Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): It is perhaps slightly ironic that we are discussing problems arising from a celebration of an attempt to blow up Parliament. I have never been entirely sure whether the failure is celebrated or regretted. In 1605, Parliament was purely English, of course, as I hope it will be again soon.
I would be surprised if there were any Members who do not receive a steady stream of complaints about the misuse of fireworks at this time of year or who do not perceive a steady rise in the problem. There have already been two private Member's Bills and several early-day motions on the subject. The attendance at today's debate shows the level of interest among Members.
Fireworks can and should be enjoyed. As children, we all probably looked forward to 5 November, but time has moved on and the fireworks season has gradually extended well beyond both sides of Guy Fawkes night. The penny bangers and barking doggies of our youth have been replaced by modern fireworks, which are very powerful. Both of those developments have led to a great deal of misery within our communities.
I am sure that everyone present could list horror stories of incidents involving fireworks in their constituencies. We will hear some of them later. In my constituency, many incidents have been reported to me, both last year and this year. In one case, the front of a postbox was blown off by a firework that had been placed inside it. That is a dramatic illustration of the power of modern fireworks. In another village, more than £2,000 worth of damage was caused when a firework was jammed through a letterbox in the early hours of the morning. Think what could have happened if that fire had not been discovered quickly. It could well have been fatal.
There has already been a steady stream of other incidents. In Aberdeen, vandals destroyed the interior of a fire protection officer's car by dropping a lit firework on the back seat. That stupid action could have caused a serious explosion in a residential area. In another incident, fireworks set off in a block of flats started a series of fires, which, again, could have led to fatalities.
Those are incidents that have taken place just in my area. Since the debate has been publicised, I have received e-mails and letters from around the United Kingdom. I was struck by what I heard from John Taylor in Manchester, who told me that last year, idiots fired large rockets at planes coming into land at Ringway airport. The implications and possible consequences of such behaviour are horrendous, especially at a time when the whole of the western world is on terrorist alert.
It is not only reckless, stupid and potentially fatal actions that cause problems. From early September to late November every yeara period of almost three monthsmany of our communities are subjected to night after night of disruption by the continuous use of loud fireworks. One constituent compared it to living on a battlefield.
Fireworks are meant for enjoyment and celebration, but, unfortunately, they are misused by a small minority and that is causing huge distress to our constituents and to animals. Fireworks are not toys. They are extremely dangerous and can be lethal. It is no coincidence that fireworks are governed by the Explosives Act 1875. Sadly, many of the people most at risk in our society are the most vulnerable: the elderly, the disabled and children.
The number of injuries from fireworks is increasing. In Scotland alone there was an increase of some 35 per cent. during 2000 and 2001. Last year I asked some parliamentary questions to ascertain the dates of accidents involving fireworks, and the answers showed that most incidents took place before and after 5 November, not on the date itself. Even more worryingly, the majority of those injured are under 18. In a submission to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which is investigating the firework difficulties, the chief police officers of Scotland stated:
If the increase in the number of injuries is worrying, the age distribution of those injuries is even more disturbing, especially when one considers that under the 1997 regulations, youngsters should not be able to buy fireworks. Injuries to under-13s account for 34 per cent. of the total number of injuries, and a further 25 per cent. is made up of 13 to 15-year-olds. In essence, 59 per cent. of all firework-related injuries are to children under the age of 16the very people who should not have access to fireworks. It seems clear that the age restrictions in the 1997 regulations are not restricting young people's access to fireworks.
Animals, too, are excessively disturbed by the misuse of fireworks, and some are killed or have to be put down. A recent survey of vets by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found that more than 8,000 animals were being treated for firework-related problems. The treatment for those animals varied from prescribing sedatives to being put down. Some 90 per cent. of vets reported that they were dealing with such problems. The animals treated by those vets were generally house pets. I could not find any data on the effect on farm animals or wildlife, but one must assume that they are also being seriously affected.
The voluntary code states that fireworks should be sold only during the three weeks leading up to 5 November. However, one large newsagent chain in Scotland has been advertising half-price fireworks since September, and many branches have been selling them since then. They are not alone. Such actions undermine any chance for a voluntary code.
Mr. Weir : I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman's point, which I was about to come to. I stress that I do not believe in, or seek, a complete ban on fireworks because I do not think that that would be effective and it could lead to a black market in even more dangerous fireworks. However, the industry is very much drinking in the last chance saloon and, unless real improvements are made by a licensing system, fireworks will inevitably be banned altogether or allowed only for organised displays.
I ask the Minister to consider several points. First, in reference to the point made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I should like her to consider introducing a licensing system by statute to replace the
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Bill being introduced in the Scottish Parliament is supported on an all-party basis? It has Labour, Conservative, independent and Green support.
Mr. Weir : The Bill was introduced by Shona Robison and has attracted some support, but it was only under pressure from the Scottish National party that the Executive decided take the issue on, and they have done nothing about it ever since.
Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the control of fireworks is not a political issue in Scotland, and that the need for a licensing scheme is of general concern to a broad consensus of political parties? I believe that there should be a total ban. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that cross-party consensus has been achieved, and that my colleague, the Member representing Dundee, East in the Scottish Parliament, has sponsored the Bill there?
Mr. Weir : I do not dispute that there has been some cross-party involvement in the issue. We should also find some cross-party involvement in this place. It is a great pity that the Government did not take on board the private Member's Bill.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important Adjournment debate. I am chair of the fireworks group, soon to be called the all-party fireworks group because enough Members of the official Opposition want to join. The hon. Gentleman will be most welcome to join the group, which has more than 60 members.
