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I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Firearms (Variation of Fees) Order 1986 (S.I. 1986, No. 986), dated 9th June 1986, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th June, be annulled.
The debate, which is on firearms certificates, is one in which we want some clarification from the Government on what their intentions are. At one level, the order looks innocuous enough. The fees are being increased for certain categories of firearms and for certain purposes—[Interruption.]
But we are not sure whether the Government's intention is simply to raise the fees to pay for a service, or to raise the fees to restrict ownership of guns. That is not clear from the order.
I suspect that the Government are trying to have it both ways—they are trying to get more money for providing a service to the public but at the same time they are worried about the rising crime rate and rising armed crime, so they are concerned to restrict the availability of firearms in society. As I have said several times to the Minister in letters and conversations, and in questions at the Dispatch Box, there is a case for a sensible firearms policy that restricts the availability of firearms, but there is not a case for trying to control access to firearms simply by increasing the price. If one does that, one squeezes the low-income groups that use firearms. They are used for work —gamekeepers are an obvious example—and for sport, not just shooting animals and birds but for target practice, clay-pigeon shooting and so on.
We have not had from the Government a justification for the increase and, much more important, a proper, rational policy on the availability of firearms in society. In 1979, the Labour Government proposed certain increases. They fell, and then the present Government increased the fees by quite a large amount 1980. They proposed increasing them again in 1982.
The hon. Gentleman is not doing justice to the events that he is describing. Surely he recalls that the same hon. Members who voted down his Government's attempt to increase the charges then went through the Division Lobby in support of vastly greater increases after the election.
The hon. Gentleman has pre-empted me slightly, and also has the advantage of having been there at the time, which I was not. Without checking the names of all those who voted in the Lobbies at that time, I was under the impression that Conservative Members voted down an increase but then increased the charge dramatically. The present increases are well over 50 per cent. in several cases. For example, the charge for renewal of a firearms certificate goes up from 13 to £35, a dramatic increase, which is greater than the rate of inflation. As the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has just said, the increase is far greater than that proposed in 1979 when inflation was higher than it is today.
I am anxious not simply to question the Government as to whether they are trying to raise the fees to pay for a service or whether they are trying to restrict firearms; simply to bring forward such an order is not the answer to this serious problem. We must base our firearms policy on the premise that we do not use financial limits to restrict access to firearms. That would be one of the worst ways to achieve restriction. As I have said, that would hit the low income user who is a perfectly legitimate gun user. He should not be penalised simply because he does not earn a great deal or is unemployed. Using firearms for target practice or clay pigeon shooting is a very popular sport among many sections of society including low income groups.
The other criterion which we must consider—and I will address some points later to the shooting sports groups—is the recognition that we need to control the number of weapons available to society and the security under which they are kept in society. If our society had a low crime rate and there were no tensions in our inner cities and elsewhere, I would be less worried than I am today. In some countries it is fairly common for families and individuals to own guns and there is no evidence of a dramatic increase in crime as a result of that. However, we do not live in such a society. This is not Switzerland or a country where weapons are fairly common and at the same time the level of crime is low.
The crime rate in our country has been escalating dramatically. Under this Government, violent crime has been increasing rapidly, for reasons which I have eleborated upon previously. No doubt you would rightly rule me out or order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I went into great detail about this now. However, if we create a situation in our inner cities as a result of general economic and social policies that splinters the fabric of society, which undermines community links which prevent crime—
I will return to the order, but I ask you to bear with me on this point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The increase in crime as a result of social policies has a link with violent crime. If we try to control the availability of weapons by putting up the price, that will simply hit the low income groups. That will not deal with the problems in the inner cities.
It is probably true to say—although the figures may be interpreted in other ways— that legitimate users do not, in any real sense, cause violent crime. However, if we allow the number of weapons to increase considerably in society, that will introduce a gun lobby into the United Kingdom. We have avoided that so far but it has not been avoided in the United States.
Increasing the number of guns available to society would increase the difficulties faced by the police in tracking down weapons. There is considerable evidence that weapons illicitly used in our society either come from imports—which is probably their main source—or from people who have legitimate firearm certificates but who are prepared illegitimately to make weapons available, either by sale or other methods, to people who are not entitled to own them.
I sympathise with one or two of the points which the hon. Gentleman made at the beginning of his speech. However, I believe that he is entering dangerous territory. I speak as the president of a rifle club and I do not represent a gun lobby. I am not aware that the increase in violent crime, or the use of firearms in this country to carry out crimes, is any way attributable to arms possessed by bona fide rifle clubs. Would the hon. Gentleman agree that there is no evidence of theft from such clubs to account for the increase in violent crime?
Order. We should not go too far down that road. The order deals with the variation of fees and it would he out of order if the debate turned into a discussion of the incidence and causes of crime.
I agree with your sentiments, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the argument is specifically about the purpose of the fees increases. If the Government are increasing fees to pay for a service, that is one thing, but there are suggestions that the Government are increasing the fees to keep down the supply of weapons. So there is a link.
