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Fireworks: Licensing of Premises

Volume 617: debated on Friday 18 November 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Griffiths.)

Just over two years ago, an explosion and fire at a business—SP Plastics—in Stafford resulted in the tragic deaths of two people, injuries to others, the destruction of buildings and the loss of businesses. I would like to offer my heartfelt sympathy to all those who suffered as a result. I would also like to thank Staffordshire fire and rescue service, the national health service and Staffordshire police, as well as local volunteer groups that assisted them. The investigations into this tragedy have not yet concluded, so I will not comment on the causes. However, there is no doubt that the scale and nature of the fire was due to the presence of large quantities of fireworks on the premises.

I am most grateful to Stephanie Horton of River Canal Rescue for much of the information that follows. Her business premises were destroyed, and she and her 30 staff had to rebuild from scratch, all the time providing a vital service to river and canal users across the country. I pay tribute to her and her staff, and to the other business owners and staff who had to cope with the consequences of the fire.

My purpose today is to ask the Minister to look at improving the way in which the storage and sale of fireworks are regulated. I will also make some points about the way in which businesses that have suffered catastrophic events such as this are supported by public bodies.

It may help if I summarise the current regulations for the licensing of premises for the storage of fireworks. Someone who wishes to run wholesale or retail premises that store or sell fireworks, up to a total of 2 tonnes, must be licensed with the fire service, if they are based in some of the metropolitan areas, or with the trading standards department of the local council, if they are based elsewhere. Someone who intends to store or sell more than 2 tonnes, or the most powerful category 4 fireworks, which are designed for professional displays and large open spaces, will need a licence from the Health and Safety Executive.

In principle, the regulations seem reasonable. However, they depend on the training of the inspectors from trading standards or the fire and rescue services, and on proper disclosure from the owner of the business.

My first request of the Minister is that when the conclusive report into this tragic fire is released, she will consider whether the regulations are sufficient. There is a great deal of difference between a shop storing perhaps a few category 2 fireworks and a warehouse containing up to 2 tonnes of category 2 or 3 fireworks, yet the same application procedure applies to both. Should there be an intermediate category covering substantial sellers who fall below the threshold for licensing by the Health and Safety Executive, and should such larger traders perhaps be licensed by the fire service rather than the local council? After all, the storage of large quantities of fireworks—to me, 2 tonnes is a large quantity—is a fire risk. In the case of small retailers, risks are more likely to concern consumer safety and the age of those purchasing fireworks—work for which trading standards is eminently suited.

My second suggestion arises from the experience of those at River Canal Rescue, who found themselves without sufficient insurance cover because they were unaware of what was stored in the nearby warehouse. This suggestion, which could be implemented immediately, is that all applications for licences require that the trader be properly insured for the storage and sale of fireworks, and that this should include insurance cover liability to third parties. Nowhere have I seen this on application forms. If someone wishes to obtain a licence for a motor vehicle, they have to show that it is properly insured in respect of third parties. Fireworks are potentially as dangerous as motor vehicles, so it makes sense for the same rule to apply. It should also be a requirement that the insurance policy be displayed and that neighbouring businesses be informed of the fact that fireworks are stored so that they can, in turn, let their insurers know in case it is of significance.

Ms Horton of River Canal Rescue makes another reasonable suggestion, which is that those who are responsible for licensing—trading standards or the fire service—should conduct unannounced checks on premises, and that they should receive more specific training in fireworks where they do not have it. No system is perfect, but we must learn the lessons from whatever failures are shown to have occurred that resulted in the fire in Stafford. I believe that the proposal to make production of a valid insurance policy a precondition of receiving a licence is simple and capable of swift implementation.

I turn now to the aftermath of the fire and, in particular, the consequences for the businesses that were so badly affected. Ms Horton says:

“There was no support, help of concessions given to us by government bodies. We had to rebuild from scratch. We lost everything, including all of our accounts. It took nearly 6 months to reinstate these alone. Penalties, letters and a general disregard for our situation from HMRC gave us extra stress in a very stressful situation, especially when you take into account that there were 30 employees whose jobs relied on us to keep the plates spinning.”

Despite this, the company has been named medium employer of the year at the north-west national apprenticeship awards. That is an outstanding achievement given the circumstances. I suggest that there is more that Government and local government, can do, in co-operation with the business community, to ensure that businesses are fully supported after a calamity such as a fire that has affected them through no fault of their own. The local council—which, after all, collects business rates—could offer an officer, perhaps in co-operation with the chamber of commerce, who would liaise with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, banks and others to assist the business through that difficult time. In that way, jobs will be saved.

