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Fireworks and the RSPCA proposals

Fireworks Animals

An evaluation of the RSPCA's proposals to local Government

The RSPCA are asking councils to pass motions:

- To require all public firework displays within the local authority boundaries to be advertised in advance of the event.

- To actively promote a public awareness campaign about the impact of fireworks on animal welfare and vulnerable people–including the precautions that can be taken to mitigate risks

and

- To encourage local suppliers of fireworks to stock ‘quieter’ fireworks for public display.

The RSPCA are also seeking national legislation to reduce the statutory limit on sound energy to one thousandth of its current level (i.e. to 90dB from 120dB, at a horizontal distance of 15 metres, 1m from the ground).

Over the last year and a half a few residents have written to me asking for a response to these proposals and, it stands to reason, that this may be a matter of more general interst.

I think we all understand the issues which fireworks can cause in respect of animals. On a personal note my cat seeks shelter indoors when fireworks are let off; he clearly dislikes all types of fireworks, and the louder variety in particular. Fireworks can also cause issues in trying to get to sleep, especially for young children.

On the other hand everyone, including the RSPCA, also accepts that fireworks can bring much enjoyment to people, both big public displays, such as the New Ash Green fireworks (which sadly could not happen in 2020) and displays in back gardens. I have vivid and enjoyable memories of home firework displays as a young child, memories which I hope to recreate for my own children.

Under current legislation fireworks should not be set off between the hours of 11pm and 7am, with the exception of Guy Fawkes Night (when the cutoff is midnight) and New Year, Diwali and Chinese New Year (when the cut off is 1am). An RSPCA campaign from 2018 sought to limit any private firework displays to just those four days, though since 2019 they seem to have moderated their public position on this.

Nonetheless, if residents know of fireworks being set off illegally at night then I would be interested to hear of it.

Turning to each of the RSPCA’s three proposals for local Government:

The first is that public firework displays be advertised in advance.

I presume the focus on public displays is because displays run by professionals are allowed to breech the noise limits which apply to publicly available fireworks.

In New Ash Green our annual firework display, run entirely by volunteers at no public expense, to a very high standards of safety, does advertise in advance. The Social Comittee who organisse it want people to come to it after all, and I look forward to assisting in the marshaling of the November 2021 display, as usual.

I suspect that, like New Ash Green's display, the vast majority of public displays do advertise in advance but forcing them to do so could impose a burden in terms of their needing to evidence their advertising to a sufficient standard, as well as imposing a burden on council tax payers, as the council would have to formally check that they have advertised. Such a regulation might also end up applying to other things which we might not typically think of as fireworks but which, clearly, on inspection, are (e.g. starter guns at sports days, flares used for various reasons including in acts of remembrance etc.) As such, I think this proposal may be a solution in search of a problem.

The Second proposal is that the council should promote a public awareness campaign about the effect of fireworks on animals and the wider risks of fireworks. Awareness of the impact of fireworks, particularly on dogs, was extensively discussed in the media in 2019 and what applies to pet animals clearly also applies to livestock. Animal welfare and fireworks was less prominent during 2020 (during which many big displays were cancels, but there was also probably a slight increase in private displays in gardens).

As an illustration of this, prior to November 2019, Sainsbury's in Pepper Hill, stopped selling fireworks. Their stated reason for this was to do with safety, and not wishing to distress animals, though I suspect the costs associated with selling fireworks were quite high compared to the revenue generated (e.g. requirement for a separately manned kiosk, so fireworks were not left unsupervised on shelves). I believe they have also stopped selling sparklers.

Nonetheless, awareness of this issue has grown hugely, propelled by organisations with a lot more publicity "reach" than Sevenoaks District Council (e.g. the BBC, and the RSPCA itself). So, again, I'm not sure how helpful it would be to commit council funds to a public information campaign, though our general community safety advice will, from time to time, no doubt make mention of firework safety. Clearly firework instructions themselves also detail safety advice.

Finally, there is the suggestion that firework sellers should offer quieter fireworks as an option. When Salisbury's did sell fireworks they came with various ratings, including a noise ratings. So, again, in so far as the market provides fireworks at all, quieter options are stocked, and considerate neighbours may well choose these, especially, perhaps, for displays at unusual times of year. Clearly some level of “bang” is, however, part of the point, especially on November 5th, in commemoration of the bang which would have resulted had the 1605 plot succeeded.

Whatever people choose, assuming that the RSPCA suggestion means what it says, and simply asks that quieter fireworks are offered for sale (alongside nosier fireworks) this is already happening where fireworks are sold and so, again, this aspect of the proposal (which is not intented as binding in any event) would have little effect.

For these reasons I am not inclined to support the RSPCAs proposals. Nonetheless, those residents who have written to me in support of these proposals have clearly given us all something to think about when organising firework displays. They have also, clearly, written in good faith, in response to reasonable sounding proposals.

I am not quite sure that the same level of good faith can be imputed in respect of the RSPCA itself.

While the RSPCA undoubtedly cares about animals, it is not an organisation which has always held human freedom in high regard.

As an illustration of this, a number of years ago some friends of mine returned from holiday to find found that their doors had been knocked in on the basis of erroneous reports of animal neglect (totally spurious reports which referred to animals not actually present on the property, but which a neighbour had thought were present). It was not clear, to them at least, whether this RSPCA led break in was conducted with or without the presence of Police. These kinds of incident have been fairly common in the past, and the RSPCA have been fairly unapologetic about them.

The RSPCA was also a key institution in pushing for the compulsory microchipping of dogs (and now, I believe, mooting a similar idea for cats) which properly ought to be a matter for the owner to decide upon. This is an issue on which animal loving organisations disagree (see chip-me-not), but, fundamentally, it is a matter of human freedom (a commodity which is clearly, currently, in desperately short supply).

I do not believe that, were the RSPCA seeking a Royal Charter today, that it would be granted and it is notable that one of the first actions of Archbishop Justin Welby upon his appointment, was to reject the customary offer of a role as vice-patron of this organisation.

Time will tell what the RSPCA’s eventual aims will be in respect of fireworks but I suspect the firework related arguments the RSPCA are making currently are the deliberately reasonable sounding precursors to arguments which they later intend to make, in favour of, for example, a ban on over the counter sales of fireworks or, indeed, a revival of their previously stated aim to ban all private firework displays other than on the four days per year where they are currently permitted after 11pm.