HC Deb 11 February 1977 vol 925 cc1914-28

Order for Second Reading read.

3.13 p.m.

Mr. Roderick MacFarquhar (Belper)

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

The object of the Bill is to protect people and animals from the irresponsible use of firearms by young people. It seeks to do this by raising the age limits currently in force for the possession and use of firearms and, in particular, air rifles.

The Green Paper produced by the last Conservative Government in 1973 underlined the need for action to tighten up the regulations on the use of air weapons. As the Green Paper stated in paragraph 79: Air weapons account for a high proportion of the offences known to the police involving the use of firearms". It went on to say: The misuse of air weapons occurs predominantly among young people". In the four years 1968–71 there were 1,482 offences in which air weapons caused slight injury and the age of the offender was known. On average 68 per cent. of the offenders were under 17. The percentage was rising over the years, to reach 78 per cent. in 1971. In that year 119 children between the ages of 10 and 13 caused fatal, serious or slight injury to other people, usually other youngsters, and the number of offenders between the ages of 14 and 16 was 347. The total number of offences of this type committed by young persons under the age of 17 was 533.

In the last year for which we have statistics, 1975, the total number of indictable offences with firearms resulting in injury and committed by children under 17 was 806, an increase of over 50 per cent. in four years. The vast majority of those offences were committed with air weapons.

Furthermore, in 1975 air weapons were used in well over 60 per cent. of all indictable offences connected with firearms, including burglary, robbery, violence against the person and criminal damage. They were by far the most used weapons in cases of violence against the person and criminal damage. In 1975, in all indictable offences in which air weapons were used and the age of the offender was known, 70 per cent. of the offenders were under 17.

Let me bring these grim statistics a little more to life by citing a particular case just across my constituency border. Eleven-year old Julie Rose was shot in the head with an air pellet last September. I have here a picture in the local newspaper. For weeks she was in a deep coma, and for a time it was thought that she would not survive. Mercifully, she is now improving and has recovered the power of speech, but it was only last Sunday, months after the event, that she walked again for the first time. That is an extreme example, perhaps, but it is always a possibility. How much more frequently is there the kind of case that happened to me in my youth, when I received an air gun pellet on the cheekbone, not far from my eye? As the voluminous statistics of the RSPCA indicate, animals and domestic pets are even more at risk then human beings.

The starting point of the Bill for me was the problem of air rifles. As those figures indicate, the problem of air rifles is basically a problem of young people. From a legislative point of view, this gives rise to two issues. First, althouh air weapons are firearms under the 1968 Act, their possession does not require a firearms certificate, unless they are classified as specially dangerous, but what is specially dangerous? I have here an advertisement in a shooting magazine for an air rifle claimed to be the most powerful 0.22 on the market and described as "mean, menacing and magnificent". The advertisement adds: Its sniper's barrel provides maximum striking power and penetration, yet no licence is required. That seems to me almost a provocative advertisement to a teenager. That air rifle could not be purchased by anyone under the age of 17, but there is nothing to stop its being given to any teenager over 14.

The first legislative problem is to bring all air weapons under some control. The second legislative issue is that in logic and common sense one cannot tighten up the laws on the use of air weapons by young people without also tightening up the laws on more dangerous weapons, such as shot guns, which they are also legally entitled to use under certain conditions. The Bill tries to grapple with both problems.

Clause 1 revises two sections of the 1968 Act relating to the acquisition and possession of firearms and ammunition by minors. First, it raises from 17 to 18 the age at which a person can purchase or hire firearms and ammunition. Secondly, it raises from 14 to 18 the age at which it is an offence to have firearms and ammunition in one's possession.

Certain exceptions provided for in the 1968 Act remain unaltered by the Bill. Briefly, they relate to the use of firearms at rifle clubs, by cadet corps, in shooting galleries or rifle ranges, or where instruction is being given. None of those permissions is revoked by the Bill. Only one proviso is added, in Clause 2, that in cases of instruction, here more precisely defined, the instructor should be over 21. That is the standard age of supervision under Section 23 of the 1968 Act.

