Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 8 May 2001
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
I have received a request from the First Minister to make a personal statement.
The First Minister (Mr Trimble):
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to make this personal statement to the Assembly. Sunday, 6 May 2001 marked the anniversary of the IRA statement that led to the decision of the Ulster Unionist Party to resume participation in the Northern Ireland Executive. In that statement the IRA promised to
"initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use. We will do it in such a way as to avoid risk to the public and misappropriation by others and ensure maximum public confidence."
As the Ulster Unionist Party made clear at the time, it was on the basis of that clear promise and in the expectation of its fulfilment that I and my party agreed to the restoration of devolution on an inclusive basis. Members will recall that that represented a second chance for the Republican movement following its failure to fulfil the expectations it created during the Mitchell review. In the statement of 6 May 2000 the IRA answered the first of the two questions on decommissioning famously put by the Deputy First Minister in the House of Commons on 3 February 2000 when he said:
"One: "Will you decommission?" Two: "If yes, when will you decommission?"
They did not, of course, answer the second question. However, we considered that the Government had set a term for that during the talks at Hillsborough. With the assent of all the parties, including Sinn Féin, they set June 2001 as the date for the full implementation of the agreement.
On 22 December 2000, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) stated its view that sufficient time still existed for the decommissioning of paramilitary arms by June 2001 but added:
"We believe that it is crucial that we have substantive engagement with the IRA representative as soon as possible, followed by early movement on actual decommissioning by each of the paramilitary groups, if we are to meet the agreement’s decommissioning requirements."
On 8 March 2001, the IRA promised that it would engage with the IICD, but, as yet, no substantive engagement has occurred. In any event, the commission has on a number of occasions said that the necessary preparations would need to begin some eight weeks before the target date if decommissioning is to occur. The end of June is less than eight weeks away. Because there is so little time left, because some in the Republican movement think they can avoid their obligations and because there have been comments purporting to come from the Government casting doubt on that date, I have decided to reinforce the agreement made at Hillsborough.
Mr Speaker, I have, on this date, signed and lodged with you a letter resigning as First Minister as from 1 July 2001. This letter will take effect unless before that date the Republican movement keeps the promise it made over a year ago. Members will know that neither my statement now, nor my resignation on 1 July, if that happens, will cause the institutions to collapse. However, a clear onus is now placed on Republicans and others to act to preserve them. — [Interruption]
Order. Members know that it is out of order to speak from a sedentary position and that personal statements should be made uninterrupted. I ask Members to observe that.
The First Minister:
Mr Speaker, I take this step reluctantly. My Colleagues and I have worked very hard to make this agreement work. We have worked very hard to realise the full promise of the agreement. It promised the people of Northern Ireland a future free from violence and paramilitarism. That promise has not been delivered. IRA material, far from being dealt with so as to avoid risk and misappropriation, has been used in the last year to bomb and kill. I am convinced that if we were to acquiesce in the failure of the Republican movement to keep its promises, the people of Northern Ireland would always be at the mercy of armed gangs.
I said in the Odyssey a few months ago that there cannot be a moral vacuum at the heart of the peace process. Our inclusive arrangements in this Assembly depend on there being a transition from the violent past to a peaceful, democratic future. It is a point that I made at the very first sitting of this Assembly. I said then that because people have a certain past, it does not mean that they cannot have a future. It is possible for people to change, but that change must occur. That is why I said again in 1998 to those who are crossing the bridge from terror to democracy that while I welcomed every move towards peace, I would hold them to every pledge they made.
Today, I am making clear that the promise made a year ago must be kept and that failure to keep that promise will have consequences. In taking this step, I believe that I have the broad support of the people of Northern Ireland. I know that, like me, they are proud of these institutions, and they relish the prospect of a peaceful Northern Ireland that is at ease with itself. I know that it will not be achieved without effort and risk. I believe that the people of Northern Ireland have supported me in the past when I have taken risks, not with the agreement, but for the agreement. I believe that they will understand and support the step I have taken today.
