§ Order for Second Reading read.9.33 am
§ Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Before I outline the main problems with fireworks and how the Bill would respond to them, I pay tribute to those who have tried to respond to public concerns over the past decade and change the way in which we deal with fireworks. The last successful private Member's Bill on fireworks was in the 1963–64 Session, so I approach this Bill with trepidation. The fireworks debate has obviously moved on at a considerable pace since then. In response to public concern, a statutory instrument was laid before the House in 1997 under provisions of the Consumer Protection Act 1987, but the Act's narrow scope limits what we can deliver on changes to fireworks legislation. The Bill would provide the opportunity for regulation to be laid before the House.
The fireworks issue has become more important for the general public over the past few years. Many hon. Members have responded in different ways and many of them wanted to sponsor the Bill. I am grateful for the cross-party sponsors and apologise to those who were unable to add their names to the list because of the limited number of Members who can sponsor a Bill. The number of hon. Members in the Chamber demonstrates the public interest in the Bill and the concerns that our constituents have expressed over many years. I have received hundreds of e-mails and letters. Yesterday, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association successfully lobbied and spoke to many hon. Members.
§ Mr. Tynan
When I have made some progress.
476 There is wide interest in the issue in the UK. Some 300,000 signatures have been delivered to No. 10 over the past six months, and four petitions on fireworks were presented this week. When I decided to pursue a Bill on fireworks, I had the benefit of the experience of the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), which, unfortunately, failed. She was lucky, however, in that there was no discussion on Second Reading and only one hour was spent on it in Committee. It was only when it was in the House of Lords that concern was expressed about its width and scope. The Lords Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform concluded that it did not "inappropriately delegate legislative power". Having examined that Bill and discussed the way forward, I felt that we needed to be as inclusive as possible.
I met various organisations, including the fireworks task group of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I corresponded with and consulted other groups that had expressed tremendous support, such as the TUC, the British Medical Association, the National Farmers Union, the Windermere campaign for fireworks control, the main groups representing trading standards officers and the national campaign for fireworks safety. If I have inadvertently left out an organisation or individual, it is because the consultation was so wide-ranging. Many groups in a large number of local authorities also offered their support. Yesterday, we were lobbied by people from Salford, who said that they support the Bill. I must also thank the all-party parliamentary group on fireworks for its guidance, help and support over the past few months.
Starting from day one, I announced my intention that my Fireworks Bill would be as consensual as possible. I met representatives of the British Fireworks Association, the British Pyrotechnists Association and the explosives industry group of the CBI to discuss issues, exchange information and learn about the industry to reach, if possible, a consensus on the Bill's content. The assistance, support and advice from everyone has been extremely gratifying. I listened intently on the last Friday that a private Member's Bill was discussed and heard the clear message that such Bills should be simple and brief. This Bill is neither simple nor brief, but hon. Members and the general public demand it.
The COSLA fireworks task group published an excellent report last October. It is the most comprehensive report on fireworks in the past 25 years. I pay tribute to how well informed, wide-ranging and meaningful the recommendations are that emanated from six months of consultation and inquiry, involving all interested parties. I am proud to base many of my proposals and my speech on the evidence collected by the task group and the suggestions that it made.
The COSLA fireworks task group was established in 2001. Many local authorities throughout Scotland received unprecedented complaints about fireworks that 477 covered a diverse range of issues, from general antisocial behaviour to cruelty, abuse of animals and, most commonly, noise.
§ Michael Fabricant
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He talks about the general nuisance caused by fireworks, and he is absolutely correct. He mentioned guide dogs for the blind. Is he aware of the permanent trauma that fireworks inflict on them, which costs between £150,000 and £200,000 a year of public money donated to the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association? More to the point, that means that some six blind people—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Tynan
If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I shall come on to the problems caused to guide dogs.
Many people have complained to councils that fireworks are getting louder and more intimidating, and that their use is becoming increasingly antisocial. The remit of the task group was to identify the changes needed to the legislative framework governing the sale and use of fireworks, to consider and to recommend the means by which the changes could be secured, and to consider recommendations through which public concerns could be addressed. It began by examining the current legislative position on storage of fireworks, their sale and supply, and their use and abuse—issues on which I shall expand later. It considered noise issues, the legal definition of fireworks, the different categories under British standard 7114—including indoor, garden, display and professional—and the injury statistics associated with firework misuse.
The task group examined the case for change from a number of viewpoints. All 22 Scottish local authorities that responded favour tighter controls; indeed, six favoured an outright consumer ban. The Association of Chief Police Officers was of the opinion that fireworks misuse has escalated significantly, resulting in its becoming a serious community problem that causes considerable annoyance to the general public and affects the quality of life in local communities. The Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association expressed concern about the increasing misuse of fireworks, and about the need to strengthen the current system; indeed, it has offered its support for this Bill. The society of chief officers of trading standards voiced particular concerns about the problems of storage and supply. The SSPCA reported that 90 per cent. of vets who responded to its survey had treated animals for injuries resulting from the misuse of fireworks.
Public opinion submissions from community groups and voluntary organisations demonstrated the serious nature of many of the incidents, including arson, physical attack and the abuse of the most vulnerable. The task group also met many of the industry 478 representatives whom I have met, such as Martin Guest of Black Cat Fireworks, who was particularly concerned about the illegal importing of fireworks.
The task group then looked at the current legislative framework and the Explosives Act 1875 in particular. The storage of fireworks is covered by that Act, which, with input from the explosives industry group, is being reviewed by the Health and Safety Executive. It will consider the storage of larger quantities under the terms of the manufacturing storage explosives regulation. A report is due in 2004. As I shall explain, storage of quantities of less than 1 tonne of fireworks is currently inadequate, so this is a sensible moment to introduce the Bill, and to work alongside the changes planned under the manufacturing storage explosives regulation. The report looked at the voluntary code, and it is just that: a voluntary agreement between the Department of Trade and Industry and the fireworks industry on how certain fireworks are sold. The agreement reached in the autumn on a ban on air bombs is to be welcomed, but it is just not working. In addition to differences of interpretation about the sales period, it is not possible to enforce the code. Indeed, the main industry groups have been advised that attempting to enforce the code on their members and on those who supply could be interpreted as uncompetitive conduct by the Office of Fair Trading.
Soon after the air bomb ban was unveiled, internet messages from firework forums noted that the agreement was only voluntary, and that a business opportunity had therefore been created for the irresponsible. In the light of this, and having considered all the options, the COSLA report came down firmly in favour of the need for new firework regulations.
Having touched on some of the problems relating to fireworks, I should like to discuss some of them at greater length. The first problem is licensing and storage. For a payment of some £13, an annual licence to permit storage of quantities of fireworks suitable for sale can be obtained. Local authorities or fire authorities in metropolitan areas cannot refuse to grant a licence, and have no powers to revoke one. Although selling illegal fireworks, selling fireworks to minors, or engaging in improper storage or sales practices may be offences in themselves, they cannot lead to a licence being revoked.
The second problem is noise and nuisance. There is a general perception that fireworks are getting louder, and that they are now being used year-round and later at night. Fireworks have become a part of weddings and birthdays, and I have even seen them advertised for Valentine's day. I did not buy any, by the way. A European standard of 120 dB has been proposed, and is being considered. The recent report from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, entitled "Quiet Please", has argued for lower noise levels.
In discussing this issue, I am conscious of the need to consult all interested parties, which I hope might lead to agreement on appropriate noise levels for fireworks. There is also increasing concern about the use of fireworks by those engaged in the wider problem of antisocial behaviour. The use of fireworks to destroy bins and post boxes, and in attacks on cars, has been reported in my constituency.
479 The third problem is injuries to humans and to animals. Statistics show that the 1997 regulations and the emergency regulations that preceded them arrested the steady increase in firework injuries, but in the past five years the figures have been increasing rapidly. It should of course be noted that the figures apply only to the four-week period around 5 November, and as such the injuries caused by increased, year-round use—including the death that occurred in 2001–02 new-year period—are not included.
There has been increasing focus on the injuries caused to animals. Animal charities have reported deliberate attacks on domestic and farm animals.
§ Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his success in the private Member's Bill ballot, and on introducing such a worthwhile Bill, which most people in the UK will undoubtedly want to see on the statute book as soon as possible. Will he clarify whether it will give the police and the courts the power to deal with unscrupulous shopkeepers who indiscriminately sell fireworks to young people for a profit, in the knowledge that they will cause misery to many people and animals, and to society as a whole?
§ Linda Perham (Ilford, North)
The London training centre for the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association is in my constituency. As my hon. Friend said, that organisation is very concerned about the waste of expensive training, as well as the stress imposed on animals. He will doubtless confirm that the Bill will give better protection to animals than that provided under the Protection of Animals Act 1911.
§ Mr. Tynan
I can only agree with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend.
The National Farmers Union and the British Horse Society have logged incidents for a number of years, and both the Blue Cross and the SSPCA have campaigned on the issue of animal protection. Each year, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, with which I have worked closely in the past few months, has to retire as many as four dogs, and provide additional training for up to another 150, at a cost of £27,000 per dog. If we were to target only that issue, the Bill would still prove extremely worth while.
§ Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)
I should tell my hon. Friend that the blind people from my constituency who visited Parliament yesterday, with their guide dogs, are extremely grateful to him for introducing this Bill, and they expect the House to ensure that it has a speedy passage.
§ Mr. Tynan
When my hon. Friend goes back to his constituency, he will have the comfort of knowing that the Bill has been supported by all sections of the House.
A final area of concern is importation. Only one company—Kimbolton Fireworks—manufactures fireworks in the UK. I have visited it to see the process for 480 myself and to discuss these issues with the son of the owner. I spent a considerable time there. I am told that about 1,000 containers of fireworks are imported to the UK annually, mainly from the far east, of which the majority go to legitimate UK fireworks companies, where they are stored on premises licensed by the Health and Safety Executive. The industry estimates, however, that up to 13 per cent. of fireworks that come into this country are not stored in HSE-licensed premises. Containers can sometimes be driven to a lay-by—or who knows where?—where the contents are divided for distribution by rogue retailers. Companies that transport fireworks to safe and secure premises licensed and inspected by the HSE are required to have marked vehicles that are driven by trained drivers. Those who flout the law, although needing import licences, can remove containers from the port without having to confirm that they are being transported in the correct manner to licensed storage.
§ John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)
Does that mean that, if someone drives up to a dock in a white van, loads it up with £25,000 of fireworks, drives it to the House of Commons, parks it and then lights the blue touch paper, the only time that he breaks the law is when he lights the blue touch paper?
§ Mr. Tynan
My hon. Friend has read my speech.
The industry has serious concerns about the importation of fireworks to this country. It is acknowledged that HSE-licensed premises are not a problem. However, I decided to test the Department of Trade and Industry—and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is not surprised by that. I asked a friend to write an application from a private house on a sheet of A4. He sent away the form and the reply asked him to convert his figure of £25,000 to euros. He did so. He was then asked to say where the fireworks were coming in. "Felixstowe", he said. He was told that he would have to give the date. He then asked, "I haven't got the date, but can I not have the licence?" He was told that there was no problem with getting the licence but that he would have to give the date. It is therefore obvious that anyone can make an application. There are no checks that the fireworks will go to licensed premises. We have to address that in this Bill.
When preparing for this Second Reading, I wrote to the Serjeant at Arms to ask about the possibility of bringing fireworks into the House of Commons. I was told that I would need a responsible person. [Laughter.] I was told that I would need to carry the fireworks in a closed steel container and that I would have to have a police escort while they were on the premises. That demonstrates the level of security in the House of Commons, but it also highlights the converse situation with the importation of fireworks to the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) is right. Any organisation that fills in an import licence application can find itself with a container of fireworks that it can drive wherever it wishes. That has to be tightened up.
§ Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)
There is great concern about the storage of fireworks. Mine is one of the few constituencies that has a licence for explosives, but that does not cover fireworks. Many hon. Members will have 481 seen huge car boot sales in their constituencies at which huge amounts of fireworks can be sold without containers. Will the Bill outlaw such sales?
§ Mr. Tynan
It is essential that we are able to track the supply of fireworks to this country and within this country. If we do not do that, we will end up in the situation that my hon. Friend describes. Fireworks can be sold in pubs, clubs, car boot sales or wherever. We have to deal with rogue retailers, and the way to do that is through this Bill. I expect my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to implement appropriate measures.
§ Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)
Liberal Democrats also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the Bill. We also thank the Home Secretary for being in the Chamber for the first discussions on the Bill, showing how seriously it is being taken.
The hon. Gentleman has spoken about importation. There have been increased sales of fireworks from the far east via the internet for private use. Will the Bill deal with that issue, about which activists in my constituency—including Mrs. Marjorie Johnston, who has led the campaign—are concerned?
§ Mr. Tynan
The Bill makes it clear that consultation is necessary on a range of issues. When that consultation takes place, people will have the opportunity to have an input.
I have clear expectations of the firework regulations that this Bill will introduce. I foresee a new regime whereby we respect fireworks as the explosives that they are but acknowledge their legitimate use. Powers would be granted to allow firework regulations to be made in a range of areas—such as the life of fireworks, import, storage, sale and use.
§ Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing a Bill that is long overdue to say the least. Later in his speech, will he touch on the problem of enforcement?
§ Mr. Tynan
I hope that, as I go through the Bill, my hon. Friend will be reassured on that point.
The aim of the Bill is to provide an effective and comprehensive solution. Now that I have outlined the problems that the Bill seeks to address, I hope that hon. Members will have some concept of its aims. I hope that this is not presumptuous, but I do not propose to detain the House with an extended clause-by-clause analysis of the Bill. I trust that that can wait until another day.
§ Mr. Swayne
The hon. Gentleman was right the first time.
