HC Deb 26 July 1967 vol 751 cc899-907

Lords Amendment: No. 143, in page 56, line 15, at end insert: () In section 8(1) of the said Act of 1937 registration of firearms dealers), in paragraph (a) of the proviso, for the words from 'or subsection (5)' to 'the said subsection (5)' there shall be substituted the words 'or by order of a court in Northern Ireland made under section 8(5) of the Firearms Act 1920'. () In section 12(3) of the said Act of 1937 (power of constables and others to call for and inspect register of firearms transactions kept by a dealer), paragraph (c) and the words 'in each case' shall be omitted.

Mr. Taverne

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

Perhaps, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we could conveniently at the same time take Lords Amendments Nos. 145, 147 and 150.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If it pleases the House.

Mr. Taverne

These Amendments facilitate the consolidation of enactments relating to firearms, to which I referred in answer to a question by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball).

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendments agreed to.

Lords Amendment: No. 146, page 56, line 23, leave out subsection (3).

Mr. Taverne

I beg to move, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

This is the Amendment which deletes the provision enabling the Secretary of State to prescribe by rule the production of an applicant's photograph and verification of the applicant's particulars and to make different provisions in the rules for different cases. There can be little doubt that, for the policeman dealing with an incident in the street or countryside, the existence of a photograph on a certificate will in nearly all cases make identification easier, and this will be convenient both for him and the law abiding members of the public.

The policeman will be able to see at once whether or not the licence holder is the person who has the licence at the time and is not someone carrying another person's licence. Having to provide and to verify a photograph will certainly cause some members of the public some slight inconvenience but not really any greater inconvenience than they suffer in the case of passports, and it will help the police in dealing with cases. It could also provide a preliminary sifting of applications. It might deter frivolous applications.

It is difficult to see how this could be regarded as a significant infringement of personal liberty. These certificates will be issued on a large scale, but there may well be a temptation, particularly among less responsible persons, for one man against whom little or nothing is known to get a certificate which can be passed from hand to hand to suit the convenience of certain people, including highly undesirable persons who might not have got certificates themselves.

Unless the constable has personal knowledge of the person he asks to produce his certificate, he will have no way of knowing whether that person is the real certificate holder, and the inclusion of a photograph on the certificate would be a real deterrent.

The power is permissive in the Bill. No decision has yet been taken on whether a photograph and verification of particulars should be required. The decision will not be taken until after discussions have been held with the various interested organisations but it is necessary that, when these discussions have been completed, there should be sufficiently wide power to enable the appropriate rules to be made. Since the suggestion about photographs was made by an interested organisation, it is clearly only prudent to take the power.

Mr. Hogg

As I said in Committee, I regard this provision in the Bill as rubbish and gobbledy-gook. There is no reason why a person using a smooth bore gun should need to put in his photograph with an application any more than there is to put one in for a driving licence. If the signature is considered an adequate means of identification on a driving licence, it should be an equally good means of identification on a shot gun licence.

Anyone who suggests to the contrary is tying himself up with red tape and simply serving bureaucracy when they hand us the kind of rubbish they ladle out to this House by the spoonful. It is something like an insult to ask the House to pass rubbish of this kind when, as the hon. and learned Gentleman has admitted, no decision has been taken as to whether the Home Secretary will use the power if he is given it. Since no decision has been taken about using the power, the hon. and learned Gentleman has not the slightest idea whether it is necessary or not, and he was hardly at pains to conceal the fact.

Looking at the proposal the hon. and learned Gentleman wants to re-insert into the Bill, one sees why the civil servants have not yet made up their minds about whether it is sensible or not before asking the House to accept it, hook, line and sinker. The reason is that anyone who wanted to get round this provision —which did not provide for a duplicate photograph—could put a bogus photograph on the certificate. It provides no additional means of verification at all.

It can he more easily evaded than the requirement of a signature because if someone were challenged with a false signature on the certificate he might be asked by an intelligent constable to reproduce the signature. The comparable challenge with a photograph would not be possible. Incidentally, unless I have misread the clause, it provides that the applicant should provide a photograph with his application for a certificate. It does not provide that the photograph should be on the certificate or with him when he shoots. The idyllic picture which was painted by the Under-Secretary of the village constable being assisted in his challenge to the shooting party is not provided for in the Bill. The truth is that this is rubbish and it would have been far better to have accepted the Amendment from the Lords who, whatever else they may know, certainly know something about shooting.

