Northern Ireland (Firearms)

– in the House of Commons at 2:23 am on 23 July 1979.

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5.34 a.m.

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham

I beg to move, That the draft Firearms (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 3 July, be approved. Hon. Members will be aware that the firearms law operating in Northern Ireland was last amended in 1975. This order is introduced to effect desirable changes in the law before consolidation, which is due shortly. A proposal for a draft order was published on 7 November last and copies were sent to interested organisations, including the Shooting Federation for Northern Ireland and the Joint Shooting Committee for Northern Ireland. The comments received have been taken into account in preparing the draft before the House.

Article 3 of the order translates all references to a chief superintendent in the Firearms Act (Northern Ireland) 1969 into references to the Chief Constable. This will place responsibility for the administration of the Act fairly and squarely on the Chief Constable. Paragraph 21 of schedule 1 allows him to delegate functions as he sees fit, enabling him to organise the administration in the most efficient manner.

Article 4 empowers the Chief Constable to grant short-term firearms certificates free of charge to persons resident outside the United Kingdom who wish to bring firearms into Northern Ireland for sporting purposes, and sets out the criteria to be applied by him in such cases. Holders of such short-term firearm certificates will be enabled to bring firearms through Great Britain en route to Northern Ireland. Frequent visitors to Northern Ireland and cross-border farmers may still wish to purchase full firearm certificates, and provision is made for them to do so. In the published proposal, provision was made for a fee of £2 for a short-term firearm certificate, but the various shooting organisations felt that no charge should be made and we have met them in this.

The law as it stands does not allow registered firearms dealers to sell ammunition other than at their registered places of business. It has been found that com- petitors at shooting events exhaust their lawful entitlement to ammunition very quickly, and journeys to dealers' registered premises are not always practicable. It is proposed, therefore, to allow registered dealers to deal in ammunition at such events, but only if they have first obtained from the Chief Constable a special permit to do so. Article 5 gives effect to this proposal.

It is unlawful for a firearms club to operate without first obtaining from the Secretary of State an authorisation under the Unlawful Drilling Act 1819. In view of the proposed consolidation of firearms law, the opportunity is being taken to bring all aspects of firearms control under the one legislative umbrella. Article 7 seeks to do this.

Article 8 clarifies the right of the Police Authority to acquire firearms on behalf of the police without having to possess firearms certificates.

In Great Britain, firearm certificates are not required in respect of most air weapons, whereas in Northern Ireland a firearm certificate must be obtained before any air weapon may be possessed or acquired. This creates difficulties for Great Britain residents who wish to bring their air weapons to Northern Ireland; they must first obtain a Northern Ireland firearm certificate—valid for three years—at a cost of £14. This is somewhat anomalous, in that holders of British firearm certificates or shotgun certificates may bring the more lethal weapons covered by those certificates to Northern Ireland at no cost. It is proposed to allow owners of air weapons in Great Britain to bring their weapons to Northern Ireland without obtaining a firearm certificate, and article 9 so provides.

Articles 6 and 10 are purely technical amendments.

This is a non-controversial order. It makes no very sweeping changes, but as a result of it firearms users should find the law clearer and more consistent.

I trust that hon. Members will approve the order.

5.40 a.m.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross , County Londonderry

The explanatory note at the end of the order says: This Order makes various amendments to the Firearms Act (Northern Ireland) 1969. It transfers the functions of chief superintendents under the Act to the Chief Constable and enables the Chief Constable to delegate his function under the Act. I thought that that was the present position and that the Chief Constable carries out all the functions that used to be carried out by county inspectors and, latterly, chief superintendents. When was the change made, and under what legislation has the Chief Constable been exercising those functions in the past few years? If no change has been made, why is he carrying out the functions?

I ask that question as one of a series. The Minister has cleared up one or two things that were troubling me, but it seems that amendments made to the Firearms Act (Northern Ireland) 1969 were not well thought out. We are now straightening out previous mistakes, and that does not say much for those who drafted the amendments and it calls into question the capability of those in the firearms section of the RUC, from whom, no doubt, all the amendments originated. That pleases me down to the ground because I do not agree with what they are doing anyway. I believe that the basis of firearms legislation is wrong.

The issuing and cost of certificates has been a bone of contention in the House on many occasions among those of us who shoot. We recently stopped an increase in the cost of a certificate. No doubt we shall pay dearly for that in the next round. The order gives us another opportunity to state our view that the sooner the question who is to have a firearms certificate is taken away from the big empire that has been built up in police headquarters and transferred back to chief superintendents in the divisions, the better for all concerned.

