HC Deb 20 November 1996 vol 285 cc893-912

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

9.34 am
Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. It is only two weeks since the headlines were full of news about firework-related tragedies. On 28 October, a 10-year-old boy, Dale Mitchell from Nottingham, died through the illegal misuse of fireworks. On 1 November, David Hattersley, a head teacher from High Wycombe, was fatally injured during his school's firework display. On 2 November, Stephen Timcke, a City trader from Kent, was killed in front of his two young sons, aged five and seven, at a private bonfire party.

The headlines may have gone, but the consequences of those tragedies live on for the families and friends of those who died, as they do for all those injured by fireworks. That is why the House is under an obligation not to wait for the next tragedy and the next headline, whether it comes next month or next year at bonfire night, but to take action now to improve firework safety.

I secured an Adjournment debate on the same subject in November last year, when I raised questions about the sale of fireworks to the under-16s and the importing of dangerous fireworks. The sale of fireworks to the under-16s is still an issue. In 1995, 825 of the 1,500 firework-related injuries affected the under-16s. We still need to take more effective action to ensure that children are not able to buy fireworks and that a responsible adult is in charge wherever fireworks are used. The Government's zeal for deregulation has not helped us to achieve that, but that is not the issue that I want to spend time on today.

I want to consider firework imports in depth. Last year, I told the House that shipments of Chinese fireworks containing illegal substances had been allowed on to the market in the United Kingdom. Only in October this year, more than a year after authorisation was first given for those fireworks, were the last container loads tracked down. They had been on the market in this country throughout that time.

The Government had unnecessarily scrapped import licences for fireworks in 1993. The Health and Safety Executive's actions in authorising firework imports at the time of last year's debate left a good deal to be desired. Since that debate, its performance in scrutinising import applications has improved considerably, but the procedures are not in place to check that the products for which importers apply and receive authorisation are the same as the products that come into the country and find their way on to the market, and to ensure that those products are properly labelled.

Example after example can be quoted. There was a raid only yesterday—as prosecution is pending, it would be inappropriate to say where it happened—involving a 40 ft container of fireworks that had found its way into a lock-up garage in this country. We must wait to see how that prosecution turns out, but we must ask why nobody knew that that container had come into the country and why it was checked on only once it had found its way to the lock-up garage. Why did we not know? Why did the authorities not know in advance?

Perhaps an even more tragic example is that of Stephen Timcke. He was killed by a mortar shell, which was probably not meant to be on general sale in this country. It was imported from China and all the instructions were in Chinese. He died at a private bonfire party, in front of his two sons. All sorts of questions are raised. Who sold Mr. Timcke the firework? How did the vendor get hold of it? How did it get into the country and—perhaps even more chilling▀×how many of those fireworks are still in circulation and in the shops to this day?

Investigations are continuing and it is right that they should, but it is on that matter that I seek my first assurance from the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs and the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford). Will he and his hon. Friend assure me that the Health and Safety Executive will not grant authorisation unless arrangements are in place to ensure that each consignment of imported fireworks is logged at the port of entry, transported directly from the port—sealed—to secure storage at a recognised site and routinely tested before it goes on the market? Unless that is done, authorisation is fine, but there is no way of checking whether what has been authorised is what finds its way into this country and on to the market. The results are tragic and only too plainly seen in the death of Stephen Timcke. It is within the Minister's power to do something about that and I ask for that assurance.

Secondly, on categorisation of the different sorts of fireworks, the Minister began a review of firework safety regulations in March and I welcome his initiative, which was useful. When he takes into account the responses to that review, I hope that he will consider removing bangers from general sale. I met him a couple of weeks ago to discuss that. With 316 injuries last year alone, more accidents involve bangers than any other type of firework. They are easy to abuse, have no visual appeal, are a nuisance to people and frighten animals. They should be taken off the market. I strongly urge the Minister to agree that course when he considers the results of the review.

Some measures cannot wait until the review is completed and the results known. Stephen Timcke was killed by a mortar shell, as was David Hattersley, the head teacher from High Wycombe. The signs are that Mr. Hattersley acquired the shell lawfully. It was probably a category 3 firework, for use in large outdoor spaces. Mortar shells are freely on sale. What are they? I can reassure you, Madam Speaker, that the one I have here is a dummy and there is no danger to the House. It is a dummy of a 4 in mortar shell. It looks like a lethal weapon and we know that, in the cases of Stephen Timcke and David Hattersley, that is precisely what it was.

Mr. Hattersley suffered the most appalling facial injuries when the mortar shell exploded in his face—injuries from which he died without regaining consciousness the following day. Such a firework has no place on general sale in this country. It has no place on sale now—we cannot wait until after the review, until next year, or next bonfire night. I do not want to see any more tragedies such as were suffered by Stephen Timcke or David Hattersley, and they were not the first, as someone in Yorkshire was killed by a mortar shell two years ago.

Under the Consumer Protection Act 1987, the Secretary of State has the power to ban by order, for a maximum of 12 months, the supply of anything that is considered unsafe to the general public. He does not have to wait for consultation or for the review. I imagine that 12 months will be long enough for the Minister to complete his review and to consider all the other matters, and long enough for changes to be introduced—either by this Government or by the next Labour Government. Will the Minister assure me that he will not allow lethal items of equipment such as mortar shells to remain on general sale, so that we can be confident that there will be no more accidents, no more Stephen Timckes and no more David Hattersleys, while the review is taking place? The public demand action, and I hope that the Minister will assure me that he will take the action that it is in his power to take, to remove such shells from public sale.

