§ 7 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)
I beg to move,That this House takes note of European Community Documents Nos. 10074/89 and 8836/90, relating to controls on the acquisition and possession of weapons; and endorses the Government's view that any Directive must preserve the right of Member States to make those checks that are necessary for public security and public safety and that any additional burden on business should be kept to a minimum.I welcome the opportunity to debate this important draft directive on the Floor of the House. The Commission has proposed the directive as part of the plan to complete the single market. This proposal, advanced in November 1989, was revised in October this year to incorporate those amendments suggested by the European Parliament which the Commission had decided to accept. It is the October 1990 text, document No. 8836/90, on which recent negotiations in the Council have focused.
Firearms issues are nearly always controversial, but there is wide agreement on the two fundamental principles on which our domestic firearms legislation is based. First, and of paramount importance, is the need to ensure public safety. Second there is the need to safeguard the legitimate interests of those who use firearms in pursuit of their work or sport, subject always to the primary consideration of public safety. These two principles have guided our approach to this draft directive.
One of the directive's objectives is to increase security throughout the Community by the partial harmonisation of member states' firearms law. The directive sets a minimum standard of firearms control, to which all member states must adhere. This is intended to improve the safety of the Community's citizens. The admittedly modest degree of levelling up involved in this directive is something to which the Government can give wholehearted support.
Under the directive, in article 3, member states are left free to adopt more stringent controls in their domestic legislation. So there is no levelling down in domestic law, and it is important to keep that in mind when looking at the proposal. It guarantees that those standards of control which we consider necessary to protect public safety are unaffected.
The House may agree with me when I say that this has proved a complex and difficult text to understand, but the main aim of the directive is simple: it is to put in place sufficient compensatory measures to enable member states to abstain from controls on the possession of weapons at internal borders after 1992.
Underpinning these compensatory measures is the principle stated explicitly in the directive that the movement of firearms across Community borders is forbidden unless the rules of the directive are met. Perhaps the most important of these rules is that weapons prohibited under domestic legislation by a member state may not be brought into the territory of that member state. So, for example, the prohibition of some categories of weapons introduced by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 is unaffected by the directive.
The primary compensatory measure proposed in the directive is the notification and information exchange system—in articles 11 and 13—which requires that member states are notified of every permanent transfer of 1065 firearms to their territory. Under article 11.4, member states can insist that the transfer may not take place without their prior consent. The result for firearms dealers in this country would be a system similar to that currently operated whereby dealers, duly authorised under the Firearms Acts passed between 1968 and 1988, may receive an open general import licence which places no restriction on the quality of firearms imported.
For travel with personal firearms within the Community, the directive introduces a European firearms pass—article 1.4. But in general the pass will not itself convey authorisation to travel with firearms. The pass holder will still have to obtain prior authorisation from the member state to be visited—article 12.1.
However, there is an important exception to the status of the European firearms pass in relation to sportsmen and marksmen. Under article 12.2, sportsmen and women would be able to take their personal firearms freely to other member states on the basis of a European firearms pass without prior authorisation from the member state to be visited. This provision causes us particular concern, as it conflicts with our domestic controls on visitors.
The British visitor's permit scheme, set up under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, allows overseas visitors to come and shoot here with the minimum of fuss and bother. But—and this is the fundamental point—the scheme requires visitors to obtain our prior authorisation for their visit.
Our concerns on this issue have been made clear both in official working group discussions and in the Council of Ministers. It has been gratifying that there has been a sympathetic response from our European partners, who have recognised the difficulty that this provision presents for the United Kingdom. The likelihood is that we shall be able to secure either an amendment to article 12.2 on the lines proposed by the European Parliament or a waiver from its provisions. In either case this would allow us to continue to operate the British visitor's permit scheme.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
What is meant by the abolition of controls on weapons at international frontiers? We are grateful for what the Minister said about traders having to register and about new passes and licences, but if these controls are abolished, will that mean that people are not searched? Which controls will be abolished?
§ Mr. Lloyd
The directive means that at an internal frontier there will be no regular system of inspection for weapons. We retain the right to make searches and checks as we believe them necessary for our national security. I refer my hon. Friend to article 36 of the treaty, with which he will be familiar, as the basis on which we may retain that right. If the directive is adopted there will be no regular inspection of everyone coming in from the Community, but we retain the right to make such checks as we think necessary to maintain our security.
§ Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)
Will my hon. Friend confirm that a customs officer will still present to a passenger arriving in this country a list which will state clearly that firearms are not allowed and must be declared?
§ Mr. Lloyd
A Community traveller crossing an internal boundary will require prior permission and certification, 1066 but it will be perfectly legitimate for him to bring firearms across the border. It will not be legitimate for him to do so without the permit and authorisation. If the directive comes into force, we shall no longer inspect everyone or regard firearms as goods that may not be imported. Anyone crossing the border with a gun, however—or already in the country—is legally required to have the appropriate permit; and, if any agent of Government believes that a weapon is being carried and that the appropriate permission has not been granted, or is not in the individual's possession, he will of course take appropriate action, as he would have done in the past.
§ Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
I think that we are making rather heavy weather of this. The fact remains that anyone wishing to import a firearm, whether permanently or temporarily, requires special documentation under the 1988 Act. There is no question of this directive's overriding that Act. That should allay the fears expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor)—and I think that I am right in saying that any of our own legislation that is more stringent than the directive will apply.
§ Mr. Hill
Will my hon. Friend kindly not interrupt? I am trying to put my argument together. After all, Southampton—part of which I represent—is a very important port, employing many customs officers who do a tremendous amount of work. I am trying to establish that their vigilance will not be diminished by the availability of a certificate. What about the people who have no certificate, and do not declare what they bring in? I hope that the customs officers will not shelter behind a European directive which may make them think that everything is under control.
§ Mr. Lloyd
I do not think that our customs officers will want to shelter behind anything. The law—the rules—will provide that no obligation will be placed on someone coming into this country to declare a firearm if that person has the correct permit. Of course, customs officers, police and all agents of Government will have a duty to take the appropriate action if they suspect that a weapon is being brought in without the correct authorisation.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
Am Ito take it that a visiting sportsman with a rifle entering the port of Southampton, which is near my constituency, with a firearms certificate from the Community country of which he was a national—if that was required by that nation—and a European pass enabling him to travel round Europe with his gun would still have to have a visitor's permit? Will he really need three separate documents?
§ Mr. Lloyd
The trouble with visiting terrorists who bring in weapons is that they do not declare them to customs officers, even at present.
As currently formulated, the directive suggests that member states must abstain from all checks on the possession of weapons at intra-Community frontiers : that is in article 15, and is what we have been discussing. We accept that other measures in the directive, which I have outlined—the ability to maintain prohibitions, the requirement for notification or prior authority and the information exchange system—provide sufficient safeguards to enable us to refrain from systematic checks on the possession of weapons at internal borders. We believe, however—as I told my hon. Friends a few moments ago—that we must retain the right to make checks that we consider necessary to safeguard public safety and security. We hold strongly to the validity of the general declaration annexed to the Single European Act, which states:Nothing in the provisions of the Act shall affect the right of Member States to take such measures as they consider necessary for the purpose of combating terrorism, crime and the traffic in drugs.We shall continue to press for recognition that the rights affirmed by that general declaration, and by article 36 of the treaty of Rome—to which I referred earlier—remain unaffected by this directive. The United Kingdom is not alone in this approach, but has the support of some other member states.
We are, of course, concerned that any new requirements on business should be kept to the minimum consistent with providing for public safety. Careful consideration has been given to the implications of the directive for firearms dealers. We have had useful discussions with representatives of the trade; they asked for some minor but important alterations to the timing of the notifications on transfers of firearms which they would be required to provide under articles 11 and 13. Following concerns expressed by ourselves and other member states, the necessary changes have now been agreed. Given those modifications, the trade's view is that the directive will impose no new burden on their business.
I now propose to say a few words about some of the important definitions and technical details of the proposals, and how they affect our own domestic controls. I know that the definitional problems, which always arise in connection with firearms legislation, caused widespread concern in the shooting community when the directive was first published. Further concern was caused by some of the amendments proposed by the European Parliament. We have been glad to take full account of the views expressed by the representatives of the British Shooting Sports Council, which is co-ordinating the response of the sporting interests in the shooting community. Their concern, and ours, has been to obtain some major improvements to the original text. I am glad to say that, thanks to the vigorous and expert input from the United Kingdom and other member states, a number of improvements to the classifications and definitions of firearms have been achieved.
For example, in the category of prohibited firearms, the imprecise termfirearms usually used as military weaponsis to be replaced by "automatic firearms". Hollow and soft-point ammunition, which is widely used for hunting and target shooting, is not to be prohibited as originally 1068 proposed but will be available to those with the appropriate authorisation. That is in line with our current domestic controls on such ammunition.
Following the firm expression of views by us and by other member states, it is now expected that the proposed minimum age limit of 18 for the possession of certain firearms will not apply to sportsmen and target shooters: that will allow youngsters to continue to participate in shooting sports, and will leave our domestic controls unchanged.
§ Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)
Will my hon. Friend add to that a clear statement that no further restrictions will be placed on disabled persons who wish to take part in shooting activities?
§ Mr. Lloyd
I was coming to that. My hon. Friend is right to raise the point, and we too have been concerned about it.
Similarly, the mental and physical capacity requirements proposed for possession of firearms, which may have been seen as discriminatory—indeed, I think that many of us thought them so—are expected to be dropped as they relate to many people who play an active part in shooting.
§ Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)
It is terribly worrying for hon. Members who have prepared for the debate by reading all the necessary papers to find that all the measures that we have come here to complain about have been overturned. What, in fact, are we discussing?
§ Mr. Lloyd
I hoped that my hon. Friend might be pleased that we had made some progress since the last formal document was issued. Some of my hon. Friends may wish to make additional points; if my hon. Friend was indeed hoping for the change that I have announced, I can only say that I am sorry that he has been deprived of the opportunity to make a convincing speech, or, at least, found it unnecessary. I nevertheless hope that he will be gratified that the endeavours that he intended to make have already borne fruit.
§ Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)
I am annoyed that we have before us a document dated 3 October 1990. It is called a consultative document. I assume that it is the current document. It says explicitly:Without prejudice to Article 3, Member States shall allow the acquisition and possession of firearms classified in category B"—which is what we are talking about—only by persons who have good cause and who…are 18 years old or more".It is infuriating that we are debating out-of-date documents. That is not the way to run Parliament. I want an explanation from the Minister.
