HC Deb 08 December 1999 vol 340 cc266-72WH

1 pm

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

Older and wiser parliamentary heads advise me that the crafty Member begins his Adjournment debate by praising the Minister for all that the Department has achieved. The effect of such a eulogy is doubly beneficial: it sets the Minister off feeling well disposed towards that hon. Member and therefore less likely to savage his arguments and, more importantly, it makes any self-respecting Minister self-conscious about repeating what one has said about her Department's achievements. Such repetition normally comprises at least one third of the speech that civil servants have prepared and so the eulogy liberates a good five minutes in which the Minister will feel obliged to answer the Member's questions.

That is the theory; we must see how it works in practice. I begin with fulsome praise for the Government's Fireworks (Safety) Regulations 1997, set out in SI 2294. All fireworks sold to the general public must comply with the regulations, which stipulate that all fireworks on sale to the public must comply with British standard 7114 and that the minimum age for purchasing fireworks is 18—previously, it was 16. Sixteen-year-olds can now buy only party poppers, caps and cracker snaps. Perhaps most significantly, the regulations have banned the public supply of aerial shells, aerial maroons, shells-in-mortar, maroons-in-mortar, bangers, mini-rockets and fireworks of erratic flight, such as helicopters, squibs and jumping jacks. In addition, some large and powerful fireworks have been banned from sale except to exempted professional pyrotechnic display organisers.

The regulations were passed speedily by the new Labour Government and are most welcome additional controls on what was becoming a fireworks free-for-all. I have only praise for the Minister and her Department in that respect and I do not doubt that, in her speech, she will tell us that, following the introduction of the regulations, the number of serious injuries requiring treatment at hospital casualty departments fell from 1,233 in 1996 to just 908 in 1997—a drop of more than 26 per cent.—with a further drop of 10 per cent. in the following year. Or rather, I do not doubt that she would have told us that had I not already done so.

I suggest a more helpful line for the Minister to take. Instead of repeating the list of regulations, she could tell us about their enforcement, an obligation placed on local authority trading standards officers. Suppliers who breach the regulations can be prosecuted in a magistrates court and fined up to £5,000, imprisoned for up to six months, or both fined and imprisoned. Will the Minister advise us not of the regulations but of how well and how thoroughly they are being enforced? Will she tell us how many prosecutions have been initiated against suppliers of fireworks in each of the past three years? How many of those prosecutions have led to a conviction and how many convictions have led to the imposition of either the maximum fine or a custodial sentence?

When I requested such information from my local trading standards office—the office for Brent and Harrow—I discovered that in 1998–99, in an area with a population of more than 500,000, there were only eight prosecutions, all for sales to minors. The largest fine was for £500, there were two fines for just £100, and there was one conditional discharge. During the previous year, there were only three prosecutions. Hon. Members should remember that the figures were for an area of 500,000 people. Of the three prosecutions, two were for sales to minors with fines of £250 and one for selling on the streets with a fine of £300.

The local trading standards officer was keen to note that shops needed no licence—they simply had to pay £11.70 to register as vendors of fireworks. He said that that fee did not even cover the administration cost and that, what is worse, there was no power to refuse or to evoke someone's registration. Overall, he continued, the office's role was reactive rather than proactive because it was understaffed.

The simple point is that the best regulations in the world are only as good as the enforcement officers. Enforcement is at best patchy, and at worst inadequate, to put it politely. The supply of fireworks is a commercial enterprise in which the rewards are so great that the risk of a £5,000 fine may be deemed an acceptable business cost. Does the Minister consider present levels of enforcement to be acceptable? If not, what will her Department do about them?

Enforcement problems are compounded because the United Kingdom has no register of firework delivery. Unlike many of our European counterparts, the United Kingdom allows hundreds of tonnes of explosives to be delivered to a shop or warehouse with no obligation to notify the local authority or even the fire brigade. How are local trading standards officers supposed to do their job—to check compliance with British standard 7114 and to check that no prohibited fireworks are being sold—when they do not even know where the fireworks are?

