HC Deb 22 May 1980 vol 985 cc834-92

9.6 pm

The Minister for Consumer Affairs (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim)

I beg to move, That the draft Upholstered Furniture (Safety) Regulations 1980, which were laid before this House on 2 April be approved. The regulations that I commend to the House will undoubtedly put this country far ahead of the rest of the world—which has as yet no such comparable measures—in recognition of the fire hazards presented by some modern furniture and in providing warnings and protection in relation to a substantial proportion of those hazards.

When the regulations are fully implemented, the performance of furniture with regulation coverings will be the same as the behaviour of furniture with traditional methods of filling before polyurethane foam was invented. This, then, will be, in relation to ignitability from cigarettes and matches, the equivalent of a ban on the foam itself. Furniture will be very much safer, and consumers will be adequately warned of the dangers in the meantime.

The regulations are designed to ensure that furniture available for supply is reasonably resistant to ignition in everyday use in the home. They are not, contrary to widely and mistakenly expressed views, designed to deal with fire hazards which may arise when furniture is stored or displayed, often in large quantities—for example, in retail stores, as was the case in the Woolworth tragedy.

The need for action to be taken in relation to the storage of such furniture is the concern of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has announced his intention to introduce appropriate regulations under the Fire Precautions Act 1971. Quite apart from this, I have no powers under the Consumer Safety Act to impose requirements dealing with the safe storage of goods. I hope that this clears up any confusion on this issue.

I am sure that all hon. Members will be aware of the many tragedies that have occurred in recent years as a result of fires in homes and public places which have originated from the ignition of modern furniture. While the number of fires in the United Kingdom in which upholstered furniture is first ignited has not increased over the past 25 years, deaths in such fires have unfortunately increased threefold since the early 1960s to around 90 a year, while non-fatal injuries have more than doubled over the same period.

The regulations themselves, however, have proved to be highly controversial—the controversy ranging from complaints on the one hand that they do not go far enough to equally vehement complaints on the other that they go much too far.

I cannot believe that any Minister has ever carried out more widespread or thorough consultations than I have done in this case. My interest in the matter is simple. It is to provide reasonable protection of consumers against avoidable hazards, as well as against an unreasonable limitation of choice and an unacceptable rise in the price of furniture. So a fine balance has had to be struck which is compatible with those three objectives. In the production of all consumer protection legislation, similar balances have always had to be taken into account, and wherever possible achieved.

I do not welcome the need to have to add to the price of furniture. I do not welcome the need to have to impose burdens on the furniture industry at a difficult time, but I am satisfied that the need exists and that the burdens imposed have been minimised as far as is compatible with the urgent need to reduce the risk of the ghastly tragedies that can arise from furniture fires in the home.

Notwithstanding the care I have taken to consider all reasonable objections, a number of groups representing one interest or another have made a number of widely advertised and equally widely conflicting representations which in turn have led to some misleading and inaccurate press reports which have quoted various assertions and figures that we do not support.

It might, I think, be for the convenience of the House if I deal with the conflicting objections of some of the opponents of the regulations to which I have referred before I describe the regulations themselves. A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House represent these interests and I can per- haps thus save them the time and trouble of putting their case.

First and foremost, the furniture manufacturers and retailers objected because they did not want any regulations at all. They offered a voluntary positive labelling scheme similar to the one widely used in the greater part of the United States. I was not prepared to accept that. While taking account of the fact that some extra costs will be occasioned by the regulations, I do not accept that the costs will be as great as has been represented, particularly as approximately 80 per cent. of available covering materials for furniture in conjunction with polyurethane foam will meet the cigarette test without further treatment or modification and there are various other ways of modifying the furniture without either treating or modifying the covering material.

I recognise, however, that there will be some problems inherent in the structure of the industry's ordering schedules, which involve ordering some time in advance of manufacture from available swatches, so I have agreed to allow the alternative of warning labels to be carried in the case of the cigarette test until a date in 1982 instead of 1981.

I have not—and I emphasise this strongly—as has been reported incorrectly in some newspapers, abandoned the match test. It is still in the regulations now as it was in the original draft laid last year, unchanged with no cut-off date as yet stipulated. This is because the technology is not at present available to cover a sufficiently wide range of upholstery fabrics without either significantly altering the character and durability of these fabrics or adding to costs considerably, thus drastically reducing consumer choice.

My second reason for regarding the imposition of a cut-off date for the match test as less urgent than that of the cigarette test is because, whereas there are no precise figures available in this country, it appears that the dangers of fires resulting from smouldering cigarettes are far greater than from matches.

Apart from the fact that very many more cigarettes than matches are sold, such fires are likely to occur after a considerable smouldering period and after families have retired for the night, so that people are asleep when the conflagration occurs and are overcome by smoke and fumes before their escape route has become impassable. A conflagration resulting from a naked flame is very rapid and highly unlikely to pass unnoticed.

This decision has led a well-known chemical company with a considerable commercial interest in the matter and its parliamentary consultant with a similar commercial interest to criticise the regulations. My response to them is, first, to question why it has taken so long for them to circulate this criticism when the circumstances concerning the match test have not changed since the draft order was first laid last year.

Although the treatment of cellulosic covers to make them resistant to the flame test is possible with their product, it is not possible to treat the vast majority of non-cellulosic fabrics with this particular treatment. As the vast majority of furniture sold—particularly at the lower end of the market—is covered by non-cellulosic fabric, they have not got a widespread treatment against the match test.

The sooner they produce a flame-resistant treatment suitable not just for some cellulosic but also for non-cellulosic fabrics that meets the British standard match test without significantly affecting the character and durability of these fabrics, the sooner a cut-off date for the match test can be introduced. Equally, the sooner weavers extend the range of flameproof fabrics available, the easier this will be.

To have set a final date by which mandatory compliance with the match standard is required would have created great difficulties both for the furniture industry and for consumers. The former needs time to develop an adequate range of materials capable of complying and the latter need reasonable choice. It will not help consumers to provide safe furniture which they cannot afford, safe furniture the durability of the covering fabric of which has been eroded, or safe furniture which relies on choice being severely restricted.

I undertake that the matter will be kept under close review. As soon as I am satisfied that it is possible to set a date, it will be set quickly in an amending order. If the preconditions are satisfied, it could be set to coincide with the mandatory compliance with the cigarette test. That might prove to be the case.

Other critics include the furniture retailers, who believe that the warning labels that we proposed were too frightening and would lead people who had started to buy furniture to pay instead for a package holiday. I rejected that argument. I argued that the more effective the warning, the more happy I should be. I am pleased to say that the retail trade came up with a suggestion, which was subsequently accepted by the manufacturers, for a three-colour warning label. This provides as effective and more noticeable a warning which is far more expensive than the two-colour label that I had thought of imposing. It is also more in line with international warning symbols. Subject to minor alterations, I was pleased to accept the alternative.

We have also had opposition from the Fire Brigades Union. The regulations were endorsed from the start by one of the most senior and respected chief fire officers in the country. The Fire Brigades Union wants an entirely different approach from that which we have adopted. Like the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown), who has pursued this matter, and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), the union wants a complete ban on polyurethane foam—a step not taken or contemplated in relation to furniture by any other country. The union has produced some figures which purport to show that relatively few fires start from smokers' materials.

We have rejected the solution of a ban on the foam because it is simply not practical at this stage in the technical development. Research has shown that polyurethane foam on its own will not be ignited by a smouldering cigarette. Only when it is combined with a smouldering or burning fabric will it ignite.

Alternative fillings would lead to soaring costs in the production of furniture and steep price increases and might be as potentially dangerous in their differing ways as polyurethane foam.

I emphasise that the ease of ignition and burning behaviour associated with polyurethane foam is determined not by any one component but by a combination of components. In November 1978, the report of a sub-committee of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council stated: Upholstered furniture has the largest single potential for contributing to fire and toxicity hazard. The sub-committee recommended that if the behaviour in a fire of any combination of fabrics or components was found to be unacceptably hazardous, appropriate action should be taken to prevent the sale of goods made from such materials. The regulations are aimed at such combinations of materials.

The Fire Brigades Union was represented on the sub-committee and did not dissent from the report which said that there was no case for a ban on any particular material. Paragraph 7.B of the report makes it absolutely clear that the top priority in any regulations is to reduce the ignitability from small ignition sources—that is, cigarettes and matches.

That brings me to the claim of the Fire Brigades Union to which I referred. It is not correct to claim, as it has, that a substantial number of furniture fires are not caused by smokers' materials. It is important to note that 23 per cent. of deaths from fires in dwellings in 1977 occurred in fires where smokers' materials or matches were the source of ignition. In 1978, fires in dwellings started by smokers' materials or matches were three times as likely to prove fatal than the average dwelling fire and twice as likely to lead to non-fatal casualties.

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

I am sure that the Minister does not wish to mislead the House. The report never states the cause. It uses words such as "it is thought that "or" it might be ".

Mrs. Oppenheim

It is not possible to determine the precise cause. In many cases it is possible to determine, by process of elimination, what has not caused the fire. The figures that I have quoted are very conservative figures, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree.

Because the intention of the regulations is to make furniture resistant to ignition by smokers' materials and because, in 1978, 3,636 fires in occupied buildings started in upholstery, it can be stated confidently that the regulations will make upholstered furniture safer. No conceivable Government measure could make it absolutely safe. Many other fillings that would be used if polyurethane foam were banned would be likely to give rise to considerable hazards. Although the development of fire might not be as rapid as it is with foam-filled material, the hazard of toxic fumes could be as great.

There would continue to be the need to test the covering material and the filling in combination, and the advantages gained, whether in terms of safety or in other ways, would not necessarily be significant. A return to what might be described as traditional methods of manufacture, involving expensive production costs, would place undue financial burdens on consumers.

Research and development to try to find a suitable alternative are being carried out on a fairly substantial scale both in this country and elsewhere. The impetus to do so is obviously considerable, given that any safe and reasonably priced filling is likely to be in significant demand in any market. The regulations will add to that impetus.

So much for the opponents of the regulations, who are far outnumbered by the many thousands who welcome them, who will be adequately warned, or who will have very much safer furniture in their homes than they would otherwise have had. I believe that the regulations will play an important part in reducing the number of tragedies resulting from fires in which furniture is ignited first by cigarettes and later by matches.

We shall be keeping the matter under review and watching for indications that there is a reduction in the number of fires starting from cigarettes. Given the amount of old furniture and the life of furniture in existence, that cannot be achieved quickly. We will be the only country with any such regulations. It is hoped that the regulations will encourage other countries, especially those wishing to export to Britain, to introduce similar regulations.

I welcome the initiative of the EEC programme on consumer protection and the Commission's intention to prepare a directive on the flammability of upholstered furniture. I hope that our regulations will provide an ideal basis for that undertaking.

I shall now describe the regulations. They will apply to all upholstered furniture designed or suitable for domestic use, subject to the exclusions set out in regulation 3. The exempted categories include secondhand furniture, furniture intended for use wholly or mainly as a bed, small furniture with no back or arms—such as stools, music stools and something described as "pouffes stuffed under pressure", furniture for use out of doors or intended for export, and upholstered furniture that might be described as bespoke furniture.

The regulations do not apply either to furniture that is reupholstered on behalf of the owner—because no supply of furniture then takes place—or to stretch covers bought separately.