§ Mr. Lloyd
Discussions are held continuously. When I know that progress has been made, I report to the House at the first opportunity. I am sorry that the document represents the position as it was some time ago. I understand the hon. Gentleman's irritation if he wished to make a speech about changes that he wanted to be made but that have already been made.
§ Mr. Randall
The Minister's explanation is not good enough. There is no excuse why the House should be debating a document in respect of which a change has been made, about which the Minister has notice but not the House. That is unacceptable. We ought to have had an 1069 explanation. It could have been given by letter. There are all sorts of ways in which it could have been explained. It is unacceptable that we should have out-of-date documents on policy matters that are important to both sides of the House.
§ Mr. Lloyd
I understand the hon. Gentleman's ire. We are debating the latest text that has been provided by the Commission. There has been agreement on certain matters, about which I hope the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied. They have not been written up but I am taking the first opportunity that I have to let him know about them. Our obligation is to discuss texts provided by the Commission. The fact that I am able to add to that should be helpful to hon. Members. It is better for me to do that rather than to conceal that there has been further agreement.
§ Mr. Randall
I accept that the Commission publishes documents at various times. However, the Home Office also publishes documents on European matters. It provides explanatory memoranda. There is no control whatsoever over the Home Office when it comes to publishing explanatory memoranda. Something could have been produced in time for the debate. Although changes have taken place, there is a mechanism that would have allowed that to happen. It has not happened. The Minister and the Home Office have let down the House. I do not see how we can continue the debate, since we are not sure what other changes have been made. It makes the quality of the debate dubious, to say the least.
§ Mr. Lloyd
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I understand his exasperation. We are debating a text published by the Commission with which we were not satisfied. I regret, in a way, that we were successful in further negotiations sufficiently early for me to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman verbally here, without having been able to provide that information in writing and without the Commission having been able to provide a new text.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
I dare say that there have been developments since the Home Office document of 25 October which was published by the Minister. Naturally, we are interested in those developments. However, we are debating documents that have been published. The status of the assurances from the Minister is by no means clear. He says that agreements have been reached. Agreements with whom—with all the member states, or with the Commission? What reliance can hon. Members place upon such assurances if we do not know the nature of the agreements that are alleged to have been made? The Minister seems to be trying to pre-empt the discussion by bouncing the House in a wholly unacceptable way.
§ Mr. Lloyd
The House cannot be bounced at this point. It is making no decision other than to adopt the Government's general stance in the negotiations. The fact that I was able to say that it looks as though on some points we have been more successful in the negotiations than we were when the document was published in no way bounces the House. In fact, it ought to bring some cheer to hon. Members.
§ Mr. Wiggin
I very much welcome the Minister's announcement. In many respects it deals with our worries. However, having gone to great trouble to change an important international engagement in order to be here tonight, I have to complain to the Minister that the debate need not have been held in its present form. The major points have been dealt with, but there may still be need for further debate. To conduct the debate on the basis of the document that is before us is no longer sensible. I thank my hon. Friend for the negotiations that he has carried out and I congratulate him on his success, but may I suggest that we ought to adjourn the debate and return to it later, if there are outstanding points still to be considered?
§ Mr. Lloyd
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but the motion before the House is to approve the Government's negotiating stance.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) asked about the status of the improvements. Agreements are reached in the Council's official working group. They have the general approval of the representatives of the other member states.
I understand the irritation of hon. Members, because we have been more successful, and more quickly successful, than some of us might have hoped. I shall reflect upon the machinery that is available to make sure that the very latest position is communicated to hon. Members before a debate is held. When, however, negotiations are taking place not just at regular and predictable intervals but all the time, there is a problem. I shall reflect upon how the House ought to be informed of these matters, but it is not primarily a Home Office matter. It is for the appropriate Committees of the House to consider the machinery whereby European directives and documents can be debated by hon. Members.
§ Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)
We are not just being asked to endorse the Government's stance; the motion also asks the House to take note of documents that patently are out of date. I understood the Minister to say that the provisions relating to disabled people are expected to be dropped. "Expected to be dropped" is somewhat different from saying that already there is an agreement. That highlights our problem. We are not sure what parts have been agreed, what parts might be agreed and what likelihood there is that they will be agreed. Will the Minister explain what he means by "expected to be dropped" and whether that differs from an agreement?
§ Mr. Lloyd
That was the tenor of the agreements in the working group. We believe that the wording will be changed in a wholly satisfactory way. The motion before the House is to approve the Government's negotiating stance; it is not that the House should approve any particular wording. What is useful about the debate, which has not been welcomed as much as I hoped that it would be, is that I have been able to inform the House about agreements that have been reached in the working group. Moreover, it enables me to take on board—because the discussions are continuing—any other points that hon. Members wish to impress upon the Government, since we believe that they ought to form part of our negotiating stance.
§ Mr. Randall
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like your advice. If we divide the House, will we be voting on the EC document before us or on the 1071 Government's negotiating stance which has been presented orally by the Minister? It is crucial to know that because the motion before the House is a take-note motion and it refers to a document. If we vote on the motion, we have to accept that the words of the EC document are extant on the technicalities. The Minister has just said that if we were to vote we would be voting on the Government's stance in the negotiations that have taken place since the publication of the documents as well as the Home Office internal memorandum.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
I can help the House. We are debating the motion on the Order Paper. There are two key points in the motion. It says that we should, first, take note of certain European documents and, secondly, endorse the Government's view as expressed in the motion. Therefore, were there to be a Division, we would be voting on the motion with those two aspects in mind.
§ Mr. Haynes
I should think that the Minister would give way. That is what we are here for. We are here to discuss the document. I am sick of being kicked around by the Government, and that is what is happening. The Minister is ducking about all over the place. He does not know where he is and nor do we. I had a document dated 2 October. That is what is on the Table.
I do not accept what the Minister has said. He is bringing a verbal report to the House which is not satisfactory. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) is right in saying that we should have had a report from the Home Office so that we can consider the matter properly. I have had a going over about these proposals by my constituents in Ashfield. I am here representing the people who have given me a going over and I am not satisfied with the Minister's explanation.
I agree with the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) that we should adjourn the debate until we have all the information necessary to discuss the matter properly. As I have said, I am sick to death of being kicked around by the Government. They think that they can do what they like because of their large majority, but I am afraid that they cannot. We are all here because we are not satisfied with the way things are going.
§ Mr. Lloyd
The hon. Gentleman is protesting far too much. Nobody would dream of kicking him around. I always find it illuminating to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but that was one of his less illuminating interventions. If he has points to make on behalf of his constituents, he is welcome to make them if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
§ Mr. Lloyd
We have done our job so well that I am able to tell the House that we have achieved in negotiations some of the things that the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) and other hon. Members would be pressing us to achieve in the next few weeks. The hon. Member for Ashfield is sad because the Government have already done some of the things that he was going to ask us to do.
In case the hon. Member for Ashfield did not notice, the document before the House is the latest text provided by the Commission, and it is our duty to bring it before the 1072 House. When I came to the debate I was pleased to bring some good news. Perhaps on future occasions I should suppress such news. However, that would be unfair and unreasonable and I would do no such thing.
I want to touch on two other matters. The first I mention for clarification and the second for its legal significance. The House will have noted that, although the scope of this directive extends not only to firearms but also to weapons such as knives and crossbows, the compensatory measures proposed relate only to firearms. In effect, the domestic law on such weapons is left unchanged by this directive.
Lastly, I draw the House's attention to the question of the legal base of article 100A proposed by the Commission for the directive. We doubt whether that is appropriate, since it seems to us that one of the main aims of the directive is to facilitate the freedom of movement of persons carrying firearms as personal baggage. In our view, article 100 or article 235 may be more appropriate for the legal base. We have put our views to the Council Legal Services which is still considering the matter. Its formal opinion is expected to be delivered shortly. We will need to look carefully at what it says before we can reach a final conclusion on the matter. We shall continue to work constructively within the Council to reach a directive which maintains public safety and which is workable and legally acceptable.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor
Is it the case that, unless the Council agrees unanimously to the Government's point that it should not be article 100A, nothing can happen? If the Council does not agree with the Government's point of view, what can they do about it?
§ Mr. Lloyd
We could determine whether we believed that the base chosen would not stand up in law and whether the European Court would direct that it was wrong. Before we did that, we would have to consider carefully all the arguments and whether we were likely to win them. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) is very knowledgeable about these matters. We have said that we believe that the Commission has proposed the wrong case. We are seeking to persuade the Commission and our colleagues in the EC that it should be article 100 or article 235. The Commission is due to provide us with a formal response to our arguments, but we have not had that yet. When we receive it, we can consider more sensibly and effectively what course is open to us, unless, of course, the Commission agrees with us.
§ Mr. Taylor
I want to clarify this point because none of us knows the answer. If, despite the Minister's splendid points, the Commission says, "We are sorry but we think that it should be article 100A", does its view stand unless there is unanimous disagreement? My understanding is that that is so. There must be a unanimous rejection of the Commission's view and if, for example, Portugal or Greece thinks that it should be article 100A, that is it.
§ Mr. Wiggin
The Home Office memorandum says clearly that the Council shall act by a qualified majority. Therefore, there is a difference of opinion.
§ Mr. Lloyd
On the legal base proposed by the Commission, the operation will be by qualified majority. Under the articles we are suggesting—article 100 or article 235—it will be by unanimous agreement. I was answering my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East about how the base is determined. His fear was correct. As I said earlier, it is theoretically possible for us to challenge that on legal grounds and that would be a matter for the European Court. I would not like to hold out too much hope that that would be an avenue that we would think it wise to go down. If we did, I do not know whether it would be successful. However, it is a possibility.
I have taken more time than I intended in bringing good news to the House, so I will now commend the motion. I will listen carefully to any changes, strengthening or alterations that right hon. and hon. Members propose, because discussions on the directive continue.
§ Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)
The House has discussed the status of the document before us, and I want to add one further comment about that before beginning the main part of my speech. As the officials in Brussels have already reached agreement on allowing young people aged 14 and above to use firearms, why was there not sufficient time to produce an additional explanatory memorandum to explain that?
§ Mr. Colvin
Is the age limit really being lowered to only 14? I thought that it was to be lowered to 17 years of age. Perhaps I misheard my hon. Friend the Minister.
§ Mr. Randall
I shall deal with that point in detail later. However, there is concern that children of 14 who, under current British Law, and under proper supervision, can fire pistols or rifles will not be able to do so under the directive.
