Clause 9 - Prohibition of importation etc. of fireworks

Fireworks Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 30th April 2003.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Bill Tynan Mr Bill Tynan Labour, Hamilton South

I shall draw attention to some of the relevant issues relating to importation, distribution and storage.

Everyone will be aware of the blaze at the fireworks warehouse in Liverpool last week. A toy factory caught fire, and when firefighters went to put out the blaze, they found that an adjoining warehouse was

storing fireworks. The roof was blown off the warehouse, and the firefighters were not equipped in the first instance to deal with that. I spoke to the gentleman who is the commander of the station, and he expressed concern that the Health and Safety Executive was unaware that the warehouse had been used for storing fireworks.

I shall comment on one of the major difficulties of importation. We talk about antisocial behaviour, and the enormous problem of white van sales and car boot sales, but those are all wrapped up in a situation in which containers of fireworks are being brought into the country. It is rumoured that about 10 tonnes of fireworks are coming into the country for a company that does not have adequate storage areas for that quantity of fireworks. At present, a container comes into the country at Felixstowe, Customs and Excise checks to make sure that the contents are as they should be, then it is released to go on its merry way. There is no guarantee that it is going to a proper licensed storage area.

When I went to Kimbolton Fireworks, I was impressed by the fact that it uses a disused aircraft hanger. That is a secure and proper place to store fireworks. I understand that, because it is licensed, the HSE pays regular visits to nit-pick. The HSE nit-picks about how the material is stored and what sort of fireworks are there, while containers of fireworks coming into the country are not going to licensed storage areas. The HSE is powerless because the fireworks are not licensed. It does not know where the fireworks are going, and there is no tracking mechanism. Along with noise, that is one of the most important issues that the Bill has to address.

We must have a system to prevent unscrupulous retailers bringing fireworks into the country and distributing them to those who are under age through car boot sales or ice-cream vans. The clause is the mechanism to address that. How does the Minister envisage that system operating, because it is essential? I do not believe that there is joined-up thinking between Customs and Excise, the HSE and local authorities on the matter, or that we are ensuring that fireworks brought into the country are being taken to proper storage areas.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

My point relates to some of those raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland. If we are talking about the importation of fireworks, we should consider also the impact of internet and mail order sales from abroad, as well as within this country. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give some thought to that under the Bill.

Photo of Miss Melanie Johnson Miss Melanie Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South about those imports that do not make their way to authorised storage, and about the problems of tracking them. Indeed, I discussed the matter extensively with my officials, the HSE and the industry last year, because of my concerns about the issues. I do not want to go into too much detail on the matter, but I can say that my officials have been in contact with the HSE and the British Fireworks Association since then. The HSE is

well aware of the issue, and is monitoring it on the basis of the systems that were put in place as a result of my discussions last year, including those held with the local enforcement agencies.

We accept that the broad intention of the powers in clause 9 is to provide advanced warning to enforcement authorities about consignments, and so to facilitate the tracing. We are doing what we can under the existing arrangements to follow that through and, with the Bill, we will be in a better position to make sure that fireworks are appropriately tracked and are only imported and sent to appropriate destinations.

Photo of Mr Bill Tynan Mr Bill Tynan Labour, Hamilton South

I do not want to prolong the argument, and I hear what the Minister is saying, but the HSE did not know that the warehouse in Liverpool that I mentioned was being used for the storage of fireworks. Obviously, there is a failure in how we are addressing the matter. I recognise that an attempt is being made to resolve this major problem, but it is obviously failing at the moment, as my example of the warehouse demonstrates. It is important that, when we move into the firework season, which has been extended and extended, we deal with the matter in a proper and comprehensive way. I urge the Minister to re-examine the current conditions with a view to strengthening them.

Photo of Miss Melanie Johnson Miss Melanie Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

I trust that that is what we are doing under clause 9, which recognises that we need more powers.

It would be deeply surprising if some things had happened of which enforcement authorities were not aware. Even the best enforcement authorities are bound to find something from time to time that comes as an unpleasant surprise, but I believe that we have done all that we can and argued all that we can under the existing legislation.

My hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Anniesland and for Cleethorpes talked about mail order and internet selling. Those are very difficult issues, and it is difficult to know exactly what conditions we could apply where the source is outside the UK. I respect their concerns, as I believe that we will have to consider these matters to try to find a way of dealing with them.

There are, however, facets of mail order, and of internet selling in particular, that go way beyond the issue of fireworks and into questions of what is being bought and sold via the internet and how it is supplied. All sorts of issues relating to health and safety, and other issues, also arise from those sales. We will, however, see whether we can address these issues under the Bill. I should say, however, that only a tiny percentage of current sales are made through those routes. Fireworks are usually supplied legitimately via UK ports and through authorised retailers of one sort or another.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow Anniesland

Does my hon. Friend the Minister accept that the amount may be small at the moment, but that it is a good way for people to circumvent the law? I understand that the internet may cause a problem in many instances, but mail order is different: it must come through some form of customs if it is coming from outside the country, and it can be seen.

My problem with the internet is that sales can be made outside the country but posted inside it. I accept what my hon. Friend says, but I believe that we can do something about mail order.

Photo of Miss Melanie Johnson Miss Melanie Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

My hon. Friend may be right about entry into the UK at the ports. Fireworks are often a legitimate product and can be imported—there is no issue about that—but there are wider issues about fireworks in the post. I understand my hon. Friend's point, but fireworks can enter the country and be distributed throughout it in all sorts of ways. We will have to see whether a significant market develops in this area, but my intuition is that consumers will tend to want to buy fireworks locally. That has been the tradition. The increase in internet and mail order sales in other areas has not been mirrored to the same degree in the purchase of fireworks. I do not belittle the problem in any way. I want to find a way of dealing with it, but believe that it is probably one of the most difficult issues that we could face.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Scottish National Party, Angus

It appears that if we accept clauses 3 to 5, anyone supplying fireworks will have to satisfy themselves that they are satisfying the relevant conditions, whether fireworks are supplied through the internet or by mail, otherwise they leave themselves open to prosecution in the UK. It is perhaps not quite the serious problem that is suggested. There is always the serious problem of tracing them in the first place; that is the real difficulty.

Photo of Miss Melanie Johnson Miss Melanie Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

If they are supplied within the UK, the issue is easier to address. Problems arise where they are supplied outside the UK. With internet sales in particular, the source can obviously be outside the UK, and the problem is much more difficult to act on.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Scottish National Party, Angus

If the difficulty is that the fireworks have been ordered over the internet but supplied from within the UK, the other clauses would cover those suppliers, irrespective of the fact that the order had been placed over the internet.

Photo of Miss Melanie Johnson Miss Melanie Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

Indeed, providing that one could ascertain that a sale had been made. An internet website that is linked to a white van parked somewhere in the UK could be difficult to track down. We can imagine all sorts of scenarios in which it would be difficult for the enforcement authorities to act, but I will bear in mind the concerns expressed by hon. Members, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South will. We will consider the topic further if, as we hope, the Bill is eventually enacted.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.