Clause 30 - Manufacture, import and sale of realistic imitation firearms

Violent Crime Reduction Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 25th October 2005.

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Amendment moved [this day]: No. 259, in clause 30, page 32, line 10, after ‘firearm’, insert ‘in Great Britain’.—[Mr. Djanogly.]

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst 4:00 pm, 25th October 2005

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following amendments: No. 260, in clause 30, page 32, line 12, after ‘Britain’, insert

‘for the purposes of sale or distribution’.

No. 55, in clause 30, page 32, line 13, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.

No. 262, in clause 30, page 32, line 13, after ‘regulations’, insert

‘, following proper consultation and consideration with a working group consisting of a wide spread of expert practitioners,’.

No. 263, in clause 30, page 32, line 15, after ‘(1)’, insert

‘with the burden of proving that a person does not fall within one of these exemptions lying with the prosecution’.

No. 271, in clause 30, page 33, line 14, at end insert—

‘(9A)The Secretary of State shall provide for payment of compensation in respect of loss suffered or costs incurred in consequence of the exercise of power conferred by or under this section.’.

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

Mr. Simon Bromley, an elected member of the management council of the Military Vehicle Trust wrote to me to protect the interests of more than 5,000 members who stand to be affected by the Bill, as do their millions of pounds of investments.

The conservative Home Office regulatory impact assessment estimate of a £300 million valuation and associated significant administration costs and compliance costs is based on an estimate that imitation guns are worth £15 each. That is simply not an accurate estimate, but it shows just how large the figure might realistically be for compensating those whose pensions, businesses and indeed livelihoods are dependent on imitation firearms.

We must remain aware of the additional cost to the police and prosecution authorities after the enactment of the Bill, as well as the significant effect on business sales. Banning sales could mean a huge fall in the investment value of imitation guns, and compensation should be paid.

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

Clause 30 seeks to impose a ban on the manufacture, import and sale of realistic imitation firearms. We have already discussed the fact that misuse of realistic imitation weapons has increased to an unacceptable level.

Amendment No. 259 seeks to restrict clause 30 to sales in Great Britain, but that precise effect is already achieved by clause 45(5), which covers territorial extent, so the amendment is redundant. The Bill already allows sales abroad, and those sales could include a transaction between a seller in Great Britain and a buyer abroad if it were arranged in such a way that the sale took place outside Great Britain—for example, by exporting the imitation firearm before the contract is concluded. I am sure that provision can be made so that the title and the goods do not actually pass until the sale is concluded outside Great Britain.

I suspect that the amendment has been prompted by concern that some owners of imitation weapons will suffer a loss in the value of those weapons when there ceases to be a market in this country, but I can provide reassurance in several respects. We will allow a suitable period before the legislation comes into force to allow people to dispose of any current stock, and we propose in later amendments that deactivated firearms are not covered by the new offence, partly in recognition of their value and historical importance. As I said, given that some existing owners, particularly collectors, might want to dispose of their guns in due course, we think it reasonable that they should be allowed to sell them abroad.

I have already explained that the principal reason for clause 30 is to cap off the future supply of realistic imitation firearms, which are all too often used to scare and threaten people and to help to commit serious crimes. We want to stop people selling them, except for certain limited purposes, and to stop people importing them.

We would leave the door wide open to anyone who wanted to import these guns for personal and sometimes criminal use if we accepted amendment No. 260, which would limit import restrictions to apply only to persons bringing in, or causing to be brought in, realistic imitations only for sale or distribution. Although we would reject that amendment, we would not oppose an amendment that exempted theatrical performances, museums and re-enactment groups from the provisions in clause 30. If necessary, we can also provide for further exemptions through the regulation-making power in subsection (2).

When we advanced our proposals for banning realistic imitation firearms, we readily acknowledged that there would need to be a range of exemptions and exceptions, for which we have provided. We have tabled amendments that make specific provisions to deal with some of the complex issues, but it is important to keep the regulation-making power because we might need flexibility in future if other issues are brought to our attention. The usual fear is that the Government will overuse such a power, so it is ironic that amendment No. 55 seeks to make its use   compulsory rather than discretionary. I appreciate that the amendment was probably tabled to ensure that re-enactment societies and others were recognised, but I hope that hon. Members are reassured by the Government amendments. We should not insist on regulations regardless of whether they are needed, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press the amendment. I ask Opposition Members not to press amendment No. 262 either, not because we are reluctant to consult but because it would be generally unhelpful and inflexible to include it in regulations.

The membership and terms of reference of the firearms consultative committee were raised. Amendment No. 262 talks of a wide range of “expert practitioners”. It is difficult to say how wide a range and what fields of expertise would be involved. The Home Office already has dialogue with the main shooting organisations, the police and other interest groups when particular issues arise. We are reconsidering whether a two-tier firearms advisory committee could be constituted once we have determined how to deal with the review of firearms controls.

I assure the Committee that I have listened closely to representations in favour of making regulations under clause 30(2). I remind the Committee that such regulations would be subject to annulment by either House should Members be unhappy with our proposals.

We have no wish to cast the ban on realistic imitation firearms so wide that it bears down disproportionately on legitimate users. There is a balance to be struck.

Amendment No. 263 would require the prosecution to prove that a person charged with an offence did not fall within one of the exemptions. I hope to assure hon. Members that the general criminal law has sufficient provisions to protect people in such circumstances without the need for the amendment.

In bringing criminal prosecutions, the prosecution clearly bears the burden of proving beyond reasonable doubt all the elements in an offence necessary to establish guilt. If a defendant invokes a defence or seeks to rely on an exception, he will, depending on the legislation, bear either an evidential burden or a legal burden. The evidential burden is the lighter, as the defendant merely has to raise sufficient evidence to make a prima facie case for his defence. The legal burdens mean that he has to prove, on a balance of probabilities, one of the facts that goes to make up the defence. If a legal burden is imposed, it has to be reasonable, or it will contravene the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998.

That trot through the criminal law shows that defendants already have ample protection; they can never be unreasonably put to proof of a defence or an exemption, so I see no need for amendment No. 263. The normal criminal law ensures that not too heavy a burden will be placed on defendants when they seek to take advantage of one of the exceptions. The amendment would go even further, requiring the prosecution positively to prove that none of the   exemptions applied, even if none could have applied in the first place. That would be far too onerous a burden on the prosecution, and it would be outwith normal practice in the criminal law. If we open the door too wide, we will totally negate the principal purpose of the Bill, and requiring the prosecution to do that would make it much more difficult to police the legislation.

As for compensation, it is the duty of any Government to take action to preserve public safety when a problem arises. That is why we are trying to bear down on the misuse of imitation firearms. Our proposals for banning the future manufacture, import and sale of realistic imitation firearms are tough; we want to cut the problem at source. It is a legitimate objective. I believe that it can be justified if a fair balance can be struck between the interests of owners and the wider public interest. The Bill will achieve the right balance.

Concerns have been expressed about the value of rare deactivated firearms; we are exempting them under clause 31. We are also meeting concerns about antique loading presses and antique realistic imitation firearms. Existing owners will be able to retain their property; there is no question of their being deprived of it by the state. Those dealers who currently trade in realistic imitations will be able to sell their stocks abroad before the ban is implemented. However, there is no question of compensation for loss of business or of good will; that was clearly established at the time of the handgun ban in 1997. We are looking at control of use rather than deprivation of property. I therefore invite 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

I was interested to hear that transactions abroad will be legal. In some ways, I am happy that owners of realistic imitation handguns will have a sales outlet. However, it confirms my fear that owners will be forced to sell overseas, so we shall export to our European neighbours the problem that the Minister says we have. I am not sure how neighbourly that is, or to what extent she has discussed it with her counterparts in other European countries. I asked her before, but she did not care to discuss the matter. She might wish to do so now.

