§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE JOINT PARLIAMENTARY UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE, HOME OFFICE (LORD STONHAM)
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time. You will recall that on February 11 you warmly welcomed my Statement announcing the Government's intention to introduce a Bill providing wider powers and more stringent measures to combat the increasing menace of armed criminals and hooligans. The Bill which I now present for your Lordships' approval shows considerable changes from the one which was accorded an unopposed Second Reading in another place, on March 2. Expert and interested members of all Parties have worked together in considerably enlarging and amending its original scope so that the present Bill comes to us in my view as a largely agreed measure—although it will not surprise me if your Lordships, with your expertise on this subject, at a later stage make suggestions for its further improvement.
Your Lordships will recall that last December a spate of shooting incidents occurred in London which underlined 801 the need for speedy and drastic action. In that one month firearms were used in 37 indictable offences known to 'the Metropolitan Police: and this compared with only 3 in the same month of 1963. Of course sound conclusions cannot be drawn from a period of one month, but the figures threw in sharp relief a general trend which has developed over the whole country. In 1963, in England and Wales, firearms were used in 578 indictable offences known to the police, but in 1964 the figure had increased to 731. In cases where shotguns were used the increase was even more alarming. From 107 in 1961, it had doubled in 1964, to 215. We have as yet no comparable figures for this year, but almost every week further firearms incidents reach the headlines, including the tragedy of February 10, when a police officer was killed and another seriously wounded at Oxenholme railway station.
With this evidence of increasing use of firearms by professional criminals, and the new menace of armed hooligans, roaming the streets and countryside prepared to damage property—and perhaps maim people—almost out of bravado, no one in the House will dispute the Government's determination to act. In this Bill we propose action under three main heads. First, we shall give the courts powers to inflict drastic penalties for a wide range of offences on those people who, with a complete disregard of all control, use or intend to use firearms in the commission of crime. In order to create an effective deterrent the Bill greatly increases the present penalties under the Firearms Act and provides severe sentences for a number of new offences.
Second—and because this is essentially a preventive Bill—we are providing the police with greatly extended powers to help them to catch the criminal and hooligan before they have used their firearms. If we cannot turn people from a life of crime we hope to convince criminals of all sorts that they dare not take firearms out with them. Finally, we have taken steps in the Bill to make it much more difficult for criminals to obtain possession of firearms, and to keep closer control on those who sell dangerous and potentially dangerous weapons. In a country where the police, save in exceptional circumstances, walk 802 unarmed, the use of firearms must be strictly limited.
My Lords, this is a tough Bill to meet a tough situation. I now propose briefly to run through its provisions. The first four clauses all create new offences, Clause 5 gives the police additional powers, and the remainder makes various extensions and amendments to the Firearms Act, 1937. Clause 1 creates a new offence, punishable on conviction on indictment with ten years' imprisonment, for a person to have with him a firearm, or imitation firearm, with intent to commit an indictable offence, or to resist arrest or prevent the arrest of someone else. This covers all firearms, including shotguns and air weapons. To prove the offence the police will have to show that the offender had a firearm or imitation firearm with him; and that he intended to commit an indictable offence and have the firearm with him while doing so. This last would be very difficult to prove affirmatively. We therefore provide that, if it can be proved that the accused person had a firearm or imitation firearm with him, together with the intention of committing an offence, such proof shall be deemed to be evidence that he intended to have the weapon with him while committing the offence. This puts the onus on the accused person to show that he intended to rid himself of the weapon before committing the crime. This accords with the common-sense view that if a person is found armed, and with the obvious intention to commit a serious crime, it is reasonable to assume that he has not taken the weapon with him out of sheer forgetfulness.
This provision fills a gap in the existing law. As the law stands at present, Section 23 of the Firearms Act, 1937, provides that a person committing one of a large number of serious crimes while armed may receive seven years' imprisonment, in addition to the sentence for which he is liable for the basic crime committed. But the law does not provide for the case where a crime has not been committed but where it is quite clear that is intended to be committed by an armed criminal. This clause, with its ten-year penalty, applies to all firearms, loaded or unloaded, including air guns, in or out of doors, whenever a person is found in possession with intent to commit an indictable offence.
