HC Deb 12 May 1965 vol 712 cc654-65
Sir F. Soskice

I beg to move, in page 5, line 7, at the end to insert: imitation firearm" means anything which has the appearance of being a firearm (other than such a prohibited weapon as is mentioned in section 17 (1) (b) of the principal Act) whether it is capable of discharging any shot, bullet or other missile or not. The Amendment is designed simply to define what we mean by an imitation firearm. The salient feature of the definition is that it is a firearm which looks like a real one and therefore is one which might be used by the thug to terrorise people by flourishing it in their presence or menacing them. It is for that purpose that we think it necessary to make reference to an imitation firearm in the Bill.

Mr. Sharples

This again is a point which we put forward in Committee and I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. George Thomas

I beg to move, in page 5, line 21, at the end to insert: (2) For the purposes of this Act a shot gun or an air weapon shall be deemed to be loaded if there is ammunition in the chamber or barrel or in any magazine or other device which is in such a position that the ammunition can be fed into the chamber or barrel by the manual or automatic operation of some part of the gun or weapon. This is the last Amendment and once again we are meeting the wishes of the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), who I know is deeply sorry that he cannot be with us at the present moment. He was very anxious that we should establish a definition of when a gun is loaded. I must confess that my right hon. and learned Friend, who seems to know most things, was like myself in difficulties about the exact definition. The hon. Member for Tiverton is a great expert on guns. I have heard a great deal in Committee and again to-night about guns and I think that the wording which we have found is adequate. I know that it satisfies the hon. Member for Tiverton and I hope that the House will feel that it can now accept the Amendment.

Mr. Sharples

As the hon. Gentleman has said, the Amendment meets the point which was put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop). We on this side of the House certainly support it.

Amendment agreed to.

10.18 p.m.

Sir F. Soskice

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

During the course of our deliberations on the Bill we have exhaustively considered its provisions. When it was first brought to the notice of the House, hon. Members opposite in particular felt that it had been hastily put forward and ill-conceived. If they had known the trouble we had gone to in trying to get it right I think that they would probably have withdrawn their criticism. Whether or not their criticism was merited, I think that the Bill now emerges as a Bill well adapted to suit its purpose.

Sometimes we are engaged upon what is, broadly speaking, a common purpose. In our consideration of the Bill we were engaged in the achievement of an end in which all of us were united. I think that it was for that reason that we were able in Committee to come so close together. Speaking on behalf of my colleagues, I would readily express my gratitude to hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House for the useful and valuable suggestions which they made.

We were engaged upon a common purpose. In the House and outside the British public are sick and tired of the trigger-happy young idiot and the cowardly cold-hearted thug more mature in years and in dastardly purpose but in no worth-while quality, and we were determined to strike a blow at these people and make it more possible for police officers, in performing their difficult and arduous duties, to restrain their activities. They deserve no pity, and I hope that they will get none so far as the provisions of the Bill allow. I hope they will begin to realise that they cannot with impunity go about to achieve their sordid ends and in so doing terrorise innocent fellow citizens.

If the Bill enables the police to check them in those activities, to which they have become far too prone, we shall have done something in the House by passing the Bill. I hope that it goes through another place unchanged, so far as possible, and that it soon finds its way on to the Statute Book and begins to make some sort of impact upon a problem which confronts us all in this country.

10.21 p.m.

Mr. Sharples

Speaking from this side of the House, I agree with every word said by the Home Secretary. It is true that, when the Bill came before the House on Second Reading, we said that we welcomed it as far as it went, but there were serious gaps and omissions in its terms as drafted.

In summary, the main points which we made on Second Reading were these. We said that the Bill failed to deal effectively with the problem of the shotgun and, particularly, the sawn-off shotgun. We said that it failed to deal with crimes committed outside the main urban areas and did not cover crimes committed in the countryside. We said that it lost much in effectiveness by restriction to crimes committed in a public place. We wanted more drastic restrictions on those who had been convicted of serious crimes being allowed to possess firearms in the future.

