HC Deb 02 November 1988 vol 139 cc1065-72

Lords amendment: No. 11, after clause 14 insert the following new clause:

".—(1) A person of or over the age of seventeen may, without holding a firearm certificate, borrow a rifle from the occupier of private premises and use it on those premises in the presence either of the occupier or of a servant of the occupier if—

  1. (a) the occupier or servant in whose presence it is used holds a firearm certificate in respect of that rifle; and
  2. (b) the borrower's possession and use of it complies with any conditions as to those matters specified in the certificate.
(2) A person who by virtue of subsection (1) above is entitled without holding a firearm certificate to borrow and use a rifle in another person's presence may also, without holding such a certificate, purchase or acquire ammunition for use in the rifle and have it in his possession during the period for which the rifle is borrowed if—
  1. (a) the firearm certificate held by that other person authorises the holder to have in his possession at that time ammunition for the rifle of a quantity not less than that purchased or acquired by, and in the possession of, the borrower; and
  2. (b) the borrower's possession and use of the ammunition complies with any conditions as to those matters specified in the certificate."

Read a Second time.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I notice that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary did not rise to his feet. That is why I have risen. It would probably be better if he spoke to the Lords amendment first.

Mr. Speaker

I shall take the amendments first.

6.15 pm
Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I share my hon. Friend's enthusiasm for the fact that I was able to support him wholeheartedly on the second amendment that we discussed. It would make me much happier if he were able to support my amendment. For the life of me I can see no good reason why he should not do so. I forbore from commenting while we were on the timetable motion, but I agree with my hon. Friends who said that the Bill gives the overall impression to those of us in the legitimate shooting lobby, and especially to those in the British Field Sports Society, which I have the honour to chair, that the Government do not care for the interests of the legitimate shooting lobby. To a large degree, the Bill tramples upon those interests, with no great malice, but with unfortunate results. One of the ways in which that impression could have been put right was by the Government using the opportunity of the Bill to remedy a clear anachronism in the law.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) said that he welcomed the history lesson. Perhaps he will not mind my taking him back to the distant times in which I was growing up and learning to shoot. Unfortunately, my children refer to those times as the times when the dinosaurs roamed the earth. It was not as far back as that, but it was before the Firearms Act 1968. In those happy days we had a Prime Minister who was a keen sporting shot. He used to appear quite regularly in the national newspapers sporting a pair of plus fours and was seen on the grouse moor on 12 August. I do not know whether he was also a keen stalker, but certainly many shooters who enjoy shooting grouse and other wild birds also enjoy the very old and skilled art of stalking.

In order to be proficient at stalking, it is important at an early age to learn to handle a rifle properly, under proper supervision. I had the good fortune to go to Scotland when I was a boy in my early teens to learn how to stalk, being supervised either by my father or by a professional member of the shooting forest in which I was learning. I also learnt how to shoot stags safely and without danger to others.

In 1968, under a Government of a different political persuasion from ours, the right of a boy of 14 to 17 to shoot under such supervision was unfortunately removed. I do not think that many people realise that it had been removed. I certainly did not realise it, and I have a more than sneaking suspicion that the Minister did not realise it. I do not think that the Home Secretary realised it either. I am certain that my many friends in Scotland, who have perhaps been allowing young people to shoot under supervision on their estates, did not realise it. Looking at the rather complex provisions of the 1968 Act in the early hours of this morning, accompanied by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, I noticed that there appears to be no doubt that in that Act boys and girls—I must not be accused of being sexist in these matters—who wish to go out stalking or to go after a rabbit with a 22 are banned from doing so.

Their Lordships have introduced a provision in clause 11 so that an estate rifle can now be borrowed by somebody over the age of 17 and may be legitimately used. It is a matter of some astonishment to me that the Bill got as far as the House of Lords before that point was made and it was noticed that, otherwise, an estate rifle could not be used by anybody other than the firearm certificate owner. I understand that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary is about to commend that amendment to the House. This would have been a marvellous opportunity to bring the Bill into line with sections 22, 23 and 24 of the principal Act of 1968 by making a sharp differential between what is allowed at 17 and what is allowed at 14.

Unfortunately, in that principal Act, the effect of that differential would not allow 14 to 17-year-olds to shoot, although I have a strong suspicion that that was what was intended, and an even greater suspicion that that is what most people thought it actually did. Here we have an opportunity to show those in the shooting fraternity that the Government support them, wish to be as helpful as possible and wish to encourage the training of young people in the safe and accurate use of rifles for sporting purposes. Sadly, that opportunity is being missed, and my hon. Friend the Minister has been kind enough to tell me that there can be no question of the Government supporting my amendments. I ask him to tell the House what benefit he thinks there is to the general public, what extra safeguard is contained in the provision as it now stands that my amendments would remove, and why it is that the Government are not prepared to accept the amendments.

