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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 03 November 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Burntisland Fabrications Ltd, Fireworks, Winter Preparedness in Social Care, Arts Funding, Decision Time, Care Homes and Covid-19 (Amnesty International Report)



The next item of business is a statement by Ash Denham on fireworks. The minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


We are now only days away from bonfire night, so I welcome this opportunity to provide an update to Parliament.

First, I would like to reflect on the impact that the on-going pandemic will have on bonfire night. Like many other celebrations, it will look very different in the context of Covid-19. Many of the activities that we traditionally associate with bonfire night will simply not be able to take place as they normally would. At this point, it is important to highlight what we are asking the public to do and what we are asking people to avoid in celebrating bonfire night this year, as we continue to do everything that we can to suppress the spread of coronavirus.

Public firework displays, which normally take place in communities across Scotland, will not happen this year. I know that that will be a disappointment to the many people and families who normally attend those events, which are a safe and fun way to enjoy fireworks. However, very large gatherings are simply not viable right now.

When people choose to purchase fireworks to have their own private display, they must adhere to the guidance on meeting other households that applies in their local area. That means that anyone who uses fireworks in their back garden needs to follow the restrictions on household gatherings and to carefully follow the FACTS advice and the physical distancing guidance. I want to make it clear that there should be no private displays in gardens at which the number of spectators exceeds the numbers that are set out locally. As local areas have been placed in levels of restriction, that will mean that no more than six people from two different households will be able to attend such displays.

In addition, people who use fireworks should stringently follow the safety instructions on the packaging of the products that they purchase to reduce the risk of harm and injury. It is also important to stress that it is illegal to use fireworks in a public place in Scotland. That includes areas such as parks and fields. People cannot and should not use fireworks anywhere other than on their own property.

The measures and restrictions that I have just described are the only step that it is appropriate to take at this time by way of guidance, and I strongly encourage everyone to abide by them this bonfire night.

Although the on-going pandemic will clearly have an impact on bonfire night, substantial planning and preparation continue to be done by community safety partners at a national and a local level this year. Unfortunately, there have been persistent issues with the misuse of fireworks in Scotland over recent years. Such incidents, which are often dangerous and can be life threatening, include reports of antisocial behaviour on and around bonfire night; attacks against our emergency services; and highly distressing accounts from individuals about the inappropriate use of fireworks that they have experienced.

I am aware that, this year—over the weekend—there have already been completely unacceptable incidents of fireworks being thrown at our emergency services. The Scottish Government does not tolerate any attack on our emergency services, and the line from our police, our prosecutors and our courts is clear: people who commit such offences will be dealt with robustly.

Last month, I met senior commanders in Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, who updated me on the extensive multi-agency planning that is under way as part of operation moonbeam to ensure a safe and enjoyable bonfire season and to tackle any incidents of unacceptable behaviour that may occur. That includes the use of multi-agency control centres, where police and fire colleagues work together to co-ordinate swift and appropriate responses to incidents as they emerge. I am also aware that a significant amount of local partnership activity has been undertaken by the emergency services and other public and third sector partners to plan for bonfire season and prevent the disruption and disorder that are often associated with fireworks.

This morning, I spoke to control room staff, who briefed me on incidents involving fireworks that took place over the weekend and on the plans for the coming days. I am sure that members will join me in thanking our emergency services in communities across Scotland and applauding them for their hard work, dedication and commitment to partnership working, planning for bonfire night and responding to firework-related incidents.

I am aware that more people might choose to purchase and use their own fireworks this year. To help to ensure that people understand what is and is not allowed under the current regulations and that fireworks are used safely, three public awareness-raising and safety campaigns have been launched to make people aware of how to use fireworks in a responsible and considerate way and minimise the impact on other people in their community.

First, there is the nationwide impact of fireworks campaign to improve people’s understanding of the impact that fireworks can have on people, including those with sensory issues and our armed forces veterans, and on pets and livestock. Secondly, there is the fireworks rules and regulations campaign, which is being run in partnership with Crimestoppers, to help to improve understanding of the existing rules and regulations and of how to report the misuse of fireworks. Finally, a fireworks safety information leaflet that provides advice and guidance on the safe and appropriate use of fireworks is being distributed by participating retailers to people who purchase fireworks. That package of activity demonstrates the Government’s on-going commitment to promoting the safe and appropriate use of fireworks.

