HC Deb 20 October 1966 vol 734 cc529-40
Mr. Greenwood

I beg to move Amendment No. 46, in page 22, line 10, after 'hawkers' to insert ', passage brokers, emigrant runners'.

Mr. Speaker

With this Amendment we are taking Amendments Nos. 71 and 80.

Mr. Greenwood

Being a modernising Government, we have tabled these Amendments to repeal certain archaic provisions for the licensing of passage brokers and emigrant runners.

A passage broker is, broadly speaking, a person who anywhere in the British Islands sells or lets, or is concerned with the selling or letting of steerage passages from anywhere in Europe, excluding the Mediterranean Sea. "British Islands" means the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. He is required to take out a bond with the Crown for £1,000, and a licence for which no fee is prescribed. The 1894 Act provided for the licensing authorities to be the justices of the peace at petty sessions in the administrative county of London, and the councils of county boroughs and county districts in England and Wales. Responsibility would rest upon outer London boroughs under the London Government Act. 1963.

An emigrant runner is a person other than a passage broker who for reward conducts or influences any intending emigrant to or on behalf of a passage broker, ship owner, lodging house keeper, or money lender for any purpose connected with a passage. He was required to obtain a licence from the licensing authority for passage brokers, and also a badge from the Board of Trade which he had to wear "conspicuously on his breast" while acting as an emigrant runner.

These provisions are contained in that part of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, which deals with steerage—that is, non-cabin—passages on emigrant ships. The provisions came into being at a time when it was considered necessary to ensure that persons engaged in selling or letting steerage passages on emigrant ships could be held to proper fulfilment of their undertakings by deposition of a bond, and by being licensed. These conditions no longer obtain. Steerage passages on emigrant ships are no longer sold or let, and emigrant ships in the 1894 sense no longer exist.

Only 13 applications have been made for passage brokers' licences in England and Wales for the year 1966, and none for licences for emigrant runners. Most of the firms who have applied for licences for passage brokers have apparently done so as a tradition and, after consultation with them, the Board of Trade has concluded that there are no good reasons for retaining the relevant provisions.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Temple

The fact that this is only the second Amendment which the Minister has moved indicates the importance which he attaches to it. I should like to know if he is absolutely certain that there will not be a large upsurge in demand for emigrant runners, because I have every reason to suppose that there will be a great rush of emigrants out of this country. However, we shall not oppose this Amendment because we may be back in power very soon and under a Conservative Government there will not be a need for passage brokers or emigrant runners.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Charles Morrison

I beg to move Amendment No. 47, in page 22, line 11 leave out 'guns'.

Mr. Speaker

With this Amendment it is proposed that we should take Amendment No. 70: In Schedule 3, page 37, leave out line 6; and Amendment No. 79: In Schedule 6, page 44, leave out lines 39 and 40.

Mr. Morrison

The purpose of this Amendment is simple. It is for the retention of the licence for guns. In Committee, after a lengthy debate, the Parliamentary Secretary agreed, following pressure from a number of my hon. Friends and a number of hon. Members opposite, to have another look at this matter, but there was no doubt that he was opposed to the Amendment. In summing up his opposition, he said of it: I would certainly want to have another look at it. However, I must confess that I am convinced by my own arguments. Over a long period as Parliamentary Secretary I have not always been convinced by my own arguments, but I am in this case."—OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee F, 21 July, 1966; c. 421.] He went on to say that the Home Office was in full support of the proposal to abolish gun licences. A lot can happen during a Parliamentary Recess, and this time it appears that the Home Secretary has eaten his own words, or perhaps those of his Department, and those of the Parliamentary Secretary as well. I am very pleased to see that there is a representative of the Home Office here this evening, for we were pleased to hear recently from the Home Secretary that he was considering a new scheme for the licensing of guns. We are still in ignorance of what the scheme is to be, but I hope the Government will be able to say something about it this evening.

