I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 201947 relating to fireworks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
I discovered that a past Member of the House of the Lords from my area was the first peer to smoke in the House of Lords. I assure you, Mr Walker, and other Members present that I have no plans to become the first Member of either House of Parliament to light a firework in the course of the debate, not even a sparkler.
The petition is a serious one. It wants to
“Change the laws governing the use of fireworks to include a ban on public use”,
“Fireworks cause alarm, distress and anxiety to many people and animals. We call on the Secretary of State to make appropriate provision to secure that the risk of public use is the MINIMUM that is compatible with fireworks being used, as stated in Fireworks Act 2003 sect 2.
Noted in debate of firework petition 109702 statistics are not recorded. We ask government to collect statistics. We ask the Sec. of State to issue a full regulatory impact assessment in accordance with section 2(4) Act; 2004, consider statistics gathered by FireworkABatement (FAB) as stated in Fireworks Act 2003 sect 3b., ‘as an organisation which appears to the Sec. of State to be representative of interests substantially affected by the proposal’, Shown by this petition and past petitions.”
As of today, 111,717, a very large number of people, have signed the petition. On behalf of the House of Commons Petitions Committee, I thank Julie Doorne, creator of the petition, and all its signatories. I also thank the 5,700-plus members of the public who left a range of thoughtful comments reflecting a diverse range of views on the Committee’s Facebook page.
I like fireworks. I mean, I really like fireworks, and I grew up with little, informal community firework displays on bonfire night. We had rockets, Roman candles, Catherine wheels, snowflakes and traffic lights, as well as those magical sparklers to scribble away with in the night air. There was the big bonfire in which the jacket potatoes were cooked, and there was hot soup, cakes and sweets, and of course a crowd of people.
I appreciate that all that is starting to sound like a cross between Laurie Lee’s “Cider with Rosie” and Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, or a child’s bonfire night in this case. Idyllic—a happy community coming together across the age divide to enjoy a joyful time together, with pets firmly kept indoors enjoying tracks from the Bay City Rollers, or whatever else was listened to in the’70s that was enough of a noise to minimise the sound of the bangs outside. After all, it was only on one night of the year.
Does the hon. Lady agree with the view of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that private use should be restricted to certain key dates, such as 5 November, new year’s eve, Diwali and Chinese new year? Does that make sense to her, because of concern about the fear caused to animals?
There is a very strong case for that. At the very least, the Government should launch a public consultation on the issue.
In June 2016 a Minister, the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), stated that the fireworks industry is worth £180 million and directly employs 250 people, and that thousands of others in the supply chain would be affected by new legislation. So there we have it, a Conservative Minister making the economic case for the status quo, and a Back-Bench Labour MP waxing lyrical about bonfire nights in north Wales.
Should that not be the end of the debate, especially when we consider how important fireworks are in bringing people together and in their use across a whole range of multicultural festivals? Can we not just agree that spontaneous communal gatherings with fireworks are such a nice phenomenon and bring such local joy that the only problem is that we do not have more of them? Should we not just recognise that, with the first documented use of fireworks in this country being way back in 1486, it is simply something that we do at local spontaneous gatherings as well as large organised displays? The answer to that is no—the movers of the petition and others have a very valid case to make, and it is supported by a range of people across society.
I should declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the horse. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is not only the when, to which the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) just referred, but the where? Given the proliferation she is talking about, the proximity of fireworks to horses has cost 15 horses being killed and 60 injured since 2010, and those are just the ones we know about, not to speak of the humans involved, such as when a horse crashes through a fence and into the windscreen of a car. The location of firework displays becomes very important, not only the extended period during which fireworks are let off.
I agree with the right hon. Lady. For those of us who represent rural or semi-rural seats, that is a particular issue.
I noted my hon. Friend’s words, including about spontaneous gatherings. Following on from talk of horses, for five years, my constituent Fiona Hohmann owned a horse, Solo, which died on the night of the fireworks. The vet informed her that the horse had twisted his gut in the panic caused by the noise and distress. Given the unnecessary distress and pain to all animals, we should limit the private use of fireworks and, as the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) said, not just the when but the where.
My hon. Friend from Wales makes a strong case.
I mentioned earlier the 5,700-plus comments reflecting different views on the Facebook page. I cannot talk about all of them but I will quote one: Facebook user Stephanie Daisy shared a moving video about her daughter, Maisie, who suffered serious injuries after a small home firework display went wrong on 5 November 2016. A stray flare became stuck in her scarf before exploding. She suffered full thickness burns to her head, neck and shoulders, and had five separate operations. In response to the post on Facebook, Stephanie said:
“My thoughts are, and always will be, that fireworks can be devastatingly dangerous even when used safely and as such should only be allowed at organised displays”.
Stephanie is not alone in her views. In fact, many others seem to share them, including veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
For such veterans, fireworks can be an unwelcome trigger for upsetting and frightening memories of conflict. The veterans’ charity, Shoulder to Soldier, runs a campaign to raise awareness of the negative effect that random fireworks can have on veterans who live with PTSD. That can be a particular problem nowadays as we do not only “Remember, remember the fifth of November”, but scores of other days throughout the year, with much random letting off of fireworks.
Would my hon. Friend care to comment on a scenario that happened in my constituency? The home of Mr and Mrs Bagshaw was destroyed after a random firework entered the roof space and caused a fire which devastated their home. I asked if any consideration was being given by Ministers to lowering the explosive content of fireworks available to the general public, but the response was that there was no such plan. Will my hon. Friend comment on that aspect of this debate?
My hon. Friend makes a good point and there are similar examples in other constituencies, although the one he refers to is especially serious.
People who wear hearing aids have concerns, too. According to The Independent, the petition organisers claim that random fireworks can be a nuisance to those who wear hearing aids. Individuals with those devices can turn the volume down or remove the hearing aid completely if they have prior notice of fireworks events. However, when fireworks are not expected, the noise they produce can cause significant pain and discomfort to hearing aid users.
My hon. Friend is making a very fine argument. I was approached by a constituent who went to an organised event and she and her husband were subjected to an attack by young people with fireworks. Although there is a £5,000 fine for selling fireworks to under-18s, it would be good to collate the numbers, to find out how many people have been fined for selling fireworks to underage people. Does she agree that people should be able to enjoy a community event without having to worry about being under attack when they leave?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The petitioners refer to the lack of proper statistics as an issue.
Unorganised, spontaneous firework displays are worrying for many children and adults with health concerns. Many of those who care for children know that the loud noises generated by random firework displays can distress children who live with autism, hearing difficulties and certain mental health conditions. Some families can—and do—find it difficult to explain to affected children why the displays occur so often and without warning, especially throughout the winter months and not just on bonfire night and new year’s eve, and during the spring and summer, when it seems that any event can be marked with a sudden loud volley of firework sounds. For some people, that can be very disconcerting.
My hon. Friend is probably horrified, as I am, that there is a shop in my constituency that is open virtually every day of the year, which advertises Gloucestershire’s cheapest fireworks. I do not know the limitations on that shop’s selling fireworks, but at the moment it appears that anyone can go in and buy fireworks whenever they want to. Does she agree that that needs to be looked into?
I suspect that trading standards may like to pay them a visit, as that may not be entirely in keeping with current legislation, let alone any future plans that the debate may bring.
There are many concerns about domestic animals. The 2005 report by the RSPCA, “Firework fears and phobias in the domestic dog”, which was based on extensive research, informs us that almost half the owners questioned—49%—reported that their dog was frightened of loud noises. Forty five per cent. of owners reported that their dog showed fearful behaviour when it heard fireworks. It is widely accepted that cats and other domestic animals can be significantly affected by firework noises. The right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) mentioned the issues concerning horses: reported incidents in 2017 rose by 243% compared with 2016, and 15 horses died and 60 were injured according to reported statistics—clearly not all incidents are reported to the British Horse Society.
Let us not forget farm animals. Farm animals and livestock can also suffer from distress injury. That can mean livestock bolting in distress, which may cause danger to humans and vehicles if the livestock are near a public highway. Fowl have been known to smother each other in their attempts to hide from the noise in their environment. Animals have been known to go into premature labour and lose their offspring. Similar distress to animals from jet engine noises has previously been noted, too.
In 2016, just before a parliamentary debate on fireworks, the National Farmers Union issued the following statement:
“Farmers care deeply about the welfare of their animals, and are rightly concerned about anything that could jeopardise their wellbeing. Fireworks, especially when used at unpredictable times of year, have the possibility to frighten livestock, which can lead to lower production and even stock loss. Poultry especially are at risk of a ‘smother’, where birds huddle together which can result in some birds dying. In addition fireworks can pose a fire risk if hot embers land on barns or in fields of standing crops. This is particularly an issue during the summer when crops are more likely to be dry.
While the NFU does not have a position on when it is appropriate for fireworks to be let off we would call on everyone using fireworks to consider the safety and wellbeing of their neighbours and neighbours’ animals.”
The statement continues:
“It is important to let farmers know beforehand that you are planning on letting off fireworks so they can take necessary precautions to protect their animals. Fireworks should always be used safely, and pointed away from buildings, standing crops, and fields with animals in them.”
I know that hon. Members representing rural or semi-rural constituencies will join me in agreeing with every word expressed by the NFU in that statement. Many of us will also have heard local horror stories about fireworks. Last autumn in my constituency, a kitchen was destroyed within minutes when a young child set off a firework. After the incident, which could have been much worse, the child’s mother said:
“We were lucky to escape from the property unharmed this morning and my advice to everyone would be never store fireworks in the house.”
Those words are well worth sharing in our debate today.
On a totally different note, there are also those who feel that, at a time when we are constantly reminded to be more vigilant about the ever-present threat of terrorism, loud explosions from fireworks at random times of the year can be unsettling for a lot of people. One example that comes to mind is from November 2017, when an altercation between two men in Oxford Circus tube station caused a mass panic that resulted in several injuries. There are examples every year that show that bonfire night seems to be an opportunity for a special and criminal night of arson and disorder, with its own very real dangers for emergency service personnel. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who is present, will mention that if she speaks in the debate.
On that note, in Yorkshire, prior to bonfire night we have mischief night, when young people in particular misuse fireworks, throw them at other people—I have had a firework thrown at me—put them through people’s doors and attack firefighters in west Yorkshire. We need action, not just around bonfire night but mischief night.
I had not heard of that particular custom but it sounds as if that is the case.
Having said all that, many would argue that fireworks are pretty well regulated across the UK. There are separate, stricter regulations for Northern Ireland, but even for the rest of us, there are a good number of statutes that relate to firework use—I will not go into all of them.
