The speech made by Sarah Owen, the Labour MP for Luton North, in the House of Commons on 21 January 2022.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am grateful to present my Bill for Second Reading. I appreciate fireworks’ beauty, as we all do—how they can light up the sky and add magic and awe to our special occasions. I am here not to spoil the fun of fireworks, but to bring forward some common sense solutions that I hope the Government will take on board.
There is a harmful side to fireworks that must be addressed and challenged. We have spoken before in the House about the fire safety hazards, their use as weapons, and the extreme nuisance that the noise can create, but the Government are yet to bring in any meaningful regulations. We have a debate almost every year about the nuisance of fireworks, yet regulations have not followed.
In the Bill, I call on the Government to show compassion to the communities affected by the relentless use of noisy fireworks by committing to limit the volume of fireworks, increase the minimum fine for the misuse of fireworks, review the laws around the licensing of sellers, and consult with relevant charities to ensure that their reforms are informed and effective. Last year, more than 300,000 of our constituents signed a petition calling for Government restrictions on the sale and use of fireworks. One of my residents in Luton North started a petition to make fireworks silent, while more than 13,000 people signed a similar petition on the Government website to call for quieter fireworks. That is where I will start.
The current decibel limit for fireworks is 120 dB. I am not sure that many people could say exactly how loud that is, so to put it into perspective, the legal sound limit for a rock concert is 107 dB. I am painfully aware how old it makes me sound to say “rock concert”, but that is how it is described. A Formula 1 race typically reaches 140 dB. One of the loudest ever recorded sounds is a volcanic explosion that reached 172 dB. The pain threshold for humans is breached by anything above 130 dB, yet our limit for legal firework noise sits between that and a rock concert. That simply does not make sense.
Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)
I thank my hon. Friend and fellow Whips Office colleague for bringing forward a brilliant private Member’s Bill, which will be hugely appreciated by many residents of Newport East and by my local Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. On the issue of noise, does she agree that we need to do something about illegally imported fireworks, which are so much noisier and more powerful, that are sold online?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, one that I hope to come on to later in my speech, specifically in relation to licensing and tightening up licensing laws.
The Royal National Institute for Deaf People states that even a short exposure to sounds of 110 decibels to 120 decibels can cause harm to hearing. Noise-induced hearing loss damages the delicate inner ear. The effects may appear immediately or emerge over time, but either way the damage is not reversible.
Dr Neil Hudson (Penrith and The Border) (Con)
I congratulate the hon. Member on bringing forward the Bill and on highlighting the importance of improving the regulation of fireworks. As a veterinary surgeon, I have had the sad misfortune to have had to prescribe on numerous occasions sedation for dogs around the time of bonfire night, because of the dreadful effects fireworks have on them. I have also, sadly, witnessed the fear, flight and fright response of large animals: farm animal livestock and horses that stampede, panic, run through fences, damage themselves and run on to roads because of fireworks. I am grateful to the hon. Member for speaking about the effects on human health, but does she agree that firework regulation should take into consideration the effects on animals, too?
Absolutely. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and for the experience and expertise he brings to this place in raising that point.
As a bare minimum, we must change the maximum limit to 90 decibels. I am aware that that measure alone does not tackle all the issues, such as the one the hon. Gentleman has just raised, but it will make a strong start in addressing the impact of fireworks.
For my constituents, fireworks are not just a disturbance on bonfire night or new year, they are a constant year-round and sometimes weekly nightmare. When I have posted on social media about the frequency and intensity of fireworks in Luton, I have been flooded with streams of distressing stories from constituents. One Luton resident wrote that she had become so accustomed to the intrusive noise of fireworks that, shockingly, when someone was shot outside her home, she did not call the police or an ambulance because she did not register the sound as unusual. The person, thankfully, survived, but my constituent was no less shaken.
Paul Howell (Sedgefield) (Con)
Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the big problems with fireworks is the way they have evolved? I am probably a little bit older than she is, but my first experience with fireworks was a rocket in a bottle in the backyard and the rocket struggling to get above the house. The fireworks that can now be bought are such powerful beasts. The issue is not just about animals or people: as the son of a fireman, I know there are other implications as well.