Thirdly, we should consider training, in particular the training of those who use powerful category 3 fireworks, such as the one that I have here, which are on sale to the general public but which should not be, or category 4 fireworks—the category that I should like such fireworks to be put into. Those are fireworks that are not meant to be on general sale to the public, but which are meant for use in displays. According to British standards, category 4 fireworks are not meant to be on sale to the general public, but no clear regulations are in place to specify who is allowed to buy or use them. There are no real restrictions on their purchase or operation. As a result, someone without any formal training can buy and use category 4 fireworks, setting him or herself up to run a public display. Surely that has to end.

My third request to the Minister—again, it is entirely within his power to agree—is that he should establish straight away a national training scheme for those running firework displays and using category 4 fireworks. Will he ensure that no one can run such a display without appropriate and recognised training? For that measure to be effective, we need to control the places through which category 4 fireworks are distributed. Will the Minister ensure that they are on sale only from licensed premises, so that we can see where they come in, where they are stored, who is entitled to sell them, to whom they are sold and who is allowed to operate them?

The Minister might say that that is complicated and difficult to do, but it is not. A model for exactly the sort of scheme that I am describing exists in Canada. Support for such a mandatory scheme comes from a wide range of organisations: trading standards officers and departments have voiced their support, as has the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the Consumers Association and the National Campaign for Firework Safety, to name but a few. Responsible members of the fireworks industry have also voiced their support for such a scheme, because they know that it is not in their interests for public safety to be put at risk and for people, who frankly do not have the skills, to buy and use powerful category 4 fireworks. That situation reflects badly on the industry, and responsible members of the industry want it to end.

The Fire Service College has said that it has the skills and is willing to run a training scheme. It only remains for the Minister to give the go-ahead. Will he introduce a requirement for such training and for the licensing of retailers of category 4 fireworks, so that we can be sure that items of equipment such as the mortar shell that I am holding are not used by unskilled or untrained people?

I met the Minister the week before bonfire night, to discuss the Department of Trade and Industry's firework safety publicity campaign, to raise again some of the matters that I raised in my Adjournment debate last November, and to consider the review that he is undertaking and some of the issues arising from it. He received me with the utmost courtesy, as he always does, and I believe that he has the best intentions on firework safety, but we need more than good intentions and reviews: we need action to back those up and prevent further tragedies.

First, will the Minister and the Under—Secretary of State for the Environment, who is also involved through the Health and Safety Executive, tighten controls on the importation of dangerous fireworks? That can be done only by checking at the port of entry, transporting the fireworks directly to secure storage and routinely testing them before they reach the market.

Secondly, will the Minister put a temporary prohibition order on sale to the public of mortar shells and similar powerful fireworks that, by any standard, should be in category 4, while the review is undertaken, so that we can be sure that the public are safe in the meantime?

Thirdly, will the Minister establish a national training scheme for anyone who wants to run displays and operate category 4 fireworks, and ensure that those more powerful fireworks are available only through licensed premises? If he is prepared to do that, I am sure that he will have the support of all Opposition Members.

For goodness' sake, let us not wait until the next bonfire night, witness more tragedy and injuries, and ask ourselves why we did not act when we had the chance. Let the memory of David Hattersley and Stephen Timcke be our spur to taking the actions that are necessary to ensure that the public are able to enjoy fireworks in safety and that we avoid any more tragedies of the kind that we have witnessed this year.

9.52 am
Mr. Chris Davies (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) on securing this debate. To my knowledge, this is the second time that he has initiated a debate on the subject. The previous one was on 1 November 1995, and perhaps it is appropriate that this one takes place after 5 November, because there may be a tendency for views to be heightened and emotional when constituents are expressing concern in the run-up to bonfire night and for the emotion to fade away in the aftermath. So we are more able to consider matters rationally and seriously in the cold light of late November.

The time is appropriate also because the Government's consultation paper is still on the stocks. The closing date for submissions was 16 October, but I hope that the Department of Trade and Industry will take into account the points made in this debate. I welcome the review.

Like the majority of people in Britain, I enjoy fireworks. I have taken part in displays in a family environment since my earliest years and I would not want to deny such pleasures to others. Fireworks are extremely popular in Saddleworth in my constituency, and the Round Table and other local groups take every opportunity to organise displays of a high standard. I hope that my constituents and I will continue to share that pleasure.

My first concern is about the period during which fireworks should be on general sale. The guidelines agreed some years ago say that fireworks should be on sale for only three weeks before 5 November and a few days after. My impression is that those guidelines are becoming loose and that fireworks are on sale earlier than they should be.

This year, fireworks day seemed to go on for a long time, perhaps because 5 November fell mid-week and people increasingly prefer to have family parties on weekends rather than on the due date, and because the weather on 5 November was not pleasant in many parts of the country. I received calls the following week saying, "When is this going to stop? I can't let the cat and dog out because every time it gets dark there are fireworks going off all over the place." The matter needs to be reviewed.

People increasingly use fireworks on occasions other than bonfire night—to celebrate anniversaries or birthdays, for example. We must consider what special provisions should be made to ensure that fireworks are available to those who want them for legitimate purposes, but not so freely available as to extend to the whole year the period during which annoyance is caused to ordinary individuals.

The hon. Member for Northfield referred briefly to bangers. Three weeks or so before 5 November this year, I received a call from the estate management board of Holts village in Oldham, expressing concern about the number of bangers being thrown around the streets and put through letter boxes by youths, causing anguish to elderly people and others. I had another call from someone who had seen youths throwing bangers out of the back window of a double-decker bus.

There exists in legislation a maximum penalty of £5,000 for throwing a firework in a street or public place, but I have never yet heard of its being implemented by a court. The small banger is increasingly being treated disdainfully and used by youths as if it were a home firework. Perhaps that is reflected in the fact that more than 50 per cent. of all accidents with fireworks involve children under the age of 16.

