HC Deb 19 November 1996 vol 285 cc872-80

'.The authority of the Secretary of State is not required by virtue of subsection (1) (aba) of section 5 of the 1968 Act for a person to have possession of any short firearm made before 1st January 1946 if he is authorised by a firearm certificate to hold that firearm as a collector's item and not for use, or if he is a registered firearms dealer.'.—[Sir Jerry Wiggin.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

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

Let me begin by explaining why I did not move new clause 4. The items in that clause fall better in the category of collectors' items and antiques. The sort of cartridges concerned, few of which still exist, are collectors' items. Few exist because, apparently, they used to go off in people's pocket.

Exemption for collectors is an extremely important part of the legislation. In his speech on Second Reading, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary conceded that a special case must be made for those items. I recognise that the precise phrasing of new clause 5 is unlikely to satisfy the Government and I do not intend to press it in its detail. It is a vehicle for an explanatory debate so that we can learn a little more about the Government's thinking before, I hope, my hon. Friend the Minister tables the appropriate new clauses to deal with the matter.

New clause 5 uses the approach of an amendment created in section 5 of the 1968 Act by the firearms regulations of 1992 in response to the European weapons directive, which says that, subject to important limitations the authority of the Secretary of State shall not be required by virtue of section 5 of this Act for any person to have in his possession, or to purchase, acquire, transfer, sell or transfer, any prohibited weapon or ammunition if he is authorised by a certificate under this Act to possess, purchase or acquire that weapon or ammunition subject to the condition that he does so only for the purpose of its being kept or exhibited as part of a collection. New clause 5, however, is wider as it does not require the collector to have a section 5 or museum certificate.

New clause 5 is also wider in relation to the Home Secretary's suggestion, in particular with regard to pre-1919 guns of 9 mm calibre and handguns manufactured between 1919 and 1939. I shall not quote the Home Secretary in detail, but he made sympathetic noises, based on the fact that those fine weapons have been used, are treasured, loved and cosseted for their workmanship, value and collectability and are fine target guns. He concluded by saying: Under those proposals, pistols in the relevant categories would be subject to stringent restrictions. Their owners would have a choice. They could keep their guns securely at home on the condition that they were never fired,"— I assume that no ammunition would be allowed either— or they could keep and fire them at the national shooting centre at Bisley."—[Official Report, 12 November 1996; Vol. 285, c 186.] The definitions of collectible weapons and of those that are exempted were dealt with in both the previous Acts. Firearms legislation is a terrible business, as we must constantly refer to the old Acts and the new Bill. Those hon. Members who will serve on the Standing Committee will need to have all those documents in front of them.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be sympathetic to our intentions, and can help. Bearing in mind the fact that the Home Secretary has already made a firm statement on the matter, it would be most helpful to those in the trade and the business to know the fine details.

Sir Anthony Durant (Reading, West)

I support the new clause. A number of people make the collection of antique guns a close hobby. Indeed, I have a constituent who does that. He collects the guns, but he has no intention of firing them. The guns are very valuable. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has already raised the question of costs. Selling the guns will be expensive, as some of them are very, very old.

I understand that the Home Office has received advice from Mr. Davis Penn of the Imperial War museum on what are and what are not antiques, so some formula is available. Even if the wording of the new clause is not exactly what my hon. Friend the Minister wants, I hope that she will take the point that we are trying to make and that the Home Secretary has already conceded. I hope that the sort of people I have described will have the opportunity to continue to pursue the honourable hobby of collecting antique guns.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South)

Like my hon. Friends the Members for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) and for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin), I have been approached on the matter of gun collections, not least by the historic arms resource centre at Bisley camp. In addition, great concern has been expressed by those involved in the antiques and museum curators world. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider the matter carefully and that the Government will be prepared to table suitable amendments in Standing Committee. It is clear that a number of people are perfectly legitimately involved in the collection of what is, after all, part of our British heritage.

It is important that we all remember what the Bill is intended to achieve—in other words, what mischief it is intended to correct. I felt that I should find out a great deal more about the matter and I was fortunate enough to visit Bisley, as a guest of the National Rifle Association, last weekend—the day before the rally at which my right hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Sir C. Onslow) spoke, as many of us saw on national television news. While at Bisley, I saw the importance of its antique weapons collections.

