“(1) The Secretary of State must, within 6 months of this Act receiving Royal Assent, lay a report before Parliament on the safe use of air weapons.
(2) The report under subsection 1 must consider, but is not limited to—
(a) whether existing legislation on the use of air weapons is sufficient;
(b) whether current guidelines on the safe storage of air weapons needs revising; and
(c) whether the current age restrictions surrounding the possession and use of air weapons are sufficient.”—(Karin Smyth.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 3—Controls on miniature rifles and ammunition—
“(1) The Firearms Act 1968 is amended as follows.
(2) Omit subsection (4) of section 11 (Sports, athletics and other approved activities).”
This new clause would amend the Firearms Act 1968 to remove the exemption on miniature rifle ranges, preventing individuals without a firearms certificate from being able to acquire and possess semi-automatic rifles without a check by the police.
New clause 4—Possession of component parts of ammunition with intent to manufacture—
(2) After subsection 4A insert—
‘(4B) A person other than a person permitted to manufacture ammunition by virtue of being a registered firearms dealer or holder of a firearm certificate authorising the type of ammunition being manufactured commits an offence if—
(a) The person has in his or her possession or under his or her control the component parts of ammunition and,
(b) The person intends to use such articles to manufacture the component parts into ammunition.
(4C) A person guilty of an offence under subsection 4b is liable—
(a) On summary conviction—
(i) In England and Wales to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months (or in relation to offences committed before Section 154(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 comes into force 6 months) or to a fine or both.
(ii) In Scotland to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or to both.
(b) On conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years to a fine, or to both.’”
This new clause would create a specific offence for the possession of component parts of ammunition with the intent to manufacture, for all persons other than those registered as firearms dealer or holders of a firearms certificate authorising the type of ammunition being manufactured.
New clause 18—Offence of failure to store an air weapon in a locked cabinet—
“(1) A person commits an offence if they fail to store an air weapon in their possession in a locked cabinet.
(2) The offence in subsection (1) has not been committed if the person has the firearm with them for the purpose of cleaning, repairing or testing it or for some other purpose connected with its use, transfer or sale, or the air weapon is in transit to or from a place in connection with its use or any such purpose.
(3) For the purposes of this section, ‘air weapon’ has the same meaning as in section 1(3)(b) of the Firearms Act 1968.
(4) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.”
New clause 19—Sale of an air weapon without a trigger guard—
“(1) A person commits an offence if, by way of trade or business, they sell an air weapon that is not fitted with a trigger guard.
(2) For the purposes of this section, ‘air weapon’ has the same meaning as in section 1(3)(b) of the Firearms Act 1968.
(3) The Secretary of State may by regulations define ‘trigger guard’ for the purposes of this section.
(4) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.”
Government amendment 26.
Amendment 23, in clause 30, page 30, line 9, leave out from “rifle” to end of paragraph and insert
“, other than a rifle which is chambered for rim fire cartridges, which ejects an empty cartridge case using energy which comes (directly or indirectly) from propellant gas and subsequently chambers a cartridge by mechanical means through the operation of the firing trigger mechanism alone.”
Government amendments 27 to 33.
Amendment 24, in clause 31, page 31, line 9, leave out from “rifle” to end of paragraph and insert
“, other than a rifle which is chambered for rim fire cartridges, which ejects an empty cartridge case using energy which comes (directly or indirectly) from propellant gas and subsequently chambers a cartridge by mechanical means through the operation of the firing trigger mechanism alone.”
Government amendments 34 to 55.
I hope that this is third time lucky. I understand the difficulties that the Government are in, but our constituents, on whose behalf we speak, watch these proceedings with great interest and concern, often because it is their loved ones who have lost their lives or been injured. The postponement of this debate on Report has been unacceptable for them.
Having said that, I am pleased to have the opportunity to outline the importance of new clause 2, with which I simply seek to establish in law the requirement for the Department to publish a report on the safety of air weapons. Such a report is necessary because the statistics on air weapons offences are not routinely recorded and official data is difficult to find. The report would require the Department to assess the strength of existing legislation on the use of air weapons. An important aspect of the debate is licensing, to which I shall return in a moment. The report would also require consideration of the existing guidelines on safe storage, about which my right hon. Friend David Hanson will speak in more detail later. I thank him for his support and for the work that he has done on this issue previously.
The report would also force an assessment on the current age limits for the possession and use of air weapons, which we discussed in Committee. This is important, because young people are disproportionately victims of air weapons offences. I managed to obtain via the Library information that shows that a disproportionate number of 10 to 19-year-olds were victims of air weapons offences in 2017, considering their share of the population, but we need more detail.
The subject of licensing has come up in a number of debates over the years, including in this place and in Select Committee hearings, but there seems to have been a reluctance to push collectively for real change. The dangers posed by air weapons cannot be ignored: their misuse is a matter of public safety. That was the argument put forward by Members of the Scottish Parliament in 2015, when they voted to license air weapons. While others were perhaps doing other things during the conference recess, I went to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood to hear the arguments for and against licensing and about the experience of it.
The logic for the system in Scotland seems straightforward: as a matter of public safety, only those who have good reason for using, acquiring, purchasing or possessing an air weapon ought legally to be able to obtain one. The Scottish police believe that the scheme has been a success thus far, with more than 21,000 weapons having been surrendered by owners. Some 24,000 licences were issued up to February this year. There is a cost of £72 per licence to cover the administration fee. The Scottish Government's position is clear: those who have a legitimate use for an air weapon—including for sports and pest control—are not prevented from obtaining one. That gives important clarity to a subject that can be confusing. It sends a clear message that these weapons are not toys and capable of causing serious injury or even death. I simply ask the Minister whether he can demonstrate to me that my constituents in Bristol South are as safe from the misuse of air weapons as people in Scotland, where the guns are licensed.
