HL Deb 13 June 1967 vol 283 cc811-23

3.0 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be again in Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Stonham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The EARL OF LISTOWEL in the Chair.]

Clause 69:

Prohibition on possessing or acquiring shot gun without a certificate

(5) The following provisions of the Firearms Act 1937

shall apply in relation to shot guns and shot gun certificates as they apply in relation to firearms to which the said Part I applies and firearm certificates, but shall so apply subject to the following modifications and exceptions:— (a) in section 2(2) of that Act (qualifications for grant of a firearm certificate), for the words from "if he is satisfied" to "believe to be" there shall be substituted the words "unless he has reason to believe the applicant to be";

(7) The Secretary of State may by rules under the Firearms Act 1937 provide that the last foregoing subsection shall have effect as if for the reference to one month there were substituted a reference to such shorter period as may be prescribed by the rules.

(8) A person may without holding a shot gun certificate use a shot gun at a place approved for shooting at artificial targets by the chief officer of police for the area in which that place is situated.

(10) Without prejudice to section 30(d) of the Firearms Act 1937 (rules for delegating the functions of a chief officer of police in specified circumstances) the functions of a chief officer of police under that Act, the Firearms Act 1965 or this Part of this Act shall be exercisable on any occasion by a person, or a person of any particular class, authorised by the chief officer of police to exercise that function on that occasion or on occasions of that class or on all occasions.

LORD SWANSEA moved, in subsection (5)(a), after "has" to insert "good". The noble Lord said: This Amendment concerns the discretion of chief officers of police in granting or refusing shot-gun certificates under this Part of this Act. The Firearms Act 1937 is applied to this Bill by subsection (5) of Clause 69, with certain modifications. Paragraph (a) of subsection (5) purports to make a substantial modification to the 1937 Act to the effect that a chief constable shall grant a shot-gun certificate to an applicant "unless he has reason to believe" the applicant to be prohibited or un-suited in the terms of the 1937 Act. Chief constables, therefore, have very wide powers of discretion to grant or refuse shot-gun certificates. I think there is a great danger of variation in practice in different areas of the country. In particular, chief constables may apply the rules differently in urban and rural areas, but, as your Lordships know, a great many townspeople do take part in outdoor pursuits, including shooting, and it would be grossly unfair if the same rules were not applied throughout the country.

Apart from the reasons defined in the Firearms Act 1937—that is to say, by reason of a person's criminal record, intemperate habits and so on—what other grounds might there be to justify the refusal of a shot-gun certificate? Can the noble Lord say what guidance, if any, will be given to chief constables in deciding whether a certificate will be granted or not? It may be said that if these rules are strictly applied some people of a rather irresponsible nature may thereby be prevented from acquiring shot-guns, which may be very desirable; but is that really the purpose of the Bill? The purpose of the Bill is to prevent serious crime. Another case is that of the village poacher, for instance, who may be a very worthy citizen in many respects, except that he has an unfortunate predilection for some of the squire's pheasants. Can that person be treated as a criminal? He probably would not have a criminal record. He might have a conviction for trespassing in pursuit of game or something like that. This Bill is rather using a steam-hammer to crack a nut, and I submit that that is all that Part V of the Bill will ever achieve. It will crack the little nuts, but it will leave the big fish (I must apologise for the mixed metaphor) —it will leave the coconuts (shall we say?) relatively unscathed.

Most of us know someone who has a reputation among his friends for occasionally letting off a shot uncomfortably near to his neighbour at a shoot. Such a person may be a perfectly respectable citizen, but if he has a reputation of being an unsafe shot, is that sufficient ground for a chief officer of police to refuse to grant him a certificate? Then there is the question of disabled persons. I am sure some of your Lordships will know people who have one eye or one arm and are perfectly safe and often very good shots, indeed sometimes considerably better than some of us who have all our limbs and our faculties. A chief constable might, in all innocence, refuse to grant a shot-gun certificate to anyone in that category because he might think that person was not really safe with a gun. These are my reasons for putting down this Amendment, which is to insert the word "good" and to make it read "unless he has good reason to believe".

