Monday 2 November 2020
[David Mundell in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: First Report of the Petitions Committee, Session 2019, Fireworks, HC 103, and First Special Report of the Petitions Committee, Session 2019–21, Fireworks: Government Response to the Committee’s First Report of Session 2019, HC 242.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them and respect the one-way system around the room. Members should speak only from the horseshoe, and may speak only if they are on the call list. This applies even if debates are under-subscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list. Members are not expected to remain for the wind-ups, and there is less of an expectation that they will stay for the two speeches after they have spoken. This is to help to manage attendance in the room. Members may wish to stay beyond their speech, but should be aware that in doing so, they may be preventing Members in the Public Gallery from moving to a seat on the horseshoe.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 276425, relating to the sale of fireworks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and an honour to lead for the Petitions Committee on this debate.
Once again, we are having this debate in the run-up to 5 November, when we mark the foiling of the gunpowder plot in 1605. As we speak, we are only metres away from where Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Palace of Westminster and kill King James I. First, I thank Elizabeth Harden, who set up this petition, and the people who have signed it and other petitions like it over many years. Many colleagues have requested a chance to speak in this important debate, but due to the restrictions on numbers in Westminster Hall and other proceedings, they are unable to make their constituents’ voices heard. I stand here to represent many of their views.
This is an emotive subject, and I have been contacted by hundreds of people about it. No one can deny that a well organised firework display is something that a lot of people look forward to as the nights draw in, but the distress and danger that fireworks can cause to people with disabilities or health conditions, and to small children, wild animals and pets, must be considered throughout this debate. Marj Williams, my constituent and friend from the village where I live, Pontarddulais, has emailed me to express her frustrations about Guy Fawkes night and to suggest that, if we cannot stop the sale of fireworks altogether, they be sold for licensed events only, rather than to the general public, and that such events be restricted to one night only, not four or five consecutive nights.
I am sure all MPs have received emails from constituents outlining the terrible effect of unplanned fireworks being set off, often as early as October. I am afraid that this year, as we are living through the second wave of coronavirus, the consequences of the sale of fireworks and the increase in home displays will be the worst ever. We have rightly seen organised displays cancelled, but not a ban on the sale of fireworks to the general public. Some responsible outlets and supermarkets have made the decision not to sell fireworks for themselves, but the fact that the sale of fireworks has continued means that there has been a rise in firework-related antisocial behaviour, and there will be, I am afraid, more accidents.
The figures on injuries caused by fireworks are stark. There were nearly 2,000 visits to A&E linked to fireworks in 2018-19. In 2018, 4,436 individuals attended A&E because of an injury caused by a firework. NHS England states that in the past five years there have been almost 1,000 hospital admissions related to the discharge of a firework. Interestingly, in 2019, some 35,000 people sought advice from the nhs.uk website on how to treat burns and scalds; the figure peaked at more than 2,800 visits on 4 November.
What can we expect this year, when organised displays will not be happening? It is bound to lead to an increase in demand on emergency services at a time when we should be protecting our NHS. It is just irresponsible. How can we morally justify the sale of fireworks in a pandemic? I am not alone in my concerns about the impact of an increase in home displays on or around 5 November on the emergency services and the NHS.
Of course, nobody plans to have an accident, but when individuals, however experienced with fireworks, take any risk with them, there is a direct effect on services that are already under a huge burden and strain. Under normal circumstances, at this time of year, especially on 5 November, accident and emergency departments are under extreme pressure. The facts are the facts: fireworks are potentially very dangerous. If we want to be seen to be acting responsibly, the Government should ban the sale of fireworks, especially this year.
These safety concerns extend to wildlife and our natural spaces. Without safeguards and professional organisation, the risk of damage to land, livestock and wildlife from errant fireworks will be hugely increased. In my constituency, a couple of years ago, I saw a horse lose its life from the stress caused by fireworks continually going off. That is just unacceptable.
There are solutions to this ongoing issue. The petitions inquiry gave three recommendations to the Government. The first is that we create a permit scheme, run by local authorities, which would limit the number of firework displays in an area. The second is that we create a national awareness scheme about the responsible use of fireworks and their impact on veterans and those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Up and down the country, our constituencies are starting to sound like war zones. My constituent, Richard Smith, a veteran who has given so much to this country, suffers particularly acutely at this time of year. He is an advocate for organised, licensed events, as well as tougher penalties, such as fixed-penalty notices. I would like to hear the Minister’s response to that suggestion. I thank my hon. Friend for securing such an important debate.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about his constituent, because this issue is of great concern. The noise fireworks give off when they are used, not only in displays, frightens people. It is really quite unacceptable. That is why the call for fixed-penalty notices is important.
Thirdly, we need to rethink how fireworks are packaged, so that we limit their appeal and availability to children, and to others who behave badly and do not respect them. There is also a silent fireworks campaign, started by councillors in Pembrey and Burry Port, a town near my Gower constituency. The campaign suggests that if the sale of fireworks to the general public is to continue, those fireworks should be silent, so as to reduce antisocial disturbance to residents, pets and ex-armed forces personnel, of whom we have spoken.
Is it really beyond the wit of man to implement these recommendations, and to protect the most vulnerable in our communities and our pets and animals, who have no voice in this important matter? One need only look at social media to see the impact on animals at home whenever fireworks are set off, whatever the occasion, throughout the year. It is our responsibility, as Members of Parliament, and the responsibility of the Government to ensure that people and pets do not suffer. The Government’s response to the Petitions Committee inquiry was wholly inadequate. I hope that the Minister will take on board the strength of feeling about this issue in his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am a member of the Petitions Committee, and this is an excellent opportunity for us to share the petitioners’ concerns in Parliament. I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for her opening remarks.
I also thank the 338 Carshalton and Wallington residents who signed the petition, the many more who sent me emails about it, and those who took part in my snap Facebook poll overnight on this issue, which was prompted, funnily enough, by my arriving home quite late to hear fireworks being set off. I will say a bit more about that later. Just before rising to speak, I checked the online poll, in which I asked my constituents what they think about the petition, and no fewer than 680 said that they would like a total ban on the sale of fireworks or at least some restriction, whereas 210 said that they do not think change is necessary, and they would not be happy to see any restrictions on the sale of fireworks, so there was quite a healthy majority for the first option.
I totally agree with the hon. Lady’s opening remarks. When I was growing up, there was many a wonderful firework display on Guy Fawkes night in my Carshalton and Wallington constituency. For example, local scout groups put on displays—I was a member of the 6th Carshalton scout group—and the Round Table Carshalton fireworks night takes place every year.
The Minister is nodding; he used to live next to the park where that display takes place, so he knows it very well. The Round Table does a fantastic job and puts on a great event.
However, I have heard from many constituents tales of what can happen when fireworks go off. I have also heard the concerns of various organisations, particularly animal charities. Animals are one of the primary reasons why people have concerns about the general sale of fireworks. Speaking from personal experience, my older golden retriever, Willow, is quite frightened of fireworks and cannot settle down when she hears them going off. It is upsetting to see her in that state.
There have also been concerns about antisocial behaviour. I mentioned that I heard fireworks going off last night, and this morning it came to my attention that it is rumoured—I have not had confirmation from the police yet—that a group of young people were letting off fireworks in the pedestrianised Wallington Square, which caused significant damage, as well as distress to the residents living near the high street. That behaviour is not only a nuisance but highly dangerous, as the hon. Member for Gower highlighted clearly.
A number of solutions to this ongoing issue have been suggested, both in the petition and by residents who have contacted me, and I want to touch on a few of them. The first, and perhaps the most extreme, is a total ban on the sale of fireworks in the United Kingdom, which would essentially bring an end to firework displays in the UK. I think that is a bit too heavy handed, and I am sure we can find a more balanced approach. There is a range of other suggestions, especially to do with licencing, including the idea that we sell fireworks only to those holding formal events, that we regulate noise, and that we limit the dates on which fireworks can be set off. The Government will have considered those suggestions in their call for evidence in 2018, and the petition calls for some of those measures to be taken.
Colleagues will want to explore those options in more detail, so to allow them to speak, I will draw my remarks to a close. The Government are considering evidence that they started to collect in 2018, and are looking at the Scottish Government’s consultation and the Petitions Committee’s inquiry. I look forward to seeing what they have to say in response to those two pieces of work. Ultimately, I hope that they can find a balanced approach that allows us to continue to enjoy these events, particularly on Guy Fawkes night, and ensures that we address the concerns that our constituents have raised.
It is nice to see you in the Chair, and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, seeing as you are my constituency neighbour.
I thank the Petitions Committee and Elizabeth Harden for the petition, the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), and of course the 845 people in my constituency of East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow who took the time to sign it. It is an extremely important petition; I stand to be corrected, but I think it is the one that the highest number of my constituents has signed.
It is extremely important that we consider the impact on our NHS of inadvertent injuries to children during Guy Fawkes night celebrations, and the impact on assistance dogs and those with disabilities. I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability. I also have to declare an interest as the mother of Rossi, my little French bulldog, who becomes extremely unsettled—almost terrified—every year at this time, when he hears the loud bangs. He takes to hiding under my bed. Rossi is the mascot on the Twitter page of the all-party parliamentary group on dog advisory welfare, which I chair. I thank everyone who has been in touch with me in relation to those roles, as well as constituents who have lodged their concerns with me ahead of today’s debate.
It is clear that easy access to fireworks and poor enforcement of legislation is having a detrimental impact on both domestic and wild animals, and particularly pet dogs. I have received briefings from the Dogs Trust, Cats Protection, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Blue Cross, the Kennel Club and the British Veterinary Association, to name but a few organisations that are concerned about the impact of fireworks and feel that it is important that we have this debate.
The Dogs Trust and the Blue Cross call for further restrictions on the sale of fireworks. They would limit them to licensed, organised public events only, at certain times of the year. They say that quieter fireworks are not an absolute solution to the problem, as close proximity and prolonged exposure can have a negative impact on the welfare of animals. However, lower-decibel fireworks should be used to reduce the number of animals affected.
Cats Protection, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, and the British Veterinary Association call for a review of fireworks legislation and its impact on animal welfare, with a view to introducing further restrictions on the use of fireworks. In a 2018 Dogs Trust survey of 2,000 members of the public, 89% of respondents agreed that pets are distressed by fireworks; 79% said that they tried to keep their pets inside to limit that distress; and over 50% believed that fireworks should be restricted to official displays.
A Blue Cross survey found that 70% of UK pets were affected by fireworks. Dogs topped the list at 64%; they were followed by cats at 42% and horses at 17%. Owners reported their pets trembling with fear and being physically sick, while 45% said the unexpected bangs and noises made their pets hide away for hours, just like my Rossi. Some 21% said that their pets were scared to go outdoors for days afterwards; that shows the long-term impact of firework displays.
I note an article about Brody, a little dog who lost his ear after malicious teenagers set off fireworks next to his head. A grandmother had to chase them away. He was eventually found hiding down a manhole with maggots in his wound. Thankfully, he was rescued and taken to safety. The impact of fireworks cannot be underestimated.
