HC Deb 23 May 1988 vol 134 cc85-99

'For the purposes of the principal Act and this Act it shall be presumed, unless the contrary is shown, that a firearm has been rendered incapable of discharging any shot, bullet or other missile, and has consequently ceased to be a firearm within the meaning of those Acts, if—

  1. (a) it bears a mark which has been approved by the Secretary of State for denoting that fact and which has been made either by one of the two companies mentioned in section 58(1) of the principal Act or by such other person as may be approved by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this section; and
  2. (b) that company or person has certified in writing that work has been carried out on the firearm in a 86 manner approved by the Secretary of State for rendering it incapable of discharging any shot, bullet or other missile.'.—[Mr. Douglas Hogg.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

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

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to consider Government new clause 3—Conversion not to affect classification'(1) Any weapon which has at any time (whether before or after the passing of this Act) been a weapon of a kind described in section 5(1) of the principal Act as amended by or under section 1 above shall be treated as a prohibited weapon notwithstanding anything done for the purpose of converting it into a weapon of a different kind. (2) Any weapon which—

  1. (a) has at any time since the coming into force of section 2 above been a weapon to which section 1 of the principal Act applies; or
  2. (b) would at any previous time have been such a weapon if those sections had then been in force,
shall, if it has, or at any time has had, a barrel less than 24 inches in length, be treated as a weapon to which section I of the principal Act applies notwithstanding anything done for the purpose of converting it into a shot gun or an air weapon.'. and amendment (a) to the new clause, leave out subsection (2).

Mr. Hogg

The two new clauses before the House respond to the criticism of clause 7 of the Bill as it was originally formulated and which was defeated in Committee. The two new clauses deal with deactivation and conversion. I shall deal first with deactivation. It is dealt with in new clause 2, which permits it. Deactivated weapons will be outside the scope of the firearms legislation, provided that the work of deactivation has been carried out in accordance with a specification approved by my right hon. Friend and is certifed by the proof house or houses as having been deactivated in an approved manner.

The original proposal about conversion in clause 7 was that a weapon always retained its original status. Hon. Members on the Committee suggested that that proposition went too far and they deleted clause 7 from the Bill. On reflection, we feel that there was justification in that criticism, although I suggest to the House that the original proposal should still apply to section 5 guns. Thus fully automatic guns, and if the House so decides self-loading rifles, will always retain that status. So will section 1 guns having a barrel length of less than 24 in. Subject to that, the Bill allows conversions of section 1 guns downwards to airguns and shotguns. The most obvious example is a rifle that has been smooth-bored so that it takes a shotgun cartridge. The purpose of new clause 3 is to permit that downwards conversion.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

We welcome the new clause about deactivisation, which we debated at some length in Committee. However, the Minister will have to go a little further in explaining what he is doing. The Minister has been fair enough in what he has said so far, but we have to go into the issue of clarification about the proof houses and the letter that they will have to provide to say that the weapon has been deactivated.

As we all know, there are only two proof houses in Britain—one in Birmingham and one in London. Given all the things that they will have to do if the Bill is approved, they will be grossly overworked. They are geared not to do this sort of work but to do what they do better than any other proof house in the world—test guns. They are not used to writing out certificates and, if necessary, writing on the weapons something to the effect that they have been deactivated.

Can the Minister tell us who else will be allowed to carry out this work? Which gunsmiths or dealers will be allowed to carry it out? The skill and knowledge of our gunsmiths are envied throughout the world and it should not be too difficult for the Minister to arrange through the trade for many gun shops throughout the country to be available to do this work.

I hope that the Minister will bear in mind the geographical issue. Birmingham is as far north as the proof houses go and I should like to see dealers in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness appointed to carry out the work because they could do it just as effectively as anyone in the south. It could also be carried out in the north of England, in Newcastle and perhaps in Carlisle. Nothing about this is in the Bill or has been spelt out by the Minister who has not given us anything like sufficient information that would enable us to give the Bill the wholesome welcome that we wish to give it.

