'(1) Where a person who holds a firearm certificate applies for the grant or renewal of a shot gun certificate that certificate may, if he so requests, be granted or renewed for such period less than that specified in or prescribed under section 26(3) of the principal Act as will secure that it ceases to be in force at the same time as the firearm certificate.
(2) Where a person who holds a shot gun certificate, or both such a certificate and a firearm certificate, applies for the grant of a firearm certificate, or for the renewal of the firearm certificate held by him, he may, on surrendering his shot gun certificate, apply for a new shot gun certificate to take effect on the same day as that on which the firearm certificate is granted or renewed.
(3) Where a shot gun certificate is granted to a person or such a certificate held by him is renewed and on the same occasion he is granted a firearm certificate or such a certificate held by him is renewed the fee payable on the grant or renewal of the shot gun certificate shall be £5 instead of that specified in section 32 of the principal Act.
With this it will be convenient to take the following: New clause 1—Conditions attaching to the possession of self-loading rifles—
'No firearm certificate shall authorise a person to possess, purchase or acquire a self-loading or pump-action rifle to which section 5(2) (ab) of the principal Act applies unless that person—
New clause 6—Club membership a condition of new firearms certificate—
'Before a Chief Constable issues a firearms certificate to a person who has never previously held a rifle or pistol that person shall have been a member of a Home Office approved rifle or pistol club for at least six months and have obtained full membership of the club. "Home Office approved" shall mean a club organised along guidelines drawn up and issued by the Home Office.'.
New clause 7—Qualifications for holding certificate—
'No firearm certificate shall authorise a person to possess, purchase or acquire a self-loading or pump-action rifle to which section 5(2)(ab) of the principal Act applies unless that person—
New clause 8—Appeals in cases of refusal of registration—
New clause 9—Certificates, applications and grants—
'After section 26(1) of the principal Act (Application for, and grant of certificates) there shall be inserted:—
(1A) When an application for the grant or variation of a firearm certificate in respect to firearms ammunition or conditions or grant of a shotgun certificate has been made in the prescribed form to the Chief Officer of Police for the area in which the applicant resides the Chief Officer of Police for the area in which the applicant resides shall proceed to either—
(a) grant the shotgun certificate or firearms certificate or variation to the firearms certificate application within twenty-eight days, and/or
(b) state in writing the reasons for refusal to grant the authority to possess each individual firearms/ ammunition or shotgun and ammunition, additionally stating the relevant sections of the Act in each case and notify the applicant of his right to appeal to Crown Court within twenty-one days from the date of receipt of such notification, and/or
(c) state in writing any difficulty or delay external to the Police service preventing the granting or formal refusal to processing of the application.".'.
New clause 10—Application of certificates (verification) —
'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 the application form for a certificate to contain the following questions, the answers to which shall be certified by the applicant's General Practitioner to the best of his knowledge and belief that the particulars as stated by the applicant to the above questions are accurate—
(i)(a) Do you suffer from epilepsy or from sudden attacks of disabling giddiness or fainting? Please state 'Yes' or 'No'.
(b) If 'Yes' give details opposite,
(ii)(a) Do you suffer from, or have you at any time suffered from mental illness? Please state 'Yes' or 'No'
(b) If 'Yes' give details opposite.
(iii)(a) Do you suffer from any other disease or disability which might make possession by you of a firearm dangerous to the public? Please state 'Yes' or 'No'.
(b) If 'Yes' give details opposite.".'
New clause 11—Renewal of and temporary certificates—
'After section 26(1) of the principal Act (Application for, and grant of Certificates) there shall be inserted:—
(1 B) When an application for the renewal of a firearm or shotgun certificate has been made in the prescribed form to the Chief Officer of Police for the area in which the applicant resides no less than twenty-eight days prior to the date of expiry of the existing certificate and subject to the certificate holder not having been served with a notice of revocation then the Chief Officer of Police shall either:—
(X) To be received by the certificate holder 48 hours prior to the expiry of the existing certificate".'.
New clause 16—Standard form of firearms certificates—
'The Home Secretary shall authorise the use of a standard application form by all police authorities in respect of the grant or renewal of firearms certificates after consultation with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Police Federation and representatives of shooting interests within 12 months of the coming into force of this Act'.
Amendment No. 80 in clause 17, page 9, line 30, at end insert—
'(3A) After section 27(2) of that Act there shall be inserted—
(2A) Where a condition is specified on the certificate to the territory over which the firearm may be used, such conditions must be such as is specified in the firearms rules.".'
Amendment No. 146, in line 30, at end insert—
'(2d) section 33(4) of that Act (registration of firearms dealers) shall be amended by inserting after the word "registration" the words "which shall bear an up to date photograph of the person registered, countersigned by a person of standing and known to the dealer.".'
Perhaps the most helpful course would' be for me to introduce new clause 12, inform the House that I cannot commend the other new clauses and the amendments in the group, and respond later to what has been said in the debate.
New clause 12 is designed to make coterminous grants of firearms and shotgun certificates. That is what most members of the Committee wanted, and I am glad to say that we have been able to achieve it.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. These are serious matters. Considerable resentment has alredy been expressed about our not being given an opportunity to discuss them properly in Committee. Can I ask you to rule on the hilarity that is being exhibited on the Conservative Front Bench below the Gangway? it proper in such a debate?
I am grateful for, and flattered by, your remarks, Mr. Speaker.
Would the Minister be kind enough to make it clear that, when someone holds both a firearms certificate and a shotgun certificate, that can be shown on a single sheet of paper? The one does not automatically follow from the other. In view of our shared interest in cutting bureaucracy, the Minister many see some sense in that suggestion.
New clauses 1 and 7 are designed to license the shooter rather than the weapon. Someone in Anglesey wrote to me today—the argument is not new, but it was put in a slightly different context—asking what the difference was between a fast motor vehicle and a slow one. The answer is the driver. He said that in the event of an accident, it is, of course, the driver and not the car who is before the courts, and if that is good enough for something as lethal as a car in the wrong hands, it should apply to weapons.
That argument has some merit in some respects. I understand the wish of people who use self-loading rifles to be able to continue to do so. I want to be open with the House and others on this issue. I said in Committee, and now repeat, that the case for using SLRs to kill animals for what are known as sporting purposes is slight. The case for using them in competition target shooting is stronger, but that has to be balanced against the potential—indeed, the inbuilt—lethality of SLRs from a public safety point of view.
The ban on SLRs is justified, although I and some of my hon. Friends were prepared to support the idea of keeping legal those SLRs with integral magazines capable of storing between three and five shots. I know that that meets the argument of many hon. Members. However, there is anger among competition shooters because the House cannot guarantee that the banning of SLRs will prevent another Hungerford tragedy. We should acknowledge that and perhaps it is the strongest case for banning SLRs. Such a ban would make even the illegal possession of these weapons more difficult given that they would be added to a list of weapons that people would not be allowed to hold. That is a public safety argument that we cannot dismiss.
Mr. L. R. Tucker wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) to explain how he and his brother had invented a device that locked the trigger mechanism so that it was impossible to fire weapons without unlocking it with a key and removing the device. He was kind enough to enclose a photograph of one such mechanism attached to a shotgun. To unlock the mechanism takes about five seconds. Mr. Tucker states that keys for such devices could be held at gun clubs when weapons were taken home. Such a mechanism would also cover anxieties about the safety of weapons in transit from home to an event, sometimes via a public house or restaurant.
Such a mechanism is another alternative to an outright ban on the use of SLRs and it could go a long way to meet the Government's objective to try to ensure better public safety. Hon. Members who sat on the Committee will already be aware that I find this a difficult area because I do not want the Government to act as a nanny. We want an enabling state and at the end of the day a judgment must be made. That judgment is simple and stark, although, as I am demonstrating, it is not an easy one to reach.
Will the public safety be helped to some degree by making it illegal to hold SLRs? I have reached the conclusion—I am not pretending that it is shared by all my right hon. and hon. Friends—that the answer must be yes.
I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument with great care and I agree with much of it. He has reached the conclusion that the banning of such rifles, even if they are limited to five rounds, will enhance public safety. Is there any evidence to back that conclusion?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not think me discourteous when I say that we spent a great deal of time in Committee discussing this matter—he would expect nothing less. At the end of the day it is a matter of judgment. Some facts are available—the House will be familiar with them, so I shall not weary it with them —that would strongly support the argument that I suspect the hon. Gentleman backs.
It is a balance of judgment as to whether such a ban helps or hinders public safety. I have reached the conclusion—I am aware that it will not be universally shared—that it stands a chance of helping public safety.
Amendment No. 134 concerns the grant and renewal of shotgun certificates. It would empower the chief officer of police to inquire into the
mental and physical history and present state of the applicant as he considers necessary.
In Committee there was a substantial debate about making such an inquiry a condition of consideration for every application, but that was not a successful proposal. Where a chief officer of police or someone acting on his behalf was uncertain and had perhaps no more than a fingertip feeling about this—police officers are not medically qualified and do not pretend that they are—they should have powers under the Bill to seek the opinion of the applicant's general practitioner in cases where licences were about to be issued or renewed. It is an extremely important point.
We have to face the fact that about one in five of us is likely to suffer some form of mental illness during our lifetime. Happily for most of us it is temporary and we get over it. However, it does happen. I am thinking about what the loss of a job that someone enjoyed could do to a character. Certainly, the sudden and tragic loss of an infant, the break-up of a marriage or a relationship, and everyday events such as that—unhappily that is how they should be described—can and do put people temporarily off mental balance.
It may be said that a person in that condition should know well enough that he or she should not make applications in the first place. However, it could be part of that condition that they do not recognise that they are in that state and are reluctant to take advice about it. That is an area of risk.
All that the amendment seeks to do is to enable the police, through a quick telephone call to a GP, to clear up the matter. I appreciate the point about medical confidentiality but the applicant could be asked to agree to the telephone call being made beforehand. The police officer concerned would draw conclusions, and would perhaps be entitled to do so, when an applicant said, "No, I do not want that done."
Amendment No. 146 deals with a simple and obvious point. If it is proper to require certificate holders to have an up-to-date photograph on their certificate—there is little disagreement on that—I would have thought that it is at least as important for registered firearms dealers to have to do the same. Perhaps it is more important for the firearms dealers because the scope for abuse or misuse of a dealer's licence is greater than for the holder of a single weapon. I hope that the Minister will see the sense of that.
