HC Deb 01 November 1995 vol 265 cc268-74 1.30 pm
Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about firework safety. I am sure that we all want to see this year's bonfire night celebrations go ahead safely and enjoyably. We do not want to wake up on Monday to learn that the number of firework injuries has risen for the third year running. Last year, more than 1,500 people were injured in firework-related accidents. That was a 48 per cent. increase on the previous year. Over half of those affected were children. There have already been alarming reports this year of firework-related injuries.

I am sure that the House would think that the Government should be tightening laws on firework safety. I have no doubt that Ministers will say that they are doing so, but I dispute that. As time is short, I shall bring to the attention of the House only two considerations that illustrate my argument. What I have to say will show that Ministers' zeal for what they call deregulation has made a bonfire of essential firework safety measures and has increased red tape rather than reducing it in enforcing the regulations that remain.

First, I want to draw attention to the sale of fireworks to children under the age of 16 years. Secondly, I shall draw attention to the importing of dangerous fireworks into the United Kingdom. The seriousness of selling fireworks to children under 16 will be clear to anyone who has noted the increased number of "here today, gone tomorrow" shops that open to sell fireworks shortly before bonfire night, only to close soon after.

In Birmingham, an operation planned by one of the local newspapers, the Birmingham Evening Mail, and the trading standards department found last week that nine out of 10 shops visited proved themselves to be willing and prepared to sell fireworks to a girl under the age of 16 years. Until this year, the firework safety regulations that were introduced in 1986 gave clear responsibility to trading standards departments to prosecute shops selling fireworks to under-16s. The regulations were swept away, however, because the Government said that they duplicated other provisions, and specifically those set out in the Explosives Act 1875. When the Government swept away the regulations, they also did away with the enforcement mechanism. Confusion now reigns over who is meant to be enforcing the law.

Some trading standards departments, especially in metropolitan areas, do not believe themselves to be authorised to enforce the law.

The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Jonathan Evans)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Burden

I note the Minister's response.

Ministers insist that the law is much clearer than I believe it to be. That being so, why, on 15 May, in answer to a written question that I tabled, did the Minister inform me that the police constituted the enforcing authority for the Explosives Act? When I asked a virtually identical question on 24 October, why did he present a different answer, to the effect that responsibility was sort of with the police, sort of with trading standards officers and sort of with fire authorities? If the Minister cannot make up his mind who is responsible for enforcing the law, how does he expect the law to be enforced?

Recent events suggest that the deregulation of import controls on fireworks from abroad is an even more worrying issue. In 1993, the Government scrapped the requirement that there should be specific licences for imported fireworks. Ministers and the Health and Safety Executive's chief inspector of explosives assured everyone that that would not mean that controls would slacken. A letter from Mr. G. E. Williamson, the chief inspector, to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) of 30 November 1993 specifically stated: Importers will still have to make application to HSE, but now for classification and authorization. They will still need to provide evidence that the HSE has classified and authorized the fireworks before the importation takes place, if challenged. Appropriate documentation will be provided. And the importer will need to ensure that the firework meets the British Standard or its equivalent at all times. Those sentiments echoed the ones in a letter from the Minister to my hon. Friend of 14 November 1993. I think that the letter was written by the Minister's predecessor.

If all that is the case, how is it that seven container loads of fireworks bearing the label "Red Lion" came into the country at Southampton in the past few months? They were produced in China and imported by a firm called Kanash, which is based in Northern Ireland. Once they were on sale, Liverpool trading standards officers received a tip-off about the fireworks and seized some for tests. The found that, despite the fact that the fireworks had British standard labels, virtually none of them complied with the relevant standard. Indeed, some were not even eligible for it. The officers found also that six different lines of the fireworks contained sulphur chlorate, which has been illegal in this country since 1894. It can explode if dropped even if the firework has not been lighted. The address that was shown on the label for the fireworks, which was in Liverpool 6, did not exist.

First, why was the problem with Red Lion fireworks picked up only when they were on the market? Secondly, is it true that Kanash, the importers, contacted the HSE in early 1995 and that the executive gave advice about how the firm could bring in fireworks before the HSE had conducted any tests on the products of that firm? Thirdly, why did the HSE not bother to monitor a brand new company, apparently with a non-existent address in Liverpool and a Belfast connection? Fourthly, is it true that the fireworks were held for several weeks, perhaps even months, at the Royal Ordnance factory at Chorley? Were any tests carried out there?

