– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 26th November 2018.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered e-petition 231147 relating to the sale of fireworks to the public.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. The petition calls for a ban on the sale of fireworks to the public and for a move to organised displays only. Numerous petitions about fireworks have been submitted through the Petitions Committee website; if memory serves, this is our third petitions debate about them. Debates on fireworks have also been initiated by hon. Members and numerous parliamentary questions have been asked about related issues. The Facebook page that we set up for comments on this petition has received 956 engagements and been viewed by 4,800 accounts, while more than 61,000 viewed the digital debate. That is a real measure of the public concern about the issue, which the Government ignore at their peril.
Let us be honest: a lot of us look at fireworks through the rosy glow of our childhoods, but we ought to remember that the occasions we look back on usually took place only on
I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that at the moment perhaps one of the only things that unites the whole country is our love of animals. As she mentions, we have regulations on when fireworks can be sold but none on when they can be used. Surely, to protect our dear cats—like my beloved Thomas and Serena—from distress, there should be limits on when fireworks can be used throughout the year.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I shall address later in my speech.
The 2003 Act, which began as a private Member’s Bill but was supported by the then Labour Government, was an enabling Act that allowed Ministers to make regulations to control fireworks and explosives.
My hon. Friend mentions our laws about fireworks. Although those laws are often enforced, cuts to local authority budgets have meant that the staffing levels necessary to enforce them have fallen by more than half in the past few years. Does she agree that that makes it a lot harder to regulate the use of fireworks?
My hon. Friend is right, and she anticipates a point that I will make later.
The Fireworks Regulations 2004 introduced a lot of rules about the sale, possession and use of fireworks. They introduced a licensing system for those who sell fireworks all year round, limited the sale by other suppliers to dates around
One more time, but then I must make some progress, in fairness to those who want to speak.
The hon. Lady is being generous in giving way. May I pick up on her point about decibels? There is now a whole generation of almost silent fireworks with a reduced decibel level. Does she welcome their introduction to the market?
“Silent fireworks” is a bit of a misnomer, because they are not entirely silent. Clearly they are welcome, but they do not solve many of the other problems associated with fireworks.
The 2003 Act and the regulations made under it have gone some way towards assuaging public concern about the issue, as have the Explosives Regulations 2014 and the Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2015, which relate to the safety of fireworks as consumer products. But—and it is a big “but”—public concern seems to have risen again recently. I regularly get letters and emails at certain times of the year, as I am sure many other hon. Members do, from people who are concerned about the noise, pollution and antisocial behaviour associated with fireworks.
If hon. Members will forgive me, I need to make some progress, because a lot of Members are waiting to speak.
As my hon. Friend Stephanie Peacock mentioned, the problem is partly one of enforcement. For instance, an 11 pm curfew on fireworks is in place most of the time, with exceptions for new year and other occasions. Breaching the curfew can result in a fine, imprisonment or, if offenders are over 18, a £90 fixed penalty notice from the police. But the police have to be there to catch the perpetrators, and we have lost so many officers—21,000 since 2010—that chief constables are having to make very difficult decisions about where to deploy their personnel. Likewise, although a fixed penalty notice of £80 can be given to anyone under 18 in possession of adult fireworks, community policing has been so hollowed out that we have lost not only police officers but 40% of the police community support officers who might have been able to catch and report on offenders. It is therefore very difficult to enforce the regulations.
Trading standards officers in local authorities face the same problem. Councils have been hit so hard by cuts that have they have had to pull back and carry out only their statutory duties. Trading standards officers have been cut and cut, which makes it very difficult to enforce the licensing system, prevent the sale of adult fireworks to anyone under 16 or prevent the sale of more powerful fireworks to anyone under 18. Trading standards officers do a great job, but there are simply not enough of them. For the same reason, many councils have cut back on organised displays because they can simply no longer afford to put them on.
The Government need to be very clear about what is happening. In January, the last time we debated the issue, the then Minister, Andrew Griffiths, said in answer to my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick that he did not have statistics on the prosecution of fireworks offences because the Home Office did not collect them in that way. We do not know the trends, and we do not know about enforcement or whether it is working. One contributor to our forum wrote:
“So here we are 11 days after the official date and we are still getting fireworks being used.”
Many people have come to believe that the regulations are not being enforced. If the Government contend that the regulations are sufficient, they must ensure that the means to enforce them are in place.
Others have said clearly that they think it is time for greater regulation. One contributor said that the fireworks regulations need to be tightened, as there is enough evidence to prove that fireworks are being used inappropriately by persons willing to cause harm to people.
I have had many emails from people, as well as contributions to our Facebook page. Some have made the point that they use fireworks responsibly and without harm, which is true of many people. Some have told me, “It’s a tradition”—the good old British tradition of burning effigies of Catholics on a bonfire every
I know the Government do not like regulations. Ministers always tell us how many regulations they have got rid of, but sometimes regulations are necessary for protecting the public. There is a balance to be struck in any society between the right of people to do as they wish and the harm caused to others. Let us be clear: even fireworks on sale to the public can cause significant harm. A fireworks professional said in a Facebook post that he had known even F2 and F3 fireworks to go wrong on displays, and that there would have been a serious injury had he not been wearing protective clothing. There is no such thing as a safe firework. Let us be clear: the harm they cause can be considerable.
I will take one more intervention and then I must press on.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. My constituents the Snell family had a dog, Queenie, who became increasingly sensitive to fireworks. A firework went off right by their house on the Wednesday after bonfire night, and Queenie became so inconsolable that she had to be euthanised. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should be licensing individuals to operate fireworks, and that only they should be allowed to buy them?
The effect on animals has been raised with me, and I shall come to that in a moment.
Let us also remember the effect on people. Last year in England alone there were 4,436 visits to A&E by people with firework injuries. That is more than double the figure of 2,141 in 2009-10. There were 168 admissions for firework injuries in 2015-16 and 184 last year. Admissions had been going down but they are now going up again. Let us remember that some of those will be catastrophic, life-changing injuries. The cost to the person concerned is incalculable, but there is also a cost to the NHS, through the strain on our A&E departments as more people are admitted. I know that family members who work in the NHS dread
As well as injuring people, fireworks are a problem for animals, as several hon. Members have mentioned. I have been contacted by a number of people who say that their pets have to be sedated when fireworks are going off. They are supported by a number of charities, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Kennel Club and the Dogs Trust. It is fair to say that not all these charities are asking us to move to public displays only. The RSPCA wants the decibel limit reduced to 97 and would like the use of fireworks, not simply their sale, restricted to certain times of the year. It also calls for all public displays to be licensed and for residents to be able to object to the licence—something I will return to later. By contrast, the Dogs Trust would like us to move to public displays only.
Noise has an effect not just on animals, but on people. It particularly has an effect on elderly people and those with mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Shoulder to Soldier is a charity that originated in the constituency of my hon. Friend Jo Platt, and which also has an office in Howley in my constituency. It has campaigned vigorously to make people aware of the effect on some veterans of having fireworks let off near them and has been supported in that campaign by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.
With the noise goes pollution. For the five days around
I will take one more intervention—the very last one—and then I must finish.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. On the issue of noise, 584 of my constituents have signed the petition, which is really high for my constituency. A number are concerned about the effect on animals, in particular the effect of the noise. It was also pointed out to me that a number of people will set off large amounts of fireworks at the same time, not for the effect in the sky but for the high decibel level and the noise. Is she aware that that is one of the problems we face?
Yes, I am. My hon. Friend is quite right, and that goes back to the issue not only of regulation, but of enforcing it.
To return to pollution, we know that it has an immediate effect on people with respiratory illnesses—people, like me, who have asthma. We are also becoming increasingly aware that it has a long-term effect on children, particularly on the development of their brains and lungs. Maybe it is time to ask why we are contributing so much extra pollution.
I also want to raise the issue of the demands on emergency services, particularly the fire service. One of the pluses of coming from a very large family is that I have relatives everywhere. I did have relatives in the fire service, and they pray for rain on some of these occasions because of the stress they puts on them. In Greater Manchester this year, calls were running at one a minute at peak times. In Scotland, there were over 700 calls to 338 bonfires. A lot of those might be classified as minor fires—a fire is minor only if it can be controlled—but we should remember that while crews attend those incidents, they are not available for potentially life-threatening incidents elsewhere in their area. That means that fire engines would have to be brought from further away, and minutes count when saving a life.
If that was not bad enough, fire crews are increasingly coming under attack. I have had a number of emails from serving firefighters who raise this with me. They are quite right to do so, because even a cursory trawl through the various websites throws up lots of incidents. Crews had fireworks thrown at them in north Wales. In Manchester, a crew went out to an incident and were immediately attacked by a gang throwing fireworks. The police were called, and it took 90 minutes to bring that incident under control—90 minutes when that appliance was unavailable for a fire elsewhere. That incident also threatened the lives of the crew.
Crews have also been attacked in Scotland. In Glasgow, riot police had to be called because people were throwing fireworks at houses and cars and then at the police who came out. To see how horrific the situation is, I urge the Minister to look at a video that was put online by the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service—a firefighter elsewhere sent me the link. It shows video footage that was taken by a camera on one of their appliances. The crew come out to what looks like a fairly small fire, and they are immediately attacked by a gang of people throwing fireworks at them. It is really horrific. Why are we subjecting our emergency services—not just the fire service, but ambulance crews and the police—to that kind of attack, day in, day out, year after year?
People will say, “Well, fireworks don’t cause antisocial behaviour.” Of course they do not. Knives do not cause knifings and chemicals do not cause blinding, but we regulate them because they can be used to ill effect. The same is true of fireworks. It is time we moved forward with this issue. I love a fireworks display, but I am happy to watch an organised display somewhere where everyone is safe.
I am going to wind up, if my hon. Friend will permit me.
Even organised displays need regulating. I was struck by an email I received from a lady who lives in a small village near a wedding venue, which has had display after display this year. She said that, each time, the residents have to be out with their animals in the fields to stop them from panicking. She told me that she lost a Jacob lamb because the ewe ran away frightened and would not come back. Another person said on our website that, as an agricultural worker, they have seen too many horrific injuries to their horses and other animals. Let us remember that we are talking not simply about pets, but about people’s livelihoods. We ought to bear that in mind.
It is time to act. If the Government are not prepared simply to move to organised displays, there are other things that they could do. They could raise the age for buying fireworks or restrict use, as well as sale, to certain times of the year. They could ensure that the police and local authorities are given the wherewithal to enforce the regulations. If they will the ends, they have got to will the means.
I must confess that I am a reluctant convert to organised displays, but I do not believe that continuing things as they are is worth the NHS admissions, the attacks on emergency service personnel or even one child being seriously burned and blinded. We will have petition after petition and debate after debate until the Government start to take notice. This is becoming a serious issue about public order and antisocial behaviour. It is time that the Government took it seriously and acted on it.
Order. This debate can go on until 7.30 pm, so there is plenty of time. We have been notified that 12 hon. Members would like to speak. It will be easy to get everyone in if they exercise just a bit of self-restraint.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.
We nurture and protect our children as they grow up, testing the temperature of the bath water, ensuring fireguards are in situ, and teaching them not to play with matches and lighters, so why do we permit them fireworks, despite the law? In my youth, the content of a box of fireworks was usually a rocket to be launched from an empty milk bottle, a Catherine wheel to be pinned to a tree trunk or the shed door, a banger, a sparkler or even a jumping jack—I understand that they have wisely been banned. They were fun; I should not really say that, but that was when I was a kid. It was quite some time ago that I had access to fireworks as a child. Nowadays, the pyrotechnics are powerful. The colourful and dynamic packaging and posters are clearly aimed at enticing people to purchase fireworks. I appreciate that there is an age limit on purchases, but regrettably, in many instances, they still fall into younger, inexperienced hands.
