HL Deb 09 September 2003 vol 652 cc279-86

11.22 p.m.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Haskel) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Power to make regulations about fireworks]:

Lord Lucasmoved Amendment No. 1: Page 2, line I, leave out paragraph (b) and insert— (b) for mitigating the risks that the use of fireworks will have those consequences. The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 1, with the leave of the Committee, I shall speak to all my amendments tabled today. I note that it is about 23 minutes past the proposed curfew so I hope that there will be no fireworks this evening and that we shall proceed to a gentle and colourful end in not too many minutes. First, I apologise to Guide Dogs for the Blind. At Second Reading, I doubted some of the figures mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay. I was entirely wrong and they were right.

I still have major reservations about the Bill, which I shall turn to later. However, I recognise that many Members of the Committee and many people outside are keen that this measure should proceed. Technicalities at the other end mean that we cannot amend this Bill if it is to proceed. Therefore, faced with the choice of opposing the Bill with the objective of killing it or negotiating with the Minister, I have chosen to negotiate with the Minister. Perhaps more importantly, the Minister has chosen to negotiate with me. Although I have had no sight of his speech, I hope that we shall prove to have reached an amicable conclusion.

There is an unresolved—indeed, largely unheld—debate between animal charities, who want great restrictions on the use of fireworks, and the general public, who enjoy them. The principal lobbying leaflet which we have all received quotes one case of an animal injured by a vicious assault with a firework, which could have been dealt with no change in legislation. Statistics indicate that tens of thousands of pets are frightened by what most of us regard as the ordinary use of fireworks; that is, home use, 5th November, birthday parties and so forth. Most of the distress complained of by animal charities is caused by this normal use. Their ambition is to restrict firework use to defined dates and to licensed public displays, making firework use predictable and something that could be prepared for.

The Government's proposed regulations as outlined so far would do nothing of the kind. They seem to reflect the more general understanding and public mood by proposing a number of sensible restrictions on who can sell fireworks, on the availability of the most dangerous kinds and so forth. To the extent that I understand them and as the Government have explained them, the measures in this Bill appear thoroughly praiseworthy.

However, the first difficulty I have is that Clause 2(1)(b) does not allow the Government to make the kind of regulations they seek. Clause 2(1) gives the Government powers. Subsection (1)(a) allows the Government to ban fireworks outright, while subsection (1)(b)—here I elide the words in the Bill—allows regulations, securing that the risk that the use of fireworks [will cause distress to animals] with the minimum that is compatible with their being used". That is very much in line with the position taken by the animal charities; namely, that fireworks can he used, but only in strictly regulated ways so that their use causes minimum distress.

Clearly the Government's proposals do not secure that the risk that the use of fireworks will cause distress to animals is the minimum compatible with their being used; far from it. So in my view the Bill does not give the Government the power to make the regulations they say they wish to make. If such regulations are made, they could be open to challenge. My Amendment No. I would remedy this defect but, as I have said, passing it would result in the Bill being lost.

In another place this is a purely procedural matter: it chooses not to consider amendments made to Private Members' Bills at this stage of the Session. It can be done quite easily and without any great effluxion of time. I hope that this is a matter about which we might persuade either the Procedure Committee or another body of this House to talk to the other place. Indeed, the same may be said for a number of other Bills coming forward towards the end of this Session. The procedure prevents us from giving them effective scrutiny. This is a minor change for the other place and I hope that in due course it will be considered.

My second difficulty with the Bill is the extent of the powers given to the Government when there is great uncertainty about how the Government would wish to use them, and that there has been no real public consultation. With one or two minor exceptions, regulations are to be made using the negative procedure. I do not think that we would let the Government get away with one of their own Bills in this state. We would demand a long explanation of what they wanted to do and seek to tie them down with limitations on what they would be able to do while there was still so much uncertainty. As I have pointed out, this is a Private Member's Bill and we are considerably restricted in how we deal with it. I still feel extremely queasy about letting a Bill through in this state, but given the past difficulties in securing legislation on this matter, I understand why this is being done.

I have a number of questions that I want to put to the Minister. Given that he has had notice of them, I hope that he will be able to say "yes" to all them so that we can proceed home to bed. First, I want to ensure that we shall not get any trouble from the Minister or from the Chief Whip, who is in his place, if the regulations that come before the House are greatly different from what the Government have said they intend. and we then try to push through a resolution under the negative procedure to have done with them. I am sure that the Chief Whip and his predecessor will agree that that is an unusual step, but under circumstances where we have no idea of what will be the results of the consultation and in theory the regulations could be quite different from what has been outlined by the Government, we would be justified. Although I would expect the Government to seek to defeat such a resolution, I hope that they will not squeak that that is an extraordinary and inappropriate thing to do.

