HC Deb 22 March 1979 vol 964 cc1833-59

10.14 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Firearms (Variation of Fees) Order 1979 (S. I., 1979, No. 86), dated 30 January 1979, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7 February, be annulled.

Mr. Speaker

I remind the House that the debate must end at 11.30 p.m. Already six hon. Members, in addition to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), have indicated to me that they hope to speak.

Mr. Farr

It may be as well if I begin by telling the House about those who are interested in shooting and those who take part in the pastime. Many people think that those who shoot come from certain sections of society.

A recent pilot survey of the people who shoot was classified into the 17 generally recognised socio-economic groups. Of these 17 groups, 35.7 per cent., or the biggest sector, were people who were classed in the sociological grouping as skilled manual workers. The next largest, 26 per cent., were intermediate and junior manual workers. The third largest, 14.3 per cent., were professional workers, 13.3 per cent. were employers and managers and the remaining 10 per cent were semi-skilled, or not at present engaged in a viable occupation. This shows that the sport of shooting has widespread application in Britain and that many thousands will be concerned with what we are discussing tonight.

The prayer was laid by my hon. Friends and myself because fees for firearm and shotgun certificates have escalated so much during the past four or five years, particularly since 1975, that considerable unrest has been caused throughout the country. Without going into details of how the fees have increased, it is sufficient to say that the fee for a firearm certificate, which in 1975 was £3.50, will be £18.50 if the order is approved, and the fee for a shotgun certificate, which in 1975 was £1, will be £8.50.

Those are startling increases. A fee which would be appropriate in line with the increase in the cost of living and the index of retail prices would be £8 for a firearm certificate instead of £18.50, and £2.50 for a shotgun certificate instead of £8.50. That is why we have laid the prayer.

A great deal of correspondence has come to my hon. Friends and myself on this subject recently. The figures I have quoted showing the shocking way in which fees have increased are borne out by a written answer given to me by the Home Secretary on 3 May 1978, when he stated that no fees for which he had responsibility had been increased to the same extent as the fees under the Firearms Act 1968. That was a significant admission by the Home Secretary. There are several other fees with which the Home Secretary is concerned, namely, fees under the Aliens Act, which involve a considerable amount of police time, and fees for liquor licences, which again involve much police time in inquiries. There are many other fees with which the Home Secretary is concerned, such as burial fees, which have increased only at the rate of inflation or less.

The Home Secretary issues some licences without charge, and there are circumstances where police time may be considerable but no charge is made. The police are required to inspect and advise retail chemists on the security of drugs. and no charge is made for the appropriate authorisation to possess drugs. No charge is made for police duties in relation to commercial storage of explosives. The police quite rightly spend a considerable amount of time on crime prevention advice, particularly for people wishing to install burglar alarms, and no charge is made for that.

From time to time these regular increases in fees have been questioned in debate. The Government over the past three or four years have given three reasons for these increases: first, that they are necessitated by inflation; secondly, that such fees have been dealt with in the same way as all other fees; and, thirdly, that by virtue of the Public Expenditure and Receipts Act 1968 they were required to increase fees.

I have touched on the savage way that fees have been increased in an unjustified way since 1975, and I have also dealt with the inconsistency, admitted by the Home Secretary, that no other fees have increased at the same rate as firearms fees. Until recently, the third reason was consistently given by Ministers. In a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments on 27 October 1976 and 3 May 1978, the Under-Secretary of State indicated that the Government were required to increase firearms fees by virtue of section 5 of the Public Expenditure and Receipts Act 1968. In December 1976, the Minister of State said the same thing in another place.

The Home Office now recognises that that Act places no such requirement on the Government, and never has done. In section 5 a number of charges are listed that must be regularly increased, but for that to apply to firearm fees a special amendment would be necessary. I think the Under-Secretary will agree that the Government are not required to take action by that Act.

The level of fees is increasing due to increased costs, but there is considerable room for cost reduction by improving the efficiency of the procedure. There is a teriffic variation among police forces in the cost of the procedure of granting a firearm certificate. Although I am referring specifically to the granting of firearm certificates, what I say applies also to shotgun certificates. Looking at the figures for 1977, one sees that in the metropolitan area the average firearm certificate cost £52.80, and from that high figure it ranges down to £10.41 in Cumbria.

There seem to be tremendous variations in the costings given by different police forces, which I find incomprehensible. If we want to make the system more effective, cheaper for those who have firearms and simpler for the police, could not those who have been checked out and found suitable to hold a firearm certificate automatically qualify to hold a shotgun certificate? A shotgun does not require the standard of responsibility demanded by a rifle, and if someone is qualified to hold a firearm certificate he should be able to hold a shotgun certificate without involving the police in a laborious duplication of checking. Such a dual procedure would save the issuing of 150,000 certificates a year, and that would save the police a great deal of time.

I have another suggestion that the Minister might consider. Driving licences are now valid until the holder reaches the age of 70. Could not the life of a firearm certificate be increased from three years to five or six years?

How can we improve police efficiency in administering the firearms laws? The police lack direction from the Home Secretary on this issue. Section 55(1) of the Firearms Act 1968 empowers the Home Secretary to make rules to regulate the manner in which chief officers of police carry out their duties under the Act. In the debate on this subject in the Standing Committee in 1978, the Minister said that it was for chief officers of police to determine the best system to operate. In another place the Home Office Minister said that it was up to the police to decide how to use their manpower resources and on the variations between different forces.

