I beg to move amendment No. 108, in page 29, line 30, leave out subsection (2).
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm that if, as now appears likely, there is no debate on the final group of amendments, which begins with amendment No. 112, that absence is not through lack of interest or importance but would relate solely to the terms of the Government's guillotine motion?
The right hon. Gentleman is right. We are proceeding in the way in which the House has already agreed. The time spent on each group of amendments is entirely a matter for those taking part.
With little time on the clock, I declare my interest as the holder of a shotgun licence, the owner of an air rifle and a member of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.
I am belatedly pleased that the Government have tabled amendments to deal with some matters that we raised in Committee. However, many thousands of people continue to be worried by the uncertainty that has been caused by the manner in which the Bill has progressed. We wholeheartedly support measures that will have a genuine, practical effect on reducing gun crime in the UK and making our systems safer. However, we do not support clauses that create laws for the sake of being seen to be tough on gun crime, but whose effect will be felt almost exclusively by legitimate users of weapons, not the criminals on whom we intend to crack down.
The root of the remaining problems with part 2 is that we do not believe that sufficient consultation has been held with affected as well as expert bodies. Where is the firearms advisory committee, which should have been the proper body to consult about the Bill? The Government said that they would form that committee before abolishing their previous consulting committee, but they failed to do that.
The Government have yet to publish anything that relates to the 4,000-odd responses to the May 2004 consultation paper on controls on firearms. I submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but it elicited the entirely unsatisfactory response that the information would still not be released. This adds further weight to our grave concerns about the fundamental basis of this part of the Bill.
On amendment No. 108, our position remains that the impact of the changes to the law two years ago should be assessed fully before yet further laws penalising legitimate users of air weapons are introduced. Clause 27 requires anyone who sells air weapons by way of trade or business to register with the police as a firearms dealer. The Minister said in Committee that the registration fee was likely to be £150 per establishment. Will she please confirm that that is the case?
In Committee, the Minister undertook to provide information on how the licensing regime was to work. On Thursday night last week, we received a letter which hardly explained the situation. Perhaps she could now explain, for example, what a fishing store would have to do in order to continue to be able to sell air weapons, and how long it would take to do it. Clause 27 would prohibit any person other than a registered dealer from selling or transferring air weapons. Where is the evidence that airguns are misused through being obtained through trade sources rather than private sales? It is hard enough to accept these changes to the Bill so late in the day, but to do so without being given anything to support, explain or justify the clauses relating to air weapons is quite another matter. As I said in Committee, clauses 27 and 28, when taken together with clause 29, will have a serious and unjustifiably adverse effect on legitimate users of airguns and on persons carrying on the business of selling them.
Amendment No. 108 seeks to remove the burdensome, impractical and pointless requirement to keep a register of air weapons. I want to address the amendment in the context of clause 27 as a whole, because they are inextricably linked. I raised this issue in Committee, but the Minister did not address it at the time. There are an estimated 7 million air weapons in circulation in this country. I do not think that the Government are proposing that those 7 million weapons should be registered; I believe that only future sales will be affected. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that. If that is the case, how would the measure work in practice? If clause 27 does not propose to register the existing 7 million air weapons, will not subsection (2)—which would require a register of transactions—be futile? There will be 7 million unregistered air weapons in circulation, and this proposal would merely impose a disproportionate administrative burden on registered firearms dealers. The requirement to maintain full records of air weapons sales in a firearms register would simply be unnecessary red tape.
Fewer than 50 per cent. of airguns are sold by registered firearms dealers. The majority are sold by sports shops, fishing shops and similar outlets. No evidence has been produced to show that airguns sold through registered firearms dealers are more or less likely to be misused than those sold through other retail outlets. There is no evidence that retailers who are not registered firearms dealers are irresponsible in selling airguns to the public. Nor is there evidence to suggest that the proposed restrictions will improve public safety.
A simpler system would involve creating a lawful check on the sale of firearms, but without the need for registration. One such system could involve ensuring that any person who wished to sell air weapons should apply in writing to the police for written authority to do so. This would essentially be a much simpler system of licensing. If the police believed that the applicant was not a fit person to sell airguns, they could refuse to give their authority. The applicant could then be given the right of appeal. As we said in Committee, a modified form of licensing would be more acceptable, but no changes have been forthcoming from the Government since then. Rather than requiring full registration, regulation could be achieved by using simpler, less restrictive regimes. What I continue to find most bizarre is that the Home Office consultation paper of May 2004 stated that
"we do not therefore believe that there should be a system of licensing or further restrictions on the sale of air guns".
I must ask the Minister why the Government are ignoring their own advice.
Banning the sale of air weapons except through registered firearms dealers approved by the police is an impractical, draconian, burdensome and disproportionate measure, and the Government have failed to provide any evidence that it will have any effect on violent crime. It will serve only to penalise business people and sports persons involved in shooting.
In the Home Office regulatory impact assessment, the Home Office recognises that licensing all air weapons would result in a significant decrease in sales of air weapons and a significant impact on business. The assessment stated:
"We understand that the majority of air weapons are sold through small dealers and tackle shops, so small firms would be affected disproportionately."
It remains unclear exactly how many small sellers would actually convert to getting a firearms licence. The cost and inconvenience could be disproportionate, and again, business as well as sport could suffer.
The more important point for the Minister to show is exactly how that will reduce violent crime involving air weapons. While the clause will make it more difficult for lawful users to acquire air weapons, there is no evidence that that will affect the level of misuse.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, as I did in Committee. He is very much opposed to a licensing scheme, and I know that he was very much opposed to a personal purchaser licensing scheme. In the light of that, can he explain why the Conservative group on Dundee city council, along with the Labour and Liberal group, voted tonight for such a licensing scheme?
