§ 11.5 a.m.
§ Sir Barnett Janner (Leicester, North West)
I beg to move, in page 1, line 5, to leave out "fourteen" and to insert "sixteen".
§ Mr. Speaker
No doubt the discussion should also include the Amendment in line 10, to leave out "fourteen" to insert "sixteen".
§ Sir B. Janner
Yes. The two Amendments are based on the same argument and I will direct my attention to both.
This is not an attempt in any sense to wreck the Bill, Which the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. B. Harrison) has introduced with the best intentions. Even if my Amendment is rejected—and I hope that it will not be—he has taken at least some steps in the direction in which we have all been striving. I understand that the Government's heart has been softened only sufficiently to agree to the proposals already before the house, but they may change their views after they have heard my argument.
This is a very serious matter which has to be considered in the light of the experience of a vast number of people in the country. I am a vice-president of the Association of Municipal Corporations, which represents 27½ million people, and I have gone very carefully into this situation. The Association is of the opinion that it is not safe to leave these instruments in the hands of young people under the age of 17. For the purposes of the Amendment I must 1362 confine my remarks to the age of 16, but by showing that the argument applies even beyond that age I can indicate how important this matter is.
The farmers' unions, which are watching what is happening in the countryside, are very keen that this protection should be provided against the machinations of young hooligans who, week by week, go into the countryside and kill or mutilate birds or animals in what they regard as a great outing.
Some time ago I tried, I think successfully, to convince the House that certain instruments—the flick knife, for example—were becoming desirable acquisitions for young people who did not feel that they were really men and, in some cases, women unless they had such a knife. Thugs, people who are criminally inclined, although much could be done in protecting ourselves from their ideas and designs, will find ways and means of getting hold of shot guns or air guns and will carry out their own designs in spite of endeavours by the law to prevent them from so doing.
The big danger is the young boy who is really a decent fellow at heart—of course, that applies to the vast majority of our young people—but who feels that it is great fun to go out with a gun and have what he considers some sport in the country, or, perhaps, in the town shooting at a lamp post, and indulge in what he considers to be natural human animal spirits, if I may put it in that way, and have a real good time. Those of us, like myself, who are most anxious that we should not interfere with the legitimate enjoyment of young people and should not unduly curb their activities are deeply distressed about the situation which has arisen. Time after time the magistrates in Leicester have told the public, through the instrumentality of their decisions, how upset they were about and how seriously they regarded youngsters up to the age of 17 having weapons of this nature, which can so easily be obtained, since there is practically no restriction on their sale.
The information which the Home Office has received from police forces throughout the country points to the conclusion that the increase in the number of accidents which I have mentioned is mainly attributable to the careless or malicious use of air guns, air pistols and 1363 air rifles, by young people under the age 17. The number of injuries resulting from the use of air guns reported to the police was 390 in the three years ended 28th February, 1934, and no fewer than 2,712 for the three years ended 1st December, 1958. That is a seven-fold increase. The biggest increase within that figure, namely, from 141 to 1,234, was in accidents caused when young people aged 14 to 17 years were the users of the weapon. There was a considerable increase, namely, from 162 to 918, among users of these weapons under 14 years of age.
I cannot speak more eloquently than that in support of the Amendment. I could not possibly have had the information to enable me to make this contention in the debate on the Game Licences and Gun Licences Bill on 10th March, 1961, in which the Minister of State participated. I cannot see for the life of me how he can go back on what he said then. Perhaps he has had other thoughts since then, but only a year ago he was very disturbed about the position and spoke in terms similar to those which I have used.
When I spoke during the Committee stage of the Bill, in dealing with the question of increasing the age limit to 17 years, I put forward what I thought was a fairly reasonable argument in favour of the Amendment. I emphasised that human beings were being deprived of their eyesight, and maimed and injured in various ways, not through the viciousness of the lad with a weapon such as those that we are considering, but owing to accidents which occurred or other unfortunate incidents resulting in injuries which the lad using the weapon would not have dreamt of inflicting on the injured person. In many cases, those using the weapons may have been affected themselves for life because of the injury which they had inflicted on some other boy or girl. Their peace of mind might easily have been disturbed and their emotions affected as a result.
