HC Deb 07 May 1982 vol 23 cc426-38 1.15 pm
Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 5, at end insert— ';and (c) for the definition of imitation firearm in section 57(4) there shall be substituted the following:— imitation firearm" means any article so fashioned as to present the general appearance of a hand or shoulder firearm.".' The amendment relates to the definition of "imitation firearm". The Bill as drafted, for which we are most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), contains no definition of the words "imitation firearm". I have no doubt that for this purpose my hon. Friend relies on the definition in section 57(4)(b) of the Firearms Act 1968. The amendment seeks to replace that definition, which I believe is out of date. The definition in the 1968 Act provides that 'imitation firearm means any thing which has the appearance of being a firearm (other than such a weapon as is mentioned in section 5(1)(b) of this Act) whether or not it is capable of discharging any shot, bullet or other missile". To have any application in 1982, that definition must be considerably revised. I do not know, although I am sure that my hon. Friend and my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State do know, where it originally came from. As the 1968 Act was merely a consolidation measure the definition may well come from the Firearms Act 1937.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

Perhaps I may assist my hon. Friend. The definition to which he refers gives statutory effect to a decision in the case of Crown v. Debreli.

Mr. Farr

That confirms my worst suspicions. At any rate, I prefer my own brief definition in amendment No. 3, which I believe contains all that the House needs to know today.

I fail to see how the bracketed exception in the 1968 definition has any application today. Section 57(4)(b) states: (other than such a weapon as is mentioned in section 5(1)(b) of this Act)". However, section 5 (1)(b), refers to any weapon of whatever description designed or adapted for the discharge of any noxious liquid, gas or other thing". The House will be aware that section 5 of the 1968 Act dealt with the prohibition of certain weapons and the control of arms traffic. In the words of the 1968 Act, they are "Defence Council" matters. In today's phraseology, they would rightly be Ministry of Defence matters.

I wonder whether the exclusion of section 5(1)(b) is necessary. Long ago, when the measure was framed, defensive personal protection weapons using gas and ammonia—which are now freely sold and readily available for self-defence—were not around. Indeed, ladies often carry such weapons in their handbags. My fragile attempt to improve the definition of "imitation firearm" is perhaps preferable to that in the parent Act, and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

When my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) speaks about firearms, the House is wise to listen. Few hon. Members have more experience of legislation in this area, which he has made his own.

My hon. Friend prepared the Bill with the indispensable assistance of the Home Office. I carefully noted my hon. Friend's previous attempts to deal with this matter. Therefore, in commenting on anything that he has said I am conscious that I am the amateur and he is the professional. My hon. Friend said that the definition might be out of date. I have taken careful advice on that point. The advice that I have received, which I believe to be right, is that if we were to accept his amendment, it would restrict the Bill in an undesirable way.

Section 57(4) of the Firearms Act 1968 defines an imitation firearm as any thing which has the appearance of being a firearm (other than a weapon as is mentioned in section 5(1)(b) of this Act)". Those are the parentheses to which my hon. Friend referred. The Act applies to an imitation weapon. whether or not it is capable of discharging any shot, bullet or other missile". The reason for defining "imitation firearm" in the 1968 Act was for the purposes of the provisions of sections 17 and 18 of that Act, which makes it an offence to use a firearm or imitation firearm with criminal intent. That is the crucial point. By virtue of section 57(4) all articles resembling pistols, revolvers, rifles, shotguns and machine guns would fall within the definition of imitation firearms. Only items that resembled prohibited weapons designed or adapted for the discharge of noxious liquid or any other thing, as defined in section 55(1)(b), are excluded.

