HL Deb 14 June 1951 vol 172 cc103-14

4.35 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill comes to us from another place where it was introduced by my friend Mr. Arthur Moyle. Not only was it warmly welcomed, without distinction of Party, but it also received the blessing of the Home Secretary, who is responsible for administering the law relating to fireworks. I hope, therefore, that this Bill will be treated in an equally kind manner by your Lordships. It is, in some degree, appropriate that it should be my lot to sponsor this measure, because I was for three very happy years Governor of Malta. I suppose there is no part of the British Commonwealth in which fireworks are so invariably an accompaniment of festivities of all kinds. Indeed, there is hardly an evening during the summer months when they are not to be heard or seen in one part or another of those islands. Therefore, I may claim considerable experience as a consumer, so to speak, of fireworks.

The reason for, and the urgency of, this Bill is the considerable number of accidents recently caused by fireworks. In 1949, His Majesty's inspectors of explosives reported seventeen accidents caused by explosions in the fireworks factories, in which thirteen persons were injured. There is no statutory obligation to notify accidents occurring when fireworks are let off, but in the same year the inspectors heard of thirty persons being so injured. In one case a boy lost his hand and four people lost fingers. Your Lordships may recall that on the eve of November 5, 1949, the Home Secretary issued a warning about the danger from various named fireworks, and but for this prompt and wise action the number of accidents might have been very much larger. I have not the figures for the year 1950, but I may say that only a day or two ago there came to my knowledge the case of a boy who received serious burns last November and who is still under treatment.

Some accidents, no doubt, are due to the carelessness of the users, but it is certain that others are caused by inherent defects in the design of the firework and the imperfections of manufacture due to carelessness or lack of technical knowledge. There is a reason why this danger is more prevalent at the present time than it was formerly. Since the war, a large proportion of the fireworks made in this country by the established and reputable makers of fireworks has been exported and I believe has made a valuable contribution towards rectifying the balance of payments. In consequence, there has been a shortage in the home market, and that has led to the establishment of a number of firms who are relatively inexperienced and whose technical control over the process of manufacture leaves much to be desired. This appears to be the root cause of the trouble.

As will be seen, the Bill as drafted amends and extends the Explosives Act of 1875. This is logical, because the dangerous element in fireworks is in fact the explosive. Under that Act, fireworks are classified as "explosives," and as a general rule the Act prohibits the manufacture of explosives except under a licence from the Home Secretary. But small fireworks factories in which only a limited quantity may be made and kept can be licensed by local authorities. The principal reforms which this Bill seeks to make are three: the Home Secretary is to be the sole licensing authority; the Home Secretary is to have power to revoke licences where the product is dangerous to the public or the method of manufacture is dangerous to the workpeople; and inspectors of explosives are to have power to seize dangerous fireworks.

Clause 1 of the Bill gives power to an inspector of explosives to seize dangerous fireworks which are found in a factory, magazine or store. It is most desirable that the inspectors should have this power in order that quick action may be taken to prevent consignments, pos- sibly large consignments, of dangerous fireworks from finding their way into the hands of the public. Clause 2 provides that if dangerous fireworks are being made in a factory, the factory's licence may be terminated or amended by the Home Secretary on seven days' notice being given. At least fourteen days before the Home Secretary gives this notice, he must tell the occupier of the factory whit are his grounds for thinking that dangerous fireworks are being made in it, and the occupier has a right to question the accuracy of those grounds. Clause 4 deals with the danger to employees arising out of the negligent manufacture of fireworks, and empowers the Home Secretary to terminate or amend a licence granted for their manufacture, if the holder of the licence has been convicted of a breach of the conditions attached to it, or of the general safety rules for explosives factories. Clauses 5 and 6 are auxiliary, their main object being to secure that all fireworks, except very small ones, made in factories in this country or imported from abroad must, before they leave the factory or the hands of the importer, be marked clearly so that their place of origin may be known. Those clauses also provide that that marking shall not be obliterated or altered. If fireworks are marked, it will, of course, he easier to trace the maker or the importer, as the case may be, if any of them are found to be dangerous.