From the son of a fireman to the daughter of a firefighter: I wholeheartedly agree. Legislation has not been able to catch up with the speed of development of fireworks.
When I spoke in a debate on this issue in November, a local Luton parent wrote to me about her experience, which sums up the distress that fireworks cause. She wrote:
“We can hear fireworks every single night. Without exaggeration, I counted, they can go off every 10 minutes between 6 pm and midnight. Sometimes at 1 am. The stress caused by them is enormous and growing. My child is terrified. To a point where she screams and begs me to stop them. We have to put on a white noise sound on a tablet in her room in order to reduce the sound of the bangs. If she wakes up, she cries, shivers and goes back to sleep with earmuffs on. Before bedtime she begs me for no fireworks. Mental health in our family is in pieces. I am genuinely worried about the wellbeing of my daughter. We can’t live like this.”—[Official Report, 8 November 2021; Vol. 703, c. 10-11WH.]
Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con)
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being very generous. Her constituent relates a very sad story. Does she agree that fireworks being set off for days or in some cases weeks either side of festivals and outside of the normal regulated permitted time makes it even more difficult for people to shield, whether young people or pets, from the distress caused by noisy fireworks?
I wholeheartedly agree. This is not just about the noise of the fireworks, but also the unplanned and unexpected nature of them, which really impacts communities.
The testimony I read out has stuck with me. As a mum of a toddler, I know that disturbing a child’s sleep—or, for that matter, a parent’s—is no joke. The fireworks around us in Luton are sometimes so loud that my daughter’s baby monitor lights up red. That is with double glazing and all windows and doors shut. Many of us will know that the next day with a young child who has not had a full night’s sleep is absolutely no fun at all—it is not a fate I would wish on even my strongest opponents here.
Many colleagues will also be pet owners. Luckily, my dog Herman is a fairly chilled out chap when it comes to fireworks, but I have had reports from pet owners in Luton where the impact of the fireworks on their pets has turned their household upside down. Their beloved animals are scared, fearful and shaken, even after the noises have stopped.
A 2021 report by Cats Protection found that 63% of cats in the UK are negatively affected by fireworks. Cats can presume themselves to be in danger from sudden bursts of light and loud noise. In response to a threat to their safety, cats often bolt out of the house and put themselves in danger of traffic or get lost beyond their owner’s reach. That is of course devastating for the owner, but if a cat thinks its life is in danger, nothing can get in its way.
For dogs too, continuous fireworks can cause long-term stress, as we have heard, which can lead to behavioural problems and heartbreaking health consequences. As I said earlier, constituents have reported their pets shaking, crying and even having seizures long after the bangs have stopped.
Lowering the legal decibel level for fireworks does not solve that problem alone. What I am proposing today is a positive start for legislative change. Our domestic and wild animals need tighter laws around when fireworks can be licensed to be displayed and sold. If restricted to only be sold around permitted celebrations, such as fireworks night, new year’s eve, Diwali, Eid and the lunar new year, people with mental health issues, parents and pet owners can at least make preparations to minimise the impact of fireworks.
There must also be a review into who is permitted a licence to sell fireworks. Currently, retailers do not need a licence to sell around the celebration days I have mentioned. A review must also look into who is permitted to set off fireworks. Some stakeholders such as the Dogs Trust urge the Government to limit fireworks licensing to organised public displays only, with local authority approval. Currently, there is no legal requirement to have a licence for setting off consumer fireworks in the UK. Literally anyone can set off some rockets and a Catherine wheel in their garden with no training and no safety requirements. Surely that cannot be right.
Unfortunately, there are also people who deliberately misuse fireworks to cause harm and distress to others, which is completely unacceptable. That is why I have called for tougher minimum fines in my Bill. We know that the toughest sentences for misusing fireworks are very rarely used. A fixed penalty charge notice just does not cut it as a deterrent or a punishment when fireworks can often cost many hundreds of pounds, and it does not reflect the negative impact on our communities.
