§ 5.25 p.m.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
§ Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Earl Ferrers.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The LORD ALPORT in the Chair.]
The Earl of Balfour moved Amendment No. 65:
After Clause II, insert the following new clause:
§ ("Revocation of certificates.
§ .—(1) Where a firearms certificate or a shotgun certificate has been revoked under section 30 of the principal Act, the holder shall arrange for all the firearms, shotguns and ammunition to be handed over to a constable.
§ (2) Where a firearms certificate in respect of a prohibited weapon or prohibited ammunition had been authorised by the Secretary of State under section 31 of the principal Act has been revoked the holder shall arrange for all firearms and ammunition to be handed over to a constable.").
§ The noble Earl said: In the principal Act there is special provision for a firearms certificate to be revoked, but I found nothing in either the 1968 Act 1357 or any other legislation which states what shall happen to the guns or prohibited weapons when that occurs. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that weapons in those circumstances are handed over to the police in the shortest possible time.
§ There is a procedure under Section 40 for appeal. In other legislation there is the provision that the courts may decide, but I do not think that that is altogether satisfactory because the time from the case being brought until it is actually heard in court can be several months. Surely the police are the only authority that should take responsibility for the weapons. I beg to move.
My noble friend's new clause deals with the fate of firearms and ammunition belonging to a person whose certificate has been revoked. This is an important issue.
A firearm or shotgun certificate may be revoked in the interests of public safety, or if the holder of a firearm certificate fails to deliver it up for the purpose of variation of a condition. On revoking a certificate the police are required to notify the holder in writing and he then has 21 days from the date of the notice in which to surrender his certificate—and, by implication, to dispose of his guns—or to lodge an appeal against the revocation. If an appeal is brought, the certificate holder is not required to surrender his certificate unless the appeal is abandoned or dismissed and, if it is, he has 21 days from that date to surrender the certificate.
The police do have the power of search with a warrant, under Section 46 of the 1968 Act, and may seize and detain any firearm or ammunition in respect of which there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that an offence has been, is being, or is about to be committed. This would cover many occasions on which a certificate is revoked. Moreover, where a person is convicted of an offence under the 1968 Act, or of any other serious offence, the courts may order the cancellation of his certificate and the forfeiture of his guns and ammunition. In such cases a constable may immediately seize and retain the guns and ammunition, although 21 days are allowed for the surrender of the certificate.
However, there are occasions when the police may have cause to revoke a certificate because a holder can no longer safely be allowed to possess a firearm and yet no offence is involved, and so the firearms concerned cannot be seized. This may be where, for example, the holder has become mentally unstable, or is habitually drunk. It seems to us, therefore that there is a strong case for saying that, where the chief officer has grounds for revoking a firearm or shotgun certificate because the continued possession of firearms or shotguns would pose a threat to public safety, any weapons and ammunition held should be surrendered to the police immediately, pending the result of any appeal.
It would not, however, be right to go so far as to allow the police to seize these weapons in cases where public safety is not at risk; for instance, where a certificate is revoked on technical grounds. An example might be when the chief officer varies the 1358 conditions of the certificate. He notifies the holder to send in the certificate and the holder fails to do so. For failing to do so, the chief officer may revoke the certificate. It would not be right, though, to seize the weapon in those circumstances. We must be careful, therefore, to limit any discretion which chief officers have for seizure only to those cases where the person is unfitted to be entrusted with the weapon.
My noble friend is on to a good point and I should like to consider this further without any commitment on what the result might be.
§ Lord Burton
That is an encouraging answer for the first amendment this evening. I wish we could have had more on Monday. However, I have one point to raise. We need not consider it too seriously but I should like to draw attention to it.
Certain chief constables are already operating as if the Bill had been enacted, particularly in regard to the revocation of certificates and the removal of weapons from certificates. I ask my noble friend to inquire into the position because clearly it is not right that chief constables should jump the gun.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
Can the noble Lord, Lord Burton advise which chief constables are alleged to be doing that? The noble Lord will be aware that if a chief constable behaves unlawfully—and the noble Lord suggests that is being done—the person affected can appeal to the courts.
§ Lord Burton
I do not think there was too much harassment in the case given to me. There was a case in Angus where a certain noble Baroness in this House was questioned regarding her shotguns. I have just been told of another case which I understand comes from Bedfordshire. Mr. Mayhew, who has given permission for his name to be used (I do not know him) has been somewhat harassed by the chief constable of Bedfordshire. There are other cases, and all I am doing is asking that this should be investigated.
§ 5.30 p.m.
I am delighted with the immediate response of my noble friend. It is most encouraging and I hope that he will keep up this happy attitude towards the Government and their helpful legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, is quite right. Chief constables can only operate under the law as it is at present. If my noble friend has positive matters about which he is concerned, I shall be grateful if he will let me know the details. I realise that others may be anxious and I put this point to the noble Lord. We anticipated that there might be some confusion as regards the handling of applications after the events of Hungerford. At the request of the Home Secretary a letter was sent to all chief officers of police on 8th September of last year.
I believe that it quite properly asked each chief officer to,review his criteria under the law as it stands in respect of applications to acquire, or to continue to possess,self-loading rifles. The point was stressed that each 1359 application should be looked at on its merits having regard to the present law in the light of the reasons given for continued possession. There was no suggestion that all applications for self-loading rifles should be rejected. To my knowledge, no police force has adopted such a policy. However, if my noble friend is further concerned about it and gets in touch with me, I shall pursue the matter.
The Earl of Balfour
I am very grateful that my noble friend will look again at this amendment, and with that assurance I beg leave to withdraw it.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
The Earl of Balfour moved Amendment No. 66:
After Clause 11, insert the following new clause:
§ ("Powers of search.
§ The chief officer of police shall be granted a search warrant to enter any premises, where he has reason to believe that any firearms, shotguns or ammunition are being held by any person who does not have the necessary certificate under this Act.").
§ The noble Earl said: I am sure that the Committee will agree with me that we are interested in the police being able to obtain weapons illegally held. Where a chief officer of police has definite suspicion that firearms are held illegally by someone, he should have the power to seek a search warrant to enter the premises for the purpose of retrieving the weapons. A gun of any kind is a fairly large object and I believe that it can be found fairly easily in a house without unnecessarily upsetting the house. I feel that the chief of police must have this kind of power. I beg to move.
§ Viscount Massereene and Ferrard
I support this amendment very strongly but there can be no doubt that there are some snags in the way. If that is so, I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will tell us what they are. Without doubt there are people who have firearms without a firearms certificate.
§ Lord Morton of Shuna
I shall be very surprised indeed if there are any difficulties with the present law as regards the police obtaining a search warrant if they have reason to believe that someone has firearms or anything else without the appropriate certificate. It seems to be an unnecessary clause.
This amendment will not be suitable because it says:The chief officer of police shall be granted a search warrant".That would be a judicial act and one cannot tell the courts what they can do. There is already power to grant such a warrant under Section 46(1) of the 1968 Act which states that a justice of the peace or magistrate may, if satisfied that there is a reasonable ground for suspecting that an offence has been, is being, or is about to be committed, grant a search warrant authorising the police to enter and search any premises.
This power covers most firearms offences and would include a situation where a firearm, a shotgun or ammunition was held by someone without the necessary certificate. Therefore, I hope that my noble friend will be content with that reply.
