HC Deb 29 October 1969 vol 790 cc337-48

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dobson.]

11.29 p.m.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Bedfordshire, South)

The hosts of letters which I have received over the last few weeks show the growing awareness of the public to the problem of firework accidents. It is not surprising when we consider that over the years of which I have record—that is from 1962 to 1968 inclusive—there were at least 2,200 cases of firework accidents treated in hospital.

If we accept that only one-quarter of the total cases are in hospital—and it is a conservative estimate, though some people argue it is probably only onetwentieth—we are dealing with some 10,000 firework accidents a year. About 70 per cent. of these cases involve children in one way or another. What is worse is that on average some 400 of these accidents are serious, meaning the loss of one or both eyes, or serious damage to the genitals, or some harm of that nature.

There is not only the question of injury which is associated with this social festival. There is also the question of fire brigades being called out—it is estimated, probably 1,000 times a year—to deal with firework accidents. Associated with the whole procedure of 5th November there is undoubtedly a general increase in hooliganism, with its impact on the sick and the elderly. Also, domestic animals suffer very much at this period. Moreover, in the cities we have found an additional factor of smoke pollution.

The House may remember that I said in April of this year when I introduced a Bill in this direction that this problem could be solved ultimately only by limiting the sales of fireworks drastically, limiting them by making it necessary to obtain licences. That was what the Bill which I attempted at that time suggested. It would mean that fireworks would be effectively limited to large organisations, to local authorities, to firms, organisations of that type which would be able to provide the necessary safety and fire regulations, and seldom, then, would fireworks go into the hands of private individuals.

That this is the only type of answer, the abolition of the dangerous side of firework displays, and that it is the only ultimate answer, is not only my viewpoint. Just before I came into this debate I received a statement from the Consumers Council, from the British Safety Council, from Ro.S.P.A., all agreeing that the only real answer to this type of problem is to limit firework displays to official or semi-official displays. In countries where such banning or such limitation has taken place, like Eire, where there has been a complete ban since a very serious tragedy in 1951, there is no evidence during the period of limitation of the usual tales of accidents of this sort.

It is not my function this evening to further that Bill which I put forward in April. What I am more concerned with this evening is to ask my hon. Friend what we can do in the short term to try to reduce the total of firework accidents

The Government, even in the next few days, should spend much more money on press, television and radio publicity to make more people aware of the dangers. In spite of all the letters which I have had, there was a claim in an evening paper tonight by a manufacturer that firework sales are this year at a record level. I ask my hon. Friend how much the Government are spending on that publicity, and I ask him to spend much more.

I ask my hon. Friend also to look at the rôle of local authorities. Few householders realise that there may be in their streets what is virtually an arsenal. Some small shops in back streets are loaded with £300 or £400 worth of fireworks. Heaven knows what the consequences would be if one of those small shops caught fire. Will my hon. Friend ensure that all local authorities—not just some of them—make sure that there is adequate provision against such accidents at all premises storing fireworks?

My third suggestion is that the results of the negotiations between the manufacturers' safety committee and the Government are made much more enforceable. Hon. Members may remember that in 1963 there was agreement that the manufacturers should cover the fuses of bangers with plastic caps, or, alternatively, pack them in boxes which open at one end. For some years after this there was a fall in the number of accidents caused by fireworks of that type, but the manufacturers in the last year or two have been unable to comply with this arrangement, with the result that accidents have unfortunately increased.

It is vital that statistics of accidents should continue to be provided. Since 1966 figures showing the circumstances leading to different types of injury have not been available. We must have the facts if we are to make a reasonable judgment, and I say this as a statistician.

If my hon. Friend is not prepared as an immediate step to go with my Bill, I ask him to look at the age at which children are allowed to purchase fireworks. Theoretically children over 13 are allowed to purchase them, but there is evidence that many children under this age directly or indirectly obtain fireworks. If the age were raised to 16, it would be easier for the shopkeeper to identify a person under that age, and the margin of safety would be greater.

I suggest that my hon. Friend might follow the precedent which has been established, for example, with inflammable nylon, where a departmental committee looked at the problem. I ask him to consider, in the preparation of a Bill for the coming Session, or a Private Member's Bill, whatever emerges—and I shall make my own attempt in this direction—the setting up of a departmental committee to deal with the safety of fireworks. We should then have the ammunition which would enable us to tackle this very serious problem.

