Amendment 95

Offensive Weapons Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 4th March 2019.

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Moved by Lord Kennedy of Southwark

95: Clause 33, leave out Clause 33 and insert the following new Clause—“Prohibition of certain firearms etc: England and Wales and Scotland(1) The Firearms Act 1968 is amended as follows.(2) In section 5 (weapons subject to general prohibition), in subsection (1), after paragraph (af) insert—“(ag) any rifle from which a shot, bullet or other missile, with kinetic energy of more than 13,600 joules at the muzzle of the weapon, can be discharged;(ah) any rifle with a chamber from which empty cartridge cases are extracted using—(i) energy from propellant gas, or (ii) energy imparted to a spring or other energy storage device by propellant gas, other than a rifle which is chambered for .22 rim-fire cartridges;”.(3) In section 5(1), for the “and” at the end of paragraph (b) substitute—“(ba) any device (commonly known as a bump stock) which is designed or adapted so that—(i) it is capable of forming part of or being added to a self loading lethal barrelled weapon (as defined in section 57(1B) and (2A)), and(ii) if it forms part of or is added to such a weapon, it increases the rate of fire of the weapon by using the recoil from the weapon to generate repeated pressure on the trigger; and”.(4) In section 5(2), after “including,” insert “in the case of weapons, any devices falling within subsection (1)(ba) of this section and,”.(5) In section 5(2A)(a), after “weapon” insert “, device”.(6) In section 51A(1)(a) (minimum sentences for certain offences under section 5), in each of sub-paragraphs (i) and (iii), after “(af)” insert “, (ag), (ah), (ba)”.(7) In Schedule 6 (prosecution and punishment of offences), in Part 1 (table of punishments)—(a) in the entry for section 5(1)(a), (ab), (aba), (ac), (ad), (ae), (af) or (c), in the first column, after “(af)” insert “, (ag), (ah), (ba)”,(b) in the entry for section 19, in the third column, for “or (af)” substitute “, (af), (ag), (ah) or (ba)”, and(c) in the entry for section 20(1), in the third column, for “or (af)” substitute “, (af), (ag), (ah) or (ba)”.(8) The amendments made by subsection (6) apply only in relation to—(a) an offence under section 5(1)(ag), (ah) or (ba) of the Firearms Act 1968 which is committed after the coming into force of subsection (6), and(b) an offence under a provision listed in section 51A(1A) of that Act in respect of a firearm specified in section 5(1)(ag), (ah) or (ba) of that Act which is committed after the coming into force of subsection (6).”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would return the prohibition of high-powered firearms in England, Scotland and Wales to the Bill, which was removed during the Bill's passage through the Commons.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing)

My Lords, in my nine years in your Lordships’ House, I have never had to come to the Dispatch Box and speak to two amendments that were originally in the government Bill. I am proposing a government clause here. I suppose we all have to do new things at some point, but it is a strange situation when the opposition spokesperson moves to add two clauses on these matters that were in the Bill in the other place.

I shall read out a couple of quotes that may interest the House. First:

“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 .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 is the opening statement of the Government’s impact assessment.

Moving on, at Second Reading in the House of Commons, the Secretary of State said:

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

What happened? What persuaded the Government to do a complete about-turn by Third Reading? I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response. Apparently, these weapons can immobilise a truck or hit a person over a mile away. I am surprised by the about-turn between Second Reading and Third Reading. We raised this issue in Grand Committee and have still had no explanation. I seek to put two government clauses back into the Bill. I look forward to the debate and I beg to move.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for returning us to the issue of high muzzle energy—HME—rifles with an explanation of his amendment. I want to point out that I have never opposed the proposed ban on MARS or lever-release rifles, as I am sure the noble Lord will recognise, although I have eased back on my opposition to the compensation arrangements for them.

