HC Deb 05 July 1979 vol 969 cc1703-14

Motion made, and question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooke.]

10.52 p.m.

Mr. Ronald W. Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

Once again I raise the question of the dangers of polyurethane foam and its use in furniture. This time, however, there is a difference in that at long last there is the real possibility of legislation to resolve the problem.

Re-reading the campaign that I and my union, the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union have waged since 1968, may I say that it makes one sad that it has taken so long for the arguments we have put to be accepted. Since I first began to attack the use of this dangerous material in furniture and in the home, hundreds of men, women and children have lost their lives in fires in which burning foam was the major cause of death.

I believe that a heavy responsibility rests on the manufacturers of foam for these deaths. They know the dangers, not least of all because I have continually reminded them of them. Yet they have continued to produce 60,000 tons of this highly dangerous material each year. When one considers that 21b. of foam occupies 1 cu. ft., one can appreciate the dangerous volume of the material that is in every home, hospital, old people's home and the like. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) who, as a Minister, decided to take action after an extremely valuable meeting that he and I had with my trade union at which we discussed the whole issue. As a result of his decision to take action the proposed regulations are now available.

I pay tribute to the new Minister for continuing that work on taking office. I wish to put a number of points to her. In a recent television interview she said that we should not try to rush too much. She saw no hope of regulations before the spring of 1980. May I urge her not to delay that long? What is contained in the proposals should have been implemented by manufacturers a long time ago—at least 10 years. There is nothing known today that I was not arguing then, and for the manufacturers now to plead for more time is just an insult. I hope that the Minister will be very firm and refuse to delay these safety measures.

The right hon. Lady stressed also the need for full consultation. That is right, but I do not know how much more consultation is needed. After 10 years and hundreds of deaths, I should have thought that consultation had gone far enough. Action is now required.

In the interview, the right hon. Lady appeared to favour the easy option of labelling. I urge her not take that course. She will recall that there are three options which have been put forward. Option A is for regulations requiring upholstered furniture offered for sale to the public to resist cigarette and match ignition sources to come into effect so as to provide the industry sufficient time to comply.

Option B is for regulations requiring upholstered furniture offered for sale to the public to resist cigarette and match ignition sources to come into effect after an interim period during which the prescribed categories of furniture either have to comply with the requirements or bear a warning label.

Option C is that there should be regulations requiring upholstered furniture offered for sale to the public either to resist cigarette and match ignition sources or bear a warning label. These provisions would continue in force indefinitely, subject to a review after two to three years.

The House should know that option A had the total support of all the people who are responsible for the health and safety of persons—the Home Office, the fire research station, the Property Services Agency, the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union and, in fact, one association of fabric manufacturers. The second option, option B, attracted the support of only the Chief Fire Officers' and Assistant Chief Fire Officers' Association.

But the easy option C, the House will not be surprised to learn, attracted the support of all the manufacturers, fundamentally because, obviously, it is an easy option. It does not go very far and leaves things very much in limbo. For some extraordinary reason, the consumers' representative supported easy option C in her personal capacity and had no view from the Consumer Council, but I have since discussed this with the council because I am rather surprised at its attitude, and we are to meet next week to see whether we can firm up its view away from the easy option C and much more toward consumer protection.

Option A gives the consumer better protection, and I hope that the Minister, in her capacity as Minister responsible for consumer protection, will exercise her judgment in favour of consumers and adopt option A. In so doing, she will, I trust, recognise that this can be only a first step. Consumers will be properly protected only when a safe foam is produced.

I suggest that the manufacturers now be told that unless they can produce a safer foam within a specified time, they must cease to produce the present unsafe material thereafter. Foam is a highly dangerous material having a high burning rate, producing dense toxic superheated fumes with frightening explosive characteristics. No other material used in furniture has those qualities, and it is total nonsense to say that other materials burn, too. There is nothing that burns with the same fury as does polyurethane foam. If a drug had been produced and proved to be as dangerous as foam is, I do not believe that we would have been so casual about its continued use. It would have been withdrawn immediately.

