HC Deb 03 December 1975 vol 901 cc1849-74

11.31 p.m.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Roland Moyle)

I beg to move, That the Firearms (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 7th November 1975, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved. This Order in Council amends the Firearms Act (Northern Ireland) 1969, an Act which has already been amended by the Firearms (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 1971 and the Firearms (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1973.

Last year we carried out a review of the firearms law in Northern Ireland. As a result of that review, the Government came to the conclusion that a number of amendments and clarifications could be made. The Order is intended to put those clarifications and amendments into operation.

I am afraid I must tell the House that there is no uniform theme running through the Order. Therefore, there is no alternative but for me to draw to the attention of the House the amendments which are being made.

The first amendment of substance is the abolition of the firearms permits. The permits, which are quite different from the permits under corresponding legislation in Great Britain, allow a person in Northern Ireland to keep a firearm within his dwelling-house, but he is not permitted to use it. This was a device introduced in an earlier phase of the Northern Ireland troubles in the 1920s. There are now only about 1,300 permits on issue. The permits will continue in force until they expire. At that stage holders may apply for a firearms certificate.

The responsibility for issuing a firearms certificate is that of the Chief Constable, but I anticipate that he will permit the retention of weapons covered by permits by issuing firearm certificates. I am afraid that I cannot go beyond that. There will be a modified fee to be charged for the grant of firearm certificates in those circumstances.

There are some minor amendments made to Section 10 of the Firearms Act (Northern Ireland), the Act which permits exemption from the firearm certificate procedure. One addition to the section provides legal sanction for the use of air weapons at fairs and places of that sort. The police have been mildly indulgent towards such activity in past years. The amendment will bring the matter on to a proper legal footing and will regularise what is an innocent past-time. Institutions of higher education or approved research centres where studies in forensic medicine, ballistics or other matters were being undertaken were given special facilities for undertaking such work. As they all held their arms under a certificate, the exemption was unnecessary. Those institutions are being brought into line with the general law.

Firearm and shot-gun certificates issued in Great Britain are valid in Northern Ireland, but the law requires additional approval in Northern Ireland for shotguns held under the authority of a shotgun certificate issued in Great Britain. That is mainly because the tests for the grant of a shot-gun certificate in Great Britain are not as stringent as they are in Northern Ireland. The relevant Northern Ireland provisions will be redrafted to define more clearly the conditions under which firearms can be brought into Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom with a land frontier, and there has always been a traffic in sportsmen from South to North, and vice versa. Until now residents of the Republic of Ireland coming to Northern Ireland for however short a time had to obtain Northern Ireland firearm certificates if they wished to take part in sporting events in the North. This is not satisfactory, and the law is now being amended to provide that a person normally resident in a country outside the United Kingdom may have a firearm or ammunition in his possession in Northern Ireland, for sporting purposes only, if he has the authority to possess that firearm or ammunition in his own country.

Regulations will be laid before the House under this Order to bring this into effect. They will apply to sportsmen from other European countries besides Southern Ireland.

As in Great Britain, persons who are convicted of crime in Northern Ireland are prohibited for certain periods after conviction from possessing a firearm certificate. In the case of a person sentenced to more than six months' but less than three years' imprisonment or borstal training, the prohibition extends for five years from the date of his release or, in the case of a person sentenced to three years or more, for life. There has been some difficulty in applying this prohibition in the case of suspended sentences, and in future, as a result of this amendment, the prohibition will extend from the date of conviction of the person found guilty, and not from the date of release. The prohibition will extend for eight years. Any person who is subject to such a prohibition, however, will have the right to apply to the Secretary of State for the removal of the prohibition, if he feels that he has a case.

The opportunity is being taken at the same time to amend the law to ensure that persons who are sentenced to a term of imprisonment in Great Britain are subject to prohibition in Northern Ireland, as is already the case in the reverse instance.

Whilst the Order was before the House for consideration, considerable interest was shown in the Government's proposal to raise the minimum age for possessing a firearm certificate from 16 to 18. As a result of representations made to us we have felt that we could make two exceptions to the general rule. It has been represented that shooting for sport is a recognised international pursuit, and that to be proficient the earlier one starts the better. So we have provided that persons under 18 but above 16 may have a firearms certificate, provided that they are using it in the company and under the supervision of a person not under the age of 18 who holds a firearm certificate for that firearm or ammunition.

We have accepted that farmers have to deal with the problems of vermin control, and that the farmer may in some cases be a person over 16 and under 18. Accordingly, the Order provides that the Chief Constable may allow a young farmer within those age limits to acquire a suitable firearm for use on his land.

The Chief Constable, who is the controlling authority in all these matters, has powers to revoke a firearm certificate if he feels that the person holding it has no longer any good reason to have it. The law is now being amended to complement the existing power of revocation with the power to demand the surrender of the relevant firearm or ammunition when a certificate is revoked. At the moment, the Chief Constable has the power only to demand the surrender of the firearm certificate. I emphasise that this provision is in the interests of the former certificate holder. It legalises his position after the revocation of his certificate, as he cannot legally hold the firearm or ammunition after revocation. The firearm will be held safely in police custody until he can make suitable arrangements for its disposal.

