HC Deb 13 June 2003 vol 406 cc952-68
Mr. Chope

I beg to move amendment No. 41, in page 2, line 1, leave out 'there is no' and insert 'the'.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 42, in page 2, line 2, after 'subsection (3)', insert 'is controlled'.

No. 43, in page 2, line 2, leave out ', or'.

No. 44, in page 2, line 3, leave out paragraph (b).

No. 45, in page 2, line 8, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—

'(a) death, injury or unnecessary suffering to persons'. No. 46, in page 2, line 9, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—

'(b) death, injury or unnecessary suffering to any domestic or captive animal, and'.

Mr. Chope

This is another important group of amendments, which deals with the issue of risk and consequences, and their effect would be to make clause 2 much more reasonable. If amendments Nos. 41 and 42 were accepted, clause 2(1)(a) would read: for securing that the risk that use of fireworks will have the consequences specified in subsection (3) is controlled". Those of us who have any experience of health and safety issues and legislation—I have some, having had the privilege of serving on the Health and Safety Commission for a number of years—know that the elimination of risk is not practical. We are talking about introducing means by which risks and the consequences of those risks can be controlled. That is reflected in my amendments, rather than the absolutist approach— [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. There are too many alternative conversations going on in the Chamber.

Mr. Chope

It may be that hon. Members are discussing telephone calls that they have received or are about to receive from No. 10.

Clause 2 states: The Secretary of State may by regulations … make any provision which the Secretary of State considers appropriate … for securing that there is no risk that use of fireworks will have the consequences specified". As I said earlier, the only way of eliminating the risk completely is to ban fireworks completely. The only way of eliminating the risk of being struck dead by a falling branch or tree is to cut down every tree in the country. The only way of eliminating the risk of being mown down by a motor car is to ban all cars. At the moment, the clause is far too extreme. The only way in which we could completely eliminate the risk of being struck by lightning would be to stay in our bunkers permanently unless there were a completely clear blue sky outside, although a thunderbolt might even then come from nowhere. It is important that when we as a House introduce legislation, we use language that people can understand. Without too much immodesty, I argue that the wording of my amendments would make the Bill better and clearer, which is why I commend them to the House.

11.30 am

I do not know whether the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) is going to speak, but on Second Reading, he said: the Bill introduces a subjective test. The prosecuting authorities will have to define personal distress … That clause requires in-depth examination."—[Official Report, 28 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 502.] As there was no such in-depth examination in Committee and on Second Reading, he may wish to comment on my modest suggestion that we introduce what is clearly an objective test.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds)

In the interests of clarity, will my hon. Friend confirm that the amendments are designed to make the Bill better and to make it good law, and that it is not his intention to destroy a Bill that will provide the protection that so many of our constituents want, especially in Bury St. Edmunds, where I have received a huge mailbag of letters from concerned people, most of them older people—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention should relate to the amendment under discussion.

Mr. Chope

I welcome my hon. Friend's intervention. I have no intention whatever of preventing good law from getting on to the statute book, but it is important that we as Members of this House should try to use the opportunities that we have to improve and clarify the Bill. One of the purposes of the amendments is to ensure that the Bill is clear and that it does not enable the Minister at some future stage to say that, as there is a residual risk that somebody might be injured, the Government will be justified in introducing draconian regulations. My hon. Friend will probably agree that there is no need to deal with such an issue at great length, but I hope that one or two other hon. Members will contribute to the debate.

Mr. George Osborne

Will my hon. Friend explain how the amendment would materially affect the Bill? I agree that the idea of ensuring that there is no risk is ludicrous and would mean that nobody could light a sparkler because of the risk of injury or damage to property. How would the amendment alter the way in which the legislation would work?

Mr. Chope

As the passage that I seek to amend is an introductory passage relating to the powers of the Secretary of State under clause 2, the amendment would not allow the Secretary of State to introduce in regulations changes securing that there was no risk of firework use having the consequences specified in the clause. She would be able to intervene only to ensure that the risk of incurring the specified consequences is controlled.

Mr. George Osborne

Does my hon. Friend accept that that is still a fairly subjective test? The word "risk" is subjective, and it would still be left to the Minister to decide what was an acceptable risk and what was not.

Mr. Chope

I accept that risk is subjective, but its total elimination is absolute, and it is that absolutism that I am trying to remove from the Bill. That is the essence of my proposal. I hope that both the promoter and the Minister will think that that is common sense and worthy of support.

Mr. Mark Field

I wish to make a very brief contribution, as, like many hon. Members who are present, I broadly support the aims of the Bill. I represent an urban seat and have been lobbied by many constituents who are very concerned about the noise nuisance.

Mr. Robathan

Including me.

Mr. Mark Field

I should say that they include my hon. Friend.