For this 5th November people have already bought fireworks on a large scale, and it is too late for anything to be done in legislation. But I am sure the Minister will join with me in appealing to all parents to ensure that their young children do not handle these dangerous types of mini-explosives—for that is what they are. That is the position this 5th November. But I hope that by next 5th November the Government themselves will have taken some effective action to cut out much of this firework folly.

11.41 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

The question of firework accidents is a topical one. Nobody can remain unmoved in the face of so many accidents at this time of the year. Over 2,500 accidents were recorded in 1968.

Many suggestions are made from time to time about the action the Government should take. Some of these suggestions would involve legislation and I would be out of order if I discussed them tonight. There are strong feelings on the matter, but it will assist discussion if we look at our information and draw objective conclusions from it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Gwilym Roberts) asked one or two questions about the changes in the form in which statistics are kept. Separate statistics for firework accidents started to be kept in 1962 and from then until 1967 the figures showed a general downward trend. The total casualties treated in hospital in England and Wales declined from 2,832 in 1962 to 2,214 in 1967. The number of severe injuries—defined as injuries resulting in absence from work or the equivalent—declined from 988 to 353. I am sorry to say that the figures for 1968 showed an increase of about 15 per cent. over those for the previous year. The total casualties in 1968 were 2,537 and there were 392 cases of severe injury. The 1968 figures, and particularly the figures for severe injuries, were still substantially below those for 1962.

My hon. Friend referred to the point that the basis on which the statistics are assembled was changed after 1966. What happened was that representations were made by hospital management committees about the time and effort needed to complete the returns. It was decided that the returns should be simplified. Hospitals are no longer asked to include in the returns certain details such as the circumstances leading to the injury; for example, whether it was caused by ignition in the pocket, holding the firework in the hand, or examining the firework after faulty or delayed ignition. It was felt that by 1966 the pattern of the main causes of injury had been clearly established and that it was no longer essential to assemble these details.

In considering the accident figures we must remember that well over 200 million fireworks of all kinds were sold in 1968. This shows that fireworks in general are not dangerous if correctly handled. It is their misuse, through carelessness or hooliganism, which is dangerous. Millions of people derive much pleasure from their firework displays, and of all the vast number of fireworks let off each year only a very small proportion cause accidents.

On the matter of public opinion, I think the House will be interested in a survey which was conducted on a random sample of about 6,000 people throughout the United Kingdom. People were asked to say whether they agreed or disagreed with various statements. Sixty-four per cent. of the sample agreed and 32 per cent. disagreed with the statement that the age limit of 13 should be raised. Fifty-nine per cent. of the sample agreed and 36 per cent. disagreed with the statement that there should be official displays of fireworks, which one could pay to go and see, instead of allowing fireworks to be let off privately. Fifty-six per cent. agreed and 40 per cent. disagreed with the suggestion that "bangers" should be banned and only "non-bangers" allowed. Only 34 per cent. agreed and 62 per cent. disagreed with the proposition that fireworks should not be on sale to the general public.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

I happen to know that a survey was carried out by the Consumers Association a few weeks ago and before the recent publicity. It found that those taking part in the survey were divided about evenly: half the people who were asked the question in quite a large sample were in favour of the total banning of sales to the public.

Mr. Rees

Just as with public opinion polls on party popularities, I would not suggest that I had the correct answer. I offer the figures simply as being what my Department discovered in 1967. I agree that there may have been a change. I am trying to show that there is no clear-cut view held by the general public. In my own household, there is a 50/50 split. However, I gather that there will be no fireworks in my household next Wednesday night, which shows who has the power there. There are very good reasons for the 50/50 split. I simply offer the figures.

Even fewer people, 19 per cent., agreed and 77 per cent. disagreed with the statement that fireworks should be banned completely and not made at all. Twenty-nine per cent. of the sample thought that there should be no change in the law about fireworks, and 60 per cent. disagreed. I offer this thought to hon. Members: in such a matter as changing the law on something which we have had in this country for very many years we have to be careful that any changes which might be made have the support of the populace as a whole.

