I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of fireworks safety.
This is, of course, a most timely and topical debate, as we are one week away from 5 November, which is traditionally celebrated with fireworks to remember that small group of recalcitrant gunpowder plotters who attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.
So far, the main fireworks season this year, which included Diwali a couple of weeks ago, has passed without serious incident, and I hope that it remains that way through the rest of this week and next week. Over the next two weeks, millions of fireworks will be sold and used, safely and considerately, in back garden displays; and hundreds of thousands of others will attend professionally organised and safely fired public displays. Contacts that my officials have had so far this year with various police forces—[Interruption.]
I accept that fireworks are part of our culture and they are very exciting to all of us. There have been genuine campaigns on this issue, and surely it is about time that we had some restrictions on who can sell fireworks throughout the whole year. One accepts that we are a bit more lenient coming up to 5 November, but there are shops that seem to be able to sell fireworks every day of every month of the year. Surely in this day and age that is not right.
The legislation as it stands has made the use of fireworks more enjoyable for many Sandwell residents. If they have one question for the Minister, it is this: could he make them just a little bit quieter? What measures does the Department take to monitor complaints about noise?
Before my hon. Friend moves on, may I say that the concern often raised with me, in addition to those that hon. Members have mentioned, is the availability of fireworks via the internet? That is of great concern. I am sure that the vast majority of shops meet their requirements carefully and closely, but unfortunately, on the internet, fireworks do not seem to be quite so closely monitored and controlled. Does my hon. Friend have a view on that?
Firework sellers who break the law can face stiff fines or even prison, but is the Minister satisfied with the adequacy of the penalties available when people misuse fireworks? People over the age of 10 can get a fixed penalty ticket, but last week, as I was walking home in the Vincent square area, a group of youths were throwing lit fireworks at passers by. That sort of thing is absolutely and unacceptably dangerous. Surely we need to review that legislation.
Clearly, the sort of behaviour that my hon. Friend describes is completely unacceptable. Of course, there would be sanctions for that sort of behaviour in the criminal law other than those available under fireworks legislation. That type of behaviour would be a criminal offence.
We have made progress on fireworks. Post from my constituency on the matter has decreased substantially since I was elected in 2001, but we continue to treat the matter very seriously.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. In fact, I made some inquiries within the Department about the decline in the number of complaints. In 2004, some 870 letters were sent by Members to the Department about the misuse of fireworks, and that has declined to some 140 this year, so there has been a substantial diminution. As we know, Members are strongly motivated by complaints made to their constituency offices, so that is a general indicator of the success of the legislation.
Has the Minister had a look at the situation in Northern Ireland, which has had legislation restricting the private sale of fireworks except for organised and licensed displays? The number of complaints has diminished, although there are still some idiots—as the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) rightly characterised them. What lessons have been learned from the regime in Northern Ireland?
I apologise for being slightly late for the start of the debate.
As a former fireman whose life was blighted regularly each year by fireworks, I ask the Minister to look not only at MPs’ postbags but at the injuries caused, especially to young people and those who think that they are in control of themselves, but are not, especially if they have had a drink. The injuries are horrific, and our accident and emergency departments are still full of people injured by themselves and others by means of fireworks.
If the hon. Gentleman is patient, I will address that issue. He is right to say that the injuries are serious, and I shall be interested to hear his remarks, given his experience.
Contacts that my officials have had so far this year with various police forces, fire services and trading standards departments indicate that the start of the firework season has been quiet in all senses of the word. However, the enjoyment of millions can be threatened, as so often is the case, by the thoughtless, selfish and often criminal actions of a minority. Fireworks can be fun if they are used in a responsible and sensible fashion, but it is the actions of that minority who continue to let fireworks off in the street, who buy fireworks and give them to under 18s and who think it funny to let off fireworks in the early hours of the morning, well after the curfew has come into operation, frightening people and animals alike, who threaten to spoil it for everyone else.
Since 2000 or so, the use and popularity of fireworks have grown, albeit slowly. Part of this rise can be attributed to a change in the type of fireworks available to consumers. The traditional family selection box that I recall from many years ago is now rivalled by large single ignition multi-shot cakes, “a display in a box”, which were virtually unheard of 10 years ago. The popularity of these fireworks can be attributed to their safety: lighting them once sets off a display letting off anything from 10 to 200-plus effects. Obviously that may mean that some garden displays now have more bangs in them as overall they have more effects in them.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I take his point about the inability to stop the process, but the number of times that the individual comes into direct contact with the fireworks is reduced.
The new types of fireworks may have led to the perception that more noisy fireworks are let off each year. Another reason is the growing popularity of fireworks for use at weddings and civil partnerships, anniversaries, birthdays and other celebratory events. Such usage was unusual in the past, but it is developing. This trend has spread the traditional use of fireworks from bonfire night to other nights of the year.
It is important that the Government take an active role when it comes to issuing firework safety messages. My Department has been communicating such messages throughout Diwali and will continue to do so in the run-up to 5 November. We have worked closely with the Department for Children, Families and Schools to promote child safety during the firework season, which complements my Department’s aim to promote firework safety in general.
There are two main audiences for firework safety messages. The first is the general public who hold displays in their back garden for their children, and who may not be aware of the firework code and safe practices, thereby putting themselves and their own and other children at the risk of serious injury. The second is the retailers of fireworks: we must encourage them to sell fireworks responsibly and remind them of their obligations under the Fireworks Regulations 2004, which are helping to tackle firework crime and misuse.
The aims of the activity delivered by my Department and DCSF are to ensure that consumers have adequate information about firework safety; to reduce the number of fireworks-related injuries by ensuring the public are adequately aware of the risks and dangers posed by fireworks; and to encourage retailers to sell fireworks responsibly to over-18s and remind them of their obligations under the relevant fireworks legislation.
