HC Deb 27 March 1987 vol 113 cc703-11

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

12.16 pm
Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

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

Much has happened since the Second Reading on 30 January and the Committee stage on 25 February. I want to thank all members of the Committee and all my supporters for their help during the passage of the Bill to date.

Many representations have continued to come into my office since the Bill was first announced. I am still as strongly committed to the Bill as I was on day one. It is a fact of life that any crossbow in good condition and set up properly can put any competent rifleman rapidly on target. The only difference between shooting a crossbow and a rifle is that of missile speed and trajectory. Both travel at 250 ft a second.

These are killer machines. They are weapons of death, weapons of violence and weapons of crime, and are lethal to human beings and animals alike. Any action that will lessen violence must be considered any small contribution to the fight against rising crime.

We must remember that crossbows can kill without making a sound. More evidence of their accuracy has come to light since our last debate. We know that they can be very accurate at distances of up to 25 yd. In competitions, ranges of up to 60 yd are used, but that requires great skill on the part of the shooter.

A powerful crossbow has potential as a hunting weapon—it can be used to kill a deer or a person at 25 to 30 yd. At 50 to 60 yd, although not so very accurate, a crossbow can still kill. At 100 yd it can inflict a serious injury, although the chances of its hitting the target are remote.

The newspaper reports in the past few days have been just as worrying. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison), who sends his apologies for being absent today, has sent me a cutting from the Guardian and Gazette for 13 March 1987, which, under the heading, "Crossbow bolt into school", said: Pupils had a lucky escape on Monday when a metaltipped crossbow bolt was fired into a school physics laboratory. The bolt came in like a bullet…He"— that is the head of the joint sixth form centre told the Gazette that the bolt's speed was such that it did not even shatter the window. An incident described in The Journal, a Newcastle upon Tyne publication, on 9 February 1987, is similarly horrifying. Under the heading Sniper in crossbow bus attack it said, Police were last night hunting a sniper who fired a 14-inch long metal arrow into a passing bus and narrowly missed a young mother and her two-year-old child. Either could easily have been killed, and the bus driver and a passenger leapt from the double-decker to chase the bowman, but could not see him in the darkness. The Times, on 4 December 1986, provided further evidence. Under the heading, Life for man who shot and killed gardener with homemade rifle". It said: A man was yesterday jailed for life for a killing during a robbery in which he and two accomplices used crossbows and a home-made rifle to steal cash, jewellery and antiques worth £6,000. His son and Dougal used crossbows to maim a great dane and two boxer dogs, and Terence Clark shot the great dane dead. The Daily Telegraph of 25 February, under the heading, Man shot in leg by crossbow said that a postman was recovering in hospital last night after being shot by an unknown attacker with a crossbow while he stood at a bus stop. He was hit by a bolt from the weapon which went 7 in into his thigh. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has recorded nearly 200 crossbow attacks on animals during 1986. There has been a significant increase in attacks.

The Leatherhead Advertiser referred to the work of a fiend and a Cat's week of agony with crossbow wound". The RSPCA reports that a person in Carmarthen shot a family pet, a cat, with a crossbow bolt and shows a nasty photograph of that suffering cat.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for his support. On 3 December 1986 he said: Crossbows are, however, dangerous weapons in the wrong hands, and I do not consider that they are suitable to be in possession of unsupervised young people."—[Official Report, 3 December 1986; Vol. 106, c. 633.] In the Daily Mail he said that he was "keen" to act fast on crossbow law. The House of Lords debated this matter on 24 March and the concern expressed about wanting the crossbow legislation to be supported so as to ban these weapons of death was as great as mine.

A money resolution has not been required because the Home Office obviously wants this legislation. No additional funds are requested by the House.

