Monday 17th December 2018

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Grand Committee

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Question for Short Debate

Asked by

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Portrait Lord Hunt of Kings Heath
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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the current standard of gas safety in homes in the United Kingdom.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Portrait Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab)
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My Lords, I am delighted to open this short debate on gas safety. I must declare my patronage of CO-Gas Safety and Consumer Safety International. Both organisations and their leaders, Stephanie Trotter and Molly Maher, have done amazing work in raising the issues of carbon monoxide poisoning. which is the main subject of my debate. I am also extremely grateful to gas experts Stephen Hadley and Mr Ross McColgan for their advice.

Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless gas that can be poisonous to humans. When carbon-based fuels do not burn properly, poisonous excess CO is produced. When CO enters the body, it prevents the blood bringing oxygen to cells, tissues and organs. Key dangers to the population from gas in their home come from work being done illegally by a non-registered engineer and people not getting their appliances serviced regularly. The safety situation is worsened by the fact that CO alarms are required only in private rented accommodation and only if a solid-fuel-burning appliance is installed. The reliability of CO alarms is also very varied and Gas Safe Register does not always provide the reassurance required. All this is compounded by a lack of public awareness.

The scale of the problem is not easy to assess. ONS-published data shows that in 2016, 49 deaths occurred from accidental CO poisoning in England and Wales. In contrast, the Cross Government Group on Gas Safety and Carbon Monoxide (CO) Awareness estimates there to be around 30 deaths a year. I believe that both those figures are gross underestimates. CO has to be suspected before it is tested, even in the event of unexplained deaths. It dissipates quickly in live bodies and, without proof of poisoning, doctors often wrongly diagnose other conditions. In the absence of any easily obtained data, the problem of CO is underestimated and, as a result, it is not given the priority that it deserves.

I am convinced that much more needs to be done to raise public awareness. Some progress has been made—we have Gas Safety Week—but we need to do much more. I would like to see the industry contribute through a levy to fund major campaigns. This was recommended years ago by the Health and Safety Commission but little has happened since, and I think that the industry needs to be held to account.

We also have to tackle the need for proper maintenance of gas equipment by gas safety registered engineers. As the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group has said, there are different reasons why people do not get their appliances serviced but the key two are that many people are not aware of the importance of having this done regularly and many cannot afford to get it done because it is expensive to do on an annual basis. It is appropriate that the DWP is responsible for our health and safety. We need better support for low-income households to address this fuel poverty gap.

We also need to look at the anecdotal evidence that some landlords are not meeting their legal obligations and that tenants are either not aware of their rights or are too afraid to challenge their landlords to produce a gas safety certificate. I find it surprising that policy 8.2 from Gas Safe Register means that inspectors from the GSR will test an appliance for a tenant only if the landlord gives permission. Why should the landlord have to give permission when the safety of the tenant is possibly at stake? Can the Minister confirm that the gas emergency service does not carry or use equipment to test gas appliances for CO? If that is the case, will she say why and what is going to be done about it?

I now come to the gas safety register. This contains the official list of engineers who are qualified to work on gas installations. Engineers are issued with a gas safe card to prove qualification status and other details in order to carry out work or repairs to a gas appliance. The back of the card has a list of the types of appliances the engineer can legally work on. Unfortunately, many clients, me included, are unaware that gas engineers have to carry those cards and I am not aware of engineers showing those cards when they visit. It is also difficult to understand and decipher what appliance the engineer is qualified to work on. Ross McColgan has suggested to me the use of a colour scheme to make this much clearer, stating in simple language what the engineer is qualified to do and, more importantly, what they are not entitled to work on. It would be a step forward. I hope the Government will consider this.

