HC Deb 25 May 1988 vol 134 cc417-36

'The Home Secretary shall establish, within 12 months of the coming into force of this Act, a standing committee of no more than 15 persons, who shall elect their own chairman each year and whose members shall normally serve for no more than three years, which shall keep under review the operation of the Firearms Act 1968 and subsequent firearms legislation and which may make proposals for the amending of such Acts at time to time. The standing committee shall include representatives of the police, shooting interests, the gun trade and no more than two competent and qualified independent persons'.—[Mr. Corbett.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.30 pm
Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

With this it will be convenient to take the following: Government amendment No. 148.

Amendment No. 85, in clause 16, page 8, line 27, after 'Committee', insert 'of whom the chairman shall be a senior member of one of the major institutions of criminology or a senior member of the legal profession chosen after consultation with the appropriate professional bodies.'. Amendment No. 84, in clause 16, page 8, line 28, leave out 'eight' and insert 'fifteen'.

Amendment No. 87, in clause 16, page 8, line 29, after 'State', insert 'to include at least one representative of the Police, the Home Office, the Military, and firearms users'. Government amendments Nos. 149 and 150.

Amendment No. 90, in clause 16, page 8, line 40, at end insert '(3A) The Secretary of State shall publish the agenda and minutes of all meetings of the firearms expert consultative committee.'. Government amendment No. 151.

Amendment No. 137, in clause 16, page 8, line 41, leave out 'except in cases of special urgency.'. Amendment No. 139, in clause 16, page 8, line 41, leave out 'special' and insert 'extreme'.

Amendment No. 138, in clause 16, page 8, line 41, leave out 'special'.

Amendment No. 81, in clause 16, page 8, line 44, at end insert `(4A) The firearms expert consultative committee shall be empowered to call for submissions, evidence and figures concerning the administration of the principal and this Act from Chief Officers of Police.'. Amendment No. 140, in clause 16, page 9, line 6, at end insert `or the committee itself decide'. Amendment No. 142, in clause 16, page 9, line 12, leave out subsection (7).

Government amendment No. 152.

Amendment No. 88, in clause 16, page 9, line 12, leave out 'five' and insert 'three'.

Amendment No. 141, in clause 16, page 9, line 12, leave out 'five' and insert 'ten'.

Amendment No. 89, in clause 16, page 9, line 13, at end insert `(7A) The Committee shall be empowered to call in for advice experts or persons with specialist knowledge in any particular field as the committee thinks fit.'.

Mr. Corbett

It is an outrage that we should have to discuss important amendments and new clauses to the Bill against a timetable. However, that is what the Government have just delivered through its Whipping system, because they know that there is no natural majority on the Government Benches for many of the provisions of the Bill. The new clause and the amendments which go with it illustrate that point.

In a sentence, the amendments tabled by the Government to the clause in the Bill setting up a consultative committee have one purpose, and one purpose only, and that is to neuter the powers of that consultative committee. The committee was imposed upon the Government, and, having been beaten in Standing Committee, they now move to ensure that the committee has no real powers and is confined in such a way that it stands little or no chance of earning the respect of those who shoot for leisure or as part of their job.

The Government have yet to understand—and I hope that they will—the hostility that this Bill has aroused among legitimate shooters. All of us who had the privilege of serving on the Committee have been overwhelmed, not just by the number of representations which we have had, but by the range of objections. Some of us on the Committee tried our best to respond to them.

There is the contentious area of the differing attitudes of chief constables towards those applying for firearm certificates. Again, that is something on which the consultative committee could properly give advice.

I was told today—and I hope that the Under-Secretary will say something about it later—that the chief constable for north Wales is refusing to renew firearms certificates for SLRs, and is issuing instead a piece of paper claiming to authorise the holder to keep the weapon until it is disposed of under the Bill. That anticipates the Bill passing into law. I hope that the Under-Secretary will confirm that that action is now unlawful.

In some earlier cases refusals have led to the courts, where the alleged unreasonable behaviour of chief constables for refusing certificates has been rejected. It can perhaps be best summed up in this way: We have seen over recent years a belief growing amongst shooters that certain senior police officers are hostile to the shooting community and are abusing their discretion to the extent that they are seen to be writing what amount to new laws themselves. That is a serious criticism from the point of view of the police, the shooters, and relations between the police and the public.

Those are not the words of some wildcats intent on fomenting trouble between police and shooters or police and public. They are not even the judgments of a police consultative committee. These charges come from a body with which the Government should have a special affinity. It is called the Association of Conservative Shooters. That is the measure of the gap that the Government have torn between legitimate shooters and the police. It was one reason why the Committee insisted on the setting up of a representative group of those concerned with firearms and their proper use to try to heal those wounds and to build and develop a new and more positive partnership. Shooters do not object to proper firearms control. However, they properly insist that such controls should be fair and workable and that the police have a matching interest in that.

What do the Government propose for the consultative committee? They want to put it in a straitjacket. They insist, in amendment No. 151, that its main role shall be narrow and be simply to keep under review … the provisions unless the Secretary of State "requests" the committee to make proposals for amending them.

However, the position is even worse than that and the gag is even more secure. Seemingly the committee can advise the Secretary of State on any other matters relating to those provisions only when asked to do so. I advise the Under-Secretary of State and the Secretary of State that, if the Government's amendments are passed tonight, no self-respecting person will serve on that committee under those confining terms of reference. No adult will volunteer for a "speak only when spoken to" role that does no more than reflect what went on in the nursery where the Secretary of State and his Under-Secretary of State spent some of their formative years, and retained its bad habits.