At a fireworks industry conference in September, one trading standards officer from Essex reported that four tonnes of fireworks had been delivered to a private householder. When contacted, the firework company that had made the delivery retorted that, as far as they were concerned, the purchaser could have had 20 tonnes had he so wanted. Sadly, the law would allow that. Private individuals may take delivery of vast quantities of explosives and store them for up to 14 days, without having to notify a competent authority and without an official record being required.

Does the Minister not consider protection of the public to require the establishment of a fireworks register? Trading standards officers and fire brigades throughout the country could then track the whereabouts of large volumes of fireworks in the community.

I return to the case of the Essex householder. What qualifications did he have to prove and what training did he have to show to persuade the firework company that he was competent to handle safely four tonnes of fireworks? The answer is none. Were the Minister to find herself living next door to such a gentleman, would she not expect him to have had training and some qualification before he was given custody of four tonnes of explosives?

I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy), for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) and for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who have actively campaigned on the issue. The private Member's Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton proposed such a national training scheme for those operating fireworks displays. Sadly and disgracefully, her Bill was talked out by two Conservative Members, despite receiving all-party support and Government assistance. Given that the Government supported such a scheme under that Bill, why do they not implement one? Will the Minister consider establishing powers whereby local authorities could regulate public fireworks displays to ensure safety?

I turn now to the most pressing and depressing part of the matter. I am not the only constituency MP to receive an annual flood of complaints from residents about disturbance from fireworks. My local authority, Brent council, informs me that its environment department received more than 400 complaints last year. Constituents cannot understand why the law does not empower someone—they do not care whether that is the council or the police—to stop the constant nightly bombardment that they experience.

One of my constituents described the situation in this way: Dear Mr. Gardiner, as I write this letter at 11 pm, it sounds like World War III has been going on outside since 5.30 pm and that it will go on to midnight. It started last Thursday 15 October and how long it goes on for I don't know. My neighbour tells me all through November. The lady continues: Neither I nor my four cats have ever experienced anthing like this. I had a severe migraine over the weekend and my cats are terrified and distressed. This year, I lodged an appeal in my local newspaper, the Wembley Observer urging residents to be more considerate of their neighbours and to finish their firework parties by 11 pm, to give some respite to the elderly, to babies, to pets and to ordinary people who just want to go to sleep in their own homes so that they can get up for their job of work the next morning without feeling that they have spent the night as film extras in the movie "Saving Private Ryan". I believe that my appeal had some success, but unfortunately the bombardments continued.

I am aware that the regulation-making powers under the Consumer Protection Act 1987 do not allow the Minister to restrict the periods during which fireworks can be legally sold or let off, but that is precisely why further legislation is needed. The public simply do not accept that legislation can go into immense detail about noisy machinery, amplified music and even, under the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act 1993, specify that a car with a faulty vehicle alarm can be towed away and impounded, yet nothing can be done to relieve the nightly misery for thousands of residents throughout the country from firework parties that produce enormous noise, cause huge distress and disrupt people's lives.

The Minister will, no doubt, have been advised that noise from fireworks could be deemed a statutory nuisance under part III of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Sadly, the reality is as described to me by my local director of environmental health. I quote from his letter: While the Environmental Protection Act 1990 is particularly effective at dealing with noise from loud amplified music, noisy machinery or plant and intruder alarms, it is not effective or appropriate to deal with noise from fireworks. In those remarks, the director of environmental health was supported by the Metropolitan police service, which wrote to me as follows: Thank you for your letter dated 20 October in which you bring to my attention the inconvenience caused to your constituents by noisy fireworks. Unfortunately, police have very limited powers to deal with such incidents, especially when they occur on private premises. The local authority Noise Abatement Section of the Environmental Health Department also has very specific and limited powers which do not enable them to deal effectively with these problems. I urge the Minister to put in place an effective means of dealing with these problems.

This year, the fireworks industry has rejected the Department of Trade and Industry's call for a ban on firework sales until three days before the new year celebrations for the millennium. What that means is that in 23 days' time one family in this country will face the next millennium with a family member, possibly a child, having been injured, maimed or perhaps killed by the use of an unsafe firework, or by the use of fireworks at a display that was unsafely operated. The Department of Trade and Industry calculates that the cost of each injury to the national health service is £6,000, but the cost to the family involved will be considerably more.

