58.While we think empowering local authorities to control the number of displays in their areas in response to local problems is necessary, we do not think this will be enough to fully address people’s concerns. Consumer fireworks are heavily regulated products, which must conform to stringent safety standards, but a regular theme throughout our inquiry was that problems associated with fireworks were not inherent to the product but were about people’s misuse of them. Below we consider important aspects of encouraging safe and responsible use of consumer fireworks. We look at where and how they can be bought, how they are packaged and ways of raising public awareness about the potential adverse effects of fireworks on particular groups of people.
59.People who submitted written evidence and respondents to our survey, including members of the general public, people who were enthusiastic users of fireworks and fireworks retailers, raised concerns about sales of fireworks by seasonal “pop-up” outlets and sales over social media. There was a perception that such sales tended to be unlicensed and/or outlets for illegal products. Many people felt that a proliferation of pop-ups and unlicensed online sales made fireworks too easy to come by and that people selling through these means had little or no incentive to operate within the law, such as adherence to age restrictions, selling dates, provision of proper consumer protection or offering advice on safe use to those purchasing fireworks. Several people expressed the view that sales of fireworks ought to be restricted to specialist retailers only. After we had concluded our inquiry, we noted with interest that Sainsbury’s announced that it would no longer sell fireworks in its 2,300 stores across the UK.
60.The British Fireworks Association told us it had concerns about illegal products being sold online, in particular via social media, and emphasised difficulties in addressing the problem. Industry witnesses believed fireworks bought through these channels were far more likely to be misused than those purchased from a legitimate retailer.
61.Steve Raper, Vice Chairman of the British Fireworks Association told us that legitimate retailers often reported these issues to local authority Trading Standards teams but found that “their hands are tied as to how they can respond”. Fraser Stevenson, Director of Absolute Fireworks, reported that Trading Standards were sometimes unable to investigate because they were prevented from accessing social media on their office computers:
It is a strange situation, where we can report issues on Facebook but the local authority prohibits its staff from going on to Facebook to see what the problem is. You get the situation where they are not allowed access to social media sites or platforms within their IT structure.
62.Rachel Hallam, Worcestershire Trading Standards Officer and Chair of the Fireworks Enforcement Liaison Group, acknowledged there was an “undercurrent of illegal activity” via social media and confirmed that Trading Standards teams found it “challenging” to deal with. Her evidence to us suggested that enforcement was some way behind the curve of illegal sales via social media. For example, she told us:
[ … ] if somebody is advertising a firework on a Thursday, it might be sold or set off by Friday or Saturday. To create a sufficient enforcement team, or multi-agency operation, to try to address that can be quite challenging in such a short space of time. [ … ] it is not always possible to get information from social media in a clear and accurate way, because people do not always use their own name; they do not necessarily provide addresses to track them down, so quite a lot of work may have to go on in the background to find the sellers in the first place.
63.We are concerned about reports of illegal sales of fireworks online, particularly over social media. It’s imperative that consumer fireworks are only sold to the public through legitimate retailers with the appropriate licences and staff with the appropriate level of training to advise customers about safe and responsible use. It appears local authority Trading Standards teams lack the necessary skills and resources to address illegal online sales effectively. We recommend the Government conduct a review of online sales of fireworks, with a particular focus on sales via social media, with a view to establishing a national, cross-agency strategy to tackle the problem. The strategy should include measures to exert pressure on social media companies to identify and remove posts advertising unlicensed or illegal fireworks for sale on their platforms. We recommended this review be conducted, and a strategy published, before October 2020.
64.As noted in chapter 1, the law is intended to prevent general retailers who do not hold a licence from selling fireworks outside of restricted periods around the four protected traditional/cultural events: 5 November; Diwali; New Year’s Eve; and Chinese New Year.
65.It appears that only a relatively small proportion of general retailers hold a licence to store fireworks, and therefore most do not sell them even during the designated periods. The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), for example, told us that around 3,200 convenience stores, only 7% of the total number in the UK, hold a licence to store.
