HL Deb 20 November 1984 vol 457 cc536-9

5.50 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 22nd October be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the Gas Catalytic Heaters (Safety) Regulations 1984, which were laid before your Lordships' House on 22nd October, be approved.

The House may recall that in November last year my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Corporate and Consumer Affairs made a prohibition order under Section 3 of the Consumer Safety Act 1978 prohibiting the supply of liquid petroleum gas catalytic heaters and replacement elements containing unbonded or loose asbestos. With the expiry of the order on 21st November this year, a decision now has to be made on the future of the ban, and it is my honourable friend's view that, in the interests of public safety, the ban should continue indefinitely. That is what these proposed regulations do.

Catalytic heaters are cabinet heaters which burn bottled gas and are fitted with a large catalytic panel which occupies most of the front of the heater. In operation the gas is first ignited for an initial warming-up period and then the flame disappears and the gas essentially burns without a flame as it flows over the catalytic panel. The heaters do not have ceramic panels and a visible flame like the majority of LPG-fuelled heaters. They may be wall mounted or portable.

The background is that in March 1983 my honourable friend, the then Minister of State for Consumer Affairs issued a warning notice about the heaters. He was primarily concerned at the time about the older type of heater, which had a wad of loose asbestos forming the panel from which fibres were very likely to be dispersed into the air in the home.

Subsequently, Government scientists examined the more modern type of heater in which the loose asbestos is encapsulated in glass fibre, and found asbestos fibres sticking out at the corners, through the faces of the catalytic panels of all the heaters, and in the packaging and in the bottom of some of the heaters. They judged that from these heaters also asbestos fibres were likely to be shed over time and dispersed into the air in the home, particularly if hoovered up with a domestic vacuum cleaner. Asbestos is a known carcinogen with no safe level of exposure, and my honourable friend the Minister of State for Corporate and Consumer Affairs therefore decided that he could not take the risk of allowing the heaters to remain on sale to the public.

The Government of course prefer to work by co-operation with industry wherever possible, so my honourable friend asked the main suppliers to stop selling them voluntarily. One supplier who had several thousand in stock refused to do so, and so my honourable friend was forced to serve a prohibition notice on them in September last year. However subsequently it became clear that other suppliers were breaking the voluntary ban, so my honourable friend was forced in November last year to make the present order, under which the sale of these heaters by anyone in the United Kingdom was prohibited.

This order expires tomorrow and since, as far as we know, there are still several thousand of these heaters in stock with suppliers in the United Kingdom there seems to be no alternative but to make it permanent.

The Health and Safety Executive and the enforcement authorities are happy with the proposed regulations. The Government have also circulated the proposals to representatives of the industry and interested firms, and none has objected to them. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 22nd October be approved.—(Lord Brabazon of Tara.)

5.56 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, we on this side of the House are very happy to support the Government in introducing these regulations at this time. At the same time, we should like to go on record as observing, as indeed the noble Lord has indicated, that certain private manufacturers in this country did not seek to comply with the initial wishes of the Government. Further, they did not actually comply with some of the prohibition notice provisions.

We are bound to cite that as being another of those instances in which the benefits that are alleged to flow from private enterprise in this country every now and again seems to be in need of very considerable restraint. We on this side of the House should like to commend the public spirit of the Government in for once overriding the private rapacity of certain less reputable sections of private enterprise. We are therefore very pleased to support the regulation.

In the proposed regulation, the phrase the, 'catalytic unit' means a unit … which contains a catalytic pad; … into which petroleum gas is injected; and … through which such gas is distributed and oxydised. My first question is whether the unit—as at present in common use as distinct from its contents, as distinct from what happens within it and as distinct from the process through which the gas goes—complies with safety regulations?

If one goes through further into paragraph 2 of the order, one finds that the term, 'a gas catalytic heater' means an appliance suitable for use in any dwelling", which contains (among other things) a catalytic unit. My question is whether the appliance in itself into which these units, the contents of which are now being restricted, are inserted complies with the existing regulations?

The noble Lord will appreciate the disabilities of an Opposition which is unstaffed; we find it quite impossible to go through these regulations. Perhaps the noble Lord can immediately give me an affirmative answer that the units themselves, aside from their contents, and the appliances aside from the units, are satisfactorily covered by the regulations.

I also ask the noble Lord to define which particular subsection of Section 1 of the Consumer Safety Act 1978 is invoked, because the order states: Now, therefore, the Secretary of State, in exercise of the powers conferred upon him by section 1 of the said Act, hereby makes the following Regulations". It would seem to me—and the noble Lord may correct me and, indeed, help me—that the regulation is either made under subsection (2)(a) or (2)(h) or (2)(i). Subsection (2)(a) deals with the composition or contents, design or construction. Subsection (2)(h) deals with the prohibiting of persons from supplying goods et cetera which are not safe and subsection (2)(i) deals with, prohibiting persons from supplying …goods which are designed to be used as component parts of other goods". It would be interesting to learn, aside from the broad general powers conferred by Section 1—obviously, by inference, it means Section 1(2)—on which of the subsections, or combination of subsections the noble Lord relies.

The purpose of this inquiry is not in any way carping. It implies no criticism of the way in which the noble Lord has dealt with these regulations and upon which I congratulate him. We in this Chamber have a reputation as a revising Chamber and it is particularly important that we are meticulous in these matters. If the noble Lord can enlighten me on those particular matters, we shall be greatly obliged. What I have said does nothing to detract from our complete and wholehearted support of the Government in introducing this regulation.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I shall do my best to answer those questions. The first one I think is reasonably simple. It is only the asbestos element, an unbonded asbestos element, which we are talking about and not any other part of the machine. Secondly, I understand the subsection in question to be Section 2(h) of the Consumer Protection Act.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I am much obliged.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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