HC Deb 23 May 1988 vol 134 cc100-16

'(1) An Order in Council under paragraph 1(1)(b) of Schedule I to the Northern Ireland Act 1974 (legislation for Northern Ireland in the interim period) which states that it is made only for purposes corresponding to those of provisions of this Act to which this section applies—

  1. (a) shall not be subject to paragraph 1(4) and (5) of that Schedule (affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament); but
  2. (b) shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House.

(2) This section applies to—

  1. (a) section 1(1), (2) and (4);
  2. (b) section 7;
  3. (c) section 8(1), (3) and (6);
  4. (d) section 9;
  5. (e) section 10(5) and (6);
  6. (f) section 17(1);
  7. (g) section 19(1), (2), (4), (5) and (6).'.—[Mr. Stanley.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Stanley)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments to the proposed new clause: (a), leave out line 9.

  1. (b), leave out line 10.
  2. (c), leave out line 11.
  3. (d), leave out line 12.
  4. (e), leave out line 13.
  5. (f), leave out line 14.
  6. (g), leave out line 15.
It will also be convenient to take the following: Government amendments Nos. 21 and 22.

Amendment No. 102, in clause 20, page 10, line 38, before 'This', insert 'Except for—

  1. (a) section 1(1), (2) and (4);
  2. (b) section 7;
  3. (c) section 8(1), (3) and (6);
  4. (d) section (9);
  5. (e) section 10(5) and (6);
  6. (f) section 17(1);
  7. (g) section 19(1), (2), (4), (5) and (6);

Mr. Stanley

The House will be aware that, because of the security situation, firearms control in Northern Ireland is extremely tight and it is necessary to take an altogether more restrictive approach to the possession of firearms there than in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Strict controls over the possession of firearms are exercised by the Chief Constable through the discretionary powers given to him under the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981. Those powers are subject to a right of appeal to Ministers. However, we are concerned that the basic statutory provisions in relation to firearms controls in Northern Ireland should remain in line with those for the rest of the United Kingdom. As the changes now being given effect in Great Britain under this Bill would in some areas represent useful minor improvements and refinements of the existing statutory controls in Northern Ireland, we felt that it was right to take advantage of this Bill to make certain corresponding changes to Northern Ireland's legislation.

The purpose of new clause 4 is to provide authority for the making of an Order in Council subject to the negative resolution procedure to apply in Northern Ireland those provisions of the Bill specified in the new clause. Subsection (1) of the new clause enables the negative resolution rather than the affirmative resolution procedure to be applied to the proposed Northern Ireland Order in Council. It is felt that that is the more appropriate procedure, given the fact that the Order in Council must be limited to the provisions of new clause 4 and that the House will have had an opportunity to consider new clause 4 in this debate.

As to subsection (2)(a), the specially dangerous weapons and ammunition now prohibited by clause 1 of the Bill are already prohibited to the public in Northern Ireland. That is achieved by the Chief Constable exercising his discretionary powers under the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 rather than by specific statutory prohibition. Paragraph (a) will keep the statutory controls in Northern Ireland for those types of specially dangerous weapons and ammunition in line with those in Great Britain. It will have no effect on firearms certificate holders in Northern Ireland.

Mr. William Ross

Before the Minister leaves the subject of firearm certificates, will he make it clear that all firearms in Northern Ireland, including shotguns, have to be held on a firearms certificate? That is the great difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Stanley

I certainly endorse what the hon. Gentleman says.

I turn to paragraph (b). In common with the Firearms Act 1968, the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 specifies that one photograph must accompany firearm certificate applications. Administrative experience has shown the value of having two photographs in such circumstances, and in practice two are already supplied. The opportunity presented by the Bill has been taken to enable an amendment to the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 to include reference to the provision of two photographs. That is achieved by paragraph (b).

In Northern Ireland, the registration of firearms dealers takes place on 1 January each year. To extend the period of registration of firearms dealers in Great Britain to three years without reciprocal action in Northern Ireland legislation would put Northern Ireland dealers at a relative disadvantage, in that they would have to pay a registration fee annually rather than triennially. We also consider it desirable to provide in Northern Ireland as in Great Britain that a dealer whose name has been removed from the register of dealers should surrender his register of transactions. That is to prevent the loss of records which may be of subsequent use to the police. Those amendments to Northern Ireland legislation are achieved by paragraph (c) of subsection (2).

In Northern Ireland at present, there are no physical security requirements asked of auctioneers, carriers and warehouse men who handle and transport firearms. All others who handle firearms, such as dealers and authorised repair agents, are required to provide extensive security. Paragraph (d) will enable those businesses to be required to take reasonable precautions for the security of firearms and ammunition under their control.