Peter Egan, a patron of the all-party parliamentary group on dog advisory welfare, sent me his views ahead of today’s debate:
“Fireworks are terrible for animals. Many dogs and cats are simply terrified, not least because of their acute hearing and sense of smell, which is so much more sensitive than ours.”
Wildlife suffering is rarely discussed, but he recalls the terrible case of the Bideford starling roost; startled birds were reported to have been injured and killed after flying into buildings and the river, and were even trampled to death. He said there is also a significant risk of terrible physical injuries to people; he himself was hit by a firework when he was just nine, and still has the scar. Peter says that fireworks are simply a waste of money and that he would prefer it if people donated their firework money to the NHS, particularly this year.
Ellen Watson, a House of Commons Clerk, has spoken on social media about how she was left vulnerable when her guide dog Skipp was terrified by fireworks. Ellen’s Twitter plea was simple and clear, and her words encapsulate the feelings of people across the UK:
“Not only do fireworks cause extreme distress for dogs & humans, they pose risk to disabled ppls safety. This has to stop. Fireworks NEED to be regulated.”
“Dogs are often life changing or life saving for people (especially assistance dogs).”
I will touch briefly on the impact on those who have post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly our veterans—I declare an interest as my husband is a veteran. We really cannot underestimate that issue, either, and, particularly at this time of year, when remembrance events are upon us, we must consider the impact on our veteran community. Kerry Snuggs, a former police officer, has post-traumatic stress disorder and, like veterans, she has spoken about the impact of fireworks night:
“Fireworks night is a trigger for many. Those who have served in armed forces and emergency services will have seen so many traumatic incidents that at any point the brain may just say enough is enough. Please consider those suffering with PTSD this fireworks day”.
To conclude, I thank my constituents once again. As I have said, this is an extremely important and acute issue for them, and they have been in touch with me about it. They feel strongly that the licensing and limiting of public firework sales and use can help people enjoy the spectacle of firework shows, while facilitating compassionate action for families who are affected by firework stress, carers of people with disabilities, veterans with PTSD and the millions of us who own dogs, cats and other companionship animals. Please, let us look seriously at this issue and at the recommendations of the Petitions Committee, and think about how to take them forward. We are here to represent the public, whose views we should consider when legislating on the matter. I say to the public: please, do not be a firework fiend this year. Think about our NHS, the animals that are affected, and those with disabilities and PTSD.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank the Petitions Committee and the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for securing the debate, as well as the 777 constituents of mine who signed the petition.
One of those constituents, Mr Cohen, has raised the issue with me several times. I am incredibly sympathetic to his concerns, and echo his calls for greater protections and regulation. Although many of us enjoy organised firework displays on bonfire night and at the new year, that has unfortunately led to fireworks being set off, for one cause or another, throughout the year.
Just last Friday, as I was sat in my office in the early hours of the evening, fireworks were going off the middle of Radcliffe, with no real celebrations going on—it was just antisocial behaviour, which we clearly need to tackle. While sat in this debate, I have received another complaint about fireworks being set off in Prestwich at half-past 5 in the morning. That highlights the real concerns that many residents have. Fireworks are set off at all hours and in all locations.
Fireworks cause real problems and fear for pet owners, veterans, those who suffer from dementia, and parents—many of us included—of young children. My daughter Lavinia was spooked by fireworks as I was putting her to bed recently, on one of the few nights when I am not in this place and get to spend with her. She was so spooked that rather than her going through her usual bedtime routine, I had to nurse her to sleep for more than an hour, while she clung to me, cuddling, because she could not get to sleep as she was so worried about the loud noises.
For pet owners, that problem is compounded, because they cannot explain to their animals what is going on. The unpredictable nature of fireworks makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for animals to acclimatise to them. We absolutely should do more to prevent the use of fireworks outside organised displays for events such as Diwali, Chinese new year, bonfire night and new year. Enforcement is clearly not possible. By the time the police get to a location where fireworks are being set off, the perpetrators have absconded
There are, however, ways to tackle illegal firework use, which the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has recommended. We can reduce the time that retailers can sell fireworks to specific dates to fit around the previously mentioned events. We can look at reducing the noise level of fireworks to 90 decibels, as has been recommended, to assist in mitigating the distress to vulnerable groups and animals. The licensing of all public firework displays by their local authority would go a long way to tackling the issue. I would go further and push for all fireworks to be available only for use in licensed public displays, and I would suggest a ban on all pop-up shops selling fireworks.
This is not a bid to reduce the public’s enjoyment, but to protect the health and wellbeing of the nation’s pets and those most likely to suffer from the inappropriate and illegal use of fireworks. The laws that have been in place for many years are clearly insufficient to address these concerns and need to be updated to protect the most vulnerable, while still allowing licensed public events for the nation to enjoy. The Government must do more to tackle these concerns and the fear experienced by many.
Today’s debate clearly shows that although we might argue in the Chamber and Westminster Hall, there is a wide level of cross-party support to try to tackle these issues. Again, I commend the hon. Member for Gower for securing this debate and I am in complete agreement with what she said. I hope the Minister is listening and will take our concerns on board to make sure that we can enjoy such events in a compassionate way, as the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) has said.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for so ably introducing this debate, and I am sorry that I missed her introduction. It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I rise to speak on behalf of the 636 people in my constituency of Pontypridd who signed the petition calling for a ban on the sale of fireworks to the general public. This is not the first time the issue has been discussed in this place. Numerous petitions have argued for the greater regulation of fireworks, and yet the Government fail to act and to take the issue seriously.
A few weeks ago, I asked the Leader of the House for a debate to discuss the need for the greater regulation of fireworks. I raised concerns about the impact of fireworks on people with mental illness and on animals and the environment. In a typically dismissive fashion, he said:
“No, I am sorry, but I won’t. I think the regulations are about right and fireworks are fun.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 540.]
I want to use this opportunity to urge the Government once again to take the issue seriously. Don’t get me wrong—I love fireworks and I always have. I even had an organised display at my wedding on new year’s eve. I love bonfire night, too. There is something special about being wrapped up warm in hats, scarves and gloves, with the smell in the air, a hotdog in one hand and a toffee apple in the other, watching the magic of fire and colours light up the night sky to the chorus of oohs and aahs. But like everything special, fireworks should be kept for the once a year celebrations of bonfire night and new year’s eve, and not used as a weapon to terrorise communities throughout the months of October, November and December.
Every year this debate is held and every year hundreds of thousands of people sign a petition such as the one we are debating today, but this year is different for a host of reasons. The coronavirus pandemic means that, sadly, people will not be able to join together to watch organised firework displays as usual. There have been some reports that that is leading to an increase in the number of private firework displays. The Kennel Club has reported that up to 40% of people between the ages of 16 and 34 are planning a private backyard display. We know that many animals, both domestic pets and wild animals, find fireworks terrifying, with some owners reporting that their pets have to be sedated when fireworks are going off. Why on earth should pet owners effectively have to drug their animals to calm them or reduce anxiety?
The noise from fireworks has a significant effect not only on animals, but on people, too. For elderly people or those with mental health problems such as PTSD, fireworks are genuinely distressing. They can trigger flashbacks and leave elderly people terrified to even leave their homes, and private backyard displays can also, tragically, be dangerous. I know only too well the extent of it. When I was younger we had fireworks in my back garden and my father was badly burnt by a rogue sparkler. I am glad to say that we managed to deal with it at home; it was not very serious. All he lost was a T-shirt, but he still has the scar to tell his story. However, I know that for others the tale is not as easy.
Every year, we see horrible reports of people suffering life-changing injuries and burns, and even reports of deaths, when private firework displays go badly wrong. Fireworks are often associated with antisocial behaviour. There have been a number of incidents in south Wales recently where residents have reported young people throwing fireworks at animals and even directly at people. One woman reported that a firework was thrown at her car while she and her children were inside. I cannot imagine how terrifying that must have been, and the Government have a responsibility to do more to protect people from such horrible experiences.
Finally, I want to take this opportunity to talk about the fantastic work that my own local authority of Rhondda Cynon Taf has been doing to draw attention to the issue. Unlike the Government, it takes this issue seriously and is conducting a review on the use of council land for firework displays.
There needs to be a public safety campaign on the use of fireworks. If the Government are not prepared to move towards allowing only organised displays, there are many other things that they could do to help keep people safe. If necessary, they could raise the age at which people can buy fireworks, they could restrict sales to certain times of the year, and they could empower councils and the police to take more action to tackle antisocial behaviour using fireworks. The Government urgently need to recognise the broad range of health and safety concerns that have been raised in this debate, and they must take action now before it is too late. Diolch, Mr Mundell.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Mundell, and to join colleagues for this annual debate on the harms that fireworks cause in many of our communities. I suppose that it is with a sense of some frustration that I stand here today, because we have been having such debates for some years now and the Government’s response is to continue to ignore the serious concerns that all of us are raising on a cross-party basis.
There are 414 signatures on the petition from constituents in Glasgow Central; the number of signatures has been reasonably consistent over many years. I continue to have concerns about fireworks raised with me again and again. The hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) said she started receiving complaints about fireworks in October. I think I can probably beat her, because I started receiving complaints in July, from residents in Pollokshields who live in Maxwell Square. They said that they
“typically hear a firework every day, always in broad daylight, usually mid-afternoon. At times, I have seen them exploding on the ground in the middle of Maxwell Square when the park is full of children or set off in the middle of the road.”
Obviously, it is hugely concerning that fireworks are being used in such a way when children are nearby.
Another person who also lives in Pollokshields emailed me in August to say that they had also found fireworks in the park nearby and had picked up the empty casings left behind. They said that the empty casings had very aggressive imagery; they were not for garden fireworks displays, but had pictures of people looking intimidating and wearing masks, as if they were about to use the fireworks in an aggressive way. In Pollokshields in 2018, that was what local residents found. Groups of people on the street were using fireworks against the police in an aggressive way—firing them and using them as weapons. That led me and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose Scottish constituency this had happened in, to set up a taskforce in the area with local police, community groups, the fire brigade and trading standards officers from the council. We have worked incredibly hard over the intervening two years to bring together a community response in Pollokshields to try and stop this kind of thing from happening again.
I must pay tribute to the police—to Chief Inspector Ross Allan, Sergeant Cenny Smith and Inspector John Menzies—who have done a huge amount of work to make sure that people in Pollokshields are kept safe from fireworks. They have educated schoolchildren, they have sited a mobile police office in Pollokshields, they have organised additional foot patrols, and they are doing everything they can to try to bring together this community response. But they should not have to do all that, because we should have the powers in Scotland to change the law to make sure that the impact of fireworks on communities is not felt in the way that it is.