In relation to exemptions and exceptions, I hear what the Minister says. We shall come to those in the next series of amendments, so I shall not go into detail now. The Minister somewhat cold-shouldered my point that the Government need to consult more widely. She said that she will look at some kind of two-tier consultation proposal, and I am not sure that she explained what those tiers are, but if she can send a note to the Committee, we will be grateful. However, I again make the point that changes should happen now. She should have a consultation committee with which to consult when she puts the changes in place, and not in “due course”.

The Minister’s statement about prosecutors needing to make their case was welcome. We will consider what she called a trot through the relevant law. She will appreciate that I cannot get to grips with it on the spot, but we shall consider it in detail and will return to the matter as the Bill progresses. Again, on compensation, we need to revisit the issue as the implications of the   clause become clearer. As I have said before, the Government filed their amendments only last week so we have not yet been able to consult with anybody who is going to be affected or to determine to what extent the amendments will alleviate the need for compensation. I shall not press the amendments to a vote, but we reserve our right to review the position in due course. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered,

That the Order of the Committee of 13 October be amended, in paragraph (2), by leaving out ‘7.00p.m.’ and inserting ‘10.00p.m.’.—[Hazel Blears.]

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

I beg to move amendment No. 301, in clause 30, page 32, line 12, at end insert—

‘()Subsection (1) has effect subject to the defences in section (Specific defences applying to the offence under s. 30).’.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 264, in clause 30, page 33, line 14, at end insert—

‘(9A)In relation to subsections (2), (3) and (8), the following should be included in the exceptions and exemptions from what constitutes a realistic imitation firearm—

(a)deactivated firearms,

(b)deactivated weapons manufactured before 1983,

(c)deactivated weapons of .50” calibre and over,

(d)large machine guns, armoured vehicles and field guns and military equipment where the deactivated weaponry is intrinsic to the equipment,

(e)realistic imitation firearms used in security dog training and security guard training,

(f)realistic imitation firearms used in hunt dog training,

(g)realistic and deactivated firearms used by educators, colleges and schools,

(h)reproduction components for weapons of .50” calibre and over,

(i)starting pistols,

(j)weapons intended for use in “Airsoft” with a muzzle energy of less that 4 joules including BB guns, air guns and paint balls,

(k)realistic imitation firearms for use in theatre, cinema, museums, castles and historic houses, television and sporting events,

(l)parts of weapons required in relation to the weapons listed in paragraphs (a) to (k),

(m)specialist suppliers and armourers relating to the weapons listed in paragraphs (a) to (k).’.

Amendment No. 269, in clause 30, page 33, line 14, at end insert—

‘(9A)Nothing in this section shall apply to an antique firearm which is sold, transferred, purchased, acquired or possessed as a curiosity or ornament.’.

Amendment No. 270, in clause 30, page 33, line 14, at end insert—

‘(9A)Nothing in this section shall apply to a firearm of antique appearance that fires black powder.’.

Government new clause 20—Specific defences applying to the offence under section 30.

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

On Second Reading, the Home Secretary recognised that a legitimate case could be made for exempting certain uses from our ban on the future manufacture, import and sale of realistic   imitation firearms. He was very cautious in saying what those might be and he made it clear that activities should not be allowed if there were a danger that they would subvert the purpose of the legislation. Nevertheless, he undertook to listen carefully to representations, and that is what we have been doing in the past few months.

We have made provision in new clause 20 for specific defences to be available to persons charged with an offence under clause 31 of manufacturing, modifying, selling or importing a realistic imitation firearm. Those defences will be available if the realistic imitation was made available for the purposes of a museum or gallery, for TV, film or theatrical productions or for historical re-enactments. We need to be careful in the case of re-enactments that the defence will not be available to people who spuriously claim to be re-enactors. I know that re-enacting is widespread and conducted by a range of extremely respectable and responsible persons, who enact everything from the wars of the roses to many other events. I have been enlightened by the correspondence that I have received in the past few months about the extent of the activity and the pleasure that people gain from it. However, I am concerned lest people falsely claim to be re-enactors, and that danger is best addressed by a regulation-making power to specify or describe the groups of people who might be involved in such activity.

We are also providing for an exemption for deactivated firearms and for certain antique imitations as well as for imitations of antique firearms made before 1870. I am informed by my officials that that is the correct cut-off point between what is considered a modern firearm and what is considered an antique firearm. I hope that, taken together, the amendments address many hon. Members’ concerns.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Shadow Minister (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) 4:15 pm, 25th October 2005

I am perusing proposed new clause 20, and confess that I understand the Government’s problem. How does one define a historical re-enactment? The Government attempt defines it as

“any presentation or other event held as a re-enactment of an historical event”.

What exactly will that exclude?

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

I am tempted to say any event that is not a presentation or other event held as a re-enactment of an historical event, which is the logical answer.

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

No; I have given him a fairly good form of words. We have also said that we want a regulation-making power to specify the various groups or descriptions of persons who could be involved, because we want to ensure that the measure covers genuine historical re-enactors, and not people who spuriously claim to have realistic imitations because they are personally re-enacting something that happened on 4 December 1932, but who are not   involved in a proper historical re-enactment. We will have to put our thinking caps on and do some work with the regulations to get that as tight as we can.

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

May I ask the Minister for her advice on a specific scenario? If someone were to give a lecture to a group of children on the activities of the home guard, dressed in the uniform with a Lee Enfield .303, which was the home guard’s weapon of choice when they stopped using shovels, would that be within the definition of a historical re-enactment?

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

I am tempted to say they don’t like it up them. That was one of my favourite television programmes.

I do not want to pre-empt what might be in the regulations, and it would be wrong of the hon. Gentleman to lead me into that territory. We will draft the regulations to try to accommodate legitimate activities. I know how much schoolchildren appreciate the opportunity to learn about historical events in a real way. It is important that we accommodate such events in the regulations, and we will try to do so. I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear with us. I am conscious of his point; old people going into schools and reliving their memories is one of the best ways to make history come alive and really mean something to young children.

Component parts are not covered by the Bill. Neither are reproduction components for existing weapons, which are covered by firearms legislation if they are pressure-bearing parts that can be used in real guns. So people will be able to get components for realistic imitations, but not if they can be used to turn those imitation guns into real weapons. We do not accept that anything with a muzzle energy of less than 4 J should be exempt. We have discussed that. It is widely accepted that 1 J is the threshold above which something becomes potentially lethal and is therefore a firearm by definition. I do accept, however, that there is an issue in relation to airsoft, which we will consider further. I am conscious not only of the weight of representations that I have received, but that many people are involved in airsoft activity, so I want some more time to think about that issue. I am not satisfied that it is necessary to have realistic imitations for dog training or starting races.

I am not sure whether amendments Nos. 269 and 270 seek to exempt antique firearms, or imitations of antique firearms. If the former, it is clear that something that is a firearm cannot be regarded as an imitation, so it cannot be covered anyway; if the latter, our amendments will help.

In the light of the amendments that we have introduced and the availability of the regulation-making power in clause 30 should difficulties arise, I invite hon. Members to withdraw their amendments. I recognise that other issues may benefit from further examination and I will certainly listen closely to what hon. Members have to say and consider the issues again before Report.

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

Will the Minister please explain why the defences incorporated by Government amendment No. 301 were deemed preferable to the outright exemption of many legitimate bodies from the scope of the clause? Why should law-abiding citizens be criminalised in the first place? New clause 20, although it moves some way to appeasing interested law-abiding citizens, is still just a defence to a criminal offence.

There are still grave concerns and they are not only about the extent of the clause. For instance, in subsection (3) of new clause 20, the suspected person will have a defence available only if sufficient evidence is adduced and the contrary is not proved beyond reasonable doubt. The basic question is what sufficient evidence will be. Those are woolly concepts and will not fully alleviate the concerns of the hundreds of thousands of people and businesses that stand to be affected by the clause.

Many associations that represent those who participate in leisure activities involving imitation weapons have strongly argued that the Bill will put their sports and pastimes in jeopardy. We believe that their protection should be asserted not just by means of a defence but by exempting them from the ambit of the clause altogether.