The Conservatives have traditionally recognised, however, that such legislation, as an instinctive infringement on the individual's right of free action, is justified only on grounds of public safety or antisocial behaviour that harms or stands to harm others. I therefore share some of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) in the sensible amendments that he has tabled to suggest that at least the absolute elimination of risk cannot sensibly be achieved.

Like many hon. Members, I have some instinctive worries about the ever more intrusive role of government—and I do not make a narrow point about the current Administration as opposed to previous ones. For example, the proposed restrictions on smoking are based on purely social grounds, rather than necessarily those of harm. I am reminded that the last non-Conservative to represent my parliamentary seat was none other than John Stuart Mill, who had a three-year spell representing the constituency until 1868. I suspect that he might be seen as a Conservative nowadays, and "On Liberty" is a tome that I have read with great interest and would largely support, but the increasing public concern about injuries and public nuisance must not override the sense of what my hon. Friend proposes, which is to ensure that some sort of balance is in place.

There is inevitably a risk with anything in life. Obviously, we instinctively view using fireworks as a hazardous activity. None the less, we need a workable law, as it would be a disaster to introduce an unworkable Bill and so not achieve all the good that is being proposed. The hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) said forcefully that there had been a great deal of consultation in the political sphere and with firework manufacturers and a range of different charities, many of which have been in touch with all of us as Members of Parliament. Let us ensure that the Bill is workable. The concern to do so is one of the reasons why we have had a fairly full debate so far.

Mr. George Osborne

My hon. Friend is right to say that the law must be workable. Does he agree that, if the Government failed to introduce regulations eliminating all risk of injury, they themselves would risk being liable to a court action taken by someone who had been injured and claimed that the Minister had failed to introduce such regulations?

Mr. Mark Field

That is a concern, although there is an equal risk that I may not entirely have understood all the implications of my hon. Friend's question. Above all, we need to ensure effective enforcement. I know that we will discuss that issue later in relation to the duties and financial responsibilities of local authorities, but it seems unacceptable for us to fill the statute book with yet more unworkable law. It is better to focus on ensuring that we introduce workable legislation.

I wish the Bill Godspeed, but I hope that the Minister will seriously consider the points that have been made.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

This string of amendments poses a bit of a dilemma to those of us who want the legislation to be introduced. I realise that there is a tight timetable and I do not want to speak at any great length.

I raised my concern on Second Reading. In particular, I want to mention the substance of amendments Nos. 45 and 46, which would affect clause 2(3). I ask the Minister whether the subsections are necessary at all—a point that goes to the heart of what was said in respect of the previous group of amendments about whether there should be an objective measure of noise. If there were clear agreement on a proper decibel count, whether of 95 or 120, it would simply not be necessary to include in the Bill powers enabling the Minister to define the nature of distress in a very subjective way. So in part, my question is: is this provision really necessary? And what would happen if these regulations went to the courts, which probably would happen if a judicial review were launched against them? One can imagine a lawyer having great fun trying to get the Government's representative to explain, for example, why animals suffer distress but people suffer alarm, distress and anxiety. An Aquinas-type philosophical debate could easily ensue.

I do not want to obstruct progress, but I do have anxiety about these clauses. I understand the logic of the amendments, which seem entirely sensible in this context. I hope that the Minister will work hard to explain to us why these subsections are necessary to preserve the spirit of the Bill.

Mr. George Osborne

The hon. Gentleman says that the lawyers would have a field day if some of the amendments were accepted, but would they not have a field day if the Bill were passed unamended? For example, as it stands the Secretary of State will be responsible for introducing regulations to ensure that there is "no risk" that the use of fireworks will result in the death of persons or injury, alarm, distress or even "anxiety". That is such a broad provision that it would virtually prohibit all fireworks.

Dr. Cable

Indeed. Perhaps I did not make myself sufficiently clear: in talking about the dangers of legal ambiguity I was referring to the Bill as drafted, not to the amendments. So I take the hon. Gentleman's point entirely.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

I shall be brief, as I do not want to obstruct progress on the Bill. I simply want to point out my one concern, which relates to amendment No. 46. It would redefine the problems that may be caused to animals by removing the concept of distress and referring only to death, injury or unnecessary suffering". The concept of distress is one of my primary motivations in supporting this legislation, as it is for many people. I have been lobbied by perhaps the most effective of my constituents in this regard—my mother. Her dog Gipsy suffers immensely every time that fireworks go off, and such suffering brings home the reality of this issue. My mother and many other constituents have said that it is a question of balancing the right of pet owners to have nights during which they can sleep without their dogs jumping into bed with them, against the right of others to enjoy fireworks. That issue is at the heart of this legislation.