Clause 7 deals with small fireworks factories—that is to say, those in which, under the Act of 1875, only a limited amount of fireworks may be made and kept. At present these factories are licensed by local authorities, whereas other fireworks factories are licensed by the Home Secretary. There are only half-a-dozen so licensed by local authorities, and their standards in respect of safety vary considerably. It is possible that an occupier whose licence had been terminated or amended under the earlier provisions of this Bill might try to reenter the field of fireworks manufacture by re-establishing his business in a number of small fireworks factories. To prevent this, it is provided by Clause 7 that the responsibility for licensing small fireworks factories should be transferred from the local authorities to the Home Secretary.

Those, in brief, are the main provisions of the Bill, and I beg to move that it be now read a second time.

Moved. That the Bill be now read 2a,—(Lord Douglas of Barloch.)

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, we on this side of the House certainly welcome any measure which will add to the safety of those people, especially children, who make use of fireworks, but perhaps not a modern Guy Fawkes. I understand from the noble Lord who has introduced this Bill that there are one or two gaps in the law relating to fireworks and this Bill will go a long way to fill them. I think that is perhaps true. But this Bill certainly appears to have had a somewhat curious passage in another place. In fact, before going to Standing Committee it received only a formal Second Reading, and later, in Committee, certain new clauses were added to the Bill which I think have improved it. However, there are one or two points to which I should like to draw your Lordships' attention.

It would appear that under Clause 1 an inspector may come along and seize materials which he thinks may be dangerous, and destroy them without there being any compensation at all to the owner. Surely, that is giving a very wide power to an inspector. What happens if an owner protests and it is found later that the materials were in fact not dangerous at all? What form of redress has the owner? Under subsection (6) of this clause, neither the inspector nor anyone else, so far as I can see, can in fact be made liable. Then in subsections (6) and (7) of Clause 5 a sort of third party criminal procedure is laid down. There appears to be special provision for officials of firms to be cross-examined and so on. Perhaps the noble Lord in charge of the Bill, or the noble Lord who is replying for His Majesty's Government, can give your Lordships some explanation of this clause. It would seem that such provisions are really unnecessary in a Bill of this nature dealing with only a comparatively small matter, and I suggest that they are contrary to the usual practice of justice. I consider that this Bill, although admirable in many respects, should receive close attention in Committee. It may be true that there are one or two firms engaged in the firework trade who perhaps have shown disregard for public safety, but it is certainly to be hoped that this Bill will in no way interfere with or restrict the activities of responsible manufacturers.

4.49 p.m.


My Lords, I understood that the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, was to speak, but I gather that the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, has made the points that Lord Simon would have made. The Government are giving general support to this measure because in these days they believe it to be absolutely necessary, for the protection of both the shopkeepers who deal in fireworks and the people who buy fireworks, that dangerous fireworks should not be permitted to be manufactured, retained in stock or placed on the market. The Bill is not directed against the majority of fireworks manufacturers, but only against a small minority who are anxious to get rich more quickly than is right. It will keep stocks of dangerous fireworks off the market and, as we understand it, will keep fireworks out of the hands of children.

It is admitted that Clause 1 is somewhat "tough" in character, but it is felt by those who are experienced in these matters that unless the clause is rather "tough" the aims and objects of the Bill will not be attained. It is a clause which has met with the acceptance of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, and it has been fully discussed with the trade. The trade—that is, the responsible organisations of the trade—are with my right honourable friend in giving general support to the measure. Perhaps it would be well if noble Lords would read Clause 3 in conjunction with Clause 1, because Clause 3 has the effect of laying down the kind of fireworks that are likely to be seized. When Clause 3 is read with Clause 1, the effect is that under Clause 1 an inspector can seize only those fireworks which, if they were handled by the public with reasonable care, would still be dangerous—that is to say, fireworks which explode with far too great violence, or rockets which explode without giving the person setting them off time to get away. So, if Clause 3 is read with Clause 1 it will be found that the number of items liable to seizure is considerably reduced.

Clause 1 should also he read bearing in mind the ground that is expected to be covered. Inspectors will be able to seize fireworks only in magazines, stores or factories. As I understand it, there is nothing in the Bill which would permit an inspector to enter a retail shop and carry out a seizure there. When it is remembered that 40,000 such shopkeepers are not within the purview of the Bill, it will be realised that the number of establishments that can be raided by an inspector is very much smaller than might generally be anticipated. As a matter of fact, these places are comparatively few: they are separate buildings, strongly built, and they are licensed by local authorities. The noble Lord, Lord Teynham, has made reference to subsection (6) of Clause 1. This particular subsection is a repetition on broad lines of a provision in the original Act of 1875; it is brought forward as an added precaution and for public safety. It deals with the seizure and detention of explosives by inspectors. It is also similar to a section in the Food and Drugs Act of 1938. I do not think that at this stage I can give an explanation of Clause 5, but I am sure that my noble friend in charge of the Bill will be glad to do that.

