HC Deb 08 June 1920 vol 130 cc361-9

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This is quite a short Bill and one which in all probability will commend itself to the House and be regarded as non-controversial. The Bill has two objects. In the first place it deals with the possession and carrying of firearms by ordinary individuals, and in the second place it deals with the question of the manufacture and sale and export of firearms and explosives, in order to carry out a national obligation by which we are bound under a Convention signed in Paris last February. The first proposals of the Bill are designed to maintain greater control so that, as far as possible, criminals or weak-minded persons and those who should not have firearms may be prevented from having these dangerous and lethal weapons. As far as possible we have provided that legitimate sport should not be in any way hampered, and so that any person who has any good reason for possessing firearms, or as to whom there is no objection, may be entitled to have them, but we hope by means of this Bill to prevent criminals and persons of that description being able to have revolvers and to use them. I need only remind the House of the numbers of cases that have happened within the last 12 or 15 months of the holding-up of post offices and other crimes of that sort in which firearms were used by the criminal. I feel certain that the House will agree that so far as that object is concerned it ought to be carried out if possible. There is a provision in the Bill that anyone who desires to possess firearms has to obtain a permit from the police officer of his district where he would be known. That is not a very serious obligation to impose upon the ordinary citizen when the object is to protect the lives and limbs of the citizens generally. With regard to the manufacture and sale of firearms, provision is made for registration, so that people who manufacture or sell these weapons or the explosives which are necessary for their use will be able to show exactly what they have manufactured and what has become of them. With regard to the question of the exports, which we are bound to regulate by our pledge under the Arms Convention, we have quite sufficient powers at present, under the Customs Act of 1879, to prevent the export or import of arms, but in order to make it more secure and more efficient we have taken power to regulate the removal from one place to another of arms and explosives, so that there will be a control kept upon all arms that are manufactured, so that they cannot be exported or imported in an illicit or secret manner. It is, of course, of the greatest importance that we should be able to prevent people manufacturing munitions of war, because that is what it comes to, and supplying them to other countries, secretly; for example, to countries to whom we are pledged.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

Hear, hear, Poland!


And to Russia, for use in Persia, for example, so that we may be able to prevent them going to semi-civilised people who use them for the purposes of aggression or persecution. We have had representations made to us by the Gun-makers' Association, who have pointed out various matters which will require amendment in Committee We have gone into them very carefully. None of the Amendments, substantially speaking, which they have suggested, in any way weaken the provisions of the Bill, and they do safeguard the legitimate interest of those who manufacture sporting guns and rifles and so on, and those who use them. We hope the House will accept in Committee, if it gives this Bill a Second Reading, certain Amendments which we propose to bring forward for the purpose of meeting the suggestions of the Gun-makers' Association.


Is it a Government Bill?


Yes. Lord Onslow brought it in in another place, on behalf of the Government, for the purpose of saving time. It provides, as I say, by the use of certificates given by the chief police officer in any area, for regulating, as far as possible, the possession or carrying of firearms, and by the use of registration and certificates regulating the manufacture and export and import of firearms, so that we may, as far as possible, avoid the dangers which are undoubtedly attendant upon the indiscriminate carrying of and trading in revolvers and fire-arms. We are bound by the Arms Convention at Paris, to bring in the measure, in so far as it relates to exports and imports. The other part is equally important in our own domestic interest.


I should like, first of all, to make what I think is quite a fair protest against taking this or any other Bill to-night in view of the statement with regard to business for to-day made by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury last night. He said that the first part of the sitting would be devoted to the Motion of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Platting Division (Mr. Clynes), and that the Government hoped that time would be found afterwards for the Second Reading of the Gas Regulation Bill. Therefore, the Government did not hope to get more than that Bill, and, as hon. Members know, there was some division of opinion about it. This Bill deals with a very wide subject, which is made even wider than it was originally intended on account of the fact, for example, that in Ireland we have practically a state of civil war. I have only looked at the Bill within the last 10 minutes, because we were only informed a short time ago that the Government hoped, in addition to the Gas Regulation Bill, to take not only this Bill but also the Sheriffs (Ireland) Bill and the Bank Notes (Ireland) Bill. I would not argue that it is not the duty of every Member of the House to be here. Obviously, that is the assumption, and, therefore, every Member ought to be cognisant of the business that is proceeding, but I would venture to appeal to my right hon. Friend whether he is not satisfied with the fact that the Government have got the Gas Regulation Bill and not to proceed further with these other Orders. Otherwise, this Bill must be examined, and examined very closely, in the 20 minutes that are left to us. Unless my right hon. Friend be prepared to exercise the Closure, there is not the faintest hope of getting the Second Reading tonight. If the Bill had been confined to the mis-use of fire-arms, apart from any political or other considerations, the whole House would have been willing to have given permission at once, because the whole House feels that there is far to free access to arms by irresponsible individuals. I do not know whether hon. Members have a copy of the Bill in their hands. I do not suppose that they have.