What is at issue is the role of the committee. Seemingly the Government see it as just another collection of the great and the good, sipping their coffee and waiting for the Secretary of State's messenger to arrive with some trivial request on which they can leisurely pass their time. It is a born-again Home Office working party. We want—that is why there was this argument and decision in Committee—a thoroughly representative committee of all the interests—police, shooters of all kinds, experts in weapons technology and criminologists, as independent members. We want them to have unfettered powers to speak and to offer advice to the Secretary of State, especially—I stress this—when he has not asked for it.

Let it he understood that no one is asking, as the Minister has suggested, that the committee should have powers to veto. Those powers belong only to the Secretary of State, who is accountable to this House. We want a free-standing committee as much concerned with the provisions of the Bill and the way in which they work as with looking ahead and into other areas of firearms legislation. It cannot be effective if it is to be no more than a group. to monitor the effectiveness of the Bill. It must be able to wander more widely and to ask for submissions from whoever it feels can help, and its agendas and minutes should be published.

Although clarifying the committee's role, the Government amendments gag it in a vital manner. Unless specifically asked by the Home Secretary, the committee is forbidden from recommending changes in legislation. That lies at the heart of our objections because it shows that the Government do not trust the committee or the people whom they hope will serve on it.

The Government remove the direct representation of people with knowledge of or expertise in sport, recreation and competition shooting. It does little good to say they can he smuggled in under the terms of amendment No. 148, which refers to people with knowledge and experience of … the possession, use or keeping of firearms. That is no way to deal with this matter and it is no way in which properly to reflect the legitimate interests of those who use weapons for sport, recreation or competition. People who use weapons for those purposes deserve and demand direct representation as of right.

This is the first major revision of firearms legislation in 20 years. That makes it more important that the committee listens and learns from the experience of the implementation of that legislation and is able to say to the Secretary of State from time to time, and by its own decision, "This bit of the Bill is fine and is working, but you got this bit wrong. This is what you should now do." I thought that that was what democracy was supposed to be about. Unfortunately, the Government dislike the idea of the committee and they have gone out of their way to hamstring its work. In clause 16(4) the Secretary of State even gives himself a loophole to avoid consulting the committee by saying that that need not be done when there is "special urgency". What does that mean? What is likely to happen with such hidden suddenness that the Secretary of State needs to rush to the Chamber to propose another class of weapon to be added to the banned list behind the backs of the members of the committee?

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

The hon. Gentleman is criticising the terms of clause 16(4) as they stand. He will remember that it is not a Government provision. He will note that amendment No. 151 seeks to delete the provision that he is criticising and to replace it with another.

Mr. Corbett

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for responding in that way. Those outside the House are not able to follow the ins and outs of the amendments in the same way as ourselves. I wanted him to say what he has said, and I am grateful to him for having made the position clear.

The nub of the matter is that the Committee will not be able to propose changes in firearms legislation unless and until the Secretary of State requests it to do so. That should not be acceptable to anyone, and it gives me no pleasure to repeat that it is my belief that no adult will agree or volunteer to serve on a committee that will be hamstrung and will be no more and no less than the Secretary of State's poodle.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

I have a high regard for the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), but his criticisms of the Government's amendments are devoid of truth. There is no intention of emasculating the consultative committee. In many respects we have greatly improved the clause which was agreed to in Committee. It is no secret that I on behalf of the Government strongly opposed a statutory consultative committee. I was in favour instead of a consultative committee. The Government were beaten in Committee and we have accepted the defeat with good grace. We have tabled amendments that will meet a long-standing desire on the part of the shooting community for a statutory consultative committee. As it considers the terms of the Government amendments, I think that it will understand and accept that it meets its legitimate desires.

I am encouraged by the constructive approach of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) to the statutory consultative committee. I refer him and the House to the passage in which he said: If the Minister feels that it needs to be drafted in a different way, we are more flexible than he has been from time to time, and I shall be glad to change anything that might be required, except on the issue of whether it is statutory or not. Advisory committees get us nowhere in this world, we need a statutory one."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F; 10 March 1988, c. 377.] My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries, who spoke with great eloquence during the debate, laid down one essential condition—that the committee should be statutory—and we have met it. He made it plain that he had no objections to other significant changes, and I am grateful to him for his constructive approach. I look forward to hearing his comments, but it would be a pity if they showed a marked departure from the approach that he so generously adopted in Committee.

9.45 pm
Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

One would have expected my hon. Friend not to devalue the committee, but to keep its original strength and content. Instead, one finds the truncated and emaciated rubbish that he has put in now.

Mr. Hogg

We shall now examine the detail of the committee. I hope that my hon. Friend will concede—certainly the shooting community will—that what we have done is a substantial improvement on what was passed in Committee.

The qualifications for membership are much the same in the Government amendments as they were in clause 16. The hon. Member for Erdington complained that there was no specific reference to people involved in sport, recreation and competition, but they are subsumed within the description of those having expertise in possession, use or keeping of, or transactions in, firearms". People who have experience in the possession, use and keeping of firearms are those who use them for a variety of purposes, such as sport, competition and recreation. Clause 16 made no provision, for example, for those who happen to like collecting guns because they are collectors. Nor did it make much provision for museum experts or refer specifically to those who deal with firearms on a commercial basis. We have tried to devise a formula that encompasses within the criteria for membership every interest group that is legitimately represented. Those whose expertise is in shooting, recreation and competition are certainly among those whom I would expect to see on the consultative committee.