In Standing Committee, we put down Amendments to cover these and other points. We moved Amendments to redefine the main offences covered by Clause 1 so as to include the offence of resisting arrest. We proposed that the formula contained in the Explosive Substances Act, 1877, should be used to define the main offences under Clause 1. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has very largely reworded Clause 1 on Report, and, although he did not accept our proposals, he has gone a very long way to meeting our views on this most important point.

We put down Amendments to extend the power of search by constables of private land and vehicles on private land, and these points have been met by the Home Secretary. We put down Amendments to bring imitation firearms within the scope of the Bill, and this proposal also has been accepted. We put down Amendments to reduce the minimum length of a shotgun which could be held without a firearms certificate from 24 ins., to 20 ins., and we put down Amendments to tighten the powers of the police in regard to firearms dealers. In addition, we put down Amendments to define loaded shotguns and airguns. All these, I am glad to say, have been accepted by the Home Secretary.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rye (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine) asked that the provisions of the Armed Trespass Bill, for which he had secured a place in the Ballot for Private Members' Bills, should he included in this main Measure and we are most grateful to the Home Secretary for accepting that proposal and for accepting the Amendment which my hon. Friend moved that armed trespass on land and in buildings even without ammunition should be an offence.

The House should be particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rye. It is not so often that one secures a place in the Ballot for Private Members' Bills. In my years in this House I have never managed to do so. It is a matter of pride to an hon. Member when he is able to bring forward a Bill and see it through. My hon. Friend gave up a great deal for the common good in agreeing to withdraw his Bill and to have its provisions incorporated in this Measure.

Mr. George Thomas

Hear, hear.

Mr. Sharples

I am sure that it is right that the provisions of the Armed Trespass Bill should have been incorporated in this Measure.

The Bill is very different from what it was on Second Reading. It was considerably altered in Standing Committee and has been largely, rewritten again on Report. The Home Secretary put down 14 major Amendments to the Bill, very largely to meet points which have been put forward from this side. He also accepted an opposition Amendment concerning the extension of the provision on armed trespass on land to Scotland.

We are most grateful to the Home Secretary for the consideration he has given to every point we put forward. Speaking from this Box, I also express my gratitude to my right hon. and hon. Friends for the trouble they took in drafting the various Amendments we put forward.

The Bill is now an extremely tough Measure, and it is right that it should be so. It is designed to deal with a tough problem—with the growth of crimes in which firearms are used, which must be a mater of concern to every hon. Member, and with the growth of the risks which members of the police are called upon to undertake on our behalf. I join the Home Secretary in commending the Bill to the House.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Deedes

In welcoming the Bill I want to make a practical suggestion which, I hope, the Home Secretary may deal with later. We are obviously making big changes in the law. He has said that he desires the Measure to make some impact. It is of more than usual importance that the terms of the Bill should be very widely known. Those of us who have dealt with the Bill in this House are tolerably familiar with the ground we have covered and with what we are seeking to do, but this will not be at once so simple and so apparent to those who have not been following the proceedings.

The enforcement of this Measure will depend enormously on the public at large understanding what the Government and the House are trying to do, and I think that there will be needed a wider comprehension of this than of most of the Measures for which we here are responsible. I know quite well that there is an argument that ignorance of the law is no excuse and that those who break it are none the less guilty, but I do not think that that argument will meet our requirements here. It is imperative that the main elements of the Bill be clearly understood by the people, and by those at whom it is directed, so that they understand the terms of the Bill and know the penalties for those who break its provisions.

I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to consider, therefore, any machinery which could be used for doing just this. I do not ask for a reply now, for I omitted to give him notice of the point, but I ask him to consider a rather exceptional exercise to make the provisions of the Bill known in simple terms so that they may be widely known. To give a concrete example, it might merit putting up outside police stations posters summarising the main terms of the Bill. That is one example of what might be done.

Again, since this is very important in the present state of crime in this country, it may be possible even to take advertising space so that the provisions of the Bill shall be made known as widely as possible to the public. I know and the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that the Central Office of Information might produce ideas how the provisions of the Measure could be propagated, as they should be. I think that important, and I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to consider this between now and the final passage of the Bill into law.

