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.