Paragraph (e) will provide for police powers of entry and inspection of rifle and pistol club premises to ensure that a club is operating according to its authorisation. At present, police may enter and search club premises only if it is suspected that an offence has been committed. Paragraph (e) will make possible improved monitoring of rifle and pistol clubs to ensure that their activities are fully in accordance with their terms of authorisation, which are given under article 54 of the 1981 order.

Paragraph (f) is a minor consequential amendment. Powers exist under article 13 of the 1981 order enabling the Secretary of State to authorise the use of a prohibited weapon subject to appropriate safeguards in theatrical or other performances. This paragraph brings the list of such prohibited weapons up to date, in line with the changes made by the Bill.

Paragraph (g) deals with interpretation and supplementary provisions. They will enable definitions, time limits for prosecutions and detailed rules for the serving of notices and exemptions contained in the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 to be carried over to the new Order in Council.

Finally, consequential amendment No. 21 will enable new clause 4 to come into effect after enactment of the Bill, subject to the negative resolution Order in Council that will be based upon it. Amendment No. 22 makes the necessary amendment to apply new clause 4 to Northern Ireland.

Now that I have explained new clause 4, the House may agree that my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State was entirely right in responding to the motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) by saying that new clause 4 either reflects in the statute what is already existing practice or makes extremely minor changes in Northern Ireland legislation.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Before my hon. Friend sits down, what he has not explained to the House, and what l think needs explaining, is why what he has said was not equally true when the Bill was in draft. Why is this brought in by, as it were, a side wind at Report stage, rather than having been embodied in the Bill when it was in draft? Does his own Secretary of State never meet the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? The House needs to know.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) made the perfectly fair point that he was prevented from taking part in certain debates in Committee on the ground that at that stage the Bill did not apply to Northern Ireland. If there are not amendments down to a given clause now that the Bill is on the Floor of the House, he will not have the opportunity of debating it here either. My right hon. Friend has an obligation to tell the House why the case that he is making now is not an equally good case for having embodied it in the Bill in the first place.

Mr. Stanley

My hon. Friend will know as well as anyone that the Bill has been the subject of considerable debate, and that there have been a number of changes in Government policy and thinking as it has evolved. It was not possible when the Bill was introduced to take a final view on whether it would be sensible to make what are, as I have sought to explain, very minor changes in Northern Ireland legislation. By the time that the Bill had made some progress in Committee, it had become apparent that there could be a useful degree of tidying up of the statutory provisions. At the end of March, my hon. Friend wrote to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who leads for the Opposition, saying that we intended to make these relatively minor changes when the Bill reached the Report stage.

9 pm

Mr. William Ross

We have just heard what I can only describe as an astonishing admission from the Minister. He has confirmed what all of us who have taken an interest in the Bill have known since it first saw the light of day—that it was not properly thought through, but was a knee-jerk reaction. Only as it progressed and people such as myself asked more and more questions about it did it become apparent not only to the Home Office but to the Northern Ireland Office that here was a vehicle that could be used.

This is a most unusual procedure. The Government cannot get away with saying that it was a convenient way of doing things. On every other occasion when they have wanted to bring the firearms law, and indeed many other laws, in Northern Ireland into line with those in Great Britain they have brought in an order. There is no reason why that should not have been done on this occasion.

Do not get me wrong, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not want the House to think that I object to United Kingdom legislation. On the contrary, I welcome it. What I cannot stand is this measure being slipped in as an afterthought, and an afterthought it most assuredly was. I can take no other meaning from the Minister's speech.

The Minister also told us that the application of the legislation to Northern Ireland was largely unnecessary. That is clear to those of us who know anything about firearms and the firearms law in Northern Ireland. We know that it is extremely tight. We know that looking for a standard full-bore self-loading rifle is like looking for hens' teeth. It is not easy to obtain such a weapon, or even any high-powered centre line rifle. Firearms certificates simply are not granted for such weapons—not that the IRA uses legal weapons anyway. God knows it ships them in from elsewhere by the shipload, and it is not the kind of stuff that it is using anyway. The plain truth is that such weapons, in the hands of sympathisers with terrorist organisations, could presumably be used for training purposes and to allow people to acquire expertise in handling firearms.

I well understand that, and well understand also the restrictions that have been applied. However, I have a serious objection to the procedure that is being used. Let me explain the reasons for the amendments put down by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) and myself. First, we wished to draw attention to our dissatisfaction with the procedure. We wanted to give the House an opportunity to discuss in relation to Northern Ireland all that was discussed in Committee, and anything else that occurred to us since. It seems to be the fashion nowadays to think of more and more as the passage of a Bill continues. Certainly that is the line of action that the Government have been following. That opportunity is open to the House this evening.

Amendment No. 102 deals with the part of the Bill that says that the legislation does not apply to Northern Ireland. If the Minister is honest, I think that he will confess that the method that we have proposed for extending the provisions to Northern Ireland is much neater and simpler than the route that he has chosen. I hope that he will accept amendment No. 102 and withdraw his new clause. I would find that a perfectly satisfactory course, after we have thoroughly explored the application of these slabs of the Bill to Northern Ireland.

