I have to announce that I have selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) and his hon. Friends.
I must also draw to the attention of the House yet again the fact that about 26 right hon. and hon. Members wish to take part in the debate. I noticed that the issue of 10-minute speeches was raised during business questions. It would be most helpful to the Chair if brief speeches could be made today, so that not too many hon. Members return to their constituencies in distress this weekend.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The House hardly needs me to recall the background to this Bill. The tragedy at Hungerford in August last year did not create the problem which the Bill, like the 1968 Act, seeks to tackle but it underlined the nature of that problem indelibly, in terms which no one will forget. Well before then, we had set work in hand in the context of proposals for a firearms amnesty this year. Well before then, there had been tragic incidents and strong calls from the police for firmer controls. Hungerford ensured that there would be no let-up. Every tragic crime since then —there have been several—involving the use of firearms has intensified the loss of public confidence in the present system of control. It is not in anyone's interest to leave unchanged such a shaky system. The need for a reformed Act in which both public and shooters can have confidence is overwhelmingly felt, and this Bill is the result.
I hope that I have been careful throughout not to overstate the argument. I do not pretend that what is offered in this Bill can provide any absolute guarantee against criminal abuse or negligent misuse of guns. Hungerford cannot be guaranteed against a Ryan. What the Bill can and does do is to reduce the risk, to the individual citizen and the community at large, of such disasters. The safety of the citizen and the community has been our main concern in working out the Bill.
That does not mean that we have ignored the rights of the legitimate shooter. Wherever possible, we have sought to accommodate the needs and interests of the many responsible shooters from all walks of life. I have declined to be hustled by the opposition parties or by the media to go faster or further. We have no desire to hinder the legitimate sportsman, the gamekeeper or the farmer in pursuit of his sport or work. But obviously our overriding obligation is the protection of the citizen in the community.
Before I describe the main provisions of the Bill let me say that, although we believe that the central pillars of our policy are right, we remain ready to listen to legitimate concerns on matters of detail. Indeed, our White Paper was designed to enable people to study and comment on the proposals in a way that would inform debate in proceedings on the Bill.
It is entirely natural that the proposals should cause some anxiety among legitimate shooters. As it happens, I have spent a large part of my life among people who own guns. That comes of having been brought up on a farm, and now representing a country constituency. I have always known shooters to be highly sensible and practical people, which is, on the whole, borne out by my experience over recent weeks.
There have been shrill, and I think largely unrepresentative, voices in the shooting press — [Interruption.] There have been some. Many of my hon. Friends will have received strong letters of protest, as we have in the Home Office. I congratulate them on the way in which they have resisted particular pressures and returned to the general argument. I have been impressed — and surprised — by the number of individual shooters who have come up to me and said that they thought we had got it about right. At the last meeting I had with my National Farmers Union constituency parliamentary committee, I led off on our proposals on firearms, expecting a good deal of opposition, because I suppose everyone in that room owned a shotgun. Instead of opposing, those farmers urged me to get on with it, because there were too many unknown people with guns wandering about over their land.
Of course, users of guns, whether shotguns, rifles or pistols, have legitimate concerns and representations to make. That is why, contrary to some pressure, we refused to be stampeded on this, and have proceeded steadily by way of debate, statement, White Paper and now a Bill.
With the genuine anxieties that exist very much in mind, we have been concerned that representatives of the shooting community should be properly heard. We have consulted widely, with organisations representing particular shooting activities and with those with an interest in shooting generally. There have been meetings between officials and over 20 such organisations, as well as with police and local authority and other representatives. I have met the British Shooting Sports Council, led by Lord Swansea and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), which includes a very wide range of constituent bodies covering sporting and trade interests. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State has met the council on two further occasions, and has also met the Shooters Rights Association, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the United Kingdom Practical Rifle Commission. We have received views from a number of organisations that were specifically asked to comment, as well as from secretaries of clubs and the public generally. I apologise for the fact that, because of the volume of such correspondence, we have not been able to reply as quickly as we wished, but I assure the House that all views have been taken into account.
As I proceed, I shall illustrate ways in which we have accommodated particular concerns expressed by shooters. There are some that we cannot meet without damaging the pillars of the Bill; but there are others on which the House will find that our mind is not closed.
The Bill is relatively short, but also, inevitably, technical and complex. Clause 1 goes to the heart of it, because it extends the list of prohibited weapons and ammunition that can be held only with the specific authority of the Secretary of State. Such authority is not normally given to private individuals, and the clause lists various types of weapons and ammunition which we deem unsuitable for private possession. First and foremost among these are full-bore self-loading rifles of the type used by Ryan at Hungerford, and full-bore pump-action rifles. Self-loading or pump-action shotguns, which are short-barrelled or less than 40 in. in overall length, and revolving magazine shotguns, will also become prohibited. We have in addition taken the opportunity to prohibit a number of other weapons, including rocket launchers, mortars and stun guns. As for ammunition, explosive bullets will be banned, and, if capable of being used with a firearm, grenades, bombs, rockets, and shells. It is odd that some of those items were not already on the prohibited list. I hope the House will agree that there can be no justification for such weapons or ammunition being possessed by the private individual.
We have not gone in, if I may so put it, with a blunderbuss. It will be seen that .22 rim fire pump-action and self-loading rifles, which are widely used for vermin control, are not caught by the ban. When I first outlined our ideas in September, I indicated that we were minded to ban all short-barrelled smooth-bore guns. The shooting organisations have drawn my attention to the legitimate, traditional uses for such guns. Examples include rook guns, muzzle-loading guns, Very signalling pistols and stag-dispatching guns. We decided that those could properly remain under section I control.
I recognise that the ban on self-loading rifles will affect the practical rifle shooter, who will not be able to continue his sport with that gun. The House will have to weigh a number of considerations, as we have had to do, including lethality and the extent of use. In my view, the limited sporting use of such weapons is outweighed by the power to kill, and I do not feel that we should ask the House to accept the risk of further misuse.
We have no wish to hinder practical shooting as a sport. It may be little consolation to the self-loading rifle enthusiast, but he will of course be able to use the traditional bolt action rifle, or to join in other practical shooting events that use pistols or shotguns.
The issue of compensation arose at Question Time. I recognise that compensation for those whose weapons will be prohibited causes considerable concern to many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and possibly to Opposition Members as well. As my hon. Friend the Minister said in answer to questions, there are serious objections to compensation. I am prepared to give further thought to the fresh arguments that are put forward. However, I must add that I see considerable difficulties of both principle and practice in any form of compensation scheme.
My right hon. Friend has been touching on the practical difficulties. Will he consider the man with a legitimate licence, whose legitimate weapon is now to be made illegal? All the advice that he has been given so far is that he can sell his weapon back to the trade. Has my right hon. Friend thought of the greatest difficulty of all — that the only outlet for such weapons will be sale overseas, as a ready gift to terrorists?
I am afraid that huge quantities of such weapons are awash in the world. I do not believe that that argument is decisive. One of my hon. Friends has put it to me that we should not give compensation because on other occasions when certain products have been banned by domestic or European legislation, no compensation has been paid, and it would therefore be inequitable to pay it in this instance. I am using that argument simply to show some of the difficulties of principle, as well as practice. But, as I have said, we are prepared to give further thought to argument on the matter, and my hon. Friend and I will listen carefully to points made on the subject, either in this debate or in correspondence we have received.
The example given to me involved a product described as a scented eraser, which was manufactured in a certain constituency and cannot be manufactured any longer. The machinery and process involved in its manufacture therefore have lost their value. I simply use that as a small example of the principle involved.
The Home Secretary may wish to consider two points. First, a person with a banned weapon may well be prepared, particularly if there are adverse financial circumstances, to consider selling that weapon unlawfully to someone who is not particularly concerned about complying with the law.
My second point concerns a constituency case. A very responsible young man, whom I have known for a long time—he is a student, with very little money—owns a weapon, and is going to find that his hobby will cost him very dear. Such cases surely merit consideration.
The hon. Gentleman put his second point clearly, but I do not think that the first is very sound. The weapon is already listed on a section 1 firearm certificate, and its destination would be a matter for inquiries.
Cannot my right hon. Friend, in these exceptional circumstances, justify paying compensation, on the basis that it will take these weapons out of circulation? Otherwise, is there not a risk that we shall find some of our soldiers in Northern Ireland being killed by weapons that have filtered through the system, because they have not been taken out of circulation as a result of the measure?
I do not think that they could be sold illegally, for the reason that I have already given. The point will clearly come up in the debate. I have said that we are prepared to give it further thought. If practical suggestions can be made to resolve some of the difficulties that I have mentioned, it will be helpful.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I am also grateful that he is prepared to reconsider compensation. I have been approached by an engineer, a respectable member of my community, who has three self-loading rifles. On the assumption that he will be forced to sell them, he has approached six dealers, all of whom said that self-loading rifles were virtually unsaleable. Four were unwilling or unable to accept any price, and the other two offered him about £30 and about £10 respectively—which, if he sold the rifles, would represent a loss of £735.
No; I have given way four times, I think, on this point.
Clause 1 also provides a reserve power for the Secretary of State to make an order to add to the list of prohibited weapons and ammunition. Such an addition may be made in respect of any firearm or ammunition, but not an air weapon which is not prohibited but which appears to be especially dangerous. This is not a power to be used lightly — it should be exercisable by statutory instrument subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament, the affirmative procedure, but I feel it is essential because of the rapid development of weapons technology.
No; I must get on.
Some may feel that the provision is drawn rather too widely, but do we really need primary legislation every time a new weapon which ought to be prohibited comes on to the market? It is because of such developments that we have in the Bill provision to deal with burst fire weapons and stun guns; stun guns have caused a good deal of concern. If we seek to qualify the reserve power too much we may limit the scope for dealing with the unforeseen.
The effect of clause 2 is to lift pump-action and self-loading shotguns of normal length to section I control under the 1968 Act— the same level of control, that is, as exists for pistols and bolt-action rifles. This is justified by the significantly greater rate of fire which such guns have over conventional single and double-barrelled shotguns. There are relatively few sporting purposes for which a conventional shotgun will not serve just as well as a pump-action or self-loading one, and in future there is no question of prohibition but those who want to hold such weapons will have to satisfy the police that they have a good reason for wishing to do so. This clause also lifts the more lethal types of shotgun ammunition —cartridges which contain the larger pellets of shot, for which, again, there is little sporting justification—under full section 1 control.
Clause 3 details the new criteria for the issue and renewal of shotgun certificates. There have been a number of recent incidents involving the misuse of legally held shotguns. We want to reduce the danger of shotguns falling into the wrong hands and to ensure that where they are held lawfully they are kept safely and cannot easily be acquired or used by those with criminal intent.
Under present legislation, a chief officer of police must grant a shotgun certificate unless he has reason to believe that the applicant is prohibited by the Act from possessing a shotgun, or that such possession by the applicant would endanger the public safety or the peace. Clause 3 requires the chief officer to be satisfied that the public safety or the peace will not be endangered. This will give the chief officer discretion to satisfy himself, by means of a home inspection if necessary, that shotguns are being stored securely.
My right hon. Friend will know that various chief constables are zealous in certain departments, such as booking people for speeding, drink driving, and so on. Can he assure the House that chief constables will be more or less evenhanded under the good reason provision of the Bill? On refusal, will there be a right of appeal for the individual?
The answer to the second point is yes. That is very important. On the first point, I am coming to parts of the Bill which limit the discretion of chief officers of police for the kind of reason that my hon. Friend has in mind when we come to good reason. We shall also be issuing guidance. I think it is reasonable in general that chief officers of police should apply their powers in the light of local circumstances, knowing that there is a right of appeal. In some cases, particularly the carrying of shotguns from one place to another during or at the end of a shoot, there have been problems. We can iron out some of those by guidance. I am keen that we should do so to remove friction, which does not serve anybody's purpose.
I was coming to the secure keeping clause. We propose to amend the Firearms Rules 1969 so that the requirement to keep a firearm in a secure place when not in actual use also extends to shotguns. In 1986 there were over 800 incidents in which shotguns were reported to have been stolen, including over 500 thefts from residential properties. I am aware of concern that such a requirement should not operate unreasonably on people who want to carry guns from one place to another. It is important that there should be sensible guidance to the police on this and related points.
Clause 3 also provides for a shotgun certificate application to be refused where the police are satisfied that the applicant has no good reason for wishing to possess a shotgun. This will not affect the majority of shotgun users where the reason for holding a shotgun will be readily apparent. The existence of a good reason is not a matter for arbitrary decision. I know that there is a real worry that a future Labour Government might seek to use this to give expression to their views on what they call blood sport to declare, for example, that sporting purposes should not constitute a good reason for having a shotgun.
That is why we have put on the face of the Bill, that is, in primary legislation which could be changed only by further primary legislation, that a good reason includes, sporting or competition purposes and vermin control. It will not be grounds for refusal merely that somebody wants to hold, but not use, shotguns that may be of sentimental value, for example. In my view the police will in practice need to make further inquiries only where there are genuine doubts about an applicant's intended use of a shotgun. They cannot do so at present. I do not believe that is right if judgments are to be made properly.
There is a point of substance on which my right hon. Friend needs to advise the House. He has referred to giving the police guidance. So far as I know, this is not a statutory action. What is the status of the guidance which he gives to the police, and in what way does it bind the police to abide by it?
Guidance is not a direction. My hon. Friend knows the system of policing well enough to know that the relationship with the Home Secretary is not that the police receive directions from me on matters outside the law. Guidance is guidance. Chief officers on the whole comply with guidance. The guidance will be worked out not just between the Home Office and the police but with representatives of the shooting community because I am conscious that we will not get it right unless they are involved in advising on sensible guidance, which is the phrase I use.
I understand that point. The question would then arise as to who should sit on it, what should be the police representation and what should be the representation of people who may not be so keen on the legitimate shooter's rights as I and my hon. Friends are. As I think we have shown in recent months, I am keen to keep in close touch with representatives of shooters, and I have given examples of that. When we come to the drafting of guidance, I believe that keeping in close touch will continue to be important. I would rather do that than set up a consultative body, given the arguments that would arise about its composition.
Interference would occur if the proposals of the Labour manifesto were ever to be implemented, which would by law put the operations and priorities of chief constables under the control of local authorities. The right hon. Gentleman's red herring is not even particularly ingenious.
Clause 4 provides for the listing on a shotgun certificate of details of all the shotguns possessed by the holder and for notification of transfers. I found it odd that the police should have so little knowledge about the type or numbers of shotguns which are legally held. I believe it represents an important improvement in the nature of controls that the police should have more detailed information about the possession and movement of shotguns. Clause 5 deals with the sale of shotgun ammuntion. At present, the only control on shotgun ammunition is that it may not be sold to persons under the age of 17. There is nothing to prevent someone who does not possess a shotgun certificate, and who might qualify for one, from purchasing large quantities. This clause provides that, in future people seeking to purchase shotgun ammunition will, unless they are exempt from control, have to produce their shotgun certificate, or one belonging to a third party, together with an appropriate authorisation, when buying ammunition. This is a sensible and straightforward provision.
Let us consider the effects of the provisions of clauses 3 to 5 on the holder of a traditional single or double-barrelled shotgun. The police will be able to come and check that he is keeping his shotguns safely. When his current certificate expires, he will need next time to list the guns that he holds on his new certificate, with numbers or a description. If he sells one of his shotguns, or buys another from someone who is not a registered dealer, he will need to tell the police. If necessary, the police will be able to ask him, when renewing his certificate, about his reasons for wanting one, but his sport, leisure activity or profession will count as a good reason by law, as will the fact that he has inherited shotguns, or wishes to collect them, without any intention of using them, provided other conditions, including security, are satisfied. That hardly amounts to an onerous burden on the legitimate, reponsible shotgun holder, but it will enable the police to keep an account of the weapons held by individuals, and keep track of them when they change hands, and it will give them the power to make closer inquires in cases of doubt.
Will my right hon. Friend clarify the position on temporary loan or changes of use and on weapons which are normally held within a family, in shared possession, where father and son might want to use them on alternate days, or where somebody is out shooting, his gun is unserviceable and he needs to borrow one to continue the shoot?
The Bill effectively provides against undue interference in those kinds of transactions or loans. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will comment in detail on those three likely contingencies when he winds up.
I think that I can deal with the other provisions of the Bill rather more briefly. Clause 7 deals with the difficult problem of conversion from a higher classification to a lower classification or, indeed, deactivation. It provides that such weapons will retain their original, higher classification. There is a good deal of concern about the trade in military and other firearms which are converted to a lower classification. In many cases, such weapons can be restored to their original condition without specialised knowledge or tools. The standards of conversion vary widely, and the legal status of such weapons is not clear. The clause aims, therefore, to introduce greater clarity in this area and serves to guard against possible abuse of converted weapons.
The purpose of clause 8 is to increase from one to two—
Will the Home Secretary clarify one point in respect of clause 7? Does he intend to retain the prohibition on weapons which have been totally deactivitated, perhaps by being turned into an ornament, and cannot, in any circumstances, be converted into any kind of weapon?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the problem is that it is all too often possible to reactivate. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion, which has also been put forward by some of my hon. Friends, would have some force if one could find a simple way of testing without involving great bureaucracy or paperwork. We are willing to consider such points in greater depth in Committee, if the Bill is given a Second Reading. I acknowledge that there is a real problem here.
The purpose of clause 8 is simply to increase from one to two the number of photographs which may be required, under the Firearms Rules, to accompany an application for a firearm or shotgun certificate. In addition, the power to prescribe the form of a firearm or shotgun certificate is extended to include a power to require a certificate to bear a photograph of the holder.
Clause 9 deals with firearms dealers. It provides that, in future, the status of registered firearms dealers will be confined to those who can establish that dealing in firearms is a substantial commercial activity. The point here is to ensure that only bona fide dealers are registered by the police. It has been pointed out that we should take into account the position of those who genuinely need dealer status because of their research activities, for example. I accept that we should consider what more can be clone in this respect.
We propose to extend the period of validity of a dealer's registration from one year to three years. This should reduce the administrative burden on the police and the dealers without sacrificing control.
Does the Home Secretary agree that the definition "substantial extent" is very unsatisfactory? What about taking into account those people who run gun clubs in addition to small dealerships in firearms? There are a number of private, legitimate gun clubs, so will the turnover of a gun club, which is a commercial enterprise, be taken into account when assessing dealership in guns, or will only the trading in guns be taken into account?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, one of the problems is the connection between dealers and gun clubs, which some people believe is too close. We have drafted clause 9 to try to solve that problem.
Clause 11 sets out revised arrangements for approved rifle and pistol clubs. This is important because the membership of an approved club can be a significant point in the grant of a firearms certificate in the first place. Clubs will have to fulfil a number of criteria in order to qualify for approval. We shall be looking to see that they are properly constituted and have suitable arrangements for full and probationary members; that they are run by fit and proper persons; that adequate arrangements are made for the security of club firearms and ammunition; and that they have access to a firing range target practice with only those types of rifles or pistol as are specified in the approval. The approval will be renewable on a six-yearly basis, and will be subject to the payment of a fee.
Clauses 12 and 13 deal in a sensible way with the position of visitors to this country. Section 14 of the 1968 Act represents a potentially serious gap in existing controls because it allows any visitor to this country to hold or acquire a shotgun without a certificate. We are replacing that with a straightforward visitors' permit scheme, based on sponsorship, for those who wish to come here to shoot for sporting or competition purposes. We have changed this, in the light of comments received, and we are taking care to preserve the position whereby visitors can acquire shotguns for export purposes only so that damage to such business does not result.
Thousands of visitors come to this country to shoot. Will the acquisition of a licence not be extremely difficult? Will it not spoil the shooting rights of people who have many visitors over to this country for the shooting?
Indeed not. We have tried to design the legislation in a straightforward and simple way, comparable with the arrangments of other countries. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State can spell this out in greater detail. The scheme, based on sponsorship and the issue in advance of the requisite certificate, will work satisfactorily.
Special arrangements for museums are set out in the schedule to the Bill and are introduced by clause 14.
I suspect the Home Secretary in his speech will not cover the schedule separately from clause 14. Is he aware that clause 14 gives a very restricted list of museums? Is it not bizarre that such a list on a Bill put forward by the Home Office does not cover regimental and local museums, which have been given weapons by another Government Department, for example, the War Office? A local holder of the Victoria cross, for example, won it by capturing a German machine gun and it has been given by the War Office to a local museum. Will the Home Secretary ensure that every museum which has been considered fit by another Government Department to be given, for instance, a captured weapon is not considered by the Home Office to be unfit to hold it?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his point and I shall certainly look into it carefully. He made his comments before I had outlined the policy, which is that, we accept that, for the many people who work in major museums or with large collections of firearms, compliance with section 1 requirements in respect of each weapon would be unreasonably burdensome. That is why we have introduced this proposal for a museums licence — to simplify things.
This not a new system. We accept the principles and the categories of the Firearms Act 1968. I have declined to accept proposals that sound good but would do little good for public safety and would inconvenience legitimate shooters. I agree with shooters that demands for a ban on holding weapons at home, for example, and the home loading of ammunition, should be resisted. It is better that, provided that security is adequate — that must be a precondition—individuals should keep responsibility for their guns rather than having them held by clubs which, merely because of the numbers that would build up in them, would be bound to become the target of criminals and terrorists.
I agree with shooters that we do not need an arbitrary limit on the number of firearms held on a firearms certificate. A good reason for each one should be enough. I agree with them that it is not justified to impose full section 1 controls on shotgums, with all the extra burdens that that would involve, but the provisions that we have worked out and that I have sketched today are necessary and anything less would represent a weak response to what has happened. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries that a response that is too weak will not last. It would be swept away by fresh events. I hope that we shall strengthen the system so that it can last at least another 20 years.
I have gone through the Bill in some detail because, in this matter, it is the details that count. It is not our intention to harass the legitimate shooter or to curtail his sport. Rather, we aim to ensure that all shooting activities, working or sporting, can be pursued in the framework of a straightforward and effective control, which offers the ordinary citizen the safeguards from the misuse of guns that he has the right to expect. The changes that we propose to existing controls aim to do that. We need to build upon the Bill sound administrative procedures and guidance, which are essential to its effectiveness. I hope that the shooting interests will play their proper part in that process. Together, all this will provide a sensible and flexible system which will operate to the ultimate advantage of shooters and the general public for many years to come. I commend the Bill to the House.
I have already offered the Home Secretary my apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I want to offer them to you and the House, for the fact that I must leave the House early this evening and shall not therefore be here at the conclusion of the debate. However, I want to put on record my general, if qualified, approval of the Firearms (Amendment) Bill that the Home Secretary outlined this afternoon.
There are certainly reservations about the Bill among Opposition Members—some stronger than others. Some of those reservations are stronger than my own, and a number of them have been included in a reasoned amendment tabled by some of my hon. Friends. Many of the changes that they propose, some of which I support, and many of the changes that I anticipate will be offered from both sides of the House as the afternoon wears on, can be accommodated in Committee. I understand that the Government accept the need for some specific changes and intend to meet some of the technical objections in amendments of their own. Indeed, the Home Secretary spoke of his willingness to meet legitimate criticisms. He may have as much difficulty in defining them as he had in defining legitimate guidance, but no doubt he is open to the view that if the Bill is given a Second Reading, as I hope and believe it will be, there will still be improvements to be made.
