HC Deb 21 April 1961 vol 638 cc1560-70

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

11.25 a.m.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill had its First Reading on 23rd November, its Second Reading on 22nd January, and its Committee stage on 15th March. It has made rapid progress through the House, but the dreadful thing is that even though it has had that rapid progress, more than 3,000 people have been killed in their homes during that time—basing that figure on experience of previous years. Nearly 1 million people have had to go to hospital for treatment of one kind or another. I believe that the Bill will make its contribution to reducing accidents in the home. As it did not have a detailed explanation on Second Reading, perhaps I can be permitted now to explain some of its details and its objectives.

County councils and county borough councils now have power to form home safety committees. They have that power under Section 28 of the National Health Act, 1946. By taking special powers, other local authorities can have their own home safety committees, but their powers are limited. The Act does not give the minor local authorities power to set up their own home safety committees.

At Folkestone, in my constituency, we have such a home safety committee which is working most successfully. Its success depends, as with all local committees, on the enthusiasm of the secretary and the hard work of the members, whose work helps to reduce accidents in the home.

The Bill gives power to urban district councils and rural district councils to set up similar committees. There are about 1,300 of those authorities which do not have their own home safety committees, and I hope that they will appreciate this opportunity.

In recent years and even in recent months there has been a growing appreciation of the need for safety in the home. Well-known magazines have published supplements pointing out the dangers in the home. Only this month, the current edition of the Reader's Digest has published such a supplement. Only yesterday I received from Smith and Nephew a very interesting document giving advice about safety in the home and the ways of dealing with minor casualties. I understand that the hon. Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Leavey) is a director of that firm and I congratulate him on drawing attention to home safety committees.

There is much I could say on this subject, but that would take up the time of the House. There has recently been a debate in another place on home safety, which I have no authority to mention. I must make it clear that the Bill will not give local authorities an opportunity for a spending spree. The annual cost of running the home safety committee in Folkestone works out at about £250 a year, which is less than 1d. per head of the population.

Translated into rateable value, it works out at less than one-quarter of a farthing on the rates, and that cannot be considered extravagant when we are trying to make a contribution towards saving life in the home. The figure of about 3,000 fatal accidents a year in the home is a figure of which we should take cognisance in this modern age and the cost of hospitalisation of the casualties must amount to £5 million or £6 million a year. It is very difficult to get statistics about accidents in the home. We have many statistics about accidents on the road and yet there are nearly 2,000 more fatal accidents a year in the home than there are on the roads.

If the House is good enough to give a Third Reading to the Bill, I think that it will be making a contribution to showing the public the necessity for taking the necessary precautions. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has a very lively organisation dealing with this matter, and the Bill will give the minor local authorities the opportunity of co-operating with it. In passing, I congratulate that organisation on the work it is doing.

May I say, in conclusion, how much I appreciate the help and support I have had from the Home Office in drawing up the Bill. It was most gratifying to me. I have had a large number of letters from home safety committees appreciating the fact that, when this Bill came to its Committee stage, we had a very good attendance of hon. Members, though, of necessity, because this is a non-controversial Measure, the Committee stage took only a very short time. Home safety committees are very encouraged by the fact that hon. Members of this House, at a time when we were having very late sittings, were able to support this Measure.

I commend the Bill to the House in the belief that it will open a new era and a new appreciation of the dangers that exist in the home.

11.33 a.m.

Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)

I should like to commend the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) for bringing forward this small but important Measure.

It has always seemed to me to be very remarkable that when we know, as we do know and as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, that the number of accidents and the seriousness of those accidents is greater in the home than outside, so very little mention is ever made of them and there is very little public concern. My astonishment is that it is necessary to have to bring forward a Bill even to enable local authorities to engage in this kind of activity. This would seem to me to be a matter about which the nation and the Government should be far more seriously concerned, and should be right behind the hon. Gentleman in doing very much more than is enabled here to see that this level of accidents is definitely reduced.

