Vice Nation: Fireworks

(Title Image: scarfolk.blogspot.co.uk)

It was only fit to pick today to address another issue regarding public policy and independence – pyrotechnics.

And no this isn’t a reference to the Article 50 court case. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an urgent question/other questions asked on this at next Tuesday’s FMQs, so I’ll leave it until then.

“No pyro, no party?”

On paper, giving everyone access to low grade explosives isn’t the best idea, but fireworks come in different types, ranging from the sort of fireworks you can use in a back garden to more professional display-quality pyrotechnics.

As long as you know what you’re doing, fireworks are “relatively” safe; I’m sure those of us of a certain age remember Hale and Pace telling us what to do and not to do. You’re still better off going to an organised display though. Many are organised by county and community councils and are often free to attend – there’s a list of displays in the Bridgend area available here.

Fireworks seriously injure people every year. As far as I know there are no Wales-only statistics on this, but it’s said around 1,000 people are treated in the UK for fireworks-related injuries annually and about 50 of those cases will be classed as “serious”. Occasionally, people will die.

The fireworks market in the UK is small (and presumably even smaller at a Welsh level) with total spending of around £15million a year. It’s much bigger in other countries, with anecdotal evidence suggesting the Dutch are the most enthusiastic users of fireworks in Europe. They’ve also endured the biggest tragedies – the most infamous being the Enschede disaster in 2000, which killed 23 people and injured almost 1,000.

Although they might be fun to watch, they’re still a nuisance and fireworks are a major source of anti-social behaviour – there’ve been reports of fireworks being used as missiles to attack the emergency services in Newport and Cardiff over the last fortnight. This is despite changes to the law in the last few decades, which I’ll come to next.

Current Fireworks Laws

The latest piece of legislation governing the use of fireworks were the Fireworks Regulations 2004. These categorise four different types of fireworks. With the exception of Category 4, every type of firework undergoes testting to determine which category it should belong to:

 

  • Category 1 – Indoor fireworks. Can be sold to the public.
  • Category 2 – Garden fireworks where the minimum safe distance is 5 metres. Can be sold to the public.
  • Category 3 – Display fireworks where the minimum safe distance is 25 metres. Can be sold to the public.
  • Category 4 – Unrestricted display quality pyrotechnics that can only be sold to fireworks professionals, including fireworks that haven’t been tested.

Banned fireworks – Smaller, hand-held fireworks like firecrackers and bangers were banned in 1997, as were “erratic flight” fireworks. There are on-off arguments as to whether Chinese lanterns should be banned, with some Welsh local authorities already banning them – including Bridgend.
Who counts as a“fireworks professional”? – There’s no single definition of this and that’s a little worrying. It usually means someone whose business involves pyrotechnics or is related to it (i.e. a theatre special effects professional), in addition to having public liability insurance cover worth £5-10million. There’s no single accredited course in pyrotechnics, but there are a number that are equally recognised.

Sale and storage of fireworks – You need a licence (usually from a local authority) to store a significant quantity of fireworks, but you only need a license to sell fireworks if you’re selling them outside of the calendar restrictions (i.e to trade). There’s official advice on how fireworks should be stored (usually in a locked display cabinet) but I’m not sure whether this is a mandatory requirement or not.

Age restrictions – Nobody under the age of 18 can buy fireworks or be in possession of them in a public place.

Local restrictions on use – There’s a blanket ban on use of fireworks between 11pm and 7am, except on “celebration days” like Guy Fawkes Night, Diwali, Chinese New Year and New Year’s Day where the cut off time is extended to midnight or 1am. Local councils are allowed to make their own bylaws in this area AFAIK. You also can’t set them off in the street.

Calendar restrictions on sale
– You can only buy fireworks for private use at certain times of the year: the weeks preceding 5th November, the week preceding New Year’s Day and a few days before Diwali and Chinese New Year.


Illegal sale or use of fireworks
– The penalty is a fine of up to £5,000 or 6 months imprisonment.

Fireworks & Independence


Until Jayne Bryant AM’s (Lab, Newport West) question at Tuesday’s FMQs, I don’t think the issue of fireworks had been brought up in the Assembly, but the answer from the First Minister confirmed what I’d already suspected.

I don’t know whether the Assembly has powers over sale and use of fireworks, or whether it will in the future. The current draft of the Wales Bill doesn’t explicitly reserve powers over the sale or regulation of fireworks (which implies the powers will be devolved), but at the same time consumer protection and criminal justice – which cross over into this area – will be reserved.
I ain’t no expert or ponderous academic me, but that does suggest the Wales Bill is a little bit crap, innit.

Independence would provide certainty over the powers, of course. As for what a future Senedd could do, unless it wanted to keep things as they are it would probably require a new Fireworks Act, which could include (via regulations):

Broad Policy Options

  • The Killjoy Option – Ban all fireworks sales to people without pyrotechnic training. The public will then only be able to see fireworks at an organised display. I’m sure that to a certain extent the police, NHS and fire service would support this, but a blanket ban on public sales might be an over-the-top reaction and could encourage smuggling of even more dangerous fireworks to be sold on the black market.
  • The Status Quo – No major changes to existing arrangements, so the current regulations and restrictions would continue to apply unamended.
  • Tighter Restrictions – This could include: increasing the purchase age to 21, harsher criminal penalties for breaking the law, banning indoor fireworks, requiring a license or photographic ID to buy fireworks (even for home display) or restricting Category 3 fireworks to pyrotechnic professionals in addition to Category 4.
  • The Trauma Nurse’s Nightmare – Complete liberalisation of the market. Sell all kinds of fireworks to anyone over the age of 18 (or 21) all year round. A sociopathic side of me likes the idea as a form of natural selection, but it’s not very good for society. We must also consider the wider costs; for every cock-sure teenage scrote who’s just blown their fingers off there’ll be a disappointed girlfriend.

Other Options
 

  • Keep the current categories of fireworks – There’s no practical reason to change them. Though it could be made a legal requirement for all fireworks to undergo testing before being sold to anyone(instead of simply being assigned Category 4 if they haven’t been tested).
  • Sensible restrictions on use of flares/pyro in stadiums by supporters – In my opinion I don’t think they should be completely banned – even though it’s a criminal offence to take flares and fireworks into grounds –  but there should be work carried out on developing a “safe flares” for use in the stands, or clearing their use with stewards and the police beforehand. Throwing smoke bombs, fireworks and flares onto a pitch should remain an offence.
  • Change calendar restrictions – You would assume the national day/St David’s Day would be excluded from calendar restrictions. This could be expanded to include the week leading up to all public holidays.
  • Accreditation for fireworks professionals – Accredit a single pyrotechnic course that anyone will have to pass before they can be considered a fireworks professional in Wales (and subsequently have access to Category 4 fireworks).
  • A combined sale and storage license – This would reduce bureaucracy by having a single licence, but that doesn’t mean the restrictions would be any lax. The planning/building restrictions could be stricter (i.e. minimum distance from residential areas or hazardous chemicals), the owner could be subject to a fit and proper persons test, while approval for a licence could be subject to an inspection by the fire service.