HC Deb 30 January 1987 vol 109 cc619-37

Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

11.25 am
Mr. Best

I was in the middle of my speech before the statement and the points of order. During the points of order the word filibuster was mentioned. I should make it clear to the House that I hope I shall not be accused of filibustering because there is an important Bill following this one. I want to see that properly debated, not least, as I have explained to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) the sponsor of the Bill, because of the total absence of any consideration of the treatment of alcohol offenders or those with habitual difficulties with alcohol or alcohol abuse. These matters should be debated.

In the earlier part of my speech I congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East on his Bill and I also said that I understood why he had not encompassed within it other matters. I mentioned martial arts equipment as something which would have to be addressed at some stage by the House. In fairness, I should say that I have a copy of a "Guidance to traders" leaflet issued by the Martial Arts Commission in consultation with the Government. It says clearly and in bold lettering: Do not supply martial arts equipment — across the counter or by mail order—without evidence of membership of a bona fide martial arts club. Do not sell to people under 18. There is also a clear exposition of the law. The leaflet says: Possession of an offensive weapon in a public place without reasonable excuse is a criminal offence under the Prevention of Crime Act 1953. Martial arts equipment gives rise to the same difficulties as crossbows, because there seems to be no definitive statement as to whether pieces of martial arts equipment are offensive weapons per se or can be so adapted, or whether they can be antiques or something of that nature.

From the case of Crown v Jura in 1954 it appears that an airgun is not regarded under section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 as an offensive weapon per se. That was an interesting case in which an air rifle at a shooting gallery was being used by the defendant. He lost his temper—perhaps he was not hitting anything—and fired at and hit a woman who was with him. It was held by the Court of Criminal Appeal that he had a reasonable excuse for possession of the air rifle and that the unlawful use of it did not bring him within the ambit of the section of the Act.

I mentioned martial arts equipment and an airgun. The same problem obtains with a crossbow, because one does not know whether a crossbow is covered by the 1953 legislation. I think that the Government are supporting this Bill and when the Minister speaks he may well say that the advice he is receiving is that a crossbow may not be regarded as an offensive weapon.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

The hon. Gentleman and I practise at the Bar and know of the array of problems that arise about definition under the 1953 Act. Does he accept that there could be difficulties about antique and non—antique crossbows in actual cases?

Mr. Best

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. He is right. I address myself to the question whether a crossbow, whether an antique capable of being fired, or a modern version, is an offensive weapon per se. One could argue about whether it is adapted but that does not seem to come witin section 1 of the 1953 Act.

When my hon. Friend the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box he should say a few words on that issue because it would be of interest to the House. He might like to bear in mind statements made by the Home Office in the past. For example, a letter of 29 May 1981 was sent to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Rees). It stated: The misuse of a crossbow could include offences against the person of varying degrees of gravity, under the legislation for the protection of animals and birds and under the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 which makes it an offence to possess any offensive weapon in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. The letter goes on to say: To seek to introduce a control and licensing system specifically for crossbows would involve police in a good deal of additional work. One accepts that, and it is probably one of the reasons, although I do not know, why my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East had not decided to go down that route for licensing.

In that letter the Home Office is clearly considering that crossbows come within section 1 of the 1953 Act.

Mr. Anderson


Mr. Best

Yes, or could. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

I have another letter dated 4 December 1984 sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess). I am not breaking any confidences because these letters have been produced by the home affairs section research division in the Library and are widely available to any hon. Member who wishes to see them. The letter said: The information which you request in the Questions on the number of fatalities and injuries caused to persons and to animals by the use of crossbows is not collected centrally. I shall deal with that later. The letter goes on; while I recognise the concern that exists about crossbows, they and other weapons not subject to specific controls are already covered, so far as misuse of them is concerned, by existing general provisions of the law. The Prevention of Crime Act 1953, for example, makes it an offence to possess any offensive weapon in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. Legislation also protects wildlife, and there are local provisions, such as those contained in the Town Police Clauses Act of 1847, as amended, and local byelaws which prohibit the wanton discharge of missiles in any street or public place. Depending on the circumstances, a misuse of a crossbow could also be an offence against the person and, depending on the circumstances, could attract very severe penalties. The letter goes on to deal with another important aspect. It states: Given the extensive restrictions which already limit the use of crossbows I do not consider that we would be justified in imposing on the police a substantial extra workload that further controls, such as a licensing system, would create. As I have emphasised, they are by no means the only potentially dangerous weapons not subject to specific controls, and our present approach is to rely upon general provisions. We have no plans at present for further legislation on crossbows but we shall continue to keep the matter under review. In those letters there is the articulation of the difficulty for the police of having a licensing system. What is interesting, as was helpfully pointed out by the sedentary intervention, about which I make no complaint, from the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), is that the first letter suggested that crossbows could come within the 1953 legislation but there seems no doubt in the letter of 4 December 1984 that the Home Office view then was that crossbows certainly do come within section 1 of the 1953 legislation.

In view of the time, I do not want to develop that further. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with that when he comes to the Dispatch Box.

This matter has attracted a wide degree of support and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East will have redoubled his efforts knowing that he has so much support from so many quarters. It is interesting to note that the Association of District Councils welcomes the Bill and asks for it to be given a speedy Second Reading. I hope that I will not be regarded as being responsible for delaying that more than necessary. The National Farmers Union has also supported the Bill. Although it is difficult for the NFU to assess the nature of abuse of crossbows in respect of livestock, one does know that there have been severe cases which have damaged not only the farmer's livelihood, because of damage to livestock, but, perhaps more importantly, have caused intense pain and suffering to the animals subjected to such cruel attacks. In 1985 approximately 16,000 crossbows were sold, I am told by the NFU. That is corroborated in other documents that I have.