It is important that we should keep under constant review the various measures that can be taken to reduce the number of accidents. There are the safeguards that we have at present. The law dealing with fireworks is contained in the Explosives Act, 1875, and the Fireworks Act, 1951. Under the 1875 Act, as amended, all fireworks factories are licensed by the Secretary of State. They are subject to inspection by the Inspectors of Explosives, as are the contents of fireworks. A retailer selling fireworks must register his premises for their storage with the local authority, which, although it has no power to refuse registration, may thereafter enter the premises to ensure that the requirements of the law on the keeping of explosives are complied with. It is an offence under the 1875 Act to sell fireworks to a child appearing to be under 13, and to throw or set off fireworks in a street or public place. Under the 1951 Act the Secretary of State has power to prohibit the manufacture of fireworks which he considers to be dangerous when in possession of the public.

The maximum fines for the most important fireworks offences were increased by the Criminal Justice Act, 1967. The maximum fines under the 1875 Act for selling fireworks to a child under 13 and for discharging them in the street were increased from £5 to £20. If a retailer sells fireworks to someone under 13, he is liable to a fine of £20.

This is a matter on which I feel most strongly—and I will turn to the aspect of a change in the age limit in a moment. The selling of fireworks which can be dangerous to someone under the age of 10, for example, is a dreadful act. Any firework in the hands of a young child would come into that category. I make the point that £20 is the fine.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's responsible attitude. However, I believe that the type of fireworks known as "sparklers" are extremely dangerous, particularly to the eyes. Will he give special attention to this problem?

Mr. Rees

I will get our scientists to look at that.

It has been suggested that the law on fireworks should be enforced more strictly. Police action to enforce the law and to prosecute offenders is a matter for chief officers of police, and the Home Secretary has no authority to issue any directions as to how they should discharge their responsibilities in this field. Nevertheless, I know that chief constables are well aware of the importance of police action as one means of promoting firework safety. Indeed, chief constables had occasion to discuss this matter recently.

But it must be acknowledged that the law on fireworks is in some respects difficult to enforce. For example, the provision prohibiting the sale of fireworks to children under 13 must fall short of success in its object. Shopkeepers can ignore it or be genuinely deceived about the age of a child. It is difficult these days to know the difference between 13, 14, 15 and perhaps 16 year olds. There is nothing to stop children persuading older relatives or friends to buy fireworks on their behalf. I would be a lot happier if the parent of a child knew that that child had a firework. That is one thing compared with a child being able to buy a firework from a shop without the parent knowing. The statistics show that the majority of injuries are sustained by children under thirteen.

In spite of the difficulties of enforcement, whatever age is determined, it can be argued that the age limit should be raised to sixteen. This might do something to keep fireworks out of irresponsible hands. I think that this is a possibility worth considering, and I will certainly look at it very carefully. I note that in a newspaper tonight a prominent firework manufacturer says, I would forbid the sale of fireworks to anybody under sixteen. There seems to be a consensus, and it will be looked into.

I will also consider whether anything further can be done to make sure that every shopkeeper knows that he is breaking the law if he sells fireworks to children under age.

I turn now to publicity. Nearly half of all accidents happen at family or private parties where there is no question of hooliganism or anything of that kind. We must rely very heavily on publicity to bring home to the public the dangers of careless and thoughtless behaviour.

The British Firework Manufacturers Safety Association, which was set up in 1962, co-operates closely with the Home Office both in technical matters and in promoting publicity designed to secure greater safety. Considerable efforts are made each year by the Home Office, the local authorities, the B.F.M.S.A., the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and other organisations to ensure that fireworks are safely handled in accordance with the manufacturers' instructions, to warn parents against allowing their children to handle fireworks except under careful supervision, to emphasise the special need for consideration for elderly people, and to remind people of the dangers and the illegality of homemade fireworks.

Each box of fireworks sold has a leaflet or label describing the safety precautions to be observed, and the fireworks themselves carry appropriate warnings. Posters and pamphlets are circulated to schools and youth organisations throughout the country. The Home Office has had films made to be shown on television. The Press co-operates in publishing advice, and announcements are broadcast on the radio. Finally, shopkeepers are reminded of their legal obligations in relation to the storage and sale of fireworks by means of a Home Office leaflet.