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie (Ross and Cromarty)

The Home Secretary, during Second Reading, said that this is essentially a preventive Bill and that it was introduced as a matter of urgency after the large number of crimes which took place in and around London last December. During that period firearms were used on an alarming scale, and people all over the country felt that the law relating to firearms needed strengthening.

The Government realised this and they are to be congratulated on taking such early action in the matter. On reading the debates, both on Second Reading and in Committee, I am impressed by the deep concern expressed by Members on both sides of the House at the increasing use being made of firearms for illegal purposes. I think that the most serious aspect of the case is that the biggest increase is among the younger people. When we are told that some of these hooligan types roam the streets, damage property, and injure innocent people almost out of bravado, the time has surely come when the hands of those responsible for maintaining law and order must be strengthened. To this end society must be satisfied that the penalties have been raised high enough to be an adequate deterrent to the use of firearms.

Several references have been made to the 1937 Act. I think that it is true that the Bill is largely a Measure to strengthen that Act. It is a sad commentary on the present state of our society that an Act which was adequate in 1937 to deal with armed criminals has proved to be inadequate in 1965. We should have a special regard for the position of the police in their arduous duties. Whatever their feelings, they never seem to express concern for themselves. From my discussions with members of the force, I gather that their chief concern is lest any injury should be done to those who help them. Nevertheless, we have a special responsibility for the police and this is one of the reasons for the urgent need for the Bill.

I think that we are all agreed that this is a very important Bill, and that it has made good progress through the House. It was presented on 28th February, and now, on 12th May, we are in tile final stages. This shows what we have experienced this evening; the unanimity on both sides of the House, which it is a pleasure to see on such an important Measure. While the Bill has not been altered in principle—I think that that is right—it has been considerably strengthened in Committee and on Report. Some will doubt whether it goes far enough to deter irresponsible persons from possessing a firearm for illegal purposes. In saying that, I must add that I am in no way referring to my own constituency. I have the honour to represent a part of Britain where the citizens are so law-abiding that the Government would not find it necessary to introduce the Bill at all.

However, I am concerned to see that it fulfils its purpose. The Bill takes within its ambit firearms and all those concerned with them, and it is satisfactory to know that here, too, there is a general tightening up of penalties. In the Second Schedule, for instance, one finds that, under the provisions of the principal Act, false statements in connection with registration of places of business of firearms dealers were punishable on summary conviction with imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or a fine not exceeding £20, or both.

This Bill replaces that with imprisonment on summary conviction for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding £200, or both. There are similar increases in other penalties. This is a tough Bill. This is as it should be. We Liberals welcome the Bill and we hope that it will act as a very real deterrent to the type of criminal for which it is designed.

10.39 p.m.

Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine

The Bill was given a Second Reading on 2nd March, but it was a very different Bill the Home Secretary introduced then. From what he said on that occasion, it is quite clear that he had a very different set of propositions in his mind from those which we are accepting tonight. He made it clear that what he was thinking about was the younger hooligan roaming the streets. Although we have dealt with the younger hooligan, we have also dealt with a great many other evils which required attention. At one stage in Committee, the Joint Under-Secretary assured me that, despite the forbidding exteriors of some of those in his Department, a warm heart beat beneath every one. I had occasion to agree with him about that several times in Standing Committee.

On Second Reading the Under-Secretary, having been asked to comment on the Armed Trespass Bill, which I had the privilege to introduce, said: Much as I would like to give a guarantee to him"— that is, myself— 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".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd March, 1965; Vol. 707, c. 1225.] That was not what one could call a very warm greeting and I felt that there was a rather bleak outlook for the Bill which I had introduced.

By 18th March I found myself a member of the Committee dealing with the Bill before the House today. I found that propositions were coming forward from the Government which made it clear that a good deal of my Measure would be likely to be incorporated in this one. Now, on Third Reading—my Measure having been withdrawn because the Government have accepted practically everything in it—I take this opportunity of again expressing my thanks to the Government for moving so speedily in the direction which I felt was desirable. I introduced my Bill because I received support from more than 20 national organisations, all of which felt that it sought to achieve an extremely desirable aim.