The messages are being communicated by an existing stock of TV and radio advertisements about fireworks safety on commercial and BBC stations. These are “fillers” that are placed, free of charge, in unused air-time. We also produce news releases carrying safety messages, aimed at the regional press. We also engage with key stakeholders such as the Child Accident Prevention Trust and the British Fireworks Association.
The fireworks website www.direct.gov.uk/fireworks has also been updated and is being promoted on the home page of Directgov. The website contains free resources that can be downloaded to help with the promotion of the safe use of fireworks. This includes schools packs; a campaign toolkit aimed at trading standards departments to enable them to undertake local initiatives; an information leaflet for retailers; and copies of the fireworks code as leaflets and posters.
I have noticed that the information provided with fireworks talks about the distance that should be maintained from the lit firework—for example, 25 metres. Given the trend towards smaller gardens, should the recommended distances be replaced with warnings that particular fireworks are not suitable for small gardens? That could make matters clearer and more specific and would stop people buying fireworks that they think are appropriate for the size of their garden, but are in fact not.
My hon. Friend makes a sensible and helpful point, and I will certainly take it back to the Department.
We have tried to make the information on the website as accessible as possible, and it includes games for children to play so that they can benefit from information on this serious issue in an accessible and fun way.
I wonder if my hon. Friend agrees with me on this matter, although he might think my position strange given that I represent Huddersfield, which is home to Standard Fireworks—the largest fireworks company in the land, although unfortunately it now manufactures fewer of them and mainly imports from China. I have been campaigning on this matter for many years. The safest place for fireworks is around a proper community fire with community fireworks, not in people’s backyards. I know that I have made myself unpopular on this subject, but that would be the best option—and a much less polluting one, given the amount of pollution given off by the hundreds of thousands of bonfires up and down the country.
I have heard my hon. Friend’s views, and I know that a number of hon. Members hold similar ones. The Government have considered this issue over many years, but we have taken the view that it is part of our culture and can be dealt with as we are dealing with it—through a balanced approach and allowing, with limitations, the use of fireworks in a private environment.
To follow up on that point, does the Minister at least agree that via publicity and so on we should encourage people to go to such public events? Councils such as that in Glasgow and elsewhere put on excellent events that are actually much better than those that people hold in their own gardens.
May I take the Minister back to a point he made earlier in reference to what we are discussing now? Is it not the case that often people will go to an organised display, but will also have fireworks displays in their back gardens? The problem is that the fireworks season now extends to about a quarter of the year. We need to start saying to people that it might be nicer if they were considerate to their neighbours and did not set off quite so many fireworks quite so often.
It is an exaggeration to say that the fireworks season extends that far. There was a major concern a few years ago that fireworks were being used for far too long a period, but in my experience that has diminished to some extent. For the most part, we now have a relatively truncated fireworks season, which I think is a good thing.
Increasing numbers of displays now have a children’s display, and some large public displays have—
Order. I am afraid that the Minister has had his allotted time. I call Mr. Adam Afriyie.
I am delighted that this debate has arisen today. It covers an important issue, and provides a timely opportunity to consider whether stronger fireworks safety regulations are needed. I welcome the debate, therefore, and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) for his vigorous campaigning. It is an important issue, and I think that the Minister has highlighted some of the dangers and joys of the use of fireworks.
Some 500 years ago, terrorists attempted to blow up this place. Their plot failed, but they succeeded in placing an annual event in the British calendar, and to this day we mark the occasion with bonfires and fireworks on bonfire night. Fireworks form part of our history and culture, not only on bonfire night, but on new year’s eve, and others use them for weddings and during Diwali, Eid and Hanukkah.
There are two kinds of fireworks. First we have the thrilling fireworks of celebration, entertainment and joy. They provide the glittering spectacles that excite our children and set our hearts pumping. They are the fireworks watched on the millennium’s eve and at the opening of the Olympics. They are the fireworks that bring our families and communities closer together and bind our society closer still with a sense of common history and heritage. And they are the fireworks that, if used responsibly, bring jobs and livelihoods to thousands of people. If we are talking about those kinds of fireworks, I am completely and wholeheartedly in favour of them.
There is, however, a second kind of firework: the misused fireworks of the irresponsible and antisocial. They are the fireworks that startle horses, pets and wildlife. They are the fireworks that unexpectedly break a good night’s sleep. And they are the fireworks that ignorant people misuse, causing danger, harm and injury to others. If we are talking about those kinds of fireworks, I am completely against them.
Fireworks are explosives, which pose a potent risk of injury, and it is important that we consider those risks from time to time. I am glad that we are doing so today. In a civilised, democratic society, it falls on us to consider the risks, evidence, statistics and options available so that we can come to a balanced judgment. We must take that responsibility seriously on behalf of the people who elected us. Our priority must be strong and effective rules or alternative measures to underpin the safety of fireworks. We took the responsibility seriously in 2003—before my time here—and I am pleased that Conservatives at that time, alongside Members of all parties, supported the Fireworks Act 2003.
It was not uncontroversial, because it contained enabling measures bestowing the power on a future Secretary of State to create regulations and make decisions that were at that point undefined. Conservatives are always uneasy when the Government take on new powers without defining them. However, the Fireworks Act was a good step forward, and we are glad that it is in place.
I thank the Minister for his intervention. That debate on fireworks safety, which led to the introduction of the legislation, was conducted sensibly and rationally. It was a good step in the right direction, although there is always hesitation from Conservative Members over enabling legislation.
This is not the first time, therefore, that we have considered fireworks safety. There has been a raft of fireworks safety legislation and regulations stretching back to the Explosives Act 1875. There followed the Protection of Animals Act 1911, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the General Product Safety Regulations 1994, the Fireworks (Safety) Regulations 1997, the Fireworks Act 2003, the Fireworks Regulations 2004, the Fireworks (Safety) (Amendment) Regulations 2004 and the Fireworks (Scotland) Regulations 2004.
