Angela Smith's contribution to the debate on Fireworks
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz, especially as we are fellow members of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) on opening the debate, which has resulted from a huge petition. This issue does not get enough of a public airing or the debate it needs in Parliament.
I start by emphasising that I am not a killjoy—I am sure everyone will say that today for fear of being labelled a killjoy—and I am fully aware that many people enjoy fireworks. Indeed, it is estimated that each year, more than 10 million people across the UK enjoy a firework display. I have attended the new year’s eve fireworks here in London and the spectacular display that happens every new year’s eve in Madeira—I will not say which one I enjoyed the most, as that would be dangerous. All I will say is that displays such as the one we enjoy in London, and those held in great cities across the world, every new year’s eve are joyous occasions, and everyone here will agree that they play an important part in every culture.
History tells us that people across the UK have enjoyed firework displays since the 16th century, with the first being at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I in 1559, so this cultural activity has a long history. I recognise that large numbers of people in the UK enjoy fireworks and want to make use of them in their gardens and outside their properties. Although I instinctively agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), who is no longer in her place, that ideally we would end the use of fireworks in back gardens—I would prefer to see people going along to their local public display—I understand the difficulty of delivering that policy. Let us remember that, as a society, we have introduced severe restrictions on the use of tobacco. People cannot smoke in public places, and now they cannot smoke in a car if a child is present. We have gone a great way towards restricting the public’s freedom to enjoy certain products, primarily on the ground that we want to protect children’s health. Children’s health, and the health and safety of the public in general, should always be paramount in policy, and we should not be frightened if evidence presents itself showing that we need to legislate for a rules-based system protecting society from the abuse of what are, ultimately, very dangerous explosive devices.
The terrible effect of firework use on animals, especially pets, has been the driver behind the petition, which gained more than 100,000 signatures. I congratulate the originators of the petition, Jill Cutsforth from Beverley and Julie Doorne from Sleaford, on gaining so much support and getting the issue debated today. Mrs Cutsforth’s explanation for starting the petition is typical of why further restrictions on the use of fireworks are needed. Her pet dog had to be sedated with diazepam when it became frightened by a firework that had been set off close by. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home has made it clear that it is forced to do all it can to keep its dogs and cats calm and safe by blacking out the windows, playing music, sitting with the most anxious residents and providing plenty of hiding places and distractions. With the restrictions that the petitioners ask for having the backing of such a powerful and well respected charity, we should think twice before dismissing the petition’s demands. They include, of course, a change in the law to restrict the use of fireworks—not their sale; we already have that restriction—to traditional days such as bonfire night, new year’s eve, Chinese new year and Diwali. I think that many of us here would agree with that demand.
Does the hon. Lady agree that any policy response in this area hinges on proportionality and requires a realistic understanding of what the Government can do? I am a passionate animal lover; I have recently been traumatised by the loss of my 20-year-old cat. However, would it not be disproportionate, and indeed counterproductive, to propose any policy change that would potentially cause the closure of successful and responsible fireworks display businesses such as Star Fireworks in Bracknell?
I have absolutely no interest in banning public displays. The Fireworks Regulations 2004 require those organising public fireworks displays to be trained in delivering such events and in fireworks safety. That is exactly why I think that ultimately, we as a society will move towards more support for publicly organised and regulated fireworks displays rather than events that go on in people’s back gardens, which are where the real problems are.
My point is that if we restricted sales to only a few days a year, there is a limited likelihood that a business would be successful purveying only on those days. I agree that restricting fireworks to organised public events would be a step in the right direction, but restricting the number of days would restrict businesses’ viability.
If one’s policy position is to move towards public displays only, restrictions on the domestic use of fireworks would be a good starting point. The safety of the public—particularly of children—and the welfare of animals are far too important for us to compromise on that. However, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The 2004 regulations allow for penalties to be levied for antisocial behaviour involving fireworks, but enforcement of that power is poor. I hope that the Minister will comment on that. Over and above the demands in the petition, which I support, enforcement of the current regulations would help. A response to a parliamentary question in 2011 indicated that in the previous five years, fewer than 50 people a year had faced prosecution.
It is not only household pets who suffer as a result of the inappropriate use of fireworks but livestock and wildlife. Poultry are especially at risk of a smother, where birds huddle closely together, which can result in overheating and occasionally death. In addition, of course, fireworks can pose a fire risk if used irresponsibly or if hot embers land on buildings or in fields of standing crops, particularly during the summer. For much of our wildlife, sudden noises and flashes can be frightening and confusing.
I ask for assurances from the Minister that he will look again at the enforcement of the 2004 regulations and review them to test whether they are strong enough, or whether tighter restrictions along the lines recommended by the petition should be considered. I also ask him to consider the important recommendations made by the British Veterinary Association about adjusting the noise levels applying to firework categories 1 to 4.
We must also consider whether we need a more robust approach to regulating the use of fireworks by members of the public, notwithstanding the point made by the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), and to restricting the occasions on which fireworks can be used in domestic circumstances. Never mind education and the fireworks code; can it be right that there is very little regulation governing how people use fireworks in their back gardens? There is advice, but nothing else. It is crazy. People cannot smoke in a car with a child present—they can be prosecuted for it—but they can use fireworks in a back garden without any real regard for all the advice about how to do so safely. Something must be done about that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is another problem involving the sale of fireworks? People buy imported goods that do not fall under the protections normally afforded in the European Union and in this country. They import a lot of illicit goods and sell them at certain times of the year to the public, who do not know how dangerous they are. That adds to the problems at those times of year.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. New European regulations are now in force on safety marks and the traceability of such devices, but again, there may well be an issue with the enforcement of the regulations on sales.
For the sake of animals, wildlife and our children, we should at least consider what else we need to do to eradicate the abuse of what are, ultimately, explosive devices that are extremely dangerous in the wrong hands. In Sheffield last November, we had to deal with serious incidents involving the abuse of those devices, when young hooligans hurled fireworks at police patrol vehicles. That is totally unacceptable, and something must be done. I know that such activity is already illegal, but we must deal with it. People need to understand that fireworks are potentially very dangerous; they are explosive devices. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to the case being made today.
The full debate can be found here <Click Me>