Such a local authority-based registration scheme would ensure uniformity, rather than a piecemeal system of individual local authorities deciding their own approach. Such a scheme would be able to deal with the type of fireworks that can be sold and to whom and, crucially, the time scale within which they can be sold. On the matter referred to by the hon. Member for Stroud, local authorities would decide which shops could sell fireworks. The scheme would also include the essential feature of it being possible to take action to enforce the code if its rules were broken.
It is not enough merely to strike at the retailers of fireworksthe 1997 regulations imposed restrictions on them. The users and producers of dangerous fireworks must be tackled. The restrictions on the Scottish Parliament mean that it can deal only with retailers, but this House can take further action, and there have already been two private Member's Bills and several early-day motions. It is unfortunate that the Government did not take up the private Member's Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner), because it would have dealt with many of the problems.
Although it is a crime under the Explosives Act 1875 to set off a firework in the street, it is almost impossible to prove and to prosecute. I had an e-mail from someone in Edinburgh who took up the matter with a local policeman. It states:
I said at the outset that I am not in favour of a complete ban on fireworks, but it is clear that some of them should be banned because they are far too powerful. Even the industry recognises the justice of that case, and it has agreed voluntarily to withdraw air bombs from 1 January next year. That is good but it is not enough. There needs to be strict limits on the power and noise of existing and future fireworks, and only a statutory code can achieve that.
Measures need to be taken to ensure the safe use of fireworks. Statistics on injuries from fireworks show that the vast majority of them occur away from organised displays. Last year, more than 76 per cent. of injuries occurred at private or family parties or in a "casual incident" in the street or other public place, while only 11 per cent. occurred at large public displays. There should be moves to ensure that more fireworks are used in organised displays rather than sold individually.
Well-organised displays are a better way for everyone to enjoy fireworks safely, but a problem is emerging. In my constituency, a well-organised display that has been held in Carnoustie for more than 20 years has been put in jeopardy because insurance premiums have increased massively and the organisers cannot afford them. In that case, Angus council has stepped in and the display has been saved. However, other people from around the country who are facing similar problems have contacted me. Some underwriters are no longer prepared to run the risk of court action by those injured by powerful fireworks, and that is putting many well-organised displays in jeopardy. If those displays stop, there will inevitably be an increase in the use of fireworks by individuals, and a consequent increase in the number of injuries to people, animals and property.
I drew that point to the attention of the House in early-day motion 1778, and I urge the Minister to discuss the matter with insurance companies to try to ensure that they reduce premiums for specific, well-organised displays, which would inevitably lead to some form of regulation. If it is not possible to get insurance companies to reduce their premiumsit is probably impossible to force them to do sowill the Minister consider the possibility of acting as an insurer of last resort for such well-organised displays, which would have to be subject to some regulation?
This is a matter of public safety and fire prevention. Taking fireworks out of the hands of individuals and leaving their use to well-organised displays would be far more effective than any number of public awareness campaigns. If the Minister fails to do that, there will inevitably be more calls for even tighter restrictionseven for a complete ban. That would be a pity, but public safety is paramount.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) on securing this timely Adjournment debate and look forward to welcoming him to our soon-to-be-constituted all-party group, which has more than 60 members. Its secretary is my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner), who is unable to be with us today, and other members include my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who first introduced the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North and I have introduced at various times in different Parliaments.
Other hon. Members have a long track record in this matter, including the Minister's predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), who introduced effective regulations in 1997. Sadly, as the hon. Member for Angus said, the effect of those regulations has subsequently deteriorated. In my first year as a new Member, I was lucky enough to be selected in the ballot for private Members' Bills. I took a Bill through most of its stagesfirst, in the House of Commons, then, with the assistance of colleagues there, through the House of Lords, including the deregulatory Committee, then back to the Commons, where, sadly, it fell foul of Conservative Members who were intent on ensuring that the anti-hunting Bill was not debated that day.
In 1997 we were very much concentrating on trying to reduce accidents in the wake of two deaths that had occurred at organised firework displays. Since then, two factorsanimal welfare and hooligans' use of fireworkshave come much more to the fore. The fireworks group has considered how to tackle those issues in the lead-up to the forthcoming ballot, in which we hope that one of our many members will be lucky in the draw and consider taking on a fireworks Bill.
There are two possible approaches. Firstthe route that several of us have already tried to followthe Secretary of State can be given additional regulation-making powers to hold in reserve in case the current attempt to put the jack back in the box does not work. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Angus that it will be difficult to make the voluntary code work, because since the millennium celebrations, a tradition
Before I consider the pros and cons of each of those routes, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the work that she has been doing alongside the industry this year, which has resulted in a hard-hitting and targeted campaign for the current fireworks season that is very much aimed at the teenage group mentioned by the hon. Member for Angus. Its message is, "Fool with fireworks and bang goes your image", and hard-hitting posters show the nasty injuries and scars that can result from doing so. She has also worked with the industry in attempting to achieve noise reduction.
Ways have been found to get around the effective regulations introduced in 1997 by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South. The voluntary ban on air bombs will not come into effect in time for this season, but will be in operation from early January. The Minister's action plan also includes anticipating European directives that will specify a limit of 113 to 120 decibels and selling the noisier fireworks only in costly packs so that people cannot just purchase them with other fireworks.
