HC Deb 30 October 2001 vol 373 cc228-34WH 12.30 pm
Joan Ryan (Enfield, North)

I am pleased to have secured this debate at such an appropriate time, as there is somewhat less than a week to go until 5 November and bonfire night. It is particularly appropriate to debate such a topic in this place. I enjoy firework displays. I have always taken my kids to see them and they have enjoyed them. It is right that we commemorate a momentous occasion in British history. However, some serious issues must be tackled.

The sale of fireworks through retail outlets should be prohibited. I would like the Minister to comment on that. I hold that view for three key reasons. The first is the level of injury to individuals, in particular young people. In the most extreme cases, fireworks cause fatalities—two were recorded last year. My second key reason is the incidence of criminal damage. For example, I have had conversations in the past couple of years with British Telecom, which recorded 5,000 incidents of firework-related vandalism involving public payphones last year. The criminal damage costs so far this year are running at about £1.2 million and the burden of those costs is ultimately born by the taxpayer and the consumer.

My third reason for seeking a prohibition on the retail sale of fireworks is that they make people afraid. Fear is a less tangible phenomenon than the other two that I have listed, but it is none the less profound. Fear, anxiety and distress particularly affect some of the more vulnerable members of our society. I receive letters every year from elderly people and their relatives, telling me that those people are very nervous about going out of doors when darkness falls. Some of them are frightened to go out at all at this time of year. I also receive similar letters from other groups, but I use elderly people as an example.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

Like the hon. Lady, I have received many letters on the subject, including a petition bearing many names. If the sale of fireworks from retail premises is not banned, would she agree that perhaps there should be some control over the time of year during which fireworks are used? Nowadays, it seems as though they are used throughout the year.

Joan Ryan

I agree. When I was thinking about this debate, I considered saying that firework accidents and attacks are now considered an inevitable, seasonal event, but in fact that is no longer the case. Fireworks are let off at new year and for other festivals, so it is not feasible to rely on the provision in the voluntary code for a three-week sales period before bonfire night. There are other festivals at other times of the year, so relying on that provision would not be fair and would not tackle the problem of the level of injuries and criminal damage. That is why I want a ban.

I have outlined three key reasons why a ban should be imposed. With respect to fear, many hon. Members, including myself, receive letters from people concerned about the distress and fear caused to their pets and animals by the—generally illegal—letting off of fireworks in the street.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde)

My hon. Friend is right to focus on the number of accidents and on the distress that animals can be caused. Is she aware of the increase in the use of fireworks as weapons? In two incidents in my constituency at the weekend, a cat and a dog were severely injured by gangs of thugs who were using fireworks as weapons, firing them at the animals.

Joan Ryan

My hon. Friend makes his point well. It adds further weight to my argument that we should consider the prohibition of sales through retail outlets, rather than regulation. That way forward has not proved effective.

The misuse and abuse of fireworks and the injuries caused by them continue, despite the well-intentioned Fireworks (Safety) Regulations 1997. Those most notably banned the sale to, and use by, the general public of aerial shells and similar devices. The statistics unfortunately and overwhelmingly demonstrate the impotence of the regulations in securing greater public safety throughout the firework season. The number of injuries from fireworks was higher in 1999 and 2000 than in 1998, which illustrates that the 8 per cent. reduction in casualties from 1997 to 1998 was merely arbitrary and owed nothing to the implementation of the regulations. The present legislation makes it extremely difficult for trading standards officers and the police to deal effectively with the sale and misuse of fireworks. Statistics demonstrate that tightening laws and increasing penalties for those guilty of the criminal use of fireworks will not be enough to curtail firework injuries.

For the past five years, the illegal use of fireworks has consistently been the second largest cause of firework-related injuries, but the primary cause has been family and private parties. Deliberate misuse is therefore not the only culprit; we must also consider the genuine use of fireworks as instruments of celebration. The evidence demonstrates that merely trying to eradicate the misuse of fireworks will not combat the high rate of firework-related injuries. It is therefore necessary to conclude that the thorough prohibition of the sale of fireworks to the general public is the only means by which firework-related injuries, accidents and damage can satisfactorily be tackled.

