HC Deb 19 November 1996 vol 285 cc861-71
Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 2, line 37, after `possession', insert 'and if the firearm is deactivated or disabled from firing in a prescribed manner'.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Morris)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 37, at end add— `(2) In this section "prescribed" means prescribed by the Secretary of State by regulations made by statutory instrument.'.

Mr. Henderson

Thank you, Sir Michael—

The Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but I am Chairman of the Committee.

Mr. Henderson

I apologise to you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you for your correction.

Clause 5 exempts from the provisions of the Bill trophies of war that were acquired before 1946, which have been authorised by certificate.

When I first read clause 5, I assumed that it related to what would probably be described by a layperson as an antique gun—a gun that would not be very usable nowadays, and one that had been acquired over time. I have discovered that that is not so and that many guns that are trophies of war are essentially the same in design as guns that are manufactured today and have the same lethal powers.

I do not believe that there is any great risk from many of the holders of such trophies of war. Most of them are very responsible people and they retain such weapons to remind them of the past and of their family's contribution to war efforts. The danger is that such weapons might fall into the wrong hands and that ammunition might then be provided from another source, thus turning them into lethal weapons.

When hon. Members agree that something must be done quickly, there is a sometimes the temptation to ignore detail. We can all be guilty of that, but I hope that the Government will acknowledge that potential danger. If they do not accept the wording of our amendments, perhaps they will consider another form of words that would take on board the points that I have made.

The definition of a trophy of war is not particularly tight. I quote from Home Office guidelines, "Firearms Law: Evidence to the Police", which say: All persons retaining trophies of war must hold firearm certificates, although no fee is payable,"— and we all understand that. In general, the term 'trophy' may be interpreted fairly widely when persons of good repute wish to retain possession of a firearm as a personal memento without the ammunition necessary for its use … Weapons issued or captured during the 1939–1945 war and subsequently are Government property and their retention is not permitted. We are not talking about legally held trophies of war from the 1939–45 war. I am told by the police that it is possible that many equivalents to trophies of war obtained by individuals have been given certificates that apply to guns manufactured between 1939 and 1946. Either a blind eye has been turned by the Ministry of Defence or the police were told originally that the gun was manufactured before 1939. I am told that many of them were manufactured between 1939 and 1945, often in Europe and often brought back as a memento of various campaigns during the second world war.

Other trophies of war manufactured before 1939 are legitimately held. I quote from Jane's Infantry Weapons, which says that the 9 mm Browning high-power pistol, which was the same gun used by Hamilton at Dunblane was designed in 1925 by John M. Browning and granted a US Patent in February 1927. The High Power has been manufactured"—

on licence— in Belgium by F. N. Herstal SA, near Liège. It was in service in Belgium, Denmark, Lithuania, Netherlands and Romania. It has been used since and is still in production in India. As we all know, it is a lethal weapon. I believe that if it got into the wrong hands it could still be used by a maniac such as Hamilton to cause destruction and devastation in a community. The Government must address that possibility.

Another gun that is common as a trophy of war-again it was manufactured before 1939 but was still in production up until 1985—is the .45 model 1911.A1 automatic pistol. It is a classic pistol used by the US army. Essentially, the design has remained the same. It would take a firearms expert to draw a distinction between one of the models made pre-1939 and one made after that date. The point that I am trying to make is that guns are available—this relates to guns above .22 calibre—that are not antiques but are lethal weapons and are more or less the same as guns that are available today, and have been rightly classified as trophies of war. These potential weapons are not covered by clause 5. I hope that the Government will accept that there needs to be some way of ensuring that such guns are not used for purposes for which they were not intended.

It would be wrong to have a general policy of deactivating guns, for all the arguments that were exchanged across the Floor in yesterday's debate. If guns were to be dismantled, it would be too easy for a part kept in one place to be associated with another part kept elsewhere. In relation to trophies of war, however, because we are talking about a relatively small number of guns, it would be possible to make them safe by deactivating them. That should be done without causing damage to the gun. I hope that the Government will look at ways in which that could be achieved.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

The whole world of guns, weapons and collectors would be absolutely delighted if there was any way of knowing how to deactivate a gun without damaging it, as that would be a solution to many problems.