Last November, following the public consultation on fireworks, which saw a significant level of public interest and engagement, with a total of more than 16,240 responses, I committed to establishing a firework review group. It was clear from the level of response to the consultation that fireworks are an important issue to the people of Scotland and that there is a strong appetite for change.

The purpose of the review group has been to look at options for legislative change and to make recommendations on tightening legislation to drive forward action to reduce the harm that fireworks can cause.

The group, chaired by Alasdair Hay, former chief officer of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, has representation from a number of key stakeholder organisations, including the fireworks industry, animal welfare organisations, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, Veterans Scotland and the national health service. That has ensured that a broad range of opinions, experiences and knowledge have contributed to the group’s recommendations.

Despite the challenges that we have all faced this year in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the group has met eight times. It has carefully considered and reviewed the evidence available and options for change.

To reach its recommendations, the group heard directly from communities about the impact of the misuse of fireworks and undertook more detailed research to consider the experiences of other countries and to better understand the number and nature of firework-related injuries in Scotland. The group also heard from the fireworks industry on the great strides that have been made over the years to remove dangerous products from the market and to better understand the potential impact that greater restrictions could have.

I am delighted to advise Parliament that the group has now submitted its final report to me. The group has recommended that a fundamental shift is required in how fireworks are accessed and used and that that should be done through the introduction of a comprehensive set of measures, including the introduction of mandatory conditions when fireworks are purchased from retailers; restricting the times of day that fireworks can be sold and the volume of fireworks that can be purchased at any one time; restricting the days and times that fireworks can be set off; introducing no-firework areas or zones where it is not possible for fireworks to be set off; and introducing a proxy purchasing offence so that adults are not able to give fireworks to those under the age of 18.

I welcome and endorse those recommendations to which I will be giving greater consideration in due course. They will help us take a positive step towards promoting the safe and responsible use of fireworks. I particularly welcome the recommendations on the introduction of mandatory conditions before fireworks can be purchased by the general public and on communities having a strong voice in influencing whether fireworks can be used in their local areas. I intend to explore how those recommendations can be implemented in practice as a matter of urgency and, using the full power of the Parliament, to introduce legislation to make them a reality. I will look to members across the Parliament to be involved in helping us to make those changes to improve safety in communities around Scotland.

I thank Alasdair Hay and all the members of the group for their continued engagement and for constructively sharing their expertise and views to inform the recommendations.

Although the group’s final report and recommendations mark an important milestone in our journey towards a significant change in our relationship with fireworks, they form part of a bigger picture. The kind of cultural shift that we are seeking to achieve will not happen overnight; it will require continued hard work and dedication, and I am committed to that. I am determined that we will do all we can within the power of the Parliament to ensure that we have in place all the safeguards that we need to keep our communities safe from the harmful use of fireworks.

I hope that the review group’s recommendations, which were outlined today and which I commit to progressing as soon as practicably possible, clearly demonstrate the Scottish Government’s commitment to changing Scotland’s relationship with fireworks, guided by the voice of the people, which came across strongly in the public consultation.

I reiterate my gratitude to everyone who has contributed to the progress that we have made so far, including the members of the public and organisations who responded to the public consultation and the firework review group for its expert knowledge and advice. I thank our emergency services and our public and third sector services, as well as those in our communities who volunteer their spare time to make bonfire night safe and enjoyable, for their commitment and dedication.

I know that this year will feel very different. I wish everyone a safe bonfire night, and I reinforce the importance of following public health advice and safety guidance.

The minister will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement, for which I will allow around 20 minutes. I ask members to please press their request-to-speak buttons if they wish to ask a question.

I thank the minister for the advance sight of her statement. As I have raised matters of firework safety and protection of emergency workers for the past few years, the minister knows that the Conservatives take them very seriously. I am very pleased to hear her statement, and we join her in thanking the emergency services, who go above and beyond 24/7 but are particularly called upon at this time of year. We acknowledge that the firework review group report is a timely and serious piece of work, and we recognise the group’s serious endeavour and the expertise, experience and strength of Alasdair Hay as chair.

Three questions occur to me, arising from the statement. First, the minister said that she will give greater consideration to the review group’s recommendations on safeguards. Can she give us some idea of a timescale for that?

