With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 38, page 7, line 26, after ‘air weapons’, insert
“below a muzzle energy of 6 ft/lbs”.
Amendment 3, page 7, line 27, leave out from ‘1968’ to end of line 34.
Amendment 18, page 7, line 34, at end add—
‘(1A) The Secretary of State shall have the power to issue regulations to deal with any cross-border issues arising from the operation of this section including but not limited to issues arising from the transport of air weapons from, or their use in, Scotland and England and Wales.’.
Amendment 39, page 7, line 34, at end add—
‘(2) The use or possession of air weapons as defined in subsection (1) above which were acquired before the coming into force of any Act or other legislative instrument of the Scottish Parliament made as a result of this section shall until then continue to be subject to any regulations made under the Firearms Acts 1968 to 1997.’.
Clause stand part.
There has been much discussion of this issue and I know that many hon. Members wish to contribute to this part of our consideration today, so I shall keep my remarks brief. This emotive issue was considered in detail by the Calman commission and I know from my own experience that lengthy discussion has taken place involving the Scotland Office, the Home Office and, on various occasions, the Scottish Government on issues associated with the control of air weapons. The current definition of “air weapons” has often been raised and I was slightly surprised to see that the Bill uses the 1968 definition, because an issue had previously arisen regarding the proper definition of “air weapons”. I am sure that other hon. Members will deal with that in greater detail. I took the opportunity at today’s Home Office questions to ask the Home Secretary when she planned to review that definition and one of her Ministers said that he was not sure but he would come back to me on it at some point. We need to be confident that the definition is appropriate in respect of what the Calman commission recommended on air weapons and therefore what the Bill tries to do.
Amendments 17 and 18 do not relate to that issue but are probing amendments dealing with a couple of specific areas, one of which is the treatment of air weapons for recognised sporting events and what happens when people travel to the Commonwealth games or another event through England and into Scotland. Amendment 18 deals with cross-border issues—for example, what happens when an airgun is licensed in Scotland but not in England and someone from England takes a weapon without a licence north of the border. The Minister represents a rural constituency on the border, so I am sure he will be aware of the potential for some of these issues to arise. The amendment seeks to ensure that there is a mechanism to deal with any of those issues. I am well aware that other hon. Members wish to discuss this matter in much more detail, so I shall draw my comments to a close.
I wish to speak to my amendments 38 and 39. I do so as chairman of the all-party group on shooting and conservation, the secretariat for which is provided by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the specialist shooting body. The BASC has briefed me on these matters and I took some of its members to see the Secretary of State last week, when they were able to put the technical arguments against this matter being included in the Bill and thus becoming a devolved matter. I shall use the latitude that the clause stand part debate provides to make that argument, as well as the one for my two amendments.
My two amendments are straightforward. Amendment 38 seeks to withdraw all but the least powerful air weapons from these arrangements. Amendment 39 goes some way towards dealing with the cross-border issues that Tom Greatrex described and with the issue of weapons being legal in England and Wales but becoming illegal in Scotland if the matter were devolved and the Scottish Parliament were to use its powers under the Bill.
In arguing against this becoming a devolved matter, it might be useful if I put the whole thing into context. Shooting contributes £240 million to the Scottish economy and airguns are the entry point into the sport. It is estimated that there are some 500,000 airguns in Scotland, compared with 4 million to 7 million in the UK as a whole. They are owned for a variety of lawful purposes, such as target shooting and pest control. The majority of airguns do not carry any serial or other identifying number, and very few need to be held on the authority of a firearms certificate because their capacity is below 12 ft/lbs. The location of nearly all current owners is unknown.
Some 52% of all Scottish airgun crime takes place in the Strathclyde police area and this appears to be an urban problem, rather than a countrywide problem. The call in this Bill for the devolution of airgun legislation has been made following the tragic death of two-year-old Andrew Morton, who was shot with an airgun by 27-year-old Mark Bonini, a drug user from Glasgow. The subsequent tabloid outrage and a campaign by the Scottish nationalists has resulted in a “Scottish appetite” for airgun legislation to be devolved, despite the fact that the current criminal justice system worked by sentencing Mark Bonini to life imprisonment.
There is therefore really no need for any further amendments to the firearms legislation. Numerous pieces of legislation are available to the police across Great Britain to deal with the misuse of airguns and three further pieces of airgun legislation have recently been passed by Westminster: the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, and the Crime and Security Act 2010. The Scottish police can also use the offence of reckless discharge, which is not available south of the border.
The hon. Gentleman said that 50% of these incidents took place in the Strathclyde police area and that there was some sort of link with this being an urban crime, not a rural one. Given that the Strathclyde police area stretches from the Dumfriesshire border with Ayrshire into the lowlands of the highlands, I am puzzled as to how he makes that link between urban crime and the Strathclyde police area.
It comes from the number of offences that have been reported—no more, no less. The average number of Scottish airgun offences per annum since 1996 is 565 and the number of incidents has been falling since 2006-07.
