HL Deb 30 April 1987 vol 486 cc1668-83

7.35 p.m.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It is a privilege for me to introduce the Bill into your Lordships' House. The measure was ably taken through all its stages in another place by my honourable friend Mr. Peter Bruinvels, the Member for Leicester East. It is a short and, I am sure your Lordships will agree, non-controversial Bill designed to outlaw the sale and hire of crossbows to people under the age of 17. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have indicated their intention to speak this evening. I look forward very much to hearing the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Haddington. If anyone knows anything about crossbows, I am sure he does, as he used to make them.

This small but urgently needed Bill not only has had the support of the Government, for which I am very grateful, but has also had support from all quarters of another place, as well as the support of the British Crossbow Association, the Daily Mail and other newspapers, the Police Federation, the National Farmers Union, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the British Veterinary Association, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and many others, as well as my own society, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. It has been introduced not to stop the sale of crossbows to clubs and to responsible people but to curtail the misuse of crossbows and to bring them in line with firearms legislation with regard to age restriction on sale, purchase and unsupervised possession.

Crossbows were first brought into this country by the Normans in 1066. One of the earliest casualties was William II who was accidentally killed when hunting deer. Crossbows were used by armies until about 1522. In the 15th century they were commonly used for deer and buck shooting and in 1621 Archbishop Abbot of Canterbury, while out hunting for a stag, accidentally killed a park keeper.

Crossbow laws were among the oldest in the country until being repealed not long ago. In the Royal Gallery there is a copy of an Act regulating shooting with crossbows which was published in 1512. That Act restricted the right to use a crossbow to Lords and to owners of land of a yearly value of 300 marks—about £200. That was to encourage others to use the long bow which was regarded as very important for the defence of the kingdom. Those days are long gone.

Since then there have been many tragic and disturbing crossbow incidents involving not only animals but also humans—numerous cases of deliberate maiming and killing of animals and of human suffering. There have been many stories and pictures of swans, ducks, sheep and cats, to name a few, with bolts in various parts of their anatomy. Some are killed instantly; all too often, they go away to die in a corner out of sight. It would take too long to go through the list of suffering. However, the gruesome pictures which we have seen tell the story all too vividly.

Then there is the human side. Only a few months ago a postman standing at a bus stop was hit by a bolt from a crossbow which went seven inches into his thigh. That is just under half the length of a bolt which can be up to 15 inches long. It was just one of a number of accidents relating to human beings and I am pleased to say that the postman recovered. Some victims do not. In a case reported in the Daily Mirror only the other day a 27 year-old man died of a bolt through his chest. The headline was: Crossbow terror victim dies". A lady who cared for the injured man said that the metal bolt protruded a foot from his back.

In 1986 police records show some 115 specific cases of injury or death to animals or humans. A crossbow in the wrong hands is a lethal weapon and can kill or injure without much sound. At present there are about 200,000 in circulation with about 1,700 being sold each year. They are easy to buy through mail order or over the counter. They cost from £30 up to about £250 or more. They are vividly described in catalogues. One example is the Trident which is accurate up to 50 yards. Others are known as Panzer II, Wildcat II, and Thunderbolt. Some carry up to about six bolts lined up on the bow, ready for use. The bolts cost about £2 each. As I have said, they are usually up to 15 inches long and some have tungsten-tipped ends that screw in. If the rules of the House had permitted, I would have shown one of the bows to your Lordships. However, I am not allowed to do so.

Crossbows can be very accurate and they will kill at a range of 25 yards. Even at a 100 yards, they can wound. I have described bows which are at the top end of the range. At the other end, there is the Bandit Bow for family fun which has rubber suckers at the end of the bolt. Those toy crossbows need very little draw weight to propel the bolt and are exempt from the Bill, to which I shall come in a moment.

The draw weight is the measurement of the actual weight which would need to be exerted on the string to pull it into a cocked position. The figure of 1.4 kg. (or 3 lb) was reached in consultation with the crossbow manufacturers. More powerful crossbows have a draw weight of between 50 lb to 150 lb.

The principal manufacturer of crossbows is a firm called Barnett International who, in 1985, had a turnover of £4 million. The company employs about 230 people, and about 85 per cent. sales go for export. In all about 700 people are employed with the crossbow industry, excluding retail outlets.