The House will know that under section 53(a) of the Firearms Act 1968 the Home Secretary is given powers by statutory instrument to prescribe the form of the certificates. Amendment No. 147 seeks to give him the power to do the same with application forms for those certificates. It seems an obvious point and makes one wonder why it was not done in the first place. The intended merit of that is that every police force in England and Wales would be collecting the same sort of information in response to answers to exactly the same set of questions from every applicant whether he or she lived in the far reaches of Cornwall and Devon or just below Hadrian's Wall.
As we were told in Committee, some shooters complained about the attitude of some chief constables to certificate applications. It is well known that some of them are less enthusiastic about firearms than their brothers. It is strange that they all happen to be men; to the best of my knowledge, there is not yet a single woman chief constable, although no doubt we shall get around to that. You, Madam Deputy Speaker, have provided a marvellous precedent which I hope will soon be followed by the police forces. Shooters, as I was about to say, do not want the issue of a licence to depend either on the temperament of a chief constable or on where an applicant happens to live. Now, on occasion, it does. It is wrong that there should be so much personal interference in the way the Firearms Act is applied. Just because chief constables in different areas have different attitudes to firearms should not mean that shooters with equally legitimate reasons for holding weapons should be treated differently when applying for certificates.
As for new clause 16, I have teased the Minister about this issue before. I have a draft of the standard application form which I am perfectly prepared to let the Minister see. It is called:
An inquiry form for the grant. renewal or variation of a firearms certificate.
It lists all sorts of personal details, followed by 20 questions—almost like "20 Things You Did Not Know About Getting A Firearms Certificate" in The Sun. Frivolity aside, the form goes through the things about which it is proper for the police to ask questions and get answers. It is designed to assist the police to determine the suitability of an applicant to hold a certificate.
This proposal would not put any great burden on the police. It is one of the things that the consultative committee—and the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Police Federation—should be consulted about. The more people who see such a draft, the better. I imagine that agreement about this could easily be reached. Why should police forces bear the extra burden—as they now do—of devising, preparing and printing their own application forms? Across the country, that must waste a tremendous amount of police time and money.
The Minister may say that such provision for a common application form is not needed. If the Secretary of State gets powers under the 1968 Act to specify the licence or certificate that shall be issued, I cannot see why the application forms should not he similarly covered. If, however, the Minister disagrees, will he give an undertaking that the Home Secretary will strongly recommend such a course of action in guidance given to chief constables to try to meet the concerns of large numbers of shooters about the differences in treatment that they receive from chief constables and those who work under their authority i n the police forces in England and Wales?
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) made an important point about uniformity of information for a shotgun or firearms certificate. As my hon. Friend the Minister will remember, he gave this undertaking in Committee:
There is no intention to use the shotgun certificate process to limit the number of guns that an individual can possess. The only intention … is for the number of shotguns possessed to be described and identified."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 18 February 1988; c. 138.]
I am not sure that my hon. Friend has followed that up by giving us legislation that can be interpreted in the way that he did in Committee.
I welcome new clause 12 and thank my hon. Friend for it. It is about conterminous certificates. My only question is about cost. I know that my hon. Friend is reducing the shotgun cost to £5, but throughout the Committee stage he dodged the issue of the eventual cost—perhaps next year—not only of a shotgun certificate, but of a firearms certificate. As a result of the legislation that may be introduced after the Bill, enormous additional costs may be imposed on the police, so that inevitably the cost of the shotgun and firearms certificate will increase substantially. I mentioned £50 for a firearms certificate, and my hon. Friend has not denied that yet.
I am glad that the Home Secretary has returned to the Chamber, because this group of new clauses and amendments is at the heart of two of our main criticisms of the Home Office's handling of the Bill. The second is the issue of the statutory committee. One arm of the Government gave us an absolute assurance last week that it would remain as it was in the Bill, and the following morning, last Friday, we found a series of amendments that made substantial alterations. That is not the way in which hon. Members should operate, and I found it extraordinary that that should happen.
The other great issue is the self-loading rifle. I hope that we shall be able to vote on new clause 1 if we do not receive a satisfactory reply from my hon. Friend. This is another opportunity to try to persuade the Government that the use of self-loading rifles is not as heinous as they make out. It is the man behind any rifle, not the form of action, that matters. As we demonstrated time and again in Committee, a competent operator with a bolt action rifle can get off just as many rounds as a person with a limited integral magazine with a self-loading action. Yet the Minister seems reluctant to listen or understand. I shall come to some of his quotations in the not too distant future.
One of our principal objectives in new clause I is to give us another opportunity to persuade the Government, and my hon. Friend will see that we include four important safeguards so that a self-loading weapon can be used. The first is that the owner
has held a firearms certificate for at least three years
and has a good track record. Secondly, he must have been
a full member of a rifle club for at least three years",
observed and controlled by people who understand firearms. Thirdly, he must be
a member of a club which AS affiliated to the National Rifle Association or the United Kingdom Practical Shooting Association,
two national bodies that control practical shooting. He must have completed proper training. The Home Secretary would have the power to approve special clubs using self-loading rifles, and so on. That is a powerful control.
I shall refer to the fourth safeguard in depth because it covers those who are disabled and need self-loading rifles if they are to participate in the important recreational sport of shooting. Why is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary determined that disabled people should not have self-loading rifles for their enjoyment of the sport? Why will he not let women use self-loading rifles to participate? I am glad that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), is here. Why will Scotland, England and Wales not allow those people to use self-loading rifles?
We are not talking about self-loading rifles with a vast magazine capacity. We are talking about self-loading rifles with four or five-round internal magazines. What does the Home Secretary have against such weapons compared with a bolt-action rifle holding 10 rounds and having greater firepower than a five-round self-loading rifle? I am disappointed that my right hon. Friend does not even appear to be listening to me. I wish that he would take on board the fact that we are serious about disabled people, women and others who cannot fire a bolt-action rifle. Some people have disfigured hands and cannot use a right-handed bolt-action rifle and cannot afford to have it converted to left-handed action.
There are many difficulties related to self-loading weapons, but the Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State do not seem to be prepared to listen to them. It is a disgrace that, even though this country goes out of its way to help the disabled in athletics and almost every sport, the Home Office is not prepared to help and support the recreational shooter. I am amazed that the Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State are not prepared to respond to the needs of these people.
Our other reason for being cross about this issue of the self-loading rifle is that in Committee my hon. Friend said that he would look favourably upon the five-round, internal magazine self-loading rifle. It is astonishing that at the end of the day he has reversed everything that he said in Committee, although he never gave a firm commitment. I shall give a few quotations from my hon. Friend. He said:
As a self-loading rifle can fire three, four or five rounds over an extended period, it is difficult to argue that that gun is more lethal than a traditional 10-shot bolt action.
Later he said:
I am trying to approach the matter constructively in an attempt to meet the point about disability. Incidentally, it would also meet the culling point.
We were talking about culling hinds. He went on:
It does not constitute a major departure from the main thrust of the clause".
My hon. Friend later said:
I am very much closer in this matter to the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury than those of my hon. Friends the Members for Norfolk, North-West and for Dumfries. I am happy to reconsider the issue, but I have in mind a limited capacity. What we are likely to consider appropriate will probably be nearer to four, as for the Remington Woodmaster, than to eight shots.
Therefore, my undertaking is that I shall look at this issue seriously to see whether it would be right to leave in section
1 integral-magazine self-loading guns of very limited capacity, preferably three … That would meet … the pest control point".
Is my hon. Friend aware that one of our reasons for feeling so strongly about this issue is that a quasi commitment was given and as a result we did not vote against clause 1 stand part? That is why we feel badly let down. A quasi commitment was given to buy off our vote.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Even the Minister would accept that he knew he was facing defeat. It was only because of my summing up at the end of the debate that he escaped. He has let us down very badly. In winding up that debate I said:
I am about to seek to withdraw the amendment, bearing in mind that, had I pressed the amendment on disability, I could probably have won it in the Committee. I hope that I shall not feel that I am let down on Report, when one has little hope of winning against the full Government Whipping operation. I should be very disappointed if the Minister did not table an amendment on Report covering the points that we have made this morning."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 8 March 1988; c. 326–32.]
My hon. Friend never came back to say that that was wrong. He left every impression that that was the right summing up. My hon. Friend has let down not only the whole of the shooting public, but all the disabled men and women over the issue of the small four or five-shot internal magazine self-loading rifle. I should have preferred him to go as far as an eight-shot internal magazine, because that would have covered the Garand rifle, which is commonly used by the target shooting fraternity. This country is particularly good at target shooting, and has the highest reputation for it, but one of the weapons used is to be taken away, purely at the behest of the Front Bench and the Home Office. It is a disgrace, and I hope that it is not too late for my hon. Friend to reconsider the astonishing decision that he and Scottish and Welsh Ministers have made.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that during the passage of the Bill we have all undergone a certain amount of education about what shooting today is all about? We are no longer living in the days when he and I went down to the ranges and used a bolt action rifle because that was the only sort of rifle that was available. We have moved on, through the self-loading rifle, and many of the competitions that take place, nationally and internationally, do so with self-loading rifles. The point about competition is important for the United Kingdom and should not be under-estimated by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench.
Who would have thought in 1917 that many cars would have automatic gears by now, instead of a gear lever? We have moved on, and my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench do not seem to have done so in this respect.
From the start we have agreed that certain military weapons with large magazines are not acceptable. We are talking about rifles that hold a maximum of eight rounds, and usually four or five, as we discussed in Committee. My hon. Friend the Minister said that he would do as we wished if there were a sufficient number of rifles, but some of them are made internationally. There is a huge supply of these rifles. I reeled off about six different types in Committee, and can go through that list again. if the Government are prepared to look at the matter again and give a commitment that they will introduce an amendment in the other place on self-loading rifles with internal magazines and deal properly with the consultative committee, there would be a different attitude to the Bill, not only in the House, but in the other place.
