HL Deb 14 April 1970 vol 309 cc392-421

6.14 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I find it extremely easy to move the Second Reading of this Bill to-night because I have the assurance that there is nobody in this House who now believes that the present legislation is adequate. It no longer fits the facts that we know, and I am sure that every single person in the House agrees with me thus far.

What are the facts and what can we do about them? The facts are that until last year the figures for injuries—mainly of children—by fireworks continued on much the same level year by year, in spite of everything which the manufacturers did to try to make their fire-works safer. That went on until last year, when an inspired broadcast by the B.B.C. woke this country up to what was happening. There was what can only be described as a popular movement towards taking more precautions, and the result was a set of accident statistics which were almost half those of the previous year. That was very good. It is our business to see that we not only maintain that situation but further improve on it. To do this we must see where these accidents mainly occur and how they occur. The place where accidents usually occur, according to statistics, is at the family or private party; a party which one supposes would be ruled over or controlled by the parents of the family or some other adult. The second most dangerous place is the casual incident in the street. This is an extraordinary fact, since it is illegal to let off fireworks in the street, and therefore every single one of these casual incidents was as a result of an illegal act.

What can we do to make things better? There are three possible methods of controlling fireworks. The first one is covered in the present law and in the Bill which the Government have recently tabled: that is, to control fireworks by saying that they should be sold only to people of a certain age. The present law is inadequate, and I shall have some comments on the other Bill which I hope will be in order. There is a second and, indeed, a third method. The third method is that used in Ireland and in many of the States of the United States of America: the banning of the sale of fireworks to private individuals altogether, and allowing the sale only to public corporations or other established bodies. That is a method which is advocated in this country by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Consumer Council. Many other bodies—hospitals and so on—have written to me saying that that is the method of which they most approve. However, I would rather not see it dealt with in that way; I should like a little more liberty. But if the situation cannot be dealt with in any other way, then it may well come to that.

My method—which we have before us to-night—is to restrict the sale of fireworks to adults and to hand those adults, with a certain amount of ceremony, a set of safety rules. I put my faith in this because for some years I have been trusting to a set of safety rules. As everybody knows, I operate a floating youth club on the water, and a set of safety regulations is carefully read to every child joining the club. By now I have had 1,700 children through my hands. We have had 28,000 attendances and not one accident. That is because children—even children, let alone grown ups—can understand a set of safety rules if it is carefully put before them, and will in the enormous majority of cases do their best to try to keep them.

This I believe to be the best approach to this question, because, to begin with, it has a very good chance of reducing the accidents in the place where they normally occur—in the family party. Put a set of safety regulations in the hands of parents in such a way that they feel that they are important and they should keep them, and the chances are that accidents will be very considerably reduced. What is more, the slight difficulty, the slight extra trouble, in having to go to some public office for a permit before buying fireworks, giving name and address, taking that permit to a firework seller and there parting with it in exchange for the fireworks, will discourage the hooligans, who are the people responsible for the second most serious series of accidents, those taking place casually in the street. I believe that my Bill would almost wipe out this type of accident—and it is quite a large proportion of the total accidents.

We all know that in the last few days the Government themselves have tabled a Bill whose import is that the age for the purchase of fireworks should be raised from 13 to 16. Before the Bill was tabled I thought the age was going to be raised to 18. I thought that that was inadequate; but to raise the age to 16 is totally inadequate. I am very glad that the Government are thinking of doing something, but, really, if they tried to do nothing they could scarcely have done less. It would be hard to produce a Bill which made less difference in the law. Moreover, I do not believe that the Government Bill is enforceable. I am sure that my noble friend on the Front Bench in front of me will tell me that my Bill is unenforceable. The fact of the matter is that the present law is unenforceable, and her Bill is unenforceable too. We are faced here with this colossal number of accidents from casual incidents in the street. They are already illegal; they cannot be made more illegal. The only way to prevent them is to prevent fire works from getting into the hands of such people.

I regret to say that many of the people I refer to are over the age of 16, and that many of those who are under the age of 16 will have no scruple in going to a shop and declaring themselves to be over 16, even as those under 13 now declare themselves to be over 13. And I regret to say that the shopkeeper, as many shopkeepers have publicly stated, will find it convenient not to inquire too closely into the age of the purchaser, probably so as to get rid of these explosives which no reasonable shopkeeper would ever wish to keep lying about in his shop. So I believe that, whatever gibe may be thrown at my Bill for being unenforceable, it is at least in that way no worse than the present law or the Government's Bill. Indeed, it will be a good deal more enforceable in certain directions than the present law, in that there is a clause demanding that the seller should keep a record of whom he has sold his fireworks to. That will put a stop to the bogus age, which we all know is one of the most serious frauds now going on in this line.

Furthermore, my idea of issuing a permit is not all that difficult. I do not ask that it be done by some extraordinary policeman who keeps a dossier of every person who has ever let off a firework illegally; all that is quite unnecessary. All I want is that a permit shall be handed to somebody who is prepared to say, "I am of age, and this is my name and address …"; and that with it shall be handed a set of regulations which are understandable by the father and mother of an ordinary family. I believe that this small bit of ceremony will be very valuable. A little bit of ceremony attached to something like this does a great deal for a human being. I am sure Chat the noble Baroness in front of me (I am afraid we lack one or two Members who were previously here on these Benches) will agree when I say that, even in obtaininig something like a marriage licence, there is a value to the ceremony. If it were handed out over the counter of a post office it would not be regarded in quite the same light; although even if it were handed out over the counter of a post office, that would be better than not having to get a permit at all. It does call attention to the safety regulations—come to think of it, it would not be a bad idea to have a set of safety regulations in a registry office. But that is a different question.

The fact of the matter is that if a set of safety regulations is placed in front of an intelligent person, or even an un-intelligent person, in such a way that it is made clear that this is the way to keep the family safe, it will ensure that there is a very good chance that those regulations will largely be kept. That is what I am aiming at. So often I have seen or heard of people trying to keep safety regulations, trying to do something to keep their fireworks party safe, but simply not knowing what they should do and making a mess of it because nobody has told them. I want people to be told, thoroughly told. That is all I want for my permit and my safety regulations.

