HC Deb 04 December 1996 vol 286 cc1048-63


As amended (in the Committee), and not amended (in the Standing Committee).

New clause 5


.'—Any reference to an air rifle, air pistol or air gun— (a) in the Firearms Acts 1968 to 1996; or (b) in the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969 or the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) (Scotland) Rules 1969, shall include a reference to a rifle, pistol or gun powered by compressed carbon dioxide.'.—[Miss Widdecombe.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.52 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Ann Widdecombe)

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

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following: New clause 3—Extension of power of Secretary of State to require a certificate for air weapons— '. Section 1(3)(b) of the 1968 Act (which exempts air weapons from the requirements of that section unless declared specially dangerous) shall be amended by substituting for the words "declared by rules made by the Secretary of State under section 53 of this Act to be specially dangerous" the words "specified by rules made by the Secretary of State under section 53 of this Act.".'.

New clause 2—Power of Secretary of State to vary certain age limits— 'After section 24 of the 1968 Act, there shall he inserted the following section— "Power of Secretary of State to vary provisions of s.22 and s.24 24A.—(1) The Secretary of State may. by order (a) vary any age limit, or (b) extend to firearms, shot guns or air weapons the application of any provision, specified in section 22 (acquisition and possession of firearms by minors) or section 24 (supplying firearms to minors) of this Act. (2) An order under this section shall be made by statutory instrument. (3) Any order under this section which provides only for the increase of any age limit or age limits shall be laid before Parliament and shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House. (4) Any order under this section which includes any provision of a kind other than that specified in subsection (3) above shall he laid before Parliament in draft and shall be subject to approval by resolution of each House.".'. Government amendments Nos. 80 and 81.

Miss Widdecombe

I regret that I must urge the House to resist new clauses 2 and 3. I shall deal first with new clause 2, and Opposition Members will not be surprised to hear that I cannot accept it. We had a long debate on the subject in Committee, and my position now is no different from what it was then.

Age limits for firearms were not examined by Lord Cullen. There are sometimes good reasons why young people need, and can benefit from, proper and controlled access to firearms—for instance, if they are growing up on a farm. The current law allows for that. The Firearms Consultative Committee—the independent committee that advises the Government on firearms matters—looked at the subject of age limits in firearms legislation in its third annual report of 1991–92, and concluded that further restrictions were not necessary. In reaching that view, the committee was conscious of the value of allowing young people access to firearms so that they can learn at an early age, and under strict supervision, the correct way of handling them and the importance of safety measures.

The committee considered again the question of air rifles and young shooters generally in its sixth annual report, as recently as 1994–95. It concluded that the law should be simplified in relation to young people but did not recommend any further restrictions on their access to air weapons, shotguns or firearms. It stressed again the importance of introducing young people to shooting under proper adult supervision, which is more likely to make them become responsible adult shooters. All the Firearms Consultative Committee's reports are in the Library of the House.

I sympathise with the desire to take another look at the restrictions, which are complicated. That is why I gave an undertaking in Standing Committee to refer the matter back to the FCC. We have asked it to examine the issue afresh and report back to the Government before the Bill completes its passage through both Houses, and we await that report with interest.

Even if we were to agree to changes in the age limits, I do not think that it would be right for the Government to make changes in that important matter by the negative resolution procedure, as new clause 2 would have us do. It is important that any changes to that vital aspect of firearms legislation are made with the full and positive consent of Parliament. I ask the House to reject the new clause.

Nor can I support new clause 3. There was considerable debate on air weapons in the Committee. As I said then, the Firearms Consultative Committee examined the subject of air weapons in its second annual report and concluded that the tightening of the present controls on air weapons would not reduce weapon misuse to any substantial extent. In reaching that conclusion, the committee said: The Committee were aware, that a balance needed to be struck between the imposition of controls designed to prevent the unlawful use of air weapons and the need to avoid curtailing the legitimate activities of many shooters who use them responsibly, for vermin control or in pursuit of their sport, without any danger whatsoever to the public safety or the peace. We were aware that air weapons are used extensively in target shooting and to train young shots in the basics of good gun handling and marksmanship. Those are important points, which should not be forgotten.

I understand the concerns about misuse of, and breaking the law on, air weapons. That is why we have asked the Firearms Consultative Committee to consider the issue again following the debate in Standing Committee, in which I undertook to draw the FCC's attention to the points that had been made.