I am concerned at the possible removal of the provision relating to distress, and that the amendments might raise the threshold at which regulations could be brought in beyond their most effective point.

Mr. Chope

Has the hon. Gentleman noticed that the current provision, unless it is amended, will extend not just to domestic and captive animals, but to wild animals? How easy does he think it will be to enforce the distress provision in relation to wild animals?

Mr. Allan

My understanding is that the provision will simply enable the Secretary of State to introduce regulations, and what we are doing is setting out the Secretary of State's motivations in doing so. I would trust any Secretary of State, from whichever party, to take a reasonable stance in terms of introducing regulations. However, when they do so, I should like them to be motivated by the question of the causing of unnecessary distress to animals. I would not expect any Secretary of State in their right mind to introduce regulations because distress might have been caused to a wild animal that was far away from people's homes. We must use a certain amount of common sense in judging this issue, but I do want the Secretary of State to have the power to take distress caused to pets into account in deciding whether to introduce regulations. That is covered in the original wording, and my worry is that it would not be covered if the amendment were accepted.

Mr. Robathan

I shall be extremely brief. The amendments draw attention to some very real worries to which the Bill gives rise. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who made a very sensible contribution, referred to his anxiety about the amendments. I am not a lawyer, I am glad to say, but I notice that, in the context of subsection (3)(a), such anxiety might lead him—or someone like him—to take the Government to court to require that the Secretary of State make regulations to contain that anxiety. The Bill's proposer and the hon. Gentleman might therefore consider that the drafting is not quite all that it should be.

Mr. Leigh

I shall also be brief, particularly in view of the progress that we are making and the very moderate way in which the Bill is being promoted. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) did not really have time to deal with amendments Nos. 45 and 46 in his initial remarks. As drafted, the latter amendment would put the Bill on all fours—if that it the right way to put it—with the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which is an entirely sensible way to proceed. If the amendment were accepted, the Bill would then refer to death, injury or unnecessary suffering to any domestic or captive animal". The promoter of the Bill undoubtedly did not want to draw it so widely that the Secretary of State would have the power to deal with any possible distress to wild animals. Of course we do not want, to cause distress to wild animals, but we must also be in the business of framing sensible legislation that we can enforce. It is difficult to know how such a provision could be enforced in country areas such as the one that I represent. I suppose it is possible that people living in the countryside who let off fireworks in their garden could cause distress to wild animals—I do not know. I suspect that there is insufficient evidence to reach a conclusion one way or the other about the long-term consequences. In any event, it is entirely sensible to use the same language as that contained in the 1911 Act.

11.45 am

There is one sensible point that we need to sum up in a sentence or two, and which was dealt with very well by the hon. Member for Twickenham. Including in the Bill a reference to there being "no risk" that fireworks will cause death, injury, alarm or distress will give rise to great difficulties. It will never be possible to enforce such a provision, and one would never be able to prove that there is no risk that a firework might cause distress; indeed, any kind of firework can do so. Up until last year, my own young son could not stand the thought of being outside when fireworks were being let off—he is now six and is getting a bit better about this matter—and was really frightened by them. We can never say that there is no risk, and in that regard the Bill's drafting is very wide.

I should point out that the Minister unkindly accused me of wanting to kill the Bill. Perhaps she does not know that I used to hold her position as Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs; indeed, I was the Minister with responsibility for fireworks. In the early 1990s, we had to deal with precisely the same issues that are being dealt with now, and there was precisely the same pressure for such legislation. Like her, we simply tried to strike a balance, and that is all that we are doing today. A Bill that means that any risk that causes people any anxiety could lead to the Secretary of State's introducing draconian regulations is a step too far.

All that the Government are trying to do, and all that previous Conservative Government tried to do, in this very difficult area is to strike a balance: to allow people to enjoy fireworks in a sensible way, while providing some protection for the public. However, I am afraid that there is a small minority of people who absolutely loathe fireworks, and who will use any mechanism to outlaw them altogether, or to corral them into a very few public displays. That said, I know that that is not the Minister's intention, and that in summing up this debate, she can give us the reassurances that we seek.

Miss Melanie Johnson

I can assure the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) that I accept his assurance that he is not in the business of wrecking the Bill; I was merely pointing out the contrast with his activities in 1998. I am therefore grateful for his reassurance on this occasion.

I shall discuss the various amendments and their effect, as it is important that the House be aware of our understanding of them. Amendment No. 45 would not in fact add anything to the Bill. As drafted, the Bill refers to the death of persons or injury, alarm, distress or anxiety to persons". That gives us a rounded and comprehensive indication of the problems that people face in respect of fireworks. "Unnecessary suffering", the wording in the amendment, is much vaguer. It would leave the Secretary of State a much freer hand—something that the hon. Gentleman has argued against, and which I feel less, not more comfortable with. Therefore I am puzzled as to why the amendment is before the House, in light of all that the Conservatives have said so far.

