§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 4.1 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Frank Soskice)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
On 11th February I made a statement in the House about firearms legislation and I then said that I was fully conscious of the urgency of bringing in a Bill. I said in my statement that the object of the Government's proposals was to strike at the criminal and the potential criminal, the hooligan, while limiting as much as possible the restrictions placed on the law-abiding citizen and the burden placed on the police. This has been our guiding principle in drafting the Bill, which carries into effect the conclusions which I outlined in my previous statement.
Before describing the Bill, I should like to say something about the background of events which led to the Government's decision to take action. I think that the country as a whole was greatly concerned in December last when it seemed for a short time, at any rate, that each day brought its fresh quota of incidents, especially in London, in which firearms were used, sometimes for the purposes of the commission of a crime, sometimes, as it seemed, almost casually and almost without any specific purpose in view. The outbreak was dealt with speedily and effectively by the police, but it served only to throw into relief an apparent trend about which all must feel serious anxiety.
I have previously given figures which show that in the Metropolitan Police District there was a rise in the number of indictable offences in which firearms were used. During the years 1961 to 1963 the numbers had declined slightly from 127 to 118 and then to 103, but they rose again in 1964 to 172. The returns which I have now received from chief officers of police show that there has been a less marked but, nevertheless, noticeable increase in the comparable figures for the rest of England and Wales. There has been an increase in the number of indictable offences in which firearms were used in the cities and counties outside London from 425 in 1961 to 559 in 1964.
1143 If one takes together the December outbreak and the overall increases for the year, it becomes clear that the habit of carrying firearms has been increasing amongst both youthful hooligans and the more serious professional criminals, particularly among the younger hooligan types, some of whom seem to be roaming the streets with loaded firearms prepared to damage property and to shoot and, perhaps, maim people almost out of bravado. The Government are determined that any such tendencies shall be dealt with severely.
We intend to do this in three ways. First, we propose to give the courts powers to deal drastically with people who use firearms and flout the control and, by creating an effective deterrent, make the game just not worth the candle. I have no doubt that we can rely on the courts to use these powers in appropriate cases. To ensure that the penalties which the court may inflict are heavy enough the Bill increases the penalties provided under the Firearms Act, 1937, and also creates two new offences where we think a gap exists in the law.
The second line of attack is to enable the police to catch these people before they have used their weapons. Any person actually committing a serious offence with a firearm will already be dealt with severely under the existing provisions of the Firearms Act, 1937, but more would be achieved if the police could prevent these crimes from being committed. The Bill therefore provides additional powers for the police to enable them to take preventive action. The deterrent effect of the new offences and increased sentences added to the preventive action of the police in the streets may well make criminals of all sorts think twice before taking firearms out with them.
Finally, we have considered how we might reduce the supply of dangerous weapons to people who might misuse them. One suggestion which has been widely canvassed is the extension of the firearms certificate procedure to cover shotguns. I gave very careful consideration to this before I made my statement and I have considered it again since. But my conclusion remains the same, namely, that the burden which certification would put on the police and the 1144 users would not be justified by the results.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)
Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman considered whether sawn-off shotguns—that is, those with a shortened barrel—should be totally prohibited?
§ Sir F. Soskice
The 1937 Act already deals with sawn-off shotguns. Sawn-off shotguns come within a number of provisions in the Bill.
As I was saying, the burden which certification would put on the police and the users would not be justified by results. I was going on to give the total number of shotguns in this country.
The total number is not known of those held by the public, but estimates have been given, and they vary between 500,000 and 1 million. The issue of a firearm certificate involves careful scrutiny by the police of the reasons given by the person asking for the certificate for his having a firearm and it involves the making of inquiries. If one bears in mind the vast number of shotguns in use by perfectly respectable people for legitimate purposes—and they would have to be given certificates—the conclusion is, I think, quite inevitable that the police would waste a great amount of time in making inquiries about perfectly responsible members of the public. The consequent diversion of police effort would be enormous and might, indeed, be reflected in a reduced ability to deal with crime.
The price would be acceptable if, nevertheless, we felt sure that it would significantly reduce the availability of firearms to criminals. But so many certificates would have to be issued to legitimate users that, in view of the very considerable numbers involved, no really significant result would be produced. But we are certainly not ignoring the fact that shotguns are used increasingly for criminal purposes.
The figures show that shotguns were used in connection with 107 of the 552 indictable offences known to the police in 1961 in which firearms were used, and in 215 of the 731 comparable offences in 1964. Several provisions of the Bill are intended to check this use of shotguns in connection with crime, but instead of dissipating police effort over the very wide field of certification of shotguns we propose to bring home forcibly to the 1145 criminal or potential criminal that it will not pay to use shotguns, or even to contemplate their use. We intend to enable the police to concentrate their efforts effectively rather than to dissipate them—
§ Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman break down those figures further between the shotgun in the normal sense of the word—that is, with a stock—and the smooth-bore pistol with a barrel in excess of 20 ins. which is, therefore, a perfectly legal weapon under the existing law?
§ Sir F. Soskice
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman those figures without notice, but I shall try to let him have them later. I am not sure that a break-up is available between the two—I rather doubt it— but I shall do my best to get it.
When I go through the various Clauses, I shall draw attention to several provisions that have been drafted with this object in view. In practice, the firearms used by criminal elements are, in the main, stolen or illegally imported, and we have considered how we might make more difficult the acquisition of firearms by theft. Firearms handled by individuals in approved clubs under the existing firearms certificate procedure are, as a matter of standard practice, required to be kept in a secure place when not actually in use. This is a standard condition in all firearm certificates, laid down by the Firearms Rules, 1937. These rules also require conditions to be attached requiring an owner to report all losses and thefts immediately, as well as changes of address.
We do not think that this procedure requires amendment at this stage, although as a preliminary to bringing the Measure into effect when it is on the Statute Book—as I hope it will be very quickly—I propose to discuss with chief officers of police the whole question of the enforcement procedure; and to consider with them whether anything further needs to be done by way of co-ordination.
The criminal wishing to obtain a firearm by theft will prefer to know that where he intends to steal it he will find the type of weapon he would like to have. The obvious target for him is in the premises of a dealer in firearms. Under the 1937 Act, all dealers in firearms, other than those dealing solely in shotguns and air weapons, have to register 1146 with the police. The police may refuse to register if, amongst other things, they are satisfied the applicant cannot be permitted to carry on business as a firearms dealer without danger to the public safety. If registration is refused the dealer has the right of appeal to quarter sessions. Like so many blanket powers, this is only appropriate for the bad case. What the police cannot do at the moment, as they can in connection with a firearms certificate, is to attach conditions to the registration of persons wishing to carry on business as dealers in firearms.
Most dealers are responsible and careful businessmen, and follow the advice of the Gun Trade Association. The Association only recently, after consultation with the Commissioner of Police, issued excellent advice to its members on the sort of precautions they should take to secure their premises and their stock, and I gladly acknowledge the co-operation and public spirit that it has shown in this matter. It needs, however, only one or two slightly less conscientious or less careful dealers for relatively substantially numbers of weapons to be liable to be stolen and become available to criminals.
The Bill therefore provides that upon registration the police shall be able to impose conditions, and upon non-compliance with these conditions to revoke registration. Such conditions could include conditions requiring steps to be taken to ensure as far as possible that firearms are securely kept by the dealer. I shall also discuss with chief officers of police the sort of conditions to be attached when the Bill is further on its way. Dealers will have power to appeal to quarter sessions against conditions imposed and any revocation of registration that may take place. For the first time, we shall bring within the dealers registration system persons who deal only in shotguns, who are at present outside it. This will make the system comprehend all lethal firearms.
As I said in my recent statement, I shall request chief officers of police to co-operate in having another amnesty before the regulations relating to increased penalties come into force, so as to enable people who have firearms without certificate—and who, under the Bill, will become liable to long terms of imprisonment—to hand them in without penalty.
1147 Having said that by way of introduction, I propose now to go shortly through the provisions of the Bill—
§ Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)
It is not in the Bill, but may I ask what happens to the weapons after they have been handed in? Are they sold back to firearms dealers, or are they destroyed?
§ Sir F. Soskice
That would have to be a matter for consideration. A number would be destroyed. They certainly would not be disposed of in any way that human prescience could foresee might result in their getting into the hands of those whom we would not wish to possess them. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman of that.
Clause 1 of the Bill makes it an offence punishable on indictment with 10 years' imprisonment for a person to have a firearm with him while attempting to commit an indictable offence. Incidentally, this Clause will include air weapons and also, of course, shotguns. The police will have to show that the person concerned intended to commit an indictable offence as well as that he had a firearm with him. It is, I know, often not easy for the prosecution to prove the existence of such an intent, but I believe that cases will certainly arise in which the circumstances point conclusively to the existence of such an intent, and as the offence in such cases is likely to be one of the more serious types of offence, such as robbery or burglary, we thought it right and appropriate to create such an offence and to attach to it what is, after all, a very severe penalty, indeed, which will, we hope, act as an effective deterrent.
As the law stands, Section 23 of the Firearms Act, 1937, provides that a person committing one of a large number of serious crimes while armed or who is armed when arrested may receive seven years' imprisonment in addition to the sentence for which he is liable for the basic crime committed. The law does not, however, in general provide for the case where a crime has not yet been committed but where it is quite clear that there is an intention on the part of the armed criminal to commit an offence.
As I have already said, this is essentially a preventive Bill, and this gap in 1148 the 1937 Act ought to be filled. Cases may come to light as the result of the powers which, as I shall indicate in a moment, Clause 3 confers on the police to stop and search vehicles and to arrest without warrant. The search of a vehicle may, for example, produce conclusive exidence of the intention of the occupants to break and enter a building, perhaps a few miles further down the road; but, since no crime would have been committed, they would not be liable to the extra seven years under the existing provisions of Section 23 of the 1937 Act. This gap will exist no longer.
Clause 2 makes it an offence, punishable on summary conviction with six months' imprisonment or a fine of £200, or both, or on indictment with five years' imprisonment or a fine, or both, for a person to have with him in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse a loaded shotgun or any firearm other than a shotgun or air weapon, whether loaded or not, together with the appropriate ammunition. It is intended to deal with the case of a criminal or potential criminal going about in a public place with firearms and ammunition to the danger of the public.
Clause 2 really deals with two categories of case. First, there is the loaded firearm. This is the most extreme case, where prima facie it is unreasonable to be carrying a loaded firearm in a public place. There may certainly be many occasions, say in the countryside, when it would be entirely reasonable for somebody to be carrying a loaded shotgun; but, if he is doing so, he will have no difficulty in showing that he has a satisfactory reason for so doing. Accordingly, this first category covers any loaded firearm other than an air weapon. The second category of case covers any firearm other than a shotgun or air weapon which is carried but which is not actually loaded, although the ammunition is being carried as well.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
In the case of the type of shotgun known as a pump-gun, which has a magazine, if the magazine is loaded but the action of the gun—the barrel—is not loaded, is that weapon a loaded shotgun within the compass of this Clause?
§ Sir F. Soskice
I can imagine that to be a case which would occupy learned counsel before a court on some occasion. 1149 I should not like to give an "off the cuff" answer. If it is a weapon other than a shotgun—
§ Sir F. Soskice
I agree that the hon. Gentleman asked about shotguns.
I was saying that, if it was a weapon other than a shotgun, it would make no difference at all that the magazine was not actually in position. If it is a shotgun the magazine of which is displaced but loaded, "off the cuff"—it would be for the courts to decide—I should have thought that that could not properly be described as a loaded shotgun within the meaning of Clause 2. I may be quite wrong. That would be for the courts to decide. I would not venture to assert with any authority what would be my simple "off the cuff" impression.
I was going on to say, when the hon. Gentleman intervened, that we in this case exclude shotguns and air weapons. When I say "in this case", I am talking about the second category of cases with which Clause 2 deals. We accept that in regard to unloaded shotguns in the majority of instances the owner will be going about his lawful purposes and that it would be burdensome to require him to show good cause. On the other hand, if a criminal is carrying a shotgun for unlawful purposes, it will be reasonably likely that he will be carrying it actually loaded. This we think, and hope, at any rate, draws the line in the right place.
In the case of other firearms, however, such as pistols, we feel that in the interests of public order it is not unreasonable, but indeed is very necessary, that somebody carrying a gun other than a shotgun or airgun and ammunition should be liable to have to give an account of what he intends to do with them. If he cannot do so, then he is in peril under Clause 2.
Moreover, firearms such as pistols are known to be favourite weapons for use in crime and the criminal en route to a crime may well leave the weapon unloaded, or even in pieces to make its concealment easier, until he gets to the place at which he intends to commit the crime. That is why an offence may be committed under Clause 2, even if the ammunition is not actually loaded in the weapon.
1150 I have considered carefully whether the phrase "lawful authority or reasonable excuse" should be more closely defined. It is, I accept at once, desirable in criminal legislation to make the categories of crime as specific as possible, and we might have tried to produce a Schedule of what would be lawful occasions. The difficulty about this would have been, however, that what is reasonable in the case of one person at one time in one place may not be reasonable if any of these factors alter. Any Schedule would, in addition, have in the nature of things to be restrictive, as it is impossible to provide for every kind of situation which may arise. There might, therefore, if we had sought to set out the various types of legitimate excuse or occasion, have been a danger of persons not being brought within the Schedule who in some circumstances ought to be within it.
The same difficulty had to be faced in the case of the Prevention of Crimes Act, 1953, and was, in fact, met by using the same phrase, "lawful authority or reasonable excuse", without any other qualification and leaving it to the good sense of the police and the courts to decide when the words were applicable. This has worked well in practice and I believe that this more flexible approach will be accepted by the public at large.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain a little further why he is confining the second part of Clause 2 to public places? This is the unloaded gun. Is not this an invitation to the potential criminal, the moment he sees any authority approaching, to get off the highway and into a private place, and then he appears to be exempt from the Act?
§ Sir F. Soskice
He would be acting at his peril if he did so. If he got off the public highway and got into enclosed premises or an enclosed place with his weapon, I should have thought that he might be in serious risk of finding himself within the scope of Clause 1, in which case the appropriate penalty would be a maximum of up to 10 years' imprisonment.
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
Would the Home Secretary answer this question about 1151 Clause 2? Is it not the case that under Section 1 of the Prevention of Crimes Act, 1953, the carrying in any public place of any offensive weapon creates the crime? Surely the loaded shotgun and the firearm posed in Clause 2 are already covered by that Section? The right hon. and learned Gentleman must have considered this. What does this Clause add which we have not got in existing legislation?
§ Sir F. Soskice
The first thing it does is that it greatly increases the penalties above those set out in Section 1 of the Prevention of Crimes Act. That is its main effect. Secondly, it may get over certain difficulties of definition of the weapon in question which are inherent in the definition Section—Section 1(4)—of the Prevention of Crimes Act. It has some slight extending effect there, but the principal effect, I accept at once from the hon. Gentleman, is the change and the increase in the penalty.
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
Surely that could have been brought about by merely increasing the penalties and not introducing the Clause at all, with all the difficulties it has, which were adumbrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) as to what constitutes a shotgun, and so on. Is not "offensive weapon" sufficient for our purpose?
§ Sir F. Soskice
There is a good deal of overlap, I accept at once, between Section 1 of the 1953 Act and Clause 2 of the Bill. This is one of the reasons why we have adopted the expressionwithout lawful authority or reasonable excuse.But this, after all, is meant to be a comprehensive Bill to deal with a new situation and we thought it right to put Clause 2 in the Bill in order to provide a convenient complement to Clause 1 which imposes the onus on the prosecution of establishing the necessary intent.
Clause 2, which imposes a lesser penalty than Clause 1, leaves the person who is being questioned to show the absence of intent. I accept at once that the main difference between the Section and the Clause is a difference in penalty. It was thought convenient to do it in that way.
§ Miss J. M. Quennell (Petersfield)
Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman clarify one point? Clause 2(a) provides on summary conviction for a fine not exceeding £200 or six months' imprisonment, or both, whereas paragraph (b) provides on conviction for a term of imprisonment not exceeding five years. One would assume that the fine would be proportionately heavier, but the paragraph does not specify the fine. Is it to be £5 or £50 or £500?
§ Sir F. Soskice
That is quite deliberate. The maximum amount of fine is indicated in paragraph (a), but in paragraph (b) no maximum is indicated, and, therefore, the fine can be of any amount. That is the purpose of the distinction and the phrasing. Paragraph (b) provides a more serious penalty of five years or an unlimited fine, or both.
§ Mr. Peter Bessell (Bodmin)
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman elaborate a little further on his answer to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson)? It seems to me that it is quite clear that if somebody steps from a public into a private place, for example, a garden or a field, he is exempt from the terms of Clause 2.
