HC Deb 12 May 1965 vol 712 cc609-23

Any person (other than a member of the armed forces in the course of his duty) who carries or uses a gun (including a firearm, shotgun or air weapon) without there being in force a policy of insurance granted by an insurer approved by the Secretary of State indemnifying that person against all claims by third parties in respect of accidental loss or damage caused by his carrying or using such gun shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds.—[Mr. Hendry.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

7.56 p.m.

Mr. Forbes Hendry (Aberdeenshire, West)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

It will be within the recollection of the House that last year I asked leave and was given permission to introduce a Bill to make it impossible to acquire a gun licence without first having a certificate of third party insurance against accidental damage. For various reasons, that Bill was not proceeded with, but discussions took place with the Ministers then in charge of the Home Office who indicated to me that although there would be serious difficulties with a Bill along those lines, it might be possible to produce legislation making it illegal to carry or use a gun without there being in force a third party insurance.

That is very desirable because accidents happen although, happily, not very often. However, when they happen they are serious. Only two years ago, one of my constituents was out shooting with a shooting party when there was an accident as the result of which he lost an eye. It so happens that the person who caused the shot to be fired was a man of straw and my constituent was unable to recover compensation. He will spend the rest of his life without the sight of one eye and with defective vision in the other. If there had been some sort of legislation in force to make insurance against third party risks compulsory, he would have been able in some measure to get compensation for that serious loss.

Comparatively recently, another constituent of mine—it is strange that these two incidents should occur in the same constituency—put her child in its pram in her garden. A few moments later, she was very alarmed when there was a rattle of shot in the region of the pram. It transpired that a boy with a shotgun had fired a shot. As what goes up must come down somewhere, and as the boy on the other side of the fence had not expected a baby to be there, the shot could have injured the baby, possibly fatally. Although no amount of compensation would have compensated the parents if the baby had been killed—by the mercy of God, in fact, no injury was done—the boy was a minor and had no means of his own, and so there was no way of recovering any compensation if there had been any injury.

There seems to be a case for making it compulsory for a person using a gun on his lawful occasions to have insurance against accidental damage. There are other cases where a malicious person causes damage, and that is uninsurable, but I have in mind only those cases where the persons using guns are bona fide persons in charge of those guns, whether or not they are the owners and where the damage is accidental.

8.0 p.m.

It seems to me that this was an insurable risk, and I accordingly made inquiries of the National Farmers' Union, which is very interested in this, and its insurance company at that time told me that a farmer, who was a person who normally uses a gun, could get cover, without extra cost, under his ordinary third party insurance policy provided he was using the gun for the eradication of vermin. I was told that if a farmer used a gun for other purposes, such as shooting game, he could obtain insurance at very little cost—about 10s.

The Union thought that my proposal was an excellent one, but said that there were serious difficulties in connection with the issue of certificates, and it was not thought practicable in that form. Since then I have made further inquiries about it, and a great deal of interest has been caused by the Amendment. Since putting it down I have had many unsolicited letters from various branches of the Union. I have here one from the Berkshire branch, with which I have no connection. It is one of many that came completely out of the blue, and it says that it approves of this proposal and wishes it well. Generally speaking, the Union, both in England and Scotland, has welcomed the proposal.

I have also had many completely unsolicited letters from various women's organisations, which have commended the Amendment and wished me success. I therefore suggest that I have proved the necessity and desirability of the proposal.

As for the practicability of the matter, I recently made certain inquiries, because the Bill I introduced last year was on rather different lines. I walked into the office of a famous Scottish insurance company in Waterloo Place, just up the street. I did not say who I was. I simply said that I was anxious to insure a gun, and I asked if it was possible. I was told that it certainly was, and without any hesitation a proposal form was produced, which I have here. It reads: This Company issues Policies granting the following cover in the United Kingdom. Third Party Indemnity. Protection against Claims by Third Parties for accidental bodily injury or accidental damage to property arising out of the ownership or use of Sporting Guns. It goes on to describe damage to the guns themselves. The interesting thing is the cost of the cover. I was amazed. I thought it might be 10s., but to my surprise I found that the premium for third party risks, in respect of a total loss up to £5,000, was only 5s. per person. In these days that is a trifling sum. The amount of cover which can be got for 5s. is remarkable. If my proposal is agreed to nobody will suffer any serious loss, because everybody who keeps a gun can afford 5s.