Linda Gilroy : My hon. Friend is right. I praise the Minister's attempts to do something about the problem, but I also want to ensure that the Secretary of State has regulatory powers to put the restrictions on a statutory footing. My Bill, which was supported by several hon. Members, would have done that, among other things. It also would have provided for statutory footing to confine the voluntary sales period to the new year period and the week before and two or three weeks after 5 November.
The hon. Member for Angus mentioned the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. In discussions with officers of the association, we were alarmed to learn that each year two or three guide dogs are spooked by fireworks to the extent that they have to be retired. The costs associated with that are £20,000, £30,000 or more. In addition, because of the extended period in which fireworks are misused, guide dog ownersand other pet owners, of coursehave to sedate their animals. That means that the owners of guide dogs are unable to call on their services, upon which they rely to such a great extent.
On Saturday morning a week ago, I was in the Barbican area of my constituency where some of my constituents are being pursued under the antisocial behaviour order procedure. One aspect of their antisocial behaviour is firing rockets from the top flat of one block of flats to another. The incidents are legionno doubt some of my colleagues will tell us of others that occur throughout the length and breadth of the country.
The Minister is doing good work to try to deal with the problem. We wish her well, but we also want to ensure that the Secretary of State has the necessary regulatory powers to take swift action without having to resort to primary legislation. Such powers would include giving enforcement agencies a crystal-clear basis on which to prevent hooligan use of fireworks, making statutory the voluntary code andthe industry was very supportive of this part of the Billlicensing display operators. The hon. Member for Angus may be interested to know that I spoke at a conference of display operators, which was held in my constituencyin fact, the national fireworks championships are held in my constituency each yearand learned that the insurance issue is very real. An insurance broker is promoting voluntary standards that could well form the basis of the sort of standards that would be necessary under a statutory licensing system. If that did not work, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should have reserve powers to bring in a statutory licence system quickly.
The other route is that taken in Northern Ireland. There are, of course, special circumstances in Northern Ireland with different legislation-making processes. This year, the Secretary of State has taken powers to ban fireworks. That sounds draconian and I know that most of my hon. Friends want people to be able to enjoy fireworks and to do so safely, but the positive licensing system enables the Secretary of State to license the availability of fireworks in certain circumstances. We should consider that route seriously in the debates that will take place during the next Session of Parliament.
Whichever route emerges from this debate, it is essential that we find ways of putting the jack back in the box. Our constituents are deeply upset. Some animals are spooked and have to be put down and many others are not able to give their valuable and necessary support to blind people because they have to be sedated for long periods of the year.
I want to ensure that none of us is faced with the death of a constituent or with the severely injured sons and daughters of constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), who campaigns vigorously on this issue, had to face the very sad death of one of her constituents last December. We want to be able to enjoy fireworks safely and I look forward to the observations of my hon. Friend the Minister.
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West): I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) on securing this topical debate on an issue in which I have taken a strong interest. He made a commendable speech, which set out clearly the dangers to human and animal life arising from the misuse of fireworks.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) on her contribution. If I am not already a member of her all-party parliamentary group, I shall join very soon and I look forward to it being fully constituted. The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) said that this is not a partisan issue and that hon. Members from all parties are concerned about the issues that we are discussing today.
I was elected to the House about 17 months ago and an issue that has constantly loomed large in my postbag and at my weekly surgeries is that of fireworks. With 5 November only days away and with serious safety concerns about a firefighters' strike, the issue is uppermost in many people's mind. It is clear from what has already been said in the Chamber today and from the large number of early-day motions, private Member's Bills and parliamentary questions, that my experience is not unique.
I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to organisations in my constituency that have campaigned long and hardmany of them long before I became a Member of this Housefor new legislation on fireworks. I recently met Betty Stevenson of the north Edinburgh fireworks safety campaign group, which covers my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz). The organisation has worked long and hard to tackle the misuse of fireworks and, particularly, the problem of the under-age sale of fireworks, which has plagued many communities in my constituency such as Corstorphine, Muirhouse, and Drylaw.
I represent a constituency in Edinburgh, which is well known for spectacular fireworks displays. At new year, Edinburgh puts on one of the most spectacular hogmanay events in the world and the highlight is a fireworks display that is regularly attended by more than 200,000 people. During the Edinburgh festival, Edinburgh castle is lit by another spectacular fireworks display, and only last Sunday, at the end of the week-long Hindu festival organised by the Scottish Indian arts forum, there was yet another fireworks display. Like many of my constituents, and like people throughout Edinburgh and Scotland, I enjoy those displays; they mark out the city as unique.
I am not anti-fireworks and I do not favour an outright ban, as some do, but the current laws governing the use of fireworks are clearly ineffective and drastically need to be updated. As the hon. Member for Angus said, the problem is that much of the law governing fireworks
I do not wish to belittle the measures introduced by the Government, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton, but the regulations prohibiting the sale of large or more dangerous fireworks and the Government's safety campaigns, including educational kits for schools, although positive, have only tinkered at the edges of the problem. Comprehensive new legislation is required to bring United Kingdom fireworks laws into the 21st century.
It is important to note that the misuse of fireworks affects not only people. The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, whose headquarters is in my constituency, produced the excellent but disturbing and chilling report mentioned by the hon. Member for Angus. The report makes it clear that the impact of fireworks on domestic and wild animals concerns many people. It was that report that prompted me to table early-day motion 791, and I was glad that more than 100 right hon. and hon. Members chose to add their names in support of thatthe largest backing of any fireworks-related early-day motion in this Session.
