HC Deb 03 May 1983 vol 42 cc206-12

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

5.45 am
Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

I am not sure that the dawn of a new day is the best time to communicate clearly about safety glazing, but I shall do my best.

This debate follows a debate nearly three years ago on 18 July 1980 when I urged the Government to implement regulations on safety glazing particularly on patio doors and other large glazed areas. Certain actions were taken and I commend the Minister for that.

I am dealing with the topic again for two reasons. The first is my anxiety about the code of practice, BS 6262, and the second is the number of tragic accidents in recent weeks resulting in a number of deaths allegedly associated with certain types of double glazing. It is clear that fixed double glazing causes most concern.

Most double glazing is of enormous benefit throughout the country. It certainly conserves heat, keeps out noise and has created a highly successful major industry. I do not wish to knock or put at a disadvantage the respectable companies, a number of which have been extremely kind to me over the years in terms of making facilities available to me to enable me to visit factories. I refer to companies such as Alcan, Doulton and others. I commend the work of the Glass and Glazing Federation and the trouble that its members have taken to brief hon. Members.

I have been a proponent of the use of safety glazing in major hazardous areas and have pushed the issue over the years. If a bedroom has fixed double glazing made from laminated glass, a desperate problem is caused if someone wants to get out of the room in an emergency. I am not a small man, and I should have great difficulty getting through a sheet of laminated glass, even if a hammer was conveniently to hand. Without a hammer, I should have no hope.

Toughened glass also causes problems. Not quite the same force is needed to break it, but, as anyone who has driven a car knows, a stone can take a chunk out of a windscreen without smashing it. The majority of windscreens are made of toughened glass.

I have thought about the problem in depth in the last few weeks and it seems that there is still a problem with double glazed annealed glass, the ordinary glass used by the average householder. I say that, not because an adult would have difficulty getting through a pane of annealed glass, but small children between five and seven years of age and elderly people could have trouble getting through two panes of such glass, especially if plastic film is between the two.

I do not know the exact incidence of fixed double glazing, although I know that it is considerable. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us with some figures. It is clear, however, that where it occurs it constitutes a major danger. In my view, the potential danger is sufficiently great for the Government to take action to ban fixed double glazing. By this I mean glazing which does not allow the window to be opened by sliding or by any other means. In this context, I look for three actions from the Government.

First, I hope that the Minister will take action to mount a publicity campaign. In is desperately important that the public understand the dangers associated with this kind of double glazing. Secondly, will the Minister consider the possibility of banning this type of double glazing through the building regulations? Thirdly, I urge him to suggest to the Treasury that the implications for life are such that there should be special provision for a limited period of, say, a year, whereby people who have already installed fixed double glazing may obtain a 50 per cent. grant to change it to opening glazing.

That is the area of greatest concern to the public in relation to double glazing.

The other aspect, in which I have been interested for many years, relates to British Standard 6262. Here I am indebted to a number of people who have taken an interest in this over time, not least the Bletchley Timber Company in a neighbouring constituency. The men in charge of the glazing shop there knew of my interest in the matter and asked me to visit them, which I did. They wanted to point out a number of problems that has arisen in relation to BS6262.

At present, I am satisfied that BS6262 has to a large extent solved the patio door and internal glass door problem. Nevertheless, the new code is not understood by the public and at times of recession when money is tight they do not understand why they have to pay more for some types of glazing. I shall give one or two examples.

The existing code suggests that 6mm annealed glass can be used in low level exposed areas. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has done a great deal of work in experimentation and survey in this area, not least in studying the 20,000 accidents per year involving glass. It takes the view that the present proposal for 6mm annealed glass in low level areas is hazardous.

Furthermore, I have discovered that not only is it a hazard but there are a number of loopholes. I mention just one in relation to the import of Taiwanese hardwood doors, the routing on which is of sufficient depth to accommodate only 4mm annealed glass, so even the existing recommended standards cannot be met. I know that the import of these doors is the subject of an EC antidumping case, but I do not think that that is likely to meet with much success in the short term. In the meantime, hundreds if not thousands of the doors continue to be imported and installed in homes in a very dangerous way.