New clause 3 deals with conversion. I hope that the Minister will explain subsection (2). I have not yet found anybody interested in this Bill who has been able to elucidate what on earth it means. The people to whom I have spoken are highly skilled and knowledgeable members of the British Field Sports Society. They all ask what on earth the Minister is trying to say in subsection (2).

The Minister has failed to deal with the conversion of rifles into other forms of weapons, such as rook rifles and .410 shotguns, and old elephant guns into shotguns. We discussed those matters in great detail in Committee. The Minister has never given an explanation about why one should not do that. He seems to think that some crook entering my house to pinch a rook rifle that has been converted to a .410 shotgun and is therefore of smooth bore will take it to some highly skilled gunsmith to have it rifled, re-barrelled. It beggars description that that will happen. What is wrong with a rook rifle made into a .410? It will be a smooth bore .410 for the rest of its life. I hope that someone will give the Minister the answer to that question.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)


Mr. Douglas Hogg

My hon. Friend is making a mistake.

Sir Hector Monro

I was giving way to to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin).

Mr. Colvin

Can my hon. Friend quote to the House any instance where a rifle converted to a shotgun has been converted back to a rifle?

Sir Hector Monro

No, I cannot, but perhaps the Minister can. Many experts have told me firmly that no converted weapon of the sort that we are talking about has ever been used in crime.

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend may be under some misapprehension. The proposition that we originally put forward was that a gun retained its original classification. As I explained when I introduced the new clauses, we adhered to that proposition for section 5 guns. I also said that where a section 1 rifle has been smooth-bored to make it a shotgun it has been treated as a shotgun under the proposals and not as a rifle. My hon. Friend is talking about a rifle that has been turned into a 410. He can do that because the weapon is then treated as a shotgun held under section 2 and not under section 1.

Sir Hector Monro

I am grateful for that explanation. The matter mystifies everybody else in the gun trade and the Minister must be the only chap who understands the Bill. His explanation is a step forward.

I have already spoken about the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside about whether a converted weapon has ever been used in crime. I have not heard of any such cases, but I look forward to the Ministers's reply when perhaps he can tell us whether such a crime has taken place. The Minister has gone too far and has been over-restrictive about conversion. My hon. Friends in Committee raised other matters about conversions and no doubt they will raise other points in this debate.

Is the Minister clear in his own mind about where we stand about sleeving guns, re-barrelling and re-sleeving them, because that is also important? We want to know whether that will be entirely in order in future. There was certainly doubt about it in Committee and it has not been elucidated in the new clauses. As I have said, I welcome the minor step about deactivation but the Minister is still going too far on conversion.

8 pm

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

One of the hallmarks, or perhaps one of the proofs, of the Bill is the sloppiness with which it has been drafted. Because of the earlier vote, we shall now have to discuss 177 amendments and new clauses, 63 of which have been tabled by the Government—a fine example of making legislation on the hoof. This is not the best way to do it, especially with such an important subject. These new clauses illustrate this point.

Yet again we are being invited to give the Secretary of State a blank cheque. I doubt whether the details that lie behind new clause 2 exist on paper. They are probably a thought in the head of somebody in that grey area of the Home Office. Perhaps the Minister will tell us something about these details because he did not do so when he moved the new clause. Over what period is this expected to happen? Is it unlimited? Is it over a fortnight, six months, a year, three years, six years, 10 years, or as quickly as possible?

What kind of mark is envisaged? Is it to be a red dot, a yellow dot or a blue dot? What is to be its size? Is it to be a scoring on the barrel? Clearly, it must be something that cannot easily be removed if this is to be of any value with either deactivated or converted guns. This is a serious point, and I am not treating it lightly. What discussions has the Minister, or his officials, had about the kind of mark that will be permanently attached to the weapons? Have the fine proof houses in Birmingham and London been consulted? Has there been consultation about the adhesion or the engraving of the mark and of the effect that that may have on valuable weapons? I am thinking in particular of antique, vintage weapons or classic weapons that have a high market value.

The hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) asked the Minister who he has in mind to carry out the work, and on what basis. The geography is important. Pleased as I am to see more work going to the Birmingham proof house, it will make problems if only proof houses are used. If, as I suspect, some gunsmiths will be allowed to put these marks on the weapons, on what basis will they be selected? Is it every gunsmith who applies, one per county, or two per county? These are the factors about which we need to know.

What about the cost of the exercise? Has anybody taken advice on the likely charges that either the proof houses or the authorised gun dealers or gunsmiths will impose for carrying out this work? Will there be a difference in the level of charges between the proof houses and the gunsmiths? Has anybody thought about this? These are the questions that the holders of these weapons not just want answered but have a right to have answered. These points could well have been settled in Committee if the Minister had not been so bone-headed as to oppose the earlier motion for recommittal.

Unless the Minister is going to say that every gunsmith in the kingdom will be able to apply to carry out this work of deactivating and converting weapons, there will be a great deal of unfairness because choices will have to be made. I do not object if we say to every gunsmith, "If you want to do it, spend 13p or 18p on a stamp and we will grant the necessary authorisation." I suspect that it will not be like that. Instead, qualifications will be laid down. I hope that, before we get much further in the debate on the new clause, the Minister will give us, and those beyond the walls of the House, the answer to these questions.

I understand that Bills are drafted in this way, but new clause 2(b) is confusing. It says: that company or person has certified in writing that work has been carried out on the firearm in a manner approved by the Secretary of State for rendering it incapable of discharging any shot, bullet or other missile. I am not sure what in a manner approved by the Secretary of State means. Does it mean that the mark put on the weapon will be approved by the Secretary of State; or—this is another legitimate reading of these words—that it has to be put on, let alone that it is a proof authorised by the Secretary of State, in a manner of which the Secretary of State approves?

This is an important issue. It would be for the convenience of the House if the Minister had been more forthcoming at the start of the debate on these new clauses. and told us in a little more detail what they propose. I hope that he will now do so.

Mr. Wiggin

I say, first, to my hon. Friend the Minister—in the hope that he is not leaving the Chamber—that, despite his accusation, I am not opposed to all firearms legislation. I am opposed to legislating against the innocent private legitimate owner of firearms in the completely misplaced notion that in some way that will prevent criminal activity. My hon. Friend has consistently refused to answer that point, because he has no answer to it. That is why I am opposed to the legislation. I would support any part of it that I could fnd useful, but I can find little or no part of it that is useful, and this has promoted my hostility to the Bill.

I find it distressing that, the Committee having removed a clause from the Bill, the Government are seeking to put it back again, although I suppose that that is predictable. If someone has a .410 that has been made from an old rifle—there are a considerable number of such weapons—on the passing of this legislation that person will he committing an offence. This is a retrospective proposal, and I have always voted against retrospective legislation. In this instance, innocent people who have shotgun certificates will be required to get a firearms certificate at a considerable cost.

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

On Second Reading, which we both opposed, the hon. Gentleman and I made common cause on the grounds that the Government had advocated this legislation on the basis that it would be an adequate response to the events at Hungerford. The hon. Member served on the Committee that considered the Bill, and I know that he agreed with the points made by those of us who had reservations about it.

If these new clauses had been in force, would they have prevented any of the events that led to Hungerford? If they were accepted now, would they prevent events such as those that led to Hungerford, or would they improve the existing legislation on firearms in such a way as to prevent the illegal use of firearms in the pursuit of crime?

Mr. Wiggin

As I said in my speech when I proposed the motion to recommit the Bill, I do not believe that anything in the Bill would have prevented Hungerford. Nor do I believe that the Government can legislate about anything that could have prevented Hungerford. A mad man can, and sadly may in the future, kill with whatever weapons he happens to have at his disposal. The misplaced notion that reducing the number of legally held weapons will prevent such an incident is ridiculous.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Would the hon. Gentleman care to speculate on the proposition that had the existing legislation been properly applied Hungerford would not have happened?

