HL Deb 15 December 1975 vol 366 cc1281-9

6.23 p.m.

Lord DONALDSON of KINGSBRIDGE rose to move, That the draft Firearms (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1975, laid before the House on 7th November, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, this Order in Council amends the provisions of the Firearms Act (Northern Ireland) 1969, as itself amended by the Firearms (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 1971, and the Firearms (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1973. Its main purpose is to improve existing controls and to clarify existing legislation in one or two respects. It follows a review of the control of legally-held firearms in Northern Ireland which was carried out last year, and while it makes a few changes of some significance in the law, there is no change in the general principles governing the issue of firearm certificates. Legally-held firearms are very strictly controlled in Northern Ireland—more so than in Great Britain.

The Order abolishes firearm permits. The permits in question are unique to Northern Ireland firearms legislation and simply allow a person to keep a firearm within his dwelling-house. He may not use it. There are only about 1,300 permits in existence, and they authorise, mainly, the possession of collectors' items, souvenirs, or antique weapons. In practice, the chief constable has for some time preferred to issue the normal firearm certificate in respect of such weapons, so that the system of permits has become superfluous. On expiry of a current permit, the holder will have to apply for a firearm certificate. The chief constable will of course have to satisfy himself that the person concerned satisfies the basic statutory qualifications for the issue of a firearm certificate but, subject to this, firearm certificates will be granted in substitution for the old permits. A modified fee only will be charged on the grant of a firearm certificate in these circumstances.

Some Amendments are made to that section of the Northern Ireland Firearms Act which permits the possession of firearms in certin circumstances without the need for a firearm certificate. In particular, the opportunity has been taken to regularise the use of air rifles at shooting galleries, at amusement arcades, church fetes or bazaars. For historical reasons, the police have until now exercised a discretion in allowing the use of these weapons at such functions so long as the person conducting or carrying on the range had a firearm certificate. This practice is now being regularised. Additionally, an exemption which was provided for institutes of higher education, or other approved research centres where studies in forensic medicine, ballistics or similar studies are undertaken, is being removed. There has been great difficulty in defining exactly what constituted an institute of higher education and any firearms held by such institutes or centres are held on the authority of firearms certificates. The exemption is therefore unnecessary.

The law is also being clarified in regard to the possession in Northern Ireland of firearms held under the authority of a firearm certificate or shotgun certificate issued in Great Britain. Generally speaking, these arc regarded as valid in Northern Ireland and this will continue to be the case, but in addition the Order introduces a new provision which will permit the possession in Northern Ireland, for sporting purposes only, of firearms or ammunition held by a person who normally resides outside the United Kingdom and is authorised to hold those firearms or ammunition under the law existing in his own country. Quite a few sportsmen from Continental countries come to Northern Ireland to shoot for sport and there is quite a traffic of sportsmen between the North of Ireland and the South. At the moment these persons must acquire Northern Ireland firearm certificates, however short their stay, and this is not a satisfactory arrangement. Regulations will be laid before Parliament setting out the conditions under which such firearms may be brought into Northern Ireland.

Under the firearms legislation in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland, persons convicted of crime are prohibited from possessing firearms for varying periods. If, for example, a person is sentenced to imprisonment for a period of more than six months, but less than three years, the prohibition applies for five years from the date of his release. If the period of the sentence exceeds three years, then the prohibition is for life. The reference to date of release has raised the question of the suspended sentence where, of course, there is no date of release as such. This Order amends the Northern Ireland legislation to ensure that a person who is given a suspended sentence comes within the statutory prohibition, by relating that prohibition to the date of the sentence, as opposed to the date of release.

Since 1920 the minimum age limit for possession of any firearm in Northern Ireland has been 16 years. It is considered that the age of majority is a better test of the maturity appropriate to the responsibility of possessing and using a firearm and accordingly the minimum age limit is being increased to 18 years. At the same time, it is conceded that the genuine enthusiast in what is, after all, a recognised international recreational pursuit should be permitted to become accustomed to the handling of firearms at an earlier age; and it is therefore being provided that young persons between the ages of 16 and 18 may have, and use, a firearm for sporting purposes under controlled conditions; namely, in the company, and under the supervision of, another adult who holds a firearm certificate for that firearm. Special provision is also being made to allow the young farmer between the age of 16 and 18 to possess firearms for the control of vermin on lands on which he works or resides.