I agree with you Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it would be wrong to have a debate on crime prevention, but I must tell the hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) that I did not mention rifle shooting. I talked about guns generally and I am particularly worried about handguns and shotguns. Also, I did not talk much about theft. I said that it seemed to me that the main problems arose from imports and from people who legitimately held weapons, having a firearms certificate, being prepared to make those firearms available to others who were not entitled to own them.
There are no figures to support my case, but if the hon. Member for Wealden goes round certain inner city areas he will not have difficulty in buying weapons from various people, many of whom have firearms certificates. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the figures—
It is not outrageous. It is common sense and common evidence from those who live in inner city areas and from many of the things that the police say. I advise the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) to talk to the police. They will give him the sort of evidence that I am talking about.
The hon. Gentleman has expressed his worry about the unlawful possession of shotguns. Will he tell us whether it is the policy of the Labour party to extend the firearms certificate system to shotguns— Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) will not respond to that invitation. He would be out of order if he did so.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that of the weapons involved in crime — which are, after all, traceable—only a fraction of 1 per cent. are recorded under the firearms certificate system? That is the point which—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Conservative Members are in some difficulty, because we are worried about the cost of the Government's proposals, and some of us fear that they may he a ploy to get rid of the private owner in a vain effort to control all the illegal firearms that are used —
Order. The hon. Gentleman is making assumptions about the order that are not matters for me. I am concerned about the order and the scope of the debate, which should be related to the merits of the proposed new structure for fees. The various matters that are being raised now are neither matters for me nor relevant to the order.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is being suggested, and it has not yet been gainsaid, that these systems and fees can be used as a method of controlling the possession of firearms. That is manifestly correct; they can be so used. Surely we are entitled to debate the proposition that fees should he used as a method of controlling their possession.
Order. I do not know what the nub of the argument is, because I have not yet heard it. It might help the House if the Minister were eventually to be given an opportunity to explain the purpose of the order. In the meantime, we ought to return to the debate and to the speech of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley).
The hon. Gentleman is proceeding on a point of order that proceeds upon an entirely false assumption. The order that is before the House deals with the variation of fees. Before we make assumptions about what the issue is, we ought to allow the Minister to explain the purpose of the order. Before he does so, we ought to listen to the hon. Gentleman who has the Floor of the House. Mr. Clive Soley.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Surely you must allow me at least to finish the point of order that I have started. This issue is extremely important to many people. It is not simply a question of the amount of money that is involved. We must also deal with the arguments that lie behind the order. In all my experience of this place I have never listened to a debate about an order that simply relates to pounds shillings and pence and not to the arguments that accompany it. I hope that you will keep a moderately more open mind about the debate that we must have on this important subject.
As you will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, some time ago I was making a speech. As I was aware of the nature of the order, I was trying to phrase my comments in a way that would be within the rules of the House and helpful to it. Although the order can be debated simply in terms of cost, you rightly pointed out that one of the difficulties of the Prayer procedure is that the Opposition have to lead the debate without first having heard the Minister.
I have already said that the underlying point is whether the Government are attempting to raise the fees in order to pay for the service or whether they are raising them in order to control the number of firearms. Within the rules of the House and within the limits of the order, I hope to describe the way in which the Minister should approach this problem instead of by an order that simply increases the fees. The availablity of firearms in society is an important issue. The rights of legitimate users of firearms are also important. By "legitimate users" I mean those who use firearms during their work or for pleasure. Those two uses must be kept in proportion.
Continuing from the point at which the trout rose to the evening fly, the shooting sports lobby needs to take on board society's concern about the increasing availability of weapons of all types, including crossbows and firearms. The Government need to take on board the fact that they must face the problem of how to deal with phasing the increases in fees and also the problem of how to control the number and type of firearms that are available.
On previous occasions I have written to the Minister about this problem and have pointed out to him that books are available on British bookstalls that advertise certain types of weapons. Not only do they do that, but they publish articles which advise people on how to use weapons in specific situations. One of the magazines I quoted had an article on how to turn a neighbourhood watch committee into a vigilante group. That magazine and a number of others of the same type are freely available in bookshops. They also describe how to get weapons and give details of the fees. I know that the Minister is aware of those things because I made him aware of them when I met him, and I also wrote to him recently.
Underlying this order is a legitimate concern of the Government: that at a time of dramatically rising crime, firearms and other weapons like crossbows and paramilitary courses that are advertised in the magazines that I am talking about, are freely and easily available in society.
On 26 February the Home Secretary said that he was setting up a review of the use of guns by the police. In response to that, I asked the Minister to include a wider review of the whole issue of' firearms—their availability, the costs of certification, and the conditions of security in which weapons were kept, and so on. In his written reply, the Home Secretary said:
When the review is completed I shall advise the House of its conclusions."—[Official Report, 26 February 1986; Vol. 92, c. 564.]