I have no idea why the Conservative group voted for such a scheme. The policy of this Conservative group is that the scheme as proposed by the Government is unworkable and impractical. If we are to have any scheme at all, that which is offered tonight is not the correct one.
Amendment No. 190 relates to clause 28, which requires the sale of air weapons by way of trade or business to be face-to-face. Once again, we find ourselves asking where exactly the evidence is to support this draconian measure. It is appreciated that the clause is intended to outlaw all sales via the internet or mail order, but in Committee the Minister raised more questions than she answered. We tabled the amendment to draw attention to that. Under the amendment, the clause would be restricted to apply only to air weapons with a muzzle energy in excess of 1 J. As we discussed in Committee, that is not regarded as a lethal barrelled weapon, and is the kind commonly used in airsoft and other legitimate activities. To recap on our little Committee chat on muzzle energies, which Members will remember, 1 J is the equivalent impact to a tennis ball being bounced against the floor.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the sport of airsoft. I have been contacted by Mr. Christie from my constituency, on behalf of 100 airsofters in Kettering who are very worried about the implications of the Bill. I welcome my hon. Friend's contribution on that subject.
My hon. Friend makes a valid intervention, not least because, as a result of timetabling, unfortunately, we will not reach the relevant amendments on airsoft, which, he will be pleased to know, we defended in Committee, and I would have done so again today if I had had the opportunity.
The point about the muzzle velocity is that it is very low impact—that is the sort of air weapon that I suspect would be involved in the majority of mail order sales. Precisely for those reasons, we believe that air weapons with a muzzle energy of 1 J or less should be exempted from this unnecessary red tape. We raised legitimate concerns about internet sales from outside the United Kingdom, and the Minister assured us that she was doing all that she could in relation to internet sales and ensuring international co-operation on that front. Will she tell us how she plans to achieve that international co-operation, and what plans are in place to facilitate that?
In relation to internet sales, a major source of concern is sales originating outside the United Kingdom, where guns are more readily available and often cheaper. About 2,500 registered firearms dealers are spread across Great Britain, of which between 1,000 and 1,200 sell airguns by retail. The remainder are specialist dealers or those who do not sell by retail. There are between 1,000 and 1,200 retailers of airguns that are not registered firearms dealers. Thus there are some 2,400 retail outlets for airguns spread across England, Wales and Scotland. It follows that in many areas, particularly rural ones, direct access to a retailer of airguns would involve considerable time and expense without mail order.
As we well know, clause 29, to which amendment No. 110 relates, raises the age from 17 to 18 at which a person may purchase or hire an airgun or ammunition for an airgun. The clause also raises the minimum age from 17 to 18 at which a person may have with him an airgun or ammunition for that airgun. We remain totally unconvinced as to the justification for raising the age limit for buying an air weapon from 17 to 18. The Minister has repeatedly avoided giving any evidence to show that 17-year-olds are heavily involved in air weapon misuse.
The fact is that the evidence needed to justify the clause has not been forthcoming. Airguns are the gateway to other shooting sports and unjustified diminution in airgun sales will therefore have a knock-on effect on all shooting sports. Furthermore if a reduction in the number of retail outlets is coupled with a requirement for face-to-face sales, people in rural areas will be hit especially hard, and many will be deterred from acquiring airguns.
So far the hon. Gentleman has concentrated on sports clubs and rural communities. Has he anything to say about the Bill's effect on urban communities, particularly in inner city areas such as those in London where gun crime is rife and people have been killed and maimed daily?
If the hon. Gentleman thinks that restricting airgun sales to those aged 17 or 18 will have any material impact on violent crime by youths in our inner cities, he has another think coming.
May I ask a question that is relevant to what was said by Jim Sheridan? Surely the effects of airgun use on an inner city estate are very different from the effects on a constituency such as mine or that of Mr. Djanogly, where most people who use airguns will use them responsibly as part of their sport. Should we not be extremely careful about imposing unnecessary restrictions on the sporting use of guns—a road down which we have gone before—if it will not have the practical effect for which we all hope, which is the reduction of illegal gun use in cities?
That is a fair point. The truth is that the measures that we are discussing now will not have the effect that the Government want. Of course, we are discussing elements of a much larger Bill. Along with other Conservative Members and, indeed, Liberal Democrats, I made it clear in Committee that we wanted to reduce gun crime. We have a problem with specific issues, and this is one of them.
As I have said, changes in firearms legislation should be soundly based on consultation and evidence, not just on a perceived need to be seen to be doing something for the sake of it. According to the regulatory impact assessment, the vast majority of the 4,000-odd responses to the consultation paper that commented on air weapons—incidentally, we have not had access to those responses: they were received by the Government, but not by us—favoured tackling misuse, but suggested that that should not be achieved through further restrictions on possession or sale.
The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 tried to deal with airgun abuse—for instance, by raising the age at which airguns could be purchased to 17—but it is less than two years old, and there has not been time for its effects to be properly monitored and evaluated. Having consulted widely, we maintain that it would be wrong to impose further restrictions in the absence of alternative evidence.
Tightening the restrictions will penalise the shooting community, and there is no evidence that it will have any benefit in reducing airgun misuse. It will merely deprive 17-year-olds of the opportunity to be taught safely and responsibly how to handle firearms. Training young people to shoot can be valuable in teaching skills, discipline and responsibility. Introducing them to safe, responsible firearms use makes it far less likely that they will ever misuse guns. If young people were prevented from having reasonable access to airguns, all shooting sports would suffer, with little or no effect on crime figures. This attack on airgun ownership constitutes a veiled attack on shooting and on entry to the sport.