The apparent rise in the use of airguns is likely to be the result of improved police reporting procedures, but other weapons, especially knives, are much more likely to be used in homicide offences in Scotland and, indeed, elsewhere. There is nothing peculiarly Scottish about airgun controls or crime, so there is no justification for creating a system for Scotland that differs from the current regime in England. It is not enough for Ministers to wash their hands of it on the ground that the democratic process will produce the right answer. The campaign for the devolution of powers regarding airguns has been fuelled by tabloid scaremongering such as that around the recent incident in Auchinleck in Ayrshire. It was initially reported that 18 schoolchildren had been shot by a sniper armed with an airgun equipped with a muzzle, but it later turned out that eight children had been hit by plastic pellets from a BB toy gun.
The coalition has rightly resolutely opposed knee-jerk legislation on firearms that is not based on sound evidence. The Calman commission produced no argument for devolving powers on airguns beyond the statement that
“there is appetite to deal with airguns differently in Scotland.”
I submit to the Minister that that is not a good basis for legislating on this matter. The commission produced no evidence to back that up.
The coalition has advocated having easily understood legislation that protects public safety, whichever part of the United Kingdom one comes from. Public safety is endangered by complex firearms laws, and having a different regime for airguns in Scotland will increase the complexity of firearms laws. Devolving power over airguns will destroy the internal logic of firearms legislation as a reserve power and will fuel calls for the devolution of all firearms law, which I note the Bill specifically does not do; all the most serious firearms legislation is still reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament. There are already 36 offences that can be applied in relation to airgun misuse. The most recent legislation—the requirement in the Crime and Security Act 2010 to ensure that children do not have unrestricted access to airguns—came into effect only last month.
There is good evidence to suggest that increased powers, proper enforcement and education are behind the fall in airgun misuse that is most pronounced north of the border. The Government and Parliament are in the middle of a review of firearms legislation in the wake of Whitehaven, and Parliament is awaiting a response from the Home Office to the Select Committee on Home Affairs report on firearms. Devolving power over airguns in Scotland would be premature, would ignore the wider review and would mean having piecemeal legislation on firearms in response to outrage, which would damage effective legislation and enforcement. The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland has stated that
“in the ideal world, for the sake of lack of confusion…one set of legislation would be the best option”,
and that, given the number of airguns in circulation,
“in relation to cost and resources from a policing perspective, there would be a definitive impact”.
It has also said that regulating airguns in Scotland could be difficult and costly. It stated:
“Ideally, we would prefer them to come under the Firearms Act”— that of 1968, to which the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West referred, and that of 1997, in particular, both of which are referred to in my amendment—
“so we don’t have two sets of rules.”
If a licensing system of air weapons was introduced, it would have a disproportionate effect on the operational capacity of the Scottish police forces. As I have said, they would not have the time or the manpower to deal with the issue properly. The new work load would require a serious displacement of staff from other more important fields such as crime prevention and detection. Any change to laws on airgun ownership proposed by the Scottish Government could criminalise an estimated 500,000 law-abiding airgun owners in Scotland overnight. The consequences of any change in controls over air weapons in Scotland would not be confined to Scotland, but no consultations have been launched to canvass the opinions of people in England and Wales who might be affected by such changes when they travel over the border. Any ban on air weapon ownership imposed by the Scottish Government would adversely affect trade and would lead to a significant bill for compensation for those who legitimately own air weapons. Is the Minister going to pay compensation to those people who suddenly find themselves with illegal weapons, or will the weapons simply become useless, in which case those people will lose out considerably?
The absence of border controls between Scotland, England and Wales is likely to lead to non-compliance. If the Minister doubts that, let me cite an example. Since the 2004 English ban on self-contained air cartridge firearms, which are often called Brococks, of the 70,000 estimated to be in circulation, less than 10% have been registered, so there is widespread breaking of the law, but few people that I know of have been prosecuted because it simply is not possible to find them. Major restriction on air weapon ownership would make it impossible for Scotland to host the Commonwealth games or other major sporting events, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West pointed out.
Let me put my suggestions and alternatives to the Minister and then I will conclude. Education is having an impact. BASC, which I have mentioned, runs “young shots” days, and the Scottish Countryside Alliance offers next-generation days, at which BASC Scotland provides airgun and shotgun tuition to teach and remind many hundreds of youngsters about the safe and proper way to use airguns—something to which we would all subscribe. We should continue to encourage the police to circulate BASC’s airgun codes of practice, which already reach tens of thousands of people, and focus on enforcing existing law. We should also encourage people to try target shooting with airguns at clubs so that people of all ages can learn about the safe use of airguns in a controlled environment by qualified instructors and realise that airguns are capable of inflicting a lethal injury if misused.
I have to say to the Minister that I think the whole airgun issue has been driven by a tabloid press feeding frenzy on one or two incidents. I understand that, and the same thing would happen if those incidents occurred in England.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the tabloid press. I am sure he is aware that in the past week or so, the tabloid press have had a feeding frenzy about two football coaches in Glasgow falling out with each other, but there does not seem to have been the same feeding frenzy about an England football player taking an air weapon to a training ground and shooting someone.
I welcome that intervention. I take any infringement of airgun law very seriously indeed. Anyone who has an airgun, firearm or shotgun should use it safely and according to the law. I do not diminish incidents when they happen; I am merely saying that whether they happened in Scotland or England there would be the same tabloid coverage. I simply say, in all seriousness to all concerned, that I think we are better with one set of UK-wide firearms legislation, given that this is such a serious subject, so that everyone who uses a firearm of any sort, whether a shotgun, airgun or licensed firearm, knows exactly what the law is. Having different laws in the Principalities of the United Kingdom will lead to trouble.