Mr. Henderson

I hope that it will be possible to examine that. Lord Cullen suggested, in paragraph 9.94 of his report, that one area for discussion might be a barrel lock system. I am no gun expert and I do not know whether it would be possible to use such a device to deactivate a gun safely and without damaging it, but the House has an obligation to not only the people of Dunblane but the people of this country to take every step to ensure that legally held guns do not get into the wrong hands. I have mentioned a potential loophole; I hope that the Government will accept that it exists. It affects only a small number of people, but we must deal with it. The danger is not from the holders of trophies of war but that those trophies of war may get into the wrong hands and be used for purposes for which they were not intended.

I ask the Government to accept the point that I have made. If they accept the Opposition's amendments, that would be satisfactory. If they believe that our amendments are technically flawed, I should be happy to co-operate with them in finding another way to address the problem.

5 pm

Sir Jerry Wiggin

The effect of the amendment is abundantly clear and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) has explained lucidly what is in his mind. If he adopts the view that there shall be no dangerous handguns that could be fired if the right ammunition was obtained illegally, I understand his point of view. But we are talking about weapons that are held for some historic, personal or domestic reason.

Next Sunday, I shall be attending the 100th birthday party of Corporal D'Arcy Jones, who will celebrate his birthday today week. On 8 November 1917, Corporal Jones took part in the last mounted cavalry charge to capture guns at a place called Huj near Beersheba. My father led that charge. The casualties were 50 per cent. and of the nine officers four were killed and two were wounded. I think that the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) was either present or a member of the regiment at the time. It was a famous historic action during which 20,000 Turks took to their heels and fled down the hill. I know that the revolver of one of the officers who took part in that historic charge is in private ownership. It would be a great tragedy if, even though that weapon is kept in the greatest security, its firing pin had to be sawn off and a bolt put down the barrel, or whatever was required.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North will learn much more about firearms as the Bill progresses. One of the difficulties of deactivation is that previously nefarious individuals have de-deactivated weapons. In other words, firing pins have been restored and barrels drilled out, putting the weapons back in order. Deactivation is usually certificated by the proof house and it is a monumental destruction of the item. I am talking not just about historic pieces, but about works of art, which can be used. It would be a great tragedy if they had to be deactivated to the satisfaction of the proof house.

Mr. Henderson

I was referring to relatively modern guns, principally those manufactured in the 20th century. Older guns could be classified under the Firearms Act 1968 as antiques and so would not be covered by the Bill.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

With the right ammunition, unless it has been neglected, anything manufactured in the 20th century is likely to be a pretty useful piece of equipment to anyone who wishes to use it in that way. It is no good arguing against that. It is a fact of life that everyone accepts.

As far as I know, this matter has not upset chief constables or caused any difficulty. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us if it has. The effect of deactivating guns is to destroy their commercial value. It also destroys the romantic, historic and emotional connection. I realise that there are those who cannot understand why anyone would feel that for a gun, but people do. As it stands, the law is completely satisfactory. The guns are held without permission for ammunition and without any intention to use them. The law already covers the point and I hope that my hon. Friend will reject the amendment.

Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

How many guns are held under licence as trophies of war? Such information would give us some insight into whether a problem exists. Is it correct that a person with a certificate authorising the possession of such a weapon cannot use that weapon as a firearm? That would be an argument in favour of deactivating it.

I understand what the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) has just said and the various reasons that he gave. However, we must consider the amendment seriously. It is correct and proper that there should be exceptions to a law. Nothing can be absolute. But we should always be circumspect in establishing such exceptions, because the more there are, the more difficult is the law to understand and the easier it is to circumvent it because there are more loopholes, bringing the law into disrepute. Therefore, we should try to restrict the exemptions.

We could not possibly disagree with the first three exemptions, but I am not so sure about the exemption for a trophy of war, unless it is deactivated. We need not consider the problems with deactivation that we debated yesterday, and temporary deactivation, allowing a gun to be put back together and used. We are now considering permanent deactivation. There must be methods of doing that that do not significantly damage the gun, other than making it impossible to use it again. Reactivating guns is a specialty, but that is another hurdle to be gone through before anyone can use such a weapon in a criminal act.