803 We follow this up by making it an offence, in Clause 2, for any person to have with him in a public place, without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, a loaded airgun or shotgun, or any other firearm, whether loaded or not, together with the appropriate ammunition. The maximum penalty on summary conviction is six months' imprisonment or a fine of £200, or both, or (with the exception of air weapons) with up to five years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine, or both, upon conviction on indictment. Here we are aiming both at the dangerous criminal carrying a firearm and at the armed hooligan haring around with a loaded weapon which he is prepared to loose off to the public danger. A loaded firearm, even a shotgun or an air weapon, can be so dangerous a weapon that it seems to us right to place upon the person carrying it in a public place the onus to show cause for doing so. But, because such weapons are less dangerous than other firearms, we have made the possession of a loaded air weapon in a public place a summary offence only. A person having with him in a public place a firearm, other than a shotgun or air weapon, and ammunition ought to be asked to explain what he has them for.
Clause 3 makes it an offence for anyone with a firearm to trespass in a building without reasonable excuse. This is punishable on summary conviction with up to six months' imprisonment or a fine of up to £200, or both, or (except for air weapons) on conviction on indictment with up to five years' imprisonment, or an unlimited fine, or both. Here we aim at buttressing Clause 1 in deterring the professional criminal from carrying firearms when setting out to break into premises. It should also catch persons who, although they may not have the prior intention of committing an indictable offence, trespass in a building with firearms, either to avoid interrogation or on the lookout for mischief, thereby causing serious alarm to people in the house.
The penalties are related to the relative degrees of danger to be apprehended from the weapon. Generally, they follow those in regard to having firearms in a public place, but the conditions for incurring Clause 3 penalties are more severe than in Clause 2 because the trespasser will be 804 guilty of an offence if he merely has a firearm with him, irrespective of whether it is loaded or he is carrying ammunition for it. We have provided heavier penalties where the firearm is not an air weapon because a trespasser with a revolver or shotgun in a building is likely to have some criminal intent, but a trespasser with an air gun is more likely to be a youth with less sinister intentions.
In Clause 4 we supplement Clause 3 by making armed trespass on land without reasonable excuse an offence punishable on summary conviction with imprisonment for up to three months or a fine of £100, or both. By definition "trespass on land" includes land under water. One purpose of the clause is to cut off the escape route of a person suspected of carrying a firearm in a public place for an illicit purpose, since he will be unable to escape the law, as so many have in the past, by stepping off the highway on to private land. It will also be a great help in deterring hooligans who descend on the countryside at week-ends and go around, armed mainly with air weapons, but sometimes with shotguns, shooting indiscriminately at wild life, windows, cars, farm buildings, and even people—everything animate and inanimate. It was this practice that led to the introduction in another place, with the support of the National Farmers' Union and many associations interested in the countryside, of a Private Member's Bill on armed trespass. This Bill has now been withdrawn because substantially all its provisions are included in the Bill now before you.
When people cause damage or commit vandalism, they commit offences under existing law, but the difficulty lies in catching the offenders in circumstances where a conviction would be likely. By making armed trespass on private land an offence in itself, it should be much easier to act against these hooligans, and to stop them before they cause any damage or can terrorise anyone. We have made it an offence for a trespasser simply to have a firearm with him, regardless of whether it is loaded or he has ammunition for it. This is because the mere sight of an armed trespasser could be alarming, or at least annoying to the landowner, who would scarcely concern himself with the academic question whether the trespasser had ammunition or not, quite apart from the probability that 805 the trespasser would throw it in the hedge at the first sight of authority. In any case there can generally be no excuse, apart perhaps from geographical inadvertence, for carrying arms, without permission on another man's land. Nevertheless, the penalties under this clause are less than those for armed trespass in a building, because the offenders are more likely to be boys trespassing on a farmer's field with air-guns than vicious thugs, and the severe penalties necessary for armed trespass in a building would not, in our view, be appropriate here. All the offences in the four clauses I have dealt with are new offences, and I thought it advisable to explain them.
