Fireworks: Sale and Use

Elliot Colburn Excerpts
Monday 8th November 2021

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House, or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 319891, relating to the sale and use of fireworks.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. The petition before us, entitled “Limit the Sale and Use of Fireworks to Organisers of Licensed Displays Only”, states:

“Current legislation allows for public use of fireworks 16 hours a day, every day, making it impossible for vulnerable groups to take precautions against the distress they can cause. Better enforcement of existing law is insufficient; limiting their sale & use to licensed displays only is necessary.

Restrictions on the sale & use of fireworks has huge public support and is backed by several human and animal charities. Limiting the sale & use of fireworks to displays only, by introducing licensing via local authorities, would help to protect vulnerable people and animals from the distress and anxiety caused by unexpected firework noise & pollution. Legislation that balances people’s desires for firework displays, and individual rights to not be distressed throughout the year, is needed now.”

The petition closed with 301,610 signatures, including 306 from my own constituency of Carshalton and Wallington, and I am grateful to the petition’s creator, Julie, for taking the time to speak to me before today’s debate to set out why she created the petition. It is great to see so many colleagues present to take part, and I know that many wanted to get into the debate but could not, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), who has done a lot of work in the area. I wanted to make sure that the contributions of those Members were also put on record.

The debate has become something of an annual event. I remember being in Westminster Hall to debate the topic last year, and I believe that the Petitions Committee has held a debate on the issue every year for the past five or six. The Minister, as a former member of that Committee, will remember those debates full well. The fact that every year more 100,000 people sign a petition asking for very similar things, and we come to this place to debate those things, demonstrates—as the petition says—the significant public interest in the topic. I am sure that many colleagues will share their experiences of the emails and social media messages they have received over the past few days, ranging from those that are totally opposed to any change in the law whatsoever to those that would like to see fireworks banned altogether —not just for private use, but for any use at all.

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
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I was at a constituency event yesterday evening and was approached by constituents about the debate, including one, Sharon, who has a family member who has autism. The unexpected, random and unpredictable nature of fireworks going off when they are not anticipated causes that person real distress, and other constituents who are military veterans have contacted me to express the same concern. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those kinds of issues need to be considered when we are taking steps to minimise the use of fireworks outwith proper displays?

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I expect that many colleagues will mention the impact that fireworks can have on animals, but we often forget that people are equally affected. That needs to become a central part of this debate; it should be considered, so I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention.

Because of the great public interest in this topic, I decided to set up a survey—as I know many colleagues on all sides of the House have done, either this year or in years prior—to gauge my constituents’ views more widely. The response was something of a surprise, and has been quite phenomenal, so I hope the House will give me leave to go through some of those responses. I checked just an hour before today’s debate began, and the Facebook post that I created has received over 1.2 million hits, has been shared 12,000 times, and has attracted 75,000 responses. I asked those 75,000 respondents for their thoughts on four different topics, and I will very quickly go through their responses.

I began by asking the respondents if, like the petitioners, they agreed that fireworks should be banned other than on set days of the year; 10% said no and 88% said yes. Secondly, I asked if they normally looked forward to bonfire night; 19% said yes and 78% said no. Thirdly, I asked if they supported a complete ban on fireworks, other than for organised events; 9% said no and 89% said yes. Finally, I asked pet owners specifically about the impact of fireworks on their pets, and whether they were afraid of fireworks; 15% said no and 83% said yes. Of course, I must add the caveat that the survey was no official consultation—it was a Facebook post that went a bit viral. However, I hope that that snapshot of public opinion and the views expressed will help colleagues understand the issue.

Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing such a vital debate. One person who responded to the survey and has campaigned vigorously on the issue is Richard Smith, from my constituency. He is a veteran and has served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland. He is not a killjoy, but the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder on him and many of his comrades is a significant factor. He welcomes the debate but, more importantly, he would welcome action from Ministers.

--- Later in debate ---
Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing that to our attention. Would he pass on the Petitions Committee’s thanks to his constituent for his engagement with the debate? I will touch on that issue later.

I recognise and accept that there are strong views on both sides of the debate. The hon. Gentleman just used the word “killjoy”, and I was called that by a journalist just this morning. I confess that I sometimes find myself very torn, as I am sure many hon. Members are and will discuss later. I admit that I enjoy a good fireworks display. The Minister, who is my constituency neighbour, will know very well the amazing fireworks displays that have been put on in Carshalton Park by Carshalton Round Table over the years. Many people see fireworks as good fun and are not keen to see further bureaucracy come into their lives, preventing them from enjoying themselves. My natural instinct has always been against banning things, and I share concerns, which I know the Government have raised in response to the petition before, that restrictions could lead to a rise in black market sales and illegal usage and create problems with enforcement. I appreciate that a number of measures have also been undertaken, but I will let the Minister touch on those in his reply and not steal all of his material.

