Firearms

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 17th January 2008.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 2:15 pm, 17th January 2008

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-1153, in the name of Kenny MacAskill, on firearms.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 2:58 pm, 17th January 2008

This debate is long overdue. The misuse of firearms, particularly air weapons, remains a major problem in our communities. There is a distinct problem in Scotland, which we need to address. I regret that, so far, the United Kingdom Government is not moving as far or as fast as we would like and as our communities need. That is why I have written again to Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary. We as a Government want to host a summit to look at improving the system of firearms regulations.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I presume that the suggestion of hosting a summit has been well thought out and is not just a political stunt. If that is the case, will the minister explain why The Herald reported that the Home Secretary had not received any formal invitation to attend?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

We all know that various matters relating to the Post Office are reserved to Westminster, and they may be involved. I assure Mr Henry that we are dealing with the matter as expeditiously as possible and that the Government has dispatched an invitation. I am not in a position to comment on why that has not arrived, but the member can rest assured that we are viewing the issue most seriously. We are genuine in trying to ensure that we protect our communities because, as I will go on to say, the current legislation is inadequate.

We want a summit to check the current system. Anyone who wants to contribute, including Mr Henry, will be welcome to come. We want to work on improving the current piecemeal system in a collaborative way. This is not about the status of Parliaments or politicians, but about the safety of our communities.

When I meet those who have suffered injury or bereavement through firearms, as I did earlier this afternoon with Sharon McMillan, Andy Morton and Dr Mick North, I am saddened that the action that is needed in our communities has not been taken. They ask not which Parliament has the powers, but what Parliament—any Parliament—is doing about it. As a Scottish National Party member, of course I think that this Parliament should have the powers. Indeed, discussions are taking place among the Opposition parties on the powers that the Parliament should have, and firearms may be part of that. However, we will not be precious or stand on ceremony. If London wants to take action, and will take action, that is fine—but it must do so. If not, it must give us the powers to act.

Air weapons are not toys. We know perfectly well that such guns can cause serious injury and, as such, they should not be freely available to just anyone. There are good reasons why some people who have a legitimate reason to hold them, such as for pest control or recognised sporting events, should be allowed to retain them. We must stop the people who want an air weapon to take pot shots for what they call fun. We all know that the proliferation of air-guns in our streets is damaging our communities—leaving residents as prisoners in their homes, injuring and maiming people, pets and wild animals, and even tragically claiming lives.

For most firearms, it is for the police locally to decide whether an individual has a good reason and is a fit and proper person to hold a licence. The same arrangements must apply for air weapons. We cannot allow those who would use them for nefarious purposes to buy them over the counter. That is ridiculous and unacceptable. Is it appropriate that a licence is required for the use of a shotgun to deal with pest control while someone does not need a licence for an air-gun? Is it appropriate that someone who wants a hunting rifle has to meet good-reason criteria for each rifle and quantity of ammunition requested, and yet someone who wants a shotgun does not?

If a shotgun licence is refused, the onus is on the chief constable to prove that the applicant has no good reason. An air-gun does not require a licence at all, but, as we all know, any firearm can be lethal in the wrong hands.

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour

I am sure that members are glad that we are dealing with the issue seriously and looking to tackle the problems. My question extends the debate from air-guns. The minister may be aware that Sheriff Swanney raised some concerns about ball-bearing guns in the case of a 16-year-old. Such guns are available for £4 and cause serious damage to victims. Does the minister have existing powers to deal with the sale of those cheap weapons and restrict their availability? They can be used to intimidate innocent people in our communities.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Off the top of my head, I do not know. I presume that we might be able to do something through a licensing regime. I took a call on the point from the Greenock Telegraph , and I made it clear that we would discuss the issue. Clearly, it is not simply a matter of air weapons but of the other matters that Mr McNeil raises.

I am happy to look at what we can do, but we need to stop making piecemeal amendments to legislation and instead pass one all-encompassing act; I will come to that later. We must treat all guns in the same way. Does it make any difference what kind of gun causes the terrible tragedies? The fact is that we need to do all that we can to prevent them from happening again. Moreover, we need to simplify the present convoluted system. We are determined to make the current regime easier to understand and easier for the police to enforce and, as a result, to make our communities safer.

The Home Office published a consultation paper in May 2004 entitled "Controls on Firearms". In the document's foreword, the then Home Secretary David Blunkett stated:

"This consultation is the first step in a comprehensive review of our firearms controls and laws."

He went on to say that he wanted to minimise bureaucracy and to ensure that there were no unnecessary burdens on those who possess and use guns lawfully.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Does the cabinet secretary suggest that the current differentiation between the system for regulating firearms and that for shotguns is likely to end and that shotguns might be regulated as firearms?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

We are having a summit to involve all those who have an interest—whether through sport or farming, or as police. We must have a system that is fit for purpose and which is clear, coherent and understandable. At present, lacunas exist in relation to BB guns and air weapons, for example. A hunting rifle is dealt with differently from a shotgun, as I said. There might be good reason for having a differentiation in the legal system, but we should have one all-encompassing act and sort out what we want as a people. That is why we are driving the issue forward.

The consultation document to which I referred said:

"the legislation has been amended a number of times, and as a result the framework of controls can be difficult to understand and enforce."

We agree about that, which is why we want to take action.

The consultation sought the public's views on an overhaul of the firearms legislation. It is disappointing that, following responses to that consultation in 2004, no comprehensive review has been undertaken. Despite indicating that a wholesale review would follow, the Home Office no longer seems to consider the issue sufficiently important, but I do, the Government does and so do our communities. I therefore asked the Home Secretary to let the Scottish Parliament decide what is best for Scotland and to do what we can to take the action that many people throughout Scotland demand to tackle the scourge of air weapons. Regrettably, she refused my request, but I have asked her to think again.

I acknowledge the work that has been done in recent years to improve the legislation—most recently by tightening gun laws through the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. That is welcome, but it did not go far enough and it falls far short of the comprehensive review that we were promised in 2004 and of a system that will be fit for purpose to protect our citizens in the 21st century.

A consolidated act is needed. As I said, the law must be understandable not just to the specialist few. However, when we are dealing with an act from 1968 that has been amended by something like 21 acts and affected by 13 statutory instruments, it is clear that not only cannot the man and the woman in the street understand the legislation but, often, those with legal expertise and police officers have difficulties, too. It is therefore time for an all-encompassing act that sets out who can buy a gun, for what purpose and from where. The police will tell members how time consuming the current system is, and we do not want the police to be tied up in needless bureaucracy, as Mr Aitken and other Conservative members know.

Communities throughout Scotland are crying out for further action on air weapons and to ignore their calls is simply unacceptable. In every week that passes, further innocent victims are maimed by the use and misuse of such weapons. Already this year, two incidents alone have been brought to my attention in which an air-gun was alleged to have been fired at houses in North Berwick, which terrified people in their homes and neighbouring residents. In my discussions with Andy Morton, Sharon McMillan and Mick North, other incidents came to light. Unfortunately, such incidents in many parts of Scotland are not rare—they are far too common. That is why we must tackle the misuse of air weapons in our communities.

We need to work with all—with the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, shooting interests and others—on practical measures, whether they are legislative or non-legislative. We need to make the law easier to understand and enforce and, as a result, make our communities safer.

No Government could fail to act when firearms casualties in Scotland rose by a quarter last year, when one in three of those casualties was a child and when the number of cases of attempted murder involving firearms was almost three times what it was a decade ago.

A Government has no greater duty than to protect its citizens. We cannot and must not sit on our hands. Our communities want action, the police want it and we as a Government demand it. It is time to act on the problem of air weapons in our communities. Whether legislation is passed here or in Westminster is incidental. As I said, the issue is about not the status of Parliaments or politicians, but the safety of our communities. Action needs to be taken and action there must be. If Westminster will not do it, Holyrood must.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises the increasing public concern about gun crime; agrees that action is required to give better protection to our communities by effectively banning the ownership and use of all firearms and air weapons other than for recognised and legitimate occupational and sporting interests, and supports the Scottish Government's intention to engage with the wide range of interests, including the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPOS), sporting bodies and gun lobbies, in re-energising the United Kingdom debate started in 2004, but not progressed, on reform of the existing firearms regime into a system that is simpler to understand, administer and enforce and places prime importance on public safety.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour 3:09 pm, 17th January 2008

The strict control of firearms is essential if the public are to be kept safe from violence that involves guns. This afternoon, we will debate how to win the fight against gun crime and whether further measures should be taken to restrict the ownership of guns, and we will set the context of the issue.