For other residents of other parts of my constituency, fireworks are also a concern. Some are residents of the Templetons building, next to Glasgow Green. As you will know, Mr Mundell, Glasgow Green has a significant fireworks display every year—not this year, unfortunately, which is causing local residents a bit of extra concern. They fear that people will come to Glasgow Green and use fireworks there anyway, regardless of the social distancing requirements. Lisa Murray, who chairs the Verde residents association, has already seen this happening outside her building. What makes the situation worse is that this building is also affected by the cladding scandal, so she is incredibly worried that young people using fireworks irresponsibly in her neighbourhood will lead to the whole building going up in flames. They have had bin fires near their building because of fireworks being launched from bins, and residents are rightly scared.
A resident in the Calton wrote to me saying:
“I can no longer tolerate panic attacks every day and having to call mental health team due to break downs”—
because of the fireworks—
“teenagers in my area set fire to a mattress and started throwing fireworks into the fire they started…I am literally begging you please do something…each year things just get worse and worse.”
What does the Minister intend to do to keep that constituent safe from the irresponsible use of fireworks? A resident of Govanhill says:
“As you know, the Southside of Glasgow has suffered years of misery because of malicious use of fireworks. We started to hear them at the end of September this year, and now, on 15th October, my dog is terrified to leave home after dark. This will go on in my area until after New Year…I understand that a ban on sales to the general public can have unintended consequences, but as a chemistry teacher, I cannot understand why we allow high powered explosives to be placed in their hands, causing misery and injury.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) mentioned, this can have impacts on people with disabilities as well. The secretary of Shawlands and Strathbungo community council has written to say that she is aware of a firework being set off right next to a partially sighted person with a guide dog.
It is clear that people are not using fireworks responsibly and that more needs to be done. The Scottish Government held a consultation on this matter and got 16,000 responses, with almost all—some 94%—saying they would welcome increased controls on the sale of fireworks, while 87%, more than three quarters, said they would welcome a ban on the sale of fireworks The figures are clear. Where this falls down is that there has been no substantial response from the UK Government to the Scottish Government’s request for action. Back in 2018, I was told that a desktop review was being conducted by the Office for Product Safety and Standards, but that seems to have brought absolutely no results whatsoever. Just before I came over here, I received the response from the Minister that the Government do not have plans to bring forward additional legislative proposals on fireworks because a comprehensive regulatory framework is already in place, but we have heard from Members from all around the House, and from Members who are not here because of the social distancing restrictions, that this is completely inadequate. We hear year after year that the regulatory framework is not working.
Instead of fobbing off all our constituents, fobbing off the Scottish Government and fobbing off people who have genuine concerns about the impact on themselves, their pets and the wider community, will the Government devolve the relevant powers over fireworks to the Scottish Government, who have the evidence, the will and the understanding of this issue and want to proceed with it, so that my constituents can get a night’s sleep?
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for her comprehensive setting out of the problems and challenges we face with this issue. I am delighted to take part in this debate, but in doing so I have a sense of déjà vu all over again. I have spoken several times on the issue of fireworks on behalf of my constituents since 2015. My view is, has always been and will continue to be that the sale of fireworks should be restricted to those with a licence to deliver organised community displays. That view is widely held across Parliament and the UK, and during the restrictions that we are all enduring because of covid-19, it is more important than ever.
As is always the case in these debates, no one has argued, and no one would seek to argue, that, when used correctly, fireworks are not an enjoyable spectacle. In normal times, some 10 million people across the UK each year see fireworks as a feature in big events in November, for weddings and in all sorts of other celebrations throughout the year. Anyone fortunate enough to have attended such an event will no doubt say that it was indeed a marvellous spectacle. However, we also need to take account of the alarm, distress, danger and anxiety that fireworks far too often cause for too many people and animals, and the disruption they cause to communities when purchased and used irresponsibly by individuals. We have heard much about that from Members from different parties.
We have also heard a lot about the accidents and injuries caused by fireworks, which are very sobering. We are all aware of the increased pressure that accidents associated with fireworks bring to bear on our public services in normal times; of course, we are not in normal times this year. Covid-19 has meant that it has been necessary for community firework displays to be cancelled across the United Kingdom, but that creates a problem. There are now genuine fears that personal use of fireworks will rise significantly this year, which is likely to lead to more accidents and will therefore lead to more pressure on our NHS staff at the worst possible time, during a global health pandemic—crystallising further, if it were required, that selling fireworks to the general public is increasingly hard to justify. We know the increased pressure that accidents cause in normal times, and this is a perfect opportunity for the Minister to do something now.
Every year, from October to January, we hear, as we have heard again today, from constituents who are disrupted and plagued by the irresponsible use of fireworks at all hours of the day and night. Under cover of darkness, too many people set out deliberately to cause mischief, thinking that it is quite funny—that it is a bit of a wheeze—to set off fireworks near housing, where children or whole families are shaken from their slumbers, cats and dogs are scared half to death, and elderly people are driven into a state of fear and alarm. The effect on horses is well documented, with fireworks literally scaring them to death. We have also heard about the effect on veterans who might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following active service. This is a catalogue of unacceptable consequences of the free sale of fireworks.
Since 2017, we have been told that the creation of the Office for Product Safety and Standards would address many of the concerns about fireworks that we hear every year. I am keen to hear of the progress that has been made on that issue, unless of course, and I hope I am wrong, the Minister is going to stand up today and tell us that nothing has been done since 2017. His predecessor told us that something would be done by the Office for Product Safety and Standards. Surely the Minister will not tell us that there has been no progress.
It is both ludicrous and frustrating that we do not have the power to do anything meaningful about the sale of fireworks in Scotland. This lack of control effectively leaves the Scottish Parliament footering at the edges of a problem, with no real power to properly address it despite the fact that, as we have heard, a recent consultation by the Scottish Government showed that 87% of people in Scotland would welcome a ban on the sale of fireworks to the public. I urge the Minister to carry out a similar consultation in England; I think he would find it quite informative.
Of course, the Scottish Parliament can restrict when fireworks can be set off, but we all know that irresponsible people who want to set off fireworks do not care about what time it is when they choose to set them off. They do not care whether it is legal to set off a firework at a certain time, and they do not care if it puts other people in a state of alarm or fear, or if it endangers their safety.
Fireworks cannot currently be sold to anyone under 18, but, as I have said several years in a row, so what? We know that children can get hold of them. We also know that people using fireworks irresponsibly are often perfectly entitled under the law, as it stands, to buy them. The irresponsible use of fireworks is not confined to those who get hold of them illegally, which is why more needs to be done to protect the elderly, people with pets, and a range of people in our communities.
Every single Member of Parliament will have had constituents telling them about the onslaught of fireworks, the profound effects that has had on their constituents’ quality of life, and the effect on their pets, which undergo trembling fits and become withdrawn and very frightened. Of course, this cannot be prepared for, because the outbursts of fireworks come from nowhere when someone has fireworks and thinks they will have a wee bit of fun. Some people think it is a great idea to set off fireworks up tenement entrances, or in shared entry ways to flats, in the middle of the night.
The sale of fireworks is tightly restricted in the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, fireworks have long been subjected to some of the strictest laws in the world. Perhaps the Minister will tell us why the rest of the UK is denied similar or greater protection. Even the United States, which has liberal gun laws, believes that restrictions on fireworks need to be strict.
The current situation in Scotland is nothing short of bizarre. The use of fireworks is a devolved matter, but the sale of fireworks is reserved. It does not take a genius to work out that unless the sale of fireworks—who can get their hands on them—can be tackled, there is no meaningful influence over who uses them, which makes it extremely difficult to police them. Our local environmental health and antisocial behaviour teams work hard to tackle the misuse of fireworks in our communities, but that is dealing with the consequences of the wide availability of fireworks rather than tackling the fear, alarm and distress, fire risks and safety hazards that they cause, which we have heard so much about. We need to tackle the real issue of the sale to individuals—the problem at source—and be mindful of the fact that fireworks are far more powerful and prevalent today than they were in the past.
Organised and licensed displays allow—in normal times—the many people who wish to enjoy fireworks to do so safely. Importantly, they allow local residents to plan ahead and make arrangements to protect their pets and get on with their lives. The Dogs Trust says that when public displays are organised, 93% of pet owners alter their plans during the display time to minimise their pet’s trauma, which protects their pet’s welfare.
On helping pet owners to prepare for the use of fireworks in their neighbourhood, we cannot do so—it is not possible—when fireworks are going off randomly with no warning. Therefore, the solution, as we have heard across the Chamber, is patently obvious to anybody who chooses to look. We need greater restrictions on the sale of fireworks, instead of selling them to all and sundry over 18 years old. Organised public firework displays are a safer option for all our communities, and would become the accepted and welcome norm.
I hope the Minister appreciates that it is time to ban the free sale of fireworks, except for public licensed displays. Such a ban would mean we could still enjoy fireworks in our communities, with new year displays and at celebrations such as weddings, but they would be out of the hands of those who, by accident or design, put the fear of God into our communities, shaking our children and whole families awake in their beds, alarming older people and causing suffering—perhaps even injury—to animals.
We need to get the balance right. No one is asking for fireworks to be banned altogether, but I urge the Minister to consider a consultation similar to the one carried out in Scotland. Let us hear what the public think. They need to be part of the conversation, to inform how we proceed to improve the situation across the UK. Let us see a meaningful response to their concerns. I hope he will indicate his willingness to carry out such a consultation so that real progress can be made. If it cannot, give us the power in Scotland at least to protect our own communities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on bringing forward the debate, which I think hon. Members across the Chamber will agree has been thorough and thoughtful, with the issues before us put squarely on the table, as they should be. Indeed, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply to some of those points and suggestions, which I sincerely hope will be much more constructive than the response given to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) when she recently raised the issue with the Leader of the House.
E-petitions, including the one that has brought about this debate, have attracted nearly three quarters of a million signatures in just three years. As the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) pointed out, we have had three Westminster Hall debates on fireworks in recent years—it is more or less an annual debate—and today marks our fourth. That demonstrates not only the strength of public feeling on fireworks, but the extent to which there is a feeling that things are not really moving forward and that greater activity on the issue is needed. I very much thank the instigators of the petition and everyone who took the time to sign it, including, since we are talking about numbers, the 400 in my constituency.
Clearly, the recent announcement that we will have a national lockdown from Wednesday this week will have an impact on people’s plans to celebrate bonfire night on 5 November. We have heard about that in the Chamber this afternoon and I will touch on it later. However, this debate is about far more than just this year; it is about what we do to improve the situation with fireworks well into the future.
I think we can all agree—indeed, we have agreed it around the Chamber this afternoon—that firework displays run by local groups and charities not only can provide a safe, predictable and organised space for firework displays, but can bring about a sense of place, promote community cohesion and raise funds to be invested in good local causes. That is quintessentially the way to frame firework displays for the future.
The fireworks evidence base published last Friday afternoon by the Office for Product Safety and Standards tells us that, while approximately 10 million people now buy and use fireworks each year, 14 million of us attended a public display led by members of the British Pyrotechnists Association in 2019 alone. That shows that there is a big appetite for those public displays, with their safe and organised ways of letting off fireworks, and also for the standards of control that the British Pyrotechnists Association brings to those kinds of displays.