In our debates on clause 6 we discussed increasing the fines and penalties imposed on people of 17 who injure themselves, their animals and other people by using crossbows. The Committee considered that the penalty under level 3 of a fine of £400 was not sufficiently high. understand that, under section 36(1) of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980, as amended by the Criminal Penalties etc. (Increase) Order 1984, statutory instrument No. 447/1984, magistrates courts cannot impose on a person under 17 a fine exceeding £400 for any offence. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister can confirm that all fines and penalties are increased from time to time, as they were in 1984. I hope that the penalties imposed on a child under 17 for buying, hiring or possessing a crossbow and receiving a level 3 fine are liable to be upgraded in line with inflation, as presumably are all other fines. I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Minister for sending me the Home Office guidelines on court sentences. The level 5 fine imposed on a person who sells crossbows is £2,000. Although I welcome that as being naturally tough, as one who believes in tough sentencing, I hope that it will also be upgraded in line with inflation.

The legislation provides for the punishments to ensure that young social miscreants will not take advantage of being able easily to get hold of crossbows. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already sent out guidelines to all traders to ensure that they are made aware that if they sell a crossbow—a weapon of death—to someone under 17 they will be liable to severe penalties, including a term of imprisonment and a £2,000 fine.

The statistics show that it is important that the Bill is put on the statute book as quickly as possible. In 1986 there were 115 incidents of misuse of crossbows. Of those incidents, five were domestic. There were two suicides, two attempted suicides, one misuse of a crossbow, 10 injuries to persons and many nasty injuries to animals. That is a terrible, shocking indictment of the way in which our young behave.

The letters that I have received to wish me good luck with the Bill are the most supportive that I have received on any matter other than the death penalty. I pay tribute to the Police Federation, which said: We strongly support your Bill. Crossbows should only be available to persons who have bona fide rights to use them … The only logical bona fide users are sportsmen who are practised in the art of this type of weapon. The National Farmers Union says that it supports me in my efforts to secure a modicum of control over the availability of crossbows for sale. It goes on to say: Successive Governments have declined to take positive action to combat the growing menace of this silent but lethal weapon, and we welcome the support for your Bill offered by the present Government. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says: Following your success in the ballot for Private Members' Bills I was pleased to see that you have taken on the issue of stricter crossbow control. The British Veterinary Association says that it supports my endeavours to, introduce some controls over the sale and use of crossbows and therefore welcomes your Bill". It gives me great pleasure to move the Third Reading of the Bill. I know that the Bill will punish those who misuse these weapons. I know that the House will support my Bill to control this shocking misuse of crossbows. I know that by prohibiting the sale of crossbows to anyone under the age of 17 years and by prohibiting the hire of crossbows to those same people we will prevent crossbows from falling into the hands of unsupervised youngsters. The situation as it was was undesirable. The legislation that I am trying to introduce today is similar to the firearms legislation. Indeed, I used very similar wording to the firearms legislation.

There will be a proper power of search to ensure that no crossbow can be whipped into o a football ground, reassembled and let off, injuring football spectators. The sale, purchase and possession of crossbows by those under 17 years of age will be enshrined in the Bill to prevent abuse in the future. I urge all tradesmen to act responsibly to ensure that they do not sell crossbows to people under the age of 17 years.

I should like to thank the Daily Mail for the use of its thunderbolt crossbow, which at one time I tried to bring into the House. Most of the hon. Members who saw it were amazed by the accuracy of the bolt and the bow. I should like to wish the Bill every success in another place, where it will be guided through by Lord Brougham and Vaux.

I pay tribute to the Home Office civil servants, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. The Bill is desperately needed. It will stop crossbow misuse protect animals and children and take temptation out of the minds of some evil-minded young people.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

I shall repeat the advice that I offered to the House earlier, because I have a duty to protect the rights of hon. Members whose Bills are on the Order Paper. On Third Reading, speeches should be confined to comment on the contents of the Bill.

12.28 pm
Mr. Ted Garrett (Wallsend)

I apologise for not being here at the start of this short debate, but I was detained at Heathrow by circumstances beyond my control.

I was a supporter of the Bill and I rise to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) for the skill and tenacity that he has shown in getting the Bill this far in its stages through Parliament. The Bill is needed and it has the right balance. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for the help and guidance that he gave us in Committee. I speak on behalf of some of the supporters from the Opposition parties who, unfortunately, are not present today, in wishing the Bill well in its further stages.