All emergency services, including accident and emergency, view
I was a fire officer for 31 years, and I have seen for myself horrific injuries from stray or thrown fireworks. The problem relates not just to the visible, physical injuries, but to the hidden acoustic stress to humans, pets and other animals, and there is the potential to cause further mental trauma for those with post-traumatic stress disorder. As was said earlier, fire crews can be set up: a 999 call is made, but when the crew arrive they receive an onslaught of fireworks, which have been lawfully and legally bought—often from reputable retailers, but more often from pop-up shops that appear over towns for that occasion. Just as worrying is the fact that Police Scotland recently identified the misuse of fireworks and smoke bombs in sports stadiums as a growing issue.
If hon. Members need evidence to convince them, the website of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents states:
“Injury figures support the advice that the safest place to enjoy fireworks is at a large public display—far fewer people are injured here than at smaller family or private parties” where there is no control over the fireworks that are ignited or detonated. The British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons said that
“in 2017-18, 4,435 people”
—a phenomenal figure—
“were admitted to A&E due to firework injuries;
the majorities of these patients were boys under the age of 18”,
who had clearly accessed and possibly misused fireworks.
I vividly remember being at school and having to dodge my way along the path to the front gates in the run-up to
I wholeheartedly agree. Despite the law and the regulations, fireworks are so easy to purchase. Pop-up shops that come to our towns sell them to whoever has the money. Perhaps the reputable retailers do that less so, but we have to ask ourselves, as parliamentarians and parents, why should fireworks be on sale on our high streets?
I support a ban on the sale of fireworks to the public. I would prefer organised events by certified, competent persons, who would carry out risk assessments and put in place control zones to ensure public safety. That would be a sensible thing to do, and it would allow people still to enjoy organised events. I do not want to ban fireworks entirely, but they should be used at proper organised events.
If the Government will not ban fireworks, and I think that is their position, we should at least consider applying standards similar to those used for other items that have the potential adversely to affect public health. For example, in recent years, the packaging, display and advertising of cigarettes have been muted. Should it not be the same for fireworks?
It has been suggested that graphics depicting horrendous injuries would deter some from purchasing fireworks, but if we think of the many graphic games that young people play on their computer consoles, which show scenes of terror and horror, might we not just be whetting their appetite with such packaging? I would prefer plain, unattractive packaging. I am also fearful that graphic packaging could cause distress to those suffering from PTSD.
I spoke in a fireworks debate earlier in the year, and I recently hosted a drop-in session in Westminster for MPs that was co-organised by the Dogs Trust, Blue Cross, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and the Kennel Club. About 40 MPs signed up and undertook to consider introducing further restrictions around the sale of fireworks, such as limiting them to licensed public occasions and organised events. One recommendation was that local authorities should pay attention to the location for which a licence was sought, and that if one was granted, pet owners within a given radius should receive adequate notification so that they could make the necessary preparations—almost like neighbour notification.
I would thought have that, although individual fireworks in categories F1 to F3 may contain only small quantities of explosive, we should, in the interest of security, be eliminating the potential for someone to amass fireworks for illicit purposes by placing a ban on their sale to the general public.
If the UK Government do not back legislation introducing an outright ban on the sale of fireworks to the public, I ask the Minister to consider amendments to plug potential loopholes in the existing legislation. I appreciate that responsibility for fireworks is split between the UK and Scottish Governments: the former regulate their sale as a consumer safety issue, while responsibility for the use of fireworks has been devolved to the latter under the Fireworks (Scotland) Regulations 2004. The Scottish Government will carry out a consultation on the use and regulation of fireworks in Scotland, including on ways to reduce antisocial impact of fireworks, and I, for one, welcome that consultation.
I would, however, ask both Governments to consider the following scenario, which my constituents have drawn to my attention fairly recently. In my constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, there are many stunning venues for special events such as weddings, and a growing tendency—strangely—for fireworks to feature as part of those celebrations. Such events are more frequent than the annual Guy Fawkes night and, as some venues are situated in residential areas or near livestock facilities, neighbour nuisance is a very real issue.
Constituents advise me that some venues devolve responsibility for the fireworks display to the customer, who engages a private company that sets up the system and lets off the fireworks from nearby private land, which makes it extremely difficult for local authority officers to police events and take any follow-up action. If the existing legislation does not catch such creative arrangements, surely Governments need to be equally creative to protect the wider public, taking account of proportionality and balance of convenience.
I say to the Minister that it strikes me as strange that, given the innovation and the availability of silent fireworks and light shows, we have not moved on as a nation and, as has been mentioned, are still repeatedly debating the contentious matter of fireworks and the distress and the injury they cause not only to humans, but to pets, livestock and wild animals. Years later, we are still dealing with the issue of fireworks—do we really need them? Let us give due consideration to introducing regulation to reflect a modern approach to fireworks, reduce injuries and prevent unnecessary trauma to humans, pets and domestic animals.
I enjoy taking part in e-petition debates, because although our world is governed by the parliamentary timetable, which often relates to Brexit, e-petitions are a good insight into what people are talking about and what they care about—they reflect thoughts that have captured the moment. Petitioners would not get to 100,000 signatures by getting 100 every day for 1,000 days. That is not how it works; it is about capturing the energy. The level of support for the petition, as well as the time of year that it was garnered, shows that it has captured a mood. It is important that we have a proper debate about it, and that the Government act and are clear about how they intend to do so.
When I talk to people in my constituency of Nottingham North, I hear familiar refrains—I suspect hon. Members will have heard the same in their communities—such as, “Bonfire night used to mean fireworks a couple of nights a year but now it means a good fortnight or so of disruption,” or “Fireworks are being set off earlier and earlier every year”. By any measure, there has been a fundamental shift in the availability of fireworks and in the way that people view them.
My interest in the subject is not about banning a good public fireworks display. For families and everyone else in the community, it is an event on the annual calendar on which we come together and enjoy an exhilarating night. I do not seek to discourage such events, which are traditions just like Christmas, Easter, Halloween and new year’s eve. As long as they are done properly, with safe displays and people who know what they are doing, these events are safe and exciting fun for everyone in the community.
We have an enormous fireworks display in the centre of Ipswich every year. Getting on for half the population of Ipswich seems to turn up. It is a wonderful occasion that is not just about fireworks—people come together for singing, dancing and food—and it is all absolutely safe. Does my hon. Friend agree that such events are the way forward?
I think I shall be going to Ipswich next November—that sounds wonderful. The situation is very much the same in Nottingham; we have big events, and they are a good way to celebrate and enjoy. The petition shows that it is the things happening beyond those events, in our streets and in our parks, that cause real distress. Technology has moved on and the availability of fireworks has changed, and we have to move with the times.
I am conscious of time and know that many colleagues wish to speak, so I will come to my focus, which is the impact of prolonged periods of firework displays on household pets and the lives of their owners. Since my election to Parliament, I have been working closely on that with the Dogs Trust, and am keen to continue supporting them in championing the issue. I am the proud owner of two border collies, Boomer and Corona, who are such wonderful border collies that, as Members might know, they were joint winners of this year’s Westminster Dog of the Year competition. Please excuse that digression—I tell everyone that I meet. That can never be taken off me. The theme of the competition this year was fireworks, and the reason that we won was that Corona is particularly badly affected by them. We talked about some of the coping strategies we have developed, which I will touch on shortly. One of my commitments as an MP is to tackle the issue and it is something I am keen to do.
We are a nation of animal lovers, and that is not just about dogs. Cats Protection, Blue Cross, the Kennel Club, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and many others have called for action. For these charities and more, it is clear that the sheer number of fireworks displays that take place in the UK around bonfire night is having a detrimental impact on animal welfare. I use the word “display” broadly; this is not just about organised displays, but all fireworks events—from someone letting one off in a park, to the full-blown displays.
Why is it such a problem? Why, as a pet owner and having spoken to pet owners in my constituency, do I think that the issue requires action now? As my hon. Friend Helen Jones said, people have been setting off fireworks in their gardens for years. What has changed? Well, the situation is different in terms of the scale and availability of fireworks. From
Dog owners might unlock their front door to be greeted by their dog cowering in the corner, and spend their trying to ameliorate that with whatever tactics they can. We put a shirt on Corona, which acts like a swaddling coat, and that eases it a bit. Others have other solutions. That takes time and—I do not have children, but I suspect that this is analogous to having a baby— the moment we get peace and think “We have resolved this for now”, it starts again, because somebody else on the road is letting off fireworks. Whole evenings can pass like this, with no peace for the pet. Critically, that happens not just on
We accept that on
Quite frankly, my hon. Friend should not have to do that—that is the nub of the problem. I agree with my hon. Friend Helen Jones, and I am sure that she would agree that we have debated this issue like nobody’s business over the years, but nothing seems to happen. We must look at the manufacture and contents of fireworks and at how they are policed, while certain events should require licences. The weakness in the system is the lack of trading standards officers to police fireworks. Why should the police have to do the job of trading standards officers?
As a local authority councillor in the years before I was elected to this place, I had an excellent relationship with trading standards and would always stand up for their work keeping dodgy booze and fags out of children’s hands. Fireworks are another good example of their excellent work but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North said, they also have considerably diminished resources.
Fireworks are now commonplace for birthday parties, family celebrations and lots of other things. We do not want to stamp out that joy—we are at our worst if we look like killjoys or as if we are humourless—but we have to accept that things are different, and we now have a night-time wall of noise stretching from the beginning of November for pushing a fortnight.
Fireworks may be sold by any person over the age of 18 between 7 am and 11 pm every day of the year. There is no legal requirement to have any form of licence, or training to set them up, once they have been bought. There are not many comparable situations in which we so willingly hand explosives over to people who do not know how to use them, other than by reading the leaflet. That does not seem like a good idea. It is easier than ever to put on private displays, and people are clearly choosing to do so.
In the run-up to
Using fireworks illegally could result in prosecution, a fine of up to £5,000 and a prison sentence of up to six months, or an on-the-spot fine of £90. Does my hon. Friend agree that were the existing laws enforced, a lot of the issues would be solved, but that the laws are not being enforced?
Yes, of course. Sanctions are only as strong as their enforcement regime. Without trading standards or community policing to enforce the powers, they will fundamentally not act as a deterrent. I take that point on board.
To conclude, as a Parliament we have been given a clear nudge from people who want us to think about all that. I have not been in this place a long time, but this request is clearly not before us for the first time. People are looking to see that we get it on this issue. The nature of how fireworks are used has changed, so Parliament needs to consider it and, ultimately, the Government need to act. If they believe that the regulations are sufficient, they should be very clear about that and about the enforcement toolkit involved. Pets give us so much, and having them is certainly a big part of my life. It sounds funny to say that I am in the Chamber today to stand up for pets and animals in general—they do not have a vote at the ballot box, but I do not care about that. Fundamentally, fireworks can cause an awful lot of distress and it is time we acted.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and to follow Alex Norris.
When Helen Jones started her speech, she made a throwaway remark about how, when we think about fireworks, we might look back to our childhoods. I do not look back to my childhood when thinking about fireworks, because the displays I attended were absolutely awful.
