HL Deb 27 November 1974 vol 354 cc1402-4

2.56 p.m.


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 to state whether the existing limitations in the United Kingdom on the manufacture, transport and distribution of gelignite are adequate to afford the maximum protection against illegal acquirement and criminal misuse.


My Lords, a major review of all aspects of the security of explosives in Great Britain was concluded in 1973, and the matter has since been kept under consideration. The existing controls have been tightened up within the powers available under the Explosives Act 1875, and if it were necessary further controls could be imposed by Regulations under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. In Northern Ireland the police control all explosives from the point of importation to the point of their eventual use.


My Lords, is the noble Lord saying to the House that two World Wars and Hiroshima and Nagasaki have not created the necessity for amending legislation which was passed following an explosion on the Regent's Canal in 1874? Is he now saying that Her Majesty's Government have as much deep concern and sense of urgency as we are told they have about notices on top of motor cars? Is he aware that since this Question was put down hand grenades have been carried and a murder has been committed on a British plane, and the dreadful explosions in Birmingham have occurred? Does he not consider that the Home Office themselves must set up an information centre to assist the police, from which they can find—that which they cannot find now—a list of armament manufacturers, armament sellers, in this country, including Mr. Milhench? Will not the Home Office do something and realise that the more they can help the police and save them work the more effective will be the work the police can do in protecting the community?


My Lords, if my noble friend or, indeed, anybody else has any specific proposals to make to my right honourable friend we will undoubtedly consider them most carefully. This matter was carefully considered by Ministers in the last Government and by Ministers in the present Government. No one in the present situation after the events of Birmingham will be complacent about this general area which my noble friend has raised. However, our view at the moment is that the existing powers are adequate. The matter is constantly being discussed between officials of the Home Office and chief constables. If there is any need for amending legislation we will of course come before the House.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether the Home Office are also checking agricultural fertilisers?—because they, too, can be a source of explosives. Is any check made in the agricultural industry and in the craft of gardening about fertilisers from which effective explosives can be made?


Yes, my Lords; my noble friend is quite right. If it is necessary to proceed in the direction he has suggested we could, as I indicated in my reply, act through Regulations under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. Our present view, however, is that this is not necessary. I hope that all Members of the House will recognise that if we bring in further Regulations of this kind they will have to be enforced by the police. The resources of the police are already under very considerable strain. Therefore, if Ministers bring proposals of this kind to Parliament they must be convinced that there will be an effective result from those proposals. At the moment that is not our view.


My Lords, can the noble Lord give us some indication of the size of this problem? Has he any figures to indicate the quantities of explosives of gelignite base which have been used in explosions as compared with the quantities made from other sources?


My Lords, I could not give quantities without notice. Most of the explosions which have taken place—most, but by no means all—have, in fact, been caused by commercial explosives of one kind or another. In fact, one of the matters which is constantly before the Home Office and Chief Constables is the general question of the security of places where explosives are kept and, as a result of the tightening up of the procedures which I have indicated has taken place, the number of thefts from explosive stores was down from 27 in 1969 to only 6 in 1973.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that measures have been introduced into Northern Ireland for the control of fertilisers, in an attempt to eliminate those which present facilities for making explosives? Also, as a matter of personal information, will he tell me whether, if I had sufficient money, I could walk across the road now and buy a gallon of nitric acid?


My Lords, I hesitate to answer my noble friend's question and I ought not to speak off the cuff. Instead, I will let my noble friend know the precise answer to his question, and I hope that any delay in giving it will not delay the purchase of This material. I think my noble friend is quite right in saying that the position in Northern Ireland is different. All I am saying on behalf of the Home Office is that it is not our view at the moment that regulations of this kind are appropriate and necessary here.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House whether the situation regarding detonators is different, because I believe that it is rather harder to obtain detonators than it is to obtain gelignite?


My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me. I will try to find out the answer to that precise point.