In my view, this Bill, like any other, must be judged on the balance of its merits, and I judge it in the same way as I judged the parts of the Criminal Justice Bill that dealt with the control of knives. Those clauses contained provisions to which I was deeply opposed. I am opposed to some items in this Bill — less so, but opposed. My reservations notwithstanding, however, there can be little doubt about the need for the tighter controls on firearms that the Bill provides, so I believe that it is worthy of the House's approval and deserves and will get a Second Reading.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Criminal Justice Bill and knives. When he spoke on 26 October, he made great play of his views on the proposals for knives. Would he take this opportunity to assure the House that he was not then telling my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to crack down on guns, which are predominantly—though not entirely—the preserve of Conservative supporters, and he would then give my right hon. Friend an easier passage on knives? That would be both sinister and reprehensible.
That is both ludicrous and wrong. The hon. Gentleman will discover as the debate continues that what I call—with no intention of being offensive—the gun interest is not confined to any one party; nor are shooters confined to any one voting pattern. I support the Bill on its merits, as I supported the proposals on knives on their general mertis. I think the Home Secretary will confirm, if any confirmation were necessary, that when he was kind enough to tell me about his proposals on knives, I gave him my unqualified support before we even knew that a Firearms (Amendment) Bill was in prospect.
I repeat my view that the need for tighter controls on guns is obvious, and not only in the context of the tragedies of Hungerford and Bristol. We would do this measure a great disservice were we to represent it as a response to Hungerford and Bristol. I neither intend nor want to minimise the suffering that those two tragic events caused, but I do not see them in themselves as reasons for the Bill. Those tragedies focused the nation's attention on the need for tighter firearms control, but that need existed long before the murders at Hungerford. As the Home Secretary well knows, in March 1987 my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) wrote to him on behalf of London Labour Members of Parliament saying that there was a need for tighter gun control. Throughout that year, my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) raised on the Floor of the House the need for tighter provisions. I say again that the major, provisions of the Bill would have been necessary with or without Hungerford. It is enormously important to make that clear, particularly to the legitimate shooters who will undoubtedly be inconvenienced by the Bill. It should be made clear to them that they should offer their wholehearted support to this necessary measure, because it is not an overeaction to an isolated tragedy but a necessary improvement in the law governing firearms which I and some of my hon. Friends advocated long before the horrors of Hungerford were known to us.
We all accept that legislation, no matter how comprehensive or draconian, cannot protect society from a sudden act of lunacy. Perhaps it cannot even protect society from the calculated criminal decision to obtain or use a gun. But proper legislation can prevent casual ownership and the lethal use of weapons that is sometimes the consequence of casual ownership. Those two objectives seem to me so desirable that the price that must be paid for comprehensive and adequate control is a legitimate price to ask.
I repeat that of course we all accept that the Bill will increase the inconvenience experienced by genuine gun users and owners. I include farmers, collectors and gun club members. Nobody — least of all the Home Secretary, judging by his speech this afternoon — will deny that they will find some of the new regulations irksome, but I think it enormously important not to overestimate that inconvenience. I do not believe that the irksome nature or the inconvenience of the new provisions amounts to anything like the major infraction of liberty suggested in some of the circulated pamphlets. The freedom to own a certain type of weapon, even for a legitimate purpose, has to be balanced against the freedom to feel secure, for instance, from armed robbery. In my view, the freedom to feel secure from armed robbery is a great deal more important than the freedom to own and use, even legitimately, a certain sort of weapon.
I believe that most legitimate owners and users accept that point. I share the judgment of the Home Secretary that, on the evidence of the last two months while his proposals have been under discussion, most shooters are prepared to accept the new responsibilities with good grace. The National Farmers Union, whose members will obviously be affected, wrote a letter to me, which I suspect is identical to letters sent to other right hon. and hon. Members, saying that it welcomed the Bill, and specifically commended the new criteria against which applications for shotgun licences will be measured. The British Shooting Sports Council used the same expression, and said that it explicitly welcomed the Bill, promising full co-operation in its implementation.
If we look at the provisions of the Bill in detail, we see how reasonable their acceptance is, particularly if we look at the area around which most of the controversy hovers—the more stringent control of shotguns.
During the debate on 26 October the Opposition called for two major changes in shotgun control. I am delighted that in fact, if not in words, both those changes have now come about. The Opposition do not claim authorship of those proposals. Their origin, as far as I was concerned, was in the Police Federation. I do not want to be part of some childish competition about who had the idea first; I merely say that we advocated those changes to the Home Secretary in October. I am delighted that the two major proposals on our part are now Government policy.
The first proposal concerned individual certification of shotguns to replace the present practice of a single certificate covering any number of unspecified guns. Clause 3 provides that power in fact, if not exactly in words. Every shotgun is now to be identified in the certificate—a proposal which, in October, some hon. Members said was impossible. It matters not to us whether each gun is identified on a separate piece of paper or all the guns are identified on the same piece of paper. The listing of each weapon is clearly a proper precaution.
First, it will deter a number of undesirable purchasers. The fact that an undesirable purchaser must have the identification number or other identification elements written on his certificate will be a greater deterrent than the present situation, when he or she simply has to go into a gun shop, wave the certificate and buy an additional shotgun.
Secondly, and perhaps more important, the registration of each weapon by number, or by identifying characteristics, is essential if we are to have a national register, and a national register seems to me to be absolutely necessary if we are to have the sort of control that the Home Secretary, the Government and, I believe, the country in general want. We support that proposal.
Clause 3 also deals with what is called the "good reason" requirement. On 26 October I argued that shotgun certificates should be issued only to applicants who had a good reason to possess such a weapon. In his winding-up speech the Under-Secretary of State specifically ruled out that provision. I think that he is looking it up, but I assure him that I am about to read what he said:
My fear is that if we impose a good reason requirement on the possession of shotguns, we shall face massive noncompliance."—[Official Report, 26 October 1987; Vol. 121, c. 67.]
I am delighted that wiser counsels have prevailed. The Under-Secretary's comment was, in any case, a sad and, I believe, wholly inaccurate reflection on the public spirit and responsibility of most shotgun owners and users. We believe, and I think that the country believes, that there should be a good reason for possession of a potentially lethal weapon. I know that, to avoid the embarrassment of agreeing with what they appeared not to agree with three months ago, the Government have stood the idea on its head, and a chief constable must now be satisfied that there is not a good reason for withholding, but it is the same principle. There has to be some reason, some
purpose, some justification, and that seems to me to be wholly right, just as it is to strengthen the power appropriately, when it is married to the other half of the clause, by requiring the chief officer of police to be satisfied that the applicant is suitable in other respects.
I know that some hon. Members are worried about the amount of discretion that the clause allows to chief officers of police. For instance, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) raised exactly that point and asked for political guidance from the Home Secretary about how chief constables should behave. It is quite extraordinary how chief constables are held in doubt by hon. Gentlemen when it is thought that they are likely to interfere with subjects which touch those hon. Gentlemen.
In this particular let me make it absolutely clear that I am wholly prepared for responsible chief officers to make their judgments. I believe that they will make those judgments without interference from the House and the Home Secretary. My opinion is that if they err at all it will not be on the side of caution; they will feel it inappropriate to make the individual decisions which those of us who want tighter controls might expect them to make. This is my judgment, particularly since their attitudes are in part circumscribed by clause 3(1)(1B) of the Bill, which, wholly legitimately in my view, stipulates some of the activities which make the legitimate use of a shotgun obvious and the issuing of a certificate almost mandatory on chief officers.
Sport, competition and vermin control are all specified as legitimate purposes and clearly they are legitimate purposes. Nobody disagrees with that, but I hope that the Home Secretary will tell us more about one strange phrase and what its real purpose is. It relates to the criteria by which legitimacy shall be measured and good reason and proper cause judged. It states:
an application shall not be refused by virtue of that paragraph merely because the applicant intends neither to use the gun himself nor to lend it for anyone else to use.
If it is sentimental, if it is nostalgic, if it is concerned with family possessions or heirlooms, I understand it exactly and think that that might be appropriately specified in these terms in the Bill. That was the example that the Home Secretary gave. But the clause goes a great deal wider than that.
I understand exactly what ought to happen. If a chief police officer, who is approached for a certificate, asks what the gun is wanted for and the individual says that he or she wants it for sport, competition or vermin control, the chief officer will say that is a legitimate use. But I should be rather perturbed if a chief officer, or his representative, were approached and told by the individual concerned that he or she did not want it for anything, but just wanted it. That seems to me to cast very considerable doubt on the legitimacy of gun ownership and on the psychology of the man or woman who might give that answer.
Therefore, I hope that the Home Secretary, reinforced by the fact that some of his hon. Friends are nodding agreement to the proposition—and they do not nod at much of what I say on the subject—will consider the possibility of tightening up that clause.
On clause 2, I know that there is some controversy concerning self-loading and pump-action shotguns, not all of which have equal fire power and some of which are used for legitimate sports by women and the disabled because such guns have minimum recoil. No doubt that point will be contested in Committee, and no doubt the Home Secretary will hear more about it this afternoon as it has been the subject of a great deal of legitimate argument and correspondence. I urge him to continue to err on the side of caution. The hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham), who moans, should not be surprised that I, together with the Home Secretary and other hon. Members, take the view that our first obligation is to protect the general public from the risk that ownership might involve.
I hope that my suggestions about other matters will be less controversial and less obnoxious to Conservative Members.
I am aware of that, but it does not give me any comfort. Again, we should err on the side of caution, rather than follow the restrictions that operate in Northern Ireland, which are not in themselves always the right procedure. I do not mean to joke about this sensitive subject, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares my view that it is self-evidently right and necessary that the sale or ownership of burst-fire weapons, rocket launchers, mortars, explosive bombs, grenades and electric shock devices should be included in the class of prohibited weapons. It is equally self-evident that the obligation to store guns and ammunition securely is absolute.
The Bill rightly limits the purchase of ammunition to certificate holders and their authorised representatives. There is much to be said for the proposals of the Police Federation that the authorised acceptable conditions in which ammunition is to be stored should always be described on the certificate, and that the man or woman who sells the ammunition should use his or her best endeavours to ensure that the ammunition is to be stored in the way described on the certificate.
I wish to represent to the Home Secretary a second point from the Police Federation, pausing only to make two asides about the views of the federation. Hon. Members have received correspondence from shooting organisations which describes stringent or more stringent controls as a waste of police manpower and time. It is notable that none of the police organisations, which talk about the waste of police time most eloquently in other contexts, suggest that more stringent controls would have that effect. There is something to be said for supporting the views of the men and women who are likely to face someone with a sawn-off shotgun when they are on patrol at night.
The second point about the police and guns concerns a dispute that we had in the House on Monday that the debate on this Bill allows me to put right. There was much shouting from the Treasury Bench about the Police Federation supporting life sentences being imposed on criminals who carry guns in pursuit of crime. The president and the secretary of the Police Federation told the Leader of the Opposition and me on Tuesday evening that they are desperately anxious that the penalty for carrying a gun should not be the same as that for using a gun. I hope that the Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State will take note of the position of the police. In the Government's control of guns, they should take particular account of the views of the men and women whose lives may be put in jeopardy, rather than the men and women who legitimately use guns for sport.
That argument also applies to compensation. With respect, I must say to the Home Secretary that he made enormously heavy weather of dealing with interjections about compensation. He was asked whether he could cite any other instances in which such onerous obligations were applied. Every time that there have been new regulations about what is a safe motor car, people with old cheap motor cars have suddenly discovered that they can no longer use them and must sell them for scrap. That is almost exactly the same situation.
Secondly, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) said that if the Minister prohibited the sale of those weapons but refused to compensate for them, they would be passed into the hands of terrorists and other illegal organisations. That does not say very much for the shooters, whom the Home Secretary went out of his way to describe as honest and public-spirited characters. I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt, and suggest that, if the law requires certain behaviour, they will comply with it.
The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said that gun owners must be compensated. The hon. Gentleman said that one of his constituents, who has three guns, was told by a gun dealer that they are no longer saleable because they have no value. The Home Secretary should have no obligation to compensate gun owners for guns which no longer have a market value. That is the problem of the market. Conservative Members, who have spoken so eloquently about allowing market forces to operate, should not whine to the Home Secretary about compensation when market values have been removed by legislation. I am sure that the Home Secretary will pursue that point in Committee.
I should like to hear the Under-Secretary of State's response about an omission that I hope will be dealt with in Committee. It is an omission that the Police Federation believe should be in the Bill. I do not understand why the Home Secretary has so firmly set his face against the prohibition of mail-order sales. It seems obvious, self-evident and undeniable that it is easier improperly to purchase a weapon through mail order than through a shop in the high street. It would be absurd if these new, more stringent, and generally desirable controls were undermined by the continuation of mail order. I hope that the Home Secretary will think about that before the Bill comes back to the House on Report.
Finally, in its evidence to the Home Secretary, the Police Federation said that since the introduction of the Firearms Act 1968, the sales of guns have become big business. That is true. More than that, during the past 20 years, gun culture in Britain has been encouraged by television, some newspapers and some films. By gun culture, I mean not the sporting, competitive or agricultural use of guns, but their illegal use. The idea has been encouraged that there is something special and manly about the possession and occasional use of a gun. Society needs to be encouraged in the belief that the legitimate use of guns is the only use to be tolerated or acceptable. That legitimate use should carefully be prescribed by stringent regulations about ownership. The proper place and the proper way in which guns should be used must be carefully defined and strictly limited. The Bill, despite its faults, provides a definition and specifies a limitation, and for that reason it is worthy of having a Second Reading.
I wish to make only one point that greatly concerns my constituents in a residential area. It has been emphasised by delegations and deputations who have come to see me. Before I make my point, I assure the Home Secretary that I give the fullest support to the measure that he is introducing. To use his own words, I believe that he has got it absolutely right. However, I am sure that his broad-minded and flexible approach will accommodate the many detailed points that were made by my hon. Friends on the Back Benches during their interventions in his speech.
Those who came to see me were mainly members of gun clubs. I was a member of a gun club in my last years at school. They have emphasised that many of those clubs originated in the 19th century as part of the national defence. That argument is no longer valid. Those who are of age can join the territorial forces if they so wish and they can then help to deal with a national emergency. It is also true that this measure cannot be guranteed never to allow another ghastly incident. We can only hope and pray that it will lead towards that.
I want to give the strongest possible support to those of my hon. Friends who, in their interventions, have asked about compensation. This is a unique situation. The action that is being taken is right, dramatic and drastic, and comes into effect as soon as the Bill becomes law. It is not a normal question of the market. By making these weapons illegal, the market is being closed completely. That is the situation with which we must deal.
The people who have these weapons are, I am convinced, for the great part, people of integrity. Moreover, they could not possibly have foreseen the events of Hungerford or, following them, the Government's actions. Therefore, they are a small group in the community who are exposed to considerable financial loss. Nor is the comparison, made by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) with others who suffer when the Government take action, a just comparison.
A considerable time is allowed for the changeover to lead-free petrol. That is designed to cover most of the life of cars that use normal petrol. When the Government ban the use of particular furnishings, the present ownership is not affected, only future purchases. For that reason, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has a strong case to argue. Moreover, I am told that there is already a precedent, which I think concerns Northern Ireland, in which compensation was paid in a similar case. Therefore, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will press strongly for compensation to be paid to those who will be affected by the Bill.
My right hon. Friend emphasised the practical difficulties. I can see only one practical difficulty, and that is in persuading my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to provide the money with which to compensate. No one, least of all myself, would underestimate the difficulty of that, but I hope that when my right hon. Friend approaches the Chancellor he will point out that he has the solid support of the Conservative party and also, I believe, despite what the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook said, of many Opposition Members as well. Therefore, I hope that my right hon. Friend will be successful in obtaining compensation for those of my constituents who will be affected, as well as those affected in the rest of the country.
The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) has said that in his opinion the Home Secretary has got the legislation right. I welcome the Bill, but I do not think that the Home Secretary has got it absolutely right. He has got it mainly right, but many amendments can, and I hope will, be made in Committee. I hope that the Home Secretary will carry out his undertaking to the House to listen to matters of legitimate complaint.
I should declare that many of the points that I am about to make come from the Association of County Councils, of which I have the honour to be an honorary vice-president.
The Home Secretary listed the large number of shooting organisations with which he had had correspondence and from which he had had representations on the Bill. The county councils, via their chief police officers, the chief constables, will be responsible for the administration of the Bill, and they consider that on a number of matters the Bill does not go far enough. I do not expect the Home Secretary to agree, as I do, with the association's principal policy point that the same licensing conditions should apply to shotguns as apply to part 1 firearms. That is the considered view of the county councils —which, I repeat, will have to administer the Bill through the police.
A great deal of confusion has been caused by clause 3. When I read it I was somewhat confused by the difference between it and what was said in the White Paper. The White Paper said specifically that it is not intended to impose an obligation on all applicants to establish positively the existence of a good reason. Clause 3 seems to say the opposite of that. The Government seem to have stood their original proposition on its head. I listened to the Home Secretary explaining clause 3, but the Act seems to say one thing and the guidance quite the opposite.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) that the Government should not give guidance in that way. The Government should state specifically in legislation what they want chief police officers to do. The public then know that that is their duty by statute, not as a result of some hidden form of guidance. The Act could say one thing while the guidance gave chief police officers a nudge and a wink to do what was said in the White Paper, which would be wrong, in principle and as a matter of policy.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook also drew attention to clause 3(1B), showing what a nonsense it is. If a chief constable has no reason, because of the person concerned, to refuse an application for a gun licence, it is an open gate policy to allow that person to go to the chief constable and say that he wants a gun, not to use or to lend, but just to have. The chief constable may be slightly suspicious and wonder why he wants it, but, as far as I can see, he would be debarred from refusing such an application because he is specifically debarred if a man says that he does not want to use or lend the weapon. That will lead to endless trouble and difficulty and could be a dangerous loophole.
The Association of County Councils firmly believes that there is a need in the statute for a standard condition to provide for the safe keeping of the guns and ammunition authorised by the certificate. That should appear on the face of the Bill. The association also points out that, as far as it is aware, there is no specific provision in the Bill for certificate holders to notify the police of a change of address. Clearly, that is a vital provision and should be in the Bill.
The association also points out that there is no minimum age in the Bill for a person who can hold a gun certificate. However, I have heard rumours that the Government are to do something about that. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup was a most responsible person in his last years at school to be a member of a gun club and to hold a certificate, but that does not necessarily apply to all youngsters. If the Government say that they will stipulate a minimum age in subsequent legislation, why not put it in this Bill?
Another point arises on the number of shotguns and the amount of ammunition which may be held by certificate holders. At the time of the Hungerford case and other recent cases, the country was appalled at not only the variety and type, but the sheer quantity, of weapons and ammunition held by individuals. Under the present law, if a certificate is issued there is no limit whatever. A man can have an arsenal of guns and ammunition. The Bill deals with that problem, but—
Does my hon. Friend know that the weapon that Ryan used at Hungerford last August to inflict most of the injuries was a Beretta pistol, and that that firearm will not be affected by the legislation?
I am not certain whether that is the position, but if my hon. Friend says it is, I accept what he says. The legislation should be comprehensive. That omission would cause a glaring anomaly, if what my hon. Friend says is correct.
Will the Government agree that on the certificate there should be a limitation on the number of firearms or amount of ammunition that a person can hold? I can see no reason why the Government should step back from this single procedure to prevent arsenals from being built up by a person.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook referred to mail order. I cannot understand why the Government have set their face against prohibiting the sale of guns by mail order. Under clause 8, the number of photographs to be attached to the certificate has been increased from one to two. What is the use of photographs if a person can write to a mail order firm and get a gun? How can a mail order firm, dealing by post, know whom they are dealing with? How do they know that the photograph is of the person whose name is on the certificate?
Does the right hon. Member agree that there would not even he the need to write because many mail order firms that advertise such weapons would take a credit number over the telephone in payment for the weapon?
I do not think that it is quite as bad as that, because a person will have to send with his application to the mail order firm his firearms certificate. How could the mail order firm check this? People who deal in firearms are overwhelmingly very responsible traders. If they were suspicious of a person who applied for a gun, or they believed that there was something wrong with the certificate, they would have a sixth sense to know that something was wrong because they deal with the public all the time. Just like any other trader, they would feel that something was wrong, but the mail order firm could not do anything about it because it would have no idea whom it was dealing with. If the Government were to introduce an age limit in subsequent legislation, how would the mail order firm know the age of the person with whom it was dealing through the post? That loophole should be cleared up in Committee.
I welcome the Bill. Amendments could be made to improve and strengthen it from the point of view of the public. The Home Secretary was quite right when he said that the Bill cannot guarantee that there will not be another Hungerford. No Government could be so prescient as to bring in legislation to prevent that sort of thing. What they can do is lessen the risk of it, and to that extent I warmly welcome the Bill.
In the White Paper that preceded the Bill my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary asserted that the proposal he was putting before the House marked a considered and significant shift in the balance of controls between safeguarding the public at large and protecting the interests of the legitimate shooting community. The White Paper stated that the Government
cannot eradicate entirely the possibility of the abuse of legitimately held firearms by an unstable or criminal individual. For that reason the Government must ensure that those firearms which are held legitimately are subject to a degree of control which reduces this risk.
I do not quarrel with that statement, any more than I quarrel with the contents of the Bill. It would seem from the two statements I have read out that the Bill, like the White Paper, is more a response to the shootings at Hungerford, Bristol and Wolverhampton last year than the end product of a review of the Firearms Act 1968, although I do not doubt that such a review was in hand before August 1987. I do not complain about that. Those three crimes at Hungerford, Bristol and Wolverhampton drew our attention to the increasing number of shooting incidents in our ever more violent society, incidents which we can expect to recur, although I hope not on the appalling scale of Hungerford.
Because you have called the amendment to the Bill to be the subject of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have to say that I cannot see what value would be served by a further public inquiry into the massacre at Hungerford. I say "a further public inquiry" because the chief constable of Thames Valley has already produced a full report which has been made publicly available. There has been an hour-long television programme and, although criticisms have been made before about the police operations on 19 August in Hungerford — criticisms, needless to say, which have the benefit of hindsight—I cannot see what a further inquiry would hope to tell us that we do not know already.
I am speaking on the Bill because Hungerford is in my constituency. I do not claim to be a shooting enthusiast, any more than I am opposed to the sport. I shot in the Army, have fired on various ranges and possess a shotgun, but beyond that it holds no special interest or attraction for me. I am aware from the many letters I have received that the sport has a wide following and a large variety of weapons are used. The shooting fraternity feel that because of the terrible actions of that one man, Michael Ryan, they and their sport are being penalised by the legislation. Perhaps if I were one of them I would share their feelings but, as I have said to many people who have come to see me about the subject, I do not believe that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary could have let Hungerford come and go without reacting as he has; without introducing a firearms review and ultimately some sort of legislation.
Sixteen people were killed and 14 were wounded at Hungerford. Families still mourn and will mourn for many years to come. Almost every week somewhere in the world someone seems to emulate Ryan. I well remember that at the memorial service in Hungerford I found myself standing next to an Australian clergyman who had had a similar sort of massacre in his parish. I believe therefore that the Government had to make a strong response to Hungerford and the circumstances surrounding it.
I welcome the Bill and find much in it to commend. I applaud the decision to outlaw certain weapons such as semi-automatic rifles and to bring other weapons within section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968. It is right to make owners register guns individually on firearms and shotgun certificates and it is right that the police should tighten up their procedures for the issue of the certificates. I cannot help wondering whether the time is fast approaching when we should discontinue having two separate documents, one for weapons described as firearms and another for shotguns, as both are equally lethal, the main difference being in the range over which they are effective. Two certificates must mean that the police spend more time to ensure that the applicant meets the demands of the legislation. Can we not have one certificate? Those who want to own only a shotgun can have the same certificate as those who have firearms, and there could be the same requirement on each certificate to state which weapons are held. Administratively it would seem much cheaper and practically more logical to follow that practice.