Later—probably much later—the House will have an opportunity to discuss whether there should be two, or three, photographs. My experience, as the holder of a firearms certificate, is that the police expect me to produce two photographs. One of the photographs is on the firearms certificate. The second is held in police headquarters, where it is of little use to anybody, except to those in police headquarters. It is looked at every three or four years. A third photograph would be most welcome. The local station would then be provided with a photograph. That point has been put to me most strongly, and I hope that the Minister will take note of it and move in that direction.

There is so much that one could say about all these clauses. I could spend all evening on them. These amendments are the heart and soul of the Bill and caused the most anger in Committee. The Government had to consider them very carefully. They were introduced as a direct result of the Hungerford incident.

Why have the Government introduced the Bill? Why have they decided to proceed in this way at this time? Every honest person knows that this was the Government's reaction to the Hungerford massacre. Their excuse was that the law was insufficient to deal with Hungerford. That point has been raised again in this debate, and so far there has been no satisfactory answer to it.

I shall attempt to run through some of the events on that dreadful day. The shock of that massacre spread throughout the whole island of Great Britain and muddied people's thinking. I was distant from it but, sadly, I was all too well aware of the reaction—of the numb horror that can strike a community after such an incident. However, I had the advantage, apart from being distant from it, of 20 years of terrorism; an advantage which I could well do without and which I should be very happy to do without. Nevertheless, those experiences are with me, with the result that I tend to take a cooler look at such incidents than do those who have them thrust in their faces for the first time.

The Bill will have no effect on terrorist activity. By their very nature, terrorists are lawbreakers. They will be unconcerned about any law that is passed to control firearms. They will steal them if they find them handy, but a terrorist who is serious in his intentions does not rely upon a few .22 rifles or even self-loading rifles. He relies to a large extent upon far more lethal machinery and upon high explosives. That has been proven day after day, and happened in Londonderry last night.

Who, or what, are we trying to control by the Bill and by the other firearms legislation? We are trying to keep firearms out of the hands of known criminals, yet I am told that it is possible for people who are suspected of engaging in criminal activities to visit pistol galleries in Great Britain and shoot to their heart's content. There is nothing to stop their doing so. If we can identify them, I believe that it is our duty to keep firearms of all types out of the hands of those who are actually or potentially mentally unstable. That is extremely difficult, but I have tabled an amendment to cover that point, which I hope the House will consider carefully.

There are people who have a history of violence, although it may not be classed as criminal violence. There are people who have suffered some mental illness, and who may well suffer from mental illness again, and there are people who show a general lack of responsibility. Perhaps that is more apparent in young men than it is in older people, but responsibility is important for those who own and handle firearms. That covers the majority of the groups from whom we should actively endeavour to keep firearms. Hon. Members may think of other smaller groups and categories, but I believe that I have encompassed most of them.

Most people who own firearms have been so well screened by their peers or by the police that very few legally held weapons are ever used in crime. In addition to the Firearms Acts, police forces have a code which they impose. I consider that the present law and the code of practice carried into effect by the Thames Valley police should have been sufficient to stop Mr. Ryan getting his weapons. I understand that the Thames Valley police enjoy a fairly high reputation with shooting clubs. That makes it all the more sad that on this occasion they appear to have fallen short of those high standards.

The questions that I have asked and the very slow dribble of information that appeared to the world as a result of that sad story should not be allowed to go unnoticed. There are lessons which have not properly been absorbed or learnt by the House, by the country and possibly by the police. If they have, nothing has been published that convinces me that those lessons have been learnt. Although chief constables can issue firearms certificates whenever they wish, they do not do so. They lay down strictures as to who may or may not have firearms. The special procedures created by the Thames Valley police force——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have been waiting patiently to see how the hon. Gentleman relates the substance of his argument to the new clause under discussion and the amendments to it. I am finding it very difficult to do so. It would be quite wrong for the hon. Gentleman to go into detail on events arising from the Hungerford occurrence.

Mr. Ross

I bow to your judgment, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was hoping to prove that if the police in charge of the Hungerford occurrence had applied their own regulations, which must be co-existent with the firearms law, that situation would not have arisen. The amendments will not prevent someone like Ryan in future legally laying his hands on firearms unless the police carry out their procedures absolutely accurately and fully. In that context I was hoping to draw attention to the fact that the police had not really followed their code of practice. Whether they would follow the proposed firearms legislation, or whether they followed firearms legislation in force at that time, is open to debate. The amendments do not make sense unless the administration procedure used by the police in all cases is properly followed.