§ Sir F. Soskice
May I enlarge a little on that? In drafting these Clauses we have to see that we do not trench too much on individual liberty and the right of a person to do as he will with his own possessions. We have deliberately limited Clause 2 to the public place. We think that it is not going too far to say that if a person is in a public place with a loaded weapon he can be called upon to give an account, but if one is in one's own house or one's own garden and one has a loaded weapon then, for a police authority to say, "Account for the fact that you have a loaded weapon" is going further than is reasonable in the infringement of the liberty of the ordinary individual.
May I also enlarge on my answer to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson), when I said that the person concerned might find himself within the province of Clause 1? If I am asked, "How are you likely to be able to show that somebody has a weapon with him with the intent of committing an indictable offence" one may well be able to say that he is in somebody's house or 1153 garden. If he is, and he is in possession of a loaded weapon, it may well be that the circumstances will point very strongly to his having a criminal intent on that occasion.
That is why I said to the hon. Member that if he gets off the public highway, and goes into somebody else's house or premises, he might find himself at risk of conviction for a more serious offence under Clause 1. But a more considered answer to the hon. Member's question is that we do not think it right, bearing in mind the civil liberties aspect of this, to call upon a person who is in his own house or garden and has a loaded weapon when there to explain why it is that he has it.
Clause 3 enables a constable to require any person in a public place to hand over a firearm and any ammunition for examination, and it provides that any person having a firearm or ammunition with him who fails to hand it over when required to do so is to be guilty of an offence punishable with three months' imprisonment or a fine of £100, or both.
It also authorises a constable to stop and search any vehicle in which he has reasonable cause to suspect that a firearm is being carried in a public place, and it confers a power of arrest without warrant in relation to the new offences. I would point out that no special power is taken to stop a pedestrian in view of the requirements in subsection (1) to hand over a firearm or ammunition upon reasonable suspicion.
I would say to the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) that the same sort of consideration inhibited us from asking the House to give power to stop an ordinary pedestrian and search him. It may be, and I would be most grateful for the views of the House, that in stopping at that point we made an error and that we should have gone beyond it. This is our private thinking and no doubt this is a matter that can be reconsidered in Committee if the Bill gets a Second Reading, as I hope it will. A special power to stop a moving vehicle and to search it is, however, necessary and this is conferred by subsection (2).
A power to arrest without warrant is conferred, but no specific power to search the person arrested otherwise than upon arrest. When an arrest is made the ordin- 1154 ary common law power to search becomes available. That is why the Clause is so drawn. The Government accept that it is essential for the proper enforcement of this part of the Clause that police officers shall be able to make reasonable inquiry and take immediate and effective action. I regard this as one of the most important provisions of the Bill. It is essential, of course, that its use should be properly supervised. I am perfectly confident that it will.
§ Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North-West)
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman say whether the police are reasonably satisfied with the extent of the penalties in Clause 3?
§ Sir F. Soskice
I can answer that we have been in close touch with the police authorities. It would hardly be proper for me to indicate their views on particular matters, but, naturally, their views were given careful weight when we were thinking about how to frame the Bill. If we had not gone at least as far as we have gone we should have been failing to equip the police with powers which they must have if the Bill is to be something which is real and not a dead-letter.
Clause 4 extends to Scotland, with the necessary adaptations, the provisions of part of Section 23 of the Firearms Act, 1937. These are provisions for additional penalties where persons have committed certain serious crimes while armed or who, upon arrest, are afterwards discovered to be armed. The offences in question are listed in the Third Schedule to the 1937 Act, but, in view of the difference between the Scottish and the English systems of criminal law, it has been necessary to provide a separate Schedule for Scotland.
Clause 5 increases the penalties for a number of offences under the 1937 Act on the lines indicated in my statement. I shall not go through them now, but broadly speaking, they fall into three separate classes. First, the penalties for certain serious offences relating to dealing in certain types of weapons, described in the 1937 Act as prohibited weapons, and the unlawful possession, and so on, of shortened shotguns are increased to five years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine upon conviction on indictment or both. These are offences which, under the existing Act, may be tried summarily or upon 1155 indictment. The summary penalties are increased to six months' imprisonment or a fine, of £200, or both.
Second, the penalties for other serious offences relating to the possession of firearms without certificates, dealing in firearms without being registered, making false statements in order to acquire firearms and disposing of firearms to people who are disqualified from having them are increased to three years or an unlimited fine upon conviction on indictment, or both. Under the existing law, these offences are summary only. Under the Bill, they will become hybrid and able to be dealt with either at the magistrates' court or before the higher courts.
When they are dealt with summarily, as in the case of those in the first group, the minimum penalties are increased to a standard level of six months' imprisonment or a fine of £200, or both. This will indicate that even cases tried summarily are to be regarded as serious. The accused will have the option to elect trial by jury if he wishes.
The third class consists of a number of summary offences directly related to those in the first two categories such as making false statements to obtain certificates, and so on. We propose that these remain summary offences, but the maximum penalties are raised to six months' imprisonment or £200, or both. Here again, the magistrates' courts will be able to deal with them and inflict severe penalties, but the accused will be able to opt for trial by jury if he wishes.
Clause 6 enables a chief officer of police to impose conditions on registration in the case of firearms dealers on the lines I have indicated and renders persons failing to comply with the conditions liable to six months' imprisonment or a fine of £200, or both.
Clause 7(1) extends the application of the registration system to which I have referred to dealers who deal in shotguns only. Clause 7(2) brings up to date a provision of the 1937 Act whereby persons sentenced to three months' imprisonment or more or to preventive detention or corrective training may not, for five years following their date of release, possess any firearm or ammunition. Borstal inmates are similarly disqualified during the time they are on 1156 licence, which will be for a period of up to two years.
No provision is made with regard to youths sentenced to be detained in detention centres. Because inmates of a borstal institution or of a detention centre may, however, be the kind of potential hooligans against whom we wish to act, the Clause provides that the five-year disqualification period shall apply also to former inmates of borstal institutions or of detention centres for the five years following their release.
The Bill as a whole will apply to Scotland, but not to Northern Ireland, and the new offences under Clauses 1 and 2, together with the new powers for the police under Clause 3, will come into operation one month after the passing of the Bill.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
If somebody who has served a sentence of corrective training should subsequently, within the five years, become a member of Her Majesty's Forces, as the effect of the Section of the 1937 Act covers procession, would that person be prohibited from bearing arms when lawfully required so to do in the Armed Forces, or would he be exempt?
§ Sir F. Soskice
I say this subject to verification, but I am sure that there are the necessary exemption provisions in the 1937 Act which would be applicable in such cases.
In view of the arrangements which may need to be made as regards the amnesty and by firearms dealers and the police in regard to the new registration provisions, it may be desirable to give a little longer than one month, and Clauses 5 to 7 will, therefore, come into force by order, but I make clear that it is my firm intention to bring these Clauses into force as soon as practicable after the passing of the Bill.
The Bill will, I hope, go some way towards giving the police the powers they need to deal with the menace of the increasing use of firearms. In my view, it will do this without putting unnecessary and irksome restrictions on the public at large. We shall, no doubt, as we should in a matter affecting the liberty of the subject, examine these provisions carefully in Committee, but I believe that, as a whole, they present a 1157 carefully worked out and comprehensive scheme to beat the gunman. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ 4.46 p.m.
§ Mr. William Roots (Kensington, South)
I have little doubt that the principle of the Bill will be welcomed on both sides of the House, and I think that the Home Secretary is quite right in envisaging that it will be welcomed by the public. It must have been the experience of many of us to receive letters from constituents and other members of the public which might be taken as implying that this House is not sufficiently concerned about the recent growth of crime in both numbers and gravity. I hope that the Bill will demonstrate that the House and its Members recognise the importance of taking action in this matter.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke of the present level of crimes of this nature as being divided between professional criminals, on the one hand, and youths who get possession of firearms and, virtually, use them indiscriminately, on the other. I hope that the existence of these penalties will have a deterring effect upon the youths, but I cannot help thinking that, in this case, administrative action of various kinds might well be taken to ensure that they do not come by these weapons, particularly the more lethal ones, revolvers, and so forth.
It is apparent that the whole pattern of the organisation of professional crime has been changing, and that criminal gangs have changed in an age of technology in much the same way. They are now highly skilled and utterly ruthless, and they are proud of being both. Moreover, there are fabulous rewards for their crimes if they succeed in getting away with them, and, as in so many other types of crime, the availability of the motor car has aggravated the difficulties of the police. If one adds the prevalence in most criminal quarters of the drug trade, inevitably all these factors give a great temptation to the criminal to adopt any and every means to achieve his ends and to facilitate his escape.
The House, therefore, will be agreed that society must raise the penalty stakes because the offences which the Bill aims at are not those which are in any way 1158 impulsive. The carrying of lethal weapons is a deliberate act and, whether the criminal is a professional or a youth, he is well able to weigh the matter up in his mind before he starts a criminal escapade, when he may well decide that it is not worth being found with a gun on him.
Moreover, the Bill has the great merit that it makes the criterion, as I judge it, not whether the firearm was definitely to be used, but the very presence of the firearm. If a man is bent on crime, or possible crime, he should know that it is a grave offence even to have with him a firearm because, if he has it with him, then, in extremity, excitement, desire for escape, or to achieve his end, he may well be tempted to use it.
A further aspect worth stressing—and I do not think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman dealt with it at length—is that of punishment, which goes a bit wider than the Bill, although it is a good example. There is, first, the aspect of direct punishment—that the criminal will know and, one hopes, will be deterred by the fact that he risks up to 10 years' imprisonment if he has a firearm with him.
The second aspect which may be valuable is that, when the court is satisfied that a deliberate and dangerous criminal has been convicted and is before it for sentence, it will be possible, by means of a lengthy sentence, to protect the public by putting the man virtually in a form of quarantine. Today, there are, in my view, a number of cases in which this power of quarantine is called for—not in every one, of course, since we must not have a wholesale desire for lengthy sentences—for they are cases which the court knows perfectly well involve dangerous criminals who have been found with weapons.
In all these circumstances, the court should be able to punish appropriately and I think that the Bill goes a long way towards giving it that power. The House, through the Bill, recognises that a drastic sentence at the right moment can be salutary for the protection of the public and, indeed, for the protection of the criminal himself.
While I welcome the Bill in principle there are, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman envisaged, aspects which may merit amendment for improvement and 1159 clarification. The principle, which he referred to several times, is of great importance. It is that, while seeking to catch and prevent the criminal from engaging in activities with firearms, it is very important, in spreading the net, not to catch and prosecute persons going about their lawful occasions. The more serious one makes an offence, the more essential it is to be careful in one's definition of just how that offence is to operate. To pursue this in any detail would be to trespass on the functions of a later stage in our proceedings, but perhaps I may give one or two examples.
The first is that of disqualification. The Secretary of State drew attention to the amendment contained in Clause 7(2). But it has occurred to me that there is no reason why disqualification, certainly in cases under Clause 1, should not be complete, possibly with power to apply to the court or the Home Secretary for relaxation. But, in considering this, one may ask in how many walks of life one needs a revolver or rifle. I have led what I believe to be a reasonably full life, but I have never owned either.
There may be walks of life where people have proper reason, but, if a criminal is convicted under Clause 1, surely the first reaction should be that he should be disqualified for life from holding a firearm, including a shotgun. It may be that he should be given the opportunity to apply for relaxation later, but I feel that the power to disqualify should not be merely the comparatively minor amendment in the Bill as drafted. It really merits a provision of its own.
In speaking of Clause 1, the right hon. and learned Gentleman used a form of wording which demonstrated a difficulty which had occurred to me. If the wording in the Bill consisted of the words he himself used in his speech the meaning would be clearer, in my view. Clause 1 says:Any person who has with him a firearm with intent to commit an indictable offence …".This does not make it entirely clear that what is involved is not that an indictable offence was being contemplated with that weapon.
I do not think that the wording in the Clause is as good as the wording the Secretary of State used. I shall not pursue 1160 that further now, because it is, clearly, a Committee point but, as I understand the right hon. and learned Gentleman, it is the presence of the weapon at all at which the Bill is aimed and to that extent we are on common ground.
§ Sir F. Soskice indicated assent.
§ Mr. Roots
Like the right hon. and learned Gentleman, on Clause 2, I wondered, considering that these offences are to be so serious, whether it was quite enough to have the phrase… lawful authority or reasonable excuse …in the Bill, for it is in such general terms. I wondered whether we might not have to consider a clearer definition. At first sight, it appeared to me that someone with a shotgun might he said to be without lawful authority if he did not happen to have renewed his shooting licence on 12th August. The penalty laid down in Clause 2 is perhaps rather drastic for that sort of thing.
These are minor matters of wording, but they are important. I refer to them simply through my agreement with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that if we are, quite rightly, to create serious offences it is necessary to examine clearly to make sure that we have such offences stated in exactly the form in which we mean them.
The other point on which I hope the Government will be able to give us some assurance is whether the Home Secretary is satisfied that the administrative arrangements for the control of firearms and dangerous weapons cannot be improved.
In general, I must confess that the possession of a revolver by anyone seems to require a very clear excuse or explanation, and I should have thought that it would be possible to maintain very close control of revolvers by administrative arrangements. I recognise the administrative difficulties which would arise with shotguns because of the tremendous number. We may be forced to consider controls even yet, although I entirely agree that that step should not be taken now.
I wonder whether it is not time to review the law relating to offensive weapons under the Prevention of Crimes Act, to which the Home Secretary referred. In that Act, the penalties for 1161 possession of an offensive weapon are quite out of step with those proposed in the Bill. The maximum is two years' imprisonment and, while, admittedly, many of the offensive weapons may not kill—although they may with a heavy blow from a savagely wielded cudgel, or whatever it may be—I am told that even plastic containers which are used for ordinary lotions can be refilled with ammonia, or even more dangerous substances, which can produce a very serious effect. Perhaps the opportunity could be taken to bring the offensive weapons legislation more into line with the Bill arid to make it more effective as a deterrent.
I know that a number of my hon. Friends wish to raise individual matters rather on the lines of ensuring that the innocent man is not caught within the net, but, subject to that, the principle of the Bill is to be welcomed.
§ 5.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Gordon Oakes (Bolton, West)
Although for most of the afternoon I have felt a little lonely on the back benches on this side of the House, I am sure that the absence of my hon. Friends shows their complete agreement with the Bill and their absolute confidence in the competence of my right hon. and learned Friend to ensure that the House gives it a Second Reading. It is an important Bill, which is to be welcomed by all parties in the House and by the general public.
My right hon. and learned Friend gave some figures about the use of firearms between 1961 and 1964 and in a Written Answer yesterday. col. 189 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, he gave some figures dealing only with the limited increase of the use of firearms in offences of robbery or attempted robbery and further limited to the Metropolitan area—just London and just robbery.
The figures show that in 1962–63 firearms were used in 31 offences, in 15 offences in 1963–64 and in 68 offences in 1964–65. Those are between the months October to January in those respective years. The fear of many members of the public about the increasing use of shotguns and other firearms by criminals over recent months has not been unfounded and the general public will, therefore, welcome measures 1162 to tighten up control of the possession of firearms.
Most of all, the Bill will be welcomed by the police. We talk about the war on crime, but we often forget that the ordinary constable on duty is the unarmed front line soldier in that war. If he is protecting the community and society, it is up to us, representing the community, to see that the supply of arms does not go to the enemy, and it is the criminal who is the enemy of the policeman and the enemy of society. We do not want merely to limit the number of firearms and other weapons coming into the possession of criminals, but, if possible, to prevent them from having those weapons at all. It is largely the ordinary constable on patrol who has to meet the very dangerous situation of a criminal who is armed.
I therefore welcome the Bill's penal provisions; but I want mainly to discuss Clauses 6 and 7, which may not go far enough. My criticisms are better made on Second Reading than in Committee, because they may go a little too wide for Amendments in Committee.
Criminals do not apply for firearms certificates. Criminals do not walk into gunsmiths' shops and buy guns. Criminals acquire their guns from other criminals who have stolen them, or themselves break into premises and steal them. That is the ordinary way in which the criminal gets his shotgun or other type of firearm.
Clause 6 gives authority to chief officers of police to impose conditions of registration on firearms dealers, and I welcome the intention. I also welcome the flexibility in that a chief officer of police is given some degree of flexibility about the conditions which he may impose. However, although we may have flexibility, we will not have uniformity in provisions for keeping arms in secure places.
For example, Regulation 1 of the Firearms Regulations, 1937, merely says that the holder of a firearms certificate, not the dealer but the man who owns the gun, must keep it in a secure place. However, it does not go on to define what is meant by "a secure place". Regulations should be introduced under the Bill to define what we consider to be a secure place for 1163 the guidance both of chief officers of police and firearms dealers.