There is one other great advantage that I hope my hon. Friend will be the first to concede—the increased number. His was a committee of no fewer than five and no more than eight. If he could have only eight he would find it difficult to include all those whom he wanted to include. We have enlarged the committee. We propose that the membership should be not fewer than 12. The object of the extension is to ensure that all the legitimate interests about which my hon. Friends are concerned find expression on the statutory consultative committee, along with representatives of the police service, the forensic laboratories and so on. I suggest that the Government amendments are clearly to be preferred on these grounds.

I come now to the second major issue—the purpose and functions of the statutory committee. The Government have greatly improved the terms of reference and remit of the committee. In clause 16 the committee had essentially only two functions. One was to be consulted before the Secretary of State did anything about the application and implementation of the principal Act. That was a right to be consulted, no more. It was not a right to make representations, to report to Parliament or to make suggestions.

Secondly, under clause 5 the committee has a right to publish a code of practice. I shall return to that in a moment. It does not have a right to keep legislation, its implementation and administration under constant review, to make representations for its improvement or to make an annual report to Parliament. In each of those regards our amendments achieve just that. I suggest that we have greatly improved the functions of the committee.

Amendment No. 151 states: It shall be the function of the committee— (a) to keep under review the workings of the provisions mentioned in subsection (1)(c) above"— which is a reference to the relevant legislation— and to make to the Secretary of State such recommendations as the committee may from time to time think necessary for the improvement of the working of those provisions. Thus, the committee is empowered to do exactly what the shooting lobby has long asked for a statutory committee to have power to do. It is associated with an express power to present to Parliament each year an annual report. That is a manifest improvement on anything that appears in clause 16.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Home Secretary will have an obligation to consult the committee?

Mr. Hogg

No, the Secretary of State does not have an obligation to consult, because clause 16(4) is being deleted. But the converse is true: the committee has a mandatory duty to keep the legislation, its implementation and administration under review. It has a duty and a right to make representations and recommendations for approval, and it has a duty and a right to lay an annual report before Parliament. That is infinitely better than a loose commitment to consult, which in the end is meaningless.

Mr. Corbett

I readily concede that these amendments improve what was done in Committee, but we are still left with paragraphs (b) and (c) of amendment No. 151. The committee can make proposals for amending legislation only if requested to do so by the Secretary of State, and it can advise the Secretary of State only on any other matter relating to those provisions which he may refer to it. In other words, it will be a kept committee which can speak only when it is spoken to.

Mr. Hogg

No. I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman simply has not followed what I have been saying. It may be my fault and I am prepared to apologise if it is. He is wrong. I have made it plain on two separate occasions that the function of the committee is to keep the implementation and administration of existing and new legislation under review, to make recommendations for its improvement and to make an annual report to Parliament. That is an enormous step forward, and it is different in kind from saying, "Incidentally, we recommend that clause 14 of a particular Bill should be drafted in different language," which is a more specific point.

The committee is there to make representations and recommendations on how gun law can be improved. That is mandatory and is its duty and right. It can do that in its annual report or specifically to the Secretary of State. Under the amendments, the Secretary of State would feel that the consultative committee had a particular role to play on what would then be a fairly narrow issue. Therefore, it has a broad reviewing role together with the power, which the Secretary of State would greatly appreciate, to advise on specific points put to it.

I appreciate that my hon. Friends may say, "Why has subsection (4) been struck out?" The answer is twofold. First, the right to be consulted adds up to nothing unless it is associated with positive rights and duties, which I have mentioned. It is also a recipe for delay and bureaucracy and it undermines the constitutional relationship between the Executive and Parliament. It would be nonsensical, because it would mean that the Secretary of State would have to consult on any of the decisions that he has to take under the firearms legislation; for example, whether to approve a Home Office approved club, to issue a section 5 certificate, or to issue a museum licence. One does not put such matters to a consultative committee. They are the day-to-day business of the Executive.

The second matter about which, as I well understand, my hon. Friends are upset is the code of practice. They believe that the consultative committee should publish a code of practice relevant to legal proceedings. I have not heard of many consultative committees, which by their nature are accountable to no one, which can publish documents that have a direct impact on the way that courts conduct civil and criminal cases. That is offensive in principle. It is also nonsensical, because the advice on the implementation of firearms legislation is contained in the rules and the memorandum of guidance. What happens if there is incompatibility between the memorandum of guidance and the code of practice? It becomes nonsense.

We have met a legitimate desire of the shooting community. We have given them a statutory committee for which they have long asked. We have framed it in such a way that it has a duty and a right constantly to review the implementation and administration of firearms legislation and to make recommendations for its improvement. That is a huge step forward for the shooting community. It is better than anything in clause 16, and on that basis I commend the Government amendment to the House.

Sir Charles Morrison (Devizes)

My hon. Friends who were responsible, in Committee, for persuading a majority of Committee members to introduce clause 16 into the Bill should be congratulated on what they did because they have achieved something that has been the objective for many years of a great number of people concerned with firearms. The Government should be congratulated on at last accepting that a statutory firearms consultative committee is necessary.

However, I am not quite certain, as the committee has now been set up, why my hon. Friends in Committee and now the Government in amendment No. 152 intend to give the committee a limited life. I cannot help thinking that rather more permanence written into the Bill would provide greater confidence on the part of all those people involved with firearms. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will comment on that.