Mr. Wiggin

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) has recently tabled a series of interesting questions. The spokesman for the Thames Valley police made a slip the other day when it was acknowledged that there may have been some modest administrative error in the issue of Ryan's certificate. I support those who believe that the Government should have had a full-scale inquiry into that matter. The Government's persistent refusal on the ground that there is nothing to inquire into does not give the public the confidence that the Government tell us they are trying to imbue in the public, and for which purpose they have introduced this legislation.

Mr. Frank Cook

I want to be clear about this, and I do not want there to be any misunderstanding. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that if the existing legislation had been applied the events at Hungerford should not have been possible?

Mr. Wiggin

Every item of evidence points to that effect, but other hon. Members may be better informed than me and may wish to elucidate that matter. I do not want the hon. Gentleman to put words into my mouth.

It was a mistake not to have had a fuller inquiry into the precise bureaucratic procedures that preceded the issuing of that certificate. On the other hand, it is worth bearing in mind that Ryan also possessed some unlicensed firearms and therefore even if the procedures had been complied with he would still have been in possession of weapons. I am not certain whether it is wise to go down that road, certainly not in respect of these measures, and I have no doubt that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will rule me out of order if I do so.

I query the application of retrospective legislation to this important issue, and I question the great crime wave that is supposedly associated with converted weapons. I do not believe that it exists. It is yet another example of the petty, spiteful attitude towards all firearms of those who advise my hon. Friend the Minister.

Sir Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I wish to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on four points. First, an issue has come to light that I had not realised might arise under the proposal. There is some doubt as to whether guns that have been resleeved or rebarrelled would still have protection. The Minister should deal with that point and I wish to quote to him some advice that I have received from a former colleague, Fred Silvester, who has been assiduous in representing to the Committee the interests of the gun trade. He says: There is the problem of sleeving. The Home Office keeps saying they understand the point, but they do nothing about it. He goes on to say: Sleeving involves removing the barrel and replacing it with another. He is not entirely right. My gun has been redone, and that simply involved taking out a piece and replacing it. However, he goes on to say: The man who does this work commits no offence because he is given special protection by section 4 of the 1968 Act, and by clause 6 of the Bill. New clause 3, however, still leaves the gun itself unprotected. If it is cut down below 24 inches, it remains in section 1"—— that is entirely right— and fixing the new barrel to it makes no difference. My hon. Friend the Minister should elucidate that point as a simple issue of practicality.

My second point echoes that raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett). I should like to know exactly what kind of mark will be required to be placed upon firearms to prove that they have been rendered inoperable. It is important for the police—the House knows of my interest, which will remain for some time to come—to know what sort of mark will be used, and their advice should be taken because they will have to identify the mark and take action accordingly.

My third point arises from the fact that other persons, besides proof houses, will be able to carry out such work. That is entirely right. There are only two proof houses, and it would be extremely onerous to expect people throughout the country to use only those two proof houses. There are plenty of satisfactory craftsmen who can do the job. For example, a man in my constituency, who acts as the police armourer, is capable of doing that job without relying on the excellent work done in Birmingham. However, it is important to the police, to the trade and to all those who will be required to have their firearms dealt with in this way to know which local craftsmen will be allowed to do the job and on what basis.

8.15 pm

That brings me to my fourth point—how the Government intend to authenticate the armourers who will be permitted to perform the deactivations. What sort of skills must they have? How is their probity to be measured? A form of qualifying certificate will have to be issued. It is important, on Report, that the Government are seen to have thought these matters through and to have explained them carefully to the House before we accept the measure.

Mr. William Ross

If the Bill had contained a reference to Northern Ireland when it went into Committee, the consideration that we gave to it would have been somewhat different. In those circumstances, and in view of the terrorist situation in Northern Ireland, the effect of the Bill on the supply of weapons to terrorists would have been carefully considered. There will now have to be references to Northern Ireland in every part of the Bill because, despite the amendments, the ramifications will go much further.

A number of questions relating to the two new clauses have not been fully considered. I wish to point out to the Minister that we do not have a proof house in Northern Ireland. If the guns, or weapons of whatever kind, have to be brought across to Britain for the work to be carried out, the cost will be greatly increased. If we then have to look for gunsmiths to do the work in Northern Ireland and the work has to be done in a rush, rather too many weapons will be in the hands of individual gunsmiths for at least some time and no one wishes that to happen.

