Monday 6 June 2016
[Valerie Vaz in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 109702 relating to restricting the use of fireworks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I am pleased to introduce this important debate on fireworks and animal welfare based on the petition that was signed by more than 100,000 people. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for attending and look forward to hearing his views on and valued input into what I am sure will be an important debate.
I am sure that all hon. Members receive regular letters from pet and animal owners or elderly people who are worried about the increase in the use of fireworks throughout the year. Although everyone enjoys them for big celebrations, it is important that from time to time we debate the restrictions on them. This debate will not lead to a change in the law, but will give the Government the chance to outline to hon. Members the current regulations and to listen to concerns for when they do consider any changes in the future.
For many of us, fireworks are a source of great enjoyment and are used to celebrate many great occasions throughout the year. However, for animals, fireworks can be a source of fear and distress. In particular, the sudden loud noises that many fireworks make can cause fear.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I am delighted that we are having this very important debate. A number of constituents have contacted me about the distress that animals experience. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is about balance—the balance between enjoyment of fireworks on the one hand and protecting animals from distress on the other?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising those concerns. It is estimated by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for example, that 45% of dogs show signs of fear when they hear fireworks. The animals affected not only suffer psychological distress, but can cause themselves injuries—sometimes very serious ones—as they attempt to run or hide from the noise.
Having grown up in a household full of dog owners and dog lovers, I have witnessed at first hand the problems that occur on bonfire night. Does my hon. Friend agree that pet owners have had a much bigger problem in recent years because of firework displays taking place over a longer period, and may I add my support for a more regulated period for firework displays?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising those points, which I will come on to in more detail later.
The use of fireworks has become a central part of the public celebration of many religious and cultural events in the UK, as this petition notes. There are, of course, those who would argue for a blanket ban, but most people, I think, would agree that a balance should be struck between the right to use fireworks in a safe and responsible way and the need to prevent unnecessary suffering and harm to animals.
Although most reports of welfare problems caused by fireworks relate to domestic pets, other animals can of course also experience fear, distress or injury as a result of their use. Livestock are easily frightened by loud noises and sudden bright lights, and can be at risk of injuring themselves on farm equipment or fencing if startled. The debris produced by fireworks can also pose a hazard to livestock if found on the land, as it can be many days later. Although there is limited direct evidence, it is also likely that fireworks and their debris cause disturbance to wildlife, including waterfowl, and cause suffering or distress, depending on the distance from the explosive and on the noise level.
There is widespread concern among the public about the effect that fireworks can have on animals. I am sure that we all receive letters about that, particularly in November. The RSPCA receives hundreds of calls about fireworks every year. For example, in 2015, it received 386 calls from people concerned about fireworks, and it says that the figure has been increasing in recent years.
Before the debate, I was contacted by various animal welfare charities, as, I am sure, were many other hon. Members. The charities understandably have concerns about the effects that fireworks can have on animals and what they see as an increase in the number of animals affected and the prevalence of fireworks each year.
On the point about fear, distress and injury, my constituents have raised with me the fact that Chinese lanterns can also cause harm to the livestock in my community. The use of fireworks is much more prevalent, as we have heard, and it is not always advertised so that people in the locality can take precautions with their pets. Certainly that would be one way of being more thoughtful to other members of the community.
I am grateful for that intervention and I am sure that the Minister will have noted it. On that point, the British Veterinary Association has put together a list of measures that it would like the Government to consider, including changes to the design and classification of fireworks to reduce noise levels, and better information for pet owners to help to reduce stress in their animals. I am sure, on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), that that would include guidance for people using fireworks and Chinese lanterns.
In my constituency in 2001, a young boy died while playing with fireworks. He was not under the supervision of his parents and he was with a number of other young people. We had debates very like the one that we are having now in the run-up to the 2004 legislation, and I said at the time— although I was loth to say it—that I could see no long- term solution other than banning the sale of fireworks to the public and allowing public and private displays only if supervised and managed by a properly qualified individual. I am still of that opinion, and we could be here again in 10 or 12 years’ time with the same debate. What is the hon. Gentleman’s opinion?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising such an important and, clearly, tragic case. As I will outline, there is a debate to be had about that issue, and I am pleased that we are having the start of that debate here today.
Animal welfare charities such as Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Blue Cross and Cats Protection suggest that tougher enforcement of existing rules, better advance warning of organised events and animal welfare information for pet owners would help to improve the situation. Importantly, on some of these points, there is agreement between animal welfare organisations and the fireworks industry, which would support tougher enforcement of existing rules; I will ask the Minister to consider that in the future.
We all know that events using fireworks should be well planned, and that is of course the case at a vast number of events to mark significant occasions such as new year’s eve and Diwali, and other special events and religious festivals such as Chinese new year. The biggest firework displays are of course very relevant to Members of this House, as the Guy Fawkes plot was thwarted in this very building on 5 November 1605 and is of course marked every autumn. I am sure that hon. Members will all agree that those events are managed responsibly and bring enjoyment to many people. Indeed, the bonfire night display in my constituency of Northampton every November attracts thousands of people, and the new year’s eve fireworks in London, as I am sure hon. Members will agree—perhaps not all of them—are the best in the world.
The Minister will, I am sure, say that all fireworks on sale to the public are required to comply with essential safety requirements that govern how they are made, tested and labelled.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the safety requirements that are in place for fireworks, but those requirements are not necessarily followed by those who use fireworks. Does he share my concern that as well as the dangers for domestic pets and farm animals, there are significant dangers for members of the public, and that is really where our focus should be?
I am grateful for that intervention because I feel that we are getting consensus, both from the animal welfare organisations and from the hon. Members raising points here today, that the issue is enforcement of the existing rules as much as any review in the future.
There are already strict guidelines in place for the private use of fireworks, and legal penalties for individuals who use them irresponsibly. The existing legislation limits the sale of fireworks, provides specific curfews for their use, sets maximum allowable noise levels and sets strict penalties, including possible imprisonment, for those in breach of the rules.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the recommendation on fireworks and animal welfare in the British Veterinary Association report that he quoted? The association recommends that better legislation and enforcement is put in place, particularly regarding the noise control of fireworks given that virtually silent fireworks are available.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. The British Fireworks Association observes that the industry is responsible and is already heavily and effectively regulated—a point that I will put to the Minister later. The association also points out, for balance, that the industry employs thousands of people, and it is understandably concerned about the impact that the measures outlined in the petition might have on the industry.
The British Fireworks Association is opposed to tighter regulations, believing that they could introduce or lead to an increase in illegal sales and create a black market trade, and worrying that they could create additional problems for the enforcement agencies. The association believes that extra regulations could prevent thousands of people across the UK from celebrating weddings, birthdays and other occasions with a firework display and could force legitimate importers and retailers out of business, costing hundreds of jobs.
Clearly, the vast majority of people who use fireworks do so responsibly and in accordance with the law. When distress is caused to animals—domestic pets, wildlife or livestock—it is most likely the result of a lack of understanding of the issue, as opposed to irresponsible or inappropriate use. However, we need more effective enforcement of the current rules. The most effective way to reduce the suffering of affected animals may be through education instead of legislation. Estimates seem to vary as to the percentage of pets and other animals that are distressed by fireworks, but it is generally accepted by animal welfare organisations that the figures are significant, and that concern among animal owners is increasing.
Given the level of concern, we need to consider several questions in this debate. For instance, do the existing laws, regulations and guidelines reasonably provide for animal welfare? Are enforcement measures adequate? Are the public sufficiently aware of their responsibilities when using fireworks and of the possible unintended consequences? To what extent could firework manufacturers and retailers reasonably help to mitigate the impact on animals and wildlife? Can more be done to support the owners of pets and livestock to lessen the possibility of distress and injury suffered by those animals?
More than 100,000 people have added their signatures to the petition, calling for the issue to be looked at again. I look forward to hon. Members’ contributions and, of course, to hearing the Government’s response.
I was not expecting to be called to speak so soon, but it is a pleasure to contribute. Back home, some of my constituents have been on to me about the issue and I did an interview with Radio Ulster when the petition came about, so I have some knowledge of the subject. I wish to contribute from a Northern Ireland perspective, as always, and I hope to add some helpful points to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) on the way in which he presented the case, as well as the 104,000 people who took the time to sign the e-petition, bringing forward something that they feel is constructive. I want to say, at the outset, that I will put forward a balanced point of view.