I was pleased to learn that the last bit of my Measure had been accepted since, from the national point of view, hon. Members who represent Scottish constituencies have succeeded in persuading the Government that a part of this Bill should apply to Scotland. I have all along believed that it should apply to Scotland and other parts of the country. Indeed, perhaps it is needed in Wales.

I based my case on the need for the provision in Scotland on the support which I received for my Armed Trespass Bill from Scottish national organisations. I was, therefore, extremely pleased to note that the Government realised the importance of applying the provision to Scotland.

I have received a number of letters asking what has happened to my Bill. I have been trying to explain why it was removed in a rather silent fashion from the prospect of making further progress. While my Bill has disappeared, I hope that there will be widespread support not only for the parts of the Measure which came from the Armed Trespass Bill, hut for the whole Measure, because the Committee was unanimous in its wish to see this legislation on the Statute Book as speedily as possible.

Serving on the Committee was a most satisfactory and useful exercise and I hope that I shall have the privilege of serving on other equally agreeable Committees.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill

We were all appalled, during the passage of the Bill, to learn of the great increase in crimes involving firearms. We heard of the striking rise in felonies and serious crimes of violence. When I looked into the number of offences committed under the Firearms Act, 1937, I found that while the average number of offences a year between 1950 and 1961 had been a little over 1,000, in 1962 they suddenly rose to 3,638. That is a measure of the increase in the unlawful use of firearms.

This increase is not peculiar to Britain. At the very moment when Her Majesty's Government are trying to control the unlawful use of the gun, so also, are the American Government. We have had information as to the grave extent of this there. In America, about 8,500 murders are committed a year, and in 1963 56 per cent. of them by the use of a firearm. We want to stop any tendency to drift in that direction.

The original scope of the Bill was much more limited. I am very grateful that the Bill has been extended to take in my hon. Friend's Private Member's Bill dealings with armed trespass. That will give the greatest satisfaction to farmers and all bodies associated with the countryside. The Bill started with very inadequate powers for the police, and they are now satisfactory. Then there was the difficulty of proving an offence, which is now simplified. The burden is on him who carries a firearm to show that he has lawful authority or reasonable excuse for so doing, and I think that is the way the law should stand.

The result should be an enforceable and effective Bill as far as hooliganism goes. Much of this can probably now be stopped by warning. We have, throughout the passage of the Bill, had almost a weekly warning as we read of the accidents and effects of hooliganism. Practically every weekend some act takes place which might have been prevented had this Bill become law at an earlier stage.

I would like to make just three suggestions, perhaps modest ones, following upon what my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) said about clarifying the law and making it quite clear. I would hope it would not be long before a consolidation measure may be put through so that firearms legislation can be put into one Act which could then readily be referred to. There is a great deal of cross-reference at the moment, and I think that it is especially desirable that the thousands of people having a legitimate use for firearms should be able easily to learn the law. The Bill increases many of the penalties under the main Act, and it seems to me somewhat unsatisfactory to have the current penalties separate from the offences. I think that they should be together in one Act.

My second suggestion refers to an earlier Amendment, which I did not support because I accept the arguments against compulsion, on the matter of insurance. I would hope that publicity could be given to the desirability of insurance, and this might be expressed on the back of the gun licence or firearms certificate so that the holder could be told that this is a wise thing to do even if it is not a legal requirement.

My last suggestion is that to get the Act off to a good start we should consider the question of having an amnesty. I think that this is under consideration. If that could be done and the widest publicity given it would, I think, pull in a lot of firearms and ammunition which simply are not wanted, but which cannot very well be surrendered at the moment.

As far as serious crime is concerned, the would-be armed gangster has been warned and I hope that the Bill will make it plain that Britain does not want him. I would like to end on a more cheerful note, however, because we must remember that shooting is a long-established national sport in Britain and that there are happily thousands more legitimate users of firearms than there are unlawful ones. So I hope that it will be equally clear that it is not our wish or intention to restrict the legitimate and safe use, and that we may reassure the many sportsmen in all the clubs that we wish them to continue to flourish. This sport is served by an efficient and conscientious trade.

I hope that the Minister will be able to find satisfactory solutions to the points we have discussed tonight, and that the Bill will have a speedy passage into law.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.