Regulations 4 and 5 lie at the heart of the regulations. The effect of the former, together with regulation 5(2), is that furniture first supplied on or after 1 October 1980 and also furniture supplied before that date to own brand dealers must either satisfy the tests for resistance to ignition by smouldering cigarettes and by a simulated match flame set out in British Standard 5852, part I, or bear warning labels.

From 31 December 1982, regulation 5(1) will prohibit manufacturers, importers and own brand dealers from supplying, offering to supply, and so on, furniture which does not satisfy the smouldering cigarette test.

There will be two labels: one for display, which must be fully visible at all times when the furniture is exposed for supply by retail, and the other a permanent and durable label which can be on the base of the furniture or become visible when a detachable cushion is removed, or it can be under a cushion. The purpose of the display label is, of course, to warn that careless use of cigarettes or matches can ignite the furniture. Nevertheless, if consumers buy such furniture and this label is removed, there will be a permanent label to continue to remind them.

It has been said that furniture manufacturers, including those in other EEC member States, who export to the United Kingdom may experience difficulty in complying with the mandatory cigarette test by December 1982. In my view, this ought to be possible. I have therefore resisted pressure to leave this date open to review.

One problem, which was brought to my attention by the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett), is that braids and trimmings made from cellulosic fibres—as most of them are—cannot at present be successfully treated with flame retardants. Therefore, I have decided that braids and trimmings should be excluded from the scope of the regulations—at least initially.

However, the British Federation of Trimmings and Braids Manufacturers has assured me that it will do its best to encourage and press for the development of upholstery trimmings which are resistant to ignition by a smouldering cigarette and, in the longer term, by a match. I am grateful for the federation's cooperation in this matter, and I am encouraged to learn that it is already making significant headway.

I do not attempt to disguise the fact that, where modification of upholstered furniture is necessary, the cost will increase, but I have endeavoured to ensure that the increase is kept within reasonable proportions. That is the balance to which I referred earlier. In any case, the increased costs involved are far outweighed by the toll in human terms and the financial cost to the State and individuals when these fires occur.

I am unwilling to undermine the objectives of the regulations, as I have been urged to do in a public relations lobby of all hon. Members by one sector of the furniture industry, which I very much regret. I feel that this use of public relations media is not appropriate in matters associated with safety. I shall not allow the objectives of the regulations to be undermined to a point which would be prejudicial to the interests of consumers or to an extent which would in any way lessen my absolute determination to reduce the numbers of these tragedies.

The draft regulations represent an important first step towards making upholstered furniture safer. As new technological developments occur, they can be strengthened if necessary. Meanwhile, the regulations, as they stand, put us well ahead of the rest of the world. I commend them to the House.

9.29 pm
Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

The problem to which these regulations address themselves is now more widely understood than it was two or three years ago. That is partly as a result of the terrible tragedies which have occurred and partly as a result of the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown). When I became a Minister with responsibility for consumer protection, one of my first duties was to listen to my hon. Friend, and I was grateful for his advice and the course of action which he urged me to take.

Put simply, the first problem, as described by the Minister, is that the use of synthetic materials in upholstered furniture poses an increasing fire hazard in relation not only to the ignitability but to the burning characteristics of new materials.

The second problem is that once these new materials—we have to generalise in a debate such as this—have caught fire there are added problems of smoke, toxicity and the emission of gases such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide.

The risks vary depending on the material used and on the combination of materials. A press notice issued by the Department of Trade in May 1979 stated: It was likely in mere terms of volume that upholstered furniture has ' the largest single potential for contributing to fire and toxicity hazards '. That point was made with tragic force by the fire at Woolworth's in Manchester. I agree with the right hon. Lady the Minister for Consumer Affairs that attention must be given not only in terms of consumer safety legislation but by the Health and Safety Executive, the Home Office and other Departments concerned. That is being done, and it would not be right to say that these regulations are lacking in any way because they do not deal with the wider matters of workshops and storage.

In the Woolworth's fire 10 people died, not from burning but from the inhalation of fumes. The report that followed that fire illustrates the problem in two sentences. It spoke of the dense smoke and hot gases which ignite away from the seat of the fire and are likely to spread the fire. The report then described an experiment with an item of upholstered furniture similar to that involved in the Wool-worth's fire. It said: A settee ignited by a match "— I emphasise the word "match"— burned rapidly in half a minute and increased the temperature to 800°C, a very high temperature for a household fire. So the difficulty and dangers were illus-treated in that report.

The Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council report in 1978, which the right hon. Lady also quoted, put the matter clearly. I quote from paragraph 317: ' Modern ' furniture, which mostly consists of polymeric materials other than frames, burned rapidly with localised high temperatures. Clear evidence was obtained that a lighted match dropped at the back of a seat cushion could readily lead to a rapid growth of fire with intense burning of the upholstery and production of dense smoke. Even in 1978, that report emphasised the dangers of a rapid break-out of fire from ignition by a match.

Mr. Ronald W. Brown

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that the 1971 factory inspector's report described the same phenomenon in the first three pages?

Mr. Fraser

I shall not follow up that case, because I wish to be brief, as I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak.

The 1978 report also dealt with toxicity hazards. That report—which led to the beginning of the making of these regulations—made a number of recommendations. It said that we needed to improve the first resistance of upholstered furniture and that manufacturers and research organisations should give top priority to reducing ignitability from all ignition sources—not simply smouldering cigarettes—and to reducing the rate of fire development and the rate of production of smoke and toxic products. It said that materials that smouldered should be discarded as soon as possible.

The report showed that the number of fatalities caused by burning upholstered furniture was rising rapidly. The Minister gave the figures. The ratio of fatalities to accidents not causing death is growing, whereas the relationship between fatalities and non-fatalities in most fires remains constant. In upholstered furniture fires, the ratio of deaths has increased. There was masses of evidence in that report of the growing danger.

So much for the problem. It is now clearly understood, and there is no dispute that the Government must act on it.

Having identified the problem, however, there are, and there have been, admittedly, difficulties. The first difficulty is the difficulty about identifying one single danger that one has to eliminate. It may be that if one increases the fire resistance of a product, one may then finish up with a product which, although it takes a lot of heat to ignite, has very serious burning characteristics once it has caught fire. That is one of the difficulties. It is not easy to solve.

A second difficulty is whether one can ban a single item. I agree with the right hon. Lady, from my examination of the matter, that it is not practicable at present to ban polyurethane foam. A lot of research needs to be done to reduce the fire and toxicity risk, but I agree that it is not a practicable proposition to ban the substance.

There is a third difficulty that one faces. It is the legislative difficulty that, until one can legislate by reference to standards, with such a variety of items as with upholstered furniture it is almost impossible to construct a law that anyone would understand and be able to operate. That was a problem which was solved with the help of the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), who took through Parliament the Consumer Safety Act.

We now have that Act and we have a British standard by reference to which we can legislate. The standard provides a test not merely for smouldering cigarettes but for ignition by lighted match—the butane test. I believe that there is a very strong case for banning the production and sale of upholstered furniture which cannot pass both tests. The evidence that it is necessary that furniture should comply with both tests is overwhelming.

I am very sorry that the right hon. Lady in these regulations refuses to place any limit on the time within which upholstered furniture must comply with the lighted match test which is set out in the British standard. I do not like to attribute motives, but I think that the right hon. Lady has veered on the side of trade rather than on the side of the consumer. I am sorry to have to say that, but I think that to some extent—she talked about choice tonight—she has been the victim of some of her past propaganda, and that of her Secretary of State, about rampant consumerism and about the law and practice in this country veering too far in favour of the consumer. It is a pity that she has not brought herself to widen the regulations to such an extent that they include the lighted match test as well.

I agree that it might be necessary to have a longer period. I understand that. I understand that there are difficulties about transition. But the only way of approaching the matter is to put a terminal date in regulations, because once that terminal date goes into regulations there will be a great deal more ingenuity and research into finding a solution to the problem than if the date is omitted altogether. Experience has shown that relying on the mere initiative of the industry and on voluntary standards simply does not work. On this matter the Government must take a lead.

This operation has, incidentally, been delayed by six months as a result of the right hon. Lady's amendments to the Consumer Safety Act. She could have made the regulations last December but for the amendments which she proposed in Committee about the use of the negative and affirmative procedures. I do not think that she would dispute that.

Let us turn to the right hon. Lady's press release of last May. It said: The Minister of State for Consumer Affairs, Mrs. Sally Oppenheim, announced in Parliament on 23 May…her intention to make regulations under the Consumer Safety Act 1978 as soon as possible, requiring all upholstered furniture…to be resistant to ignition from smokers' materials (cigarettes and matches). She indicated that, in order to give the manufacturers time to modify their furniture where necessary, the regulations would, for a limited period, permit the supply of furniture not complying with this requirement ". It is clear from the press release which was issued a year ago that the Minister intended to limit the time in which furniture might not comply in repect of smouldering cigarettes and lighted matches. She has gone back on that. She has done the least that it would be possible to do. It would be impossible to defend doing less than is done by these regulations. My complaint is that the regulations do not go far enough. In a sense, they almost give permission for the sale of furniture which does not comply with the lighted cigarette test.

What is the case for including the lighted match test? In 1978 we received the Home Office report of the Central Fire Brigade's Advisory Council, from which the beginnings of the regulations flowed. There was a development standard in 1978–79. That is now being converted to a full British standard which provides for the smouldering cigarette and lighted match tests. The existence of those standards provides part of the case for making the standards obligatory.

There is a Department of Trade requirement that the upholstery on British aircraft must comply with the smouldering cigarette and lighted match tests. For a considerable time there has been a requirement, in terms of Government purchasing, that upholstered furniture which is supplied for Government use should comply with the smouldering cigarette and lighted match tests. The Government are applying the standards to their own employees.

I can pray in aid my own words. When I consulted the industry about the making of regulations, I said that I supposed that both those tests should apply and that it was only a question of how much time would elapse between the making of the regulation and its full operation. Its response was that it merely wanted a labelling system. Some firms did not even want that. It was made clear to them some time ago that that was the ultimate objective of Government.

According to the press release, a year ago the Minister thought that there should be a limited time in the regulations. Now, that limit has been removed It is not good enough. The right hon. Lady has been swayed by the trade and perhaps by representations from her colleagues. The regulations represent the least that she might have done.

I am sorry to complain about this, but in one sense even the label is misleading. First, oddly enough, in the regulations there is a label for furniture which does not comply with the cigarette and match tests. That shows the symbols for a match and a cigarette. However, for furniture which does not comply with the lighted match test there is simply an exclamation mark. Within the context of the scheme of labels, it seems odd to have that sign but not the lighted match.

The label is slightly misleading—not deliberately so. The written temporary and permanent label says: Careless use of matches could set fire to this furniture. Anybody who has taken a suit to be invisibly mended and or used a match knows that even the careful use of matches can easily set fire to things. Many hon. Members must have struck a match from time to time, especially when driving a car, and found that the match head has parted company from the match stick. Even with the careful use of matches a fire may still take place, or a match may be broken during ignition. Therefore, the label is misleading.

Even the careful use of matches and other small sources of ignition, perhaps lighters, may start a fire. It is clear from scientific evidence that once the fire starts it will spread extremely rapidly.