482 I am entirely sympathetic to his objectives but, given the extensive regulatory powers that he seeks to give Ministers, what can he say to reassure me about the survival of the firework party held by law-abiding citizens who seek to entertain their children in their back garden?
§ Mr. Tynan
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which was very helpful. I think that I can reassure him. The Bill is similar to the Bill that went through the House of Lords in 1997–98. At that time, reassurance was sought on the width and scope of the Bill. That convinced the House of Lords to send the Bill back, unamended, to the House of Commons. My Bill will seek to allow the participation of people such as the hon. Gentleman who wish to let off fireworks for their grandchildren—I am sorry, for their children.[Laughter.] I am sure that he will be delighted to be able to do so.
Clause 1 establishes the definition of fireworks. I do not intend that the Bill should extend to items such as pyrotechnic bird-scarers, small explosive charges for car airbags, amateur rocket motors or marine distress flares. I have been asked to give assurances to groups that use such devices. They are not currently classed as fireworks, and that will continue.
Clause 2 grants powers to enable firework regulations to be made, and outlines the grounds on which they can be made. Included are protections for humans, animals and property, and a requirement to consult interested and relevant groups before making regulations. However, the scope for making emergency provisions—as happened in 1996—continues to be included.
Clause 3 would ban sales to minors. The intention is that the current minimum age of 18 should be retained. Clause 4 would limit the times at which fireworks can be sold or used. There is scope to allow exceptions, such as a post-11 pm use at new year. The clause would introduce a year-round curfew of 11 pm.
§ Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing the Bill before us. It is long overdue. One reason for that is that the industry ignores its own code of conduct. Companies such as R.S. McColl sell fireworks 365 days a year and will continue to do so. Will my hon. Friend's Bill prevent that?
§ Mr. Tynan
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have held extensive consultations with the fireworks industry. The industry is receptive and supports the Bill. It recognises that there is a problem and wants the Bill to address it. I think that my hon. Friend will be content with the provisions and with the discussions that will have to take place before it is implemented.
§ Vernon Coaker (Gedling)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the Bill. It is most welcome and many of us hope that it will be passed quickly. Has my hon. Friend spoken to the police, the local authorities and trading standards officers about the proposed regulations? My constituents complain that existing regulations are not enforced, so we need to ensure that the police, trading standards officers and council officials realise the 483 importance of enforcing regulations introduced under the Bill, and that people selling fireworks to children or letting off fireworks in the street are prosecuted.
§ Mr. Tynan
I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. The professional bodies of the UK fire service and of chief constables all support the Bill. They recognise the need for regulation.
Clause 4 would specify the hours of day when fireworks may be used. Clause 5 would restrict the sale of certain categories of firework to people who are trained, experienced and insured as appropriate. Existing British standards categories would be retained.
§ Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)
I offer my hon. Friend congratulations from my constituents and from the police in Bristol, who have experience of category 3 large display fireworks being used as hand-held weapons. When the provisions are considered in detail, will he take into account experience in Bristol, and also in Northern Ireland, where the law was changed?
§ Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)
One of the valuable points about clauses 4 and 5 is that they deal with possession. At present, there are enforcement problems. The police have power to prosecute people who throw those things in public streets but they cannot catch them. The Bill includes regulations on possession that will definitely allow enforcement—at least in England—especially coupled with the valuable penalty and notice system.
§ Mr. Tynan
My hon. and learned Friend is correct.
Clause 6 would introduce conditions on matters such as training, insurance, consultation with people nearby and local authority permission for public firework displays. Those holding displays would be expected to take reasonable steps to ensure that certain standards were adhered to in respect of training and insurance, and that the impact of displays on people or animals nearby was curtailed or minimised.
§ Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way once more. Can he assure me that the Bill will do something about the irresponsible behaviour of far too many retailers? Is he aware that a survey conducted by Edinburgh city council found that retailers in more than half the premises visited were willing to sell fireworks to children who were clearly under age, even though the council had sent out a letter warning retailers that it was about to carry out that survey? Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Bill is successful the Government should use their powers to ensure that such practices do not continue?
§ Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on presenting the Bill. My constituent 484 Mrs. Marlene Healey has collected a petition of 9,000 signatures; one in eight of my constituents are calling for the types of change in the law proposed in the Bill.
Does my hon. Friend agree that even at private parties fireworks can maim and kill? Can he assure the House that the restrictions on sales to which he refers will ensure that fireworks that can maim and kill children and young people will not be available for use at private parties?
§ Mr. Tynan
I have been accused by some individuals—although very few—of being a killjoy. I want to make it clear that I want the Bill to promote opportunities for the responsible and safe use of fireworks. It is essential that we do not introduce a ban when there is no public demand for one. The Bill will help to ensure the responsible use of fireworks. It is important that people organising private parties understand the dangers of fireworks, and I hope that the annual safety campaigns will continue to stress how dangerous those explosives can be.
§ Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)
On behalf of my constituents, I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward the Bill.
Does my hon. Friend agree that retailers who advertise, as they did in Chatham, "Free Fireworks" are extremely irresponsible? Can my hon. Friend confirm that at private parties, especially weddings, people will be able to obtain a licence without too much difficulty and bureaucracy, as long as they provide proper safeguards? My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) may be interested in that point as he is getting married in a couple of weeks' time.
§ Mr. Tynan
Clause 7 would strengthen the existing system for licensing retailers. A two-tier system would be introduced, with tougher licensing and a lower tier that allowed retailers to sell fireworks for a limited three-week period around 5 November and for a short period before the new year. I recognise that, in addition to properly run displays for births, marriages and Valentine's day, there is a more than legitimate demand for fireworks for Diwali, Eid and the Chinese new year. I have held discussions with relevant communities and groups as to how we could deal with the sale of fireworks outside the defined periods.
§ Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)
My hon. Friend has just come to the point that I wanted to put to him. I represent a diverse constituency, with people from many ethnic minority backgrounds. There is concern that the Bill might prevent legitimate celebrations, starting in the autumn with Diwali and running through to Chinese new year in the winter. Can my hon. Friend assure me that, while his Bill would rightly control the misuse of fireworks, it would not prevent legitimate family celebrations for those important events in the diverse communities of my constituency?
§ Mr. Tynan
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I checked on when Diwali takes place; it is normally within the three-week period before 5 November. I spoke to the Chinese embassy about Chinese new year, as I wanted to make sure that I could 485 answer questions such as those put by my hon. Friend, and I was told that fireworks are not used at the celebrations but that crackers are used.
Under the Bill, fireworks would be available throughout the year, but only with a higher tier licence. There would be higher costs, and stricter standards of training and record keeping would apply. It has been pointed out that if we allowed the sale of fireworks only for a three-week period, people would buy them and store them for months. I want to avoid that. We could have a situation in which people from the different cultures existing in this country felt that they were being discriminated against. I want to avoid that.
§ Bob Spink (Castle Point)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his Bill, and I support him. On his point about training, I note that one aspect of his Bill is to enforce stricter rules on the training of those who give professional displays. I want some comfort on that. We want more professional displays—we do not want to raise barriers to them—and I am not aware that there is a major problem with the safety of professional displays. I have never had a representation from a constituent about that. Will he assure me that he will not over-regulate in that area?
§ Mr. Tynan
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I have consulted widely, and the British Pyrotechnists Association is currently running a pilot scheme in four areas. It is looking at the training of operatives at licensed displays to make sure that two tiers apply to the people who operate and the people who manage. There is some merit in the manner in which they are setting up the training scheme, and consultation and discussion can take place to see whether it is a practical proposition for the future. I hope that that will satisfy the hon. Gentleman.
§ Jim Knight (South Dorset)
My hon. Friend is being exceedingly generous in allowing so many interventions. I applaud him for that and for introducing the Bill, which is being very well received in Dorset. Today, three Members have received some 8,000 representations from Dorset area residents. In response to the point about the killjoy element, is there not some local variation through local authorities regulating the licences that allows them to make judgments about traditional firework events in their area, and whether they will be carried out responsibly?
§ Mr. Tynan
I thank my hon. Friend for that. As I said, I think that I will get a rocket if I take any more interventions. Local authorities will have such an opportunity depending on conditions. A uniform position will apply in relation to the granting of a licence to deal with rogue sellers and those who currently abuse the voluntary code, which has not been enforced. I hope that that will content my hon. Friend.
Both tiers of retail licences could be refused or revoked, and the higher tier would apply to those selling via the internet or mail order. Clause 8 allows regulation to be made in respect of the information that must be 486 provided about fireworks. The intention is that that would relate to packaging and information provided with both individual fireworks and packs of fireworks.
§ Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)
I am not just supportive of the hon. Gentleman's Bill: I am highly supportive. I have a genuine question. He spoke about several things that he would like to happen as a result of the Bill, none of which is contained in the Bill, which is nothing but an enabling measure giving the Minister powers to introduce such regulations. Does he have assurances from the Minister that the things for which he asks will happen?
§ Mr. Tynan
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. It is important that I set out, after my consultations and discussions, the content that I believe should be included in the Bill. It is an enabling Bill, and it is essential that the Minister listen to the voice of Members and of the general public outside. Under the circumstances, I hope that that will be acceptable to the hon. Gentleman.
Clause 9 allows regulation to be made on the impact of the importation and manufacture of fireworks. The intention of that is that information will be provided to confirm that fireworks entering the UK have been transported to legal storage, and hence that action can be taken more swiftly if they have not. Clause 10 allows for and defines the nature of training courses referenced under the fireworks regulation. It is intended that, in consultation with the industry—as I said, I understand that the British Pyrotechnists Association has already studied this area—and other interested parties, appropriate training courses and standards would be established to cover those areas.
The remaining clauses are supplementary, covering penalties for committing an offence, a number of technical aspects, the financial provisions of the Bill, the means of firework regulations coming into law, and a number of other minor aspects. From my discussions with the industry and enforcement officers, I would not expect regulations made to have a significantly adverse effect on the business of legitimate parts of the fireworks industry, or to place too large a burden on trading standards, Customs, the Health and Safety Executive or the police.
In presenting the Bill to the House, I am aware that there are those who may be worried by the fact that this is an enabling Bill. I, too, have some concerns about some of the visions of draconian provisions being enacted using the scope of powers granted under the Bill. I am, however, reassured by the discussions that I have had in preparing the Bill. I believe that, with proper thought and scrutiny, the regulations made under it would not be an instrument of tyranny. This is not a killjoy Bill. As those with expertise have agreed, it is a sensible, considered response to the problems of fireworks misuse, unless it is denied that there is a problem and it is thus contended that the public are wrong to be alarmed about the nuisance of fireworks.
I trust that I will find agreement that action is needed. I would welcome comments and, as appropriate, amendments to the Bill—perhaps I should not say that—as it progresses through the House. I hope that those who may have a problem with the Bill will work to strengthen and improve it rather than dismiss it.
487 This Bill is a timely and comprehensive attempt to modernise how we deal with fireworks in the United Kingdom. I understand that some are concerned about any attempt to tighten the import, sale and use of any item. I trust, however, that they will agree with me, a large number of charities, local authorities, enforcement officers and the British fireworks industry itself—all those who know about fireworks—that the current situation is not acceptable, that we need to change it, and that the Bill provides the way forward. I commend the Bill to the House.
Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I make a plea to all Members that, since many of them wish to contribute, they should make their speeches concise.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
Last night, at about 20 minutes past 11—not 12 hours ago—there was a loud explosion of a firework of some description outside my bedroom window. It woke my daughter, aged three, who started screaming. She fell out of bed 20 minutes later, for which I will also blame the firework. Not 36 hours ago, on Wednesday evening, there was an explosion outside my front door followed by another series of explosions. It may have been the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) trying to make a point, but, instead, it brought home to me how apposite this Bill is. I am delighted to see it, and I congratulate him on his good fortune—I wish that I could win the lottery—and on his comprehensive speech in which he outlined the reasons why the Bill is being introduced.
We should not forget, however, the enormous pleasure that fireworks give, and have given for many years, to a huge number of our constituents. Just because they have not written to us about it does not mean that they do not enjoy fireworks. It is those who are badly affected who write to us. When I was a child, we would have a bonfire in our little back garden on the edge of London on 5 November only. If it was not in our back garden, it was in somebody else's. We used to eat a lot of sausages, and quite a lot of ash that had attached to them—
§ Mr. Robathan
I thank the hon. Lady for her submission that the hon. Gentleman lived in a penthouse. That is a typical example of Liberal double standards. I suspect that she will agree with me about that.
In back gardens around the country on 5 November, children gather and have an enjoyable bonfire night. As the hon. Member for Hamilton, South said, we do not wish to spoil their pleasure. I am old enough to remember that I was sent to the local toy shop with a letter from my mother telling the retailer that I was allowed to have some fireworks. Those were the regulations some 40 years ago. There seemed to be very 488 little trouble at the time, although the accident rate may have been worse. Those of us of my age need to realise, however, that the situation has now changed.
We have all received many letters, and know that the problem is growing and needs to addressed. Hence the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Hamilton, South.
For the benefit of doubt, the Bill is sponsored by two members of the Conservative Front Bench. I am sure that all the press releases issued by the phalanx of Labour Members in the Chamber will mention that.
§ Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East)
Members on both sides of the House are genuinely appreciative of the fact that the Conservative party supports the Bill. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we did not have to do it this way? If his right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—"Airbomb Eric", friend of the noisy neighbour—had not talked a similar Bill out two years ago, we would not all be here now because legislation would be in place.
§ Mr. Robathan
I was going to say that I am delighted to see a phalanx of Labour Members here today. I expect my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) to walk into the Chamber at any moment.
The Conservative party generally supports the spirit of the Bill although, like the hon. Member for Hamilton, South, we do not like enabling powers. I cast no aspersions on the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry or the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), but I dislike giving the Government powers that may be abused in future. Members on both sides of the House are always concerned about that. Draconian powers may be introduced, but I hope that they will not.