If, as it appears, the police are not using their resources in the most efficient way, they should be given guidance by the Home Secretary. It seems from repeated statements in firearms debates that the Home Office and the Home Secretary have almost completely opted out of giving guidance in this matter and are leaving these questions more and more in the hands of the chief officers.

Those who engage in shooting in all its forms—they come from many groups in society—are basically law-abiding people who are anxious to help the police in every way. However, the situation is approaching in which the burden of increased fees is making it very difficult for many of them to continue to possess a shotgun, a rifle or another authorised weapon.

In the 1977 annual reports of the chief officers of police for Devon and Cornwall, Essex, Hampshire, Lincolnshire, Merseyside and Surrey, it was made clear that increased fees accounted for the reduction in the number of firearm and shotgun certificates.

The House has a matter on its hands that requires immediate action from the Government. Some of us are most dissatisfied with the continual rise in firearm fees each year since this Government came into office. Some hon. Members say that the continual rises are allied to the failure of the Government in 1977 to secure the advancement of its Firearms Bill.

Many hon. Members would like answers to a number of questions. Why was the Public Expenditure and Receipts Act 1968 continually and repeatedly used as a justification for the recovery of costs? I have never received a satisfactory reply to the question. Why has the Home Secretary concluded that firearm and shotgun certificate fees should be increased at a rate disproportionate to inflation? Why are services that are provided free to many sections of the community, in respect of other licences and authorisations from the Home Office, charged at a very high rate to those who use firearms?

Why, in the systems and costings evolved by the Home Office, is the charging of police officers' time made as if they were exclusively employed on investigations? Often they are not. Nominal or no fees are charged for the issue of comparable licences, whereas the fireams fees and examinations charges that are made represent the full time of the police officers involved. What steps is the Home Secretary taking to issue guidance to the police about the efficient and cost-effective administration of their systems? Will the Home Secretary now institute an independent inquiry into the appropriate level of fees?

The House is totally dissatisfied with the actions of the Government. Since 1975 they have taken steps to price legal firearm possession out of the reach of many young people. My hon. Friends and I believe that it is wrong that lawful firearm possession should depend more and more on the ability to pay.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)

I am glad that the prayer, which I support, offers the opportunity for the House to question the basis of these fees. Last year, the increase in fees was introduced at a time when there was no parliamentary opportunity to ask questions or draw attention to the concern that was felt about the increase. As a result of that, I tabled a number of questions and wrote to the Home Secretary. I was wholly dissatisfied with the replies I received.

In the meantime, I have been paying considerable attention to the issue. I hope that the Minister will give a fuller explanation of the basis of the charges than we have received hitherto. There are 150,000 people in the United Kingdom holding firearm and shotgun certificates. Many regard the increase in fees over the past few years as a clear pricing policy, initiated very much at the behest of civil servants in the Home Office, and a blatant attempt to control and reduce the number of guns and shotguns.

The proposed fee for a firearm certificate from 1 May is a 15 per cent. increase on last year's figure. The increase for the shotgun certificate fee is between 20 per cent. and 21 per cent., and the increase for dealers is more than 18 per cent. Those figures are well in excess of the movement of inflation over the year.

The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) made a number of references to charges having been introduced since the Government came to office, but it is important to point out that fees for firearm certificates were first introduced in 1920, admittedly at only five shillings. They remained at that level until 1968, when they were increased to £2.50. They were increased again in 1971 to £3.50, in 1975 to £7, in 1976 to £12 and in 1978 to £16, and the proposed fee from 1 May is £18.50.

I have referred to the sense of grievance and unfairness felt about such increases. There is a feeling that the charges are unfair and unrealistic, certainly in relation to the cost of administration by the police.

Many certificate holders feel that they are being charged for crime prevention advice or inspection and that that does not apply to other people. They feel that they are charged for the time of patrolling officers as though they were exclusively at the service of certificate holders, and, again, this does not apply to others who seek advice and assistance from the police. The holders of certificates believe that they are charged for advice given at police inquiry desks and that this also does not apply to other sections of the community.

I shall not refer to all the anomalies. They are widespread and they lead to the charge that there is no consistency in the application of fees and charges. Charges are not payable under the Aliens Acts or for licences under the liquor licensing legislation or under the explosives law. I was told by the Home Secretary in reply to a parliamentary question last year that there was no other charge for which the Home Office was responsible which had increased in the same way as have the fees for firearms and shotgun certificates.

The question of the costing of police time is an important matter. Those who have examined the subject in detail argue that there could be a considerable reduction in costs if a number of changes, of the sort suggested by the hon. Member for Harborough, were made.

A recent survey conducted by the British Shooting Sports Council showed that, for instance, of those making a first application for a firearm or shotgun certificate, 42 per cent. received more than one visit from the police and 8 per cent. received three or more visits. Even more surprisingly, in the case of renewals or variations 45 per cent. received more than one visit and 26 per cent. received three or more visits.

There are also vast differences in practice among police forces throughout the country. This is reflected in the cost of granting firearms certificates as revealed in the reviews. In the 1977 review, the charges of the Cumbria police were £10.41, the charges of the Northern Scotland police were £14.75 and the cost in other authorities, such as Devon, Cornwall, Dyfed, Powys, Humberside, Sussex and the West Midlands, varied between those figures. That is a very wide variation.