In the light of what the Home Secretary said, this Amendment has become in a way a probing Amendment. At this stage, therefore, I do not propose to propound again the full arguments in favour of the Amendment. It will suffice to say that the proposal to abolish gun licences caused consternation among country folk, particularly those living on the edge of large towns and areas like Epping Forest, to which the hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Newens) referred in Committee, and to the growing number of people who are distressed by the frequent use of shotguns in crimes of violence.

I know that the issue by a post office of a gun licence is obligatory and, therefore, it can be argued that it provides no control, but anything that can be deemed a possible deterrent or control should be retained and its abolition would be a retrograde step unless it is replaced by some other form of control. We await with interest what the Government have to say on the question of gun licences.

Mr. Stan Newens (Epping)

When this matter was discussed in Committee I was one of those who expressed disquiet at the proposal to abolish gun licences. Nothing that was said in Committee convinced me that my disquiet was misplaced. I am well aware of the arguments that were deployed. We were told, first, that the gun licence provides no real control over the present situation, because anyone can buy a gun licence. We were told, secondly, that it was too expensive to collect the revenue that was raised by this licence.

I disagree with these arguments. The first argument is invalid, because I believe that to put anybody who has a gun and no licence in the position of breaking the law is desirable and useful. We should certainly adhere to gun licences, if for this reason alone.

The second argument, that it was not worth while raising revenue, is completely invalid. I understand that figures given at the time indicated that £200,000 per annum was raised at a cost of £30,000, a net gain of £170,000. This amount is not to be sneezed at, and in my opinion we should continue to collect it. In any event, why is there any need for us to keep the licence fee at its present level? It was suggested in Committee—I consider this to be true—that we might raise the gun licence fee. Why not make it £2 or £5? Without making it a ridiculous figure, we could at least raise more revenue at present. After all, many people who lawfully wish to have guns can well afford to pay more than they are paying at present.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot discuss on this Amendment the question of increasing the licence fee for guns. We are discussing whether the word "guns" stands part of the Bill.

Mr. Newens

I beg your pardon, Sir. I was seeking to point out that the argument that insufficient revenue would be raised was, in my view, invalid. Many people will be extremely concerned to learn that gun licences are to be or have been abolished with nothing to replace them.

When discussing this matter in Committee, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary agreed to discuss it with my right hon. Friends who are responsible. I do not know what has happened as a result of those discussions, but I hope that something has been decided that will allay the disquiet which this proposal has caused. I should hate it to be thought that only hon. Members opposite are concerned about this proposal. I am very concerned about it, and I am sure that many of my hon. Friends are equally worried about any step being taken to abolish gun licences.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

These Amendments were originally tabled to secure a continuance of the gun licensing system. From a recent announcement made by the Home Secretary it is obvious that the Home Department shares the views of those who have tabled these Amendments that some form of the gun licensing system must be retained. All those associated with guns in the trade and those who use them will co-operate with the Secretary of State in every way in framing a new, modern, effective, sensible and fair system of shotgun licensing.

Before concluding our discussions on these Amendments, it is only right that we should be told by the Government what system or what sort of licensing control they propose to put in place of the exist- ing 10s. a licence. It is difficult for the House to make a decision on the abolition of an existing system before we have at least an inkling of what the Government propose to put in its place.

I doubt that even the most stringent methods of control which the Home Secretary may be advised to introduce will prevent the ne'er-do-well or wrongdoer from getting a shotgun if he really wants one. The number of crimes committed with revolvers and pistols is increasing daily, and yet the person who is the utmost pillar of respectability in the community, such as any hon. and right hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench opposite, will find it almost impossible today to be in legal possession of a revolver.

We see from this that, however stringent the control, if a ne'er-do-well desires possession of a weapon it is not too difficult to come by. Therefore, I hope that the new legislation of which we may get an inkling tonight will not be too stringent and will not choke too much with red tape those who are in the business and those who use shotguns for sport. A number of suggestions will no doubt be given to the Minister from those who represent different interests before he finally makes up his mind. It has been suggested that it might be easier if the existing 10s. annual licence were replaced by a three-yearly licence to save clerical work, on the lines of a driving licence. The hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Newens) suggested £2 or £5. An annual payment of £1 or £2 payable over three years, would not be too much to find for anybody who is really interested in the sport. As the hon. Member said, a considerable number of people take out shotgun licences, and the revenue received is probably brought in with the minimum of effort.