I draw my right hon. and learned Friend's attention to the Dangerous Drugs Regulations, 1953, which deal with substances which, when used by unauthorised persons, particularly criminals, can cause death, or at least serious injury to others in the same way that firearms can. Regulation 10(4) of those Regulations gives instructions to pharmacists and says that such productsshall be kept in a locked receptacle which can be opened only by him or some other person authorised by virtue of this regulation to be in possession of the drug or preparation.In other words, the Regulation is specific and comes down to earth in saying what type of security is required. A "secure place" for firearms is not a sufficient definition, but that is the only definition we have in the Firearms Regulations. It may well be advisable to have specific regulations under Clause 6 for the guidance of chief officers of police and firearms dealers. I also draw my right hon. and learned Friend's attention to the provisions which Parliament has passed to deal with explosives and radioactive substances, and which go much further than the rather lax and vague term "a secure place".
I hesitate here, because I am not quite certain of my facts, but when the Home Secretary is consulting the police authorities I wonder whether he would discuss with them the advisability of an additional requirement in an application for renewal of, or an original application for, a firearms certificate. It is that the applicant should go to the police station with the weapon which would there be tested. The bullet tested would be transferred from the police station to a central forensic laboratory, so that the police could build up a record of the bullets of all firearms registered, in the same way as there is now a register of fingerprints.
A regulation of that nature might well be useful because, if a murder or other crime had been committed it would greatly assist the police to know from which gun the bullet was fired. It is highly unlikely that the owner of the firearm certificate himself would have fired the gun—more than likely it would have been stolen from him; but that fact alone would be of great assistance to 1164 those investigating the crime to know from where the gun was stolen.
It would seem to me to be a simple matter for an applicant for a firearm certificate or its renewal to be asked, since he has such a dangerous weapon, to go to a police station to have it tested in that way. It should not be a great administrative responsibility for the police to build up a record of ballistic impressions of all guns so that when a crime had taken place they could find out from which gun the bullet had come. This does not apply to shotguns, but it could be done for all other types of guns, particularly revolvers, pistols and the like.
Clause 7 is also important because it applies the firearm provisions to shotguns and dealings in them. A shotgun is an extremely dangerous weapon. It can kill, blind, grievously wound and terrorise, and it is used by criminals for all these purposes. I accept with regret my right hon. and learned Friend's contention that it would be administratively impossible for regulations to be introduced to deal with all the existing shotguns so that certificates had to be applied for for them.
The House should, however, realise the present position concerning shotguns. A man can walk out of prison or borstal, go into a gunsmith's shop and legally acquire a shotgun. All that he would then have to do is to walk over to a post office, pay 10s. and be granted a licence for the gun. There is no provision, either in the Bill or in any existing Act, limiting the type of person who is entitled to have such a highly dangerous weapon. The Gun Licence Act, 1870, is a revenue Measure for county councils to obtain money for gun licences, in much the same way as county councils collect money for dog licences. I wonder whether the time has not come for a considerable tightening of those provisions. I accept my right hon. and learned Friend's contention that with the vast number of shotguns now in existence throughout the country, it would be virtually impossible administratively to require the owner of a shotgun to have a firearm certificate in the same way as the owner of a gun of less than 20 in. barrel must do.
Could it not, however, be made an offence for a criminal who commits certain types of crime to possess a shotgun? 1165 It might be claimed that he wanted to shoot rabbits or to go out into the country and enjoy a sporting life, but if he had committed a certain type of crime, of which he had been convicted, he would not be the type of person who should have a shotgun. It should be one of the rights of a decent society that because he had committed the crime, he must forgo possession of such a weapon for at least five years, in the same way as similar limitations apply to the possession of firearms.
I welcome the Bill. There are other, more minor, points which might well be raised in Committee, but it goes a long way to redress the balance of English law which puts too much emphasis upon the defence of property and not enough emphasis upon the defence of the individual. Violence against any person, particularly against a person on duty whose job is to protect the community, is a far more serious offence than housebreaking or anything of that nature. The Bill will help to redress the balance and I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading because of the warm welcome which, I am sure, it will receive from all sections of the public.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes), because I warmly endorse some of the remarks at the conclusion of his speech about shotguns, on which I shall have something to say. All hon. Members will warmly endorse what the hon. Member said at the outset of his remarks about the police and their rôle in all this. My experience, which I am sure he would confirm, is that the police are more concerned about the danger that befalls the public from the promiscuous use of guns than about their own safety. What concerns policemen to whom I have spoken is not the safety of their own skins, but the knowledge and fear that if guns proliferate, more members of the public will be hurt in trying to assist the police.
For good and, no doubt, compelling reasons, the Bill has, as I am sure the Home Secretary would acknowledge, been produced in a tremendous hurry. Although we welcome it in principle, it bears marks of haste. Its timetable, indeed, has been remarkable. On 21st January, the Home Secretary announced that he was examining the adequacy of 1166 legislation, on 11th February he announced his conclusions, on 28th February we got the Bill and today, 2nd March, we have the Second Reading debate. If the Bill was a good and watertight one, it would be churlish to complain about the speed with which it has been brought forward, but it is so clearly a rushed job, and in certain particulars it so suffers from this fact, that one is bound to make reservations about its effectiveness, which we must deal with thoughtfully in Committee.
It is not for me to consider too deeply—and it would be out of order to do so—the motives behind all this. It is, perhaps, fair to say that there are three main motives. The first, obviously, is to attack the criminal on the lines outlined by the Home Secretary. The second is to meet the rising, justifiable public alarm concerning the increased use of firearms by professional criminals and a feeling by many people that the use of firearms is becoming almost a permanent feature of organised crime and is likely to be with us for some time.
Thirdly, however, I have no doubt that one reason behind the Bill is that it is designed to go at least some of the way to replace the Homicide Act. Let me attribute the main purpose of the Bill to what the Home Secretary has said: to meet a new situation. Let us see whether, in respect of certain matters arising under the Bill, it does this. I have the strongest reservations.
Turning to the Bill itself, I come at once to the subject of the shotgun. I have no doubt that the Home Secretary has underrated the menace of the smooth bore gun and that in this respect the Bill is inadequate. I fully appreciate that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his advisers have weighed carefully the objections against creating difficulty for the law-abiding majority by what the Home Secretary described as unnecessary and irksome restrictions; all hon. Members accept this. I do not, however, regard this as a matter of increasing control. It is a matter of dealing much more severely with those who misuse shotguns. Before suggesting how this might be done, I should like to say why I am convinced that it should be done.
It is clear to me and to others in a much better position than myself to 1167 judge that the shotgun is playing an increasing part in crimes of violence. The hon. Lady the Minister of State made this quite clear to us the other day in proceedings elsewhere. I would only remind the House of the figures which were given, and which are on the record. In the Metropolitan Police District, in 1964, of the 172 indictable offences in which firearms were used, 45 involved the use of shotguns, whereas in the previous year, 1963, only seven of the 103 offences involved the use of shotguns. As the hon. Lady acknowledged at the time, this seems to point to a great increase in the use of guns, and I think I would be right in saying that police authorities outside the metropolitan area would confirm this trend.
This is not really surprising. There are several reasons for it which I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to weigh carefully. First, I am sure that too little consideration is given to the ubiquity of the motor car. In all highly organised crimes, the use of the motor car is a matter of course. It presents no serious difficulty to stow a shotgun in the boot, or under the seat, and shotguns can always be broken down into manageable parts where the risk of discovery, in terms of the other risks which the criminal is running, is not seriously disturbing.
It is true that Clause 2 renders a person possessing a loaded shotgun liable to an increased penalty, but not if it is unloaded. The fact is, however, that a shotgun, whether loaded or unloaded, is an easier weapon to explain away than any other. In central London, discovered in the back of a car, it is an object of suspicion, but outside London—and many crimes occur outside London—it is not difficult to provide an excuse for it. Any criminal who carries a brace of pigeons in the boot of his car has adequate reason for explaining the presence of a shotgun.
The second factor in the use of shotguns today is the tendency for professional criminals to be more highly organised, and to use more men on one job. While one or two men will find a shotgun an encumbrance, a gang of two or three, or more, will not. There is evidence of that. One man carries the gun; that is his job. This is not an 1168 imaginary danger, because there are increasing signs that the scale of major crimes is increasing.
As security measures get stronger, and as penalties rise, it is almost inevitable that the scale of operations on the other side will rise as well. Whether we recognise it or not, we are, in fact, witnessing an escalation in highly organised crime, and it is this escalation which leads to the inclusion of shotguns in the armoury of criminals going on a big robbery. As the offensive is built up, there is a tendency for the defensive to be built up as well.
Thirdly, the shotgun has certain advantages over all other weapons. As the hon. Gentleman, the Member for Bolton, West, said, it has considerable stopping power, and, in an enclosed space, a murderous effect. Its penetrating powers, even against toughened material, are surprising and alarming. I know of some recently privately conducted tests with a shotgun which showed that in certain circumstances it could shatter toughened material which had been proofed against the bullet of a revolver, or the bullet of a rifle. The scientific reasons for this are unknown to me.
Finally, the shotgun is manifestly easier to acquire than any other weapon. The Home Secretary spoke of between 500,000 and 1 million shotguns, but we do not know how many there are in the country. I do not think that this number will diminish under the terms of the amnesty, and nothing in the Bill apparently restricts the freedom with which the shotgun will be able to change hands, not even the terms of Clause 7. What I fear is that much of the Bill will encourage professional criminals who are apt to carry arms to switch to the shotgun. This may well be one of its effects.
As I began by saying, I understand the Home Secretary's reluctance to increase controls over shotguns by registration which would be easily evaded, certainly by the professional criminal. It would not only be unfair, it would be futile. But if a reasonable degree of freedom is to continue for the owners of shotguns—and I accept this—then I say that the Home Secretary will have to crack down harder than the Bill proposes on a minority which makes these weapons a menace.
1169 There are two directions in which the Home Secretary should think again. The first is in respect of the sawn-off shotgun. This point was raised during his speech. I think that under the present Act, the 1937 Act, it is an offence to have a gun cut below 20 inches. That leaves a shotgun with a barrel of 20½ inches within the law. In fact, nearly all shotguns have barrels of 26, 28 or 30 inches. Why is it not an offence to shorten the barrel of a shotgun at all? Why should not that become an offence? The additional inches between 20 and 26, 28, or 30, make it that much more difficult to conceal.
§ Mr. Deedes
No doubt this point can be considered further in Committee.
I am assured by gun makers that there is no legitimate or sporting purpose for which a man should require the barrel of a shotgun to be sawn down, and, therefore, no one will be hurt if the sawing down of a shotgun is made illegal, even in the hands of an expert.
§ Sir F. Soskice:
The right hon. Gentleman will see that Section 24(1) of the 1937 Act deals with that point.
§ Mr. Deedes
Under Schedule 2 of the Bill provision is made to increase the penalties for shortening shotguns, but unless it is still possible to do that, there is no case for having that provision in the Schedule.
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
If my right hon. Friend looks at Section 24(1) of the parent Act, he will see that it can be done only by a registered firearms dealer, and that no person other than a registered firearm dealer may shorten the barrel of a gun to less than that laid down in the Act. Nevertheless, it can be done by a registered firearms dealer, and if a person can get a firearms certificate he can become the proud possessor of a sawn-off shotgun. Surely my hon. Friend is right when he says that it should proscribed altogether.
§ Sir F. Soskice
If the right hon. Gentleman looks at Schedule II, he will see that that offence is mentioned there, and that the maximum penalty is now five years' imprisonment on indictment for an offence under Section 24(1) of the 1937 Act.
§ Mr. Deedes
Yes, but it is still possible for an authorised gun dealer to saw down a shotgun. I see no reason why this should not be proscribed, and perhaps we can consider this further in Committee.
Turning to the wider point, I am sure that the Bill must be made to bite harder on the minority with whom we are concerned, that is the professional criminal, in respect of shotguns generally. Under Section 21 of the 1937 Act, the possession of firearms and ammunition by a person convicted of a serious crime is an offence. Should not the possession of a shotgun by a person convicted of certain crimes—we shall have to consider what those should be—become an offence in itself? It seems to me that persons found guilty of certain indictable crimes should not be permitted to hold a licence for a shotgun at all. A convicted burglar would be precluded from shooting rabbits, but I do not see why he should not be.
There are certain motoring offences which disqualify a motorist from driving, and there should be criminal offences which disqualify a man from possessing a shotgun. That penalty must be a real deterrent. We might thus he able to go some way towards guarding against the misuse of shotguns without affecting the 500,000 or more law-abiding citizens who keep shotguns for sporting or other recreational purposes.
I am surprised incidentally to find no mention of penalties in connection with the smuggling of firearms. I would have thought that the Bill would be an appropriate place for that. Some of the deadliest and cleverest weapons in this country have been smuggled from abroad, and if higher penalties are to be imposed in the Second Schedule it is open for consideration that smuggling should be included there.
In our approach to the Bill it is worth remembering—and I have not the slightest doubt that the Home Secretary bears this in mind—that it is directed entirely at a tiny, determined, menacing minority. The right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke of hooligans. No doubt they exist in this context, but I do not believe that they represent the major factor. The real quarry here is the organised professional criminal. He will take some stopping. The Bill looks draconic enough to law-abiding citizens; I am not sure 1171 that as it stands it will cause the professional criminal to lose much sleep.
What I fear—and what the Home Secretary must be prepared for under the terms of the Bill as it stands—is a rapid switch from arms covered by the Bill to arms which are not. Any action that we can take now will be far more effective in dealing with this problem than it will be in a year or two's time, when more of these weapons have got into the wrong hands. I do not belittle the administrative difficulties of the problem, but I hope that the Home Secretary will not underrate what the police and others are up against. The danger involved, which is not likely to diminish, is bigger than the difficulties.
That is why I take a critical view of the Bill as it stands and hope that we can make it a much better Measure in Committee.
§ 5.33 p.m.
§ Sir Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)
I desire to speak for only a few minutes. It is important that the House should know how indebted we are to the Home Secretary for introducing the Bill so rapidly. The right hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) complained about its shortcomings. He thought that it was a little too hurriedly introduced. I do not agree. On the contrary, while it can obviously be improved in Committee, there is no doubt that the Bill should have been introduced so that the criminal will realise that there is going to be no delay in this matter—that it is being dealt with at once and that the House is determined to see that the kind of crime which has been increasing lately shall be put down. He must be made to see that we intend to ensure that this kind of menace, which has been so alien to this country in the past, is checked, so that the public and the police—who do extremely important work in safeguarding the public—shall be properly protected.
I want to add to what has been said by the hon. and learned Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes), who is a practising solicitor. Much has been said at times, rather flippantly, about where the legal profession stands and where it should stand. The fact is that its members—especially solicitors—come into contact with problems of this kind 1172 much more frequently than any other section of the community, apart from the police and others who are concerned with the preservation of law and order. I agree with the hon. and learned Member that shotguns should be covered by the Bill. I agree with the right hon. Member for Ashford that it is extremely important that this potentially manacing weapon should be kept out of the hands of criminals if at all possible.
I make no apology for suggesting certain things which are not yet covered by the Bill. The Committee stage is available for amending the Bill, but it is not unimportant for suggestions to be made in the Second Reading debate so that in Committee the promoters of the Bill can introduce Amendments arising from those suggestions, thereby shortening proceedings.
I am concerned about what happens to the community before the criminal stage is reached. I am wondering whether opportunity should not be taken in the Bill to deal with matters which, if not quite so weighty as others, are still important in connection with certain weapons which are used by young people. If he is not checked, a youngster who comes to regard a weapon as being something which gives him prestige, and goes round the countryside shooting indiscriminately at individuals and birds, begins to regard his instrument as a weapon which ought to be automatically in the possession of every person.
The use of weapons is alien to us, except for legitimate sporting purposes. This Bill, therefore, may afford an opportunity to reconsider the position concerning the use and possession of such weapons as airguns by young people over the age of 14. It has been demonstrated beyond doubt that youngsters between the ages of 14 and 17—who, incidentally, are not regarded as being adults in the courts but are nevertheless considered to be responsible in respect of holding and using airguns and shotguns—can do a considerable amount of damage to persons and property if they are allowed to roam about.
In my opinion, there are two dangers. Firstly, there is the danger that the habit may be formed of possessing a gun not to use for legitimate purposes, but merely because that is the thing to do. Secondly, the possession of an airgun—which may 1173 be damaging enough in itself—may lead to laxity in respect of possessing any gun, which may ultimately lead persons who otherwise would not have done so, to using guns for criminal purposes. That is a problem with which we have to deal, and this is an appropriate opportunity to introduce a provision in the Bill prohibiting the possession and use of arms by young people between 14 and 17 in the same way as the law relates at present to youngsters under the age of 14.
