Amendment 95

Part of Offensive Weapons Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 4th March 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 5:15 pm, 4th March 2019

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.