I have three reasons for not looking back to those firework displays with much enthusiasm. First, I do not think much of Guy Fawkes night. Why we celebrate the burning of a Catholic on that occasion is bizarre. Why we go to the effort of throwing the guy on the fire and letting off fireworks in celebration of it seems strange. Secondly, enormous effort is put into letting off fireworks and, frankly, I found that effort too much when I had smaller children and was a child myself. Thirdly, for many years, until she died, I had a Labrador as a pet. We, too, had to take measures to ensure that she was out of the way when firework displays took place.
I do, however, like some displays. Almost every year on new year’s eve, I come to the House of Commons, partly for the sociability of the occasion, but also to see the Eye firework display across the Thames, which is spectacular. We can look at the displays that take place in other parts of the world—Sydney, for example—but the display put on from the Eye by the London authorities shows this city as the brilliant city that it really is. I enjoy that myself, and bringing friends and family.
The hon. Gentleman is making a rather curmudgeonly speech about fireworks, if he does not mind me saying so. I understand the point he makes about the huge display here in London, but a great deal of enjoyment is found by many different people in smaller displays in their local communities. My children greatly enjoy going to our back window to see the displays over Chesterfield, such as on fireworks night. Smaller displays can be tremendously enjoyable, but we are all concerned about those people who use them irresponsibly or cause danger. They are the ones we want to clamp down on.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I will try to be less curmudgeonly. I did not intend to sound like that, and am sorry it came across that way.
I was introduced to this subject by my local paper, the Henley Standard, which before Guy Fawkes this year ran a campaign, Ban the Bangs. I fully support it, though I had some observations to make about it. The people who participated in the campaign were principally pet owners—dog and cat owners—and one said that she and her dog “tremble uncontrollably” and “are very, very upset”. It is important to bear that in mind.
The campaign was trying to push people to go to organised displays. Despite comments that have been made, in my constituency such displays are organised not just by the district and county councils but by individual parish councils—I will come on to say something about that—which are good displays organised by the parish councillors themselves.
I was struck by something said by one of the participants in the campaign:
“I don’t want to spoil people’s fun but why are they so loud?”
That is an important point: we do not want to spoil people’s fun, but why are fireworks so loud?
The hon. Member for Warrington North referred to silent fireworks in response to my intervention. I appreciate that they are not entirely silent, but they are a lot more so and they could play a part in dealing with the situation, although they do not take away the whole problem. They take away the noise problem and the argument about fireworks being very loud, but they do not take away the problem of flashes, which often cause the most distress to animals. Many animals can cope with the increased noise—they cope with things such as traffic backfiring all the time—but they cannot cope with the sudden flashes. Although silent fireworks have their role to play, they do not answer the whole question.
There is a tremendous amount in the idea of us working together to provide organised displays for people to go to. The parish council of the village that I used live in was a little like Ipswich, I think, in that it organised a display each year on the green, which the whole village came to. It was always well organised. I cannot recall in the 20-odd years that I lived there ever seeing an accident there, and it was a good illustration of what can be achieved.
I understand the need for the campaign, but—perhaps I am being curmudgeonly again—we ought to push for intelligence, common sense and courtesy to rule, three of the rarest elements in the universe. We should push for intelligence on how to use fireworks, common sense in how to organise an event, and courtesy, which the hon. Member for Nottingham North spoke of, to tell people when we are planning to have a display. The Government have some public awareness: they produce “Celebrating with bonfires and fireworks: a community guide.” It is time that that was updated to take into account the sort of activities organised by councils, so that they would be as safe as they could be.
I return to where I started: I like the big firework displays—I love the one in London—but, quite honestly, if I had to give up one for the other, I would happily give up the individual displays and go for the big displays that have all the razzmatazz I am looking for. Every new year, I stand open mouthed watching the display at the London Eye. It adds quite a lot to this city.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank Helen Jones for opening today’s timely and topical debate and for covering so much of the territory.
Complaints about fireworks are an annual and seasonal occurrence, as I evidence in my office, and I have no doubt they increase year on year. I am grateful for the work of the Firework Abatement campaign, which has highlighted hundreds of incidents that have occurred, mostly from October onwards, and it sums up the problem succinctly as random and unexpected use. I have certainly seen evidence of that in my office, which has been inundated by complaints since October. It came as no surprise, when I saw the statistics on this e-petition, to discover that the West Lothian and Falkirk constituencies were among the top for signatories to the e-petition. Livingston came out top, followed by Linlithgow and East Falkirk, and Falkirk had the fifth-most signatories. Scottish constituencies were more likely to have a higher level of signatories on this issue than on many of the e-petitions I have seen.
I welcome the fact that Scotland is to have a consultation on fireworks next year. The regulation of the sale of fireworks is regarded as a consumer safety issue and, as such, is a reserved matter. The Scottish Government Minister for Community Safety, Ash Denham, wrote to the UK Government to request an update on their position on the sale of fireworks and was informed that there are no plans to consider legislative change.
The position on the use of fireworks is a little more complex; the Fireworks Regulations 2004 cover antisocial use in Scotland, apart from regulation 7, which relates to curfews, which are a devolved matter. Curfews in Scotland are covered in the Fireworks (Scotland) Regulations 2004, which, similar to England, prohibit use between 1 pm and 7 am, with certain exceptions.
Enforcement of curfews primarily is a matter for the police. Excessive noise from fireworks or noise during the curfew period can be considered a statutory nuisance. Local authority environmental health officers have the power to investigate complaints of fireworks noise, but I can think of much better uses of both police and environmental health officers’ time than pursing the inconsiderate use of fireworks. I would much rather they focused on the dangerous use of fireworks, where they are used recklessly and potentially endanger others, although that remains a fairly small minority of fireworks users.
The majority of firework use is, without any doubt, responsible—often by families in private gardens at a reasonably early hour of the evening around bonfire night, or to mark celebrations of family, cultural or religious events. Nobody wishes to remove people’s ability to enjoy fireworks, which is why I would prefer fireworks to be restricted to licensed displays and the general public perhaps restricted to purchases of silent fireworks.
The vast bulk of complaints I receive from constituents on this issue relate to noise; in most cases, the noise occurs outwith any curfew period and therefore does not break existing regulations. Something needs to be done, as severe distress is being caused to people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or to those with other mental health issues, and to animals. It is random, unexpected noise that causes many problems. When people know the timings in advance, as is the case with organised displays, it is pretty easy to take precautions, such as putting on some music. My cat, Porridge, quite enjoys it when I put on a bit of soul—not just sole—and I was grateful to hear from the Battersea campaign, which works with the University of Lincoln, that dogs find reggae and classical music most relaxing. I did not know that prior to this debate.
The effect on animals was the biggest area of concern raised by multiple constituents. Many sent me videos and stories of their dogs, cats and horses suffering from severe acoustic stress. I will detail a small but representative sample of concerns raised with my office this year alone. One constituent stated that she has two dogs, one of which is a nine-year-old Rottweiler that is terrified of firework noise. His heart rate increases greatly, he cries continually throughout the bangs and other noises, and is too frightened to go outside. For a period after the noise ceases, he is anxious and extremely clingy. He paces, does not eat or sleep, and is simply not able to relax or settle. My constituent has huge concerns about the effect all that has on the dog’s welfare.
Another constituent stated that her little girl woke up in floods of tears due to fireworks going off. Another constituent advised that she could feel the explosion from the fireworks through the floor of her house, and that domestic rubbish bins were targeted. One constituent, who is a registered veterinary nurse, advised of the animal distress that she had seen due to fireworks. Another constituent stated that she is a teacher and is very concerned about the safety of her students around fireworks. She believes that most teenagers are responsible and caring, but it only takes the action of one reckless person to alter the course of someone’s life. The resulting trauma is a drain on NHS resources, and our emergency services are abused when attending unsafe displays that can get out of hand.
Another constituent went even further than Alex Norris. She has two dogs that are so terrified by the noise that she took them away for a week to a cottage in a remote area at a cost of £800, so that her dogs could relax stress free. People should not have to go to those lengths.
Perhaps the most upsetting complaint I received this year was from a woman who advised that she
“had the tragedy of having to put to sleep one of my horses. It was scared by fireworks and ran into a fence causing a terrible wound which he wouldn’t be able to recover from.”
Those are just some of the complaints my office received this year.
Most issues could be resolved by limiting noise. After about three weeks of complaints, I raised that in a written question tabled on Monday
“There are already controls on noise levels for fireworks and it is an offence to supply fireworks exceeding 120 decibels to the public. There are no plans to amend the regulations to reduce this level.”
My internet research, which I did for comparison purposes, shows that that is higher than the 100 dB noise of a jet take-off measured at 305 metres, or what I am told is the average human pain threshold of 110 dB.
I ask the Minister seriously to reconsider this issue. It simply will not go away by itself, and doing nothing is not an option. My proposals on organised fireworks displays and the sale of silent fireworks to the general public would solve most of the noise problems, allow pet owners to make suitable arrangements for the times of organised displays, and let police and local authorities concentrate on the genuinely dangerous misuse of fireworks, their unlicensed sale and so on.
It is a pleasure to be able to say a few words in this debate. The petition is quite stark—it proposes banning the sale of fireworks to the public and limiting displays to licensed venues. There is no doubt that that would mark a significant departure. Wherever one stands in this debate, it is important to recognise that that is potentially quite a draconian step. Parliament should think very carefully before infringing individual liberties excessively.
One cannot take that argument to the extreme—we infringe liberty for perfectly good public policy reasons all the time—but we must recognise that we have to strike a balance between the liberty of the individual and social welfare. It is important to recognise that, were we to follow through entirely with what the petition proposes, we would in effect outlaw individuals having small fireworks displays in their back garden and so on. It is important also to note that such individuals may not have the money to go to a public display. Be that as it may, there is concern that things have moved on to the extent that that balance is now being looked at slightly differently. Let me give an indication of that.
I suggested on Facebook that I would speak in this debate, and I invited people to engage with me. I was astonished by the level of interaction by people in Cheltenham. They argued on both sides of the debate, but one thing shone out. One person suggested that
“firework usage has got completely out of control.”
Someone else indicated that many fireworks were let off in the street, particularly in the town centre, and another person pointed out that they were let off over an extended period. In other words, something appears to have changed in where and the extent to which fireworks are used. That may cause us to look again at the balance we need to strike between individual freedoms and the rights of the wider public.
Let me deal first with the point about where fireworks are let off. As I indicated, someone wrote that they were let off in the town centre. Another person wrote on Facebook:
“In Rowanfield people let off fireworks at all hours of the day and night (several times we had them go off in the middle of the night repeatedly, right above our house). I think there are a few who let the side down but unfortunately it means that I am FOR banning the sale of fireworks to the public. People should be encouraged to go to official events instead.”
Right there we have an individual saying the balance needs to be struck differently. Another person wrote that fireworks had dented the roof of his car. I recognise that those may be the actions of an idiotic few, but there seems to be little doubt that they are growing in number, and that is having a significant impact. The second point, about fireworks being let off over an extended period, has been made already.
The third issue is the impact of fireworks, which other hon. Members touched on. Someone wrote:
“As the owner of four rescue dogs, fireworks are a huge problem.”
We have an animal rescue shelter in Cheltenham, and there are a huge number of rescue dogs in the town.
Another piece of feedback particularly resonated with me. Someone wrote:
“As the wife of a veteran, wholeheartedly support this.”
We must recognise that, increasingly, we have people in our society who may be distressed by fireworks. That ought to be taken into account.