I shall not go into the details of the amendments grouped with the new clause, because my hon. Friends will speak on them. Many of these are extremely important. I am not saying that my new clause is 100 per cent. right, and I would be happy if my hon. Friend would concede the point about the five-shot, or eight-shot or the pre-1939 self-loading rifle. He has a whole host of opportunities to get out of the corner into which he has painted himself. I hope that if I move the new clause later, for voting purposes, we will get the concession hoped for by all those in the shooting world involved in target and sporting shooting for recreation—there is a huge involvement in it —who feel cross about the Government treating them in the way that they have. We shall have a fresh attitude to the Bill if tonight we get a positive answer from my hon. Friend.
Like the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), I have been rather disappointed by the Government's reaction this evening, because I remember clearly the incident in Committee to which the hon. Gentleman referred, when we refrained from voting. Had we done so, the Government would have been defeated and as a result would have been in a difficult position. The Minister's hon. Friends let him off the hook, in the expectation that he would meet their case, which they had put to him graciously, but unanswerably. The Minister appeared, as so often, to accept what they said, and in good faith they let him off the hook. I am sorry that they have lived to regret that. At the time, some of us wondered whether that was wise, but we were guided by their judgment rather than our own cynical assessment of Government attitudes.
You will appreciate, Madam Deputy Speaker, that this is a large group of amendments. You will also appreciate that many of them are mine, which means that I shall have to talk on this subject for a long time. They are all sensible and soundly based and they are all worthy of acceptance by a Government who are trying to do something sensible and constructive about firearms law. As the Minister has said, that probably means that none of them will be accepted, but I hope to persuade even him, with his closed mind, that my proposals are worthy of acceptance.
I have considered each of the amendments carefully before tabling them to try to find the appropriate language. Sadly, there is a typing error in the group of amendments which alters the meaning of one of the new clauses. Like the typing error that originated in the Minister's office regarding the verification of the Home Office approval of the Dunmore shooting centre, it has unforeseen consequences, but not, I hope, as serious as those arising from that error.
I should like to refer first to the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). I understand what he is driving at and it is clear from the various amendments that have been tabled that we are all aiming at roughly the same thing. The hon. Gentleman's amendment excludes farmers and persons who use firearms in their work and other bona fide firearms clubs.
A number of points raised in Committee have a bearing on these issues. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) asked what changes there had been since 1968 and what record of crime or irregularities the Home Office had discovered. The Under-Secretary of State replied:
An unapproved rifle club would be no more than the banding together of people who possess section 1 certificates for the shooting of their guns in a quarry … They are a gathering together of people who have section 1 certificates and want, for example, to shoot in a quarry that one of their number owns."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 25 February 1988; c. 213.]
In other words, certain difficulties are involved in defining a club. From what I have been told, that is a real problem in Great Britain. The problem may lie not entirely with the clubs, but with the Home Office and the form sent out to clubs. That form is then filled in by the club and sent back to the police, who send it back to the Home Office. The Home Office is then supposed to tell the National Rifle Association or the National Small-bore Rifle Association. That appears to work, albeit sometimes slowly and irregularly, in regard to the first application for the formation of a club.
However, if a club then seeks an extension of the firearms that it may use, there appears to be a difficulty in that no one appears to think it necessary to send the forms on to the relevant associations. Because of that, we must go further than the hon. Member for Newbury goes in his new clause. I tabled new clause 7 because of my knowledge of this subject and the knowledge of those people who advised me.
New clause 7 demands that a person should have held a firearms certificate for at least three years, should have been a full member of a rifle club for that period and should have undertaken a training procedure as a member of that club, or should have a reason to possess such a firearm because of disability. There are those who do not belong to a rifle club but who need to use one in the course of their work. Deer stalker, gamekeepers and others fall into that category, including farmers. We must try to cater for that large and important group.
A difficulty arises with new clause 8, which appears in my name, because the final line includes a reference to section 14 of the Firearms Act 1968 when it should have been section 44. Section 14 deals with the possession, purchase or acquisition of a shotgun by those temporarily in Great Britain, a matter to which we shall come in due course. Section 44 deals with appeals, and it is only when the typing error is taken note of that the new clause makes sense. I tumbled to the error only the other day. I tried to have it corrected, and it is unfortunate that it was not. If the mistake had been put right, I do not think that the new clause would have appeared in the group that is now before the House.
It is vital that we meet the concern of those who find that their application for a firearms certificate has been refused. I am sure that all those who take an interest in firearms will be aware that if someone's application is refused there is no cheap or easy way in which he can appeal against the decision. Such an appeal normally ends up with a hearing before the High Court, and that is an extremely costly business. It could cost many hundreds of pounds to take that course, but quite frequently those who appeal win the day.
I hope that the Government will meet the real need for a cheap, simple and straightforward appeal system that will sort out some of the worst cases of refusal and at the same time, if the appeal tribunal fails, allow the issue to proceed to the High Court if that is considered worth while. I ask the Government seriously to consider this issue.
The object is to set up a tribunal system to hear appeals against the refusals of chief officers of police to grant or vary firearms certificates or shotgun certificates, but not to deal with criminal offences. The tribunal should be on the lines of an industrial tribunal, the procedures of which would provide a useful model. It should have a legally qualified chairman of suitable standing. It should represent police interests and shooting interests, and perhaps other interests. The tribunal should sit in England and Wales in buildings of the sort that are used by industrial tribunals, and there would be localities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Some sort of legal representation would be allowed. No award of costs would be allowed except in exceptional circumstances. There would need to be a secretariat.
There would need also to be a flat fee. The costs of taking an appeal to such a simple tribunal should not be allowed to move into the realm of costs that are incurred in taking cases to other legal forums. There could be an appeal on a point of law to the divisional court or whatever happens to be the relevant court in the appropriate jurisdiction. The tribunal could have all the functions that are exercised by the Crown court in its administrative capacity.
The advantages are numerous. The cost of administration would be much less to the police and the shooting public. I assume that, normally, whenever the police lose an appeal, the public purse must bear the cost. The speed of decisions would be far greater than under the present system in Crown courts, where appeals are regulated and are properly considered less important than criminal matters. Taking away this small portion of work would greatly ease the burden on the Crown court system. The new system would build up its own expertise.
At present, the Crown court cannot compel the attendance of witnesses, documents and so on. Anyone who wishes to compel attendance must issue writs through the High Court, which is a time-consuming and costly business. [Interruption.] By far the most important advantage of a tribunal over the Crown court would be the lessening of the enormous cost of dealing with firearms applications. It has been a tactical advantage in some cases to refuse certificates, knowing that the costs would be £2,000 or £3,000. That is unacceptable.
An important possibility has been opened up by the new clause. I hope that the Government intend to go down that route, as it is badly needed. [Interruption.] No doubt—
Order. There is a great deal of noise in the Chamber. The hon. Member has serious points to make and I hope that he will be heard properly.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. No doubt hon. Members at the rear of the Chamber are catching up because of their lack of knowledge of firearms law. I am pleased to see them all here, but, is a pity that they have not attempted to read the Bill's proceedings.
New clause 9 deals with the application for the granting or variation of certificates. It imposes a time limit within which the whole application procedure must be carried out. Twenty-eight days is a reasonable time for the police to carry out their work. The new clause demands that the police must tell the individual when the application has been refused and notify him that he has a right of appeal within 21 days of the date of receipt of the notification and
state in writing any difficulty or delay external to the Police service".
There should not be any difficulty within the police service, but something may happen over which it has no control —for example, in the Home Office—so I should like to give the police a let-out.
New clause 10 sets out three questions which are intended to discover the applicant's condition. The Minister may not have seen these questions before. If so, he should pick up the RUC application form. These questions are a direct lift from that form. The questions ask:
Do you suffer from epilepsy or from sudden attacks of disabling giddiness or fainting? … Do you suffer from, or have you at any time suffered from mental illness? … Do you suffer from any other disease or disability which might make possession by you of a firearm dangerous to the public?
The applicant must answer yes or no and give details.
One might think that an individual who suffered from those conditions and who was anxious to get a certificate would not answer the questions. The RUC tells me that frequently people answer them truthfully and a proper investigation can be carried out.
The RUC application form does not ask, as paragraph (c) does, for the applicant's general practitioner to certify
to the best of his knowledge and belief that the particulars as stated by the applicant … are accurate".
I have listened to what has been said about the position of the medical world in certifying the stability and sanity, or otherwise, of an applicant for a firearms certificate. No one, not even the doctor who apparently signs and acts for the applicant, can give a hard and fast, black and white ruling that an individual is stable. That is not a matter for a general practitioner.
I want to return to the question of mental illness in the context of what the hon. Gentleman said about the RUC experience being that most people—or perhaps he said many people—answered the questions truthfully. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of an applicant who answered that he had suffered at some time from mental illness, say 10 years ago, yet has clearly recovered from that illness, who has been refused a certificate merely on the grounds that he has demonstrated that he has recovered from that illness?
I am not aware of that, and I cannot answer that question. However, I understand that in such cases the police make the most careful, detailed and discreet inquiries of the medical staff who treated that person for the mental illness, of the general practitioner and of those people who know the individual intimately. I would think that in general such people with that background of mental illness would not receive a firearms certificate, but I believe that there are cases in which people have recovered from instability and would be granted a certificate. However, this is a delicate matter that is best left to common sense, which is sometimes sadly lacking in these affairs.
This is a difficult matter, and no one would try to deny the difficulty of the general theme. However, the line followed by the RUC is a worthy example that should be followed. I have introduced the matter for the House to consider.
I have a number of examples of application forms for firearms certificates. I have a copy of the form that I sent to the Minister today at his request. He said that he was not aware of its existence, and I have tabled a written question about it. I apologise for neglecting to send him a copy of that form until today. It is a model produced by the Home Office in 1969. It is headed:
Report upon the application of …
Is applicant of good character and fit to be trusted with firearms? If not, give reasons—eg. mentally unstable, previous convictions, intemperate habits, notoriously careless, etc.
Even then, previous consideration was given to this whole theme. The application form included space for reasons why the applicant wanted the firearm.
It is interesting to note that all the police forces in Britain use pretty much the same form, but with a different number. One never knows which firearms application form one is dealing with because each constabulary has its own. The South Wales constabulary has progressed. Its form asks:
Is the applicant of temperate habits and sound mind?
It approaches the whole question from a slightly different direction. It also asks:
Is the applicant subject to fits of violent temper or careless in the use of firearms?
Can applicant be permitted to have a certificate without danger to public safety or to the peace?
