'After section 26(2) (b) of the principal Act (rules requiring verification of matters contained in applications for certificates) there shall be inserted—
(c) require any application for a certificate to be accompanied by a statement by the person verifying the matters mentioned in paragraph (b) above to the effect that he knows of no reason why the applicant should not be permitted to possess a firearm.".'.—[Mr. Douglas Hogg.]
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The purpose of the new clause is to improve the application procedure. Section 26 of the Firearms Act 1986 provides for verification of the likeness of photographs and prescribes details. This provision in new clause 5 adds to a provision that will enable the Secretary of State to require the inclusion of a statement by the person verifying that he knows of no reason why the person who is making the application should not possess a firearm.
New clause 5 sounds eminently reasonable. We want to take every sensible precaution to ensure that the applicant is, in the well understood phrase that is perhaps a little old hat, responsible and a person of good standing.
On what basis will the person signing the verification make the judgment that he knows of no reason why the applicant should not be permitted to possess a firearm? That is like proving a negative. It implies, but does not state, that the person verifying should not just know the applicant, but should have known him for a sufficiently long period to enable him, or her, responsibly to make a judgment. Probably the Minister can dispose of this quickly for me.
The new clause says nothing about the factors that must be taken into account. What is the person who is asked to sign the verification statement supposed to do if he is aware that the applicant, five, six or 10 years ago, had a very severe mental illness, but is satisfied that the applicant is over that illness? None the less, that is part of the applicant's history. Is that a factor that must be taken into account?
A very senior and well respected Member of the House, in response to a constituent's request after the police had refused to issue him with a firearms certificate, gave the opinion that he knew of no reason why the applicant should not be permitted to possess a firearm. The senior hon. Member knew the applicant—although not like a member of the family—and he was surprised when he was told that the local police has declined to issue the certificate. He signed the verification. He was confident and content that he had acted properly.
Some weeks later the local police telephoned him. He was told that the certificate had been issued, although against the better judgment of the police, and the person to whom the certificate had been issued had blown his brains out after a quarrel with his girlfriend. No one would question that the hon. Member concerned had acted anything other than correctly, and all of us who know the hon. Gentleman would agree with that. Had he not known the applicant seeking to have the application verified, he would not have signed it. He would not have signed it if he believed that it was wrong to do so. However, he signed it with tragic results.
Would it not be helpful for those called upon to make statements of verification to be given guidance about the factors that they should take into account? We are not talking about a photograph that accompanies a passport application. In that case, many hon. Members and other people are simply required on the form to say how long they have known the applicant and to certify that the likeness is true. Much more is at risk in verifying a statement in support of a firearms certificate than in signing the back of a passport photograph. Without wanting to he facetious, I do not know many people who have been battered to death with passports. This is an important matter.
If it will help to achieve the purpose which I believe the Minister intends, those who are invited to verify applications ought to be given explicit guidance about the basis on which they should make their judgments. If the Home Office and the police will merely require signatories to declare, "I have known Joe Bloggs for five years and can think of no reason why he should not be permitted to possess a firearm," and if the Government are saying that the signature is worth no more than that, I must question its value. I suspect that it is meant to mean more than that. I hope that it is, and that a signature of verification will be given after much weightier consideration. It will help the House if the Minister will spell that out.
I follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) in questioning who precisely should be entitled to verify applications. In the case of passports, only certain people, such as Members of Parliament, are entitled to give verification. I do not know whether we are suitable people to verify whether or not a person should be granted a firearms certificate. If a list of suitable persons could be drawn up by the Home Office, it would be of assistance.
As to photographs, the law applying to passport applications provides that the person who signs the accompanying photograph commits an offence if his statement proves to be false. In the case of a firearms application, will the person who verifies it also commit an offence if the applicant proves, with hindsight, to be unsuitable to hold a firearm? If that is a danger, it should be possible to include in the Bill a phrase that will provide for a statement made in good faith to be a let-off if the holder of the firearms certificate proves in time to be unsuitable. Perhaps my hon. Friend will clarify that point when he winds up the debate.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this touches on a subject that was discussed in Committee? It concerns the whole question of the validity of the counter-signature on a firearms certificate application. The new clause places upon the general practitioner who counter-signs an application a requirement to know more about an applicant, rather than merely look at the 10 questions which precede his countersignature and agree that they have been answered correctly. My hon. Friend will know that one of those questions asks the applicant:
Do you suffer from any form of mental disorder or defect?".