I apologise to the House if that is a somewhat technical exegesis, but it brings me to the heart of my hon. Friend's amendment. The definition of "imitation firearm" in the Bill relies upon section 57(4). It embraces all sorts of devices that look like firearms. The Bill applies to an imitation if it satisfies the two tests in clause 1(a) and (b). The first test is whether the imitation weapon has the appearance of being a firearm to which section 1 of the 1968 Act … applies. Secondly, is it so constructed or adapted as to be readily convertible into a firearm to which that section applies"? That is the way in which the Bill is drawn. I shall come to that point; not being a lawyer, I must keep my train of thought on a single line.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) referred to the part of clause 1(b) that contains the test of "readily convertible". It would clarify my understanding of the Bill if my hon. Friend could tell me why he believed it necessary to include that test. As I understand the common law, a weapon is to be treated as a firearm if it is lethal and if it is capable of causing injury, irrespective of the maker's intentions. For example, dummy revolvers have been bored out, and weapons not designed as firearms have been treated as such for the purposes of the Firearms Act 1968. If that is the case, I do not understand what my hon. Friend is about.

Mr. Griffiths

I can tell my hon. Friend what I am about. The Bill tries to deal with the confusion that exists in the law because different judgments have been given due to different interpretations of what an imitation firearm capable of becoming a real firearm is. The main thrust of my hon. Friend's point will be dealt with when we come to amendments Nos. 1 and 2 or on Third Reading.

Perhaps I may return to amendment No. 3, although I do not wish to evade the point that has just been made. The effect of my hon. Friend's amendment would seem to limit the scope of the Bill by confining its application to imitations that resemble only hand or shoulder firearms. It appears to exclude, for example, imitations of automatic weapons which might be fired from the hip—for example, Tommy guns and Sten guns. I am not aware—neither, I believe are the police or the Home Office—that the ready convertibility of those types of devices presents much of a problem. In other words, we do not know whether they are convertible. However, it would be a pity if the Bill were to exclude imitations of weapons that can be fired from the hip. To that extent, the amendment is restrictive.

1.30 pm
Mr. Farr

It would be wrong and improper of my hon. Friend, with his immense knowledge, and wrong of me, with my smattering of pidgin English, as it were, to descend into a technical discussion. However, I think that I am right in saying that a Thompson machine gun has a stock. If it has a stock, the gun is generally designed for use from the shoulder or thereabouts.

Mr. Griffiths

I do not wish to bandy technical knowledge with my hon. Friend. I readily concede that he has studied the detail of firearms much more closely than I have. However, I am advised that if the definition that he has suggested is adopted, it will confine the Bill to firearms which have the general appearance of a hand or shoulder firearm and will not cover technically imitation firearms that can be fired from the hip. I understand that such weapons do not have a stock, but require to be discharged from the shoulder.

As the amendment would be restrictive and would preempt any future development that might take place, I hope that my hon. Friend will be prepared to accept the Bill as it stands and will not press his amendment.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

I hesitate to become involved in a dispute between my hon. Friends the Members for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) and Harborough (Mr. Farr), who have obviously given a great deal of thought to the meaning of "firearm". However, there is a useful compromise between the positions adopted by my hon. Friends. An additional advantage in the suggestion that I shall make is that there is much to be said for uniformity and consistency in statutory definitions.

Another statutory definition of "imitation firearm" is to be found in section 10 of the Theft Act 1968, which provides that an imitation firearm means anything which has the appearance of being a firearm, whether capable of being discharged or not". I think that that meets the purpose of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough and does not fall foul of the reservations that have been expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds.

If it is desirable—I think that it probably is—to apply a somewhat wider statutory definition to "imitation firearm" than that which is presently contemplated in the Bill, which harks back to the principal Act of 1968, I respectfully suggest that it might be desirable to consider section 10 of the Theft Act 1968 with a view to adopting that statutory definition. I appreciate that that matter is not before the House now, but it could be taken up in another place.