I made further inquiries. I said, "Suppose that I wanted to insure against £10,000 in respect of any one accident, what would it cost?" It is printed in the form. It is amazing; in respect of a £10,000 indemnity the cost is only 6s. per person per annum. That is a very cheap cover.

But the man in the insurance office said, "There is another way of doing this. If you have a householder's comprehensive policy you can get an optional extra for 10s. a year to cover your common law responsibility for injury to others or damage to their property, as a result of your personal negligence or fault." The cost of this cover is only 10s. per annum for all sorts of accidents, and the extent of liability there is £100,000. For a very large amount of cover the cost is negligible. I commend this type of insurance for anybody who owns or uses a gun.

I have made out a case for a cover of this sort, and have demonstrated that its cost is negligible. I know that certain difficulties are involved. If, when a person applied for a gun licence, he had to prove to the post office that he had such cover, serious administrative difficulties would arise. But I suggest that that is not necessary. All that we require to do is to make it a statutory provision that a person using or carrying a gun should have cover of that sort. If he is a reasonable sort of person he will obey the law. If he is an unreasonable person,—if he is a man who is grossly careless, or is a criminal type—and does not obey the law, he should be liable to a very severe penalty in addition to any other penalty that he may incur.

It is for that reason that I have suggested that there should be the comparatively serious penalty of a fine of £100 for failure to comply with this statutory provision. It may be thought that this is barely enough, but in my opinion it is a pretty substantial penalty, and if it is translated into an appropriate term of imprisonment it is a fairly substantial sanction, which will make most reasonable people agree to take out cover of this sort.

I agree that a statutory provision of this sort will not oblige potential criminals to take out insurance, and I realise that these are the people who would be liable to disregard a law of this sort, but with the substantial penalty that I have envisaged there will be an interest even on the part of that type of person to take out this very proper cover. Having regard to all the circumstances, I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will see fit to accept the new Clause.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

I commend the new Clause. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry) for quoting specific figures to show the magnitude or otherwise of the imposition which this proposal would make upon the ordinary citizen. It would not be a very great imposition, bearing in mind that a gun is intended to do damage to something, whereas a motor car is not. It therefore seems an obviously valid claim to make that when carrying something which is intended to do damage to something—even if it is legitimate damage—some provision should be made for misuse, accidental or otherwise, just as a person, under statute law, is required to insure if he drives a vehicle, which can cause accidental damage.

Lest it should be thought that this is an entirely theoretical consideration, I would point out that I have a constituent who, over 10 years ago, was walking down a country lane when a man who was climbing over a hedge with a loaded gun accidentally discharged it and shot my constituent's right arm off at the shoulder, thereby depriving him of his livelihood. In the fullness of time the county court awarded him over £6,000 damages, but the owner of the gun—the man who had accidentally discharged it—went bankrupt, and my recollection is that my constituent received approximately £50 instead of £6,000. He lost his ability to earn a livelihood and to keep his wife and children. He received a derisory sum of money, simply because the person who discharged the gun was not insured and was a man of no financial substance, being quite unable to pay the sum awarded by the county court. This type of case can be multiplied many times throughout the country.

It is probably a fair general proposition to make that the type of gun most likely to cause an accident is a cheap gun with external hammers and no safety catch, or a gun which has not been seen by a gun-maker for a quarter of a century and may be in a bad state of mechanical repair. Such a gun is more likely to be owned by someone not of sufficient financial substance to be able to pay out large sums which might be due to indemnify the victim of an accident. This, after all, is the fundamental ground on which the principles of compulsory insurance have been adopted, for example, for motor cars.