Bizarrely, on page 11 of its consultation paper of May 2004 relating to specifically to age limits, the Home Office categorically recommends that there should be no further restrictions on the sale of airguns because of the disproportionate enforcement effort.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I would have brought up myself if we had enough time, but we will need to move on to other groups of amendments. I agree with what my hon. Friend said.
It is obvious that all improper use of airguns should be an offence, irrespective of the age of the perpetrator, but existing legislation provides for that. The way to crack down on weapon misuse is through better enforcement of existing legislation. That is what will impact on gun crime. Tinkering with age limits in respect of air weapons will do little but anger and upset people who use guns safely and responsibly. The Minister has simply failed to explain how the clause is likely to reduce crime, never mind violent crime, so we believe that clause 29 should be removed entirely from the Bill. I intend to divide the House on amendment No. 110.
Finally, I want to say that in respect of Government amendments Nos. 46 to 48, we are very pleased to see that the Minister has listened to our legitimate concerns about shooting beyond premises with consent. We want to thank the Minister for acting on our concerns in that regard, even though once again, she has unfortunately provided a defence rather than an exemption.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Djanogly on the way in which he has proposed the amendments. I support them all, but I want to comment particularly on amendment No. 110 and the matter of raising the age from 17 to 18. As my hon. Friend noted, the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 raised the age limit from 14 to 17 only two years ago. At that time, I took on the same role as my hon. Friend of challenging the Government. It is fair to say that, even at that stage, there was little evidence that increasing the age at which one could buy or use, without supervision, an airgun from 14 to 17 would make any difference. What is abundantly clear now is that, since that Act came into force, there is no evidence that it has made any difference and there is certainly no evidence that the gap between 17 and 18 is a problem issue.
That is not to say, as I said umpteen times in Committee, that there are no problems with airgun misuse. We know that there are—in rural as well as urban areas—but there are already 30 different offences on the statute book for the misuse of airguns. As my hon. Friend rightly said, the answer lies with proper enforcement of those 30 existing offences. That is what the Government should be concentrating on, rather than this wilful act that appears to come from the "something must be done" school. What can we do about airguns? Let us raise the age limit from 17 to 18 without any evidence that it will do any good. If the Minister seriously believes that it will make any difference to airgun crime, let us hope that in the few minutes left for debate, she will stand up and present the evidence.
How many young people between 17 and 18 have been convicted for one of the 30 offences to which I referred earlier? In how many cases would the offence not have been committed if those young people had been unable to get hold of an airgun? It would be helpful if the Minister provided us with that information. Since the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, how much violent crime has been reduced by the fact that the age was increased from 14 to 17? Can the Minister provide us with some clear examples and statistical evidence—not just wishful thinking or what the Government think or believe—from the Dispatch Box this evening to justify taking away the opportunities of a group of 17-year-olds whose only interest is in using airguns lawfully, legally, safely and often in connection with their occupation in the countryside? That is the sort of evidence that she must put before the House if we are to accept that clause 29 will make any difference whatever.
Finally, we want to hear the Minister's justification for her stance, so she should tell the House what is wrong with simply ensuring that the 30 existing offences are properly enforced. Before she answers that, she might just check her book, so that she can give us the statistics on how many people have been prosecuted in the past few years. She will find that the figure is woefully small, compared with the existing problems. If the Government enforced the law properly, they would not need to take steps such as this.
I have not seen such passion in the House for some time. It is clear that Conservative Members are very attached to their guns—and they doubtless mean to stick to them during this debate.
I will resist the Opposition's amendments and I shall explain why. It is worth reminding the House of how serious this problem is. In 2003–04, 13,756 crimes were committed in which air weapons were used; in 2,395 cases, they caused injury; in 156 cases, they caused serious injury. Occasionally, someone is killed with an air weapon, as happened in the tragic cases of two-year- old Andrew Morton and 12-year-old Alex Cole. The misuse of air weapons is a serious problem and this Government are determined to meet it with effective action.
No. We have heard a lot tonight about legitimate shooting and I have no doubt that there are legitimate shooters who act responsibly, but the Bill's purpose is to deal with people who use weapons irresponsibly, just as its purpose is to deal with those who use alcohol irresponsibly. It is about directing our action at the mischief that undoubtedly is caused in our communities. If Mr. Djanogly represented a slightly different area, he would know that older people, in particular, have been plagued by the misuse of air weapons. Various members of the Committee, such as my hon. Friend Ms Butler, pointed out that some older people are cowering in their homes because people are taking pot-shots at them and their families. So I make no apologies for trying to ensure that sufficient restrictions are in place.
Amendment No. 108 would remove the requirement for air weapon retailers to keep a register of transactions, but that register is an important part of the controls. It removes purchasers' anonymity and should deter casual and irresponsible sales, which is what we want to achieve. At the moment, people can buy air weapons at car boot sales, through mail order and on the internet. Requiring that a register be kept and that air weapons be sold face to face brings a little more rigour to the system. I do not pretend for a moment that we are introducing a licensing system for the millions of air weapons in existence, but we are doing what we can, in a practical and proportionate way, to ensure that the sale of air weapons is at least a little safer. I realise that the licensing fee is £150, but that is for three years, so it is not an onerous requirement for those stores and shops that want to be responsible air weapon retailers. I am sure that many of them will be delighted to register with their local police force to enable them to sell their weapons properly.