To return to Clause 1, subsection (3) raises from 17 to 18 the age at which a person is allowed to have an air weapon and its ammunition in a public place, and the provision includes shot guns. Subsection (4) raises from 14 to 16 the age at which a person may have an air weapon in his possession, and shot guns come within that rule. But the exception provided for under the 1968 Act are maintained—that is, if there is supervision by somebody over 21, or if the gun is so securely covered that it cannot be fired.

It may be asked whether these provisions are tough enough. I have asked myself whether one should introduce a licensing procedure for air weapons. The problem about licensing is that the basis for granting a licence is normally some valid reason for possession of a weapon. Casual target shooting is generally the purpose of the use of air weapons, and if that were to be accepted as a valid reason licences would seldom be withheld. If it were not accepted, few would be granted.

The main objective of licensing is to prevent as far as possible firearms getting into the possession of those who might use them for criminal purposes. Although the statistics I have cited show that air weapons are used in a large number of indictable offences, they are rarely used in serious crimes. Consequently, I have decided that it would be better to try to get on to the statute book what I hope is a relatively less controversial Bill providing for increased adult supervision and to see how that works, instead of almost certainly failing to get on to the statute book a Bill providing for licences. The statistics which I have cited are too serious not to take immediate steps.

Hopefully, these clauses will be strong enough, but are they too tough? Will they inhibit country pursuits—particularly that of shooting? It is not the objective of this Bill to inhibit the responsible use of firearms for sporting purposes by, for example, members of the Wildfowlers Association, WAGBI. There may be some hon. Members who might want to follow such a course, but this Bill is not designed to do that—and I can think of at least one of its sponsors who would not have lent his name to the Bill if it had that effect.

I have had strong support from the Derbyshire NFU in my desire to bring air guns under greater control. The County Secretary of the Derbyshire NFU reported that one of his branch members had a cow whose leg became infected as a result of an air-gun pellet. The farmer concerned still has a cow with a deformed hock from the same incident. Another member in the area had a similar experience. One cow was struck by an air-gun pellet which resulted in the loss of a quarter. Last year it was reported that two boys had been found on a farm "stalking" cattle and aiming air guns at them. Animals had been found with lumps under the skin which subsequently proved to be pellets.

I understand that the attitude taken by the Derbyshire NFU branch is mirrored by the NFU nationally. I cannot think of a more obvious group of country people who would be more likely to protest at attempts to restrict country pursuits. Yet obviously they do not fear the provisions of this Bill.

I turn to Clause 3, which seeks to bring crossbows within the parameters of firearms. I have decided with some reluctance, to seek to withdraw the clause in Committee. I have taken this course, first because I am advised that crossbows are rarely used by young people and, secondly, because in all cases where offences have been committed the offenders were prosecutable under other legislation. Nevertheless, although the crossbow is still a minor problem compared with the air gun, it is one on which I believe hon. Members and the Home Office should keep a wary eye. I have heard a recent story involving an Alsatian dog which just managed to survive a four-inch bolt piercing its skull; happily, the bolt just missed its brain. Only ten days ago the Western Mail carried an editorial demanding that crossbows should be controlled by regulations. The editorial said: Crosswbows are primarily used as poachers' weapons. They must not be allowed to become anyone else's. Eventually, I feel that the regulation of crossbows may be necessary, but for the moment I believe that this House will have taken an important step forward in firearms control if it tightens the regulations on air weapons in particular, and that is why I commend the Bill to the House.

3.24 p.m.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

It gives me great pleasure to be called to speak following the speech of the hon. Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar). I congratulate him on his luck in the Ballot and on his able and effective introduction of this Bill.

Shortly after coming into office, the last Conservative Government decided that the increasing use of the firearms in the pursuit of crime made necessary a comprehensive review of the law controlling firearms. A working party was appointed to study this subject under Sir John McKay the then Chief Inspector of Constabulary and a person of some standing. In May 1973 a Green Paper entitled "The Control of Firearms in Great Britain" was produced, based on the report of the working party. It set out the Government's original proposals for changes which they thought should be made in the law. Public comment was invited on those proposals.

