Clause 26 - Age limits for purchase etc. of air weapons

Violent Crime Reduction Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 20th October 2005.

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Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General 3:45 pm, 20th October 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 192, in clause 26, page 28, line 30, at end insert—

‘(2)For section 1(3)(b) (Requirement of firearm certificate), substitute—

“(b)an air weapon (that is to say an air rifle, air gun or air pistol with a muzzle energy in excess of 4 joules which does not fall within section 5(1) and which is not of a type declared by rules made by the Secretary of State under section 53 of this Act to be especially dangerous)”.

(3)For the purposes of this Act, an air weapon shall have the meaning assigned to it by section 1(3)(b) of the 1968 Act.’.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 215, in clause 26, page 28, line 35, at end insert

‘which is also a realistic imitation firearm or a firearm for which a firearms certificate would be required under section 1 of the 1968 Act.’.

No. 152, in clause 26, page 28, line 36, leave out ‘seventeen’ and insert ‘eighteen’.

No. 216, in clause 26, page 28, line 41, after ‘weapon’, insert

‘which is also a realistic imitation firearm or a firearm for which a firearms certificate would be required under section 1 of the 1968 Act.’.

Government amendment No. 292

Government new clause 17—Prohibition On Sale Or Transfer Of Air Weapons Except By Registered Dealers

Government new clause 18—Sales Of Air Weapons By Way Of Trade Or Business To Be Face To Face

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

Partly because we have seen none of the consultation, we have seen no evidence that the clause would reduce crime. The age limit for air guns was increased as recently as 2003, but the impact of that change has yet to be assessed. Also, many existing laws could be used to counter the problem if only they were better enforced. The solution is not more laws that serve only to penalise the law-abiding shooting community, but better enforcement of existing laws. Unless the Minister can alleviate our concerns and provide compelling evidence as to why the clause is necessary and how it will serve significantly to reduce violent crime, we shall consider our position at a later stage.

The clause raises from 17 to 18 the age at which a person may purchase or hire an airgun or ammunition for an airgun. It also raises from 17 to 18 the minimum age at which a person may have an airgun or ammunition without being supervised by a person aged 21 or over, and raises from 17 to 18 the minimum age at which a person may borrow an airgun or receive one as a gift.

It is worth reflecting on some of the uses of airguns. They are widely used in Britain by young people for pest and predator control, target shooting and informal target practice. On Second Reading, the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), said that we would consult on airsoft proposals in the Bill. Well, we have done so, and we still fail to see any justification for the new clause, let alone how it will have a material impact on violent crime. Changes to firearms legislation should be soundly based on consultation and evidence, not just on a perceived need to do something. The regulatory impact assessment stated that the vast majority of the 4,371 responses to the consultation paper received by the Government that commented on air weapons were in favour of tackling misuse, but not through further restrictions on possession or sale.

There are an estimated 4 to 7 million air weapons in this country, the vast majority of which are used responsibly for target shooting and vermin control. The status of target airgun events has been raised consistently in recent years. The estimated sale of blank firers and soft airguns is about 350,000 weapons per annum.

In answer to a written question in 11 July 2005, in column 767 of Hansard, the Minister said that the first statistics for court proceedings on airguns following the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 would be available this autumn. The proposed changes in the Bill come soon after that Act, but before there has been sufficient time to see whether the Act has had a discernable impact on airgun misuse, and with no evidential basis for the proposal.

The Anti-social Behaviour Act attempted to deal with airgun abuse by, for example, raising the age of purchase to 17. However, it is less that two years old. Its effects have not yet had time to be properly monitored and evaluated and we maintain, having consulted widely on the issue, that it is wrong to impose further restrictions in the absence of further evidence.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I am listening carefully to what is being said and trying to work out what argument is coming next. Is the hon. Gentleman not concerned that in the last full year for which I have figures, in England there were 13,700 air weapon crimes and in Scotland there were 415, twice the number of crimes that involved real firearms. Is the hon. Gentleman not deeply concerned about the scale of the problem? There seems to be a little complacency in what he is saying—although of course I will listen to the rest of his argument.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

