HC Deb 08 November 1933 vol 281 cc255-67

Order for Second Reading read.

7.43 p.m.


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

I believe that this Bill will be welcomed on all sides of the House. It was introduced in another place during the previous part of this Session and passed through all its stages there. There has been general anxiety, during the past few months, regarding the increased use of imitation or dummy firearms for purposes of intimidation and the avoidance of arrest. The Government have been pressed on many occasions to introduce legislation to prohibit the possession or use of such firearms, and this is a Bill which we believe will achieve that purpose. I propose at a later stage to move a slight Amendment to the Bill, but I shall deal with that at the proper stage. We believe that the Bill, in substance, will carry out the wish of the House by making it a serious offence for any person to use or attempt to use a firearm or an imitation firearm in certain clearly defined circumstances.

Genuine firearms are dealt with under the Firearms Act, 1920. The purchase, possession, use, or carrying of firearms or ammunition is prohibited under that Act unless a person is in possession of a. firearm certificate. The manufacture and sale of genuine firearms and ammunition are also prohibited under that Act, except by persons who are registered as firearm dealers, but there is no control of imitation firearms. To deal with the imitation firearm in the same way as the genuine firearm is dealt with is not desirable and is in fact not necessary—that is, by way of a firearm certificate or by means of registration as a firearm dealer. To deal with the problem in that way would be exceedingly inconvenient. Imitation firearms have in fact a legitimate and harmless use. There would be, in my submission, an undue interference with industry, at any rate with a certain portion of the toy industry, if dealers and manufacturers had to be registered before they were allowed to sell or to make such articles as, for example, toys capable only of firing paper caps, or dummies which might be used for letter-weights, or cigarette lighters, or imitation revolvers which are used for theatrical purposes, and many other articles of a harmless nature. If you had to compel the manufacturer of that type of imitation armaments to be registered, I believe you would be interfering with a legitimate and harmless trade. It would in fact be absurd to have to possess a firearm certificate or an imitation firearm certificate before one could carry or use a particular form or a particular shape of cigarette lighter. If one had to insist upon a certificate in cases such as those, obviously the law would be held up to ridicule.

This matter then, I submit, has to be tackled, not from the manufacturing end, nor even from the standpoint as to whether it is right or wrong in all circumstances to possess these imitation firearms. We have rather to consider the form of use or attempted use to which these weapons may be put. There are certain cases where it may be perfectly right and innocuous to possess or to use an imitation firearm, but there are clearly other cases where such possession or use is distinctly and obviously wrong and should be prohibited by law. Those cases are dealt with in this Bill, and the genuine article is also brought within the terms of it. By this Bill in fact we intend to make it an offence for a person to use or attempt to use a firearm or imitation firearm either for the purpose of resisting the lawful apprehension or detention of himself or of any other person, and we also wish to make it an offence if a person is found in the possession of such an article when committing, or when arrested for, the offences specified in the Schedule to the Bill. At the present time a dummy or an imitation firearm may be used as effectively as a real weapon, and yet it does not expose the offender to any special penalty. There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that many criminals have been assisted in their endeavours to escape justice by producing out of their pockets an automatic toy pistol or other imitation weapon. By this Bill it is intended to put an end to this manner of assistance to evade arrest.