Secondly, in a week when we learned that the recorded number of assaults on emergency services workers is the highest on record, what measures are being taken to protect our emergency workers right now? For example, has the minister considered any of the package of measures to protect emergency services workers that I called for back in 2018?

Finally, two years ago, I visited Dundee fire control room on bonfire night and expressed support for the “Do not attack me” campaign. What assessment has the Government made of that campaign and what resource will the minister put behind the new campaigns, to ensure that they are successful?

I thank the member for his thoughtful question. I am glad that he welcomes some of the recommendations in the report, which we will bring forward. I welcome his support for them.

I completely understand that people are very interested in the timing of introducing legislation. I would expect members to understand that, obviously, we are nearing the end of the parliamentary session, and the new session will start in May. That seriously curtails the available time that I have to introduce legislation. However, I am absolutely committed to driving forward legislative change in this area.

Some of what is proposed will be done by secondary legislation, and I will do what I can to see whether I can bring that forward in a timely way. The other recommendations, such as mandatory conditions at the point of sale and the devolving of decisions to local authorities, will require primary legislation, so I anticipate that those things might take longer. A balance must be struck between doing things in a piecemeal fashion and doing things all together, so that they make more sense to the general public. I give the commitment that I will progress things as fast as I possibly can.

I recognise that the member has asked before about attacks on emergency services workers. The Scottish Government does not and will not tolerate any attacks on our emergency services workers. No one should be the victim of abuse or violence when they are at work. The police, courts and prosecutors are very clear that they will deal robustly with anyone who is offending in this area. Those who are charged with attacks on our emergency services workers can expect to face up to life imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both.

Public fireworks displays are the best and safest way forward for Guy Fawkes night, so it is particularly worrying that, this year, such displays have been cancelled and the pressure will therefore be far greater.

I note that the minister says that we need to help people to understand the rules and regulations around fireworks. That should have been well under way.

The problem occurs not only on bonfire night—if only it did. If it was only on bonfire night, all those people who are worried about their pets and all the rest of it could prepare for that one night. The real problem often persists over weeks, if not months.

I welcome the review group’s recommendations. In recent times, we have seen that the minister’s colleague Michael Russell is quite an expert in bringing parties together to produce legislation. Does the minister accept that, even if primary legislation is needed, it would not be good enough to use the parliamentary session and an election to be back here, in the same position, next year, talking about what we need to do? People want to see progress.

Ash Denham rightly thanks our emergency and public services. More and more is being asked of those services. When she is looking at these issues, does she ask whether we have enough resources or whether our emergency and public services need more resources because more and more is being asked of them?

Of course I ask about resources. I spoke to Police Scotland this morning and was assured by a senior police officer that it has good local resources in place and a specialist public order response available nationally.

Alex Rowley knows that the Government continues to invest in the police service and the fire service and that that is in direct contrast to what we often see in England and Wales. He will also be aware that we have many more firefighters available in Scotland. We have nearly double the number in England per capita, and we have far more than Wales has. The Government certainly invests in our emergency services.

Alex Rowley is right in saying that public firework displays are often the safest places for members of the public to go to enjoy fireworks safely. Obviously, public firework displays cannot take place this year because of Covid-19, and we think that there is a possibility that more people might be considering having firework parties in their gardens. People need to be very careful about doing that. They need to follow the public health advice and ensure that there are no more than six people from two households there, and they also need to follow the safety advice. Most firework injuries are incurred on private property. When people have firework parties, they are much more likely to get injured as a result of using fireworks themselves.

Alex Rowley asked about rules and regulations and the awareness-raising campaigns. In my statement, I mentioned three different awareness-raising campaigns, one of which is the fireworks rules and regulations campaign. That has gone on for several weeks now, and something very similar to it was done last year and the year before. It is therefore not correct to say that that is being done only now. Those things build on each other and continue to get messages out to the public.

On timings, I am sure that Alex Rowley would agree—and members across the chamber would accept—that changing the legislative framework is only one part of the solution. Legislation on its own will not drive the cultural shift that we want to see in Scotland. I have already made a commitment to Liam Kerr that I will progress matters as fast as possible, but I cannot create space in the legislative timetable that simply is not there. I will commit to looking to see what secondary legislation can be brought forward in a faster timeframe, if that is possible, but I hope that Alex Rowley appreciates that primary legislation would take time.

