FAMILIES happily pull them over the festive dinner table – but The Press can reveal today how Christmas crackers are being treated like explosives when young people try to buy them from York stores.

Two city centre stores – Marks & Spencer, in Piccadilly, and Bhs, in Coney Street – refused to sell boxes of crackers to a 15-year-old volunteer, Jake Love, who tried to make test purchases on the newspaper’s behalf.

Marks & Spencer also had warning signs near its crackers display shelves. One said: “Cracker Warning. Explosives Act 1875 Fireworks (Safety) Regulations 2004. It is an offence to sell crackers to persons under the age of 16 years.”

Another sign warned: “The sale of Christmas crackers is governed by the Explosives Act 1875 Fireworks (Safety) Regulations 1997. It is a criminal offence to sell a product containing explosives to any person under the age of 16 years.”

The store also refused to sell a box to student Heather Welsh, 22, unless she could produce proof that she was over 16.

A Marks & Spencer spokesman later told The Press: “The signage in-store is on display to alert customers to age-restricted products. It is in compliance with the Explosives Act 1875 and Fireworks Safety Regulations 1997 which states that customers under the age of 16 cannot purchase Christmas crackers or party poppers.”

Debenhams, in Davygate, sold Jake a box of crackers without asking any questions about his age. But a store spokesman admitted later that crackers were “age-restricted,” and staff had made an error and would be re-briefed on the rules.

Jake, a York High School pupil from Acomb, said: “In Marks & Spencer, they asked me my age and then said I wasn’t old enough and asked me to put them back. I think it’s stupid.”

York mum Anthea Dykes, who has a 15-year-old teenage daughter who also attends York High, said: “I just find the whole thing totally bizarre. It’s crackers!”

Matt Boxall, trading standards manager at City of York Council, said crackers were on restricted sale under legislation originally passed in 1997, but amended in 2004, because they contained gunpowder.

He said it did not matter how much or how little gunpowder an item contained, and even caps for children’s guns and party poppers were also covered by the same restrictions.

He stressed the council had never received a complaint about the sale of crackers and had never carried out a test purchasing exercise to check on their sale.

York MP Hugh Bayley said today: “The shops are complying with the law, but the law is crackers. There should only be such legislation where absolutely necessary.”

Selby MP John Grogan said: “It’s completely ridiculous. Sometimes Parliament gets things wrong. I will ask the Business Secretary Peter Mandelson to revise this in time for Christmas 2009.”

Festive failure for York student

Student Heather Welsh, 22, went in to Marks & Spencer, in Piccadilly, York, to try to buy a box of Christmas crackers – but was refused.

She said: “I went in to Marks & Spencer fully expecting to have no problems buying a small box of ten own-brand crackers.

“However, upon getting to the check-out, the member of staff behind the counter looked at me for a moment before asking for ID to prove I was over the age of 16.

“I explained I did not have any ID on me, and asked why I would need it for this purchase. She said she was unable to sell them to me due to their new policy, selling to anyone under the age of 16 would be breaching the explosives act and that in asking for ID she was protecting me from “myself and my company”.

“Apart from the fact that I am over the relevant age by six years and do not look young, it seems ridiculous that they believe crackers would be able to cause physical harm or damage to anyone.”

Overkill claim

“IT’S crazy, a box of six Christmas crackers couldn’t cause much damage in a fire, the amount of explosive in them is that tiny.”

Frustrated cracker exporter Phil Gedge, of classic-crackers.com today hit out at the legislation which he described as “overkill”.

Speaking about the retailer under 16 ban, Mr Gedge said: “I guess it’s just the way we live, no one wants to get sued. Some carriers refuse to transport crackers – because they are ‘too dangerous’. Airlines won’t touch them. I have to send them by road.”

Mr Gedge said regulations over the importation of the snaps in the crackers had been toughened this year, with boatloads of them from China (the only place in the world making them) being turned away by customs. His UK supplier of the snaps, Henbrandt, today said ports are now X-raying boxes of the snaps and Customs & Excise is insisting they be stored in strongrooms.