The purpose of the measure is to harmonise the acquisition and possession of weapons within the European Community as part of the progress towards a single unified market. However, it will provide only partial harmonisation, because each member state can operate independent firearms legislation, provided that it meets certain minimum standards. In practice, the directive will mean that arms traders, sportsmen and others, will be able to move freely within member states with their own firearms provided that certain limited conditions are met.
I support the development of the so-called single European market, because I believe that Britain's future is firmly linked to the EEC's development. I want to see the Community thrive, for the sake of not only the people of Britain but the people of the other member states.
Despite the need for degrees of harmonisation, we must remember that the commodity covered by this directive is not wine, cheese, or computer technology but firearms, which deserve special consideration, given that public safety is at stake.
The Commission must not full steam ahead in such a way that it could prejudice public safety. If that happened, such innovations by the Commission and the Council of Ministers would be strongly resented by the British public. There is a balance to be struck between harmonisation as part of developing the single market and protecting public safety. Where there is any doubt, public safety must always receive top priority.
The thrust of the directive seems reasonable in attempting to make it easier for responsible sportsmen and 1074 those who trade in shotguns and other weapons to travel with their firearms within the EEC. However, to achieve that objective, the Commission is proposing the abolition of internal border checks. At the same time, it is proposing weak compensatory measures. The net effect will be an unacceptable threat to public safety.
There is at issue a broader question than trade, and it is one for which the EEC is not responsible. I refer to national security. The removal of border checks between the United Kingdom and other member states could be regarded as a charter for terrorism. With the help of a few forged documents, members of all kinds of terrorist organisations would be able to move freely within the EEC with various weapons, to plant bombs, and to cause havoc. It is vital that internal border checks remain, especially for Britain, because of the problems that we have with the IRA. Accordingly, the availability of good intelligence and a policy of targeted checks at internal as well as external borders are crucial ingredients in combating terrorism.
§ Mr. Wiggin
The legitimate owner of firearms has always made the argument that, while legislation, documents rules and controls are made to apply to honest, straightforward people, the terrorist will never obey any law—however comprehensive it may be.
§ Mr. Randall
That point is central in my thoughts. The Commission is directing its attention to the legitimate users of firearms to whom the hon. Gentleman referred, but in removing internal border controls, it will also allow terrorist threats to emerge. I am not privy to internal Government security policy, and rightly so, but, as that aspect is part of the directive, it must be raised. I shall refer later to sportsmen, targeters, and others. My point is that Britain's national security is not within the competence of the EEC, and once border checks are done away with, threats would emerge.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor
I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman that the directive will create additional security problems and greater dangers for the British public. What does Labour think we should do about that? This measure will probably be passed by a majority vote next week and, whether we like it or not, will become the law of the land. I should love to know what the Opposition think we should do about that. It is a genuine question.
§ Mr. Randall
The hon. Gentleman is pre-empting my speech, but he asked a reasonable question. The measure is totally flawed and concerns a matter that is outside the competence of the Commission. Certain national considerations are beyond the scope of the document, so I am inclined to vote against it.
Any measure that will help sportsmen and other genuine members of the public to move around Europe with their firearms more easily is entirely laudable and acceptable, provided that it does not imperil public safety. We can let the Commission know in the strongest possible terms that we oppose the basic structure of this document by voting against it—that is all the power we have as parliamentarians. That is why we will suggest that there should be a Division.
These are security matters. It is necessary to have intelligence and targeted checks at borders. There will be immense problems in Britain because of the number of people who will go through the channel tunnel, but we must also be vigilant in dealing with terrorism.
1075 In proposing the abolition of internal border checks, the directive advocates the introduction of several compensatory measures. The first is to toughen external border checks. On its own, that seems a reasonable proposal. However, as Britain is on the periphery of the EEC and forms part of the external border, and as we have special problems with the IRA compared with other member states, it is exceedingly unlikely that the proposal in the directive to strengthen external border checks will result in much change—certainly not along the external border of Britain—because our authorities will almost certainly have taken the necessary steps to combat terrorism in that way. The directive's proposal will not add anything in particular. Anything that helps to restrict terrorists' ability to import weapons to the EEC via other external borders is clearly welcome.
A second compensatory measure is the proposal that firearms legislation throughout the Community should meet certain minimum standards. Ours goes well beyond what I would envisage to be the minimum standard. If certain member states wish for their own reasons to have firearms legislation that goes beyond those minimum standards, it is a matter for those member states to decide. In practice, this means that there will be disparities between various member states, in terms of not only legislation but the border controls that the firearms legislation determines. The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 resulted in the British visitor's permit, which allowed personal firearms to be checked at borders for compliance with the scheme. It should be noted that removal of the controls would result in the British visitor's permit scheme becoming inoperable. It seems, from what the Minister said in response to an intervention by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor), that the opportunity for spot checks will disappear. Those powers which exist at the moment to carry out such spot checks will cease to exist because of the directive.
§ Mr. Peter Lloyd
I said that the Customs controls that exist at present will cease under this directive, but a central part of our stance in the negotiations is opposition to controls for internal borders—certainly ours. We want targeted checks based on intelligence, and I think that the hon. Gentleman agrees. They will remain essential They are the means by which firearms brought in illegally are found now. We intend to maintain the use of intelligence and checks as our security dictates, although the directive would mean that blanket checks at a normal, old-fashioned international border may not be maintained between Community countries.
§ Mr. Randall
These are matters of security and I am not an expert on them. I should have thought that, the greater the belt-and-braces approach in security matters, the better. We have seen many examples of the way in which IRA arms stores have been found purely by chance and by spot checks. I should regret any weakening of those powers.
A third compensatory measure proposed in the directive for the removal of internal border checks is the establishment of an information system, the purpose of which is to provide data for member states describing which firearms have crossed their internal borders and entered their countries. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell the House—I am confused about this—whether the Commission proposes that a centralised records system 1076 should be set up for the whole of the EEC. Will he tell the House exactly what the functions of the system will be? How will this system compensate for the loss of border controls? Who will control it? As we have centralised police forces, does it mean that every police authority in Britain will have to interact with this system?
If I understand the system properly, it is a bureaucratic nightmare. Instead of that nonsense, I would rather our police were on the streets dealing with crime. That is what this country needs. I should be grateful if the Minister would give detailed answers to those points, because I am sure that the House wants to know the details.
It is important to recognise that the problems of terrorism, particularly the IRA, extend to other member states, rather than being associated only with the United Kingdom. That can best be illustrated by an article in The Times dated 18 June 1990 and entitled "European police forces co-operate in fight against terrorism". It is about the co-operation between the Dutch and Belgian authorities in arresting a suspected IRA terrorist on 16 June 1990—the Donna Maguire affair. I shall quote a little of it because it is enlightening. The article states:Interior ministers across the European Community are fully aware that the latest IRA bombing and shooting campaign against British bases and army personnel in West Germany and the Netherlands represents the most serious terrorist threat on the Continent since the wave of anarchist class warfare in the 1970s…The IRA challenge is in some ways greater. As customs and immigration checks in the European Community (EC) becomes more relaxed due to increased economic integration, Irish republican terrorists find it easier to move across borders.Last April…the head of West German's Federal Police, warned that a single Europe would make his country an even more tempting target for the IRA and other terrorist groups. IRA units have exploited this openness, striking at British bases and personnel and escaping in minutes across a border…In response, European police forces have increased their co-operation…European Community interior ministers…agreed to streamline the exchange of information on terrorist groups, including the establishment of a European Common Information System. This will involve setting up a data base.It seems odd that, with so much going on, the Commission is attempting, through the draft directive, to relax border controls on people and firearms. It does not make much sense.
The directive is based on the Schengen agreement, which has resulted in the lifting of certain border restrictions between the Benelux countries and Germany. What may be desirable or necessary for some EC member states on border controls may not apply to us.
It is surprising that the Commission has produced a draft directive that does not seem to take into account the disparity in firearms legislation and border controls between member states. The genuine concern of member states about their national security should have been taken into account in earlier drafts of the directive. National security is not a negotiable matter, so I hope that the draft, which is badly flawed, will be amended to take vital matters into account before it finally goes to the Council of Ministers.
We debated the matter of age earlier. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what the present feeling is in Brussels. I presume that the officials are negotiating those matters. Is there movement or is there likely to be movement on relaxing internal borders?
Why is the Commission suggesting that the directive be approved by majority voting rather than by unanimity? 1077 What derogation can the United Kingdom obtain on the ground of national security if majority voting is applied? Although those matters are complex and legal, I should be grateful if the Minister would give a detailed answer.
Paragraph 8 of the explanatory memorandum dated 25 October says:The Directive also introduces a European Firearms Pass…for EC nationals wishing to travel with firarms within the Community. In general the EFP does not in itself convey authorisation to enter another Member state with a firearm, but is intended to facilitate it".The memorandum then lists the exceptions. What is the real purpose of the pass? Who will be the issuing authority? The Minister answered the question about the British visitor's permit. It seems that we shall run the two in parallel. Will the Minister confirm that? Will Britain take part?
We had a discussion about article 5 and there is still concern about it because it has not been finalised. The directive restricts the acquisition and possession of weapons to those who are 18 years of age or more. As we know, at present in the United Kingdom, 14-year-olds can shoot with pistols and rifles if they are supervised in doing that. I regretted very much that that restriction was in the directive. It showed a lack of contact by the European Commission in understanding what goes on in this country. I am sure that the Minister realises that, if the restriction were put into practice, the effect of so limiting young people would be disastrous for Britain's future Olympic hopes in shooting events. Young people would not be able to train in their sport and that would be a serious problem. Unless there were a serious threat to public safety, the Labour party would have strongly opposed that part of the directive tonight. However, I am delighted to hear from the Minister orally that there has been a change in that provision.
The Labour party also opposes parts of article 5 because they could impose restrictions on paraplegics. Unless there are good public safety reasons for those restrictions, we should reject them. It is important that people with physical disabilities are not unnecessarily discriminated against and that they are free to pursue sport in the way that they wish.
It is important to note that the safety record of sportsmen in Britain is one of the best in Europe and, indeed, the world. The Labour party, therefore, believes that firearms sportsmen should be free to pursue their interests without having petty and unnecessary regulations imposed on them, whether by the Commission, by the British Government or by the other institutions that are involved in firearms. However, that freedom must be based on the unstinting concern by sportsmen for public safety. If they have such a concern, they will always receive the full support of the British Labour party.
We are appalled by the quality of the document. It is flawed and it is not up to date. We will demonstrate our opposition to the way in which this business has been handled, and our support for young sportspeople and sportspeople in general by dividing the House on the directive.