§ Lord Renton
What I wish to say is only just off the point covered by this amendment and dealt with by my noble friend. I can imagine circumstances in which the police might feel that in order to catch somebody who has been using firearms they should have the right to follow that person into any premises where there is reason to believe that firearms are kept and that they are already concerned in the commission of an offence elsewhere. There may be other weapons. Perhaps between now and the Report stage my noble friend will consider whether the present powers are adequate to allow the police to enter for what is virtually crime prevention in those circumstances.
I shall certainly look at the point that my noble friend made. He is very much more versed in the law than I ever shall be. However, if the police wish to enter premises to search for items and they are private premises, they will need a search warrant. Without that the police would be constrained from entering for reasons that we all know and accept. I shall take advice on the point that my noble friend has made, and if I am wrong I shall get in touch with him.
The Earl of Balfour
Once again I am most grateful to the Members of the Committee who have spoken to this amendment. I beg leave to withdraw it.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 12 [Firearms dealers]:
Viscount Dilhorne moved Amendment No. 67:
Page 6, line 9, leave out ("(annual renewal of dealers registration certificate)") and insert ("(registration of firearms dealers)").
The noble Viscount said: This is a very short drafting amendment. I shall be grateful to have the view of my noble friend on it because when one looks at the Bill it can be seen very clearly that the terms that I wish to amend are in brackets; namely:
(annual renewal of dealers registration certificate)".
§ Those words come immediately after the words "the principal Act". If one then directs attention to the principal Act, one sees "Registration of firearms dealers". It is a short point that I wish to make, and it is this. I am not clear whether it is the intention of the Government as regards this provision in the Firearms (Amendment) Bill to change the heading of that section of the Act or whether that is merely a general description of the content of Section 33(5). It is a little misleading if it is put in that way. If it were put in the way that the main Act is headed—in other words, "Registration of firearms dealers"—it would be very much clearer and one would not have to wonder whether one has the right position. I beg to move.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
Are we discussing Amendments Nos. 67 to 71 inclusive? I thought that we were, and no doubt someone will clear up that matter.
§ Viscount Dilhorne
I believe that we are and I shall he very happy to deal with them together. I beg the Committee's pardon. Amendment No. 67 stands on 1361 its own though it is related to the others. Amendment No. 68 proposes the introduction of the words "bona fide". The whole of subsection (2)(1A) on page 6 of the Bill, particularly the third line of paragraph (1A), seems to be so broadly worded that it is very hard to see what are its exact parameters. Amendment No. 68 is to amend that, so that before the words "firearms dealer" there should be inserted a "bona fide" firearms dealer.
It is impossible to look at that without considering the other phrases used in that sentence. "Bona fide" has a clear meaning and it is used in other Acts. It means a person who acts in good faith without an intention to deceive. There is a plethora of legal decisions on it in many English-speaking countries in the world. Therefore I move that that should be included before the words "a firearms dealer". I am sure that that does not conflict with any views which the Government may have.
I have just said that that leads on to my next amendment, Amendment No. 69, which 1 share with the noble Lord, Lord Brain, and also to Amendment No. 70, which relate to the words "to a substantial extent". I am unable to find in the Firearms (Amendment) Bill or in the Firearms Act any guidance or indication as to the exact parameter of those words. I am sure no one would dispute with me the view that a statute should express clearly and without doubt the will of the legislature. These words are so broadly based that there is no limitation of their use and there is no indication either of how lawyers or the general public should construe them to find out whether they come within the provision or outwith it. If they cannot discover how they stand, how can one then go to the next stage to derive any legal meaning from them?
I have looked up as best I can what the words "substantial extent" can mean. I have checked whether there is any legal authority or whether there is any definition for them in that sense. Obviously one can look at the Oxford English Dictionary. There is legal authority that "substantial" can mean not unsubstantial. That has been held to be just enough to avoid the de minimis rule. As lawyers will know—and I hesitate to use Latin tags in this Chamber because it usually upsets a few people—de minimis non curat lex means that the law does not bother with trifles. The use of the word "substantial" seems to be unfortunate because I am sure that it is not the Government's intention that this should be reduced to a mere trifle. Therefore I have proposed in Amendments Nos. 69, 70 and 71 that the words "to a substantial extent" should be left out.
If the words "to a substantial extent" in Amendment No. 70 have to stay there should be words qualifying them to describe their parameters. I do not feel any special attachment to the words I have put down. They are put down to demonstrate that fact,within financial criteria to be published by the Secretary of Stateand so on. Amendment No. 71 is first cousin to what I have said. The word "essential" is another immensely broad term. The extent of its meaning is 1362 very hard to find in relation to this Bill. Does it really have to be,an essential part of another trade, business or profession"?If it does, what is excluded from it? If a large company like ICI or one of the great industrial giants wanted to set up a gun merchant's shop, would that be an essential part of its trade, business or profession? It would be a very small proportion. Is it intended to exclude companies of that size from participating? I cannot believe that that is the intention behind the measure.
I have said enough on these points. I have proposed wording which to me would make better sense. Instead of "an essential part" I have suggested "as a necessary adjunct", because that would not quantify exactly that it had to be essential. It may be very hard to know whether one comes within it 01 outwith it. In this Chamber we have probably different views about what is essential. If a vote were taken now we would probably disagree with each other. I have said enough. I am sure that the points I have made will have been clearly received. I beg to move.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Alport)
I called Amendment No. 67. Although the noble Viscount spoke to Amendments Nos. 68 to 71, it is Amendment No. 67 that is called at the moment.
§ Viscount Massereene and Ferrard
I am not a lawyer but I know that in many statutes there is the word "reasonable". Why not have the word "substantial"? I think it is far better than the words "as a necessary adjunct". Without being rude, what is the purpose of arguing over words like "substantial"? We can go on arguing for a very long time and I do not think that in the end we will get much further.
§ Lord Ironside
In speaking to Amendments Nos. 68 and 69 I should point out that I raised these points at Second Reading. Like my noble friend Lord Dilhorne I am not a lawyer and I should like to speak in a more practical way about this issue which revolves around the phrase "to a substantial extent". Amendment No. 68, which introduces the words "bona fide", would be difficult for the police to interpret because they are not lawyers either. They could not interpret the provision unless the Home Secretary was able to give some specific guidance on what is meant by the words.
As I understand it, before being considered for registration as a dealer, applicants are not required to demonstrate that they have qualifications. Many of them obviously have qualifications but it is apparently not a prior requirement. Perhaps it should be; and I believe that the trade is ready to define standards if it is asked to do so. If standards are introduced we can then talk about recognised dealers. That would be more appropriate and would make much more sense. There would be no need then to talk about a bona fide firearms dealer. As the definition of firearms dealers is covered in Section 57 of the principal Act, it would appear that the phrase 1363 "bona fide" is therefore superfluous. I cannot say any more.
In Amendment No. 69 my noble friend Lord Dilhorne has highlighted the words which create a new role for the police. In addition to assessing the applicant against the criteria of public safety and peace they will be required under this clause to assess the extent to which the applicant will engage in business. I know of only one way to do that—by looking at the turnover figures.