Fifthly, has the HSE seen records of tests carried out on the consignment of Red Lion fireworks? If so, where and when were the tests carried out, what were the results and what was done subsequently? Sixthly, seven containers came into the country and only three have been located. What steps are being taken to find the remaining four, which we know arrived in Southampton? Seventhly, what attempts has the HSE made to trace customers and what records has Kanash provided to assist it? Eighthly, will anybody be prosecuting Kanash or the Royal Ordnance factory for importing or storing the fireworks? Ninthly, have any assurances been given to either organisation about immunity from prosecution?

There are serious questions about Kanash and Red Lion, but the matter does not end there. Last Friday, Cleveland trading standards department informed Her Majesty's inspector of explosives at the Health and Safety Executive of the presence of sulphur chlorate in the Thunderstorm firework produced by Black Cat Fireworks. That led to the HSE contacting the local radio station and, I understand, issuing a press release saying that Thunderstorm should be withdrawn from sale. Some important questions still remain about that.

First, is it true that the HSE was informed of the presence of sulphur chlorate in Thunderstorm fireworks as long ago as the summer of this year by the managing director of Standard Fireworks? Secondly, what action has been taken on the basis of the information that was supplied? As far as I know, no action was taken. Thirdly, what action, beyond a call to the local radio station and issuing a press release, has the HSE taken to ensure the withdrawal of Thunderstorm fireworks from sale? Fourthly, is it true that Cleveland trading standards department has now found sulphur chlorate in a number of other fireworks produced by Black Cat, and that it has informed the HSE about that? What is the HSE doing about that?

Is the Minister satisfied that Her Majesty's inspector of explosives in particular, and the HSE in general, are doing the job properly? If the Minister is satisfied on that, will he tell me today how many companies' products the HSE tested for sulphur chlorate before 1995, as it has had that responsibility all the way through?

In the light of all of that, I invite the Minister to agree with me that several things need to be done urgently. First, the firework safety regulations of 1986, which were swept away by Ministers, should now been reinstated. Secondly, import licences for fireworks should be reinstated. Thirdly, there should be, for the first time, mandatory compliance with British standard 7114 for categories 1, 2 and 3, for all fireworks that are made available for sale to the public. Fourthly, all other fireworks should be regarded as category 4 and therefore available only for public displays.

Does the Minister agree that there should now be proper vetting, by a licensing system, of all those seeking to import fireworks, and that it should include clear assurances about storage requirements and mandatory sample testing for sulphur chlorate, and that fireworks should comply with British standard 7114 before they are distributed? Does he agree that such testing should take place on licensed explosives sites, with proper independent monitoring and with trading standards officers being involved? Does he further agree that, where a container is shared by more than one importer, trading standards departments should be informed of the destination of all consignments, and not just be given a broad-brush generalisation?

In the light of what has happened with Black Cat, Red Lion and so on over the past few months, I hope that the Minister will be able to give me those assurances today. If he is not able to do so, not only can we not be assured that Her Majesty's inspector of explosives is doing his job properly, but it may be the case that the Minister may not be doing his job properly either.

1.43 pm
Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

The Minister has allowed me a minute, for which I am grateful. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) for taking up this cause.

Is the Minister aware that Lyn Williams, the general secretary of the Police Federation, wrote to him less than three months ago, saying that previous legislation seemed to work well in practice ensuring that the law was well enforced and that many youngsters were, no doubt, prevented from injuring themselves"? He continues: I doubt whether any Chief Officer will have the resources available to deal with this problem in the way it has been dealt with over the last fewer years … At the present time it seems that there are attempts to 'plug the gap' by seeing if powers under the General Product Safety Regulations 1994 can be used … We do not consider this satisfactory. Is the Minister further aware that the Home Office wrote to the Association of Metropolitan Authorities last week, saying: We have not been able to establish whether the DTI consulted the Home Office before revoking the Fireworks (Safety) Regulations 1986 and we are … unaware of any consideration which may have been given to the implications of the revocation for enforcement. The present position is that we are consulting the DTI and they are now looking into the question of enforcement responsibility"? That was written less than two weeks before fireworks were put on sale.