To have two classes of firearm, one of which is more difficult to acquire than the other, lends credence to the argument of those shooters who consider that the White Paper and the Bill are aimed more at those who are presently gun owners or shooters rather than those who possess weapons criminally or illegally; in other words, that we are making already strict laws stricter for those who enjoy shooting without affecting the pool of illegally held weapons from which an ever-increasing amount of crime is resulting. The weapon most commonly used in crime appears to be the sawn-off shotgun. I believe that my criticism of the changes has some validity since it is not inconceivable that the Bill as drawn will increase the number of illegally held weapons.
I am not clear whether pump-action shotguns, now to be brought within section 5 (1) of the 1968 Act and to be held on a firearms certificate, will be restricted to use on a shooting range in common with other semi-automatic weapons or will be able to be used for shooting game and vermin if their magazine is converted to take only two shots as opposed to the present five or eight shots. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend could say something about that when he replies.
It has been put to me that if pump-action shotguns are restricted to shooting ranges present owners who possess them legally on a shotgun certificate will simply continue to keep and use them without telling the police or, more seriously, will dispose of them to whomsoever will buy them, particularly if the owner believes that he is likely to be refused a firearms certificate. At this moment I doubt whether anybody knows how many of those weapons are in private hands. One shotgun certificate covers any number of shotguns that may be owned. Therefore, who will know whether the law is effective? Indeed, what extra steps are being taken to encourage pump-action shotgun owners to register their weapons? It has been suggested to me that if such people were offered a half-price firearms certificate for the first year that might provide an inducement. Otherwise, as I have suggested, there seems to be a fair chance that such weapons will not be registered and may even find their way into the wrong hands.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary saw the article that appeared in the Yorkshire Post in October 1986 and the subsequent article that appeared in The Sun in August 1987. Those articles described how a reporter from those papers managed to buy weapons illegally. The Yorkshire Post reporter commented:
In a few short weeks the following list of weapons were made available:
That list must cause the House grave concern. I find it desperately worrying. Indeed, after believing that the Hungerford massacre was the work of one demented man, Michael Ryan, who held all his weapons—five firearms and several shotguns — legally, it now transpires that Ryan also illegally owned a Thompson sub-machine gun and another pistol. Although it is true that Ryan was gun-crazy, he was a countryman who could hardly be expected to know where to purchase such sophisticated weapons illegally. However, he held such weapons and I believe that we should count ourselves lucky that he did not use the sub-machine gun instead of the semi-automatic in his killings.
Other items were offered for hire: A Luger pistol with ammunition for £80; a 9mm automatic pistol, again with ammunition for £50 and two replica revolvers".
I am bound to ask whether illegally held weapons are as easily available as apparently suggested by those newspaper reports? If they are, what will this legislation do to help the police seize those weapons?
Let us consider the storage of ammunition that has already been raised by a number of hon. Members. That matter is the cause of considerable concern to the Association of Chief Constables. They believe that adequate provision for the safe storage of ammunition should be a feature of the Bill. I hope that the Government will consider introducing an amendment in Committee, bearing in mind that the legal limit per weapon is 500 rounds of ammunition. That is a large amount of ammunition to possess for one weapon and, as we are not intending to restrict the number of weapons held at home, it is clear that we could be talking about thousands of rounds of ammunition held by an individual. I agree with the chief constables that that ammunition should be kept as securely as the weapons. I believe that it would be an oversight if the Bill did not include something about that matter.
My right hon. Friend will also be aware that some members of the police force believe that armour-piercing ammunition of the kind that Ryan used should be banned. The chief constable of Thames Valley has told me that such ammunition can easily pierce the bullet-proof waistcoats worn by police marksmen and could just as easily penetrate the side of a police Land Rover. Again, I can see no possible reason why armour-piercing ammunition should be required by any sporting shooter.
When we are considering the proposed amnesty, it is right that we should encourage a person with weapons to hand them in if they are held without any form of certificate, or, as a result of the Bill, held illegally. However, numerous people have asked me why the amnesty should be for a limited time only. Anyone wishing to hand in a weapon at another time can be prosecuted. The idea of an amnesty covering a specific time may encourage weapons to be handed in, but should it be illegal to do so at another time? Let us consider the case of an elderly widow who goes through her husband's possessions and finds among them a first world war pistol—a souvenir, perhaps treasured all his life. Her natural reaction may well be to hand over the gun to the local police station, but unless she does so while the amnesty is operating she will be guilty of an offence. That does not appear fair or sensible.
There is also the matter of compensation, particularly for those who are legally in possession of a particular weapon now, but will not be when the Bill becomes law. The Bill offers them nothing, just as it offers nothing to those who hand in their weapons during the amnesty. Indeed, in an earlier debate I told the House that, after the previous amnesty, the Home Office sold the weapons handed in to the gun trade. That is indefensible. I do not believe that we can defend it and I think it is a totally unsatisfactory state of affairs.
Some of the weapons that may be handed in may be antiques that could make a lot of money at auction. They may be legally held in so far as they are so old as never to have required a firearms certificate when first obtained. I do not believe that we can expect people to part with those weapons for nothing or that we can possibly allow the Home Office, having received those weapons,22tt to make a profit from them. I suggest that antique weapons should be exempted from the bounds of the amnesty. In that category I include all muzzle-loading weapons. Other weapons, those breech-loading weapons that fire metal-cased or metal-jacketed ammunition, are in a different category. In terms of the amnesty such weapons should have a cut-off point of 1945. Weapons made between 1867 and 1945 should be treated as souvenirs rather than effective weapons. They are valuable collectors' pieces. Can we really argue that they should be handed in without compensation? What happens when they are handed in? Are we to have an assurance that the Home Office intends to have them melted down or will they, too, find their way to the gun trade?
Let me tell my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) why I have chosen those two dates. In 1867 we went over from muzzle-loading to breech-loading weapons and between 1900 and 1945 we had two world wars which produced a mass of souvenir weapons.
On the question of compensation, in 1973 when the Firearms (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order was debated the then Under-Secretary told the House:
A direction has already been issued which prohibits the holding of bullet-firing weapons by dealers, and dealers have handed over their stocks of these weapons to the police. Arrangements are being made for the dealers to be paid for the weapons handed over. The dealers have co-operated in every way with the police and the Ministry of Home Affairs and I want to emphasise that there is no suggestion that firearms dealers are not entirely trustworthy. The directive was issued because, about a month ago, for the first time, a dealer's premises were raided."—[Official Report, 30 March 1973; Vol. 853, c. 1672.]
If we can introduce such an order in Northern Ireland to provide for compensation, I see no reason why the Home Office should resist compensation arising from the Bill. I wonder whether it would not be wiser for the Home Office to use registered firearms dealers as its agents for operating the amnesty so that they can offer the true value of the weapons handed in to them—albeit a minimum value—particularly in respect of weapons handed in because they can no longer be legally held under the Bill.
Many hon. Members may not be aware that many of the weapons handed in and compensated for in Northern Ireland are weapons classified as personal protection weapons for many members and ex-members of the security forces. Those weapons could readily be resold to new members of those forces if they could be held by the firearms dealers. Their purchase represents a net loss to the Government and the country as a whole, as they could be sold elsewhere. Every person buying a personal protection weapon has to bring a new one into Northern Ireland. I cannot understand why we should be placed in that position. I fully agree that compensation should be paid for weapons in Great Britain, too.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that it would be wrong for the Government simply to confiscate weapons without any form of compensation. I remind my hon. Friend the Minister of the many examples of compensation being paid to people who have lost property as a result of legislation, compulsory purchase orders, the revocation of planning permission already given, the repurchase of gold coinage under the Exchange Control Act 1947, the arrangement with the employees at GCHQ, payments made in respect of environmentally sensitive areas and sites of special scientific interest and compensation for livestock affected by radioactivity after Chernobyl. The list is almost endless. Therefore, I see no reason why one group of people should be put at a financial disadvantage.
As I have said, I welcome the principle behind the Bill and the intention to tighten up the gun laws. However, the doubt that remains in my mind is that the Bill will serve only to make those who are already observing the law aware that they have somehow been picked out for further attention while the pool of illegally held weapons remains untrammelled by its effects. Therefore, I hope that the Government will consider whether something more can be added in Committee to make the Bill more effective.
I suppose that it is only proper to declare an interest on occasions such as this. As the holder of both a shotgun certificate and a firearms certificate, I shall plainly be affected by some of the proposals. I doubt whether such an interest is unique in the House, but it may be rare among my hon. Friends.
It was almost inevitable after Hungerford that there would be a review of the law. Whether that review was provoked by the tragic events of Hungerford or accelerated by them is now neither here nor there. The understandable concern caused by those events made it clear that it was the Government's duty to re-examine the Firearms Act 1968 and consider whether its terms were appropriate to the circumstances of 1987. That review had to be carried out calmly and rationally because, as the Home Secretary has acknowledged, we are dealing with a variety of competing interests — not least, the public interest. I believe that we are justified in saying that responsible shooting interests always recognise the public interest. I suspect that if one possesses or uses a lethal weapon, in the shape of a shotgun .or firearm, one is more conscious than anyone of the need for safety and security.
I am pleased that it now appears to be accepted that those who have an interest in shooting are drawn from all walks of life. At one stage, it was being suggested in the House that the interests of those concerned with shooting were somehow related to class. I am happy that that idea is no longer current.
When the White Paper was published, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) broadly welcomed it, and I wish to repeat that welcome. But, however well-intentioned the Government may have been, they have got matters wrong in the Bill in a number of ways. When the Home Secretary introduced the White Paper to the House, he undertook to listen carefully to detailed comment on legislation. It will be known that some of the shooting organisations believe that there has been a lack of proper consultation. The Home Secretary told the House of a number of organisations that he and other Home Office Ministers had consulted. However, it is still believed among shooting organisations that the period of consultation was not long enough. If that is so, it serves only to underline the importance of the Home Secretary's undertaking to listen carefully to detailed comment on legislation. I hope that the Government will be open-minded in this matter and that they will consider amendments in Committee, not as defeats but as improvements.
I should like to associate myself with the observations made about compensation, particularly by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). I was grateful to hear that that was one element that the Home Secretary was prepared to reconsider. I hope that he will take seriously, too, the points put to him about deactivation. It seems rather curious that a weapon should retain its original classification however much it has been altered, sometimes so that it can no longer be used. The Government might demonstrate the flexibility that they say they are prepared to bring to bear in this matter in dealing with that.
A number of other matters are of particular concern to me. Like other hon. Members, I have received many representations from my constituents and organised bodies. I am particularly concerned about clause 2 and the conversion of pump-action and self-loading shotguns into weapons that require a section 1 permission for conversion into firearms. I listened carefully to the Home Secretary to hear his justifications for that proposal. I was rather disappointed, because I did not understand him to offer the House any rational or considered reason why that is necessary.
It is said that there are about 200,000 of those weapons in the United Kingdom. They were legitimately purchased in good faith. They are used in sport, on farms and, as has already been said, because of their lack of recoil, are of particular advantage to the disabled and to women. It is rather curious that, when the opportunity to possess a shotgun is being made more stringent and strict, it should have been thought necessary to reclassify shotguns of that type. The Government should reconsider that element of their proposals. If they were to do that, they would have substantial support from hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Clause 3 requires good reason to be established before someone may have a shotgun certificate. There is concern about the uniformity of application of those provisions by the various chief constables. Substantial discretion is afforded to chief constables even with the particular elements on which that discretion is to be exercised as enumerated in the Bill. We must bear in mind that a challenge to discretion is much more difficult to sustain legally than an appeal. Inviting a court to hold that a chief constable has unreasonably exercised his discretion may be very difficult to prove.
I hope that the Government will accept the criticisms that have already been made in interventions about the extent of the discretion afforded to chief constables by clause 3 and consider a way to ensure uniformity of application. It would be ridiculous if someone was able to obtain a shotgun certificate in Inverness, but denied one in Dorset. A lack of uniformity of application would be ridiculous.
I hope that the Government will take account of the fact that many people collect weapons. I hope that they will regard good reason as necessarily embracing collection. I hope that they will be prepared to consider that point in Committee and accept it as a point that could legitimately be included in the Bill.
Any responsible shotgun owner would be happy to accept the idea of specifying the description of a shotgun on a certificate. Most people who own those weapons have them insured and, for the purpose of insurance, it is necessary to specify the weapon's make, year and serial number. The provision of that information cannot be regarded as an undue imposition or an intolerable burden. It would not be unreasonable to oblige a person owning a shotgun to keep that weapon securely. Indeed, that may be stipulated as a condition of insurance, to which I have already referred.
Clause 4 suggests that there should be notification of transfers within a 48-hour period. The Government might consider the suggestion that that is a remarkably short time and that a period of seven days or 14 days may be as appropriate and effective. Similarly, the Government may wish to consider whether it is necessary for there to be two notifications rather than one.
According to clause 8, it appears that photographs may be fixed to shotgun certificates. I do not regard that as unreasonable. Hon. Members can only gain entry to the House on presentation of a pass containing a photograph. A photograph is a regular method of identification these days, and I do not believe that it could in any sense be regarded as an intolerable or unreasonable burden.
I hope that the Government will accept my criticisms as constructive. My experience is that the majority of shotgun and firearm certificate holders are conscientious and responsible. Like everyone else, they were deeply troubled by the events at Hungerford. I accept that, with or without those unhappy and tragic events, the Firearms Act 1968 cannot be treated as being set in tablets of stone. We will support sensible changes in the law relating to firearms, but we hope in return that the Government will be receptive to the responsible and sensible criticisms that have been made of the Bill and will accept that it will be susceptible to considerable improvement in Committee.
Like the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), I declare an interest in this matter as I am a very occasional user of a shotgun. That use gives me some knowledge, experience and understanding of these matters. It is significant that many hon. Members who speak in the debate tonight may refer to their experience and knowledge, and that always brings more character to debates of this kind.
My interest in this matter is more than personal, as I also have a constituency interest. Obviously, in a constituency such as mine, many people's livelihoods rely on the use of a shotgun or firearm. For gamekeepers, stalkers, trappers, farmers and landowners, the use of a gun or firearm is totally legitimate and normal. In addition, in a constituency such as mine, many hundreds if not thousands of people enjoy game and rough shooting. Clay pigeon shooting, which is a long-standing and very popular sport, is especially popular in my area. People who belong to gun clubs and indulge in target shooting also have a thoroughly legitimate interest in the use of guns and firearms.
I want to emphasise those legitimate interests. I recognise the necessity for the Bill, after the events described by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). I support the Bill in principle for those reasons. However, I do not support it wholeheartedly. Many of the representations that I have received regarding particular aspects of the Bill are legitimate and I agree with many of the reservations that have been expressed about it so far.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has a delicate and difficult balance to strike. However, in a number of respects he has struck that balance against the interests of a large section of totally law-abiding, responsible members of the community. I do not intend to go into details, as many of my hon. Friends wish to take part in the debate, but I want to refer to my major concerns.
My first concern is that I genuinely believe that the police receive too much discretion. That discretion extends too widely. As the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East said, we must ensure that there is even treatment in different parts of the United Kingdom with respect to discretion. Treatment must be even-handed among the many different forces.
In my area, excellent relations are enjoyed between the police and legitimate users of guns and firearms. There is good trust, and it often gives the police access to expertise, local knowledge and information that generally helps their purposes.
If the discretion given to chief constables is extended too widely and not exercised responsibly, it will destroy an important and useful relationship between a responsible section of the community and the police forces, which is something that I should not like to happen.
Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the problem of achieving uniformity of treatment is one of achieving uniformity not only between place and place but between time and time? The Home Secretary said that he would give guidance—presumably in a circular—to chief constables from time to time. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that guidance may vary? The Home Office may change its views on what constitutes good reason. An applicant my be accepted as having a good reason this year but be refused in following years because the Home Secretary has changed his mind.
The hon. Gentleman has anticipated what I was about to say. I agree with him, because I am not satisfied that the issuing of guidance is the way to deal with this matter.
The Home Secretary has a duty to spell out specifically in statute precisely what he expects. One example of that is security. There are many different interpretations of the security of a gun or firearm. I am in favour of security; weapons should be held securely. Again, it is an issue in which there could be different and varying practices. Those practices may change in time and in line with guidance. Therefore, I am not satisfied with what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said.
The second matter about which I am unhappy is whether it is right to classify, under section 1, self-loading pump-action shotguns. That weapon is particularly important to clay pigeon shooters and others. Disabled people and women have been mentioned in this regard, and I was glad that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) acknowledged that point. There is no evidence—if there is, I have not seen, understood or accepted it — to connect that weapon with the commission of crime. There is an onus on my right hon. Friend to show that there is such a connection, but without it I am unhappy about the matter. The classification of that weapon will add enormously to administration. There are 200,000 owners of these weapons, so there will be enormous additional administration without achieving anything.
Thirdly, I am concerned about the banning of certain self-loading rifles. These weapons are used legitimately in deer stalking, which is a proper pursuit in parts of my constituency, also by civilians for target shooting, sometimes along with the military. I hope that this matter will be looked at.
Finally, with regard to compensation, weapons that are an acknowledged threat to life are mentioned in the White Paper. However, they are not an acknowledged threat to life in the hands of current licence holders. People with these weapons have legally obtained licences for them. They are holding them because of a properly issued certificate under the law. In those circumstances, having been obtained legally and held under a licence granted by the statutory authorities, those weapons are not held casually. There is an onus on my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to consider the question of compensation. A constituent of mine wrote to me yesterday. A matter of months before these circumstances arose, he legitimately spent over £500 on a weapon. Will he lose that weapon automatically with no compensation as a result of the Bill? That matter must be considered.
As one who supports the principle of the Bill, I am still unhappy. I shall remain so unless the Minister gives assurances not only that he has listened but that he is prepared to reconsider the matter and perhaps introduce changes at a later stage. I shall listen carefully to what he says in winding up, because these concerns are shared by a vast number of law-abiding citizens.
I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which will not achieve the aims stated in the Government's proposals for reform, in that it ignores the statistics of armed crime and the circumstances of the enforcement of existing legislation, which will only become apparent by the holding of a public inquiry into the tragic events in Hungerford in August 1987.
I should like to expand on the reasons for tabling our amendment. I agree with certain provisions of the Bill. I obviously agree with the need to control firearms.
I shall first examine the supposed aims of the Bill and consider the Government's White Paper, which states that one aim is to
ensure … the safety of the general public from the irresponsible or criminal use of firearms".
Another aim is to protect the rights of legitimate interests.
I do not think that the Bill will do either of those things, and it is interesting to note some of the statistics. For example, in the London area, between 1954 and 1986, armed robberies increased from four to 1,579. In the same period, firearms certificates were reduced by one third.
The statistics up to 1986 have shown a consistent picture and are similar to the 1986 figures, which, for all offences in England and Wales, excluding criminal damage were: pistols, 1,308 offences; shotguns, 1,068; and rifles, 27. Yet the Government propose to ban one type of rifle. The Home Office could not find one other case of misuse of a self-loading rifle, apart from Hungerford.
Looking at the figures, why have the Government not placed more restrictions on the availability of shotguns? Do the Government expect shotguns to be willingly registered? Judging from previous experience, it is unlikely that more than 20 per cent. will be, which will leave a massive pool of criminalised firearms. Would not a measure to impose safe-keeping restrictions on shotguns be more effective than anything else in preventing firearms falling into criminal hands?
This review was supposed to have begun early this year. It bears an extraordinary resemblance to a discredited Green Paper of 1973, which was rejected by the House at that time. Why introduce discredited legislation with indecent haste? It contains unworkable provisions of definition and it contains inconsistencies, for example, the anomalies of museum provision, the implication that arms cannot be deactivated, the inclusion of pump-action but not lever-action firearms and the lending anomaly regarding shotguns. The list is endless.
Why are the Government introducing this legislation? I suspect that it is because they want to be seen to be reacting to the tragedy at Hungerford in August 1987. Why do they not first inquire into the background and circumstances of the tragedy? I suspect that it is because it would disclose some unsavoury facts that the Government would rather were not made public. It would show that the existing legislation would have prevented Hungerford if it had been applied properly. I have uncovered a catalogue of incompetence, inefficiency or perhaps partiality on behalf of the police administration, which is horrendous in its implications.
As a small-bore shooter unaffected by the Bill, I am well aware of and grateful for the existing necessarily stringent provisions of the Firearms Act 1968. It struck me as totally incredible that an official report, which was hardly an "inquiry" as the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) described it, glibly stated:
on 10 December 1986 an application was made for a Firearms Certificate and enquiries revealed that he was a full member of the Dunmore Shooting Centre
That is a Home Office-approved club at Abingdon. The report added that:
Nothing was known to Ryan's detriment and he had already obtained a gun cabinet. The application was granted on 11 December 1986, with the condition that the firearms could only be used on approved ranges.
That is frankly impossible if the proper checks are made. Even if, as the police suggest, he had applied before then, and he was merely directed to headquarters at Kidlington on that date, the procedures that are necessary at headquarters are, according to an official document:
That the certificate would have to be prepared".
That is 20 minutes of police time.
That it would have to be approved and signed by the assistant chief constable".
He would not be waiting at the end of a typewriter to sign one firearms certificate.
That indexes are created for reference purposes and the certificates dispatched".
I suggest that that is impossible in 24 hours.
My inquiries, unlike those of the police, have revealed that Ryan was not a full member of the club when he applied for the certificate. He joined the club on 9 September 1986 and was a provisional member. The club has a three-month provisional membership. No police check was made to establish whether he subsequently became a full member. I am sorry to go on in detail but this is crucial to my point.
It is clearly laid down in existing law that an applicant for a certificate should be a full member of a club. Furthermore, and more pertinent to the case, when Ryan varied his certificate to obtain the so-called "Kalashnikov-style" weapon — a self-loading rifle — he was not a member of any club at which he could legitimately have used such a firearm.
That is not quite the case. After the issue of the certificate, Ryan was a legitimate owner. However, the issue of such a certificate by the police was an extremely dubious event. Indeed, I suggest that its issue was illegitimate.
So that we can be clear on this matter, is my hon. Friend telling the House that Michael Ryan was legitimately issued a firearms certificate by the police in circumstances when he was not a member of a shooting club, which membership would, under normal circumstances, have allowed him the issue of a certificate to purchase a Kalashnikov?
I am, indeed, confirming that.
As proof of the fact that he was not a full member of any club that had full-bore shooting provision and that he was a member of only one club, the Wiltshire Rifle and Pistol Club, I have a photograph of his membership card, showing clearly his provisional status at the club. He was not even a full member at the time of the incident.
One could say that it was only a matter of time before he would have obtained full membership. Well, that brings me to the issue of an inquiry which, I believe, would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he should not have been granted a certificate on at least three grounds. First, he was known to carry his guns in public when not on the way to or from a range. That is illegal under the present Act and enforcement would have prevented the massacre. Secondly, he was reported to have used his firearms in public before the incident. That is illegal under the present Act and enforcement would have prevented the massacre. Thirdly, he was known — it is reported that certain police officers knew this — to have already possessed illegal weapons. I have spoken to an eye witness of one of the weapons and there is evidence under oath to that effect. That is illegal under the present Act and enforcement would have prevented the massacre.
Other facts may or may not be confirmed by an inquiry. Ryan is reputed to have had a social worker. Why? He was not disabled or under a probation order. Did he suffer from mental instability? Ryan is reputed to have been a heavy drinker. Was that true? Ryan is reputed to have physically abused his mother. Was that true? Any of those things would have prevented his ownership of a firearm under the existing Act. Was that "inefficiency" due to the 25 per cent. undermanning of Thames Valley police or is there a more insidious reason? At least one member of the Thames Valley police authority has written to me and he would like to know.