Bearing that in mind, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough may feel that he does not wish to press the amendment to a Division.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

The effect of the proposed amendment is to further restrict or alter the types of imitation firearms to which the Bill applies, by changing the definition of an imitation firearm contained in section 57(4) of the Firearms Act 1968 for the purposes of the Bill. The Bill would be further restricted in its application because the criteria in clause 1(1), which refers to an imitation firearm having the appearance of a section 1 firearm and being readily convertible, could be applied only to an imitation of a hand or shoulder firearm.

I need not take up the time of the House for long because I believe that what my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) said about the effect of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) was entirely correct. As drafted, the Bill applies to imitations as defined in the 1968 Act, provided that they have the appearance of a firearm to which section 1 of the 1968 Act applies, and can be readily converted into such a firearm.

Section 1 firearms are those requiring a firearms certificate. Therefore, ordinary air weapons or shotguns are not included. However, the Bill would include automatic weapons because that follows from the definition of firearms in. section 57 of the 1968 Act.

The amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough seeks to narrow the definition of an imitation firearm. The amendment refers to any article so fashioned as to present the general appearance of a hand or shoulder firearm. Although that concept of similarity is differently framed from section 57(4) of the 1968 Act, the effect seems to be the same. I do not doubt that it is intended to be the same.

Therefore, in practice, the main result of the amendment would be to exclude from the Bill imitations of firearms that were not hand or shoulder firearms. That might include imitations of some automatic weapons that are fired from the hip, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds said. Although my Department and I are not aware of any instances where such imitations have been converted to fire live ammunition either automatically or single shot, there is no logical reason why they should be excluded from the scope of the Bill, assuming that that is the intention of the amendment.

I now turn to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). I should have thought that as a matter of general practice and principle it is probably wise, in view of the relatively modest aims of a Bill of this nature—none the less important, but relatively modest in scope—to stick to a definition that is already in place in the statute book and which is in the general context with which the amending Bill is designed to deal and upon which it is designed to operate.

There is little practical difference between the definitions in the Firearms Act 1963 and the Theft Act 1968, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham alluded. The Bill is drafted to use the Firearms Act definition because its structure is related to that Act as being the principal Act. It is wise to stick to one definition wherever possible when one is dealing with a relatively modest modification of the law relating to a particular activity or the use that is made of a particular thing or class of things.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

The definition section in the Firearms Act 1968 gives a narrower meaning to the term "imitation firearm" than the relevant section in the Theft Act. If we are introducing legislation to deal with imitation firearms, would it not be wise to give the broader rather than the narrower definition?

Mr. Mayhew

The scope of the Bill is limited to weapons that can be readily converted to discharge shot. My hon. Friend the promoter of the Bill will doubtless wish to consider whether in another place that suggestion might be adopted.

I am satisfied that there is an important and desirable purpose in the Bill. It is not desirable to exclude from the Bill's ambit imitation weapons that are none the less firearms according to the normal meaning and understanding of the word merely because they do not have the general appearance of a hand or shoulder firearm.

Mr. Farr

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) for their advice. I was seeking to bring up to date the derivations of the 1968 Act, but I do not wish to impede the Bill's progress. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Farr

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 16, after 'special', insert 'engineering'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we shall take amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 19, leave out subsection (b) and insert— `(b) the work of conversion does not require the use of the specialised tools of a gunsmith'.

Mr. Farr

The purpose of the amendments is to have a little more exactitude in paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (6). Amendment No. 1 is an improvement on the constitution of subsection (6)(a). We should not introduce legislation that is not exact and should seize with alacrity the opportunity to be more exact. For example, subsection (6)(a) provides that the imitation firearm can be so converted without any special skill". It could be skill in jam making or in a dozen different arts or crafts. I can see no reason for not including the word "engineering", as proposed in my amendment. It would give the Bill a little more exactitude and precision.

In amendment No. 2 I am proposing that subsection (6) (b) should be replaced by what I would modestly describe as simpler and more concise wording. Subsection (6)(b) provides that the work involved in converting it does not require equipment or tools other than such as are in common use by persons carrying out works of construction and maintenance in their own homes. If one had a hammer, a chisel or a screwdriver, one would fall within the ambit of subsection (6)(b).