The hon. Gentleman’s line of argument is slightly misleading. I do not have the figures in front of me, but I believe that about 80 per cent. of those 14,000 offences are against property. Perhaps I am wrong; perhaps he can put me right. He is talking about young children, who should not break windows but would break them with a stone or a slingshot anyway. I do not condone such action, but we cannot say that because an air rifle was used, the holders of 7 million airguns should be considered criminals.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The hon. Gentleman is seeking to dismiss the rise in crimes involving airguns by saying that many are attacks on property. He should think of the people whose property that is. He should think of the people—maybe older people, maybe women with children—inside those homes. I find it extraordinary that he should dismiss those incidents in such a way. Such incidents can cause real fear and real physical harm to the people involved.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me to clarify the issue. I am not in any way saying that such crimes are not serious. In fact, I personally consistently maintain that antisocial crimes are often the ones that most annoy people on a day-to-day basis, and they are the most numerous. However, I was answering the specific point made by the hon. Member for Dundee, East, which suggested that airguns were a particular problem because of the number of crimes. We have to go a little more deeply into the sorts of crimes involved.

I will move on to amendment No. 192. We propose that an air weapon should be more specifically defined not only in this Bill but throughout firearms legislation. Certain air weapons have in law not been regarded as firearms because of the consensus that airguns discharging pellets with a muzzle energy below a certain level are not regarded as lethal barrelled weapons, the definition of a firearm. In the absence of a legal definition of lethality in the 1968 Act, we suggest that it should be established that airguns discharging pellets with a muzzle energy of 4 J or less are not considered firearms because they are generally not regarded as lethal barrelled weapons. That classification includes most airsoft weapons and BB guns, which are generally used harmlessly by children and adults alike. It may also be useful at this stage to consider defining lethality and updating the definition of firearm in section 57 of the 1968 Act. For those reasons, we propose changing the definition of air weapon in the 1968 Act to reflect that and give the definition a statutory basis.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North 4:00 pm, 20th October 2005

The hon. Gentleman appears to be arguing that airguns are an inoffensive weapon. I remind him that someone—a child—has been killed in Scotland by an airgun.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

I am not denying that airguns are a weapon, but anything can be used as a weapon. People have been killed by cricket bats. We are discussing at what point one must prejudice the holders of 7 million airguns. If a criminal commits an offence, he must answer for his crimes, but that does not necessarily mean that one should prejudice the owners of 7 million airguns.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The hon. Gentleman paints a rosy picture of the use of airguns among children, implying that knocking slates off roofs or hitting windows are somehow just high jinks. What would he say to people whose pets are killed by irresponsible users of airguns, or to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which is concerned about the use of airguns, which causes a lot of damage and death among wild birds?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

I would say that the users should be prosecuted and, if convicted, face the sentence they deserve.

For the reasons I have given, we propose changing the definition of air weapon. Section 1(3)(b) of the Firearms Act 1968 contains a definition of an air weapon. By changing it, low-powered air weapons could escape the proposed draconian legislation. That would partly remove the need to create an exemption for the sport of airsoft, as most airsoft weapons would escape the definition of an air weapon. I believe that they have the muzzled energy of about 1 J.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent South

If the hon. Gentleman were faced with a person with an airgun, a cricket bat or a slingshot, what would he rather they hit him with?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

I should not want to be hit by any of them, and I should want the person who hit me to be prosecuted, convicted and sent to prison. However, the slingshot could do the most damage, and it is not addressed by the legislation. Having heard the hon. Lady’s comments, I think that she may want her Government to address that.

The amendment, as well as clarifying the law and minimising disruption to social activities, would have the benefit of reducing the administrative burden involved in the sale and purchase of low-powered air weapons. In France, air rifles with muzzled energy of 10 J or less are on sale to anyone of any age, and air weapons with muzzled energy in excess of 10 J come under the same regulation as firearms. Will the Minister confirm whether she has considered what happens on the continent?

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

I have been following the hon. Gentleman’s argument, and I have great sympathy with it. However, I have never really caught up with the metric system, so what is the pound per square inch equivalent of the joule?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

I do not know, but that would confuse hon. Members anyway. Apparently, 1 J is equivalent to a tennis ball being bounced on the floor. That puts it in very simple terms that we can all understand.

If this unjustified change in the law succeeds, the amendment would minimise the effect on social sports such as airsoft and the inevitable loss of revenue to associated businesses. It would at least enable sensible, law-abiding 17-year-olds who enjoy using low-powered air weapons to continue responsibly with their sports.

The purpose of amendments Nos. 215 and 216 is to tighten the definition of air weapon, so that it does not include toys and other air weapons that are clearly not powerful enough to cause damage or realistic enough to cause any concern that they may be a real threat.