Amendment No. 46 is similar to the previous amendment in that it waters down the protection requirements of the Bill. The Bill currently states, death of animals or injury or distress to animals". That means all animals, and includes intentional distress or injury to wild animals. Conservative Members do not seem to want that protection afforded to wild animals, and I have some sympathy with where they are coming from, in so far as I think that it is far less likely that injury will occur to wild animals. However, I do not support the amendment, as I think the Bill is better as currently drafted, because there is no doubt in any of our minds that injury or distress to a wild animal or group of wild animals could be as great as it would be to a domestic or captive animal or group of animals.

Mr. Chope

Does that mean that the Minister, and indeed the Government, are in favour of amending the 1911 Act to widen its application to all wild animals?

Miss Johnson

That is a matter for my colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, because that legislation comes within their remit, so I cannot comment on what would happen to that legislation. All I can say is that this provision is appropriate and I stand by the Bill as drafted and presented to the House today.

In response to amendments Nos. 41 to 44, I agree that clause 2(1) does look a little strange, but in fact it is a well-crafted and sensible provision. The first limb, paragraph (a), is needed for cases when a ban is considered necessary and relevant. I am sure that Conservative Members would support all of us in thinking that there are occasions when a ban is actually necessary. The second limb, paragraph (b), covers regulation short of a ban. Therefore both limbs are needed. "Controlling" the risk, as suggested by the tabled amendment, does not offer the same level of protection as both the existing parts of the Bill.

I point out in that connection that the purpose is to ensure that there is no risk of the consequences specified in subsection (3), which are the death of persons, the death of animals, and the destruction of or damage to property. It is not that there is no risk of something, because I entirely agree with Conservative Members that this is not a risk-free world and we are not living in a world where "no risk" is a sensible objective for any area of life, least of all this one. There will always be risks associated with the use of fireworks and I believe it is the business of the House today to try to ensure that we get the right balance between, on one hand, reducing the dangers and disruption and disorder that are being caused in our communities, which have led so many members of the public, from every constituency, to write to their Member of Parliament, asking us to take more measures to deal with that risk; and on the other, ensuring that people can continue to enjoy fireworks in the way that they always have and in the way that I did as a child in my family when I was growing up and children continue to do today.

Mr. Leigh

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Miss Johnson

I have finished.

Mr. Chope

I am sorry that the Minister is being so short with some hon. Members today, because this is an important proposal. It has won support from a number of other contributors to the debate but the Minister has more or less said, "Because we have produced this particular text, it is correct and it is not worth talking about trying to amend it." That is the spirit of intransigence and inflexibility that leads to trouble with legislation.

Miss Johnson

I am very happy to hear what hon. Members have to say on this point. I am simply seeking to reassure the hon. Gentleman as to the interpretation of the Bill before us today, and of the intentions of the subsections that we are discussing. It is important that people understand why the Government have drafted them as they have, and why we still think that is right, even in light of the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Mr. Chope

The Minister has not really addressed the issue of how she thinks it is reasonable that a Minister should have the legal responsibility to secure that there is no risk that the use of fireworks will cause distress to wild animals. How can the Government take upon themselves responsibility for securing, to use the exact words, that there is "no risk" whatever that the use of fireworks will cause distress to wild animals? Are we a madhouse? Do we really think the Government should take that role for themselves? Are we really legislating to give them such a role? I think not. Therefore I, with other hon. Members—many of my party, but others too—cautioned the Minister that what was contained in clause 2—

Mr. Leigh

I wish that the Minister would reply to that point about animals. It is a very good point.

The Minister made some progress in the summing up. I wanted to intervene on her but she sat down rather quickly. She seemed to accept that we do not live in a risk-free society and that there will always be some sort of risk, even a minimal risk, that fireworks might cause death or distress to people. The words that a Minister utters at the Dispatch Box are important, and the hon. Lady seemed to accept that entirely sensible point of view; but for some consequential reason or some drafting reason, she maintains that the words "no risk" must appear in the Bill. That is why I am slightly confused. I hope that my hon. Friend will try to help me on this point.

Mr. Chope

My hon. Friend asks me to help! I cannot understand why the Government are not prepared to accept the points that we are making about what may be described as a contradiction at the very beginning of clause 2(1), but the notion of trying to eliminate all risk from fireworks is of course the agenda of those who wish to ban fireworks outright. It was encapsulated quite well in the words of the lion. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on Second Reading, when he asked: Can he assure the House that the restrictions on sales to which he refers will ensure that fireworks that can maim and kill children and young people will not be available for use at private parties?"—[Official Report, 28 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 484.] Any firework could maim or kill a young child, and the hon. Gentleman was asking for an absolute assurance.