The Fireworks (Amendment) Regulations 2004 are designed to tackle the antisocial use of fireworks. Since January 2005, the sale of fireworks to the public has been prohibited except by licensed traders. However, fireworks can be sold by unlicensed traders on Chinese new year and the preceding three days, on Diwali and the preceding three days, for bonfire night celebrations between 15 October and 10 November—I assume those buying them at the end are having a late bonfire night—and new year celebrations between 26 and 31 December. A licence costs £500 and is issued by a local authority, subject to strict criteria. The penalty for operating without a licence is an unlimited fine and/or up to six months in jail. Under the 2004 regulations, it is an offence to use fireworks after 11 pm and before 7 am without permission, except on bonfire night, when the cut-off is midnight—it certainly was not in the case of the child in north Wales I mentioned—and on new year’s eve, Chinese new year and Diwali, when the cut-off is 1 am.
Fireworks are categorised from F1 to F4. Category F1 fireworks are
“fireworks which present a very low hazard and negligible noise level and which are intended for use in confined areas, including fireworks which are intended for use inside domestic buildings.”
Category F4 fireworks are
“fireworks which present a high hazard, which are intended for use only by persons with specialist knowledge and whose noise level is not harmful to human health.”
In other words, they are professional fireworks for use in large open spaces.
Regulation 8 of the 2004 regulations prohibits the supply to the public of category F3 fireworks whose noise exceeds 120 dB. According to Age UK, damage to hearing can be caused by noise of 85 dB. The illegal use of fireworks can result in prosecution and a fine of up to £5,000 and/or a prison sentence of up to six months. A £90 on-the-spot fine may also be levied. The penalty for committing an offence of supplying a category F2 or F3 firework to any person under 18, or supplying a category F1 firework to any person under 16, is a fine of up to £5,000 and up to six months’ imprisonment.
In addition, under section 31 of the Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2015, an “economic operator” —a retailer—must not sell: a Christmas cracker to anyone under 12; F1 category fireworks to anyone under 16, or F2 and F3 category fireworks to anyone under 18. They also must not sell F4 category fireworks to members of the public, as those may be supplied only to a person with specialist knowledge.
Fireworks, including sparklers—those were my favourite—can be bought for private use only between 15 October and 10 November, between 26 and 31 December, and in the three days before Diwali and Chinese new year. Storage of fireworks of less than 2 tonnes requires a licence from the local authority; storage of more than 2 tonnes of fireworks requires a licence from the Health and Safety Executive. Both bodies may inspect storage facilities if they wish. The Explosives Regulations 2014 state that a licence is required to store fireworks except where their quantity is less than 5 kg. That strikes me as pretty extensive.
At the start of the debate, I spoke about my positive childhood experiences of local community bonfire nights, so it is both instinctive and subjective for me to say that I am cautious about a total ban. Others with less positive experiences will of course take a different view.
My hon. Friend went through the extensive regulatory safeguards in detail, but they are only as good as their enforcement. We hear every bonfire night, and on other occasions, of examples such as the appalling incident in my constituency where two vile sadists strapped two rockets to a cat and set them on fire. We clearly need better enforcement. I wonder whether she will comment on the fact that cuts to local authorities, to police services and so on make it difficult to enforce the regulations, which should provide safety to the general public.
That is probably true, and I know what I would quite like to do to some perpetrators, but it is worth noting that some countries have far tougher rules for spontaneous local firework displays. Last November, a fascinating piece on the BBC website noted how, in the American state of Delaware, someone can get a shotgun without a licence but it is totally illegal for an individual to buy a firework. It struck me as interesting that the right to bear sparklers is governed by tougher laws than the right to bear arms. Some other states relent on sparklers—I am conscious that my emphasis on sparklers reflects a certain subjectivity—but ban all other fireworks. In all seriousness, that is an interesting comparison.
I give that example because I think we need more objective evidence—and not primarily from other countries. The petitioners refer to the need for proper statistics about firework-related incidents. A related newspaper article states that petitioners found it impossible to get the relevant information through freedom of information requests. I agree with the petitioners that to debate this issue properly and to consider the extent of the problem we need full and accurate data. We do not have that at the moment, and I believe that the Government should provide it.
It is also time that the Government launched a proper, comprehensive consultation on this issue. We cannot discuss all this by anecdote alone. We cannot seriously have a grown-up discussion about what the law should be when all we have to go on is the subjectivity of lawmakers who have happy childhood memories of small informal firework displays and those who, for equally personal reasons, do not. We need evidence, statistics and a proper debate, and we need the Government to launch a formal consultation on this issue.
Order. Colleagues, 12 of you want to speak. I have worked out that, if you each speak for eight and a half minutes, we should get everyone in and leave 10 minutes each for the three Front Benchers to make their winding-up speeches. I call Jim Fitzpatrick.
Sorry, I got that wrong. I call Bill Grant. I do apologise, Jim; you will be next.
Thank you, Mr Walker; it is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship. I apologise to my colleague the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), whom I know well, and I thank the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) for introducing the debate.
I have a background of some 31 years in the Strathclyde fire and rescue service. Way back in 1974—44 years ago —bonfire night was inevitably busier than any other night of the year, and that remains the case. It is indeed important to “Remember, remember, the fifth of November”, because it stretches the resources of all emergency services, not just the fire and rescue service. Colleagues in the ambulance service treat people injured by flying embers or by fireworks, and regrettably, police officers often have to accompany other emergency services workers to ensure their safety from attacks.
We must bear in mind that the greatest costs are the human costs—the costs of burns that may scar or disfigure someone for life, of loss of sight and, as we heard, of the triggering of PTSD, which often happens to members of the armed forces who have served this country well. Albeit that fireworks often provide a colourful spectacle at small private displays and large public events, many humans and animals find them very distressing, particularly given their noise, even if they do not inflict physical injury.
As a member of a pet-owning and pet-loving family, I am acutely aware of the stress that fireworks cause many domestic pets. There are products on the market—CDs and garments with pressure pads, for example—that claim to afford pets relief and desensitise them, but it is impossible to assist livestock in fields. The light and noise from fireworks may spook sheep and cause them to crowd in the corners of fields and risk suffocation, and cattle may bolt from their field and become distressed, or worse. We heard horrific figures about the deaths of horses resulting from the irresponsible use of fireworks, and we must never forget assistance dogs, such as guide dogs, hearing dogs and companion dogs, which may be unnecessarily distracted from their important duties.
Of course, many domestic pets are simply unnecessarily petrified by the noise of fireworks, which is often not simply a bang but a screech or a whine. Their hearing is distinctly different from ours. Given the more frequent use of fireworks, we inflict that experience on man’s best friend more than just one day a year. Those pets, who are much loved, including by many in the Chamber, are simply inconsolable.
I appreciate that quieter fireworks are available on the market, but, according to a recent report commissioned by the City of Edinburgh Council, they lack the propellants that give the height and burst of colour for those viewing at a distance. In other words, they are second-rate fireworks and not particularly acceptable.
There is a raft of UK-wide and Scottish-specific categorisations and legislative controls for fireworks, including on their production, storage, sale and use, ranging from the Explosives Act 1875—slightly before my time—to the Fireworks (Scotland) Regulations 2004 and, more recently, the Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2010. However, the question, which has been asked before, is whether they are fully understood by those enforcing them, such as trading standards and the police, and by the public, who indiscriminately activate them.
I certainly would not comment on what happens in Scotland, but in England one of the big problems, as mentioned earlier, is policing. In the west midlands we have a particular shortage of police and a shortage of trading standards officers, and that—I am trying not to be too political—is because of local government cuts. Over the past 26 years I have listened to debates about fireworks like nobody’s business, but nothing positive happens. This time round we should have a commission to take a good look at it.
The hon. Gentleman is partly correct. We should have a good look at this issue and get the statistics. I do not know whether there is an association with cuts, because when we were in the land of plenty I do not think the laws were well understood or policed. I do not link cuts to the tragedies that occur.
In my view, such categorisations and controls alone are not sufficient. It is important to minimise potential physical injuries and psychological distress further to both humans and animals.
I will take a wee look at statistics. The website of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents tells us that in 2014-15—this an unbelievable figure—4,506 people visited accident and emergency departments in England having suffered a firework injury. On that one night, 114 were admitted to hospital, of whom 44 were under 18 years of age. That includes 11 admissions involving children under five. For the benefit of fun and gratification from fireworks, should we be doing that to our children? Should we have that risk, or should we mitigate it? I think we should mitigate it.
In Scotland in 2017, 5 November resulted in 330 bonfire incidents, and on 11 occasions crews faced missiles and fireworks not for entertainment but fired towards them. They needed police assistance each time. Is that ignition of fireworks necessary on a bonfire night for the gratification of the public? In addition, 800 calls were received during that night.
I fully acknowledge that the Government have highlighted themselves and through other agencies the dangers of fireworks and taken steps to promote safety advice and guidance. However, even one life-changing incident is one too many. For that reason, and because of the distress, injury and deaths caused to animals we heard about earlier, I advocate a ban on the sale of fireworks to individual members of the public. I believe firmly that the sale of fireworks should be restricted to professionals with health and safety training and qualifications who have permission to undertake an organised display for specific commemorative events at pre-arranged dates and times. Fireworks should not be used just at someone’s whim, whenever they want to frighten the life out of a neighbour’s cats and dogs, or when someone in a remote cottage wants to frighten the life out of nearby horses or farm animals.
Some may be fearful about potential job losses in the United Kingdom from such a ban. However, as I understand it few people are employed here in the manufacture of fireworks—no more than double figures —as most fireworks are imported. As an inadvertent consequence of banning the sale of fireworks, we might reduce our trade deficit with some of the countries from whom we import them.
I am not an advocate of state intervention. However, look at the success of seatbelt and crash helmet legislation and the long-term success of the smoking ban. Let us not ban organised events but end the retail sale of fireworks, and make that a success, too. As colleagues have said, we need to gather evidence from all corners of the United Kingdom, and I think the evidence will show that such a ban would be good for our children and future generations. On that night, I am sure they do not know what they are celebrating.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Walker, and I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant). I thank the Petitions Committee for bringing the debate forward and my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) for her comprehensive introduction to it. I am grateful to the Firework Abatement campaign, the Dogs Trust and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home for their briefings on the debate. I will keep my contribution brief.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Gentleman. It demonstrates the privilege of rank that the senior officer from the fire brigade gets priority over a humble firefighter, but hey, that is life and how it has always been in the fire service. He made some telling points, and I will not disagree with him much.