The Bill is a comparatively short one, and perhaps I may briefly run through the Clauses. The first Clause places a maximum penalty of 14 years' penal servi- tude on an offender for the use or attempted use of firearms or imitation firearms to avoid the arrest of himself or of any other person. The second Subsection of Clause 1 makes it clear that this is 'an additional penalty over and above the penalty for any other offence that he may have committed at about the same time. The second Clause lays it down that if, when arrested for any other offence, a person has in his possession any firearm or imitation firearm, he shall be guilty of an offence under this Act, even though he did not actually use the weapon, but it will be noted that the second Sub-section of Clause 2 states: This section applies to the offences specified in the Schedule to this Act. There is a long list of offences to which Clause 2 applies. I do not intend to go through them all now, but if anybody has any doubt as to what they are in detail, I could provide that information to save any hon. Member the trouble of looking up the particular Section in any particular Act. Clause 3 makes it clear that there may be a conviction for possession, even if there is no conviction under Clause 1 for using any particular weapon, and Sub-section (2) of Clause 3 gives a direction to the courts of summary jurisdiction that they may not deal with an offence if there is attached to it a charge under this particular Act. Clause 4 provides that a firearm or imitation firearm, though incapable of firing any shot, shall be deemed to be an offensive weapon for the purposes of Sections 23 and 28 of the Larceny Act, 1916, and the nature of the offences in question is clearly laid down in the two paragraphs of this Clause 4. Clause 5 simply gives the short Title, interpretation, and extent of the Act, hut Sub-section (2) of the Clause requires a small Amendment. There are other types of weapons, in addition to what are commonly known as firearms, which we would all be anxious to include in this particular Measure. I refer to weapons defined under Section 6 of the Firearms Act, 1920, as: any weapon, of whatever description, designed for the discharge of any noxious liquid, gas, or other thing. I am sure it is the desire of the whole House that it should be made clear that this Bill will include not only what are called imitation firearms, but weapons of another kind.


Will it include fountain pens?


If they are used for a particular purpose. We must make it certain that these types of weapon are, in fact, included under the terms of this Bill. It is not clear at present that they are so included, and I therefore would propose in Committee to insert, at the end of line 5, on page 3, these words: and includes, except for the purpose of the definition of the expression imitation firearm,' a prohibited weapon as defined by Section 6 of the Firearms Act, 1920. If any hon. Member desires to have a copy of that Amendment, I shall be only too glad to provide him with it to-night. I realise that to-morrow we go into Committee on the Bill, and there would not be very much time for Amendments to be moved to that particular Amendment, as it will only appear on the Order Paper to-morrow morning for the first time.


With regard to the Amendment which the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting, I do not know whether what is known as the fountain-pen type of weapons would be covered by his proposed words.


I think they would, because Section 6 of the Firearms Act, 1920, says: any weapon of whatever description, designed for the discharge of any noxious liquid, gas, or other thing. I think, therefore, they would be included.


Can the right hon. Gentleman inform the House why it is proposed not to extend this Measure to Scotland or to Northern Ireland?


Because I understand that among other things the Scottish Office control their own police force, but I think that question might properly be addressed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, because, of course, I cannot reply on his behalf. I would say that representations have been made to the effect that a Clause should be inserted in this Bill increasing the age at which genuine firearms can be sold to young persons. There have been many questions asked in the House during recent months in connection with that side of the problem. In fact, many hon. Members of the House have pressed the Government to increase the age at which these young persons can purchase firearms. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Pybus) has taken a special interest in this problem. The Government would have liked to meet him and his friends in their desire to raise the present age limit and to put some Clause in this Bill which would have the desired effect, but it is felt by the Government that the Bill does not really provide the most appropriate occasion, for, as is indicated by its short Title, the Bill confines itself to the criminal use of firearms and has nothing to do with the age at which firearms can be purchased or anything of that kind. I have reason also to doubt whether such an addition as has been pressed upon us would actually be in order, but I will say this, that we hope that a further opportunity will present itself for dealing with this problem of the supply of arms to young persons, and when it does present itself, I can promise my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and his friends that the Government will give to it their most sympathetic consideration. I hope that he and other Members of the House will be satisfied with that assurance. I should like to have included that point in this Bill, but we are unable to do so, firstly, because I believe it would have been out of order and, secondly, because we believe that this is not the appropriate occasion upon which a new Clause covering an important matter of that kind should be included.

It may be complained by critics that we are legislating ahead of necessity. It is true that gunmen are not so numerous in this country or so daring as they are in certain other parts of the world, but. our desire is to prevent this profession from becoming a popular or a remunerative one. That is really the object of the Bill. I believe that the Bill will command support from every quarter of the House, for while its provisions will not inflict any hardship whatever on ordinary honest traders, it is believed that it will form an effectual deterrent to dishonest persons who might without the Bill be inclined to use firearms or imitation firearms for the purpose of intimidation or in order to prevent themselves or their unscrupulous friends from being brought to justice for their misdeeds. That at any rate is the intention of the Bill. The intention is to stop such use of firearms or imitation firearms, and I therefore submit the Bill with confidence to the House and ask that it should be given its Second Reading

8.2 p.m.


