'(2A) After section 22(1) insert—-
''(1A) It is an offence in Scotland—
(a) for a person under the age of 18 to purchase or hire an air weapon or ammunition for an air weapon;
(b) for a person over the age of 18 to purchase or hire an air weapon or ammunition for an air weapon except from a person or place licensed as set out in (1B) below.
(1B) The conditions for licensing a person or place to sell or hire an air weapon or ammunition for an air weapon are to be set by the Scottish Parliament.''.'.
New clause 1—Provisions relating to the Scottish Parliament—
'The 1968 Act can be amended by the Scottish Parliament to introduce—
(a) a licensing scheme for the sale or hire of air weapons or ammunition for air weapons;
(b) a licensing scheme for the purchase or possession of air weapons or ammunition for air weapons;
(c) a ban or restriction on the sale, hire, purchase or possession of air weapons or ammunition for air weapons.'.
New clause 2—Matters relating to Scotland—
'(1) Section 26 and 27 so far as they extend to Scotland shall be regarded as within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.
(2) The Scotland Act 1998 shall be amended as follows—
(3) In Schedule 5, Head B4, after ''1997'', insert—
Regulation or control of the sale, possession or purchase of air weapons, or ammunition for air weapons.''.'.
Amendment No. 2 would restrict the provisions of current airgun legislation to England and Wales and open the way for alternatives to be introduced in the Scottish Parliament. Amendment No. 3 would create a licensing scheme in the Scottish Parliament, similar to that proposed by the Government last week, insofar as it would license the vendors rather than the purchasers. The intention is that the licensing scheme introduced in the Scottish Parliament would allow more checking of purchasers by making it one of the conditions necessary for obtaining a vendor's licence. It would therefore affect the check on those owning air weapons, as we heard last week.
New clause 1 is effectively a reverse Sewel motion. For the constitutionally minded, authority would remain at Westminster, but responsibility for this provision would transfer to the Scottish Parliament at this time. New clause 2 would devolve responsibility for air weapons for all time.
The amendments and new clauses are not constitutional meanderings. They would implement the correct air weapon licensing scheme in Scotland. England has a profound problem with firearm crime, and the Government are right to address it. We heard from the hon. Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Brent, South (Ms Butler) last week that handgun culture is growing in their constituencies and in many other parts of England. I shall come to that in due course.
Let us consider the differences in gun crime between Scotland and England. The last year for which we have information is 2003–04. In England, there were 68 firearm murders, 1,195 attempted murders and more than 10,000 firearm offences. If my memory serves me correctly, the police say that about 8,900 of those offences involved real firearms. In Scotland, there was one murder, four attempted murders and fewer than 200 firearm crimes, and real firearms were identified in 194 cases.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be extremely accurate with the figures; he should remember that some 55 million people live in England, and only 5 million in Scotland. That is proportionate with the figures that he has given.
The hon. Gentleman makes the valid point that proportionality should be taken into account, but England had 1,195 attempted murders and Scotland nowhere near 10 per cent. of that number over the same period, and England had 68 firearm murders but Scotland only one. Proportionality does not enter either equation. England has a specific difficulty with real firearm crime, and the Government are right to address it. Scotland's problem is primarily air weapon crime, and I shall explain why in a few moments.
I shall put the figures into context. There have been fewer firearm murders in Scotland in 10 years than there were in England in a single year. The statistics for crimes involving handguns, mentioned last week, are even more startling. England had 5,123 handgun crimes, including 35 murders, compared with 29 handgun crimes and no murders in Scotland over the same period. However, although Scotland had fewer than 200 crimes associated with identified firearms, it had 415 air weapon crimes—200 per cent. more.
I want to put a simple point to the hon. Gentleman. I understand clearly the case that he makes, but how concerned would he be if we were to restrict the legislation so that it applied only to England and Wales, and Scotland suffered a displacement effect as criminals moved north to enjoy protection that they would not have in England and Wales?
There would be no displacement effect thanks to weaker legislation; we are proposing tougher legislation. I suspect that if there were displacement, and I doubt there will be, it would go the other way. Such crimes tend to be geographically specific; one would not travel from Dundee to Coventry to fire an air weapon. One would fire it where one had it.
The proposals would effectively devolve airgun legislation to the Scottish Parliament so that an effective licensing scheme can be introduced. When the initial legislation was published, we felt that the provisions for air weapons did not go far enough. The Government amendments last week made some progress but cover only vendors, not purchasers. If any of the options that we have proposed were accepted by the Government and the Committee, they would allow the Scottish Parliament to put in place a licensing scheme directed more at the purchaser than the vendor. We believe that that is vitally important.