Very much so, which is why I mentioned in my opening remarks that we have to consider the irresponsible use of fireworks at non-designated times, which can have a dreadful impact. In Windsor, we have two race courses and a wonderful array of wildlife, but horses, dogs and cats are startled by the use of fireworks. It is really important to consider that, especially when there is a legal obligation on the owners of pets and animals to take care of their well-being. There is a bit of a conflict, therefore, and I hope that it will be explored further during the debate.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the difficulties for animal owners is the unexpected use of fireworks? If we have an organised display on 5 November, everyone knows that they have to prepare their pets and horses for the event, but when they do not know that the fireworks are coming, they cannot do the necessary preparation and look after their animals properly.
Quite right. My hon. Friend has put the point clearly and fairly eloquently. As I said, I hope that those points will be picked up and examined further during this short debate.
Looking back through previous debates, it seems that almost everything has been considered on many previous occasions. Today we have an opportunity to examine the evidence and to see whether anything has changed to warrant further regulations or changes. We are happy to discuss how the existing regulations might be improved, because we want the risks to be managed sensibly and effectively. However, we think that a complete ban on the sale of fireworks would be a disproportionate response. We do not want to be killjoys or to ban everything that carries a risk, nor do we want to introduce a draconian state-sanctioned prohibition without clear evidence that it is necessary. It is wrong to punish the thousands of families and communities who put on safe and enjoyable firework displays at designated times and in the correct manner. It cannot be right that the actions of an antisocial minority dictate the lifestyles of the majority.
I will come to that point in general terms in a moment, but we are open to looking at the evidence of what may have changed since 2003 and 2004, when the legislation was brought in. Let us look at the trends in the numbers of injuries and complaints. If there is something to respond to, we will be open to responding with appropriate measures.
A little boy was squeezing my hand at the last fireworks night and saying, “Why don’t they make fireworks a bit quieter?” He likes the spectacle, but he was not sure about the crashing and banging, so I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s point. We have different categories in place, but my personal preference would be to consider the noise nuisance a lot more than the light nuisance. We are happy to discuss the regulations, but we do not want to be killjoys or respond in a knee-jerk way by banning things that may carry some risk without looking closely at the evidence.
In closing, let me say that I understand that this can be an emotive matter, especially when people’s safety is at stake. In those circumstances, it is more important than ever that we adopt a calm, reasoned and scientific approach to our deliberations. We are only at the beginning of this debate, but I am pleased that it has been reasonably well conducted so far. As the shadow Minister for Science and Innovation, I believe that it is vital that we consider the matter carefully and on the basis of the available evidence. It would be irresponsible to make policy changes without looking at the evidence.
We need to know whether the number of injuries is rising or falling. We need to know what the impact of awareness-raising campaigns is on the number of injuries. We need to know whether people are being injured at home or at the major events. We all have our instincts about that, but let us look at the figures. We also need to know the number of children and minors injured relative to the number of adults. That is just one stream of information that we need to look at.
Information is power, but I have a complaint. The Government have put us in a difficult position. Bizarrely, they told officials to stop gathering the information on injuries in 2005. That was a very odd decision, and it is not good enough. Even the impact of the measures introduced in 2004 cannot be monitored adequately if the information is not available. I therefore have two requests for the Minister. First, will he make a commitment to start this year to count the number of injuries caused by fireworks? Secondly, will he give an unequivocal commitment that any changes to the regulations will be based on evidence, not merely assertion? This is not a debate with an ideological divide.
Having been a fireman, I cannot believe that the Government stopped collecting the data, given that the safety of the public is the most important thing. Not only should those data be collected again, but they should include where the incident took place, whether at a public display, in a private residence or in the street. That information is crucial, so that we do not introduce unworkable legislation.
The point is incredibly well put and I agree with it entirely. The statistics have been gathered since the mid-1970s, I think, and it could be argued that we should gather them in even greater detail, but to abandon collecting them altogether is a very odd move by a Government who say that they are interested in the outcomes of their policies.
Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend out. In 2005, which was the last year in which the statistics were collected, the Government reported that 48 per cent. of firework-related injuries were sustained at family or private parties, that one quarter were sustained in the street or another public place where fireworks were banned and that half the victims were children, even though it was then illegal to sell fireworks to anyone under 18.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has told the House the numbers. The question now is: what has been the impact of the regulatory changes in 2003 and 2004 on the number of injuries that we are concerned about? If the information is not collected, there will be no way for the House to make a sensible judgment on what may or may not need to happen next.
There is a cost to data collection, and we must ensure that it is not disproportionate. However, in this case, given firework safety, the antisocial aspects of fireworks and the impact on animal welfare, the figure would have to be pretty enormous to fail to justify merely recording the causes of an incident when somebody arrives at accident and emergency or wherever. I think that the data are already collected; we merely require an adjustment.
With the advent of modern technology—distributive processing, systems being able to interoperate with each other, cloud computing and virtualisation—such data transfers and interconnections are pretty easy to make. I am not sure that there would be an enormous or disproportionate cost to transmitting those data to the appropriate location. Doing so would certainly give hon. Members, who have a responsibility to consider the evidence in order to reach a judgment, the opportunity to do just that.
There is not an ideological divide in this debate. Of course we all want safety and well-being for our families and our constituents. Of course we all want the antisocial behaviour that we witness in many of our constituencies to be brought under control. Let me finish by urging the Minister, first, to reinstate the collection of data or give us a good reason why he would not want to do so. Secondly, will he give a commitment that the regulations that he makes—or that he is considering or may consider making—will be based on the evidence? Finally, this is an emotive debate, so let me urge a calm and reasoned approach to it. I look forward to the rest of the debate.
I am delighted to take part in this topical debate. When it was announced, I got out my heavily annotated copy of the Fireworks Bill, of which I was a co-sponsor, along with my colleague Bill Tynan. I also used to chair the all-party group that campaigned for the legislation. I hear what the Opposition said about being terribly calm, but one reason why that group was set up was to try to face down some of the opposition to introducing the changes that we needed to tackle the serious antisocial behaviour that was associated with each 5 November.
