HC Deb 24 June 2003 vol 407 cc956-74
Caroline Flint

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 34, line 30, at end insert

', and,

(b) after subsection (2) insert—

"(3) It is not an offence under section 22(4) of this Act for a person of or over the age of fourteen to have with him an air weapon or ammunition on private premises with the consent of the occupier.

(4) But where a person has with him an air weapon on premises in circumstances where he would be prohibited from having it with him but for subsection (3), it is an offence for him to use it for firing any missile beyond those premises."'.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment (a) to the proposed amendment, at end insert— '() where an offence is committed under subsection (4) the donor or lender of the weapon shall also be liable for the offence.'.

Government amendments Nos. 4 to 7.

Amendment No. 70, in page 35, line 7, clause 44, after 'which', insert '(i)'.

Government amendment No. 8.

Amendment No. 71, in page 35, line 9, at end insert 'and

  1. (ii) either has a barrel less than 30 centimetres in length for is less than 60 centimetres in length overall and
  2. (iii) is readily convertible (as defined in section 1(6) of the Firearms Act 1982) to fire ammunition capable of discharging a missile by the force of gunpowder or other explosive material.'.

Amendment No. 72, in page 35, line 25, after 'which', insert 'has a barrel length less than of 30 centimetres in length or is less than 60 centimetres in length overall and'.

Amendment No. 73, in page 35, line 27, after 'dangerous', insert 'by virtue of the fact that it can be readily converted to be capable of discharging a missile by the force of gunpowder or other explosive material'.

Amendment No. 74, in page 35, line 44, at end insert— '(4B) If it appears to the Secretary of State that the provisions of the principal Act relating to prohibited weapons or ammunition should no longer apply to any weapon or ammunition he may by Order remove such weapon or ammunition from those specified in section 5.'.

New clause 6—Requirement of firearm certificate for air weapons

'(1) For rule 2 of the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969 (as amended by the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) (Amendment) Rules 1993 there shall be substituted the following—

"2.—(1) Subject to paragraph (2) below, rule 3 of these Rules applies to an air weapon (that is to say, an air rifle, air gun or air pistol)—

  1. (a) which is capable of discharging a missile so that the missile has, on being discharged from the muzzle of the weapon, kinetic energy in excess of 5.42 joules (4ft/lb), or
  2. (b) which is disguised as another object.

(2) Rule 3 of these Rules does not apply to a weapon which only falls within (1)(a) above and which is designed for use only when submerged in water.".'.

New clause 13—Carrying of an unloaded airgun or air rifle

'At the end of section 23 of the Firearms Act 1968 insert—

'(3) It is not an offence for a person who has attained the age of 14 but is under 17 to have an unloaded airgun or air rifle with him in a public place provided that:

  1. (a) The airgun or air rifle is so covered by a securely fastened gun cover so that it cannot be used,
  2. (b) The young person is travelling directly to or from a place at which he can lawfully use the airgun or where it has been kept on his behalf (whether for repair or otherwise).'.

Government amendment No. 9.

Caroline Flint

With the permission of the House, I should like to speak to Government amendments Nos. 3 to 9. I will then listen to the debate on the other amendments, which we will resist, and respond to the debate on them at the end.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) and the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) for bringing the misuse of airguns to the attention of the House. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford has actively sought to raise the issue in his private Member's Bill. He knows that the Government are not unsympathetic to what he has tried to achieve, and we hope that our current proposals to raise to 17 the age at which a young person can own an air weapon and to strengthen controls on unsupervised use will go a long way to meeting his concerns.

We were aware in Committee of the implications of clause 43 for young shooters in rural areas. It is common for them to use airguns unsupervised for shooting practice and pest control on farms. It is claimed that adult supervision is neither necessary nor practical in such circumstances. The Government have listened to those concerns and have tabled amendments that create an exception to the general requirement for supervision. The exception relates to young people aged 14 to 16 inclusive when they are on private premises, provided that they have the consent of the occupier. However, the use of airguns is not restricted to rural areas, and many of the complaints from hon. Members concern their use in built-up, residential areas in urban, semi-urban and semi-rural settings. The exception will, therefore, not apply exclusively to rural areas. To protect innocent people from the indiscriminate shooting of air guns, it will also apply in urban areas, but we have built in the extra safeguard of making it an offence punishable by a fine of up to £1,000 to fire a pellet beyond the premises—such as the back garden of a house. We have sought to achieve a balance by listening to all sides of the debate on this important issue.

Government amendment No. 8 will simplify the description of air weapons to be banned under clause 44. The ban relates to weapons that use a self-contained gas cartridge system. As drafted, the description is supplemented with the phrase whether powered by air or carbon dioxide". In Committee, the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) questioned whether the supplementary phrase was necessary. He thought that it might be too restrictive and allow the ban to be circumvented if someone developed a weapon powered by another gas—for example, nitrogen. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I agree with him and the amendment will delete the phrase.

Mr. Paice

I welcome the Minister to this part of the debate. As she said, this is an important issue that rouses tremendous emotions. I speak not only on behalf of the Opposition but on behalf of tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of people who shoot as a leisure pursuit. I wholly condemn the misuse of air weapons and I want that to be clear and on the record. Every self-respecting member of the shooting fraternity wholly condemns that misuse, whether it be shooting at people, pets or buildings. It is wrong, and it should not happen.

