Gas deaths: landlords targeted

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The Independent Online
THE Government is to tighten up safety laws in an attempt to cut the 'alarming' number of tenants, many of them students, poisoned by faulty gas fires. Ministers drew up the tougher measures after a campaign highlighted the dozens of deaths recorded each year in rented properties.

Landlords will be forced to take greater responsibility for the safety of their tenants under regulations to be brought in next month. They will be legally obliged to service equipment each year and held responsible if the equipment is found to be dangerous. Offenders will face fines running into tens of thousands of pounds.

Up to 40 people die each year because of leaks of carbon monoxide. The fumes are produced when gas is prevented from burning normally by blockages or faulty equipment.

At present, landlords can only be prosecuted under housing regulations; even successful prosecutions carry comparatively small fines. Landlords can escape conviction by arguing that they had no reason to believe an appliance was faulty.

The dangers have been publicised by the Gas Safety Campaign, headed by Anne Wilkinson, an East Sussex mother, whose 19-year-old daughter was poisoned at her university digs. Mrs Wilkinson has united groups, including the National Union of Students, the Campaign for Bedsit Rights, the Gas Consumers Council and the Health and Safety Executive.

She said this weekend: 'It is not just students who are at risk. It is anybody who uses cheap rented accommodation, because the landlords just do not maintain anything.'

A spokesman for the HSE said: 'There is no doubt that the number of these deaths is alarming.'

Mrs Wilkinson's daughter, Clare, died three years ago in a house near Aston University, Birmingham, where she was a student. The landlord's failure to service the appliance in 18 years had allowed 20lb of soot and dust to build up in the flue. The landlord was fined pounds 200.

Since then the death toll has continued to rise. Last December, the death of Glen Halliday, 24, at a flat in Sunderland, prompted the city's coroner, Martin Shaw, to call for safety checks on bedsits and flats. Mr Halliday died as he slept in front of a fire which had not been serviced for 13 years.

In March last year, two Liverpool University students, Claire Short and John Else, were found poisoned in their house in the Toxteth area of the city. Four months earlier, two graduates sharing accommodation in Nottingham were killed by fumes from a gas boiler.

Other parents have joined Mrs Wilkinson's fight after they too lost a loved one. Trevor Murphy, a machine operator from Hull, contacted her after the death of his daughter Tracy, 19, in her rented flat last winter. An inquest jury last month returned a verdict of unlawful killing. The flat's owner and his wife had previously been fined pounds 1,500 each for failing to maintain the system.

Experts say the fumes are particularly dangerous because they are invisible, silent, and have no smell. Symptoms include headaches, lethargy and dizziness.

HSE figures show that between 30 and 40 people die and more than 120 become ill through the fumes each year. However, campaigners say the official numbers underestimate the extent of the problem because some carbon monoxide deaths are wrongly attributed to other causes.

Michael Forsyth, now a prisons minister, ordered the clampdown earlier this year when he held ministerial responsibility for Health and Safety laws. The new regulations are to be promoted with a widespread publicity campaign backed by the HSE.