Apart from publicity, our discussions with the B.F.M.S.A. have resulted in a number of other measures designed to reduce the likelihood of accidents. For example, the manufacture of the cheapest bangers has been discontinued and the explosive content of bangers has been reduced. The manufacture of random flight fireworks—fireworks following an unpredictable path—has been completely discontinued. No fireworks will in future be made which eject fly-about fireworks into the air. The manufacturers have agreed that fireworks should be labelled "Not to be held in the hand" unless specially designed to be held.

The legibility of printed instructions is being generally improved. Arrangements have been made for certain types of fireworks to be sold only in boxes or other containers to prevent accidental ignition and damage to the fuses. A lot of work on improving the reliability of the means of ignition has been carried out. Arrangements are in hand—and will take effect next year—for all bangers to be covered with predominantly red paper to make them easily distinguishable. Reminders are being printed on many of the small cartons sent to shops about the law relating to the sale of fireworks to children.

On the capping of bangers, the position is that a firework is not manufactured to precision size. Caps were therefore often either too loose, in which case they fell off, or too tight, in which case there was a real risk of the touch paper being damaged, thus creating a hazard when it was ignited because it might go off too soon or fail to set off the firework straight away. This was a voluntary agreement, and some manufacturers. in the face of this, discontinued capping bangers, but it is something that should be looked at.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

Does my hon. Friend think that something could be gained if consumer protection representatives were allowed to take part in the consultations between his Department and the manufacturers?

Mr. Rees

I shall come to that in a moment.

One cannot dismiss the danger of home-made fireworks. This is something that we must bear in mind when considering any further restrictions. The manufacturing of home-made fireworks can have the most disastrous results. In 1968 there were about 100 accidents from home-made fireworks—that is, 100 out of the figure of 2,000 accidents. Fireworks are easily obtainable, and it is clear that we can expect a substantial increase in the number of accidents if we further restrict the manufacture and sale of fireworks.

The point is sometimes made that fireworks have been banned in a number of other countries with satisfactory results. In this country we tend to have our fireworks at one fell swoop. This is during the autumn festival, and no doubt this practice started a long time before Guy Fawkes. This must be borne in mind when drawing an analogy with other countries.

Reference has been made to the period over which fireworks are on sale, but most accidents occur on or just before Guy Fawkes day. The period for which fireworks are on sale does not seem to be relevant. People buy fireworks at other times of the year, and no doubt that could be dealt with, but the manufacturers of bangers have agreed to include in all deliveries to retailers a notice that to mitigate complaints of nuisance bangers and ground bangers should not be sold to the public before 1st October. I do not know whether that is strong enough to deal with the problems, but it is a first step, and perhaps we can look at the matter again and take up the point raised by my hon. Friend.

I do not think that a departmental committee is the right answer. I do not think that we need any formal machinery of this kind, but it might be useful if the Home Office arranged a meeting of all the bodies interested in this subject. Such a meeting would provide a useful opportunity for an exchange of views and a thorough discussion of the various suggestions and opinions about fireworks. I propose to arrange such a meeting. It could conveniently be held in the New Year when the accident statistics for this November will be available. Some of the bodies mentioned by my hon. Friend could be asked to attend.

I am sure that the House will join me in appealing to the public to do all that they can to make Guy Fawkes night much safer. The 5th of November is only a week away, and on the form of the last ten years one knows that there will be accidents. They will occur at family parties as much as anywhere else. I am sometimes asked whether we could not do more to ask local authorities and others to arrange fireworks parties. In my constituency the parent-teachers association of a primary school is arranging a fireworks party on 5th November. Such parties provide a safety factor, and I hope that the idea will spread.

I earnestly hope that people will take the simple precautions that are urged on them every year. I hope that this debate will help to bring home to everyone the fact that the misuse of fireworks can have the most tragic consequences Having looked at the accident figures, my advice to people is to take care. If care is taken, the number of accidents can be greatly reduced.

11.59 p.m.

Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I am pleased about the responsible attitude taken by the Minister. We are all concerned about the number of accidents that occur at this time of the year and I support the view of the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Gwilym Roberts) that we must do everything possible to prevent these accidents. It would be wrong to impose a ban—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at one minute to Twelve o'clock.