1.45 pm

I hope that the House will seize the opportunity to be a little more precise and to define exactly the offence that we are seeking to restrict or reduce. My amendment refers specifically to the specialised tools of a gunsmith, and I suggest that that is much more satisfactory than bringing within the ambit of the Bill every Tom, Dick or Harry—man or boy—with a hammer and chisel at home.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for tabling his amendment, because it gives us an opportunity for debating the rather important provisions of subsection (6). It also gives me an opportunity of expressing my anxiety about the Bill.

The purpose of the Bill is to apply the provisions of the Firearms Act 1968 to those imitation firearms which are readily convertible into firearms. If the provisions of subsection (6) are too narrowly drawn, we may find, rather bizarrely, that weapons or imitation firearms which already run foul of the Firearms Act 1968 are lawful. Therefore, my fear is that its effect will be to render lawful what is at present unlawful. If I am right, that is a fundamental objection to the Bill.

From the definition of "firearms" in the Firearms Act 1968 and from the various judicial interpretations placed upon the word, it can be seen at once that a host of imitation weapons—which are made as imitations but which are capable of being made to fire a lethal projectile—have been treated as firearms for the purposes of the 1968 Act with the consequence that all the regulations already contained in the 1968 Act apply to them.

I shall perhaps be forgiven if I cite a number of examples. Treated as firearms under the 1968 legislation have been a signal pistol capable of killing at short range, a double-barrelled pistol with holes bored in the side of the barrels if the holes could be filled so as to make it effective with live ammunition, a starting pistol capable of discharging bullets if the barrel was drilled or partly drilled and, perhaps most significantly of all, a dummy revolver capable of conversion by drilling into a weapon capable of killing a man at a range of 5 ft. Over many years, the judges have treated as firearms weapons that, although not intended to be firearms, are capable of being converted into firearms.

The 1968 Act, as it has been defined by the judges, has a very broad application to imitation weapons that are capable of being turned into readily firable weapons. That is the existing law. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) is rightly concerned about the fact that there are imitation firearms on the market that are readily capable of conversion into lethal weapons. It is towards that mischief that his Bill is directed. What he has done, I suggest, is to narrow the class of weapons to which the provisions of the Firearms Act 1968 apply. Clause 1(6) of the Bill provides: For the purposes of this section an imitation firearm shall be regarded as readily convertible into a firearm to which section 1 of the 1968 Act applies if"— and there then follow two rather tightly drawn paragraphs. Those paragraphs are much more tightly drawn than the existing common law interpretation of the 1968 Act. If the Bill becomes law in its present form, and particularly if subsection (6) is not thoroughly redrafted, the effect will be that the Bill will govern the application of the 1968 Act on imitation weapons. The curious result is that the 1968 Act will apply to a smaller class of weaponry than if we leave well alone.

The amendment is of great importance. It goes to the essential definition. If I am right, as I think I am, in supposing that the definition gives to the phrase "an imitation firearm" a meaning narrower than that which the judges have applied in previous cases that spring from the 1968 Act, this House is doing something that is extremely unwise and precisely contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds and myself wish to achieve.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I always listen with the greatest care and attention to the legal commentaries of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). He and his family have always impressed me with their deep knowledge of the law, particularly as regards the application of the common law.

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State will agree that we shall have to look carefully at what my hon. Friend has said before the Bill goes to another place. I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that I cannot give him an immediate undertaking, but he has raised a matter of considerable interest, as he did on the previous amendment. I confess that I was less impressed by his comments on the previous amendment, but I shall look carefully at what he has said.

However, even as a layman, I am entitled to say that the interpretations placed by the courts on the 1968 Act have not been unanimous or consistent. Indeed, one of the reasons why I introduced the Bill was that courts have arrived at different conclusions about the application of the 1968 Act in a number of cases.

