Clause 42 - Possession of air weapon or imitation firearm in public place

Anti-social Behaviour Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:10 am ar 20 Mai 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 9:10, 20 Mai 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 122, in

clause 42, page 33, leave out lines 7 and 8.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Llafur, Normanton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 180, in

clause 42, page 33, line 7, leave out 'a loaded shot gun' and insert

'a shot gun (whether loaded or not)'.

Amendment No. 123, in

clause 42, page 33, line 9, leave out 'other'.

Amendment No. 181, in

clause 42, page 33, line 11, after 'an imitation firearm', insert '(whether converted or not)'.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

We come now to part 6 of the Bill, headed ''Firearms''. If I may, I shall set the scene as an introduction to my amendments to clauses 42 to 44.

The first thing that I want to make clear is that Conservative Members fully recognise that there is a problem with the misuse of air weapons. I do not want anyone to misunderstand our motives or to think that through our amendments we are somehow belittling the problem. I have some press cuttings with me, one of which, from a Teesside newspaper, reports that only a couple of days ago a man was held in what is described as an ''airgun horror''. The article reads:

''Police have arrested a man in connection with an airgun incident that could have cost a young boy an eye.''

Unfortunately, it then spoils it by stating:

''A Bill containing measures to prevent the sale of airguns to anyone under 17 and to prohibit their use in a public place is currently going through Parliament.''

It some ways that article underlines my point that there seems to be immense misunderstanding of existing law and of what is and is not legal where all guns, and air weapons in particular, are concerned.

I have been looking up the figures for air weapon involvement in crime: use of air weapons is increasing, but not as fast as overall gun crime is increasing. The most recent figures show that air weapon use in crime increased by 21 per cent., but non-air weapon use in crime increased by 35 per cent., which demonstrates that air weapons are accounting for a lesser proportion of gun crime than they previously did. It is important to note that 77 per cent. of all air weapon offences involve criminal damage—that is not to belittle criminal damage, but it is not the sort of consequence that most people associate with gun

crime—and that 84 per cent. of all air weapon offences resulted in no injury to anybody. We need to get some perspective on the seriousness of the problem.

Of course the misuse of an air weapon can blind somebody, as the article I quoted shows. There is a chance that air weapons can kill—that has happened in a few cases—but it is a remote chance. Do not forget that by legal definition air weapons cannot have a muzzle velocity of more than 12 ft lb. To put that into context, that is less than 10 per cent. of the muzzle velocity of .22 rimfire rifle, which is the smallest calibre of a proper gunpowder-fired rifle.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned criminal damage and attacks on people, but does he care to comment on attacks on animals? The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has some horrifying statistics on the incidence of attacks on pets and farm animals.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I shall certainly come to that issue. I assure the hon. Lady that I do not intend to omit anything from my analysis of both sides of the argument, but I was planning to address her point later because it is more relevant to the next group of amendments. This group of amendments relates to clause 42, which is headed, ''Possession of air weapon or imitation firearm in public place''.

It is important to recognise what is—or is not—being achieved under current regulations. It is worth recalling that, under section 19 of the Firearms Act 1968, which is the foundation of firearms legislation,

''A person commits an offence if, without lawful authority or reasonable excuse (the proof whereof lies on him) he has with him in a public place a loaded shot gun or loaded air weapon''.

There are no ifs or buts: it is already illegal to have a loaded air weapon in a public place. That ought to be adequate, and I contend that it is adequate. That is the law, and the penalty for breaking it is a fine of up to £1,000.

It is interesting that in the five years to 2001—the most recent year for which we have figures—the number of successful prosecutions fell dramatically. I am not using the figures in a partisan way. In 1996, there were 575 successful prosecutions for carrying a loaded air weapon in a public place; that number fell to 540 in the following year, and although 1998 saw a marginal increase to 589, the numbers fell to 458 in 1999, 383 in 2000 and 360 in 2001. There were more than 200 fewer successful prosecutions in 2001 than in 1996, and more then than in 1997.