My letter to the Home Secretary on 26 March was about the costing of firearms certificates. I emphasise that. The answer to the question asked in the intervention by the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) is partly contained in that letter. My letter said:
We strongly recommend the establishment of a Standing Advisory Committee set up by the Home Office to review and make recommendations on such matters as firearm licensing; the number and type of firearms, replica gun and other dangerous weapons (crossbows, airguns and certain types of knife) in circulation; the number of registered firearm dealers; the growing trade in more general combat gear and training courses; the importation of firearms and other weapons; the use of weapons in crime; the minimum conditions of security in which legitimately held weapons are kept; the question of registering each shotgun with a number to ensure that they can be traced when necessary;
That point was raised by the hon. Member for Grantham. I emphasise this part:
and the desirability of creating a separate licensing authority to take the burden off the police.
A lot of hon. Members and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are anticipating my speech. My answer to the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) is yes, it would. I will come to that point. That Committee should have on it representatives — I emphasise the plural — of the shooting sports. Obviously, they should not form a dominant group but they should be on the Committee. A number of other people would be represented on it, including the police and criminologists. We are dealing with a complex subject and if the Government think they can get away from it by simply banging up the fees through an order which will slip through without a debate unless we in the Opposition pray against it, they are going down the wrong road.
I am endeavouring to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument. It seems to me that he would put shotgun certificates on the firearms certificate procedure. If his party were in office would it seek to limit the number of shotguns a person was allowed to own?
I make it abundantly clear that I would not legislate until I had received recommendations from the Committee that I have described. That is because the more I go into the subject. the more complex I see that it is. It is easy to make a simplistic judgment in this House or outside and to say that far too many guns are available. That view is basically right, but it needs to be argued in more detail in relation to the problems of crime in society.
It is also easy to go too far the other way, as the shooting sports lobby tends to do, and to say that there is no problem because all the people who hold guns legitimately are proper, decent users who stay within the law. That is too simple a view and I ask the shooting sports lobby to bear in mind the dramatic increase in armed crime. If we do not take that on board, we can end up only with more people owning arms, more arms being available —whether legitimately or illegitimately—and increasing the problem for society. We must deal with that problem in a much more sophisticated way than we are using tonight. That is the core of my argument.
The hon. Member is being very candid, and we are grateful for that. As I understand him, he is saying that he and his party would greatly increase shotgun certificate fees to control the possession of shotguns.
I did not say anything which remotely resembles that. I think that controls must be of a different type. That is why I suggest the establishment of a standing advisory committee. By increasing fees, as is proposed in the order, we are hitting the legitimate low-income user. That is not a good way in which to control firearms. There is a case for controlling firearms and there is a case for saying that we will finance control out of the licensing system, but there is no case for increasing the fee to make it more difficult for low-income groups to use firearms.
To get around the problems, which we are all finding difficult, I recommend the establishment of a standing committee in the Home Office. The Minister would not then have to come to the House as he has tonight. We would have a much more informed debate and we might make better decisions as a result. There is a good case—I should not like to put it any more strongly at the moment —for a separate licensing authority. It is difficult for the police to tackle this matter without spending an awful lot of time on it, and there is dissatisfaction with how the police handle it. That may or may not be fair. I honestly do not know. I know, however, that if we tell firearms users that they must pay increased fees, they can legitimately reply, "We want some say in the type of service that we get." That is one of the reasons why I suggest that the shooting sports are represented on the advisory committee.
I have implied that the Government are at best confused and at worst deliberately confusing about their intention in the order. If they are trying to deal with the increase in armed crime, I acknowledge that there is a serious problem. The average annual use of long-barrelled shotguns in crime in the years 1974 to 1979 was 187. For the years 1980–84 it was 247. For sawn-off shotguns, the figure increased from 177 to 311. For pistols, it increased from 375 to 1,017. The average use of imitation firearms in crime increased from 86 to 130.
In those figures alone, we have a strong argument for setting up a committee such as I have described. The Government could then present the House with orders, which may well include fee increases, which would be well argued in terms of the services that are provided for legitimate users, and we could ask legal shooting sports bodies, as I have done already with individual groups, to adopt a more sophisticated and detailed argument of their case. It is not enough, as one or two have told me, to bring back capital punishment on the grounds that that will deal with armed crime. It will not. That argument is a nonsense. We need a well informed debate, whether it is about increasing fees or increasing the availability of arms.
My complaint to the Minister and my worry about the order it is that it simply increases the fees and covers over whether it is about a service or anxiety about the use of firearms and their availability. The Government have not addressed the central issue as I should have liked.
The House will understand my difficulty this evening. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) gave us a full and generous account of the way in which a future Government — I was not entirely clear as to their composition—would tackle, not the firearms fees order, but the Firearms Act 1968, which provides the system by which controls are applied.
We must strike a balance between safeguarding the public from the misuse of firearms and the protection of the legitimate user. I am concerned only with the fees order and with the fact that the debate is limited in time. Therefore, I shall deal rapidly with some of the salient points that worry my hon. Friends. Unfortunately, I cannot deal with the Opposition's reasons for their prayer.