At present, transactions between registered firearms dealers are not required to be notified to the police. There is a gap in the law here. The Order requires that a firearms dealer will have to notify the Chief Constable of any transaction involving firearms or ammunition, not only between himself and another dealer but also between himself and members of the public.

Certain weapons in Northern Ireland other than shot-guns and air weapons are ballistically tested and their characteristics recorded for forensic purposes. This being the case, it is important that certain repairs or alterations to firearms are notified so that arrangements can be made to have the firearms retested if this is felt necessary, and the Order provides accordingly. It is the intention of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to test ballistically all bullet-firing weapons when the present certificates fall in and have to be renewed.

I turn to the question of control over firearms clubs. There are about 57 clubs in Northern Ireland which are active. Three use full-bore or military-type rifles, about 20 use air rifles and the remainder are active on miniature ranges, usually using 0.22 rifles.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Will the Minister say what decrease there has been in the number of clubs?

Mr. Moyle

I shall try to get that information for the hon. Gentleman before the conclusion of the debate.

All the clubs operate under the authority of a declaration of approval issued under the Unlawful Drilling Act 1819. This simply permits the members of the club to meet for target practice. The only other form of control is the need for the club or its members to hold firearm certificates for the weapons used. The Government do not regard that as entirely satisfactory. They regard it as an inadequate form of control, and the Secretary of State is now being given power to impose conditions on any declaration of approval granted under the 1819 Act. The conditions we have in mind are not unnecessarily strict. They will be concerned with keeping up-to-date records of membership and the security of club premises, equipment and ranges.

We have consulted the governing bodies of the sport about the proposed controls, and they have welcomed our suggestions in principle. An undertaking has been given to those bodies that the conditions and limitations to be imposed will be discussed further with them, after which regulations will be laid before the House embodying the conclusions of those consultations.

I hope that I have been able to give to the House an indication of the matters covered by the Order. It will improve and clarify our firearms legislation, and I commend it to the House.

11.43 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

It has been generally appreciated by those in Northern Ireland who use firearms of all sorts that such a genuine form of consultation and discussion has taken place with representatives of user interests. It is refreshing to find that the most careful and constructive thought has been given to all representations made by clubs, individuals, the Joint Shooting Committee for Northern Ireland and many other responsible bodies. The result is that the Order has emerged much better than the original draft and it is likely to command much more general respect and acquiescence. That view is widely held in Northern Ireland amongst those concerned in these matters, and I am glad to have the opportunity to say so.

I will give an example. The Department and its officials made a careful response to the widespread criticism of the original proposals in Article 8, which relates to the acquisition and possession of firearms by persons under the age of 18. A much more sensible approach has now been made, recognising that, by simply banning possession of a firearm when under the age of 18, with a failure to recognise that the ages between 16 and 18 are the most formative years, and that, without prior legal handling of a firearm, adults could be loosed on the world with no training whatever, and recognising that the provision in its original form was an encouragement to law-abiding people to break the law and would positively have prohibited young boys and youths from entering employment, such as that of game keeper, where weapon handling is still necessary.

Article 3 simply represents a changeover from the present firearms permit system to the new certificate system. I would like an assurance that in the case of a substitution there will be no charge of £5, as would be the normal case with a renewal. In the case of a substitution, there is a minimum amount of administrative work, and possibly there could be no charge at all or only a nominal one.

Article 8 meets the approval of both sides of the House, but I have a point to raise about Article 9. Again, the Department and its officials were most helpful and co-operative. The worry was that where a firearms certificate was revoked or not renewed, under the original intention it would have been difficult for the person who had possessed the weapon to have got a fair market price for it when he had to dispose of it. This has been put right by the amended form of the article. The article says that the chief superintendent "may" give notice in writing, but I hope that in practice he will always give notice in writing in order to give proper warning to a recipient of a revocation order, thus enabling him to get a fair price for his weapon.

The regulations in Article 12 are generally welcomed. It would really be preferable perhaps when if another Order of this kind is introduced provision was made for appeals from decisions to the courts, as in Great Britain, and not to the Secretary of State. It would be useful also in future firearms legislation if compulsory third-party insurance could be incorporated. I feel that this would be widely welcomed.

I hope that the splendid consultation which has taken place on this occasion—the really meaningful exchanges between the Joint Shooting Committee and the Department—will continue when future legislation of this nature is introduced.

11.49 p.m.

Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

This is the second time this year that the thorny question of firearms in Northern Ireland has been discussed in the House. In discussing this difficult problem—made more difficult by some persons for political reasons rather than for reasons of logic—we should do it coolly and logically, dealing with the situation as it really exists.

I have read not only the present Order but the proposal for a draft Order with some care, and, among others, I made representations to the Minister in this regard.

Although the permit system is being phased out over three years, I regret that there is no automatic right of transfer of a firearm from a permit to a certificate. I hope the Minister will try to ensure that this matter is dealt with at least sympathetically, because many of the weapons have tremendous sentimental value to the persons holding them, and I do not think that any of them have ever been used for violence.

