Fireworks

– in the Scottish Parliament on 29th October 2019.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

The next item of business is a statement by Ash Denham on promoting safe and appropriate use of fireworks in Scotland. The minister will take questions at the end of her statement. I encourage all members who wish to ask a question to press their request-to-speak buttons.

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

I welcome this opportunity to update Parliament on the actions that the Government will take to promote safe and appropriate use of fireworks. I begin by acknowledging the positive role that fireworks can play in bringing our communities together. Attending a display in a safe environment can be a wonderful experience, and can add magic to any celebration. I enjoy fireworks displays—as, I am sure, do many of my colleagues across the chamber.

My message today is about keeping people safe and ensuring that fireworks are used responsibly, at the right time and in the right place. In order to achieve that, the Scottish Government is keen to work with the fireworks industry, partners and communities to support promotion of, and access to, well-run organised displays.

For the second year, a list of organised public events across Scotland has been published by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service on its website. I encourage anybody who is looking to enjoy fireworks over the coming weekend and on 5 November to do so at one of those events.

However, it has, in recent years, become increasingly clear that our relationship with fireworks is not all positive. There have been reports of antisocial behaviour on and around bonfire night and of attacks against our emergency services, and there have been disturbing and distressing accounts from individuals about inappropriate use of fireworks. That has been happening in our constituencies across the country, and has meant that public services across Scotland have had to dedicate large amounts of time and resources to keeping people safe.

We are now exactly one week away from bonfire night: I could not overstate the huge amount of pre-planning and preventative activity that has been undertaken at national and local levels. Earlier this month, I met senior commanders from Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, who provided reassurance that all that could be done is being done in preparation for bonfire night, and that robust multi-agency systems are in place across the country. They include multi-agency command centres in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and a national co-ordination unit that will review and command activity across the rest of the country.

Following experiences last year, resources will be targeted at communities in Glasgow, Edinburgh and West Lothian. A significant amount of work has been undertaken with those communities and local partners in recent months. The line is clear from our police, our prosecutors and our courts: they will deal robustly with anyone who offends. People who are charged with attacks against our emergency services workers can expect to face up to life imprisonment, or an unlimited fine, or both.

I am sure that all members will join me in giving our support to the emergency services, and in applauding the significant amount of work that they put in at this time of the year, each and every year.

Of course, prevention is better than cure, so the importance of community engagement in the run-up to bonfire night to share messages and to clarify the rules and regulations continues. Our emergency services, along with a number of partners, have been delivering campaigns on those matters, and the Scottish Government has this year worked with Crimestoppers to run a targeted campaign in key communities. I attended one such area—Pollokshields, in Glasgow—just two weeks ago, where I saw local police and Glasgow City Council engaging positively with young people to highlight the impact and consequences of fireworks misuse on their communities.

As members across the chamber will be aware, earlier this year I launched a national public consultation to gather the experiences, ideas and views of the people of Scotland. The consultation ran for 14 weeks, and 16,420 responses were received—more than 7,000 within the first 24 hours of its going live. I am sure that Parliament will agree that there is a significant level of public engagement on the issue. The responses clearly demonstrate that the sale and use of fireworks are of interest to people across the country. The public consultation was supported by 29 public events; I take this opportunity to extend my thanks to everyone who was involved in those discussions for sharing their views and experiences.

What did we learn from the consultation? We learned that, overwhelmingly, people want change. Almost all those who responded to the consultation—94 per cent—said that they would welcome increased controls on sale of fireworks, and many called for an outright ban on their sale to the general public. Most of those who responded—92 per cent—felt that there should be more control over use of fireworks.

We recognise that consultation responders are self-selecting, so in order to ensure that the 16,420 views could confidently be presented as the voice of Scotland, a separate but complementary statistically representative opinion poll was undertaken. It told us much the same thing: 71 per cent of people want more control over the sale of fireworks, 68 per cent support more controls over how they are used, and 58 per cent would support an all-out ban on their sale to the general public. Taken together, the results are conclusive: people in Scotland want change.

We heard about the distress that can be caused to animals, which often leads to their being injured. The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals told us that animals panic—they flee at the sound of fireworks’ loud bangs, which can result in injury to those animals and, sometimes, in road traffic accidents.

We also heard how the noise of fireworks often results in anxiety and stress to people with noise sensitivity, including people with autism. It was described as an “onslaught of noise” that

“can cause difficulty for some people, especially autistic people”.