Any investigation might suggest sensible amendments to the Firearms Act 1968, such as statutory control of the "shooting gallery" style of gun clubs, which cannot and, I believe, often do not wish properly to control their membership. There could be statutory examination of an applicant's health and social security records and there could be a reduction of the grounds for appeal and the ease of appeal. Other obvious measures to increase the implementation and, consequently, the effectiveness of police enforcement of the existing legislation may become apparent. Sadly, they may have been all that was necessary to prevent the needless slaughter of 16 people.
Finally, it is essential that an inquiry be held, as the Bill, if it becomes law, could be found to be more unworkable and less effective than the existing Act, at least as far as certain categories of firearms are concerned.
I am grateful, Mr. Speaker, for catching your eye and hope to speak only briefly. I have not spoken in any of the debates on this subject in this Parliament. I hope that the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) will forgive me if I do not follow what he said about his amendment.
I must begin by declaring an interest. I am a council member of the National Rifle Association and a member of the council of the British Field Sports Society. I do not claim to speak for either organisation. What I want to say is based more on the fact that Bisley camp, which is the headquarters of rifle shooting in this country, is in my constituency. Many of my constituents own firearms of one kind or another and I have shot with firearms of various kinds for twice as long as I have been a Member of the House. Perhaps that entitles me to make some comment on the legislation.
I cannot begin by saying that I regard the legislation as welcome. However, it is necessary. The circumstances that make it necessary are most unwelcome and we have been reminded of them. However, I advise my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that this legislation needs substantial improvements in Committee. I was glad to hear that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is already persuaded of that in part, if not in whole.
The legislation is necessary to restore public confidence both about the possession of firearms and shotguns in the community today and about effective policing against armed crime. It would be most unfortunate if the debate on this important measure was conducted against a background of resentment on the part of the shooting community. I advise my hon. Friend that many members of the law-abiding shooting community — owners and users of guns — have felt deeply offended at being classed as potential criminals. The Home Office has still to put that right.
Many more shooters are understandably aggrieved at some of the proposals in the Bill, which they see as either ineffective or unfair. An example of what is clearly unfair is the denial of compensation to possessors of certain firearms which are to be made illegal. It is difficult to find an adequate precedent for that. I advise my right hon. Friend that scented erasers do not come into that category. He might, with a bit more justice, have drawn the parallel with flick knives or gin traps or other articles of some small value, which are rendered totally valueless by legislation. However, I think that it is conceded on both sides of the House that something needs to be done about the matter in Committee. I was pleased to learn—although I did not hear it from him directly — that my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) agrees with this point. It is nice to be on the same side as him.
I also feel that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary must do more if he is to justify the need for restrictions on repeating shotguns — that is to say, self-loading or pump-action guns. He must show that his proposals will have an effect on crime. They will hit hard particular classes — particularly clay pigeon shooters — who have argued with considerable force that if only the proposals could be amended so that self-loading shotguns with a magazine capacity of no more than two rounds were brought within them, everything would be all right. I find it extraordinarily difficult to understand the logic of the present proposals, and the apparent reluctance of my right hon. Friend to amend them.
What I also find curious about the Bill—as do many of my constituents—is that it contains no conscious attempt to limit the burden on police manpower that the new regulations would impose. I do not know which firm of management consultants came up with the figure that the new proposals can he adminstered by the addition of a mere 80 police and civilian staff. I should have thought that the burden would be considerably more than that, certainly in the initial stages. I also feel that it would he sensible to consider reducing the present burden on the police by extending the life of some certificates —particularly shotgun certificates — and lengthening the interval at which they must be renewed. That could easily be done through a simple amendment to section 26(3) of the Firearms Act 1968, substituting five years for three. I hope that that will be probed further in Committee.
The hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West mentioned the seemingly perfunctory way in which Ryan's application for a firearms certificate was dealt with by Thames Valley police—and, indeed, the perfunctory way in which the processes of issuing such certificates are dealt with in the chief constable's report. There is no reference whatever to the normal rules and procedures of that force, and we are left to suppose that it is quite standard for a firearms certificate to be issued in 24 hours to someone who holds a shotgun certificate.
This is an important point, and I am grateful for the opportunity to correct the misleading impression that could easily be derived—indeed, has been derived—from the chief constable's report to the police authority on Hungerford.
In fact, Ryan's application was received at divisional level on 26 November 1986. The customary checks were carried out to ensure that he had no criminal record and nothing was known to his detriment; that he was a full member of an approved gun club; and that security was adequate for the weapons that he wished to possess. [Interruption.] On 10 December—the date of the chief constable's report — the application was forwarded by the division to headquarters for the issue of the certificate. Having checked the point in view of the report, I understand that a reasonable time was taken, from 26 November to 10 December, and that the usual checks and procedures were carried out.
I understand that the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West wishes to pursue the point, but he cannot intervene on an intervention in my speech. Before he speaks, may I say to my right hon. Friend that I do not know how on earth the chief constable got away with the report without a correction when he made it to his committee.
An important point has been clarified some time after the event. I am glad that it has been clarified, but the processing of the application in just over a fortnight is still rather better than some parts of the country can achieve. Applicants for a firearms certificate do not resent the fact that it takes some time to check their applications for validity; indeed, I believe that they positively welcome it. Having paid for it, they feel that they might as well get value for money.
I apologise for the interruption on the Home Secretary's intervention. However, I would like to point out again that Ryan was not a full member, as reported in the chief constable's report. That should have been picked up at the time, and obviously was not. Ryan was not a full member of any club at that time. The earliest date on which he could have become a full member was 9 December, and he could have done so only with the agreement of the club. The police did not check with the club whether he had become a full member on 9 December.
I do not wish to dwell on the point, but I feel that, both in cases such as this and in general, the House has a right to expect that section 27 of the Firearms Act is complied with by the police.
Having said that, I must ask whether we should be content, as my right hon. Friend proposes, to leave such wide and undefined powers to the police as apparently are proposed in clause 3, under nothing more substantial than guidance. Some members of the shooting fraternity feel that pressure from the police side stems from a reluctance to enforce the law in the spirit in which it is intended. It would be a great pity if the new legislation meant that the relationship between law-abiding shooters and the police was one of mutual suspicion and distrust; its purpose should be to avoid that.
However, I can testify that the feeling exists by quoting from an editorial that appeared in Police, the magazine of the Police Federation, in September last year. The Shooting Times is quoted as having responded to the proposal for increased security by asking a perfectly sensible question:
What about the shoot lunch, when the guns retire to the local pub?
The editorial comments:
an interesting juxtaposition of shooting with boozing.
Any policeman or spokesman for the police who can write that has no business to be dealing with such matters. The House should not be content to leave unfettered discretion where there is evidence of such attitudes, any more than we should have confidence in organisations—in this case, the Shooters Rights Association — that claim that the Bill as drafted will increase the risk of more crime. I do not believe that either. I think that it will not have as much effect, in certain respects, as some of its supporters say. It may create more offences, but that is not quite the same thing.
There is undoubtedly a need for a consultative body of the kind that has been proposed. There are plenty of people who could staff such a body. For instance, the former chief constable of Surrey, Sir Peter Matthews, knows a good deal about such matters, and would be a very wise head on that body, and it would not be hard to find some other competent people to serve on it.
In discussing the matter with outside interests, the House must make it clear that we do not accept any arguments based on the case of the right to bear arms, which is so familiar in the United States. It is true that a body such as our own NRA in particular continues to play a major role in the promotion of military marksmanship, through Services meetings at Bisley, and the army skill-at-arms meeting is recognised as part of military training. We must, however, make it plain that defence of the realm is the task of the armed forces, and not of local gun clubs. It is important that the public should be reassured in legislation that we are dealing with what some people see as the paramilitary fascination of self-loading rifles.
It must also be recognised that self-loading as a technology of weapon development is likely to progress. It may come to the point where magazine rifles are superseded for international competition purposes, just as single-shot rifles were superseded by the magazine rifle. We must be careful not to legislate the British shooting sports community out of the right to compete at international level. That, too, should be watched over by an advisory body.
Legislation has to be seen to be sensible and fair. Any Government need the support of the shooting community in its many activities if legislation in this area is to work. This Government are entitled to it more than any alternative Government. It is against that background that I ask Ministers to recognise the need to improve the Bill in Committee to take account of the constructive criticisms of my hon. Friends.
I trust that Members will forgive me if I do not range over the wider ramifications of the Bill. I should like to direct the attention of the House to a specific matter — the implications of this legislation for certain museums.
After the passing of the first Firearms Act in 1920, national museums with a statutory duty to collect firearms were exempted, either de jure or de facto, from Acts of Parliament regulating the possession of firearms. This legal basis for exemption was withdrawn from the royal armouries and the service museums by the passing of the National Heritage Act 1983; some of us had the pleasure of serving on the Standing Committee on that legislation. That Act devolved the running of these and other museums to boards of trustees. As a result, employees were no longer
in the service of the Crown
and, therefore, the basis of their exemption from the Firearms Acts has been lost.
Since the National Heritage Act 1983 the relevant national museums and their sponsoring Departments and the Home Office have had discussions on ways of overcoming the problem of how to deal with the large firearms collections of the major national museums under the existing firearms legislation. The national museums, as the Home Secretary will know, have continually asked for a return to the status quo ante 1983; in other words, exemption from the Firearms Act.
There is a range of arguments for this: the lack of any recorded abuse of this privilege by national museums or their staff in the past; legal opinion that this course is perfectly feasible and acceptable; the safeguards which exist through Treasury audit, the national museums' security adviser and the individual museums' security infrastructures.
The Home Office has so far, I think misguidedly, rejected this approach and drawn up the present legislation, which includes provisions for giving museums licences of exemption, but on conditions to be laid down by the Home Secretary.
The major national museums with large collections of firearms are very concerned about a number of the details of the present proposals. The principal concern is the irretrieveable damage to objects of heritage which may ensue. The Bill gives the Home Secretary absolute powers to insist that museums hold firearms on conditions laid down by him. The present incumbent may be very concerned about the national heritage, but it may be that other incumbents of his office will not share that concern. It is the unrestricted nature of the powers that concerns the major national museums.
The Home Secretary, or another, may seek to impose conditions that physically affect the firearms in question, and could lead to the physical destruction or alteration of the original whole or part of these firearms. The national museums argue that a statutory distinction could and should be drawn, on the one hand, between the duties of the trustees of the museums in question to keep heritage objects in their original condition for the benefit of present and future generations, and, on the other, the duty of the Home Secretary to ensure that the firearms are held in secure conditions which will not endanger the safety of the public. They are also concerned to ensure that the licences of exemption, so-called, for museums should also cover all types of ammunition. The Bill needs clarification from the national museums' point of view.
The museums affected are fully prepared to secure their firearms in such a way as the Home Secretary accepts will keep the peace and security of the general public. But they urge that the damaging implications of the Bill should be reconsidered on the issues that I have raised. I trust that that will be done, and hopefully done successfully, in the deliberations in Committee. I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for letting me in so briefly.
I fear that I may sound like a pale echo of many of my hon. Friends, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith), although I may be an even paler echo when I declare that I am not a shooter, unlike my distinguished predecessor but one as the Member for Saffron Walden.
I also confess to being nervous of guns. Apart from the school cadet force, the first time I picked up a gun with live ammunition in my adult life was on 9 January of this year when I visited a clay-pigeon shooting club in my constituency. When I say that it was Stansted airport clay-pigeon club my hon. Friends will say, where else?
I am all too well aware of the respectable role that the gun has in the rural community and amongst the wider shooting public. I have been impressed by the many representations that I have received, as I was when I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Home Office Ministers in 1973 when the matter was last discussed in detail.
The Government had to do something in the wake of the Hungerford tragedy. Many legitimate shooters accept that the present law can and should be improved. As has been said time and again in the debate, it is a matter of arriving at the right balance between the legitimate interests of sportsmen and shooters, on the one hand, and the safety of the public, on the other. I have some unease about whether there is a direct connection between the problem as it is perceived by the public, and perhaps described by the police, and the action proposed by the Government.
If certain types of guns are banned, if there is control of ammunition and if there are tighter requirements for security, one must imagine that there will be a measurable improvement for the safety of the public. However, the danger is surely not the legal owner of the gun using it for crime but rather that the legally-owned gun may be stolen. That, it would appear, is the main cause for concern.
I gather that in 1986 there were 800 incidents of shotguns being stolen. In the same year firearms were used in 7·7 per cent. of homicides, 8·8 per cent. of robberies and 4·5 per cent. of crimes of violence endangering life. In what percentage of those cases were stolen guns actually employed?
I think we are right to question responsibly and constructively the advance that the Bill will achieve in curbing serious crime. That advance should not be overstated by my right hon. Friend. There is not such a conclusive case that amendment to the Bill should be beyond consideration. I hope that my right hon. Friend will not regard the Bill as it stands as a perfect entity, incapable of amendment.
Having confessed my general ignorance of the sport, if I dare venture into the types of guns, I am persuaded that the self-loading shotgun—a weapon which I handled on 9 January and with which I performed better than with any other weapon—should be used for sporting purposes. I noted that it had less recoil than other weapons. I am glad that my right hon. Friend is considering whether self-loading guns, with a restricted magazine capacity, might, after all, be exempted from clause I controls. Having handled such a gun, I wonder whether it is crucial that the dividing line should be between two and four cartridges. I cannot believe that having four cartridges rather than two makes that weapon inherently more dangerous or adds measurably to the danger to the public. What proportion of stolen guns, used in that small percentage of serious crimes involving firearms, were self-loading guns? The figure must be extremely small.
I share my hon. Friends' fears about the powers of the police. Constituents frequently express their worries to me about the possible variations of approach between different police forces and different police officers. I have been asked to countersign a shotgun application only twice in my life, and only quite recently. One countersigns passport applications any number of times, but rather more thought is involved in countersigning a shotgun application. I had known both people concerned perfectly well for many years and was pleased to sign their applications, but I could not possibly guarantee that some trauma might not happen to either of those people in later life, which could cause them, as owners of weapons, to do something wholly regrettable and tragic. It is a far-fetched possibility, but I could not guarantee that it might not happen, nor do I believe that any police officer could give such a guarantee.
There is a tremendous variation when officers of the state are given such responsibility. It happens time and again. For example, a factory inspector may demand one set of standards, yet his successor may demand another. It also happens when fire officers introduce fire precautions in various establishments throughout the country. It is not far-fetched to imagine that legitimate shooters might be worried about what might happen in one part of the country compared with another and about the conduct of one officer compared with another. My right hon. Friend must reduce the risk of variation in the best way possible.
I should also like to emphasise the point about compensation, and I welcome my right hon. Friend's promise of further consideration. It seems the unkindest cut of all to many legitimate gun owners that people should believe that they might misuse their weapons and that, if those weapons were taken from them, there should he no compensation. The fear has been expressed that guns which were not allowed to be handed in, with compensation, could find their way into the wrong hands. That idea was dismissed by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and others, but it is a reasonable fear. We need only recall that a few years ago we tried to stop anything getting into Rhodesia, and we failed badly. We need only consider what is happening in any hot spot in the world where weapons are used to realise that they are getting into those places by all sorts of devious routes. The person who parted with the gun would not be responsible for the final destination. It would follow a shadowy trail, but it would get there in the end.
I promised to speak briefly, so I shall not take any interventions.
This is an immensely difficult matter in which my right hon. Friend may find the precedents discouraging, but he would do a great service if he were brave and made a special case for compensation in respect of those weapons. He was obliged to bring forward legislation. I hope that he will maintain a listening stance and be prepared to perfect the balance of his Bill in those matters which obviously cause a great deal of concern among our hon. Friends and those many people whom they represent. Then, indeed, his legislation will deserve to survive.
Like the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst), I am not a shooter and my experience of all weapons is limited. My speech is based on the lobbies that I have received from both inside and outside my constituency.
Any legislation which controls the illegal and criminal use or possession of firearms must be welcomed. However, the legislation will do nothing to affect illegally held firearms. The Bill seeks only to regulate legally held and regulated firearms. It imposes further restrictions on firearms holders who, in the vast majority of cases, are law-abiding and respectable people who have chosen shooting as their hobby. The Secretary of State has said, and it was admitted in the White Paper, that legislation cannot eradicate criminal intent. The question, therefore, is whether there is a need for this legislation and whether these proposals address that need.
Under the present law, there is very little regulation of shotguns, but there is considerable and necessary control of other firearms, such as rifles and pistols. The White Paper recognises the public's right to hold firearms for sporting and working purposes. Almost all firearms can be used for sporting or working purposes. Indeed, the self-loading rifle, which is at the heart of this legislation, is used in target competition. The balancing of the rights of shooters with the security of the public is a difficult task, but it must be clear that further regulation of known firearms will not stop any further incidents, such as those which occurred at Hungerford and elsewhere. The only way to achieve that is by the total prohibition of firearms which, as the Government said in the White Paper, is unrealistic.
A factor that should be made clear, and which constituents have made clear to me, is that a competent shooter can probably do as much damage using an old bolt-action type rifle as he can using a self-loading rifle. We should consider, in that light, whether that type of weapon should be prohibited. Therefore, if the law is being changed simply because of such incidents as Hungerford—the White Paper states that those events have shown potential weaknesses in existing legislation — this legislation is inadequate. The only way to prevent such incidents is to ban all guns. The Bill cannot reduce the risk to the public because the firearms which remain under clause I are just as dangerous as those which the Bill seeks to prohibit.
What, therefore, is the real reason for the Bill? It cannot put any further control on illegal weapons, so the real reason may simply be to discourage shooters, to reduce their numbers by making it more difficult for firearms to be obtained, or to discourage them by not giving compensation. The granting of powers to the Secretary of State further to prohibit some categories of firearms will also discourage shooters from obtaining any type of gun which they fear could be barred by an order of the Secretary of State at short notice.
If the shooters are a responsible and law abiding group, there should be no question that their guns will be used in crime or that they will find their way into the hands of criminals. Here, I differentiate between firearms and shotguns, to which I hope to refer later.
All firearms covered by clause 1 are listed on a firearms certificate or licence. There are strict conditions governing the purchase and sale of such firearms and ammunition. The police, therefore, should have adequate records of these firearms. Further regulation can do nothing to prevent armed crime. The real problem is the firearms which are illegally circulating throughout the country. Recently, there have been five cases of shipments of arms from Libya finding their way to Northern Ireland or to this country.
There is perhaps a need for further regulation in respect of shotguns. At present, there is no record of the number of guns held by a certificate holder, so the proposal to list all shotguns is welcome. The Home Secretary may consider methods of ensuring that all such guns are recorded and that a serial number is stamped on each one, perhaps through an amnesty. The tightening of conditions regarding the shotgun certificate is also welcome as, to a certain extent, this will prevent shotguns being obtained, for no real reason. However, one can only guess at the numbers of unregulated and unlicensed shotguns that are in the country now.
Hon. Members know of the lobby against the prohibition of self-loading rifles, and I can only echo the concern expressed to me by my constituents and ask the Secretary of State to consider something like an approved list of self-loading rifles to enable disabled and frail shooters to continue their hobby. No one in his right mind would object to banning such weapons as rocket launchers, bazookas and mortars.
As well as having shotguns listed on the certificate, perhaps the Home Secretary should consider bringing them under section 1, as with firearms, and abolishing the shotgun certificate altogether, to give some sort of uniformity to the firearms legislation.
Compensation, to which several hon. Members have referred, is the one thing that is not in the Bill that most of the shooting fraternity want in it. Many shooters will lose considerable sums of money as a result of having to hand in guns that come under section 5 and that are prohibited. They will not be able to sell them on the domestic market or abroad. I am informed that there is no market for those sorts of firearms. The Home Secretary might consider the point that compensation will ensure that prohibited firearms are handed in when an amnesty comes into effect, whereas now there is a risk that some firearms will not be handed in because there is no compensation.
The Bill does not cover mail order sales. Public confidence cannot be maintained as long as people can look along the newsagents' shelves and see firearms advertised in glossy magazines and available for a small deposit. I suggest that further consideration be given to restrictions on mail order selling, not only of firearms but of other implements that form part of the packages offered in survival magazines—martial arts equipment, wheels, darts and so on.
I think there should have been more consultation and that a better and more comprehensive Bill could have been brought forward. It will seem to the public that the Bill has been quickly brought forward in response to the Hungerford tragedy. Its main proposals were outlined by the Secretary of State in September at the conference of the Association of Chief Police Officers. The public will be disappointed when they find the Bill will do nothing to reduce the rates of armed crime.
Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that Mr. Speaker appealed for 10-minute speeches. Few hon. Members have responded to that appeal so far.
If being a game shooter makes it necessary to declare an interest in the debate, I do so. Unlike many other hon. Members who have spoken, I shoot game.
When discussing the Bill it is important to try to strike the right balance between liberty and restriction. Virtually all who enjoy shooting realise that their weapons are lethal and that if they fall into the wrong hands the consequences could be appalling. As a result, shooters respect their guns and treat them accordingly. Most people already keep their guns and ammunition under lock and key and are aware of the responsibility involved in owning a firearm. I understand also that shooting is now one of the fastest-growing participatory sports in the country.
It would require a massive amount of legislation to prevent a gun from falling into the hands of a determined thief or killer, but Hungerford has added an urgency to our work on the Bill. I believe that today's legislation can stand a little tightening. However, as other hon. Members have said, we must be careful not to allow "Ryanitis" to cloud our judgment, or to allow the Bill to become a vehicle that could be put to a more sinister use in future by those who would seek to outlaw game shooting or wildfowling.
I cannot see the point of the proposal to transfer automatic-loading shotguns to section 1 of the Act. Automatic or pump-action shotguns are no more dangerous than the standard double-barrelled shotgun. In fact, they are less so, because the double-barrelled shotgun has a higher rate of sustained firing than an automatic, which means that one can fire 10 cartridges down a regular double-barrelled shotgun more quickly than through an automatic. Furthermore, a double-barrelled shotgun can be cut down to a mere 12 in. and still work. It makes a handy little weapon for a bank robber. Automatic or pump-action shotguns cannot be cut down, as their mechanisms will not work if shortened—so they cannot be concealed, like sawn-off shotguns. To move automatic guns to section 1 seems illogical. If we do so, we shall be the only country in the west that differentiates between shotguns in this way.
The powers that will be given to the Secretary of State and to chief constables under the Bill seem too vague, for we have no clear definition of what is a good reason to own a gun. We have no way of knowing that the chief constables will interpret the powers in the same way. As things stand, the Home Secretary could amend designations at will without consultation, and could eliminate whole classes of shooting sports, together with their firearms and ammunition. How do we know that a future Home Secretary or chief constable might not be an enthusiastic supporter of the League against Cruel Sports and could, at a stroke, eliminate all classes of game shooting? That would destroy a sport that is enjoyed by a growing number of people, and bring havoc to a growing industry in rural areas. We have the finest gunmakers in the world in this country. Thousands of gamekeepers, game dealers, game farmers, game feed merchants and manufacturers would lose their livelihoods overnight—not to mention the impact that such a move would have on farmers, who are today looking for alternative ways of raising money. Game shooting will undoubtedly be one of those.