I have made a number of inquiries about the suffering of animals from the use of these weapons. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been concerned for many 1364 years about the indiscriminate shooting of animals and birds by young people with air guns. The Society strongly supports the Bill and the Amendment. It thinks that the Bill would be much more effective if the age limit under which young people were forbidden to possess these weapons was higher than 14. I have here some examples which I think will help the House to come to a decision on this matter and which, I hope, will influence the promoter of the Bill. I see that he has a wry smile in his eye which, perhaps, indicates that he does not feel able to accept the Amendment. I think that he is a little frightened that the authorities might interfere if we press the matter too far.
An R.S.P.C.A. inspector in Sussex reports a case of three boys prosecuted for shooting and wounding thirteen cows. All the cows were wounded in and around the udder. The boys were 15 and 16. A senior inspector at Blackpool reports two separate cases in Fleetwood of boys aged 16 and 17 discharging air guns in the street, one resulting in another boy being hit in the face. An inspector in Cheshire reports nine separate cases of youths shooting at birds and animals with air guns and four were 14 or 15 years old.
Another inspector from Middlesex states:… one has only to walk over any rough ground in this district at weekends and you meet up to a dozen persons under the age of 17 carrying air guns or pistols.Another inspector states:Usually lads between the ages of 12 and 18 years wander down suburban and country lanes shooting at anything in sight. I have taken a lad aged 16 to court for shooting with an air rifle at domestic pigeons in February this year.An inspector from Swansea says:I have had two cases at court this year … a 16 year old youth shooting and wounding a pigeon with an air gun—a 17 year old youth shooting and wounding a cat, which had to be destroyed.An inspector from Yorkshire reports a boy of 15 shooting and blinding a swan and said that he also shot several pellets at children as they came out of school. A chief inspector in Westmorland reports a case of four youths shooting at and stoning a hedgehog. One aged 16 was responsible for shooting the hedgehog, which he did with a .177 calibre Diana air rifle. Although injured 1365 by pellets and stones, the hedgehog was still alive when it was rescued from the youths, although it was later humanely destroyed. Another report comes from Hampshire and concerns a youth of 17 but is outside the scope of the Amendment, Those are but a few of the many cases of youths between the ages of 14 and 17 injuring and maiming animals and birds. There are innumerable cases of youths over 14 injuring other young people as well as adults with air guns.
That is what is said by the R.S.P.C.A. which exercises its duty to the best of its skill and ability. So far, we have the Association of Municipal Corporations and the National Farmers' Union in support of the Amendment. I have no doubt that the County Councils Association will follow the same line. My constituents are very perturbed, and I, for one, find that extremely serious. My constituents are perturbed only when it is reasonable that they should be. Most of them are behind me on this issue and many are deeply disturbed about what is happening.
Another instance concerns a farmer at Chalfont St. Giles who wrote to say that he had found a 12-bore a most effective deterrent when faced by "marauding itinerants." He wrote to say that he had run into a new problem—"gun-crazy" youths aged not between 14 and 17. but between 16 and 20. He says:They enjoy ever-increasing hunting expeditions in the Hodgemore Woods and they are not particular about their targets. The local police are worried about them shooting song birds. Some of my men were working in a field when they heard this buzzing noise. They thought at first it was just bees droning past but when they looked up they saw four youths on top of the water tower. They appeared to be shooting at my chaps with a .22 rifle. My men ran like the devil to get under cover and later we saw the same four youths driving away in a car. That was some weeks ago now but last week some of these youths shot out the lamps on my tractor which was parked near the woods. It is the second time that has happened.He says that the majority of the youths are local. It was said in Committee that most of these incidents occurred in town, but I am sorry to say that some of our country youths occasionally, if not often, come into the same category. However, he says that others probably come from Uxbridge or London and regularly indulge in "shooting orgies". He says: 1366They come by car and motor scooter and have a regular arsenal of arms at their disposal. I have seen everything up there bar a machine gun and I dare say it will not be long before they have use of those also. People think they use only air guns but I have seen them even with revolvers.That is an ordinary farmer who may be speaking subjectively to some extent, although the incident was reported in a local newspaper and I do not think there was any agitation to show that he was speaking contrary to the facts. On the contrary, I have not heard of anyone who has denied the legitimacy of the argument. Similar letters have come from all over the country.