§ Mr. Peter Bessell (Bodmin)
Is the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner) suggesting that young people Between 14 and 17 who use airguns for sporting purposes may be liable to develop a tendency to use them for illegal purposes?
§ Sir B. Janner
I am not suggesting that for one moment. If the hon. Member would study the Air Guns and Shot Guns, Etc., Act, 1962, he will know what I am driving at. I am suggesting that the provisions in that Act relating to young people under 14 should be extended to apply to young people above the age of 14. There are certain provisions in the Act which enable the legitimate use of guns to continue under supervision.
I wish to refer to an Act which I had the privilege of piloting through the House to demonstrate how the passing of legislation can prevent the use of lethal weapons which, under certain circumstances, may also be used for ordinary purposes. I refer to flick knives. The carrying of flick knives is not so prevalent in these days. At one time they were used among boys and girls who frequented clubs and were above the age of 14—perhaps approaching the age of 17—in the same fashion as airguns are now used. They were carried by young people who went around the countryside causing as much devastation as they could. They were, as the airgun is now, a symbol of prestige, something which made the possessor very proud of the fact that he was a man, or made a woman proud that she was acting in a manly fashion. This kind of thing was prevented by prohibiting the possession of flick knives.
When the Minister is considering the provisions in this Bill, I feel sure he will realize—because he is an understanding man—that the big thing is to try to prevent the formation of a habit which may ultimately result in the use 1174 of the weapons to which this legislation relates by people who may become criminals. I think the House is indebted to my right hon. and learned Friend for having taken such rapid action as he has done in respect of this Measure.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine (Rye)
It is a privilege to take part in a debate in which such unanimity has been exhibited among hon. Members on both sides of the House. I commend what has been said by the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner). I think there was a great deal in what he said which requires careful consideration. I have one or two things to say with which I hope the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West and other hon. Members will agree. Therefore, it is a pleasure for me to follow the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West.
Like other hon. Members, I support the Bill. When I first read it, I thought it had been drafted by someone who obviously had the problems of the town in mind. It was clear from the remarks of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary that he had those problems in his mind. Again and again he talked about hooligans in the streets and problems in the streets. When he was asked what would happen he said that someone would go into a house or into a garden. Some of us represent constituencies which are slightly different in character, and there we are confronted with a very big problem, requiring just as much attention as the problems of the town. I would therefore ask the Home Secretary to have another look at this Bill to see whether he is satisfied that its provisions deal with problems which are not precisely those to be found in the towns.
I wish to put four points to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It seems to me that in order to be brought within the provisions of Clause 1 a person must have "a firearm with an intent to commit an indictable offence". The hon. Member for Leicester, North-West has referred to an entirely different problem arising from people who have firearms but no intent. They roam round in possession of firearms and loose off at any target which happens to present itself.
§ Mr. Bessell
I believe I am correct in saying that no person under the age of 14 may be in possession of an air weapon except when under the supervision of a person over 21, and even then the weapon must be used only on private premises.
§ Mr. Godman Irvine
That is not exactly what I was talking about. I was saying that there are people who possess firearms and roam round the countryside with no intent at all. The hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) is referring to young people with airguns, which is not what I was trying to put before the House.
My point I am making is what happens to people who have firearms but who are not going about with the intent to commit an indictable offence. That is the problem to which I think the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West was referring, and it is widespread.
My second point is whether the Home Secretary is satisfied that the sentence of 10 years contained in Clause 1 will achieve the object which he has in mind. Not long ago the right hon. and learned Gentleman stood at the Treasury Dispatch Box and told us that he would not, even in a case of murder, keep a person in prison for a longer period than 10 years. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should compare what he said a week or two ago with what is written in the Bill. A person may know that he will be liable to a period of imprisonment for 10 years for having a firearm without firing it. He may also know that if he does fire it, and if he commits murder, the Home Secretary has made clear that he is not likely to be put in prison for a period exceeding 10 years, which is the penalty referred to in the Bill. That is a difficulty which many of us who were not in support of the abolition of the death penalty felt would arise in many cases. We felt that, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is in a grave difficulty here.
The third point which I should like to put to the right hon. and learned Gentleman concerns the question of "a public place". A great many people have firearms in places which are not public places, and it is precisely that sort of person who causes all the difficulties, or many of them, in the countryside. The right hon. 1176 and learned Gentleman, when asked about it, said that if a man was in a public place and he looked like being apprehended, he might go into somebody's house or garden. But suppose a man happened to have a firearm at a farm gate and the firearm was not even loaded. He would then be liable to the penalties in the Bill. If, on the other hand, he loaded the gun and started walking through the farm, he would not be liable to any penalty.
For that reason and many others I have introduced a Bill, to which I hope some members of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's Department will have directed his attention, to deal with just that sort of problem. That Bill has the support of over twenty national organisations. Its evidence has been produced from a great many counties and from a great many organisations. The National Farmers' Union has received resolutions from over 20 of its county branches giving evidence about the dangers, difficulties and destruction which are caused by people wandering around with a firearm and firing at the first target they see. In order that this Bill should be of assistance in that problem, the person with the firearm has to be found in a public place. It is precisely because people who have firearms and an intent to commit an indictable offence in the countryside that they will not be found in a public place.
I can perhaps help the right hon. and learned Gentleman by relating an incident which occurred some time ago when I was told that there were a number of horses in a field where I had some dairy cows. This was at midnight, and I went to have a look. Sure enough, there were 21 horses in the field. I rang up the police and advised them that there were 21 horses in my field which were not mine and asked what was to be done about them. It was quite clearly explained to me that as they were in my field there was nothing to be done. Perhaps I had better leave the story there, as I am putting it to the Home Secretary, but to my innocent mind there seemed to be an easy way of getting over that problem. If somebody has a firearm in a public place in the countryside, he will speedily find a very easy way of getting himself out of the difficulties which the Bill has created for him.
1177 My concern arises from the fact that there are so many examples of people going about shooting at petrol tanks, domestic ducks, swans and even at farmers. I know of an example of one farmer who was putting in seeds in a field and found himself shot by some person wandering around with a gun. These are the problems at which I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman should have a serious look. I hope that he might today say that the Bill to which I have referred meets a grave omission in this Bill, or that he might perhaps feel that it would be proper to extend this Bill to cover the sort of problems to which I have directed his attention.
The fourth point which I wanted to raise is the difficulty under Clause 2, which refers to somebody who has a shotgun. There is a problem if the owner of the gun has somebody with him and is wise enough to take the gun apart so that each of them is carrying half a gun. I would ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to have a look at that, because there are instances where guns are carried in several pieces by armed gangs. In the Bill as drafted, it looks as though that would not be covered.
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to have another look at the problems of the countryside and to see whether, under this Bill or with the assistance of the Bill which I already have waiting to be heard before a Committee, the countryside will not be forgotten.
§ 5.56 p.m.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)
I am delighted to have heard the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Rye (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine). Clearly, the countryside must not be overlooked when one is considering the general tenor of this Bill, which was designed entirely with the conurbations and cities in mind, in the main because of the emergency problem which arises from the vast and growing increase in violent crime and vandalism. It has been said that this Bill will be welcomed by the public. Frankly, unless it is amended, it will not. Unless it is amended, it will not achieve its purpose, which is to attempt to reduce crime. It will be judged by its effect on crime, and I judge that its effect on crime will be nil unless it is altered.
1178 The Home Secretary said that the purposes of the Bill were to reduce the supply of arms. In response to a question from me, he said that the Bill was a comprehensive Bill to deal with the new situation. It will not reduce the supply: it is not a comprehensive Bill. What, then, should be the purposes of the Bill, into which we should now try to put some teeth in order to turn it into a Measure worthy of the public need? The first is that the whole question of arms turns on possession. If one does not have them in one's possession one has nothing to fear. The Bill will not reduce the overall manufactured supply of arms; it deals with the possession of an arm by the individual. It will be necessary, therefore, to look carefully at the present position, in which it is far too easy to obtain a certificate for the possession of arms.
This particularly applies in two cases. The first is revolvers. I happen to like antique revolvers, and I would certainly not try to limit those who, for reasons of the fine arts, like to be the proud possessors of old weapons. Equally, I do not want in any way to limit or to decry the clubs of this country which go in for rifle shooting or revolver shooting, because I also used to be something of a shot with a revolver in the war years, and my mother was a great pistol shot. I have to be very careful, or the shades of the past will look down on me with ill-favour from the clouds above. Therefore, let us see that we do not harm the clubs. Subject to that, I am inclined to the view that people do not need to possess a revolver or a pistol in their home and that pistols or revolvers might be certificated to the club or the institution or any place where they may be maintained. I incline to the view—I should like to hear the views of other hon. Members on the subject—that there is no need to be in possession of a revolver in a private place, in one's own home, for instance, or in a public place at all.
Then there is the question of the sawn-off shotgun. I will not go further into the argument, because I may be right or wrong and the Home Secretary may be right—though I do not think he is. In my judgment, the sawn-off shotgun is perfectly lawful. It is lawful if the owner has a firearms certificate for it, and it is certainly lawful for a manufacturer who is a registered firearms 1179 dealer to saw one off. He has the power under Section 24(1) of the Firearms Act of 1937 to do so, and, clearly, many have done it. There are a good many of these weapons about.
We ought to prohibit this entirely, and we ought to consider the prohibition of unusual methods of manufacture of dangerous weapons of a similar nature. We must try to bring about a reduction in the physical possession of firearms in this country. I agree with the very clear and lucid speech made on the whole question of shotguns by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes). I would say, merely, that I adopt every word he says.
Possession is one thing. Next we come to the unnecessary carriage of arms. The owner does not carry them in a public place. The old idea that one took one's shotgun in at White's or Pratt's or any other of the gentlemen's clubs does not apply and is not appropriate in modern conditions today. It is not necessary. I suggest that the most important aspect of the Bill is to outlaw the carriage of firearms and offensive weapons into any club. Surely that is the purpose of the Bill.
The most serious aspect of crime today is the rapidly growing number of protection racketeers and those engaged in various forms of robbery and in the creation of plans for crime. These criminals meet in clubs. They meet in gangs in different parts of London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. Information as to the clubs in which they meet can be obtained. The difficulty which the police face is that of finding a method of putting these men in prison quickly. These men carry weapons—not always, but frequently firearms—when they go to their club dinners late on Friday and Saturday night. A raid on such premises would be a most effective way of bringing into the net a wide range of the most serious criminals in the country. I fail to understand why some of these premises have not been raided already.
We can legitimately use the possession of firearms or other offensive weapons—not at that moment for the purpose of crime but their actual possession—in order to deal with these men through the unlawful carriage of arms. If the offence 1180 is limited to public places, it limits the opportunities to solve crime. In my belief one of the most effective ways of dealing with the worst criminals in our midst is to deprive them of their weapons and their livelihood on the ground of being in unlawful possession of weapons.
The Bill is not comprehensive; for the reasons given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford, it is conceived in haste, largely because of the fear that from next Friday the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Bill will be back on the Floor of the House and there will be wide-ranging arguments, into which I do not want to go today. The Bill has been introduced partly on that ground and partly because the Home Office and the police realise that the height of the crime wave has not yet been reached and that if something is not done about it very quickly, the Government will be in great difficulty. I am afraid that they will be in great difficulty, because this Bill will not stop the crime wave.
Clause 1(1) will not assist in this respect because it is not the intent which matters; it is the possession of the arms which matters. Anyone who has in his possession before, during or after the occurrence of a crime in any way related thereto should be guilty of an offence. That is the kind of Amendment which might assist in the furtherance of the objects of the Bill. In my judgment the Bill as drafted does not assist; it is not sufficient to say that it iswith intent to commit an indictable offence".Unfortunately, Clause 2 is useless. It takes the position no further. The Clause provides thatAny person who without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, the proof whereof shall lie on him, has with him in a public place any loaded shotgun or any firearm. …Section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act, 1963, makes exactly the same provision:Any person who without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, the proof whereof shall lie on him"—the Parliamentary draftsmen used the same words—has with him in any public place any offensive weapon. …A loaded shotgun or a firearm is an offensive weapon. The definition subsection 1(4) of the 1953 Act meets the same point.
1181 Thus, these provisions already apply, but I would prefer to indict, if I were to do it, under Section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act, 1953, rather than to indict under Section 2 of the Bill. The only difference is the increase from two to five years in sentence. I therefore feel that we could take out Clause 2 entirely by merely providing for the increase in sentence in the Schedule.
Although the two major Clauses do nothing as they stand, this does not mean that the Bill is not a good idea. It is a good idea, but there is no good practical measure in it. Nevertheless, it will give what was needed; it will give an opportunity for the cunning of the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas), who is smiling about these matters—and I see him sharpening his knife for the Committee—to improve the Bill. I am sure that it can be turned into a Bill which can do some useful work, but it will not do all the useful work necessary unless we make it a comprehensive Measure which covers other offensive weapons such as flick-knives and razors, which are also carried in the clubs and dance halls and which are the menace of the future.
The menace of the future of crime lies with the new type of robber, the younger man who would not dream of going in for blackmail but who regards himself as skilled. These people are not afraid to carry weapons, whereas the robbers of the past—I think of well-known names of the 1940s and 1950s—would not have dreamed of carrying an offensive weapon of any kind, let alone a firearm. To have done so would have been regarded as very had form, and it was regarded as unnecessary. Such men relied upon their skill.
Unfortunately, the craftsman criminal is a dying breed. There is a destestable breed about now, not the craftsman but the thug, and more particularly the protection racketeer. Such men are using the shotgun, usually upon the knees of their victims when they refuse to pay the price. It is the great increase in this kind of crime which it will be the task of all of us to stamp out in the years which lie ahead. We must lend our minds, abilities and emotions both here and with the assistance of the public to trying to bring these thugs to book.
§ 6.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)
I want to clear up straight away one point made by my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies). I have heard voiced before the idea that rifles owned by members of the National Rifle Association and pistols owned by people who shoot at Bisley should be kept in their clubs. This is quite unacceptable for two reasons.
First of all, if one is an enthusiast one has a lot of adjustment, maintenance and work to do on the weapon. Secondly, if one is training a rifle team or someone for a competition, it is not only the amount which the weapons are used on the range there is a a vast amount of dry shooting practice which can be done in the home every day. People definitely need to have their weapons at home.
May I say a few words about the Bill on behalf of the National Rifle Association and of a large number of people who shoot, and who enjoy shooting, in the small bore rifle clubs. I remind hon. Members that we have a flourishing rifle club in the House of Commons. In fact, we regularly ship into this building sufficient firearms and ammunition to hold the place up.
In view of the remarks of the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes), I wonder whether he really has a firearms certificate. Is he aware that to extend certificates to shotguns would not be as easy a matter as he appears to think? On a firearms certificate one would not only need the details of the rifle and so on but of all the ammunition involved. Is he thinking of including on Part I of the firearms certificate the 50 million cartridges which are used annually?
§ Mr. Oakes
I accepted the reasons given by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary why it would be impossible to do that. I was referring to criminals and to the fact that they should not be allowed to have firearms, including shotguns, but I accepted the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend.
§ Mr. Kimball
It should also be realised that the police already have sufficient information to enable them to inspect places where weapons are kept and to check 1183 the serial numbers of the weapons. I assure the House that the police are enthusiastic in their duty to do this.
I consider that the most important speech made today was that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rye (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine), for one must consider the Bill in relation to the Armed Trespass Bill, which we hope to see on the Statute Book before the end of this Session. I will not become involved in the important argument—which is primarily one for the legal people—of the dangerous precedents being set by the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Bill, which is running under false colours, is bogging up Standing Committee C and is ruining the chances of hon. Members to get the Armed Trespass Bill on the Statute Book.
Hon. Members will probably have received a pamphlet issued by a movement calling itself "Shooters United", which is sponsored by many of the 276,000 people who have gun licences, 30,000 people who have game licences and which has the support of more than half a million people who wish to use firearms legally. The one thing all these people have in common—be it the N.R.A., the Association of Small Bore Rifle Clubs, or the gunmakers—is that they complain about the uneven, I will not say "unfair", administration of the Firearms Act, 1937. That Act states that a chief constable will grant a licence "unless", whereas in practice it has been found that he will only grant a licence "if".