The Bill is designed to keep a balance between the need to improve restrictions, the desire to protect the sportsman and the need to protect the industry. In that respect, and turning to the Bill, Clause 1 makes it an offence for any person, be it by mail order or over the counter, to sell or let on hire a crossbow, or part of a crossbow, to anyone under the age of 17 unless he has reasonable grounds to believe the purchaser or hirer to be 17 or over. The Home Office will be issuing guidance notes to all traders urging them not to sell to persons under 17.

Clause 2 makes it an offence for a person under 17 years of age to purchase or hire a crossbow or part of one. Clauses 1 and 2 bring the age restriction in line with the Firearms Act 1968. Clause 3 covers possession and makes it an offence for a person under 17 to have with him a crossbow, or parts of a crossbow, unless he is under the supervision of someone aged 21 or over. This applies to the possession of a complete crossbow, in kit form or one that has been dismantled. The offence may be committed in any place, whether public or private.

Clause 4 gives the police the power of search and seizure in respect of a person, vehicle or property if there is reasonable cause to believe that a person is committing or has committed an offence under this Bill. The Bill does not create any new powers of arrest. Clause 5 excludes the toy crossbow which I have already mentioned. This is a small market and excludes bows with rubber suction pads which could not do any harm as they do not have enough draw weight to hurt anything.

Clause 6 lays down the punishment. Under Clause 1 a person guilty of an offence will be liable to six months' imprisonment and/or to pay a fine of scale 5, which is £2,000, and in subsection (2) and (3) sets the level of fine as scale 3, which is £400. Subsection (3) of this clause gives the courts powers to order the forfeiture or disposal of the crossbow if an offence has been committed. Clause 7 relates to Northern Ireland and this will be done by an Order in Council to be introduced when the Bill has been enacted. Clause 8 speaks for itself.

I should like to thank Her Majesty's Government and my noble friend in particular, and his colleagues for their help and support with this Bill and also the sponsors in another place for all the support the Bill has received nationally.

As I have said, the Bill has been designed to combat the growing menace of this silent but lethal weapon. In 1965 only 1,000 crossbows were sold; while in 1985 there were 17,000 sold and 200,000 were in circulation.

Crossbows are here to stay and one day it may even become an Olympic sport. I can assure people who have reservations, and crossbow sportsmen, that we do not want to stop field sports. It is the increase of the misuse of the crossbow that this Bill is designed to stop.

Some people would like the Bill to go further—namely, to impose a total ban. That could not be justified when other weapons are not subject to a ban—for example air weapons. Other people advocate licensing crossbows. That would be difficult, if not impossible, to justify when other weapons do not have that restriction. Other suggestions have been made but this Bill has the right balance to curb these lethal weapons. It is the animals who have suffered most and who now need our protection. That is the reason for this Bill and I commend it to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Brougham and Vaux.)

7.45 p.m.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, I should like first of all to congratulate the noble Lord for bringing this very simple, concise and explicit Bill before your Lordships. I should also like to say how grateful I am to the honourable Member of another place who managed successfully—and it is much more difficult in that House—to bring this Bill to a good conclusion. I think we can safely say that this is a Bill which cannot have anybody rising, either in this House or the other place, to criticise any of the clauses. It is simple and deals with something which is a very real menace.

Recently I put down a Question concerning the fact that shops are opening up everywhere where people can buy all kinds of the most appalling lethal weapons. As a result of that Question, I received dozens of letters expressing dismay, and making particular reference to crossbows. One of the groups which have been concerned have been teachers who have written about the kind of mail order books that circulate around the schools. I have one such book here which was actually purchased in an ordinary newsagents. It describes the most horrific weapons which we are not discussing this evening, but it certainly includes crossbows.

There is no doubt the book is not referring to a sport. If crossbows are included with survival knives, Rambo sidearms, and blank firing pistols, they are not something for amusement, but must be regarded as being lethal, as indeed a crossbow is.

Over the years I have listened to women's organisations moving resolutions on crossbows and they have given the most horrific examples of injuries sustained to animals to which the noble Lord has referred; and now human beings have been injured. As the noble Lord said, sadly the animals crawl away to die in absolute pain. Quite recently there were three such very harmless animals found in a park. Whatever argument we may advance for the kind of person who wants to buy a crossbow, if such people live in the middle of a city and are under the age specified in the Bill, what can they possibly want with a crossbow except to use it for destruction, the maiming of animals or, in many cases, humans? They cannot justify it in any other way.

