HL Deb 16 April 1970 vol 309 cc594-601

5.0 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is of course the second occasion this week when the subject of fireworks has been before us. On Tuesday, noble Lords will recall, my noble friend Lord St. Davids introduced a Private Member's Bill designed to impose severe restrictions on the sale and the use of fireworks. That Bill failed to receive a Second Reading. When advising the House to decline to give a Second Reading to my noble friend's Bill I reminded your Lordships that I had already introduced a Bill to raise the minimum age for purchasing fireworks from 13 to 16. It is this Bill that is before the House this afternoon.

Under the Exposives Act 1875 as it stands at present, as all noble Lords who participated in the earlier debate this week are aware, it is an offence to sell explosives, including fireworks, to a child appearing to be under the age of 13. The object of this provision in relation to fire-works is clear. It is designed to ensure that young children who cannot reason-ably be expected to be fully aware of the need to handle and let off fireworks with care do not have direct access to them. But despite this provision, as the statistics reveal only too clearly, there are, un-fortunately, more accidents from fire-works occurring to children under the age of 13 each year, during the Guy Fawkes season, than to any other age group.

In 1969, about 1,000 children under the age of 13 were treated in hospital for fireworks injuries—most of them, fortunately, minor injuries; and over 300 children aged 13 to 15 were also injured. It is true that a number of those injuries occurred when families arranged their own private firework parties for which, in most cases, the fireworks were bought by parents and relatives. And on these occasions, presumably, a proper degree of supervision of young children is exercised. Nevertheless, the figures also show that a number of accidents occur to children who have bought fireworks directly. The particular object of this Bill is to protect those children.

I know that, despite the law, a number of children under 13 still in fact go into shops and buy their own fireworks. The reason most frequently given by shopkeepers is that it is extremely difficult —and this is a factor which I think we all appreciate—to decide whether a child who comes into their shop is over 13. I am sure your Lordships will appreciate that there is often a difficulty in judging a person's age merely by his or her appearance. If the age is raised to 16, as proposed in this Bill, we believe that some young children who now manage to deceive shopkeepers as to their age, will be unable to do so; and I believe, there-fore, that the Bill will make a useful contribution towards keeping fireworks out of the hands of young children, and thereby preventing accidents.

During our debate on Tuesday I explained briefly why Her Majesty's Government have decided to propose 16 as the new age limit. There may be some feeling that the new limit should be raised to 18, to keep it in line with the new age of majority. The age for the purchase of firearms and ammunition is 17, and in our view the age for the purchase of fire-works could not reasonably be higher than this. As between 16 and 17 for fire-works, a shopkeeper may, of course, sell tobacco to a person of 16; and at 16 one may ride a motor-cycle, or marry, with parental consent. I do not think that the purchase of fireworks can be said to be more dangerous than those other activities which a young person of 16 is now allowed to undertake.

My Lords, the Bill has the commend-able merit of brevity, and I do not think I need take up your Lordships' time with a lengthy explanation of its two clauses. I submit it to the House today as a simple and straightforward Bill, the aim of which was wholeheartedly supported from all parts of the House in our debate on Tuesday, and with every confidence that it will commend itself to your Lordships. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.— (Baroness Serota.)

5.6 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness will be astonished that I rise to support Her Majesty's Government. I think that they have been right in choosing the age of 16. I should like to say why I think so. What-ever age you choose, some people below that age will creep in because they look older, even if the retailer or shopkeeper does his best not to sell to people under age. With the present age at 13, undoubtedly some 12- and 11-year-olds who look a little older are sold fireworks. In my view, 13 is too young.