Let me give two examples, both of which may be known to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham. The first concerns a London man who was arrested not long ago while carrying an imitation magnum revolver of the type used by the American police. He had it in a shoulder holster hidden under his coat.

I understand that the man was observed in a restaurant at a time when there had been some terrorist activities in London. The fact was duly reported to the police, who followed him and subsequently arrested him. They discovered that the imitation magnum revolver was made in Japan and unquestionably could have been converted into a firearm, but when the case was brought before the courts—

Mr. Hogg

What sort of courts?

Mr. Griffiths

I believe that it was a Crown court. I understand that the remarks that I am about to quote were made by a judge and not by a magistrate.

The judge ordered the jury to bring in a not guilty verdict and said in his final statement: It seems wrong to convict Mr. Lamberg when any of us can go and buy such a gun from dealers who do not need a licence. Perhaps the Home Office might take a long look at this situation. An exactly contrary case involved an illegal immigrant who was convicted for possession of a replica gun on the ground that it could be transformed into a real one. At the end of the trial, the magistrates asked the chief police witness: Why are such guns available if possession is restricted by the Firearms Act? That is the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham. The police officer replied, not unreasonably, as police officers are inclined to do: This remains a mystery. The defence counsel said: This is a purely technical offence. There are thousands of persons in London who could be arrested for having these guns, including one of my colleagues. He then pointed to a QC who was attending the case. The magistrate immediately told that QC that he had better get rid of the gun.

Subsequently, The Guardian reported: The barrister, who wishes to remain anonymous,"— hardly surprisingly— said that he would have advised a not guilty plea… This gun does not fall under the Firearms Act. It is incapable of adaptation by an amateur. Those are two cases where the courts arrived at two different conclusions based on the Firearms Act 1968. Therefore, with respect to my hon. Friend, as being far more learned in the law than I am, I cannot agree with the principal contention that I understood him to be making, namely, that the judiciary uses the existing Firearms Act consistently. It does not. The Bill will help to clear up that type of anomaly.

2 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg

I would not try to pretend that the judiciary had been entirely consistent. The main thrust of my argument is that subsection (6) applies the 1968 Act to a small category of imitation firearms, whereas the existing law, as it has been interpreted, applies the 1968 Act to a much wider category. My hon. Friend should think about that with a view to altering the definition section of the 1968 Act as it applies to subsection (6).

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

My hon. Friend will have heard me give that assurance at the beginning of my remarks. However, I thought that I was entitled to point out, in response to his remarks, that consistency has not been the hallmark of judicial interpretation in this matter.

I turn to the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr). Given the necessary expertise and equipment, virtually any imitation firearm, including many toys, can be converted to fire live amunition. A piece of pipe can be converted to fire live ammunition. However, the Bill is aimed at catching only those imitation firearms that could be converted by persons who do not possess a great deal of expertise or equipment. That is the basis of the term "readily convertible" which I have included in clause 1(1)(b).

In his sharp-eyed way, my hon. Friend referred to the case of any Tom, Dick or Harry who had a hammer and a screwdriver. That is exactly the sort of person that I wish to catch because the Bill is aimed at preventing the mischief caused by the availability of imitation firearms to precisely the kind of thug and criminal who could not possibly get a gun licence legitimately and who frequently cannot afford, or will not afford, a gun on the black market. At the moment, the difficulty is that many imitation firearms get into the hands of people because they can be purchased for £30 or £40. They can then be readily converted by any Tom, Dick or Harry with a hammer and screwdriver into a lethal weapon. The problem is not so much created by the highly sophisticated gunsmith—I have no doubt that there are other ways of catching him. It is the amateur we are after because it is he who more and more is obtaining these noxious things and using them in the commission of crime.

The provisions that my hon. Friend is seeking to amend were designed precisely to support that approach by embodying in statutory form the concept of do-it-yourself. I am not sure whether the do-it-yourself concept has previously been embodied in statutory form, but if it has not, it should have been. Do-it-yourself is a major industry these days.

