HC Deb 23 June 1999 vol 333 cc1257-66

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

8.54 pm
Mr. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough)

I am conscious of the fact that tonight's Adjournment debate is starting early, so I shall be happy to take interventions from either side of the House—although it looks as if we shall not hear from many Opposition Members.

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate on the Floor of the House the important issue of the safety of air guns. There is no doubt in my mind that the Government need to take seriously incidents involving air guns. After all, we now have probably the tightest hand gun legislation in the world—and rightly so—since the implementation of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. The Government's actions in tightening up hand gun legislation were widely welcomed after the tragic events in Hungerford and Dunblane. The Government's actions have been more than vindicated by recent horrendous incidents on high school campuses in the United States.

I applied for this Adjournment debate because in recent months there have been two serious incidents involving the misuse of air guns in my constituency. The first, and by far the more serious, occurred in January in Grimethorpe. Adam Yoxall, a 10-year-old boy, was tragically hit in the eye by an air gun pellet while playing in a local wood. As a direct consequence, he has now lost the sight in his left eye, and surgeons have been unable to remove the pellet, for fear that, if they do, he risks losing the sight in his other eye. The problem is that the pellet is not lodged in Adam's eye but is floating around in the aqueous humour.

Adam has to attend Rotherham hospital every six weeks so that doctors can monitor whether any infection is present that might spread to his good eye. I can only imagine how distressed Adam's parents must feel about the situation. Since the incident, Adam has suffered from trauma attacks and receives professional counselling. I saw Adam's parents over the weekend, and they informed me that the incident has affected Adam's behavioural patterns and his educational progress. I am sure that the whole House will want to wish Adam and his family all the best for the future.

The second incident in my constituency happened in April, in Thurnscoe. A boy of 12 was left in agony after being shot in the back by a sniper. He was sitting on a bench when he was hit in the back by a pellet which penetrated his clothing and left him with a bright red and painful area on his back. He was taken to Mexborough Montagu hospital and allowed home after treatment. Police efforts to trace the sniper unfortunately failed to identify the culprit.

I am sorry to say that those occurrences are not isolated incidents. In 1996, the last year for which figures are available, 1,203 offences in which air weapons were used were recorded by the police.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

As I understand it, air rifles come in two calibres—the .177 and the .22. The .22 is the more powerful, and I am told that a .22 air rifle can penetrate a metal sheet. Does my hon. Friend agree that the manufacturers of air rifles could technically reduce the power of those weapons that are not used on ranges? Does he think that that measure would provide some safety for the public?

Mr. Ennis

My hon. Friend makes a valid point and I appreciate his knowledge on the subject. I am not an expert on air rifles, but I understand that, on certain weapons, the power of the mechanism can be adjusted. If people are stopped by the police when they are in possession of such weapons, they turn the power of the weapon down so that it conforms to the air gun legislation. As I said, I am not an expert, but I have heard of weapons with that feature and am obviously worried about them, too.

I noted earlier that the general trend is that the number of air gun incidents is falling, and I said that there were 1,203 such incidents in 1996. In contrast, there were 1,718 recorded offences in 1992, but even one recorded air gun incident a year is one too many, and we should not be complacent.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is also an animal welfare element to this problem? The Cats Protection League has estimated that 10,000 cats a year are shot with air guns, and that is a source of considerable anguish to pet owners.

Mr. Ennis

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I do not want to embarrass him, but I intend to quote from the ten-minute Bill that he introduced last year on that very point. With my hon. Friend's permission, I shall respond to that issue later in my speech.

Air gun weapons are by no means a new scourge on society. About 20 years ago, I was a victim of an air gun incident. At the time, I was a teacher in the Hillsborough area of Sheffield. One beautiful summer's evening, I was driving up a steep hill towards the village in which I lived. The car slowed as it crested the hill, which was about a mile from my house. I had the window down, and suddenly felt a sharp pain in my chest. I wondered whether I was having a heart attack or an angina attack. I immediately stopped the car, and noticed a pellet in my lap. When I turned around, I saw a couple of youths running away across the fields with an air rifle.

Clearly, that could have been a very serious incident. If the pellet had hit me in the face I could have lost control of the car and skidded off the road, perhaps hitting a pedestrian or colliding with another vehicle. In many respects, I was fortunate. I raise my experience of being the victim of such an attack because I did not report it to the police at the time; I am sure that the figures that I cited represent only a fraction of the real number of offences committed each year.