The law has not changed, but the incidence of use has increased. We should therefore be looking for some other reason why the number of prosecutions has decreased. We do not necessarily need to change the law, which is what the Government propose to do under clause 42. There seems to be no justification for that, because the law is clear: it is an offence to carry a loaded weapon in a public place.

Young people are the subject of the next clause. Under section 22 of the 1968 Act,

''it is an offence for a person under the age of seventeen to have an air weapon with him in a public place, except an air gun or air rifle

which is so covered with a securely fastened gun cover that it cannot be fired.''

Let us put the two provisions together. No one under 17 can have a loaded air weapon—indeed, no one can—in a public place, but if someone does have an air weapon, it must be in a securely fastened cover from which it cannot be fired. The only people who will be affected by the Government's proposal are those who can manage to fire an unloaded weapon from within a secure gun case. It is as simple as that. There is no real logic in changing the law when it is, rightly, already so tight.

We also need to consider the evidence of whether banning reduces crime. Anyone who has looked at the statistics on gun crime, and practically every Member of Parliament, knows that the proportion of gun crime committed using handguns has rocketed in the past few years, despite the fact that the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997 banned all handguns. It is impossible to draw an analogy between the availability of legally owned guns and their use in gun crime.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Ceidwadwyr, Hertsmere

Is not the point that my hon. Friend is making a good illustration of the fact that legislation is not always the answer to a problem? There can be risks to thinking that it is the complete answer when, in fact, we might take our eye off the ball of other issues that need addressing.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. When I referred to the dramatic decline in the number of successful prosecutions for firing a loaded air weapon in public, I was tempted to extrapolate and say why that might have happened. The obvious factor is the number of police officers available, not notionally in the country's police forces, but actually out on the streets patrolling. That is a serious issue, but you might well call me to order if I went too far down that road, Mr. O'Brien. The evidence shows that the number of successful prosecutions has fallen dramatically, yet the law has not changed during that period. Therefore, to suggest that it is the law that is wrong is a non sequitur.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Llafur, Mitcham and Morden

I wonder what the hon. Gentleman would say to residents of Lower Morden ward in my constituency—especially the residents of Aragon road. They are not known for voting Labour—it is a Conservative-voting local government ward. Their lives are made a misery by young people shooting airguns indiscriminately at their homes and pets. Would the hon. Gentleman like to tell them that banning airguns would not alleviate the situation that they are experiencing?

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am unsure whether the hon. Lady was present when I started my remarks, but I made it absolutely clear—and I hope that she will pay me the courtesy of listening to my reply—that we recognise that there is a serious problem with airguns. The question is whether the proposed changes in the law will resolve that problem.

The hon. Lady used the phrase ''banning airguns'', but that is misleading. The Bill does not ban airguns. As I reported, the Teesside Evening Gazette stated that there is a Bill to ban airguns, but the Bill does not do that. Clause 42 simply deals with the carriage of airguns in public places, and later the Bill deals with age limits. I have made it clear that it is already illegal to carry a loaded air weapon in a public place; it is not illegal to carry one that is not loaded, but someone under 17 must carry such a gun in a securely fastened cover. Therefore, the offences that the hon. Lady describes, which are occurring in many parts of the country, are already illegal. I contend that it is not necessary to change the law to address the problem.

When we come to the part of the Bill that deals with age limits, I will go into greater detail about whether young people are to blame for the problems. At present, we are simply discussing changing the law about the carriage of air weapons in public places. It is already illegal to carry or to fire a loaded air weapon in a public place, or to fire one into a public place. Given that the problems that the hon. Lady describes are already illegal, I suggest that we should be looking for another way to deal with them. Simply changing the law will not deal with them. The law exists; changing it will not necessarily benefit her constituents in the way that she and I want.

All of us who are interested in the shooting sports want an end to the problems because they do a lot of damage to the vast majority of people who use all forms of firearms in sport legally, safely and responsibly. I have tried to encapsulate my overall concern about the necessity of the measures in the light of existing law. Current law on the carriage of air weapons in a public place is strong and adequate. The Government should be directed to consider ways to ensure that the law is enforced, rather than simply changing the law. Changing the law in the way that clause 42 proposes does not change the force of the law, so I cannot see it having the benefit that people want without significant enhancement of enforcement measures.

