Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation


Wednesday 3 July 1996



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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Sir James Molyneaux

Barnes, Mr. Harry (North-East Derbyshire)

Brown, Mr. Michael (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

Churchill, Mr. Winston (Davyhulme)

Coe, Mr. Sebastian (Falmouth and Camborne)

Duncan-Smith, Mr. Iain (Chingford)

Elletson, Mr. Harold (Blackpool, North)

Galloway, Mr. George (Glasgow, Hillhead)

Hamilton, Sir Archibald (Epsom and Ewell)

Hood, Mr. Jimmy (Clydesdale)

King, Mr. Tom (Bridgwater)

McAvoy, Mr. Thomas (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

Maginnis, Mr. Ken (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

Marshall, Mr. Jim (Leicester, South)

Parry, Mr. Robert (Liverpool, Riverside)

Soley, Mr. Clive (Hammersmith)

Spicer, Sir Michael (South Worcestershire)

Steen, Mr. Anthony (South Hams)

Wheeler, Sir John (Minister of State, Northern Ireland office)

Worthington, Mr. Tony (Clydebank and Milngavie)

Mr. F. A. Crammer, Committee Clerk

3 Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation Wednesday 3 July 1996


Draft Explosives (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1996

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Draft Explosives (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. This is a short order comprising just four articles. Its principal purpose is to amend the regulation-making power in section 3(1) of the Explosives (Northern Ireland) Act 1970 so as to provide greater flexibility in the making of fireworks regulations. The result will provide the Secretary of State with the same powers to make fireworks regulations as he currently has to make explosives regulations generally. At present, section 3 of the Act confines the Secretary of State's regulation-making power to matters covering the sale and use of fireworks. The reform proposals that the Secretary of State published in January and which have been generally well received, require a more flexible power. The only other significant change is effected by article 4. That amends the Explosives Act 1875 to make it an offence to sell fireworks to any child apparently under the age of 16 years, thus bringing the low in Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. I commend the order to the Committee.

4.31 pm

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): I have a few questions. As I understand it, the order gives the Government power to introduce regulations. What matters, therefore, is what is in those regulations. No one would quarrel with the necessity to regulate the use of fireworks and although their sale is banned in Northern Ireland, I understand that it is necessary to introduce regulations because, if they are being used, they should be regulated rather than available on the black market and in unregulated use. This is a significant issue because in 1994, about 1,500 injuries in Great Britain were caused by fireworks, a 48 per cent. increase on the previous year. More than half of those accidents involved children. I assume that fireworks are not on sale in Northern Ireland because of the security situation there. It was thought that people should not be confused during the 4 troubles by bangs of a different nature. I hope that the Minister will explain the matter. As the regulations must be introduced, will the Minister give us clear undertakings? He may have powers within Northern Ireland in some cases and not in others, when decisions taken in the United Kingdom or by the European Union affect what will occur. Who is responsible for enforcing fireworks regulations? Will the Royal Ulster Constabulary, trading standards personnel or, occasionally, the Northern Ireland Fire Service have that responsibility? Some in Great Britain have criticised that lack of clarity, not just in respect of sales and in making sure that the law on the sale of fireworks to those under 16 is upheld—we all agree that it was right to bring the law on fireworks into line and to raise the age from 13 to 16—but in matters such as the storage of fireworks. Cartons or crates of fireworks should not be kept in unsafe conditions. that, therefore, must be enforced. What in the regulations deals with the import of fireworks? I am indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden), who had the precipience to have an Adjournment debate on 1 November 1995 which dealt with fireworks. He was worried about the import of Chinese fireworks and said: "how is it that seven container loads of fireworks bearing the label "Red Lion" came into the country at Southampton in the past few months? They were produced in China and imported by a firm called Kanash, which is based in Northern Ireland. Once they were on sale, Liverpool trading standards officers received a tip-off about the fireworks and seized some for tests. They found that, despite the fact that the fireworks had British standard labels, virtually none of them complied with the relevant standard. Indeed, some were not even eligible for it. The officers found also that six different lines of the fireworks contained sulphur chlorate, which has been illegal in this country since 1894. It can explode if dropped even if the firework has not been lit." Those fireworks were being sold in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend continued: "The address that was shown on the label for the fireworks, which was in Liverpool 6, did not exist."—Official Report, 1 November 1995; Vol. 265, c. 269.) That is linked with the Government's scrapping of the 1986 regulations for the import of fireworks which would have ensured that those explosives could not have been brought into this country unless they complied with British standards. Will the Minister ensure that imported fireworks are safe and, if necessary, reintroduce the 1986 regulations? Another issue is involved. I would be grateful to the Minister for a progress report; if he cannot give it today, perhaps he would write to me. Certain categories, such as category C, can be used only in certain circumstances. I am indebted to a constituent, Mrs. Brown, who, by sheer good luck, wrote to me in February about category C fireworks. The reason for the letter was the holding of a firework display less 5 than 20 metres from her house—permission was neither sought nor given—and the considerable distress caused to all the neighbours by the noise of category C fireworks. Mrs. Brown's dog died to fright and what the post mortem diagnosed as a massive heart attack. She wrote to me seeking legislation to ban the use of category C fireworks at all sites other than those operated under licence from the local authority. I wrote to the Department of Trade and Industry and received a reply from the Under-Secretary of State, the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs. He stated: "The construction and explosive content of fireworks supplied in the United Kingdom is established by the British Standard on the safety of fireworks, BS 7114. Any changes to the composition of fireworks could only be brought about by amendments to the standard. However, because European standards on fireworks are currently under consideration by the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN), we cannot, under CEN rules, amend the British standard." The latter part of that response surprised me. I was not fully satisfied. In a further letter, the Under-Secretary said that he believed that it was the view of the European Committee for Standardisation that the standard for category C fireworks, which had frightened my constituent, would be tightened up, but that the Government could not be fully in control of that process, which would be subject to qualified majority voting at the relevant European committee. Has there been progress on that issue, which ought to affect the regulations that are brought in for Northern Ireland? Does the Minister intend that standards on the import of fireworks will be tightened up in the regulations? Will the market be better regulated? It is unacceptable for fireworks that are dangerous and unsuitable for use by children to be imported into this country. That is the first important issues. Secondly, is it the Minister's intention to tighten up the regulations on the categories of fireworks that can be sold in this country, which I believe are categories 1, 2 and 3, because of the distress that they can cause? If fireworks are to be sold legally in Northern Ireland, when does the Minister intend that to come into force? Most of us think about fireworks only once a year, on 5 November. Does the Minister intend that fireworks should be legitimately on sale by 5 November this year and how is that to be enacted? Will he give an undertaking that if fireworks are to be on sale by that time there will first be a substantial education and mass-media campaign on their safe use? I realise that most people who are damaged by fireworks have their own carelessness to blame, but it is important to train people to use them safely. Will the Minister give an undertaking that a public education campaign will be initiated? I hope that the Minister will respond to those points.