§ 8.5 pm
§ Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
I only wish that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) had been speaking for the Opposition from the Front Bench during the passage of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988. I believe that there can be harmony in this matter. In the course of his introductory remarks, my hon. Friend the Minister said several times that firearms matters were troublesome. The last thing in the world that those of us who are fond of shooting want is to have troublesome relations with the Government. There is no need to have troublesome relations with the Government if—I repeat the principle that I enunciated earlier in an intervention—it is recognised that the law-abiding sportsman is not the person on whom the force of law should descend. He does not commit the crimes; he does not have the illegal weapons. At the time of the 1988 Act, we were carried away, quite illogically, by the Hungerford incident and I do not want to refight those battles.
I must tell the House that I have an interest in the matter as I have recently been elected chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council—a post which is, sadly, unpaid. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for acknowledging in his opening remarks that the council had given some professional expert advice on this highly technical matter to the Home Office. I can assure my hon. Friend that so long as I am chairman, the best possible relations will be established between that body and the Home Office in the hope that we can come to sensible solutions. I am sorry that we should always be considered to be a troublesome section of the community. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people get a great deal of innocent fun from shooting in all its forms. It is not right that there should be a conflict of interests between their hobby and our Government.
I was immediately concerned to find that the word "firearms" had been dropped from the heading of the directive and that the word "weapons" had been used. The word is used because weapons other than firearms are covered by the directive. One mission that the Government might care to pursue in Brussels is to differentiate between firearms and all the other offensive weapons in which I have no interest and which I appreciate the need to control.
We must examine the purpose of the directive. I see it as being to establish an internal market in which the free movement of goods and services is secured, to provide for harmonisation as far as possible in national laws of member states and to ensure that member states consent to or are aware of the import of weapons into their territories. Many people in continental countries can go shooting across a national border 50 miles down the road and those countries' attitudes are, of course, quite different from those pertaining in our island state. I suspect that the civil servant who drafted the directive is a continental gentleman living close to one of the national borders near Brussels.
In the view of the shooting organisations, the directive should be primarily concerned with the question of open frontiers rather than with attempts to impose further restrictions on legitimate pursuits merely because they involve the possession of firearms.
The progress of the directive has been long and convoluted, and it has been complicated by differing 1079 understandings of some of its technical details which have arisen from the different use of language as well as from the different languages used in the official papers. Such is the confusion surrounding the directive—this has been confirmed tonight—that even allegedly the most up-to-date edition is likely to have been superseded already. I welcome the Minister's remarks and I understand the dilemma. As a result of masterful negotiations, concessions have been obtained in Brussels and from the other Community states, but it has not been possible to reorganise the debate. The House is well attended, given the subject that we are debating. I should point out, too, that many of us have changed our engagements and come a long way to attend the debate, and organisations have gone to a lot of trouble to prepare for it. It might have been better to wait a few weeks until the matter was set in concrete so that the few questions that remained in dispute could have been debated. Instead, we may have to make some points that have, in part, been conceded.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was here on Monday when the matter first came before the House. A couple of us tried to stop the directive being debated this week. We suggested to the Leader of the House that he should take it off and bring it back at a later stage because there was some argument about the Standing Orders and other matters. Perhaps it would be as well, even at this stage, to take the business off and bring it back at a more appropriate time. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is a typical Common Market cock-up?
§ Mr. Wiggin
The hon. Gentleman conducts his own permanent campaign on these matters and is most assiduous. But I am interested in the subject that we are debating tonight.
It now appears that, whatever its eventual form, the directive will place less emphasis than it should on the primary intention of moving towards the freer markets envisaged for 1992 and is unduly concerned with imposing grater restrictions on ordinary people, even though there is little—if any—evidence to suggest that it is not safe for them to possess or transport weapons. Some of the very people on whom the directive will have the most impact are individuals who have established their reputations as people of the greatest integrity and have achieved fame and honour for this country as its representatives, at international level, in a whole range of shooting disciplines.
Much of the concern of the shooting organisations is centred on the confusion which continues to reign in respect of technical errors and imprecise—at times even unintelligible—translation. One could go through the directive chapter and verse, nit-picking one's way through a confusion of ideals and intentions. A number of aspects have been identified as particularly significant. The Minister mentioned age, in respect of which a concession has been obtained, but I think that my hon. Friend should examine carefully the endless debates that we had during the passage of the Firearms (Amendment) Act about the desirability of allowing properly supervised young people to shoot or to practise target drills at a much earlier age than 18. There is no reason why that should not be allowed; indeed, many of us in the House enjoyed those privileges in our early teens. There is no question of our 1080 having a disastrous record in this matter. Very few young people have been involved in firearms accidents. We must examine the facts before jumping to conclusions.
A restriction on the possession and use of semiautomatic weapons would have serious consequences for certain sports. I am sure that the Minister will recognise that a number of Olympic and world shooting disciplines involve the use of semi-automatic weapons.
I had the feeling that my hon. Friend the Minister had dealt with the question of military weapons, but simply to prohibit a weapon because it was once put to military use or considered to be of military calibre is a clumsy and heavy-handed way of dealing with a problem which, so far as I know, does not exist.
Some of the proposals in respect of trade appear to run counter to our supposed commitment towards open borders and would be guaranteed to cause confusion. Going beyond trade interests alone, any injudicious legislation runs two risks. The first is the risk of avoidance. The other is the risk of incurring a financial commitment in terms of compensation. Following the introduction of the 1988 Act, only 4,000 semi-automatic weapons were surrendered when the compensation scheme was introduced. At that time, the Government estimated that there were 20,000 such weapons in private possession. One can only guess at the whereabouts of the balance.
Hon. Members have mentioned the requirement for "mental and physical capability". That could lead directly to many disabled sportsmen being barred from following what is often regared as a therapeutic pursuit and would directly affect such events as the Paralympics.
The Government will need to keep in mind the effect that the proposals would have on income generated by visitors from places such as America and eastern Europe who come here specifically for the shooting. I am told that in Scotland alone the income from that source is estimated at £52 million a year.
§ Mr. Wiggin
My hon. Friend says that it is more than that; it is certainly a very considerable sum and one would not wish to discourage such visitors.
Some of the European officials concerned seem to be intent on using the directive as an opportunity to deny individuals the right to possess weapons of any nature. I am happy to say that our Government repeatedly stated, during the passage of the Firearms (Amendment) Act, that that was not their intention and that they sought merely to ensure that weapons in private hands neither fell into criminal hands nor were used to harm the public at large. All the shooting organisations share that sentiment.
The shooting population in this country is already subject to some of the most stringent safeguards and is still absorbing and coming to terms with the effects of recent legislation. It does not believe that it would be helpful or pertinent if the side effect of a measure intended to achieve a reduction in border controls merely led to yet more restrictions, uncertainty and expense for legitimate shooters, especially as there is little evidence to suggest that they bear any direct responsibility for lawlessness, the illegal use or possession of weapons, or any activity against the interests of the state or the wider European Community. The shooting community would point out 1081 the contribution that shooting disciplines have made to greater harmony between the European states by way of international co-operation and friendly competition.
There are minor examples such as the possession of airgun pellets, although the Minister intimated that that point had been dealt with. The directive also requires the address of the holder to appear on a passport or identity card. There is no address on a British passport and I hope that we are not envisaging an identity card for firearms use.
I hope that the Minister will ensure that the British Shooting Sports Council's wisdom and enormous knowledge are used to the benefit of the nation and will acknowledge that our laws are already sufficiently severe without our allowing the nonsense in the directive to override them. I believe that the whole country is willing to co-operate with many of the directives which come from Brussels provided that they are sensible measures involving the harmonisation of trade and economics, but when they stray into social matters and matters of practice and habit—when, like this one, they represent sheer interference—we rather resent them. We hope that the Government will carry that message to Brussels forthwith.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
I begin by taking strong exception to the manner in which the debate has been initiated. Even without the Minister's speech and its revelations of developments of which the House had not been informed, I should have raised some questions about that. Certain matters should have been put before the House but we have not had the benefit of considering them.
In particular, I refer to the advice of the firearms consultative committee, to which the Home Office document refers but is not before us, and to the desirability of an update of the evidence of the police in this matter. From the Minister's document of 25 October it is apparent that he has received advice from the Association of Chief Police Officers, but the latest advice that I have been able to obtain is the copy of a letter that was sent to the Home Office in February which expressed great concern about the legislation. That letter, which is dated 20 February, spoke of therevocation of existing legislation or its supplementation by European controls being, in the view of ACPO, extremely costly in all its collective forms, financial, administrative and, most importantly, the loss to public safety.Does ACPO's concern persist in the light of the amendments on which the Minister has reported to the House? It must be admitted that that concern was expressed in the most general terms, but it is material to considering whether we should welcome the legislation.
If we approached the debate with uncertainty about the views of the police and firearms experts, our confusion was worse confounded by the Minister who clearly has had important negotiations on matters that were giving rise to concern among the shooting fraternity, about which the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) spoke so eloquently. I am bound to say that the Minister, not just as a matter of courtesy but as a matter of enabling the House to participate in an informed debate, should have taken steps before this evening to tell hon. Members of the developments prior to the debate to which he alluded. My 1082 right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) wrote to the Minister on 13 November raising this matter in general terms, and he might reasonably have expected a reply before the debate, but no reply has been forthcoming.
I am bound to say that the debate procedure is extremely important in offering the House the opportunity to make an informed comment and possibly even assist the Minister in his diplomatic deliberations. We know the limits of our powers in matters flowing from the operation of the Single European Act, but it does not limit our capacity—
§ Mr. Maclennan
I have no regrets about having done so, but it renders our power of advice almost less than useless if we are unable to speak about an up-to-date situation in an informed way. The procedure seems to be severely weakened and rendered rather a mockery by the Minister's manner—almost in the sense that he was scoring points off the House by being in a position to announce matters of which we did not know. That is unfortunate.
There is another fundamental question about the Minister's approach that I must also raise. I refer to the Government's policy in respect of challenging the legal basis of this draft directive. It is strange that he should have such substantial doubts about the basis on which the draft directive is being brought forward by the Commission and that those doubts have not been resolved even now. The Minister has no intention of seeking to have them resolved before the negotiations are concluded. In answer to an intervention from one of his hon. Friends, he said that he thought that it would have been proper to have such matters dealt with under article 165, but that he was not prepared to challenge the matter and to take it to the European Court. One is bound to question whether he attaches any significance to the little dispute about the basis of the draft directive.
