Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for her comprehensive setting out of the problems and challenges we face with this issue. I am delighted to take part in this debate, but in doing so I have a sense of déjà vu all over again. I have spoken several times on the issue of fireworks on behalf of my constituents since 2015. My view is, has always been and will continue to be that the sale of fireworks should be restricted to those with a licence to deliver organised community displays. That view is widely held across Parliament and the UK, and during the restrictions that we are all enduring because of covid-19, it is more important than ever.
As is always the case in these debates, no one has argued, and no one would seek to argue, that, when used correctly, fireworks are not an enjoyable spectacle. In normal times, some 10 million people across the UK each year see fireworks as a feature in big events in November, for weddings and in all sorts of other celebrations throughout the year. Anyone fortunate enough to have attended such an event will no doubt say that it was indeed a marvellous spectacle. However, we also need to take account of the alarm, distress, danger and anxiety that fireworks far too often cause for too many people and animals, and the disruption they cause to communities when purchased and used irresponsibly by individuals. We have heard much about that from Members from different parties.
We have also heard a lot about the accidents and injuries caused by fireworks, which are very sobering. We are all aware of the increased pressure that accidents associated with fireworks bring to bear on our public services in normal times; of course, we are not in normal times this year. Covid-19 has meant that it has been necessary for community firework displays to be cancelled across the United Kingdom, but that creates a problem. There are now genuine fears that personal use of fireworks will rise significantly this year, which is likely to lead to more accidents and will therefore lead to more pressure on our NHS staff at the worst possible time, during a global health pandemic—crystallising further, if it were required, that selling fireworks to the general public is increasingly hard to justify. We know the increased pressure that accidents cause in normal times, and this is a perfect opportunity for the Minister to do something now.
Every year, from October to January, we hear, as we have heard again today, from constituents who are disrupted and plagued by the irresponsible use of fireworks at all hours of the day and night. Under cover of darkness, too many people set out deliberately to cause mischief, thinking that it is quite funny—that it is a bit of a wheeze—to set off fireworks near housing, where children or whole families are shaken from their slumbers, cats and dogs are scared half to death, and elderly people are driven into a state of fear and alarm. The effect on horses is well documented, with fireworks literally scaring them to death. We have also heard about the effect on veterans who might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following active service. This is a catalogue of unacceptable consequences of the free sale of fireworks.
Since 2017, we have been told that the creation of the Office for Product Safety and Standards would address many of the concerns about fireworks that we hear every year. I am keen to hear of the progress that has been made on that issue, unless of course, and I hope I am wrong, the Minister is going to stand up today and tell us that nothing has been done since 2017. His predecessor told us that something would be done by the Office for Product Safety and Standards. Surely the Minister will not tell us that there has been no progress.
It is both ludicrous and frustrating that we do not have the power to do anything meaningful about the sale of fireworks in Scotland. This lack of control effectively leaves the Scottish Parliament footering at the edges of a problem, with no real power to properly address it despite the fact that, as we have heard, a recent consultation by the Scottish Government showed that 87% of people in Scotland would welcome a ban on the sale of fireworks to the public. I urge the Minister to carry out a similar consultation in England; I think he would find it quite informative.
Of course, the Scottish Parliament can restrict when fireworks can be set off, but we all know that irresponsible people who want to set off fireworks do not care about what time it is when they choose to set them off. They do not care whether it is legal to set off a firework at a certain time, and they do not care if it puts other people in a state of alarm or fear, or if it endangers their safety.
Fireworks cannot currently be sold to anyone under 18, but, as I have said several years in a row, so what? We know that children can get hold of them. We also know that people using fireworks irresponsibly are often perfectly entitled under the law, as it stands, to buy them. The irresponsible use of fireworks is not confined to those who get hold of them illegally, which is why more needs to be done to protect the elderly, people with pets, and a range of people in our communities.
Every single Member of Parliament will have had constituents telling them about the onslaught of fireworks, the profound effects that has had on their constituents’ quality of life, and the effect on their pets, which undergo trembling fits and become withdrawn and very frightened. Of course, this cannot be prepared for, because the outbursts of fireworks come from nowhere when someone has fireworks and thinks they will have a wee bit of fun. Some people think it is a great idea to set off fireworks up tenement entrances, or in shared entry ways to flats, in the middle of the night.
The sale of fireworks is tightly restricted in the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, fireworks have long been subjected to some of the strictest laws in the world. Perhaps the Minister will tell us why the rest of the UK is denied similar or greater protection. Even the United States, which has liberal gun laws, believes that restrictions on fireworks need to be strict.
The current situation in Scotland is nothing short of bizarre. The use of fireworks is a devolved matter, but the sale of fireworks is reserved. It does not take a genius to work out that unless the sale of fireworks—who can get their hands on them—can be tackled, there is no meaningful influence over who uses them, which makes it extremely difficult to police them. Our local environmental health and antisocial behaviour teams work hard to tackle the misuse of fireworks in our communities, but that is dealing with the consequences of the wide availability of fireworks rather than tackling the fear, alarm and distress, fire risks and safety hazards that they cause, which we have heard so much about. We need to tackle the real issue of the sale to individuals—the problem at source—and be mindful of the fact that fireworks are far more powerful and prevalent today than they were in the past.
Organised and licensed displays allow—in normal times—the many people who wish to enjoy fireworks to do so safely. Importantly, they allow local residents to plan ahead and make arrangements to protect their pets and get on with their lives. The Dogs Trust says that when public displays are organised, 93% of pet owners alter their plans during the display time to minimise their pet’s trauma, which protects their pet’s welfare.
On helping pet owners to prepare for the use of fireworks in their neighbourhood, we cannot do so—it is not possible—when fireworks are going off randomly with no warning. Therefore, the solution, as we have heard across the Chamber, is patently obvious to anybody who chooses to look. We need greater restrictions on the sale of fireworks, instead of selling them to all and sundry over 18 years old. Organised public firework displays are a safer option for all our communities, and would become the accepted and welcome norm.
I hope the Minister appreciates that it is time to ban the free sale of fireworks, except for public licensed displays. Such a ban would mean we could still enjoy fireworks in our communities, with new year displays and at celebrations such as weddings, but they would be out of the hands of those who, by accident or design, put the fear of God into our communities, shaking our children and whole families awake in their beds, alarming older people and causing suffering—perhaps even injury—to animals.
We need to get the balance right. No one is asking for fireworks to be banned altogether, but I urge the Minister to consider a consultation similar to the one carried out in Scotland. Let us hear what the public think. They need to be part of the conversation, to inform how we proceed to improve the situation across the UK. Let us see a meaningful response to their concerns. I hope he will indicate his willingness to carry out such a consultation so that real progress can be made. If it cannot, give us the power in Scotland at least to protect our own communities.