HL Deb 17 December 1992 vol 541 cc680-4

1.25 p.m.

The Earl of Arran rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 30th November be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, these draft regulations seek to give effect to the requirements of the EC directive on control of the acquisition and possession of weapons. Corresponding regulations covering Great Britain were approved by your Lordships on 10th November.

The EC directive lays down the minimum standard which all member states must achieve in their national firearms controls. But individual member states may have stricter controls than this minimum standard. On the whole, firearm controls in Northern Ireland are stricter than the directive's minimum requirements. But there are a few instances where this is not the case. Consequently, we need to make some minor adjustments to the Northern Ireland legislation.

The most notable change is the extension of our existing category of prohibited weapons and ammunition to include those items which the directive say must be banned in all member states. Regulation 4 brings this into effect. However, since most of these controls are already applied in Northern Ireland through the exercise of the chief constable's discretion there are no significant implications in practice.

Special exemptions from the prohibition have been made for collectors and for those who sell or use expanding ammunition for the purposes authorised by the directive. The directive requires that these exemptions be reflected in our firearms legislation. They will not, however, take precedence over the chief constable's duty to protect public safety in his decisions to approve applications for firearms.

We already have a firearms purchasing scheme which will be extended to cover newly prohibited weapons. Anyone legally in possession of such a firearm on 1st December 1992—the day after the regulations were laid—will be able to apply for a payment under the firearms purchasing scheme.

Perhaps I may briefly take your Lordships through some of the main features of the draft regulations. Regulation 5 introduces the new European firearms pass. From 1st January 1993, Northern Ireland residents will need a European firearms pass in order to be able to take their firearms to another member state; for example, on a shooting trip. Firearm certificate holders will automatically be entitled to a European firearms pass in respect of the firearms covered by their certificate. This will be issued free of charge by the chief constable.

After 1st January 1993, any Northern Ireland resident who wishes to purchase or acquire certain firearms or ammunition in another member state will have to show that he has the agreement of the Northern Ireland authorities. This agreement will be given by an "Article 7 authority" issued by the chief constable. Again, this document will be issued free of charge.

In the same way that Northern Ireland residents will need a European firearms pass to take firearms abroad, so we must ensure that EC visitors bringing firearms to Northern Ireland have a European firearms pass issued by another Community state. At present all overseas visitors who wish to bring firearms to Northern Ireland must apply for a Northern Ireland firearm certificate. We intend to retain this system.

Regulation 6 requires a prospective visitor from the Community either to produce his European firearms pass, or to show that he is exempt from the need to have one, when applying for a firearm certificate.

Regulation 7 implements the directive's requirement that a resident of one member state, who purchases or acquires certain firearms in another member state, should inform his own domestic authorities of the purchase or acquisition. This regulation requires a Northern Ireland resident to inform the chief constable of the RUC of such a purchase or acquisition.

Regulation 8 sets out the punishment for the new offences created by the implementation of the directive.

The directive requires the member states to set up an information exchange system to inform each other about transfers of firearms between their respective territories. Regulation 9 ensures that we shall not be prevented by confidentiality obligations from supplying such information to other member states.

From this brief summary I hope it will be clear that the draft regulations do no more than amend the 1981 firearms order to give effect to our Community obligations. The existing strict controls over firearms in Northern Ireland will continue to apply. I commend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 30th November be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].—(The Earl of Arran.)

1.30 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, once again I thank the Minister for explaining the background to the order and its detailed regulations. I am sure that it is my mistake and not the Minister's, but I thought that he described the piece of legislation as an Order in Council. I may have misheard him. We should make it clear that it is a statutory instrument. I am pleased to give the approval of this side of the House to the instrument. However, we should remind ourselves that this statutory instrument is another example of primary legislation being amended by subordinate legislation. In this case, the legislative-making power is derived not from a Henry VIII clause in the primary legislation, which I believe is the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Act 1981, but by virtue of the European Communities Act 1972. Will the Minister confirm the fact that the regulations do not go an inch beyond the implementation of Weapons Directive No. 91/477/EEC?

The Minister delivered a speech which closely resembled that delivered by his noble friend Lord Ferrers on 10th November when he introduced to the House the Firearms Acts (Amendment) Regulations 1992 which were supported from our side of the House by my noble friend Lady Hilton. It is not surprising that the Minster's speech reflected what was said by his noble friend Lord Ferrers, because both sets of regulations have been produced to give effect to the EC weapons directive in the UK as a whole. That prompts me to ask the Minister to explain why it is necessary to have two separate regulations—one for Northern Ireland and the other for the rest of the UK. Why is it not possible in such a situation to have one instrument which would apply the directive to the whole of the UK?