4.43 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), who is abroad on a Select Committee visit. The remarks of the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) prompt me to question the necessity for separate legislation, especially when one recognises that we are part of a common trading bond. I understand what the hon. Gentleman meant about an intensive education programme, but the reality is that no matter how intensive it is there are those who will not learn much from it, because they will miss it in the newspapers or on television. When the regulations banning the use of fireworks in Northern Ireland came into force, a teenage member of my congregation purchased some in England for his own use. He was apprehended at Larne, and came before the courts. He did not purchase them for any subversive purpose but, in time-honoured tradition, to be used on Halloween—not 5 November—which is when most fireworks are used in Northern Ireland. They are also used on other—usually ceremonial—occasions. I was fascinated to hear the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie speak about imported brands. I know that not everyone is always aware of what is happening. I remember lying in my flat in Victoria last year when when I heard the kind of explosions that I automatically attribute to Belfast. I said, "What's going on here?" Then I realised that they were part of the festivities on the Thames. The legislation may have been introduced particularly because of the ostensible troubles in Northern Ireland, but I remind the Committee that there have also been tragic explosions in England, most recently in Manchester. How do we differentiate between a dog dying of a heart attack because fireworks went off 20 metres from its home without notice, and what is likely to happen to others when modern explosives are used? China, which has been manufacturing fireworks for a long time, may not comply with European regulations, never mind coming up to British standards. Is separate legislation really necessary when people move throughout the UK time and again, and when what happens in one part of the nation will also happen in another? Do we simply like wasting time in Parliament by duplicating legislation, when matters could be arranged more efficiently? Is the phrase "apparently under the age of sixteen" used to make bringing prosecutions easier or harder? Those charged could argue that a purchaser was apparently older than 16. Some people in the legal 7 profession make their living out of such arguments. It should be Parliament's task to legislate clearly to avoid unearned income being made from our mistakes.