The Green Paper pointed out that crime involving the use of firearms had been rising rapidly in recent years. It showed also how shot guns were increasingly becoming: the preferred weapon of the serious criminal. I commend that phrase to the House. I quote what I regard as an important part of the Green Paper. Paragraph 28 says: The extent of crime involving firearms is growing. There is evidence that, in a significant number of cases, firearms are used criminally or irresponsibly because they happen to be available rather than because those concerned were determined to obtain them by hook or by crook. In its present form the law in some circumstances allows unsuitable persons to possess firearms, or persons to possess firearms without having a legitimate use for them, or to possess more firearms than required for such uses, or to take inadequate precautions against theft or misuse. The main objective of firearms control should be to ensure, so far as is practicable, that the possession of lethal weapons, which can be and are used criminally and irresponsibly to the danger of the community, is restricted to suitable persons who have legitimate use for them and who will keep them safely. The present law has certain inadequacies which prevent it from giving full and consistent effect to this objective. That is a pretty fair summing up of the case.

The last Conservative Government wanted shot guns to be made subject to the same stringent controls as rifles and pistols. At present, chief constables can refuse shot gun certificates only in limited circumstances. The last Conservative Government wanted to shift the onus on to the applicant to require him to prove that he had a good reason for wanting a certificate and to show that he could he trusted to use the weapon safely. The proposals of the last Conservative Government and the hon. Member's proposals were not, and are not, aimed at the legitimate sportsman but rather at the irresponsible, the careless, the thief, the criminal, who use a gun because it is available.

My interest in this matter arose when a senior police officer had words with me at an official function. He drew my attention to what was happening in the South-East of London. He pointed out that there were far too many cases of armed assault involving the use of shot guns. He also pointed out that one person with a shot gun certificate can purchase any number of shot guns. That seems a crazy state of affairs. The local papers are full of stories of armed robberies involving shot guns. The Kentish Independent, which circulates in my area, carried a story on 27th January headed: Armed raiders rob supermarket safe—but miss another £2,000 in the tills It quoted the manager as saying: One of the men pulled out a shot gun and pushed me on to the floor. The other made me give him the safe keys. I was terrified. When they got the safe open and found only £150, they asked me where I had hidden the rest of it. I was pleading for my life and one of the men threatened to blow my legs off. Another report concerns a Blackheath youth who was jailed for 27 months after pleading guilty to four charges of handling stolen goods and a charge of burglary. He had earlier been found guilty of possessing offensive weapons, namely an axe and an air riflle—a rather significant combination. This week in my constituency—in The Broadway, Bexleyhealth—a commercial firm was raided by thieves and several rounds were fired from a shot gun. We all know that these incidents are far too common. There is no need to repeat the official statistics which the hon. Member has given.

I much regret that the Government have not been able to find time for a Government Bill. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), in March last year, asked the Government whether they would introduce any new limitations on firearms". The then Home Secretary replied: Amending legislation will be introduced when the parliamentary timetable permits, which I am afraid will mean not in this Session."—[Official Report, 18th March 1976; Vol. 907, c. 613.] I received a Written Answer yesterday to a similar Question. I was told: It remains our intention to bring forward amending legislation on this matter when legislative time permits; but I see no prospect of time being available during this Session:—[Official Report, 10th February 1977; Vol. 925, c. 778.] When one thinks of some of the measures being pushed through, I regret that the Government cannot find time for such an urgent measure as this.

The Police Federation has made it perfectly clear to me that it strongly supports the Bill. I have been told that it also accepts the general recommendations contained in the Green Paper entitled "The Control of Firearms in Great Britain". On air weapons, it was disappointed to note that, with the exception of pump-up weapons, air weapons would remain free. It recommended that this category of weapon should come under the same restrictions and limitations as other weapons and should include gas cylinder operated weapons. That is important evidence on our side. It has said that it was essential that there should be a prolonged, well-advertised period of amnesty before new legislation came into force. That is a point for us to consider later.