Clause 5 gives the police the various powers which the Government consider they should have in connection with offences and suspected offences under the previous four clauses and certain sections of the Firearms Act, 1937. These are power to require the handing over of firearms and ammunition for examination; to search persons and vehicles; to arrest without warrant; to enter private premises; and to seize and detain firearms and ammunition. We regard Clause 5 as one of the most important parts of the Bill, because if we are to achieve our intentions it is essential that police officers shall be able to make reasonable inquiries and to take immediate, and effective action when necessary. I am equally aware that it is essential that these powers should be properly supervised, and I am confident that they will be.
Clause 6 extends to Scotland, with the necessary adaptations, the provisions of part of Section 23 of the Firearms Act, 1937. These are provisions which provide for additional penalties where persons committed certain serious crimes while armed, or who upon arrest afterwards are discovered to be armed. The offences concerned are listed in the Third Schedule to the 1937 Act, but in view of the difference between the Scottish and English systems of criminal law it has been necessary to provide a separate Schedule for Scotland. We often do find it necessary to provide separately for Scotland. In Clause 7 we increase the penalties for a number of offences under the Firearms Act, 1937. Noble Lords will find them listed in full detail in the 806 Second Schedule, and I do not propose to go through them now. They represent substantial increases, and a number of offences which hitherto have been triable only summarily now become hybrid and so can be dealt with either at magistrates' courts or at the higher courts. The maximum term of imprisonment for the most serious offences is raised to five years, and that for other serious offences to three. Clause 8 enables a chief officer of police to impose conditions of registration on firearms dealers, and subsection (2) of Clause 9 extends the registration system to those who deal in shotguns only. Persons who fail to comply with the conditions imposed would render themselves liable to six months' imprisonment, a fine of £200, or both.
It was suggested that the whole existing firearm certificate procedure should be extended to cover shotguns. After very careful consideration, however, we have come to the conclusion that the burden which certification would put upon the police and the users would not be justified by the results; and I believe there will be general concurrence in this decision. The total number of shotguns held by members of the public is not known, but is probably at least half a million, most of them in use by perfectly respectable people for legitimate purposes. If they all had to be given firearm certificates the police would be wasting an enormous amount of time making inquiries about responsible members of the public. Such a diversion of police effort might well reduce their ability to deal with crime. And even if we undertook this great administrative task there is small reason for thinking it would materially reduce the supply of firearms to the kind of people this Bill is aimed at, because most of their weapons are stolen or illegally imported; and the man who is prepared to obtain a firearm by theft is not going to be deterred from possessing it by the requirement of a firearm certificate.
So we have considered how the acquisition of firearms by theft might be made more difficult. Firearms handled by individuals and approved clubs under the existing firearm certificate procedure are, as a matter of standard practice, required to be kept in secure places when not actually in use. This is a 807 standard condition in all firearm certificates laid down by the Firearms Rules, 1937. These Rules also require conditions to be attached requiring the owners to report all losses and thefts immediately. We have no reason to think that this procedure requires amendment. In practice the criminal who wants to steal a firearm will go not to a private house but to somewhere where he knows he will find the type of weapon he would like to have. His obvious target is the dealer's shop where he thinks he will find something to suit his fancy.
Under the 1937 Act all dealers in firearms, other than those dealing solely in shotguns and air weapons, have to register with the police. Some 2,000 of them are so registered. The police may refuse to register if, among other things, they are satisfied that the applicant cannot be permitted to carry on business as a firearms dealer without danger to the public safety. If registration is refused the dealer has a right of appeal to quarter sessions. Like so many blanket powers, this is appropriate only for the bad case. What the police cannot do under the existing law (although they can in connection with a firearm certificate) is to attach conditions to the registration of dealers. Most dealers are responsible folk, who follow the excellent advice of the Gun Trade Association about the sort of precautions they should take to secure their premises and their stock, and I wish to express the Government's appreciation of the cooperation and public spirit that the Association has shown in this matter. It needs, however, only one or two slightly less conscientious dealers for relatively substantial numbers of weapons to be liable to be stolen and become available to criminals.