Miss Johnson

I will try to explain again to the hon. Gentleman. Paragraphs (a) and (b) are alternatives. It is not the case that (a) will always apply, because (b) says, or for securing that the, risk that the use of fireworks will have those consequences is the minimum that is compatible with their being used. Therefore there is art option (a) which is related to the need to ban and an option (b) which is related to the need to make regulation; that is the reason. We are not talking about a statement about how much risk there is in the world. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about what the risks are and I agree that we must strike a balance.

Mr. Chope

I think we are reaching a clear position on this now. The Minister has openly said that paragraph (a) enables the Government and the Secretary of State to ban. My hon. Friends and I are concerned about that, so we wish to introduce wording that is less absolutist. We are disappointed.

Mr. George Osborne

My hon. Friend is on to a very important point. Perhaps the Minister would intervene again to explain in what circumstances the Government could seek to ban all fireworks. Why does the Minister feel that the Government need that option?

Mr. Chope

I give way to the Minister.

Miss Johnson

The point is that the purpose of the measure is not to ban all fireworks at all. I am not aware of any Labour or Opposition Member who has any desire to ban all fireworks—quite the contrary. The Bill is crucial if fireworks are to remain available to the general public under the right conditions. Without it, there is a danger that those who support a ban will get the upper hand. I entirely agree that there are people who want a full ban, but they are not represented in the Chamber today or among hon. Members. We want to be able to implement bans under certain circumstances, and I am sure that Conservative Members would agree with that. We have already taken steps by using existing powers to ban fireworks that were considered dangerous. Bangers have been banned, and we need to be able to continue to do such things.

12 noon

Mr. Chope

I am grateful to the Minister for that long intervention. I hope that it provided clarification, although I am not convinced.

Dr. Murrison

I wonder whether the Minister's dilemma would be sorted neatly by the deletion of subsection (1)(a). She could then rely on subsection (1)(b), and any talk of banning things would be eliminated.

Mr. Chope

My hon. Friend is on to a good point. I have been kicking myself quietly for not tabling such an amendment because it would have encapsulated our case more clearly, given the Minister's understanding of the more convoluted amendments. No one wants to prevent the Bill from making progress but we want to protect ourselves against the possibility of a future Secretary of State being keen to ban fireworks outright and using the Bill to justify that. As the Minister will appreciate, no Government can bind their successors. The powers in the Bill—we shall address clause 2(2), which the Minister wishes to remove, in a minute—go to the root of what a future Government might be able to do, which is why I am keen to circumscribe them.

Miss Johnson

Let me make it absolutely plain that the provisions relate to a category of firework or situation for which a ban might be necessary. They would not ban fireworks. We used powers to ban bangers—they are no longer on the market—because they were identified as dangerous fireworks that caused many injuries and much distress. The Bill contains an equivalent provision to allow us to make a ban when that is considered necessary under the objectives in subsection (3). I hope that I am explaining myself sufficiently clearly to the hon. Gentleman because I think he misunderstands the intention behind the provisions. I assure Conservative Members that the drafting was primarily a job for the parliamentary counsel. They bring their wisdom and experience to bear to ensure that legislation is right when it comes before the House.

Mr. Chope

The Minister has explained herself and I hope that her clarification proves to be correct. I doubt whether it is worth pressing the amendment to a Division because it is narrow—it would only substitute the words "there is no" with the word "the". We have had a useful debate because the Minister told us the intentions behind the measure, and I am sure that if worries remain, they may be raised in another place.

I am disappointed that the Minister does not accept our point about wild animals. How could we possibly legislate to eliminate distress caused to wild animals by fireworks? How could that be policed and how would one know where the wild animals were? The suggestion is ludicrous. However, the Minister seems to be intransigent and I am conscious that amendment No. 44 is part of a group and does not lend itself easily to a vote, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Miss Melanie Johnson

I beg to move Government amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 5 [Clause 2], leave out subsection (2).

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 47, in page 2, line 16, at end insert— 'Before making fireworks regulations the Secretary of State must issue a full regulatory impact assessment setting out details of the costs and benefits and the wider economic social and environmental impact of the proposed regulations'.

No. 48, in page 2, line 18, leave out 'twelve' and insert 'six'.

No. 49, in page 2, line 25, leave out paragraph (b).

Miss Johnson

In Committee on 30 April, an amendment was accepted as a result of a concern about the nature of the powers in the Bill. It was tabled to ensure that any regulations arising from the Bill would be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. However, we have had more time to consider the relevance of that amendment. Government amendment No. 1 will reverse the amendment accepted in Committee and restore the Bill to its original form. I hope that the reason for that will become clear.