When I was in the fire service in London, for 364 days of the year people—especially kids—would knock on the door, wanting to come into the fire station to see the appliances and fire engines. The one day of the year they did not want to see us was Guy Fawkes day, when the bonfires were up and there were fireworks. This might be a romantic view of the past, but then it was only one day a year—fireworks are now 365 days a year. I do not know when the extension took place, and I guess we saw them at other times, but there is no way that the prolific use of fireworks was as prevalent then as it is now. At one point in my career I might have been worried about being called a member of the nanny state or a killjoy, but I am now pleased to claim membership of the grumpy old person’s club because my constituents are not happy about how fireworks are used in east London. Many will be happy that I am making this contribution.
Illegal fireworks are imported, especially from China, and their power and the noise they generate are different from anything we have had before. Fireworks are also used as weapons against passers-by and members of the public, and especially against the emergency services. I have seen YouTube videos of my constituency where the police turn out to a 999 call and find kids with rocket launchers, firing rockets at police cars. It is totally unacceptable.
The Firework Abatement campaign gives an excellent briefing, covering hospital admissions and the increasing number of A&E attendances. Statistics in its brief include 47 serious eye injuries, with 53% requiring surgery, and eight patients having to have their eyes removed. It also mentions antisocial behaviour right across the piece, such as that I mentioned in my constituency.
I have the highest regard for the Minister, so this is not an attack on him. However, we must question Government policy. We look to him to be our champion in Government and to make the case that the regulations on fireworks are not as strong as they ought to be.
The Government’s response is that we need to “strike a balance”. I understand that, but, at the moment, I do not think we are. Not a day of the year might be firework-free, because, as colleagues have said, they can turn up at any time, and the stress they cause to people and animals is well documented. The hon. Gentleman raised the question of data collection, and it would be useful to identify the nature of the problem.
The Government say that sales are highly regulated and restricted. The campaign says that there are restrictions on supply, storage, possession and misuse, but there are no regulations to prevent use 365 days a year between 7 am and 11 pm. Trading standards is also limited in its ability to keep track. There is an expectation that the curfew can be enforced by police, but I think most of us across the House will say, “Good luck with that,” especially in London, where we see 2,000 fewer police officers and 2,500 fewer police community support officers. The pressure on the police service, and last week’s statistics on the increase in violent and knife crime, mean that it has far higher priorities to attend to.
Communities have rights, and there should be a requirement to get a licence for fireworks, according to particular specifications, and especially with reference to noise and certain days of the year. There should be stronger control over sales, time restrictions and inspections, and the ability to audit-trail those who breach the regulations. I, like the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, am totally in favour of public displays; but we have seen that even they can go wrong, with people being injured. However, the more opportunities are available for people to go to a public display, the more chance there is that the events will be safe and therefore attract the public. There should be stronger penalties for misuse; if there were stronger controls the opportunity to abuse the privilege could be restricted.
People are worried about fireworks. We are not giving the subject enough attention and it deserves more attention from the Government, even if that is only in the form of stronger messages to retailers and users. The situation is already out of control in many places and will not improve; it will only get worse. We need Government action.
It is a pleasure to serve under you chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the Petitions Committee and the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on their roles in securing the debate.
Several constituents have written to me to ask me to participate. Generally I was of the view, beforehand, that the current legislation strikes the right balance, which accords with the Government’s response to the petition. However, in view of the concerns that were put to me, I obtained the views of Suffolk County Council, which is responsible for public safety. The issues that I am going to highlight are the ones that it has brought to my attention, and I want to thank Nigel Howlett, the council’s senior fair trading officer. He leads on fireworks and explosives and is also the east of England trading standards authority’s representative on the fireworks enforcement liaison group.
The sale and use of fireworks is an emotive issue that concerns many people. There are four areas of concern: noise, safety, unsafe storage and sales, which I shall briefly consider in turn. First, as to noise, while there are restrictions on letting off fireworks, the biggest issue is enforcement. It is not a high priority for most police forces, and unless someone is caught in the act, it is probably impossible to identify where and by whom the firework was let off. In tests conducted by the National Trading Standards Board safety at ports and borders team in 2016, 50% of the fireworks tested failed the noise tests. However, those tests are expensive to carry out. They were previously funded by the Health and Safety Executive and Health Service Laboratories, but as no funding was available this year, no tests have been conducted. If there were specific funding for the testing of fireworks, it is possible that some of the noisier ones could be removed from the market.
With safety, the main problem, again, is one of expense, in that the cost of fully testing fireworks can run into several thousand pounds, which makes it impossible for many local authority trading standards departments to carry out tests. With regard to accidents arising from fireworks, while the NHS publishes data on hospital admissions and their nature and cause, it does not appear that there is any other record of accidents in relation to their cause. It is therefore difficult to determine whether accidents are caused by innocent use or misuse. Every year there are reported incidents of injuries attributed to fireworks, many of them leaving permanent scars or involving the loss of limbs. However, since 2010 the UK has not reported any unsafe fireworks to the European RAPEX rapid alert system for non-food products, while during that time there have been 113 reports from the rest of the EU. It is possible that many of the injuries could be down to misuse—particularly those involving animals, and incidents occurring in public places—and there are videos online clearly showing people misusing fireworks, although it is impossible to know whether they were purchased from licensed premises, or whether they were bought by people under 18, the legal age for purchasing fireworks.
There is also potential for injury from not following the instructions printed on the fireworks. One of those instructions relates to the safe distance that spectators should stand from fireworks. It is natural for people to want to buy the biggest and best fireworks in their budget; yet many of those bigger fireworks will be in the F3 category and subject to a safety distance of 25 metres.
The hon. Gentleman obviously has better eyesight than mine. The printing is often very small and sometimes in another language. The idea that people could make sense of it is somewhat arbitrary.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which I was not going to raise, but it is pertinent, and it is right to make it, so I thank him.
There do not appear to be figures for the average length of the UK garden, but it has been suggested that the typical British garden is 50 feet long. If that is correct, many modern houses will not have gardens of the required size to ensure the safety of spectators when F3 fireworks are let off. Obviously, the consequences, should anything go wrong with the fireworks, are likely to be greater the closer the spectators are to them.
Trading standards and the fire service can have control over the storage arrangements at sites only if they are aware of those sites, which means only if they are licensed. Recent guidance to those bodies has encouraged them to be more proactive about storage conditions and quantities at licensed premises. In Suffolk the number of small independent retailers storing fireworks has dropped considerably in the past 10 years. It is unclear whether that is because of a lack of demand or an increase in the number of major supermarkets selling fireworks. Also in the county, trading standards continues to find minor issues with storage arrangements, with the occasional more serious problem being found on unannounced inspections. However, there have not been any major storage issues resulting in prosecution since 2010. In general, Suffolk County Council believes that the controls and powers that are in place are appropriate and sufficient to ensure that where unsafe storage issues are found they can be rectified without the need to resort to more formal measures.
In recent years the number of allegations about sales via social media such as Facebook has increased nationally and in Suffolk. Such sites are difficult to control as they are often promoted through private selling groups and thus they are not visible to all users. The sites often require investigators to “friend” the seller or join the group to determine how or where the fireworks are being sold. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 requires local authorities to obtain approval from magistrates courts before formal intervention can be contemplated, and that makes investigating allegations difficult, especially given the short time constraints of the firework season. The control of sale is currently limited to restrictions on age and on period of sale—generally between 5 October and 5 November—and controls on the quantity supplied. In the UK we limit the sale of F2 and F3 fireworks to those aged over 18. In many parts of Europe F2 fireworks can be purchased by anyone over 16.
It is also appropriate to raise an issue that links sales, storage and safety. It concerns the current exemptions for the storage of less than 5 kg net explosive content. I am advised that in some places in the north of England it has been reported that some businesses are trying to get round the need to hold a licence by restricting their onsite storage to less than 5 kg NEC while keeping their remaining stocks hidden. There is concern that some fire authorities would therefore not know of the existence of fireworks on a property, which could put both firefighters and the public at risk. Some in the fire service would like to remove that exemption, but that would need careful consideration, because if it were not implemented properly many other businesses that store less than 5 kg NEC perfectly legitimately could be affected.
Suffolk County Council also makes suggestions on how existing regulations could be improved. First, it touches on insurance. The issue of public liability insurance was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) in a debate on 18 November 2016, when he highlighted the case of a fire at SP Plastics in Stafford in 2014. The business suffered financially due to neither the individual business nor the licensee having appropriate cover in place. While health and safety legislation does not require public liability insurance, it is now recommended that those manufacturing or storing fireworks should hold it. That advice has been added to the Health and Safety Executive website and to the “Guidance to Applicants” section on the licence application form.
Suffolk trading standards receives information from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on all firework imports. That information is then disseminated to the relevant district council and the HSE where the consignment is destined. While in theory that allows the council and HSE to monitor the amount of fireworks being stored at their licensed sites, the information provided by HMRC can be sketchy at times and there is little or no enforcement of the requirements. Even where the information is provided, many authorities have suffered cuts to their budgets that restrict their ability to monitor imports adequately.
I sense that I have probably stretched my time a little. I have more to say, but I will come to my conclusion, which is that the Government should adopt a systematic approach to the collection of the statistics. Having considered the extremely helpful information put together by Nigel Howlett at Suffolk trading standards, I believe that, on balance, there is a case for amending the current regulations, although it is vital that a full consultation and regulatory impact assessment take place before any changes are made. That should include all those businesses in the supply network; we must remember that the vast majority of them are responsible, and it is vital that their views are heard. Thank you for bearing with me, Mr Walker.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his self-discipline. Others had been shorter, so he was not in danger of eating up anyone else’s time.
I congratulate the Petitions Committee on bringing this debate before us today.
I have the great privilege of representing the city of Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland, which is second to none when it comes to the organisation of large-scale public fireworks displays. Like the mover of the debate, the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), I am a big fan. I love fireworks, particularly the large displays.
Our biggest display, of course, is not on bonfire night nor indeed at new year, but in August every year at the culmination of the world’s largest arts festival: a fantastic firework display using the backdrop of Edinburgh castle, which is really quite spectacular. The majesty and power of that display, and the excitement and thrill of it, provide entertainment to audiences in excess of 100,000 people each year. I welcome it as a highlight of the cultural calendar, but that display is executed by highly trained pyrotechnic engineers. It is regulated completely from a health and safety point of view, and complete precautions are taken to ensure that the display can be conducted in a safe way that brings no harm to animals or to the many people who enjoy it.
When I then look at the situation governing the private use of fireworks, none of that really applies. Yes, we have the Fireworks Regulations 2004, but let us be honest: if someone is over 18 and they do it before 11 o’clock at night, they can let off as many fireworks as they want for as long as they want, irrespective of the inconvenience it causes to their neighbours or to animals living locally. That is something that we must look at again.