The council and firearm and shotgun holders are not grumbling negatively. They have made, and are making, a number of positive suggestions. I think that there is an obligation on the Minister to respond positively to those suggestions, which are not new but have been made over a number of years.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give a positive response to the suggestion of combined inquiries. It is argued, and I believe with conviction, that this would lead to a drastic reduction in costs and would make increased charges less severe than they have been in recent years. Secondly, I draw attention to the extent of the validity of certificates, as did the hon. Member for Harborough in moving this prayer. It is argued that this would considerably case administrative problems and reduce costs.

No reasonable person would seek to argue that increasing the fees for firearm and shotgun certificates will make it significantly harder for criminals to obtain firearms. Criminals with money and determination find little difficulty in obtaining the weapons, or anything else that they want, in pursuing their criminal activities. It is suspected by holders of firearm and shotgun certificates that the very substantial increases in fees is designed to contain and reduce the gun population.

Such a pricing policy, if it does not deter criminals, certainly deters working people with limited means from either taking up or continuing to follow their chosen hobby. It will certainly deter younger people from taking up the sport and joining clubs where they can shoot under supervision without harming themselves or other people.

I urge the Minister to give a clear assurance that fees will not be increased substantially at regular intervals and that she will seriously consider a revision of police costs, which, in my view and the view of others, are unreal and unfair. I urge my hon. Friend to give urgent attention to the matter of combined inquiries and extending the validity of certificates.

A book entitled"Firearms Control ", written some time ago by a constituent of mine, Mr. Colin Greenwood, states in the final chapter: The imposition of unduly restrictive conditions on the grant of a certificate appears to be increasing. Each of these conditions should be examined to see whether or not it contributes towards achieving the object of the controls. If the condition makes no significant contribution towards this end, it cannot be justified, and it is likely to do no more than to antagonise and inconvenience the certificate holder for no purpose. The amount of time spent on administering the controls could be substantially decreased in a number of ways without in any way losing such effectiveness as the controls may have. In the first instance it is necessary to keep in mind the object of the controls, and it is to be regretted that these are not clearly stated in the legislation ". I think that some redress can be effected by the Minister if she indicates that the time has come when the Home Office is prepared to consider urgently the suggestions which have been made. They are made in the hope that costs will be reduced, that increases will be much less frequent than they have been in the past and that they will be smaller in scale.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I am glad to support my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) in his prayer and to speak next following the constructive and helpful remarks of the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden). We want to see sport and recreation developed, not hindered, and I find the attitude of the Home Office in relation to firearms extremely depressing. The Minister's only concern seems to be security and effecting through high charges a reduction in the number of firearm certificates and shotgun certificates.

I entirely accept that security is of great importance. Indeed, I think that we should make positive efforts to improve it, particularly in the home, and to make security generally more effective. In common with other hon. Members who, I am sure, will wish to speak tonight, I pay tribute to the work of the police in administering this legislation and arranging for the certificates. But it is right to look at the method of licensing with a view to making more economies. Can we be just as efficient and yet charge considerably less? Could we not streamline the administration?

If I am to have my own firearm certificate renewed, all that is needed is a rubber stamp and a signature on the corner. A new piece of paper does not have to be produced. Much the same applies to one's shotgun certificate. I should have thought that a couple of minutes' work would produce all that was required on one's shotgun certificate. As my hon. Friend said, why do I need two pieces of paper when one would do? There is great scope for economy in the whole operation of producing these certificates.

Certainly, there is a strong case for lengthening the currency of a certificate. In the Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments last week dealing with the position in Scotland, it was hinted by the Under-Secretary of State that this might be done. We should consider lengthening the currency of a certificate to five or seven years or even longer, in that way substantially reducing the administrative costs.

I put it to the Under-Secretary that recreation is important. I am a member, as, I am sure, are a number of hon. Members here tonight, of some of the organisations to which I wish to refer and which join with us in criticising the order, such as the National Rifle Association, the National Smallbore Rifle Association, the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association, WAGBI, pistol clubs, rifle clubs and a whole host of individual marksmen who use their rifles for active participation in club events. All those people require certificates if they own their own rifles, but, as has been said, in 1968 the fee went up from five shillings to £2.50 and now in 1979 we are looking at an increase to £18.50, or £15 for a renewal.

I wish to highlight the extremely high cost of a variation, at £15. All these increases are far ahead of the rise in the cost of living. Many top-class rifle shots will change their weapons during the year—perhaps changing the calibre of the ammunition which they use—and all this comes under a variation at £15 a time. It is putting a tremendous burden on those who shoot for pleasure if they have to pay so much to enjoy their sport. I have so far been referring to rifle shooting, but the shotgun certificate charges also are affected, though at a slightly lower level.

We want to see people of all ages, including young people, enjoying the countryside and, with appropriate permission, shooting in the countryside. Rifle shooting, pistol shooting, clay pigeon shooting and vermin shooting are all good recreation. That is shooting that should be encourged. Only through the use of firearms will young people learn the code of safety that is crucial.

We are talking about healthy occupations. They are far removed from the underworld of stolen guns and hold-ups that seem to fill the mind of the Home Office. The hon. Lady must find the right balance between sport and recreation on one side and security and administrative cost on the other. The balance could be made much finer. It should be regulated not by increasing fees as is proposed but by making economies, either through the police or by streamlining the paper work that seems to take up so much time and to be so costly.