The problem is identified. However, not nearly enough has been done about it in these regulations. I understand there is a possibility that if one applied only the smouldering cigarette test it could lead to the development of materials which might be resistant to smouldering cigarettes but less resistant to lighted matches.

I am sorry to be critical of the regulations. Of course, I shall support them because they are a step in the right direction—the first step that has been taken, as the right hon. Lady says. However, they do not go far enough. They do not hold the correct balance between the interests of the consumer and those of the trade. I hope that the right hon. Lady will return to the Dispatch Box within a reasonably short period to present us with tougher regulations which will have a greater safety factor within them.

9.45 pm
Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire)

I am delighted to have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so early in the debate, which is so important to the industry with which I am associated. I have to declare an interest. Early in the 1960s, I was the training and education officer of the National Association of Retail Furnishers, I was director and chief executive of multiple retail, wholesale and manufacturing groups and I am currently the managing director of a contract furnishing company. I shall refer later to contract furnishings, because some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) were misleading.

I should like to draw attention to my early-day motion which was signed by a number of my hon. Friends last year. I tabled the motion because I was genuinely concerned on three counts. The first was the stringent test standards, the second was the time scale proposed for implementing the proposals and the effect that it would have on the industry during these difficult and trying economic times, and the third was the type and design of the proposed ticket, which had not, at that time, been discussed in detail with furnishing retailers.

I was delighted when the draft proposals were withdrawn and further discussions were entered into with the respective sectors of the industry. I should like to place on record my thanks for the many meetings, letters and discussions that have taken place between my right hon. Friend the Minister, myself and representatives of the industry.

Flammability of upholstery is a highly emotive topic. It has produced a substantial number of inadequately researched speeches and articles. I do not impugn the motives of the authors, but if they had given as much time and space to other factors involved in accidental deaths I should accept that the views expressed were nearer the truth.

Every accidental death, however caused, is one death too many. It is interesting that the regulations are concerned with deaths and injury caused, in the main, by fires started by smokers' materials. I should like to consider some of the statistics. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said in its 1977 report that 632 people died in England and Wales and 136 died in Scotland in private houses and residential institutions from fire and flames. The insurance companies advise me that in 1978 there were 946 deaths and 8,231 injuries from fires in the United Kingdom.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents reported that in 1977 a total of 3,163 people died in their homes as a result of falls and 666 died as a result of accidental poisoning. The number who died as a result of fires was lower than the number who died from poisoning and about one-quarter of those who died from falls.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

There is little that we can do to stop people dying from falls, but there is something that we can do to stop them dying from fire. I have some difficulty in understanding the point that my hon. Friend is making.

Mr. Walker

I hope that I shall persuade my hon. Friend that there is some relevance in what I am saying, because some falls are related to another matter that I shall take up later.

Let me deal first with the 632 deaths. I understand that 113 were caused by ignition from clothing, 70 resulted from what are described as controlled fires, 169 from unspecified causes and 238 from conflagration. Hot substances, corrosive liquids and steam caused 42 deaths. Those are assessments made as the result of investigations.

If the figures are further broken down, one finds that flammable liquids caused 27 deaths, matches, cigarettes and pipes 118 deaths, solid fuel 47 deaths, gas appliances 40 deaths, electricity appliances 142 deaths, fat and candles nine deaths, and bedding and furniture—where not otherwise specified—21 deaths. Those figures show that accidental deaths in the domestic and residential environs usually result from causes other than the flammability of upholstery.

Ticketing is included in the regulations. Public education will be a by-product of them. Those two aspects are more essential than a form of legislation that seeks to ban a particular modern material. Why pick on one material? If one agrees to ban polyurethane foam, one must logically agree to ban other materials and products. The Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh stated that more than 30,000 people died every year in the United Kingdom as a direct result of using tobacco. That is 50 times the number of deaths caused by fire. Should we ban tobacco?

Many of Scotland's problems are directly linked to alcohol. I have already mentioned accidental falls. However, I doubt whether many Scots would be prepared to ban whisky.

A study of fire fatalities was carried out by Glasgow university. It concluded that alcohol could be found in the blood of many fire victims. It said that 59 per cent. of adults would have failed the tests for drink prescribed by law. In simple language, those adults were drunk. I doubt whether many Scots people would accept those figures as a justification for banning whisky.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Surely this issue concerns the question of choice. A person can choose whether to get drunk. However, if there is no protection against dangerous furnishing substances, there is no choice. Products are put on the market and people have no choice in the matter.

Mr. Walker

As a teetotaller, I believe that one can choose whether to consume whisky. I know that whisky is a dangerous liquid if it is consumed incorrectly and improperly. However, it is still on the market. Few people in Scotland would wish to ban it. I do not wish to do so.

According to insurance companies, there were 6,832 deaths in 1978 from road accidents in the United Kingdom. That is the equivalent to the number of deaths that would be caused if a jumbo jet crashed every month. It is 10 times the number of deaths caused by fire and flames. In addition, there were 82,518 serious injuries as a result of road accidents, 10 times the number of injuries resulting from fire and flame. Furthermore, 260,446 people suffered slight injuries, 43 times the number of people injured by fire. I accept that there is a choice. However, should we ban the use of roads? I think not.

We need to make a logical assessment of the risk ratio. Insurance companies do that. For example, they use five rating categories when assessing accidents at work. The jobs that are considered to involve the most serious risks include North Sea diving and demolition contracting. Agricultural workers are considered a medium risk, and office workers are included in the lowest category.

The Building Research Establishment published a fires in dwellings report in December 1978. Table 7 shows that in 1974 the causes of fires in living rooms, dining rooms or dwellings in the United Kingdom were as follows: 28.6 per cent. space heating, 25.5 per cent. televisions and radios, 15.4 per cent. smokers' materials, 6.6 per cent. children with matches, other electrical causes 5.7 per cent., other causes 12.5 per cent., and unknown causes 5.7 per cent. That demonstrates that a programme of education should be coupled with sensible legislation. The proposed legislation is sensible.

The House should recognise that the market is split into two clearly defined parts. The first is the contract market referred to by the hon. Member for Norwood. That market should never be confused with the private consumer market. It is not concerned primarily with design and price. The contract market is primarily concerned with construction and end use. I speak as one who runs a contract furnishing company. The pressures in the private sector are quite different. The domestic market depends on style and quantity production to realise adequate margins in competition with other consumer spending.

It is interesting to note that in the United Kingdom we spend more on drinking, smoking and gambling than on domestic furnishing. Against that background, we must realise that in relative terms furniture is better value today than it was 20 years ago.

Mr. John Fraser

Can the hon. Gentleman explain why furniture comes at the top of consumer complaints every year?

Mr. Walker

I do not pretend to know why consumers are motivated to complain. I know of reasons why they spend money, as I have spent some time running businesses. One way to promote sales is by adequate, sensible ticketing. In these regulations the ticketing has been much more carefully thought out than the Opposition allow.

Modern materials and production techniques make it possible to produce designs that sell at prices that the public are prepared to pay. Polyurethane foam has made it possible to manufacture opulent and modern styles of furniture that the housewife will readily accept at a price that she is prepared to pay.

The total investment in the United Kingdom by chemical firms in the furniture industry in polyurethane foam is over £1,000 million. Many jobs are involved. If cushions made from polyurethane foam in any one year were placed on Wembley football pitch, they would cover it and stand five miles high. It is, therefore, nonsense to suggest that the material should be banned, just as it is nonsense to talk of banning road use, whisky or tobacco.

The only other country in which legislation has been tried is the United States. Mr. Gordon Durant of the Department of Consumer Affairs in the Bureau of Home Furnishing is responsible for, and his Department introduced, the Californian legislation. He believes that the British proposals are the most severe in the world and will penalise and damage the United Kingdom industry if an attempt is made to introduce them in too short a period. The Californian standard of testing is not nearly as high or as difficult to meet as the proposed United Kingdom standard. That is important. Mr. Durant expressed his concern over the severity of British tests. He does not believe that the industry has the technology to meet the time scale first suggested. We must remember that people's jobs depend on getting it right. They will not thank us for legislation that destroys their jobs.

For the past 11 years the industry has collaborated with Government Departments in expensive research into the problems. We should acknowledge that the top priority is to reduce ignitability from small ignition sources. Then comes the need to reduce the rate of fire development, followed by the need to reduce production of smoke and toxic products. Almost any material will burn when heat of the right temperature is applied. There are other materials that ignite as easily as foam. All materials used in my early days as an apprentice in the upholstery business burnt beautifully. We used to see it for ourselves. The problem of furniture upholstery burning is not new.

I caution hon. Members not to expect a dramatic drop in fire fatalities merely because we are introducing regulations. Over 60 per cent. of those who die in domestic fires are under 10 years or over 60 years. I remind hon. Members that 59 per cent. of adults examined in a fire fatality study were found to be intoxicated. The majority of domestic fires occur in the homes of people in the lower income group—council houses, council flats or private rented accommodation. That is why it is important that we do not introduce legislation that will dramatically increase the price of manufacturers' products beyond what those who live in the accommodation that I have mentioned can afford.

I give a cautious welcome to the regulations. What is proposed about tickets is a great improvement on the original proposals. Some retailers may not be completely happy with the regulations, but I can tell my right hon. Friend that the majority of retailers accept that the ticketing of upholstery will make a positive contribution to consumer awareness and, as has happened with cigarettes, will in time change public buying habits.

On behalf of the many sections of the industry, I thank my right hon. Friend for listening to and acting on a number of suggestions. Not all the suggestions were accepted. My right hon. Friend turned down a number of the suggestions and proposals. She has produced balanced proposals.

British furniture manufacturers tell me that in the 30 years that some of their leading members have been involved in discussions with Ministers they have never received such courtesy, interest and time as they have had from my right hon. Friend during the many months that the draft regulations have been discussed. I am delighted to welcome the regulations.

10.2 pm

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

This is a deeply important debate. At the outset, I acknowledge the sustained and expert interest taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shore-ditch (Mr. Brown) in all the deliberations that led to the laying of the regulations before the House. My hon. Friend has been consistently and passionately concerned to ensure strong protection against the dangers of polyurethane foam. I am sure he will argue that the regulations should go further, but the fact that there are to be any statutory provisions at all is not unrelated to his work.

In a week when it has been demonstrated again just how lethal Polyurethane foam can be, with the publication of the report on the Woolworth's fire in Manchester, I find it very disturbing that the Government are not proposing to introduce much tougher regulations than those before the House.

The Woolworth's report is about fire hazards arising from the display and storage of foam-filled furniture in retail stores. However, the Minister must be seriously concerned by the report's findings. She must accept, as the report does, that the fire could have been started not by a smouldering cigarette but by a dropped lighted match. That is but one reason why she must restore the flame test to the regulations immediately.

The right hon. Lady has been persuaded—some might say misled—by the upholstery trade to believe that it cannot meet the requirements of the flame test at present. Journalists who write on the subject tell me that they have been inundated with letters and telephone calls from manufacturers assuring them that fire-retardant materials are available. Indeed, they have been sent samples, as I also have been. Neither they nor I find these materials as harsh to the touch as the Department claims. I am sure that it would not be imposible or even dauntingly difficult for the industry to comply with the flame test standard.