The women's organisations are up in arms about this matter and I warn the Minister that once the women get on the track, he is in for trouble. He has sufficient vision and imagination to know what the result may be if he does not do something. I have a letter from a woman which says:I am afraid I am too late to be of much use though I have contacted the R.S.P.C.A. and the police earlier, but if the air gun age could have been raised to 17, it would have been a great blessing. During the Christmas holidays a gang of boys ranged our farmland here shooting everything that moved. Birds, even at the bird tables, were the chief targets and we kept finding them dead or winged. At this the local constable intervened and gave them a lecture, at which they laughed loudly. When I asked him about our birds, though sympathetic, he said there was no redress unless they happened to be game or on the protected list.I have dozens and dozens of such letters and I have had verbal communications of all sorts. I hope that the illustrations I have given have been sufficient to encourage the Minister to say that there is no need for this debate to continue and that he is prepared to accept the Amendment.
§ 11.30 a.m.
§ Sir Lionel Heald (Chertsey)
It is always a very pleasant feature of a Private Member's Bill that it results in co-operation between hon. Members on both sides of the House. I should like to say a word of appreciation of the work that the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner) has done over the years in this matter. I have been associated with him in this campaign for more than three years; I think that it goes back much further than that. We were unfortunate with the previous Bill. The hon. Member for 1367 Leicester, North-West is not one of the supporters named on the back of the Bill, but he is very definitely a strong supporter of it, and I think that we should be grateful to him.
§ Sir B. Janner
I am much obliged to the right hon. and learned Member for the very generous way in which he has referred to me. I had hoped to back the Bill but it had to be presented rather rapidly. I am sure that the promoter realises that I would very willingly have done so.
§ Sir L. Heald
I want to make it clear that we appreciate the work that the hon. Gentleman has done. It has been a considerable task to bring this Measure to the position it is now in. I say at once that I have the greatest possible sympathy with the Amendment, but I wanted to point out the difficulties in connection with Private Members' Bills and the necessity to accept what we can get if we find that we cannot persuade the authorities to go further.
It is more than three years since we started on this operation. There is no doubt at all that public opinion has been alerted to a considerable extent, particularly, as the hon. Member mentioned, the National Farmers' Union. It is a right and proper feature of our national life that the period of gestation of the Farmers' Union is perhaps like that of the elephant. It takes quite a long time to get on to the job. It has now come to the view that this is a serious problem. The question is whether we can hope to achieve the result that we want by means of Amendments to this Bill. As one of the supporters of the Bill, I feel considerable responsibility, but I fear that we shall have great difficulty. I do not want the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West to think for one moment that I am saying anything that is not encouraging to him, but I feel that it may be that this is not the way in which we can finally solve this problem, and there is more to it than we can hope to achieve by this Bill.
The Farmers' Union naturally takes the view that the hon. Gentleman is right in regard to age, but even the age of 17 is not sufficient to meet every point. I think that the point of view 1368 of the Farmers' Union is that this is much more a question of licensing. The real reason why this trouble occurs is that these young people are in possession of weapons for which they have no real legitimate use. A youth of 16, 17 or 18 who lives in a suburban or semi-suburban area, who has no connection with farming, no relations who are farmers, does not need to visit farms in connection with shooting. What need is there for him to have a gun at all? I know that it is not in order to discuss this at length, so I only say, by way perhaps of comfort and encouragement to the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West, that I think there is a very strong tide of opinion, led particularly now by the Fanners' Union and many other organisations, in the direction of inquiring how far it is really desirable or legitimate for these young people to get gun licences or be in possession of air guns at all.
It may be within the recollection of the House that I had to take a rather remarkable step to bring attention to this, so that it received any serious consideration at all, by purchasing a gun licence for a shot gun for my granddaughter aged three.
§ Mr. Speaker
On that occasion, if I remember rightly, the right hon. and learned Member was not subject to the limitations of this Amendment. I think that his purchase of his grand-daughter's licence would be equally possible whether the limit in the Bill was 14 or 16.
§ Sir B. Janner
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. After all, the child is father to the man. It may well be that it affects the position as regards safety when the child reaches the age of 16.
§ Mr. Speaker
I am not able to follow the distinction. What governs the matter of order is the difference between 14 and 16. A child of three is within both categories.
