HC Deb 15 June 1981 vol 6 cc729-34
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement. As the House is aware, on Saturday 13 June, as Her Majesty was making her way to the ceremony of Trooping the Colour, a man in the crowd of sightseers fired six shots of blank ammunition using an imitation revolver. A man was immediately arrested and has been charged by the police under section 2 of the Treason Act 1842. As the matter is now sub judice, the House will realise that it would be wrong this afternoon to discuss details of the incident itself.

It has not been the practice, nor would it be desirable, to describe the arrangements made for the safety of Her Majesty the Queen and other members of the Royal Family, but I can assure the House that those arrangements are kept under continuing review, and have recently been re-examined. What occurred on Saturday is being carefully studied by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, and full account will be taken of it in future planning arrangements. It is Her Majesty's wish that both on State and less formal occasions she would be able to move freely among her people. Consistent with this, everything will be done to keep the risks to a minimum.

There has been concern in the past about the misuse of replica firearms. Although the law provides severe penalties for their misuse, I have asked my Department, together with chief officers of police, to re-examine, as quickly as possible, what effective controls can be devised.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to put on record its admiration for the calmness and control which Her Majesty displayed throughout.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

I should like to express the relief of the Opposition that neither the Queen nor any of the other participants in, or observers of, the Trooping was injured as a result of the incident on Saturday. I also associate the Opposition Benches with the Home Secretary's expression of admiration for the way in which the Queen reacted to the dangers that she faced.

The Opposition wish to applaud and support the Queen's own view that the day must never come when she is unable to move freely among the people of the United Kingdom. Such a policy may involve personal danger, but we look to the Home Secretary to ensure that the risks involved are kept to an absolute minimum.

The Home Secretary reminded the House that Saturday's incident is sub judice. I hope that commentators who write or broadcast about it will remember that piece of wise advice. However, it is right for me to say that the Opposition will look sympathetically on any proposals that the Home Secretary has to make about tighter controls on firearms—real or replica—within the United Kingdom.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said. I am pleased that he agrees with the view, widely held in the House and throughout the country, that the Queen's duties—and she would expect to carry them out—require her to move freely among her people. Equally, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for expressing the view that it is the task of the Government, and inevitably the Home Secretary and the Commissioner—in the case of the Metropolitan Police—and chief officers outside London, to make sure that the risks are kept to a minimum. That is the correct phrase, and the only phrase that one can use.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the case is sub judice. I am conscious that many people would pick up any failure of mine to observe a rule that is so important and has been so widely referred to on other occasions. I have no intention of giving them the opportunity to express that criticism of me.

As for what the right hon. Gentleman said about firearms in general, and replicas in particular, I am grateful for his support. We will certainly move forward on the basis that we can hope for a wide measure of agreement in the House on anything that we feel able to do on that score.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

My colleagues obviously wish to be associated with the remarks of the Home Secretary and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) on the reaction of Her Majesty to the incident on Saturday.

On the question of the use and misuse of replica firearms, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake that, although the review will be carried out urgently, he will also recognise that the matter should be considered with other Governments since, if possible, we should take a collective view to try to restrict the use and manufacture of imitation firearms?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also go a little further and confirm that at the end of the day, despite advice from police and Ministers, properly given, it must be for Her Majesty to decide the scale of protection that she should be afforded?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. He also said that it would be best to move with other Governments on the control of firearms and replica firearms, but I take refuge in that well-known phrase that, sometimes, the best is the enemy of the good. If we were to wait for the agreement of all the others we might wait for a very long time. I would try to get it and I should like to get it, but if we have to move on our own we ought to do so.

I can say at once that Her Majesty believes that it is her duty to move freely among her people. She would expect to do that and I am sure that it is the wish of the House that she should be strongly supported in that belief and that action.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

If it is not already an offence to carry a replica firearm in a public place, why should it not be made one without delay?

Mr. Whitelaw

The present law is that, while there are no controls on the importation, display and sale of imitation firearms, those that are capable of being readily converted into lethal weapons or part of one require a licence under the Firarms Act 1968. It is an offence under section 18(1) of that Act to possess an imitation firarm with intent to commit an indictable offence or to resist or seek to prevent arrest.

I should say to my hon. Friend and all who are anxious about this subject that the main problem is distinguishing between realistic imitations of lethal weapons and millions of harmless children's toys. That is the problem that we have to solve. I hope that the House noted that I referred in my statement to "effective controls". That means that we are determined to provide them and to do whatever we can to solve the problem.

Mr. Speaker

As the House knows, today is a Supply day. I have a long list of right hon. and hon. Members who hope to speak. I fear, however, that all will not be able to do so. I propose to allow questions on this matter to continue for a further 10 minutes before moving on to the next business.

Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

I should like to associate my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself with the right hon. Gentleman's remarks of admiration for Her Majesty's behaviour on Saturday. The third major assassination attempt in the Western world this year proves that where a gunman is really determined the person concerned can be assassinated. In view of the fact that assassination is contagious and that any serious assassination attempt always comes from organised terrorism, will the Home Secretary give an assurance that the Government will take whatever steps are necessary to stamp out organised terrorism in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said on behalf of himself and his colleagues. The problems of imitation firearms exist in different parts of the world. All of us face the problems of terrorism. I do not wish to comment further, except to say that we are determined to do everything possible in this country to reduce to a minimum the risks to the Queen, members of the Royal Family and all in public life.