Private Members’ Bills are notorious for never getting on to the statute book. We had to use a lot of tactics to get the Bill through, which involved the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who was also one of the Bill’s co-sponsors, essentially having to sit on recalcitrant Opposition Back Benchers. The irony was that we set up the group to campaign on the issue shortly after my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) made one of the first attempts to bring in a private Member’s Bill on the matter after the 1997 election, to which the Opposition also objected.
Our aim was to try to get the legislation on to the statute book before the 400th anniversary of the gunpowder plot, and our very best chance came in 2002. Several members of the all-party group on fireworks were lucky enough to be drawn in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, so we got together and said, “Right. Each and every one of us will put forward a Bill on fireworks.” We went, mob-handed, to see the Minister and said, “If you don’t accept the Bill introduced by Bill Tynan, who came second in the ballot, we will move on to Bill No. 5, then No. 7, No. 12 and No. 17.” So the poor old Minister would have had to have spent every Friday dealing with debates on fireworks.
I hope that that gives the debate a little background flavour of the tactics that we had to employ to get the changes that we wanted. I find it astonishing that anyone should suggest that the legislation went through terribly smoothly and without any opposition. In fact, the Second Reading debate was probably the most well-attended Second Reading debate of any private Member’s Bill in that Session. Obviously, we again had to employ suitable tactics, so we ensured that we had well over 100 people in the Chamber at Prayers that day to show the opponents of the measures that we had the numbers to ensure that the Bill went through.
This one had always been done as a private Member’s Bill. I was chair of the all-party group on fireworks at that time, and one reason that we went mob-handed to lobby the Minister was that we felt that the Government were being a little slow on the uptake. Back in 1997 and 1998, there was a problem because of different types of fireworks starting to be sold, fireworks starting to be sold in the summer, and shops opening up specifically to sell fireworks for short periods. This was resulting in a big increase in noise nuisance and antisocial behaviour, and vets and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were reporting more and more injuries to animals. We felt that the Government were being a little bit slow to catch up and respond to this increased nuisance.
We managed, however, to get enough people to back the Bill, and there were well over 100 people in the House that day. They all wanted to take part in the debate, but again, we had to ensure that the Bill got through its Second Reading, so very few of them actually spoke. I want to pay tribute to the Members from across the House who supported the Bill. They included the hon. Members for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), for Angus (Mr. Weir) and for Uxbridge, as well as my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton, for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood), for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson). They also included Paul Tyler—now Lord Tyler—and Brian White, the former Member for Milton Keynes, North-East. Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale was our stalwart champion who ensured that the Bill got through the other place.
I used to get hundreds of complaints about fireworks every year in my postbag and e-mails, but the number has now declined. There is not the same level of complaints about fireworks going off in August and September, for example.
I am listening to the hon. Lady with great interest. The latest statistics from the national incident category list show that, in 2008-09, there were 45,112 incidents of the inappropriate use, sale or possession of fireworks, compared with 33,142 the previous year.
I was simply saying that the number of complaints that I was getting in my postbag—about, for example, the use of fireworks throughout the year—had substantially diminished. However, when the Bill became an Act, and was implemented through various orders, it took some time for the processes to kick in, which might explain the statistical trend that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.
Last week, I met several members of the Fire Brigades Union when they were lobbying Members of Parliament in Westminster. They have known about my interest in this subject over a number of years, and they were telling me about their experiences. They said that the number of incidents involving fireworks that they had to deal with had declined. In our area, firefighters also have the power to remove inappropriate bonfires in public places, and they tell me that that has made a huge difference to the number of incidents that they had to deal with.
I think I know what the hon. Gentleman is going to say. I will give way to him in a few seconds.
The members of the Fire Brigades Union also told me that the nature of the fireworks available now gave them great cause for concern, and I agree with them. This is where I differ from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. We are no longer talking about the Catherine wheels and the rockets in milk bottles that I remember from my childhood. Nowadays, fireworks come in huge, heavy “cakes”, as they are known. Yes, they have to be lit only once, but they are massive and completely inappropriate for domestic gardens. In our area, there are many small, terraced houses. The instructions on these “cakes” specify the distance that people are supposed to keep from them, yet they are being used in those settings. I am worried about the inappropriate use of these very large, modern fireworks.
Actually, I was not going to mention multi-launchers, although I shall talk about them later if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was going to say that it is all well and good for the hon. Lady to say that the fire brigade has the power to remove bonfires—I have my Fire Brigades Union membership card, which I am very proud of, in my pocket—but firemen are not law enforcers. It is not their job to go and shut things down; they need the police with them to do that. It can often be very difficult for them when they are at an incident. We have had bricks thrown at us from the tops of tower blocks when we have been trying to put fires out. We have to remember that firemen are firemen, not enforcement officers.
To be picky about this, firefighters deal with fire and safety. When I was discussing this with them, we also talked about attacks on members of the fire service when they were called out to incidents. Obviously, I can talk only about the area that they were serving, but they explained that many of the attacks around 5 November related to people building huge bonfires in the middle of housing estates. Those bonfires would be lit, and when the firefighters went to the incident, they would get bricks thrown at them. Some of those bonfires are piled high with pallets, tyres and so on. In recent years, however, the firefighters in my area have had the power to remove them—an ability that they see as part of their role in dealing with safety. They tell me that, since then, the level of antisocial behaviour towards them—having stones thrown at them, for example—has dropped.
I want to make a few points to my hon. Friend the Minister, because, in spite of the progress that has been made, some concerns remain. One is about animals, and about guide dogs in particular. We need to consider the impact of the noise from fireworks on guide dogs. Guide Dogs for the Blind gave us phenomenal support for our private Member’s Bill. It tells me that every year, some of its dogs and puppies are unable to continue working because of the noise from fireworks.