My Lords, I have already mentioned that firearms control in Northern Ireland is more stringent than in Great Britain. The chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary has greater powers of control than his counterpart in Great Britain. He may, for example, revoke a firearm certificate where he feels that the person holding it has no longer any good reason to have it. To complement his powers of revocation it is considered that the chief constable should also have the power to require the surrender of the firearms and ammunition to which the certificate relates when he revokes a firearm certificate, instead of simply the power to demand the surrender of the certificate itself. Apart from anything else, a person holding firearms or ammunition without the authority of a firearm certificate is holding them illegally. The provision will simply mean that when a firearm certificate is revoked for any reason, the firearms and ammunition to which it relates will be held safely in police custody until the owner can dispose of it.

In order that the police may have the fullest possible information about the movement of legally-held firearms, it has been decided that transactions between registered firearms dealers and between registered firearms dealers and private persons should be notified to the police in the same way that private persons already have to notify transactions under existing legislation. Noble Lords may be aware that in Northern Ireland certain firearms are ballistically tested so that their characteristics may be recorded for purposes of forensic comparison. It follows that if any of these firearms are repaired, altered or converted this could alter the characteristics already recorded. Accordingly, the Order requires that when such alterations or repairs are made the owner of the firearm shall report them to the police within 48 hours so that arrangements can be made for retesting if this is felt to be necessary. The existing penalties for firearms offences in Northern Ireland are generally less than those in Great Britain, and the opportunity is now being taken to bring them completely into line.

I now turn to the question of firearms clubs. At present, there are no more than 57 of these clubs in active operation in Northern Ireland. Three of them use full-bore or military-type rifles, about 20 use air rifles and the remainder use miniature or 0.22 calibre rifles. The clubs operate under the authority of Declarations of Approval issued under the Unlawful Drilling Act 1819, which simply permit the members of the club to assemble for target practice. The only other form of control is that firearm certificates must of course be held by either the club or club members. It has long been felt that this is an inadequate system of control, and power is now being given to the Secretary of State to impose conditions on Declarations of Approval which will more satisfactorily regulate the operation of the clubs. I might say that this proposal has been discussed with the governing bodies of the sport in Northern Ireland, and they are in general agreement with, and indeed welcome, the proposal. An undertaking has been given to those bodies to discuss again the types of conditions which should be imposed.

My Lords, I am confident that you will accept this measure as a reasonable extension of the already stringent controls over legally-held firearms in Northern Ireland. No one would deny that the real problem there is the illegally-held firearm, but clearly in the emergency which exists there—indeed, at any time—it is only prudent to control legally-held weapons as much as possible, consistent with reasonable facility for gun sportsmen to carry out the sporting activity of their choice. My Lords, I doubt whether your Lordships remember (why, indeed, should you?) but when the Green Paper on the Control of Firearms was debated in your Lordships' House in October 1973 I spoke strongly in favour of more stringent controls on weapons in Great Britain. Your Lordships will therefore not be surprised to know that I strongly commend this Order to this House. My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the draft Firearms (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1975, laid before the House on 7th November, be approved.—(Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge.)

6.34 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the Government for the consultations which have preceded the presentation of this Order. The original draft of the Order really was not suitable in a variety of ways. Representations have been heeded and, I think, heeded to very good effect. I particularly support the prohibition on those convicted of crimes from holding guns for specified periods. Towards the end of his remarks the noble Lord referred to the menace of the illegally-held gun. A point was made in another place about the posting of firearms certificates and it was asserted in another place that many of these certificates go astray in the post in Northern Ireland. Under those circumstances, I wonder whether I might add my voice to what was said in another place and ask the Government whether they would look at that point again.

My Lords, I trust that the exchange of firearms permits for new certificates under Article 3 will attract only a very small fee. I am sure that this new provision will be accepted provided it is not accompanied by unreasonable expense for firearms holders. I think it would be an excessively cautious society—and an impracticable one, too—if young persons of over 16 were absolutely prohibited from learning to handle a shotgun in a country where so many people are involved in agriculture. Article 8 deals with this in a sensible manner, and this is very welcome.