I have three suggestions to put to the Government: first, a licence system that is more appropriate to the level of risk involved; secondly, a requirement that proper insurance held by the applicant be a requirement of obtaining a licence; and thirdly, a straightforward system of support for businesses affected by fires, floods or other major disruptions. All this could, I believe, be put in place with little or no cost. At the same time, it should reduce the risk of such tragedies as happened in Stafford occurring and, even if they did, assist with recovery from them.

First, I extend my heartfelt sympathy to the families of Simon Hillier and Stewart Staples, whose lives were taken in the terrible incident at SP Plastics in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on 30 October 2014. He will acknowledge that, as there is an ongoing police-led investigation, I will not be able to comment further on it in my response today. However, Health and Safety Executive officials would welcome the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend once the coroner’s inquest has concluded. That would provide an opportunity to consider the findings in full and whether any further work is needed to help reduce the risk of similar incidents happening again.

The prevention of accidents with the potential to cause extensive harm to workers, members of the public and the environment remains a key Government priority. In the past 10 years, there have tragically been three significant incidents involving firework-licensed sites where people have died. Although that is a relatively low number, the consequences can clearly be catastrophic and, as in the case of the incident in my hon. Friend’s constituency, devastating to the families involved. There is, therefore, no room for complacency.

I reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to making sure that the health and safety requirements in this area are robust, to enable businesses to effectively control their risks. Businesses in Great Britain must have a licence to manufacture or store quantities or types of fireworks that are considered to be of higher hazard. That is in line with their potential for harm. As my hon. Friend has said, in Great Britain the responsibility for issuing licences to business that wish to store fireworks or, indeed, other explosives is split between the local licensing authorities, which can issue storage licences for 2 tonnes or less, and HSE, which issues storage licences for more than 2 tonnes as well as licences to manufacture.

I shall talk first about the role of local licensing authorities. If any business wishes to store 2 tonnes or less of fireworks, or of other explosives, it must apply for a licence from the appropriate local licensing authority. The authorities require applicants to be “fit people”, and for them to supply accurate details of the types of activities being carried out; the types of fireworks or other explosives being manufactured or stored; and plans of the site. That helps to ensure that the authorities have a clear picture of what businesses are requesting the licences for and whether there are any issues that need further consideration.

Local authorities can grant licences only where predetermined legal separation distances between explosives and people are met, making sure that potentially higher-hazard licensing requests are referred to the explosive specialists at HSE. The licensing authority can revoke a licence if there is a change in circumstances that means that the person holding the licence is no longer considered fit, or if the site is no longer suitable. In addition, to acquire, or acquire and keep, certain types of explosives, the licence holder must have an explosives certificate from the police.

My hon. Friend has asked whether it would be more appropriate for the fire service to issue licences for larger traders. Licences to store smaller quantities of fireworks are issued by local licensing authorities, which include local council trading standards, fire authorities and the police. Local authorities are best placed to make decisions about licensing, as they understand, and are able to reflect, local concerns and requirements. HSE offers guidance to local authorities to support them in their assessments, and works closely with partner licensing authorities to ensure that the licensing framework is applied appropriately.

In Great Britain, if any business wishes to manufacture explosives or to store more than 2 tonnes of fireworks or other explosives, it must apply for a licence from HSE, which requires details of the types of activities being carried out; the fireworks or explosives being manufactured or stored; plans of the site; and the proposed distances between the fireworks or other explosives and people. HSE’s explosives inspectorate considers the suitability of the applicant and of the site and whether the application can be progressed. HSE-issued licences must have the agreement of local authorities. That enables local communities to highlight local factors and make sure that specific information regarding location and proximities is considered.

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point about whether the levels of scrutiny are appropriate for the risks, and queries whether the 2-tonne threshold for HSE-issued licensing is correct. I am reminded, given the time of year, that the amount of explosive to be used in the gunpowder plot was 2.5 tonnes.

The thresholds for licensing come from a long-standing historical approach first introduced under the Explosives Act 1875. The thresholds were reviewed in 2002 and were considered still to be valid. I have extended to my hon. Friend the offer to meet the Health and Safety Executive to discuss such concerns, and I encourage him to do so. That will provide him with the opportunity to raise the issue of the 2-tonne threshold directly with the HSE.