However, it is absolutely right for MPs to consider how we can better protect people, animals and the planet, not from the realities of firework use under those circumstances, but from the particular circumstances of firework misuse. We are lucky to have some of the world’s most respected animal rights advocates operating here in the UK, including the RSPCA, the Kennel Club and Dogs Trust, for example. Those organisations are not calling for an outright ban on fireworks in the UK, but they do want to mitigate, where possible, the significant animal welfare concerns that have been raised this afternoon. There is broad consensus among those groups that the Government could and should be doing much more to protect animals.
Some of those organisations are calling for a ban on sales to private individuals in order to limit firework displays only to public events. We have had a big debate on that this afternoon, but it is well understood that loud, high-pitched and intermittent noise can adversely affect large proportions of animals, whose hearing is often much more sensitive than that of humans. We have heard of the effects that fireworks, set off in an inconsiderate and unpredictable way, can have on horses, cats, dogs and many kinds of animals.
There does not seem to be quite so much definitive evidence out there to call on regarding the effect that fireworks have on wildlife in general, but it is something that MPs on both sides of the House have also raised with the Government, and it is important that we get more information on the effect of fireworks on wildlife in the country. I urge the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to do some work on that and to see what results come forward.
We have also heard a lot about firework safety. We know that there were almost 2,000 A&E visits linked to fireworks in 2018-19, and more than 35,000 people had to seek advice on how to treat burns and scalds from the NHS website. Some of those injuries are serious and life-changing. Let us be absolutely clear that fireworks, in the hands of people who are not trained to use them safely, can be very dangerous indeed.
Although the evidence available at this point is limited, it suggests that the majority of those firework-related injuries in the UK occur at private displays in homes or on the streets, rather than at organised displays. As colleagues have said, given the lockdown, it appears that organised displays will be replaced with greater use of fireworks in the home, because of the cancellation of organised events and social distancing. Blue Cross recently found that 25% of people in the UK are considering firework displays at home this year. I hope the Minister will update us on what measures he is taking to prepare local authorities and our fire services for these circumstances, as there will inevitably be a greater call on health services and public bodies to response to that switch from public to private displays.
I want to raise a point that has not been discussed much this afternoon. Fireworks packaging and the paraphernalia that comes with them can fall to the ground and litter our green spaces. They are not biodegradable and can cause considerable environmental damage in the process. Gun powder is still used in modern fireworks. It throws sulphur particulates, metal oxides and some organic matter into the atmosphere, some of which falls to the ground. The bright colours and the effects that fireworks dazzle us with are the result of complex chemical concoctions, which can emit carbon dioxide, other gasses and residues.
A study by Environmental Protection UK has suggested that there are notable increases in air pollution from particulates and dioxins on and around 5 November. There is widespread disagreement, however, about the extent to which deposits and pollutants caused by fireworks actually affect soil and water sources. We need to be clearer about that. With smaller displays happening at home this year, the effect on air pollution in many of our towns and cities will be quite substantial.
At the moment, we are governed by the Fireworks Act 2003, which Labour brought in. The Act gave powers to impose licences on retailers selling fireworks outside predetermined dates—bonfire night, new year, Chinese new year and Diwali. It also brought in noise restrictions, banned the sale of F2 and F3 category fireworks to people under the age of 18, and ensured that F4 category fireworks—the most explosive—could only be possessed by fireworks professionals. It introduced an 11 pm curfew for most of the year. A breach of that curfew can, in theory, lead to an immediate £90 fixed penalty notice, considerable further fines and potential imprisonment for serial offenders.
As legislators, we know that these laws are largely meaningless without enforcement. The Minister needs to be clear that a decade of cuts to local authorities, for example to their trading standards and environmental health teams, has left them woefully under-resourced to tackle rogue traders or those flouting the rules under the existing legislation. If the Government are serious about protecting the public, animals and the environment from the negative aspects of fireworks, we need to see investment that allows for a proper enforcement of existing legislation. Like many others, I sometimes sit in my bedroom at 1.30 am listening to the sound of fireworks going off across my city, as they do in many other parts of the UK.
A survey run by YouGov for Dogs Trust found that over half the British public think that fireworks should now be limited to public display only, and over three quarters believe that fireworks should be used only at certain times of the year. It is clear that the case for the Government to consider these proposals is building. I would like to hear the Minister address those suggestions directly.
Many advocacy groups feel that so-called silent or quiet fireworks, although not a panacea, could reduce some distress across the board. We heard this afternoon from the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) about decreasing decibel levels for firework displays. I think that it is time for the Government to consider the current decibel level cap and see what can be done to bring it down.
For centuries, fireworks have brought joy and wonder to us mere mortals. Throwing luminous bursts of colour, light, sound and energy into the night sky, fireworks are wondrous to behold. But existing legislation is simply not being enforced. The public need to see the Government moving from merely understanding their concerns about animal welfare and all the other issues to actually taking more action. I look forward to hearing from the Minister this afternoon what that action will be.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), not only for introducing the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee but for her considered speech; to the hon. Members across the Chamber who took part in the debate; and obviously to the 305,000 people who took the time to sign the petition.
We heard some distressing stories about the treatment of animals, about antisocial behaviour and about injuries to people. We also heard about the positive side of fireworks—yes, the fun and the benefits. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) said that she had a fireworks display on her wedding day. They can be enjoyable for many people and many cultures. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) about Diwali and the Chinese new year. We often talk about 5 November, which is coming up in a few days’ time, but there are many other cultures that enjoy fireworks.
I have been a member of the Petitions Committee. I served on it for five years before the last general election, and I was serving on it when we looked at the issue of fireworks, took evidence and came up with our report. Fireworks are an issue that comes up year on year. I just caution the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) when he talks about 750,000 signatures, because it was 305,000 this year, 305,000 last year, I think, and 307,000 the year before, so the number is relatively consistent. Whether they are all individual signatures or some people have duplicated their signature, it is none the less a lot of people. And we need to ensure that we take into account their concerns, whether that is for their animals, for people’s safety or just because of disturbance and antisocial behaviour.
The petition this year, as in previous years, calls for a ban on the sale of fireworks to the public. It highlights the impacts that fireworks can have on animals and wildlife and on the environment, and the injuries to people. They have been debated thoroughly today and in previous debates. As we heard from a number of contributors, we have to consider these matters this year against the backdrop of covid and the additional considerations that that raises—I will come back to that. The hon. Member for Gower did raise it particularly, and I will address it shortly.
I empathise with the concerns that have been raised. We do understand as a Government the strong feelings that some people have about fireworks. We understand that with every petition and debate, those who lobby against fireworks will be questioning why the Government have not banned fireworks or restricted their use since the last debate, so I want to set out here the work that the Government have done since the last Westminster Hall debate in November 2018, and I want to explain why we do not consider a ban on fireworks to be an appropriate course of action.
Simply banning something does not mean that the issue will disappear. In fact, a ban can often have the opposite effect and create unintended consequences, so let me start with the legislation that we have in place. As we have heard, we have legislation in place to regulate the manufacture, supply, storage and possession of fireworks, and their use and misuse, to help to ensure public safety. That includes powers to prosecute those who use them in a dangerous or antisocial manner. The Fireworks Act 2003, the Fireworks Regulations 2004 and the Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2015 provide a regulatory framework that supports the enjoyment of fireworks while providing tools to manage the risks.
Local authority trading standards teams are working with retailers to ensure that the fireworks sold are safe, and they have powers to enforce against those who place non-compliant fireworks on the market, including those imported illegally or via the internet.
The Minister is making a good point about trading standards. During the debate, it has been announced that the trading standards team in Glasgow has seized 500 fireworks in the city, despite the fact that there are 73 premises in the city of Glasgow where fireworks can be bought legally. Does the Minister accept that that means that things are not working?
It is important that we work with the devolved Administrations to ensure the safety of people across the UK. I will come in a second to the training and resource that we are putting into enforcement. The police also have powers to tackle the improper possession and use of fireworks and antisocial behaviour caused by the misuse of fireworks wherever it arises.
The Office for Product Safety and Standards is responsible for protecting the public. It is the national regulator for product safety and is responsible for leading and co-ordinating the product safety system. It was created to deliver effective and trusted regulation for consumer products while ensuring that the legislative framework that it works with is effective and proportionate. It aims to ensure that consumers are kept safe and have confidence in the safety of the products they buy. To deliver that, businesses need to understand and meet their legal and regulatory obligations. To that end, the OPSS has worked with the Chartered Trading Standards Institute to develop and deliver a series of fireworks training events to frontline trading standards and fire safety officers. More than 200 officers in 105 local authorities have completed that training, which ensures that they have the skills and knowledge necessary to advise firework sellers of their responsibilities and to take enforcement action if necessary.
Let me turn to the evidence base and set out in more detail what work has been done. The Government have committed to ensure that all our policy making is based on evidence. I am pleased that the evidence base prepared by the OPSS was published last week. It contains data and information that has been sourced by drawing on existing data, literature and research, and by engaging with a range of groups and organisations, which have been invited to submit any data they have that is not already publicly accessible. Data was sought about the key issues raised in petitions, correspondence and debates, including noise, injuries and accidents, antisocial behaviour, environmental information and the impact on animals and people. A range of stakeholders have been engaged with to ensure that the evidence base reflects as wide a variety of evidence and perspectives as possible. They include Departments, local authorities, including trading standards teams, the fireworks industry, charities and originations that represent individuals, advocates for animal safety, the ex-armed forces and the retail sector.
A key concern is noise and disturbance, and we wanted to consider the issues most often raised: the suggestions that the maximum of 120 dB for fireworks that can be sold to a consumer is too high; that some fireworks sold to consumers are louder, and are continuing to get louder, than the maximum 120 dB level set out in legislation; and that the Government should promote silent or low-noise fireworks.
The evidence on the impact of fireworks on animal health indicates that different species of animals have different sensitivities and responses to noise. Separately, the OPSS has commissioned a programme of fireworks testing to determine the average decibel level for common types of retail fireworks sold for public use. It will evaluate whether fireworks placed for sale to consumers in the UK market meet the noise provisions in the Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2015. The hon. Member for Gower and other Members talked about silent fireworks, but it is not clear whether a silent firework actually exists. Fireworks clearly require some explosive content to be set off. However, as part of the evidence-based work, we have commissioned a test of fireworks to determine the range of decibel levels, and that will help to identify a lower acceptable decibel level. It will also look at the potential impact of such a classification. We will publish the report based on that work in due course.
The Petitions Committee inquiry was not party political. This is not a case of the Government not acting; the Petitions Committee is cross-party and has a Labour Chair: the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). The Committee concluded that at that time it could not support a ban on fireworks. Instead, it recommended other actions. The Government’s policy aligns with the Committee’s conclusion that it is not appropriate to ban the public from buying and using fireworks, as it would not be a proportionate measure.