Legislation alone will not protect our communities. Robust customs systems and intelligent policing will make the difference across the UK. It is therefore essential that we work across the UK to achieve such things.

The number of injuries and deaths that result from the misuse of firearms is shocking for everybody. In Scotland, the number of such incidents has doubled since 2002. The problem is a UK problem, but there is a distinctly Scottish trend. In recent times, there has been proportionately more air-gun crime in Scotland than there has been in any other part of the UK. For that reason, it is right that we address Scotland's need within the UK.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Labour's amendment refers to

"retaining consistency across all parts of the United Kingdom".

There seems to be inconsistency in that Northern Ireland has a separate approach. Does the member think that Northern's Ireland's approach should now be dealt with by the UK Parliament, or is she saying that there should be inconsistent approaches in Northern Ireland, which is a constituent part of the UK, and the rest of the UK?

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

The cabinet secretary is being a wee bit mischievous, as the character of the problem in Northern Ireland is clearly different. There has been generous support from the other parties for a consistent approach. I will come to that matter later.

We have all read—and probably cried over—the reports about young Andrew Morton, who died as a result of being shot by an air-gun. At the time, the convicted murderer—Bonini—was subject to a drug treatment and testing order, and the narrative of the case suggests that he should have been in jail and not in the community.

We need to have a rounded look at how we can reduce violent crime. Indeed, if we want to tackle the causes of crime, we must, as politicians, consider the whole picture rather than simply focus on one aspect of it—the cabinet secretary has said that many times. We must not simply react to tragedies such as the Andrew Morton tragedy.

How should we learn from such tragedies and respond to them? In July last year, the cabinet secretary wrote a letter to the Home Secretary in which he asked her to devolve responsibility for all firearms legislation to Scotland. The First Minister had trailed such an approach in the summer, and it was read as another notch in the battle against Westminster, which was unfortunate. I was pleased to hear this afternoon that the cabinet secretary is not precious about which Parliament takes action to deal with gun crime. The Government's first approach was wrong. If the minority Administration—the Government keeps on going on about the Administration being a minority Administration—had really considered the matter, it would have been clear that its approach in the first instance would have put it at odds with the other main parties, which favour a consistent approach being taken. It was predictable that the Home Secretary would reply to the cabinet secretary in the way that she did. The Government has so far failed to build a coalition for further action, but perhaps we can do something constructive about that this afternoon.

Hugh Henry pointed out that we have heard overnight that the cabinet secretary wants to invite the Home Secretary to a summit to discuss with him and the First Minister an offer that she may or may not refuse. It might have been more appropriate to wait a few hours until this debate had ended and therefore to find out what other parties had to say about the matter before launching into such an initiative.

In all his letters, the cabinet secretary dismisses or does not mention the action that has already been taken to restrict access to air-guns. The previous coalition Government fought hard to persuade the Home Secretary to restrict the possession and control of air-guns—the relevant measures can be found in the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. The age at which people can own air-guns was increased to 18 across the UK, and we ensured that there are licensed dealers. However, Labour in Scotland supports the review of those measures at some point with a view to imposing further restrictions on the ownership of air-guns, if doing so is necessary and workable. We made a manifesto commitment to that effect.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

A central question is whether all members agree that air-guns should be licensed. Does the Labour Party in Scotland support that position?

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I will talk about the Labour Party's position and enlighten the member on that matter.

We need to look in greater detail at the workability of any further restrictions and how they would be enforced. We also need to consider the fact that the police have warned us against such an approach, and we must talk to the police about their view on the matter.

On the face of it, it is hard to justify why anyone living in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen or any urban area in the UK should ever need to use or have access to a gun or an air-gun. However, where we part company with the SNP on the issue is that we do not believe that it is desirable to have completely separate firearms legislation in Scotland. There are risks in that, as the Home Secretary argues, and it would not be beyond the wit of criminals to obtain an air-gun over the border if Scotland acted alone.

Labour in Scotland believes that the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Justice should review the operation of the legislation with a view to imposing further restrictions throughout the UK—action that would perhaps be better described as a presumption against the ownership of guns rather than a ban, as there will always be genuine exemptions for those who have a genuine justification. Anyone who owns an air-gun should be able to justify why that is necessary.

Our amendment allows consideration of what has been done already to restrict the use of air-guns. However, as Duncan McNeil pointed out, it could also allow a focus on other guns such as BB guns, which also cause damage in our communities. Our amendment argues that it may be necessary to complete our work with further restrictions, including consideration of the ownership of air-guns, and Labour will continue to argue that position with the Home Office. Today, I have written to Jacqui Smith and Jack Straw, outlining my view on the matter as Labour's spokesperson on justice.

We must recognise that, invariably, other issues will underlie gun misuse and that a total ban on all guns would not remove them completely from circulation. In that respect, the Tory amendment makes the valid point that banning anything—be it guns or weapons—will not necessarily make the problem go away. Our poorest-resourced communities live with the threat of violence, the scourge of drug dealing and the use of illegal firearms and weapons of all sorts. The issue is about dealing with the lives of innocent people who deserve safer communities.

That is our position, and we will work constructively with the Government. However, we think that, in the first instance, the Scottish Government must argue the case with the UK ministers to get a sensible approach to the control of guns in the UK and in Scotland.

I move amendment S3M-1153.2, to leave out from "gun crime" to end and insert:

"the unacceptable incidence of gun crime and in particular the illegal misuse of air weapons across Scotland; welcomes the actions of the previous Scottish Executive, working with the UK Home Office, to restrict the sale of airguns and increase the age at which an airgun can be obtained; notes that there is a case for reviewing the effect of these provisions with a view to implementing further restrictions on the ownership of airguns other than for recognised and legitimate occupational and sporting interests; but further believes that improved firearm legislation would be best obtained by retaining consistency across all parts of the United Kingdom, and therefore calls on Scottish ministers to engage constructively with the UK Government to better control and reduce serious and violent crime in Scotland."

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 3:17 pm, 17th January 2008

The cabinet secretary was correct in stating that this is a serious issue that we must treat with the utmost seriousness. Much of what he said today was perfectly acceptable. If he continues to research the matter with his usual crusading zeal, we will congratulate him. However, if he does what he and so many of his other colleagues have done in the past few months, and demonstrates that this is just another device to drive the thin end of the wedge between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament, we will not approve of that or accept it.

Let us examine the situation. Clearly there are problems. Man's relationship with guns has always been an uneasy and dangerous one and although that relationship in Scotland is perhaps not as intimate as it is in the United States and in other jurisdictions, there are problems. Those problems are historical and they are growing, as was brought to our attention by the awful events in Dunblane, which highlighted how weapons can be dangerous, especially in the hands of people who simply should not have them. In that instance, the weapons were licensed, but that was an exception to the rule. As a result of that dreadful incident and the inquiry that was carried out by Lord Cullen, the then Conservative Government legislated the following year, in 1997, and applied the appropriate restrictions. As I recollect, there was unanimous approval in the House of Commons for those measures, although in some parts of the community they were perhaps less popular.

I agree that, despite the fact that the most recent legislation is not of any great antiquity, there must be constant and consistent review of firearms legislation. To that end, I am keen to encourage the cabinet secretary to encourage the Westminster Government to proceed further. However, he must understand that firearms legislation is currently reserved. It might be that such powers will eventually come to Scotland as a result of the views that are taken by the Opposition parties in conjunction with the Scottish Executive. I cannot anticipate whether that will happen, but it might. Until that time, I recommend that the cabinet secretary stay within the ambit of the Scotland Act 1998 and operate accordingly.