The issue is how such misuse is prevented. Now is not the time to reprise all the arguments that we heard in Committee and that have been made by the Firearms Consultative Council, the Select Committee and many other organisations. Suffice it to say that almost everything that people describe as misuse is already an offence. I understand the Government's desire to take further action to reflect public concern and to try to ensure that people do not misuse air weapons. In that respect, I understand and support the Government's motives. However, I am not convinced that the decision to increase the age limit from 14 to 17 is necessary, although I understand the Government's reasons for doing so.

I welcome Government amendment No. 3, which recognises the force of argument in Committee and from outside organisations that there is a justification for young people between 14 and 17 using air weapons on private land, either for target practice or pest control. I welcome the amendment, which is almost word for word the one that I tabled in Committee. I would be happy to go even further, which is why I have tabled amendment (a). I note the Minister's comment that she intends to resist it, and I would be interested to hear her reasons.

One of the themes of the Bill has been the belief in parental responsibility. Indeed, other parts of the Bill are directly aimed at that. Therefore, I would be happy for parents to be held responsible, and liable to be charged with an offence, if they provided a young person with an air weapon that was then used illegally. Amendment (a) would simply provide that if a weapon were used improperly—if a missile went beyond the boundary of the premises or were fired without the consent of the occupier—then the person who gave or lent the weapon to the young person who fired it should also be liable. I shall be interested to hear why the Government have decided not to accept the amendment. At this stage, I cannot say whether I shall accept their argument.

New clause 13 deals with young people carrying air weapons to the place where they will be used. Many organisations have raised this matter, both those directly involved in shooting and those of a more general sporting nature. Young people can use air weapons for pest control, as has been described, but also as a way to enter the sport of target shooting. Air pistols are used by entry-level participants in that sport, but.22 or full-bore rifles are used by more experienced shooters. Competitions are held at all levels, ranging from local events to the Olympics. They are very important for a significant number of people. I am concerned that the Bill will mean that, although it is legal for young people to use a weapon in competition, they will not be able to take a weapon to a competition.

Existing legislation requires that an air weapon in a public place must be unloaded and securely fastened in a secure container. The new clause would allow a young person to carry an air weapon to a legitimate place of use—to private land, or a shooting range, for example, or to a repair shop—as long as it was unloaded and securely covered. Also, the young person would have to demonstrate that he was en route to a legitimate use of the weapon.

The matter has caused widespread concern, and other hon. Members will want to contribute to the debate. When it was raised in Committee, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), said that he was not persuaded of the argument. I undertook to go away and ensure that those from outside organisations concerned about the matter took the opportunity to persuade the Government of the validity of the argument. I hope that they have been able to do so, even though the Minister's opening remarks about resisting every proposal that was not a Government amendment does not give me great comfort. However, I hope that she will understand that the matter is one of genuine concern for many people. I do not believe that the new clause would result in the misuse that I presume is at the root of her opposition to it.

I turn now to the separate issue of guns that use the gas cartridge system, and the powers that the Government propose to enable the Secretary of State to ban such weapons. Clearly, a serious problem exists. It is commonly called the Brocock issue, after the brand name of the most widely used gas cartridge air pistol. We know from the police that such weapons are regularly found to have been converted to fire proper gunpowder-propelled projectiles. Amendments Nos. 70 and 72 would constrain the Government's powers. They would not prevent the Government from taking those powers, as I recognise that there is no alternative, even though my basic approach to life is a desire not to ban anything. I have looked at many options, and believe that the only avenue open to the Government was to ban such weapons. However, I am not content that the Bill could allow the Government to ban almost anything that they chose. That would be taking things too far.

6 pm

We have frequently debated Henry VIII-type and order-making powers and, almost every Member has spoken for or against them. Where there is a case for them, they should be limited. Taken together, my cluster of amendments would constrain such powers. Obviously, I welcome the Minister's comments about my proposals to remove definitions of the type of gas; it seems sensible that the provisions should apply to any gas, and I am grateful to her for accepting that point.

We want to limit the powers in three aspects. First, the provisions would apply only to gas cartridge systems. Secondly, such systems have to be especially dangerous, defined as those guns that can be converted to discharging a missile using gun powder or other explosive material". Thirdly, the provision should be limited to weapons that are small, in both barrel and overall length.

Some of our amendments were drafted by the British Shooting Sports Council, which is aware of the need to do something about the problem. However, I hope to persuade the Government that, while doing so, we should not penalise the vast majority of people who use air weapons for safe and responsible purposes. Government amendment No. 3 recognises that desire and I hope that, on reflection, they will realise that the powers that they are taking in clause 44 go beyond what is necessary to address what I readily accept is a current problem relating to some self-contained gas cartridge system weapons. The purpose of my amendments is to address that problem.

When the Minister moved amendment No. 3, she noted that many hon. Members would want to speak. I do not want to take too much of the time that we have been allocated for this element of our proceedings, so I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion.

People concerned about the misuse of weapons and those who have suggested amendments that would be even more restrictive than the Government's proposals should understand that those of us who do not want to go down that road certainly do not condone the misuse of air weapons. We want it to be stopped.

