HC Deb 19 November 1996 vol 285 cc880-2

'.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 registered firearms dealer to have in his possession, or purchase or acquire, or sell or transfer. a short firearm for the purpose of selling or transferring that firearm to a person who may, by the provisions of this Act, lawfully possess, purchase or acquire it.'.—[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.

I recognise that new clause 6 is slightly controversial. Its effect would be to give dealers a general exemption to enable them to acquire short firearms for sale or transfer to an exempted person. They would draw their authority for that from the fact that the person with whom they were dealing was an exempted person under the legislation in respect of the gun in question. Since the market in exemptions will be so small, few dealers will apply for a section 5 licence, with all the difficulties that that will entail and the rigid parameters that will have to be followed for the occasional and probably not very profitable deal. Large geographical areas will therefore have no such service available.

The House will recognise that the Bill will ban mail order, so guns will have to be transferred from hand to hand. The new clause covers a small matter, but the role of licensed firearms dealers could be much more helpful than the Government have recognised. Dealers now have to have secure premises, with the latest alarms connected directly to local police stations. That is right, and they go to much trouble to establish those premises. They are experienced and trustworthy people. I would not say that it never happens, but I can remember only one occasion—apart from the obvious crooks—on which a firearms dealer has got into any trouble. If those people and their facilities are used, not only will expense be saved, but they will be able to replace some of the trade that they will lose.

Mr. Dalyell

The hon. Gentleman knows a lot about the subject. Can he tell the rest of us roughly how many licensed firearms dealers there are in Britain?

Sir Jerry Wiggin

The hon. Gentleman is very complimentary, but even after all these years I do not claim an encyclopedic knowledge. I believe that there are just over 3,000 registered firearms dealers in the United Kingdom.

I suspect that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will be suspicious of new clause 6—because the whole tone of the Bill is to suppress, eliminate and put out of business all handguns over .22—but I wish to try her on it. Although I do not intend to press it at this stage, I should be grateful for her full explanation.

Miss Widdecombe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying that he will not press the new clause as it would be impossible for us to accept it. For a moment, so as to stay strictly in order under the new clause and so that I can give the Committee the information that I promised under the previous new clause, let us imagine that the dealer in question is trading in old weapons and he is asked whether there is a charge for a firearms certificate. The answer is that the only free certificates issued are issued for trophies of war—they are not issued for collectors' items or other historic weapons. I thank you, Dame Janet, for letting me get away with that.

I regret to have to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) that we consider that the new clause would create a huge loophole in the general requirement for dealers to have the Home Secretary's authority to deal in prohibited weapons. We are not prepared to make concessions for dealers who deal in prohibited handguns. If dealers wish to sell prohibited weapons of any sort—including handguns which will be prohibited once the Bill becomes law—they must apply for the Home Secretary's authority to do so under section 5(1) of the Firearms Act 1968.

I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare that this may cause inconvenience for people who will have to find a dealer with section 5 authority, but we are not aware that the current requirements cause problems for vets in respect of tranquillising weapons, for example. There are no exemptions to the requirement of section 5(1), nor do I propose to make any. Therefore, I have to say to my hon. Friend rather more firmly than previously that we cannot accept the new clause.

Mrs. Liddell

The Minister has the support of the Opposition in the stance that she has taken. The new clause would create a substantial loophole and would cause considerable difficulty by giving a blanket exemption to dealers. Those who will be able legitimately to hold higher-calibre weapons will be very small in number and there will be no real need for a wide network of dealers, which could only leave an opportunity for those with dishonourable purposes to gain access to premises where they knew such firearms could be held. I commend the Minister for the common sense of her position.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. About three-quarters of an hour ago, anticipating that the House of Commons was likely to rise on a Tuesday at an unprecedented early hour, I inquired about the possibility of a second Adjournment debate on the position of Brigadier Thompson's reconnaissance team, which is coming back from Zaire. The information that I received from the Table Office was that an all circumstances post-Jopling there is no possibility of a second Adjournment debate even when it is anticipated at a very early stage that the sitting could collapse.

The Adjournment debate of the hon. Gentleman from mid-Wales, the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis), could not possibly be extended from hospitals in mid-Wales to other matters. Given the pressure on parliamentary time, it is a crying shame and totally unsatisfactory that we should be about to begin the Adjournment debate at 12 minutes past 6. This is prime time, and many hon. Members have subjects on which they wish to raise questions—the commitment of the British Army in Zaire is just one. Can this matter be brought to the attention of the Procedure Committee because what it has done is, in effect, deeply unsatisfactory?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet-Fookes)

The hon. Gentleman is correct in his understanding of the present practice. I would suggest that if he is unhappy he should go directly to the Procedure Committee to raise the issue. However, I must point out that, technically, we have not quite reached the Adjournment.

Bill reported, with amendments, pursuant to Order [18 November].

Bill, as amended, ordered to lie upon the Table.

Ordered, That, during the proceedings on the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, Standing Committee E shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it shall meet.—[Mrs. Lait.]

Mr. Dalyell

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You have said that the current situation regarding a second Adjournment debate is "the present practice". Frankly, a lot of my colleagues did not know that. Is it "practice", which can be defied, or a resolution of the House which cannot?

Madam Deputy Speaker

I understand that the present situation is a result of the agreement following the Jopling reforms and that these are the orders under which we now work. I said "the present practice" because one cannot anticipate what changes might be made in the future.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to detain the House, although my hon. Friend from Wales, the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis), could go on for some time with his Adjournment debate. I have considerable sympathy for the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). I remember the Jopling reforms, but I do not recall that such an eventuality as this was considered. Many people would argue that there should perhaps be a reserve list of Adjournment debates for just such an eventuality. I hope that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will use your good offices to make that view clear, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow—as he so very often does—has put his finger on an important point.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I do not think that I can add to what I have said, but it is open to any hon. Member to make such recommendations as he feels suitable to the Procedure Committee, which exists for the purpose.

Mr. Dalyell

I do not want to put you on the spot, Madam Deputy Speaker, but could a statement be made at some point on precisely where the orders have been agreed that there should not be a second Adjournment debate? The Clerk may have some knowledge of this.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I will ensure that a member of the Clerk's Department provides chapter and verse for the hon. Gentleman.