I welcome that otherwise such transfers will be treated as renewals, and I echo the words of the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) that a reasonable fee might be charged, and I hope that the Minister will look at this matter again.

I have also noted with some interest what is now laid down concerning air-guns—6 ft. lb. kinetic energy for handguns and 12 ft. lb. for others. I understand that this will take out of circulation the pump-guns and the gas-operated guns, because they would normally be above that energy level. I welcome this more scientific approach to weapons used in fairgrounds and elsewhere.

Concerning Articles 5 and 6, I should like the hon. Gentleman to tell us how long the Great Britain or overseas authorisation will last in the case of people visiting Northern Ireland. Is this to be limited to countries within the European context or can it be extended to Commonwealth countries? Northern Ireland people have friends and relatives who visit them from Australia, the United States, Canada and elsewhere. What is to happen to people from areas such as the United States, where no firearms certificates of any kind are needed?

Further, can persons who come into the country with these overseas certificates buy ammunition for their weapons in Northern Ireland? That has not been made clear. Again, what would happen to the firearms at the end of the period covered by the certificate brought in by the visitor if he then settled in Northern Ireland? Would he have an automatic right of renewal, or would it be treated in such a manner that he could very well lose the weapon?

Do Articles 5 and 6 include competitive shooting?

Concerning Article 7, I have always thought that the punishment should fit the crime, and, if I am correct in my reading of the Act, while it would appear that it is very reasonable that a person should lose a firearm certificate for taking part in ordinary crime such as robbery or burglary—or, for that matter, for terrorist activity—what would be the position of persons imprisoned for drunken driving or for failing to obey a court order? Are they likewise caught in this net, or are they to have a very sympathetic hearing when they come out and want to take up their sport? It is a small point, but some people will be caught by this.

Under Section 19 of the 1969 Act 1 recognise that if there is a sentence of over three years there is always an appeal to the Minister, but what is the position of persons given suspended sentences? What is the position of a person given a sentence longer than eight years? Will he automatically, under this legislation, get a firearms certificate when he comes out at the end because he has stayed inside beyond the period of time during which application cannot be made? What is more, does not Section 13 of the 1969 Act cover the point which apparently is dealt with in Article 7(3) which enacts the new subsection (3A)?

I give a general welcome to Article 8, but I ask the Minister to cast his mind back to 20th March, when he said: The order will also raise the minimum qualifying age for a firearm certificate from 16 to 18 years, thus bringing the law into line with current practice."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th March 1975; Vol. 888, c. 2039.] On that occasion, was he saying that the police were putting into practice something that they had no legal right to do? My experience with at least one young man indicates that that was the case.

Article 8(3)(b) also says that if a person purchased or acquired a firearm or ammunition before the coming into force of the article at a time when he was not under the age of 16, he shall have the right to keep it. But if, as the Minister said in March, the police took the opposite view, cannot someone who may be 17 or nearly 18 now get a firearm certificate immediately? Is there any reason why it should be denied him?

I welcome the provision in Article 8(4) for young people to go shooting with their elders, in many cases their parents, and for a farmer's son to shoot on his parents' or his own land. But why the restriction on 0.22 rifles? That is probably the weapon most widely used for the control of vermin.

In Article 9, we read that "the chief superintendent" is the person who is to decide whether a person is competent to handle a firearm. Does that mean the local superintendent, who probably knows the person concerned, or one in RUC headquarters who has no idea with whom he is dealing and must rely on the views of the local sergeant? This article meets the general points made, but I draw attention to that provision because it is important.

In Article 10(2) we read that the words "to purchase or require" are to be changed to "to purchase or acquire". According to the 1969 Act, the word "require" means to hire, to accept as a gift, or to borrow. Why is this change of a single word being made? What is the practical end result of the change?

As for Article 10(3) and the new subsection (1A), are we to take it from the change which has been made from that originally proposed that the responsibility for notification has been changed from the firearms dealer or gunsmith to the owner of the weapon? Does the firearms dealer or gunsmith have no further responsibility, which seems contrary to what was originally in the draft of this Order?

Moving on to Article 11, it appears mat paragraph (2) as proposed in the original draft order has been omitted. What is the reason for this? Are we to assume that the position is to remain as it was under the 1969 Act, with a fine of £200 for the misdemeanours created by that Act?

Does the change under Article 11(5) mean that the fine is now unlimited? If so, is it unlimited in the strict sense of the word? I find it surprising that there should be a time when a fine can be completely unlimited.

Article 12 deals with new restrictions on clubs, but there does not seem to nave been any clear and decisive effort made to lay down exactly what the requirements for clubs will be. This is something which I know my local club is most concerned about and wants cleared up as soon as possible. Clubs want to know the conditions under which they can operate so that they can get on with their sport. I must confess that I do not think that the Government have been very helpful to them. Indeed, one could say that a blank cheque has been given to the Secretary of State concerning this matter and that the House has been given no opportunity to discuss it.