Let us come now to the terms of the Bill. Clause 1 is simple and deals merely with the issue of a permit. Clause 2 also is simple. It provides that a retailer shall register and keep a record of these permits and retail sales. Clause 3 deals with a safety code, to be made by the Secretary of State and handed to everybody with the permits. The latter part of Clause 3 has been taken almost verbatim from the Road Code. In other words, it would not be an offence to fail to keep the safety regulations, but if any accident arose from not keeping those regulations—or if an accident arose for any reason—then the question would naturally arise, "Were the regulations kept?" If the regulations were kept, the person who was in charge of the party could say, "Well, I did my best." If they were not kept, then the matter might well be mentioned in court.

Clause 4 deals with "Eligibility for permit". It lays down that no person under the age of 18 years shall be entitled to hold a permit. Well, 18 is now the adult age, and it seems reasonable. Clause 5 is entitled, "Offence to sell fireworks except to holder of permit". That is clear, and it obviously follows. Clause 6 is entitled" Unlawful discharge of fire-works". The point is that whoever fires the fireworks should be the person who is technically in charge of them. If that person gives them to somebody else to take away and let off somewhere else, then he is no longer in charge of the discharge of the fireworks. That is to follow the general sense of the Bill.

Clause 7 ("Exceptions") I took directly from the present Act and therefore, I am sorry to say, is nonsense. We must make certain exceptions, and "sparklers" might well remain in that clause. But jumping crackers and "bangers" are some of the major offenders in accidents, so they should come out. And I may say that when I started this Bill I did not even know what "throw-downs" were. Apparently they have not been made for years, anyway; they are thoroughly dangerous and nobody now makes them.

If we are tightening up the law, however, there should be certain exceptions. I suggest that these exceptions could be inserted later, by order, and they should be those explosives and fireworks which are used for various commercial purposes. Miners and quarrymen, of course, use explosives. Seamen fire rockets on certain very necessary occasions. Farmers scare away crows, and I am told that sewermen let off smoke rockets to enable them to detect where certain sewers lead. And there are a number of other such similar commercially used explosives. None of these, so far as I know, contributes to accidents to any known extent, and therefore I suggest that, because they have shown themselves to be safe in the past, they should properly be in this exceptions clause. But this is a matter that can be dealt with later. Clause 8, of course, follows: there must be power to vary or revoke orders. Clause 9 deals with interpretation, and the meaning of the expression, "retail purchase", is obvious.

That, my Lords, is the totality of what I suggest is a small and simple Bill which, if administered in the way I suggest, would be of simple administration, and would touch the problem at the two points where it most needs touching: first the private party, and secondly, the explosions in the street. I suggest that this is the right and proper way of doing it.

I do not wish to speak for too long. I want to hear all possible opinions from this House. At the end I intend to take this Bill to a Division. I believe that this Bill will almost certainly never become the law of the land, but I think that it will be valuable to my noble friends on the Front Bench to hear the opinions of your Lordships and to see your names on a Division List. So, whichever way the discussion goes I am going to ask that the Motion for Second Reading be taken to a Division. I should like the Bill to go to a Committee stage, where perhaps we could hammer out a document which, even if it cannot become law, can go into some file where at a later date the Government can use it instead of their present inadequate measure. But that is for the future, and I put it to your Lordships that it will be extremely valuable to this country if we can hear your voices and your opinions, and, finally, know your votes. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount St. Davids.)

6.34 p.m.


My Lords, I have always held that a Private Member's Bill in your Lordships' House should be given a Second Reading unless it is found to be unnecessary or unwise or unenforce- able. Some of your Lordships may re-member that I recently opposed a Private Member's Bill on the ground that it was unenforceable. I am sorry to say that, after the most interesting speech made by the noble Viscount, I find this Bill almost unique in that in my belief it is un-necessary, I think it is unwise, and I am certain that it is unenforceable. I am sorry to speak so strongly but that is what I feel about the Bill.

Let us take the unnecessary part first. What is the problem? The problem is to avoid accidents from fireworks. But how big is this problem, my Lords? In spite of what the noble Viscount said, that until last year there has been no proper decrease in accidents, that is not true. I do not want to go back farther than 1962, because it was in that year that the British Fireworks Manufacturers Safety Association was set up in an effort to reduce accidents. These are the figures. I shall take 1962 and then 1965, when the benefits of this Association began to be seen, and then I will give the figures for 1969.

The total injuries from fireworks in 1962—and I take the figures from official sources—numbered 2,832. That figure represents accidents of all kinds, both comparatively unimportant accidents and the more serious ones. By 1965, the new steps that were being taken were beginning to bite and the figure of 2,832 was reduced to 2,339. In 1969 it was reduced to 1,636—only a little over one half of the 1962 figure. There are even more striking figures when we come to serious injuries, which is what I believe we are all concerned about. In 1962 there were 988 serious injuries from fireworks. Already by 1965 this figure had been reduced to 376. Last year, in 1969, the figure was further reduced to 240. So it is no good the noble Viscount saying that the present law and the present Regulations and efforts are having no effect: they are having the most startling effect. Perhaps I may add that in 1965 and 1969 there were no deaths from fireworks. I have taken those two figures because I do not have all the figures here. What we are really considering as being of most importance are the serious injuries.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will excuse me, undoubtedly he has given correct figures, but in skipping from 1965 directly to 1969 he has forgotten that we reached a plateau in 1966, 1967 and 1968 when the figures held more or less level. It is true that there was a great drop when the manufacturers, as I have already mentioned, made great efforts which had great results, but after 1965 we hit a level plateau and it was not until 1969 that the figures again dropped.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies to that point, would he allow me to ask him this question. What is a serious injury? Is it one where the person is taken to hospital?