How much does the right hon. Lady's Department rely on the plastics and furniture industries to produce a less flammable alternative to polyurethane, which is so badly needed? What attempts are being made by Government Department to find the solution? How much is research costing? The Minister insists that she has not "dropped"—I put the word in quotation marks—the flame test but has merely decided that there should not yet be a date fixed for the industry to comply with that important test. When does she expect the date will be? Is she waiting for the industry to say "Yes, we now have the material to pass the flame test"? Or is she making sure that Government research provides the answer and forces the industry to accept it?

The recommendations of the Wool-worth's report were rightly addressed, as the right hon. Lady said, to the Home Secretary. I congratulate him on accepting the recommendations in their entirety in the parliamentary reply he gave me on 20 May. They are, however, limited to ensuring that a similar tragedy does not recur in a department store. They may prevent a tragedy like that at Woolworth's, which took the lives of 10 people, including two of my constituents, and injured 48 others, from happening again. But they do not refer to the more than 100 people a year who die in their own homes from the same polyurethane foam.

One is tempted to conclude from the Woolworth's report's total preoccupation with the lethal nature of polyurethane foam that, if the expert committee's brief had been widened to include consideration of the foam's continued use, it would almost certainly have called for further sales of the foam for domestic use to be banned. How else can one interpret the recommendations that foam-filled furniture should be put into fire-separated compartments to which the public have no access?

The recommendation of the sub-committee which investigated the Woolworth's fire stated: Furniture made of polyurethane foam should be displayed and stored either in fire-separated compartments or sprinklered areas and regarded in both cases as areas of high fire risk ". That is a step forward, but the House must accept that the average family is not able to place its three-piece suite and other furniture in a flame-proof compartment with sprinklers installed—at least, not the kind of people I represent. There is a need for much tougher action than is proposed in the regulations, which, in my view and the view of many people outside the House, are dilatory as well as inadequate.

Is the right hon. Lady aware of the deeply tragic case of two-year-old Stephen Andrew Goodwin, of Wallasey, who died through inhaling toxic fumes from a smouldering foam-filled pillow on 13 March? This is an extremely important case. The coroner, Mr. Rex Taylor, called for strict regulations covering the sale of plastic filling foam, yet these regulations are anything but strict.

Commenting on the case, a spokesman for the Merseyside fire brigade said that what seemed like a small fire in a chair could be lethal because burning polyurethane foam often produced gases such as cyanide and carbon monoxide. That also concerned the coroner, who found that the child had died because his foam-filled pillow had come into indirect contact not with a smouldering cigarette but with a bedside electric light. Mr. Stephen Goodwin, the boy's father, told the inquest that at about 11 pm on 13 March he could smell smoke. When he went upstairs to the bedroom, it was filled with smoke.

He pulled his son from the cot and took him outside. All attempts to revive the child failed. Mr. Goodwin said that he and his wife Jennifer left an electric light on all night in the boy's room. The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death.

That fire was caused not by a smouldering cigarette but by an electric light bulb, What relevance, therefore, have these regulations to a case that the coroner said called for strict new regulations?

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Has my right hon. Friend's attention been drawn to regulation 3(1)(f)—the exclusion of furniture that is so designed and constructed that it would normally be considered suitable for use only by young children "? It seems strange that there should be this exclusion in regulations designed to protect people who, like my right hon. Friend's constituent, the very unfortunate baby, was killed through inhaling fumes from a pillow.

Mr. Morris

My hon. and learned Friend is on an important point. I hope that he will be able to develop it later.

The child to whom I was referring was not the child of my constituents; he was from Wallasey. However, the case is very important. The coroner made it clear that it called for much stricter regulations than those before the House.

I turn to another, more recent, case involving the death of a young child. On Monday of this week, a three-year-old boy died when fire swept through his home at Stirling in Scotland. A report of the tragedy says: Kevin Pearson was at home in Culverhove Crescent with his mother, Margaret, and brother, Trevor, when fire broke out in the three-storey block of flats. Mrs Pearson managed to throw Trevor to safety from the first floor flat and jumped herself, but neighbours who raised the alarm could not reach Kevin. An upstairs neighbour…broke down the door of the Pearsons' flat but was beaten back by the flames. His wife…said she heard Mrs. Pearson scream when she looked out of the window she saw smoke coming from the flat. ' Margaret's door was locked and I couldn't get in. Margaret said she had been in the bathroom when the fire started. The whole place caught light in next to no time.' That was just three days ago. Today, the senior fire prevention officer in charge of investigating the Stirling fire said that it was now certain that the child died from the inhalation of smoke and fumes from the burning foam-filled furniture in the living room. The child had been in an adjacent bedroom at the time, and it is now known that the cause of the fire was his four-year-old brother playing with matches—I emphasise that—in the living room while their mother was in the bathroom. The fire is a typical example of the great danger of polyurethane foam and a prime example of why the lighted match test is so vital.

That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) was eminently right to press the Minister tonight on the importance of including the lighted match test as well as the smouldering cigarette test.

Mr. Tim Sainsbury (Hove)

In the way in which the right hon. Gentleman described that unhappy incident, we have no evidence that the lighted match to which he referred was applied to the Polyurethane foam-filled furniture. It is much more probable that it fell on a carpet, curtain or anything else and that the flames which he described, which enveloped the whole flat, then ignited the polyurethane-filled furniture. Surely, the risk to which we are addressing ourselves is that that sort of material, because it gives off dense and toxic smoke, makes any fire that much more dangerous to people who are near it or living in the home where it is stored or used. It is not necessarily that the fire is started directly with that material but that it makes any fire more dangerous.

Mr. Morris

I am basing myself on information supplied today by the senior fire prevention officer. So far as I am aware, the information has not been published. I am making it available to the House because I regard the case as extremely important.

I said that we knew that the dead boy's brother was playing with matches. Many people will believe that whether the fatal match ignited polurethane foam directly or indirectly is beside the point. The fact that the dead boy's brother was playing with matches that was the extremly important consideration.

Mr. Bill Walker

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Morris

No, I cannot. I shall come to the hon. Gentleman later. Tonight we witnessed in his speech one of the most blatant examples I have ever heard in this Hosue of an hon. Member arguing for a vested interest. I shall reply to the hon. Gentleman as I proceed.

Here, a young child played with matches and dropped one on to a foam cushion which rapidly burnt. The child cried out and his mother, who was in the bathroom, dashed out to find dense smoke. She was able to save her elder son, who had accidentally started the fire and run out of the room, but her three-year-old son—now dead—was asleep in a bedroom as the smoke from the living room rapidly became thicker. Two attempts to reach the boy, within seconds of each other, failed because of the increasing heat and smoke.

The mother dropped the older child out of the window of their first-floor flat and followed him. Neighbours tried to reach the boy in the bedroom, but by then it was impossible.

It is deeply ironic that this tragedy occurred within 24 hours of the Minister for Consumer Affairs defending, on BBC radio, her decision not to press for the lighted match test on upholstered furniture. That test shows that flame-retardant coverings are crucial. Such coverings would at least give a few vital extra seconds after a match was accidentally dropped and a parent in another room discovered what had happened.

How many more little children have to die before the consumer affairs Minister decides that perhaps the flame test should be enforced after all, and quickly? Or will she stick rigidly to her brief and continue to insist, as she has done tonight, that flame-resistant covers are not yet available in the quality demanded by the consumer?

The Sunday Times—and particularly Roger Ratcliffe of that newspaper—should be warmly congratulated for the lead it has given in alerting people to what the report on the Woolworth's fire now bluntly condemns as a major and continuing threat to public safety.

That is the source to which the Minister should look for information. She should not look to slick public relations men acting on behalf of those who oppose stiffer tests for reasons of their own. The regulations were drawn up a year ago, and it was seen fit to include the flame test and the smouldering cigarette test side by side. What has happened to make the Minister have second thoughts about the cut-off date for the flame test? She has not given a satisfactory answer to that question.

Whatever the answer, no account has been taken in the regulations of what happened in the Woolworth's tragedy. The report reveals that a possible cause of the fire was a match dropped on to foam furniture. Now, following the death of the young child in Scotland, the Minister should admit, with the benefit of what the fire prevention officer in charge of the Stirling case said today, that the flame test should be enforced and the necessary amendment made to the regulations.

After the Woolworth's fire, the Manchester coroner said that if polyurethane foam catches fire one has only two minutes to get out of the building. The coroner said, in effect, that one should run like hell. Unfortunately, there are millions of people who cannot run like hell. They include the elderly, the disabled and very young children, all of whom are extremely vulnerable if they are exposed to the danger we are discussing.

Regardless of any action that is taken by the Minister or by her right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the report of the Woolworth's fire, there is now a need for a massive public information campaign to alert everyone to the undoubted threat to human life that exists in almost every home in Britain.

The Minister has made it clear that she accepts the danger as much as I do. The responsibility rests with her and the Government to let everybody know the dangers that people face. If the Government fail to promote such a campaign, I hope that the media, not least the BBC because of its public service broadcasting role, will do so.

The hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) made a speech which was one of the most blatant examples of a vested interest. Towards the end of his speech, I thought that he would invite us to sing the first verse of "All things bright and beautiful" in praise of the people whom he represents.

Mr. Bill Walker

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Morris

The hon. Gentleman made it clear that he was arguing for a vested interest. I declare my interest as a Member of Parliament two of whose constituents perished in the Woolworth fire, which spread with devastating speed and disastrous effect. The bravery of the firemen who fought that fire is widely admired. Their courage should also be acknowledged in the debate. The central issue is public safety. Many of us want stronger regulations than are proposed by the Government.

Mr. Bill Walker

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like to clarify a fundamental point. I have no financial interest whatever. I said that I was managing director of my own contracting furnishing company, which does not sell any of the furniture that we have been discussing. I have no financial interest.

Mr. Morris

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It was clear to hon. Members on both sides of the House that the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire had a brief from the industry. I have a brief from the bereaved in Manchester.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)

The point has been clarified. There is nothing wrong with an hon. Member having a brief. The hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) declared his interest. Honour is satisfied.

10.22 pm
Mr. John Lee (Nelson and Colne)

I declare three interests. First, I am parliamentary consultant to the National Bedding Federation, which is a related industry in the context of the debate. Secondly, my constituency is involved in furniture manufacturing. It contains a major G-Plan—E. Gomme plant, and Silentnight has its headquarters in East Lancashire. Thirdly, I was in Piccadilly, Manchester, at the time of the Wool-worth horror. I saw the tragedy of the fire and I can understand the rather emotional speech of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris). We share and understand the grief which was felt in Manchester at the time of the horrific Woolworth fire.

There is no realistic financial alternative to polyurethane. The furniture industry in all its forms has spent vast amounts of money endeavouring to find a substitute.

Mr. Sainsbury

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is more likely that the furniture industry throughout the world will find a substitute rather than Government research which some hon. Members seem to think is the panacea for all our ills? Government have no knowledge, experience, technique or motivation.

Mr. Lee

I accept that. I could not care less who finds the alternative, whether it be Government or industry. The alternative must be found at some stage.

An alternative filling would add substantially to the costs of manufacture of furniture, to the detriment of the consumer. It would result in a substantial loss of volume to the industry, which in turn would clearly affect employment both in the industry and in the retail sector. The furniture industry is in an extremely delicate state. The G-Plan factory in my constituency is on a three-day week. In the industry generally, there are worrying signs of import penetration. I suspect that in the years to come we shall discuss that matter rather more often.