I have no intention of going through the history of the crossbow. Some hon. Members who are more opposed to the measure that will come after this, the Licensing (Amendment) Bill, might want me to go back to ancient times and deal in detail with the history of the crossbow. I do not propose to do that because it would be an abuse of the House. However, it is important to remember that there have been demands for some form of restriction on crossbows from a wide variety of organisations such as the Magistrates' Association, the NFU, the Police Federation and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. There is a difficulty in establishing the facts about abuse. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East will concur with that.

The largest crossbow manufacturer, Barnett International in Wolverhampton, has commissioned independent research into the weapon. It is an ancient weapon, as has already been mentioned. The English were firmly wedded to the longbow. From my own reading of the period of history that fascinated me as a schoolboy, I remember Poitiers and Crécy and the superiority of the longbow over the crossbow, which was used by the French. The rapidity of fire of the longbow made it much more effective against the heavy French cavalry. The problem of reloading the crossbow meant that the rate of fire was restricted. It seems that it was also regarded as a weapon for the aristocracy or the upper classes, whereas the longbow was not. There were statutes that made the possession of longbows and arrows mandatory and formal practice was required — [Interruption.] I hear a complaint from the Treasury Bench that I am dealing with history. I shall pass on.

Mr. Tony Banks

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could clear up a problem relating to Barnett International, the largest manufacturer of crossbows, and the research project that it commissioned. Is that the research report by Colin Greenwood?

Mr. Best

Yes. I can identify that report.

I want to put the Bill in perspective. It is important to assess the true nature of the abuse but that does not in any way diminish my support for the Bill's Second Reading. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East would accept that the itemisation of abuse is limited. There is difficulty in trying to obtain information on abuse, and the nature of abuse is small in comparison with other weapons.

I am happy to support the Bill because I believe that my hon. Friend is in advance of this country because his legislation is in anticipation of a greater abuse of crossbows. He said that there is an increasing use of crossbows and an increasing interest in them. That is likely to continue and this legislation may well become more relevant as the years progress.

In 1985 the total production of crossbows was about 110,000. The total sales or crossbows in the United Kingdom domestic market in that year was 16,000 to 17,000. It is true that some 700 or 800 people are employed in the production of crossbows and that is not a great number. However, there is an estimate that 200,000 to 250,000 bows are presently in the hands of the public. That seems to accord with the views of the manufacturers. There are several clubs dedicated to crossbow shooting but they are much smaller than archery and rifle clubs, some of which have crossbow shooting members. It is reckoned that competitive crossbow shooters operating in the club environment do not exceed 3,000 in number.

Some crossbows are employed in unusual roles. The Central Electricity Generating Board and the Forestry Commission use them for launching light lines so that the heavier ones can be taken across inaccessible spots or to the top of pylons. There is some use of crossbows for launching tranquiliser darts to immobilise animals. The evidence suggests, however, that crossbow owners do not fire them frequently. Abuse is, perhaps, an isolated event, although it is motivated by a great deal of malice and a desire to do much damage. The Bill is therefore welcome because it tightens up the law as a crossbow may or may not be an offensive weapon as defined by existing legislation.

It is difficult for small children to abuse a crossbow as it is a powerful weapon and hard for them to cock, hold, aim or fire. The crossbow was superseded as a military weapon by firearms. It is worth comparing the power of firearms and crossbows. A hunting crossbow, which is a very powerful weapon, produces a velocity of 200 ft per second. The muzzle energy of the two most powerful types of crossbow is 32 and 46 ft lbs. The average crossbow will provide muzzle energy of between 20 and 30 ft lbs. A 9 mm cartridge fired from a pistol, which has a lower muzzle velocity than a rifle, gives about 350 ft lbs and the .44 magnum pistol gives 1,500 ft lbs. The 7.62 NATO service rifle gives a muzzle energy of 7,600 ft lbs, and the ordinary 12-bore shot gun generates 1,500 ft lbs.

Crossbows are powerful, but it is clear that they are not nearly as powerful as firearms. A crossbow bolt is capable of causing death or serious injury, as are a host of other instruments which are readily available. The crossbow is a low-energy short-range weapon which is extremely difficult to use accurately. Within its restricted capabilities, it can be used humanely for hunting deer-sized animals. It is effective only in the hands of a skilled user at the shortest ranges. It is ludicrous to compare it in terms of power and effectiveness with modern firearms.

It is difficult to establish the nature of abuse. The Home Office statistical branch is unable to assist, as is the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. Detailed examination for other years could have been undertaken but that would have been time-consuming and costly. The Department of the Environment wildlife division, which was responsible for the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which prohibits the use of crossbows against wild animals, has no statistics on crossbow abuse against wild animals. It seems that, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, one is prohibited from using a crossbow against a wild animal but, because a wild animal does not come within the scope of the Protection of Animals Act 1911, one is perfectly entitled to batter a hedgehog or wild cat to death with one's foot — there are unfortunately, reported cases of that—because such animals are neither domestic nor captive. I shall not digress any further, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that matter carefully.

The Department of Health and Social Security's statistical research division, the Health and Safety Executive, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, and the Department responsible for prices and consumer protection cannot offer much information about crossbow abuse. It appears, however, that the level of abuse is low.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has produced the most evidence of abuse. The chief veterinary officer said that the society holds no statistics or case records centrally, but he went to considerable trouble to contact every inspector in the country concerning incidents during 1980 and 1985. It emerges that there were three cases each in 1980 and 1985. I should mention the letter which was sent to the F8 department of the Home Office by the RSPCA which itemises those incidents. To save time, I shall not go through the letter, but it provides more information than can be got elsewhere.