I raised the matter with the managing director of Standard Fireworks and Brocks International last year. In his reply, he said: I well understand the problems caused to the general public and in particular the elderly through the misuse of bangers and other noisy fireworks.' In a revealing and honest statement, which is unlikely to boost his marketing effort, he said: The Standard Fireworks banger is the most ineffective banger on sale in the UK today. Our sales have continuously been falling, from a high of 7 million to 2.5 million last year. I acknowledge the fact that Standard Fireworks has been closely involved with the Government in reviewing guidelines and codes of conduct, and I approve of the attitude that lies behind what the managing director said—his letter went on to express his concern about the importation of much more powerful bangers—but the simple, cheap single banger is increasingly being used as a weapon and as a means of disturbing and frightening people in many estates and communities throughout the country. It is perhaps time, as with ripraps, crackerjacks, squibs or whatever, to introduce a complete ban on the sale of bangers.

Most accidents involving fireworks affect young people aged under 16. How do they get hold of such fireworks? It is illegal for fireworks to be sold to people under 16. When the matter was raised in the 1 November debate last year, the hon. Member for Northfield—I remember that I was unable to make an intervention—mentioned that trading standards officers were concerned about how regulations had been changed, because that had made it more difficult for them to enforce the law. The Government said that the existing regulations and laws gave trading standards officers the authority to enforce the rules. However, in practice, trading standards officers still find it difficult. They admit that it is possible to carry out enforcement, but it is more cumbersome, bureaucratic and time consuming and they have other things to do with their limited resources than concentrate on that one problem.

In trying to reduce bureaucracy for small businesses by scrapping the regulations concerned, the Government threw out the baby with the bathwater. Governments are never willing to accept that mistakes have been made, but I hope that in this case they will recognise the due concerns of trading standards officers. I spoke to trading standards officers in Oldham and Rochdale only an hour ago and they said that, against their will, they had made no effort to prevent the sale of fireworks by shops to children under 16, but had referred the matter to the police. They did that because they believe that the regulations are too cumbersome and need revision. I ask the Minister to ensure that he takes the opportunity of the consultation to listen to their concerns and review the regulations. I hope that by this time next year, more simplicity will have been introduced into procedures.

The point of the hon. Member for Northfield that mortar shells are classified as class 3 fireworks was well made. Mortar bombs and the like have instructions that state that they should be used at least 25 m from the public and are clearly inappropriate for most domestic gardens. They should be reclassified as class 4 fireworks.

There is also the increasing use of fireworks to celebrate new year's eve. I go out of my house at midnight on that night and from all the hills around me I can hear fireworks going off and see lights in the sky. The crucial problem with the use of fireworks on that day, which makes it different from bonfire night, is that on 5 November, most fireworks are let off between 6 pm and 8 pm; those on new year's eve are let off at midnight. It is likely that people who let fireworks off on bonfire night will be sober, but on new year's eve, they are likely to be intoxicated. If I had a simple answer, I would give it, but I ask the Minister to take that point into consideration in the consultation paper. I hope that he finds a means of tackling the problem and reducing the likelihood of accidents.

10.3 am

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) on introducing the debate so meticulously. He has been through the detail, and I shall not bore the House by repeating his sensible suggestions. I shall merely reinforce his points and hope that the Minister comes back quickly and strongly on everything that he said.

I must declare an interest as the Member for Huddersfield. Not in my constituency, but nearby in Colne Valley is Standard Fireworks, the largest producer of fireworks left in Britain. It is an excellent company that employees several hundred people and is renowned in the House and outside for its interest in safety and its good-quality fireworks. I congratulate the company, the last of the big fireworks companies in Britain, on maintaining high standards of production and of regulation of its activities and on its tremendous work in putting its own money into safety and in trying to ensure that people can enjoy a traditional holiday. One does not need a day off to have a holiday. Bonfire night is a holiday tradition that goes back to 1605. I do not know when fireworks were first let off, but it was long ago. It is deep in our tradition.

I resent the killjoy tendency in Britain whereby when there is a crisis or accident, there is an emotional spasm that says that everything must stop. I share the deep feeling of sympathy of my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield for the people who died recently as a result of fireworks, and for their families. I feel strongly about the way in which their deaths were caused. However, we have to balance that with the fact that fireworks are a traditional way of celebrating 5 November, Guy Fawkes' day or plot night, as we call it in the north. I do not think that it should be stopped. Fireworks can be safe if they are good fireworks, properly regulated and let off sensibly.

There are, of course, dangers. If people who are not adult or experienced enough let off fireworks, there can be tragic consequences. But they can be overcome. The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies) mentioned the honesty of the chairman and managing director of Standard Fireworks about his bangers. He has been equally frank with me. It is a part of his market, but I am sure that he shares my view that if there were no banger market, Standard could cope with it. Most of us know that the real enjoyment of 5 November and of fireworks is the colour and beauty of a firework display. My view is heartfelt because I have an interest and because I know that there is a tradition that is precious to many millions of people. I want that to continue.

I am going to say some hard political words. The Conservative party is the great party of deregulation. Since I have been in the House, it has shouted it from the rooftops. The high priests of deregulation, whether Front Bench or Back Bench, cannot wait to tell us that the state should not get involved in anything. They want total deregulation. Let the buyer beware, let people buy anything they like and let off anything they like. Fireworks are a classic example of what happens when that ruthless attitude to deregulation comes home.

