HL Deb 15 October 1981 vol 424 cc458-65

10 Clause 5, page 6, line 23 at end insert 'or'.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, I beg to move that this House do disagree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 10. In doing so may I speak to Amendments Nos. 11, 15, 16, 30 and 49, on which I also have Motions down to disagree. This is the last of the amendments in Part I of the Bill which I particularly want to ask your Lordships to have another look at. I do so for a number of reasons.

The amendments concern the placing of some minor and modest restrictions on the use of air weapons. The amendments which were put into the Bill in this House and were deleted by another place were originally proposed by the National Farmers' Union, and they had support from both sides of the House and indeed were originally down, I think it is right to say, in the names of various noble Lords opposite and not in my name and the names of my noble friends.

What these amendments do is slightly to extend the restrictions on the use of air weapons, but they do represent a slight extension of the restriction on air weapons. First of all, so far as using airguns against birds is concerned, if the amendments which your Lordships put into the Bill and which were taken out in the Commons were retained, it would for example be illegal, which it is not now, to shoot the capercaillie, or Canada goose, or the greylag goose, or a white fronted goose, or a widgeon, or a woodcock with an air weapon. I do not believe that anybody on either side of your Lordships' House would ever seriously suggest that those sorts of birds are suitable to be shot with air weapons. I really cannot see that placing a restriction on the shooting of those sorts of birds with air weapons is anything that anybody should object to, but apparently another place did.

The National Farmers' Union amendments also place some restrictions on the shooting of protected mammals with air weapons. The species covered there include the bottlenosed dolphin, all species of dormice, the common otter which of course is fully protected, shrews, the red squirrel which was protected as a result of pressure from your Lordships' House, and the badger; again the sort of list of animals which I cannot seriously believe anybody on either side of the House thinks for a minute should be shot with air weapons. They are all protected anyhow so they should not be shot with anything, but they certainly should not be shot with an air weapon.

In the light of that, and the fact that noble Lords in all parts of the House agreed—with the single exception of the Minister who responded to the debate—I ask your Lordships to consider the arguments that were used in another place, and I am afraid it is not in order here to be rude about what is said there—that the arguments adduced there were com pletely dotty. It was suggested that the direct effect of your Lordships' amendments would mean that 60 million air rifle pellets would no longer be sold. That anybody could seriously believe that 60 million air rifle pellets are being shot at bottlenosed dolphins, dragon flies and dormice makes the mind boggle. They got the whole thing completely wrong. There can be no other explanation for their decision. They claimed that not only would 60 million air pellets not be sold, but—apparently because of the enormous number of pellets fired off at bottle nosed dolphins and so on—a number of men would be thrown out of work and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of business lost. As I say, they simply misunderstood what your Lordships were on about. I cannot think of any other explanation for their decision; indeed, it would be uncharitable even to look for any other explanation.

When we went into the arguments against the use of air weapons, noble Lords in all parts of the House expressed a great deal of personal experience of the abuse of such weapons; and since we last discussed the matter, at least one child has been killed accidently by an air weapon which was kept by somebody for shooting birds in the garden. While, therefore, one can poke fun at the decision taken in another place, we should remember that this is a very serious subject, with literally fatal consequences for a number of people. That was brought home to me in a letter from the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons, which mentioned that recently a vet had a dog brought into his surgery which, while being led down the street by a young girl, had a bullet pass across its ribs and through both lungs, and the vet said it was a miracle that it was not the child leading the dog who had been hit.

I have also seen, since we discussed this subject, an advertisement for some air gun pellets. I mention this lest anybody thinks these pellets are simply used indoors for target practice. There are now pellets available—like something called the Prometheus Double Two Hunting Pellet—with steel heads. They are sold (responsibly enough, I suppose) with this warning: This is a hunting pellet and is not recommended for indoor use … Extreme care is needed when using these pellets'', and there follows a Home Office extract which makes it perfectly clear that there is absolutely no control over the use of weapons of this sort. I suggest that something that fires a steel pellet with a velocity very often approaching, or even exceeding, that of a 22 rifle is something on which it would be reasonable for your Lordships to place the very modest controls which we have suggested.