I strongly support the hon. Member for Belper in putting forward these important and long-overdue proposals, and I recommend them to my right hon. and hon. Friends. Our party has a reputation second to none in supporting those whose job it is to uphold the law.

Perhaps I may mention a recent experience. I decided to apply for a shot-gun certificate, so I went to the local police station in Rochester Row where I was given a form. My application had to be supported by a Member of Parliament or a bank official. I am not sure that that is a very difficult hurdle to overcome these days when there are so many High Street banks and humble bank clerks in possession of bank notepaper. I filled in the application form and handed over the required sum of money. I was told that I would have to wait a month before I received a certificate. No one asked what I wanted a shot gun for in central London. No one seemed particularly interested in me personally. Had I been a well-known villain I doubt whether the sergeant at the desk would have reacted any differently. I was told that the application would be processed by the civil servants at Scotland Yard, which hardly suggests that there is highly effective vetting of applicants.

I am not woolly-minded about firearms. For 12 years I was a regular soldier, and I was responsible for instructing in the use of weapons. I have owned a shot gun, an air rifle, and .22 pistol.

We must always examine most carefully the balance between the freedom of the individual and the need to protect our society against the rising tide of violence in our cities where 80 per cent. of the population live. The balance needs to be tilted in favour of greater control of shot guns and air rifles. The nub of my case is that there is an increase in crimes of violence. The shot gun is becoming the preferred weapon. There is an alarming increase in juvenile crime. We have become a violent society. The Bill is a sensible measure to contain that violence.

3.35 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

I should like to apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes), who, regrettably, cannot be here today as one of the Bill's sponsors.

Every sensible person must welcome the Bill. There is no doubt that animal welfare societies, the police and, indeed, many members of the public will have cause to be grateful to the hon. Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar) for introducing the Bill.

There is one point that causes me concern. From Clause 1 it would appear that an air gun is a firearm. I find that difficult to understand, as an air gun is discharged by the release of compressed air. It is possible that the word "firearm" is used because an air gun is a barrelled weapon. However, it is rather difficult to describe an air gun absolutely accurately as a firearm.

Nevertheless, I fully welcome the Bill, which controls the purchase and use of both shot guns and air rifles. What really concerns me about the Bill is that I gather that there is some reluctance on the part of the Home Office to accept in the restraints upon weapons any inclusion of the use of crossbows. Although the Bill proposes that there shall be such control, I hope that the Under-Secretary will not say that the Home Office is opposed to the Bill because it contains that provision. If on consideration in Committee and, I hope, more mature consideration at the Home Office it is still considered that that provision must be deleted, I am sure that none of us would wish to see the other excellent parts of the Bill held up because of that.

It would cause me concern if the crossbow were not included. I want to make one or two observations about the matter. When one remembers that the crossbow was used as a weapon of war, it seems extraordinary that the crossbow should be excluded although the air weapon is included. Had the air gun been available at the time when the crossbow was used in war, it would certainly not have been used in preference to the crossbow in battle. Therefore, I find it extraordinary that if the Home Office is anxious, as we all are, to ensure that there is much greater control of lethal and dangerous weapons, it should want to exclude the crossbow from the Bill.

I know from records of the RSPCA, as we all know from various references, that the police are very concerned about the omission of the crossbow from controls. The point is—it is perfectly valid—that we have talked today about boys who use air guns either carelessly or deliberately with the intention of inflicting harm or wounds. Is it not likely that if those young people are now denied the opportunity of purchasing and using an air gun they will then straightaway buy a crossbow, which can be lethal and is much more dangerous and can cause much greater harm to human and to animal alike? It is a favourite poacher's weapon.

I appeal to the Under-Secretary to give this matter extremely serious consideration before the Bill reaches its Committee stage. I hope that any reluctance on the part of the Home Office until now about including the crossbow in this excellent Bill will disappear when we reach the Committee stage.

Again, I thank the hon. Member for Belper for bringing forward the Bill, which I am sure is acclaimed by the whole House. The fact that it is supported by hon. Members of the three largest parties in the House is an indication of its general support, and it is also supported by the Scottish National Party, I think—

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)

The Welsh National Party.