§ Mr. Swayne
Is there not a danger that the Government might enable too much? My hon. Friend began with his fond memories of 5 November. Part of my concern about regulating powers derives from the fact that we will accommodate much wider dates than 5 November. It would be much better to have a narrower range of dates.
§ Mr. Robathan
I shall come on to the dates later, as there is a big issue about the periods when fireworks can be used.
I should like to look at three general topics—the current situation, the improvements that are already being made and the Bill itself. As the hon. Member for Hamilton, South mentioned, we are dealing with explosives. That needs to be stressed, as they are always dangerous. I have probably used more explosives than most hon. Members in my previous incarnation. When I was blowing up stacks of high explosives I was always worried, whether I was using an electrical circuit or a safety fuse. Those things are dangerous, especially when the detonator does not go off and you are left wondering why. Unlike a rocket, you cannot put a few pounds of plastic explosive in a bucket.
§ Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)
In a previous life, I spent 18 years working in the explosives industry, so 489 I know exactly what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. As politicians we must get across to parents in particular the important point that although young children think that fireworks contain only a small amount of explosive, they burn fiercely and are white-hot. We have been very lucky not to have witnessed real tragedies on our housing estates. Only a couple of weeks ago, something went wrong in a discotheque or nightclub in America. Part of the cause may have been the building, but we saw the ferocity of the fire and the damage, devastation and death that can be caused by fireworks.
§ Mr. Robathan
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who rightly gives a particularly good example of the way in which the mistreatment and mishandling of explosives can have disastrous consequences. I shall not now mention it in my speech. Whether we are parents or grandparents, we should all be aware of that.
My constituents have expressed concerns about safety, which the hon. Gentleman has just raised. We all welcome any measures that will serve to limit injuries caused by fireworks. In 2001, there was a total of 1,362 injuries—a 40 per cent. rise on the previous year, which is a worrying trend. Of even more concern is the fact that 58 per cent. of those injuries were to under-17s, and 33 per cent. to under-13s. I am sure that all hon. Members will welcome anything that reduces those disturbingly high figures and prevents even one child from being blinded.
§ Mr. Robathan
I am conscious of the press releases that are being issued like mad, so I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman. However, I would rather not accept too many interventions.
§ Mr. Robathan
I shall discuss later the proportionate nature of action to be taken. There are already calls for a total ban, which I do not support any more than I support a ban on every other thing that can injure people. I know that the Government do not support a total ban either. However, we wish to see children protected. Members may have had letters calling for a ban in their mailbags, but millions of our constituents would not welcome that. We need to bear that in mind when reading letters from people who are unhappy about the noise caused by fireworks.
Fireworks often cause a serious nuisance or disturbance, especially to older people and pets. In the past few years, we cannot have failed to notice that the use of fireworks has escalated, as I illustrated earlier, and that the period in which they are used has grown longer. We have all received many letters complaining about the considerable disturbance that they cause. Indeed, I suspect that there is not anyone in the House who has not received such a letter. A closely related issue 490 is noise, which goes to the heart of the matter and is particularly problematic in built-up areas. The 12 target areas of last year's campaign by the Department of Trade and Industry, snappily called "Fool with fireworks and bang goes your image", were urban conurbations, including Liverpool, Portsmouth, Gateshead and greater Strathclyde.
Not only is the noise getting worse, but fireworks are used throughout the year. There are fireworks on 5 February, during Diwali, the Chinese new year, Eid and the new year—who can forget the millennium celebrations three years ago? Fireworks were used to celebrate the Queen's golden jubilee and her official birthday. Of course, we also have 6 May—[Interruption.] I am surprised that one or two Government Members do not know that 6 May is the official birthday of the blessed leader of the Labour party. These days, they either celebrate it or burn his effigy.
The noise of fireworks has become relentless, and is of particular concern to those of us with dogs and other pets. I have a gundog called Otter, which I have mentioned before in the House, as Members may recall. When I get my shotgun and take Otter shooting she gets excited. She is a Labrador retriever, and that is what retrievers do. However, if she hears fireworks, she cowers under the table and is terrified.
§ Mr. Robathan
The hon. Gentleman must not tempt me.
If Otter hears fireworks or a thunderstorm, she cowers under the table.
§ Mr. Robathan
It certainly does not happen in my penthouse.
Everyone in the House agrees that this issue is important, but we should not overstate the case. I should like to discuss safety, which was raised by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke). In 2001, there were 1,362 injuries and no fatalities during the period of bonfire celebrations. The previous year, there were 972 injuries, with two fatalities—which is too high, I accept. However, we should compare those figures with the DTI's figures for accidents in the home. According to the DTI website, 2.7 million accidents required visits to hospital, and there were nearly 4,000 fatalities from accidents in the home. In 2001, there were 313,000 injuries following road traffic accidents, of which 40,000 were serious, and there were 3,450 fatalities. So our response must be appropriate and proportionate.
I have a great deal of time for the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, which does excellent work. I understand from the association's website that at any one time there are 5,000 guide dogs for the blind. Each dog has a working life of approximately seven years, so there is a turnover of 700 to 800 dogs a year. I am told that only four or five dogs have to be retired each year because of distress caused by fireworks. I accept that that is a problem, but 491 again, we should be proportionate in our response. I know that fireworks terrify animals, but we should not overstate our case. The root problem is the amount and repetition of noise and the decibel level.
§ Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue as regards guide dogs is not just the cost of the retirement of, I acknowledge, a relatively small proportion of the total guide dog force, but the inhibitory effect that fireworks have on the lives of so many blind people, who are fearful of taking their dogs out during quite long periods of the year? If the hon. Gentleman or I are concerned about the safety of our dogs, we can go out alone, but that option is not available to a blind person. The use of fireworks substantially prejudices the blind person's quality of life.
§ Mr. Robathan
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. My point was that we need to be proportionate in our response. The use of fireworks, especially during daytime on the streets, which is what scares guide dogs most, is already illegal. We should remember that. Incidentally, if my figures are wrong, I should be delighted if any hon. Member in the Chamber, or the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, would correct me. I understand that between four and six dogs out of 5,000 are retired each year as a result of firework incidents. Some dogs may need retraining. The figures need to be analysed, as there may be other factors that have made the dogs nervous. I am not understating the case, but we should beware of hyperbole.
§ Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)
Has the hon. Gentleman heard that there are cases in which dogs have to be drugged as a result of the fireworks nuisance, and therefore cannot be used by their owner, which causes problems?
§ Mr. Robathan
As I said, I do not underestimate the problem, but we should not overestimate it, either. I draw attention to an example of hyperbole. The hon. Member for Hamilton, South mentioned animals being tortured or injured. I received a letter a couple of days ago about kittens being tortured by having a firework strapped to their back. None of us would applaud that, and it has been illegal since the Protection of Animals Act 1911. It carries a penalty of up to six months imprisonment and it should not happen. The issue is one of enforcement, as has been mentioned.
The Act is often enforced by the RSPCA, to which I pay tribute for its work in such matters. However, I do not accept the RSPCA campaign, "Quiet Please", which aims to reduce the permitted decibel level to 95 dB. According to the RSPCA, that is similar to the sound produced by a book dropped on to a table from 1 m. I shall demonstrate that. I suspect that few of our children, the children of few of our constituents, and few of our grandchildren would welcome such a reduction in noise level.
§ Mr. Robathan
As the hon. Gentleman is about to celebrate his marriage with fireworks, of course I shall give way.
§ Mr. Pond
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to reassure the House and, through the 492 Chair, the Speaker's Chaplain that I have no intention of redoing Guy Fawkes's job by letting off fireworks in the Chapel in a couple of weeks' time. The hon. Gentleman is missing the point about the impact, especially on blind and elderly people. Regardless of the decibel level, it is the long period of time during which dogs, especially guide dogs, can be frightened or rendered less effective that reduces the quality of life for people. One of my constituents told me yesterday how he had been led across the road by his guide dog, which had been frightened while in the middle of the road. The dog disappeared and my constituent was left in the middle of the road with no means of getting across. For those reasons, we must make sure that the Bill goes through, and that there is a restricted period during which fireworks are available on the streets.
§ Mr. Robathan
First, as I have not done so properly, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his impending marriage. I have done it myself, and I think that it is generally a good thing. I say that for the benefit of my wife. Secondly, I do not think that I am missing the point. I pointed out that guide dogs and other animals are terrified for a long period of time. Thirdly, from what the hon. Gentleman said, I imagine that his constituent was in the middle of the road when somebody threw a firework in the street. That is illegal now.
The RSPCA does much good work, but its firework campaign is misguided. I am still waiting for the RSPCA to react on its report entitled "Pain and Stress in Fish", last updated in 1994, which stated:The society's policy is to oppose the infliction of pain and suffering in the name of sport"—which is why it is opposed to hunting, andthe case for fish feeling pain is surprisingly complete".When the RSPCA writes to me to complain, I hope that it will tell me all about that.
The situation regarding fireworks is getting worse and we need to consider why. The first reason is that fewer fireworks are manufactured domestically. The overwhelming number of fireworks come in from China. The UK is quite a small market, whereas the other markets, such as the United States, which are much larger, prefer bigger bangs. Perhaps that is because they have more space. In any event, the Chinese are making fireworks for a different market and they are being sold in this country.
The second reason is a good example of the law of unintended consequences. The 1997 regulations banned the manufacture, sale and use of bangers—we all remember the penny bangers that used to be thrown around the street. Because bangers are banned, yobs now use air bombs. Since 1997 the price of air bombs has fallen to a quarter of what it was, so they are more accessible. They are much louder, they are directional—I have never fired one myself because I am too old, but perhaps I should go and buy one to find out—and they can be fired some 60 m, so they become almost a weapon in the hands of the teenage hooligans who mainly use 493 them. We should remember the law of unintended consequences resulting from regulations that we make in the House.
§ Mr. Robathan
I will not, as I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, and a great many hon. Members wish to speak.
The third reason, as has been mentioned, is the larger white van trade, as I shall call it, for want of a better term—the black market that has sprung up in fireworks, which can be bought and distributed through unscrupulous retailers, car boot sales or wherever. The boxes, I understand, are split up from containers in lay-bys, which is illegal under the 1997 regulations. I suppose we have become a more antisocial society. When I was young, I do not think people threw bangers at old people and guide dogs. Perhaps I am being naïve or showing my middle age.
The problems associated with fireworks are compounded, as we heard from several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), by the lack of enforcement. Bangers are illegal, as we know. Throwing fireworks in the street has been illegal since the Explosives Act 1875, yet, notwithstanding all the letters of complaint that we have had, only 64 cases were brought in England and Wales in 2000. I hope that the Bill will make enforcement easier for the police, which is what we all want.
I shall deal with improvements that are already on the way. Like the Minister who ruled out a ban on fireworks in the Westminster Hall debate on 30 October, we do not favour a ban. I commend the Government—very unusually—on the voluntary measures that they have been instrumental in introducing, which came into force on 1 January.
The industry, with the assistance of the DTI, has banned the import and sale of air bombs. That will turn out to be the key. People have told me that they believe that it will produce the quietest 5 November and surrounding period for years and that it will remove 10 million bangs from the market, and we all welcome that.
After eight years' discussion, the CEN, the Comité Européen de Normalisation, or the European Standards Committee—I have A-level French, although it is a little rusty—has agreed on a European standard of 120 dB. I understand that the DTI, the industry and most animal welfare groups are happy with that agreement and standard, and it could be introduced—I am sure that the Minister will tell us—this year.
The industry will also support a ban on displays after 11 pm—except, of course, on 31 December, although licensing may be needed for that day. Of course, displays after 11 pm are already illegal under the Noise Act 1996. I do not know whether there have been almost no prosecutions under that Act but I am pretty sure that that is the case. The Government are trying out a sort of curfew after 11 pm, which would give the police a greater chance to act, but they are also trying out fixed penalties. They started trying out £40 on-the-spot fines 494 in four areas last August. I hope that the Minister will tell us how those trials are working and how many fines there have been.
§ Richard Ottaway
May I assist my hon. Friend on that point? My constituency has one of the pilot schemes for fixed penalty notices, and precisely none has been issued against people for throwing fireworks in the street, mainly because those people are under the age of 18 and fixed penalty notices cannot be given to people under that age.
§ Mr. Robathan
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, and I hope that he may say more about it in his speech. The good wishes of the House are commendable, but the actions that follow our legislation are perhaps more important, and my point about enforcement relates very much to that.
Most of the things that we have heard about break the law already, and a lot of them come from unscrupulous importers and retailers selling to yobs, as the hon. Member for Hamilton, South mentioned. The biggest problem of all is the white van trade, selling broken up boxes of fireworks to small retailers, who sell them on to teenagers.
I now wish to turn to the Bill itself. Conservatives generally are pretty wary of enabling legislation. We certainly do not like extra unnecessary regulations, but we generally support the spirit of the Bill, as I have said already. It is very much a last-minute Bill; the explanatory notes and the Library document for this debate were only published on Wednesday and the Bill was only agreed and published on 13 February, and I understand why. The hon. Member for Hamilton, South is being extremely sensible because, as we know, the Bill will be passed only if the Government give it a fair wind. That is why we have an enabling Bill, which was decided only on 13 February, so let us be in no doubt about that.
The Bill has been hugely watered down to get Government support, as the House is aware. I shall quote the Government's position, as explained by the Minister.[Interruption.] I trust that she has not changed her position since 30 October, when she said:The Government do not believe that a case has been made for banning the sale of fireworks and limiting their use to organised public displays. Such a ban could lead to the development of an illegal firework market and might encourage people to produce home-made devices. Sensible and considerate use of fireworks is a popular family entertainment.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 30 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 272WH.]We agree.