Order. This statement was made under the precedent of a statement of 15 July 1999. It was a statement, not about the Member’s position as a Member, but of public office. Therefore, I will treat it in the same way as the statement that was made at that time.
Mr P Robinson:
Treat it with contempt.
Why is the First Minister resigning later? Why does he not resign now?
Order. Having received no request to follow it further, I will proceed with the next item of business.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In view of the fact that the First Minister has not actually resigned, are we going to get another statement in July? What reason has he given for issuing this call today, when there is likely to be an announcement of an election, and not actually resigning? It is an election ploy.
Order. I cannot say whether there will be a request for a statement in July.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):
I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Product Liability (Amendment) Bill (NI 13/00) be agreed.
The Bill has been introduced with the purpose of fulfilling an obligation under European Community law to implement Directive 1999/34/EC. It has been necessary to implement the Directive by means of primary legislation instead of the usual method of secondary legislation. I will refer to this issue later.
The Bill is short, and its effect is to extend the current system of strict product liability to include primary agricultural products and game — food in its raw state. Food which has been processed in some way is already included in part two of the Consumer Protection (Northern Ireland) Order 1987. The amendment will mean that consumers injured by food sold in its unprocessed state will now be able to sue a producer for damages without having to prove negligence. However, the injured person must be able to prove the product was defective and that the defect caused the injury.
The original Product Liability Directive promulgated in 1985 and implemented in the 1987 Order allowed member states to include food sold in its raw state. There was some concern that food in its raw state may be prone to have hidden defects beyond the control of the producer. It has been acknowleged that these difficulties could affect other products already covered by the original Directive, although experience has shown that few problems arise in this area.
Finland, Sweden, Luxembourg and Greece, the four countries which chose to include such products at the time of implementing the original Directive, have reported no apparent problems with the measure. Concerns that this could lead to excessive insurance costs have also proved to be unfounded. A UK-wide regulatory impact consultation revealed that the majority of producers affected already carry adequate insurance cover, and any increases to those who do not will be minimal. The additional costs will be small when compared to the benefit for consumers.
I referred to the difficulty that was faced in implementing this measure. The power to modify the 1987 Order as regards the 1985 Directive was vested in the Secretary of State. Unfortunately, this was not addressed in the Modification of Enactments Order which followed devolution. To use this power would have been constitutionally anomalous in that the Secretary of State would have been legislating on a matter within the competence of the Assembly. I have taken the necessary steps to rectify this by including a measure in clause 2 to substitute the power of the Secretary of State, with his agreement, and transfer responsibility to the appropiate devolved Department.
The result is that in future any obligatory changes to the Directive can be given force by secondary legislation.
The Bill will represent a small but important step in improving the framework of consumer protection in food safety. The amendment will remove any confusion over which food products are covered by strict liability, since all food will now be covered. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):
I am always pleased to support proposals that will give the consumer additional protection in their day-to-day dealings with business and industry. The Bill will implement an EC Directive aimed at increasing the level of consumer protection against damage caused to health or property by a defective product. It will also further harmonise EC law with regard to liability for defective products. Meaningful debate will take place on the principles behind it at European level, nevertheless we must proceed with implementing these Directives.
Consumers have a legitimate expectation that in the single market, their health will be protected. Demands for the inclusion of unprocessed primary agriculture products in the scope of the Product Liability Directive have increased in recent years. Such inclusion would constitute an important step in the protection of consumers. It will also mean that business throughout the EC will be operating on a level playing field, and citizens will have the assurance that the Directive covers all foods purchased. I am happy to support the proposals contained in this Bill.
I am pleased to acknowledge the support of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Producers who will, theoretically, be covered by the Bill support it in principle, and consumer groups welcome the move. Over the coming years the Bill will help to restore public confidence in food, and this, in turn, will help all concerned.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Product Liability (Amendment) Bill [NIA 13/00] be agreed.
No amendments to the Bill have been tabled, and no indication has been given that Members wish to speak. Therefore, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group the six clauses followed by the long title.