During a 15-year period there were only 41 incidents involving the use of crossbows. That is an average of less than three a year. There was one case of homicide, four cases of robberies, four involving assault against the police, four involving other assaults, one fatal accident, three suicides—it is sad, but I am not sure how one commits suicide with a crossbow—one of burglary, six involving domestic assault, two of damage to property and three of other accidents or injuries. There were two incidents against sheep, two against cats, one against a dog and seven against swans, geese and ducks.

The only homicide occurred in March 1976 when two brothers had an altercation about a bequest and one shot the other with a crossbow. There were 24,890 robberies in 1981 in England and Wales, but crossbows were used in connection with robbery only four times in the 15-year period that I have mentioned. Other assaults involving crossbows have occurred in domestic or quasi-domestic circumstances.

I do not want to delay the House because I want to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in the debate on the Licensing (Amendment) Bill. I have a sheaf of notes but I shall put them on one side because I do not wish to detain the House any longer save to say that I once again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East on having brought forward this measure., It will be a lasting and perhaps increasingly useful piece of legislation

11.49 am
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

It is just as well that the hon. Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Best) sat down when he did, because the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) has just brought in a crossbow bolt. The timing of the hon. Member for Ynys Mon was opportune.

There is growing concern about the use and abuse of crossbows and other weapons. The Bill is limited in its scope, but it is welcome despite those limitations.

The report by Mr. Greenwood has already been mentioned. In that report he says that there is little evidence of abuse and that what abuse there is can be dealt with under existing legislation. That may be correct up to a point, but the problem that must be addressed is much wider than just crossbows. It is the growth and availability of a wide range of weapons, paramilitary courses and other phenomena that have become associated with some of the frustrations, anxieties and stress in our society. That is what makes the availability of weapons, whether they are crossbows, guns, knives or anything else, so profoundly dangerous.

In more stable societies or more stable times a considerable number of weapons may be available without any great increase in abuse. In Switzerland there is a wide availability of firearms, but a relatively low level of crime involving them because Switzerland at present does not suffer from the extreme problems of the collapse of the community, especially in inner city areas, that we have here. Wherever there is a rapid and dramatic collapse of a community there is likely to be an increase in crime. That is why there have been problems in Britain and in other Western countries in recent times, and why the problem has become much worse in the 1980s. Such crimes as robbery have rocketed and will continue to increase until the Government begin to do something to help rebuild the shattered and battered communities in our midst.

I shall refer to a couple of points in the Bill. I take it that, if the Bill goes into Committee, clause 4 will be subject to the constraints exercised by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. That is assumed but it should be borne in mind.

I shall make a few points about the punishment mentioned in clause 6. One thing that troubles me— I have raised this before on other Bills—is the way in which we always mention fines and imprisonment when talking about weapons of this sort, particularly in connection with young people. Let us remember that the bulk of the Bill is concerned with young people under 17 although it also affects adults who sell them the weapons. We do not wish increasingly to lock up young people or criminalise them early on in their career. Britain already sends into custody more young people than any other comparable country in the Western world. That does them no good at all. If anything, it gets them into the universities of crime that much earlier in life.

It always worries and to some extent puzzles me as to why we pass law after law which impose fines and imprisonment, especially for young people, when we should at least mention compensation and making recompense to society. Far more good could come out of a sentence in which a young person especially was ordered to do some community work—especially if it related to animals that perhaps that child had injured or killed in especially brutal circumstances. That could be far more useful to the health and development of a young person's normal personality than simply locking him up with other people who have a host of social. economic and emotional problems. That really does not help us.

It would be a good idea to direct the ideas of magistrates towards compensation and recompense by putting in Bills of this nature the provision that that sort of compensation was available. I urge the hon. Member for Leicester, East to do that, although I know that he is fond of locking up people and hanging them and has even offered to do it on occasions. It puzzles me how he can then be against crossbows because it seems to me that at the root of the motives of improper use of crossbows and taking a person's life by the judicial measure of hanging is the same problem as having at heart a feeling of anger, vengeance and fear and those sort of emotions which are so destructive of the normal human personality. I ask the hon. Gentleman to take on board the need to bring compensation or recompense to the mind of the courts by including such provisions in one of the clauses. This would be especially appropriate for young people. Perhaps clause 6 would be the appropriate vehicle.

In clause 6(3) the courts are given the power to order forfeiture or disposal of any crossbow or part of it. That is profoundly important and I agree with the provision. For many young people the confiscation of a weapon is more important than any other penalty. It is more important than criminalising them by convicting them in a court of law. A far more effective course is to take away the weapon.

Adults have an undesirable tendency to forget what they did during their own childhood. We must recognise that there are few young males who grow up without using catapults. Unfortunately, many young males, and females to a lesser extent, use airguns. If we forget what we did in our adolescence, we tend to become punitive and respond inappropriately to the problems that young people face. I can remember using catapults and airguns and having a catapult called Big Bertha. It was mounted on a truck and it had elastic a quarter of an inch wide. It could hurl quite a large rock a long distance. It was a dangerous weapon by any standards. In the gang warfare of the area in which I was brought up, catapults were used as a natural extension of fighting for one's territory. I received a secondary modern education in north-east London and it is the north-east London survival instinct that enables me to cope with public-school educated Conservative Members, who probably had more sophisticated weapons such as crossbows and airguns. I could not afford that type of weapon.

In all seriousness, we forget that young males especially will have an interest in weapons and playing with them. I could easily have acquired criminal convictions for some of the things that I did with airguns and catapults as a youngster. There is no sign that criminalising youngsters by convicting them in the courts helps them to mature in a normal healthy adult life. We must concentrate more on confiscation, limitation of damage and prevention at the point of sale. These will be far more effective measures than locking up people, especially the young, and increasing their emotional and social problems.