Mr. Burden

Most unusually. That indeed illustrates how unanimous is the House in supporting the Bill. I hope that the hon. Lady will allow it to go through.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

I should like quickly to remind the House of Mr. Speaker's ruling. There is some discrepancy between the clocks in the Chamber. We are working on the green digital clocks, which conform to the clock at the Table. The main clocks at the ends of the Chamber are slow.

3.40 p.m.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

Previously I have said that decisions on matters affecting country life and rural activity should not be taken without sensitive and adequate consideration. My hon. Friend's Bill and his speech showed a proper regard for these matters, and I believe that his approach has been sensible and fair.

I am interested in rural life and nature conservation. That sometimes brings me into arguments with those who would abolish all field sports, including shooting and fishing. However, I accept that man abuses his natural heritage and that protective arrangements are necessary in certain areas. The Bill will serve that purpose. It will not prevent the use of weapons and shotguns, but it will suggest and require responsibility. That is timely.

Some may imagine that the Bill is concerned only with the countryside. This is far from the case. The greatest material benefit may arise from the contribution which will come to reducing the cost of vandalism. Air weapons are misused. Often they are a tool of vandalism, and I believe that these proposals will assist to reduce the incidence of destruction of public and private property. A lot will depend on the courts, and many courts are realistic in their approach. But not all courts are. Only this week, we have seen the report of a disgraceful case when a group of poachers were fined a total of £92 for shooting deer illegally, the venison being worth more than £1,000.

It is no good complaining about justice not being done if the law does not provide the vehicle for justice. The Bill will fulfil the need. It may also serve another useful purpose. During the period of the last Conservative Government a Green Paper was produced. Some parts of it were quite unreasonable. My hon. Friend proposes sensible arrangements and, if this Bill is enacted, there is no need in my view for the Home Office to produce another document of the kind which I criticised and which many of my constituents found offensive. My hon. Friend recognises the major need and proposes to serve it. We need not see the implementation of other parts of the Green Paper.

There may be one or two aspects of the Bill which will need to be sorted out in Committee. The proper activities of young rural workers should not be prevented and, to ensure this, we may need to examine carefully and to define the words "public place", as well as to ensure that the Bill does not prevent the pursuance of country reponsibility. I hope that, if this means a minor amendment to secure this, my hon. Friend and the Minister will be agreeable.

This hope is more than reasonable. My hon. Friend has not sought to serve any intolerant or impracticable purpose in his Bill, which I believe most sensible people will welcome.

In some ways, it is regrettable that the Bill is necessary. Perhaps we should not need to enact provisions to control the purchase and use of firearms by quite young people. However, parental example and responsibility might not always be all that they should be. It is of course only a small minority who commit abuses. But that small number can be a costly nuisance. It means, therefore, that the Bill is necessary to the community.

I was pleased to see that the crossbow was included. Some people may not like its inclusion, believing that it encroaches upon freedom. However, the point was made that my hon. Friend is not making the crossbow illegal. He is merely providing society with certain safeguards.

History lessons may be remembered vaguely, but most people will remember learning about the English longbow, a weapon which was a major cause of victory in battles in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, battles such as Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt, when small, rather sickly English armies defeated larger lists in France.

Because of this tradition, there may be echoes of contempt for the crossbow. However, the latter weapon has killed and maimed many people in the past. It is still capable of doing so. It is a lethal weapon. I believe that it can be much more powerful than an air weapon and, since it may be sold in quite large numbers and through mail order catalogues, I believe that we ought to see that the crossbow is included in these provisions if only to ensure that there is a contribution to a general realisation that it is a dangerous weapon. I hope that the Government will reconsider the inclusion of this weapon. I shall need some convincing that its inclusion is unwise.

As I have said, my hon. Friend's proposals are neither intolerant nor inequitable. They are not insensitive to rural activity, and I consider that the Bill offers four advantages. First, it can help to reduce and deter vandalism. Secondly, it can improve society's insurance against parental irresponsibility. Thirdly, it provides some additional security in the cause of public safety. Fourthly, it removes the need for further initiatives on the lines of the Conservative Government's Green Paper, parts of which were received and deserved to be received with such a critical response.

