George Howarth – 2018 Speech on Cable Standards and Fires

Below is the text of the speech made by George Howarth, the Labour MP for Knowsley, in the House of Commons on 26 March 2018.

Mr Speaker I am about to call the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth). It seems to me quite inexplicable that significant numbers of Members are leaving the Chamber, but if they feel inclined to do so—[Interruption.] It is no good the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) chuntering that he has been here for several hours; he could stay here another half an hour and indulge the right hon. Member for Knowsley. If people wish to leave the Chamber, they should do so quickly and quietly, so that the rest of us can attend to the intellectual oratory of the right hon. Member for Knowsley.

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab) I will try to live up to your splendid introduction, Mr Speaker.

Last year’s Grenfell Tower tragedy was, without doubt, one of the most shocking and disturbing building safety failures in living memory. As we know, the likely cause was a shocking failure of our building control regulations, and as a result, the Government established an independent review of building regulations led by Dame Judith Hackitt. A long-overdue national debate about buildings and safety has been taking place alongside the review. In her interim report, Dame Judith rightly stated that Britain’s building regulations are “not fit for purpose”.

I would like to place on record my thanks to the Safer Structures campaign, Electrical Safety First, the Association of British Insurers, the Fire Brigades Union and the Merseyside fire and rescue service for providing me with a briefing for the debate.

The focus for Grenfell Tower is on the specification and installation of the cladding used on the building. This debate concerns the need to eradicate substandard cabling from the market, because there is an overwhelming argument that our existing regulation is too weak and, as a consequence, exposes structures and those who live and work in them to unacceptable levels of risk.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this salient debate. Does he agree that, with electrical fires being the cause of 20,000 fires in United Kingdom homes per year, we have a duty to ensure that people are able to check their cabling and understand how to do so to ensure that it is safe, for not only the people themselves but the councils, which have responsibility?

Mr Howarth I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I will be giving some statistics that exemplify what he just said.

According to the Approved Cables Initiative, more than 27% of all electrical fires are attributable to faulty wire and cables, and there are serious concerns about the risks in our built environment that need to be urgently addressed.

A related concern is that current regulation is not being sufficiently well enforced. For example, in October 2017 the BBC published evidence from an investigation it carried out which exposed the fact that a now-defunct Turkish cable manufacturer, Atlas Kablo, has sold ​11 million metres of cable to the UK that pose a deeply concerning fire risk. The Health and Safety Executive, which labours under severe resource restrictions, decided against a compulsory recall of all 11 million metres of that cable. Consequently, as far as I am able to ascertain, so far only 7 million metres has actually been recovered. That poses a real fire safety threat in cases where that cable is still being used.

Interviewed by the BBC, Sam Gluck, the technical manager at the electrical fire consultants Tower Electrical Fire & Safety, said that this approach had

“planted a bomb in the system”.

Mr Gluck added that

“if it overheats, it will ignite anything that touches it. If it’s against a plasterboard wall that will ignite”.

Dr Maurizio Bragagni, chief executive of Tratos—it has a factory in my constituency—and a founder of the Safer Structures campaign, added that

“it could be in any shopping centre, any venue, any building”.

Even where cable regulation is properly enforced, the standards are too weak. By way of background—the Minister will be aware of this—on 1 July 2017, the European Union introduced the construction products regulation. As a result, all cables sold in the EU now have to adhere to common standards, which should result in safer, more consistent building regulations and much improved public safety. The EU, however, has not been prescriptive in specifying which classification of cable performance should be used for buildings and infrastructure in each country. Instead, it is the responsibility of each EU member state’s regulator to decide this, and in the UK, this is the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

At present, the Department has not specified which class of cable should be used for buildings, and instead requires all electrical installations in buildings to comply with British standard 7671—a minimum requirement equivalent to European class E. This means that flames can spread through a cable to 3 to 4 metres in under five minutes, and the fire will continue to propagate at the same rate, while at Euro class C, for example, the fire growth rate is limited to below 2 metres. On the range of Euro classes A to F, the A standard is virtually fireproof. Adoption of a higher standard at Euro class A, B1, B2 or C would lead to much greater resistance for permitted cables. In short, it would mean much improved levels of fire safety.

The official statistics on domestic fires make for sober reading. In 2016-17, 14,821 primary fires were caused by electrical distribution, space heating appliances and other electrical appliances. These three categories resulted in 44 fatalities and 1,353 non-fatal casualties. Another cause for concern is the electrical safety of white goods such as dishwashers, tumble dryers and fridge freezers, which are a major cause of electrical fires. In 2016, 1,873 fires were caused by domestic electrical white goods.

As you will recall, Mr Speaker, on 1 November 2017 there was an excellent Westminster Hall debate on the subject of product safety and fire risk in residential premises, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). I will not go over that ground again, other than to say that this is a serious problem and it needs to be addressed urgently.​
Analysis by the Fire Brigades Union indicates that the number of fires and fire deaths is increasing. In the year ending September 2017, there were 346 fire-related fatalities compared with 253 in the previous year, which is a 37% increase—and it was even up by 9% if the tragic deaths at Grenfell Tower are not included. An improvement in standards must, by definition, lead to reduced fire deaths, less property damage and lower demands on already overstretched fire and rescue services. We should bear in mind that, since 2010, more than 11,000 firefighter jobs have been cut across the UK, and that represents one in five frontline firefighter jobs.

There are, as I have highlighted, genuine concerns about buildings such as Grenfell Tower and fire safety. I also have serious concerns about the growing private rented sector, which is far too lightly regulated. Electrical Safety First recommended that properties in the private rented sector should be subject to mandatory five-year checks and the fitting of residual current devices. This would enable substandard cabling to be identified, rather than, as at present, leaving it undetected until it causes serious property damage, injury or even death.

The post-Brexit landscape for regulation and compliance must, at the minimum, maintain the current protections afforded to consumers. There should be no deregulation of the product safety standards currently implemented. Following our exit, the UK should continue working closely with European friends to ensure that products entering the UK market are safe, and dangerous products are intercepted and reported.

One further point I want to make before I move to a conclusion concerns regional variations. Merseyside had 53% of its fires recorded as being electrical in origin, which is below the national average. During the same time, Manchester had 61%, and Norfolk, the Isle of Wight and Cornwall had in excess of 70%, of dwelling fires recorded as electrical. Of the 628 incidents defined as electrical fires on Merseyside, 133 were deemed to be “structural/fixtures/fittings”, and cables would fall into that category.

To conclude, I ask the Minister to consider the following questions. First, Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of building regulations must inevitably go through all the evidence thoroughly, and I accept that that will take time. However, in the case of cabling, would the Minister consider introducing immediate measures to properly regulate cable standards along the lines I referred to? The evidence is already there.

Secondly, will the Minister consider providing the resources to enable the Health and Safety Executive to identify the remaining 4 million metres of Atlas Kablo cable so that it can be recalled? Thirdly, will she undertake to see what further action can be taken on white goods to more fully identify the risks and any action that could be taken to eradicate those risks?

Fourthly, will the Minister carry out a review of the regions most prone to electrical fires to identify the common characteristics and what more can be done to deal with the problem? Finally, following our exit from the EU, will she commit to ensuring that there is no deregulation of cable standards in the UK?

I hope the Minister will accept that this is a very serious issue and that it is in need of urgent attention ​from her Department. I hope she will inject some energy into the work the Government need to do to combat it.