If discretion in these matters is given to 52 chief constables, how do we know that they will interpret their instructions in the same way? I urge that this part of the Bill should be clarified. Why should uncertainty exist about how many guns a citizen may own and about the conditions under which they must be kept? Is it a good reason to keep a pair of Purdeys if one does not shoot, merely because one's grandmother gave them to one? Is it a good reason to own six guns because a person is a keen shot and wants to have an 8-bore for goose shooting, a 12-bore magnum for rough shooting, a pair of sidelocks for driven birds, a 20-bore for his wife or other members of the family and a muzzle loader for muzzle-loading shooting competitions? Is it a good reason to own 25 ancient guns because one is a collector, an investor, a student or a researcher of old guns — but not a practising sportsman? Museums will be allowed to do that, but what about individuals?
These doubts must be cleared up because, as others have said, relations between the shooting community and the police have never been better than they are today, and that is the way that we want things to stay.
The White Paper mentioned the secure keeping of shotguns in some detail, but little is said about that in the Bill. Here again, it is essential that clear guidance be given; otherwise, the police could use their powers seriously to curtail shotgun ownership.
There is confusion, too, over guns in transit—taken when travelling to a shoot or staying overnight, or sent through the post. Is control over transit to be tightened up or changed, and, if so, how? Shall we expect every bed and breakfast establishment that accommodates shooters overnight to instal a gun safe? We need clarification about that.
On the positive side, I hope that my right hon. Friend will be reassured to learn that I approve of the suggestion that police should keep records of all guns and be notified of transfers of ownership on long-term loans, and that gun licences should be produced on the purchase of ammunition. Records should be kept of who owns what gun and where it is. I do not suggest that ammunition purchases should be recorded, but the production of a licence implies an approved user and all shooters, regardless of what type of shooting sport they indulge in, accept that gun ownership implies responsibility.
It is interesting to note that, as others have said, the effects of firearms and shotguns have been held at a remarkably constant level over the last few years, which is a credit to the security arrangements of today's gun owners.
I believe that it is right that, as set out in the Bill, visitors to this country should be required to have a gun licence and a sponsor before bringing a gun into the country.
Turning to the very considerable extra police responsibilities envisaged in this Bill, with the need to keep these and the number of hours of work involved to a minimum so as to keep the cost to shooters to a minimum, I wonder whether it would be feasible to get organisations such as the National Rifle Association, for example, to take responsibility for ensuring that their affiliated clubs meet approved police standards. In this way an affiliated club would be a guaranteed establishment; it would be guaranteed to be responsible and secure. Surely this would cut down the amount of time needed for police inspection and approval and therefore reduce the costs to the club. Then, on approval of the club or of the sportsmen, what chance would there be, I wonder, of extending the period to the next inspection, as has already been discussed.
Lastly, I want to turn to the proposed amnesty. I am sure that it will work. I am sure that many people will hand in their guns, but I have two thoughts on that. Would it be possible to try to preserve ancient weapons which may be handed in during this amnesty by allowing interested parties such as museums and approved collectors to inspect the guns handed in to see if there is anything that is worth saving? Secondly, as we are all anxious that as many unwanted weapons as possible should be handed in, I too believe that some sort of compensation should be paid for these guns—not necessarily varying according to the value of the gun, but a flat-rate amount offered to everybody in return for handing in guns.
Those are the four points that I wished to contribute to this debate.
I declare an interest. I have fired a considerable variety of weapons in my lifetime, but I do not shoot in Great Britain, except when representing the House at Bisley against the other place. I am afraid that we have not done as well in recent years as we might have wished.
I was not surprised that the Home Secretary would not give way to me during his speech whenever I rose to challenge him on the question of compensation, because he was formerly the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and presided over the system of compensation for weapons handed in by those who no longer needed them. I think that he would find it rather difficult to defend the position that he is now adopting in regard to compensation in Great Britain. It is quite clear that compensation is needed, but that is a matter that I can safely leave to right hon. and hon. Members who represent constituencies in Great Britain while I deal with the general thrust of the arguments for and against the legislation that is before us today.
I think that the House will agree that, coming as I do from Northern Ireland, I have a clear interest in gun control. When I look at the history of gun control in Ulster, I question very seriously the whole theory of gun control as at present practised in this country.
Hungerford has been referred to. I have to tell the House that last Sunday week a constituent of mine went to church early, returned home, let his wife go to church, proceeded to shoot dead his three small children, including a 14-month-old infant, shot his wife when she came home, and then shot himself. That happened in a part of the United Kingdom that has the most ferociously tight gun laws, and it could not be prevented by those gun laws. This is a matter to which I will return briefly.
Therefore, when I look at the Hungerford incident and at what has been put before the House, I really wonder what the Government are trying to do and what general principle underlies this legislation. The control of weapons in Northern Ireland is extremely tight. Also, in Northern Ireland there is a vast number of personal protection weapons, pistols and hand guns of various types, carried by many members of the security forces, present and past. The only net result of that has been that the incidence of suicide by young men using those weapons seems to have increased dramatically. One of my neighbours was such a victim. That would indicate that such weapons held by persons legally entitled to have them are not generally used in crime at all, even in the very violent situation in which we live in Northern Ireland.
Secondly, it is not only guns that are tightly controlled in Northern Ireland. If one buys ammunition for any sort of weapon the amount is restricted and noted on the firearms certificate. We have firearms certificates for all shotguns and bullet-firing weapons. What ammunition one buys, from whom one buys it and the date on which it is bought is shown. The ammunition dealer has to keep a similar record, which is looked over by the police at regular intervals. The reality is that this has not made a blind bit of difference to the number of weapons that are used in crime. It has not mattered.
I cannot understand why the Government are now trying to draw a line between the lethality of the various types of weapons that are available. This matter has been dealt with in passing by other hon. Members. The reality is that a shotgun is the most deadly weapon of all at short range. It is a surprisingly difficult weapon to transport and has to be cut down if criminals are going to use it; but it is still the deadliest and most murderous weapon of all, because it is much easier to hit one's target with a shotgun than with anything else.
All the controls in Northern Ireland have not stopped weapons of all sorts getting legally into the hands of unstable persons, such as the one who perpetrated the tragedy in my own constituency. Something must have gone wrong, but I understand there was nothing to show that even the day before. It was the same at Hungerford. The changes that are proposed in the Bill will not prevent another Hungerford or another Maghera. Nor will they prevent domestic murders by the use of legally-held weapons, and I think that a very large number of the murders committed in the country generally will be domestic murders.
The criminal will continue to steal legally-held weapons if they are available. We have heard mention of that today, but we were not told how many stolen legally-held weapons were recovered. I suspect that some at least—and perhaps a very large percentage — of those stolen weapons were recovered. Terrorists, of course, in my Province and elsewhere, will steal legally-held weapons, but that is not how the terrorist carries on his war.
The legislation that goes through the House is supposed to be decided by rational argument. It seems to me that that is the one thing that is completely lacking in the Government's approach to this matter. There has been no real attempt to look seriously and in depth at the whole matter, to take advice, or to try to find out what other countries are doing and what the result of legislative controls in those countries has been. The Bill is the product of haste and, above all, emotion.
I can remember—and I think that all hon. Members can remember—the introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act. Every time the subject comes up in the House those who shouted loudest for it at the start now apologise and want to get rid of it, as far as I can see. I can remember the dissolution of the Stormont Parliament because the Army shot dead a number of people in the Bogside in Londonderry. The Stormont Parliament had nothing to do with that, but it was perceived that in some way it was responsible. It was an action of haste and panic which has borne evil fruit throughout the years.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed by the Prime Minister and supported by practically all hon. Members. It was supposed to bring peace, stability and reconciliation. We have seen the result in the extradition legislation in the Irish Republic. Weapons have been brought in by the shipload by the IRA. Apparently, Protestant paramilitary groups are bringing in by the carload weapons that we are now told have to be removed from their possession — mortars, rockets and heavy machine guns. Terrorists do not go out looking for firearms certificates for those weapons; they smuggle them in and use them. Firearms legislation will not stop terrorists from getting weapons and using them.
The two measures that I mentioned were all, to some extent, the product of emotional reactions to incidents. We had to be seen to be doing something.
That would make it more difficult for such weapons to be used. However, if gas-operated weapons were treated in that way, people would have to go back to bolt-action weapons. In competent hands, a bolt-action weapon is a most deadly weapon. It is extremely accurate. Such weapons were used by our military forces in the first world war, to such effect that the attacking Germans thought that they were machine guns. Trying to deal with gas-operated weapons does no good at all.
The Government have adopted a fundamentally wrong approach to the control of firearms. Reaction in haste is usually wrong. Whenever I see the two Front Benches agreeing that something must be done, I am confirmed in my view that it will be wrong. Whenever they agree on something, it invariably turns out to be wrong. Whenever the Home Secretary, who was the author of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, supports something, I am further convinced that it is wrong.
Emotional reactions, especially reactions to horrific deeds such as that at Hungerford, cannot lead to a sensible and rational method of dealing with guns. The Bill is wrong. If the House divides tonight, I shall be glad to vote against it. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Home Secretary and other Home Office Ministers will listen carefully to what is being said against the Bill and will take it away, consider in depth what is wrong with present firearms law and come back to the House with a sensible recommendation.
I have listened to every speech in the debate. It is most remarkable that the Bill has very few friends. The speech of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was the only one that was fully in support of the Bill. I am not suggesting that there will be a Division tonight, or that people will vote against the Bill. Most hon. Members agree that the gun law needs to be tightened. But I am certain that the fallacies that have been exposed by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will give my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and other Home Office Ministers great pause for thought.
Experience tells me that early reactive legislation is usually the worst kind. The Bill is an example of that. I have little doubt that the law needs to be tightened. All hon. Members agree that the Hungerford affair was horrific, but it was exceptional in our national life. Even in this dangerous age, I doubt whether there will be as serious an incident in the next 20 years. If there is not, it will not he because of the Bill.
I agree that the banning of certain firearms is probably desirable, but they should never have been available to the public in the first place. What happened at Hungerford was unique. It was imitative of what had recently happened in Australia and America. It was a copycat incident.
Like other hon. Members, I have had a considerable number of representations from constituents who belong to shooting and gun clubs. They have been writing to me articulately and have also come to see me. They ask, pertinently, why they should be penalised because of the actions of one man—however mad and terrible he was. They say, rightly, that the new laws will not stop murder and mayhem. They resent the implication that they are latent criminals because they own firearms. There can be no effective legislation against a man who eventually becomes unhinged and has access to firearms or other weapons. In my constituency, there was a terrible case of a man who wiped out his entire family, killing three people, and then committed suicide, but who had been perfectly normal until that time. Such things happen.
I fully support all that has been said by those who regard it as totally wrong that those who own particular weapons that they will now have to surrender should not be compensated. Those people regard it as a fine. If they must surrender firearms worth £200, £300, £400, or £500, the state would be fining them for daring to possess such weapons under the law as it then was.
I have great sympathy with the views of people whose sport is shooting, even though they are a small minority of the population. I am not a member of a shooting club, although I own a shotgun and am interested in game shooting and rough shooting. I do not do it on a regular basis because, as a Member of Parliament, I do not have the time. I wonder whether my licence will be renewed, because I do not shoot regularly.
The vast majority of people are not interested in firearms, or in owning them. However, they are influenced by the superficial instant reaction of the media to what happened at Hungerford and to the superficial calls for the public to be protected. A recent television documentary, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) referred, sought to establish that the police were negligent and much too slow in responding to the horror of Hungerford. Given the unique circumstances of that case, I do not blame the police, who had to face an extraordinarily difficult and unusual situation. However, I do blame them for granting a licence for the acquisition of a whole range of deadly weapons to a young man who, by any standards, should not have owned them and who appeared to be unstable. This afternoon we heard the worrying suggestion that he was probably only a provisional member of a gun club.
As a result of what happened, all who possess guns will now be put to considerable inconvenience and cost. Yet those holders of guns, whether firearms or shotguns, are in 99 per cent. of cases among the most law-abiding citizens. Gun clubs and collectors will suffer most from the Bill. However, what will the Bill prevent? I submit that it will be very little indeed. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was asked how many stolen guns are used in criminal activities. I do not have the figure, but I believe that I am right in saying that there are very few. I understand that the firearm most used in the pursuit of crime is the pistol. That weapon is currently subjected to the most restrictive licence. But most pistols used in crime have not been stolen—they have been acquired illegally by criminals through criminal networks.
One of those shooters who will be affected drew my attention to the British Medical Association's publication, "Living with Risk", which studies the various hazards which can cause untimely death or injury in our society. Accidents with firearms, or the deliberate use of them against a person, come very low in the order of risk, especially with regard to legally held firearms. There are many other hazards facing us. For example, road accidents kill and maim far more people every 48 hours or so than did the exceptional case of Hungerford.
It may well be wise to remove repeater weapons from the public and to tighten up on licences, but I hope that my right hon. Friend and his successors will monitor and review the law regularly and analyse the situation. There are deep flaws in the Bill. Whatever view one takes of game and rough shooting and gun clubs, there must be fairness while such pursuits are tolerated and within the law. They must be permitted and they must be treated fairly.
I shall repay your kindness in calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker, by being brief, because, apart from anything else, most of my foxes have been shot, whether with a shotgun or other firearm, I know not.
The annunciator screen should announce when the Front Benches are united on a piece of legislation, so that Back Benchers are suitably warned. Having said that, I support the Bill with a few qualifications, most of which have been mentioned, enabling me to be correspondingly brief.
The Bill is not and should not be a response to the tragedy at Hungerford. The proper response should be action on the spot — instruction to the police, and, possibly, the adjustment of how they behave to try to prevent similar catastrophes.
The Bill is not a response to the tragedy. It is necessary—I declare an interest as a possessor of a shotgun and a shooter of game — because the law is out of date. I support the Bill because a number of new and different species of weapons should be prohibited. There is a need for tighter control over guns and there is a small advantage to the prevention of crime in trying to limit the number of weapons in circulation. However, as many of my hon. Friends have already said, it is difficult to quantify the number of arms, and that is something that the Home Office should try to do.
In several respects, the Bill may have gone too wide and in others it needs more precise definition. However, the Bill is far better than the White Paper suggested it would be.
To those — no doubt all of us—concerned about crime, and possibly to those who think that crime will be reduced by legislating against legal holders of shotguns and other arms, I would say two things. First, we do not have the same kind of society as the United States, where the right to defend oneself with a gun is an important human right. We might be going that way, and I hope that, when the Home Secretary wears his other hat to look after broadcasting, he will do what he can to reduce the amount of, by our standards, violent, but by American standards apparently quite ordinary, material on our screens—in particular, violence with the use of guns. Increasing penalties for crimes aggravated by the possession of weapons is one way in which the kind of crimes that we are concerned about can be prevented.
Shooting interests in Britain are strong, and I suspect that there are many more interested in shooting than the Home Office calculated when it started on this legislative road. Many jobs depend upon shooting. Shooting as a field sport, in which I have a personal interest, is largely responsible for the maintenance of the countryside as it appears to us today. It is a vehicle by which a large amount of money goes from the urban areas, spread as they are over the south of Britain, to the rural areas, and that is good. Shooting also contributes to the ecological balance of our countryside. Shooting as a sport is a positive force for good, and I would not want to see anything in the Bill that would allow any future Secretary of State—I have in mind clause 1(5)—the power to diminish the rights of proper sportsmen and legal holders of shotguns.
On the granting and renewal of shotgun certificates and the good reason point, the interests of a bona fide collector should be specified. The hon. Member who suggested that that is already recognised has read the Bill incorrectly. I wonder whether the interests of a genuine investor should be specified.
I am less concerned than my hon. Friends about leaving the police to handle the safety and peace-to-the-community aspects. That approach may work. I see enormous difficulties in trying to lay down in legislation the precise storage, safety, and peace-to-the-community requirements. However, I have no doubt that the Committee will want to discuss that. I favour sticking to guidance procedures for police.
I agree that the three-shot pump-action shotguns are as safe as any ordinary double-barrelled shotguns and should not be classed as section 1 firearms. I also agree that the Home Office should press for compensation for prohibited firearms, a point that has been well covered.
One point that has not been covered concerns the estimate of police manpower that will be required. The application of the Bill in practice will depend on how much it costs the community. I hope that the estimate of only 80 police is correct, but I cannot believe that that is anything but a considerable underestimate of the number of police and civilians who will be needed to enforce the Bill. I hope that my right hon. Friend will look carefully at that.
The British Shooting Sports Council, which I am pleased to say has its base in my constituency, estimates that 220 more policemen and 50 more civilians will be required. That would be far too high a price to pay for a Bill such as this, particularly when, like many other hon. Members, I have lobbied the Home Secretary regularly for an increase in the number of policemen to administer the law in the streets of my constituency.
The proper and responsible use of firearms can benefit the country, the sporting community and vermin control. Unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), I do not think that there are no defence implications, although on other matters it is a great pleasure to be able to agree with him for once. There may be defence implications. We do not need to go as far as an earlier constituent of my constituency, the former Tory Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, who said in 1900 that he would laud the day when there was a rifle in every cottage in England, but 1 do believe that responsible firearm owners and users will support the Bill, provided that it is properly amended on the lines that I and my hon. Friends have suggested.
I applaud what my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) said, in particular about police manpower. If we take some 200,000 weapons from the category where they now qualify for shotgun certificates and include them in category 1, where they will require firearms certificates, that will have considerable implications for police manpower. I see from an answer to a parliamentary question that it takes the police 45 minutes to grant a shotgun certificate and 145 minutes to grant a firearms certificate, so if that difference is multiplied by 200,000 weapons it will mean a lot of additional work for the police.
I must first declare my interests as an owner of shotguns and rifles and as a user of them from a very early age. My father's advice to his son was,
If a sportsman true you'd be,
listen carefully to me.
Never, never let your gun
pointed be at anyone.
It is because the British shooting fraternity has followed that advice that it was so outraged and shocked by the Hungerford tragedy on 19 August and other more recent events. It cautioned, quite rightly, against over-reaction by the public and the authorities. Shooting sportsmen accept that tighter controls may be required to protect the public and that the Government have a duty to respond to calls for reform.
We must, however, ask ourselves during the passage of the Bill, which I hope will proceed tonight, whether it will give greater protection to the public or will merely penalise the law-abiding shooting community for a crime they did not commit. That shooting community comprises some 4 million shooters and a considerable trade to support Britain's second most popular participatory sport. That is probably why so many sportsmen and supporters of the sport, who do not necessarily shoot, have reacted to the Government's proposals. Our mail bags and surgery lists are evidence of that. No one can deny that they have had a fair hearing, and I applaud the way in which Home Office Ministers have reacted to representations made to them.
A great deal of consultation has taken place. I part company with some of my hon. Friends who have said that there has not been enough consultation and that the Bill is being rushed through. There has been a great deal of consultation, from my right hon. Friend's speech in Torquay on 22 September, only a month after the Hungerford tragedy, through to the publication of the White Paper. In all that time Ministers have been only too ready to respond to representations made to us. There has been a constructive debate on the issue throughout that time.
I particularly pay credit to the work of the British Shooting Sports Council under the chairmanship of Lord Swansea. It represents a number of organisations, which I will read out so that their members will know that their views have been represented to Ministers. The council consists of the following organisations: the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the British Field Sports Society, the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association, the Gun Trade Association, the Muzzle Loaders Association of Great Britain, the National Pistol Association, the National Rifle Association, the National Small-bore Rifle Association, the Shooting Sports Trust and the United Kingdom Practical Shooting Association. I add to the list of organisations the Shooters Rights Association, which has also been diligent and energetic in its contribution to the debate.
I welcome the Bill, but it is far from perfect. It will have to be amended during its passage because, in seeking to protect the public against the misuse of firearms, there is a danger that we militate unintentionally and unjustifiably against the legitimate, sensible and responsible owners and users of firearms. Farmers are major users of firearms. Four out of five farmers have at least one shotgun which can be fairly described as an essential tool of trade. They welcome most of the Government's proposals, but they have one major reservation about clause 3 relating to the grant and renewal of shotgun certificates by the chief officer of police. This will require certain shotgun owners and those seeking to possess one to show good reason why they want it. The onus is on the shooter to show good reason, but the onus should be on the police to say why he or she should not have the certificate.
I am very pleased to hear that. Nevertheless, there could be great disparity in the implementation of the law relating to good reason as between one police authority and another. There are 51 police authorities and it should not be left to them to apply their own interpretation, nor should it be left to the courts to decide as a matter of common law. Although the Bill goes a great deal further than the White Paper on that subject, it is not nearly specific enough. It is far better to have clear guidelines as to what constitutes a good reason incorporated in the legislation. No mention has been made in the Bill of reasons such as investment or private collections.
In welcoming the statutory requirement that, for safekeeping, responsibility for weapons must be placed on the shoulders of the person, I feel that a code of practice is necessary. This raises the question of who should advise the Home Secretary on drawing up such guidelines and codes of practice. My hon. Friend will have seen the voluntary code of practice for safe custody of weapons and ammunition produced by the British Sports Shooting Council. It has suggested—the suggestion has received wide support in the House—that an expert consultative committee should be established to assist my right hon. Friend on an ongoing basis.
I refer briefly to compensation. The slogan on which we should fight this issue is "No confiscation without compensation". There is no doubt that if the measure is being introduced to protect the public, the public must be prepared to foot the bill for that compensation. The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross), who is expert in the use of firearms and has great experience of their misuse, said that many banned firearms that ought to be surrendered may find their way on to the black market arid his constituents rather than mine will be on the receiving end of their bullets.
The analogy has been drawn between the firearm and the motor car. People ask why we should have such restrictions on firearms when people are allowed legitimately to drive around in fast motor cars, but one must have a driving test before one is allowed to drive a car. Some people have expressed concern that the European legislation on firearms—dare I say it—when the harmonisation takes place, will apply to this country. Firearms legislation controlling the use of weapons in this country is almost the toughest in the world and any legislation we import from Europe is likely to be harmful to the control of weapons.
In some European countries it is necessary to take a test before one is permitted to use firearms. It might be worthwhile to consider that idea. We should also bear in mind that before one is allowed to drive a motor car it is necessary to have third party insurance and perhaps the Committee should also consider that in the context of firearms.
1 believe that the Bill deserves a Second Reading. However, in the interests not only of the public, but of the growing number of people of all ages and both sexes who enjoy shooting, I hope that it will not reach the statute book before it has been amended along the lines suggested by my hon. Friends.
I declare my interest as president of the National Small-bore Rifle Association and vice-president of the National Rifle Association, the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association and others. I find it hard to believe that a Conservative Government are putting the Bill to the House. I believe that the Ministers are out of touch with the members of the shooting world, many of whom are, of course, Government supporters.
In common with every hon. Member, I accept that we must have extremely clear, concise and effective firearms legislation. However, on this occasion the Government have got the balance hopelessly wrong, and it is heavily against those legitimate shooters who have carried the brunt of the battle on the effects and results of Hungerford.
Both target and sporting shooting are a recreation enjoyed by many thousands of responsible people. I am rather disappointed at being unable to speak to a Minister about a subject that concerns me greatly. The shooting world feels seriously let down and many have written to me to say they will not support our party again.
I spoke in the previous debate. As I said then, it is difficult to understand why there were no consultations— despite requests — before my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made his policy speech on 22 September. From that date on he has hardly changed a thing, either in the White Paper or in the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) appears to have got the idea that there was close association, but he has been badly misinformed. The British Shooting Sports Council is hopping mad about the way in which its advice has been treated in the past two months. One might well ask: what is the point of a BSSC or other responsible bodies if Ministers will not accept advice, even on technicalities? The Bill contains many errors that will have to be corrected in Committee. Could one imagine a Minister of Sport changing legislation affecting cricket or football without first going to the Test and County Cricket Board or the Football Association, before making a policy statement? However, that is what has happened with this Bill.