It is only by example that one can come to a full understanding of how the firearms law operates in practice. When one considers the history of the Ryan saga and how he got his firearms, one begins to wonder how closely the police followed the law. One then has to question whether the police will follow any amendments that we may make, even in regard to Northern Ireland.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

The hon. Gentleman suggests that the Thames Valley police did not follow their own guidelines when they allowed Michael Ryan to have a firearms certificate. He will know that Ryan had been a probationary member of the Dunmore shooting centre for three months and that, in September 1986, that was the only requirement that the club required for full membership. After three months, when Ryan applied to the Thames Valley police, he was given a firearms certificate on the basis of his membership of the centre and of his being a consistent shooter at it.

Because the centre used only pistols, Ryan joined a club with a rifle range and applied to have rifles added to his certificate. He was allowed the addition to his certificate. The hon. Gentleman has tried to claim that, because Ryan did not go through the full procedure, but obtained a firearms certificate as a result of membership of Dunmore, he was somehow beyond the law when he obtained his rifle certificate. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman is wrong and that the chief constable was right in believing that, once he awarded a certificate, the addition of another weapon to the certificate was not——

9.15 pm
Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Interventions should be brief. Moreover, what I feared when I reproached the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) is now happening—instead of discussing how relevant the application of parts of the Bill are to Northern Ireland, we are having a House of Commons inquiry into the Hungerford occurrence, and we are not going to have that.

Mr. Ross

I am sorry that we shall not have such an inquiry. There does not seem to be any great willingness to have one outside either.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Such an inquiry would be quite irrelevant to a discussion of new clause 4.

Mr. Ross

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope, however, to be able to follow up the matter in another context. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) has been a personal friend for many years, but I must tell him that the police code demanded a six-month probationary period. When the police officer arrived to inspect the arrangements, he was bound to be shown the Dunmore card. I understand that Ryan had only a probationary card, which was a quite different colour from the full membership card.

There is much more to say about the Ryan affair. No doubt it will be possible to say some of it before the night is done. My amendments—(a), (b), (c), (d), (e), (f) and (g)—cover all the matters that occupied the first sitting of the Standing Committee. These issues were the source of much pain and difficulty. I was left with the impression of the Government making a knee-jerk reaction. That is not appropriate for the Government. Firearms legislation is extremely important and we should be absolutely clear about our objectives before we embark on it. The Government are acting in haste. They have not sat down and thought through seriously the effects of what they are proposing.

There is no point in passing law for Northern Ireland which will simply annoy the law abiding. God knows they have had reason enough in the past few years to be annoyed at Government action. The small group of people who are fortunate enough to be able to practise full-bore rifle shooting and to take part in international competition will now be clobbered and, to put it mildly, that is unfortunate. They will say to me, to the Government and to every public representative, "Why have you done this? Why are you attacking us when there is a far bigger firearms problem in this country which, after 20 years, you have not resolved?" When the Minister eventually replies, those are the questions to which he should address his mind.

The Minister has told us that most of those things are already covered by existing police powers in Northern Ireland. I have pointed out to the House that it is practically impossible to get a firearms certificate for a full-bore rifle in Northern Ireland. The Minister has told us that the amendments that have been tabled are minor. They are so minor that they could have been run through the House on the nod after 10 o'clock some evening if the Minister had cared to produce a little order or a statutory instrument. He now has before him his own cumbersome and inept way of extending the legislation to Northern Ireland. He also has before him a carefully drawn amendment in the names of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley and myself. That amendment has the same effect.

I hope that the Minister will get to his feet shortly and say that he will accept amendment No. 102 and reject his own, because I believe that is the most sensible and reasonable way to proceed. My amendment will have the same effect as his own and will get over some of the constitutional fury that his present procedure has aroused.

There is a great deal more that I should like to say on this important issue. However, there are a number of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Conservative Benches who expressed their concern in Committee. I hope that it will be possible to leave it to them to follow up this matter and to make the same arguments in relation to Northern Ireland as they made in relation to Great Britain. I also hope that this is the last time that I shall see such a miserable procedure used to extend any legislation to the Province, part of which I have the honour to represent.

Mr. Colvin

I have one simple, short question for my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office. It concerns the legislation that we are in the process of amending. New clause 4 proposes to change the Northern Ireland Act 1974. The Home Office produced a memorandum in response to the publication of a Council directive by the European Commission on the control of the acquisition and possession of weapons. The Home Office memorandum addressed the impact of that directive on United Kingdom law. It said that The relevant legislation of Great Britain is the Firearms Act 1968 —which we are in the process of amending. It also said that the relevant legislation for Northern Ireland was the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981.

When my right hon. Friend comes to reply, will he confirm that we are in the process of amending the right piece of legislation because it would be a waste of the time of the House if we did the wrong thing?