Doing things differently in Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom is what we call devolution, and I say to Geoffrey Clifton-Brown that we make no apologies for representing our constituencies and communities. If this is the legislation that our communities want, it is up to us as their elected Members to secure it.
I strongly welcome the clause and I congratulate the Calman parties on introducing it. It is one of the few examples in the Bill of a real and positive transfer of powers from the Scotland Office to Scottish Ministers, in recognition of the very significant and different issues in Scotland. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds mentioned the tragic incident in 2005 when young Andrew Morton lost his life at the hands of someone with an airgun. It was not the tabloid press but his parents who started a remarkable campaign to bring the issue to public attention, and they were supported in that cause by politicians, civic groups and everyone who took an interest in the subject.
I worry when a Scottish National party Member accepts the kind of smear on Scotland that Geoffrey Clifton-Brown made. If we look at the press in England, we see there has been a succession of shootings and killings using handguns, not airguns, in and around the cities of England. The seriousness of the issue of deaths being caused by those carrying firearms is much greater in England than in Scotland, so let us not get things out of perspective.
I will come to the issue of firearms, which is central to our amendment, in order that we can, in Scotland, have responsibility for firearms, as well as for air weapons, which are, as we all acknowledge, a significant problem in our community. It is important that we have legislative responsibility for all such weapons in Scotland so that we can make our own laws, not just in regard to airguns, but in regard to all serious weapons.
A fantastic campaign led to calls for Scotland to secure legislative competence for airguns, which we are doing today. It led to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, writing to Jacqui Smith several years ago to ask that Scotland be considered as a pilot area for the licensing of airguns, and subsequently to a summit of all stakeholders to consider the problem in Scotland and propose a way of dealing with it. Many interesting issues were explored at that firearms summit. The Scottish Government went as far as publishing the necessary parliamentary order to transfer the power quickly so that they could start to deal with the issue in Scotland.
Why do we want legislative competence? I have explained why we think the situation in Scotland is different and why Scotland needs the power, but what we can do with it? This might satisfy the hon. Member for The Cotswolds about our intentions: it is not about trying to stop sporting events or getting in the way of the Commonwealth games. That is nonsense. They will go ahead. Many constituents of mine enjoy and participate in events with all manner of rifles and I have no problem with that.
The power would allow us to examine the issue seriously. The intention is to put together a Scottish firearms consultative panel involving all the key stakeholders to establish a range of views on the issue. One of its first tasks would be to develop and consider the merits of a pilot licensing scheme for air weapons. This would enable the Scottish Government to test the practicalities of air weapon licensing. It would also test whether air weapon licensing can operate effectively without wider reform of the firearms legislation. A pilot could take place in one or more areas in Scotland.
Our strong view, as I said to Michael Connarty, is that air weapons are only part of the story when it comes to dangerous weapons in Scotland. At the firearms summit in 2008 there was clear agreement that the current firearms legislation is not fit for purpose. Something must be done to improve the situation. It needs to be comprehensively reviewed. I accept that a review is taking place and we will wait to see its conclusions, but we need action. If that cannot happen at UK level, and if the legislation is not satisfactory, we insist that firearms legislation control be handed to the Scottish Government so that we can make our own decisions about this critical issue.
The hon. Gentleman speaks about dangerous weapons. As he knows, more people are killed in Scotland by knives than by guns of any kind. Since its inception, the Scottish Parliament has had full control over knives, yet that problem has not been resolved. Will he clarify for me why he has such touching faith that simply transferring control over air weapons to Scotland will resolve the matter, when having full power over knives has not done so?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the topic of knives. I am sure he would be the first to congratulate the Scottish Government on reducing the number of knife-related incidents in Scotland in the past few years. It is a remarkable achievement that in four years of SNP government, we have made real progress in reducing knife crime significantly.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing that he wants to go further than the Bill by devolving all firearms legislation to Scotland. The Scottish Bill Committee, in which he placed so much faith at the beginning of the proceedings, was split on the vote. Clearly, it is not the overwhelming opinion in Scotland that all firearms legislation ought to be devolved.
I accept that, but it is our strong view that all firearms legislation should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament because it would enable us to ensure that we could deal with all the issues relating to firearms.
It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman defined who “our” is. As he knows, the Scottish Government have tabled their own draft legislative consent motion in the Scottish Parliament, in which they agree with the clause and do not suggest that there should be any further devolution of powers in relation to air weapons.
As I said at the start of my remarks, we welcome the clause. It is a real transfer of power—one of the few transfers of powers in the Bill. Of course we support the clause. I have argued consistently that our intention is to improve and strengthen the Bill to deal with some important issues. If our amendment is accepted, we have an opportunity to deal not only with air weapons, but with firearms in their totality. Surely that is a better situation to be in than having responsibility for just one aspect.
Indeed, we do support the clause as it stands. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is an astute follower of what happens in the Scottish Parliament, so he will have heard Kenny MacAskill and other colleagues saying on several occasions that what we require in Scotland is full control over all firearms legislation. That was the outcome of the summit held back in 2008 and that is what we seek to achieve this evening. We can achieve it. All we need to do is get the Committee to support us on amendment 3 this evening.