On the flip side, the petitioners’ arguments are incredibly persuasive. As I am sure we will hear throughout the debate, my dog Willow, like so many dogs, is absolutely terrified of fireworks. She spent most of Saturday night cowering and hiding in a corner. As we have heard from hon. Members, fireworks can also be incredibly distressing for people living with autism and for veterans suffering from PTSD. That is why many animal and veteran charities and organisations have echoed the petitioners’ calls for restrictions on sale and use.

I have also received a number of emails, as I am sure many colleagues have, with the most dreadful photos showing how letting off fireworks can go badly wrong, where people or animals have suffered horrific injuries or property has been damaged. After all, we must remember that fireworks contain combustible and explosive materials.

Richard Holden Portrait Mr Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con)
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Is my hon. Friend aware that there is a particularly regional nature to the issue? In the north-east, in County Durham, we are one of the top two places in the country for arson and arson of vehicles. The knock-on effects of fireworks are not limited to those on animals, which are very serious, and to road safety and antisocial behaviour, but relate to some of the criminal issues he is highlighting, which can lead to real damage to people and property. Does he understand that that is probably one reason why my constituency was in the top 9% in the country in terms of respondents to this e-petition?

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that to my attention; if I did not understand before, I certainly do now. One reason petitioners keep bringing the topic back is the problem with the current enforcement measures, which are either not enforced properly or are insufficient to deal with the issue. After all, fireworks contain combustible and explosive materials. There are alternatives available; there are quiet or silent fireworks and even non-explosive things such as light-up drones.

I know the Minister will want to cover the existing legislation, enforcement and public awareness campaigns, so I will not steal his material. I will draw attention to the work that the Petitions Committee has done in the past in recognition of the strong public interest. This is why, following the three petitions that have been formerly debated in Westminster Hall, the Committee produced a report in 2019. I will admit that the investigation concurred with the Government of the time; introducing a ban or taking “drastic action” on the sale and use of fireworks was not supported by the Committee. However, it did make a number of recommendations to Government. In their response last March, the Government made a number of commitments. These included: instructing the Office for Product Safety and Standards to develop a fact-based evidence base; inviting stakeholders to share information that may not have previously been publicly available; better education and public awareness; engagement with animal welfare groups about proactive steps that pet owners can take; and a number of other points. On the first point, I understand that the OPSS has since published its evidence base. However, it would be useful to get an update from the Government on the commitments they made in response to the report, and the progress that has been made since.

Given the significant interest in this area of policy, as evidenced by the regularity with which we come here to debate this topic in Petitions Committee debates, I wondered whether the Government have considered a larger exercise in gathering public opinion and consultation. I am sure we will hear more from our colleagues in the Scottish National party about the Scottish Government’s two consultations in the area since 2019. That work north of the border has led to the establishment of a firework review group, whose recommendations are being considered by the Scottish Government following a second public consultation. Will the Minister speak to his opposite number in Scotland and consider undertaking a similar public engagement exercise better to understand public opinion and inform policy in this area?

It is clear that the issue is not going to go away any time soon. There is significant public interest and strong views are held on all sides; I would be very surprised if we were not back here next year debating the issue once again. I look forward to hearing colleagues’ contributions and the reply from the Minister about the action that has been taken. However, for the reasons I have given, the status quo does not appear to be tenable. I do not think that is fair that we continue to come here year after year, have the same debate and repeat the same arguments. I would argue that that could erode public trust in the Petitions Committee system, which is designed to give people a voice in this House. It is not fair to the petitioners, or to the constituents who contact us year after year, that we just go round in circles without exploring the matter in greater detail. I believe that further work should be undertaken, and that it is to the public that we must look to find the way forward.

Through public consultation, the Government could better understand and engage with the concerns about the impact that fireworks have, particularly on animals, people with autism and those living with PTSD. There are also concerns about losing a source of enjoyment; there is a balance to be struck. I am sure that the significant number of people who took part in my survey—in just a few days and in uncontrolled conditions —demonstrates that if a proper public consultation was to take place there would be a significant amount of public involvement. That would allow the Government to do a full and detailed analysis of responses, which could inform policy going forward. Can the Minister take this suggestion back to his Department and report back to the Petitions Committee about whether such an undertaking would be possible? I appreciate many other colleagues want to speak, so I will bring my remarks to a close. I look forward to hearing the rest of the debate.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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As so many Members wish to speak, I have to impose a three-minute limit on speeches; that will give us the best chance of getting every Member in to speak. I will cut Members’ speeches off at three minutes.

--- Later in debate ---
Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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Sadly, time prevents me from going through the contributions made by all right hon. and hon. Members. However, I thank the 11, I believe, Back-Bench Members who joined us in the debate. I think we have represented the petitioners well. Again, I thank Julie, the petition creator, for taking the time before the debate to brief me on why the subject is so important. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for sharing their reflections and stories from their constituencies. We have heard about the wide-ranging and worrying impact of fireworks on our constituents, which reflects why we have had this debate six years in a row, and why we will no doubt have it again. On that basis, it is important to find a way forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 319891, relating to the sale and use of fireworks.