I was glad to hear the noble Lord say that the conditions for firearms clubs are to be discussed with the governing bodies of the sport, because I think all who are involved in those clubs, and, also, all who are involved in target shooting, sometimes find it difficult to be able to get the necessary practice. I remember discussing this with members of the staff of a school in Northern Ireland which regularly sends a team to shoot at Bisley, and they made the point that it was very difficult for their pupils to be able to practise. If it can be arranged that things are not made more difficult to organise than necessary, then the clubs will be very grateful.

The only question and slight criticism which I would raise is that it would perhaps have been helpful to have had another Schedule at the back of this Order listing the differences between Northern Ireland legislation on this subject as it will stand when this Order is agreed, and legislation as it affects the rest of Great Britain. But I think that this has become fairly clear from the explanation which the noble Lord has given, and I most certainly support the passing of this Order.

6.37 p.m.


My Lords, I should be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, could kindly clarify two or three points pertaining to this Order, the majority of the provisions of which I find not unreasonable. Could the noble Lord confirm that shotguns, air guns and 0.22 rifles are collectively responsible for fewer than 1 per cent. of the murders committed in Northern Ireland since August 1969; and is it not the case that the majority of existing permits relate to relatively harmless sporting weapons of this category? Thirdly, could the noble Lord perhaps indicate how many murders since August 1969 have involved legally-held weapons, of whatever calibre?

Finally, my Lords—I may be unduly alarmist in this—is the noble Lord entirely satisfied that Article 6 might not open a dangerous loophole? It is common knowledge that arms and ammunition are reaching terrorist groups in Northern Ireland from certain countries to the East, West, South and South-East of the United Kingdom; I shall be no more specific than that. Is there not perhaps a danger that Article 6 might allow certain politically-motivated nationals of the countries concerned to bring in arms and ammunition to these groups under the pretence of being innocent sportsmen?

6.39 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the general support which this Order has received. I note the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, about the posting of firearms certificates. This is being looked at—it is obviously rather important—but I do not think we have got very far on it. We do not usually draw attention too obviously to parity in the wrong direction, and I think the legislation in Northern Ireland concerning firearms is going to be better than the legislation over here; so this may be a good reason for not having a Schedule showing how much we are ahead.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, asked two questions. I can give him an answer which is not exactly in the form of an answer to the question he asked, but I have a record here of the number of crimes in 1975 which involved weapons, and the type of weapon it was, stolen from a legal owner, which I think are the relevant figures he wants. What I have not got is whether the crimes were murder, attempted murder or armed holdup. There were 5 committed with pistols, 5 with revolvers, 2 with shotguns, 1 with a self-loading military rifle, 2 with rifles and 2 with submachine guns, making 17 in all. Add to that 13 for the year before and there is a fairly nasty average because the truth is that these are the worst kind of crimes, and although the bulk of these crimes are committed by illegally held firearms, in so far as any are committed with firearms stolen from people who hold them legally, we cannot be too careful in trying to stop it.

So far as Article 6 is concerned, I think the noble Lord is worrying unduly. The procedure will be that if a Bavarian sportsman wishes to come and cull some of our antlered beasts, which we have in beautiful quantity in Northern Ireland, he will write to the chief constable saying that he is bringing in a gun of a certain make and asking for a temporary permit for it. The chief constable will be obliged to find out that he is who he says he is—he probably will be staying with a friend of the noble Lord, Lord Monson. It will be for the chief constable to check this; and providing he is who he says he is, and is going where he says he is going, he will be issued with a certificate valid front arrival to departure. My Lords, I am grateful for the general reception of this order. I think it will improve our general position in Northern Ireland.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I thank him for his reply, which satisfies my doubts about Article 6. He mentioned unspecified crime committed with a submachine gun. Is it the case that individuals can hold submachine guns under existing legislation?


My Lords, almost certainly this would have been stolen from a UDR holding. There was an instance. Whether it is the one we all know about I cannot say.

On Question, Motion agreed to.