66.Retailers can, however, store up to 5kg of fireworks without a licence and can also apply for a licence to sell fireworks all year round. The ACS was initially unable to tell us how many of its members held an all year-round sales licence, but later conducted a survey of 1,574 of its members which found that 1.7% held such a licence. Applied to the total number of convenience stores, this would equate to fewer than 800 of the over 46,000 across the UK. We remained uncertain, however, about the effects of the 5kg threshold, for example whether some retailers might be using it as a loophole to enable them to sell fireworks year-round without a licence.
67.We heard different explanations about the original intended purpose of the 5kg rule from regulatory authorities. Rachel Hallam told us it was originally put in place for category F1 indoor fireworks, such as “cake sparklers, party poppers and Christmas crackers”. It was intended to allow retailers to store and sell these low hazard products without the need for a £500 licence. She told us, however, that:
Over the last few years, people have been looking at the regulations and thinking that they could have 5 kg of fireworks and sell them all year round. That gives them a little more room in terms of fireworks. From an enforcement perspective, it is one area that it would probably be preferable to tie down a little bit more, because 5 kg of F1, which is an indoor firework, is completely different from 5 kg of an F3 product. That is one area where I know there are concerns [ … ]
She thought this was a clear potential loophole which ought to be closed. Her preference was for the Regulations to make explicit that the 5kg rule applied to category F1 products only.
68.Chris Kemp of the National Fire Chiefs Council told us his understanding of where the 5kg rule had come from, and its original intended purpose, was somewhat different. He told us it had come from the Explosives Act 1875 and had been intended to apply to “people storing gunpowder for personal use”. He agreed, however, that it was “time for an update”, confirming that, “What it meant is that we now have a situation whereby shops store just under the 5 kg threshold and sell them at the prescribed periods of time. For me, that is not what the 5 kg rule was for.”
69.We’re concerned that the 5kg storage rule is open to misinterpretation, which may have the result of unlicensed retailers selling consumer fireworks all year round. We believe this is clearly against the spirit and intention of the Regulations and may be contributing to increased misuse of fireworks, where they are being sold by people without the proper licence or training. We recommend the Government take action as soon as possible, and at the latest by April 2020, to clarify the 5kg storage rule by amending the relevant Regulations to explicitly state it applies to low hazard category F1 fireworks only.
70.In our research into fireworks retailing, we were struck by how many consumer fireworks seemed to be packaged to appeal to children. Many had the appearance of toys, for example the “Funky Frog”, the “Alien Surprise Fountain” and examples which looked like toy cars or had “Minions” on the packaging:
Figure 1: Examples of fireworks packaging
71.We are concerned that age-restricted products should be packaged in this way. We worried that it could encourage under-age sales. We also felt there was a risk that children would be attracted to these products if stored in the home, which could risk safety. Our fears were not allayed by our Education Service’s survey of school students, in which 28% said they had used, played with or carried a firework without an adult present and 21% said that fireworks were sometimes kept in their home.
72.Witnesses for the fireworks industry denied that these types of product were packaged to appeal to children. Steve Raper told us they were strikingly packaged to “attract the eye”. He claimed there was no problem with underage sales, therefore “it does not matter how appealing it is to a five-year-old because a five-year-old cannot buy it.” He emphasised that fireworks were rarely bought on impulse and that:
It takes an adult to complete the purchase. The adult would buy that firework if it was in rainbow colours, as we see there for the Minion, or if it was in a brown plain wrapper.
Fraser Stevenson emphasised that fireworks tended to be bought for family events, and the packaging reflected that; the packaging was not an attempt to appeal directly to children.
73.Rachel Hallam confirmed, from her experience in Worcestershire, there was no evidence of a widespread under-age sales problem. Pressed on whether storing these products in the home presented a risk, Liz Vann of the Chartered Institute of Environmental health offered a personal view that it did. She felt it was therefore something that “may need to be looked at”. Dr Paul Logan, Director of the Chemicals, Explosives and Biological Hazards Division at the Health and Safety Executive, observed that an obvious flaw with the age-restriction:
[ … ] would inevitably be that, once you get them home, we do not really have control over how they are going to be used in a household. We expect parents to be responsible.
