Clause 2 - Power to make regulations about fireworks

Fireworks Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 30th April 2003.

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Amendment made: No. 2, in

clause 2, page 2, line 3, at beginning insert—

'( ) no order shall be made under this section unless a draft of the order has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.'.—[Mr. Robathan.]

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

Photo of Professor Ross Cranston Professor Ross Cranston Labour, Dudley North

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South on introducing the Bill and taking it this far. I want to raise an issue about subsection (2). Subsection (1) says that the regulations are for securing that there is no risk that the use of fireworks will have certain consequences. In subsection (2), those consequences are spelt out. The first area is to do with death, injury and alarm. There is great concern about the antisocial behaviour associated with fireworks. If I catch your eye later, Mr. Benton, I will say something about that when we discuss clause 4.

The second area deals with injury or distress to animals; that is a great concern. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, which has done so much good work on the Bill, has said that it costs around £27,000 to train a guide dog but that four have to be retired every year due to stress. I know that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members have received petitions. I received a petition containing about 1,500 signatures from a veterinary practice in Dudley, Black and Partners.

I have a question for the Minister about the third area, which concerns

''destruction of, or damage to, property.''

Does she accept that, where the word ''damage'' is used, it includes potential damage? I have been shown large rockets by trading standards in my constituency. I have also seen rockets that were exhibited by the chairman of the Black Country Chamber of Commerce, Mike Holder, containing large pieces of aluminium, other metals and plastics. Those pieces fall from the sky. I have had no reports that they have caused damage in my constituency. However, there is potential for damage. I should like to be assured that the regulations could cover potential damage—damage that may be caused by those fireworks raining down from the sky. The regulations may, for example, limit the use of large aluminium or plastic pieces in rockets.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

My hon. and learned Friend says that he is not aware of injuries having occurred in his constituency but I echo his great concern. People may be in their gardens when debris from a large firework comes down. Last November, my local newspaper covered many near-miss incidents. There were photos showing how far the debris was embedded in the soil. If the person had been closer, they would have suffered a serious injury. When I was driving one icy night, debris from a firework hit my car bonnet, which was quite scary, so again there is a lot of potential for damage.

Photo of Professor Ross Cranston Professor Ross Cranston Labour, Dudley North

I have never been subjected to such damage by my constituents, but my hon. Friend makes my point for me. There is potential for damage, so I should like an assurance that the legislation would cover potential as well as actual damage. That may lead to controls on the type of materials that could be used in fireworks.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. It is great to see the Bill reach Committee today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South on the enormous efforts that he has made to achieve consensus on the Bill, and on bringing people together to get it this far. Some people may like the legislation to go a little further and others do not want it to go as far, but my hon. Friend must be congratulated on the way in which he has achieved consensus.

I do not know whether people in the Room are aware that today is special not only because we are in Committee but because it is international noise awareness day. It is therefore an apt day on which to debate the Fireworks Bill. I shall touch on some of the problems relating to noise and why it is vital that we accept clause 2. I am referring to the provision on the death of animals and injury or distress to animals. A vast number of people bring to our attention the injury and distress that is caused not only to pets but to livestock. Farmers in my constituency have been affected, and there is a particular problem with horses in stables.

The problem is across the board but I shall focus on one case that illustrates why we must toughen the law on fireworks: Warwick the guide dog. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association has been very involved in supporting the Bill. Warwick, who was owned by Derek Thorpe, had to be retired because of fireworks. He was not injured by a firework. A firework was thrown at him and exploded between his paws. However, the noise of the firework meant that the dog had to be retired.

As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) said, a phenomenal investment goes into a guide dog. Derek lost his companion, his ''eyes'', because after the firework exploded the dog was so traumatised by loud noises such as clapping or a door slamming that he could no longer do his job effectively. Although no injury was caused to Warwick, the effect was traumatic for both Warwick and Derek.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

I wonder whether the hon. Lady can help me with something about which I am still not clear. She talks about noise in relation to guide dogs. I remember referring on Second Reading to the fact that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has advised that a 95 dB level should be the acceptable noise level for fireworks. It says that any noise up to 95 dB does not harm animals, but noise over that level is of serious concern. Can the hon. Lady assure me that a 95 dB level will become part of the Bill? It is important to talk about noise in a measurable way, so we know exactly what we are talking about. If she is unable to help me, perhaps the Minister or the hon.

