HC Deb 12 May 1965 vol 712 cc648-54

Sir F. Soskice I beg to move Amendment No. 13, in page 4, line 30, to leave out subsection (3) and to insert: (3) For section 21(1) of the principal Act (prohibition of persons sentenced to preventive detention or corrective training or to imprisonment for a term of three months or more from possessing firearms and ammunition for five years after release) there shall be substituted the following subsection:— (1) Subject to the provisions of this section—

  1. (a) a person who has been sentenced to preventive detention, or to imprisonment or to corrective training for a term of three years or more, or who has been sentenced to be detained for such a term in a young offenders institution in Scotland, shall not at any time have a firearm or ammunition in his possession; and
  2. 649
  3. (b) a person who has been sentenced to borstal training, to corrective training for less than three years or to imprisonment for a term of three months or more but less than three years, or who has been sentenced to be detained for such a term in a detention centre or in a young offenders institution in Scotland, shall not at any time before the expiration of the period of five years from the date of his release have a firearm or ammunition in his possession".
(4) For section 21 (2) (a) of the principal Act (prohibition on prisoners and others under licence from possessing firearms and ammunition), in its application both to England and Wales and to Scotland, there shall be substituted the following paragraph:— (a) is the holder of a licence issued under section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 or section 57 of the Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act 1937".

The Bill, in a sense, follows on the 1937 Act, Section 21 of which provides that a person who has been sentenced to a term Of various forms of imprisonment in excess of three months shall be disqualified from possessing a firearm for five years thereafter. It was argued in Committee that in the case of the more reprehensible criminal, five years would not be enough. To take the case of the thug who deserves and receives imprisonment or punishments of other sorts for a period in excess of three years there is really no reason why he should ever possess a firearm. That was the argument advanced which commends itself to the Government.

In the Amendment I have now proposed the Government intend to substitute a different Clause for Section 21, subsection (1), of the 1937 Act. In the new Clause we propose to substitute, if the House agrees, we will retain in effect, the provision that persons whose punishment merits a period of restraint in excess of three months——

It being Ten o'clock, further consideration of the Bill, as amended, stood adjourned.

Ordered, That the Proceedings on Government Business may be entered upon and proceeded with at this day's Sitting at any hour, though opposed.—[Mrs. Harriet Slater.]

Bill, as amended (in the Standing Committee, further considered.

Sir F. Soskice

In the new Clause which we ask the House to accept we preserve the distinction between the miscreant who has deserved and received a period of punishment in excess of three months and who is, in consequence, disqualified under the existing provisions of Section 21 of the 1937 Act from possessing a firearm for five years, and the more dangerous type of criminal, whose crime has earned for him punishment in excess of three years. With regard to this type of criminal, we now seek to provide that he shall never, during the course of his natural life, possess a firearm.

We submit to the House that this is a reasonable provision. The possession of a dangerous weapon of that sort is something the Government believes should be regarded as a kind of privilege. If you are a person who, because of your violent anti-social tendencies, have shown yourself as unfit for that sort of privilege, you should never again have a firearm.

There is provision in the 1937 Act for application to be made to a court of quarter sessions for relaxation, in the case of a particular individual, of that provision. We seek generally to enact by this Clause that a dangerous criminal, as we seek to define him in our new Clause, shall never again, unless a court specifically authorises him to do so, possess a firearm. There is not the slightest reason in the world why, if he has shown himself to be so utterly inimical to society as to deserve punishment of that magnitude, society should be expected to trust him with the possession of a firearm.

That is what this new Clause seeks to enact and I hope that it will commend itself to the House, as it commends itself to the Government after hearing arguments advanced from the opposite side of the Committee upstairs.

Mr. Sharples

In the Standing Committee we on this side moved an Amendment, which, by its drafting, went a little further than the Amendment which has now been moved by the Home Secretary. I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has now got the balance right. I certainly support this Amendment as it is now put forward. I think that the House should appreciate the very serious step which we are now taking in preventing people who have been sentenced to prison for a serious crime from ever having firearms during the whole of their life unless they are allowed to do so by permission of a court. It is a very serious step indeed and I think that it is right, in view of the gravity of the situation with which we are trying to deal.

Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)

I am sure that hon. Members are grateful for the reception that the Home Secretary has given to the proposals made in Standing Committee. May I ask, on subsections (1,b), a question relating to enforcement? I think that this problem may arise here and I would be grateful if the Minister could make it clear to us how a check would be kept to ensure that persons who are mentioned there would be found guilty of a criminal offence and came under the terms of that subsection.

Sir F. Soskice

There is always the difficulty of discovery of an offence by the police. But, after all, a person who has committed an offence of this sort will have been punished and his record will be well known to the police. This is a matter which will be carefully documented in police archives. If there is any reason or evidence to suppose that a person of that sort, notwithstanding this ban, possesses a weapon, the police, in the ordinary way, if the evidence is satisfactory, would bring proceedings in order to enforce this Clause. We cannot say in advance how it will arise in each case, but the police would naturally use their usual vigilance and means of ascertaining when offences are committed. Whether they are successful depends on the circumstances.

