The numbers of serious offences recorded by the police in England and Wales in which firearms—including air weapons—were reported to have been used rose from about 1,300 to about 6,550 over the 10 year period 1969 to 1979; a 400 per cent, increase. The percentage increase over the past 15 years is not available, as information was not collected centrally on a comparable basis before 1969. Of the 6,550 such offences recorded in 1979, some 4,250 were offences of violence against the person or of robbery.
Over the same period there has been a considerable increase in all sorts of crime. These figures must be seen against that background. However, the figures are serious. The secure holding of firearms is important. I have taken steps to that end in conjunction with the British Shooting Sports Council. I believe that they will be effective. We have to consider every method available if we are to ensure that firearms do not get into the wrong hands.
Does not the Secretary of State agree that access to firearms is important, and is relevant to the increase in the use of firearms in crimes of violence? Given the figures that the right hon. Gentleman has announced, is there not a strong case for tightening up the requirements for the issue of shotgun licences, at least to the level that applies in the case of other firearms? Surely that could be done without placing an undue burden on legitimate users of shotguns.
I said that I would review the whole question of firearms and shotgun certificates, and I am doing that. However, these certificates are a matter for the police. It is an important issue and I am sure that the police will pay attention to the hon. Gentleman's remarks.
Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the more firearms are used in the commission of crime, the more the police are forced to take up firearms to maintain the peace? Will my right hon. Friend treat this matter with the utmost seriousness? In particular, will he say what he is doing about replica guns, which are increasingly used in the commission of crime and which should not be available?
As regards my hon. Friend's first point, I accept that that is a very worrying development. In the past, I have spoken to my hon. Friend about that. In the past day or so I have written to my hon. Friend about replica firearms and I have offered to discuss this further with him and with the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) who came to see me on another occasion. I should be very pleased to hold that meeting.
Is it not a fact that in the past few years shotguns in particular have been used in the commission of crimes? Does not a powerful shotgun lobby exist—particularly in Tory areas—which exerts pressure? Will the right hon. Gentleman make a statement about that lobby and the pressure that it exerts?
Those who hold shotguns legally for sporting purposes are not those who are in any way responsible for crimes committed with firearms. That must be said immediately. I have asked the British Shooting Council if it will introduce a voluntary code of practice on the security of firearms in private hands. I am glad to say that at the meeting that it held yesterday, it agreed to that request. That is by far the most sensible and constructive way forward.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend would wish to be absolutely fair in this matter. Will he confirm that one of the reasons for the big increase in air weapon offences is that in 1971 the qualifying level for an offence was reduced from £100 to £20? Is he aware that the latest criminal returns, made in 1979, show that the use of shotguns has been halved, from 20 per cent, in 1971 to slightly under 10 per cent, in 1979?
My hon. Friend shares the same anxiety that I have about the use of any firearms in crime. I am sure that he would agree with me that our success—and he has helped me in this—in getting a voluntary code of practice with regard to secure control of firearms has been a very sensible way forward. I thought that in what I said I was being extremely fair to those who use shotguns for sporting purposes, but apparently not all Members of the House thought so.