§ Sir L. Heald
I should like to say that the only reason I made this explanation was that, as one of the supporters of the Bill, I should like the hon. Member for Leicester, North-west to appreciate that I have every possible sympathy with his 1369 point of view, but I feel that it might endanger the Bill. It may be that in view of the discussions that there have been and the difficulty that we had on the previous occasion, when at the very last moment the Bill was defeated after it had been through all its stages except the last, we shall be unable to persuade the Government to adopt this Amendment.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman be good enough to explain why he says that the acceptance of this Amendment would endanger the Bill? As I understood it, the attitude of the Home Office as indicated in the Minister's speech in Committee was one of complete neutrality. Surely, on an Amendment of this kind to a Private Member's Bill, the question posed is one for decision by the House. I put it to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the House is able to vote either for or against this Amendment without endangering the Bill. It was not obvious to me why the right hon. and learned Gentleman is unable to support the Amendment or why he should think that if the Amendment were carried, whatever the views of the Home Office, there would be any danger to the Bill.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Renton)
May I be allowed to clarify the point raised?
§ Mr. Speaker
Certainly, but at present it is in the form of an intervention on an intervention. I think that I had better discover whether the right hon and learned Member has concluded his speech.
§ Sir L. Heald
I do not know whether I shall give the same answer as my hon. and learned Friend on the Front Bench will give. As I understand it, the attitude of neutrality was on the basis of age. I am all in favour of the Amendment being accepted, but I am anxious, as this is the only opportunity I shall have, to point out that I believe that there is considerable difficulty in changing a figure of this kind, once it has arrived in the Bill as a result of a number of discussions with various interests and individuals of all kinds. Therefore, if that does happen I shall regret it very much. I am not saying that I do not support the Amendment, but I do say 1370 that it may well be that it will not be possible to achieve it. I am most anxious to make it clear that I do not believe for a moment that that will mean that nothing more can be done. This is by no means the end of the story. This is the beginning of the story because this Bill can only begin to tackle the problem which we must not allow to rest where it is.
§ Dr. Alan Glyn (Clapham)
I am sure that we are all grateful to the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner) for expressing what, in my view, is the view of the country. People all over the country are alarmed at this problem, and I think that the Amendment would go a long way to meeting many of the dangers. But I subscribe to the view of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald), that in these Private Bills one has to get what one can. One has to perhaps accept possibly less than one would like to see on the Statute Book.
We all agree that this is really the first stage of a problem which has to be tackled either by licence or in some other way. I make no bones about it. I am in favour of the Amendment and I Chink that we would be wise to accept it. I shall, however, carefully consider what my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State has to say. I hope that he will state categorically that this is the first stage in what will at a later date be a major reform in this field, particularly in considering the possibility of licences.
My right hon. and learned Friend rightly asked what a young boy of 16 living in a municipal area wants with an air gun. If he lives in the country, that is another matter, but in London why is it necessary for these boys to have guns? In many cases there are no proper ranges on which these guns can be used and, as a result, lamp posts are used as targets. The owners of the guns are a general nuisance. It is high time that we accepted the age suggested by the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West but I will listen to what my hon. and learned Friend has to say.
§ Mr. Brian Harrison (Maldon)
I fully endorse what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) said about the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner). We all know the great interest which the 1371 hon. Gentleman has taken in these matters, starting with flick knives, and one almost expects catapults to be brought in, if they have not already been included.
The hon. Gentleman moved a similar Amendment during the Committee state, and at that time I tried to give pretty fully the reasons why I thought it was desirable to leave the age as it is in the Bill. This age has been arrived at after consultation with a lot of people with differing interests, and though I agree with the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) that this is something which could be decided by the House of Commons, unfortunately this is not the last stage of the Bill. It has to go through a further stage in another place, and it might run into trouble there. This is an early stage in legislation of this sort, and I think therefore that we ought to move reasonably cautiously.
The hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short) is opposed to any form of restriction. When looking at the casualty figures—and there have been increasing casualties in the 14 to 17 group—one has to remember that some of these casualties may well have occurred on private property, which is excluded from a lot of the provisions of the Bill. Whatever the rise in the number of accidents in the 14 to 17 group, I do not think that we can assume that they all occurred in public places.