Above all, we shall have the problem of .410 conversions. For many years, it was possible to buy the old .303 ex-Army rifle, converted to a .410 bolt action. There are many such weapons throughout the United Kingdom. Although it is not the most popular sporting weapon, there are many .410s and converted .410s lying around in farms all over the country. As I understand it, those weapons are caught by the legislation, as any ex-bullet firing weapons will be.

It is my understanding—I have consulted people who know and give evidence in court cases about such matters—that the weapon normally used by a criminal is a clapped-out sawn-off shotgun, if only for the good reason that a good quality shotgun is worth far more on the black market as a shotgun than it would ever be to a criminal. If a weapon looks capable of being fired, it is sufficient for the criminal's purposes.

However, there is a real problem when one considers new clause 2(b), which relates to the expertise available to the Home Secretary. I have not been as impressed by that expertise as I would like to be, because it appears to fall short of what is required for the purposes of the Bill, even before it was amended. If the Home Office is to advise on what sort of work must be carried out, that advice will have to be based on detailed knowledge of the most intricate type of weapons. Has the Home Office such a person on its staff? I believe that it has not, and, therefore, I wonder where it will go for that information and advice and what it will cost.

We shall be dealing with hundreds of different types of weapons, not one, and many of them will be mechanically different from others. The methods of deactivation that apply in some instances will not apply in others. We shall reach the stage when there will be one-off operations. I do not understand how this system will be carried through into practical effect, unless the Minister is prepared to allow the gunsmith to determine whether the work that he has carried out is sufficient. If the police decide subsequently that the work is not sufficient, who will end up in court—the gun owner or the chap who carried out the work?

The Government are entering an area that they would have been well advised to avoid. No evidence was produced on Second Reading or in Committee—nor will there be any such evidence on Report—that the weapons that we are discussing pose a serious problem in criminal activity. Anyone who knows anything about the subject is aware of that.

Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

I think that we all listen to what the hon. Gentleman has to say on these matters with considerable respect. Does he agree that converted weapons are often of relatively low resale value? If the cost of carrying out the identification marking is high, there is a greater chance that it will not be acceptable to the gun-owning public. That means that there will be more evasion in this instance than with more expensive and valuable weapons.

Mr. Ross

That is correct. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has picked up so early in our deliberations this evening an issue to which we shall probably return on more than one occasion. He has raised a matter of concern to those who know about these matters, and it is a concern that I share.

It is probable that the Government will label the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) and myself as members of the pro-gun lobby. I admit that I shoot. I do not shoot much, however, because I do not have a lot of time in which to do it after attending this place. If there is an hon. Member who is concerned about the safety of the general public in terms of firearms, it must be me. I have been to the funerals of many who have died as a result of the misuse of firearms. I do not know exactly how many I have represented in the county of Londonderry who have died as a result of terrorism, but I made a rough count some weeks ago and the total came to about 350. No matter what is said in the House or alleged in the media, I hope that I shall not be accused of being unreasonably or madly pro-gun.

I know what I am talking about. I know as much about firearms and their use by terrorists and criminals as any man. I cannot see much good in this part of the Bill and I see very little that is good in the Bill as it has been drafted and presented to the House.

Some of those who considered the Bill in Committee appeared to me to be anti-gun, to put it mildly. They were mainly Opposition hon. Members. Slowly but surely they allowed themselves to be convinced by the force of the arguments that were advanced and to be influenced by the Government's failure adequately to respond to them. They came to understand that what I and others were arguing was based on a solid foundation. If the Government had acknowledged that there was a problem and had agreed that they should return next year with a better organised, better presented and better looking Bill, we should not have the mess of amendments that are set out before us. If the Government had adopted that approach initially, they would not have had to live through such a difficult Second Reading and Committee stage.