The Minister will not like me saying that two people died this firework weekend because of deregulation. They died partly because of the deregulatory attitude of the Government, who have weakened controls against the best advice of the industry in Britain and of senior staff at Standard Fireworks. They said that we should not deregulate and that if we did, we would get all sorts of dangerous rubbish from China and elsewhere and accidents would occur. That was self-interested, because if accidents happen, people say that fireworks should not be let off at all and that we should end fireworks. I have been involved in the matter for some years. I have heard the industry and my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield say that deregulation will spoil it for everyone. Yes, it will; deregulation has spoilt the lives of families whose loved ones have either died or been dreadfully injured by fireworks that have come in from abroad.

The incident was not isolated. I went to my village and someone in a shop showed me a firework costing £60, which was about the size of a birthday cake. It was not for a special occasion or display, but for anyone to buy. Trading standards officers do not have the power, effectiveness or will that they used to have. A parallel can be drawn with the sale of alcohol: a survey of who could buy alcohol in my area was conducted in recent weeks. The police sent a nice letter to all off-licences asking them to stop selling alcohol to young people. The police said that it should be done the easy way, and that there was no need to be heavy—the young purchasers should be identified and the sales stopped. But the campaign did not seem to be effective.

The police sent 14-year-old boys into off-licences: 20 out of 31 served those boys with alcohol—in two cases, they were served by a 13-year-old and a 12-year-old. As I went round my area before 5 November, I found that precisely the same happens with fireworks: very young children get hold of them and the deregulatory climate seems to be responsible.

The situation is bad enough, with deregulation and the people who have been injured or killed as a result. But, worse, two years ago there was a death in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe)—he will speak in more detail about that. The coroner spoke directly to the Minister involved and said that such evil fireworks should not be brought in. For two years, the Government have done nothing about those fireworks, which have come into this country and killed people.

I have spoken strongly about the subject. I do not want to be a killjoy; I want our lovely festival to continue; I want proper curbs. I have no special mandate for bangers, which are misused, and I have no special case to make for the extension of the time for using fireworks. The traditional period in our country is quite short—about three weeks—and I see nothing wrong with that period being strictly enforced in terms of the sale of fireworks, apart from their use in displays.

Some of us who were holding meetings in the House of Commons on 5 November almost thought that we were under attack. I had booked a Room overlooking the river, and there was a fantastic firework display on the launch just outside the House of Lords. It was a magnificent, safe and enjoyable event, which showed how fireworks can be used.

If the Government continue their deregulatory, care-for-no-one attitude, more people will die. If the Minister does not take action before next year, other people will die. But by then there will be a Labour Government who will ensure that firework displays are safe.

10.14 am
Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) on giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue.

I want to start my speech where my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) left off. We are not here as killjoys to try to stop people enjoying themselves or to try to stop various organisations and religious bodies celebrating holy days—that is nonsense. The Firework Safety Bill and the debate are about the effect that fireworks can have on ordinary citizens who have no argument with people enjoying themselves, but are merely asking for some consideration. Animal owners also need consideration, but I shall come to that subject later. This is a debate not about how to stop people enjoying themselves, but about how we can find a way of ensuring that people can still celebrate while protecting those who are greatly affected by fireworks.

No one doubts the fact that fireworks give pleasure. I thoroughly enjoy attending the displays at my local park. It is worth congratulating local authorities and other organisations that put on tremendous displays, in safety, and that often educate children on the dangers of fireworks, how to place them safely and how to stand away. People should be congratulated on holding firework displays and educating others.

Safety is a priority, particularly for organised bonfires. As my hon. Friends have already said, how can it be safe for someone to let off a £20 or £60 shell in their back garden if he is meant to stand 25 yd away from the firework? Many back gardens are not 25 yd long, so people would have to stay in the house—the firework would no doubt blow all the windows out. One firework, which must have misfired, came over my fence and exploded above the lawn. I was amazed that none of my windows were blown in. All the fire alarms, burglar alarms and car alarms went crazy. Who knows what would have happened if anyone had been within a couple of yards of that firework—admittedly, it misfired. Some fireworks have a shell casing, which is almost like shrapnel when they explode. We need to regulate such fireworks, some of which are powerful.

Most people enjoy the visual aspect of firework displays, which are fine if they are beautiful spectacles with a few crackles, but I see nothing visually beautiful about one big thud that frightens half the population to death and is then over. There is a difference between the two types of firework displays. I have doubts about how we can regulate the use of most fireworks. By banning bangers, we have gone a long way to answer most of the complaints raised in our surgeries.

I received a typical letter from an old lady in my constituency. She wrote: Dear Mr. Michie, I sit in my home this evening, and feel as if I have been living in a war torn area for well over a month now". She goes on to describe the loud explosions and the difficulties that she faces. She mentions the advice given by Rolf Harris on his programme when he told people to ensure that they kept their animals in on bonfire night as it was likely to be distressing for them. Keeping a dog or a cat inside for one or two nights is one thing, but how can someone keep a pet in for about two months, which seems to be the period in Sheffield?

At the end of her letter, the old lady makes a plea. She asks: Yes, people have rights and some things are difficult to enforce, but could you please help us, speak up for us, the fed up majority, and quieten the minority that disturb the peace over a sickeningly long period of time? The letter finishes, "Help". I know that, like that old lady, some live in blocks with other old people, and I have talked to them. They are terrified at the sheer noise, which affects them psychologically.