I am sure that all hon. Members agree that it is absolutely vital to find a cheap alternative to polyurethane—whoever finds it—sooner or later. Until we find that alternative, the regulations strike a realistic and fair balance between the interests of the consumer and the industry. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on the regulations and on listening to the various representations made from both sides of the House. I commend the regulations to the House.

10.27 pm
Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

We appreciate that the Minister is attempting to promote a remedy for a dangerous evil. However, we have differing views about whether she has gone far enough. I hope that she wishes to go further, and intends to do so as soon as possible. Meanwhile, we must all be grateful for regulations that, we trust, will produce even a limited mercy.

The hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) referred to the dangers on roads, in business and in factories. We are all contesting danger wherever we find it. But for him to suggest that we should not be promoting the most active form of consumer legislation is ridiculous. That argument would not commend itself to the relatives of those who were asphyxiated in the Wool-worth fire. I do not think that he promotes his case, or that of the furniture trade industry, by putting forward that sort of argument. We are all attempting to solve safety problems wherever we find them.

I ask the Minister to consider two additional matters. Regulation 3(1)(f) excludes furniture that is so designed and constructed that it would normally be considered suitable for use only by young children ". I cannot understand why there should be such an exclusion when young children are among the most vulnerable. They cause fires not through smoking but with matches. When they are in a room that contains furniture upholstered in a dangerous way, they may die through fires created by others. I wonder whether that is one of the temporary items that the Minister is hoping to exclude at a future date.

Second, I draw attention to the parent Act, to the Consumer Safety Act 1978, under which the regulations were made. I commend to the Minister section 6, on civil liability, as an indication of an advance towards product liability—a step in the direction in which I hope the Minister proposes to move. In Britain we do not have the strict liability rules that exist in the United States, in France or in the Federal Republic of Germany which enable people who suffer personal injury or loss, or the relatives of those who are killed, to obtain damages, even where there is no contractual relationship, or where they cannot prove that the person who circulated the goods was at fault.

The Royal Commission on civil liability—the Pearson Commission—and the English, Welsh and Scottish Law Commissions recommended that legislation should be introduced not merely to protect people through the creation of criminal liability, as the regulations do, but to enable ordinary people to claim a remedy without having to take legal proceedings which they cannot conceivably afford.

The regulations are valuable in themselves so far as they go. They are also valuable because, under section 6 of the enabling statute, failure to comply with the duty under the regulations enables a sufferer from a breach of duty to claim damages without proof of fault. Those who are concerned in this area of law should welcome yet another advance towards giving consumers protection by a side wind.

I hope that the Government will introduce legislation shortly in accordance with the revised draft EEC regulations and the recommendations of the Pearson Commission and of the various Law Commissions to ensure that ordinary people who suffer through dangers should have rights in civil law, irrespective of fault. Meanwhile, it should be appreciated that these regulations create not only criminal liabilities rendering those who offend liable to prosecution but also civil rights for people who suffer—rights to bring their claims through the courts and to obtain justice in a way that is often not available to people who suffer through defects in consumer products.

10.32 pm
Mr. Eric Cockeram (Ludlow)

I, too, must declare an interest. As a retailer, though not of furniture, I advise a number of retail organisations, including the National Association of Retail Furnishers.

The retail trade has been in the forefront in expressing concern about the dangers from the sale of polyurethane foam and has for a long time been advising customers of them. Therefore, the association was pleased when the Minister invited consultations on her proposal, and I was pleased to hear her acknowledge the co-operation that she had had from the retail trade.

However, I feel that it is wrong to blame the shopkeeper for selling such material. It is sought by the public and there is no adequate substitute for it at a comparable price. Many homes would not be as comfortable for the occupants if this merchandise were not available to the public. To blame the retailer for selling this material is as wrong as it would be to blame British Leyland for a road accident or to blame an electricity board for a fire started by electricity.

It is worth adding that of all the fires started in homes, those caused by electricity are the greatest in number. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) referred to a tragic death in Wallasey. I am familiar with the details of that tragedy because I live near there. But the right hon. Gentleman fairly pointed out that the fire was started by electricity, but it developed into a conflagration with tragic results. Electricity is the greatest cause of fires in the home, many of them in kitchens, in ovens and frying pans and with fat.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will not regard this measure as the end of the road. Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I believe that it is important to mount a campaign pointing out the dangers of fire in the home from all sources, of which this type of furniture is but one and statistically one of the smaller sources. I hope that my right hon. Friend will use her considerable influence to back such a campaign.

The retail trade is anxious to cooperate. The first part of this measure comes into effect in four months. In consequence, all furniture in the trade will have to be so marked. The House does not need to be reminded that the country is going through a recession, that sales of furniture, like other items in this industry today, are on the low side, that stock-turn is slow and that there is a lot of furniture in the pipeline. In consequence, the task of marking and fixing labels to the furniture will be considerable. The retail trade will undertake that task as soon as the measure comes into effect, and much of the furniture will be marked well ahead of 1 October.

I wish to make a few points about the application of the regulations. Retailers are at the sharp end of consumer protection legislation. The foam and fabric for the furniture and the making up of the furniture are handled by the trade, but the measure has a real effect only when it reaches the retailers. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend will issue guidance to trading standards officers, because, clearly, due diligence on the part of a retailer should be a defence which he can use in court. It is not possible to test to destruction every suite of furniture that is on sale; there would be none left to sell. Therefore, tests have to be conducted by sample. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that a retailer should be able to use the defence that the sample of the furniture in question had satisfied the test of British Standard 5852.

Equally, it is important that the retailer should be able to show that he took all reasonable steps to ensure that the foam and the fabric and the combination of the two could reasonably have been expected to satisfy the test according to data available in the foam and fabric industry.

I turn to another aspect which will lead to problems at the retail stage. A high proportion of sales arise from a customer going into a shop, choosing a piece of furniture but then saying that he—or, more often, his wife—does not like the colour or the fabric. In consequence, the retailer is asked whether he can supply samples of other covers, which he proceeds to do. Likewise, those covers must meet a test. If the retailer is to be held responsible for the combination of every conceivable cover in a host of different pattern books and every underlying polyurethane foam, he has a difficult task. Nevertheless, it is his public duty to attempt not merely to comply with the regulations but to warn the customer.

I should like an assurance from my right hon. Friend that due diligence on the part of a retailer, backed by adequate indication that samples of the foam or fabric have been tested and have met the British standard, will be an adequate defence for that retailer. I hope that she can give that assurance.

10.38 pm
Mr. Ronald W. Brown (Hackney South and Shoreditch)

I, too, declare an interest as parliamentary adviser to the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union. With that union, I have been fighting over this issue for about 12 years. I was very sad to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker). It was the first time that I had heard him speak on this subject. His background preceded him. I was told how dynamic he was, how he had been chasing the Minister, and how he claimed paternity for forcing her to give up the draft regulations in December. I looked forward with interest to his speech, but it was a sad performance. I hope his constituents will have the opportunity to hear about or read what he said. His speech was totally outrageous and showed a total disregard for the facts. I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that I am very sad that I was not impressed.

I support the regulations. They will be important. For me, this is an important step forward, because the Government have at long last—I refer to all recent British Governments—recognised the problems of people who have to use polyurethane foam. These regulations establish for the first time the dangers of this foam. I shall be pressing very hard to get them enlarged and improved.

We have to be grateful for small mercies, but these regulations do not go far enough. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) is absolutely right. We have to ask whether the regulations are sufficient and whether they will fulfil the task. I do not believe that they are or will and I hope to show why.

I can have some sympathy with the textile manufacturers, who have been pressing me very hard over the past 12 months. They have asked why they should have to do all this work upon all their textiles when the textiles are not the problem. The problem is the polyurethane foam. They saw no reason why they should have to spend money, time and effort in order to conform to regulations which they felt were not of importance to them.

I said to them, and I say publicly tonight, that I do not believe that any manufacturer should produce material that is not flame-resistant. They, we and the consumers are entitled to know that flame-resistant materials are being used in homes. Therefore, whilst I appreciated that they felt aggrieved that they had been made fall guys, I still believe that they should produce materials that are flame-resistant.

The real bodies that people should have been going for were the foam manufacturers. The textile manufacturers cannot get at them because they are a very powerful body indeed. It is the seven sisters—the petroleum and chemical companies. They are on a gravy train. This polyurethane foam comes for free. They have already got their petrol and its by-products. They have made enough money on all that. The chemicals for the purposes of polyurethane foam are purely the byproduct, and they will not give that up.

Mr. Donald Thompson (Sowerby)

The hon. Member keeps referring to polyurethane foam. If he knows much about polyurethane foam, he must know that its uses cover a very wide spectrum. Life belts and life buoys are made of polyurethane foam that will not burn, but it will not do for furniture because it is too hard. The hon. Gentleman should be specific, otherwise he will cost lives by turning people against this substance, which in other circumstances saves lives.

Mr. Brown

I am very grateful for that intervention, but I am talking about Polyurethane foam, about flexible foam and all such foam products. If that helps the hon. Gentleman, I am happy to put it to him.

Mr. Thompson


Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman is taking me away from what I want to say, but I must tell him that I object to rigid foam for use in television cabinets. It is no good the hon. Gentleman shouting "No", because one is also putting a very grave risk into the home with the use of foam in television cabinets.

What I really wanted to talk about were the powerful interests of the foam lobby. The regulation should have focused on them, because if we get rid of the foam, we get rid of the major problem. It has involved 12 years' hard labour to get that accepted. One has to fight for a long time in this House to get one's view accepted. I have been everything but a Christian for 12 years. Tonight I am made legitimate. I am really kosher, as one of my hon. Friends would say.

I have read the furniture industry's handout, in which it now accepts that, once set alight, polyurethane foam builds up heat and flame very quickly. That was not admitted for a very long time. The industry has never admitted that previously. Tonight we know that it is so. But these regulations do not cover the matter. We must repeat time and again that the other combustibles in furniture are not like foam.

It is often said—the right hon. Lady said so again tonight—that there is no difference between foam and other substances. There is a difference. Foam has certain characteristics. It has a high burning temperature and rate. It gives off dense, toxic fumes, which are superheated to 1,000 deg. centigrade in three minutes. No other combustible material used in furniture possesses all those properties together.

The right hon. Lady keeps on repeating that there is no difference in the ways that different materials burn. Of course, other substances burn, but they do not burn like foam. I beg of her to get this into her head. She cannot equate burning wool, hair and coir fibre with foam. They individually burn and give off fumes but when they are put together they do not produce the same issue as foam does. That is the difference she must understand. She misleads herself and everyone else if she pretends that there is no difference between foam and other combustibles.

Foam produces an inferno. The argument we must face tonight is whether these regulations will allow people to get out of that inferno. The answer is "No". The fire spreads too rapidly. Within 30 seconds the temperature of the flames is 650 deg. centigrade. The significance of that fact is that it is not possible to pass the flames. In other fires it is at least possible to edge one's way round and get away from them. A foam fire is so hot that one cannot get by it. Within three minutes the whole place is covered with smoke and superheated fumes. One is dead. That has nothing to do with the fire burning the people. The smoke will have killed them.

