HC Deb 21 January 1998 vol 304 cc972-9 12.29 pm
Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East)

I thank the House and Madam Speaker for giving me permission to introduce a debate on a crucial issue—carbon monoxide poisoning. There is probably no Member of the House who will not at some time in his or her parliamentary career have a constituency case involving a needless and tragic death resulting from that insidious form of poisoning. Carbon monoxide is often referred to as the silent killer because it is a poison which is tasteless and odourless. It is the evil killer of a huge number of people every year.

As with many such debates, I raise the issue in the House because a young girl from my constituency, Anne Brennan, who was 20, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in rented accommodation two years ago while studying at Durham university. Another constituent who lived in Washington, Glen Halliday, also died of carbon monoxide poisoning five years ago.

I had the privilege of meeting the parents of Anne Brennan recently, and spoke to them yesterday to talk about the issue and about my raising my concerns in the House. I beg the indulgence of the House while I read from a letter they sent me, and I ask the House to listen carefully: We were obviously saddened and devastated by the death of our daughter Anne. She was a gifted girl who had vitality and a great love of life, she was a talented singer and artist, she helped underprivileged children in the north-east. Apparently her real ambition, declared in writing, was to become a Member of Parliament.

The letter continues: We know nothing can replace Anne and our lives were torn apart with her passing. What we are determined to do is help prevent other families having to suffer a similar loss. We urge the government to do anything it can to ensure her death was not in vain. Although Anne's parents have had to cope with that tragedy, they still want to see some good come out of it, so that she will not have died in vain.

I must tell the Minister that I realise that there are no easy answers and no quick fixes. None the less, we must realise that there is a real problem. The CO-Gas Safety charity, to whose work I pay tribute, estimates that, between September 1995 and November 1997, about 134 deaths resulted from carbon monoxide poisoning, as well as about 800 near misses.

I ask the Minister to bear in mind the following points when she responds, because, although there are no easy answers, there are a number of points that the various Departments could take on board.

The first important point is about individual responsibility and increasing awareness. We must ensure that people are aware how carbon monoxide poisoning can occur, and that they check ventilation systems and ensure that gas appliances, in particular, are checked regularly so that their users are not put in danger.

The blame does not lie with gas appliances alone. Carbon monoxide poisoning can also be caused by fossil fuels. Coal-burning and wood stoves can often result in that form of poisoning. Publicity and trying to make people aware of the facts are therefore important. We must also consider the resources available through the Health and Safety Executive, and ensure that it has the necessary back-up to investigate solutions to the problem.

Following the denationalisation of British Gas, the position of that company and of Transco should be examined, and the major gas companies need to exercise greater responsibility. All gas users pay a standing charge of £32.92 a year, and a small proportion of that could go towards trying to solve the problem.

I am reliably informed by the carbon monoxide safety campaign that Transco, one of the British Gas businesses, has no equipment for tracing carbon monoxide. That is a bit like asking someone to investigate radioactivity without supplying a Geiger counter. We need to think about the support that gas companies have.

Another problem is that a company's representatives will turn up and say that they have solved the problem by turning off the gas, whereas many carbon monoxide poisoning deaths occur through leakages from nearby houses and flats. The gas companies must exercise greater responsibility.

Landlords should be licensed to ensure that they fulfil their statutory responsibility to see that appliances are checked by a registered Confederation of Registered Gas Installers company. That would improve safety. It is worth pointing out that in this country even dog kennels are licensed; landlords should be, too.

People should consider installing detectors, because if about £30 had been spent, my constituent need not have died. For £30, one can buy an audible alarm that also switches off the gas supply in the house; greater emphasis should be placed on that. We should talk to manufacturers, house builders and local authorities about the possibility of installing detectors. That would go a long way towards saving people's lives.

Public health is an important area, because of the role of the medical profession. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are often similar to those of flu, so when people go to the doctor the symptoms are often misinterpreted. The medical profession needs to think about the ways in which doctors and others who work in accident and emergency departments can be trained to identify the symptoms. One great danger is that if symptoms are misinterpreted and diagnosed as flu, the advice is often to go home, wrap up warm, close the windows and keep the heating on—which, by definition, is exactly the wrong thing to do if there is a leakage of carbon monoxide.

I congratulate the Minister for Public Health, although she is not the Minister who is to reply to the debate, because she has met campaigners and looked into the issues.

Penalties, too, are important. The installer, if I can dignify him with that name, who installed the appliances in the flat in which Anne Brennan lived, was fined £4,000. That is not a sufficient punishment for the British legal system to give for an action that resulted in the death of a young girl.