Member for Hamilton, South may be able to give me further illumination later.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes 2:45 pm, 30th April 2003

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman was gradually directing his question away from me and towards my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South or the Minister. However, he is right to say that there is a serious debate to be had about noise levels, and many hon. Members will agree that noise and decibel levels is the key issue. There is a variety of opinion, but the Department of Trade and Industry must examine the research by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on noise levels and when noise starts to cause damage.

Photo of Paul Truswell Paul Truswell Labour, Pudsey

Although I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), should we not point him to his Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Blaby, who I recollect referred to the RSPCA document on Second Reading and rubbished the idea of a 95 dB limit? I urge the hon. Gentleman to persuade the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman to adopt the sensible attitude that he has just described.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

My hon. Friend has adequately demonstrated that there is a debate to be had.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

Apparently, 95 dB is the equivalent of hearing a book dropped on to a desk from three metres.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

Indeed, a very large book. The point is whether Labour Members want to campaign for that, which is their right if they want to do so. We all have enormous sympathy with people such as Derek who lose their guide dog because of such action. However, will the hon. Lady confirm that the action of throwing a firework in the street is currently illegal and that the Bill as drafted will do nothing to prevent such a firework being thrown?

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's interpretation that the Bill will do nothing about the throwing of fireworks, as adequate measures in it come together to do that. It is usually young people who are guilty of that offence, and the Bill addresses that issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South will address that point far more eloquently than I can.

The hon. Member for Blaby said that 95 dB equalled the noise of a book being dropped from three metres, but we must also consider the levels of background noise. During the day, the book dropping would perhaps not be so disturbing, but in the quiet of the night, it is much more noticeable. We must consider those aspects when the relevant statutory instrument on noise is drafted, take into account the RSPCA research and work in consultation with other noise experts.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Scottish National Party, Angus

I do not know about other hon. Members, but I am beginning to get

distressed about this debate on noise. I do not know whether the hon. Lady agrees, but clause 2 says that fireworks carry the risk of, among other things, causing

''injury or distress to animals'',

which must cover noise as well as physical injury from fireworks. We are getting somewhat sidetracked with the argument about noise, which will have to be dealt with by regulations.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

That is what I am saying. There will have to be a serious debate at that stage, and it would be remiss of us if we did not mention the issue of noise. Noise combined with distress to animals is the main theme in my postbag and the main focus of everyone who has come to see me about the issue of fireworks. Five or six years ago, the main focus of the debate on fireworks was properly on injuries, but it has moved on because of the recognition of antisocial behaviour related to fireworks—a serious issue in our communities, which must be addressed. Members of the Committee cannot ignore the debate about noise, otherwise we will not address the concerns of our constituents.

I talked about the case of Derek Thorpe and his guide dog Warwick, which encapsulates why we are here today, as it shows the distress caused to an animal and the effect that it had on its owner. I carry very large handbags, and have brought a photograph of Warwick to the Committee. It happens to be on a bottle of beer, for which I hope the Committee will forgive me. It is made to raise funds for guide dogs for the blind. Poor old Warwick had to be retired because of fireworks. I shall not open the bottle in case I scare people with the noise.

Death, distress or injury to animals and to people, and the destruction of property encapsulate the antisocial behaviour aspect of the misuse of fireworks, and it is important that we approve the clause and get the Bill through Committee today and back to the House of Commons so that, as I hope, it will become law as soon as possible. We can then end the distress and prevent other guide dogs from having to be retired early as a result of thoughtless hooliganism.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour, Ogmore

I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South on getting his private Member's Bill this far. It is recognition of the work that he and the all-party group on fireworks have done. I place on record the work of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, which other hon. Members mentioned, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Age Concern and other organisations that have worked strenuously for many years to bring this issue to the fore in Parliament.

I also place on record the 22,000 petitioners from south Wales, the 80,000 petitioners from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association—I understand that that figure has increased since and could be increased even further in south Wales—and the personal and committed support of various newspapers throughout south Wales, such as the Gazette, the South Wales Evening Post, the Western Mail, and others which have

committed much time and energy to promote the issue and to encourage people to write letters. About 150 letters have been received, which reflect all the concerns to which subsections (2)(a), (b) and (c) relate: injuries, fright to animals and to the elderly, and the destruction of property.