Secondly, the devolution of the airgun legislation would offer an appropriate licensing scheme. Again, some concession was made last week but there was concern that the Bill was a catch-all piece of legislation and that sports clubs, target shooters, airsoft members, and those who used their weapons for vermin control and so on might be caught. We are convinced that if an appropriate licensing scheme were put in place in Scotland to take the Scottish circumstances into consideration, it would be a sensitive licensing scheme that would allow those entitled to hold, buy or hire air weapons or ammunition to do so, and restrict only those who were not entitled to have them.
Two issues were raised last week that are related to this matter. In the final sitting, the Minister suggested in answer to a question that I put that, and I paraphrase, she sought a balance between utility and cost within the practicality of introducing a licensing scheme and the bureaucracy and cost associated with it. One of the Tory Members—I believe that it was the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly)—mentioned the number of air weapons in circulation. I think that the figure given was 7 million, with perhaps 650,000 in Scotland.
My recollection of being a child is that a large number of air weapons, air rifles and pistols were in people's garages and garden sheds with bent barrels, dismantled bits and rusted barrels, and they were utterly unserviceable. I suspect that the number of serviceable weapons is rather less than the 7 million suggested and that the large majority of those are in the hands of responsible people who would volunteer anyway to enter into a licensing system or scheme. The licensing scheme would also open up the opportunity for a voluntary disposal system for old and non-functional weapons that people no longer require or wish to have in their possession. For all those reasons, we believe that the introduction of a licensing scheme in Scotland is appropriate.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) raised a point a while ago about the difference between Scotland and England. I have spoken to a number of serving police officers, including some senior ones, and they tell me that their concern over real gun crime is negligible in some force areas. They are concerned about imitations, knives and air weapons. We believe in the devolution of airgun legislation to Scotland to introduce an appropriate licensing system for Scotland and to toughen up the legislation so that it is not merely the vendor who is licensed. A licence on the purchaser, holder or owner would be the most appropriate course of action, and I hope that the Committee will accept those recommendations.
I ask colleagues on both sides to reject the amendments in the name of the Scottish Nationalist party on the basis that they are as totally irrelevant to the Committee as they are to the people of Scotland, who merely want safe, effective legislation, which is what the Government propose.
We are not in favour of devolving these powers to Scotland. Nor are we in favour of a licensing scheme, which we believe would be impractical.
The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) spoke about a wide range of issues, many of which I shall address in the clause stand part debate, so, if he does not mind, he will have to wait until then. I want to put on the record the fact that we will not support the amendment.
I have often said in Committee and when discussing statutory instruments that what can be devolved should be devolved. In this instance, however, close examination suggests that the negative consequences of having a system in Scotland that is separate from that of the rest of the United Kingdom would not be helpful, so although I sympathise with the amendment's intention, we will resist it.
Despite his imaginative use of a reverse-Sewel provision, I am afraid that the hon. Member for Dundee, East has found that the vast majority of Committee members are against him. I, too, urge the Committee to resist his amendments. Firearms are a reserved matter for a very good reason; we recognise the ease of movement across the border between England and Scotland. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Steve McCabe) made that very point. As he said, guns can easily be transferred between the countries, resulting in loopholes that can be exploited by people who want to misuse weapons. It is therefore right that we have a unified system.
Since the dreadful incident involving the young child Andrew Morton, I have been working extremely closely with Scottish Ministers to ensure that we toughen up the law not only in Scotland, but throughout Great Britain. Air weapon misuse is a problem for us. The vast majority of people use their guns responsibly, but air weapon misuse has been increasing, so it was important to table the new amendments that we discussed last week to provide that weapons can be sold only through a registered firearms dealer. That will mean that only responsible retailers will be able to sell air weapons, and it will stop the casual, anonymous purchases that lead to the vast majority of problems caused by air weapons.
Air weapons will need to be sold face to face rather than through mail order or the internet. The provisions will mean that we have the balance about right. Much of the Bill is about achieving a balance. The hon. Gentleman's suggestions would lead to huge bureaucracy and would not necessarily be effective in enforcing the responsible use of weapons, which we all want, or in bearing down on the mischief of irresponsible use. I ask him to withdraw his amendment.
The Minister suggested that guns could be transported between Scotland and England if the legislation was not uniform. Of course, that is true. I suggest most respectfully, however, that railways are also devolved, and that trains move between countries. It is not a particularly strong argument.