The new clause seems to compel the police therefore to look at the books, which I am sure is not intended. Perhaps my noble friend Lord Ferrers can assure the Committee about what the police will assess and explain why the Home Secretary needs this financial information. We shall not get sight of the guidelines to the police before the Bill passes so we have no way of assessing what the Home Secretary really wants.
I support my noble friend's amendment but I am concerned about applicants who are involved with the development of undefined accessories. They cannot develop these accessories convincingly and compete internationally without in most cases being certificate holders or registered dealers. Perhaps they are involved with thermal imaging, image intensifiers, composites, direct energy devices, laser ignition or electro-optics—one can go on for ever with these new phrases—and could risk rejection by the police because the police do not understand whether the subject is (shall we say?) a substantial part of the applicant's business. Let us remember that the Ministry of Defence as customer encourages firms to compete internationally in small arms. We do not want to see the Home Secretary stifling competition.
The qualification in the clause helps to some extent those who have a special sideline; but I do not think that that is sufficient. I support the deletion of words "to a substantial extent". But I hope that my noble friend Lord Ferrers will be able to look again at the wording of the clause, because I think the wording is most untidy. I should like to suggest the following:The chief officer of police may refuse to register an applicant unless he is satisfied that the applicant will engage in business as a dealer in firearms and component parts thereof, or accessories whatsoever".Surely that would allow the police to assess the applicant and the type of business; whether he is a firearms dealer as defined, or a dealer in other goods who wants to be registered. It would also allow them to assess the applicant according to the guidelines which I understand will be set by the Home Secretary.
§ Lord Brain
I do not wish to get involved with the first two amendments—namely, Amendments Nos. 67 and 68—because I do not think that I am competent to comment upon them. I should not be very happy with Amendment No. 70—and my views will come out as I explain my reasons for tabling Amendment No. 69. I should perhaps comment on the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Ironside, because I have a feeling that the "essential part" which is being deleted in Amendment No. 71 would cover just what he has been talking about. A firearms licence would be an essential part in the research and 1364 development work of some of the devices he mentioned. The need for a firearms licence would be an essential part of the business in which they are involved.
I now turn to the words "a substantial extent". I think, as has already been stated, that the words are vague in the extreme. How does one decide that an ironmonger's store or a general store in the Highlands of Scotland that stocks a limited stock of 12-bore cartridges is an "adjunct" but not an "essential part" of being a general store? How does a very valuable supplier to the neighbourhood who buys 500 cartridges at a time get covered if he has to be a firearms dealer to "a substantial extent"?
The same applies to a certain extent to rifle club secretaries. They carry the club's stock of, let us say, 22 ammunition, 90 per cent. to 95 per cent. of which is used on their own ranges. However, if it is a country club, the local farmers buy the odd box for their rabbit shooting from the rifle club secretary because he is a convenient stockist. Therefore he needs to hold ammunition not as a club secretary under his certificate as such; he needs a firearms dealer's licence.
There is also a much trickier problem which needs to be looked at. Not only does a person commit an offence, if he does not have the certificate, for manufacturing, selling or transferring. He also needs one to repair a shotgun. For example, suppose there is someone who is skilled as a fine precision engineer and who is required occasionally, let us say, in Scotland, North Yorkshire or somewhere else, to do that; or perhaps he is someone who is a precision engineer by hobby and does repairs almost as a sideline. He will still expect to be paid for that, and he is then considered to be in a trade or business. Therefore to say that these very small but valuable service people in the firearms industry must he engaged to "a substantial extent" is unreasonable. I support the noble Lord's views on the matter.
§ Lord Morton of Shuna
Perhaps I may stress my puzzlement as regards Amendment No. 71. I cannot see the difference between "essential" and "necessary". Therefore I took the opportunity of looking up the words in the dictionary which is on the Table of this Chamber. The word "necessary" is said to be "equivalent to indispensable". When one looks up the word "essential", one finds that that is also "equivalent to indispensable". So what is the difference that the noble Viscount is attempting to achieve by changing the word "essential" into the word "necessary"? I cannot see any difference at all.
I turn now to Amendment No. 70. The issue, I think, is an impossible one. How is the chief officer of police to be satisfied that a person will in the future conform to financial criteria? That is what is being asked. The chief officer of police has to say that he is satisfied that in the future this person will be dealing. How is the person in the future to know what financial criteria he will measure up to? I should have thought that the Bill as drafted on this section—with whatever deficiencies it may have—is better than the amendment.
§ 6 p.m.
I shall deal first of all with Amendment No. 67. This is an amendment of style rather than content. But I do not think it is necessary because the descriptive words in subsection (1) are intended to refer specifically to Section 33(5) of the 1968 Act which is concerned with the annual renewal of a dealer's certificate of registration. The Bill refers to a particular subsection; my noble friend's amendment would in fact refer to the whole section.
Amendment No. 68 would require the police to be satisfied that an applicant will engage in business as a bona fide firearms dealer. That is precisely the difficulty which faces the police at the moment and the reason why we have introduced subsection (2). Indeed, I was glad to see that my noble friend Lord Ironside found himself with the same difficulty.
Amendment No. 70 would require the police to apply a set of defined financial criteria. My noble friend Lord Ironside asked what such financial criteria would be. According to the amendment they would be to applications for dealers' registration, instead of making a judgment as to whether the applicant will engage in business to a certain extent. I think it would prove very difficult in practice to compile financial criteria which would cover all applications from a small retail business to a large manufacturing company. It would also be difficult to apply fixed criteria of this nature in respect of new applications where the only information available would be estimates. We think this approach would involve a lot more time and work on the part of both the police and the applicants, not to mention a lot of bureaucratic red tape. In the circumstances, we believe that the police should be allowed to make a judgment on the extent of business with the benefit of guidance which we will provide.
As regards Amendment No. 71, I have no doubt that where there is a genuine need for a business to be registered, the police will recognise that fact and grant registration. This amendment would only weaken the police's grounds for refusing an application.
The meaning of the words "essential part" is fairly obvious; however, the meaning of the words "necessary adjunct" is not. Although the noble Lord, Lord Morton of Shuna, said that he was not quite sure what the difference between the two was, I am not too sure that he is not a good deal more certain than most people because I believe he put down an amendment on another Bill of a very similar nature to replace "necessary" with "essential".
If one looks at the wording in the Bill, it says:The chief officer of police may refuse to register an applicant unless he is satisfied that the applicant will engage in business as a firearms dealer to a substantial extent or as an essential part of another trade".If one says that the dealing should be a necessary adjunct, that is different. The question the police will be asking is, "Do you deal in firearms to a substantial extent?" They will not be asking, "Is firearm dealing a substantial part of your business?" If that criterion were to be used, we should cut out a firm such as Harrods which has a reputable and substantial business dealing with firearms, but no one would 1366 suggest that it was a substantial part of their main business or a necessary adjunct to it.
Police officers will be guided as to what to do. The guidance will be drawn up by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. That will be done in consultation with firearms' dealers and those who are concerned with such matters.