We heard that bonfire night can also be a difficult time for our armed forces veterans, with the lights, loud bangs and strong smells causing considerable anguish to many of them.

We also heard strongly about the need to remain cautious of the real danger that fireworks can pose if they are not used safely and appropriately. It is a fact that most fireworks-related injuries occur at private displays, such as those in our back gardens. Also, it is our young people who are most at risk of injury.

The sale of fireworks is, of course, a reserved matter. I should, therefore, say that if we had the relevant powers, I would seek, in reflecting the majority view of the public in the consultation and the national survey, to implement tougher curbs on firework sales, including a potential ban on their general sale.

In the meantime, I have been writing to the United Kingdom Government regularly over the past year to keep it updated on the consultation. I wrote at the start of October, and recently received a positive response from Kelly Tolhurst MP, who is the Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility. I will pursue the matter, and look forward to further discussions with Ms Tolhurst. I want Scotland to lead the way, so I would welcome the opportunity to start a discussion with the UK Government about how Scotland can be given the power to introduce comprehensive changes on the sale of fireworks in our country.

On 7 October, I hosted a round-table event with representatives of the fireworks industry, the emergency services, local authorities, the national health service and other key stakeholders, at which I heard strong willingness to work together to implement any changes.

With that approach in mind, I have published today “Fireworks Action Plan: Promoting the safe and appropriate use of fireworks in Scotland”. The action plan sets out a number of short-term, medium-term and longer-term activities that will implement change in our relationship with fireworks. Those actions include the following: communication campaigns to be run across Scotland, such as I mentioned earlier; development of advice and guidance for points of sale; support for communities that are considering organising displays; and support for and direct engagement with communities that are most affected by antisocial behaviour involving fireworks.

However, let me be clear: although they are vital, information and advice alone will not be enough to deliver a transformation in the use of fireworks in Scotland: I intend to introduce legislative change. I therefore confirm that I will establish a fireworks review group, and I am delighted to announce that it will be chaired by Alasdair Hay, who is the former chief officer of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

The group will be invited to consider a range of options, including the opportunity to introduce restrictions on use of fireworks on private property, the opportunity to tighten up the dates and times when fireworks can be set off, and the opportunity to introduce “No fireworks” areas or zones. It will also be able to explore any other ideas that arise from its consideration. I will agree the final remit and membership of the group with Mr Hay, but I anticipate that it will include key stakeholders, including the fireworks industry. The group will operate for up to nine months, and will present its final recommendations to me in summer 2020. I will be delighted to report back to Parliament at that stage on the group’s recommendations.

In closing, I pass on my personal gratitude to each and every member of our emergency services, to our public and third sector services, and to the people in our communities who volunteer their spare time.

I wish everyone a safe and enjoyable bonfire night, but I also make it clear that the Government intends to change our relationship with fireworks. I believe that the action plan that I have published today will help us in working towards achieving that aim.

Photo of Maurice Corry Maurice Corry Conservative

I thank the minister for advance sight of her statement.

The Scottish Conservatives agree that a balance must be struck between the safe enjoyment of fireworks and robust regulations to prevent antisocial and illegal behaviour. We will work with both of Scotland’s Governments to seek consensus on the further steps that should be taken. I also join the minister in paying tribute to our brave emergency services, and give credit to my colleague Liam Kerr, who has campaigned tirelessly for better support and protection for our emergency services workers.

Will the minister give us an update on the calls that he made last year for further roll-out of body-worn cameras, and for closure of the gap in the law that prevents police from searching for and seizing fireworks?

Because of my longstanding interest in the wellbeing of our veterans in Scotland, I also ask the minister to provide further details of how the Scottish Government plans to support our former armed forces personnel in relation to antisocial use of fireworks.

Finally, can the minister provide further detail on the content of the Scottish Government’s advice and guidance around point-of-sale material?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

I am glad that the Scottish Conservatives agree with our proposals, and am grateful to have their support with regard to consideration of how we can move forward.

There is quite a complicated relationship between what is reserved and what is devolved, but we can all agree that the public support tighter restrictions on the sale of fireworks. If the Scottish Conservatives are willing to work with me on that, we will need to speak to the UK Government, but I am committed to driving forward the change that we need in order to change Scotland’s relationship with fireworks. I want to keep people safe.