I am about to come to that. Let me explain first what we are trying to achieve with the amendment, and I will then deal with the hon. Gentleman’s wider point. He may intervene again if he feels that he is not getting a satisfactory response.
Our amendment deletes a small section that states that power over the control of “specially dangerous” weapons remains with the Secretary of State. It ensures that the Scottish Parliament will have the power to legislate for all air weapons, including the “specially dangerous” weapons that require a firearms certificate. The Bill as it stands includes a power for the Secretary of State to designate “specially dangerous” air weapons, which would then fall under the reserved regime that applies to all other firearms. In that case, the power would lie with the UK Government and Ministers and would not be subject to any approval from Scottish Ministers or the Scottish Parliament.
We therefore propose that the relevant power be exercised with the consent of the Scottish Parliament, even if it is not transferred. We believe that this is important because there are different and distinct issues relating to firearms in Scotland. I do not want to mention specifically all the tragedies that have taken place. We have only to recall Dunblane several years ago to recognise the very real issues that we have in Scotland involving firearms. It would be much more sensible for all firearms to be under one control in one central point. Scottish police forces have taken great interest in our plea and they would be interested in developing and exercising it.
We want to avoid complication. Our amendment would devolve legislative competence for all air weapons to the Scottish Parliament. I intend to press the amendment to a Division because it is important. This is one of the few opportunities that we will get to improve the Bill significantly and ensure that all weapons are included in it. It is a small measure designed to improve the Bill, as we said we would, and I urge the entire Committee to support it.
I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution to this part of the debate. I hope it will be one based on the experience of representing an area that has had its fair share of difficulties with airguns, and of four years as the Justice Minister in Scotland, including at the time of the incident that has been referred to when a toddler lost his life in the east end of Glasgow as a result of an air weapon. Far from responding to any media frenzy, I hope that I was able as a politician to respond to the real tragedy for people in the local community, not least the child’s parents, who witnessed the event and had to deal with the consequences.
At that point, when there were demands for an immediate, all-out ban on air weapons, I took the view that we should take a considered approach that looked at the evidence and brought together the police and other organisations. At that stage I met a number of those organisations. I believed that it was best to deal with the situation not through a piecemeal approach, but by working with the UK Government to secure changes on sentencing and tightening the legislation, which we did, and with a view to looking at how a licensing regime could operate in Scotland in future. I welcome the clause that will give the Scottish Parliament the opportunity to do something about this.
Let me make a few comments to clear up some misunderstandings about the types of areas where there have been incidents with air weapons. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said that most of these incidents occur in the Strathclyde region. If he looks at a map of the Strathclyde region, he will see its size and scale and note that it takes in not only cities and large towns, but small towns, rural areas, remote rural areas, islands and everything in between. It is not entirely accurate to suggest that because the figures relate largely to Strathclyde it is not a problem for the rest of Scotland. Indeed, the opposite could be argued; the region takes up so much of Scotland that if it is a problem there, we can be pretty sure that it is a problem elsewhere.
The hon. Member for The Cotswolds also mentioned an incident that occurred only a couple of weeks ago in Auchinleck, which is in my constituency. Of course, not absolutely everything that appears in the tabloid press is 100% accurate. Only a few weeks ago there was some interesting reporting of a junior football match between Auchinleck Talbot and Cumnock Juniors that suggested that mounted police were involved in something akin to the charge of the Light Brigade. A constituent suggested to me that when the horses came on to the pitch it was more like dressage than a charge, so I understand that things can be exaggerated. However, in an era of mobile phones and 24-hour news, I also understand that any incident witnessed in a local community is likely to get into the public domain quickly, as people will report it to newspapers or online, perhaps on Facebook. Indeed, that is where many of my constituents first heard about the incident in Auchinleck.
Does the hon. Lady share my experience that the abuse of air weapons often involves not only the cases that make the newspapers, but the distressing circumstances of much-loved family pets being injured or killed when shot at? Those stories never make the headlines, but they nevertheless cause great distress in communities.
I absolutely agree. Of course, those are the types of incidents that local newspapers report far more regularly than national newspapers.
Information about the incident in Auchinleck quickly got into the public domain, some of which was not absolutely accurate. A number of school pupils were injured, albeit by what the hon. Member for The Cotswolds described as a toy BB gun—I have more to say on that in a moment—and required hospital treatment, so I hope that he is not suggesting that it is not necessary to have a serious look at how that gun got into the hands of the people who used it, what they were doing with it and why they became involved in such an incident. To be honest, I recognise where he is coming from in relation to his sporting and shooting interests, but I find it difficult to understand in any event why anyone living in an urban environment would require an air weapon in their home. It is time we looked at the issue, and I hope that that is something a licensing or other regime in Scotland could deal with.
I want to say something about firearms in general. I accept many of the points made by Pete Wishart, but I do not believe that at this stage we require responsibility for the whole range of firearms legislation to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. However, I do think that it is incumbent on the UK Government—perhaps the Minister will indicate what discussions he will have or has had with Home Office colleagues—to ensure that the provisions of the 1968 Act still stand the test of time. The worst possible thing that could happen is that we devolve something and discover subsequently that we will have to revisit it, for example if the definition of what constitutes an airgun is no longer seen to meet the needs of the legislation we are devolving.