I hope that it will not be considered out of order if I express my disappointment that the Government have not seen fit to table an Amendment, as I pressed them to do, designed to prohibit the importation into this country of the sporting gun, the smooth bore shotgun without a safety catch——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Samuel Storey)

Order. I do not think that arises on the proposed Clause.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

The only connection it does have, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, with respect, is that there are certain types of weapons which people may legitimately buy or own in this country and which are particularly liable to cause accidents. The occasion has not been taken to date to restrict the provision of these weapons. I suggest that it is more than ever necessary that provision should be made so that people who suffer from the accidental discharge of such weapons should be indemnified, so far as anyone may be, by a financial payment for the loss of limb or livelihood. We should always remember that no financial provision we may make can restore the situation. I strongly commend this Clause to the House as a necessary reform in our legislation.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I am glad to support the Motion. It is rarely at this stage in the consideration of a Bill that an Amendment of this kind is signed by hon. Members from both sides of the House, but the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry) and I were glad when two hon. Members of the party opposite added their names. This shows clearly that this is a matter which causes genuine concern. We hone that something may be done about it.

We should, I think, consider possible arguments against the acceptance of the proposed Clause. An obvious one is that the Government may feel the Bill is not an appropriate Measure in which to include such a Clause. It is concerned mainly with people who possess guns and use them for irregular or illegal purposes, and may not be thought the appropriate legislation in which to include a provision concerning people who use guns for proper purposes. The hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West and I would be happy with a specific assurance from the Government that they would take action on the lines that we have suggested, not necessarily in this Bill but by means of new legislation or by some other means. I think that it is agreed that there is need for action of this kind.

The second possible argument is that compulsion is not the right way to achieve what is desired. It has been suggested that the appropriate way would be by encouragement and by pointing out the policies available for third party insurance. I do not feel that is the proper way to go about the matter. The few people who would not listen to encouragement and advice are those who could be involved in a tragedy. Many accidents occur because of the bad maintenance of weapons by people who are not experienced in their use. Those who do maintain their guns are experienced users and are not likely to be involved in unfortunate accidents.

It may be alleged that here we are dealing with a small problem and only a few cases might arise from time to time. But when accidents do occur they can result in great tragedy and for the protection of possible victims as well as people who own guns we should take action along these lines.

I am sure that practical difficulties will be pointed out, but if there is a firm determination to do something about the problem the practical difficulties may be overcome. At some stage in the purchase, maintenance or use of a gun there could be some way to make it necessary for people using guns to have a third party insurance certificate. The figures which have been obtained by the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West and myself make clear that the cost involved would be small, but the protection afforded would be very great.

I feel that for the protection of people who own guns this is a necessary provision. We know, from cases which have been heard in the courts involving damages, that often the amount of damages may be substantial and people may be faced with an intolerable financial burden, which they could not have expected, resulting from an accident. We should think not only of people who may be the victims of accidents arising out of the unexpected discharge of guns but also of the people who own the guns. By this provision we could afford protection to people who may be the innocent victims of accidents and people who use guns for lawful purposes.

I hope that the Government will accept the proposed Clause, but if not, that we may have an assurance that at an early stage something will be done along the same lines.

8.15 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Frank Soskice)

We have heard three interesting and earnest speeches in support of this proposal. I am not saying for a moment that this is a general proposition which does not commend itself as being socially useful. I do say, as has been said by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor), that this is not the Bill in which to incorporate a provision of this sort.

The hon. Gentleman said that he would be satisfied with an assurance on behalf of the Government that legislation would be introduced on some other occasion to achieve what the three hon. Members opposite desire. When we are discussing a Bill dealing with a completely different topic, I cannot be asked to take it upon myself to give an assurance of that sort. I hope that the hon. Member will not press it, because I submit that it would not be reasonable for him to do so.