If the Amendment were accepted, we would bring in as it were an added complication by creating a new category. Most of our firearms legislation deals with young people of 14 and 17. If the Amendment were accepted, we would bring in another category. that of the young person aged 16. We would then run into further complications because of the difficulty of the definitions of a child and young person. At the moment we use the ages of 14 and 17 to deal with these categories.
There is this further point. If the Amendment were accepted and the possession of weapons was prohibited for children under 16, it would mean that we would have another complication in the Bill, because young persons between 16 and 17 would be able to carry air rifles or air guns in public 1372 places, provided that they were carried secured fastened. One would therefore be making what is a reasonably simple Measure—and I hope because of its comparative simplicity enforceable—very much more complicated, and because of the complications prevent it achieving what we want.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider this as a first stage to try to deal with this problem and accept the Bill in the form in which it came from the Committee, and agree to see how it works with the prohibitions suggested in it rather than at this late stage try to make some alterations which may complicate the enforcement of the Bill, and may in addition upset the possibility of achieving this small measure of the agreed prohibition in the use of air guns or air rifles. I hope very much that the hon. Gentleman will not press the Amendment.
§ Mr. Renton
As I pointed out in Committee, the Government's attitude to the Bill as a whole is one of neutrality. We are, however, anxious to ensure that the Bill is properly drafted, is enforceable, and is not unnecessarily restrictive.
There are those who would like to see the possession of air weapons by children and young persons prohibited altogether. On the other hand, there are those who take the view that people who are likely to have a legitimate use for guns later in life should be properly trained in their use at an early age, and that air weapons provide a safe means of training in the use of other weapons. As I understand the intention of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. B. Harrison), it is to make a reasonable compromise between those opposing views, but there is room for endless argument as to the precise age at which the control should be imposed.
From the point of view of preventing malicious damage—with which local authorities are concerned and with which the speech of the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner) was largely concerned—there is something to be said for putting the age pretty high. But we must carefully consider the implications of doing so. I propose to invite the attention of the Committee to those implications.
1373 In Committee the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West unsuccessfully moved several Amendments which would have applied to people between the ages of 14 and 17—those who are technically known as "young persons"—all the restrictions imposed by Clause 1 on the possession of air weapons by children under 14, according to the Bill. He is now confining his efforts to subsection (1) of that Clause and he suggests that the limit should be extended so that the subsection would refer to persons under the age of 16. Under Section 19 of the Firearms Act, 1937—and I hope that this may be of consolation to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald)—it is an offence for a young person—
§ Sir B. Janner
I want the House to be clear about this. The reason why I changed my mind with regard to the age of 17 was that I had to bow to force majeure. That is why I brought the age down to 16. I should have been very pleased to have moved that the age limit should be raised to 17 had I been permitted.
§ Mr. Renton
We all appreciate the position in which the hon. Member finds himself. In Committee he made a valiant attempt to persuade hon. Members that the whole of Clause 1 should apply to all young people under the age of 17. He failed in that attempt and, although there is no doubt a last ditch in which he is prepared to die, he has fallen back to a further line of defence.
When I was interrupted I was expressing the hope that it would be a consolation to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey that under Section 19 of the Firearms Act, 1937, it is an offence for a person under the age of 17 to purchase or hire a firearm, including an air weapon. It is also an offence to sell or hire a firearm to a person under that age. If the Amendment were accepted it would also become an offence to give an air weapon to a person under 16, or for a person under 16 to accept an air weapon as a gift. The effect would be that although the Bill permits possession of air weapons by persons between the ages of 14 and 17, subject to certain 1374 safeguards, the only weapon which a young person could lawfully possess in certain circumstances would be a borrowed one.
We have to consider whether it is right to force young people into a position where, although they would be allowed in certain circumstances to use a weapon, the only weapons they could use would be a borrowed one.
§ Mr. Renton
That would be one of the effects of the Amendment, and it is for the House to consider whether it would be a sensible one. The intention of the existing prohibition on the selling and hiring of these weapons to persons under 17 is that these young persons could not come into possession of the weapons without the knowledge of their parents or guardians, who would be responsible for deciding whether and under what conditions their children should be allowed to use them.