§ Viscount Dilhorne
I thank my noble friend for what he has said. However, it leaves a number of questions that I still find difficult to resolve. Will the criterion be whether the work is full-time? Is that what is meant by "substantial extent" or does "substantial extent" relate to the financial side of the business? Those aspects are at the heart of my amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Morton of Shuna, found difficulty understanding what lay behind Amendments Nos. 70 and 71. I am sorry if they caused more difficulty than the clause they were seeking to improve. They were framed as an alternative definition of "substantial extent". I am left rather unhappy that "substantial extent" remains and that my noble friend has not accepted my amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 68 to 71 not moved.]
§ On Question, Whether Clause 12 shall stand part of the Bill?
The Earl of Balfour
Perhaps I may speak on Clause 12 stand part for a moment. I shall be brief because I did not put my name down on this point. One of the problems is that there is no separation of the firearms dealer who wishes to deal with—for want of a better word—the ironmongery side of the business and the person who wants to sell shotguns and cartridges. In many cases it is easy for a person to obtain a full firearms dealers licence to sell cartridges, rifle bullets and so on. As far as I can gather the only other way a person would be allowed to sell shotgun cartridges is through a local authority licence at a fee of £17.50 under Section 15 of the Explosive Act 1875 Chapter 17. That is a long time ago, and I am not familiar with the legislation of the last century. I have often felt that those who sell ammunition and guns should have separate licences.
I do not see that there is much difficulty here. There is no reason to give those who sell ammunition and guns different licences. All we are seeking to do is to establish a system of dealer registration which applies to those people who genuinely deal or who have a hobby and have the advantage of a firearms dealers certificate to pursue it. With the greatest of respect to my noble friend I do not see that there should be any difficulty either over this matter or in providing for those who wish to sell ammunition.
§ Clause 12 agreed to.1367
§ Clause 13 [Auctioneers, carriers and warehousemen]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 72 and 72A not moved.]
§ Clause 13 agreed to.
Baroness Ewart-Biggs moved Amendment No. 73:
After Clause 13, insert the following new clause:
§ ("Offence of selling firearms etc by mail-order.
§ —(1) It is an offence to sell or let on hire any firearm or ammunition by mail order.
§ (2) A sale or letting on hire is by mail order where the offer is communicated by the postal service, or by telephone, telegraph, facsimile transmission or similar means, or by advertisment in any newspaper, journal, magazine, periodical or circular, and the acceptance is communicated by such means, or by delivery of the goods.
§ (3) A sale or letting on hire is not prohibited by this section if at any time after the offer and before delivery, the purchaser (or his agent duly authoriised in writing) attends at the premises of the vendor and there produces his certificate for inspection by the vendor.
§ (4) An offence under this section shall be punishable on summary conviction with imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or both.").
§ The noble Baroness said: The object of the new clause is self-evident; namely to make it an offence to sell firearms or ammunition by mail order. I am sure that the Minister agrees that the Opposition have been supportive of the Bill's aims to provide a tighter control of guns and to decrease the number of guns in circulation. We have shown that we are committed to and in agreement with the need to do that and are pleased that the Government have brought forward the Bill. It is for that reason we are surprised that the Government have fallen short of plugging the loophole of enabling people to acquire guns by allowing their purchase through mail order.
§ My noble friend Lord Mishcon made that point on Second Reading when he said that there was no mention in the Bill of mail order sales, which was one of the most dangerous ways, especially with regard to young people, of buying weapons. He was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Knights, who said that he was concerned about the decision not to ban mail order sales. He said that if the Government were introducing powers to require photographs to be placed on firearm and shotgun certificates that was presumably so that the police and dealers would be able better to identify the person who was presenting the certificate. He asked how, if that were the case, it could apply in respect of mail order where the certificate is sent to the dealer by post.
§ It is a matter of speculation as to whether mail order sales will increase once tighter controls are introduced generally. Subject to the existence of a statutory definition of "mail order", of which we are unaware at the moment, the new clause has been drafted on the basis that the advertisement will normally constitute an invitation to treat; the response by the purchaser will be the offer; and the acceptance will usually be the dispatch of the goods. It is conceivable that the offer may be incorporated in the advertisement. The application for a firearm or ammunition would constitute the acceptance of that offer. It is hoped that the drafting of subsection (2) of the new clause will cover all permutations. It will cover transactions which may not fall readily within 1368 the common understanding of mail order, provided that the vendor and purchaser do not meet.
Subsection (3) of the new clause is optional in the sense that it relaxes the prohibition if the purchaser attends to produce his certificate. Our understanding is that the main objection to mail order sales is that the vendor has no way of knowing whether the purchaser is genuinely the holder of a certificate. It could be argued that it would be preferable to delete the words in brackets in subsection (3):
(or his agent duly authorised in writing)".
Again this weakens the restriction. On the other hand it might be thought unreasonable to demand that the licence holder always attend in person at any purchase.
§ The penalty in subsection (4) is similar to that provided in Clause 5 proposing a restriction on the sale of ammunition for smooth-bore guns and in Clause 13 dealing with various offences by autioneers, carriers and warehousemen. The terms "firearm", "certificate" and "ammunition" are defined in Section 57 of the 1968 Firearms Act as incorporated by Clause 23(1) of the Bill. They cover shotguns as well as other firearms. As the law stands a person who wishes to purchase a shotgun or firearm ammunition by mail order must send in a shotgun or firearms certificate. We believe that the danger of those certificates getting lost or stolen in the post adds to the arguments against permitting weapons to be purchased in this way.
§ Finally, from the point of view of certificates getting lost but mainly from the aspect of pure common sense, the sale of weapons by mail order would decrease the control of the purchase of weapons and increase the number in circulation. It is the aim of the Government in this legislation to bring about greater control and a decrease in weapons. Therefore we ask the Minister to look at the new clause very seriously indeed. I beg to move.
The Earl of Balfour moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 73, Amendment No. 73A.
Line 2, leave out ("ammunition") and insert ("shotgun").
§ The noble Earl said: I have put down Amendment No. 73A because I feel that ammunition needs to be separated. There are people living, for example, in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland or away down in Devon who must be able to buy ammunition through the post. Otherwise I wholeheartedly support Amendment No. 73. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, and her colleague for having put it down.
§ I am very much against mail order firms being able to deal in firearms to the extent they do at present. Furthermore, most of us who shoot are well aware that many firearms dealers live in the community, are part of the community and have a responsibility to the community. Mail order firms could not care less whom they sell to. They are interested only in selling. Some of the firearms dealers at home, if a stranger comes into the shop, will often ring up the police and say, "Do you know this character? Can you tell me something about him?" And they do so before supplying any firearm or, for that matter, ammunition. I feel that if someone living miles away 1369 is unable to get ammunition, it must be sent through the post. Otherwise, I support the amendment wholeheartedly.
§ Lord Gisborough
I should like to support the sentiment behind both amendments very strongly. I first came across this problem when I was interested in air guns. It was quite obvious that air guns were being sent by mail order to people who were not of an age to receive them and there was no control because the guns were going through the post. One can imagine stolen certificates and all sorts of things going through the post on a mail order basis. There is a great opportunity for fraud and the obtaining of a gun by someone who is not allowed one.
I can see the practical answer that a person living in the islands who uses cartridges should go to a dealer and buy them and subsequently write in. That seems a perfectly reasonable suggestion because the dealer will know usually with whom he is dealing. I hope that the Minister will give much consideration to the sentiments behind both amendments.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Viscount Massereene and Ferrard
I wish to know whether "ammunition" includes rifle ammunition. If high velocity rifle ammunition is being sent, like .275, .303, and .243, it has to be extremely securely packed. To send high velocity heavy ammunition and rifle ammunition by mail order would be dangerous. It could easily be intercepted.