It may be good Socialism. I am fortunate in being able to shoot a few stags and I have no difficulty in having a considerably "long" firearms certificate. However, a member of the staff of the Palace of Westminster who lives, for example, in the London area and who wishes to purchase a rifle to use at a club's range or even at the range in the House will find it almost impossible, certainly extremely difficult, to get a firearms certificate. He will, therefore, find it equally difficult to buy and use a weapon legally.
Each year the National Rifle Association entertains members of Parliament at Bisley. In saying that, I am only too conscious of the fact that the House of Commons Vizianagram Trophy is lan- 1184 guishing in another place, owing to the lack of skill of hon. Members here. When we go to Bisley what is the picture we see? Each year it is the same. The range officers and others at the firing point at Bisley tell us of record attendances being broken. Each year the attendance goes up by about 18 per cent. That has been the pattern certainly since 1960. There has been a steady demand for Service rifle shooting and a tremendous increase in the demand for pistol shooting, sporting rifles and, match rifles for the very long ranges.
The N.R.A. will do everything possible to assist the passage of the Bill, if it will make things more difficult for criminals. However, we draw the attention of the Home Secretary to the question of rifle clubs and the granting of firearms certificates. To become a member of the N.R.A. one must be proposed and seconded by somebody who is known to the council and who is a well known member of the Association. When one has been made a member the secretary of the N.R.A. lets the chief constable in the area in which one resides know that one wishes to do target shooting. In such circumstances nine times out of ten one will get a firearms certificate.
The trouble is that not all rifle clubs are affiliated to or as well run as the N.R.A. I hope that as a result of the introduction of the Bill, the discussions we are having on it and, perhaps, with some encouragement from the Home Secretary, all rifle clubs will become affiliated to the N.R.A. and that there will be voluntary agreement that the same procedure will apply to those seeking to join those clubs—and, equally, to the obtaining of firearm certificates—as applies to the members of the N.R.A. itself.
Enthusiastic firearms owners are perturbed about the right of the police to stop, search and ask whether the weapon one is carrying has any real purpose, the use to which it is being put and so on. One must put weapons in one's car if they are to be taken through Central London to, say, this building, Bisley or wherever one is shooting. Naturally, there must be inspections, but should a constable on the beat be entitled to say whether or not a weapon is the right weapon for a certain purpose; 1185 whether it is indeed a target rifle or something else?
One need only look up the newspapers of 13th February to see policemen in pursuit of a wolf. They were armed with Martini .22 target rifles, though I cannot think of a more unsuitable weapon with which to hunt a wolf. Indeed, one could not shoot a roe deer with a .22 rifle. I will not make any comments about photographs of the women police in Westmorland with revolvers strapped to them.
I urge the Home Secrtary to look again, or ask his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to reconsider, the whole question of gun and game licences. Could not the two be amalgamated? Is there still need to continue with the 10s. gun licence? Could not we have one licence, along with a revision of the conditions printed on the reverse side of gun and game licences?
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) suggested that the new laws should be printed on the backs of these licences rather than the present suggestions for ensuring clean kills and how to shoot. I hope that the Home Secretary will reconsider the matter with a view to having more instructive information on the backs of licences.
At the same time, now that the Home Secretary is registering dealers who sell weapons, might we not reach the conclusion—which, I recall, was urged on his predecessor—that the gun code should be sold along with all weapons? The right hon. and learned Gentleman will find that the gun trade will readily accept this suggestion. After all, one must, when obtaining a driving licence, have a copy of the Highway Code. Should that not apply to the gun code when one obtains a weapon?
I would like to send a copy of the gun code to the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner), who seems to have little faith in the administration of the Measure introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Brian Harrison), the Air Guns and Shot Guns, Etc., Act 1962. That has indeed been an effective Measure. Too few tributes have been paid to it today. It has been particularly effective in the way it has been administered by the chief constables of Leicestershire and Lincolnshire, and it is noteworthy that one no 1186 longer sees gangs of youths wandering about villages shooting at starlings. Those youths have been driven out of the hedgerows and off the village streets and have turned up at the firing points of many rifle clubs.
I hope that the Home Secretary will realise that there is a genuine demand by people to own and use firearms, particularly young people. There was a time when it was considered important in this country that there should be a lot of people who knew how to be accurate with firearms. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will consult with the Minister of Education so that greater facilities are made available in schools to provide practice with firearms for children. All sorts of facilities are provided in schools, but it is rare to find a rifle range. To provide miniature ranges for the use of children would not be expensive and they would grow up knowing how to handle and use these weapons.
If these facilities were provided, and if children in the villages were educated about the weapons that they can have, they would not bother to purchase the air guns and other weapons which are now available which are suitable only for vandalism and cannot be used for target shooting and other lawful objects which we all want to see encouraged and which we do not want the Bill to stop.
I hope that the Home Secretary will realise that the discharge of 50 million cartridges in the countryside every year presents a very serious problem. It is being considered by the Nature Conservancy, the C.L.A. and the National Farmers' Union, who will report to the Duke of Edinburgh's Study Conference on the countryside in 1970. I hope that the Home Secretary will note the suggestions and recommendations which they make. We have a very responsible gun trade. It has been responsible over the Bill, although it was pretty shattered by the Home Secretary's first proposals. We will be able to work out a satisfactory compromise between the shooters, the gun trade, the N.F.U. and the C.L.A.
It may well be that at some date a long way ahead all new weapons will have to come under the firearms procedure. If we do that, we must couple it with the testing of all old weapons. A motor car has to be tested before we can 1187 re-license it. It may be that all guns will have to be tested before one can get a gun and game licence. There is a vast number of unsuitable old weapons in circulation which it is not safe to use. While I am on the question of the safety of guns, I hope that the Home Secretary will consider the very undesirable weapons which are being imported from abroad. They are not safe, and they are only making it more difficult for our own gun trade to behave in a responsible manner and to produce good weapons for use in this country.
I know that this debate has been slanted towards the question of dealing with criminals. Many of us have doubts about whether the Bill will be effective in dealing with professional criminals. I sincerely hope that it is, and on that ground alone I give it my blessing. But I should like to have an assurance from the Home Secretary that no further action will be taken against the legitimate sports, the legitimate members of the N.R.A. and small bore rifle clubs.
§ 6.23 p.m.
§ Mr. J. E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)
The Bill and the debate turn on the possession and use of firearms, shotguns and air weapons. We are discussing two classes of people. The first is the narrow but growing class of professional criminals who carry weapons for the purpose of crime. The Home Secretary's main concern in introducing the Bill is to deal with them. Many doubts have been expressed on particular points, although there has been a general welcome, which I share, for the main purpose of the Bill.
There is a serious criticism that the shotgun is not adequately dealt with as a likely weapon of crime. I should like to ask the Home Secretary what is the position concerning the air weapon, which is "specially dangerous". We are inclined to suppose that air weapons are comparatively innocuous, but the air weapon which is powered by compressed air cylinders or gas cylinders has great penetrative power. I understand that such weapons have been rightly classified as "specially dangerous" in the Rules drawn up under the Firearms Act, 1937.
Does that mean that some air weapons will come within Clause 1 as being 1188 specially dangerous and that if a person carries such a weapon which is unloaded but has ammunition in his possession an offence is committed? If so, the anomalous position arises that a rifle or air weapon can give rise to an offence, but not a shotgun. This strengthens the case for considering including the shotgun, whether or not it is loaded, in the category of weapons whose possession constitutes an offence under Clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill.
My main point concerns the second class of people who possess and carry shotguns, namely, the people, many of them young, who buy these weapons because they are easily procurable and confer some prestige. People in the second class who buy these weapons wish to use them and to let them off. The criminal, one hopes, does not want to use his weapon unless it is necessary for his purpose. It is the strong and potent desire to use weapons which has given rise to a lot of hooliganism in the countryside, where it is common for all sorts of people with arms to roam over the farms. The nearer one is to a big city, the greater the number of people who arrive by car, cycle, motor cycle, and so on. It is therefore unrealistic not to deal with this second problem in the Bill.
That leads me to inquire of the Home Secretary what his attitude is towards the Private Member's Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Rye (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine), which has already received a Second Reading but whose progress in Committee is blocked by the Bill to abolish the death penalty which indirectly is the cause of this Bill coming forward today? It is very difficult to criticise this Bill and to deal with it effectively in Committee unless we have some indication of the Government's attitude to my hon. Friend's Bill. Surely it is anomalous that two Bills dealing with the same subject should be going through the House at the same time.
If the answer is that each Bill must take its own course and the hope is that both will become law, we will require a consolidating Measure almost immediately. The sensible thing for the Government to do is to let us know their attitude towards my hon. Friend's Bill. It might be possible, if my hon. Friend wishes, to include the essential points in his Bill in this Government Bill.
1189 I was not happy when the Home Secretary indicated that he thought that it would be a needless restriction of the liberty of the subject if someone carrying a rifle on the highway steps through a farm gate and roams deep into farmland and commits no offence. It may well be that the motorist who is up to no good and carrying a gun in his car could drive through a farm gate and wait for the policeman to go or to dispose of the weapon and drive out in all innocence. It is anomalous, especially if one takes the matter a stage further, because the definition of "public place" in the Bill is that itincludes any highway and any other premises or place to which at the material time the public have or are permitted to have access, whether on payment or otherwise".That would seem to me—I speak subject to correction by the Home Secretary—to include public footpaths going through fields. Therefore, are we to say that an offence will be committed if a man is on a footpath but that if on seeing a policeman or someone likely to pull him up and ask what he is about it will be all right if he diverges from the public footpath, which in law may mean taking a few paces sharply to the tight or left so that he is then off the footpath?
This breeds anomalies all of which would be met if the Government would accept the broad definition that circumstances which give rise to the civil liability for armed trespass—I agree that we need to be very careful about that definition—constituted an offence under the Bill. I am sure that it would make the work of the police much easier, and would not interfere with any legitimate use of firearms. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) that it would probably canalise into shotgun and rifle clubs the enthusiasm of young people who want to shoot. It might well mark the development of clay pigeon shooting on the organised basis that has long been characteristic of the Americans, where so many people can afford the cost.
It is unrealistic to turn a blind eye to the number of weapons that are being let off in circumstances that not only lead to damage to property—perhaps in the Home Secretary's view it does not really matter if someone with a gun shoots out every window in an empty cot- 1190 tage—but involve the risk of accidents to bystanders and injury to animals.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) made the cogent point on the question of intent that such Measures as the Game Acts may well prove a safeguard to the potential criminal. If the criminal says that he was only out after pigeons, and that was why he had a .22 rifle, or after coypu, or duck—which are not even game—he has a good alibi, but an alibi that would be destroyed if we accepted the concept of armed trespass. He would then have no excuse for committing these acts on private land, assuming that he did not have the permission of the owner of the land. I therefore hope that the Under-Secretary of State will tell us what the Government's attitude is.
Lest it should be thought that this is only a narrow point, I want to put on record some of the organisations that support the Armed Trespass Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Rye. The list includes the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, Country Landowners' Association, Council for Nature, Council for the Preservation of Rural England, Council for the Protection of Rural Wales—I am sure that will commend itself to the hon. Gentleman—the County Councils Association, Gamekeepers' Association of the United Kingdom, the Gun Trade Association, International Council for Bird Preservation, National Farmers' Union, the National Small-Bore Rifle Association, the National Trust, the National Union of Agricultural Workers, the Naturalists' Association, the Ramblers' Association, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Rural District Councils' Association, the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, the Wildfowlers' Association and, in case it should feel left out, the British Deer Society.
We there have a very wide range of interests. It is very difficult to think of anyone going about in and enjoying the countryside who, even without wishing to be a member of any of them, would not approve the aims of some if not all, of them. I therefore hope that we will tackle this problem of this unlawful use of firearms in this Session, and that we shall get a clear indication from the 1191 Government, as that will necessarily govern the kind of Amendments we may table.
§ 6.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Bessell (Bodmin)
We can all agree that the Bill has been produced with remarkable speed by the Home Secretary and those responsible for drafting it, but, as the right hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) underlined, there are very real signs of haste. There is no doubt that the objective behind this Measure commends itself to all hon. Members. There has been very considerable public alarm about the increase in the numbers of crimes involving the use of weapons of all kinds, and firearms in particular.
Perhaps the most dramatic figures of all were given in a Written Answer on 23rd February, which said that during the period September to December, 1963, there were 29 indictable offences in the Greater London area involving the use of firearms, whilst during the period September to December, 1964, there were no fewer than 97 similar offences. If we compare that with the very considerable increase in the rate of criminal offences in New York City in which firearms are involved, the latest statistics I have been able to discover show that about 10 such indictable offences occur there each day, or a total of 1,200 during a similar period. That shows that unless the Government take very resolute action, the present rate of increase in this country will continue. It is, therefore, imperative that action should be taken, and suitable legislation introduced as quickly as possible.
To that extent we welcome the Bill, but how far does it really go? How far does it meet the responsibility that Parliament has for the safety of the public, and how far does it go towards meeting Parliament's responsibility for the safety of the officers of the police force? As has already been said, the average police officer is far more concerned to ensure that legislation provides the maximum amount of safety for the public rather than his personal safety.
I am quite certain from my own discussions with police officers at all levels that that is true, but it does not in any way lessen our responsibility for the protection of the police force, particu- 1192 larly as its members carry out their duties unarmed, which is, I think, one of the force's greatest strengths. Policemen have always thought it right to resist any attempt to impose upon them the obligation to carry arms. They think that being unarmed has gone a long way in assisting them in their duties, as well as protecting the public, yet the fact that they are unarmed means that we have an unusual degree of responsibility to ensure that they are protected as far as possible.
Will this Bill be effective in the three main objectives of a reduction in the number of crimes committed with firearms, the protection of the public at large from such crimes, and the protection of the police? Paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (2) of Section 1 of the 1937 Act provide penalties for the illegal possession of firearms and breaches of conditions of firearms certificates. The present penalties for both of these offences are prison for three months or fines of £50. Under this new Measure these offences carry, in the one case, a fine of £200 or three years' imprisonment, or, in the other, six months' imprisonment and a fine of £200. There are similar increases for various other offences, and these are listed in Schedule 2.
But is this sufficient'? Will this deter the criminal who sets out with the intention of robbing a bank, robbing a mail train, or even lifting wages whilst they are in transit between a bank and the place where they are to be paid to employees? The most frequent occurrences of major crime nowadays are bank robberies and the robbing of those who are carrying wages from banks to their place of employment. Many thousands of pounds are being dealt with. Often the haul is as much as £10,000, £15,000 or even £20,000.
It is in this type of crime that it is most likely that the criminal will set out with a weapon, either to protect himself or to give him a means of escape if he is in danger of being apprehended. Can we seriously believe that the penalties prescribed in the Bill will deter a criminal from setting out on this type of crime? Will they deter him from obtaining and possessing the weapon he will need for his protection, if he is to be successful in his lamentable venture?
1193 I do not think that the Bill goes nearly far enough. I do not think that it contains provisions which are likely to prove sufficiently effective in deterring people from the possession of firearms for illegal purposes. It might even be said that we are, in fact, playing with the whole problem. I must be careful not to be ruled out of order on this point, but previous speakers have suggested that it may be in the mind of the Home Secretary to provide suitable legislation to meet the objections which are likely to arise should the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Bill find its way through the House. If that is so, it is clear that the penalties for the possession of firearms prescribed in this Bill will certainly not meet the kind of objections which will be raised to the other Bill when it comes before the House on its subsequent stages.
I come to one or two points on the Bill which are examples of the hasty drafting which I have mentioned and which other hon. Members mentioned earlier. I should be grateful if the Home Secretary would look again at Clause 2, and in particular line 15. Under the terms of Clause 2, any person who is without lawful authority or reasonable excuse may not carry a loaded shotgun or firearm in a public place. The Clause adds that, for this Clause to apply, it is necessary for the person to possess not only the weapon but theamunition suitable for use in that firearm".I see a great danger here. To take a hypothetical case, let us suppose that the Joint Under-Secretary and I were to set out on a criminal career. Let us suppose that we were going to raid the funds of the Callington Brotherhood. Let us suppose that the hon. Gentleman was carrying the ammunition and that I was carrying the gun. It appears to me that under the terms of Clause 2 neither of us would be committing an offence, unless we were indiscreet enough to disclose the fact that we had it in our minds to commit a robbery.
§ Mr. J. E. B. Hill
Unless the hon. Gentleman were also physically carrying the Under-Secretary who had the ammunition.
§ Mr. Bessell
The point is that, unless the Clause is considerably strengthened, there is a real danger that an armed 1194 criminal, or even gangs of two or three, could evade this provision, which would render it completely ineffective.