It is quite clear to some of us that the right wing of the Conservative party seems to want to sweep away any laws. They do not care which laws, as long as they can reduce the number. In this case, the victims are likely to be the children and those who have previously had the enjoyment of fireworks, whom the Minister and his party are now putting at risk.

1.45 pm
The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Jonathan Evans)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) on his choice of subject, as it gives me the opportunity to draw attention to the Government's efforts to highlight the issue of firework safety—an issue with which, in fairness, the hon. Gentleman began his speech—and there are many important messages there. It also gives me the opportunity to respond to a great deal of the misinformation that there has been concerning the controls that apply, some of which we have heard in this debate.

For the Government, there are two important matters, the first of which is the misuse of fireworks. The vast majority of injuries—the hon. Gentleman rightly said that more than 1,500 injuries require hospital treatment—result from carelessness and stupidity rather than from the composition of the fireworks themselves. That does not mean, of course, that the Government do not also take seriously ensuring the safest possible structure for fireworks. Indeed, we take measures to ensure that unsafe fireworks do not find their way on to the market. If they have done, we warn the public, in circumstances that have come to the public's attention in recent days, as the hon. Gentleman has already outlined.

It is true that there has been a rising trend in relation to firework injuries. Having said that, that trend may well reflect an increase in the number of fireworks that are sold. The retail value of fireworks sold has increased by more than 30 per cent. in three years to £43.5 million in 1994. Well over 100 million individual fireworks are sold on to the market, so in those circumstances, the accidents, when taken as a proportion of the number of fireworks on the market, pale to a figure in which there is just about one accident for every 65,000 fireworks that are let off. It is very important that the Government take action to try to reduce that still further. However, it is also important that we should set that matter in context.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Will the Minister give way on that point?

Mr. Evans

I shall do so, but very briefly, because I have already allowed the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) to speak.

Mr. Sheerman

What proportion of those fireworks are made by the one remaining British firework manufacturer, Standard Fireworks, which operates a plant near my constituency; and what proportion come from places such as China, whose standards many of us are worried about?

Mr. Evans

We have looked at whether imported fireworks have any role to play in terms of the increase in figures. We have no evidence of that at all. Our evidence is that most of the injuries, sadly, are down to complacency, foolishness and stupidity, the illegal use of fireworks and not following the instructions that have been given. That is why I am pleased that Mr. John Woodhead, the public relations director of Standard Fireworks, joined me for the launch of the firework safety campaign a couple of weeks ago and, in fact, endorsed the remarks that I made.

Let me deal with the important point that the hon. Gentleman made about the sale of fireworks to those who are under the age of 16. Let me make it clear that the retail sale of fireworks to under-16s is prohibited in law today. It has been prohibited ever since 1875 by section 31 of the Explosives Act.

The supply of fireworks to the general public is also subject to the requirements of the General Product Safety Regulations 1994. Although both Opposition Members and some trading standards officers have expressed doubt, when I spoke to Warwickshire trading standards officers earlier today, they were in no doubt that they had power to act under the regulations. Moreover, it has been stated on national television today that they have decided to do precisely that.

Mr. Burden

The issue is section 31 of the Explosives Act 1875, not the General Product Safety Regulations. What authorises trading standards officers in metropolitan areas to enforce that legislation?

Mr. Evans

The law was clarified to spell out the fact that the police, in conjunction with the Crown Prosecution Service, have the clearest role in enforcement of the Explosives Act. However, there is also a well-established responsibility for safeguarding the safety of consumers, and that has been vested with trading standards officers over many years. The penalty for breaches of section 31 and the General Product Safety Regulations is already there, and is enforceable.

Mr. Chris Davies (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Evans

I have given way a number of times, and the hon. Member for Northfield has asked me a number of important questions to which I must respond in the short time that remains.

My point is that the legislation is there to govern the sale of fireworks to those under 16. The hon. Member for Northfield said that fireworks had been sold to people under 16 in nine out of 10 shops; I hope that that information will be given to the police and trading standards officers so that action can be taken.

Implicit in the hon. Gentleman's remarks was the suggestion that such shops mushroom overnight. Trading standards officers have requirements in relation to the licensing of shops that sell fireworks, primarily because of the requirements for storage of those fireworks. I know from contact with my trading standards office that it is enforcing those measures, and my discussions earlier today with Warwickshire trading standards officers suggested that they were enforcing them as well. If there is evidence that shops have started up without the knowledge of trading standards officers, they should be drawn to the attention of both trading standards officers and the police.