The Bill therefore provides that, upon registration, the police shall be able to attach conditions, and upon non-compliance to revoke registration. It is not the intention that standard conditions shall be prescribed; indeed, local circumstances may vary so much that it would probably be undesirable to do so. But before the relevant provisions of the Bill come into force, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will discuss with chief officers of police the sort of conditions to be attached to 808 registration, and there will most certainly be the strongest emphasis on security measures. Dealers will have a right of appeal to quarter sessions against the conditions imposed and any revocations of registration. For the first time we shall bring within the dealers registration system persons who deal only in shotguns and who are at present outside it. This will make the registration system for dealers a comprehensive one covering all lethal firearms.
The remainder of Clause 9 makes various other amendments to the Firearms Act, 1937, which are germane to the preventive functions of the Bill. The minimum permitted length of barrel for a shotgun not requiring a certificate is to be 24 inches instead of 20 inches as at present, and it is made illegal for anyone—even a firearms dealer—to shorten a shotgun barrel to less than this length. In other words, sawn-off shotguns are to be banned by law. Section 21 of the 1937 Act (which prohibits the possession of firearms by ex-prisoners) is to be extended to borstallers and others; and where the sentence is three years or more, the prohibition on possession of firearms is to be for life.
The Bill as a whole will apply to Scotland but not Northern Ireland, and the new offences under Clauses 1 to 4, together with the new powers for the police under Clause 5, will come into operation one month after the passing of the Act. As my right honourable friend, the Home Secretary, has indicated, he intends to ask chief officers of police to co-operate in holding another amnesty before the provisions relating to increased penalties come into force. This will enable people who have firearms without certificates and who, under the provision of the Bill, will become liable to long terms of imprisonment, to hand them in without penalty. To allow time for the amnesty arrangements, and those by firearms dealers and the police in regard to the new registration provisions to be made, it may be desirable to allow somewhat longer than one month, and Clauses 7 to 9 will therefore come into force by order, but it is the Government's firm intention to bring these clauses into force as soon as practicable after the passing of the Bill.
When this Bill becomes law, as I hope I it soon will, anyone who carries a fire 809 arm with him with intent to commit a crime or to avoid or prevent arrest will know that, if convicted, he risks a ten-year sentence. Also, generally speaking, anyone who, without authority or reasonable excuse, carries a firearm in a public place, or as a trespasser, on land, or in a building, risks a heavy penalty. The penalties in this Bill have been provided without, I believe, infringing the reasonable and rightful liberties of the subject, or imposing avoidable and irksome restrictions on the general public. The reasonable law-abiding citizen has much to gain and nothing to fear from this Bill. The criminal and the hooligan have everything to fear. I believe that it does all a law can do to meet and defeat a threat which we are determined to stamp out, and it is in that belief that I commend it to your Lordships. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—[Lord Stonham.]
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ LORD DERWENT
My Lords, we ought to be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, for the care with which he has explained this Bill, because it means that my own remarks will be all the shorter. This is an almost classic example of how many of us would like to see a Bill handled in either House of Parliament. As the noble Lord has hinted, when this Bill was introduced into the other place it showed considerable signs of lack of consideration, owing to a certain hurry, if I may so put it without wishing to cause offence, at that time. The Opposition, as is always the case with the present Opposition, put forward constructive ideas and moved Amendments with the intention of improving the Bill. Indeed, as the Bill went on they were helped in this task by Labour Party Back Benchers.
The Home Secretary used a great deal of common sense in the way in which he handled the Bill. I was going to say that he listened to the arguments, but I believe that the word "listened" is not very popular at the moment with noble Lords opposite. At any rate, he considered the arguments put forward very carefully. Some of those arguments he rejected, on very good grounds. I shall mention only one. Some of the Amendments he accepted, and in some cases he moved the 810 appropriate Amendment himself. As a result of the way he and the Opposition handled the Bill, it has come to your Lordships' House in a wonderfully improved state as compared with its state when it first arrived in the other place. I only wish that all Ministers would follow the good example of the Home Secretary.