What can we do about wider public concerns? We must acknowledge that although we can licence and restrict until we are blue in the face—which is tremendously well intentioned—the people who misuse firearms are not likely to be deterred by licensing requirements or legislation. Such people have shown time and again that they will simply drive a horse and cart through any regulations that we seek to impose.

To some extent, today's debate is a continuation of last week's debate on serious organised crime. Handguns and, in some cases, automatic weapons have been used by gangsters to commit murder. It is clear and simple that that is what happens. The vast majority of the weapons that are used have never been licensed. If members look at the most up-to-date statistics, they will see that of the 600-odd cases in which we were able to convict the person and recover the gun, only a handful of weapons—something like 11—were licensed. That is indicative of the problem.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

We accept the point that the law in itself is never a total solution to any problem. That applies in this case. However, does Bill Aitken accept—given that the former Home Secretary thought there were 7 million air-guns in the UK—that to require a licence for those air-guns would be a sensible step that would be likely to afford a serious measure of protection to our communities?

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

All such ideas have varying degrees of merit. Once the appropriate inquiries have been carried out and consultations taken place, there could be a case for licensing air-guns, but let us deal with the situation one stage at a time: as I have said, gangsters in the east end of Glasgow will not be deterred by the absence of a little bit of paper.

It is important to take a cohesive UK approach. Many of the guns that are used are imported not through Scotland's airports, which is fairly difficult, but through the Channel ports by car. That is an established fact. One of the downsides of the iron curtain no longer existing is that eastern European countries, which had a significant arms trade, are now exporting a lot of handguns and automatic weapons. The evidence is clear that many of those weapons end up on the streets of the UK. A border police force, as has been recommended by our colleagues down south, would certainly improve matters.

Although we all recognise that there is a problem and that there is a case for some of the minister's suggestions, at the end of the day it comes down to policing, police resources and enforcement of the current law. That is the direction that we should take.

I move amendment S3M-1153.1, to leave out from "action" to end and insert:

"laws regarding firearms control should be regularly reviewed but notes that firearms legislation is reserved to Westminster; notes also with regret that the great majority of weapons used in gun crime are held illegally in breach of the existing law; acknowledges that the most effective way of making Scotland's communities safer is more effective enforcement of the existing law, and calls on the Scottish Government to support an increase in police resources to improve enforcement of current firearms legislation."

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat 3:24 pm, 17th January 2008

I agree with the minister that there is increasing public concern about gun crime. In 2006-07, the Scottish police recorded 1,245 offences in which it was alleged that a firearm had been used—an increase of 17 per cent on the total of 1,068 such crimes recorded in 2005-06 and the highest number in the past 10 years. Of the total number of firearms offences in 2006-07, 54 per cent, or 675, involved an air weapon, compared to 58 per cent, or 618, in 2005-06. As we all know, firearms legislation is reserved to the UK Government. The Scottish Liberal Democrats have difficulty in accepting that there would not be considerable problems in having separate firearms regulations and penalties in England and Scotland. We share the United Kingdom Government's view that a total ban on some weapons would be unworkable and impractical.

In recent times, there have been a number of improvements in legislation to address gun crime, particularly air-guns. Westminster's Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which came into effect in January 2004, brought in new provisions to help protect the public from misuse of air-guns, including the raising of the minimum age for ownership from 14 years to 17 years, the creation of a new offence of possessing an air-gun or imitation weapon in a public place without reasonable excuse, and the banning of the future import, manufacture, sale or transfer of air weapons that use self-contained gas cartridges.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Mike Pringle argues that legislation in Scotland that did not exist throughout the UK would be unenforceable. We would prefer UK-wide legislation, but if that is not possible and we have legislation requiring the licensing of air-guns in Scotland, surely it would be perfectly easy to enforce it, just as the separate legislation on knives is enforceable?

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat

That is probably right, but I will come on to the considerable number of measures that have been introduced recently—we should give them time to bed in. If there is a summit between the Governments in Scotland and Westminster, I would welcome anything that is done to improve this aspect of the law.

The Liberal Democrats supported the new provisions. As Pauline McNeill said, the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 tightened the law on indiscriminate and reckless firing of air-guns from private property. It also brought in a further increase in the minimum age of ownership of air-guns from 17 years to 18 years, along with tougher restrictions on manufacture and ownership of imitation firearms.

That was followed by the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 (Realistic Imitation Firearms) Regulations 2007. The regulations were implemented only in October 2007, so surely time is required to establish whether they will be effective. The legislation did a number of things: it introduced a ban on the supply of realistic imitation firearms; it made it an offence to manufacture, import or sell realistic imitation firearms; and, under HM Revenue and Customs controls, made liable to forfeiture imported imitation firearms. It is now also an offence for a person under the age of 18 to purchase an imitation firearm, and to sell an imitation firearm to a person under the age of 18. I therefore suggest that much has been done and is being done to regulate firearms.

I am pleased that the motion recognises that there are legitimate reasons for owning a gun for all sorts of sporting activities, for control of vermin and for other reasons. All firearms in the United Kingdom must be licensed with either a firearms certificate or a shotgun certificate. It is not easy to obtain a firearms certificate, as several of my friends who live in Edinburgh know—they are constantly badgered by the police to ensure that their firearms certificates are up to date. The police must be convinced that the applicant is a person of sound reason and good standing, and that they can be trusted to own a gun without danger to public safety or to the peace. Under Home Office guidelines, a gun licence is issued only if a person has legitimate sporting or work-related reasons for owning a gun. The penalties are quite harsh. Possession of a prohibited firearm without a certificate carries a mandatory five-year prison sentence and the fine is uncapped.

I agree with Bill Aitken that we should do more to ensure that guns do not come into this country, but guns can, of course, flow freely around the UK. A gun that is used in a crime in Edinburgh might next be used in Manchester or London, or vice versa. The evidence is that guns that are used in crimes are seldom recovered. We need to be more concerned about—as I said—controlling illegal guns by preventing their getting into the UK in the first place—the Westminster Government is the Government to do that. My colleague at Westminster, Chris Huhne, is exercised by the issue and has suggested—as Bill Aitken did—that we should have a border police force that would exercises more control over the import of illegal weapons and guns into the UK.

The Liberal Democrats will support the Labour amendment.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

We move to the open debate on the motion.

Photo of Nigel Don Nigel Don Scottish National Party 3:30 pm, 17th January 2008

I suggest that we should distinguish clearly between three kinds of weapons: the first are air-guns, the second I will call handguns, and an adequate description of the third would be shotguns.

I liked Pauline McNeill's phrase: a "presumption against" possession. That would be a good way in which to tackle the problem of guns. We can do without them—people who have good reason for needing them could be subject to licence, but everyone else should be unable to get them. That would be the first step on the path.

I listened to the previous speeches and have no intention of repeating what was said. Seven million air-guns are thought to be in circulation in the UK and I am told that half a million of them are in Scotland, which seems a reasonable assumption. Clearly, the numbers are far too high.

Air-guns are not toys. A majority of the offences involving air weapons are attributed to people under the age of 21, and many of those are attributed to people under the age of 15, which suggests that we have no control over where these weapons are going. As a youngster under the age of 15, I fired an air-gun in the back yard of a friend's home, but I am not sure that we were under a great deal of supervision at the time. It occurred to me that it was rather obvious that I should not point it at people, although that seems to escape others.

I come to the real point, which we all know. If we have dangerous things, occasionally they will get into the wrong hands and occasionally those wrong hands will do something very silly with them. Every now and again, such a silly event will have serious consequences. We should not be surprised if someone is killed by an air rifle every now and again, sad though the event must be. If air guns are out there, they will be abused—every now and then, things will go wrong and someone will get seriously hurt. The only solution is to ensure that air-guns are simply not out there, other than in responsible hands. I note in passing that air-guns are also used to attack animals. That is quite sickening behaviour that I do not understand. The same thing applies: if air-guns are not out there, the animals will be that bit safer.

I turn to handguns, which by and large have no place in civilised society, outside gun clubs. I applaud Bill Aitken's comment that criminals do not worry about the paperwork. We need to keep that thought firmly in mind in any licensing regime.

