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Anecdotally, I would say that the number of complaints I have received has diminished over the past few years. However, there are issues that the Government should
tackle. Safety has been a big concern in the past. It is impossible to comment at the moment on how many people are injured because, as the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) said, the Government stopped collecting the statistics in 2005. That is not very helpful. We understand that the figure stabilised at around 1,000, but the then Department of Trade and Industry seems to have taken the view that it was unlikely to change either through safety awareness or further regulation.
To buy category 4 fireworks, I understand that people need to say only that they are a professional firework display operator. No proof is required, and there is no requirement for a licence, although some of the worst accidents have taken place in events, involving thousands of people, that were stage-managed by unlicensed operators who, potentially, had carte blanche to cause mayhem. I would thus ask the Minister to consider introducing some professional licensing requirement for public firework display operators.
My second main area of concern, which several hon. Members have already mentioned, is pets. I am not talking about acts of gratuitous cruelty, although they demean us as a society. I am not even talking about the 4,500 pets a year who wind up being treated by vets for injury. It is incumbent on responsible owners to keep pets inside during the firework season, although I acknowledge the point about unexpected fireworks going off outside the approved curfew time.
What I am talking about is the noise factor, which can distress millions of pets at this time of year. I believe that the 120 dB limit is too high for many pets to tolerate and causes a disproportionate amount of suffering. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has run a campaign called "Keep the noise down" and it wants to see the limit reduced from 120 dB to 97 dB-a reduction that would have a marked impact, so I would be grateful if the Minister said whether the Government would at least look at that proposition.
Mr. Watson: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene on noise reduction. I am trying to work out the position of all three parties on this subject. Is what the hon. Lady said a Lib Dem policy or is she just questioning the Minister?
Surely nobody wants a fun firework night at the expense of the suffering of dumb animals. As for the little boy mentioned by the hon. Member for Windsor, is not the real fun of fireworks the spectacular display rather than the loud clashing and banging?
I wish everyone a sparkling bonfire night, including my constituents in Solihull, who are to be treated to a free firework display run by the Round Table a week on Saturday, which is particularly welcome at this time of recession.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I am grateful to the Leader of the House for making the time available for this afternoon's debate. I cannot think of a more topical subject as we come up to bonfire night, so it was a wise choice. I congratulate all Front-Bench Members on their contributions.
My position on behalf of my constituents is to call for a ban on the retail sale of fireworks. I do so after much consideration, much thought and much evidence from my constituents that that is what they would like to see. The local newspaper, the Kettering Evening Telegraph has, over a number of years, run many stories on this issue. Two years ago, it polled some 800 readers by inviting their views on the subject, and 88 per cent. said that they felt that the time had come to ban the retail sale of fireworks altogether. Although we can never represent all the views of our constituents, I am confident that, in this case, I represent the majority view of my Kettering constituents.
As the Minister said, it is appropriate that we are talking about this issue here in the Houses of Parliament. In 1605, Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament, which is why we have bonfire night every year-to celebrate the foiling of what would have been a really major terrorist incident of its day.
I like fireworks as much as anyone else. I think they are terrific. The colour, the sparkle, the noise and the spectacle are absolutely wonderful, and I love going to firework displays. The sad fact is, however, that in our country today, 1,000 people a year are hurt because of fireworks during the four or five weeks of the bonfire season. It is a disgrace that Her Majesty's Government stopped collecting statistics on firework-related matters in 2005. I hope that, at the very least, the Minister will tell us that he too is concerned, and that he will take steps in his Department and across Government to ensure that the issue of firework statistics is dealt with appropriately.
In 2005-the last year in which statistics were collected-nearly half the injuries sustained as a result of fireworks were sustained at family or private parties, 25 per cent. were suffered in the street or in other public places where fireworks are banned, and half the victims were children, although it is illegal to sell fireworks to anyone under 18. Those are very serious statistics.
Mr. Hollobone: The hon. Lady is spot on. That is why I want the retail sale of fireworks to be banned. Although injuries are occasionally sustained at well-organised public events-there was a very sad case in my constituency a few years ago-most are sustained in people's private homes and gardens.
While people may organise private or family firework displays for the best of reasons, it is, in my view, impossible to hold such displays without being antisocial. Unless those people live in very remote properties, a great many others will hear the noise. If a family suddenly ramped up the stereo system and blared out music at 120 dB, there would rightly be plenty of complaints and legislation to deal with it, but it seems that when it comes to fireworks it is okay to make a lot of noise in crowded, built-up areas.