I do not disagree with anything that the hon. Lady has said, but for the record, has the information from Scotland shown that there has been a decrease in the misuse of air weapons since the change to the law?
I cannot answer that question directly, but one issue in Scotland relates to the collection of data from the stable point and into the future. That is important to consider. If the police there see that one of these weapons is in the house when they go to a domestic abuse incident, for example, they can legitimately ask whether there is a licence for it. They have reported anecdotally—I am happy to get more figures—that they certainly feel that that has been helpful in such circumstances.
The Minister previously said that the Department’s response to the air weapons review will answer everything, but I am wondering whether the review that we have been seeking will ever see the light of day. The review closed more than nine months ago and, despite numerous assurances to many Members, we are still awaiting its conclusions. We owe it to the victims of air weapons, and their families, to stop the Government kicking the issue into the long grass. It took the Scottish Government just a few months to consider the responses to their consultation on air weapons. We must now demand the same single-mindedness of our Government. I have here the documents, all the way from Scotland, should the Government wish to use them to make progress on the review and look seriously at licensing.
I declare an interest: as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I am chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council, the umbrella body for British shooting organisations. I rise to speak to Government amendment 26 on .50 calibre rifles but, on behalf of British sports shooting people, I thank the Government for having listened and acted on this matter, and confirm the BSSC’s wish fully to engage with the Government on getting the law right in this policy area. Having just listened to Karin Smyth talk about air rifles, I hope that the Government will learn from the debate on .50 calibre rifles. I agree that there are issues in respect of air rifles that need attention and clarification, but we should deal in a cautious and proper manner with the 3 million or so owners of such guns.
The proposal in the Bill to ban firearms with a muzzle velocity of more than 13,600 J, including .50 calibre guns, was not, under any interpretation of the facts, going to help the fight against crime. The guns are very expensive, costing around £20,000 each. There are therefore very few in number, with only 150 or so in private hands. They are extremely bulky, heavy at 30 lb and slow to load, with large, hand-loaded ammunition. In fact, one could hardly find a firearm less likely to be used in a crime. They are simply too big. That is probably why they have never been used in a crime in this jurisdiction.
That needs to be considered against the wider perspective of the very small chance of people being murdered with legally owned guns. In 2017, for example, just nine people were killed by someone in legal possession of the murder weapon. That is nine people too many, of course, but it is a very small figure compared with deaths by illegal weapons. There has been a lot of confusing evidence about .50 calibres potentially being used as military-style “materiel destruction” rifles—for instance, by terrorists to shoot car engines. However, that would be possible only when used with armour-piercing or incendiary ammunition, both of which are already barred for civilian use. Not only is there no evidence of such firearms being used for criminal purposes in this jurisdiction, as recognised by the National Crime Agency, but to imply that the provision would make the public any safer from gun crime is, I believe, unrealistic.
I believe that they have been, but I advisedly used “in this jurisdiction” for that purpose.
If we are to start banning things just because of the use to which they might be put, logic could dictate that all firearms should be used, as well as all knives. That is not my idea of a free society.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important clarification.
The National Crime Agency position brief was received by the Library and heavily commented on by shooting experts across the board. The following points are based on their feedback. The NCA brief states that .50 calibre rifles
“are built around enormously powerful cartridges originally designed for military use on the battlefield and to have devastating effect”.
That is true, but it is also true of one of the most common target rifles ever used, the .303 Lee Enfield rifle and one of the most common hunting rifles, the .308, which is also based on a military round. The current full bore civilian target shooting round, at 7.62 mm, is a military round often used in machine guns. The NCA brief further states:
However, that is simply disingenuous, as the 5.56 round used in the L85 is specifically designed to be light and to perform a totally different role from the .50 calibre rifle. In particular, that round is designed to enable large quantities to be carried by troops and is faster firing and easier to use at close quarters, but to say the L85 is any less dangerous as a result is bizarre.
The irony is that .50 calibre firearms could have their barrels shortened, thus taking them beneath the maximum velocity. The 13,600 J limit is entirely arbitrary, and many owners and manufacturers could simply adapt their guns down to the new limit. The NCA refers to recent seizures of guns, including fully automatic weapons, as showing that crime groups are seeking more powerful weapons, but the .50 calibre is not automatic and there is no evidence of crime gangs ever having wanted to use it.
There was also a failure to consider the historic arms position. People should have the right to engage in shooting sports, unless serious possible injury to the public can be proved. I am a Conservative, and Conservatives to my mind do not ban things for the sake of it.
It is about 20 years since I fired a .50 calibre. My hon. Friend is entirely right to talk about how large and inappropriate they are for crimes. I very much support the case that he is making.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
It is unfortunate that this debate is not about the criminals who we should be targeting, namely the owners of illegal guns that are being used for crimes, but about the law-abiding sporting men and women who would lose out for no good reason.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and thank the Minister for seeing common sense and considering a consultation. I have a shooting range in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that the majority of the totally law-abiding people using my range and others are primarily ex-servicemen and women or ex-policemen and women, and that it is important that they can continue doing what they do?
I am not sure whether those people are primarily ex-servicemen and women, but I am sure that a lot of them shoot. A lot of children learn to shoot on the range in my constituency, which is an important part of the community that provides an important sporting outlet for disabled people, who cannot do other sports and hugely enjoy their shooting.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being extremely generous. I would ask him to consider this scenario, which happened in my local shooting club. Somebody who was clearly quite troubled was able to book up all the shooting lanes and then held up the shooting range official, took the guns and murdered two women a mile away from my constituency border. My hon. Friend talks about the illegal versus the legal and about the risk being minimal, but when things go wrong, even in minimal-risk circumstances, it can have devastating impacts. That is why I find myself a little hesitant about what is now being changed.
My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. Firearms are potential very dangerous things to use. I can only say to him that, as I said before, the number of legally owned weapons used in crimes is very limited, although that is not to say that we do not have a gun problem in this country. We certainly do, and we need to address it.