May I say for the sake of clarity, if not for the convenience of the hon. Member for Hammersmith, that the fees proposed in this order are strictly to recover costs and have not been devised to regulate the number of firearms legitimately held. Nor should they be taken as a moral predication for or against legitimate users of firearms or shotguns—the shooting fraternity. It is well known that the shooting fraternity has a substantial capacity to use, control and look after firearms and shotguns, because its members are properly devoted to their sport.
We are all delighted to hear tha: my hon. Friend is trying only to recover costs. How does he justify an increase of 65 per cent. in the context of replacing firearms certificates? Was the 1980 level too low, or has there been a 65 per cent. increase in the cost of processing applications.
As usual, my hon. Friend precedes me by a short time. Had he listened a little longer, he would have heard the answer to his question.
Governments of both persuasions have long believed that a person who wishes to engage in an activity that is controlled in the public interest should pay the economic cost of issuing or renewing his or her licence. The inescapable fact is that income from firearms fees does not match the expenditure of the licensing system.
My hon. Friends will know the background to the order. They will recall the criticisms made of the proposal to increase fees in 1982, which was mentioned by the hon. Members for Hammersmith and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). That proposal was not proceeded with, but it is interesting to note that the fees proposed then—four years ago — were £41 for the grant and £30 for the renewal of a firearm certificate, with corresponding fees of £17 and £10 for shotgun certificates. My noble Friend the then Home Secretary was urged to introduce some standardisation of practice among police forces in their administration of the Firearms Act in an effort to keep costs down.
The Government reacted positively. In 1982 — as many of my hon. Friends will know, but as the hon. Member for Hammersmith conveniently forgot— we set up a joint Home Office and Association of Chief Police Officers working party to consider what improvements could be made to streamline and reduce the amount of work undertaken by the police. In its report, published in April 1984, the working party made several important recommendations, most of which have been implemented. It also drew up a series of standardised procedures—it was previously a major source of disagreement in the shooting lobby, which required a standardised procedure if at all possible — in the form of worksheets and recommended that they be used in reviewing the level of fees to recover costs. They showed the stages of processing an average application and the most junior rank of officer who might perform each task. The fees have been costed strictly on the basis of those worksheets, with the exception of the shotgun issue and renewal fee.
Under the new costing method—I stress that it is new—some fees have been reduced and others will remain at their 1980 levels. There would have been a slight reduction of £2·50 and a slight increase of 50p in the shotgun issue and renewal fee, but since the one would have balanced the other in terms of cost recovery, we have decided to leave both at their existing levels for the present. In any event—I hope that I carry my colleagues with me on this—we do not think that it would be in the public interest to reduce the shotgun issue fee at present. I must agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith that there is public anxiety about the use of shotguns in the commission of crimes.
In 1975, 673 burglaries and thefts were recorded by the police in which shotguns were reported to have been stolen, and some 766,000 certificates were issued. In 1984, the equivalent figures were 678 and 798,000. Therefore, there is nothing to suggest that the rise in the number of certificated shotguns is related to an increase in the number of shotguns that find their way into criminal activities.
I turn to the matter of most concern to my right hon. and hon. Friends.
That recommendation was rejected for the two reasons that I have given. First, this would signal that people could then expect to obtain shotguns more easily, and one would have to consider whether that was in the public interest. Secondly, the decrease to £9·50 on the £12 fee, and the increase to £8·50 on the renewal fee, cancel each other out.
Does my hon. Friend accept that his Department has an extremely bureaucratic attitude towards the issue of licences? Licences could be issued more efficiently. For example, a yachtsman obtaining a licence to save his life pays something like that fee for sending a piece of paper through the post every year. If my hon. Friend looked at that point within his Department, he might solve the problem that he faces tonight.
I am not absolutely certain that I am surrounded by a massive problem that I cannot deal with. However, a not unreasonable response to that request would be to set up a working party to examine how many minutes are required to process fees, and to base a proposal precisely on that. The information has been published since 1984, so my hon. Friend should understand the minutage required for renewal. As laid down in the Firearms Act 1968, the renewal is required to be on exactly the same terms as the grant under the 1968 Act. The grant and renewal have been costed on the basis of a standardised procedure, which is what the British Shooting Sports Council would wish. The time arrived at is 145 minutes. [Interruption.] My hon. Friends are now pulsating with excitement, because they cannot believe that the working party could come up with that figure.
The other day I had my firearms certificate renewed. The very worthy constable, who is a good friend of mine and a helpful fellow, was forced to write out a lot of information in longhand, and in a most appallingly out of date and bureaucratic manner. The most modest computer, costing only a few hundred pounds, could do it.
I would be more prepared to bear in mind my hon. Friend's splendidly delivered strictures if, in 1984, when the working party report was published and circulated to the shooters, he had expressed an opinion about it. For some extraordinary reason, he did not. After two years, we have come to put the working party's recommendations into fee form, and now he has spoken.
I know that my hon. Friends are concerned about this, and my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) has made that clear. The Firearms Act 1968 requires a chief officer to be satisfied that the applicant for renewal has a good reason for having the firearm, and can be permitted to have it in his possession without danger to the public safety. Those are the inquiries on which the minutage is spent.