I do not know whether we can restrict the time for selling. As my constituent said, that may be difficult because we have to consider religious groups that celebrate at different times of the year. It may be difficult to restrict the time during which fireworks can be usedk—it might be a good idea if they are not used after midnightk—but it would not be too difficult to control the sale of fireworks. That would not stop people hoarding them and setting them off at the wrong time, but it would stop what is happening in a shop not far from where I live. It is open many hours a day, including Sundays, and sells nothing but fireworks for months on end. It encourages people to make impulse buys. If a child walks past the shop and realises that he has enough spending money to buy some fireworks, he will go in and purchase them. Restricting the times and dates on which fireworks can be sold may help to ease the problem.

As I said earlier, taking bangers out of the equation is certainly the most effective way of helping the majority of people. Old people and animals live in fear. Unfortunately, I no longer have a dogk—mine died of old age many years ago. It was a sheep dog of a nervous disposition, to say the least, and for bonfire night and perhaps the night after, I used to get a tranquilliser for him from the vet. It did not actually knock him out but, for some unknown reason, he used to walk about as though he had gone deaf, so it obviously worked. The problem is, however, that it is not possible to keep giving animals tranquillisers for two months or more, just because some great firework might go off. There are therefore limits to what animal lovers can do to protect their animals, just as there are limits to what old people can do to protect their nerves.

The onus remains on the House to find some way of restricting bangers or, hopefully, banning them altogether. We must take action on behalf of those who do not want to kill the joys and pleasures of others, but who want only a little peace and quiet. That way all of us, not just a minority, can have a happy life.

10.20 am
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise my concerns relating to the circumstances surrounding the death in November 1994 of my constituent, Mr. Roger Robinson. His case has already been mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) and for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman).

In November 1994, Mr. Robinson organised a display for elderly people at a care home in my constituency. He was killed as the result of the explosion of an aerial shell, which was exactly of the sort described by my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield. The inquest report indicates that The firework involved was 4 inch in diameter and is launched out of a mortar tube. The evidence given at the inquest stated that the shell had a weight of almost 15 ounces, was intended to reach a height of 800 feet before ejecting its pyrotechnic effects, and would have been travelling at a speed of 225 mph when it came out of the top of the tube"— and hit my constituent in the face.

The Minister is aware that I have been in correspondence with him, his Department and his predecessor about the circumstances of Mr. Robinson's death. I was especially concerned to learn from the Minister's predecessor—the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans)—who wrote to me on 11 August 1995, that import controls on fireworks exercised by the Health and Safety Executive had been abolished from 1 December 1993.

The Minister is well aware of the implications of that Government decision, which was presumably taken as part of the deregulation exercise mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield. The Minister will also be aware that there have been extensive representations from trading standards officers in various parts of the country, not least in West Yorkshire. Here, I commend the West Yorkshire trading standards officers; we are fortunate in our area to have some of the most effective and articulate officers in the country. They wrote to the Government stating that those aerial shells were unsuitable for the public and should be banned from public sale.

The Minister will be aware that the inquest into the death of Mr. Robinson was resumed on 30 November 1995. The coroner for my area is my namesake, Mr. David Hinchliff. At the end of the inquest, he made a specific statement, which I shall quote briefly. He stated to the court that pursuant to Rule 43 of the Coroners Rules, he intended to draw the attention of this fatality to the appropriate authorities, which in this case will be the Department of Trade and Industry. Mr. Hinchliff added that he was acting in the hope that a fatality or fatalities of this nature can in the future be avoided, that is the very least that I feel that I can do in this situation". I have a copy of the detailed letter that he subsequently sent to the Minister on 3 January 1996. The letter makes his feelings clear. It states: My recommendation must therefore be that Aerial Shells of all sizes should not be available to the general public, and that they should be sold only to people who have undergone appropriate theoretical and practical training. I have a copy of the Minister's acknowledgment of that letter.

I know the Minister reasonably well and have always found him to be a decent and honourable man who is competent in his work. He always receives me well when we meet. However, I have to ask what has been going on—Mr. Robinson's death occurred in 1994 and the circumstances have been reported to his Department on more than one occasion. Needless deaths have occurred that might have been avoided. I do not want to make a political point—the issue is too serious for that—but deregulation appears to have overtaken common sense and the sad consequences are there for all to see.

I want to repeat the point made by other hon. Members, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield. I know of Standard Fireworks and I and my family have used its products over many years. It is a company of repute and I want to endorse the comments made by hon. Members to the effect that the industry wants not deregulation, but more regulation. Yesterday, I met Mr. John Woodhead of Standard Fireworks, who spoke in detail of his concerns about the implications for the industry of the sort of incident that I have described. Clearly, such incidents are not in the industry's interests and Mr. Woodhead wants more regulation, especially import controls—precisely the opposite of the Government's action in 1993. He wants there to be training along the lines described by several hon. Members this morning. Judging by our conversation, I am fairly certain that Mr. Woodhead would have no objection to bangers being banned altogether.

I have received representations from constituents similar to those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) and the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies). People have had their lives made a misery in the period around bonfire night and they ask me why we have to have bangers. Would not having bangers really cause great difficulties? Would it really impact on the joy of bonfire night?

I am not a killjoy—in my childhood, bonfire night was one of the highlights of the year. In my area, we started preparing in August—chumping, we called it, which meant getting the wood in for the bonfire. It was a great event and I want that to continue. I do not see why we need to suffer the nuisance arising from bangers. I vividly remember the consequences for the guide dog belonging to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). As the direct result of being frightened by a firework, the dog was run over and had to stop working for my hon. Friend, who had to get another guide dog.

The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Mr. John M. Taylor)

Comparing notes with the hon. Gentleman on our respective childhoods, I always found the bonfire more fun than the fireworks. I should like to thank him for his kind personal remarks about me and engage him not on the subject of guide dogs but on an earlier point. He referred twice to the fact that the import licensing regime was overturned in 1993. For the record, I want to make it clear that that regime was, in fact, replaced in 1993. The Health and Safety Executive will say that the single authorisation scheme that was put in place of the import licensing regime in no way weakens safety controls. One regime was replaced by another, not simply removed.