The only matter I wish to mention in regard to those things which the Home Secretary rejected—and this matter was mentioned only on Second Reading—is the question of the registration of shotguns and certificates. The noble Lord has mentioned it, but I will mention it again because it is an idea which has been much canvassed all over the country. I feel that the noble Lord was a little optimistic in saying that there were only 500,000 shotguns in existence. Nobody knows, but I should not mind betting that the number is nearer a million. A good number of people own more than one shotgun. This task would be quite impossible for the police. Before they issued a certificate they would have to see each person, they would have to prepare a report for their superior that he was a suitable person to have it, and then, when he did eventually get it, every now and then they would have to check it. The vast number of shotguns are in perfectly proper hands, and, as the noble Lord indicated, the police would be much better engaged in catching criminals.
In view of the careful explanation which Lord Stonham has given the House, there are only three matters that I particularly want to mention. The first is as to the wording in Clause 2(1), which says:Any person who without lawful authority or reasonable excuse….Those words are rather loose, and it is in general the wish of all Governments to make the criminal law as precise as possible. The circumstances in which an excuse may be lawful are so varied that it would be quite impossible to put into a Statute what would provide a reasonable excuse. I would remind your Lordships that these words were used in the Prevention of Crime Act, 1953. I well remember those debates, in which I myself took part. This wording was argued strenuously from both sides and, in practice, the courts and the police have found that, as a matter of common sense, in this sort of circumstance, these words are entirely 811 suitable. They have created no trouble whatsoever; the wording has been entirely successful.
May I just say one short word about Clause 4, which has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, with regard to trespassing with firearms on land? Of course this is very much to the wish of the National Farmers' Union, and I should go further: that it is very much to the wish of the farm worker who has sometimes had extremely unpleasant experiences. In my own part of the world in the North Riding of Yorkshire, this nonsense, or crime, whatever you like to call it, of people wandering about farms shooting everything in sight has not yet arrived. I know that it is very frequent in the South and I believe it has arrived in the West Riding of Yorkshire, but evidently those who come to the North Riding are, so far, more sensible. But I believe that Clause 4 is a very necessary provision of this Bill.
There is one other matter in the Bill which I wish to mention, and that is in connection with Clause 9. Under the principal Act a shotgun was a smoothbore gun that had over a 20 inch barrel. This Bill does what I believe may well be a very important thing: it defines a shotgun as a weapon of that kind with a barrel of 24 inches or over. If it has a barrel of under 24 inches it becomes an ordinary firearm. The so-called sawn-off shotgun has been increasingly used in recent years in England, but it is absolutely unnecessary for sporting purposes to have any shotguns with barrels of under 24 inches. In fact, I am not sure whether I have ever seen one, other than American ones. The police tell me that a 24-inch barrel is a much more tricky problem to hide down the trouser leg than a 20-inch barrel. It is as simple as that, but I believe that this simple change in the law may have very useful effects from the police point of view. Those are the only matters which I am going to mention on the Bill.
I think that we must not be deceived about what this Bill can do. I believe that it will give great powers to the courts and the police against a certain type of person; the ordinary hooligan, the exhibitionist young, if I may so term them—the sort of youngsters who think 812 that it is smart to go about with a firearm in their pocket—and it will probably have a very good deterrent effect against the man who is starting on a career of of crime. I believe that these heavy penalties may well deter them from carrying firearms. I think we must realise that it is going to have a far smaller effect on the sort of man, the recidivist, who has been in and out of prison, who is probably going to get eight, ten or twelve years if he commits another serious offence. That sort of man, if he thinks it is worth while to carry a firearm with, presumably, the intention of wiping out any possible witness of his crime, such as a lone policeman, will not be much deterred by this Bill.
The Home Secretary, in his wisdom or otherwise, has indicated that in the ordinary way he does not think anyone ought to stay in prison for more than ten or twelve years. If a man is going to get that sort of sentence in any event, whether he carries or uses a firearm or not, the Bill is really not going to have much effect.
§ LORD STONHAM
My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to interrupt? He either misunderstood or misinterpreted what my right honourable friend said. He has at no time suggested that, in all circumstances, a man will not be kept in prison longer than ten or twelve years.