I am very happy that the hon. Gentleman has brought forward this Bill, and I should like to extend my compliments to him and at the same time make a plea that the Government should think much more seriously than it has done up to now—judging by the evidence that we have seen from the Home Office—about what they will do about it. We hear very regularly about flogging thugs and all sorts of other measures being taken to protect the public, but here is something going on day after day and we hear very little about it. I should therefore like to couple my compliments to the hon. Gentleman with the plea that the Home Office should get down much more seriously to this question than it apparently has done up to the present time.

11.36 a.m.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

I want only to ask one question. This Bill does not apply to Scotland, but Clause 1 (3) provides: (3) There shall be defrayed out of moneys provided by Parliament any increase attributable to the foregoing provisions of this section in the sums payable out of moneys so provided by way of Rate-deficiency Grant or Exchequer Equalisation Grant under the enactments relating to local government in England and Wales or in Scotland. Why must Scotland be included in this financial provision? As I understand the various Acts concerning the distribution of the Exchequer equalisation grant in England and Wales, for instance, it means that Scotland receives a certain percentage of what is paid in England and Wales, irrespective of what services are being financed and assisted by the Exchequer. If that is so, why is it that Scotland should have to be mentioned in this subsection? We have no objection to receiving any extra money by way of Exchequer equalisation grants. We are delighted to receive it, but I should like an explanation of that point.

I should also like to congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) on having introduced this Bill. In my own constituency, we have a fairly progressive local authority in this matter, which is a matter to which we ought to give more attention than we do.

11.37 a.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) and commend this Bill to the House. I think it is worth while spending a little time on it, because, as the hon. Member said, it had an unopposed Second Reading without any discussion at all and only a very short discussion in the Committee stage.

The Bill deals with an important subject, and the hon. Member has made, as I think, a most valuable speech in drawing public attention to the seriousness of the accidents that occur in the home, some of which, unfortunately, are fatal and many of which could, with forethought, greater knowledge and greater educational facilities, have been avoided.

My only doubt is whether the Bill when it is passed into law will succeed in fulfilling all the hopes which the hon. Member has for it. I hope it will, but I have some doubts about that, unless it is coupled with more energetic action, as my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) suggested, not only on the part of the Home Office but, as I would add, on the part of local authorities.

It is a rather extraordinary commentary on life in Britain today that whereas the extent of the injuries that occur in the home is far greater and far more serious than the casualties that occur on our roads, serious as they are, very much less attention is given to them. They attract much less notice in the Press, and much less thought appears to be given to taking measures to prevent them.

As I understand it, this Bill does two things. First, it gives powers to the local authorities to promote safety in the home by publishing or making arrangements for giving information on how to prevent accidents; and, second, it enables the local authorities to make contributions to voluntary associations which exist for the same purpose.

Mr. Costain

Non-profit-making associations.

Mr. Fletcher

I am much obliged. I agree, voluntary non-profit-making associations, which exist in some parts of the country for this express purpose.

The hon. Member also says that one of his objects was to stimulate greater activity in this field on the part of some of the smaller and rural authorities. I think it should be known that many of, if not all, the larger authorities already have powers in this respect. I suppose, therefore, that it would be a fitting commentary to make that perhaps one might doubt whether they are adequately used. This Bill will not in itself do anything to stimulate those local authorities which already have these powers into making the fullest use of them.

I sit for part of the Metropolitan Borough of Islington, where, in recent years, we unfortunately had one or two serious occurrences resulting in fatalities to children through the use of oil heaters. That matter was brought to the notice of the Home Office and something was done about it, but the accidents which have been occurring all over the country as a result of the dangers inherent in oil heaters represent only a proportion of the dangers that arise in the home. With the development of all kinds of electrical, gas and oil heating it is becoming more and more common for risks of various kinds to arise and, valuable as all these aids to civilisation are, they involve the employment of some appliances which require some knowledge in their use, or which, if faulty or without adequate guarding or protection, can cause accidents.

I hope that the Bill will mean not only that additional powers will be given to the smaller authorities who do not possess them at the moment, but that it will provide the opportunity of drawing the attention of the larger authorities to the powers which they have at the moment, and which, in my belief, are being inadequately exercised.