I hope that the hon. Lady will recognise that it is terribly important that she takes the order away, reconsiders it and returns it to the House, if she has the opportunity, with the proposed increases much reduced.

10.51 p.m.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

I briefly suport what has already been said in opposition to the order. I know that many other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall not take more time than I need to make two or three points.

First, I declare an interest. For some years I have been a member of the council of the National Rifle Association. Bisley is in my constituency, it being the headquarters of national target shooting sports. Further, as I hope the hon. Lady is aware, I have a great many angry constituents. They are angry because they do not understand why it is thought that they, who have taken pains to apply for licences to own firearms or shotguns, should be classified as potential criminals. They take the view that the potential criminal would not draw attention to himself by telling the police that he wants to have a firearm or a shotgun. They consider the whole exercise to be pointless in many aspects.

My constituents are especially angry about the total lack of evidence that anybody has applied his mind to how the same end could be achieved more simply and cheaply. They have no evidence from the Home Office or the police that anyone has seriously studied the effect of extending the life of a shotgun or firearm certificate. It seems logical that that is one means of economy. They have no evidence that serious thought has been given to how insurance companies might play a part in increasing the security in which weapons are kept. Generally they see in the history of the whole business the worst sort of Civil Service closed mind.

These matters have gone on for a long time. The hon. Lady will know that my hon. Friends, those in another place and representatives of the sports concerned have trodden a steady path to the Home Office to try to get some appreciation of what is involved. They have always met a totally negative, unimaginative and deadpan response. This cannot continue any longer. We must have some sign from the Minister that the problem is understood, that something will be done and that long-suffering, law-abiding members of the public who want to have and enjoy firearms and shotguns for innocent sporting purposes are served by the Administration and not made to suffer by it. Part of the function of an Administration is to give the citizen what he wants and not merely to stand back and say"Pay up a bit more. We are too idle to think of an alternative."

10.54 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)

I hope that when the hon. Lady replies she will do so in the same manner as her hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland in the Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments that sat last week. I detect in the Government a willingness to reconsider the whole problem of firearms and shotgun certificates.

There is a general desire in the House to do what the Minister has no power to do. The House as a whole feels, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) said, that the period for which a certificate is issued should be extended. If the fees go up, the period after the issue should be extended from three to six or even 10 years. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough referred to the period for which a driving licence was issued. Unfortunately, the Minister does not have power under the Act to extend the period. My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. White-law) used his place in the ballot two years ago to introduce a Bill to amend the Firearms Act 1968 and allow the Home Office to extend the period for which shotgun or firearm certificate were issued. That was objected to. I believe that the Government have had a change of heart. This came out clearly in the Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments recently.

If we are to extend the period, we must revise the Firearms Act 1968. We are in a position to look at that Act and face up to a general revision. There are one or two points that should be included in such revision if the certificates are to be realistic. I refer especially to the shotgun certificate. Such a certificate should identify the weapons held. It does not do so now. It should specify the security arrangements required of the owner from a model list to be drawn up by the Home Office related to the different circumstances of residence, locality and probable frequency of use. The present practice varies in different parts of the country.

There should be no territorial limitations on a shotgun certificate. I accept that the territorial limitations applied to a firearm certificate are an important part of the enforcement procedure. There should be no limitation on the types and numbers of shotguns held. Safe keeping for a friend or relative would be a good reason for holding a shotgun certificate. An occasional invitation to shoot should be sufficient reason for holding a certificate. There should be no restrictions on the individual purchase or possession of ammunition. If we are to reduce the cost, we must extend the period.

In those eight points, there is an area of agreement which allows us to adjust the 1968 Act in a sensible way and in a spirit of compromise that everybody wants to see.

Bearing in mind the duty of the Home Office to protect the citizen, especially from weapons being stolen, I hope that in the next few years we shall see ourselves proceeding in this way and not have these acrimonious debates once a year whenever the fees are put up.

10.58 p.m.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I am not a shooting man. Obviously, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball), who has a great knowledge of the subject, and the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) gave many of the facts to the House. I do not want to repeat them.

After the fees went up last year, I was chased in my constituency by a large number of people who liked to shoot. They asked me why I had not opposed the measure. I trotted out some answers that I suspect we may hear later this evening, such as the need to control firearms. I was soon put in my place. I therefore agreed to take a closer look into the situation. The more I looked at it, the more alarmed I became and the more I realised how right are those who have firearms and shotgun certificates to protest.

There can be no foundation for the huge increases in fees that have taken place over the past few years. I read the speech made last year by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross). I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that he will catch your eye before the end of this debate. His speech contained facts and figures of which everyone should take note. He received no sensible answers.

We have heard this evening about the cost of collection. The hon. Member for Harborough said that it varied in the police forces throughout the country. I think he said that the cost in Hampshire was just over £10. That applies to my constituency.

The situation is getting out of hand. There is no justification at all for the Government asking for yet another increase this year. In view of the remarks of the hon. Member for Gainsborough, they should withdraw their proposal and consider revising the whole procedure as it discriminates against the legitimate holders of firearm and shotgun certificates.

I took the trouble a few months ago to visit one of the local clubs in the Isle of Wight, at Shanklin. I have had a letter from a Mr. Bloodworth—a very suitable name, perhaps, for someone dealing with firearms—in which he says: I feel I must write to you again about a further increase in firearms certificates which will put the cost up to £18.50 on the 1 May, which is an increase of 15.6 per cent. over last year's rise. Are we to get justification for that, I wonder, tonight? I cannot think that we shall. I think that this is plainly a means test further to reduce the number of certificates held and will have no bearing on armed crimes.