We admit that the existing provisions of the law have not been effective in securing an adequate degree of parental supervision—which is also part of the hon. Member's case—but it is doubtful whether the Amendments which he proposes would rectify that situation. A parent who is disposed to give an air weapon to a boy under 17 would be no less disposed to lend him one until he attained that age. This argument admittedly applies also to giving an air weapon to children under 14, which the Bill seeks to prohibit, but if the Bill becomes law a person between the ages of 14 and 17 will be able lawfully to possess an air weapon in a variety of circumstances where that possession by a child under 14 would be unlawful, and it would be unreasonable to enact that the only weapon he could possess in such circumstances was a borrowed one.
§ Mr. Renton
It is a matter of opinion, or judgment. I am merely informing the House of the present legal position, what the position under the Bill would be, and what the effects of the Amendment would be, and it will be for the House to decide whether the Bill or the Amendments are right.
1375 The effect of the Amendments in subsections (1) and (2), to substitute 16 for 14 would be to prohibit the possession of weapons by children under 16 except in the circumstances permitted by subsections (4) and (5). But young people between the ages of 16 and 17 would be able to carry air rifles and air guns in public places, provided that they were carried in a securely fastened cover.
§ Sir B. Janner
Perhaps the hon. Member will be good enough to put in a written Amendment so that we can change the age to 17 again, subject to the approval of Mr. Speaker.
§ Mr. Renton
I do not think that any of the inconsistencies, anomalies or difficulties which arise are likely to be cured by a simple written Amendment that I might hand in for your consideration, Mr. Speaker. In any event, I have no intention of doing so.
On the general question whether the more stringent restrictions imposed by subsections (1) and (2) should apply only up to the age of 14 or to a higher age, it is right for me to maintain the Government's attitude of neutrality, but in case the House should be tempted to consider that a higher age than 14 should be fixed I must point out that the age of 16 is not a suitable one. It would unnecessarily and without good reason complicate the law by introducing a new age, different from the ages at which successive degrees of control are imposed by the Firearms Act. There is another and perhaps stronger reason: under our law relating to children and young persons a clear division has been made for many years between children—that is, those who are under the age of 14—and young persons—that is, those who are under the age of 14—and young persons—that is, those who have reached the age of 14 but are under 17.
It is surely undesirable to introduce yet a third category unless there are extremely strong reasons for doing so. My advice to the House therefore is that from at any rate the technical point of view—and this is not being just legalistic, it is being sensible—there is no case for the age of 16 in the event of a higher age than 14 being thought 1376 right for the restrictive provisions of subsections (1) and (2).
I have endeavoured to enlighten the House on a fairly complicated situation. What it comes to is that on the broad question of principle the Government are neutral. We feel that it is for the House to decide whether these restrictions should apply to children, as they are technically known in the law, and only to children, or whether they are to apply to young persons as well. That is the issue and it is for the House to decide.
§ Mr. Fletcher
The Minister of State has been scrupulously fair and impartial in the speech he has just made and in the advice he has given to the House. He has indicated that on the question of principle involved the Home Office is entirely neutral and that this is a matter for the House to decide. He has also pointed out certain technical difficulties which would arise if the age limit were raised from 14 to 16. The Amendment deals with the problem of raising the age limit from 14 to 16.
It was implicit in what the hon. and learned Gentleman said that he would have thought that 17 was a better age than 16, because that would have avoided certain anomalies and difficulties that might otherwise have arisen, but we can deal only with the question of principle—whether the age should be raised from 14. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner), for technical reasons, has had to propose a limit of 16 although he would have preferred 17, and I gather that hon. and right hon. Members opposite who have spoken in favour in principle of the Amendment might also have preferred the age of 17.
The Minister spoke on this matter in Committee and when it came to a vote he abstained, as one would have expected, from voting in the Division. In other words, he did not oppose my hon. Friend's Amendment that the age limit should be raised from 14 to 17. Therefore, the question today is merely whether 16 is better than 14. Apart from the speech of the hon. Member for Mal don (Mr. B. Harrison), the promoter of this most valuable Bill, it seems to me that the general opinion of the House is that 14 is too low an age and that it ought to be raised. I will do no more 1377 than emphasise some of the reasons already given in saying that I support the view that 14 is too low an age and it should be raised.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-West, I am also a vice-president of the Association of Municipal Corporations and I am conscious of the association's strong views on this subject in favour of this Amendment. Apart from the technicalities which the Minister urged might be put forward against the Amendment, his only substantial reason was that because the use of shot guns is legitimate in the case of certain adults it is therefore necessary that they should have training in their use at an early age. That was the Minister's argument.