When the fire has ended there is no foam left. When the firemen went to look at the Manchester fire there was no foam left. It was totally consumed. Since 1968 I have in parliamentary questions asked for the foam figures to be included in the fire statistics. The answer has been that the Government did not do that. Therefore, to quote foam figures is a fraud, anyway. The one element that caused the fire—the foam—is not there.

In my intervention I pointed out that none of the coroners' reports said that fires were started by cigarettes, matches or electricity. A report contains the subjective judgment of a fire officer going round after the event, using his skills of looking, observing and investigating, to see where the fire could have started. However, he cannot see the foam as it is no longer there. It has been totally consumed.

Mr. Alfred Morris

An important point is that Woolworth—a large retailer—decided not to sell this kind of commodity. Is not that an important fact for the House to take account of tonight?

Mr. Brown

That is correct. Wool-worth made a sensible, intelligent judgment on that matter. I shall come to that later.

The existing fire regulations are totally inadequate for foam fires. When the complaint was made about the Manchester fire, the regulations were discussed. It was said that there should be time to ring a bell, for the people to get out of the building and to telephone for the fire brigade. However, in a foam fire the people inside the building are dead in three minutes. People want to get out as quickly as they can, because the normal regulations will not take care of them. The Woolworth fire report illustrates that. It is a pity that we do not have the report so that we can read it in full. It is an important document.

The report states in paragraphs 92 and 93 that furniture made of polyurethane foam should be displayed and stored in separated or sprinklered areas and that that would have helped in the fire in Woolworth. I am in favour of that. I am in favour of the biggest possible sign saying "Danger. Don't come in here. This furniture is filled with polyurethane foam." That would be marvellous. The result would be that people would not buy such furniture.

The report also claims that sprinklers would have helped and that people would not have died. Let us have a package deal: if a person buys a polyurethane foam-filled suite, he gets a set of sprinklers to install in his own home. If sprinklers are needed in a shop, what about a council flat 15 storeys up in my constituency? Are not those who live in such flats also entitled to sprinklers?

Paragraphs 117 and 118 of the report recommend that there should be fire drills and routines to emphasise the benefit of good training. I beg those who say such things to understand that there is no way that a person can get out of a polyurethane foam fire. If a chair covering a door in a council flat 15 storeys up catches fire, the tenants may as well lie down. They will not get out.

The Minister must understand those problems and I do not think that she will find that the regulations cover them.

The Woolworth fire report also recommended that keys should no longer be kept in glass-fronted boxes. That is irrelevant, because people do not have a chance to get to the keys when a polyurethane foam fire breaks out. They found in Manchester that people died even before they got out of the restaurant. They did not get near the fire.

The report stated that the cause of the fire could not be established with any certainty. I do not wonder why. I have explained to the House many times why there can be no certainty. There is no evidence that it was caused by matches or cigarettes. There is not even any evidence for the fall-back position of claiming that there must have been an insulation fault in the electric wiring.

The House must some day understand and listen to me. When polyurethane foam begins its life, it is unstable. It self-combusts. Anyone watching it being produced can see it catch fire. In 1971, the House demanded action, which was taken in factories. All the evidence is in technical data note No. 29 and the revised note laying down the procedures that must be followed in factories because polyurethane foam self-combusts. The scientists have said that that is the case for only 48 hours. God did not say 48 hours; the scientists said that because the manufacturer wants it out of the way quickly. It takes up so much room. The sooner that he can move it the better.

As the fire at Woolworth was not caused by matches, cigarettes or an electrical fault, it is possible that a piece of foam self-combusted. That scenario would answer a lot of questions that still remain unanswered. That solution would fit many of the fires that have occurred. If no other reason for the fire can be found, it must be accepted that my solution is as good as any. The fire officer cannot say what the cause is. He can only say what he subjectively thinks caused the fire. Foam is not included because it is not there. Foam may become unstable.

Both the Home Office and Department of Trade have argued that there is no evidence. I have been told that they have tried—unsuccessfully—to simulate the conditions in a laboratory. However, that does not mean that such conditions cannot occur. It means only that there is an enormous gap in our knowledge. If we do not have sufficient information, we must ask whether foam should be produced. I do not need to be told that the conditions cannot be reproduced in the laboratory. Hon. Members should not cast aside my suggestion that self-combustion should be understood and considered. It cannot be dismissed as unimportant.

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have supported his inquiries into this important matter for many years. Inquests and discussions with fire officers have shown that there are grounds for grave doubt. Is the hon. Gentleman—who has spent much time and energy probing this issue—advising us that the foam is so dangerous that it should not be used in the manufacture of furniture? We must face that question.

Mr. Brown

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. I was about to come to that point. Unless foam manufacturers can give a guarantee of its safety, they should not be allowed to purvey it.

When thalidomide went wrong, no one said that it was bad luck. No one argued that as 6,000 people died on the roads there was no point in worrying about the drug. My God, the people of Britain demanded action. Only the foam-manufacturing lobby has the arrogance to continue to promote the material. I have been trying to educate foam manufacturers for 12 years. We now have all the evidence we need to show that it is a killer material. What prescriptive right have they got to produce something that they know is a killer?

The regulations go some way towards ensuring the consumer's safety. It is said that I wish to ban foam. I have never said that. However, responsibility for its safety does not rest with the House, or with my trade union; it rests with the foam manufacturers. I want the regulations to apply to foam. Producers must be aware of product liability. They may have won tonight because the regulations are weak. However, I shall support the EEC directive, just as I supported it in the European Parliament. I shall immediately hammer that directive on to the doors of foam manufacturers. They know what they are producing

I am on occasion sickened by the argument about costs. I have raised the matter every year for the past 12 years. During that time there have been 1,500 deaths, and they are only the ones that we know of. Many deaths may be attributed to other causes, such as the drunken two-year-old who was smoking, according to the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire. When will we decide that enough is enough?

People argue that the cost would be impossible, and that there are few alternatives. A piece of furniture may cost £67 to manufacture, including all the on costs, but the housewife will pay £127 in a shop. Why does it cost as much or more to retail that piece of furniture as to manufacture it? It does not make sense.

Mr. Cockeram

Has the hon. Gentle man forgotten—

Mr. Brown

I have not forgotten anything. I have had enough rows with the retailers' association over the past 12 years to last me a lifetime. I have argued on television and radio, and I am prepared to do so at any time.

This is the only industry in which the retailer has been allowed to mark up tax. Purchase tax and SET have been marked up. When VAT was introduced the retailers met the right hon. Gentleman who is now Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and persuaded him to allow them to add the 11⅓ per cent. purchase tax and the 2 per cent. SET to the wholesale price, and then mark up by 100 per cent. VAT was put on the total figure.

As we were paying a total of 13⅓ per cent. tax when VAT was introduced at 10 per cent., being a simple chap, I thought that the price of furniture would go down. In April of that year, when the Government published a list of items that would increase in price, those that would stay at the same price and those that would come down, furniture was among the prices that increased. That is not surprising in view of the way that the price was rigged by retailers. The price is still up today.

Mr. Cockeram

The hon. Gentleman is harking back some years, and is wrong about what applied in years past. Will he at least acknowledge that today VAT is 15 per cent. of the selling price? In consequence his quotation of the difference between the manufacturer's price, which does not include VAT, and the retail selling price, which does, could be misleading to those who do not appreciate that.

Mr. Brown

I have underestimated the mark-up. The hon. Gentleman is perhaps proving that it is even greater. Perhaps the retailers are even more greedy than I thought.

The hon. Gentleman should reflect on the cost. He argues that we cannot afford the cost. If we could ask the 1,500 people who have died whether they believe it worth while to have a safe foam, I am sure that they would say "Yes". I hope that, if there are costs to produce a safe foam, they will come from that 100 per cent. mark-up. I want the right hon. Lady to give me the assurance that if the industry faces an increase in costs following the introduction of the regulations there will not be a mark-up by the retailers and it will not be subject to 15 per cent. VAT. It would be monstrous if to achieve a safety factor that the Minister thinks is good we allowed further profit-taking by retailers and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the form of VAT.

The approach of the furniture industry is the exact opposite of the effect of resale price maintenance. The manufacturer says to the retailer "You will sell at the price that we are recommending." That is resale price maintenance. In the furniture industry, the retailer says to the manufacturer "You will recommend the price that we say. If you do not, we will cut your outlets and you will have nowhere to go." One of the greatest problems is to try to persuade furniture manufacturers to come clean and to say publicly that that is what happens. They say it privately, but the time has come for the public to understand that there is a racket. That is why we see retailers advertising 20 per cent. off or 50 per cent. off. That is 20 per cent. or 50 per cent. off what? It is not off the price of the furniture.

We should aim for safety without adding to the price that poor married couples and poor people generally have to pay. I shed tears tonight—

Mr. Bill Walker rose

Mr. Brown

—about the poor people who want to buy furniture. If we did not have a 100 per cent. mark-up, if we did not have a rip-off, manufacturers could sell their products much more cheaply to nice married couples.

We have heard that the furniture industry is on a three-day week. I am pleased that there is an awareness of that fact. The industry is on a three-day week for about nine months of the year. It goes on to a four or five-day week only in November, January and February, and possibly March. After that, the workers are on short time. I have not heard Conservative Members shouting about MFI and the GDR furniture that is coming into this country in a flood. It seems that the Government are not doing anything to stop that happening. There is a flood of imports from Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. There is plenty to be said about import controls. I am glad that Conservative Members have woken up and are now aware of the problem.

Mr. Lee rose

Mr. Brown

No. I do not want to go on for too long.

We have the finest furniture manufacturers and furniture workers in the world. The industry is exporting. Ercol, G Plan and a range of others are exporting first class furniture and doing well. Of course, the retailers are on their backs.

I support the regulations. They are a first step. The EEC directive will help us to pin back the foam manufacturers. I hope that the right hon. Lady will take on board my arguments on resale markups. That is an important element that should be dealt with. The regulations are only a small step forward, but we are on the road that will lead to the saving of lives. I shall always support that approach.

I am dedicated to obtaining a safe filling for the furniture industry. There are those who say that there is no alternative. I can reel off the options. I can recite as many different forms of filling as they want to hear about. Such fillings are available throughout the country. There is an available product in Glasgow. I recognise that that is not Perth—I give that assurance to the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire—but it is not far away. A firm there is doing a first class job.

These fillings include coir fibre, fibre mat, cotton felt, pig's hair, hog's hair, webbing, and also springs, which would not be a bad idea to help give work to the unemployed in the steel industry. All can be brought into production. The right hon. Lady should strike a blow for British furniture by making sure that it is safe and giving those in the industry the chance to do their job. This would improve the industry and safety. We would not then be recalling next year that another 100 people had died.

11.10 pm
Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

It is an intrepid person who steps into the cauldron of this debate. I must go through what has become the ritualistic incantation: I have an interest to declare. I am connected with a company which manufactures flame-retardant chemicals. All my working life has been spent in the plastics or chemicals industry. At one time, I was employed by a company which had a substantial interest in the manufacture of polyurethane foams. I would claim to know a little about the subject that the House is discussing.