What can the Government do to reduce the number of air gun incidents and the consequent distress caused to victims and their families? I looked at the current legislation, and, on paper, the controls appear quite tight, especially given that 4 million air guns are estimated to be in use in this country.

In January 1998, a ten-minute Bill, the Acquisition and Possession of Air Weapons (Restriction) Bill, was sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), who I am glad to see in his place this evening. That Bill attempted to raise the minimum age for possessing an air weapon from 14 to 17, and to address the enormous problem that domestic animals and wild birds are often the target of air gun offenders. It also recognised that a huge amount of human suffering is caused by those offenders.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe pointed out that, every year, large numbers of cats, dogs, horses and wild birds—including swans—are the victims of air gun attacks. He said that, every year, 10,000 cats are either maimed or killed by air guns. That is equivalent to about 30 cats per day.

I am not convinced that such a measure would reduce the problem significantly, however. Many of the incidents that occur involve children even younger than 14. I believe that there is a genuine need for better enforcement and better education. Better enforcement of current legislation by the police would certainly have an impact on the level of abuse and misuse of air weapons.

The practical problem of better enforcement is that many incidents involve very young children. In some cases, they are as young as eight or nine and the incidents in which they are involved are, in many cases, their first offences. Initial punishment tends to be only a caution or a warning. Yet the incident may be serious, and many people feel that the punishment does not fit the crime.

Better education is essential if parents and children are to realise that air guns are not toys, but potentially lethal weapons which should be treated as such.

Dr. Palmer

Does my hon. Friend welcome the initiative taken by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, which has persuaded some British manufacturers to include leaflets in air gun packaging? The problem is with imported air guns.

Mr. Ennis

I thank my hon. Friend for that valid point. The initiative is a step in the right direction and it is good that British manufacturers are leading the way.

I was speaking of education. In the short term at least, the Home Office should consider funding a video for junior and secondary schools to highlight safety and the proper use of air guns as well as the legal consequences of flouting the law. The Home Office should also consider producing a leaflet outlining the facts that children could take home to their parents. Many air gun incidents are a direct consequence of lack of parental responsibility.

In February, the Earl of Mar and Kellie asked in the other place whether the Government had any plans to legislate for inclusion of air guns in the firearms licensing scheme. In response, Lord Williams of Mostyn stated: The Government have no plans at present to introduce legislation to require the certification of low-powered air guns. There are already laws in place to control the use and possession of these guns and we shall keep under close scrutiny the way in which they are used. In particular, we have asked the Firearms Consultative Committee to consider existing controls as part of their 1999 work programme."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 February 1999; Vol. 597, c. 142.] Has the FCC carried out that review, or will it be programmed for consideration later in the year? Even with the review, it would be right to discuss this extremely important public safety issue in greater detail in the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which could draw positive conclusions on an emotive subject.

As long as tragic incidents such as the one that befell Adam Yoxall are taking place, the Government cannot afford to be complacent about the safety of air guns. We need to educate youngsters and their parents about the dangers. We must repeat that air guns are not toys, but potentially lethal weapons. With the co-operation of local police forces, we must ensure effective enforcement of control of air weapons.

9.9 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

The House owes my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Mr. Ennis) a debt of gratitude for enabling us to consider the safety of air guns. All hon. Members would join me in expressing our deepest sympathy for young Adam and his family following the serious injury that he has sustained. Sometimes, those outside the House do not realise the importance that we, as Members, attach to Adjournment debates as a means of raising constituency issues that have a real resonance in our own local areas, but which, in turn, also strike a chord much more widely than in the areas that we represent as individuals.

The seriousness with which the House treats such concerns is shown by the fact that my hon. Friend is accompanied this evening by no fewer than four other Labour Members. That is an indication of the way in which this particular case has struck a chord with other hon. Members, who have knowledge of, and a constituency interest in, the matter that he raises. He told us of Adam Yoxall, a 10-year-old, who, while playing with a group of friends, was seriously injured by an air gun that one of the children had taken from home without permission. The gun was handled by another child; it went off and the pellet hit young Adam in the eye at fairly close range. That caused severe damage, as my hon. Friend described. As a result of one moment's loss of control, a life will be severely affected for its duration.

The South Yorkshire police described that incident as a terrible accident. It was truly terrible. We need to reflect on the circumstances in which it occurred, and, this evening, we have been given the opportunity to do so. That incident points to the importance of ensuring that air guns are kept securely, and are never kept in a place in which they might be accessible to young children. Adults need to learn that lesson, and we need to ensure that it is learned so that children do not have access to air guns. As my hon. Friend says, air guns should not be seen as being an extension of the pop gun, or as some sort of toy; they are extremely dangerous implements.