Secondly, if I am right about Clause 2(1)(b)—I fully accept that the Government may think I am not—I hope that the Government will say that they will support a Peer's private measure to put it right; that is, that it is their intention that the Bill should enable them to do what they have said they wish to do. If it does not do so. they should confirm that they would like to see the error corrected.

I wish now to clarify what is the Government's present thinking on the regulations that they would like to introduce. Am I correct in thinking that the Government intend to impose an 11 p.m. curfew for ordinary firework use with the exception of celebrations of recognised New Year's days? Am I correct in thinking that the Government propose to allow non-specialist shops to supply fireworks to the public only between specified dates and that these dates will allow for all festivals commonly celebrated with fireworks?

As to the decibel limits that the Government currently intend to impose, are these 120 decibels for domestic fireworks and 130 decibels for public displays, measured from the point of hearing of an ordinary observer? By contrast, the animal charities would like the limit to he 90 decibels, which is between 1,000 and 10,000 times less loud if measured in absolute energy terms, the decibel being a logarithmic scale.

Do the Government envisage that the public will be able to buy the ordinary kinds of fireworks that we associate with private displays—that is, rockets for high altitude displays and roman candle types for low altitude displays—at any time of the year from specialist shops? Will we be able to use such fireworks in private displays on private land subject only to the curfew?

Lastly, will the Government undertake to put in place effective controls on fireworks imports at the point of entry so that we can stop the trade in dangerous or unsuitable fireworks at source?

Those are the matters on which I seek comfort. I hope very much that I shall receive it. I beg to move.

11.30 p.m.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

I should like to take the opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for his helpful comments and thoughts during the. Recess which have allowed us to consider his particular concerns. I believe I shall be able to give him the assurances he requires. I shall deal first with Amendment No. I and then deal with Clauses 4, 5, 7 and 9, which cover his main concerns.

I would also like to remind both the noble Lord and other Members of the Committee that the Bill cannot be amended because the time set aside for consideration of Private Members' Bills in the other place has expired. I hope that we can all agree that the Bill is a good piece of legislation and is much needed given the widespread support from the public, the industry and various interested groups.

I should like to take the opportunity to clarify to both the noble Lord and the other Members of the Committee exactly what is the nature of Clause 2. As it stands, Clause 2 sets out the basis on which the Secretary of State can make fireworks regulations and the procedures which must be followed. We believe that such regulations allow the Government to make sensible regulations in order to achieve the stated aims under Clause 2(2).

The noble Lord interprets Clause 2(1)(b) as conferring on the Secretary of State the power to ban fireworks outright. This is neither the intention of the Government nor is such a draconian measure possible under the clause. It is a purpose test and should be read in conjunction with the other clauses in the Bill. What it does allow, however, is the banning of particular fireworks when read in conjunction with Clause 5. The clause would thus enable the Government to ban particular types rather than fireworks in general. Furthermore, category one and category two fireworks—indoor and garden fireworks respectively—are excluded from the scope of the clause altogether, thereby restricting the Government to prohibit only the supply of particular fireworks in category three, which are defined as consumer display fireworks.

It is worth noting that the Government have no plans to take action under the clause when enacted, although the clause might apply to any specific new fireworks on the market in the future that are regarded as either a particular nuisance or dangerous.

We are confident that Clause 2(1)(b) allows the Government to make the desired regulations for the purposes of minimising the risk of the consequences set out in Clause 2(2) but without, as I believe is the noble Lord's suggestion, having to adopt rather draconian killjoy measures to avert the possibility of a judicial challenge.

Any measures that we take in the regulations to minimise risks, either directly or indirectly—an example of the latter being the formalisation of a 120 decibel limit by the replacement of the British standard with the new harmonised European standard—will be made in the context of the stated risks in mind. All such regulations will be subject to consultation prior to reaching the statute book to ensure the Government have got it right.

With this in mind, regarding the noble Lord's amendment to substitute "minimise" for "mitigate", while there is a theoretical difference in the substitution, we believe that there will be little difference in practice. When one considers minimising risk with the last part of the sentence, compatible with their being used", the underlying sense that emerges is that the risk should be minimised but considered in the context that many people use them and enjoy using them. For example, if we read the provision as simply aimed at reducing risk to a minimum, it would perhaps be reasonable to suggest that safety distances for spectators should be, say, a minimum radius of 100 metres. We could also imagine that in keeping the risk of damage to a minimum, firework use could be restricted to places such as fields, away from areas with a high building density. But I think we can all agree that such examples would be unreasonable, and that is the reason why "compatibility of use" is an important counterweight here. It is also part of the reason it would be difficult for groups successfully to challenge the Government in a judicial review.