Incidentally, I met the gentleman in question, with whose case I sympathise, at a meeting of the Shanklin riflle and pistol club, as he reminds me in his letter. I was given the chance to have a shot on the range and I am glad to say that I managed to hit the target. He goes on to ask in his letter for an"independent inquiry ". I know that it has been pressed in the House many times in Committee and on the Floor of the House, and I should like to support it tonight. It really ought to take place. My correspondent goes on to quote the fees, which have gone up, as has already been said, from 1920 to the present time. He finishes up by asking, in big capital letters,"Please help us ".

I intend to do just that tonight. I hope that the hon. Member for Harborough will press the matter to a Division. If he does, I shall support him and ask other hon. Members here to do the same.

11.2 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)

It is orders of this kind which give Governments such a bad name, and particularly the Home Office. They keep coming back again and again, asking people to pay these outrageously discriminatory prices. I shall not weary the House with the statistics which have already been adduced in favour of our voting against this wretched order.

I am president of a rifle club. I know that from time to time people invite the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister to come to their constituency. I hope that, if the Under-Secretary of State has not visited a rifle club, she will visit the Felbridge rifle club, in East Grinstead, where she will be made very welcome.

I want particularly to emphasise the effect of the order on clubs of this kind, which take great pride in their security arrangements and believe that it is a well-disciplined and well-regulated sport, encompassing a good cross-section of the community. They particularly pride themselves on being family clubs. This is typical of many rifle clubs. They are not just for elderly gentlemen, for the middle-aged, or for young bloods who want to let off steam. The clubs bring in the whole family. When they are faced, on top of the costs of maintaining the club, with these huge increases of the kind that we have heard tonight, it makes them wonder what the Government are about.

In addition to the discrimination between this sport and other activities, there is discrimination also, they feel, between the cost of a firearm certificate, whether for granting or renewing, and a shotgun certificate, whether for granting or renewing.

It is not for me to suggest that those who have shotgun certificates are likely to use them in any criminal way whatever. They pay quite a lot and they are responsible people. Those in rifle clubs such as mine see no reason why the cost of a shotgun certificate should be less than half the cost of a firearm certificate. As the chairman of the club put it in a letter to me, if £8.50 is an economic price for a shotgun certificate, it is an economic price for a firearms certificate ". Some people may question that and say that before a firearm certificate is granted—especially to a member of a club—extra special precautions have to be taken. But, even so, surely it does not take double the time. There is a great sense of grievance here, and I very much hope that the spirit in which we have entered the debate will find an echo in the reply from the Minister.

11.4 p.m.

Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

I very much regret that we are back this evening once more with the miserable spectacle of the Government seeking an increase in firearm fees. Since I came into this House I have spoken on every possible occasion against the orders which have been laid, and I take no real pleasure in having to do it once again this evening. The last two occasions were on 6 March 1978, when the Northern Ireland order arrived on the Floor of the House, and on 3 May 1978, when the orders for Scotland and for England and Wales were discussed in Committee.

The Northern Ireland order will be coming up again this year, so that I shall be having another go next Thursday. For that reason, I do not intend to detain the House very long. But I want to repeat what I said last year on the orders for Scotland and for England and Wales: I shall be very brief. I question the whole concept of firearms control as it exists in the United Kingdom and, indeed, in most of the Western world. I believe it is an almost total waste of time and effort by the police and the authorities. I believe that the whole system could be scrapped quite easily because it is utterly useless in trying to prevent firearms getting into the hands of criminals or terrorists.… In short, I believe that it is time that the whole subject was re-examined or rather, perhaps— —and since last year I have become more and more confirmed in this view— that a detailed examination was undertaken with an open mind for the first time."—[Official Report, Third Standing Committee on-Statutory Instruments, 3 May 1978; c. 12.] The House will realise that I go a good deal further than those Members who have spoken so far. Tinkering with the present system is not enough. The Government are defending a set of basic premises which have nothing to do with reality, and never have. The Government are trying to defend a position which is indefensible.

This Government and successive Governments have been very foolish not to explore the whole question of firearms control, not only in this part of the United Kingdom but throughout the nation. They should approach the matter with an open mind and have a far-reaching and detailed inquiry.

Criminals and terrorists have no trouble in obtaining guns. They are the one section of the community which is always able to find a firearm to use it for an illegal purpose and to murder someone. Time has moved on since fears existed which caused the first firearms legislation to be introduced. This legislation has been maintained over the years because of false and foolish attitudes which were adopted at that time.

It is time that we had sensible decisions in order to rid ourselves of the waste of police time and effort. Will the Minister set us down that road this evening and do something constructive about firearms control?

11.7 p.m.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Once a year I have the pleasure of leading a number of my colleagues from this House to battle on Bisley Common with Members of the other place. I am happy to say that a number of hon. Members from both sides of the House support us on such occasions. The least that I can do tonight is to express our gratitude for that annual hospitality by quoting a few lines from a letter from the secretary of the National Rifle Association, members of which are deeply concerned about the increase in fees for firearm certificates. I shall quote one short paragraph, which states: Let me remind you that the NRA was founded in 1860 and incorporated by Royal Charter in 1890: ' To promote and encourage Marksmanship throughout the Queen's dominions in the interests of Defence and the permanence of the Volunteer and Auxiliary Forces. Naval, Military and Air '. And it is on these grounds—in the interests of Defence—that my Association is registered as a Charity. The secretary goes on to inquire how these objectives can be sustained if the Home Office is to adopt a policy, which it surely is, of increasing the fees for firearm certificates in such a way that the vast majority of members of his association—people who enjoy shooting as a hobby—will no longer be able to do so.

