HC Deb 18 July 1980 vol 988 cc2033-42

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

3.33 pm
Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

In seeking this Adjournment debate on the subject of safety glass in the home, I am very conscious that glass is a material of great beauty which has been with us for thousands of years and that probably no other industry has shown the inventiveness of the British entrepreneur better than glass, with a very fine record of development and with the result that today we see whole buildings which are seemingly made of little other than glass. Glass, as we know, not only improves light penetration but gives us all a sense of freedom in terms of living in our home and at work.

I wish to place on record the fact that this Adjournment debate is not the beginning of an anti-glass campaign. Indeed, it is the very opposite. My motivation is simply that there are children today who are very much at risk.

Several years ago my young son broke our kitchen door bottom pane, and I went to the local hardware shop and asked for a new pane of glass. Then I installed it myself. Some weeks later my young daughter was playing in the kitchen and ran into the door, and the glass broke and cut her head severely. Sadly, today my daughter still has a scar from that event.

That event occurred several years ago, and as I reflected on it I felt angry. I felt angry with myself for not knowing what sort of glass I should have installed, angry with the builder who put in the kitchen door in the first place and who had not installed safety glass, and angry with the hardware shop which, despite being asked for glass which was appropriate for a door, gave me the wrong glass. The memory of that event came to my mind when I read the paper recently produced by Dr. Roger Evans, of the accident and emergency department of the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital, Exeter. Briefly, his report, based as it is on the incidence of people broupght in to the out-patients department, brought home to me the fact that I should try to do something about this situation.

I shall quote just two examples of cases that have been through that department. One related to a patio door, and that is particularly relevant because something like 100,000 patio doors are being sold each year. The example here is that of a 10-year-old girl who ran through a patio door while chasing her cat, with the result that her femoral artery was severed in two places. The report says: and but for the fact that her mother was a trained nurse and had the presence of mind to apply pressure over the wound to minimise her blood loss, she would have been dead within two minutes. As it was, she spent six weeks in hospital, had some eight operations, was transfused with eleven units of blood and required intensive physiotherapy and out-patient treatment for the next eighteen months. That is an example relating to patio doors in general, not an individual example.

The second report relates to an accident involving an ordinary glass door. The case was that of a thirteen-year-old girl with abdominal wounds suffered from running through a plate glass door, whilst playing in the school gymnasium. The glass entered near the umbilicus and penetrated through to sever some of the nerves as they emerged from her spinal cord. The injuries were only repaired with difficulty and have left her with permanent neurological damage, including paralysis of some leg muscles. I accept that those are two very deep examples, though not extreme ones. My hon. Friend the Minister may well reflect and agree that these are indeed tragic cases, but he may ask whether it is the role of the Government to legislate for safety. I think that that is a fair question. Indeed, it was the previous Government's Green Paper on consumer safety which said: legislation alone cannot prevent the foolhardy from exposing themselves to unnecessary risks. What I seek to do this afternoon is to prove that the children involved in our homes up and down the country are not foolhardy and that the risks can be prevented.

As always in areas where one is trying to be a pioneer, it is difficult to produce much statistical evidence. However, there is evidence from the United States which shows that something like 75 per cent. of major accidents involving glass occur in the home and that in the states where action has been taken to provide safety glass in risk areas there has been a very substantial reduction in the number of accidents.

We are, I am thankful to see, beginning to get some statistical evidence in this country. It is provided by the Department of Trade in its home accident surveillance system. The reports are based on a number of different samples, but the interesting thing is that they have a remarkable degree of consistency. They show that glass-related accidents make up just over 3 per cent. of all home accidents. This suggests that at a minimum there are at least 20,000 significant accidents involving glass, and the number could be as high as 40,000.

But the crunch is that the majority of serious accidents affect children in the_ age group 4 to 14, and these are the children who by their very nature are unaware of danger. It seems tragic and irresponsible to me that we continue to allow in this country a type of glass to be installed in risk areas which, when shattered, produces razor sharp barbs which penetrate the human body so easily.

Therefore, what can or should be done? First, I should make it clear that there is in existence a code of practice jointly sponsored by the British Standards Institution and the Glass and Glazing Association. That code was originally produced in 1972 and was revised again in 1976, and work is currently being done on a further revision. But I have to say that those bodies have been working on it for well over a year, and there is relatively little sign of its coming to fruition.

I willingly pay tribute to the glass manufacturers for getting together and producing such a code in the first place, and I accept that we cannot legislate to meet every need, but we need legislation in such key areas.