This is an area for concern and I would be grateful if the Minister would provide the information for which I have asked and consider the points that I have made.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

We understand that, in a number of instances, the attraction in retaining a trophy of war is the fact that, with the right information, one could shoot someone with it. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) said that people such as me who are not part of the gun fraternity would not understand that part of the attraction of having a trophy of war is to be able to fantasise about loading it, taking it out and shooting at something or other.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

indicated dissent.

Mr. O'Neill

That was the point that the hon. Gentleman made, which he suggested we could not understand. Part of the attraction of a trophy of war is that, with the right ammunition, such a gun could be used. That is what the hon. Gentleman was saying and that was part of the argument that he advanced against deactivation.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I have known the hon. Gentleman a long time and I know that he has a fanciful imagination and turn of phrase, but I must refute what he says What I said is on the record and he can read it. I said that a fine weapon is valued for its workmanship and, in this instance, for its history and its romantic attachment, whether that be the result of a gallant action, some war story in which it played a part, or whatever. That is what I said and it is on the record.

Mr. O'Neill

We may have to judge it on the record. I thought that I heard the hon. Gentleman say that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North, (Mr. Henderson) not being a member of the gun fraternity, might not understand the attraction of a weapon and its lack of attraction if it was somehow artificially deactivated.

Is the Minister satisfied that such weapons will be held securely in the home of the licence holder? Let us not forget that a collector of armaments will probably be known within his area and could be a magnet to burglars, especially if it was understood that some of the weapons could, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North has already said, be used quickly.

What is important is not just whether such weapons should be deactivated or whether that is desirable or possible, but the conditions under which they are held by the appropriate people. I can well imagine that if anyone is to be entrusted with such weapons, their owners are the kind of people who should be, but what worries me is those in the community who see them as a potential for burglary and theft.

Mr. Dalyell

I do not want to be too much of a pedant, but anyone who acquired weapons before 1 January 1946 is likely to have done three score years and ten. Does the clause refer to weapons acquired by dad, grandad or great grandad? Perhaps some other wording should cover this.

I make no apology for returning to the issue of money. I am a little wiser than I was yesterday afternoon. I asked some questions in yesterday's debate, as a result of which a dealer got in touch with me and told me that many such weapons are enormously valuable. If they are surrendered at anything like market price, the figures involved could be many thousands of pounds.

For technical reasons and for reasons of history, some trophies of war are extremely expensive. If owners were unwilling to have them unlocked and debilitated in some way or another, they would presumably have to surrender them. If so, what compensation would be paid?

Sir Cranley Onslow (Woking)

I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify the point raised by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). The clause refers to the acquisition of a trophy of war before a certain date. That implies that when the individual who acquired it has left this world, title passes away entirely, and is not inheritable under the terms of the Bill.

Miss Widdecombe

This has been an interesting debate. I have to say at the outset of my speech that, sadly, I must urge the House to resist the amendments if they are pressed.

Before I deal with the main part of the amendments and reply to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), I shall pick up various important points that were made in the debate. I am sure that, no matter what view one takes of the Bill, the House will want to congratulate Corporal D'Arcy Jones on his 100th birthday. We wish him a happy birthday and hope that it is a wonderful occasion.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Sir C. Onslow) raised an important point about inheritance. As the Bill is currently phrased, it does not provide for inheritance. However, we intend to table an amendment at a later stage, which will enable the heirs of people who have held trophies of war likewise to be exempt. As we propose to exempt both owners of trophies of war and their heirs, the issue of compensation does not arise. I hope that the hon. Members are reassured on that.

The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) raised a relevant and important point. He is right that it is not merely the conditions in which such weapons are possessed that is important—I shall deal with that matter in a moment—but the security under which they are held. The police already have the power to specify the conditions under which a person is allowed to hold such guns. Clearly, an ancient weapon that is kept in a box in an attic by a widow does not cause the same concerns as a more modern weapon that is capable of being fired and is kept in more overt conditions in a house. The police can take account of particular circumstances and can specify conditions. They already have that power—we are not giving it to them in the Bill. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) asked several questions. In particular, he asked whether I could put a figure on the number of guns that we propose to exempt. The figures are not centrally collected, but they are known by individual police forces and can be obtained from them for a given area. As far as we are aware, no chief police officer has ever notified us of any problems involving such guns.