There can be no new arguments in this debate. We have been over this issue many times in the past few years. However, I should like to take up the point made by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) about crime. If the control of firearms is in the interests of controlling crime, it is a Gilbert and Sullivan situation because it is the law-abiding people who do not get involved who will be penalised.

The Minister has been asked time and again to give statistics, and she has failed to do so. She knows very well that this legislation will not stop the criminal from possessing a firearm but will merely prevent those who wish to enjoy the sport as a hobby from doing so. Members of the National Rifle Association can rightly number among themselves those who are the most law-abiding citizens of the community.

Suggestions have been made for combining certificates and lengthening their period of validity. I do not know whether I carry my hon. Friends with me on this, but putting the possession of the weapons on to some sort of register is something that could and should be considered. In an electronic age, where we have surplus computer capacity, surely it is not beyond us to do something about the problem. I wholeheartedly support my hon. Friends who have rightly tabled this prayer. The number of hon. Members present for this debate shows the depth of feeling on both sides of the House on this important issue.

11.10 p.m.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

I agree with every hon. Member who has spoken that this is a thoroughly nasty little measure. It has been introduced on a Thursday night when, as the House well knows, the majority of hon. Members who represent rural constituencies normally go home to be among their constituents. I very much hope that the Minister will bear in mind that I am the eighth hon. Member to support the prayer of the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr). If democracy is listening to the voices of Members of the House of Commons, rather than depending on the votes of Members sitting in the Tea Room, I sincerely hope that the hon. Lady will bear in mind the concerted opposition to this measure.

I cannot agree with the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith), who would like to invite the Minister to his rifle club. I can only say that, if the Minister came to the rifle club in my constituency, I would fear for her life. There would be no kindness, because my constituents are exceedingly angry. It is felt—and this is a pretty common feeling—that the Government are looking—[Interruption.] I hope that I am not disturbing the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball). The feeling of my constituents is that the Government are looking at some section of society which they can clobber without losing votes, and that the shooting faction seems to the Government to be a convenient one for that purpose.

I would believe any protestations that we might hear later if similar increases were made in bingo licences and fishing—the sort of pursuits that are more normally practised by Labour Members—

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

I do not play bingo.

Mr. Freud

The hon. Gentleman has woken up. I hope that he will take a deep interest in what goes on. It is important on the grounds of security to bear in mind that the more people can learn about the use of firearms the safer, and not the less safe, will this country be.

We have been Gilbert and Sullivan. I should like to finish with a quote from one of Kipling's barrrack room ballads, in which the chorus goes: Oh, it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' Tommy go away '; But it's ' Thank you, Mister Atkins, ' when the band begins to play. The more people can be encouraged legally to use firearms, the safer and not the less safe will this country be.

11.13 p.m.

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

I understand the concern that exists about the increased fee, and, although I represent an industrial town and not a rural constituency, I have had one letter from a constituent complaining about it. I understand the concern that is felt on both sides of the House.

I refute the suggestion of the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud). If he listens, he will find that I am about to refer to bingo halls. The bingo licence was £250 in 1973 and was raised to £750 in 1978.

Mr. Freud

That is for the operators, not the practitioners.

Dr. Summerskill

Therefore, there is no question of shooters being picked out from other sections of the community for discriminatory action by the Government.

Mr. Freud

That really is the most unfair analogy, because, as the Minister well knows, the people who play bingo receive entirely the money which they put down in order to participate in the game. Therefore, the increase comes from the people who organise the bingo, who are usually on the Opposition Benches, rather than those who play it.

Dr. Summerskill

That is why I cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman raised the question of bingo halls. But he did, so I thought I would simply mention that in passing.

I should like to take this opportunity to dispel some of the misunderstanding that seems to surround the interpretation of the Government's action. The order deals with one aspect of firearms control—the level of fees to be charged for certificates relating to the possession of firearms and shotguns and for the registration of people as firearms dealers. It sets out a new scale of fees payable from 1 May. It does not and cannot, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) appreciated, make other changes in the firearms law. In general, such changes would need primary legislation.

I have a feeling that my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr Madden) was suggesting that we should not have a fee at all. He seemed to dislike the whole idea of charges being made for this police activity. But Parliament made statutory provision for the fee for a firearms certificate in 1920, under the Firearms Act, and for a shotgun certificate in 1967. We are dealing with an order to change the fee.

I appreciate that increased charges are never welcome, and I can understand the concern of the shooting community over the regular and, I admit, substantial increases in these fees in recent years. But the reason is simple. There is no other reason; there is no subtle reason; there is no sadistic desire by the Government to put up the fee. The costs have risen, and someone must meet them. The controls needed for public safety must be paid for, and it is right that they are borne by those who use guns rather than by a subsidy from taxpayers and ratepayers at large.

Mr. Stephen Ross

If the cost is shown in the official statistics for Hampshire to be just over £10, why are my constituents charged £18.50? If it costs £50 in the Metropolitan area, all right: charge people there £50. But why cannot we get away with £10?

Dr. Summerskill

Perhaps I can pursue the argument, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.