First, numerous small and medium-sized independent businesses are involved in the restoration and sale of deactivated weapons to private collectors, museums and historical re-enactment groups as well as hire to television and film companies. One company, Sherwood Armoury Ltd. of Kent wrote that its business, which deals solely in historic weaponry, would be severely affected. Furthermore, the proprietors have considered the large stocks of weapons owned by Sherwood to be their pension and savings, and now face a uncertain future should those historic weapons become unsaleable.

When the Government talk about removing antiques from the ambit of the clause, can the Minister confirm how old the weapons should be? She mentioned things that looked like antiques, but would the relevant date for antiques still be 1870? Would they have to be 100 years old or date from the second world war? That seems to be unclear, but it is of vital importance when it comes to the millions of weapons involved.

Another company, Battle Orders Ltd. of East Sussex, which sells replica weapons to historical re-enactment groups and is the UK’s leading supplier of weapons to the film industry, wrote to express its fears. Despite the size of the business and the potentially devastating consequences of the legislation, Battle Orders had not been consulted and did not know of any company that had. It seems absurd that such long-established and reputable dealers stand to be put out of business without having been properly consulted.

The toy gun industry is even larger and just as worried. The British Toy and Hobby Manufacturers Association, which represents 90 per cent. of UK toy manufacturers, has expressed incredulity that measures could limit the availability of harmless and popular toys, of which it estimates there are between   15 million and 30 million in circulation. It surely cannot be right that access to toys should be limited due to the actions of a tiny minority.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent South

I must stress that the purpose of the Bill is to curb the manufacture, import and sale of realistic imitation firearms, not toys. Although the Opposition talk about shooting on their estates, we are trying to curb the shootings that we see on our estates in the inner cities. When someone is faced with someone holding a gun to their head, and it looks real, they do not think about whether it is a real gun or an imitation but about their life and whether they are going to lose it. That is what the Bill is intended to addresss.

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

I have not discussed shooting on any estates. More to the point, we are discussing realistic imitation firearms, which have as much to do with shootings on estates as they have with ballooning. Perhaps the hon. Lady might like to make her point on clause stand part.

All the businesses concerned expressed great sympathy for the aims of the Bill but feared that it was not likely to achieve them; they also thought that the Bill did not encompass any consideration for the grave consequences that would ensue for people involved in perfectly legitimate businesses and for the public who enjoyed the pastimes that those businesses facilitated.

One such hobby, from whose enthusiasts I have received many letters of concern, is airsoft. The potential impact of the Bill on airsoft was discussed on Second Reading, but it may be worth restating that it is a popular hobby, similar to paintball, using replica weapons to fire small pellets instead of paintballs. There are currently estimated to be about 10,000 regular airsoft players in the UK. About 70 game sites around the country stand to be affected. No provision has been made in new clause 20 even for a defence for airsoft enthusiasts, which means that their sport as it currently exists will be ended.

One airsoft enthusiast, Mr. John Neal, of Southampton, wrote to me that

“this is a very safety conscious sport, enjoyed by thousands of law-abiding people across the country”.

The pellets fired by the weapons—if one can describe them as weapons—weigh approximately 0.2 g and are fired with less than 1 J of energy, which was, I think, the dividing line mentioned by the Minister. That is hardly likely to inflict pain. Indeed, I am informed that it is similar to the force of lightly bouncing a tennis ball on the floor. Above all, the participants do not use the same kind of cheap, easily obtainable replicas that are used by criminals. No criminal is likely to spend around £400, which is the price at which airsoft replicas retail, for an imitation firearm, when they could obtain a real weapon for a fraction of the price.

Furthermore, airsoft replicas are some of the most difficult replicas for a criminal to attempt to convert. In the words of Mr. Neal:

“If anyone was foolish enough to try to convert one of these things, then they’d end up with perhaps one of the most lethal weapons ... lethal to the moron firing it, that is!”

In any case, given the price of the replicas, anyone with sufficient criminal contacts to enable them to obtain real 9 mm bullets for a converted airsoft gun would be more likely to buy a real gun.

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

Why cannot the airsofters simply paint their weapons bright orange or red, so that they fall within the definition? We should not then have to worry.

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

The Minister may have come to the Committee today with a few brightly coloured photographs saying that that is what she intends the entire shooting community to do, but the airsoft community will, I assure the hon. Gentleman, have no idea what the Government expect. Furthermore, why should they have to kowtow before the Government? Why should they not be able to enjoy their legal pursuit?

Amendment No. 264 would offer airsoft an exemption. Government new clause 20 ignores it altogether. The Minister has said that she will review the matter and I hope that she will, but we are here today to consider what has been offered.

Historical re-enactment is another matter on which I have received dozens of representations. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) has said that he has serious concerns on the question, and the Minister said that regulations would be introduced—but again, that will be after we have dealt with the Bill. We have no idea what is intended, and hundreds of thousands of re-enactors are concerned about what will happen to their activity.

The Government have attempted to exclude historical re-enactors from the section 30 offence, but there is concern that that approach will not work as intended, not least because the definition of historical re-enactment is inadequate. The definition of historical re-enactments in new clause 20(6) reflects a stereotyped and outdated understanding of historical re-enactments and once again reveals the Government’s inadequate consultation. Would that narrow definition assist somebody acquiring an imitation firearm for the purpose of giving a costumed talk to schoolchildren on, say, the role of the Home Guard during the second world war? I think that that was the point made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso).

A costumed talk or lecture is not a re-enactment of an historical event, so might not fall within the definition. Would a fictionalised adaptation of an actual historical event fall within the definition? The Sealed Knot society does not re-enact historical battles blow by blow. Will that be taken on board? For those reasons, we have included an exemption for educators, colleges and schools in paragraph (g) of amendment No. 264 as well as providing exemption for cultural or theatrical purposes in amendment No. 265.

In addition, defining qualifying historical enactments by reference to the organisers’ identities is fraught with difficulty. We struggle to see how it will   be possible to compile an exhaustive list of recognised persons or bodies. As one anxious re-enactor, my constituent Mr. Stephen Lloyd of Huntingdon, has told me,

“historical weapons ... are invariably very expensive (hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds) and so are entirely different from the cheap (tens of pounds) replicas causing the majority of crimes”.

The Desert Raiders Association, a group specialising in world war two special forces re-enactments, writes that

“the vast majority of weapons used by groups such as ours are so old and unwieldy that they would make the most unsuitable weapons for modern violent crime”.

Indeed it is difficult to imagine criminals making use of the group’s collection of historic heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft cannon and anti-tank guns. That might sound amusing, but we believe that such groups should be exempted from the possibility of committing a criminal offence in the first place.

Members of the Desert Raiders Association fear that their current living history educational activities—

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North 4:30 pm, 25th October 2005

In the unlikely scenario that somebody were holding an imitation gun to your head, would your first question be, “How much did that gun cost?”

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Order. May I remind hon. Members that they should not use the personal, but should stick to the traditional form of address in Committee.

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

I just want to make the point that if a criminal could afford to spend £1,000 on a realistic imitation gun, he would spend that money on a much more effective real gun.

Members of the Desert Raiders Association fear that their current living history educational activities at public shows will be badly affected. If resale of private collections becomes illegal and the UK market effectively ceases to operate, it might even become impossible for such groups and private collectors to insure their valuable weapons. Those individuals accepted and endorsed the objective of reducing violent crime, but did not believe that this was the right way to do so. As another re-enactor, Mr Mick Wilson, wrote,

“I can understand you need to lower gun crime, but I have never heard of ... a WW2 Thompson sub-machine gun used in a crime. We have recently bought a de-activated 1942 Bofors Anti-Aircraft gun, which is on four wheels and weighs two and a half tonnes ... is this a likely criminal weapon?”

Amendment No. 264 would expressly exempt such large weapons.

Paul Wisken has written to me expressing concern that training events for re-enactments, which are not performed before an audience, should also be excluded from the clause 30 offence. Those are similar to rehearsals for theatrical performance. Will the Minister confirm that such rehearsals are covered by the defence in new clause 20?