This missed opportunity is a great pity. Young people of that age can acquire substantial skills, so denying them that opportunity makes this a thoroughly bad law. I hope that if my hon. Friend will not accept my amendments today he will, at some other opportune moment, reconsider the position and give our youths the chance that those of us who are older enjoyed in our youth—to learn a skill that they will enjoy fully as adults.

It would he a great pity if I and others who own farms cannot take out young people with a 22 rifle to teach them how to shoot rabbits, or even at targets, in the way that we, as young people, were taught. My wife has some godchildren whom I know she would like me to take out on my farm—my hon. Friend the Minister will know what I am talking about. I am sad that the Government's attitude will prevent my doing so.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) did not rise initially, but his amendment comes first, so I shall call him before I put the Question on the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor).

Mr. Bellingham

I beg to move amendment (a), in line 2, leave out

'of or over the age of seventeen'. The amendment is obviously similar to some of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor). However, it is slightly more simple.

I know that some among the sporting fraternity have suggested that perhaps we should not delve into this part of the law because of the illegal acts that have taken place in the past involving young people using stalking rifles. Many in the other place took the view that perhaps it was best not to discuss the subject, but just pass over it. However, I feel that we should discuss this in detail and get my hon. Friend the Minister to tell us exactly what the position is. I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster has said. We want to encourage young people. A young person of 14, 15 or 16 can go shotgun shooting or clay pigeon shooting under supervision. However, what about the young person who wants to try shooting with a small bore, when stalking in a deer forest, or even to kill vermin and rabbits? Surely it is better for him to put his toe in the water so that he can decide whether he likes the sport.

There is another problem. Let us take two lads at school, who are both in their officer training corps or combined cadet force and shoot with .303s, or shoot on the school range with .22s. Let us say that those two lads decide to take their holidays with their parents in Scotland and both want to try their hand at stalking. One lad happens to live in the country and the other in a large city. The former applies for a firearms certificate and gets one, but the other lad applies and does not get it. I do not agree with Lord Ferrers that anybody in the 14 to 17 age group can apply for and obtain a firearms certificate. Anybody in that age group who applies for a firearms certificate for a stalking rifle in London or Manchester would not have a cat's chance in hell of getting, it. As a result of the two lads going on holiday, one would be able to pursue his sport and the other would not. That is ridiculous.

The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster about encouraging youngsters is important. I did not have the opportunity to go stalking until I was well into my 20s, but I know that many people had the chance to go stalking in their teens. Anyone who has a feel for, or a love of, the countryside and for these pursuits will know that it is important to encourage youngsters at an early age, and that it would be wrong to restrict their taking part in the sport. In every other pursuit—not just country sports—youngsters in that crucial teenage category can play a part, under supervision in many cases, but in other cases without restrictions.

To say that young people in this category must go to the chief constable to get a certificate is most unreasonable. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster is right to say that it will put an unnecessary dampener on the enthusiasm of many young people and prevent them from finding out about a sport by putting their toe in the water to decide whether they like it. To tell them that they must wait until they are 17 is ridiculous.

What happens if one of the sons of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster wants to try out a .22 at home? He can use that gun on the range at school, under supervision from a master, or he can use it at a club. What happens when he wants to use it at home, in a completely safe and secure environment and to take a practice shot? If he is under 17, he cannot do so. It is laughable and ludicrous that my hon. Friend cannot go on to a safe area of his farm where he has a range set up and on which he is shooting, and encourage his son to do the same, because if he is caught doing so he will be breaking the law. My hon. Friend the Minister must explain what the Government are doing about this.

I welcome Lords amendment No. 11, and I must give credit where credit is due. There was a lengthy debate in the other place about the so-called estate rifle. A number of their Lordships went on at great length about the absurd situation whereby people on an estate in Scotland or Northern Ireland who go out on a stalk cannot use a gun without a certificate, even under strict supervision. We welcome Lords amendment No. 11, but the opportunity to clarify the position of young people should be grasped. We must encourage youngsters, and we must make the law workable, sensible and credible. My hon. Friend the Minister knows as well as I do that if this part of the Bill is passed many people will break the law inadvertently. I ask him to use this opportunity to make a clear statement on exactly where we are going and to give us some idea of how we get over this unfortunate hurdle.