I ask the Under-Secretary of State to pass on to the Home Secretary my suggestion that we reconsider the penalties involved. They should fit the crime, and in many cases a charge of manslaughter should be considered by the Crown Prosecution Service and other legal authorities. Such crimes are serious, and must be thought about.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Health and Safety Executive needs to be far more vigorous in following up incidents? In many more cases, a charge of involuntary manslaughter, or even voluntary manslaughter when there is negligence, should be used. There should be better co-operation between the police and the HSE, so that what happened when one of my constituents died does not happen any more. Only when the coroner was forced to bring in a verdict of manslaughter was a criminal case brought—and even then the landlord got away with autrefois convict.

Mr. Kemp

I agree that co-operation between the authorities is important. The judge at the trial following Anne Brennan's death said at the end that those involved were lucky to get away without facing a charge of manslaughter. I agree, and I believe that the Crown Prosecution Service and other legal authorities should be vigorous in ensuring that the full weight of the law comes down on such people. That is the one way in which we will make people sit up and listen, including dodgy landlords who take large amounts of money from, in particular, students and other young people.

Carbon monoxide poisoning, however, does not affect only young people. It is no respecter of status, class or sex. We must be rigorous. We must send out the message that those who do not accept the statutory responsibilities that the House has laid down in the past will experience the full weight of the law, and that if gas appliances, in particular, are not regularly checked, they will face manslaughter charges. People are dying at a rate of about one a week. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I suspect that every hon. Member will, at some point in his or her parliamentary career, have to meet the parents of a constituent who has died from carbon monoxide poisoning—as I had to meet the parents of a young and talented girl who had died from it. Penalties, then, are important.

What are the answers? I have raised the issue of public health, and the need to ensure that members of the medical profession are aware of the problem. I have also mentioned the licensing of landlords, and the responsibility that should rest with the major gas companies. I do not believe that those gas companies have fulfilled their responsibility as well as they should have in recent years. Talking to householders and manufacturers is also important. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions who is present today, but I am sure she will agree that this subject is also covered by the Home Office and the Department of Health. There should be more co-ordination between those Departments: they should sit down together, along with members of the carbon monoxide safety campaign, to find a sensible way of ending the problem, and they should take advice.

I am not going to stand here and say that we can solve the problem completely. Inevitably and tragically, there will always be deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning. I believe, however, that we can reduce the number of deaths—that there need not be roughly one death a week as a result of this insidious form of poisoning. People go off to sleep, and that is it: lives are ruined, and families experience tragedies.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take what action she can, especially to improve public awareness. We can produce legislation, and legislation is critically important to ensuring that landlords and others fulfil the responsibilities laid down by the House; but it is also necessary for individuals to be aware of problems caused by, for instance, blocked flues, and to ensure that appliances are checked regularly.

Mr. McNamara

That is the landlord's responsibility. Most of the cases that I have encountered have been due to the negligence of landlords, who have stated incorrectly—in fact, they have lied—that their appliances have been inspected.

Mr. Kemp

I agree. Knowing that we were to have this debate, a neighbour in my constituency—I was at school with him—telephoned me. He is a CORGI installer. He told me that it was possible for people to obtain certificates fraudulently, and to put them on appliances.

My hon. Friend is right. The tragedy is that such deaths tend to occur in rented accommodation. They can happen anywhere, and we need to ensure that people know that, and that detectors are available; but the fact is that landlords letting cheap accommodation, and often ripping people off, are not prepared to fulfil their responsibility. We should send out a clear message that we will not tolerate the present position, in which vulnerable people—many of whom must rely on rented accommodation, because no other option is available—die of carbon monoxide poisoning every year, or suffer the consequences of such deaths.

I thank the House for giving me the opportunity to speak. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that there are no easy answers, but I feel strongly that we need co-ordination and tough legislation, and that we must make people—especially those in rented accommodation—aware of the dangers. I urge my hon. Friend to respond to all my points, but, in particular, to my point about the need to convey publicity and information about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.

12.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) on securing the debate, and on bringing this important public safety issue before the House. In the time available, I will try to answer his concerns; if I am unable to do justice to all of them, I will, of course, be happy to meet him or write to him to discuss any outstanding matters.

This is a sad debate, and I wish that we did not have to have it. Regrettably, however, carbon monoxide poisoning claims lives, and maims. My hon. Friend has mentioned the tragic cases in his constituency, and all hon. Members will want to join me in sending sympathy to families and friends who have lost loved ones from this needless cause.

I want to use this opportunity to emphasise the Government's commitment to reducing needless deaths and suffering. The Government—supported by the Health and Safety Commission and its Executive—have taken, and will continue to take, action to reduce the incidence of gas-related carbon monoxide poisoning. As I shall explain, there is co-ordinated activity across Whitehall Departments to tackle carbon monoxide poisoning issues more widely. I am anxious to consolidate our strategy further, and hope soon to meet Ministers in other Departments to discuss it.