I come to CO alarms. They have their use, but they are not a panacea and must be accompanied by annual checks of gas appliances. In 2015, the Government introduced regulations to require private rented sector landlords to have a carbon monoxide alarm in any room wholly or partly used as living accommodation containing a solid-fuel burning combustion appliance. There is currently a review about whether this should be extended. I certainly support expanding the regulations to require a CO alarm to be installed wherever any fuel-burning appliance is installed. Is the Minister aware that respected experts, including Mr Harry Rogers and Mr Stephen Hadley, have raised concerns that the present manufactured CO alarms available in the UK lose their reliability and accuracy as they deteriorate over time? I understand that CO alarms are not required to be calibrated during their lifespan so consumers have no way of knowing whether they are still effective. PROSAFE—the Product Safety Forum of Europe—whose objective is to improve the safety of users of products and services in Europe, highlighted the results of sampling and testing CO detectors. This was discussed at the fifth Carbon Monoxide round table in 2015. Twenty-five products were sampled and tested against a specified checklist. Eighteen of the 25 did not comply with the checklist. Four models failed to meet the requirements in a safe manner and only three products were deemed acceptable. This does not give much confidence in CO alarms. I am absolutely clear that regular testing of gas appliances is much more important than CO alarms, which in many cases clearly cannot be relied upon.

I am looking forward to the Minister’s response on Brexit. Regulation 2016/426 on appliances burning gaseous fuels came into force earlier this year. In the event of Brexit, is it the Government’s intention that we will maintain those standards long term? Will she also say what is being done to protect the safety of UK tourists abroad? Have we learned the lessons from the tragic deaths of Christianne and Robert Shepherd from Horbury near Wakefield? They were just seven and six years old when they died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty boiler on a Thomas Cook holiday in Corfu in October 2006. After many years of brave campaigning by the family, an inquest jury concluded that the children had been unlawfully killed and that Thomas Cook had breached its duty of care. What guarantees do we now have that UK tourists travelling abroad will be protected from this kind of incident? Anyone who has met families where CO poisoning has taken place will be aware of the personal tragedies that have befallen them. We owe it to them to do all we can to prevent these tragedies reoccurring. We need stronger regulation, a more effective gas safety register, reassurance on the reliability of CO alarms, and, above all, stronger public awareness campaigns, paid by a levy from industry. I am convinced there is much we can do to improve gas safety and I very much look forward to a positive response from the Minister.

Baroness Maddock Portrait Baroness Maddock (LD)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for introducing this short debate and for giving us the opportunity to talk in particular about carbon monoxide poisoning. I declare an interest as an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group.

I think that for the majority of people, gas safety is about ensuring a safe gas distribution network and safe appliances which do not lead to dangerous gas leaks and possible explosions. On the whole, we have a fairly good record of safety in our gas network in the UK. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, in my remarks today I will concentrate on carbon monoxide poisoning and the resulting deaths and life-changing conditions.

I first came across carbon monoxide poisoning when I was the Member of Parliament for Christchurch in the early 1990s, and tragically, it was as the result of the death of one of my constituents. So it was that I became aware of others who had lost family members to carbon monoxide poisoning. I then worked with others, campaigning to raise the profile of this silent killer and to put in place measures to prevent further tragedies. I became a patron of CO-Gas Safety and worked with it for several years. When I was no longer able to continue to do so, I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was able to take up the mantle and work with it. CO-Gas Safety has been run by Stephanie Trotter, and I pay tribute to her unstinting campaigning energy. In the early days, she was assisted by Molly Maher, who also campaigned in particular for safer holidays. Molly had lost her son to carbon monoxide poisoning while on a family break in Tenerife—an incident which also left her daughter disabled and a wheelchair user. Tragically, we still see holidays marred by carbon monoxide poisoning, which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, set out clearly in his opening remarks. Indeed, they were so comprehensive that it is difficult to add to this short debate, so I will just add my support to a few of the important issues still to be resolved.