74.We accept that there is no evidence of a widespread problem with underage sales of fireworks from legitimate retailers. However, evidence from the fireworks industry and regulatory bodies did not entirely allay our concerns about packaging which may appeal to children. We remain concerned that where fireworks are packaged in this way, it creates a risk that children may be tempted to play or tamper with potentially dangerous products stored in the home. We recommend the Government take steps to ensure that these age-restricted products are not packaged in a way which is designed to appeal to children and that it introduce appropriate Regulations as soon as possible, and at the latest by November 2020.
75.As discussed in chapter 2, the preferred solution of people who are disproportionately badly affected by fireworks, such as people with a range of health conditions and disabilities and people suffering with PTSD, tended to be a ban on public sales and use. However, people in these groups also felt that high profile, national awareness-raising campaigns could also be part of the solution.
76.The fireworks industry, through the British Fireworks Association, publishes an updated version of the Fireworks Code. It includes practical advice, which many people will be aware of, about storing and handling fireworks. It also encourages fireworks users to “be considerate. Let your neighbours know you will be having a display”. Steve Raper, Vice Chairman of the British Fireworks Association, emphasised that these messages were “hammered into” young people at school in the 1970s and 1980s.
77.There was a view, across a range of witnesses on all sides of the debate, that this simply wasn’t the case anymore. Written submissions from members of the public referred to public information films in previous decades being an important part of public awareness around safe and responsible use of fireworks. There was a perception that a lack of similar awareness campaigns today was one reason for an increase in inconsiderate or irresponsible use of fireworks. Chris Kemp of the National Fire Chiefs Council, believed that the campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s had a positive effect, and called for a renewed and “joined-up” cross-agency approach.
78.There is very clear evidence that loud unexpected noise from fireworks has severe and distressing effects on people with a range of health conditions and disabilities, including military veterans and others suffering with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), children with autistic spectrum disorders and people with hyperacusis and other hearing conditions. It’s not good enough for the Government to repeatedly claim that the law protects these people from harm. It doesn’t. We agree with military veterans and people with health conditions and disabilities that inconsiderate and irresponsible use of fireworks needs to be considered as socially unacceptable as drink driving. If people are going to use fireworks, they must let their neighbours know in advance, so that people can take steps to protect themselves if they need to. We recommend the Government fund and coordinate a major, national awareness campaign on the responsible use of fireworks to get this message across to the public. The campaign should run across national mainstream and social media, and in all schools, from October 2020 and annually thereafter and should include explicit information on the impact which fireworks can have on veterans and those with PTSD.
60 See, for example, Mrs Susanne Taggart (); Mr Iain Morgan (); Louise Cairns (); Claire Cooper (); Mr Gerald Lewis (); See also, Annex A: Summary of survey results; Annex B: Summary of public engagement with military veterans
61 See, for example, Mr Michael Kearey (); Marisa Morgan (); Mrs Lisa Booth ()
62 “Sainsbury’s to stop selling fireworks”, BBC News, 18 October 2019
63 See, for example, [Fraser Stevenson]
67 Regulation of fireworks, Briefing Paper , House of Commons Library, October 2018
68 Association of Convenience Stores ()
69 Association of Convenience Stores supplementary written evidence
70 ; see chapter one for a description of the different categories of fireworks: F1; F2; F3; and F4
72 The “Funky Frog” and “Alien Surprise Fountain” available online, including via ; the “Hummer” and the “Minion” available online, including via
73 See Annex E: Survey of school students, July 2019
79 See Annex B: Summary of public engagement with military veterans and Annex C: Summary of public engagement event with people with disabilities and health conditions
81 [Chris Kemp]; see also, [Claire McParland]; Mrs Debbie Willmot (); Stuart Willmot (); Stuart Walsh (); Mrs Kate Over (); Mr Timothy Atkinson ()
Published: 5 November 2019