I have some sympathy for the Minister. All Home Office Ministers suffer because their Secretary of State wants to make a pronouncement every week without thinking through the consequences, and Ministers then have to produce some form of legislation. I recognise his dilemma: he rightly feels that he needs to do something to substantiate the commitments on this issue that the Home Secretary gave in the autumn.

I will not oppose the clause. Although I strongly doubt that it will make a jot of difference, it does not do any harm: it is a piece of Government window dressing. The purpose of my amendments is to draw from the Minister one or two of the implications of his proposals, especially the separation in the clause of ''a loaded shot gun'' and

''an air weapon (whether loaded or not)''.

Carrying a loaded shotgun in a public place is illegal for everybody—

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Of course it is right. No loaded weapon of any kind should be carried in public. Let us put that clearly on the record.

The Government have, rightly, said nothing about shotguns, which are involved in only a minute proportion of crime these days. There has been a dramatic reduction from the days—when some of us were children—when sawn-off shotguns were all the rage in criminal circles. I understand why the Government did not want to go down the road of changing the law on carrying shotguns in public places. Nevertheless, I am concerned that by saying that airguns should not be carried in a public place even if they are unloaded, the Government are drawing a distinction between shotguns and air weapons. Why is an unloaded air weapon dangerous? If people may carry an unloaded shotgun, why may they not carry an unloaded air weapon? That is an illogical conjunction.

Section 19 of the 1968 Act provides for a ''reasonable excuse''. As the law currently stands, if somebody carries a shotgun or air weapon in a public place with a ''reasonable excuse''—for example, they are taking it to a gunsmith or to a place where they can use it legally—that is a perfectly good reason for doing so. I want the Minister to reaffirm that that reasonable excuse remains in law. My understanding of the amendments to the law that the clause makes is that it does. I am, however, unclear about the impact on the carriage of air weapons in public places of the insertion of the provision that people cannot even carry one that is unloaded. There may be some room for dispute about what is legal and what is not if a part of the law refers to

''any air weapon (whether loaded or not)'',

but not to reasonable excuse. If that were the case, it would need some clarification.

There is also the matter of carriage by young people. I shall jump ahead, if you will permit me, Mr. O'Brien. In clause 43 the Government remove the exemption in section 22 of the 1968 Act that allows young people aged 14 to 17 to carry an unloaded air weapon in a securely fastened gun cover. The Minister is aware that there is great concern that the removal of that provision will have a serious impact on young people, especially those involved in competitive and international target shooting—

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Llafur, Normanton

Order. I hope that we are not going to debate clause 43 now. I accept that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make his case, but I do not want to dwell on clause 43 at this stage.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I have no intention of doing so, Mr. O'Brien, not least because I want to return to it. My point about clause 42 is that it is unclear, and therefore worrying, whether the impact of banning the carriage of an air weapon, whether loaded or not, will lead to a subsequent ban on a young person carrying one in a securely fastened cover. The juxtaposition of the two measures in successive clauses is a matter of great concern. I know that the Minister has received representations from Labour Members as well as Conservative Members. The hon. Member for

Reading, West (Mr. Salter) raised the question on Second Reading.

Many young people use air weapons perfectly safely as the entry sport for target and rifle shooting. The weapons are highly sophisticated and quite expensive. Those youngsters will not be able to carry the weapons from their homes or from the gun club to the competition. That problem needs to be dealt with. I am unclear about the juxtaposition of banning the carriage of air weapons in public with the removal of the right of young people to carry the weapons in a secure cover.

Firearms legislation is rapidly becoming a muddle. Rather than constantly amending other legislation, it might be wise for the Government to redraft the provisions that deal with where and when it is legal to carry a weapon in a public place. That, however, is not the question before the Committee. We are dealing with a number of proposals about air weapons. I have made clear my view that they are not necessary, and that they will make no difference to the level of abuse of air weapons. Indeed, it could make harder the legitimate and responsible use of air weapons by target shooters.