The whole structure is a colossal waste of money. We are keeping in jobs a number of people who are not needed. Everyone knows that the man who really makes the decision is the local sergeant who knows the individual concerned. There may be some difficulty in big towns and cities, but there is none in 95 per cent. of Northern Ireland.

Section 49 of the 1969 Act refers to regulations under which county inspectors had to carry out their duties under the Act. Are there any regulations covering how the Chief Constable carries out his duties? If so, I shall be obliged if I may have a look at them—and so would many of my constituents who have been refused firearms certificates for no good reason.

The Chief Constable is continually refusing certificates for bullet-firing weapons, even those of small calibre. He refuses to allow people to have more than one weapon that discharges a projectile, and he includes air rifles in that category. Unfortunately, he has been consistently upheld and supported by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in that foolish, irresponsible and frustrating attitude. I do not like criticising the Chief Constable. In other areas, he has done a good job, but on this issue the police and the Government have got it wrong and are going bull-headed down the wrong path.

I could not understand why sections 4 and 5, dealing with the importation of firearms, were included in the principal Act since that subject is covered by section 13. From what the Minister has said, it would appear that the intention is now to clear up the problems which were being created by farmers living on the border. Are they the only group of people actually affected by the order? Everybody else who might be affected is covered by previous legislation.

I note, too, that, while in the past one was supposed to give up one's weapon for a ballistic test, no penalty was laid down if one did not. For the first time, a penalty is being laid down. But that does not really matter very much because, under the 1969 Act as amended, all the Chief Constable had to say was "If you do not give it up, I will withdraw your firearms certificate". Now we are adding a fine of £400 or so to that sanction if a person is awkward.

Was it wise to put the Chief Constable in the position of being an absolute dictator in this matter? I suppose that in the end it comes back to the Northern Ireland Office or even the RUC itself. They did not do their job properly in this respect and therefore the individual suffered because his right to hold a firearm was put at risk by the legislation.

Article 8 clears up any misunderstandings that there might be over the right of the Police Authority to purchase weapons. If the police were not entitled to purchase weapons, why did they do it? Surely this matter must have been thought about. If not, why not? Weapons are an important part of the policeman's lot in Northern Ireland, despite the Hunt report of long ago—so long ago now that most people seem to have forgotten about it. For a month or two we had an unarmed police force; now it is better armed than it ever was.

But it seems to have been shortsighted of those who set up the Police Authority, with all the pomp and ceremony that went with it, when, at the end of seven years, we discover that it is not clear whether it is entitled to buy weapons for the policemen to shoot the IRA men with. It calls into question the ability and the intelligence of those who were behind the whole affair.

When I looked at the provision relating to the air weapon problem, I was surprised, but I understand from what the Minister has said that that problem is being covered now, because the order maintains the position that exists for shotgun holders from Great Britain under the amended 1969 Act. We are grateful for that. But I hope that it does not cover an individual coming over to Britain for, say, three or four months, buying an air rifle and then taking it back to Northern Ireland. I assume that in a week or two that person would have a policeman calling upon him to ask when he was applying for a firearms certificate.

If that is not the case, a loophole is being opened through which a coach and four could be driven. Of course the Chief Constable in those circumstances would say "Give up this gun or we will take away your firearms certificate". Therefore, an individual could be pressurised, or, to put it more bluntly, blackmailed, by the police into giving up a weapon which the police did not wish him to have.

It is clear that I have not changed my mind about firearms. I hope that before this Parliament ends someone will have the sense to go in depth into the whole question of firearms legislation, not only in Northern Ireland but throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, so that eventually more sensible laws prevail. In the short term, I ask the Minister to arrange for an early reprint of the 1969 Act as amended. Could he also arrange to make it available to hon. Members at a relatively early date?

5.50 a.m.

Photo of Mr John Farr Mr John Farr , Harborough

To a certain extent I follow what the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) has said. On both sides of the House we all look forward with eagerness to the day when firearms controls in Northern Ireland are considerably relaxed. I do not think that we have a relaxed situation in Great Britain. Many of us think that the position in Great Britain is subject to too much control from the police and Home Office. Nevertheless, it is not nearly so difficult and curtailed as it is in Northern Ireland.

I generally do not have many faults to find with the order, especially after the opening remarks of the Minister, which were very pleasing in respect of the fee for visitors. I should like to make a couple of points about the availability of the Firearms Act (Northern Ireland) 1969 which this order amends. The Act was not available in the House of Commons Library last Wednesday. I think that I eventually got a copy of it on Thursday night. I gather that it had come straight from Belfast. Unfortunately, it does not incorporate the amendments which have been made since it was enacted. It is, therefore, difficult to follow. Before we can deal with the order with any confidence, we need the 1959 Act available for reference purposes.

