HC Deb 09 November 1987 vol 122 cc137-44

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

12.2 am

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

It gives me great pleasure to introduce this Adjournment debate on an issue relating to fire safety and the promotion of fire safety measures, in this instance, smoke detectors.

I should declare an interest as an honorary adviser to the Greater Manchester civil defence authority. I took up that post on my election to Parliament as I had been a former member of that authority. As a member of that authority one has the harrowing experience, at meeting after meeting, of reading fire reports showing loss of life, horrendous personal injuries and loss of property. Those reports become the all too familiar press headline, "Family wiped out", "Mother trapped with baby", "Father dies trying to rescue children", "The heroism of the fire fighters".

Behind the press headlines are the chilling facts. Each year there are 700 deaths and 7,000 injuries. More than 50 per cent. of fatalities involve the very old or the very young. Do we accept such deaths as inevitable in an age when human kind can harness the power of gas, electricity, coal and paraffin for better living, when the misnamed "pleasure" of smoking and the misuse of matches is so widespread and carelessness can arise with all fuels because of alcohol abuse? I think not.

It is not for me as a Scot, albeit from the safety of the south Lancashire coalfields, to argue that an Englishman's home should not be his castle, but I shall argue for some way in which we can ensure that the castle remains a safe haven rather than a seething cauldron of flame and toxic fumes that all too often ends in tragedy.

Smoke detectors are not a panacea that will dramatically alter the rate of fatalities and imjuries overnight or cut the millions of pounds lost to the economy each year because of fires. They must be seen in context of the flammability of domestic furnishings. I pay credit to the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) who, on 1 July this year, introduced a debate on the flammability of domestic furnishings.

It is suggested that 3,000 lives will be lost over the next 10 years because of the flammability of domestic furnishings, and that, from other sources, a further 4,000 lives will be lost. It is in fighting fires involving polyurethane that the role of fire fighters has been changed radically and dramatically. Because of the flash-over point of between two and four minutes and the fact that the estimated arrival time of the fire brigade is between five and eight minutes, all too often the fire brigade goes not to save life but simply to cool down the area, use breathing apparatus and bring out the families.

Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene, as well as for his acknowledgment of the Adjournment debate that I introduced some time ago. Does he acknowledge the work that the Department of Trade and Industry has done, particularly my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Corporate and Consumer Affairs? He has gone a stage further by introducing arrangements for a match test for such material as the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Mr. McCartney

Later in the debate I shall give some details of my views on the Government's position on that and in general on their attitude towards smoke detectors. I welcome the movement of the Government, but I shall await the final consultation to see whether that movement has been sufficient for those on both sides of the House who want a radical change.

Even if there is a radical change, we must accept that for the next 15 or 20 years a huge proportion of family homes will have within them combustible materials, which, at a flash-over point of two to four minutes, will still raise the horrendous possibility of a large-scale loss of life annually. Therefore the issues of foam-filled materials and smoke detectors are inextricably linked.

Over the past 10 years the fire services have been well aware of the need to change attitudes to the introduction of new technology—foam technology, ladder technology and telecommunications technology. On that score the fire service has been well served by ACO Bob Graham of Greater Manchester fire authority, the author of "Fire Safety in the Home" and CFO Karron of West Yorkshire, who did a great deal of work on promoting fire detectors in the community.

To be fair to the Government, the Home Office and the Department of Trade and Industry have responded to the pressure. Indeed, on 29 April this year Lord Caithness made a statement on behalf of the Government about fire detectors. He said: Smoke detectors can give those precious few minutes warning which could make the difference between life arid death. They can make a valuable contribution to fire safety, but, sadly, too few households know about their benefits arid their relatively low cost. We are lagging behind other countries in their installation and are paying the price, in a horrifying toll of death and injury. "Lagging behind other countries" is a significant but sad admission. I shall therefore refer to the experiences of Sweden and the United States on smoke detectors.

In 1981 the Swedish Fire Protection Association informed the Government of the day that only 79,000 homes in Sweden had smoke detectors. The association and the Government set themselves a target for 1986 of 60 per cent. of all homes being fitted with smoke detectors—2.3 million homes. They said that it would reduce property damage by 10 per cent. and the death rate by tires by 20 per cent. They also did a cost-benefit calculation, which showed that over 10 years' installation costs would amount to £2.3 million per annum while damage costs would be reduced to £5 million per annum, a net gain of £27 million to the Swedish economy.