There is only one slight comment I should like to make on the Bill, and I am not going to suggest any amendments because the Bill has to go through Parliament speedily. However, I would suggest that the punishments are not as severe as they might be. But, this is a great start in a campaign which many of us have conducted over the years and which I shall continue on other fronts.

I am delighted to know that we are going to have the privilege of a maiden speech this evening from the noble Earl, Lord Haddington. We look forward to this as I understand he is expert in this field. It is quite a scoop on the part of his noble friend to achieve his maiden speech on this particular occasion.

We are not asking here for anything that is not needed. It is a simple Bill and it is an explicit Bill which I hope has the blessing of the Government. I ask your Lordships to support it and to support the noble Lord who introduced it to the House this evening.

7.50 p.m.

The Earl of Haddington

My Lords, I crave your Lordships' indulgence for this my maiden speech. I share the concern of noble Lords about the increase in crimes and hooliganism associated with the use of crossbows. However, I must immediately declare that I have an interest in an archery manufacturing company in Scotland. Until three years ago we made a high quality target crossbow which sold successfully throughout Europe. However, we ceased to make this weapon at that time for the very reasons that this Bill is before your Lordships' House today; but we continue to make target bows of a high quality.

From past experience of the manufacture and use of crossbows I feel that I may be of some help to those noble Lords who are unfamiliar with this weapon. A well-made crossbow with a draw weight of 1001b. armed with bolts of equal weight and size, and properly fletched, can consistently hit a six-inch diameter target at 100 yards. In free flight a bolt can travel 600 yards or more and still deal a damaging blow to anything in its path. At 100 yards a bolt fired from this weapon can penetrate one inch of timber or go straight through a London telephone directory. That is on a par with a 0.22 calibre rifle bullet.

The only difference between a quality crossbow and a rifle is that the rifle uses a noisy explosive charge to release a small projectile at great velocity—around 1,500 feet per second—whereas a crossbow is silent and sends the heavier bolt away at only 250 feet per second; but the damage done to the target is much the same in both cases. No child should ever have access to one of these weapons and I have grave doubts as to whether anyone under the age of 18 should be allowed to possess one.

The crossbow has become a favourite weapon of the poaching fraternity, and in Scotland one hears many stories of bolts being found stuck in trees where game has been illegally sought. In the Highlands red deer have been found alive or dying with bolts still stuck in their bodies. More disturbing still are the reports of the NFU from farmers whose stock has been the subject of assault by crossbows.

People must be protected from this incredibly irresponsible behaviour by certain individuals and I fear that if nothing is done the problem will soon escalate. It is a pity that this minority has spoilt the sport for those who are genuinely interested in using a crossbow in an acceptable manner for target practice and competition.

I read that one archery company claimed that 230 men would be laid off if the crossbow is legislated against. To that I can only say that after we discontinued the manufacture of crossbows the four men we employ at our works still have their jobs and we continue to make bows for the archery enthusiast and competitor.

One problem in the manufacture of crossbows is the difficulty of making an adequate safety catch. A clause in the Bill stating that crossbows should always be fitted with a safety catch of a high standard would prevent many accidents. Some designs that I have seen are faulty and others have no safety catch whatever. I can also add to the list of different heads for bolts that are on the market in Europe. One particularly horrific head contains an explosive charge timed to detonate one-tenth of a second after impact. I have never seen an example of this missile but heard tell of it 10 years ago.

In America, where anyone can buy a gun for sporting purposes over the counter, crossbows are banned from being used for game hunting. It is not a quick death for a rabbit to be hit by a bolt. A gun is a surer way of killing any form of animal in a humane way. In my opinion, crossbows should he banned as a method of game shooting or vermin control.

I concur that the cult of Rambo has inspired certain teenagers to arm themselves wth a variety of exotic weaponry. The crossbow is way at the top of the list of powerful weapons that are available without a licence. If no controls are introduced to prevent their misuse more people and animals will be at risk, particularly as the weapon is widely advertised in glossy brochures. Young people are impressionable and require expert guidance where weapons are concerned. Archery clubs provide that service and young persons should be encouraged to compete in their legitimate surroundings. Any haphazard use of the crossbow should be severely discouraged and I hope that we shall soon see measures taken in that direction.

7.55 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I have great pleasure indeed in congratulating the noble Earl, Lord Haddington, on his maiden speech. One of the most fascinating features of your Lordships' House is that it does not matter what subject is under discussion, however obscure or technical, however remote from the lives of many of your Lordships; there is always someone who can come to your Lordships' House with a degree of expert knowledge which rivals anything we could get from any other source.