The police have made progress. However, they do not seem to have developed cohesively or satisfactorily for all concerned. It appears to be bitsy—a little bit here, a little bit there. That is not satisfactory. We should have a more comprehensive approach. The RUC has taken a different approach. That is wrong. We should try to nail this down and deal with it comprehensively across the country. One approach should be known to the police, the public and the shooting world and understood by all concerned. It is far more likely that such an approach would be considered satisfactory by all concerned. If we can achieve that tonight, this debate will have been worth while. I am afraid that we may not get that far.
New clause 9 is important and the Government should be prepared carefully to consider it. They should try to learn some lessons from it and aim at producing something in a form that people will accept.
New clause 11, standing in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) and myself, is aimed at making the police get their act together and handle renewals as quickly as possible. It provides:
(1B) When an application for the renewal of a firearm certificate or shotgun certificate has been made in the prescribed form to the Chief Officer of Police for the area in which the applicant resides no less than twenty-eight days prior to the date of expiry of the existing certificate and subject to the certificate holder not having been served with a notice of revocation"—
I hope that the police would at least send out a reminder —
then the Chief Officer of Police shall either:—
(a) grant a renewal of the firearm or shotgun certificate subject to subsection X below in either the terms of the expiring certificate"—
in other words, when there is no change. I believe that on some occasions police have renewed a certificate but have calmly removed some weapons, and then the holder found himself possessing firearms for which he did not have a certificate.
The chief officer may also
(b) issue a temporary certificate in the same terms and conditions as the expiring certificate, subject, to subsection X below, and/or
(c) state in writing the reasons for refusal to grant the authority to possess each individual firearm/ ammunition or shotguns and ammunition additionally stating the relevant section(s) of the Act in each case and notify the applicant of his right to appeal to Crown Court within twenty-one days from the date of receipt of such notification, subject to subsection X below, and/or
(d) state in writing any difficulty for delay external to the Police service preventing the granting or the formal refusal to the processing of the application, subject to subsection X below, to the issue of a certificate.
In other words, I am trying to make the police state the specific reasons for their refusal so that applicants will have some understanding of the true situation rather than find themselves facing a totally blank wall. People refused a firearm certificate have a right to know what the reasons are for that refusal. If the police receive an application 28 days prior to the date of its expiry, there is no reason why they should not give those reasons in writing.
Subsection (X) of new clause 11 is simply a requirement that the police will see to it that the individual owning a firearm is provided with a new certificate 48 hours prior to the expiry of his existing certificate. If an applicant's certificate expires on 31 March, come 1 April he may otherwise be in possession of firearms for which he has no authorisation. That is not a matter to be taken lightly, because the penalty is a fine of up to £2,000, or six months' imprisonment, or possibly both.
Does the Minister really believe that any free citizen in this nation of ours should be left in that situation? I do not think so. If the police delay matters, or have them delayed, they have a duty to the public, and to the shooting public, to ensure that applicants are covered for the period in question. Holders of certificates should be told some time before if their certificates are not going to be renewed. Otherwise, renewal should follow.
I understand that in some parts of the country renewals simply omit weapons. North Wales has been quoted as one example, but perhaps hon. Members with knowledge of that part of the world can give the House more details. As a result, people are left without the right to hold the weapons in their possession. I understand that the Chief Constable concerned is a member of the Minister's working party on firearms, which seems rather a queer choice.
In passing over the amendments and new clauses put down by other right hon. and hon. Members, I am not actively saying that they are bad; it is just that I have quite enough of my own to be getting on with. I hope and pray that they will deal with theirs in a manner that will convince me, as I am trying to convince them of the validity of what I am saying.
Amendments Nos. 114 and 115 deal with the photographic provisions. As I have pointed out before, under Northern Ireland legislation it is necessary to have two photographs, which must be certified by the police officer. Amendment No. 115 proposes the words
certified by the Chief Constable to be a true likeness".
I do not expect Sir John Hermon to come down and look at me, then say, "That's you in the photograph, Willie," and sign it on the back. I do, however, expect him to delegate his authority, as do chief constables and chief officers of various types throughout the country when dealing with all sorts of matters.
For all I care, that authority can be delegated all the way down to the constable who came out of the depot only yesterday. But I want the policeman actually to see the individual, and then to declare on the back of the photograph that he is the individual named in the firearms certificate, so that the police have a record for the lifetime of the certificate.
Amendment No. 114 refers to the need for three photographs rather than two, which I hope the Minister will take on board. As I have said, in Northern Ireland at present one photograph is on the firearms certificate, stamped and verified. One is held in police headquarters in the firearms section. The section is far too big and overstaffed, because, as we all know, the work is probably done by the local sergeant or constable on the ground, who knows the folk anyway. I have a quibble with the Northern Ireland Office about that, but, sadly, it is outside the realms of this Minister's responsibilities. The third photograph should, I believe, be left on the file in the local police stations, because, although the police are assiduous in trying to identify individuals, they cannot always do so.
I believe that in Northern Ireland, where there is terrorism, and equally in Great Britain, which has a large population whom the police cannot be expected to know individually, it should be possible for the police to identify the individual who stands in front of them saying, "I am Joe Bloggs, and here is my firearms certificate." I want the police to have a photograph that cannot be interfered with, and which therefore will be different from the one that appears on a certificate that is stolen. The amendments are purely and simply for the protection of the public, and I strongly believe that they should be taken seriously and accepted.
At the beginning of the debate, the Minister said that only one of the amendments could be accepted: in other words, that everything was perfect. I am trying to show that everything is not perfect—that many of the suggestions being made tonight are sensible and should be acted on. The identification of people is vital to the control of firearms. Some hon. Members say that this is an invasion of privacy, but privacy will be invaded if only one photograph is taken.
Let me now deal with amendment No. 80, which is found on page 2099 of the Amendment Paper. We do not have quite 2,000 pages of amendments, although the Bill really needs that number. There is a difficulty, which did not previously exist, in Great Britain and Northern Ireland over where firearms may be used. The imposition of territorial conditions in Northern Ireland has not made a blind bit of difference. They have not improved matters; they have made them a little worse for those who use firearms. From what I have been told, I understand that the conditions are to be found in the 1969 memorandum of guidance, but I believe that they ought to be incorporated in the firearms rules.
I understand that there is a great deal of disquiet among the shooting public and also a great deal of disagreement with the police in Great Britain generally over the use of firearms. Most of those who have high-powered rifles know how dangerous they can be, and they are very careful in their use, but there is always somebody who is not. I have been given a large amount of correspondence on the use of firearms. [Interruption.] I am troubled by the fact that the correspondence shows that few policemen appear to have real knowledge of the behaviour of bullets when they strike and ricochet.
I have a report, written by a major who is clearly a man who knows about firearms. [Interruption.] He says that, on behalf of the occupier of a farm, he met a sergeant of the Gwent constabulary.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. These are serious matters. The points that are being made by the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) are pertinent and must be decided this evening, but Conservative Members who are sitting below the Gangway are talking yet again about matters that appear to have nothing whatever to do with the subject under discussion. I ask you either to ask those Members to hold their discussions outside the Chamber or to pay attention to what is being said by the hon. Member for Londonderry, East.
Far too many group meetings are taking place in the Chamber. I have already appealed for quiet so that we can hear the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross), who has tabled a number of serious amendments to which he wishes to speak.
I regret that so many hon. Members from both the major and the minority parties have been so overburdened with Hungerford that they have been unable to stand back and take a long, cool look at what we are trying to do. I very much regret that it has fallen to an Ulster Unionist to make comments which I believe should be made. I should have preferred them to be made by hon. Members with constituencies in Great Britain, because their constitents rather than mine will suffer from the effects of the legislation. The application of the firearms law will make no real difference to the people of Northern Ireland.
The major said:
During the discussions, it became apparent to me that, in general,
knowledge of firearms was not of a very high standard and most certainly his knowledge of their use in the field and of the type of weapon involved was minimal. When dealing with land inspections of this type, such knowledge must be vitally important.
To confirm my suspicions, I showed him a sample safety template and asked him if he had ever seen anything like it before. After a careful examination, he finally admitted that he did not know exactly what it was.
I assume that he did not know what it was at all.
This was said in the presence of the Inspector. A safety template is a printed pattern, which can be laid on a map to enable persons accurately to mark out areas liable to become danger zones because of ricochets etc. Training in the use of such items is a basic part of the syllabus of a weapons instructor and I was amazed and horrified that a Force
weapons instructor had no knowledge of it and even more so that he was employed in assessing land for safety without such knowledge.
That is a very serious situation.
I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members saw the article in the Western Mail on Friday 19 July 1987 which reported that golfers at Wales's top golf course were having their golfing destroyed by rabbits. The course manager asked for a ·22 rifle and was refused. He took the police to court and he won because the judge said, "Public safety is what the case is all about. In this case the risk is as slight and as minimal as it could ever be in well-regulated circles." That is another case where the police are in a mess.
There is a great deal more. People seem to have lost their common sense about firearms safety. I have a vast amount of information, but I do not want to weary the House with all of it. I have a letter from one gentleman who draws attention to the entire history of territorial control, right back to the Firearms Amendment Bill 1919. It shows how the system of territorial control has developed over the years. There is far too much for me to read out at 20 minutes to 12 in the evening, but I should like to quote one or two extracts.
Under the heading "The 1973 Green Paper", the letter states:
This paper was at the time of its publication unacceptable to the then government. This present Bill"—
the 1988 Bill—
is based on the 1973 Paper and there has been no change in the circumstances but even in paragraph 77 the Committee say on occasion a Firearm Certificate is issued subject to a condition limiting its use to a specified area of land. The practice since 1968 has been invariably to impose a condition restricting usage to specified land. In exercising his discretion the Chief Officer should bear in mind that the imposition of a territorial condition might be unduly restrictive in some cases.
It goes on to mention mortality statistics, of which there were not very many.
In Northern Ireland, we have to specify on what we can use a ·22 rifle. I assume that that is to stop people driving all over the country with the excuse that they need a ·22 rifle on a farm, but using it for some other purpose.