I mentioned the impact on veterans in my statement, so I am glad that the member also mentioned it in his question. I am keen for Scotland to lead the way on this important issue, which affects many of our communities.

Maurice Corry mentioned attacks on our emergency services. Any attacks on our emergency services with fireworks or with any other weapon are completely unacceptable. I am committed to driving forward any necessary action to ensure that our emergency services are kept safe. Parliament brought in the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, and we extended its provisions in 2008. That includes important protections in criminal law for emergency service workers. I remind Parliament that those protections were opposed at the time by the Scottish Conservatives.

I am grateful for the Conservatives’ support on the issue. I am glad that they are getting behind us and thank them for that.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

I thank the minister for advance sight of her statement. We welcome it and the setting up of the fireworks review group. The minister is right that fireworks displays, when they are properly organised, can be excellent community events that people can turn up to and enjoy. However, over recent years, there have been increasing incidents of disorder, which have caused anxiety and fear among the general public.

On emergency services workers, it is of particular concern that we have seen a rise in attacks on firefighters in four regions in Scotland. In Glasgow in particular, there have been 23 attacks in the past year. It is completely unacceptable that people who are turning out to protect the public are subjected to attacks. In the run-up to November 5, what specific actions will be taken to protect firefighters and other emergency workers?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

James Kelly has raised a number of important points. I am grateful to him for welcoming the review group. He is right to point out the increase in incidents of attacks on our emergency services workers, and I note his specific mention of firefighters. In part, such attacks are what has driven my interest in looking at this issue and in holding the consultation to gain the views of the people of Scotland and to let their voices be heard.

The action plan lays out a number of actions, including short-term and medium-term actions. The review group falls into the category of longer-term actions, which would include the creation of a legislative framework that would change our relationship with fireworks.

In the short term, we are coming up to the bonfire season, and I have heard that, in some constituencies, antisocial behaviour has already begun. We have undertaken targeted interventions in certain areas. As members have mentioned, such activity is much more prevalent in some areas. We have taken note of that.

I met senior members of Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to discuss planning in advance of bonfire night. It is, clearly, one of the busiest nights for the emergency services, and they have assured me that they have put in place planning and targeted interventions, including preventative activity. We are also running awareness campaigns.

The targeting of emergency services workers is not acceptable, so we want to ensure that anybody who is involved in such activity over the coming period is dealt with robustly.

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

I thank the minister for her statement, and I welcome the publication of the action plan. I also thank all the emergency services workers who will be working to keep my constituents in Renfrewshire South safe over the coming week.

In her statement, the minister said that

“prevention is better than a cure”.

To that end, she will be aware that, recently, a number of supermarkets have either banned the sale of fireworks in their stores or restricted their sales to low-noise fireworks. Does the minister welcome that, and does she agree that it is a step in the right direction with regard to keeping our communities safe from fireworks misuse?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

I welcome the move by Sainsbury’s to stop selling fireworks in all of its 2,300 UK stores this season. I know that the reason for the move was confirmed as being commercially sensitive by Sainsbury’s, but I want to pass on my support to the company, especially if any part of its decision was based on themes that came out of the consultation—the safety of communities, the impact on animals, and so on.

I am also keen to meet Sainsbury’s and other supermarkets and retailers to discuss the issue and how we will move forward, and to share some of the messages that came out of the consultation.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I thank the minister for early sight of her statement. I welcome the establishment of the review group, and commend the appointment of Alasdair Hay as its chair.

The minister talked about the prospect of introducing legislation. Can she inform Parliament whether she expects that to happen in the course of this session? In considering new controls, does the minister envisage those being given to councils, so that the decisions can be made closest to the communities that are directly affected?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

I am glad that Liam McArthur has welcomed the setting up of the review group. I think that we can all agree that some of the work that is done by local authorities in the run-up to bonfire night is extremely important. I have seen some of the important prevention and diversionary work that they undertake; they put a lot of effort into it.