I noticed that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, in an article published over the weekend, paid high tribute to the expertise and experience of Members of your Lordships' House, which, with the presentation of our affairs to the world at large through television, has raised our prestige to heights never before known. This is very gratifying and the noble Earl, Lord Haddington, has contributed to this enviable reputation. No other part of the parliamentary system can claim anything comparable with our knowledge and experience—especially experience.

One of these days when we are debating these weapons which we have not seen or have not seen fired—and we have not seen what harm they can do—we will have some visual aids as well as the expertise of Members of your Lordships' House who can tell us a great deal about them. I am sure we are very grateful to the noble Earl for his technical descriptions and his references to the capacity and the nature of such weapons. As for the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, we are grateful to him for introducing the Bill into your Lordships' House and outlining the history of this weapon.

What a wicked weapon it is. It goes back to the beginning of time. In fact, when the ancestors of the noble Earl, Lord Haddington, were breathing their first breath of life crossbows apparently were in common use to wage war, to kill animals and generally to assassinate anything moving. That gives the noble Earl greater qualification for telling us about crossbows.

This can be described as a good little Bill—very good, very little. It rests upon the assumption that young people below a certain age are irresponsible, ignorant, vicious or in some way incapable of using particular items, or indulging in certain activities, with the sense of responsibility of an adult. Probably that is true up to a point—but only up to a point. I wonder how much real difference this Bill will make to the havoc that this weapon is creating throughout the country at the present time.

Will the banning of the weapon in the hands of young people under 17 make that much difference? I notice that the noble Earl, is shaking his head and indicating that it will not. That does not mean to say that this Bill is not worth passing. It brings control over the weapon into line with the control of other offensive weapons. It will establish a uniformity of deterrence. We hope that it will be effective in reducing the irresponsible use of the weapon.

One wonders what the crossbow is for. What are bows and arrows for? They are a bit out of date now as weapons of war or instruments for the killing of animals. They have to do with sport—archery, rifle ranges and target practice. They provide fascinating forms of recreation. The danger is that crossbows are freely used for offensive purposes.

According to my information, about 17,000 new crossbows were introduced into the country last year. About 250,000 have already been sold. What are 250,000 people doing with crossbows? They are not all engaged in innocent sport and practice. One apparently cannot trace more than about 3,000 crossbow owners who belong to what I would call the inoffensive group of crossbow owners. Many of the others are in the hands of poachers and those who go about at night. The crossbow is an almost silent weapon. It has an effectiveness in the hands of poachers which a rifle may not have, especially at night.

We have had the most horrifying accounts of the condition of animals. We have heard from the noble Lord who introduced the Bill of the incidents that have been caused deliberately or otherwise, to human beings. The real damage with the crossbow is being done by people over the age of 17. The Bill proposes to deny the use of a crossbow to people up to the age of 17. It will be an offence to supply a crossbow to anyone under the age of 17.

The question has been asked as to whether "supply" will cover the mail order business which is now so popular for a wide range of goods. Difficulties about that have been mentioned. The Government do not feel disposed to include in the Bill a clause dealing with mail order. I understand that they are ready to give the best possible advice to mail order firms and to tell them what precautions they should take to avoid inadvertently supplying crossbows to customers under the age of 17. That is all to the good.

Those of us who have been engaged in reforming legislation for many years must be content with taking one step at a time. One is bound to admit that the creation of more offences with more penalties and increased imprisonment, imposes an additional burden on an overworked police force and on the community because we shall be banning articles that some people find pleasurable.

We should be grateful to the RSPCA, because whenever we do more to protect animals we are inadvertently and probably unknowingly unloading a great deal of extra work on the RSPCA. That is because generally the police do not regard offences involving animals as in the same category as offences against human beings. Many a time when people have gone to police stations to ask the police to take an interest in something they have seen or heard, they receive the reply, "We are too busy dealing with crime to take up such investigations".

I offer the opinion that the RSPCA undertakes more investigations that lead to prosecution than is generally realised. I have tried to get at the bottom of that, but it is difficult to do so. However, I know that the RSPCA spends a great deal of money every year on prosecutions for which it does not receive any reimbursement. At present it is asking for greater powers of entry to discover offences against animals, but that is another and bigger question that does not arise tonight.

The proposals in the Bill go as far as one can go on this occasion. They give the police the right to inspect and investigate and to go as far as is reasonable, short of giving them the right of entry into someone's home. I do not press that matter; I merely refer to it.