First, the lack of awareness of carbon monoxide poisoning is still a huge problem. CO-Gas Safety ran a carbon monoxide awareness campaign in primary schools for some years, and I understand that this is now run by the gas distribution network. However, this has a limited coverage and influence, and there should be a national PR campaign to warn of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. I therefore strongly support the recommendation of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for a levy on gas supplies to pay for a public awareness campaign, as well as for research. Research is particularly important because, as we have already heard, obtaining reliable data about the number of people affected by carbon monoxide poisoning is difficult. As we have already heard, carbon monoxide can be detected in the body only for a very short time after somebody dies, and no automatic testing is carried out on dead bodies where death is unexplained. Headaches and nausea dissipate when the person concerned leaves the premises where they have been in contact with, and poisoned by, carbon monoxide. General practitioners need to be aware that headaches and nausea can be the result of carbon monoxide poisoning. In my early days of looking into this issue, some research showed that this was not always the case. Does the Minister have any information about whether this has now been highlighted in the training of general practitioners?

The second issue I will highlight and support is the testing of appliances and equipment, which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, also covered. Testing should include the flue gases, not just a simple gas safety check, and tests should be annual and include alarms—although we have heard that alarms are not a panacea, and I totally agree with that. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I would welcome information in the government review about whether carbon monoxide alarms should be fitted in all houses and on appliance testing.

Wearing my hat as an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group, I add my call to those of Barry Sheerman MP and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, for expanded regulations following the recent government review to cover all fuel-burning appliances in all types of housing. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, will speak in the gap and I am sure she will expand on that herself.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, it would also be helpful if the Minister could indicate how Brexit will affect all the regulations on gas safety. Will there be any lessening of safety standards? I also have another question to the Minister about carbon monoxide alarms—reflected in the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. What indication do the Government have about substandard alarms in the supply chain? I ask this wearing another hat as president of the National Home Improvement Council. We have been very concerned about all sorts of products coming on to the market that do not comply with the standards they are supposed to, particularly when people order online.

What comfort can the Minister give to families that they will get help and support to bring to justice those who, through neglect or bad workmanship, cause tragedies where carbon monoxide poisoning strikes at home or abroad? The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, outlined just how difficult this can be.

Although some progress has been made in tackling death from carbon monoxide poisoning, I find it very disappointing that, 20 years on from my early days dealing with this, I am still asking the same questions and looking for more action to prevent death through carbon monoxide poisoning from industry.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Portrait Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (CB)
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My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for having brought this debate to the House, and to the Committee for allowing me to speak in the gap. I must declare my role as a co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group and the chair of two reports that have come from that group. I also work with the clinical group that has been a spin-off from this. I will address prevention, detection, long-term problems and regulation going forwards.

Nobody should think that prevention is associated only with gas. As has already been said, all fuel appliances—anything that burns carbon—can produce carbon monoxide. The biggest problem now is not gas but other ways of burning. Barbecues that people think are safe to bring into a cold tent, because they look as if they have gone out and are just slightly glowing, are an amazing source of poisonous carbon monoxide. Year on year, there are deaths because people do that. The same thing happens with appliances on boats and in caravans. Somehow, when people are on holiday they seem to be less vigilant.

Nobody should think they are safe because they do not have any carbon-burning appliance in their place. Stacey Rodgers, a constituent of Barry Sheerman MP, lost her son because the carbon monoxide from an adjacent property came through the brickwork into the child’s bedroom and the child was found dead in the morning from carbon monoxide poisoning. He was her only child.

Turning to detection, alarms are great but are no substitute for having appliances properly serviced and being aware. The problem with carbon monoxide is that it is not only linked to carboxyhaemoglobin. It is probably also a mitochondrial poison within cells, which means it kills very quickly, even if there are low levels of carboxyhaemoglobin in the blood. However, in one of the reports, we called for all coroners’ post-mortems to test anyway for carboxyhaemoglobin because, if there is any present at all, that must raise questions. Detection has to be early.

People associate carbon monoxide poisoning with death but severe acute poisoning can result in “sub-death”, with strokes, brain damage, personality changes and so on. About 4,000 people attend A&E every year with the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, but we do not know the long-term effect of low-level chronic exposure in those who run at a sub-clinical level and never present with their symptoms, and we do not know the effect on children. I remind noble Lords that a child’s head is at about the same height as the burners on a gas cooker, so if there are high levels of carbon monoxide in a kitchen, a child will probably inhale higher levels than an adult, whose head will be above that level and might be in the flow of the draught from a window. We need ongoing research into the low-level effects.