May I correct the hon. Gentleman, as I have had the Liberal Democrat party's transport brief? The railways are devolved only in as much as they are entirely within Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman's point is well made.
The Minister suggested that non-uniform legislation might lead to a loophole and to guns being moved across borders, but we are suggesting tougher, not weaker, legislation in Scotland. I hope that all hon. Members recognise that. In light of what various hon. and right hon. Members have said, however, it would be foolish to press my amendment to a vote, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
I reiterate that we strongly believe in the need to reduce violent crime and in taking all measures necessary to do that. Our concern is that much of the content of the clauses that relate to firearms will not reduce gun crime in practice. The effective way to reduce violent crime in communities and on the streets where gun crime and gun culture pose such a threat and airguns are misused is to enforce existing laws, not to introduce legislation that will complicate the law in ways more likely to affect the law-abiding majority than the criminals.
Will the clause's clamp-down on 17-year-olds owning air weapons combat the gun culture that we are all so concerned about? We do not think so. Being tough on crime means reducing crime in practice, not just talking tough on crime in Committee Rooms when discussing clauses that are not going to do their job. Since we last discussed the clause, the Minister has not explained how it is likely to reduce violent crime. Following our consultation on the issue, we believe that it should be removed from the Bill. That view has wide-ranging support from those who practise the sport, including the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, which has 123,000 members, and the British Shooting Sports Council, the umbrella organisation for the major shooting associations in the United Kingdom, which represents, through direct membership or as a result of affiliation to associations, the interests of some 750,000 certificate holders and an even greater number of other people.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that he is hardly describing utterly independent and impartial organisations? He is describing people who have a vested interest in the sale, maintenance and use of weapons, so naturally it makes sense to them to allow the widest possible population of users.
I am describing people who love the sport of shooting, and I am sorry to have to tell the hon. Gentleman that they, too, have a right to be heard. Many hon. Members have made the point that the vast majority of those who own the 7 million airguns in this country are law-abiding people whose voice deserves to be heard.
There is no evidence to suggest that raising the age at which somebody may own or hire an airgun from 17 to 18 will have a material effect on violent crime. Where does the magical age of 18 come from? Where is the statistical evidence proving that 17-year-olds are not able to prevent themselves from committing gun crimes? Are 18-year-olds so much more responsible than 17-year-olds? Tightening restrictions penalises the shooting community with no evidence that that will result in any benefit such as reduced airgun misuse. Raising the age limit might make such weapons more desirable to delinquent teenagers while depriving others of the opportunity of being taught safely and responsibly to handle firearms. Training young people to shoot can be valuable in teaching them skills, discipline and responsibility. Introducing them to safe and responsible firearms use makes it far less likely that they will ever misuse guns.
Airguns are the entry-level guns for most new entrants to shooting sports and are crucial for the development of safe and competent gun use. Most people who shoot with a shotgun or rifle start their shooting careers as young people with airguns. If young people were prevented from having reasonable access to airguns, all shooting sports would suffer, with little or no effect on crime figures. This attack on airgun ownership constitutes a veiled attack on shooting and on entry to the sport of shooting. Scouts, cadets and schoolgoers all participate in air weapon shooting. They enjoy the sport safely and responsibly.
We have met the National Small-Bore Rifle Association, which estimates that some 300,000 young people regularly participate in sports involving air weapons. Indeed, 15 such sports are Olympic events: five shotgun events, six cartridge-firing events and four events involving air rifles or air pistols. Air weapon events now enjoy a greater standing than other rifle and shooting sports. It is important to realise the extent of the sports enjoyed by young people and the impact that the clause will have. The National Small-Bore Rifle Association represents more than 1,100 affiliated clubs throughout the UK and has more than 100,000 direct members, including some 5,000 young people aged 16 or 17 who stand to be affected by the legislation. In addition, 30,000 cadets and innumerable scouts and schoolchildren are regularly involved with air weapons. Only the weekend before last, the scout airgun championship took place, involving more than 600 competitors, all of whom were under 14.
Young people who are properly introduced to the sport are taught to handle weapons properly, safely and responsibly, to respect others on the range and to obey range officers. A prime example is Chris Lacey, who, through his membership of the scout movement, came to represent Great Britain at the age of just 17 at the European championships earlier this year, at which he beat the British senior record. Chris is an Olympic hopeful, if not certainty. The clause will put him, as a 17-year-old, in the absurd position of being able to drive his car lawfully to the rifle range or private farm where he practises shooting, but, arguably, of committing an offence if he takes his covered and locked air weapon with him. He certainly will not be able to purchase ammunition for it or buy a new air rifle.