Next, under Clause 3, line 25, a constable may require anyone in possession of a firearmto hand over the firearm and any ammunition for examination".So far as I can see, however, there is no provision for the constable to confiscate the weapon. Is not this is a very serious omission? I shall not refer again to the problem which arises on this Clause of the distinction between a public place and a private place. Sufficient has been said on this topic to justify my asking the Home Secretary at least to examine this matter carefully, because clearly it is causing much confusion in the minds of many people.
Clause 3(2) gives a constable the right of search. I am aware that there have been protests against this Clause by those who fear that it will in some way infringe the liberty of the subject. We must put behind us any unduly sensitive notions about this risk. We are dealing with the problem of the increase of crimes of violence in which firearms are involved. We know that the increase is considerable. We know that the danger of the increase continuing is even greater. This being so, we must allow the police this discretion, which I do not for one moment believe they will abuse. We must allow ourselves to be guided by their judgment. We must give them the right of search—they certainly need it at the moment—where they have a reasonable suspicion that someone is carrying an offensive weapon for a purpose which is illegal or improper.
On the subject of the exemption of shotguns, I share the fears which have been expressed by a number of hon. Members on both sides. The provisions in the parent Act in respect of sawn-off shotguns have clearly proved to be an ineffective deterrent. We know that this weapon is used widely by people who require a weapon which is lethal. Indeed, few weapons are more lethal than a sawn-off shotgun at short range. In fact, it will blast to pieces almost everything that the shot reaches. This is a startling fact. The sawn-off shotgun is an effective weapon for the criminal to use. Many of the suggestions made from the Opposition benches today should be carefully considered by the Home Secretary and his 1195 advisers before the final stages of the Bill are reached.
There is a great danger that, because of the provisions of the Bill, there will be a far greater temptation for people with criminal intent to use the shotgun in one form or another, either as a sawn-off weapon or in its natural state. Even in its natural state, at close range it can be extremely dangerous.
I am not particularly in sympathy with the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner), who, unfortunately, is not now in his place, because although in my intervention I did not quote the correct Section it is quite clear that present legislation prevents young people from using shotguns, airguns or air rifles in public places except under supervision. I quote from the Gun Code, which states quite clearly thatNo person under 17 years of age may carry an air rifle or an airgun on a highway or in any public place unless the weapon is enclosed in a gun cover which is securely fastened. The possession of air pistols in public places is prohibited altogether.It would be a great pity if legislation were introduced which discouraged young people from using air weapons for sporting purposes which have given youngsters over the years a great deal of joy and pleasure as they gave me in my youth and as they give my son at present. It would be a great pity if legislation of that kind were introduced, because I do not think for a moment that it is necessary.
I recognise the difficulties, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes), of the police registration of shotguns, but that is not necessarily the only way of ensuring that there is a proper system of registration. It is true that to place this burden upon the police would be intolerable. It appears from figures which I obtained last week that there are 6,000 weapons known to the police in the County of Cornwall, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson) will agree with me that we are not a belligerent people in Cornwall. But the Chief Constable there suggested to me that if the police had to be responsible also for the registration and the issue of firearms certificates for shotguns the numbers might well be increased to 20,000 or 25,000. I do not think that that is an unreasonable estimate.
1196 The fact that the police cannot do the job surely does not represent an insuperable difficulty which the ingenuity of the Home Secretary cannot overcome. It might be possible, for example, for a form of registration to be introduced which could be handled by local authorities. The registers which they would compile would be readily available to the police and would at least enable a check to be kept on people known to possess air weapons and shotguns.
The Bill has merit and for that reason I have no hesitation in supporting it. It is commendable that the Home Secretary and his Department have moved quickly in introducing the necessary legislation to fulfil the undertakings which the right hon. and learned Gentleman gave to the House in a statement only a matter of two or three weeks ago, but in Committee it will be necessary for there to be considerable improvements.
I hope that the Bill will be considerably strengthened. It is vitally important that every step should be taken that can be reasonably taken to prevent the increase in the use of firearms by criminals, to discourage them from taking them with them when they set out to commit any form of crime, and, particularly in view of the possible fears which the public will feel if the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Bill becomes law, there is even greater need that this matter should receive the most careful attention of the Home Department. There is public disquiet and public anxiety. Both are thoroughly justified.
The Bill is a step in the right direction and I hope that the Home Secretary in the later stages of the Bill will make certain that it is considerably strengthened and that the step becomes an effective stride forward.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Mr David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
I regret exceedingly that became of other engagements I have been unable to hear the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and the contributions made in the debate, but I am particularly desirous of saying a few words for a very special reason.
There was considerable apprehension in my constituency because of a large number of shooting incidents in and around 1197 North-East London and I put down a number of Questions addressed to my right hon. and learned Friend on this matter. The whole House should realise that my right hon. and learned Friend has acted with tremendous expedition. It is only a few weeks since Questions were addressed to him on this serious matter, pointing out the tremendous amount of anxiety that was being felt, and here we have a Bill dealing with the whole subject and giving a considerable remedy.
This is a non-party matter. I am sure that everyone in the House is anxious to see that regulations and legislation on firearms are made as tight as possible to help the police and the public and to alleviate the considerable anxiety felt over many things which have happened in the past. I have no doubt that many improvements in the Bill can be made. I listened with interest to the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell), for example, about shotguns and their exemption. I, too, feel that there is something lacking here and that some provision should be made. We also ought to examine the punishment meted out to persons who offend under Clause 2.
The Bill as a whole sets out a charter under which one can act. I am sure that in Committee my right hon. and learned Friend will be only too glad to hear all the contributions and the suggestions that can be put forward to tighten up the legislation. Reference has been made to the suggestion that the Bill has something to do with the Bill to abolish capital punishment. It has nothing whatever to do with it. It does not affect it in any way. The Bill before us now does not affect the progress of that Bill at all.
The hon. Member for Bodmin dealt with Clause 6. Danger arises from the fact that the security arrangements at the premises of dealers in firearms are not always sufficient. We ought to go carefully into the question of how dealers in firearms deal with their stock, how they keep a register, how they notify losses to the police, and whether those notifications are followed up. It is not sufficient, with great respect to my right hon. and learned Friend, to set out the provision that a chief officer of police may at any time impose conditions. There should be an obligation and there must be conditions of a preventive kind dealing with the keeping by dealers in firearms 1198 of a register of stock in hand, reports of losses, and matters of that kind.
I hope that in Committee my right hon. and learned Friend will be ready to meet suggestions on these points and to introduce legislation to strengthen the Clause in that respect.
I welcome the Bill. I welcome the exposition of it, and I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend upon it. I am sure that the House will be ready to put into effect with expedition a really strong charter in this matter.
§ 7.0 p.m.
§ Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
I suspect that the Bill has something in common with the right hon. and learned Gentleman himself, in that it was, obviously, drafted by people who know a certain amount of law but nothing about firearms. A new firearms Bill is not something which we can expect to have very often, and I was hoping that, when the Home Office brought forward its Bill, it being unlikely that any Administration would bring in another in a hurry—the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Rye (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine) is the only other one we are likely to have—our firearms legislation would be brought properly up to date. I had hoped that the Home Secretary would properly consult his own firearms department, which, presumably, is competent, and bring up to date those aspects of the law which have been overtaken either by manufacturing and commercial practice or by what one might call user practice.
To give one example, since the Royal Commission sat in the 1920s and determined that the minimum length of a smooth-bore weapon should be 20 ins., there has come into existence a considerable number of smooth-bore pistols with barrels of 20⅛ins. These are being imported into this country. They require no firearms certificate whatever. They are advertised for sale at £13 10s. and, as requiring no firearms certificate, they may legally be carried anywhere by anyone over 17 years of age; and, under this Bill, so long as the cartridge is not carried by the person who carries the pistol, they may still be carried, save that, under Clause 1, the individual concerned must not have a criminal intent.
I have made representations about this to the Home Office both under the right 1199 hon. and learned Gentleman's predecessor and since he himself took office, yet the Bill still leaves us, as under the old Act, with a minimum length of 20 ins. I have checked with a gun maker, and I can tell the House that there is no legitimate reason why a smooth-bore weapon should have a barrel of less than 24 ins. in length. There is no 12, 16, 20, 28 or .410 bore gun made in this country with a barrel of less than 24 ins.
Therefore, the least to expect was something to this effect in the Bill. Yet Clause 8 defines a shotgun as asmooth-bore gun having a barrel not less than twenty inches in length".Why was it not amended to 24 ins. to bring that aspect of the matter up to date?
There are coming into this country a good many cheap shotguns—not all those which come in are cheap, of course—the safety catch on which does not reset when the gun is reloaded. People are used to shotguns which, after they are fired and reloaded, have a safety catch which automatically resets. Such a gun, when carried loaded, is in a safe condition without the person concerned having to remember to reset the safety catch. We have heard a good deal about criminal intent, which is very important, but these are considerations of safety in regard to which the law needs to be brought up to date.
Here is another example which makes me wonder whether the Home Secretary has consulted his own firearms department in drafting the Bill. Section 16(2,a) of the Firearms Act, 1937, in specifying the ammunition which shall not be subject to the normal firearms certificate procedure, excludes from that procedurecartridges containing five or more shot, none of which exceeds nine twenty-fifths of an inch in diameter".If the Home Secretary had any experience of sporting weapons or of some of the less desirable habits in our countryside, he would know that the standard poacher's trick—for all I know it will become, if it has not already, the standard trick of anyone wanting to use a shotgun for criminal purposes—is merely to remove the top wad and pour molten candle wax into the cartridge.
1200 One then has what is, in effect, a highly lethal slug with immense penetrative power, but, because the candle wax contains five pellets, it is a perfectly legal cartridge. If, on the other hand, one wanted to buy a cartridge containing a solid ball of lead, spherical shot, one would have to have a firearms certificate. This is another example of the way the law has been overtaken by practice, but no attempt has been made in this document which is put before us as a Firearms Bill to bring the law up to date.
As I read the Bill, it strikes me as a document drawn up by lawyers, and, even from this point of view, I cannot accept the Home Secretary's contention that it is for the courts to decide what is in the Bill. It ought to be for the House to decide what is in the Bill. There are several things in it which, to me, not being a lawyer, are very unclear. For instance, in the opening words of Clause 1(1) we read:Any person who has with him a firearm with intent to commit an indictable offence …When is a firearm "with him" and when is it not? Is it with him if it is in the back of his car? I know that there is another Clause giving the right to search vehicles, but is a firearm "with him" when it is in his car? Is it with him if it is on a roof rack on top of his car? Is it with him if it is in the boot of his car which is locked and someone else has the key? These points should not be for the courts to decide. They should be made clear in what purports to be a Bill bringing our firearms law up to date. The Bill is not "with it" from that point of view.
The whole House has much sympathy with the objects of Clause 2, to stop peoplewithout lawful authority or reasonable excuse, the proof whereof shall lieon them, carrying firearms in public places. But, however desirable this may be, and however necessary the Draconian penalty of imprisonment for up to five years on indictment, I have an inherent dislike of unlimited penalties. I do not like the unlimited fine. In my view, it is a bad principle to have unlimited penalties in a Bill, and I ask the Home Secretary whether he will, before the Committee stage, decide on a limit, even if it be a Draconian limit.
1201 Again, on Clause 2, as I said in an intervention earlier, there arises the question of what does or does not constitute a loaded weapon. If the Home Secretary had discussed this matter with some competent person, presumably, his own firearms department, the point would have been put to him immediately. A significant proportion of smooth-bore weapons now in circulation are either "pump" guns or automatics.
A great many automatics are coming in from Italy. If the magazine of such a weapon is loaded, the gun is not loaded, I suggest, because a loaded gun, as usually understood, is a gun which goes off if one releases the safety catch and pulls the trigger. But, of course, if the magazine of a "pump" gun or an automatic is loaded, only one movement of the hand is necessary to put the gun in firing position. I cannot believe that what the Clause now provides is what the Home Secretary would have intended had he been sufficiently informed about firearms.
It is not good enough to come to the House with a legislative mess of this kind and present it as an urgent Bill bringing our firearms legislation up to date. Demonstrably, it does nothing of the kind. Clause 3(2) says:If a constable has reasonable cause to suspect that there is a firearm in a vehicle …As I said earlier, does this provision include "on" the vehicle? Many people go around the countryside carrying firearms—very often with the intention of poaching—and use motor bicycles rather than cars. One cannot have a firearm in a motor bicycle. One can have a firearm on it or attached to it. I suggest that Clause 3(2) does not, therefore, do what the right hon. and learned Gentleman sets out to do—although I agree with what he is trying to do.
Clause 3(1) says thatA constable may require any person whom he has reasonable cause to suspect of having a firearm, with or without ammunition, with him in a public place to hand over the firearm and any ammunition for examination by the constable …Does the constable have to be in uniform? Does he have to have his warrant card with him? Can a special constable, without his warrant card and not in uniform, order anyone to hand over a weapon? If one does not hand 1202 over one's weapon one is liable to very severe penalties—imprisonment for not more than three months or a fine not exceeding £100 or both.
If a person comes up in the street and announces that he is a constable and requires one to hand over one's gun to him, is one bound to do so? We do not know. Obviously this provision should read that a constable should either be in unform or produce reasonable evidence that he is a constable, because otherwise a constable out of uniform, and with no identification documents, could demand a firearm in a public place and, if the person concerned refused, he would have no defence in law because it was a constable who had asked him to hand the gun over.
This is another example of the monumental untidiness of what purports to be bringing up to date our firearm legislation. Most of us welcome the motivation behind the Bill. We know why the Bill has been drafted so hastily and, therefore, so inefficiently, and produced with such expedition. I do not welcome that reason. It is, I suggest, an attempt to placate public opinion because the Government are helping the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Bill on its way. If that is not the reason, I hope that the Minister of State, for whom I have great respect, will explain why it is that such a lamentably incompetent Bill has been produced.
It is most important that, when deciding to introduce it in a parliamentary programme as overcrowded as ours, the Bill should be an omnibus Measure leaving no avoidable loose ends uncorrected. Therefore, although I do not feel inclined to try to divide the House on the Second Reading, I want to register very strongly indeed my objection to the House being subjected to a half-measure, badly drafted and produced with a degree of expedition which the accuracy and comprehensive nature of the Bill in no way warrants.
§ 7.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Forbes Hendry (Aberdeenshire, West)
I think that every hon. Member who has spoken in this debate, has, to a greater or lesser extent, welcomed the Bill—even my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), who had a great many qualifications. It would not be proper for me to enlarge 1203 on them now to a great extent, particularly those in connection with the fortuitous effect or otherwise that the Bill may have on another Measure which has been described as cluttering up Standing Committee C upstairs, and which I hope to bring back to the Floor of the House after this Friday.
It would be highly improper for me to deal with that now, or with the adequacy of this Measure to deal with the very serious criminal situation. But—and I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will probably agree to some extent—it is obvious that the very nature of a sawn-off shotgun makes it a criminal weapon. No one wants to be in possession of one unless he has criminal intentions. I suggest to the Home Secretary that the very possession of a sawn-off shotgun is equivalent to an offence under Clause 1(1) and that a person who has such a weapon has an intention to commit an indictable offence and should be punished accordingly.
The penalty prescribed under Clause 1(1) is that of ten years' imprisonment. But Schedule 2 lays down that the penalty for possession and for doing certain things with shotguns shall be a maximum of five years' imprisonment. These two penalties should be equated because, logically, the very possession of such a weapon shows a criminal intent.
I shall not go on further about these various aspects, which have already been voiced so widely. I want to deal with other points. First, the Bill makes a material alteration to the law of Scotland, for it applies to that country certain Sections of an English Act passed some years ago. Clause 4 applies to Scotland Section 23 of the principal Act. It lists a number of offences, presumably corresponding to those in the English Act. I am not able to say, because I have no knowledge of the law of England, whether these offences do exactly correspond to the appropriate English offences, but I hope that the Home Secretary will go into that with the Scottish law officers and that the Secretary of State for Scotland will also consult the Lord Advocate and assure himself on the point.
No doubt the Secretary of State for Scotland has been taking a close interest 1204 in the Bill, but I suggest that he has not been doing his homework.
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. William Ross)
I have not been home.
§ Mr. Hendry
That may be, but, on the other hand, we very seldom see the right hon. Gentleman here.
Someone must have told the Secretary of State for Scotland that there is no such thing in the law of Scotland as an indictable offence. He has, therefore, tried very hard to find the equivalent in Scottish language. He made a very bad job of it, because he must have got confused between Clause 4, which seeks to translate certain English offences into Scottish terms, and Clause 1(2), which attempts to define an indictable offence in Scotland. He has simply used the same Schedule in definition.