It is worth mentioning the incident that spurred me to take part in the debate. Shortly after being elected in February 2002—long after 5 November—a rocket was propelled through the window of an elderly resident in my constituency whom I knew personally, and broke the window. Thankfully it did not set fire to the curtains, although that has happened in other incidents. That reflects a telephone call that I received from the managing director of what was the largest wholesaler of fireworks in south Wales. I thought that he had rung to berate me for my support for this campaign, only to be told that the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, the RSPCA and I were absolutely right: things have changed; fireworks are louder, the incidents of misuse on the streets are much more prevalent nowadays, and something must be done.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

The hon. Gentleman talks about the incident in his constituency of a rocket going through a window. Only a couple of months ago, the same thing happened in my constituency in Leighton Buzzard. I referred to that event on Second Reading. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Bill, as it goes through Parliament, will stop the sale of the rockets that can be fired as missiles and seriously injure, if not cause a fatality among our constituents? I am not clear about that, and if he cannot assure me, perhaps the Minister or the hon. Member for Hamilton, South can give me further clarification.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour, Ogmore

The hon. Gentleman is complimentary in holding up for me the prospect of a ministerial position. However, I shall defer to my hon. Friend the Minister to answer the question. There is scope for such deliberations when we discuss the regulations that will follow from the Bill.

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

I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. I expected to kick off the proceedings, but I erred. In analysing each clause of the Bill, we must recognise the importance of noise. I have had many conversations in the past three or four months about how we should deal with it. There is no decibel limit in legislation. Over the past four or five years, a European standard of 120 dB has been discussed. I met representatives of the RSPCA this morning to discuss its ''Quiet Please'' report. It had intended to seek amendments to the Bill that would require it to specify a level lower than 120 dB. Our discussion took place on the basis that, as has been said, I have sought to be consensual and to gain as much support for the Bill as possible, and to pressurise the Minister to ensure that the Bill is relevant to the people whom we represent. It is an enabling Bill that will allow the introduction of statutory instruments based on the needs of our constituents.

Noise is an important issue. There is scope in clause 2 to introduce a decibel limit, but that will be done on the basis that we seek to persuade the British Fireworks Association that it can produce quieter

fireworks and the RSPCA that it can accept higher than 95 dB. To that end, the RSPCA proposes to give a display of quiet fireworks, to which I extend an invitation to every member of the Committee. I hope that we shall be able to see the effect of that demonstration, and that it will involve all parties, including the BFA. Perhaps it could be persuaded to change the construction of fireworks so that they are quieter to use and to watch.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour, Ogmore 3:00 pm, 30th April 2003

I sat down prematurely, Mr. Benton. Subsection (3) gives me the opportunity to ask about consultation with the various groups whose interests will be affected. Mention has been made of fireworks manufacturers. Would he consider it apposite to consult not only groups representing the elderly and organisers of displays—such as local authorities and church groups—but youth groups, which will also have an interest in the legislation? He might also be able to comment on subsection (3)(c), which mentions

''other persons whom the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to consult''.

It would be useful if he could clarify, now or on Report, who they are.

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

It is important to make progress. I can imagine filling Hampden Park—that is a football stadium in Scotland—with interested parties. It is important for the main players to be involved in the discussion. That includes those to whom I have spoken in the past three or four months; I would not exclude anybody who wanted to take the opportunity to contribute. If we make the consultation too protracted, we may end up with no legislation on the issue of noise, which would be a tragedy. I have spoken to the British Fireworks Association, the RSPCA, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, Blue Cross, Help the Aged and other organisations with an interest in the issue. As I am sure the Minister will make clear when she responds, the sensible way forward would be to reach a consensus about the decibel level that has the least effect on animals and the elderly. If we can do that, we shall have taken a major step forward, although we may not have achieved the full loaf. That is how we should proceed on the clause, but the Minister will want to make her position clear.

