HC Deb 31 May 1962 vol 660 cc1658-68

6.40 p.m.

Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Oil Heaters Regulations, 1962 (S.I., 1962, No. 884), dated 27th April 1962, a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th May, be annulled. It is not our intention to challenge these Regulations or to ask the Minister of State to withdraw them, although I have one or two questions to put to him which I hope that he will be able satisfactorily to answer.

Our first purpose in tabling the Prayer is to give us a chance to take note of what to many hon. Members is an important occasion. These are the first Regulations to be made under the Consumer Protection Act, and we wish to mark the occasion with a few words of thanks to all those concerned bath in the Act and in the production of these Regulations. It is true that these Regulations have been a long time in gestation—almost a year—but there is a very good explanation for the time which has been taken.

When the Consumer Protection Bill was under fire and its passage was being somewhat delayed in Committee, some hon. Members were apprehensive about the number of Regulations which would flow from the Act. They thought that Regulations would be imposed by the Home Office on thousands of manufacturers and scores of thousands of shopkeepers who sell the goods with which the Regulations are concerned.

The Minister of State will remember that we tried to allay their fears, and pointed out that, in practice, there would be very few Regulations and that in almost every case they would take a long time to prepare. In every case, as in the case of these Regulations, there would have to be proof of need, rather unfortunately perhaps, because the demand for action by the Home Office will not be voiced until there have been accidents, injuries or deaths or some other calamities arising from unsafe goods.

The need for safe oil heaters has been tragically proved. There have been deaths and injuries arising from the use of unsafe paraffin heaters. That is why we welcome the Regulations which aim at making the sale of unsafe heaters illegal. After the need has been proved, there is bound to be a further delay while the Home Office, in consultation with manufacturers and such organisations as the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, works out the rather difficult technical definitions and statistics for safe appliances.

It would be possible for anybody commenting on these Regulations to corn-plain about the delay in issuing them, but, in fairness, I must say that I realise that the working out of these minimum specifications and standards of safety for any manufactured article is necessarily a rather long operation. All kinds of organisations have to be consulted—the manufacturers, D.S.I.R., the fire offices research organisation in this case, the British Standards Institution, and so on. It is not a job which can be done quickly if the results are to be completely satisfactory.

But while we have to accept the inevitable delay, there is one aspect of the procedure which rather worries me, and I wonder whether the Minister of State can help us about this. I understand that we have two safety standards for ail heaters—the Home Office standards, which are written into the Regulation's, and some different standards issued by the British Standards Institution. At first sight, there may be nothing wrong in having two standards. I take it that these regulations provide the minimum safety standards, and it may be that if all the oil heaters from now on are made in accordance with these Regulations, they will all be perfectly safe, even though some will be safer than others.

But the higher—if they are higher, as I understand they are—and safer specifications of the B.S.I. may encourage the, best manufacturers to put even better and safer heaters on the market than would be the case if all of them worked just to these minimum standards and produced nothing better than the minimum standards. This may be a good thing, because we all want the best and safest oil heaters that the manufacturers can produce, made to higher than the minimum standards laid down in the Regulations.

However, thinking it over, it seemed to me that the existence of two standards might be rather harmful and confusing, and I should, therefore, like to ask the Minister whether it would not be better, perhaps easier and cheaper for the Home Office in cases such as this to accept the B.S.I. standard and, in effect, to give legal backing to the standards which have been worked out by the British Standards Institution and approved by the best manufacturers.

There is a further danger—although danger is perhaps the wrong word to use—of creating confusion by having two standards on the same heater, because the Regulations provide that the warning notice must be put upon the heater and describe the heater, which in effect is a marking of a safety standard on the heater, while the best manufacturers will be working to the best B.S.I. standards, which will also be marked on the heater.

It may be that that will not be confusing in practice, but perhaps the Minister will remember that when we were discussing the Bill, I was under the impression, which I expressed at the time, that by following the procedure which I have just mentioned, in cases which it is possible to do so the Regulations would, in effect, give legal enforcement to B.S.I. standards. I am sure that I never expected that we should have two sets of standards, one official and one semiofficial, to be applied to the same article.

The kind of confusion which may arise, in my opinion, can be seen in Regulation No. 9 dealing with draught resistance. This matter has already been brought to the Minister's attention. The Regulation says, in effect, that an oil heater must not flare up or explode if it is subjected to a strong horizontal frontal draught, but it does not say anything about a side or a down draught or a back draught—only a frontal draught. There may be good technical reasons for this, although I believe that the B.S.I. specifications refer to all kinds of draught, so that oil heaters made to B.S.I. standards would be safe in all circumstances, irrespective of the direction in which the wind, when one opened the window or door of the room in which the heater was situated, was blowing.

If there is the slightest danger of any oil heater of any design flaring up and probably causing a fire as a result of a side or down draught, we would be in the somewhat dubious position of having approved Regulations which failed on one specification. Whereas our best manufacturers would be making safer models based on the B.S.I. standards, we would be sanctioning the sale perhaps of less safer models or cheaper models made by other manufacturers or perhaps coming in from abroad.