We also need to be careful not to outlaw everything that may be dangerous. Some of my friends are archers; once upon a time, the bow and arrow was the principal weapon of long-range attack. Should we ban motor racing on the ground that it is plainly dangerous? Come to think of it, we should probably not climb Munros. There is a place for everything and everything in its place.

I turn to the statistics on incidents of handgun use. Principally, such usage happens in our major cities, particularly in the Strathclyde, Lothian and Borders and Tayside police areas. It may surprise some people that not many incidents have happened in the Grampian Police area, and therefore not in Aberdeen. I commend Grampian Police for its approach and I would illuminate the force's approach. Police in Aberdeen have concluded that, although they are fortunate that there are not many guns around, that is unlikely to remain the case. The force notes that the use of handguns is associated in large part with drug supply and by gangs to defend their territory, and has no intention of letting anything like that happen in Aberdeen.

Officers from Grampian Police have visited colleagues in the West Midlands and London to learn from them. According to Detective Superintendent Alan Smith, the plan is

"to create a hostile and unproductive environment for England-based drug dealing syndicates to operate in."

Such an attitude is very commendable and is clearly appropriate for an environment in which guns are not yet available. One must commend the force's efforts and encourage police in other cities to find other approaches to reducing gun crime, which seems to be associated largely with criminal gangs.

I endorse the presumption that guns should not be available, except where there is demonstrable need. I also share the widely expressed view that it does not matter how we tidy up the mess that is Scottish law on this issue. If Westminster wants to do so, that is all well and good—and the sooner, the better, please. I welcome all parties' support in achieving that aim.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour 3:35 pm, 17th January 2008

I rise in support my colleague Pauline McNeill's amendment.

Obviously, the safety of communities throughout Scotland is the most important subject that Parliament can debate. There is little doubt that there is understandable public concern about the unacceptable incidence of gun crime and, in particular, about illegal misuse of air weapons. I do not believe that any member will contest that statement.

Certainly there cannot be any member in the chamber who does not recall the impact on Scottish public opinion of the Dunblane tragedy or the horror of the death of young Andrew Morton, who, one week short of his third birthday, was shot in the head with an air-gun pellet in the east end of Glasgow. Such acts of violence against innocents rightly provoke grief and revulsion across society, but they also provoke the commitment to do everything practicable to combat such criminal excesses.

Unfortunately, as members know, such tragedies are not aberrations. The most up-to-date statistics demonstrate clearly that offences involving firearms continue to be a major problem. For example, the number of offences in which a firearm was fired and killed or caused injury to a person increased by a quarter, from 197 in 2005-06 to 247 in 2006-07. Of the 247 victims who were injured in recorded offences, almost a quarter were aged between 11 and 15, and 30—about 12 per cent—were aged 10 or under.

I truly believe that the previous Labour-led Executive's approach to this worrying issue was correct. Its move to secure stricter laws on air weapons through discussions with the Home Office led to legislation in the UK Parliament. In March 2005, the then Minister for Justice stated that we need to

"work in partnership with the UK Government" because

"Having different systems across the UK could create loopholes that would be exploited by those with criminal intent."—[Official Report, 24 March 2005; c 15676.]

That analysis was correct then and remains so today.

In collaboration with the Home Office, the previous coalition pressed the need for more action and welcomed the enactment of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, which, among other measures, effectively banned the sale of air weapons at car-boot sales, corner shops and outlets not approved by the police. It ended anonymous internet and mail-order sales of air weapons, it increased from 17 to 18 the minimum age for ownership of air weapons and rightly toughened the law on indiscriminate and reckless firing of air weapons from private property.

Those welcome reforms have been progressed in a spirit of co-operation across the various UK Administrations: in that respect. I am genuinely pleased by the terms of the Scottish Government's motion, which recognises that working together is essential if further progress is to be made. I note that Mr MacAskill's motion refers to

"re-energising the United Kingdom debate started in 2004".

The language is slightly hyperbolic, but I have no real difficulty with it. After all, as the motion goes on to say, we all want

"a system that is simpler to understand, administer and enforce and"— as we would all agree—

"places prime importance on public safety."

Given the gravity of the issue, I am encouraged by the fact that we are, as Nigel Don's speech showed, focusing not on constitutional matters but on practical ways and means by which, given the present political dispensation, we can move forward sensibly. I know that my constituents want Parliament to take that approach. They are right to do so.

Public safety—the preservation of life itself—is too profound a matter to become enmeshed in the niceties of constitutional dialogue, as Mr MacAskill recognised when he said in his opening speech:

"we will not be precious or stand on ceremony."

The debate, he said,

"is not about the status of Parliaments or politicians but about the safety of our communities."

That is quite right, and it represents a welcome development from Mr MacAskill's position as an SNP back bencher on 24 March 2005, when he declared:

"this Parliament must legislate on firearms and it must do so forthwith."—[Official Report, 24 March 2005; c 15673.]

We all feel that legislation is necessary, but ministerial responsibility has shown Mr MacAskill the correct way to do things co-operatively.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Pauline McNeill said that anyone who wants an air-gun should be able to demonstrate the purpose for which it is required. Does Bill Butler agree with us that that can only really be done if we have a licensing system for air-guns in Scotland?

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

You are in your final minute, Mr Butler.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour

We should have a system that operates across the UK and which militates against—[ Interruption. ] As Duncan McNeil said from a sedentary position, criminals do not recognise borders.

The cabinet secretary should adopt the approach that is suggested in today's press statement, which would involve inviting the Home Secretary to join the Scottish Government in hosting a summit here in Edinburgh or in London to identify how the law on firearms, including air weapons, can best be reformed. That should be actively considered. I have no problem at all with that proposal. The Scottish Labour Party supports the idea that there should be a review of the measures that are contained in the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. What we and the people of Scotland are looking for are laws that apply across our United Kingdom because, given the present dispensation, only such legislation can deal coherently and resiliently with the danger that is posed by the illegitimate use of firearms.

On that basis, although I am sympathetic to the stated intent of the Government's motion, I ask members to support Labour's amendment, which I believe deals more precisely with what is a profoundly difficult and extremely serious issue.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party 3:42 pm, 17th January 2008

No one can deny that we have a problem with gun crime in Scotland. I will give two examples from the west of Scotland to follow the many cases that have already been mentioned. On 11 October 2007, in an article entitled "Sniper Terror", the Greenock Telegraph reported:

"A sniper is terrorising Inverclyde by taking pot shots at homes and businesses."

The Gun Control Network website, which lists a shocking catalogue of incidents, reported that in May of the same year,

"A pensioner was traumatised after four shots from an airgun were fired through her window as she lay in bed in Paisley."

Those are just two illustrations of gun crime in this country. The brute statistics are staggering.

There is no harm in reiterating some of the information that we have already been given. In 2006-07, compared with the previous year, there was a 25 per cent increase in the number of injuries caused by firearms. The number of people who were injured rose from 197 to 247. A total of 1,245 firearms offences were committed in Scotland in 2006-07, which represents an increase of 17 per cent from the previous year. Even though the figure is at its highest for 10 years, the Scottish Parliament cannot legislate or take action and is denied the right to protect Scotland's citizens from firearms.

Against that background, although I agree with the Conservatives—it pains me to do so, but sometimes I must—that effective enforcement of existing laws is important, I cannot agree that stricter legislation against air-guns would not be effective in reducing crime.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Will the member attempt to deal with the irony—some people might call it an enigma—that in respect of the pools of illegally held firearms and legally held firearms, which seem to exist quite separately, it is almost exclusively the illegally held firearms that are involved in gun crime? That means that if we regulate air-guns, it will simply be the case that we will know where the legally held ones are, but the amount of gun crime that is associated with them will be unaffected.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party

I do not accept the member's point and I will explain why. He was confused about the fundamental difference that exists between air-guns and firearms.

It is often argued that firearms legislation affects only law-abiding citizens and that criminals will always manage to access weapons, whatever the legislation. That argument may have some validity when it is applied to weapons that use gunpowder, but it is unlikely to be valid for air-guns, most of which enter circulation when they are bought in the shops casually, on a whim.