The amendments add an additional requirement so that these restrictive laws do not apply to each of the 7 million existing air weapons nor to all new air weapons, but to those air weapons that are only also realistic imitation firearms.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The hon. Gentleman argues that because the clause does not apply to slingshots, which can cause damage, it should not apply to lower-powered air weapons. Is he aware that the Police Federation, which might know more about the matter than he or I do, wants the legislation to apply to crossbows and catapults because increasingly dangerous incidents are taking place with them. I am not arguing for amendments to the Bill at this time, but the argument can be seen in a completely different light.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

The hon. Lady makes a fair point that I was going to bring up later. If we talk about restrictions, it is arguable that those should be the priorities.

Amendment No. 215 would have the advantage of exempting air weapons, which would not be mistaken for threatening guns, so it would be consistent with the Government’s general aims on imitation firearms. The amendment is also consistent with existing firearms legislation, particularly section 1 of the Firearms Act 1982, which provides for an imitation firearm to be treated as a real firearm in law. We have included that in relation to air weapons so that the clause does not unnecessarily affect the law-abiding pursuits and pastimes of 17-year-olds. The amendment would prevent the needless tightening of restrictions based on no supporting evidence and with no obvious impact on the reduction of violent crime.

On the Liberal Democrats’ amendment No. 152, we generally support the idea that the Bill provides the Government with a perfect opportunity to clarify and harmonise the complex and disjointed laws relating to air weapons. We are sorry that they have not taken that opportunity. For the reasons that I have mentioned, not least the lack of evidence to show that raising the age bar will have any effect on violent crime, we do not believe that the age limit should be 18 for air weapons, and we certainly see no reason why rifle and shotgun owners should be prejudiced. More to the point, in tabling the amendment, the Liberal Democrats seem not to have discussed the issue with people who shoot.

New clauses 17 and 18 taken together with clause 26 would have a serious and unjustifiable adverse effect on legitimate users of airguns and people who sell them. The new clauses were tabled with very little notice—about a week—and there has been insufficient opportunity for us to consult on them with the people who would specifically be affected.

New clause 17 would prohibit any person other than a registered dealer from selling or transferring air weapons. Can the Minister provide any evidence that airguns are being misused because they are being obtained through trade sources instead of private sale?

My views on these excessive proposals for restrictions on air weapons will be made in clear on clause stand part. What I find most staggering is that the Home Office consultation paper of May 2004 stated:

“We do not therefore believe that there should be a system of licensing or further restrictions on the sale of air guns”.

Why are the Government ignoring their own advice? Banning the sale of air weapons except through registered firearms dealers approved by the police is an impracticable, draconian, burdensome and disproportionate measure that will have little impact on violent crime and will serve only to penalise business people and sportsmen and women involved in shooting.

There are an estimated 7 million air weapons in circulation in the United Kingdom. Are the Government proposing that those 7 million air weapons should be registered? If not, how will the provision work in practice? If they do not propose to register those 7 million air weapons, that surely shows the futility and disproportionate nature of the amendment. Presumably, the financial losses and   associated expenses for businesses will be significant. Can the Government provide a figure? Have they looked into the matter? Currently, less than 50 per cent. of airguns are sold by firearms dealers. The majority are sold by sports shops and similar outlets. Why are the Government going to all that trouble and creating so much red tape when, bizarrely, the damage that someone with criminal intent could cause with the proverbial cricket bat could be far worse than that of an air weapon?

I am afraid that scapegoat-ism must be mentioned. In its regulatory impact assessment, the Home Office recognises that licensing all air weapons would result in a significant decrease in sales of air weapons and would have a significant impact on business. It says:

“We understand that the majority of air weapons are sold through small dealers and tackle shops, so small firms would be affected disproportionately.”

How many small sellers does the Minister believe will actually convert to obtaining a firearms licence? The cost and inconvenience will probably be disproportionate, and business as well as sport could suffer. How difficult will it be to obtain a licence? The requirement to be registered as an arms dealer will place a heavy bureaucratic burden on a person who sells airguns as part of a wider sports business and could make it uncommercial for most of them to continue to do so.

Although the requirement would make it more difficult for lawful users to acquire air weapons, there is no evidence that it would affect the level of misuse. Registration requirements would also increase the administrative burden on the police. We do not intend to vote against the new clause at this stage, but we believe that it is too prohibitive. To become a registered firearms dealer will take time and incur expense, and it will be impractical for the many dealers who legally sell air weapons at the moment. Moreover, will the cost of registration be borne by shooters on top of their game licence fees, their shotgun licences if they also have shotguns or rifles, or their firearms certificates?

