My Lords, I broadly welcome this Bill, and we have already heard about some of the ways in which it could perhaps be improved. I welcome it on the ground that, apart from anything else, it is the Government’s responsibility to protect the public, and the Bill is about improving public safety—and who would not wish to see that happen?
I am not an expert on the rise in knife crime. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, raised the issue. I have not seen much of it, but in some communities in this country there has been a huge rise in knife crime. If we read the Evening Standard, which I try not to do, we discover that there appears to be an explosion in some kinds of knife crime, especially in the capital. That must worry us all. We have all heard about the ghastly murder on the train at Clandon at the weekend. I had never really heard about acid attacks until the last few years and they seem to be on the rise as well—so I commend the Government and certainly support moves, which I hope will be successful, to combat those crimes.
I will focus on firearms alone. I absolutely agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, who said that our firearms legislation UK is “among the world’s strongest”— and quite rightly so. We have very little firearms crime in this country compared with, for instance, somewhere such as the USA. Frankly, the USA’s record on gun crime is abominable. Even as someone who owns a shotgun, I say that the way in which people can get hold of weapons and firearms in the USA is a grave worry. The gun lobby seems to be ill judged in that which it is protecting. I declare an interest in that I own a shotgun. I go game shooting and have used, and occasionally still use, a rifle. I was in the Army for many years and used a great many weapons, for obvious reasons. Before we ban something that perhaps we do not wish to do, we should look at the evidence to see what the impact would be. Noble Lords mentioned .50 calibre rifles in particular, so I will home in on that issue.
A long time ago I used a .50 calibre machine-gun. I understand that there are only 137 .50 calibre rifles licensed in this country. For those who do not know, it is a big, unwieldy heavy piece of kit—so it is pretty difficult to use in a hold-up, for instance, as my noble friend Lord Lucas just mentioned. A terrorist in Northern Ireland used to snipe at security forces with a .50 calibre rifle. I do not know whether he is on one of those letters of comfort that were issued after the Good Friday agreement. I do not know whether he was ever caught. I do not know whether he is alive or dead. But the point about the rifle is that it was illegally imported, and of course its use was illegal. I think that it was part of the three or four shipments that Gaddafi sent from Libya to the IRA. The last one was seized by the French Navy in 1987. The MV Eksund had 120 tonnes of armaments—weapons and ammunition—on board. That is the sort of scale that one is looking at. So if we are talking about banning illegally held .50 rifles, there are 137 in this country. So we should bring this into perspective.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, is no longer in his place. As he said, he was closely involved in the Dunblane massacre—the appalling incident when Thomas Hamilton murdered 17 children and teachers in a classroom. Noble Lords may remember the Cullen report that followed, in which Lord Justice Cullen—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen—found failings in the police’s registering of the weapons that Hamilton had, and also failings in general public services such as mental health services, because issues were raised back in 1991 about Hamilton’s mental suitability to have firearms. Those were not taken up.
Cullen did not recommend the banning of pistols. Now I am not a pistol shooter, so the ban did not affect me in any way. I am not arguing on my own behalf. But one has to ask what effect it had on crime using handguns or pistols. I dug out the statistics. Of course, Hamilton had legally held pistols. This point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, who I thought argued very well—so I am not criticising him. But in 1996, the year before the legislation came in, there were 3,347 handgun-linked instances of crime reported. In 2001-02 that had gone up to 5,874. It has since come down again. In the last year for which we have statistics it was 2,675. Almost all these weapons—and I would say now all these weapons—have never been legally held. So by banning people spending their weekends firing pistols, which I did not and most people did not, we have not particularly contributed to a reduction in firearms crime because you can buy pistols. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, will stop me if I am wrong, but I suspect that there are pubs in London where you can buy a pistol—if you know the right pub, which I do not.
While I support the Bill, we should not go into the business of interfering with people’s lives where it is not necessary. If it is necessary, we should. On that note, I commend the Bill to the House in general terms.