My Lords, it is such an injury as the Home Office says is serious. From a common sense point of view, if one burns one's finger or something of that kind, if it is burned quite badly it is included in the total injuries, but unless you have half lost the finger it is not included in the serious injuries. That, of course, is not exact, but there is a kind of accident which the Home Office considers serious.

Of course the noble Viscount is quite right; there was a big drop in 1969. But there has been a very big drop since 1962; progressively it has gone down since 1962. It may be luck or it may not, but there was a very big drop last year. Compare these figures with those for other accidents in the home. They do not count compared with walking under ladders, missing the step going downstairs, heaters in the home and so on. Are we really going to have, as I hope to show, rather complicated laws which will be almost impossible to enforce for a situation that is improving and is really no very great problem? The noble Viscount mentioned that certain States, and certain countries, ban fire-works entirely, and of course he does not want to do that. I think I am right in saying that in no case was the legislation brought in for safety reasons; they were entirely political. So far as I know, they were brought in because the States were subject to riots, other disorders, assassinations and so on. That is really why the regulations were brought in. I say that the Bill is in fact unnecessary.

I also say that the Bill is unwise for three reasons. I think it is an unwise moment to introduce it into your Lord-ships' House. I do not wish to be rude or unpleasant, but I think it is rather wasting your Lordships' time if this goes further, in spite of what the noble Viscount has said. Even if it got through your Lordships' House in its present form, which I rather doubt, it is no good sending it to another place, because they threw it out last April; they saw it and they did not like it.

The second reason is that if this Bill became law, and the law about permits was obeyed, I think it is a fact that nearly all fireworks would in a short space of time become public displays. That sounds very nice, but there just are not enough experts to deal safely with public displays, which could use a more dangerous type of firework than you would have in the home. Also, although of course the numbers involved in a public display are very much smaller than in the private use of fireworks, already 15 per cent, of casualties are due to public displays; that is, even being let off by so-called experts. If there are a great number of public displays, I am afraid that the fireworks will be set off by rather unqualified people.

The third reason is one which I know could be amended in Committee, and the noble Viscount has already said that he thinks the Bill is thoroughly bad in this respect. If the Bill went through in its present form, you would have to have a permit for the sale or purchase of marine distress signals, insecticidal smokes, toy pistol caps, indoor fireworks, anti-vermin cartridges and so on. That is unwise, to say the least of it, because the effect would be that many yachtsmen, mountaineers and other people would not go in for buying safety equipment, except probably the highly qualified ones; it would be too much bother to get a permit. After all, one wants these things used. The noble Viscount has said that at the Committee stage he would be prepared to accept an alteration in that respect. For the reasons I have given I feel that the Bill is an unwise one.

Now I come to the most important thing. I believe the Bill to be unenforceable. Clause 1 (1) says: No person shall make a retail purchase of a firework … unless he is the holder of a permit, issued for the purposes of this Act by a local authority … How is the local authority to know who to issue permits to? If the noble Viscount goes to a local authority and I go to a local authority and we each ask for a permit, how do they know whether they ought to refuse me and give one to the noble Viscount or vice versa, unless we are very well known—and being very well-known may mean being a friend of the clerk issuing the permit. I do not see how local authorities are going to deal with this sort of thing at all, unless they give permits to more or less anyone who applies, and then what is the point of having a permit? Clause 1(2) goes on to say that the permit shall: contain the name, address and date of birth of the holder of the permit". How are they going to know that? Has everyone got to take along a birth certificate when they ask for a permit? If not, how do the local authority know whether the date of birth is true or untrue?

Under Clause 2 retailers have to keep records of every shilling firework they sell. This is going to be intolerable for the retailer—and I mean intolerable. When it comes near to November 5 the work will be enormous if a man has to keep a record of every sale. Aud much more important, who is going to know whether the records are correct or not? If I was a very busy small shopkeeper and had a permit to sell fireworks, how would I keep a correct record and how would I know that it is a correct record? I sell to a permit holder who is allowed to buy. How do I know whether he is the permit holder or the younger brother of the permit holder? And then I have to write it all down, with five more young men or women waiting for their fire-works. It would be intolerable if we now put all this additional work on the retailer, and in my view it would be the end very largely of the British firework industry.

I believe that the Government Bill is entirely right. I have only glanced at it; we have not had it before your Lordships' House. It puts up the age from 13 to 16, which I think is very wise, and I think the wording is "apparently 16". That seems to me a much more sensible way of dealing with this. What the Government Bill is saying, in effect, is that you must not sell fireworks to children. We know that some of them will be under 16 and some over, but I think it is a good age to put in a Bill. Why the noble Viscount puts the age at 18 I cannot think. You are ready to ride motor-bikes at 16 and have more accidents on them at 17 than with fire-works. I think the Government Bill is right. You cannot sell to somebody who appears to be a child but if he appears to be grown up you can. I think it is the sensible way of dealing with it.

The last clause I am going to deal with is Clause 4(2). Pity the poor local authority! Subsection (2) says: … the granting of a permit shall be in the discretion of the issuing authority "— and of course that is right, if you are going to issue a permit— but such authority shall have regard to the applicant's ability and willingness to comply with the Safety Code. How can a local authority know of the ability to set off a firework of somebody who comes in for a permit? If they give that person a safety code and ask him, "Are you going to obey this?" of course he will say "Yes". But how are they to satisfy themselves that this is true? This subsection seems to me to be pure nonsense and to be completely unenforceable.

There are other points which I am not going to labour. I would suggest that, subject to what the Government spokes-man may say, your Lordships should consider whether it would not be better if this Bill did not receive a Second Reading. I had not intended to go as far as this, but I have been challenged by the noble Viscount to call for a Division, and I shall therefore do so.

6.52 p.m.


My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, was a little unfair in making a comparison between the annual figures for accidents in the home with accidents with fire-works. I should have thought that a fair comparison was between how many accidents in the home occur on November 5—or for that matter, on any other one day in the year—and the number of accidents with fireworks on the same day. With that comparison, I think that one would inevitably come to the conclusion that fireworks are dangerous things. Having said that, I am bound to say that I share the doubts of the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, about the enforceability of this Bill.