Rather than requiring full registration, why is not it more appropriate to require those who want to sell airguns simply to apply to the police in writing for the authority to do so? The police could refuse to give their authority if they believed that the applicant was not a fit person to sell airguns, and the applicant could be given a right of appeal. The requirement to maintain full records of airguns in a firearms register is simply unnecessary. It might prove more acceptable if the Government proposed a modified arrangement or a modified, more open licence for airguns—for instance, one that could be purchased at little cost—or regulation by camping and fishing shops. We therefore reserve our right to vote against the new clause on Report once we have had time to understand the Government’s thinking. We ask the Government to say why the new clause is required and to give details of how it will look in practice and the costs involved for retailers and sportsmen.

On new clause 18, again, where is the evidence to support the measure? We appreciate that the intention is to outlaw all sales via the internet or mail order, but how exactly will the new clause do that? The measure applies where a person sells to an individual in Great Britain who is not a registered firearms dealer. The main cause of concern about internet sales arises not from such sales from within the United Kingdom but from sales originating from outside the UK. Will the Minister please tell us how the new clause will criminalise foreign sellers overseas? Only exceptionally, and then only if required by clear words, will an Act of Parliament extend to foreigners overseas.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

What evidence has the hon. Gentleman to support the contention that internet sales within the UK are not a major source of concern? Has he had the opportunity to follow the Nottingham trial for the guns–to-thugs case, which was quite widely reported?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

I must reverse the hon. Gentleman’s contention. The point is that the Government tabled the amendments about a week ago, but we have seen no evidence or statistics to support them. I am asking the Government to provide that evidence, and I am saying that we will not vote against the amendments now but will want to assess their impact. Those are valid points.

The small number of existing crimes that extend to foreigners overseas are all very serious crimes that are international in character, such as terrorism and hijacking, or which contravene international law, such as piracy and breaching the Geneva conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. The offences in the new clause are not of a similar nature, and it would be inappropriate to extend them to include acts committed by foreigners overseas.

The National Small-bore Rifle Association represents more than 1,100 affiliated clubs across the UK. It has more than 100,000 direct members, including scouts, school-goers and cadets. Some members live in Inverness, others in Sussex. By enacting the clause, the 100,000 members who do not hold a firearms certificate—I imagine that is the majority—will not be able to trade their air weapons with each other by airmail. That is needless bureaucracy and red tape, and it represents an attack on their legitimate sport. I believe that mail order sales of air guns form a large percentage of the trade, and the prohibition of such sales is not proportionate and would not prevent the misuse of airguns.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland) 4:15 pm, 20th October 2005

I tabled amendment No. 152 so that I could ask the Minister some simple questions. Why 17? Why not 18? When are the Government going to look at all the ages and make the law consistent? That is the only purpose of the amendment.

I have some sympathy with amendment No. 192, because air weapons have a wide range of power. They range from those used at fairs which can barely get a cork out of the barrel—the cork limps for 5 ft before   collapsing—to some very powerful weapons. Many criminals use weapons that have a muzzle velocity close to that for expanding ammunition, which is why my slightly tongue-in-cheek question about joules is extremely important. As in all our discussions, we need to ensure that we are hitting those who need to be hit.

The hon. Gentleman lost me when he said that it was all right—this is a slight paraphrase—for kids to go popping off airguns at windows.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

I did not say it was all right. I said the opposite. If people break windows they should pay for it.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. This goes back to our debate about glorifying guns. To use guns for jolly jape purposes—that was the implication—is entirely wrong, so I do not follow him along that line of argument. However, I wholly support him in saying that we must get it right.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I would like to know more about the Government’s new clauses. I am not sure that I exactly agree with him, but I have probably said enough to indicate that I am firmly in the shooting camp. I am not convinced that any weapon of any kind should be available by mail order or over the internet. I myself have accepted such restrictions. I cannot send my shotgun or firearm by Securicor to the gunsmith to be mended as I used to; I have to take it myself. I accept that; it is part of my responsibility.

I want to know more from the Government. It is quite right that the hon. Gentleman should not press the amendment to a Division. I am more persuaded by tighter controls than I am by looser controls. However, I would like them to be in proportion. That is why, on amendment No. 102, on joules or psi muzzle velocity, he has a definite point.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

First, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross is not a metric person, I am told that 1 J is 0.8 foot-pounds. I hope that that helps. In preparing for the Bill, I have found out more about joules and muzzle energy than I ever thought possible. However, I do not profess to know as much as the hon. Member for Huntingdon.