Of course, as a result of being watered down, there is very little substance in the Bill. The hon. Member for Hamilton, South talked about what is in the clauses. Well, actually, there is nothing in them, except the opportunity for the Government to act, and we all need to be aware of that. The Bill gives the Government—I quote the title of clause 2—"Power to make regulations", and the explanatory notes, which I received only yesterday, summarise the Bill as follows:The Bill makes provision for the Secretary of State to make regulations…which will regulate the supply and use of fireworks.That is all that it will do.
495 I have concerns about the Bill, and I should like to mention two of them. The first relates to clause 10 on training courses. As I said and as the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown), I think—
§ Mr. Robathan
I am glad to welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst to the Chamber.
I have blown up a lot of explosives in my time, but the easy thing with fireworks is that we light the blue touch paper and retire—that is just about all the training that people need—and I was able to do that as a boy. I am not against training courses, but I am concerned because when I was younger I went on something called a mountain leadership course. It was an excellent course in many ways, but I vividly remember being taught, in the shadow of Ben Nevis, to light a little gas stove. It was just like lighting a gas stove at home: I turned it on and put a match to it, and then I switched it off. I was taught that as part of the course and, as a result, I left the course because I thought that it was such nonsense. If there are to be training courses, they should be short, apposite, inexpensive and as unregulatory as possible. It may sound great to have training courses, but it is the substance of the course that is the test.
My second concern relates to clause 3 on the supply to children. Of course, it is already illegal to sell fireworks to children. I understand that that clause is designed to stop unscrupulous people buying fireworks and passing them on to teenagers below the age of 18, who cannot be given on-the-spot fines, unfortunately. I am not against that provision, but is it likely—I hope that the Minister will put my mind at rest—that it will extend to giving sparklers to my six-year-old? The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) winces, but where does the Bill state that it will not do that? He has no answer because there is nothing in the Bill about it.
§ Mr. Robathan
The good sense of the Minister—ha, ha, ha—what good sense have we seen so far from the Government? Let us leave it at that.
§ Mr. Robathan
Unfortunately, I would not be able to get a place in pantomime because I know that the hon. Gentleman is already playing Widow Twankey.
The Bill will give the Minister the enabling power to ban the supply of fireworks to children. That is what it does, and we need to know exactly what that means when we pass a Bill. We should give parents credit for being responsible. I trust that the Government will use their powers wisely and proportionately, but we need to hear an answer on that.
I commend two points in the Bill, and this relates to what the hon. Member for Hamilton, South said. First, at the moment, there is a £13 registration fee. There should be proper licensing, and the possibility of having 496 two tiers of licensing is sensible. There could be a cheap licence, perhaps for three weeks around 5 November, and a more expensive licence for mail order throughout the year, so that there is proper control over how fireworks are bought. Licensing will not answer all the problems, such as stock piling, but it can be useful and it is relatively sensible.
I also commend clause 9 on importation. That is the key to enforcement. The Chinese and other fireworks that are imported legally mostly come through Felixstowe. Although that port has the necessary explosives controls, legal fireworks are imported in containers. Where do they go when they leave Felixstowe? There is no check on them. The Health and Safety Executive does not properly check on them. Do they go to registered or licensed suppliers? We just do not know.
Already it is reckoned that between 10 and 18 per cent. of the fireworks in this country are sold on the black market—off white vans, for want of a better term. What storage do they go to? Storage is not properly enforced or supervised currently, and more kilograms of fireworks are imported than there are licensed or approved storage facilities for them.
The Bill has little substance, so we can only guess what will come in its wake. For that reason, we are not entirely happy. I urge the Minister to concentrate on enforcement more than on anything else. I suspect that she will because, notwithstanding what I have said, what she has done on fireworks until now has been fairly sensible. Praise indeed.
Much remains up to the Home Office and police enforcement. I was pleased to see the Home Secretary here, unusually, on a Friday morning. However, a lot remains the responsibility of the DTI, and I suspect that the storage, licensing and tracking of goods comes under the Minister's Department.
§ Mr. Robathan
No? I hope that the Minister will ensure that there is sensible, non-bureaucratic enforcement. Checks should be carried out at Felixstowe so that fireworks go to properly licensed retailers. If those provisions are made and there is proper enforcement, the Bill will work. The enforcement of existing regulations on decibel levels is also the key to improving the lives of our concerned constituents and their pets, as they are genuinely troubled at present.
I am not a killjoy. I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Hamilton, South say that he was not a killjoy, and I hope to entertain my children in the future. I appreciate that the situation is worsening. We do not like extra regulation, and I hope that the Bill may help to improve the situation, so, for that reason, we wish it a fair wind.
§ Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on his good fortune and on taking forward this Bill. I have had the pleasure of serving with him on a couple of Standing Committees and I know that he has a keen eye for the detail of legislation. He ably demonstrated that in his speech.
497 In 1997–98, my first year as a Member of Parliament, I was very involved with the work that the my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), the then Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs, did in respect of the Fireworks (Safety) Regulations 1997 that he introduced. We worked closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who has also done much work on firework safety. Safety was the dominant issue at that time.
Some Members may not have seen the excellent Library briefing that charts the history of the safety issues in which we have all taken an interest. The appendix lays out the fireworks statistics for the years from 1996 to 2001. It shows clearly the impact of the regulations that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South introduced. They succeeded in reducing the number of accidents. However, over the past year or two—and, predominantly, since the turn of the millennium—the number of accidents is, sadly, increasing as fireworks become more available. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South pointed out, the statistics reflect only a small amount of what is happening. The period in which fireworks are sold has been extended. They are on sale from September to February and, in some parts of the country, for even longer than that. Therefore, the statistics do not capture the full dimension of the problem.
§ Helen Jones (Warrington, North)
The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) compared the statistics for fireworks accidents with those for other accidents, but does my hon. Friend agree that most fireworks accidents are entirely avoidable with the right regulations? Furthermore, the statistics do not describe the misery caused by the antisocial behaviour that is associated with fireworks. It causes great concern to our constituents.
§ Linda Gilroy
Absolutely. The fireworks safety campaigns carried out by the consumer safety unit every year target the key problems revealed in the statistics. They have been very successful, and I was about to refer to the hooligan use and noise aspects of fireworks.
§ Sandra Osborne (Ayr)
Does my hon. Friend agree that, although the number of accidents can be measured, the distress caused particularly to elderly people who may have small pets is enormous? Furthermore, the veterinary bills that they have to pay are something that they can ill afford.
§ Linda Gilroy
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I was heartened by the initial message of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). He appeared to understand the scale and nature of the problem. However, we then heard many mixed messages even on issues such as guide dogs for the blind.
§ Mr. Gordon Marsden
My hon. Friend highlights a very important point. I presented to the House this week a petition signed by more than 2,000 people. A significant majority of the people who have written to me have described the effects on guide dogs. Will those 498 people who express concerns about the Bill accept that fireworks affect not just guide dogs for the blind but hearing dogs for the deaf? As dogs are trained increasingly to help people in a number of different circumstances, the scale of the problem could escalate. If we do not do something about the problem by controlling and restricting fireworks in the way that the Bill suggests—I heartily commend it to the House—we will store up significant problems in other areas.
§ Linda Gilroy
We certainly will. Hearing dogs for the deaf is a fascinating subject. I have a letter from a constituent called Lillian who owns a guide dog called Callum. She is totally blind and wrote to me on 3 February to say:Even last night fireworks were being let off in my street. I know it was Candlemas"—Lillian has a sense of humour—but I was unaware that this was a time for letting off Roman Candles.She adds:However, a few years back whilst walking in the local park area, with a school adjoining, during the morning, I was stopped by a couple of adults who told me not to go further as boys were tossing fireworks across the footpath. As my dog was running free, I called him back to put him on the lead and take a different route. Goodness knows the outcome if I had not done so. I have heard of several guide dog owners who have had to get tranquillisers for their dogs, which of course causes distress to both dog and owner…I trust my letter will add to all the others".The petition that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) is in addition to the 250,000 signatures on the petition collected by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner).
§ Huw Irranca-Davies
Does my hon. Friend recognise that it is a UK-wide problem as reflected by the more than 21,000 signatures on the petition from south Wales presented here a month ago? There are also 250 distressing letters detailing exactly the concerns that were highlighted in the letter from which she has quoted.
§ Linda Gilroy
The problem is repeated up and down the country. Almost every Member would be able to quote a similar case.
§ Mr. Robathan
To avoid doubt, let me make it clear that we have enormous sympathy for guide dog owners and the constituent that the hon. Lady has mentioned. Everything that that constituent has written about is currently illegal. Just introducing extra regulations will not necessarily prevent such problems. We wish that guide dog owner to be able to walk her dog safely through the streets.
§ Linda Gilroy
The hon. Gentlemen's view of regulation is not the view of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association or an impressive list of animal welfare organisations, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He should consult page 35 of the Library briefing document.
Deregulation will be an important issue in debate on the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South rightly said that the Bill had been considered by the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. This Bill is to some extent modelled 499 on my original Bill, which was backed by the CBI's explosive industry group. In fact, the thrust of my Bill came from the industry, which wanted training courses to take place. I spoke to the annual general meeting of the British Pyrotechnists Association that was held in Plymouth where the national fireworks championships are held each year. The association is working closely with the industry to develop training courses, but cowboys can undercut the cost of supporting that training if a standard is not set for the whole industry.
§ David Hamilton (Midlothian)
I wish to emphasise that point. Many of the 1,500 people in Midlothian who signed a petition in just four weeks and the letters that I have received do not argue for a total ban. People like to see public displays and training is required for them. People using large amounts of explosive require training.
§ Linda Gilroy
My hon. Friend is exactly right.
Finally on deregulation, consultation with the stakeholders and the fireworks industry and organisations is well honed. The hon. Member for Blaby should not be too concerned that the regulations would be implemented without the fullest possible consultation and consideration of the industry's views. This is a sensible Bill and I commend it to the House.
I see that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is no longer is in his place. The House has strong associations with Guy Fawkes. The right hon. Gentleman was the leader of the pack that sabotaged the 1997 Bill and Opposition Members were called to order 38 times when it returned to the House from the House of Lords. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that he may become the "Guy Forth" for those who are interested in this issue. We will not just stick pins in the right hon. Gentleman's photograph, but will try to do some rather more robust things as well.
§ Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)
I too congratulate the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan). My congratulations are heartfelt, because during the last Session I was in charge of a private Member's Bill and I know how much work goes on behind the scenes—the dealing with interest groups as well as the legislative drafting. It was clear from the hon. Gentleman's generosity in responding to interventions and the confidence with which he did so that he had done his homework.
Let me say unequivocally that my colleagues and I support the spirit of the Bill, and will support its Second Reading. It should be noted that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the shadow Leader of the House, is a sponsor.
Despite my support, I think it would be rather feeble to come here just to say "Hear, hear". While I think that the Bill deserves an airing in Committee, I also think that there is a need for constructive criticism at this stage. Many questions need to be asked. We should ask, for instance, to what extent an all-embracing Bill such as this, covering all aspects of production, distribution and use, is required, as opposed to the incremental approach that has been adopted so far. There is also the fact that 500 a "framework" Bill such as this does not address key controversies. Indeed, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman aspires to address them. One of the main controversies concerns whether there should be a ban during the three weeks before Guy Fawkes night—one of he issues in the voluntary code.
§ Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)
Although most retailers have applied the guidance measures, one or two rogue companies have ignored it and have deemed it legitimate to extend sales beyond the three-week period. That is causing problems.
§ Dr. Cable
That is a good practical point, and we should be discussing precisely such issues. We should be discussing whether a three-week moratorium is a good idea. My point, however, was procedural: I feel that the general nature of the Bill simply defers such arguments until the Minister produces a regulation.
We talk of a fireworks issue, but there are in fact a number of issues. One is the issue of injury. As has been said, fireworks cause about 1,000 injuries a year, many of them serious. That has been the case for some years. The actions that it has led to relate to the dangerous nature of some fireworks, many of which are currently illegal, and to how regulation can be enforced.
A second issue, mentioned by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), is the antisocial use of fireworks which, although perfectly safe in sensible and mature hands, are dangerous when abused. We are told that 40 per cent. of those injured are teenagers. The Minister has already responded to the problem by introducing regulations that aim to stop the throwing of fireworks.
In fact the antisocial issue is largely dealt with by existing legislation. We have had a lot of legislation on antisocial issues. Indeed, both the issues I have mentioned have already been dealt with in different ways. The major issue—this, I think, is why we are here today—is noise. Loud fireworks distress elderly people and, in particular, the blind.
I echo the tributes already paid to the Home Secretary, who made the effort to come here this morning and show his moral support for the Bill. One of the people who have lobbied me is Julia Schofield, one of the most impressive people in the country. She is a leading information technology electronic government entrepreneur, and she is completely blind. She came to me for help several years ago. As a jet-setting business woman, she had to take guide dogs around the world. Taking a guide dog around the streets of New York, Hong Kong and Frankfurt was not straightforward, she said, but it was simple compared with the process of getting a guide dog through the British quarantine system. She wanted some help with that problem. She has now explained to me, in businesslike terms, the practical problems caused to a blind person by fireworks. Dogs must often be sedated because of the distress that they suffer, and her life is made much more difficult by the thoughtless, excessively noisy and antisocial use of fireworks. That, I think, crystallises the issue for many of us.
What, then, is the best way of dealing with the problem? Should it be dealt with through new legislation, through enforcement or through fireworks 501 standards? I have an open mind, but I wonder how much could be achieved had I the simpler expedient of tough industrial standards. As has been said, it is possible to impose BSSI standards on industry under existing 1997 regulations, which can then be translated into import controls; but perhaps those standards need to be tougher. As has also been said, the European standard prescribes 120 dB. Guide dog groups tell me that 95 dB—roughly the volume of a banging door—would be more appropriate, as anything above that level is distressing. I suspect that if the appropriate level were defined and then imposed through BSSI standards, and if that were properly enforced, many of the problems we are discussing would be solved.