Although I am moving this Amendment, No. 88, these remarks of mine can also be applied to the following Amendment, No. 89. We must have some clear definition of what guidance is to be given to chief officers of police and on what grounds a shot-gun certificate may be granted or refused. There is the reference to intemperate habits, for instance; some of us know certain people who shoot all the better after lunch, rather better after lunch than before it. Having waded into the steak and kidney pie and a few glasses of beer and perhaps a glass or two of port, they shoot like kings afterwards. Could one say that such a person is of intemperate habits and unfit to be entrusted with a shot-gun? These are my reasons for moving this Amendment. The real object of Part V of the Bill is to prevent professional criminals from getting hold of shot-guns, and most of these provisions will have very little effect on them. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 55, line 10, after ("has") insert ("good").—(Lord Swansea.)

3.10 p.m.


I want to say a word on this matter. I am rather puzzled when looking at the Firearms Act 1937, to see that subsection (2) contains the words has any good reason and also in the proviso the chief of police has reason to believe". Presumably the word "good" was inserted in that Act for a good reason, and left out of the proviso also for a good reason, but I must say that for the life of me I cannot see what the distinction is, because if the policeman is going to act on any reason one would hope that it would be a good reason and not a bad one. But there is that distinction drawn by Parliamentary draftsmen of great experience and skill, and, as I understand it my noble friend wants to make it quite clear that the chief officer of police shall act only for good reasons and not for reasons which are not so good. There is something to be said for clearing up this difficulty which arises under the 1937 Act.

Further, I would ask the noble Lord what is the main object of these provisions. Is it to stop shot-guns from getting into the hands of criminals and people who would use them for crime, or is it to try to secure the safe use of shot-guns? When one looks at the Firearms Act, the application of Section 2 to guns rather leads one to suppose that it is directed to securing the safe use of guns. If that is so, I am rather sorry about the consequences for chief officers of police, because I think they will get few invitations to shoot. If they get an invitation to shoot and someone, as my noble friend has said, fires a little close to them, they will withdraw his certificate, because the Bill as amended will provide that the chief officer of police shall not grant a certificate to a person who he believes is prohibited by the Act from possessing a shot-gun, or to be of intemperate habits or unsound mind, or to be for any like reason unfitted to be entrusted with such a firearm". Those last words are as wide as they possibly could be—"unfitted for any reason to be entrusted with such a firearm." I can imagine a chief constable, if some pellets have gone close to him, saying that this is the best of all possible reasons to see that the person firing is no longer entrusted with a firearm. Is that to be the object here, that there is to be some police supervision over the use of the guns to secure safety; or is the object of these provisions, as I thought, to prevent guns from getting into the hands of criminals? If it is the latter, then I think the Government ought to give further thought to the application of subsection (2) of the 1937 Act.

3.14 p.m.


The noble Lord, Lord Swansea, went rather wider than his two Amendments and had a general discussion in relation to the way in which a chief constable would consider and grant or refuse an application for a shot-gun certificate. Each application will be made on its merits, and the effect of the Bill will be that the police will have to make out a particular reason for refusing a shot-gun certificate. In consequence, any law-abiding member of the public will obtain his certificate virtually upon application. The right of appeal to quarter sessions in England and Wales will effectively prevent arbitrary practices from arising.

The noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, raised a point on the question of good reason, or just simply reason, which bothered me to start with. He will note that the effect of Clause 69(5)(a), as proposed to be amended, would be to provide that a shot-gun certificate shall be granted by the chief officer of police unless he has good reason to believe the applicant to be prohibited by"— the Firearms Act 1937from possessing a firearm to which this Act applies, or to be of intemperate habits or unsound mind, or to be for any like reason unfitted to be entrusted with such a firearm. The word "good" adds nothing to the meaning of the provision. Either one has reason for believing, grounds for believing, or one has not. There are no good and bad reasons, as grounds for believing. They are either valid reasons or invalid reasons, and invalid reasons are no reasons at all.

An attempt was made by the noble Lord to justify the addition of the word "good" on the ground that Section 2 of the 1937 Act requires an applicant for a firearms certificate to satisfy the police that he has a good reason for possessing a Part I firearm. The situation is, however, not the same—the applicant for a firearms certificate has to show that he has a reason for wanting a firearm which is socially acceptable. It is quite possible for a person to have a reason for wanting a firearm which is undesirable or even criminal.