I have.


Probably the right hon. Baronet and one or two others are the only Members who are supplied with copies of the Bill. Clause 16 refers to its application to Ireland. It says: This Act shall apply to Ireland, subject to the following modifications:—

  1. (1) A reference to the Chief Secretary shall be substituted for any reference to a Secretary of State;
  2. (2) The expressions 'police district' and 'chief officer of police' respectively mean in the police district of Dublin metropolis that district and any of the commissioners of the police for that district, and elsewhere any district for which a county inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary is appointed and such county inspector;
  3. (3) For the purposes of this Act a court of summary jurisdiction shall, except in the police district of Dublin metropolis, be constituted of a resident magistrate sitting alone or with one or more other resident magistrates;"
and so on. An hon. Gentleman below the gangway says "Quite right," and he has, probably, Ireland in his mind, and he has, quite rightly, in his mind that somebody in Ireland ought to have the power to restrain people from carrying firearms, which may be right or wrong when we are discussing the thing in another direction, but when we know that the Resident Magistrates might grant the use of firearms to one class of people and absolutely deny it to another class—




Will hon. Members try to look at it in the same light as myself? The last thing I want to do is to raise any political controversy over this matter. I am only pointing out that this is a Bill in which, I think, the Home Secretary wants to deal with the misuse of firearms—the prevention, for instance, of a desperate criminal having access to arms, so that he can provide himself with a means of offence against peaceful citizens—and there is the bigger question which must arise on a Bill of this sort, namely, the political aspect. We do know the Home Secretary was himself for some time the Irish Secretary, and he knows something about the condition of Ireland; in fact, most of us know far more about the condition of Ireland at the present moment than we care to know, and we would be all glad if by some miracle the Irish question would resolve itself into some kind of peaceful solution. But, putting that out of account, it is a Bill which deals with firearms, and if you take Ireland as one example you are bound to have a certain administration of this Act, which may be political and, I think, in his experience as Irish Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman will agree that that is a fairly possible outcome of the powers that are given in this Bill. Then he tells us that, among other things, it is to prevent the secret manufacture and the secret sale of arms to other Powers with which we may be on friendly relations. Does my right hon. Friend really at this time of night wish us to raise such a case as that of the "Jolly Roger"?


"The 'Jolly George.'"


Hon. Members correct me, and say it is the "Jolly George." I think it might be more correctly called the "Jolly Roger." That vessel was loaded with arms. You cannot really deal with that question under a Bill termed An Act to amend the law relating to firearms and other weapons and ammunition, and to amend the "Unlawful Drilling Act, 1819. My right hon. Friend will see at once that this is an international question of great importance. Personally I do not see anything to prevent this country manufacturing munitions of war and arms, and supplying them to neutral countries, if we are not in a state of war. From the international point of view a question of that kind would have to be considered. For instance, at the beginning of the War, America supplied this country with munitions, and we were glad to have them from that neutral country. The question was quite freely discussed in this House. My right hon. Friend let slip a remark to the effect that this Bill would prevent that sort of thing. Does it really give the Government power—is the Government really seeking the power—to deal with a question of that sort, that manufacturers of guns, ammunition, aeroplanes, ships, or submarines are not to be entitled to sell them to countries which are at war though we are neutral? If he will say that that is not the intention of the Bill, that this Bill is really only a police Bill to prevent anybody, schoolboy, or burglar, or other person, fooling about with firearms, then the House of Commons will give him a Bill of that kind any time he likes to ask for it.