We are discussing a Measure designed to deal with something quite different, namely, gunmen and hooligans. This proposal is completely alien and extraneous to it. Assuming that one disregards that characteristic, if one wishes to incorporate in a Measure a provision for compulsory insurance, at least one has to work out a scheme which would have some effect. I put it to the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry) that the scheme embodied in the proposed Clause would not achieve the purpose he has in mind.

The hon. Member says, "You must insure, subject to certain exemptions, and if you do not, you are liable to a criminal penalty." That will not have very much effect. The sort of irresponsible person who carries weapons in circumstances which may lead to an accident often is a person of no substance. Indeed, that is the sort of person the hon. Gentleman has in mind.

A man of no substance and with very little feeling of responsibility is very unlikely, whether there is a penalty or not, to have an effective insurance policy. The provision that one will be liable to a fine if one is that type of person and has no effective insurance policy in force will have no practical result. If one wants to introduce a scheme which will have a practical and useful consequence, one has to approach it in an entirely different way.

The hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) put his finger on two points. In the first place, he asked why we should not make the same requirements as are imposed on the driver of a motor car who has to have a compulsory insurance policy, insuring him against third party risks. Has he studied the elaborate provisions in the Road Traffic Acts of 1930 and 1934 in which those provisions are contained? There is there a whole elaborate code.

I just ask the hon. Member to imagine the situation if one has to have an insurance policy. If an irresponsible young man has caused grave injury by the use of a weapon, is the injured person to have a right directly against the insurance company? He must, if this is to be effective. Or is he to be put to the necessity, after he has been injured, of trying to find out who the irresponsible young man is? Even if he finds him, is he to have any compulsive power upon that person to disclose the name of the insurance company? Is he entitled to say to the young man who has done the injury, "You must tell me the name of the insurance company"?

Suppose that the young man skedaddles abroad and does not take any action—even if there is a policy in force—to see that compensation is paid by the insurance company. Is the injured person to have no further right at all? In the Road Traffic Acts, that situation is dealt with in an elaborate code. The hon. Member for Tiverton mentioned such a case. Is that man's right against his insurance company, as in the case of motor insurance, to be transferred to the injured person or not? Clearly, it must be, if we are to have any sort of effective scheme.

Apart from that, it is an elementary principle of insurance law—as anybody who has studied these subjects knows—that an insurance company is entitled to repudiate a policy if it has been obtained without full disclosure by the insured person of all material facts. Suppose that the person who does the injury has not disclosed all material facts, that he has not disclosed, for instance, the fact that he is "accident-prone" that he has had previous mishaps of a similar type. Is the insurance company to be entitled not only to repudiate the policy in regard to the person who causes the injury, but also to refuse to pay the innocent person any compensation? That is all dealt with in the two Road Traffic Acts. If we are to do any good for people injured in these circumstances, we have to provide for all that.

That is why I say to the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West that if one is to do this, one has to do it properly and in a Measure properly conceived and concerted for that purpose. He mentioned the fact that there are policies which are quite cheaply obtainable, which a number of people have and which insure a person against any negligent act of his, whether through the use of a weapon or riding a bicycle or simply walking along the street and pushing over some elderly person. All these are negligent acts which may give rise to causes for damages against him.

If we are to have compulsory insurance in respect of accidents with weapons, ought we not also to consider how far we are to extend the sphere of compulsory insurance so as to make it coterminous with that kind of policy which a number of people at modest cost have affected with their insurance company? All these things need consideration if one is to consider this matter.

If one looks at the provisions of the hon. Member's Clause, one will see that he excludes from its scope members of the Armed Forces acting in the course of their duty. He has not excluded, for example, policemen acting in the course of their duty. Some of them have to use arms. He has not excluded a gamekeeper, who may be armed. He has not even excluded a member of the public who finds a lost gun and takes it to the police station. If they did not have an insurance policy which was effective, all these people would—if the Clause were adopted—be committing offences, rendering them liable to a penalty of up to £100.

I put it to the hon. Member that not only is his Clause completely devoid of provisions which are absolutely essential if it is to be effective and to achieve anything, but it is, on its own face, defective, in that it excludes some people whereas a great many others would be included.