The sheer technicalities of firearms encourages me to support warmly the idea of establishing a statutory expert consultative committee. That would help the Home Secretary with the administration of firearms legislation. It could also create a co-ordinated view among chief constables. Hon. Members have today drawn attention to the fact that the views of chief constables vary enormously throughout the country.
Advice on weapons — extremely technical stuff —should be welcomed by the Home Secretary, and it would certainly reduce the number of cases that will inevitably go to appeal. Attempting to draft the Bill is a bit of a nightmare because it is attached to the Firearms Act 1968. Most people would have great difficulty in finding their way through the Bill. The only immediate lighthearted comment I can make about the Bill concerns clause 2(2). We should all like to know how to fire five shots "simultaneously" out of any gun.
I am a strong supporter of the police and a past chairman of the Dumfries and Galloway police committee. Nothing I say is any criticism of the police. However, I believe that the view of the police has swamped the Home Office firearms division. The Bill is what the police want; it is not a fair balance between its views and those of the responsible shooting public. The police are given enormous powers under the Bill and this brings us to security and police discretion.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend has put "sporting use" on the face of the Bill as an accepted reason for having a firearm. We already have the 1969 firearms rules. Those rules insist that security is mentioned on the face of a firearms certificate. I take it that those rules will be the route by which my right hon. Friend will bring in the same measures affecting shotguns. I believe that the rules should be part of the Bill so that we can see what they are and discuss them. In that way we could ensure that they will be effective in the future. The Bill will have to include the right of entry to inspect security and so on.
Besides the firearms rules we have the Home Office guidance. Hon. Members have already said that that guidance is important. We should like to know what that guidance is and how it will be effected. The Home Office guidance covers the security of weapons in transit. If one is going to Bisley or to a shooting club and stops for a cup of tea or whatever, it is necessary to leave one's guns locked in the boot of the car. However, people have been prosecuted by the police for leaving weapons locked in a car boot. Such prosecutions are unsatisfactory and represent a breakdown in relations between the shooting public and the police. The Home Office must seek to improve matters during the passage of the Bill.
When the rules are introduced, they will require the inspection of the home of every owner of a shotgun certificate or the home of a person applying for or seeking the renewal of a shotgun certificate. There are 928,000 shotgun certificates. Consider the police manpower needed to inspect all those homes. Indeed, they must also inspect clubs. The Shooters Rights Association and others estimate that more than 1 million police man-hours will be necessary to undertake such work. However, the Bill states that police manpower will be increased by 80. I suspect that that means 80 civilians working computers at police headquarters. I repeat the question that I asked in the last debate: will the Minister tell us how many police man-hours will be required to carry out the additional and onerous duties required under the Bill? What will it all cost?
The Minister has clearly stated that he hopes to review the costs of shotgun and firearm certificates every three years and recover the full cost. A firearm certificate costs £33 and a shotgun certificate costs £12. If the cost of such certificates is meant to reflect the cost of 1 million extra man-hours on the part of the police, heaven knows what those certificates will cost. The prices of certificates will be outwith the pocket of the normal man who enjoys this recreation.
I accept that the shotgun certificate may include the number of shotguns held by a person, but that will require thousands of variations month by month as people buy and sell shotguns or lend them because a friend's shotgun is broken. Has my right hon. Friend considered the man-hours involved in checking all those variations in shotgun certificates as shotguns move from dealer to owner, owner to dealer and owner to owner? It will be a bureaucratic nightmare. My right hon. Friend has underestimated what he is taking on.
Self-loading shotguns are a contentious issue, and the Minister has gone too far. In the debate today we have explained umpteen times that the lack of recoil in the self-loading shotgun is important for women and the disabled and for others, especially in the world of clay pigeon shooting. I took the Wildlife and Countryside Act through the House of Commons after great consultation with everyone, including the Home Secretary of the day. We agreed on the two-round magazine and that one up the spout would be right for the self-loading shotgun. That is now to be put on a firearms certificate. I cannot get any sense from the Home Office as to how it believes that will make a dramatic difference. We have already explained that any competent operator with a double-barrelled shotgun can get off 20 shots far quicker than someone with a five or seven-shot self-loading shotgun, which takes so long to reload. There is no difference in terms of overall fire power, so it is quite unnecessary to put a pump-action or self-loading shotgun on a firearms certificate. That simply must be changed in Committee, and I hope that the Home Secretary will agree to that tonight.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) explained that many stalkers throughout Scotland use self-loading rifles. Many roe stalkers throughout the United Kingdom use five-shot self-loading rifles which are efficient and allow them to fire a second shot at a wounded beast. Those guns are not to be classified under section 1 but are to be banned for ever under section 5. That is surely illogical. The Home Secretary simply must re-examine the practical requirements of those who use self-loading guns.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend is reconsidering the question of visitors. There is a huge income to be had from wealthy people who come here to buy the best shotguns in the world. We must not make it too difficult for them to do that or to come here for shooting competitions. Bisley and other centres have a world reputation. If we are to hedge round such competitions with special regulations, we shall lose that reputation and lose our reputation for world marksmanship.
Conversions pose a whole host of problems. An expert committee would give the Home Secretary a tremendous amount of help. Hundreds of people have converted rifles to 410 shotguns. Those guns cannot be converted back; the gun cannot be re-rifled. Why on earth must they be dealt with in clause 1? In addition, there are a number of silly footling issues. Under clause 7, any weapon that has been converted will remain at its highest position on the list. Hand grenades and shell cases will be prohibited under section 5. Therefore, anyone with a first world war hand grenade which has been made safe will suffer. It will now be a criminal offence to have a hand grenade that has been made into a cigarette lighter sitting by one's fireplace to light one's pipe, because it will revert to being classified as a hand grenade. It will now be a section 1 criminal offence to have a shell case in which one is growing an aspidistra. The Home Secretary has not begun to think of what he is doing in the Bill.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) referred to museums. We have the finest armouries in the world — particularly at the Tower of London. Is my right hon. Friend really intending weapons there to be reactivated, ruining the actions or the bolts or the breeches? That would be like punching a hole in a Canaletto.
We shall have to see about that in Committee. We must consider the Bill as drafted. As matters stand, it is entirely for the Home Secretary to decide what may go on in museums, as the hon. Member for Warley, East explained.
I am glad that the issue of clubs was raised. Of course the NSRA and the NRA would gladly supervise and manage the arrangements for clubs' licences. There is no need to involve the police. Think of the money that could he saved in that direction.
Lastly, we come to dealers and compensation. My right hon. Friend must have a guilty conscience about some aspects of the Bill. Paragraph 47 of the White Paper states:
We have concluded that as a matter of principle it is undesirable and unjust to require the taxpayer at large to pay for the removal from the public domain of weapons which are an acknowledged threat to life.
However, it is implied that one need have no worries if one wants to sell them abroad. It is immoral for the Home Secretary to adopt the attitude that it does not matter as long as one does not sell the weapon in this country.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and other hon. Members have emphasised the importance of good compensation. Indeed, our friends from Northern Ireland have pointed out that there has been legislation in Northern Ireland. It has been acknowledged that there are various precedents for the payment of compensation. It would be unjust if many of our friends lost substantial sums because weapons that are legal today were made illegal at the end of July at the drop of a hat because those people would be losing money through no fault of their own. That is unacceptable.
I hope that the Home Secretary will consider the question of dealers. If we must sell section 5 firearms to dealers, we must bear in mind that in Scotland, for example, there are only six licensed dealers, who are allowed to have only five section 5 weapons at a time. How on earth are we to unload tens of thousands of weapons on to so few dealers?
While the Government are right to try to toughen up the firearms legislation to make it effective, all in all, they have gone too far. They have produced a ragbag of matters that will need to be corrcted in Committee because they are technically incorrect, and I certainly could not support the Bill tonight.
I gather that the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) used to play rugby. I am tempted to remark that if he had treated his opponents on the field with the ferocity with which he has treated the Home Secretary, he would have been banned for life—even in Wales.
Three aspects of the Bill concern me, and I shall attempt to deal with them as briefly as possible. First, the provision that bans paramilitary firearms for the first time represents a significant development in the British Government's treatment of the private ownership of firearms. It is an entirely new principle and it is being introduced without public announcement, debate or acknowledgement. When taking a step that represents such a radical departure from agreed practice, the Government should be honest about their intentions.
Secondly, it is proposed to introduce a registration system for shotguns. I understand why the Home Secretary is doing that, and most of us would regard that provision by itself as innocuous. However, it will set in hand a process that will result in every shotgun in the country being identified, located and registered in three, four or perhaps five years' time. I am worried that it will then be a fairly easy step for the Home Secretary of the day to follow the advice offered by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and abolish the distinction between shotgun certificates and firearms certificates. Once shotguns have been identified it will be relatively easy to require section 1 certificates to be obtained in respect of their ownership. That course of action is being pressed on the Home Secretary and will be available to him under the Bill. That development has not been publicly acknowledged. There has been no public debate and no justification has been offered for it.
My third reservation concerns the discretionary powers in the Bill. Clause 1 gives the Secretary of State discretionary powers to ban any firearm or ammunition without further primary legislation; it can be done by order. Are we to expect widespread public debate or consultation on that? I suspect not. Clause 3 contains the good reason provision. The Home Secretary explained that he would advise chief constables how to operate that provision. He said that he would give guidance by means of a circular. In an earlier intervention I tried to suggest that guidance might change from year to year. Therefore, not only would different parts of the country perhaps be treated inconsistently but there could be an inconsistence of treatment from one year to the next and from one Home Secretary to the next. We should give such a discretion to any Home Secretary only grudgingly.
We are all conscious of the disaster that befell Hungerford and sympathetic to the distress that it caused. However, I disagreed with the assertion of the hon. Member for Newbury that the Bill was not a response to the events at Hungerford. The House is divided on this point because the Opposition believe that this legislation is nothing more than a political response to the events at Hungerford. However, I accept that that view is not shared by all Conservative Members.
I want to draw to the attention of the House two items of evidence to support my contention that this legislation is merely a political response. The first piece of evidence is contained in the White Paper that was introduced to the House before Christmas. With reference to Hungerford it states:
These events have shown potential weaknesses in the existing controls. They have also created a climate of public opinion.
The Bill is a response to that climate of public opinion.
My second piece of evidence is to be found in the reply to a question that I tabled to the Home Secretary on 18
December 1986. Ironically, that was one week after Michael Ryan was granted his firearms certificate. I asked the Secretary of State
whether he has any proposals to review legislation on firearms.
The Minister replied:
there are no plans at present to amend the Firearms Act 1968." —[Official Report, 18 December 1986; Vol. 107, c. 642.]
Of course there was a review. Governments review all legislation at all times. However, as late as December 1986, the Government had no plans to introduce legislation. That is why I believe that this Bill is a political reaction. The Government had to be seen to be responding to the events at Hungerford. The Government's reaction has led to the Bill being rushed, inadequate and lacking in consultation. It is a political response because something had to be done and it contains major illogicalities.
All hon. Members who have spoken tonight, including Tory Members, have criticised some aspects of the legislation. We have all realised that there are illogicalities. I want to refer to the three illogicalities that have not been referred to so far. Much reference has been made to the banning of pump-action shotguns. I cannot understand why the Home Secretary believes that pump-action shotguns have a greater rate of fire than traditional, side-by-side, double-barrelled shotguns. Any reasonably competent, dextrous shooter can achieve a far greater rate of fire with a double-barrelled shotgun than with a pump-action shotgun and with a greater degree of accuracy. If the Home Secretary is concerned about sawn-off shotguns, I further suggest that a pump-action shotgun cannot be reduced to a sawn-off shotgun. The double-barrelled shotgun is the usual sawn-off weapon. If the Home Secretary wants to deal with the increasing pool of illegally held weapons, and if that could be achieved by banning weapons, the logic of the argument is that the double-barrelled shotgun should be banned and the pump-action shotgun should be retained. However, the Government have not accepted the logic of that argument.
In my second point I want to return to the events at Hungerford. Michael Ryan used a Beretta to kill most of his victims in Hungerford. We have heard much about the Kalashnikov. The Kalashnikov is banned, but the Beretta will not be banned. How on earth can that be a logical response to the events at Hungerford? It beggars belief that the Government should introduce such measures.
Thirdly, when the Secretary of State referred to clause 2, he mentioned the reclassification of shotgun ammunition. He said that some ammunition is more lethal than other ammunition. The question of the lethality of shotgun ammunition does not depend on the gauge; it depends on the distance from which it is fired. If one were to shoot someone with any gauge of shotgun ammunition at close range, that person would be killed. Michael Ryan fired over distances of less than 20 ft. He could have used a shotgun with any ammunition at that distance.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will appreciate the principle that it is impossible to legislate against the activities of a man such as Mr. Ryan. No doubt the hon. Gentleman can appreciate the anger of one of the most law-abiding sections in our community, the shooters, at the Government's response to that incident and the fact that they will lose some of their weapons without compensation. That anger is particularly felt among those using pump-action shotguns to whom the hon. Gentleman has referred.
If the hon. Gentleman follows my argument, that is precisely the conclusion he will draw.
Those are the three illogicalities that I wanted to submit to the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) moved an amendment and I hope that the House will have an opportunity to divide on it later. He made a compelling case about the gross irregularities that occurred in Hungerford when Michael Ryan was issued with a firearms certificate. I want to summarise those irregularities.
First, Michael Ryan should not have been granted a firearms certificate. Secondly, the speed with which the certificate was offered was wrong. Inadequate checks were made. Thirdly, he should not have been granted the variation which allowed him to purchase a heavy calibre rifle. Finally, he should not have been allowed to retain his certificate once it had been granted because there was more than adequate evidence in Hungerford of his unsuitability to hold such a certificate.
If there are ways in which controls can be introduced to enhance public safety, those controls must apply not to the weapons but to the individual. If an individual is fit to have a particular firearm, he must be fit enough to own any firearm because of the lethality, power and potential of any firearm for taking human life. Controls must be placed on the individual to ensure that the individual is fit. The control should not be aimed at ensuring that someone is fit to possess certain firearms but not others. That is the difference between the Government and the Opposition.
The Opposition have called for an inquiry into these matters. Most hon. Members who have spoken tonight are familiar in some sense with firearms. We all understand the power of firearms and we therefore understand the great courage that is required of a police officer facing the use of firearms. When we put the case that we should learn the lessons of Hungerford we are not being critical of the police. We are not detracting from our immense admiration of the courage with which the police face their task. Rather, we want to ensure that the lessons are learnt.
If we want to avoid a repetition of Hungerford, that can be achieved only if we learn the lessons. We can only do that if we have a full public inquiry into how Ryan broke every rule in the book to gain possession of his weapons. We must also have a proper inquiry into the police response. That is not to say that the police reacted wrongly. Mention has been made of a television programme that was supposed to be critical of the police. I saw it, but I did not think that it was critical. I thought that it asked questions. We have a right to ask those questions and the only way in which they will be answered properly is to hold an inquiry into the procedures leading up to Ryan becoming an armed maniac and into the police response. If we believe that there is an overriding need to safeguard the public we must examine the elements of what happened in Hungerford as well as the nature of permitted firearms.
There must be two pre-requisites. There must be a full and searching inquiry. Secondly, and I endorse the comments made by many Conservative Members, there must be a statutory consultation committee to allow the Home Secretary to have access to expert opinion and advice so that we do not again have the sorry state of affairs of a Home Secretary coming to the House of Commons with a set of proposals and failing to find a single Member of Parliament who will support them.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), who spoke a great deal of sense, particularly with regard to the need for an expert consultative committee. It is sad that he has been unable to persuade more of his colleagues to attend and support his views.
I should declare an interest because I own a shotgun. I consider myself to be a responsible shotgun user and I have owned one for many years. I also have a constituency interest—representing a large rural constituency, that is hardly surprising—and, as a result of the White Paper and the publication of the Bill, I have received many letters.
We understood the pressures that the Government were under to react to the Hungerford tragedy, but I have always subscribed to that excellent Tory dictum that unless it is essential to legislate it is very necessary not to legislate. The Government have rushed into this matter without the right amount of consultation. Unless we tear the Bill apart in Committee, we shall end up with an Act that we will all regret.
A number of hon. Members have said that by enacting this legislation we shall go some way to reducing the number of firearms-related crimes. There has been an increase in such crime of 237 per cent. between 1972 and 1986, and the figure has doubled since 1979.
We have not considered the examples of other countries. Switzerland has a 625,000-strong militia, who all keep their weapons and ammunition at home. It possesses 6,000 assault weapons and 2 million military weapons in total. Kalashnikovs are very easy to acquire there and no certification is required on transfer. Yet armed crime in Switzerland is minimal.
The home guard in Denmark provides cover during mobilisation and its members possess 60,000 assault weapons, all of which are kept at their homes. In the past 25 years, there have been only 13 homicides attributable to those 60,000 weapons.
By contrast, Germany has the most draconian firearms legislation and control, but its record of firearms-related crimes is far worse than those other two countries. It is ridiculous to pretend that by legislating in this way we shall reduce the number of firearms-related crimes and that we shall prevent a recurrence of the Hungerford tragedy. We shall not be able to achieve that.
With regard to the semi-automatic and self-loading rifle clause, Kalashnikovs and other types of infantry assault weapons should be prohibited. We must draw the line somewhere. In the past, it has been drawn at machine guns, grenade launchers and weapons of that nature.
A number of self-loading rifles are used in competition work, and I do not see why the Minister will not agree to an amendment being moved in Committee that will list the number of self-loading rifles that can be used in competition work.
I should like to make a new point relating to the national defence aspect of the clause. If the Bill goes through, it will be the first time in British history that civil marksmen will be prevented from owning and training with a current British service rifle. It will act retrospectively by banning previous self-loading rifles. Under the Bill as it stands, the last British service rifle that could continue to be used by civilians would be a world war 2 Enfield No. 4. I hope that the Minister will seriously consider that matter.
Does the Minister feel strongly about the standard of marksmanship in the community? Going back, does he remember the firearms amnesty of 1936 or 1937, when we had to appeal to the Americans to let us have weapons for the Home Guard? Has the Minister or the Home Secretary discussed that matter with the Ministry of Defence?
I entirely support my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) about compensation. Surely it is morally indefensible not to offer compensation. We are talking about law-abiding citizens who have proved to the police that they have a good reason to own a firearm, and were given a certificate, and who will have their weapons taken away. The arguments that have been made in favour of that so far do not stand up. I urge the Minister to listen to what has been said about compensation. If the Bill goes through and compensation is not offered, many people will think that we have acted in a thoroughly draconian and uncivilised manner.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned pump-action and self-loading shotguns. The hon. Member for Caerphilly and my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, West (Mr. Marland) said that it is far more difficult to adapt a pump-action or self-loading shotgun for crime because the barrel cannot be cut down. Those weapons are owned by people who cannot afford a more traditional type of shotgun, and they shoot clay pigeons or rough shoot. So far, no sustainable argument has been made that there is a link between the existence of these weapons and armed crime involving them.
In his speech to senior police officers at Torquay, the Home Secretary had to offer something, so he chucked this proposal at them. We are now on a hook that it will be difficult to get off. Unless we get off it completely, I urge the Minister to accept the limited magazine capacity compromise. I mentioned this to him and he said that it needed careful monitoring. Must we monitor more closely a sensible, orderly group of people? I suggest not. We could have a compromise. If someone broke the law on the limited magazine capacity, he could be prosecuted. The excuse of lack of monitoring for not agreeing to it does not stand up.
The good reason clause must be set out very clearly. During the election campaign I visited someone in a housing association flat. To begin with, the conversation was fairly difficult because he obviously did not share my politics. I discovered that he was a member of the local wildfowling club and that in his bed-sit he had no fewer than four shotguns. Why not — he was a keen wild-fowler? He had an 8-bore, a Magnum 12-bore and two other 12-bores. He was a law-abiding sportsman who was fanatical about the sport. If someone like that has a run-in with the local police — perhaps he is a bit of a character and the police have got it in for him — they could easily say, "You cannot have a firearm certificate. We do not believe that you have a good reason to possess one, and you have inadequate security." We must clarify what is a good reason. What is outlined in the clause is inadequate.
An expert consultative committee could advise the Home Secretary on many different points and, above all, play a part in setting up a code of practice on security. I cannot think why the Home Secretary or the Minister have not nodded in approval when many Conservative and Opposition Members have urged the Government to set up a statutory expert consultative committee. Without it we shall miss a major opportunity in the Bill.
The Bill is unnecessary for the reasons that I have given. Unless we amend it substantially in Committee, we shall create a Bill that will lead to an increase in police bureaucracy and time. This legislation must be carried out in a spirit of good will and co-operation between the police and the sporting community. As some hon. Members have said, the relationship between the police and the sporting community has never been better. However, if the Bill goes through, if the police have the powers of discretion that they will have under the Bill as it now stands, if there is no expert consultative committee, and if in Dorset, for example, one will be able to obtain a shotgun certificate in certain circumstances whereas in Norfolk one will not, antagonism will be rife. We shall introduce a Bill that we shall deeply regret in years to come. It will antagonise many of our best and most loyal supporters. I support the Bill on Second Reading only on the basis that it will be heavily amended in Committee. If it is not, I shall definitely vote against it on Third Reading.
I am conscious in following my hon. Friends the Members for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) and for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) that their experience of this subject greatly exceeds mine. Indeed, I hope that not only the experience but the eloquence of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries will move the Front Bench.
I shoot a little and own a shotgun. I represent part of a county in which game shooting and shooting clubs are major parts of our activities. In addition, all our farmers depend greatly on owning a gun.
Much of the ground has been covered. I am conscious of the time, so I shall gallop a little if I may, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to speak, first, about the attitude of the Home Office. I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies). The Home Office now says that it was in the process of preparing legislation. That may well be the case, and perhaps we must accept that. However, no one among us will doubt that, even if the Hungerford incident did not initiate the Bill, it greatly accelerated it. We must all take that as read. I believe that even today the Home Secretary talked of "responding" to the Hungerford tragedy, which I think has very much been the reason why the Bill has been brought forward. Hungerford is crucial, if not to the detailed nature of the legislation, to the reason why it is before us. Of course, it was a tragic event. However, it says far more about the nature of Michael Ryan than about the legislation on controlling firearms in this country. Such a person could do that kind of thing in any circumstances, and it is wrong to initiate legislation because of that.
If my memory serves me correctly, Michael Ryan has boasted about the guns that he owned. I believe that he took them to work loaded and that he had used 30-mile an hour signs for target practice and boasted of that to friends and workmates. I think that is true. If it is, it points to the responsibility of ordinary men and women to bring such things to the attention of the police. That is a far more important aspect of the case than firearms legislation. We all bear such a responsibility. I am certain that had Michael Ryan's friends or acquaintances been the kind of shooters that we are talking about—responsible men and women who shoot regularly— those things would have been brought to the attention of the police.
I am sure that, following that event, the attitude was that something must be done. How often we hear those words, but now something is being done. I am prepared to accept that the legislation will do some good and that possibly it will be effective. It has some good points. For example, I thoroughly welcome the amnesty, provided that it is properly handled.
The number of shotguns listed on a certificate is crucial. That point was brought firmly home to me recently when I was talking to the police. Police are frequently called out to an incident where they know that there are shotguns. They sometimes visit a house, take the shotgun and leave. As they may be called back on another occasion, it is important that they know that the first shotgun that they took was the only shotgun and that they know exactly how many shotguns are held in the house. Otherwise they may go back to be confronted by another gun. It would help if they knew the number of guns owned by an individual. Some of the measures about the safe keeping of weapons are also good.