Gas can be inherently dangerous. If it can get out, it will; when it does, it has the potential to do massive damage, and to claim lives beyond those immediately close to the source of the leak. That is why there have been specific health and safety regulations covering the installation and use of gas appliances since 1972. They were originally introduced, and have since been updated regularly, to establish a stringent safety framework, essentially to ensure that domestic gas appliances are safely installed by competent people. A strong and effective legal framework is vitally important, given that more than 19 million homes in Great Britain use natural gas, which, over the years, has become the preferred fuel for heating and cooking.

Changes to the law have been made since 1994 to allay public concern about the number of deaths caused by gas-related carbon monoxide poisoning. My hon. Friend quoted the figure of 134 that had been given to him by Co-Gas Safety, along with the figure of 800 for near misses. We are aware of the cases in which deaths have been caused. The Co-Gas figures may include, for instance, suicides, and are not as reliable as our statistics. I am sure my hon. Friend will agree, however, that even one death from carbon monoxide poisoning is one too many.

As I have said, changes have been made. The rented sector has been a particular target, as about a third of all fatalities have occurred in it. I agree to an extent with what my hon. Friends the Members for Houghton and Washington, East and for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said about the private rented sector. We intend to concentrate particularly on that sector, but we must remember that two thirds of fatalities occur in the owner-occupied and social housing sectors.

In the private rented sector, certain landlords, including those who let property on short leases, are required to ensure that gas appliances that they provide for their tenants to use are safe and properly maintained—only by competent gas fitters. In addition, landlords are required to arrange annual safety checks of those gas appliances, including the flue, to keep a record of those checks and to provide a copy of the record for their tenants. A particular aim of the law is to protect vulnerable tenants at the cheaper end of the rented sector, such as students and young people in digs.

In owner-occupied property, anyone doing gas work—including home owners—must, by law, also be competent. Home owners, too, have been exhorted to get their gas appliances checked for safety once a year, and the Government have included in their publicity combustion appliances fuelled by means other than gas, which are equally capable of causing carbon monoxide poisoning. There has been much publicity in recent years on a full range of carbon monoxide poisoning issues, and we are taking new initiatives.

Any law is effective only if it is properly enforced, and the Health and Safety Commission and the HSE continue to give high priority to enforcing gas safety provisions and prosecuting when serious breaches of the law occur and there is evidence to justify criminal proceedings. Breaching gas safety law is a criminal offence, so it is only right that those who flout the law and put the lives of others at risk should have the book thrown at them.

The HSE has achieved a good conviction rate of more than 80 per cent. in gas safety prosecutions. I am encouraged by recent signs that the average fine imposed by the courts for breaches of health and safety law has been increasing, but I think that there is a long, long way to go. It surely cannot be right that someone can be fined only about £2,500 for putting human life at risk—or, indeed, destroying it—by failing properly to observe health and safety law, including gas safety regulations.

Mr. McNamara

In the Murphy case in my constituency, of which my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, it was not until after the coroner's inquest that any action was taken by the police for manslaughter. That put my constituent at grave financial disadvantage, as he had to finance all his proceedings with no help whatever from the public purse, and we found that the police had no duty of public care in the matter. It is a matter of the emphasis that the police and the Health and Safety Executive are prepared to put on the issue. In this case, we found them most reluctant to prosecute.

Angela Eagle

The Health and Safety Executive has the duty to take prosecutions under safety law, but the Crown Prosecution Service decides whether manslaughter charges are justified. There are encouraging signs that the CPS is beginning to take the issue more seriously. Recently, there was finally a prosecution following a death by carbon monoxide poisoning that resulted in gaol sentences for both the installer and the landlord; but I have considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend's contention that that does not happen often enough.

The fines are too low. Too many employers and duty holders such as landlords see the derisory sums as a necessary business expense. To my mind, the present level of fines handed down by the courts does not act as a strong enough deterrent. I want the courts to impose punitive sanctions: punishments that fit the crimes committed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East said. We are taking up the matter with the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor.

Larger fines are, of course, not the only sanction: imprisonment, or the threat of it, must surely concentrate minds. The HSE refers appropriate cases to the Crown Prosecution Service when there has been a death, so that manslaughter charges can be considered. I welcomed the outcome of the recent prosecution in Stafford Crown court brought against a landlord and a gas fitter in the tragic case of Sonja Hyams, a student at Keele university, who died from gas-related carbon monoxide poisoning.

The prosecution resulted in custodial sentences of two years for the landlord and 15 months for the gas fitter. That is the first time that custodial sentences have been imposed for failure to ensure the safety of gas appliances in rented accommodation. Personally, I do not think that the sentences imposed were anywhere near long enough, but let them nevertheless serve as a lesson to those landlords and unregistered gas fitters who think that they can ignore the law.

