Fireworks Contents

3Assessing the extent of problems and empowering effective local responses

25.In this chapter, we set out what the public told us about the nature of problems associated with fireworks. We describe our attempts to establish the extent of these problems, and our frustration about the lack of official data. We emphasise the inherent difficulties in enforcing the rules around domestic use of fireworks and the lack of protection for people and animals against frequent disturbance by fireworks, which suggests a new approach may be necessary in some places. Our recommendations focus on improving data collection and empowering local authorities and enforcement agencies to act where and when they think it necessary.

Fireworks and animals

26.Our survey of people who have signed petitions showed that most people who have concerns about fireworks are worried about the effects of fireworks noise on animals. Nearly 30,000 people (about 70% of those who completed our survey and expressed a primary concern) told us this was their main issue. Of these, the largest group was owners of domestic pets, particularly dogs. We read thousands of comments from pet owners recounting very similar experiences, for example:

“In our experience of owning 6 dogs over different periods, dogs are absolutely petrified of fireworks. The fear is beyond anything I see in the dogs at any other time. They cry, cower away, whimper, chew through power cables and rugs, etc.”; and

“My dog is terrified of fireworks, every year he has to take diazepam plus many other ‘aids’ to relax him during the fireworks just to calm him down which don’t work, he gets extremely stressed to the point he will be sick.”26

27.While dog owners were the largest group, owners of other domestic pets told us about similar experiences.27 In written evidence to the inquiry, horse owners recounted some particularly distressing experiences, including injuries sustained when horses take flight in response to the noise of fireworks.28

28.The evidence of animal owners was challenged by people working in the fireworks industry and fireworks enthusiasts. They argued that evidence of the effects on animals was anecdotal, often exaggerated and not borne out by official data.29 Some argued that animal ownership was a lifestyle choice, which should not override their own lifestyle choice to enjoy fireworks responsibly, in accordance with the law.30 There was clear evidence presented, however, that fireworks can produce fear responses in a substantial proportion of animals. For example, the RSPCA noted a 2013 study, which showed that fireworks were the most common cause of fear responses in dogs, and a 2005 study of firework fears and phobias in dogs, which found that 45% show signs of fear when they hear fireworks. The RSPCA noted that animals which display fear responses “not only suffer psychological distress but can also cause themselves injuries, sometimes very serious ones, as they attempt to run or hide from the noise.”31

29.The British Veterinary Association confirmed that the effects of fireworks noise on animals were real, and could lead to longer-term phobias:

Studies, reports and animal welfare organisations all agree that loud and high-pitched fireworks can have a negative impact on animal health and welfare by causing not just physical harm, but stress or fear responses across a range of species, including companion animals, wildlife, horses, livestock and zoo animals. [ … ] As animals have more acute hearing than humans, many show stress, fear or even phobia responses to loud and high-pitched noises.32

30.We wanted to explore the scale of these problems, and where fireworks ranked amongst other animal welfare issues. The RSPCA told us that of the around 1.1 million calls it receives from the public each year, only around 400 were logged as being specifically related to issues with fireworks. However, Claire McParland, the RSPCA’s Government Relations Manager, said that this number was likely “the tip of the iceberg”, because many incidents go unreported. She acknowledged that:

The challenge is getting good, accurate data. One of the things that we flagged up is that there probably is insufficient information in a lot of these areas. [ … ] It seems like a very small thing, but the reality is that over a condensed period of time, from October through to January, it might take up quite a lot of our work.33

31.Animal welfare organisations were united behind the RSPCA’s calls for change. Suggested recommendations included a reduction in the maximum noise level of consumer fireworks from 120 decibels to 90 decibels, based on recent studies of the effects on animal welfare, and for local authorities to be empowered to regulate public fireworks displays through licensing schemes.34

32.Witnesses from the fireworks industry confirmed that the current decibel limit of 120 for consumer fireworks had been set based on the effects of noise on people, rather than animals.35 Steve Raper, Vice Chairman of the British Fireworks Association, emphasised there were technical limitations on reducing noise from fireworks. He told us that:

You cannot have an absolutely quiet firework. The lifting charge on a firework for a shot tube is about 95 decibels, and that is just the cartridge being ejected into the air.36

33.Loud and high-pitched noises can adversely affect a large proportion of animals, whose hearing is often much more sensitive than humans’. They can cause substantial distress and lead to longer-term phobias and behavioural issues. In the light of this evidence, we believe the decibel level limit of consumer fireworks needs to be looked at again, with animal welfare in mind. We recommend the Government lead a review, working with animal welfare experts and the fireworks industry, of the effects of fireworks noise on animal welfare, with a view to setting a workable reduced maximum decibel limit which would diminish the risks to animal health.