The Swedish Government introduced the first stage of the five-year plan in 1982 with a series of television commercials. By Christmas, more than 400,000 devices had been sold. In 1983, almost 50 per cent. of one-family homes in Sweden had smoke detectors, and insurance companies started a programme of distributing smoke detectors free to policy holders. In 1984, about 700,000 smoke detectors were sold. One hundred lives had been saved directly because of the introduction of the device, and 45 per cent. of the population was covered by smoke detectors. In 64 per cent. of one family-households, smoke detectors had been introduced, while 83 per cent. had no problems with the alarms. Within 24 months, the Swedish Government were well on their way to reaching their 1986 target.

The problem in the United States, with its different federal and state legislatures, is more complex and we do not have time to discuss it now. But I recommend the House and the Minister to read "Fire Safety in the Home" by Bob Graham, especially pages 25 to 31, which set out in detail the experience of the Greater Manchester fire authority's investigations into the American experience of smoke detectors. The new legislation introduced at federal and state level has cut by half the risk of death by fire. Most small fires are now dealt with at source by the householder, and fire safety awareness has increased dramatically. The introduction of such safety measures into households will increase people's awareness, and there is a new consciousness in people's reactions and attitudes to fire safety.

The installation of free smoke detectors in the homes of low-income families was the most important lesson learnt by the United States authorities. Those who need protection most are those with the least means to obtain it. The Government must tackle that central issue. Those who are most in need must not be left to the last if the Government decide to introduce a national scheme.

I welcome the views expressed by the Home Office and Department of Trade and Industry officials at the Fire Protection Association meeting on 12 June. They expressed support for several key elements: first, a pilot television advertising scheme; secondly, a home safety check scheme; and, thirdly, free provision for groups most at risk. I congratulate the Home Office and the Labour-controlled Tameside borough council on the recently announced pilot scheme to introduce smoke detectors to about 5,000 council homes at a cost of £50,000. My fire authority will monitor the success of the scheme, and we should wish everyone concerned in it well, in terms of its introduction and its effect in reducing the number of fires, fatalities and serious injuries.

The most recent data show that 83 per cent. of home fire deaths could have been influenced by the introduction of smoke detectors. In 48 per cent. of deaths, the time between ignition and the discovery of the fire was estimated at a staggering 30 minutes. There is no doubt that an early warning system would have played a significant part in saving many of those who perished.

I hope that the Minister will discuss the promotion of such a scheme. I wish to mention seven measures—I call them the magnificent seven. The first relates to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his next Budget. Will the Minister ask the Chancellor to reduce to zero, VAT on the sale of smoke detectors, and to consider the possibility of providing resources for free adaption to families on supplementary benefit or low incomes? Will he ask the Secretary of State for the Environment to consider changes in building regulations for new build and refurbishment? This is not an attempt to introduce more red tape. It costs, on average, £35,000 to £40,000 to build a new house and between £12,000 and £15,000 to refurbish an old one. With that sort of expenditure, it would seem common sense to introduce in the building regulations an awareness that, when that money is spent, included within that expense is a facility to include smoke detectors in redevelopments and refurbishments.

Thirdly, much money is spent by local government through improvement and repair grants on older properties. When improving and repairing properties it would seem sensible if cognisance were given to the introduction of smoke detectors.

Fourthly, I would like the Minister to look at local authorities' HIP allocations for refurbishment and rewiring programmes. In my constituency, for example, £3 million is currently being spent on house improvement on one of our run-down estates. Again, it would seem sensible if, included in that expenditure, was an allocation for smoke detectors. It is precisely in that sort of estate where major problems arise—where many fires, loss of life and injuries occur. In such large schemes it would seem sensible to include fire safety measures.

Fifthly, the Government are placing great stress on the role of housing associations. I would like to see housing association funds used to encourage housing associations to include smoke detectors in their refurbishment programmes.

Sixthly, the most difficult area in which to legislate is multi-occupancy dwellings. We need fire prevention regulations that require owners to install smoke detectors to a standard that one would expect in an ordinary dwelling house, but with an additional row frame sprinkler system to be fitted as part of a fire containment programme. In the United States there has been a dramatic decrease in fires in multi-occupancy properties because of fire containment programmes, at little cost but saving many lives and a great deal of property.

The seventh issue is security and insurance. The Government should exert pressure on companies to give discounted premiums to householders who fit smoke detectors. The Association of County Councils, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities the Child Accident Prevention Trust, the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers' Association and the Fire Brigades Union would generally support my views.