The Government are right to try to amend clause 16 to the effect that the committee should consist of no fewer than 12 persons in addition to the chairman. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that, if all interests are to be covered, it would have been difficult for that to happen under the provisions of clause 16.

However, I do not understand why, having increased the membership of the committee to a minimum of 12, my hon. Friend decides that it is right to cut out sport, recreation and competition membership. He has argued in amendment No. 148 that, it is possible for the Home Secretary to include every interest group in the membership of the committee, but, if amendment No. 148 is passed, the phrase "every interest group" will be within the judgment of the Home Secretary of the day. There is no guarantee that every Home Secretary will be as wise, sensible or broadminded as my right hon. Friend the current Home Secretary.

Mr. Bellingham

Does my hon. Friend agree that if, perish the thought and God forbid, we had a Home Secretary who believed that it was wrong for anyone to use a weapon—a shotgun or whatever—for sport, vermin control or game shooting, he could decide that they should not sit on the statutory committee? That is why it would be so dangerous to remove that subsection.

10 pm

Sir Charles Morrison

I accept my hon. Friend's point, which I was about to cover. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, as far as I can see, for considerations of sport, recreation and competition to be outside the limitations of the consideration of the consultative committee. It is very important that representatives of sport, recreation and competition should be referred to specifically in the committee so that people who use firearms for sport, recreation and competition can feel completely confident that the consultative committee will be able to assess, advise on and judge their affairs.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give further thought to that. I appreciate that he may not be able to give an undertaking tonight, but I hope that at least he will tell us that the matter will be reconsidered in another place.

Sir Hector Monro

The Minister's passionate speech tonight must mean that he has relatives called Houdini or Paul Daniels. He was passionately against the statutory committee in Standing Committee, yet tonight he argued for it as if it was his long-lost friend that he was welcoming from central Africa. He appeared desperately keen to have the committee.

I will refer to the Official Report of the Standing Committee, to which my hon. Friend the Minister likes to refer when that helps him. My hon. Friend said: I am … positively against a statutory body … I am riot in favour of a statutory committee—I am not in favour of quangos—I am not in favour of involved terms of reference, rules as to appointment, powers on pay and such matters."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 10 March 1988; c. 384.] No one argued more strongly against the statutory committee than my hon. Friend the Minister. However, the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in his reply to the guillotine motion, both took credit for setting up the statutory committee. Previously it appeared as if such a committee would be established only over the Minister's dead body. The way in which my hon. Friend tried to take credit for something that he had bitterly opposed was truly astonishing.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was taking credit—I hope that he will be given credit for this—for responding to the criticism of our position as expressed in Committee. We were beaten in Committee. We recognised that and we have come forward with proposals to respond positively to what the Committee wanted.

Sir Hector Monro

It is all very well to say that now, but my hon. Friend the Minister did not put it that way in Committee. We are now watching the small print very closely.

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) on the issue of writing in sport, recreation and competition as responsibilities of the statutory committee. I cannot take the gamble that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State might appoint someone from those areas to the committee unless they are specifically mentioned in the legislation.

The whole history of this matter has shown the lack of consultation by my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary over this legislation. We are talking about an advisory committee which already exists in the form of the British Shooting Sports Council, made up of representatives from the governing bodies of shooting sports in this country. Yet the Minister went ahead and announced the main thrust of the legislation without consulting the advisory committee that had been set up to help the Home Office.

I find it truly astonishing that, when the chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council, Lord Swansea—one of the best shots in the British Isles—wrote to the Home Secretary immediately after the disaster at Hungerford and said that he had at his finger tips all the governing bodies which wished to help, the Home Secretary did not consult them before he made his speech at Torquay to the police officers. That was a fatal flaw in the progress made by the Government when introducing the legislation.

If the Home Secretary and the Minister are not prepared to consult the governing bodies of the sport which are in a unique position to advise the Government, how can we be certain that the Government will consult them in future unless we include in the consultative committee the things that matter?

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

The hon. Gentleman is well known throughout the House and to Ministers as a person with a keen interest in shooting. In late August and September, did he happen to bump into anyone from the Home Office in the Corridor who said, "Look Hector, old boy, we are thinking about introducing a Bill. Would you like to give us some advice?" Was he approached by the Home Secretary or any of his other right hon. and hon. Friends?

Sir Hector Monro

I am president of the National Small-Bore Rifle Association, vice-president of the National Rifle Association and in touch with other organisations. During the summer, those organisations, together with Lord Swansea, offered help, but I was never asked for my advice on how best to proceed, despite my parliamentary and ministerial experience.

Mr. Corbett

As long ago as last July, the International Shooting Sportsperson Liaison Committee offered to meet officials of the Home Office. It received a dusty answer. When that offer was repeated in the past couple of days, the Committee was told that there was no way in which it would ever see the Home Secretary.

Sir Hector Monro

That shows that the Home Office appears to have a built-in opposition to consulting anyone who might give it wise advice. I am afraid that Ministers must carry the can for failing to react to offers of consultation. That is why we are so concerned that the new clause, which receives all-party support, has been severely tampered with by my hon. Friend's amendments Nos. 148 and 151.

My hon. Friends the Members for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) and for Devizes have already said that the specific interests of sport, recreation and competition are important. They have also said that if other Home Secretaries use the wording contained in the Minister's amendments they could appoint to the consultative committee people with astonishing special interests, which might not be the interests of the shooting world.

The whole idea of the consultative committee is a committee of experts—those who know the weapons and the shooting sports. I do not believe that it is a committee on which other voluntary organisations that are opposed to such sports should sit. It would be a technical committee of skilled knowledge.