The front-bench questions have taken eight minutes. I humoured that because we had some extra time, but that is simply not acceptable. I have to say to the minister that that was mainly because of the answers. I get that you wished to give out lots of information, but you have to learn to do that a bit more quickly. We have used up all the spare time, so members will have to be a bit more succinct if I am going to get everybody in.

I welcome the review group’s recommendation that communities should be listened to when it comes to their own areas. How will the Scottish Government ensure that changes are guided by the communities that are impacted by fireworks?

Speaking really fast does not always solve the problem.

The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that the voices of people and communities—particularly those that have experienced negative consequences of firework use—guide the changes that are made to how fireworks are accessed and used in Scotland. There was an incredible response from the public—more than 16,000 responses were received—in the public consultation on fireworks, which ran for 14 weeks in 2019. That public voice demonstrated a strong desire for change.

We will continue that open and collaborative approach with communities, and we will be guided by them. One of the review group’s recommendations is that local authorities provide no-firework zones and that communities shape them. We will look at taking that recommendation forward.

One of the review group’s recommendations is to further restrict the days and times when fireworks can be set off. Can the minister confirm whether the working group gave any thought to how those restrictions would be enforced?

The member is correct in saying that that was one of the recommendations that was put forward by the review group. The point applies more generally, but that report has come to me only in the past few days, as the member will accept. I have tasked my officials immediately with looking into how we might practically take those recommendations forward, but I am afraid that I am not able to give the member any more detail at this point as to what that might look like.

As the MSP for the Cowdenbeath constituency, I am well aware of the huge distress that is caused to domestic pets, livestock and wildlife in my constituency. Therefore, I welcome the review group’s report.

Can the minister advise what role silent or lower-noise fireworks such as those that are used in parts of Italy could play in the future in Scotland?

The member raises an excellent point. The House of Commons Petitions Committee has recommended that the United Kingdom Government lead a review of the effects of firework noise on animal welfare, working with animal welfare experts and the fireworks industry with a view to setting a maximum decibel limit, which would diminish the risks to animal health. The UK Government has responded to that and has commissioned a programme of firework testing to determine the average decibel level for common types of retail fireworks. I am going to follow that work very carefully and see whether there is any learning that can be applied in Scotland.

I am advised that the Scottish riot police are already on standby for Thursday. Given the huge support—it is something like 87 per cent—for a complete ban on fireworks, does the minister consider that the new proposals might simply delay the inevitable: that further restrictions, unless they are enforced vigorously, might fail, and that further public support for a ban on private use may be inevitable?

The review group did not look at completely banning the sale of fireworks. I asked it not to look at that because we, in Scotland, are not able to do that. It did not seem to be an appropriate use of the group’s time to look at things that we are not able to do.

I have spoken to the police extensively. I spoke to the gold commanders a couple of weeks ago about the planning and so on for bonfire evening. I also spoke to Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service this morning about what happened over the weekend. Obviously, we know that there are often fireworks on both weekends around bonfire night, and not just on bonfire night itself. The police will use an appropriate level of response. They have local response available, and they can pull in specialist public order resources, which they will use only when absolutely necessary.

I thank the minister for advance sight of her statement and welcome the publication of the review into this explosive issue.

I have three questions. First, in respect of recommendation 2, on mandatory conditions on consumers, can the minister confirm whether such conditions can be made binding for online sales, of which a lot are happening? Secondly, can she confirm that when ordinary workers are required to enforce any new restrictions, they will have the full protection of the law, which is a point that she raised during consideration of Daniel Johnson’s Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill? Finally, as many fireworks continue to be set off in public places, can the minister inform me how many prosecutions there have been under section 80 of the Explosives Act 1875?

On the member’s final point, I no doubt have the information in my briefing, but I will probably not be able to locate it in time to answer his question. I will write to update him on that, if that is acceptable.

On mandatory conditions at the point of sale, we cannot expect to completely eradicate instances where those who are intent on misusing fireworks go on to do so, but that recommendation has the important potential to bring in additional safety checks and balances in order to make it harder for fireworks to fall into the wrong hands and ensure that all safety measures are fully understood and followed by everyone who is planning to use fireworks. I am having my officials look at online sales very closely. It is an important issue that the member is right to raise.

The minister was too quick; she caught me unawares.

