Duty of Secretary of State and Director to Consult with Health and Safety Executive on Safety Qualifications of Gas Contractors

Orders of the Day — Gas Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 15th May 1995.

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'The Secretary of State and the Director shall each have a duty to consult with the Health and Safety Executive with the objective of securing that any public gas transporter, retailer, shipper or supplier who may have cause to undertake work on any gas supply meter, gas fitting or appliance shall ensure that—

  1. (a) any employee or third party contractor is suitably qualified in the relevant aspects of gas distribution, installation or service;
  2. (b) any third party contractor undertaking such work is registered with an appropriate recognised trade body approved by the Health and Safety Executive.'.—[Mr. Nigel Griffiths.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Nigel Griffiths Nigel Griffiths , Edinburgh South

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 6 deals with critical safety issues. The House will be aware of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's report on gas under the Fair Trading Act 1973. The report, published in August 1993, stressed that safety was a major consideration in the removal of the monopoly. If electricity is switched off, it leaves no problems behind. If gas is switched off, pilot lights can remain on. Gas requires greater skill and vigilance.

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Fortunately, gone are the days when there was widespread fear of gas and when the consequences of gas explosions were felt by all. None the less, there is an alarming number of gas incidents. I am a founder member of Consumer Safety International, which assists people who have lost relatives or suffered injuries abroad because of gas, particularly in Spain, and of CO-GAS, which is a British-based organisation that campaigns for safer gas appliances.

New clause 6 gives the Health and Safety Executive an overview. It would make the Secretary of State and the Director General of Gas Supply duty bound to consult the HSE, to ensure that gas transporters, retailers, shippers or suppliers were suitably qualified.

The Government have had a big drive to encourage people to register with the CORGI scheme. I appreciate the work of CORGI and of its skilled engineers, but there are various estimates—none is below several thousand—of unqualified, unregistered people installing gas supplies in highly dangerous circumstances.

I notice from the Government's statistics that a large number of appliances still have dangerous gas fittings. In 1993–94, for example, 445 dangerous boilers, 44 dangerous water heaters, 330 dangerous gas fires and 112 dangerous cookers were identified. There were a total of 1,467 dangerous appliances, which was an increase of more than 200 on the previous year, and that was an increase of almost 500 on the year before. In the past three years, there has been a trend of a steady increase in the notification of dangerous gas fittings, when the gas for domestic premises was supplied by one gas supplier.

As the market opens up, it is very important that proper safeguards are in place, to ensure that the domestic gas consumer is not put at risk. There are many reasons for faults, and again the available statistics are helpful. For example, in 883 cases, the manner of installation was deemed to be dangerous. Modifications and alterations caused danger in 259 cases. Servicing and maintenance problems occurred in 87 cases and design problems occurred in 32 cases out of the total of 1,467. Far too many dangerous fittings required attention. Once the Bill has been passed and the market has been deregulated, we do not want an alarming upward trend, which is the primary reason why we have tabled the new clause.

The Gas Consumers Council has made representations and runs campaigns for the register of Corgi installers to be made available to consumers and for the literature and leaflets to be user friendly. However, it also wants a proper register established to ensure that third-party contractors or employees of the new independent gas companies are suitably qualified in all aspects of gas distribution, installation and service.

There is a general fear that the installation of gas may become deskilled. Certainly, in the past, gas engineers were not only highly trained, as they still are, but worked to tolerances that did not allow the possibility of accidents in any number. Anyone who talks to gas engineers these days knows that cuts by British Gas, in the face of private sector competition, have meant that, whereas engineers were trained to work to tremendously fine tolerances, standards have slipped a little. I do not intend to alarm the public—I believe that there are still adequate safeguards—but we do not want any further slippage, and we certainly do not want the new third-party contractors employing unskilled and unqualified people.

I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in defence of not ensuring that any third-party contractor is using suitably qualified personnel. The Government joined us in supporting the CORGI scheme, but we want to ensure that the several thousand people who are currently practising unregistered and unqualified are driven out of business—and quickly.

We know of the tremendous risks not only of explosions but of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by fumes from faulty gas appliances and flues. We want to be sure that, once the gas market has opened up, Ministers, the regulator and the Health and Safety Executive are convinced that companies that succeed in getting a licence and that are involved in the installation and repair of appliances and the distribution of gas are suitably qualified and do not pose a risk to themselves or, more important, to the public.