As my hon. Friend Huw Merriman said, my hon. Friend has been extremely generous in giving way. Guns are meant to be fatal if they are used properly. That is why they have to be protected with super-legislation—the toughest in the world—to ensure that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle are safe. Indeed, some of the vilification that I suspect my hon. Friend Mr Djanogly got was most unwelcome, because some of the effort that we went to with the tremendously helpful Minister was intended to seek further protection, so that the public were safer.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important intervention. I can honestly say that I have never heard a Member of Parliament or anyone involved in the shooting fraternity say that we do not need very tough rules, but they must work and must be fairly applied.
Just as worrying to the shooting community is the “thin end of the wedge” effect. If we could ban a calibre that is not held illegally and has never been used in a crime, how much easier would it be down the road to ban calibres that have been held illegally and are frequently used in crimes? By picking on the seemingly easy target of only 150 gun owners, the unamended Bill would have undermined shooting sports in this country as a whole.
Nuclear weapons have never been used for a crime, nor are they used in sport, yet they are not allowed to be held by civilians. I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman’s logic, but I am afraid that I am struggling.
I am afraid that I do not really understand the hon. Gentleman’s logic. I am talking about sports.
It was important and impressive that 74 hon. Members across the House signed the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown to remove the .50 calibre provisions. The Government are to be congratulated on tabling their amendments.
May I begin by reiterating Labour’s support for the Bill? We gave our support on Second Reading and in Committee, but let me also say how disappointed we have been at the Government’s consistent mismanagement of this important legislation. This should have been a comprehensive and honest response to the horrifying surge in violence that we are seeing in every community in our country. Instead, it is a relatively meagre collection of proposals that, rather than being strengthened in making its way through the House, has been watered down, as the Government have rolled over in response to their Back Benchers.
It is deeply regrettable that the Bill before us is far less effective than what was presented on Second Reading and that, in the Government’s complete paralysis in the middle of Brexit negotiations in their own party, they have refused to listen to the voices of the most senior counter-terror and security experts in the country and instead have once again allowed ideology to win the day.
It is a very sad reflection on our times that matters of great public importance—no task is more important than the Government keeping their citizens safe—are being sacrificed at the altar of Brexit. We have offered our sincere and constructive support throughout the passage of the Bill, supporting the Government’s efforts to respond to the surge in violent crime. We offered our support in Committee and now on Report in their attempt to ban the .50 calibre rifle, but, unfortunately, once again they have proven themselves unable to govern in the national interest, in hock to a group of Members who are prepared to risk public safety.
I did not see that comment as a personal accusation. One thing is clear—the hon. Gentleman has certainly put his view on the record.
Later in my speech, I will come to exactly why we think the amendment that the Government have tabled will indeed risk public safety.
The Home Secretary said back in April that he wanted to bring forward an Offensive Weapons Bill within weeks and that if it achieved cross-party support, it would become law “very quickly”, making a “big difference”. Over the weekend in London and across the country, more lives have been taken in senseless violence. Thirty-seven children have been killed this year. How can it have been allowed that the already limited measures in the Bill have been held up three times now because of a fight over high-calibre rifles? It reflects very poorly on this Parliament.
I speak in support of new clauses 3 and 4 in my name, new clause 2 in the name of my hon. Friend Karin Smyth, and new clauses 18 and 19 in the name of my right hon. Friend David Hanson. I will also refer to the amendments regarding .50 calibre rifles, with which the Labour party profoundly disagrees.
New clause 3 would bring miniature rifle ranges under the existing provisions of the Firearms Act 1968. It would remove a loophole in our decades-old firearms law that is providing easy access for non-firearms holders to get their hands on ammunition. Law enforcement officials have been clear on this. They have said in no uncertain terms that the exemption in section 11(4) of the Firearms Act is glaring and provides an easy route for terrorists and criminals to access firearms. This little-known exemption allows non-certificate holders to acquire and possess up to .23 calibre miniature rifles and ammo in connection with the running of a miniature rifle range.
Section 11(4) also allows a person claiming that they are running a miniature rifle range to acquire an unlimited number of .22 calibre rifles and ammunition without any background checks being completed or the police being made aware. In this context, the term “miniature rifle” is something of a misnomer. They are semi-automatic rifles and go far beyond that which is safe in the hands of a non-certificate holder. These are potentially lethal weapons, so this exemption is far too broad.
We are asking the Government to consider using this legislation to stop criminals having ready access to potentially lethal weapons. We were not at all convinced by the Minister’s justification in Committee and were staggered that she suggested that the Government had not been approached regarding this loophole, when they have been copied into the specific correspondence from counter-terrorism experts and the police. They simply cannot say they have not been warned. Will the Minister outline the Home Office’s thinking? Why does the Department believe, in the face of expert evidence, that this exemption does not pose a threat?
New clause 4, in my name and the name of the shadow Home Secretary, would make it an offence to possess component parts of ammunition with the intent to manufacture. Again, this has been explicitly recommended to us by the National Ballistics Intelligence Service, which said in Committee:
“There is a lack of control and legislation around purchasing and acquiring ammunition components. People can freely acquire all the equipment they need to make ammunition;
the offence kicks in only once you have made a round.”––[Official Report, Offensive Weapons Public Bill Committee,
Senior law enforcement officials have said:
“the reality is that individuals are being found in possession of primers (for which there is no offence) cartridge cases (for which there is no offence), missiles i.e. bullets (for which there is no offence) and smokeless powder (which is technically a minor offence contrary to explosives regulations but rarely…prosecuted).”
The fact is that, unless complete ammunition is found, there is no prosecution despite very strong suspicion that someone is making ammunition to be used in criminality. This simply cannot be right. New clause 4 is an attempt, in the light of the growing threat picture from DIY ammunition making, to give law enforcement the tools needed to clamp down on this practice, which is undoubtedly raising the threat to the public from firearms.