§ Linda Gilroy
The main aim of the Bill is to extend regulations dealing predominantly with the goods themselves to the use of those goods, particularly through possession. That would make enforcement easier.
§ Dr. Cable
I do not quarrel with that. I am posing a question: would the need for the regulation of use be quite so great if we dealt with the definition issue, and imposed tough standards?
Even if we dealt with the issue of standards, however, the issue of enforcement would remain. Several Labour Members have raised that point. Many of the problems are due to the absence or inadequacy of enforcement procedures. As we know, councils are struggling at present. They have too few consumer protection officers, and their environmental health departments are weak. They have been run down over the years, and often cannot deal with abuses.
§ Mr. Gordon Marsden
That has been a particular problem in my constituency. As in many other coastal towns, fireworks are sold in shops with either a short-term lease or no lease at all, which has caused difficulties for hard-working trading standards officers.
§ Dr. Cable
That also applies in my local high street. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend means there should be legislation to deal with the problem, or more resources for enforcement, but I suspect it is the latter, as with many such problems.
We should bear in mind—the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) tried to refer to this, but found himself in various cul-de-sacs—that there are already a number of legislative prohibitions. There are prohibitions on dangerous fireworks, or bangers. There are restrictions on the storage, public sale and the sale of single fireworks rather than boxes. If all those regulations were properly enforced, many of the current difficulties would not exist. This is an enforcement issue as much as a legislative issue, and we need an assurance from the Minister that there will be enough enforcement back-up. She has a good record on consumer legislation and ensuring that legislation is supported by additional resources for consumer protection officers. Parallel measures are needed in this case.
In the last few minutes of my speech, I shall refer to some aspects of the Bill that will need detailed scrutiny when it passes, as I hope that it will, into Committee.
502 One of the key bits of the Bill is clause 2, which defines the nature of future offences in terms of not using fireworks safely. It talks about the use of safe fireworks to minimise the risk. I shall read this phrase because it is quite important. Clause 2(2) talks about fireworks causingdeath … injury, alarm, distress or anxiety toany person, ordeath … injury or distress toany animal. Setting aside for a moment the quibble as to why animals do not suffer alarm and anxiety, there is a big issue about how these rather subjective measures will be translated into the law. As I understand it, at the moment most of the offences under the regulations are quite specific and easily identified, but the Bill introduces a subjective test. The prosecuting authorities will have to define personal distress, and I am not sure how they will do so in a practical way that will satisfy the courts. That clause requires in-depth examination.
§ Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if a dog required sedation by a veterinary surgeon, that would constitute distress?
§ Dr. Cable
I would think so, but I am not a defence barrister, who might throw up all kinds of objections to that argument. I am simply suggesting that this definition is not straightforward—I think that I saw the hon. Gentleman nod when I raised this point—and will need a lot of critical scrutiny.
Clause 3 relates to under-age sale, which is already illegal. There are problems of enforcement, but I do not understand what clause 3 adds to the existing prohibitions.
Clause 4, a particularly all-embracing clause, relates to restrictions on the time of day and time of year when fireworks can be sold. As I have previously said, that raises the questions of whether it would be sensible to try to impose a moratorium before bonfire night, and how we should deal with Diwali and Chinese new year. My feeling is that perhaps local authorities should be allowed a discretion to allow sale during a festival time; it would not necessarily be 5 November. In an area with a large Asian population, the local authority would probably have a different view from an authority in Cornwall or the highlands of Scotland, but that is perhaps best dealt with at local level.
§ Mr. Robathan
I am slightly confused, because the hon. Gentleman spoke about a moratorium around bonfire night. I thought that the intention was to allow sale around bonfire night, not impose a moratorium.
§ Dr. Cable
I did not explain myself clearly. I meant a moratorium outside that period. I am sorry if I did not use the correct language.
Clause 6 raises interesting and important questions about public display. Many of the provisions contained in it and the associated clause about the need for training, and the need for properly responsible people of the right age group to be in charge of public displays, are helpful and useful, but is it really necessary to superimpose a separate licensing, fee-paying system on the existing obligation on environmental health officers? These people are already under a lot of pressure, but the 503 clause will imply a new regulatory regime, with all the paper filling and bureaucracy involved. One wonders whether they have the resources to cope with it.
Clause 7 deals with the licensing of suppliers. However, there is already considerable legislative control of suppliers in terms of permitted access, storage, and sales in boxes but not single units. We need persuading that there are important loopholes to be filled. In his own private Member's legislation, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) identified some weaknesses here, but the provisions that clause 7 makes possible are very wide indeed.
Finally there is the issue of imports, which is covered by clause 8. There are provisions under existing legislation for import controls on dangerous fireworks and I am not sure what additional requirements are needed.
I raise all these questions in a very preliminary way. They will need to be studied in detail. I support the Second Reading enthusiastically, but although I am not a parliamentary draftsman, as I read the Bill all kinds of questions came to mind.
In conclusion, I pose a couple of questions to the Minister to which I hope that she will give clear answers. Will she explain clearly why she regards framework legislation of this kind as necessary? She has been carrying through a series of incremental steps, adding to the powers that she has. Why does she feel that that process has reached its limits? The other key assurance that we need from her is that the Government will properly support legislation of this kind—which imposes new regulatory obligations on local authorities—by providing the resources that environmental health departments will require. If we have reassurance on those two counts, I will feel completely confident that we are moving into some very secure, worthwhile and welcome legislation.
§ Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)
As the Member of Parliament who chairs the all-party group on fireworks, I must say that there has been a marvellous turnout today. The group has about 150 members, most of whom seem to be present. I am just a little sad that not everyone can contribute to the debate, but I say well done to everyone for being here.
We congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on his shrewd move in selecting this subject for his private Member's Bill, because it affects every constituency in England, Scotland and Wales. We have all had letters from people complaining about the noise and disturbance of fireworks, and it is time to toughen the legislation, so I am glad that my hon. Friend has introduced his Bill.
I did not mention Northern Ireland when I referred to all constituencies in this country, because in Northern Ireland the system that the Bill would introduce already exists. I suggest that those who doubt that the system would work look at how it is working in Northern Ireland. Much of the antisocial behaviour that was associated with fireworks—the noise and disturbance—has plummeted since the licensing and regulatory regime was introduced.
§ Mr. Gardiner
I commend the work that my hon. Friend has done in campaigning on this issue for so 504 long. Is she aware that since 2001, when the new regulations were introduced, the number of injuries in Northern Ireland has dropped from 138 a year to just 36? That is significant in showing the effect that the Bill would have in this country.
§ Shona McIsaac
My hon. Friend is quite right, which is why I tell people who question whether this enabling Bill would work that they should look at how it has worked in Northern Ireland.
We want this Bill to pass because of the noise, the disturbance, the vandalism, and the hooligan misuse of fireworks. The noise and nuisance have always been around, but they were confined to a few days of the year. The period has extended from a few days to day after day, week after week, and now month after month. I usually get my first letters complaining about the misuse of fireworks in August, but the date is getting earlier every year, which shows that the voluntary code is not working.
§ Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the marvellous work that she has done, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on introducing an excellent Bill. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) agree that a number of people outside the House—including Councillor Tom Maginnis, who led the task group for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities—are very keen not only that the Bill should be passed but that it should be implemented with all possible speed?
§ Shona McIsaac
I agree. In fact, I too have held discussions with COSLA. Its research was excellent and it laid good foundations for today's debate. Yes, of course we want the Minister to use the powers that she will be given by the Bill. Some people are saying that she may go too far, but some of us think that she may not go far enough. If we give her the powers, we hope that she will use them.
§ Mr. Luke
I congratulate my hon. Friend, as well as my hon. Friends the Members for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) and for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), on doing so much work to bring the Bill before the House. Does she agree that, despite the fact that we hope that it will become law, the all-party group should not be made redundant? The regulations may not satisfy public demand for control and provide the successful conclusion that we are all looking for, and surveys taken throughout the country show that a significant number of people, whose voice is not often heard, want a total ban.
§ Shona McIsaac
I hope that the all-party group does not cease to exist when the Bill is passed. There is a lot of work yet to be done, including in Committee. We must monitor how the Bill works and see whether it reduces noise and disturbance.
§ Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West)
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on choosing the Bill, but does my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona 505 McIsaac) agree with a ban on the sale and use of fireworks, except around bonfire night and at other licensed events?
§ Shona McIsaac
The Bill would restrict sales outside certain times of the year, but it also acknowledges the importance of festivals such as Diwali and Chinese new year by providing for the use of fireworks at such times. It would, however, reduce the months of the year in which disturbance would occur.
Thousands of my constituents have been in touch with me to discuss noise and disturbance, which they want to see ended. I shall give a few examples from my area, which I am sure other Members will share.
§ Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey)
Does my hon. Friend share my slight dismay at the attitude of Opposition Front Benchers towards the setting of noise levels? If the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) is looking for a pantomime character, Wishee Washee might be the most appropriate.
§ Shona McIsaac
I will not be drawn into that. We have support from Opposition Front Benchers, and I do not want to reduce it.
An 81-year-old asthmatic woman had to be rescued from her smoke-filled home after louts put lit fireworks through her letter box. In another example, 60 people had to be evacuated from a Grimsby pub, again after lit fireworks were thrown into the building, which filled with smoke. Fire officers said that the incident could have been serious if fires had caught hold.
Post boxes seem to be a target for hooligans. In one incident in our area in which a post box was blown up, the firework used was not a consumer firework; it was meant to be used only in licensed displays. Such fireworks are banned for sale to the consumer, which shows how various types of firework get into circulation and are used by hooligans and louts.
Vandals target plastic wheelie bins time and again because the plastic goes into wonderful shapes when fireworks are put in them. The phone calls of drug dealers in Grimsby and Cleethorpes are monitored, so they use fireworks to let addicts know when new supplies have come in. A woman on an estate in our area says:We get fireworks going off all year round here. Even the kids know what a rocket going off means.We must take such things very seriously.
Apart from the danger, vandalism, noise nuisance and disturbance, there are the safety aspects. What happened in Rhode Island has been mentioned, but we must also remember that, a couple of years ago, 282 people died in a fire in Lima in Peru as a result of fireworks triggering a fire. In Enschede in the Netherlands, more than 20 people died and thousands of people were made homeless when a place in which fireworks were being stored caught fire. That area of Enschede is still devastated.
We should never forget that we are not dealing with toys; we are dealing with lethal incendiary explosive devices. We must toughen up the law because fireworks have become more available. A lot more are being sold and there is a lot more misuse.
506 This is not just an urban problem, as some people have suggested, owing to the fact that more fireworks are being let off in cities and towns, creating more noise—it is a rural problem, too. A resident from the village of Ulceby in my constituency said to me:Why do people have to be so selfish? Would they want to spend eight nights outside checking on their livestock?She has to go out to check on her livestock because of firework misuse. A resident from Barton wrote to me:Two years ago a horse bolted, got on to the road, caused an accident and had to be put down because of its injuries.Rural and urban constituencies alike are affected by firework misuse.
I am also grateful to a constituent from Barcroft street in Cleethorpes who sent me leaflets that were put under the windscreen of her car and which show the problem that we are dealing with. We should consider the prices of those fireworks. One is called a devil rocket and the price is only £1.25 for five. That is why these things are getting into the hands of hooligans—they are very, very cheap. Another leaflet refers tomega loud coloured air bombs only £1.50for five. The flyers also refer to rockets at £1.25 for five, making loud screeches and bangs, to £25 monster fireworksthat would scare the SAS".That says it all. These fireworks are not toys; they are designed to disturb and to create noise—that is all they do.
Some of the other firework names are air raid, air torpedo, cruise missile, mega scud, nuclear warhead and 100-shot ack-ack barrage. Those retailers also offer free alcohol with the sale of fireworks, which I deplore. Yesterday, a resident phoned me to say that retailers were still selling, although we are outside the time of year laid down by the voluntary code for selling fireworks. He went into a shop and noticed that a firework being sold there was called missile attack, a 150-shot screeching missile at only £8. That is still being sold at this time of year in Grimsby town centre.
We are not discussing pretty little stars in the sky with nice sparkles and fizzes; these fireworks are noisy, and I hope that the Bill halts their sale. Such fireworks are creating all the antisocial behaviour, noise and nuisance that our constituents want to see ended. I wish the Bill well and the all-party firework group supports it, so let us have all the fizz and none of the bangs.
§ Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup)
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to take part in the debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), who made many valid points and has done a sterling job behind the scenes in co-ordinating the all-party group. It is good to know that the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) has managed to obtain all-party support for the Bill. This is a challenging Bill for him to steer through the House and I hope that the usual channels, as well as Front Benchers, assist him to get it on to the statute book.
507 Like many Members, I have received lots of representations and petitions from my constituents. I shall not follow the example of Liberal Democrat Members by listing them all so that I can put them in my newsletters, but those in Old Bexley and Sidcup have made their views clearly known to me, and I have passed them to the Minister. I am grateful to her for her typically courteous and speedy reply. It is good that the Government have taken notice of the depth of concern in constituencies across the United Kingdom. The Minister was most prompt in dealing with that, for which I am grateful.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), in an admirably early and thoughtful contribution, made it clear that those who have some concerns about the drafting of legislation are not party poopers. Sadly, most of us in this Chamber are not that young any more, but we remember with joy the time when we were children and watched fireworks go off. I seem to recall—I do not know whether it is age or not—that in those days they did not seem quite as effective. Most of our fathers had some difficulty getting Catherine wheels to spin, whereas now one could tie a human to them and they would work, so there is a difference between the fireworks that most of us and many of our more elderly constituents remember and the whiz-bang things that the hon. Member for Cleethorpes was right to mention. There is a problem with the type of firework, not just the abuse of the firework.
