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29 Oct 2009 : Column 457

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): The legislation as it stands has made the use of fireworks more enjoyable for many Sandwell residents. If they have one question for the Minister, it is this: could he make them just a little bit quieter? What measures does the Department take to monitor complaints about noise?

Ian Lucas: Clearly the issue of noise continues to cause concern, and we are monitoring it closely within the Department. It is the aspect of fireworks that is of most concern to constituents, and it is the thing that is most brought to our attention.

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): Before my hon. Friend moves on, may I say that the concern often raised with me, in addition to those that hon. Members have mentioned, is the availability of fireworks via the internet? That is of great concern. I am sure that the vast majority of shops meet their requirements carefully and closely, but unfortunately, on the internet, fireworks do not seem to be quite so closely monitored and controlled. Does my hon. Friend have a view on that?

Ian Lucas: I do not have a view on that, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter with me. I will certainly look at it in more detail.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Firework sellers who break the law can face stiff fines or even prison, but is the Minister satisfied with the adequacy of the penalties available when people misuse fireworks? People over the age of 10 can get a fixed penalty ticket, but last week, as I was walking home in the Vincent square area, a group of youths were throwing lit fireworks at passers by. That sort of thing is absolutely and unacceptably dangerous. Surely we need to review that legislation.

Ian Lucas: Clearly, the sort of behaviour that my hon. Friend describes is completely unacceptable. Of course, there would be sanctions for that sort of behaviour in the criminal law other than those available under fireworks legislation. That type of behaviour would be a criminal offence.

We have made progress on fireworks. Post from my constituency on the matter has decreased substantially since I was elected in 2001, but we continue to treat the matter very seriously.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): I get fewer complaints than I used to before the Act was passed, but there are still problems with some idiots abusing fireworks. Has there been any analysis of the number of complaints since the Act, and whether it has gone down or up?

Ian Lucas: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. In fact, I made some inquiries within the Department about the decline in the number of complaints. In 2004, some 870 letters were sent by Members to the Department about the misuse of fireworks, and that has declined to some 140 this year, so there has been a substantial diminution. As we know, Members are strongly motivated by complaints made to their constituency offices, so that is a general indicator of the success of the legislation.

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Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Has the Minister had a look at the situation in Northern Ireland, which has had legislation restricting the private sale of fireworks except for organised and licensed displays? The number of complaints has diminished, although there are still some idiots-as the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) rightly characterised them. What lessons have been learned from the regime in Northern Ireland?

Ian Lucas: I am pleased to hear that the position has improved in Northern Ireland. We monitor the position constantly to try to improve things in the whole of the UK, and we need to learn lessons from any area that has benefited from statutory action.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I apologise for being slightly late for the start of the debate.

As a former fireman whose life was blighted regularly each year by fireworks, I ask the Minister to look not only at MPs' postbags but at the injuries caused, especially to young people and those who think that they are in control of themselves, but are not, especially if they have had a drink. The injuries are horrific, and our accident and emergency departments are still full of people injured by themselves and others by means of fireworks.

Ian Lucas: If the hon. Gentleman is patient, I will address that issue. He is right to say that the injuries are serious, and I shall be interested to hear his remarks, given his experience.

Contacts that my officials have had so far this year with various police forces, fire services and trading standards departments indicate that the start of the firework season has been quiet in all senses of the word. However, the enjoyment of millions can be threatened, as so often is the case, by the thoughtless, selfish and often criminal actions of a minority. Fireworks can be fun if they are used in a responsible and sensible fashion, but it is the actions of that minority who continue to let fireworks off in the street, who buy fireworks and give them to under 18s and who think it funny to let off fireworks in the early hours of the morning, well after the curfew has come into operation, frightening people and animals alike, who threaten to spoil it for everyone else.

Since 2000 or so, the use and popularity of fireworks have grown, albeit slowly. Part of this rise can be attributed to a change in the type of fireworks available to consumers. The traditional family selection box that I recall from many years ago is now rivalled by large single ignition multi-shot cakes, "a display in a box", which were virtually unheard of 10 years ago. The popularity of these fireworks can be attributed to their safety: lighting them once sets off a display letting off anything from 10 to 200-plus effects. Obviously that may mean that some garden displays now have more bangs in them as overall they have more effects in them.

Mike Penning: What the Minister has just said is not factually true. That sort of firework is not safer, because once set off, it cannot be stopped. If it has 200 projectiles, they all have to go off and cannot be controlled.