I think we should do something about the noisiest fireworks; it is possible to manufacture fireworks that do not produce so much noise. How to tackle the problem of illegal sales is another issue that deeply worries me. I am told that there have been many more illegal sales since restrictions were brought in. Tracking where fireworks go when they come into the country—most are imported from China—is important. I would like to know more about what happens with firework imports, as not as many fireworks end up in shops as are brought into the country every year. Internet sales—an age-related issue—are another problem. It is not, of course, just a problem of fireworks, as for a whole range of age-related sales young people pretend to be at a suitable age so that they can buy certain products.
I do hope that we can do something about these very large cake-type fireworks going off in small gardens. As I and others mentioned earlier, we might be able to look at how the labelling is worded. Rather than focusing on distance—I always think my garden is bigger than it actually is—and by saying that these fireworks are inappropriate for small domestic gardens, we could provide better guidance for dealing with the reality of modern fireworks.
Thank you once again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this debate. I think that hon. Members can tell that although we have had some changes, this remains an issue very close to my heart.
I am not personally a huge fan of fireworks, but I know that they bring great pleasure to millions of people in this country, especially children. It is a shame that the actions of a few can spoil the pleasure and, indeed, the quality of life of many, but I do not believe that banning fireworks would be justified. As well as depriving retailers of a valuable source of income, a ban might create a thriving, unregulated black market. Some people might even try to make their own fireworks, which would have disastrous consequences in many instances.
As we have heard, the Government have introduced many regulations over the past few years, which have helped to strengthen the arm of the law in tackling antisocial behaviour. The police are now able to issue a fixed penalty notice on the spot and they can bring forward ASBOs and acceptable behaviour contracts in more extreme circumstances. No one under 18 can buy fireworks. Although the vast majority of retailers adhere to this regulation, fireworks can be bought on the internet, as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) said, and no proof of age is required.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is ludicrous to be able to purchase fireworks over the internet? It presents safety issues during the transport of a product, which puts other people’s lives at risk, especially those working in sorting offices, and we have no knowledge at all of who is buying the fireworks. If that is happening, the Minister should act now to stop it.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I had my researcher on the internet yesterday to find out just how easy it was to buy fireworks. It is extremely easy, so the Minister might like to look at that and deal with the issue in his response.
Non-specialist retailers are able to sell fireworks only for a prescribed period. The Government’s Firework Regulations 2004, built on the 1997 regulations, placed a curfew on the use of fireworks from 11 pm to 7 am in “peacetime”, from midnight on 5 November and from l am on new year’s eve and for Diwali, the Chinese new year and other celebrations mentioned earlier in the debate.
Anecdotally, I would say that the number of complaints I have received has diminished over the past few years. However, there are issues that the Government should tackle. Safety has been a big concern in the past. It is impossible to comment at the moment on how many people are injured because, as the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) said, the Government stopped collecting the statistics in 2005. That is not very helpful. We understand that the figure stabilised at around 1,000, but the then Department of Trade and Industry seems to have taken the view that it was unlikely to change either through safety awareness or further regulation.
To buy category 4 fireworks, I understand that people need to say only that they are a professional firework display operator. No proof is required, and there is no requirement for a licence, although some of the worst accidents have taken place in events, involving thousands of people, that were stage-managed by unlicensed operators who, potentially, had carte blanche to cause mayhem. I would thus ask the Minister to consider introducing some professional licensing requirement for public firework display operators.
My second main area of concern, which several hon. Members have already mentioned, is pets. I am not talking about acts of gratuitous cruelty, although they demean us as a society. I am not even talking about the 4,500 pets a year who wind up being treated by vets for injury. It is incumbent on responsible owners to keep pets inside during the firework season, although I acknowledge the point about unexpected fireworks going off outside the approved curfew time.
What I am talking about is the noise factor, which can distress millions of pets at this time of year. I believe that the 120 dB limit is too high for many pets to tolerate and causes a disproportionate amount of suffering. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has run a campaign called “Keep the noise down” and it wants to see the limit reduced from 120 dB to 97 dB—a reduction that would have a marked impact, so I would be grateful if the Minister said whether the Government would at least look at that proposition.
I am questioning the Minister, asking him whether he would be prepared to look at the issue, which I hope answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Surely nobody wants a fun firework night at the expense of the suffering of dumb animals. As for the little boy mentioned by the hon. Member for Windsor, is not the real fun of fireworks the spectacular display rather than the loud clashing and banging?
I wish everyone a sparkling bonfire night, including my constituents in Solihull, who are to be treated to a free firework display run by the Round Table a week on Saturday, which is particularly welcome at this time of recession.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for making the time available for this afternoon’s debate. I cannot think of a more topical subject as we come up to bonfire night, so it was a wise choice. I congratulate all Front-Bench Members on their contributions.
My position on behalf of my constituents is to call for a ban on the retail sale of fireworks. I do so after much consideration, much thought and much evidence from my constituents that that is what they would like to see. The local newspaper, the Kettering Evening Telegraph has, over a number of years, run many stories on this issue. Two years ago, it polled some 800 readers by inviting their views on the subject, and 88 per cent. said that they felt that the time had come to ban the retail sale of fireworks altogether. Although we can never represent all the views of our constituents, I am confident that, in this case, I represent the majority view of my Kettering constituents.
As the Minister said, it is appropriate that we are talking about this issue here in the Houses of Parliament. In 1605, Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament, which is why we have bonfire night every year—to celebrate the foiling of what would have been a really major terrorist incident of its day.
I like fireworks as much as anyone else. I think they are terrific. The colour, the sparkle, the noise and the spectacle are absolutely wonderful, and I love going to firework displays. The sad fact is, however, that in our country today, 1,000 people a year are hurt because of fireworks during the four or five weeks of the bonfire season. It is a disgrace that Her Majesty’s Government stopped collecting statistics on firework-related matters in 2005. I hope that, at the very least, the Minister will tell us that he too is concerned, and that he will take steps in his Department and across Government to ensure that the issue of firework statistics is dealt with appropriately.
