HC Deb 08 January 2002 vol 377 cc417-21 3.30 pm
Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision with respect to the sale and use of fireworks; and for connected purposes. I am by no means the first Member to seek to introduce legislation such as this. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) and for Lincoln (Gillian Merron). I pay particular tribute to my hon. and good Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty). We share a constituency border, and in our campaign against the abuse of fireworks we have always shared a common cause.

I also pay tribute to the campaigning work done over many years by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor). He is proof that it is possible for Members in all parts of the House to join in support of sensible and much-needed social change, whatever other political differences they may have.

Let me also apologise to the 36 Members whom my office welcomed as sponsors of the Bill when they telephoned, before the Public Bill Office explained that there was a limit of 12. I am sure that they will find ways of expressing their support on another occasion.

A little over two years ago, on 8 December 1999, I had the good fortune to secure an Adjournment debate on the subject of fireworks. That good fortune appears to have rubbed off on the Minister who replied, for she is now Secretary of State for the entire Department—the Department of Trade and Industry, that is. I trust that my right hon. Friend will not consider me unduly pedantic if I seek today to remind her officials of some of the undertakings and opinions that she gave on that occasion.

First, let me set out the reasons why I consider my Bill to be necessary. It may surprise Members to learn that the law allows a private individual to take delivery of 20 tonnes of fireworks—indeed, of any quantity, unlimited—and to store them for up to 14 days, with no obligation to notify a competent authority and with no official record being required. Nor is the firework company under any obligation to ensure that the person taking delivery is competent to handle such an enormous amount of explosives. There is no licence and no registration; there is only a rather loose insistence that the fireworks be kept in a safe and suitable place.

The Explosives Act 1875, which permits this monstrous state of affairs, does not define what a safe and suitable place might be, but if it did the definition would now almost certainly be obsolete. Firework technology has moved on somewhat in the 137 years since the Act received Royal Assent. We are subject to inadequate and archaic legislation that leaves the public at substantial risk.

When I raised the issue with the Secretary of State, as she now is, in 1999, she reassured me by saying: the Health and Safety Executive is reviewing existing explosives legislation and the review may result in changes to existing conditions for the keeping of fireworks for private use. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend is kept up to date as the review progresses."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 8 December 1999; Vol. 340, c. 271WH.] The HSE review ended on Friday 18 February 2000. Now, nearly two years later, the HSE's report has yet to be published. How long it would take for any of its recommendations to be implemented is a matter that I leave to the House's conjecture.

I am happy to acknowledge that in 1997 the new Labour Government passed the Fireworks (Safety) Regulations, as set out in SI 2294. All fireworks sold to the general public must comply with those regulations and must accord with British standard 7114. The minimum age for purchasing fireworks was rightly raised from 16 to 18 years and various powerful fireworks such as maroons-in-mortar, aerial shells, aerial maroons and those fireworks of erratic flight such as helicopters, squibs and jumping jacks were all banned from public supply.

In my previous debate, I congratulated the then Minister on the fact that those measures had resulted in an immediate 26 per cent. drop in the number of injuries requiring hospital treatment to 908 in 1997. However, that positive trend was reversed in 1999, pushing the figure up to 1,056. My right hon. Friend's successor, the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), replying to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North in October last year, took comfort in the idea that the blip could be accounted for by the millennium celebrations, which had pushed the volume of sales up. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend's logic was flawed, because although the subsequent year saw a drop of 8 per cent. to 972 injuries, the drop in the volume of sales was 30 per cent, so, proportionately, the number of injuries was much higher. There was also a substantial rise in the number of injuries to those aged between 13 and 15

The Under-Secretary also remarked that the voluntary code of practice whereby the industry restricts sales to the public to a three-week period around 5 November, though not perfect, "has generally worked well." Those of us who have been campaigning for many years for better controls on fireworks know that that is a unique code in the sense that it is distinguished by being more often broken than observed. My constituents have been subjected to a constant unabated barrage of fireworks from early October of last year through to the new year. They do not find the idea that the voluntary code has "worked well" laughable, but they certainly find it ridiculous.

The Under-Secretary stated: No fireworks may be sold to anyone under 18 years of age. That rule is also enforced by the trading standards department. Those who break the rules are subject to prosecution. Those words caused nothing but despair to many at trading standards, who comment wryly: There never has been a maximum penalty imposed, or a custodial sentence … the penalties tend to be at the lower end of the scale and it is arguable over whether such a penalty is viewed as a deterrent at all. The point is that there is no power under current legislation to revoke a vendor's registration. What is required, and what trading standards has repeatedly asked for, is a proper system of licensing that would enable it to enforce the laws and ensure that such a sanction applied to those traders who flout the regulations. My Bill will provide that.

On 27 October last year, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals received a telephone call from a parent whose small son had been traumatised by seeing a cat blown up by a firework on the school playing field. When the RSPCA went to inspect, it found the dismembered leg of a dog nearby. One child was traumatised. Two animals were dead. That was just one incident. Three days later the Under-Secretary stated: Legislation also deals with distress to any domestic or captive animal, under the Protection of Animals Act 1911. My hon. Friend called that a legal underpinning for effective action".—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 30 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 232–34WH.] The Fireworks Bill—a private Member's Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy)—would have introduced many sensible additions to the regulatory package now in place for the control of fireworks. The Government supported her Bill, and I greatly regret that two Conservative Members chose to talk it out. It would have given the necessary powers to provide for mandatory training of people who operate large public displays. It would have dealt with the times during which fireworks could be sold—now purely a matter for the industry's voluntary code of practice—and provided powers to limit the letting off of fireworks except at specified times. These problems cannot be tackled under the current powers available to us". Those are not my words, although I agree with every one of them. They are the words of the current Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when she replied to my debate two years ago. She concluded by saying It is a pity that that private Member's Bill failed. I hope that in a future private Members' ballot, any hon. Member who has an interest in this issue will succeed in reviving the Bill."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 8 December 1999; Vol. 340, c. 271–72WH.] My Bill does precisely that. It builds on the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton. It revives her Bill and it would bring enormous relief to thousands of people in constituencies around the country where fireworks are no longer enjoyed but loathed and dreaded.