I assure my hon. Friends that the form of words that appears in the Bill was given the most careful consideration by parliamentary counsel. I cannot claim authorship. I have to say that it was authorship that came after a very detailed examination of the matter by learned counsel.

If the first of my hon. Friend's amendments were adopted, it would bring within the scope of ready convertibility imitation firearms that could be converted by persons who had special skill in the construction or adaptation of firearms, other than engineering skill. That is the drive of the amendment.

Although it is unlikely, I ask my hon. Friend to accept that it is conceivable that an imitation firearm could be converted to fire live ammunition by a person who had some such skill. If there were such imitation firearms, I should not regard them as being readily convertible simply because they fell outside the category of imitation firearms which were convertible only by persons possessing normal do-it-yourself ability.

All that I can say about the amendment, therefore, is that because any imitation firearm could in the right hands—perhaps I should say the "wrong" hands—be converted to fire live ammunition, the majority of conversions would require considerable expertise and in some cases specialised equipment.

Let me make these simple points quite clear. By "conversion"—I do not mean any evangelical or religious conversion obviously—I am talking about that conversion which is within the capability of people who are not gunsmiths and do not have any special skill in this kind of work and who only need to make use of tools and equipment which are readily available—the "Tom, Dick and Harry" case—to turn the imitation into a lethal weapon.

I should also make it clear that the words in paragraph (b) will need to be applied to the circumstances of each case, first by the police and ultimately by the courts. Whether a device is caught by the definition will be a matter of fact for the court to decide, and obviously expert witnesses will have to be available to the court.

My hon. Friend's amendments would have the effect of widening the scope of what might be described as "readily convertible". My view, for what it is worth, is that an imitation firearm which can be converted only by using some special skill or equipment should not be regarded as being readily convertible.

In the case of the first amendment, therefore, conversions that might require some special skill in the construction and adaptation of firearms but not a skill that was regarded as engineering would still be regarded as meeting the criterion of ready convertibility. I do not believe that that would be either desirable or helpful to the Bill.

The second amendment would mean that imitation firearms that could be converted only by using specialised tools other than the tools of a gunsmith would still be held to be readily convertible. No doubt there would be considerable debate about what fell within the definition of the specialised tools of a gunsmith. I could imagine courts going on for ever about what exactly the specialised equipment of a gunsmith amounted to.

Although I have given careful thought to what my hon. Friend proposes in his amendments, I hope that he will accept that they would not materially assist what the Bill is designed to do and what they could lead to a great deal of ratiocination in the courts about what "engineering" and a gunsmith's equipment amounted to.

Mr. Mayhew

I agree with what my hon. Friend the Minister for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), the sponsor of the Bill, says about the two amendments of my hon. Friend the Minister for Harborough (Mr. Farr). It will not help if I repeat what he has said in a slightly different form.

However, I want to comment on the interesting matter raised by my hon. Friend the Minister for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds said, the decisions of the courts in the interpretation of the definition in the 1968 Act have not all been one way. What seemed to us an important consideration when we sought to advise my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds was to have in mind the interests of those who have to apply the legislation as well as the practical considerations that affect those who are faced with the enforcement of the law about imitation weapons. It is most important, in our view, that there should be reasonable clarity.

Another important matter is that the restriction that the Bill would introduce should not be so comprehensive as to catch a large number of articles—I shall not call them weapons—which are really children's toys and not capable of causing harm to anyone, no matter how diligently they are worked upon by people with great skill in engineering, or in the art of the gunsmith, or whatever. We need to have a sensible practical balance.