Amendment No. 109 would modify the requirement in clause 28 by applying it only to air weapons with a muzzle energy in excess of 1 J, but such weapons are already included. I discovered in Committee that weapons of 1 J or greater are the only ones that meet the firearms definition of a lethal barrelled weapon in the Firearms Act 1968. Lethality does not occur until a muzzle energy in excess of 1 J is reached, so a weapon with a muzzle energy of less than 1 J is not a lethal barrelled weapon and does not fall within the definition of a firearm. It is very strange for me to be telling Mr. Djanogly, an avowed shooter and an expert on the technicalities of such matters, that his amendment is therefore superfluous; nevertheless, I ask him to withdraw it.
Amendment No. 110 would remove from the Bill the increase in the age limit. It is right and proper that we bring the air weapons provision into line with that for knives, because we want to ensure that young people have access to potentially dangerous weapons only in the proper circumstances. Young people will still be able to shoot at approved clubs under adult supervision, or, if they are aged 14 or over, on private premises with the occupier's consent. That gives them sufficient ability to shoot under proper conditions.
I am glad that Government amendments Nos. 46, 47 and 48 have been welcomed by the Opposition. They clarify the situation in cases where people fire an air weapon beyond the boundary of one premises and into another, with consent.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment proposed: No. 110, in page 30, line 24, leave out clause 29.—[Mr. Djanogly.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I am grateful to Members on both sides of the House for their constructive approach during consideration of the Bill in Committee and on Report. Many helpful points, including points of clarification, were raised in Committee, which have enabled us to make more explicit the intention of the Bill and to improve it. I thank Mr. Forth and my hon. Friend Mr. Benton for their excellent chairmanship of our discussions.
I also thank John Thurso, who is not in the Chamber. I learned more about the Atholl Highlanders during the proceedings of the Bill than I could ever have contemplated. I also know more about managing a rural estate, which is how the hon. Gentleman seems to spend some of his time. The Committee stage was extremely good-natured.
I hope that Members will agree that we responded positively to many of the points raised and that the Bill we are sending to the other place has been significantly improved by the scrutiny process. I welcome the broad measure of cross-party support for many of the provisions. In Committee, we shared the desire to tackle gun and knife crime and to try to reduce the unacceptable, alcohol-fuelled violence and disorder, which we unfortunately see on too many of the streets of our towns and cities, to protect the decent, law-abiding majority of people.
The British crime survey data show considerable falls in violent crime since 1997—a total fall of 34 per cent., which is significant by anybody's reckoning—but we are not complacent, nor would the public want us to be. Too many people are still victims of crime, including violent crime. Too many people live in fear of crime and we need to tackle that, too. We are doing everything we can to try to make a real difference and the Bill contains a good cross-section of provisions, giving the police and local communities the powers they need further to reduce violent crime, particularly in relation to knives, guns and alcohol.
Although most people drink responsibly, we all agree that the scale of alcohol-fuelled violence is too high. I believe that responsibility for ending the binge-drinking culture rests both with individuals, because it is important that they make correct choices about drinking, and with the people who run pubs, clubs, supermarkets and off-licences. I realise that Mr. Malins wanted to make a distinction between on and off-licence premises in terms of responsibility, but I reject such a distinction. If Members consider the results of the recent test purchasing in off-licence premises, they will see that there is still a significant problem of such premises selling to under-age youngsters. It is not simply a problem for the on-licence trade. Everybody has to take responsibility and the alcohol disorder zone provisions are about ensuring that collective responsibility.
We debated drinking banning orders at some length. I hope that Members will accept the difference between drinking banning orders and ASBOs, although I do not have a great deal of real hope in the case of the hon. Member for Woking. There is a significant difference. We want the orders to be used proactively by the courts whenever people come before them.
There is a series of exceptions to the drinking banning order, because we want to ensure that people can access their home, education and place of work, even when they are under a drinking banning order. We also said that people should still be able to attend their place of worship. That could help them to desist from the demon drink, so it will certainly be included as part of the guidance.
We debated alcohol disorder zones again today. The Bill tries to build on the efforts already made by responsible licensees. My hon. Friend David Lepper referred to business improvement districts. We talked about the Citysafe scheme in Manchester and similar schemes in Swansea, Leicester, Cardiff and York, where licensees are working voluntarily with their police and local councils to tackle the problems.
Members have expressed concerns that good operators will be caught with the bad ones. Sammy Wilson put the point extremely well: everybody is culpable but there should be differentiation in the degree of culpability. We shall try to achieve that in the regulations.
I am disappointed that the Liberal Democrats have continually moved amendments that—in the words of my hon. Friend Ms Keeble—would ensure that the provision for alcohol disorder zones was unworkable. We should be honest enough to say either that we support the principle of such zones and ensure that we have practical, effective legislation or that we do not support such zones and would do away with them. What causes me immense frustration is that, time and again, the Liberal Democrats will the ends but not the means.
The Liberal Democrats say that they are against antisocial behaviour, but they will not support ASBOs. They say that they are against gangs hanging around, but they will not support dispersal orders. They say that they want to tackle alcohol-fuelled violence, but are not prepared to support alcohol disorder zones. In politics, it is important that we are clear about what action we want to take. Theirs is a party that has not been in government and is not likely to be in government. It simply wills the ends but not the means to get there. Sometimes, government is about making some pretty hard decisions.
Does my right hon. Friend agree not only that the Liberal Democrats say one thing in the House and do another thing in the country, but that, tonight, Liberal Democrat Front Benchers have supported the perpetrators of crime, rather than the victims?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. When he put it to the Liberal Democrats earlier that perhaps they would like to include in their "Focus" leaflets their support of the human rights of the perpetrators of antisocial behaviour, he got a resounding silence from them.