There is some anxiety about legislating for certain weapons only when society is concerned rightly about the growing availability of weapons generally and associated paramilitary courses. Of the 9,500 notifiable offences involving firearms, 6,300 were associated with airguns. It is clear that airguns are a major part of the problem. As I have said, at one stage in my life I had an airgun. I much enjoyed using it but, fortunately, I did not go in for shooting animals and birds. I would not have enjoyed that and I would not have done it. However, I can remember the temptation to do so from time to time. A young person finds it exciting to shoot at a moving target and I can understand that it is easy for young people to drift into that form of shooting. Whether we are talking about catapults, airguns or any other type of weapon, we must seek to discourage use except in fairly constrained circumstances.

I am not sure whether there is any justification for selling crossbows or any other type of weapon by mail order. I am dubious, and am becoming increasingly worried, about the widespread advertising of paramilitary courses, certain types of knives, catapults, guns and so on. An increasing number of magazines that tend to hang on to the survivalist culture are available in major bookshops and stores and at major stations and other such places. I have already drawn the attention of the House and the media to them. They advertise how to get hold of Bren guns, Rambo knives and crossbows. They mention how to turn one's neighbourhood watch group into a vigilante group—all sorts of things of that ilk.

They also give great descriptions of courses conducted in the countryside to learn survivalism. I shall not discourage people from trying to live in the countryside, as long as they respect the countryside when they do it. It is a healthy and desirable pursuit, but when it is advertised, as it often is in certain magazines, as being about the breakdown of law and order in society, there is a more dangerous result. Often, Right-wing organisations are involved. They adopt a paramilitary practice. They mention weapons such as crossbows, knives and so on in the course of their survivalism.

Since the late 1970s, the use of these weapons has increased considerably, and robbery, as I have said, has rocketed. I suggest to the Minister—indeed, the Labour party has suggested this to the Minister's predecessor and the Home Secretary for some time — that the Home Office should have within it a much more high-powered Committee to review the availability and type of weapons, paramilitary courses and the magazines that advertise them. We need a proper licensing system.

Not long ago, the Minister's predecessor tried to clamp down on the availability of guns by increasing the licence fee. That is not the right way in which to control the availability of weapons. It hits at the low income, responsible user and does not begin to touch the high income, irresponsible user. It is unfair.

The Socialist point of view is that freedom is affected by the amount of income that one has available to spend. If we try to clamp down on the availability of any commodity in society by putting up its price, we shall do nothing to help people on low incomes who might wish legitimately to indulge in the sports that the hon. Member for Leicester, East described. I do not wish to clamp down on legitimate users of guns, crossbows or anything else. These weapons can be of legitimate sporting use.

We wish to deal with the matter not on the basis of cost, but by a proper licensing system, and the only way to achieve that is by setting up a committee in the Home Office that can inform the debate. Such a committee could make reports to a Select Committee of the House so that we may have the type of debate that led to the earlier legislation that covered these subjects, rather than try to do so in this piecemeal way.

There is a case for licensing every lethal weapon of the type described today. I realise that this could not apply to knives. We should have a licensing system based not on cost. I recognise that cost would need to cover, or at least as near as possible cover, the cost of administration. There is a case for having a licensing system not dissimilar to that for cars. The licence would follow the weapon. In that way, we not only will keep track of the weapon if it is stolen or misused, but can identify it. The problem with shotguns is that we cannot identify how the people who misuse them get hold of them in the first place. Many are available through importations, some are stolen and, of course, some are exchanged by a legal owner selling them to an illegal owner, that is, someone who has a previous conviction.

There is a case for examining all these matters, but I do not think that we should legislate in this way. It would not be appropriate for the Home Office Minister to go too far down this road today, but when he considers the Bill in Committee — I hope it will be examined carefully in Committee—I urge him to examine the suggestions that I have made, particularly on the compensation and forfeiture argument and in the longer term, but, I accept, not within the context of the Bill. I urge the Minister to consider setting up the type of committee that the Labour party has put forward as its policy for the past couple of years since we have had brought to our attention the acute and, in our view, justifiable public concern about the availability of some appalling weapons, not least knives some of which, incidentally, are produced in some obscene forms. One can put these knives into an ordinary belt and pull them out, and there are flick knives that look like pens, all of which are on sale.

We cannot deal with this problem simply on the basis of an offensive weapons charge, but must use a licensing system for their sale. A bread knife may be as lethal as a Rambo knife, but we do not want to encourage the macho culture that fosters the idea that law and order has broken down and we have to take the law into our hands and avenge ourselves. I am critical of the Government's law and order record — it is atrocious by any standards. However, I do not want to encourage that undesirable and dangerous idea, which was put by some people on a television programme in which I was involved the other day.

The Home Office has much to work on. Within its limitations, the Bill is to be encouraged but the Home Office needs to go much further. I recommend some of the proposals that I have put to it this morning.

12.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels), partly on his success in the ballot, partly on choosing this Bill, and partly on the clear and elegant way in which he introduced it. My hon. Friend reviewed carefully the legislation that deals with firearms. He stressed the point that at the moment we have a comprehensive statutory framework regulating the control, possession and sale of firearms. However, he rightly pointed out that we have no legislation that regulates the sale and purchase of crossbows. That point was also made by the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon). Undoubtedly that is a lacuna.

My hon. Friends the Members for Leicester, East and for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison) gave us an interesting account of the history and development of the crossbow. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East also gave us a revealing description of the nature of the weapons with which we are dealing. He was right to stress the wide range of weapons. At the bottom end of the range are the toy crossbows, to which the Bill is not directed. At the upper end there is a different category of weapons, those that are powerful, accurate, lethal and capable of inflicting substantial injuries or even death.