The debate is about how, rather than whether, that misuse should be stopped. Wholesale registration would not work. The bureaucratic system would be immense, bearing in mind the estimate that about 4 million air weapons are in circulation. The Government's general approach is in the right direction, with some exceptions. However, our amendments would slightly redress the balance.

Our amendments would not create a free-for-all for the users of air pistols and air rifles; they would simply ensure that we maintain balance between the small minority of people who misuse such weapons and the vast majority who use them responsibly, properly and safely. I respect the concerns of people who feel that no guns should be allowed or that no private gun use is safe. I do not agree with their arguments but I accept that they are sincerely held. I hope that those who make such arguments will also accept the sincerely held views of those who have used such weapons for much of our lives, and do so responsibly and safely. We believe that there is a place for air weapons and other weapons in our community and that they can be part and parcel of our leisure pursuits without causing damage or risk to the vast majority of people. Such people should not be confused with the tiny minority who use weapons maliciously to commit crime or intentionally to cause harm to people, property, birds or animals.

There is a place for air weapons in our society. We have to find the right balance and, with amendment No. 3, the Government have moved a little way in finding that balance. I hope that the Minister will understand in addressing my amendments that I am simply trying to take that balance a little further, but not excessively so. I look forward to listening to her comments, but I repeat my opening remarks that no one whom I know, nor any reputable shooting organisation, does anything but totally condemn the misuse of air weapons, causing damage or risk to anyone or anything.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

It may be that some people will be deprived of their pleasure as a result of the Bill, but, too often, the victims of the misuse of such weapons are deprived of their lives or livelihoods.

I wish to address my remarks to new clause 6, which appears on the amendment paper in the names of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin), my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) and myself. My right hon. Friend, who has long campaigned on the issue, has asked me to express to the House her bitter disappointment that she cannot take part in the debate for unavoidable reasons.

The purpose of new clause 6 is to extend the need to hold a firearms certificate for the possession, purchase or acquisition of weapons with the capacity to inflict fatal injuries. That would ensure that the applicant is a suitable person to be entrusted with a firearm and that suppliers of dangerous air weapons are registered. In so far as it goes, we welcome part 6, especially clause 42, which deals with carrying firearms in a public place. We welcome the fact that it will be an offence to carry an air weapon or an imitation firearm in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. We welcome the fact that that will be an arrestable offence, subject to a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment. That demonstrates that the Government take the issue seriously.

We welcome the age increase from 14 to 17—it will be offence for anyone to give an air weapon to a person under 17, and those under 17 will not be able to own an air weapon—and tightening up when such weapons may be used unsupervised. We also welcome the fact that, under clause 44, the Secretary of State will be able to prohibit or introduce other controls in respect of any air weapon that appears to him to be especially dangerous. Of course, that will apply to those air weapons that may be converted to use conventional ammunition. In welcoming those measures, I also have to point out that we do not feel that they do not go far enough.

The Minister will be aware that 75 local authorities and six police authorities in England and Wales have signed up to a campaign, led by Gateshead metropolitan borough council, to bring those possibly lethal weapons under the same control as other firearms. There has been an increasing number of incidents in which serious injuries and even deaths have been caused by the irresponsible use of air weapons.

In 2001, Matthew Sheffield, who was 13-years-old, was killed by the irresponsible use of an air weapon. That is just one example, and I shall quote his parents' comments: We find it incomprehensible that the use of a fishing rod, the purchase of a new TV and obtaining a driving licence are subject to greater regulation than the purchase and use of a firearm capable of causing death. That comment goes to the nub of new clause 6.

In 2000, the Select Committee on Home Affairs found that the power of an air weapon capable of inflicting fatal injuries was a third of that at which the weapon would fall into the firearms category under the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969. The Select Committee recommended that firearms should be licensed according to their lethality, rather than their mechanism. It found that there was no reason to license weapons with insufficient power to inflict fatal injuries and that the muzzle energy below which a licence should not be required was 4 foot-pounds. That is why we recommend that weapons with a muzzle energy of more than 4 foot-pounds—5.42 J—should fall within the regulations.

We would also argue that a fee is paid to the police force for the certificate, so that no new burden would be placed on the police, should the Minister put up that argument. Furthermore, we would argue that there would be potential savings to the police force in terms of armed response deployments, as a significant number of such incidents involve air weapons. In Northumbria, for instance, around 50 per cent. of such incidents fall into that category.

We believe that the amendment is modest and sensible, and it would certainly be widely welcomed by those who have suffered because of the reckless and irresponsible use of air weapons, which the current law fails to tackle correctly. I am sorry that the Minister has indicated that she will resist the amendment, and I hope that she will explain why that is the case. If there are technical reasons for resisting it, I hope that she will assure the House that the Government recognise the validity of the amendment and that they will review firearms legislation to introduce new restrictions before more avoidable accidents and fatalities take place.

Matthew Green

I add Liberal Democrat support to the amendments that the Government have tabled after discussion in Committee. That discussion was prompted rightly by the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), which we supported. We showed that the large-scale use of air weapons in rural areas does not pose a significant problem. The measure would have prohibited the use of such weapons by people aged between 14 and 17, creating an offence when there is not a problem. For those who were not members of the Committee, my constituency is the size of Greater London, and I estimate that there are probably between 5,000 and 10,000 air weapons in my constituency and 63 police officers, only about a quarter of whom are on duty at any one time. It would be completely outside the realm of the police in my area to attempt to control use of such weapons by people aged between 14 and 17, and it would not be a task that they would want.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire)

My constituents will also be grateful for the Government amendment, especially Sennybridge pony club, which trains young people in the sensible use of weapons, particularly for triathlon events involving riding, running and target practice. That will be able to continue.