Let us imagine that, disillusioned by the preference of the UK Government to seek conflict rather than co-operation, and by its refusal to legislate or to allow the Scottish Government to do so, I decided to change career and adopt a life of crime. If I then decided to obtain a weapon for criminal purposes, I would certainly opt for one that fired bullets. I would not seek to begin my life of crime with an air pistol, as somebody said in relation to east end gangsters; I would use a rather more dangerous and aggressive weapon. That is why there is a difference in the circulation of the two types of weapon, and why there is a difference in how we need to legislate.

The distinction between air weapons and other firearms is important. Some 58 per cent of the injuries that were caused by firearms in Scotland in the past year were inflicted by missiles that were propelled not by gunpowder but by air. In the past year, 54 per cent of all firearms offences—nearly 700 offences—involved an air weapon. To give an idea of what that represents on a local level, in the first six months of 2007 in Paisley alone, the police were aware of 20 air-gun incidents. That is perhaps not so surprising when one considers that there are an estimated half a million air-guns in circulation in Scotland.

Yet, even on air-guns—which are responsible, I remind members, for most weapons-related offences in Scotland—the Scottish Government cannot act. I applaud the cabinet secretary's decision to try and work with the UK Government and to request that the necessary authority be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. To say that I am deeply disappointed with the reply that was received from the Home Secretary would be to understate my views. Jacqui Smith, in her letter to the cabinet secretary, tells us that she does not support the transfer of firearms authority. She claims that such a move could result only in further complexity and militate against effective enforcement of the wide range of present controls. She says that the absence of border controls could make enforcement difficult and that organised criminals would not be slow to exploit any differences that might develop over time. That is, quite frankly, a rather silly argument. On the basis of her logic, Jacqui Smith could equally argue that the UK Westminster Government is not competent to legislate on firearms laws and that such legislation should, henceforth, become a reserved matter, with only the Parliament of the Republic of Ireland able to legislate on it. How else could the confusion that is predicted by the Home Secretary be avoided?

I shall explain why that ludicrous scenario follows from her argument. The border with the Republic of Ireland is uncontrolled and criminals can move freely between the two legislative areas. Jacqui Smith's logic would dictate that, if the UK does not surrender its right to legislate on firearms, there is a risk that that failure will be taken advantage of by criminal elements. Why should we stop there? Should firearms legislation not become, according to the logic of the UK Labour Government, a European Union competency? Border controls within the EU are limited or absent. Might not criminals take advantage of the different legislative regimes? Might not confusion arise?

The response from the UK Government amounts to playing politics with the safety of Scotland's people. That is shameful. There is no reason, other than the political posturing of Westminster, why Scotland should not legislate on firearms. Does Norway look to its bigger Scandinavian neighbour, Sweden, with whom it shares a lengthy and open border, for its firearms legislation? Do all the nations of Europe attempt to emulate their neighbours' firearms laws?

This is a public safety issue: air-guns are a significant cause of injury in Scotland and they are too widely held and too readily available. Scotland should and must have the legislative power to tackle abuse of air-guns. Therefore, I encourage the political parties that have not yet found the courage for independence and which are still frightened by the thought of running their own country to ask—when they go on their away days to London and are tugging their forelocks and humbly beseeching Westminster for scraps from its table—that firearms legislation, at least, be returned to Scotland, if the UK Government continues to obstruct legislation.

It is ludicrous that, while people still suffer injury in this country through misuse of air-guns, we in the Scottish Parliament cannot pass the legislation that is necessary to end the needless misery.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour 3:48 pm, 17th January 2008

At a stroke, Bill Wilson has managed to destroy the efforts of Kenny MacAskill to develop a constructive argument about dealing with something on the basis of consensus. What we heard from Bill Wilson is what Kenny MacAskill and others really believe and puts Kenny MacAskill's current position into perspective.

Fergus Ewing straight-facedly said that the SNP believes in legislation across the UK. However, as Bill Butler pointed out, Fergus Ewing's colleague Kenny MacAskill said in 2005:

"The Scottish National Party's position is clear: this Parliament must legislate on firearms and it must do so forthwith."

In 2005, there was nothing about asking Westminster for more powers or trying to get consensus across the UK. Ahead of an election, that was the bold Kenny's position: the SNP will act and this Parliament will take action. Fergus Ewing was quite right to say that action needs to be taken across the UK.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I made it quite clear that, as a member of the SNP, I think that this Parliament should legislate. The member is talking about 2005, when I was referring to 2004 and the Home Office review. The fact of the matter is that the problem is probably worse now than it was then, and the actions of the UK Government—which has the powers—have not addressed matters. Does the member, or does he not, support a licensing regime for air weapons? What, precisely, is it that he will insist that Westminster brings in? We have made our position clear. What is Labour's position on air weapons?

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Kenny MacAskill said that he has made his position quite clear—far from it. In 2005, he said:

"this Parliament must legislate ... forthwith."—[Official Report, 24 March 2005; c 15673.]

Today, we hear nothing about legislating forthwith—indeed, Fergus Ewing says that action needs to be taken across the United Kingdom.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

No thank you, Mr Ewing.

We have both inconsistency and bluster—Bill Wilson was right to condemn playing politics with people's safety and to condemn political posturing.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

No thank you, Mr Wilson.

That is what Kenny MacAskill and others have been doing. My view is quite clear. As Pauline McNeill said, I see no valid reason for anyone in this country to have an air-gun. There might be people who might argue that there are sporting or vermin control reasons for having an air-gun. Someone who lives in a city or a town, however, does not have those reasons and has no valid case to make for possessing an air-gun. Like Pauline McNeill, Bill Butler and others, I believe that we should reflect on whether the current legislation is effective and, if it is not, we should make a case for going further. Bill Aitken was quite right to put the issue in the context of the United Kingdom legislation, because if the current legislation is proving to be ineffective and not guaranteeing safety, further action needs to be taken.

It is within those terms of reference that I remain somewhat cynical about what Kenny MacAskill said. If he believes that a summit is the way to advance the argument, why is there no reference whatsoever to the need for such a summit in his motion? His motion is bland in some respects and he has cynically and somewhat cruelly attempted to use emotions in order to make party political—and worse, constitutional—points about a very serious issue.

As Bill Aitken said, if the matter remains with Westminster at the moment, we should be supporting and encouraging initiatives from Westminster, not trying to upstage, pre-empt or undermine its responsibility. Within that context, there is no guarantee that there will be a summit led by Kenny MacAskill because, as Pauline McNeill suggested, he has approached the matter in the wrong way. Indeed, we could have Kenny MacAskill's summit being Kenny MacAskill talking to himself in a mirror. I am told by many that that is his favourite audience, since he will get nothing back that disputes anything that he says.

Yes, action needs to be taken; yes, there needs to be more clarity around the issue; and yes, we need a UK-wide debate for all the valid reasons that have been given in the chamber today. It is a disgrace—to echo Bill Wilson's sentiments—that Kenny MacAskill has attempted to use the fears, emotions and sadness that many people feel because of what has happened in order to—if one listens carefully—advance a very cynical political point of view.

I support Pauline McNeill in what she says—that is the right way forward.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer, the sentiments that Hugh Henry claimed I expressed are not remotely similar to what I actually said.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

That is not a point of order.

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour 3:55 pm, 17th January 2008

I speak in support of Pauline McNeill's amendment. I must admit that, when I listened to the radio this morning, I thought that I had missed the debate. A cabinet secretary in a minority Government would be better placed to wait and hear the views of the parliamentarians in the Parliament before taking any decisions or making statements to the press. I hope that Mr MacAskill will reflect on the points that have been made this afternoon by members throughout the chamber.

Like any law-abiding person, I am gravely concerned about gun crime in our communities. The communities that we represent suffer from the scourge of gun crime too regularly. In 2006-07, air weapons were involved in more than half of all offences involving firearms and, alarmingly, almost a quarter of the victims injured in recorded firearm incidents during that period were under 15 years old. The Strathclyde Police area, which covers my Cumbernauld and Kilsyth constituency, accounts for more than half of all offences in which a firearm is alleged to have been used. Sadly, there have been instances of such crimes in my constituency in the past year.