Disproportionate effects on particular groups of people

People with health conditions and disabilities

34.Our survey of fireworks petitioners identified groups of people who can be particularly badly affected by fireworks. One was a broad group of people with a range of health conditions and disabilities, including anxiety disorders; bipolar disorder; cataplexy; cerebral palsy; dementia; epilepsy; fibromyalgia; hydrocephalus; hyperacusis; myalgic encephalomyelitis; multiple sclerosis; narcolepsy; Parkinson’s disease; and tinnitus.37

35.Some of the experiences relayed to us via the survey were distressing, for example where parents described the experiences of their disabled children:

“[ … ] our son has severe complex needs including epilepsy, which can cause him to stop breathing. Loud, unexpected noises are often a trigger for this. [ … ] Sadly, at home where he should be safe and protected, members of the public are able to set fireworks off at any time, in the street or in their gardens, the laws are not enforced and we cannot guarantee how loud they are going to be [ … ] My son screams, has a seizure and has to be administered oxygen. This is distressing for all involved.”; and

“My nephew has autism and hearing fireworks triggers meltdowns for him. He screams and screams. It surprises me that more people don’t understand this [ … ].”38

36.At a public engagement event, we discussed some of the effects on people in more detail. We spoke to a group of young people with learning disabilities, organisations which supported people with anxiety disorders and tinnitus and a paediatric doctor specialising in audiology. Experts emphasised that panic attacks instigated by fireworks noise were a common experience for people with a wide range of noise phobias, hearing problems, anxiety disorders and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The effects could be particularly severe for people suffering with hyperacusis, a heightened sensitively to sound, which is particularly prevalent amongst children with autistic spectrum disorders. The effects weren’t only physical. Common coping strategies to avoid unexpected loud noises, such as staying indoors wearing ear defenders or travelling to remote areas, tended to exacerbate pre-existing feelings of isolation and “not being part of the fun”.39

37.People told us about their preferred solutions to the problem. There was considerable support for a ban on public sales and use or local authority licensing schemes, but a key theme was promoting increased public awareness. The young people with learning disabilities told us they had no wish to “spoil people’s fun”. They wanted to see a return to “public service announcements”, with very widespread campaigns like the anti-drink-driving campaigns around Christmas. They thought young people should be made aware in schools and youth centres and that local communities should run “tell you neighbours” campaigns, to encourage people to inform others when they were planning fireworks displays.

Military veterans and combat-related Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

38.We had a similar conversation with military veterans, some of whom had been diagnosed with combat PTSD, who found fireworks very problematic. They told us about severe effects, on themselves and their families. We heard about loud unexpected noise from fireworks provoking “hyper-vigilance” in veterans. For example, a veteran reported instinctively diving for cover with his daughter. A partner of a veteran told us that fireworks had a “terrible” effect on family life for weeks during autumn. A veteran told us he’d “come out of [the armed forces] pretty unscathed, but for those three weeks around fireworks night it’s horrendous”. Another described disturbed sleep from late October until the New Year, with “horrible” consequences for family life.40

39.Again, the strong preference was for a ban on public use or mandatory local authority permit schemes, but public awareness was also a strong theme. The veterans believed that the public were far less aware of the effects of fireworks on people like PTSD sufferers than they were about the effects on animals. It was felt that high profile, national campaigns, supported in the media by politicians could make a real difference.41 We return to the theme of raising public awareness and encouraging considerate and responsible use of fireworks in chapter 4.