My boys are all grown up now—they are young men—but when they were young we had lots of cats, dogs and animals, as we live on a farm. The one thing that we could always enjoy together was the fireworks, and there were usually plenty going off in the middle of countryside. We had very few neighbours so, as well as having spectacular lights in the sky, the noise did not really affect many other houses round about, as they were spaced far apart.
When it came to my dogs and cats, I made sure that they were in the house and away from the fireworks. For the other animals and the stock, I made sure that the barns were noise-proofed as much as possible. The dogs that we had at that time were quite nervous and, although they were shooting dogs, the noise of the fireworks upset them. It is important for us all to be accountable and respectful, and there should be a balance. That balance should be between the enjoyment of fireworks by children and others, and ensuring that there are controls in place for those who do not have the respect that any of us in this room have. Every one of us here, including those in the audience, has respect for others.
We have all experienced fireworks and we take great pleasure in them. When used properly and safely, fireworks have been part of the greatest spectacles and moments not only in our personal lives, but in marking world events and truly historic moments. The hon. Member for Northampton South mentioned Guy Fawkes night. In Northern Ireland we have had our own fireworks of different degrees. When we were small and much younger, perhaps the things that we did with fireworks were not acceptable. We probably all went through that process of learning, but we always made sure that there was a level of enjoyment as well.
We now live in a world where, almost seamlessly, the use of fireworks has expanded to become a commonplace occurrence. They are used at all times of the day and of the year. That said, when fireworks go wrong, they can be devastating, and we all know of examples of that. In extreme circumstances, there can be significant casualties and injuries, and of course—this is why we are here today—animals are too often the innocent victims of fireworks.
We do not seek to be the fun police or to extend Big Brother into people’s lives further, but the facts make it clear that there needs to be a change in how we regulate fireworks so that everyone can continue not only to enjoy them, but to enjoy them safely. When we think of the potential risk, we automatically think about the potential for maiming and physical injury. It is far too easy to forget that, for animals especially, fireworks can have a psychological and mental impact. We have to do something about that and we have to get it right.
I was a councillor for 26 years before I came here, and I was a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for 12 years, concurrently at the end. I remember the old restrictions on fireworks in Northern Ireland, and then the new legislation came in. The legislation came in directly but we had at least a consultative role and an input into it, although perhaps no direction on how it was finally agreed. However, the changes we brought in in Northern Ireland were for the best.
There are already restrictions in place across the UK regarding the domestic use of fireworks. In Northern Ireland, that process has constantly changed, adapted and moved forward with the times, and it continues to be manageable. We are looking at how we can improve the process again by preserving the enjoyment while ensuring that animals are not hurt in any way. Restrictions are in place to ensure that illegal fireworks are well and truly on the way out, and it takes a lot of legislative clout to make that happen.
In Northern Ireland, we have had years to look at such matters—for instance, the Explosives Act (Northern Ireland) 1970. Maybe that has helped us a wee bit better to come up with legislation that makes the right important changes. It is important to educate people from the outset. It is good to see the Minister in his place, and I know he will respond to that point clearly. Educational programmes in schools are important. Starting at that very early stage is about teaching children to have fun, but to do so in a controlled, legislative and regulated way.
In Northern Ireland, the number of incidents involving fireworks have consistently fallen. We have done something that might enable us all to move forward. Although the importance of taking animals into account has been impressed upon us, it is clear that more needs to be done, especially through education and awareness about the impact of fireworks on animals.
The issue is most common in the private home, which makes it difficult, and potentially invasive, to monitor. We know that there is an issue and that, more often than not, harm to animals is completely unintentional, but some unintended consequences have repercussions. In the past, people would have considered sedating the animal—we have heard of people doing that—to reduce the stress caused by the sudden explosive bangs of fireworks, but such actions were few and far between. When people are educated about alternative ways of calming their pets, they can and will use them. Currently, there is not enough information out there, and the information that is out there is not easily accessible or widely available. It is about re-educating people on how they use fireworks, but it is also about re-educating people on how they look after their animals as best they can.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are many and varied ways in which people can help their pets to deal with the situation, which can cause pets such distress, but that if people are not aware that fireworks will be let off in their area, it is wholly impossible for them to do so?
The hon. Lady is right, and I agree with her wholeheartedly. We need the regulation that we have in Northern Ireland, where fireworks are controlled. If something will be taking place, the police and the council have to be notified, and councils have the authority to respond. On re-education, she is right that people have to know that fireworks will be let off, which is an issue.
The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. I do not know whether he is as old as I am, but when I was growing up it was all about the firework code and safety for human beings. We are here now thinking about distress and the safety of animals, too. It is about education and making firework users think about their environment, their neighbours and their animals. We should let people know about the time limits and the regulations so that they can be more thoughtful not only about people but about pets in their environment.
I cannot say whether I am older than the hon. Gentleman—I just had a harder paper round—but I thank him for his wise words. On re-education, things have been done to reduce the effects of noise, such as by raising the volume of CDs, MP3s or Spotify so that animals do not get shocked, upset or panicked when the big bang comes at the end. Products are also available through vets. I am not a vet—far from it—but I love animals and have had animals all my life. Vets tell me that there are products available that act like air fresheners and, instead of just making the house smell like flowers, release a calming hormone into the air. Does it work? I cannot say.
Can we have one in the Chamber?
I am not sure whether that is possible. If the product works, and there is some indication that it does, it means that there are other things we can do for our animals. There are options out there to help reduce the stress that fireworks cause animals, and as access to such methods, and knowledge of them, becomes widespread, there will be an opportunity to ensure that our response to animals and fireworks is firmly going in the right direction and that we are doing the right things. We do not need to be the fun police or to reduce the positive aspects of fireworks, though it can be tempting to go straight down the road of regulation, but it is always good to have regulation with balance. Yes, protect the animals, but let us have fun with fireworks for our children, as we had when we were wee kids, and as the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) said, so that my grandchildren will also have that opportunity. Let us do it responsibly and safely. Furthermore, there are alternative means of reducing stress in animals to a negligible level.
Animals have no voice, and we, as their owners, have a responsibility to look after them responsibly in a way that also gives us enjoyment. When people pet their dog, it responds; when people give their cat a pat on the head, it will purr and lift its tail. Those things happen because our pets respond to us. We have to respond to them, too, and ensure that our animals are not scared of fireworks. This Westminster Hall debate has been another useful opportunity for Members to give voice to those with no voice, which is welcome.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz, especially as we are fellow members of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) on opening the debate, which has resulted from a huge petition. This issue does not get enough of a public airing or the debate it needs in Parliament.
I start by emphasising that I am not a killjoy—I am sure everyone will say that today for fear of being labelled one—and I am fully aware that many people enjoy fireworks. Indeed, it is estimated that each year, more than 10 million people across the UK enjoy a firework display. I have attended the new year’s eve fireworks here in London and the spectacular display that happens every new year’s eve in Madeira—I will not say which one I enjoyed the most, as that would be dangerous. All I will say is that displays such as the one we enjoy in London, and those held in great cities across the world, every new year’s eve are joyous occasions, and everyone here will agree that they play an important part in every culture.
History tells us that people across the UK have enjoyed firework displays since the 16th century, with the first being at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I in 1559, so this cultural activity has a long history. I recognise that large numbers of people in the UK enjoy fireworks and want to make use of them in their gardens and outside their properties. Although I instinctively agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), who is no longer in her place, that ideally we would end the use of fireworks in back gardens—I would prefer to see people going along to their local public display—I understand the difficulty of delivering that policy. Let us remember that, as a society, we have introduced severe restrictions on the use of tobacco. People cannot smoke in public places, and now they cannot smoke in a car if a child is present. We have gone a long way towards restricting the public’s freedom to enjoy certain products, primarily on the ground that we want to protect children’s health. Children’s health, and the health and safety of the public in general, should always be paramount in policy, and we should not be frightened if evidence presents itself showing that we need to legislate for a rules-based system protecting society from the abuse of what are, ultimately, very dangerous explosive devices.