Mr. Hinchliffe

All I would say to the Minister is that I examined the issue in some detail and discussed it with representatives of the industry, whose impression is that the import controls weakened the safety aspect in this country.

Mr. Burden

The Minister is wrong—import licences were removed. The Health and Safety Executive provides authorisation and classification on applications to bring fireworks into the country. There is no regular check at the port of entry and no way of telling whether the fireworks entering the country are the same as those for which authorisation was requested. There was no replacement—import controls have gone and they need to be brought back.

Mr. Hinchliffe

My hon. Friend makes an important point. That reflects my understanding of the industry's impression of the current position.

I conclude by congratulating my hon. Friend on initiating the debate. Without making party points, I hope that we can learn from the deaths that have occurred and that action will be taken. The action that we should take is clearly set out in the coroner's letter in respect of my constituent's unfortunate death.

10.29 am
Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East)

I shall speak briefly because I missed the start of the debate. I apologise for that; I had to attend a meeting.

Today's debate is predominantly about import controls and about category 3 and category 4 fireworks, but I am worried about very small fireworks—those in category 2, possibly even category 1. I have been involved in previous firework campaigns, but I became involved in this year's campaign after being visited by a woman whose dog had been killed in a firework-related incident. I promised that I would support her in getting a petition together. Within days, a young man had died in my constituency because of a firework—apparently, not a big firework.

I urge the Minister to extend the scope of his review to smaller fireworks. Import controls would not have helped to save Dale Mitchell's life. I want something that would have done so—an increase in the age at which people can buy fireworks to 18. I want a licensing system. I want proper training in all categories of fireworks.

I shall present that petition to the Minister, probably at the end of this month—i hope before he announces the results of his review. He expressed his sympathy following Dale's death. I thank him for that, and hope that he will consider the petitioners' views.

10.31 am
Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

This has been a debate of high calibre, probably because the only contributors have been Opposition Members of Parliament. The debate is the culmination of a campaign by Labour in Parliament, which has sought for five years to restore controls on dangerous fireworks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) has been at the forefront of that campaign, but others have supported him for many years—my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie). I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies).

It is important to examine the Government's record in action. Indeed, if it had only been in action, we might not be talking about the deaths today. From the questions that I tabled in 1989 to the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) to my private Member's Bill to restrict the sale of dangerous fireworks in 1994, and in Labour's calls in November 1995 and June 1996 for the banning of aerial shell fireworks, we have been outspoken in the cause of firework safety. In contrast, today, not one Conservative Back Bencher has been present to listen to us or the Minister, let alone to speak.

It was a Labour Government who, in 1975, secured strict controls on the type and power of fireworks, limited who had access to them and imposed a code of practice to regulate firework safety. Labour slashed the power of bangers and ensured that unpredictable jumping fireworks were abolished; both had high accident rates. As a result, for more than a decade, injuries plummeted to an historic low. For years, far fewer people suffered firework injuries and no one lost their life.

All that was changed when the new Tory right took over and decided to deregulate fireworks legislation. It destroyed the essential protection enjoyed by the public. The Tory ideologues covered three areas of public safety—the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Health, and health and safety. They are guilty of scrapping legislation that was the culmination of 100 years of firework safety controls.

In 1988, the Tory ideologues weakened the system of importation controls. Until that time, from 1875, the importation of fireworks was controlled by the Explosives Act 1875 Order in Council 10A. In 1988, Conservative Ministers repealed the tough mandatory checks on each type of imported firework by the Health and Safety Executive and replaced them with another system—self verification. Fortunately, importers still had to comply with strict safety rules.

In 1991, firework injuries had been cut to 723—too many, but far fewer than in countries with lax controls. The reduction in injuries did not last long. When at the DTI, the right hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Lilley), the hon. Members for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) and for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) and the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) all ignored warnings from the industry and from safety experts.

In 1992, the chief inspector of explosives, Mr. G. Williamson, wrote to inform the DTI that some suppliers were selling category 4 fireworks to the general public. In a prophetic sentence, he warned: The chance of a major incident clearly increases"— but the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), did nothing.

In 1991, the United Kingdom firework industry lobbied the DTI for mandatory legal sanctions on the sale of dangerous fireworks. On 21 August 1990, in a letter to the DTI, our leading company, Standard Brock, said: There is such a huge performance gap in the present Category 3 range as to confuse the public entirely and to put proper safety in jeopardy … I would move aerial shells into Category 4". Still nothing was done.

The Minister will doubtless tell us that he has a consultation exercise in hand. Sadly, it will be the third consultation exercise that the Government have launched in the 1990s, as they have sought to push responsibility for firework safety on to Europe, the enforcement agencies, the fire service, the police and the trading standards service—everyone but themselves.

The Government conducted a consultation exercise in June 1993, and another in December 1994. They received a robust response from the Association of Chief Police Officers which, on 27 January 1995, wrote to the DTI, saying: Under the Fireworks (Safety) Regulations it is necessary to prove only the offer to supply or the agreement to supply fireworks whereas the Explosive Act 1875 requires proof of the sale which can on occasion be more difficult to prove. Both police forces feel that it is inappropriate to repeal this legislation and would seek to retain it".

In spite of that advice—that the Fireworks (Safety) Regulations were performing a valuable service protecting the public—Ministers went ahead and abolished them. The assurances that the Minister gave us earlier—that that made no difference and that safety was still in hand—are patently untrue.