4.48 pm

Sir John Wheeler: I shall try to reply to the questions that have been asked and I shall deal first with those of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). The current fireworks regulations were introduced in 1970, primarily because of the prevailing security situation in Northern Ireland. There was a genuine fear that the setting off of fireworks, particularly bangers, by young people could be misinterpreted by the security forces as some kind of terrorist action, with potentially serious consequences for innocent participants. The hon. Gentleman suggests that the legislation in Northern Ireland should be the same as that in the rest of the United Kingdom. This modest measure harmonises the age at which fireworks can be purchased with that which applies in Great Britain. That means that the same age limit will apply throughout the United Kingdom. I do not need to rehearse the argument about the separate body of criminal law that exists in Northern Ireland, for all the historical reasons that the hon. Gentleman knows and which could, presumably, change if a political settlement results from the present talks. But that is to digress from the order and I know that you would not wish me to dwell too long on that aspect, Sir James. The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the regulations are adequate in every respect. The regulations seek to balance freedom of choice with safety and we believe that, when they are published, that requirement will be met. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie also asked whether the regulations would be in place before Halloween, which is the key date for Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is not concerned with 5 November—I am not sure on which side of that argument the populace would be. We are concerned with 31 October, and I assure the Committee that the regulations will be in place by that date. There will be a safety campaign as the hon. Member for Belfast, South, rightly, urged. There is no point in passing legislation or regulations unless the general populace is informed. The campaign will be aimed particularly at schoolchildren. After hearing of the hon. Gentleman's experience with his young constituent, I hope that young people, whom we particularly wish to advise about firework safety, will be assisted by the campaign. I have no doubt that Northern Ireland's media will play a full part. 8 The exact character of the regulations has not yet been settled, but they will broadly follow that of the consultative document that I issued a short while ago. Of course, Parliament will have the opportunity to consider the regulations when they are laid in due course. I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for Belfast, South. Licences will be required only for the purchase, possession or use of display fireworks, which are also known as British standard categories 3 and 4. An appropriate licence fee will be charged. In general, the sale of single fireworks to the public will be unlawful, with special exemption made for display fireworks. The so-called banger will be proscribed. The minimum age limit for persons buying fireworks is raised by the order to 16 years, in line with Great Britain.

Mr. Worthington: I think that the hon. Member for Belfast, South and I are both confused on the same point—I might be wrong. I thought that I heard the Minister say that the firework known as the banger will be proscribed. Will the Minister explain that statement in greater detail? Does it mean that no fireworks that make a noise will be allowed?

Sir John Wheeler: I am afraid that it has been a long time since I had any personal use for those objects—the experience may be more alive in your memory, Sir James. The firework known as the banger, which is designed to make a noise to startle or frighten people, will be illegal. It will not be possible to purchase such a firework or to make use of it.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Is the type defined by the intensity of the bang? Is it currently possible to purchase or otherwise procure such noise-making missiles? This summer, I have heard them and even witnessed the modern tendency to throw one so that it goes off at a person's feet, which has a startling effect. Are such fireworks available, or are the authorities simply unaware of what is happening?

Sir John Wheeler: The hon. Gentleman touches on the question of enforcement, to which I was coming. Parliament creates legislation and defines what is or is not lawful, but the law must be enforced. The law will be enforced by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which has powers—especially those provided under the Explosives Act 1875—sufficient to deal with anyone found in possession of or using such an illegal object. I can give the Committee that assurance. In addition, the trading standards authorities in Northern Ireland will make selective visits to retail premises to ensure compliance with the regulations. An enforcement regime will come into play. In a liberal democracy, one cannot control the movement of people who want to travel in the British Isles. As the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie will appreciate, they may carry devices into 9 Northern Ireland and use them illegally. We shall use the relevant legislation and the enforcement provisions to deal with those who possess fireworks that are the cause of abuse, injury or annoyance. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Chinese fireworks. I am not familiar with the Adjournment debate to which he referred, but the Government are fully aware of the concerns that have been expressed about the matter. With regard to Northern Ireland, the difficulties caused by some imported fireworks of dubious quality have been exaggerated. The vast majority of fireworks that are sold in Northern Ireland comply with British standards, and I expect that to continue. Under consumer safety legislation, it is an offence for a supplier to sell an unsafe product. Fireworks that are imported directly into Northern Ireland from abroad must be classified and authorised under the Classification and Labelling of Explosives Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1991 before they can be sold there. Furthermore, under the proposed regulations fireworks will be categorised under the relevant British standard or its European equivalent. Under our proposals, only fireworks that comply with British standards can be lawfully sold in Northern Ireland. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman. We shall look to the Health and Safety Executive for advice about whether the contents of fireworks—including those that may be imported into Northern Ireland—comply with British safety standards. I was distressed to learn of the demise of Mrs. Brown's dog. As you know, Sir James, dogs in Northern Ireland are more robust: they are accustomed to loud noises at all hours of the day and night, and they have a survival capability that is greater than that of dogs in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. As I understand it, category C is not a British standard category. There are four such categories: indoor and garden, which do not require a licence, and display and professional, which do require a licence. I doubt whether that helps Mrs. Brown's dog but, naturally, I was sorry to hear of its demise. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie mentioned European standards. Work is under way in CEN—the European standardisation committee—on 42 standards, including the composition of fireworks and their construction, methods of testing, packaging and labelling. That frightful committee will report on those matters in due course. I understand that the standards are not yet finalised, but present indications are that they will be and that they will cover a wider range of types and sizes of fireworks than British standard 7114. If the standards as presently drafted are adopted and no further controls are introduced, there will appear on the United Kingdom market sizes and types of fireworks that either are new to the United Kingdom or were phased out in the 1970s. 10 As to imports, we shall liaise closely with Great Britain Departments, such as the Department of Trade and Industry and the Health and Safety Executive. The Royal Ulster Constabulary will also play a major part in the process. I hope that the order and the supporting regulations, which will be produced before Halloween, will greatly aid the safety of our citizens in Northern Ireland. They will contribute to a balance between freedom of choice—to which people are entitled in our liberal democracy—and the mischief that may arise from the use of fireworks. The Government's proposals are to be commended.