I am glad that some concern has been expressed about the period of use. The population in my constituency of Old Bexley and Sidcup is slightly more elderly than in many parts of the country. They know when Guy Fawkes night is coming and they are prepared for it, but they are not prepared for it starting in September. The same seems to happen to everything we do: summer time hardly changes and everyone is shopping for Christmas. It is not a problem just for the fireworks industry, and it results from a general impatience to get to periods of celebration. There is, however, a particular problem with fireworks and the length of time during which they appear, despite the voluntary code, to be readily available.
Fireworks are undoubtedly frightening. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby mentioned their impact on his children. Their experience is widely felt, even among those who have taken their children to fireworks displays or used fireworks in the garden. Most families enjoy the spectacle rather than the volume of noise from fireworks.
One of the things that worry me is not the display aspect of fireworks but the use to which they are put. If fireworks were used just for observation and amusement, perhaps we would not all need to be here. It is the abuse of fireworks that is the cause of the Bill. There is no need in a debate such as this to go into detail about injuries to children because everyone sees them every year in hospital casualty units. Damage is done to children who are unaware of the danger of fireworks but who have managed to get hold of them.
§ John Robertson
May I add to what the hon. Gentleman is saying about children having accidents? When I was 12, a friend of mine thought that fireworks did not make a loud enough noise, so he decided to make 508 his own from the fireworks he had. As a result, he blew his hand off. That happened 50 years ago. Is it not sad that we are talking about these things today instead of when I was 12?
§ Derek Conway
The hon. Gentleman, as he always does when he contributes to this debate, makes a telling and thought-provoking response. The consequences of the misuse of fireworks are considerable and often damaging for life.
I perhaps should at this point declare an interest because of what I am about to say. In the Register of Members' Interests, I declare that I am the chief executive of the Cats Protection League, or Cats Protection as we prefer to be known these days, so I should like to make some observations about animal cruelty, which the hon. Member for Hamilton, South mentioned. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association has taken a leading role as an animal welfare charity, and everyone is impressed by the way in which it has done so. The animal welfare charity world can be like the world of political parties. We all know what we are doing and we all do it for the best possible reasons, but there is often a degree of in-fighting and spats. The hon. Member for Hamilton, South will be glad to know, however, that on this occasion the animal welfare charities have come together. For once, they agree on something, which does not happen often, so it is quite a triumph for him. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association has led the way, with everyone's support, especially that of an excellent organisation called the National Canine Defence League, which takes stray dogs and abandoned dogs, re-homes them, cares for them and does a splendid job across the country.
Not far from this House, the dogs home at Battersea is another superb organisation. Many people do not realise that for more than 100 years it has been helping cats, too. There is the Blue Cross centre, the Wood Green centre and an organisation much maligned in this place, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has a high political profile in campaigning, which in itself can be controversial. However, I think that all hon. Members would congratulate it on the excellent document that it has produced highlighting the difficulties faced by all species. I am particularly glad to see in his place the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), one of the patrons of Cats Protection. He has a wide interest and reputation in animal welfare matters. It is helpful that organisations such as the RSPCA and those that support it have managed to brief the House this morning so effectively. Action unquestionably is overdue.
Cats Protection helps about 170,000 cats year, which is more than all the other animal welfare charities put together, through a network of 300 groups across the UK and 30 permanent shelters. I could keep the House going for hours, which of course I do not intend to do, discussing the difficulty with cruelty cases. What we find, particularly in the 30 permanent shelters, is that around Guy Fawkes time there is a phenomenal increase in the number of strays. I refer not to feral cats but to domestic cats that have been scared from family gardens and arrive at our shelter needing help and, often, veterinary support.
509 I will give the House one example of cruelty that explains what is happening. It is from Belfast, where we have a shelter in Dundonald on the outskirts of the city. Callous thugs tied to the tail of a 10-week-old kitten a firework that blew its tail off. The distressed animal was brought to our shelter, where the manager, Janice Watts, who is a superb girl with a wonderful crew, cared for the cat and gave it veterinary treatment. It was subsequently re-homed but, not surprisingly, it was a bit suspicious of humans for a very long time.
The fact remains that cats scare easily. They do not react well to quick movement or to loud noises. They certainly do not react well to having their tails tied. These are not family displays or organised charity events to try to raise money and please everyone. As we know, sadly, on the whole, the cruelty is by very young men who are clearly stupid and who think it is a bit of a giggle and a kick to do something unspeakably horrible to an animal. If they were doing it to one another, I would perhaps have less concern, but they like to use animals to vent their stupidity.
§ Mr. Luke
The point that the hon. Gentleman makes about that atrocious incident in Northern Ireland gives strength to the movement towards regulation and control of fireworks throughout the United Kingdom. Does he accept that there is a quite strict regime on control of fireworks in Northern Ireland, and that we need police forces and the authorities to take stronger action against individuals such as the ones who perpetrated the attack on that poor cat to ensure that they face the full rigour of the law? That is the best deterrent we have.
§ Derek Conway
The hon. Gentleman is right. Obviously, Northern Ireland, if anywhere in the United Kingdom, has a greater awareness of what explosives can do and the danger and fright that they can cause, yet still we have examples such as that. In many ways, one of the frustrations of being in Parliament, and an even greater frustration of being in the police service, is that one cannot outlaw human stupidity. That is what we are talking about in such cases. It is wanton, mindless cruelty. However, we must still try to encourage those who are less ridiculous along a law-abiding route. That is why I hope that the Bill will make progress this morning.
Charities such as Cats Protection are more interested in finding homes for cats than in paying vet bills for animals damaged by fireworks displays, although sadly that is a large part of our expenditure at that time of the year. It is mindless cruelty. Certainly, the animal welfare sector, as well as my constituents, who are irritated by the human consequences of fireworks, will wish the hon. Member for Hamilton, South Godspeed with his Bill. I am glad that it is getting support from all parts of House.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)
I shall begin by paying tribute to a man called Malcolm Armstrong, who taught me what little more than most people I know 510 about pyrotechnics in one hour of a moving morning. Mr. Armstrong follows in a fine tradition of firework manufacturing in Thanet, which used to host the Astra fireworks factory. I visited Mr. Armstrong's business some years ago; it looks like a collection of garden sheds in a field, but he manufactures some of the finest pyrotechnic fireworks produced in this country, and over the years he has given pleasure to very many people.
All visitors to Malcolm Armstrong's establishment are taken to one particular shed, which contains a workbench on which there is a photograph of his son, who worked in the business and was blown apart. Because of the care that everyone was required to take, and the careful separation, only one person—the proprietor's son—died in that accident. If I ever needed to learn, I learned then how very dangerous fireworks can be, even when they are properly handled.
Malcolm Armstrong went on; others might not have been big enough. He did not give in; he continued to manufacture superb displays that gave pleasure to thousands of people. He manufactured the displays for the Quex park promenade concerts in my constituency, which attracted thousands of people and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity—but he has never forgotten, and never forgets to tell anybody handling fireworks, or anybody operating for him or running a display, that those explosives can kill.
All constituency Members of Parliament will have had the privilege and pleasure of attending firework displays held for charity. Any constituency Member representing a rural area will have been to village fêtes, the culmination of which, in the evening when the sun has gone down, is often a firework display. Anybody with a school in their constituency—and that means everybody—knows that schools too have displays. Everybody knows that a balance has to be struck between the hazards and the pleasure that fireworks give to many people.
About 30 per cent. of the population of my constituency are over retirement age. Many of those elderly people are widowed, and many of them have pets. I shall not rehearse again the arguments so well deployed by my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway); suffice it to say that double distress is caused by the irresponsible use of items primarily designed for enjoyment. The constant use of fireworks throughout the year by irresponsible hooligans, often late at night, causes distress for the elderly and a second distress to their family—because their families are their animals.
What I want to say to the Minister and the promoter of the Bill is simply this: what is being done here today is necessary, and it has my fullest support—but as one who has the privilege of scrutinising legislation from time to time, I think that another concern needs to be expressed too. The Bill is fairly loosely drafted, and has deliberately been designed to give the Secretary of State powers to introduce regulations. I hope that those regulations will strike the balance needed to control the irresponsible use of fireworks while at the same time permitting public enjoyment, not only on bonfire night but on other proper occasions throughout the year. I ask the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) to consider that. When he takes his Bill into Committee, will he carefully consider discussing with his colleagues 511 in Government the possibility of introducing amendments that, at the very least, make the regulations subject to the affirmative statutory instrument procedure, so that we in the House can be sure that we are doing what we intend to do?
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Miss Melanie Johnson)
I join all the other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on his success in winning the lottery and bringing forward this important Bill. I can give the House the reassurance that the Government support it. I am also pleased to hear from Members on both sides of the House about how my hon. Friend has gained the support of organisations such as the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, the RSPCA, the Blue Cross and many others, such as Cats Protection, which we have just heard about.
The British Fireworks Association, which represents the fireworks industry, also broadly supports the Bill. That is important, and represents a recognition on its part that there is a growing impatience in the community about the difficulties that people are experiencing with fireworks, and that these issues need to be addressed.
As hon. Members have said, many people have concerns about fireworks. All our postbags contain many complaints from our constituents about their misuse, and the noise and nuisance that they cause. I believe that there has been a sea change in those concerns over the past few years. At one time public concern was principally focused on injuries, and although we and the public continue to be concerned about the number of injuries, the vast majority of the letters, many of which I have received via other Members for my attention, and which I study carefully, highlight the problems that Members have already mentioned—the noise and nuisance, and all their consequences.
§ Mr. Luke
I am one of those Members, and I have received no letters back from the Minister. I congratulate her on being instrumental in bringing about her Government colleagues' acceptance of the need for the Bill, but does she accept that this is simply one stage, and that if the Bill is not strong enough, stronger measures may be needed to deal with the problems of noise and nuisance that she is talking about, and which our constituents experience?
§ Miss Johnson
My hon. Friend alludes to other possibilities. I could construe him, perhaps wrongly, to mean that fireworks should be banned from general public use.
§ Miss Johnson
That is one thing that some people have argued for. Indeed, the fireworks industry recognises that if the concerns that are preoccupying us today are not properly addressed in terms of both legislative powers and the enforcement to back them up, there may be growing support for a ban. Hon. Members 512 have accurately expressed the balance of views. Fireworks still give enormous pleasure and many people want their use to continue within a better framework.
§ Miss Johnson
I will consider that. I can also assure my hon. Friend that the European Union is turning its mind to the problem and a European standard may also be set.
§ Mr. Truswell
Does my hon. Friend accept that people fear that the European Union may introduce a noise level that is far too high? Although the Bill contains a raft of desirable measures, does she accept that noise is at the core of the problems with fireworks? Is she attracted to the approach that we should set our own level, perhaps along the lines suggested by the RSPCA, and if not, why not?
§ Miss Johnson
I am attracted to the approach that people should no longer experience undue noise from fireworks. We have to bear in mind a number of considerations. A certain explosive charge is necessary to put something into the sky which is, obviously, the minimum requirement. Beyond that, we must consider the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) rightly outlined in considerable detail. It is often the availability of cheap and noisy fireworks—how they are sold and marketed, and to whom they are sold—that is the cause of the problem. As we have heard from many constituencies, it is the way in which fireworks are used by hooligans in communities and their availability throughout the year that cause the problems experienced by the public.
Hon. Members raised the same points in a variety of ways and we all know that we must address them. The protections necessary for humans, animals and property are major concerns. Our powers are limited at the moment and we cannot introduce those protections now. The Bill's main purpose is to provide the capability to use regulations to address the problems associated with fireworks. As hon. Members recognised, it will give us enabling powers to make regulations that control, among other things, the times of the day when fireworks can be used. We will also be able to set a maximum noise limit on all fireworks sold to the public, to require suppliers of fireworks to be licensed, to ensure that public firework display operators meet requirements before giving displays and to control the importation of fireworks. All those measures will play a role in solving the problem. So a package of measures will resolve the difficulties that many people face.
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) mentioned the framework legislation. We are interested in a Bill of this nature because the problem requires a package of measures. It is also clear that it may need to be flexibly implemented to address problems as and when they occur. The main problem is not in going too far or not far enough—although both of those have been suggested to me, and it would, of course, be for the House to consider any regulations—but in making things as effective as possible. That requires us to ensure that legislation is flexible enough to respond to problems 513 as they occur. Indeed, some of the problems arise from the fact that legislation principally focuses on product safety. There is no longer such a large issue about firework product safety because they are mostly safe when used "as it says on the tin". Unfortunately, that is not how they are being used and we do not have the legislative support to deal with the problems that are arising.
I know that for many people the period of sale is a big issue. The voluntary agreement worked in recent years, but we have had to press the industry to hold to it. Trading standards officers have also had to work hard to sign up retailers. Unfortunately, growing evidence last November showed that a number of retailers—mostly individual shopkeepers, but also one or two well known chains—were openly flouting the voluntary agreement. The Bill gives us the power to enforce the code, and I accept entirely the point—made by several Members—about the multicultural nature of our society, and that we must enable fireworks to continue to be used in the cultural festivals of which they are traditionally a part. The Bill will give us powers to regulate any traditional firework-using festival, and we anticipate that no group will be disadvantaged as a result of these measures.