I should like to get out of the way three rather small points regarding the particulars of the Bill, which I trust are a little more than just Committee points, before coming on to the main matters that I wish briefly to discuss. I notice that the period of the validity of the permit is to be at the discretion of the local authority. It seems to me that, as matters stand, different periods of validity will apply in different local authority areas. I think this is unsatisfactory, and that, since the Secretary of State has some role to play in this proposed scheme, it would be much better that he should lay down a universal period of validity for these permits. I notice a remarkable lacuna in that there appears to be no provision at all for the withdrawal of a permit once it has been issued. I should think it imperative that if a permit holder has a serious accident with a firework, due to his stupidity or negligence, there ought to be specific provision for the withdrawal of his fireworks permit. So far as I can see, this is not at the moment included in the Bill.

My third particular point concerns the "Exceptions" clause. I am not very happy about the exclusion from the Bill of jumping crackers and "throw-downs". I am not a great expert on fireworks, but I rather fancy that these jumping crackers and "throw-downs"are the sort of fire-works that hooligans use deliberately to scare domestic animals. One of the features of firework night which I find so abhorrent is this hooliganism directed at domestic animals, with fireworks which may not be dangerous but which scare the life out of these wretched animals.


My Lords, possibly the noble Lord did not hear me. I said that I myself exactly share his opinion on this point, but I put this clause in the Bill simply because it is in the present Act. But clearly he is quite right that this needs considerable change.


My Lords, I am grateful for that.

The other brief remarks that I should like to make are directed to the cost of administering this permit scheme. Having made an intelligent estimate, or guess, as to the cost, I would ask: would not that amount of money be better spent in other means of preventing accidents with fire-works? I understand from the Registrar-General that there are just under 40 million people in the United Kingdom over the age of 18; that is to say, nearly 40 million potential permit holders under this scheme. We are a pretty sensible nation, and I should hope that 30 million of those 40 million people are potential permit holders. I concede that probably half of them would not be interested; they would be people who would never wish for the rest of their lives to buy a firework. In passing, I think it worth mentioning that, because of this scheme, these people would be giving up a right—which they have had hitherto—simply because of the bother of having to go and apply for a permit. I do not think that these people should be entirely forgotten.

We have now reached a figure of 15 million potential permit holders. I should think that one could have an across-the-board exemption for those classes of people who occupy positions in society which they would not occupy if they were not the sort of people who could be trusted to be sensible with fire-works. The sort of people I have in mind are Peers and Members of the House of Commons; officers and non-commissioned officers of the Armed Services; civil servants of equivalent grades; justices of the peace; professionally qualified people like architects, accountants, lawyers, dons, school teachers, clergymen and so on. After all, it will be an absurd situation, will it not, if one has to say to a regimental sergeant-major or to a schoolmaster, "You cannot be trusted to buy a five-shilling rocket to amuse your children or your grand-children unless you shall first have satisfied the 'mandarin' that you are a proper person to have this privilege"?

Supposing that across-the-board exemption reduces the 15 million to 10 million people, I should think, at a guess, that there will be 10 million applicants for permits under this scheme, each of whom is going to be supplied with a printed safety code. What is going to be the cost of administering this? It will clearly be a substantial sum of money. I have no idea what the exact figure will work out at. But let us briefly consider whether that sum of money, whatever it is, could not be more usefully applied in other ways to prevent accidents with fireworks.

For example, let us spend some of that money in keeping up the review and enforcement of the general law applicable to the sale and discharge of fireworks: on inspection of the manufacturer of fireworks in his factory, to make certain that fireworks are made as safe and as foolproof as they possibly can be; on inspection to ensure that fire-works are labelled as clearly and as intelligibly as possible, with certain warnings on how to handle and discharge them safely. Then, of course, we should review and enforce the legislation as to the age below which children shall not be allowed to buy fireworks. In that connection, I take note of the Explosives (Age of Purchase) Bill, which is in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, and which has recently been given a First Reading.

Secondly, let some of this money be spent on publicity campaigns, such as that inspired television campaign last year to which the noble Viscount him-self paid tribute and which caused a dramatic reduction in the number of accidents with fireworks. Let some more money be spent on campaigns in the newspapers—perhaps by articles, or by advertisements. By all means let leaflets be printed; and let a stack of leaflets containing this Safety Code be supplied to every fireworks dealer. Surely they will be pleased to include a leaflet with every parcel of fireworks they sell, because they have a vested interest in selling fireworks and they know very well that every bad accident that is caused with fireworks is going to damage their prospects of future sales.

My Lords, there it is. I simply wonder whether the money that this permit scheme would cost could not be more usefully employed elsewhere to the same end. I shall be very interested to listen to the debate, and a decision on how I shall vote—if there is to be a Division—I will reserve until I have heard the rest of the debate.

7.2 p.m.


My Lords, I have considerable sympathy for what lies behind the Bill of the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, because even as low a figure as 1,653 injuries, four- fifths of which are to young people, is a serious and important business. If I may pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, corrected by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, the figures which were quoted from those published account for a four-week period, and not just November 5. In fact, it is understood that the large number of incidents which take place in the street—some 490 incidents out of the total 1,600— happen a long time before firework night.

Having said that, I regret that I can go no further with the noble Viscount. I find this Bill an irritant; an irritant that will not achieve the objects he sets out to achieve. I will not repeat the objections the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, raised, because I agree with all of those, but I have also one or two others. I do not see how a retailer can be expected to keep a register of every banger, rocket, Roman candle, squib, serpent, atom whizz and so on that he sells. The noble Baroness laughs; it is quite humorous, but one sees young children buy fire-works as they acquire the pennies; they do not go out and buy 30s. of fireworks; they go out and buy "A 3d. banger, Mister, please". Once outside it has to go off quickly or it will literally burn a hole in their pocket.