Ian Lucas: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I take his point about the inability to stop the process, but the number of times that the individual comes into direct contact with the fireworks is reduced.

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The new types of fireworks may have led to the perception that more noisy fireworks are let off each year. Another reason is the growing popularity of fireworks for use at weddings and civil partnerships, anniversaries, birthdays and other celebratory events. Such usage was unusual in the past, but it is developing. This trend has spread the traditional use of fireworks from bonfire night to other nights of the year.

It is important that the Government take an active role when it comes to issuing firework safety messages. My Department has been communicating such messages throughout Diwali and will continue to do so in the run-up to 5 November. We have worked closely with the Department for Children, Families and Schools to promote child safety during the firework season, which complements my Department's aim to promote firework safety in general.

There are two main audiences for firework safety messages. The first is the general public who hold displays in their back garden for their children, and who may not be aware of the firework code and safe practices, thereby putting themselves and their own and other children at the risk of serious injury. The second is the retailers of fireworks: we must encourage them to sell fireworks responsibly and remind them of their obligations under the Fireworks Regulations 2004, which are helping to tackle firework crime and misuse.

The aims of the activity delivered by my Department and DCSF are to ensure that consumers have adequate information about firework safety; to reduce the number of fireworks-related injuries by ensuring the public are adequately aware of the risks and dangers posed by fireworks; and to encourage retailers to sell fireworks responsibly to over-18s and remind them of their obligations under the relevant fireworks legislation.

The messages are being communicated by an existing stock of TV and radio advertisements about fireworks safety on commercial and BBC stations. These are "fillers" that are placed, free of charge, in unused air-time. We also produce news releases carrying safety messages, aimed at the regional press. We also engage with key stakeholders such as the Child Accident Prevention Trust and the British Fireworks Association.

The fireworks website has also been updated and is being promoted on the home page of Directgov. The website contains free resources that can be downloaded to help with the promotion of the safe use of fireworks. This includes schools packs; a campaign toolkit aimed at trading standards departments to enable them to undertake local initiatives; an information leaflet for retailers; and copies of the fireworks code as leaflets and posters.

Mr. Flello: I have noticed that the information provided with fireworks talks about the distance that should be maintained from the lit firework-for example, 25 metres. Given the trend towards smaller gardens, should the recommended distances be replaced with warnings that particular fireworks are not suitable for small gardens? That could make matters clearer and more specific and would stop people buying fireworks that they think are appropriate for the size of their garden, but are in fact not.

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Ian Lucas: My hon. Friend makes a sensible and helpful point, and I will certainly take it back to the Department.

We have tried to make the information on the website as accessible as possible, and it includes games for children to play so that they can benefit from information on this serious issue in an accessible and fun way.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I wonder if my hon. Friend agrees with me on this matter, although he might think my position strange given that I represent Huddersfield, which is home to Standard Fireworks-the largest fireworks company in the land, although unfortunately it now manufactures fewer of them and mainly imports from China. I have been campaigning on this matter for many years. The safest place for fireworks is around a proper community fire with community fireworks, not in people's backyards. I know that I have made myself unpopular on this subject, but that would be the best option-and a much less polluting one, given the amount of pollution given off by the hundreds of thousands of bonfires up and down the country.

Ian Lucas: I have heard my hon. Friend's views, and I know that a number of hon. Members hold similar ones. The Government have considered this issue over many years, but we have taken the view that it is part of our culture and can be dealt with as we are dealing with it-through a balanced approach and allowing, with limitations, the use of fireworks in a private environment.

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): To follow up on that point, does the Minister at least agree that via publicity and so on we should encourage people to go to such public events? Councils such as that in Glasgow and elsewhere put on excellent events that are actually much better than those that people hold in their own gardens.

Ian Lucas: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. I have been at displays that were certainly far better than my inadequate efforts in my back garden many years ago. I encourage everyone to go to and enjoy public displays because they are much more entertaining.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): May I take the Minister back to a point he made earlier in reference to what we are discussing now? Is it not the case that often people will go to an organised display, but will also have fireworks displays in their back gardens? The problem is that the fireworks season now extends to about a quarter of the year. We need to start saying to people that it might be nicer if they were considerate to their neighbours and did not set off quite so many fireworks quite so often.

Ian Lucas: It is an exaggeration to say that the fireworks season extends that far. There was a major concern a few years ago that fireworks were being used for far too long a period, but in my experience that has diminished to some extent. For the most part, we now have a relatively truncated fireworks season, which I think is a good thing.