In conclusion, I ask the Government to reconvene the discussions held on 12 June with the Fire Protection Association so that priority can be given to the preparation of a five-year programme with targets similar to the schemes introduced in Sweden and the United States with such dramatic results. To do anything else is to be a handmaiden to the continuing unacceptable levels of carnage that currently exist around the nation's firesides.

12.18 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) for raising this subject and for the brief contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory).

I appreciate that the hon. Member for Makerfield has wide experience in this area. I acknowledge that fact and pay tribute to him for the work that he has done. He is right in saying that recent statistics produced by the Home Office show that about 700 people are killed in fires in the home every year and another 7,000 are injured. We believe that many of those deaths and injuries could be avoided if early warning of fire could be given while there was still a chance of escaping from the premises. It may interest the hon. Gentleman to know, if he does not already, that the 700 figure that he quoted has been constant over the past few years, but that the 7,000 injured figure has increased.

We believe that smoke detectors could help, but the potential benefits are not simple to assess. Fire conditions such as smoke behaviour and detection are especially complex and there may be equal or greater benefits to be derived from emphasising normal fire precautions, practice and personal vigilance. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that fire brigades throughout the country have played a significant part in increasing public awareness.

It cannot be assumed that one smoke detector in every home would give adequate warning of all house fires. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman knows of the joint research project that the Home Office is planning with the Tameside metropolitan borough council and the Greater Manchester county fire service, under which it is hoped to install smoke detectors in more than 5,000 homes in the Tameside area.

The neighbourhoods and dwellings selected for installations will be on a random basis to reflect as wide a cross-section of the community as possible. I listened to what the hon. Gentleman said about those who are on low incomes, and many of these people will be covered by the pilot scheme to which I have referred. The results of the scheme will be carefully monitored over a three-year period to ascertain the effectiveness of smoke detectors in alerting occupants to the outbreak of fire and reducing casualties. The proposed initiative will not offer the relevant households any guarantee of safety from fire in the home, although it will undoubtedly provide significant early warning potential if a fire occurs. Some valuable lessons are expected to be learnt from the experience of those who may be involved in the scheme. The Home Office is actively considering the possibility of a similar project elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman has referred to building regulations, and he will be aware that currently they do not require the installation of smoke detectors. However, my Department is conducting a technical survey that will include a review of all the regulations. The consultation document that we issued recognised that there was scope for allowing a trade-off between active measures for fire protection, such as sprinklers and smoke detectors, and current passive measures such as structural fire resistance and compartmentation.Trade-offs will allow the degree of compartmentation or perhaps other matters now required by the regulations to be relaxed if active measures are used.

Mr. McCartney

Is this trade-off to be something similar to that which has been introduced in the United States, where the authorities, in active co-operation with the construction industry, are offering alternative building regulations? In some instances, compartments are most advisable in new constructions and in others smoke detectors and other measures are to be recommended. Will the trade-off be similar to that?

Mr. Trippier

My answer must be in two parts. First, the review to which I have referred is still at an early stage. We are seeking advice and opinions from everyone who is involved. We shall take full cognisance of what the hon. Gentleman has said; I am sure that that will impress him. Secondly, we must be careful to try to strike the right balance between deregulation and increased regulation. We have often believed that increased regulation, especially in the building industry, can act as a disincentive to enterprise. We must balance that consideration with the safety factor, which the hon. Gentleman has rightly dealt with at considerable length. It is our purpose to achieve the right balance, and we shall study all these matters and make comparisons with the United States.

For the moment, the possibility of trade-offs is being considered for buildings such as offices and shops which are covered by legislation for continuing control when the buildings are occupied. In domestic buildings, continuing control is a problem. Domestic smoke detectors can be simpler and cheaper than commercial types. They are mostly self-contained devices and they are often powered by batteries. There is concern about the lack of maintenance of such systems and the possibility of misuse.

Domestic smoke detectors are meant to be fix-and forget types that do not need much maintenance. The manufacturers thought that it should suffice to test the detectors by pressing the test button at monthly intervals. However, that was not enough. According to research in the United States, one third of installed domestic detectors in Dallas, Texas are not in working order, mainly because they have not been maintained properly. Detectors may suffer from an accumulation of dust and so on, so regular inspection and occasional cleaning are necessary. That concerns me, just as it will concern the hon. Gentleman.