There is another group who have spoken to us who are severely impacted by noisy and reckless fireworks: veterans. I have no idea what traumas they have lived through, although some Members of this House will know. Their service to our country in volatile war zones can leave them with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression or a combination of mental health problems. Servicemen and women can experience heightened stress at times of the year when fireworks intensify, such as on bonfire night. The sudden flashes and bangs of fireworks can bring back memories of the horrors of war. After all they have enduring in their courageous work, that is simply not another terror they should or need to experience.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) found discarded boxes of fireworks during a campaign session. They had names such as “Rain of Terror”, “Big Bomb” and “All Out War”, which shows that many fireworks are not marketed as something beautiful, but as something loud, and something to be scared of.
At key times of celebration, veterans can make plans to avoid fireworks displays to protect their mental or physical health. However, in places where fireworks are a regular occurrence all year round, they can find themselves in a constant state of anxiety. Combat Stress told me:
“We see a higher rate of distress in veterans accessing our services in November.
Not only is it challenging because of the grief surrounding Armistice, but the sound and sudden unexpected bangs of fireworks can be reminders of frontline combat where they were exposed to the horrors of war in service to this country.
Firework displays bring people together and create a lot of joy for spectators. We don’t want to ruin anyone’s fun but we urge the public to understand how distressing noisy fireworks can be for military veterans.”
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab)
I really applaud my hon. Friend for choosing misuse of fireworks as the subject of her Bill. The measures that she wishes to bring in would be absolutely fantastic, so I hope that she will have Government support. Does she agree with me that, together with those measures, an education campaign is needed to put the word out about how dreadfully people can be affected?
I wholeheartedly agree. I think that people do not fully understand the impact of fireworks, the changes that have been made to them and how loud they have become. If many people understood what a particular decibel level was and the impact that it would have on the wider radius of their neighbourhood or community, they would perhaps think twice about using them.
I hope that none of us will make a judgment that the veterans charity Combat Stress—or any other organisation that has expressed concerns about fireworks in support of our brave and struggling members of the forces—is trying to ruin anyone’s fun. As I have said, the measures that I suggest in this Bill are common-sense reforms that also show compassion to veterans who have already been through unimaginable trauma.
Of course, it is not only ex-servicemen and women who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental health problems are experienced by people from all backgrounds; as a society, we are gradually beginning to recognise how we can adapt to their needs and show sensitivity. I just want to share one example. During the recent lockdowns, in Northwell in Luton North we had some community clear-up days. Neighbours went door to door to involve people in those clear-up days, and there was one house with a garden that was terribly overgrown. They had never seen the person living there come out of the house. Deniece Dobson, who was running that community clear-up and has been an absolute stalwart and leading light of it, knocked on the door—it was somebody who lives four or five doors away from her—and it was the home of a veteran who was suffering from PTSD. She could not go out; she said how distressing the fireworks had been. I am so grateful to Deniece and all the people around her and in that community who took the time and made the effort to clear up and to get to know their neighbour. But to hear that fireworks were having such an impact on someone who served our country was truly worrying.
Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this Bill forward today. I think the whole House can agree that this is an area where the law has not kept pace with developments, and that what my hon. Friend has put forward is well researched and well argued. Although the timescale of the day means that the Bill is unlikely to proceed, I just wanted to place on the record my thanks and support for the Bill from the Dispatch Box.
I thank my hon. Friend. I am grateful for everyone’s interventions and support. I think we can all agree that it is crucial that, in taking this legislation or any other relevant changes forward, the Government—I urge them to do this—consult veterans charities and mental health organisations to learn from the people affected about the very real impact that fireworks have on their lives, hear their wisdom and show a willingness to learn. It is clear that there are simple steps, laid out in my Bill, that could go a long way in ensuring that our children, pets, animals, veterans and all our neighbours have a much more peaceful life.
Firework displays can be a really beautiful and joyful spectacle without being so loud that they become medically and mentally harmful. Limiting the noise to 90 dB and reviewing who can sell and use fireworks will go a long way to solving the issues faced by residents in Luton North and thousands of other people across the country. The noise from fireworks is currently unreasonable and unregulated. Thankfully, today we can go one step further towards changing that. I hope that Ministers will work with me and support the measures laid out in this Bill.