When, in 1986, concern about the misuse of these weapons was expressed, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes), the Home Office decided to carry out a review on the use and misuse of these weapons. To obtain a balanced view of what it was we were dealing with, we consulted a number of interested bodies, including the police, the RSPCA, those engaged in the sport and the manufacturers. A number of interesting conclusions and facts became available to us, and I shall mention some of them.

First, we learnt that there are about 200 crossbows in circulation. We also found that only a small proportion of crossbow users belong to any of the organised clubs, and that a majority of users, as far as one can judge, shoot at targets or on private land, or keep their crossbows on the walls at home for decoration. The sport of crossbow shooting is developing and, as a number of hon. Members have said, is enjoyed by a large number of people. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East is correct in saying that it may become an Olympic sport soon.

In 1985, commercial sales of crossbows within the United Kingdom were around 17,000 and the industry —exclusive of the retail industry—employs about 700 people.

Mr. Tony Banks

I apologise to the Minister for intervening, but earlier on did he say that there were only 200 crossbows in circulation in the country?

Mr. Hogg

No, 200,000. If I did not say that number, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because 200,000 was the number that I intended to say.

It is difficult to form a certain view of the extent of the misuse of crossbows, not least because there are no central police records on the matter. A special survey by the police took place between April 1985 and March 1986. It revealed that about 115 incidents involving crossbows had been reported to them. A breakdown of the cases revealed that 54 were cases of criminal damage and 25 were offences against animals.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East has given us information about a number of incidents regarding animals—from information derived from the RSPCA—and I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not repeat those statistics. Suffice to say that the information proves that it is an increasing problem, and those who use such weapons for that purpose should be condemned.

One must take a broad view of this matter, and so far as we can judge from the statistics the misuse of crossbows is at a fairly low level. Hon. Members have referred to existing legislation, and a number of statutes deal with the misuse of crossbows.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Best) raised the important question of whether crossbows are offensive weapons. His experience in those matters is perhaps even greater than mine, but we both approach the subject in an undogmatic manner. My advice is that a crossbow is not an offensive weapon per se. That is what I believe to be the provision in legislation, but if a person is carrying such a weapon with an offensive intent he commits an offence under the Prevention of Crime Act 1953, whether or not it is an offensive weapon per se.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) made a helpful speech in which he identified the lacuna in the law. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East also drew attention to this. There is no control over the sale of crossbows to, and their purchase by, young persons. We are directing our efforts to that omission.

Last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State issued a guidance note to traders urging them not to sell to persons under the age of 17. My hon. Friends will recall that at the same time he stated his intention of supporting any legislation that might be brought before the House designed to stop the sale of such weapons to young persons. Therefore, we strongly welcome the Bill that has been ably introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford drew attention to the clarity with which my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East had introduced the Bill, and we are grateful for that clarity and for the clarity with which he has expressed his intentions.

Offences are created under clauses 1 and 2 in respect of the sale of crossbows to and the purchase of crossbows by persons under the age of 17. That is the core of the Bill. It will be an offence to sell a crossbow to a person under the age of 17, and it will be an offence for such a person to purchase one.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) tackled us about the uniformity of age. He suggested that we should fix the level at 18. There is no magic way in which one can determine whether 17 or 18 is the right age. Seventeen brings the Bill more into line with the firearms legislation, and we have approached it on that basis, but I realise that as between 17 and 18 it is a foolish man who tries to be too dogmatic.

Clause I could be improved by extending the prohibition to include letting on hire and clause 2 could be improved by extending the prohibition to the concept of hiring. But that is a Committee point, and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East will take that into consideration. Clause 3 makes it an offence for any person under the age of 17 to possess a crossbow anywhere unless he is supervised by someone over the age of 21, and I think that that proposal will have the support of the House.

The Bill provides the police with powers of search, and we have considered the clauses that deal with penalties. I hope the House will feel that we have got the balance right. I agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) when he stresses the great undesirability of imposing on young people some form of custodial sentence. Therefore, I would be sorry to see us trying to impose a custodial sentence in respect of the offence committed under clause 3.

As the House knows, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East has said, we have thought to exempt toy crossbows from the scope of the Bill. and I hope that that will have the approval of the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest asked about Northern Ireland. This has been given careful consideration by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He recognises the need to extend the prohibition to Northern Ireland, but he considers that it would be better done by order, rather than directly in the Bill, and he will make the necessary order as soon as possible after the Bill has been enacted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet asked about publicity designed to encourage parents to take a more responsible attitude. I entirely agree with what he said. He knows that we ran two pilot campaigns in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester police force areas just before Christmas, and we shall soon be in the process of evaluating the effect of those.

The hon. Members for Jarrow and for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), among others, have put it to us that we should embark upon a more rigorous licensing system. The Government are not persuaded. We have contemplated that possibility, but several important considerations apply. The first is the considerable demand that that would make on police resources. Secondly, the current level of misuse is not such as to justify such a policy. Thirdly, it would be impossible to justify such a policy unless we extended it to, for example, air weapons, and, for a variety of reasons, I would not commend that course of action to the House. Therefore, we do not wish to adopt the licensing proposal put to the House by several hon. Members. Nor do we think that a total ban on sales, whether by mail order or otherwise, would be justified.

The Bill, so ably introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, has the balance about right. No doubt a number of Committee points will be made and will be seriously examined. The Bill meets a genuine public concern about the purchase and possession of crossbows by young people and we think that we have achieved the desire to impose proper restrictions without unduly prohibiting legitimate use. I hope that, on that basis, the Bill will receive a Second Reading.

Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As a relatively new Member of the House, may I seek your guidance? We have already had a substantial debate on this legislation, which appears to have received complete support from all hon. Members who have spoken. If a closure motion were to be moved, would you accept it on the ground that other Bills are I o be considered later?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

The hon. Gentleman will realise that he is asking a hypothetical question. The Chair will judge whether to allow a closure motion only if such a motion is moved.

12.20 pm
Mr. Geraint Howells (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

After listening to the views of hon. Members from both sides of the House, I believe that enough has been said and that the Bill should be given its Second Reading. However, it would be remiss of me not to say a few words on behalf of the Liberal party and the alliance.

I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) and his colleagues on introducing the Bill. However, like other hon. Members, I believe the Bill does not go far enough.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, East on the interesting history lesson that he gave us on the monarchy from the 12th to the 16th centuries. I was interested when he reminded us that one of the reigning monarchs was killed by a crossbow. His speech refreshed my memory, and that of other hon. Members, as to what happened in those bad old days.

Yesterday I contacted members of the Farmers Union of Wales. I know that other hon. Members will have contacted various organisations and institutions. The leaders of the Farmers Union of Wales said that they regard crossbows as one of the most destructive and lethal weapons in the countryside, and I hold a similar view. a crossbow can cause cruel and fatal injuries if it is in the hands of an irresponsible person. In the hands of the criminal element, it is a silent and deadly weapon. As many other hon. Members have said, it is easily obtainable across the counter.

Crossbows should be subject to the same control as shotguns. I was very impressed by the Minister's answer on that issue. Whatever views we hold, we should all remember and impress upon youngsters, and also in our schools, the fact that the crossbow is a weapon, not a tool. Unless we are very careful, many youngsters may abuse the present system.

We live in a caring society. We care for people and animals, but we must also care for the rights of those people who enjoy the sport. However, there is a great deal of concern in the countryside at the moment because the rustling of cattle and sheep is on the increase. Perhaps in years to come thieves will take advantage of the crossbow and kill livestock, because the crossbow works quietly and cannot be heard by people. We have heard instances of such slaughter from hon. Members representing various parts of the country.

I welcome the Bill and hope that it will have its Second Reading, and that amendments will be made to it to make it even more constructive than what has been proposed by the hon. Member for Leicester, East.

12.23 pm
Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot)

Out of respect for my thirsty hon. Friends, and especially because of the imminence of lunch, I have decided to cut my already short speech in half.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) on his admirable measure to curb a lethal weapon. Hon. Members have demonstrated that there is a need for control.

When I heard that "Crossbow" was to be banned, I was somewhat confused. I wondered whether the reference was to the bottle of cider that is the flagship of the fleet launched by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Bulmer). How could one argue whether the drink or the weapon is the more lethal? Or did it refer to that worthy but unread magazine "Crossbow", which is published by the Bow Group on a quarterly basis and which contains articles entitled "Whither the Money Supply?" by eager and ambitious young Conservatives? I was glad to learn that it was neither of those two great institutions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East enjoys an enviably high public reputation. I am not a reader of the Leicester Bugle or the Leicester Mercury, but if his local publicity is anything like his national coverage, without doubt he will increase his majority at the next election.

In the past I have attempted to write about this place and must even plead guilty to having written about some of my colleagues. Having read an interview given by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East to a Daily Mail journalist, Lynda Lee Potter, of remarkable frankness and humour, I can conclude only that my hon. Friend is beyond satire. Will he at least give his assurance to the House that he will not leave his body to Battersea Dogs Home? Surely we can do better than that.

There is a growing anxiety among the public about crime, and with good reason. That anxiety is encouraged not just by the figures—an annual increase of between 5 and 7 per cent. each year for the past 30 years—but by the media and the focus that it puts upon crime and, indeed, by us politicians. For example, the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), has, on behalf of the Labour party, discovered crime. That has been rivalled by the chairman of our own great party who, in his turn, has discovered sin. Is the blame for the rise in crime to be put at the door of the Prime Minister? I should have thought that that was hardly fair. Youth unemployment is a factor, but it is only one among many.

As for sin, no one who has been a member of the Tory party for as long as me could fail to believe in the Fall. Sin has long been with us and is likely, whatever the party manifestos may say this year, to be with us for some time to come. What are the facts? Criminals are mainly young. For males, the peak age is 15 and for girls it is 14. Fortunately, personal injuries do not rate high because 96 per cent. of all offences are against property. The murder rates have increased, but at nothing like the same rate as the crime rate as a whole because murder largely remains a family crime.

Those growing anxieties are exploited by certain organisations for political purposes. An organisation called RECAP has been founded to try to bring back capital punishment. The organiser is a man called Neill Lynn who works in Cambridge. It is a small organisation of approximately one man and a dog. Neill Lynn sought endorsement from the chairman of the Conservative party and, sadly, he got it. Some hon. Members might remember a piece that I wrote about it in The Observer early in January. But what my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) did not know▀×neither did I—was Mr. Lynn's record as a politician. Last year he was a ward chairman of the Cambridge Conservative Association. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] Aha. But before that he was an organiser and active supporter of the British Movement. The British Movement is to the National Front what the National Front is to the Band of Hope. The British Movement is the successor organisation to the National Socialists. I make that point only because Mr. Lynn is to make a speech in my constituency tonight in which he will make two demands: first, that I should no longer represent the constituency as the Conservative Member because I am an abolitionist, and, secondly, that capital punishmnt should he brought back.

It is only fair that the electors in Aldershot should know who is leading that crusade. Once they know Mr. Lynn's political record, he will be run out of town.