Whenever such matters are raised, one must get them into some perspective, put them against the background of the treatment of animals generally and help the educational process in Parliament and outside to make people more aware of the extent of the cruelty that goes on. I think that cruelty is the biggest crime on earth. I regret to say that it is innate in humans. We are working against human nature nearly all the time, but if we aim to have civilised living, we must try to do that.

If we are to allow humans forever to indulge their primary instincts without education or restraint and without securing a higher standard of behaviour, then the world will remain uncivilised until it blows up. One might ask what regrets there would be if it did. That is a long way from crossbows; nevertheless, it is all part of the general problem which deeply concerns everyone, morally and in other respects—the relationship of man to the animal kingdom.

We are grateful for the Bill. It takes us a little way along the road. Later we may approach the wider question of the use and existence of offensive weapons in society generally. There are similar problems with airguns. However, I do not think they are as serious as the crossbow. There is no doubt that it is a lethal weapon. Much harm can be done by the misuse of air weapons. The crossbow can be wicked when used on animals and dangerous if human beings get in the way. That is all I want to say. It is quite a lot.

One of the great things about your Lordships' House is that time and opportunity to talk briefly about subjects of this kind are given far more liberally than in the other place. One can be in the other place for many, many years—I say this from experience—and not have the opportunity to raise matters which in your Lordships' House are regarded as worth discussion and which give satisfaction to those of us who have now been here for a long time.

8.10 p.m.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, it is my pleasant duty to congratulate my noble friend Lord Haddington on his maiden speech. It was absolutely magnificent that, although I understand he is with a company that manufactures crossbows, he also said that he would recommend the banning of crossbows apart from use for target shooting. That shows what an honest man he must be. I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux for introducing this Bill. It is a very good Bill and it is certainly a start. I would prefer the Bill to be stronger but I shall not put forward any amendments because I should like the Bill to get on to the statute book quickly.

Ten or twelve days ago I asked a Question in the House on the subject of crossbows. From my experience I spoke of the appalling wounds inflicted on wild animals. I have also seen them on sheep but we lose many sheep—so far as I know, most disappear into the boots of cars. I have seen red deer stags—which are very large animals—very badly wounded by crossbows, though I have only seen one stag killed by a crossbow. It had a crossbow in the head which killed it instantly.

The worst experience with crossbows I have seen occurred on my estate in East Kent. In summer the public come into the gardens. I have a pet park of about two acres there for children. One morning the pet park manager reported, "Something appalling has happened". I had five little muntjac deer there. They are the smallest deer in this country, although they are not native. They came here about 25 years ago or perhaps earlier. Of the five, three had been killed with crossbows. One was running about with a bolt through its neck. I am astounded that it remained alive because I should have thought that the bolt would have hit either the spine or the jugular vein. However, it was alive; I soon despatched it with a rifle.

The Home Office and the police have statistics on crossbows but the statistics do not show anything like the amount of cruelty involved, or the number of animals killed by crossbows. Last year there were 115 cases of the misuse of crossbows where animals had been killed or wounded. Humans had also been wounded. Of those cases there were 10 which involved burglaries where the inhabitants of the house were threatened by crossbows.

The public may not have realised the danger of crossbows. As one or two noble Lords have said, the crossbow is a most lethal weapon because it is silent. Today it has telescopic sights and a flat trajectory of up to 70 or 100 yards. As the noble Earl said, if I heard correctly, it can have a range of 600 yards. It used not to have that range in Norman days. It is interesting that in the 16th century crossbows were made illegal apart from use by a few large landowners. A few people were exempt because they required them to shoot wild boar and stag. It is amazing to consider that in the 16th century there were various enactments against the crossbow. It could not be used by the public mainly because so many people were murdered by crossbows. Highwaymen also used to use them. Today we are supposed to be highly civilised—although I often doubt it—but there is no law to prevent the use of crossbows. However, we now have a Bill which is certainly a step in the right direction.

Perhaps I may turn to the Bill for a moment. I know that my noble friend has explained it extremely well. With regard to crossbows being sold by mail order—a matter which I brought up in the House a short time ago—I should like to know how the shop owner is to know whether the individual ordering the crossbow is under or over 17. I do not understand how he will find that out. To find that out, the individual would have to send his birth certificate, but I do not think that that would be likely.