Carbon monoxide poisoning has the potential to affect the lives of millions in this country, and national publicity about the dangers is important. Great efforts have been made to raise public awareness of this silent, invisible killer. I do not limit my remarks to the strides forward made by Government and Government agencies: I include pressure groups such as CO-Gas Safety and Carbon Monoxide Support, which do good work in raising awareness. I have met members of CO-Gas Safety, and I am very much looking forward to meeting Debbie Davis of Carbon Monoxide Support soon.

The Health and Safety Commission and the HSE have run several high-profile publicity campaigns about the dangers of gas-related carbon monoxide poisoning, including national television and press advertising, and direct mailing of publicity material to vulnerable groups such as students and to university accommodation officers, landlords, general practitioners and other health professionals. The message about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning has also reached the 19 million gas consumers in Britain. The Department of Trade and Industry has also run campaigns focusing on the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning from all carbon-based fuels.

Independent research for the HSE has shown a significant increase in awareness among the public about the dangers of gas-related carbon monoxide poisoning, as a direct result of the publicity campaigns. I welcome the fact that the Health and Safety Commission's provisional figure for fatalities from gas-related carbon monoxide poisoning in 1996–97 has fallen to 21; previously, it averaged 30.

I should like to think that the legislation and publicity measures that I have described have been responsible for the welcome reduction in the number of fatalities, but there is no room for complacency and we must continue to hammer home the message about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.

It is tragic when anyone's life is cut short, but what makes deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning even more distressing is the fact that many can be prevented. The Government are determined to continue to keep the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning in the forefront of the public's mind. To that end, I have three important announcements to make this morning.

First, on gas-related carbon monoxide poisoning, the Health and Safety Commission and the HSE are renewing their publicity, advertising the dangers in the regional press so as to target attention in parts of the country where the greatest risk occurs. The publicity also continues to promote the HSE's gas safety advice line, which has been operating for four years and deals with about 50 to 100 calls a day.

Secondly, my Department is today publishing a new advice leaflet about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning from all forms of combustion appliance. The leaflet stresses the need for all forms of combustion appliance, such as coal and oil fires, to be properly installed only by competent engineers, and for regular maintenance and safety checks. It has been produced in close co-operation with the Departments of Trade and Industry and of Health.

Thirdly, the Department of Trade and Industry, in conjunction with gas suppliers, is about to mail 19 million domestic customers again with a leaflet about carbon monoxide dangers.

This is a co-ordinated attack by the Government on carbon monoxide poisoning caused by whatever fuel source; I urge the public to heed our warnings. A central message is that carbon monoxide poisoning—the silent, invisible killer—does not respect age or housing type; nor, indeed, does it respect fuel type. Anyone—and I mean anyone—can be affected.

There are a number of simple steps that consumers can take to protect themselves, and our publicity makes those clear: ensure that gas and other solid fuel appliances and flues are installed and maintained only by competent people; get flues and chimneys swept regularly, ideally annually; and always ensure that rooms are adequately ventilated.

The gas suppliers are supporting this attack, but the industry at large has a bigger role to play. The Government and the HSE have paid out a massive amount of taxpayers' money to provide national publicity on carbon monoxide poisoning. We do not have endless funds, and it is not the Government who create the risk, so I hope that those operating in the liberalised gas market will play a fuller part in promoting gas as a safe fuel for people to burn in their homes. I look forward to industry initiatives in that respect.

Causes of carbon monoxide poisoning can include poor installation of an appliance or shoddy maintenance work afterwards. There have been some complaints about lack of competence by CORGI-registered gas installers: some wide of the mark and some justified. I shall meet the chairman and director general of CORGI later this week to review its work.

To provide gas consumers with the assurance that they deserve, the HSE has required CORGI to introduce a new, nationally accredited certification scheme for individual gas-fitting operatives. The new scheme, which comes on stream this year, will require all gas fitters to be assessed against nationally agreed standards for competence in the areas of work that they propose to undertake, and they will be reassessed every five years.

The new scheme will promote consistency in standards of competence among gas fitters, and provide further reassurance to the public that the person who arrives at their home to carry out gas work is competent to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East mentioned the causes of gas-related carbon monoxide poisoning, and the HSE has established an industry working group to consider them. It includes industry representatives, and has made useful progress in identifying sources of information on such incidents. It is now exploring ways in which that information can best be used. Linked to that important work, I understand that British Gas Research and Technology has initiated an industrywide research project to consider a range of gas safety issues, including carbon monoxide poisoning. The HSE is actively supporting that project, and British Gas Research and Technology is working closely with the executive's group. I warmly welcome that initiative and believe that its outcome can be influential in securing a better understanding of the causes of gas-related carbon monoxide poisoning and the further preventive measures that can be considered.

I assure my hon. Friend and the House that the Government and the Health and Safety Commission will do all we can to reduce further the incidence of carbon monoxide poisoning. I hope that I have begun to give that assurance to my hon. Friend today.

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