§ Lord Swansea
I believe that the amendment arises partly from a popular misconception which has appeared in the press that almost anything can be obtained by mail order. That is just not so. Any transaction by mail order is subject to exactly the same conditions under the Firearms Act as a transaction over the counter. In other words, a firearms certificate or, as the case may be, a shotgun certificate must be produced—certainly, in the case of a firearms certificate. If the amendment were to state that goods should be sent to the address shown on the firearms certificate, that would be a safeguard against stolen firearms certificates.
Members of the Committee may be reassured by a letter which I received today from a body called the Periodical Publishers Association on this very subject. All magazines of whatever kind depend to a very large extent on revenue from advertisements. Magazines covering shooting interests are no exception. They depend largely on advertising revenue.
It appears that following the publication of the Government's White Paper last winter, the Advertising Standards Authority has been in discussion with the Home Office with regard to the control of advertisements of this kind. The authority in turn consulted the Periodical Publishers Association and a working party was set up to assess the systems of control which operate at present and to explore the need for further guidelines. The result of the working party's deliberations was passed on to the Home Office.
1370 Subsequently, a new rule covering advertisements for firearms has been adopted for inclusion in the next edition of the British Code of Advertising Practice. I understand that the Home Office has expressed its approval. So it should be clear that magazine publishers operate in a responsible manner and keep a very close eye on the sorts of advertisements which appear in their publications. If Members of the Committee think back, the Government White Paper states that there is no evidence that mail order sales are being used to evade the law. That is largely due to the vigilance of the publishers of magazines. I believe the amendment to be quite unnecessary. I hope that the information I have given will help the Committee.
§ Lord Burton
I agree to some extent with the sentiments of the amendment, but I am a little apprehensive as to what would happen if it went into the Bill. I totally agree with what my noble friend Lord Balfour said about ammunition. I think he made a slight slip of the tongue because it is illegal to send any explosive substance through the Royal Mail. But that is by the way. It could come by carrier. It is much more likely that ammunition would be carried in such a way, probably by a firm such as Securicor.
If, by any chance, I found I had enough money, which is probably very unlikely, and I found I wanted to order myself a new Purdy, if this amendment were passed I should have to come to London to obtain it. I could not ring a supplier or write to one in London to order the gun. That is how I understand the amendment.
Subsection (2) of the proposed new clause mentions "the offer". I think it might help if it stated "the offer to sell". Obviously an offer to buy is not intended, but the amendment does not actually say that.
I am aware of the concern regarding the sale of firearms by mail order. I realise the anxiety that the noble Baroness has on this matter. She has also been so far very supportive of the Bill. I shall try and explain the position.
I am happy to say that I find myself agreeing with my noble friend Lord Swansea whose intervention was extremely helpful. The problem of mail order purchases is mostly presentational. A person purchasing a Section 1 firearm or ammunition, or a shotgun, by mail order has to send in his certificate. In future, a shotgun certificate will also have to be produced for the mail order purchase of shotgun ammunition. This will, of course, bear the holder's home address so it would not be easy for anyone else to use it for mail order purchases. A possible weak link in the purchase of guns and ammunition by mail order is their security in transit, and this is one of the reasons why, under Clause 13, we are introducing a requirement for carriers of firearms and ammunition to take reasonable precautions to ensure their safe custody.
My noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard referred to airguns. It is an offence to sell an air weapon to a person under the age of 17. It is normal practice for advertisements to require a purchaser by 1371 mail order to sign a declaration stating that he is over that age.
Subsection (3) of the new clause exempts from prohibition those transactions where, after the offer and before delivery, the purchaser or his agent (with his written authority) visits the vendor's premises and produces the appropriate certificate. Yet in the great majority of cases such a transaction would be a direct, and not a mail order, sale and it seems very unlikely that there would be any call for a mail order system where, after having sent off for a purchase through the post, one then had to appear in person as well.
If this amendment were accepted, it would probably harm a sizeable sector of the gun trade. I am not sure that we would wish to do that, if there were no great benefit to be obtained by it. No evidence whatever has been brought to our notice to suggest that there is a problem over mail order sales of firearms and shotguns. I think the situation should be tighter as a result of the Bill. We should be careful not to impose unreasonable burdens on legitimate shooters who wish to make their purchases by way of mail order.
My noble friend Lord Balfour quite rightly asked what he would do if he wished to purchase a weapon as he lives in Scotland. My noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard said that he would have to come to London to purchase his ammunition. Those were very valid points. If this new clause were introduced it would pose a problem for the farmer or the marksman living in a remote part of the country who may not have time to travel to his nearest dealer to purchase guns or ammunition and who at present can do so quite satisfactorily by mail order. Indeed, there may be some enthusiast living miles away in the Highlands of Scotland who wishes to make a specialist purchase from a London dealer.
There are controls applying to mail order purchases as there are to purchases over the counter. The new security requirements in respect of carriers will ensure the safety of the goods in transit. We could, of course, go further on this matter, but we consider that there is no particular need. There would not be any real advantage in changing the present position; indeed, to do so would cause inconvenience to shooters.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
I wish to follow up the speech of the noble Earl. I am bound to say that I did not find his contribution today quite as persuasive as I have on all previous occasions during this debate.
As the noble Baroness pointed out. there is a new requirement as regards photographs. The noble Baroness specifically raised that point and 1 believe it was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Knights. What on earth is the point of requiring photographs to be introduced as a means of tightening the controls and at the same time allowing a mail order business to continue? With great respect to the noble Earl, that does not appear to make any sense whatever.
§ Lord Gisborough
In addition, there is the question of advertising revenue. Surely the normal practice is to see a gun advertised. Then when one has selected the 1372 gun one wishes in the newspaper one goes to a shop and, as in the case of any other item—for example Daz—one makes a purchase. Advertising has the purpose of making one want a product, but not necessarily to want it by post.
As the Government's whole object is to reduce the number of people who want guns and who hold guns just as in the case of cigarettes where the Government are trying to reduce consumption, why should the Government encourage people to advertise guns?
§ Lord Burton
I wish to reply to the noble Lord, Lord Harris. He said that it was a new requirement to have photographs attached to one's application. But, if he refers to the 1968 Act, he will see that Section 26(2)(a) states that the Secretary of State may:require any application for a certificate to be accompanied by a photograph of the applicant".In the whole 20 years that the Act has been in operation, that requirement has never been found necessary. That is why it is not currently done.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, did not find my contribution as persuasive as he normally does. I think that is probably because he took a different view and was not quite as broadminded as he normally is.
The mail order business exists and works. We have not come across a great many infringements of the law as a result of the mail order business. The noble Lord asked what the point was of having photographs if one could then obtain weapons via mail order. The whole point of having photographs is to help to identify the holder who is in the possession of a certificate. It is perfectly true that if one wishes to cheat and if one wishes to go against the law and put someone else's certificate through the post one can do so. One could claim that one's name was Harris when in fact it was Ferrers when one was sending the certificate of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, through the post. That can be done and in that case an offence would be committed.