We had a particular problem in my constituency in November last year. I suppose we should wait a few more years and be careful of making predictions, but it seems to me that the problem is increasing. One of the people who signed the petition sent me an email at the time, saying:
“I'm all for organised professional displays. But I don’t think members of the public, with no fire safety training should be in charge of explosives.
My father was a firefighter and I used to dread him being on shift on fireworks night, due the abuse and assaults our fire crews receive, this included having fireworks aimed at them as they tried to put out, out of control bonfires.”
She also says:
“We have a beautiful, gentle German Shepherd who is terrified of the fireworks. I’ve spent the evening trying to calm him down having had 5 hours of fireworks being set off around us. As I write this email to you the odd firework continues to go off—it’s now 10.45 at night.”
That person lives in Brunstane in my constituency, where there was no particular problem. In the Lochend area of my constituency, there was a big problem, which resulted in a major Police Scotland investigation. In an eyewitness statement, Sam Thomson, one of the residents affected in Lochend, says:
“I saw two groups of young people of various ages standing at either end of the street firing fireworks at each other like they were guns—they were holding the wooden launching sticks, lighting them and pointing them at each other.
I saw one young child being hit in the head with a firework. Fortunately it didn’t explode—if it had, it could have caused very serious burns.
I saw kids firing fireworks at passing cars and windows in my block broken by stray fireworks. I felt sick with worry—it felt like my home was under attack, in the middle of a warzone.”
We need to respond to people who find themselves in that situation. I have spoken with Police Scotland in my constituency; although it is taking action, it is constantly frustrated by the fact that the regulations are not sufficient.
We have a particular problem in Scotland, because there are two sets of competences on controlling firework use. The Westminster Government have the authority to regulate the sale and possession of fireworks, and the Scottish Government in Holyrood have the responsibility for regulating the use of fireworks. The Fireworks (Scotland) Regulations 2004, which parallel those in Britain, are of a similar nature. They regulate the times at which fireworks can be used, they say that users have to be over 18, and there is a regulation on the strength of the firework, but there is nothing that says, “You need permission to have a firework display in the first place.”
I believe we need to look at going down the route of saying, “If you want to let off fireworks in public, you have to have a licence to do so.” It is unclear to me how we would do that in Scotland without close co-operation, and perhaps an adjustment of the balance of regulation, between the Scottish and UK Governments.
I will give an example. Suppose that the Scottish Government were to say, “Yes, we want to move toward a licensing regime where you can let fireworks off in a public place only if you have a licence.” The police officers I spoke to told me that they saw people over 18 walking around with rucksacks they knew to be full of fireworks, to engage in the activity that has been described, but there was nothing they could do to apprehend them, because no offence was being committed.
Of course, that would still be the case even if the Scottish Government tried to bring in a licence, because the sale and possession of fireworks would be regulated by Westminster. It seems to me that we might need to review that aspect of the devolution settlement to prevent public concern falling through the gaps in the regulatory network as competences overlap.
The time has come to look at going toward a licensing route. I am not saying we must do it now, but we need to investigate it, look at the facts and evidence, and prepare the case carefully. I am also mindful that some people will say, “It’s not the fireworks that are at fault; it is the people misusing them.” It is true that some of the people who have been apprehended for those offences relating to last November are some of the same people who commit other offences against the community, such as riding off-road motorbikes through estates. I accept that that is true, but at the same time we need to look at the regulations, because we should not make these things available for people to use.
We have to be careful that we are not killjoys. If we moved towards a situation where public displays of fireworks were licensed, we are not saying there should not be fireworks or that people should not enjoy them. We are saying, “If you want to enjoy fireworks, do it properly.” That means that we can regulate and check that the people who are organising the display have the required competence and training, that it is being done properly and that public safety and animal welfare are being taken into account.
There is a lot of work to be done, so I very much welcome the debate. The Scottish Government have now said they will review the regulations that they are operating under, which I very much welcome. However, if, as part of that review, it is determined that something in the UK regulations prevents things from being improved by the Scottish Government, will the Minister commit to reviewing the relationship between the two Governments, in terms of the balance of responsibility in this matter, and if necessary to amending the legislation to allow the Scottish Government the competence to move forward in this area? It seems that the more coherence we have on our approach to public policy, the better the result we will be able to get for our communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I am slightly thrown because I thought you were going to call a Government Member, but I thank you very much.
There are more Opposition Members than Government Members down to speak, so I am just trying to balance it out before the end.
I appreciate that. I am not used to such favours. It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate, which was very ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones).
This issue has been repeatedly debated in Parliament and has been the basis of more than one petition. Some 158 signatures to this petition were secured in my constituency, which is higher than average. That does not surprise me, because I receive regular correspondence on the topic from constituents, and with very good reason. On 6 November last year, just after bonfire night, the local newspaper, The Star, reported:
“Fireworks thrown at police officers and fire engine attacked as more than 500 incidents”
of irresponsible use of fireworks were reported across South Yorkshire in the space of a few hours.
I have to say that, although the irresponsible use of fireworks and how they are sold are matters of great concern to many people, like many others—I think everybody who has spoken so far—I make it clear that I am not opposed to public firework displays. Indeed, I have enjoyed the new year’s eve display across the river near the London Eye, I have enjoyed firework displays in Madeira and I have enjoyed much smaller displays in my constituency, such as at the Waggon & Horses in Langsett, which does a wonderful “Mr Fox” night every year on the night of the hunter’s moon. Let me be clear: I enjoy a good firework display.
However, while displays such as those I described are magnificent spectacles, there are many times when the—particularly private—use of fireworks is not only a nuisance but downright dangerous. The latest figures, which have already been cited but are worth repeating, show that, between bonfire night and new year’s eve in 2017, there were 221 reported incidents of firework misuse. Those range from reports to the RSPCA in Wales about distressed and unwell stray dogs on new year’s eve to a report of a large group of teenagers, with some wearing masks, running in front of cars and setting off fireworks. The cars had to swerve away from them or execute emergency stops.
Of more concern, according to the Firework Abatement campaign, is admissions to hospital owing to firework accidents, which have risen year on year over the last few years. That is also of particular concern to me, because I do not think any right to enjoy the private use of fireworks is worth the serious risk of injury and harm to people and animals. We have all seen pictures of children who have been permanently disfigured by the misuse of fireworks, and I think there is a responsibility on the House to consider the balance between regulation and the rights of individuals because of the increasing risk of injury.
In addition, many animal welfare charities have for a number of years been concerned about the effect of the use of fireworks on animals. The British Horse Society has reported year-on-year rises in horses either injured or killed because of fireworks, as was mentioned earlier. The RSPCA has long-standing concerns about the effects of fireworks on dogs, with almost half of all dogs showing signs of distress. Many cats also show distress when fireworks have been used nearby. The Dogs Trust did a very interesting survey of 3,750 pet owners on this matter. The results showed that two thirds of dogs are worried by fireworks, and that 93% of owners alter their routine during firework celebrations to try to minimise the trauma on their pets.
That is all evidence that something needs to be done and that we really need to start taking this seriously. All the organisations I have referenced would like to see changes made to the law to secure further restrictions on the use of fireworks, and I think they have a strong case. As the law stands, regulations derived from the Fireworks Act 2003 dictate that fireworks must not be let off between 11 pm and 7 am, except at Chinese new year, Diwali and new year’s eve, when the period is extended until 1 am, and bonfire night, when it is extended to midnight. That means that fireworks can be legally used by private citizens 365 days a year—every day—between 7 am and 11 pm. That is an incredibly liberal regime.
The Government response to that, and to the petition in particular, is to argue, as they have done for some time, that the best way to deal with the problem is through education. I have to disagree. That policy is weak in the face of the evidence, which, although it is not as robust as one would perhaps like, indicates increasing antisocial use of fireworks, and that more damage to people, animals and property is taking place than ever before.
I am not here to call for a complete ban on the private use of fireworks, much as I would like to. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) said he was a fully paid-up member of the grumpy old persons’ club, and I would also like to subscribe as a fully paid-up member. However, as much I would personally like a complete ban on anything other than public displays—I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) on this—I recognise that that would probably be a step too far at this stage. What we need are further restrictions, to allow fireworks only on agreed traditional dates, such as 5 November, new year’s eve, Chinese new year and Diwali.
We also need further restrictions on the noise levels allowed. The current regime allows fireworks to make noise up to a 120-dB limit, which is the equivalent of a jet aircraft taking off. That is far too loud and a cause of great concern, particularly to the many animal welfare charities that have contacted us on this. I also take the point made by the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), about the need to be more careful about where public displays take place. The Government ought to have more regard to that.
The law as it stands does not protect vulnerable people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South pointed out. The available evidence suggests that private firework use also has an extremely detrimental effect on both domestic and wild animals. It is disappointing that the Government appear unwilling to open up this area of legislation for review, given the year-on-year increase in antisocial use that I described earlier.
As I said earlier, no right to let off fireworks in the back garden, to buy those fireworks or to organise family gatherings in private places, is worth the significant risk of injury to children, animals and adults that we see year on year. Something needs to be done. A change in the law would certainly have public support, with online petitions gaining more than 100,000 signatures each year for the last three years. I therefore ask the Minister—I agree with earlier comments that he is a very reasonable and competent person—to take on board these concerns, to re-evaluate firework use and to consider introducing new restrictions and guidelines on the use of fireworks by private citizens.
I start by recognising the role of the FAB—Firework Abatement —campaign in raising awareness and bringing this issue to Parliament again. I also echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) about how it affects not only animals, but people with post-traumatic stress disorder. When people have returned from serving with our armed forces or have been through unimaginable experiences, the sudden and intrusive noises, the smell and a racing heartbeat can cause flashbacks to memories best left forgotten. Many more people are affected who are simply not listened to and whom we need to recognise.
I am at the debate on behalf of the 189 of my constituents who have signed the e-petition, as well as others who have written to tell me how their animals, especially dogs, are affected by firework explosions, which are intolerable. Notably, my constituents Liz Storey of Stansted Mountfitchet and Janet Harris of Great Leighs gave moving accounts of how disruptive it can be to live in the vicinity of a place where fireworks are frequently let off. A particular problem is the random displays unrelated to public celebrations. My constituents talked about horses being sedated and, when left in fields, no fence being able to contain them; Christmas meals at 4.30 pm ruined as explosions go off next door; and dogs requiring frequent medication in advance—work that is undone by random and unexpected fireworks. Dogs become so frightened that it can take months for them to rehabilitate, and even to settle when it begins to grow dark and they think that danger is imminent. In some horrible cases, they go missing, or worse.
