HC Deb 21 January 1998 vol 304 cc1016-9 3.34 pm
Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Firearms Act 1968 to restrict the acquisition and possession of air weapons; and for connected purposes. This is a straightforward Bill. It has been kept simple deliberately in view of the nature of ten-minute Bills and the necessity of achieving a broad consensus.

The current law basically allows anyone to possess an airgun from the age of 14. The Bill proposes to raise the minimum age to 17. I should like to acknowledge the help of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Cat Protection League, the National Canine Defence League and the British Veterinary Association in drafting the Bill and discussing how it should be formulated.

I should like to persuade the House of three things that should be the prerequisites of any new legislation. I should like to persuade it, first, that there is a problem worth addressing; secondly, that the Bill will help to do that; and, thirdly, that the Bill does not go further than necessary—I am particularly mindful of the concerns of farmers and sportsmen who have legitimate uses for airguns.

The problem is that large numbers of domestic animals are shot each year—cats, dogs, horses, songbirds and even swans. Every year, 10,000 cats alone are killed or maimed, which is equivalent to more than 30 every day. Even hon. Members who do not particularly like cats and dogs will appreciate that such attacks are causing a great deal of heartbreak to our constituents.

The police are a significant target for attacks. In the past few years, one police officer was killed and another 7,000 injured by airgun attacks. Last but not least, children and even babies are targets. In a recent case, a 14-week-old baby in a carry-cot was shot by a 14-year-old youth. Such attacks on children are usually carried out by other children. There are also frequent reports of children who suffer self-inflicted injuries, often accidental. I hope that hon. Members will agree that the problems are such that it is reasonable to seek some redress.

The second question that arises is whether the Bill will help to overcome the problem. We have overwhelming evidence to suggest that most airgun attacks are carried out by adolescent urban hooligans, who are running wild. We do not hear of farmers or sportsmen shooting at policemen, children or passing cats. The problem is a sub-culture that has developed in certain parts of our cities, which believes that it is fun and amusing to buy an airgun and take pot-shots.

When the adolescent reaches the age of 17 or older, we normally find that he—it is usually a "he"—develops other interests. Hon. Members may not necessarily approve of all those either, but such teenagers tend to be no longer interested in airguns and shooting at passers-by and passing animals. Representatives of the organisations to whom I have spoken are convinced that the Bill would make a significant impact on the problem, because we could remove such weapons from young teenagers aged between 14 and 17. To put it simply, I must ask whether we want our children to go around the streets with guns of any kind.

The third issue, which is perhaps the most important in this context because the Bill is dependent upon the good will of hon. Members on both sides of the House, is the legitimate concerns of farmers and sportsmen. I know that following the passage of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, which I supported, many sportsmen felt that their lives had been made more difficult because of the actions of a small number of people. I have spoken to sportsmen who were worried that the Bill would be another step in that direction and another step towards the nanny state. However, when they heard that the Bill was aimed only at 14 to 17-year-olds, and when they understood that target range practice within gun clubs, in the Army and at fairgrounds would still be legal, including for younger age groups, and that the Bill contained no new restrictions on owners of airguns who were over the age of 17, I found universal acceptance that the Bill would reduce the hooligans' dependence on weaponry. They accepted that the Bill would enable the legitimate users of airguns to avoid being besmirched with accusations of hooliganism towards innocent people and animals in our cities.

Many lobbyists and other people to whom I have spoken have urged me to go further and to propose a licensing law and a presumption against licensing in urban areas. I believe that we should give this targeted legislation a chance and limit the restriction to 14 to 17-year-olds. If that proposal is accepted, I shall call for a stop on any further measures until we have had time to see the effects of the Bill and whether it alone can solve most of the problem.

In summary, the Bill proposes a reduction in the wholesale slaughter of family pets, the massive injuries to the police and the epidemic of accidents and deliberate wounding up and down the country. It is a targeted Bill, which will not inconvenience any legitimate user in clubs or on farms. I ask for House for its support.

3.41 pm
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), who spoke very well if I might say so, is well intentioned, but we are not talking about wholesale slaughter of family pets or massive injuries to the police. We might all agree that he has overstated his case. We see here the manifestation of the new Labour party's tendency to ban or restrict everything that it does not like.