Secondly, I believe that we have to recognise that annealed glass is unsuitable for use in risk areas—that is, principally glass doors and the others as defined in the code of practice. It would not be all that revolutionary to ban its use in those areas. This is done in Western Europe, and I do not see why we should be so very much different in the United Kingdom. I also think that the Government should face up to the need to ensure that proper glass, either laminated or toughened, is a requirement for use in risk areas and patio doors.

Thirdly—this is an area in which we do not have to wait for legislation—the Government should dictate to local authorities to which they give loan sanction that in their specifications for public sector housing and Housing Corporation dwellings they should specify safety glass in risk areas.

Fourthly, where we give public money for improvement grants involving kitchens which have glass doors, part of the requirement for improvement grant approval should be the replacement of the glass in the risk doors by proper safety glass. The Government should also approach the private sector through the national housebuilders' organisations and say to them that, in the circumstances of the evidence that I have highlighted this afternoon and their own information, private builders should not be marketing products involving glass which is not safety glass in risk areas.

I have mentioned the patio door market—100,000 units. If you could see sonic of the pictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have seen of children who have gone through a patio door and the results of that experience, I think you would feel as strongly as I do that no patio door should be marketed in this country unless it is made of some form of safety glass.

My request to my hon. Friend the Minister is that the Government should take action in this area. After all, it was my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State who stated in the "New Approach to the Future of Building Control" that, first, he wanted acceptable standards of public safety and health, that any changes that were made, particularly in the building regulations, should lead to a more efficient and cost-effective basis than those at present, and, finally, that home owners must be as well protected as now and preferably even better in the future. I believe that it is entirely consistent with that approach that should we put into the building regulations a requirement that in all risk areas there should be a requirement for safety glass and that, with my right hon. Friend's encouragement, we should approach the Department of Trade to ensure that in the manufacture of patio units, home extension kits and so on there be a requirement for manufacturers to use only safety glass.

Finally, as always, one should ask what is the cost factor in all this? The cost differential is pretty small. It is not a case of doubling the price. It is a cost differential of something like 10 per cent. That is not a significant figure in relation to the maiming of children. Indeed, if one looks at the savings that would be made available to the National Health Service, there would be an overall cost benefit to the nation. There is, of course, a very real cost benefit to the children and the families involved.

3.45 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Marcus Fox)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) for raising this important subject. As he will know—indeed he referred to this—the use of glazing in the home is at present covered by a British Standards Institution code of practice—"Glazing for Buildings: CP.152". The code is being revised and I am sorry that my hon. Friend has had to complain about the length of time taken. It brought forward a considerable number of observations, as my hon. Friend will know. Anything that concerns the building industry is always a matter of considerable concern to a large number of firms and companies apart from trade organisations. Let me assure my hon. Friend that it is our intention to press on with all speed, but at the same time, as this consultation resulted in such substantial comment, it is bound to take a fair amount of time, and I understand that there has been some difficulty in reaching a consensus on the use of safety glazing.

It seems that one of the revisions that will be made to CP 152 will be that fully glazed doors and side panels should be in safety glazing; otherwise annealed glass with a minimum thickness of 6 mm may be used. This would be a considerable step forward and it is expected that the revised code of practice will be published next year. This may be a disappointment to my hon. Friend, and, in view of his remarks, I will see whether there is any way in which we can bring forward this date.

I do not underrate the severity of some of the injuries sustained when glass has broken upon impact. Such accidents often involve a spectacular amount of bleeding. My hon. Friend has drawn our attention to a number of such incidents and indeed quoted the experience of his own family. I think that most hon. Members know of relatives, if not close family, who have suffered in this way. It is very tragic when it happens, particularly when the scars remain for many years, if not for ever. I note also the publication that he has drawn to my attention regarding the hospital in Exeter.

One of the real difficulties in considering the installation of safety glazing in the home is the lack of reliable information on accidents involving glass and their cause and nature. This means that at present it is not possible to make a dispassionate estimate of the number of accidents which might be prevented if safety glazing were to be installed in glazing risk areas such as doors and side panels. There is a shortage of statistics on accidents involving glass, and those relating to accidents in the home include a wide range of incidents. One thinks of those involving broken bottles while gardening and injuries caused by falling against or walking into fixed glass. From a fairly small sample, it has been estimated that 3 per cent. of all accidents in the home involved glass in doors or fixed panels, but we do not yet know with any certainty how many of these could have been prevented by the installation of safety glazing. I take note of the estimate that my hon. Friend has given today.

Further collection, study and analysis of statistics is being carried out for the British Standards Institution committee considering the revision of CP 152, partly by the Building Research Establishment, to try to identify the cause and nature of such accidents and to provide a better base for decision making.