§ The Amendment does not affect that argument at all because, as I read subsections (2) and (5), opportunities for instruction in clubs will remain at the age of 14. Whether that is right or wrong I do not know, but I should have thought that if the argument is that children at some age should have proper professional training in the use of air weapons it was quite adequate for them to start their education in the use of weapons at the age of 16 or 17 and that it was quite unnecessary for them to be encouraged in their use at the age of 14.
§ The salient fact that has arisen in all these debates, which were initiated last year by the hon. Member for Maldon, is that there is throughout the country a growing concern about the serious marked increase in the number of injuries produced by air guns in the last twenty to thirty years. The largest part of this increase has come from air guns in the hands of youths aged 14 to 17, although a substantial part has come from guns used by children under 14. Whereas the increase in injuries due to shot guns was much smaller—about 50 per cent. over a period of twenty-five years—on the other hand air gun injuries have increased in the last twenty-five years by 700 per cent. Therefore, public opinion rightly demands that something should be done to check this shocking growth of injuries, malicious damage and hooliganism of all kinds arising from the use of air guns in the hands of young people.
§ I am not at all impressed by the Minister's argument that there is some tech 1378 nical flaw and that a child who could not have a gun of his own might be able to use a borrowed gun. It does not seem to be realistic to urge against this principle of parental supervision that a parent would be prohibited from giving his child a shot-gun but, in certain circumstances if the child were over 14, would not be prohibited from lending him a gun. If we are anxious to strengthen the provisions of the law and also to strengthen parental control over children acquiring, being given, borrowing or obtaining shot guns, obviously this is a most valuable reform and I would urge the House to accept the Amendment.
§ Largely for the benefit of the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) and the hon. Member for Abingdon, I want to deal with their fears that by supporting the Amendment they would be endangering the Bill. In my view the contrary is the case. If the Amendment is carried to a Division, as I hope it will be, then if it is challenged by the promoters of the Bill or anybody else there is a risk that owing to the smallness of the numbers difficulties might arise.
§ Sir L. Heald
Does the hon. Member think it desirable to have a Division on a Measure like this? The hon. Member has not been quite so occupied with this subject as some of us have been.
§ Mr. Fletcher
I was saying that I do not think it would be desirable to have a Division. I was saying to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I hope he will avoid a Division. I hope that those in favour of the principle of this Amendment will support it, and by so doing avoid a Division. The Minister has said that the Government are neutral on this point and that it is a matter for the House to decide. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and others who have spoken so often in support of the principle of this Amendment, will not venture to jeopardise the Bill by opposing the Amendment.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
I wish to speak merely on the question of the ages of 14 and 16. I apologise for not having been in the Chamber when the debate commenced, but that is the only point in which I have any interest. Several Parliamentary Sessions ago we 1379 discussed a Bill which dealt with some of the minor forms of gambling and the age at which young persons should be able to participate in them. The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) wanted to make the minimum age 18, and I suggested that the proper age was 16 because we were legislating for young people of about the age when compulsory attendance at school no longer applies. From their point of view that time is a great watershed in the lives of young people.
At present the school-leaving age is 15. From reading what happens at all-party conferences, I understand that there is now general agreement that it ought to be 16, though it is unlikely that in my lifetime it will be raised to 16. I recollect the years during which everybody agreed that the age should be 15. But in the belief that within a reasonably short time the age of 16 will be the watershed in the lives of young people we put 16 into the legislation to which I have referred.
I think that we should look at this matter from the point of view particularly of boys—though I appreciate that girls come into it, and I understand that the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) once gave a grandchild or a niece, aged three and a half, a licence to have a shot-gun—and it seems to me that if we can link these things with the age when compulsory attendance at school ends, we shall have regard to the outlook on life of young people of that age. I suggest to the Minister of State that that is a valid consideration. The lives of these young people are sufficiently complicated now. If there is some date such as that when they are released from compulsory attendance at school, which for them is a sort of coming of age date, from the point of view of their conduct towards society, it seems to me that we should apply that age as generally as possible.
§ Sir L. Heald
I am interested in what the right hon. Gentleman has been saying. May I ask whether he would agree that it is a question of getting all the relevant legislation dealing with these matters into line? As he and his hon. Friends will be aware, there is the Firearms Act, and it might be that we should see that the same age applies in all these things.