In Committee I was pleased that we had the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths), who has great experience in police matters; the police are included in the new clause.

Mr. Bellingham

Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the reasons why my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds supports the consultative committee is that he believes strongly in the uniform implementation of firearms legislation? The consultative committee would issue a code of practice that could be quoted in the courts. That would aid the uniform implementation of the legislation throughout the country and someone in Norfolk would receive the same treatment as someone in Tayside. Surely that is crucial.

Sir Hector Monro

We frequently discuss uniformity. I hope that the Minister will respond, particularly as police forces throughout the United Kingdom seem to be acting as if the Bill were law, although there are a great many stages before that happens. Chief constables in different parts of the country are interpreting the law in different ways and producing different forms, and, as we heard from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), they are becoming very restrictive about pistols, which are excluded from the Bill. If we do not have self-loading pistols, we can say goodbye to target shooting with pistols in this country.

Mr. William Ross

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but was not the question of uniformity raised in 1984 by the working party on the administration of the Firearms Act? Is it not a fact that the Home Secretary has sat on that recommendation from that day to this? If the Government had acted upon that recommendation, we would have had uniformity throughout the country in dealing with firearms applications. If we had had that uniformity in detail, and if the recommendations of the body referred to by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) had been followed, Ryan might not have slipped through the net.

Sir Hector Monro

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. If uniformity had existed we would not have needed this legislation at all. We are always asking for detailed statistics about armed crime and the use of rifles, but the Home Office has not yet produced them.

Other hon. Members wish to speak in this truncated debate, so I shall make only one more point and I shall not labour it. Last week we were given the assurance that the statutory committee would remain in the Bill as it was, but the following day that assurance was reversed by Government amendment. That was not the way to treat colleagues in the House. My hon. Friend the Minister must be prepared to amend the Bill in another place, bringing in specific groups such as sport, recreation and competition, and bringing back codes of practice. If we cannot have uniform codes of practice throughout the country for every aspect of sport and recreation, we shall never have a really constructive approach to firearms control in this country.

The hon. Member for Erdington made a splendid speech proposing his new clause and, like him, whatever the Minister said, I still have grave doubts that the Home Secretary will go to the statutory committee frequently enough and ask for its advice. The boot has to be on the other foot. That highly technical and specific committee must be able to look at legislation continually and tell the Home Secretary what he should do about it. That is the only way to proceed. I am very disappointed with the Minister's answer. He has let us down several times on what he said in Standing Committee. If he does not accept the will of the Standing Committee more frequently, I wonder what democratic legislation is all about.

Mr. William Ross

I intervene briefly in the debate to draw attention to the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) and me. If the Minister looked carefully at our proposals about the consultative committee, he would see that his proposals would be vastly improved by accepting them. It may well be that the Home Office does not want the proposals to be improved as that might make life difficult for it because the expert advice would be frequent and solid. It seems to want to avoid that at all costs.

The Minister will see that we ask for the chairman to be a senior member of one of the major institutes of criminology or a senior member of the legal profession. That is an excellent idea as such an individual would add greatly to the deliberations of any consultative committee. I must confess that I was very pleased that the Home Secretary has decided that the committee should consist of the chairman and 12 other people, making a total of 13. That is a considerable improvement. My right hon. Friend and I preferred 15, but we shall not quibble over the extra two. However, perhaps he would be minded to give us the 15, which would give us a slightly wider spread.

We should have representatives not only of the police, the Home Office and firearms users, but of the military. The one outstanding feature of our debates has been the sheer lack of expert technical knowledge which seems to be available only in military circles. If the Home Office would make use of serving military officers or ex-military officers with expertise in this area, it would be a great improvement.

10.15 pm

Above all, we need to know what the committee is talking about. There is no point in having a nice cosy little set-up of chief police officers, the Home Office and one or two other do-gooders unless the shooting world in general knows what is being discussed. For all that the shooting world knows, these committees might never meet unlless the agendas and minutes of all the meetings are published. I commend that to the Minister.

Government amendment No. 148 refers to the administration or enforcement of the provisions of the principal Act, the Firearms Act 1982 and this Act. In our amendment No. 81 we should like to go further than that. We ask that The firearms expert consultative committee shall be empowered to call for submissions, evidence and figures concerning the administration of the principal and this Act from Chief Officers of Police. We are lacking in our knowledge of detail, and if those figures could be extracted from the chief officers of police, it would be a great help to us all.

Amendment No. 89 says: The Committee shall be empowered to call in for advice experts or persons with specialist knowledge in any particular field as the committee thinks fit. That goes rather further in seeking expert advice than the Government want to go. The Government should give that careful consideration and be sensible for once and accept what is said. If that is done, the committee will be vastly improved and will serve the shooting interests rather than those who are trying to keep guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Ronisey and Waterside)

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) ably moved new clause 15. He made the case for the expert consultative committee so convincingly that he really destroyed the argument for his own review committee, which will be no more than a talking shop when what we need is a committee with some statutory teeth. What he was proposing was not at all what the shooting fraternity would like to see.

Other amendments in the group deal with the firearms expert consultative committee, established by Standing Committee F with the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths), speaking, presumably, with the authority of the police. What the Government are now proposing will largely emasculate the powers that clause 16 gives the committee.

First, it changes the committee's composition. It increases its number from five to eight members to not fewer than 12 members and a chairman. That may seem to be of little consequence. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State made the point that the increase was a good thing because it brought more people on to the committee and therefore more of the vested interests would have an opportunity to participate.