Suppose a Mr. Buggins was rather worried that he might be shot up and he asked the chief constable to let him have half-a-dozen revolvers. He would think this a good reason for possessing those revolvers for his own self-defence, but I do not suppose any noble Lord in this House would think that to put those arms in the hands of a person in that state of mind or in that position would be socially acceptable, to use the words I used just now. Therefore I think the word "good" in that sense in the 1937 Act means good for socially accept able reasons and not reasons which are undesirable or even criminal. The purpose of the provision is to permit that sort of value judgment to be made.

No similar consideration arises where the requirement is that the refusal shall be based on a belief for which there is a reason or ground. Were the Amendment accepted, one effect would be to leave the corresponding phrases in Section 2 of the Firearms Act 1937 in regard to firearms certificates as "has reason" and "to be for any reason", which would be in close juxtaposition to the shot gun certificate phrases of "has good reason" and "to be for any like reason". The contrast will become most marked when this legislation is consolidated, as we hope it will be next Session. Defence counsel would be quick to jump at the distinction between "good reason" and "reason". No difference in meaning between the two contexts is intended, and therefore the same words must be used.


I had wondered from the beginning why this Part of the Bill is included. The Firearms Bill has nothing to do with criminal justice. I must say that the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, has now confirmed that by what he has said. He is quite right in saying that under the present Firearms Act there has, in effect, to be a reason for possessing a firearm. But the noble Lord has said that it would be perfectly easy for anyone to get a firearm; it is really a question of applying, and there will be so many millions of applicants, in the ordinary way that no questions will be asked and you will get it. The only reason you will not get it is if a particular chief officer of police or one of his police officers knows that you are not a reputable person. What is to stop one of my local police officers or the chief constable saying of me in my more drunken moments, "I am afraid that Lord Derwent is drinking too much and he ought not to go out shooting"? But if I come to London and want to buy a gun, there is nothing to stop me. No policeman here knows that I am not a teetotaller. This does not make sense, so far as I can see. Anyone can get a gun. All this is going to mean is an enormous amount of paperwork for the police.

Even at this moment, on this Amendment, may I suggest that the Government should withdraw this Part of the Bill? Because there will be no difficulty for a criminal in getting a shot-gun, particularly in a different part of the country. If we are only thinking about criminals, as apparently this Bill is, what is the point of this Part of the Bill? The noble Lord has said that all most people have to do is just to fill in a form.

3.20 p.m.


I read this Part of the Bill for the first time only in the last ten minutes, and on reading it I was puzzled to know why my Front Bench had not moved to leave it out, because I think it is quite the silliest thing I have ever seen. It is continuing Her Majesty's Government's predilection for creating more work for the Civil Service. As if the police have not enough work to do already, they have now do issue I do not know how many hundreds of thousands of certificates. They may even ask for a photograph of anybody who is going to own a firearm. This will put an immense amount of work on the police. They will have to recruit many more people and, as my noble friend Lord Derwent said, the genuine criminal who sets out to use a shot-gun instead of a revolver for his nefarious purposes will not have the slightest difficulty in buying one "under the counter" anywhere. The criminal who intends to commit armed robbery has no firearms certificate. He buys a firearm for the specific purpose. Why will it be any more difficult for him to get a shot-gun than it is to-day for him to get a revolver? The thing just does not make sense. This is bureaucracy run mad.

3.22 p.m.


I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, dealt with the last part of my speech. I would ask him specifically to give an answer to the question: are these provisions intended to try in some way to prevent guns from getting into the hands of professional criminals and the criminal classes, or is the intention in some way to supervise their use for the promotion of safety? Under the Firearms Act one had both. If it were for the first purpose I would fully support it, but I doubt the adequacy of these provisions for achieving it. But if it is the second purpose, I do not think a case has been made out. We are now considering a narrow Amendment before we come to the Question whether the clause shall stand part of the Bill. When one comes to the Question whether the clause shall stand part, one can always vote that the clause shall not stand part without first having put down a Motion on the Paper.