Mr. Anderson

Does the Cambridge Conservative Association still accept Mr. Lynn as an office holder in spite of what has been said about him?

Mr. Critchley

I have no idea.

12.30 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

First of all, may I apologise to the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) for missing the start of his speech when he introduced the Bill. I was unavoidably detained by crowds of people waiting for the pubs to open.

I was very pleased that the hon. Member for Leicester, East asked me to sponsor the Bill. I hesitated at first because I wanted to see what punishments he was going to write into the Bill. Clearly, I would not have supported the Bill if he intended to use it as a way of bringing back capital punishment. Equally, I am sorry that he failed to bring a crossbow to the House to show us what a crossbow looks like.

Mr. Bruinvels

There is one in the police safe.

Mr. Banks

I know that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) was more than ready to shoot an apple off the head of the Member for Leicester, East. When I told him about this, my hon. and learned Friend's hands trembled with excitement at the prospect.

I agreed to sponsor the Bill because I have a constituency interest. There have been a number of cases in the London borough of Newham which have been reported in the local newspapers, the Stratford and Newham Express and the Newham Recorder, of attacks being made upon wildlife in the area using crossbows and other weapons. Conservative Members might not appreciate that on its northern boundary the London borough of Newham is attached to Wanstead flats and merges into Epping forest. There is ample scope for those who are intent on damaging wildlife in the borough because there are ponds and flats where animals can be found to shoot at. Unfortunately, that has happened. There have also been attacks in Newham—on cats and dogs using crossbow bolts. I have received a number of letters complaining about such malpractices and I have attempted in the past to raise the whole matter of the use of crossbows and other weapons with the Home office but I got nowhere. I was therefore delighted to act as a sponsor to this Bill.

Crossbows can be purchased in Newham. Regrettably, there are a number of shops where so-called martial arts devices can also be purchased. I have drawn to the Home Secretary's attention the sale to a child of a device called a Ninja's claw which is, in effect, a spiked knuckleduster. That device was sold to an eight-year-old boy and that shows a high degree of irresponsibility on the part of shopkeepers who are prepared to sell such weapons to young people.

I was sad to hear that the Minister was not prepared to move against the advertising and sale of crossbows by mail order. It will naturally be difficult for anyone selling through mail order to know the age of the person making the application for purchase. To a certain extent, the Bill will be nonsense if it becomes an Act without an amendment to cover mail order.

Like other hon. Members, I want the Bill to go further in its scope. I hope that amendments will be accepted in Committee that will allow its scope to be extended. Frankly, I am disappointed that the Minister was not prepared to accept that crossbows should be licensed weapons. I understand his points, especially the one about effective policing. For policing such desirable social objectives as the licensing of weapons, the Minister will always get support from the House for additional resources that the Government might be prepared to give to our police forces. We would consider that to be a fitting and proper expansion of public expenditure on the police.

The Minister also said that he would not wish licensing to be extended to airguns. That is regrettable, because hon. Members on both sides of the House have demanded that air weapons be licensed. I have written to the Home Secretary and asked about the possibility of licensing crossbows, but I have been turned down.

The opponents of licensing argue that, in the wrong hands, almost anything can be used as a deadly weapon. I remember one Minister in a debate in the House saying that, if one pushed it to the limit, a fountain pen could be used as an offensive weapon. Of course, that is so. Almost any implement could be used as an offensive weapon—apart from a speech in Parliament, I suppose—if someone was so determined. But we must use some common sense here. Where a weapon so obviously lends itself to abuse in an offensive fashion — that must include crossbows—licensing is necessary. After all, one would hardly walk into a bank and threaten to hold it up by spraying the cashier with ink from a fountain pen if he did not hand over the money. But a crossbow is clearly an offensive weapon that could be used to commit such an offence.

I was worried by the Minister's statement that about 200,000 crossbows are in circulation and that most of them are not in the hands of people who belong to organised clubs. The potential for abuse is enormous. I accept the Minister's statement that the recorded level of abuse is fairly small and not sufficient to worry about, but what concerns me is how many cases of crossbow abuse have not been drawn to the attention of the police and, in turn, to the attention of the Home Office through statistics. Several of the incidents that took place in Newham were not registered by the police as crimes. They can read the local papers, but whether they transfer those incidents to their criminal statistics, I do not know. I suspect that they do not.

The sports lobby for crossbows is highly responsible and is probably as anxious to stamp out abuse as are the hon. Member for Leicester, East and hon. Members on both sides of the House. But if so few crossbow holders are registered in clubs, how can they eliminate the sort of abuse that has worried the House?

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Does the hon. Gentleman share my anxiety that the provisions of clause 3, which simply require the supervision of a person who is 21 years of age or under, mean that the Bill depends for its effectiveness merely on such a person being around, not on someone who is a member of a club and a known, responsible crossbow user having charge of the situation? Bearing in mind the fact that in many recent incidents of football hooliganism there have been gangs of people some of whom have been over 21 and some youngsters, this does not hold out much hope that, unless the Bill is tightened, there will be effective supervision of any crossbow in the hands of someone aged under 17.

Mr. Banks

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that in Committee it will be possible to so strengthen the Bill. The best way to cover it would be to license crossbows. That would be the most acceptable method. If the Government have already ruled it out, we shall have some difficulties in Committee in getting it through, but we should at least make an attempt.

One cannot accept as of great value any protestations from the sports lobby which says that it will try to ensure that abuse is eliminated. Clearly, that lobby would not be able to do that. Often when we get into areas like this and want to stop implements that are used within a sport being circulated generally among the population, we are told that we cannot do that because it affects serious sporting interests.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

The hon. Member is stopping consideration of the Licensing (Amendment) Bill.