Matthew Green

I thank my hon. Friend for that point.

This group also includes several other amendments, some of which we can support in principle, although I am not certain about the detail as I am not an expert in that regard. Broadly, those are Conservative amendments. We cannot support new clause 6, because of the large numbers of weapons, estimated to be in the millions, that exist in the country. Trying to bring those under licensing would be a vast exercise. It would criminalise many people who did riot license them, and an extremely long period of grace would be required. I understand people's concern that the misuse of air weapons—which is an already an offence—can in extreme circumstances cause injury and fatalities. We all have great sympathy in that regard, but such misuse is relatively small-scale given that these weapons are very widespread. New clause 6, in seeking to bring air weapons into the licensing system, attempts a Herculean task, which may prove counter-productive in the long run.

Mr. Clelland

The hon. Gentleman is not picking up what I said correctly. It is not a question of bringing all air weapons into the regulations—only those weapons that are powerful enough to be capable of causing death. That was not only my view and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends but the view of the Select Committee.

Matthew Green

I fully sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's comments. As I understand it, however, a lot of weapons would be brought in under the 4 foot-pounds provision, including virtually every make of air rifle—which are used extensively in rural areas. Air pistols are not used extensively in areas such as my constituency.

6.15 pm

The Conservatives are right to raise these issues, especially in relation to clarifying which gas-propelled air weapons, which can be converted, are to be brought under the new prohibition, and making sure that that is limited to the weapons that are causing the problem. Problems in relation to the misuse of firearms and particular brands of air weapon and their conversion need to be tackled. We all agree on that. What we must make sure of, however, is that the law deals with the problem and does not stretch beyond it. I do not know whether the amendments are drafted correctly, but I hope that the Government will at least respond sympathetically. The amendments may not be the perfect way of dealing with the problem, but the Conservatives were right to table them, and they carry our broad support.

We have a fair degree of sympathy with new clause 13. In relation to the carriage to a gun club of an air weapon that is securely wrapped in a box or case that prevents access to the trigger mechanism, it seems inappropriate for the Government to ask 16-year-olds to make sure that their parents take them to the gun club, which may be only half a mile down the road, either by walking with them or carrying the weapon in the boot of the car. Safeguards should be provided, however, to ensure that the gun is not carried openly in the streets—that it is covered and protected—as the open carriage of gun would invite danger, perhaps more on the young person than on anyone else, as it might add to the attraction for someone to have a go at them.

We welcome the fact that the Government listened, and I am glad that the amendments have been tabled. They meet a number of the concerns that have been raised, and I hope that a sympathetic attitude will be shown to some of the other concerns that are being expressed and that perhaps they will be given further consideration. What the Government are setting out to do, which we all support, should tackle the problem itself and not go beyond tackling the problem, which would clearly be unnecessary legislation.

Ms Dari Taylor

I have supported 98 per cent. of this Bill, and I have been very pleased to be involved in it in Committee and on Report. But I have one serious disappointment that I want to share with the Minister. I hope that she will understand my disappointment and that she will make a commitment to review the issue over time. That disappointment is in relation to air weapons and firearms. Most particularly, I am disappointed that air weapons, which are defined as fairly innocuous and not potentially dangerous despite being potentially lethal weapons, are not to be registered and licensed.

I am pleased with much that is said in the Bill about the way that air weapons must be handled in a public place, and that only those over 17 years of age will be able to purchase them—all of that is valuable—but the main issue for all of us is the potential of these weapons, misuse of which has caused a death in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) mentioned Matthew Sheffield, who lived in Eaglescliffe in my constituency. He was a young 14-year-old boy who was playing on a pleasant Sunday afternoon with an air rifle. He died because that air rifle was misused. That lethal potential must be acknowledged.

The second feature of my reservation and concern is that clause 43 will amend section 22 of the Firearms Act 1968 so that it will not be an offence for a person aged over 14 to have an air weapon or ammunition on private premises with the consent of the occupier. The clear fact is that Matthew Sheffield's friends had the consent of the occupier. They were on private premises and the air rifle was used inappropriately.

Mr. Paice

I entirely respect the hon. Lady's views, which she expressed in Committee. Does she accept that Government amendment No. 3, which is similar to an amendment that I tabled in Committee, would make it illegal for a projectile from an air weapon to go beyond the boundary of private premises? Although she is right to describe the tragedy in her constituency by saying that the weapon was fired from a private property, an offence would have been committed under the new proposals because the missile went beyond the private property to cause the fatality.

Ms Taylor

Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman is inaccurate. The missile was fired on private property and the child died. The children were in a garden—his garden. The missile did no go over a hedge or outside the private property. The sheer enormity of the distress is shown by the fact that the incident happened on a Sunday afternoon while the children were playing a game that went wrong. The point is not only that a 14-year-old boy has died and a family has been traumatised, but that the boy's four friends find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that they were playing a game when an accident meant that a child died.