The possession of many air weapons already requires a firearm certificate. The distinction between those air weapons, defined as high powered, that need a certificate and those, defined as low powered, that do not, is based on a measure of the muzzle velocity of the weapon.

An air pistol with a muzzle energy of greater than 6 ft/lb or, for any other air weapon, greater than 12 ft/lb, requires a firearm certificate. Those limits are set by the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Regulations 1969 and the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) (Scotland) Regulations 1969. The Firearms Consultative Committee will consider whether those muzzle energies are still appropriate or should be lower, thus bringing more air weapons into the certification process.

As I said earlier, we have asked the committee to submit a report to the Government before the Bill completes its passage through both Houses. I understand that the committee has already given the subject of air weapons and age limits initial consideration at a recent meeting, on 28 November.

New clause 5 has been tabled in response to a new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston—super—Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) in the Committee of the whole House. It will exempt low-powered carbon dioxide weapons, both long and short-barrelled, and including carbon dioxide powered paint ball guns, from the general prohibition on handguns. Those firearms are no more dangerous than the low-powered airguns that are already exempted under the current law. The effect of the new clause will merely be to bring carbon dioxide weapons into line with air weapons. We have had it in mind to do that for some time, but we have not previously had a suitable legislative vehicle. Under the new clause, any further controls that we decided to bring in for air weapons would apply automatically to carbon dioxide weapons.

Amendments Nos. 80 and 81 are minor amendments. Amendment No. 80 deals with the fact that the definition of "air weapon" in the Firearms Acts already means an air rifle, air pistol or airgun to which section 1 of the 1968 Act does not apply, so the words are not necessary in new section 5(1)(aba).

Amendment No. 81 clarifies that low-powered smooth-bore air or CO2 weapons should not classed as prohibited weapons. Paintball guns are smooth-bore and a court in Scotland ruled that, due to an unintended consequence of the drafting of section 5(1)(ac) of the Firearms Act 1968, they should be regarded as prohibited weapons. The amendment makes it clear that that should not be the case.

4 pm

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

New clause 2 deals with the age at which young people can own, use or purchase a firearm such as an airgun or shotgun. The current law is confused, and there was extensive discussion in Committee of that. I may be wrong but I got the feeling that, at the end of those discussions, the Committee was not absolutely clear about what the regulations were in every circumstance.

The easiest summary of the current position is that someone has to be 17 to purchase an airgun or shotgun, but on private land with supervision there may be circumstances in which it is lawful for someone under that age to use an airgun. Shotguns can be used by people aged 15 without supervision; with supervision, and in some circumstances—it those circumstance about which there is dubiety—they can be used by people under 15. Generally speaking, 14 or 15 is far too young for someone, especially unsupervised, to be given the responsibility of handling a dangerous weapon such as an airgun or shotgun.

We need to review the age limits. It cannot be right that someone aged 14 or 15 can use a gun but cannot watch films at the cinema that depict the violent use of the same guns. It cannot be right that someone can use a gun but cannot drive a motor bike, even in regulated circumstances. Our previous legislation on such matters has got us into a muddle. It is not clear what the intentions of the House were when the regulations were drawn up. They have been up drawn up piecemeal over a long period.

In Committee, the thrust of our argument was that there should be a review. People should be 18 to be able to purchase a weapon as lethal as an airgun or shotgun; at 17, people could use the said weapons unsupervised; there should be no use under the age of 14 in any situation; and supervision would be required between 14 and 17. It was argued in Committee that some reflection might be helpful and that the Government should report to the House at an early stage on proposals to provide a regulatory environment and change the age limits. However, the Government argued, as the Minister said again today, that it would be more appropriate for the matter to be referred to the Firearms Consultative Committee. If the Government had been prepared to say that they would be guided by the committee's report, that would have been progress.

The problem is that, even if the Government had said that, that would not have convinced many members of the public. Few of them will be convinced that the Firearms Consultative Committee is a genuinely independent body, which will consider all aspects of the sale and use of guns. It seems to me that when two thirds of that committee has a clear interest in shooting, it cannot be described as an independent and objective body.

The Government may genuinely wish to review the age limits and regulatory regime and want to gain the political capital from making such a step forward, but surely they cannot gain that when they are dependent on the Firearms Consultative Committee for such advice. If the Government were genuinely committed to such a review, they would want a far more independent body, of the status of the inquiry chaired by Lord Cullen, to consider the use of shotguns and airguns.

Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

The hon. Gentleman's attack on the Firearms Consultative Committee shows that he has little knowledge of why it was instituted and when. It was instituted as a result of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 for the specific purpose of making sure that those with some knowledge of shooting could persuade their fellow committee members of a line of thought, based on their knowledge of the sport.

If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that there should be a committee of non-experts, frankly he might as well consult Ministers without any special knowledge or any other body without that knowledge. The whole purpose of the Firearms Consultative Committee is to offer specialist knowledge to the Home Office. If by any mischance the hon. Gentleman ever becomes a Minister, he will be extremely glad of that specialist opinion.

Mr. Henderson

The hon. Gentleman must consider the difference between a body that gives technical advice and that which assesses the use of weapons, the circumstances of their use, the dangers involved and protections that may be necessary not only for those users but for the rest of the public. Those are two different types of committee and the persons serving on them should have different backgrounds. If the hon. Gentleman were honest with himself, he would recognise that. I am sure that he would also recognise that the Firearms Consultative Committee does not meet the second criteria of being genuinely independent and having the ability to look at those different aspects of use.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I seek to be helpful to the House. The difference of view that is apparent now appears to be based on the idea that the gun culture, which frightens all of us, is endemic. I want the House to consider a serious point. When I look at television programmes, videos or films, I see the likes of Starsky and Hutch or Cagney and Lacey dashing around in great cars and blasting people's heads off. That is what I look upon as the gun culture—the Sylvester Stallone syndrome, which believes that a firearm will resolve any argument and deliver a solution to any problem.

I want the House to consider that in gun clubs there exists the counter to that culture. Those clubs are subject to strict discipline and a strict regime. Anyone who suggests not conforming with that regime is promptly rebuked, chastised and taken to task. Gun clubs create and impose the kind of regimen that counters the undisciplined behaviour that we see on our screens. If we remember that, perhaps we will go some way to understanding the point that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) has tried to make.

Mr. Henderson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I am sure that, in common with the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin), he would recognise that there is a distinction between a committee that gives technical advice and one that assesses the general environment in which weapons are used. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider that, if we want to examine the use of shotguns or airguns, we need a more independent committee than one which, I accept, is well qualified to give technical advice.

I recognise my hon. Friend's point about the television culture and the violence that is endemic in many programmes and I share his abhorrence of that. I wish that fewer of our television programmes were dominated by that culture, because it has an impact on society.

My hon. Friend also said that he believed that there was a tough regime in pistol clubs and that there were sufficient regulations to protect the public. I hope that I have accurately paraphrased my hon. Friend's point. I disagree with his views on how we should deal with the problem of guns in our country. I think that we should prohibit the use of all pistols, whereas, as I understand his arguments, my hon. Friend would want us to allow certain pistols to be used in certain regulated circumstances.

Through new clauses 2 and 3, I ask the House to consider the need for a regulatory regime for airguns and shotguns. My hon. Friend already acknowledges that such a regime is essential to cover the use of pistols and I presume that he would also be in favour of one to cover rifles. I hope, therefore, that he will support Labour Front Benchers' arguments in respect of new clauses 2 and 3.

It is not only Members of Parliament who are aware of the need for change, and the House should be aware of three short pieces of evidence before it reaches a decision on this matter. Lord Cullen himself, in paragraph 9.119 on page 132 of his report, raised the problem of the dangers of air weapons and the question of whether they should be … unavailable until a later age than at present. The second piece of evidence is the 1973 Green Paper on the control of firearms in Great Britain, which recommended a ban on under-18s buying any variety of firearm and an age limit of 16 for firing, under supervision, air weapons and shotguns. That important Green Paper is often forgotten, but it contained some telling observations.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

For the record, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will confirm that, having drawn attention to the issue of airguns, Lord Cullen added: I make no recommendation on these matters". Perhaps he was wise not to do so, because where he has made recommendations, we seem to ignore them.

Mr. Henderson

I am not as grateful to the right hon. Gentleman as I usually am when he intervenes. All hon. Members are aware of Lord Cullen's comments on airguns and shotguns.

The police also have a firm view on this issue. In its submission to the Cullen inquiry, the English and Welsh police service joint commission—an ad hoc committee comprising the organisations that represent chief constables, superintendents and other members of the police force—argued that there should be a rationalised system of age limits: 18 for ownership and 16 for supervised use.