In dealing with firearms, we are dealing, as we all know, with the senior category of weapons of greater lethal propensity than others. It does not seem outrageous that, after a three-year interval, a renewal should be conducted on the basis of ensuring that there are no changes in the arrangements that were made three years previously, in the conditions under which the firearm should be used, in the land over which it should be used, in the total number of firearms and their individual numbering. The police should also find out whether there are any additions to or subtractions from the requirements of the certificate holder. All that would take a police officer some time.
The fee increases that are being debated are the first for six years. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-superMare has to recognise that costs have risen over that time. My hon. Friend may agree that the costs of police time have risen, and that this factor should be taken into account. Costs have to be reflected in the fees that we set. A firearm and shotgun certificate is issued for three years, and the increases for the issue and renewal of a firearm certificate before us amount to approximately £3 and £4 per annum. The shotgun fees are to remain the same. I cannot accept that the net effect of this package will be to price the shooter out of his chosen sport, but I believe that we shall begin to see a full recovery of the costs involved in issuing the certificate. This is all that we are seeking to do.
My hon. Friends have rightly drawn attention to the fact that the biggest single increase is the 65 per cent., so elegantly pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, for the renewal of category I firearm. That is based on the assessment made by the working party of the minutage involved, at the lowest cost of police officer to ensure that it is as fair as possible. I am prepared, and I have told the British Shooting Sports Council so to invite it to join us in a working party during the process of the fees being enacted. It will be up to the working party to re-examine the work sheets that we are providing as the basis for the renewal fee of the category I firearm. If it can find that the average timetable in the 43 police forces in England and Wales, whose good offices have been used to arrive at this proposal—
And Scotland, as my hon. Friend rightly reminds me. If the working party can show that the 145 minutage is an excess, we shall have to consider that in the renewal of the fees order, which will doubtless be before the House in three years' time.
Tonight, we have to consider fees that have not been altered for six years, and the totals show that the recovery of costs is the sole basis on which we seek to judge them. The working party reported two years ago, recommending that the cost be related to the minutage involved, and that is a not unsensible basis on which to proceed. I trust that it might at least assume proportion in the minds of hon. Members as a significant step forward from the several haphazard bases from which previous fees were calculated, and which resulted in such substantial opposition from the shooting lobby. I have seen the BSSC recently, and I know that it is concerned about the renewal of the firearms licence.
I welcome the offer of a working party, but will my hon. Friend simply add one point? It is that the working party will have the benefit of the supervision of my hon. Friend's jaundiced good sense, not only as to the length of time that it takes to fill in the many forms, but also as to some commonsense in the questions that are asked and the procedures that are gone through to satisfy the proper authorities that the right person has the right type of weapon in the right conditions. It seems to some of us that proceedings are often prolonged in the courts.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lyell) will recall that the basis of the fees is set in the Firearms Act 1968. In following the procedures for the granting and renewal of category I firearms, we have to follow the correct procedure. That is the statutory position and it is not possible to vary it without primary legislation.
I hope that what I have said will allow the prayer to be defeated.
The Minister is a very nice man, but he spoke from a rotten brief. He did much better many years ago when he abolished the Swansea licensing centre. I wish that he would deal with this matter in a similar manner.
I am not a sportsman and I do not have a shotgun, but I have a great interest in small-bore rifle clubs. They have suffered badly under such orders ever since I came to the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and I helped to defeat the Government in 1979. We are stuck with an increase of .E.33 and a renewal fee of £33. This affects not people on high wages but those who may have taken a cut in salary in the last few years.
I have visited the Shanklin small-bore rifle club and my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has had representations from the Northumberland rifle club. We are talking about a legitimate sport. It is a keenly fought sport. I have travelled with club members. Why should we penalise it? Why can we not renew a licence for six years, as I proposed during the review? Why can we not give a club an overall licence? Why cannot people with shotguns pay for one licence and renew it at the same time? That would cut out some of the ridiculous costs.
We have heard statistics about the cost to the Metropolitan police of renewing licences, compared with the cost for the Isle of Wight and Wiltshire. There are vast variations, so the Minister will have to do much better to convince us that police time costs so much.
I ask the Minister to think again. It may be six years since the matter was reviewed. Inflation has increased, despite this Government's record, which we have to admit is quite good, but I ask the Minister to think about the people who enjoy the sport and to do something to help them, instead of crippling them all the time. The number of licences issued has gone down by about 50,000 since 1968, so it is obvious that people have had to give up the sport because they cannot afford it. Can we please look after small-bore rifle club members better than we have done in the past 12 years?
I welcome with moderation what my hon. Friend the Minister of State has said. I shall be brief as time is short and a number of hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate.
I welcome the system that has been introduced because it will eliminate variations in charges. We have opposed increases in the past because of the wide variations and fluctuations in charges by different forces. Before the new system was established, it cost three or four times as much to be issued with a firearm certificate in London as it did in Wales or on the Isle of Wight. That was manifestly unfair. I think that the House should welcome what my hon. Friend has done through the working party. We have a detailed costing system which is fair to everybody and has resulted in a standstill in shotgun certificate fees. Indeed, there has been a reduction in charges in the light of the proposals of a previous Home Secretary in 1982, which, in his wisdom, he withdrew.
