Prime Minister (Meetings)

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 1st March 2007.

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Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 12:00 pm, 1st March 2007

To ask the First Minister when he will next meet the Prime Minister and what issues they will discuss. (S2F-2749)

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

It is a fair bet that the First Minister and I will disagree about many things during the weeks leading up to the election. However, just for today, I wonder whether we can find some consensus on an important issue. Is the First Minister aware that it is exactly two years since toddler Andrew Morton was shot and killed by an air-gun? Andrew's mother is in Parliament today. After that tragedy, the First Minister said that if more action was needed, he would not hold back. Does he agree that much more action is still needed to tackle the scourge of air-guns in Scotland?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

First, I thank Tommy Sheridan for giving me the opportunity to discuss this matter with him yesterday. Today, I am sure that we will all want to pass on our continuing condolences to the families who are represented in the gallery on the anniversary of a tragedy that still affects their lives every single day.

Of course much more remains to be done on the implementation and enforcement of the legislation on air-guns. The Minister for Justice, all the other ministers and I are committed to ensuring that more is done.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I very much welcome that statement. Is the First Minister aware that even after the new legislation to which he referred comes into force, there will still be absolutely no restrictions on the owning of air-guns by people over the age of 18? Andrew Morton's murderer was over 18; the new law would have done nothing to stop him getting his hands on an air-gun. Will the First Minister agree with me that if we are to prevent such a tragedy from happening again, we must now put restrictions not just on who can sell air-guns but on who can own them?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

There are two points to make. First, the new laws will have an impact on the ability of someone over the age of 18 to get hold of an air-gun, as Ms Sturgeon describes it. The new laws will ensure that only registered firearms dealers operating under very strict conditions can purchase and sell on air-guns.

It is also important that we take any action that is required in conjunction with, and with the advice and support of, the police forces of Scotland. Although the immediate reaction of many of us across all parties, not just to the incident two years ago but to other incidents, was that it would be sensible to move towards a ban or full-scale registration, the police gave us very strong advice that that would be an inappropriate response. The police advised us that what we had to do—indeed, it is what we have done—was increase the minimum sentence for possession, introduce a system of properly registered dealers so that sales over the internet could be banned, and in that way tighten the regime and reduce the likelihood of future incidents.

I remain to be convinced that that will be sufficient in the longer term. However, I am willing to take the police at their word and insist that they have a go at implementing the legislation effectively. That is why the Minister for Justice and I will meet representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland this month to ensure that the police are targeting those areas in Scotland that we know are most affected in order to deal with those who are selling air-guns and those who already possess them and to take action to reduce the likelihood of any incidents that would have an impact on other individuals in the locality.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Again, I thank the First Minister for his answer, but I point out to him that the president of ACPOS said that, in his opinion, air-guns should be subject to the same laws as all firearms. Clearly, there is a mood to make even more progress. I also point out to the First Minister that, under the new law, a registered firearms dealer will still be able to sell an air-gun to anyone over the age of 18, as long as they do it in person and take the name and address of the purchaser. Clearly, there is room to go much further.

I remind the First Minister that nearly two thirds of all gun crime in Scotland involves air-guns and that that figure is on the increase. Many members of his party—Frank McAveety, for example—support restrictions on the ownership of air-guns. As I said earlier, we will disagree on many issues in the next few weeks, but can we resolve today that this will not be one of them? I know that it is a reserved issue, but will the First Minister agree that whichever of our parties wins the election, we will immediately open with Westminster whatever negotiations are necessary to allow Scotland to move towards a ban on the general, unregulated ownership of air-guns?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I have tried to explain that the issue is not negotiations with Westminster. I hope that an effort is not being made to turn what could be a consensual debate into one along constitutional lines.

The issue is the discussion between us and the police forces of Scotland about what is the best way to tackle incidents involving air-guns. Both at the time and since, the police have strongly advised us that a full-scale registration scheme or a ban would be inappropriate. I keep open those options in the longer term—I do not believe that we should count them out. However, I am willing to give the police the opportunity to prove that their view on the issue was right and that they can successfully implement and enforce the legislation that has been agreed.

Over recent years, the legislation has increased the minimum age for owning air weapons from 14 to 18. There is a new offence of possessing an air weapon in a public place without a reasonable excuse and a new minimum sentence of five years that goes alongside that. In addition, of course, there are bans on imports and on sales over the internet and there is a system of registered dealers. All those new laws have now been put in place with the consent of the police and I assume that the police are willing to enforce them effectively.

This month, the Minister for Justice and I will meet the police forces of Scotland to ensure that they move to implement those new laws immediately. We will monitor how they do that and, in the longer term, if that is not successful, we keep open the option of holding further discussions with them about moving towards registration or a ban.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I suggest to the First Minister that if we think that even the new law is deficient, we have a duty to act now. I remind him of some incidents that have taken place just this year: in Glasgow, an 18-year-old was shot with an air-gun; a pensioner was shot on a train with an air-gun; and, in Dundee, two 11-year-olds were shot with an air-gun. Air-gun crime is a serious issue of public safety and it is on the increase. I make it clear that, in government, the Scottish National Party will make it a priority to move to restrict the ownership of air-guns and I hope that, when the time comes, we will have the support of all parties in the Parliament.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I reiterate the same points. In response not just to the tragic incident that took place two years ago today but to the pattern that existed across Scotland at the time, especially in Strathclyde, we took action, based on the advice of the police forces, to strengthen the law. That action has been taken and the new laws are now in place. The issue for us today is enforcement of those laws, which have raised the minimum age, restricted sales, made the registration of dealers a requirement and stopped people possessing air weapons in any public place without a reasonable reason. I have no doubt that the enforcement of all those laws will have an impact on the number of incidents that still occur in Scotland today. Every such incident is an issue for us. The immediate challenge is for the police forces of Scotland to enforce those laws. We are willing to give them a chance to implement the laws that they requested. If those laws are proved not to be sufficient, we will of course be prepared to consider going further.