I presume that existing clubs will have to re-register. Will that be automatic under this Order or will the process start from scratch?

There is a slight change in Schedule I which, in my view, seems to be tighter than before. I think that it should have been drawn up so as to include 0.22 rim-fire rifles, because those weapons are widely used. I accept that those rifles are rather more dangerous than perhaps a shot-gun, but they are not as lethal as some of the weapons which are floating around in Northern Ireland.

I too believe that we should have compulsory third-party insurance along with a firearm certificate. That has been overlooked in not only Northern Ireland, but in Great Britain. It is something which all true sportsmen would welcome. Some sort of help should be given to the shooting fraternity in Northern Ireland. In view of the large fees and the cost of game licences, surely something can be done to improve shooting in Northern Ireland?

A greater effort should be made to bring the law in Northern Ireland completely into line with the law in the rest of the United Kingdom. The people in Northern Ireland desire the same rights as their fellow citizens in the United Kingdom, including the same rights for young people. Moreover, the right of the citizen in Great Britain who has a statutory right to have a firearm should eventually be extended to Northern Ireland. It should not be a discretionary right which can be taken away at the whim of the police or the Secretary of State.

How many appeals against refusal to grant firearm certificates in the past 12 months have been successful? If the police are completely free from political pressure, as we are always assured and I certainly believe, why, if firearms are specifically a police matter, does the Secretary of State have to be brought in even on the matter of appeals? If we are so intent on getting rid of political pressure on the police, I should have thought that the courts, and only the courts, should be used to deal with appeals. Indeed, I look forward to the day when that is so.

12.4 a.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I thank the Minister for the way that he met me and my colleagues and listened to our representations. We are grateful for some of the matters he has put into the Order.

I should like to echo that there has been a great deal of consultation, cooperation and good will between the shooting fraternity in Northern Ireland, the Minister, and representatives of the public. That is not always the case with Orders in Council.

The House realised a few minutes ago the inadequacy of legislating for Northern Ireland in this way. The Minister replying to the previous debate did not have time to complete his remarks. However, there has been adequate consultation on this Order. Our representations have been noted and would seem to have influenced or helped the Minister in coming to a decision which will be accepted by all people in Northern Ireland.

I hope that when we have other Orders in Council we shall have the prior consultation that we had in this instance as it will make it possible for representatives from Northern Ireland to take part in a meaningful debate of an hour and a half.

The people of Northern Ireland are grateful for the concession on the age limit. It is a good thing that a person over 16 years of age should be able to commence shooting as a sport as long as he is accompanied by an adult.

The provision concerning the farming community is also to be welcomed. It is right that a person over 16 years of age who resides on a farm should have the opportunity of possessing a shot-gun or 0.22 rifle. That point is deeply appreciated.

There are other matters to which I should like answers tonight. One concerns how the regulations will be made. I take it that we are dealing with an amendment to a Northern Ireland Act which was enacted by the old Stormont. I am told by officials in the Table Office in this House that regulations made by a Minister in Northern Ireland under an Act passed there cannot be prayed against. Therefore, the Minister has an opportunity of making Orders in Council and regulations about which we cannot do anything. I had occasion to wish to pray against a certain regulation, but I was informed by the Table Office here that I could not because it was based on a Northern Ireland Act.

Article 6 of the Order begins, Subject to any regulations made by the Secretary of State This article concerns people from a foreign country coming into Northern Ireland with weapons for sporting purposes. Will these regulations be made in such a way that Members of this House will have an opportunity to discuss them? Alternatively, will they be made under the Northern Ireland Act? If so, we shall have no opportunity to discuss them?

Article 12, which concerns the control of firearms clubs, refers to an order made by the Secretary of State". Is that an Order in Council made under the Act? Will it be made in such a way that we can discuss it in this House?

My hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) made the vital point that if we are to have no say whatsoever in these matters, the regulations being made under an Act passed at Stormont, the Secretary of State will have a blank cheque to do whatever he likes with no restriction upon him.

I would take up a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). Again, we have an outworn and out-done constitution under Article 2: A Measure of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I would like to emphasise the arguments he put forward about the rating draft Order.

I wonder why in these Orders in Council we refer to something which is defunct. Even the most hopeful of upholders of the old Northern Ireland Assembly, and the Deputy Executive of that Assembly, would not believe there is going to be any resurrection. The Assembly is defunct and dead and has passed to the stage of corruption. None of us believes there is any hope for that measure. Why do we have mention again of the Assembly in this Order?

I come to paragraph 3 of Article 3, on the abolition of firearm permits. Paragraph 3 says: A firearm permit which is in force at the commencement of this Order shall, unless previously revoked or cancelled, continue in force for three years or such shorter period as may be prescribed…". Is that the period when the permit would cancel itself out, or is a period going to be prescribed for these permits? Perhaps the Minister will help us on that Will it continue in force from the coming into force of the Order, or such shorter period as may be prescribed?

I thank the Minister for paragraph 4, in which he has given a proper concession to permit-holders. They are going to have the same relation to holders of firearm certificates when they come to renewal, and are not going to be discriminated against.