The strange increase in the cost of renewal of a firearm certificate stands out like a sore thumb. I can understand the issue of a certificate being quite a lengthy and expensive procedure, but once it is known that the man who has the certificate will not flit overnight and has been at the same address for 20 or 30 years, there is no reason why the cost of renewal should be the same, as is proposed in the order, as the cost of issuing it. I hope that my hon. Friend will put in hand straightaway his suggestion to take up this matter with the British Shooting Sports Council and shooting people so that it can be ironed out.
As has been said by some of my hon. Friends, it is to be hoped that some form of modernisation, including computerisation, can be introduced to the system. Can we look forward to a day not too far distant when firearm fees will be at a standstill, or will be reduced? That is what we are looking for as regards rates, and we are in a period when the cost of living is almost stable. The Home Office is out of step when it churns out massive increases in firearm certificate fees year after year.
I reject the suggestion of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) that there is a link between armed crime and legitimate firearm owners. Expert statistical research has shown that there is no such link, and police officers will confirm that.
I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He has spoken for too long already. When he reads the Hansard report of his speech, I think he will regret many of the things that he said.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State to bear in mind the good suggestion made by a previous Home Secretary, that a six-year certificate should be introduced for shotguns and firearms. Would that not be a way forward? Would not that lead to a large saving in administrative costs and a considerable reduction of the burden which shooting people have to face? I ask my hon. Friend with great sincerity to consider that suggestion carefully. I have the detailed proposals in my possession somewhere and I shall gladly send them to him to refresh his memory. His predecessor was convinced that his suggestion was a sensible and economic step which should be taken in the interests of the country.
Like the hon. Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr), I shall be brief. I must, however, take up his reference to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) and his assertion that he claimed that there was a link between armed crime and legitimate firearm holders. That was not my hon. Friend's argument. It was the Minister who, when questioned by my hon. Friend, said that there was increasing public anxiety about the illegal use of firearms. When the Minister replies, I invite him to confirm that that was the position.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall that the Minister went further than that? He said that to put into effect the recommended reduction in the shotgun licence fee would be to give a signal that it was easier to obtain shotguns—a contention which I refute.
That was precisely the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith took up. My hon. Friend wanted to know whether that was the Minister's contention.
I have received representations from some of my constituents who are organised in a small shooting club at Senghennydd. It is a good club which has several hundred members, many of whom are on low incomes or unemployed. My constituents have two grievances. First, they believe that there has been inadequate time for representations to be made on the order.
The Minister said that it has been six years since the matter was last debated. It was last debated in the House in 1980. The working party has been sitting for four years, and its report was published in 1984. It seems strange that suddenly the Home Office has to lay the order before the House and push it through at this late hour without public debate. It may well be that the Minister is receiving advice from his hon. Friend, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. MacKay). I must tell the Minister about the reaction of people who will be directly affected by the proposals.
The order imposes a 65 per cent. increase in the renewal fee. There is no getting away from the fact that that will place a major burden on those low income earners who regard shooting as their prime sport. If the Minister wishes to use the licensing system to control the spread of firearms, and so on, he must accept that the proposed fee increase will adversely discriminate against low income earners and will do nothing to prevent the illegal use of firearms.
The Minister was challenged on the question of shotguns. He said that he did not want to give a signal that there should be wider ownership of shotguns, presumably because of public fear about the increasing use of shotguns in crime.
I understand, from discussions I have had today with Home Office officials that anyone who holds a foreign passport will be exempt from all the provisions. A person can come to this country, go to a dealer or a sports shop, show his passport, and say, "I will not be a resident of this country for more than 30 days", and he will be exempt from the provisions. He does not have to go to a police station to register. He does not have to get authorisation to buy ammunition. As long as he produces his passport and gives an undertaking that he will leave the country within 30 days, he will be exempt from the provisions.
How can the Minister justify his earlier comment that he does not want to give a signal about the wider ownership of shotguns when citizens of the Irish Republic, North America, and so on, can come to this country—
And from Libya —and have unfettered access to shotguns?
Will the Minister confirm that there is an inadequate method of control over shotguns which are imported by British citizens who can go to Spain, Switzerland, and so on, and buy weapons quite freely on the open market? When they return to this country—perhaps at Heathrow airport — and declare that they have a shotgun certificate, they are not required to produce any further evidence to Customs about the weapons they have brought in. They are not required to provide the serial numbers of weapons to Customs or to the police.
When there are such major, glaring loopholes, the Minister may understand why genuine holders of certificates and genuine users of shotguns and firearms in my constituency, who comply with the provisions of the Act, feel aggrieved when they face a 65 per cent. increase in fees just so they can continue to enjoy their proper, legitimate and controlled sport. I hope that the Minister will address himself to those major questions.