In our previous debate on fireworks, also secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield, the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs at the time, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans), when questioned about the impact of imported fireworks, said: 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."—[Official Report, I November 1995; Vol. 265, c. 272.] Is it not tragic that the evidence was to come exactly a year later because that Minister failed to take action?

In the mean time, on 3 January 1996, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield said, the coroner who looked into the death of his constituent Roger Robinson sent a damning letter to the Minister, communicating his findings. He said: From the evidence recorded at this Inquest it became apparent that legislative controls are required for the sale of Aerial Shells … The likelihood of an accident involving a shell resulting in fatal injuries is unusually high. The Minister present in the Chamber today, who acknowledged the letter, did absolutely nothing about it. When pressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Ms Church) on 17 July this year on the Floor of the House of Commons to impose a ban on aerial shell sales to the public, he again declined to take any action. It was of course only a few months later that two people were killed by that very type of shell.

The warnings to the Government have been legion. In 1994, the chairman of the National Fire Safety Technical Committee stated: It would seem that if the current proposals go ahead, consumer safeguards will be lowered in an area where dangers are very well known and understood". I asked for a meeting on 3 November 1994 with the then President of the Board of Trade, now the Deputy Prime Minister, to discuss the import and sale of category 4 fireworks following the removal of licences. The relevant Minister replied: We have been assured by the Health and Safety Executive that this should not have any real effect on the safety of imported fireworks … I do not think that there would be much to be gained from a meeting. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities begged Ministers for a meeting with its officials in October 1995. It took six months for DTI officials to meet representatives of the association and key enforcement officers.

The sad fact is that neither we nor the general public have any grounds for believing a word that Ministers say on this subject. We know that they are lying through their teeth on tax; they are also lying through their teeth on the control of fireworks—the deaths and horrific injuries clearly show that.

The abolition of import controls has been a deregulation disaster. My colleagues have clearly spelled out what now needs to be done. First, we must ensure that those who sell fireworks over the counter are held responsible for their actions—if over-the-counter sales are to continue. There must be some doubt about that. If the injuries continue at the current horrific rate and the public have to put up with the tremendous strain of bangers and other fireworks being let off in unrecorded public incidents, the future of such sales must be in doubt.

Furthermore, we must ensure that those responsible for firework displays are properly trained and licensed, and that dangerous fireworks such as aerial shells are not available to members of the public but are restricted solely to those who run professional firework displays.

On 16 October last year, the DTI issued a press notice to the public. It read: Jonathan Evans warns: the best don't mess with fireworks". The truth is that the best do not mess with firework regulations, which is precisely what the Government have done. The best do not sit on the Government Benches. The Opposition, on the other hand, intend to ensure that the British public get the best, safest firework legislation available anywhere.

10.43 am
The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Mr. John M. Taylor)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) on securing this debate on an important subject. We are all aware that today's debate takes place in the aftermath of tragic deaths from fireworks this year. I know that the whole House is of the same mind in expressing condolences to the family and friends of young Dale Mitchell, Mr. David Hattersley and Mr. Steve Timcke. That serves to underline the serious issues that the Government have to consider.

As has been pointed out, there have been three deaths from aerial shells since 1994. Investigations are still continuing into the deaths of Mr. David Hattersley and Mr. Steve Timcke, and details are still emerging. It appears, however, that a significant factor in the two deaths was human error. Hon. Members will also recall the death in similar circumstances of Mr. Roger Robinson of Wakefield in 1994. In that case, no fault was found with the firework which killed him. I recognise and accept that this raises serious questions about the availability to the public of such powerful devices.

Nine-year-old Dale Mitchell died as a result of a fire started by a firework being put through the letterbox of the family home. I understand that the incident is subject to court proceedings. I have asked my officials to liaise closely with the authorities investigating the very different circumstances of each case so that we can learn the lessons from them.

The hon. Member for Northfield will be well aware that many of the matters he raised are already being considered as part of the Department's review of fireworks, and that I am giving these issues the serious attention that they deserve. As far as I am concerned, one person injured on bonfire night is too many. The answers that I have already given the House should leave the hon. Gentleman in no doubt that we intend to do what is sensible and appropriate. My priority is to arrive at a balanced judgment of what measures would be appropriate.

I hope that the House will bear with me when I say that fireworks give rise to a wide range of worries. I refer to hooligan behaviour, the purchase and use of fireworks by children, anti-social use late at night or over an extended period—all these have been mentioned. The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies) mentioned the link with alcohol, and I agreed with him about that. Then there is the question of training for the organisers of displays; carelessness on the part of non-professional users; the availability of certain shells which may be dangerous in the hands of the inexperienced; and badly made fireworks or those containing illegal mixtures. I should point out that import controls are relevant only to the last of those issues. All the evidence shows that badly made fireworks are a far smaller issue than most of the others I have mentioned.

Against this background, it can be seen that there is no quick fix, but I will instigate a thoroughgoing root-and-branch review of the regulations—I give the House that commitment.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

The Minister appears to be committing himself to a further review. Why, then, after he received the letter from David Hinchliff, the West Yorkshire coroner, dated January of this year and specifically calling on the Minister to re-classify all aerial shells as category 4 so that they cannot be sold. to the general public—because the deceased in question was an "adult mature sensible person" who died as a result of human error—did the Minister not accept that advice and act on it in January, before bonfire night, thereby perhaps avoiding the subsequent two fatalities?

Mr. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman is aware of the letter that the coroner wrote to me and, I think, of my reply. The coroner's letter was a contributory factor in launching the review. The basis and framework of the review were laid down earlier this year, and it went public in July.