The law will prevent young people from enjoying and perfecting some sports. Most world-class shooters of air weapons are in their late teens or early twenties. They did not just pick up an air weapon yesterday, but have been training for years; the sport is their passion. The clause attacks that. The BASC website says:
''the Home Office should produce evidence to show why excluding 17 year olds from owning an airgun will significantly reduce criminal misuse and improve public safety . . . To restrict their use given the low and declining figures for misuse in this age group is wholly disproportionate and will have little or no effect on airgun misuse.''
The Minister stated that
''the Government believe that much of this misuse is carried out by young people and that a further increase in the age limit will help prevent this.''—[Official Report, 11 July 2005; Vol. 436, c. 767W.]
But belief is not evidence. Will the Government reassess their view if it is not corroborated by the evidence?
The proposed legislation creates some absurdities and anomalies. The Police Federation says that in recent years, it has noticed a
''steady increase in the number of incidents involving weapons such as crossbows and high-powered catapults, fuelled in part by Internet sales.''
It points out that the use of such weapons can have the same effect, if not a worse one, as the misuse of air weapons and that the Bill is an ideal opportunity for the Government
''to bring about greater consistency across the legal framework'' in relation to firearms and other weapons. They have now proposed an amendment to increase the age limit for crossbows, but that will still be a patchwork approach.
The Police Federation says that if the clause is enacted,
''the law in relation to air weapons will in effect 'leap-frog' that of other weapons.''
It goes on to say that supply and demand, and experience, dictate that the result could be a rise in the sale and use of weapons such as bows and arrows and high-powered catapults.
Like much of part 2, the clause fails because the Government have not taken a step back and put the provisions in context. It provides that a young person will be able to buy a shotgun or rifle at age 17, but not an airgun, for which they must be 18. One may need a licence or certificate to buy a shotgun or rifle, but not to buy a slingshot, catapult or bow and arrow, all of which can be bought at 17 and are more lethal than an airgun. The Government propose to change from 17 to 18 the age at which the acquisition, purchase or possession of a crossbow becomes legal, but not for catapults, which cause more damage. That is another example of the creation of further inconsistencies when the focus should be on enforcing existing legislation.
Obviously, there is understandable concern about the tragic shooting of Andrew Morton with an airgun in Glasgow. That was horrific, but, thankfully, such incidents are not common. There are more than 7 million airguns in the UK, the overwhelming majority of which are used safely and responsibly. The proposals in the Bill are the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Hon. Members should note that the offender in the tragic case of Andrew Morton was aged 27, not 14, 15, 16, 17 or even 18. That case is going through due process, so I will not comment on it further, except to say that we hope that justice will be done. We should be enforcing existing laws, not creating new ones. To say that millions of people should suffer because of what a single drug-addicted criminal does has moral legitimacy equivalent to that of a totalitarian state. Existing legislation is good enough to make the clause unnecessary.
At the last count 30 offences connected with the misuse of airguns existed, including having a loaded or unloaded airgun in a public place and deliberate damage being caused to property, or injury being caused to domestic pets or human beings. There is a requirement for an individual aged between 14 and 17 carrying an airgun over public land to be accompanied by an adult, and there are police powers to stop and search an individual if they have reasonable grounds to believe that he is carrying an offensive weapon.
The enforcement of existing legislation would be infinitely more productive than introducing the misguided provisions before us. It is obvious that all improper use of airguns should be an offence, whatever the age of the perpetrator. Tinkering with age limits does little but anger and upset people who use those guns safely and responsibly. Bizarrely, on page 11 of the Home Office consultation paper of May 2004, in relation specifically to age limits, the Home Office categorically recommended that there should be no further restrictions on the sale of airguns, because of the disproportionate enforcement effect. For those reasons, I recommend that the Committee vote against the clause.
I have a simple question that arises from Thursday afternoon's debate on the clause, in which I made it clear that I was
''not convinced that any weapon of any kind should be available by mail order or over the internet.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 20 October 2005; c. 199.]
That remains my view. However, at the weekend I did some research and a point was put to me that I should like the Minister to consider: for those resident in the northern isles, and, I suspect, also for those resident in the western isles, there is only one registered dealer who—I shall try to put this tactfully—has difficulty in fulfilling orders in a timeous fashion. At the moment, those who purchase either air weapons or air ammunition may do so by mail order, which will be denied to them. They are concerned that that will have a negative impact.