I want to say something on BB guns, because I know that in many instances they are the weapons—I use the word “weapons” rather than “toys” because of the damage they can inflict—that cause exactly the problems that Dr Whiteford identified. I also believe that there is a gap in the legislation, because those weapons appear to be easily available, particularly to children and young people. The fact that they are not covered by legislation sends entirely the wrong message. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister will have discussions with his Home Office colleagues to take that forward.
I appreciate that other Members want to comment in the debate and so do not intend to speak for much longer. I feel that the time is right, and I have given the matter careful consideration because my initial response when Justice Minister, as I have said, was that we should not legislate or press for legislation in haste. It is four years since that time, and considerably longer since the incident in Easterhouse, so no one could accuse us of legislating in haste when we take these measures forward.
The hon. Lady is making a cogent and reasonable case, and I am interested to hear what she has to say as a former Justice Minister. In the Andrew Morton case, as I said in my contribution, Mark Bonini was sentenced to life imprisonment, so what does she think it is about the current laws that is not working and needs to be modified?
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I say to him gently that the people of Easterhouse, and perhaps people more widely in Scotland, feel that legislation that would prevent someone like that from having an air weapon in their home in the middle of Easterhouse would be of assistance. That is why there is strong support in Scotland for a ban on air weapons.
That is not the province of any particularly political party, but something that has united people across political organisations and local communities.
I said that it is not about legislating in haste. I believe that the time has come to look at how we can ensure that no other family goes through the same trauma as did the family in Easterhouse, but we will do that by having workable legislation. I end on a note of caution, because there are a number of areas where I think a great deal of further work needs to be done to ensure, for example, that the cross-border issues are manageable. We need to look at that in detail. It is entirely possible to look at exemptions for sporting activity, and I know from my previous experience in the Scottish Parliament that fruitful discussions were held, and I am sure continue to be held, on the transport and use of guns for sporting activities. This should not be the end of the matter. If the proposal is included and the Bill passed, it will be a stepping stone on a journey to ensure that, wherever possible, we avoid such incidents as have been described and are able to look at how best the existing firearms legislation throughout, importantly, the United Kingdom can be strengthened. In particular, I make the plea, which I shall repeat when the review reports, for the careful consideration of including in legislation BB guns and weapons like that to ensure that they do not fall into the wrong hands.
I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend Cathy Jamieson. For those colleagues who are not aware of her work as a Justice Minister, I hope that they will see what she managed to do when she held that difficult position and airguns became a major issue in Scotland. I acknowledge what she did.
I fear that Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, for whom many in the House have great respect, has taken a big hit tonight, because in prosecuting his case he fails to understand that the issue of air weapons is slightly different in Scotland. That is why we feel it important to allow the Scottish Parliament to regulate air weapons in Scotland. I, like Pete Wishart, have a large rural constituency, and I have had no correspondence—letters or e-mails— at all on the issue, yet many in my constituency see air weapons as part of an introduction to country sports, and I fully recognise that.
I fear also that the hon. Member for The Cotswolds anticipates what a Scottish Parliament might do with such powers, but he has to recognise that it has Members with urban constituencies and many with rural constituencies, and they will take into account the balances that have to be struck to ensure that they do not undermine a way of life or an activity that is important to many communities in Scotland.
When the legislation banning handguns was passed in 1997, one argument was that it would undermine sporting activity. That has not happened, because in that legislation we ensured that there was a tight regime and that any sporting activity was conducted in a safe context. That is what we are asking for in the Bill before us, because the debate has thrown up some issues that could cause confusion if they are not attended to properly.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun that we need to be clear about what we are doing in passing this element of the Bill. Indeed, on Second Reading, I asked the Minister whether he had consulted his colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that we had the definitions right and did not allow some air weapons to fall outside the legislation. I should still be interested to know what discussions he or his departmental colleagues have had with the Home Office to ensure that we get the definitions right.
I fully support the probing amendments that my hon. Friend Tom Greatrex has tabled, because the issue is not just about passing this element of the Bill, but about instilling in the House the confidence that, in passing the legislation, we have in place all the other elements that are required to make it an effective piece of devolution, while maintaining safety both north and south of the border and not allowing for any confusion, which might exist if we do not get the legislation right for those people who, as the Minister will know, cross the border regularly. I hope that he will deal with the specific issues that have been raised. This is an issue not of principle, but of detail, and I hope that he will be able to give us some assurances this evening.
I approach the issue from a slightly different position. I support clause 11, because it is sensible to route such decisions to the Scottish Government, and amendments 17 and 18, which I hope the Government will take on board. Strangely, in a Committee of the whole House, Members do not necessarily receive from the Government the moderate responses that they would if they were in Committee off the Floor of the House and outwith the view of the television cameras. Often, Ministers see the sense in amendments and accept them, but this is a much more public arena, so we might not get from the Government Front Bencher tonight the sensible response that we would have had if we had been off the Floor of the House. That is one of the problems of this theatre, as some people regard the Chamber.
I have had to handle many matters to do with guns—to do with normal firearms—because there is quite a large shooting fraternity in my constituency. My constituency is mostly urban, but it has a rural hinterland where people shoot in clubs, to get rid of vermin, which is what farmers consider rabbits to be, and they go further north to shoot deer. It is an urban environment, and with reference to the remarks of my good Friend Cathy Jamieson, strangely, where somebody lives does not necessarily determine whether it is right for them to have a weapon of any kind; the question is what they are going to use it for, whether it is properly secured and whether they are properly licensed, controlled and monitored by the police.