Mr. Deedes

I do not wish to quibble about this, but the matter would arise only when an offence had been committed and the criminal's record became known. It would not be possible to check on the individual before he committed a criminal offence.

Sir F. Soskice

I dare say that very often that would be the case. I do not conceive that that would be the only situation in which it came to light that a person under a ban of this sort was in possession of a firearm. In a variety of circumstances evidence might point to the possession by him of a firearm. A number of these people are very boastful and stupid and they often betray themselves by indiscreet statements when those statements are overheard. All sorts of situations might arise which gave rise to a perfectly clear piece of evidence to show that the individual possessed a firearm. Generally it would be because an offence had been committed.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill

I beg to move Amendment No. 20, in page 4, line 41, at the end to insert: and there shall be added at the end of the said section 24(1) the words— 'Provided that nothing in this subsection shall prevent a registered firearms dealer from shortening the barrel of a smoothbore gun if before parting with possession of the gun he replaces the part of the barrel removed with another part so that the total length of the barrel is not less than twenty-four inches'". Again, this Amendment is tabled to meet a technical difficulty which the gun trade discovered after the Bill had left Standing Committee. I should like once more to thank the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the consideration which he gave to this point and his promise to look into it at very short notice.

The difficulty arises in this way. Section 24(1) of the Firearms Act, 1937, has now been amended by subsections (1) and (4) of Clause 9 of the Bill so as to read: No person shall shorten the barrel of a smooth bore gun to a length less than twenty-four inches"— not even a registered firearms dealer. This flat prohibition will prevent the repair of shotgun barrels by what is known as the sleeving method.

Sleeving involves cutting off old barrels a short distance from the breech and inserting new barrels to make the gun the same length as before, or, at any rate, not less than 24 inches. The method has been developed in recent years as a cheaper alternative to fitting completely new barrels which now, for a 12 bore gun, can cost as much as £100 or £150. Sleeving works out at about half the price, and therefore the trade wants to be able to continue this method.

In case anyone thinks that sleeving is possibly unsafe, I should explain that sleeved guns are subject to specially severe proofing before being passed fit for use. The trouble is that if sleeving remains prohibited either the owner of a defective gun will tend to buy a cheap new gun—probably a foreign import, which would not be as welcome to the trade as repairing the perfectly good mechanism of an existing British gun—or, worse still, the owner will tend to take a chance by going on using a gun the barrels of which are defective. I am put in mind of a rather happy-go-lucky sportsman who, when it was pointed out to him that the barrel of his gun seemed to have a hole in it, said, "It is all right as long as I do not put my left hand over the hole. It stings."

This Amendment has passed through some versions. In fact, it is a sleeved Amendment. We cut off the proviso which was defective and we recently added a new one. I hope that in its sleeved form it can stand up to the exacting proof of the Home Office, but if it happens that the Parliamentary out-workers have not performed their craft as well as the gentlemen who were mentioned earlier this evening, I hope the Minister will accept the principle and give the Amendment new barrels in his own words if necessary.

Mr. Neave

I thank the Under-Secretary for the consideration that he has given to this point. I hope he thinks that it is sound.

This is a sleeved version of our original Amendment. I believe the Home Office has already been told that the Birmingham Proof House proved 3,000 shotguns in the last 12 months, of which over 1,000 had these new sleeved barrels. Therefore, this new process is very important to the trade.

Of course, it would be a breach of the law for this process to be carried out as the Clause now stands, and I therefore hope it will be agreed that this Amendment is based on a sound point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) said, this process is much less expensive than the old process and, in addition, it is efficient and safe. I therefore hope the Under-Secretary will agree that this Amendment is justified in the interests of the trade and that he will, therefore, accept it.

Mr. George Thomas

I think it only fair, after the Government have been tempted to conversion on so many issues tonight, that hon. Members opposite should also wear sackcloth and ashes because of the necessity for this Amendment. Our mistake was to listen to them. Otherwise, we would not be in the position, in our desire to control sawn-off shotguns, of having created this anxiety in the country.

I know the link between the hon. Members for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B., Hill) and for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) and the responsible people in the trade. I discussed this issue with them and there is no desire at all on this side of the House, any more than there is on the other side of the House, to hinder, impede or handicap responsible people in the gun trade.

We have not as yet found a form of words, but I am able to assure the hon. Gentlemen that by the time this Bill reaches another place we shall have given earnest consideration to finding some way of helping to solve the difficulty that has been created. We realise there is a safety factor involved in the right of the gun trade to deal with the sleeving of guns.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Sharples

I must bear my fair share of guilt for the necessity for this Amendment and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that he will find a means to try to put this matter right. There is a genuine case to be met here which has been put forward both to him and to us by the gun trade. On the hon. Gentleman's assurance, I hope that my hon. Friend will see his way to withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill

On the assurance of new barrels, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.