My hon. Friend expressed concerns that business insurance policies for companies storing or manufacturing fireworks are not sufficient. Specifically, he suggested a requirement to protect third-party businesses from damages caused by any firework-related incident. Over the years, Parliament has legislated to require compulsory insurance for specific categories of risk, such as liabilities incurred by those using a motor vehicle on a road or in a public space. Businesses that employ staff are legally required to have employer liability compulsory insurance to provide redress for employees against bodily injury, illness or disease sustained in the course of employment. In addition to those requirements, businesses such as a firework display operator must have valid liability insurance.

The explosives and fireworks licensing framework focuses on the health, safety and security of the licensed premises and the impact on the surrounding community. Consequently, that health and safety legislation does not extend to cover business insurance requirements for licensed premises. However, I have already made the commitment that HSE officials would welcome the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend once the coroner’s inquest into the SP Fireworks incident has concluded to consider the findings in full.

My hon. Friend suggested that we should introduce a requirement for licensed businesses to inform neighbouring businesses of, and display, the fact that fireworks are stored on their premises. The HSE licence approval process requires businesses to notify local communities that they are applying for a licence. Applicants must publish a notice in a local paper stating: they are applying for a licence; they are inviting any representations on the application; and how the application may be inspected. Applicants should also write to or leaflet those affected. That helps to inform neighbouring businesses, communities and residential properties.

I note carefully the specific impacts that my hon. Friend described on companies in his constituency, including River Canal Rescue. He made some cogent arguments about what can go wrong when there is a lack of adequate information or separation from other businesses. I congratulate River Canal Rescue on its success in continuing to employ apprentices, which is such an important part of ensuring that our young people can go on to fulfilling careers. However, I have noted carefully what he said about the difficulties it has faced, which indeed many companies can face in emergency situations.

The Government strategy for regulators is set out in the regulators’ code, which requires regulators to ensure that they take proportionate approaches to regulation in line with the level of risk. The principles of the regulators’ code are applied by HSE’s explosives licensing team, with sites undergoing targeted interventions, including inspection. HSE has an effective enforcement policy statement and has developed an enforcement management model that aligns to the Government’s better regulation principles. Similarly, local licensing authorities also adopt a risk-based approach to targeting health and safety interventions. This principle-based framework is set out in the published local authority national code.

My hon. Friend has suggested that bodies responsible for licensing should conduct unannounced checks on premises and receive specific training in fireworks. As I have mentioned, the HSE works closely with local authorities and the industry to ensure that the licensing framework is applied appropriately. Licensing authorities use a number of intervention approaches to regulate and influence businesses, including the provision of advice and guidance, and both proactive and reactive inspection.

The Government fully recognise the importance of ensuring suitable licensing requirements for fireworks and other explosives. The Health and Safety Executive works extensively with explosives and fireworks industries to support compliance with the law. The HSE regularly engages with industry stakeholders and has developed guidance with the industry. The existing licensing framework aims to make sure that, where businesses comply with the licence conditions, the risks of an uncontrolled explosion occurring are greatly reduced. Where businesses fail to meet these requirements or harm occurs, regulatory action is swift.

As I have already mentioned, the Health and Safety Executive is undertaking a review of explosives licensing as part its ongoing commitment to continual business improvement, and to ensure that the framework is fit for purpose. The review will look at how the HSE’s licensing approach can be improved and whether any possible burdens on business can be reduced while maintaining standards of safety. It will involve input from industry, other Departments and other regulators, including local authorities, which will provide my hon. Friend and other hon. Members with an opportunity to feed into the process.

We have heard my hon. Friend’s specific areas of concern, but there may well be others. The review is certainly a chance to scrutinise the current system. The concerns he has raised include those about the 2-tonne limit on local authority, as opposed to HSE, licensing and about the categories of fireworks, which is very important. However, there may also be other areas, such as the secondary manufacture or fusing of fireworks, which often takes place in companies seeking to put on professional displays.

My hon. Friend raised the concern that licensing should be required for any business in Great Britain manufacturing or storing hazardous quantities or types of fireworks. I hope he is reassured by my response that this is already the case. I thank him for bringing these important issues to our attention. Again, I would like to extend my sincerest condolences to the families of Simon Hillier and Stewart Staples. My officials would welcome the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the coroner’s findings once the inquest has been concluded, and to consider any areas of further work.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.