What is the law under Article 5 with regard to guns licensed in Northern Ireland and carried in the rest of Great Britain? Is there a reciprocal arrangement for a sportsman who has a weapon licence in Northern Ireland, and wants to go to Great Britain to take part in shooting and sporting activities? Will he have the same privileges as his colleague from across the water? Is a certificate issued in Northern Ireland at the present time applicable only to Northern Ireland, or does it enable the holder to carry his weapon in the rest of the United Kingdom?

We look forward to seeing the regulations under Article 6. There are people in the South of Ireland who are gun-holders, but who would not be welcomed by the people in Northern Ireland to come across the border with their guns, even if they were licensed. The Order says— …if that person may lawfully possess that firearm and ammunition under the law for the time being in force in the country in which he resides. I know this is going to be limited to regulations made by the Secretary of State. What sort of regulations has he in mind to keep undesirable people who hold guns in the South of Ireland out of the North of Ireland?

We are grateful for Article 8. When we were discussing this matter on a previous occasion, the Minister of State said, the responsibility for the grant and renewal of firearm certificates rests solely with the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary."—[Official Report, 20th March, 1975; Vol. 888, c. 2036.] If that is so—and the Minister repeated it tonight—I fail to understand why Article 9 says the chief superintendent refuses to renew it. If it is only the Chief Constable who is "solely" responsible, surely the words in the Order should be "Chief Constable" and not "chief superintendent".

I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry. If it is the chief superintendent, what chief superintendent? Is it the chief superintendent in the area in which the person who applies for the certificate resides, or a chief superintendent acting under the Chief Constable? I suggest that the particular line of the Order should read "Chief Constable ", keeping in line with Article 10(2) where "county inspector" is changed to "Chief Constable." I am sure that the Minister is aware that in Section 25 of the original Act it is the county inspector that is referred to.

As regards cases of appeal where a person has had a firearm certificate but the Chief Constable refuses to renew it, until the appeal is heard and decided upon will the owner be allowed to retain his weapon? This is a matter upon which we have all received representations. Our constituents say to us, "My application to renew my firearms certificate has been turned down. Can I hold on to my weapon until the appeal is heard?" The people concerned need to know exactly what their position is.

I wonder why the Minister has increased one fine from £20 to £50, and another fine from £200 to £400. For the lesser offence he is more than doubling the fine but for the greater offence he is only doubling it. I know that the amounts of money are vastly different, but what is the principle in regard to this matter?

For 14 years' imprisonment the Minister is substituting life imprisonment. What is life imprisonment? Some life imprisonment sentences prove to be not even 14 years. I am not sure what the Minister is doing in Article 11(2), where it says, for the words '14 years' there shall be substituted the words 'life imprisonment'. Will the Minister define what he means by life imprisonment? His right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said that in regard to life imprisonment for terrorists it was not an eight-year or nine-year sentence but was really imprisonment for life. Is that what the Minister has in mind?

We appreciate the manner in which the Minister has met with us.

Mr. Wm. Ross

When the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made a statement on life imprisonment meaning life imprisonment, he also stated that certain prisoners would have their sentences reduced by half. If a person is sentenced to life imprisonment under this legislation, how could it be reduced by half? What are the criteria to be used?

Rev. Ian Paisley

I conclude my remarks on a point that has been taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Carson). Some 400 firearm certificates have gone astray in the post since 1st January this year. That is the information which my hon. Friend has received Would it not be a better procedure if certificates had to be collected personally at police stations? Those that have gone astray could be used as a cover in illegal operations. I hope the Minister will give this problem some attention.

Mr. John Carson (Belfast, North)

Does my hon. Friend realise that it would be easy to change the photographs on certificates that have gone astray and that they could then be used by members of illegal organisations to carry weapons under false pretences?

Rev. Ian Paisley

I agree with my hon. Friend. I believe the certificate of my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry went astray in this way.

Mr. Farr

Is the hon. Member aware that in Great Britain firearms certificates are deliver by the police in person? In that way, there is no danger of the certificates being lost.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Evidently, that is the way it used to be done in Northern Ireland.

I would like to see the system changed so that appeals are made to the courts rather than to the Secretary of State. Perhaps the Minister will keep in mind the number of certificate renewals that are refused by chief constables and then approved, on appeal, by the Secretary of State.

12.22 a.m.

Mr. Gerrard Fitt (Belfast, West)

It has been said in similar debates in the past that legally-held firearms are no problem—in Northern Ireland. It is the thousands of illegally held weapons that have led to the death of innocent people, and any legislation that loosens the law enough to put lethal weapons into the hands of potential murderers should be considered very carefully indeed. Shot-guns are lethal. I represent an urban constituency and I do not have a great deal of sympathy with hon. Members from rural areas who seem to want shot-guns in the home of every farmer in their areas.

One death would be sufficient to justify my case, but a number of people have been killed with shot-guns. A UDR man was brutally murdered with a shot-gun, and the police have not been able to apprehend his murdered, whether he came from the IRA or an extremist Loyalist group.

Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)

There may be isolated cases, but has the hon. Gentleman any evidence that shot-guns are universally or generally used in terrorist operations in Northern Ireland? Would it not be rather surprising to find that, uniquely in Northern Ireland, they were used, when they are not used in this type of offence elsewhere?

Mr. Fitt

I agree that more lethal weapons like revolvers and machine guns have been used, but people have been killed with shot-guns. With most murders, it is possible to prove that the weapon was used, but I understand that forensic scientists cannot prove that a person was killed with a particular shot-gun. I live in Northern Ireland and I regard any legislation that enables more people to hold firearms as dangerous. Last year a young man from Antrim, who held a weapon quite legally, was killed in Belfast by men who intended to take that weapon. It would seem that they wanted that firearm not for sporting reasons but to use in the terrorist war which is now raging. Many people in Northern Ireland have had to forgo the normalities of life in the present tragic situation. Many of them have no social life, but stay in their homes after darkness falls. It would seem, therefore, that undue representations have been made for members of the sporting fraternity to be allowed to use these weapons.

I was not surprised to hear the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) express reservations about firearms which are legally held in the Republic. I would be more general. Article 6 would seem to open the door for people from other parts of the world to bring legally-held firearms into Northern Ireland. There must be a contradiction here, because that article does not refer specifically to shot-guns. It deals with Firearms lawfully held outside the United Kingdom and that seems to include any type of weapon. Surely it is the job of the security forces to apprehend such people when they attempt to enter the country with those weapons.

Another provision enables a person in Great Britain with a legally-held firearm to use it in Northern Ireland. Again, there is no specific reference to shotguns, and that could permit the use of revolvers or other weapons. I should be interested to know how a person would get such a weapon into Northern Ireland. When I and my colleagues travel to Northern Ireland by air we are subjected to the most rigorous searches. I do not complain. The more rigorous, the happier I am, but there must be an inconsistency here. Perhaps there are even people who are allowed to carry firearms in Northern Ireland but not in Great Britain. In what circumstances would a person who is allowed to carry a revolver in Great Britain be permitted to take it into Northern Ireland?

Article 11 deals with punishment for firearms offences. It says (2) In the entries prescribing the punishment for offences under section 14 (possession of firearm with intent to injure) and section 15 (1) (use of firearm to resist arrest) for the words "14 years" there shall be substituted the words "life imprisonment I am no lawyer, but these two offences seem to me to be vastly different. If a person in Northern Ireland were found by the security forces to be carrying a weapon, could it be said in court that he held that weapon illegally with intent to injure someone? That could bring with it a maximum penalty of 14 years.

Section 15 of the 1969 Act deals with the use of a firearm to resist arrest. There can be no doubt that a person using a firearm to resist arrest is guilty of a serious crime and should be subject to the maximum penalty prescribed under the law. However, there could be some doubt that a person who is found with a firearm may not—I think that some juries may be inclined to give the benefit of the doubt—have that weapon in his possession with the intention of injuring someone in Northern Ireland.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I do not believe that such a person would come before a jury in Northern Ireland. This would be a scheduled defence under the Diplock Commission.

Mr. Fitt

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's intervention, but there could be a vast difference between the intentions of persons in possession of firearms under these circumstances. One person may deliberately resist arrest and use the firearm to resist arrest. I have absolutely no sympathy for him. However, the other person may have no serious intention of injuring anyone with the firearm in his possession. If he were brought before the special courts in Northern Ireland, which require no juries, he could be sentenced to the same term of imprisonment, namely, 14 years. The Minister should examine the uniformity of sentence that could be brought about under this situation.

I turn to Article 6. I question the advisability of allowing people into Northern Ireland with firearms certificates and, thereby, firearms. Many may say that they come from European countries and have come to Northern Ireland for the sport of rough shooting. Are there any EEC regulations that would make it imperative for the Government in Northern Ireland to allow such a free flow of personnel, firearms certificates and firearms?

I have reservations about any type of legislation that permits an increase in the number of firearms in Northern Ireland, whether they be legally or illegally held.

12.33 p.m.

Mr. Moyle

We have had quite a wide-ranging debate. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) asked me about the statistics for rifle groups and similar organisations in Northern Ireland, and their rate of decline. There were 110 rifle clubs in Northern Ireland in 1970. There are approximately 80 in existence now, of which about 57 are active. Therefore, there has been a decline.

We appreciate that in the current security situation restrictions have to be imposed, and this will lead to a restriction on the enjoyment of quite a lot of people in the Province. Many in the Province recognise that they must inevitably face this situation. On the whole we are grateful for the co-operation of the gun-sporting community.

I am grateful for the expressions of thanks by the hon. Members for Harborough (Mr. Farr) and Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) for the consultations which were organised. I have found some of them socially pleasant. That is an incentive to continue them on future subjects with even more enthusiasm in the future than there has been in the past.

A modified charge will be levied on the substitution of certificates for permits. I gather that the full charge will not be levied. I understand that the Chief Constable will be sympathetic to the substitution of certificates for permits. As the responsibility is ultimately his, I cannot be any more positive than that. But I should expect that permits would be substituted by certificates without any difficulty and that that would go ahead fairly well.