Sir Hal Miller (Bromsgrove)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor). Some of the debate has been a little esoteric. Not all of us are children of successful practitioners at the Bar with vast estates in Scotland, or have godfathers who are similarly equipped. However, what about the person who potters around the farm with a .22 to shoot rats, rabbits or starlings? I hope to bring my son up learning the safe handling of a comparatively cheap but accurate enough weapon so as to equip him later in life for more serious endeavours. The suggestion that one's son, under supervision, cannot go around one's haybarn with a .22 looking for a rat is the difference between the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) and for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham), as the amendments moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster provide an element of supervision which is necessary at that age, although I was free from that encumbrance.

6.30 pm
Sir Dudley Smith

I have some sympathy with the case made by my hon. Friends the Members for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) and for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor). However, some difficulties arise. Without trying to anticipate what my hon. Friend the Minister will say, surely the whole thing comes down to supervision and there is a far greater chance of proper supervision if the young person is older rather than younger.

We have all heard of tragedies. I know two families who have been involved in tragedies through the wrong use of rifles. Guns are dangerous things, which have to be treated with respect whether one is 14, 65 or 70. Provided that respect is inculcated at an early age, and the child is made to realise that a gun is a weapon of destruction, perhaps everything will be all right. However, supervision varies enormously. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster looks dubious. I am sure that he provides the very best supervision, but I am certain that in some other cases supervision would be cursory and therefore quite dangerous.

I should have thought that the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster would have met the point. While I understand the anxieties of my two hon. Friends, I feel that we need to be fairly cautious about reducing the age, because young people in an urban environment would never get the opportunity to use a sporting rifle—that is probably just as well—whereas for somebody brought up on a country estate or a farm it would become second nature.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Does my hon. Friend accept that a young person of 14 is likely to be much more amenable to supervision than a 17 or 18-year-old? The supervision of a 17 or 18-year-old is likely to be very much more cursory than the supervision given to a 14-year-old. Therefore, is there not a great deal of good sense in the amendments tabled by my two hon. Friends, who know a great deal about shooting and sport?

Sir Dudley Smith

I accept that argument, and I consider it reasonably compelling. In contradiction to that, we know that the younger people are, the more irresponsible they can be, and although they accept the tuition that they receive, they can play fast and loose. Difficulties can arise and tragedies happen in a moment. There are no second chances.

Although I accept there is quite a good case for my hon. Friends' proposals, they still fall short of what should be in the legislation. Therefore, I do not support their amendments.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) for the support that he has given to the Government's case on this matter, and I shall adopt the greater part of his argument.

It might be helpful if I were to outline the Government's position on new clause 11, and then turn to the amendments that have been tabled by my two hon. Friends. In regard to new clause 11, I respectfully suggest that the House should agree to the Lords amendment. This amendment concerns estate rifles and it received considerable support in the other place when it was moved by Lord Kimball. It meets the established practice on many estates in Scotland and elsewhere of allowing guests to borrow an estate rifle while under supervision and to use it for stalking purposes. Hitherto, that has been an unlawful practice, and we wish to put it on a regular statutory basis.

The safeguards appear on the face of the new clause—the borrower is over 17, the loan is limited to a rifle and not to any section 1 weapon, the use must be confined to the occupier's land and of course, must be with the occupier's consent and must comply with any conditions on the certificate. Most important, the use must be supervised by a certificate holder, though the certificate holder may be an agent of the lender who is the occupier.

Mr. William Ross

Will the Minister confirm that the present practice of illegally borrowing and using an estate rifle is quite a serious offence which can carry not only a substantial fine but a term of imprisonment? Are we to believe that many people have been breaking the law with impunity for many years?

Mr. Hogg

The answer to the latter question is yes. The use of estate rifles in the way that we have been discussing has been widespread. The great majority of borrowers did not realise that they were acting unlawfully. We are trying to put the practice, which is wholly respectable, on a proper statutory basis, and I am inviting the House to do just that.

I shall turn to the question of age, because I recognise that it is a matter of considerable importance. The amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) seek to introduce an age threshold of 14, whereas my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham)—I do not think that I parody his views, and I apologise if I do—seeks to do away with any age threshold.

Mr. Bellingham

indicated assent.

Mr. Hogg

I see that he acknowledges that fact.

I do not wish to be unfair, but if he got his way we would be talking about the use of guns by young persons of any age—they could be 11, or 12 or six or seven—depending on the supervision or the supervisor's choice. We need to be clear what we are talking about. We are not talking about any old gun; we are talking about section 1 rifles, some of which are extremely powerful.