Part 2 seeks to address a number of serious problems associated with armed crime and the misuse of imitation firearms, air weapons and knives. I am pleased that it has generally received broad support, although some minor issues have been raised. The appalling deaths and injuries that have been caused by gun and knife crime deeply hurt families and communities and leave a legacy of fear.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that airguns, which are sometimes called BB guns, can be used recreationally? Although I do not take part in such recreation, I am concerned that such legislation might damage sports such as airsoft or historical re-enactments. Does she agree that perhaps a distinguishing mark on the barrels of such guns could play a part in reducing the criminal use of such items?
It is excellent to see that Labour Members are interested in practical legislation that can work. I am delighted at my hon. Friend's suggestion. She will know that we have made some amendments to cover historical re-enactments and museums, and she makes an excellent suggestion in relation to airsoft. Clearly, if imitations are not realistic, they can be used in that fashion.
I may as well be even in my disappointment as between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. I was disappointed with the Conservatives in relation to mandatory sentences for people who seek to get others to hide and mind their guns for them. We included a provision that mandatory five-year sentences, such as those for the possession of weapons, would be imposed for seeking to use particularly children to mind illegal guns. Frankly, I was amazed at the Conservatives. Mr. Djanogly said:
"For this crime, it seems inappropriate that the sentence should be mandatory".—[Official Report, Standing Committee B,
The Opposition must know that, since we introduced the mandatory five-year sentence for being in possession of an illegal gun, people have reduced their usage of real guns and moved to using imitations, which is why we have the provisions on the banning of realistic imitations.
I, too, was extremely disappointed with the Opposition's attempts to remove the mandatory five-year sentence. With a constituency such as mine, where we have a firearms-related incident every 17 days on average, the removal of such sentences would be absolutely detrimental to the good work that the police are doing in ensuring that gun crime is reduced. We should act responsibly when the Government introduce measures that will effectively save people's lives and ensure that younger people do not take up guns because they know that doing so will carry a mandatory five-year sentence.
My hon. Friend has a great deal of personal experience of these really devastating problems in her community. I am sure that Labour Members not only share her disappointment, but are shocked by the Opposition's position and the fact that they divided the House to vote against mandatory sentences, which was a great surprise.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the restrictions on airguns in the Bill are good news for one of my constituents, Andrew Ross, who was shot in the face three weeks ago? He needed six stitches and nearly lost an eye. Such restrictions are an important step forward. If, as I hope, the Bill is passed tonight, will she join my call to urge forces throughout the country to have an amnesty for airguns? If fewer such weapons are lying around in people's houses, it is logical that people such as my constituent will be safer.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that the restrictions will help to ensure that air weapons are better regulated. As I said earlier, there were 156 serious injuries involving air weapons last year. He suggests an amnesty. If such weapons are no longer being used, they should be kept out of the hands of people who could misuse them, so his suggestion would be a positive way forward.
I commend the Bill because in the smallest county in Scotland, of which my constituency is part, in the first seven months of the year, 41 of the 50 crimes involving firearms related to airguns. There was an incident similar to that raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Kemp when a 13 or 14-year-old boy was shot under the eye. Anything that can be done to tighten the registration of, and restriction on, such armaments must be a step in the right direction to make our society and communities much safer.
Yes. I know about my hon. Friend's personal commitment to the issue because I was delighted that he recently presented me with a petition through which many of his constituents expressed their worry about the misuse of air weapons.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her compliment. I raise a genuine constituent's concern. Mr. Cockayne from Kettering is a member of the Great War Society, which has a distinguished record of re-enacting scenes from the great war. The Governments of France and Belgium have invited the society to re-enact the battle of the Somme in July 2006—the right hon. Lady will know that that has special significance. Mr. Cockayne wants to know whether members of the society will be allowed to leave the country with their deactivated original weapons and then be allowed back into the country with those weapons when they return.
Yes. The Bill now provides an exemption for deactivated weapons, so they will not fall under the category of realistic imitation weapons, which will be banned from being manufactured and imported. If the weapons are deactivated, those people will be able to take part in their activity. I have been keen throughout the Bill's passage to try to ensure that we do not cast our net too wide and affect people who do extremely good work, especially with schoolchildren, by re-enacting and taking part in living history lessons to try to bring such history alive. I am conscious of the excellent work done by people in my constituency in that regard.
We had a good debate on air weapons and I think that we have dealt sufficiently with the matter. I was disappointed that we did not have the chance to debate primers because I was looking forward to telling hon. Members that I had learned about not only muzzle joule energy, but percussions caps for UN metallic-cased ammunition. Our chance has now disappeared, but those matters have added to the sum of my knowledge, if not to the sum of human knowledge.
We did not have the chance to discuss imitation firearms, but I am glad that we have been able to include in the Bill exemptions for television and theatrical productions, historical re-enactments and museums. We have struck a pragmatic and realistic balance between the mischief at which we are aiming, which is the misuse of realistic imitations—the use of which has increased by 66 per cent. in the past year, so we need to crack down on that—and protecting legitimate use.
No, I am afraid that I do not have to hand the figures on 17 to 18-year-olds. However, a strong case has been made about the danger of young people obtaining weapons that could be misused at the age of 18. As I have set out, there is a range of circumstances in which youngsters as young as 14 can continue to use air weapons provided that they do so under supervision. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes such provisions, which aim to achieve the right balance, so that people have the freedom to use their weapons, but certainly do not have the freedom to misuse them and harass good, decent, law-abiding citizens.