Mr. Corbett

I am delighted that the Minister of State Northern Ireland Office is here tonight. I would like to apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) who is not here for precisely the reason that the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) and others have complained about—the way in which the Government changed their mind about the extension of many of the provisions of the Bill to cover Northern Ireland when that was not mentioned on Second Reading and when, as the hon. Member for Londonderry, East said, discussion on it was not possible in Committee. It gets worse than that. Standing Committee F, which discussed the Bill, had its last sitting on 11 March 1988. The letter I received from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department bears the date 22 March. I understand that it is reasonably rare for letters to be written on the date they bear at the top. In many cases, as right hon. and hon. Members will know, the month and the year are typed and when the Minister is topping and tailing the letter he will chalk in the date. The date on this letter is typed and, it has to be said, it was certainly drafted well before 22 March because it had to shunt through various procedures and it ended up in that famous grey area in the Home Office where it is decided whether it is fit and proper to present it, even to the Under-Secretary of State.

It is fair to assume that the Northern Ireland Office and the Home Office were in consultation over extending the provisions of the Bill to Northern Ireland while our Committee was sitting. Should the Minister catch your eye again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, perhaps he will be kind enough to tell us at what stage he or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made representations to the Home Secretary about extending the provisions to Northern Ireland or when he was invited by the Home Secretary to respond to the Home Secretary's suggestion that they should be extended to Northern Ireland.

The Government have treated the House, let alone the Committee, less than courteously. It is one of the hallmarks of the way in which the Bill has been handled since it first saw the light of day.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that this has been a matter on which there has been rare cross-party agreement on many aspects; positive and negative. Unless things have changed, will the hon. Gentleman accept that it would not simply be a matter of negotiation between the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? The legislation sub-committee of the Cabinet would have to give its consent to the importing into a Bill at this stage of no fewer than 16 changes to the law and, certainly, the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip would have had to consent to that being done. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that all that must have taken place while Standing Committee F, which did a first-class job on the Bill, was still in being.

Mr. Corbett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because everything he said must be so. To that extent, the plot thickens. We are left with the question to which I hope the Minister will respond: why was this not in the Bill when it came to the House for Second Reading? If for some reason that was not possible, why were the amendments not mentioned by the Minister during the sittings of the Committee?

Mr. Frank Cook

Do I understand my hon. Friend correctly? Is he suggesting that, when the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) was seeking to make reference to conditions in Northern Ireland and the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) was advising him as Chairman of the Committee that references of that sort were improper, out of place and out of order, these matters were being considered behind closed doors?

Mr. Corbett

I am saying that that must be so. This move cannot have appeared out of a clear blue sky. It is not as if one of the Ministers involved suddenly stepped out of the bath one morning and thought to himself, "I know what I'll do today. I'll extend the provisions of the Bill to Northern Ireland. I've got nothing else to do and it will fill in the odd half hour".That does not bear thinking about.

9.30 pm

I apologise to hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee. I assumed—wrongly as it turned out—when the Parliamentary Under-Secretary wrote to me on 22 March that he had had the courtesy to write to every member of the Standing Committee. That would have been the proper thing to do, but I now know that it did not happen.

On the buy-in scheme—the compensation scheme—the Minister carried out the undertaking to inform members of the Standing Committee about the Government's proposals as far ahead of this debate as possible, and we are grateful to him for his courtesy in doing that. However, that was not done in respect of the proposals to extend some of the controls in the Bill to Northern Ireland.

I claim no more rights than any other member of the Standing Committee. It so happens that during most of the Committee's proceedings I led for the Opposition, but I do not want special treatment. Every member of the Standing Committee had an equal right to know that the Government were contemplating this major change. It was not contained in the original Bill and thus could not have been discussed on Second Reading—yet another subject that we were unable to discuss. I do not want to add to the Minister's discomfort, but he will remember the little altercation we had over trying to ensure that the Committee could discuss the matter of compensation if it wanted to. The Minister had to return to the House to seek approval for a second money order to make it possible for the Committee to discuss something that, on Second Reading, the Government had said that they were not going to do and did not want anything said about after Second Reading.

Mr. William Ross

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that usually, when Northern Ireland legislation is brought forward, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) is informed. The letter may well have gone astray in the post but my right hon. Friend cannot recall ever receiving any such confirmation and neither can I. What sort of political skullduggery are the Government up to here? It is unbelievable that this could happen.

Mr. Corbett

This goes from bad to worse. Not only was the proposal kept from every member of the Committee but me—I assume that that was no accident—but now we hear that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) was not told either. This may not comfort him, but he may be interested to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North was not told. I do not know who was supposed to tell him, but whoever it was did not. From the way in which things work in this place one can assume that it was the responsibility of Northern Ireland Ministers to tell members of the Opposition and of other parties with a clear and well-known interest in Northern Ireland what had been suggested by the Northern Ireland Office to the Home Secretary—or vice versa—or what, as the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) said, had been agreed and decided at Cabinet level. What seems to have happened is that the responsibility did not simply disappear in a fog, but dropped down a big black hole.