It is of interest to note that the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland last year issued some 86,907 firearms certificates authorising some 127,459 individual firearms, of which I understand about 65 per cent. were shotguns. I understand that there were no more than 38 appeals to the Secretary of State against the chief constable's refusal. At times, when we read of the unlawful use of firearms in Northern Ireland, one just wonders whether more could be done to tighten up the controls, not that that result could necessarily be achieved by this order for the reasons that I have given, and nor do I have any particular recommendation to make in that respect. Perhaps the Minister will assure the House that the adequacy of firearms control in Northern Ireland is a matter which is reviewed constantly by the Secretary of State, and that there are no known or apparent gaps in the controls which need to be closed.

The unlawful and widespread use of firearms in Northern Ireland is explained, sadly, by the unresolved political difficulties. Yesterday's very carefully worded message by the Secretary of State, to the IRA in particular, could of course be relevant in this context. It must be our hope that those to whom the message is addressed will reflect upon its meaning, to the extent that we understand its meaning, and will take it into consideration. I believe that that point is worthy of mention when we are discussing firearms in Northern Ireland. I can think of no objective —I believe that this is the view of the House—which can possibly justify the horrendous violence of the past few years. That at least must be our message as we approach Christmas and the threshold of another new year.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, will my noble friend kindly clarify a point for me? Will he explain the new paragraph (2A) in Regulation 3 in relation to the use of any firearm or ammunition for a purpose not authorised by the European weapons directive? I see that there is a concession that the directive shall be taken to authorise the use of a firearm or ammunition for purposes (a) or (b) relating to sporting purposes and shotgun cartridges, vermins competitions and such things. Am I right to think that the concession, or perhaps a derogation from the directive, has the full approval of the RUC and that it understands what is meant by (a) (b) and (c)?

My noble friend mentioned the European firearms pass. Am I right in thinking that that covers citizens of the Community? Will he confirm that those whom I call Europeans, those from Switzerland, Norway and Scandinavia, who wish to go to Northern Ireland for sporting purposes, would still be subject to the usual procedure; that the European firearms pass will be necessary for European citizens only; and that Swiss, American and other citizens will still be subject to the usual regulations enforced by the RUC? I am grateful to my noble friend. Perhaps he will write to me, because the matter may be too complicated for a reply today.

Earl of Arran

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies for his comments. He asked why the European Communities Act 1972 was being used. There are two points on that: first, Section 2 (2) of the European Communities Act 1972 is used to allow us to meet our Community obligations. Secondly, the use of that subsection is controlled by the need to have the Secretary of State designated for the specific purpose, and because regulations made under that section are subject to scrutiny before Parliament.

That subsection is an example of what is sometimes referred to—as the noble Lord did—as a Henry VIII clause. It involves a delegation by Parliament to a designated Minister of the power to amend primary legislation. Regulations made under that power may be subject to the affirmative or negative resolution procedure at Westminster. The current regulations are subject to the affirmative procedure and therefore allow Parliament fully to supervise the exercise of that power by the Secretary of State.

The noble Lord asked why there were two separate regulations —one for Northern Ireland and one for Great Britain. It is to preserve the fact that Northern Ireland has, for constitutional purposes, a separate corpus of primary legislation.

The introduction of the European firearms pass will facilitate the movement of individuals with their pass for firearms throughout the Community. That will be achieved by using the pass as confirmation that the holder is suitable to be entrusted with firearms. It will apply equally to Northern Ireland residents visiting other member states and to EC visitors coming to Northern Ireland. In response to the question of my noble friend Lord Lyell, the pass covers only EC country nationals. Switzerland, and so forth, are still subject to ordinary controls.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked whether we consider that the rules in general in Northern Ireland are tight enough and whether they are any different. First, it will be noticed that there is no reference in the regulations to the acquisition and possession of firearms by persons under 18 years of age. The reason is that in Northern Ireland the 1981 firearms order already prohibits possession of firearms by minors other than in specified circumstances. However, that is not to say that they will be denied the opportunity of learning how to handle firearms safely. That can be done at any approved firearms club and the directive does not change that arrangement.

In general, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, that firearms controls are definitely tighter in Northern Ireland because of the security situation. To name two examples, the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 gives the Chief Constable the power to call in any legally held bullet-firing weapon for ballistic or other tests. Secondly, there is a general power for a constable to seize any firearm or ammunition which he believes to be held in contravention of the 1981 order.

I hope that the answers to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, meet with his approval. I hope that it is clear that the regulations do no more than meet our Community obligations.

On Question, Motion agreed to.