There is clearly very low—if any—relevant crime in the areas that I am concerned about. I do not expect an answer today, but will the Minister reflect on the matter to see whether the problem can be alleviated?
The clause is just one of a number of measures aimed at addressing the mischief of the misuse of air weapons. We do not say that increasing the age from 17 to 18 will of itself solve the problem, but it is important. I am sure that the hon. Member for Huntingdon would acknowledge the need for the law to encompass a range of measures and police powers to make our communities as safe as they can be.
The misuse of air weapons is a significant problem. It causes huge distress to the public. In an earlier discussion about equivalence I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South who talked about the fact that people who misuse air weapons could terrify people, particularly older people, in their properties and that it was not equivalent to being gently reprimanded with a cricket bat—I think that was what she said—or a slingshot, or anything analogous.
In 2003–04 air weapons were used in 13,756 crimes, so the problem is not one of low-level behaviour. Those figures show an increase of 59 per cent. over the last seven or eight years. There were 2,400 cases of injury, including 156 cases of serious injury. Hon. Members must be aware that we are trying to deal with a significant and serious problem.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon is right. We do need to enforce existing laws, but, as a responsible Government, we must also identify problems and determine what measures are appropriate to deal with them.
Given the statistics, the Minister must have some idea of the age of the people engaged in those crimes or the number of cases in which there were injuries. We need that information in order to ascertain whether raising the age limit from 17 to 18 is likely to reduce the number of crimes or the number of injuries. The clause will have no effect if crimes are committed and injuries caused by people over 18. Nor will the clause make any difference to the statistics if the people involved are under 17 and possess the guns legally—
I do not have a breakdown of the statistics; the figures are not available to me. Most hon. Members accept, however, that there is a problem with the misuse of air weapons, particularly among some young people in some areas of our country. I entirely take the point made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). There might well be little of this sort of problem in the western isles and the northern isles, but it is a significant issue for many constituents in some of our cities and towns.
Young people will still be able to use air weapons in controlled conditions. Committee members will see from the matrix that I circulated, as I promised I would, that young people will be able to use air weapons if they belong to a rife or pistol club or a cadet corps, if they are shooting on a miniature rifle range, if they are supervised by someone of 21 years of age or more, or if they are on private premises with the consent of the occupier. This is not a draconian measure that says that responsible young people should never have access to air weapons. As my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North said, we want practical and effective legislation that works, which is exactly what the legislation is intended to be.
Much of the Bill is about trying to reduce violent crime and to change behaviour. The hon. Member for Huntingdon asked whether we would keep behaviour under review and see where problems could emerge. Of course we will. We are implementing measures that attack the mischief of people who want to act irresponsibly, but keep the situation under review if they change their behaviour.
The Minister said that she had no figures for the numbers of crimes committed with air rifles by people under the age of 18. Two years ago, the Government increased the age limit to 17. If she has no figures for what has happened in the meantime, on what basis is she increasing the age limit now? That is what we are trying to get at.
There is an age limit of 18 for the purchase of knives, as hon. Members will see when we come to the debate on knives. Again, there may well be responsible young people who want to purchase knives. We are trying to ensure that the legislation governing the possession of weapons that could be misused is coherent while also providing that the people who want to use them responsibly are perfectly entitled to do so.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the BASC and responsible shooters have a right to have their voices heard. The Bill is about trying to strike a balance between not bearing down too heavily on the legitimate and responsible use of weapons and acknowledging that the misuse of air weapons causes huge distress, injury and damage to families in many of our communities.
The hon. Gentleman says that he does not deny that. This is one of a range of measures to try to ensure that we address the very real and significant problems of misuse that affect our communities. The clause will help us to do that. It will not achieve our policy directive on its own, but, taken with the other provisions, I genuinely believe that it will help us to bear down on the problem that I described.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross talked about an issue that has practical implications. I do not know whether any other premises in his area could become registered firearms dealers, but I believe that the licence fee will be £150. It may well be possible for someone else to become a registered firearms dealer, but I will see whether there are any other provisions that we might be able to consider. I understand his point, but, as I said to the hon. Member for Dundee, East, if there were a series of exceptions, we might end up with loopholes in the law. I am not suggesting that people go up to the western isles to make illegitimate purchases of air weapons—I am sure that there are many more pleasant reasons for visiting the area—but I shall look into the issue.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 13, Noes 4.