My final point relates to properties. It is a scandal that we do not insist that every landlord has a working carbon monoxide alarm. These alarms cost less than £15, which is peanuts. We should also require that whenever someone takes out a mortgage, they declare that they have a working carbon monoxide alarm, and no estate agent should list a property unless they know that the appliances have been properly serviced and that a working detection system is in place. If we did that, we would raise awareness, at least when there was a turnover of residents in a property.

In terms of travelling, we need airlines and Eurostar to run promotions asking “Are you carbon monoxide aware? Do you have your travel alarm?” Such alarms could easily be sold at all outlets at airports and stations. I also think that we need a levy that goes wider than gas suppliers, because appliances such as barbecues and wood-burning stoves are now sources of carbon monoxide.

Lord Tope Portrait Lord Tope (LD)
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My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for securing this very useful debate. As did he, I express my gratitude to Stephanie Trotter for her excellent—and in my case very necessary—full briefing.

Before I go any further, I should declare some interests. First, I am one of quite a number of vice-presidents of the Local Government Association. I am co-president of London Councils, the body that represents all 32 London boroughs and the City of London, and, probably most relevant to this debate, I am a patron of Electrical Safety First, a charity whose name is self-explanatory.

My noble friend Lady Maddock said that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, covered many points in his very comprehensive introduction. Since then, there have been two speakers, who have added to the comprehensive nature of the debate and there is not a great deal that I can add to what they have said. We all look forward to the Minister’s reply to quite a number of important questions that she has been asked.

Throughout the debate thus far, I have reflected on the similarity between gas safety and electrical safety. There are obvious differences between gas and electricity, which I obviously do not need to draw out, but there are also a number of very important similarities, especially with regard to safety and I have been very struck by those during the debate. They include the need to raise public awareness, the relationship between landlord and tenant, and the different responsibilities that each has and so on.

Accidents from either cause, and indeed from any cause, can have devastating and life-changing consequences and are thus serious. I do not want to make comparisons between accidents involving carbon monoxide and those involving electricity—the effects are devastating whatever the cause—but, as they do with gas, the public take electricity for granted. I had not realised until it was pointed out to me that next year will be the 140th anniversary of the invention of the light bulb. That is now one new point that has been made in this debate. We all recognise the importance of that invention to our lives today, but despite this iconic electrical item, which is always to be found wherever we are, we should remember that even light bulbs, let alone white goods, consumer units, cabling and so on, just like gas, are all potentially dangerous when not used properly or properly maintained.

Gas safety is extremely important, but so is electrical safety, and it needs to be treated with the same respect and importance. According to Electrical Safety First, electricity causes more than 20,000 house fires every year—almost half of all accidental house fires. Every year, around 350,000 people in the UK are injured through contact with electricity, and 70 people are killed. The figures for accidents involving carbon monoxide, as has been stated already, are difficult to verify and therefore I will not make a comparison—there is no point in doing so solely on the basis of figures. Both are extremely important and need to be recognised as such.

There are, on average, 56 deaths a year in Great Britain caused by electrical fires, including 18 deaths caused by an electrical distribution fault in the home. Within this subset, the biggest single cause of death is faulty cabling. For example, London Fire Brigade figures indicate that in 2013-14 the consumer unit was the source of ignition in 253 fires; this equates to five fires every week. Recent data from the London Fire Brigade shows that at that point in 2018, fires caused by electricity accounted for 78.5% of all fires. In the last five years, accidental appliance fires attributed to gas were 370 and to electricity 13,155. That is an astonishing disparity. I recognise that there is uncertainty about the data, particularly with regard to the number of fires caused by carbon monoxide, but it indicates that electrical safety is at least as important, and needs to be recognised as such.