Generally, I have no objection to the extension of these parts of the Bill to Northern Ireland. I do not know whether the Northern Ireland Minister has seen the Under-Secretary's letter, but he will agree with this because not only did his hon. Friend say it, but right hon. and hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies confirm it. The Under-Secretary reminds me in his letter that firearms controls in Northern Ireland are exercised under the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 and adds that those controls are generally tighter than those in Great Britain. That compounds the mystery. If the controls are tighter and more stringent, for horrendous reasons that we all understand and accept, what is the need for the provision? If that need is as compelling as the Minister has implied because he says that the provision will help for the various reasons that he gave in moving the new clause, I must ask him again why those compelling reasons only partly saw the light of day in the Under-Secretary of State's letter to me of 22 March.

Would the police and security forces in Northern Ireland happen across a copy of the Bill on their way to work or pick it up in the canteen because somebody had left it there, and say, "Well, that seems a good idea. Let's have it."? Of course it does not happen like that. I ask the Minister to understand that I accept that. That emphasises this point: why did the Government act in that 'way, behind the back of the Committee and of Opposition Members with responsibilities for Northern Ireland? I do not believe that it is simply incompetence, although I suspect that that is part of it. Yet again, it is an illustration of the slipshod manner in which the Bill was prepared. That has led to the new clause and 176 other amendments on Report, 63 of them from the Government themselves. The Bill remains littered with confusion. There is confusion of purpose and confusion about the aim of the Bill. Having been through all those Committee sittings, I get the impression that not a single Minister or team of Ministers has sat down and said, "What do we want to achieve? What is the best way of achieving it?" Those are two straightforward and simple questions.

I listened to what the hon. Member for Londonderry, East said, and I suspect that what happened in the wake of the appalling events in Hungerford was that senior officials at the Home Office were sent for and told, "We must do something. Give us a bit of paper." If that was so, it was a wholly improper way in which to proceed.

After that row and the argument about compensation in Committee, the Government have sprung another one on us late in the day. They say, "Trust us," giving the impression that it has only just been thought of.

Mr. Frank Cook

I am following closely what my hon. Friend is saying. I am trying to hang on to the same logic, but there is a difficulty that we should discuss. My hon. Friend agreed with the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths), who suggested that when we spoke about Northern Ireland in Committee we were told that the Bill did not relate to it but that consultations were taking place behind closed doors almost simultaneously. On issues such as compensation and on at least two clauses in the Bill, the Minister had to backtrack and go away. Initially he could not even get his sittings motion passed because matters were so ill-considered.

In my mind is the picture painted by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds of some kind of subterfuge and conspiracy. There is also the picture that I recall from Committee of gross ineptitude and lack of preparedness. I cannot equate one with the other. Perhaps my hon. Friend can come up with some explanation.

Mr. Corbett

My hon. Friend illustrates the point well. I suspect that both things were happening at the same time and that the people involved in one did not know about the other. It is a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing, and in this case both hands were probably held out of sight.

The Minister should be clear. Hon. Members want the most stringent and effective legal steps to try to reduce the number of murders carried out in Northern Ireland by terrorists using firearms. We object to the way in which the Government and the Minister have chosen to treat a topic that deserves and demands better consideration than we are able to give it on Report.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

As you have just come into the Chair, Mr. Speaker, perhaps I should make it clear that references to my earlier remarks do not mean that I have spoken to this clause, and therefore I do not need to ask leave to speak again.

I approach the new clause more in sorrow than in anger, first, because I want the Bill as amended and I am off to Gibraltar in the morning and am anxious not to remain here throughout the night. Secondly, I have a very high regard for my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, and for all the Home Office Ministers who have been occupied with the Bill. I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept that comment in the way that it is intended. I acquit them at once of any suggestion that they have engaged in subterfuge or conspiracy. I am tempted to quote the inelegant phrase of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, who said the other day that it was more a matter of a cock-up than a conspiracy.

There is here an issue of important principle. Like many other hon. Members, I have no fundamental objection to the contents of the new clause and the amendments that it makes to no fewer than 16 sections or subsections of the Northern Ireland Act 1974. It is not a small matter, but I have no objections in principle, because effectively the provisions move into statute law what is already the practice of the police in Northern Ireland. There is certainly merit in making sure that the practice of the police has statutory cover. The Northern Ireland Office is not to be criticised for wanting to do that; nor should the Home Office be criticised for wanting to facilitate it.

Mr. William Ross

There is an important issue here, to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn our attention. If it is police practice, it could easily be changed when circumstances in Northern Ireland change—when terrorism diminishes and we return to peaceful conditions. We are creating a body of law that will be very difficult to change even if it becomes desirable to do so.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

That is the hon. Gentleman's view and he has great knowledge of Northern Ireland, which I respect. I do not happen to share his view, because it is not the advice that I have received from the police. I am putting to the House a fundamental point about the way in which the Government have chosen to proceed. The lack of notice to the House as a whole has been wrong. The bad manners shown to members of Standing Committee F are disgraceful. That Committee worked extremely hard, and it was entitled to be told by the Government that this intention had been formed and approved of by the Cabinet before the Committee had ceased its work.