In my experience, that is unduly restrictive. It creates unnecessary difficulty for farmers and others who cannot restrict themselves to their own land all the time. Farms are generally small and people in my part of the world shoot vermin and rabbits over quite large areas of the countryside. That means trespassing on their neighbours' land. It is quite common, and no one was worried about it. Now, one has to seek permission. The difficulty is not that permission might be refused; it is the sheer trouble of getting it and the fact that the police can ask an individual whether he has the permission of 20 or 30 farmers to shoot on their land.
Another surprising matter has arisen in regard to the Gwent constabulary. The letter sent by the chief constable states:
The ·303 and 7·62 rifle and ammunition to which this certificate relates shall also be used for deer-stalking on land which is safe and over which the holder had permission to shoot.
It is my understanding that, whenever he talks about safety, the shooter in that case, and not the chief constable, has to decide whether the land is safe. That might very well be the position in Gwent but it does not seem to he the position elsewhere. The deputy chief constable of Gwent said that it was for the shooter to decide. It does not seem that the chief constable's people looking at the land to decide whether it is safe need be there at all. It is left to the individual who is actually firing the shots.
The letter finishes by saying:
Your request to also use this rifle for shooting marauding dogs is somewhat unusual and perhaps this could be clarified.
Anyone in Northern Ireland who wanted to keep a ·22 rifle but who did not have a flock of sheep to protect from stray dogs would have a poor chance of getting a certificate. It seems that conditions in Wales are very different from those in Northern Ireland.
I have spoken at some length on this matter because it is important and has not been given the consideration that it deserves. The Bill is a mess. It was ill-conceived and is a knee-jerk reaction. If they were wise, the Government would have accepted the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare and thought about the issue again. They could have come back next year with a Bill that would have gone through in a day and a half and there would have been no trouble. Sadly, they have chosen the route of confrontation, and very unwise confrontation at that. This provision will do no good. It will not prevent another Hungerford if there is another madman out there with a weapon of some sort, and it will not do anything to improve relations between the shooting public and the police.
I welcome new clause 12 and congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on fulfilling yet another of the promises that he made in Committee. He has granted conterminosity between the shotgun licence and the firearms certificate. He knows that I would have preferred him to go a stage further, and have only one document divided into two sections. I believe that that would have provided certain administrative achantages for the police. I am nevertheless grateful for what he has done, and I am sure that it will be a useful step forward.
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker., for selecting new clause 6, which relates to how somebody should obtain a firearms certificate and what Home Office approval of a gun club really means. It has been said that one of the Bill's weaknesses is that it imposes stronger legislation on law-abiding shooters and does little to catch those who are in illegal possession of weapons.
There may be some substance in the charge, but I know that law-abiding shooters feel a sense of grievance that arises out of the actions of one man—Michael Ryan—and the dreadful crimes that he committed on 19 August 1987 with a self-loading rifle and a Beretta pistol. He killed 16 people and wounded 14 others.
I believe that the Government are right, and always have been, to react to that massacre for what it was—the worst massacre of its kind that we have ever witnessed in our nation. It shook the people of Hungerford and west Berkshire, and its ripples went throughout the nation and even abroad. It is right that we should be implementing this legislation, because the Government had to react to that dreadful event and show the public that they could have confidence in our gun laws.
One of the consequences of Michael Ryan's dreadful act was that we all became aware that the Kalashnikov, which until then had seemed to be the weapon only of terrorists, might be held in our street, or in our next door neighbour's house, and that a crime as terrible as the one at Hungerford could happen in any small country town. It became clear that a young man could go around with such a weapon and kill at least eight people with it, and kill a further eight with his pistol.
No Home Secretary could have walked away from Hungerford, closed the door of his office, and said, "It was the aberration of one man. It does not matter. We can forget it." As we know, he received a firearms certificate on 11 December 1986.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you may have wondered why I have detailed the way in which Ryan joined the Dunmore centre. I have done so to illustrate the reasoning behind my new clause. First, I pointed out that Ryan had to wait only three months before becoming a full member of the centre and being able to apply for a firearms certificate. The centre now insists on six months. That is not as a result of any directive from the Home Office. I cannot stress that too strongly. The centre itself has decided to raise the probationary period from three months to six months because there are no absolute Home Office rules on the matter.
Although the required membership period of the club has been increased from three months to six months, does it stipulate how many shooting lessons or how many hours of supervision a probationary member should have before being allowed to have a certificate?
I will not weary the House with the details, but I have the rules of the club which I should be delighted to give to my hon. Friend if he would care to look at them. In the rules, he will probably find the answer to his question.
I have already referred to whether the period should be three months or six months, and that is an important point. On it, hangs the question whether somebody can apply to have a firearms certificate and from that to own a firearm.
As a result of my visit to Dunmore I wrote to the deputy chief constable of Thames Valley asking him about police guidelines on the matter and, in particular, his view on the probationary period that somebody should serve before being allowed to become a full member of a gun club and, therefore, to apply for a firearms certificate. In his letter to me, dated 9 May 1988, and signed by J. B. Rutherford, deputy chief constable, he says:
experience has shown that the majority of Home Office approved clubs are well run and co-operate fully with the police when enquiries are made in respect of their members. However, the lack of guidelines in relation to rules of membership has led to different criteria being applied, particularly where the issue of professional membership is concerned. The majority of clubs within Thames Valley have a probationary period of six months but some have a three month period and others twelve. Some clubs insist on a minimum number of visits within the probationary period, others do not. It is perhaps in this area that greater uniformity would be beneficial given that Home Office approval is granted to a club but without a clear indication of how it should operate.
In a sense, that is the essence of my new clause. Obviously, I endorse every word of the deputy chief constable's letter, particularly the section that I have just read to the House. I should like to pick up two implications from the quotation. First, the writer said:
the majority of Home Office approved clubs are well run and co-operate fully with the police when enquiries are made of them in respect of their members.
That seems to carry within it the implication that some Home Office approved clubs do not fulfil those requirements. If that is the case, I wonder what sanctions can be taken against them.
Secondly, the deputy chief constable states that
greater uniformity would be beneficial given that Home Office approval is granted to a club but without a clear indication of how it should operate.
That point was reinforced by my visit to Dunmore. When I asked whether the centre had been constructed according to Home Office model rules, I was told that such rules do not exist. The shooting centre had been constructed with Home Office, guidance. The Home Office, with the co-operation of the Ministry of Defence, had approved the weapons that could be held, and the Army had vetted the firing range for safety, with the police involved from the beginning. The Home Secretary had to act, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary on the way in which they have brought the Bill to the House and carried it through Committee.
The substance of new clause 6 relates to how somebody who wishes to become a shooter is able to obtain a firearms certificate and to which club he should be allowed to belong. That should be added as a qualification to be considered when issuing such a certificate.
We would all agree that firearms are, by definition, lethal weapons, even if they are used only for target or clay pigeon shooting. I am aware that other weapons such as crossbows come within the same definition, but I do not believe that anyone would dispute that the right to possess a firearms certificate is a right that should be given sparingly. Such a certificate should be given only when the person concerned has been established as being a fit and responsible person, with a knowledge of the mechanism of a firearm and of how to handle it and its ammunition to ensure the maximum safety of those within its vicinity. He should also have a secure place in which to store it. Such a consideration is already covered by the Bill.
Before the question of applying for a firearms certificate can arise, I want to ensure that a would-be shooter follows a definite pattern of entry into the sport, and that is the purpose of new clause 6. To an extent, it is a follow-on to the debate that we had in Committee on clause 11. In Committee I queried the difference between a Home Office-approved gun club and a bona fide gun club. Membership of both confers on a would-be shooter a certain standing in the eyes of a chief constable, which makes it more likely that he will be granted a firearms certificate. In reply to my question, my hon. Friend the Minister said:
The concept of what is a bona fide club always involves some subjectivity of judgment."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 25 February 1988; c.214.]
I wonder whether that is a good enough basis on which a chief constable should form his opinion.
Following the Committee stage of the Bill, I visited the Dunmore shooting centre, which is one of the two Home Office-approved gun clubs of which Michael Ryan was a member. It was the first of the gun clubs that he joined. When he joined the centre as a provisional member on 8 September 1986, it was approved as a pistol shooting club only. As Ryan had no experience of pistol shooting, he filled out a questionnaire about himself and was given a green, provisional member's identity card. He then came under the jurisdiction of the range officer, whose tasks are care of the range, general safety, weapon training, how to handle a weapon and how to load and unload it before even a shot is fired. When shooting begins, such a beginner fires only with the range officer in attendance on a one-to-one basis.
First, the new shooter is required to use a ·22 single-shot pistol, and only when the range officer is satisfied with the recruit's proficiency is he allowed to progress to a ·22 revolver, and so on to a ·38 revolver assuming always that he has shown that he can cope with a higher calibre gun.
When Ryan joined Dunmore, the probationary period before full membership could be claimed was three months. Every time he visited the centre he was required to sign in and the range officer—a former service NCO instructor—was in attendance.
Once Ryan's three months were completed, he was entitled to and applied for full membership of the centre, which he received. He then sent in his application for a firearms certificate to the chief constable of Thames Valley. He included in his application his membership of the Dunmore centre so that the police were able to check it and the number of times he had attended the club. I do not suggest, and do not want to suggest, that this multi-discipline approach has been a cause for concern. On the other hand, and bearing in mind the chief constable's remarks, is it not time that we standardised the probationary period for the first-time shooter seeking to own his weapon?
I was told that 99 per cent. of Dunmore's members own their own guns. Should not each Home Office-approved club answer to guidelines or model rules drawn up and issued by the Home Office, covering weapons, security and training standards? Lastly, should we not make full membership of a Home Office-approved club that has met those guidelines the only club membership that is acceptable to a chief constable issuing a firearms certificate to a first-time shooter? Once someone has acquired his or her firearms certificate, he or she can join any other gun club, whether approved or not.
New clause 6 would create a formal statutory entry into the sport of shooting with a pistol or rifle. That would increase the professionalism, competence and safety of all shooters, while enabling those running clubs or shooting centres to be aware of the Home Office-approved guidelines that would have to be followed if they wished to obtain what should be regarded as the jealously guarded epithet "Home Office-approved status."
I shall be brief, as I know that my hon. Friends are getting tired and do not want unnecessary delay.
It is a great pity that the Bill has reached this stage of its life with so many amendments still to be considered. We have been talking for five hours and have reached only the fourth of 36 groups of them. I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) that the Government were right to bring in the Bill when they did. It would have been much better if they had delayed bringing it forward. [Interruption.] I very much regret the interruption of our business, which is preventing us from considering these problems properly. I shall try to resume my train of thought.
