HL Deb 02 December 1987 vol 490 cc1059-62

3.9 p.m.

Lord Denham

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall arrange for a Statement that will be made in another place this afternoon on the Firearms White Paper to be printed in the Official Report. As soon as the Statement has been concluded in another place I shall arrange for a copy to be placed in the Library of the House.

Following is the Statement by the Secretary of State for the Home Department (the Right Honourable Douglas Hurd):

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the Government's proposed new controls on firearms. These are described in the White Paper entitled Firearms Act 1968: Proposals for Reform, which has been published today.

"The House will recall that in a debate on 26th October I outlined the main conclusions of our review of firearms controls. Both before and since the debate there have been a number of other fatal incidents involving the use of guns. This reinforces me in the belief that it is time to strengthen the controls.

"The law cannot guarantee against criminal behaviour. Nor can it protect us against the individual who, having complied with all the requirements, loses control in a fit of madness. But we can seek to reduce the risk. A substantial shift is needed in the balance which has to be struck between safeguarding the public at large and protecting the interests of legitimate gun users.

"The main responsibility of Government must be to secure as far as possible the safety of the general public from the irresponsible or criminal use of firearms. But we must also take account of those who regularly use guns in a safe and responsible way in the course of their work or chosen sport. We have sought to accommodate the needs and interests of the legitimate shooting community wherever possible; providing this does not compromise our fundamental concern to afford adequate protection to the community at large. Those who would disagree, who would seek to remove entirely from private hands a wide range of firearms, misunderstand the nature of the problem. Certainly there are some types of especially dangerous weapon which we cannot allow the private individual to possess, and I have taken steps to prohibit these. But beyond this it would be wrong to deprive people— the farmer, sportsman, target shooter— of their weapons. Rather we must ensure that they are subject to a degree of control and scrutiny which offers a real safeguard against abuse.

"Let me summarise our proposals. We intend to bring within the prohibited category full-bore self-loading rifles; burst fire weapons; and short-barrelled self-loading or pump action shotguns. These are weapons which for the most part have no legitimate sporting use and which possess a rate of fire and a magazine capacity which makes them especially lethal. We shall prohibit the movement of a firearm or shotgun into a less strictly controlled category by means of conversion. Pump action and self-loading shotguns, which have a greater fire capability than traditional shotguns, are to be brought under the same controls as now exist for rifles and pistols. On penalties, the Criminal Justice Bill increases the maximum penalty for carrying firearms in the furtherance of crime to life imprisonment; and raises the maximum for being in possession of a shotgun without a certificate, in line with parallel firearms offences. We shall be arranging a firearms amnesty to provide for illegally held or unwanted firearms to be taken out of circulation. There is to be a statutory safekeeping requirement for shotguns. We shall close the gap in controls whereby visitors to Great Britain may purchase and use shotguns without a certificate. I have given considerable thought to the question of further controls over traditional shotguns; that is, those remaining under Section 2 controls. I have decided that they should remain in a separate category from rifles and pistols, but that the safekeeping requirement on its own is not enough.

"At present a chief officer of police must grant a shotgun certificate unless he has reason to believe the applicant is prohibited by the Act from possessing a shotgun, or that to allow him to do so would endanger the public safety or peace. I propose to change the onus so that in future the chief officer will have to satisfy himself so far as possible that an applicant is not disqualified by these factors — and this will include the discretion to undertake inspections of security arrangements. In addition, chief officers will be able to refuse to issue or renew a certificate where they are satisfied that an applicant does not have a good reason for possessing or acquiring a shotgun. We need to take this precaution against the danger of a steady build-up of shotgun holding without any sporting or professional justification. But we intend that these justifications should be widely and reasonably drawn. In most cases the reason for holding a shotgun will be readily apparent and inquiries will not be necessary as a matter of routine. But where it is not, the scope will exist, in a way that it does not now, for the police to make further enquiries. The onus will be on the chief officer, and there will be a right of appeal to the Crown Court against refusal of a certificate.

"I also propose that all shotguns should be listed by a serial number or description on the holder's certificate. It is not sensible that the police should have no precise information on the number and type of shotguns which are properly held in their force area. Finally, anyone seeking to purchase shotgun ammunition will in future need to produce a valid certificate in order to do so, and the more lethal types of shotgun cartridge will be subject to stricter control.

"Miscellaneous proposals include the power to require a firearm or shotgun certificate to bear a photograph; the categorisation of stun guns as prohibited weapons; the regularisation of the position of museums holding collections of firearms; and better control over the movements of firearms from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

"The White Paper is the result of a careful and detailed scrutiny of the current controls. It takes account of consultations with a wide range of interested bodies. We have brought forward a White Paper in advance of the Bill in order to give all concerned, and especially legitimate shooters, a further opportunity to assimilate and comment on our proposals. The main proposals will stand but when it comes to legislation we will continue to listen carefully to detailed comment. We want this to be a measure which will last for at least 15 to 20 years, for the good reason that its substance is sound.

"In all, the proposals I have put forward offer a tighter system of control, with more accountability for those who buy, possess or deal in firearms or shotguns. They will help the police to maintain effective control over the possession and movement of firearms. They will place some additional burdens and restrictions on the legitimate shooting community, but I have tried to keep these to a minimum and I am confident they will be accepted by sensible shooters as reasonable and justified.

"All of the measures are clearly focused on the central aim of ensuring effective control over potentially lethal weapons. They are a small price to pay for safeguarding the community as a whole. I shall introduce a Bill putting them into effect within the next few weeks and I believe the Bill will have the overwhelming support of this House."

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords—

Noble Lords


Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I have the right to reply. I accept without question the ruling of the noble Viscount the Leader of the House. However, I resent the suggestion from the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, that I misused the procedure of the House. Everything that I said was addressed to proving my point that this is a valid Private Notice Question based on the urgency of the case. When one challenges the Leader of the House it is correct to put one's case for urgency, and that is what I have done.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I believe that the House will feel that we should leave the matter there. I understand the feelings of the noble Lord on this issue at this time. However, it would not be proper for me to say any more than I have done because I should immediately transgress my position in the House, which I do not want to do because I very much treasure that position. It is my duty to act in what I believe to be the best interests of the House and to perform in accordance with the instructions given to me by the House.