Fighting fireworks with fireworks | Michael Falzon

A combative Michael Falzon defends his role as chair of the committee which drew up a draft policy to regulate the fireworks industry, arguing that the document represents a bold step forward in safety standards

Michael Falzon.
Michael Falzon.

Much like the fireworks he so vigorously defends, Labour MP Michael Falzon can be a little explosive at times. Such as, for instance, when deflecting accusations of a possible conflict of interest between his twin roles as legal counsel to the Malta Pyrotechnics Association, and chair of the consultative committee tasked with drawing up a draft policy on firework regulations.

But long before the firecrackers began at Thursday's press conference - where Falzon launched the policy document, and was forced onto the defensive regarding his own connections with the pyrotechnics lobby - questions have been raised regarding the safety standards of a pastime that has also left a trail of death and destruction in its wake. The past decade has been particularly costly in terms of human life. In one year alone - 2007 - explosions in fireworks factories claimed the lives of six people: not just fireworks enthusiasts, but also innocent bystanders. One woman was buried under the rubble of her own home, levelled by a devastating explosion in the heart of densely populated Naxxar.

Three years later, another six people were killed in a single blast in Gharb: including a pregnant woman.

Our national response to such tragedies has always been to lionise the victims - often as not describing them as 'martyrs' - while studiously disregarding mounting calls for a proper legislative framework that, by Falzon's own admission, has so far been lacking. 

It was against this backdrop that the Malta Environment and Planning Authority launched a public consultation exercise to draw up a long overdue fireworks policy. But at a glance the resulting document seems more concerned with facilitating the construction of new fireworks factories, while also proposing that existing fireworks factories be 'upgraded' to address safety concerns.

Michael Falzon disagrees, arguing that the draft policy represents a radical improvement in safety standards.

"You should be welcoming this initiative, as it represents a massive step forward in safety standards," he insists. "Bear in mind that before this policy was launched - and it is still at the stage of consultation, by the way; nothing is finalised yet - there was hardly any legislation regulating fireworks at all. Prior to this, MEPA simply didn't have any policy regarding fireworks. The only conditions regulating factories is that they had to be 183 metres from built-up, inhabited areas. If finalised, the new policy will introduce new measures to enhance safety. Can't you at least acknowledge that this is an improvement?"

But is it really the case that there was no legislation at all? The local plans for North and North West Malta, and for Gozo and Comino, do contain regulations regarding fireworks: namely, that new factories could only be constructed on "disturbed areas whereby any structures would be screened from view". This policy was instrumental in MEPA's decision to turn down a number of applications, including outside-development zone (ODZ) firework factory applications in Mellieha, Rabat and Gozo.

But the new policy will, if finalised, supplant these laws. One could claim therefore that the new laws will be more lax than the ones they replaced...

Falzon rejects this view out of hand. "That is not correct at all. The local plans made vague reference to fireworks factories, yes, but that in itself does not constitute a policy."

Apart from addressing this gaping hole in existing legislation, he also argues the new policy will put an end to what he describes as an 'injustice' facing applicants for a MEPA permit to build fireworks factories.

"What was happening before was that people were getting ripped off. They would submit their application, pay the fees, but their application would be turned down with no justification or reason given. They [MEPA] would keep the money, even if no permit was issued. Was this fair?"

But this is precisely why I question the motivation behind a policy which seems designed to facilitate rather than restrict the proliferation of an existing threat. For one thing Falzon is openly taking sides here: many would disagree that the aforementioned refusals for fireworks factory permits constituted an 'injustice' at all. And given that nearly all the aforementioned fatal accidents took place in licensed fireworks factories, by increasing the number of such facilities wouldn't this policy simply be increasing the danger rather then diminishing it?

Falzon acknowledges that dangers exist but adopts the usual fatalistic attitude associated with the pyrotechnics lobby he also legally represents. "Accidents will happen. Human error will always be a factor whatever we do. We can try to minimise danger - which is what this policy aims to do - but we cannot eliminate it altogether."

Meanwhile there are also environmental considerations. Departing from the premise that new facilities are not only permissible but also desirable, the report seeks to identify possible sites even before any applications are even submitted. At a glance it seems very generous with Malta's limited space. The only areas excluded a priori are those enjoying the highest levels of protection: Areas of Ecological Importance (Levels 1 and 2); Sites of Scientific Importance (Levels 1 and 2) or Areas or Sites of Archaeological Importance (including a buffer zone under Class A and B), Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas.

Curiously, however, there is no mention of agricultural land: instead, the policy proposes that individual applications are dealt with on a 'case-by-case' basis (it also proposes setting up a committee to screen such applications, but I'll come to that later). I put it to Falzon that this allows considerable leeway when it comes to evaluating applications, and could result in the loss of agricultural land... of which there are only 11,000 hectares left. Why was no consideration given to protecting agriculture?

Falzon skirts the issue by pointing towards other, unrelated restrictions. "The same policy precludes sites close to industrial areas, old people's homes, hospitals... none of this existed before. Isn't this a step forward?"

He proves impatient when I try to stick to the point. "Why are you so biased?" he suddenly demands to know. "You're always the same - biased against everything beautiful that makes us Maltese..."

I counter that some people would question his definition of both 'beauty' and national identity: surely there is nothing beautiful about a pastime that exposes other people's lives to risk, without shouldering its own responsibilities when fatal accidents inevitably occur. And while it is undeniable that fireworks displays are a part of cultural heritage, the people who are concerned for their own safety are also Maltese.