I turn to amendment 26. It is frankly staggering that we have arrived at this point. The Home Secretary’s clause was backed by the Opposition and could have passed easily through the Commons. He has not only caved in; he has gone a step further than even the rebels on his own Benches were suggesting. His amendments simply seek to preserve the status quo, leaving the security of these very dangerous weapons unchanged. In contrast to the suggestions from Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown—and, indeed, agreement from the shooting lobby—that security should be upgraded to level 3, meaning that the gun, the bolt and the ammunition should be in three separate safes, the Government are now proposing that security remain the same.
“We based those measures on evidence that we received from intelligence sources, police and other security experts.”—[Official Report,
Those are not my words, but the words of the Home Secretary on Second Reading. At what point did he no longer believe the evidence of intelligence, police and other security experts? At what point did he decide that the spectacle of a significant rebellion among Conservative Members was not worth the risk posed by these firearms? Given that so much attention has focused on the .50 calibre, is he satisfied that this amendment will also mean that two even more powerful rifles will now fail to be captured by this prohibition?
The 14 mm and 20 mm have been described by counter-terror police as effective Soviet anti-tank weapons. What on earth are this Government doing allowing these to be held by the licence-owning public? These two types are
“significantly more powerful than other firearms permitted for civilian ownership under section 1 of the 1968 Act…the proposals were based on concerns about the potential for serious misuse of these weapons if they were to fall into the hands of criminals or terrorists.”––[Official Report, Offensive Weapons Public Bill Committee,
Again, these are not my words, but the words of the Minister in Committee. She told us then that the Government were considering other alternatives for enhanced security for storage and use, yet now we see a complete climbdown.
Twice in the last two years these guns have been found in the hands of criminals: once in the north, when the barrel was shortened and discovered in wasteland; and once when the weapons were found in the hands of a gun smuggler to organised criminal gangs.
Labour will vigorously oppose these amendments today and any attempt to weaken the already desperately weak provisions in the Bill. The measures contained in clause 30, which in effect ban the enormously powerful .50 calibre, 14 mm and 20 mm are necessary and proportionate. They have been backed up with expert justification of the risk assessments and we are convinced that that assessment has been made in good faith. We will not be playing politics with public safety.
In one case, the weapon was held legally; in the other, it was held illegally. I hope that will help the hon. Lady make up her mind as to how she wishes to vote today.
There are many who seek to question the motives of the senior firearms officers who presented evidence to Parliament on the basis of an assessment of the facts. Those officers gave a reasoned, evidence-based analysis, and we are confident that they are not supporting anything that is not completely necessary to their work to keep us safe.
Mr Djanogly made a point about ammunition. In fact, the user requirement for this gun for the military is a system that can immobilise a vehicle with all UK in-service .50 calibre ammunition—not exotic military ammunition at all. Mark Groothuis of Operation Endeavour, the counter-terror policing unit in the Met, told us:
“My concern is that, if one of these guns were to be stolen…and if it were to get into terrorist hands, it could be very difficult to fight against or to protect against. There is very little—nothing, as far as I know—that the police service have that could go up against a .50 in the way of body armour or even protected vehicles.”––[Official Report, Offensive Weapons Public Bill Committee,
How is this a risk worth taking? This is a proportionate ban affecting weapons of staggering power. This is the most powerful weapon of its kind still available to the public.
The idea heard in some quarters that this is part of an overall assault on lawful gun-holders is simply nonsense. Last year, there were 157,581 firearms certificates covering over half a million weapons, and over half a million shotgun certificates covering more than 1 million shotguns. This amendment would affect 129 weapons. The truth is that the only way to protect the public from this weapon’s enormous power is to remove it from public hands altogether, and the Government have utterly failed in their duty to do so.
Order. We have lots of Members who wish to speak, so if we can be brief we can try to get in as many as possible.
I am very grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, to catch your eye in this debate on this important Bill, which contains necessary provisions on the use of corrosive substances and on knives. I think the whole House would applaud that. What the Government should be doing, as I will demonstrate in the few words that I have to say, is acting on the basis of real evidence.
As Karin Smyth said, this is the third time that the Government have listed for debate this Bill’s remaining stages. For me, as the lead signatory to amendments trying to remove .50 calibre weapons from the Bill, this is third time lucky. After extensive negotiations with the Government, I persuaded them that there was, as I will demonstrate, no real evidence to ban these weapons, and that they should remove them from the Bill and have a proper evidence-based consultation as to whether these weapons do or do not form a danger to the public.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. Of course, those who possess these weapons use them for entirely peaceful purposes. They are some of the most law-abiding people in this country. To ban these weapons on the basis of, as I will demonstrate, very little evidence, if any, is a completely illiberal thing for a Conservative, or indeed any, Government to do.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary very much indeed for reviewing the evidence on these rifles. He listened to everything that I and other colleagues had to say. My amendments attracted no fewer than 75 signatures from across the House. I thank every single one of my colleagues who signed them. I particularly thank and pay tribute to the Democratic Unionist party of Northern Ireland, all of whose Members signed them.
There is very little evidence for banning these weapons. The press seemed somehow to think that my amendments were all about Brexit and assumed that all those who had supported them did so to achieve Brexit. Nothing could be further from the truth. We were genuinely—I speak as chairman of the all-party shooting and conservation group—trying to do the right thing by a group of citizens who, as I indicated to my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Grieve, are some of the most law-abiding in the country.
Indeed. There will be lots of other colleagues who signed the amendments who are also of the remainer class. I do not agree with them, but I am nevertheless grateful to them for supporting my amendments.
Since the Bill was published, I have become aware that shooting associations have been concerned that the advice received by Ministers was not based on the facts but on a misrepresentation of target shooting. The consultation in advance of the Bill described .50 calibre single-shot target rifles as “materiel destruction” weapons. Nothing could be further from the truth. Civilian target rifles fire inert ammunition at paper targets. Only the military possess materiel destruction weapons that fire explosive and armour piercing rounds—all illegal in this country for civilian use.
