HC Deb 20 October 1994 vol 248 cc503-5

Lords amendment: No. 141, in page 114, line 9, at end insert— ("(2A) For the maximum term of imprisonment specified in column 3 of Part III of Schedule 8 to this Act that may be imposed under the enactments specified in column 2 of that Part of that Schedule on conviction on indictment, or on conviction on indictment or summary conv[...]ction, of the offences mentioned (and broadly described) in column 1 of that Part of that Schedule there shall be substituted the maximum term of imprisonment specified in column 4 of that Part of that Schedule.")

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.—[Mr. Maclean.]

8 pm

Mr. Michael

It is necessary to point out to the House that there has been a change since we last debated this proposal during the earlier stages of the Bill. As on a number of occasions recently, we see the Government reluctantly and belatedly accepting a case that was made by the Labour party at an earlier stage of the Bill but rejected by Ministers. There was nothing in the Bill about firearms, violence, drugs, drug-related crime or many other serious issues until those matters were raised and pressed by Labour Members. Indeed, when the Government rather belatedly accepted that there was a need for action, Ministers had to tack the proposals on to the amendments to the Sea Fisheries (Shellfish) Act 1967. That shows how reluctantly and late the Government came to recognise the importance of dealing with firearms penalties.

The amendment introduces a range of increased penalties for possessing, selling, repairing and supplying firearms, as we proposed. The amendment was tabled at 2 am in the House of Lords. Perhaps it would have been embarrassing for the Government to acknowledge such a volte face on the issue which we, of course, raised in detail in this House.

In Committee on 15 March, we proposed two new clauses—one to regulate the sale of weapons by mail order and the other to increase penalties for the possession of guns. The need for action is undisputed. Between 1986 and 1992, there was a 42 per cent. increase in crimes involving firearms in England and Wales.The link between drugs and guns is increasingly evident and it is frightening. There can be no excuse for illegally carrying guns and every reason to increase the penalty for so doing.

The Commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Sir Paul Condon, has warned us that we are being pushed by events towards the arming of the police. That was not a prediction, but a warning which, as we said in earlier debates, should be heeded by the Government who should do all they can to reduce the availability and use of firearms and other weapons. However, when we proposed such a measure in Committee, the Minister refused to accept our amendment.

We tried again on Report on 12 April. The Government moved an amendment that dealt just with prohibited weapons such as machine guns and machine pistols. That was far more limited than our proposals which the Minister suggested were not on the right lines."—[Official Report, 12 April 1994; Vol. 241, c. 961] The Government voted against our amendments.

In the Lords, the Government moved the amendment under discussion which incorporated almost all our original proposals. In that debate, Earl Ferrers said: it is important that the courts should have power to deal more severely than they do at present with illegal possession of firearms by criminals and their associates."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 July 1994; Vol. 556, c. 1782.] Yet again, the Government have been forced to act after pressure from the Opposition. That is yet another climb down, but in so far as it accepts the case that we have made, I welcome it. However, the Government have still not acted to tighten the regulations in relation to mail order. I ask the Minister to give us an undertaking that he will tackle that issue in the next Session.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

I welcome the Minister's conversion on this issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) rightly said, the Minister opposed the increases in penalties in our debates in Committee.

In Committee, I pointed out to the Minister that there had been a case in which a person had been arrested for possessing a large quantity of weapons. He possessed those weapons not to use them himself, but as an armourer. He hired out weapons to criminals who wished to carry out offences.

I have never believed that we can deal with crime simply by increasing penalties. It is sometimes possible to do that, but more often it is not. However, there are cases such as the one to which I have referred, where it is important to deal with cases where armourers possess weapons. Those people must be dealt with not just as ordinary people unlawfully possessing weapons, but as people who are making a business out of being unlawfully in possession of weapons and who make profits from that. They must be dealt with much more severely. We therefore need laws that allow the courts to deal with worst issue cases.

When that point was put to the Minister, he did not accept it. He said: I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Warwickshire, North said and I sympathise with the concerns that lie behind it. It is essential for us to ensure that proper penalties are available for unlawful possession of offensive weapons and unlawful dealing in and purchase of firearms. The Government's paramount concern … is public safety, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has the correct approach. The longer I listened to his speech, the more convinced I was that he was tackling the wrong problem. The existing maximum penalty for possession of an offensive weapon is already substantial and we feel that it adequately reflects the seriousness of the offence and provides the courts with the necessary powers to deal with the worst examples of the offence that come before them."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 15 March 1994; c. 1357.] The Minister has undergone a great and welcome conversion. It is another example of his road-to-Damascus politics. We hope that he will be converted to other Labour party policies on law and order. Perhaps in due course, he will be saying in his sleep, "I'm tough on crime and the causes of crime." Perhaps that is the first step towards his doing a jig in his sleep to the tune of Die Tannenbaum.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.