I mentioned earlier the appalling lack of public awareness of safety glass and when and how it should be used. A recent survey conducted by National Opinion Polls for one manufacturer showed that only 8 per cent. of women knew what laminated glass was, and that 49 per cent. knew about toughened glass. That means that half the housewives in this country are ignorant about genuine safety glass. That is a worrying figure in this day and age.

I can summarise my plea to the Minister. A frightening combination of ignorance about safety and double glazing calls for urgent Government attention. They need to mount at an early stage a substantial publicity campaign to highlight the dangers. We need to examine the building regulations to determine whether they can be amended, first, in relation to BS6262 to ensure that we comply with all its implications and, secondly, to implement some revision to accommodate the low level glass in exposed areas and some of the loopholes such as the Taiwanese doors. With the experience of BS6262 in action, I hope that the Minister will be brave enough to make it part of the building regulations.

There is an urgent need to give thought to how to deal with what may be several thousands of houses fitted with fixed double glazing. I have explained how that is dangerous. I suspect that the general public are anxious. The Government should take urgent action to encourage people to exchange their existing fixed double glazing for some form of flexible double glazing that can be opened, and thereby provide safety and security to those asleep in their homes.

5.57 am
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) has raised an important matter that concerns the safety of us all in our homes. He did so in a manner that was both well informed and reasonable, as one would expect of him. I hope to respond positively to some of his suggestions.

Glazing in modern housing is used for a variety of essential purposes. Where it is properly installed and used, it can be of enormous benefit to householders. In recent years there has been an increasing trend to replace existing traditional windows with double glazing or fixed glazing. My hon. Friend mentioned some of the benefits that an owner might consider when installing that type of glazing. For example, the installation of double glazing and fixed glazing can deter burglars. Noise insulation grants are paid to occupiers where traffic noise or aircraft noise levels are high. My hon. Friend mentioned thermal insulation. Double glazing conserves energy and saves heat loss.

On the other hand, serious problems can arise that can, sadly, sometimes prove fatal. Between 1973 and 1976, 76 children under 14 years of age were killed from falls from windows. Other statistics from a Building Research Establishment study published in 1981 estimated that some 16,000 accidents per year involving architectural glass took place, which required hospital treatment. Such accidents are distressing and serious. Many could have been avoided.

Recent press coverage has drawn attention to the dangers associated with the installation of some forms of modern domestic glazing. A number of recent tragic deaths have occurred in domestic fires and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department has asked for a report into the circumstances surrounding these fires. I shall return to these specific events a little later. My hon. Friend will understand that this is a fairly wide subject area with many interests concerned. There are manufacturers, installers, housebuilders, several Government Departments, local authorities, standard-setting bodies, safety organisations and consumers. I shall outline the present role of Government in the preservation of public health and safety and then consider some of my hon. Friend's suggestions in his most constructive speech.

As my hon. Friend knows, standards are laid down in the building regulations. Part K of the regulations contains a requirement that there must be a ventilation opening—usually a window—of one-fifth of the floor area in any habitable room that is not mechanically ventilated. In new house design the usual practice is to provide an opening window of an adequate size. The regulations are designed to ensure that dwellings are adequately ventilated. If windows are fixed, then ventilation is obtained by means of louvres.

Part E of the regulations is designed to ensure that buildings are so constructed that if fire breaks out it does not spread in a manner that would endanger the life of the occupants. Section 2 of part E contains requirements relating to means of escape in case of fire for flats and maisonettes above two storeys.

The requirements state that there shall be adequate means of escape which can be used at all material times. Such means of escape consist basically of exits and internal escape routes in the building. There are no requirements for flats or maisonettes to have opening windows for escape purposes. There are no requirements in the current building regulations for special means of escape to be provided in one or two-storey homes, flats or maisonettes. In an emergency, occupants would leave through the usual exits.

To encourage unassisted escape by occupants via windows on either floor of two-storey dwellings could be hazardous in itself. Leaping from windows unnecessarily, without fire brigade assistance, is sometimes fatal.

Consideration has been given in the past to the use of windows in terms of escape requirements in the building regulations. I am aware, too, that the Scottish building regulations contain requirements for the construction of, and external access to, windows to allow escape in case of fire. These regulations do not apply to two-storey dwelling houses.