It falls to me to give the blessing of this side of the House to this Measure. This is the first disarmament plan that the Government have ever brought before the House of Commons. It is a real disarmament plan indeed, and I am hoping that, having disarmed the civil population in our own country, they will carry the principle to Geneva and try to put it into effect there too. I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman one or two questions. In this Bill the maximum penalty is 14 years under Clause 1 and seven years under Clause 2. That makes 21 years all told. I gather from the provisions of the Bill that these two new penalties are in addition to other penalties which may be inflicted in connection with offences arising out of them. It seems to me that the total number of years of penal servitude which can be inflicted in this case is greater than the total number inflicted upon a person who commits murder and whose sentence is commuted, because he serves only 21 years. The penalties in this Bill are probably the most severe in regard to the number of years of penal servitude that we have ever passed through the House of Commons.

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman would have told the House something about the criminal statistics upon which the Bill is based. I do not want to be too critical of the Bill because every good citizen wants to prevent the use of firearms by anybody, but I am afraid that Governments are getting too inclined to bring in new legislation because of Press propaganda. I would have preferred it if the right hon. Gentleman had given facts and figures from the criminal statistics upon which the Bill is based. It is no use taking any notice of the daily newspapers as to what we ought to do in regard to changing the law. This Bill seems to deal only with the use or the attempted use of firearms. I wonder whether the Bill will affect in any way the growth in this country of groups of people who carry other weapons. I think that the members of the Fascisti carry something in their belts. If I had my way I would prevent all that sort of thing in a country like ours. If people cannot argue themselves into power they have no right to try and intimidate other people and seize that power. When a man is too lazy to think he generally puts his arguments into the muzzle of a revolver. Is there anything in this Bill that will prevent people marching through the streets with weapons in their belts or in any other part of their clothing? On the whole, we on this side of the House agree that the law should at least try to prevent the use of firearms by anybody except for legitimate purposes.

8.7 p.m.


I would not say that this is an unpopular Measure because most people take the view that the use of firearms is a crime that should be severely dealt with. I agree with the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. R. Davies) that the Minister might have laid down the basis of his case for introducing this Bill. Generally speaking, when a Government acts it does so because of some facts on which its case is based. The right hon. Gentleman made a general assumption, but I wish that Ministers when they are making a case would try and think of the House of Commons more as a court of law. There you have to prove facts, not fancies. It is becoming a common occurrence in this House for a Minister to say that there has been a large number of cases or that something has happened, but they actually give us no facts on which their statements are based. The Under-Secretary said that there had been a large number of these cases, but he gave no figures to prove it. How many of these cases have happened in the last three years and in what areas have they happened?

The Under-Secretary was pressed to-day by Members in all parts of the House much more vigorously than he is being pressed on this Measure in connection with the alarming loss of life from motor accidents. No one can but view with alarm the grave menace of the roads. When the pressure was put on the right hon. Gentleman what was the nature of his answer? The loss of life from motors is far greater than it has ever been proved or is likely to be proved in the case of firearms. In that case the charge is not that people are actually killed, but that there is the threat to kill in order to rob. In the case of motors, it is not a threat for the actual killing is going on from day to day. The Under-Secretary, however, callously says that we must wait until we have investigated facts and figures of motor accidents. Why? In the main motors are owned by people who belong to the more comfortable section of the community, and in the main the people who are injured and killed belong to the less fortunate section of the community. This Bill is a striking contrast because those who rob belong to the more unfortunate sections and those whom they threaten to kill are either themselves in defence of property or are interested in the property.

In the case of loss of life from motors the Government say, "We will not move, we must take our time and must plan." I venture to say that even if they do plan there will be nothing like the 14 years' sentence which is laid down in this Bill. As the hon. Member for Westhoughton pointed out, the cumulative sentence here can well be over 20 years. It seems to me that in this case the Government are pandering to a popular appeal to bring in this Measure. What is the definition of an imitation firearm? An imitation firearm might well be a pipe. A pipe held in a man's hand is not far from the shape of a firearm.


It depends on how drunk you are.


The hon. Member has probably more experience of that than me.