A few weeks ago I spoke at a conference in Suffolk. Towards the end of the conference I had a discussion with between 15 and 20 police inspectors who were drawn from police forces throughout East Anglia and the east midlands about the whole question of firearms legislation. Towards the end, I asked them their views about the need for further legislation. They were unanimous in saying that there is no need for further legislation. I think that is important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) and other hon. Members have said that most crimes are committed with illegally-held weapons. Therefore, how will crime he reduced if regulations are tightened up on people who hold weapons legally? It does not make sense. Little has been said about the fact that most crimes involving weapons are committed with handguns—[Interruption.] It is true.
The figures for 1986 for notifiable offences in which firearms were used show that of 9,363 offences, 5,886 were committed with air weapons. That point has been totally overlooked during the debate.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The point that I am seeking to make is that the majority of crimes that are committed using weapons are committed not with shotguns. It just happens that shotguns, especially sawn-off shotguns, are emotive and always seem to be hitting the headlines. Therefore, sadly, shotguns are always dragged to the forefront of our debates. That point should be remembered.
I shall deal quickly with two or three points of detail. First, it does no harm as far as my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench are concerned to repeat that it will be absolutely scandalous if compensation is not paid to people whose weapons are confiscated. The legislation may not technically be retrospective, but its effect will be that of retrospective legislation. It will be unworthy of our party and Government if compensation is not paid.
Secondly—this point has already been made—pump-action shotguns are of great benefit. They have less recoil than other weapons, and that is of enormous help. It is worth pointing out that that greatly benefits women and young people who are keen shooters. I understand that some of those who hope to represent us at the forthcoming Olympics use such shotguns. The point has been made, "What about allowing the gun to hold only three cartridges?" I can see no reason why that should not be taken on board.
Thirdly, the question of converted weapons has been raised with me. They could be old guns, often 410s, which have been converted a long time ago and may be between 80 and 90 years old. There is no way in which they could possibly be converted back to their original use. What will happen to such guns? If they cannot be used legally, they will either be used illegally or handed to someone else who is less fussy about such things. I should like my hon. Friend to comment on that.
The safe keeping of firearms and the issue of guns locked in car boots causes great concern. The problems that arise when one goes to shoot elsewhere have been put to me. One must take one's gun and can lock it only in the car boot. But what does one do when one stops for a meal? It is most important that the police take a sensible view.
A further point about police discretion is that of equal treatment. The point was made earlier that it will be absolutely crackers if the rules governing the granting of licences in one county are different from those in another. That would be intolerable and must be considered.
I hope that when my hon. Friend replies to the debate he will devote his attention to some of these points, which are not new, but have been made several times during the debate.
I shall support the Bill because I believe it to be a sincere attempt to reduce crime. It may succeed to some extent. I believe, and hope, that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will listen to the shooting fraternity and make alterations where he believes that they are responsible and appropriate. I beg him to listen carefully so that the Bill does not do more harm than good and that it does not ruin the innocent pleasure of thousands of shooters who have shown themselves to be one of the most responsible and law-abiding groups of sportsmen and women in our society.
One thing may be true about this debate—the timing is right. There has been time to allow the understandably angry and alarmed atmosphere of last autumn, following the Hungerford tragedy, to settle. Since then, the minority of citizens, virtually all of whom are entirely law-abiding, who own and carry guns have been subject to a degree of abuse in the media and the very definite threat of great burdens in this legislation. That concern was recognised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). All hon. Members should note carefully what he said.
I refer to a letter that was sent to me by a constituent. It is a copy of a letter that he sent to the Sunday Express, which is hardly an anti-field sports newspaper, referring to a comment in its editorial column. It states:
I object to being described as a `gung-ho Briton', together with many thousands of others, I have used firearms for nearly fifty years. The only time anyone was in danger was when the Government instructed me to use them against the nation's enemies for three years, when they were no doubt very grateful for the fact that I could shoot straight!
My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) and, at greater length, my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) pointed out the military value in the past of rifle clubs and so forth. The Shooters Rights Association, whose meeting last night the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) and I sponsored, pointed out that, in 1859, the then Secretary of State for War became the first president of the National Rifle Association. The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) observed that, at the battle of Mons in 1914, the day was probably saved by the rapidity and accuracy of our rifle fire.
I must admit that I approach the matter with some care because, unlike most who have spoken in the debate, I have no vested interest axe to grind. Indeed, I have never used a firearm or similar weapon, apart from some innocent target shooting with an air rifle in my teens. I have, however, a constituency interest. My constituency is rural, and includes most of Exmoor. In terms of numbers of firearms and shotgun certificates, Somerset and Avon, my own police authority, ranks seventh of all the police authorities in England and Wales. Over 6,000 firearms certificates and over 30,000 shotgun certificates are held.
That is slightly counterbalanced by a trivial but sad episode, which I mention to show that I am not a gung-ho Briton. Just before Christmas our cat was found dead, close to our home, having been shot through the lungs by a ·22 bullet. With two very young children, my wife and I were understandably concerned that there was someone about with a firearm who, to put it at its most innocent, could not tell the difference between a cat and a rabbit.
Yet, with those disclaimers, the more I read about the Bill, and the more that I have read constituents' correspondence and met the groups concerned, the more I feel that it is a somewhat heavy-handed approach. Is it not true, I ask the Front Bench, that the Bill is substantially based on the draconian 1973 Green Paper, with which the then Government, and their successors—both Labour and Conservative—did not proceed?
Reference has been made—and we can argue about it until doomsday—to the role of the Hungerford tragedy in the bringing forward of the Bill at this time. However, Ministers admit that the Bill cannot prevent a repeat of Hungerford. In that respect, it is a sledgehammer that cannot deter or impede a nutcase. Nor, I fear, will it curb the use of guns in crime.
The Bill does, however, bear heavily on a small minority. A number of improvements have already been suggested, two of them by Opposition Members, which would strengthen the Bill in certain respects. One suggestion was that it should provide for a minimum age for holding firearms or shotgun certificates; the other was that it should pay some attention to — indeed, ban —armour-piercing ammunition.
The British Shooting Sports Council, on the subject of self-loading and pump-action shotguns, says:
There is a very real fear that the Bill will increase the likelihood of crime with these weapons. There is some evidence of an increase in sale in advance of the Act. There
is no record of the ownership of these shotguns. When the Act is passed those who do not secure a self-loading certificate will have to dispose of them at a time when the market has collapsed. There is a danger that they will find their way into the criminal market.
Another proposal made by the BSSC, and mentioned briefly by a number of hon. Members, is the establishment of a statutory expert consultative committee, which
will create and keep up to date a Code of Good Practice covering all aspects of firearm security. It will maintain a watch on the development of firearms in sport. It will advise the Home Secretary on which firearms should be the subject of control, within the limits set by the Act.
I have had constituency correspondence from the members of the Sealed Knot organisation. I do not know how far the Bill will damage that organisation's interests, but it is sufficient to the atmosphere of alarm that the White Paper and the consultation on the Bill have produced that it is worried that its important traditional pastimes will be hindered.
Let me give another constituency example. A very responsible farmer, a near neighbour of mine, who occasionally has to protect his winter root crops by shooting deer, writes to me:
As it is not always possible to kill cleanly with one shot, it is necessary to fire two or three to avoid a painful and lingering death to the animal… My rifle is a 30·06 calibre rifle with a magazine holding only 4 rounds—not the larger magazine type of the military automatic rifle that was used so tragically at Hungerford.
He is afraid that he will lose the use of that gun.
That brings me to compensation. Every Conservative Member who has spoken has strongly urged the case for compensation. The only person who seems not to have supported it—indeed, to have positively opposed it—is the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). I am amazed that he should, in his later days, have found such concern for public expenditure.
I have noticed, in some of the briefings on the Bill, that the precedent has been cited of no compensation being granted to business in respect of changes in the law with regard to health and safety or environmental factors. That is hardly a viable parallel. We are talking of business that exists to make profits, employs people and, no doubt, has an effect on the environment. The Bill is concerned with private individuals who have owned valuable property and now face the possibility of its being taken from them without compensation. Far from committing a crime, those people have scrupulously observed the law. However, they will be in a worse position than the holder of illegal arms who will sell them on the black market.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North has referred to the burdens on police administrative time and the dangers of prohibited weapons without a proper compensation scheme finding their way into criminal hands. I understand that at present the police support the Bill. If their view does not change, it is a view to which my hon. Friends and I will no doubt have to defer. I hope very much, however, that, as the Bill goes through Parliament, the police will study those two points as a matter of urgency. In the view of many of the Bill's critics, they are most important. I hope that, as the Bill goes through its remaining stages, we shall have the benefit of evidence from the police on those points. I hope that these and the other substantial criticisms made by hon. Members on both sides will be urgently considered in Committee and the remaining stages.
This is a matter on which this House rather than the other place should wield an amending power, for the simple reason that, in a sensitive matter of this kind, to leave the other place to make drastic amendments might play into the hands of the somewhat irresponsible political heirs and successors of the late first Earl Lloyd George.
I will support the Bill's Second Reading to ensure that it goes forward. However, I assure my right hon. and hon. Friends that much more work needs to be done.
It is a proper convention of the House, much in evidence in the debate, to declare one's interest. One of two interests which I have to declare is unique; it is an interest of experience in that when I was a young police constable in the west end of London in the mid-1960s, aged 19, I had the unfortunate experience of being shot at by an armed criminal. It was indeed a frightening experience.
When a policeman is faced with a gun pointing at him, he does not stop to ask whether the firearm is legally or illegally held, whether it is a part 1 or a prohibited weapon, or whether it is a shotgun and, if so, of what type. His sole concern is the safety of the public and of himself and his colleagues. Recent incidents in which two armed gunmen were shot dead by police only serve to highlight the risks that the police face in policing our safe country. A split second decision has to be made. It is proper for us to pay tribute to the bravery of our police force in regard to firearms attacks on them and on the public.
It is of the gravest concern to me, as it should be to the House and is to the public, that in the 20-odd years since I had my unfortunate experience such incidents have increased. Reference has been made in the debate to the statistics on the use of firearms in the pursuit of crime. There was a 237 per cent. increase between 1972 and 1986. The number of incidents has more than doubled since 1979. That leads me to two possible conclusions. In 1968, not because of my experience, although it may have been a contributory factor, the Firearms Act which we are amending was passed. With the increase in armed crime one wonders whether the right conclusion to draw is that that legislation had no impact on illegally held weapons or on weapons used in crime. The alternative view is to ask how much worse things might have been if the regulations had not been tightened in 1968.
What strikes at the heart of the debate is that we do not know what effect the proposed legislation will have, but we dare not take the risk of not amending the present law. It is a responsibility peculiar to Parliament, which we must face with an open mind and a willingness to listen to all the arguments.
Many arguments have been put to hon. Members by interested parties. Here I declare my second interest, in that I represent a constituency where the use of the gun by sportsmen, gamekeepers, farmers and everyone concerned with the land is inextricably linked with the rural way of life. The voice of those people deserves to be heard just as much as the voice of those involved in the enforcement of the law.
There is another irony which perhaps only this House is capable of throwing up. Within the space of 24 hours in this Chamber we will have had a debate on a Firearms (Amendment) Bill, which is designed to preserve life, and another debate on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, which is designed to protect life. As Members of Parliament we have a great responsibility to respond to our consciences as well as to the views that are put to us.
Much has been said in earlier debates in Parliament and at the time of the publication of the White Paper about the need to achieve a balance between the need to protect the public and the right of the genuine sportsman to use firearms. It is the effectiveness of the legislation rather than its success in striking a balance between conflicting viewpoints that really matters.
The debate has shown that many issues remain to be settled in Committee. I was much encouraged by a conversation with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary about the willingness of the Government to make improvements. We all look forward with interest to his response to the debate.
Because of the pressure of time I need not go over much of the ground already covered in detail. As to compensation, it is offensive for the Government to say that it will be all right for a weapon which is illegal in this country to be sold into another country. That is indefensible. I hope that as a result of the comments today my right hon. Friend will agree to press for a compensation scheme.
Mention has been made of proper arrangements for visitors. Many visitors from abroad come to my constituency to enjoy their shooting and they bring a great deal of employment and wealth. The proposals in the Bill must not act as a deterrent to them coming here; instead, we must make sure that weapons do not get into the wrong hands.
Guidelines for the police have been discussed at length. Reference has been made to the need to have a proper set of precise directives which will apply uniformly across police forces. Concern has also been expressed about the amount of police time that will be spent on firearms. If I were a young police constable, reacting to the Bill, I would want to know much more clearly and precisely than has so far been apparent just what my powers and duties are. That matter needs to be addressed properly in Committee. Whether it can be done through the formation of an expert advisory committee on the use and control of weapons is another matter to be considered. Certainly no explanation has been put forward so far from the Government as to why such a committee would not be appropriate.
The proposals relating to shotguns also require detailed examination, in particular whether pump-action and self-loading shotguns should be classified as class 1 firearms. I cannot understand the logic of wanting to raise into a much more serious category of certification people who have a pump-action shotgun. It has become very much the vogue to quote correspondence from constituents. I should like to read briefly from a letter which a young constituent wrote to me last week:
I recently purchased a Beretta 303 Semi-Automatic which was designed … as a special sporting gun … they have very little recoil which … is why the gun is so favoured by me … because of a neck injury sustained by me in an accident 6 years ago. The man that hit me was on a motorbike and was drunk, and I am left with this serious neck injury. I feel I would like to bring in a law banning motorbikes!
Is there not a danger that, in the Bill, we have concentrated our attention too much on the types of weapons and not given enough regard to the person possessing the gun? It is not the gun that kills; it is the person who pulls the trigger.
The editorial of the December issue of the magazine of the Police Federation stated:
Every year there are dozens, if not hundreds, of incidents, involving the misuse of shotguns by holders of certificates who have satisfied the simple requirements of the law on age and absence of convictions for crime. In many cases, including tragic fatalities, evidence has emerged that such people should never have been allowed to possess a weapon, by virtue of their way of life, including their known temperament, alcoholism, mental state, and so on. The new law appears to leave the situation as it was. It has to be said that the safe keeping of a shotgun in the certificate holder's house is less important than finding some means to ensure that he can safely posseses a shotgun.
For me, the most disappointing comment of the White Paper is in paragraph 44, which states:
The Government is not attracted at this stage to the option of seeking medical references from qualified practitioners in support of applications for firearm or shotgun certificates.
It goes on to say that
reference to an applicant's medical record would provide no guarantee against the issue of a certificate to an unsuitable person.
There is no guarantee that the Bill, in its present form, will effectively reduce crime or prevent another Hungerford. We must consider the matter further and it should be reflected in the Bill.
Recently, I spoke to a number of shooters at one of England's famous game shoots at Helmsley in my constituency. I asked them what they felt about the Government's proposed firearms legislation, and they all welcomed its objectives. So do I, but there are many imperfections in the Bill which will need to be addressed in Committee.
Like so many other hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, I ought to declare an interest. I am a very keen sporting man and, like many others, enjoy my shooting.
There is a problem when a Government reacts to a specific event. That is what is happening in this case. There is a danger that the resulting legislation will be ill-considered, not to say hasty. When the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) suggested that the Government were simply reacting to the Hungerford tragedy, he was right. If we want to stop incidents such as Hungerford, we should ban all guns. We should also ban all cars and motor bikes because they are probably far more lethal than guns. If an individual goes off his rocker, there is very little one can do to stop it.
I accept one or two proposals in the Bill which strengthen the gun laws, but it is vital that we protect the rights and freedoms of individual people. The shooting fraternity is, in my experience, a law-abiding and responsible group of people. Opposition Back-Benchers must warn their Front Bench colleagues about this point because, at the last debate on this subject on 26 October 1987, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) introduced the issue of class interest and said:
guns are owned by one class of people and knives"—
he said that we were hitting the knife-owner harder than the gun-owner—
are feared to be owned by a different class of society".—[Official Report, 26 October 1987: Vol. 121, c. 32.]
The right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), a Front Bench spokesman, said on the "World at One" on 15 October that she agreed with proposals to place sporting shotguns in the same category as rifles. She said:
I think that no one should have a gun without very good reason".
Asked whether having a shotgun for sport was a good reason to have a gun permit, she replied:
to my mind I would want to see more reason than that. Certainly I would not allow someone who just wanted to shoot birds for sport to hold a gun in their private home. No".
So I hope that Opposition Back Benchers will make it clear to their Front Bench that this is not a class issue and that millions of people from all sorts of different backgrounds participate in, and enjoy, shooting of all types.
I make no apology for discussing the issue of compensation, although it has already been widely discussed throughout the debate. Thousands of law-abiding citizens have valuable property and own it perfectly legally; but they will now have it taken away from them without compensation. None of those people has committed a crime of any sort. On the contrary, because they have scrupulously observed the law they will probably be in a worse position than the holder of illegal arms, who will sell them on the black market.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is a keen European. Perhaps he is doing his bit for European solidarity and friendship, but I am not sure whether the European countries that he believes will be the recipients of the newly prohibited weapons will thank him for this part of the Bill. It is monstrous for us to take the view that these weapons are too dangerous for people to hold in the United Kingdom but that it is perfectly all right for them to be exported overseas. There is a serious danger, too, that some of the weapons will fall into the hands of undesirable people and terrorists. That is my serious concern. The Government's refusal to give compensation is fundamentally immoral. It is a long-established right that a citizen's property should not be taken away from him without proper compensation.
I was a little discouraged by my right hon. Friend's response to my earlier intervention in his speech asking when compensation had been refused in similar circumstances. He mentioned scented erasers. At the time, I was not sure what he was talking about — perhaps rubbers of some sort. The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook mentioned cars. When we made it mandatory for car manufacturers to fit seat belts, for example, the cars that were already made at the time did not have to have seat belts fitted, and people were not forced to wear them, either. So the owners of those cars suffered no financial loss. Of course there are precedents for compensation. One of my hon. Friends mentioned the sheep farmers who, only last year, received compensation after the disaster at Chernobyl. So there are precedents, and I believe that the Government have taken that point on board. It has been made by almost every speaker in the debate.
But it must be absolutely unprecedented that there should be not a single Member of the House from any party prepared to support a Bill put forward by the Government. So I hope that they will take notice of that.
It really is absurd to transfer self-loading and pump-action shotguns to section 1. These weapons, because of their minimum recoil, are used widely by young people, elderly people, handicapped people and, not least, women. Therefore I suppose it could be said that this Bill is sexist as well as everything else. These guns are also considerably cheaper, which I believe is something that we should consider, since this brings shooting to many thousands of people who otherwise might not be able to shoot. I must ask my hon. Friend where the evidence is that criminals have been using weapons of these types to further their criminal pursuits. There is no evidence whatever, as far as can see.
I realise that I must wind up now so that a response can be given to all the points that have been made, and they are certainly numerous. I must say, however, that the more familiar I have become with the Bill the less happy I have felt over recent days and weeks. Indeed, as I have listened to this debate I have become even more convinced that the Bill is seriously flawed. I shall be able to support it on Second Reading only because I am confident and hopeful that the Government will bring forward serious and numerous amendments at Committee stage. If they do not, I shall certainly find it necessary to vote against the Bill on Third Reading.
The Bill is clearly an ill-considered reaction to an appalling tragedy. The Government have a duty not to alienate and in some cases criminalise perfectly respectable and responsible members of the community.
I hope that my hon. Friend will take all these points on board.
May I first apologise again for the absence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Spark brook (Mr. Hattersley) on duties outside the House. He made clear, and I wish to underline, the need for a proper response to the murders at Hungerford and elsewhere. The public expect it and have a right to do so. The presence and the speech of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) in this debate remind us of that, should any reminder be needed.
The public concern over the adequacy of the laws to control the possession and use of firearms and shotguns and their full enforcement is entirely justified and I think that the Government have been right to give the House the opportunity to revise them. Indeed, had they not done so there would have been loud complaints from the Opposition, because this is something that we have been urging for a long time, well ahead of the massacre at Hungerford.
I believe that, while recognising and trying to meet public concern, there are two tests against which these proposals must be judged. First, do they win the confidence of the police, who must enforce them? Secondly, do they have the general support of the holders of the present nearly 200,000 firearms certificates and almost 1 million shotgun certificates?
As to the first, I say to the Government that piling yet more duties upon the police, already sorely stretched in the battle against rising crime, is no guarantee of adequate enforcement. If the provisions of this Bill are to be effectively enforced—and if they are not we are wasting our time—the Government need to provide adequate resources. To that extent, I welcome the remarks of the hon. Members for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker), Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) and Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and other hon. Members. We know now that there are to be an extra 300 police officers only in London in 1988–89 and as few as 500 in the other 42 forces in England and Wales. In the west midlands alone there was a request for an extra 1,000 officers over the next three years. That has been rejected and the chief constable has warned that this can only mean a poorer service to the public. Replacing police officers with civilians is some help, but there can be no proper substitute for a proper number of officers in preventing and combating crime. Certainly, without an adequate number of trained police officers, law enforcement on firearms as on other things will suffer.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) said, the chief constable of Thames Valley police, in his report, said that Michael Ryan applied for a firearms certificate on 10 December 1986, and was given one the next day. I have to question whether that involved proper and full checks. It strikes me that it was an amazing coincidence that at that particular time the necessary clerks, police officers and an assistant chief constable were all readily available to carry out such a process which elsewhere can take weeks rather than hours.
Perhaps in that context the Minister will explain why an application form for a shotgun licence does not ask about the occupation of the applicant, although it requires a counter-signature. When people apply for a firearms certificate, on renewal, they have to say what they do for a living. Perhaps he can also say why, although both forms include the question: "Do you suffer from any mental disorder or defect?", there is no check that has to be made with an applicant's GP. That was mentioned with some force by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who was a former police officer. I find that astonishing, especially given the judgments which police officers are called upon to make when considering applications.
That is important for applicants and for those seeking renewal. Indeed, it is important during the lifetime of a licence, since mental illness can strike at any time. A GP who had to comment on an original application would then be able to advise the police of any change affecting the applicant's suitability to hold either or both licences. I hope that the Minister will think again about that.
It seems wrong that the handling of applications for either firearms or shotguns should be left to any police officer who happens to be on duty. Surely there is a case for experienced officers in each police station to be designated as firearms officers and allowed to build up experience and expertise in the same way as we have custody officers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Similarly, it would be better for the inspection of premises of licensed dealers to be carried out by officers who are familiar with weapons rather than sending the last police officer who walks through the station door to make such inspections.
I am puzzled as to why the Bill does not require dealers to keep a daily, up-to-date inventory of the stocks of weapons and ammunition that they hold. They have to record the sale, but not the number and types of guns and ammunition that they have in stock. That is wrong, and opens the door to theft, which, without proper checking, could go undetected for a long period. I do not mean to be facetious, but if supermarket managers have to check their shelves, how much more important is it that shelves of weapons and boxes of ammunition should be similarly checked?
As for the storage of shotguns, it is admitted that under the present law we do not know how many shotguns the holder of a certificate may have, let alone where he or she keeps them. I suspect that they are sometimes kept in various buildings around the farm or on separate farms some distance apart under the same management or ownership. That must enhance the risk of theft or illegal use.
In paragraph 22 of the White Paper, it was noted:
there is no obligation on him to store his weapons securely when he is not using them. The Government believes that this control is too weak.
In paragraph 23, there was the categorical statement:
This means that shotgun owners will be under a statutory obligation to keep their shotguns in a secure place when not in actual use.
The shotgun licence application asks no question about where shotguns will be kept, although the firearms application does. Can the Minister confirm that the new rules to be dealt with by statutory instrument will make that mandatory? Can he tell the House why that provision, which is recognised to be important by the Government in their White Paper, is not on the face of the Bill?