I hope that the House will agree that, for the reasons which I have given, the Clause cannot be accepted. It is defective in its terms. It excludes only members of the Armed Forces. It is quite wrong in its approach, in that it simply applies a criminal penalty. It is completely bereft of a whole variety of complicated provisions which are essential if we are to consider any form of compulsory insurance. That is another way of saying that it is completely alien to the Bill. If one is to do this, it must be thought out properly. I do not suggest that the hon. Member has not given the subject a good deal of thought—of course he has—but one has to work out a scheme which will hold water.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

I cannot conceive why the Home Secretary should want to exclude gamekeepers. If he has seen some of the gamekeepers' guns which I have seen, he would think that they are just the type of weapon to be included. I do not mean the majority of them, but why should gamekeepers be considered less accident-prone than other people?

Sir F. Soskice

Let me concede that one point. Let me say that the hon. Member is right in including gamekeepers and subjecting them to the compulsory insurance. I withdraw my reference to gamekeepers. What about all the other points which I made? This Clause is defective. It is quite ineffective for the purpose for which it is designed. If it is to be adopted at all, one should consider a wide range of possible cases in which one should have some form of compulsory insurance. He does not even say in the Clause whether the insurance is to be limited to accidents caused by the negligent use of firearms or any use of firearms.

I do not know whether the proposal form which he indicated would be one insuring people against the consequences of the negligent use of firearms. I would imagine that it would be, but it may not be. He has not indicated that in his Clause. This is a major question with many far-reaching implications. If we are to address ourselves to it, let us do so in a way which will achieve some useful social purpose.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Hendry

May I have the permission of the House to reply?

The Home Secretary has given a most unconvincing reply. All he has said is that the Clause contains certain defects. That may well be, but I am not sure what the defects are. He has not been clear about that. He criticised it because I have not mentioned gamekeepers, and my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) has suggested that they are very suitable persons for inclusion. The Home Secretary said that I have not excluded the police. I see no reason why a police committee should not insure a constable.

Sir F. Soskice

I tried to deal with the case fairly and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do me the compliment of doing the same to me in return. I did not criticise the proposal solely because the police are not excluded. I criticised it in some detail because it was utterly bereft of essential provisions if one were to make sense of the proposals.

Mr. Hendry

That is as may be, but I listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman and I am not convinced by what he said. All he said was that the Clause contains various defects. That may well be, but it seems to me that the Clause will pursuade a number of people to insure against third party liability.

The Home Secretary spoke about accidental damage. No person will be able to establish a claim unless there is a common law claim based on negligence. The effect of the Clause might well be to increase the number of insurances in force, and in a number of cases people might be able to recover damages who, as the law stands, would not be able to do so.

The Clause may be defective, but half a loaf is better than no bread, and I think that it would serve a good purpose. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will later produce something better in the way of new legislation. Because I am not convinced by his arguments, I do not feel inclined to withdraw the new Clause, but, in the event of its not being accepted by the House, I hope that the Home Secretary, whose opinion in these matters I respect greatly, will be good enough to advise me in correspondence about future legislation.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop rose——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) has exhausted his right to speak.

Question put, That the Clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 23, Noes 133.