Therefore, how can we do this? We may argue that chemists and so on have to keep a register; but they are not faced with such a short four-week period and with having so many single and isolated little sales. I do not think that this proposition is at all practical. On the other hand, if such a requirement were made of the seller, I think a number of sellers would just give up the business, because it is a short season, starting somewhere around September and finishing a day or two after November 5, or after the weekend that follows November 5. In April, 1968, the registration fee for premises selling fireworks was raised from Is. to 12s. 6d., and in the following year, 1969, there was a dramatic reduction in the number of establishments applying for a registration. So probably the shop-keeper felt it was not worth the bother at 12s. 6d.

It may be thought that undesirable activities can be controlled in this way, but I do not think it is right or fair. I do not think you can squeeze people in this manner. So far as the person who buys the fireworks is concerned, you may provide that it must be a 16-year-old, or, if you like, a 20-year-old, but I do not think it makes a lot of difference. Indeed, two days ago I was told by a firework seller that one of his best lines of business was with the university; they buy all the bangers at the end of the season and have a high old time with them. How does he decide whether a 20-year-old student is a responsible person? One cannot legislate against idiots.

I do not think that the public (the buyer), or the public (the seller), should be inflicted with more forms, more permits, more ages, names and addresses to be given to authorities. I was talking to the local office of the Weights and Measures in Southampton only this morning, and the young lady said, "Our inspectors are always out, and I deal with the permit applications". Is a young lady in an office—and presumably most Weights and Measures offices are equally busy—to decide whether the applicant is a fit and proper person? Why should she? Why should the person applying have to show himself to be fit and proper? I do not think this is right at all.

I quote from the B.B.C. programme: "If you ban one, ban all." Suppose one requires a permit; are there not likely to be firework touts? We are not going to stop an elder brother from going in with his young brother's sixpence and coming out and saying, "Here you are, nipper; I've got you a couple." That will happen, and this Bill is not going to stop it. I do not think this Bill is going to stop anything at all.

The question of the cost of the permit has been raised, and perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, will indicate to us what the cost of such a registering system might be. If we are so concerned about 1,653 accidents, four-fifths of which, according to the table last year, are to children and one-fifth to adults over 21, we must ban all fireworks and only have public displays, such as happen, as I understand it, in the Republic of Ireland, France, Australia, some parts of the States, Canada and so on. Nobody wants to be a killjoy; nobody particularly wants to interfere with other people's ideas of fun, until such time as they affect the safety and peace of mind of other citizens. But I do not believe that this Bill is going to help in this way.

I should like to see a far greater degree of responsibility undertaken by the manufacturer, the seller and the buyer. I have the text of the B.B.C. programme here and it is surprising how many parents said, "Oh, if only I'd thought!" These are supposed to be responsible people, youth leaders and so on. How many said: "If only I'd thought! I gave him this to hold and he put it in his pocket, and it went off and burned his thighs, and burned his face." Or, "I only threw it across into the fire because I thought it had gone out, and it landed in his anorak collar." This is how the accidents happen—the simple "I didn't think" type of accidents. No legislation is going to stop that. I should like to see the Government Bill that was tabled last week strengthened. I should also like to see more monies devoted to such organisations as ROSPA, to bring out more publicity, and more films shown to youth groups and to youth leaders, the so-called responsible people who "did not think" until it was too late.

7.11 p.m.


My Lords, the line which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, is pursuing is to me the most difficult part of this Bill, because I am naturally very much opposed to interference with individual liberty of this kind. My first reaction when I began to study this Bill—I think in consequence of my noble friend's approaching the Consumer Council about a year ago—was to be very hostile to the idea of stopping people from having their fun. However, I have looked at this matter rather closely, and I am not sure that that line will stand up to-day.

In the first place, there are only three bodies of which I know whose business it is to examine this subject: the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the British Safety Council and the Consumer Council—with which I am concerned—and they are all solidly behind the Bill. That does not mean that the Bill is good in detail, but it surely means that your Lordships should give it a Second Reading. Let us not forget that this is a Second Reading debate, and most of the criticisms that have been made of it—not all, I admit— have been Committee points which could be dealt with in Committee, and that is where they should be dealt with.

I have one or two points to make on figures. My noble friend corrected the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, and I should like to correct him further in that the figure for 1968 jumped up again. It came down after 1962, but it jumped up again to 2,500 in 196b and then went down again to 1,600 in 1969. If that had been a balance-of-payments figure nobody would have treated it very seriously, and I am not sure that we are not setting too much store by statistics. My figures, which are taken from the same source, show that there were 598 eye injuries in 1968 and that the figure was reduced to 411 in 1969.

What we have to decide is whether fire-works are dangerous and should be con-trolled, or whether they are part of the Englishman's heritage—which, after all, started so gloriously with Guy Fawkes— and should be maintained. I think that it is not a very easy decision to make. I believe that this level of accidents writes off the liberal argument against interference, provided that you can make your interference effective—a point to which I shall come in a minute. But though I have many doubts about the details in this Bill, I must support its being given a Second Reading and being treated seriously. A total of 1,600 people injured, which seems to be a sudden fall that may not be maintained, is too large to allow when we know the source of their injury and that that source is controllable.

I should now like to take the three general Second Reading points made by the noble Lord, Lord Derwent. First of all, he said that the Bill is unnecessary. I think I have shown that if it were effective it would certainly not be unnecessary, and I think that on that the noble Lord will agree with me. So I have disposed of the first point. His second point was that it is unwise. That was really not a very full statement, and I do not know why it should be unwise to have a shot at something that needs doing. I was unable to see quite how the point that it is unwise was justified. It was a good part of a trio, but it carried no weight. The third and by far the most important point was that the Bill is un- workable. I do not think it is unworkable, although it may present some problems. As a farmer I can get as much strychnine as I want, if I obtain a permit, and it is quite right that I should have to do so. Every chemist keeps a poisons register, and it is quite right that he should have to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, spoke as if children were still going to buy fireworks, but the whole point of both this Bill and the Government's Bill is that they are not. So his idea of people going into a shop, buying a little rocket and running out again and letting it off is not what we are considering. Thus we have the situation that this Bill is no more unenforceable than any other Bill, any other set of rules which limit the availability to the public of a dangerous substance. What your Lordships have to decide is whether fire-works are dangerous enough to justify that degree of interference; and that, I think, warrants our giving the Bill a Second Reading. In my view, this is a serious question, and I do not think it has been answered by anybody. I myself am not absolutely clear about the answer, but I certainly feel that we should give the Bill the courtesy of a Second Reading.