One should also protest at the exclusion from any consultation about the new clause and amendments of significant sections of our fellow countrymen. They might have had an interest in these changes, but have had no opportunity to discuss them since they came on the Amendment Paper last Thursday and we are dealing with them now, for the last time, on the following Monday. The exclusion of our fellow citizens from any effective consultation is a reprehensible way in which to proceed.

9.45 pm

I should remind my hon. Friend—he is a Northern Ireland Minister and therefore was not intimately involved in this legislation—that, on Second Reading, Northern Ireland was not just left out, but was explicitly excluded. In Committee, hon. Members who strayed into discussing Northern Ireland were reminded by the Chair that they should not do so because Northern Ireland was not included. Therefore, in my capacity as adviser to the police service, I did not consult the Northern Ireland Police Federation, as I would have done normally. I told the police that they did not need to apply their minds to this legislation because it did not apply to Northern Ireland. I did so on the authority not only of Ministers but of the Chairman of the Committee. What else could I do? The procedure throughout the Bill has been, to put it mildly, unsatisfactory.

Mr. Colvin

My hon. Friend's point is important, as is the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett). If the Committee had known the decision had been made to apply the law to Northern Ireland, and if that been known to the House when we voted earlier on the motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-mare (Mr. Wiggin), the House might have come to a different conclusion.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

That is as may be. In my judgment, if Standing Committee F had been made aware of the Government's intention to apply these clauses to Northern Ireland, the Committee would have assented. It was a good Committee, which considered these matters with great care. A Minister representing a Northern Ireland constituency served on it. If the matter had been given to us we would have debated it and come to the conclusion, based on their merits, that these amendments should be included. I have little doubt about that.

I do not object to the importing of different matter into the Bill on Report. Many of us who have served in government have seen this happen, and Governments of all complexions have done this. The procedure is not in any way outside the norms of Parliament. However, there are ways and means of doing it that were not followed in this case. For example—Mr. Speaker, your experience will probably bear this out—when a Government intend on Report to add significant new matter to a Bill, it is often the case that a question is arranged so that it appears in Hansard and all Members are aware of what is intended. Alternatively, if the matter is of great importance, it can be set out in a statement. No statement was made and no question was answered. Worse than that, the only letter that was sent by the relevant Minister to any member of the Committee went to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett). It was right that he should have received a letter, because he was leading for the Opposition, but the remaining members of the Committee were kept completely in the dark.

That was wrong, and I should like to make this suggestion to my hon. Friend who, in every respect, is an honourable man. Instead of trying to defend the Government's position, he should simply say that he is sorry. Occasionally mistakes are made, and in those cases the best thing to do is to apologise. The House will always understand that. It is far better to do that than to attempt to explain the unexplainable.

The Government have not got this right. There are no objections to the content. I, for one, hope that the amendments will be carried, but my hon. Friend should recognise that, in this case, the Northern Ireland Office has dropped him in it. It is a reflection of the fact that there is insufficient parliamentary scrutiny of what happens in Northern Ireland. All too often, officials of the Northern Ireland Office have told me that changes in the law that Ministers themselves want to see and that I, on behalf of the police service, have asked for—I can give many examples—have not been made because there has been no parliamentary opportunity.

There has been ample opportunity to make many other changes, and I am left with the impression that when it suits the Northern Ireland Office to insert certain matters into legislation at the last minute it will do it, but if it does not suit it, it does not want to know. That is the objection, and I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that that is not the way to proceed.

Mr. Stanley

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) said that new clause 4 was unnecessary. I do not agree with him on that. However, new clause 4 and the statutory changes it makes are minor.

In view of the consideration of the Bill on Second Reading and in Committee, the consideration of the important policy issues of firearms control by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the fact that the Bill might result, in certain minor respects, in the statutory basis for firearms control in Great Britain being slightly more restrictive than in Northern Ireland, we believe that it would not be justifiable for the position in Northern Ireland, given the security situation there, to be any less tight in every respect than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

For example, we would not want to have a statutory list of prohibited weapons and ammunition that was less limited under Northern Ireland legislation than under legislation elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We would not want security precautions taken by auctioneers, carriers and warehousemen in Northern Ireland to be less stringent than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We would not want the statutory basis for monitoring rifle and pistol clubs to be less limited in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Those were effectively the three relatively minor areas in which, without new clause 4, we would have been slightly out of kilter with the rest of the United Kingdom. Given the security situation in Northern Ireland, we felt that that would not be a satisfactory note on which to end proceedings on the Bill.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Why have the Government not chosen the affirmative resolution, but have used the negative procedure which is generally unsatisfactory, no matter how trivial the Minister regards the subject? The measure is being put to the House because it is regarded as important and I should therefore have thought that the affirmative procedure would have been best.