§ 12.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Ede
There is no reason why we should not make a start. It is the case that the best is so often the enemy of the good. When dealing with matters like fixing a minimum age at which they may possess and use an offensive weapon, we must bear in mind that we are dealing with young persons who are developing. I should like to see the minimum age of 16 applied generally. But I have not the general law before me today; I have only the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey as the embodiment of the general law. But I have got something which seems to me to be a practical issue and provides an opportunity to move towards the ideal which I wish to attain. In the House of Commons I am generally in the minority, and if I see an opportunity to take a step along the road I wish to travel I welcome it.
I hope there will be a general recognition that 14 is too young and that 16 is a better age on all considerations, except for the fact that there are other Acts on the Statute Book dealing with similar things where the age is different from 16. But I should like to see the age of 16 adopted generally. If we ever have an Order in Council, which is all that is required, to raise the school-leaving age to 16, I hope that the same age will be used in all these matters. That will be the age which marks the passage from childhood to the condition of being a young person. For the reasons I have given, and to be consistent with my actions in regard to other Measures, I prefer the age of 16 to that of 14. Whether my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) chooses to call a Division is no concern of mine. My hon. Friend sits on the Opposition Front Bench above the Gangway, and I shall have to do what he tells me.
§ Mr. Renton
In courtesy to the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), I think one should point out that we are not dealing with the question of the difference between the ages of 14 and 16. We are dealing with the difference between those who are under 14 and those who are under 16.
§ Sir B. Janner
That makes the case much worse. I wish to appeal to the 1381 Minister to reconsider his decision entirely. I had not put that argument before because I anticipated that everyone knew it. But, now that the hon. and learned Gentleman has emphasised the point, I should like to give him a few figures to help him to come to a conclusion. I have here figures relating to injuries sustained by young people under the age of 14, and between the ages of 14 and 16. These figures were recorded in respect of offences by 66 borough police authorities from many of the large towns and cities of England and Wales. In 1959 there were 98 cases involving children under 14 and 101 of the ages of 14, 15 and 16. For 1960 the figures are 121 and 129, and for 1961 they are 128 and 147.
The age of 16 has been suggested. I will analyse the figures. For the ages 14 and 15, respectively, the figures were 53 and 30. That is 83 as against 98 under 14. In the year 1960 the number under 14 was 121, and for the ages 14 and 15 it was 102. In 1961 there were 128 under 14 and 117 aged 14 and 15. I appeal to the Minister. He did not answer the point which I put to him. He made a very reasonable speech, part of which I quoted, in which he indicated frankly and freely the position concerned with air guns. This is a question only of shot guns. I can give the Minister the quotation to refresh his memory. I do not think I am misleading the House. The hon. and learned Gentleman said:Air guns serve little if any useful purpose, as I have said. It is not considered that any genuine hardship can arise by applying restrictive provisions to them. Shot guns, however have a legitimate use for the killing of game …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th March, 1961; Vol. 636, c. 907.]He went much further than I am asking that we should go. I cannot put the age of 17 into this Amendment, but he may think that the age should go up to 16, and that is a matter which I beg him to consider.
I do not think it fair that the Minister should not answer what he himself has asked us to consider. The position is serious. I quite agree that the age of responsibility in so far as there is a distinction between 14 and 17 is defined in other Acts. What the law says is that the age of responsibility in the matter of juvenile delinquency shall be 1382 considered in two phases, up to 14 and from 14 to 17. It is a fact, which I do not think will be denied, that there are more juvenile delinquents coming before the courts of the ages of 14 and up to 17 than those brought before the courts up to the age of 14. I have it on very strong authority—perhaps the strongest I could quote, that of a magistrate in my area—who tells me that the major proportion of the cases with which she has had to deal in the eighteen months that she has been on the juvenile bench are of individuals between the ages of 14 and 17.
Why is the Home Office so "sticky" about this matter? It is not opposing, but I should like the Minister to come forward wholeheartedly instead of halfheartedly. It is difficult in these circumstances to decide what to do, and I think we must let this go in view of the opinion of other hon. Members on this side of the House. I cannot withdraw the Amendment, but I hope that nothing will be done on either side to endanger the Bill.
§ Amendment negatived.