On this particular Amendment the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, kindly read out how the section would read if these Amendments were accepted; the word "good" and the word "like" would go in in their respective places. But, without these Amendments being made, am I not right in saying that the widest possible discretion is given to a chief officer of police for refusing a certificate? He can refuse a certificate if for any reason he thinks the person applying for it is unfit to be entrusted with a shot-gun. What can be wider than that? And that is in no way related to preventing a gun from getting into the hands of the criminal classes. I suggest that the noble Lord ought to think again about this provision, and I should have thought that if the purpose is to have a register of guns so that one knows where they ought to be, then this kind of provision ought to be cut out.


I meant to say to the noble and learned Viscount that the object of this Part of the Bill is twofold. One is to prevent guns as far as possible from getting into the hands of criminals, and the other is to increase the safety of the general public. I do not think that it is quite true to say that any chief constable can refuse a certificate on any grounds he likes. If he has reason, he has to go to quarter sessions if the person who is refused a licence appeals. The guns about which we are now talking are those of 24 inches or more in length—I do not think it matters about their bore—which would be more visible than a gun of less than 24 inches. In other words, you can carry a shorter gun in your pocket, pull it out and shoot somebody very quickly before he has a chance to do anything.


Has the noble Lord never heard of sawn-off shot guns?


I have, and I am going to refer to them. This Bill seeks to increase the powers under the 1937 Act, because there has been an increase in the number of crimes caused by long shot-guns. The idea is that more registration the better, because we are anxious so far as possible to prevent any further increase in crime. Although the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, said he did not think this is quite the right Bill in which to introduce these matters, it is surely the essence of criminal justice that everything possible should be done to stop the spread of crime. Therefore I would justify the inclusion of this Part in the Bill.


The noble Lord, Lord Bowles, in his original answer said that anybody in England and Wales who felt aggrieved at the refusal of the chief constable to give him a licence for a shot-gun could appeal. Are we in Scotland not going to be allowed to appeal? Unfortunately this is a Part of the Bill which applies to Scotland. It seems strange that one may appeal against such a refusal in England and Wales, but, so far as one can see, one has no appeal in Scotland. Perhaps the noble Lord will say something about this.


I have not studied all the Scottish Law on the situation, but I will look it up and let the noble Duke know.


Perhaps I can help the noble Lord. If he looks at Section 2 (8) (b) of the Firearms Act 1938 he will find the answer: one goes to the sheriff. But I do not think this meets the point. If the noble Lord is relying on reasons which the Government think are the right ones for refusing a certificate, it is no use saying that the remedy is to go to quarter sessions, or in Scotland to the sheriff, because those quarter sessions and that sheriff are bound by exactly the same wording in the Act as is the chief officer of police in the first place. If no guidance is given to quarter sessions or to the sheriff, why should they not agree with the chief officer of police in the reason—which some have suggested may not be the one which is intended by the legislation—for refusing the certificate? There is no possible remedy here.

Moreover, if the noble Lord suggests that this is going to bring uniformity, could he tell the House in what way it will be achieved? As the noble Lord no doubt knows, the decisions of quarter sessions are not reported. In regard to quarter sessions decisions you cannot find, unless you are very lucky, a report of what was said, let alone the reasons why it was said. Even if you can find a report relating to one area, that is no reason why quarter sessions in another part of the country should take the same view, and the facts are very seldom set out. So there is in this provision no guarantee at all of uniformity, and the noble Lord should think again about it.


I should have thought that if the noble Viscount means what he has just been saying, that quarter sessions are not reported and therefore that one quarter sessions does not know what another quarter sessions is doing, there is hardly any point in his practising before the quarter sessions at all.


The noble Lord would perhaps know that the point of practising before quarter sessions is, so far as I am concerned, to deal with the case which is before quarter sessions at that moment. It is no use going to them and saying, "I have found an obscure report in the Solicitors' Journal of something that happened at the Northumberland quarter sessions, and think you should do the same". They are not necessarily going to follow, and the report will not always give you the facts on which the other quarter sessions based their decisions. The practice in quarter sessions is, as I say, to deal with the case which is before the court. There is every justification for doing that, and it does not produce uniformity.


Let me make myself clear. The noble Viscount, when he practises before quarter sessions, does not go there merely to see that the ruling of some other quarter sessions is followed. He goes there to try to get justice in the matter on which he is appealing.