We are anxious to hear from the Minister tonight what is in the Government's mind. I hope that when he gives the House an inkling of the path the new legislation will take he will bear in mind that our shotgun manufacturing industry turns out the best sporting guns in the world. They are exported all over the world and bring in a considerable sum in dollars every year. I hope that he will also remember that many people travel to this country from all over the world to enjoy sporting facilities, and one reason is that within a certain compass it is possible to enjoy one's sport here without too much red tape.

I particularly ask the Minister to think very seriously about the three Amendments because of the question of the position if he declined to accept their incorporation in the Bill. What will be the position if the three references to guns are included in the Bill and after the Bill is enacted, possibly in a matter of weeks, it is no longer necessary to possess a gun licence? We have heard from the Home Secretary that proposals are being received from various interested people. Views are being sounded and it is possible that the result of this sounding will be incorporated in a future Criminal Justice Bill which, with the crowded programme of legislation in the House, may or may not come into effect in 1967 or 1968.

What will be the position after this Bill is on the Statute Book in a few weeks? The new Criminal Justice Bill has not even begun its passage. What will be the position during the period of vacuum, as it were, when no gun licences will be required but the new system to be incorporated in future legislation has not come into effect? I am concerned chiefly for this latter reason, and here I speak on behalf of all those who support my view both in the trade and elsewhere.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.


That the Proceedings on the Local Government Bill may be entered upon and proceeded with at this day's Sitting at any hour, though opposed.—[Mr. Charles R. Morris.]

Question again proposed, That "guns" stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Farr

I ask the Minister to accept that I am expressing a view unanimously held by all interested people who, whether in their business or in their leisure pursuits, appreciate the value of the existing gun licence system. We should hate to see a hiatus between the passage of this Bill and the enactment of some future legislation, and we hope, for that reason alone, that the Minister will accept the Amendments.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dick Taverne)

As this is a matter which concerns the Home Office, I have been asked to reply.

We appreciate the motives behind the Amendments, which, at first sight, have some merit. The objectives behind the speeches of the hon. Members for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison) and for Harborough (Mr. Farr) are very much the same as the objectives we have in the Home Office. In Committee, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government said that we would look at the question again, but the position has changed as a result of Government plans for future legislation, announced in a speech by the Home Secretary.

What is the present law? Clearly, the present gun licence system is not worth keeping as a way of raising revenue because, as a revenue raiser, it is extremely inefficient and wasteful and there are far more efficient ways of raising revenue than by a system which costs so much to administer. I shall have a word to say in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Newens), but the main reason why these Amendments have been pressed is that they are, as the hon. Member for Devizes said, probing Amendments, hon. Members having in mind the indirect result of the present gun licence system, that is, control over the use of shotguns. Subject to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Epping, one can say that the issue before us is one of control.

As a system of control, the present gun licence system is not very effective. At best, control is an indirect result; it was intended as a revenue-raising measure. It is not effective for the very reason that anyone, on payment of 10s. can obtain a licence. If one wanted to institute a system of control, there are very much better ways of doing it than by the present licence system. Therefore, even if there were no such plans as those announced by the Home Secretary for instituting a different form of control, it would be very doubtful whether this method was worth keeping.

I have been asked to say something more about the statement which the Home Secretary made, that he intends to see that there is some control over shotguns. I am in difficulty here, because I cannot anticipate the detailed provisions which will in due course be proposed. It is envisaged that some form of direct control under our firearms legislation will be extended to shotguns, but this is a matter of considerable complexity, as the hon. Member for Harborough pointed out—the hon. Gentleman made several points which we shall certainly consider—and we are holding discussions with a number of interested organisations. Various views have been presented to us, and, while we are discussing the matter, it would be wrong to give some sort of indication of how our mind is moving now lest we appear to prejudge the outcome of our discussions. I can tell the House that the matter is being treated with great urgency, and there is every hope that some provision for control over shotguns will be incorporated in the Criminal Justice Bill.