§ LORD DERWENT
My Lords, I did not in fact say that. I said that he said one should not normally be kept there longer. This Bill is not going to take the place of the Homicide Act, which some people are trying to do away with. I think that it may have very little effect upon that type of prisoner, although, of course, he may not want to risk being found out before he commits a crime. That is a serious point. But if this Bill does all the things which I think it will do, such as helping police and the courts against the young fool—and it is particularly important that air pistols are brought in on this—against the man starting on a career of crime, or against those who are purely exhibitionist, then it will have done a great deal. I agree with the noble Lord that everyone has worked hard to make this Bill a success. Some of your Lordships may think that you can still improve it, and that may well be 813 so, but my own view is that, by and large, it is just about as good as we are likely to get it. I hope that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.
§ 7.56 p.m.
VISCOUNT ST. DAVIDS
My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord could answer two questions which I should like to put on this matter. First of all, I must say that I very frequently see firearms offences, because in the course of using a boat along the waterways one sees every day, and in fact many times a day, single youngsters or groups of youngsters armed with various weapons, usually air rifles but sometimes ordinary small-bore rifles, firing across the waterway and at everything in sight. Indeed, I or my friends are ourselves fired at occasionally.
VISCOUNT ST. DAVIDS
We have not gone as far as that yet. But I should like to know what is the position of myself, or any other member of the public who sees this offence being committed. Are we entitled to disarm these youths, or what are we entitled to do about it?
The second question that I would put is this. It seems to me that this would be a very good moment for a public surrender of weapons. Is there to be any amnesty announced when this Bill becomes law, so that those people who take its provisions seriously can consider going through their cupboards and handing in any weapons, belonging to themselves or to members of their family, which they find? I submit that that might be a very good move at this moment.
§ 7.58 p.m.
§ LORD SWANSEA
My Lords, I shall not keep your Lordships for long. Like other noble Lords, I followed with great interest the Bill's progress in another place, and I am also very pleased to see that it has been greatly improved in the process. Her Majesty's Government are to be congratulated, for once, on introducing a Bill which will prove a more effective deterrent to the evil-doer than did the previous legislation, without imposing any additional restrictions on the law-abiding citizen.
My part in this debate as a member of the Council of the National Rifle 814 Association is to put in a few words on behalf of that Association, and also on behalf of the National Small Bore Rifle Association. My noble friend Lord Cottesloe, who is Chairman of the Council of the National Rifle Association, has asked me to say how much he regrets that another engagement has prevented him from taking part in this debate himself. He has asked me to say on behalf of the National Rifle Association that he welcomes the Bill in its general approach, and hopes that it will be administered in such a way as not to interfere with the legitimate use of firearms by the members of the Association and members of affiliated clubs. In fact, I have reason to believe that that is the declared intention of Her Majesty's Government.
The membership of these associations and of the rifle and pistol clubs affiliated to them numbers many thousands throughout the country. In fact, in this very Palace of Westminster we have a rifle club down in the basement, beneath this very Chamber. I am a member of that club myself, and we have a number of very friendly and enjoyable matches against visiting rifle clubs. There is also an annual rifle match between this House and the other House, which takes place at Bisley every year. These members of rifle clubs have taken up shooting as a hobby, just as other people take up golf, tennis, bowls or gardening, and it is a sport which is no less fascinating and no less demanding in its own way than any of the other sports T have mentioned. The misfortune of people who follow this particular sport is that the implements of their sport—and they are often instruments of great precision, and beautiful examples of the craftsman's skill—are potentially lethal, so it is only natural that certain restrictions should be imposed on their use and on their acquisition. Rifle club members fully realise and appreciate this, and are prepared to put up with a certain amount of inconvenience. I say "a certain amount": some of them do jib a bit at the present restrictions.
Now I should like to talk about the law-abiding members of rifle clubs and those who use firearms for other legitimate sporting purposes. I am very glad that no further restrictions have been imposed on the acquisition and possession of firearms for legitimate purposes, but I feel that the 815 powers of search by constables might perhaps be a nuisance in certain cases.