It is important to remember that, if the mischief that the Bill is intended to prevent is the misuse of weapons, any exemptions that allow weapons to be kept when they are not being fired, or are being fired in controlled circumstances on the historic ranges at Bisley, might be acceptable and certainly would not go against the aim of the Bill.

5.45 Pm

I understand from those involved in the historic arms resource centre that a large number of weapons are used in the National Rifle Association open competition—what is known as the Trafalgar meeting—in October. I am told that it is the de facto national championship. Of just under 1,900 event entries at the last Trafalgar meeting, more than 850 were for historic pistols. Only about 50 of those would be of .22 calibre. Therefore, a large inroad would be made into the use of historic weapons at that important meeting.

I do not want to take up any more of the time of the Committee, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare said that he wanted this to be a short explanatory debate to determine whether the Government might be prepared to table suitable amendments at a later date. Therefore, in conclusion, I want to direct my hon. Friend the Minister's mind to the historic reconstructions undertaken by the English Civil War Society and the Sealed Knot, which are hugely important. I hope that that matter is being taken care of.

Miss Widdecombe

There was full discussion on muzzle loading yesterday, when I gave a clear undertaking to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). He asked me whether the Sealed Knot could take it that it had nothing to worry about and I gave him a one-word answer—yes. I am delighted to put that on the record again today.

However, the new clause goes well beyond that matter. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) for saying that he will not press it because, without wishing to be too disagreeable, I have to say that it is not acceptable in its current form.

The firearms which the new clause is designed to exempt are not very old and for the most part are little different technically from modern handguns. Therefore, as currently drafted, it would be a major loophole in the proposed controls. However, I want to give my hon. Friends some reassurance. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has already said that we are considering actively and sympathetically how we might exempt historic handguns from the provisions of the Bill.

Historic handguns manufactured before 1919 and, in some cases, before 1939, which are not fired, will be able to be kept at home by owners on a firearms certificate. If we can agree with the police and the Bisley authorities the details of their proposals for the firing of historic handguns, to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred on 12 November, that will allow most owners of such guns to be able to keep them legitimately on a firearms certificate.

The details of our proposals are still under consideration. However, I fully accept that there is an historic angle to collections. If it is possible to make exemptions without producing the sort of loophole that the new clause sadly produces, we shall table an amendment at a later stage of the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare raised a point of law when he referred to the 1992 regulations. He was right to say that there are a number of Acts, all of which are interrelated and need to be referred to regularly in order to understand the current proposals. The 1992 regulations simply enacted requirements of the European Community weapons directive, which did not require the Government to make any particular impositions. The collectors provision does not apply to weapons that are prohibited under section 5(1).

Mr. Dalyell

Who will do the actual administrative work on all the exemptions? It is a major logistics exercise—and logistics exercises are extremely costly. In addition, in many cases involving old collections, a certain amount of expertise is required. Few people are in a position to speak with authority. It is all very well for us, sitting on green Benches, to say that this, that and the other will be done, but who will do it? Who has the knowledge to do it? Those who have are rather rare people.

Miss Widdecombe

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. However, we already require the police to take decisions on the merits of individual cases. That will continue. Obviously, the guidance, provisions and details that will be introduced during the passage of the Bill will be based on the best expert advice that we can obtain. I am sure that it will be thoroughly tested by those who are giving technical advice to my hon. Friends and other hon. Members. With respect, I do not actually think that things will be quite as complex as he suggests once the definitions are made clear and transparent and the details brought forward. I would ask him to suspend judgment until that time. It is, of course, open to him at any time to ask what sort of advice any particular provision would entail and how it would be enacted.

Mr. O'Neill

Would the police be recompensed for the amount of work that might be entailed? One can envisage a constabulary having to have one or—perhaps—two resident experts and that the certification would involve a fair amount of administration. I get the impression at the moment that there is no suggestion of a charge being made for such a service. I fully accept the Minister's intentions in this area—she is trying to meet a legitimate concern—but please let us not have the chief constables coming to us to say that such a service will represent a disproportionate cost and that, therefore, other aspects of the police service will be put at a disadvantage, policemen will be taken off the beat, or whatever.