Similarly, new clause 20 refers to the re-enactment of historical events. Does it refer only to set piece re-enactments of events such as battles, or more broadly to all historical periods and living history? Similarly,   there is considerable concern from owners of historic collections, such as the Cobbaton combat collection in Devon, a privately owned and operated museum containing the largest collection of 20th century militaria in the south-west. The owner, Mr Preston Isaac, wrote that his collection might become worthless, raising concerns for the survival and future development of public and private collections. British collections of historic weaponry are, says Mr. Isaac, the “envy of the world” and it would be a tragedy to see historic weapons taken abroad to be sold at market prices, never to be seen in this country again. He continues,

“Equally, there are many historic armoured vehicles awaiting or undergoing restoration, often with main armaments missing. Manufacturers of replica gun barrels, for example, which a museum such as this needs to restore an historic tank, might face prosecution”.

I appreciate that new clause 20 provides a defence for a museum or gallery that does not distribute any profits, but we do not consider it to be wide enough.

Another example is the military collection at Muckleburgh, which was founded in 1988 and based on an historic military site and world war two camp. It houses a large collection of tanks, guns and vehicles and, since it opened, has been visited by more than 1 million tourists, including children and veterans. It has even been used as the site for films and documentaries, as well as for lectures and training. Will such private collections fall within the defence provided in new clause 20? If not, will she consider creating an exemption for such collections?

Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Whyte, director of special operations at Pilgrims Security Services, has written to us to express concern that the new clause would restrict the company’s ability to use blank firing handguns and/or soft fire air weapons during its hostile environment training courses for media personnel and its specialist counter-terrorism training courses. Its use of such weapons is restricted to military training areas, the use of which is licensed on each occasion through appropriate Ministry of Defence channels and is delivered by former military and police instructors with due regard to the highest standards of safety.

One begins to see the true potential, and perhaps unintended, impact of the new clause when one reads letters such as this, which express grave and legitimate concerns. I accept that there will now be a defence for some of these activities, but that is not enough. Moreover, the defences do not cover all the activities that I have mentioned.

The list that we have proposed in amendment No. 264 is far broader than the defences that the Government have suggested, and it provides for outright exemption rather than a mere defence. I believe that all deactivated weapons are now excluded from the definition of a realistic imitation firearm, but will the Minister confirm that?

Paragraph (d) of amendment No. 264 refers to large machine guns, armoured vehicles and machine guns. These are hardly the sort of weapons used in violent crime, and they should be exempted. They are often historical weapons that pose no threat, but may not be   deactivated. It is reasonable that members of the public and not only museums should be able to continue to own and use them.

Paragraph (e) proposes the exemption of realistic imitations that are used in security dog training and security guard training. Such training seems to be an obvious exemption, so will the Minister explain how those uses will be protected? Paragraph (f) would exempt imitation firearms that are used in hunt dog training. These firearms are used for a safe and constructive purpose, and again are not the sort of weapons used by criminals.

Paragraph (g) emphasises the need for an exemption for educational purposes. Paragraph (i) exempts starting guns used at sporting events. Paragraph (j) exempts imitations used in airsoft. Paragraph (k) covers theatre and cinema, which are covered by the defence, but we also seek exemption for castles and historic houses, as well as sporting events. The very large number of people involved in those activities deserve to be exempted and not merely offered a defence against the crime.

For the sake of certainty, paragraph (l) would exempt parts of the imitation weapons that I mentioned, although the Minister has already addressed that. Paragraph (m) seeks exemption for the specialist suppliers and armourers of the weapons that I have mentioned.

The Home Office’s regulatory impact assessment on imitation firearms states:

“There is an extensive range of offences in place to deal with incidents involving the misuse of imitation firearms. These measures are starting to have some impact and a total of 2,766 offenders were charged, cautioned or convicted in 2004 for the offences under” the relevant sections. This is another clear example of the Government ignoring their own advice. Hon. Members might now be asking themselves on what basis the Government drafted the Bill and where these clauses came from. The Bill does not seem to have come from the consultation or from the advice that they have been giving people.

The figures obviously suggest that we should enforce existing laws and realise the impact of recent law changes before rushing into yet further legislation that will only affect hundreds of thousands of businesses and people pursuing their hobbies. Surely that would be a far more measured and reasoned approach than pushing the new clause through, with all its restrictions on imitations, without first showing the impact of existing measures that the Government put in place only two years ago.

The exemption for antiques is consistent with the Firearms Act 1968—indeed, it is desirable considering the high value of some antiques and the extensive collections throughout the country. I commend the Government for finally realising that, and am pleased that antiques will not be considered to be realistic imitation firearms, although I have asked the Minister to clarify what is covered by the term antiques.

Amendment No. 270 is necessary because the clause does not clarify whether firing replicas—working replicas such as black-powder muskets—are excluded. The Minister asked what exactly I was getting at: that is it. Black powder is the propellant that most period muskets use, and is often used for historical re-enactment, theatre and cinema, as are imitations of antiques. I urge the Government to exclude imitations of antique firearms from the definition of a realistic imitation firearm. Most 15th to 20th-century living history societies use modern replicas of muskets, or similar, because the originals are unobtainable or too precious to use. It would probably be assumed that firing weapons are excluded, but the Bill does not say so. The amendment serves to clarify the definition and to provide an exemption for antique-looking firearms that fire with black powder.

I ask the Minister again: why go for the defence option, rather than the exemption option outright? We still believe that the list of exemptions, or defences, is too limited, which is why we intend to press the amendment to a vote.

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

I listened with great interest to what the hon. Gentleman said about his amendments, some of which I have considerable sympathy with, and to the Minister’s comments. There is a principle behind what we are trying to do. We recognise that we have a serious problem with gun crime in this country, which, unfortunately, occurs more in urban areas than rural settings. It is difficult to work out how best to address the problem and get the right balance between stopping those things that are clearly a cause of crime and prohibiting legitimate activities that are justifiably pursued by people. That brings us to the issue of imitation, deactivated and similar weapons.

I shall touch first on the issue of airsoft. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) received a briefing from people who practise airsoft, and I understand that they are happy to have their weapons painted pink in order to continue pursuing that hobby. Less helpfully, however, she has also discovered problems with that approach: apparently, in America, criminals have started painting their weapons orange to counteract it. I am not sure if that is a serious problem. Clearly, there may be a solution there. I am well aware that the Minister has considered airsoft; I hope that there is a way around the problems and that it can continue.

The final point made by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) about antique weapons and black powder is a valid one. I hope that the Minister will consider antique and imitation antique firearms, which are clearly different. I suspect that a muzzle-loading period piece is not the first weapon that an aspiring street criminal would seek to obtain. I submit that the real problem is with pistols and smaller personal machine guns, such as the Uzi or Heckler and Koch.

There is one thing that the Bill does not tackle, and it was not tackled in the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 or the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997,   which were enacted just before and just after the 1997 general election. That is the glorification of guns and gun crime by the media. While films and television productions consistently portray death and injury as not terribly worrying and consistently portray the use of weapons as something that the average macho man should do, I believe that they will add to the culture of glorifying the gun. Somewhere along the line, I hope that the Government will tackle that.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth 4:45 pm, 25th October 2005

The Bill is rightly designed to address the criminal use of firearms and imitation firearms and to limit their use, as so eloquently described by many Labour Members. Should not the Government bear the burden of proof by demonstrating that some of the weapons, particularly those described in amendment No. 264, have contributed to criminal behaviour? Is she aware of any rash of criminal behaviour that involved starting pistols or the sort of weapons used in hunt dog training, or the many other examples contained in the amendment? If she is not aware of such instances, is it not appropriate that those weapons should be excluded from the ambit of the criminal law?

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

I shall deal first with the point made by the hon. Member for Huntingdon—why a defence and not an exemption? I hoped that my fairly rapid description of the general criminal law had addressed that point, but I am sure that he will have the opportunity to consider the matter in more detail.