§ LORD SWANSEA
Yes, I agree with the noble Lord; I hope it will be a nuisance to certain people in certain circumstances: but I am thinking of the member of a rifle club who is going to or from the range. He may be going to take part in an important match. He may have one or more rifles or pistols in his car. He may or may not have some ammunition as well. A zealous constable might come along and stop him and say, "What are you doing with these arms and ammunition in your car?" Unless that individual has with him some evidence of bona fides, he may be in a bit of trouble, in all innocence. I can foresee a certain amount of annoyance being caused to people going about their lawful occasions; but I can say that the National Rifle Association, at any rate, is prepared to advise its members to carry with them such evidence of their bona fides as may be thought necessary, in the form of either a firearms certificate or a membership card of a recognised rifle club.
Another point I want to mention is the question of insurance. It was referred to in the debate in another place. There is a substantial body of opinion in favour of a compulsory system of third-party insurance for users of firearms and shotguns. I can foresee great administrative difficulties in that, and I am not advocating any compulsory scheme of that sort myself, but I do think that Her Majesty's Government could well do something to bring to the attention of users of firearms and shotguns the advantages of partaking voluntarily in a scheme of third-party insurance. Very regrettable accidents sometimes happen and are publicised in newspapers—and they really are extremely regrettable.
I was looking at my game licence before I came into the Chamber—the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, will be pleased to hear that I have one—and on the back there are some excellent notes, which appear to have been compiled by the British Field Sports Society in conjunction with the R.S.P.C.A., on ensuring clean kills in the field and safe gun-handling. That is an excellent way of 816 bringing such matters to the notice of users of firearms and shotguns. I wonder whether Her Majesty's Government could not also contribute to this and make use of the space on the back of a game and gun licence to draw attention to the advantages of third-party insurance. It is not necessary for me to remind the noble Lord that there are some very reasonable schemes at extremely cheap rates, and that most insurance offices have a ready-made policy of that nature.
There are one or two points which the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, mentioned in his speech to which I should like to refer. One was on the question of differentiating between firearms and shotguns and air weapons. I think it was in relation to Clause 2 of the Bill. So far as I can see, in some circumstances a shotgun or an air weapon can be no less dangerous and no less lethal than a firearm. I find it hard to see why a distinction should be drawn between them, as it is in this Bill. A shotgun at close range can inflict a terrible wound, far more damaging than a single bullet from a rifle or a pistol; and a pellet from an air weapon can also inflict a very dangerous wound if it hits the wrong spot. The other point about which I am in some doubt and which also arises from the noble Lord's speech is on Clause 1. He said, I think, that that clause covers firearms, shotguns and air weapons. I see only firearms mentioned in that clause, and, so far as I know, neither a shotgun nor an air weapon is a firearm within the meaning of the Firearms Act. Perhaps the noble Lord can clarify that when he comes to reply. My Lords, I think that is all I have to say on this Bill. It is a good Bill, and I believe it will serve a useful purpose. I think the penalties it imposes will have a very salutary effect in decreasing the illegal use of firearms.
§ LORD STONHAM
My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome which has been given to this Bill by all three noble Lords who spoke about it. I was particularly pleased with the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, because when he said that he was going to mention three points I thought they were to be points of criticism, but they were, all three, points of approval. Therefore, I need not say any more about them. He was quite right to emphasise, as I did myself, the 817 contributions which were made by the Opposition in another place to the very great improvements which have been made to the Bill during its various stages; but I think he will not deny me the praise to the Government for having listened—although I think he used the wrong word when he said "listened". I think "harkened" is the appropriate word; because it denotes action rather more than mere listening. We have certainly taken action.
One point which the noble Lord raised in doubt was that the recidivist, likely to carry a weapon in his criminal pursuits, may be unlikely to be affected much by this Bill.
§ LORD DERWENT
My Lords, I did not make myself clear. He may be affected, certainly. But I said I did not think he would be deterred.