Given the words of the Secretary of State that I have just quoted, I trust that I have her support.

3.39 pm
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

I rise to oppose the Bill, for reasons that I shall explain. First, let me say how delighted I am that the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) has raised this issue.

I oppose the Bill for two reasons. First, I do not like banning things without extremely good reason. As a Conservative, I believe in more, rather than less, freedom, and I certainly do not like banning things unless I am certain that the legislation will work, which this Bill will not. Secondly, I represent in my constituency the excellent organisation Pipedown, the campaign for freedom from piped music, which has asked me to raise this issue in the House. The honorary secretary wrote to me saying: I myself have always loved fireworks, but they have become, over the years, bigger and noisier and are let off far, far more frequently, almost all the year, so needlessly upsetting small children, animals and people who just want to sleep. I agree.

My constituent Caroline Currie of Salisbury wrote to me in these terms: Firework nuisance. Right that's it. I started to write this letter on Sunday 11th November, the eleventh night in a row that enormous echoing bangs have sent my cat flying downstairs in tenor to hide under the dresser. During the small hours of Friday 9th November I was awakened by two explosions. Are we at war? We know we are, and that is all the more reason to control this increasing menace…It's the noise I object to; nobody grudges children the sparklers and catherine wheels. The existing regulations are quite draconian. All fireworks have to meet British standard 7114. Fireworks are protected under the Consumer Protection Act 1987, the Firework (Safety) Regulations 1997 and the General Product Safety Regulations 1994. In addition, the importation of fireworks can only be authorised by the Health and Safety Executive pursuant to the Placing on the Market and Supervision of Transfers of Explosives Regulations 1993.

The use of fireworks by the public is regulated by the Explosives Act 1875 as modified by the Control of Explosives Regulations 1991 and as amended by the Explosives (Age of Purchase) Act 1976 and the Consumer Protection Act 1987.

All the examples that the hon. Gentleman gave could be covered by amendments to existing legislation. His proposals will change nothing, not even cruelty to animals, which is an important issue.

The hon. Gentleman's main proposals should be seen in perspective. First, public displays are not the problem. Storage of fireworks is already controlled under existing legislation. The hon. Gentleman's proposals on public displays will not prevent the abuse of people's privacy and quiet.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman wants the Government to restrict the times of year at which fireworks can be bought. Great! On 4 November people will stock up with fireworks for the year. Nor do I wish to be a spoilsport. I love seeing fireworks all the year round—at birthday parties and celebrations for all sorts of very good reasons. It is only the British who celebrate 5 November; the rest of the world has fireworks all the year round. People just have a different approach.

Can hon. Members imagine statutory instruments deciding the times of year when people can set off fireworks, as the hon. Gentleman proposes? They would have to vary from summer to winter and between Land's End and John O'Groats according to the daylight hours.

The licensing of vendors would not control the main problem, which is noise. People object to the volume of explosions. Old people loathe it, especially if they are hard of hearing. Children loathe it, as do shift workers and night workers. Of course, so do cats and dogs. The hon. Gentleman has given us examples of that. Vets will confirm the distress caused to animals.

Last Saturday I was with a group of farmers on Salisbury Plain. We were not just taking the air; I admit that there was a certain amount of noise involved in our activities. The farmers said that they, too, think that the noise of modern fireworks is distressing to their cattle and sheep, and above all to their hens. Those farmers farm around the Salisbury Plain military training area. The Royal Artillery can fire tanks and guns; the Royal Air Force can fly over the Hercules; Boscombe Down can fly out its Tornadoes from the Empire test pilots school and the Army Air Corps can fly its helicopters—but set off a firework in Amesbury and Richard Crook's hens stop laying.

On 26 November 2001, the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), said that the Government have no plans to ban the sale of fireworks to the general public. Quite right. She also said: The Fireworks (Safety) Regulations 1997 prohibit from sale to the public several types of noisy category 3 fireworks such as aerial shells and restrict the size of others. We will, of course, consider any representations that are made."—[Official Report, 26 November 2001; Vol.375, c. 672W.]

The key to the problem is to amend existing regulations. We all agree that fireworks have become too noisy and that the bangs are too big. Constituents who write to us and talk to us in the streets say that they are concerned about the noise.

If the Government were concerned about safety they would have a different attitude. No one disagrees that too many people are injured by fireworks, but the regulation proposed in the Bill is preposterous. There is a mass of legislation that could be suitably amended. With a simple statutory instrument, the Government could resolve the noise problem.

Noise is the main problem. It is not dealt with by the Bill, and that is why I oppose it.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Barry Gardiner, Linda Gilroy, Linda Perham, Mr. Harry Barnes, Sir Teddy Taylor, Shona Mclsaac, Siobhain McDonagh, Dr. Nick Palmer, Joan Ryan, Ross Cranston, Mr. Martin Salter and John Barrett.

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