Amendments 103A, 103B, 107A, 107B, 108A, 110A, 113A, 116 and 117 in this group are in my name. The first two are substantive; the rest are consequential. In Committee, my noble friend Lord Lucas and I suggested that we did not need to put these high muzzle energy, .50 calibre target rifles in Section 5 and thus prohibit them from general use. However, we need to make certain that they cannot fall into the wrong hands. We can achieve that by requiring the same levels of security currently applied to Section 5 firearms—those with no legitimate civilian use, such as self-loading rifles and automatic weapons, among others. My noble friend Lord Lucas mentioned level 3 security in his amendment while mine sought to give an order-making power to the Secretary of State to achieve much the same. In addition, my amendment provided for transport conditions.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, made a powerful intervention in support of the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, to ban high muzzle energy rifles. We can well understand the noble Lord’s motivation, which is pure. In doing so, he suggested that we should always follow the advice of senior Ministers on matters of security. I have to say that I found that somewhat odd. The noble Lord will be well aware that Ministers are reliant on advice from officials. While that advice is often very good, it is not infallible. My noble friend Lord Howe had a brush with this difficulty when he was dealing with the noble Countess, Lady Mar, about organophosphates.

Our role is to be a revising Chamber, an additional check on the Executive, and a source of expertise. I think we do this very well. During the period when the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, was serving with distinction as the Secretary-General of NATO, the then Prime Minister convinced us, as a matter of national security, that we had to invade Iraq to deal with weapons of mass destruction. Let us just say that for nearly all of us it was not our finest moment in a parliamentary democracy.

The other point that I will make gently to the noble Lord is that there will almost certainly be cross-fertilisation between the .50-calibre target shooting community and the UK military. However, we should be in no doubt that we are talking about exceptionally powerful and potentially accurate firearms. This is the case even when considering a standard ball round, let alone a military armour-piercing or incendiary round. On the other hand, HME rifles are heavy and clumsy, and there is no history of them being used illegally in the UK. Moreover, considerable skill is required to be able to exploit their potential. I certainly do not have that skill; I would not even dare fire one because I would be too worried about the recoil. Even today, the police are very cautious about to whom they will issue a firearms certificate for one of these rifles. Nevertheless, we should never forget what can go wrong if we do not get this right. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, was right to draw our attention to the risks when he spoke in Committee and I suspect he will be even more eloquent in this debate.

In Committee, I was encouraged by the response of my noble friend the Minister and I felt that I could tempt the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, with a better drafted amendment on Report. I am grateful to the officials in the Bill team who have given me detailed advice on how I could improve my amendment while ensuring that it would have largely the same effect. There is no need to worry about the definition of a rifle as there is no scope for misunderstanding. The amendment addresses the licensing system, not the enforcement system. Noble Lords will notice that there are requirements for consultation and a negative instrument to implement any changes that appear desirable as a result of the consultation.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, will feel able to withdraw his amendment, on the understanding that I will move my amendments when they come up in their place on the Marshalled List.

Photo of Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Labour 5:15 pm, 4th March 2019

My Lords, I think we are all agreed that this is an important issue which needs to be debated. As my noble friend said, he is simply moving in his amendment what the Government put in their original legislation, so one would have thought that it would be uncontroversial. My noble friend has read out what the Home Secretary said in the debate at Second Reading in the other place. I think it is legitimate for us to ask the question and be given an answer as to why the Home Secretary has chosen to ignore the advice of the agencies concerned when he withdrew the amendment to the Bill. However, having said that, the Government have promised a consultation on this matter, which is an important statement on their part, and therefore it would be wise not to press the amendment to a vote today.

In the consultation that is to take place, I expect that the agencies quoted by the Home Secretary will want to tell Members of both Houses what their view is of the dangers of these weapons. As the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, has outlined, officials have given a view about these pretty dreadful weapons. A .50 calibre rifle sounds almost innocuous, but they are basically sniper rifles that can take out a vehicle and human beings at a mile’s distance. These are formidable weapons in war. They are highly prized and valued in conflict given their accuracy and lethality.

I recall as Defence Secretary going to Bosnia and watching Operation Harvest involving members of the Royal Highland Fusiliers in Banja Luka. One of them, with a broad Glasgow accent, came back from one of the houses in the village with a sniper rifle. Since he did not have an interpreter with him, I wondered how he had managed to persuade the individual in the house to hand over such a prized instrument of the conflict. I think it was the nature of his accent that persuaded the inhabitant of the house that he was not a friendly force and they should therefore hand it over. It was regarded as enormously significant that day that he had managed to persuade them to hand over what was regarded as one of the key instruments of the conflict there.