In 2005—the last year in which statistics were collected—nearly half the injuries sustained as a result of fireworks were sustained at family or private parties, 25 per cent. were suffered in the street or in other public places where fireworks are banned, and half the victims were children, although it is illegal to sell fireworks to anyone under 18. Those are very serious statistics.
The hon. Lady is spot on. That is why I want the retail sale of fireworks to be banned. Although injuries are occasionally sustained at well-organised public events—there was a very sad case in my constituency a few years ago—most are sustained in people’s private homes and gardens.
While people may organise private or family firework displays for the best of reasons, it is, in my view, impossible to hold such displays without being antisocial. Unless those people live in very remote properties, a great many others will hear the noise. If a family suddenly ramped up the stereo system and blared out music at 120 dB, there would rightly be plenty of complaints and legislation to deal with it, but it seems that when it comes to fireworks it is okay to make a lot of noise in crowded, built-up areas.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is going slightly too far by demanding a complete ban. When people let off fireworks on 5 November, does that not give a great deal of enjoyment to the wider community, especially people who live on their own and do not set off fireworks themselves?
I respect and understand the hon. Gentleman’s point of view. The point that I am making on behalf of my constituents is that the best way in which to celebrate the bonfire season—and other events, such as Diwali and the Chinese new year—is through organised, licensed displays, which minimise the health and safety issue and also provide an opportunity for charities to raise a lot of money. Although friends and families sometimes get together to hold joint firework parties, there are still plenty of risks of injury, and, sadly, the statistics tell us that many people are injured as a result.
The hon. Gentleman has already given us evidence of his mastery of the various statistics. He has told us that 50 per cent. of injuries are sustained at private parties. Can he tell us what percentage of people attend private parties as opposed to public events?
The hon. Gentleman has made a good point with which many Members will agree, but, although I share his concern, I do not think that that is a reason not to impose a ban. I believe that the vast majority of people who hold family or private firework parties are law-abiding citizens who would not want to organise an illegal fireworks display. I also believe that a ban would make policing much easier. If a police officer heard a firework being let off, finding the person who was committing that illegal act would be fairly straightforward.
There are some stunning statistics. I read a very good article in this week’s Sunday Telegraph by Melanie Wright, who wrote:
“According to insurer esure, about 2.8 million people are planning to hold a bonfire party at home this year.”
I must tell the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) that I do not know how many of those people will also be attending organised displays, or how many people who do not hold bonfire parties at home will attend them, but that would certainly be an interesting statistic.
According to the article,
“research from Churchill Home Insurance reveals almost two million British homes have been damaged as a result of fireworks going astray, with each incident costing an average of £307 to put right.”
It also gave another stunning statistic:
“Aviva claims data reveals that Bonfire Night is the worst day of the year for burglaries – they rise by over a quarter – as well as the worst day of the year for car theft – an increase of 25 per cent. compared to an average day.”
Members will be asking themselves why that is the case. One reason is that the police are having to spend so much time dealing with all the antisocial behaviour caused by the inappropriate use of fireworks on or around bonfire night that burglars and car thieves are taking the opportunity to go about their business.
I was burgled at that time of year, although it happened a good few years ago. The police told me that crime peaks during that period because the noise masks many of the tell-tale signs. When rockets are being let off, people can smash windows and the neighbours will not hear. It is not that the police are necessarily elsewhere.
I am sure that the fact that burglars and car thieves may not be wild about bonfire night does not contribute to the statistics. However, I am concerned about the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that the police should spend their time investigating whether people are holding their own little covert bonfire parties. Would that not be an equally inappropriate use of police time?
It is not that the police are going around snooping on people holding private parties, because that is a legal activity. What concerns them is the inappropriate use of fireworks in public places. Inspector Dick Aistrop of Northamptonshire police has told me
“we build up our resources as bonfire night approaches and our BCU”
—basic command unit—
“prepares an operational response. We identify a ‘Bronze’ Commander (Inspector) to oversee those few days adjusting officer and PCSO duties towards the evening in order to respond to the increase in demand.”
There is evidence that the police are, quite rightly, adjusting their priorities to deal with the antisocial nuisance caused by fireworks around bonfire night.
An excellent article recently in the Press and Journal quoted Ally Birkett, the head of community safety at Grampian fire and rescue service, who said to local residents:
“We strongly recommend that you do not hold your own bonfire and fireworks party and that you attend an organised and stewarded event. Fireworks are explosives, not toys. If they are used inappropriately, they have the potential to cause severe injury or death.”
In that, he is spot on.
My hon. Friend is making a very good case. Does he agree that one of the other problems in this country is the closeness in time between Halloween and 5 November? There has been an increase in trick or treating, and fireworks are being used in that activity. That is particularly distressing, especially for the elderly who are coming to fear this time of year for all the wrong reasons.
As usual, and as on so many matters, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fireworks season is far too long. The prescribed period in the legislation is 15 October to 10 November. I would suggest that it is flexible on the boundaries and is too long. It should be redefined to “5 November or the nearest weekend”. We seem to be able to do that with Remembrance Sunday, which we celebrate on the nearest weekend to 11 November. Why cannot we do the same for bonfire night? The added complication in our multicultural society is Diwali, which happens around the same time. In some of our more urban areas that is causing a problem as well. Again, if the retail sale of fireworks were banned, we would not have the problem. We would have licensed and organised events happening on or immediately around bonfire night itself.
My hon. Friend is putting a persuasive case and will recall that, a couple of years ago, he and I took a petition to No. 10 that had been organised by my constituent Teresa Kulkarni, who has been campaigning tirelessly on the issue for many years. I entirely agree that having a shorter timespan for fireworks would make a lot of sense. Does he agree that putting the onus on retailers would make a lot of sense? If we had an initial voluntary scheme to prevent the sale of fireworks outside that period, we would not need legislation, on which we could fall back as a last resort.