I congratulate my hon. Friend, the virtual Leader of the Opposition, on his solicitude for Ireland. I should have thought that that party in this House which absents itself when the question of the better government of Ireland is under consideration might well remain silent when this question of saving Ireland from the murderous conditions which exist there to-day is being discussed. I am perfectly prepared to give my hearty support to the Government on this Bill. Surely the condition of affairs shows the necessity of giving the Government greater powers to deal with the use of firearms? The outcome of this War has been the present condition of things, in which life is held very cheap. I take it that this Bill is an attempt at restriction, which my hon. Friend on the Front Bench seems so anxious shall not be the case. This is to me a most amazing thing at a moment when I see in the newspapers of this day the terrible story of the infamous conduct of the unfortunate person who is now dead, and who used firearms at every turn, and when death is in the face of every policeman to-day, and when in Ireland, as we know, the use of firearms means that Sinn Fein is able to carry on this campaign of murder and outrage in defiance of the Executive Government of the country. My hon. Friend with whom I so often agree rather missed his opportunity tonight by making a carping and unnecessary criticism against this Bill. This measure has come down from the House of Lords where it has been well considered, and I hope that the Government will persist in their effort to get the Second Reading to-night. We are not in any carping opposition spirit; when the Government do the right thing some of us who were returned as independent men are determined to support them. If what be called the opposition would take a more intelligent part in our proceedings, some of us who sit as independent Members would listen to them with more consideration, but when we find a Bill which, however defective, is honestly designed for the better government of Ireland, absolutely ignored by the Opposition and by the members of the Labour benches, then, I say, they have no warranty when the Government bring forward a measure of this sort to put down outrage and murder and remove from the hands of wild and extravagant men the power of inflicting wounds and death, and it is our duty as independent men to support the Government and regard the Opposition criticism as merely factious, irritating and irresponsible.


During the War we were accustomed to panic legislation being brought in during the closing hours of the sitting, with a good deal left to the discretion of the Minister. Under Clause 13 the Secretary of State may make rules and laws and regulations, the administration of which would be in his own hands. It has been my misfortune to have had a good deal to do with the Home Office administration, and I have no hesitation, after the experience I have had of three or four Home Secretaries, in saying that I regret any further powers being left to the present Home Secretary, because my experience of him has been that he has always taken the strictly legal view, and anything in the nature of a sympathetic view of his duties has been entirely absent. For that reason I am unwilling to leave anything more to the right hon. Gentleman's unfettered discretion. There are other points of view in connection with this proposal. I have seen this afternoon a deputation from a useful body of men known as pawnbrokers, who came to demand the reason why it is proposed in this Bill to prevent any person having one of these weapons in his custody, from being able to put it in a place of safety. According to one of the Clauses of this Bill, that will not be permissible. He must not put it in a place of safety. He must apparently, if no other opportunity presents itself, use it on any person who comes in his way. I am not sure that retaining in this Bill a proposal of this kind will be helpful, or strictly fair to pawnbrokers, who have carried on their business apparently in the past to the satisfaction of the country. Why should they be specially tabooed from carrying on their business? There are other points of view to be considered. What are the proposals for dealing with the export trade, especially in view of what is known as sporting or agricultural implements which are not of a dangerous kind? Those who have any knowledge of the export trade, especially with our Dominions, must be aware that from South Africa and Australia it is the practice to send indents to agents in this country for goods of this character which may be required. I want to know what action is to be taken in this regard and what steps will be adopted to enable the export of these things to be satisfactorily carried out as in the past. If we are to pass much more of this type of legislation we shall be presently getting the reputation earned by the inhabitants of another country who from morning till night complained that they were subject to rules, laws and regulations. There seems to be much in this Bill which is likely to bring about a similar state of things in this country. If the object of this Bill is to bring to an end cases of burglary in which dangerous weapons are used, there is much to be said in its favour. If there is a dangerous burglar who desires to obtain possession of firearms, surely an easy method for him to obtain such weapons would be to burgle a place where they are kept in stock, and he could then get them in a wholesale way. It cannot, therefore, be necessary to pass such a drastic measure as this in order to deal with a case of that character. If the Home Secretary is really serious in this Bill, and proposes to limit it to the purpose announced by him as its primary purpose, to carry out undertakings that the Government have entered into with other Powers, then I think there will be no opposition so far as this side of the House is concerned. But the Bill goes far beyond things of that kind. While it achieves no useful object, so far as I can see, it does interfere with a legitimate trade and with legitimate traders. So far as burglars are concerned it will really have no effect. These men are dangerous, but there is nothing in this Bill which will adequately deal with them. That is my point of view.

Let us look at Clause 1. It says: A firearm certificate shall be granted by the chief officer of police of the district in which the applicant for the certificate resides if he is satisfied that the applicant is a person who has a good reason for requiring such a certificate. If this police officer does not like the look of this individual, he may decline to grant permission. It may be a shot gun. This person may well be—

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed To-morrow.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.