The hon. Member for Angus also mentioned the number of vets who responded to the SSPCA survey. A total of 80 per cent. of vets in Edinburgh admitted having to treat animals for stress and injury directly related to fireworks. Those injuries were reported not only on or about 5 November, but for at least a three-month period. There are stories of deliberate attacks on animalsof cats being affected by inhaling smoke and of dogs being in cars where fireworks were set off.
Other dangers have already been mentioned, including the danger to human life. Recently in my constituency, a young, pregnant mother of a two-year-old was burned to death because someone put inflammable material through her letterbox. It was not a firework, but it shows that hooligans who think that they may be participating in a prank sometimes have no idea of the tragic consequences that can result.
After consulting community councils, the local police force, GPs and others in my constituency, I began a petition campaign calling on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to take serious action as a matter of urgency. I was truly overwhelmed by the response. I now have thousands of names on the petition. Many people chose to send letters with their returned forms, which provided me with a catalogue of horror storiesof accidents, injuries to animals and people, and of the fear and distress that fireworks can cause. If there was any doubt in my mind about the seriousness of the issue and its impact on communities, the response to my campaign has removed it.
Why are we in such a sorry state of affairs? I believe that the voluntary code of practice is ineffective and that it fails properly to protect the public. The maximum penalty or custodial sentence has never been imposed under the law that prohibits sales to those under the age of 18, which makes a mockery of the law. It is time for the voluntary code that limits the time of year when fireworks can be sold to the public to be enshrined in law. The code does not work because too many outlets fail to adhere to it. As the hon. Member for Angus said,
We need rules to ensure that properly trained and licensed pyrotechnicians are at all public displays. I realise, however, that that will not stop all accidents because at a large community fireworks event in my constituency, which was organised by a licensed pyrotechnician, a young girl was hit by a rogue firework. We cannot rule out accidents, but we could minimise the danger, and the presence of trained, experienced operators would certainly help.
I do not want to portray everything as doom and gloom. We seem to be closer in Scotland than in England and Wales to tackling the problems of selling fireworks. The hon. Member for Angus highlighted Shona Robison's Bill in the Scottish Parliament, which has received all-party sponsorship. Last week, the Scottish Finance Minister, Andy Kerr, signalled the Executive's intention to press ahead with new laws on the sale of fireworks. That attitude, and the actions that it promotes, contrast starkly with the inaction at Westminster. The Government are so concerned with focus groups and popularity that it is incredible that they are not taking a bigger lead on the issue. The public would clearly welcome positive action, particularly in our city communities.
It is not a case of being a killjoy. Like other hon. Members, I enjoy a good fireworks display, but it is time for tighter regulations. There is much that the Government can do, and all parties in the House are determined that we should take action. All we need is some direction from the Government, and I hope that the Minister will provide it today.
Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. It will not have escaped hon. Members' notice that a significant number of their colleagues are rising to speak. I will call the first of the three Front-Bench spokesmen at 10.30 am, and it is up to hon. Members how they use the time up until then.
The council in Redcar has taken a lead on firework safety issues. In particular, it has initiated a voluntary registration scheme for licensed retailers. Those who sign up agree to comply with legislation prohibiting the sale of fireworks to under-age children. They also agree not to sell fireworks to people they think are likely to misuse them and to tell the local authority of anyone who uses them inappropriately. The scheme is supported by a dedicated freephone number, which came into operation on 14 October. It has been widely advertised in the local papers, and shop owners and members of the public can use it to report illegal bonfires, nuisances and people who they think are selling fireworks unlawfully.
In tandem with the scheme, the council runs a bonfire strategy and a fuel management scheme. In a nutshell, those measures ensure that materials that could be used for a bonfire can be quickly removed from a public place, particularly if children have collected them for a bonfire. We are well able to remove such materials in Redcar and Cleveland because we have an effective team of neighbourhood wardens.
This year, Redcar council is spending more than £10,000 on four public firework displays, one of which is at Redcar racecourse. The benefits are obvious, and I will not set them out. Such measures will go a long way to ensuring that 5/11, as we should learn to call it, is no longer a public hazard, but a way of enhancing community involvement.
That sentiment is echoed by Chief Superintendent Kelly of my local police division. In parallel with the council's efforts, he has initiated Operation Tinderbox in Redcar, which involves the police taking education packs to schools. Contrary to the experience of the Edinburgh correspondent mentioned by the hon. Member for Angus, the initiative is being supported by a crackdown on antisocial behaviour and damage over the relevant period and in relevant locations. The police are also vigorously pursuing intelligence on the illegal storage and sale of fireworks. Chief Superintendent Kelly tells me that, again, the wardens play an important role. Like the police, they have high visibility and can deter nuisance by dealing quickly and robustly with incidents.
Those manoeuvres and tactical measures are important. The big concern in Redcar is not that there is no legislation, but that catching and prosecuting perpetrators is a problem. That is the view of Mr. Gary Flynn, the council's community safety co-ordinator, who believes that the council's measures are having an impact and that things are nowhere near as bad as they were last year.
The council's fallback position is represented by a petition in all the local libraries in Redcar. It calls for a ban on the sale of fireworks to everybody except those whom the Health and Safety Executive has licensed to make professional use of them. That petition will be brought to the House on 16 November, and the number of signatures on it will offer a final judgment on the effectiveness of the well thought-out efforts of the council and the police. Until then, in Redcar at least, the jury is out on a total ban.