I am most grateful for that helpful intervention. I well remember the high-powered delegation that my hon. friend led to No. 10 to present the petition from Miss Kulkarni, which I think contained about 129,000 signatures and clearly represented a large body of opinion that would like action to be taken against fireworks. His constituent would go further than his modest proposal and although I respect his views on the need to tighten legislation, I would go further. If we are to be sensible and get to the nub of the problem, we need to ban the retail sale of fireworks altogether.
The law, as tightened in 2004, is not having that much effect. From 2007-08 to 2008-09, the number of antisocial behaviour incidents recorded by police in England and Wales relating to the inappropriate use, sale, and possession of fireworks climbed from 33,142 to 45,112. The number of penalty notices for disorder issued for fireworks-related offences in the latest year for which figures are available, 2007, was a grand total of 816, compared with 33,000 incidents. In 2006, the number of defendants proceeded against at magistrates courts for offences relating to fireworks in England and Wales was 571. I would suggest that a very small number of people are being sanctioned for the inappropriate use of fireworks. The legislation is well intentioned but it is not having the necessary at street level.
There is concern that we are not getting the information that the House needs. My local hospital has been extremely helpful in telling me that during November it sees on average 43 per cent. more attendances for burns than at other times of the year. I am also told that the hospital does not record specifically an A and E attendance as a result of fireworks, as it is not part of the nationally mandated data collection. It is the best estimate they can give me but it is not mandatory to collect the evidence.
I asked my local fire and rescue service in Northamptonshire for its statistics. It was extremely helpful in telling me that there were about 81 recorded firework incidents for the first eight days of November in most years. But, again, it had to search through its data, using the word “firework”, as the information is not specifically collated. The local police inspector tells me that over the years 2006 to 2008, there were between 144 and 173 incidents of the inappropriate sale or use of fireworks under the antisocial behaviour legislation.
There is no doubt at all that animals are severely distressed by the loud bangs caused by fireworks and about 4,500 animals are hurt each year by fireworks and treated for injury. It is not just domestic pets, but wildlife. The Evening Telegraph in Kettering asked constituents to raise with me any questions they wanted me to put during the debate and there are several that I wanted to pose to the Minister. One reader suggested that housing association contracts should contain a clause to ban residents from using fireworks. That reader was particularly concerned about the use of fireworks in built-up areas. Another raised the animal welfare legislation and the liability of those who hold family or private firework displays for the harassment, alarm or injury caused to the pets of their neighbours. It would be helpful if the Minister clarified that.
I am most grateful to the Government for holding the debate. It is an issue that will not go away. The evidence from my constituents and the limited statistical evidence we have from Government sources suggests to me, and I hope to the House, that the problem is getting worse, not better, and that the time will soon come when the Government of the day will need to consider a full ban on the retail sale of fireworks.
Order. This debate must finish at 1.44 pm. Perhaps those hon. Members who are seeking to catch my eye could bear that in mind.
I will do my best to be brief. We have had a useful speech on the history of fireworks from the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), who is no longer in her place.
I have a couple of personal examples to cite. An older constituent who lives on her own had a firework put through the letterbox of her house. Fortunately, she has a second door, the glass of which shattered. If that door had not been there, I do not know what would have happened. It was a frightening experience for her. Also, I came out of my office last year onto a fairly busy street and there were rockets going horizontally across the road at ground level. Clearly, we have a problem. In addition to parties and anniversaries, Glasgow also has an issue of fireworks when there is a football match and especially when one half of the Old Firm has beaten the other.
I wanted specifically to mention animals and some of the effects that fireworks have on them. The SSPCA, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is running a campaign about this. Contrary to some public opinion, the RSPCA does not cover the whole of the UK. As I understand it, the RSPCA covers England and Wales and a completely separate body, the SSPCA, covers Scotland. I like animals—I am not unusual in that—and I hate to see pets and other animals being terrified by the kinds of noise we have to put up with sometimes. My lifestyle does not allow me to own a dog, but both my mother and my sister have them, and I have seen my mother’s collie-cross shivering with terror at the noise that has been caused by fireworks.
The SSPCA would certainly call for a reduction in the allowable level of firework noise. That currently stands at 120 dB, yet humans are advised to wear ear protection when exposed to noise above 80 dB. The noise of a typical pneumatic drill measures about 100 dB. We must also consider that a dog’s hearing is twice as sensitive as a human’s, and a cat’s is three times as sensitive, so it is no surprise that animals are stressed. The SSPCA has cited the examples of a mare aborting her foal and another who delivered a stillborn foal following a fireworks display held 100 yards from the field.
Two main issues should be addressed. First, I support early-day motion 1981, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), and calls for the decibel level of fireworks to be reduced from 120 to 97; his party’s spokesperson has already referred to that. Secondly, I agree with those who have argued that the availability of fireworks and the length of time for which they are permitted to be on sale should be controlled. As has been said, some improvements have been made, but the permitted time for sales, which runs from 15 October to 10 November, is still very long. One suggested limitation is for the period to begin about a week before 5 November—on about 29 October—and to stop on 5 November; I fail to see why there need to be sales after that date. Having more specific times governing the use of fireworks would help animal owners, including farmers and pet owners, as it would be easier for them to keep their animals inside for that given period. I am not calling for a complete ban, or a complete ban on sales to the public, but I think we could tighten the rules a bit.
Finally, may I just pay tribute to Glasgow city council, which puts on excellent displays every year, and to council officials, and also to Clyde police and fire and rescue, who put great effort into enforcing the existing regulations?
It is a pleasure to be able to take part in a debate that, for once, I know a fair bit about. I became enormously popular when I became a fireman in Essex; I was invited to so many displays and garden parties on and around fireworks night, because people appreciate how dangerous fireworks can be. Interestingly, I was usually the person who was offered the taper and invited to light the larger, more dangerous fireworks.