My hon. Friend mentioned a second incident, which appears to have been a deliberate act to inflict harm on a young boy. That introduces an altogether different element into the equation—one that the whole House will want to deplore, because, again, it has resonance for us all. I must point out to my hon. Friend that, glad as I am to respond to the debate, he has caused me some agitation. In order to fulfil my duties and responsibilities to the House, I had to leave a packed church in my constituency, where at least 300 people had gathered to meet local police, and council and community leaders, to express their concern about a spate of shootings in my constituency. Those shootings led to loss of life and have obviously been a cause of considerable concern, so 1 very much feel for him in the concerns that he expresses to the House this evening.

When such events occur in one's constituency, one's first and most important instinct is to ensure that the House knows about them. That is very important and should not be underestimated. Secondly, one wants to ensure that something is done as a response. I hope that I do not trespass on your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by pointing out that that is why we place such value on our links with our constituents. That is why it is always important that they know that they have someone who, on occasions such as this, can raise a particular constituency interest.

Our main concern must be to reduce the sort of dreadful incident about which we have heard tonight. One such incident must be regarded as one too many. That is why the main thrust of the legislation governing air guns—and indeed the legislation governing all firearms—is aimed at protecting public safety. For the purpose of firearms legislation, an air gun is a weapon with a barrel through which a missile is discharged by the use of compressed air or carbon dioxide.

However, it must be borne in mind that not all air guns can be classed as firearms. Section 57 of the Firearms Act 1968 defines a firearm as a lethal barrelled weapon capable of the discharge of any shot, bullet or other missile. Thus, in order to be classified as a firearm, an object must be a weapon; it must have a barrel through which some kind of missile is fired; and the effect of the missile at the target must be lethal. Lethality is defined in law as: capable of inflicting a more than trivial injury". A trivial injury is one that involves only superficial damage, such as bruising. Put plainly, if the pellet from a particular gun is capable of penetrating the skin, that gun is classed as a firearm.

Firearms experts at the Forensic Science Service advise that the lowest power level at which a penetrating injury can occur is at a muzzle energy of about 1 joule, which equates to roughly 0.75 ft lb. Some air guns—those of the type generally referred to as airsoft guns; as my hon. Friend said, that title is something of a misnomer—have muzzle energies of about 0.5 ft lb, which is well below that level. As a result, they do not fit the definition of a firearm and do not come under the control of the Firearms Act. The Forensic Science Service believes that, at those very low power levels, such guns are incapable of penetrating even vulnerable parts of the body, such as the eye—although a direct hit from very close range would cause bruising.

A step up from airsoft guns are low-powered air guns. They are pistols with a muzzle energy below 6 ft lb but greater than 0.75 ft lb and rifles with muzzle energies between 0.75 ft lb and 12 ft lb. Hon. Members can see that there is considerable variation in those specifications. Such guns do not have to be kept on a police-issued firearms certificate, but, because they are capable of inflicting a penetrating wound, are none the less classed as firearms.

High-powered air guns of the type often used for hunting small game or in the control of vermin must be kept on a firearms certificate in the same way as any other firearms that come under the control of section 1 of the Firearms Act. That brings high-powered air guns into the same category as high-powered deer-stalking rifles, for example.

Even though there is no need to apply for a firearms certificate in order to buy and keep one, low-powered air guns are clearly firearms and, as such, fall within the scope of the Firearms Act. A wide range of offences relates to firearms, but the ones with most relevance to air guns concern age limits, the carrying and discharging of guns and the carrying of air guns in relation to other crimes. For example, it is an offence—this has an important bearing on the points made by my hon. Friend—to give an air gun to anyone under the age of 14 or to sell an air gun to anyone under 17. Having a loaded air gun in a public place is an offence, as is firing one within 50 ft of a public road. Trespassing with an air gun, be it in a building or on open land, is also an offence.

I must say something about the offence of selling to anyone under the age of 17 an air gun of the type that I have described. It may seem incredible to those who attend, listen to or read about our proceedings that it is necessary to point out that that is an offence. However, I am afraid that some utterly unscrupulous merchants take every opportunity to sell such air guns—and their associated paraphernalia—to suggestible and susceptible young people.