5.1 pm

Mr. Worthington: I would not like the Minister to think that I was satisfied with his response. There are some important issues, and I listened with interest to what he said about the safety of fireworks. It seems wholly inadequate to impose on the shopkeeper the duty of knowing whether the fireworks that he or she is selling are safe. The fireworks that I mentioned carried on their labels the relevant British standard—7114—and it is easy to put it there. In those circumstances, the shopkeeper would believe that the product was safe. To have a general expectation that it is the shopkeeper's duty to ensure that whatever is sold will not harm anyone, however wrongly labelled the product, is the wrong way to tackle the problem. It makes far more sense for the duty to be on the person exporting to this country to demonstrate to the authorities that the product is safe. I ask the Minister to tell his colleagues—I know that he cannot do this on a Northern Ireland-only basis—that the regulations do not make sense. I also ask the Minister to give a more detailed reply on the European issue. I realise that he does not travel that widely, and is not likely to be up to date with the frightful—as he described it—European committee. If the fireworks are to be safe, however, it is important that appropriate action be taken, so that there is harmony across the European Community. It is easy to mock Mrs. Brown and her dog, but, to Mrs. Brown's daughter, who saw the dog die, it was a frightful experience. Mrs. Brown went to see her neighbours and found that many of the old people in the area had been frightened by the explosions. The Minister will probably find that he is wrong in saying that the banger has been banned. There will still be fireworks on display that will take a considerable commotion. Freedom of choice is right, but sometimes those who suffer from others' freedom of choice are not grateful for it, and I hope that the Minister will consider those matters.

Sir John Wheeler: I shall briefly reply to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. He understandably 11 referred to aspects of the matter that are UK-wide, as against the narrow subject of the order before us, which relates to Northern Ireland, I cannot answer on UK-wide policy, as it does not fall within my area of responsibility; it rests with ministerial colleagues. As for Northern Ireland, we have an input to the proposed European standards through the Health and Safety Executive. That is being done through ministerial offices in Northern Ireland; it is not directed by me so I am not an authority on it. I can say that testing is randomly done by trading standards officers in Northern Ireland to deal with the mischief which has concerned the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Gentleman raised a complicated matter about the legal obligations of people, whether as 12 individuals or in a commercial setting. The general principle is that the onus rests with the supplier and I am not in a position to go against that. However, I undertake, as always, to take the hon. Gentleman's question seriously. I know that he endeavours to be helpful on these occasions, so I shall examine his remarks to the Committee further and shall respond to him in greater detail, perhaps drawing on the experiences and responsibilities of ministerial colleagues elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I may be able to assist him in that way.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Explosives (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1996.

Committee rose at six minutes past five o'clock.


Molyneaux, Sir James [Chairman]

Barnes, Mr.

Brown, Mr. Michael

Churchill, Mr.

Coe, Mr.

Duncan-Smith, Mr.

Elletson, Mr.

Hamilton, Sir Archibald

Spicer, Sir Michael

Wheeler, Sir John

Worthington, Mr.

The following also attended, pursunt to Standing Order No. 101(2):

Aninger, Mr. Nick (Pembroke)

Smyth, Rev. Martin (Belfast, South)