Mr. Stanley

If the hon Gentleman had been in his place when I moved new clause 4, he would know that I had dealt with exactly that point. The Order in Council that will come forward under new clause 4 will be based on the provisions of new clause 4 and the House has a full opportunity to debate those provisions this evening.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East referred to amendment No. 102, which stands in his name and that to his right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux). He asked why we could not proceed with the direct extension of parts of the Bill to Northern Ireland rather than proceeding through the Order in Council procedure. Consideration was given to the desirability of making provision in the Bill for the direct extension to Northern Ireland of the provisions that are set out in the new clause. As the corpus of the law on firearms in Northern Ireland lies in the Northern Ireland statute book, to extend the provisions directly would render the law harder to find and more difficult to follow. It would require lengthy and complex amendments to be made to existing legislation. The hon. Gentleman hoped that his route would be neater and simpler, but that would not be so. That is why we decided to proceed by way of Order in Council.

Mr. William Ross

Is the Minister saying that firearms legislation in Northern Ireland is so different from that in Great Britain that it is impossible to follow the route that I have set out? If that is so, has it not been demonstrated once again how foolish it is to have the Northern Ireland statute book kept separate from the statute book for Great Britain? Instead, we should be dealing with Northern Ireland as if it were an integral part of the United Kingdom and included in United Kingdom Bills. That would be far more satisfactory to us in Northern Ireland than this miserable way of proceeding.

Finally, the Minister mentioned warehousemen and others. How many firearms have been stolen from warehouses and that sort of establishment over the past 20 years?

Mr. Stanley

The hon. Gentleman might not agree with this view, but I am sure that he will recognise that there is a considerable body of opinion in Northern Ireland that welcomes the fact that there is a separate Northern Ireland statute book. Those who are sympathetic to the possibility of restoring devolved legislative arrangements in future would recognise the importance of maintaining these arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman has taken up my reference to warehousemen. The question that the hon. Gentleman should ask himself is whether it could be justifiable in the security situation of Northern Ireland to have any lesser statutory arrangements for physical security precautions in such establishments than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) asked whether we were amending the right piece of legislation. I am happy to assure him that we are. The reference in the new clause to the 1974 legislation relates to proceeding by negative resolution rather than affirmative. The base legislation that will be changed by the substantive part of the new clause as opposed to the procedural part is the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who leads for the Opposition, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) both spoke of the way in which the new clause was brought forward and its timing. I was rather surprised that the hon. Gentleman's contribution this evening was not one that he might have made at a somewhat earlier stage. He did not tell the House—I am sure that he would wish me to do so now—that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State made it clear in his letter to him on 22 March that the new clause and amendments that we proposed to bring forward would be introduced on Report. We accept entirely the criticism which the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend made, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside, that the letter of 22 March should have been sent to all Committee members to ensure that they were fully informed of what would take place. I convey our apologies to Committee members for the fact that that was not done. I understand that the drafting had still not been finalised before the Bill had left Standing Committee, so we would have had to bring forward the measure on Report. That is the explanation for the timing in bringing forward the measure.

Mr. Frank Cook

The Minister seeks to present a reasonable case and is doing a decent job in difficult circumstances. I congratulate him. Bearing in mind the comments of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) about the timing of the letter and the new clause, will the Minister explain why there was a two-month delay before tabling the new clause——

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Ordered, That, at this day's sitting, the Firearms (Amendment) Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Maclean.]

As amended (in the Standing Committee) again considered.

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

Mr. Cook

Bearing in mind the need for consultation with the Police Federation, which the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds represents, and the consultation which the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) and his colleagues need, why did it take two months to table the new clause after the letter had come on 22 March?

Mr. Stanley

When my hon. Friend wrote to the hon. Member for Erdington, the measure was still being finalised. I do not know exactly when it was finally available. No doubt, further consideration was being given to the finer points of drafting. The substantive changes brought about by new clause 4 are small. I hope that neither the House nor people outside have lost very much by not having sight of the measure earlier.

Mr. Corbett

I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. I do not want to make heavy weather of this matter. I do not know whether it was a slip of the tongue, but the right hon. Gentleman gave the House the impression that the measures were in the process of drafting while the Standing Committee was meeting. If so, that compounds the felony. That could and should have been mentioned while the Standing Committee was sitting.

Mr. Stanley

I cannot say precisely at what point the drafting began and was finished. There may have been some few days during the Committee's sittings when the parliamentary draftsmen were working on it. I believe that there was no possibility of tabling this measure in a final form during the Standing Committee's proceedings, as I have explained to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time and added to the Bill.

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