The terrible effect of firework use on animals, especially pets, has been the driver behind the petition, which gained more than 100,000 signatures. I congratulate the originators of the petition, Jill Cutsforth from Beverley and Julie Doorne from Sleaford, on gaining so much support and getting the issue debated today. Mrs Cutsforth’s explanation for starting the petition is typical of why further restrictions on the use of fireworks are needed. Her pet dog had to be sedated with diazepam when it became frightened by a firework that had been set off close by. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home has made it clear that it is forced to do all it can to keep its dogs and cats calm and safe by blacking out the windows, playing music, sitting with the most anxious residents and providing plenty of hiding places and distractions. With the restrictions that the petitioners ask for having the backing of such a powerful and well respected charity, we should think twice before dismissing the petition’s demands. They include, of course, a change in the law to restrict the use of fireworks—not their sale; we already have that restriction—to traditional days such as bonfire night, new year’s eve, Chinese new year and Diwali. I think that many of us here would agree with that demand.
Does the hon. Lady agree that any policy response in this area hinges on proportionality and requires a realistic understanding of what the Government can do? I am a passionate animal lover; I have recently been traumatised by the loss of my 20-year-old cat. However, would it not be disproportionate, and indeed counterproductive, to propose any policy change that would potentially cause the closure of successful and responsible fireworks display businesses such as Star Fireworks in Bracknell?
I have absolutely no interest in banning public displays. The Fireworks Regulations 2004 require those organising public fireworks displays to be trained in delivering such events and in fireworks safety. That is exactly why I think that ultimately, we as a society will move towards more support for publicly organised and regulated fireworks displays rather than events that go on in people’s back gardens, which are where the real problems are.
My point is that if we restricted sales to only a few days a year, there is a limited likelihood that a business would be successful purveying only on those days. I agree that restricting fireworks to organised public events would be a step in the right direction, but restricting the number of days would restrict businesses’ viability.
If one’s policy position is to move towards public displays only, restrictions on the domestic use of fireworks would be a good starting point. The safety of the public—particularly of children—and the welfare of animals are far too important for us to compromise on that. However, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The 2004 regulations allow for penalties to be levied for antisocial behaviour involving fireworks, but enforcement of that power is poor. I hope that the Minister will comment on that. Over and above the demands in the petition, which I support, enforcement of the current regulations would help. A response to a parliamentary question in 2011 indicated that in the previous five years, fewer than 50 people a year had faced prosecution.
It is not only household pets who suffer as a result of the inappropriate use of fireworks but livestock and wildlife. Poultry are especially at risk of a smother, where birds huddle closely together, which can result in overheating and occasionally death. In addition, of course, fireworks can pose a fire risk if used irresponsibly or if hot embers land on buildings or in fields of standing crops, particularly during the summer. For much of our wildlife, sudden noises and flashes can be frightening and confusing.
I ask for assurances from the Minister that he will look again at the enforcement of the 2004 regulations and review them to test whether they are strong enough, or whether tighter restrictions along the lines recommended by the petition should be considered. I also ask him to consider the important recommendations made by the British Veterinary Association about adjusting the noise levels applying to firework categories 1 to 4.
We must also consider whether we need a more robust approach to regulating the use of fireworks by members of the public, notwithstanding the point made by the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), and to restricting the occasions on which fireworks can be used in domestic circumstances. Never mind education and the fireworks code; can it be right that there is very little regulation governing how people use fireworks in their back gardens? There is advice, but nothing else. It is crazy. People cannot smoke in a car with a child present—they can be prosecuted for it—but they can use fireworks in a back garden without any real regard for all the advice about how to do so safely. Something must be done about that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is another problem involving the sale of fireworks? People buy imported goods that do not fall under the protections normally afforded in the European Union and in this country. They import a lot of illicit goods and sell them at certain times of the year to the public, who do not know how dangerous they are. That adds to the problems at those times of year.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. New European regulations are now in force on safety marks and the traceability of such devices, but again, there may well be an issue with the enforcement of the regulations on sales.
For the sake of animals, wildlife and our children, we should at least consider what else we need to do to eradicate the abuse of what are, ultimately, explosive devices that are extremely dangerous in the wrong hands. In Sheffield last November, we had to deal with serious incidents involving the abuse of those devices, when young hooligans hurled fireworks at police patrol vehicles. That is totally unacceptable, and something must be done. I know that such activity is already illegal, but we must deal with it. People need to understand that fireworks are potentially very dangerous; they are explosive devices. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to the case being made today.
It is an honour, as always, to serve under your chairship, Ms Vaz. I congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) on introducing this important debate on the back of the very successful e-petition.
I know that many people here might think it slightly off that I am talking about perhaps restricting the sale of fireworks, given that in Scotland we are world-famous for our use of them. Never mind the spectacular displays at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai or over Sydney harbour on new year’s eve; we in Scotland do it far better than anywhere else. The scenes in the skies over Edinburgh on Hogmanay are the envy of the world, and we certainly show everyone how fireworks displays should be organised.
I admit that we in Scotland are a nation of firework lovers, but we are also a nation of animal lovers. I wish to discuss in particular the balance between firework use for celebrations and the impact on animals. Any legislation pertaining to fireworks must take into account the fact that people have the right to mark celebrations with fireworks, whether they be concerts, weddings or religious festivals. However, legislation must also protect those who do not have a voice and who need our support. Just as a balance must be struck between the rights of animals when it comes to slaughter and religious and cultural beliefs, the same fine balance must be made here too. If we can change something without necessarily legislating for it, that would almost certainly be my preferred option every time.
The hon. Lady is making a telling contribution to this important debate. Does she join me in agreeing with the Dogs Trust’s position on the issue? It is interesting that she talks about a collaborative approach. The Dogs Trust recommends that local authorities take into consideration the location of public displays when granting a licence and require that it be well publicised in the surrounding area. Does she agree with such a course of action?
Definitely. I will come to that point, and to some statistics from the Dogs Trust. The hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who is not in his place, mentioned that it is important for people to have advance notice. I know that that is not always easy when people buy fireworks and have a display in their garden; they do not let the general public know. That is an issue. It is about knowing the time that an event will take place, which is why the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) made a good point in saying that general fireworks displays are better; everyone knows about them because they are well publicised.
I thank the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for his intervention, but he stole my next sentence: I was about to say that one way to solve the problem is by having and promoting public fireworks displays. In Glasgow, the council holds fireworks shows every bonfire night, which attract as many as 50,000 people. The consequence of such a large number of people attending these gatherings is that far fewer people buy their own fireworks, and fewer fireworks at home mean less disturbance for our pets. If a major display is well publicised, people who have pets are made aware of it and can easily draw up contingency plans to avoid it if necessary, because they have plenty of advance warning. A Dogs Trust survey of 3,750 people found that 93% of pet owners alter their plans during fireworks celebrations to try to minimise their pets’ trauma. No matter how annoying or inconvenient it can be for people to change their routine, they can do it.
Of course, I am not naive enough to think that having more public displays will magically solve the problem, because, as we know, fireworks are not exclusively used on 5 November. People’s plans cannot be changed when their next door neighbour holds an impromptu fireworks display at 10.30 pm on a random Tuesday. Several of my constituents say that it is the lead-up to and aftermath of both Guy Fawkes night and new year’s eve that cause the most problems for their dogs. Scamp, the dog belonging to my office manager Derec, is absolutely petrified of fireworks, as is Fluffy, my constituent Carol’s Lhasa Apso. Both dogs show signs of distress and completely change their behaviour, which has a negative effect on their owners. Fluffy is a small, petite dog, while Scamp is a larger Border collie, showing that all sizes and breeds of dog are affected by fireworks. As we are all aware, across the country thousands of dogs are affected by fireworks and many show the same symptoms of fear, including freezing on the spot. People can imagine how hard it is to carry a Border collie back home: because Scamp will not move at all at such times, it is no mean feat to carry him. Affected dogs can also bark or panic.
Another of my constituents, Lynne, is actually a dog trainer and trainee behaviourist. She has managed to teach her dog, Cal, a coping strategy; when he hears fireworks, he runs into a “safe” room and stays in there until the noise ends. Lynne is one of the lucky ones who is talented enough to provide such training. Sadly, however, most dogs have to suffer, with many of them actually requiring veterinary assistance.