But on the principle that there is a certain amount of quite legitimate business carried on, and that those who wish to purchase by mail order will have to go through the same processes as those who wish to purchase over the counter, it would be a pity to constrict the mail order business, particularly for those who, as has been mentioned, live in remote parts of the country.
I should like to make several observations, but I shall constrain myself to making only one to my noble friend Lord Gisborough. It is not the Government's intention to reduce the number of people who keep firearms of any nature. It is the Government's intention to ensure that there is control over those who keep them and that we should know where they are.
§ Amendment to Amendment No. 73, by leave, withdrawn.1373
§ Baroness Ewart-Biggs
I am disappointed that the Minister did not appreciate the important points that I felt I had made. Nor did I find convincing the problems suggested as regards shooters in Scotland who would suddenly find themselves unable to purchase guns. I should have thought that in Scotland there would have been a great number of suppliers in many areas through whom those people could obtain guns.
As I said when I moved the amendment, we have two objectives in tabling it. The first is that we are worried about the loss or theft of certificates which are sent by post. Secondly, we feel that allowing the purchase of weapons by mail order will do nothing to decrease the number of weapons in circulation. I believe that that is one of the Government's objectives in bringing forward this legislation. It is a matter of common sense that more guns will be sold if they can be bought by mail order. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, pointed out the futility of requiring photographs on certificates if weapons can be bought by post. That esposes the absurdity of the situation.
It is disappointing that we have not been able to help the Government to make a better Bill. We shall consider what is to be done at Report stage. We feel strongly about the measure. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 14 [Rifle and pistol clubs]:
Lord Swansea moved Amendment No. 74:
Page 7, line 7, leave out from ("practice") to end of line 8 and insert ("and competition with small-bore rifles and pistols or full-bore rifles and pistols or any combination of them").
§ The noble Lord said: Clause 14 deals with rifle and pistol clubs. I believe that subsection (2) needs to be redrawn. There are many types of ranges. Some are enclosed, indoor ranges and are used mostly for small-bore rifles and pistols. Outdoor ranges are mostly military ranges. They are subject to inspection by the School of Infantry, which is delegated by the Home Office to inspect the ranges and issue safety certificates. Those safety certificates mention certain calibres of weapons which may be used on a particular range.
§ It is generally understood that the greater calibre includes the lesser and that on a range approved for full-bore rifles and pistols, small-bore rifles and pistols may also he used. The subsection is vague as it is presently drawn. The amendment attempts to define it more closely. I beg to move.
§ The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Simon)
I have to inform the Committee that if Amendment No. 74 is agreed to, I shall be unable to call Amendments Nos. 75 and 76.
Clause 14(2) provides that the Secretary of State's power to approve a gun club may be limited to apply to target practice with such types of rifles or pistols as are specified in the approval. The amendment would make no difference as regards current or intended practice in this respect. It specifies that the types of weapon for which approval may be 1374 granted may be limited to small-bore rifles and pistols and full-bore rifles and pistols. These are the only limitations which are placed on approvals, and to that extent such specific reference to them is unnecessary.
However, we cannot entirely rule out the possibility that such a future limitation may need to include a particularly unacceptable make or model of firearm, nor would we wish to do so. In so far as the amendment seeks to add competition to the purposes for which approval may be given I believe the amendment goes too far. The purpose of a Clause 14 approval is to allow members to engage specifically in target practice without the need for a firearm certificate. This enables those who have just embarked on a shooting career, or who cannot afford a gun, to do so without having to obtain a certificate. But we believe that those who wish to go on and compete in outside competition should have to obtain a certificate. I do not think that that is asking too much.
§ Lord Brain
Perhaps I may pick up one small point which the noble Earl has made. Where is the boundary for beginners between target practice and competition? There may be small internal competitions. Will those he excluded? I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Earl that if beginners go to other rifle clubs for competition purposes, they should be covered. Even then, there are sometimes side-by-side competitions between junior members of rifle clubs who do not own rifles. They may go to another club and take part in friendly target practice. However, it is also competitive. It is a small point and the noble Earl may not wish to answer immediately.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brain, for putting that question. I can only answer him with a generality. The general purpose of the clause is to allow young people who are starting to shoot to go to clubs and use the guns and facilities without having to have a certificate. If they go on to become more proficient, then they should obtain a certificate.
I believe that the noble Lord means that if he is a young man who is a member of a gun club and I am also a young man who is a member of a gun club, it is perfectly all right for either of us individually to shoot at targets. However, if we both shoot at a target together, we are competing. I believe that that is a nicety. I hope that the noble Lord will accept the general principle.
§ Lord Swansea
I believe that my noble friend and I have been speaking to two different points. I shall study what he has said. Perhaps I shall return to the matter at a later stage of the Bill. I was referring to the types of rifle or pistol which might be used on a range. My noble friend was concerned with the use by members of a club of that club's rifles or pistols without a firearms certificate. I shall consider whether to return to the matter at a later stage. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.1375
Viscount Dilhorne moved Amendment No. 75:
Page 7, line 7, leave out ("types of").
§ The noble Viscount said: Perhaps it will be for the convenience of the Committee if, in speaking to Amendment No. 75, I also speak to Amendments Nos. 76, 83 and 84. Amendments Nos. 75, 83 and 84 propose that the words "types of" should be left out of the relevant subsections. The words cannot be considered independently. In two of the amendments I have proposed that the words "calibre and muzzle energy" should be inserted after the word "pistols". The sentence at line 7 would then read: "with only such rifles or pistols of such calibre and muzzle energy". Amendment No. 76 would add matters mentioned by my noble friend Lord Swansea when he spoke to the previous amendment.
§ The same words are used in three places in the Bill. I believe that the words "types or does not add anything to what is contained in the Bill. The amendment which concerns calibre and muzzle velocity is an attempt to describe clearly the criteria by which safety to the public can be judged. It seems to me that the alternative is just to describe the weapon that is used—for example, a Kalashnikov. That does not seem to me to have any scientific attraction; certainly it does not have such an appeal as the words "calibre and muzzle energy". If one uses a specific name such as that other meanings so often attach themselves to it, particularly after the sad events of Hungerford. That is the reason for my proposal in the four amendments. I beg to move.
These amendments seek to specify further that the approval should only be given for rifles and pistols of the calibre and muzzle energy listed on the range safety certificate, which will have been issued by the Ministry of Defence for the firing range to which the club has access.
I do not believe that the amendment would make any practical difference as regards current or future practices. Home Office approval for gun clubs is given in terms of small-bore and full-bore weapons, whereas the range approval from the Ministry of Defence details calibre and muzzle energy. Obviously the Home Office would only approve a club for those categories of weapons covered by the range safety certificate. To that extent I do not believe that specific reference to these matters is necessary. However, we cannot entirely rule out the possibility that it may be necessary at some future date to deal with some particularly unacceptable, or acceptable, specific model of firearm; nor would we wish to do so.
§ Viscount Dilhorne
I appreciate what my noble friend has said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 76 not moved.]
Lord Swansea moved Amendment No. 77:
Page 7, line 11, at end insert—
("(3A) A person aggrieved by the refusal of the Secretary of State to approve a club, or to renew the approval of a club, or by the imposition of conditions, may in accordance with section 44 of the principal Act appeal against the decision.").