I find it difficult to accept the Minister's argument that the fees are calculated on the basis of costing police time. That does not apply in other areas of crime prevention. When the police go out and give advice on home security or road safety, we do not expect them to charge for doing so. The Minister is trying to draw a smokescreen over the issue. I think that he wants to control the use of shotguns and the spread of firearms by a financial method. I hope that he will come clean, when he stands at the Dispatch Box, and say that is the case. He loses credibility when he tries to construct an argument on the basis that the police have carefully costed how much time is involved in the issuing of certificates or renewals.
The following example demonstrates that point. The South Wales police force takes, on average, three days to deal with an application for a variation. There have been no complaints about that police force or about the legitimate shooters who must deal with that police force. I have it on good authority that one applicant, in the county of Gwent, had 14 visits from the police when they were processing his application for a variation to his firearms certificate. When there is such a discrepancy between two neighbouring police forces, how can the Minister expect us to accept that there has been a careful, objective analysis to produce the median figure of 145 minutes as the time required to process applications? That is not on. All the evidence suggests that such a period is not needed. I ask the hon. Gentleman to reconsider.
I welcome the Minister's move to consult more widely the representatives of legitimate sporting interests. I ask him to give careful consideration to the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for I lam mersmith, because, if he is prepared to accept it, he will go a long way towards resolving this problem.
My hon. Friend the Minister made his usual kindly speech, but I am afraid that it was throroughly unsatisfactory in relation to the renewal of firearms certificates. I speak from both sides of the sport. I am interested in country sports and am involved in the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association and the National Rifle Association. I accept that the variations are reasonable, except the incredible increase from £20 to £33 for the renewal of a firearms certificate. It is remarkable that the fee has increased by 65 per cent. when the Government have taken credit for bringing inflation down to 3 per cent. The increase is a knock on the head to those interested in enjoying a legitimate country sport.
The increased fee to renew a certificate is the same as the cost of the initial application for a certificate, which has increased by "only" 32 per cent., from £25 to £33. That is a large increase for a sport which should be encouraged at a time when we are doing all that we can to step up interest in sport and recreation.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to bear in mind that, in 1968, the fee for the initial application for a firearms certificate was five shillings and renewal cost half a crown —the initial application cost about 50 per cent. of the renewal cost. That was not at all like the increase now recommended.
I cannot understand why the nation is not prepared to bear a share of that cost. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said, there are many other police activities, the costs of which will be not be recoverable from those who benefit from their intervention.
My hon. Friend the Minister has made much of the interpretation of the Firearms Act 1968. It has exactly the same wording as the Firearms Act 1937. How could the police manage for 49 years on the interpretation of the 1937 Act before they suddenly had to look at the procedure for renewing firearms certificates? What made the police change their minds about the interpretation of the 1937 and 1968 Acts?
We have referred to the fear of weapons falling into the wrong hands. The whole shooting world shoulders particular responsibility for weapons. After all, the owner of a valuable weapon is not going to have it stolen if he can possibly avoid it. I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that security is a high priority for all those who own shotguns or rifles, because they love them almost as much as their wives. Do not think that owners will throw their shotguns or rifles about in the street and let them he picked up or stolen by undesirable characters.
We have a duty to probe my hon. Friend the Minister on why the police believe they must have 145 minutes to renew a certificate. As my hon. Friend may know, I am the chairman of the police committee and therefore on the side of the police. I find it impossible to understand how the average time works out at 145 minutes, as announced by my hon. Friend. Why is it necessary to have a completely new certificate every time it is renewed? Why can we not just have a space at the bottom of the form to renew it for another three years? That would save about 20 minutes typing. Why do the police not use the telephone to ring up rifle club secretaries to ask whether Mr. X is a member? Why can the police not ring up the applicant and ask whether he is at home before they go on a fruitless visit? There are many ways in which we could reduce that 145 minutes at least by half, by administrative efficiency in working out the procedure.
I think that the Minister is quite wrong in saying that it will take three years to find out whether the 145 minutes is right. Any efficient police force could halve the time if it made the effort and had the wish to do so. I have some doubt as to whether the Minister and the police understand that we would like firearms certificates issued less expensively than under the present procedure.
There are other issues outside the order, such as the territorial interest the police show as to where one may use a weapon. If one is stalking roe deer or red deer one cannot say one is going to shoot until one is given an invitation to do so. Therefore, it is difficult to say in advance.
Since 1980, retail prices have increased by 46 per cent. The firearms certificate renewal has now gone up 65 per cent. Can my hon. Friend give us an assurance, not that he is setting up a committee, but that he will look at the increase in the renewal fee for firearms certificates again and come back to the House with a further variation order on that one issue? Tonight we should be encouraging shooting as an admirable pastime, but the Minister is doing something to make it totally restrictive. I hope that he will look at it again, and say so, if he wants our support.
I warmly concur with the sentiments expressed by my hon Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro). Shooting is a worthy sport and one that has been horribly penalised by the order. I especially urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider coming back to the House with a new order in respect of renewals.