The problem is, as most people who have experience of committees will know, the bigger committees are the less they achieve. They tend to become talking shops. If the membership of a committee is so wide as to permit every organisation to push and shove and get on to it, its individual members, rather than being representatives with a broad experience of shooting, will tend to become delegates for their own narrow interests and will take up stances on that basis which will completely destroy what such a consultative committee is all about.

To increase the membership to a minimum of 12 plus the chairman—and in time it could be much larger—might achieve precisely what I believe is the Government's real intention, which is to pay lip service to the idea of the committee but eventually to kill it off because it will become nothing more than an ineffective talking shop.

My hon. Friends have already spoken about the need for people to serve on the committee who have knowledge of sporting, recreational and competition shooting. It is highly regrettable that the Government have left out that wide group.

Government amendment No. 151 is crucial because it greatly reduces the committee's powers as enshrined in clause 16. It removes the code of practice which Standing Committee F felt was extremely important, and which is essential to effective administration and to ensuring the consistency and uniform administration of firearms legislation among police authorities. Uniformity has been mentioned by many hon. Members. One example of why it is important is that there exists considerable inconsistency in application forms. The Opposition moved new clause 16 on Monday evening, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State did not reply to their arguments for a uniform application form in respect of firearms and shotguns.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

I reminded the House that there were already powers under the rules to prescribe a common form of application. In fact, a common form of application is now prescribed in the rules and is commonplace throughout the country.

Mr. Colvin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply, because that would certainly be an improvement on what we have at present.

Mr. Hogg

It is what we have at present.

Mr. Colvin

In that case, why is it that the following is the case. Schedule 1 to the Firearm Rules 1969 sets out the rules for a form of application for the granting of a shotgun certificate. It calls for a counter signature from a person who shall be a Member of Parliament, a justice of the peace, a minister of religion, a doctor, a lawyer, a bank officer or a person of similar standing. However, schedule 4 to the same rules provides that the form of application for the grant, renewal or variation of a firearm certificate requires no counter signature whatsoever. Is that not rather strange?

Mr. Hogg

It might help my hon. Friend if he will refer to rule 3 of the Firearm Rules 1969: Subject to Rule 7 of these Rules, an application for the grant of a shot gun certificate shall be in the form set out in Part 1 of Schedule 1 to these Rules. If my hon. Friend will read schedule 1, he will find the appropriate form printed there.

Mr. Colvin

Can my hon. Friend say whether applications for firearm certificates will need to be countersigned, as applications for shotgun certificates have to be countersigned, by a responsible person?

Mr. Hogg

indicated dissent.

Mr. Colvin

It appears that he cannot do so.

Mr. Corbett

The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) is unknowingly enabling me to clear up some misunderstanding. The standard application form to which new clause 16 refers was meant to relate to a common form of documentation for use by all police forces and not to the form which the applicant originally completes. The standard application form is that which would be used to ask additional questions.

Mr. Colvin

That was a useful intervention. I think that we are at one on this. We want uniformity, but we also want consistency between applications for shotgun certificates and those for firearm certificates. I do not think that the reply given by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary provides the answer.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, may I raise another that bears on it? Would it not be much better if the referee were asked to give his view that the person was suitable to hold the certificate? As I have said to the Under-Secretary before, this point was made to me by a parson. At present referees are asked to certify only that the facts on the face of the application are true; they are not asked to certify that in their view the person is a suitable applicant. The parson told me that the facts were true and that he therefore felt obliged to sign the application, although in his view the applicant was not suitable for reasons of temperament.

Mr. Colvin

My hon. Friend makes a valid point which I hope the Minister will take on board and consider seriously.

The new clause and amendments allow the consultative committee to keep firearms legislation under review and to make recommendations to the Home Secretary from time to time. The committee can make proposals for changing the law or tackling other matters only if asked to do so by the Home Secretary. The new clause removes all obligation from the Home Secretary to consult the committee unless he happens to want to do so, which I think greatly weakens clause 16(4).

The amendments would leave us with a large, flabby committee, like a perpetual working party, examining the way in which the legislation is working but having no power of independent action, no code of practice, no relevance to the courts and no point of reference from all those engaged in firearms control. The committee can and will be ignored by Home Office officials. It will be obliged to submit an annual report to Parliament which is bound to be of limited value. After five years it will lapse, and it is very unlikely, in view of its unwieldy nature, that it will ever come into being again. That is why we strongly resent what the Government are trying to do to emasculate what was a very good proposal in Committee.

I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to think very seriously about what is being said this evening, and to reconsider his stand before the Bill is discussed in the other place.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

I welcome the proposal for a consultative committee. As some of my hon. Friends have said, it has been considered at the top level in Home Office circles for many years. Strong and persuasive arguments have always been put forward for a statutory firearms committee, yet the Home Office has always found good reasons for not putting the proposal into effect. I do not regard this as a concession by my hon. Friend the Minister. I would describe it as a wise adjustment of his position. What would the consultative committee do in the future that has not been done in the past 20 years or so? That is the basis on which we should decide whether the committee will be useful.

It is exactly 20 years since the Firearms Act 1968 was passed. That, of course, was only a consolidating Act. It is 30 years since we had any major firearms legislation, good or bad. In that time there has been no real need for massive legislation, although from time to time it has been said that a consultative committee should be set up to see what people think about new legislation. There has been effective consultation between the British Shooting Sports Council—and the Long Room committee which preceded it—and representatives of the Home Office at all levels. For 20 years they got the answer right without a high-powered committee.