1.14 pm
The Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) on his success in securing the debate on an important subject that is of concern to many members of the public, especially parents, at this time of the year. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the courtesies with which he began his speech and for his praise for the officials in my Department who are responsible for considerably strengthening the regulations on the subject. My hon. Friend successfully did as he intended and pre-empted many of my briefing notes, prepared by the same helpful officials for the debate. I congratulate him on his research before opening the debate.

I reinforce the point that my hon. Friend acknowledged that we have taken steps to strengthen the regulation of fireworks. There is no doubt that the new regulations that we introduced in 1997, which came into effect on 1 January 1998, have significantly reduced the number of firework injuries—certainly those that were treated in hospital accident and emergency departments. We can measure that by the reports from hospitals in the four-week period around the 5 November firework season last year. We do not yet have the figures for this year's season. They will be available early next year and will be published in the usual way at the time. I hope that the figures for this year will continue to show a fall in the number of accidents resulting from inappropriate or dangerous use of fireworks.

It is important, too, to remember that every year, millions of people safely buy and enjoy fireworks for their own entertainment in their back gardens and those of their friends, or as part of public displays. I am glad that several authorities, including my local authority, Leicester city council, have put on highly successful public displays of fireworks, to encourage more families and members of the public to enjoy firework displays without running the risks often associated with the private use of fireworks in people's back gardens. However, I do not think that the Government should prevent the safe and thoroughly enjoyable use of fireworks in people's private property and at public displays.

The difficulties, which my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North described extremely vividly, arise from people who are either careless or positively dangerous in misusing fireworks intended for their own enjoyment, which tragically injure, maim or occasionally kill one of their own family members.

The other problems to which my hon. Friend referred, and from which his constituent suffered so seriously, arise from thoughtless youngsters, hooligans and vandals using fireworks of various kinds to make other people's lives a misery. That is a real problem, but it is only a small part of the overall picture of the use of fireworks.

There are people—my hon. Friend made it clear that he was not one of them—who are really calling on us to ban the sale and purchase of fireworks for private use. I do not believe that that is a sensible way forward, and I am glad that my hon. Friend shares that opinion. As he said, my Department undertook a review of firework sales in 1996 and rejected the option of a total ban, not least because of fears that a total ban on the sale of fireworks for private use might lead to the development of a black market for fireworks and also to the possibility of people obtaining the ingredients and making their own devices. Neither of those situations would impove public safety; indeed, both would severely jeopardise it and would not be acceptable.

We decided instead to act in the way that my hon. Friend accurately described through the introduction and implementation of the Fireworks (Safety) Regulations in 1997. My hon. Friend referred to the registration of shops selling fireworks. The Health and Safety Executive is reviewing the Explosives Act 1875, which dates back more than 100 years, to see whether we need to strengthen the powers to refuse or to revoke registration to a retailer selling fireworks.

An important issue arises there. A voluntary code of practice with the fireworks industry deals with the period during which fireworks may be sold. Under the code, the fireworks industry has agreed that they should be sold only for three weeks before 5 November and for a couple of days thereafter. The industry reinforces that message to retailers at the beginning of every season. As my hon. Friend said, the agreement this year, with the millennium weekend coming up, was that fireworks would be displayed for sale only from 27 December. Like my hon. Friend, I am disappointed that some newsagents and other shops have continued to sell fireworks right through since the 5 November season in anticipation of the millennium weekend. Looking ahead to that weekend, preliminary indications that I have had are that, compared with the normal pre-new year period, sales are less than 20 per cent. higher than usual for the time of year. Most additional sales are accounted for by high-value firework purchases, obviously made by people who plan large public displays. These are in a different category from private purchasers.