There are two elements to the debatethe nuisance element and the safety element. I served for several years as a health and safety representative in a workplace, and I believe that safety is of paramount importance. Last year, there was a 50 per cent. increase in injuries to young teenagers, which was the highest rise in seven years. That is quite horrifying. Parliament has tried to do as much as it can to prevent accidents, and after 1997 there was a welcome decrease in injuries. Last year's figures, however, tell a totally different story.
There is one individual in my home town who, from the first week in September, has supplied youngsters with fireworks that he procured in the Newcastle area. I immediately reported the fact to the police and trading standards people, but I was disappointed by the outcome. One of my fears was that the guy might be storing the fireworks in the locality, and that they might put those in the vicinity in danger. However, I discovered that legislation would kick into force only if he was storing them somewhere for more than 14 days. It was patently obvious that the guy was simply part of a system for passing fireworks on from his supplier to his customers.
I worked for 18 and a half years in the explosives industry. That had nothing to do with the fireworks business, but because of that experience I realise how fiercely fireworks burnthey are white hot. Recently there was a horrendous incident in Holland that caused devastation in the neighbourhood, which should be a lesson to people about how much damage fireworks can do.
Last year, I received a tremendous amount of correspondence, but this year I have had only a couple of letters. That is probably down to the good work of Dumfries and Galloway constabulary, who at an early stage have tried to stamp out some of the things that have been going on. Last week the constabulary issued a press release saying that a local man was charged with supplying fireworks to juveniles in the town of Dumfries. We are moving in the right direction.
Along with my hon. Friends, I applaud the work done by my hon. Friend the Minister and her Department. However, I draw to her attention something that my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) drew to mine. Some firework manufacturers have said that they can make fireworks that do not produce the amount of noise that we have all experienced in neighbourhoods in our constituencies for many years. If she has not already done so, I would encourage the Minister to start talking to manufacturers about what they can do. I appreciate that a tremendous amount of the fireworks on sale in shops are imported, which creates another difficulty. However, we need to make a serious attempt to cut down on the nuisance caused, whether it is to elderly citizens or animals.
Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West): I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to those who have far greater experience of campaigning on the issue than I.
In common with virtually every other hon. Member, I have been made aware of the increasing levels of noise, nuisance and antisocial behaviour, and the adverse effects on animal welfare in my constituency, which seem to have escalated year by year. In common with other hon. Members, I do not wish to be a killjoy. Fireworks are colourful, pleasurable, exciting and a legitimate way for people to celebrate special occasions and events. I want any legislation to be sensitive to people's desire to celebrate with fireworks. I also recognise that in a multicultural society, different ethnic groups have festivals and celebrations at different times of the year during which they want to use fireworks.
None the less, I think that it is necessary to have a regulatory system that will enable responsible people or legitimate organisations to celebrate with fireworks, without giving those antisocial elements that exist in most areas the freedom to use them to make people's lives hell. What is a joy for some can be absolutely appalling for others. We must frame legislation to ensure that those who wish to use fireworks joyfully can do so without other people suffering as a consequence.
I welcome the voluntary code, but only in so far as it is a long-awaited recognition of the fact that there is a problem. I do not think that it will work. One of the arguments against the proposals is that they will create a black market. I do not take that argument very seriously. People who are prepared to bypass legislation have a field day bypassing voluntary restraint. Even within the terms of the voluntary restraint, some fireworks will be used by those who wish to use them antisocially to cause an enormous level of disturbance.
I am conscious of the time and so will wind up fairly quickly. I want to see some form of licensing system. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) commented on the fact that a licensing system already operates in Northern Ireland. Although we all recognise that there are special reasons why it is implemented in Northern Ireland, it will give us a body of experience on which we can draw to implement a similar system in this country.
I can see two great advantages in that. First, it increases public awareness about the legislation on fireworks. There is currently a range of legislation, most of it very old, and people do not know what their rights are when it comes to being affected by fireworks. The pet owner whose dog is disturbed by a flying rocket will hardly go to the perpetrator and say, "You are in breach of the Protection of Animals Act 1911 and I demand action." Similarly, many local authorities do not have the staff to implement legislation on noise and nuisance. We need a regulatory licensing system because, then, the conditions of the licence could be known both to the user and to the general public. That would increase people's awareness, enable the police and other law enforcement authorities to know on what basis they can act, and enable them to act quickly.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Like many others, I get a lot of pleasure from fireworks and do not support a total ban on sales to the public. In Lancashire, there is a tradition of community bonfires, with treacle toffee and black peas. The bonfires bring the community together. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) said, Bolton council asks people to register their bonfires and those that are not registered are removed.
As a professional chemist, I am alarmed at the size of fireworks on sale to the general public. They can buy rockets of 5 ft or 6 ft long and 9 in cakes of fireworks with multiple charges that go off over a considerable period. Those are huge explosives, which should not be in the hands of the general public. They should be available only to professional people who have been trained to set them off.
The Government should examine the classification of fireworks. The current system differentiates indoor fireworks, garden fireworks, other fireworks for sale to the general public for displays and fireworks banned from sale to the general public, which can be set off only by trained engineers at public displays. Please will the Minister consider the classification of fireworks and prevent large fireworks from being sold all year round?
There is a large mixed ethnic community in Bolton. The Hindu and Chinese communities have celebrations at different times of the year from ours, so it would be hard on those communities to restrict the sale of fireworks to two weeks before bonfire night.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): I thank the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) for securing this important debate on a cross-party and cross-region issue. Many of my colleagues who represent Welsh constituencies are equally concerned about the matter and their postbags are filled with letters of concern from residents who, for months leading up to 5 November, must put up with fireworks being set off in the streets outside their houses.