To tackle this issue, I certainly do not wish to bring down the fireworks industry. Fireworks are enjoyed by some 10 million people in the UK every year and banning them completely would change many of our celebrations for the worse. None the less, we must take a pragmatic approach. The British Fireworks Association says that current legislation must be correctly enforced and it has also called for an increase in fines—from £1,000 to £5,000—for those found guilty of breaking the law. If the association is calling for such steps, it shows that something has to be done.
Current legislation and—critically—enforcement of it restricts the periods within which fireworks are sold by unlicensed traders. However, fireworks are often stockpiled for later use by members of the public when prices are slashed after Guy Fawkes night, and fireworks are readily available online. Does my hon. Friend agree that these sources also need more effective regulation and enforcement?
I do indeed and I thank my hon. Friend for making that point about the bigger issue of online sales and—as the hon. Member for Mansfield (Sir Alan Meale) said—fireworks being imported from other countries that perhaps do not adhere to EU law. Such imports should not be used or even brought into the country. We need to find a way round that issue as well, because such fireworks will be dangerous not only to animals, but to the humans who end up using them.
The Dogs Trust says it is important that owners take preventive measures to prepare their dogs for the noise of fireworks, and the Kennel Club argues that existing legislation should be properly and rigorously enforced. I agree with both those points. In the lead-up to this year’s fireworks season, I will do all I can locally to ensure that everyone acts in a socially responsible manner with fireworks and I urge all Members present today to do the same. To reduce the disruption to animals, it is incumbent on everyone to play their part to guarantee that fireworks are used with minimal problems, and that is true for both the owners of shops that sell fireworks and the owners of pets. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s responses to all the points that have been made by Members in this important debate.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Ms Vaz. I congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) on introducing the debate on the back of the e-petition.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier); I always enjoy listening to her contributions. I do not want to get into a squabble with her about which fireworks display is better, London or Edinburgh. If she had said Glasgow’s display was better than London’s, I might have faced a little conflict of interest, but London against Edinburgh? Come on; that is just too much of a stretch.
A number of colleagues will know that I spent 23 years in the London fire brigade before becoming the MP for Poplar and Limehouse. I was an operational firefighter for 13 years. For 364 days of the year, people young and old would be knocking on the doors of the fire station because they wanted to come in and look at the fire engines and talk to the firemen, as they were in those days—now we have both male and female firefighters. However, on bonfire night, things were entirely different. I have a quote here from the Chief Fire Officers Association, stating:
“Emergency service workers are more likely to be the victim of violence and hostility whilst carrying out their duties on November the 5th than most other nights of the year. Organised displays are generally safer and people are less likely to be injured.”
That is because 5 November is the night of the year when firefighters literally pour cold water on a lot of people’s fun—fires get out of control, and firefighters try to make sure that their community is safe.
The Minister will know that we have nearly 7,000 fewer firefighters today than we had in 2010, which means that there are not so many targets for people to aim at on 5 November. Maybe he would like to take that up with his colleague at the Home Office who is in charge of the fire service, because the cuts to the fire service across the country have gone too far and we are now endangering the public, as a variety of recent statistics have demonstrated.
Of course, the situation now is very different from when I was in the fire service. It is no longer just on 5 November that fireworks are used; people enjoy fireworks at parties, birthday events, cultural festivals and weddings. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Sir Alan Meale) pointed out, fireworks are bigger and noisier, and many of them are a lot more dangerous because they are illegal imports. Furthermore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said, the misuse of fireworks as weapons by the antisocial means that they are dangerous to ordinary people as well as to emergency service workers, let alone the damage that they do to animals.
I confess to having been very interested when I read the House of Commons Library briefing for this debate, for which I thank the Library. I am interested in hearing the Minister’s response to the debate, and especially hearing why the Government regard things as having improved, which is the essence of their comments in the briefing pack.
The Government say that current regulations outline the times of the year when fireworks are on sale, but colleagues have already made the point about fireworks being stockpiled at the end of those periods to be used at other times of the year. The Government say that
“the availability and use of fireworks outside the traditional periods has been greatly reduced”
and that the regulations regarding curfews are working really well. I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s statistical defence of those comments. I am not saying that they are not true, but I would be happy to hear the statistics supporting them. It will be good news if they are true, but anecdotally that does not seem to be the situation. The Library briefing further quotes the Government’s response:
“Although there is some use of fireworks outside the traditional periods, we believe that the majority of people who use fireworks do so at the appropriate times of year and have a sensible and responsible attitude towards them. There are no plans at the moment to place further limitations on their use.”
The message that has come across from virtually every speaker in the debate so far is that we should ask the Government whether the balance is right, and how vigilance can be maintained to ensure that people who abuse the privilege of fireworks or misuse the materials are taken to task. I will come back to that point in a moment, and I will also turn to animal welfare issues.
First, however, I want to refer to the briefing and factsheet that the British Fireworks Association sent us—these points have already been made by one or two colleagues. The BFA urges us
“not to support the proposals outlined in the petition”,
because they would
“increase illegal sales and create a black market trade, creating an additional problem for law enforcement agencies”
“force legitimate importers and retailers out of business, costing hundreds of jobs”.
It says that the industry is “responsible” and “puts safety first”, that its products are
“enjoyed by 10 million people every year”
and that if they are enjoyed responsibly there ought not to be a problem. The association suggests that the penalty for those found guilty of misuse should be increased from £1,000 to £5,000, so even the industry accepts that there needs to be some adjustment of the regulations controlling the sale, use and misuse of fireworks.
The association helpfully draws attention to another fact:
“In 2014/15 there were 114 people admitted to hospital as a result of firework related incidents. During the same period there were over 7,000 people admitted to hospital as a result of dog bites.”
A lot of Members have been campaigning about responsible dog ownership for many years, and excusing one issue does not excuse the other. We should be doing more on both.
The Chief Fire Officers Association largely supports the BFA. In a quote it supplied to us it states that it
“supports the need for maintaining effective controls…However, the legislation in place following the review”
of the 2014 regulations
“we believe is proportionate to the risk and any proposals to shorten sales periods could have an opposite impact with the potential to increase illegal firework sales, black market and rogue traders”,
which we obviously need to be wary of.
We have received briefings from other organisations, including Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the British Veterinary Association and the National Farmers Union, some of which have already been quoted from. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge referred to the lengths to which Battersea has to go to look after its animals. The home also gives us an interesting statistic: in an average week in October it takes in 88 animals, but in the week of bonfire night there is a 20% increase in the number. Animals are frightened—they panic and scatter—and then are handed over because their owners are not able to control them indoors, are worried about their behaviour and are looking to offload them.
Helpfully, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home draws attention to its 10-point plan, which I will come back to when I speak about Government advice for people who use fireworks and for those who have to suffer them. The points include looking after animals indoors, escape-proofing the house to protect animals from stampedes, creating a hiding place, drawing the curtains, putting on music and avoiding taking the animals out. They do not include the air freshener that was mentioned earlier, but whatever works has to be of assistance. The home goes on to say that it
“would be supportive of…more effective enforcement of curfews, which would be of benefit as an anti-social behaviour measure for communities in a wider context than just animals.”
People who do not observe the regulations on time, noise or location of fireworks are straightforwardly being inconsiderate, selfish and antisocial. It has been said that the concept of personal space seems to be diminishing in our society, and that is just another example.
On the British Veterinary Association’s briefing, I should declare that I found my BVA honorary membership card this afternoon, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge is also an honorary member, as are other colleagues here. We obviously have to take due note of the BVA’s briefing, otherwise our membership might be revoked. Its points have already been referred to, and they are straightforward. They are about the impact of firework noise on animal welfare. As my hon. Friend said, the association is calling for a revision of the levels of noise allowed, including through the setting of different levels for different types of firework. It is also calling on the Government to help ensure that information and advice on the prevention and management of noise is available to pet owners and others in the community. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that.
The National Farmers Union has also made some comments on the issue, stating:
“Fireworks…have the possibility to frighten livestock, which can lead to lower production and even stock loss. Poultry especially are at risk of a ‘smother’, where birds huddle closely together which can result in overheating and occasionally death. In addition fireworks can pose a fire risk if hot embers land on buildings or in fields of standing crops. This is particularly an issue during the summer when crops are more likely to be dry. While the NFU does not have a position on when it is appropriate for fireworks to be let off we would call on everyone using fireworks to consider the safety and wellbeing of their neighbours and neighbours’ animals.”