The Government do not have powers under the Consumer Protection Act 1987 to control anything other than the intrinsic safety of the goods themselves and we use those powers. The period of sale of fireworks is an issue for the voluntary code of practice. We have discussed this problem with the British Pyrotechnics Association. I hope that it will take further action with its members to try to reduce the number of retail outlets that defy the code by trying to sell fireworks in the weeks before Christmas and before 27 December when, under the code, firework sales would be expected to begin again.

My hon. Friend also raised the controls on the storage of fireworks by private individuals. This, too, is a matter for the Health and Safety Executive under the Control of Explosives Regulations 1991. The regulations allow up to 5 kg of fireworks for private use to be kept on individual premises. The case that my hon. Friend mentioned clearly falls well outside the scope of the regulations. If he will let me have further details of the report that he has procured, I shall be happy to ensure that the matter is properly investigated.

The regulations also permit unlimited quantities of fireworks to be stored for up to 14 days. This may be the source of the problem to which my hon. Friend referred, although the regulations stipulate that fireworks must be kept in a safe and suitable place and all due precautions taken for public safety. A back garden shed or garage may not fit the regulation's requirements.

As I said, the Health and Safety Executive is reviewing existing explosives legislation and the review may result in changes to existing conditions for the keeping of fireworks for private use. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend is kept up to date as the review progresses.

My hon. Friend quoted from a letter from a constituent who had suffered badly around 5 November. All hon. Members know that trouble with noisy neighbours and local vandals—and worse, positively criminal neighbours—is one of the most intractable problems that we face in our advice surgeries. There will always be limits to the powers of the police and local authorities and to their resources for dealing with the problem.

The Fireworks Bill—a private Member's Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy)—would have introduced many sensible additions to the regulatory package now in place for the control of fireworks. The Government supported her Bill, and I greatly regret that two Conservative Members chose to talk it out. It would have given the necessary powers to provide for mandatory training of people who operate large public displays. It would have dealt with the times during which fireworks could be sold—now purely a matter for the industry's voluntary code of practice—and provided powers to limit the letting off of fireworks except at specified times. These problems cannot be tackled under the current powers available to us, be they in the Fireworks Bill or the Consumer Protection Act 1987. It is a pity that that private Member's Bill failed. I hope that in a future private Members' ballot, any hon. Member who has an interest in this issue will succeed in reviving the Bill.

As my hon. Friend knows, the pressures on legislative time are enormous. When I became a Minister last year, I assumed that the biggest difficulty that the Government would face would be finding sufficient money to do all the things that we need to do. That is always a challenge, although one that is brilliantly discharged by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. The big difficulty is finding time. I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North the comfort that he seeks. There is no immediate or medium-term prospect of the Government introducing fireworks legislation. The legislative priorities to fulfil our manifesto commitments are such that, as he is aware, Bills with an even higher priority than one on this subject are already fighting for parliamentary time.

None the less, possibilities are available under secondary legislation. I have already mentioned the review being undertaken by the Health and Safety Executive. I can also reassure my hon. Friend that officials from various Departments and agencies work closely on this subject. My Department, the Health and Safety Executive, the Home Office and the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions work closely together, as we did when drawing up the 1987 regulations and will do again when we consider the recommendations that follow the Health and Safety Executive's review.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North questioned whether trading standards officers and the police were successful in enforcing the current regulations and statutory provisions, and suggested, no doubt on the basis of his constituency experience, that perhaps they were not. I do not have to hand figures for prosecutions and convictions, but I shall try to obtain those from the co-ordinating body for trading standards officers and send it to my hon. Friend. However, it must be a matter for local authorities, within their resources, which we are increasing every year, to determine local priorities. There are a large number of regulations—many people would say too many—and we have constantly to review regulatory burdens. With many regulations we look to trading standards officers for effective enforcement. Local authorities must decide on the most effective use of resources and determine priorities.

I can reassure my hon. Friend that we shall work closely with the industry and with local authorities to reinforce the message about safe use and enjoyment of fireworks. For the millennium weekend, we shall carry forward the "alcohol and fireworks do not mix" message that we successfully introduced for this year's 5 November weekend. I end by congratulating my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on participating in the steps that we are taking to ensure that fireworks are enjoyed safely.