The debate has been eminently sensible. If we were to take a poll of my former colleagues in the fire service, I do not think there is any doubt that the vast majority would opt for a ban on sales to the public, but I do not agree. I think we need laws that are enforceable—I shall refer later to the fact that many existing laws are not currently enforced and, indeed, are very difficult to enforce. I also want to talk about multi-launchers, which truly frighten a lot of people.
The Minister said it was safer to have multi-launchers. As he suggested, they can carry from about 10 up to 200-plus fireworks. Multi-launchers are basically incendiary devices that throw explosives—usually Roman candles—into the air, and up to 150 feet for the smaller ones. The problem is that if they are not on a level stand and something knocks them, they cannot be stopped. Even a bucket of water will not stop them; they are designed to work in the wet so we do not lose fireworks night because of rain. I have seen what I call “Herberts” actually holding them against their chest and firing fireworks across a field. The danger in doing such things is obvious to everybody, but there are people who do things like that, sometimes due to alcohol or bravado in front of others. I have seen people firing fireworks down a high street, too.
Does this mean, however, that we have to ban everybody’s pleasure because a group of idiots want to play around with fireworks? I do not think so. Instead, I think that we need to look seriously at the legislation. We need to have the data available so that what we do is evidence based, instead of impulse based, as happens a lot of the time, with people referring to cases from “Our correspondence”. Our correspondence, however, tends to be motivated by individuals who have a particular feeling about something; but that is often not the general feeling of the entire constituency. We have all seen campaigns where a strong group of people have got together and loads of correspondence comes in, but when we look into it, we see that it represents a tiny minority within our constituencies.
I agree that some of the fireworks that are still available in the shops should not be on sale to the public. We should look at how powerful these multi-launchers are and how many launchers they have, and most of them should be part of displays, not used in our back gardens. We also need to consider the role of retailers. They will say to us that they are doing their level best to check whether the purchasers are old enough—that same argument was used about alcohol sales and now is cited about cigarettes. Last week, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), said at the Dispatch Box that she could not impose legislation on proxy sale of cigarettes as it was unenforceable, even though we have that provision for alcohol. [Interruption.] I agree with the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) that that is ludicrous, and so is this argument on fireworks. A huge amount of proxy sales are going on, when people who can prove they are over 18 buy fireworks in shops and then come out and either give them or sell them to minors. The police need to deal with that. If they say the law is unenforceable, we need to find a way of making sure it is enforceable. I believe it is enforceable, but the punishment must fit the crime. At present, it does not—an on-the-spot fine will not scare these people off. They are earning an awful lot of money by selling fireworks on at a premium to younger people.
Perhaps I am naive, but I was also shocked to learn that fireworks can be sold by post. They can be purchased on the internet, and then they pass through our sorting offices to be delivered. I acknowledge that there is currently an issue with the sorting offices, but the people who work in them need to be protected. We could not send such quantities of explosives through the Royal Mail legally if they were not in the form of a firework. I hope the Minister will stand up and say he will work with his colleagues to make sure such sales are banned immediately.
For clarification, what is special delivery? There is still somebody walking around delivering something that is likely to explode if compressed. Ignition from a spark is not necessary to make fireworks go off. They can be ignited in other ways, not least by compression.
The point I am making is this: let us not spoil a wonderful tradition that we have had in this country for many years because a minority of people are abusing it. Let us encourage more displays. In my own constituency, I shall be at the Leverstock Green village association fireworks display as I am every year, where we raise money for the local community in a safe environment. Let us understand the pet problem, too. I fully agree on that. I have a dog that goes absolutely ballistic at home during fireworks night—very often we will make sure that we have the means to pacify him available at home—but, by the way, he goes mad when there is thunder and lightning, or when the postman comes, or when a million and one other things happen.
I will not give way, as I am short of time. We cannot eliminate the fact that there will be noise out there.
I was at a public meeting in my constituency on Friday evening, where we were discussing the noise problem caused by traffic passing through one of my most beautiful hamlets on the edge of the Chilterns. The decibel levels there were 105. Therefore, some of the noise levels we are talking about in respect of fireworks are already present in everyday life in our constituencies. I do not think we can control thunder and lightning decibel levels. I would love to be able to control the traffic to get decibel levels down to about 85, which is what I think the legal limit is, but most urban traffic in London might well be above that, and it is certainly above that in parts of my constituency.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on convincing the Government to have this debate. Very unusually, I disagree with him on this subject, however. Sadly, I think we might end up in the legislative position that he proposes, but I think we should not destroy the great traditions of this great country of ours because of a minority. If we do that, we have lost the battle for the rights of the majority in the country.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall respond in general terms in the short time left available. Time will not permit me to respond to a number of specific queries that have been raised, but I shall contact the hon. Members who have taken part in this debate in writing on those issues.
This debate has been extremely valuable, and I have learnt a great deal from the Members who have taken part, some of whom have a particular interest in this area. We all recognise that this is a very important issue for our constituents. I have heard, in particular, the issue raised about the collection of statistics—that is causing concern across the House. I am advised that the reason why they were not collected after 2005 was that for a long period the statistics had remained very stable and the same statistics were being recorded year after year. I have heard what the House has had to say on the matter, so I shall speak to officials in the Department about this issue.
The approach that the Government took to the private Member’s Bill in 2003 has led to progress. I believe that the position has improved, but that is not to say that it cannot be made better. This issue needs to be considered by the Government on a continuing basis. I have heard the representations made on the time frames and the dates specified in the regulations. The regulations, as they stand, have made a great deal of progress on the use of fireworks, and for the moment the Government consider them to be doing a good job. We continue to seek to improve the position, which we believe to be much improved, and we will continue to monitor and listen to representations that are made. I close by simply thanking hon. Members for taking part in a good-natured, informative and well-informed debate, and for their time.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of fireworks safety.