I thought that clause 26 was relatively straightforward, but the Committee has expressed concern about it. It increases to 18 the age limit for purchasing or hiring an air weapon. It is aimed at irresponsible young people who get hold of air weapons and do all kinds of mischief with them that cause harm to others. We are dealing with a simple problem here.

Amendment No. 192 would amend the definition of an air weapon in the Firearms Act 1968. I am concerned about that because an air weapon is currently defined as an air rifle, an air gun or an air pistol that is lethal—“lethal” is generally regarded to mean something with a muzzle energy of 1 J or more. Anything between 1 J and 8.13 J is an air pistol, and up to 16.27 J is an air rifle. For anything above that joule level, one requires a firearms certificate, and anything of less than 1 J is not regarded as lethal, and is therefore not a firearm but an imitation.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

I hear those statistics, but it is worth pointing out that airsoft practitioners, people who shoot each other with pellet guns, use pellet guns with a velocity of about 1 J. Perhaps 1 J would be lethal if one shot somebody in the eye, but thousands of people shoot each other weekly at that velocity.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

My information is that where there is muzzle energy of 1 J or above, that is lethal as defined in firearms legislation. I am concerned that amendment No. 192 would redefine air weapons as those with a muzzle energy in excess of 4 J. The effect of that appears to be that the age limit would be unchanged for air weapons with a muzzle energy of between 1 J and 4 J. People would still be able to get such weapons at the age of 17. Those are lethal weapons that can be misused by young people, bringing misery to our communities, and it is important that the increased age limit be applied to such weapons. Those of 1 J to 4 J are defined as lethal. I shall shortly come on to the ways in which guns have been used.

The amendment could have the unintended consequence that air weapons of between 1 J and 4 J would have to be held on firearms certificates, because anything of more than 1 J, if it is not an air weapon, has to have such a certificate. I am sure that the shooting community would not want that kind of consequence to flow from the amendment. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to consider withdrawing the amendment on the basis that the regulatory position would be tighter than it is now.

Amendment No. 152 would increase the minimum age for purchasing or hiring a certificated firearm or ammunition in line with the increased age limit for air weapons. That is a different issue. There is not the same problem with young people misusing certificated firearms, because they have to go through a fairly complex certification process with the local police, which involves being assessed as to whether they are fit and proper people. If the police are not satisfied that a young person is fit to be entrusted with a firearm, has a good reason for wanting one and would not be a danger to public safety, no certificate will be issued.

That illustrates that the Government, rather than seeking a blanket ban on shooting, are trying to address the mischief of irresponsible young people who use air weapons to cause misery and distress, particularly in communities where they might fire at properties, causing elderly people to live in fear that an air weapon is going to be used against them. My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East mentioned the tragic events that happened in Scotland, and I shall come to them.

I recognise that there is an issue about the age limits in firearms law. My officials have prepared a matrix for me, showing the different age limits and guns. I agree that it is confusing. We have held a consultation process and received some 4,000 responses, and we shall complete the review. However, it would not be appropriate here to go into the detail of harmonising firearms law; this Bill is about reducing violent crime   and is aimed at specific mischiefs. We shall, however, try to ensure that there is more logic in age limits for firearms in general.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Would the Minister supply us with a copy of her matrix? It would be incredibly useful.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am happy to do that. I am sure that those of us who do not have the experience of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross are all on a learning curve.

Amendments Nos. 215 and 216 would apply the age limit for air weapons only to those that are also a realistic imitation firearm or a firearm for which a certificate is required. I know that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about airsoft weapons; we will debate the subject when we come to the definitions of realistic imitation weapons. We have all received a huge amount of correspondence from the airsoft fraternity. That is one reason why I engaged in extensive consultation during the summer with various stakeholders, and with re-enactors, another interested group.

The amendments would not apply the increased age limit of 18 to the vast number of normal airguns between the two extremes, which would go against the purpose of clause 26. Air weapon misuse is carried out using normally powered air weapons, which are commonly available. I ask the hon. Gentleman not to press the amendments.

Government amendment No. 292 and new clauses 17 and 18 deal with the fact that the misuse of air weapons is now a serious problem. In 2003-04, air weapons were used in 13,756 crimes, and not all of them were cases of nuisance, or low-level criminal damage. That figure included 2,395 offences in which air weapons caused injury, including 156 cases of serious injury. We are not talking about people firing air weapons just at property; we are talking about serious injury. All those incidents caused pain and fear to the victims and their families. Occasionally we hear of a particularly tragic incident: earlier this year, a two-year-old boy was shot dead in Glasgow by a man using an air weapon. It is vital to do all that we can to tackle the problem.