Decisions have fallen on either side of the line. No clear criterion has emerged from the courts' decisions. That is not the fault of the courts. If anything, it could be said that it is the fault of Parliament in not anticipating the increase in dangerous activities at which my hon. Friend's Bill is directed. We have to do the best that we can. It therefore seemed to us in the Home Office that we could best help my hon. Friend if we considered the kind of criterion that should be applied so that it would be possible to say that those articles falling on one side of the line should be controlled and those falling on the other side should not be controlled.

Subsection (6) is the result of our joint efforts. It is important to bear in mind that it catches those replicas which can be converted to cause harm, or those which are able to shoot. Then the question arises: should we broaden the scope of the Bill to conversions that can be carried out only by people with very specialised knowledge—that of the gunsmith, or the skilled engineer or craftsman? Or should we say that that would not be effective? To protect the public, we should catch those replicas that can be readily converted. In my view, that is the right criterion to establish.

It would not be correct to say that the law is clear at present in the reports of cases in which judges have tried to apply, on the individual facts of each case, the definition contained in the Act. In my opinion, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds has got it right. Of course, he has had the advantage of the advice of parliamentary counsel. The formula "readily convertible" has been considered by parliamentary counsel. It is not likely to give rise to special difficulty, on the facts of an individual case, when it is applied in the courts.

I shall look carefully at the matter again, in view of what my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough says. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds. The amendments are not necessary for the purpose that my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough and all of us wish. I advise the House that, subject to further consideration, the Bill should be allowed to proceed as drafted.

2.15 pm
Mr. Farr

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) and my hon. and learned Friend the Minister know, I do not intend to press the amendment. Nevertheless, it is not right, apt, appropriate or proper for a Bill of this nature, however minimal its effect, to proceed through Second Reading on the nod, through the Committee without amendment and in less than an hour, and without proper discussion by the House.

Some of the replies given by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds do not really hold water. To paraphrase his words, he said that the intention of the Bill was to counter the would-be crook who wants a handgun but cannot afford the real thing and therefore adapts a replica. That was the gist of what he said.

My hon. Friend knows as well as I do that there is a flood of illicit handguns in Britain today. He is lucky enough to be closer than I am to the police and the Home Office authorities. He said that a replica could be bought for £30 or £40, which was considerably less than one would pay for a firearm on the black market. If I knew my hon. Friend better, I would take him to more than one establishment in London where an illicit handgun can be bought for less than that. I could also show him a number of premises in London and elsewhere where one can pay up to £100 for a replica.

Therefore, although I shall seek to withdraw the amendment, and the House would be foolish to ignore the advice of the skilled craftsmen and parliamentary technicians to whom my Friend has had the advantage of access, my reason for withdrawing the amendment will not be the argument that a replica can be obtained far more cheaply than an illicit firearm and that that is why people buy replicas. With great respect, it is the other way round. Replicas are very expensive, while illicit handguns can be bought in any of our major cities considerably more cheaply than a good quality replica.

The pistols legislation of 1920 dramatically reduced the legal possession of handguns, with the result that there are now only 50,000 or 60,000 legally held licensed handguns in Britain. Nevertheless, police authorities a few years ago estimated that the pool of illicitly held pistols and revolvers was no fewer than 350,000. In other words, they are just as common today, and a criminal has no difficulty in obtaining the real thing when he needs the tool for the job.

With those few remarks, as I am anxious to speed the passage of my hon. Friend's Bill, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

2.19 pm
Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third Time.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for withdrawing his amendments. He referred to the wide availability of illicit firearms in London. If that mischief is as widespread as he says, and as widespread as my associates in the police service agree that it is, he has illustrated the growing need to take any step open to us to limit the availability of firearms to criminals. My Bill does not cover that particular mischief, but it takes a small step in an area to which the law does not at present apply. My hon. Friend referred to a criminal act already covered by existing legislation.

Mr. Farr

On Report I was brief because I was anxious that we should complete Report stage. Had we had more time, I would have backed up my explanation with the forceful argument that the Pistols Act 1920 had the effect of driving underground many thousands of weapons. There is a huge pool of illicit handguns and a tiny pool of licensed weapons because the 1920 Act almost prohibits a citizen from legal possession. However, that is another argument.