§ LORD STONHAM
Well, my Lords, I think he will be very considerably deterred if he knows that if he has a weapon with him and a police constable has grounds for suspecting that he is going to commit an offence, he can get ten years just for carrying the weapon. I think it is likely he will be deterred, particularly when he knows that the police constable will in many cases know him and know him also as the kind of man that uses, or is likely to use, that kind of weapon; and he can stop him.
My noble friend Lord St. Davids asked two questions. One was when he was talking about waterways. I believe he was thinking largely of canals and of the activities of youths who use air weapons. Well, it would seem to me that they would almost certainly be in a public place and that, if they are going to assault my noble friend with an air weapon, it would have to be loaded. In that event Clause 2(2) would apply to them:Any person who without lawful authority or reasonable excuse"—I do not think even shooting at my noble friend would be regarded as a reasonable excuse—the proof whereof shall lie on him"—that is the person concerned; not my noble friend—has a loaded air weapon with him in a public place shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding two hundred pounds or both.And that is an extremely serious matter. 818 I think there is no question that they would be committing an offence under the Act and a very serious offence.
Then my noble friend asked me whether he could disarm these youths. A landowner has the right to remove trespassers from his land, by force if necessary; but the landowner has none of the powers which we are giving the police under Clause 5 of the Bill, such as the right to seize and detain firearms. Any citizen, however, would have the right to seize any person who was committing an offence of this kind and to hand him over to the police with the evidence. I should think that a few successful cases of that kind would act as a severe deterrent and discouragement to those young people who have been annoying people on our rivers and canals.
The other suggestion that my noble friend raised was that this would be a good moment for an amnesty for those who surrender weapons. I think he must have come into the Chamber just after I concluded my speech, because in my speech I said that my right honourable friend is most certainly consulting with the police with a view to making arrangements for an amnesty after the Bill is passed. This will be announced with full publicity and will give people who may be, perhaps unwittingly, committing an offence under this Bill a chance to get rid of the weapons they have.
The noble Lord, Lord Swansea, asked a number of questions. As there is more business yet before the House, I hope he will allow me to answer his points as briefly as I can. He hoped that the Bill would be administered in such a way as not to interfere with the legitimate rifle and pistol clubs. There is no doubt about that. Indeed, the police will rely to a great extent on the legitimate clubs for information about persons who apply for licences for firearms certificates to see whether they are legitimate and proper members of a club. If they are not, it is unlikely that such persons would get firearms certificates. The noble Lord also mentioned that the rifle clubs will put up with any reasonable restriction but will jib a bit at some things. One of the things that the rifle clubs will jib at, he said, was the power of search, which might be a nuisance. I cannot see that it is much of a nuisance if an honest 819 citizen with every right (and a certificate to show it) to carry a rifle in his car should have to show the certificate to a policeman. I think it is worth while for honest citizens to be stopped, perhaps slightly delayed and perhaps slightly annoyed, if this is the small price to pay for picking up a few crooks and possibly saving lives and property.
The noble Lord raised also the question of insurance. This subject was discussed at great length in another place and met with small volume of support from any part of the House. It is a subject which, if he wished to table an Amendment, we might discuss at greater length at the Committee stage. He mentioned the advantage of printing the insurance notice on the back of the gun licence. This is a matter which has been considered and I do not think any favourable decisions were reached, but it is something I can look at again. He also made the point that under certain conditions an air gun and a shotgun fired from close range are no less lethal than other weapons. Certainly, if you had an air gun pellet in your eye you would lose the eye and under certain conditions it might kill you. But, generally speaking—and if he will look at Clauses 1 to 4 he will agree—the penalties have been fitted to the gravity of the offences and the general (not the particular) lethal propensities of individual firearms. I do not think that there is much more we can do in this connection. I think we have drawn the line in the right places.
On one point I must correct the noble Lord. Air guns and shotguns are both within the definition of "firearms" in the 1937 Act. If he looks at Clause 1, which refers to firearms, he will see that it means that anyone who goes out with intent to commit an indictable offence with any firearm, including any air gun or a shotgun, is liable to be sentenced to up to ten years imprisonment. I think the point is covered. Finally, again I am most grateful for the welcome that this Bill has been given and for the questions.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.