The hon. Member for Londonderry spoke of how the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland is supposed to deal with this complicated Act. There are over 50 sections in the Act, which has been altered many times since it was passed. Surely there must be available for the Chief Constable some form of guidance notes regarding the interpretation of the Act. I have reason to believe that some such document is available to him. If so, I ask my hon. Friend whether such guidance notes could be made available to hon. Members. It would help us a great deal.

Article 3 deals entirely with the transfer of certain functions under the 1969 Act from chief superintendents to the Chief Constable. The explanatory note says that this is being done for centralisation purposes, for convenience. There are no fewer than 60 or 70 functions which, I think, are carried out perfectly well by chief superintendents but which will be carried out by the Chief Constable if the order is carried. These include some relatively minor matters concerning firearms law about which the man on the spot must know more than the Chief Constable. These will be taken out of the hands of the local man and placed in the hands of the Chief Constable. I do not think that that is altogether good.

Some parts of the order are sound. Obviously some centralisation is needed. Many of these 60 or 70 changes are right, in my view. However, it is surely not right to remove from the hands of the chief superintendent the power, for instance, to approve an application concerning a firearms dealer's premises and licence. Whether it is taken in the name of the Chief Constable or not, the decision of the Chief Constable will be made on the advice received from the local man on the spot, who will probably delegate it to the sergeant.

It seems to me that there is a lot of unnecessary centralisation here. It is known, in Northern Ireland, to the cost of users of firearms for recreational purposes, that the procedures take a long time to be completed, and I can see nothing but a lengthening of the procedures by the removal of decision-making from the chief superintendent and carrying it forward to the Chief Constable.

I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who presented the order in such an able way, refer to article 4, under which overseas visitors will be allowed to enter Northern Ireland and obtain a firearms certificate without expense. This has long been a pressing need because visitors have been paying £14 or £15 to come in, and the tragedy is that this has affected tourism and visiting shooting parties for competitions. In the Republic of Ireland a foreign visitor does not have to pay for a certificate. He receives a pink slip and that sees him through for a week's or a fortnight's use of his firearm. In Northern Ireland a full certificate has been required, and I congratulate my hon. Friend and all concerned who have listened to the wishes of people in Northern Ireland in this respect and made this necessary change.

I am glad to read of the arrangements in article 5 for making ammunition available to competitors who wish to use it in various competitions in Northern Ireland. The Province has been at a disadvantage compared with the Republic of Ireland and, indeed, with mainland Great Britain, and as a result has been losing both tourism and trade.

With those one or two reservations, I welcome the order.

5.57 a.m.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I join in the general welcome that has been given to the order, and I am glad that, in presenting it, the Minister made it clear that people entering the country with a firearm will have a certificate issued to them free. There has been a strong lobby from the sporting people in Northern Ireland on these various matters, and I am glad that the Minister has taken on board what has been put to him. I am pleased that if no certificate is required in Great Britain for airguns or air weapons, these weapons can be brought into Northern Ireland for sporting purposes.

I should like the Minister to explain the reason for the delegation of all this authority to the Chief Constable. As a matter of practice, this is what has been happening in Northern Ireland, and I cannot understand why in this order all this power is given to the Chief Constable, bearing in mind that he has already taken the power and has been exercising it.

Has the provision about the Police Authority being able to purchase and acquire firearms anything to do with the deal that is going on between it and the United States? I understand that half the allotment of arms has been purchased by the Police Authority but that the second half has been held up and a Congressional committee is now meeting to see how the Police Authority had power to purchase arm on behalf of the Government. Perhaps the Minister would help us on that matter. Is that why this power is legally to be put beyond the scope of the Police Authority?

With those general remarks, I welcome the order.

6 a.m.

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for the general welcome they have given to this order and to the care which the Department has taken in trying to ascertain the wishes of local organisations and individuals. I am glad that we have been able to meet those local views.

I am sorry that we are not able to meet entirely the views of the hon. Member for Londonderry. This is a straightening-out measure. The suggestions of the hon. Member go far beyond straightening out. I suspect that we would not have introduced the order at this time if we had not been contemplating a consolidation measure at an early date. It is the imminence of that consolidation measure that makes me think that it would be impractical to reprint the 1969 legislation with all the amendments. It will all be brought up to date soon.

I can tell the hon. Member for Londonderry that the repeal of section 13(a) of the original Act and its replacement was done, in part, to meet the problem of farmers on the border and also to allow people travelling through Great Britain to Northern Ireland to bring their firearms with them since no similar provision exists in Great Britain. I do not believe that the reference to the Police Authority has anything to do with the outburst of the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Washington.. I have no reason to believe that the American Government are not going forward with the full sale of that order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Firearms (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which was laid before the House on 3 July, be approved.