My hon. Friend the Minister was able to concede a great deal in Committee to hon. Members who thought that the Bill was not in the correct form. I congratulate him on that and on the tolerant way in which he has accepted the criticisms made by my hon. Friends during the debate, but there is one thing that I cannot understand, and I hope my hon. Friend will explain it now. Why. having given so many concessions to those who oppose the Bill's details, can he not reconsider the repeating rifle? Why does he think the self-loading rifle is more dangerous than a rifle that must be operated by bolt action but has twice as many bullets in its magazine? I do not understand what makes the self-loading rifle, in the numbers in which it is found, such an outstandingly dangerous weapon that it must be isolated and dealt with differently from all other types of firearm. My hon. Friend's concept of self-loading rifles —particularly those that are limited to five shots in the magazine—profoundly wrong.
No one wants Kalashnikovs to be widespread throughout the community, or self-loading rifles of any sort not to be properly looked after by competent people, but such rifles can be dangerous to the public for only two reasons: first, if they are stolen and fall into the hands of criminal elements; secondly, if the legal owner of the rifle is someone who should not have been given it in the first place. New clause 1 seems fully to meet the second of those problems, and I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would state specifically what he considers to be the shortcomings of the clause.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) so effectively said, the safeguards are comprehensive. He has drawn the attention of the House to the three main safeguards. The first is that the owner must have
held a firearms certificate for at least three years".
Secondly, he must have been
a full member of a rifle club for at least three years".
Thirdly, that club has to be affiliated to one of the two national bodies. The fourth condition is significant. Under the new clause the Home Secretary would have the power of approval for special clubs to be licensed to have only self-loading rifles. For the life of me I cannot see what is wrong with the new clause and why self-loading rifles should not be allowed with the conditions that the new clause applies to them. If the reason is not that people who are licensed should not have self-loading rifles, but that he rifles may be stolen from them, will the Minister give the House examples of when that danger has occurred? My understanding is that there are virtually no examples of rifles of any type having been stolen and used for criminal activities.
I ask my hon. Friend to deal specifically with those points, because at the moment I cannot see any other course but to vote for the new clause. I hope that sufficient of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members will join me in doing so.
By ignoring most of this group of new clauses and amendments the Government have reinforced the attitude that they took in Committee, in that they have completely missed the point. It is the type of person, not the type of weapon, that is important.
An opportunity is being lost to effect sensible changes to the legislation. For example, why is no amendment being accepted to consider the mental history of an applicant? Many applicants may slip through, but many may also be weeded out. Why is no amendment being accepted to inquire into the standing of an applicant with his peers in a recognised club? Why is every effort not being made to standardise the approach of the police to the examination of applicants? Indeed, why have we not had an inquiry into the issue of Michael Ryan's firearms certificate, which might have turned up some facts that were pertinent to the legislation? Instead, we have had a dogmatic approach, which does not tackle the real problems, but takes the easy way out, and attacks the firearm, not the firer. It leads me at least to suspect that there is something to hide in the circumstances surrounding the Hungerford tragedy.
New clause 16, tabled by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), is sensible. Any moves that led to greater consistency among police authorities would help in controlling firearms and their use. Had the county boundary between Hampshire and Berkshire been some 5 miles further north, and had Ryan been subject to the sort of investigation and controls exercised by my police authority, there is a good chance that he would not have been in possession of a firearms certificate, and perhaps not those weapons either. The proposal to produce a uniform application form for firearms certificates is sensible and I hope that the Government will take it on board. If there is a vote, I shall support it.
I also support my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who spoke so ably to new clause 1. The Government said that they introduced the legislation to meet public demand and that these are tougher controls following the Hungerford massacre, but I wonder what evidence there is of that great public demand. Much has been written in the press perhaps, but I suspect that the Government have not taken sufficient account of the legitimate views of the shooting lobby.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister, who will reply to this debate, will know that the shooting lobby consists of about 5 million people. Shooting is the second greatest participatory sport, and that means that on average there are 7,500 legitimate supporters of shooting in every constituency in the land. That is why our mail bags have been full of letters, many of them from Conservative supporters who just cannot understand why the Government have reacted in the way that they have to the Hungerford massacre.
Why do we have these proposals, and why are the Government hinting that they may not support new clause 1? It goes back to the 1973 Green Paper, which I suspect forms the basis of the proposals in the Bill. That Green Paper showed very clearly that out of 4,402 offences involving firearms between 1969 and 1971—a period that just preceded the Green Paper—only 120 featured firearms that had been licensed, and that every one had either been stolen or otherwise taken from its legitimate owner. Therefore, out of 1,020,000 firearms licensed in England and Wales, not one case could be found of a certificate holder using his guns for the commission of a crime. I suspect that that is still the case today.
As hon. Members have said in this debate and in others, it is not the weapon that is important, but the finger on the trigger that counts. I think that it was a former Home Secretary who had an accident on a grouse moor and peppered somebody in the backside. Surely that shows that it is the finger on the trigger that we have to watch, not the weapon. It is fair to remind the House that the double-barrelled shotgun is much more likely to be used in its sawn off state in the execution of crime than is the self-loading rifle. When my hon. Friend winds up the debate, perhaps he will tell us how many crimes in Britain have been committed with self-loading rifles.
I support new clause 11 tabled by the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) and in particular subsection (c) of that clause which deals with giving in writing the reasons for the renewal of a firearms or shotgun certificate.
In the debate on new clause 5, I appreciated the difficulties that arise in examining a person's qualifications and I listened to the Minister's speech about that. I had an experience some years ago which demonstrates those difficulties and shows why I support new clause 11. In 1982, I had the misfortune to make a speech that became nationally infamous. It became known as my "rivers of blood" speech, an exaggerated description.
Arising out of the publicity in the press, in the course of my job of commercial buying and selling, a business man came to see me. He had been chairman of the federation of his branch of industry in his city, a pillar of society. We went out at lunchtime to have a sandwich and a half of beer and as we walked to the car park he said, "Could I say something personally?" I told him that he could say anything that he wanted to say. He said, "How would you obtain firearms?" I said, "As far as I know, if you want a firearms certificate, you join a gun club, you are trained in the use of guns, and after a while the club accepts your membership and gives you advice on how to apply for one." He said, "I should have thought that you would have known how to get them much more easily." I had to assure him that I did not have a cache of arms awaiting the insurrection, and that the only collection I had was of Everton programmes and old jazz records, and he was somewhat disappointed. I said, "In any event, why do you want a gun?" "Well," he said, "I have built an atomic bomb shelter"—he had the money to do that, which most people have not—"and it is no use having that unless I can defend it." Such survivalists—Michael Ryan was in some ways a survivalist—should not be granted a licence to hold weapons that can kill and maim people.
The point about that case is that the man was a member of society who, had he gone about it in the right way, could have joined a gun club. He was a respectable business man, and a nice chap, a decent family man with no criminal record. Unless he said something loose along the lines of what he said to me, in his misapprehension that was fed by The Sun, the Daily Mirror and other such journals, he would have been granted a firearms licence that he would have used to defend his bomb shelter.
The gun lobby puts the point of view of 5 million decent people who participate in the sport of shooting with various types of guns. It must understand that one of the reasons why it does not get the support of the Opposition to which its membership entitles it is that many of us have looked on gun ownership as something for gentlemen, and particularly the landed gentry. We feel that guns are the prerogative of such people. The legislation dealing with firearms, which was introduced during the 1920s, was the direct result of the events of the Russian revolution in 1917.
I am afraid, as are others, that people have been refused a licence for a shotgun on the basis of their involvement in trade unions or trade union militancy, when the business man that I described could have got a licence, and been a danger to others. However, I strongly support the right of the individual to be told why he has been refused the licence in the first place, or a renewal of his licence. The issuing of licences is a difficult business, as the debate has made clear. We, as members of society, have to take the responsibility of refusing licences to those whom we think are not capable of using guns in a responsible manner. In all walks of life, people are entitled to know the reason for the refusal, which should be given in writing, and they should be given the right to appeal in court. Therefore, I support new clause 11.
I could not possibly agree with the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Wall). I do not think that he would suggest that a person should be told why he did not get a job, or why he did not pass some medical examination. It is impossible to prove a negative, and if the hon. Gentleman reflected on that, he would see why it is impossible for reasons to be given as to why the firearms licence is withheld.
New clause 12, with which we began the debate, is sensible and we ought to have brought together the certificates for shotguns, and for pistols and rifles, years ago. The House will be doing us a service if it passes new clause 12.
There are numerous other new clauses and amendments, and I shall comment briefly on only two of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson), speaking with his deep and passionate knowledge of the Hungerford affair, deserves in every way to be listened to most carefully by the House. If I understood him correctly, he supports the conterminosity of firearm and rifle, but his new clause would then imply that every person wanting to get a shotgun certificate would also have to belong to a Home Office-approved gun club. If my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury can assure me that that is not the case, I need say no more about his new clause. However, as it stands at present and in the context of his comments about supporting conterminosity, he certainly appears to be suggesting that every applicant for a shotgun licence should go through a Home Office-approved club.
I am sorry that I conveyed that impression to my hon. Friend. Just as in our driving licences certain sections cover the vehicles that we are allowed to drive, according to which part of the test we have passed, so there could be a single document, divided into two sections, the first covering shotguns and the second covering firearms, and a person would apply according to what he wanted.
It is clear that my hon. Friend's new clause would not require the applicant for a shotgun licence to take that route.
The Bill is immensely complex and highly technical and, as usual, it will be left to the police to implement and enforce it. It is essential, therefore, that the legislation is clear, as simple as possible and, above all, uniform. The state of affairs will always vary from one police area to another because circumstances and chief officers of police vary. It is Parliament's duty to ensure that at least the parameters of legislation are the same.
So far as possible, the Home Secretary—this is probably what he would wish to do—should ensure that there is a standard form of application throughout the country, that the conditions for refusal of or agreement to the issue of a licence should be the same, that the conditions that the applicant will have to meet should be the same and that the photographs should be the same. There should also be the same number of photographs. I believe that there should be three, so that the police have a copy. The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross), with his experience of these matters in Northern Ireland, was entirely right about that. In addition, the authentication of the photographs should he the same throughout the country.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if we allow the Bill to go through unamended, fewer photographs would be required in Northern Ireland than the police there at present believe are necessary?