There is compelling evidence of confusion about the ages at which certain things are lawful or not lawful; and there is a considerable weight of intelligent public opinion that believes that there is a need both to sort out that confusion and to reflect on the need for any change. In some respects, the Minister acknowledged those points in her earlier remarks, before I had the chance to put the case in favour of new clauses 2 and 3.

There is a need for action. If the Government are to accept advice from the Firearms Consultative Committee before the Bill receives Royal Assent and if they feel that they can act upon that advice, new clause 2 would give them the opportunity to make changes. I hope that the Minister accepts my argument and that the Government will reconsider their opposition to new clause 2.

New clause 3 is closely linked. It addresses the question of which firearms should be subject to licence and which should not. Currently, airguns are not normally subject to licence and shotguns are subject to a separate licensing system. New clause 3 has been tabled in relation to airguns.

Very many airguns are in circulation. Estimates vary from 1 million to 2 million—there are no accurate figures. Airguns certainly cause problems. Figures for notifiable offences recorded by the police in which firearms are reported to have been used, classified according to "how involved" and "principal weapon", show that in 1995. in England and Wales, there were 13,104 incidents, 7,549 of which involved airguns and caused damage to both persons and property.

There are very many of those weapons in circulation and there is considerable evidence of the damage that has been caused. Indeed, there have been many well-reported cases of people being killed, sometimes accidentally, by airguns, so there should be no doubt in the House that those are serious weapons.

4.15 pm

This morning, I received a communication from the English Association for Shooting and Conservation, which comments on new clauses 2 and 3. Its evidence shows how, dangerously, people are complacent about airguns. It says, and this includes a quotation from the Home Office publication "Firearms Law: Guidance to the Police": Under current law youngsters are taught about shooting in a safe environment, overseen by an adult. This system encourages one-to-one training and safety awareness, ensuring that the young shooter develops responsibly. 'It is in the interests of safety that a young person should be properly taught at a relatively early age.' There is no evidence to suggest that the current law is inadequate. I could not believe what was written in that evidence, because, as I am sure that hon. Members, whatever their views, are well aware, that is not the real world of my constituency and most constituencies, where there is considerable use of airguns to abuse both property and individuals.

A while ago, in my constituency, my car was attacked with an airgun by some kids who thought that that was good fun. If the window had been open and a passenger had caught the pellet in the eye, it would not have been a laughing matter.

There is a serious problem, and people who argue the case for shooting do themselves no justice by making observations such as those that I have quoted. Obviously, there is no proper training or supervision of many of the users of airguns in most of the circumstances in which they are used. If hon. Members have doubts, they should ask the cats in their constituency. They will give evidence that airguns are used for a purpose for which they were not intended.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Does my hon. Friend share my anxiety about the ease with which it is possible for young people to get their hands on airguns? On Saturday, in my local branch of W.H. Smith, I picked up an issue of Airgun World, which was one of six magazines advertising and selling airguns through the post without checking the purchaser's age.

Mr. Henderson

My hon. Friend demonstrates the need for an urgent review of that question with a view to introducing regulations that will cover the sale and use of airguns and the ages at which people may buy and use those weapons.

New clause 3 gives the Government the opportunity to introduce a system of licensing for airguns. I know that many problems are involved; I know that there are no easy answers when it comes to licensing. If, although I doubt it, the Firearms Consultative Committee were to give advice that persuaded the Government that it was essential to take speedy action, our new clause would give the Government authority to take that action. If the Government recognise that there is a problem—that there is abuse of airguns and something needs to be done—the House should have the courage to take action before there is a tragic incident that brings the matter before the House. That will happen, as night follows day.

It is not good enough for the Government to recognise that a problem exists but not be prepared to take action to tackle it.

Mr. Frank Cook

Has my hon. Friend heard today's news reports of the action taken against Mr. Richard Law, whose weapons have been confiscated, whose ammunition has been taken away and whose certificates have been withdrawn? The police have the authority to do all that now when they see what they believe to be a dangerous situation involving offensive weapons. By all means let us tighten the law, but us not waste time foolishly on unnecessary arguments. The police already have the powers, when they choose to exercise them. Indeed, had they exercised them in the case of Mr. Thomas Hamilton, Dunblane might not have happened.

Mr. Henderson

I am aware of the incident in question, but I do not want to comment on it because I do not know the details. My hon. Friend, if he talks to the police in his area, will know that it is difficult for them to intervene in relation to the use of airguns—

Mr. Cook

But they do.

