HL Deb 08 March 1972 vol 329 cc101-5

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made in the review of regulations for the control of all kinds of firearms mentioned in reply to a Question by the Earl of Cromartie on December 15, 1970; and when this review is likely to be completed.]


My Lords, the review has made substantial progress, and I hope that it may be completed in the course of the summer. But this is a complex matter, and I am afraid it is not possible to give any firm undertaking.


My Lords, while thanking the Minister for his not very encouraging Answer, may I remind him that in April last he held out some hope that it might be finished "not before the end of the year", though one read that to mean perhaps by the end of the year. Therefore may I ask him whether, in view of the number of people who have been murdered with shot-guns while this leisurely review has been in progress, he will take steps to expedite it?


My Lords I do not accept that this is a leisurely review. The Working Party, under the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, were appointed in December, 1970, 15 months ago. They have been at work for over a year, but this is a difficult and complex field. They have examined all the basic features of control, and more than 70 papers have been presented and considered. In the meantime we must keep in mind the fact that there are the existing controls on all forms of firearms, including shot-guns, and these controls are being enforced.


My Lords, with reference to the existing controls would the Minister urge chief constables to exercise the powers which I believe they have to enforce regulations about the safe keeping of shot-guns, so that the holder of a certificate cannot do what I understand is at present legal—that is, to have any number of shot-guns and leave them in his unlocked garden shed for any intruder to help himself?


My Lords, following a previous occasion on which this matter was raised in your Lordships' House, I believe by the noble Baroness, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary has taken up the point with chief officers of police. I can also tell the noble Baroness that after the Question which she tabled concerning the safe keeping of firearms in rifle clubs on school premises my right honourable friend circularised chief officers of police, drawing that matter to their attention as well. Therefore it should not be thought that while the Working Party are carrying out their review no further action is being taken. If and when action is needed it will be taken.


My Lords, I am grateful for the answer about schools, but I must point out that in my own neighbourhood nothing further has happened.




My Lords, does my noble friend realise that criminals do not as a rule apply for firearms certificates of any kind?


My Lords, I should just like to deal with that point as it is an important one. The majority of weapons used in crime are not certificated and never have been, but we believe from the statistics which are available that none the less there is a significant number of firearms used in crime which have at one time been covered by certificates. Therefore this sort of inquiry is useful.


My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that one of the reasons why many scores of thousands of shot-guns are possessed is so that they may be used for grouse and pheasant shooting; and would it not help to solve this problem if those sports were made illegal?


My Lords, that is going wider than the Question on the Order Paper.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say how many meetings have taken place in connection with this Working Party; what was the date of their last meeting, and what is the number of documents that they have already received? Can the noble Lord also say how many of these have yet been analysed, and when does he hope that we may expect the report? Can the noble Lord be more definite in his reply, as this matter is so important?


My Lords, may I refer the noble Lord back to my initial Answer? I think he will find there some of the information which he is seeking. I gave a fairly clear indication that we hope that the review may be completed in the course of this summer. As I understand it, the majority, if not all, of the papers I referred to have now been considered; and a majority, if not all, of the evidence by interested parties has been given, although there are some further consultations still to take place. Therefore it is the process of considering the evidence which has been placed before the Working Party that remains to be completed.


My Lords, will the noble Lord now answer the question which was put to him by my noble friend: how many times has this Committee met, and when was the last occasion?


My Lords, I should have to ask for notice of that question. As I understand the position, this is quite a big group. There have been certain meetings of the full Working Party, and there have been other meetings of sub-groups, taking evidence and so on. If I may, I should like to get some statistics and write to the noble Lord.


My Lords, does the noble Lord intend to convey to the House that because the Committee have not found a method of dealing with the firearms of the existence of which they are unaware, therefore they are not prepared to deal with the existence of those firearms of which they are aware?


My Lords, I find it impossible to follow that question.


My Lords, Ministers, no doubt coping manfully with questions, frequently in the most helpful way offer to write to noble Lords. I appreciate that some Ministers are not speaking for their Departments and it is not easy for them to deal with some questions. But it is rather unsatisfactory just to push the whole thing off with the promise of a letter. I wonder whether the noble Earl the Leader of the House would consider that in such matters Ministers might arrange for a Question for Written Answer to be put down, so that the Answer appears in the OFFICIAL REPORT and can then be seen by other noble Lords.


My Lords, in view of the fact that we know from experience that in special cases committees can work with speed, could the present firearms position be regarded as a special case?


My Lords, we should keep this matter in perspective. The Working Party have been at work for little more than a year. This is the first systematic review of firearms legislation for 36 years. It is an important matter. There are existing controls on firearms, and what has to be considered is whether or not these should be changed. I have taken the precaution of looking up the Inquiries conducted by the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger, for my Department in the past. The review on Cannabis took 18 months, and the one on Non-Custodial alternatives to Imprisonment somewhat more than three years.


My Lords, would the noble Lord accept that the deaths from Cannabis during our inquiry were nil? And can he say how many people have been murdered with shot-guns during the course of this investigation?


My Lords, I should not care to speculate whether drugs abuse or firearms control is the more urgent matter. Both of them are extremely important and both require systematic and careful thought. That is what this subject is getting.

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