Much of the evidence given to the Public Bill Committee continued on this theme. These target rifles were described by those who advised the Government as “extreme” and “military”, and inaccuracy, exaggeration and misrepresentation were given full play to support the ban. Much of this was refuted by the shooting organisations. They pointed out that the National Ballistics Intelligence Service was mistaken in declaring that the effective range of these .50 calibre rifles is 6,800 metres. The actual effective range is much less than a third of this.
The hon. Gentleman may well be coming on to this, but I thank him for giving way. I wonder what evidence he wants if evidence from one of the most senior counter-terrorist police officers in our country is not good enough for him. I wonder why he feels that he maybe knows more about these weapons than they do.
I greatly respect the hon. Lady, and if she will just be a little patient, I will give her exactly what she is asking me for.
The National Crime Agency wrote to the Home Secretary and the letter was circulated to MPs and placed in the Library. It was signed by Steve Rodhouse, the director general of operations at the National Crime Agency. The argument he used, essentially, is that these very powerful rifles might do serious damage. But the same could be said of most commonly used sporting rifles. Indeed, the most commonly used deer rifle in the UK is a .308 that could, and does, do lethal damage. As my hon. Friend Bill Wiggin pointed out, that is what it is designed to do. It is designed to kill vermin against which it is licensed to be used.
In the letter, Mr Rodhouse uses the words “military” and “extreme”. Nearly all calibres of commonly used civilian rifles originated as military rounds. He also quotes the MOD requirement for immobilising a truck at 1,800 metres. What he does not say is the round used, as I have said, is a high-explosive, incendiary and armour-piercing projectile. That is illegal for civilian use in the UK, where these rifles are used for punching holes in paper targets. It is as illogical to say that a civilian .50 calibre rifle should be banned because the Army uses it to fire at trucks as it would be to ban a .308 deer rifle because the Army uses the same calibre to fire at men. Equally, the residual strike of a .50 calibre bullet and the strike of a .308 bullet are both going to achieve the same end.
With regard to security, which was the basis of my original amendments, and to which I urged the Government to pay very close attention in their consultation, every firearms dealer in this country has to adhere to a level 3 security requirement, and the chief police officer of every police force that licenses every firearms dealer has to be satisfied that those requirements are in place. Some firearms dealers carry weapons that are far more lethal than a .50 calibre weapon because they store them on behalf of the Army. I would suggest that level 3 security would have prevented at least one of these crimes because there would have been the necessary security involved to do that.
I have been very upset to hear the nature of this debate, because the worst thing for any police officer must be to knock on someone’s front door to tell them that their loved one is a victim of crime. This is not a moment to play party politics at all. All guns are dangerous; all guns are for killing. These things are lethal; they require proper protections. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: what we all want to do is to make it as difficult as possible for these accidents to happen, and a ban is not the right way to achieve that.
Can I just say to Sir Geoffrey that hopefully he will recognise that we have six more Members and the Minister to get in?
The figures for stolen firearms should be put into context, which Mr Rodhouse does not do. There are 2 million firearms in civilian hands. Up to July this year, only 204—I accept that that is 204 too many—had been stolen, and the vast majority were shotguns, not rifles. Only 1% of non-airgun firearms crime is committed with rifles, and none of those has ever been from a .50 calibre legal weapon.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley might be interested to know that Mr Rodhouse did not give the whole story regarding the case of the stolen .50 calibre weapon. The police dealing with the theft considered it opportunistic and that the .50 calibre was stolen with other firearms and not specifically targeted—[Interruption.] She should just listen for a minute. The .50 calibre was rapidly abandoned, and there is a suggestion that the police were told where to find it. All this points at the criminals finding the .50 calibre unsuitable for their purposes, and one can understand why—a single-shot rifle, requiring hand-loaded ammunition, weighing 30 lb and around 5 feet long, is very difficult to carry, let alone use in a criminal or terrorist incident.
The second case mentioned is the Surdar case. The whole point is that Surdar did not sell his legally held .50 calibre rifle to criminals; they did not want it. In the first case, level 3 security would have prevented a crime, and in the second case, it was a dealer who was not entirely above board.
Mr Rodhouse goes on to talk about the threat of illegal importations. That will not be cured by banning legally held guns. How many .50 calibre weapons have been seized as illegal imports? The answer is none. It is true that most UK firearms law is the product of outrage in the wake of atrocities such as Dunblane or Hungerford. At least legislators in those cases were seeking to improve the law with clear evidence. Mr Rodhouse, on the other hand, is seeking to persuade Parliament to change the law in relation to .50 calibre weapons without any significant evidence whatsoever.
The Government’s original proposal was not supported by the evidence. We in this House have a duty to protect minorities and to ensure that we do not act illiberally by banning things when there is no evidence. I submit that the Government have done the right thing in withdrawing these weapons from the Bill and are right to have a properly evidence-based consultation, to which all experts, including the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, can give evidence. If, at the end of it, the Government conclude that there is an issue of public safety, we will need to debate that further in the House. I rest my case.
It is good to finally get down to further consideration of the Bill, at the third attempt. Let me say at the outset that my party welcomes the Bill. There has been close working between the UK and Scottish Governments in relation to it, and we are largely, but not completely, happy with where it has got to after a pretty thorough Committee stage.
The Bill covers a mixture of reserved and devolved matters, with legislative consent from the Scottish Parliament required for some parts of the Bill. How far the legislation should encroach on devolved issues such as Scots criminal law has been carefully worked through by the Governments to serve specific purposes, and we take the view that that is pretty much as far as the encroachment should go.