Mr. Henderson

I have to differ with my hon. Friend. I have overwhelming evidence from police officers in my area that major abuses occur all the time, and that the law does not give the police enough powers. They have to prove that someone is using a weapon in a part of the country for which he does not have permission. It is difficult for the police to know whether permission has been granted and whether the person is using the airgun in a public or private place. The police themselves do not think that they have sufficient powers under current laws to take quick enough action to prevent abuse. That is why they are calling for changed age limits and for a regulatory regime.

Mr. Cook

In May of this year, a constituent of mine was reported to the police as having an unreasonable attitude. He is 74 years old, a highly respected member of society and a trustee of a major pension fund. He did, however, possess two shotguns and an air rifle, with certificates for the shotguns. Once the police were informed of his attitude being unreasonable they visited his house, protected and armed for the purpose—they called it "tooling up". They withdrew the man's shotguns and airgun and his certificates and ammunition.

Following my appeal to the police, they said that they were quite satisfied that the complaint constituted sufficient evidence to withdraw the man's weapons: he still has not got them back. I therefore repeat my question: what more authority or power is necessary if the police can behave in that way already?

Mr. Henderson

I thank my hon. Friend for telling me about that particular case, but it does not alter my view.

The vast majority of hon. Members recognise that abuses take place all the time in their constituencies, and they involve the unlawful use of airguns. The police lack the power to intervene, for the reasons I have outlined already. Hence the need to cut down the general availability of those weapons, and to consider how the law can be tightened up and licensing can be introduced, where appropriate.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I cannot believe that Mr. Richard Law is being cited as a case of police activity by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook). On a previous occasion when the police took action and secured a conviction against Mr. Law, his conviction was subsequently overturned in the Court of Appeal on what many people would consider a technicality.

Mr. Henderson

I am not sure that I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I recognise that in some circumstances the police have the authority to intervene and to take action. although they may encounter difficulties in the courts afterwards. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the police do not take action because they do not believe that they have the power to make the charge stick in court. That is the point that I am trying to establish. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that a major problem exists, and that that is why action is necessary.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

As I am serving on a Standing Committee which sits in the afternoon, I could not take part in the earlier debates on the Floor of the House or in the Standing Committee that considered the Bill. I have, however, been following matters carefully and reading the debates.

I take issue with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) on the composition of the consultative committee. The committee must be part expert and part lay. It is a typical committee, with a good knowledge of firearms and the shooting sports—target shooting, international shooting and sporting shooting. The committee needs great skill to give the Minister the right advice.

I support Government new clause 5. The reference to compressed carbon dioxide is a significant move forward, and will be extremely helpful.

I support the Minister in opposing the new clauses tabled by the Opposition. I strongly believe that it is important to learn to use weapons at a reasonably early age. To start with an airgun, under proper supervision, is a useful way to begin. It is wrong of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North to criticise the British Association for Shooting and Conservation for running schemes to instruct youngsters in the use of weapons—airguns and shotguns. I remember learning to shoot when I was about eight or nine years old. It was valuable to become competent early in life, because with competence goes safety. If the instructor is skilled in safety, that is a great advantage to the youngster learning to shoot.

If the new clauses were passed, I am extremely concerned that they would enable the Government of the day to alter regulations relating to firearms and airguns without primary legislation. We would all deprecate that, as statutory instruments can sometimes slip through the House without many Members knowing what is going on. It would be wrong for us to ease the way in which legislation could be changed. I do not doubt the sincerity of the hon. Gentleman's reason for wanting to change the age at which weapons may be used, and I accept that the present rules applying to the ages of 14 and 17 are a little complicated.

We should not make the use of air rifles more difficult. Previous debates have highlighted the importance of airguns to the disabled, as there is little recoil from such weapons. We know how well members of the British team did at the Paralympics this year, winning a gold and a silver medal. We would not want anything to prevent that sport from continuing.

The hon. Gentleman is too critical of the existing legislation. As the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said, the legislation is in place and gives the police immense powers, which one often wishes they would exercise more vigorously in cases where teenagers and others are seen to use air rifles in dangerous circumstances. I would support any move by the police to take action when they considered that necessary. It must be borne in mind, however, that the Association of Chief Police Officers saw no reason to introduce further legislation on air rifles.

I support my hon. Friend in the aim of her new clause, and in opposing the further restrictions proposed by the Opposition.