We all know that the Labour Government's decision to ban handguns in the UK has made a difference. The previous Scottish Executive, working with the UK Home Office, took action to restrict the sale of air-guns and increase the age at which an air-gun can be obtained. That has made a difference. However, like Bill Wilson, who has left the chamber, I looked at the Gun Control Network's website in preparation for today's debate, and I was shocked to see the statistics that it gathers regularly from reports in local newspapers and news media. In October 2007 alone, 16 incidents here in Scotland were reported in the press. I find that quite alarming.

My constituents and the people of Scotland in general would be better protected if the provisions that we have were reviewed. It was always the intention that they would be reviewed with a view to implementing further restrictions on the ownership of air-guns and the sale of BB guns.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Does the member therefore agree that it would be sensible to ensure that, as Pauline McNeill argued earlier, before anyone in Scotland can lawfully own or possess an air-gun, they should have to demonstrate a legitimate purpose?

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour

Pauline McNeill's suggestion about having a presumption against possession is an approach that we should consider, but it is wrong to go into a review having already made decisions. We should consider the available evidence and the circumstances at the time—that is the right way to go into a review. If we are to have the trust of the people who are involved in sport and those who use guns for their legitimate employment, we have to go into a review with open minds.

We can all do more. That is what a review would throw up. I welcome the cabinet secretary's attempt to improve the firearms regime and seek

"a system that is simpler to understand, administer and enforce".

Such a system needs to be introduced UK-wide. It must remain foremost in our minds that we need a comprehensive and co-ordinated approach to gun crime and gun criminals. We will be best served if we introduce such an approach UK-wide. The policy must be consistent across all parts of the United Kingdom.

To be frank, Bill Wilson's example of how things work with gun crime in Ireland was bizarre. If we were to approach the matter in any way other than with a consistent approach across the UK, that would be damaging—I refer to the impediments to cross-border movement. It would be hugely difficult to enforce different regimes, and it would be impossible to prevent organised criminals exploiting any differences. I repeat: provisions must apply across the UK. We must continue to speak with the Home Office and Westminster to pursue a UK-wide solution to a scourge that affects the whole of the UK.

There are a number of families in Scotland who have had to deal with life after tragic gun incidents involving young people. Most of us cannot understand how people can pick themselves up after such incidents. Although, thankfully, we do not have the slaughter of young people that occurs in cities such as Manchester, Nottingham and London, we face the same challenges to find a system that can protect our communities. I urge the Parliament to support Pauline McNeill's amendment.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

We now come to the winding-up speeches. I must ask members to keep rigorously to their time limits. Time is limited for this and the next item of business. Margaret Smith has six minutes.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat 4:01 pm, 17th January 2008

The subject of firearms is highly important for the communities that we represent. I support the Scottish Government's calls for a simple and enforceable firearms regime. However, I am concerned that that does not sit well with some of the SNP's past comments about gun control. A simple system would need to be a harmonious system, and the Scottish Government's previous preoccupation with wresting control of gun regulations from the UK Government would seem to be at odds with that aim.

Those members who have read the Steel commission report—I am sure that all members have—will know that the commission was sceptical about the need to devolve control of firearms to the Scottish Government. However, it suggested that there might be an argument for developing a more formalised role in the on-going discussion of policy in that area.

I welcome much of what the cabinet secretary said. I also welcome Fergus Ewing's comment that the Government would prefer legislation to apply across the UK. In that respect, I am pleased that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. I am also supportive of the Government's call—stunt or otherwise—for a firearms summit. I hope that the Home Secretary will take that up. We believe that the issue must be tackled across the UK, and that the best way—the only way—to do that is by Holyrood and Westminster working together.

As we have heard, there have been a number of pieces of legislation covering firearms and their control: 21 acts and myriad regulations. A case can certainly be made, therefore, for reviewing the legislation and consolidating it—it is certainly confusing. In our 2007 manifesto, we called for a tough licensing system to restrict the availability of air-guns, so we are not at all complacent about the status quo.

Personally, I am inclined towards Pauline McNeill's view that anyone possessing an air-gun should be able to justify it, and that there should, to some extent, be a presumption against possession. UK-wide, gun crime has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, and the rise of gang and gun culture throughout the country is deeply worrying for us all.

At the heart of the issue is the number of illegal guns on our streets. We need to keep them off our streets. We are simply making it too easy for people to acquire firearms. A YouGov survey last year—I do not always agree with YouGov surveys—found that nearly one in five men in the UK knew how to obtain an illegal weapon if they needed one, and one in eight knew someone who already owned or had owned one. As Bill Aitken and others have said, we can license and we can do all sorts of other things, but there is still a need to tackle the issue of illegal guns and organised and serious crime.

Pauline McNeill referred to customs and the foremost role of the UK Government in dealing with gun smuggling into this country. I believe that, at the moment, nine times as many staff are employed to stop cigarette smuggling as there are to stop gun smuggling into the United Kingdom. That should probably be considered as part of any review or summit.

Closer to home, it is estimated that one firearm incident occurs every day in and around Edinburgh. Police are called to nearly five air-gun attacks every week in the Lothian and Borders area. As Bill Wilson told us—or Wild Bill Wilson, as we will have to call him from now on—no constituency in the country is immune. In 2005, in Muirhouse in my constituency, a six-year-old boy required surgery after he was hit in the head by an air-gun pellet. It was only by the grace of God that he survived the attack and retained his sight. Firearms crime is on the increase in Scotland. As we have heard, overall gun crime rose by 17 per cent between 2005-06 and 2006-07.

Our record in government, along with the Labour Party, is of working with the United Kingdom Government on criminal justice and antisocial behaviour legislation and on the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, which is important legislation. As we have heard, it bans the sale of air weapons at any outlet that is not approved by the police; ends anonymous sales, including those over the internet; further increases the age limit for the ownership of an air-gun; and tightens up the law on the indiscriminate and reckless firing of air weapons from private property. Although we appreciate and accept that a case can be made for a review, it is worth remembering that the 2006 act has been in operation for only a short period. The regulations will not have had time to settle in, so now is not necessarily the best time to consider whether, fundamentally, the act has worked. However, I believe that the measures are definitely moves in the right direction.

The on-going dialogue between the Scottish and UK Governments is to be welcomed. We need a dialogue that involves all the relevant stakeholders, which means everybody from the police—particularly those who tackle organised and serious crime—and customs officers, right through to the victims of gun crime and gun campaigners. I am sure that we all salute the work that they have done.

The increase in gun crime does not have a single cause and therefore it cannot have a single solution. We must address the issues at community level, tackle youth disaffection and gang culture and target areas of deprivation. We need to work in schools to get across to kids the message about the importance of the issue and about the real danger of guns. Let us enter into a dialogue and listen to stakeholders and communities, take stock of current legislation and seek to deliver an effective firearms control system throughout the United Kingdom that tackles all the issues.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative 4:07 pm, 17th January 2008

To repeat comments that the majority of members who have spoken in the debate have made, we firmly believe that firearms laws should remain the responsibility of Westminster. Although I acknowledge that the cabinet secretary has made the right noises by putting a letter in the post to the Home Secretary to ask for a cross-border task force, like many members I remain concerned that that is another example of the SNP Government wanting to focus on the constitutional aspects of gun control, rather than on how it can work with the UK Government to tackle what is an important issue.

In last week's debate about serious and organised crime, I questioned the cabinet secretary's attack on the British Transport Police and expressed concern that he was using that issue as part of his anti-British crusade. This week, the SNP Government seems to be using the recognised problem of air-guns in Scotland as another weapon in its anti-British battle. During a debate in 2005 on the control of firearms, the SNP, which was then in opposition, appeared to suggest that the way forward was to have a different system of gun control in Scotland from that in the rest of the UK. However, there is no doubt in my mind that, as Bill Butler explained, having different systems throughout the UK could create loopholes that would be exploited by those with criminal intent.

