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30 October 2002


Westminster Hall Debate

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West): I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) on securing this topical debate on an issue in which I have taken a strong interest. He made a commendable speech, which set out clearly the dangers to human and animal life arising from the misuse of fireworks.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) on her contribution. If I am not already a member of her all-party parliamentary group, I shall join very soon and I look forward to it being fully constituted.

The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) said that this is not a partisan issue and that hon. Members from all parties are concerned about the issues that we are discussing today.

I was elected to the House about 17 months ago and an issue that has constantly loomed large in my postbag and at my weekly surgeries is that of fireworks. With 5 November only days away and with serious safety concerns about a firefighters' strike, the issue is uppermost in many people's mind. It is clear from what has already been said in the Chamber today and from the large number of early-day motions, private Member's Bills and parliamentary questions, that my experience is not unique.

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to organisations in my constituency that have campaigned long and hard-many of them long before I became a Member of this House-for new legislation on fireworks. I recently met Betty Stevenson of the north Edinburgh fireworks safety campaign group, which covers my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz). The organisation has worked long and hard to tackle the misuse of fireworks and, particularly, the problem of the under-age sale of fireworks, which has plagued many communities in my constituency such as Corstorphine, Muirhouse, and Drylaw.

I represent a constituency in Edinburgh, which is well known for spectacular fireworks displays. At new year, Edinburgh puts on one of the most spectacular hogmanay events in the world and the highlight is a fireworks display that is regularly attended by more than 200,000 people. During the Edinburgh festival, Edinburgh castle is lit by another spectacular fireworks display, and only last Sunday, at the end of the week-long Hindu festival organised by the Scottish Indian arts forum, there was yet another fireworks display. Like many of my constituents, and like people throughout Edinburgh and Scotland, I enjoy those displays; they mark out the city as unique.

I am not anti-fireworks and I do not favour an outright ban, as some do, but the current laws governing the use of fireworks are clearly ineffective and drastically need to be updated. As the hon. Member for Angus said,the problem is that much of the law governing fireworks is almost 130 years old. That may be difficult for some to comprehend, but fireworks technology has moved on since the Explosives Act received Royal Assent in 1875. I do not wish to belittle the measures introduced by the Government, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton, but the regulations prohibiting the sale of large or more dangerous fireworks and the Government's safety campaigns, including educational kits for schools, although positive, have only tinkered at the edges of the problem. Comprehensive new legislation is required to bring United Kingdom firework laws into the 21st century.

It is important to note that the misuse of fireworks affects not only people. The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, whose headquarters is in my constituency, produced the excellent but disturbing and chilling report mentioned by the hon. Member for Angus. The report makes it clear that the impact of fireworks on domestic and wild animals concerns many people. It was that report that prompted me to table early-day motion 791, and I was glad that more than 100 right hon. and hon. Members chose to add their names in support of that-the largest backing of any fireworks-related early-day motion in this Session.

The hon. Member for Angus also mentioned the number of vets who responded to the SSPCA survey. A total of 80 per cent. of vets in Edinburgh admitted having to treat animals for stress and injury directly related to fireworks. Those injuries were reported not only on or about 5 November, but for at least a three-month period. There are stories of deliberate attacks on animals-of cats being affected by inhaling smoke and of dogs being in cars where fireworks were set off.

Other dangers have already been mentioned, including the danger to human life. Recently in my constituency, a young, pregnant mother of a two-year-old was burned to death because someone put inflammable material through her letterbox. It was not a firework, but it shows that hooligans who think that they may be participating in a prank sometimes have no idea of the tragic consequences that can result.

After consulting community councils, the local police force, GPs and others in my constituency, I began a petition campaign calling on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to take serious action as a matter of urgency. I was truly overwhelmed by the response. I now have thousands of names on the petition. Many people chose to send letters with their returned forms, which provided me with a catalogue of horror stories-of accidents, injuries to animals and people, and of the fear and distress that fireworks can cause. If there was any doubt in my mind about the seriousness of the issue and its impact on communities, the response to my campaign has removed it.

Why are we in such a sorry state of affairs? I believe that the voluntary code of practice is ineffective and that it fails properly to protect the public. The maximum penalty or custodial sentence has never been imposed under the law that prohibits sales to those under the age of 18, which makes a mockery of the law. It is time for the voluntary code that limits the time of year when fireworks can be sold to the public to be enshrined in law. The code does not work because too many outletsfail to adhere to it. As the hon. Member for Angus said, many outlets sell fireworks long before 5 November. Fireworks can therefore cause fear and misery all year round. We need rules to ensure that properly trained and licensed pyrotechnicians are at all public displays. I realise, however, that that will not stop all accidents because at a large community fireworks event in my constituency, which was organised by a licensed pyrotechnician, a young girl was hit by a rogue firework. We cannot rule out accidents, but we could minimise the danger, and the presence of trained, experienced operators would certainly help.

I do not want to portray everything as doom and gloom. We seem to be closer in Scotland than in England and Wales to tackling the problems of selling fireworks. The hon. Member for Angus highlighted Shona Robison's Bill in the Scottish Parliament, which has received all-party sponsorship. Last week, the Scottish Finance Minister, Andy Kerr, signalled the Executive's intention to press ahead with new laws on the sale of fireworks. That attitude, and the actions that it promotes, contrast starkly with the inaction at Westminster. The Government are so concerned with focus groups and popularity that it is incredible that they are not taking a bigger lead on the issue. The public would clearly welcome positive action, particularly in our city communities.

It is not a case of being a killjoy. Like other hon. Members, I enjoy a good firework display, but it is time for tighter regulations. There is much that the Government can do, and all parties in the House are determined that we should take action. All that we need is some direction from the Government, and I hope that the Minister will provide it today.

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.