Although I recognise that the Government will have to consider this issue, I also recognise that we need to strike a balance. We should proceed with care. It is not enough—he says, speaking against his own argument—simply to act on the basis of anecdote. If the Government are to act, we have to ensure that there is proper evidence. It is perhaps inevitable that there is more feedback around the firework period. We need a scientific process to establish whether that is simply a spike or a recognised long-term issue—we need an empirically based assessment of whether the problem has got worse.
I invite the Government to look at proceeding incrementally with a calibrated response. They might want to consider whether there are other proportionate measures to address the problem; other hon. Members mentioned some. Should we increase the age at which people can purchase fireworks? It is already 18, but is there a case for increasing it still further? Is there also a case for restricting the use of fireworks—not just their purchase—to certain times of year?
In a free society, we in Parliament should be slow to restrict individual liberties, particularly where there might be an impact on individuals who are not able to attend other fireworks displays, but we should look at the issue none the less. There is a huge number of excellent organised displays in Cheltenham. Other hon. Members mentioned displays in their constituencies. We have Cheltenham Round Table fireworks at the racecourse, which attracts 10,000 people and raises money for the Sue Ryder hospice in Leckhampton and so on. Fairview fireworks party at Cheltenham cricket club raises money for St Vincent’s and St George’s Association. A number of people wrote to say that we should encourage people to attend those displays, so as to put more money in the pockets of local charities that do such invaluable work. That is a powerful argument, which ought to be weighed in the mix.
I invite the Government to recognise that there is a problem, establish its scale on the basis of empirical evidence and consider incremental, proportionate steps to address the problem as they find it to be. If, all those things having been done, there remains a growing issue in our society, the Government will have to look with great care at imposing the kinds of measure set out in the petition. It is certainly my experience that this problem cannot be ignored.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. It is good to see this issue being debated again following another public petition—I think this is the third time it has been debated in one form or another. I congratulate my hon. Friend Helen Jones on the thoughtful way in which she led the debate. I had the privilege of leading the debate on fireworks in January, when I was a member of the Petitions Committee.
One thing that strikes me, as it did in January, is that no Member who has spoken thinks everything is okay and there should be no change. Although people think that slightly different things should be done, absolutely nobody has backed the status quo. I therefore say to the Minister that, wherever we go next, there must be some sort of Government review of this issue. There is great concern about it in our communities and, clearly, among Members from all political parties.
I was intrigued by the start of the speech by John Howell. All of us who spoke in the debate in January declared an undying love for the informal fireworks gatherings of our childhoods, so it was interesting to hear his case. Indeed, we could not have been more 1970s had we come through the door of the Chamber on space hoppers. We heard all about the Catherine wheels, traffic lights, sparklers and rockets, and about the jacket potatoes and soup. Incidentally, we did not always have a guy on the top of our bonfire, although I have seen the burning of the guy.
Those were certainly seen as informal community events. One of the big differences then was that everyone knew when bonfire night was—it happened every year on
Many hon. Members today have raised the issue of animal welfare. I am not personally a dog or cat owner, but if I were, I would live in terror, given what it must be like for them every time there is a noise or a bang, or when someone thinks it is funny to have an informal display in the middle of the night. That causes clear distress for animals. I am not surprised that even those who want the most lenient of regulations want a firm commitment on reducing decibel levels. It is not just domestic pets that are affected; in rural areas, it is also livestock. Ten years ago, nobody batted an eyelid if a Chinese lantern went wherever—because it was our inalienable right to send up Chinese lanterns, which seemed to have an inalienable right to burn parts of farms and the like—but then the debate on that changed. In much the same way, what we are seeing with fireworks is a great change.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North mentioned North Wales police and antisocial behaviour, and there have been multiple incidents. Often we see fireworks being used not merely in an obstructive, noisy, unpleasant and badly behaved sort of way, but deliberately against firefighters, the police and ambulance staff, as well as members of the general public. It is simply not acceptable. It is sometimes linked to other forms of violence or arson attacks. Clearly, this is not what informal community displays were supposed to be like.
I agree with my hon. Friend that there are clearly issues around enforcement. Our police and firefighters are dealing with many issues that arise from restricted budgets, and the chances are that dealing with people who are being a nuisance with rockets, noise and a bit of fire somewhere is probably not going to come high up the list of priorities.
One of the interesting issues raised when we discussed this last was the international comparisons. Some Members gave interesting examples. I remember hearing about one state in the United States that had extremely liberal gun laws but had banned all fireworks, firework, including the humble sparkler. There may have been a right to bear arms, but there was not a right to bear sparklers. That may be a fairly extreme example, but it is an interesting case. There are many countries with different views on liberties and all the rest of it, but they recognise fireworks for the danger that they can pose.
I urge the Minister to have a proper review of the issue; it really is time for one. Many Members have had letters and emails, and constituents have raised the issue with us. We have seen debates in local and national newspapers and we have seen the strength of feeling with petitions like this one. I cannot remember anyone saying, “It’s great as it is at the moment. We think it’s absolutely fine. We think the law, as it applies to sales, is absolutely fine.” We all know perfectly well that even though one can make a case that the law as it applies to sales is fairly reasonable, what is not reasonable is that there is no limit whatsoever on the days when fireworks can be used. I know that the Minister will say that there are limits on the times, but then we come back to the issue of enforcement.
I hope that the Minister will take on board all the issues that have been raised in the debate and everything that the petitioners have said, as well as the variation of views. Some people may not agree 100% with the petitioners, but practically everyone wants a change in the law. I really hope that the Government will act.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr McCabe. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on behalf of my constituents, including the 595 people from my constituency who signed the petition.
This is becoming a regular debate. I have seen the Minister’s response to the petition and it is hugely disappointing, because my constituents do not have confidence that their concerns are being listened to or that action will be taken on them. My constituents in Glasgow Central are increasingly concerned by the escalation in violence around fireworks. On
Concern is not confined to Pollokshields. Constituents in Govanhill were concerned to see fireworks being let off in the streets, some tied to railings in the middle of the road and let off at cars. People in Bridgeton were concerned by the uprooting of an entire back fence of a community garden to be used on a nearby bonfire, at a cost to the community to replace. These incidents occurred even with the big public display in Glasgow Green nearby. People did not have the excuse of there being nowhere else to go and nothing else to see. The public display was literally at the other end of the street, but people still went ahead and did that.
A resident in Strathbungo, who has been plagued by fireworks as well, points out that it is illogical and bizarre that people are allowed to go out in this country and buy explosives for their own use. That really ought to change.
Is the hon. Lady as concerned as I am about fireworks being used against firefighters? She has given examples of fireworks being used against members of the public, but in my constituency on bonfire night, firefighters in Sunderland were ambushed by a gang of youths in one of the communities, who had set fire to a car with fireworks. They had put the car over the bonfire and the car was alight. They then used other cars—what they call criminal pool cars—to block the estate, so the firefighters were trapped. The only reason the firefighters got out was because one of them had experience from the Meadow Well riots. Is the hon. Lady as concerned as I am that we are selling explosives that are used against firefighters as well as the public?
The experience that the hon. Lady describes is absolutely terrifying. No community should have to put up with that. The firefighters and emergency services staff should not be put at risk when they are trying to go out and help the public.
I want to mention the impact on my local police in Glasgow. The police were prepared. They went out and visited the offenders from last year and they visited shops and did test purchasing. They did what was within their power to do. Under current law, they are not able to seize fireworks, if people have them, so even if they found them, they would not be able to take them away. They were taken aback, particularly by the aggression towards the police on the night. Fireworks were being quite deliberately fired at local police officers. It was by good luck, more than anything else, that nobody was injured. Local residents were calling the police from their flats, saying that this was happening. When the police turned up there were 30 to 40 youths and young adults—not just kids, but adults as well—firing industrial scale fireworks, not small bangers, along the streets, at flats, up closes, in buildings, and towards and underneath cars. It was really quite frightening.
I will send the Minister some of the footage, which is on Twitter. Some additional footage that the police have shown me is absolutely terrifying. It was more by good luck than anything else that no one was more seriously injured. I understand that in another incident in Glasgow a three-year-old girl was injured by a firework. It is only a matter of time before things get worse. The police knew what was going to happen, as I have said. They supplemented their policing resources with a national policing resource; they had something akin to a riot van when they came to police the community. Even then they were forced to withdraw. The situation was so dangerous that they could barely put their officers out there. If it is that scary for the police, how terrifying it must be for residents, who feel that nothing can be done. The Minister must do something about it.
Helen Jones mentioned PTSD and service personnel. Many of my constituents have come here from other countries—literally from war zones. It must cause fear to people who have fled violence and explosions when they hear such things replayed nightly over many weeks. It is quite significant.
I want to quote some of my constituents, who do not feel their voices have been listened to. In a comment that chimes with what Alex Norris said about his experience with his dog, one constituent said:
“As I write this email, I am sitting in my tiny internal bathroom for the third night in a row with my extremely distressed dog. I expect to be sitting here each night for at least another week. I’ve had to do this for the past 9 years.”
It is entirely unreasonable that people should have to live their lives in that way. Another constituent wrote:
“This is the third year we have lived in this area and the third year our children have been terrified of the noise and the feeling of relentless bombardment throughout the night on fireworks night. My daughter was in tears…as were many of her school friends as they were woken up dozens of times by the loud banging, racing cars and arguing voices. Our friend had a live firework thrown at his two year old in a buggy as he picked up his daughter from after school care...It is only a matter of time before one of our young people is seriously hurt…So much is written about dogs and pets being terrified at this time of year but what about our children?”
The impact can be quite traumatic, and children’s education can be affected by nights of disturbed sleep, distress and worry. From my family’s background in education, I am aware that fireworks are sometimes used in school; young people let them off in the corridors, so clearly they are able to get their hands on them.
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
Another constituent wrote:
“The explosions were continuous from before 6pm until after 10 pm, with intermittent before and after that…The most terrifying was on our street. We live on Kenmure street and there were gangs congregating on the corner with Albert drive. The police tried but couldn’t keep on top of it. They let fireworks off in the street, on the pavement, horizontally, under cars and amidst people. I don’t know how more people weren’t seriously injured.”
A resident of a neighbouring street said:
“Those of us living in Herriet St Pollokshields had 30-40 men, many wearing balaclavas, setting off industrial sized fireworks in the middle of the street.”
That was a terrifying experience for my constituents, as may be imagined.
There was also a need for a clear-up afterwards. There were boxes of abandoned fireworks to be picked up, some of them dud and some not—who knows? They were littered all over the place, and I picked some up in a park last week as well. They had just been left behind. During our debate in January, I mentioned sparklers being left behind in Glasgow Green, causing damage to people’s dogs. They could not walk or play in the grass because people had left metal sparklers all over the place. I tweeted about that earlier, and someone pointed out that the red blaes pitch at the Glasgow Gaelic School in Finnieston has been left pretty much unusable by the community and school, because of the mess left behind after the fireworks. There is a cost to local government in clearing up all those things, which may take weeks.
We need to look at better licensing of events. At the moment there is a free for all, and that is not working for our constituents. There should be some kind of audit trail for wholesalers that sell industrial-sized fireworks. If they sell industrial-grade fireworks, for want of a better term, what happens to those afterwards? How do we ensure that they can be traced? If they turn up on the corner of a street on Pollokshields, how can we know where they came from? We also need to think about criminal offences in connection with agent purchase. Many fireworks fall into the hands of young people. They are clearly bought for them by adults—friends or family members; then the young people are sent off into the street with them. The criminal offences should be similar to those relating to agent purchase of alcohol. The law should allow for local byelaws. If, as in my constituency, there are areas with a particular problem, byelaws could be tighter than the overall law in preventing the sale or use of fireworks.