There are a number of amendments that I will speak supportively and sympathetically about and will not oppose, but in so far as they are drafted in a way that extends to Scotland, we ultimately take the view they would be better left to the Scottish Parliament to exercise its devolved competence. That includes the three new clauses relating to air weapons. I am sympathetic to what Karin Smyth seeks to achieve with those new clauses and the work she is doing, but as she pointed out, the regulation of such weapons was devolved to the Scottish Parliament, which has established a new licensing regime under the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015. For those reasons, as far as Scotland is concerned, we wish to leave any further reform of air weapons licensing and regulation to the Scottish Parliament.
There are other amendments, however, that are clearly in reserved territory and that we will consider supporting, including new clauses 3 and 4. For the sake of time, I will not repeat all the arguments made by the shadow Minister, Louise Haigh. I will simply say that we agree with her analysis.
On high-energy and .50 calibre rifles, having looked at all the evidence in the round, we would have supported the position set out by the Home Secretary and the Minister at every previous stage of the Bill’s passage. We echo much of what the shadow Minister has said today. In Committee, we heard persuasive evidence from the NCA, the National Police Chiefs Council, ballistics experts and counter-terrorism police about the power of these weapons. The evidence we heard was that these rifles are dangerous because of their range and because there is little—perhaps nothing—that the police have in the way of body armour or even protected vehicles that could go up against some of these weapons.
I emphasise that we are not in favour of prohibition for the sake of it. If those same expert witnesses think that an alternative solution to alleviate risk can be found, we will listen. We fully appreciate the impact that this would have on the recreation of a small number of citizens, but it is a small number; we are talking about 18 certificates in Scotland altogether.
The point is that the Home Secretary said he would further consider the proposed prohibition months ago on Second Reading, way back before the summer, yet no amendments were forthcoming before the previously scheduled final stages of the Bill. There has been no adequate explanation of what has changed in the past couple of weeks, and as matters stand, the Bill will leave this place with the prohibition removed but no alternative measures in its place.
The Home Secretary is now going against and ignoring the evidence we received from the NCA, the National Police Chiefs Council, ballistics experts and counter-terrorism police, as well as what I have been told by Police Scotland. I have tried, without success so far, to find out whether any of those witnesses has changed their view. In the absence of any adequate explanation, this reeks of internal party politics trumping important issues of public safety. It is not the right way to make legislation, and it is not the right way to treat the public.
The purpose of my amendments 23 and 24 is to avoid banning lever-release rifles. They are probing amendments; I just wish to explore the Government’s position, and I do not intend to press them to a Division.
I would like to start by thanking Little Chalfont Rifle and Pistol Club and my constituents who are members of it for helping me better to understand lever-release rifles by allowing me to fire several of them. Lever-release rifles are built and designed in the UK. They have a mechanism by which the rifle unloads itself with propellant gas but stops short of reloading. In a sense, they are self-cocking, but not self-loading. A lever is pressed to release the working parts and load the next round. My amendments would allow lever-release rifles but ban so-called MARS—manually activated release system—rifles, which allow the working parts to come forward using a second trigger press.
The lever-release mechanism was produced within current firearms law to be suitably used and owned on a section 1 firearms licence. These rifles are a valuable resource for disabled and elderly shooters in particular, who can struggle with conventional operating actions, and are no more dangerous than any other legally owned firearm of a similar calibre. The mechanism is not a bump stock, which has no place in target shooting; there seems to be unity about that.
The National Rifle Association has provided evidence that lever-release systems do not significantly increase the rate of fire capability of rifles. Lever-release rifles have a comparable rate of fire to bolt-action rifles—that is, one to two rounds per second, against one or less with a bolt-action rifle. Those rates of fire are based on un-aimed shots. In reality, the rate of fire for aimed shots, including the time taken to come back to aim and replace magazines, will yield an aimed shot about every two to four seconds in the hands of an expert marksman, regardless of the system used. I can certainly testify to that, having tried them. They have considerable recoil, and the idea of having a high rate of fire with aimed shots is really for the birds.
The lever-release system can allow an able-bodied shooter to maintain their firing position, assisting accuracy in a sport that is defined by accurate shooting. According to British Shooting, disabled people currently make up 25% of recreational shooters—a number that it is committed to increasing further. The NRA has informed us that 42.5% of its members are aged 60 or older. Lever-release rifles can allow less able people to continue to participate in the sport.
It seems unnecessary to ban lever-release rifles. My amendments would ban so-called MARS firearms, where the trigger is pulled a second time. I would like the Minister to set out exactly why shooters with lever-release rifles should have those weapons taken from them. A cornerstone of democracy is minority rights. I do not think that these weapons represent a significant additional risk for having a lever-release mechanism, and though I am only probing the Government’s position, I would like the Minister to set out in detail why owners will be stripped of those firearms.
Finally, in the original impact assessment, published alongside the consultation document, the Government estimated the total cost of compensation for the owners of these firearms to be between £1 million and £1.1 million in the first year of the policy. Responses to the consultation suggest that this was a considerable underestimate, and I very much hope that the Minister will be able to give us a new and more accurate estimate of the cost of the compensation.
I confess that I would not have tabled new clauses 18 and 19 had we had some clarity from the Government on the consultation on air weapons. Members will recall that the Government were asked to undertake a consultation on air weapons safety by the West Suffolk coroner on
The reason why I want this to be looked at is quite clear and quite tragic. My constituent George Atkinson was killed by an air rifle in a tragic accident at a cousin’s house some years ago. The air rifle in the house was not locked in a cabinet, and George had access to it. Playing with air rifles, as I did myself in my own house as a child, resulted in George’s accidental death, and his family had the tragedy of losing their 13-year-old son.
John and Jane Atkinson, George’s parents, have campaigned very strongly to try to get some measure of safety added to air rifles. They are not against the use of air rifles as a whole, but they want some safety measures added. The figures back up their concerns. We have seen some 25 cases of serious injury from air rifles this year and 288 cases that resulted in slight injury, while air rifles have been used in some 2,203 incidents—not just accidents, but deliberate use—involving offences in 2016-17.