Those with vested interests, such as commercial manufacturers whose profits and employees would be affected, would obviously object to such a measure. Their economic gains are economic losses for others, such as the health service and ultimately, therefore, the taxpayer who must pick up the tab for firework-related injuries. Others who might face losses include individuals and private sector companies whose property incurs severe criminal damage.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith)

My hon. Friend will be aware that there was a serious incident in my constituency last week—a fire in premises where fireworks were being stored for the retail trade. Does she agree that attention needs to be paid to not only the immediate point of sale, but the whole chain of sale? Does she agree that such incidents require the Government and industry to reconsider their approach to the voluntary code of practice to prevent incidents at any point in the sale chain?

Joan Ryan

I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said, and my hon. Friend confirmed, regulation simply has not proved effective.

There is a fundamental assumption in any social democracy that commercial viability cannot go unchecked, but must be balanced against the wider principles of public welfare and safety. Although commercial vested interests would argue against prohibition, the weight of the argument is in favour of it and of protecting the public.

In response to a parliamentary question about firework-related injuries from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) in July, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry stated: We will further target this age group as part of the 2001 firework safety campaign."—[Official Report, 20 July 2001: Vol. 371, c. 606W.] Indeed, that was so, and we should give credit for that campaign. It has been appropriately targeted, with a higher profile than any campaign that I have been aware of for many years. However, therein lies our problem. Legislation requires that consumers of fireworks be aged 18. Statistics show, however, that the greatest percentage of fireworks injuries—despite the 1997 regulations, which raised from 16 to 18 the age at which one could buy fireworks—are to those aged 15 and under. Those account for 40 to 50 per cent. of all fireworks injuries in the past five years.

The evidence clearly shows the effectiveness of the legislation. The Secretary of State's answer in July and the targeting of the safety campaign in the media are explicit acknowledgement that the under-15 group is at high risk of fireworks injuries. Simultaneously there is an implicit acknowledgement that current statute, namely the increase in the 1997 regulations of the age for purchasing fireworks from 16 to 18, does not prevent access to fireworks for people under the age limit.

Even aside from the problem that all age certification entails—that of unscrupulous retailers who sell merchandise to those who are under age—firework safety cannot be guaranteed by ensuring that statutes are more vigorously enforced. Age alone does not qualify someone in the responsible and competent handing of what are, essentially, explosives. We could use the analogy of driving licences. Someone who reaches the age at which it is possible legally to hold a driving licence cannot then just get in a car and drive down the road. They must take lessons and pass a test. However, on reaching 18 someone can buy fireworks whether competent to handle them or not. We should bear in mind that fireworks are explosives.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East)

I have a 78-year-old constituent who was constantly bombarded, until she was forced to ask the council to move her. Youths as young as 12 have been involved. Should not such cases persuade us that the voluntary code is not working and that fireworks are available to anyone who wants to purchase them?

Joan Ryan

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am sure that most hon. Members could give instances of their constituents being subjected to intolerable fear and persecution as a result of the illegal use of fireworks by youngsters.

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North)

The problem is getting worse. I shall tonight present to the House a petition with about 28,000 names, from an organisation that is concerned about, for example, the impact on pets. I have tapes from individuals who need guide dogs. Fireworks can send the animals into complete panic, which restricts the ability of the people concerned to get out and about and lead normal lives at this time. The difficulty is not even restricted to this period of the year; it happens at other times, such as the millennium and Christmas, and at private parties. I believe that it is getting worse.