I have nothing further to add save to commend the Bill to the House. As I said, violent crime has been reduced by 34 per cent. since the Government came to power, which is an excellent record. There is always more that we can do, however, to try to make sure that the people of this country have the right to live in safe and secure communities. The Government will try to achieve that with every measure that we introduce to try to ensure that the criminal justice system and the police service are on the side of the decent, law-abiding majority. I commend the Bill to the House.
I should like to begin in the same way as the Minister by telling the House that all the members of the Committee have good reason to be grateful to our Chairmen, my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth and Mr. Benton, and to the Clerk of the Committee, who looked after us very well during the course of our deliberations.
I particularly thank the Minister, because throughout the Committee, she, like the rest of us, ensured that our debate was reasoned and measured. Although there were disagreements, as is always the case, there were also points on which we agreed, and we approached everything in a constructive manner. I should like to thank my hon. Friends who contributed a great deal in Committee. My hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) and for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) were particularly helpful, but I should like to give special mention to my hon. Friend Mr. Djanogly for taking on his shoulders the heavy burden of dealing with firearms matters. I am grateful to him for that work.
The majority of correspondence that hon. Members received before the Bill went into Committee was sent by people who were interested for personal reasons—they often had relevant hobbies—in the provisions on firearms. We all received many letters from concerned constituents. I thank Lynne Featherstone for her contributions in Committee. We had some useful exchanges with Government Back Benchers, including Ms Keeble. Although I rarely agreed with her, and she rarely agreed with me, that does not alter the fact that such exchanges are worth while.
The Bill has completed its Committee and Report stages, and it will shortly proceed to the other place. Earlier, the Minister said that one or two of our amendments may find favour with her, given what they set out to achieve, although not necessarily as drafted. That shows the House of Commons at its best. From time to time—I wish it happened more often—Governments accept Opposition amendments if they think that there is merit in them. I therefore look forward very much to hearing the Government's proposals on those amendments, sooner rather than later. We have been talking for weeks about the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which draws our attention to three areas that are of great concern to everyone in the House of Commons and in Parliament generally. First, drink-fuelled crime and alcohol-related disorder are a huge concern. The Minister properly said that the figures are too high, and there is concern about the problem on both sides of the House, particularly among Members who represent urban areas. I understand and respect that concern, because sometimes people from urban areas see things differently. They are not always correct, but they see things differently from people who come from areas that are not so urban. I understand the difference, and accept that there is a balance to be struck.
Hon. Members have expressed throughout our debates—this is a non-party point—their great concern about the increase in binge drinking and alcohol-related violence on our streets. Earlier today, I remarked that all of us are concerned about binge drinking among very young people. Something must be done about it. I hope that hon. Members will accept in the spirit in which it is intended my comment that a number of us may have drunk too much when we were 18, 19 or 20, but in our day it was most unusual to see binge drinking and heavy drunkenness among much younger children such as 13, 14 or 15-year-olds. The fact that we see that quite a lot now is troubling, not least because of the health implications. Setting aside for the moment the obvious public and criminal costs, I fear that there is a generation growing up now who have become used to heavy doses of alcohol in their mid or early teens. We should all worry about that very much.
Tackling drink-fuelled crime is important and the Government's approach in the Bill is to introduce two new measures: drinking banning orders and alcohol disorder zones. I have said throughout our debates that I feel that the existing law is in many respects sufficient to cover the mischief with which we are attempting to deal. There is a variety of offences in the criminal law relating to alcohol-fuelled disorder and violence, as well as the range of penalties and criminal offences that—I repeat—the Home Affairs Committee has said are underused by the police. What is important is to enforce existing law, rather than consistently to give in to the apparent need to make new law, which is the Government's answer to everything. If existing law were seriously enforced, we might not be having this debate now. It is a great worry that current law is not being enforced. During his remarks on guns, my hon. Friend Mr. Paice referred to 30-odd offences on the statute book the proper enforcement and policing of which would ensure that we did not need to debate much of what we have debated today.
I hope to goodness that the drinking banning order proves successful. I have my doubts, but I wish it well. We have expressed our concerns about alcohol disorder zones and argued throughout—we voted on it—that those premises that are not to blame should not be in the same position as those premises that are clearly to blame.
We had a long debate on knives. All of us on both sides of the House accept that knife crime—in particular, the offence under section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 of carrying a bladed article—is increasing dramatically. That is a great worry, yet the only reference to that crime in the Bill is in the fairly narrow, perhaps relevant in their own way but not generally applicable, clauses that deal with knives in schools—a growing problem, with up to 60,000 children aged between 11 and 16 carrying knives in school, which is a terrifying statistic—and the offence of using someone to mind a weapon. The offence of carrying a bladed article in public is one that we must address much more strongly, so I was disappointed by the Government's response to our new clause in which we proposed a new maximum—not minimum—penalty for that offence, increasing it from two years to five years. The Government did not take our arguments on board and made no conciliatory comments in that respect.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon carried on his own shoulders a great deal of the burden of our debates on firearms. Tonight, he spoke on the clauses that deal with air weapons, and we were able to force a Division. However, the time ran out, although I do not blame the Minister because it was one of those things. I wish that we had had more time to debate the amendments covering ammunition and realistic imitation firearms and re-enactments, but I repeat that no blame attaches to the Minister.
On firearms, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon has made it clear, and I shall make it clear, too, that today's position is different from that a couple of weeks ago. Conservative Members thank the Minister for her reasonable and responsive approach to many of the matters that we raised in Committee, and we are pleased that the Government have tabled amendments that go some way to assuaging our concerns and those of the millions of law-abiding weapon users who stand to be affected by the legislation. However, many thousands of people are still concerned about the uncertainty surrounding the Bill's progress—we know that from our correspondence.