I have now remembered the unwisdom to which the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, referred; and this is something about which I feel very sensitive. It seems to me that it is a privilege of your Lord-ships' House to introduce Bills which you know will be defeated in another place; and to suggest that that is a waste of time—which was the frank suggestion of the noble Lord—is a derogation of our already extremely slender power. I would support any noble Lord who wished to get an important subject discussed in this House, if necessary at the expense of Parliamentary time—and it certainly would be—if only to get it aired, if it needed airing. I think I have really said enough, but there are just one or two points that I should like to add.

First of all, nobody here is suggesting the kind of ban that exists elsewhere. I think it is important to realise that in Ireland and the United States there is a very much more complete ban, and they seem to manage all right. The three societies which I have mentioned all wish to see the sale of fireworks limited to people who are in some way shown to be responsible. That is the object of this Bill. If the Bill as it stands does not succeed in carrying out that object, the place to modify it is in Committee. I do not think that the Government's Bill will meet the case, although it is clearly a perfectly sound Bill. It is quite right that children of 13 should not be allowed to buy fireworks, and it is probably right that children of 16 should be able to do so. But that is a point which we could alter in Committee. But if ever a Bill is unenforceable, that Bill is; so let that not be the sole argument on the Bill now before us. I think your Lordships will be making a grave error of judgment if you do not give this serious Bill the courtesy of a Second Reading.

7.18 p.m.


My Lords, the motives of the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, in moving this Bill are entirely sound. I speak as a Vice-President of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, but let me stress immediately that I do not necessarily reflect their views. In fact, I have not even had an opportunity of consulting them. Also, I was for a time Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Committee on Home Safety, while that Committee was in being. Your Lordships will know that I have frequently raised home safety questions in this House and will continue to do so.

I recall—I think in the early 1960s— that that Committee had talks with the firework manufacturers on the whole question of fireworks, and I believe that my noble friend Lord Derwent was closely connected with a lot of those negotiations when he was in the Home Office. I should like at once to pay tribute to the firework manufacturers, who have done an enormous amount to promote safety. The labelling is now very much better and the warnings are very much more easy to read and understand.

My Lords, I am bound to say that I take the view of my noble friend Lord Derwent and others—and I say this with a great deal of reluctance—that this Bill should not get a Second Reading. I want briefly not only to say why, but to give one or two suggestions as to what could be done to improve safety. In a way, the noble Viscount may be some- what unlucky because a Government Bill is, so to speak, on the stocks. I have not seen a copy of the Bill, and I must obviously reserve judgment until I have done so. What concerns me is that if one makes too many rules and regulations about issuing fireworks to the young they will make their own. Recently, on "Panorama" I watched a programme about this very question of firework accidents which was set in, I believe, a Children's hospital in Manchester. Nobody who saw this film could have been any-thing less than shocked by some of the pictures that were shown, but I take the point of my noble friend Lord Derwent here: that if one looks at accidents in the home as a whole—and most firework accidents do occur in the home or in the precincts of the home—one must realise that oil-heaters, untacked linoleum and kettles which are the wrong way round on the stove are the main causes of accidents, particularly to children and to old people.

My Lords, in this programme one of the doctors suggested, if I recall correctly, a complete ban on fireworks, and I am bound to say that in some respects this would perhaps be almost a better solution than the noble Viscount's Bill. But if this were to be carried out, 10-year-old Johnnie and his mates would get hold of some sodium chlorate and might well make their own fireworks. I respect the view of the doctor on this particular programme who contradicted this view, but for once I find myself in conflict with the medical profession, for whom I have the utmost respect, because, having a seven-year-old son of a fairly adventurous nature, I am not sure that I could rely on him not to do just that.

Let us briefly examine the Bill. I do not want to go over ground that has already been covered on the issue of permits by a local authority, but I live in a large village in Surrey which has a very efficient local authority who have a great deal to do. The village in which I live has about four newsagents' shops which sell sweets, certain types of head-ache cures and, at times, fireworks. Is it to be suggested that every small) village shopkeeper in England, Wales and, indeed, Scotland—I do not know whether this Bill applies to Scotland— should have to obtain a permit from a local authority? Anybody who serves on a local authority (I do not, but I have many friends, of all Parties, who do) knows that they are pretty overworked these days. This happens under any Government, because more and more legislation is turned out by successive Governments and this means more and more work for local authorities to do. Leaving aside the cost, which the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, mentioned, it is surely pertinent to ask: can local authorities really carry out such work as this, well-meaning as undoubtedly it is?


My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting, did I understand him to ask whether it was right that these small shopkeepers should have to go to their local authority to get a permit, under the terms of the noble Viscount's Bill? Is that what the noble Lord said? If I heard him aright, I would point out that the question cannot apply because they have to do that now. Or did I misunderstand the question he posed?


My Lords, I think the noble Lord may well be right. Leaving that aside, let us take this question of returns of fireworks. Many of these small shops are owned and man-aged by humble country folk, many of whom know the local children and youths, and in many cases they will not serve them if they know they are under age or suspect them to be under age. Turning to the firework manufacturers for a moment, I should like to ask the Minister of State one question, and I apologise for not having given notice of it. It is as to how much liaison and inspection there is between the firework manufacturers and the Home Office. It seems to me that the B.S.I. standard, if applied to fireworks, will be of some considerable use in determining whether they are in fact completely safe.