With regard to the noble Lord's questions as to whether the Government would look favourably on a private Peer's Bill to amend the fireworks legislation, I think, as I have indicated, that there will be little reason for this to emerge as an issue for the Government to consider as any judicial challenge is unlikely to be successful so long as the Government have followed all the relevant consultative procedures. However, should such an improbable event occur, the Government would consider the most sensible legislative route to correct it.

I hope that the noble Lord can accept this assurance and, on that basis, I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Let me now deal with the various other questions posed by the noble Lord on the clauses standing part. Clause 4 covers the prohibition of supply in certain circumstances. It allows for the inclusion in fireworks regulations of restrictions on the supply, purchase, possession or use of fireworks, or specified fireworks. at particular times or in particular places or circumstances.

On the noble Lord's specific question on curfew times, we believe that an 11 o'clock curfew is a good contender among the possibilities that we are considering. Were the Bill to become law, we will begin consulting on this shortly. The reason I emphasise the consultation here is that some issues will require careful consideration, particularly those involving considerations of ethnic, religious and cultural diversity.

Clause 5 concerns the prohibition of supply of certain fireworks. It provides that fireworks regulations may include prohibitions on the supply, purchase or possession of specified fireworks. The powers in the Consumer Protection Act 1987 are not wide enough to enable, for example, the satisfactory completion of a training course to be cited as entitling a person to be supplied with powerful and hazardous fireworks.

Regarding the noble Lord's specific question on the decibel limit, the measuring distance of noise emission for domestic fireworks under the new British Standard is set at a distance that is specific to each type. So the specified distance to measure noise emitted from an air bomb, for example, is different from that of a fountain. These differences are set out in the standard, so I will not list them here.

I would also like to make it clear that while it is true that the Government agree with the noise level for domestic fireworks that will be set out in the new Standard, it has never been their intention to place a noise level emitted from category 4 fireworks—that is, the professional display fireworks used at public displays. That being so, to my knowledge there has been no discussion of a decibel level restriction of 130 decibels.

The noble Lord raised the question of the availability of those fireworks used for private displays. Under the Bill, we have no plans to prohibit the public from buying particular fireworks in any of the defined consumer categories—that is, categories 1 to 3. Additionally, people may let such fireworks off on private land during any time of the year save the specified curfew time in the evenings, subject, of course, to the landowner's approval.

Clause 7 deals with the licensing of suppliers. There may be a need to ensure that the more powerful and hazardous types of fireworks should not be sold by non-specialist retailers who have no real knowledge of what they are selling. While the Explosives Act 1875 deals with the storage requirements for explosives, including fireworks, it does not allow for differentiation between fireworks by type or power. It is therefore open to any retailer to stock and sell both the smallest and the largest fireworks available without having adequate knowledge of their product. This situation has long caused concern to enforcement authorities and safety organisations. Clause 7 would therefore allow for the introduction of a licensing system for retailers and/or their premises to sell fireworks with the benefit of training—and with the ability to revoke a licence to sell were they to contravene any of the regulations such as supplying fireworks to minors.

The way that a licence will work is being developed. I cannot therefore be as helpful as I would wish in answering the noble Lord's question. At this stage we are not ruling anything out. But, on the face of it, restricting all year round supply to specialist shops could be damaging to particular retailers and involve issues of fairness with regard to religious and cultural minorities. Thus, in principle, any licence to supply fireworks made under the Bill should be open to all to apply for, and not just those considered to be specialist suppliers.

I turn to Clause 9, which is essentially concerned with the prohibition of imports of fireworks. We would not have introduced the issue if we did not think that there is a problem. In answer to the concerns of the noble Lord, as soon as necessary regulations have been passed, we will look at what measures we need and can take to stop the trade in dangerous and unsuitable fireworks.

I hope that I have dealt with all the points of the noble Lord. Lord Lucas, on these clauses and that I have clarified the points to the noble Lord and the Committee and the reasons why the Bill should not be emasculated by the exclusion of these clauses, which I hope that all can agree should remain part of the Bill.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for the very generous statement he made about the statistics from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. I think that perhaps we should agree to disagree on his interpretation of parts of the Bill. I hope that he has been reassured by my noble friend's replies to his questions and that he is satisfied that he has received the assurances that he was seeking.

Lord Lucas

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness and to the Minister. Yes, the Minister has gone further than I thought he reasonably could. I am extremely grateful to him. He has satisfied me on every point. Under those circumstances I am happy to beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clauses 3 and 4 agreed to.

Clause 5 [Prohibition of supply etc. of certain fireworks]:

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 [Licensing of suppliers]:

[Amendment No. 3 not moved.]

Clause 7 agreed to.

Clauses 8 to 15 agreed to.

Clause 16 [Parliamentary procedure for regulations]:

[Amendment No. 4 not moved.]

Clause 16 agreed to.

Clauses 17 to 19 agreed to.

Schedule agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.

House adjourned at fifteen minutes before midnight.