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is a farmer himself, made that point, and the point about the impact on the community.
Making fireworks illegal is just not sensible. It is a non-starter, notwithstanding the fantastic petition. Everyone who has spoken so far, and I suspect everyone who will speak, has sympathy for animal owners and the animals that have stress as a result of fireworks, but I do not think that banning fireworks will happen. The industry is regulated, but the regulations need to be kept under review. For me, as I said earlier, enforcement and information are key.
Organised displays are clearly preferably to amateur ones, whether in back gardens or on commons and whether organised by individual families or communities. They are safer for individuals, families and communities and are better for managing animal stress. The BVA’s point about noise levels is worth examining. We need more support for the police and trading standards in prosecuting antisocial behaviour and, worse, criminal behaviour, as well as in clamping down on dangerous products. We need common sense from the public about using fireworks at times when they are less likely to disturb neighbours and their pets, as well as wildlife. It is not rocket science—excuse the pun, Ms Vaz; I wrote that earlier and just had to get it in—it is basic common sense and civic responsibility.
I come back to my point about the Government’s response, in which they are positive about the progress that has been made. I do not deny that, and I look forward to the Minister elaborating on it. Most importantly, the existing regulations need to be enforced, as the hon. Member for Northampton South said when he opened the debate. I look forward to hearing the contributions of the Opposition spokespeople, especially that of my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), as well as those of other colleagues, but I particularly look forward to hearing from the Minister about how the Government see the situation.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I would like to place on record my thanks to the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) for his thoughtful introduction to the debate.
Such debates are interesting, because we never know what we will learn. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) for informing us that fireworks were first used early in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. I am afraid that those of us who thought that the problem was caused by that continental European immigrant Guy Fawkes cannot use that one any more, which makes a nice change.
I think most of us rather like fireworks: the Roman candle, the Catherine wheel, the snowflake—or is it the snowstorm?—the sparkler, the traffic light and all the rest. As children, most of us enjoyed fireworks every year, but part of the problem is that fireworks now happen in a random way. That is fine for those enjoying the fireworks, but less fine for owners of animals living in the vicinity. I will quote what one of my constituents, who lives in one of the industrial villages a couple of miles outside Wrexham, had to say on the subject:
“I myself have 2 dogs that get extremely distressed every year and the onus is naturally upon myself to protect them. However having to stay indoors without being able to safely let them outside…keeping them inside with high volume music on in order to drown out the noise outside every night from mid-October to mid-January is ridiculous. Many anti-social people will set fireworks off at all hours in my area…and the police are powerless to do anything about it as it’s impossible to identify who is responsible, and more often than not they’re also setting them off before the curfew (regardless of the time of year), so the police won’t do anything about it anyway because these people are currently within their legal right to set off fireworks at these times.”
That, in a nutshell, is the problem, but how do we deal with it? Most of us do not want to stop firework displays, but we have to recognise that there is a real problem. In addition to some of the solutions that other Members have suggested, I propose one possibility, which is that at least some form of advance notification be given.
As a representative of a constituency that is very rural in part, I very much accept what the National Farmers Union and others, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), have said about the impact on livestock in certain communities, but there is an additional problem in densely populated areas: people just do not know where some of these fireworks will be going off. I suggest that we have a solution similar to that for street parties. Imagine if a group of friends decided spontaneously at 7 o’clock one evening, or perhaps a bit later, to have a party in the middle of their street with no licence and no permission. It would probably be a bit of a nuisance if one was trying to get one’s car out and could not do so without disturbing the street party. Could practical solutions such as advance notice be looked at? Through that, owners of animals and pets would at least have notification of fireworks dos.
There is an important issue of balance in all this. The problem does not merely affect those with pets. Many of us like fireworks—we really like fireworks—but I suspect that it is different for a family with young children trying to get the children to sleep to the accompanying cacophony of bangers and Catherine wheels and some of the other louder fireworks. It would be all right if it was just the quiet little sparklers, but usually it is not. How we sort this issue out in terms of balance is important. I am sure that the Minister will listen to the points that we have all made in our speeches, and I am sure that he will take on board the real concerns of animal owners across the country. We do not want to be killjoys, because many of us really like fireworks, but we recognise the practical problems and that we have to have some balance.
I congratulate those who signed the petition, because it raises an issue that is of genuine concern up and down the country—not least in Kettering. I am disappointed that I was not able to hear the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh), but I know it will have been outstanding, and I promise to read it tomorrow in Hansard.
There is great merit in going the whole hog and banning fireworks, and the Government should look seriously at doing that. At the very least, I would expect them to produce a proper paper outlining the pros and cons of such a ban. If we put the issue to people in a referendum—I am not advocating that, but were we to do that—we might surprisingly find a majority in favour of banning fireworks, largely because of the nuisance and distress that they cause to pets, but also because of the nuisance and disturbance they cause to schoolchildren. It is outrageous that anyone can let fireworks off in a built-up area on a school evening, when children are meant to be asleep, ready for the next school day.
Things have of course moved on from the time of my grandfather. He was an orphan growing up in south London. On bonfire night, the superintendent went around the orphanage with a bucket containing a series of fireworks, and each child was told to pick one out and to go and light it. That was in the late 1800s and I know it is not like that now, but individual fireworks are extremely dangerous. They are a type of explosive, and it is not safe to have mini-displays in back gardens. I think there is great merit in saying that all fireworks displays need to be licensed with a licensed operator.
The other issue to consider is that, frankly, amateur family-organised fireworks displays in people’s back gardens are basically rubbish. They have only a few fireworks, which do not go very high. They last a couple of minutes, and that is it, whereas an organised display has super-duper fireworks that do everything one could possibly imagine in all the colours of the rainbow and in all sorts of different patterns. They go extremely high, make fantastic noises and it is great fun. It lasts 20 to 25 minutes with a well-organised display. That is how fireworks should be displayed and appreciated. It should not just be a handful of fireworks launched by an enthusiastic dad to impress the kids in his back garden.
We have heard that 114 people go to hospital each year as a result of fireworks-related accidents. I am surprised by that, and I question the veracity of that figure. I am sure that the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is a former fireman, agrees that that number is probably a lot higher. We have all read of very distressing cases where very small children have lost eyes or been caused serious burns and injuries because a fireworks display went wrong at home. Accidents of course happen with organised displays, too, but it is far less frequent. In this country we are privileged to have some fantastic fireworks companies and operators who organise magnificent displays, and we should encourage that. Were we to ban fireworks from domestic sale and say that all fireworks displays should be licensed with a proper operator, that would encourage the number of licensed displays in this country. Far from being bad news for the fireworks industry, it could be very good news.
The other point is that fireworks are of course distressing for animals. I have a feeling that those who like to have an amateur display in the back garden think it is upsetting only a few people, but they do not see the distressed dogs cowering in the corner of the living room. Responses to noise are one of the most primitive in-built instincts that all animals have. As human beings, we can be frightened by noise, but we can rationalise it, understand it and overcome it. Very few animals can do that. People who are operating these back garden displays do not see the small dogs, the large dogs or the cats—you name it—cowering in the corner petrified at the bangs going off outside.
Fireworks are great if they can be seen and if they are good, but they are universally awful if they can only be heard. Fireworks have to be seen to be appreciated; it is not possible to appreciate just the noise. Whenever somebody has a family firework display, hundreds of animals in the vicinity in a built-up area will be terrified for however long that display lasts.
The Government insist that children attend school every day, get their homework done and get the right grades, but how can we expect children to perform well at school if they are woken up at 9.30, 10 or 10.30 at night by an amateur firework display in the neighbouring street? They will probably wake up distressed; they might find it difficult to get back to sleep; and they will certainly not be as right as rain when they wake up for school the next day.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech and showing a refreshing independence of mind in calling for regulation and indeed a ban on an activity such as this. His comments about the noise and the spectacle itself underline the point that we cannot drive fireworks underground by restricting their use to certain times of the year. It is impossible to drive the use of fireworks underground; they are seen and heard, so it is possible to police restrictions on the use of fireworks at certain times of the year.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. As a former special constable under the police parliamentary scheme, I know a little about trying to enforce rules and regulations. Often it is difficult, but she is right; when it comes to fireworks, it is relatively straightforward, although not in every case. I have had the experience of trying to track down where a very loud noise was coming from in a local area, and sometimes it is more difficult than people think. However, I managed to do it. It is possible, especially with other officers in attendance. It is also possible to draw on local intelligence from neighbours. The hon. Lady is therefore right to say that it is possible to enforce restrictions.