On the proposal for search of vehicles by the police, I should like to raise the question of search of boats. On my estate in the Highlands there are many miles of shoreline. In the winter the deer come down on the seaweed at night to feed on it. We have had trouble with people in boats—presumably trawlers and fishing boats—using powerful lights and shooting the deer on the seaweed. Whether they are using crossbows I do not know: they shoot the deer and then take them on board. We have found one or two wounded deer which have survived. They had certainly been shot by crossbows. Whether they were shot by people coming in by boat we cannot tell of course., but I should have liked the measure with regard to searches to include boats.

The crossbow is ideal for poachers, in particular in hill country. In the hills one can hear a rifle from a long way away, whereas one cannot hear a crossbow. Crossbows have been used by poachers for quite a long time. Some modern crossbows have been used for poaching for perhaps 15 or 20 years. I refer to a newspaper cutting about a poor man who was killed the other day by someone shooting at him with a crossbow. That is appalling.

I should like to say how glad I am that we now have this Bill, and I sincerely hope that it has a swift passage through your Lordships' House. I believe that it would be a mistake to put down any amendments, although I should have liked to do so. I am extremely encouraged by the noble Earl, Lord Haddington, when he said that he would like crossbows banned apart from target shooting. I suggested that myself a couple of years ago.

When my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux introduced this Bill, he mentioned field sports. I think he implied that crossbows were used in field sports. With due respect to my noble friend, no field sportsman would ever use a crossbow. That is completely unknown. It has never been done because of the dangers of wounding. The only weapon to shoot an animal with is a high velocity rifle.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, while my noble friend is on this subject, in order to put his mind at rest, perhaps I may say that there is the Grand National Archery Society, the governing body of archery and also the National Field Crossbow Federation.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, there may be a National Field Crossbow Federation, but shooting with crossbows is not a field sport. That is quite another matter.

I hope the Bill will have a speedy passage through the House.

8.22 p.m.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, like my noble friend I welcome this Bill and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, for introducing it. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Haddington, for his competent and constructive speech. I have only a few words to say but I am a fairly experienced shikari, to use the Hindustani, and a member of the Royal Company of Archers.

I have consulted a number of knowledgeable people about this Bill. The only possible amendment which I put before your Lordships is that the Bill might be improved with a definition of a crossbow and perhaps a definition of the bolt. I feel that this is something that I am not competent to advise on, but the police and the Administration and perhaps the RSPCA might be called on to see whether, first, such a definition is possible, and, secondly, whether it is prudent that it should be included in the Bill. I hope that the Bill will go forward without delay.

The Earl of Haddington

My Lords, I should like to interrupt to define a crossbow. It is a bow which is fixed to a stock with a trigger mechanism attached to that stock to prevent the release of the string before one places an arrow in it.

8.23 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, from these Benches I should like to congratulate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, for presenting the Bill in such a clear and lucid way and also for giving us a fascinating historical background. In the other place the debate was exceptionally thorough. Having read the debate in Hansard, one realises that there was no point that was not covered in the debate there about this Bill.

As my noble friend said, we are most fortunate in this House to have an extra quality about a debate of this kind because we have the expertise of certain Members. I should also like to congratulate and thank the noble Earl, Lord Haddington, for adding that invaluable expertise to this debate and also for giving a physical description of a crossbow, the article we are discussing today and which not all of us know. I was horrified this afternoon when I was shown a bolt by the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux. He told me that he unfortunately could not bring it into the Chamber to show all your Lordships, but when one sees it it brings home to one that it is such an extremely lethal and dangerous weapon. Seeing the bolt, one can imagine the propelling instrument behind it and can imagine very easily the danger to human or animal life that it can inflict.

There has been no shortage of proof from previous speakers that there is overwhelming support for this measure. My noble friend Lady Phillips confirmed that when she put down a Question she received unequivocal support from members of the public who wrote to tell her how welcome they would find even this slightly restrictive measure. My noble friend Lord Houghton made the point that he was rather sad that it only targeted young people and that perhaps it was not young people who were of the most concern in this matter. From my experience I have found that young people are most idealistic and show an enormous concern for animals: in fact, most of them are vegetarians. I agree with my noble friend Lord Houghton that it is a pity this Bill cannot go a little further.