Photo of Mr Kevin Hughes Mr Kevin Hughes , Doncaster North

I, too, welcome the opportunity to debate the safety aspect of the Bill, which is probably one of the most important aspects for the consumer. Safety is probably uppermost in people's minds when gas appliances are installed in their homes. I should like to think that the Government will support new clause 6, but I doubt that they will. The fact that they will not is very unfortunate.

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

How does the hon. Gentleman know?

Photo of Mr Kevin Hughes Mr Kevin Hughes , Doncaster North

It is a guess, but we shall see at the end of the debate. I would not be able to bet on it at William Hill; the odds would certainly not be good anyway.

It is a pity that the Government will not support the new clause because it is fundamentally about protection and safety. It is designed to secure safety standards and service for consumers in future, under arrangements similar to those enjoyed in the present system, under British Gas. That means that appliances will have to be repaired by fully qualified and trained installers. Preferably, they should be properly registered and be able to provide expertise equal to that provided by TransCo and British Gas at present.

The new clause deals with the proper training of installers who carry out appliance repairs. Under the Bill, TransCo will be called out to deal with any difficulty with supply and will have responsibility for making an appliance safe. The repairs will not be carried out by TransCo, however, which will be responsible only for safety upstream of the meter. Consumers will be left with a list of CORGI-registered suppliers, and will have to arrange for the repair themselves.

There is concern about what the fragmentation of the repair service will mean in practice. Consumers will be left to take pot luck with the list of contractors that is handed to them. At present, British Gas engineers can make arrangements for appliances to be repaired and can leave temporary equipment, such as electric heaters, on loan to customers who may be vulnerable to cold and who do not have any other source of heating. Under the new system, that sort of comprehensive service and the benefits that it brings to consumers might be lost as householders are left to fend for themselves.

The annual report of the Gas Consumers Council this year pointed out that a register of competent installers that is both accessible and meaningful to domestic consumers and advice agencies has not yet been produced. The Health and Safety Executive is considering that matter as part of its review of the CORGI registration scheme, which is welcome news.

The GCC has consistently pressed for such a register to be made available to gas consumers. At present, such information is not published. The council wants information on the hours and type of work that an installer has CORGI registration to undertake, which is particularly important. When competition is introduced, it is vital that such information is published in an accessible format and is readily available to both suppliers and consumers.

The Minister will remember that in Committee we discussed training for some CORGI scheme members compared with that for TransCo engineers at present. Unfortunately, not all CORGI-registered engineers will be trained in all types of gas appliances. Different levels of registration will apply for CORGI installers, and they may not always have the experience or expertise that British Gas engineers have. That is of concern, because a number of cases were raised in Committee in which mistakes had allegedly been made by CORGI-registered firms, which is deeply worrying.

CORGI-registered installers who work outside the competence for which they are registered are breaking the law, but customers may not know the level of competence of an installer, so adequate information must be available to consumers on that issue. At present, the business rather than the individual is given CORGI registration, which is a further potential source of confusion for the public in the light of the new circumstances that are proposed.

In the event of contracting out and even subcontracting, the parent company is sometimes not aware of who is carrying out the work. In some circumstances, it seems to lose control of who is handling the screwdrivers, spanners or whatever tools are needed to do a particular job. In this case, it could be dangerous if the parent company were not fully aware of who was carrying out repairs to appliances in people's homes.

As the Minister knows, I worked in the mining industry for a long time—

Photo of Mr Kevin Hughes Mr Kevin Hughes , Doncaster North 9:15 pm, 15th May 1995

Too long for me to remember, but more than 20 years. The Minister is probably aware of the number of accidents that occurred when outside contractors came to work in the industry. I shall not develop this point, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it is worth noting that the safety record of outside contractors was far worse than that of British Coal. I am worried that, if we start to contract out, as is almost inevitable, a similarly poor safety record may apply to those sent out to fix people's gas appliances. We should make it clear that only CORGI-registered engineers may carry out work on gas appliances. The Health and Safety Executive is looking into that matter in the context of its review.

In Committee, hon. Members expressed concern about the loss of expertise that may result from the fragmentation of repair work. Through working together and sharing experiences, British Gas engineers have been able to identify potentially dangerous design faults and installation problems and report them to manufacturers when necessary. That good feature will probably be lost. Their combined pool of experience has been valuable and the potential loss of that exchange of information is worrying.

The Health and Safety Commission recognises that problem in its safety framework document and proposes that the Health and Safety Executive discuss with the industry and other parties arrangements for effective investigation into incidents downstream of the meter and for the dissemination of lessons learnt, such as on design faults in appliances.