I regret that I cannot support the amendments for two reasons. First, deactivation is a red herring. For a gun to be classified as deactivated, extremely strict standards must be applied. It is not enough for bits and pieces to be temporarily removed: the gun must be permanently deactivated. A permanently deactivated gun is not caught by the firearms Acts, so would be irrelevant. A specification to exempt deactivated guns would be utterly redundant. It would have no meaning under the terms of the firearms Acts.

We do not want to introduce as a condition the requirement to disable. I say that, but it is already possible for the police to specify that dismantling or partial dismantling must occur as a condition of the gun being held. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North should consult the report of the debate on 12 November, in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) said that he has two world war one handguns, and that he keeps them dismantled at the police's request.

Under current legislation, the police are able to specify that a weapon must be dismantled. That often depends on the same issues that are raised when considering whether guns are being kept securely—how old the guns are, whether they are capable of being fired, who is keeping them and under what conditions and whether dismantling would be sensible. I believe that it is better to leave those matters to the police. If the amendments are pressed—I hope that they will not be—I urge the Committee to resist them.

5.15 pm
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

Before my hon. Friend finishes her speech, may I return to the subject of trophies of war? When she mentioned the concession that heirs will be allowed to keep such guns, everyone nodded and thought that it was a good idea. But if we thought about it, we would realise that it could lead to logically absurd situations. Presumably, I could keep my father's gun or my grandfather's. Could I keep my great uncle's gun? Could my great uncle will his gun to someone else? Why should people be allowed to keep trophies of war that have been left to them in a will, whereas other people will not be allowed to do so? If the Home Office makes concessions on what is an intrusive and confiscatory measure, it will soon get into deep water. That is the problem with this sort of legislation.

Miss Widdecombe

I could almost be forgiven for thinking that my hon. Friend was arguing against the concession. What I said was crystal clear: I said that the heirs would be exempt—not the sons, grandsons or great grandsons. A great nephew or a third cousin six times removed could be an heir. When we introduce our amendment, we will make our intentions clear. It is a trifle unfair for my hon. Friend to criticise the concession, as he does not yet have the details of it. I have given him an idea of my general thinking.

Mr. Dalyell

I shall be more than a trifle unfair, because I think that there are other problems with the magic date of 1946. What about trophies of the Korean war? To my certain knowledge, some of my national service contemporaries brought trophies back from the Korean war. God knows what has happened to them. Has the date of 1946 been plucked out of the air?

Miss Widdecombe

We must have a definition. When we introduce our amendment on trophies of war, hon. Members will have an opportunity to propose other amendments. There was a proposal to tighten the definition and to change the date to 1939. We shall carefully consider whether the definition is consistent with and coherent across different legislation, and whether it is right.

Mr. Dalyell

This is quite important. Presumably, certificates would have to be produced for possession of a gun acquired before 1946. What about trophies of war that were acquired back in the late 1940s and 1950s? We are going back a very long way. What standards of proof will be expected? I do not want to be difficult for the sake of being difficult, but I believe that the provision is fraught with difficulties.

Mr. Henderson

I did not really understand the Minister's point about deactivated guns. It is a bit like asking, "When is a gun not a gun?" It was suggested that a gun that was fully operational at one time could be in a different state as a trophy of war. We all acknowledge that a "trophy of war" licence would not be given for such a gun to be used with ammunition, but there is still a danger that it could fall into the wrong hands and then be loaded with ammunition. That is particularly likely in the case of the relatively modern guns that I mentioned earlier. I do not think that deactivating a gun of that kind means that it is no longer a gun: it could be reactivated.

Miss Widdecombe


Mr. Henderson

I think that it could, but that is a technical point.

Miss Widdecombe

Perhaps I can give the hon. Gentleman some technical advice. As I said, deactivation is now extremely strictly prescribed. It would be much easier to build a gun from scratch than to try to reactivate a gun that had been deactivated according to current specifications. The meaning is pretty precise. In any event, deactivated guns fall outwith the terms of the Bill, and we would be talking about nothing if we wrote them in.

Mr. Henderson

I am grateful for the Minister's advice, but I am not sure that it convinces me. Common sense tells me that if something can be deactivated, it can be reactivated. Many engineers would welcome the challenge of reactivating a gun and returning it to the condition in which it was when it was manufactured and first in use.