People simply have to raise the fact that they could fall within one of the defences, and if they raise that fact, it comes before the court. It is then the duty of the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that it does not apply. That is a long-established and accepted way of drafting legislation. Those who have a defence are not put to an undue standard of proof, or the burden on them is that they have to prove their defence beyond reasonable doubt. It simply raises the fact that they could have access to a defence. It is then a matter for the prosecution to prove all elements of that prosecution.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Shadow Minister (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform)

Does the Minister accept that the benefit of an exemption is that it would remove the need to got to court? Given the state of the judicial system, that might be welcome.

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

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but someone may seek to raise a spurious defence. It is for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether there is a realistic prospect of conviction and whether it is in the public interest to bring a prosecution. At that point, the person may say that he wants to raise a defence. The case will then be litigated in the normal manner. If someone falls within one of the definitions, there would be no prospect of a conviction and it would not be in the public interest to bring a prosecution. Innocent people will not be charged with offences and find themselves in court. I think that there are sufficient checks and balances in the system to ensure that that is not the case. I assure   the Committee that the Bill is not drafted differently from similar legislation but simply sets out the defences that might be available.

The hon. Members for Huntingdon and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) spoke about antique imitation weapons. If you have a real antique that fires, it is a firearm. That is not covered by the Bill but is dealt with in firearms legislation and would need a certificate and so on. An antique imitation from before 1870 will not be caught by the Bill. We are talking about realistic imitations of modern weapons. That is what we want to deal with, and the cut-off point is 1870.

As for hunting dogs and blank-firing pistols, I have seen the guns that are used and they are realistic imitations. I see no reason why those guns could not be painted or made in a different way so that they no longer fell within the definition of a realistic imitation. I do not know why it is necessary for a gun that is used to train a dog to collect its quarry, or a gun used to start a race, to be a realistic imitation firearm. The same noise can be made with a gun that is red, transparent or of a different manufacture. I see no problem about that.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

Will the Minister advise the Committee whether she has any information about how the imitation weapons in question are transported from one event to another? Does she understand the confusion and panic that would be caused if someone were to walk through King’s Cross station with an imitation shotgun? What advice would the police be given about dealing with someone with an imitation weapon at King’s Cross station?

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

Clearly, having imitation weapons without lawful authority or good excuse has been made an offence under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003. We shall later debate amendments that would increase the penalty for such behaviour. As my hon. Friend said, that could cause alarm and distress to the public, and it is right that it should be possible to prosecute someone for doing it.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon asked whether there had been consultation with manufacturers or with television and film companies, and I confirm that there were extensive discussions with the gun trade associations and the armourers who supply television and film companies. They have been aware of the proposals as they have been developed over the past few months.

If black-powder weapons were real firearms, they would need a certificate. If they were antique imitations, they would not be included in the provisions.

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

I am afraid that I cannot recall what item of legislation is relevant, but I believe—I stand to be corrected—that black-powder weapons are treated differently under the firearms legislation.

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

The hon. Gentleman may have the better of me, but my advice from my officials is that those are real firearms and therefore would not come within the definition of realistic imitation firearms. I   undertake to check that aspect in more detail and return to the Committee, but that is my information at present, and as the hon. Gentleman does not have any more detail either, I am in some difficulty.

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

I believe that the relevant legislation relates to muzzle-loading weapons, which include all black-powder weapons.

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

I am not aware of the detail of that legislation, or whether it takes the weapons concerned out of the ambit of the provisions affecting real firearms. Are the hon. Gentlemen telling me that muzzle-loading black-powder firearms are not real firearms?

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

I am in some difficulty, as I am being advised that they are firearms. Perhaps I should undertake to carry out some research to resolve that dispute.

The point that I wanted to make is that antique imitations are excluded. If it turns out that I am correct about whether the relevant guns are firearms, those imitations will be excluded.

I understand hon. Members’ concerns, and the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross is right to say that we must get the right balance. That is what I want to do. I shall be pleased if the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green has received indications from airsoft players that they would be prepared to adapt their weapons so that they no longer fall within the definition of realistic imitations. That would be significant progress, because I do not want to stop people taking part in airsoft. They enjoy it, and it is great exercise. I have no doubt that it is very good for team-building, morale and motivation. I do not want to stop it, but I do want to stop people getting access to realistic imitation weapons that may be used in those activities.

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

Can the Minister give the Committee an idea of when airsoft users will know what they have to do to their weapons to make them non-realistic?

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

The amendments that we have already passed relate to colour, transparency and size. We have said that we will put in the regulations some more clarification of the kind of colour, with references to British standard numbers rather than to red, yellow or green, which could be subject to interpretation. The amendments would put colour, size and transparency on the face of the Bill.

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

Will the regulations appear in draft form before the Bill goes to be reviewed by their noble Lordships?

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

I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. We are endeavouring to work on the regulations as quickly as we can, and I have tried throughout this Bill—during discussion of the alcohol provisions as well—to give members of the Committee extensive indications of the factors that we   are considering, but the regulations will clearly not be available at the time mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

We are trying to get the balance right. There is a real mischief. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) acknowledged that there is a problem. He has asked for information about whether blank starting pistols or pistols for gun dogs have been involved in particular crimes. I do not have the evidence to supply him with in detail, but I understand that those guns could be converted to fire live ammunition and could be involved not only in imitation crimes but in crimes involving real ammunition. I am concerned about such guns, and no one has yet given me any information to convince me why they cannot be bright red, transparent or of some description that does not make them look like realistic imitation firearms. I am yet to be convinced on that point and ask hon. Members not to press the amendments.

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

I was pleased by the Minister’s clarification on antique imitations, although not particularly happy with the answer. Second world war re-enactors who have non-deactivated guns will also probably not be happy. I still do not see how a non-deactivated heavy duty machine gun could be used in a violent crime.

The defence or exemption argument is something that we will have to come back to. We will want to review that later, although I want to point out that the Minister has excluded certain items, such as deactivated guns. We wish to make the point that large numbers of people are still being ignored, not only in the clause but following the Government’s amendments. They will probably be more concerned now than they were before the Government amendments were added, and on that basis we will later ask the Committee to vote on amendment No. 264.

Amendment agreed to.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 54, in clause 30, page 32, line 17, at end insert—

‘(c)provide that the manufacture, modification or sale of an item for the purpose of display for educational or cultural purposes shall be exempt from the provisions of subsection (1)(c).’.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 265, in clause 30, page 32, line 17, at end insert—

‘(c)provide that the manufacture, modification, sale or bringing into the United Kingdom of a realistic imitation firearm or component part for the purpose of display only for educational, cultural or theatrical purposes shall be exempt from the offence under subsection (1); and

(d)provide that the manufacture, modification, sale or bringing into the United Kingdom of a realistic imitation firearm or component part for the purposes listed in Schedule () be exempt from the offence under subsection (1).’.

No. 308, in clause 30, page 33, line 14, at end insert—

‘(10)It shall be a defence for any person charged in respect of any conduct of his relating to an imitation firearm to which this section applies—

(a)with an offence under subsection (1) above; or

(b)with an offence under section 50(2) or (3) of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 (improper importation), to prove that the conduct in question was for the purposes of making the imitation firearm available to a museum or gallery.

(11)In this section “museum or gallery” includes any institution which has as its purpose, or one of its purposes, the preservation, display and interpretation of material of historical, artistic or scientific interest and gives the public access to it.

(12)It shall be a defence for any person charged in respect of any conduct of his relating to an imitation firearm to which this section applies—

(a)with an offence under subsection (1) above; or

(b)with an offence under section 50(2) or (3) of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979, to prove that his conduct was for the purposes of making available an imitation firearm to persons in the service of Her Majesty for the purposes of ceremonial functions carried out by the authority of a Royal Warrant.

(13)It shall be a defence for any person charged in respect of any conduct of his relating to an imitation firearm to which this section applies—

(a)with an offence under subsection (1) above; or

(b)with an offence under section 50(2) or (3) of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979, to prove that his conduct was for the purposes of making the imitation firearm available to persons—

(c)taking part in a theatrical performance or in a rehearsal for such a performance, or

(d)taking part in the production of a cinematograph or television film or a wireless telegraphic broadcast, or

(e)taking part in a historical re-enactment or the commemoration of historical events.’.