A ban is simple and understandable. If I were drawing up the legislation, I would prescribe days in the year when it is permitted to have licensed firework displays: Guy Fawkes night, Chinese new year, Diwali and the Queen’s 90th birthday, for example. At all other times fireworks would not be allowed, and I would have an absolute proscription on letting off fireworks during a school evening.
Encouraging people to notify their local area is very well meaning, but in practice it will not happen and will not be enforceable. We all know that there are responsible local firework displays organised on a small basis. One was organised by my local church not long ago. The volunteers from the church were well meaning. They put up notices in the local area that said what time the display would be and how long it would last. That is great, but there would still have been lots of animals in the local area distressed by the noise.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that he was a special constable; he is also a graduate of the fire scheme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge has outlined, the hon. Gentleman is directly challenging the Government. Is that just from his time as a special constable or because of his experience from the fire scheme? Or does he want a ban because he is a constituency MP listening to complaints from constituents?
The hon. Gentleman brings to this debate the enormous benefit of his long service with the London fire brigade. He probably came across pretty dramatic fireworks instances, and he will know that the risk to people and property from the improper use of fireworks is a common complaint among firefighters. In a poll of firefighters I would be surprised if there were not a big majority in favour of banning them because they are simply too risky. The fireworks industry in this country would benefit from a ban on the domestic sale of fireworks because we could then develop the very good reputation that a lot of the licensed operators have for fantastic displays. If people knew that they could see fireworks only at a licensed display, I think fireworks would become more popular.
The hon. Gentleman’s analogies are interesting. He talks about amateur backyard ventures by parents and huge displays at community events such as we have had at Westminster. Back-garden displays are likely to keep children up and not going to school the following day, as indeed are the very large bangs from organised professional displays. The one thing we all know, which is why we are having this debate, is that they all scare the living daylights out of animals, whether pets or wildlife. How can he justify saying that we should organise regular and larger professional events? We should ban them.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point in his own way, but I would not go as far as him in banning them altogether. I do not believe that a complete ban on firework displays would enjoy popular support in this country. I do not think that that would get a majority of votes in a referendum. However, there could be a majority of votes for banning the domestic sale of fireworks. I can reconcile the question he asks by saying that there would be more fantastic licensed displays on the specific days when they were allowed throughout the year: for example, on Guy Fawkes night, Chinese new year, Diwali and the Queen’s birthday. Whatever the event, I envisage more displays of better quality just on those days. Most pet owners in this country would recognise that as a reasonable solution, so they would need to worry about this issue only on certain days during the year.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Of course, this is where the original Gunpowder Plot took place, so perhaps it is apposite that we should be having this debate here. I readily agree with him.
I hope that the Government do not dismiss the petition as simply another House of Commons petition signed by just over 100,000 people who have a particular bee in their bonnet. I think that the issue is bigger than the petition suggests it is.
The hon. Gentleman was not here when I made my contribution and referred to Northern Ireland where we have a licensed system organised by the council and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The system seems to work. It is regulated and controlled. We have a system that works and people can enjoy fireworks. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman and I are at odds on this, but I want to see balance in the debate. I want the opportunity to use fireworks and I want protection for animals. I believe that it is possible to achieve that. We have done it in Northern Ireland. Why can we not do that here?
The hon. Gentleman always seeks balance in a debate. I am disappointed that I missed his contribution, but I know that I will not have to wait too long before chancing upon another one, which I am sure will be of his usual high standard. He makes a good point. Often we can learn from Northern Ireland about how to do things. The issue is more serious than indicated by the great numbers who signed the petition. Were we to ask the British people to weigh up the pros and cons and consider banning the domestic sale of fireworks and have only licensed firework displays, I think a majority in this country—a majority in Kettering—would vote for that.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the chair, Ms Vaz. I congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) on securing this debate. Importantly, I congratulate the authors of the e-petition, which offers a constructive path that the UK Government can follow to ensure a healthy balance between limiting noise pollution and respecting and acknowledging important occasions that our communities take part in.
I declare an interest as my family includes two rather spoilt whippets, so I can fully sympathise with the thousands of people who signed the e-petition, including those from my own constituency, calling for a limit on when the general public can use fireworks.
To pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), I cannot stand fireworks. They are the dullest thing since sliced bread. I would rather be sitting in the house, having a cup of tea and watching “Coronation Street”. Perhaps I am the odd one out, but I have never really got into them. By allowing communities to celebrate and mark events, such as Hogmanay, that are part of our culture and heritage, while at the same time offering protection to those dog owners whose animals are adversely affected by noise, we will go some way towards tackling the increasing problem of noise pollution for those who have pets, as well as for those affected by the noise personally.
[Mr David Nuttall in the Chair]
The traditional bonfire night was perhaps the reason why I do not really appreciate fireworks. They were always very small bonfires, and back in the good old days when I had hair, the fireworks were useless. Most importantly, it was always raining, so I never really liked firework displays. In my constituency, we have bonfire night events in Levengrove Park in Dumbarton and Dalmuir Overtoun Park in Clydebank. They are organised by the local authority and done very well, but I hear from constituents who live close to such large organised events that dogs—it is predominantly dogs, but also cats and other animals—have to be sedated so that they can deal with the noise. Traditionally, we did not have so many huge events or back-garden firework displays. Fireworks were not easily accessible and more often than not people could not afford them. There has been a change in the culture, and fireworks are now used a lot more often and are a lot noisier.
As the owner of two whippets who like nothing better than to run about in the park or the garden, I see at first hand the impact that the noise from fireworks has on them and neighbouring dogs. As the saying goes, dogs are our best friends, and they are an important and integral part of any family. For me, seeing them suffer is like seeing one’s own children suffer. Noise pollution harms not only dogs but their owners, who feel helpless as they are unable to offer comfort to their pets. The psychological impact on all those affected cannot be fully calculated or identified, but it is not too difficult to agree that there is some impact.
I was pleased that the former Scottish National party MSP Dennis Robertson released an eight-point guide to helping pet owners and, probably more importantly, their pets through last Hogmanay. The recommendations included having a specific play area in the house—as is often mentioned by charitable bodies that deal with animal care—filled with favourite toys, treats and so on, and making sure that pets are secure and cannot escape if they are suddenly frightened. Dennis also highlighted the effect of fireworks on his companion and working guide dog, Mr Q, who retired at the end of the last Scottish Parliament Session. Although highly trained, working animals are nevertheless susceptible to noise pollution from fireworks, which can undermine their working capabilities and affect those who rely on them.
Dennis’s guide will go only some of the way towards combating the issues relating to noise pollution from fireworks. As Members have mentioned, more could be done by strengthening the existing Fireworks Regulations 2004, or by fully ensuring that they are properly and rigorously enforced. I am sure that, like me, other Members will find that the Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2015 go some way towards addressing the issue of access to certain fireworks, such as those classed as category F4. That legislation was a step in the right direction.
The noise of fireworks gives cause for concern, but other devices, such as Chinese lanterns, are well documented as having caused injury and the death of livestock. That is a dreadful way for any animal to die and a huge loss to local farming communities. Animals face many challenges. Although it is not the UK Government’s intention to legislate at this point—the Minister can correct me if I am wrong—if further work is to be done, the implementation of the Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2015 might allow additional support. The purchase of fireworks online is a serious issue mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell). It gives me cause for concern, and I am sure that it is brought up with other Members in the lead-up to fireworks night.
It is critical that we work with animal welfare and educational charities to bring about a cultural shift in the indiscriminate use of fireworks, thus reducing noise pollution and ensuring a better experience for communities when they use fireworks. This debate offers the welcome opportunity to highlight the work of various national bodies that seek to educate the wider community about the impact of using fireworks, especially organisations such as the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has been on the frontline of animal welfare in Scotland since 1839.
The SSPCA reminded me, as a constituency MP, that individuals and communities must bear it in mind that fireworks can be very stressful for pet owners who are trying to protect their animals from fear and distress. It also highlighted the fact that the bang from a firework is terrifying to an animal, causing some to panic and flee. That has resulted in road traffic accidents, and there have even been reports of swans flying into electricity pylons and horses being badly injured after running into barbed wire fences.