On enforcement, the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) mentioned the use of penalty notices. Fixed penalty notices have indeed been used in some pilot areas—of which there are only a few—but not in Croydon, according to his account. It would be worth while exploring with the local authorities what the difficulties are, but I can assure him that such notices have been used in other areas. We should turn our minds to the fact that we need more complex powers not simply to provide better enforcement. We are talking about young people—mainly, young males—acquiring fireworks with hooligan intentions and using them in what are essentially hit-and-run crimes. As hon. Members well recognise, that creates a continual difficulty for the enforcement authorities. What we must do is to crack down on the source of the trouble, as well as to tackle it with more effective enforcement, and that is exactly what this Bill will enable us to do.
§ Mr. Banks
My hon. Friend has correctly pointed to the central issue. Enforcement will necessarily be dealt with if the supply is cut off. Such people do not wander around the streets throwing sparklers at each other. They use exploding fireworks; we need to attack them and ban their sale. I hope that the Government will introduce regulations to that end.
§ Miss Johnson
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and it is for just that reason that we need to implement strong measures to deal with the hooligan element. It is a great sadness that the hooligan element in our society has terrorised our communities, and I trust that this time sense will prevail in the House on the new powers that are needed to address the problem. I believe that the last time such legislation was debated, a few spoiled things for the many. I hope that the existing consensus and the difficulties reported by many today, all of which point in the same direction, will make Members determined to take the opportunity that my hon. Friend the Member 514 for Hamilton, South has provided, and—while continuing to make key and constructive criticisms—to support his Bill's passage through the House. Its passage is crucial if we are to achieve any diminution in the difficulties that all of our constituents are affected by.
I am determined that we strike the right balance by regulating only where necessary, and I want to ensure that the Bill introduces no extraneous or unnecessary regulation. As I said, we must consider its effectiveness and its implications, and I shall study carefully the speech of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) as an exemplar of the avoidance of extraneous material. The Bill will undoubtedly be considered at much greater length if the House decides to commit it to Standing Committee. Assuming that it does progress, much of its detail would need to be thrashed out not only in Committee, but when regulations are introduced, and in the light of the way in which such regulations should be constructed. Given the great public concern that exists about this issue, and given that many support the Bill and want it to make progress, I hope that Members will continue to support it as it progresses—as I trust it will—to Standing Committee for more detailed consideration.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I am delighted to support this Bill as a sponsor. My hon. Friend and cosponsor the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and I can demonstrate that both London and Cornwall have a considerable interest in this Bill. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) not only on his luck in the draw, but on the assiduous way in which he has consulted on the details of the Bill, which has been a model for all who wish to take private Members' Bills through the House. I give credit to the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—she and her Department are already heavily involved in discussions on how to make regulations effective.
We must emphasise that this Bill does not put us on the slippery slope to prohibition. It is precisely to prevent the need for prohibition that we should introduce effective regulations that will deal not only with supply—which has been the main concern in the past—but with possession and use. I entirely endorse the concerns that were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) about making the Bill sufficiently robust and ensuring that sufficient resources are available for the enforcement of regulations. However, I am sure that everybody in the House will wish to ensure that this Bill is given all the support possible today.
I wish to pick up on one or two points that have not been raised so far. Most of us have wondered, "Why now?" Indeed, the rather lacklustre speech from the Conservative Front Bench was all about misgivings over whether we should go any further than we have gone already and whether existing legislation is sufficient. Most of us feel that it is not sufficient. A number of hon. Members have worked on this issue and I pay particular tribute to the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) for the work that they have done to draw attention to the inadequacies of existing legislation, making them all too clear.
515 The increased availability of fireworks is a problem and reference has been made to the incredible products that are now available cheaply. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes read out a list that sounded like an inventory that might be sent by President G. W. Bush to any country in the middle east that was trying to buy arms. It was extraordinary. Other problems include the length of period during which fireworks are now used, the scale of displays and the simple power of the explosives that are now used, even for private displays.
Another problem that I wish to highlight is that of confusion. At a time when we are all alert to the dangers of terrorism, there is a particular reason for ensuring that regulations are robust. I can recall sitting in the Members' Tearoom just a few days after 11 September. Suddenly, there was an almighty explosion. From the Tearoom we could not see what it was. It turned out to be a fireworks display on the south bank but—believe me, Madam Deputy Speaker—some elderly Members leapt out of their seats.
The threat of confusion is important. Hon. Members will appreciate that in Cornwall and Devon it is extremely important that the emergency services can immediately recognise a distress maroon signal from a boat or ship anywhere along the coast. The confusion that can arise because of expensive fireworks can be very dangerous indeed.
North Cornwall has a large number of elderly people and people who live in remote rural areas. I entirely endorse the point that was made by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes: this is not just an urban problem. Indeed, in a way, fireworks can be more dangerous in rural areas because the explosion is much more dramatic when there is not a lot of background noise. That can be dangerous for livestock and pets—and we know that some 8,000 pets a year may be affected—and can also be very disruptive for elderly people in remote communities.
One particular issue has rightly diverted this morning's debate. Fireworks can cause permanent damage to guide dogs, but they can also cause the disorientation of the dogs. My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who was here earlier, mentioned that the Royal National College for the Blind in his constituency is very concerned about such disorientation. It can not only be disruptive to a dog, but lead a person into a dangerous situation.
North Cornwall has, in the past, been somewhat notorious for attracting holidaying snob yobs to beach parties. In addition to burning boat equipment for their barbecues and bonfires, they let off fireworks at various times through the night, which is terribly disruptive in comparatively quiet neighbourhoods.
Like other Members, I want to speak briefly so that we can bring the debate to a successful conclusion. In cold print, the explanatory notes set out excellent justification for the measure. Existing powers are limited to the supply rather than the use of consumer goods. We must deal with use, possession and irresponsible attitudes. Yes, powers are available to the Minister for dealing with supply, although they may not be sufficiently well enforced. I understand the point about imports; it was made strongly in the debate and is extremely important.
516 It is demonstrable not only from what our constituents tell us but from the big turnout in the Chamber that the Bill is extremely important and timely and should be supported this morning.
§ 12.5 pm
§ Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)
Time presses so I shall not dwell on the niceties, other than to congratulate the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on introducing the Bill.
The problem with legislation of this type lies in finding a balance: we want to deal with a nuisance without interfering in people's reasonable enjoyment of fireworks in appropriate circumstances. There is no doubt about the inappropriate growth in the use of fireworks in recent years. It affects elderly people and, above all, pets and animals. It is no surprise that many Members referred to cases involving animals. My hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) made a powerful speech in which he drew attention to the effects on animals. That is the engine room for reform.
We all have horror stories about the distress caused to animals by inappropriate use of fireworks. Recently, a constituent wrote to me to say that she had had to have her dog put down because it had bitten her child after it was distressed by a firework display. An excellent briefing document from the RSPCA draws attention to the problems for horses, cats, small mammals and nocturnal wildlife such as badgers and foxes.
If pet owners receive notice that there is to be a firework display, they can take action to lessen the distress that could be caused to their pet. They can sedate animals or move horses. It is distressing to witness the anxiety caused to animals by fireworks. Dogs often shake and shiver from head to foot; they whimper and hide under beds to try to get away from the noise. Owners feel helpless in such situations because we cannot explain what is going on.
In recent years, there has been a growth of municipal displays, such as the large ones held on the other side of the river. They have taken over from the family, domestic type of event held in the back garden, with sausage rolls and dad trying to light a pathetic small fire, after which everyone retires early. There is real growth in the use of fireworks, especially in the London boroughs, so it is no surprise that many London MPs are in the Chamber.
The types of fireworks used are on the up. In an excellent speech, the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) set out the wide range of fireworks on display. There are shops that appear in the weeks leading up to 5 November where one can buy a huge container with just one fuse. It costs about 70 or 80 quid and is a complete, self-contained display. I admit that my constituency is fairly affluent and many young people buy such things; they give them to their younger brothers and off they go.
Unsurprisingly, many injuries are caused by fireworks—a point that has not been much mentioned today. The DTI briefing noted that 1,300 people were injured by fireworks last year, a quarter of the number of people injured in road traffic accidents, which was about 5,000. Given the amount of money devoted to the prevention of road traffic accidents, the Bill's proposals are modest by comparison.
517 As many Members have pointed out, the regulations are not working. The Minister dealt with the point that I raised in an intervention: no notices have been issued under the fixed penalty pilot scheme in Croydon because, as has been said, the offenders are mainly young kids aged under-18 who cannot be issued with such penalties. That is one of the problems that the Minister said that she would address.
§ Richard Ottaway
If my hon. Friend does not mind, I will not. He has only just arrived in the Chamber.
As a typical Conservative, I am reluctant to introduce powers if regulations are seen to be working. There is a common consensus, however, that those powers that are currently available are not seen to be working. I am wary about the enabling Bill, and I was comforted by the Minister's speech, when she said that she would consider these matters seriously. What is important is not just what can be sold and when they can be sold, but when they can be let off—we should contain the period within which fireworks can be let off—and to whom they can be sold. As my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup said, this problem seems to occur earlier and earlier—fireworks seem to go off throughout the autumn, and often through the night. The House must deal with that situation.
I return to the theme to which many Members have referred—animal welfare. That is desperately important, and I hope that the Bill will be given a fair wind.
§ Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)
I join other Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on introducing this important Bill, which strikes at a serious problem in all our communities. It is not often that he will receive a compliment from an SNP Member, and I hope that it does not damage his career too much.
I want to reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) that this is not just an urban problem. I cite the example in my constituency of one small village where more than £2,000 worth of damage was caused to a house when a firework was jammed through a letterbox in the early hours of the morning. If that fire had not been discovered quickly, it could have turned out to be fatal to the family sleeping in the house. That is how serious this matter is.
Fireworks are meant for enjoyment and celebration. Unfortunately, they are misused by a small minority, which causes huge distress to our constituents and to animals. It is perhaps no coincidence that fireworks are governed by the Explosives Act 1875. Sadly, many of those most at risk in our society are the most vulnerable. It has been noted that the numbers of injuries are increasing. In Scotland alone, in 2000–01, there was an increase of 35 per cent., which is seriously worrying. Last year, I pursued this matter through parliamentary questions to try to ascertain the dates of accidents 518 involving fireworks. The answers showed that the majority of incidents took place before and after 5 November, not on the date itself. Perhaps even more worryingly, the majority of those injured were under 18.
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) asked why this measure was a framework Bill rather than having the incremental approach that has been adopted until now. It is true that after the Government introduced the Fireworks (Safety) Regulations 1997, which, along with other measures, restricted the sale of fireworks to those over 18, the number of injuries from fireworks decreased. The level of injuries reported in 2001, however, was higher than in 1996, and substantially higher even than in the millennium year, 2000.
If the increase in the number of injuries is worrying, the age distribution of those injuries is even more disturbing, especially when one considers that, under those regulations, youngsters should not be able to buy fireworks. Injuries to under-13s account for 34 per cent. of the total injuries. A further 25 per cent. is made up of 13 to 15-year-olds. In essence, therefore, 59 per cent. of all firework-related injuries are to children under the age of 16—the very people who should not have access to fireworks. It seems clear, therefore, that the age restrictions in the 1997 regulations are not working and that further action is required.
I appreciate that time is short, but I want to raise the issue of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. My constituency has long been associated with guide dogs because of the presence of the Scottish training centre. The training centre is actually in Forfar, which is just across the border, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart). Much has been said about the problem for working guide dogs, but it goes further than that. Throughout the boroughs of Angus, many people look after and train puppies for the association. Many of those dogs are affected by fireworks before they even become working guide dogs. The problem is therefore serious and should not be underestimated, as it affects the association's puppies as well as the working guide dogs that assist our blind constituents.
Much has been said about the fact that the Bill is effectively an enabling measure, which is both a strength and a weakness. The weakness is obvious, as we are not entirely certain what the regulations will say, and trust the Minister to be reasonable. However, I was reassured by her speech and I believe that acceptable regulations will be introduced. The strength of such regulations is that they can be adopted more quickly than primary legislation. In an area like this, that is very important and, interestingly, was used by the industry as an argument in favour of the voluntary code. It argued that the code could be quickly amended. However, the code is simply not working because it is voluntary and, as has been noted, several retailers are not sticking to it, which has led to the need for regulation. If the Bill is not successful, there will be calls for a total ban. If there are no improvements, it will become more difficult to resist those calls.
§ Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)
Last year, I received more complaints from constituents about fireworks than ever before, as did Bournemouth 519 borough council, which serves my constituency. In response to those complaints, it passed a resolution on 26 November last year calling on the Local Government Association to make the strongest possible representations to the Government to ban the sale of fireworks to the public and ensure that fireworks are supplied only to qualified organisers of displays. My local paper, the BournemouthDaily Echo collected a petition in the form of over 4,000 completed coupons signed by its readers in response to its "Bang Out of Order" campaign, together with a separate petition supported by 3,500 signatures, both of which were presented by its senior reporter, Paula Roberts, to the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) and for South Dorset (Jim Knight) and myself outside St. Stephen's entrance at 9 o'clock this morning.
Any initiative to reduce the nuisance of fireworks will therefore have the widest possible support from my constituents. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on introducing his Bill today, but I shall suggest some ways in which it can be improved. The complaints and nuisances that have already been cited in justification of the Bill's introduction echo very much the complaints that I have received over the years against the unregulated and indiscriminate use of fireworks, which can have a serious effect on young children, the elderly and, indeed, all of us who cannot avoid an involuntary jump in response to a loud bang outside the home or anywhere for that matter. The effect on dogs, cats, aviary birds, horses and livestock is also distressing for the owners, particularly when pets and other animals have to be put down as a consequence.