I hope that the hon. Member did not imagine for a moment that my remark was intended to be personal.


A pipe held by a man might well be an imitation firearm, but there is no definition in this Bill. The Bill seems to give the courts terrible powers. When penalties are increased in the Bill the Minister usually makes the case that the present law is not sufficient to deal with the problem. The Under-Secretary has not taken that line to-day. He has not said that the law is not capable of dealing with this problem. The Bill gives tremendous powers to the courts and to people who are in charge of investigating and probing crime. A man who is half drunk might hold his pipe like a firearm, and the Bill gives too grave a power for the courts to use against him. My main criticism is that the Under-Secretary has never given us the facts. In his concluding sentence he said that this country has not been faced with the gunman as, I assume he meant, America was; and he said that we were dealing with it because it might occur. That would be an argument for passing any Bill. One can conjure up any sort of prospect.

I do not know to what idea this Bill is pandering, but in my view there has not been a great number of these crimes. I frequently visit criminal courts, and the impression I have formed is that, for the most part, crime is on the decrease, with the exception of what I call petty crime. Burglary is not on the increase, and pocket-picking is very much on the decrease. The crime which I find on the increase is such as is forced on people very largely on account of poverty. I was speaking recently to the sheriffs in Glasgow, and one of them told me that he was amazed by the number of people coming before him who were not criminals at all but had been forced into committing petty, miserable, mean crimes. This is a Bill which I cannot accept at its face value. I think the idea behind it is to give to the Courts and to those who assist in the administration of justice a power which may well be used in a tyrannical fashion, and on that account I view the Measure with great alarm and a great deal of suspicion. Though the Opposition, for honest reasons, about which I have no criticism to make, are not going to divide, if I had other followers beside the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) I would, despite the unpopularity of the action, divide against the Bill.

8.17 p.m.


Although I think the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) is correct in saying that the old-fashioned form of burglary—night burglary—is going out, I do not think he is right in implying that the modern smash-and-grab raid or theft combined with assault is going out of fashion. I think he will find, if he examines statistics, that such cases are on the increase, and they, of course, are the type of offence with which this Bill attempts to some extent to deal.


The hon. and gallant Gentleman asks my hon. Friend to analyse the figures. We are all very anxious to know why this Bill has been brought before the House. Has the hon. and gallant Member himself found anything in the criminal statistics which would prove the statement he has just made?


The hon. Member knows quite well that I am not at the Home Office, and therefore it is not my business to provide statistics for the House. The remarks I have just made arose from the fact that recently I was present at the annual conference of magistrates at the Guildhall. where this question was referred to, and where certain statistics were quoted. Naturally I did not note down those statistics, and I am speaking now from memory, but I think I am speaking accurately. The point I rise to make is really a small Committee point which I wish my right hon. Friend to look into before the Committee stage comes on. Section 7 of the Firearms Act, 1920, imposes a penalty for the possession of firearms with intent to injure. Though I am not a lawyer, it seems to me that that Section conflicts, to some extent, with Clauses 1 and 2 of this Bill. It seems to me that a man could be tried under either Section 7 of that Act or under Clause 1 of this Bill, and possibly under Clause 2. The hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) who, like myself, was formerly at the Home Office, said he thought the penalties in this Bill were the greatest that have ever been sanctioned by this House. I would draw attention to the fact that the penalty under Section 7 of the Act of 1920, which was drawn up from the old Explosve Substances Act, 1883, is not 7 or 14 years, but 20 years.


I understand that the maximum penalty under Clause 1 of this Bill is 14 years, and under Clause 2 is 7 years. Together they make 21, which is one year more than 20.


The hon. Member does not imagine that a man could be tried under Clause 1 and Clause 2 at the same time, because obviously he could not.