Clause 2(2) is technically inefficient. No orders as such will be made under the Bill but fireworks regulations will be made under clause 2 that will be subject to the negative procedure under clause 16(3). Fireworks regulations are intended to fill gaps in safety regulations that are made under section 11 of the Consumer Protection Act 1987. Fireworks regulations address both the use and supply of fireworks. Safety regulations are already subject to the negative procedure and an additional advantage of fireworks regulations being subject to the same procedure is that an excessive bureaucratic regulatory process would be avoided by permitting a single set of regulations to be made using powers in both the Bill and the Consumer Protection Act 1987.

It is worth noting that given parliamentary concerns about powers such as those in clauses 1(2) and 14(3)—so-called Henry VIII powers—during the passage of the Fireworks Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) in 1998, regulations made under those clauses, which would not be fireworks regulations made under clause 2, would be subject to the more restrictive affirmative procedure under clause 16(2), which I mentioned when we considered amendment No. 40. My Department's view is that fireworks regulations do not involve considerations of special importance that might render the affirmative procedure appropriate.

I make it clear to hon. Members that we accepted the amendment in Committee in good faith but that I was subsequently advised that it would cause much difficulty owing to a conflict with regulations made under the Consumer Protection Act 1987, which are subject to the negative procedure. That is why we wish to withdraw our acceptance of the amendment. It is important that there is full consultation on all matters and we intend that draft regulations would be produced before consideration of regulations under either the negative or affirmative procedure. However, I am advised that clause 2(2) would cause much difficulty and bureaucracy in order to achieve the same effect, which makes it highly undesirable. The Government hope that hon. Members will accept the amendment.

Mr. Robathan

I do not doubt the Minister's good faith. Like her, I sometimes tread with trepidation in the fields of parliamentary technicalities, and therefore rely to a large extent on the advice of counsel. However, I have a question for her that goes to the heart of the matter. Clause 2(2) states: No order shall be made under this section unless a draft of the order has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament. In other words, regulations are to be subject to negative, not affirmative, action. If that subsection is withdrawn, is it possible that, without a statutory instrument or order of any sort, a future Government might introduce under clause 2 a blanket ban on fireworks? The Bill allows the Government enormous powers, and I am concerned that they could ban whatever they like without affirmative action. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on that.

Mr. Chope

For those of us who are concerned about changes of mind by Ministers, this episode does not give us much confidence. In Committee, the Minister said: I am happy to accept amendment No. 2 if the Committee so desires."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 30 April 2003; c. 4.] The Committee did so desire, which resulted in subsection (2) being added to the Bill. That is the very subsection that the Minister now seeks to take out through the Government amendment, for the reasons that she explained. I hope that she has suitably castigated her advisers in Committee for not having drawn her attention to the difficulties that would arise were she, in a fit of generosity, to accept the amendment, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). However, that is all in the past. I leave it to the House to judge whether it is sensible to accept the Government amendment, because it will result in there being less control over the regulation-making process than there would be if subsection (2) were retained.

I am sorry that the Minister chose not to comment on my amendments.

Miss Melanie Johnson

That is because I would rather hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say first, and respond later.

Mr. Chope

I accept that.

I hope that the Government will accept amendment No. 47. It is more for the Government to accept it than the promoter of the Bill, because I am sure that he would have no difficulty with it whatsoever. It would require the Secretary of State to issue a regulatory impact assessment before making regulations. One might have thought it unnecessary to legislate for that, given that it is already Government policy, but I have to report to the House my disappointment that the regulatory impact assessment that was promised for this Bill was signed by the Minister only yesterday, and I received a draft of it only the day before. I was told that the reason was that the Minister was returning from Slovenia, or possibly Slovakia—somewhere beginning with "S" in eastern Europe—on Thursday, and would not be able to sign it until then. I told the parliamentary clerk at the Department of Trade and Industry that that was not satisfactory, because it meant that we would not be able to see it before the deadline for the tabling of amendments to the Bill.

The Minister should have a go at her officials for having failed to produce by Second Reading an RIA for a private Member's Bill that the Government are supporting. The Cabinet Office Minister responsible for the regulatory impact assessment process has expressed concern about the matter. On 3 April, there was no less than a written ministerial statement by that gentleman, which said: A baseline for measuring the level of compliance with the Regulatory Impact Assessment is today being placed on the website … An exercise in December 2002 to establish a snapshot of the level of compliance provided a figure of 92 per cent. We will keep this under six monthly review and strive not only to retain this level of compliance but improve it. In addition, we recognise the need to increase the quality of RIAs and the value they add to the policy making process. We are working closely with departments to identify ways of achieving this."—[Official Report, 3 April 2003; Vol. 402, 7OWS.]