Are we now discussing the Question, That the clause shall stand part of the Bill, or are we discussing the Amendment which is being moved? It seems to me that we have strayed into a discussion on "Clause stand part". On this whole business of the possession of firearms, surely it is very important to remember that it is to be an offence if you are found with a weapon in your possession. Parliament has made it an offence for anybody to have in his possession an offensive weapon. In fact, it was not long ago that Parliament decided that the carrying of flick knives in certain circumstances—that is to say, having them in possession—was an offence. It was quite right that Parliament should have taken that decision. Surely in this case, even though it may be fairly easy for a certain person to get a certificate, the fact that the certificate enables him to acquire a shot-gun means that if he passes it on to someone else who ought not to have it in his possession he is guilty of an offence. It is surely right and proper that Parliament should make it possible to impose a penalty on anyone who has that offensive weapon in his possession without a certificate.


May I say this in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Champion? On the question of flick knives, which were being dealt with in thousands, or perhaps only hundreds, there was no very great additional work for the police. But I would ask the Committee to remember that we are here dealing with an unknown quantity of shot-guns, although a conservative estimate is that there are 1,500,000 in the country. If it is true that there are 1,500,000 shot-guns in general use in the country, it will not he at all difficult for a criminal to get hold of one.


May I point out that there is no possible justification for anyone carrying a flick knife, which is purely an offensive weapon, whereas 999 out of 1,000 shot-guns are used for perfectly respectable purposes.


In that case there is no offence. So who is worrying about it? I am not.


I must say that I am rather disappointed that the Government have not seen fit to accept this Amendment, in spite of the pressure which has been put upon them by my noble friends. I hope the Government will think that this is a point which deserves further consideration by them, because there is a danger of a lack of uniformity in the application of these provisions in different parts of the country. One chief constable may not take the same line as another, and in the case of appeals one court may not take the same line as another.

Concerning appeals, which have already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, there is of course the right to appeal to quarter sessions. But I wonder how many people, having been refused a shot-gun certificate, will really take the trouble and go to the expense of putting in an appeal. We must remember that many such people might be of slender means who just could not afford the expense of an appeal to quarter sessions. I seriously considered putting down a further Amendment to this Bill, to enable appeals to go to magistrates' courts instead of to quarter sessions for that very reason. But on the whole I think that although quarter sessions might vary from one area to another, they might take a slightly more unbiased view of each case.

I ask myself how many people would be able to go to the trouble and expense of an appeal to quarter sessions. If I were in the position of being of slender means, I think I would just take a chance and go on possessing my shot-gun, and perhaps getting "had up" and fined now and again, so long as I did not commit a serious crime. Anyhow, I very much hope that the Government will think again about this matter before the next stage of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


Before I call Amendment No. 90, I must point out to the Committee that if that Amendment is carried I cannot call Amendment No. 91.

LORD STONHAM moved to leave out subsection (7). The noble Lord said: Subsection (6) of Clause 69 exempts overseas visitors from the need to have shot-gun certificates until they have been in the country for one month in the last 12 months. The purpose of this Amendment is to delete subsection (7) which at present enables the Secretary of State, by rules, to reduce the period of one month to something less.

When the Bill was first introduced, subsection (6) provided for a period of exemption of three months. Three months was proposed as the outside limit, and it was recognised that a reduction was likely. Subsection (7) was therefore provided as an easy way to make such a reduction, by rule, after the Bill was passed. But, in fact, at a later stage in another place the Bill was amended to reduce the period to one month, and during discussion of the Amendments the point was taken that the reduction of the period of exemption to one month imposed a considerable restriction on regular visitors, and that certainly no further reduction could be contemplated as it would be regarded as unnecessarily harsh. The position has therefore been reconsidered and it has been decided that the power, which would be unlikely to be used, can and should be abandoned, and that therefore subsection (7) should be removed from the Bill. I beg to move.

Amendment moved—

Page 55, line 20, leave out subsection (7).—(Lord Stonham.)


I must say that I am sorry that this Amendment to leave out subsection (7) has been moved, because—


May I interrupt the noble Lord at the beginning of his speech? I am sorry, but an important Statement has to be made, and as we shall be a long time on these Amendments it may be convenient if the Statement is made now.

House resumed.