The use of fireworks has spread from traditional celebrations to random parties in otherwise quiet neighbourhoods. Fireworks set off between close houses only amplify the noise and damage done. There are reports of accidents and even of our brave emergency responders being attacked by stray bursts. We need to remember that fireworks can cause harm in untrained hands.
At the root of the issue is how we can ensure responsible enforcement. Many in my constituency would like to see fireworks only at public displays. Currently, the police and local authorities do not have the powers that that would require. Alternatively, the Italian town of Collecchio passed in 2015 a law that allows only quiet fireworks. “Quiet fireworks” sounds like a contradiction, but we already see them year in, year out, in displays of, for example, comet tails or flying fish, and they are still aesthetically pleasing, so there clearly are steps that can be taken to innovate in the interests of our pets and children.
I should mention that I love fireworks. However, they must be used responsibly. My constituents are asking not for a ban, but just for more controls on private displays, and I think that there are grounds for looking into the legislation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. It is an honour to be here to voice the concerns of my constituents who have signed the petition asking for a change in the laws governing the use of fireworks to include a ban on public use.
From time to time, we all enjoy fireworks. Just 28 days ago, we saw the most fantastic display lighting up the Houses of Parliament. New year’s eve, bonfire night, Diwali and Chinese new year would not be the same without them, and they are a wonderful part of our cultural heritage. However, fireworks are no longer used or heard just at significant events such as those, but throughout the year. The occasions that I just mentioned span more or less half the year, so the sale of fireworks around those occasions offers the public the opportunity to buy fireworks through the entire dark nights period. That means that around this time of year, although the nights are getting lighter, we can hear fireworks going off from as early as 4 pm to the early hours of the morning.
In addition to the dangers of fireworks in relation to public safety, they have become a real antisocial menace—a menace and a real problem for pet owners; a menace for parents whose young children are woken by loud bangs and whistles; and a menace to the elderly, who can be frightened by the loud bangs. Restrictions on sales are not working, not least because fireworks are readily available to buy on the internet. That is a separate concern, because fireworks obtained in that way may not comply with EU safety regulations and because they may be easily bought by minors—I need not spell out the dangers of that.
The 2004 regulations allow penalties to be levied for antisocial behaviour involving fireworks, but enforcement of the power is very poor. I think that if the existing laws were enforced, that would solve many of the issues, but if the laws are not being enforced, or cannot be, we will have to consider other means of controlling the problem.
The National Fire Chiefs Council has campaigned to stop the sale of fireworks to the general public, as have the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and other collaborative partners interested in public safety. Clearly, the vast majority of people who use fireworks do so responsibly and in accordance with the law; and when distress is caused to animals—domestic pets, wildlife or livestock—that is likely to be because of ignorance and thoughtlessness rather than deliberate misuse.
The most effective way to reduce the suffering of affected animals may be through education instead of legislation. We should let people know about the time limits and the regulations, so that they can be more thoughtful not only about pets but, of course, about people in their environment. However, fireworks are a real source of distress for many people and pet owners. One of my constituents, whose dog shivers under the duvet whenever it hears a firework, told me:
“It’s possible to plan ahead and try and manage the situation for pets on planned evenings, like Bonfire Night. However, when fireworks are let off without warning, it’s a real problem for our dogs, who are terrified.”
I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and he has mentioned bonfire night a couple of times. Does he agree that the problem is that bonfire night is not restricted to bonfire night? We now have bonfire fortnight: these things are let off the week before and the week after, so pet owners are placed in an impossible position.
I agree. The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue, which needs to be tackled. The quotation that I read out also makes the point. Most of us are tolerant and respectful of others, and we all recognise that fireworks can mark a special event. Although many pet owners dread bonfire night, they can plan for it and ensure that their pets are safely in the house, but now, the use of fireworks is frequent and random. It takes only one person setting off a firework at 2 am to wake the whole neighbourhood, and set car alarms off and dogs barking.
I hope that the Minister will look again at enforcement of the 2004 regulations and review them to test whether they are strong enough and whether our police have the capacity to enforce them. If not, perhaps tighter restrictions along the lines recommended by the petition should be considered.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) has brought this debate to us today. I feel that I am speaking as an advocate on behalf of the approximately 8.5 million dogs in the United Kingdom and—not to forget them—the 8 million cats. I understand that there is some contention between the two with regard to their ability to hear. In preparing for the debate, I understood that the dog has 18 muscles in its ear, whereas the cat has 30, so I think the cat wins, in terms of its ability to hear. We should give consideration to that when setting the legislation.
I imagine that last night, Mr Walker, you were lying in bed, soundly asleep—deep in slumber. Imagine that you were disturbed from that sleep by a noise somewhere in your house. You are awake, your heartbeat is slightly elevated and you start to breathe slightly more quietly because you are troubled by that noise. Now imagine you suddenly hear a glass smashing in the kitchen. All of a sudden you become disoriented. You feel slightly panicked. Has somebody broken into your house? You are very concerned. Now imagine, on top of that, you suddenly smell a gas that you are not familiar with. Imagine the sort of state you would be in at that point. I imagine you would be very anxious. That is what we put our cats and dogs through every time they are subjected to fireworks, because they do not have the benefit of knowing, when the firework displays suddenly appear in the Asda and other shops, that they are likely soon to hear many more loud bangs. They do not have any warning, or understanding, of Diwali or new year’s eve, so it comes as a complete surprise to Fido when he is enjoying his bone of an evening and all of a sudden there are crashes and bangs all over the place.
At what sort of level is the noise? The figure of 120 dB has been mentioned. I do not know, Mr Walker, if you know what 120 dB is, but it is approximately the noise level of a chainsaw. You might say, “Hang on a sec, a chainsaw would annoy me, if it went on for a few minutes, but I would probably be okay with intermittent bursts of chainsaw”, and you may well be, but you do not have the hearing of a dog or a cat, which is four times as perceptive as that of a human. They feel the noise with greater force than we do. Imagine there are fireworks in the distance. They are not too troubling for us, but obviously a dog or cat, with its enhanced hearing, will be troubled by firework noise from further afield. As a nation of animal lovers, it is imperative that we consider the hearing not just of the humans inhabiting this great island, but of our dear beloved pets.
I met a Chihuahua called Flo because, in the run-up to bonfire night, I wanted to put a leaflet through doors in my constituency to alert people to be considerate to pet owners. I am advocating on behalf of not just millions of dogs, but specifically Flo, who must weigh about 2 lb, bless her. She is paralysed with fear every new year’s eve and bonfire night, and millions of her fellow dogs and cats across the country feel the same.
I do not ask for a change in the law, but I suggest that the millions of pounds that we hear are made from the sale of fireworks could be targeted, through social media or other appropriate media—I understand, for example, that on Facebook, pet owners can be specifically targeted—to ensure that people are aware of the things they can do to placate and prepare their animals for the onslaught of bonfire night, or bonfire fortnight and the weeks it goes on for, and to educate the general public to be slightly more considerate not just of their neighbours, but of pets as well.
Thank you for fitting me in to this debate, Mr Walker. There are 171 signatures from Glasgow Central on this petition and I am glad to speak on behalf of those and other constituents. Like other hon. Members I am a big fan of public displays of fireworks. I have an ongoing dispute with my wee brother, who much prefers to use fireworks himself. He is a lot more confident with that than I am, but I am slightly older than he is and remember all the terrifying adverts on television in the ‘80s, which made me think that my hand would melt off if I touched a sparkler.
This is a serious issue in my constituency. People in Pollokshields in particular have raised concerns about fireworks being thrown in the streets. Last year Glasgow South East police reported that five under-18s were charged with possession of fireworks. That puts those young people at risk of a criminal record, so this is a serious matter. I have had many constituents contact me about the impact that fireworks have had on their daily lives. I would like to highlight and read some of those. Kate Tough said,
“Powerful fireworks are causing untold misery (and danger) to peaceful residents due to a minority of young people with no sense of safety or consideration.”
Siobhan McGurk lives on Kenmure Street and has found
“gangs of 10-20 boys running up and down the streets at night throwing fireworks at each other and at cars driving past.”
It is incredibly dangerous, not least because it is an area with tenement flats—it is a high-density area of housing. If a firework was to go up a close, that could cause untold danger for all the residents. She is also concerned that fireworks are “being used as weapons,” as other hon. Members have reported.
Other constituents in Pollokshields feel that this is just another factor of the antisocial behaviour that already exists in some communities, and the boys who are causing trouble and harassing other people in Pollokshields library use fireworks to do so at this time of year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) highlighted, this is a real danger for those young people and for the community as well. As the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) said, we often cannot tell who let fireworks off or where they came from, but they cause fear and alarm to passers-by and local residents.
Heather Alexander from Thorncliffe Gardens has concerns, which others have raised as well, about the regulations being out-and-out flouted—that the law is not being enforced in any meaningful way. There are issues of police numbers and trading standards and all those kinds of things, but if the regulations are unenforceable, they are pretty meaningless. Heather Alexander mentions fireworks being set off in Queen’s Park and youngsters
“throwing them at fire service personnel”.
She also raises concerns, as hon. Members have done, about private citizens being able to buy explosives at a time when the security level is often at “severe”. It seems rather incongruous that we allow explosives to be sold over the counter with no real concern as to who buys them, where they end up and what they will do with them once they have them in their possession. There is a real concern in Pollokshields that they are being passed on to younger members of the community. It is not responsible adults who are using them; children are using them, at a range of ages.
One of the local councillors, Jon Molyneux, has been compiling some of the work on this. The police officer present at a meeting at Pollokshields Community Council advised that during firework season, police were attending on average 20 to 30 call-outs per night. They apprehended children as young as six lighting fireworks in the street. The officers were routinely targeted by fireworks being aimed at them and older relatives of children were caught being complicit in concealing the identities of the children and young people involved to the police. This is a very serious set of concerns. Children are being put in positions of danger by people who should know better. That is not being enforced in the law either.
One point that has not been raised so far is the mess that fireworks leave behind for communities to clear up. I see that right across my constituency: the remnants of fireworks lying around for weeks on end after events. I am lucky to have two large organised displays at different times of the year in my constituency: one in George Square, for which the tickets are like gold dust, and the other, a public event on bonfire night, in Glasgow Green. The residents who live around Glasgow Green, where many people go and walk their dogs and enjoy the green at all times of the year, were concerned to find the green littered with sparklers and debris long after bonfire night. A Dr Shields contacted me to say,
“as the owner of 2 dogs and someone who works using risk assessment it is currently my view that it is completely unsafe for children, pets or any sports just now due to the many hundreds of used sparklers lying on the ground.”