Several hon. Members raised the question of appeal to the court from refusal to grant a certificate, as happens in Great Britain. The executive control of firearm certificates is a long-standing practice in Northern Ireland. It has gone on, I think, almost as long as, if not as long as, Northern Ireland has existed as a Province. One of the reasons is that in a security situation which demands executive action, it would possibly not be to the advantage of either the police or the appellant himself for these matters to be aired in open court. That is something which hon. Members might like to consider in this context. There is also the sheer weight of business. About 700 appeals per annum might have to be heard, and this imposed on their normal business would create severe problems for the courts of first instance.

Another advantage of the executive procedure lies in the fact that, as the proceeding takes place outside court, it is probably quicker than it would be if there was an appeal to the court, and it is, of course, considerably cheaper. In view of what we heard about appeals against rates in the earlier debate, perhaps that also is a consideration which hon. Members would bear in mind.

It has been suggested that there should be third-party insurance. It seems that there are not many shooting accidents resulting from the use of legally-held weapons; that is, among the sort of people who would follow the law and take out compulsory insurance if it were introduced. Moreover, with about 79,000 firearm certificate holders, compulsory insurance might provide added problems of enforcement for the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which had substantial commitments in other directions. In any event, it is doubtful that in present conditions in Northern Ireland insurance companies would be willing to take on that type of business. For those reasons we are not attracted to the idea of compulsory third-party insurance.

There have been references to the nomenclature of police officers in the Order. The principal Acts in this connection and the subsequent amending Acts and Orders will be reprinted soon, and the standard nomenclature for police officers will be introduced into the legislation at that stage. The procedure is this. People should apply to the chief superintendent of the division in which they live, but he does not take the decisions. All questions of firearms appeals are referred to police headquarters at Knock, and the Chief Constable is the official responsible for taking the decisions on these matters, involving interviews, documents and the like, with an ultimate right of appeal to the Secretary of State.

I think that the hon. Member for Antrim, North questioned whether the Secretary of State should be involved in these matters. The fact that he is involved is always to the advantage of the appellant anyway, because if an application for a firearm certificate is rejected by the Chief Constable, there is always the possibility that the matter could be reviewed and a certificate granted by the Secretary of State. As far as I can recall, there has never been a situation in which the Chief Constable has allowed a firearm certificate and the Secretary of State has rejected it. The addition of the Secretary of State in the procedure is a matter which redounds generally to the advantage of the applicant.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I understood the Minister to say that if the Chief Constable granted a certificate it is hardly likely that the Secretary of State would turn it down, but the applicant would never go to the Secretary of State under those circumstances because his application would be granted. He would hardly appeal against himself.

Mr. Moyle

That is indeed the position. That is why the addition of the Secretary of State as a stage in the procedure is an advantage rather than a disadvantage to those seeking a firearm certificate.

A query has been raised about the number of appeals, and I shall try to find the list of appeals. I have the statistics.

Mr. Wm. Ross rose

Mr. Moyle

Perhaps the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) will contain his impatience for a moment.

In 1975, for example, 118 appeals were refused and 27 were allowed. That means that some appeals are allowed, which is to the advantage of the constituents of Northern Ireland Members. The equivalent figures for 1974 were 431 appeals, of which 69 were allowed.

Mr. Wm. Ross

Before we get too far away from chief superintendents, will the Minister tell us whether the local chief superintendents make recommendations to Belfast? If so, is it not upon their recommendation that the decision is taken in Belfast?

Mr. Moyle

There is also the question of policy that the Chief Constable has to take into consideration in reaching his final decision. In a number of cases there are interviews with the persons seeking a firearm certificate by other members of the constabulary. It is a Royal Ulster Constabulary operation, and the official responsible is the Chief Constable.

The hon. Member for Londonderry asked me many detailed questions. I can answer some of them, but if I miss any out I promise to write to him. As far as I can gather, people from other European countries will be allowed to bring their weapons into Northern Ireland for sporting purposes under the existing legislation. They will be able to bring ammunition with them if they are entitled to hold it for their weapons in their own country. The procedure is that the person will have to have a firearms certificate for the use of his guns and ammunition in his own country. He will then have to get a certificate of approval for the use of those weapons and accompanying ammunition in Northern Ireland. That will be for sporting purposes only. The police will have a record of all people bringing guns and ammunition into Northern Ireland. The use of those guns and ammunition will be limited to sporting purposes. That is, of course, if people enter the country legally. If they enter illegally, that is another matter altogether.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

. Will the Minister explain under what powers the additional requirement of permission to use the firearm in Northern Ireland for sporting purposes is given? It does not appear on the face of the Order, but there may be provisions or powers elsewhere.

Mr. Moyle

That is the intention which the Order must bring about. If the right hon. Gentleman wants a more detailed explanation, I shall supply it to him subsequently.

A person who settles in Northern Ireland will be dealt with under normal Northern Irish firearms certificate law, once there is evidence that he is settling permanently.

