Polyurethane Foam (Miscellaneous Provisions)

– in the House of Commons at 5:05 pm on 2nd March 1988.

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Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney , Makerfield 5:05 pm, 2nd March 1988

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to ban the sale of secondhand furniture and bedding which contains polyurethane foam or other dangerous inflammable substances from January 1989. It is with much humility, tinged with anger and frustration, that I introduce a Bill that will be one of the last pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that has taken almost 20 years to complete. It follows two decades of official Government neglect and criminal negligence by the furniture manufacturing industry. Since the mid-1960s it was known to all concerned that polyurethane foam is lethal as a primary and secondary source of fire ignition. Despite the spiralling toll of death and injury, little has been done to end the carnage, and much was done by a complacent industry to frustrate advances in foam technology.

The statement made to the House on 11 January by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs, as he now is, represented a major U-turn in Government policy and set out the Government's resolve to ban the sale of both standard and high resilience polyurethane foam by February 1989. In 20 minutes the Government moved 20 years.

It was no coincidence that changes were announced following what must have been the most intense public campaign over the past decade. For those of us involved it was sickening to realise that for the necessary pressure to be brought to bear on both the Government and the industry 17 children and 10 adults had to die between Christmas eve and 10 January. Hundreds before them died in household fires, and firemen and those in the industry died, too, as a result of this appalling foam, which should have been banned 20 years ago.

The changes that we make will stand as a memorial to the tragic loss of life, to the bravery of those who vainly tried to save lives and to the courage of those left to cope.

The pressure was maintained and, following a meeting between the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs, the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) and myself, the Government extended the ban to beds and mattresses. The Minister's written answer yesterday to the hon. Member for York contained further changes in the fire safety regulations. The draft regulations, now in the Library, make further concessions on a number of key matters, and I recommend that the House study these proposals carefully and that hon. Members submit their views to the Minister by 12 May.

The Minister's proposals are, however, deficient in two major aspects, both of which are central to eliminating the 300-plus deaths and 7,500 injuries a year caused by polyurethane foam fires. First, there is the failure to ban the sale of secondhand furniture and bedding with polyurethane foam fillings and ignitable coverings. Secondly, the ignition source test for other dangerous substances, such as fibre fillings, is significantly less stringent than the proposals for the new safer combustion-modified high resilience foam.

If we are to tackle the real source of carnage and horror in polyurethane fires, we must recognise and understand the social, economic and housing conditions that give rise to the overwhelming majority of such fires and the subsequent deaths and injuries. The Home Office report, "Housing Factors and Fires", issued two years ago, made it crystal clear that there was a direct link between low incomes, old age, large families, social problems, bad housing and high fire risk, and the death toll proves that link.

In practical terms, the Government's proposals mean that those who can afford new, safer furniture and beds will be protected by the law, but the poor will be denied that protection. It will still be legal to sell furniture and bedding stuffed with polyurethane foam, which will kill a family in three minutes if ignited, so long as it is labelled "Secondhand." This black hole in the regulations means that thousands more of our citizens will die or be injured. That is totally unacceptable. It is absurd that a shop can legally sell secondhand killer foam furniture in one part of the premises, and the new, safer foams in another. The new-for-old sales discount schemes currently in operation, and the dumping of current stocks on the secondhand market, will lead to three specific problems—confusion and danger for customers, policing difficulties for fire authorities, and legal nightmares for trading standards officers.

My Bill will achieve a number of improvements. Clause I will ban the sale of secondhand furniture and bedding containing polyurethane foam, the definition of which is set out in section 10(5) of the Consumer Protection Act 1987. Clause 2 will create an offence of supplying secondhand furniture as defined by that section. This is essential because of the unscrupulous nature of some people in the industry who will seek to dump stocks on the secondhand market before February 1989. Clause 3 will strengthen the suspension of sale powers given to trading standards officers under section 12 of the 1987 Act. Clause 4 will make fibre fillings subject to the British standards specification to be adopted for the safer foams, as set out in the appendices to the draft Furniture and Furnishings Fire Safety Regulations 1988.

I urge the House to join the fire authorities, the Institute of Trading Standards Administration, the Fire Brigades Union, the Furniture Timber and Allied Trades Union and the Consumers Association in supporting the Bill and ending once and for all the vile and evil trade that has brought so much misery, pain and death to thousands of our fellow citizens.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ian McCartney, Mr. Frank Doran, Mr. Keith Bradley, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Ms. Dawn Primarolo, Mr. Eric Martlew, Mr. Roger Stott, Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe, Mr. Terry Lewis, Mr. John Battle, Mr. Henry McLeish and Mr. Sam Galbraith.