HC Deb 09 February 1988 vol 127 cc189-91 3.36 pm
Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the installation of smoke detectors in all domestic properties by a date to be determined. This is a simple Bill, but its effects are sweeping. It is designed to require smoke detectors to be placed in all domestic properties over a period, with the aim of saving upwards of 300 lives per year.

On Christmas day 1984, the celebrations in my constituency were muted. Early that morning, fire had swept through a terraced house in Massey street, Bury, and taken nine lives, including those of four children. I went to the house at 8 am, and colleagues in all parts of the House who have been through a similar harrowing task will need no reminding of the grim scene that met me. I made there my first acquaintance with Greater Manchester's assistant chief fire officer, Bob Graham, whose work on fire prevention has guided many over the last few years.

In the years between 1978 and 1986, the number of deaths from accidental fires fluctuated between a low of 626 in 1985 and a high of 799 in 1979—an average of 691. In the same period, injuries from accidental fires averaged 6,344 per year.

What can be done to improve our fire safety record? How can we seek to reduce these numbers, representing two people killed and 17 injured through fire every single day?

Certainly public education plays a part. Few fires start spontaneously, and human carelessness has much to answer for. Legislation governing the flammability of items in the home, from fabrics to furniture, is most definitely useful, and the recent action against foam-filled furniture is to be welcomed. But it will take time for this latest legislation to have effect; furniture will not be thrown out overnight and the risk of terrible fires will continue, as we saw only too sadly in a fire at Watford yesterday.

I put it to the House that there is one simple, straightforward measure which should now be seen as the next logical step in domestic fire safety; that is the widespread use of the smoke detector.

In a paper dated March 1986, Assistant Chief Officer Graham pointed out the difficulty of preventing every single cause of the domestic fire. The completely fireproof house does not exist. If it did, like the accident-proof motor car, it would probably be unpopular. There are elements of risk in every home and we live with those risks, but we can continue to reduce the chance that an accident will take life. Bob Graham's conclusion, after study, was that the best plan for the future was to improve the early alarm of a fire, and that the most promising path to follow was that of the increased use of smoke detectors.

There are a number on the market. Some of them can be hard-wired into the electric circuit, but the most common are battery-operated devices no bigger than a hand which retail for between £10 and £15, with every prospect of the price being reduced. Contrast this with the price people in all kinds of accommodation will pay for security protection against burglary. I do not believe that, if the British public thought about it, they would neglect their families while protecting their property. The detectors take no more than five minutes to install, and fire brigades offer guidance not only on the type of detectors to be fitted but also on their optimum location in the home. The Home Office and fire brigades have leaflets available.

There are now few doubts about the life-saving potential or reliability of smoke detectors, providing, crucially, that they are well maintained. A survey in the United States in 1985 revealed that 74 per cent. of households had detectors. In figures quoted in a Child Accident Prevention Trust paper in 1986, the American fire service estimated that some 50 per cent. of lives then being lost in house fires could be saved by the installation of a smoke detector, and the Canadian fire service estimated the figure at 40 per cent.

In the United Kingdom, Bob Graham examined in his report the statistics for 1983, and concluded: For 83 per cent. of fires in dwellings the interval between ignition and discovery of the fire was estimated to he at least 5 minutes and for 48 per cent. of the deaths the interval was estimated to be over 30 minutes. On the face of it at least 48 per cent. would have received an early warning of the fire if detectors had been fitted, and probably this applies to most of the remainder. There is little doubt that detectors would have improved the situation". We are talking of upwards of 300 saved lives per year. The Bill would begin to translate those chances for life into lives saved.

From 1 January 1989, I propose that all newly built domestic properties should be equipped with smoke detectors. From the same date, any domestic property either sold or being approved by a local authority after improvement would also have to be fitted with adequate smoke alarm protection. That would both stagger their introduction, and thus relieve a potential problem of supply if properties had to be equipped by a target date, and ensure enforcement through the normal house-buying procedure of inquiry and survey.

For rented property, both public and private, I believe that a target date for deployment would be necessary. I propose to leave that date to be determined after consultation with appropriate bodies, to recognise certain public authority difficulties, but clearly it should be as soon as possible, perhaps between three and four years from now.

I also hope that the legislation, and all fire safety legislation, will fall under the supervision of the Home Office and not be split between it, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment—an overdue reform.

Although many people are now installing smoke detectors at home—I am sure that we would all like to encourage that, and urge households not to wait for legislation — I believe that there are two reasons why legislation is needed. First, the House has a good record in passing all kinds of consumer safety legislation, to the general benefit of the people. We desire our children to be free from the risk of cruel injury from an unsafe toy, and from the risk of a burn while they wear flammable nightdresses. I seek to make them less fearful of a fire while they sleep. Secondly, experience tells us that the households most likely to suffer such tragedies are those least likely to fit detectors without being required to do so.

I do not believe that the more widespread use of smoke detectors will encourage a lazier attitude towards fire safety; quite the opposite. No one would emphasise more strongly than I that the detector prevents no fire. What it does is give the vital few extra seconds of warning — which, as we have seen all too recently, can mean the difference between life and death, because of the speed and intensity of the modern house fire.

The proposal carries the support of the Association of Chief Fire Officers — expressed through its president, Brian Fuller of the west midlands—and of the Greater Manchester fire brigade, Help the Aged, the National House-Building Council, the Child Accident Prevention Trust and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

In 1929, the Cinematograph Act 1909 was amended soon after 70 children lost their lives in an accident at a Paisley cinema. The Eastwood Mills fire at Keighley, at a cost of eight lives, led to the Factories Act 1961 and the loss of 19 lives in the Top Storey club in Bolton led to the Licensing Act 1964. Here now is an opportunity for this country to take a lead: to put itself in advance of fire safety legislation in many parts of the world, and to act before any more of our own tragedies occur.

The smoke detector harms no one's civil rights. It is cheap, unobtrusive, and effective. Its more widespread use after legislation would be a fine example of the House's leadership and responsible use of its authority. I beg my colleagues to support the proposal.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Alistair Burt, Mr. John Wheeler, Mr. Alfred Morris, Mr. Conal Gregory, Mr. Tony Lloyd, Mr. Simon Hughes, Mr. David Sumberg, Mr. Ken Hargreaves and Mr. Ian McCartney.