The Government must know that this is not a good Bill. Unfortunately, they are committed to it. There is nothing worse than for a Government to proceed with a measure that they know in their heart and mind is inherently bad and will bring no good purpose to the House.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

I should like to question the Under-Secretary of State about imported deactivated weapons, which have not been referred to so far. Would other countries with a suitably high and effective standard of deactivation be allowed to send such weapons here? Could our marks, which we have been asking my hon. Friend to say more about, be readily recognised by other countries, and would their marks be recognised in this country? We are not the only country with firearms legislation.

Perhaps my hon. Friend will comment on the effect of the Bill in terms of 1992. Only last week, I received from the Commission of the European Communities a copy of its proposal for a Council directive on the control, acquisition and possession of weapons. It is premature for this House to be debating now the amendment of our firearms legislation when the European Community is about to make its own proposals. Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to comment on the Commission directive, dated 28 July, and say what will happen on 1 January 1993 if harmonisation in Europe is achieved on that date. What will happen then to deactivated weapons?

Mr. William Ross

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that in some European countries it is possible legally to own two or three-inch mortars, for example. This was referred to briefly in Committee, and the Minister said something to the effect that good care would be taken to protect British interests. I did not hear him expand upon that to any extent in terms of harmonisation.

Mr. Colvin

I do not want to digress too far on this subject. The point that I am making is that I think it is quite wrong for the House to pass the Bill without considering the impact of harmonisation. That is why [put my question to the Minister at an early stage. I think that his answer would help to clarify our minds on what follows.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

I support the argument advanced from the Opposition Front Bench by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) on the inherent ambiguity in paragraph (b). The precise meaning of the paragraph is far from clear. It is for the Minister to explain precisely what interpretation should be placed upon it. One cannot help feeling that this is yet another example of a rather hasty reaction to the unhappy events of last summer. First, there was the hasty production of a White Paper, which was followed by the hasty production of the Bill. I think that it is fair to say that the Bill has had hardly a friend in the House as it has proceeded through its various stages.

Secondly, it is obviously necessary that some consideration be given to ensuring that the persons who may be approved, in addition to the two proof houses, are gunsmiths located throughout the United Kingdom. It would be especially onerous, for example, if someone living in the far north of Scotland were unable to take a weapon to Inverness, Aberdeen or somewhere of that description to have the necessary work done to it, and instead had to ensure that the weapon was sent either to Birmingham or London.

I hope that the Minister will find it possible to respond to the invitation to provide more detail on precisely what sort of person the Secretary of State has in mind and the geographical distribution that he will be prepared to approve.

8.30 pm
Mr. Douglas Hogg

Deactivation is the subject of new clause 2. It is perhaps necessary to distinguish the two stages. There is the work of deactivation, which is done by a gunsmith. That is the answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths). The answer is a gunsmith—any old gunsmith who reckons that he is capable of doing the work of deactivation. That work, before it is effective in taking the gun out of the firearms legislation, must be approved by one of the two proof houses. The proof houses only certify the work: they do not do the work of deactivation.

A number of hon. Members have asked whether we intend to use the reserve power to nominate a number of certifying authorities. The answer is that it depends. The proof houses believe that they are capable of dealing with the volume of likely work. They are anxious to do it. We have no reason to doubt that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has the reserve power to nominate another certifying person or authority if we find that the proof houses are not capable of doing the work of certification.

Mr. Pat Wall (Bradford, North)

How many weapons does the Minister expect to be deactivated and to go to the proof houses? I do not wish to be over-sarcastic, but the Home Office does not have a good record in predicting numbers. The mess with the 120,000 unopened letters at Lunar house, the chaos because of the miscalculation on the issue of new passports, and the large numbers of people on remand in prison who will eventually be released having been found not guilty do not show that the Home Office has a good forecasting record. Has the Home Office thought about how many weapons will have to be dealt with and whether the two proof houses can deal with them?

Mr. Hogg

Deactivated guns have been treated hitherto as falling outside the scope of the firearms legislation. It follows that there is no record of the number of guns that will be affected by the legislation. I cannot, therefore, answer the question. This is one reason why the reserve power has been included to extend the certifying authority to others, if necessary.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

There is the issue that these firearms must be transported to the proof houses. I think that I am right in saying that.