Mr. Griffiths

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, which will be duly noted by my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State and his officials at the Home Office.

I shall be brief. It is probably common ground that it will he impossible to complete all stages of the Bill today. No doubt those who wish to make further comments will be able to do so—if the House is so minded—next Friday. Contrary to reports in the press, the Bill did not arise out of the incident on The Mall, when a person—who has since been convicted—caused alarm to Her Majesty the Queen when he fired six blank shots near her, just before the trooping of the colour. However, where is no doubt that that incident gave the Bill stronger wind than it might have received.

The matter is not new to the Home Office. On the contrary, a well-argued Green Paper was produced some years ago dealing with the whole subject of imitation firearms. It concluded that in the circumstances the existing law was about the best possible and that it might not be necessary to go much further. However, two factors have changed the situation. First, there has been a considerable increase in the carrying and use of firearms in the commission of crime. There is increasing evidence that many of the firearms used to menace people are replicas.

The problem is a statistical one. The police estimate that as many as 250,000 replica firearms may have been used in the commission of crime, but the difficulty is that we do not know for certain. Unfortunately, many crimes are not cleared up. Although a crime may be reported to have been carried out with a firearm, unless the police catch the offender they do not know whether the device that he was holding was a real or imitation weapons. There can be no certainty as to the size of the problem.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Or a converted imitation.

Mr. Griffiths

Yes. As this is more a matter of speculation than certainty, I have relied to a great extent on the judgment of the police and now of the Home Department. The principal impetus behind the Bill has been the increased use of all sorts of firearms and, implicity, of imitation firearms in the commission of crime.

The second point—here I come close to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough—is that imitation firearms can be obtained for relatively little money. Of course, some are better replicas than others. I heard what my hon. Friend said about the ability of a would-be criminal to obtain a real weapon for a comparatively modest sum of money and I take that point most seriously. However, he would accept equally that, because those articles are advertised widely in the newspapers and many shops display them, youngsters and others can now go to shops in London or any large city and buy replicas, often for comparatively little money, and be tempted to use them in the commission of crime.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

If one makes it too difficult for people to obtain imitation, firearms, someone who is minded to commit an offence and who would otherwise have taken an imitation might arm himself with a real weapon.

Mr. Griffiths

That is a slightly esoteric point, but I do not dismiss it for that reason. I can see that that might be the case, but I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State will not argue that replica guns, which might be converted, should be made more easily available and cheaper, because that would lead to people not acquiring real firearms. That would be a perverse position, and I cannot imagine that being advanced as a serious proposition.

The reality is that firearms are used more and more in the commission of crime. Significant numbers are replicas, but some of the replicas can be converted. The Bill goes a small step along the way to plug that loophole in the law.

Another reason why I brought forward the Bill relates to the position in which the police service, with which I declare a connection, has occasionally been placed. An officer who guards the Palace of Westminster was walking, in plain clothes although on duty, near the Aldwych on the occasion when the Indian High Commission was held up by gunmen. He and a colleague saw some men with pistols holding up officials. The police officers drew their pistols, which they were authorised to carry because they were on a diplomatic protection mission, and shot one of the criminals, only to discover later that the devices with which the criminals were menacing the officials were replica weapons. The police officers were entitled to take the action that they did, but, as one of them said to me, they wished there were some protection against the increasing availability of replicas.

I think that the House will understand that it is a matter of psychology, not of law, that police officers consider it disadvantageous when they find that they have shot, and even killed, someone who in the event was holding a replica which it was not an offence to have, unless, of course, it was with intent to commit a crime.

I have had regard to the position in which the police service finds itself in bringing forward the Bill. Originally it had been conceived that the Bill would deal with convertibility and the look-alike nature of replicas. The Bill originally—

It being half past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 14 May.

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