I understand that that is probably the case, but, as it is a procedural point, I am unable to confirm or deny it. However, if, perversely, as a result of the legislation, no third photograph were available to the police in Northern Ireland—I know that that is most important in security terms—we should be doing a great disservice, as my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware.
It is essential that, after the great amount of time that the House has spent on this matter, both Houses of Parliament should agree arrangements whereby we can create standard forms of examination of those who wish to obtain certificates to carry firearms and that they should be clearly examined on those criteria. It should be clear how a person obtains a gun and what can lead to his being refused the right to have a gun. Above all else, the police should have clarity.
Virtually every hon. Member, including myself, has a distaste for records going into computers, but, in modern policing terms, it is essential that the police national computer should be able to obtain access to all the data about people who have guns. That can be done only if there are standard methods of interrogation and standard methods in respect of the agreement to the issue of a certificate.
I add my support to the observations made some time ago by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who made a most formidable case in support of the self-loading rifle. I do not intend to repeat the hon. Gentleman's observations other than to remind the House that they were received in something approaching deafening silence by those who occupy the Government Front Bench. It is clear from the reports of the proceedings in Committee that the case was being advanced not for the first time. When it was made in Committee, the impression was given that there might be some scope for concession. Like the hon. Member for Dumfries, I await with rapt anticipation the Minister's response to the hon. Gentleman's penetrating and pungent observations.
I understand and appreciate the motives behind the decision of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) to table new clause 6. He spoke to it, if I may say so, in an informed and restrained manner, but I regret to say that if it is pressed to a Division I shall not find myself able to support it. As I understand it, it means that any applicant for a firearms certificate for a rifle—any rifle—would have to show that he or she had been a member of a Home Office approved club for at least six months. In the more populated parts of the United Kingdom that may be a qualification that is easy to achieve, but for a young assistant stalker in the far north-west of Scotland, for example, his nearest club may be 100 miles away or at least, to put it colloquially, a day's march.
I do not demur from the proposition that anyone who is admitted to the responsibility of a firearms certificate should be able to demonstrate that he is a fit and responsible person. However, if the provisions of new clause 6 are the necessary qualifications to be regarded as a fit and reasonable person, they will, at least in geographical terms, place an unfair burden on a number of individuals who could claim legitimately to be entitled to be the holders of firearms certificates. For that reason, new clause 6 does not commend itself to me, however well intentioned it may be.
I am pleased that the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) supports new clause 1 and the quasi concession that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State gave in Committee. I am pleased also to have the opportunity to take up the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) about the Ryan certificates.
As I understand it, the Thames Valley constabulary were right to issue Ryan with his firearms certificate. By the time that he received the certificate he was a fully paid-up member of the Dunmore club. However, I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on the variation of the certificate. Under the stipulation of good reason, the Thames Valley constabulary should have gone through the process again to ascertain exactly whether there was a good reason for the variation of a certificate, which referred to pistols, to include a Kalashnikov and an M1 carbine. Logic dictates that a good reason should have been shown for possessing such weapons, and that would have meant full membership of a rifle club. We all know that Ryan was only a probationary member of the Wiltshire rifle club. I submit that the Thames Valley constabulary were not adhering to their standing orders and that the officers in question were ignoring completely what they had been told and the instructions with which they had been issued at various seminars.
The Government's case that the Bill is necessary because the Ryan tragedy has made the existing firearms legislation nonsensical is not one that I consider to be sustainable. It is time that my hon. Friend the Minister commented upon that. My hon. Friend should comment on the statistical point that my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) made so eloquently. In 1986, 3,177 offences were committed involving firearms. Only 27 of them involved rifles—0·85 per cent.—and quite a few of them were·22s. Has my hon. Friend had a chance since Standing Committee to work out how many of those rifles were self-loading?
The Shooting Foundation has said:
Ryan's was the only case recorded since records were kept when a rifle of any description has been used in violent crime by its lawful owner.
The Home Office has not denied that. Michael Ryan was the first person in recorded history to use in a crime a rifle described on his certificate. As the Thames Valley constabulary should never have given Ryan the certificate in the first place, we are legislating on a shaky basis. My hon. Friend knows full well, however, that I support many aspects of the Bill. I certainly agree with a Bill that to some extent improves firearms legislation, although I am worried about some points.
I am sure that hon. Members would like to know something about practical shooting. If the Bill is passed in its present form, the sport of practical shooting will be annihilated. This sport is a limited discipline involving shooting at moving targets with a self-loading rifle. There are about 20,000 members of the United Kingdom Practical Rifle Commission and the United Kingdom Practical Shooting Association. There are 124 affiliated clubs, with a total membership of 16,600.
The sport of practical shooting is growing in popularity. It is growing as an international sport and will soon be an Olympic sport. There are about 400 or 500 high-powered practical shots who shoot abroad regularly and compete in international competitions. If the new clause is passed in its present form, we shall deny those people their sport and wipe out the important discipline of target shooting.
For the past 120 or so years rifle shooting has been done, in the main, with bolt-action rifles. Most target shooting involves traditional target rifles. The technology is developing and the sport will not stand still. It is likely that in the coming years the self-loading rifle will be used increasingly as a target rifle in more than one discipline. If we do not have an escape route for these practical shooters, such as is proposed in new clause I, we shall not only deny this sport to the many people involved in it but prevent anyone in the future from participating in it.
If the Bill is passed in its present form, for the first time a civilian will not be able to participate in a rifle competition with the Army's main infantry weapon. Until now, a civilian who passes strict criteria that are part and parcel of section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968 can participate in shooting competitions with the Army's main battle weapon. If, God forbid, there were ever a conflict or war, we would rue the fact that we did not have a pool of civilian marksmen on whom to call.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries has gone through the details of new clause 1. We are looking, not at the weapon, but at individuals and applying rigid criteria to individuals. Very few individuals will pass those strict criteria. However, some will and will carry on the growing sport of practical shooting. We debated this issue at considerable length in Committee. The Minister made it clear that he could not do anything about practical shooting, but was prepared to look very carefully at self-loading rifles with a limited magazine capacity of up to five. That would not completely protect the sport of practical shooting, but it would mean that in competitions some shooters could use self-loading rifles with magazines holding up to five bullets.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries made clear, disabled people who cannot shoot with a bolt-action rifle on the ranges while deer-stalking or for vermin control will be able to possess a weapon for those purposes. Some people cannot use their right arms, or they may have no fingers on one hand. Paraplegics are similarly affected. If the Bill is passed and the Minister does not back his quasi commitment, those disabled people will be deprived of their sport. That would be very wrong.
I remind my hon. Friend that we had conversations together on many occasions. I recall a dark night back in March when we were up together quite late. He said that if I supported him on clause I stand part he would do all that he possibly could to come up with a concession on self-loading rifles. I said that I would support him on clause I stand part if he came up with the concession. He knows as well as I do that if there had been a vote on clause 1 stand part in Committee he would have lost it. He gave us a commitment and I feel bad and appalled that he has not produced a suitable amendment on Report. That is very sad. He cannot be surprised if we feel very disappointed that he has not delivered on this crucial point.
There is a way out. My hon. Friend can reconsider the matter now. We should like him to go all the way with new clause 1, but if not, we hope that he will go some way and adhere to what I believe was a semi-commitment that he made in Committee. He has the answer before him this evening and I hope very much that he does not want to destroy completely a sport and cause grave offence to many disabled people. I hope that he will consider this issue very seriously when he replies to the debate.
Hon. Members who served on the Committee on the Bill will recall that I arrived on the Committee without a particular opinion about the proposed legislative changes. I was conscripted to Whip the Committee and I had no opinions any particular way. However, I gradually realised what the proposals contained. I had to do something in Committee apart from prepare my Christmas cards, so I read the proposed legislation.
It became apparent that the legislation was ill-thought out and ill-prepared. We have considered many different aspects, including the size of shot, possible modification of different weapons, the verification of how those modifications have taken place, whether they should be reversible, what kind of weapons cabinets should be used and how weapons should travel from gun club to grouse moor.
We have gone into all kinds of detail, but behind it all there remains one unexplained—but I hope not inexplicable—aspect. This evening, the House heard a most moving contribution by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson), who spoke with feeling and real concern about the occurrences at Hungerford. There seems no doubt that the proposed legislation has come about as a direct result of the sad and tragic incidents of that day. No one denies that there is cause for deep concern and a need to find a way of dealing with circumstances such as those that arose at Hungerford.
The hon. Member for Newbury reminded the House that eight of the Hungerford victims were shot with a Kalashnikov self-loading rifle, but that eight others were shot with a Beretta 9 mm hand gun. What troubles me is why there should be so much concern about the self-loading rifle, which is a weapon difficult to conceal, troublesome to transport and not easy to use. The Bill appears to be deliberately structured to handle that class of weapon, and that class alone—or little else. However, the Beretta can be tucked into a waistband, slipped under an armpit or otherwise concealed and carried with great ease —yet it is not covered by the Bill.
I support many of the points which have been made, such as harmonisation throughout all the police constabularies in the United Kingdom and the security aspects of keeping weapons.
The question of locking mechanisms was brought to the attention of the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett). However, the question why the self-loading rifle should be covered by the Bill while the 9mm hand gun is excluded is crucial. I am not saying that SLRs should not be more tightly controlled; controls on all types of weaponry should be tightened. However, I cannot for the life of me understand why one class of weapon should be singled out for inclusion while another is left untouched.
New clause 6 is defectively drafted, so we cannot pass it. It reads:
Before a Chief Constable issues a firearms certificate to a person who has never previously held a rifle or pistol".
What on earth does that mean? I think that it was meant to mean, "who has never previously been authorised to possess a rifle or pistol", but that is not what it says. So I do not think that we need waste much more time on it.
New clause I certainly has my support, but it would need an amendment in another place because it has one very obvious shortcoming. For instance, it would prohibit an instructor in small arms from the armed forces who has been serving abroad and who would not therefore hold a firearms certificate, because he would not be subject to a civilian police force in Britain or meet the qualifications for so doing. He probably will not belong to a rifle club if he is serving overseas—nor would he need to, because he would attend rifle meetings as a member of the armed forces.