I thank the minister for early sight of her statement, and Alasdair Hay and his colleagues for their work on the review. Having last year raised the issue of giving local authorities and communities more control in this area, I welcome the commitment from the minister. Could she advise Parliament whether she anticipates a higher level of disturbance as a result of fireworks being set off in back gardens by those who otherwise would have attended public events?

Did you catch all that, minister?

I think that I did, and I think that the question is quite similar to one that I have answered already.

I agree with the member. We know that public displays are the safest place for people to enjoy bonfire evening. Obviously, that will not be possible this year because of the Covid regulations, and there is a possibility that many people, who perhaps have never done so before, will consider having a fireworks party in their garden. I advise those who have not done that before to go to the SFRS website, where there is guidance on how to enjoy fireworks safely. People should make sure that they follow the operating instructions so that everyone can have a safe and enjoyable bonfire evening.

As the minister said in her statement, although the group’s recommendations are “an important milestone”, the sort of cultural shift that will change our relationship with fireworks “will not happen overnight” but will require sustained work. How will the Scottish Government’s awareness-raising and safety campaigns feed into that?

I recognise that legislation in and of itself is not going to be enough to tackle all the issues around fireworks misuse. That is why the action plan that I came to Parliament to talk about this time last year set out additional actions. They include awareness raising, education and preventative activity across communities in Scotland. Even with the presence of Covid this year, preventative activity has been on-going in all our communities.

In advance of bonfire night, the three campaigns have been running over the past few weeks to ensure that people understand what is and is not allowed. I hope that a number of people across Scotland have seen the campaigns, which make people aware of what they are allowed to do and how to use fireworks safely and responsibly.

The minutes of the 13 August meeting of the fireworks review group note that activities to prevent antisocial behaviour on fireworks night had not been able to be progressed “due to Covid-19 restrictions”. Does the minister anticipate more antisocial behaviour as a result?

I am not sure that I would agree with that. From the information that I have seen, a vast amount of preventative activity has been on-going. In Edinburgh, for example, families that had previously been involved in antisocial behaviour—

Excuse me, minister. Please speak into your microphone.

Of course. Those families were either visited or given a handwritten letter. The SFRS and the police have been to primary and secondary schools—if they have not been able to do that physically, they have done so virtually, so they have still been able to get the message across. There have also been leaflet drops and awareness-raising campaigns, which have been targeted specifically at hot-spot areas where we know that the message needs to be taken forward. I am quite confident that the preventative activity that we have seen in previous years has been carried out this year, despite Covid.

I declare an interest as the convener of the cross-party group on animal welfare and refer to my motion, “Bonfire Fright”, which highlights the impact of fireworks on animals.

I note that the review group’s recommendation 4 is to restrict the use of fireworks to certain days and times, thus giving advance notification to those who have animals. Has the minister settled on which days and which times?

That is an important question, as we know that fireworks can cause a lot of distress to animals. The ultimate responsibility for the welfare of an animal rests with the animal’s keeper, but many will take steps to protect their animals from that distress. Recommendations that seek to limit the times that fireworks can be set off could obviously provide an opportunity to minimise that distress. I advise the member that the shape of that approach has not yet been fully determined. As I said in answer to a previous question, I have tasked my officials with looking at all the recommendations immediately to see exactly how they will be taken forward.

I welcome the recommendations from the fireworks review group, and am particularly interested in the no firework zone recommendation. If the recommendation is taken forward, does the minister feel that it would be more appropriate for such zones to be enforced by Police Scotland, or should that be done by local authorities?

From the conversations that I have had with the fireworks review group, I sense that there is a strong appetite among local communities to have that level of control and input into what happens in their area. Again, I cannot say exactly what that will look like when it goes forward, but giving that power to local areas so that they are able to make those decisions looks like the kind of thing that it would be good to do. They are more likely to know what is appropriate for their area.

I, too, welcome the work of the fireworks review group in getting to this point. In taking forward the detail, will the minister undertake to consult further those who are most impacted by fireworks nuisance on how best to implement some of the recommendations, so that we can get them right for those who are most affected?

Yes, I give the member that assurance. We will certainly interact with those who have suffered through the misuse of fireworks. Several community organisations were represented on the review group, and they gave their input to the recommendations all the way through, so the community voice has already been represented in the recommendations.