In the same television interview, the Minister said: It is not practical to go back to the safer fillings used in furniture before foam because it would cost the use of skilled labour May I remind her that upholstering today is done by skilled labour and there would be no change? If the right hon. Lady reads the "Training for Skills" survey of the Furniture Industry Training Board, published in 1978, she will see that that is confirmed. Therefore, there is no excuse, and there is no foundation for the argument that there will be excess costs because of the use of skilled labour.

As for the materials, we have cotton felt, coir fibre, horse hair, and hog hair. Everything is available to enable a return to the proper, safe fillings that we had previously.

The Minister will rightly claim that the Home Office is also involved. In 1971, when I was trying to persuade the Home Office of the dangers of rubber and plastic foam in the home, I received a letter which read: It has been suggested that dropped cigarettes might ignite the foam fillings in furniture and bedding, but research has shown that, in fact, neither rubber nor plastic foam can be ignited in this way. It has also been said that toxic fumes are produced when rubber and plastic foams burn but we are advised that the hazard which any such fumes may present is insignificant compared with that presented by carbon monoxide, which is produced in almost every fire in a dwelling whether or not rubber or plastic foam is present. At the same time that that letter was sent to me the factory inspector presented a report to the Department of Employment in which he stated: The feature that particularly distinguishes foam plastic from most other combustibles, however, was the production of hydrogen cyanide and isocyanates. They were involved in amounts fully comparable in toxicity to the carbon monoxide. They represent an important additional hazard which may not previously have been properly recognized. I received a letter from the Home Office representing its view that the issue that I had raised was a nonsense, and at the same time the factory inspector was taking an entirely different view. The Minister might be interested to know that the gentleman who signed the Home Office letter was Mr. F. W. Stacey, who is the chairman of the working party that has published the report offering the three options. I am worried that easy option C follows rather too closely the views of Mr. Stacey way back in 1971 when he was told by the factory inspector that he was not in touch with the issues.

That brings me to the keeping of statistics. For a long time there has been almost a conspiracy of silence to ensure that the role played by foam in fires is not fully understood. First, the statistics contain no reference to foam. Therefore, the assumption is always made that those who die in fires are merely the victims of fires, when had it not been for burning foam they would more than likely have been able to escape.

I hope that one of the questions being asked at the inquiry into the disaster at Woolworths, Manchester is whether those who died would have had a better chance of escape had foam not been present in the furniture. I expect the answer to be, yes, they would have had a better chance had foam not been present. If that is the answer, I hope that legal action will be taken by the dependants of the victims against the foam manufacturers for having knowingly contributed to the disaster by producing a material that they knew would make it impossible for people to escape if the foam caught fire.

That brings me to the question of the insurance companies. In 1973 I wrote an article for "The Post Magazine and Insurance Monitor" in which I suggested that a crash research programme was needed. I said then: Maybe the insurance industry could give a lead. Might I suggest I per cent. of the yearly average direct fire loss in the United Kingdom be subscribed by the insurance companies in proportion to the amount each pays out annually in fire compensation, to be devoted to establishing a research programme for developing a new, safe foam? Not only will it help to save lives and property, but it will be an investment in reducing the amount of money that goes up in hot dense toxic smoke each year. Legislation could then be produced to ensure that only safe form would be manufactured. We need a determined attack upon the problem I went on to say: Let us be done with all the excuses and apologies. Finish with trying to prove that it is somebody else's responsibility. Accept that, in the year man was rocketed into orbit round the earth to carry out major repairs to the outside of a spaceship, it must be possible here on earth to ensure that material used in our furniture and furnishings is a great deal safer than the present generation of cellular plastics. Six years following the publication of my article and hundreds of lives lost, not to mention hundreds of millions of pounds worth of damage, nothing has been done. No doubt the insurance company will pay out on the fire in Manchester, provided that it cannot find some reason not to do so. That was the story in 1968, when the insurance company refused to pay up. It took legislation to put that matter right.