Nevertheless, the desirability and cost-effectiveness of using smoke detectors for domestic buildings needs to be seriously examined. Any reservations about continuing control and misuse have to be balanced against the undoubted advantage of early fire detection assisting with life safety. To that end, my Department is currently undertaking a study of the potential of automatic smoke detection as a means of improving life safety in residential buildings.

We are considering the research that has already taken place in the United Kingdom and overseas and propose to move to an experimental programme which will examine the performance of various types of smoke detection tinder different fire conditions. However, building regulations apply only to new dwellings or dwellings subject to significant structural alteration. We have never imposed requirements retrospectively on buildings in single family occupation — whether owner-occupied or rented. Fire safety is no exception to that rule.

Mr. McCartney

I understand the Minister's point about the difficulties involved. However, when it comes to refurbishment, authorities have an obligation to agree a schedule of works and at that point, there may be a way round the problem. In providing grant it could be specified that the schedule of works must include a requirement to include smoke detection measures.

Mr. Trippier

It would be wrong if I said that we would ignore that point. We can certainly consider it while conducting our pilot scheme in the greater Manchester area.

The hon. Gentleman referred to resources for local authorities to fit smoke detectors. The local authorities' housing investment programme allocations are largely distributed in relation to a number of basic indicators of need—for example, to take account of housing stock condition and the need for renovation. These do not specifically include a measure of need for smoke detectors. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how that could be done. However, it is for local authorities to determine their spending priorities within the resources available to them and as the House heard last Tuesday, gross provision for local authorities' expenditure on housing has been increased for 1988–89 and for the third consecutive year to over£3 billion.

In April this year we published a revised edition of the booklet "Smoke Detectors in the Home", which is available to the public, free of charge, from local fire brigades. I see that the hon. Gentleman has it. I am impressed to discover that about 658,000 copies of the booklet have been given out in the past six months, along with a further 12,000 copies of a shorter leaflet on the subject.

To increase public awareness of the importance of these devices a pilot television advertising campaign is planned in the Tyne Tees television area to promote better awareness of the value of smoke detectors. The success of that campaign will have to be monitored and if, as is hoped, this demonstration is successful, consideration will be given to extending it nationally. No doubt the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.

My Department has already advised that the costs of providing any necessary means of escape from fire may be acceptable for improvement grant purposes. In the case of houses in multiple occupation, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, special grant is available towards the cost of such works. It is for local authorities to decide whether the provision of smoke detectors and alarms could be included as eligible works in any particular case to bring a property to the relevant standard. However, in the Department's view, it would not be appropriate for such works to attract grant unless they formed part of a wider scheme of improvement. Quite apart from the statutory provisions, it would clearly not be cost effective for grants to be assessed in respect of works costing only a few pounds and works which are unrelated to the basic condition of the property.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Would grants for smoke detectors be made available to homes that were considered particularly vulnerable to fire? There are what are called Spooner houses with timber frames in Heath in my constituency. Within the past three years there has been a fatality—three people were involved—and a fire gutted such a house. In such circumstances it might be appropriate if smoke detectors were installed. Will the improvement grant system relate to such buildings? Has anything emerged from the experiments under the Tameside scheme to direct assistance towards homes that are expected to be especially vulnerable?

Mr. Trippier

Nothing in the Tameside scheme deals with home improvement grants. I think that the hon. Member for Makerfield would acknowledge that. In answer to the first question, such grants may be appropriate, but there could not be access to a home improvement grant unless it was for a wider scheme of improvement. We have to devise a system whereby it would be cost effective for grants to be assessed. Obviously, that would be extremely difficult in relation to work that would cost only a small sum.

Mr. McCartney


Mr. Trippier

With great respect, I have only a minute left to reply. The hon. Gentleman has asked me several questions and I shall try to deal with all of them. I shall answer by letter those that I miss because I have allowed so many interventions.

The hon. Member for Makerfield asked about zero-rating of smoke detectors. Obviously that is a question for my hon. Friend the Paymaster General. I shall pass the hon. Gentleman's points on to him. I shall draw the attention of my hon. Friends in the Department of Trade and Industry and in the Home Office the hon. Gentleman's point about insurance discounts on premiums.

The main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's comments concerned the use of smoke detectors in homes, whether they are owner occupied or tenanted. The traditional view has been that people in existing dwellings occupied by a single family are generally best able to secure their own safety without the need for legislation. We shall have to consider that point. It is obviously difficult for us to enforce this form of legislation mandatorily. How does one police it? I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I gave him earlier—his points will be taken into account in all our deliberations.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock on Monday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-eight minutes to One o'clock.