My Lords, I now take up the question of how we are to get over this problem of firework accidents. I believe the answer is largely in the current Home Safety Act, which I had the privilege of helping to pilot through this House. It seems to me that perhaps more public money could be used to promote home safety; and I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who in fact suggested more money going to ROSPA. My Lords, I am all for that. I believe this is very necessary because, surely, the answer is to get among the schools and show films and film strips, some of them perhaps horrific film strips, particularly to sixth-formers, illustrating what can happen if a boy has a. penny banger in his pocket which goes off, and if fireworks are let off in a crowded room without the instructions being read. I cannot help feeling that that would be more effective than trying to put more work on local authorities at the present time, because it seems to me that not every adult going to a local authority is necessarily going to be a person of complete scruples. He can quite easily go and get a permit for fireworks and then give the fireworks to his kid brother, and his kid brother could then let them off. The most efficient local authority cannot guard against that happening.

I do not say that it is necessarily a complete waste of Parliamentary time to discuss this Bill but, as my noble friend Lord Derwent and others have said, I do not think it is enforceable. It is not enforceable because of the work which would be put on to the already over-burdened local authorities. As I have said, I believe that education is the answer to all forms of safety, be it in the home, be it on the farm or be it on the factory floor. For these reasons, albeit reluctantly, I cannot support the Second Reading of this Bill.

7.30 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to take up your Lordships' lime, but I personally think that this is a question of whether fire-works should be banned or not. I know that vested interests are against me if I suggest that they should be banned, but there are many accidents. I live in the country, and I have had fireworks at parties for my children. The main feature of such parties is usually the bonfire. I have tried to control those who set off the fireworks, but they are set off in the dark and it is very difficult to control in those circumstances Therefore, I am against this Bill and I am against the sale of fireworks entirely.

7.31 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, gave the House a very full explanation of the purposes of this Bill at the outset of this debate. Whether we agree with his views or not, none of us would doubt his sincerity or question his objective; namely, that of reducing accidents, particularly to young children. This aim is one wholeheartedly supported by Her Majesty's Government and one which I know is shared by all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. But we are not convinced, for reasons which I shall give the House in a moment, that the situation is such that it calls for such severe restrictions on the sale and use of fireworks as are proposed in the noble Viscount's Bill. Moreover, for reasons that several noble Lords have pointed out, we doubt whether the system of control which the Bill seeks to set up would really be workable in practice.

Her Majesty's Government have been actively considering whether there is a need for further measures to reduce the number of accidents caused by fireworks in addition to those which already exist. Noble Lords Who have spoken in this debate and who appear to be experts in this subject are no doubt familiar with the law relating to the setting off and sale of fireworks and therefore there is no need for me to repeat it. I would only say in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, that under the 1875 Act, as amended, all firework factories are licensed by the Home Office and they are subject to inspection by the Inspector of Explosives, as indeed are the contents of fireworks.

Several noble Lords have made the point, with which the Government entirely agree, that in addition to the safeguards provided by the law there are a number of other steps that need to be taken by the Government and by the various interested organisations to see that fire-works are used safely. The noble Lord, Lord Derwent, reminded us of the setting up of the British Firework Manufacturers' Safety Association in 1962. This organisation co-operates closely with the Home Office both in technical matters and in promoting publicity designed to secure greater safety. I agree with the point made by Lord Airedale, Lord Auckland and by other noble Lords about the efforts which need to be made every year, and particularly at the crucial time of the year, by the Home Office itself, by the local authorities, by the Firework Manu- facturers' Safety Association and by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, to ensure that fireworks are safely handled in accordance with manufacturers' instructions. As most noble Lords seem to be aware, there have been a great number of developments in this field as regards labelling, the posters and pamphlets now circulated to schools, the films on television, and particularly the "Remember, Remember " film which the B.B.C. first showed in December, 1968, and then repeated, with, we believe, effective results on the number of accidents.

These are part of the active publicity campaign with which we all agree. In addition to activities of this kind, the British Firework Manufacturers' Safety Association and the Home Office have been in very close discussion, and their consideration of these matters has resulted in a number of other safety measures which affect the kind of fire-works that are made. For example, the cheap "bangers" have been discontinued; and from the point of view of parents this is something to be welcomed. A number of kinds of fireworks which are regarded as more dangerous— those that are unpredictable in that they zig-zag—have been discontinued.

The noble Lord, Lord Derwent, crossed swords with the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, over the accident statistics. The burden of what the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, said was that so long as any one child was injured we should take special measures. I will not enter the lists on this aspect except to confirm that, as the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, pointed out, there has been an appreciable decline; and although the 1968 figures were certainly not what some of us would like to see they were much below the 1962 figures; and the 1969 figures, probably as a result of the intensive publicity campaign over a wide field, show a very substantial decline.

I referred at the outset of my speech to the consideration which Her Majesty's Government have been giving to this subject. Those noble Lords who have followed the proceedings in another place will recall that during the fireworks season last year there was a considerable amount of public discussion and my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-secretary for State undertook to arrange, as soon as the accident statistics for 1969 had been analysed, a meeting of various organisations interested in the subject. This meeting was held at the Home Office on March 23. It comprised representatives of safety and consumer organisations, local authority organisations, firework manufacturers and retailers. A number of suggestions, including some of those which noble Lords have mentioned here to-night, were considered for amending the law in relation to fire-works.

The meeting considered the point made by the last speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Nunburnholme—whether the retail sale of fireworks to the general public should be completely banned—and that made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, that they should be confined only to organised displays. This suggestion received support from some of the representatives at the meeting although the difficulties of confining the sales to organisations and of judging their acceptability were recognised. On the other hand, while there was general agreement that organised displays should be encouraged, there was strong support for the view that individuals should not be prevented from buying fireworks.

The meeting also considered a proposal which was very similar to that contained in my noble friend's Bill, that fireworks should be sold only to individuals licensed by a local authority. This proposal received no support at all, on the ground, first, that it was not justified and also that local authorities could not undertake the task of licensing all the potential purchasers of fireworks.

