'Each chief officer of police shall establish within three months of the coming into force of this Act and subsequently maintain on a daily basis, a register of shot guns, firearms and ammunition, and licences and certificates, reported lost or stolen which shall include a description of such weapons and ammunition with the name and address of the certificate holder entitled to possess the weapon, on a separate register, details of which shall be passed to the police national computer.'.—[Mr. Corbett.]
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 17—Firearms officers—
Where in the opinion of the chief officer of police the number of firearm certificates and or shot gun licences warrants it, two officers, not below the rank of superintendent, shall be designated as firearms officers whose
duties shall include regular periodic checks upon the number and type of weapons and ammunition held by authorised dealers in the area of their police force.'.
It will probably be for the convenience of the House if I deal with the new clause briefly, although it is an important clause on an extremely serious topic. If the Government have anxieties about the time that Ministers and Conservative Back Bench Members go to bed tonight, they should reflect on the fact that they could have accepted the motion to recommit the Bill for further consideration in Committee, which would have been a better way to proceed. The Government had a choice.
The purpose of new clause 14 is to require each chief officer of police to establish within three months a register of shotguns, firearms, ammunition, licences and certificates that are reported lost or stolen, and to ensure that it is maintained daily. It is amazing that no register in this form is maintained now.
Paragraph 26 of the White Paper of December 1987 on proposals for the reform of firearms legislation states:
It is remarkable that the police at present have so little information either about individual weapons or about the number of shotguns legally held.
I do not doubt that there were many within this place, and certainly outside it, who found that statement an admission of the most outstanding complacency. Everything that we heard on Second Reading and in Committee supported that view. The Government can only guesstimate the number of self-loading rifles that are knocking about. It is a frightening fact, and one that will bring no comfort to those who are properly concerned with public safety.
If that is the position with legally held shotguns and firearms, I suspect that it is probably the case with weapons and ammunition that are reported lost or stolen. I suspect that in many instances weapons that are reported lost or stolen and not recovered find their way fairly easily into criminal hands, and are those that are more commonly used illegally and perhaps criminally. The most meticulous attention should be paid to lost or stolen weapons, ammunition or certificates. I know that thousands of replacement certificates, for example, are issued each year when the originals are reported lost or stolen. When I asked the Under-Secretary of State in February how many duplicate shotgun and firearm certificates were issued by each police force area in the last year for which figures were available, and the preceding year, I was told that the information that I had requested could be obtained only at disproportionate cost.
That means, if that phrase has any meaning, that those responsible for overseeing firearms control—Ministers take responsibility for this—do not have a clue about the number of legally held weapons that are knocking about and the number of duplicate certificates that have been issued. This is extremely worrying. There is ample scope for misuse because as things have stood since the Firearms Act 1968 was enacted certificates do not have to bear an up-to-date photograph of the holder. There can be few other countries beset by terrorist activities in one part of its boundaries that can behave in such a manner that is at best careless.
The purpose of the new clause is to ensure that such a register is maintained and updated and the information passed to the national police computer so that the police can be more quickly helped to trace the lawful owner of a weapon which is used in violent crime. Everything that can be discovered about the route between the lawful owner, and presumably the person who reports the weapon lost or stolen, and the weapon discovered at the scene of a crime can be extremely helpful to the police.
New clause 17 asks a question which has been asked before but which did not get a satisfactory reply. That is why it has been tabled. It provides that, where significant numbers of applications for firearms certificates and shotgun licences are dealt with, the police should be able to designate firearms officers whose only job is to handle these matters and, as important, to make periodic checks on the number and type of weapons and ammunition held by authorised dealers in their police force area.
Suppose that there is a gun shop that employs two or three staff and that, at the end of every day's transactions, there is no physical check of the stock room, although someone may look through what has been sold that day. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that someone in the gun shop owner's employ could be approached and offered money to steal a weapon from those premises. It could be days, if not weeks, before that theft is uncovered by the owner. That should not and cannot be tolerated.
As I have said repeatedly, we want to do our best to ensure that one of the Bill's ambitions—properly to look after the public safety aspects of our legislation—is achieved. The new clauses will help to do that.
I agree with the spirit of what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) seeks to achieve in new clause 14. I suspect that the measure is not necessary, because the police will do what he wants. It would not have been practicable for them to do so until this legislation, because previously firearms were not required to be described or numbered. The numbers of guns held by an individual did not all have to be contained on the certificate. The Bill will bring those details forward. From now on, it will be possible for the police to maintain the type of register that the hon. Gentleman seeks. I am not sure that it is necessary to require the police to do that by statute; I suspect that they will do it anyway.
The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the police nationally maintain a stolen property index. As I understand it, it does not have a separate compartment for weapons and ammunition reported stolen. I assume that that index is computerised—if it is not, it should be. I am asking only for another two or three files to be opened in that record to identify those items separately more quickly.
That may well be true, but in the past it was not practicable for the police to maintain such a register, because the details that the Bill prescribes were not available. It will be practicable to do so in future. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman seeks to do, but I am not certain that it is necessary to prescribe it by statute.
I oppose new clause 17. I am not sure that it is appropriate to prescribe the very high ranks of officers that the hon. Member for Erdington wishes to do this job. That would cost the country something like £4 million a year in additional policing costs.
With regard to both new clauses 14 and 17, it is not appropriate for the House to tell the police how to deploy manpower. That is an operational judgment. It is right that the law should indicate the will of Parliament, but it should not get into the details of prescribing the ranks of officers to be used or how they should be used. Those are operational matters for the chief officer to determine.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths).