That is why I have long joined Electrical Safety First, and others, in campaigning for greater equality between gas and electricity. Your Lordships may recall the Housing and Planning Act and the long-fought campaign to ensure that people in the private rented sector—after Grenfell that should include the social rented sector—receive mandatory electrical safety checks every year. People in the private rented sector must receive a gas check every year—we have talked about the shortcomings of that—but electricity has never been granted even that level of importance.

As a result of a long-fought campaign by Electrical Safety First, the Government agreed to bring forward regulations for mandatory electrical safety checks every five years. During the Second Reading debate of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill on 23 November, I asked when we would see these regulations. In a letter to me and other speakers in that debate, dated 5 December, the Minister said that they would be introduced,

“as soon as parliamentary time allows”.

It may be that since the letter was written, only a couple of weeks ago, there is even more pressure on parliamentary time, so we may well be waiting quite a while yet. Can the Minister reassure me, however, and say what priority the Ministry is giving to getting this parliamentary time?

In the same debate, I asked whether the promised regulations will cover both private and social rented sectors. In his letter of 5 December, the Minister confirmed that the consultation on that closed on 6 November and that,

“the Government’s response will be published in due course”.

That is a well-worn parliamentary expression. Surely the Government must know their response by now, and whether the social rented sector will be included. Can the Minister at least tell us that today?

In the same letter, the Minister said that,

“a full Government response to the consultation will be issued before Christmas”—

a little better than “in due course” but in parliamentary terms, that is now three days away. Indeed, I heard today that a ministerial Statement is expected tomorrow. Will the Minister at least confirm that? As there are not many people here today, perhaps she will give us some taste of what may be in that ministerial Statement, if it comes tomorrow or whenever it comes before Christmas? Electrical Safety First also informed me that it has received no further communication from the Government on the plans, nor been kept up to date on progress. How do we therefore know that electricity and gas will receive the equal attention that they deserve? Who is representing consumers during the working-up of these regulations?

What worries me further is the enforcement of gas and electrical safety in the private rented sector. Councils are responsible for enforcing gas safety and assist with significant electrical hazards in the home. But who will prevent landlords being able to rent a property that is not fit to be rented? I recently raised this too at Second Reading of the Bill to which I have already referred. Will the Minister confirm whether this will be clear from the “full Government response” promised in the next few days?

I have spoken more about electrical safety than gas safety, mainly because I know rather more about it but particularly because the three speakers before me covered things so well. While I echo what they said, I did not want to take time by repeating their points. Both electricity and gas are important and I hope that the Minister will now be able to reassure us on both of them.

Lord McKenzie of Luton Portrait Lord McKenzie of Luton (Lab)
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My Lords, I welcome this debate, initiated by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. I know that his interest in the matter was sparked when he had ministerial responsibility for it in the DWP. As it happened, I followed him in having ministerial responsibility for these matters in 2007 but not, of course, with the distinction that he brought to the role. The issue of gas safety in homes is serious and has been the subject of increasing yet still incomplete regulation. We have had a light-bulb moment from the noble Lord, Lord Tope, who I know has worked hard in this area. He has expanded the agenda a little and made a valuable contribution to our debate.

As a start, I believe there is an established and shared understanding of the nature of the problem. Carbon monoxide—as has been said, the silent killer—is a poisonous, colourless and odourless gas, which if breathed in enters the bloodstream and mixes with haemoglobin. This makes it progressively more difficult to carry oxygen around the body, potentially causing the body’s cells and tissues to die. My noble friend Lord Hunt referred to the number killed in England and Wales in 2016 as 49, but with many more made unwell. We have had two figures suggested, with one of 200 requiring hospitalisation and the other of 4,000 attending A&E. I am not sure how reconcilable those figures are but perhaps the Minister can help us out. There are concerns about the accuracy of numbers because the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are not always obvious. Exposure to low levels of it can present as food poisoning and flu, while longer-term exposure to low levels of CO can lead to neurological symptoms.