There is a cost to local government of clearing that up afterwards and making the park safe for everyone to use. That has not been considered much, but when these things are sold, little consideration seems to be given to where they end up. That is something the Government ought to take into consideration as well. If we are going to recycle, and look at plastic and other types of waste, we should perhaps consider what happens to fireworks after use as well and the impact that has.
[David Hanson in the Chair]
I echo the comments by many hon. Members that we need to look at this issue seriously, and we need to review the rules and licensing of these items, because it is clear to me that the situation at the moment is not adequate and it is putting young people and other residents, as well as animals, at risk.
I congratulate you on your smooth transformation into the Chair, Mr Hanson. It was seamlessly done.
I want to pay tribute to the large number of my constituents who encouraged me to attend today’s debate and made really passionate cases about why this issue matters and why we, as parliamentarians, should be concerned about it. I want to start by stating that I am not hostile to fireworks. Indeed, rather like the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), I have many happy memories of my own father going out bravely into the Teesside air to hammer a Catherine wheel to a tree. Memories such as those are important, and fireworks are a spectacular way of bringing people together in common celebration.
As an economic and social liberal, I did not come into politics to ban things; however, I also appreciate that when used irresponsibly and away from the main festivals, such as bonfire night and new year, fireworks can be a source of harm and distress. What my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) said about Flo is true for so many, and he amusingly and powerfully set out why we should be engaged in this and why we should think considerately about other people and our pets.
I have had lots of constituents setting out their deep concerns about fireworks and the effect that they have on the elderly, young people, military veterans and livestock. Mr Geoff Peirse from Coulby Newham, for example, wrote to me saying that his concern relates to people’s ability to use fireworks in an antisocial and sometimes criminal way. He highlighted the effect that they have on the police, hospitals and fire service. Meanwhile, Jane Dunn from Guisborough told me after Guy Fawkes night that
“it has been like a war zone... with fireworks being lit for days. My 86-year-old mum, who remembers hiding under the stairs during WWII air raids, was woken after midnight last night by an extremely loud bang,”
and in her disturbed and confused state,
“she thought it was a bomb going off. The gentle fireworks and sparklers we remember from our youth have been overtaken by bombs.”
As we know, controls on the use and sale of fireworks are already in place, and I welcome that; however, some of those controls might be extended without unreasonably diminishing the enjoyment people derive from fireworks. For example, the noise level on fireworks, as we have heard, is 120 dB. I am pleased that limit exists, but 120 dB is still extremely loud. To put it in context, a motorcycle is 100 dB and an emergency vehicle siren is 115 dB—120 dB is something more akin to a clap of thunder. In his reply, will the Minister touch on whether 120 dB really strikes the right balance—a proportionate balance—between enjoyment and relative peace for local people?
Firework-related antisocial behaviour also causes my constituents grave concern. Late last year a gang of youths sent fireworks shooting into a number of flats in central Middlesbrough. One of the rockets entered a disabled woman’s living room, filling the room with smoke and scorching her carpet. She said that the noise was so loud that she subsequently had problems with her hearing. That was one of a flurry of incidents across the town, with reports of lit fireworks being thrown at cars, people and even supermarkets in Pallister Park, Grove Hill and Coulby Newham.
I would therefore be grateful if the Minister committed today to reviewing the number of antisocial behaviour incidents linked to the use of fireworks, and set out what measures could, or indeed should, be undertaken to prevent such incidents. That information is not currently collected; instead, it is part of the general statistics classified as antisocial behaviour. We therefore have no reliable data, as we have heard, on the improper use of fireworks and no understanding of where in the country the problem is greatest or at what times of year it peaks. I think that should change.
In that regard, and in summing up, I want to pay particular tribute to my constituent Julie Wright, who came to my surgery in Guisborough earlier this month. It was she who really convinced me to come here today. She is particularly upset about the impact on her pet dog, and says:
“I have every lotion, potion, anxiety wrap, noise CD, cosy den bed known to man, but only tranquilizers will work. When fireworks go off it is a dilemma as to whether to administer them—is this a random firework, is it a full blown display, how long will it last, is it worth doping up my poor animal if it’s going to stop soon? What effect is all this medication having on my dog’s system and his lifespan?”
It is for people like her that I want to see that data collected—to understand the nature and scale of the problem we face, and to inform further debate.
May I say what a pleasure it is that you have joined us and taken over in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Hanson? I also join hon. Members in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) for opening this important debate with a characteristically insightful and balanced speech on behalf of the Petitions Committee.
Much like my hon. Friend and colleagues across these Benches, I want to stress that I have fond memories of growing up and spending time with my family setting off fireworks in the back garden over the course of bonfire night. So it is with great sadness that the instances of irresponsible, antisocial and at times dangerous misuse of fireworks have brought me here today to call for much tighter regulation around the sale and use of fireworks.
There has been a long-running problem with fireworks being used at all times of the day and night in my constituency and causing tensions within communities, as I will return to later in my speech. However, as predicted by my hon. Friend, my greatest cause for concern is the way in which fireworks were used to attack the emergency services over bonfire weekend. I saw that for myself when I went out with West Yorkshire fire and rescue and West Yorkshire police on Saturday 4 November last year. Both myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), who wanted to be here for this debate but is otherwise detained owing to her responsibilities on the Trade Bill, spent time with the emergency services on the frontline in Bradford.
Several crews working out of fire appliances and fire cars as part of the joint fire and police operation across West Yorkshire that night were subject to attacks involving fireworks. The crew of one of the fire appliances based at the station I was attached to had fireworks aimed at them that exploded just inches away from their faces and where they were working. The fire car in which my hon. Friend was shadowing officers and firefighters also had missiles and fireworks thrown at it.
I launched the “Protect the Protectors” campaign, which I am pleased to say the Government are supporting, having seen and heard too many harrowing incidents of emergency service workers coming under attack. Yet even I was surprised to learn that every instance of fire resources being deployed to calls over that bonfire weekend in Bradford had police officers co-deployed alongside them, as the risk of fire crews being attacked was so high.
We had anticipated that the Saturday night would be the busiest of the weekend; however, bonfire night on the Sunday evening proved to be worse. There were 18 attacks on fire crews over the bonfire weekend in West Yorkshire alone, with the vast majority involving fireworks. That was twice as many as the year before. So we know that the current rules and regulations simply are not effective, as the situation has deteriorated.
In Leeds, gangs barricaded streets in Harehills and Hyde Park, setting fire to bins and anything else they could find. When the emergency services arrived to put out the fires, they were met with fireworks fired at them. Youths were putting fireworks in drain pipes, which they used as rocket launchers to aim and fire at firefighters and police officers. Those incidents were deliberately orchestrated to lure emergency service workers into an area in order to be attacked, with the weapon of choice being fireworks, which made the attacks particularly sinister. In those instances, the police were left with no choice but to wear full protective equipment, including shields and helmets, in order to secure the area so that fire crews could tackle the blazes.
Chief Superintendent Mabs Hussain of West Yorkshire police hit the nail on the head when he was quoted in The Yorkshire Post as saying:
“Over the weekend, we had reports of fireworks being directed at moving vehicles, properties and emergency service crews…Many of the people doing this wouldn’t arm themselves with a knife or a gun, but don’t realise that using a firework as a weapon isn’t mischievous, it is highly dangerous.”
He was exactly right.
While I sincerely hope that the “Protect the Protectors” Bill being championed through Parliament as a private Member’s Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) will make a difference by being a tough deterrent against such attacks, I hope that when considering the merits of further restrictions the Minister will reflect on the role of fireworks as a deliberate weapon of choice used by certain individuals specifically to attack emergency service workers at seasonal times of the year.
In Halifax, we have increasingly seen fireworks used as a means of celebrating weddings, making them a year-round occurrence. The geography of the area worsens the problem, as loud explosions echo around the valleys. Last summer, one single explosion at 1 am woke residents up to 4 miles away. I can confirm that, as I was one of those residents woken around 4 miles away from the source of the initial firework. It was not until the following morning, having returned to my office to see many emails in my inbox giving me an indication of the epicentre of the activity, that I realised the noise had travelled so far.
I wish that was an isolated incident; however, I regularly receive emails from tired and frustrated constituents on this issue. Those demonstrate that literally thousands of people are being affected, often in the middle of the night, by the actions of a few individuals, whose purpose for using fireworks is specifically to let everyone know that their fireworks are bigger and louder than everybody else’s.
One constituent contacted me last April to say that fireworks had started just past midnight on a Sunday night and continued non-stop until 2.30 am. The fireworks were not part of a seasonal celebration, and that highlights how, for many people, this is now a year-round problem. The constituent was rightly concerned about the impact of the sleepless nights on people’s health. During the same incident last year, residents took to Facebook in the early hours to express their frustrations. One resident who lived close to where the fireworks were being set off commented:
“Me and my son were up till 2am, he was so scared, we slept on the living room floor.”
I have been trying to find a resolution to this problem and have been in regular contact with the local police and the council’s environmental health department. It is clear that because of the nature of fireworks, it is difficult to take enforcement action after the event, when the evidence will literally have gone up in smoke in seconds. So I hope that the Minister will reflect on all the ways in which we can close down the irresponsible and antisocial use of fireworks at the point of sale.
If I may, I will highlight some points in relation to the Government’s response to the petition. As we have heard from other hon. Members, the current limit of 120 dB is still quite high. By some estimates, that is comparable to a rock band, a police siren or, as we have heard, a chainsaw or jet engine. The RSPCA believes that the maximum noise level should be reduced to 96 dB, and has raised concerns about the impact of such loud noises on animals. As we have heard, there are reports of horses dying from the shock of sudden explosions, so there are strong animal welfare arguments for reconsidering decibel limits, as others have said, including my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi).
The Government’s proposed solution for tackling the emotional distress caused by fireworks is problematic. The Department says:
“The Government is aware of concerns about the distress noisy fireworks can cause…Therefore, the Government urges those using fireworks to be considerate to their neighbours and give sufficient notice…to those who are vulnerable”.
The list includes
“older people, children, those with mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder”.
I am glad that Ministers acknowledge that those with PTSD, for example, can be distressed by fireworks, but if they really think that people setting off explosions at 1 am that carry for four miles will be diligent enough to notify an entire constituency in advance, I am afraid that I do not share their optimism.