§ Mr. Peter Lloyd
We attach great significance to the argument. I clearly told the House—if the hon. Gentleman consults the record he will find that it is so—that we are waiting for the Commission's legal advisers to come back to us on the basis of the paper that we have given them arguing that the article base that the Commission is recommending is the wrong one. We have pressed our argument and we are waiting for the definitive reply.
§ Mr. Maclennan
I do not find that very convincing. The draft directive has been in circulation for about two years. Is it really beyond the influence of Her Majesty's Government to obtain an answer from the Commission's legal advisers in all that time? There has been a lot of argument about the substance, but surely the base must be a question to be resolved before issues of such substance and detail are determined. If the whole thing is flawed, a great deal of effort is being unnecessarily expended by this Government and other Governments. I question whether it is sensible to wait for legal advice for about two years. As vital national interests are involved and touch our national security, if the Government have serious doubts about the legal base, those doubts should have been resolved before the debate.
I now move from extremely important procedural issues to the substance of the draft directive. I start from 1083 much the same base as the Minister started, by attaching the highest importance to the security issues that the draft directive raises. It is clearly of great importance that no legislation that is passed by the European Community should in any way weaken the effectiveness of our controls over firearms acquisition and possession in this country. I have mentioned my uncertainty about the attitude of the police to the directive. I hope that the Minister may have something to say about the attitude of the police.
The difficulty that we face in considering security is that it plainly is an adjunct to the central purpose of the directive, which is to effect the single market and to enable people to travel more freely across boundaries whether or not they are carrying arms. As we know, the Schengen group of countries attaches much less importance than we do to border control. Therefore, these matters have been handled in a rather different way in the Schengen group. The Minister's letter of 25 October refers to the uncertainty of the attitude of other member countries—the southern member states of the Community and France in particular—to the very purposes of the directive. Perhaps he could say whether those countries have maintained Her Majesty's Government's position in the deliberations.
I doubt whether it makes sense to operate two sets of controls in this sphere within this country. There is one aspect in particular in which that appeared to be the outcome of what is happening with the proposals to introduce a European firearms pass in addition to the existing system for the British visitor's permit. I confess to some difficulty in understanding how those two systems of control over visitors will operate side by side. Perhaps the Minister can explain.
§ Mr. Peter Lloyd
Many European countries have asked for no more than the European firearms pass. That is required by the directive, and the Schengen group of countries in particular look for no more. We look for more than that. We require the British visitor's permit in addition, to provide us with the extra security winch we believe that we need.
§ Mr. Maclennan
That helps greatly to explain the position, but I am not entirely clear whether visitors to Britain would be required by Community law to carry one pass while Britain required an additional pass that would make the movement of, for example, those engaged in sporting activities within the Community even more difficult than at present.
It is right to emphasise that for practical reasons one does not wish to put barriers in the way of visiting sportsmen. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare mentioned the reasons. My information is that the value of shooting to the Scots is even higher than the £52 million suggested by the hon. Member. In February this year the Fraser of Allander Institute said that it was worth £78 million to Scotland alone. That is not an insignificant contribution to the Scottish economy, particularly as a great deal of it is spent in the less-favoured and sparsely populated areas where alternative employment is sometimes extremely hard to come by. We are not anxious to see that income lost.
I noted the opposition of sporting groups, at least at an early stage, to the provisions of article 11 of the draft directive. Article 11 would tighten control over entry from third countries into Britain. A great many Americans, east Europeans and others are interested in Britain's sporting 1084 facilities. We should not wish to make it unnecessarily more difficult for them to come here. I do not know whether the anxieties about article 11 were dealt with in the negotiations in a way that meets our needs. Perhaps the Minister could clarify that.
The minimum age limit provisions and the professional competence requirement for firearms dealers aroused the greatest anxieties among the sporting fraternity. The Minister seemed to say that those difficulties had been removed in the working group. If that is so, a considerable step has clearly been taken in removing the anxieties of those who rightly take the view that young people should not be debarred—indeed, they might reasonably be encouraged—to enjoy the sporting opportunities of shooting at targets. Young people, especially those living in rural areas who are trained in the use of firearms for vermin control on farmland, should not be inhibited in acquiring skill and competence in handling firearms at an early age. Country people throughout Britain attach great importance to such matters. We must have absolute clarity on them, not merely an assurance that the Government believe that they have got it right. It would have been better if the Government had come to the House with a firm statement in writing to enable us to be clear about the matter.
It would be appropriate for the Minister to tell us whether his view has changed from that expressed on 25 October when he said:It is difficult to see how partial harmonisation can achieve the establishment and functioning of the internal market.That goes back to the legal question that I raised earlier but it is also a policy question. If partial harmonisation is not strictly necessary and will not bring about the establishment of the internal market, why are we doing it? That is a serious question. The Minister may have told us of the advance that he has made in eliminating difficulties, some of which I referred to, but that does not solve the problem that I raised. Perhaps the principle of subsidiarity should have operated in this case. It was not strictly necessary for this draft legislation to be considered. As the Minister and the House are aware, I am a strong supporter of the operation of the internal market and the development of the European Community's institutions. But I am not in favour of meddlesome legislation that gives rise to widespread anxieties about security.
I shall be delighted if the Minister can put his hand on his heart and say that disabled sportsmen will not be precluded from participating in paraplegic sporting activities as a result of changes which may or may not have been agreed in discussions. Let him be in no doubt that the majority of hon. Members would regard it as preposterous if, by a side wind, the disabled were deprived of that opportunity. It cannot be sensible and it cannot be the purpose of the legislation.
The draft directive is of considerable importance. I acknowledge that it is difficult to reconcile the interests of the various communities that have an interest in it. Plainly, some people would like to see the controls greatly relaxed. Others, particularly the police, would like to see perhaps even greater and tighter national control. Then, of course, there is the European Community dimension. I understand what the Minister is trying to do. He is probably broadly on the right lines, but if the House is to participate in ensuring that he gets it right, he will help us 1085 considerably by making available the relevant information prior to the debate. That is perhaps the message with which I should like to leave him.
§ Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)
I agree with the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) that what we really need at the end of the day is clarity about exactly where we are. My hon. Friend the Minister certainly helped us greatly tonight, but I wish to clarify several points with him because his speech was interrupted so often that he never made a firm statement on some important issues.
I begin by seeking to clarify the distinction between weapons and firearms. I caused some consternation at Edinburgh airport yesterday when I brought a skean-dhu with me to wear with my kilt at a St. Andrews night dinner tomorrow. However, it all arrived in one piece.
We seek to achieve a common denominator and harmonisation within Europe on firearms. Helpful as my hon. Friend the Minister has been, he must realise that many voluntary organisations and governing bodies such as the National Small-bore Rifle Association—of which I happen to be the president—the National Rifle Association, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the British Field Sports Society and the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association have all worked in recent weeks to produce intricate briefs for Members of Parliament for the debate. If they had been aware of the information that my hon. Friend the Minister would deploy early in his speech, it would have saved many people a great deal of time.
Those organisations had to go into the matter because, naturally, those who are interested in shooting are suspicious of the Government. In recent months the Home Office and the Department of the Environment had the shooting world in some turmoil over the birds directive which was to put pests on a special list. That would have been most unreasonable and, fortunately, the Government changed their mind. We are anxious to keep a close eye on what the Government are doing about shooting.
The 1988 Act, in which many hon. Members who are present were involved, showed how the Government, for the right motives, reached wrong solutions. The Act makes sporting shooting more difficult to enjoy than it should be. Many chief officers of police have different interpretations about firearms and shotgun certificates and make life difficult for legitimate sporting enthusiasts. I hope that the consultative committee set up by the Home Office will smooth out some of the continuing problems which are not going away.
Because we have already had so much detail in this debate, I can skip over some of the issues which I wished to raise. I want to be clear on where we stand on three important issues. My hon. Friend the Minister said that he was dealing with the age 18 restriction. Can he say whether, under this directive, those aged 10, 12 or 14 will be able to shoot under supervision?
§ Mr. Peter Lloyd
Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend on the agreement of an age limit. Our domestic law should apply to those who come from abroad and wish to shoot here. Provided that they have the right papers and a British visitor's permit, they are permitted to come.
§ Sir Hector Monro
That is helpful. In other words, the British shooting public of any age can shoot under supervision without any problem, for example, at clubs and in school competitions such as the Ashburton.
§ Sir Hector Monro
That is helpful. We are getting a useful collection of Government statements which I hope that the Minister will put together so that the firearms world may know where it stands. When he produces that document, I hope that he will be clear about the legal meanings of the words, "use", "own", and "acquire" because the firearms world seems to be in some doubt about where it stands on them.
Can the Minister tell us whether air rifle pellets will be illegal? As the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland said, that is important, as are questions about soft-nosed bullets which are used in deer stalking. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) asked about weapons usually used as military weapons. Most rifles and pistols commonly used in target shooting have a military use or originally had one. Therefore, that is not a good definition for dealing with firearms.
My hon. Friend the Minister was interrupted when he spoke about disabled people. Will he be a little more explicit about mental and physical capacity? He said that Europe would give way on that, but I am not sure how far. Who is to judge mental capacity—the chief officer of police? Who is to judge physical capacity? During the passage of the 1988 Act the Government were not sympathetic towards disabled people and paraplegics.
I remember having to divide the House on an amendment because they refused to allow disabled people to use self-loading rifles, which is essential for those who cannot withstand the normal recoil of an ordinary bolt-action rifle. The Government did not help the disabled in that instance. Will disabled shooters have problems using a rifle in this country in future? If so, it would be a harsh decision for people who get great enjoyment from this form of sport. One of our paraplegic shooters is a world record holder and it would be unfortunate if we restricted his opportunities to participate in competitions. I hope that the Minister will be explicit about where disabled sportsmen stand. Shooting organisations would not have raised that with us in such detail if they were not gravely worried.
I am particularly interested in those who come here from without the European Community. We have British visitors permits and now we are to have a European certificate. I do not want to see controls intensified for those who come from beyond Europe to enjoy our sporting facilities. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland spoke about encouraging sportsmen to come here to enjoy our shooting facilities, particularly those in Scotland. As the hon. Gentleman rightly claimed, the Fraser of Allander Institute conducted a detailed survey and published a report this year showing that it is worth £78 million to Scotland. A large proportion of that sum comes from overseas visitors. It is immensely important for the Scottish rural economy, particularly for 1087 hotels, restaurants and estate staff, that visitors come to shoot. Anything that prevents overseas sportsmen from coming to put money into the Scottish economy, or the English or Welsh economies, would be gravely resented. I hope that the Minister will not build up a bureaucratic licensing system for these visitors.