Mr. Edward Gardner (South Fylde)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what Her Majesty and members of the Royal Family have to fear in carrying out their public duties is not replica firearms but the real thing? As a means of reducing this chilling risk, which is met and accepted with great personal courage, as hon. Members know, will my right hon. Friend consider introducing random spot searches on members of the crowd? I am sure that this would be willingly accepted by the British public.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. Chief officers of police bear the operational responsibility. It is important that neither I nor the House should stray into that field of operational responsibility. The chief officers of police must make difficult decisions. There are great problems attached to those decisions. It would be wrong for any hon. Member to try to tell chief officers of police how to do their job, which I believe they perform with the greatest expertise and skill.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)

My right hon. and hon. Friends would wish to associate themselves with the remarks that have been made about the incident on Saturday. Will the Home Secretary look again at the demand that I made on the Floor of the House at the time of the India House incident in 1973, for import controls on replica guns? Will the right hon. Gentleman also consider adopting a practice upon which the Japanese insist, namely, that such guns have a red band upon them so that they can be distinguished from the real thing?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman. We shall, of course, look into these matters. They are inseparable from the examination that we must make of the question of effective controls. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman and the House will realise that there are great difficulties in distinguishing between realistic imitations of lethal weapons and millions of harmless children's toys, despite all the marks that may be made. It is not easy to distinguish them.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Will the Home Secretary accept that, while the vast majority of Metropolitan Police officers would willingly risk their own lives in order to protect the life of Her Majesty the Queen, it is the duty of the Government and Parliament to provide the police with the necessary powers and controls to enable them to perform their duty properly?

Is it not a fact that there has already been a detailed review of the matter of replicas leading to the lamentable conclusion by my right hon. Friend's Department that nothing could be done? I welcome very much what my right hon. Friend says about an urgent review. Will he undertake to provide the House with an opportunity to consider shortly a Bill making it an offence to import, possess, manufacture or sell any device that purports to resemble a weapon unless it is seen to be conspicuously dissimilar from that weapon?

Mr. Whitelaw

I endorse 100 per cent. what my hon. Friend says about the attitude of the Metropolitan Police. It might be appropriate at this stage to state that two people took immediate action following the shooting. One was a special constable of the Metropolitan Police, It is important to mention that fact because of the importance, that should be acknowledged, of those people who give voluntary service as special constables. I shall perhaps be forgiven for saying that the other person was a lance corporal in the Scots Guards. Hon. Members will appreciate that I have a particular feeling for members of the Scots Guards. To hear someone from my old regiment complimented for his action naturally pleases me.

My hon. Friend is not a lawyer; neither am I. It is difficult for us to devise, on the spur of the moment, phrases that would be suitable to be incorporated in an Act of Parliament. I am prepared to accept the general principle of what my hon. Friend says. The reviews that have taken place I fully endorse as Home Secretary. I take full responsibility for what the Home Office decided. The decision was mine. I resent very much statements in some sections of the press that I was divorced from the decision. That is not the case.

I realise now that it is important to get the right controls. I am prepared to undertake that task. My hon. Friend and I should submit ourselves to a careful scrutiny of what the lawyers suggest.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

The House will applaud the courage of the Queen and her measured response afterwards. Does the Home Secretary agree that freedom of movement of the Queen and greatly increased security are not automatically incompatible? Will he promise to give urgent consideration to one of the first sentences in the Queen's Speech in November, proposing the introduction of legislation making it very difficult for criminals or prospective assassins to get their hands on firearms and shotguns?

Mr. Whitelaw

I shall certainly do what the hon. Gentleman asks. I know that he appreciates that the need for the Queen to move freely and the need to give her protection mean that the phrase "reducing the risks to a minimum" is correct and a phrase that I believe the whole country will support.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I should also like to express my admiration for Her Majesty and my relief that the incident was not worse. Does my right hon. Friend recall the India House shoot-out a few years ago, when a man using a replica firearm was killed? At that time I, together with hon. Members on both sides of the House, introduced under the Ten Minutes Rule procedure a Bill entitled the Replica Firearms Control Bill under which a vetting procedure or scrutiny procedure committee was to be established. Will my right hon. Friend re-examine the Bill which had been agreed by all those concerned?

Mr. Whitelaw

Yes, I shall certainly do so.

Mr. David Ennals (Norwich, North)

Bearing in mind the negative attitude that the Home Secretary has hitherto taken towards legislation controlling the importation, manufacture and possession of replica firearms, does he appreciate that I welcome very much the decision that he has now made? I hope that he will proceed to deal with the matter urgently. I recognise the difficulties, but I do not believe that they cannot be overcome. I hope that the Home Secretary will treat this as a matter of urgency. Not only might Her Majesty have been killed; someone seeing the young man with this weapon might have shot him, or aimed at him and shot someone else. This is a dangerous problem.

Mr. Whitelaw

The right hon. Gentleman and also my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) made representations to me. Having considered their proposals, I concluded that it was right that the situation should remain as it was, bearing in mind the great difficulties involved in making changes. I accept that this situation must now change. If it proves that the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend were right and that I was wrong, it will not be the first time in my political life that I have been proved wrong. I do not resent it in any way.

Mr. Mawby

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the House is very happy that he has agreed to re-examine the question of replica weapons? At the same time, we appreciate the great problems, particularly those ensuing from the legitimate use of that type of weapon for starting sports events, and so on. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will make certain that all the people concerned are fully consulted to make sure that we have the right legislation.

Mr. Whitelaw

That is exactly the problem that I face. Once we have consulted all those concerned, the difficulty of introducing any legislation will be great. We must have something that works and is effective.

Mr. Harry Ewing

While the country will clearly place the emphasis on replica firearms, because of the case to which we are referring at the moment, may I encourage the right hon. Gentleman to take the advice of my right hon. Friend the Shadow Home Secretary—the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley)—and concentrate on the whole problem of firearms, both real and replica? Will he examine the question how these firearms are easily available through mail order catalogues, and how they are advertised for sale?

Mr. Whitelaw

Most certainly. I hope that in my answer to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) I made it clear that I shall certainly do that—and I shall.