Clauses 1 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Long title agreed to.
The Bill now stands referred to the Speaker.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún):
Molaim go n-aontaítear Athchéim an Bhreithnithe den Bhille (Gnéithe Idirthíortha) Uchtaithe.
I beg to move that the Further Consideration Stage of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Bill be agreed.
I am not sure of our position on the amendment that was put through at Consideration Stage last week in the name of the Minister and myself. Can the Minister tell us the position on the Secretary of State’s approval for that amendment? Is the Bill cleared for Further Consideration Stage as it currently stands?
The Minister will not be in a position to say that before the Final Stage. There will, at that time, be an opportunity for the Minister to respond to that matter. It is a procedural point.
I have no indication that Members wish to speak on clauses that stand part, and no amendments have been tabled. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group the 16 clauses, followed by the Schedule and the long title of the Bill.
Clauses 1 to 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule agreed to.
Long title agreed to.
The Bill now stands referred to the Speaker.
It is not clear whether the proposer of the motion is present. I must take the advice of the House as to whether Members wish me to suspend proceedings until Question Time at 2.30 pm.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I understood that this motion was due to be debated at 11.30am. Efforts are currently being made to contact the proposer of the motion. Is it in order to suspend the House for a couple of minutes so that this very important matter can proceed?
The Member says that it was due to start at 11.30 am. I have frequently heard this misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the indicative timings. There is no "due to start" time at all. Members should be here at the time so that the particular item of business can go ahead — otherwise it creates enormous problems for the House.
I will have to put the question to the House, because otherwise it will create a problem for business. However, what the Member has raised as a point of order is, frankly, no excuse.
The Junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister) (Mr Nesbitt):
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I want to reinforce your comments. I am here on time, as are the officials. There is no set time for the debate; there is a presumed time, at which it may start. We must all be ready — ahead of time, if necessary. I therefore support your position.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. A precedent has surely been established already — the occasion when Sammy Wilson was very late. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
Without attributing the words "goose" or "gander" to either of those Members, perhaps the Member can clarify what he believes the precedent to be.
The precedent is that the Assembly was suspended for a short time until Mr Wilson was found.
Indeed, the Member is right. Ministers have been held quite firmly to these matters. If it is the wish of the House that the business be suspended for 10 or 15 minutes, I am at the mercy of the House. I feel that it is not a proper way to handle things, but I understand that it creates major problems for the business of the House if matters are suspended.
Mr P Robinson:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. If the House did not give leave, would that mean that we would have the rest of the day to deal with the motion of censure?
No, it would not — not that that will, in any way, affect the view of the Member.
Mr P Robinson:
It will not influence me at all.
In fairness to the House, we will have to suspend at this point and resume with questions at 2.30 pm.
Mrs Bell is here now.
My understanding is that it is Mr McCarthy who is the proposer. I would have thought that they are difficult to confuse. As it is the wish of the House, the House stands suspended for 10 minutes.
The sitting was suspended at 10.55 am and resumed at 11.05 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Executive to establish an interdepartmental working group in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Office to examine ways in which the nuisance caused by fireworks can be abated.
I humbly apologise to every Member for not being in the Chamber when I ought to have been. I was attending a meeting with the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and I did not want to disappoint Mr McGimpsey.
Mrs I Robinson:
So you disappointed Mr Speaker instead?
Mr Speaker, and everyone else.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the serious matter of the misuse of fireworks. Raising the matter at this time of year may not seem appropriate or even one of our most pressing or immediate priorities. However, I assure Members that the matter is serious to many people in Northern Ireland and further afield, and debating it gives us an opportunity to agree to do something positive before the next season comes around, when fireworks are used wittingly or otherwise to terrorise many people.
Mr Ingram, the Minister of State, still has authority over fireworks. However, the people affected by them, and others in the community, elected us to the Assembly to improve the quality of life for everyone in Northern Ireland. They have a right to expect us to deliver. Many of our constituents are neither aware nor care about who is responsible for fireworks; they want us — as elected representatives — to act on their behalf and put the matter right.