Let me deal with some of the hon. Gentleman's specific points about import controls. More than 100 million fireworks are sold in this country each year, and it is clearly not practicable for each firework to be checked. Apart from anything else, the ultimate test is to let the firework off. In the circumstances, it is simply not logical to expect such a degree of control.

Much has been made of the fact that the position in relation to the licensing of imported fireworks changed in December 1993. Those changes were made to comply with our obligations under the single market, and had nothing to do with the Government's more general deregulation initiatives. However, much misinformation has been disseminated about the changes. Before December 1993, fireworks could be imported only under an import licence that served as a means of authorisation and required fireworks for consumer use to meet British standard 7114. That system has been replaced by an alternative system based on controlling the supply of fireworks, together with reinforced legal provisions for their authorisation.

The essential point, however, is that under both systems there are tight import controls. Imported fireworks supplied in the United Kingdom must meet the same safety standards as those produced domestically: all fireworks must comply with British standard 7114. Under the new system, as under the old, the applicant must apply to the Health and Safety Executive supplying information about the items that he wishes to import; the onus is on the importer to ensure that safety standards are met. The HSE requires fireworks to meet British standard 7114, and, if satisfied, subsequently authorises them. The HSE continues to enforce the requirements for authorisation of fireworks under the Explosives Act 1875.

I was asked some specific questions about the position regarding Red Lion fireworks. I have been in touch with the HSE. Three applications were made, dated 21 and 27 April and 22 May, in relation to seeking classification and authorisation of samples for importation. On 25 May, an authorisation was issued; but its purpose was to limit importation for evaluation and test purposes only. Furthermore, it required evidence of compliance with the conditions for authorisation of explosives in Great Britain before the fireworks could be released to the market.

On importation, the importer arranged for samples to be tested by an independent laboratory. I understand that the laboratory in question, which is known as Hayley and Weller, is established as an independent laboratory. The HSE received the first test results from the laboratory on 28 September.

Subsequently, the HSE raised further questions specifically in relation to an issue that later came to public attention, concerning the possible presence of any sort of prohibited mixture such as sulphur chlorate in the samples. There was an initial response; a certificate was provided from China. The HSE, however, required a certificate from an independent source. Following the provision of independent documentary evidence, authorisation was given for the fireworks to be released for retail sale.

The hon. Member for Northfield suggested that action taken by Liverpool's trading standards office brought the matter to public attention. A public statement was certainly issued by the office, but the HSE had been undertaking a range of tests relating to fireworks that had reached the retail market—quite apart from the mechanisms to which I referred earlier. As part of that process, some 70 samples were received by the HSE, and two relating to Red Lion were found to contain prohibited substances.

The action of which we have heard subsequently was initiated because that information was brought to the HSE's attention. It is certainly also true that the Liverpool trading standards office, acting on information from another manufacturer, conducted its own tests. That suggests that the system contains many more import control elements than the hon. Member for Northfield suggested.

Mr. Burden


Mr. Evans

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not give way. I am running out of time, and during the three minutes that remain I want to concentrate on what the Government consider to be important messages.

Given that 100 million fireworks are to be set off during the next few days, it is important for the general public to be aware that the vast majority of accidents are caused by carelessness and complacency. Sadly, we have seen examples of that in cases that have come to public attention in the past few days. A child in South Shields has been injured by a banger which was thrown in a public place—that was in itself a criminal offence—and in Northern Ireland children have been injured by sparklers.

Last year, 150 adults—I repeat, adults—were taken to hospital with injuries caused by their own misuse of sparklers. That underlines my point that complacency, stupidity and carelessness are mostly to blame for injuries of this kind. I am grateful to the BBC's "999 Lifesavers" programme, which this Friday will highlight such issues to remind parents of the need for safety at a time when families will naturally want to enjoy their firework celebrations, but must be aware of the accompanying dangers.

The Government are also obliged to Mr. Derek Thompson, the character Charlie from the BBC's "Casualty", and the lead character in the campaign of the Department of Trade and Industry. During the press conference that I launched on the firework safety campaign, he said that, if we were to keep children out of casualty on 5 November, we had to ensure that we followed the messages on following the firework code. I hope that all parents will take that on board.