That brings me to the question of the responsibility of the Home Office, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell. I hope that we shall hear from the Minister of State—

Mr. Speaker

I should require persuading that the activities of the Home Office are in order in a Third Reading debate on this Bill.

Mr. Fletcher

I accept your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. I was minded to pursue that matter only because of the observations of my hon. Friend.

Mr. Speaker

I allowed the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) to say it because I thought that he was just going to sit down and that it would save time if I allowed him to continue.

Mr. Fletcher

Perhaps I may put the matter in this way: I was not quite sure whether the ultimate responsibility in this matter lay as much with the Home Office as with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, because of its responsibility for the general supervision of local authorities. It is surely in order to say that one of the questions which arise under the Bill is whether it is to be the policy of Her Majesty's Government, either through the Home Office or the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, to give directions to local authorities to exercise these powers themselves, as is suggested in Clause 1 (1), or to give further encouragement to the voluntary societies of which we have heard, and which the Bill empowers local authorities to encourage by subventions.

I hope that we shall not fall between two stools, and find that local authorities are leaving the matter to voluntary organisations while those voluntary bodies are, perhaps, not engaging in the necessary amount of activity because they believe that the job should be undertaken by the local authority. That is the danger which appears to be inherent in the present position, and which is always inherent when there is any apparent division of responsibility.

Mr. Costain

The very fact that these are voluntary organisations gives them a special privilege to be able to help the people in their own neighbourhood. I am anxious not to do this work by means of an official body, such as a society for the prevention of accidents in the home. That would not work so well. It is a question of each local authority getting a body of workers around it, and the example of what has happened in Folkestone may help the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) in his thoughts.

We have a number of elderly people in Folkestone, and one of the problems that arise is that if one of them has a slight accident he or she may not be able to call for help. That makes the accident more serious, because it is not dealt with immediately. The local voluntary organisation, with the advice of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has created a body of street wardens, and elderly persons are given cards which they can put in their windows to indicate that they require help. From time to time various people who know where the old people live voluntarily take the opportunity to walk down the streets to see whether there are any cards in the windows.

The best way of dealing with this problem is to see that it is given the maximum amount of publicity. At the moment people do not appreciate the number of accidents which occur in the home. Somehow, we all feel immortal, and that accidents will never happen to us, but always to other people. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Islington, East has drawn this question out in debate, because the more publicity that is given to it the more help we shall be able to provide to solve the problem.

Mr. Fletcher

I am obliged to the hon. Member. I have no doubt that the system which operates in Folkestone is an admirable one, which might with advantage be copied in other parts of the country. But my experience in London is that these arrangements are not nearly as good as they should be. Our hospitals are full of people who have received injuries because of accidents in the home, some of which could have been avoided.

I hope that as a result of the provisions of the Bill and the debate that we are having a new initiative will be taken by the Government to indicate to local authorities, great and small, the fact that these powers exist and should be used, and that each local authority should consider for itself whether it should take the initiative or whether it should stimulate and encourage such voluntary organisations as exist in its locality.

I do not think that there is any risk of the Bill's leading to a spending spree by local authorities, as one hon. Member suggested. That is not the risk; the risk is that these powers will not be used. The danger in this and other fields of local authority endeavour is not that there will be a spending spree but that there will be too much inertia. I have no doubt that in a number of localities numerous organisations which have been organised for this or for some other purpose will be quite prepared to make their contribution.

If the Bill is to succeed in its objects, however, more must be done to educate people to take the necessary precautions. There is an opportunity at hand in that respect. Progressively throughout the country homes are being converted to burn smokeless fuel. As a result of that policy and campaign, which has already started in London and other cities, new forms of heating will, for the first time, be introduced into homes which have hitherto been dependent upon coal and open fires.

Not all the occupants of homes are blessed with technical knowledge or even the commonsense which is necessary to know how to use them. As part of the smokeless fuel campaign local authorities are under an obligation to give advice and financial assistance to those people who are now being required by law to change their heating arrangements to electric, gas, oil, or solid smokeless fuel heating.