A number of Members of the House will have had run-ins with such dealers, not least in relation to proper concerns that have been raised, particularly by Labour Members, about certain sorts of knife which are all too readily available. They are sold to members of the public and to susceptible and impressionable young people in particular. It is right to point out the nature of the offence of selling such air guns to anyone under 17.

At the top end of the scale, possessing an air gun with the intent to commit a crime is a serious offence, as is possessing an air gun with the intent of endangering life or property. There are a range of penalties for those various offences, from heavy fines for the lesser ones, such as those relating to age limits, to life imprisonment for going armed to commit a crime or carrying an air gun with the intent to use it to murder. The punishment imposed in any individual case will naturally depend on the gravity of the offence committed.

It is also an offence to possess a high-powered air weapon without a firearms certificate issued by the police. Before issuing a certificate, the police need to be satisfied on a number of points. They need to be sure that the applicant is a fit and proper person to be entrusted with a firearm, that the gun will be kept securely when not in use and that the applicant has a good reason for possessing a gun in the first place.

Target shooting, which is a recognised discipline, is usually taken as a good reason, but I understand that the most usual reason for people to buy a high-powered air gun is to hunt small game or vermin. That ought not to include cats. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough referred, has expressed concern about the misuse of air guns of varying power for that purpose.

Using air guns in such a way inflicts an extremely unpleasant form of cruelty on animals.

Mr. Clapham

My hon. Friend will be aware that air guns are used to kill wild birds. Does he believe that increasing the fine for anyone caught killing wild birds would be a deterrent? Has he considered introducing such an increase?

Mr. Boateng

The use of air guns against wild birds, particularly protected species, is a serious act. It may also be an offence. It is to be hoped that those in the courts who are responsible for sentencing are aware of the gravity of such environmental offences, in respect of both the use of the air gun and the protection of the environment, which protected status is designed to ensure. We must keep the issue of sentencing and the environment under close review.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

Can my hon. Friend say when the weapons used in the offences referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Mr. Ennis) will be confiscated? There must be some mechanism for confiscating them from those individuals? Does anything in the law say that that can happen?

While I am on my feet, may I say that we appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend has had to leave his constituency, where many people want his presence, to respond to this debate?

Mr. Boateng

I thank my hon. Friend and other colleagues for the expression of that sentiment. It is much appreciated.

Yes, the courts have general powers of forfeiture in relation to the commissioning of firearms offences. It is important that forfeiture, or more accurately, confiscation, is available to the courts. That power is often used on the recommendation of the police, which is the most usual way of bringing about confiscation, but the courts will want to consider what, if any, powers they have to act on their own volition. It is a deterrent and a form of protection that has much to commend it.

May I say a few words—my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough was good enough in his speech to refer to it—about the statistical trends that are revealed in relation to air guns and their misuse? It must be made clear from the outset that every incident involving air gun misuse is unacceptable, particularly those that cause injury to children. Obviously, it is important to see the issue in perspective, and my hon. Friend has done that in the fair way in which he presented his arguments.

Over the years, there has been a slight increase in the overall number of air gun-related incidents. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend said, the figures show that control is having an effect on the number of incidents in which people are injured. From 1987 to 1997, the most recent period for which figures are available, the incidence of injury caused by air gun misuse has shown a steady year-on-year decline. In 1997, there was a significant reduction in the number of injuries from air gun misuse in comparison with those recorded in 1987—from 1,782 to 1,194. In addition, only 125 of the incidents in 1997—less than 11 per cent. in total—consisted of an injury more serious than superficial bruising. It must be said, however, that that is more by chance than by design, because how does one know when one has discharged an air gun? The consequences may be much more serious. Nevertheless, that is what the statistics reveal.

As for fatalities, mercifully there was only one between 1993 and 1997. Prior to that, there was an average of one fatality a year, with a maximum of three in any one year. However, even one a year is too many. That represents one family without a loved one, and the idea that there should be three in a single year is absolutely horrific.

There is no room for complacency. Our aim must always be to reduce the number of injuries by air guns to none. The figures are encouraging in so far as they go, compared with the dreadful toll taken on our roads every year by the irresponsible misuse of that most widely owned possession, the motor car.

As for the legitimate use of air guns, the vast majority of air gun users are simply target shooters who pursue their chosen sport in a thoroughly responsible and disciplined manner. They would be horrified at the thought of doing anything with an air gun that might put themselves or their fellow citizens at risk. The sport of target shooting is a recognised Olympic event. Indeed, traditionally our British competitors excelled at it and achieved great success for this country. Many shooting clubs have air gun ranges at which young people, as well as more mature and novice shooters, are taught to use air guns safely and responsibly under proper tuition and supervision.