It is a difficult matter on which to make judgments to find the right balance. We are peering into the unknown in trying to determine the cause of fires and accidents. It is not wise to be dogmatic about the cause of a particular tragedy. My right hon. Friend the Minister, who may regard the compliment as a surprise, has struck the balance extraordinarily well in the present situation. She has to take account of furniture manufacturers, fabrics manufacturers, retailers, consumer choice and, above all, safety. Trying to get this complex equation right is difficult.

It is not straightforward simply to centre on one type of risk or accident and blow it up into the most ghastly issue to come before the House, out of all proportion to other incidents and substances. It is legitimate for my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) to explain that accident rates are variable in different sectors of life. As a father, I am conscious all the time that an appalling accident could befall my 17-month-old child. I wonder whether he will try to reach up and grab a pan off the stove. Does one conclude that cookers must be manufactured with a built-in guard?

I would not be able to support fully my hon. Friend in arguing that no action should be taken in one area because it might be less dangerous statistically than another. That would be an argument for bringing back, or making more freely available, some of the substances on which restrictions have been placed in the past.

A substantial number of hon. Members are, I believe, seeking moves in the same direction. No great issue of principle divides my right hon. Friend and me on the regulations. I merely ask whether any moves towards greater restrictions on materials used in upholstery should not be made more rapidly.

I well understand why my right hon. Friend has not felt it right to announce a date when the flame test should apply. But, human nature being what it is. without it there may not be the research and effort devoted to finding the right infill and cover materials and the designs of furniture that can improve standards of safety.

My right hon. Friend was criticised, unfairly, by the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) for taking time off to listen to representations. But no one would make representations if he did not think that he had a chance of swaying the person to whom he was making them. If people see no date in prospect—whether 5 years, 10 or even 15—their-minds are not concentrated. They say "It is a threat that will never come about. We can ward it off. We do not have to worry about it now."

The House must judge when we should tell people to worry a little more. In the interests of those whom my right hon. Friend is seeking to protect, is it not worth while going that little bit further or giving us a better insight into when she may make a move?

The arguments that we shall face are those that we heard in 31 pulsating minutes from the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown). If we are not careful, after one more harrowing incident we shall be bulldozed, knocked sideways. The balance that my right hon. Friend is trying to achieve will be sent flying, because great emotion will be centred on one substance, which might not be the danger that it has tonight been so vividly portrayed to be. There will be a demand, fuelled by irrational but understandable emotion, that we go in one highly prohibitive direction.

Therefore, it would be wise if we saw a date when the open flame test might apply. The regulations would be improved, or people's reaction to them would be improved. If my right hon. Friend cannot give a date, it will help the House if she can indicate when a review will be carried out and when she may announce her further thoughts on the subject.

Greater certainty would help everyone—retailers, manufacturers and the chemical companies. Assurances on the matter would lead to a greater feeling of confidence, not least among consumers, who, understandably, have been at the centre of the attention of the House tonight.

11.18 pm
Mr. Tom McNally (Stockport, South)

As the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) has just said, there is broad agreement with, and a broad welcome for, the Minister's proposals, with doubts about whether implementation is too fast or too slow.

However, I have been a trifle disappointed by some of the responses of the representatives of the retail trade. I shall not hammer any more nails into the coffin of the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker), but I do not think that his approach matches up to public concern. The retail industry would do itself a better service if instead of making debating points it recognised that there is genuine public concern. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) pointed out, we are dealing with a substance that seems to produce effects that are not common to other furniture fillers.

The Minister mentioned that I had been one of a number of lobbyists. That lobbying was done without any personal interest. It was a constituency interest in that British Trimmings operates in Stockport and the managing director wrote to me and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett). My initial response to the managing director's letter saying that the industry would be hard hit by the regulations was to write back and tell him that I believed in safety and that manufacturers should be interested in safety. I also said that I was not interested in exemptions.

The managing director invited us to his factory and explained to us the special problems of the trimming industry in producing an attractive finish. He said that if trimmings were not provided they might well be left off the finished article by the manufacturers. The argument and the issue of fireproofing impressed my hon. Friend and me sufficiently to persuade us to ask to see the Minister. She was also impressed by the argument we had heard, and I thank her for giving a lot of time to the problem.

My hon. Friend and I both impressed on our local industry that we wished to see rapid progress in research, and I am pleased to hear from the Minister that she has had asssurance from the national manufacturers. This is a reprieve for the trimmings side of the industry. I hope that it is a short reprieve and that the industry will press ahead with research and that it will eventually be able to offer fully fireproofed trimmings.

The firm of Sykes, old-established dyers and bleachers in Stockport, had branched out into fireproofing and is investing a lot of money in research and development of fireproofing. I visited Sykes and was impressed by two points that the firm made about the regulations. The first was that the means already exist to fireproof up to the standards specified in the regulations, including the flame test. The hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire tended to say that public purchasing was different from other purchasing, but I am not sure that it is as different as he suggested.

The standards demanded by the Property Services Agency are higher than those stipulated in the regulations. I saw evidence at the firm of Sykes that the kind of products being made there were not of the utility mark quality that the hon. Member suggested. My experience of the quality and standard demanded by the PSA in its public purchasing suggests to me that the gap that the hon. Member spoke of is not so great.

Mr. Bill Walker rose

Mr. McNally

No, I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He has had a good night. The gap is not so great as to be unbridgeable. Sykes' managers informed me that costings had been exaggerated. The costing for the treatment on which they are working adds only 10 per cent. to wholesale costs, which does not seem too high a price to pay for fire resistance.

I wished to make those points and thank the Minister for the breathing space she has given to the trimmings industry. I hope that she will convey to the industry generally that this is not the end of the road. The message that has emerged clearly from the debate is that the House wants action from the industry. If the manufacture of polyurethane is a £1,000 million industry within the furniture industry, the manufacturers have a grave responsibility to undertake research. I hope that the Minister will take that message to the manufacturers. The House is impatient for action and is committed to safety.

11.24 pm
Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

I shall be brief. I welcome the regulations, which are a matter of particular interest to me since the first issue that I took up with any Government Department after my election last May—it was the Home Department—concerned the problem of fire prevention. That was an issue allied to the matter under discussion tonight. I regret that the regulations do not give the protection that would have been given had the naked flame test been included.

I signed the early-day motion which sought to give a longer period to the manufacturers of furniture covers to carry out research and to implement a change in manufacturing methods. I understood that that might enable both tests to be included in the regulations. I am disappointed that it is not possible.

The flame test is in many ways more important than the cigarette test. The great danger from the cigarette is in beds and bedding, which are specifically excluded from the regulations. In the furniture which we are discussing, the great danger is from the naked flame which might originate from a cigarette. The source of a flame must be a smouldering cigarette or an electrical short circuit. It can set fire to a second item, which then sets fire to furniture which might contain one of the types of polyurethane foam to which reference has been made.

I take strong exception to the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) that polyurethane foam is not a killer. Polyurethane foam is a killer. It is quite different from other furniture fillings. It is the only one which gives off hydrogen cyanide gas. That distinguishes it from the other fillings.

It is common to put loose covers on furniture. New furniture is often protected by loose covers, which, sadly, are not included in the regulations. I can think of no reason why the regulations should not apply to them. If loose covers flame, the original material will give no protection against the flame reaching dangerous filling. That is one reason why the flame test should be included.

Chemical cleaners are used widely. Many cleaners are flammable and change the chemical composition of a material. A material might be made less safe after it has been cleaned. Modern house design also causes problems. In traditional houses built of brick with stout doors dividing one room from another, a fire can be confined to a relatively small part of a dwelling. However, over a number of years in my constituency a number of tragic fires have spread rapidly because they occurred in prefabricated permanent dwellings with open-plan designs. In such a house, a relatively small smouldering fire, when given a draught, is turned into a flame. Once again we are faced with the fact that what may have been only a smouldering cigarette or a spark from a fire when it fell on to the carpet or furnishings becomes a dangerous flame that affects the furniture and leads to the horrific results that hon. Members have so graphically described.

I do not wish to be churlish about the regulations. I welcome them on behalf of the many people who, over a period of time, will be protected by this small step. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to give a firm commitment tonight to introduce regulations which include the flame test at the earliest possible moment. Will she give some indication of when it will be possible to bring such regulations forward?

11.31 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

Having spent some time during the past month arguing with the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) about the Social Security Bill, and disagreeing with him over almost every line, it is pleasant to find myself agreeing with almost all that he said in his speech.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, South (Mr. McNally), I have considerable constituency interest in the regulations. Far too often I see items of furniture thrown out and tipped on odd corners in my constituency. I wish that people would take the trouble to take them to the tip rather than put them on any spare piece of land. It is sad that the industry has persuaded people to throw out serviceable old sofas made out of traditional materials and to replace them with something that amounts to a potential bomb in their homes. It would have been better if those items of furniture had been preserved and reupholstered rather than replaced with new sofas.

Some people are beginning to throw away new sofas. That causes a hazard to which no one has yet drawn attention. One of the traditional means to throw away old furniture is to give it to the kids for the bonfire. The old traditional sofas probably made the bonfire burn well. But having listened to the way in which foam-filled furniture burns in the house, I suggest that it would be crazy to give it to children to put on their bonfire. It could do a great deal of damage, and spoil any pleasure derived from the bonfire.

I have received many representations from the Fire Brigades Union in my constituency. Many of its members were involved in the Woolworth fire disaster. Time and again they have been to households where, in their view, the presence of a foam-filled item of furniture turned a nasty incident into a tragedy.

I do not think that the Minister was fair in her opening remarks when she criticised the Fire Brigades Union because it said that the foam should be treated as a special item. It said that the presence of the foam in a household creates a problem because, very often, it is not the item of furniture that catches fire, but the curtains, carpets or something else in the room. By the time the item of furniture becomes involved, the fire is established. It is at that point that the foam adds an extra dimension of hazard rather than the foam and the material around it being the original cause. Once a fire is established in a room, the foam makes the situation extremely dangerous.

The Minister said that representations had been made on behalf of British Trimmings. We were pleased to hear her progress report on that company's efforts to fire-proof trimmings. I hope that, in the near future, it will be able to fire-proof not only trimmings for furniture but all trimmings. In that way the hazard from curtains and other trimmings can be reduced. I welcome the exemption, but I hope that it will be necessary for a short period only.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, South, I am concerned about Sykes & Co., a firm in my area, which has been working hard to fire-proof fabrics. It makes the point that a barrier cloth has to be incorporated into all items of furniture supplied to the Government. This is one of the most effective ways of cutting down the fire risk. We saw demonstrations of the way in which a barrier cloth that had been fire-proofed, when used round foam, greatly reduced the hazards. It certainly increased the time available for people to get out of the danger area.

The regulations do not deal with the re-upholstering of old furniture. Most of the old furniture is made of traditional materials, but as the years go by more and more foam-filled furniture will need to be re-upholstered. That is exempted from the regulations, and I ask the Minister to say that when foam-filled furniture is being re-upholstered a barrier fabric should be used if the fabric that is being put on cannot meet the flame test. It seems to me that we ought to be concerned about re-upholstering as well as with new furniture.

This country should lead the world in furniture safety standards. If these regulations stop some of the imports that we have seen in recent years we ought to be pleased, because it is clear that much of British industry, when it tries to sell abroad, suffers from all sorts of regulations—some of them suggested by other countries for safety reasons. There is no reason why we should suffer from imports of a lower standard than we have a right to expect.