Before 1968 the fee for a firearm certificate was five shillings, and that for renewal of a certificate half-a-crown. The major portion of the costs of administering licensing and certification procedures then fell on the taxpayer and ratepayer, who provided a not inconsiderable subsidy.

But in 1968 Parliament decided that this must change and that, where a person wished to engage in an activity controlled in the public interest, he or she should be expected to pay the economic cost of issuing and renewing his or her licence or certificate. This principle was endorsed in section 5 of the Public Expenditure and Receipts Act 1968, the relevant words of which are: With a view to securing from the fees, charges or other payments…a net return corresponding more nearly with the cost of the matters for which they are payable ". That is the principle, and it has been the policy of successive Governments to apply it to fees and charges in general.

The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) argued that as that Act did not specifically mention firearms fees we were wrong to apply this underlying rule and to increase them in line with rising costs. The Act does not refer to firearms fees, because at the time it was passed—March 1968—the Firearms Bill was still before Parliament. In fact, the Firearms Act received Royal Assent in May 1968, two months after the Public Expenditure and Receipt Act had become law.

Section 43 of the Firearms Act 1968 empowers the Secretary of State by order to vary the fees. It would be illogical if in the exercise of that power the Secretary of State were to disregard the principle of full recovery of costs embodied in an Act of Parliament passed only a few weeks earlier.

I must emphasise that fees for firearm certificates and for registration as a firearms dealer are set at the minimum level required to recover as nearly as practicable the costs of administering the scheme, and no more. The shooter is treated no differently from any other licence or certificate holder whose activities are regulated in the public interest. Many of the arguments put forward by shooters amount to demands that the shooting community should be subsidised and should not be expected to pay the real cost of its certificates. Parliament and the Government have not accepted that.

Mr. Onslow

The Under-Secretary said that shooters are not treated differently, but she is overlooking the way in which driving licences have been extended greatly in time, which must have led to some economy. What consideration has been given to cutting down administrative work and saving money, which would obviate the need for an increase in firearms fees?

Dr. Summerskill

I shall come to that. It is not possible to make exact comparisons between fees for firearm certificates and those charged for various other types of licence and certificate, such as a car or dog licence. The activities are not analogous, the work involved in issuing the necessary authority is not exactly comparable, and the relevant legislation under which some activities are controlled makes no provision for any fee to be charged. In this instance we are dealing with a situation where there has been provision for a fee to be charged. In some of the examples quoted there is no provision for any fee to be charged. Nevertheless, many fees have been substantially increased in recent years. My Department is not particularly picking out shooters' licences. Costs have gone up, and police registration certificates for aliens and naturalisation certificates have, for example, gone up. It is not just this one item that has been picked out.

I should like to make it clear that there is absolutely no truth in the suggestion that the Government are deliberately escalating the cost of firearm certificates as a means of disarming the population. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby and others that there is no evidence that firearms used in violent crime are stolen from certificate holders. That is no argument for putting up the cost of a firearm licence, although hon. Members insist that it is part of the Government's motivation. It is not and never has been Government policy to prevent the possession of firearms by private individuals who have legitimate reasons for requiring them or to place unnecessary restrictions on the freedom of bona fide shooters to enjoy their sport.

I should like to examine the scale of fees. Under the new scale, renewal of a firearm certificate will cost £15. That certificate lasts for three years, making its cost £5 a year. Put another way, that is l0p a week, which is no more than the cost of a single round of ammunition. Shotgun certificates cost even less. An initial grant works out at less than 6p a week, and renewal at about 4p a week. That is again well below the cost of a single cartridge.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

Can the Under-Secretary state why a person who has a firearms certificate should also need a shotgun certificate?

Dr. Summerksill

I shall come to that. I should like to deal with the increases themselves. I must make it clear that the revenue from these fees does not come to the Government. Police authorities collect the money and set it against overall police expenditure. At regular intervals we carry out reviews in which the police tell us the costs to them of dealing with applications for certificates and for registration as a firearms dealer. These returns are made by a representative sample of police forces in the country. The last such review was in 1977 and covered the period ending 31 March 1977. The figures revealed by the review are then examined and adjusted to take account of pay and price increases in the period since the facts were recorded or expected to take place in the period for which the order will remain in force.

The basis of the 1977 review was completely objective. A copy of our letter of guidance was placed in the Library last year and any hon. Member can see it. This guidance was designed to ensure three things: first, that all the forces taking part used broadly similar costing methods; secondly, that the details of cost submitted reflected only the cost of dealing with successful applications; thirdly, to ensure that the estimates included all properly attributable police costs, including police time and relevant overheads.

The estimates provided by the police forces taking part in the review were published. This material formed the basis for calculating the fees introduced on 1 April last year.

This year we have not considered it justifiable to put police forces to the very time-consuming trouble of making detailed returns. Instead, the scale of fees in the schedule to the Firearms (Variation of Fees) Order 1979 has been worked out by taking into account increases in costs which are known to have occurred since last April. I need not remind the House that substantial and well-deserved pay increases were awarded to the police. The first stage of the award was paid in September 1978 and the second stage of these increases is due to be paid in September this year. I am sure that the increases are welcomed by the whole House.