The Secretary of State for Scotland should seek the advice—and quickly—of the Lord Advocate because he has left out all sorts of things which are certainly triable on indictment in Scotland and which are cases in which weapons might be involved. The most obvious crime or indictable offence left out is the most serious of all—murder. How on earth a person who sets out to commit an assault is to be caught under Clause 1(2), or a man who sets out deliberately to murder another man is to be caught, I do not know. The whole thing is illogical.
All sorts of offences which are certainly triable on indictment in Scotland are not included, including sedition. Obviously, a man who intends to commit the very serious crime of sedition is more than likely to use a firearm to help him to do so. The same is true of the ancient Scottish crime of treason—a crime not confined to Scotland, but which we call treason-felony in Scotland and which is an indictable offence. I should have thought that the Secretary of State, with his intelligence and erudition, would not have required advice from the Lord Advocate about this subject. There is also the ancient Scottish crime of hamesucken, and I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman knows what that means. If he does not, I have no doubt that the Lord Advocate will be only too happy to tell him.
There are various other matters I could mention, but I do not want to waste the 1205 time of the House by giving a list of crimes which, in Scotland, are triable on indictment. I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman goes to Edinburgh, and quickly, to find a proper definition for indictable offences under Scottish law.
There is another matter which has not been mentioned, but which is very important. I hope that the Home Secretary will give it serious consideration between now and the Committee stage. Almost exactly a year ago, I was given the permission of the House to introduce a Bill under the Ten Minutes Rule to provide that third party insurance cover should be compulsory on the carriage and use of guns.
That Bill suffered the fate of many Private Members' Bills and was not passed. However, while it was before the House, I had the advantage of consultations on the subject with many people who were knowledgeable about it, including the insurance industry, the National Farmers' Union, women's groups and public welfare and numerous others who were concerned.
I was also advised by some hon. Members who were then connected with the Home Office that technical difficulties might make my Bill rather unworkable. However, they told me that there was a very simple way in which my suggestion could be made workable. It was simply that it should be made an offence to use or carry a gun without there being in force a policy of insurance to cover third party risks.
This is a very serious matter and I should like to repeat two instances which I mentioned to the House a year ago. The first concerned a constituent of mine, a man with a very good record of public service, who went out shooting one day and was involved in an accident. He was shot in the face and lost the sight of one eye. It was cold comfort to him to know that it was an accident. What made it even more serious was that the person who fired the shot, whether negligently or not is not for me to say, was a man of straw and that it was absolutely impossible, even if my constituent had wanted to do so, to recover damages for the loss of his eye.
The other instance concerned a lady who had left her baby in a pram in her garden. In an adjoining field, a neighbour was shooting pigeons, a perfectly 1206 proper occupation. He was a little careless. It is a law of nature that what goes up must come down, and the shot came down on the pram in which the baby was lying. It was by the mercy of heaven that the baby was not injured, but it might have been. In that case, too, the person who fired the shot and who was undoubtedly guilty of negligence was a man of straw. If the baby had been injured or killed, there would have been no possibility of recovering damages.
Such accidents do not happen very often. The insurance companies tell me that the number of claims in respect of shooting accidents is very small. No hardship would be involved by the introduction of a provision of this sort. I am advised that the normal householder's comprehensive policy covers the policyholder against third party damages from accidents from guns. But this is for the householder who does not use a gun very often. The extra insurance cover for a person using a gun frequently could be obtained for a matter of 7s. 6d. a year, which is not much for anybody.
I am told by the Farmers' Union Insurance Co. that a farmer is normally covered free under his ordinary third party policy for accidents from guns when he is shooting vermin, but that if he makes a wider use of a gun and shoots game, or rabbits other than vermin, the cover can be obtained for a matter of 10s. a year, which is not much by any standard.
I ask the Home Secretary to consider this matter. There is no administrative difficulty. Either the proper third party insurance would be in force, or it would be appropriate for a penalty to be imposed because of the danger and risk unnecessarily caused to innocent members of the public.
I welcome the Bill. By and large, it is a good Bill, but it can be made better and I look forward to its emergence from Committee in a better form.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)
I welcome the Bill in principle, if not in some of its details, perhaps a rather warmer welcome if I apprehend aright that it is meant to be a Bill which deals basically with criminals carrying guns. On that basis, I think it will go some way in helping the public to 1207 understand that we are anxious and concerned to make sure that it is protected as far as it is open to us. The Bill will be effective chiefly because of Clause 2. It is often difficult to show intent, which is a difficult thing to prove in law, but the carrying of loaded firearms in public places is something which we should mark out as particularly reprehensible, and mark it out by the severity of the penalties which we make it open to the courts to impose.
The Bill has been discussed in various ways. There are those who are anxious about shotguns and the fact that shotguns, ordinary, sporting, small-bore guns, cannot be brought within the ambit of the Bill. I understand the difficulties in that respect, but, equally, in practical terms it is unlikely that the unshortened gun will ever feature widely in crime. I have never heard of the ordinary shotgun, unshortened, uncut down, or a rifle, being used in a criminal case. What one finds is that guns which have been shortened are used most prevalently in London. Above all, one finds that revolvers of all types, often of foreign manufacture and often brought into the country illegally, get into the hands of criminals, as do other weapons about which I shall speak later.
I want particularly to deal with the problems of revolvers. It has already been said that the crux of the matter is possession. It is no good having a licensing system, because criminals do not take out licences. It is no use having protection for shops which sell revolvers and having strict rules about where they shall be kept, because in practice criminals are able to break into such places and to get their hands upon revolvers in ways which no licensing system and no protection would stop. We have an open coastline and revolvers come into the country illegally and can be stolen.
I appreciate the hardships that would be caused if we decided that there were certain fire arms which in themselves served no useful purpose but merely the furtherance of crime. Without suggesting that we should interfere in any way with rifles which are used in shooting clubs, or any form of gun which normally cannot be used in crime, I should have thought that the time is now coming when we should consider whether the possession 1208 of a revolver at home was something which should not be permitted to anybody.
I accept entirely the difficulties that were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball). I acknowledge that shooting sports in which revolvers are used would be interfered with. This, however, is a price which we should be prepared to consider and to pay, if necessary, for the advantage of being able to say that the mere possession of a revolver of any type is in itself a criminal offence and should be stopped.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
What advantage would be gained by saying that it is an offence to have a revolver that is not gained by saying that it is an offence to have a revolver illegally?
§ Mr. Miscampbell
Of course, there is an advantage. The moment that we say nobody can have a revolver we can close down every shop which sells them. We could take away the opportunities for revolvers to be stolen and otherwise obtained. This would make acquisition much more difficult for the casual criminal who wants to get a revolver reasonably easily. It is questionable whether a man who is determined to get a revolver could be prevented from doing so, but it would be a considerable improvement for the law-abiding citizen if we were to say that a revolver in itself was something which should not be available in private hands.
§ Mr. Kimball
That suggestion is not a starter. Is my hon. Friend aware that the most efficient humane killer, the use of which is now encouraged, is a kind of revolver? To adopt what my hon. Friend is suggesting, we would have to make all humane killers illegal.
§ Mr. Miscampbell
I appreciate what my hon. Friend says about humane killers. Starting guns for sporting races are also capable of being changed into lethal weapons. It might well be possible to produce an instrument which made a sufficiently loud report to start races without its being a revolver. I am prepared to accept that there are some instruments, such as humane killers, which might well be turned into revolvers. None the less, it would be a progressive step to prohibit altogether the possession of revolvers.
1209 Be that as it may, my second point is worth making at this late stage in a debate which has been well canvassed. We seem as a House to be satisfied to face all our problems, especially in this matter, piecemeal. We are dealing with a Bill which is agreed on all sides to have been brought forward expeditiously or hurriedly, depending on how one looks at it. It has arrived before the House within a very short time.
The Bill has come in response, one has little doubt, to the appalling figures that came from last December's crime wave in London and other places. It might have been forced upon us quite soon in any event. Even so one suspects that the recent outburst of violence has brought forward the Bill rather more quickly than one would have expected in the normal course of Parliamentary time and procedure.
Piecemeal legislation has, however, landed us in most of our troubles with the law. I do not intend to tease the Home Secretary over another Bill towards which I was sympathetic when it came forward and was sent to Committee. It is, however, extraordinary that we can be here today discussing penalties in terms of ten years and we do not know the Executive's view concerning life sentences. This is a problem which confronts us because of piecemeal legislation. We have, above all, the tremendous divergence which seems to be coming between what the Executive thinks a sentence should be and what the Judiciary considers that it should be. One has only to think of what happened with the train robbers, with sentences of 20 or 30 years apiece, to understand the tremendous difference of view and outlook which exists between the Executive and the Judiciary.
Unless we are prepared to face this problem as a whole, we are likely progressively to get ourselves into greater difficulty. We cannot try to deal with each form of crime as it comes along with another little Bill which will add five years here, ten years there, or a limited fine. This will not do.
I regard this as an opportunity to say straight away that one of the most profitable forms of legislation that could come before the House of Commons, and one which would be most widely welcomed throughout the country, would be if we 1210 were prepared to examine the whole of our sentencing policies, to look at the whole relationship between one criminal offence and another and to make a rational gradation for each of the various offences and what the courts should do about it. Because I earn part of my money in criminal cases, I am well aware that that is asking a great deal, but we really cannot go on trying to stop every little hole by another little Bill.
Perhaps the most profitable thing that we could do, at a time which, I hope, is not far distant, is to reconsider the whole of this problem again so that we do not find ourselves in the position which faces us today of trying to deal in a stop-gap manner with something which is now becoming crucially important for the country and everyone in it.
§ 7.38 p.m.
§ Mr. William Hannan (Glasgow, Maryhill)
I apologise for entering into the debate at this late hour, but I will not detain the House long. As most hon. Members will, I hope, appreciate, I have been engaged in other duties which have detained me. There are, however, three aspects which I wish to put forward. First, in common with other hon. Members, I give a general welcome to the Bill. It will bring reassurance to many ordinary people that the law concerning the carrying of firearms is to be strengthened.
The 1937 Act controls the manufacture, sale and possession of the more dangerous types of weapons, but I want to utter a word to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary concerning another aspect to which hon. Members have referred, and that is the undoubted growing menace of the use of shotguns throughout the country. As I understand it, the purchase of such weapons by anyone over 17 can be made without a firearms' certificate, simply by purchasing a licence for 10s. at a post office. I am informed that in Glasgow this problem has become more dangerous, and has been accentuated by the fact that within three weeks there have been three incidents in which this weapon has been used, and I know that if my right hon. and learned Friend seriously considers this matter it will be appreciated by those concerned with this problem.
Chief constables will be responsible for administering the provisions of the Bill, and we must urge them to exercise even 1211 greater care than they do at the moment to make sure that the applicants for the weapons require them for a legitimate purpose. Despite the provisions of the 1937 Act, the use of these weapons is increasing.
The question which ordinary people are asking is: where are these weapons coming from? What are the sources of supply? Pretty much the same attitude has been taken with regard to the supply of weapons as has been taken with regard to the supply of drugs. We know that they come mainly from illicit sources. We know that they are the product of thefts and robberies at various places.
There are, of course, other sources of supply. Some of these weapons are left lying about in people's homes, and I support what was said by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) in that connection. In too many instances the security arrangements of the places in which these weapons are kept are quite ineffective. Just as, occasionally, doctors are careless in leaving their prescription pads lying about, or the lockfast means of securing hospitals are not always what they should be, so, too, the security arrangements in places like drill halls are inadequate to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to consult the Minister of Defence, and those Ministers who have final responsibility for places such as Territorial Army drill halls and premises in which cadets, or the R.N.V.R., do their drill, to ensure that the security arrangements in them are adequate.
My one point of regret is that Clause 2 does not include shotguns or airguns. I am aware that they are covered by the 1962 Act, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will no doubt confirm that recently I have sent him cases of incidents in my constituency when young people have lost an eye, or suffered serious facial injury, through the use of these weapons, and I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to consider this matter.
I understand that some shotguns can be loaded in a matter of two or three seconds, and that it would be an advantage to the authorities if the present 1212 minimum barrel length of 20 inches was increased, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will consider this point, too.
My last point seems to have a particularly Scottish connection. Under Clause 4 of the Bill, parts of Section 23 of the 1937 Act are to be extended to Scotland. Authorities in Scotland to whom I have spoken welcome this extension. What we cannot understand is why they were not extended to Scotland all those years ago. The police authorities certainly welcome this extension, but I should like to know why, even now subsections (4) and (5) of Section 23 are not to apply to Scotland, because they contain provisions which would seem to be of advantage to us.
Those are my comments on welcoming the Bill. I shall be pleased to hear the answers to the points which I have raised.
§ 7.46 p.m.
Mr. Richard Sharpies (Sutton and Cheam)
I am certain of one thing, and that is that this has been a useful and constructive debate. We on this side of the House welcome the Bill in principle. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Mr. Roots) said when he opened the debate from this side, we welcome any sensible step which may reduce the number of crimes in which firearms are used. None the less, hon. Members on both sides have pointed out some serious gaps and omissions in the Bill. No doubt some of them are the result of the hasty drafting which had to be done in the circumstances, but others are much more fundamental.
I particularly agree with what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes), and my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell). The police, as one would expect, have taken a completely unselfish attitude about the use of firearms by criminals. The police look on themselves as the protectors of the public, but we in this House know that very often they have to bear the brunt of serious attacks, and suffer injury themselves. There is a duty on us to ensure that the police, in carrying out their duty of protecting one and all of us, are protected themselves in so far as it lies within our power to protect them.
1213 The background to the Bill is the considerable rise in the number of offences of robbery, or attempted robbery, known to the police in which firearms have been used. During his opening speech the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary gave us a number of figures in this connection. The most depressing feature is that the trend of a decrease in the number of crimes of this kind, which had been going on for some years, seems, one might almost say quite dramatically, to have been reversed.
Taking the figures for the metropolitan area alone, there were 127 cases in 1961, 118 in 1962, 103 in 1963, and then in 1964 there was a rise to 172. That increase is bad enough in itself, but what is particularly significant is the dramatic increase in the number of cases in which shotguns were used. I am sure that the Joint Under-Secretary of State will correct me if I am wrong, but the figures for the metropolitan area show that there were seven such cases in 1962, seven in 1963, and 45 in 1964, an increase of 500 per cent., compared with an increase of about 70 per cent. in equivalent crimes connected with shooting. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentle man and his advisers will look very carefully into the significance of this problem.
I appreciate the points which have been put very forcibly and clearly about the control of shotguns and similar weapons, by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball). There is a serious deficiency in the Bill, in that it fails effectively to deal with the problem of shotguns, especially sawn-off shotguns. I agree with my hon. Friends; there is no reason why anyone needs a sawn-off shotgun unless he intends to use it to commit a crime.
Earlier in the debate we had some discussion on the question who was allowed to convert an ordinary shotgun into a sawn-off shotgun. That is not very important. It is quite easy for anyone, at the shortest notice, simply with the use of a hacksaw, to convert a shotgun into a sawn-off shotgun so that he can hide it down the leg of his trousers. The Home Secretary should accept the advice given to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford, my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) and others, and give 1214 serious consideration to the imposition of a complete ban on sawn-off shotguns of any kind.
I would go further than that. The Home Secretary should consider the possible banning of shotguns with a barrel length of less than 24 inches. I cannot see that a shotgun with a length of barrel less than 24 inches has any sporting purpose, or any purpose for which a shotgun is normally employed.
§ Sir F. Soskice
When the hon. Member talks about the banning of shotguns, what exactly does he mean? Does he suggest that it should be an offence to possess one? Does he mean that in no circumstances whatsoever must anybody possess such a gun?
Yes, I mean that. I see no reason why anyone should have or sell a shotgun with a barrel of less than 24 inches. I hope that the Home Secretary will seriously consider that suggestion.
I am not sure whether the provisions of Clause 7(2) apply to shotguns. Like many of my hon. Friends, I take the view that a person who has been convicted of a serious crime should be banned for a considerable period—and for life in some cases—from possessing a shotgun. I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to tell us that the provisions of Clause 7(2) will be extended to apply to shotguns, and will also be able to assure us that the suggestion that we have made will be carefully considered. I am also not clear about the position in relation to air guns. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will explain it. This question was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill).
The right hon. and learned Gentleman devoted a considerable amount of his speech to the definition of "a public place", in Clauses 2 and 3. My hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet pointed out that the wording in Clause 2 was largely taken from the provisions of the 1953 Act. The National Farmers' Union, in a memorandum which has been circulated to many hon. Members, if not all, my hon. Friend the Member for Rye (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine) and my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South, have pointed out some of the limitations of this definition, 1215 particularly in respect of crimes committed in the countryside.