There is a certain pressure, which will continue during the passage of this Bill through Parliament and which I hope Her Majesty's Government will resist on practical grounds, to raise the age to 17 or 18. The reason why I think 16 is the better age is that, on the whole, it is easier nowadays to tell a 16-year old from a 13-year old than a 16-year old from an 18-year old. The 16-year old is a working man and is almost grown up. He may not be reliable; but then some of us are not reliable when we are 60. And if a per-son has not begun to be reliable when he is 16, I do not think that, in these modern times, he is going to be much more re-liable when he is 18. When one is 16 one is not really grown up, but one is more or less out in the world. For that reason, I believe the Government have chosen wisely the age of 16. My spies tell me (I was not told this by Her Majesty's Government) that at a recent conference at the Home Office, at which all kinds of people attended—manufacturers, accident prevention organisations and so on—by and large, nobody had a great objection to the age of 16. My remarks about recognising one's age at 16 of course referred to boys. Nobody has ever at-tempted to recognise the age of an 11, a 14 or a 40-year-old girl; but that cannot be helped.

I hope that your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading. There is one small point which perhaps the noble Baroness will consider before a later stage in the Bill: I refer to the wording of Clause 1, which says that the Explosives Act 1875 prohibits the sale to young children of explosives, including fireworks. In fact, that Act prohibits the sale to children under the age of 13 of explosives and fireworks. I suggest that we might consider taking out the word "young" when we are dealing with those aged 16. I think that to be called a "young child" at 16 is rather offensive. Perhaps in due course the noble Baroness would look at that point.

5.9 p.m.


My Lords, the Government can take some solace from the fact that at least two noble Lords on these Benches support them whole-heartedly in this wise Bill. As I declared the other day, I am a Vice-President of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. So far as I know, that Society has raised no objection to this Bill. It is always difficult to determine an age when one is thinking in terms of safety, but as my noble friend has pointed out, at 16 young people are now at work. Then there is always the danger which I pointed out in regard to the Bill introduced by the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, of youths who will pass fireworks on to their kid brother, and their kid brother will let them off; and no Government can reasonably be expected to legislate against that.

The only question which it occurs to me to put to the Minister of State is what is the legal situation if a youngster under the age of 16 is caught trying to purchase fireworks or explosives? Presumably the retailer is liable to prosecution, but will the offending child also be liable to prosecution? Because now that the age is to be raised, presumably it can be established that the person buying the fireworks is a more responsible person than he would have been when he was 13. It is just a question here as to whether, in the case of a prosecution, both the seller of the fireworks and the buyer are considered equally guilty. With those comments and with that slight reservation, I warmly welcome the Bill.

5.12 p.m.


My Lords, I suppose I must to some extent welcome this Bill. It makes matters a little better, but very little. As your Lordships know, I preferred a much tighter restriction on fireworks. To begin with, I see no mention in this Bill—and I think that there should be a considerable mention—of some method of producing a safety code and getting it into people's hands. There are a great many accidents in the home. As the noble Baroness on the Front Bench has already stated, these firework accidents occur where there is a party which is presumably controlled by an adult. The Bill does absolutely nothing to reduce the number of those accidents, although statistically they are by far the most numerous causes of injury to children, and indeed to grown-ups.

On that line alone I think that the Bill is seriously deficient, and perhaps some way can be found at a later stage to ensure that a safety code is compulsorily sold with all fireworks to the purchasers. There will not be the licence that I was hoping would be necessary for the purchase of fireworks, but at least there would be, if my suggestion is adopted, a safety code packaged with the fireworks and handed to every purchaser. I believe that that would be a great advance, because we know that these parents are fond of their children and would do everything in their power to protect them. The trouble is that frequently they do not know what they ought to do. I have heard case after case of parents, including some of your Lordships, who have had accidents at their fireworks parties because, in spite of taking all the precautions that they knew of, they did not know what precautions they ought to take. If it is possible to get it within the bounds of this Bill, I suggest that such a clause be added.