I hope that the Minister will be able to look at this question and give us an assurance—perhaps not today, because I realise that this has been rather sprung upon him, but in the near future — that the reference only to frontal draught in the specification as laid down by the Regulations will not mean that we shall have on the market heaters which may, in certain particulars, be unsafe.

I do not think that this is a matter which laymen in the House can pronounce about. It is a technical question. It obviously has to be answered by technical experts. If the Minister of State is unable to answer it today, I shall be quite happy to have the answer on a more appropriate occasion.

For the rest of the Regulations, we welcome them. As I have said, they mark a very important move forward in our steps to protect people from unsafe goods and appliances. The first step in regard to oil heaters was taken by the hon. Member for Kidderminster with the Oil Burners (Standards) Act, 1960. The next step was taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards), who introduced the parent Bill for these Regulations, with the help of the Home Office and with the very great help—on the Floor of the House, behind the scenes, and in Committee—of the Minister of State. We now have the first of what we hope will be a series of useful Regulations.

I repeat what I said in the debates on the Bill. These and other Regulations which I hope will follow are not aimed at making things difficult for manufacturers and shopkeepers. On the contrary, we are laying down safety standards, and by doing that I think that we are helping them to produce and sell good quality and perfectly safe articles. We are also protecting the best manufacturers and traders from unscrupulous, or at least careless, competitors. Our main concern is for the householder and his family, especially old people and the children. We must reduce the terrible toll of accidents in the home. We must reduce the deaths and the injuries which occur all too frequently through people using faulty appliances. These Regulations will help towards that end. We therefore welcome them and we hope that they will be as satisfactory as we have all hoped that they would be during the long time that we have been waiting for them.

6.54 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Renton)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) for raising this matter, because it gives me an opportunity not only of answering the critical questions he asked—I hope that he will find that I am able to answer them satisfactorily—but also of clearing up several misunderstandings which have been brought to our notice with regard to these Regulations.

It is true that the Regulations are made under the Consumer Protection Act and are the first of their kind. Therefore, this is in a sense an important occasion. I fully appreciate the enterprise of the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) and others in introducing that Act last Session. I remind the House that the power to make Regulations prescribing safety standards for oil heaters was first provided by the Oil Burners (Standards) Act, 1960, for which credit is due to my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro), who has asked me to apologise to the House for his absence this evening.

Before the Regulations were ready to be made, the 1960 Act was repealed and superseded by the Consumer Protection Act, which confers on my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary wide power to make safety Regulations for consumer goods. These Regulations could, therefore, have been made even if the Consumer Protection Act had not been passed.

As the hon. Member has very fairly said, the delay in making the Regulations has been inevitable. I readily agree that their preparation has taken a long time. No single factor has been responsible for the delay. It has been a combination of the complexity of the subject and the need to consult a number of interested organisations.

It is very important that we should bear in mind that the basis of the Consumer Protection Act' is that the Regulations made under it create legal obligations, both civil and criminal. They are enforceable in the courts. One of the results of this is that the code of requirements laid down in the Regulations relating to any particular matter must be precise and comprehensive within its limits. What we have attempted to do in these Regulations is to give the relevant provisions of the British Standards Institution both the precision and the comprehensiveness or the generality which is essential to legislation backed by criminal sanctions. Therefore, the two standards to which the hon. Gentleman has referred—the one laid down by the British Standards Institution and the other contained in the Regulations—are as nearly identical as the different purpose of the two types of document will admit.

I will explain that a little more fully. The Consumer Protection Act places upon my right hon. Friend a duty to consult with such persons or bodies of persons as appear to him requisite before Regulations are made. It will interest the House to know that consultations have taken place, not only with the representatives of the manufacturers and retailers of oil heaters, but with such bodies as the British Standards Institution, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Fire Protection Association, the Consumers' Advisory Council, and the local authority associations.

We have had to take great care in our consultations, in particular with the Oil Appliance Manufacturers' Association, for if, by inadvertence, we had included something which was technically incorrect, not only would they have been the first to complain but it might have had serious economic consequences for them, as well as criminal results. Therefore, we had to have repeated consultations with the Association. In the final outcome there appeared to be a general measure of agreement that the requirements of the Regulations were consistent with those of British Standard 3300 of 1960 for domestic oil heaters. That is the standard on which the Regulations are based.

Meanwhile, I understand that all oil heaters manufactured in this country since the autumn of 1960 have by voluntary action complied with that standard.

Mr. Darling

All of them?

Mr. Renton

All of them. Since that British Standard was issued in 1960, the oil heaters manufactured in this country have voluntarily complied with that standard. That does not refer to all those sold in the shops, because before the Standard was issued there were a number of older appliances which did not comply with it. I understand that a number of the worst of those were voluntarily withdrawn anyway, partly as a result of the matter being raised in the House.

The wording of the Regulations differs from the British Standard, not only for the reason I have already given, a general reason, but also because in these Regulations we often—I say "We often", but experience has not yet arisen which entitles me to say that. I should say that we nearly always have to aim at laying down general principles of safety, without necessarily specifying the particular method of achieving safety.