We have had unequivocal proof of the suffering that has been caused to animals and in some cases to humans as well. In this context I should like to impress that there is a growing worry about accessibility to all sorts of weapons. There is accessibility for virtually anyone who wants seriously to get hold of them. For that reason I should like to point out that a number of my honourable friends in another place have made representations on numerous occasions to the Home Office in favour of much greater controls on the advertising and sale of all weapons, about the establishment of shops that sell such weapons and about whether we can agree changes in the law concerning the possession of weapons. After all, we must all want the public and the police to be protected from the growing use of weapons. The Bill is trying to stem the use of one.

Perhaps the only regret we have, as I have said, is that the Bill does not go a little further. We also agree that it must be accepted that there is an urgency for even this minor measure to get on to the statute book. Perhaps later we could bear in mind that it will be possible for the Home Office to watch matters very carefully as a result of the passing of the Bill, which presumably will discipline minds and make people realise the importance that Parliament attaches to this matter. Perhaps the Home Office will see how the statistics move after the passing of the Bill. It will then be possible to consider whether to extend the provisions to other groups of people. Perhaps if the circumstances appear to warrant it, it may be necessary to introduce licences for crossbows.

The two small points I should like to make are, first, that I find, as the noble Earl found, that the choice of the age of 17 rather than 18 as a minimum age at which one can legally possess a crossbow is less satisfactory. I should have preferred it to be 18. I understand the reason why 17 has been chosen, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, but the age of 18 is the measuring stick for many other measures and therefore I should have thought it would be a possibility.

The second question is one that I wish to put out of curiosity. We have an expert, and perhaps the noble Earl, Lord Haddington, will answer it. I realise that toy crossbows are exempted—quite rightly. They have missiles which have a rubber sucker at the end. It occurred to me that a sharp tipped missile of the kind I was shown this afternoon fired from a crossbow with a draw weight of over 3 pounds could inflict serious injury. I can see that a small bow would not inflict serious injury if it had its own missile but if a sharp tipped and heavier missile was put in its place, could it discharge a strong force and therefore be able to inflict some damage? I should be interested to have an answer to those questions if the noble Earl would be good enough to tell me from his experience.

In the meantime I welcome the Bill and wish it a safe passage.

The Earl of Haddington

My Lords, in answer to the noble Baroness's question, I would say yes, there could be severe injury if somebody removed the rubber suction pad from the end of the bolt for a toy crossbow and put a sharp needle or even a pointed stick in its place and then fired. It could put out somebody's eye. I hope that answers the noble Baroness's question.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I am very grateful.

8.31 p.m.

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Haddington has made his maiden speech, or three maiden speeches, tonight on this subject. I should like to add my congratulations and say that we look forward to hearing him many times in the future, particularly on subjects such as this about which he clearly knows a great deal.

The Government are very pleased that my noble friend Lord Brougham is guiding the Crossbows Bill through the various stages in this House. The Bill has been most ably handled in another place by my honourable friend the Member for Leicester, East, where it received a very warm welcome from all sides.

There has been a good deal of public concern arising from reports in newspapers and elsewhere of crossbow attacks both on people and on animals. In several instances these attacks have resulted in serious injuries. The Government believe that legislation is needed to prevent these potentially lethal weapons falling into the hands of young persons under 17. This Bill aims to do that without imposing unnecessary restrictions on adults and young persons, suitably supervised, who participate in the legitimate and growing sport of crossbow archery.

It is important to put the problem of crossbow misuse into perspective, since crossbow attacks tend to attract a great deal of publicity, and this can give the impression that they are more frequent than is in fact the case. Comprehensive figures relating to misuse are unfortunately not available but we do know that during the 12 months to April 1986 the police in England and Wales recorded only 115 cases of crossbow misuse.

Of these, 54 were offences of criminal damage, 25 involved the injury or death of animals, and there were 10 cases of injury to persons. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recorded a total of 117 crossbow attacks on animals between 1980 and 1986, the main victims being sheep, ducks, cats, swans and deer. Moreover, there have been five further incidents recorded by the RSPCA so far this year. Overall, although any misuse of such weapons is to be deplored, crossbows still feature in only a tiny proportion of crimes, whether against humans, animals or property.

For these reasons, although the Government welcome this Bill, they do not think that there is a need at present for the much stricter control advocated by some. There have, for example, been calls for a licensing system along the lines of that for firearms. This would, however, impose a considerable administrative burden on the police, and the time spent on this work would have to be at the expense of other arguably more important tasks. It has also been suggested that membership of a recognised crossbow club should be a requirement for anyone wishing to purchase or possess a crossbow. But the club system is not sufficiently developed at present for this, and the registration of clubs would itself pose problems. Moreover, given the comparative ease with which a crossbow can be made at home, and the number of crossbows already in circulation, we doubt that a requirement of this kind would have a significant impact on the incidence of misuse.