This is a subject about which the RSPB gets more complaints from the public than anything else. All livestock farmers—I include myself among them—feel extremely concerned about this, so I hope that in this case we will ask the Commons to have another look at the arguments that were deployed by your Lordships because, as I say, they clearly did not understand what we were on about.

Moved, That this House doth disagree with the Commons in the said amendment.—(Lord Melchett.)

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Melchett on this. What an awful state of confusion we have got into over this airgun business! Let us remember that favourable words were said from the Government Benches about our amendments. Then there was some backtracking because the Home Office changed their mind; they were going to embark on a grand educational programme to help the youth and other sections of the community handle their airguns responsibly and not shoot at lamp posts, greenhouses, people and cats and dogs. But we have heard nothing more about that great educational programme, and little or nothing was said about it in another place.

If noble Lords want a shock, I recommend them to read the Official Report of the proceedings in Committee in another place when these amendments were discussed. "Dotty" is the right word to use; they simply did not know what they were talking about. They painted a moving picture of the bankruptcy of the airgun manufacturing industry, with millions of pellets not being used, exports falling and unemployment increasing as a result of the restriction imposed on the use of airguns by our amendments. In fact, we are not banning the airgun. I wish we were. Indeed, we are hardly restricting its use; what we propose is marginal.

All the weeping over the manufacturers made me sick. Even if we were banning the airgun altogether I would not listen to the bleats of the manufacturers. I suppose the manufacturers bleated when we decided to ban the gin trap. Probably in earlier days some manufacturers bleated when Parliament decided to ban the man trap. Somebody will always bleat. Some people probably manufacture jemmies. There are always folk willing to manufacture some implement of offence and destruction. We are not proposing to do any of the things the other place suggested would happen and I hope that noble Lords will not allow the steamroller of another place to roll over the whole ground we dealt with at such length in the earlier stages of the Bill. It is a modest proposal, one which appealed to us at the time, and no argument was put up in another place—and I doubt whether any argument will be put up here this afternoon—in favour of reversing our decision.

I must ask this question: What are the party politics of the airgun? In another place our amendments were reversed on a party vote, in Committee, by eight to seven. What a state we have got our politics into when people are prepared to go into lobbies to follow the party line on a restriction in the use of offensive weapons! That is the sort of stupid state we have got our party politics into. A little commonsense and some independent judgment surely can be exercised somewhere in Parliament. If that cannot be done here, it obviously cannot be done in another place, and for that reason alone we should reassert our will on the amendments we passed last time.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I thought the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, had a rather weak case on the latter three amendments, but again I support him on the amendment with which we are dealing. I cannot see any party point in this matter. I too have read the Commons debate. It is not for me to comment on it, but I can find no reason whatever for changing my mind, and I believe there is no question here of breaking an agreement made there; neither do I see it as a constitutional issue in the way the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, sees it. If the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, wishes to divide the House, I shall feel bound—indeed, I shall wish—to support him.

Lord Milverton

I have been doing my best to support the Government, my Lords. I did not vote in the first Division and in the second one I voted for the Government. This time, however, for the sake of conscience, I must support the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. One cannot have strong enough safeguards on weapons, whatever their use or purpose, and therefore I shall support Lord Melchett.

Lord de Clifford

I too support the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, my Lords. At an earlier stage I expressed hostility to air weapons, having had some personal experience of what happens when they are used. Since we last debated the matter I have had further such experience. They are among the most dangerous weapons and unless they are controlled—and what is proposed is only a modest amount of control—I fear that we shall be opening the floodgates. These weapons get more powerful every day. It is unbelievable to think of steel tipped pellets going into airguns.