4.30 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Lord Cullen referred to airguns—so it is right that we should discuss them—but he made no recommendations about them. Airguns present some problems, particularly in urban areas, even though they are less likely to be involved in crimes or accidents than firearms. That is especially true on housing schemes in urban areas, where it is pretty difficult to satisfy the rules applying to airguns.

An airgun should not be used within 50 ft of a public road, a public footpath or in a public place. It is pretty unlikely that that condition will be satisfied in many inner-city areas. Therefore, the presence of large numbers of airguns on estates is undoubtedly a source of much anxiety. No one should deny that a problem exists, but it is a finely balanced argument whether we should proceed at this stage to embrace airguns in the licensing system on the back of this very important legislation.

We must consider also whether we should achieve that goal via the negative resolution procedure—the least satisfactory parliamentary process—which does not guarantee that the matter will be brought to the House or that any vote taken in Committee will lead to a vote on the Floor of the House. It is a very unsatisfactory parliamentary procedure, and should not be used to impose otherwise reasonable restrictions on individual rights.

I have two further anxieties about proceeding in this manner at this stage—I do not regard them as conclusive, but I ask hon. Members to consider them. First, there is a danger that we might overload the licensing system while we are adding new procedures to it. It is vital that the system be vigorous and effective in respect of firearms and shotguns. It would be unfortunate if efforts were diverted to the major task of licensing many air rifle users at the very time when we are seeking to make the system in respect of firearms and shotguns totally effective by introducing new procedures through this legislation.

Secondly, there is at least some danger that young people in particular will have no incentive to pursue their shooting hobby using airguns instead of moving on to more powerful weapons—there is a huge difference between the relative power of an airgun and a firearm. Once it is necessary to have licences for both, a young person who wishes to learn to shoot might think, "Well, I might as well go for a firearm"—even if his interest might have been satisfied by airguns.

I return to Lord Cullen, who said: I make no recommendation on these matters but would draw them to the attention of the Home Office and The Scottish Office". Therefore, it seems correct that there should be widespread consultation as to whether we should introduce new measures to deal with air weapons, both in the Firearms Consultative Committee—which has an important and useful job to do; I dissent from the line adopted by the Labour spokesman, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), who appeared to disparage that committee—and more widely, in order to embrace the views of those in urban communities who are concerned about the misuse of air rifles and the fact that they are widely held by young people.

By supporting the new clause, Hon. Members may wish to give a signal to the Government to move on the matter. However, I think that there is a danger that we may divert attention from the primary purpose of the legislation.

Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

I support new clause 3, and I understand the Minister's argument. She again advanced the views of the famous Firearms Consultative Committee, which I think highlight its inadequacy. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) said that it was all very well having a technical committee to provide technical advice, but a committee that is dominated by the shooting lobby is not then in a position to give advice on how we should organise that activity in society. That is what the consultative committee is doing in its recommendations.

The Minister said that we could not, and should not, license airguns, because it would interfere with the legitimate rights of individuals to own airguns. That is not a matter for the consultative committee: it is for Parliament to decide what constitutes individuals' legitimate rights. It is not a technical matter, but a civil liberties issue of which Parliament is the guardian—not some Firearms Consultative Committee that is dominated by the shooting lobby.

The Minister also said that licensing would not reduce the misuse of airguns. Where is the evidence for that assertion? That is an opinion, not technical advice. It is difficult for sustain that argument. She is trying to limit the misuse of guns. We are trying to limit the use of guns. Our new clause tries to limit ownership and the use of air rifles by a similar mechanism.

I have heard the consultative committee, the Minister and others argue that air weapons are essential for proper training in shotguns. There are between l million and 2 million airguns in this country, but how many are used as a stepping stone to training in shotguns? I do not believe that we have the figure, but I bet that it is very few indeed.

The majority of airguns are used to create nuisance, to threaten and to create public disorder in our society. They are not used as the stepping stone to becoming an Olympic gold medallist, and we should not perpetuate that idea any further. Even if we license airguns, it is still possible to get one and to train with it before going on to something else. Licensing would not stop that.

The right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) mentioned paraplegics, and said that licensing airguns would limit their chance to take part in the Paralympics. It would not. We are not trying to stop their use for sport, for training and so on, but we are concerned about reducing the anti-social effect of airguns, the vast majority of which are used to intimidate, frighten, upset and abuse many people. They are dangerous weapons. Let me reiterate just how dangerous they are.