John Mason: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is going slightly too far by demanding a complete ban. When people let off fireworks on 5 November, does that not give a great deal of enjoyment to the wider community, especially people who live on their own and do not set off fireworks themselves?
Mr. Hollobone: I respect and understand the hon. Gentleman's point of view. The point that I am making on behalf of my constituents is that the best way in which to celebrate the bonfire season-and other events, such as Diwali and the Chinese new year-is through organised, licensed displays, which minimise the health and safety issue and also provide an opportunity for charities to raise a lot of money. Although friends and families sometimes get together to hold joint firework parties, there are still plenty of risks of injury, and, sadly, the statistics tell us that many people are injured as a result.
Lorely Burt: The hon. Gentleman has already given us evidence of his mastery of the various statistics. He has told us that 50 per cent. of injuries are sustained at private parties. Can he tell us what percentage of people attend private parties as opposed to public events?
Mr. Watson: I am enjoying the rocket that the hon. Gentleman is giving all three Front Benches, but does he not think that a total ban would drive people to the unregulated black market, and that more unsafe fireworks would be available as a result?
Mr. Hollobone: The hon. Gentleman has made a good point with which many Members will agree, but, although I share his concern, I do not think that that is a reason not to impose a ban. I believe that the vast majority of people who hold family or private firework parties are law-abiding citizens who would not want to organise an illegal fireworks display. I also believe that a ban would make policing much easier. If a police officer heard a firework being let off, finding the person who was committing that illegal act would be fairly straightforward.
"According to insurer esure, about 2.8 million people are planning to hold a bonfire party at home this year."
I must tell the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) that I do not know how many of those people will also be attending organised displays, or how many people who do not hold bonfire parties at home will attend them, but that would certainly be an interesting statistic.
"research from Churchill Home Insurance reveals almost two million British homes have been damaged as a result of fireworks going astray, with each incident costing an average of £307 to put right."
"Aviva claims data reveals that Bonfire Night is the worst day of the year for burglaries - they rise by over a quarter - as well as the worst day of the year for car theft - an increase of 25 per cent. compared to an average day."
Members will be asking themselves why that is the case. One reason is that the police are having to spend so much time dealing with all the antisocial behaviour caused by the inappropriate use of fireworks on or around bonfire night that burglars and car thieves are taking the opportunity to go about their business.
Shona McIsaac: I was burgled at that time of year, although it happened a good few years ago. The police told me that crime peaks during that period because the noise masks many of the tell-tale signs. When rockets are being let off, people can smash windows and the neighbours will not hear. It is not that the police are necessarily elsewhere.
Lorely Burt: I am sure that the fact that burglars and car thieves may not be wild about bonfire night does not contribute to the statistics. However, I am concerned about the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the police should spend their time investigating whether people are holding their own little covert bonfire parties. Would that not be an equally inappropriate use of police time?
Mr. Hollobone: It is not that the police are going around snooping on people holding private parties, because that is a legal activity. What concerns them is the inappropriate use of fireworks in public places. Inspector Dick Aistrop of Northamptonshire police has told me
"we build up our resources as bonfire night approaches and our BCU"
"prepares an operational response. We identify a 'Bronze' Commander (Inspector) to oversee those few days adjusting officer and PCSO duties towards the evening in order to respond to the increase in demand."
"We strongly recommend that you do not hold your own bonfire and fireworks party and that you attend an organised and stewarded event. Fireworks are explosives, not toys. If they are used inappropriately, they have the potential to cause severe injury or death."
Jeremy Wright: My hon. Friend is making a very good case. Does he agree that one of the other problems in this country is the closeness in time between Halloween and 5 November? There has been an increase in trick or treating, and fireworks are being used in that activity. That is particularly distressing, especially for the elderly who are coming to fear this time of year for all the wrong reasons.
As usual, and as on so many matters, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fireworks season is far too long. The prescribed period in the legislation is 15 October to 10 November. I would suggest that it is flexible on the boundaries and is too long. It should be redefined to "5 November or the nearest weekend". We seem to be able to do that with Remembrance Sunday, which we celebrate on the nearest weekend to 11 November. Why cannot we do the same for bonfire night? The added complication in our multicultural society is Diwali, which happens around the same time. In some of our more urban areas that is causing a problem as well. Again, if the retail sale of fireworks were banned, we
would not have the problem. We would have licensed and organised events happening on or immediately around bonfire night itself.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend is putting a persuasive case and will recall that, a couple of years ago, he and I took a petition to No. 10 that had been organised by my constituent Teresa Kulkarni, who has been campaigning tirelessly on the issue for many years. I entirely agree that having a shorter timespan for fireworks would make a lot of sense. Does he agree that putting the onus on retailers would make a lot of sense? If we had an initial voluntary scheme to prevent the sale of fireworks outside that period, we would not need legislation, on which we could fall back as a last resort.