I have had two personal experiences since I last spoke in your Lordships' House on this matter. In one case it took me very nearly two hours to find and then kill a poor, miserable rabbit which had been shot in the half light. The person who had shot it had paid no attention whatever to what had happened to it. The second occasion was the same as an earlier experience about which I have previously told your Lordships. While out of doors I suddenly heard a sound like a silenced gun going off and two seconds later a pellet arrived at my feet, out of the blue. It came down very fast. I did not find it, though I tried very hard to do so, since I felt that this point would be raised in the House and I should have liked to show the pellet to your Lordships. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, is quite right. We have imposed very modest restrictions and I feel that they should be maintained.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, my noble friends and I on these Benches are very anxious that today we should proceed as rapidly as possible so that we can arrive at other matters, which are perhaps a little more controversial, important though this question is. I think it right to indicate that my noble friends and I on these Benches will be supporting the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. I say that merely in the hope that it might encourage other noble Lords to do likewise.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Beistead)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, mentioned two tragic accidents which had occurred as the result of the use of an airgun. One of the accidents involved a child and the other a dog. First, I wish to make it clear that the Firearms Act 1968 places restrictions on the ownership, possession and use of all air weapons, including the less powerful weapons which do not require firearm certificates. Therefore, in nearly every case the misuse of an air weapon involves the commission of one offence or more under the existing law. I am most anxious not only to make that point, but to make it clear that I do not think that in this respect there is anything between those noble Lords who have spoken in the debate and the Government. Misusing airguns is a menace, and depending on the circumstances, such offences could, for example, include offences against the person of varying degrees of gravity and offences under the Theft Act 1968 and the Criminal Damage Act 1971. Therefore, there already exists a range of powers to deal with most instances of misuse of air weapons.

In addition, it is already an offence to carry a loaded air weapon in a public place, or as a trespasser on private land, without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. So in the context of the debate and the amendments, we are speaking about someone who is shooting on his own land, or as a guest or with permission on someone else's land. The Government accept that problems with air weapons arise in the main, but not entirely, from their misuse by the young, but the problem is one of enforcement, rather than as a result of inadequacy in the existing controls, which are designed to curb the misuse of air weapons while providing the opportunity to use them safely. I am bound to say that rather than have legislation, the most effective way to achieve the very laudable objective of the amendment is for parents to instil into their children a knowledge of how a gun should be handled and then when it ought to be used. The Government fully appreciate the humane and environmental considerations which have led to the inclusion in the Bill of provisions relating to air weapons, but we take the view that this is not the right approach.

At Report stage I gave an undertaking, which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has chided me about. Well, the undertaking has not been carried out because the House did not accept it; your Lordships legislated instead. But the undertaking is still there; namely, that in any campaign against air weapon misuse it would be our intention to seek the views of the British Shooting Sports Council and any other interested organisations. We believe that the best way forward would be to concentrate on the general issue and to seek to heighten public awareness of, and a sense of responsibility about, the dangers of the misuse of air weapons. Of course, the misuse of air weapons against wildlife would form a most important part of such a campaign. I believe that that would be a very effective way in which to build on the legislation which already exists, rather than add yet more legislation.

Lord Swansea

My Lords, I should like to add what is perhaps a lone voice in support of my noble friend on the Front Bench. The shooting organisations, the British Shooting Sports Council through its member organisations, are actively prepared to co-operate with the Government in the preparation and distribution of any material designed to educate the public in the better and safer use of firearms of all descriptions, in particular air weapons, which are the weapons most likely to fall into the hands of young people. Surely the approach that my noble friend has mentioned is far preferable to one of ruling air weapons out of order in a Bill of this kind.

4.56 p.m.

Lord Melchett

But, my Lords, there is no intention on any side of your Lordships' House to rule air weapons out of order. The effect of the amendments that were proposed by the National Farmers' Union, and which the Commons have taken out of the Bill, was simply to make clear exactly what could and what could not be shot with an air weapon. If your Lordships reinstate the amendments, it will still be legal to shoot any pest species with an air weapon. That is not at all interfered with. I agree with the noble Lord on the Government Front Bench that enforcement is a problem, and the amendments would make it perfectly clear to the police when they can and when they cannot take action, because it would be legal to use an air weapon against a living thing only if it is a pest shown on one of the pest schedules to the Bill; otherwise, it would be illegal. That is why the amendments would improve the enforcement of the existing law.

I must say frankly to the noble Lord that a farmer digging an air rifle pellet out of the eye of a cow will not be enormously impressed by an education campaign which might or might not get under way, depending on which course the House decides; nor is it very much help to say that shooting at children or dogs with an air weapon constitutes an offence. I say that because one of the cases that I mentioned involved an air weapon which was kept for shooting things in the garden. The air weapon went off by accident, and so far as I know no offence was committed there. Nevertheless, an accident occurred because an air weapon was kept for a purpose for which clearly it was unsuitable and which your Lordships' amendments would have made illegal.