Increasing numbers of displays now have a children's display, and some large public displays have-

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am afraid that the Minister has had his allotted time. I call Mr. Adam Afriyie.

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12.32 pm

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I am delighted that this debate has arisen today. It covers an important issue, and provides a timely opportunity to consider whether stronger fireworks safety regulations are needed. I welcome the debate, therefore, and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) for his vigorous campaigning. It is an important issue, and I think that the Minister has highlighted some of the dangers and joys of the use of fireworks.

Some 500 years ago, terrorists attempted to blow up this place. Their plot failed, but they succeeded in placing an annual event in the British calendar, and to this day we mark the occasion with bonfires and fireworks on bonfire night. Fireworks form part of our history and culture, not only on bonfire night, but on new year's eve, and others use them for weddings and during Diwali, Eid and Hanukkah.

There are two kinds of fireworks. First we have the thrilling fireworks of celebration, entertainment and joy. They provide the glittering spectacles that excite our children and set our hearts pumping. They are the fireworks watched on the millennium's eve and at the opening of the Olympics. They are the fireworks that bring our families and communities closer together and bind our society closer still with a sense of common history and heritage. And they are the fireworks that, if used responsibly, bring jobs and livelihoods to thousands of people. If we are talking about those kinds of fireworks, I am completely and wholeheartedly in favour of them.

There is, however, a second kind of firework: the misused fireworks of the irresponsible and antisocial. They are the fireworks that startle horses, pets and wildlife. They are the fireworks that unexpectedly break a good night's sleep. And they are the fireworks that ignorant people misuse, causing danger, harm and injury to others. If we are talking about those kinds of fireworks, I am completely against them.

Fireworks are explosives, which pose a potent risk of injury, and it is important that we consider those risks from time to time. I am glad that we are doing so today. In a civilised, democratic society, it falls on us to consider the risks, evidence, statistics and options available so that we can come to a balanced judgment. We must take that responsibility seriously on behalf of the people who elected us. Our priority must be strong and effective rules or alternative measures to underpin the safety of fireworks. We took the responsibility seriously in 2003-before my time here-and I am pleased that Conservatives at that time, alongside Members of all parties, supported the Fireworks Act 2003.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): Very few.

Adam Afriyie: It was not an uncontroversial Act.

Shona McIsaac: It was.

Adam Afriyie: It was not uncontroversial, because it contained enabling measures bestowing the power on a future Secretary of State to create regulations and make decisions that were at that point undefined. Conservatives are always uneasy when the Government take on new powers without defining them. However, the Fireworks Act was a good step forward, and we are glad that it is in place.

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Ian Lucas: I ought to pay tribute to my former colleague, Bill Tynan, who took forward the Fireworks Act. I omitted to do that earlier, but the step that he took was worth while. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me on that.

Adam Afriyie: I thank the Minister for his intervention. That debate on fireworks safety, which led to the introduction of the legislation, was conducted sensibly and rationally. It was a good step in the right direction, although there is always hesitation from Conservative Members over enabling legislation.

This is not the first time, therefore, that we have considered fireworks safety. There has been a raft of fireworks safety legislation and regulations stretching back to the Explosives Act 1875. There followed the Protection of Animals Act 1911, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the General Product Safety Regulations 1994, the Fireworks (Safety) Regulations 1997, the Fireworks Act 2003, the Fireworks Regulations 2004, the Fireworks (Safety) (Amendment) Regulations 2004 and the Fireworks (Scotland) Regulations 2004.

Mr. Bone: Has my hon. Friend considered the later Animal Welfare Act 2006, which puts a duty of care on pet owners, and how that duty relates to the damage done by fireworks and the distress caused to animals? Has that been taken into account?

Adam Afriyie: Very much so, which is why I mentioned in my opening remarks that we have to consider the irresponsible use of fireworks at non-designated times, which can have a dreadful impact. In Windsor, we have two race courses and a wonderful array of wildlife, but horses, dogs and cats are startled by the use of fireworks. It is really important to consider that, especially when there is a legal obligation on the owners of pets and animals to take care of their well-being. There is a bit of a conflict, therefore, and I hope that it will be explored further during the debate.

Jeremy Wright: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the difficulties for animal owners is the unexpected use of fireworks? If we have an organised display on 5 November, everyone knows that they have to prepare their pets and horses for the event, but when they do not know that the fireworks are coming, they cannot do the necessary preparation and look after their animals properly.

Adam Afriyie: Quite right. My hon. Friend has put the point clearly and fairly eloquently. As I said, I hope that those points will be picked up and examined further during this short debate.

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