“Year-round” fireworks

40.A regular theme in evidence was concern about the length of the “fireworks season”, which many people said now ran from late October through to January.42 Sue Kerr told us the season had become “noticeably longer” since the Millennium, after which fireworks had become much more popular.43 While legislation restricts the periods during which retailers without a special licence can sell fireworks to certain days between mid-October and mid-February, for some people, the frequency of fireworks noise was exacerbated by year-round use of fireworks to celebrate weddings and other occasions. We heard from people who lived close to wedding venues, for whom this had become a problem in recent years. Written evidence and participants in our public engagement events noted that the current regulatory framework did nothing to protect them from the frequency of local fireworks displays, which legally could take place at any time of the year. 44

41.The current law does not offer people and animals enough protection from frequent disturbance by fireworks, particularly where there are numerous public and domestic displays around the traditional and religious dates and a growing number of displays at other celebratory events like birthdays and weddings. We believe local authorities should be empowered to limit the number of displays in their areas in these circumstances. We recommend the Government work with local authorities to identify a best practice approach to a revenue-neutral, mandatory permit system for fireworks displays, where local evidence suggests this is necessary to protect the community. The Government should work with a local authority to pilot the approach before the end of 2020, with a view to legislating to empower all local authorities to establish mandatory permit schemes where they deem it necessary.

Attacks on emergency services

42.Some witnesses noted media reports of attacks using fireworks on emergency services personnel. There was a perception that such attacks were common or increasing in some places.45 The problem of attacks using fireworks was also referred to by respondents to our survey. Several serving emergency services workers used the survey to report incidents, for example:

“Every year fireworks are used as weapons against me and my colleagues across all emergency services. The Police are stretched enough but bonfire night for example we are having to have our days off cancelled to keep the fire service safe. I am bored of ducking fireworks that are fired at us.”; and

“It was Mischief night, when I got called to a fire near an electrical substation. It was in a car park next to a block of small flats with a cut through to a cul-de-sac and a road to the left. 15 males, approx 13–19 surrounded both sides and proceeded to set off fireworks directly at myself and my colleague. We proceeded to push through the crowd and run through the cut through. However, I had suffered temporary blindness and hearing loss and had suffered heat rash burns.”46

43.However, the perception of a very widespread or growing problem was countered by the fireworks industry with information obtained from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests they had made. While some Fire and Rescue services that responded, such as Avon Fire and Rescue and Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, had recorded a handful of attacks with fireworks on crew over the last six years, most had not recorded any at all.47

44.However, these FOI responses did not reflect experiences all over the country. Chris Kemp of West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, representing the National Fire Chiefs Council, reported a very real and worrying problem with attacks on fire crew, often involving fireworks, in his part of the country:

We have evidence of calls being made to certain areas of certain cities almost as a trap for firefighters to be caught and then attacked with fireworks. Last year, we had 20 incidents of that, and in 2017 we had 30 incidents of that in West Yorkshire. If we look at the data from West Yorkshire, those attacks are specifically where firefighters have been attacked with a firework, but we have a whole host of attacks with other missiles and where verbal abuse has been given. On average, in about 21% of attacks on firefighters a firework has been used.48

45.ACC Prophet of the National Police Chiefs Council could not provide similar figures for attacks on police, either for his own force of Essex or nationally, but confirmed that “The level of violence and the number of attacks committed towards officers and emergency service workers is increasing”. His view was that “there has not been a particular spike in attacks on police officers driven by fireworks in recent years” but there was no readily available national data to confirm this.49

46.Any attack on emergency services workers is entirely unacceptable. It’s therefore hugely worrying that these attacks appear to be on the increase, and we welcome recent measures set out in the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 to tackle the broader issue. There is evidence that attacks involving fireworks make up a significant proportion of these incidents in some parts of the country, but we are concerned they are not being consistently recorded and published. Without complete and accurate data, it is not possible to understand the extent of the problem or take steps to rectify it through properly informed local decisions. We recommend the Government work with emergency services across the country to ensure that such incidents involving fireworks are specifically and consistently recorded across all local emergency services, and the data made publicly available.

Anti-social behaviour and misuse of fireworks affecting communities

47.After the effects of fireworks on animals, the next most frequently expressed concern was about a broad category of anti-social behaviour, ranging from a lack of common courtesy in informing neighbours about planned fireworks displays to much more serious misuse of fireworks and anti-social behaviour affecting communities. 4,552 people said that anti-social behaviour was their biggest issue with fireworks.