Amendment No. 308, which was suggested by the Corporation of London, highlights the potentially harmful effects of the clause on museums, the arts community and certain military-related activities. Government new clause 20 went some way towards addressing the point of the amendment, but concern remains in relation to certain military-related activities.

Subsection (12) of the amendment is intended to address the concern that subsection (1) of the clause could jeopardise certain quasi-military interests. One example is the Company of Pikemen and Musketeers. The company is governed by the terms of a royal warrant, which is essentially an Order in Council granted to it by the Queen in 1955. In addition to undertaking various City duties, most notably in escorting the lord mayor, the company takes part in events such as the royal tournament and the festival of remembrance. The company has a large reserve of replica weapons that lend its activities a sense of occasion and drama. Clearly, this is a legitimate interest that we support and that deserves the protection of the amendment or of inclusion in the defence under new clause 20.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 5:00 pm, 25th October 2005

The issue of replica weapons for the purpose of ceremonial functions is new to me. We have tried to bring forward exceptions and amendments to meet all the issues that have been discussed with us, but this one was not raised with me when we considered representations. As it is a new issue, and as it appears   that the pikemen and musketeers play a role that is very much welcomed by the City of London, I undertake to consider the matter. It is not my intention to outlaw perfectly legitimate uses of imitation weapons, and if we are talking about a properly controlled situation, and one that people find useful, I certainly undertake to consider it. I ask the hon. Member for Huntingdon to withdraw the amendment on the basis that I will consider it.

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

While the Minister is considering that, will she also consider the case of the Atholl Highlanders? I am not certain whether, as the only private army in the United Kingdom, it is considered a serving unit of the British Army. Is it covered by the legislation?

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

If the weapons that the Atholl Highlanders use are capable of firing live ammunition, they are real guns, and so will not be caught by the legislation, and imitations from before 1870 will not be caught, either. What we are talking about are imitations post-1870. If the weapons used by either the Company of Pikemen and Musketeers or the Atholl Highlanders are from before 1870, they do not fall within the provisions of the Bill.

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

I can perhaps help the Minister. The Atholl Highlanders is a regiment of the British Army, but a private army. Queen Victoria, having visited Blair castle, granted the Duke of Atholl the right to raise a private army. As such, during both wars, the Atholl Highlanders saw honourable service, but parade only ceremonially now. Usually, they have the old Lee-Enfield .303 from the last war as their arms. I am concerned that, inadvertently, they might have fallen between two stools. I think that they are probably covered by being part of the Army, but as they are a private army I would be grateful if the Minister could make sure.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for yet more erudite elucidation of the issues. I presume that the Lee-Enfields that they use are real weapons.

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

In which case the Atholl Highlanders will be covered under the real weapons legislation and not under the Bill, because we are talking about firearms. If the weapons were imitation Lee-Enfields, we might be in territory in which I would have to consider the matter even further. I am sure that the army to which the hon. Gentleman refers is well equipped with its weapons. In protecting the good people of the area, it no doubt provides a sterling service—

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

Stirling is somewhere else.

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

It seems Stirling is in a different place, but I have no idea where Atholl is and shall have to look at a map.

If there is an issue around ceremonial events, I undertake to look at that further, and to see if we need to come back with any more amendments.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 302, in clause 30, page 33, line 1, leave out subsections (8) and (9) and insert—

‘(8)In this section “realistic imitation firearm” has the meaning given by section (Meaning of “realistic imitation firearm”).’.—[Hazel Blears.]

Amendment proposed: No. 264, in clause 30, page 33, line 14, at end insert—

‘(9A)In relation to subsections (2), (3) and (8), the following should be included in the exceptions and exemptions from what constitutes a realistic imitation firearm—

(a)deactivated firearms,

(b)deactivated weapons manufactured before 1983,

(c)deactivated weapons of .50” calibre and over,

(d)large machine guns, armoured vehicles and field guns and military equipment where the deactivated weaponry is intrinsic to the equipment,

(e)realistic imitation firearms used in security dog training and security guard training,

(f)realistic imitation firearms used in hunt dog training,

(g)realistic and deactivated firearms used by educators, colleges and schools,

(h)reproduction components for weapons of .50” calibre and over,

(i)starting pistols,

(j)weapons intended for use in “Airsoft” with a muzzle energy of less that 4 joules including BB guns, air guns and paint balls,

(k)realistic imitation firearms for use in theatre, cinema, museums, castles and historic houses, television and sporting events,

(l)parts of weapons required in relation to the weapons listed in paragraphs (a) to (k),

(m)specialist suppliers and armourers relating to the weapons listed in paragraphs (a) to (k).’.— [Mr. Djanogly.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 14.

Division number 7 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 30 - Manufacture, import and sale of realistic imitation firearms

Aye: 3 MPs

No: 13 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

NOES

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

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

The debate has been dominated by the interests of hobbyists, businessmen and historical re-enactors. Therefore, it would not be right to let the debate pass without putting on the record the policy context of this important clause.

Although, in common with other Committee members, I have received dozens upon dozens of letters from business people, hobbyists and historical re-enactors, I have not of course received any letters from the thousands of my constituents who have woken up on a Monday morning to see the police incident boards that tell them that yet another shooting has taken place at the end of their road. I have not received any letters from the people who have been injured by drive-by shootings or by accidental shootings at nightclubs and parties. I have not received any letters from mothers who every Saturday night cannot sleep until they know that their children have returned safely from such parties or nightclubs. Above all, I have not received any letters from those mothers and parents from Hackney—and from communities throughout the country—who have had to do what a parent should never have to do, which is to bury their child who has been killed as a consequence of gun crime. It is to speak to those letters unwritten, and those issues untouched on by Opposition Members, that I rise to speak.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth

Does the hon. Lady accept that it must be possible to draft legislation that deals with the perfectly legitimate concerns she is raising, yet also protects the legitimate interests of those people mentioned by Opposition Members?

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

Of course I do. I think the Government are genuinely trying to do that in their amendments. Until now, the debate has been one-sided, and the hon. Gentleman must accept that on behalf of my constituents and of people who live in Harlesden, Manchester and Birmingham. It would be wrong not to put on the record the concerns of all the people throughout the country who have suffered from gun crime and to put the clause into some sort of context.

The first thing to say is that we as a Government and a society have come a long way on gun crime. It may be a new issue to some Committee members, but it has been an issue in Hackney for 10 or 15 years. I well remember a new chief superintendent in Stoke Newington coming to ask me about what issues he should take up. When I said to him that as a black person, mother and member of the community, I was concerned by the increasing number of anecdotes about young people who went out for a night’s clubbing with a gun as a style accessory and about young people not necessarily firing guns, but showing them as part of their interaction as gang members, that chief superintendent said to me, “Well, they are not using them on my men, so it’s not my problem, is it?”

I am sorry to say that there was a time when the assumption was that because black people were shooting other black people—as some policemen used to put it, “bad on bad”—gun crime was not of wider concern. However, I am glad to say that the Metropolitan police has moved on and I commend the work of Trident and policemen up and down the country. I am glad to say that the Government have moved on; I commend them for their efforts to raise the penalties for carrying a gun and for this important clause, which will make imitations illegal.

I have heard much from Opposition Members about historical re-enactments, and I have nothing against hobbyists. However, let me remind Opposition Members of the views of the police. For some time, the Police Federation has been of the opinion that a complete ban on imitations must be part of any serious war against gun crime. Let me cite what was said at the Association of Chief Police Officers annual conference in Birmingham. Deputy chief constable Alan Green said that the problem of imitations must not be ignored. He went on to say,

“I feel the service is going to be in the dock for having shot some young person ... The threat from imitation firearms isn’t that of slight injuries to young people, it is that you are likely to shoot someone at the age of 13 in the not too distant future. The service will then have to answer some serious questions about what we’ve done to tackle gun crime.”