I cannot imagine a general practitioner putting his signature to an application without examining the applicant concerned. If his signature is to serve as verification of the qualities of the person seeking the certificate he must ask himself, as a medical person, whether he will simply add his signature or will ask the applicant to his surgery for an examination and study his records. Such would be a wise precaution.
Although it is a fact that Michael Ryan's general practitioner signed his application, I wonder whether he would have done that quite so willingly if this new clause had been before him. He might himself have wished to take a second look at Ryan and consider his mental state before doing so. I impress on my hon. Friend that, although I entirely support the new clause, I wish to see it strengthened by introducing the concept of a medical examination before an applicant's signature is countersigned by a general practitioner. In that is not only the question of the person's mental state but also that of his physical ability to handle a weapon.
One or two little questions disturb me. The Firearms Act 1968 requires
the verification in the prescribed manner of any prescribed particulars and of the likeness of any such photograph to the applicant.
But I am not sure what kind of person the new clause is talking about, and I should like an explanation.
A working party reported on the administration of the Act in 1984. I am sure that the Minister, having read the Bill assiduously, would also have taken time to read that report, and that he has looked at paragraph 48, headed "Counter signatures" which reads:
Rule 4 of the Firearms Rules provides that a shotgun certificate application form must be countersigned by a person of good standing, who has known the applicant personally for at least two years, to the effect that the information given on the form is, to the best of his knowledge correct. Many forces make no enquiries at all about countersignatories and the requirement seems to serve little useful purpose. There is no similar requirement in respect of firearms certificates. The Working Party accordingly recommends that the requirement of countersignatures in respect of shotgun certificates be dropped.
I am not sure that I can mesh together the statements in the various reports, Bills and orders amending Bills, but no doubt the Minister, who has had such a clear exposition of the Bill given to him by members of the Committee, will be able to make it all clear to us. I should like to know why the working party was able to come out with that statement, why the Bill seems to say something rather different and why the new amending Bill seems to be restoring an earlier position. I confess that I am becoming rather confused, and I should like some daylight—or perhaps a spotlight—cast upon the matter so that we can understand what it all means.
I too would like to know who will verify the application and the photograph. It is a very different kettle of fish from what many of us do in various walks of life, whether we are doctors, ministers, Members of Parliament or justices of the peace—verifying the likeness of a photograph for a passport. Here it is necessary to verify that a person is capable of holding a firearms certificate. As the matter is dealt with in section 26(2) of the 1968 Act, why is it only now that we are talking seriously about photographs when they could have been introduced administratively at any time in the past 10 years?
I also wonder about the efficiency of the photograph system. I do not think, when I look at my photograph in my London Underground pass, that anyone would know who it represented, and I am glad that that is so. But we should bear in mind that the photograph could be used by someone going to a gun shop to buy a weapon or ammunition. As it is not a legal requirement to carry a firearm certificate at all times, it will be of no great use when someone is out in the countryside with a weapon. What are the qualifications of the person who has to verify the application under section 26(2)(b) of the 1968 Act? The section does not specify who has to verify the application. We might make some progress if my hon. Friend could give some details about that.
I echo the point that was made by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). I was a member of the Committee that considered the Bill. It is strange that we are not considering an amendment that specifies what the verifier of the firearms certificate is supposed to be looking for. Without such an amendment, the Bill will not prevent such tragic events as Hungerford. We heard earlier that, had the existing legislation been correctly implemented, the Hungerford tragedy would never have happened.
I see no point in including this new clause in the Bill unless it covers the person who has to verify the application. Without that obvious criterion, it is administrative nonsense and serves no purpose whatsoever.