We require a cultural change in our use of and interaction with fireworks, based on the understanding that noise pollution affects people and animals. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, pet owners have a personal duty to protect their pets in the lead-up to firework night. Nevertheless, as the hon. Member for Clwyd South said, it is ridiculous for pet owners to have to do that from October all the way through to January. It is unacceptable that they find themselves in that position. Perhaps the Minister will reflect on that.
We must recognise changes in fireworks themselves. As I said, for me Hogmanay used to be about spending time with neighbours and family; it is now more about going out to huge fireworks displays. There has been a huge cultural shift in many events across these islands, with more, louder fireworks. That, of course, affects communities. Partnership is key to changing attitudes. Closer collaboration can enable people to better understand the impact of noise. We should work with the fire service and people in education services. We should work with people in the health service, who understand the effect of fireworks through working in A&E departments and seeing the reality of the impact a firework can have on an individual. We should work with veterinary surgeons, who can tell us about the effect of fireworks on animals who escape during displays.
We must collaborate and we must better understand the impact of noise pollution on people and animals to better inform the enforcement of the existing legislation. If required, future legislation should be based on communities’ experiences. We must ensure that future legislation or policies better reflect the impact of noise pollution on animals, as highlighted by the petitioners. I congratulate them on their petition and thank the hon. Member for Northampton South for bringing it to the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) and the Petitions Committee on providing this valuable debate. I also congratulate the people who initiated and signed the petition.
It is 12 years since the existing legislation was introduced in 2004, so it is right that we look at it again and consider whether it is adequate. We also need to see whether things are being monitored correctly, because it is not only about having the legislation but about what we do with it, and adequate monitoring and enforcement are key. As many Members have said, in the end, the debate is about balance. As someone who was injured by a firework at the age of four and still bears the scar—do not worry, I am not going to display it—I am very much aware of the dangers of fireworks to human beings. I do not think we considered pets enough in my youth, and it is a positive sign that we are now considering how livestock and pets are affected by fireworks. It used to be all about the terrible tragedies. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who has vast experience of the fire service, knows, they were all that became news at the time. Animals were never mentioned, so we have made progress.
It would be far too simple to see this debate as a clash between two opposing forces. On the one hand, the animal welfare charities bring to our attention the effects of noisy firework on livestock and domestic pets. It is indisputable that loud bangs and bright lights can cause distress to animals. I have had to sit in a garage with my cats for long periods, because it happens not just on firework night but in the period leading up to it and at other times. On the other hand, the fireworks industry, equally understandably, points to the potential loss of jobs if there were further restriction, and to the public’s enjoyment of firework displays. All of us, with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), enjoy firework displays. Although I was injured by a firework, even I watch them at a very, very safe distance.
Both sides have a point. The real questions are, where do we draw the line, and are the laws that are in place enforced sufficiently? Nobody wants a free-for-all in the sale of fireworks, or to go back to the situation where they were on sale for months in supermarkets. We need to look at whether the regulations are sufficient and sufficiently enforced. The Fireworks Regulations 2004 were made under the Fireworks Act 2003, which was a private Member’s Bill—that shows that private Members’ Bills have an effect in this place. The previous Labour Government supported it, and it had cross-party support. We worked together for the good of people and animals. The purpose of the Act was explicitly to stem the trend of year-round fireworks, which concerned the RSPCA and others at the time.
Fireworks can be sold to the public by unlicensed traders, including supermarkets, only for Chinese new year and the preceding three days, Diwali and the preceding three days, the bonfire night period—although if it lasts from 15 October to 10 November, I think that is a very long period—and new year celebrations from 26 to 31 December. That is 41 days in total. Perhaps we should look at the length of time for which they can be sold for bonfire night. As far as I am concerned, they should be sold for 5 November and perhaps the Saturdays around that date, although my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse made a good point: how do we know that people are not stockpiling fireworks and keeping them for other dates?
Suppliers that want to sell fireworks outside the traditional periods have to be licensed by local authorities, which is pretty costly and requires them to comply with stringent conditions. Under the 2004 regulations, it is an offence to use fireworks outside the traditional periods after 11 pm and before 7 am without permission. As my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) asked, how difficult is it to enforce those regulations? Do the police go out if they hear fireworks? What monitoring is done of whether action is taken in areas where the rules are abused? A number of hon. Members mentioned the noise level allowed, which is 120 dB for home fireworks. Will the Government consider that noise level and its effect on animals? Has more research been done? Is the level being continuously monitored?
I have concerns about trading standards organisations’ monitoring of firework sales. We know that trading standards departments are being cut throughout the country, and that they are overworked at the moment. Are they monitoring the illegal sale of fireworks? Do they have the resources to do so at the moment? We need to raise that concern.
The use of fireworks has changed for the better since I was younger. I remember fireworks being available far more widely. They were often bought by what we might call a hooligan element. Bangers were regularly thrown at cars, and there were constant reports of fireworks being tied to cats’ tails. People seemed to have less respect for fireworks in those days. I am pleased that the education appears to be working. The television news used to be full of horrendous incidents, and there were not many reports about pets, apart from the more horrific tales. I am pleased that public concern has been raised, but I would like there to be more education. Perhaps, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South said, people should contact their neighbours if they are going to have a display in their back garden. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith): I would like public displays to be much better promoted, although with adequate notice so that people can keep their pets in. Public displays, rather than back garden displays—which are often, frankly, very disappointing and expensive—should be the norm for fireworks.
It is not just the 2004 regulations that protect us from firework misuse. The Explosives Regulations 2014 deal with the storage of fireworks and explosives, and the Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2015 deal with the safety of fireworks as a consumer product. We need to look at whether trading standards organisations have enough resources to deal with the illegal trade in fireworks. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 requires that local authorities’ environmental health officers take “all reasonable steps” to investigate complaints about excessive noise. Have there been any prosecutions for the use of fireworks? Is that monitored? Are the statistics looked at?
To return to the petition, of course animals need to be protected. They do not like fireworks, there is no doubt about that. There is animal protection legislation—under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to animals. There is advice and guidance on the safe use of fireworks on the “Safer Fireworks” website, but it should be better promoted and the information should be strengthened. Perhaps people can be given advice if they really feel it is necessary to have a display in their back garden and want to spend their money on fireworks that fizzle out so quickly. Perhaps they can be asked to inform their neighbours if they have pets.
It is important that the misuse of fireworks is kept to a minimum and that they are prevented from being a nuisance and a danger to people and animals. We have a lot of legislation, but we need to ensure that it is monitored and enforced and look at whether the penalties are set at the right level. If that is combined with a stronger public information campaign, maybe, just maybe, we will ensure that people enjoy fireworks—as most people do—responsibly and safely without instilling fear and distress in animals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) and the petitioners on bringing about this debate.
The Chinese may be able to claim the credit for inventing the tradition of fireworks, but fireworks are a big part of the UK’s history. As the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) reminded us, they have been in use in this country since Elizabethan times and are now very much part of our multicultural traditions. They have been used for celebrations by many different faith groups—Christians, Hindus and Muslims—for many years, and they bring communities together to celebrate significant dates and events and to raise funds for good causes.
The majority of people who enjoy fireworks do so responsibly with consideration for others and in accordance with the law. None the less, I completely understand the distress caused to animals and their owners by the unexpected noise that fireworks produce. Of course, not only animals are affected by noisy fireworks. I also sympathise with those who suffer from mental health issues, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder, for whom the noise from fireworks can be very upsetting.
As a Minister in the Department responsible, my challenge is to find the right balance between the enjoyment of fireworks by consumers and the impact of those fireworks on vulnerable groups. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South, in his excellent opening speech, and other hon. Members have asked several pertinent questions, which I will attempt to answer.
I will take animal welfare and enforcement measures together—namely the adequacy and effectiveness of the existing framework and the various measures with respect to animal welfare. Considerable legislation is already in place on the use, sale and production of fireworks—as hon. Members have noted, the Fireworks Regulations 2004 and the Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2015—and is enforced by trading standards officials, in partnership with the police. Elements of the Explosives Act 1875 also set certain restrictions on fireworks, again enforced by the police.