Given that the policemen at the sharp end of the fight against gun crime are so clear about the importance of banning imitations and so insistent about the problems that imitations bring—when faced with a gun, they do not know whether it is imitation or real and fear that children might be shot—I am surprised that Opposition Members take the issue so lightly.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Shadow Minister (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform)

The hon. Lady is making a powerful and passionate presentation, and rightly so. This issue is crucial and the former attitude of the police that she described was disgraceful. I share her pleasure in seeing that it has changed. However, does she not accept that at the heart of this issue—whether we are talking about imitations or other things—is the culture that underlies it, and that the guns are merely totemic of that?

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

That opinion is comfortable for people who want to protect the interests of those who shoot for fun—hobbyists or whoever. However, there is no question but that, serious as the gun crime problem is in this country, it makes up only a fraction of that in the United States because we have much stricter, firmer regulations on the use and possession of guns.

What we do about the availability of guns—legal or illegal—the imitations and the hardware has a bearing on the number of people caught up in violent incidents and, ultimately, shot. This is not the time nor the place to talk about the gun culture of some of the young people walking the streets of our city, but I tell the hon. Gentleman this: what was described in the past as a black youth culture approach to gun crime is bleeding—I use the metaphor advisedly—out to other communities.

In Hackney, there are issues with Turkish gun crime, and in the west midlands, Asian youngsters have guns, so let us not talk only about youth culture, but turn again to the hardware. The problem in London is that more than half the weapons seized by the police are converted replicas. I do not want to inconvenience people who want to dress up as cavaliers or world war two soldiers, but that problem is why the amendment has been tabled.

Opposition Members will say, “But the weapons are replicas after all, so what harm can they do?” Well, as I said earlier, the amount of criminal offences involving imitation firearms has rocketed by 66 per cent. The most important fact, and why the police are concerned, is that it is almost impossible to distinguish many imitation weapons from real weapons. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green explained about her work at the Metropolitan Police Authority and said how, when she saw guns—imitation and real—side by side, she could not tell the difference. How is a policeman to tell?

One reason why the police have campaigned on the issue for so long—apparently unheard by Opposition Members—is that they are frightened. When they are called to an incident at which there is a young man with a gun in his hand, how are they to know whether it is real or imitation? We have heard the public furore on all sides of the political debate about the unfortunate shooting of the Brazilian at Stockwell. What would the public say if a 13-year-old was shot because he was carrying an imitation gun that looked too much like a real weapon?

Replica guns are responsible for a substantial proportion of United Kingdom gun crimes. Many of the guns are converted readily at low cost into lethal weapons. We believe that stemming the flow of imitation and replica firearms could have a positive impact on reducing the number of people who die or are injured by firearms. Replica guns put policemen under pressure. It costs thousands of pounds each month for armed policeman to be called out to incidents when it turns out that the gun involved was only a replica. Moreover, the wide availability of replica weapons strengthens the argument for the police to be armed routinely, which neither the police nor I want. It would simply escalate issues on the ground in the communities.

Reference has been made to toys. I do not think children should be using guns as toys. I shall refer to an incident that happened last week: four handguns—two of which were loaded—and a pump-action shotgun, and more than 60 rounds of ammunition, were found hidden in a children’s bedroom. That is the sort of culture that I want to stamp out in my community. Children should not be inducted into the gun culture by being encouraged or allowed to have imitation weapons. An early interest in guns, which may take the form of imitation guns, might lead young people into the illegal market of real handguns. Those guns are currently being carried as a fashion accessory, and failure to ban imitation guns would send out completely the wrong message.

It is inevitable in such a Committee that we deal with detail. It is the proper role of Opposition Members to query Ministers about details and to tease out the thinking behind those details. However, it would be wrong for a Member of Parliament who represented an area such as mine, which has one of the highest levels of death by guns and one of the highest levels of gun crime in the country, not to draw the Committee’s attention from the detail to the reality that the clause   is designed to address. I have campaigned for a long time for a ban on imitation guns, and I welcome the clause. I certainly believe that it should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General 5:15 pm, 25th October 2005

The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) made a moving and thoughtful speech. It is proper to recognise that she has contributed greatly to the debate on gun crime and that she has, indeed, spoken out against it. However, that is not an adequate reason to pass bad law, and we have great worries about the clause.

Following Dunblane, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 and the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2.) Act 1997 generally prohibited handguns of .22 calibre or above. The latest available firearms statistics that I have seen relate to the year ending December 2004. As for the type of weapons used, handguns accounted for the majority of offences. Since they were banned, their use in crime has doubled in less than four years, while the use of rifles and shotguns in crime has remained fairly constant in absolute terms and has fallen as a proportion of all crime involving firearms.

The only effect of banning handguns was to deprive law-abiding citizens of their sport. It did not reduce the number of firearms used in violent crime. The opposite happened. Following the ban, more guns were used. We believe that enactment of the clause may only repeat the mistakes of the past. As almost every interested party has pointed out to us, it will further restrict the rights of millions of law-abiding citizens to pursue their hobbies and sports, while doing little to address the issue of guns being used in violent crime. I must say to the hon. Lady that I have not received one letter in support of the clause. Even if we accepted the premise of the clause, and even after the mishmash of amendments proposed by the Government only last week, we still believe it to be poorly drafted and, frankly, unworkable.

Let us consider the legislation that exists at the moment. There are three main controls in law on the misuse of imitation firearms. The first is section 1 of the Firearms Act 1982, which provides for an imitation firearm to be treated as a real firearm in law if:

“(a)it has the appearance of being a firearm to which section 1 of the 1968 Act ... applies; and

(b)it is so constructed or adapted as to be readily convertible into a firearm to which that section applies.”

That law was introduced principally to prevent the sale of blank-firing imitation firearms of the kind that could be converted to fire live ammunition by fairly simple changes. The second main control is through the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1994. That creates a criminal offence of possessing a firearm or imitation firearm with intent to cause fear or unlawful violence. The measure was intended to allow the police to deal with the misuse of imitations as a threat by criminals.

Several sections in the Firearms Act 1968, aiming at the prevention of crime and the preservation of public safety, also deal with the misuse of imitations. For example, under section 17, it is an offence to make use   of a firearm or an imitation firearm with intent to resist or prevent arrest. Furthermore, a person found in possession of an imitation when arrested for certain specified offences is guilty of an offence unless he can show that he had it for a lawful object. Under section 18:

“It is an offence for a person to have with him a firearm or imitation firearm with intent to commit an indictable offence, or to resist arrest or prevent the arrest of another”.

Section 20, on trespassing with a firearm, also applies to an imitation firearm by virtue of section 2(1) of the 1994 Act.

The third main control is through section 19 of the 1968 Act, which was amended by section 37 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 to create a new arrestable offence of possessing an imitation weapon in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. The aim was not to interfere unduly with the legitimate use of imitations, but to allow the police to deal with those who were either misusing them or carrying them around in suspicious circumstances.

As the Home Office regulatory impact assessment points out, the current definition of an imitation firearm in section 57 of the 1968 Act is wide-ranging, and could include exact metal replicas designed as collectors’ items, soft airguns designed to fire plastic pellets with very low muzzle energy, some children’s toys and, probably, antiques. The RIA says that the definition works in practice by virtue of the fact that it is subject to a qualifier relating either to design—that is, to whether the imitation is readily convertible—or to misuse; that is, to whether it is possessed to cause fear of unlawful violence. The Home Office RIA on imitation firearms says that that is a workable definition because of the existing legislation.

The Bill removes the qualifiers that make the definition workable. No qualifiers means that the definition becomes unworkable. We can pass as many laws as we like, but ultimately the question must be one of enforcement. The Home Office RIA says that a total ban on the possession of imitation firearms

“would make new imitation firearms unavailable and would significantly reduce the existing stock. However, it is likely that given the large number of imitations already sold, without any records being kept, many would remain in circulation.”

The Government again seem to be ignoring their own advice. Hon. Members should keep in mind the figures that I have quoted. When the RIA talks about large numbers, we are talking about some 30 million imitation firearms in the UK, excluding toys, of which there are another 30 million to 50 million.