Are the insurance companies blameless? Are they not also guilty of failing to treat this matter more seriously? I raised it with them in 1973. Have they not contributed to the deaths of these people when they could have taken action then? I do not know how we value the lives of all those husbands, wives, sons and daughters, who die each year as a result of fires in which polyurethane foam is the cause of death.

Society cannot any longer accept the right of manufacturers to continue to produce highly dangerous foam, which is the root cause of the trouble. I call upon the Government to tackle the problem urgently. However powerful the vested interests of the oil and chemical companies may be, in the end the buck stops here.

I finish on a cautionary note about prices. I have listened to people telling me how much it would put up prices if we were to make foam safe. I find extraordinary the argument that qualifies safety with money values.

Even if we take the argument that the first option will put 5 per cent. on the price, what is the price? There is a mark-up on furniture of 100 per cent. or more. If the price of manufactured goods increases by 5 per cent., the retailers mark up that value. A piece of furniture might cost £400 when it is manufactured; 5 per cent. of it is £20. However, in the shop the price will be increased by £40 because it will have been marked up. Instead of £20 on £800, it will be £40 on £800. It is time that we had a look at that aspect, too.

Safety does not mean that prices must go up, but I should be happy to put up prices in the cause of safety. In this case the mark-up price is so extraordinary that any increase in the price as a result of the attempt to make these commodities safe ought not to be marked up in that way. I hope that the Minister will take urgent action to ensure that if we can get the regulations through under option A the purchasers will not be forced to pay more money simply because the price has been marked up.

I am grateful to the Minister for continuing this work and trying to achieve safety for our people. I hope that she will carry on to the end to ensure that the interim work is done and that we shall finally produce a safe foam which will prevent the deaths of hundreds of people.

11.10 p.m.

The Minister for Consumer Affairs (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim)

I welcome the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shored itch (Mr. Brown) has a long and devoted history of concern with this matter. It is concern that I entirely share with him, as do a great many people throughout the country who were shocked by the tragedies which have occurred—and could go on occurring—causing just under two deaths a week. I do not know how there can be just under two deaths a week. It only shows what happens with official figures.

The fact that polyurethane foam, like many other fillings, is so easily ignitable, burns so fiercely and gives off such dense toxic smoke makes this a matter of urgency and concern. That is why, within just over two weeks of taking office, I decided that the problem was so urgent that I announced, without delay, in a written answer to the hon. Gentleman on 23 May, my intention to make regulations.

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the consultations are statutory under the Consumer Safety Act 1978, as a preliminary to the making of these regulations, so that there is no question of short-cutting the consultations. We are forced to hold them. I decided that they should be carried out with the utmost urgency. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), who was responsible for the Consumer Safety Act, which has made it far easier for this process to be embarked upon and for the final regulations to be made. I give credit to my officials at the Department for the speed with which they have responded.

The consultative document was circulated on 1 June, inviting comments, with a deadline of 23 July. When the consultation process—about which the hon. Gentleman has complained, and which is statutorily required—is completed, an order will be drafted with all possible speed, but it will obviously, given the time scale for consultation, not be ready for debate and approval by both Houses before the House rises for the recess. I hope, however, that it will be ready very shortly after the House returns.

I propose in the regulations to go for option B and not the easy option C mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. I hope to explain to him my reason for this in the time available to me.

First, there will be a transition period during which manufacturers and importers will be able either to supply upholstered furniture carrying clear warning labels or to comply with the other requirements in the regulations. Those requirements will be that all furniture must be resistant to ignition by cigarettes and matches.

In practice this will mean, initially, that a covering or interlining will have to be used to meet the requirements of the proposed British standard. Secondly, after the transition period ends, the option of carrying a warning label will be removed and then all manufacturers and importers will have to comply with the rules as to flame resistance. I propose that this transition period should be as short as possible. The degree of flame resistance required will be set out in the proposed British standard which will lay down approved test methods, and I expect this standard to be available very shortly.

It is my hope that, subject to the outcome of consultation, enforcement will take place at the premises of manufacturers or importers and not at retail level, and that this will be carried out as cheaply and effectively as is possible and as is consistent with the need to prevent abuse.