Apart from that, I think this is a poor little Bill. I am sorry that the Government could not go a great deal further. Aside from the private party, we know that the second greatest cause of accidents is the firework discharged in the street. As everybody knows, and as I said on Tuesday last, all these accidents in the street are caused by illegal actions, because it is illegal to discharge fireworks in the street. This Bill will take fireworks out of the hands of some of the youngest of the children, and that is an advantage, and for that reason alone I will support the Bill. However, it does not take the fireworks out of the hands of many of the worst offenders. Last year I was going along the Regent's Canal and there was a 10-year-old girl sitting in the boat. A young man tossed his firework over a bridge, it landed in her lap, and she bent down to see what had landed in her lap and it blew up in her face. That young man I happen to know was at that time of an age to purchase fireworks even under the present Government Bill, and it is that sort of person I should like to see prevented from handling any such things.

My Bill on Tuesday died. I am told by some of my noble friends on the Front Bench that their Bill was put down directly because of mine. If that is so, never has such a beautiful mother died giving birth to such a weak little infant. However, there it is. We have got something out of this, and I suppose we must vote for that something and see what we can do about making it better in Committee.

5.16 p.m.


My Lords, I agree with all the previous speakers about the raising of the age from 13 to 16. However, that does not go far enough; it does not go to the fundamental principle of how we are going to prevent accidents. In my speech on the other Fireworks Bill I said that fireworks should not be allowed to be bought. I should like to revise that and say that they should not be allowed to be bought by private individuals, what-ever age they are. However, I think there is nothing against a public body, or some other institution, having a fireworks display and obtaining from their local council a licence for the display of fireworks. Therefore I am not urging the entire abolition of fire-works, and I hope the vested interests in the fireworks industry will accept that. But I am against any private individual being allowed to buy fire-works and cause an accident, because all the vested interests are not worth one accident to a child. I will support this Bill, but I shall bring in an Amendment at the Committee stage.

5.18 p.m.


My Lords, may I thank all noble Lords who have welcomed this Bill, some rather more warmly than others? I have been asked one or two questions to which I shall try to reply, and I will also, of course, take note of all the points that have been raised. I have no doubt that we shall have time to explore them at Committee stage.

The noble Lord, Lord Auckland, asked about the position of children and young people (if I may put it in that way) under the age of 16 purchasing fireworks if this Bill were to pass into law. He asked whether they would be committing an offence, and what the penalties would be. My Lords, the penalties would not be on the child or the young person, but on the shopkeeper who illegally sold the fireworks. Noble Lords may be aware that the maximum fine for this offence under the Explosives Act was raised from £5 to £20 in the Criminal Justice Act 1967.

I am sorry that, in spite of our debate on Tuesday, my noble friend Lord St. Davids still feels that insufficient is done to alert people to the dangers of the use of fireworks. On that occasion several noble Lords referred to the kind of activity which takes place in this field, and I believe I reminded the House of the considerable efforts that are made each year by the Home Office, by local authorities, by firework manufacturers' associations and by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents to ensure that fireworks are safely handled, in accordance with the manufacturers' instructions. Measures are taken against parents allowing their children to handle fireworks except under careful supervision, and there is also information emphasising the need to consider old people in the neighbourhood, and reminding people of the dangers and illegality of home-made fireworks, which can be particularly dangerous.

In asking for a Safety Code my noble friend also asked about the labelling of fireworks. He asked that pamphlets should be produced when fireworks are sold. But, of course, we already have a situation where each box of fireworks sold has a leaflet or a label describing the safety precautions to be observed, and the fireworks themselves carry appropriate warnings. In addition to these special measures, there has been reference to posters, pamphlets, films, television and talks at schools. If my noble friend wishes to pursue this matter, I ask him to tell us in rather more detail at Committee stage just what he has in mind, in addition to all the other precautions which are already taken, and I think rightly, both in advance of the great day for fireworks and also in respect of the sale of fireworks in boxes and individually.

I think those are the main points that have been raised on Second Reading this afternoon. I hope that we shall see this Bill quickly through its various stages, so that we can get it to another place, as we are all anxious to see it made law as soon as possible.

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