Why is it not possible to insist that every firearm and shotgun carries an identification number? I just do not understand it. I am advised that that can be easily achieved at a minimal cost and would be of great value in assisting police in tracking down the source and travel of weapons used illegally in the course of crime.
Why is there no provision for a national register of holders of firearm and shotgun certificates, again to assist the police? It is proposed that applicants should provide two rather than one photograph when applying, although there is no provision, as with passports, to have those endorsed by a responsible person who has known the applicant for some time.
What will happen to the second photograph is not explained. If, as I suspect, they are to be held by the police force issuing the certificate, probably alongside computer records, why cannot the system become a national computer register to give police immediate access to those records in the case of suspected crime? If that is good enough for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre in Swansea, how much stronger is the case for dealing with suspected illegal unauthorised use of firearms? It can be achieved easily, at minimum cost, and would doubtless be welcomed by the police whom we expect to deal with such matters.
Can the Minister confirm that dealers will only be authorised to sell ammunition for the type of weapon covered by the licence? I can think of no legitimate reason for a certificate holder attempting to buy ammunition for a weapon for which no certificate is produced.
The Minister will recall that in our earlier debates the Opposition expressed concern about the mail order trade in firearms and questioned whether that could ever be fully proofed against misuse. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) mentioned that tonight, along with others.
Incredibly, paragraph 38 of the White Paper makes the astonishing assertion that
there is no evidence that such sales are being used to evade the law.
I do not know how such evidence could be acquired. I appreciate that mail order sales are covered by the same legal restrictions and controls as over-the-counter sales,
but surely effective enforcement is more difficult with mail order where the person attempting to purchase a weapon or weapons is not physically present.
I do not want to weary the House, but I have some advertisements from magazines which make astonishing reading and should perhaps be referred for possible prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. The best that one order coupon does is to provide a little space with the words:
I declare that I am over 17 years of age.
Of course, if that is signed by somebody, they must be over 17, must they not, because nobody ever signs such a declaration falsely.
Another advertisement does not even go that far. There is no space for a signature. All it says is:
Age declaration required over 17 years.
Another whole page of advertisements for some rather fearsome looking pump guns and shotguns, after saying that our flexible friend and others will be welcome, says:
Please enclose shotgun certificate when ordering shotguns".
I know that certificates have to be sent with orders, but at the moment there is no way in which the mail order dealer can check that the person who has placed the order and enclosed the shotgun certificate is the authorised holder of that certificate. Perhaps that is another argument for a national register so that a quick phone call could provide a check that that was the case. It must be the case that there is at least a risk of the improper use of cerficates for mail order purposes where certificates have been reported stolen or lost or, unknown to the authorised holder of the licence, they have simply been borrowed or loaned for the purpose of making an order. It cannot be unknown in many families for youngsters, impatient to get their hands on those kinds of weapons, to find out where mother or father keep the licence and, at the very least, be tempted to use it to purchase weapons by mail order.
The debate has been astonishing, although we all remember what happened last Friday. When a former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), and many of his hon. Friends and my hon. Friends have expressed concern over the matter of compensation for prohibited weapons, I suspect that that Minister will tell the House that he is prepared to think again. If it is any encouragement to him, I tell him that we will listen if the Government will.
Labour is listening. The right hon. Gentleman should watch television more—we are the listening party now. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook opened the debate, he made clear his view. I have sympathy with the point that Conservative Members are making and I have a suggestion about how it should be dealt with. If the choice were put to my constituents about taxpayers' money being paid to those holding firearms which will become illegal under the legislation or into the Birmingham children's hospital to ensure that every child who needs heart surgery gets it at the time he or she needs it, there is no question that their vote would be to put that money into the National Health Service. Conservative Members must face up to that. They are quite willing to dig their hands into the taxpayers' pockets for this purpose, but they will not join with my right hon. and hon. Friends on larger and more important purposes.
No, I am not, but that has nothing to do with the debate. It has been estimated that guns to the value of some £50 million could be put at risk by the Bill. These are, as many hon. Members have said, weapons that were bought in good faith and legally and responsibly held by people. I understand the complaints of harshness. We were told during the debate that, perhaps not surprisingly, dealers are trying to take advantage of the position and to offer derisory amounts of cash for weapons which will become illegal. There is a temptation for even a handful of less scrupulous people to bypass authorised dealers and dispose of weapons on the black market.
I have heard a suggestion which may have some attraction for Conservative Members. The Government should pay compensation because, as was said by the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside, there should be no confiscation without compensation. That brings me to the point of where the money will come from. It has been suggested that the money could be paid out of the Treasury and repaid over a period, either by a levy on new or renewed licence applications, so that all legitimate shooters share the cost of the change, or by a levy on the sale of weapons.
Let me repeat that we are faced with a choice about taxpayers' money. Conservative Members have a leader who keeps reading lessons about taxpayers' money. Some £50 million is at stake here and that money could get rid of a lot of the agony and misery presently suffered in the Health Service.
The Minister is aware that I have written to him about people who have private collections of guns. He will know that one of my constituents can trace his family back as far as Napoleon Bonaparte and more recently to the person who developed the Maxim machine gun. He has inherited a collection of antique weapons, many of which are incapable of being fired and he says it is virtually impossible to obtain ammunition for those that can be fired. He is not a member of a gun club and has no interest in shooting. I should have thought that there was a way that weapons held in such private collections could be certificated—perhaps via a proof house such as we have in Birmingham — so that they formed an exempted category. Restrictions on their transport and storage would also seem to be sensible. Perhaps an exemption certificate could disqualify, where necessary, the holder from the purchase of ammunition. I hope that the Minister will write to me about this matter in due course.
There is an enormous amount of concern about the impact that the proposals will have on visitors to this country, especially those who wish to take part in competitions. I believe that we can learn from countries. Spain, for example, operates a system whereby the United Kingdom licence is translated into Spanish by the London embassy for a cost of between £1·50 and £2. A duplicate of that certificate, together with a photograph, is then sent to Madrid. On arrival, the holder presents the authenticated translation and, for the payment of another £4, obtains a licence to take part in competitions in Spain. I refuse to believe that we cannot do something similar. If we do not act, we risk damaging not only competition shooting, but the tourist trade in rural areas that depends heavily on shooting.
I want to be told why the Government chose the route of listing weapons by type and class—this has already been mentioned in the debate. It has been demonstrated that such classification causes confusion and contention. Other countries have acted by prohibiting magazines with more than three shots. Indeed, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) described it as one up the spout and two in the magazine. It has already been said that rapidity of fire can be achieved with weapons which, on the face of it, do not look lethal, but which, in practised and experienced hands, can deliver. If we limited the number of bullets that can be carried in a magazine we could achieve what the Bill is seeking to do. An example was given about the need for a second killing shot after a stag has been culled for conservation purposes. A second shot may be needed to drop the stag.
We appreciate the need for a revision of firearms legislation, but we do not believe that there has been adequate consultation with the shooting interests. I hope that the Government will make no attempt to hurry us through the Committee in an attempt to avoid a proper discussion of the proposals. In the course of meeting public concern we must not needlessly restrict the rights of law-abiding shooters or land them with rules and restrictions that are complicated and unworkable. We shall approach the Bill with that attitude and for that reason we shall not divide the House.
I am not certain whether it is necessary for me to declare an interest, but I do so. In common with almost every hon. Member who has spoken—certainly from the Conservative Benches—I have a shotgun certificate. I shoot frequently, although perhaps not as frequently as I would like, and I rather fancy that after this debate I will receive fewer invitations.
When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary introduced the Bill, he reminded the House of the need to achieve a proper balance between the legitimate interests of the shooting community and the need to provide a proper and sufficient system of firearms control. Both of those considerations are important to us and when we framed our proposals we tried to take them both into account. Our purpose has been to make firearms legislation more effective in its implementation and more reassuring to the public, without imposing on the shooting community restrictions that are unjustified in their objective or unreasonable in their application.
I acknowledge that we have brought our proposals before the House with some dispatch. That was our duty. However, we have consulted widely and shall continue to do so. The pillars of the policy are in place and I hope that they will remain in place. But my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are not so arrogant as to assume that the Bill is necessarily perfect. [Interruption.] I fancy that that observation is attractive to my hon. Friends. Because we are not arrogant, we shall examine carefully the suggestions and criticisms that will certainly be made during the Bill's passage through Parliament.
Let me say something brief about the official Opposition. It merits only a few brief words. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) claimed responsibility for some of the Bill's provisions. He flatters himself. He referred to our discussions of the "good reason" provision on 26 October 1987. On that occasion he called for the full application of section 1 control to shotguns. The Government decided that that was wholly unjustified because under section 1 control the applicant has to establish a good reason in each and every case. That is not what we propose for shotgun applicants.
Moreover, we have taken care to ensure — I shall return to this—that the definition of "good reason" is placed on the face of the Bill to protect the legitimate interests of the shooting community, of which I am a member. Therefore, it is wrong for the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook to claim that he was responsible. Furthermore, in October the right hon. Gentleman said that there should be a justification for each shotgun and said that it should be subject to an individual certificate. Once again, the Government took the view that that was a wholly unjustified proposal.
The Opposition's approach to the matter was well summarised by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook on 26 October. He said:
If youths in the inner cities are to be searched for knives, we cannot allow more prosperous adults to hang around country public houses with shotguns in the boots of their cars, or allow ammunition to be carried carelessly and pointlessly from place to place."—[Official Report, 26 October 1987; Vol. 121, c. 33.]
That gives a flavour of the attitude adopted by the Labour party, and it is not good enough.
I said that I would refer briefly to the Labour party's position, because that was all that it merited. I have finished with Opposition Members; I have nothing more to say about them.
No. I have made the position wholly plain and I now propose to deal with the constructive contributions of my hon. Friends.
First, I want to consider the question of compensation. I feel like the boy on the burning deck. All my right hon. and hon. Friends have called for compensation. I clearly understand the force of their arguments. However, I hope that they will understand that we have confronted difficulties of principle and practice. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred to some of the problems. However, in view of what has been argued so powerfully, we are prepared to look again at the issue of compensation and we will do so against the background of what has been said in the debate. However, I must emphasise the difficulties to which I have already referred.
No, I am afraid I will not.
I now want to deal with many particular points. My first point concerns Ryan. Mr. Ryan has been referred to frequently in the debate and I want to re-emphasise what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said. It is not true that Mr. Ryan was given a firearms certificate the day after he applied for it. His application was received at divisional level on 26 November 1986. It was processed and sent to headquarters and the certificate was issued on 10 December.
No, I want to finish this point.
With regard to Ryan's possession of unlawful weapons, there is no evidence to show that he possessed a Thompson sub-machine gun. There is evidence to suggest that he had a pistol crudely converted from a Belgian ·22 rifle. However, the evidence suggests that that is the only weapon that Ryan owned unlawfully.
I think that it was made because of the need for compression. We have looked into this matter very carefully and the account which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have given to the House is the account that we believe to be accurate.
I have made it perfectly plain to the hon. Gentleman that I do not propose to give way to him.
I now want to consider the question of an inquiry, which is the subject of the reasoned amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) rejected that call and I entirely agree with him. There has already been an investigation into the relevant facts. I do not think that anything of particular value would be discovered. What is more, I am certain that the process would cause increased misery to the people of Hungerford. I am fortified in my view of that by the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury.
I want to consider pump-action guns and self-loading shotguns, because I appreciate that they raise matters of great concern among my right hon. and hon. Friends. Anxiety has been expressed by almost every Conservative Member who has spoken in the debate. There are two justifications for putting large magazine guns in section 1. The first is their increased firepower over the period of initial discharge.
One of the difficulities that Labour Members are not facing up to is the need to address the Chair. They frequently ignore the Chair, which I would not recommend to any hon. Member.
During the initial period of discharge, large magazine guns have a higher rate of fire than the more traditional side-by-side or over-and-under guns. For most of the activities for which self-loading or pump-action guns are used, a traditional side-by-side or over-and-under would do as well.
I can well understand the argument that has been advanced by my right hon. and hon. Friends — what happens if manufacturers bring pump-action or self-loading shotguns on to the market, the magazine of which cannot take more than two cartridges? As a proposition, it would be highly attractive to exempt those guns from the application of section 1.
I can well understand that my right hon. and hon. Friends would also say, "What happens if existing owners of magazine shotguns can have their guns converted in such a way that the magazine cannot hold more than two cartridges and cannot be readily reconverted to a larger magazine?" There is considerable attraction in the proposition that those should be exempted from section 1. There is a problem in ensuring that the conversion is reasonably carried out and that reconversion is not readily possible.
I am giving urgent and careful thought to the ways in which we might be able to achieve that. I cannot give a guarantee, save that I am seriously considering it.
I still do not understand the need to put this category of weapon in section 1. Will my hon. Friend give one instance in which such a weapon has been used in the pursuit of crime?
There is no evidence that they are used more frequently in the pursuit of crime, but there is an increased degree of lethality over the period of discharge. A pump-action shotgun is not necessary for most of the activities that shooting people pursue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury mentioned armour-piercing ammunition. There would be a great deal to be said for what my hon. Friend has suggested if we could do it. The problem is to identify what is meant by armour-piercing in a way that gives itself to a statutory definition. So far, we have been unable to achieve that. There is a residual power in section 1(5) to put certain specified classes of ammunition and guns into section 5.
I appreciate that the discretion of police officers and the meaning of "good reason" cause considerable concern to some of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I have already given the approach that we propose to adopt for shotguns. It is not for the applicant to prove a good reason. A shotgun certificate will issue, subject to the other criteria, unless the chief constable is satisfied that there is not a good reason.
We have put on the face of the Bill a definition of "good reason" which we believe is wide enough to protect the legitimate interests of those constituents whom most of us represent. I do not agree that the last element in the definition of "good reason" has the effect described by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook. However, I fancy that that is a Committee argument, rather than a Second Reading argument. Incidentally, if hon. Members feel that the definition of "good reason" is not sufficiently wide, that matter can be explored at length in Committee, where it will be seriously considered by my right hon. and hon. Friends.
On the question of the discretion of chief police officers, to which many of my right hon. and hon. Friends referred, notably my right hon. Friends the Members for Woking (Mr. Onslow) and for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith), it is obviously desirable to achieve as much uniformity as possible. However, there are many activities for which total uniformity is not possible—for example, applications for liquor licences. That is one reason why we have put "good reason" on the face of the Bill. However, there is the right to go to court on appeal which, again, will give a degree of uniformity.
My final point in this context relates to guidance. Since 1969, the Home Office has put out a memorandum of guidance, the purpose of which is to achieve a degree of uniformity. The document is not legally binding in itself because, ultimately, it is subject to the courts. However, it is guidance. I recognise that the shooting community would like to be involved in the formulation of what goes in to that guidance. Indeed, that has happened and will happen. In fact, we consulted the shooting interests at considerable length about the contents of a new memorandum of guidance. We shall do so again. When the Bill is enacted, we intend to publish a new memorandum of guidance. Before that is done, we shall consult the shooting interests and we will publish the memorandum.
The amendment was called, and I said that I could not commend an inquiry to the House. I summarised my arguments in about two lines, which is what the amendment deserved.
I shall deal briefly with the matter of a consultative committee. I know that it has troubled several of my right hon. and hon. Friends. Although I am not sure that an advisory committee of a non-statutory kind will add to the consultative process, through which we are prepared to operate as it is, I am not wholly hostile to it by any means, and nor is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. This matter needs consideration and we shall give it serious consideration.
On the question of foreign shooters, which has been raised by several of my right hon. and hon. Friends, for example, by my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn), we agree entirely that it is right that people who want to come to shoot in this country should be able to do so. We have set out a regime in the Bill—I think it is clauses 12 and 13—which we believe will enable them to do so without unreasonable restrictions, but with reasonable restrictions still being imposed.
A balance must be struck. If my right hon. and hon. Friends feel that the balance has not been struck correctly, the Committee is a way to explore the matter further. However, I think that we have got the balance broadly right.
The Minister has mentioned facilitating arrangements for foreign visitors. Would a foreign visitor be required to have a licence? Secondly, will the Minister confirm that the certificates will continue to be a self-financing exercise? Will his right hon. and hon. Friends be pleased with the deluge of complaints when the licence goes up so substantially?
In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question, the provisions on visitors' licences are clearly set out in the Bill, and I recommend that he read it. On the question of licence fees, we intend that the shooting interests should be fully consulted, and that they should play a part in a working party. However, we anticipate that the costs incurred in the licensing regime will be recoverable.
We intend to require shotgun owners to keep their guns in a secure place. I cannot say that I regard that as wrong; it is something that I do myself, and I hope that everyone would do the same. However, I recognise that there are difficulties when people transport their guns from the place where they keep them to the place where they use, repair or even wish to sell them.
That is precisely the kind of question that we can resolve in discussion—first with the shooting community and secondly in Committee — and that is what we propose to do. For today's purposes, our proposal is that we should have powers to require a gun of that kind to be kept in a secure place.
I am becoming very repetitive. I am afraid not; I am running out of time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) referred to the power under clause 1(5) of the Bill to put other weapons into section 5 control. The justification for that residual power is the risk that some manufacturers will put on to the market a gun designed to be outwith section 5. For example, a paramilitary shotgun with a barrel measuring less than 24m will be controlled by section 5 if the Bill is carried. But if the barrel was extended, it would not be so controlled. It could never be a sporting weapon, but the manufacturer would have designed his way out of the restriction. That is not satisfactory, and we wish to take reserve powers to deal with it. The question is whether we should qualify those reserve powers.
I can well understand the argument being put by my right hon. and hon. Friends, that a Labour Government might behave unreasonably: I am sure that they would, if they ever returned to power. I am advised that the Bill would not lend itself to that, but I will look again at whatever the powers should be restricted to, for example, fast-firing guns, which would, I think, go a long way to meet points made in the debate.
Several of my right hon. and hon. Friends have referred to deactivation, and I understand their points. We are now considering the possibility of finding a way, without undue bureaucracy, of certifying that a gun was truly deactivated—that is, that it could not readily be returned to a firing state.
I appreciate that there are many points that I have not answered—[Interruption.] I feared that that would get a reaction—but I mean no discourtesy to hon. Members. Time, not discourtesy, is the cause. I shall merely say that we are in the business of trying to improve our arms legislation without imposing undue restrictions. Inevitably, that is a question of judgment in particular cases, or of striking a balance.
We are not so arrogant as to assume that we have necessarily got it entirely right. We hope that the pillars of the policy will stand, and, on the basis that this represents a fair and reasonable assessment of what needs to be done, but with a willingness to re-examine some points in Committee, I commend the Bill to the House.
|Division 148]||[10 pm|
|Armstrong, Ms Hilary||McLeish, Henry|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Madden, Max|
|Battle, John||Mahon, Mrs Alice|
|Beggs, Roy||Martlew, Eric|
|Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)||Meale, Alan|
|Buchan, Norman||Molyneaux, Rt Hon James|
|Callaghan, Jim||Morgan, Rhodri|
|Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)||Morley, Elliott|
|Cummings, J.||Mowlam, Marjorie|
|Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)||Nellist, Dave|
|Dixon, Don||Patchett, Terry|
|Dunnachie, James||Pike, Peter|
|Eastham, Ken||Powell, Ray (Ogmore)|
|Evans, John (St Helens N)||Primarolo, Ms Dawn|
|Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)||Redmond, Martin|
|Flannery, Martin||Ross, William (Londonderry E)|
|Flynn, Paul||Salmond, Alex|
|Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S)||Skinner, Dennis|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Hardy, Peter||Steinberg, Gerald|
|Haynes, Frank||Thomas, Dafydd Elis|
|Howarth, George (Knowsley N)||Walker, A. Cecil (Belfast N)|
|Hoyle, Doug||Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)|
|Hughes, John (Coventry NE)||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Illsley, Eric||Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)|
|Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn)|
|Kilfedder, James||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Lamond, James||Mr. Martyn Jones and|
|Macdonald, Calum||Mr. Bob Cryer.|
|McKay, Allen (Penistone)|
|Alexander, Richard||Benyon, W.|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Bevan, David Gilroy|
|Allason, Rupert||Boscawen, Hon Robert|
|Amess, David||Boswell, Tim|
|Amos, Alan||Bottomley, Peter|
|Arbuthnot, James||Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Bowis, John|
|Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)||Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard|
|Ashby, David||Brazier, Julian|
|Ashdown, Paddy||Bright, Graham|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Brooke, Rt Hon Peter|
|Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)||Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Browne, John (Winchester)|
|Baldry, Tony||Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)|
|Batiste, Spencer||Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)|
|Beith, A. J.||Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick|
|Bellingham, Henry||Budgen, Nicholas|
|Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Burns, Simon|
|Burt, Alistair||Hunter, Andrew|
|Butcher, John||Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Butterfill, John||Irvine, Michael|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Jack, Michael|
|Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)||Jackson, Robert|
|Carrington, Matthew||Janman, Timothy|
|Carttiss, Michael||Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey|
|Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)||Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)|
|Colvin, Michael||Jones, Robert B (Herts W)|
|Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)||Kennedy, Charles|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Key, Robert|
|Cormack, Patrick||King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Kirkwood, Archy|
|Davis, David (Boothferry)||Knapman, Roger|
|Day, Stephen||Knowles, Michael|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Lang, Ian|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Lawrence, Ivan|
|Dunn, Bob||Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)|
|Durant, Tony||Lilley, Peter|
|Fookes, Miss Janet||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Forman, Nigel||Lord, Michael|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Lyell, Sir Nicholas|
|Galbraith, Samuel||Macfarlane, Sir Neil|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)|
|Goodhart, Sir Philip||Maclean, David|
|Greenway, John (Rydale)||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Ground, Patrick||McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury)|
|Grylls, Michael||Major, Rt Hon John|
|Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)||Malins, Humfrey|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Mans, Keith|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Marland, Paul|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Marshall, John (Hendon S)|
|Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')||Martin, David (Portsmouth S)|
|Harris, David||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin|
|Haselhurst, Alan||Meyer, Sir Anthony|
|Hawkins, Christopher||Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)|
|Hayward, Robert||Miller, Hal|
|Heath, Rt Hon Edward||Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)|
|Heathcoat-Amory, David||Mitchell, David (Hants NW)|
|Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)||Morris, M (N'hampton S)|
|Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)||Moss, Malcolm|
|Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)||Needham, Richard|
|Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)||Neubert, Michael|
|Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)||Newton, Rt Hon Tony|
|Howells, Geraint||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Hunt, David (Wirral W)||Nicholson, David (Taunton)|
|Nicholson, Miss E. (Devon W)||Stradling Thomas, Sir John|
|Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley||Summerson, Hugo|
|Page, Richard||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|Paice, James||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Patnick, Irvine||Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)|
|Pawsey, James||Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)|
|Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Porter, David (Waveney)||Thorne, Neil|
|Portillo, Michael||Thurnham, Peter|
|Raffan, Keith||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Redwood, John||Tracey, Richard|
|Renton, Tim||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Rhodes James, Robert||Waddington, Rt Hon David|
|Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Riddick, Graham||Walden, George|
|Roe, Mrs Marion||Wallace, James|
|Rowe, Andrew||Waller, Gary|
|Ryder, Richard||Ward, John|
|Sayeed, Jonathan||Wells, Bowen|
|Shaw, David (Dover)||Wheeler, John|
|Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)||Widdecombe, Miss Ann|
|Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Sims, Roger||Wilkinson, John|
|Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)||Wilshire, David|
|Speller, Tony||Wood, Timothy|
|Squire, Robin||Yeo, Tim|
|Steel, Rt Hon David||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Stern, Michael||Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd and|
|Stevens, Lewis||Mr. David Lightbown.|
|Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)|