Sir D. Renton

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) always weighs his words carefully. It is very rare that he uses the word "rubbish". I have known him for nearly 40 years and it is a word which scarcely ever passes his lips, but it is most appropriate on this occasion.

I hope to show the House that the Government have not even worked out in their own minds how their administrative proposals will be carried out in practice. The Chief Constable, even with Amendment No. 427 which we considered earlier, will not issue a shot-gun certificate unless he is satisfied that it is a sensible thing to do. Clause 69, as now amended, provides that he shall grant it … unless he has reason to believe that the applicant (a) is prohibited by the Firearms Act, 1937, from possessing a shot gun; or (b) cannot be permitted to possess a shot gun without danger to the public safety or to the peace … That means that the chief officer of police has somehow got to satisfy himself in the case Of every applicant. Sometimes he or one of his officers will know the applicant personally and there will be no trouble at all but in other cases he will call for a testimonial from some responsible person, such as a Justice of the Peace. To put it in the plainest terms, the Chief Constable will only issue these certificates to people of good character who can be trusted. If that is so, it is obviously unnecessary to require, from the point of view of the applicant himself, a photograph. The only point that arises is the one which the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned, namely, the possibility of transfer of the certificate to another person, but a person of good character, about whom the Chief Constable has satisfied himself, is not likely to start hawking round his shot gun certificate.

The more that one looks at this the more one realises that the Government are very unwise not to have let themselves off this silly little hook by accepting the Lords Amendment. At any rate, I implore the hon. and learned Gentleman, who may be taking some responsible decision himself or advising the Home Secretary what decision to take, never, never to use the powers which he is now taking.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Kimball

I am sorry that the Under Secretary should have said that he was falling into line with a suggestion made by a responsible organisation that photographs might be attached to certificates. He is not being totally accurate in making this suggestion. The suggestion was made at some stage of the negotiations that a photograph might be a useful way of dealing with it, but the suggestion about the photograph was never meant by the responsible organisation to apply when it realised that the police were to have the power of veto over whether somebody should have a certificate. Once the police were brought in, there was no question that the photograph was applicable. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is quite fair in using the argument that the responsible organisation would accept the idea of the photograph. It does not accept the photograph in the context in which it is now being applied.

We had a long debate in Committee about the difficulty for many people of getting a photograph. If the Home Secretary persists in disagreeing with the Lords Amendment, he will still only be taking power to introduce this procedure later, but I urge him not to introduce this photograph procedure lightly, suddenly, or without a great deal of further thought and consultation. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) has already said that it is rubbish and useless, as it will be from the enforcement point of view, but it will be expensive, difficult and tiresome for many people who want to use shot guns legitimately and for pleasure, and I hope that the House will accept the Lords Amendment.

Sir D. Glover

I agree with every word said by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) about the Clause. I can take out a licence to drive a motor car, which is a far more lethal weapon than a smooth bore shot gun, without there being any question of a photograph.

How will this provision work? I understand that there is to be only one photograph which, presumably, will be in the files of the chief constable or the chief superintendent and if I am invited to my hon. Friend's exclusive shoot—and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) will take note of that—and am then confronted by the police, the police will be unable to find out whether I am entitled to have a shot gun, because my picture will be in the files of the chief constable in Chester.

Do I get handcuffed and put into a Black Maria and taken all the way to Chester so that the police can be certain that the certificate belongs to the chap with the photograph which belongs to me? Is that what is to occur under this procedure if the right hon. Gentleman ever brings it into force? If there were two photographs, while that would be more bureaucratic and more bumbledom, at least it would be logical, because one photograph could be kept with the certificate and the other in the police files.

Even then, I may be 100 miles away from where the photograph on my certificate can be checked with the photograph in the files. If a constable wanted to check my bona fides, the only way in which he could deal with the problem would be to put me into a Black Maria and cart me off to where the photograph was, and while many hon. Members might think that that would be desirable, it would make nonsense of the procedure.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is only taking reserve powers and is not proposing to implement them at this moment, but I ask him seriously to consider again whether the Lords have not shown a great deal of common sense in this matter. The House ought not to give Ministers powers unless that power is essential to their purpose. The Government have not shown that this power is necessary to their purpose and have even shown it to be unworkable, and I therefore hope that they will change their minds and accept the Lords Amendment.