We are talking not only about visitors who come for sporting facilities, but about those who come for target shooting. Sporting shooting developed from the old Commonwealth. Many of our visitors come from beyond Europe to participate at Bisley and elsewhere. Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians are at the heart of the visiting shooting community. We do not want to build up a whole host of problems for them because we are harmonising a system of firearms certification within Europe.
I hope that the Minister realises that the directive has caused a furore in the shooting world, particularly in sporting and target shooting. Although what he has said shows a substantial step forward, until we have it in black and white we shall be worried that some points will again be changed in Europe. He must fight as hard as possible to help those who are interested in this legitimate form of recreation.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
My hon. Friend the Minister will have noticed that most of those who have spoken tonight have found the proposals highly disagreeable. Some have said that they will cause inconvenience to the shooting sport, others that they will cause damage and danger to the general public. Whichever way we look at it, hon. Members have spoken of the new proposals as being unnecessary, dangerous, bureaucratic and costly nonsense.
What worries me is that it is purely accidental that we have had the benefit of debating these proposals at a reasonable hour. My hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the circumstances that led to the directive being debated here today rather than in one of those anonymous Committees to which the Whips send safe people to discuss such matters so no one will notice them. We also have an obligation to the Welshmen, who did not take so long today as they usually do.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) was greatly exercised about the use of article 100A, but that is nothing new. The EEC Commission has been deliberately and systematically using article 100A for a variety of measures which have nothing to do with free trade. The Minister said that he has raised, and will raise, the matter with the Commission, but what we are discussing is not just a problem which may affect sportsmen or marksmen but something affecting the basic democratic rights of the House.
I am sure that the Minister will recall, as he took an interest in these matters at the time, that the then Prime Minister assured us that under the Single European Act majority voting powers would be used only in matters concerning free trade, rather than for irrelevant nonsense. The Minister may recall reading the report of the Select Committee, which sought the advice of Speaker's Counsel on one directive and was advised that if the Commission used majority voting on this directive, it could use it on anything.
1088 I see the Minister sitting with letters from the shooting organisations and taking a great interest in them, but what can he do? We can make a complaint, but unless every member state agrees with our complaint, we have had it and the Commission will decide. If the Commission wants a majority vote, it stays a majority vote unless Portugal, France, Italy and Germany and all the others say that it is wrong. I have done some careful checking and, so far as I can discover, that has never happened, so there is a constitutional problem that we cannot ignore. While hon. Members hope for great things from 1992 and free trade, we should be aware that we are not getting free trade. For example, we are not getting it in insurance or any other sectors which count and which would help people and jobs, but we are getting piles of harmonisation on silly issues such as this, which have no real relevance to free trade.
I hope that the Minister will accept that this is a dangerous measure which could cost lives. We know that people are constantly trying to get weapons into the country—from the Republic of Ireland, but far more regularly through Belgium and other European countries. To stop this, we need regular checks, but the directive will not allow us to have those regular checks. The Minister said that we shall still be able to have target checks. If Customs and Excise have reason to suspect certain people because they look funny or because they are carrying big bags, they can make checks, but the regular checks on which we depend to find weapons and save lives will not be allowed.
The people of Northern Ireland have gone through agonies for a long time, but people throughout the country are concerned about guns and their uses, as we should be. I telephoned the Police Federation today to find out its view on this. I am sure that the Minister will know that it has strong views, and I am sure that his excellent officials will be able to tell him what it thinks. I also know what the Association of Chief Police Officers thinks, and I am sure that the Minister's officials will have had its advice. I know that it does not think that this is a grand idea. It is a dangerous idea.
I appeal to the Minister, to the Labour party and to all other parties to say what we can do about the situation. We know that the directive is illegal because the Commission is using article 100A when it should not and is taking over policy from the House of Commons. I am not being anti-European—I am anti the abuse of EEC powers by the Commission. We must do something about this, because unless we do, we shall find that in all areas of policy—even on shooting magpies, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) said—the EEC will decide to do something and get it through by majority voting. That is illegal and against the rules. Speaker's Counsel said that it is not just a question of interpretation. Some of the officials who go backwards and forward all the time know exactly what is happening. My hon. Friend the Minister is one of the honest ones, and he knows what is happening. He knows that huge areas of policy are being taken away illegally, and we can do nothing about it through the rules. We have to get everyone to agree that something illegal is being done, but nobody ever will, so what on earth are we going to do about it?
§ Mr. Maclennan
The Minister said that it would be possible to take the matter to the European Court. The oddity is that he has not done so already.
§ Mr. Taylor
The Minister will be able to confirm that, until a determination is made by the Council, one cannot go to the court, and if one goes to the court, the case will take two years. In which case, has the court turned down a request for extra authority for the Commission? It never does. The European Court is not a legal court. Understandably, it is a political court, biased in favour not of political parties but of taking more and more power and authority for the institutions of the Community. Any hon. Member who doubts that should consider the case of the Spanish fishermen, which led to a huge area of power being taken away. For the sake of people whose lives will be put at risk by this directive, should we not say what the House of Commons can do? We can do nothing under the existing rules, but something has to happen—something has to be done.
Regular inspection is not just about guns. I am sorry that the Minister did not make this point. Without regular inspections, other objects will come in as well, such as flickknives, knuckledusters and swordsticks, which cause great offence. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare will be glad to know that we still have our British law which says that such objects are illegal, and the Common Market cannot touch that British law, but without regular inspections those items will still come in, as will guns. I assure the House that the police and the Department have said that without regular checks there will be an increase in the number of such objects coming in. All of that is set out in the Select Committee report.
Sadly, as always happens when we debate anything to do with the EEC, although it is vital to our democracy, the Press Gallery is empty. All the bright twits who represent The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent and who say that they are concerned about people and their rights are interested in everything except the EEC. That is a threat to democracy, but ideologically they think that it is the best thing since sliced bread.
§ Mr. Colvin
Does my hon. Friend agree with what was said the other day about the EEC—that if the European Community applied to become a member of the European Community, it would not he admitted because it does not, as an entity, conform with the democratic principles enshrined in the treaty of Rome?
§ Mr. Taylor
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The European Community is not democratic in that sense. It is not as though we are transferring powers from this House to another democratic body. These are non-elected bodies. That is one reason why the previous Prime Minister, whatever the views of her people, did a fantastic job in telling the people of Britain, "We must look carefully at the whole issue of economic control by a central bank." We may or may not want it, but we in Parliament do not want to talk about it. Nobody wants to think about it. Our former Prime Minister did a great job in forcing people to say, "These matters must be examined."
There is nothing we can do about the directive at this stage, even if the Government were to describe it as scandalous and shocking. It will probably be passed by a majority vote, and there is nothing we can do about that 1090 either. We cannot do anything about the use of article 100A because, as we know, the Greeks and all the others will never agree to our proposals.
Although we can do nothing in that context, we can try to find some procedure by which we can restore to this House the rights which legally we should still possess. I accept that we have surrendered power to the EC. We may describe that as sad or otherwise, but we must find some means of drawing the line. The Minister knows that this is an illegal document in relation to article 100A, but no one has any chance even to argue that it is legal. He knows that is a dangerous document which could cost lives. It is a bureaucratic and costly document which will involve a whole new lot of controls, computers and civil servants, and all of that effort will be unnecessary. Indeed, it is a dangerous load of rubbish. We must consider how we can prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future.
§ 9.1 pm
§ Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)
I congratulate the Minister on his opening remarks and I do not agree with those who have said that there was something undesirable or improper in his providing the latest information, beyond that given in the written documents. I admit that I did not come to the debate with a carefully prepared speech, because I gathered that we would listen to the Minister's explanation first and then respond on the matters of interest to us. That has been the procedure and, to that extent, the Minister's comments led us forward in the debate.
Because some hon. Members have been cross with the Minister, they have overlooked the fact that not only did he give us the information that many of us had come to the House to obtain, but he invited us to point out to him those points on which it would be desirable to make further progress in the working party, through officials or through Ministers. We should be grateful for the progress that has been made, and the Minister was able to remove most of the fears that law-abiding shooters in my constituency have been putting to me in recent weeks.
I trust that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) is not seriously thinking of dividing the House on the issue. If he does, he will be behaving like Henny Penny. She had every right to be cross when an acorn fell on her head, but she grossly exaggerated matters when she set out to tell the world that the sky had fallen in.
It would have been nice to have all the information when preparing our remarks for the debate, but the Minister did us the courtesy of providing the latest information. Not only has it been important for us to have that knowledge, but we should do nothing that might discourage Ministers from providing information in future simply because it had not appeared earlier in written documents.
The key factor is that the directive was designed to improve the flow of trade and the movement of people across EC frontiers. I regard that as an excellent idea, but I accept the point made by the Government that we must ensure that that does not disadvantage those concerned with legitimate matters of trade.
Out of tonight's debate has come the almost unanimous feeling that we must not damage the interests of legitimate, law-abiding shooters. Although we frequently use the 1091 phrase "law-abiding shooters," it should be unnecessary for it to be used. Shooters, almost by definition, are among the nation's most law-abiding people.
A constituent wrote to me this week saying that he was particularly careful in all matters concerned with shooting, even with parking and driving lest the constable with whom he happened to clash visited his home to inspect his firearms storage and security arrangements.
We must also remember that those who engage in shooting are not just passively concerned with security, as most of us are for most of the time, but are actively concerned with it—the law provides that they should be. However, they go beyond the requirements of the law and recognise that the very nature of their sport, be it target or rough shooting, could create a danger to security; they are greatly aware of that.
A misunderstanding has arisen during the debate about the security of people entering this country. Nothing in the directive will make any difference to the security checks that airlines carry out. They are conducted on the basis not of EEC directives but that people cannot board aeroplanes unless they are prepared to accept security checks, and that will continue. We have never searched every motor car coming into this country, and the idea that we have always checked everything in the past and are suddenly going to stop doing so is nonsense. Motor cars that could carry all sorts of goods come into the country and it would be physically impossible to check every one.
When intelligence suggests that an operation may be being undertaken, be it to do with drugs, weapons or people using false papers to enter this country, checks take place. That is the point at which the process of careful checks on papers, people and their property takes place, and there is no reason why that should not continue in future. As the Minister said, it will be possible to carry out security checks if there is a specific reason for doing so in an individual case, which is exactly the same as at present.