I agree that this is a modest procedural improvement. We are asking for a statement to the effect that a person is not unfit to possess a firearm. It is not a statement that a person is suited to hold a firearm. Few people would care to make that positive assertion. We consulted the British Medical Association, whose considered view was that general practitioners would not wish to be party to a verification procedure that obliged them to make a positive assertion that somebody was fit to hold a firearm. It is a negative procedure, to the effect that somebody is not unfit to hold a firearm.
Questions have been asked about the identity of the people who will be asked to make such a statement. An example can be found in rule 4 of the 1969 firearms rules. Instances are Members of Parliament, justices of the peace, ministers of religion, doctors, lawyers, bank officers, or persons of similar standing who have known the applicant personally for at least two years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) asked about the offence. The position is dealt with in section 26(5) of the Firearms Act 1968, which provides:
It is an offence for a person to make any statement which he knows to be false for the purpose of procuring, whether for himself or any other person, the grant or renewal of a certificate under this Act.
Accordingly, if a person made a deliberately false statement under the proposed new clause, he would be caught, but if he were acting honestly and in good faith, he would not be committing an offence.
As to the verifier's qualifications, the Minister appears to be saying not that he wants to make it harder for the applicant to obtain a firearms certificate but that he wants to make it easier for the verifier to do his job without difficulty or embarrassment. Is that his argument?
No. I think that the hon. Gentleman is doing me an injustice, so I shall repeat what I have already said. I accept that this is a modest amendment. I do not think that we can impose on any person who is verifying an application the obligation to assert positively that the person making the application is fit to hold firearms. The hon. Gentleman must ask himself whether he would make such a positive assertion in respect of somebody else. I think that he would probably answer, no. Most of us can sensibly ask ourselves of a person we know whether there is any reason known to us why that person should not hold a firearm. The new clause seeks to address that question, and it is wholly reasonable to incorporate it into the legislation.
If the Minister is happy to see me, he may hear more from me. I hope that the new clause is intended to be constructive. I presume that the Minister tabled it in such a spirit. It is building on part of the 1968 Act which provides simply for the verification of a photograph and adding to it a judgment as to whether someone is a suitable person to hold a firearm. He has given a list of ministers of religion, bank managers and Members of Parliament, but does he think that such a measure will add to the sum total of human safety in the United Kingdom if the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), who I do not think has taken his seat here, signed a document asserting that he knows of no reason why the applicant should not be permitted to possess a firearm?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. Section 26 of the principal Act is not confined to a verifying photograph; it also deals with the verification of a substantial number of relevant particulars.
My hon. Friend has read out the usual list of people who are permitted to do that. Does he agree that there is a vast difference between signing a verification of this kind and a passport application? If something goes wrong in regard to a passport, not too much discredit accrues to the person who did the signing, but I should have thought that a great deal of opprobium would attach to the person signing if the person who has the licence eventually goes wrong. It is a very difficult judgment for anyone to make, even under this procedure, and to sign his name. Indeed, a great number of people will opt out of signing.
My hon. Friend emphasises the difficulty which I previously stressed. Very few people would make the positive assertion that someone was fit to hold a firearm, because of the very points that my hon. Friend has just made. However, most of us who know someone reasonably well would be able to judge whether there were any good reason to disqualify that person from holding a firearm. If we felt that there were no good reason to disqualify that person from having a firearm, we would sign the verification contained in the new clause. My hon. Friend is right about the difficulty, but I hope that he feels that we have the balance about right.
Has the Minister thought about guidance which could be made available to those asked to sign verification statements? I have followed what he said, although, if he will forgive me, it is more of a lawyer's point than a layman's point. A statement saying. "I know nothing that would prevent Joe Bloggs from having a gun," in simple terms is tantamount to saying, "Let him have a gun." I understand the reservation that the Minister makes, but does he not consider that there is some virtue in having guidance available for those called upon to make verification statements?
I am always reluctant to indulge in too much bureaucracy. The verification contained in the new clause is fairly clear. It is an assertion that the person knows of no reason why someone should not be permitted to possess a firearm. That matter is fairly clear to an ordinary person addressing it. I do not think that it would be necessary to furnish guidance. If we adhere to the groups of people referred to in rule 4, the hon. Member might feel that a person such as himself would be able to deal with the question without further guidance.