Offensive Weapons Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 7th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Labour 4:00 pm, 7th January 2019

It is a great privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove. She speaks with authority and personal passion and we should listen with great care to what she says. I listened to her a few weeks ago at the annual Livia Awards, a remarkable institution created by the parents of a young woman who was killed in a road traffic accident to recognise in the Metropolitan Police those who expend extra effort and trouble to bring perpetrators to justice—but, again, focused on the victims of crime. I did the guest of honour speech last year and the noble Baroness did it this year. It is a remarkable organisation, to which I pay tribute.

It is one of the tragedies of the way in which Brexit has sucked the oxygen and energy out of political discourse that issues such as this, which are of huge importance to people in their daily lives, have been sidelined and have not been given anything like the attention they deserve. Therefore it is right that the Government should expect detailed consideration of this Bill and that we should spend a little time on it. It raises a whole host of major issues, which have come out already, even at this early stage.

There are deep social problems in our society today, some of which are manifesting themselves in the violence that is affecting so many parts of the country. We in this House are a million miles away from a lot of those social problems and find it difficult to understand them, let alone find remedies that will be applicable to the areas which they deeply affect. I took part in a programme recently and the very senior presenter, a prominent person in public life, told me on the sidelines of the interview that his son had been stabbed in an incident in London. He had been an inch away from ending his life—a young man now completely traumatised and whose personality has been changed. The presenter said, “It’s like the wild west out there”. For somebody to say that about our country and our capital city highlights something very serious, which merits our concern.

I come from Scotland. In Glasgow the problem manifested itself a number of years ago. All the agencies came together in the violence reduction unit that was created at that time, and a radical difference has been made in the situation there. I am glad that the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has taken on board the lessons of that and that a violence reduction unit has been created in London. I know that Ministers and the Government are also paying attention to the success of something that has worked. Of course, all this is highlighted by the terrible incident that took place on a train last week, and I am sure that all of us here feel profoundly for the Pomeroy family, and especially for their young 14 year-old son.

I will concentrate on only one aspect of the Bill, firearms. I have a degree of knowledge and expertise in this area as I was Defence Secretary of this country and then Secretary-General of NATO, and it was perhaps part of the armoury of military forces to know a lot about these instruments. But I am also a resident of the town of Dunblane. At the time of the 1996 incident, I was the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and I lived in the town. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, was the Secretary of State for Scotland, and although we were political combatants at the time, we were welded together in the wake of the evil perpetrated by a criminal who both of us knew. I played a part in the legislation that was passed when we came to power in 1997 to abolish the private ownership of handguns in this country, legislation which has had a major influence on gun crime in this country as a whole.

That background gives me a deep concern about the progress of the Bill, in particular the fact that .50 calibre high-powered rifles have now been taken out of the legislation after the initial plan to keep them in. The term “.50 calibre rifle” does not mean an awful lot to the ordinary person, but they are colloquially known as “sniper rifles”. That is a technical expression used in the military to describe guns that kill people at long distance, and that is effectively what they are. If you look them up on the internet you will find that .50 calibre rifles are also known as sniper rifles. The Government’s impact assessment—an interesting document on the subject of .50 calibre rifles—states:

“There is concern about the availability of .50 calibre and rapid-fire Manually Actuated Release System (MARS) rifles being available to some civilian firearms licence holders. The range and penetrative power of 0.50 calibre rifles makes them more dangerous than other common firearms and were they to be used in criminal or terrorist activities would present a serious threat to the public and would be uniquely difficult for the police to control. Due to the rate of discharge MARS rifles pose a comparable risk to the public and police as other self-loading weapons already banned in the UK. The Government need to intervene to ensure the purchase, ownership or possession is illegal”.

That was the opening statement of the Government’s own impact assessment, which went on to go through all the other effects. In the Second Reading debate in the Commons, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, said:

“We based those measures on evidence that we received from intelligence sources, police and other security experts”.

He was challenged throughout the whole of that Second Reading debate by a concerted group of Conservative Back-Bench MPs who are part of the All-Party Group on Shooting and Conservation, and he went on to say:

“According to the information that we have, weapons of this type have, sadly, been used in the troubles in Northern Ireland, and, according to intelligence provided by police and security services, have been possessed by criminals who have clearly intended to use them”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/6/18; cols. 918-19.]

Those are not my words or the words of gun campaigners but the words of Her Majesty’s principal Secretary of State for Home Affairs, speaking in the House of Commons.

Why on earth were the Government persuaded to take out the clause in the Bill that would have removed those weapons from legal ownership? I appreciate that the Minister and the Government have said that they are now open to consultation on the matter, but they have not even included some of the safeguards that the gun lobby was recommending, as outlined by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, to separate out these elements. At the moment, there is nothing: there is no restriction on these weapons. These are weapons that can immobilise a truck—or a human being—more than a mile away from the person handling the rifle. We are talking about a serious weapon with enormous potential. If the Home Secretary of this country believes that they are in the hands of those who may use them, the call for action was all the more important. The police, the intelligence authorities and the National Crime Agency have all come to the same conclusion.

As I read the debate in Hansard and the background documents, the echoes came back of the arguments we had after Dunblane from the shooting lobby, who said that these guns were only for recreation and were in the hands of people who were properly licensed, et cetera. But the evil criminal who perpetrated what happened in Dunblane and the one who perpetrated what happened in Hungerford were holding legally obtainable guns at the time. It is right and proper that assessments be made and that we listen to the people who know. As I said, if the Home Secretary of this country believed that there is the potential for these weapons to be used, action should have been taken.

I hope that during the course of the debate in this House, we will return to this subject and perhaps go down the road that the Home Secretary was deliberately on before he was derailed.