HL Deb 15 July 1952 vol 177 cc1059-62

3.9 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the object of this short Bill which I wish to present to your Lordships is to cut down a number of accidents which can normally be prevented. In the first place, we should realise that during the year 1951, more than 500 people died as a result of burns and scalds which they suffered in their own homes. The bulk of these deaths were due to the fact that the person's clothing caught fire, chiefly as a result of contact with gas or electric fires. It is quite probable that the figures are even larger than those I have given, because the figures one obtains from the Registrar-General have not been broken down sufficiently to enable a finer analysis to be made. The majority of these fatalities—about 50 per cent. or 60 per cent.—occur among older people, whereas about 15 per cent. occur among young children. The reason why more of the old people died from burns is that the prognosis is generally better in the case of young persons than in the old.

One could go a little further. A large number of people have to attend hospital as in-patients and out-patients suffering from burns which are not necessarily going to prove fatal. I cannot give an exact figure, but I believe that the number who go to hospital as in-patients is between 15,000 and 20,000, whereas the number of those who go as out-patients is something in the neighbourhood of 50,000. This means that about 70,000 people, all told, suffer from this kind of accident every year. Many of those who go into hospital have to stay for a long time. The average is about forty to fifty days but it may be very much longer than that—up to a year, perhaps. These people may not die, but they may suffer from deformity which will probably persist throughout their lives. One of the people who have done much good work in this sphere is Dr. Colebrook, at the Birmingham Accident Hospital. He has told me stories and showed me photographs which were not pleasant to hear or contemplate.

The gas fires and electric fires which are probably the cause of a large number of these accidents are not fixed in a wall but are mobile: one can take them into different rooms. People, therefore, may not be sure where they are and do no get used to the fire being in one particular place. Another difficulty is that eves when they are not mobile, even when they are fixed to a wall, they may no be standing on a normal fireplace of hearth. In one recent case on a housing estate it was found that there was no proper protection and no obvious mantel piece or fireplace to be avoided. There was, in short, nothing to show where the fire was. Moreover, the height of these fires is such that anyone wearing a dressing-gown or a frock is liable to catch it against the fire. There is a further difficulty. Young children an sometimes fascinated by the bright colour, and they have been known not only to brush the elements with their frocks but also to try, as curious children will, to touch or grasp the bright element. And, of course, if they do, they get their fingers badly burned; or their frock may take fire, with the result that they are permanently deformed. A further cause of these accidents is that a person may reach over the fire, if there is a mantelpiece above it, perhaps to adjust something, or to look into a mirror. In a moment, a woman's frock may be a mass of flames. It is very easy for a person to be burned to death in this way, for clothing ignites very quickly.

The main point of this Bill is to prohibit the sale of gas, electric or oil fires which are not fitted with a proper guard. I believe that there are certain powers under the Children Act of 1908 which make it possible for proceedings to be instituted against persons held to be responsible for such an accident. But the fact that a child has been killed is regarded as sufficient punishment for parents alleged to be responsible, and the authorities are very loth indeed in such cases to institute proceedings under that Act. If I may briefly run over the points of the Bill, your Lordships will observe that the first clause prohibits the sale of gas, electric or oil-burning fires which are not fitted with a proper guard, or a guard which does not comply with certain standards prescribed by the regulations. The second clause gives local authorities power to inspect fires which are exposed for sale, and also to apply certain tests which are prescribed by the regulations. The third clause provides the penalty for people who offend and the fourth clause gives power to local authorities to prosecute. The fifth and sixth clauses are the most important, because they give the Secretary of State powers to make regulations laying down the standards of the guards to be employed. The last clause gives the various definitions.

The Bill does not apply to fires at present installed in houses, and so on, so there is no question of people having their fires inspected. Moreover, time would be required for manufacturers and shopkeepers to dispose of stocks which they already hold. It has been said that the guard will make the fire much more expensive, but in fact it will not add materially to the cost of the fire; nor will it reduce the fire's efficiency. The expenditure of materials would not be great. The Bill has the support of a very large number of manufacturers of fires. There was a Committee on the British Standards Institution on which I had the privilege to sit. That Committee sat for four years, and eventually worked out a standard—Standard 1670: 1951. This is a small but important Bill, and I trust that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Amulree.)

3.18 p.m.


My Lords. I rise on behalf of my noble friends on this side of the House merely to give a warm welcome to this Bill. In view of the number of items on the Order Paper to-day I do not propose to inflict a speech on your Lordships. I will say only that this Bill has our very warm support.

3.19 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to labour any point in connection with this Bill, which is obviously receiving support from all sides of the House, but I should like to take the opportunity of paying a tribute to the patient and devoted service and researches of Dr. Colebrook. He has received his reward in the number of lives that his researches and services have saved, not only in respect of puerperal fever but in this field of burns. But the saving of lives has only further emphasised the importance of providing against the dangers of these heating appliances; for those who to-day survive degrees of burns which in the old days were fatal are sufferers from terrible pain, often involving long-continued treatment, and in the end, great disfigurement and deformity.

There is one point which I should like to emphasise—namely, that these electrical gas and oil-burning appliances are not a big cause of burns in children and old people particularly. The ordinary open fire remains, as Dr. Colebrook has vividly said, the outstanding hazard of the English home. But I believe that, when this Bill becomes law, as it promises to do, it will prove a stimulus to further research in making articles of clothing flame-proof, and that that will contribute something towards resolving the major danger from the open fire. I believe that it will also lead to the manufacture of an easily attachable guard to existing apparatus. I hope that these results will be realised.


My Lords, this is a Bill the purpose of which is wholly laudable, arid Her Majesty's Government are grateful to those who have produced it and submitted it to your Lordships' House. I suppose that all of us have at some moment, possibly at a good many moments, been subject to a shock of apprehension at seeing either ourselves or somebody else in the room obviously within dangerous proximity to an unguarded fire. Although the promoters of the Bill would not contend that the passage of this Bill will remove all risk of such accidents happening, at the same time it does seem reasonable to expect that it will, to a considerable and valuable extent, reduce those risks. From that point of view, Her Majesty's Government welcome the Bill. It may perhaps be an encouragement to the noble Lord who introduced it in your Lordships' House to say that if, as appears reasonably possible horn the course of proceedings this afternoon, the Bill does pass into law, every effort will be made to issue the regulations, after consultation with the authorities concerned, with the minimum of delay.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.