Scotland has not had the surge in gun crime and gang warfare that has been witnessed in parts of England, where gun crime involving banned and legal guns has doubled since 1997. However, it is important to recognise the challenges that we face in Scotland.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

As a member of the Conservative party, the member will be a great believer in the land of the free market in the United States. Does he think it is such an impediment in America that individual states have their own gun laws? Why does the member think that such a system could not operate in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom when it can operate in the United States of America?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative

The cabinet secretary has confirmed my fears. I say to him that Scotland is not part of a federal United Kingdom but a United Kingdom in which this issue is most effectively controlled by being dealt with at Westminster and not at localised Parliaments.

It is important to acknowledge the challenges in Scotland. We would all welcome the fact that the trend in England has not been repeated in Scotland. However, although we have not seen the same surge in gun crime as south of the border, there is no room for complacency. Firearms casualties in Scotland were up by 25 per cent. In 2006-07, the Scottish police recorded 1,245 offences in which a firearm was alleged to have been used. That was an increase of 17 per cent and the highest number of offences recorded in the past 10 years.

Tragically, since 1998 hundreds of murders, attempted murders and robberies have involved pistols and revolvers. As all members know, the vast majority of such weapons have already been banned. Banning the guns did not prevent the crimes. It would be a mistake to confuse legally held firearms with the illegally held firearms that are all too often used to commit crimes. We all know about the increasing number of concerning incidents involving air-guns. However, the problem is not the legally held weapons. It is the illegally held weapons that we ought to focus on.

As the figures demonstrate, bans and legislation on their own do not prevent tragedies or crimes. That point was made in the very good contribution from Nigel Don. Drink-driving is banned but we still have thousands of drink-driving offences; drugs are outlawed but we still have a growing drugs problem.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative

I would like to make some progress.

Last year, millions of crimes and offences were committed across Scotland, despite their being outlawed.

The cabinet secretary says that current legislation is not fit for purpose. However, legislation alone will not prevent individuals who are intent on breaking the law from doing so. We will also require a robust enforcement regime. The Scottish Conservatives have continuously campaigned for more police officers on Scotland's streets—walking the beat and being a visible deterrent. In our manifesto for the recent elections to this Parliament, we promised 1,500 newly recruited police officers.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour

Will the member take an intervention on that point?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative

I am in my final minute, almost.

We agree with the Scottish Government that we need to retain serving officers and ensure that their time is being used productively. Officers must be freed from needless paperwork. We also agree that we need to help the police forces to work smarter. On top of all that, we would still provide the forces with the additional 1,500 police officers.

I know that the new SNP Government is battling with the legacy inherited from the previous Administration, but how can having only 140 police officers on our streets at any one time possibly win the battle against gun crime? My conclusion is simple: what we need is not so much more law as more police officers on our streets.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I call Paul Martin. It would appear that the time constraints are slightly less than I had thought. I will explain the reasons later.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour 4:13 pm, 17th January 2008

We have heard a number of interesting contributions today. I would not call Bill Wilson "Wild Bill Wilson"; I would call him "Honest Bill Wilson". He has set out the situation, which is that this is about a fight with Westminster. That is unfortunate, and I will elaborate on why we believe that.

On the Labour benches, we are clear that our duty is to do what is right. Like others, I as a parent acknowledge the human tragedy that is attached to today's debate. Bill Butler spoke about a young child who was killed by a callous thug who thought that it was fair game to aim his air-gun at local firefighters who were going about their job and serving their local community. I am sorry to say that such attacks are clearly evident in my constituency, as in many other constituencies throughout Scotland. They have been evident for a number of years. In fact, members might recall that in September 2002 I lodged an amendment to the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill to provide the same sentencing tariff for an attack on a firefighter as for an attack on a police officer. Over the years—we heard about this particularly during the passage of the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill—it has been evident that air-guns are used as a method of terrorising communities and emergency workers, which is unacceptable. I am proud that the Labour Party challenged such antisocial behaviour during the passage of that bill.

The discussion of the possible regulation of air-guns should be considered as unfinished business. We support that and we want to take forward our agenda of attacking this unacceptable antisocial behaviour in our communities. We welcomed the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, which was passed by our colleagues at Westminster and which, in effect, outlaws the sale of air-guns at car-boot sales, corner shops and outlets not regulated by the police. It also bans the sale of air-guns over the internet and through mail order catalogues and raises the legal age for owning an air-gun from 17 to 18, which we welcome.

As Pauline McNeill set out eloquently, we cannot see the case for anybody who resides in an urban setting to say that they require to own an air-gun. I can think of many of my constituents who clearly could not make that case. Pauline McNeill is right that we should tip the balance towards requiring the applicant to make the case for owning an air-gun.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

We agree strongly with the sentiment, which Pauline McNeill expressed and Paul Martin repeated, that those who wish to possess an air-gun should demonstrate why they need to do so. My question to the Labour Party—I ask this not knowing the answer—is how we can achieve that without some system of licensing. Given that we have quite a lot of time, I invite Paul Martin to opine on that at great length.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

This is a serious subject. I will give Fergus Ewing an answer, although the Cabinet Secretary for Justice did not give an answer when he was questioned by others. Cathie Craigie set out the position well. We will consider a review so that we can consider all the issues, on which I am sure that the minister will want to elaborate during the summit that will take place. The cabinet secretary said during his speech that he has an open mind and that he wants to take forward a number of reviews and to hear a wide range of views from throughout Scotland. As Cathie Craigie said, surely we should be willing to listen to all points of view on the matter. We are open to how best we can manage the issue to accommodate those who have a legitimate reason for owning an air-gun. We have reiterated that point on a number of occasions.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

The member has not answered the point that my colleague put to him. If we are simply to require people to say that they need an air-gun for good purposes, who is to be the arbiter? Will it be the shop salesman, which is what happens in some states of America where people can vouch for who they are by showing their driving licence? Surely the only way that we can regulate the ownership of air-guns, so that people have them only for fit, proper and reasonable purposes, such as pest or vermin control, is to have a licensing scheme. If the Labour Party does not think that there should be a licensing scheme, will Paul Martin tell us how it proposes to regulate the ownership of air-guns?

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

The Parliament has a proud record of interrogating all possibilities. The minister does not have an open mind. Given that we have to submit freedom of information requests to get information from the minister, it is a bit rich for him to ask me to respond to him. I will not take any lectures from him about providing information—he should practise what he preaches.

Bill Aitken said that, even with legislative remedies, we will not take air-guns out of circulation. The determined individual will access an air-gun. However, my view is that we should not make it easy for them to do so. The determined housebreaker will be able to break into my home, but I do not want to make it easy for him—I want to make it difficult for him, which is why I have a five-lever lock in my front door and an alarm system in my home. In considering a system to take the issue forward, we should look at how we can make it difficult for possible perpetrators.

As our amendment says, we want to work constructively with our colleagues in Westminster. A sign of a good Government, whatever its make-up, is that it demonstrates that it can work with others. Let me also say that I will not take any lectures about delivering justice and legal remedies from a Government that has yet to deliver one piece of justice legislation to the Parliament—it does not look as if it will deliver any justice and legal remedies this year. We will not hear any proposals from the Government for a criminal justice bill for 18 months and yet it lectures us that, if Westminster does not deliver legislation, it will do so. It is unacceptable to take such a lecture from the Government.

We are confident that we have a case to make that will ensure that our colleagues in Westminster agree that a review is needed. I ask the Parliament to support the amendment in the name of Pauline McNeill.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party 4:21 pm, 17th January 2008

This has been an interesting debate and I am pleased to close for the Scottish Government. I think that there is more consensus than was immediately apparent during the debate.

Let me start by pointing out to members the legal definition of firearm. It is

"a lethal barrelled weapon of any description from which any shot, bullet or other missile can be discharged".

Members should note the word "lethal". We are talking not about harmless objects but about guns that kill people.