Fireworks must be produced to high standards. As mentioned, the 2015 regulations require that all fireworks and other pyrotechnic articles must comply with essential safety requirements, which control how the fireworks are manufactured, tested and labelled with use and safety messages. They are designed to ensure that the risks of injury to users, onlookers and the public in general, and of damage to property, are minimised.
The requirements vary by category of how powerful the firework is, and cover design and construction, labelling, and the need for full product testing. They also include restrictions on, for example, safety distances, explosive content and means of ignition. My hon. Friend also expressed concern about fireworks debris, which is restricted by the relevant British and European standards.
The 2004 regulations set an 11 pm curfew on the use of fireworks, with later exceptions for seasonal celebrations such as 5 November, new year, Chinese new year and Diwali. The curfew is enforced by the police, with any breach subject to an unlimited fine and/or six months in prison. The police can also issue on-the-spot fines of £90 to persons aged 18 or over committing that offence.
Furthermore, sale of fireworks is limited to seasonal periods, unless a retailer is licensed. A licence costs £500 and is issued by a local authority, subject to strict criteria. The penalty for operating without a licence is an unlimited fine and/or up to six months in prison. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) asked about trends in recent sales, and I offer him some statistics in response. I will happily write to him with further information in due course. The industry estimates that about 15% of sales are by those with a year-round retail licence.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about stockpiling, as did the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue). Stockpiling and the storage of fireworks are governed by robust regimes. The storage of fireworks of less than two tonnes in weight needs a licence from the local authority; storage of more than two tonnes of fireworks requires a licence from the Health and Safety Executive. Both bodies may inspect storage facilities, if they so wish.
The hon. Members for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell) mentioned online sales. Online sales are regulated in the same way as conventional sales. The trading standards body is doing specific work on national trading standards for online sales. Funding for that body continues at last year’s level of £14.8 million.
Fireworks cannot be set off in a public space, and the noise caused by them may constitute a statutory nuisance. Local authority environmental health officers may judge whether the noise constitutes a statutory nuisance and act accordingly. Finally, it is an offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to cause any unnecessary suffering to any captive or domestic animal. Fireworks must not be set off near livestock or horses in fields, or close to buildings that house livestock.
In my view, those existing laws, which are robustly enforced, and the penalties for breaching them are appropriate to ensure that animal welfare is protected.
I am listening to the Minister’s response with great interest and, kindly, he is dealing with points made by colleagues. I am not sure whether I am anticipating something he might be going on to answer, but a number of us asked about enforcement because of the clear interest in whether we have the balance right. The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) said that we should ban anything but organised displays; most of us say, “Let’s get the balance right.” On the enforcement of the regulations, does the Minister have the statistics on how many prosecutions there have been, what the trend is, and whether it is improving or deteriorating? Those could give confidence to people that trading standards officers, for sales, and the police, for enforcement, are working on this and are doing all they can to protect exposed communities and animals.
No centrally available data are with the Department; the data are not separated out to show specific fireworks offences. The basis on which data are collected and given to the Home Office has changed, so we are unable to identify fireworks offences specifically or data of the kind the hon. Gentleman is interested in.
The points about the role of trading standards were interesting, and I wonder whether the point about centrally collected data also applies to trading standards. Trading standards departments are important in terms of animal welfare, because they also enforce regulations on the breeding and sale of companion animals, particularly dogs and cats. There is real concern in the animal welfare world that trading standards do not have the resources to enforce regulation of either fireworks or, all important, the breeding and sale of dogs and cats.
As I said, national trading standards continue to receive significant Government funding, to the tune of almost £15 million last year, but the hon. Lady’s concerns are on the record.
On public awareness, there is Government-sponsored guidance on the safe and considerate use of fireworks on the gov.uk website, including the fireworks code. It includes a link to the Safer Fireworks website, hosted by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, which includes a section on thinking of one’s neighbours and letting them know when planning a display, especially those with pets or animals, elderly neighbours and people with children.
In addition, the very useful “Celebrating with bonfires and fireworks: A community guide” is produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government. It, too, encourages consideration for neighbours and advising them of any fireworks planned.
Many local authorities provide advice on how to use fireworks safely and considerately on their websites, as well as links to other sites. In addition, UK fireworks manufacturers support the fireworks code, which is supplied with all their products and contains advice on safety and on considerate use, including informing neighbours when a garden display is planned. Many retailers have copies of the fireworks code available at point of sale. Retailers also have advice and safety information on their websites, including encouraging consideration for others. All such guidance means that the public have ample opportunity to be aware of their responsibilities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South also asked whether manufacturers and retailers could do more to mitigate the impact on animals. As I have already set out, the fireworks industry takes a responsible approach to the issue, and is keen to work with us to minimise the detrimental impact of its products. The sector supports the fireworks code, and its representatives regularly meet officials from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to discuss areas of concern, including those mentioned in the debate. However, I am confident that legislation already provides adequate safeguards and that the industry is doing everything it can to ensure that it continues to operate within that legal framework.
Finally, I come to the question of whether more could be done to support pet and livestock owners. Government are often not best placed to produce guidance on such matters, as others are in a better position to do so, but we are more than happy to promote and support guidance produced by other organisations. In particular, animal welfare charities such as Blue Cross, the RSPCA and the Kennel Club have produced freely available guidance on how to minimise the impact of fireworks use on animals and on how to reduce any distress that they might feel.
While this debate is not specifically about changing the law, I want to take the opportunity to reflect on the e-petition that sparked the discussion and the calls for further restrictions on fireworks use to four traditional periods: dates around Guy Fawkes, new year’s eve, Diwali and Chinese new year. In my view, changing the legal restrictions on use of fireworks is unlikely to be effective. It is likely that those who already use fireworks in an antisocial or inconsiderate way will not be deterred by further regulation. Indeed, further restrictions on when fireworks can be used could lead to more incidents of illegal use at unexpected times. That might also be associated with trade in fireworks illegally imported from overseas, which might not conform to stringent UK and EU standards. Moreover, restrictions in use could lead to a drop in legitimate sales, leading to job losses not only in the fireworks industry but in dependent and associated businesses.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) called for a ban on fireworks outside tightly licensed displays. I remind him that this is a £180 million industry that provides employment to at least 250 people directly and supports thousands of others in the supply chain and I am not sure that they would share his optimism that the proposal he advocates would lead to an overall boost in revenues for the sector and an increase in the security of their livelihoods. We need to bear their position in mind in the debate, too.
In conclusion, there are already restrictions and penalties in place that I believe reasonably provide for animal welfare. Fireworks use, by both the general public and professional display operators, is heavily regulated. There are restrictions on when they can be bought—including on internet sales—and used, how they can be stored and noise levels.
Indeed, we do reflect on differing practice around the United Kingdom. Fireworks use is of course a devolved issue and there is a differing regime in Northern Ireland. We look with great interest at how Northern Ireland approaches the question and any lessons that can be drawn from that will be learned.
Fireworks are subject to stringent testing regimes and new products undergo intense scrutiny before they are made available for sale. Low noise fireworks are becoming more widely available. UK manufacturers have introduced low noise fireworks and worked with animal charities on guidance for owners.
I understand the concerns of those who find the noise and flash of fireworks distressing, but I must reiterate that I believe the majority of people enjoy fireworks with consideration for others and in accordance with the regulations governing their use. It is a great pity that the actions of an antisocial minority tarnish the reputation of a responsible majority.
I am satisfied that enough is being done to make the public aware of their responsibilities when using fireworks and that fireworks manufacturers and retailers are helping with advice to mitigate the impact on animals. Moreover, many local authorities have advice and guidance on using fireworks on their websites. They will also be aware of any issues particularly affecting the local community with regards to firework use. I therefore suggest that those who feel that fireworks use in their area is excessive contact their local councils with a view to working together on seasonal awareness campaigns to promote consideration for others when organising domestic displays. In the meantime, the Government will continue to monitor the situation closely.
I am grateful to you, Mr Nuttall, and to Ms Vaz for chairing the proceedings and to all Members and the Minister for taking part in this important debate on how we ensure the balance between enjoying fireworks and animal welfare. We heard lots about how we consider that and I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to take away some of what he has heard to look at for the future. I am also grateful to the creators of the petition and all the people who signed it for giving us the opportunity to have this important debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 109702 relating to restricting the use of fireworks.