I hope that in this Bill we are giving to the Scottish Parliament the power to think about—in keeping the whole thing in perspective—what I would call regulation rather than prohibition. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown is partly concerned by the idea, whipped up by whomever, for whatever reasons and with the aid of whatever quality press, that we are talking about—and we do use the phrase—a ban on airguns in Scotland. I hope that that is not the case, and we are not talking about someone running such a campaign.
The problem with prohibition, which was very well exhibited in the USA when they tried to ban alcoholic drink, is that the banned item just goes underground. In that situation, weapons would not only be used but traded, and unfortunately a large number of illicit users might misuse them, so I hope that the Scottish Government are sensibly thinking about a regulatory regime for air weapons. People say that a licensing scheme will cost so much money that it will be easier or, certainly, cheaper to introduce a ban, but I hope that in Scotland there is a sense of perspective, so that the issue, when it is transferred, will be about regulation, not prohibition.
That is not at all to diminish the serious effects of the deranged misuse of such weapons. Dr Whiteford was right to point out that a lot of damage is done by misuse, particularly to domestic animals in our communities. I am sure that it does not happen just in communities in Scotland, either, and that the hon. Member for The Cotswolds did not mean to smear the good name of urban communities in Scotland, because we know of the terrible catalogue of murders by people using guns—firearms, not airguns—in England. I am sure that airguns are misused a lot in communities in England.
The hon. Gentleman has been a Member for a long time and, in fact, as long as I have. I did not in any way mean to smear the people of Scotland, as he has inferred from my remarks; that was not what I said at all. Does he, in turn, recognise that the vast majority of firearms offences and, indeed, airgun offences are carried out by unlicensed users? We can have in place whatever regime we like, but those offences will still occur from time to time.
I wish that we could expunge from the memories of the people of Scotland, particularly central Scotland, the fact that a licensed gun owner used guns that were then allowed to create the carnage at Dunblane. It is not wrong to say that by regulating and banning the possession of handguns we did something very positive. There are times when controls are needed. In the United States of America, people can buy what are basically machine guns over the counter; we cannot, thank goodness. This obviously has a lot to do with the person who misuses the weapon, but it is also about its availability in the first place.
I hope that whatever regime is introduced in Scotland will be strict. A regular firearm user who is a hunter recently came to see me about relicensing and could show me that they had a strongroom that was totally secure, which meant that access to their guns would be very difficult for anyone. Their licence was approved by the local police, and it was a very thorough operation. I do not know whether that operation could be replicated for airguns, but that would stop a lot of the illicit possession. It is much easier for the local community around the area to know that someone is misusing such a gun if they possess it without a licence, in a similar way as applies to the possession of ordinary guns. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun agrees with that.
I hope that the Minister is listening to the support for these small amendments, which are useful and helpful. With apologies to those who aspire to have this in Scotland because we are Scottish, there are some serious types of airguns that should be licensed universally on an all-UK basis. That will not undermine the ability of our communities to know that people who have unlicensed airguns can be immediately notified to the police to have those firearms removed.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Benton.
I can assure Michael Connarty that nothing that the Government put forward this evening is in any way determined by the fact that these proceedings are televised. I hope that we are bringing forward a reasoned response to important issues that have been raised in the debate on these amendments.
I wanted, during this discussion, to clarify the SNP’s position, and I am sure that Pete Wishart will understand why. I think that the logical explanation is that we now have devolution in the SNP, with a London SNP that is proposing an amendment to clause 11 and an Edinburgh SNP that is in agreement with it as it stands. In those circumstances, I find it extremely odd that the hon. Gentleman suggested that he was going to push this matter to a Division. He will have seen the Scottish Parliament’s Scotland Bill Committee report, which, in paragraphs 142 to 144, confirms that it was a unanimous view of that Committee that clause 11 should be supported. It states:
“We note that this excludes those air rifles, air guns or air pistols which are of a type declared by rules made by the Secretary of State under section 53 of the 1968 Act to be ‘specially dangerous’. These particular weapons are already banned and we see no reason why this would change.”
The Committee went on unanimously to recommend support for clause 11.
I acknowledge for the record that the vote took place, but I also point out to the hon. Lady annex A, where the minority views on the issues on which her colleagues felt particularly strongly are set out, clearly stating their disagreement.
I certainly would not want the Committee to be misled by anything that I said. I referred to the paragraphs in the Scotland Bill Committee report, where it is clear that the Committee formed the view that it did. It is also clear that the Scottish Government have come forward with an LCM that supports this clause as it stands.
Clause 11 devolves a power to the Scottish Parliament in relation to the regulation of air weapons. This would enable the Scottish Parliament to legislate, if it wished, to create a separate regulatory regime for air weapons in Scotland. Members will wish to note that, as I said, the Bill Committee in the Scottish Parliament accepted the provision, and we wait to see the outcome of the debate on its LCM and the LCM proposed by the Scottish Government.