Bill Grant talked about the frustrations of his constituents, and I share his concerns. The Minister has heard concerns from across the House, and should take them on board. One of my constituents said:
“Every year, I sign one or more petitions asking Parliament to ban the private use of fireworks, limit the public use of fireworks and/or mandate the use of so-called silent fireworks. Every year, the government responds with a bland platitude about fireworks being regulated and there being no plans for change. Every year, I hear and see those regulations being flouted, for example: fireworks being set off in public parks by private individuals …youngsters…throwing them at fire service personnel, and even fireworks being set off in the street”.
The Minister cannot hide or duck the issue. There is a problem here. The Scottish Government have taken on a review, and I welcome that. The Minister will know that the signatories to the petition come largely from Scottish constituencies. They want something to happen, because in Scotland the law does not allow us to do much more than we have done already. I urge the Minister either to deal with the issue or devolve powers to the Scottish Parliament and let the Scottish Government get on with it.
It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank my hon. Friend Helen Jones; her speech covered so much that we do not need to say much at all, so I shall try to keep my remarks brief.
The current regulations effectively cover five areas: restrictions on the periods of the year when fireworks can be used; restrictions on the times of day when they can be let off; the definition of a public place where they may be let off; categories of fireworks available for purchase by the public; and restrictions on the age below which an individual is not allowed to possess a firework in a public place. It is my contention that apart from the fourth of those—we banned bangers and jumping jacks—we have not done very well on the other regulations. I welcome the Minister to her place and hope that she has the measure of what the debate is about. She is a fair person, and I know she will be thinking hard about what she is going to say.
In the major debate on the previous e-petition, on
“Even in this debate, in which the same concerns have been raised consistently in almost every speech, there has been a difference of opinion about how we should tackle the issue. Some advocate an outright ban, some want a consultation and some want tighter legislation. It is for the Government to consider all those arguments in the round, form an opinion and ensure that the legislation meets those challenges.”—[Official Report,
I take that as reasonably optimistic. The trouble is that nothing has really happened since the beginning of the year, and we are now at the end of it, so I hope the Minister can make some more positive noises.
None of us, I think, has argued for an outright ban; but we are of one mind that the restrictions are not working, and that they must be revisited. Although my hon. Friend Alex Norris has left the Chamber, I shall give my pet story, because everyone else has. I have a cat called Scamp, a waif and stray who just arrived one day, so I looked after him. Two things completely faze him. One is the sight of a black plastic bag. It horrifies me to think what someone did to him. The second is fireworks. He disappears through the catflap as quickly as you could see a cat disappear, and we will not see him for two or three hours. He is petrified. Something and someone somewhere have done things to him that we just have to clear from the mind. That is an animal story, but so much of this is about animals, because they are our nearest and dearest and we must take notice of how they are affected. Funnily enough, I met the National Farmers Union today, and said, “What’s the NFU’s view on this?”, to which the NFU, as always, said, “We haven’t got an official view, but if you want to know my personal view, it’s terrifying for many animals.”
Unfortunately, due to the Prime Minister’s statement I could not be here at the beginning of the debate, so somebody may already have raised the plight of horses, but as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the horse I will say for the record that already this year there have been 42 firework-related incidents that have affected horses, resulting in two being killed and 20 injured. I particularly wanted to speak in this debate because what is missing in that statistic is, for example, what happened in my constituency over the period of bonfire night, where two mares aborted their foals. Sadly, they will not appear in the statistics because they are unborn. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to look at tightening the regulations to try to make the animals safe.
I totally agree with the right hon. Lady. When I say wildlife, I mean livestock, but we are talking about wildlife as well, because of course it is also affected.
Although Alex Chalk talked about the issues surrounding a total ban and although a ban was intimated in the petition, in the speeches so far no one has argued for that. We are just arguing for tighter regulation and an increasing emphasis on official firework displays, rather than what is happening, with people still letting off fireworks at the wrong time, in the wrong place and often gratuitously, ignoring the impact on other people.
In terms of the five questions about how we regulate, doing so at the point of sale is clearly not working, because too many people obtain fireworks for the wrong purposes and misuse them. We will have to look at that. We have the 2003 Act, which has been mentioned; that was updated by the Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2015, to which the Minister will no doubt also refer. We have heard in great detail about the number of accidents and some of the real problems with fires, arson attacks and deliberate violence against people and property. I am told by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that 45% of dogs in the UK are fearful when they heard fireworks—I am not sure who has asked them, but from their response we can be pretty sure that they are suffering.
We must find a way of working around the traditional festivals, but, as a number of hon. Members have said,
Referring to the impact on pets and other animals, which is what most of us are talking about, there is unanimity now among the animal welfare charities that they want more action. They feel that whatever is in place is not working satisfactorily. Whether that is Dogs Trust, the RSPCA or Cats Protection, they are all of one mind and have one stated aim: to have the Government look at how they can at least enforce the regulations better and, dare I say, revisit those particular regulations.
I hope the Minister will say something about what she intends to do, because it is important we hear that today. Otherwise, another year has slipped by with apparently no action. We all know that we get regular complaints about this issue, and if we are not seen to be doing anything about it, people will think that we are not really that effective—so for all our sakes, I hope the Minister will make us more effective.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.
I have been contacted by a large number of constituents about the private use of fireworks and the effects it can have on animals, public safety and noise nuisance levels in our community. Like my hon. Friend Dr Drew, I think when we get to speak at this point in the debate we are in great danger of repeating what other people have said. I just hope that repetition in this case will make the argument stronger.
One constituent who contacted me highlighted her utter disgust at stories of fireworks being thrown at vulnerable people, aimed at the emergency services and used to harm, torture and maim wildlife, pets and farm animals. She outlined her ardent belief that,
“people used to respect fireworks and the damage they could do and it was very rare for them to be used as weapons or to create terror in people.”
But she felt times had changed significantly and that,
“there are now more members of the public that don’t care about how their actions affect others.”
That was a common theme among the people who contacted me, as was their concern that fireworks had got louder as the appetite for bigger, louder and more shocking bangs had grown. They said that that not only created significant noise nuisance in their communities, but caused distress to the elderly and many other vulnerable people, to pets and pet owners, and of course to wildlife. They felt it was a problem that had got out of control and that the use of fireworks had stretched further and further beyond the traditional dates. One constituent said,
“It starts from October and will go on and on and on until January.”
There was near-unanimity among all those who contacted me that the private use of fireworks should be restricted to certain times during the year, such as
None of the people who contacted me are killjoys. They do not want fireworks banned altogether. They simply want restrictions on private use and for people to be encouraged to go to safe and properly organised fireworks displays on designated dates.
Of the 794 constituents who signed the petition in East Lothian, there is almost universal agreement among pet owners that, if they are aware of the days it is going to happen, they can take steps to protect their pets. It is the use of fireworks outwith those dates that causes so much fear and distress and so many problems for the families. Does my hon. Friend agree?
Of course; as I have said, that was one of the points that was made time and again. People sit in their houses on
May I express my pleasure at serving under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth? I also congratulate my hon. Friend Helen Jones on securing the debate and on the comprehensive way in which she outlined the issues that have generated this petition and the public support for it.
I was sitting slightly uncomfortably when Alex Chalk described the idiots who let off fireworks in the street. I am actually a native of Cheltenham, and in my youth I let off fireworks in Cheltenham’s streets, which I am incredibly embarrassed about. However, that was my generation, in common with the situation outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North, although my generation is actually a little earlier than hers.
There are certain things that I put forward in mitigation. First, those fireworks were not as powerful, noisy or dangerous as now, although they were still quite capable of causing disruption and damaging people. Secondly, if my parents, or their neighbours, had found out, certain vigorous sanctions would have been applied to me. I am not sure whether there is still that powerful social pressure on curbing antisocial behaviour in the way that there was then. There is a range of reasons for that, but it is not really within the remit of the debate to go into them all.
However, things have undoubtedly changed. First, in the monocultural society that I grew up in, we had fireworks only on
I was around in the House during debates on fireworks legislation that took place in various steps between 2003 and 2005. I remember that the situation was getting absolutely intolerable at that time; fireworks seemed to go on for about six weeks, at all times of day and so on and so forth. That gave the impetus for that private Member’s Bill—and the last Labour Government’s backing of it—which brought in many of the restrictions that we now have. I have to say that, after those restrictions were brought in, there was undoubtedly a substantial diminution in the nuisance caused by fireworks.
However, things have been getting worse, which I put down to, essentially, cuts to our public services and to those agencies responsible for ensuring that our laws are properly exercised. On
Of course, if the police are concentrating on dealing with the antisocial use of fireworks, they cannot concentrate on other aspects as well. For other services, such as the ambulance service, the NHS and the fire service, the same applies. The cuts to our public services mean that the control that might have been possible a few years ago cannot be exercised.
I do not think I have ever known a fixed penalty notice to be served on somebody who has used fireworks in an antisocial way. I do not know whether there are statistics that demonstrate that they are served on those people, but I certainly think it is fair to say that, whatever the regulations, in the culture and climate out there it is believed that no action will be taken against someone who uses fireworks antisocially.
There are many examples of people using fireworks antisocially in the Black country and Birmingham, but two are most conspicuous. Last year in Birmingham, one man died of burns when four people threw an industrial firework into his house, which set the house alight. This year in Smethwick, in an adjoining constituency to mine, a firework was thrown into a crowded pub. Happily there were no serious injuries, but the pub itself was severely damaged by the fire that ensued.
It is not really surprising that none of the perpetrators of those particular actions have been arrested or anything. With the cuts to West Midlands police—more than 2,000 officers have been cut over the last six or seven years—and the way the force is stretched, it has other things to concentrate on. None the less, that sort of crime is as devastating to those on the wrong end of it as any other sort of crime.
Many Members have talked about animals. On my life’s journey, I have been a dog owner. I love animals. I am concerned that—I assume because of cuts—the regulations on the number of decibels allowable for fireworks are not being enforced. Up until a year or two ago, it was quite normal for tests to be carried out on fireworks, and a heck of a lot were found to make noise of over 120 dB. That testing has stopped, and the only reasonable interpretation for why is that there is neither the funding nor the people to do it. That is really serious for animals. We talk about noise and animals, but we forget that animals, for the most part, have far more sensitive hearing than us, and if a noise disturbs us, the corresponding impact on animals will be devastating.
While there is a good case for looking at our laws, particularly on time of use—fireworks can be bought only at a particular time but can be let off three months later; storing fireworks presents another issue—the restrictions in respect of allowing them to be used only on private land are not being enforced at all. Fireworks are let off on public highways and so on.
We must invest more money in the enforcement of existing regulations. There is no point in introducing new regulations if they are not backed up. Above all, we need to take a long, hard look at restrictions on the usage of fireworks—where they may be used and at what time—allied with investment in the services that actually take action against those who breach the regulations.
It is a pleasure as always to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, particularly in this important debate. I sincerely congratulate Helen Jones on securing the debate and on her in-depth understanding, knowledge and informative contribution. I do not know whether I can add much to the speeches already made, and particularly to the hon. Lady’s, but my contribution to the discussion will centre on both the impact that bonfire night has on animal welfare and how our emergency service professionals respond to the consequences of unauthorised fireworks being set off before, during and after
These problems occur despite the fact that every year in Scotland the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals puts out clear warnings on how these explosives can cause misery for pets and their owners. Irresponsible individuals continue to engage in this behaviour year after year. The petition has received about 300,000 signatures, of which some 930 were from my Falkirk constituency. That is a declaration, if ever there was one, of people’s concern for animal welfare.