What I have said shows that much more work will be placed on the Health and Safety Executive as a result of the Bill and how much the Bill's safety aspects depend for their implementation on the HSE's ability to cope with that new work. Opposition Members have consistently pressed the Government to provide additional funding for the Health and Safety Executive, to help it to carry out its responsibilities.

I understand from a letter that was left for me on the board this afternoon that the Minister proposes to provide more than £2.5 million to enable the HSE to carry out that work. The caveat is that that sum is for only three years. While I welcome the fact that the Government have come forward with that sum, which is warranted and necessary, I am concerned about what will happen when it runs out after three years. Will the Health and Safety Executive be forced to cut back or will the Government provide further funding? I hope that the Minister will address that matter when he responds.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will seriously consider the new clause, which aims to ensure that safety and standards of service are maintained for gas consumers in their own homes. The issues that I mentioned must be addressed, to guarantee that good safety standards are achieved once the Bill is enacted. Not least, the good work of the HSE must continue. I hope that the £2.5 million will not dry up after three years, because we would then have a serious problem. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will respond to those important points, which are of particular concern to people because of their effect on their homes.

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

I always listen with particular respect to contributions from the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) on safety. Because of his particular experience in the mining industry, I recognise that safety, of which he has a great deal of knowledge, is close to his heart.

Although the hon. Gentleman would be misguided to put money on whether I would accept new clause 6, I would not have hesitated to do so if I thought that it was necessary to provide a thoroughly safe regime in the new competitive gas market. Clause 2 will insert section 4A(2) in the Gas Act 1986, which places a specific duty on the Secretary of State and the director to consult the HSE on all safety matters and to take into account any advice that it offers. In addition, sections 4A(3) and 4A(4) provide that the director must prepare and lay before the House a memorandum of understanding with the HSE, with the aim of securing co-operation and exchange of information and that, therefore, she must act in accordance with that memorandum. Those provisions cover the vast bulk of the concerns relating to hon. Members' insistence, quite rightly, that the HSE should be involved effectively.

I welcome the slightly grudging praise for the fact that we have produced the necessary funding for the HSE. It does not go beyond three years because the public expenditure system works on a three-year period. We shall address the needs for the fourth year and so on as they come up in the normal cycle of events.

Photo of Mr Kevin Hughes Mr Kevin Hughes , Doncaster North

The right hon. Gentleman will probably not have to do that, because we shall be in government by then.

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

Illusions, illusions. I shall allow the hon. Gentleman that little flight of fantasy because I do not want to disappoint him about that at least.

The other matters that the new clause would regulate are dealt with in existing regulations, in particular, the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1994. They require that only competent persons may do work on any gas fitting. That definition of gas fitting includes all appliances and pipe work downstream of the meter and the meter itself. In effect, the regulations mean that the people who do that work must be members of CORGI. Under the Bill, responsibility for safety upstream of the meter lies with the public gas transporter. At present, that operates under the general provisions of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. The HSE is, however, currently preparing draft regulations on more explicit rules in relation to gas pipelines.

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham , Barnsley West and Penistone

What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that there is a national register of CORGI-qualified engineers? Many hon. Members know of cases that have caused great concern, because engineers who were not CORGI qualified fitted installations at people's homes. Local authorities, which are particularly relevant because of their housing stock, have no access to a national register to see whether a man contracted by them is CORGI qualified.

Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North

That matter was mentioned in Committee, and there is anxiety about it. The HSE has responsibility for that, as one would expect. It is important that the independent agency, the tripartite body under the HSE, looks after those matters. It is reviewing the CORGI scheme at present, and I am sure that it will take into account the anxieties that were expressed by the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members.

In other words, I am convinced that the arrangements that we propose will meet the necessary requirements for safety. That is not only my opinion but that of the HSE. I wish to repeat, for the record, that we regard safety as paramount, for all the reasons mentioned by Opposition Members. We shall not compromise on that. We believe that the present systems and the present proposals in the Bill strike the right balance and will go as far as it is humanly possible to go to achieve the right type of safety regulation in that important industry.

Photo of Nigel Griffiths Nigel Griffiths , Edinburgh South

My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) speaks with great feeling on this subject, and he made a forceful case. The Minister has not reassured us satisfactorily, so we are especially keen to ensure that the other place has a chance to consider the issue, as it often does, in a less politicised atmosphere.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.