After careful consideration, the Calman commission concluded that firearms law should not be devolved in full. It is generally acknowledged that the UK already has some of the toughest firearm controls in the world and that the current unified regime represents the best way of tackling the problems that exist in relation to armed crime. The commission did recommend devolving power over a specific category—air weapons. The Government agree with this recommendation. Air weapons are the type of guns most often involved in firearms offences, and given the nature of their misuse most frequently to cause criminal damage, as we have heard, they are best controlled at the level closest to those affected. Reference was made to the specifics of the recent incident in Auchinleck, which demonstrated and reaffirmed the continuing concern in Scotland about the use of air weapons.
I appreciate that, but the point I was trying to get at, although perhaps I did not make myself clear enough, was whether, if the Bill is passed, the Scottish Parliament could enact a complete ban on air weapons if it chose to do so.
The Scottish Parliament will be able to enact a complete ban on air weapons that fall within the definition. The important point for colleagues such as my hon. Friend is that those who do not agree with that course of action will be able to argue their case in the Scottish Parliament. Cathy Jamieson set out a strong case on the basis of her considerable experience, respected views and strong beliefs. I felt that my hon. Friend also set out a strong view, although Opposition Members and indeed Members of my party in the Scottish Parliament might not subscribe to it. It is important that people who hold such views move the argument on to the Scottish Parliament if the clause is agreed to, because that is the appropriate place for the debate to take place.
Will the Minister clarify the other point that he made? If I understood him correctly, he said that the air weapons that are not covered by the Bill, which the SNP is trying to amend so that they have power over such weapons, are already banned. The only thing that could be done differently would be to unban them. The SNP is therefore asking for the power to unban weapons that are banned. Is that correct?
Does my hon. Friend agree that it would make a nonsense of all firearms laws if the Scottish Parliament banned air weapons completely, because people would still have legitimate licences for serious firearms, while airguns would be banned? Does he agree that that would be a complete anomaly?
I do not accept that it is inevitable that the clause or the Bill will lead to an anomalous situation. As I have said, it is for those who advocate a ban to make their case and for those who believe that it would be a retrograde step to make theirs.
As the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun said of her time as Justice Minister—I am sure this is also the case with the current Justice Minister—the Scottish Government need to have a close working relationship with the Home Office and the Home Secretary to ensure that there is a coherent interlinking of the measures determined here and in Scotland, just as with any devolved matter. I assure Mrs McGuire that there have been discussions on all aspects of the Bill with the relevant Departments. The Secretary of State for Scotland has met the Home Secretary. We are clear that the clause will provide the Scottish Parliament with the powers it needs to deal with air weapons, as proposed by the Calman commission.
Will there be a clear definition of what exactly is understood by “air weapons”? It is not the discussions that are important, but the definition and the clarity of the legislation.
I will come on to that later in my remarks. We are satisfied that the definition, as set out in this legislation, is appropriate to deal with the issues raised by the Calman commission.
The hon. Lady has just under three weeks to raise that issue in the Scottish Parliament in her capacity as a Member of that Parliament. On a UK basis, I am happy to undertake to raise with the Home Secretary the concerns that she has set out this evening.
My understanding is that the Scottish Parliament would at this stage be able to take forward its own proposals in relation to a gun or implement of that type. As I understand it, we are not at the stage of having a definition for the weapon in relation to the incident, but there are implements of that nature for which the Scottish Parliament already has the power to make provision, as the hon. Gentleman knows.
There are definitions in the 1968 Act of certain weapons. A BB gun is not defined as a type of gun in that regard. It would be within the remit of the Scottish Parliament to make provisions in that regard as part of its ongoing responsibilities.
The clause will allow the Scottish Parliament the freedom to design its own controls over air weapons, while allowing the UK Government to retain a consistent regulatory framework across the UK for the most dangerous weapons. That will send the clear signal that the UK does not tolerate deadly weapons. As I have said, it is important to note that we are considering not what law on air weapons should apply in Scotland, but who should be responsible for taking that decision. The clause will not automatically create a separate regime in Scotland, but it will give the Scottish Parliament responsibility for that decision. Any consideration of an alternative regime will require the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and other stakeholders to listen to all the views represented in Scotland and, crucially, to work through any cross-border issues that arise.
Amendment 39 would ensure that the 1968 Act continues to apply until the Scottish Parliament puts a new regulatory regime in place.
Thank you, Mr Benton.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds that the control of air weapons in Scotland will not fall into a state of limbo. By devolving power, we are not disapplying the present regime, but simply allowing the Scottish Parliament to change the laws that currently apply to air weapons, should it so wish. Until such a time, the existing rules will apply. I therefore suggest to my hon. Friend that his amendment is unnecessary.
Amendment 17 would prevent the Scottish Parliament from putting any controls on air weapons intended for use in recognised international sporting competitions. The Government recognise the legitimacy and responsibility of those who take part in safe and undoubtedly well-regulated use of air weapons for target shooting purposes. We fully accept that individuals engaged in such activity are highly unlikely to misuse their weapons.
I also understand concerns that devolved powers could be used in such a way as to prevent such competitions from taking place in Scotland and that that would affect disciplines in the Commonwealth games. Although I understand that the air pistols and air rifles used at that high level of competition are relatively expensive and built to high specification for their grip and accuracy, it would be difficult in practice to distinguish those intended for such use from other high-spec weapons that are used in lesser competitions or for hunting small game or for vermin control.