As all of us here know, creatures domestic and wild have heightened senses; that has already been mentioned. Their hearing is far better than ours, and they cannot rationalise as harmless fun the explosive bangs and crashes that they hear. To them, a rocket going off is deafening and terrifying; it means imminent danger. Fireworks can literally scare animals to death. The explosions trigger blind panic and can result in animals running into the path of traffic. Instances have been recorded of wild birds, including swans, flying into pylons to their injury and death—a horrific thought.
Horses and cattle have charged in terror straight into barbed wire and through fences, badly injuring themselves. That causes great stress to farmers, who look after their livestock with great care. It is also their livelihood, and I am all too aware from the farmers I know personally how much they worry about the impact that fireworks can have. The preparations that farmers make to protect their animals should very much be taken into account when the Government consider whether to change the existing laws.
My research shows that most vets are in favour of tighter restrictions on fireworks, because of the sheer volume of animals that they have to treat for firework-related injuries, as well as the severe stress experienced in the lead-up to bonfire season. Many pet owners spend money on medication for their animals in an attempt to keep them calm, or they remove them from their own area to a safe area. Constituents have told me that their whole family become distressed at this time of year.
One lady I know very well says that her family dog, Ruby, was recently scared into a panic by fireworks being let off at 10 pm a week before the official bonfire night. Her pet became so scared that it was drooling and panting for breath and her children had to cover it with a blanket and comfort it until it calmed down. Other hon. Members have told similar stories. Even the next day, the animal was shaking when they took it outside. That random setting off of rockets left everyone in the family on edge until a week after bonfire night, when it all faded away and stopped. That is totally unnecessary stress as far as I can see, and something needs to be done immediately.
I am sure that, in calling for action, pet owners and farmers would be joined by the parents of babies and small children. I have experienced the problem with my own family. When my daughter was about two years old, she was absolutely terrified and I had to take her away from a display and back to the car. It took her a long while to calm down, and I would never like any other child or parent to go through that experience. There is a call for action to be taken, and it has to be taken now.
Then there is the impact on our fire and rescue services. They are under immense pressure during this period. As you know, Mr Howarth, a very strong message is going out across communities that people should attend organised firework displays. That message, particularly from our police, fire and rescue services, needs to be listened to by the decision makers in this place. Those who see the consequences of illegal, irresponsible bonfire and firework events know that legislators sometimes fail them—in this case, by not lowering the noise levels of fireworks. That sends the wrong message, the wrong signals, to emergency responders, including fire services, and in general to our communities. As has been said, the people who do these things think that they will get away with it. My hon. Friend Alison Thewliss talked about the things going on in Glasgow, which are absolutely horrific. Members of public services are diverted from, for example, road traffic accidents—their normal response duties.
Even lowering the decibel level of fireworks would be a step in the right direction and would clearly demonstrate that the Government were listening to our constituents. Another step would be to move to licensed-only events, such as the one in Falkirk, my own constituency, where we have a free event at Callendar Park that is attended by thousands of people. Sometimes we have great artists there; we make it an event for everyone to come to, and it is a wonderful success. I have to thank the local radio station, Central FM, which allowed me personally to broadcast to ask people to attend the event—I do not know whether that had any effect, but it was very busy.
Our emergency services, from ambulances to hospitals, are all under more pressure than necessary at this time of year because of things such as burns and scalds. I believe that the noise of fireworks distracts parents, diverting their attention from their children, and of course we all know the consequences from sparklers—scalding, and clothes and hair being set on fire.
To conclude, the regulations on the noise level of fireworks should be changed. The loudness of the bangs is unnecessary, and avoidable at the manufacturing stage. In addition, only licensed events should be able to use fireworks. I hope that the Minister is listening and we do not get a damp squib in response.
My hon. Friends the Members for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and for Stroud (Dr Drew) said that they thought that we were all going to say more or less the same thing in this debate. I can confirm, as the last speaker before the winding-up speeches, that we are indeed all going to say the same thing—but I will say it briefly. I would like to repeat, on behalf of the 905 constituents of Newport East who signed the petition that has brought us here today, all the calls to restrict the sale of fireworks. Newport East had the seventh highest number of petitioners of any constituency in the UK and the highest number in Wales, and I would very much like to give voice to their concerns today.
My hon. Friend Helen Jones, in her excellent opening remarks, talked about the rosy glow of firework nights in times past. I take part in this debate with a bit of a heavy heart, because my late and wonderful dad very much disliked and railed against what he called organised fun and insisted that absolutely every year on
The problem exists in the build-up and aftermath, from Halloween through bonfire night and all the way to the new year; and particularly this year around bonfire night, I, like other hon. Members, received a host of emails and messages from constituents complaining about the distress that fireworks can cause to vulnerable loved ones, pets and other animals—livestock has been mentioned. Many of the complaints related to antisocial behaviour, and I think it is true to say that the firework season has become an excuse for a destructive minority to cause misery for the public at large.
I would therefore like to praise the partnership work between Gwent police, the fire service and other organisations, such as Newport Live. One example is Operation BANG—Be A Nice Guy. Its aim is to reduce antisocial behaviour, particularly around Halloween and bonfire night. I praise Newport Live for the diversionary activity that it puts in place every year for young people in our communities in Newport.
Despite that, one constituent this year told me that he had come home from work early, at 2 pm, on the day of bonfire night to find teenagers in his back garden throwing fireworks at the house, deliberately aiming to frighten his two young children. Another resident, an on-call carer, described fireworks being thrown at her as she walked down the street, and witnessing a mother run down a nearby road with a toddler as fireworks were thrown at her and her child. Similarly, a former NHS worker wrote to me to describe the firework-inflicted burns he regularly dealt with in A&E on bonfire night. One local family lived through this when their four-year-old daughter was hit in the neck by a firework at a private display last year.
I have a hamster and although I do not have a hamster-related fireworks story, I have received many complaints about the impact on pets. Many constituents told me that their pets were completely traumatised and will not go outside. One dog-owner described his beloved pet spending most of bonfire night
“quivering in a corner and panting so vigorously I thought he would have a heart attack.”
Another constituent told me how his dog injured his teeth and claws while trying to dig and gnaw through a wall, in response to loud bangs from the street outside.
I also pay tribute to the emergency services for their work on bonfire night, including the fire service, police and health workers, who experience one of the busiest nights of the year and do all that they can with stretched resources. It is important to emphasise, as other hon. Members have, that Gwent police, for instance, has seen its budget cut by 40% since 2010. The story is similar across the country. It is really difficult for police forces and local authorities, which do the licensing, to tackle this growing problem when they are already so stretched. We need to do more to address that.
I also agree with all the well-made points about noise pollution and pollution generally. Like other hon. Members, I attended the recent drop-in event in Parliament, where a number of charities including Dogs Trust, Blue Cross, British Veterinary Association, Cats Protection and others put forward the case for a review of existing fireworks legislation. That was with a view to introducing further much-needed restrictions on their use, particularly outside organised public displays. The RSPCA has also voiced its support for a restriction on the private use of fireworks to certain traditional dates, such as
I absolutely agree with those charities and my constituents that something needs to change if we are to help limit the distress caused by fireworks to vulnerable people and animals. Progress has been made since the Fireworks Regulations 2004, which restricted sales, but further action is needed. Finally, I hope the Government will reflect on the contributions to this debate and consider undertaking a review of firework displays. I very much support the e-petition on behalf of the 905 people in my constituency who signed it.
I am delighted to take part in this debate on the e-petition calling for a change in the law to include a ban on the public use of fireworks. I thank the Petitions Committee for bringing this debate forward and Helen Jones for setting out a comprehensive case, outlining the concerns we have all heard from our constituents.
I do not think that any hon. Member has argued against the fact that, when used correctly, fireworks are an enjoyable spectacle. They are enjoyed by some 10 million people across the UK each year, and, as was mentioned several times, they have become a feature of publicly organised events in November, weddings and all sorts of other celebrations throughout the year. Anyone fortunate enough to have attended a publicly organised firework display will no doubt have enjoyed it immensely, and no one here would want to interfere with that.
However, we also need to take account of the alarm, distress, danger and anxiety that fireworks far too often cause to too many people and animals, and the disruption that they can cause to communities when purchased and used irresponsibly by individuals, which we heard about from Bill Grant, who is a former fire officer, as well as many other hon. Members.
We heard from the hon. Members for Warrington North and for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock some of the statistics around accidents and injuries caused by fireworks. We are all aware of the increased pressure that problems associated with fireworks bring to bear on our public services, which are already stressed, which we heard about from Mr Bailey and my hon. Friend John Mc Nally.
Every year from October to January, I receive complaints, as I am sure we all do, from constituents whose neighbourhoods are disrupted and plagued by the irresponsible use of fireworks at all hours of the dark evenings, as was outlined by my hon. Friend Martyn Day. Under cover of darkness, too many people set out to cause mischief, thinking that it is funny to set off fireworks near housing, where children or whole families are shocked from their slumbers; pets, such as cats and dogs, are scared half to death; and elderly people are driven into a state of fear and alarm. The effect on horses is also an issue to be considered, as we have heard. The hon. Member for Warrington North clearly set out the effect on veterans, who might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following active service.
We last debated this issue in January, as Dr Drew reminded us. We were told then by the responding Minister that the creation of the Office for Product Safety and Standards would address many of the concerns raised about fireworks at that time, which were similar to the concerns raised today. This new body, we were told, would receive some £12 million a year in central Government funding to ensure that there was access to information nationally and to support local authorities in their work.
The new body, we were told, would work with key stakeholders and enforcing authorities to review the guidance materials available on the safe and responsible use of fireworks. It would provide an intelligence-handling function to improve the information we had and would also examine the individual safety of particular fireworks and of other products on sale—or so we were told.
I hope the Minister can update us on the work of the Office for Product Safety and Standards on the issue of fireworks. If the Office for Product Safety and Standards has not yet addressed the issue of fireworks, perhaps she will explain what has caused the delay, given the widespread concern about the effects of fireworks on our communities.
The Scottish Parliament, through the Fireworks (Scotland) Regulations 2004, restricted when fireworks can be set off, but as we all know all too well, irresponsible people who want to set off fireworks do not care a jot about the time restrictions. They do not care whether it is legal to set off a firework at certain times of day or night, and it seems that such irresponsible people do not care a jot about safety either.
I have been contacted by constituents in a state of great distress, as I am sure we all have, after a particularly alarming and noisy night of fireworks, which can happen for no apparent reason other than the fact that it is October, November or December, or it is Tuesday, or people have fireworks left over.
Fireworks are also still available for sale, as my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss pointed out. On such occasions, as we have heard from several Members today—we have all heard this—constituents tell us that the onslaught of fireworks has had a profound effect on not only their quality of life, but their pets, which undergo trembling fits and become withdrawn and very frightened. That cannot be prepared for, as it comes out of nowhere whenever someone has fireworks and thinks that they will have a bit of fun. Some people think it is a great idea to set fireworks off in the middle of the night, up tenement entrances or in the shared entryways to flats.
The sale of fireworks is strongly restricted in the Republic of Ireland. The maximum punishment for possessing fireworks without a licence or for lighting fireworks in a public place is a €10,000 fine and a five-year prison sentence. In Northern Ireland, fireworks have long been subjected to some of the strictest laws in the world. Perhaps the Minister will tell us why the rest of the UK is denied similar or greater protection. As we heard from Susan Elan Jones, even in the United States, which has liberal gun laws, some states believe that restrictions on fireworks should be strict.
