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,
c. 42, Q99.]
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,
Vol. 643, c. 918.]
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.