I do not think that I shall be involved in any of these proceedings. I am not expecting to be carted off in a Black Maria to where my photograph happens to be filed, and if it is anything like the photograph on my passport, even when we get there nobody will recognise it as being a photograph of me, and I should probably therefore be thrown into the dungeons as an imposter. That shows the futility of these photographs as it shows the futility of passport photographs. This is bureaucratic nonsense and I hope that the Government will think again.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

My right hon. and hon. Friends have deployed enough arguments within a limited time to show that this provision is nonsense. Clearly, what was done in another place was a step in the right direction. My hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) has shown clearly how impossible it would be for the photograph system to work. My view, which is shared by a large number of people who use shotguns, is that the whole of Part V of the Bill is unworkable and, moreover, should never have been included in this Criminal Justice Bill.

Many people feel that it would be far better to have produced a carefully thought out Bill rather than this mess of pottage. I particularly hope that the nonsense about photographs, which has clearly been shown to be unworkable, will not be accepted by the Government and that they might yet agree to the Lords Amendment.

Mr. Wylie

I hope that the Under-Secretary will accept the advice from another place in this matter. As the Bill applies to Scotland, I should like to say a word about some of the difficulties which I envisage. I think of peasants in lonely Highland glens who have never had a photograph taken in their lives and would not know how to set about getting one. Even if they did, I visualise circumstances in which they would have to travel a considerable distance to get a photograph, all in the name of a bureaucratic provision of this nature, which will alienate the support of the shooting community, without whose support it will not work. I hope that this short intervention may induce the Under-Secretary to reconsider his view.

Mr. Taverne

This point was argued fully at earlier stages. I am sorry that I must disagree with the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) in his assessment of the value of the argument of his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg). The fact that the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone used the expression "Rubbish", or used superlatives is not conclusive evidence that the provisions are ill-conceived.

Sir D. Renton

On this occasion, it was.

Mr. Taverne

There may be other arguments against it, but I have noticed that on occasions the right hon. and learned Gentleman uses superlatives or other extreme words. I do not regard as conclusive the fact that the Lords have sought to delete this provision, because the Lords have a one-sided view of the shot gun problem.

To deal with some particular points, the certificate will have to be in the prescribed form. I see nothing in the provisions which it is sought to delete which would make it impossible to prescribe that the photograph should be on the certificate. The singular includes the plural, and that means that two photographs could be supplied.

Sir D. Glover

Unless the two things are in the same place, the document will not give proof. I could easily steam off one photograph and put on my own. That was done at the end of the war, when enormous numbers of prisoners who had escaped and other people had forged passports and documents. Anybody who wanted to get round the regulations could do so without trouble. Ninety-nine per cent. of the people dealing with these things are perfectly law-abiding citizens.

Mr. Taverne

One is concerned with the irresponsible person or one who may have felonious intent. There may be cases in which it would be a great convenience to check straight away that the certificate has the right photograph.

Sir J. Hobson

There is no provision, is there, which requires the certificate to be carried at any time? A person with a shotgun but who did not have his certificate with him could not be checked, and he would be committing an offence.

Mr. Taverne

Someone should have the certificate there. If a person does not have his certificate with him, it would be possible for the police, when suspicious of a person, to seize his shotgun. It would be returned to him when the certificate was produced and someone showed that he was the holder of a certificate.

There would be no question, as appears to have been thought, of arresting or taking a person away. If prima facie there was no certificate, the police could seize the gun, and the certificate could be produced later.

Mr. Hogg

This is becoming more and more puzzling to me. Under what power can the police seize a shotgun belonging to me if I possess a certificate and my only shortcoming is that I am not carrying it with me at the time, when the Bill does not require me to do so? What power have the police to commit trespass to goods in those circumstances?

Mr. Taverne

The power is not in the Criminal Justice Bill, but in Section 6 of the Firearms Act, and it seems a perfectly sensible power.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendments agreed to.