In this country, I have not dealt with any bullet wounds in the head—although I did when I worked in the United States—but I have looked after several patients with airgun pellets inside the head. I have seen two deaths and one patient was severely disabled—mostly as a result of pellets entering the orbit, where the bone is very thin—and required major surgery, at great risk. These were caused by .22 airguns. These are dangerous weapons on our streets. They are completely unlicensed. They are a social hazard. They are a threat to life and limb. I see no reason from the Minister why we should not go ahead and license them, so I hope that we will gain support for our new clause.

Mr. Salmond

I support new clauses 2 and 3.

On new clause 3, I want to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook). The argument was that licensing would not be necessary if the police did their job properly. I have been suspicious of that argument throughout these debates, and I am suspicious of it now. Of course it is possible, particularly in retrospect, to look back and say that the police should have operated differently in some cases, but it is extremely difficult—it requires more than hunches or beliefs—to take action against an individual. The case of Mr. Richard Law, mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, is a case in point.

Anyone who has met Mr. Law probably has a hunch and belief that he should not be in possession of a firearms certificate. It is one thing to have a hunch and a belief; it is quite another to make it stick in terms of existing legislation. It would be the same with air rifles and what the hon. Gentleman wants to do—

Mr. Frank Cook


Mr. Salmond

I give way.

Mr. Cook

I was not seeking to intervene, but the opportunity is too good to miss.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Was the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) seeking to intervene?

Mr. Cook

I was trying to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to speak later in the debate, if I may.

Mr. Salmond

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. He was looking at me expectantly, and, polite and civil as ever, I decided to give way to him.

I have nothing against Mr. Richard Law, although he said that he would stand for election in Banff and Buchan against me, but it looks as though he will be otherwise engaged. None the less, his is a case in point. Even where there seemed to be a clear indication, action taken against him was overturned by the courts, because more than a hunch or a belief is necessary. There has to be legislation. That is why the new clause on air rifles is important, valuable and worth supporting.

I was on a radio phone-in programme with a representative of the shooting lobby—not Mr. Richard Law, but perhaps one of the more responsible members of that lobby. A lady phoned the programme and said that she thought it important that her 12-year-old son should be educated in the use of a shotgun. The shooting lobby gentleman on the programme disagreed, and said he thought that the appropriate age was 13. It is argued that even relatively young children should be educated in the use of weapons, but most of us would say that the age at which that is done should be substantially more than 12 or 13 years.

The radio debate went on for some time; it showed that, even among people who were knowledgeable on the subject and were arguing the shooting point of view, there was confusion about the appropriate age. One of the benefits of the new clause is that it would put the confusion in the Government's court for analysis, so that they could produce regulations in which we could all have confidence about the age of those who could use such weapons.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

Perhaps I could follow the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on the subject of age. I learned to shoot before age limits were introduced, and I recall with great pleasure at the age of nine or 10 walking around my father's farm with him behind me training me in all the good habits of shooting safety. I had exciting times creeping around corners to shoot rabbits, and I hope that subsequently 1 have been a safe shot.

It is not just the teaching of shotgun shooting or some other forms of shooting that is good. A national coach who was in my surgery a fortnight ago told me that he was training a boy of 12 in pistol-shooting discipline. He told me that the boy was so good that he could almost join the national squad now, and said, "By the time he is 14 he will be an international. I can keep him at that level only if I can keep shooting with him and training him."

It is a question of supervision and common sense. The law is not generous, but it has been generally accepted that it is safe. There are no cases of young people being involved in accidents, or, happily, being irresponsible. There is no reason for changing the present rules, which are seen by many people as draconian and certainly much more severe than they were when I and my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) were young students in the art of shooting and handling a gun.

Airguns are altogether different. I regret that the Opposition have seen fit to introduce them to the controversy at this time. The airgun is a different instrument from a gun that uses an explosive charge. Air pistols are limited to a maximum muzzle energy of 6 ft/lb and the energy of air rifles is limited to 12 ft/lb. A typical sporting rifle bullet produces a muzzle energy of 1,000 to 3,000 ft/lb.

The speech by the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) revealed a problem. There are accidents with airguns—I had a tragic constituency case—but of course there are accidents with knives, bicycles, motor cars and everything else. We cannot live in a 100 per cent. safe world. I have no reason to believe that, if we license or control the 3 million airguns that are in circulation, there will be fewer accidents.