Joan Ryan

I am sure that some people would respond to a call for prohibition by claiming that there was a civil liberties issue to be considered. However, balance is necessary. One person's freedom is, after all, another person's prison. Human rights legislation also states that people have the right to quiet enjoyment of their property. Many people feel that that right has not been afforded to them. It is an issue of safety and balance, and safety must be paramount.

Legislation, despite its theoretical accuracy, is only as good as its implementation. Some would argue that legislation already exists that makes the misuse of fireworks an offence, which is correct. In reality, however, fireworks cause distress, anxiety and injury to an intolerable number of people as well as considerable criminal damage during every firework season and, more than ever before, throughout the year. We must emphasise that injury is not caused simply through the misuse of fireworks. Both the legal and illegal use of fireworks cause major problems, and that is why a prohibition is necessary.

I quote two examples that have already been quoted in the House and which show how legal and illegal use can cause loss of life. Dale Mitchell, a 10-year-old, died in 1996 after a lit firework was pushed through the letterbox of his family home. That is an example of the illegal use of fireworks. In the case of David Hattersley, however, fireworks were being used with the best of intentions. He was headmaster of Hazlemere primary school, and lost his life in November 1996, when he stumbled forward as he supervised the school's annual firework display.

Last year, 972 people were admitted to hospital as a result of firework injuries, but the actual number of injuries may have been significantly higher. Numerous statistics show the need for reform of the firework legislation. I hope that I, and my hon. Friends who have intervened, have made a case for it. The Government believe that it is required because in 1997 they supported a private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton, which was unfortunately talked out in 1998. They supported key measures in that Bill to deal with the licensing, training and qualification of those organising public and private firework displays. That is the way forward, along with a prohibition on the sale of fireworks. With those measures, we may all enjoy fireworks safely.

The British Retail Consortium will put to the Home Office later today its ideas for a national scheme to allow retailers to identify genuine proof-of-age cards. That may not solve the problem, but it might be a step in the right direction if we cannot achieve a complete prohibition.

12.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Miss Melanie Johnson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) on securing this debate, which is clearly topical. I am delighted to say a few words on the issue, as I know from my postbag that many people have concerns about it, which my hon. Friend and other hon. Members have raised effectively.

The sale of fireworks, although it is important, forms only a part of the overall firework scene. I stress the fact that fireworks are well regulated in many regards in the United Kingdom. The Firework (Safety) Regulations 1997 were made under the Consumer Protection Act 1987 and played a significant role in reducing the number of firework injuries treated in accident and emergency departments around the firework season of 5 November. Through regulations, we have restricted the general retail of certain types of potentially dangerous fireworks to those who are qualified professionals. We have the regulatory powers to deal with the antisocial practice of letting off fireworks in the street, and other such practices—but that is a question not only of regulation but of enforcement.

Millions of fireworks are sold and millions used safely each year in people's back gardens, providing a popular form of family entertainment. Many others enjoy public displays, and I hope that people will continue to enjoy fireworks in such ways. The vast majority of accidents involving fireworks are caused by misuse—partly by people not following the fireworks code and partly by the action of irresponsible individuals and hooligans. My hon. Friend referred to the British Retail Consortium's possible proof-of-age cards. The statistics show that a large number of those injured are quite young and many are under the legal age for being able to acquire fireworks.

My hon. Friend made several important points about the sale of fireworks through retail outlets. Under the 1997 regulations and the other legislation that impinges on the retailing of fireworks, all fireworks have to comply with British standard 7114, which governs their construction, labelling, testing and so on. Any products on sale that do not comply with that standard can be removed by trading standards officers. No fireworks may be sold to anyone under 18 years of age. That rule is also enforced by the trading standards department. Those who break the rules are subject to prosecution. We must examine how effectively that enforcement is being carried out and in what ways people aged under 18 are acquiring fireworks, as many are.

The legislation that controls the storage of fireworks is the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive, but the Act requires shops that keep fireworks to be registered with the local authority, thereby informing it of the premises where fireworks are kept and enabling them to undertake inspections to ensure compliance with the law. Considerable effort has been made under the present regulations to protect consumers from unsafe products and to ensure that the storage and handling of potentially dangerous products is controlled.