The additional penalties to which my right hon. Friend referred were additional penalties other than those arising from being tried under Clauses 1 and 2 at the same time. They deal with other offences committed by a man, apart from Clauses 1 and 2. What I want him to realise is that in recent years, since the War, we have passed an Act dealing with the possession of firearms in which we agreed that the penalty should be greater than 14 years. My point is that I would like my right hon. Friend to satisfy himself that there is not any conflict between the first two Clauses of his Bill and Section 7 of the Act of 1920, and, if he thinks it desirable, and if there is any conflict, that there should be a varying punishment as between the 7 and 14 years and the 20 years which are laid down. I am not myself satisfied that the best way of dealing with this question is to give the same punishment to a man who is in possession of a real firearm as to a man who is in possession of an imitation firearm, though that is a nice point, and it may be there is a good deal to be said on both sides. Possibly it is the fact that the two classes of arms are grouped together in this Bill that makes the offender liable to a less penalty than under the Act of 1920, which deals only with the genuine firearm. If the right hon. Gentleman will look into this small point between now and to-morrow I shall be much obliged.

8.23 p.m.


I think every Member ought to feel satisfied that it is the intention of the Bill to do something good, that is, to prevent the use of firearms or the carrying of imitation firearms for the purpose of committing robbery or burglary, which must evidently be in the mind of anyone who carries a firearm. I heard the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) say that in Scotland the penalty for murder is only 15 years. According to this if you did kill a person in Scotland it would mean two penalties of 15 years each. My experience of the carrying of firearms is of very recent date. I heard the report of a revolver, and it was my unfortunate lot to go into the house next door and find a young man of 21 years of age shot dead. He had thought that a man was holding an imitation revolver. That young man of 21 had been shot dead in a post office in the Scotland Road.

I believe it should be illegal for a man to carry a firearm, whether he shoots you or does not shoot you, unless he is in a land where it is necessary for him to be able to protect his life. In a civilised State such as ours he has no right to carry a lethal weapon. But while I feel that way about an instrument which could do great harm to some unfortunate soul who was attacked, I am not able to understand why it should be that if any person makes, or attempts to make, use of imitation firearms the penalty should be 14 years. It should be a question for a judge to take all the circumstances into consideration. The question of imitation firearms certainly ought not to be linked with that of firearms that are really active.

Another point in which I am interested is in Clause 4. I believe that in paragraphs (a) and (b) there is reason for saying that if the Bill passes into law it will be a very useful Measure. I do not think that an hon. Member in any part of the House will disagree with what is proposed there in the case of an attempt to rob. For example, a lady may be held up on the road by a weapon of this description, even though the purpose is only to frighten her, in order that she may give up her goods. I do not know whether hon. Members have ever come into contact with the use of a pistol which can be converted. I have sold firearms, and I know that we have had to get permission. We have had to register and to take all particulars of the person to whom we have sold the firearms. We have also had to know all about weapons that were being taken in pledge. There are toy instruments on the market which the ordinary trader may hand over the counter, but which an ingenious person may turn into a deadly instrument. A toy revolver can easily be bored and made into a most deadly pistol. I am anxious to do no injury to the legitimate toy shops, but I should like to see provision in a Bill of this description for dealing with a person who tries to commit a depredation or a robbery by turning a toy pistol into a proper one. I find in London shops instruments which are sold as toys, but which could be turned into a pistol in five minutes. These are not sold to the ordinary person for fun. Those who wish to commit a depredation or a hold-up are not going to get their pistol at a proper firearm shop, because they would have to give particulars by which they could be traced, but they can go into a thousand and one shops that are selling toy pistols to-day up and down this country.

While the legitimate trade of the shopkeeper should not be interfered with, something ought to be done about the instruments which appear in our police courts very often, with which robberies or shootings have taken place and which have proved to be toys bored and made into five-chambered or seven-chambered pistols. You are dealing in this Bill only with the person who makes the hold-up, and not with the shopkeeper. The toy pistol is not dealt with in any enactment whatever. If you are going to deal with the question of hold-ups with toy pistols, I consider that this Bill ought to be made complete by including the pistol which is on the market in the form of a toy. I am not referring to the dummies which can never be used or be bored, but to the pistol which has a central pipe which, on a lathe or a borer, can be made effective.

I do not think that the use of a toy pistol ought to carry with it a penalty of 14 years. You might find one judge woo would say that a pistol which could never kill ought to be treated on the same level as a revolver which would kill if fired, but no man can fire a dummy pistol and kill anybody. While I believe that the use of such pistols to frighten ladies or children ought to be punishable, this penalty is too great.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed 50.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.—[Mr Hacking].