I would never say that everyone misuses firearms or air rifles. I am simply saying that the issue with which we must all cope is that such weapons have a lethal potential. I believe that if an adult had named responsibility for an air weapon and gave it to a person aged between 14 and 17 with strict instructions on its use, it would have a controlling effect by ensuring that the young person knew the rifle's limitations and potential.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is undoubtedly a true statistic that the vast majority of serious injuries and deaths caused by juveniles using air rifles happen on private property without the missile going outside private property? Does she agree that the Government's position is completely illogical?

Ms Taylor

I do not accept that the Government's position is completely illogical. We are all trying to handle the issue carefully. The problem is that air weapons have a lethal potential. It is not illogical to try to handle the problem so that people who use air rifles to cope with rats or other vermin on private property may do so. I do not accept my hon. and learned Friend's proposition, although I know that it is a fact that most accidents and deaths occur on private property.

I do not want to labour my point further, but I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge that potentially lethal weapons cause a problem. It is true that accidents occur on private property, and it is appropriate to maintain a focus on reviewing the problem so that if it is considered appropriate—as I believe that it is—further legislation may be introduced to provide that air weapons should be bought under licence. Such legislation should provide for a named responsibility. That is an appropriate stance and I ask the Minister to be mindful of my request.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

It would be correct to mention my entry in the Register of Members' Interests because it might be relevant to the debate.

I tell the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) that I appreciate the tragedy in her constituency. I am also aware of other accidents, such as when a young girl was blinded in Gateshead owing to the misuse of an air weapon. However, the only way in which we could provide that an air rifle or any firearm never caused an accident would be by banning them all. That would be similar to saying, "If you don't want people to be killed by cars, ban all cars"—the point becomes rather ridiculous. In this case, hard cases would make bad laws.

Mr. Clelland

It is a question not of banning anything but of control. We are saying that if something looks like a gun, shoots like a gun and kills like a gun, it should be licensed like a gun.

Mr. Atkinson

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I am coming to that point. The hon. Member for Stockton, South was highlighting the fact that a gun was misused in an incident in her constituency, that it could have been licensed and that a young man died as a consequence. It is almost impossible to legislate to prevent such incidents. They are tragic, but tragedies do happen.

The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) mentioned licensing. His proposal in new clause 6 would apply to air rifles producing 4 foot-pounds or more of energy, meaning that it would cover virtually every air rifle that exists. We do not know how many air rifles exist in this country; my estimate is 3 million and we have heard another estimate of 4 million. Registration of those weapons would place a huge and costly burden on the police. The cost would obviously be passed on to those who wish to use air weapons. Our experience of firearms and shotgun certificates shows that such additional cost places a real burden on low-income families. I think that my hon. Friends would agree that many people from low-income households who used to enjoy shooting have been forced to give it up because of the cost of registration.

Mr. Clelland

I mentioned cost in my remarks. A price would have to be paid for a licence but there would not be an extra burden of cost on the police. The hon. Gentleman says that the number of air rifles with the lethality that we have described is unknown and that is the whole point. We should know how many such lethal weapons are out there, which licensing would achieve.

Mr. Atkinson

Licensing involves a complicated and bureaucratic system. If an individual were to be licensed to possess any air weapon, checks would have to be made on the individual and the circumstances in which the weapon would be used, where it would be kept and whether it would be secure would all need to be determined. The same rules and regulations as apply to shotguns and rifles would apply to air weapons. That would represent a huge burden that would have to be paid for—presumably by those who want to use the weapons.

Ms Dari Taylor

The hon. Gentleman is right that the provision would create a burden, but we have spoken to police authorities. Cleveland police authority is more than keen to be involved in a licensing scheme. We should consider neither burden nor cost, but whether we can increase control and prevent accidents. None of us would claim that we can eliminate accidents completely, but after one has met a family and experienced such an incident at close hand, one realises that it behoves us to find a solution to the problem.

Mr. Atkinson

I know exactly how the hon. Lady must have felt when she talked to the family and we all have great sympathy for them. However, I do not think that her proposal would solve the problem. The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge said that Northumbria police are called to many incidents caused by the improper use of air weapons, but the way in which many are used is illegal now. The vast majority of wounding incidents caused by air weapons are due to people breaking the existing law. Simply passing legislation to provide that everything must be registered would not mean that illegal air weapons—as they would become—would disappear from circulation.

Those of us who have had the same argument about handguns and shotguns time and again have said that registration may be introduced and controls may be made tougher, but it will not reduce the number of illegally used and held weapons. History proves that to be correct.

6.30 pm

The Government are right to resist new clause 6, but I urge them to consider new clause 13. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), who was not persuaded in Committee, has now been persuaded to change his mind. I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber. He has been promoted to the ranks of the silent ones and is no longer a Minister. No doubt he will be a valuable heavyweight asset in the Government's Whips Office. After last night, they need him. I am sure he will do a first-class job.

I am also glad that the current Minister is persuaded. Young people of 14 are much more amenable to training in the responsible use of weapons. It is important that they learn how to use weapons safely. Such lessons stay with them for the rest of their lives. Those of us who shoot regularly know that those people who were taught when they were young are much safer than many people who shoot at a later stage of their lives. The fact that young people can now use those weapons under restriction and supervision is a great step forward.