I repeat our support for the intent behind the clauses on weapons, because we support wholeheartedly measures that will have a practical effect on reducing gun crime in the UK and making our citizens safer. However, we do not support creating laws for the sake of being seen to be tough on gun crime, the effect of which will be felt almost exclusively by legitimate users of weapons and not by the criminals on whom we intend to crack down. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon and I take the view that clause 32 is one of most inherently flawed clauses in the entire Bill. It stands to penalise collectors and create a further unnecessary administrative burden while doing virtually nothing to combat violent crime.
Thousands of sportsmen use ammunition loading presses and dies for a number of reasons, including to save money, to help the environment and to improve accuracy. The ability to reload can save up to 50 per cent. of the cost of factory ammunition, allowing clay pigeon shooters who use a significant number of shotgun cartridges to save money. I have made those points because we were unable to debate these important matters on Report, Mr. Speaker.
Finally, realistic imitation firearms were thoroughly debated in Committee, but sadly we have not debated them today, so some concerns have still not been fully addressed. It is good news that the Government realise the serious unintended potential of clause 35 for groups such as re-enactors and museums, but serious concerns linger that it provides only such groups with a defence against a criminal offence.
We must stand up for utterly law-abiding citizens, whom we should not seek to penalise with any of our legislation, and I hope that the other place returns to that point. I was sad and sorry when I received hundreds of letters from those who indulge in the harmless and in many ways laudable sport of airsoft. Their letters—they wrote to many other hon. Members, too—asked why they, who are innocent, must pay the price.
I have three points for the Minister. First, I wish the Bill good fortune in the other place. Secondly, it is vital that we focus on what works: I hope that the Government demonstrate a real need for the particular measures in the Bill and explain why current legislation has been deemed ineffective. Thirdly, I hope that the general principle, with which surely all hon. Members agree, that there is no point in punishing the innocent in the vain belief that it will help to punish the guilty is raised in the other place. That principle goes across the Bill, and it will affect premises that serve alcohol and law-abiding people who are involved in the gun trade. One of my great fears is that we are rapidly moving towards a situation that has arisen under previous Governments whereby we tend far too much to penalise those who are innocent, honest and genuine in the belief that we will affect the mindset of those who are wicked and criminal. The truth is that we will not. It is very important to take that on board.
I say a final word of thanks to the Minister for her courtesy. Conservative Members look forward to seeing the progress of the Bill in the other House. We are united in our belief, as are the Government, that there are vital issues that need to be tackled. Although we disagree with their approach to many of those issues, we share a common purpose and will always work towards that end.
I add my congratulations to the Minister on steering the Bill through. It is an excellent Bill that adds to the existing menu of laws and other restrictions that are being introduced to control antisocial behaviour in our neighbourhoods.
I wish to concentrate on two aspects, the first of which is firearms. There are lots of scaremongering stories in the press suggesting that the Bill limits the freedom of people who use replica weapons. In Committee, my hon. Friend Ms Abbott—unfortunately she is not here tonight—graphically described the siege mentality in parts of her constituency as regards the use of replica guns. Any move to ensure that one less life is taken on the streets of our cities has to be welcome.
I welcome the restrictions on air weapons. My hon. Friend Mr. Kemp mentioned one of his constituents in that context. The Newcastle Evening Chronicle has run a well-supported campaign in the north-east on introducing tougher measures on air weapons. Its readers will welcome the Bill, which increases such powers. In my constituency, which is semi-rural, the misuse of air weapons leads to tragic events, including the shooting and mutilation of people's pets, as well as wildlife. The Bill will be welcomed by numerous constituents who have written to me asking for tougher controls on the use of firearms.
I am pleased that the Mobile Telephone (Re-Programming) Bill, which I introduced as a private Member's Bill in the last Parliament, has been incorporated into the Bill. That Bill ran out of parliamentary time, although I did secure my Christmas Day (Trading) Bill. The theft of mobile phones—a crime against the young—is a growing menace in our cities. The amount of money involved in the theft and reprogramming of mobile phones is mind-boggling. The police and the industry believe that the Bill will be a welcome new piece of weaponry in their armoury in bearing down on a crime that did not exist 30 years ago but now plagues many communities. The police in the north-east have told me that there is a clear connection between the stolen mobile phone trade and drug dealing. The Bill makes it an offence to offer the service of reprogramming mobile phones. That gives the police much-needed weaponry to bear down on such crimes, albeit that the perpetrators will probably find ways around it.
We have discussed antisocial behaviour caused by alcohol misuse. The Bill will improve our communities in that respect. Many of the problems in my constituency are caused not by public houses but by youngsters who have access to alcohol and hang around on street corners and estates, making people's lives a misery. I was struck in Committee and today by the difference between the world that I live in and that of Mr. Malins. Perhaps he still lives in a quaint age in which people in villages in his constituency think that people getting drunk at weekends is down to high spirits. I certainly do not, and neither do many of my constituents.
I have enjoyed debating the Bill. It will lead to better regulation in our constituencies, and it will be warmly welcomed in North Durham.
I should like to put on record my thanks to Mr. Benton and Mr. Forth for chairing my first Committee and to the Minister and all hon. Members for a constructive and instructive debate. Despite the Minister's comments, I welcome the Government's attempts to deal with a scourge in all our communities—the twin evils of alcohol and the rise in the use of weapons.
I fear that the Bill will have to deal with more disorder than it would otherwise have done. Although I have much sympathy with the Government's position on relaxing licensing laws, problems are already arising in that local residents' and local authorities' decisions are being overturned. That is a great pity. One of the main ideas was staggering the hours at which people would leave pubs, yet I understand that, instead of leaving at 11 pm or 12 am, they all come out at 2.30 am or 3 am. That will create problems for the alcohol disorder zones and make matters more difficult.