In addition, the cost of civilian staff and administrative overheads have risen, although by a smaller amount. The figures derived from the 1977 survey have been reassessed to take account of these increases in pay and other costs. This showed that a further increase in the level of fees is necessary in the forthcoming financial year if the shortfall in the recovery of costs is not to rise to an unacceptable level. Costs have risen and the consequences must be faced. The amounts of the new fees have been determined solely by the need to recover the higher costs, and the increases are the minimum needed to achieve that. We have made every effort to keep the increases as low as possible, and they have been agreed with the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection.

It has been suggested that police costs in administering the Firearms Act are capable of being substantially reduced. I am very much in favour of keeping costs down wherever possible, but this must not be allowed to diminish the effectiveness of the present controls. There are no easy ways of reducing police costs in administering the certification procedures. Most forces employ a very small staff. The clerical and administration work at police headquarters accounts for only a minor part of the cost. The major element of the cost is accounted for by inquiries carried out by police officers in the locality to establish the suitability of the applicant and the arrangements made for ensuring the safe custody of firearms.

Some people complain that these inquiries are too detailed. The amount of time taken over such inquiries and the manpower resources involved will of course vary from one force to another. They will depend on different factors, but it is for the chief officer of police concerned to decide how that is done.

Two suggestions have been made by the hon. Member for Harborough and others concerning possible changes. The suggestion that increased costs might be offset by increasing the period of validity of firearms and shotgun certificates is under very careful consideration, but if a system of interim checks during the validity of a certificate were to be substituted the saving in overall costs would be negligible. However, we are looking into the matter in consultation with the Association of Chief Police Officers to see whether a suitable and workable solution can be found.

The second suggestion was that there would be a saving in police work if a person held both a firearm and a shotgun certificate and could renew both at the same time. We are looking at that to see whether it might be practicable and whether it might produce some saving in police costs without decreasing the effectiveness of the firearms control. But if we did either of those it would need new legislation and police agreement.

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, Mr. SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 4 (Statutory Instruments, &c. (Procedure)):—

The House divided: Ayes 115, Noes 26.

Division No. 105] AYES 11.30 p.m.
Aitken, Jonathan Gorst, John More, Jasper (Ludlow)
Banks, Robert Grieve, Percy Morgan, Geraint
Bell, Ronald Grimond, Rt Hon J. Morgan-Giles, Rear-Admiral
Biggs-Davison, John Grylls, Michael Morris, Michael (Northampton S)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Hamilton, Archibald (Epsom & Ewell) Nelson, Anthony
Bottomley, Peter Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Newton, Tony
Braine, Sir Bernard Hampson, Dr Keith Onslow, Cranley
Brocklebank-Fowler, C. Hastings, Stephen Osborn, John
Brotherton, Michael Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael Page, John (Harrow West)
Bryan, Sir Paul Henderson, Douglas Pattie, Geoffrey
Butler, Adam (Bosworth) Hicks, Robert Penhaligon, David
Clark, William (Croydon S) Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Pink, R. Bonner
Clegg, Walter Hunt, David (Wirral) Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch
Cope, John Irving, Charles (Cheltenham) Price, David (Eastleigh)
Cormack, Patrick James, David Raison, Timothy
Costain, A. P. Jessel, Toby Rathbone, Tim
Craig, Rt Hon W. (Belfast E) Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead) Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal)
Dean, Foul (N Somerset) Kilfedder, James Rees-Davies, W. R.
Drayson, Burnaby Kimball, Marcus Rhodes James, R.
Dunlop, John Langford-Holt, Sir John Ridley, Hon Nicholas
Durant, Tony Lawrence, Ivan Ridsdale, Julian
Dykes, Hugh Lloyd, Ian Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke) Loveridge, John Ross, William (Londonderry)
Emery, Peter McCusker, H. Sainsbury, Tim
Fairbairn, Nicholas MacKay, Andrew (Stechford) Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Farr, John Macmillan, Rt Hop M. (Farnham) Shepherd, Colin
Fell, Anthony Madden, Max Silvester, Fred
Fisher, Sir Nigel Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Smith, Timothy John (Ashfield)
Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Mates, Michael Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)
Fookes, Miss Janet Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Spicer, Michael (S Worcester)
Fox, Marcus Meyer, Sir Anthony Sproat, lain
Freud, Clement Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove) Stainton, Keith
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Moate, Roger Stanley, John
Glyn, Dr Alan Molyneaux, James Steel, Rt Hon David
Goodhew, Victor Montgomery, Fergus Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)
Tebbit, Norman Wall, Patrick TELLERS FOR THE AYES;
Temple-Morris, Peter Walters, Dennis Mr. Jerry Wiggin and
Townsend, Cyril D. Wells, John Mr. Michael Shersby.
Waddington, David Winterton, Nicholas
Walker, Rt Hon P. (Worcester) Wood, Rt Hon Richard
Abse, Leo English, Michael Snape, Peter
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin) Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Bates, Alt Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend) Urwin, Rt Hon T. W.
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Graham, Ted Ward, Michael
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S) Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Watkinson, John
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Kerr, Russell White, Frank R. (Bury)
Crowther, Stan (Rotherham) Luard, Evan
Dormand, J. D. Lyons, Edward (Bradford W) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Douglas-Mann, Bruce McCartney, Hugh Mr. James Tina and
Duffy, A. E. P. Noble, Mike Mr. John Evans.

Question accordingly agreed to.


That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Firearms (Variation of Fees) Order 1979 (S. I., 1979, No. 86), dated 30 January 1979, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7 February, be annulled.

To be presented by Privy Councillors or Members of Her Majesty's Household.