New clause 13 would be one further step forward for the Minister. Having allowed younger people to use weapons under supervision, there will be an awful logistical problem of getting them from A to B. If someone lives in a village and has permission to shoot on land outside it, he will have to be escorted there by an adult who will have to wait for him to return. That could be early in the morning or late at night when it would not be an attractive proposition. That will cause young people serious problems and put off many who would otherwise want to learn how to use such weapons at an early age.

The new clause is not a huge step forward and I hope that the Minister will think about it. Even if she says no tonight, perhaps the subject can be dealt with in another place.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

I welcome the Government's change of mind since Second Reading and thank the previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), for his willingness to listen to the shooting organisations. The Government have taken a sensible step and one that is necessary if we are to ensure that we continue our success in shooting sports at the Olympic games.

The International Olympic Committee is supportive of shooting. When we bid for the games in London, the IOC may well consider how we intend to ensure that people get the opportunity to shoot, because many people who compete in the pentathlon, the triathlon and other sports started by using air weapons. There is a similar problem with the pistol ban, and our pistol shooters have to go abroad to train. There is a concern that if we do not do something about that and take a more flexible attitude, it could affect our bid for the games in London in 2012.

I welcome Government amendment No. 3 and urge them to consider new clause 13, which I fully support. If there is no vote on the Opposition new clause, I hope that the Minister and Home Office officials will think about it. They must know that rejecting it is not reasonable. I also hope that the Lords will accept a similar amendment so that we have another chance to consider it. If we are acknowledging that it is reasonable to allow young people of 14, 15 and 16 to use airguns on private premises, it is nonsensical not to accept new clause 13.

Airguns are not only used in rural areas. It is important that young people who are training for various sporting events can travel to clubs. Surely if we apply a commonsense approach to the problem we can find a way to allow an unaccompanied young person to carry an airgun in a public place while he or she goes to and from the premises where he or she may legitimately use it. New clause 13 overcomes that difficulty. It allows that to happen on the strict condition that the airgun is in a securely fastened gun cover and that the young person travels directly to the club from his or her home. The new clause seems sensible and I shall be most interested to hear the Minister explain why it is not.

I do not support new clause 6, which calls for the licensing of weapons. The licensing system for other weapons hits the law-abiding decent shooter. The non-law-abiding nasty people in my constituency who go around murdering people would not dream of licensing their weapons. If we are honest, it is nonsense to think that we could possibly stop some of the illegitimate and terrible things that are caused by a small number of people who use weapons in an antisocial way. We cannot stop them by imposing another big bureaucracy that would cost a fortune, when the police cannot enforce the existing law.

I sometimes wish that Members who have a knee-jerk response to air weapons and issues related to guns would spend time in a shooting club with people who shoot and who have shot all their lives. They would see young people showing the greatest discipline when they shoot. I do not want to go over the Second Reading debate again, but if they saw young people in a disciplined situation they would realise that the best way to prevent antisocial behaviour is through education. That is exactly what the Home Office said a few years ago. Unfortunately, it seems to have changed its mind.

I thank the current Minister and the previous Minister for agreeing to the change and for tabling Government amendment No. 3. I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to new clause 13, because their amendment does not make sense without it.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

The hon. Lady has a particular perspective on such matters both as a former Minister for Sport and as someone who has a considerable amount of gun crime in her constituency. She is able to see both sides of the argument. With that experience, does she agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) that in this instance hard cases could make bad law?

Kate Hoey

There is concern about some horrible incidents. I do not belittle anything that has happened in hon. Members' constituencies, but sometimes what seems the simplest way to do something is not the best way. That is why we need new clause 13 if we are serious about allowing our young people to have a future at Olympic games and world championships and to have the opportunity to represent their country in what is an incredibly disciplined and good sport.

Jonathan Shaw

Hon. Members have presented reasonable cases for both sides of the argument in promoting their views on whether there should be further restrictions on firearms, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) advocates, or fewer restrictions, as some Conservative Members advocate. A powerful argument can be presented either way. It can be argued that it is reasonable for a young lad who lives on a farm to shoot rats in a barn or rabbits. As he lives in a rural area, he poses no danger. If we took a straw poll in Chatham high street and asked whether that should be allowed, most people would say, "Absolutely. What are the Government on about?"

Equally, however, another case can be made. I wrote to 100 regional newspapers when I put a Bill together last year and became aware of the scores of incidents that occur. So it is also possible to ask whether it is reasonable for children below the age of 17 to be supervised if they are to use potentially deadly weapons. Both those arguments are reasonable. We need to drill down a bit, and find out who are the persistent offenders. They are youngsters under 17, they are mainly boys and they live in the inner city. Most incidents occur in the summer holidays, and their number is increasing. In 1997, there were 7,000 incidents, but in 2000–01 there were more than 10,000. I do not want to rehearse the debates that we had on Second Reading or when discussing my private Member's Bill, but those incidents are clearly rising and many of our constituents are concerned about them. It therefore behoves us to find a way to improve the situation, and it is reasonable to argue that 14 is too low an age limit.