If a member of the NRA, the NSRA, the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association or any of the other shooting bodies had a particular grievance, he knew that it would be considered right away by the Home Office—generally by the relevant very helpful officials. Therefore, while I agree that my hon. Friend the Minister has probably made a wise political concession by agreeing to the establishment of a consultative committee, I do not see how we have lost in the past 20 years by not having one.

10.30 pm

People may say, "If we had had a consultative committee 20 years ago we should not have had the fiasco of the 1973 Green Paper." That is probably true, and that Green Paper certainly was a fiasco. The then Conservative Administration came away with egg on their face and on firearms matters we have never really recovered from that. It could be argued that had we had a consultative committee, with all its representatives, no Conservative or Labour Government would ever have been so foolish as to present such a document.

There is another respect in which such a consultative committee might have helped matters over the past 15 or 20 years. The members of such a committee would have made strong representations to the Home Secretary so that by now we should enjoy what I call a six-year certificate for shotguns and firearms. Not so long ago, a previous Home Secretary was in favour of a six-year certificate for shotguns. I feel that if a statutory standing committee had been in place then it would probably have proceeded with that Home Secretary and established a six-year certificate. On the whole, I welcome the idea of a committee because I think that the provision could help to frame future firearms legislation which may be round the corner and which we cannot foresee.

There is one omission from clause 16, which the Home Office is to amend. I have had a look at the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and they seem to improve matters. As drafted, the clause omits a reference to dealers. It concentrates almost entirely on the users of firearms and the effect of firearms legislation on them. Today the position of dealers is becoming more important. Their position is one of great responsibility. In many cases they hold large stocks of weapons, sometimes at great risk. The firearms consultative committee would be a better committee if the position of dealers could be considered from time to time.

A little while ago I mentioned Alan Bray of Hinckley, a firearms dealer in Leicestershire, who was attacked by robbers masquerading as policemen. They got into his firearms shop, doused him with petrol and set him alight. They stole hundreds of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. The incident was had for Alan Bray, who will never be the same again. He represented Britain at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, shooting with a handgun. He is lucky to be alive, but a far greater risk was created by the amount of arms that went underground and became available for every criminal to use.

I support amendment No. 148. I should like dealers and suppliers to be covered too, however, so that we can ensure that they are first-class people and have the most sophisticated protective devices to guard their weapons, ammunition and premises 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (Kincardine and Deeside)

The establishment of a statutory consultative committee is a great improvement. I was therefore interested to see how the Government would deal with the idea, and I was impressed, as were others of my hon. Friends, by the fervour of the conversion of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State.

I am worried about the failure to include on the consultative committee sport, recreation and competition interests. I shall not go into the matter in detail because Of the lack of time and because many others have already said how important it is that those two interests should be included. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Minister said about amendment No. 148. He said that it was not necessary to specify such groups, but it is necessary, because they are important interests. They are the most directly concerned, and the Home Secretary can get the best advice from them.

My hon. Friend the Minister said that we should not worry that such interests would not be included by the amendment, but he gave the show away when he said that he would expect to see those interests represented on the consultative committee. It worries me that he only expects. It is not good enough simply to expect to see people on the committee. Such interests should be specified in the Bill. I beg my hon. Friend to think again and to include those special interests. They are the most relevant ones and their inclusion should not be left to chance.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

I know that the House wishes to proceed, I think to a Division, so I shall be brief.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) mentioned the limited life of the committee. The explanation for that lies partly in the fact that my hon. Friends in the Standing Committee suggested it. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) said that he was converted to the prospect of a statutory consultative committee because it had a limited life but there was a possibility of its continuation. We have no reason to depart in that respect from what was decided in Committee.

Several hon. Members have understandably spoken about people involved in sport, recreation and competition. I told the House earlier, and it is absolutely right, that those interest groups are covered in paragraph (a) of amendment No. 148, they being persons who have expertise in the possession, use or keeping of, or transactions in, firearms". The paragraph is drawn widely to catch all the interest groups. The problem with clause 16 is that it positively excludes lots of people who have a legitimate interest, such as collectors, museums and dealers, to name but three.

I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) that, with a committee of five—and that is the minimum—and no more than eight, there is always a risk, under the clause 16 procedure, of excluding precisely those interest groups which my hon. Friend would like to include. One of the advantages of an enlarged committee is that it is possible to accommodate a much wider range of people.

I do not want to fall out on this issue——

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)


Mr. Hogg

The hon. Member is quite right: I am a settler. I had always thought that those who are engaged in sport, recreation and competition would be on the consultative committee, because they are the people who are involved in the possession, use or keeping of, or transactions in, firearms. The problem is one of listing. Once we start listing everybody, what happens if we overlook somebody? My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) has overlooked museums, collectors and dealers, yet they are legitimate interests to have on the statutory committee.

Without commitment and without undertaking—I give no guarantee and I give no promise—I will see if it would be right specifically to identify in the clause sport, recreation and competition. If we so decide that, it can be dealt with in another place. However, I am hostile to specific listing, because of those groups that it will exclude if we do not include everybody.

Sir Hector Monro

My hon. Friend has it in reverse. Our new clause 16 has covered the use of firearms, security and safekeeping and weapon technology—which cover the museums, collectors and dealers he has in mind—but his clause does not include sport and recreation. I think he has it inside out.

Mr. Hogg

I really do not agree with that. We will have to make a judgment about this, but I have studied the new clause of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) carefully and I do not believe that any of the language he uses is apt to include collectors, museums or dealers. I make the point also that it does not include farmers.

