on their children's nightwear the risk of fire accidents would be lessened and there would, therefore, be fewer calls on the hospital services. I thoroughly agree with the hon. Member on that. Nevertheless I still think that it is not for the Government to embark on such a campaign. I hope that the publicity given to our debate tonight will help. I hope that it will be given good publicity in the Press and will do something to draw parents' attention to the fact that these processes such as Proban are available and that certain large stores are about to stock nightwear which is reasonably safe.

Having got that message across, I hope that the stores and the makers-up will stress this feature in their advertisements —for most of these firms already undertake advertising campaigns—and that they will stress it continuously in their publicity. A continuous campaign is required, not just one statement but a campaign year in and year out. We must hammer it home until it is accepted by the public not only that these fabrics are available but that they are available in most of the shops throughout the length and breadth of the country. Nevertheless, I still think that it is not something on which the Government ought to spend money. On the other hand, we are extremely sympathetic, and I very much appreciate the point which the hon. Member has made.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Ten o'clock.

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