It is an expensive sport, but it is worthwhile. In the last Olympic games our four shooters won four medals. No other group achieved 100 per cent. success. I have had representations from people who are hopping mad. Three rifle clubs in my constituency have written not with bitterness, although they are very angry, but with constructive proposals, some of which have been mentioned tonight. I have heard from the Uckfield rifle club. The Felbridge rifle club, of which I am president, has been joined by an ancient and distinguished club in my constituency, the Uckfield (1944) Home Guard rifle club. We could not have more worthy citizens than those who belong to those clubs.
The facilities they use, particularly the Felbridge range in East Grinstead, are privately owned. They pay their own rates and are not a drain in any way on the finances and facilities of the local authorities. It seems to them that these proposals are penalising the legitimate owner. It is little wonder that one letter said that they felt this was a ploy to get rid of the private owner and that the police were behind it. These are honourable, law-abiding citizens who do not wish to be anti-police but they simply do not understand, any more than any of us, do, why it takes so darn long to process renewals. After all, one can get a vehicle registration replacement document for £2, so why is there this huge cost?
Therefore, I add my plea in the strongest terms I can command that the validity of the firearms certificates should be extended, police procedures should be streamlined and we should remember, above all, that this is a sport in which we can excel, in which we want to excel and which we want to encourage our young people to enjoy.
I fear that the comments made by my hon. Friend the Minister of State will fail to convince or satisfy people in my constituency who take their shooting seriously, and take their lobbying of their Member of Parliament on those occasions equally so.
My constituents will not be so concerned as to whether the fees that have been announced reflect a just cost for a particular procedure; they will be concerned that so cumbersome and expensive a procedure is followed, which leads to such high fees. I draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister the experience of New Zealand, where it is possible to administer a satisfactory system without so cumbersome a process and so large a cost.
I have attempted to say to my constituents that I would be willing to support increases in fees that represented the true cost of the processing of the applications, but it will be extremely difficult for me to explain to them how it can cost the same amount to renew or repeat an application as to make the original application, which requires a great deal more inquiry. It is not possible for me to say to my constituents that those two fees represent the costs. It does not make sense.
Therefore, I do not feel that the Minister can take credit tonight for having introduced an order that we can support. If there were a Division, some of us would be tempted to support the Opposition prayer.
This debate once again illustrates the unsatisfactory nature of the procedure that we are adopting. One thing is wholly plain — that we have either to accept or reject the order. We cannot amend it, yet the House feels that an increase of 65 per cent. In respect of renewal is unreasonable. It is a great misfortune that we cannot strike out that provision and accept the rest. We are not able to do so, and that is a misfortune.
I welcome one part of my hon. Friend the Minister's speech: his assurance that what he is about is recovering costs, not seeking to control the possession of firearms and shotguns through the fees system. But that raises the further question, of whether he should be charging fees at all; and, if he is, on what basis. I do not object to his charging fees, but I object to his attempting to do so on a cost basis, because, as has been said by other hon. Members, there are many services that the police provide in the public interest and it is rare that the user is obliged to pay the full commercial cost. I challenge the basis of that. In any event, I also challenge the calculation because it is passing strange to think that one has to take up 145 minutes of a chief inspector's time. I assume that it is a chief inspector, because of the high fee charged.
One matter that I am pleased about is that the Minister of State has—[Interruption.] I know that he is looking at the clock. He will have to wait a bit. One thing that I am pleased about is that my hon. Friend has not increased the fee for the shotgun certificate. That is a good thing for the people of Lincolnshire, who are already fed up with a variety of things—for example, the proposal to site low-level nuclear waste—
I was merely pointing out that the people of Lincolnshire have quite a lot that they are fed up about. They would be even more fed up if there were an increase in shotgun certificate fees. I welcome that part of my hon. Friend's statement.
I wish to speak for only 30 seconds, and I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Minister for allowing me to do so.
I shoot. I am president of various shooting clubs, and represent probably as many shooters in my constituency as anybody else in the House. I also represent the police. They want to prevent people from having such easy access to shotguns. However, they do not think that pricing them out is the right way to do it. I do not believe that it needs to take so long for police officers to carry out inquiries for renewing the shotgun licence. I hope my hon. Friend will say that, when he sets up his committee, he will allow some policemen to work with the shooting fraternity to see whether we can reduce the number of hours required for renewal.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) should not forget that policemen were on the initial working party.
With regard to what my hon. Friends seek, I cannot agree to amend the order because it is impossible under our procedure. I cannot agree to withdraw the order. We are looking at the order in total. It represents a package in which there are many reductions, including a 68 per cent. reduction in the fee for replacement of firearms as well as the significant increase about which my hon. Friends are most concerned.
I have offered to examine that point with the shooting fraternity and with the police in a way which should prove that the 145 minutes set out in the 1984 working party report is a sensible measure. If it is not sensible, we will agree to bring forward, at the appropriate time, reductions in the firearms renewal fee.
I must tell my hon. Friends that, bearing in mind the last review of fees and the composite nature of the order before the House today, it represents a reasonable attempt to standardise these procedures. I trust that the House will support it.
Question put and negatived.