§ The noble Lord said: The amendment relates to the question of the approval of a club. It is possible that approval might be refused, withheld or be subject to certain conditions. Perhaps my noble friend could enlighten the Committee further about the possible circumstances in which approval might be refused.
§ The Bill as it stands makes no provision for an appeal against refusal of approval. I think that that is quite unjust and should be put right. That is especially so now since approvals are to be valid only for six years. It is very important that it should be possible for shooting to be carried on at a club under such reasonable conditions as are laid down by the Secretary of State.
§ If approval of a club is withheld for whatever reason there should be a means of appeal. That appeal, I believe, should probably lie under the procedure laid down in Section 44 of the principal Act. There is already a precedent for appeals of this kind. I believe that it is highly desirable. I beg to move.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Lord Monson
I urge that the Government give way at least on this one amendment. The whole Bill is a massive exercise in overkill—overkill which has been brought about, one suspects, largely if not entirely because of populist pressures from the tabloid newspapers. The consequence is that many thousands of law-abiding people will be deprived of rights they have held for generations.
I understand the electoral pressures upon the Government but I do not believe that acceptance of the amendment would cost them one single vote—rather the reverse. Surely simple fairness demands that this very modest amendment be accepted.
I hope that I shall be able to help my noble friend Lord Swansea on this issue. I do not believe that there is cause for him to be unduly concerned.
The amendment would give a right of appeal both against a refusal by the Secretary of State to approve a rifle or pistol club, and also against any conditions attached to the approval of the club. The amendment refers to Section 44 of the 1968 Act. However, that is concerned with appeals against decisions by chief officers of police which is a very different matter. Although the police may assist with local inquiries concerning clubs seeking approval, it will be the Secretary of State who makes the final decision whether or not to approve a club.
I do not think that it is right for there to be an appeal against the Secretary of State's decision. We shall lay down guidelines on the criteria to be fulfilled, and it will be up to clubs to apply if they wish to do so. I do not think that my noble friend can suggest that the criteria—a proper constitution, that the club is run by fit and proper persons, and with access to an approved range—are either onerous or so complicated as to be capable of infinitely variable interpretation. If clubs do not qualify, or decide not to apply, the members can still pursue their shooting interests elsewhere, but they will have to have 1377 individual certificates or else join another club that is approved. The decision of the Secretary of State will have to be a reasonable one, or it will be open to judicial review.
The real point is that before approval of a club it has to show that it meets certain conditions. If it cannot satisfy those conditions it can attain them, or if it does not wish to do so it is not unreasonable that the club should not be approved.
My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary made a statement the other day in answer to a question. which I shall repeat to my noble friend because he may find it of help. He said:On the basis of inquiries made by the chief officer of police for the area concerned, my right honourable friend has to be satisfied that:(i) safety certificates for the categories of firearms to be fired are in existence for the ranges to he used".That does not sound unreasonable.(ii) the security arrangements for the storage of club firearms and ammunition are satisfactory".That does not seem unreasonable.(iii) the application is being made by or on behalf of a bona fide club",and that does not seem unreasonable.and (iv) there are no other considerations that would make the club unsuitable for approval".—(Official Report, Commons, 15/1/88; col. 446).I think my noble friend will realise that those are fairly reasonable conditions.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
I agree with what the noble Earl has just said. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, I believe that it is going too far to say that this is an exercise in overkill. It is, in my view, a very moderate response to an extremely serious situation. As I indicated in the earlier debate it is the view of the police service, virtually unanimously, that the Bill does not go far enough.
The point about the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, which I find a little difficult to understand is that the noble Lord and his friends have been saying consistently that they want a national standard to be applied. They have indicated that they are very uneasy about 43 separate chief constables in England and Wales applying different criteria. This particular provision, under which the Secretary of State will make a decision, in fact applies national criteria, which the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, has quoted, set out by his honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary.
It seems to me an extraordinary proposition to say that a Secretary of State's decision on a matter of this kind, based on the criteria which have been set out, should be appealable to a Crown Court. Offhand I can think of no precedent for any such requirement in any other piece of legislation. I am not for one moment saying that there is not, but offhand I can not think of one. Therefore I very much agree with everything that has been said by the noble Earl and I hope that the noble Lord will not press his amendment.
§ Lord Swansea
I have no intention of pressing this amendment but I find the concept put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that any government are infallible an interesting one. Governments can and do sometimes make mistakes. It is comforting to know that we are dealing with decisions on a national basis made by the Secretary of State rather than by a chief constable, and one hopes that those criteria would apply throughout the country. I am sure that they would do so.
I am very grateful to my noble friend for outlining those criteria, which go some way toward reassuring me concerning the standards to be laid down for approval of clubs. I do not think that we need to pursue this matter further at this moment and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Swansea moved Amendment No. 78:
Page 7, line 12, leave out subsection (4).
§ The noble Lord said: Clause 14(4) of the Bill provides for a fee of £33 to be paid for the grant or renewal of an approval of a club. That is something which we have not had before at any time. I realise that a club does not have to have a firearms certificate, but even so it seems a little unreasonable to bring in a fee of this scale at this stage. The clubs do all the administrative work in regard to the rifles that they own and there is little if anything for the police force to do. There can he little justification for the police to charge a fee for approval. It seems quite unnecessary to embody this subsection in the Bill and my amendment seeks to remove it. I beg to move.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
I hope that I am not making too much of this matter, but as the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, will realise this amendment was supposed to have been discussed, in terms of the suggested grouping of amendments, together with Amendment Nos. 74 and 77. I hope that in the remaining stages of this Bill we shall be able to keep to the groupings; otherwise this Committee will sit extremely late tonight.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for that intervention. As he made it, he looked at me and wagged his head as though it were my fault, but I can assure him that it was not. I agree that if we had taken the amendment earlier, it might have proved more expeditious.
I shall make my remarks as brief as possible and say to my noble friend only that he seeks to remove the fee of £33, but I do not see why the taxpayer should take on this charge. Fees are payable to cover the costs of issuing shotgun firearms certificates, visitors' permits, museum licences and for registration as dealers. The point of the fee is just to cover the administrative costs involved. I do not see why clubs should be treated any differently from others. When one takes account of the fact that the fee is £33 and will last for six years—so the charge is £5 a year and for that the club obtains a free firearms certificate which itself would have cost £33 for only three years—the fee is not unreasonable.
§ Lord Swansea
I am sorry that my noble friend has not taken on board the substance of this amendment. Many clubs are quite small affairs which are run very cheaply indeed on an absolute shoestring. Even if the fee only averages out at £5 a year, it is still a consideration that has to be taken into account in the budgeting of the club. When put on top of the other expenses that a club may have to pay for its ammunition, hire of the range and so forth, the sum mounts up very considerably. However, I do not intend to press this amendment at this stage and I beg leave to withdraw it.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Brain moved Amendment No. 79:
Page 7, line 16, leave out subsection (5).
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment seeks to delete the whole of subsection (5). It is not tabled in the belief that the constable, chief constable or somebody should not visit premises. I support the principle behind subsection (5).
With the reprimand from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, ringing in my ears, I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Brain, is speaking to Amendments Nos. 79, 80, 81 and 82.