I agree with the members who have expressed the view that this is an extremely serious topic and therefore not one for undue levity. We should remember that, as many members have said, we are here to recognise that we can do more to protect individuals and communities against the misuse of firearms. I am sure that Jacqui Smith would agree with that as a general proposition, as would any politician from any democratically elected party, and it would be churlish of me not to accept that. I wanted to set out that general view because it is one with which we can all agree.

Many members—Nigel Don, Bill Wilson and Mike Pringle, to name three from memory—have referred to the statistics about crime in which guns were involved, and it is worth focusing on them. In 2006-07, the Scottish police recorded 1,245 crimes and offences in which a firearm was alleged to have been used, which was an increase of 17 per cent from 2005-06. That is a huge increase and a huge number of offences. In 2006-07, there were 247 crimes and offences in which a firearm was fired and it either killed or caused serious injury. That is not one or two but 247 cases of death or serious injury. One life lost of a child is surely a basis for a Government to take an issue seriously and, if necessary, legislate, but the statistics show a growing problem in which hundreds of people are being killed or injured by lethal weapons. We come to the debate in that context.

With the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, I met some people who have lost a loved one—they are here in the public gallery to listen to the debate. We should think about them and other communities that are or may be affected by such crimes.

Nigel Don said that Grampian has a good record, yet not only are people there not complacent, they are concerned about a growing incidence of gun possession. That is not such a problem in Grampian as it has been in Glasgow, for example, but it is perceived to be growing—I know that from discussions with senior police officers, particularly in relation to the dealing of drugs.

Setting the context is important, because it brings us back to the gravity of the problem and to the justification for the Government's approach. As I have rather more time than I expected, I will set out our approach at more length than I had expected to just a few moments ago.

It is important to say that of course the Scottish Government wants gun control and regulation of the misuse of firearms to be tightened, in so far as the law can do that, throughout the UK. We are Scottish nationalists, but we want the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland to benefit from the best and most effective laws possible. We want communities in England to be protected by more effective laws and we do not want toddlers in England to be shot by air-guns or other firearms, so of course it is preferable to improve the law throughout the UK.

I said that the Government's position is that it is preferable for the issue to be dealt with across the UK, as Hugh Henry said, because that is the ideal approach, but that is not where we find ourselves. It may be useful to members, now that I have a prolonged opportunity to set out the position—

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I thank Mike Pringle for that.

It may be useful to take time to set out where we are at present. Many members approach the topic as if the debate is of recent vintage, but it is not. I have the Home Office consultation paper "Controls on Firearms", which dates back to May 2004, when David Blunkett was the Home Secretary.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I will take an intervention in a minute.

In that paper, David Blunkett helpfully said:

"We want to minimise bureaucracy" and

"we don't want to impose unnecessary burdens ... But the legislation has been amended a number of times, and as a result the framework of controls can be difficult to understand and enforce."

That was the Home Secretary admitting that the law is difficult to understand and to enforce. His saying that the law was defective in that way is a telling admission that the law must be reformed. He admitted that four years ago.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

In a second—we have plenty of time.

The law must be reformed because, for the law to work, people must know what it is. The more complicated a law is, the fewer people can understand it. For example, page 11 of the consultation paper says that it is an offence to trespass with an air-gun and fire one

"within 50 feet of a public road".

I did not know of that offence before I read the paper. To enforce that law, police officers must go round Scotland with a tape measure that is capable of measuring 50ft, because if someone is within 51ft of the road, they will not commit an offence. That is ridiculous, outmoded and antiquated and needs to be changed. It is not me who says that, but David Blunkett. The SNP agrees with him.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

The minister makes a valid point that Labour members have acknowledged—that we need to have a law that is clear and simple. However, if that is his argument, please will he explain to members why his first pitch to the Home Secretary was for all firearms legislation to be dealt with in Scotland? Would that not make firearms legislation more confusing?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

That is an incorrect characterisation of the position. The cabinet secretary has met the Home Secretary, and there have been discussions with Jack Straw. Discussions did not begin in the past week or so—they have gone on for a long time.

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat

As we have some time left, I would be grateful if the minister could tell us how the SNP responded to the consultation in 2004. Perhaps he could read out the SNP's response if he has a copy. Did he respond in detail to the consultation? I am sure that he has plenty of time to speak about that.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Time is on the minister's side, but he should not feel the need to filibuster if he does not want to.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I am not easily offended, Presiding Officer.

I will be serious. There can be very few people in Scotland who have not heard Kenny MacAskill campaigning on firearms issues. The idea that we did not contribute to the debate in 2004 is flawed.

No one can accuse Kenny MacAskill of not being vocal. [Interruption.]

I am getting hints to get to the root of things. The Home Office said in the consultation paper that it was not in favour of licensing air-guns, and it admitted that it had been estimated that there were 7 million air-guns in the UK, although no one really knew how many there were, as they were unlicensed. The statistical chances of misusing those guns are massive and unacceptable but, despite that, the Home Office was opposed to licensing them in 2004.

I come to the kernel of the debate. In her opening speech, Pauline McNeill stated that the Labour Party believes that no one should possess or own an air-gun unless they have a legitimate reason for doing so and a legitimate purpose. Paul Martin confirmed that. I welcome that statement; there is a degree of consensus in that respect. However, it is now incumbent on the Labour Party to say how that desirable aim should be achieved. We believe that licensing is the way to do that. How else can it be determined and decided that somebody has a legitimate purpose for possessing or owning an air-gun? I have many constituents who are gamekeepers. Gamekeepers plainly need firearms to do their work. If they do not have a licence, they cannot be a gamekeeper. I have a long e-mail that relates to people with sporting interests—

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Order. There are too many conversations in the chamber. Members should be here to listen to the debate.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The minister keeps mentioning legitimate reasons for having an air rifle, but the motion refers to

"legitimate occupational and sporting interests".

I have a legitimate interest in having an air rifle, but it is neither an occupational nor a sporting interest. It seems to me that what the minister is saying does not relate to the motion.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

That is not a correct characterisation or interpretation of our motion, but we will have to disagree about that. We are clearly saying that only those who need a gun of some sort for their work or who desire to have a gun to pursue their sporting interests should be allowed to own a gun. Both reasons for having a gun are legitimate, although the first is probably more pressing than the second. We support, for example, what the Scottish Clay Target Association has said. It has recommended that a person should have safety tuition before they get a shotgun certificate. At the moment, a person can have an air-gun or another gun without having had any safety tuition. That does not seem to me to be sensible.

I return to the main issues. The Labour Party has progressed. It says that before a person can own or possess an air-gun, they must demonstrate that they have a purpose for it. Having admitted that, Labour has no defence against the argument that licensing is the only method of ensuring that. The Home Office clearly said in its 2004 consultation paper that it was opposed to licensing. That raises the second core issue of the debate: how do we make progress? The unfortunate position—I say this in reply to Hugh Henry—is that the UK Government in 2004 indicated that there would be a firearms consultative committee between the two Governments. We await the formation of that committee. Were Westminster to say again that that committee would be formed, of course the Scottish Government would serve on it, but it has not. It promised to form the committee, but it has not done so. Nor has it indicated any change from its position in 2004, when it said that it was opposed to the licensing of air-guns.

We have reached the clear situation in which perhaps the majority of members in the chamber agree that no one should have an air-gun unless they need it and can prove that they need it. That is the Labour position. I believe that it might be the Liberal Democrat position, although that is not always easy to determine—I hope that it is the Liberal Democrat position.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

As I think I said in my speech, truncated though it was at that point, our 2007 manifesto position was that we were in favour of a tough licensing regime for air-guns.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

As there is consensus on the issue, the question is how we transform that consensus into action and into law. That brings us to the question that Canon Kenyon Wright posed: what happens when Westminster says no? The SNP says that we should not simply lie down and do nothing—we should legislate to protect our communities. That is our position, which I believe is supported by the vast majority of people in Scotland.

We will continue to try to work with the Home Office. We are planning to hold a summit and have asked the Home Secretary to convene that summit jointly with the cabinet secretary. I very much hope that the Home Secretary will accept that invitation and that we can move forward. The Scottish Government is clear that we need to legislate to protect our communities, and we will do that in so far as we can.