On the timing, which the member mentioned, every member would agree that we would not want to rush the creation of an appropriate legislative framework. We want to take our time to make sure that we get it right. I am pursuing a dual-strand approach. The review group will consider the options that are available to the Scottish Government and come back with recommendations around next summer. The other option that I am pursuing involves discussing with the UK Government whether it will work with me to devolve powers to Scotland, so that I can pursue tighter regulations on the sale of fireworks. Given issues around the timing of both options, it is unlikely that I would be able to progress legislation in the next year of this parliamentary session. I will, of course, keep the member updated on the timetable.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

During the first session of the Parliament, I tried to bring forward a member’s bill using the slogan, “Bombs by another name”. The bill would have done some of the work that the minister has announced today, which is very welcome. Is the minister thinking of introducing some sort of licensing system? What would local government’s role be within that?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

Shona Robison puts it very well when she calls fireworks “Bombs by another name”, because, in many cases, that is exactly what they are. If she is referring to a licensing system as a way to control the sale of fireworks, I would certainly consider it and would be interested in talking to the relevant UK Government minister about it—I have already started to do so. If that responsibility could be devolved to Scotland, we would certainly consider doing that, and it would go a long way towards developing a legislative approach to creating an environment that would change the relationship with fireworks and lead to a more responsible use of fireworks.

Photo of Alexander Stewart Alexander Stewart Conservative

I note from the statement that a firework review group is to be established, which will be chaired by Alasdair Hay, who is the former chief fire officer of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. I welcome that appointment. Will the minister clarify when the group will meet, what its remit will be and who will make up its membership?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

The review group will begin meeting as soon as possible. I envisage that it will meet for the first time in the next month or so, and that it will exist for approximately nine months. We have not finalised the exact number of people who will be on the group, but I imagine that it will involve all the stakeholders who have already shown an interest and have expertise in the area, which includes animal charities, the NHS and emergency services and representatives of the fireworks industry. All interested stakeholders can take part. I am pleased that the former chief officer of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, Alasdair Hay, has agreed to chair it. I expect it to report back to me with its recommendations next summer, and will be happy to come back to Parliament after that to discuss the issue further.

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

I welcome the minister’s statement and the overwhelming response to the Scottish Government’s consultation. The minister has mentioned her positive engagement with the UK Government on the issue. Does she share my view that the relevant powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament as soon as possible, following the consultation responses calling overwhelmingly for stronger regulations on fireworks?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

I do. I have written regularly to the UK Government to make sure that I kept it informed about what we have been doing in Scotland. I have ensured that the Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility, Kelly Tolhurst MP, has been kept up to speed on the consultation and its outcome. I last received a reply from her on 15 October, and I am keen to meet her to discuss how we will move forward, perhaps early in the new year.

That said, the UK Government has made it clear that there is limited appetite—it is fair to characterise it as that—for changing the legislation on the sale of fireworks. That suggestion was dismissed a couple weeks ago by Jacob Rees Mogg in the House of Commons in response to a question from Alison Thewlis MP. We probably do not want to replicate that approach in Scotland. I am keen that Scotland addresses the issue head on, and that—as usual—we lead the way.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

Restrictions on firework sales, however welcome, put pressure on staff working in retail outlets that sell fireworks. What support is the Scottish Government giving to workers who face abuse when challenging under-age purchasers and when promoting best practice?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

That is a very good point. Obviously, we rely on retailers to uphold the law and not to sell fireworks to under-age people. It is deplorable that people are being attacked while carrying out their normal duties: we do not accept that behaviour. There is already legislation that covers such behaviour. Perpetrators will be dealt with robustly by the courts. If Rhoda Grant has any ideas or suggestions for how we might do more to support retail staff, I would be glad to meet her to discuss that further.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

The minister highlighted in her statement that it is widely known that fireworks can cause distress to people with autism. Does the minister agree that the research has shown that the distress that is caused is simply unacceptable and must be addressed as soon as possible?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

Rona Mackay has made a very important point. It certainly came through very strongly in the themes of the consultation that, for people with autism and people with mental health issues, as well as for veterans and animals, fireworks’ loud noises and the conditions that they can create can be very frightening. One of the things that we are doing is running an awareness-raising campaign to highlight that even when people use fireworks in an appropriate way, that can have a large impact on the communities around them. We want people to consider that when they use fireworks.

I am committed to ensuring that the views of people with autism continue to be reflected, including in the review group, so we will ensure that they have representation as we progress through consideration of options. We also hope that their views will be reflected in recommendations, as we move forward.

The Presiding Officer:

I apologise to Bill Bowman and Stuart McMillan, as we do not have enough time this afternoon to get through all the questions. If I were to take their questions, we would run into the time for the next debate.