It would be possible to regulate specifically for a window opening to be provided in each habitable room in new dwellings. British standard code of practice CP3-Chapter IV, advises that one window to each habitable room should be capable of being used as an escape route. Whilst new building could be adequately controlled, a problem would arise in monitoring and enforcing the regulations where DIY activity takes place. I can shed no specific statistical light on the incidence of fixed glazing, but if there are statistics available I shall write to my hon. Friend.

The building regulations do not, at present, control the thickness or toughness of glass or the design of window frames. However, the Government play a full part in the activities of the British Standards Institution which has a code of practice that my hon. Friend mentioned —B56262 — for glazing for buildings. The code gives recommendations for the design, installation and maintenance of all types of architectural glass and plastic glazing sheet materials for the external walls and interiors of buildings.

The performance of glass is considered in terms of sound, safety, security, integrity in fire, loading, durability and maintenance. The quality and safety of glass installed in buildings is therefore important.

My hon. Friend said that he regards the standard as satisfactory for patios and indoor glass doors, but hoped for improvements and further progress. He said that he would like to see safety glazing in low level exposed areas, for example, in doors.

I agree with my hon. Friend that this is one area where young children are particularly prone to accidents and to the serious consequences that can follow. This may be one area in the code that needs to be looked at again.

The imports of Taiwanese doors and their provision to take only 4ram glass, and not safety glass, are matters which need to be considered. I shall be grateful if my hon. Friend supplies further details in due course. I shall take up the matter in the Department and with other Departments that are involved. I shall consider the case for change against the background of the evidence presented by my hon. Friend. As I have said, BS6262 is one area that might be considered again in the light of what my hon. Friend has said.

There are many different factors which will inevitably be weighed by householders in choosing what type of window glazing to install. Safety, security, comfort and costs will figure prominently in the choice.

Some of the reasons for installing double glazing are complementary and are aimed at common objectives, for example, comfort and security. Concern has arisen recently about the fact that the installation of certain types of glazing without opening windows might create a potential hazard for occupants if a fire were to break out.

My hon. Friend has asked the Government to consider placing a ban on all fixed double glazing and to undertake a major publicity campaign to warn the public about the dangers of fixed double glazing.

While information currently available does not suggest that fixed double glazing has been a material factor in causing casualties from fire, it would be premature for me to comment on recent specific tragic events while investigations into their cause are being carried out for my right hon. Friend, and inquests are pending.

Nevertheless, my hon. Friend may wish to be reminded that my right hon. Friend announced on 21 April 1983, in reply to a question from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), that he accepted that a potential safety hazard might arise from certain types of fixed glazing, and that he was considering how this might be drawn to the attention of the public. In this context, I welcome the initiative of the Greater London council and the London Fire Brigade in mounting a television advertising campaign in the Thames Television area designed to highlight the fire safety hazards of certain do-it-yourself activities, including the possible consequences of the installation of double-glazing units which cannot be opened.

The Home Office is considering, in consultation with the fire service representative organisations and other interested parties, how publicity could best be achieved elsewhere. I hope that my lion. Friend will take that as a step in the direction that he mentioned.

I am less optimistic about the Treasury. My hon. Friend has suggested that consideration be given to the provision of a 50 per cent. grant to those wishing to change their double-glazing from the fixed variety to sliding double-glazed units. There are, as he knows, many demands upon resources in the housing field, and priorities must be given to various parts of our overall programme. The implications of recent events are not yet clear, as I have said, and my immediate reaction must be that a more cost-effective answer to the potential hazard created by he installation of some types of glazing would seem to lie in increasing the awareness of installers and householders to the risks they run if a fire breaks out and a non-openable unit has been installed.

As my hon. Friend knows, there has been a great deal of public interest in the matters that he has raised tonight, and rightly so, because safety standards in our homes must remain a high priority.

We will review our policies in the light of the reports asked for by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department and what my hon friend has said in tonight's important debate. While I can give no commitment on specific measures now, I can say that the areas which we intend to study carefully are: the publicity measures that he mentioned which can draw the public's attention to the dangers from fire in the home, the guidance which might come from the trade itself, and whether an amendment to the building regulations is required for an opening window for escape purposes in dwellings in case of fire. I hope that my hon. Friend will think that is a useful step in the direction that he has commended to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Six o'clock am.