Mr. Paice

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's tremendous commitment on this issue. He referred to the increasing number of incidents, and I accept that that is the case. However, is he aware of the reverse statistic? The number of prosecutions for carrying a loaded air weapon in a public place has fallen consistently year on year since 1996 and is now about 60 per cent. of what it was then. The law has not changed, so it seems odd that, at a time when the number of incidents is rising, there are fewer prosecutions. That makes me wonder whether it is the law that is at fault or, as I prefer to believe, the way in which it is enforced.

Jonathan Shaw

Will the hon. Gentleman tell me what 60 per cent. represents?

Mr. Paice

I am sorry, I was trying to be brief. There were 575 prosecutions in 1996, and the latest figures for 2001 show that that number fell to 360.

Jonathan Shaw

I applaud the good work that the police are doing, but millions of these weapons are in circulation, and their nature means that that is covert, making detection difficult. We welcome the reduction in prosecutions, but that does not mean that 14-year-olds should be able to use those weapons. The Opposition believe that the Government should support new clause 13, but I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to stand her ground. A young person may go to a club such as the pony club mentioned by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) to use potentially lethal weapons. It is therefore important that parents be responsible for ensuring that their children are taken to such places to use those weapons.

Kate Hoey

Is my hon. Friend aware that our gold medallist in the pentathlon in the Sydney Olympics started off at a pony club and did all her work and shooting there? Does he understand the impact of the provision on our shooting prospects at the next Olympics, or does he not care?

Jonathan Shaw

Of course I care about our prospects at the Olympics and opportunities for our young people. However, we are in a situation in which hundreds of people are losing their eyes or their lives. I shall not ask my hon. Friend whether she cares about those people, because I know that she does. We need to strike a balance. My hon. Friend should not throw those emotive arguments at me—of course I am concerned and want young people to do well.

Kate Hoey

How do they travel?

Jonathan Shaw

That is a reasonable question. We are talking about rural areas. The hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) said that he lived in a huge constituency and, in such cases, an appropriate place to shoot is not just down the road but miles away. It is likely therefore that the young person will be taken there by a parent. The key issue is whether that young person is going to a club or not, and I am concerned about the constable's ability to make that judgment. Our constables and police officers need clarity, but new clause 13 is ambiguous.

6.45 pm
Laura Moffatt

Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue of whether a parent or a responsible adult accompanies a young person to their club is very much about support for that young person? In many ways, it is about protecting and assisting that young person to undertake the legitimate activity of target shooting. We must make sure that parents are responsible for ensuring that their children travel to and from those clubs safely and easily, thus encouraging them in their shooting activities.

Jonathan Shaw

I rarely disagree with anything that my hon. Friend says. If a young person succeeds at a particular event at a sporting venue, 99 per cent. of the time their parents will be there. I do not believe that the problem will arise, but the key issue is the ambiguity created by new clause 13.

The majority of offences are committed by youngsters under 17 in the summer holidays, generally in inner-city areas, which is why I support the Government's proposals, which are very similar to those in my Bill. I listened to what my hon. Friend the Minister said about premises, about which I was concerned and which I discussed with her. Again, I did not want any ambiguity. I should be grateful if she addressed that, as police officers on the ground should not have to deal with an ambiguous provision. She mentioned the £1,000 fine for firing outside premises, which is welcome, as we should all condemn people who use these weapons in an antisocial way to cause injury, whether to humans or wildlife. Ten thousand cats are killed, injured or maimed every year, and there are many other worrying statistics. Such incidents should not take place, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said, but sadly they do, and we need to act. I therefore welcome the proposals in the Bill.

Caroline Flint

It is clear that weapons of all kinds are lethal in the wrong hands, and air guns, of whatever type, in the wrong hands can be lethal, as has been demonstrated by my hon. Friends. In our amendments and the Bill, we are trying to find a way to deal with hon. Members' concerns, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) acknowledged that we have gone some way towards meeting the concerns that he raised in his private Member's Bill. However, at the same time, we recognise that for a number of people shooting is a legitimate sport. It is not one that I have ever done or am particularly attracted to, but it is a sport that people pursue legally without harming anybody at all. We are therefore trying to strike a balance.

Amendment (a) would extend liability for the new offence to whoever had lent the young person his weapon. I accept that that might be useful in adding a further incentive to all concerned to act responsibly, and I have given considerable thought to the proposal. However, there are concerns about how we would make it effective. As has already been said, a licence is not required for such weapons, so proving ownership may make it difficult to pursue the issue of liability.

Even where a lender of a weapon had gone to great pains to explain to a young person that they must not shoot beyond the premises, it is not a requirement for the lender to be present when the weapon is being used, and it could therefore be argued that it would be unfair to hold him responsible for the young person's offence. In cases where a lender had not instructed the young person in that way, it would be difficult for the police to prove otherwise. Although I was initially sympathetic to the amendment, it would be difficult to implement.

On new clause 13, I listened carefully to the arguments from hon. Members on both sides of the House, but I am not convinced. The new clause would provide a further exception to the requirement for young people to be supervised when in possession of an air weapon. The main effect would be to allow 14 to 16-year-olds to carry unloaded air weapons without supervision when travelling to or from their home or shooting club, or when crossing public land on the way to shooting on private premises.