People require not merely a choice as to which is most appropriate, but also knowledge of how to use these fuels and what precautions are required. Here is an opportunity for local authorities to see—and not only in the particular parts of their areas being given over to smokeless fuels—that something is done to educate the people as to the elementary precautions which, if taken, could, and would, go a long way to reduce accidents in the home, which we are all so much concerned to see reduced.

11.51 a.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Dennis Vosper)

I join in the congratulations offered to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain). I admire the conscientious way in which he has applied himself to what, at first sight, may seem to be a small Measure. It is a machinery Measure, and only a machinery Measure, in that it fills a gap in the legislation and, as the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) said, makes it possible for the minor local authorities to take part in home safety propaganda and to give funds to voluntary bodies. The reason why they have no power to do so at the moment is that the major local authorities get it from the 1948 National Health Service Act, but that does not affect the minor authorities.

It is a useful machinery Measure which will enable more county borough councils, urban district councils and rural district councils to do what they have previously been prevented from doing. Many of them have at some time wanted this power. It is not a power which my hon. Friend is giving them which he hopes they may use occasionally, but there has been a positive request that this power should be given.

The hon. Member for Islington, East referred to the Oil Burners (Standards) Act. I would remind him that there is coming before the House on Third Reading a complementary Measure, the Consumer Protection Bill, which will absorb that Act and will give the Government fairly wide powers in the interests of home safety and in the prevention of accidents. In many ways this Bill and the Bill to which I have just referred are complementary and should be looked at together.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) raised a point of great complexity. I had always regarded him as an expert in local authority finance, and I would have thought that his understanding was as good as mine. This reference to Scotland arises out of the fact that the rate deficiency grant applies under this Measure. Although it may seem strange that Scotland, which is not covered by the Bill, should be mentioned, the reason is that in Scotland the amount of the Exchequer equalisation grant is linked to the amount of the rate deficiency grant. It will, therefore, be consequentially affected, and this is a usual provision in a Bill which introduces a rate deficiency element.

Mr. Willis

Irrespective of what the rate deficiency grant is in England and Wales, and in respect of what services it is given, does not Scotland automatically get a certain percentage?

Mr. Vosper

That might be so, but anything which has an effect on the rate deficiency grant, as this Measure must have, must consequentially have an indirect effect on the Exchequer equalisation grant in Scotland.

The hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) seized the opportunity to castigate the Government. I am not certain whether you would allow me to follow him in that connection, Mr. Speaker, but he made a point to which I should like to refer. He was not quite accurate in saying that there were more accidents in the home than outside. I am not certain whether that is a fact. What I think he had in mind is that there are more accidents in the home than on the roads. That is a relevant and direct comparison, particularly at the time when the House is likely to be much concerned with road safety and road safety measures. Although this is a machinery Measure, it provides an opportunity to make the point again that there are more accidents in the home than on the roads, and that we should therefore be much concerned with this problem.

The question of responsibility was discussed. No authority can absolve parents, or those who reside in the home, from their direct responsibilities. Our concern must be to educate and advise people so as to prevent these accidents from happening. That has always been the object of legislation.

The hon. Member for Islington, East was anxious that we should not divide our responsibilities too much between the local authorities on the one hand and the voluntary bodies on the other, with the result that no one undertakes this operation. I do not think that that is likely to happen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe referred to the home safety committees. I hope that, possibly stimulated by the Bill, we shall have more of these in being. This must be a co-ordinated effort between local authorities and voluntary bodies, but I would support any view expressed to the effect that either of those bodies should operate. There is a case for action on the local authority front, supported by voluntary action.

The Home Office is the sponsoring Ministry for home safety and is, therefore, pleased to support the Bill. There was an interesting debate on this subject in another place the other day, but I would be out of order in referring to it. Many worthwhile points were made and they are under consideration, and I will give consideration to what has been said in the debate today, particularly to the point made in the concluding remark of the hon. Member for Islington, East that we should not just leave it to the minor local authorities to find out for themselves that this Bill has gone through Parliament, but that we should bring it to their attention that they have these powers and that we would like them to use them.

I take note of the views which have been expressed that we should be as positive as possible in bringing to the notice of those concerned the developments in home safety, and I have much pleasure in supporting the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.