The hon. Gentleman referred to those who supported his Bill, but he did not say whether anyone else wanted the restriction. Certainly, the police do not want it. The police tend to be anti-gun, but the Association of Chief Police Officers in its evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs in 1996 said that further controls on possession of air weapons were not required.

It is certainly not my constituents who want the measure, if my postbag is to be believed. I am pretty sure that in the past six years I have never received a letter from a constituent or a lobbying letter asking for a restriction on air weapons. I accept that a few of the hon. Gentleman's constituents may have written to him.

Let us quickly examine the facts. The hon. Gentleman brought many statistics into the argument, and the facts are more interesting. The current legislation is firm and stringent. If any person, young or old, shoots a protected bird with an airgun or any other weapon, he may be fined up to £5,000. That is a fairly serious amount of money. Anyone aged between 14 and 17 who has an airgun in his possession and is not properly supervised may be fined up to £1,000. The hon. Gentleman spoke about stopping children walking our streets with air weapons. If a child between the ages of 14 and 17 walks about with an air weapon that is not properly encased, he can be fined £1,000. Children are not allowed to have airguns on the street. It is a question of enforcement of the law, not a change in the law.

There are perhaps 4 million air weapons in the country at the moment. They are not powerful enough to qualify as a firearm. Such weapons are kept at home. How will this marvellous legislation stop people getting hold of air weapons? They probably have air weapons illegally now. A more important statistic is that, in this country, between 1 million and 4 million illegally held firearms are used in crime. That is conjecture of course, but I understand that, in 1996, the Home Office published figures that alleged that about 1.7 million illegally held firearms are used.

In October, the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) suggested that he wanted all airguns to be banned, and he suggested it again to the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), at oral questions. Many Labour Members support the hon. Member for Wakefield, but the hon. Member for Broxtowe said that he particularly did not want that.

I view this as new Labour at work. It is restricting or banning anything that it does not want, saying, "As Labour does not want to do it, you shall not be allowed to do it." That is the political correctness of 1998. It is the nanny state run amok.

The Bill would stop children using airguns, yet, at the same time, because of political correctness, Labour wants to reduce the age of homosexual consent, which is a much more important matter. Many young people enjoy using air weapons for target shooting. I did it as a boy and I was supervised. The hon. Member for Broxtowe will know that, in 1996, British disabled shooters won gold and silver medals in the Atlanta paralympics in air target shooting events and set new world records.

I shall not force the Bill to a Division because I know that the House would rather move on to other matters, but I want the public to know that not every hon. Member supports the Bill. Indeed, should it be taken any further, it will be opposed. Let those who pursue their harmless and legally recognised activities and hobbies—young, old, disabled and able-bodied—carry on so doing.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would have appreciated the opportunity to set some of the balance right from the Conservative Benches and to have supported the Bill—indeed, I am one its sponsors. I asked your secretary, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether that was legitimate—I had the permission of the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) to speak on the Bill. I was told that under no circumstances was it possible for another hon. Member to speak on a ten-minute Bill and that there is no provision in the Standing Orders to do so. Now I find that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), with practically all of whose arguments I disagree, has been allowed to put his case.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. I cannot allow the right hon. Gentleman to go on too long. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) put his case because I called him to speak. It is as simple as that. I do not know what conversation took place between the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) and an official of the House.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. One of the reasons why the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) was able to rise on a point of order is simply that, many years ago, the practice in the House used to be that any hon. Member who opposed a ten-minute Bill, so as not to waste Parliament's time, was expected to follow his voice with his vote. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) supposedly opposed the Bill, but said in his concluding remarks that he would not vote against it.

That is why the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea has a case. He said that he would have liked to have his two penn'orth on the Bill and that he had been told by the Clerk's Department that he could not, yet another Tory Member has supposedly opposed the Bill, but then not really opposed it.

That is why we should get back to the old system. When it was in place, anyone who opposed a ten-minute Bill had to call out at the end that he opposed it. An anomaly has been created.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is an expert on the procedures of the House, and he also knows how to change the procedures. I am bound by the rules of the House as they are at present, so allow me to put the Question.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Nick Palmer, Mr. Alan Clark, Liz Blackman, Mr. Vernon Coaker, Mrs. Fiona Jones, Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Barry Gardiner, Mr. Michael Jabez Foster, Mr. Mark Todd, Mr. Chris Mullin and Mr. Ivor Caplin.