Peter Aldous backs calls for amendment of current firework regulations

29th January 2018

Speaking in a debate on a public petition calling for a ban on public use of fireworks, Peter Aldous calls for a systematic collection of statistics and backs calls for both a review and subsequent amendment of the current regulations. 

It is a pleasure to serve under you chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the Petitions Committee and the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on their roles in securing the debate.

Several constituents have written to me to ask me to participate. Generally I was of the view, beforehand, that the current legislation strikes the right balance, which accords with the Government’s response to the petition. However, in view of the concerns that were put to me, I obtained the views of Suffolk County Council, which is responsible for public safety. The issues that I am going to highlight are the ones that it has brought to my attention, and I want to thank Nigel Howlett, the council’s senior fair trading officer. He leads on fireworks and explosives and is also the east of England trading standards authority’s representative on the fireworks enforcement liaison group.

The sale and use of fireworks is an emotive issue that concerns many people. There are four areas of concern: noise, safety, unsafe storage and sales, which I shall briefly consider in turn. First, as to noise, while there are restrictions on letting off fireworks, the biggest issue is enforcement. It is not a high priority for most police forces, and unless someone is caught in the act, it is probably impossible to identify where and by whom the firework was let off. In tests conducted by the National Trading Standards Board safety at ports and borders team in 2016, 50% of the fireworks tested failed the noise tests. However, those tests are expensive to carry out. They were previously funded by the Health and Safety Executive and Health Service Laboratories, but as no funding was available this year, no tests have been conducted. If there were specific funding for the testing of fireworks, it is possible that some of the noisier ones could be removed from the market.

With safety, the main problem, again, is one of expense, in that the cost of fully testing fireworks can run into several thousand pounds, which makes it impossible for many local authority trading standards departments to carry out tests. With regard to accidents arising from fireworks, while the NHS publishes data on hospital admissions and their nature and cause, it does not appear that there is any other record of accidents in relation to their cause. It is therefore difficult to determine whether accidents are caused by innocent use or misuse. Every year there are reported incidents of injuries attributed to fireworks, many of them leaving permanent scars or involving the loss of limbs. However, since 2010 the UK has not reported any unsafe fireworks to the European RAPEX rapid alert system for non-food products, while during that time there have been 113 reports from the rest of the EU. It is possible that many of the injuries could be down to misuse—particularly those involving animals, and incidents occurring in public places—and there are videos online clearly showing people misusing fireworks, although it is impossible to know whether they were purchased from licensed premises, or whether they were bought by people under 18, the legal age for purchasing fireworks.

There is also potential for injury from not following the instructions printed on the fireworks. One of those instructions relates to the safe distance that spectators should stand from fireworks. It is natural for people to want to buy the biggest and best fireworks in their budget; yet many of those bigger fireworks will be in the F3 category and subject to a safety distance of 25 metres.

The hon. Gentleman obviously has better eyesight than mine. The printing is often very small and sometimes in another language. The idea that people could make sense of it is somewhat arbitrary.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which I was not going to raise, but it is pertinent, and it is right to make it, so I thank him.

There do not appear to be figures for the average length of the UK garden, but it has been suggested that the typical British garden is 50 feet long. If that is correct, many modern houses will not have gardens of the required size to ensure the safety of spectators when F3 fireworks are let off. Obviously, the consequences, should anything go wrong with the fireworks, are likely to be greater the closer the spectators are to them.

Trading standards and the fire service can have control over the storage arrangements at sites only if they are aware of those sites, which means only if they are licensed. Recent guidance to those bodies has encouraged them to be more proactive about storage conditions and quantities at licensed premises. In Suffolk the number of small independent retailers storing fireworks has dropped considerably in the past 10 years. It is unclear whether that is because of a lack of demand or an increase in the number of major supermarkets selling fireworks. Also in the county, trading standards continues to find minor issues with storage arrangements, with the occasional more serious problem being found on unannounced inspections. However, there have not been any major storage issues resulting in prosecution since 2010. In general, Suffolk County Council believes that the controls and powers that are in place are appropriate and sufficient to ensure that where unsafe storage issues are found they can be rectified without the need to resort to more formal measures.

In recent years the number of allegations about sales via social media such as Facebook has increased nationally and in Suffolk. Such sites are difficult to control as they are often promoted through private selling groups and thus they are not visible to all users. The sites often require investigators to “friend” the seller or join the group to determine how or where the fireworks are being sold. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 requires local authorities to obtain approval from magistrates courts before formal intervention can be contemplated, and that makes investigating allegations difficult, especially given the short time constraints of the firework season. The control of sale is currently limited to restrictions on age and on period of sale—generally between 5 October and 5 November—and controls on the quantity supplied. In the UK we limit the sale of F2 and F3 fireworks to those aged over 18. In many parts of Europe F2 fireworks can be purchased by anyone over 16.

It is also appropriate to raise an issue that links sales, storage and safety. It concerns the current exemptions for the storage of less than 5 kg net explosive content. I am advised that in some places in the north of England it has been reported that some businesses are trying to get round the need to hold a licence by restricting their onsite storage to less than 5 kg NEC while keeping their remaining stocks hidden. There is concern that some fire authorities would therefore not know of the existence of fireworks on a property, which could put both firefighters and the public at risk. Some in the fire service would like to remove that exemption, but that would need careful consideration, because if it were not implemented properly many other businesses that store less than 5 kg NEC perfectly legitimately could be affected.

Suffolk County Council also makes suggestions on how existing regulations could be improved. First, it touches on insurance. The issue of public liability insurance was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) in a debate on 18 November 2016, when he highlighted the case of a fire at SP Plastics in Stafford in 2014. The business suffered financially due to neither the individual business nor the licensee having appropriate cover in place. While health and safety legislation does not require public liability insurance, it is now recommended that those manufacturing or storing fireworks should hold it. That advice has been added to the Health and Safety Executive website and to the “Guidance to Applicants” section on the licence application form.

Suffolk trading standards receives information from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on all firework imports. That information is then disseminated to the relevant district council and the HSE where the consignment is destined. While in theory that allows the council and HSE to monitor the amount of fireworks being stored at their licensed sites, the information provided by HMRC can be sketchy at times and there is little or no enforcement of the requirements. Even where the information is provided, many authorities have suffered cuts to their budgets that restrict their ability to monitor imports adequately.

I sense that I have probably stretched my time a little. I have more to say, but I will come to my conclusion, which is that the Government should adopt a systematic approach to the collection of the statistics. Having considered the extremely helpful information put together by Nigel Howlett at Suffolk trading standards, I believe that, on balance, there is a case for amending the current regulations, although it is vital that a full consultation and regulatory impact assessment take place before any changes are made. That should include all those businesses in the supply network; we must remember that the vast majority of them are responsible, and it is vital that their views are heard. Thank you for bearing with me, Mr Walker.

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