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) moved the new clause briefly and was to the point. I agree that it is desirable that the police should have additional information of the kind referred to by the hon. Member for Erdington and that that should be centrally stored.
It is perhaps necessary to remind the House that a register of the kind proposed would not prevent crime. At the very best, it would facilitate the recovery of weapons, the tracing of owners and preparation to ensure better records. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds that that should not be a mandatory requirement imposed by Parliament. It must be for the judgment of the police to determine where that particular suggestion ranks in order of priority and that is not a matter for Parliament.
I agree with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds about new clause 17. That is an operational matter for police forces. In particular, it is an operational matter to decide how many, and of what rank, the officers in question should be. The dealers are already under a duty to permit police who want to make inspections, and the memorandum of guidance urges the police to do just that. Although I understand the force of the arguments presented by the hon. Member for Erdington, I am afraid that I cannot commend new clauses 14 and 17 to the House.
|Division No. 322]||[1.51 am|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Ross, William (Londonderry E)|
|Beith, A. J.||Skinner, Dennis|
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)||Wall, Pat|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Wallace, James|
|Corbett, Robin||Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)|
|Dixon, Don||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Molyneaux, Rt Hon James||Mr. Frank Cook and Mr. John McAUion.|
|Moonie, Dr Lewis|
|Alexander, Richard||Bottomley, Mrs Virginia|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)|
|Allason, Rupert||Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)|
|Amess, David||Bowis, John|
|Amos, Alan||Brandon-Bravo, Martin|
|Arbuthnot, James||Brazier, Julian|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Bright, Graham|
|Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)||Brittan, Rt Hon Leon|
|Ashby, David||Brooke, Rt Hon Peter|
|Atkinson, David||Browne, John (Winchester)|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick|
|Baldry, Tony||Burns, Simon|
|Batiste, Spencer||Burt, Alistair|
|Bellingham, Henry||Butler, Chris|
|Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Butterfill, John|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Carlisle, John, (Luton N)|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Carrington, Matthew|
|Boswell, Tim||Cash, William|
|Chapman, Sydney||Hanley, Jeremy|
|Chope, Christopher||Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)|
|Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)||Harris, David|
|Colvin, Michael||Hawkins, Christopher|
|Conway, Derek||Hayes, Jerry|
|Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)||Heathcoat-Amory, David|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Heddle, John|
|Couchman, James||Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)|
|Cran, James||Hind, Kenneth|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)|
|Curry, David||Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)|
|Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)||Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)|
|Davis, David (Boothferry)||Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)|
|Day, Stephen||Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Hunt, David (Wirral W)|
|Dover, Den||Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)|
|Dunn, Bob||Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Durant, Tony||Irvine, Michael|
|Emery, Sir Peter||Jack, Michael|
|Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)||Janman, Tim|
|Fallon, Michael||Jessel, Toby|
|Favell, Tony||Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey|
|Fenner, Dame Peggy||Jones, Robert B (Herts W)|
|Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)||King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)|
|Fookes, Miss Janet||Kirkhope, Timothy|
|Forman, Nigel||Knapman, Roger|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Knight, Greg (Derby North)|
|Forth, Eric||Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)|
|Franks, Cecil||Knowles, Michael|
|Freeman, Roger||Lang, Ian|
|French, Douglas||Latham, Michael|
|Gale, Roger||Lawrence, Ivan|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)|
|Gill, Christopher||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Goodhart, Sir Philip||Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)|
|Goodlad, Alastair||Lightbown, David|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles||Lilley, Peter|
|Gorst, John||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Gow, lan||Lord, Michael|
|Gower, Sir Raymond||Maclean, David|
|Greenway, John (Ryedale)||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Gregory, Conal||Malins, Humfrey|
|Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')||Mans, Keith|
|Grist, lan||Marland, Paul|
|Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn||Marshall, John (Hendon S)|
|Hamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom)||Martin, David (Portsmouth S)|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin|
|Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick||Soames, Hon Nicholas|
|Miller, Hal||Speed, Keith|
|Mills, lain||Speller, Tony|
|Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)||Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)|
|Mitchell, David (Hants NW)||Squire, Robin|
|Monro, Sir Hector||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Morris, M (N'hampton S)||Stern, Michael|
|Morrison, Hon Sir Charles||Stevens, Lewis|
|Moss, Malcolm||Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)|
|Nelson, Anthony||Summerson, Hugo|
|Neubert, Michael||Tapsell, Sir Peter|
|Nicholson, David (Taunton)||Taylor, lan (Esher)|
|Oppenheim, Phillip||Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)|
|Page, Richard||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Paice, James||Thorne, Neil|
|Patnick, Irvine||Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|Pawsey, James||Tracey, Richard|
|Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth||Tredinnick, David|
|Porter, David (Waveney)||Trotter, Neville|
|Portillo, Michael||Twinn, Dr lan|
|Powell, William (Corby)||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Raffan, Keith||Waddington, Rt Hon David|
|Raison, Rt Hon Timothy||Walden, George|
|Redwood, John||Walker, Bill (T'side North)|
|Renton, Tim||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Riddick, Graham||Watts, John|
|Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)||Wells, Bowen|
|Roe, Mrs Marion||Wheeler, John|
|Rumbold, Mrs Angela||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Ryder, Richard||Wilshire, David|
|Sackville, Hon Tom||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Sainsbury, Hon Tim||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Sayeed, Jonathan||Wolfson, Mark|
|Shaw, David (Dover)||Wood, Timothy|
|Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)||Yeo, Tim|
|Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Shelton, William (Streatham)|
|Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)||Mr. Robert Boscawen and|
|Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)||Mr. Stephen Dorrell.|