The legislation—this is where I hope my two new clauses will come in—is currently the Firearms Act 1968, which says that it is an offence for a person in possession of an air weapon to fail to take reasonable precautions to prevent someone under the age of 18 from gaining unauthorised access to it. However, it does not define what reasonable precautions are in relation to protection for individuals.
As I have said, my constituents, although they have lost their son, do not wish to see airguns banned; they wish to see them made safer. My new clauses would do two things. The first new clause would ensure that airguns had to be kept in a lockable cabinet at home, with the key kept separate from the cabinet. If that had been in place, it would accordingly be an offence if the cabinet was accessed. There has to be a lockable cabinet.
The second new clause shows that we want trigger guards to be added to air rifles that, again, are only accessible by the owner of the air rifles. That does not prevent anybody from owning an air rifle or using an air rifle, or impose legal requirements on using one for sport or any other purpose. However, the new clauses would put in place two significant measures that would strengthen the Firearms Act and make the reasonable precautions measurable. Without measurable reasonable precautions, nobody can say what a reasonable precaution is.
For the memory of children and young people such as George Atkinson, it is important that we seek to have reasonable precautions. I want to hear from the Minister whether she will look at and support new clauses 18 and 19, and when she expects to respond to the consultation. Will she take on board those two suggestions, and, ultimately, not ban such weapons, but—perhaps as part of the wider examination mooted in new clause 2, moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South—look at what measures we can take to make them safer?
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that when the firearms legislation was revised in 2002, just before he became a Northern Ireland Minister, it brought anything firing a projectile with over 1 kJ of energy within the ambit of a firearms certificate? That distinguishes between airsoft and air rifles, so every air rifle in Northern Ireland has to be on a firearms certificate. That does not ban them, but it brings in the security protections and measures that he has outlined.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of the proposals that were brought in for Northern Ireland.
New clauses 18 and 19 are reasonable. A lockable cabinet and a lockable trigger guard will ensure that children and young individuals, who do not realise the potential power of these weapons, have more difficulty accessing weapons whose legal owners may currently keep them in an unlocked cabinet and without a trigger guard. I think the Minister needs to look at this, and I hope that she will support the new clauses. If she will not do so, I hope for a good explanation why not.
I wish to speak to Government amendment 26 and other related amendments. I had not intended to speak, but I feel duty bound to do so. Some time back, when the proposal to ban .50 calibre weapons came to the fore, like many of my Conservative colleagues, I wrote to the Minister to ask for the evidence base for it. The response I got back did not ultimately persuade me that there was such an evidence base. I think of myself as a libertarian, and if we are going to ban anything, there needs to be a justification for doing so. I was very much part of raising that query and concern.
I absolutely supported the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, which would have tightened up some of the rules around gun clubs with regard to these weapons. I am speaking in order to do almost an about-turn—I touched on this in my intervention during my hon. Friend’s speech—and this has really come to light for me. The issue is not so much about the .50 calibre weapons. I take the point, and it is well made, that one would not be able to remove and use this type of weapon in such a way; they are used for a specific purpose. None the less, if we are not careful with our gun clubs and do not make sure that the rules are tight, there will be situations where there are breaches that have tragic consequences. I want to reference what I touched on in my intervention.
I will run through the exchange that happened during the court process. Mr Craig Savage, the constituent I referred to—in fact, this happened just into a neighbouring constituency—managed to book his local gun club. It is my local gun club—I have actually used it—and the same one that has written to me to try to persuade me how safe it is and what a great pursuit the sport is.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does my hon. Friend not agree—I am aware of the point he is about to make—that gun clubs provide a sport that is gender-blind, ability-blind and age-blind, and that target rifle shooting is one of the most egalitarian sports available?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Gun clubs do, indeed, provide such a sport. I will suggest to the Minister where we can support them in their endeavours and actually make things better. Quite frankly—and gun clubs are aware of this as well—if they do not fulfil their role in a safe and secure manner, they know full well that it will be very hard for us, as their representative MPs, to justify their continued existence.
I want to take the House through the transcript involving the defendant and 1066 Target Sports. The defendant had asked whether he and a friend could book a live fire at 6.30 pm on the Friday. In one email, he asked whether it was busy during that time, and he later took up the offer of booking out all the lanes so that he and his friend
“could have the place to ourselves”.
I am sure colleagues are wondering why, at this point, nobody smelled a rat. The next day, he emailed to say that his friend had dropped out and he would have to “swing back another time”.
The defendant arrived at the complex at about 5 pm on the Friday of the shooting and was met in reception by Mr Graves, the deputy manager. Mr Graves said that the defendant had mentioned that he had prostate cancer and did not have much time to live. During the live firing he spoke about religion and rifles, and he made reference to “police-assisted suicide” and wanting to be “remembered as a man”. The defendant then went to the toilet. While the deputy manager was reloading, the defendant returned, wrestled the gun away, aimed it at his chest and said, “I will not hurt you, but I will need you to open the door”, which he duly did.
The defendant then made the 10-minute journey to Bexhill Road, where at 7.40 pm Raven Whitbread, her mother Heather Whitbread and her sister Michelle Savage were sitting in the lounge relaxing and eating a meal. Suddenly the defendant smashed through the window. Raven was told by her sister and mother to hide, as she was seven months pregnant. Raven said that she saw Craig Savage standing over her sister, and then she saw her body jolt. She ran into the annexe to call the police. Her mother was shot dead thereafter.
That is what happens if we do not get this right. People lose their lives in tragic situations because sometimes we too blindly see the risks as being so small that they will not occur. But when the law is broken, tragic events occur and people lose their lives. I think that we are duty bound not to say that the risks are so small that we should not control legitimate behaviour. We should ensure that those risks are minimised even further, and reduced to zero if possible.