There is a problem with specific listing. I am prepared to look at it again, but I am not giving a commitment that we will include it, because I am fearful of excluding people if we go in for the list approach. That is why I prefer the generic approach.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) that the Government amendments do not emasculate the powers of the statutory committee; they enhance them in a number of important respects. At the moment, the consultative committee, under new clause 16, would have the right to publish a code of practice and a right to be consulted. Nothing looser could be imagined, whereas under the Government amendment there is a positive right and duty to review existing legislation, its implementation and administration, to make recommendations for its improvement and to report to Parliament. It greatly enhances the powers of the committee.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) that on Monday, at a rather inconvenient time—I know that he was not always able to be here, because he has other business to attend to—we debated new clause 5, when precisely this kind of issue was discussed. In new clause 5 we have introduced the concept that a person should verify on the application form that he—the person making the verification—knows no reason why the applicant should not have a firearm. I use loose language and not the technical language. We felt that we could do it that way rather than ask people to make the positive assertion that someone was fit to hold a firearm.

On that happy note, I finish by inviting the House not to approve the new clause but to accept the Government amendments.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 43, Noes 201.

Division No. 328] [10.44 pm
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Michael, Alun
Barron, Kevin Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Battle, John Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Beggs, Roy Morgan, Rhodri
Bermingham, Gerald Morley, Elliott
Buckley, George J. Murphy, Paul
Callaghan, Jim Patchett, Terry
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Pike, Peter L.
Corbett, Robin Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Cryer, Bob Prescott, John
Cunliffe, Lawrence Ross, William (Londonderry E)
Dalyell, Tam Salmond, Alex
Dewar, Donald Skinner, Dennis
Dixon, Don Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Eastham, Ken Spearing, Nigel
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray) Vaz, Keith
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Walley, Joan
Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S) Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Golding, Mrs Llin Wigley, Dafydd
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn) Tellers for the Ayes:
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W) Mr. Frank Haynes and Mr. Alan Meale.
McCusker, Harold
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Alexander, Richard Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Baldry, Tony
Allason, Rupert Batiste, Spencer
Alton, David Beaumont-Dark, Anthony
Amess, David Bendall, Vivian
Amos, Alan Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Arbuthnot, James Benyon, W.
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Bevan, David Gilroy
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove) Biffen, Rt Hon John
Ashby, David Blackburn, Dr John G.
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Boswell, Tim
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Kirkhope, Timothy
Brazier, Julian Knapman, Roger
Bright, Graham Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Knowles, Michael
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Knox, David
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South) Lang, Ian
Buck, Sir Antony Lawrence, Ivan
Burt, Alistair Lee, John (Pendle)
Butler, Chris Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Lightbown, David
Carrington, Matthew Lilley, Peter
Carttiss, Michael Livsey, Richard
Cash, William Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Lord, Michael
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest) Luce, Rt Hon Richard
Cope, John Macfarlane, Sir Neil
Cran, James MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Currie, Mrs Edwina Maclean, David
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g) McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury)
Day, Stephen Madel, David
Devlin, Tim Malins, Humfrey
Dorrell, Stephen Mans, Keith
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Dover, Den Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Dunn, Bob Maude, Hon Francis
Emery, Sir Peter Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd) Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Evennett, David Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Fallon, Michael Meyer, Sir Anthony
Farr, Sir John Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'1 & Bute)
Favell, Tony Miller, Hal
Fenner, Dame Peggy Mills, Iain
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Fookes, Miss Janet Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Forman, Nigel Morris, M (N'hampton S)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Morrison, Hon Sir Charles
Forth, Eric Moss, Malcolm
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman Moynihan, Hon Colin
Franks, Cecil Neubert, Michael
Freeman, Roger Nicholls, Patrick
French, Douglas Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Oppenheim, Phillip
Gorst, John Page, Richard
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Paice, James
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Patten, John (Oxford W)
Gregory, Conal Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Ground, Patrick Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom) Porter, David (Waveney)
Hampson, Dr Keith Portillo, Michael
Hanley, Jeremy Powell, William (Corby)
Hannam, John Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn) Renton, Tim
Harris, David Rhodes James, Robert
Hawkins, Christopher Riddick, Graham
Hayward, Robert Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Heathcoat-Amory, David Rossi, Sir Hugh
Heddle, John Rowe, Andrew
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Ryder, Richard
Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE) Shaw, David (Dover)
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A) Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd) Shelton, William (Streatham)
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
Howells, Geraint Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W) Skeet, Sir Trevor
Hunt, David (Wirral W) Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Speed, Keith
Irvine, Michael Stanley, Rt Hon John
Irving, Charles Stern, Michael
Jack, Michael Stevens, Lewis
Jessel, Toby Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Tapsell, Sir Peter
Jones, Robert B (Herts W) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Kennedy, Charles Temple-Morris, Peter
Key, Robert Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Townend, John (Bridlington) Wells, Bowen
Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath) Wheeler, John
Tracey, Richard Widdecombe, Ann
Tredinnick, David Wilkinson, John
Trotter, Neville Wilshire, David
Twinn, Dr Ian Wood, Timothy
Wakeham, Rt Hon John Young, Sir George (Acton)
Walden, George
Wallace, James Tellers for the Noes:
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill) Mr. Robert Boscawen and Mr. Tony Durant.
Warren, Kenneth
Watts, John

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Do I understand that the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) wants a Division on new clause 16?

Mr. Frank Cook

Yes, Sir.

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