§ Lord Brain
I am speaking to Amendment No. 79. The reasons for not speaking to the other amendments will become clear as I go along. However, I am quite happy that they should be considered with this amendment, and I shall continue the discussion in that way. I beg the Committee's pardon.
As I said, I am quite happy with the idea that there is a need for inspection. I am concerned at the way the clause as at present worded brings into operation that inspection. It starts with a constable. Is it intended that a sergeant may not he authorised in the same way to go out and do the same thing if it is felt more appropriate?
I beg pardon for interrupting the noble Lord, but the designation "constable" does not mean a police constable. The words "A constable" are a reference to any officer in the police service.
§ Lord Brain
I apologise. The point is that he is duly authorised by a chief officer of police. How many will be authorised? Will it just be those officers in the firearms section? Can a vast number be authorised? For example, can any officer—and I use the word advisedly because I do not want to cause any confusion—who is going out in a patrol car for a purpose in the area be duly authorised? It seems to me to be a very broad term in this context.
It is not stated that he has to be in uniform. There have been a number of occasions, and in particular one in Leicestershire, where people carrying bogus warrant cards and representing themselves to be police officers raided a firearms dealer's premises. Although the warrant cards appeared to authorise them to go in, there were problems. The dealer was beaten up and his stock was stolen. Should it be an operation carried out in uniform?
1380 Subsection (6) states that it is an offence if a person intentionally obstructs the constable. Does that mean that he cannot telephone the station to find out whether the constable is supposed to be doing that job? Does the constable have to notify someone at his base that he will be doing it? Can he just do it at his own whim, at any time of the day or night?
He may,enter any premises occupied or used by a club".I know that in many cases this will be absolutely clear, because there will be a range and perhaps drinking premises, a bar, cloakroom or something attached. But let us take a case, which I know prefectly well, in which a social club had a small rifle section that used a range belonging to the Army Cadet Corps.
Apart from drinking, none of the premises was ever used for the purposes of the rifle club. The secretary lived somewhere else and it was his name on the rifle club certificate. In that case, is his home the premises that may be visited by the police at any time, and how is his wife, if she is there, to know that this is what can be done, and so on? There is a need—I shall read carefully what the Minister has said—to tighten this up, possibly by means of some specific words—"in uniform"; "having informed his station office" and suchlike—that could usefully be incorporated in the clause.
Unlike the noble Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, I did not feel competent to draft amendments to reflect my concerns. Although I do not think that his amendments are particularly relevant to the broad points that I make, I support them to the extent that he has done something that I did not attempt to do. 1 beg to move.
§ 7.00 p.m.
§ Viscount Dilhorne
I should like to speak to Amendments Nos. 80, 81 and 82 in my name, which aim at changing the wording of subsection (5). There are two particular passages that I do not like, which I ask my noble friend to consider.
The clause as drafted entitles a constable, provided that he is authorised by the chief constable of police in writing, to enter premises. There is nothing wrong with that, and I do not take exception to it. However, I take exception to what follows, which is what the amendment seeks to remedy:producing, if required his authorityPerhaps I may spend a short time on that.
Amendment No. 80 effectively requires him to produce his authority and to be quite open about it. As the clause is worded, the policeman may be tempted to enter on some pretext or other and to carry out a covert examination without having to produce any authority. When the policeman arrives at a rifle or pistol club, I think that it should be made clear in the Bill that he is required to produce a document saying, "I have come here for these purposes". The amendment is directed to providing clearly what those purposes are so that those receiving police officers into their club, having been given that information, can assist them fully. If the constable duly authorised in writing does not 1381 produce the authority but then starts on a surreptitious search, there is a danger that he may draw the wrong conclusions, which he would not have done had he had the full co-operation of the club.
Amendment No. 81 seeks to change wording that is capable of various interpretations, some of which could be amusing, but in which I shall not indulge myself. The amendment seeks to leave out the words,anything on them, for the purpose of ascertaining".The amendment proposes the insertion of "to ascertain", or to find out.
At the time that I drafted Amendment No. 82, I was well aware that the last part of subsection (5) states:for the purpose of ascertaining whether the provisions of this section and any limitations in the approval are being complied with".It is not easy for the owner of a rifle or pistol club to carry in his head the provisions of the section. The amendment is designed to prevent a constable going to premises on such a general provision that it amounts to a fishing expedition. It too has the purpose of informing the person who is being visited what is taking place, which seems to me right and proper. He should know when the constable is coming and the purpose of the visit. In order to obtain a certificate, he has had to satisfy the authorities that he is a good citizen and worthy of the certificate.
The Deputy Chairman of Committees
I should have said earlier that, if Amendment No. 79 is agreed to, I shall not be able to call Amendments Nos. 80, 81 and 82.
As I understand it, the noble Lord, Lord Brain, is concerned about how this will be dealt with; but I think that his concern need not be as substantial as he has made it out to be. If there is to be club approval, the system has to be properly administered and monitored; and, if the public are to have faith in it, there must be a way of independently verifying the club's practices. The police are the obvious body to do this. There would be no point in having a system of approval if there was no way of ascertaining whether a club is complying with the requirements. It is quite true that a police officer may be in uniform, and in that case everybody knows who he is.
Amendment No. 80 introduces a requirement to provide a copy of the authority for retention by the club concerned. I do not believe that there is any need for this. I do not see what purpose it would serve. The document would contain no useful information, but would simply indicate that the chief officer's authority for the visit has been given. This is provided in the Bill in a standard form, and I see no reason for departing from that.
I remind my noble friend Lord Dilhorne and the noble Lord, Lord Brain, that subsection 1(5) states:A constable duly authorised in writing in that behalf by a chief officer of police may, on producing if required his authority".If anyone wonders what he is doing, he has to show it.
1382 When my noble friend Lord Dilhorne said that there might be covert examination, I thought that he was stretching the imagination a little far. If an odd person came to the club, presumably the first thing that one would say is, "Who are you?". If the visitor is a police officer, he will say, "I am a police officer coming for some special reason, and here is my authority". I believe that my noble friend's imagination has run ahead of him.
Amendment No. 81 specifically omits the reference to the inspection by a constable of "anything on them", that is, club premises. It is obviously likely to be necessary in the course of a visit to inspect things on the premises such as the firearms that the club is using to ascertain whether it is complying with any limitation that may be attached to the approval.
Amendment No. 82 provides that the authority should specify the reasons for the visit. I do not believe that this is necessary. The reasons for the visit will be quite obvious. Subsection (5) sets out that the reasons are to ascertainwhether the provisions of this section and any limitations in the approval are being complied with".The constable's authority can be granted only for that reason.
Given that, the amendment appears to me to be not only unnecessary but also misleading in suggesting that there could be other reasons.
§ Lord Brain
I thank the Minister. I am satisfied that "the authority" and other matters will cover it. As the Minister says, the local firearms unit must build up confidence and ensure that it will not do anything unnecessarily harassing but will exercise fairness in its operation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 80 to 84 not moved.]
§ Clause 14 agreed to.
§ Lord Beaverbrook
My Lords, perhaps this would be a convenient time to take the dinner hour business. In moving that the House be resumed may I suggest that we return to the Firearms Bill at 8 p.m. I beg to move that the House do now resume.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House resumed.