My motion calls on the Executive to set up a working group to come up with a method of dealing with the misuse of heavy fireworks. That group could be made up of representatives from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department of the Environment, the Department for Social Development and, perhaps, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. All could work with Northern Ireland Office personnel to consider the possibility of a ban on the sale of fireworks.
Fireworks, if used sensibly, can provide immense pleasure and enjoyment. They can be spectacular, creative and the cause of much excitement. They can be used to celebrate a sporting victory.
Fireworks are acceptable if used properly. However, the deliberate misuse of heavy fireworks can cause great annoyance and nuisance. It is usually the case that from early autumn, as the dark nights approach, through the Halloween period and almost up until Christmas, groups of young people start to set off fireworks. Senior citizens suffer most. They become afraid and feel terrorised in their own homes. It is worse when the fireworks are thrown into people’s pathways and fireworks have even been dropped through letterboxes. The noise they make is almost enough to give elderly people a heart attack — they certainly leave many people distressed and living on their nerves.
Parents have to spend a good deal of time trying to comfort and pacify babies who can be traumatised when fireworks go off. Family pets might also react in a worrying way — the noise made by bangers can cause some pets to become aggressive. Therefore, it is obvious that fireworks distress both humans and animals, and we must try to eradicate this.
The misuse of fireworks can be destructive. In one incident last year, fireworks were placed in a small post box used by senior citizens who do not live on the main street. The post box and its contents were destroyed, and people were inconvenienced for two to three months. Many similar incidents have taken place.
The misuse of fireworks should be curtailed for many reasons. Ards Borough Council recently gave me its full support in asking the Northern Ireland Security Minister, Mr Adam Ingram, to help to alleviate the problem. I was disappointed when Mr Ingram advised the council that although he shared our concerns and understood the distress that fireworks can cause, he was not convinced that the problem would be solved by prohibiting the sale of fireworks. He believes that the enforcement of the current law and ensuring public awareness of the dangers of the misuse of fireworks provides a balanced approach. Let Mr Ingram tell that to the terrorised senior citizens who live alone and who have to suffer such trauma every night for months.
I assure the Minister that Mr Ingram’s response is useless, and I hope that the Assembly responds more positively. Mr Ingram says that the law already prohibits the use of certain types of nuisance fireworks including bangers, small air bombs, and mini rockets in populated areas between 11.00 pm and 7.00 am. What about the long hours of darkness before 11.00 pm? Surely that is when the problem most frequently occurs? The Minister says that the police can take action when the law is broken. That might be true, but the police cannot be everywhere at once, therefore the activity continues unabated.
The continued misuse of these noisy fireworks causes great concern and distress to many of our constituents. I plead with Members to support this motion. I hope that, in the few months before the next fireworks season, the Executive, through cross-departmental work, will be able to introduce measures to overcome the problem for good. We owe it to our community to do something now. We should show our constituents that the Assembly can make a difference and that on this occasion it will make a difference.
I welcome the debate, and I support the motion. The Explosives (Fireworks) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1999 repealed previous regulations and prohibit the possession, purchase or use of certain categories of fireworks, except under licence. The licence is issued by the Secretary of State, to whom a written application must be made. A licence fee must also be paid. The Regulations prohibit
"the possession, purchase, sale or use of fireworks of erratic flight, and mini rockets, bangers or air bombs".
The Regulations provide an exception for supplies
"to any person for use, in the course of his trade or business, for special effects purposes in the theatre, on film or on television."
These specified fireworks must be clearly marked, and the mark should say,
"This device must not be sold to, or used by a member of the general public."
Sparklers should be clearly marked
"Warning: not to be given to children under 5 years of age."