12.15 pm

That was a written ministerial statement, so we did not have the chance to ask any questions. The Minister of State did not comment on why the regulatory impact assessment that should have been produced for the Fireworks Bill on a February had not been produced by then. I tabled a parliamentary question in March and was told that the assessment was in the process of being produced. As I said, it was only when I phoned the parliamentary clerk to the DTI on Wednesday to ask what had happened that the RIA was forthcoming.

That is why amendment No. 47 should be built into the Bill. It is difficult enough for the House to deal with Bills on which amendments can be tabled. However, it is even more difficult when the House has to deal with regulations introducing various restrictions to fireworks without any full regulatory impact assessment having been conducted—notwithstanding what the Government say about the importance of such assessments.

The person in charge of the better regulation taskforce—or is it the regulatory impacts assessment unit, I do not know—addressed a lunch of parliamentarians not long ago. In response to a question, he said that he needed our help—the help of parliamentarians—to make the system work. He advised that one way of making it work would be to embarrass Ministers when they had not complied with the requirements that had been laid down.

Let me remind the House that those requirements are contained in a document—quite a thick document, which I downloaded because it is often difficult to acquire these items in hard-copy form—called "Better Policy Making: A Guide to Regulatory Impact Assessment". It was produced in 1998 and embellished with a foreword by the Prime Minister. It worth reminding the House and embarrassing the Minister with what he said: In August 1998, I announced that no proposal for regulation which has an impact on businesses, charities or voluntary bodies, should be considered by Ministers without a regulatory impact assessment being carried out. I have charged the Cabinet Office to ensure departments deliver better regulation through full compliance with the regulatory impact assessment process. Where regulations or alternative measures are introduced, this should be done in a light touch way, with decisions informed by a full regulatory impact assessment, which includes details of not only the obvious costs and benefits of the proposal but also the wider economic, social and environmental impacts. New regulations should only be introduced when other alternatives have first been considered and rejected, and where the benefits justify the costs. Hon. Members will note that some of that language is adopted in my amendment.

The document stresses the full requirements of the process by which the Government are to introduce regulatory impact assessments. It makes it clear beyond peradventure that, for a private Member's Bill supported by the Government, a regulatory impact assessment should be available on Second Reading. We have barely had one today in time for Report and Third Reading, which is not good enough.

I hope that the Minister will accept that, because of the manifest failure of her Department to comply with the requirements of the Prime Minister—and, indeed, good common sense—amendment No. 47 should be put on the statute book. I hope that she will make that concession.

I hope that the Minister will also respond to the other amendments in the group. Amendment No. 48 is modest and would ensure that, if the Government needed to legislate instantly for emergencies or other eventualities without seeking the approval of Parliament, any such legislation would apply for only six months rather than a year. That is a sensible amendment. However, the regulatory impact assessments need to be produced in better time than in the past.

Many hon. Members will not have seen the regulatory impact assessment that has been produced for this Bill because the Minister signed it only yesterday, and I am not even sure that there is a copy in the Library—as there should be. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that. The RIA identifies a concern shared by almost all hon. Members about enforcement. Many rules and regulations already exist to control the use of fireworks, but the problems our constituents face are caused by lack of enforcement.

The RIA mentions costs and the Minister, in Committee, talked about the importance of getting tough and sorting out the problems that our constituents face. That is why I was concerned to read in the RIA that the Bill is not expected to add to the burden on the police. Most of our constituents expect that the Bill will result in the police becoming hyperactive in dealing with firework abuse and antisocial behaviour. In paragraph 9.3, the RIA states: The Police already have a role in firework enforcement and are unlikely to have any extra duties as a result of this Bill. That will come as a disappointment to many of us, because the Bill will not be enforced unless by the police.

The RIA also sets out some of the costs associated with the process, and it seems that most of the burden will fall on local authorities. The assessment states: With regard to clause 4—the use of fireworks outside of hours—it should be noted that only 35 per cent. of local authorities currently offer a full night time noise response service. Furthermore, 18 per cent. of local authorities do not have any outof-hours noise response cover. This limitation, however, is expected to change with the proposed amendments to the 1996 Noise Act—making the application of the Act mandatory for all local authorities. There is therefore likely to be little in the way of an extra financial burden arising from the enforcement of clause 4 in the Bill. Despite the short time I had after receiving the RIA so late, I looked at how the Government intended to amend the Noise Act 1996. The changes mentioned in the RIA are contained in clause 47 of the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. I discovered that, far from putting a duty on local authorities, clause 47 will relax their responsibilities to control noise nuisance, including the abuse of noisy fireworks, after 11 pm. That is amazing, because most issues raised in correspondence about fireworks relate the use of fireworks to antisocial behaviour. The Government are in a mess, because the regulatory impact assessment is not consistent with clause 47 of the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. I am sure that if more hon. Members had had the chance to read the RIA, they too would have become concerned, because it shows that the Government are talking tough on dealing with antisocial behaviour relating to fireworks but have hardly anything substantive with which to address the problem.