Air guns are also frequently used by clubs to introduce new members to firearms and to demonstrate their safe handling before such probationers are allowed to handle the more powerful conventional firearms in a club's main range. That means that new shooters have experience of handling safer weapons before being allowed to come into contact with much more powerful cartridge-firing guns.

Despite that responsible use of air guns, however, and despite the requirements of the law, a minority of young people still have or gain access to air guns, and choose to use them irresponsibly and sometimes dangerously. The Government view the misuse of air guns and the flouting of the law by youngsters as a cause for serious concern. That is why—this is entirely separate from the firearms legislation—we have introduced measures to deal more effectively with young people who break the law in any way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough, and other hon. Friends who are present, have expressed their strong support for the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which introduced a range of measures to reform the youth justice system. There is the final warning triggering intervention by local agencies to nip offending in the bud, the halving of the time currently taken to process young offenders from arrest to sentence, and the child protection order, which can be used when it proves necessary to ensure that young children are kept of the streets and out of trouble late at night. Much of the trouble that can be caused by the misuse of air guns occurs when children are out and about unsupervised, sometimes late at night.

One of the most important aspects of the Crime and Disorder Act is the ability that it gives to courts to refer first-time offenders elsewhere. We are taking that further in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill, which is currently in Committee. First-time offenders who own up to their offences will be given the opportunity to be dealt with outside the criminal justice system, and to face up to their responsibilities and their offending through the good offices of a youth offender panel.

That is an important move. It brings together social services departments, health departments, education departments, the police and probation services, which will examine the nature of the offence involved and consider how education and instruction might help to prevent reoffending. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough put his finger on it when he referred to that. Under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill, a person who had misused an air gun in the way described by my hon. Friend, and had caused injuries such as those described by him, could be required to engage in a series of activities—for between three and 12 months—designed to demonstrate the consequences of such action in a local accident and emergency department. Such a person could be required to take lessons from an appropriately authorised person in order to learn how air guns should be handled, and to be made aware of the consequences of the mishandling of air guns.

The Crime and Disorder Act already gives courts the power to make a reparation order requiring such young people to make specific reparation, either to the victim of the crime or to the community that has been harmed. Indeed, the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales—which was established to develop work programmes and conduct research into how best to prevent offending by young people—is considering ways of ensuring, through the £85 million development fund, that services are stimulated locally to make proposals aimed at preventing offending by young people. I shall draw this debate to the attention of the board, so that it might consider its implications for its work on offending involving air guns and firearms generally.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough made a good point on the use of videos. We have to be innovative and prepared to use newer technologies in ways that attract and retain young people's interest and involvement, and video is just such a medium.

Mr. Ennis

I thank the Minister for his reply so far—he has said many encouraging things. However, I asked specifically about the question asked in another place by the Earl of Mar and Kellie, and answered by Lord Williams of Mostyn, about whether the Firearms Consultative Committee could examine the air guns issue as part of its 1999 workload. Will the Minister briefly say something on that point?

Mr. Boateng

Call me old-fashioned, but, in debates, it is always my practice—as the silent one, the Government Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) will testify—to leave the best for last. That is what I have done today.

The measures that I have outlined today, with current firearms legislation, will be aimed at reducing still further the incidence of injury caused by misuse of air guns. However, as I said, there is no room for complacency. It is important that the firearms legislation that I have mentioned should be kept under close scrutiny, to determine whether anything further must be done to protect public safety.

I have therefore determined to ask the Firearms Consultative Committee, the independent statutory body which advises the Government on firearms matters, to consider again controls on air guns in its programme of work for this year. I look forward to receiving the committee's report later in the year, and to consider any recommendations that it may make to improve air gun safety. I shall be particularly interested in any recommendations that it makes on education and enforcement, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough said, are key elements.

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for initiating this debate, and to my other hon. Friends who have taken the trouble to attend it. I should very much welcome an opportunity to meet them when I have the Firearms Consultative Committee's report in order that we can discuss the recommendations and findings that it makes.

On that note, I thank my hon. Friend again for initiating this debate. To go back to the very beginning of this evening's proceedings, let us remember young Adam and his family. That incident is what kicked the debate off. A constituency Member's determination to raise in an Adjournment debate a case of significance with widespread ramifications led us to be gathered here tonight and it is right that, as we close the debate, we should think of Adam Yoxall and his family and wish him a speedy and full recovery.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Ten o'clock.