We must remember that crimes of this kind are not confined exclusively to towns and cities. We recall that the train robbery, although not involving the use of firearms, was committed in the country. Some of the points brought out in the memorandum to which I have just referred are very relevant to a crime of that kind. I am sure that the House would like a clear explanation of the situation from the Under-Secretary.
We should also like to hear, in this connection, more about another point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet, namely, the position of clubs—and I would like to includes cafés. Does the Bill apply to cafés or clubs in which the police have reason to suspect that a crime is being planned? Many crimes of this kind are planned by criminals working in clubs or small cafés. Are they covered by the definition of "a public place"? If they are not, they should be.
We shall also want to give careful consideration to the question of penalties. I hope that the Home Secretary will study the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford that the penalties for smuggling arms into this country—which must be one of the sources from which criminals obtain these weapons—should be carefully examined to see whether they are in line with the current needs of the situation.
The Bill is brought in against the background of a steeply rising rate of crimes of violence. We think of armed robbery, but we also think of other crimes. We read this weekend of the stabbing of a number of young men in Trafalgar Square, for no reason whatsoever as far as can be discovered, and, also, that the gang which carried out this act had apparently been working for some time in Trafalgar Square. This is merely another part of the general problem.
We appreciate the administrative and other problems which exist in connection with the registering of firearms and similar weapons. I have no doubt that they are very difficult ones, but, for the reasons which have been put forward so forcibly by many of my hon. Friends, I do not 1216 believe that the Bill provides the whole answer. Other Bills have dealt with certain weapons and aspects of the general problem, but the trouble is that new weapons are being developed all the time.
The Armed Trespass Bill, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Rye, must be looked upon as complementary to this Bill, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to assure us that that Bill is being treated as such. We would like to know the Government's attitude towards my hon. Friend's Bill, which has the support of many organisations of every kind.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, South spoke of the age of technology in crime. I believe that this is a problem to which we must give very serious consideration. What is needed is a comprehensive review into the whole wide problem of the use of offensive weapons in view of the growth in the rate of crimes of this kind and of the technological developments of which criminals are very ready to make full use. The Bill must be looked upon as a stopgap Measure. It is no substitute for the major review which we must have, and legislation to deal with the whole problem which I hope will be introduced before very long.
We welcome the provisions in the Bill so far as they go. We shall seek to improve the Measure during the Committee stage and to patch up the gaps so far as we can. It certainly will not be our intention to delay one day longer than is necessary this legislation from getting on to the Statute Book.
§ 8.1 p.m.
§ The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Thomas)
The closing words of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharpies) were in harmony with every speech which has been made in this debate. All hon. Members approve the principle of this Bill and recognise that some action had to be taken in view of the increase in the number of criminals who resort to the use of firearms. There has been some discussion about the motives for the Bill. I can tell the House that the reason for the Bill is that we are determined to check the rise in the use of firearms and that we are not going to see the growth of gangsterism in this country. That is why, despite all the criticisms 1217 which have been made, that I say that this is a tough Bill. It provides for tough penalties. There is no doubt that it is capable of amendment in Committee, like all other Measures. I have yet to know of a Measure of substance which has passed through this House without being amended in Committee. So long as we have such reasonable people in office—
§ Mr. Thomas
And in opposition tonight, we shall, I know, make progress. None the less, this Measure is a sad commentary on our generation. We have to be realists and to deal with things as they are, not as we would like them to be. No one can feel happy about the fact that we have so to extend the powers of our police officers and so to increase the powers of the courts to award penalties for crimes, merely because of the irresponsible violent thugs who represent a tiny minority in our community but who damage our lives out of all proportion to their numbers. The public has a right to feel that stern penalties will be inflicted on those who are found guilty of carrying firearms with intent to use them in the pursuit of criminal aims.
The public has a right to believe that we should make it as difficult as possible for criminals to obtain firearms and that is dealt with in the Bill, as I shall outline in a moment. Not only the public, the police have a right to look to this House for protection. Policemen, on our behalf, undertake the most dangerous and unpleasant tasks. I admire enormously the courage of the "bobby" lonely on his beat at night who has the courage to tackle a man who might be armed. If hon. Members can keep a secret I will tell them that once I was a sergeant in the special constabulary, and no one was more nervous than I when I was alone. Fortunately, in that part of the world from whence I come the sort of person for whom we are catering is rarely found—he comes as a visitor.
§ Mr. Thomas
Never as a sergeant. When I felt nervous I went to look for another "bobby".
1218 The police have a right to feel that this House will give to them—in the words of Sir Winston Churchill—the tools to get on with their jobs. Good will is not enough. The police may be suffocated with good will. What they want from this House are practical deeds to strengthen their hands and also to intimidate the criminal.
The problem which we seek to resolve is not new. Some people have spoken tonight as though it had emerged in recent months. Unfortunately, throughout 1964 there was a steady build-up of this sort of crime, and it disturbs us all. Our sense of urgency about this matter is revealed by the fact that Clauses 1 to 4 which, as the House will know, contain provisions for inflicting very heavy penalties, will come into effect within a month of the passage of this Bill. The provisions in Clause 5 will be delayed a little. They will come into operation by order of my right hon. and learned Friend, because the amnesty period requires a delay. We must allow time for the registration of firearms dealers who hitherto have not been registered, for instance, those who deal only in shotguns and who come within the scope of the Measure. We must also allow time for chief constables, as registration officers who will be imposing conditions on firearms dealers, to allow those conditions to become known.
A great deal of the discussion tonight has centred around the shotgun, and I will do my best to answer the arguments advanced and the points which have been raised. If I overlook any, I will do my best to write to the hon. Members concerned. I think that is always a very good safeguard for anyone standing at this Box to adopt. My right hon. and learned Friend gave some figures to the House. He is aware of the problem presented by the shotgun. The figures show an increasing use of shotguns by criminals, and that cannot be denied. My right hon. and learned Friend, after considering the problem from every angle, and for reasons which I have advanced, has decided that the possibility of extending the firearms certificate procedure to shotguns is not practicable. On the other hand, there is a great deal in this Bill to do with shotguns.
The Bill goes a long way towards imposing controls on shotguns. Clause 1 1219 creates a new offence which carries the penalty of ten years imprisonment—that of carrying firearms with intention to commit a serious offence. That applies to shotguns, if one is being carried with intent. Clause 2, to which a great deal of attention has been drawn, makes it a serious offence to carry a loaded shotgun in a public place. The House will be relieved to know that a public place includes a cafe or a fairground—[An HON. MEMBER: "A club?"]—though not a club. It includes any place where the public have the right to enter, even if they have to pay to enter. But, of course, the public as a whole have not the right to enter a club. It does not apply to the club within the terms of our definition.
The extra powers given to constables by Clause 3, requiring any person in a public place to hand over a shotgun and any ammunition for examination, also applies to shotguns in appropriate cases. The penalties for certain offences under the firearms Act, 1937, some of which apply to shotguns, are being increased. In particular, the maximum penalty on indictment for offences under Section 24 of shortening shotguns or possessing shortened shotguns is increased by the Bill from one year's imprisonment and/or £100 fine to five years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. So the shortened shotgun is dealt with in this Measure.
§ Mr. Bessell rose—
§ Mr. Thomas
I have one more point to make on the shotgun.
The registration procedure for dealers in firearms which require a certificate is extended by Clause 7(1) to dealers in shotguns only. This is something new which will bring in many ironmongers and fancy goods dealers who sell shotguns but who hitherto have not had to be registered. They will therefore come within the ambit of this Clause, and the conditions which chief officers of police will be authorised by Clause 6 to impose will extend to them as well. So the House may see that we have taken very seriously this question of the shotgun and of the shortened shotgun. We have endeavoured—I believe that it would be the will of the House that we should endeavour—to tackle the criminal who would use the shotgun, whilst ensuring 1220 that the country gentlemen and those in the rural areas who like to pursue their habits of shooting are not in danger of committing criminal offences in the pursuit of pastimes to which they have been devoted for so long.
§ Mr. Bessell
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could explain to the House whether the provisions of this Bill supersede the provisions of the 1937 Act under Section 24(1), which states that:No person other than a registered firearms dealer shall shorten the barrel of a smooth bore gun to a length less than 20 inches.In effect, this gives the right to a registered firearms dealer to produce a sawn-off shotgun. This seems to me to be dangerous. Secondly, would the Under-Secretary of State clarify the position with regard to the difference between a private and a public place as under Clause 2 of the Bill, particularly if, for example, a person is in a public place and then goes into a private garden or private grounds—not indoors, still out of doors—but in a private place?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Dr. Horace King)
I would remind hon. Gentlemen that interventions should not be second speeches.
§ Mr. Thomas
Thank you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) has been here for months, but he has learned much in that time. I am not sure if the hon. Gentleman is a lawyer—
§ Mr. Thomas
He sounded like one. I do not want to offend my right hon. and learned Friend, of course.
I would say that, whatever obligations there may be under the 1937 Act, anyone who possesses a shortened gun—whoever shortens it—will know the sentence to which he is liable. I would think that, since chief constables now have the duty to lay down the conditions under which people shall have a certificate for the sale of these shotguns, a firearms dealer would know that if he plays about in the fashion described by the hon. Member for Bodmin his licence would be in peril. This is something which we do not consider lightly, and I hope that the chief constables will realise that they will have the full support of this House in tackling this subject with vigour.
1221 The question of pistols has been raised. It was raised by the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies), who was himself a pistol shot, I believe, and so was his mother. I shall treat him with greater respect. The question of the pistol and the pistol club or revolver club is one in which, I think, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) is interested. Here, the precautions which are taken are first-class. I think that we owe a debt of gratitude to those who run these clubs for the care which they exercise. In case they fail, the chief constable keeps a special eye on them, because we realise that they represent a possible source of weapons being available to the general public. It is true, of course, that members of revolver clubs prefer to keep their revolvers at home. If they are kept in the revolver club, there is all the greater danger, when there is a burglary, of mass arms being available. Knowing the precautions which are taken and the registrations which are necessary, we feel that, at present at least, there is no reason to interfere with the present custom.
I find myself paying tribute to the National Rifle Association. I hope that the hon. Member for Gainsborough will not take this amiss. I listened with very great interest to his speech on this question. I always look on him as something of a country gentleman because of the interest which he reveals in the House. I know that when he spoke for the National Rifle Association tonight he was speaking for a very responsible organisation. We have no desire to interfere with the liberty of respectable people pursuing their own ways—it is not my way however, though I had better leave that subject—but we are seeking to make sure that they are protected. This Bill is not an attempt to deal with an overall review of the firearms situation. Its main purpose is to tackle the increase in gangsterism and the use of firearms by criminals, and these are found in the large conurbations, the urban areas and the cities. Hon. Members are quite right in feeling that the Bill is directed towards the great built-up areas.
The hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) promised support of the Bill but after that attacked it from almost every possible angle. We are not unsympathetic to his suggestions about the longer barrel, but we realise that we 1222 should have to discuss that with the gun trade. All sorts of people would be involved in the suggestion which he made. I want him to know that it is being looked at—I had better not say that it is being considered—and I will let him know any decision which we reach.
The hon. Member for Cornwall, North spoke for the Liberals.
§ Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Cornwall, North)
I am the hon. Member for North Cornwall. The hon. Member to whom reference is being made is the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell).
§ Mr. Thomas
I can understand the feeling. I both understand and sympathise, because I know Bodmin well. Every year I pay a visit to the hon. Member's lovely constituency when I go to Calling-ton in Cornwall. I know it as well as I know my own division.
I am sorry that the hon. Member thinks that the penalties in the Bill are not sufficient to deter. Many people have made the point tonight that criminals do not buy gun licences. But they know the law. They will know what is in this Measure. I believe, and the Government believe, that the stern penalties meted out here are the necessary deterrent. We hope that they will prove the necessary deterrent to those who resort to the use of guns in crime.
The hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Mr. Roots) asked what steps could be taken to stop young hooligans from getting these weapons. It is our hope that the restrictions which will be enforced on firearms dealers and the recommendations of the gun trade itself to firearms dealers as to the precautions which they should take will ensure that it will be much harder for the type of person to whom the hon. and learned Member referred to get these guns.
The conditions of registration for the firearms dealer will interest the House. I will not keep the House long on this, but the gun trade itself has suggested that the trigger guards of weapons on display should be chained together and secured with a padlock; that the weapons should be kept in locked racks; that 1223 rifle bolts should be removed and kept separately; that ammunition should be kept separately from weapons and under lock and key; that glass panels of doors should be covered by steel grilles and windows barred; that display windows should be kept illuminated and premises lit at night; that one member of the staff should be made specifically responsible for security and should see that burglar alarms and so on are in working order and keys safeguarded. These are suggested by the trade, but if any firearms dealer fails to co-operate in the conditions outlined by the chief constable in future, after he has had his gun licence, he can subsequently lose it. He will have the right of appeal to quarter sessions.
§ Mr. Oakes
This Bill will bring in many dealers who at present are not recognised dealers—people who are dealing in shot guns. Will my hon. Friend make these excellent conditions, which he has outlined, regulations for all sources and not merely the decision of a particular chief constable? Will he make them regulations of this House?
§ Mr. Thomas
These are suggestions from the gun trade. If the House approves the Bill it will give to chief constables as registration officers the duty of imposing conditions. Clearly, conditions may vary from one police authority to another and from one firearms dealer to another. Much depends on his premises and on local factors. I think that this is a matter which we shall have to leave to the discretion of the chief constables, who will know the situation in their own area.
My right hon. and learned Friend announced an amnesty. I remind the House that when an amnesty was declared in 1961, and when firearms could be brought in by people who were holding them illegally, 70,000 weapons were brought in during the amnesty and 2 million rounds of ammunition. In 1946, immediately after the war, and amnesty brought forward 76,000 weapons and 2½ million rounds of ammunition. We hope that any of those who still have weapons which they are not entitled to hold in their own homes will respond to this amnesty. My right hon. and learned Friend has given an assurance that those weapons which are brought in will not be likely to fall 1224 into the hands of criminals through the open market. My right hon. and learned Friend is considering the arrangements of the future amnesty, but at present cannot announce the full details.
A good deal of feeling has centred round the question of the use of air weapons. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir B. Janner) spoke about young people under 17 using airguns. As we have been reminded, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Brian Harrison) was responsible for introducing the Airguns and Shotguns Etc., Act, 1962 , and I pay tribute to him, because that Act has undoubtedly been responsible for a reduction in crime. The total number of injuries caused by airguns fell from 946 in 1961–62, before that Measure came into force, to 815 in 1962–63 and 804 in 1963–64. More than 10,00 prosecutions and cautions for offences in the two years since the Act came into operation show that the police have made good use of the powers under that Measure. It is another reminder of the value of Private Members' Bills which reach the Statute Book.
That reminds me of the hon. Member who is hoping to put another Private Member's Bill through all its stages. I have been surprised at the number of hon. Members who have associated the Bill which we are considering with discussions taking place on another Measure going on in Committee upstairs. I have been told that the Bill upstairs is holding up the hon. Gentleman's Bill; the Armed Trespass Bill. Obviously the hon. Members who are holding up that consideration are the hon. Members who are serving on the Committee upstairs—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Order. This is a facinating digression, but it has nothing to do with the Second Reading of this Bill.
§ Mr. Thomas
Of course not, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I only wish that you had been dealing with those who referred to it earlier.
The attitude of the Government towards the hon. Gentleman's Bill was made clear when it had an unopposed Second Reading. Indeed, it went through on the nod. If there had been hostility on this side of the House towards it, the hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know 1225 what would have happened. He would have been here one Friday afternoon after another while hon. Members were shouting "Na" or "Object". The hon. Gentleman's Bill had an unopposed Second Reading, and I hope that we will be able to consider the proposals in it when it reaches its Committee stage. Much as I would like to give a guarantee to him that his Bill will receive the support of the Government, I am the humblest Member of this Administration and I am afraid that I am unable to give him that assurance. However, I hope that his Measure will eventually go into Committee.
I hope that the House is satisfied that the Bill before us can now proceed into Committee. The broad purpose of this Measure is to allow the legitimate use of firearms but to provide severe penalties for criminal use, and when the Bill becomes law, it will still be the case that any person who wishes to possess firearms or ammunition will need a firearms certificate. Inquiries will be made into whether he is a fit and proper person to have a certificate, and conditions will be imposed.
The courts and police are being given considerable powers to intercept and prevent crime being committed. Restriction on the supplies of firearms to criminals is what we are aiming at and I believe that it is the will of the House that law and order should be maintained, both by strengthening the police and by punishing those who seek to hold our society up to ransom. Having said that, I hope that the Measure—which, of course, can be amended—will now proceed to its Committee stage.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).