I am asking the Minister whether we can look at gun clubs to ensure that they are made more secure, along the lines that my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds talked about, and really to look at a wholescale review and reform of gun clubs. If we do—I will tell my local gun club this—I just cannot support them.
I will keep my remarks brief, as you have requested, Madam Deputy Speaker, because we are shortly to vote. That was a brave speech by Huw Merriman. I hope that the Minister would accept that I am prepared to support the Government when they do the right thing on national security, and that therefore it is not out of overt partisanship that I think this cave-in is truly shameful.
I feel sorry for the Minister, because I think that it is the Home Secretary, or indeed the Prime Minister, who should really be here to account for why they are now disregarding all the advice they have received from the police and intelligence officials and caving in to—I have to say it—the backwoodsmen and, occasionally, women of their own party, rather than seeking to govern in the national interest on security. There was a way here whereby a Government who either had a level of authority or were prepared to reach across the House to do the right thing on national security could have got a clear majority for this important measure.
The threat of terrorism in this country is growing. It is inadequate, and potentially morally bankrupt, simply to say that because there has not been an attack recently, since the IRA threat, then there will not be one in future.
No, I am not going to give way to the hon. Lady, who I am afraid will say anything that the Whips tell her to say. If the Whips had told her to say the opposite, she would absolutely have said the opposite. [Interruption.] Well, okay then, if she wants to tell me why—
Why? Three years ago, almost to the day, more than 100 young people were killed in an attack on a Paris theatre. It was our Prime Minister who called for reform of European gun law, and I was the Member of the European Parliament who led that reform. This is a Government who are committed to the highest standards of gun control across Europe. If we are to continue that ongoing co-operation with our European neighbours, it is vital that we have evidence-based legislation that directs the gun controls at the right organisations. That is why I will be supporting the Government today.
Well, I have to say that the hon. Lady would be supporting the Government whatever their position was. I thank her for the intervention, however, because it does make an important point. The Prime Minister, as a former Home Secretary, does understand the threat, so the fact that the Government are doing the wrong thing because of party interest is shameful.
I thank all Members across the House for their passionate and heartfelt views on these important topics. I welcome the indication from the shadow Minister that the Bill continues to have the support of the Opposition.
The first duty of Government is to keep the public safe. That is why we have brought the Bill forward, to give the police and other agencies the powers they need to tackle serious violence and crime. But it is the definition of democracy that Government must meet that duty in ways that are effective but also proportionate. We have some of the strongest gun laws in the world, particularly for rapid-fire rifles. My hon. Friend Mr Baker has indicated that his amendment is intended to be probing. However, those rifles remain in the Bill because we are concerned that they can discharge rounds at a rate that brings them much closer to self-loading rifles, which are already prohibited for civilian ownership under section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968. Indeed, that appears to be one of the selling points for such rifles. We have therefore included them in the Bill, because we are of the view that the indiscriminate use of rapid-firing rifles, including lever action rifles, is such that they should be prohibited in the same way as other full-bore, self-loading rifles. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe has raised the interests of disabled shooters. Of course that is part of our assessment, but we are satisfied that there are other rifles that those with disabilities can use if they are prevented from using these rifles.
Let me move on to air rifles. I know that Karin Smyth and David Hanson have run long campaigns on air rifles. I hope that they both know that we have conducted this review following the coroner’s report into the terrible and very sad death of Benjamin Wragge, a 13-year-old boy who was shot accidentally with an air weapon in 2016. As I said in Committee, we received more than 50,000 representations from members of the public, and the issues raised by the new clauses tabled by the hon. Lady and the right hon. Gentleman will be considered in that specialist review, which will be published shortly. I therefore ask them not to press their new clauses to a vote.
I want to make a small point that might assist the right hon. Member for Delyn in deciding whether to press new clause 19 to a vote. The new clause refers to trigger guards, rather than trigger locks. I understand that he wants to look at locks. At the moment, air weapons are fitted with trigger guards. But I am happy to have a conversation with him, and with any other Member, about the applicability of locks as part of the review process.
On Government amendments 26 to 55, I recognise the very, very strong feelings across the House. I spoke at the beginning about the balancing act—indeed, it is a discussion we had constantly in Committee—between effectiveness and proportionality. We saw that today, let alone on Second Reading and in Committee, in relation to clauses 30 and 31. The clauses were included in the Bill to strengthen the controls on high muzzle energy rifles. They are currently controlled under general licensing arrangements. The effect of the clauses would be to subject those rifles to the more rigorous controls provided by section 5 of the 1968 Act. This was because our law enforcement colleagues have concerns as to the potential effect if these rifles fall into the wrong hands. Our strong gun laws mean that those who shoot in the countryside or at ranges have met the standards expected in firearms licensing and by their local police force.
I know the Minister has had extraordinary tension over this issue and has engaged very sincerely on it over the course of the Bill’s proceedings. I commend her commitment to public safety—I think unfair comments have been made today. I recognise, as a signatory of the amendment—others have signed it as well—that there is a willingness to engage sincerely in the consultation that she will bring forward to deal with this in the appropriate way.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He mentions the consultation, so I should formally mention our consideration of all the concerns we have listened to. The Home Secretary has listened very carefully to those concerns, as well as to the representations and advice from law enforcement colleagues. In the light of those circumstances, it is now the Home Secretary’s view that we should give further detailed consideration to this and other issues relating to firearms that have arisen during the course of the Bill. It is therefore our intention to launch a full public consultation on a range of issues on firearms safety that have arisen over the past few months during the passage of the Bill. Accordingly, we have decided to remove those clauses at this stage. I emphasise that the current licensing arrangements remain in place. The consultation will include other issues that have arisen, including for example, points relating to miniature rifle ranges raised by colleagues across the House, including my hon. Friend Huw Merriman.
Debate interrupted (Programme Order, this day),
The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order 83E).