First published on ConservativeHome: 1st September 2017
Eddie Hughes is the Member of Parliament for Walsall North.
As the first Conservative elected for Walsall North since 1979, I sometimes feel I’m on borrowed time. So I intend to make the most of this opportunity and do what I can to improve the lives of my constituents as quickly as I can.
Before the election I was the Assistant Chief Executive of a specialist social housing provider, YMCA Birmingham, which manages 300 units of accommodation across the city. I’m also the Chair of the Board of Walsall Housing Group (WHG), a housing association with 20,000 homes across the West Midlands and 800 more in the pipeline.
With many homes in Walsall North predominately social housing, housing is a policy area I would like to help improve during my time in Parliament – whether that be long or short!
In England, we have a housing safety issue when it comes to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, so I hope to bring in a Ten Minute Rule Bill to address this. In recent years we’ve seen over 25 people killed each year in CO related incidents.
Hundreds of people hospitalised are hospitalised (264 last year alone), and figures I’ve seen say approximately 4,000 people attend A&E each year with symptoms of CO poisoning. That’s a not insignificant cost to the NHS.
CO is a by-product of poor carbon fuel combustion. Signs of such combustion sometimes include a lazy yellow flame instead of a crisp blue one. But it can’t be seen, tasted or smelt. CO poisoning symptoms include headaches, dizziness, breathlessness, nausea, collapse, and loss of consciousness leading to death. It can even be mistaken for a hangover.
Let me share a recent real-life example that I have been told about. A family moved into a new build home two years ago: brand new boiler, up to date building standards, and ticked all the building regulation boxes. But there was a problem, and no one spotted it – after all, CO is undetectable to human senses.
The mother and her child started to get headaches, feeling unwell and ended up in their local A&E department. It turns out there was a fault with the boiler and they had CO poisoning. If they had decided to go to bed to sleep off the headache it could have been a very different story.
This danger was completely detectable, and preventable, if a CO detector had been installed. It seems remiss that we mandate smoke alarms but don’t mandate CO alarms.
So, what can we do? I firmly believe that not only should CO detectors be mandatory in new-build propertiesm but they should be installed in all rented properties, including social housing and those in the private rented sector.
We also need to ensure people are fully aware of the risks associated with a gas that cannot be seen, smelt or tasted, because any fuel-burning appliance not properly maintained has the potential to be a source of CO. This is why I am also proposing that fire authorities have an explicit duty to promote CO safety, as they would with fire safety. This isn’t an additional strain on the public purse but enshrines current best practice by many fire services in legislation.
The Government have made some progress on this. Since 2015 rules were brought in requiring that smoke alarms be installed on every storey of a rented property and that CO detectors be installed in any room housing a solid fuel combustion appliance, such as coal or wood. But not, yet, for gas or oil.
These changes were, of course, welcome, but they do not go far enough. We still have an often-fatal problem, and this shouldn’t be the case in the 21st Century because it’s almost entirely preventable.
The Chief Medical Officer for England previously said: “CO is a silent killer which leads to many deaths every year. We can all prevent these avoidable tragedies by making sure gas and fuel appliances are properly installed and maintained and fitting an audible CO alarm that meets European Standard EN 50291.”
I agree. Scotland and Northern Ireland now have legislation to ensure residents are protected by the presence of CO detectors. Big international cities like New York also have similar CO laws. Now is the time to enshrine that protection in English law.
I understand many prefer to leave such matters to individuals, for people to make choices for themselves rather than being compelled to action by an over-bearing state. In general, I would wholeheartedly agree.
But this isn’t loads of new red tape or piles of regulation that will end up becoming an annoyance. It is three simple things we can do as a society to prevent needless deaths and raise awareness.
If we intend to ensure that the lives lost in Grenfell Tower serve to save others losing their lives in the future, then we need to carefully consider all options for keeping people safe in their homes – the place they have a right to feel most safe and secure. This should include protection from carbon monoxide.
In a hung Parliament it is even more important that MPs work cross-party in order to get things done. I hope we can all unite in trying to stop deaths from this ‘silent killer’.