We agree that this is a measure which may well be scrutinised in Committee, but, if that is the case, we would say that it would be helpful to everyone if noble Lords did not weaken the Bill too much. Mention has been made to me privately by the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, of the absence of any provision for an appeal. There is nothing in the Bill that provides for an appeal. The Government are not averse to looking at that question, but they hope that a full appeal will not be insisted upon in a measure of this kind, because of the dangers that would result. The deterrent effect would be weakened if seizures ceased to be effective upon an appeal being lodged. Also, a manufacturer could go on selling to the public fireworks which there was reason to think were dangerous. So, if we are to look at this Bill carefully in Committee—and I am sure we shall—I hope that great care will be taken to see that nothing is done to lessen the beneficent character of the proposals contained in this measure. On behalf of His Majesty's Government, I am glad to say that we cordially welcome this Bill.

4.56 p.m.


My Lords. I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me for interposing at this point. When I intimated a few minutes ago that I was not going to speak, I certainly had no intention of doing so. But, perhaps, in view of what has been said, it might be convenient if, before the Committee stage, certain doubts which I—and perhaps other noble Lords also—entertain, were re-stated. In substance, I agree with what the noble Lord has said. I have no doubt that the Bill is a useful Bill, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch, on being in a position to introduce it in this House. But, with great respect to the noble Lord opposite, and also to Lord Douglas of Barloch, may I say that I doubt whether at the moment the full effect of Clause 1 has been quite correctly stated?

Your Lordships will observe that, by this Bill, a Government inspector is to be given the power to seize—and the owners are to forfeit without any sort of compensation—not, as the noble Lord who introduced the Bill said, dangerous fireworks or materials, but fireworks or materials which in his opinion (that is, the opinion of the inspector) would be dangerous. I will give a single illustration to show that in the Committee stage we must be a little careful. I will not take fireworks; I will take materials for making fireworks. As the clause stands at present, an inspector—though I know well from my own Home Office experience that inspectors are always most competent persons—may go to a rather mixed sort of factory, and, pointing to certain materials, say: "In my opinion those materials are materials for making fireworks. I think that if those materials were so used, the fireworks in the hands of the public would be dangerous." That, after all, is a matter of opinion—and I suppose that even the wisest expert may sometimes be open to challenge. But once the inspector says that, then, by the terms of the Bill as drawn, he is authorised to seize those materials and cause them to be destroyed or forfeited. But for subsection (6), he would still be in this position: that if he had made an honest mistake—if, for example, the materials were not materials for making fireworks at all—he would be liable (that is to say, the Crown would be liable) to compensate the owner of the materials Subsection (6) is inserted for the purpose of preventing that situation arising.

I have never seen this provision in any recent Act of Parliament, though I believe there is something like it in an Act which was passed about three-quarters of a century ago. The subsection states: No one shall be personally liable in respect of any act done by him in the execution or purported execution of this section if he did that act in the honest belief that his powers under this section entitled him to do it. That subsection means that if a Government inspector, being of the opinion that certain materials are intended for making fireworks and that it would be dangerous for them to be so used, orders them to be destroyed, he shall be under no liability at all to the owner of the materials, even though he proves conclusively that the inspector has made a mistake. I do not say that such a provision as this is impossible, but I think that it would be well to look at it in Committee to see whether it is justified. The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, said that the principal authorities in the trade had been consulted, and I have not the least doubt that those he consulted are people who conduct their business with the greatest of care. But we have also to think of the little man. And I should have thought it wrong, unless there were overwhelming reasons to the contrary, to say that when the inspector comes along and orders materials to be destroyed, there should be no right of appeal; that the inspector's opinion decides the matter. There is no opportunity for these people to put their own case, and, what is more, no compensation if he is wrong. I must say that I doubt whether it is necessary for a democratic assembly to give powers going quite so far as this provision goes.