We agree with the inquiry’s conclusion that a ban on fireworks, either for private or public use, could have unintended consequences. We acknowledge the experience of the National Police Chiefs Council, which believes that banning fireworks would push the market underground and make it more difficult to regulate and monitor. In addition, a restriction on fireworks sold to the public by retail outlets could lead to more individuals buying products inappropriately through online social media sources and from outside the UK. Individuals sourcing fireworks from illegitimate or unsafe suppliers may unwittingly buy products that are unsafe, as they may not meet the UK’s safety requirements.
We take the view that the concerns raised can be best addressed through education and raising awareness about good practice, being considerate to neighbours and the impact on people and animals of irresponsible use, alongside ensuring that the public know what action they can take and what the law provides for. Raising awareness around the safe and considerate use of fireworks is a common theme that has come out of our stakeholder engagement. For that reason, OPSS has developed an awareness campaign, which launched on 20 October, for this year’s fireworks season.
The campaign partnered with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the Child Accident Prevention Trust, the RSPCA and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. We have also worked with a wide range of other stakeholders, including retail bodies such as the Association of Convenience Stores and the British Retail Consortium, to share the messaging across different audiences.
We accept that, with the cancellation of public displays, more people may be having displays in their own back gardens, so the focus of the campaign is to educate people on how to buy, use, store and dispose of fireworks safely; to ensure that retailers understand their responsibilities when selling fireworks; and to promote considerate use so that people and animals can be better protected from any negative effects of fireworks.
We have been working with colleagues in the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly to share information, and will continue to do so. We have also ensured that we are aligning our awareness campaign on the safe use of fireworks with local restrictions on social gatherings. I emphasise that people must follow the coronavirus restrictions in their local area at all times, including if they intend to use fireworks.
We rightly heard a lot about animals. When I was on the Petitions Committee, we took evidence from fireworks associations and retailers. The people affected include those with horses, dogs and other animals, and indeed young children, as we have heard. It is important that we continue to engage with animal welfare organisations to ensure that we understand the impact on animals and to promote the responsible use of fireworks.
I pay tribute to all Members who have contributed. It was a pleasure to hear my hon. Friends the Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) and for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), both of whom showed off how hard they are working: one through speaking of his use of social media and his instant snap poll, the other through speaking of how he was working in his office on a Friday evening—good man. I know that at this time we are all working really hard for our constituents.
We also heard from the hon. Members for Pontypridd, for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead). The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) gave a horrendous example. I am glad that her dog was not the one was that was so horribly treated in that incident. I know that she is a great mother to her dog, and she will be looking after the dog on Thursday.
This issue comes up time and again and is of concern to people. We believe that, with the extra evidence that the OPSS is gathering and the extra awareness campaigns, which we are launching earlier, with more detail and to a larger extent each year, we can start to tackle this in a balanced and proportionate way. Again, I thank everybody who has taken part in this debate and pay tribute to the work of the Petitions Committee.
That is extremely kind, Mr Mundell. I shall endeavour to keep everybody busy for the next 14 minutes. I thank the Minister for his response. I share the view of the chemistry teacher who is concerned about such explosives being in the hands of the inexperienced, as brought up by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). I was a teacher for 20 years, so I was struck by that example. However many campaigns there are, the message is just not getting through—and that is how the petitioners feel.
As the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) pointed out, we have a sense of déjà vu. While I respect that there has been a campaign since 20 October, is that really early enough? It is not, and it is not satisfactory. I can tell hon. Members that I have not seen anything this year. As a mother of a 16-year-old son who has always disliked fireworks because of the noise, I appreciate that it is not a pleasant experience for everyone. I also take this opportunity to thank the 131 members of my constituency who signed the petition.
We have made so many sacrifices since March this year. I pay tribute to everybody in the NHS and the emergency services, particularly the fire brigade, because the next week and the coming days will not be easy for them. We are agreed across Westminster Hall that we have to think about the impact of home displays, because it can be absolutely horrific and potentially very dangerous. I agree with the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) on banning all pop-up shops.
I am not being a killjoy. The Leader of the House mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) that fireworks are fun. I grew up overlooking Stradey Park, the famous Llanelli Scarlets rugby stadium, where every 5 November we sat with our hot dogs and watched and enjoyed the fireworks. However, things have changed. As has been mentioned, people are using fireworks as weapons. We have to do more, and I hope that we will keep on pressing the Government and working with the police and the emergency services to improve the situation. I have always had a dog in the house, and my mother currently has two dogs from the Dogs Trust, and it is frightening for them, because they do not understand. We have to work with everybody.
I appreciate that the Minister spent time on the Petitions Committee and so knows his way around these debates. However, we need to—and must—do more, for the sake and safety of everybody, particularly with the light that coronavirus shines on us.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 276425, relating to the sale of fireworks.
School Attendance: Covid-19
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 300399, relating to school attendance during the covid-19 outbreak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank Matthew Wardle, who began the petition and has gathered over 100,000 signatures—136 from my constituency alone in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. I am thankful to have spoken to him today over the phone, and I hope to represent his views, and those of the people who have signed the petition, in a fair manner.
I thought I would start by briefly stating the law, as it stands, in relation to fines being used by schools and local authorities. Under section 7 of the Education Act 1996, parents have a duty to ensure that their children
“of compulsory school age…receive efficient full-time education…by regular attendance at school”.
Schools and local authorities can use a range of parental responsibility measures to provide support when a child’s attendance at school becomes a problem.
Section 23 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 made provision for parents to be fined for their child’s unauthorised absence from school. In September 2013, the amount of time a parent has to pay a fine was reduced. Parents must pay £60 within 21 days, rising to £120 if paid within 22 to 29 days of the notice being issued. If the fine is not paid, the parent can be prosecuted. However, it is important to make it clear that schools and local authorities can implement various legal powers, as well as penalty notices or prosecutions, if a child is missing school without a good reason. They include parenting orders, education supervision orders and school attendance orders.
As parents, we all want our children in school. It is the best place for them to learn and to socialise with their peers. Schools are vital to a child’s wellbeing, safeguarding and education, yet these are not normal times, so we cannot have schools operating in normal ways. However, we are in unprecedented times and must therefore act in an unprecedented way. Matthew argues that the long-term effects of covid-19 on children are still relatively unknown. The fact that there was huge pressure from parents back in April to keep their children at home, and that the Government sent the overwhelming majority of students home, illustrates the risk associated with sending them to school. Despite schools working tirelessly to be as covid-secure as possible, that element of risk has not yet gone; in fact, it is heightened by the need for a second national lockdown over November.
Matthew states that parents are responding to their protective instincts, which are driven by fear, and that it is not fair to punish people who are acting in the best interest to safeguard their children and families. When the situation in August showed a reasonably stable R rate, it was understandable that the Government thought school attendance rules should be restored in September. To Matthew and those who signed the petition, however, that was thrown into doubt after the Prime Minister talked of the rising risk of the NHS being overrun and cases spreading rapidly across the country. Matthew asks:
“How is the situation today any different, if not worse, to that back in April this year?”
Matthew also asks:
“Can we not go back to virtual learning, where teachers can upload pre-recorded lessons? Schools can send learning packs out to homes, as they did with their own children. Or even fine parents who do not ensure that children complete a certain percentage of work provided.”
If none of those options is viable, Matthew simply asks that parents can make a choice. Allow those parents who wish to conduct home learning the opportunity to do so, without the need to de-register their child. In the first eight weeks of returning to school this September, Matthew’s children had to spend four of those weeks in isolation at the school’s request. That caused anxiety and stress in households, as well as difficulties with parents—before Saturday’s announcement—going back to offices and suddenly trying to arrange childcare where the tier system allowed.
Amy McClellan, from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), wrote to me in support of Matthew. Amy argues that:
“With airborne transmission as the main way that covid-19 has been spreading, what is being done to improve poor ventilation in many schools, as is being tackled in Germany?”
Lastly, I spoke to James Bowen from the National Association of Head Teachers ahead of the debate. The NAHT sees school fines as being a blunt tool in abnormal times, which creates unnecessary conflict between the school and parents at a time when it is important that we work together in order to beat coronavirus. As noted, a school takes such action as a last resort, but parents who have children with underlying health conditions will rightly be anxious. Instead, he believes we should be helping schools to reassure parents of the safety measures taken, and to enable headteachers to act on a case-by-case when it comes to students not attending school.
Will the Minister give clear answers to Matthew and to the hundreds of thousands of individuals who signed the petition, so they know that their voices have been heard and their concerns clearly considered?
Before I sit down to let others speak, I will put on the record my personal position on the issue. I have informed Matthew that I disagree with the call to suspend fines for low attendance once again. I have contacted several primary and secondary schools across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, to hear the perspectives of headteachers, senior leaders and school attendance officers. I also bring to the debate my eight years of experience as a teacher in state secondary schools, a large proportion of which I worked as a head of year with the responsibility of overseeing attendance.
The key point about why schools and local authorities must retain the ability to fine non-attendance is summed up well by colleagues at the Excel Academy. Covid-related absence is discounted from a child’s attendance record, so it would never be the reason for a fine or court action. Parents of students about whom schools have concerns based on attendance data from previous years need to be aware of the consequences of not working with the school to keep their child’s attendance above a 90% minimum.
As I stated at the start of my speech, there are many steps of support before parents are fined. Without the ability to fine parents, schools would have no strategies left, having put all the support in place, and so they might not see improvement in a pupil’s attendance. The suspension of the fine would make it even harder for schools to engage with hard-to-reach families. One of my local schools reported that, in some extreme cases, parents were booking holidays to other countries—knowing that they would have to quarantine as a result—because holidays were cheap and the law places an expectation on schools to provide home education while students quarantine and self-isolate.
We need to remember that the decision to fine parents is a decision for schools and local authorities. The Department for Education’s reopening guidance advised schools to take a supportive approach rather than being too hasty in issuing fines. The Department has also asked schools and local authorities to communicate clear and consistent expectations on school attendance. Pupils and families who may be reluctant to attend should be identified and plans developed to re-engage with them. Schools can also use the additional catch-up funding and the pupil premium funding to put measures in place for families who require additional support to secure a pupil’s regular attendance.
In the August statement from the chief medical officers on the re-opening of schools and childcare, the signatories restated the importance of attendance for children and young people. The percentage of symptomatic cases requiring hospitalisation is estimated to be 0.1% for children aged nought to nine, and 0.3% among those aged 10 to 19. The statement also suggested, based on data from the Office for National Statistics, that teaching is a lower-risk profession, and that international data supports that claim. The House of Commons Library briefing also supports it, stating that although almost half a million pupils did not attend school for covid-19-related reasons as of 22 October 2020, only 0.1% had confirmed cases of coronavirus, while 0.4% had suspected cases. Some 459,000 self-isolated after potential contact with a covid case.