The Home Office were urged to take a number of positive steps to reduce accidents, including raising the minimum age at which fireworks may be purchased from 13, as it is at present. My right honourable friend has given very careful consideration to the views ex-pressed at this meeting and has concluded that restrictions as severe as those proposed in my noble friend's Bill on the sale and use of fireworks would not be justified. He is, however, in no doubt that the age at which fireworks may be purchased should be raised, and that is why on April 9 I introduced in your Lordships' House a Bill to raise the age to 16, following the announcement on the same day by my right honourable friend in another place that he would be moving in this way.

At the same time, my right honourable friend is pursuing with the manufacturers, and other organisations, various suggestions that were made at the meeting on March 23 for further publicity and other measures to reduce the number of accidents. In proposing the age of 16, it has been borne in mind that the minimum age for the purchase of firearms and ammunition is 17; and therefore the minimum age for the purchase of fireworks could not reasonably be higher. When we come to discuss the age limit, as between 16 and 17, for the purchase of fireworks there may be different views and I have no doubt that the House will listen to them with great care.

My Lords, I have taken some time, I am afraid, at this late hour to explain why Her Majesty's Government do not consider that more severe measures would be justified. I could continue to comment on one or two specific aspects of my noble friend's Bill, but I think that the points have already been made in the debate. The only one that I should like to try to answer (although I think probably it is for my noble friend to answer) is one that was put to me by one or two noble Lords: what would be the cost of the proposals contained in the Bill? I was asked whether I could give any estimate. It would be very difficult for us to give any meaningful estimates at this stage. Expense would be incurred by the need for local authorities to employ additional staff to issue licences. The cost would depend also on how many people decided to apply for licences. As I have said, I think this is something to which my noble friend should reply. I would conclude by asking the House to support the raising of the minimum age for purchasing fireworks, which we shall be considering in connection with the Government's Bill which already has been given a First Reading. For the reasons I have given, I cannot recommend the House to support the Second Reading of my noble friend's Bill.

7.44 p.m.


My Lords, I must thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and for staying until this late hour to deal with this subject. I think I owe them the duty of going through, at least briefly, the remarks they made. I thought the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, was a little hard on me, especially as I was under the impression that during my speech I had answered most of his strictures. I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me if he thinks that I am maligning him.

As to whether the provisions in the Bill would be enforceable, I do not think that any law ever made in this House has proved entirely enforceable. Some things are more enforceable than others. The present law in relation to fireworks is not enforceable, as we can see from the very large number of accidents that occur because of actions which, under the present law, are illegal. There will continue to be accidents from the same causes, even if we raise the minimum age of purchase, so I do not think that much may be said about that.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, and also with the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, that it is impossible totally to enforce the provisions in the Bill. I feel sure that many people would find ways around them. Nevertheless, I believe there would be a better enforcement of them than is the case in respect of the present law. There would be errors; there would be errors in book-keeping and in a number of matters; but at least there would be fewer accidents, and it is that which concerns me. I still feel that 18 would be the right minimum age. At least an adult can be sued: he may be taken to court, and that is a matter of which I think notice should be taken.

The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, made some remarks on the length of the validity of the permit, and perhaps on that point I was not very clear. My intention was that a permit should be provided for the purpose of one purchase. It would be yielded up to the shopkeeper who would keep it in his book. Surely that would be the best thing to do with it. I much enjoyed the list of exceptions given by the noble Lord—that was great fun. But let me say that although a regimental sergeant-major may know quite a lot about explosives, there is a remarkable amount of ignorance, even among your Lord-ships, about what safety precautions should be taken. I am afraid that the same level of ignorance may exist also among solicitors and accountants, and among other people who do not normally use explosives in the course of their trade. Therefore I should like to see them get a set of safety regulations, because I think that they would learn a great deal from the regulations, and safety would be increased.


My Lords, I am quite sure that a great many dons, for instance, would be perfectly hopeless with fireworks; but they have enough intelligence to know it, and they would not attempt the exercise.


My Lords, the trouble is that dons frequently think that they know a great deal more than they do; and it might be quite useful to put into their hands a set of safety Regulations from which they might learn much. If this whole Bill goes down the drain, I shall not weep over it, provided that a set of safety regulations may be pressed into the hands of everyone. Even those speakers who opposed other clauses said a few kind words about the idea of having some safety regulations.

Regarding sales, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, there would not be sales of individual fireworks. The sales would involve larger quantities of fireworks. No one would get a permit to buy just a sixpenny banger; people would get a permit to buy a display which they could use at home, so that there would not be the sales to children. I think that the remarks on that subject were rather beside the point. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, made a considerable point when he quoted the B.B.C. and the people who said that they "did not think". The point is that we have to make them think. That is what my Safety Code is for. Let that survive, if the rest of the Bill goes down the drain, as it certainly will, and I shall not be too sorry.

My noble friend Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge has been a great support to me, and his advice I much welcome. Strangely enough, the speaker I most agree with is the noble Lord, Lord Nunburnholme, who determined to vote against the Bill because he did not want any fireworks sold to anybody at all. In my belief, the noble Lord is the mouth-piece of the people on this subject. From everything I have heard from taxi drivers and odd conversations in the street, I believe that that is the true voice of public opinion.

Although to-night I have been facing mainly the criticism of those who consider this Bill goes too far, I believe that they are not my real opponents. My real opponents stand on the other side of me: those who would like to take the banning of fireworks a great deal further. I believe that if this Bill, or something like it, is not made the law of this land, what we must come to in the end is the complete banning of the sale of fireworks to private individuals. Any legislation of a less strong character than the Bill I am proposing will be only a stop-gap measure. What I hope is that it will not be used as an argument for not doing something more in line with what is necessary if the figures continue to be bad. I shall leave it at that, as the hour is late, and ask your Lordships to decide this matter.

On Question, Motion for Second Reading disagreed to.