The methods may change with improvements in design and manufacture. The great thing is that we should lay down the requirements, whereas the British Standard deals purely with scientific matters and not only with aims but with methods. That is another reason why there is likely from time to time to be disparity between the two, although not, I hope, inconsistency.

I can without hesitation give an assurance that there is no significant difference between the standard of safety demanded by the Regulations and that required by the British Standard to which I have referred and which, so far as I know, is the only relevant standard. In giving that assurance I am repeating an undertaking given by my predecessor during the debates in the House in May, 1960 on the Committee and Report stages of the Oil Burners (Standards) Bill, that the regulations when made would conform approximately to British Standard 3300 of 1960.

It may be that the hon. Gentleman was quite satisfied with what I have already said, and that I have covered the essential points that he made. I will, however, support that by a somewhat more scientific explanation. I shall try not to blind the House with science, because I am sure that if I did so on this occasion I should be blinding myself. The hon. Member for Hillsborough referred to the Report of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which was issued in 1960, following a study of the effects of draughts on the operation of drip-feed radiant oil heaters. The conclusions reached in the Report were that heaters of the design then available might cause fires under the draught conditions that could exist in houses when outside doors are open and that the design of future heaters should be improved to make them reasonably safe from draughts up to at least 26 ft. per second.

This recommendation, admittedly, was not limited to draughts from any particular direction. The British Standard 3300 of 1960, which was issued after the publication of that Report and which took account of its findings, required tests to be carried out only with regard to frontal horizontal draughts, and these are the only tests mentioned in the Regulations. It is this standard which is still operative without any alteration in regard to draughts. We understand the view of experts in this matter to be that the main hazard is that of the frontal horizontal draught. The reason for this is that excessive flames produced by a draught from this direction would blow back upon the fuel tank which is placed towards the rear of the oil burner. The result of overheating the fuel tank in this way might be to involve the whole of its contents and so cause a serious fire. This we say, and I ask the House to accept it, is the main hazard to be guarded against.

The present draught test required by the British Standard has to be conducted in draughts up to 26 ft. per second. That is equivalent to 17.7 m.p.h. We feel that a heater designed to pass a test as stiff as that from a frontal direction would be reasonably safe when subjected to normal wind spends from other angles. To design heaters so that they will withstand the full draught from any angle and at similar speeds would be a complex and difficult matter, we are told, so would be the testing of heaters to ensure that they complied with such a stringent requirement. Nevertheless, we must all continue to keep open minds on this matter and it will continue to receive our attention. Therefore, my right hon. Friend in laying these Regulations has not considered it necessary to include them in a more stringent draught test. That is the scientific answer to the hon. Gentleman.

My right hon. Friend would in the last resort, if the British Standards Committee was unable to make progress, and if some way of imposing a more stringent requirement carrying criminal sanctions were to come to our notice, not hesitate to act and produce amending Regulations. We would, of course, first issue a warning which might itself be enough to produce agreement among all concerned. But that has not happened yet. The position is that the British Standards Committee has produced a reasonable requirement in its standard of 1960, and is still considering the possibility of improving it further. Meanwhile, we have acted on its scientific advice.

I hope that with this explanation the House will join with me in once more thanking the hon. Member for Hillsborough, and that he may now feel disposed to withdraw his Prayer.

Mr. Darling

With the permission of the House, and in view of the Minister's very thorough explanation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

7.7 p.m.

Mr. Albert Evans (Islington, South-West)

Before we dispose of this Prayer there is one question that I should like to ask the Secretary of State. I should like to know if these Regulations cover the sale of second-hand oil heaters. I put that question because, although warnings would be on newly-manufactured heaters, there are areas where there is a limited but constant sale of secondhand heaters, and it is there that fires are most likely to be caused by the mishandling of those heaters. It would, therefore, be as well if it were made known Whether the Regulations apply to the sale of second-hand heaters. We know that, from the passing of the Regulations, new heaters will have to bear a label giving the necessary warnings and comply with the very full details set out in the Regulations, but it would be helpful if we were told whether those requirements will apply on the sale of second-hand heaters.

I welcome the Regulations. I think that they are necessary. Some rather alarming cases have occurred. One occurred in my constituency two years ago and I raised the matter then in the House. The Regulations will help to make these burners safe.

We welcome the Regulation which lays down that on the heater there must be a warning in permanent writing, engraving or etching. That is necessary. But nothing can safeguard a foolish person from his own folly, and all the warnings we may issue, and everything the manufacturers may do, cannot safeguard that person from mishandling one of these stoves, so that it is also necessary to warn, and warn again, those who do not read the Regulations or are uninformed about their terms, of the dangers of carrying a stove when it is alight. They must be warned against using the heater in an unventilated place, and against putting it where it is exposed to draughts. Draughts, as the Minister of State has said, constitute the greatest hazard. Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman would answer my question.

Mr. Renton

If I may have the leave of the House to speak again, Mr. Speaker, the point about whether the Regulations apply to second-hand goods cannot be fully answered without referring to Section 2 (3) of the Consumer Protection Act, 1961. Subject to the very slight limitations of a somewhat legalistic kind imposed by that Section, these Regulations will normally apply to heaters sold second-hand.

Question put and negatived.