The hon. Gentleman and others have asked that polyurethane foam should be banned altogether. I am bound to tell him, as I have told others, that this is neither a practical solution nor is it likely to be any more satisfactory than the course of action I am proposing. The hon. Gentleman's dramatic-sounding proposals do not stand up to scrutiny, nor do they take account of the research which has been carried out as to the feasibility of what he has proposed. I want to prevent these tragedies just as much as he does, but my approach is to propose solutions which are practical and likely to be effective, rather than the more dramatic approach adopted by the hon. Gentleman.

Polyurethane foam, as I know the hon. Gentleman will be aware, is by no means the only filling material to cause the hazards that we have discussed. There are other fillings, including the ones that he mentioned, which produce hazards of their own, which are potentially as dangerous as polyurethane foam itself. In banning the foam, we would not be eliminating those dangers. For example, latex foam smoulders longer, flames quicker and smokes more. Horse hair and hog's hair, mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, have undesirable effects and, in many cases, have worse toxic fumes than the polyurethane foam itself. Horse hair and wadding is slower to ignite, but ultimately when burning it gives off toxic gases which can be just as lethal as the polyurethane foam.

In requiring flame resistant coverings for upholstered furniture, we are avoiding all these dangers, not just the dangers of polyurethane foam, and making furniture safer, when it is not subjected to unreasonable pressures such as deliberate ignition or totally irresponsible behaviour. That is why I consider that control of the covering, until such time as a comparatively safe form of filling is discovered, is likely to be more practical than banning the foam itself. My main concern is consumer safety, coupled with the need to provide the goods that consumers want and need at a price that they can afford. The higher density foam used by the Department of the Environment was introduced for reasons not connected with flammability.

I am bound to tell the hon. Gentleman that, although my proposals will lead to some increase in costs, his proposals—the use of hair and coil springs, whether or not the skilled labour is any different—would necessitate a much longer process than stuffing with polyurethane foam. Therefore, it would put up the price of upholstered furniture beyond the reach of young married couples and, indeed, most of the population. That is the reality of what the hon. Gentleman is proposing. Clearly, that would not be an acceptable solution.

What I believe will occur is that if manufacturers find that the flame resistant coverings are creating cost problems, this will cause them to press for more urgent research into safer foam fillings. If these are produced, thus creating a safer and more economical alternative to polyurethane foam, so much the better. I hope that that will be the outcome of these regulations.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would initiate research into the development of safer foams. I must tell him that the foam manufacturers have undertaken a considerable amount of research already without notable success. These problems are not caused by lack of money, but are more to do with technology and motivation. I hope that the proposed regulations will provide the motivation for this research, which has been absent in the past.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the huge profits in the furniture industry.

Mr. Ronald W. Brown

The markups.

Mrs. Oppenheim

The thing that matters to the industry, if it is to survive and continue to employ the people whom the hon. Gentleman wants it to employ, is that it should be making adequate profits. In fact, I am told that profits are about 5 per cent. to 7 per cent. on turnover, which is not very great at all.

In emphasising the urgency with which I have acted, I do not want to mislead the House about what has gone on before. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The matter has been dragging on for about seven years, which I believe to have been far too long. But, in fairness, I must make it clear that a number of the processes involved in the delay were necessary, although in my opinion too prolonged. However, I inherited the benefit of a great deal of research and development that had gone on before, with which the hon. Gentleman will be familiar.

I am pleased to note that events accelerated when the matter came within the responsibility of a consumer protection Department. Obviously, I cannot answer for my hon. Friends in the Home Office.

I would like to pay a tribute, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman would like to be associated with it, to the work of the Fire Research Station at Boreham Wood.

I am satisfied that I have acted very promptly, and that subject to the approval of the House no time will be lost in bringing these regulations into effect. When this has occurred, I will still keep a watchful eye open for new developments, and will carefully monitor the effects of the new legislation in terms of fires prevented and lives saved, because that is what it is all about.

My overriding priority is, and will remain, to avert the terrible tragedies of the past and to make them very much less likely to occur in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.