Mr. Banks

If Conservative Members do not even have the courtesy to listen to what I am saying about serious matters raised by my constituents, I can make them sit here for a lot longer while I read a series of briefs that I have been handed on more peripheral matters about crossbows. That could do a great deal of damage to the next piece of legislation. I should be grateful if hon. Members would not provoke me. I have made it clear that I am not attempting to talk out the next Bill.

I was about to finish my speech. I find it rather distressing that at times the sports lobby is wheeled out to say that we should not move against things like crossbows, catapults, airguns or rifles because we would be impairing a sport. The difficulty is that those who seek to abuse those implements are hiding behind respectable sports lobbies. Our eyes must not be blinded by that fact or blind to the camouflage. I appreciate that there is a serious industry involved in the manufacture of crossbows.

I have seen the report commissioned by Barnett International to examine the abuse of crossbows. I reject many of the things in that report, not because I necessarily think that the books have been cooked, but because one must clearly be somewhat suspicious of a piece of so-called research commissioned by a company that has a vested interest in ensuring that no dire action is taken against the users of crossbows.

I do not propose to read them to the House, but I have statistics and a letter from the chief veterinary officer of the RSPCA to the Home Office. That letter makes clear that since 1979 detailed records have been kept about the use of crossbows against domestic and wild animals. Clearly, there is sufficient cause for concern by those of us who want to see this Bill proceed and be strengthened in Committee. I was pleased to be asked to be one of the sponsors and I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, East on introducing the Bill.

12.43 pm
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

I shall not detain the House for long, because I accept much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has wisely said. I was mildly amused by the suggestions from the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West exercised a considerable amount of self-restraint by not quoting the battery of statistics at his disposal. It is a little odd that the hon. and learned Member for Burton, who, I believe, holds the record for detaining the House on the Water (Fluoridation) Bill, using a whole series of statistics and other matters, should criticise my hon. Friend. It is the pot calling the kettle black.

My hon. Friend put forward serious points relevant to his constituency interests. He pointed out what is clearly and readily seen by all hon. Members—that any attempt to regulate an activity of this sort bristles with many difficulties in practice. My hon. Friend spoke about mail order. We have seen in glue sniffing cases the problems of definition about supply. We have seen difficulties about licensing such things as airguns and I suspect that most hon. Members have had brought to them, as I have, people who have suffered injury, and animals which have had the most awful mutilation inflicted on them, by the misuse of airguns. I know of several constituency cases of damage, including a young man who lost his eye as a result of a young teenager wantonly firing an airgun.

The question arises in the case of airguns, as in the case of crossbows: how widespread is the abuse? How far should Parliament proceed along the road of regulation? Is it a question of de minimis? By adopting the Bill, are we going along the road of a nanny society and seeking to regulate that which should not be regulated? From my experience, I believe that this is an area which, in spite of the difficulties, should be properly regulated by the Bill. Therefore, I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) on his Bill. If it should come to a Division—I am not sure whether anyone seriously seeks to oppose the Bill—I assure the hon. Gentleman that I, and I am sure the majority of hon. Members, will follow him into the Lobby.

I should say in passing that when we knew that the hon. Member for Leicester, East had a high place in the private Members' ballot there was considerable speculation, given his wide range of interests, as to what he might choose. It is significant that he has chosen a Bill that is able to command all-party support in the House, and I congratulate him.

I was interested in the legal points made by the hon. Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Best). I was a little amused when he said, during the course of a rather long speech, that he would delay the House for only a few moments. I felt, Aquinas-like, that it was moments under the aspect of eternity. I promise that I shall not do the same as the hon. Gentleman, because he and I, as Welsh Members, have a common interest. We should leave the House as soon as possible to proceed to Wales to view the film that we cannot see here.

I am a father of three boys, only one of whom is still a teenager, and I would ask the Minister, when looking at crossbows and the array of horrific weapons available, to go to one of the shops, such as those described by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West, and view that which is available easily over the counter to young people in our society. I had the experience the Christmas before last of being pestered for a catapult by my young teenage son. I went with him to a shop, which, incidentally, was in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley). I was frightened and appalled at what is available to young people. I confess that eventually I did purchase a catapult, but it was the weakest that I could get away with as a father.

As the Minister looks at the abuses of crossbows and other weapons available to young people, I ask him to ensure that he looks at what is available to young people whose appetite is whetted by films, television and the violence around them. They all want to be little Rambos. Surely it is against the public interest that crossbows, martial arts weapons and catapults, especially powerful catapults, are available to them.

I could, if prompted, go further along the lines already mentioned by other hon. Members. However, essentially my message is simple. This is part of a wider problem and I believe that all hon. Members would urge the Home Secretary to look at what is available to young people, and I urge him to look at those weapons which, even after, as I hope, the Bill becomes law, will still be available to young people.

12.49 pm
Mr. Bruinvels

With the leave of the House, I should like to reply briefly to the debate.

I should like to thank everybody who has taken part, especially the sponsors. The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) was right. I was presented with much temptation by the ballot. About 59 possible Bills were suggested to me. I did not want any of the others. I strongly believe in this Bill.

I assure people outside and crossbow sportsmen that never will match and field sports be stopped. It is the use and misuse of crossbows that is on the increase. Some 90 cases involving animals were recorded in the first 10 months of 1986. They are lethal weapons, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) said.

Parental duty must be reinforced. Assuming that the Bill receives a Second Reading, the Committee will consider whether a crossbow can be classified as an offensive weapon. The definition in the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 makes it clear that there is a need to show that there is an intent to cause injury. That is the important point.

Animals that have suffered need protection now. The Bill is to be welcomed. Crossbows will continue to be accurate up to at least 50 yds and we must do our best to get the Bill through the House as quickly as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).