The Calman commission took the view, and the coalition Government agree, that there is a case for air weapons being controlled at the most local level. We must accept that the natural result of devolution is that separate rules may apply in different areas of the UK. Apart from the question of principle, it would be confusing and potentially difficult to split air weapons into different categories when there is no clear difference in muscle energy between a gun used for competition shooting at an international level and one used for lesser competitions or other sporting purposes.
Amendment 38 would restrict the power of the Scottish Parliament to air pistols and air rifles with a muzzle energy below 6 foot/lbs. That means that any air rifle that has a muzzle energy between 6 and 12 foot/lbs would not be subject to any new controls that the Scottish Parliament tried to introduce, but remain subject to the Firearms Act 1968. Most modern air rifles fall within that range. Anything above what is already declared to be “specially dangerous” by rules made by the Secretary of State under section 53 of the 1968 Act becomes subject to the requirement to hold and abide by a firearms certificate under section 1 and will not be devolved. It is right to retain a common framework across Great Britain for the most lethal weapons. As I have already said, I see no reason to try to split responsibility for the lower powered air weapons that we are devolving in the Bill. Calman did not recommend that, and it is wrong that the Scottish Parliament should not be able to exercise control over the majority of air rifles in use today.
Amendment 3 would omit the words in the exception to the reservation, which provides for the Home Secretary to retain powers for declaring air weapons “specially dangerous”. Those are subject to stricter controls because they need to be tackled on a consistent basis throughout the United Kingdom. The effect of declaring an air weapon “specially dangerous” is that it becomes subject to the requirement to hold and abide by a firearms certificate under section 1 of the 1968 Act. Currently, air pistols that generate a muzzle energy in excess of 6 foot/lbs and other air weapons that generate a muzzle energy in excess of 12 foot/lbs are declared to be specially dangerous for those purposes.
In essence, air weapons that are the subject of such rules or orders are classified as firearms under section 1 or prohibited weapons under section 5. Since the regulation of such firearms and prohibited weapons will remain reserved, as recommended by Calman, it follows that the power to decide what is a section 1 firearm or a prohibited weapon should also remain reserved.
Amendment 18 would address cross-border issues, which several hon. Members raised. We should remind ourselves that the Bill is simply devolving the power to regulate air weapons—not setting out the framework for regulation itself. Any discussions about future operational challenges are therefore largely hypothetical at this stage. How far any alternative regime will differ from that which applies in England and Wales has yet to be determined. As I said, I encourage my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds to try to ensure that the debate that he set out this evening moves to the Scottish Parliament, if it is to consider those matters. Of course I accept that there could well be differences in its approach to controls, but that is a natural consequence of devolution.
The Scottish Government will, of course, need to consider carefully how any new controls in Scotland will dovetail with the law in England and Wales, Europe and the rest of the world. I am sure that they will consult widely if they choose to change the law. If the Scottish Government introduced licensing for air weapons, they would need to consider what form of temporary licence a visitor from outside Scotland needed on or before entry. Any such temporary licence could not be checked if the visitor’s first port of call was England or Wales, so the Scottish Government would need to think about how they might enforce such a requirement.
Will my right hon. Friend address the point that I made before he concludes? What will happen to those people who currently have air weapons that are perfectly legal but would become illegal if the Scottish Parliament changed the rules? Would they be compensated?
It would be entirely for the Scottish Parliament to determine what regime it introduced if it created a restriction. It would not be a matter for the coalition Government. There was no suggestion of compensation from this Parliament or Government.
I recognise the strength of feeling of hon. Members of all parties on the issue. As I said, there are important implementation matters to be considered, alongside awareness raising and education to ensure that those who currently hold and use air weapons lawfully are not unwittingly affected. However, I would argue that these are questions for the Scottish Parliament. Today, we are considering whether to support the recommendation of the Calman commission, which the Government have included in the Bill and has the support of the Scottish Parliament Committee. I therefore urge hon. Members not to press their amendments to a vote.
I am disappointed with some of the content of the Minister’s response. In respect of amendment 17, I understand that the Scottish Parliament and the SNP—whether the Edinburgh SNP or the London SNP—is included in a cross-party understanding of what is required to ensure that the Commonwealth games are properly protected. I am sure that that will endure.
I am more confident about that than on the Minister’s comments on amendment 18. The amendment is intended to be helpful to the UK Government, which has a responsibility to ensure cohesion, so that things do not slip through the net.
East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell). They highlighted the point on definitions that I tried to make at Home Office questions earlier. I hope that he will reflect properly on that prior to Report, particularly in the light of the points made by my right hon. Friend Mrs McGuire.
I am conscious that a number of hon. Members are in the Chamber and I am sure they have other things to get on with this evening. I hope the Minister reflects on my proposals. If he is unable to change his mind, we may return to them on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment proposed: 3, page 7, line 27, leave out from ‘1968’ to end of line 34.—(Pete Wishart.)
On a point of order, Mr Benton. In exchanges on clause 7, the Minister responded to a comment from Pete Wishart about so-called secret clauses and said that they had been placed on the website of the Advocate-General. We have subsequently sought to find those clauses on that website, but have been unable to locate them, so can you advise the Committee on how we might be able to do so?
Further to that point of order, Mr Benton. The Minister has generously offered to e-mail those secret amendments to the Front-Bench spokesman of the Labour party. I take it that he will want to communicate with the whole Committee, so placing the amendments in the Library would be more helpful.