The law at the moment is clear. The general proposition is that, without a section 1 certificate, one may not possess a section 1 firearm. That is subject to a number of provisos, most notably those contained in clause 11 of the principal Act. A person over the age of 14 may possess a firearms certificate. The ordinary procedure applies: the applicant applies to the chief constable. The application will have to be supported, or at least endorsed, by his parent or guardian. That is certainly the case for a shotgun application by a 15-year-old and I believe that it applies to an application for a section 1 certificate. The chief constable then has to determine whether to grant it, and, in the event of the chief constable refusing a certificate, there is a right of appeal to the court.

The argument that has been put forward is essentially twofold. First, there is the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster to the effect that it is a proper method of providing instruction. The slightly different argument, which has also been touched on, is the desirability of allowing the occasional guest to use a 22 for the purpose of shooting the odd rabbit in a field. I shall deal with the two arguments separately, because they are distinct.

The concept of training and instruction by a father on an estate implies at least reasonable continuity; otherwise, we are not really talking about training and instruction. If my hon. Friend is proposing to take his son out for training on a fairly regular basis, the proper thing to do is to apply for a firearms certificate. He may say, "I will never get one." I hope that he will forgive me if I say that if he does not obtain a certificate, it is because the chief constable and, ultimately, the courts, think that it is inappropriate to give him one. I am sceptical about the proposition that a young man who cannot obtain a certificate under the ordinary tests should be allowed, on a continuous basis, to use a section 1 gun because of the proviso we are contemplating introducing in new clause 11. That seems to be a serious lacuna in my hon. Friend's argument.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster is a highly responsible man and would most certainly provide close supervision over the activities of his son or, with more difficulty, over his godson. However, the amendment he has in mind does not provide for that high level of supervision. It provides for any old supervision, which might not necessarily be direct and precise supervision. The amendment to which my hon. Friend is addressing his remarks is designed to provide cover for continuous use in circumstances which may not be well controlled. We are dealing with section 1 guns, many of which are highly dangerous.

Mr. Bellingham

My hon. Friend is being a little unrealistic. We are talking not necessarily about continuous use but about lads who go on holiday to Scotland. The son of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) will almost certainly receive his firearms certificate at the age of 15, but what about the punter who lives in a flat in a town? What chance does he have of obtaining a certificate?

Mr. Hogg

We have to look at the consequences. The new clause, as amended by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, provides for continuing use. It may not always be continuing, but often it will be. My hon. Friend must ask whether that is what he is seeking to justify. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West said, no doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster's son will obtain a certificate. However, he asked about people living in a town. If the chief constable refuses to issue a certificate because, in his view, the grounds are not met, and if that decision is supported by the court, we should not try to disturb the position in which an applicant fails on the primary grounds.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I should like to follow up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham). My hon. Friend the Minister is wrong when he talks about continuous use in the context of the stag. I am talking about people who go to Scotland for their summer holiday, not about year-round training. It is wrong to say that, because training is not continuous, it is not useful. I ask my hon. Friend to consider that point.

Mr. Hogg

That is not the case. We have to look at what can happen. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster is suggesting that he should be able to provide training for his son. I understand that. Instruction implies a continuing process. It may happen over a number of years or over an extended period in one year. If that is what my hon. Friend is anxious to do—it is a respectable thing to do—he should apply for a firearms certificate on behalf of his son. His son can have a certificate as long as he is not under the age of 14.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

Another great distinction between what my hon. Friend is saying should happen and what I am asking for is that I am asking for boys of 14 to 17 to have the right to borrow a rifle, not to possess it. There are plenty of occasions when it would be proper for a boy to borrow a gun, but I would be reluctant for that same child to have the right to possess one.

Mr. Hogg

I was about to come to that. I am concerned about the ad hoc use. We are talking about a powerful weapon. The provisions which govern the ad hoc use of shotguns are contained in section 11(5) of the Firearms Act 1968 and they are limited. I shrink from the idea of enabling a boy, on an ad hoc basis, to use a high-powered rifle. It may be that the supervision provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster would be wholly adequate—I am not trying to argue to the contrary—but he has to contemplate the possibility of many people doing the same thing under supervision which is much less precise.

We must look at consequences. We are dealing with high-powered rifles. For that reason, I cannot commend to the House an acceptance of the amendments, although they were moved with great skill and lucidity.

Amendment (a) to the Lords amendment negatived.

Lords amendment No. 11 agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 12 to 27 agreed to, some with special entry.