We cannot pretend that any school will ever be risk-free, but we must look at the data and accept that the damage to a child’s life chances and physical and mental health, as well as safeguarding concerns, mean that the risk of schools being open to all pupils outweighs the risk of a covid outbreak. These are not easy or comfortable choices, but to lift young people in Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke out of the bottom 20% of national statistics on social mobility and on level 3 and 4 qualification take-up, and to reduce the number of people who are in work without any formal qualifications—the figure there is 8% higher than the national average—students need to be in the classroom with the expert in the room, their teacher, to ensure that they can access one of the greatest equalisers we have in this country: school.
May I make it clear from the start that I believe in the importance of children attending school? No other form of education improves on that, and as long as we can safely keep schools open, doing so should be a priority. At the heart of the debate, however, must be the consideration of precisely what education a child can receive when at home. Let us consider the reality: when schools closed during the first lockdown, about 30% of private school pupils attended four or more online lessons per day, while just 6.3% of state school pupils did the same.
The backdrop here is crucial. Before lockdown, children on free school meals were leaving school on average 18 months behind their classmates, and the gap was getting worse. During lockdown, a quarter of children on free school meals did less than one hour’s schoolwork a day. Staggering data from the Children’s Commissioner indicates that over 58% of primary and just under half of secondary school pupils were provided with no online lessons at all. Those children will have returned to school even further behind.
Right hon. and hon. Members may have read The Times today and found out that work by the Institute for Government suggested that year seven pupils were 22 months behind where they should be, which is truly frightening. That is not the fault of their schools and teachers, who are working unbelievably hard under the most extraordinary circumstances. The barriers to remote education were exposed by the digital divide across our country.
The reality is that 11% of the population are without home internet access and an estimated 9% of children do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet. Ofcom estimates that number to be up to 1.78 million children in the UK. The Government promoted their investment in the online Oak Academy, but no number of online lessons could benefit children who were unable to log on from home. For those with family members on pay-as-you-go contracts, it cost a staggering £37 a day to access that academy.
Of course, none of this information is new to the Minister. Just before recess, he responded to my Adjournment debate on the same issue. The debate was timely, as it was just 36 hours before schools became legally responsible for providing online education for pupils self-isolating due to coronavirus. In the debate, the Minister celebrated the number of laptops and devices being distributed by the Government, which were warm words for the watching schools. Imagine my disbelief when, just three days after our debate, the Government announced huge cuts to the remote education support that schools had been promised. Some will now receive just 20% of the laptops they were expecting. The Minister must have known that the change was about to occur, so why did he not tell the House? Why did the Department wait until Parliament had risen before slipping it through?
A furious teacher contacted me after the announcement, and said:
“How ironic that days after highlighting how schools have become so reluctantly used to last-minute guidance, that schools received this announcement at past 6pm on the Friday we broke up for half-term. It would have been almost laughable if it hadn’t become the grim reality. We feel totally let down and left behind. It seems to me that the Department for Education have given up. They were not ready and made the ‘Plan Z’ decision to release what they had at the time—a weak and poor offer to support the future generations of our country.”
Unfortunately, the Minister has not yet responded to my letter sent after our debate, so I ask him, which is it: did he not know that the changes would be occurring. or did he deliberately not inform the House?
That is not just a point of principle. More school bubbles are self-isolating, more teachers are absent and more pressure is being put on the Government to close schools once again. Although I do not support that position, the Government must step in now to ensure that every child has the data and devices that they need if they are forced to learn from home.
Importantly, a device is only as effective as the internet connection with which it is used. No matter how expensive, smart or modern the device distributed, it is educationally useless if it comes without the data or dongle needed to log in from home. Being connected is one thing, but more than 880,000 children live in households with only a mobile internet connection. Mum’s mobile does not strike me as an acceptable solution to logging in and learning from home. I ask the Minister, whom I consider to be a principled person who genuinely wants the best for our young people, please not to ignore the reality. We know that the children who are furthest behind are least likely to have the tools at home they need to remain connected. The impact for children on the wrong side of the digital divide could be lifelong.
With increasing numbers of pupils self-isolating, there is no longer a theoretical debate but a practical problem for schools right now. None of us would have any pleasure in pointing to the debate as a warning that the Minister did not heed. I close by reiterating, compared with the billions of pounds pledged by the Government, what is a cheap, tangible and quick solution to the solution I outlined: give every child who is entitled to a free school meal access to the internet and an adequate device at home. Levelling up can no longer be warm words alone, because, no matter our political view, we can surely all agree that no child’s education should be dependent on their internet connection.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, for the third time in recent weeks—I served under your chairmanship twice the week before last. I want to make a few comments from my position as a member of both the Petitions Committee and the Education Committee, which has looked at this issue closely since the start of the pandemic.
I was quite depressed every week, seeing the immense damage done by school closures on all pupils but particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special educational needs. I remember when the Petitions Committee first discussed the petition, and in many senses it is a shame that it was not debated far sooner. What it called for related to March, when we did not know much about the virus and its impact on young people, whereas now we know far more. I do not know whether everyone who signed the petition would have done so knowing what we know now, but, while I sympathise with the concerns of many of the people who did sign it, I do disagree with its principal call to take the power out of the hands of schools to issue fines, if necessary, should parents withhold their children from school. It is ultimately the role of schools, experts and the Department for Education to determine whether it is safe for children to go to school and not that simply of parents. There would be unintended consequences.
Virtually every parent whose kids are in school cares passionately about their kids and their education. The Government made the important decision at the start of the pandemic to keep schools open for children from vulnerable backgrounds, but the small proportion of them who actually went in was worrying. I remember a session with the Children’s Commissioner, who had a real concern. The brutal truth and sad reality are that some children are deemed as vulnerable because of the households they live in. The benefit of them going to school every day is that other adults can check the welfare of that child and, if there are any issues or concerns, have a conversation with them and intervene. It was a great worry for many of us that, for a prolonged period, many of those vulnerable children were not going into school. On that occasion, putting the decision on whether they should go to school entirely in the hands of a parent left me with concerns. That would be in some respects an unintended consequence of taking the power away from the school and the Government during that period of lockdown. We could have gone further and required that all vulnerable children went into school.
I also had concerns about the online learning offer. Before the debate, I talked to a headteacher of a school in my constituency in a deprived part of town with probably the highest proportion of students for whom English is an additional language. Their online data indicates that only 22% of children from disadvantaged backgrounds with a principal language other than English received good-quality online learning during the period when schools were closed. A lot of children at the school come from the Roma community, and for them it was only 10%. Again, we must look at why that was.
Going forward, we must keep schools open. Like many of my colleagues, I have received a lot of emails recently from the National Education Union about its desire for schools to be closed now, but I disagree. While I sympathise with parents and teachers who have concerns about safety, and the Government need to heed and address those, I think it is absolutely critical that, come what may, our schools are kept open.
We know far more now about the virus and its impact on young people, but we also know far more about the impact of closing schools on children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. I am pleased that, from what I have read over the past couple of days, the principal Opposition are also of the view that schools must stay open. It is incumbent on the Government and Opposition to work together in whatever way they can to ensure that that is the case.
In conclusion, although I am sympathetic to some of the concerns raised in the petition and I completely understand why, at the time it was launched, so many people signed it, in the cold light of day today I think that we must resist it and ensure that our schools have the power to issue fines. No head would issue one lightly, and they must do so sensitively where parents have serious concerns about covid-19 and its potential impact, but ultimately the school needs to have that power, because we have seen the devastating impact of school closures. We must keep schools open. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), as I have discussed with him before on the Education Committee on which we both serve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I begin by thanking the Petitions Committee for facilitating this debate, the organisers of the petition for presenting it to Parliament and, of course, the more than 100,000 people who have taken the time to engage with the petition, sign it and stimulate the discussion we are having today—including 500 or so people in my own constituency. These debates are a good way of providing a direct connection between salient issues that people are discussing in our constituencies and live debate here in Parliament.
I also take this opportunity, having only recently been appointed as the shadow Schools Minister, to say an enormous thank you to the entire schools community—the headteachers, governors, teachers and support staff who have been doing an outstanding job in very difficult circumstances. I do not think any of us as constituency MPs could fail to be moved by some of the testimony we are hearing from schools about the extent to which they have moved heaven and earth to try to keep pupils learning—including during the first lockdown, where we could have been forgiven, from some of the coverage, for thinking that schools were closed and that learning had stopped.
In fact, it was quite the opposite. Many staff had to work doubly hard to ensure that their pupils could continue to gain access to learning in unusual circumstances, through remote learning and with all the challenges that we know exist. I will refer to those challenges, but they have already been outstandingly put, not just this afternoon, but in an Adjournment debate before the recess by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh).
Obviously, a big part of this debate centres on fines, and I will come on to address that, but first and foremost I want to be absolutely clear about where we as the Labour party sit on the question of whether schools should remain open during the pandemic. I think that is really the thrust of the petitioners’ case. We know from some of the opinion polling out today that there is divided opinion in our country, but Labour is clear that it is in the best interests of children and young people up and down the country for schools to remain open and for young people to continue to gain access to learning in school, with a teacher, as much as they possibly can.
There is a strong reason for that. The reason why we invest in teachers and why successive Governments—forgive me for referring to the actions of the previous Labour Government—invested so much in education is that we know that of all the policy levers we can pull in Parliament and in government, education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet in terms of shaping young people’s life chances and giving them every opportunity in life that they deserve. We know that every single day of school missed for pupils from every background has a significant impact on their achievement, their understanding, and, crucially, on their life chances. For young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, that is especially true. We have to do everything we can to make sure that throughout the pandemic, as the Children’s Commissioner has strongly argued, schools are among the last to close and the first to reopen. I appeal to parents who are minded to withdraw their children from school because of worries, concerns and anxieties about whether school is safe and the best place to be to think really carefully about their children’s long-term future and life chances. With the best will in the world, and paying enormous tribute to the work that parents and carers have been doing at home to try to support their children’s learning, that is no substitute for a qualified teacher, a trained professional, teaching children in the classroom environment. We should be really clear about that.
We should also be concerned about the impact that the first lockdown and ongoing absences are having on children’s life chances, especially on those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. In the analysis by the Education Endowment Foundation, published in June, its median estimate was that the attainment gap could widen by 36%, but plausible estimates indicated it could widen by between 11% and 75% as a result of school closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In May, Vicki Stewart, deputy director of the pupil premium and school food division in the Department for Education, pointed to similar figures. Research published by the Royal Society in June suggested that school time lost because of the pandemic could harm the economy for the next 65 years, and unless catch-up lessons are effective, researchers predict a 3% loss in future annual earnings for pupils caught up in the pandemic.
I refer to those figures not because I have a utilitarian view that education matters only because of the long-term interests of the economy or people’s earnings potential, but to underline the point that a significant period of time missed—pupils have already missed significant time in school this year—has an impact not only on this academic year or the next round of examinations or the examinations beyond that; it has a long-term, lasting and detrimental impact on people’s life chances and opportunities, so we cannot be complacent about that.