48.Commonly specified concerns included fireworks being set off in the street or being set off very late at night by neighbours or near-neighbours. Reports of very serious and dangerous anti-social behaviour were less common, but some incidents reported in our survey were distressing to read, for example:

“I’ve actually had a group of older teenagers set fireworks off 3 foot from my bedroom window late at night. In my previous flat high school children used to open the main door to the flat and throw fireworks in.”; and

“The neighbour’s back garden is 3 metres away from the front of my house (semi-detached). They used commercial fireworks and these were very powerful and frightening. When we protested, they pushed and hurt another neighbour.”50

49.There were several common themes in responses to our survey from people concerned about their neighbours’ use of fireworks, including: insufficient space in small residential gardens for the type of fireworks being used; neighbours using fireworks under the influence of alcohol; damage to property; and fireworks debris littering gardens and streets.51

50.There was a very strong perception in survey responses and written evidence that current laws were unenforceable and that complaints were not acted on by the police or councils. These comments were typical of the hundreds we received:

“My next-door neighbour set off some fireworks, which should only have been used at an organised event. He nearly set fire to our house and car, he caused thousands of pounds worth of damage. The fire service and police were involved but nothing happened to him.”

“The laws are not being enforced at all. They usually start at Halloween then continue every night for the rest of the month. They go off at all hours from 5pm until 5am.”

“The law is impossible to enforce, fireworks go off till the early hours of the morning and for longer than the specified occasions, for example bonfire night. They’re going off as soon as you can buy them continuously till New Year’s Eve.”

“I have called the police to report the use of fireworks until the early hours of the morning, when a festival is not in place. I have been told that it is not against the law and that if I have an issue I should call environmental health regarding this. I feel I was fobbed off just so the local police force didn’t have to bother with it.”52

51.Local authority and police witnesses confirmed that enforcing fireworks law was challenging. In relation to the use of consumer fireworks in domestic gardens which were too small, Liz Vann, representing the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health suggested there was little, if anything, that could be done from a local authority enforcement perspective.53

52.Rachel Hallam, a Trading Standards Officer at Worcestershire County Council and Chair of the Fireworks Enforcement Liaison Group, noted there was a safety guide for domestic firework displays produced by the Explosives Industry Group (EIG) and that all consumer fireworks were labelled with minimum safety distances. Essentially, compliance with the law relied heavily on people following these instructions; there was little that could be done after the event. She agreed that it was doubtful that many people planning a domestic fireworks display would take the trouble to read the EIG’s guide, or even always follow the instructions on the box to the letter:

Can we guarantee that everyone is going to read them? We all know from any purchase that we buy that not everybody reads the instructions. We can encourage people to read them and encourage retailers to have that conversation with customers when we do inspections. [ … ] But we cannot control what happens in a domestic environment. That is the same with any consumer product. Once they have bought it from the shop and had whatever instruction there is, what they are going to do with it and where they are going to set it off is in their hands.54

53.Enforcing the night-time curfew was also considered very challenging, if not impossible. Rachel Hallam summed up the difficulty neatly, telling us that enforcing the curfew was a question of:

Is there somebody able to listen to it, to be able to take enforcement action? It is about being able to get evidence. With the police issuing a fixed penalty, unless they are in the area and able to do it there and then, it is on to the next action. It is quite a challenging one to enforce.55

Echoing this point, ACC Prophet, told us:

It gets really tricky, doesn’t it? If after a certain time a firework cannot be let off, it is a very clear line in the sand, but how do you find out who let the firework off? It comes back to that fundamental point. Unless you have, which we don’t, an eye and a camera on every street corner, you will never find out who let the firework off, short of someone coming forward and telling you who it was. Even then, “It wasn’t me.” It is incredibly difficult.”56

54.There was disagreement between anti-fireworks campaigners and the industry about how common these issues were. In the face of a lack of official published data, industry witnesses had obtained data from local authorities and others using FOI requests. These showed very few recorded incidents of noise complaints, with many authorities that responded to the FOI request recording no complaints at all in some recent years.57