The only other point that has occurred to me was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, and I will not delay the House long, as I am only giving notice that I shall refer to the point at the next stage. The machinery mentioned in Clause 5 (6) seems to me a very remarkable piece of machinery. I believe there is something like it in the Food and Drugs Act. Clause 5 requires the maker of fireworks, when he consigns them out of the factory, to see that they bear conspicuously the name of the occupier of the factory and the address of the factory. I do not know so much about fireworks as I used to do, but I should have thought in most cases it would be a little difficult to do that. Then the Schedule provides three exceptions which must make most interesting reading to schoolboys. The exceptions are: "sparklers," "jumping crackers" and "throw-downs"—three terms which I should think appear for the first time on the Statute Book of the Realm. I do not know how we could secure that a catherine-wheel should bear conspicuously the name of the occupier of the factory and the address.

Having provided all that, subsection (6) says that if a person alleged to have broken the law is brought before the magistrates, then he shall have this curious opportunity: on information duly laid by him (which I suppose means information laid before the magistrates), and on giving to the prosecution not less then three clear days' notice of his intention, he shall be entitled to have any person selected by him, to whose act or default he alleges the contravention of the provisions was due, brought before the court in the proceedings; and if, after the contravention has been proved, the original defendant proves that the contravention was due to the act or default of that other person (it may be his servant, of course) that other person may be convicted of the offence. The subsection goes on: and if the original defendant further proves that he has used all due diligence to secure that the provisions in question were complied with, he shall he acquitted of the offence. An ordinary illustration would be where the owner of a fireworks factory said: "I am the head of this concern, and I gave most express orders that this catherine-wheel should be labelled conspicuously with my name and the address of my factory before it went out. Here is the man to whom I gave those orders and out of inattention or carelessness he failed to do so, or has not done it conspicuously. It is not my fault; it is his fault."

Great improvements are possible in our criminal law, I have no doubt, but I can assure your Lordships that this is not one for which we can find many precedents. What I should like to know is what happens when a man who is accused is perfectly innocent. He is to be brought before the magistrates because the person originally accused names him, and evidence will be given—I am glad to see he will be allowed to give evidence—and that evidence may show that he has nothing whatever to do with the offence. What happens then? There is such a thing as bringing an action for damages for malicious prosecution; but there can be no question of that here, because the accuser is not the prosecutor; he is merely the informer. Earlier in the week we abolished the common informer, and now this subsection arranges to produce a very particular informer. I am not saying that it is wrong, but it is most unusual. Therefore, when we come to Committee stage, I am sure we shall want to look at this provision. I am not offering to spend any more time on this matter to-day; nor do I ask the noble Lord in charge of the Bill to reply to these points now. Perhaps, before we reach the Committee stage, we may have the attention of those especially skilled in these matters, and especially the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor, to advise us whether or not this is really a suitable provision. It may be; I am not saying that it is not.

Speaking provisionally, but with some recollection of the Home Office, I agree with the noble Lord that this is not a case in which we could provide for appeal in the ordinary way. The inspectors of explosives are extremely competent people and form a valuable part of our departmental service. They are greatly trusted in the Home Office, and I find it difficult to imagine how to construct a tribune of appeal. But it may be worth considering whether, before a person's property is destroyed without compensation, there should not be an opportunity for him to say what he wants to say. At present, there is nothing about that in the Bill, nor is there reference to the chief inspector. These are detailed points, however, and I do not seek to do more than mention them now. This is an interesting Bill, because it recalls the days of our youth. Let us by all means protect the new generation rather better than we were protected.

5.8 p.m.


My Lords, I am greatly obliged to the noble and learned Viscount for the help that he has given me in the latter part of his speech, although in the earlier part he put some questions which will be difficult to answer. I entirely agree with him—and this struck me immediately I perused the Bill—that it appears to be drawn in somewhat stringent terms. I am informed that, on the whole, it follows well-established precedents, dating from the Explosives Act, 1875, and that the machinery set up by that Act has worked well and without complaint. That appears to be borne out by the fact that the Explosives Act of 1875 stands upon the Statute Book with only trivial amendment. I do not want to detain your Lordships longer at this stage of the Bill. I think it is proper that there should be some consultation between now and the Committee stage. It may be that some amendment is practicable and desirable, and I am sure that it will be possible to reach amicable and satisfactory solutions to the questions which have been posed.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.