I hope that the Minister will make sure that these regulations are only a start and that they will be tightened up as soon as possible so that we can look forward to the time when foam is no longer a major hazard in households in this country.

11.37 pm
Mr. Donald Thompson (Sowerby)

It would be wrong for me to speak for more than a couple of minutes, because most of the points have been covered by others, but I must deal for a moment with the speech of the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown). He stretched his great knowledge of flexible foam very thinly over all uses of foam, and he was wrong when he strayed from the narrow matter on which he has exercised his mind for many years.

I can bring the hon. Gentleman certificates from the Manchester chamber of commerce and from the Department of Trade to show that life belts have been subjected to every possible test. I hope that when he is on a ship he does not have to grab the nearest life belt, because he will reject it, as it will very likely be made of polyurethane foam, which has saved many lives, and will continue to do so. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do his homework more thoroughly before he speaks again.

Many constituency points have been made, and there is only one left on my list. It relates to the materials and fluids used in making materials non-burnable. Is my right hon. Friend sure that these fluids are safe? Children like to suck the corner of a pillow. Some sit for hours sucking the end of a piece of material. Is my right hon. Friend sure that the chemical used in flame-retarding materials is safe in that respect?

11.39 pm
Mr. Raymond Whitney (Wycombe)

At the end of what has clearly been a long and interesting debate, I speak for what I claim to be the furniture capital of Great Britain—the place where some of the finest furniture in the world is produced.

I believe that my right hon. Friend the Minister has achieved something on which she must be congratulated. It has been a difficult balance to strike. Clearly, everyone connected with the furniture industry is well aware of the immense problems created by polyurethane foam and accepts that changes must take place.

Against that, we clearly must go carefully. Polyurethane foam has been used for 15 years or more. It has become an integral part of an important industry for many parts of the country. We would do great harm to our export trade if we moved precipitately. Therefore, the balance must be struck very carefully.

I particularly urge caution about the naked flame test, although I appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths). We must be careful about approving regulations which cannot be met. I hope that my hon. Friends will take that point to heart. We are not in the market for approving regulations which become meaningless. If no material passes the naked flame test, the choice is either to flout the regulations or virtually to destroy or do serious damage to an important industry.

I repeat that the balance is right. The furniture industry knows that the pressure is on and that the material manufacturers will work with it to find an answer to the problem. But that must be for the future. For the time being, the situation is correct as set out in the regulations.

11.42 pm
Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

We have had an interesting and important debate. I am glad that we have had it. Even if it had not been the occasion of the introduction of the regulations, it would still have been an important debate. The debate has been interesting in many ways, not least because many of the speeches have had all the characteristics of polyurethane foam. They have been explosive, quick to ignite and slow to extinguish.

I am puzzled by the sudden conversion of the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) to the cause of bringing in the naked flame test at the same time as the cigarette test. As far as I can ascertain, it was his intention, as a Minister, to bring in the tests in two stages with the match test coming second. If there is an about-turn, it is his, not mine. I made it clear that there woud be a limited time for the match test. There will be a limited time, and there is an implied limit in the regulations. As I have clearly said, given the right precondition it will be imposed at the earliest possible date. I hope that it will be possible at the same time as the cigarette test. If it is possible, I shall be delighted.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that aircraft seats are resistant to the naked flame. Of course they are. So is the Royal box at Covent Garden. But that does not mean that either can be afforded by the average consumer, let alone the poorer consumer. Only a relatively small proportion of available coverings meet the test or can be treated to do so. As soon as this range is reasonably increased, a date will be set.

I believe that the impetus will come from, among other things, the commercial advantage to whatever company produces a treatment which will meet the flame test over a widespread range of fabrics. If, however, I am not satisfied that reasonable progress is being made towards this end, I shall give added impetus by introducing a time limit even though an entirely adequate range may not at that time be available. The test is open-dated for the time being only.

I assure my hon. Friends that this matter will be kept under review not at a given moment but continually, so that I may be aware of what progress is being made in the industries concerned and can take action when it is appropriate to do so, because I appreciate the strength of feeling that there is about this matter.

I repeat to hon. Members who have expressed concern about the timing of the flame test that I am convinced that the numbers of fires originating from naked flames are fewer than fires from smouldering cigarettes. They are also far less dangerous because they are immediately noticeable when they occur, whereas the smouldering cigarette may go unnoticed for a considerable time.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Does the Minister agree that the fire that occurred in Stirling—which I mentioned in my speech—is one of which she should take particular note tonight?

Mrs. Oppenheim

I shall deal with that in a moment, when I comment on the remarks of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris).

My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) was right to bring to the attention of the House the fact that the regulations are far more rigorous than any other regulations in the world, and in particular far more rigorous than those in the State of California. The reason why it has been possible to make them more rigorous is the existence of the relevant British standard. If that British standard existed in the United States that country's regulations would be as stringent as ours. I congratulate the British Standards Institution on producing this standard. I understand that Irish regulations will soon be based on the same standard.

The hon. Member for Wythenshawe—

Mr. Morris

The right hon. Member.

Mrs. Oppenheim

I apologise. The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe made a forceful speech. I understand and sympathise with his strong feelings on this matter after having recently experienced a considerable tragedy in his constituency. I express my sympathies to all his constituents and to everyone else concerned.

A great deal of what the right hon. Gentleman said, though naturally emotional, was based on at least two, and probably three, fallacies. The report of the committee on the Woolworth fire did not impute the cause to a lighted match. It clearly said that the cause of the fire could not be established with any certainty.

Mr. Morris

Did not the report allow the possibility that the fire was caused by a dropped lighted match?

Mrs. Oppenheim

No; it said that that was unlikely. It said that the cause could not be clearly established.

The report also made clear the distinction between the hazards generated by large dense quantities of polyurethane foam stored in public places and the dangers of single units of furniture made from polyurethane foam used in the home. Obviously, the problems of storage of large quantities of polyurethane furniture are serious, even though the furniture is probably wrapped in wax paper. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has taken prompt action. It does not necessarily mean that homes should be equipped with the same safeguards as are required in public premises.

The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe spoke of a number of tragedies concerning children. Of course, one has the greatest sympathy with the parents involved. I wonder, however, whether the right hon. Gentleman has placed as much emphasis on warnings to parents not to leave matches and lighted cigarettes about as he has placed on the dangers of polyurethane foam. People need warnings about that, and they will be warned after October this year.

Mr. Morris

I called in my speech for a massive public information campaign to warn the British people of the danger in their homes, and that should be part of the campaign.

Mrs. Oppenheim

The regulations are the first part of the campaign. Every piece of furniture will have to carry such a warning, and it will be a permanent warning.

When we are discussing an emotive subject it is important that we should recognise that any Government can do just so much to protect people and that they should do as much as possible to protect them. But there always has to be an element of personal responsibility, and that should be encouraged as much as possible. That is why the warning element in the regulations is so important.

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) made a valid-sounding point about children's furniture. The reason why this has been exempted from the regulations is that the kind of furniture that was envisaged in the exemptions was furniture such as high chairs and other items such as rocking horses with seats, which contain little or no polyurethane foam. If there were evidence of the production of children's furniture containing large quantities of polyurethane foam, one would want to withdraw that exemption.

Mr. Greville Janner

Will the Minister be good enough to say that if such evidence is brought before her she will withdraw this exemption? There is quite a lot of upholstered furniture with this sort of foam, such as tiny couches and chairs, specially made for small children.

Mrs. Oppenheim

I can reassure the hon. and learned Gentleman that, as the debate has shown, I would always be prepared to consider any reasonable representations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Cockeram) spoke with expertise in his field. His views were very valuable. He made a valuable contribution to the debate on the whole issue. I reassure him that if he reads the regulations carefully he will see that the points on which he sought assurances are already fully covered.

The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) made the predictable speech. I do not in any way wish to denigrate what he said, because he has long fought a worthy campaign. He and I do not agree. He has also made his representations to me with members of his union. I think he would agree that I listened to those and gave them fair consideration. He deserves credit for putting forcefully something about which he feels very strongly. However, his hon. Friend the Member for Norwood has already said, with knowledge of the background of this problem in my Department, that it is simply not practical to ban polyurethane foam. There is no practical alternative.

The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch has suggested in previous debates that we should go back to the old-fashioned types of upholstery. That would certainly provide a great deal more work for the members of the union that he represents, but it would also result in very much more expensive furniture for the consumer. I ask the hon. Gentleman to go out in his constituency and ask his constituents who are consumers, and not necessarily members of his union, whether they are prepared to pay double or treble the present price for furniture of that nature, or, indeed, whether they would be able to afford to do so.

If this were a practical solution, surely one of the working parties or one of the fire prevention committees which have been set up to look into this very vexed problem would have made such a recommendation. No committee has made such a recommendation. After having considered all the dangers involved, the hon. Gentleman's own Government, quite rightly, did not propose such a ban. If it were practical, of course it would be an ideal solution. Also, there is the impetus among manufacturers of fillings for furniture to find a safe and cheap foam, because the sooner they can do that the sooner they could scoop the market by helping people to comply with the regulations far more economically than they could otherwise comply with them.

Mr. Ronald W. Brown

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Oppenheim

No, I cannot give way. The hon. Gentleman made a very long speech.

The hon. Gentleman referred also to self-combustion. Again, I must tell him, as I have told him previously, that there is no conclusive evidence of self-combustion. He has told me stories about cushions that he keeps in his garage, which keep getting hotter all the time. But, as I have not read of any events in the newspaper, although he says that they have been there for a considerable time, I presume that they have not yet exploded. Indeed, I hope that they will never explode, because that would mean a great loss to the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) made a very reasonable and helpful contribution. I give him the undertaking which he sought that the flame test will be introduced as soon as possible. It is possible that it could coincide with the cigarette test if the technology is available to enable this to be done.

The hon. Member for Stockport, South (Mr. McNally) recognised the importance of the sensible and practical balance for which I have striven. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) also called for the flame test. I hope that the reassurances that I have given will satisfy him.

The hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett), although he was responsible for causing us to debate this measure far later at night than any of us would have wished, nevertheless made a valid point about children being given old furniture to throw on bonfires. When I give my annual warning before bonfire night about safety measures, I shall make that point, which is genuine and valid.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Although the right hon. Lady blames me for causing this debate to be held now, does she agree that it was fully justified in being taken on the Floor of the House and not stuck in a Committee room upstairs?

Mrs. Oppenheim

I am not blaming the hon. Gentleman for having the debate. I am glad that we are having it. I thought that I was the instigator of it. However, I think that a number of people would have enjoyed debating the measure at a different time of day at greater leisure.

Claims were made by the Opposition that I had succumbed to the furniture lobby. No doubt they will have gathered during the debate from the expressions of disquiet of a number of my hon. Friends that that is far from being the case.

A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House declared, correctly, one interest or another in this matter. I have only one interest to declare, and that is the interest of the consumer, in every sense—as to safety, choice and cost. The regulations represent an important first step that goes further than any Government have gone before—further than the previous Government went and further than any Government in the world has yet gone. I am proud to introduce the regulations. I wish that the support from the Opposition had been less grudging. I think that that does them no credit. I am proud to commend the regulations to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Upholstered Furniture (Safety) Regulations 1980, which were laid before this House on 2nd April, be approved.