Shooting is an olympic sport at which Britain excels. Airguns are hardly ever used in violent crime, and 75 per cent. of crimes involving—

Mr. Galbraith

In the cases that I dealt with, the injuries were intentional: they were not accidents.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

In that case, I hope that those who were involved were charged with attempted murder. We cannot make assertions based on such cases, because, if the person was intent on assault, he could have carried it out with something other than an airgun. Simply removing airguns will not solve the problem. As an experienced surgeon, the hon. Gentleman must have dealt with millions of different cases. But he made the case that some—very few—are airgun accidents.

Hospital statistics show that airguns are annually reported to be involved in an estimated 2,200 accidents, and I readily acknowledge that that is far too many. To put that figure into perspective, however, the same table shows that 7,750 accidents involve golf equipment, and 13,200 involve hockey sticks. So let us try to keep a sense of proportion in this matter.

Current firearms Acts are very strict on airguns. Loaded airguns may not be carried in a public place at any time. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) mentioned examples of problems associated with urban areas, such as cats. The law is being broken in those examples. Airguns may not be fired within 50 ft of a public road or footpath, and they may not be sold or hired to anyone under 17. Moreover, no one under the age of 14 may own an airgun, and they may use an airgun only under the strict supervision of an adult aged 21 or over.

4.45 pm

We make laws in the House, with the very best of intentions, but they are not always observed. It is no good saying that simply changing the law will solve the problem, because, in this case, I am absolutely sure it will not.

The airgun community is beginning to regulate itself. The Airgun Shooters Association, which was formed about three years ago, now has a membership of more than 5,000, and it is growing. It runs proficiency courses, which cover legal and safety issues, and it is working with other organisations to develop airgun safety training courses.

If we were to go down the road of licensing, there would be a great movement away from legitimate airgun use, and it would have little or no effect on crime. It would drive many airguns underground, and I am sure that many of them would end up in the hands of unsupervised young people. It would also produce an intolerable burden on the police and the courts, diverting resources from the real problem of far more dangerous and illegal firearms.

The change of the age limit from 17 to 18 seems irrelevant. Let us face the fact that, at 17, one can be in charge of a motor vehicle, which is potentially a far more lethal weapon than an airgun.

I hope that the House will reject these new clauses and amendments. However, I should like to tell the Minister how much we welcome the amendment on carbon dioxide. A situation in which the gas used to power a gun may legally be air but not carbon dioxide is ridiculous. It is common sense to change that, and the opportunity has been taken, for which I am very grateful.

Mr. Frank Cook

I should like quickly to make several points. The first relates to my presence in, or absence from, the Chamber during this debate. I must chair a parliamentary group on medical aid at 5 o'clock. Although I shall attempt to assist the House later in today's proceedings, I shall, sadly, have to be absent while the group meets.

The surgical experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) is awesome, and unquestionably we must take it into account. His contributions to that field are internationally renowned.

He made the point that licensing airguns will not eliminate abuse of them, and he is absolutely right. However, I ask hon. Members to turn that argument on its head, and ask themselves whether higher calibre firearms will no longer be abused once they are no longer licensed. The issues of licensing weapons and legally using them are thus divorced. It much more a matter of how well weapon licensing and use are supervised by the authorities that are empowered to do so—the police.

Hon. Members have said much about the Firearms Consultative Committee in supporting these new clauses and amendments. For some reason, people believe that there is some bias in the committee. I cannot understand why anyone should adopt such a view. I am happy that my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden smiles at that, but if he met the members of the committee, he would share their exasperation and frustration, because so little attention is paid to their recommendations. Far from being proponents of a wild gun culture, they are pleading for safety, safety and safety again, and for the implementation of recommended regulations. The Government have consistently ignored them.

I understand the comments of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on police powers. There are variations from one region to another in the style of policing, operational feasibility, success and achievement. When I raised the case of Mr. Richard Law, I was not in any way defending him. I do not know what he has done or has not done. He might be a saint, or he might be a sinner—I have no idea. My point is that the police had the powers to act.

I remind the House, for probably the fifth time, that constituents have often complained to me about the rigour with which Cleveland constabulary applies its powers. My reaction has always been, "Thank God for that. I am proud of Cleveland constabulary. If you care about your sporting activities and want to continue to participate in this leisure pursuit, you should be pleased, and accept the fact that the police are intent on keeping it safe." Our paramount consideration should not be cost or convenience, but the safety of those taking part in the sport, and of other members of society.

Those are important points. I wish that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench had spent more time listening to what I have said than discussing something else.

Question put and agreed to

Clause read a Second time and added to the Bill

Forward to