Reference was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, to the APPG’s suggestion that coroners should routinely test for carboxyhaemoglobin levels. I believe she sees that not as the panacea but as an important step that ought to be undertaken. My noble friend Lord Hunt seeks a view from the Minister on this, as does the noble Baroness; similarly, I look forward to the reply. The noble Baroness reminded us that this is about not just gas but other fuels—it is about barbecues, boats and caravans. Raising awareness of the risks associated with carbon monoxide is a vital component in preventing more deaths and injuries.

I agree with noble Lords who have highlighted the role of such campaigning groups as CO-Gas Safety and the Carbon Monoxide Awareness Charity. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, spoke strongly on this, particularly on how she initially got involved. It is encouraging that they are still in the field, with their encouragement and leadership of awareness campaigns, putting pressure on government, local government, safety charities, regulators and parliamentarians. Indeed, I have felt the heat from their campaigning myself. Energy companies must not be let off the hook on this. What are they doing? We have heard that there is no sign of the levy, which has long been campaigned for. We should recognise that the campaigners’ passion and determination is often bred of personal tragedies—a loved one lost to CO poisoning—which they do not want visited on others.

The risks, of course, are not only in the home. Reference has been made by several noble Lords to the tragic deaths of two young children while on holiday in Corfu, and the long wait the family endured to see justice. I recall that at the time, issues were raised about alerts in holiday brochures about the risks of defective provision of cookers, heaters, boilers and of blocked flues and chimneys. An improvement suggestion at the time was at least to carry some reference to these risks on Foreign Office travel alerts. Perhaps the Minister can say what, if anything, is happening on this front. Can she also say what, if any, government funding is available to support awareness campaigns?

Raising awareness of CO risks is part of the approach needed to combat deaths and illness, but robust regulation is also needed to cover what equipment, who should be qualified to install it, who should test it and how often. As we heard from my noble friend, qualifications to work on gas installations were changed some years ago by the replacement of CORGI by the Gas Safe Register via an open competition. The Gas Safe Register should contain the official list of engineers, giving details of the types of appliances individuals can legally work on. My noble friend raised some practical suggestions to improve the operation of the register to help consumers better to understand the level of qualification involved and the assurance that they should be receiving. We look forward to the Minister’s reply on that.

Can the Minister provide some information about levels of compliance with these arrangements and the extent to which individuals are working outside these requirements? Who is responsible for overseeing compliance—we talked about the HSE—and can we have some details on the levels of enforcement notices and prosecutions? When CORGI was replaced by the Gas Safe Register, I recollect that it was planned that any surplus on the winding-up of the former which would accrue to the CORGI Trust would be made available to fund awareness campaigns. Is this correct, and what has happened?

Another vital aspect of regulation covers the requirement to have CO alarms and smoke alarms in certain properties. Since 2015, the private rented sector in England has been required to provide CO alarms in all properties containing a solid fuel-burning appliance. This brought properties built before October 2010 in line with new builds, which since 2010 have been required to have a CO alarm where a solid fuel appliance is installed. The 2015 requirement sits alongside the duty of landlords to equip each storey of the premises they let as living accommodation with a smoke alarm, and for there to be a CO alarm for any room which is used as living accommodation and which contains a solid fuel-burning combustion appliance. There is a whole host of exemptions from inclusion in these requirements, covering not only social landlords but care homes, hostels, refuges, and student halls of residence, to name but a few. How are the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning being dealt with in these situations? They seem to be outside those regulations, if I read them correctly.

As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Tope, it is the duty of the local authority to determine whether remedial action for non-compliance with the 2015 regulations is required and to issue remedial notices where it is. Can the Minister provide any information about local housing authority compliance with this requirement—the number of notices and levels of action subsequently undertaken? What is the Government’s assessment of local authorities’ ability to resource their requirements under the regulations?

Having effective CO alarms is important but, as we have heard, is no substitute for regular and proper maintenance of appliances. Does the Minister have any information about the extent to which the 8 million CO alarms currently provided in rented accommodation are hard wired? My noble friend’s inquiry about the longevity and appropriateness of current provisions of these alarms raises serious questions about what is currently available.