An elderly resident in a remote community in one of my valleys, who had been back in her home for two weeks recuperating from an illness, was disturbed in the early hours of the morning when her window was smashed by a firework. As a former lecturer, I know that one of the responsibilities of local authorities is to provide appropriate controls and appropriate leisure outlets. We must acknowledge that the voluntary system of regulation is insufficient, despite the many good examples of best practice shown by councils and neighbourhood watch schemes. If voluntary arrangements are not working, it is clear that we must go further and consider a licensing system. It is not acceptable that the quality of life of our constituents should be put in danger by the present state of affairs.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I also congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) on initiating a debate that is topical, and would have been even more so had a firefighters' strike been scheduled for the relevant day. The subject has considerable historical resonance in this place. What the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have perhaps been too polite to point out is that what we celebrate on bonfire nightits historical originis the ascendancy of English and Scottish Protestants over the Catholic population.
The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) made the point that several separate problems arise. First, safety is a distinct problem. Each year there are about 1,000 injuries requiring attention by accident and emergency departments. As the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) pointed out, the extraordinarily high explosive power of the new generation of fireworks has a lot to do with that.
Another issue to emerge from the statistics is that, although the rate of injuries is fairly stable, there has been a big increase in injuries to teenagers. That is associated with the second problemantisocial behaviour, rather than fireworks themselves. The kids who throw fireworks around would otherwise be setting fire to vehicles and throwing rocks.
Shona McIsaac : Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the seriousness of such antisocial behaviour? For example, the front page of my local paper announced "Sixty evacuated in dangerous vandal attack". Fireworks were thrown into a crowded pub, and that sort of thing is not uncommon. No one was injured, but such incidents are not included in the figures, so matters are probably more serious than they may appear.
Dr. Cable : They are very serious. The event that the hon. Lady recounts could be described as a fairly serious crime. I know that the Minister has introduced measures to deal with the throwing of fireworks.
The third distinct element of the issue is the noise problem. Most of the people who write to us are primarily concerned about noise. They include elderly people and people with pets. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), who mentioned that the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has is headquarters in his constituency, pointed out that there is great concern about noise.
Perhaps the Minister can help me to understand: at present, the loud noise of bangers is heard for several weeks before and after bonfire night. Why is this happening? Under the 1997 regulations, as I understand matters, category 2 and 3 bangers have effectively been outlawed. Is the problem that the regulations are being ignored and not enforced, or are category 2 and 3 bangers defined in a liberal way? It is important to understand the answer. The first explanation would present us with an issue of law enforcement, and the second, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East implied, an issue of industry standards and how to enforce them.
How can we achieve that balance? I would start by considering not new methods of regulationlet alone bansbut enforcement issues. We already have a substantial range of regulations, and the Minister's approach of building on them incrementally is sensible. The issue is why they are not being more widely enforced. Part of the trouble is that trading standards officers bring few prosecutions for things such as under-age selling. Perhaps the Minister has more information about that. The underlying problem is that trading standards offices are hopelessly understaffed, underfinanced and ill-equipped, yet we like to pile more responsibilities on to them. The Minister is in the process of introducing the Enterprise Bill, which will extend consumer protection powers. That will place yet more responsibility on a weak arm of local government. Until it is beefed up and given adequate support, it will not be able to perform its role.
The same is true of the police. In principle, I support the idea of imposing spot fines on people who throw fireworks. However, the police must be able to enforce it. In areas like mine, where there are not enough police officers to have beat policing, the police just laugh at such measures because they do not have the capacity to enforce the law. The enforcement issue rests on the resources of those services.
Huw Irranca-Davies : I acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman says about the need for enforcement on the streets where the nuisance behaviour takes place. Does he agree that that is a good case for the deployment of community support officers to act as the eyes and ears of police, and would he therefore encourage more extensive use of such officers by other police forces?
Apart from enforcement, the other way in which the Minister can make progress without bringing in widespread bans and new regulations is to tighten up on industry specification, building on the 1997 regulations, particularly in respect of bangers and the dangerous fireworks that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East has highlighted.
My final concern is whether there is a case for a ban on sales or widespread regulation. I am not sure. We would be introducing a new regulatory apparatus for objectives that are not clear. I have more sympathy with the narrow proposal that limits sales to a specific number of days, and would embody the voluntary code in legislation. There are still difficulties with that, not least the point about ethnic minoritiesI have a Hindu
Would it be sensible to allow local councils to experiment? There are many parts of the country where there is not a Hindu population, with its particular difficulties. Might the way forward be for the Government to empower local authorities, based on their local traditions, the strength of their trading standards departments and other factors, to have a moratorium on sales during a particular period, not necessarily to impose a nationwide restriction?
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) on having introduced this timely debate, which covers both Diwali and Guy Fawkes night. Could he let the rest of us know how he achieved that? I never seem to manage to secure debates that are so timely.
The hon. Gentleman used the term "irresponsible use of fireworks", and that is the point. I have a dog of whom I am inordinately fond, who is terrified of fireworks. When they go off close at hand, she will hide and shiver. It is worrying for me and even more so for her. I am sure that other pet owners will recognise the symptoms. The worst time was when we accidentally passed close to a public display and she very nearly bolted. If she had not been on a lead, I would probably have never seen her again. That has happened to many people's dogs. The issue is serious, and we all receive many letters about it.