12.29 pm
Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

I do not wish to delay progress on the Bill for long, but I feel that it is important that, on behalf of Conservative Back Benchers, I should congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) on taking his Bill this far.

The Bill is an ideal example of how private Members' time can be used to great advantage. The whole of society, and particularly people with a great love for animals, are greatly in my hon. Friend's debt. People have been able to get away for far too long with using these lethal weapons and I am sorry that the problem was not tackled in earlier legislation. However, better late than never.

My only regret is that the Bill does not go further, because I believe that many people over the age of 17 also act irresponsibly. However, we must consider the Bill as a first step and I hope that the Home Office will watch matters carefully and see how the statistics move after the passing of the Bill. I also hope that, if necessary, we can extend the provisions of the Bill to other groups of people and perhaps introduce licences for crossbows.

My hon. Friend gave us some horrific details of how crossbows have been used at football matches and against animals. I feel that older people might have been responsible for such actions, but I welcome the Bill as a first step and wish it a speedy passage on to the statute book.

12.31 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

On behalf of the Labour party, I welcome the Bill. Home Office Ministers have been receiving representations from Labour Members on the growing worry about the accessibility of all sorts of weapons to virtually anyone who seriously wants to get them.

The Bill introduces an element of restriction on the sale of crossbows, but we should like it to go considerably further, although we realise that we could not expect that of a private Member's Bill. We have made representations to the Home Secretary in favour of much greater controls on the advertising and sale of all weapons, about the establishment of shops that sell such weapons and about whether we can agree changes in the law on the possession of weapons, including the increasing use of knives in criminal activities. We want the public and the police to be protected from the growing use of weapons by criminals.

We hope that the Home Secretary will speed up his consideration of our representations and that the House will support measures to make our country a safer place.

12.33 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. Brunviels) on the persuasive way in which he introduced his Bill. He has taken it through the House with great distinction, and that has not been entirely easy, because complicated points of law and practice are involved and my hon. Friend had to carry the measure through its Committee stage. I thank my hon. Friend and congratulate him on his achievements, not least the securing of all-party support for the Bill.

I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) in his place, because he played a prominent part in the Committee stage of the Bill, and his support was greatly appreciated. I am also pleased to see a number of my hon. Friends who served on the Committee and have spoken in the debate, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne).

The Bill is important, and it is equally important that its purpose and direction are fully understood. Clause 1 is designed to close a gap in the law that has existed for a long time. Although there are restrictions on the right to possess offensive weapons, there has not hitherto been any restriction on the selling or letting for hire of crossbows. Clause 1 contains the main provision of the Bill, which introduces a restriction on the ability of a vendor or hirer to sell, or let on hire, a crossbow.

We could have proceeded in a number of ways. We have been contemplating, and will introduce, guidance to traders, but we felt that we should go further and impose a statutory prohibition. There is at present no definition of the word crossbow, which troubled hon. Members on both sides of the House. However, we came to the conclusion that the word did not require a definition on the face of the Bill: the animal was perfectly recognisable. There is also no amplification of the defence of "reasonable ground" that appears on the face of the Bill. Again, we concluded—I think that most hon. Members agree—that the courts are in a position, and experienced enough, to determine the meaning of the phrase in the context of such a statutory provision.

If I had to summarise clause 1, I would say that it makes it an offence for a dealer to sell or hire a crossbow to anyone under the age of 17, unless he has reasonable ground to believe that that person is 17 or older. I am emphasising the responsibilities of the dealer, but the prohibition is general, and would apply equally to the non-dealer. However, for our present purposes, we are concerned with the primary mischief, which must inevitably involve the dealer.

That is the main impact of clause 1, but it also extends to mail order offences. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East was very concerned about the mail order sale of crossbows. Clause 1, couched in its present form, would extend to such sales. A person who sold a crossbow by mail order to a person under the age of 17 would be committing an offence, unless the statutory defence provided in the clause was satisfied.