My hon. Friend has produced a useful if modest measure. If it can be improved to cover the point that I made earlier, I shall be relieved. But the Bill deserves support, and I hope that the House will give it a fair wind today.

3.48 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Dr. Shirley Summerskill)

I am sure that the House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar) for introducing this Bill. It gives the House an opportunity to consider the problems arising from young persons having lethal weapons, as well as the misuse of air weapons and crossbows. I hope we can consider to what extent these problems could be overcome, or at least mitigated, by legislation and to what extent they stem from a failure to educate and supervise young people in the safe use of various weapons.

With regard to the point raised by the hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), it remains the Government's intention to introduce tighter controls over shot guns, but it is not possible to introduce legislation this Session. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I cannot anticipate the Queen's Speech for the next Session.

The number of indictable offences recorded by the police, in which air weapons were reported to have been used, has been rising steadily in recent years. There were 888 cases of this kind in 1971, 1,653 in 1973 and 2,518 in 1975. In 1975, air weapons were involved in nearly two-thirds of all indictable offences recorded by the police in which a firearm was reported to have been used.

As the House has appreciated, an air rifle or air pistol is, above all, a teenager's weapon. Most offences involving the use of such weapons arise not from criminal intent but from misuse by younger teenagers who have not acquired sufficient maturity to use them sensibly without supervision. The solution to this problem lies not in any heavy-handed machinery of a certification procedure aimed at minimising the use of firearms in serious crimes, but in legislation to promote more and better adult supervision.

I am pleased that this Bill seeks to raise the minimum age at which a young person may be in possession of an air rifle without adult supervision from 14 to 16. The age of 16 is not without significance in terms of school leavers, employment, social security and parental responsibility. There is no other significance about it and it could be argued that the age could have been raised even higher to, say, 18. But if the Government had introduced legislation amending the Firearms Act in the present Session we would have proposed that the age should be raised to 16 as well.

The remaining provisions relating to age limits in the Bill are designed to simplify and rationalise some but not all of the complicated age limits specified under the 1968 Act. The Bill does not deal with sales to young people. Its effect on purchases and possession would be to specify two age limits.

These are 16 for air weapons and shotguns, unless under parental supervision, or unless the weapon is securely covered, and 18 for the purchase of a firearm or ammunition and for possession of rifles and pistols and uncovered air weapons or shot guns in public places without adult supervision.

I am confident that the proposals in the Bill when suitably amended and publicised will go a long way towards easier comprehension of the age limits. The Government's attitude to the age limits is therefore sympathetic. There are certain defects in the Bill, some much more serious than others, which will have to be put right in Committee if the law is not to end up even more confusing that it is already.

We believe that this is a sensible Bill but we cannot accept the inclusion in it of control of crossbows. Our first objection to the crossbow provision in Clause 3 is that this is not a firearm within the meaning of the 1968 Act. It would be a major departure from the scope of that Act to amend the definition of firearm to include a crossbow. If we contemplate that we shall find ourselves submerged in uncharted quicksands. Crossbows are used mainly for organised target shooting.

I should stress our other objections to the Bill. The hon. Member has undertaken to include appropriate provisions in respect of sales and gifts but he would be prevented from doing so by the terms of the Long Title. The Bill makes no specific provision for commencement. It makes no provision for penalties, and Schedule 6 of the 1968 Act will require suitable amendment.

The Government's view is that the Bill is rather like the curate's egg—it has a number of unsatisfactory features, but it is not so bad that we would reject it. We should like to see it in Committee, and if my understanding of my hon. Friend is correct, he intends to make amendments there to delete the crossbow provisions and to insert suitable provisions in respect of sales and gifts, the commencement date, penalties and minor consequential amendments.

Mr. MacFarquhar

I give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Dr. Summerskill

I am pleased to have such co-operation from my hon. Friend.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).