Division No. 109.] AYES [8.32 p.m.
Black, Sir Cyril Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St. Edmunds) Temple, John M.
Brewis, John Higgins, Terence L. Ward, Dame Irene
Chichester-Clark, R. Hornsby-Smith, Rt. Hn. Dame P. Webster, David
Craddock, Sir Beresford (Spelthorne) Howard, Hn. G. R. (St. Ives) Wise A. R.
Curran, Charles Howe, Geoffrey (Bebington)
Errington, Sir Eric Mott-Radclyffe, Sir Charles TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Farr, John Neave, Airey Mr. Forbes Hendry and
Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife) Pitt, Dame Edith Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop.
Gower, Raymond Taylor, Edward M. (G'gow,Cathcart)
Allen, Scholefield (Crewe) Cullen, Mrs. Alice Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston)
Armstrong, Ernest Dalyell, Tam Freeson, Reginald
Atkinson, Norman Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.) Garrett, W. E.
Bacon, Miss Alice Davies, Harold (Leek) Greenwood, Rt. Hn. Anthony
Barnett, Joel Delargy, Hugh Grey, Charles
Bence, Cyril Dell, Edmund Griffiths, Rt. Hn. James (Llanelly)
Blackburn, F. Dempsey, James Hamilton, James (Bothwell)
Boston, T. G. Diamond, John Hamilton, William (West Fife)
Bowden, Rt. Hn. H. W. (Leics S.W.) Dodds, Norman Hamling, William (Woolwich, W.)
Bowen, Roderic (Cardigan) Doig, Peter Hannan, William
Braddock, Mrs. E. M. Duffy, Dr. A. E. P. Holman, Percy
Bray, Dr. Jeremy Dunnett, Jack Hooson, H. E.
Brown, R. W. (Shoreditch & Fbury) Edwards, Rt. Hn. Ness (Caerphilly) Howarth, Harry (Wellingborough)
Buchan, Norman (Renfrewshire, W.) Ensor, David Howie, W.
Butler, Herbert (Hackney, C.) Evans, Ioan (Birmingham, Yardley) Hoy, James
Chapman, Donald Fernyhough, E. Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire)
Coleman, Donald Finch, Harold (Bedwellty) Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.)
Craddock, George (Bradford, S.) Fitch, Alan (Wigan) Hunter, Adam (Dunfermline)
Crawshaw, Richard Fletcher, Sir Eric (Islington, E.) Hunter, A. E. (Feltham)
Cronin, John Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Hynd, H. (Accrington)
Hynd, John (Attercliffe) Neal, Harold Solomons, Henry
Jay, Rt. Hn. Douglas Newens, Stan Soskice, Rt. Hn. Sir Frank
Jenkins, Rt. Hn. Roy (Stechford) Norwood, Christopher Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Jones, Dan (Burnley) Oakes, Gordon Steele, Thomas (Dunbartonshire, W.)
Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham) Ogden, Eric Stones, William
Lawson, George Oswald, Thomas Symonds, J. B.
Lee, Rt. Hn. Frederick (Newton) Palmer, Arthur Thomas, George (Cardiff, W.)
Lever, L. M. (Ardwick) Parker, John Thornton, Ernest
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Pentland, Norman Urwin, T. W.
Lomas, Kenneth Price, J. T. (Westhoughton) Varley, Eric G.
Lubbock, Eric Redhead, Edward Wainwright, Edwin
McBride, Neil Reynolds, G. W. Walden, Brian (All Saints)
MacColl, James Rhodes, Geoffrey Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
MacDermot, Niall Robertson, John (Paisley) Wallace, George
McGuire, Michael Rose, Paul B. Watkins, Tudor
McInnes, James Ross, Rt. Hn. William Wells, William (Walsall, N.)
McKay, Mrs. Margaret Sheldon, Robert Whitlock, William
Mackenzie, Alasdair(Ross&Crom'ty) Short,Rt.Hn.E.(N'c'tle-on-Tyne,C.) Wilkins, W. A.
Mackenzie, Gregor (Rutherglen) Short, Mrs. Renée (W'hampton.N.E.) Williams, W. T. (Warrington)
Mackie, George Y. (C'ness & S'land) Silkin, John (Deptford) Willis, George (Edinburgh, E.)
MacPherson, Malcolm Silkin, S. C. (Camberwell, Dulwich) Woodburn Rt. Hn. A.
Mallalieu,J.P.W.(Huddersfield,E.) Silverman, Julius (Aston)
Manuel, Archie Silverman, Sydney (Nelson) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Mapp, Charles Slater, Mrs. Harriet (Stoke, N.) Mr. Ifor Davies and
Millan, Bruce Slater, Joseph (Sedgefield) Mr. Brian O'Malley.
Milne, Edward (Blyth) Small, William