Mr. Hogg

indicated assent.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

I am glad that my hon. Friend agrees. Does this part of the Bill apply to Northern Ireland? If so, are we to have firearms brought from Northern Ireland to the two proof houses on this side of the water? What happens in the Customs channel when firearms are brought in and taken back to Northern Ireland from this side of the water?

Mr. Hogg

The answer to that specific question is that this part of the Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland.

Mr. William Ross


Mr. Hogg

I should like to proceed, if I may.

A number of hon. Members have asked, understandably, about the nature of the mark. The intention is that the proof houses will engrave a view mark on the three major parts of the deactivated weapon. That will be evidence of the fact that the gun has been deactivated and that the work of deactivation has been done to the approved standard.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will have the power to set the necessary standard of work. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) asked about the meaning of paragraph (b). The phrase approved by the Secretary of State as having been rendered incapable relates to the work which must be done to a standard approved by the Secretary of State.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) asked about imported guns. If other countries have a system similar to ours, and deactivate weapons and place a mark to signify that fact, that mark will not be accepted in this country. If they wish to import deactivated weapons into this country and wish them to be outside the scope of the firearms legislation, they will have to submit them to the proof houses for approval in the same way as any other person operating within the jurisdiction.

Mr. Colvin

What about the visitor to this country?

Mr. Hogg

If a visitor comes to this country with a deactivated weapon which is not proof marked in the way that I have described, it is caught by the ordinary provisions of the firearms legislation. I should be surprised if my hon. Friend wanted it otherwise. A number of weapons that are sometimes described as deactivated are not in the least deactivated and can readily be used to fire as a lethal weapon. We should set up proper protection for our fellow citizens, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would wish us to do that.

There is apprehension about conversion. That may well be my fault, in which case I apologise. It is true that clause 7 as originally presented to the House on Second Reading and in Committee enshrined within it the proposition that a gun could not by conversion ever change its original categorisation—if it started life as a section 5 gun, it always remained a section 5 gun; if it started life as a section 1 gun, it always remained a section 1 gun, even if work had been done to turn it into a shotgun or airgun. That proposition was criticised, and I understand why, so we qualified the position substantially.

The proposition which we originally brought forward remains now as it always was in respect of section 5 guns—if a gun starts life as a section 5 gun, it will always remain a section 5 gun in the eyes of the law, whatever is done to it. That proposition does not apply in respect of section 1 guns having a barrel length in excess of 24 in. In respect of a section 1 gun, for example a Lee Enfield rifle, which has been smooth-bored so as to take a .410 cartridge and thus becomes a shotgun, it is not a section 1 gun any more—it is a shotgun.

The new clause has the effect of allowing people to transform their section 1 rifle into a shotgun if they wish without the necessity of getting any certification to prove it. That does not apply in respect of those guns with a barrel length of less than 24 in. The most obvious and gross examples are pistols which are smooth-bored which can still fire a pistol cartridge but which hitherto were treated as section 2 guns when they should have been treated as section 1 guns.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) expressed some doubt about the meaning of subsection (2) of new clause 3. That deals only with those section 1 guns which have a barrel length of less than 24 in. The character of such a gun cannot be changed by downward conversion into, say, a shotgun or an airgun.

Sir Hector Monro

Will my hon. Friend spell out, chapter and verse, when it is permitted to convert a rifle into a gun capable of taking a .410 cartridge?

Mr. Hogg

That is the necessary consequence of new clause 3.

New clause 3 prevents only downward conversion of section 5 guns and section 1 guns with a barrel length of less than 24 in. What is not prohibited is lawful and therefore the position is as I stated. If my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries has a Lee Enfield rifle which he wants to turn into a shotgun taking a .410 cartridge, he can lawfully do that and hold that gun on a section 2 certificate, not a section 1 certificate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds raised a perfectly proper and interesting point about resleeving. Any gunsmith can lawfully carry out the process of resleeving as a result of section 4(2) of the Firearms Act 1968. On the other hand, if the end result is a gun with a barrel length of less than 24 in.—the process of conversion has produced a short-barrelled shotgun—the law in the Firearms Act 1968 survives, although it has been modified, and that gun will be held on a section 1 certificate, if it is held at all.