Again, despite the Minister's comments, I support the idea of alcohol disorder zones. I am disappointed that she does not wish me to criticise what I find so difficult about the matter: the lack of regulations or guidance that show what differentials can be made in the charging regime so that different levels of culpability can be appropriately charged. However, we are short of time and I do not want to dwell on that.
I have learned more about weaponry than I ever wanted to know during our debates. One outstanding matter, which we had no time to reach, was determining the lethal Joule energy output. I am not sure that I could make a judgment on that because I understand that Ireland allows 4 J whereas 1 J is allowed here. I do not know at what point one dies or what test should determine that. I had thought about lining people up and ascertaining at what Joule output they keeled over, but I am not sure that that is the right way to approach the matter.
The hon. Gentleman should ask my children—I am not very liberal with them, either.
Weapons are a scourge of our time. In some parts of my constituency, young people aspire to criminality and owning guns. Guns and knives are what makes you cool—what makes you the man. However, we need more than legislation to tackle that; we need more work on the ground to change the prospects, future and mindset of those who are so lost that they do not even want a way out. The Bill does not tackle that charter of despair. It deals with some of the important symptoms of what is going on but we need to do more work.
I welcome the beginning of parity between knife and gun crime, especially the moves against imitation firearms, which are a growing evil. I remember visiting SO19, where one is put in front of a training video with a gun, put in a position whereby someone runs towards one with a gun, and given a split second to decide whether to shoot or not. I would undoubtedly have shot, but the person was running past to save me from something.
We will have to ascertain whether some of the alcohol disorder zone and drinking banning order chickens that we have hatched come home to roost. I hope that the Bill will curb some of the worst excesses associated with guns and alcohol but we all need to put on our thinking caps and consider how to tackle the root cause of the twin evils.
I shall be brief. I am conscious that other hon. Members have served in Committee and been present all day waiting to be called.
I should like to concentrate on gun crime and especially knife crime. Knife crime is a menace in every community that we serve. In my experience in the west of Scotland, knife crime is reported with alarming regularity in all our newspapers almost daily. If any independent testimony were needed to verify the frightening use of knives in our towns and cities, police and hospital staff could give chapter and verse. Hon. Members would be horrified at the extent of knife crime in the west of Scotland, not only at weekends but every day of the week. History and experience of knife crime becomes crucial evidence for toughening existing laws. That is why I fully support the Bill and raising the minimum age at which a young person can carry a knife from 16 to 18.
I should also like to pay tribute to Strathclyde police, who are a force to be reckoned with. They deal very severely with knife crime. They have seen at first hand the way in which the gun and knife cultures have grown in the west of Scotland in the past 20 years, resulting in knives, blades, swords and Stanley knives becoming the weapons of choice among the gangsters and criminals. Anyone who has spoken to members of their local hospital staff will understand the problem that they, too, face in regard to health and safety. The country would be facing an increase in murders of tidal-wave proportions if it were not for the tremendous skill and professionalism of our surgeons and nursing staff.
I want to talk briefly about amnesties. Looking round the Chamber, I imagine that, with one or two exceptions, I am probably the only one here who will remember the amnesty in the early '70s led by the late Frankie Vaughan. He organised a very successful amnesty in the streets and housing estates of Glasgow. Some of our modern celebrities could go a long way if they were able to do the same thing.
A frightening development in gun crime has been the conversion and modification of imitation guns so that they can fire live ammunition, in which there has been a 66 per cent. increase in the 12 months up to this year. I have said that no area is exempt or excluded from the threat of gun crime. However, if further proof is needed, last week in a neighbouring constituency to mine in Renfrewshire, the police raided a flat and removed a 12-bore pump-action shotgun, a bolt-action .22–250 rifle, a 12-bore single-barrelled sawn-off shotgun, a converted replica pistol, and 98 bulleted cartridges. I hope that this legislation will enable the police to do even more to get guns and knives off our streets.
There is a great deal in the Bill to be commended, not least the provisions regarding real firearms and realistic imitation firearms. As the Minister and other Members who served on the Committee know, however, our primary concern is airgun crime, although attempts to tackle real gun crime remain vital, as I said in Committee and I am happy to put on record again.
I shall explain our concerns about airgun crime. In 2003–04, there were 68 firearms murders, 1,195 attempted murders, and more than 10,000 crimes involving real firearms in England. In Scotland over the same period, there was one murder, four attempted murders and fewer than 200 crimes in which the firearm was identified as a real one. The figures for handguns are even more stark. There were 5,123 crimes, including 35 murders, in England, compared with only 29 handgun crimes and no murders in Scotland. The Government are absolutely right to tackle this scourge and to clamp down on it as hard as they possibly can. I do not want to see the handgun crime that causes so much misery in parts of the south-east of England spreading to Scotland and other parts of the UK. In Scotland over that same period, however, there were 415 airgun crimes, compared with 194 crimes involving a real firearm—more than 200 per cent. more.
I welcome the amendments that have been made to the Bill. The Minister knows that I have concerns about the licensing scheme relating to vendors rather than purchasers. I am being deliberately brief, but I hope that, if the Minister looks at the statistics in a year or two and finds that the measure has not been sufficiently robust, and if airgun crime continues to rise, the Government will revisit this issue and look more sympathetically at a purchaser licensing scheme, rather than a vendor licensing scheme.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, I do not think that I have anything to add except to thank the hon. Members for Woking (Mr. Malins) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) and all the officials who have helped us throughout our consideration of the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.