Presumably, the Minister could increase security by introducing far more checks. Border checks between Scotland and England might stop criminals with weapons moving from Glasgow to London, but nobody is suggesting that that is a desirable feature. We must appreciate that we live in a world in which people move more frequently and easily than in the past and national borders must facilitate the movement of people and goods. We need compensatory measures to ensure that there are careful checks on those coming into the EEC from outside and that we improve our intelligence networks with countries both inside and outside the European Community.
We should welcome the way in which the Government have developed the debate since the original directive was put forward. Has the Minister noted that the Vice President of the Commission responsible for the original directive was Mr. Bangemann? I do not know whether he considers that to be relevant, but I wanted to be the one to read that fact into the Official Report.
§ 9.8 pm
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
It is often said that, when bad news comes, one should not shoot the messenger. The Minister came to the House this evening with news that we all wanted to hear, containing points that we were to raise in some of our speeches. He came with good news, but I have seldom known such a 1092 messenger to meet such a fusillade of shots. The reaction he received had less to do with the content of the draft directive and much more to do with the messy way in which the House deals with European legislation.
It seems pretty weird that the draft directive has been around since July 1987, yet the final amendments to it, which are so crucial and which the Minister has set out to us this evening, were not known until a few days ago. That is a strange way of proceeding.
The news that the Minister brought us, to use yet another sporting analogy, has shot our foxes. He made the very points that we were going to ask him to note before the Secretary of State went to the Council of Ministers arguing the toss on this country's behalf.
The Minister said that this debate and the directive would be of great interest to marksmen and sportsmen. I must declare an interest: I am both marksman and sportsman, and thus I am a member of a fairly large lobby. It is not often appreciated that a great many people in this country have firearm and shotgun certificates—about 1.1 million of them in all. That is 2 per cent. of the population; averaged out, it means that each of us represents about 1,300 constituents with such certificates. That is a significant lobby and it becomes vociferous when it feels that its rights are threatened.
Sportsmen and marksmen are the first to recognise the need for adequate controls on all firearms. The United Kingdom cannot be accused of not being a good European, as our regulations are probably the most stringent in Europe already. We are concerned that our rules and regulations should not be diluted by these proposals.
The firearms laws of this country had a good airing during the debate on the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, so there is no need to go over them again this evening. We were worried, however, that under this directive visiting sportsmen might be able to enter the United Kingdom with weapons issued to them under less stringent controls than obtain here. The Minister has reassured us to some degree about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) mentioned the importance of shooting in Scotland and its contribution to the Scottish economy. In February this year a report was published by the Fraser of Allander Institute, of Glasgow university, showing that shooting in Scotland produced £78 million income, of which almost 25 per cent. was said to come from overseas visitors. About 12,000 jobs in Scotland come directly or indirectly from shooting—a considerable contribution to the British economy.
I was pleased to hear from the Minister that the age limits—probably the aspect of the draft directive that worried us most—are to be changed and those enshrined in our domestic law are to prevail.
Two of the provisions of the directive have not been fully covered by my hon. Friends and need further explanation from the Minister. The first has to do with the technical difficulty of categorising weapons. As drafted, the directive could have the effect of banning rifles and pistols which are of service issue—but those weapons are the mainstay of target shooting.
The other point that worries me is the condition in the directive that possession of a firearms certificate will depend onthe necessary mental and physical capacity1093 of the applicant. Who will decide that? Are disabled people to be barred from taking part in a sport in which they can compete on equal terms with the able-bodied? That would be a disgrace, given the large number of paraplegic members of shooting clubs.
I recently saw in The Times a photograph of Prince Charles shooting while he had the use of only one arm. I assume that the directive would disallow him from possession of a firearms certificate. Incidentally, I seem to remember that the picture appeared just above a headline reading "How the Cabinet assassins struck"—but that, of course, is all history now.
We should also consider the difficulties involved in administering the provision. At present, chief constables are responsible for issuing certificates, and will not do so if they consider that the applicant is of unsound mind or unfit to be entrusted with a firearm. Will that system remain under the directive, and will the right of appeal also remain? I think that we need to know that.
Much has been said this evening about the provision of the additional firearms passes to be used in Europe under article 1(4). I feel that it will lead to much more bureaucracy, which should be avoided at all costs.
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to listen to the views of the firearms consultative committee, under the chairmanship of Lord Kimball. The committee was set up specifically to examine and report the views of experts, who are best qualified to come up with a constructive line. I understand that the committee is to meet next week to discuss the proposals; it is a pity that it did not meet before the debate. I only hope that the documents available to the committee are more up to date than those before us tonight.
I trust that my hon. Friend will take note of what we have said this evening, and that it will strengthen his arm or those of other Ministers when they go back to Europe to discuss the matter further. Debates like this go right to the heart of the question of sovereignty. There is no doubt—if sovereignty means having control over one's own affairs—that, within the European Community, certain aspects of sovereignty are strengthened if our sovereignty is pooled with that of our partners.
I have no objection to a majority vote on what are essentially European Community matters involving all member states; however, I have the greatest possible objection to the majority vote being used to pass a directive that would impinge directly on the domestic laws of this country. I will not accept that such a vote should dictate whether we should shoot pigeons or magpies, whether it is legal for us to eat the British banger or whether a carrot is a fruit or a vegetable. Such matters are best left to our Parliament and our domestic law makers.
I believe that we have made a very good job of drafting and agreeing firearms legislation in this country—after, I may say, a good deal of agonising and debate. I think that the firearms laws that prevail here now should be left as they are, and should not be interfered with by our European partners.
§ Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)
I have no axe to grind. I am not the chairman of a sporting club. I have never fired a gun on a rifle range. Therefore, I speak with 1094 the great authority of those who know little or nothing about the taking of sporting weapons from one country to another. It is almost unnecessary to go into that question. However, national security matters have crept into the debate. This important debate will be one of a series on the effectiveness of our future border controls.
If the impression is given that the Commission is slackening off on border controls, our customs officers may begin to say to themselves, "We've been told that this particular pass is all right. As a lot of work is involved, we won't, therefore, go into it as rigorously as we did in the past." Terrible problems of that kind will arise time and again while European legislation pours through the House. I hope that much of it will be picked up in the new European Standing Committees and that we shall be able to ask questions that will clarify the position for the Minister. He will not then have to come back from meetings in Europe and tell us what he can remember of his last conversation in Brussels. I praise my hon. Friend for telling us about these facts. The Opposition want it all to be put down in black and white, but it has to be translated in a form that meets with the agreement of the other member states. It is extremely difficult to package such agreements.
I think that we all agree that the debate has focused on the wrong issue. I understand that 14-year-olds will be able to take guns, under supervision—I presume under the supervision of their parents—across borders. I suppose that they will be able to obtain permits. Nevertheless, I doubt it. The ages that were mentioned this evening varied greatly.
We must ensure that the message goes out from this place that at this time Customs and Excise must be extra vigilant. That applies to drugs, immigration and almost everything else. The Commissioners must adopt our standards. I am sufficiently non-European to be able to say that, although I am pro-European on practically everything else. We had this problem with the European driving licence. When these matters are raised, we must be able to argue the case with the maximum information before us. Our sovereignty must not be defended to an absurd degree—over such questions as the sausage—but when it comes to national security our sovereignty must be defended. This is probably the only member state of the Community that is under particular threat from acts of terrorism.
§ Mr. Ken Hargreaves (Hyndburn)
As my speech has been wrecked by the assurances that the Minister has already given, I shall be brief.
I welcome the Minister's announcement concerning articles 5(a) and 5(b). They relate to the age limits of the physically and mentally handicapped. I congratulate him on his achievement.
I know very little about firearms, but one of my constituents, Mr. Derek Waterworth, is secretary of the north-west region shooting association. I wish to voice certain concerns of behalf of the association. I am glad that the Minister has already dealt with them. Mr. Waterworth, however, makes two further points. The letter states:Annex 1, Category B. The need for authorisation to possess soft-nosed or hollow projectiles used in pistol ammunition.1095Most target pistol shooters use projectiles…made entirely from lead alloy often with a flat nose and a hollow base, this being the most accurate configuration for a slow moving projectile over short distances. Many pistol shooters also mould their own bullets.Mr. Waterworth asks whether it is realisticto make the moulding of lumps of lead the subject of legislation. The proposal is aimed at copper jacketed ammunition with a flat or hollow lead nose of the type used for hunting game but this is not made clear. The directive also seeks to ban the use of military arms by civilians. Unlike some countries on the continent there has been a long tradition here of using military arms for sporting purposes. Not to mention clay pigeon and game shooters, there are over one hundred target shooting clubs in the North West Sports Council Region. Members of these clubs have personally invested considerable sums of money in their equipment.Mr. Waterworth said that they are worried by the directive.
Mr. Waterworth and his members will welcome the Minister's announcement. Perhaps when he replies he will give us further reassurance on the final two points.
§ Mr. Peter Lloyd
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall reply.
This has been a considerably longer debate than we would have had if it had started at the usual time after 10 o'clock. I make no complaint about that because I know that the subject raises considerable interest and concern among hon. Members ranging from the rules as they affect shooters to the effects on national security. Both are important. I have made long lists of the points that have been raised. If I move fairly rapidly, I hope to be able to respond to all the substantive points that have been made.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) asked about age limits, as did many of my hon. Friends, most notably my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin). The agreement on age limits reached in the working party is that existing law shall prevail. No change will be made for age limits on shooting sports and target practice. I hope that that is sufficiently clear and that it satisfies hon. Members.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West asked what documents would be required by shooters coming from other EEC countries. Under the directive, shooters will need licensing documents from their own state, which will be issued according to the law of their country. They will need the European firearms pass, which will also be issued by the particular country and is available to all those who have proper documentation and licences. We are insisting that we maintain the requirement for the British visitors permit. As hon. Members will know, that is issued only after there is a proper letter of information from a sponsor making clear the purpose of someone bringing in a gun for sporting use. It must also say what the sporting occasion is and where the gun will be used.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West asked about the pass and what it would cover. I think that I have dealt with that already. The European firearms pass is issued by member countries to those who ask for it and legitimately hold weapons under their national law.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the information system. It will provide a record of arms movements. Each member state will appoint a national authority. It may be the national police or the country's Interpol bureau. An information exchange system under a Council of Europe 1096 convention on weapons already exists, and is said to work well by the states that have ratified it, including Germany and Italy.
Concern was expressed by a number of hon. Members about security, and several emphasised the need for intelligence if we are to ensure that firearms are not to be moved across the continent and over borders for terrorist and other criminal purposes. The rules and regulations will be an essential part of that intelligence exchange between European countries. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West referred to the danger of excessive bureaucracy. We want the minimum possible, but in achieving the ends that the hon. Gentleman asked us to address it will be essential to exchange information between countries.