Analysis of Government data by FFT Education Datalab found that pupils missing the most schooling are in the poorest areas of the country. That is compounded by the fact that online remote schooling has worked less well for poorer families. That should not be a surprise to anyone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden outlined powerfully before the recess, there is deeply unequal access to online learning at home. It should come as no surprise to people that those from the poorest backgrounds do not necessarily have access to the suitable devices that they need, but they lack even the broadband internet access that many people take for granted. The pay-as-you-go charging rates and the stark figures of how much it costs to access Oak National Academy or BBC Bitesize is staggering. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden that the Government should ensure that no pupil forced to isolate at home does so without access to the IT and internet access that they need. I call on internet service providers to play their part too, because there is more that they could do. It is within their gift, for example, to make sure that certain websites, such as Oak National Academy or BBC Bitesize, which are there for legitimate online learning purposes, are made free to access and should not count towards people’s data limits. That would be a really good way for the big internet service providers and telecoms companies to step up to the plate.
If there are future closures or if children have to self-isolate, should Ofsted have a role when it inspects schools to look at the job that the school has done to make sure that it facilitates first-class online learning if a significant number of kids in that school have to self-isolate?
I am grateful for that intervention. There is a role for Ofsted to play in looking at remote learning in the home, not least to disseminate best practice among schools. Let us just be clear for a moment—we are asking schools across the country to do something that they have not previously been asked to do. Even the very best teachers will have to adapt quite significantly to teaching remotely. It requires a completely different skillset, and we do an enormous disservice to people whose professional careers are spent in distance learning by pretending that teaching in a classroom full of pupils, where it is possible to look right into the whites of their eyes and ensure they have access to the right books and the kit that they need for their learning, is not a very different challenge from teaching someone via an internet connection with video streaming.
We know that only 6.3% of pupils have access to four or more online lessons a day during lockdown and that there is a huge range of provision within that. I particularly commend to the Minister the work of the Ursuline High School in Merton—the Catholic girls school that was the Ursuline Convent School—where pupils were given six lessons a day online. Every girl was given her own tablet and there were safety systems in place, because safety is important in this situation, so that the school knew whether each girl had signed on at 9 am; a girl’s parents were phoned if they had not signed on. If a girl accessed a website that the school would rather they had not accessed, their parents were also contacted. There is a vast range of approaches out there, but most schools are really trying to play catch-up.
I strongly endorse the point made by my hon. Friend; she is absolutely right.
Returning to the research available to us, I am a concerned about the large gap that is emerging in the number of learning hours between those from the most affluent backgrounds and those from the poorest backgrounds, because the contrast is stark; the gap between them is more than an hour a day for both primary and secondary pupils. When we look at the breakdown of data on those from the poorest backgrounds and those from the wealthiest backgrounds, we see that pupils are learning significantly less if they are from a poorer background rather than a more affluent background. That raises really serious long-term challenges when it comes to closing the attainment gap.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; we now have a full house of people making interventions. I wrote a piece for the Red Box newsletter in The Times to raise some of the concerns that exist. For example, 27% of those in low-income households do not use the internet, which is a really startling figure. I am very proud to be a member of the Blue Collar Conservativism group that has joined Labour colleagues to ask for a digital catch-up scheme. I would like to hear the shadow Minister’s thoughts on that, and I urge the Minister himself to take that idea and consider it, to see how we can introduce such a scheme, because when I listen to St Bart’s Multi-Academy Trust, which has 19 schools across north Staffordshire and south-east Cheshire, I am told that it was promised 465 laptops but only given 55. This issue is a great concern for many disadvantaged pupils in trust schools.
That is absolutely right. We heard from the Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), that back in June around 700,000 disadvantaged children were not doing homework and did not have proper access to computers or the internet. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden said, the number could be higher.
That brings me to my fundamental concerns about where the Government have been on education throughout this pandemic. On too many occasions, education has been an afterthought for the Government in their response to the pandemic. There was more thought and guidance provided about opening pubs than about opening schools. Some of the support that has been provided to schools in terms of the funding they need to keep a safe environment—such as personal protective equipment, sanitisers, hand-washing facilities, deep cleans and frequent cleans, and cover for absent staff who have been forced to self-isolate—falls short of what schools need.
This is my point of reassurance to the public, including people who are thinking about whether to send their children to schools—headteachers are doing everything they can to keep their schools safe. I do not know a single headteacher who would open their school if they did not believe it was safe. However, they are looking at the end of the financial year with real worry and anxiety, because they will spend what it takes to keep their schools safe for their pupils and staff, but at the moment they do not have the certainty that, as the financial year-end approaches, the Government will step up and do whatever it takes to ensure that those costs are covered. The Government need to act in that respect.
I am deeply concerned about what we saw before half term, when allocations of laptops were cut at the 11th hour. The Government need to step up and recognise—this is a general point about the pandemic response—that there are some things that central Government can do well, but providing responsive emergency resources to local communities, whether food parcels, laptops or internet connections, is much better done locally. They should give local authorities, academy trusts and schools the freedom and resources to buy the kit they need for their pupils. They know their pupils best, but they need money to ensure that those kids have the kit and the internet access that they need. I urge the Minister to reflect on the shortcomings of the provision so far.
As a general point, as was set out earlier in the debate, fines are a blunt instrument for compelling people to turn up to schools. The general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, said:
“We don’t think that it is the right approach to fine parents for the non-attendance of children as soon as schools fully reopen in September, and the Government should not expect schools to take this action.”
We have had similar representations from the National Education Union and the National Association of Head Teachers. As much as the Government say, “Let’s have a conversation first. This is about discretion,” we have seen too many cases in which that does not apply, and schools do not necessarily believe that they have the flexibility that the Government say they do.
One of my constituents, a teenage girl who was shot in the lungs when she was a young child, was compelled by her school to go back, despite the risk of coronavirus and a letter from her GP, because the school threatened her with a fine. A mother of a terminally ill three-year-old was forced to deregister her older daughter from her school to avoid being charged weekly non-attendance fines. A woman with type 1 diabetes, asthma and an underactive thyroid, which means she is classed her as clinically vulnerable under NHS guidelines, has been threatened with a three-month prison sentence and a £2,500 fine because she refused to send her children back to school amid coronavirus.
Some of this stuff is bizarre. It is really inappropriate to put families in that position. As a general point of principle, I do not think school fines work, and in the current circumstances the Government have to be clearer in their guidance about what happens if there are vulnerable family members at home with underlying health conditions who are concerned that a child coming back from school might present a risk, or if vulnerable people live with a member of school staff who presents a risk. That is something about which lots of staff in school and school leaders are anxious.
Those are powerful stories, and I have huge sympathy for those involved, but going back to school is the best thing for some vulnerable kids because it enables more oversight. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there could be other stories in which not giving the school that discretion and the ability to fine could be to the detriment of those vulnerable kids?
Ultimately, in the worst case, parents have the right to withdraw their children from education altogether. I think, by the way, that that is not the right course of action. All the evidence says that children will be safer, happier and better educated if they are in school. That is why we are clear that the Government must do whatever it takes to keep schools open—we do not hear the phrase “whatever it takes” often these days—but people have legitimate concerns. Parents sending their children to school and staff going to work in school need to know that the headteacher and the governing body are being given the resources they need to ensure the school is clean, safe and welcoming, to put in place the right measures, from protective equipment to hand-washing facilities and sanitisers, and to ensure that they do not have to cut corners on cleaning—in catering facilities, for example, multiple cleaning rounds are needed throughout the day. Parents need to know that if, for whatever reason, staff are forced to isolate and cannot be at school, schools can bring in the cover support that they need to make sure that their children are still well supported and well educated. Parents need to know that if their children
I am concerned that the schemes and funding initiatives that the Government have already announced—they are obviously not up and running yet; they are out to tender—are not targeted as well as they should be on pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. I urge the Government to get back to that focus. I am really looking forward to the many exchanges that I will no doubt have with the Minister in the coming weeks, months and years.
One fundamental problem with the Government’s approach to education policy in the past 10 years, and with where we are today, is that progress on closing the attainment gap at crucial points in pupils’ education journey—whether it be at their entry to primary school at five, when they leave primary school at 11, or when they are sitting their GCSEs at 16—has not only stalled but is beginning to slip into reverse gear. If we are not careful, we will allow the pandemic to rewrite the story of educational disadvantage in this country in a way that none of us wants, with the gap between those from the wealthiest and poorest backgrounds widening, and with children who have special educational needs and require additional support being left further behind. We cannot let that happen, because even with the best lifelong learning system in the world, children only get one chance at a primary and secondary education. Those formative years are absolutely crucial, which is why we believe that schools must be supported to be safe and open, and that we need a national strategy to make sure that no pupil is left behind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir David; I have not kept count like my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), but I am sure there have been many occasions. I welcome the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) to his position. I look forward to debating with him. If today is an example of the exchanges that we will have in the future, I look forward to them very much indeed. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on the excellent and fair way that he introduced the debate.
To pick up on one or two points made by the hon. Member for Ilford North on the attainment gap, the raison d’être of education policy since 2010 has been to close that gap. That has been the reason for all our reforms in reading, in maths, in the curriculum of GCSEs and A-levels, in the academies programme, and in the school improvement programme—everything we have been doing since 2010 has been about closing that gap, and making sure that those from the least advantaged backgrounds in our country have the same quality of education as their more advantaged peers. Since 2011, we have managed to close the attainment gap in primary schools by 13% and by 9% in secondary schools. We worry about the effect of the pandemic on that success, which is why we have managed to secure £1 billion of catch-up funding, £350 million of which is specifically targeted at the most disadvantaged pupils through the national tutoring programme.
This debate is particularly timely in the light of the Prime Minister’s announcement this weekend of new national restrictions. We are clear that the Government will continue to prioritise the long-term future of young people. We will not ask schools to close. It is vital that as many children as possible attend school, for their education, for their wellbeing and for their wider development—a view shared by my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North, and for Ipswich, and by the hon. Members for Ilford North, and for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh).
High levels of pupil attendance in school over this period are critical to ensuring that this generation of children reaches its potential, and to preventing a widening of the attainment gap. I pay tribute to the outstanding efforts of teachers, staff and parents across the country, which have meant that pupils continue to receive the education and opportunities that they deserve in the face of this pandemic. I also extend my thanks specifically to the attendance workers in schools and local authorities for their continued hard work in supporting so many pupils to attend.
At the beginning of the outbreak, we made the difficult decision to limit the number of pupils attending school, and we empowered schools and local professionals to prioritise the attendance of vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. Although rates of coronavirus are rising, it is vital that children attend school to minimise as far as possible the long-term impact of the pandemic on their education. We are clear that school attendance is mandatory, and all the usual rules apply, including regarding parents’ duty to secure their child’s regular attendance at school, and the ability of schools and local authorities to issue sanctions and secure attendance.
The Department will shortly issue summary guidance to schools setting out the implications of the new national restrictions. There is a clear correlation, as the hon. Member for Ilford North said, between time absent from school and attainment. Pupils with higher overall absence tend to do less well in their GCSEs. Figures show that as of 22 October, 99.3% of schools were open, excluding schools on half term or inset days, and up to 7 million children and young people were in school; that represents 86% of pupils across the country. We continue to regularly collect and monitor school attendance data, which is published weekly as part of the Department’s commitment to transparency and to supporting local action.