It is quite legitimate for Members of the House to listen to the words of the Home Secretary read out by my noble friend. The Home Secretary said that he based these measures on,

“evidence that we received from intelligence sources, police and other security experts”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/6/18; col. 918.]

That is pretty all-embracing. This is not just a handful of individuals putting this forward. We are talking here about representatives of 43 police forces in the United Kingdom, the Secret Intelligence Service, the Security Service, GCHQ and the National Crime Agency. Their distilled view and wisdom was that if these weapons were to fall into the hands of criminals or others with malign intent, they would have particularly dangerous effects. The Home Secretary did not underestimate it. He said:

“According to the information that we have, weapons of this type have, sadly, been used in the troubles in Northern Ireland”— the noble Earl said they had never been used in the United Kingdom, but we are told by the Home Secretary that they have—

“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; col. 919.]

We have had a discussion about knife crime, a huge issue affecting us at present. One can only imagine what would happen if the Home Secretary were right and criminal elements got their hands on .50 calibre rifles, and what damage they could do.

The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, poured scorn on advice given by officials. I was a Secretary of State and had officials who gave me advice in NATO as well. It is the role of Ministers to listen to advice and to make decisions, but the Home Secretary presumably would not come to Parliament not having given careful attention to the advice offered to him on that occasion. There must have been something pretty radical to change his mind—not just the assembled Members of Parliament who argued vociferously against it.

I went through the great debate about handguns in 1997-98, and I have heard all the arguments before. Yes, they will be safe if we have safeguards and the police are satisfied. I remember the number of people who had these handguns, some of them large numbers of handguns, and being assured that they were all safe—yet we saw the two major incidents in Hungerford and Dunblane caused by the private ownership of handguns.

I am not reassured by some of the statements that have been made. I would prefer to follow the course of action laid down by the Home Secretary in his opening speech at Second Reading. I hope that during the consultation we will be able to make that case and that the Home Secretary will return to his original view.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, I understand why the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy of Southwark and Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, are saying what they say. I am not as surprised as the noble Lords, in that my experience is that Governments argue until they are blue in the face that they could not possibly adopt an opposition amendment, only to adopt it at the next stage. Such a change of view is not without precedent when it comes to these matters.

I am more warmly disposed to the calls of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, for a compromise, if you will, of increased security. However, I hope to be even more convinced by the Minister that the right way forward is further consultation.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, I join this debate for a couple of reasons, having listened to it in Grand Committee in the Moses Room. I was disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, did not try to copy the accent of the HLI Jock. Your Lordships would have understood why the rifle was handed over.

I hope my noble friend on the Front Bench will solve an argument that I had at the weekend about how easy it is to modify a rifle that is constructed above 13,600 joules to below 13,600 joules. If that could be on the record it would be helpful. Also, could he not introduce the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Attlee under Section 63 of the 1968 Act?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, the answer to the noble Earl’s question about the energy of the rifle is that there is a huge gap between the next lowest powered rifle and the .50 calibre rifle.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

My Lords, people have spoken to me about this and, from what I understand, these weapons are only used now in international competition. If I am right, it would be sad if we were to lose our ability to take part in them. I cannot see what the problem is, given that these weapons have not been used in terrorist incidents. I also understand that it is hard to get hold of armour-piercing and dangerous ammunition, which is not used in international target competition. You have to find a terrorist source, effectively, to get that; a casual thief would not be able to handle it. The additional security proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, would be satisfactory and enable Britain to take part in international competition.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has indicated, Amendments 95 and 96 would restore the prohibition on civilian access to high muzzle energy rifles, which was a feature of the Bill on its first introduction in the House of Commons. These rifles are currently available for civilian use or ownership under general firearms licensing arrangements administered by the police.

We discussed these amendments in Grand Committee, and the question of whether these particular rifles should be prohibited also received much scrutiny in the House of Commons. I hope therefore it will not be necessary for me to repeat all that I said in Grand Committee but, in the light of the challenge of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, it may assist your Lordships if I briefly reiterate the Government’s position.