Miss Widdecombe

The hon. Gentleman hypothesises about resident experts and all the rest of it. He has been in the House long enough to know that Ministers are most unlikely to commit resources to hypotheses.

Mr. Dalyell


The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. I would like to be quite clear about whether the hon. Lady is giving way.

Miss Widdecombe

I wish to facilitate the hon. Member for Linlithgow.

Mr. Dalyell

I just wonder how many people at Maidstone police station know much about the matter.

Miss Widdecombe

I shall ask people at Maidstone police station exactly how they deal with the things with which they already have to deal under the current law. I am sure that the response will be: "Efficiently, without great drama and effectively."

Sir Cranley Onslow

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for her response to the amendment. I say to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) that a number of people in Surrey know a lot about rifles, pistols and handguns generally, and there should be no difficulty in obtaining expert advice from them. They are well skilled, extremely courteous and efficient in the way in which they have dealt with affairs involving shooting at Bisley over a number of years.

I declare an interest as a member of the council of the National Rifle Association. I am glad to hear that the words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary are indeed to be carried through and that we can look forward to seeing the form in which the legislation will come before us. Although I did not have the advantage of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) of talking at length on the subject of historic arms when I was at Bisley on Sunday—it was pouring with rain and not an occasion for a lengthy conversation in any case—I know that there is active interest in helping out with the question of the firing of historic weapons. Careful preparation is obviously needed to ensure that the physical security is adequate and that there is no hitch or glitch in bringing in the new system that my hon. Friend the Minister has promised that we shall see. I earnestly hope that she will press forward with her discussions with the Bisley experts and that the necessary steps will be taken in good time so that the due meeting can take place as scheduled.

Mrs. Helen Liddell (Monklands, East)

I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that she recognises the significance of the potential loophole, although I must admit some interesting images came to mind of members of Her Majesty's constabulary understudying at the "Antiques Roadshow" in seeking to identify some of the weapons. As my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) has pointed out, there is the whole question of whether charges would have to be made to have accredited experts evaluate guns, as hon. Members have recognised that such people exist.

Part of the debate has echoed some of the discussion on amendment No. 4, which related to trophies of war. This debate has expanded the recognition that some older weapons can be used in a lethal manner. No one is suggesting that people, for purposes of antiquity and collection, are operating in conditions other than those of common sense and good reason, but it is defined that collecting is a good reason for holding a firearm. If large-calibre shot firearms were exempted—even if they were manufactured quite some time ago—they could create quite a major loophole.

When the matter is being considered at a later stage, I ask the Government to take into account the fact that not all those who could have access to such weapons would be the people who should have legitimate access. There is always the danger of those who do not have common sense and the good of society at heart getting hold of such weapons—not least because the issue of ammunition is significant. As I understand, it is possible for the ammunition of other weapons to be used in antique weapons. What is more, those who have expertise in firearms are perfectly capable of manufacturing ammunition at home. If that were not so, institutions such as Bisley would not exist. It is therefore possible to rearm such weapons and create ammunition for them.

I do not think that we should glide over too easily the question of the administrative burden that would be created. We are conscious of the fact that Her Majesty's constabulary has rather a lot on its plate at the moment, and the Bill will rightly put a greater onus on the police. It is very important, therefore, that we do not put undue pressure on the police with regard not only to administration but to the raising of their levels of expertise in analysing such weapons and assessing whether they are liable to covered by the proposed Act.

Although I welcome the Minister's recognition of the possibility and danger of a loophole being created by the new clause, I ask her to take into account more seriously the points that have been made by my hon. Friends. We look forward to the Government tabling a more considered amendment at a later stage. At that point, I hope that we shall have a further opportunity for debate at quite some length.

Miss Widdecombe

I can assure the hon. Lady that, of course, we shall take cognisance of the need not to create a large loophole when we are considering the issue of historic weapons and what may or may not be classified under that heading. Indeed, it is for that reason that I have found the new clause too wide and insufficiently tightly drawn for me to accept.