The hon. Member for Harborough said that there might be no Criminal Justice Act until, perhaps, 1968. The Bill will certainly be introduced this Session and, if the House approves it, it will become law this Session.

The hon. Member asked about the gap. At the moment there are gun licences, and if these go, there will be a gap until the Criminal Justice Bill is passed. I do not think that it is a serious gap when the announcement has been made. I do not think in any event that one should regard that as a reason for postponing a Measure which falls logically into the Local Government Bill to do away with what we regard as obsolete and for most purposes very ineffective methods of achieving the results intended, that is the direct result of raising revenue and the indirect result of establishing some control.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping suggested that perhaps an increased fee could be established and that with that one would have a better form of control or make it more difficult for people to obtain shotguns. The difficulties about this are several. First, the Firearms Act is also included under Part II of Schedule 3 of the Bill. So the Secretary of State has powers to increase fees for firearms certificates. The result, if we kept the gun licence, would be that two sets of fees would be payable in respect of one gun. It would be wrong to have two ways of raising payments for a certificate, which would be the result if the present law was kept. So keeping the present law is not the proper way.

Another objection was that the fee should be fixed and levied—I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree—by a single authority, and that it should be the police, as is done under the Firearms Act, whereas the money raised under the gun licence legislation is raised by local authorities. A much more logical way to deal with it would be to extend the firearms legislation by some form of control of shotguns and not to keep the present obsolete and outdated legislation.

Those are the reasons why I ask the House to resist the Amendment. The main reason is that the present law is out of date, and was designed as a revenue law. The proper way would be control established under the Criminal Justice Bill.

Mr. Temple

I am sure that we are obliged to the Under-Secretary of State for joining our deliberations on this very important subject of gun licences, which has attracted very much more attention recently than during the earlier stages of the Bill. I can agree with the Under-Secretary that the issue is one of control. This is what we have stressed throughout from this side, and we were supported from the other side in Standing Committee.

What we took exception to in the Standing Committee was the abolition of gun licences. We thought that they had a certain amount of value, and it was suggested by both sides that a rather larger licensing fee would be necessary. The Under-Secretary has said that there is some hope of the matter being dealt with in the Criminal Justice Bill. I wish he had put it higher than hope or expectation and had been able to give a categorical assurance, but perhaps the Minister of Housing and Local Government will be able to step up that assurance towards the end of this debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) was right to emphasise the question of the gap, that under the proposals of the Government the gun licence will become abolished and there will be a gap until something else is proposed or until some other legislation is enacted. Frankly, I do not like the idea of a hiatus in the control of firearms at the present time. The hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Newens) supported the keeping of a gun licence in some shape or form. I am glad that we got support from the other side of the House in this matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison), with his vast knowledge of the countryside, expressed the dismay of the countryside. I re-echo that dismay. I will not repeat what I said in the Standing Committee, but I believe that the most dangerous form of the carrying of firearms at the present time is represented by the sporadic shooting in the countryside of everything that runs or flies in and out of season regardless of whether people are on the other side of the hedge or not.

I gave examples of animals being maimed unintentionally because the shooter was relatively inexperienced. I do not think that any form of licensing will control the criminal carrying of firearms and, therefore, we should direct our efforts towards control of what I call indiscriminate shooting.

For my part. I would put the responsibility in this matter fairly and squarely on the Government. Many statements have been made and if the Government give us a more or less categorical assurance that tighter control will be brought in, we will be satisfied to accept the proposals within the Bill. I would go further and say that we will look at the proposals made by the Government with an open mind.

I have only one suggestion in this connection and I think that it has also been made by outside bodies. It is that something in the nature of a passport photograph should accompany the licence. From my experience of these matters, I believe that that would be a sensible and not too restrictive provision and that it would be very valuable in identifying the carrier of a shotgun with the licence he holds.

Subject to what the Minister may care to say in reply to my point about a more categorical assurance from the Government, I would advise my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.