There are no quick fixes. Simply shuffling one kind of firework from category 3 into category 4 will not overcome all the problems that we face. I am not in the business of quick fixes; I want to be thorough. There have been changes in the market, with which I shall deal shortly.

At risk of saying it twice or three times, I do not intend to rush into knee-jerk measures that might be effective for a short period and attract congratulatory headlines, but encourage an uncontrolled black market in fireworks in the longer term, as has been the case in some countries that have strict legal controls.

Mr. Burden

I know that the Minister is short of time, so I will not detain him long. No one is asking for a quick fix, or saying that he should not carry out a review, but after three deaths in a three-year period, what more evidence does he need to ban aerial shells from public sale for a temporary period under the powers available to him, while a thorough review is carried out? Let us get them off the market and make sure that people are safe. The Minister can have his review and, if it is proved that such fireworks are safe, let him bring them back, but for goodness sake let us not have any more deaths in the meantime.

Mr. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman returns to the point that he made when he opened the debate. I will reflect on it, but I shall not oblige him here and now in the Chamber. I want to press on, as I have only nine minutes left to reply on behalf of the Government to what I consider to be one of the most important Adjournment debates for a long time. I hope that the House will allow me the opportunity to reply.

Let me assure the House that the Government take the matter very seriously indeed, as I have made clear by undertaking the comprehensive review, which 1 will see through. My reasons for instigating it are well documented—and shared by a number of hon. Members. The review was initiated earlier this year, well before 5 November. The reasons behind it are manifold: growing concern about the great variety and power of fireworks available to the general public; the increasing number of fireworks sold and the way in which they are used; the changed structure of the market in fireworks; the nuisance that they can cause to people, especially the elderly and, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) rightly said, to animals; and the elevated level of injuries over the past two years.

The consultation document issued by my Department was, I believe, the most detailed explanation of the controls on fireworks and the most comprehensive attempt to seek views on a range of important firework issues since the review undertaken in 1975, to which the hon. Member for Northfield referred. The 1975 review resulted in the endorsement of a set of voluntary controls instituted by the firework industry. I took the view, shared by others, including many in the firework industry, that the time was past when those measures could be considered sufficient to offer adequate safeguards to the public.

A number of issues were raised today. Much has been made of the removal of import controls. I shall deal with that once and for all, before turning to other matters. The change to the authorisation system was not rampant deregulation, as the Opposition claim, but a sensible bid to establish a more thorough and equitable system that applied to both domestic and imported explosives.

In 1993, the combined effect of changes to border controls arising from the completion of the single European market, and the need to implement the explosives for civil uses directive, necessitated some change in the existing system. That directive did not apply to fireworks. However, the Health and Safety Commission took the view that a uniform system covering all explosives, including fireworks, from all origins, both member states and third countries, would have safety benefits. The implementing regulations were therefore used as a legislative vehicle to strengthen and clarify existing authorisation procedures and remove import controls.

The current authorisation regime has certain advantages over import licensing controls. At the time of its removal in 1993, import licensing did not require checks on every consignment brought into the country or routine testing, as hon. Members seem to believe. From 1987, licences were issued for up to five years and spot checks were made, as they are now, under the authorisation system. An import licence was issued for any firework that fell into the appropriate United Nations classification, which was very broad. The new system uses specific names which provide more precise information to enforcement bodies.

The import licensing scheme required only that a firework complied with British standard BS 7114 before final distribution. Accordingly, fireworks could be imported in a state that did not comply. There was no distinction between fireworks intended for the public and those for professional use. The import licensing scheme did not specifically prohibit dangerous admixture, which authorisation does.

A major advantage of the authorisation system is that compliance can be checked at any time, rather than solely at the time of entry.

Mr. Sheerman

Is the Minister saying that the Government did not deregulate, and that if anyone is responsible, it is not the Government but the Health and Safety Executive? Is he saying that the flood of cheap and dangerous fireworks from China that are sold with no instructions in English are nothing to do with the Minister? If so, ministerial responsibility is dead and I, for one, mourn its passing.

Mr. Taylor

That is a rather intemperate way of putting a question that is well worth answering. The issue of imported explosives is not, so to speak, black and white. The Chinese—I say this with the greatest caution—probably have more experience with fireworks than any other culture on the planet. The other factor that does not lend itself to a black and white interpretation is the fact that some of the biggest importers of firework material from China are domestic manufacturers. The issue is therefore more complicated than the hon. Gentleman's question suggests.

There are two other aspects to be taken into account in considering what the hon. Gentleman might choose to call deregulation. The import licensing regime was replaced in 1993, but the Health and Safety Executive—1 associate myself with this—says that the single authorisation scheme, which is much more flexible, and which replaced it, in no way weakens safety controls.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

It has.

Mr. Taylor

We differ about that.

Mr. Griffiths

Look at the figures.

Mr. Taylor

With two minutes to go, I am not sure how useful it is for the hon. Gentleman to intervene on me from a sedentary position. I have not yet finished dealing with the question about deregulation, as the Opposition choose to call it. I mentioned import licensing and its replacement. The second aspect is the revocation of the 1986 firework safety regulations, which took place in 1995 and has not weakened the hand of trading standards officers. Local authorities can authorise trading standards officers by simple resolution, and mark their warrant accordingly in these particular areas of activity. In those circumstances, trading standards officers can prosecute retailers.

The present authorisation system applies to imported and home manufactured fireworks alike. Suppliers will be in breach of the law unless each and every item that they supply fully meets the published criteria set by the Health and Safety Executive's explosives inspectorate.

I am beaten by the clock, but I would like to offer to all hon. Members present a letter that will cover any unanswered questions.

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