The situation in Scotland is nothing short of bizarre: the use of fireworks is a devolved matter, but the sale of fireworks is reserved. It does not take a genius to work out that unless we tackle in some way the sale of fireworks and who can get their hands on them, we have lost any meaningful influence over who uses them, which makes that extremely difficult to police.
At a local level, environmental health and antisocial behaviour teams can and do work hard to tackle the misuse of fireworks in our communities, but that seems to deal with the consequences of the wide availability of fireworks, rather than tackling the fear, alarm, distress, fire risks and safety hazards that fireworks cause. We need to tackle the real issue of the sale of fireworks to individuals; we need to tackle the problem at source. The hon. Member for West Bromwich West reminded us that fireworks are far more powerful and prevalent than they were in the past.
The time restrictions on fireworks are regulated by law, so fireworks cannot be set off between 11 pm and 7 am, with a few exceptions for special occasions such as the new year and so on. Clearly, however, from what we have heard, that does not go far enough. An individual who wishes to buy fireworks to cause fear and alarm, to have a bit of fun because they find it entertaining to cause destruction to their neighbourhood, or to use them as weapons of choice will set off fireworks whenever and wherever they choose. Restrictions on when fireworks can be set off afford no comfort to the communities plagued by them. As we have heard from several hon. Members, the regulations cannot be enforced. Once fireworks are on sale to any individual over 18, all control is lost over irresponsible behaviour, which is sadly all too common in some of our neighbourhoods.
The Scottish Government have launched a welcome consultation on the use of fireworks, but the nub of the issue is their sale, which is reserved to this Parliament and which cannot continue to be dodged or ignored. We need action and a serious and meaningful UK-wide review of who can buy fireworks. We cannot have any more shilly-shallying. I am keen to see the results of the Scottish Government’s consultation and I believe that the UK should follow suit as a first step—I hope the Minister has been listening.
Fireworks cannot currently be sold to anyone under 18, but so what? We know that children can get hold of them. We also know that those using fireworks irresponsibly are often perfectly entitled to buy them under the law as it stands. The irresponsible use of fireworks is not confined to those who get hold of them illegally. That is why more needs to be done to protect communities, the elderly, pets and a range of people in our communities, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk and other hon. Members who have been contacted repeatedly over the years by constituents whose lives are made a misery for several months of the year.
As the hon. Members for Stroud and for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) set out, the current situation is not working and is not sustainable for the health, wellbeing and safety of our neighbourhoods. We can all look back nostalgically, as Jessica Morden did, to bonfire nights when we were growing up, but I am sure she agrees that that cuts no ice with communities that must regularly tolerate the awfulness of fireworks misuse for several months of the year.
We can all agree that the problem appears to be growing, as the hon. Members for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) and for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) pointed out. The only solution is to tackle it at source and review who should be sold fireworks. Personally, I am attracted to limiting their use to licensed organised public displays that are well advertised in advance and that take place within a publicised timespan, but I am also open to hearing what the Minister has to say.
Organised licensed displays allow the many people who wish to enjoy fireworks to do so safely. Importantly, they also allow local residents to plan ahead and make arrangements to protect their pets, as John Howell pointed out. The Dogs Trust says that where public displays are organised, 93% of pet owners—a high figure—alter their plans during the display time to minimise their pet’s trauma, which protects their pet’s welfare.
As for helping pet owners to prepare for the use of fireworks in their neighbourhoods, from what we have heard today, we know that that is often not possible, because fireworks go off randomly, with no warning. We can all agree—I hope I can include the Minister in that—that the answer is greater restrictions on the sale of fireworks, instead of selling them to all and sundry over 18 years old. Organised public fireworks displays, which are a much safer option for all our communities, would then gradually become the accepted norm.
It is time to ban the free sale of fireworks except for public licensed displays, but hon. Members do not have to take my word for it. Let us consult across the UK and see what the public think, as has already been done in Scotland—there is no reason that cannot be done across the UK. A ban would mean that we could still enjoy fireworks in our communities at new year and at celebrations such as weddings, but that they would be out of the hands of those who, by accident or design, put the fear of God into our communities, shake our children and whole families awake in their beds, alarm older people, cause real suffering to our pets and even cause injury.
We need to let the public have their say through a widespread consultation. We need to get the balance right. No one is asking for fireworks to be banned altogether, but I urge the Minister to consider a consultation similar to the one being carried out in Scotland. Let us hear what the public think—they need to be part of the conversation—so they can inform how we proceed to improve the situation across the UK, and let us see a meaningful response to their concerns. I hope the Minister will set out how she will proceed on that basis.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend Helen Jones on securing this important and popular debate. The strength of feeling on the matter is undeniable and the fact that more than 290,000 people and counting have signed the petition is a testament to that.
Fireworks can cause stress and anxiety in small children, older people and those who suffer from mental health issues. My hon. Friend Jessica Morden described how pets and livestock are particularly affected, as for them, fireworks come unannounced, which can leave them feeling extremely vulnerable. Dogs feel safe and secure when they know what to expect, so the unannounced nature of fireworks is particularly distressing. Dog owners regularly complain that they face a waiting game when it comes to loud noises and scared pets, as eloquently described by my hon. Friend Alex Norris. Similarly, cats associate loud noises with danger and can retreat for days at the sound of fireworks.
However, I am conscious that most people use fireworks responsibly in line with the regulations. There is no doubt that a fabulous fireworks display is the central feature of many cultural and religious celebrations, such as Diwali, Chinese new year and new year’s eve.
As hon. Members have noted, the legislation on fireworks is 13 years old. Strict rules about the quality, quantity and sale of fireworks are covered in the Fireworks Regulations 2004, which my hon. Friend Dr Drew believes need revisiting. Since January 2005, the sale of fireworks to the public has been prohibited except by licensed traders. However, fireworks can be sold by unlicensed traders for Chinese new year, for Diwali, between
The period around bonfire night is rather long, and in the last debate on the topic I asked the then Minister whether the Government would consult on it. Can the Minister update the Chamber on whether a consultation has taken or will be taking place? The 2004 regulations are fairly strict on timings, dates and who can use fireworks, so a large body of regulation covers the matter, but having sufficient regulation and enforcing it properly are two wholly separate issues.
I now turn to the lack of enforcement. The savage cuts faced by our local authorities’ trading standards bodies, which are responsible for enforcing consumer protection laws, are seriously concerning. For example, there was a 56% reduction in the number of staff at trading standards bodies between 2009-10 and 2016. The Government have failed to address this matter properly, and although the newly established Office for Product Safety and Standards is a step forward, the scope of resources available to it does not go far enough to ensure a sufficient level of enforcement.
My hon. Friend Colleen Fletcher highlighted the fact that if the regulations are not enforced properly, as they should be, we see a rise in the number of police having to step in when fireworks get into the wrong hands or are used inappropriately, so it is not surprising that our police forces are frustrated by the issue of fireworks. Animal welfare charities, such as Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and the Kennel Club, agree that poor enforcement is having a detrimental effect on animal welfare.
The other matter, of course, is the UK’s departure from the EU. The Prime Minister’s botched Brexit deal offers nothing to secure the future of our world-class consumer protections and the Minister has failed to outline clearly what mechanisms will be in place to ensure that enforcement is maintained after the UK leaves the EU.
It also concerns me that there are insufficient evidence and statistics on this matter. For example, no survey or study has been done on the impacts of fireworks and according to the House of Commons Library the only statistics available on this issue are on hospital admissions due to the discharge of fireworks in England—which, by the way, have been increasing. We have heard that in the last year there were 4,000 such admissions. During the last debate on this issue, I asked the then Minister, Andrew Griffiths, whether he would gather statistics and data on the sale and use of fireworks. Can the Minister update us today on whether her Department is indeed in the process of compiling that data?
I sympathise with those affected by fireworks, but more should be done to communicate the details of the regulations that are currently in place. There should also be an effective communications campaign to highlight the impacts that fireworks can have on certain groups. Has the Minister considered putting in resources and working with consumer groups and animal welfare charities to put together a comprehensive and country-wide campaign to bring attention to concerns about firework use? If people are better informed about these issues, they may reconsider their use of fireworks.
There is very strong feeling on this matter, as my hon. Friend Susan Elan Jones has described so well. I reiterate my call for the Minister to conduct a thorough review of the regulations that are already in place, to determine the changing impact of fireworks and what changes we need to make to the existing regulations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I pay tribute to Helen Jones not only for introducing the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee but for her thoughtful and informative speech. I also thank all hon. Members who have taken part in today’s debate. It is great to see such a highly subscribed Westminster Hall debate. I am also grateful to those who signed the e-petition that has brought us here today.
As has been discussed, a very similar debate took place in January, following a petition that also sought to
“Change the laws governing the use of fireworks to include a ban on public use”.
That debate took place because 113,000 people signed that petition. Today, we are debating a petition that has received over 280,000 signatures. Again, it calls for a ban on the sale of fireworks to the public and for displays at licensed venues only. I am also aware that there are campaigns under way regarding the use of fireworks, such as the one organised by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and a further petition, under the change.org banner, has received over 330,000 signatures. The issues have been debated thoroughly, both today and in January.
Let me also offer my thanks to Alison Thewliss, who had a debate on this issue scheduled for tomorrow but who, because of today’s debate, has decided to combine it with this one. I thank her for forfeiting her debate.
I empathise with the concerns that have been raised, and the Government understand the strong feelings that many people have about fireworks. For those reasons, I do not want to simply restate what the law is, although I will do so briefly for the benefit of hon. Members. We have legislation in place to regulate the supply, storage, possession, use and misuse of fireworks, to help to ensure public safety. These powers include powers to prosecute those who use fireworks in a dangerous or antisocial manner. Together, the restrictions set out in the Fireworks Act 2003, the Fireworks Regulations 2004 and the Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2015 provide the regulatory framework that seeks to support the public’s enjoyment of fireworks while effectively managing the risk of fireworks harming individuals, property or animals.
Retailers may sell fireworks without the need for a specific licence during short windows of time around the traditional fireworks periods of
I recognise that the noise from fireworks can be distressing to some people and animals, and many Members today have shared their experiences and the concerns of their constituents. That is why there is a noise limit of 120 dB on fireworks available for consumer use. Consumers can also choose to buy from the wide range of low-noise or silent fireworks that are now available, as some hon. Members have highlighted.
I want to reassure hon. Members that the Government continue to take the enforcement of firework safety seriously. Trading standards can order the removal of unsafe products from the market and can take action against retailers who flout the law by selling fireworks to under-age children or who fail to abide by the licensing rules. The police do take action to combat antisocial behaviour and the dangerous use of fireworks by individuals, and many hon. Members today have described the illegal sale and use of fireworks. The hon. Members for Glasgow Central and for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) described serious criminal activity involving fireworks that has happened within their constituencies. Quite frankly, they outlined some disgusting behaviour by individuals in their use of fireworks. Such incidents are investigated by the police, leading to fines and in some cases imprisonment, so although I recognise hon. Members’ concerns, I do not accept the premise that the police do not investigate what I would call criminal activity.
Can the Minister tell us whether her Department now collects statistics on the number of prosecutions for fireworks offences? If it does, what is the trend? Are prosecutions going up or down?
I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. As some hon. Members have already outlined, when the last debate on this subject took place in January, we were just setting up the Office for Product Safety and Standards. We talked then about the collection of data, and my Department is working with National Trading Standards to consider ways to collect data to back up any proposed changes.
To recap, criminal events in which people use fireworks are investigated by police, if they are reported. In some cases, they attract fines and, in others, imprisonment.