I think that the Minister is saying that she agrees that there is a potential loophole—that she recognises that, in some circumstances, some trophies of war could become dangerous to the public. In recognising that, she has acknowledged that sometimes the police will have to say, "Your trophy of war must be kept in a particular circumstance before it can be given an appropriate licence." If the Minister recognises that, she should seriously consider saying it in the Bill.

Miss Widdecombe

Primary legislation already states that the police can specify the circumstances in which guns must be kept, either in terms of their physical condition—which means dismantling—or in terms of the secure conditions that surround their keeping. The decision is made on the merits of each case. There would be little point in trying to introduce blanket legislation affecting a number of circumstances to which the application was not appropriate.

Mr. Henderson

Again, I am grateful to the Minister for her advice, but this advice does not convince me either. There is a need to be specific. The Government must think again, and for that reason I may not press the amendment.

We should recall the position in which the police found themselves in central Scotland when they believed that, under the existing law, they would fail in court if Hamilton challenged their decision to deny him a certificate. We could be in the same position in this instance. Someone who held a trophy of war and believed that the law did not give the chief constable powers to be specific and to make a particular requirement could challenge the chief constable if he thought that the cost would be disproportionate.

Miss Widdecombe

Although this Bill does not make that specific, the existing law does. There would be no ground for such a challenge.

Mr. Henderson

I understand the point on which the Minister is attempting to convince the Committee, but she has not convinced me, and I am not sure that she has convinced the Committee. She has accepted that there is a loophole. I hope that, in the light of this discussion and the confusion that exists in the minds of hon. Members—[Interruption.] Some hon. Members are confused. The hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) looks very confused. We need clarification.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the Minister find out from the Scottish Office precisely what the state of the law is? In 1988, Thomas Hamilton came to my surgery. His visit was prompted by a constituent, Mrs. Paula Morebay of Linlithgow, who telephoned to say that she was extremely concerned about her son being taken to a camp by a group leader whom she did not like and whom she distrusted. It was so urgent that I asked the police to go and see my constituent. Detective-Sergeant Anderson then went to see Hamilton.

The police reported that they would have liked to do something about the matter, but could not. That is the story that my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and others learned 10 years later, and it constitutes the guts of the issue. The man Hamilton came to my surgery and to my house. We would dearly have liked the police to do something about it, but they did not have the power—or thought that they did not.

Mr. Henderson

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's supportive emphasis of what I consider to be a real point. I hope that the Minister will accept that some Conservative Members are also confused, and, having reflected on the issues that we have discussed, will table an amendment. If she does not, it is possible that, after further consultation, I shall want to do so.

Miss Widdecombe

The minds of Conservative Members are models of clarity and lucidity. We are not confused. I cannot speak for Opposition Members, but I do not think that there is any confusion on Conservative Benches about the current provisions in the law. The hon. Member for Linlithgow did exhibit some confusion, but, to be fair, he had been absent for part of the discussion.

Mr. Dalyell

No, I had not.

Miss Widdecombe

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was at the other end of the Chamber.

Two pieces of law were discussed. The hon. Gentleman raised one: the conditions for licensing, which, as he well knows, we are tightening. The piece of law that I was discussing was that which allows the police to specify the circumstances in which a gun may be kept, in terms of either its physical state or the security provisions surrounding it. I do not think that I can say anything further to dispel the confusion, if indeed it exists.

I will, however, clarify a few points for the hon. Gentleman. I said that we would reflect on these. As all weapons taken in war since 1946 are deemed to be the property of Her Majesty's Government, the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised will probably not have as much impact as he may have thought; but I undertake to examine the position, and make certain that that is the case. He also mentioned guns that were purchased a long time ago, standards of proof and so forth. Certificates are renewed every five years, and the same tests are applied on each occasion.

Mr. Leigh

I wish to make just one point. It is clear in my mind now that the law is itself quite clear: anyone can be made an heir, and therefore anyone can sell any trophy of war to whoever he likes by signing a simple affidavit. The gun will then come on to the open market. Trophies of war will be kept on the open market, and will be specific items for sale and resale. [Interruption.] If that is not the case, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will correct me.

Miss Widdecombe

We are talking about wills and inheritance, not about deeds of gift. Wills are provable; wills are held; wills can be referred to.

Mr. Henderson

I think that there is now adequate evidence of confusion. I beg to ask leave to withdraw my amendment, to enable the whole House perhaps to return to the issue on another occasion.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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