The Government originally included in the Bill the prohibition of high muzzle energy rifles because of the concerns raised by the police and the National Crime Agency about the potential for damage, serious injury or fatalities if these rifles were to fall into the hands of criminals or terrorists. They are larger and more powerful than the typical rifles that are licensed by the police for civilian use under our existing firearms legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked me: what has changed? There is a simple, one-word answer, which is democracy. There are differing views in Parliament and beyond about whether we need to go as far as prohibition, or whether, given the particular characteristics of these rifles—their weight and size, for example—enhanced security around their storage and transportation would sufficiently meet the risk of theft and misuse that has been articulated to the Government by the police and others. The Government wish to test this further through the public consultation that has already been announced to look in more detail at firearms safety issues following the Bill. This will provide an opportunity for all the experts and others to have their say on the issue of prohibition and security standards, and enable the Government to take a more informed view in the light of the consultation’s responses. That is not to say that the Government are no longer concerned about the risks that these rifles pose; we do not row back from the clear statements made on the nature of these weapons.

That brings me neatly on to the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Attlee, which will help to address this issue. Amendments 103A and 103B concern the security conditions that the police place on the certificates of those who have access to the high muzzle energy rifles that we are concerned about here. These certificates are issued by the police under Section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968 or Article 3 of the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004. They allow the police to stipulate specific conditions that must be met by the certificate holder.

We discussed the issue of secure storage in Committee, where there was some debate on the need for so-called level 3 security. The different levels of security arrangements are set out in the Home Office Firearms Security Handbook, with level 3 being the highest level in the handbook. My noble friend’s amendments do not, helpfully, reference level 3 explicitly. As I said in Committee, it would be an anomaly to specify in the Bill detailed security conditions for a particular rifle type, and it would not be appropriate to refer specifically in legislation to the guidance set out in the Firearms Security Handbook because the guidance carries no specific legal weight and can be amended administratively. Rather, the amendments now put forward by my noble friend address the issue of firearms security by placing a duty on the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Department of Justice to set out in rules made under the existing firearms legislation the security requirements for the storage and transit of high muzzle energy rifles.

This will enable the Secretary of State and Department of Justice to specify the security requirements by making them conditions subject to which the relevant firearms certificates are issued by the police. Just what those storage conditions will be is something the Government will include in the public consultation that has been committed to. This will give all those with an interest an opportunity to express their views on whether we should be mirroring level 3 in the intended secondary legislation or whether these specific firearms require something more. However, the overall effect of Amendments 103A and 103B, and the accompanying rules, will be to ensure that these dangerous firearms are kept and stored as securely as possible when held in the community, both when not in use and when being transported from place to place. For this reason, the Government are content to support my noble friend’s amendments.

My noble friend Lord Caithness asked how easy it is to power down from 13,600 joules. Even if a rifle is converted to a lower power level, it would still be caught by the definition of a rifle capable of such pressures.

Having regard to everything I have said, to our debate on Amendments 95 and 96 and to our commitment to run a full public consultation on this issue, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing) 5:30 pm, 4th March 2019

I thank the Minister for his contribution. This has been an interesting debate. I am proposing the position the Government took only a few months ago in the other place. They are now opposing that position. I suppose we live in interesting times.

I was very clear at Second Reading that I fully support the Home Secretary. I am just disappointed that the Government have changed their mind. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, for his amendments. They go some way towards allaying my fears. I am very pleased to learn from the Minister that the Government will support them. That is progress, and I thank the noble Lord for tabling the amendments today.

I also welcome the government consultation. I hope everyone involved and interested will contribute to it. My concern is that we will have the consultation and get the results many months after this Bill has passed into law. If the Government decide to ban these weapons, I will be asking how they are going do so and when there will be legislation. That has happened before. Noble Lords know that I am going to mention the rogue landlords database in the dreaded Housing and Planning Act. We wanted it to be made public, but the Government opposed us all the way. We won at least two votes, but the Government would not have it, so the public cannot access the database. The Government have now changed their mind, but when I ask about it, they say, “You’re absolutely right, Lord Kennedy, but we cannot find a bit of legislation to make it public yet”. That is the frustration with these consultations. The Government look at things, change their mind, but we cannot get changes.

I am not going to test the opinion of the House. I am tempted to see whether the Government vote against their original position, but I shall not do that today. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 95 withdrawn.

Clause 34: Prohibition of certain firearms etc: Northern Ireland