There are far too many accidents. We have heard the accident rate today. One accident is one too many, and I regret that there are any at all. As the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) pointed out, we are dealing with explosives, and explosives are inherently dangerous.
What should we do? In a well-argued speech, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) pointed out that the 1997 regulations, which were welcomed, have not achieved what we hoped that they would. Indeed, the accident rate went up rather than down last year. I remember that as a child, after much pleading on my part, my mother dispatched me with a note to the retailer that said that I was authorised to buy fireworks even though I was under 14. That was, I fear, some 40 years ago. We used to have a bonfire party in the back garden on 5 November or thereabouts, which was closely supervised by my parents, and there were no injuries. My parents were certainly responsible, and I was forced to be.
Things have changed. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) mentioned the amount of explosives in some fireworks, which is an important issue. Furthermore, the antisocial behaviour of young people seems at the root of many of the problems. In Leicestershire last year, the Leicester Mercury ran a campaign about the irresponsible use of fireworks. As a result, I received many letters. They referred to the fact that the fireworks season now goes on for five or six weeks. The hon. Member for Angus suggested that it went on for three months, which I thought was a bit long, but we must remember Diwali and hogmanay,
The big complaint is that fireworks are being let off in the street, especially bangers. As I understand it, bangers have been illegal since 1997 and it has been illegal since 1875 to let off fireworks in the street. Such acts are criminal. As the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said, the question is one of enforcement.
Linda Gilroy : When I promoted my fireworks Bill, some people from the Police Federation were very supportive of it. From the point of view of the police, there is a problem in using the present powers. The proposal in the 1997 Bill, which fell, would have made enforcement much easier for the police.
Mr. Robathan : That is a good point. The time that the police can spend on enforcing the powers is another issue. Unusually, I commend the Government on their pilot schemes in which £40 fixed penalty notices will be imposed by the police for letting off fireworks in the street. The schemes are in Croydon, the west midlands, north Wales and Essex. That is a good way forward. The public need to show a more responsible attitude. When someone sees a teenagerit is typically a teenagerletting off fireworks in the street, perhaps the police will be informed and perhaps they will take greater action. The issue is one of education as much as anything else.
The other big issue that ties in with bangers and the point made by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East is noise. It is just as frightening for an animal to hear an explosion from a public display as it is for them to hear an explosion in a garden or on the street. There are provisions on the subject in the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Noise Act 1996, but they are difficult to enforce. Again, I commend the Government. I quote from the fact sheet sent to me with the undated letter from the Minister, which states that the Government are
Linda Gilroy : There certainly are. It is a problem, but we want people to enjoy fireworks and to enjoy them safely. That is why other hon. Members referred to the possibility of low noise fireworks, on which I look forward to the Minister's comments.
Mr. Robathan : Funnily enough, I again commend the Minister. I do not want to steal all her thunder, but in the same undated letter she refers to voluntary restraint on the noise of fireworks. I will let her cover that in more detail. As the hon. Member for Twickenham said, the key to the issue is a balance between an individual's
I have two young children under the age of six, both of whom, I must admit, like sparklers. Like all of us, I have to lay my weary head down somewhere at night. During the week, I live in a very densely populated part of Westminster as, I suspect, do many of us. Although I find fireworks irritating, my children have never been woken up. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) prayed in aid the death of one of his constituents, but that had nothing to do with fireworks. The cause was petrol through the letterbox. No one is suggesting yet that we stop the sale of petrol.
Noise, however, is a real problem. If the voluntary restraint in the Government's plans works, there will be many fewer complaints because noise is what everyone notices. It is a question of consideration and responsible behaviour. It is also a question of parental control. One cannot buy fireworks if one is under 18or rather, one should not be able to do so. So who is buying them, and who is letting their children out on the street with them? I am afraid that the responsibility lies with the parents.
More than anything, there is the issue of adherence to and enforcement of existing law. Hon. Members discussed the further licensing of sales, which might be sensible. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East made a good point about the excessive size of fireworks. However, I wonder if we really want trained firework-display personnel? I am sure that we have all lit fireworks in our time. When I was in the Army, I went on a two-week fire-training course. It was rather fun going down the pole at a fire station and using a hose. However, the rest of what I learned was mostly common sense and would have taken about 10 minutes to read about in a book.
Do we really want a total ban? I suspect that one could download instructions from the internet on how to make gunpowder. I will make a bet with anyone here, if they like. There are at least a couple of people here who could do it straight away. Clever young physicists aged 15 or 16 are probably doing it already. That is another issue on which we should not dwell for too long. Do we really want more regulation and more restrictions on individual freedom? I do not believe that we do. We do not want to make this country more of a nanny state. The problem is that the law is not observed or enforced.
Linda Gilroy : The hon. Gentleman might like to consider the Bill that several of us have promoted. It has regulation-making powers, which can be held in reserve, and might be an additional incentive to the industry to reach voluntary agreements.
Finally, I return to the subject of my dog, Otter, of whom I am inordinately fond. She is terrified of thunderstorms. When there is a thunderstorm, she cowers under the bed or the table, but I have not worked out what regulations we could introduce to deal with that.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Miss Melanie Johnson) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) on securing this useful debate. I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words on the issue, as I know that it is one about which many people have concerns.
Since last year's Guy Fawkes period there has been an unprecedented level of public concern about the misuse of fireworks in terms of safety, noise and general nuisance. I have seen an increase in the amount of correspondence on the issue in my constituency postbag, as have most hon. Members, which has been reflected in increased parliamentary discussion.