I started this speech by reliving my own fond memories of fireworks as a child; we all remember the odd mix of horror and excitement on realising that a firework had leaned precariously in our direction, leaving everyone rushing to get inside to watch that particular firework from the safety of the kitchen window. This is not about being anti-fireworks—the display by the Thames at new year was absolutely spectacular, as was the bonfire and display organised by West Yorkshire fire and rescue at its Birkenshaw headquarters—but about proper regulation. It is about ensuring that fireworks are not used in the middle of the night in residential areas, it is about ensuring that the noise does not carry for four miles and it is certainly about ensuring that fireworks are not put in drainpipes and fired at emergency service workers. The existing laws are not preventing any of those things, so I hope that the Minister might take this opportunity to reflect on what changes to those laws might bring about the changes in behaviour that we would all like to see.
I am delighted to take part in this debate on the e-petition calling for a change in the law to include a ban on the public use of fireworks. I thank the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) for setting out a comprehensive case and the Petitions Committee for selecting it.
I do not think that anyone here has argued against the fact that used correctly, fireworks are an enjoyable spectacle. They are enjoyed by some 10 million people across the UK each year, and they have become a feature, as has been mentioned several times, of publicly organised events in November, weddings and all sorts of other celebrations. Anyone fortunate enough to have attended a publicly organised firework display will no doubt have enjoyed it immensely, and no one here would want to interfere with that. However, we are also here to take account of the alarm, distress, danger and anxiety that fireworks far too often cause to too many people and animals, and the disruption that they can cause to communities when purchased and used irresponsibly by individuals.
I found myself agreeing with the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), which I particularly wanted to mention because it is such a rare event that I felt it should be put on record. He gave us the perspective of a senior fire officer, which is certainly worth listening to. I agree with him wholeheartedly, so I shall hang on to that for future reference.
Every year from October to January, I receive complaints, as I am sure we all do, from constituents whose neighbourhoods are disrupted and plagued by the irresponsible use of fireworks at all hours of the dark evenings. Under cover of darkness, too many people set out to cause mischief, thinking that it is funny to set off fireworks near housing where children or whole families are shocked from their slumbers, pets are scared half to death and elderly people are driven into a state of fear and alarm. The right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) also pointed out the effect on horses.
People who want to set off fireworks do not care a jot about the time restrictions mentioned by some Members in this debate. They do not care whether it is legal to set off a firework at that time of day or night, and it seems that such irresponsible people do not care a jot about safety. I have been contacted by constituents in a state of great distress after a particularly alarming and noisy night of fireworks, which can take place for no apparent reason other than that it is October, November or December and people have fireworks left over or they are still available for sale.
On such occasions, constituents tell me that the onslaught of fireworks has had a profound effect not just on their quality of life but on their pets, which undergo trembling fits and become withdrawn and very frightened. It cannot really be prepared for, as it comes out of nowhere whenever someone has fireworks and thinks that they will have a bit of fun. Some people think it is great to set them off in the middle of the night up closes or in the shared entranceways to flats.
The situation in Scotland is nothing short of bizarre. The use of fireworks is a devolved matter, but the sale of fireworks is reserved, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) explained. It does not take a genius to work out that unless we tackle the sale of fireworks and who can get their hands on them, we have lost any meaningful influence over who uses them. As the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) pointed out, it is extremely difficult to police.
I know that on a local level, environmental health and perhaps even antisocial behaviour teams can and do work hard to tackle the misuse of fireworks in our communities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) pointed out, but that seems to be dealing with the consequences of the wide availability of fireworks, when what we need is to tackle the fear, alarm, distress, fire risks and safety hazards that fireworks cause. We need to tackle the real issue of the sale of fireworks to individuals; we need to tackle the problem at source.
As I have mentioned, the time restrictions for fireworks are regulated by law. They cannot be set off between 11 pm and 7 am, with a few exceptions for special occasions such as the new year and so on. However, that does not go far enough. A particular type of individual who wishes to buy fireworks to cause fear and alarm, and to have a bit of fun because they find it entertaining to cause destruction to their neighbourhood or use them as weapons of choice, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central and the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) pointed out, will set off those fireworks whenever and wherever they choose.
Restrictions on when fireworks can be set off afford no comfort to communities plagued by them. The fact is that the regulations cannot be enforced, as has been said repeatedly in this debate. Once they are on sale to any individual over 18, all control is lost over irresponsible behaviour, which is sadly all too common in some of our neighbourhoods. The hon. Member for Clwyd South suggested a consultation on where to go in terms of the sale of and restrictions on fireworks. That is a good idea, but any consultation on the issue cannot be used as an excuse to kick it into the long grass. It needs action.
I know that fireworks cannot currently be sold to anyone under 18, but so what? We know that children are able to get hold of them, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central pointed out. We also know that often, those using fireworks irresponsibly are perfectly entitled to buy them under the law as it currently stands. The irresponsible use of fireworks is not confined to those who get hold of them illegally. That is why more needs to be done to protect communities, the elderly, pets and a range of people in our communities, as we have heard today from a host of elected representatives who have been contacted repeatedly over the years by constituents whose lives are made a misery for several months of the year.
The current situation is not working and is not sustainable for the health, wellbeing and safety of our neighbourhoods. We can all look back nostalgically, as many Members have done in this debate, to bonfire nights when we were growing up, but that cuts absolutely no ice with communities that currently and regularly must tolerate the awfulness of misuse of fireworks for several months of the year.
As my hon. Friend the. Member for Edinburgh East pointed out, the problem appears to be growing. The only sensible solution is to tackle it at source: fireworks should be sold only for licensed, organised public displays that are well advertised in advance and that take place within a publicised time span. That would allow people who wish to enjoy fireworks to do so safely and, importantly, it would also allow local residents to plan ahead and make arrangements to protect their pets.
The Dogs Trust says that where public displays are organised, 93% of pet owners—a high figure—alter their plans during the display time to minimise their pet’s trauma, which protects pets’ welfare. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), who spoke about helping pet owners to prepare for the use of fireworks in their neighbourhoods, but that is not often possible because fireworks go off randomly with no warning.
I agree with the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) that if we ban the sale of fireworks to all and sundry over 18 years old, organised public firework displays—a much safer option for all our communities —will become the accepted norm. There is a consensus across the Chamber that it is time to ban the free sale of fireworks except for public licensed displays. That would mean that we could still enjoy fireworks in our communities at new year and at celebrations such as weddings, but that they would be out of the hands of those who, by accident or design, put the fear of God into our communities, shake our children and whole families awake in their beds, alarm older people, cause real suffering to our pets and even cause injury.
We need to get the balance right. No one is asking for fireworks to be banned altogether, but I urge the Minister to consider banning them from being sold freely so that we can all be sure that they will be used sensibly, safely and responsibly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on her eloquent and balanced introduction to this important debate.
We, too, should approach the debate in a balanced way. I sympathise with the backers of the campaign in that I recognise the stress and anxiety that fireworks can cause to vulnerable people, including children and people with certain mental health issues, and to pets and livestock. There is a particular issue for animals because of the unannounced nature of fireworks, which can leave animals vulnerable. Dogs often stop eating or self-harm to avoid the perceived threat of the noise.
I also recognise that most fireworks are used responsibly and provide great enjoyment for many people. Fireworks at special festive events such as Diwali, Chinese new year and new year’s eve are seen as a crucial part of cultural celebrations.
As other hon. Members have noted, the legislation is 13 years old. It is important to have this debate and see if the legislation is up to date and fit for purpose. Strict rules about the quality, quantity and sale of fireworks are relevant to this debate, such as the Fireworks Regulations 2004 as amended by the Fireworks (Amendment) Regulations 2004, which were designed to tackle the anti- social use of fireworks.
Since January 2005, the sale of fireworks to the public has been prohibited, except by licensed traders. However, fireworks can be sold by unlicensed traders for Chinese new year and on the preceding three days, for Diwali and on the preceding three days, for bonfire night celebrations between 15 October and 10 November, and for new year celebrations between 26 and 31 December. That period around bonfire night is rather long. Will the Minister consult on that and whether it should be reduced?
Under the 2004 regulations, it is an offence to use fireworks after 11 pm and before 7 am without permission, except on permitted fireworks nights when the times are extended. The regulations allow fireworks to be used by a person employed by a local authority to put on a display that the local authority has permitted, or for a national public celebration.
Other relevant legislation includes the Explosives Regulations 2014, which relate to the storage of fireworks; the Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2015, which deal with the safety of fireworks as a consumer product; the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which makes it an offence to cause suffering to animals; the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which gives local authorities the power to investigate a complaint about excessive noise and to take necessary action; and the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which tackles noise coming from homes or gardens between 11 pm and 7 am.
On the whole, I am satisfied that there is a significant amount of regulation around fireworks, and that for the large part, people buy and use fireworks responsibly. However, I wish to press the Minister on a couple of issues. First, local trading standards bodies tend to enforce the laws surrounding fireworks, but deep Government cuts to local authority budgets have reduced their staffing by up to 56% since 2009, according to National Audit Office figures published in 2016. In this case, and in other areas of consumer protection, it is difficult to imagine that their reduced resource capacity is not having a direct effect on their ability to properly enforce the laws already in place. I ask the Minister how his Department can ensure that trading standards bodies are sufficiently resourced.
Secondly, much of the law, particularly around the quality of fireworks, derives from European directives. Much of the consumer protection framework comes from the EU and we rely on EU bodies for many enforcement mechanisms, including, crucially, cross-border consumer protections. Following the UK’s exit from the EU, what enforcement mechanisms will be in place to ensure that UK consumers can be confident that they are buying safe goods?
Although we do not support a change in the law at this time, I agree that the Government should gather statistics on the sale and use of fireworks, and on complaints made about their public use, so that we can better understand whether more needs to be done to restrict fireworks in future. The statistics are not centrally gathered, but it is important to ensure that we have that data about the use of fireworks so that we are better informed. It would also be useful for people working in trading standards, the police, and enforcement. Does the Minister recognise the importance of centrally monitoring that data?
We know one set of statistics, however. In 2016-17, hospital admissions due to the discharge of fireworks were at their highest since 2006, with 184 recorded instances. Since we do not have the data on the sale of fireworks, we cannot make a direct assumption, but there may be a link between firework sales and the reduction in enforcement capability.
One way to mitigate the disturbance of fireworks is through communication, which could encourage people who wish to use fireworks to make their neighbours aware well in advance to give them time to prepare for any disturbance. Equally, fireworks exceeding 120 dB should not be sold to consumers. Many consumers may not know that low-noise fireworks are available, and perhaps there should be greater encouragement of the use of such fireworks.
Animal charities such as Blue Cross already produce information on animals and fireworks, with advice on the best ways of reducing stress for animals when fireworks are set off. The RSPCA and the Kennel Club also do a great deal of work to communicate how best to reduce the impact of fireworks on animals.