I hope that hon. Members will believe that I have tried to address the various points that have been raised. I know that there were complaints, particularly from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), that I did not go into immense detail when I opened the debate. If the House agrees, I would like in the debates in which I introduce Government amendments to deal with them in broad terms to begin with and then meet specific points. I believe that that will be for the convenience of the House.

Mr. Corbett

I am grateful for much of what the Minister has said to clarify these matters. However, he did not comment on the likely level of charges. I assume from what he has said that consultations have taken place with the proof houses. That must follow from what he said about the engravings on three separate parts of the weapon. Therefore, the proof houses will have had the opportunity to say how much that would cost. Perhaps the Minister could elaborate on that.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) raised an important point as to whether, and if so how, the police have been consulted over the marks to ensure that they are readily identifiable.

It follows from what the Minister said that, in his words, any gunsmith can carry out the deactivation work. However, the weapon will then have to go to the proof house for it to authorise that the work has been carried out properly. What happens if and when that weapon arrives at the Birmingham proof house? I must declare an interest and say that I hope that most of the weapons will go to Birmingham rather than elsewhere.

What will happen if the proof house believes that the quality or standard of engraving is inferior and is not satisfied that it has been carried out properly? Will it improve the engraving to the acceptable standard that it is authorised to provide? Will the weapon have to go through the mail or Red Star back to the gunsmith who originally carried out the work? If the work is to be carried out by the proof house, presumably it would have to contact the weapon's owner and state that it is not satisfied and inform the owner that it can re-do the work to the standard which the Secretary of State authorises it to reach, but that will cost the owner a certain sum. It would be for the convenience of the House if the Minister could answer those practical points about the engraving marks.

Mr. William Ross


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Does the hon. Gentleman have the leave of the House to speak again?

Hon. Members


Mr. Ross

The Minister alarmed me when he said that this section of the Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland. What are the corresponding provisions for Northern Ireland? I am sure that they exist. With regard to the importation of weapons, will the proof houses have to see each weapon that is imported and deactivated?

8.45 pm
Mr. Douglas Hogg

As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office is sitting beside me on the Government Front Bench, it would be presumptuous of me to make any comment on Northern Ireland, and I do not propose to do so.

With regard to charges, at present the proof charge is about £3.43. I would not wish to tie the charge down to a particular figure, but I expect that it would be of that order.

With regard to consultation with the police, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds was right, and I should have responded to him. Of course the police will be consulted about the nature of the mark. In response to the question about the mark raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), he will bear in mind that the mark must be approved by the proof house. In fact, it is the proof house mark.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

It is essential that this matter is absolutely clear. My hon. Friend the Minister said that this part of the Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland. What then is to happen in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hogg

As you will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am always a man to duck a question when I can. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office is sitting beside me, I will leave that question which relates specifically to Northern Ireland to him.

Mr. Corbett

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it be for the convenience of the House to invite the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office to clear up this matter, because this is of some importance?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It is not for me to invite the Minister to speak.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Following from the last comments made by my hon. Friend the Minister, will he clarify whom he means by the police when he says that he will consult the police? I hope that he does not mean the Metropolitan police. I do not think that any sporting bird can be found it that area. By the police, I hope that he means the more rural forces such as those in Devon and Cornwall. This is a serious point, because my hon. Friend the Minister has had so much bad advice in the drafting of the Bill that he must disabuse himself of the belief that the monopoly of wisdom and experience reposes in the Metropolitan police. Who does he mean when he says that he will consult the police?

Mr. Hogg

In the first instance at least we would consider the views of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which is the normal channel for consultation in those circumstances. If my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds felt that that was an insufficient consultative process he would let me know and inform me in respect of those whom he has hitherto so admirably represented in this place and elsewhere. We would give his views careful consideration.

Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West)

Does that not underline the serious need for a statutory committee to advise the Home Office on those matters?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend will be aware that the proposal before the House recommends a statutory consultative committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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