Dr. Cable

I want to say a few words in support of amendment No. 47, which relates to the regulatory impact assessment. I confess to being something of an anorak about these assessments. There are a few of us slightly sad characters in the House—I know that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) is another—who actually read these things, and I have obviously been deprived of this particular one.

It is important to stress why regulatory impact assessments are important. There is consensus on both sides of the House—I do not think that the issue divides the Government and the Opposition—that, whichever Government are in power, there is remorseless pressure to extend regulation, and successive Governments find that pressure difficult to resist. There are all kinds of compelling reasons why regulations are introduced. One of the brakes or disciplines in the process is that, when a new regulation is introduced, it should be subjected to a proper cost-benefit analysis.

The Cabinet Office has devoted a lot of time and energy to improving the situation. I have been tabling written questions on the subject to Ministers for about five years to try to ensure that all Ministries carry out such assessments consistently. Practice is improving, and the National Audit Office suggested six months ago that there had been improvement in the way in which the Government handled the assessments, but that there were many gaps and Ministers had differential levels of performance.

This is an important issue, and I am surprised that the provision outlined in amendment No. 47 is not already written into the Bill. If it were Government legislation, I think that it probably would have been. I commend the provision on principle, although the one technical point that I guess lies behind the amendment is that the Government will claim that they have an overall regulatory impact assessment for the Bill as a whole. Since this is a framework Bill, however, that will not tell us much. Common sense suggests that it is the specific regulations that will result in particular costs and benefits, and those are the questions that we need the answers to.

I would have thought that it was very much in the present spirit of the Department of Trade and Industry—which, I know, is a liberalising Department that tries to get these things right—to agree to this proposal without difficulty, and I hope that the Minister will be able to make a concession on this amendment.

Miss Melanie Johnson

First, I shall inform the House of the reason that the draft regulatory impact assessment was not published sooner. It had been produced, but the actual publication failed to take place due to an administrative oversight. I can only apologise to hon. Members for their not having had more chance to study it, but I understand that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) received a copy following a telephone conversation with a parliamentary clerk. I appreciate that that was not the case for all hon. Members, and that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) has been deprived of his anorak activity. I am sure that he is looking forward to catching up on that over the weekend.

Mr. Chope

Will the Minister tell us where the regulatory impact assessment is now? Is it in the House of Commons Library?

Miss Johnson

It is indeed. Copies have been placed in the Library; it is available.

Like both the hon. Gentlemen who have just spoken, I am a firm enthusiast for regulatory impact assessments. They are an extraordinarily good thing, and we want them carried out on a wider basis. We also want them carried out more effectively in Europe, and we have been working hard to that end. It is important that, as each aspect of any implementing regulations come forward from the Bill, the detail of those regulations should be subject to a proper RIA, and that will indeed be done. I have no problem with amendment No. 47 advocating such action. The amendment is unnecessary, however, because it is already a requirement of Government procedure that such an assessment should be carried out. I am perfectly happy to accept the amendment in the spirit of the way in which it was moved, however.

On the point raised by the hon. Member for Christchurch about the police, the issue is whether the duties arising from the Bill will be more extensive than they were before. The duties do not necessarily extend police responsibilities. It is on the basis of the duties referred to that the assessment must be carried out.

12.30 pm

Amendment No. 48 refers to emergency regulations. Such regulations ate not often made, but when they are it is fairly usual for them to last a year. If the hon. Gentleman thinks about the detail, he may foresee problems with a six-month period. It might, for instance, expire shortly before autumn, when the firework season will be in full swing. This is not a huge issue of principle, but I would prefer the regulations to last for a year, although we do not expect to have to use them.

If amendment No. 49 were accepted, we would not be able to alter or amend regulations. I do not think any of us want that. The whole point of regulation, as dealt with in the House, is that it can be altered to take account of some detail or change in circumstances. That is not the case with primary legislation.

Mr. Robathan

Can the Minister answer a question that I asked earlier about Government amendment No. 1? If the draft order were not subject to the affirmative procedure, would the Government have power to impose an outright ban?

Miss Johnson

I can give the hon. Gentleman a categorical assurance that his anxieties are misplaced.

Question put and agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 1, in page 2, line 5, leave out subsection (2).

No. 47, in page 2, line 16, at end insert— 'Before making fireworks regulations the Secretary of State must issue a full regulatory impact assessment setting out details of the costs and benefits and the wider economic social and environmental impact of the proposed regulations'.—[Miss Melanie Johnson.]

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