Has the Minister considered bringing together concerned groups and charities for a public awareness campaign to raise awareness about the danger of fireworks and ways of dealing with them, in particular at times of steep use such as on new year’s eve or during other festivals? Greater communication is important to allow those who enjoy fireworks to do so responsibly. It would also give greater assurance to those who are concerned about the impact of fireworks on the vulnerable.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. This is my first opportunity to respond to a Westminster Hall debate, so I trust that you will be gentle with me.
I pay warm tribute to the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), not only for introducing the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee, but for her interesting and well-rounded perspective. I commend her for her thoughtful and at times humorous speech. I also pay tribute to all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate—I think I counted 25 in the Chamber. We have heard a huge number of interesting and well-informed speeches. That is not a rarity, but it shows the great level of interest in the issues, and the work that hon. Members have put into understanding them on behalf of their constituents. As Minister responsible for consumer protection, I understand the effort that has gone in, and I put great weight on the speeches that have been made.
We have heard today not only from the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick)—a former firefighter who has been decorated with the Fire Brigade Long Service and Good Conduct Medal and who now serves as secretary of the all-party fire safety rescue group—but from my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), a firefighter with some 31 years’ service who ended his career as deputy commander of Strathclyde fire and rescue service. As my dad would have said, you can’t teach your granny to suck eggs. It is not the first time that I have sat in a debate thinking, “There are people here who know a lot more about this than I do,” but that is guaranteed to be true today.
I thank the huge number of people who have signed the petition and made the debate possible, particularly the Firework Abatement campaign. A lot of people get petitions together and try to raise issues, but it is clear that Firework Abatement has done a lot of groundwork to understand the issue. It speaks not only for the more than 111,000 signatories of the petition, but for many of our constituents. With my three weeks’ experience as a Minister, I can tell the House that a huge number of my letters have been about fireworks, so it is clearly an issue that concerns constituents. This is our second petitions debate on it in recent years; the first, in June 2016, focused more specifically on the impact on pets and animals, which I shall address later.
Hon. Members have made some compelling speeches. No one could fail to be moved by the tragic stories we have heard. The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) described somebody seeing their house destroyed as a result of fireworks. We have heard some really distressing and disturbing anecdotes about animals, including pets, horses, cows and other livestock, suffering not just distress but death from the misuse of fireworks. Of course, we also heard about Flo from my right hon. Friend—sorry, my hon. Friend, but it is just a matter of time—the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes). He made the case for pets in his constituency with his usual passion and aplomb, and I am sure that many pet lovers will be pleased that he is raising their concerns in this place.
I recognise the effects that fireworks can have—the pleasure that they give to many of our constituents, but also their negative impact on many people, including those who are vulnerable or have pets or livestock. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) said a number of times that many fireworks are used responsibly. That is true: there are many examples of law-abiding people who use their fireworks safely, responsibly and in a caring and considerate manner towards their neighbours. However, as we have heard, there are others who do not use them in that way, and they are the people with whom we are concerned.
It is for the Government to ensure that we have a system that allows for the enjoyment of fireworks but protects those who might be harmed or inconvenienced, including the young, the elderly and those with mental health issues. As a former trustee of a service charity for veterans in the criminal justice system, I understand the impact that post-traumatic stress can have on veterans. Fireworks also have an effect on wildlife and livestock, as we have heard.
The Government’s aim is to ensure that people who enjoy fireworks can do so safely, but that we minimise the risks, noise and distress that can be an unwelcome by-product of their use. Even in this debate, in which the same concerns have been raised consistently in almost every speech, there has been a difference of opinion about how we should tackle the issue. Some advocate an outright ban, some want a consultation and some want tighter legislation. It is for the Government to consider all those arguments in the round, form an opinion and ensure that the legislation meets those challenges.
I will not go into great detail on the laws that govern the sale and regulation of fireworks, because other hon. Members have already outlined them. The controls on supply, sale and use reflect the level of risk posed by the four different categories of firework. Those controls include a curfew on their use; restrictions on when they can go on general sale; restrictions on their sale to minors; and noise limits and penalties for their misuse. The controls restrict the general availability of fireworks for public sale to certain times of the year, such as bonfire night, new year’s eve, Diwali and Chinese new year. Outside those traditional periods, retailers who wish to sell fireworks must obtain a licence from their local licensing authority. It is worth noting that local authorities have the power to restrict such licences if they so wish. A local authority can refuse to issue a licence for the sale of fireworks outside seasonal celebrations, so hon. Members who have concerns about such sales may wish to raise them with their local authority.
Another way in which the current system seeks to lessen the distressing impact on vulnerable groups is by controlling the times at which fireworks can be used. As we have heard, there is a strict curfew of 11 pm, with exceptions for bonfire night, new year and Diwali.
My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mrs Badenoch) raised Collecchio, the Italian town that has banned noisy fireworks. In the UK, there is already a limit on the noise levels of fireworks that can be bought for general sale. That is, as has been said, 120 dB. However, I think there is a disagreement in this House about whether 120 dB is a jumbo jet, a chainsaw, a rock band starting up or a number of other very noisy things. Also, quieter fireworks are increasingly being developed by manufacturers, and they are increasingly available from retailers, so that consumers can have more choice and a better chance of acquiring lower-noise fireworks, to help them to avoid disturbing their neighbours.
Earlier, we touched on the issue of education, which is important, both for fireworks users and for pet or livestock owners. They are not the outright solution but there are things that pet owners can do to reduce the very real distress their pets can experience. There is excellent advice provided by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Kennel Club, intended to help owners to reduce their pets’ stress, and it can be found on those organisations’ websites.
There are a number of controls on the use and misuse of fireworks. Antisocial behaviour, such as the throwing of fireworks, is covered by the Explosives Act 1875, which prohibits fireworks from being thrown in or on to public places. Some hon. Members asked whether the powers that I am drawing attention to actually work. Earlier this year, a man in Kirkwall was sentenced to six months in prison after admitting setting off fireworks in a culpable and reckless manner in the town centre. So these powers are available and they are used.
There are a number of agencies that have responsibility for enforcing those rules, including the police, trading standards, and the Health and Safety Executive. Of course, any injury caused by fireworks can be a tragedy, but thankfully the number of people admitted to hospital because of fireworks is quite stable. I think that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough said that fireworks accidents are on the rise, but my statistics show that the number of people admitted to hospital with firework injuries remains at a stable and relatively low level. NHS statistics show that the total number of people admitted to hospital because of firework injuries remained below 200 a year from 2007-08 to 2016-17. Of course, that is still too many injuries, and we want to do more to bring that number down, but the figures are relatively stable. The number of accident and emergency attendances in England in 2016-17 due to “firework injury” was 5,340. Again, that has remained pretty stable as a proportion of all A&E attendances between 2013-14 and 2016-17.
The safety of UK consumers is our highest priority, and we recognise the particular impact that fireworks can have. We believe that, at the moment, we have a balance between people’s concerns about fireworks, and the legitimate interests of those who wish to enjoy celebrating with fireworks and of those employed in the firework industry. However, we recognise that more can and must be done.
I will share with hon. Members here today the news that one of the first things I did when I became the Minister with responsibility for consumer protection was to announce on 21 January the creation of the Office for Product Safety and Standards. This is a new body that will receive some £12 million a year in central Government funding to ensure that we have access to information nationally and to support local authorities in their work. The new office will work with key stakeholders and enforcing authorities to review the guidance materials available on the safe and responsible use of fireworks. It will also provide an intelligence-handling function to improve the information we have. It will also examine the individual safety of particular fireworks and of other products on sale.
There was some suggestion about cuts in relation to trading standards bodies. I will just draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy gives some £15 million a year to local authorities to support the work they do through trading standards, but in addition we will have this new £12 million-a-year body to provide extra resource to local authorities.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. I hope that he will forgive me if I was perhaps a little disappointed when, after 13 minutes of his speech, I thought that he was announcing no change, but then he came out with the reminder that he has set up this new body. Will he facilitate a meeting between interested parliamentary colleagues and the senior officials now staffing this new body, so that we can have a face-to-face discussion with them about the concerns that exist across the country about fireworks?
I absolutely commit to doing that. As I said, the new body was announced just a few days ago. We have to recruit people to staff it properly and move it forward, but I would be very happy to make that commitment and to attend that meeting as well.
A number of colleagues raised the issue of collecting data on the misuse of fireworks. Clearly, this new body will look at evidence-based policy making, so it will look at the evidence, chase down and identify where the risks are, and—where necessary—come forward with suggestions and advice to Government.
Can the Minister assure me and many other Members in the Chamber today that this new body will consider the fact that, as long as fireworks are pretty freely available to anybody over the age of 18, and despite the powers and the enforcing authorities that he has said will take action against the irresponsible misuse of fireworks, prosecutions will be extremely difficult, because of the nature of the crime? As we have heard today, quite literally the evidence goes up in smoke, people scatter and there is no evidence left to prosecute anybody. Is that something that the new body he is talking about will examine?
I am delighted to say to the hon. Lady that the new body will have the power to make recommendations to Government, so if it believes there are issues in relation to the sale and regulation of a particular item—be that a tumble dryer or a firework—it will have that power to make recommendations about those issues to Government, and it will be for Ministers to respond to such recommendations.
I will just add something in relation to the collection of information concerning antisocial behaviour. Of course, collection of such data would be a decision for the Home Office to make. I am sure that Ministers within the Home Office will look at this debate; I will make sure that the concerns that right hon. and hon. Members have expressed today are drawn to their attention. Clearly, however, it is a decision for the Home Office as to which data it chooses to collect or not collect.
In closing, I again thank everybody who has taken part in this debate today. Clearly, the safety of our constituents remains at the forefront of all our minds, and as the Minister with responsibility for consumer protection, I am absolutely clear that we have to do all we can to protect our constituents, who are the people we are here to represent. I look forward to working with colleagues on this issue in the future, and I thank you, Mr Hanson, for your time.
We have had a very good and thorough debate, and it is not every day that one gets a Minister making their debut here in Westminster Hall. We will make it especially memorable for him, because we will hold him to account on what he has said about that new body. More action needs to be taken; that is undoubtedly true and has been said by Members from right across the political spectrum.
We also need proper statistics. The talk about “evidence-based” stuff is fantastic, but that has got to mean proper, concrete statistics. There should be a public consultation; we need people’s views out in the open.
Finally, I put on record again my thanks to the creators of the petition, everyone who signed it and everyone in our constituencies, right across the country, who cares as passionately as we do about this very important issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 201947 relating to fireworks.