The issue of carriage was raised in Committee. I know that shooting organisations are concerned that requiring supervision when travelling to and from clubs and shooting events would unduly hinder the activities of legitimate shooters. The law already provides exceptions to the requirement for adult supervision where a young person has an air weapon because he is a member of an approved shooting club, or uses it at a shooting gallery. We have listened to the concerns of hon. Members and of shooting organisations and have tabled amendments Nos. 3 to 7 and 9, which provide a further exception for young people who shoot on private land. However, I am not persuaded that yet another exception is justified. I can think of no compelling argument for allowing 14-year-olds to carry weapons around in public without the supervision of an adult.

The requirement for the weapon to be unloaded and carried in a secure gun cover is superficially attractive, but would be open to abuse. What is there to stop young people taking weapons out of their covers, using them and then, having disposed of any remaining pellets, replacing them in the cover before an approaching policeman can challenge them? Even if the young person had no pellets with him, the weapon could easily be removed from its case and used to intimidate others. Also, there is nothing to stop other young people seizing the weapon and using it to intimidate others.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) rightly pointed out, it is not unreasonable to expect a parent or another adult to supervise a young shooter who is going to shoot on private premises or at an approved club. Millions of parents every week support their children in their sporting activities.

New clause 6, which was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), approaches the problem of air weapon misuse by requiring more of these weapons to be held on firearms certificates granted by the police. The vast majority of air weapons are not powerful enough to fall within the existing certification process. However, there are arrangements requiring a certificate for high-powered air weapons, which pose a particular danger to the public. Such weapons have been designated as "specially dangerous" in the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969. Under those rules, a certificate is required in order to hold an air pistol with a muzzle energy of 6 foot-pounds or about 8 joules, or any other air weapon with a muzzle energy of 12 foot-pounds or about 16 joules.

The new clause would significantly lower these thresholds to 5.42 joules. It would also remove the differentiation between air pistols and other air weapons. As a result, the new clause would bring many more types of air weapon into the certification process. When considering how to tackle airgun misuse, we considered whether to introduce some form of licensing regime for air weapons. We decided against that course of action because we felt it would be a disproportionate and costly reaction to the problem. I acknowledge that, as my hon. Friend mentioned, some police forces have joined local authorities in demanding that, but it was contrary to the advice that we received from the Association of Chief Police Officers. Rather than set up a costly licensing scheme that would penalise legitimate shooters, we felt it was better to target the small but significant minority of people who misuse their weapons. That is what the measures in the Bill seek to achieve.

Amendments Nos. 70 to 73 would restrict the proposed ban on air weapons that use the self-contained gas cartridge system to those with a barrel length of less than 30 cm or to those that are less than 60 cm long—in common parlance, to handguns only. Furthermore, the ban would apply only in respect of such weapons that were readily convertible to fire ammunition that uses the force of gunpowder or other explosive material to discharge a missile. Those conditions not only apply to the specific provision to ban self-contained gas cartridge systems as set out in clause 44(3), but to the general order-making power in subsection (6).

I remind the House why we are seeking to introduce stricter controls on specially dangerous air weapons. It is not because we want to ban a wide range of air weapons to make life difficult for legitimate users; it is because certain types of weapons are being converted and used in an increasing number of violent criminal acts, including murder and attempted murder. It is true that these conversions currently involve ammunition that uses some kind of explosive charge. It is also true that pistols and revolvers are currently the weapons of choice. But we must be mindful of the sort of people who want to use guns in a criminal way. They will always be on the lookout for an alternative source of weapons if one source is closed off. It is vital that we have flexible powers that allow us to address any new designs.

As regards amendment No. 74, it is interesting that people are willing to give the Secretary of State an extremely wide power to remove any weapons or ammunition from the list of prohibited weapons, but are less prepared to see any additions, even though those must be limited to air weapons that are considered to be specially dangerous. I am aware that the present restrictions have caused some difficulties, but that is more appropriately addressed in the context of the review of firearms legislation generally, which we have promised.

In the context of the clause, we have tried to meet the concerns of many hon. Members with different points of view. We have restricted the use of air guns. Through the provision for a fine, we have tried to make it clear that people who, in their back yard or garden or on a piece of land, fire beyond the boundaries of that area will be liable for a fine of up to £1,000. I should make it clear that for those under the age of 16, that would apply to their parents, as is the case with other fines. Air weapons are not toys. Considerable thought is required when they are used by children aged 14 to 17.

We have tried to reach a balance. I hope that the amendments will be withdrawn and the clause supported.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 4, in page 34, line 37, leave out 'and'.

No. 5, in page 34, line 38, at end insert—

'() in the entry relating to section 23(1) in the second column for "14" substitute "17",

() after that entry insert—

"Section 23(4)

Person under 17 making improper use of air weapon on private premises.


A fine of level 3 on the standard scale.

Paragraphs 7 and 8 of Part II of this Schedule apply.",


() in the entry relating to section 24(4) in the second column for "14" substitute "17".'

No. 6, in page 34, line 40, leave out 'omit "or (5)",' and insert—

'for "22(4) or (5), 23(1)" substitute "22(4), 23(1) or (4)",'.

No. 7, in page 34, line 41, leave out

", (4) or (5)" substitute "or (4)".' and insert

"'22(3), (4) or (5), 23(1)" substitute "22(3) or (4), 23(1) or (4)".'.—[Mr. Heppell.]

Forward to