The Government do not, however, underestimate the potential dangers of these weapons, and I am sure noble Lords will agree that it is very necessary to keep crossbows out of the hands of unsupervised young people, which is what this Bill will do. My noble friend has already covered the clauses in the Bill very fully. There are only one or two further points which I shall make.

The age limit of 17 laid down here has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, to be too low for this kind of weapon. It is, however, the same age as that required for the purchase of a firearm or air weapon as laid down in the Firearm Act 1968 and it would be difficult to justify a higher age limit for crossbows than that for firearms. While any legal age limit is always likely to be the subject of debate, it seems to me that there should be some consistency in this matter.

My noble friend Lord Haddington suggested that a crossbow is a very inhumane way of killing animals. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Massereene gave us a graphic example. I can tell your Lordships that the Protection of Animals Act 1911 creates an offence of causing unnecessary suffering to a domestic animal, while under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 it is an offence to kill or take any wild animal or bird with a crossbow. It is clear therefore that the necessary legislation to prevent the misuse of crossbows does exist, although enforcement may be difficult.

My noble friend Lord Ferrier suggested that the Bill might be improved by the addition of a definition of a crossbow. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines a crossbow in terms of a bow fixed across a wooden stop with a groove for the missile and a mechanism for holding and releasing the string. We see no reason to repeat this in the Bill. Indeed, to do so might create unnecessary doubt. Crossbows have already been referred to in the statute book without being defined, including in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It will be obvious from the appearance of the object whether it is a crossbow and ultimately it will be for a court to determine, if it should prove to be necessary, which we think unlikely, whether a weapon falls within the dictionary definition.

Under Clause 1, which creates offences of selling or letting on hire a crossbow or part of a crossbow to a person under the age of 17, it will be a defence where the accused believes the purchaser or hirer to be 17 or older and has reasonable grounds for that belief. Your Lordships will be pleased to know that this clause applies to all forms of sale, including mail order. There are some, I know, including the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, who would like to see a total ban on mail order sales, but I do not think this could be justified while shotguns and air weapons can be purchased in this manner. Nor is there any evidence that the availability of these items by mail order makes them more likely to be acquired by juveniles. In practice mail order firms selling goods of this kind require an age declaration from would-be purchasers. This procedure is followed by traders in respect of low powered air weapons which do not require a certificate under firearms legislation. We are not aware that there is any widespread abuse.

We are also satisfied that Clause 6 contains the right penalties. An offence against Clause 1 of the Bill will carry a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment or a fine up to level five on the standard scale, which is currently £2,000, or indeed both. This is in line with the penalties under the Firearms Act 1968 for selling a firearm to a person under 17. Offences of purchase or unsupervised possession of a crossbow by a person under 17 will attract a fine of up to level three on the standard scale, which is currently £400. By reason of the Magistrates Courts Act 1980 as amended, this is the maximum fine that can be imposed on a person of this age by a magistrates' court.

This Bill is short and straightforward. Its purpose is quite clear. The Government welcome the measure and I hope that your Lordships will feel able to give the Bill the support that it so justifiably deserves.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, the government statistics on the misuse of crossbows are not accurate. How can they know of the hundreds of cases where poachers have been using them in the night or at any time of day? If the poachers kill the animal, which presumably in these cases they do, the carcase is taken away, so there will not be a record anyway. The Government's statistics must be very limited.

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I agree. In all aspects of crime I should think it reasonable to expect that there is an unreported element. I am sure that the noble Viscount himself would have great difficulty in being able accurately to report every case where his deer in Scotland have been taken while feeding on the seaweed.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate this evening, and particularly to my noble friend. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said, so often we get a case where we have a Bill, be it on wildlife, this Bill or any other Bill, where we always have one noble Lord who knows more about the subject than anybody else. I congratulate my noble friend on his excellent maiden speech. I think we have got one up on the other place this time in that we knew more about it than they did. I hope to hear my noble friend again very soon.

My noble friend on the Front Bench has kindly relieved me of the burden of answering all the questions. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, wanted visual aids. I should have liked to bring in a crossbow and bolt, but we are not allowed to; not even the bolt, which is still an offensive weapon. It remains for me to thank all noble Lords who have spoken, including my noble friend on the Front Bench. I thank all noble Lords for their support. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.