Clause 2 makes it an offence for persons under 17 to buy or hire a crossbow, or part of a crossbow. It is, as it were, the other part of clause 1. I should emphasise one or two points. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East raised the question of the relationship between principal and agent. What would happen if an under-age person obtained the services of an over-age person to purchase a crossbow or part of a crossbow? The over-age person might be committing an offence by assisting another person to commit an offence. Moreover, there might be such a close connection between the under-age person and the over-age person as to enable the court to say that the under-age person was committing an offence through the intervention of the over-age person. I hope that the House will think that we have dealt with the anxieties so eloquently expressed in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East.

Of course, we have not concentrated only on the offence of sale. We have also concentrated on the offence of "letting on hire". If we did not have that provision, it would not be difficult for an unscrupulous dealer to push a coach and horses through the legislation.

Clause 3 adds another particular offence—possession of a crossbow, or parts of a crossbow, which can be assembled to form a crossbow capable of discharging a missile". Clause 3 deals with several concepts. The first involves the words "who has with him". I have been asked by hon. Members about the import of that phrase. It is narrower than the concept of possession. In law the concept of possession does not inevitably involve the concept of control. The phrase "who has with him" involves a concept of control, so if a crossbow is put on the wall of a room by an under-age person's parents, the chances are that the court would not say of the under-age person in the room that he had the crossbow "with him" because he has no control over it. If we had used the word "possession" the court might come to a wholly different conclusion.

The concept of supervision involves presence, knowledge and control. I hope the House believes that we have gone sufficiently far in clause 3 to meet the mischief with which we are concerned—a young person having in his possession a crossbow.

Hon. Members have asked me about the Prevention of Crime Act 1953. They say, "Is not a crossbow an offensive weapon for the purpose of that statute?" That has not been decisively determined by the courts. The best advice that I have received—and it is my opinion— is that a crossbow is not, per se, an offensive weapon. The question is whether the prosecution could establish a criminal intent to use it as an offensive weapon. For that reason, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East sensibly ensures in the Bill that there is a particular offence of having a crossbow "with him".

Mr. Dobson

I was not here for the Committee stage, but I am interested in the subject. I am slightly perturbed' about what seems to be a restrictive element in clause 3 (b), which states that it will be an offence if someone possesses parts of a crossbow, which together (and without any other parts) can be assembled to form a crossbow capable of discharging a missile. That seems restrictive, because it is possible for someone with parts of a crossbow in his possession to throw away a vital part such as the trigger mechanism, which is quite small. He would be able to demonstrate that he had with him parts of the crossbow that could not be assembled to form a crossbow capable of discharging a missile. I believe that some people who would be carrying parts of a crossbow in such circumstances are exactly the type of people who are pretty fly about slinging away the necessary bit. I wonder whether the restriction can be attended to in the House of Lords?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Member has shown that he should be a defence lawyer. Clearly, he is a lawyer manque at heart. I often wonder why he bothers to intervene in the debates on health. He knows a certain amount about the law, but I am not sure that he knows so much about health care, but that is a different matter.

Mr. Dobson

It is because I have Lincoln's Inn and Gray's Inn in my constituency.

Mr. Hogg

I am delighted by that observation.

The hon. Gentleman's argument needs careful examination. He is suggesting that if a potential offender disposes of the trigger, the string or some other essential part of the crossbow, the prosecution would be unable to establish an offence under clause 3. However, it is a matter of evidence.

If a young person is seen traipsing down the street holding a crossbow in a collapsed form and is stopped, and if a puddle is seen to well up in an adjoining canal, and if perchance the trigger is missing, I do not think that it would be beyond the scope of a clever police officer to say, "My friend, did you throw the trigger away?" Or perhaps, "Why are you going about with a collapsed crossbow that does not have a trigger?" That sort of question would appeal to any police officer faced with such a problem. If the police officer could satisfy the court that the young offender cast the trigger into the canal and hence caused the puddle, the offence would be proved. It is a matter of evidence.

Mr. Dobson

I was not trying to make a daft debating point. I believe that the qualifications in clause 3 (b) will, at some stage in the proceedings at a magistrates court or Crown court, end up with the police giving evidence and some slick lawyer, no doubt from Lincoln's Inn or Gray's Inn in my constituency, successfully pleading that the pieces of the crossbow were not capable of being made up into a crossbow that could discharge a missile. The Home Office officials have been helpful and I believe that it would be worth while if they studied this problem and came up with something better. We do not want the police to be faced with taking people to court and then not succeeding because of something daft that we have done in this House.