Noise is a major issue. In its ''Quiet Please'' report, the RSPCA recognises the fact that changing the construction of fireworks may result in a lower decibel level. I would hate to see the British Fireworks Association start a lobbying campaign, with Opposition parties asking for opposition to the Bill on the basis that we were injuring the industry. It is therefore important that we reach a consensus, and an attempt has been made to do that as regards the noise level. The clause is a way forward, and I hope that the Minister will listen to the concerns that have been expressed this afternoon.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Scottish National Party, Angus

I did not intend to say anything about the clause, but I want to support the hon. Member for Hamilton, South. He talked about consensus, and his success in achieving it can be gauged by the fact that he

has managed to get members of the Labour party in Scotland and members of the Scottish National party to agree with one another on the eve of the Scottish parliamentary elections. That is a major achievement.

Clause 2 is the crux of the Bill. We shall deal later with clauses that prohibit supplying young persons with certain fireworks in certain circumstances, but the regulations in the clause will be at the heart of controlling the noise and damage that fireworks may cause. The types of firework that can be supplied to anyone, and the way in which they are used, are the crux of the problem.

As has been rightly said, noise is a great problem. I represent Angus, which has a long association with the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. The association has a centre in Forfar, and the community has many ties to guide dogs. There is great concern about the difficulties that they face, not only once they are being used but during their training.

Noise is a year-round problem. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) talked about a rocket coming in through someone's window, and I had a complaint from a constituent last week about the misuse of fireworks. It is April, but fireworks are being misused. That demonstrates the extent of the problem—it affects people all year round. I therefore very much support the clause in its present form.

I fully recognise that the clause gives the Minister powers. We shall find out how effective it is once we see the regulations, but we must first get to that stage. Like the hon. Member for Hamilton, South, I would be worried if we became bogged down in the nitty-gritty at this stage. Let us get the principle on the statute book—we can argue about the nitty-gritty of the regulations thereafter.

Photo of Paul Truswell Paul Truswell Labour, Pudsey

I was not intending to speak, but I am concerned that certain hon. Members do not realise that constituents such as mine think that the issue of noise is crucial to the Bill. I may be condemned as a noise zealot throughout our proceedings, but I do not mind that label. It is clear from the correspondence that I receive from constituents, and from campaigns conducted by many newspapers, including the excellent Yorkshire Evening Post in my area, that the crux of the issue is noise, noise and noise again.

I fully appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South wants to make progress; that is absolutely right. His Bill contains a wonderful raft of measures, which will allow us to tackle almost every aspect of the abuse and use of fireworks. I wish him good luck and I thank him for introducing it.

At the end of the day, however, people's main concern is noise. I have tried to retain my objectivity, but on far too many occasions through the year my family and I—we have two young boys—are subjected to the activities of an amateur pyrotechnician in our area who sets off unguided missiles and causes enormous problems. Whether the Government introduce curfews or licences, or restrict the period of use, we shall come up against the rocks of experience; and those rocks tell us that enforcement

will always be difficult. That is why I am a fully fledged zealot on the issue of tackling noise through a statutory noise limit on fireworks that are available for use by the general public. However we try to restrict the way in which fireworks are used, enforcement is always a problem. If we introduce a statutory noise limit, the problem will be tackled at source and we shall not have to rely on the police, environmental offices or whomsoever is given the responsibility for enforcement.

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

Although we could have a debate about the noise levels that we could set, does my hon. Friend accept that if, on the basis of, say, the ''Quiet Please'' report, we set the noise level at 95 dB and we lost the Bill, that would be a major problem in dealing with fireworks? If so, does my hon. Friend accept that everything will depend on the Minister's implementation of the clause to the full, on the basis of the concerns that he and others have expressed?

Photo of Paul Truswell Paul Truswell Labour, Pudsey

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. To make my position clear, I do not intend to pursue a specific noise limit in Committee. Rather, I wish to add my voice to those of people who are concerned about the matter, yet who do want a statutory noise limit. I am therefore using the opportunity presented by discussion on this clause to tell my hon. Friend the Minister that when she acquires the powers that are embodied in the Bill she will need to consult widely on reasonable and sensible statutory noise limits.