I do not think that anyone would say that the police do not investigate. We are saying that the level of resources is such that they are not often able to carry out the sort of investigation that enables them to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Can the Minister give me an indication of just how many investigations have taken place, how many fixed penalty notices have been given and how many perpetrators of serious firework-related crime have been prosecuted?
I would like to refer to the hon. Gentleman’s comment and also to his earlier remark about an incident in which a firework was thrown into a pub. He suggested that it was not investigated—
Perhaps I misunderstood, but that is what I heard from this end. My suggestion is that the police do take such matters seriously, in any constituency. Regarding any criminal activity that is identified as serious, the police absolutely attend.
If I heard the Minister correctly, she suggested—if she did not say—that the work of the Office for Product Safety and Standards is ongoing. I think that is what she said—what I understood. If the office is not yet in a position to tell us how it will proceed on fireworks, with all the concerns around them, do we have a timeframe for when it might bring forward its own conclusions or proposals about how we move forward?
I will move on to that reference later in my speech, and to how potentially I, as the Minister responsible, and in line with the Office for Product Safety and Standards, would like to take the matter forward. If the hon. Lady would bear with me, that would be great.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central suggested that it was not possible to seize fireworks in some cases. I would like to reassure her that fireworks can be seized under the Consumer Protection Act 1987 and the Explosives Act 1875. Just to give her an example, Greater Manchester seized 50 kg of bangers last year and 36 kg of category 4 fireworks, and Worcestershire seized fireworks from two different premises.
I am not aware of the circumstances that the Minister mentions. Were those fireworks seized from commercial or residential premises? On bonfire night, Police Scotland deployed public order specialists in Pollokshields. They arrested people, and they are still arresting people and investigating. The problem is not the police’s response but the source of the fireworks.
To answer the hon. Lady’s direct question, I have the data regarding the volumes as opposed to how many premises or individuals—[Interruption.] The volumes that I said, the 50 kg of—[Interruption.]
Order. I do not think we can have mumbling from a sedentary position.
I said that the information I have is in regards to the volume and not to how that volume is made up.
Although only a minority of users of fireworks misuse them, I understand that one individual can have a massive impact on a community. That is why the Government continue to believe that the best way to continue to reduce any distress caused by fireworks is to work with industry, retailers and others to promote their safe and responsible use through guidance and public education and to ensure that appropriate action is taken against those who break the rules.
At the previous debate in January, the then Minister with responsibility for fireworks had just announced the creation of the new Office for Product Safety and Standards, and I am delighted that the office is already working with industry, retailers, charities and others, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and Netmums, to promote the safe and responsible use of fireworks and raise consumer awareness of firework safety. The campaign that the office has undertaken, with its partners, has reached more than a million people through social media, GP surgeries and post offices. The office has also been providing access to expert advice to support trading standards work in enforcing the regulations, including through the funding of the testing of potentially unsafe fireworks.
Has there been any investigation of the issue of inspections by trading standards, as opposed to by the Health and Safety Executive? Two people lost their lives in a firework explosion in my constituency a few years ago, and it was implied that although trading standards are allowed to inspect places where up to 2 tonnes of fireworks are kept, they did not have enough expertise to deal with an amount of explosive that was greater than that which Guy Fawkes used in these Houses of Parliament. Would it not be better for the Health and Safety Executive to come in at a much lower level than 2 tonnes, which I believe is the law at the moment?
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting his constituency concern. As he outlined, local trading standards and local authorities license the storage of fireworks, but the Health and Safety Executive ultimately has responsibility for the health and safety of all premises—the overriding health and safety regulations—whether it they be for work or storage. Since I have been in post as Minister, I have not had any representations made to me on the storage of fireworks; they have been more about their use. From my personal experience, I can say that if there are operations within individuals’ constituencies, or even if the general public have any concerns about where fireworks are being stored, they are absolutely to contact the local authority and trading standards, but I suggest that they also contact the Health and Safety Executive, which has the responsibility for carrying out investigative work when complaints have been made.
If I may just follow up on that, in metropolitan areas the fire and rescue authorities usually have responsibility for the inspection of storage and they have real experience in that area. Would it not be better to ensure that not just in metropolitan areas but in county authorities a similar regime was put in place under the overall provision of the HSE, but involving fire and rescue authorities right from fairly low levels of firework storage?
I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestion. I know that local forces work well with local authorities and other agencies on how best to implement regulation, control local problems and carry out enforcement. My hon. Friend makes a very good point and it is something we would have to discuss with those agencies and the local authorities involved.
During the debate in January, the then Minister agreed to meet with hon. Members who had an interest in the matter and discuss their concerns. As I said in response to a Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy question last week, I am open to hearing more and to receiving information and evidence on firework safety issues. This debate has certainly provided much information for further consideration.
The Minister is being extremely generous with her time. I just want to ask her the question that I think everyone in this room wants to ask, and probably every member of the public who has an interest in the issue. Is she minded to have a consultation? I hear what she says about what has been going on, but is she minded to proceed down the path of a consultation on the sale of fireworks? I think that is what a lot of people want to know.
I hope to have a meeting, which I think may also have been offered by my predecessor, with hon. Members who are interested. That will be an opportunity for them to discuss this issue with me, because what has come out today is that there is no consensus. There are different elements, and a number of issues and different opinions have been discussed. That is absolutely fine—that is what a debate is about—but it is not something that we could run with. As the Minister responsible, I would like to come up with a suggested way forward, looking at things in a more organised way. That is why I suggest a face-to-face meeting with hon. Members to discuss their concerns and suggest how we might take this matter forward.
Following the January debate, officials were tasked with reviewing the guidance. In order to ensure that all views are taken into account, I have asked those officials to connect constructively with key stakeholders during the next steps, addressing any awareness or information gaps. The creation of the Office for Product Safety and Standards has given us the opportunity to make the best use of scientific evidence, incident data, risk and intelligence in our decision making. As a result, we are now in a much better position to ensure we have the right evidence-based approach to firework safety, and to commission new evidence where necessary. That will ensure we have a thorough understanding of the issues with the safe sale and use of fireworks.
I will respond to a couple of questions. The hon. Members for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) have asked about the consultation on fireworks, and I will happily meet Members to discuss a way forward. As I have already outlined, the Office for Product Safety and Standards is gathering data and looking at ways in which we can acquire the thorough evidence that we will need to back up anything we introduce. As for enforcement, I am personally committed to making sure that we enforce the law in this country, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough knows and as I highlighted last week.
We are also committed to consumer protection. I made my interest in that area expressly clear in two different debates last week, as well as my interest in the data and the work that we are doing. The Office for Product Safety and Standards and the Department are using data scientifically to make better decisions on consumer protection and safety.
It is really generous of the Minister to offer to meet those of us who have taken part in the debate. However, as I said earlier, it is 13 years since the last regulations were instated, so does she agree that a complete review of the situation is now timely? Things have changed since then. We have heard about the fireworks that sound like bombs, the high decibel levels, and the different lengths of time that things take, so it would be nice if the Minister could confirm that when she meets us, it will be with a view to reviewing the entire situation surrounding fireworks.
I thank the hon. Lady for her thanks for my suggestion that we should have a meeting. However, as I say, I have been in this role since July, and before I commit to anything, I need to be confident of what we would achieve and how we would achieve it. I am sad to say that I will not use today as an opportunity to confirm what the hon. Lady has asked for, but I have open ears and an open mind on what hon. Members might want to highlight.
If I were to attend the meeting with the Minister, I would say to her that for me, the most important item is restricting to certain dates the use of fireworks outside of organised displays. I think that every Member would have a different view on that, but the reason I am going to push the Minister a bit further about a public consultation is that the more views we have, the more informed the Government will be.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments, but as I have highlighted, I will not commit to a consultation until I have met hon. Members, spoken with my officials, and worked out with them what the best way forward is. I will be quite frank: I am not for moving on that today. However, as I have highlighted, I have open ears and an open mind, and it is obvious from today’s debate that there is a range of differing views.
To highlight two elements of the debate, I support hon. Members on the question of the problems they have raised, and to pay tribute to our emergency services. We have heard about how our emergency services have been targeted, with people using fireworks in a criminal way against those charged with protecting us. Like anyone listening to the debate and to the stories that hon. Members have recounted, I think it is disgusting that anyone working in the emergency services might be threatened with fireworks, even on a firework night. That is totally disgusting, and I share hon. Members’ concerns about that.
I will also highlight hon. Members’ concerns about animal welfare. We have heard personal stories about hon. Members’ pets and the disastrous things that have happened to horses, and I can recount stories from years ago. I was pleased to hear that Jessica Morden did not have a story about a hamster, and it was nice to hear about her father and his desire to have fireworks in their yard. My father would not, because the Catherine wheels that were available in the 1970s, when I was small, were dangerous: half of them did not finish or go off. Product safety has moved on significantly in the past 30 years, and although we are still targeting people who use fireworks incorrectly, the products have improved vastly. We recognise people’s concerns about their pets and animals, but it is a difficult debate.
We have heard that we should move people to public displays, rather than their having fireworks in their garden. However, we have heard complaints about public displays as well as informal ones, so the question of what people want is complex. There are many differing opinions, and we will have to make judgments about how far we need to go and what the right balance is. Legislation and enforcement always involves a balance: ensuring both that people’s rights are protected and consumers are safe, and that people are able to enjoy the things that I am sure everyone loves about fireworks.
If the Scottish Government’s consultation comes back next year in favour of greater restrictions on sale, will the Minister devolve the powers to the Scottish Parliament?
I am afraid that I cannot commit to that today, because I do not know what the Scottish Government’s review will say. If I am still in post, I will happily look at it at that time.
I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate. I reassure the Chamber that I am clear that the safety of our constituents remains a priority, and I will consider the work of my officials and look at the evidence base. I encourage everyone present who is interested and has contributed to the debate to meet me for a proper discussion, which will enable the Government to look at the problem and decide on the correct way forward. I also thank you, Mr Howarth, for your patience this afternoon.
I take this opportunity to thank all Members who have participated in the debate and made some very useful contributions to it. I would like to be able to thank the Minister, but in 21 years I have seldom heard a response that took so little cognisance of the debate that had just happened.
We have now had three e-petition debates on the issue, yet the Government have taken no account of the public views that have been expressed time and time again. I remind them that the petitions system was set up as a joint system between Parliament and Government in the expectation that Government would take it seriously, and they clearly are not. The Minister has talked about enforcement, but she will not commit more resources to it.
One moment. The Minister has said—[Interruption.] No, I am not giving way; I have not finished my sentence. She has said she believes that she needs to collect more data and that there has been no unanimity in this debate. This debate was unanimous about wanting more controls on fireworks. She said that she is sorry for our emergency services, but she has put forward no way—
I only have two minutes, so I am not giving way. Clear?
Two minutes? You have 10.
I have two minutes to wind up. The Minister has said that she wants to protect our emergency services, but she has come up with no way of doing that. She has said, “We want to work with the industry.” I wonder whether that will be as successful as the Government’s obesity strategy has been in working with the industry concerned.
My constituents and other Members’ constituents are clear that they want action. I know the Minister is a junior Minister and is unable to promise much herself, but the Home Office has to start taking this matter seriously or we will be here debating it time and time again until it does. My Committee will certainly want to look at it again. These are serious issues about people being injured, emergency workers being attacked and people’s lives being made a misery. It is time that the Government started to take it seriously.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered e-petition 231147 relating to the sale of fireworks to the public.