The all-party parliamentary group has noted the increasing numbers of individuals and families living in private rented accommodation, with some 2.7 million at risk from unsafe gas appliances. There is also the uncomfortable correlation between low-income households and risks of carbon monoxide poisoning. So the commitment of the Government to review the regulations is welcome. It is understood that this will be part of a wider consideration of the private rented sector covering building regulations and fire safety.

In conclusion, I again thank my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath for helping us to focus on the threat of CO poisoning, which remains despite substantial efforts by many over a number of years.

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for bringing this important debate to the House and to all noble Lords who have spoken with such authority and knowledge. I shall do my best to respond to their numerous questions. I think it is unlikely that I will get them all answered in 12 minutes, but I undertake to write to fill any gaps in my response and to give any points of clarification.

The Government take the risk and consequences of carbon monoxide poisoning very seriously. The UK has a regulatory regime that requires safe design of gas appliances and trained and competent engineers to install and maintain gas appliances, and strongly recommends the use of carbon monoxide alarms. In this way, we greatly reduce the risk in our homes. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked what we do when people do not meet the standard. In 2017-18, there were 75 suspensions involving a failure to demonstrate or apply competence, and an additional 19 partial suspensions for specific work categories. This is out of a total of 259 suspensions, so it is not as though we are not prepared to take action when that needs to happen. There were three removals in the same period, and competence was one of the reasons in each case. The Health and Safety Executive prosecuted three registered engineers in 2017-18 for breaches of gas safety. We are quite prepared to take action when it is needed, but I agree with all noble Lords that prevention is certainly better than cure.

I must deal with the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, sooner rather than later, because I like to manage expectations. A ministerial Statement is due tomorrow—I am not passing the buck; this is true—from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We will provide a written update when we find out what it is planning to do. I hope that it helps.

We take gas and electrical safety very seriously. I assure noble Lords that, as we have said, we will progress these when parliamentary time allows. That is all I can say at the moment.

Gas safety, and more broadly carbon monoxide awareness, is a truly cross- governmental issue. Carbon monoxide poisoning can come from the burning of any carbon-based fuel, such as mains gas, liquefied petroleum gas, oil, coke, coal and wood, which are used in many household appliances, and it comes into the remit of various departments.

For this reason, a cross-government group on gas safety and carbon monoxide awareness was convened to ensure a joined-up approach across departments. I added them up today—I think that there are 13 departments in the group. Other governmental bodies exist to improve gas safety and tackle carbon monoxide risks from all fuels. The group also aims to develop effective government strategies and to promote knowledge and understanding of gas safety and carbon monoxide risks, including how to manage them. Each year the cross-government group publishes its annual report, which provides a summary of the work carried out by its members, including the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales.

The 2006 figures quoted by the noble Lord provide an insight into the safety of homes at that point in time. It is important to recognise that much has been done over the past 12 years to improve gas safety. The report by the cross-government group on gas safety and carbon monoxide awareness uses the same ONS data on deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning, but focuses on accidental carbon monoxide poisoning where carbon monoxide is the main product—excluding the figures for accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from smoke, fire and flames, hence the lower figure.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, made the point that we should do more on gas safety. I can only agree with him: we must keep improving our approach. Even though the trend for carbon monoxide poisoning is downward, we cannot afford to be complacent.

A number of noble Lords raised the issue of carbon monoxide alarms. The Government’s review of carbon monoxide alarm requirements in England will consider new research and update the evidence base to establish whether alarm requirements, currently limited to solid fuel heating in the private rented sector, and in building regulations, should be extended to the installation of oil and gas boilers and to social housing. The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government is considering all the updated evidence and research with a view to consulting on any proposed changes early in 2019.

I was asked to comment on the impact of the smoke and carbon monoxide alarm regulations. A recent government consultation showed that there is good awareness of the Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) regulations and that this has led to an increase in the number of alarms and safer homes. The response illustrates the lack of carbon monoxide alarms in private rented accommodation prior to the regulations coming into effect.