A 120 dB limit is not at all reasonable or sensible. I understand that that level, which the European Union perhaps advocates, is the equivalent of a jet aircraft at 100 m or a loud car horn 1 m. It is far too loud. That is why I am attracted by the RSPCA's ''Quiet Please'' campaign, although that is not because it focuses on 95 dB, but because it gives us a starting point. Our constituents want the control of noise to be the prime consideration of the House of Commons in dealing with fireworks, which is why that campaign should be a starting point. We should at least be able to tell our constituents why 95 dB is not appropriate, reasonable or consensual, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South suggested it was not.

I shall leave my comments at that. I make a plea to the Minister to err on the side of people in the community and animals when discharging the powers that the Bill will give, and to consider seriously imposing a statutory noise limit that is closer to, if not exactly the same as, the 95 dB limit that the RSPCA advocated in its excellent report than it is to the absolutely nonsensical limit of 120 dB that has been suggested from Europe.

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

I welcome the issues that hon. Members in all parts of the Committee have raised on the clause.

Noise was mentioned in many contributions. I have met the RSPCA. Indeed, I commended it on producing the document entitled ''Quiet Please—Loud fireworks frighten animals'' and on working to reduce the alarm and distress caused to animals by fireworks, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) and others graphically

described. We have asked the explosives section of the Health and Safety Executive to consider further the report that was produced and two other recent reports on firework noise that the RSPCA work mentions.

I do not want to get technical or be drawn into technical arguments, but my hon. Friend talked about background noise with regard to how loud a noise seems. Other issues include proximity—whether it is a one-off or repeated noise, the environment in which it takes place and whether the noise can escape naturally. I must inform my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), who by his own description is a noise zealot, that noise and the measurement of it is a complicated matter. It also involves the measurement of the distance between the sound source and the measuring apparatus. We want to look into the issues in more detail.

At present, we are not at the stage of debating a decibel limit. However, I hope that we are at the stage where the House of Commons gives us powers to deal with the issues in more detail later by statutory instrument. I therefore advise members of the Committee not to get too hooked on specific figures, but to consider matters objectively. We should bear in mind the wise advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South that we must move forward on a consensual basis.

I am sure that much improvement can be achieved. We hope to have continuing discussions with the HSE and the RSPCA on those issues. The BFA needs to be involved in those discussions because obviously there are technical questions about the current levels for fireworks, whether those relate to 120 or 95 dB on whatever method of measurement. We must consider these matters in much more detail, based on a clear analysis of the right way of measuring and considering levels and of how we move forward. I agree that noise is perhaps the key issue in the distress that fireworks cause to human beings and animals.

Photo of Paul Truswell Paul Truswell Labour, Pudsey

If my hon. Friend will indulge me in my zealotry, could she say how a scenario might develop whereby, through regulations, it could be dictated whether a firework with a noise level of, say, 120 dB was set off next door to someone's house or in a field half a mile away?

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

Obviously one cannot do that, as my hon. Friend is well aware. There is nothing absolute about sound. Where and how it is measured, and the environment in which it takes place, make a huge difference to its impact on humans and animals. The industry has indicated that the forthcoming 5 November period should be about 30 million bangs quieter as a result of the voluntary air bomb ban that it put in place last year in respect of manufacture. I trust that we can look forward to a quieter fireworks season in any event, without further issues being addressed, but we will come to address those issues.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North asked about the threat of destruction and my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes also talked about that. As things stand, the measure covers only damage, not potential damage. My hon. and

learned Friend is right to raise the question, but it is difficult to regulate against a potential—given his background, he will fully understand that. The Bill does mention minimum risk, but current British standards and forthcoming European standards put a limit on the size and weight of debris from fireworks. There are other ways of tackling the problem, and I trust that those standards will have the sort of impact that he is looking for. It is a concern that I share.

I turn to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore and the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire that clause 5 would allow us to control the supply of certain fireworks, which could include fireworks that are widely misused. However, we must be careful not to restrict supply of certain fireworks that should otherwise be available because of the actions of a hooligan element. Again, we need to strike a balance and arrive at consensus.

Of course, the fixed penalty regime for antisocial behaviour, and its application to the under-18s as well as to the over-18s, could be considered when dealing with future control of fireworks, notwithstanding the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey. I agree with him that it is better to control the difficulty than to end up having to enforce the rules. However, key elements in our attempts to improve the situation will ultimately rely on enforcement—however much we may try to prevent the need for enforcement by making the conditions and the regulations right in the first place. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.