The advantage of the amendments is that they will discourage people from keeping air weapons, except those people who use them for legitimate purposes; in other words, for target shooting or for controlling pests. Nobody wishes to interfere with the legitimate use of air weapons—the use which is accepted by everybody as legitimate—but we wish to try to prevent the accidents and disasters all too often caused by air weapons. I hope that your Lordships will continue to insist upon that sensible and reasonable course.

4.59 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Motion shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 75; Not-Contents, 88.

Amherst, E. Collison, L.
Ardwick, L. Cooper of Stockton Heath, L.
Aylestone, L.
Banks, L. Craigmyle, L.
Beswick, L. Cranbrook, E.
Birk, B. Darling of Hillsborough, L.
Bishopston, L.—[Teller.] Davies of Leek, L.
Blease, L. de Clifford, L.
Brockway, L. Ewart-Biggs, B.
Bruce of Donington, L. Foot, L.
Burnham, L. Gaitskell, B.
Chorley, L. Garner, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Hale, L.
Hampton, L. Monk Bretton, L.
Hanworth, V. Newall, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Oram, L.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Peart, L.
Howie of Troon, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.—[Teller.]
Hunt, L.
Ilchester, E. Scanlon, L.
Jacques, L. Seear, B.
Jeger, B. Sefton of Garston, L.
Jenkins of Putney, L. Segal, L.
John-Mackie, L. Somers, L.
Kaldor, L. Soper, L.
Kilbracken, L. Stamp, L.
Kilmarnock, L. Stanley of Alderley, L.
Knutsford, V. Stewart of Alvechurch, B.
Lawrence, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Leatherland, L. Stone, L.
Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe,B. Strabolgi, L.
Underhill, L.
Lovell-Davis, L. Vernon, L.
Mackie of Benshie, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Melchett, L. Wells-Pestell, L.
Mersey, V. Whaddon, L.
Milner of Leeds, L. White, B.
Milverton, L. Winstanley, L.
Molloy, L. Wootton of Abinger, B.
Abercorn, D. Hunt of Fawley, L.
Abinger, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Adeane, L. Inchyra, L.
Aldenham, L. Kemsley, V.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Kimberley, E.
Auckland, L. Lane-Fox, B.
Avon, E. Liverpool, E.
Beloff, L. Long, V.
Belstead, L. Lonsdale, E.
Burton, L. Lyell, L.
Buxton of Alsa, L. Mackay of Clashfern, L.
Campbell of Croy, L. Macleod of Borve, B.
Cockfield, L. Mancroft, L.
Cottesloe, L. Margadale, L.
Craigavon, V. Marley, L.
Daventry, V. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Davidson, V. Noel-Buxton, L.
De La Warr, E. Norfolk, D.
Denham, L.—[Teller.] Northchurch, B.
Digby, L. Onslow, E.
Dilhorne, V. Orkney, E.
Dormer, L. Orr-Ewing, L.
Drumalbyn, L. Peel, E.
Ebbisham, L. Platt of Writtle, B.
Eccles, V. Plummer of St.Marylebone, L.
Elphinstone, L.
Fairfax of Cameron, L. Rochdale, V.
Faithfull, B. Romney, E.
Ferrers, E. Saint Brides, L.
Fortescue, E. St. Davids, V.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Sandford, L.
Gainford, L. Sandys, L.—[Teller.]
Gibson-Watt, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Glendevon, L. Strathclyde, L.
Gormanston, V. Strathcona and MountRoyal, L.
Grafton, D.
Gray, L. Swansea, L
Gridley, L. Swinfen, L.
Halsbury, E. Swinton, E.
Hankey, L. Terrington, L.
Hatherton, L. Teviot, L.
Hawke, L. Thorneycroft, L.
Henley, L. Trumpington, B.
Hives, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Holderness, L. Vivian, L.

Resolved in the negative, and Motion to disagree disagreed to accordingly.

5.8 p.m.