HC Deb 26 January 1996 vol 270 cc404-5W
Mr. Harry Greenway

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what plans he has for changing the law on fireworks. [12486]

Sir John Wheeler

The control of fireworks in Northern Ireland is governed by the Explosives Act 1875 as amended, the Explosives Acts (Northern Ireland) 1924 and 1970, together with the Explosives (Control of Fireworks) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1970. Fireworks in the Province also come under the scope of consumer safety legislation.

The 1970 regulations were, introduced in special circumstances 25 years ago, and have remained unchanged since then. They were introduced primarily because of the security situation and the real fear that the setting-off of fireworks, particularly so-called "hangers" by young people, could be misinterpreted by security force patrols as terrorist action with potentially serious consequences for the innocent participants. There was also concern at that time about the rising number of accidents and injuries caused by fireworks. There seems little doubt that the present regulations have contributed to the low level of injuries from fireworks in Northern Ireland.

However, the present system is inherently bureaucratic and costly because it requires any person who wishes to purchase or use fireworks—with two minor exceptions—to obtain a licence from the Secretary of State. Failure to obtain such a licence is an offence. The present arrangements therefore consume an inordinate amount of police and administrative resources. This situation contrasts sharply with the legal position in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I am aware that there have been criticisms levelled at the present law, to the effect that it was inadequate and should be strengthened. Paradoxically, I have also heard claims that the present legal controls are disproportionate and unnecessary and should therefore be repealed. Whatever the law on fireworks should be, it is clearly essential that it should allow for the efficient use of public resources; pay due regard to public safety yet be no more restrictive than absolutely necessary, and be capable of being effectively applied and not open to abuse.

In the light of all these factors, I asked my officials in late 1994 to undertake a thorough, painstaking review of the law on fireworks, to see whether it was still relevant and effective in today's circumstances and to consider ways in which it might be changed. The proposals, which I am releasing today for wider public consultation, are the outcome of that review. Copies of the consultation paper have been placed in the Library of the House. As the paper points out, before I make any final decisions about what changes are required, I should like to hear from those individuals, organisations and agencies which have an interest in the manufacture, retail sale, safety and use of fireworks in Northern Ireland. To that end, I am writing today to Northern Ireland hon. Members and my officials are similarly writing to the political parties, and other interested groups inviting comment and proposals on what changes to the law they would like to see.

My intention would be to introduce the necessary amending legislation during 1996.