My hon. Friend suggested that local authorities—and, of course, housing associations come into this area—in their briefs for new building should bear in mind the provision of safety glazing in risk areas. I have every reason to believe that these organisations already work in accordance with the current best practice, in this case CP 152, and I would expect them, to continue with this policy when the code is revised.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the question of grants. It will come as no surprise to him when I tell him that there are many calls on grants and the first priority in using our limited resources must be to get as many old and substandard houses modernised as soon as possible. With 800,000 unfit houses in England and 1 million lacking basic amenties, quite apart from those in serious disrepair, the available resources are already fully committed. The Government would not, therefore, be prepared to support a measure which sought to make special improvement grants for installing safety glass.

Mr. Michael Morris

My hon. Friend must have misunderstood me. I am not suggesting that there should be new improvement grants in respect of existing doors. Where improvement grants are approved in normal circumstances, there should be a requirement that a door which is a risk should be reglazed. Therefore, we are not talking about a huge sum of money. We are merely talking about a little preventative care.

Mr. Fox

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's clarification.

Improvement grants are, however, made through the local authorities, and it is for them to decide what works must be grant-aided in any particular case—which is probably getting a little nearer to what my hon. Friend was referring to. If an applicant for a grant to improve his house needed to replace doors and wished to fit replacements with safety glass there would be no objection if local authorities were to accept the cost as eligible for grant. I am grateful that my hon. Friend drew my attention to that aspect.

With regard to the NHBC, my hon. Friend will understand that this is an independent body, but, as with the local authorities, I would expect it always to adopt the current best practices. It will be aware that a revised code of practice on glazing in buildings is being prepared, and I would expect it to adopt it when it is published. The Department's observers on the NHBC executive committee will certainly draw it to its attention.

I accept that accidents in the home involving glass in doors and fixed panels can be distressing and serious in their consequences, but, as I have already said, it is not yet considered that the statistical evidence is sufficiently conclusive to show that legislation would reduce either the frequency or severity of such accidents. Nevertheless, once the collection and study of statistics on accidents, to which I have referred, is complete and their cause and nature understood, consideration will be given to legislation to make installation of safety glazing in risk areas in new dwellings mandatory—I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome that—possibly by reference to the revised code of practice in a new building regulation.

It would be difficult to ensure that safety glazing was used for any necessary replacements in new or existing dwellings. Furthermore, annealed glass is cheaper and easier to cut to size than safety glass and speed of replacement might weigh heavily with the occupiers. The supply of made-up doors and so on for "do-it-yourself" or replacement purposes is a matter for the Department of Trade, and I assure my hon. Friend that it is keeping under review the possible need for action under the Consumer Safety Act 1978.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the fact that the Department of Trade is already collecting more statistics than it has done in the past. My Department therefore considers it best to allow the industry to regulate itself by adhering to the revised code of practice eventually moving to an even more stringent code. These are matters which will need detailed consideration once the revisions to the sections of the code dealing with safety glazing are agreed, which will probably be by the end of this year—I hope will be a little earlier.

We must remember that all these possibilities have disadvantages and costs. Many people are with my hon. Friend in sincerely believing that using safety glass will cut down the number of injuries. But what will the people who have to live with the glass think about it? It is right that we should consider this aspect. Doors with safety glass tend to be heavier. Windows, too, are heavier. Fixings need to be stronger and visibility might be hindered, and so on. Will occupiers welcome new mandatory controls in their homes for their own good when they have to bear the inconvenience, and cost, of the requirements? It seems to me that because of the resistance which could arise from the occupier, we need to be able to prove that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. There are no statistics as yet which show this clearly and conclusively. Also, we cannot say exactly what effect the introduction of safety glass may have. For example, heavier doors and windows could slam harder, and that in itself presents new dangers.

Heavy fire doors can often become wedged open in practice. There are many day-to-day worries like this to be considered. I hope that with those few illustrations I have shown my hon. Friend that perhaps this is not as easy a matter as it would appear.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the attention of the House to this problem. My Department will take note of his observations. I welcome what he had to say about the inventiveness of the glass industry and that what has been said today should not be seen as an attack upon the industry. I note also what he said about evidence from the United States of America; we shall look into that. I hesitate to respond to his call to dictate to local authorities. Having just helped to take through the House the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill, I should hate to step any further in that direction at the moment. My hon. Friend has graphically drawn attention to the dangers. This is a matter of concern to us and he has done a service to the house in bringing it forward for debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Four o'clock.