To support high levels of attendance, we have specifically asked schools to continue to communicate clear and consistent expectations about school attendance to pupils and their families. We have asked schools to identify pupils who are reluctant to attend or who are at risk of disengagement, and to develop plans to re-engage them, using the catch-up funding that they will receive.
We have asked schools to work closely with other professionals, including social workers and specialist services, to support pupils’ attendance. There are examples of excellent work to support high levels of attendance across the country, including in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. The Stoke-on-Trent opportunity area is funding a project to tackle the underlying causes of unauthorised absence by creating a behaviour and attendance leaders network to establish consistent approaches and shared best practice across all the schools in the city. cannot attend school because they are required to self-isolate, they will be able to learn at home, and that catch-up support will be provided.
Underpinning all this important work by schools are the usual school attendance rules and legal duties. These rules and duties will continue to apply during the forthcoming new national restrictions. Parents have a duty under section 7 of the Education Act 1996 to ensure that if their child is of compulsory school age, they receive an efficient full-time education, either by attendance at school or otherwise.
Schools and local authorities can use a range of measures if a child’s attendance becomes a problem. The law gives schools and local authorities power to offer parenting contracts and obtain parenting orders to improve school attendance. Where a parent has failed to secure their child’s regular attendance, prosecution of a parent is available to local authorities as a last resort, under section 444 of the Education Act 1996.
Of course, now more than ever, we trust schools and local authorities to consider the circumstances of each pupil and family when considering what the appropriate action is to tackle absence and support the child’s attendance, and whether to use those powers. We trust them to do this sensitively, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich. We also encourage parents to work with their child’s school and the local authority, to discuss the reasons behind their child’s absence, and to agree together an action plan, so that the right support can be put in place to help the child return to regular and consistent education.
Where children are not able to attend school because they are following public or clinical health advice related to coronavirus, parents will not be penalised. We will shortly publish updated guidance setting out current attendance expectations for children who are clinically extremely vulnerable. We also recognise that some pupils or families may still be anxious about sending their child to school, especially in the light of the rise in infections. Schools have been discussing those concerns with these families in order to provide reassurance.
To increase support further in the long term, we remain committed to tackling mental health problems and implementing our joint Green Paper, which helps to introduce new mental health support teams, linked to schools and colleges. Those teams will help schools deal with mental health issues, which are as prevalent as, if not more prevalent than, they have been in recent years.
The safety of all children in schools is especially important at present. We have set out a clear framework so that school leaders can put in place protective measures for pupils and their staff. Protective controls include ensuring that people who have symptoms do not attend school, that robust hand and respiratory hygiene measures are followed, that cleaning arrangements are enhanced, that contact is minimised between individuals, and that schools actively engage with NHS Test and Trace.
All four UK chief medical officers have been clear that the risk to children of becoming severely ill from coronavirus is low. Therefore, for the vast majority of children, the benefits of being back in the classroom far outweigh the risks. Nevertheless, access to testing is available for any child, young person or member of staff displaying symptoms, as well as any symptomatic members of their household. Supplies of test kits have also been provided to all schools for those who develop symptoms on site and face significant personal barriers to accessing a test.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden raised the important issue of remote education, as she did in the Adjournment debate just before the recess. I share her genuine passion for ensuring that all children have access to remote education. We are clear that for some pupils who are unable to attend school in person, remote education may need to be an essential component of their education, alongside classroom teaching. In those circumstances, the Government want to ensure that there is no doubt about the roles and responsibilities within the system for providing remote education.
The Secretary of State therefore made a temporary continuity direction on 1 October to clarify that schools have a duty to provide remote education for state-funded school-aged children who are unable to attend school due to coronavirus, in line with our guidance and the law. To support schools and colleges in meeting those expectations, the Department announced a further remote education support package, which includes access to the right technology to deliver remote education, peer-to-peer training on how to use it effectively, and practical tools, guidance and webinars. Alongside that, the Department has made £4.84 million available for Oak National Academy, both for the summer term of the last academic year and for the 2020-21 academic year, so that it can provide video lessons on a broad range of subjects for reception up to year 11.
The hon. Lady also talked about devices. The Government are doing everything that they can to support schools in delivering remote education. Having invested more than £195 million in supporting remote education, the Department delivered more than 220,000 laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children who would not otherwise have access to a digital device, and we are adding to the support by making 340,000 additional laptops and tablets available to support children who might face disruption to their education this term. Since September—the beginning of term—more than 100,000 of those laptops have already been delivered to schools.
In the context of increasing global demand, we are bringing schools’ device allocations more closely in line with the average size of a pupil group that is self-isolating. We recognise that levels of self-isolation may be higher in different areas of the country, and that face-to-face education is being prioritised in all eventualities.
I heard what the Minister said about allocation being based on need for isolation. I represent Stoke-on-Trent and surrounding parts of north Staffordshire. I am sure I know what the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) was getting at. If we look at deprivation levels, the need will be higher in Stoke-on-Trent than in Kidsgrove, which I also represent and which may be—these are semantics, as I do not have the figures to hand—a statistically more affluent place. I would like us to look more at deprivation, not simply cohort sizes.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We recognise that there will be different levels of self-isolation as well as different areas of need in different parts of the country. The more targeted design will mean that as many schools and disadvantaged children as possible benefit from receiving a device in the event of face-to-face education being disrupted.
The hon. Member makes a good point, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. That is why a targeted approach is important. The hon. Lady asked why that was not mentioned during the previous debate, but at that time no decision had been made about changes to the allocation of laptops and tablets.
In conclusion, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North for starting today’s debate. Securing a high level of attendance for all children remains a priority for the Government. We have put in place a range of measures to support good school attendance, even in these challenging circumstances. It is right that schools and local authorities should have all the necessary tools to secure excellent attendance, which includes measures to support families, and sanctions where necessary.
Where children are not able to attend school because they are following clinical or public health advice related to coronavirus, we have been clear that absence will not be penalised. Given the profoundly positive impact that being in school can have on a child’s attainment and life chances, high levels of attendance in school have never been more important.
I thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their responses to the petitioners, and all Members, including the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), for taking part in this important debate.
It was nice that the debate looked at the wider role of schools. I add my thanks to those given by the Minister and the shadow Minister to the incredible teachers, support staff and local authority school staff for their above-and-beyond work. With regard to covid, they are the unsung heroes of the education profession. The lazy, stereotypical response from a minority in our community has been that teachers were on some sort of six-month holiday. That could not be further from the truth. My partner, a head of religious education, spent eight and a half hours ranking children for the GCSE and A-level algorithm, although I am sure the Minister will be happy for me to pass on from that topic as quickly as possible.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden is right that the digital divide is a huge issue, and I passionately believe that it has to be tackled. I would love to work with her more closely outside the House to see how we can tackle it. She said that we need to look at deprivation when it comes to the supply of technology. I have written to the Chancellor about classing broadband as an essential household item and so bringing VAT on it down to 5%, which is the figure that applies for gas, water and electricity. I appreciate that that would cost the Exchequer £2 billion, but it would be an important measure.
Getting involved in this issue has made me aware that poorer people access the internet differently, just as they access electricity, gas and other essentials differently. The main internet companies are great, but most people in poor situations use pay-as-you-go, and companies that we do not necessarily use. Unless we address how people access those services, we will not understand or tackle the issue.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. I have worked with a local IT company on this issue, but that is not necessarily the solution to the long-term problem. Stoke-on-Trent is lucky to be a gigabit city; it has 104 km of full-fibre network. As we install that into homes, the challenge is to ensure that it is affordable and accessible in areas I represent that are, to be frank, in the bottom 20% for social mobility. They are some of the most deprived communities in the country, where people earn on average £100 per week less than a full-time worker in other parts of the country.
We absolutely have to understand how technology is being accessed. I completely agree with the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden that mum’s mobile should not be the best tool in the house. Sadly, I have worked with many students for whom that was the only way in which work could be done. I look forward to working with Members from across the House on looking at the digital divide.
A highlight is the Oak Academy; it is an absolute triumph. I thank the Minister for his incredibly hard work to get that set up. He has engaged with a wide range of professionals who have done incredible work. I do not think that any Member of this House thinks that is not a triumph. Kids who cannot be in the classroom can access this really important tool, which I hope we can keep well beyond the current health crisis. It would be a really positive tool to have all year round for all students of all future generations.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich. We on the Education Committee did indeed hear from the Children’s Commissioner, who is an absolute tour de force. I have a huge amount of time for her. Although we might have disagreed on other issues recently, I support fully her view that school should be the last place to close and the first to reopen. I am really grateful to the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) for stating the Opposition’s view that schools must stay open.
I ask the leaders of the National Education Union—although I ranted and shouted at them in the Select Committee sitting, I will not do so now—to end their call for schools to close, because that is a divisive campaign. It will not bring schools and families together; nor will it get us politicians, who are making incredibly challenging and difficult decisions, closer to the public. I ask the union leaders to cease that campaign, and to work with the Government and the hon. Member for Ilford North to find ways for schools to get the most support.
I too want to put on record the point made by the hon. Member for Ilford North about the funding for additional cleaning and personal protective equipment. There will be increased anxiety, especially now that we are entering deeper restrictions. Staff will want additional support, and we have to look at that. I am not asking for extortionate amounts of money, and schools are not asking for the sort of PPE that is needed in hospitals or care homes. Any additional support would be very welcome in the dark and bleak winter ahead.
I also place on record my thanks to the Minister for the £1 billion in catch-up funding. Again, that is welcome. As I am a bit of a sceptic, I have some reservations about the £350 million for the national tutoring programme, because I want to ensure that ends up helping the kids who need it most. I have seen lots of money given to lots of big organisations, yet people I speak to in Stoke-on-Trent have never met those organisations on the streets. This is absolutely the right way to share out the money, and absolutely the right thing to do, but please let us ensure that we deliver in the areas where there is the greatest need.
Schools have done a remarkable job. The fact that 99.3% of schools are open is an incredible achievement; I think we all recognise that. I am very grateful to the Minister for promoting the Stoke opportunity area, which is in its second year. It will be going for a third year, and I am sure the Minister will look favourably on that as we continue to see improvements in Stoke-on-Trent.
I go back to the premise of the petition: the fine. I would like to think that Matthew has heard the conciliatory tone of Members of all parties, and that he has heard the reasons why we believe schools should be open. I hope he has also heard that we fully understand the anxieties of parents. We want to work with them to ensure that they feel that schools are the safest place. As we know, school is the best place for a child to learn, and it gives them the best opportunity for life ahead. I hope that Matthew feels that, although we might not be fully signed up to his aim of suspending the fine, we will work very closely with schools to ensure that they are as safe and secure as possible, and to ensure that future generations get the very best opportunity that school offers. As I said earlier, that is the greatest equaliser in our society.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 300399, relating to school attendance during the covid-19 outbreak.