I have heard the representations here today seeking restrictions on the sale and use of fireworks. I am sympathetic to those who are distressed by the noise and frightened by the rogue element that misuses fireworks in public places, and sets them off at unreasonable times of day and night. I also share the deep concerns that I have heard expressed this morning about last year's increase in injuries caused by fireworks.
No one can disagree with the need to control fireworks, particularly to protect the public from harm. The question that we must address today, therefore, is how rigorous those controls should be. We also need to consider the powers that the Government have, and how best those powers can be deployed, a subject to which several hon. Members referred.
Current legislation bans the throwing of fireworks in the street, regulates their storage, and bans their sale to children under 18 on safety grounds. It also restricts, on safety grounds, the sale of certain larger fireworks to the public. There are mandatory standards for fireworks sold in the United Kingdom.
The speakers this morning called for controls that go beyond that, and I understand their concerns. I must emphasise, however, that without further primary legislation the Government cannot take action to restrict the times of year when fireworks may be sold or used, nor can they cut noise levels or introduce licensing schemes.
Currently, the Government can make regulations controlling fireworks only in relation to the safety of the public. Loud noise is a serious issue, but is not directly a question of safety. The question is, therefore, whether there are other means by which we can improve the controls and increase the protection of the public from harm and nuisance, without imposing more regulatory burdens on industry and small businesses. Such means must also allow the large number of people who enjoy
I will say something more on the safety of the public, because that is of primary concern to the Government. People continue to be injured by fireworks every year, and there are even occasional deaths. Even one death is too many. Sadly, during the 2001 firework season, 1,362 people required treatment of some sort at hospital casualty departments. That number is an increase on the previous year, and represents far too many people being hurt.
This year, we have focused a lot of effort on safety campaigns, targeting particularly the misuse of fireworks by teenagers. As the statistics make clear, injuries to that group are disproportionately high, and are more likely to result from casual incidents in the street or public places; they increased by nearly 60 per cent. over last year.
This year, we sent out thousands of information packs to local authorities, fire service authorities and police authorities. We also sent out 25,000 toolkit packs for schools, which include materials on organising private and public displays. In addition, we are funding posters to be displayed at prominent sites around the country, and distributing leaflets aimed at consumers. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) has already mentioned our TV filler campaign.
In addition, many local authorities and fire services run their own campaigns. There have been excellent initiatives in Manchester and Middlesbrough, where trading standards officers have worked closely with retailers to ensure compliance with the voluntary code of practice. I was interested to hear my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) speak about the scheme in Redcar, and I shall be interested to hear how that works out. It highlights the fact that the debate is about not only legislation, but enforcement. Several hon. Members addressed that.
Creative ideas exist to get key messages across to youngsters. I recently saw work in north Lincolnshire involving a CD-ROM for schools. I know that some people believe that we should go further and protect the public by banning the sale of fireworks. The Government do not believe that a case has been made for banning the sale of fireworks and limiting their use to organised public displays. Such a ban could lead to the development of an illegal firework market and might encourage people to produce home-made devices. Sensible and considerate use of fireworks is a popular family entertainment.
I reassure hon. Members that the Government are not complacent. We accept that there is real scope to improve the control of fireworks in order to improve safety further and to tackle the distress and annoyance that fireworks cause to people and animals. That is why we have explored with the industry what else can be done and, as a result, I announced on 15 October a package of measures designed to cut the number of firework injuries and to reduce problems of noise and nuisance. I shall not reiterate the existing controls at
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) made remarks about trading standards departments. They make a considerable effort by conducting mystery-shopping activities at this time of year to ensure that retailers comply with the ban on sales to under-18s. Of course, that is easier if fireworks are not sold out of white vans; that market is difficult for trading standards departments or anyone to deal with. I am assured that most shops that sell fireworks comply with the regulations.
Dr. Palmer : I welcome the package that the Minister announced and the stress that she puts on the problem of the use of fireworks by juveniles. I am puzzled that the spot fine pilot initiative applies to only over-18s. In Broxtowe, we are doing well on cracking down on pensioners throwing fireworks.
Miss Johnson : Under-16s are covered by legislation, but provisions under a Home Office ActI am not prepared to quote it off the top of my head because I do not have it in front of medo not allow spot fines that apply to over-18s to be imposed on under-18s. Such fines are restricted by current legislation. Powers exist that address the antisocial practice of letting off fireworks in the street. I have held several meetings to examine the work that enforcement authorities can do to ensure that existing controls are properly exercised.
Several hon. Members mentioned the private Member's Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton in 1997. A future private Member's Bill might be suggested, and the Government will be sympathetic to the draft of such a Bill, although it would have to be considered on its merits.
One of the first things that we did following discussions with the industry was to consider existing products on the market. Consequently, I announced the action that we have taken on air bombs, which I do not have the time to outline in detail. Several hon. Members discussed the power of larger fireworks that are on sale. The largest fireworks are restricted by the 1997 regulations and the powers that are already in place. Packs of fireworksso-called cakes of fireworksare considered to be much safer than other fireworks because only one fuse is litthat is it. They are also more expensive, which puts them out of pocket money range. Evidence shows that such multiple packs are probably not the cause of many difficulties. We are much more concerned about things that fall within pocket money range, so we are considering raising pack pricesputting noisy fireworks into larger and more expensive packs at the point of sale. As I have said, we are banning air bombs.
For the information of the hon. Member for Twickenham, bangers are things that just go bang, but there are fireworks that go bang and make light and so forth that are not actually bangers. They are not covered in the same way as bangers.