My hon. Friend asked about the period during which fireworks are available for sale. I know from my postbag that many people are worried that they are becoming more prevalent throughout the year as consumers choose to celebrate occasions such as parties, weddings and 4 July with fireworks. The Government recognise that. Our regulation-making powers allow us to deal with the intrinsic safety of goods under the Consumer Protection Act 1987, including fireworks, but do not enable the regulation of periods when they can be sold or let off. Wider powers to allow for that could be made available only through further legislation. A voluntary code of practice works for a three-week period around 5 November and for a similar period around the new year. That is beneficial in that it contains the period during which many retailers—especially those on the high street such as local newsagents and post offices—sell fireworks. The voluntary agreement is not perfect, but it has generally worked well. Those in the industry and in trading standards have been reinforcing the agreement during this fireworks season by sending out reminders and circulars about retailer's responsibilities.

Several hon. Members have urged that we should not allow the retail sale of fireworks to the public. Every year my Department receives a number of requests for a total ban on fireworks for private use. I do not believe that that is the way forward. Millions of people still enjoy fireworks. In 1996, the Department reviewed and considered a total ban. There were several reasons for rejecting it, including the fear that it would lead to the development of an illegal market for fireworks and to more illegal imports, which would involve quality control problems. Nevertheless, the Government were prompt in trying to restrict the type and sale of fireworks through the 1997 regulations, which prohibit the sale to the public of dangerous fireworks such as bangers, mini rockets, those of erratic flight and some of the larger and more powerful fireworks, and bans all category 4 and some category 3 fireworks.

My hon. Friend discussed injuries, which we all take very seriously, and the thrust of the effectiveness of this year's campaign in getting the messages out. I recognise that she would like more to be done overall, but messages about firework safety are being sent out. Over the years, the number of people requiring treatment in hospital casualty departments has been cut by about a third from 1,530 in 1995 to 972 in 2000. We hope that that trend will continue. My hon. Friend quoted some figures that showed a rise between 1997–98 and 1999. We suspect that that was due to the millennium period, which caused more fireworks to be used.

Statistics show reductions in certain categories of injury. Gains are being achieved because of steps that we have taken that have played a valuable role in keeping the number of accidents down. The annual firework statistics enable us to design the focus for the following year's campaign. This year, we have targeted people under 16 years old because they were particularly subject to injury during the 2000 firework period.

On the letting off of fireworks in the street, which we have all experienced, points have been raised about controls. To put it simply, it is illegal to let off a firework in the street: it is an offence under section 80 of the Explosives Act 1875. The police enforce that section and anyone found guilty is liable for a fine of up to £5,000. I recognise that enforcement is tricky, but legislation deals with the issue effectively.

Legislation also deals with distress to any domestic or captive animal, under the Protection of Animals Act 1911. Prosecution can be undertaken by the police or by trading standards authorities, and in some cases the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can instigate prosecution. Again, the fine is £5000, up to six months' imprisonment or both. There is a legal underpinning for effective action where such problems arise and, on noise nuisance, we encourage all those who use fireworks to consider neighbours and inform them—particularly old people—of what is planned.

We recognise the concerns raised by my hon. Friend, other hon. Members and the public, but we have introduced a comprehensive package of legislation in the UK to cover the supply of safe fireworks. The effective enforcement of various regulations is crucial. It must not be an idle threat. Prosecutions must take place and I am sure that that will happen more often in future. I appreciate that resources are extremely pressed in some areas, but the police and local authorities will follow up complaints about the sale or misuse of fireworks.

I assure my hon. Friend that her arguments and those of other hon. Members have been well made in this worthwhile debate. I have listened carefully to what they have said about arising difficulties. We will continue to keep firework safety and usage under review, particularly in light of this year's experience.