55.In oral evidence, Steve Raper, Vice Chairman of the British Fireworks Association, argued this showed that problems associated with domestic fireworks noise were “nowhere near as bad” as petitioners’ and campaigners’ anecdotal evidence suggested.58 Sue Kerr, on behalf of Fireworks Abatement UK, countered this argument by suggesting that people knew complaints would not, or could not, be acted on, and therefore tended not to complain, meaning that the FOI data under-reported the real level of noise nuisance problems:

You cannot complain to the local authority, because there is nothing it can do, unless it is the same person setting them off all the time, which it tends not to be. [ … ] We have also heard lots of times, on social media, that when somebody complains that fireworks are being used illegally and you suggest they ring the police, their response is always, “What’s the point? They won’t do anything; we’ve tried that before. They won’t even give an incident number.”59

56.Fireworks are inherently transient, and, once they have been used, there may be little evidence of where or when they were set off. It’s therefore inevitable that any rule about who can set off fireworks, and where and when they can be used, will be difficult to enforce. People are aware of this, including those who misuse fireworks and those for whom fireworks cause significant problems. It is likely that this is suppressing the number of complaints, meaning the real level of concern is under-reported.

57.We believe the first step towards addressing people’s valid concerns about misuse of fireworks should be improving the collection and publication of data about the types and extent of problems associated with fireworks. While the challenges of enforcement are widely acknowledged, people must be enabled, and encouraged, to make their concerns known. It must be made clear to people how and to whom to report concerns. We recommend the Government work with local authorities and police and fire services to review the systems in place for people to report concerns about misuse of fireworks, including breaches of the night-time curfew, use of fireworks in inappropriately small domestic gardens and other anti-social behaviour, with a view to establishing a consistent approach to data collection and publication. Local authorities must have systems in place to record incidents of concern to their residents. It is vital that local areas collect this information to inform local responses. We expect the Government to issue guidance to this effect before October 2020.

26 See Annex A: Summary of survey results

27 See, for example, Mrs Vivienne Scott (FWS0047); Mr Henry Bowden (FWS0092); Vanessa Lord (FWS0173)

28 See, for example, Miss Lindsay M Horner (FWS0003); Mrs Samantha Durham (FWS0354); Redwings’ Horse Sanctuary (FWS0337);

29 See, for example, Jonathan’s Fireworks Ltd (FWS0230); Jonathan West (FWS0242); Bright Star Fireworks (FWS0250); Mr Glen Pearson (FWS0321)

30 See, for example, Jonathan West (FWS0242); Mr Dieter Wadeson (FWS0299); Mr Glen Pearson (FWS0321);

31 RSPCA (FWS0336)

32 British Veterinary Association (FWS0323)

34 RSPCA (FWS0336)

35 Q65 [Fraser Stevenson]

37 See Annex A: Summary of survey results and Annex C: Summary of engagement event with people with health conditions and disabilities

38 Annex A: Summary of survey results

39 Annex C: Summary of engagement event with people with health conditions and disabilities

40 Annex B: Summary of public engagement event with military veterans

41 Annex B: Summary of public engagement event with military veterans

42 See Annex A: Summary of survey results; see also, for example, Mrs Heidi Mitchell (FWS0131); Mr Kevin Williams (FWS0137); Tracey Smyth (FWS0147); Miss Nicky Williams (FWS0170); Sue Coulter (FWS0178); Martin Gray (FWS0187)

44 See, for example, Lindsay Harrison (FWS0183); Mrs Christine Thomas (FWS0221); see also Annexes A-E

45 See, for example, Mrs Marion Roberts (FWS0135); Julie Doorne (FWS0145); Stuart Walsh (FWS0198); Claire Cooper (FWS0290); PDSA (FWS0351)

46 Annex A: Summary of survey results

47 Bright Star Fireworks (FWS0250)

50 See Annex A: Summary of survey results

51 See Annex A: Summary of survey results

52 Annex A: Summary of survey results; see also Mrs Rhoda Burns (FWS0123); Ms Michelle Page (FWS0158); Ms Penny Clarke (FWS0205); Mrs Debbie Rook (FWS0261); Ms Julie Drakeley (FWS0287); Miss Helen Wood (FWS0328); Mr David Hall (FWS0332)

57 See, for example, Bright Star Fireworks (FWS0250)

Published: 5 November 2019