Since the issue of administrative burdens and charges has been raised several times, perhaps it deserves rather closer consideration. First, we are talking about people who already have a firearms certificate. That is important to understand. Secondly, there is already a standard charge for a firearms certificate. As I understand, £56 is charged for the granting of a certificate and £46 for its renewal. Those charges are intended to cover police costs.

Mrs. Liddell

Could the Minister give us some advice? It was my understanding that no fee was charged for an old weapon. Can she confirm that there is no fee for a trophy firearm?

Miss Widdecombe

I may have to wait for my brain to catch up with me, but it does not have far to travel. I hope to be able to supply the necessary information to the hon. Lady before the debate is concluded. Meanwhile, that does not affect the stand that I have taken on the new clause.

Mr. Leigh

I wonder why it is morally acceptable—indeed, legal—to keep at home a lethal weapon simply because it was manufactured before a certain date, but immoral and against the law to keep a weapon at home because one wishes to indulge in a sport. I suspect that such a value judgment cannot be sustained.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

They are cherished.

Mr. Leigh

They are cherished or cosseted, but embarking on such a value judgment is dangerous for the House. One can usually tell a bad law by the number of exemptions attached to it.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

One or two matters have arisen that go rather wider than my new clause. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), as so often, put his finger firmly on an important point about the expertise and knowledge of firearms officers. One of the complaints that the British Shooting Sports Council has had for many years is that the firearms certificate system is not being used properly. Not only, sadly, was that demonstrably proved at Dunblane, but the 54—I think—constabularies all administer their own system on their own computers, which do not talk to each other.

Although things have got much better in the past few years—I give full credit to the Association of Chief Police Officers and its committee that deals with such matters—we were keen to have a national firearms board, staffed by ex-armourers, ex-police firearms officers and real experts, who would be long-term appointments, understand the shooting fraternity, be experts in firearms, know the law inside out and maintain a national computer network. If a firearm is found on a Friday night and the police wish to know whether it is a registered firearm, the chance of ascertaining that before midday on Monday is currently zilch.

6 pm

For some reason, which we have never discovered, there were those in the Home Office who decided that by commissioning certain studies they could come up with an astonishing cost for a national computer network. The figure of £10 million was mentioned, which I find astonishing bearing in mind the small numbers involved. I hope that, during the passage of the Bill, our idea might be given a further airing, because the way that we keep the register is inefficient.

I do not suggest that civilians should be permitted to give firearms certificates, but the very expertise that a civilian board would have would allow the oddball to be noticed because the people on it would deal every day with ordinary shooters.

Mr. Henderson

The hon. Gentleman knows a lot about the detail of firearms. One issue that has been raised in discussions with the police is that of the registration of firearms and we may come on to that subject in Standing Committee. Is the hon. Gentleman in favour of having a national firearms list on computer, because I understand that that does not exist at the moment?

Sir Jerry Wiggin

It certainly does not exist. Each firearms certificate identifies the weapon concerned with a serial number. Unfortunately, some weapons do not have serial numbers. There is always some problem, so it has been suggested that each item should have a log book, as cars do. I have never personally been against that suggestion, but it is not the policy of the British Shooting Sports Council because it would add to the complexity and paperwork. It is reasonable to expect that a national register should be kept or, at least, that the individual registers should be nationally accessible. That is within the capacity of modern technology. If one can run the national lottery and sell tens of millions of tickets every Saturday, 1.5 million certificates could easily be controlled by modern technology.

I have no brief for the way in which that is done today and I do not believe that the Home Office seriously considered our proposals. The studies were done in a most biased manner and I hope that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), during the passage of the Bill, will learn a little more about the subject and, perhaps, seek to persuade my hon. Friend the Minister of State of the merits of our solution, which would reduce costs and—just as important—improve the expertise.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State has made all the right noises, if I may put it like that, about the principle behind my new clause. Exempt weapons are exempt and do not require a certificate. There is no charge for exempt weapons, but the owner has to prove that they are exempt. If they are deactivated, some proof must be provided that they have been properly deactivated. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North was right to say that some clever people were undeactivating their weapons, but now more stringent standards have been drawn up under the masters of the proof houses. Weapons that have been deactivated under those standards will not only never work but are almost valueless, so many people do not wish to do that to their weapons.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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