The Regulations prohibit retailers from selling fireworks if they have been removed from the primary pack. Under these Regulations the sale of all bangers is prohibited, however they seem to be available all year round. The fireworks industry, according to the Regulations, has agreed that fireworks should be widely available to the public for only the three weeks prior to Halloween, and for a few days afterwards. In addition, strict fire regulations apply to the storage of fireworks.
Fireworks cause hundreds of avoidable injuries every year. In the four years from 1996 to 1999 over 535 people were hurt during the Halloween period and required hospital treatment. In 1999 there were 139 injuries but, thankfully, no deaths. At Halloween 2000, 100 people were injured — a decrease of 28% from the 1999 figure. Those injuries were mostly to the face, head or neck.
Apart from the injuries caused, the nuisance to the elderly, people living alone and pets is inestimable. Every year in my council area — the Derry City Council area — there is a campaign to stop children and young people getting hold of fireworks, and to thus limit the distress caused to residents in the entire council area. Warnings are issued about the illegal sale and use of bangers, but the law continues to be broken.
The difficulty is in identifying those traders who carry on with this illegal trade. Young people refuse to divulge the name of the store or trader from whom they purchased the bangers. These items cause nuisance in the city centre and in the estates. Something must be done if we are to stop this annual nuisance afflicting our communities.
This year the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has launched a fireworks safety campaign aimed at children and young people, because statistics show that they suffer over half the injuries. Despite the fact that the law prohibits bangers from being sold to anyone under 16 years of age, bangers are the most common cause of injury.
It is an offence to throw or discharge a firework in a street or public place, yet it happens on a regular basis. A penalty of up to £2,000 can result from a prosecution. However, there are few prosecutions for selling, purchasing or throwing illegal bangers. I support anything that makes life easier for all who dread the Halloween period because of the noise and disturbance that occurs at that time. I support the motion.
Mr Speaker, you will recall that I raised this issue in the Assembly on 26 October 1998. In fact, I think it was the subject of my maiden speech. At that time certain Members accused me of exaggerating the situation when I said that I believed that people's lives were being tortured by the misuse of fireworks in places such as Ballynahinch, Kilkeel and Rathfriland. I am glad to say that I did receive support from Mr McCarthy, and other Members, on that day. I am glad too that, since then, many other Members have said that the situation is very bad.
I have children aged 10, 13 and 16. They have grown up without ever having used or handled fireworks. Their lives do not seem to be any poorer because of this. There are many hundreds of children and young adults walking around Northern Ireland today who, as a direct result of the fireworks ban that was instigated in the early 1970s, have all their fingers, two eyes and no scars. The ban was not instigated because of a need to protect pensioners or to prevent the cruelty to animals that occurs when fireworks are misused; it was imposed for other reasons. However, as an indirect result there were fewer injuries.
I am not calling for a ban on fireworks, but I am entirely supporting the motion put forward by Mr McCarthy. He is suggesting a very sensible and reasonable balance. There is no doubt that a problem exists. However, there are diverse viewpoints as to the solution. Mr McCarthy is proposing a very sensible halfway house.
I will illustrate some of the problems that have occurred since I first raised this issue in 1998. It is not uncommon for young thugs - frankly, that is the only phrase that I can use to describe them - to find it amusing to put powerful bangers through the letter boxes of old-age pensioners. They terrorise them for the two or three months around the Halloween period. In my own area there are instances of fireworks being tied to the tails of dogs and cats. The animals are absolutely terrified, and, in one case, an animal died.
These people think that it is funny to put fireworks into metal waste disposal bins. The fireworks go off, creating a loud bang and a lot of unease among elderly people. There is absolutely no need for any of this. If my children want to enjoy fireworks they can go to a licensed display run by the local district council or an organisation such as the National Trust. They can enjoy a fine night out without being in any danger or causing distress to anyone else.
I would like to see more emphasis put on licensed displays in Northern Ireland. During my holidays I sometimes go to Disney World in Florida, where you can see the ultimate in firework displays. The Americans think that the idea of children being allowed access to fireworks is unusual. They see fireworks as something you watch and enjoy under strictly controlled conditions.