The eight-years' prohibition from holding a certificate runs from the date of conviction, but that does not mean that after that period has elapsed the Chief Constable must give a person a certificate; the position is that after eight years a discretion exists for the Chief Constable to issue a firearms certificate.

The hon. Member also raised the question of what happened to people under the age of 18 under the law that we are amending. The Chief Constable had the right, within the powers given him, to refuse a firearms certificate to anybody up to the age of 90, let alone 18. He decided to exercise his discretion and apply the policy in such a way that those under the age of 18 would not generally be allowed to hold a firearm; therefore, we decided to raise the age for holding firearm certificates to 18, to conform with the general practice. At the same time, we have made two concessions, as a result of consultations which I have already described, and the result is that probably rather more young people under the age of 18 will be able to hold and use firearms and ammunition, under certain conditions, than was the case before. This means that people under the age of 18 who feel that they come within the exempted categories can apply forthwith for a firearms certificate.

With all bullet-firing weapons the Chief Constable has a rather more restrictive attitude than he has with shotguns and similar weapons.

Mr. William Ross

Can the Minister tell me when the age was raised from 16 to 18? My understanding is that it was proposed in the draft Order that the age would be raised from 16 to 18, but the Order put before the House gives a discretion between the ages of 16 and 18.

Mr. Moyle

It would appear that my powers of exposition tonight are not as good as they are normally. The fact is that under the law that we are amending young people over the age of 16 could be given a firearm certificate if the Chief Constable of the RUC felt that they should have one in accordance with the general policy of granting firearm certificates. In fact, he so interpreted the general principles of the policy of granting firearm certificates that he did not readily—in fact, hardly ever—give a young person under the age of 18 a firearm certificate.

We are now amending the law to raise the minimum age for being granted a firearm certificate from 16 to 18, to bring the matter into conformity with the practice of the Chief Constable, but we have had representations from other hon. Members on the Opposition Benches, and from organisations concerned, to the effect that there was an argument for giving certain types of people practice in the use of firearms at as young an age as possible, because they would then be able to develop good habits in the handling of firearms. We conceded that there was a case, and we have made two exemptions. Young people under the age of 18 will be able to use firearms under two sets of conditions, which we have laid down in the Order. But the minimum age for handling firearms will be raised from 16 to 18 by this Order.

I hope that I have explained to the hon. Member what we are about.

On the question of the registration of transactions by firearms dealers, after he has repaired a weapon such a dealer has no further responsibility for reporting that sort of thing, even though the ballistic signature of the weapon has been altered. That is a matter on which the RUC will be checking. Under Article 11(5) fines are unlimited.

The hon. Member for Londonderry made a final appeal that the law on the control of firearms should be the same in Northern Ireland as it is in Great Britain. When the situation in Northern Ireland becomes similar to that in Great Britain, I am sure that that factor will be borne in mind by the Government of the day.

In answering the hon. Member for Londonderry, I have answered most of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Antrim, North. The relaxation in the minimum age of 18 was one of the improvements in the Order sought by him during the consultations. The hon. Gentleman asked about the procedure for the making of regulations. The advice of the Table Office, as one would expect, is an accurate assessment of the position, and there will be no opportunity on the Floor of the House for consultation on the regulations, but we shall consult the trade and sporting interests concerned before making them. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be able to think of a way in which that process can be combined with his interest in the regulations. The firearm certificates granted in Northern Ireland can be used in Great Britain for shotguns, but I am not sure of the position with regard to bullet-firing weapons.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) urged us to keep the control of firearms as tight as possible. The statistics which I have given of the decline in the number of rifle clubs show that that is taking place. We appreciate that this means a restriction in pleasure for a number of people, but we ask them to make that sacrifice in the present serious situation. I have explained the way in which approvals will operate for people who bring weapons into Northern Ireland from the Republic and other European countries.

Mr. Fitt

My hon. Friend explained that a firearm certificate held by a person living in another country would have to be supplemented by a cover notice from the Northern Ireland authorities. When is that obtained? Does the person concerned apply to the Northern Ireland authorities before he enters the country, or does he wait until he gets there? If he is caught on the way from Newry to Bann Bridge, will he be committing an offence if he has not applied to Bann Bridge police station for a cover note?

Mr. Moyle

It would be wise for the person concerned to apply to the Northern Ireland authorities before entering the country. That course is guaranteed to result in the minimum amount of inconvenience.

My hon. Friend also asked about sentences. There is great advantage in flexibility in sentencing and charging. It is entirely a matter for the prosecuting authorities and the courts, who may possibly read our debates from time to time, in which case they may take note of what my hon. Friend said.

Mr. Carson

Will the hon. Gentleman answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), who referred to 400 firearm certificates which had gone astray? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be more convenient and more secure if applicants who were granted firearm certificates made arrangements with the police station to collect them?

Mr. Moyle

I can promise the hon. Gentleman that we will give consideration to the suggestion which has been made in the light of the problem, and see what can be done.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Firearms (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 7th November 1975, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.