The nuisance extends well beyond midnight, when most of us are trying to sleep. It needs only one bang to set off a chorus of dogs barking in the neighbourhood. The period in which we have to endure such nuisances seems to widen every year, starting well before Halloween and not ending until after the new year. Indeed, fireworks are used throughout the year, as we have heard. Many hon. Members have rightly stressed the traumatic effect of fireworks on guide dogs for the blind and on their owners—it can bring the dogs' useful work to a premature end. The conclusion we should draw from the ever-widening experience of our constituents is that the fun of fireworks for some does not justify the widespread misery that they cause for many. The Government's response has been to rely on voluntary restraint by the industry to reduce the level of noise and to reinforce the voluntary sale agreements with retailers, together with other initiatives, but the Bill goes further in enabling the Government to introduce new regulations on the use and supply of fireworks and in introducing other measures. What will happen when the Bill becomes law? Will my constituents immediately be better protected? That will not necessarily be the outcome. As the hon. Member for Hamilton, South acknowledged, his Bill is neither simple nor brief. It is also extremely bureaucratic, and I share the reservations expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) that it may prove to be unworkable. I want much clearer proposals in the Bill. I would not restrict the sale of fireworks. Instead, I would restrict when fireworks can be used and by whom. 520 Although I am a Roman Catholic Member of Parliament, I do not propose that Guy Fawkes night should be abolished, as it is so much part of our national culture. I am also a monarchist and a democrat, and believe that he should not have attempted to blow up the King and Parliament. The weapons inspectors did good in discovering the gunpowder plot—I hope they do the same in Iraq.
I propose that the private use of fireworks and the holding of bonfires should be restricted to seven days a year, which include 5 November and the nearest weekend to it. For the rest of the year, fireworks should be only for public display by organisers who have obtained an occasional licence from the local authority. That should also apply to private parties. There should be a curfew of midnight for all fireworks on every occasion.
How should these restrictions be policed? Because my proposals are much clearer than what the Bill proposes, I believe that public pressure and self-restraint could prove surprisingly effective. It would simply be considered antisocial to behave otherwise, even by young people towards those who offend. I believe that what I have proposed would have much more support than what is proposed in the Bill. I look forward to support from the promoter of the Bill for my proposals, and I wish him success in the passage of the Bill.
§ Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)
I shall not detain the House long, as there is a general consensus in support of the Bill. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on introducing it. We all know the growing problem. Year on year as Members of Parliament, we get more letters, more complaints and more hassle from constituents. We have heard well-rehearsed arguments about the problems caused to guide dogs for the blind, young children and the elderly, and the trauma caused to pets.
There is undoubtedly an argument for more controls on those who use fireworks. We are not killjoys, but the balance is wrong and we need to redress it. I support the Bill, although I have a number of concerns because it is an enabling Bill. I welcome the Minister's assurance that many of the regulations will be available for the Standing Committee and certainly before the Bill comes back to the House, so that we can see what the Government intend to do.
I also welcome the training aspect of the Bill, which is vital. Even those who are experienced should undergo training at regular intervals. Not much has been said about the provision of information. We can legislate all we like, but giving information to people and changing attitudes will be tremendously important. We have heard throughout the debate about abuse, largely by teenage boys. Much more can be done. Over recent years, the Department of Trade and Industry has provided much better information, but as the legislation goes through, there should be a commitment from Government to spend a little more on promoting good practice and highlighting the dangers of fireworks. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South 521 (Richard Ottaway) said, according to the most recent figures, 1,300 people were injured and taken to hospital. That is far too many.
§ Shona McIsaac
For the record, those injury figures are only for the month of November. There are probably more injuries than that, but the figures are collated only for that one month.
§ Mr. Syms
The hon. Lady makes a good point. As has been said, there are many injuries because of the extended period over which fireworks are used.
I support the principle of the Bill. We shall have to look carefully at the detail. My constituents will welcome the measure. As we have heard from Dorset Members today, firework safety is an issue in Dorset and the Poole-Bournemouth conurbation. TheDaily Echo has conducted a strong campaign. I wish the Bill well and hope that it makes good progress.
§ Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)
I will be very brief and try not to repeat points, but I congratulate the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on presenting his Bill so clearly today. I am impressed with the amount of support that he has gathered from such a large number and wide range of organisations.
Like all hon. Members in the Chamber today, I have an enormous mailbag of letters about the problems caused by fireworks. As the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) has just said, this morning, I was party to the presentation of a petition from out local paper, theDaily Echo. The petition was absolutely enormous, with readers writing to the paper day after day, saying that fireworks are going off all hours of the night, that they are louder than ever, that they terrify pets and the elderly and that they are being let off over a longer period of time. I do not think that that is just a perception; those are facts. Matters are getting worse and we need to do something about it.
I am also concerned that fireworks are getting into unauthorised hands, and I have an example from my constituency. A 1.5 m long firework—labelled "For display only. Made in China"—was found after badly damaging a roof in a residential area, and the incident was unrelated to any organised firework display. Those very large fireworks are really frightening. They might go through the glass roof of a room where people are sitting. All sorts of things could happen.
Many organisations have been mentioned, and I should like to add another: the Townswomen's Guilds—a very formidable organisation—carried out a survey among its 70,000 members last year. More than 90 per cent. of them were concerned about firework nuisance and believed that there should be more regulation.
I am concerned about how local councils deal with consumer protection complaints. I have a letter which states:
522It is so obviously true that it is such a cop-out. It is difficult for us to investigate private displays, as we never know where and when they will occur, so don't do anything about the noise at unsocial times.
§ Mrs. Brooke
I really have not got time to give way.
Local councils are looking for help, and I was very pleased to hear what the Minister said. The letter goes on to say:
We appreciate that the Government is looking into the question of retail sales of fireworks, but until legislation is made, we are not in a position to take any action.That is much appreciated.
We have heard much about the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, and I share all those thoughts.
As a Liberal Democrat, of course, I should like to quote one of my constituents. She wrote to me—this is very moving—saying:
Our beautiful large dog has to have 14 expensive tablets a day to calm her down and is still under the vet for a medical condition caused through stress and fear.All the local vets are saying that this is the worst year ever. That is the point: things are getting worse and worse. Vets and doctors are being involved in emergency call-outs because of the injuries. Apart from the cost to the individuals who are hurt, there are all the add-on distress, medical costs and so on.
I am very pleased that we are making progress. I am pleased to hear the level of support today. I am certainly not a killjoy—I really do enjoy celebrations and having a good time—but if we do not take action now, we will be face very strong calls for a ban, and we would all be worse off if we had a total ban on fireworks.
§ Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)
I, too, am pleased to support the Bill, although I am concerned that it has been watered down by the DTI, and I noted that the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) said that he hoped that it would be strengthened in Committee.
Among the incidents that have been reported to me by my constituents, I received a letter from a lady in Houghton Regis early last week saying:We dread the month prior to and following Bonfire night.She spoke of a firework display near her house that went on from 7 in the evening until 1 am, depriving all her household of sleep. A lady from Leighton Buzzard wrote to me to say that the local vets now put out advice leaflets to all who go to their surgery. They have never before had to tell owners how to deal with animals that are distressed by the use of fireworks.
Figures from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association tell us that four guide dogs are prematurely retired every year because of injuries caused by fireworks. Some 150 guide dogs have to be taken away from their owners every year and retrained, and we can imagine the distress that that must cause to their owners. It also estimates that up to £200,000 of publicly donated money is wasted because of fireworks. It is a serious issue and we are grateful to the association for providing that information.
523 Another constituent from Leighton Buzzard wrote to say:
Some of the explosions round here remind us of the blitz.Two other incidents were also extremely worrying. Only a few weeks ago in Leighton Buzzard, a rocket was fired at a house. It went through a window and only just missed a five-year-old child who had just left the room. Had the child been in the room, there could have been a casualty or even a fatality. Similarly, in the village of Kensworth in my constituency, rockets were recently fired at local shops and even at the Methodist church.
§ Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the trouble that we now face results from the sheer size of many fireworks? That is the feature that has changed so much in the past few years. Much bigger and more dangerous fireworks are available to the public when, in the past, they would have been used only at displays. I hope that the Bill will cover that point.
§ Andrew Selous
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am sure that we are all indebted to the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) for reading a list of the type and size of rockets that are freely available to the public.
The current law and regulations are failing. The Fireworks (Safety) Regulations 1997 have not done their job. We have already heard that it is not possible to give on-the-spot fines to those aged under 18, so that penalty will not be effective. My concern is that the police are simply unable to enforce the legislation that is on the statute book. That is the sad reality. We can pass laws in this place, but we have to examine whether the police are able to enforce them.
South Bedfordshire district council tells me that it cannot take action against offenders unless the offence is persistent. Except in a few cases, the same household is not likely to cause a problem again and again. The problem for our constituents arises when many different households and individuals cause offence and when the local authority cannot do anything about that.
§ John Robertson
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The police cannot arrest anyone unless the evidence is on the person or unless that person is seen lighting the firework. The police have an impossible job. We need to amend the law.
§ Andrew Selous
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why I want the Bill to do two specific things, and I hope that the hon. Member for Hamilton, South will deal with these points when he responds.
First, the Bill must end the sale to the public of noisy fireworks. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is right when it says that a 95 dB level should apply to the fireworks available to the public. Its evidence is that such a limit is needed because of the effects on animals. It has widespread public support. Secondly, the Bill must stop the sale of rockets to the public. We have already heard that they are used as missiles against people's houses.
Noisy fireworks and rockets can be used at the large properly organised public displays, but they should not be available for sale to the public. The public's use of 524 them should be made illegal. I do not want to stop private individuals using sparklers and holding quiet colourful displays. They are fine. However, the public must be prevented from using noisy fireworks and rockets.
§ John Barrett (Edinburgh, West)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on his good fortune and all the other Members who have worked on this issue over the years. The hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) have done a lot of work on it.
The issue has been brought to my attention by people in both the urban and rural parts of my constituency. Yesterday, I took a petition containing the names of more than 3,000 of my constituents to Downing street. The petition is the result of a campaign that showed the depth of feeling in Edinburgh, and names are still flooding in. That is why I support the Bill, and I am glad that many Members have given it a fair hearing.
I am not anti-fireworks, and do not favour an outright ban. Like many others I enjoy a good fireworks display, and those who have visited Edinburgh will know that my constituency is part of a city that hosts some of the most magnificent displays in the world, both at Hogmanay and during the Edinburgh festival. However, as has been said today, we need tighter restrictions—limits on the times of year during which fireworks can be bought and sold, and limits on the time of day during which they can be set off to end displays that take place throughout the night.
Clause 7, which I consider the most important part of the Bill, addresses one of the main deficiencies in the current law: the lack of a proper system to license the sale of fireworks. The question of licensing has given rise to a great deal of debate north of the border following the introduction of a private Member's Bill in the Scottish Parliament. I hope that the Government will consult the Scottish Executive to ensure that the issue can be tackled comprehensively on a cross-border basis.
We need the Bill because the current laws are not working, and because some retailers do not always behave responsibly and consider public safety. The Bill would provide an opportunity, which has never existed before, to require proper training of suppliers and retailers not only in the legal position but in simple matters such as storage. I was amazed to learn that such training did not already exist.
Despite the current laws, serious problems are still being caused by the sale to under-age people. In parts of my constituency major problems are being caused by very young children. That is partly because a minority of shopkeepers—I stress that they are a minority—are still prepared to sell fireworks to under-age children despite the law.
Clause 7 also makes a bold but necessary provision enabling licences to be issued for a set period only, reinforcing the Secretary of State's power effectively to limit the times of year in which fireworks are available. In some parts of the country they are sold throughout the year. When a voluntary code of practice fails, we must have a Bill to remedy the problem.
§ Paul Farrelly
Like many other Members, I have been inundated with complaints about the nuisance of 525 fireworks and the distress that they cause children, dogs and other animals, and elderly people. Some of my constituents have asked me to investigate the possibility of a byelaw. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that national legislation such as this is needed, rather than a patchwork of local pilot schemes and byelaws?
§ John Barrett
Absolutely. The Bill has been a long time coming, but now that it is here it is very welcome.
The Bill is urgently needed for another reason: animals need better protection. Much has been said about guide dogs for the blind. Last year, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is based in my constituency, produced a chilling report on the impact of firework misuse on animals following a comprehensive survey of Scottish vets. The report included a catalogue of stories relating to injuries and deaths caused by fireworks. In a single year, 8,000 animals needed veterinary attention, but perhaps more significant was the long period during which animals were exposed to firework injury and stress. They continued to suffer for many months after the event. Some of the worst instances cited in the report were deliberate attacks on animals with fireworks, which deserve total condemnation. There must be strict penalties to deal with people such as those described in the report.
This is a popular Bill, and many who have spoken have already covered issues that I would have raised had I been called earlier. Let me end by repeating that the Bill is strongly supported in my constituency. The police and the fire services there tell me how much time they must spend responding to incidents involving fireworks, and those in medical centres tell me how many injuries they must treat. Vets and people involved with Edinburgh zoo tell me of the distress and deaths that 526 fireworks cause. As I have said, the Bill has been a long time coming, but it is urgently needed and I give it my full support.
§ Mr. Tynan
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will be brief, because other Bills are on the agenda. I hope that other Members will understand and respect that.
Hon. Members have shown today the strength of feeling, not only in the House but in the nation, on the question of fireworks. The turnout today was incredible, and that was down sometimes to organisation and sometimes to the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett), an old campaigner in the House, gave me tremendous support and advice as regards organising to ensure that Members were in; I thank him for that. I also thank all colleagues for taking time to attend on a Friday, because I know how precious it can be to be in one's constituency. I am delighted.
Once again I emphasise the broad support that the Bill has received from outside the House. The National Campaign for Firework Safety—one organisation that I may have inadvertently omitted to mention—the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, the explosives industry group, the CBI and the British Pyrotechnists Association have all been exceptionally helpful to me. In order to get consensus, I believed that it was necessary to have discussion and debate.
I believe that the Bill is a timely, comprehensive and consensual solution to the problems of fireworks for the future. I commend it to the House.
Bill read a second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).