Mr. Hogg

If I may say so, my advice to the hon. Gentleman is that he should not refer to his constituents as "slick lawyers"—

Mr. Dobson

They are stupid lawyers.

Mr. Hogg

Stupid lawyers! If the hon. Gentleman insists on referring to his constituents in such pejorative terms, he should not be the least bit surprised when they refuse to vote for him.

Mr. Dobson

I do not expect them to vote for me.

Mr. Hogg

I am not in the least bit surprised.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Warrington, South)


Mr. Hogg

I give way to my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Carlisle

If that is the view of my Member of Parliament, I certainly shall not vote for him.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. I believe that we should get back to crossbows.

Mr. Hogg

I believe that we should let the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) off the hook, as I see that he is becoming increasingly embarrassed. In the desire to maintain the all-party spirit on this legislation, I believe that we must press ahead.

With regard to clauses 1, 2 and 3, I believe that we have got the balance about right or I should say that my hon. Friend the member for Leicester, East has got the balance right. There are several competing interests that we have to take into account. The first is the absolute necessity to introduce some form of statutory control of the type that we have discussed. Secondly, we have to bear in mind that there is a legitimate sporting activity that needs to be protected. This sport is growing, and my hon. Friend is anxious that it should be protected, and he is right. I believe that in the fullness of time it will have Olympic status. As my hon. Friend knows, the sport is enjoyed by the handicapped. My hon. Friend's reputation in this sphere is second to none. Therefore, we have to take into account the need to protect the genuine sportsman.

The third, and equally important, point is the need to maintain employment. As the House knows, about 700 jobs, excluding retail, are involved. The principal manufacturer is Barnett International. I do not have the figures beyond 1985, but I understand that in 1985 the turnover was over £4 million, that about 16,000 or 17,000 crossbows were sold in England and Wales, and that the majority— about 85 per cent.— of crossbows are exported. Therefore, when we consider such legislation, we must keep a balance between the need to impose restrictions, the desire to protect the sportsman and the need to protect the industry. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East feels that we have the balance about right.

One aspect of getting the balance right is clause 5, which deals with toy crossbows. Not many toy crossbows are produced—it is a small market—but the most obvious example is a crossbow called the Bandit, which is manufactured by Barnett International. The draw weight, as a concept, is the weight necessary to cock the crossbow. The Home Office forensic science department has looked at what would be a safe weight. The Bandit, which is an example of a toy crossbow, has a draw weight of 2.5 lbs. Taking, for safety— to take account of fluctuations in batches—a draw weight of 3 lbs, that justifies the figure of 1.4 kg, which appears in clause 5. By introducing that limit, we hope to ensure that toys that are marketed as toys are not subject to the prohibition in the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East spoke about penalties, which are the subject of clause 6. We have made a distinction between the punishment that can be awarded to a person committing an offence under clause 1 and the punishment that can be imposed on the underage person under clauses 2 and 3. In clause 1 we are dealing with a maximum of six months' imprisonment, or a scale 5 fine, which is £2,000 whereas offences under clauses 2 and 3 are punishable by a scale 3 fine.

My hon. Friend is correct in his description of the reason why we could not impose a more substantial fine on the under-age offender. The legislation prevents us from imposing a fine in excess of £400 on a person under 17. He asked whether the legislation dealing with fines is likely to result in uprating. It is. There is a procedure for the uprating of scales, and that will happen. However, as inflation is reduced to low figures, which is the consequence of the Government's policy, we do not uprate the figures as often as they had to be in the days when the Labour party was in charge, when it was supported for a considerable time by the Liberal party. That is another point that my hon. Friend might bear in mind.

Your predecessor in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, rightly urged upon me the need to respect the business of the House, in the sense that there are other pressing measures to be debated. Therefore, I should draw my remarks to a conclusion. I should like to end as I began, by saying that the Home Office was pleased to have the opportunity of supporting the Bill, so eloquently argued and skilfully carried through by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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