Mr. Hollobone: I am most grateful for that helpful intervention. I well remember the high-powered delegation that my hon. friend led to No. 10 to present the petition from Miss Kulkarni, which I think contained about 129,000 signatures and clearly represented a large body of opinion that would like action to be taken against fireworks. His constituent would go further than his modest proposal and although I respect his views on the need to tighten legislation, I would go further. If we are to be sensible and get to the nub of the problem, we need to ban the retail sale of fireworks altogether.
The law, as tightened in 2004, is not having that much effect. From 2007-08 to 2008-09, the number of antisocial behaviour incidents recorded by police in England and Wales relating to the inappropriate use, sale, and possession of fireworks climbed from 33,142 to 45,112. The number of penalty notices for disorder issued for fireworks-related offences in the latest year for which figures are available, 2007, was a grand total of 816, compared with 33,000 incidents. In 2006, the number of defendants proceeded against at magistrates courts for offences relating to fireworks in England and Wales was 571. I would suggest that a very small number of people are being sanctioned for the inappropriate use of fireworks. The legislation is well intentioned but it is not having the necessary at street level.
There is concern that we are not getting the information that the House needs. My local hospital has been extremely helpful in telling me that during November it sees on average 43 per cent. more attendances for burns than at other times of the year. I am also told that the hospital does not record specifically an A and E attendance as a result of fireworks, as it is not part of the nationally mandated data collection. It is the best estimate they can give me but it is not mandatory to collect the evidence.
I asked my local fire and rescue service in Northamptonshire for its statistics. It was extremely helpful in telling me that there were about 81 recorded firework incidents for the first eight days of November in most years. But, again, it had to search through its data, using the word "firework", as the information is not specifically collated. The local police inspector tells me that over the years 2006 to 2008, there were between 144 and 173 incidents of the inappropriate sale or use of fireworks under the antisocial behaviour legislation.
There is no doubt at all that animals are severely distressed by the loud bangs caused by fireworks and about 4,500 animals are hurt each year by fireworks and
treated for injury. It is not just domestic pets, but wildlife. The Evening Telegraph in Kettering asked constituents to raise with me any questions they wanted me to put during the debate and there are several that I wanted to pose to the Minister. One reader suggested that housing association contracts should contain a clause to ban residents from using fireworks. That reader was particularly concerned about the use of fireworks in built-up areas. Another raised the animal welfare legislation and the liability of those who hold family or private firework displays for the harassment, alarm or injury caused to the pets of their neighbours. It would be helpful if the Minister clarified that.
I am most grateful to the Government for holding the debate. It is an issue that will not go away. The evidence from my constituents and the limited statistical evidence we have from Government sources suggests to me, and I hope to the House, that the problem is getting worse, not better, and that the time will soon come when the Government of the day will need to consider a full ban on the retail sale of fireworks.
John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): I will do my best to be brief. We have had a useful speech on the history of fireworks from the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), who is no longer in her place.
I have a couple of personal examples to cite. An older constituent who lives on her own had a firework put through the letterbox of her house. Fortunately, she has a second door, the glass of which shattered. If that door had not been there, I do not know what would have happened. It was a frightening experience for her. Also, I came out of my office last year onto a fairly busy street and there were rockets going horizontally across the road at ground level. Clearly, we have a problem. In addition to parties and anniversaries, Glasgow also has an issue of fireworks when there is a football match and especially when one half of the Old Firm has beaten the other.
I wanted specifically to mention animals and some of the effects that fireworks have on them. The SSPCA, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is running a campaign about this. Contrary to some public opinion, the RSPCA does not cover the whole of the UK. As I understand it, the RSPCA covers England and Wales and a completely separate body, the SSPCA, covers Scotland. I like animals-I am not unusual in that-and I hate to see pets and other animals being terrified by the kinds of noise we have to put up with sometimes. My lifestyle does not allow me to own a dog, but both my mother and my sister have them, and I have seen my mother's collie-cross shivering with terror at the noise that has been caused by fireworks.
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