Besides, the question still stands. Given that the policy seems to encourage new facilities... have any studies been carried out to assess the demand?

"Yes, and it is mentioned in the draft policy. A 2010 report commissioned by the previous administration had clearly stated that there was need for further facilities for safety reasons."

Falzon here reminds me that some of the more recent accidents may in fact have been due to a lack of facilities. "In Gozo alone there are over 200 licensed pyrotechnicians. Yet there are only two fireworks factories. The report identifies this as one of the causes for the Gharb explosion."

I concede that this may be true for Gozo, but the situation in Malta is quite different. Surely, the Mosta explosion of 2007 cannot be put down to a case of insufficient manufacturing facilities. Besides: if we're going to open up the possibility of a renewed fireworks factory proliferation, shouldn't we also question whether there is a limit to the number of factories that such a small country can afford? Shouldn't the policy also set limits in this regard?

"That is a very dangerous road to go down in a democracy," he replies. "Obviously there should be conditions and restrictions, but in a fair society everybody should at least have the same opportunities. If someone applies for a licence and goes through all the correct channels, why should he be denied when others have been accepted? By the same reasoning we should set a limit for the numbers of smokers. Or cars on the road, to reduce traffic. I am not a smoker but I would not agree to stopping others from smoking if that's what they choose."

And yet there are restrictions to smoking, aimed for the most part at minimising harm to others. As for traffic the situation may well necessitate drastic measures in future. But let's not digress. Another aspect of the policy that leaps to the eye is the apparent lack of consideration given to any alternative solutions: such as, for instance, an earlier proposal to centralise fireworks factories in one locality, or at least encourage the various associations to pool their resources. Why was this completely disregarded in the policy report?

Falzon almost snorts at the question. "Nobody agrees with the idea of centralisation any more," he confidently asserts. "It was a crazy thing to suggest in the first place. Yes, there was talk once of centralising all facilities at Dingli, but the plan was soon abandoned. All sides agree that the risks involved would be greater than what there is at present. Imagine the tremendous magnitude of an explosion if all the factories were concentrated in one space..."

Nor is this the only problem he envisages. "There is also the issue of transporting the fireworks to their final destination. It's already an issue today, let alone if all the country's fireworks had to be transported to every part of Malta from the same site..."

Falzon is very emphatic on this presumed consensus. Asked who he means specifically by 'everyone', he points towards submissions made by the police and AFM as part of the consultation process. Does he exclude the possibility that there may also have been political pressure to abandon the plans for a consolidation of facilities?

Again he points to the 2010 report, insisting it was based on advice by experts. But as legal counsel to the pyrotechnics association, Falzon had contributed to that report himself. Interestingly enough, it was criticised at the time along very similar lines to the criticism which resurfaced this week: namely that it seemed heavily influenced by the practitioners' interests, to the exclusion of other concerns.

Even the fact that it was never actually implemented was viewed as an example of the political muscle wielded by the same lobby. And at a glance the new policy seems to provide further confirmation of a scenario in which successive governments have been too reluctant to address safety concerns because of political pressure.

This brings me to one of the more contentious proposals: namely the proposal to create an 'ad hoc' committee in order to evaluate applications before they are screened by MEPA. This seems to fly in the face of standard procedure, whereby MEPA - a supposedly independent, autonomous entity - determines the entire planning process after consulting with all the relevant persons and authorities. Apart from duplicating this process and multiplying the bureaucracy involved, there are more serious potential pitfalls. An ad hoc committee giving 'advice' on planning applications might be construed as an attempt to exert pressure on MEPA boards, in order to ensure approval of developments which already have the seal of approval of a government appointed body...

Falzon once again chides me for being 'too negative'. "No, you've got it all wrong. The committee doesn't work that way. It's an added extra precaution. Let me put it like this. Building a fireworks factory isn't like building a house. There are technicalities and considerations that do not apply to other developments. This committee is just there to draw up plans and to offer expertise and advice. Once it passes its recommendations to MEPA the application will still have to go through the full gamut of the planning process. The ad hoc committee will not in any way usurp MEPA's jurisdiction."

How does he envisage the committee's composition? "I'm not the responsible minister, so I have no say in any of that. But if you ask me it would include representatives of the police, the Armed Forces, the Civil Protection Department, amongst others."

All along, however, there are question marks surrounding his own role in chairing the consultative committee: namely that he is now drawing up a framework policy to regulate an area in which he is himself involved, in his capacity as representative of the official pyrotechnics association. Does he not acknowledge that this constitutes a clear conflict of interest?

"Absolutely not. I answered this question at the press conference; looks like I have to answer it again. I have never been involved with the association. I have only given it legal advice... and I did the same when I assisted [former ministers] Tonio Borg and Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici. I am not an expert in the matter, but I do happen to know something about fireworks. I was happy to assist whenever I could over the past 20 years. Does this mean I have had a conflict of interest for 20 years?"

Some might say... yes, it does. Falzon naturally disagrees. "And just to make it clear: I never received any remuneration for my advice."

It remains debatable whether financial remuneration has any actual bearing on the definition of a conflict of interest; but in any case Falzon insists on a flat denial throughout, and there is little point in pressing further.

More in Interview