The RIA goes on to say that a ban on the possession of imitation firearms would create the biggest burden for business. Excluding toys, sales are estimated at £30 million to £40 million. There would be additional costs to the police and prosecution authorities in pursuing offenders.

Another anomaly created by the clause is that although import, sale or modification of imitation firearms would be banned, ownership would not be. However, there would continue to be no requirement for a record of ownership, thus making illegal transfer between people absurdly easy. That demonstrates   once again that only the law-abiding will be affected by the Bill. The clause is fraught with difficulty and has the potential to produce serious unintended consequences. As the save airsoft campaign petition notes:

“The proposed revisions to the Firearms Acts specifically relating to ’realistic imitation firearms’ are merely more draconian measures that promise the unbelievable, unfairly trample upon minorities and further erode our civil rights. The proposal that making it illegal for responsible people to own replicas will deter the criminal fraternity is pure nonsense.”

There are three key issues that the Committee should consider. First, in practice, “imitation” could mean anything. We discussed that matter earlier in the debate, including the case of the individual who held up a bank with a banana in a paper bag.

Secondly, there are 30 million realistic imitation weapons in circulation, the vast majority of which are owned, used or collected by honest individuals. The argument that millions should suffer for the sake of a handful of criminals is one that should be examined carefully.

Thirdly, will the clause work? We say that it will not. Handguns were banned, but they are now used more than ever before. The existing laws that I have mentioned are better than the one that we are considering, but they are not being adequately enforced. Airsoft replicas retail at hundreds of pounds—much more than the cost of a real handgun. With 30 million imitation weapons in circulation, we suggest that the only way of addressing the situation that the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington mentioned would be to have a total ban on replicas. I would not have agreed with such a ban, and would have argued against it, but it would have given us the basis for a more rational debate. The hon. Lady did not support a total ban; she supports the Government’s clause, which will not work for the reasons that I have given. We shall vote against the clause.

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

I have listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s argument. There is much in what he said with which I agree. There are severe problems with the clause. The discussions that we have had on a number of the issues have shown that there is room for the clause to be developed. As it stands, it is by no means ideal.

However, having had the privilege of starting my parliamentary career in another place, and being on a downward trajectory, I am somewhat more sanguine about the process of legislation, as I know the work that will be done in the other place. I believe that the message that we should send to the other place is not that the clause should be struck down, but that it should be amended so that it becomes more workable. I could not support the hon. Gentleman in his previous amendment because I felt that there was too much in it: it opened up the clause too much.

If the hon. Gentleman were to press the present amendment to a vote, we would support the Government, not because we think that this is the best clause since sliced bread—we certainly do not—but because we think that the overarching issue is of such   importance that the message to their Lordships should be “The clause stays, but please amend it as much as you can.”

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

The hon. Member for Huntingdon made a number of points, but I fear that he overstated his case. He mentioned Dunblane, and suggested that handgun crime had increased. The raw statistics in the UK may indicate that, but there is no universal trend. After the 1997 Acts came into force, 6,500 large-calibre handguns, 1,700 small-calibre handguns and some 144,000 rounds of ammunition were surrendered in Scotland. Where that legislation was taken to heart, it was extremely successful. As I pointed out earlier, the number of handgun crimes in Scotland is incredibly small.

I associate myself with the statement made by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington. The gun crime that she described is worrying and real, and anything that can be done in the Bill should be done, because I do not want the handgun crime that occurs in Hackney and elsewhere to spread to my constituency and other parts of the country, where there is little or no such crime at present.

Much of what the Government are doing in the clause about imitations is quite right, not least because many such weapons can be changed to fire live rounds, and action must be taken to prevent that wherever possible. However, I agree that the clause is not perfect and I am sure that the Minister will give us some comfort that some of the issues that have been raised on both sides of the Committee will be properly addressed.

Although this is a serious debate, I make one plea as regards re-enactments. The Minister suggested that proper, real re-enactment societies would be safe and would be covered by the exemptions or the criminal defence provided. However, I ask her and her Department to consider seriously people who do spoof re-enactments as shows. I know one or two people who do this at birthday parties and other events as a business. These are not real or proper re-enactments, but people nevertheless dress up in period costumes and sometimes have the accoutrements. I ask the Minister to consider that as a point of principle.

We have all had a great deal of correspondence about airsoft, and people have visited our constituency offices. This lunch time, I had an e-mail from my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), in the Western Isles. He had just noticed that the Committee was sitting and asked that we please keep the airsoft club there open. I make that pitch on behalf of my hon. Friend.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 5:30 pm, 25th October 2005

This has been a very interesting debate, with contributions from a range of Members. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, who set out in graphic, real terms, which drew on her own experience, the problem at which the Bill is aimed. There is no better illustration of the problem that we face.

I hope that the hon. Member for Huntingdon and other Opposition Members accept—the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth has done so before—that there is a real problem out there and that we are doing our best to draft legislation that targets that mischief, but which, at the same time, is not so broad as to bring within its ambit people who are genuinely going about their business, whether it involves historical re-enactments, TV and film, or museums and cultural displays. That is not what the Bill is aimed at: it is aimed at people with realistic imitations that could be used to frighten and threaten others and to cause them the distress and anxiety that we have discussed. Last year, there were 3,268 offences involving imitation weapons, so there is clearly a significant problem. Although the majority of such offences are concentrated in our big cities, the issue concerns us all, irrespective of what kind of constituency we represent.

I agree with hon. Members that banning realistic imitations will not of itself ensure that we do away with the gun crime problem in this country; it would be absurd of me to suggest otherwise. However, the Bill is an additional measure, which will help us and give the police extra tools to tackle the problem. All the examples given by the hon. Member for Huntingdon related to the use of realistic imitations, but the Bill is about banning their manufacture, supply and import so that we can reduce the supply of those weapons; it is not directed at their use.

I do not pretend that the clause is perfect and I have undertaken to consider a number of issues further to see whether we can introduce measures. We have the regulation-making power in subsection (2)(b) so that we can look at circumstances in which we might need to consider exemptions and exceptions. When we drafted the Bill, we included a provision saying that there would need to be exceptions and exemptions and that we would, of course, come forward with them; we did not introduce the Bill saying that we could outlaw all realistic imitation weapons for everyone. Indeed, the Home Secretary made it clear on Second Reading that we would consider making exceptions and exemptions. It would be difficult to draft legislation otherwise.

The Committee should not forget that many people, including my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and for Brent, South (Ms Butler), have been campaigning for a long time, but they have always been told that it is too difficult to draft a definition that does not unduly interfere with the rights of decent, law-abiding people. They were told that it was beyond lawyers to come up with that sort of definition, but we have done it. I do not say that it is a perfect definition, finely crafted, and honed within an inch of its life, and that it will cover every determination. I have no doubt that we will come forward with other words and propositions to tighten the provision and to make it as appropriate as we can. Indeed, we have already undertaken to reconsider ceremonial events.

There is a real problem out there. We have tried to address it by making the legislation as proportionate as we can, but I am determined that we should not allow an increase in the supply of realistic imitation weapons, which all too often are being used by young people in some of our communities. That campaign is supported by the Police Federation and the Association of Chief Police Officers, who say that they want to see it happen. That makes it a pretty reasonable thing to do.

I must tell the hon. Member for Huntingdon that although the clause is not perfect in every specific, tiny detail, it is not appropriate to say that we should do nothing. If we took that view as legislators, we would be defeated not only because of the difficulties of technical drafting but because of a lack of political will. We on the Government Benches have the political will—I hope that the Liberal Democrats will join us—to target the mischiefs that unfortunately cause far too many people to live in fear and to feel threatened; those people should have the right to go about their day-to-day business in peace, comfort and tranquillity.

Question put, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided: Ayes 14, Noes 5.

Division number 8 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 30 - Manufacture, import and sale of realistic imitation firearms

Aye: 13 MPs

No: 4 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

NOES

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 30, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.