What needs to be added to any new clause of this kind —if necessary, in another place—is "who has been a member of Her Majesty's armed forces during the preceding three years." It is manifestly absurd that somebody who has been properly instructed in the armed forces, or indeed who has been instructing others, and who has participated in numerous rifle meetings in the armed forces, should be forbidden from holding a firearms certificate for a self-loading rifle that he has been using for years in competition as well as daily in the armed forces, because he has not held a firearms certificate for at least three years.
Paragraphs (a), (b), (c) and (d) in new clause I are not alternatives; they are all necessary conditions for holding a firearms certificate. Although the clause is certainly an improvement on what is in the Bill, and on that basis it will have my support if it is carried to a Division, it would need an amendment in another place. It is so easy to forget the needs of members of the armed forces—for council houses when they leave the forces., and for many other such things. In drafting the new clause, my hon. Friend had in mind civilians, but not the position of those leaving Her Majesty's armed forces.
After hearing so many speeches in a similar vein, we cannot pretend that there is not considerable disappointment in the House at the state of affairs this evening. Not only have we had a very long Committee stage, but there seem to be so many loose ends in the Bill as it comes before us now, and there is so much dissatisfaction with it, that I cannot help wondering how much confidence it will inspire outside the House. After all, the object of a great deal of the legislation is surely to encourage those outside that the world will be safer as a result of its passage.
I speak unashamedly in support of new clause 1. As I see it, the object of the legislation is to try to stop accidents. We want more safety, but without—as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) said—being seen to be introducing a nanny state. In my view, paragraph (b) of the new clause would ensure competence in the operators, owners or users of firearms.
My question to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) about how much instruction was given at Home Office-approved clubs has produced an interesting answer. The club rules state:
A minimum period of 6 weeks and maximum of 6 months probation including a minimum of 12 x ½ hours details shall normally be served by all Probationary Members. On the completion of the above period the secretary shall review the Applicant's number of attendances, depth of interest, apparent character and conduct.
If, in the secretary's opinion, these are satisfactory, he is able to confer full membership on that person.
Unless I have misunderstood him, that seems rather different from what my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) was saying. Did my hon. Friend refer to a minimum of six weeks' and a maximum of six months' probation? That is rather different from a six-month probationary period.
The club rules lay down a minimum of six weeks' and a maximum of six months' probation, including a minimum of 12 half-hour details—which presumably means shooting lessons, or time in which the person is instructed in how to handle the guns.
I believe that introducing legislation of this sort would go some way towards reassuring the public, which, after all, is what we are trying to do.
I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) said about the practical shooters. I believe that it is wrong to deny British sportsmen the opportunity to go forward in a newly emerging sport so that they can compete on the world stage. I also agree with my hon. Friend that we must spare a thought for those who are disabled and unable to use any sort of rifle, other than a self-loader.
This has been a long debate and it has covered a range of subjects. At the heart of the debate is the Government's attitude to the self-loading rifle, and I shall therefore begin with that.
I think it desirable that we should make plain what we are talking about. We are talking about whether it is right to allow private people to possess full-bore, fast-firing, paramilitary guns.
I hear my hon. Friend saying "No, no, no." It is perfectly true that both tonight and on other occasions he has limited his advocacy to self-loading rifles—five-shot and eight-shot—but that is not incorporated in new clause1. It is unlimited.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) made a strong case on behalf of practical shooters. I have had discussions with practical shooters, who say that the only equipment that will serve their sport is a large, detachable magazine, full-bore rifle. For practical shooters the integral self-loading rifle of the kind advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) is useless. We have to be absolutely certain about what equipment it is that we are discussing. We are discussing fast-firing, full-bore, large-magazine, paramilitary guns.
My hon. Friend is referring to fast-loading paramilitary rifles because it suits him to do so, but we are referring to new clause 1. This has to be read in conjunction with the later group of amendments, which we hope will also be agreed to, which would limit rifles to the shotguns that we are discussing. When read in conjunction with the clause, that would produce the right effect.
There is a difference of view between us on this matter. I am prepared to accept that my hon. Friends the Members for Upminster (Sir H. Bonsor) and for Dumfries are concerned only to secure either a five-shot or an eight-shot integral magazine gun, but that is not the only argument on this side of the House. In order to sustain the case that he has made on behalf of practical shooters, my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West must hold out for the large, detachable magazine, full-bore rifle. We cannot otherwise serve the interests of practical shooters. New clause 1 is unlimited in terms of the size of the magazine and the number of bullets that it can hold.
I do not dispute for a moment that a self-loading rifle can be used for a variety of lawful pastimes—for deer stalking, culling deer and shooting foxes at night—but the question that we have to ask is not whether it can be used, but whether we need to use it. Is it necessary to use a full-bore large-magazine, fast-firing gun for those purposes? The answer is no.
I agree that a self-loading rifle can be used for traditional target shooting, but the question is not whether it can be used, but whether it needs to be used. The answer, once again, is no. The National Rifle Association has made that clear on a number of occasions. The use of self-loading rifles for international, traditional target shooting is positively prohibited. It is interesting to note that at its Bisley meet the National Rifle Association provides a number of competitions in which self-loading rifles are used, but last year only five civilians participated. It is true that those competitions are essentially for service men, but only five civilians participated in that class of sport.
I now turn to practical shooting, the cause which my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West has made his own. I agree that if we prohibit full-bore, fast-firing, large-magazine guns we shall destroy certain parts of practical shooting that rely on a self-loading rifle. We shall not destroy it entirely, because about 80 per cent. of its members use self-loading pistols, but I agree that it will destroy the sport for those who depend on the self-loading rifle. The question is whether the public interest requires us to do that. The House has to make that judgment, but I believe that it does.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) shares my view on the matter.
I shall now deal with my comments and undertakings in Committee. I have never tried to pretend otherwise to hon. Members: I am a settler, a compromiser. If I can reach a compromise, I like to do so. I make no apology for that. In Committee I made it plain that I thought there was no need for a self-loading rifle of the kind that I have described and that in my opinion there were insufficient numbers of self-loading rifles to justify their retention in clause 1. I said that I would look seriously and sympathetically at whether it would be right to retain them in clause 1 if they had integral magazines containing no more than 3, 4 or 5 rounds. That is what I did. I looked at it seriously, I challenged the issue and I reached what I consider to be a fair conclusion. I have described my conclusion tonight.
Hon. Members who think that I misled the House in some way should look at Hansard. I recommend that they read columns 323, 324, 325, 330, 363 and 396. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West thought it right to recount to the House a conversation that I may have had with him—I do not recall it, but I do not dispute it—it would he profitable for him to read column 396. He said:
I am grateful for what my hon. Friend the Minister has said. We shall come back to this matter on Report … My hon. Friend has made it clear that he is prepared to accept that a class of self-loading rifles will remain in private hands.
I do not want to prolong the debate. What I have said is what I mean. I shall consider carefully the range of rifles to which I have referred. It is not a commitment, I have to clear it with colleagues. It is not a guarantee. My hon. Friend has heard what I have said and I propose to do what I have said. He must not try to enlarge on it."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 10 March 1988; c 396.]
I have made that statement in different words at different times in the debate. Anybody who says that I ratted on a commitment is wrong. I resent that imputation.
The other thing that I said very strongly in Committee was that there was not a range of self-loading rifles of the kind now argued for—3, 4 or 5-shot integral magazines— sufficient to make the amendment sensible. That is what I argued in Committee, and that is the case. It may be of interest to the House to know some facts.
I have a list of such guns, and I shall remind the House of them. The Ruger .44 is a sporting rifle. It has a four-shot tube and was last made in 1985. The Browning Sporting is still being made and has a detachable magazine containing no more than three or four rounds. The Savage .170, a pump-action rifle, was made up to 1985. The Remington Gamemaster, with five shots, was made up to 1950. The Browning Sporting, with five shots, is so old that it can only be identified as old. The only relevant military rifle is the French St. Etienne, which was not made beyond 1918. There is only one gun which falls within the classification and is still manufactured. It does not seem to make much sense to found legislation on one gun.
The House has to come to a conclusion on this important issue. I share the view of the hon. Member for Erdington that we should not legalise self-loading rifles. There is no justification for doing so. The Government's stance on the matter is correct.
The views of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) are to be respected, and I entirely understand his concern. What the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said is, however, correct. There are a variety of reasons why people need a gun and do not necessarily belong to a club. The most notable reasons are vermin control and deer stalking. Such people do not belong to clubs, for the most part. That problem goes to the root of my hon. Friend's new clause 6, although I understand why he tabled it.
In new clause 8, the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) advocates a most complicated and bureaucratic form of appeal. He is a well-known enemy of bureaucracy, and I praise him for it. Section 44 of the Firearms Act 1968 provides for a perfectly sensible form of appeal on all the issues to which he referred, and there is no possible justification for building yet further on it.
On new clauses 9 and 11, the hon. Member for Londonderry, East made important points regarding time limits and the notification of reasons. I find myself in complete agreement with what my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) said on the matter, so it is not necessary to elaborate yet further.
On new clause 10, the hon. Member for Londonderry, East suggested that we should ask a range of complicated questions. I have read the questions that he has asked, and I have to tell him that they would not prevent a madman obtaining a gun. Nor do they address the problem of the person becoming mad during the currency of the certificate.
As for amendment No. 147 and the standard application form, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the firearms rules of 1969 already provide for a standard application form for the granting, variation and renewal of firearms certificates, and shotgun licences. To that extent, his anxiety is already met.
In amendments Nos. 114, 115 and 146, the hon. Gentleman raised interesting questions about photographs. They are not necessary. As for the verification of photographs, why should the chief constable be involved? The rules already provide that a person of good standing is sufficient, and that is correct. We agree that there should be two photographs. We do not think that there should be three. The only justification for three is the existence of a computerised bank, and technology is capable of making as many reproductions of the second photograph as are necessary.
As for amendment No. 80, I would not advise the hon. Gentleman to set out in rule form the type of territorial conditions that he would like, because they would be too rigid. It must be possible to tailor a territorial condition to meet the circumstances of an applicant.
This lengthy debate has covered a whole range of subjects. I commend new clause 12 to the House, but I am afraid that I cannot commend the other new clauses or amendments.