I was also asked whether I was satisfied that all CO alarms are constructed to a reliable and accurate standard, where the device’s sensor can be tested for its function and accuracy. Consumer products offered in the UK market, including carbon monoxide alarms, must comply with the UK’s strict product safety legislation, which requires products to be safe before they can be sold to consumers. It is the responsibility of manufacturers to ensure that CO alarms meet safety requirements and legislation. Making a misleading claim about compliance with the standard would be an offence under regulations providing consumer protection from unfair trading.

Another question was whether I was aware that respected experts had raised concerns about current alarms losing their reliability and accuracy as they deteriorate over time. The Government take the issue of consumer safety seriously and advise all consumers, when purchasing a domestic carbon monoxide alarm, to check that it is market-compliant with the relevant British or European standard.

There is a strong and appropriate regulatory regime in relation to gas safety and exposure to carbon monoxide. It is supported by additional activities focused on ensuring that gas engineers are properly trained and competent, raising public awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning, and improving early diagnosis of the system. The Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998 form the cornerstone of the existing regulatory framework and require engineers to refer to manufacturers’ instructions and appropriate standards when installing, commissioning and maintaining appliances. Where appropriate, or where the manufacturer’s instructions advise it, the engineer should use a flue gas analyser. These regulations have had a significant impact in reducing injuries and fatalities in this area.

I was asked about the recommendations of the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group and I will write to noble Lords about that. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked why the gas emergency services do not carry or use equipment to test gas appliances for CO. The Gas Safety (Management) Regulations require gas emergency service providers to have arrangements for dealing with reported gas escapes and gas incidents, including those involving CO. This is a free emergency service and is not intended to identify the cause. It will be for the homeowner to engage a gas engineer to identify and solve the problem. I will write to the noble Lord about the mandatory label being placed in a visible position.

The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, asked whether the Government would comment on future policy changes. There are no policy changes other than a review of CO alarm requirements. Departments review the effectiveness of, and evidence base for, the current policies and for any proposed changes.

I turn to the important subject of Gas Safe engineers. Key parts of this legislation are the legal requirement that the installation and maintenance of gas appliances should be undertaken only by a suitably qualified and registered engineer, and the establishment of the Gas Safe Register. For engineers to be considered competent and to apply for Gas Safe registration, they must complete an approved industry-recognised training course, followed by an assessment of competence. Gas engineers then have their competence reassessed every five years. I was asked whether I was satisfied with the effectiveness of the training of gas installers. In short, the answer is yes.

In terms of product safety, gas appliances sold in the UK are regulated under the Gas Appliances Regulation. The Government take product safety extremely seriously and are committed to ensuring that only safe products are placed on the UK market. This will not change when the UK leaves the EU. We will ensure that the UK retains an effective product safety regime—that is a priority. On exit, appliances burning gaseous fuels will be able to be sold on the UK market only if they meet the higher level of safety, as they do now.

I turn to the point about Public Health England and national campaigns. Public Health England raises public and professional awareness of the impacts of carbon monoxide pollution by supporting activities that aim to change behaviour, such as the annual Clean Air Day, and it works with national and local stakeholders, public health partners and government departments to develop advice and actions which can be taken to prevent accidental exposure to carbon monoxide in homes.

I think that noble Lords also raised the question of people who, when abroad, suffer as a result of other countries not complying with safety regulations and not doing the things they should do. The Foreign Office provides support to families when things go wrong, but it is up to other countries to make sure that they comply with regulations, and I do not say that glibly. It is tragic when people die as a result of this poisoning, because it is preventable.

I am sorry to say that my time is up, but I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, reminded us of the 140th anniversary of the invention of the light bulb. I understand that Thomas Edison patented it the year after so that he could have two parties. I am not sure whether I have given your Lordships any light-bulb moments but I have tried to respond accurately. If I have missed anything, I undertake to write to all noble Lords.

Sitting suspended.