We strengthened existing controls in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. We increased the age limit from 14 to 17, and we made it an arrestable offence to have an air weapon in public, whether loaded or not, without reasonable excuse. The clause further strengthens our position.

Following the Andrew Morton shooting, I have been in close contact with Scottish Ministers to see whether we can take further steps to tighten the availability of air weapons. The Government amendments require anyone who sells air weapons by way of trade of business to register with the police as a firearms dealer. I understand that that will cost about £150 per establishment. I genuinely think that that is a reasonable fee, as it gives us a degree of oversight of the sale of air weapons. I do not accept that the fee is   extortionate, or that it will be a burden that most businesses will be unable to meet. It is a small price to pay for the increased ability to see exactly who is selling air weapons, and to whom.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

I would be grateful, as might other hon. Members, if the Minister sent a note on how the licensing regime is likely to work.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I undertake to provide further information to hon. Members about what is envisaged.

The provision will make retailers accountable to the police, who will be able to withdraw registration if a retailer becomes a danger to public safety—for example, if he starts to sell to under-age persons. Records of transactions will have to be kept. That will remove the anonymity of purchasers, which should help deter casual and irresponsible sales. It will be a requirement for all air weapons to be handed over face to face. It will also allow a check on the proof of age, thereby tackling the risk of under-age purchasers through the internet or mail order.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I appreciate what the Minister said about tightening up the sale of air weapons, identifying sales to under-age people and so on, but she will surely concede that by licensing the vendors rather than the individual, those who seem perfectly normal will still be able to buy weapons from a licensed shop. A licensing scheme for the purchaser—the individual—would be far more rigorous than one in which only the vendor was licensed.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I understand that point. When drafting the Bill, we tried to make its provisions proportionate to the mischief that we aim to deal with. The vast majority of people with air weapons are responsible owners. We are trying to ensure that we do whatever we can to limit the opportunity of people, particularly young people, to buy air weapons at car boot sales or through mail order.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, I am afraid that the number of air weapons in the country would make the licensing scheme a fairly significant bureaucratic undertaking, although in an ideal world, it might have some benefits. We are trying to be proportionate. We are looking at the damage to see if we can put in place something relatively simple and straightforward that does not cost people a huge amount, but which gives the public a bit of reassurance that such guns are not simply being sold to under-age youngster in corner shops. We are often accused of being fairly extreme, but on this occasion we are trying to be proportionate. About 200,000 new air weapons are sold every year, and most are used responsibly, but some fall into the hands of an irresponsible minority and are misused.

The final issue raised by the hon. Member for Huntingdon was sales on the internet, and they have been a significant problem. Last year, the police carried out a major operation—Operation Bembridge—in which they mounted one of the largest   ever co-ordinated raids. They targeted people who had bought weapons over the internet that were prohibited in the UK, although those were not necessarily air weapons, and there were a whole range of other weapons. The police confiscated a huge amount of weaponry, so the internet has clearly been a problem.

I entirely acknowledge that seeking to enforce the law over foreign internet providers is difficult. We had exactly the same problems with child pornography, but our relationships with other countries—our sharing of intelligence and information—are much improved. We must do as much as we can to secure international co-operation to deal with the way in which such internet sites are hosted. As a result of concerns raised last year, I recently had a meeting with eBay and I was reassured by the people who host it that they have some good methods of ensuring that such products do not find their way on to their site. I hope that increasingly, all internet providers will ensure that they comply with the law, and that people cannot obtain air weapons from them. I therefore ask hon. Members not to press their amendments.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General 4:30 pm, 20th October 2005

The Minister’s response on internet sites raised more questions than answers, particularly about the acquisition of foreign sites and the sorts of   weapons that are being purchased. I think she said that it was other weapons, not air weapons, that were the problem, and had been the subject of the raids.

We have problems with the clause as regards velocity, and that will come out as we move towards the clause stand part debate. If the clause is to stand, however, its approach should be less broad brush. The Minister said that it was not a broad-brush approach, but the fact is that there will be a blanket ban for 17-year-olds. We still do not see how the Minister can maintain that a 17-year-old is likely to be more violent with an air rifle than an 18-year-old. Indeed, we do not feel that she has given any reasons for the clause at all. I am afraid, therefore, that the matter remains open—but for the moment, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Kevin Brennan.]

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Five o’clock till Tuesday 25 October at half-past Ten o’clock.