I was reminded by both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) that at present we do not stop everyone entering the United Kingdom and search their baggage. Many arrivals pass through the green channel. In fact, the number of people using it is increasing. The Community aims at phasing out customs controls. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) was also worried about security, yet it would appear from his speeches that he shares that objective. However, he apparently desires that frontier checks should continue ad infinitum. We do not have full checks now, and under the Community proposals that he supports we will not have them at all.
§ Mr. Maclennan
I did not make that point, and would not have done so for the reasons that the Minister gave. The hon. Gentleman knows my views on that issue. However, I am interested to know the views of the police.
§ Mr. Lloyd
Both the Association of Chief Police Officers and its Scottish counterpart are concerned that we should maintain the controls on visitors provided by the British visitor permit scheme. That is why we believe it is not only essential to maintain the visitor permit requirement but that we should have the right to make essential checks at our own border. On both issues, the police and the Government are at one. Achieving those conditions is part of our objective in the continuing negotiations.
§ Mr. Hill
Does my hon. Friend take the view that more money needs to be spent on the customs service to provide up-to-date equipment for scrutinising baggage? At present it is a question of catch as catch can, and it is not working very well. Once in a while a load of drugs is detected, but when it comes to detecting weapons surely customs halls should be equipped with more high-tech equipment.
§ Mr. Lloyd
Improved technology as well as improved intelligence can help. It is a constant battle to stay ahead and to detect and catch people who bring weapons into the country for illegitimate purposes.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland asked whether the negotiated directive will touch on movements to and from non-EC states. It will not, except in so far as it implies a strengthening of checks on visitors from countries outside the Community. The same question was of concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), albeit from a different point of view.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland and my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) mentioned the firearms consultative 1097 committee. We have kept the committee up to date with developments. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary relies upon this small but important committee for advice. It will meet next week, and no doubt will give us the benefit of its informed views.
I must take issue with the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland about the treaty base. He seemed to believe that this should be settled first in the negotiations. As he is interested in EEC matters, I am surprised that he had not yet come across the practice whereby a directive is negotiated and, although a treaty base may be in mind, it is not finally determined until what should go in the directive is agreed. As this directive has taken shape, we have made clear our opinion on what the base should be. Some countries, particularly Ireland, share our views.
§ Mr. Maclennan
I have, of course, come across this procedure before, as the hon. Gentleman will recall, because it was raised by the Government in the debate on enfranchisement of foreign nationals from European Community countries. I am surprised that this practice continues. To reach a detailed agreement before deciding whether it has been established on a proper legal basis is to put the cart before the horse. This is not a matter with which the Minister can deal unilaterally, but it is open to the Government to challenge it and to seek an advisory opinion of the European Court.
§ Mr. Lloyd
We have been challenging it, but discussions go on in parallel. That is why our arguments about the treaty base of the emerging directive were made before completion of the directive. The directive has not yet been agreed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare raised several specific and detailed points. The semiautomatic weapons element of the draft directive has been dropped. It would have caught self-loading pistols used by, for example, target shooters. The military calibre ban has also been dropped. We expect new and better wording to be included that will not affect target and sporting shooters.
My hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare and for Dumfries asked about airgun pellets. That aspect is not affected because the domestic law on sales to young persons and possession by prohibited persons which we already have still applies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries was worried about intensification of controls at external borders to which the directive referred, and I mentioned that point in responding to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland. The fears that this provision will damage the tourist industry are unjustified. The article is simply intended to improve public safety in Europe as a whole. It does no less than require that all non-EEC visitors who wish to bring firearms into the Community for sport or competition should first obtain the certification that member states think is proper.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries will find that the directive requires us to demand no more than we demand already of visitors who come here for shooting, which is such an important part of the industry of some parts of Scotland. I hope that my hon. Friend will feel reassured because the directive does not present any threat in that area.
1098 My hon. Friend also referred to paraplegic shooters and to disabled shooters in general. We expect that in the new directive the limitations on the disabled will be wholly removed. We do not believe that such limitations are necessary. The working party agreed, and when the Commission publishes the next directive the limitations should not be included. I hope that that will reassure my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who are concerned about that point. However, I must stress for the sake of accuracy that certain minor limitations in existing firearms legislation—and my hon. Friends knows them better than I do—will continue to be in force. I stress again that our domestic law governs the rules in this area.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the military weapons ban, which has now been dropped. The definitions that we expect to be in place will not ban normal rifles and pistols; they will ban only automatic-firing military weapons. My hon. Friend also referred to age limits, but I have dealt with that in replying to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East was very worried about the treaty base. I understand what he says and he will understand, not least because I responded to him and to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland earlier, that we share his concern. We believe that the Commission is proposing the wrong treaty base. I can do no more that to repeat that we have put our arguments and that we expect a formal response. Until we have that response, it would not be useful to ask me how we shall decide to respond to it. Our response will depend on how strong we think the arguments are.
Many hon. Members referred to checks for security purposes. It is essential that we have rules that enable us to feel as secure as possible, and it is essential that in future we are no less secure than we are now. Within Europe, the old-fashioned customs checks are being reduced. Most travellers go through the green channel, and we have to rely on intelligence work and on the other ways of gathering information so that we can target our checks on the baggage and documentation on which our information suggests that we should most efficiently concentrate. That is how we now secure our frontiers against weapons and against undesirable elements such as drugs or other contraband. We do not secure our frontiers by having the right to challenge people who are going through the green channel.
I cannot stress too strongly that we believe that the necessary parts of the directive are those criticised by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West for being bureaucratic. They will help to ensure that intelligence information, especially information on the movement of arms consignments, is available to the authorities. We also believe that it is essential that the British visitors permit should continue to be required. That is a central part of the argument that we have still to make in the working party.
§ Mr. Randall
I am grateful to the Minister for his comments, but can he tell the House how much that information system will cost?
§ Mr. Lloyd
I do not know. We must consider that carefully and sensibly. I suspect that, even without the present directive, we should want to establish and expand such an information exchange. The system may not cost much more than we should anyway have spent—possibly 1099 no more. The agreements which have already been ratified and which are in force in Germany and Italy seem to work well.
I think that I have answered most of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside. I understand his argument that matters which seem to have been hanging fire for years suddenly move at great speed. Whether we like it or not, that is the way in which negotiations appear to be carried on in the Community. When an issue such as this comes to the forefront, we may move very fast on it in a series of meetings. That is why I shall say little about the fact that I was able to give the House what I knew was good news. With fast-moving negotiations, it is difficult to ensure that the House is kept fully informed, and I apologise to hon. Members on both sides of the House who came to the debate with well-prepared speeches only to find that the very argument that they had intended to press on me already seemed to have been conceded by our colleagues in Europe.
§ Mr. Wiggin
I am sure that we all accept that the Minister acted in good faith. Will he reaffirm, however, that the basic purpose of the directive is to ease trade across national frontiers?
§ Mr. Lloyd
That is part of the argument. The Community argues that the directive is intended to ease trade across frontiers and that is why it has chosen the present base, although the choice may have been influenced by the fact that it is a qualified majority base. We argue that the directive concerns the free movement of people who happen to be carrying weapons with them and that is why we are arguing for a different base. Both arguments concern ease of movement, whether it be of people or of goods.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) for his helpful and constructive remarks. It was good to hear at least one hon. Member say that he wholeheartedly welcomed my remarks.
I think that I have answered the two additional questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves).
I am grateful for the wise remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill), who knows well how the Community works, having himself been a member of the European assembly.
I hope that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West will not advise his hon. Friends to vote against the directive. It would be a pity if he did, because I think that he agrees with the general tenor of the Government's approach. We want this debate to be read and we want it to be understood within the Community, and if the Opposition voted against the directive it would look as though part of the House was not anxious for the Government to continue to press the points that we are determined to press. Having said that, I know why the hon. Gentleman argued as he did. As I said, I understand that hon. Members would like to have the most up-to-date information before a debate. With a fast-moving negotiation, that is not always possible, but I shall certainly speak to those who are responsible for these matters, for providing background papers and for the way in which the business is managed. Hon. Members' remarks will be drawn to their attention to be carefully considered.
§ Question put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 78, Noes 15.
|Division No. 15]||[9.49 pm|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Knapman, Roger|
|Amess, David||Knight, Greg (Derby North)|
|Amos, Alan||Lawrence, Ivan|
|Arbuthnot, James||Lightbown, David|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas|
|Bowis, John||Macfarlane, Sir Neil|
|Brazier, Julian||MacGregor, Rt Hon John|
|Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)||Mans, Keith|
|Burt, Aiistair||Maples, John|
|Carrington, Matthew||Mates, Michael|
|Chapman, Sydney||Monro, Sir Hector|
|Colvin, Michael||Neubert, Michael|
|Curry, David||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Owen, Rt Hon Dr David|
|Dunn, Bob||Paice, James|
|Fenner, Dame Peggy||Patnick, Irvine|
|Fishburn, John Dudley||Portillo, Michael|
|Forman, Nigel||Redwood, John|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman||Sackville, Hon Tom|
|Fox, Sir Marcus||Soames, Hon Nicholas|
|Freeman, Roger||Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)|
|Gale, Roger||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Goodlad, Alastair||Stern, Michael|
|Gorst, John||Stevens, Lewis|
|Greenway, John (Ryedale)||Sumberg, David|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)||Taylor, John M (Solihull)|
|Hague, William||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Tredinnick, David|
|Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)||Viggers, Peter|
|Harris, David||Waller, Gary|
|Hawkins, Christopher||Warren, Kenneth|
|Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney||Wells, Bowen|
|Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Hill, James||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Hordern, Sir Peter||Wood, Timothy|
|Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Jack, Michael||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Janman, Tim||Mr. Tim Boswell and Mr. Neil Hamilton.|
|King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)|
|Bellotti, David||Pike, Peter L.|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Randall, Stuart|
|Cummings, John||Skinner, Dennis|
|Howells, Geraint||Taylor, Rt Hon J. D. (S'ford)|
|Hoyle, Doug||Wallace, James|
|Hughes, John (Coventry NE)|
|Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)||Mr. Don Dixon and Mr. Frank Haynes.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
That this House takes note of European Community Documents Nos. 10074/89 and 8836/90, relating to controls on the acquisition and possession of weapons; and endorses the Government's view that any Directive must preserve the right of Member States to make those checks that are necessary for public security and public safety and that any additional burden on business should be kept to a minimum.