Imitation firearms come under the purview of the 1968 Act. I am relieved that the Government have resisted the clamour for more draconian measures on imitation firearms—proposals that they should be banned, that one should have a firearms certificate in order to collect them and a number of other proposals. Those suggestions founder on the question of what is an imitation firearm. Such firearms vary from the non-firing replica of a Smith and Wesson revolver to the child's cap gun or the cigarette lighter that is shaped like a pistol. Another is the antique weapon that has been deactivated.

Although the Firearms Consultative Committee, the Home Affairs Select Committee and many others have made many efforts to define imitation weapons in legislation, it has proved impossible. I concur with the Government's banning their carriage in a public place without reasonable excuse. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that that remains a criterion, so a genuine collector who is taking home a weapon that he has just purchased will have a reasonable excuse.

The Government have probably chosen the right way to deal with a serious problem. We all know that, when used in a crime, an imitation gun is no different to a real one except that it does not kill. It can sometimes result in the death of the person holding it, because the police are tragically not in a position to tell the difference, but it is just as threatening as a real gun to the person being apprehended, as he does not know whether it is genuine. The Government have found the right proposal, and we support it.

I remain concerned about air weapons. I do not believe that the Government's proposal will impact on the number of prosecutions. I fear that it will have undesirable side effects on law-abiding, responsible users of air weapons. I realise that the Government need to do something, and that they want to be seen to be doing something, so I shall not oppose the clause.

However, I hope that the Minister can allay the concerns that I have described. Those concerns are not mine only; they are the concerns of virtually every shooting organisation in the country. They represent the interests not only of today's shooters but of those young people who will want to shoot in future.

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Llafur, Stockton South 9:30, 20 Mai 2003

I oppose the amendments that are considered to be appropriate by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). I also have serious reservations about clause 42.

I know that, at present, carrying a loaded air weapon in a public place is illegal. My concern is that, in my constituency, the majority of the accidents, and one fatality, have occurred in private places. Therefore, it is appropriate at this time to acknowledge not just that air weapons have the potential to be lethal, but that they have been lethal.

One afternoon, Matthew Sheffield, a 14-year-old boy, was playing with an air weapon in a garden with his friends, and by the end of the game he was dead. His four friends were mortified—none of them will live a normal life again. All four of the young men with Matthew Sheffield feel extremely guilty and profoundly unable to cope with the incident. One of them—also 14—was taken to court. It was found that he had committed an act in accident but that it was none the less an act of manslaughter. It is important for the Committee to acknowledge that such incidents have occurred, and could occur again. I have reservations about clause 42, because I believe its controls to be insufficient.

I remind the Minister, with whom I have had many discussions on the issue, that the serious accidents that have occurred must be acknowledged. The Department must not simply say, as the Association of Chief Police Officers does, that there are 4 million such weapons, and that consequently it would be impossible to license them. It is important for the Minister to accept that a licensing regime should operate controls on private as well as public places. The Cleveland police believe that to be an appropriate way forward.

I accept that the problem is a difficult one, but if we do not start somewhere such fatal accidents will continue to occur. Therefore, I ask the Minister to take account of the concerns that I mentioned earlier. A regime which requires legal ownership by a named person and a system of safe-keeping is appropriate. I do not see that that would be problematic for people who enjoy the sport of target shooting. They, too, want controls to be imposed, so that they are not defined as potential culprits. Only through a licensing regime will we achieve some control.

I take the opportunity to say to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire that last week, in my constituency—he will no doubt have seen the report—a young child nearly lost his life when such a gun was used. The gun was fired into a public playing area from—it is believed—a private garden. The boundaries that we are discussing are not easy to define.

My reading of the article in the Teesside Evening Gazette was different from that of the hon. Gentleman: it did not seem to me that the writer believed that the Bill proposed a ban, even if he or she thought that a ban was appropriate. The Teesside Evening Gazette has campaigned on the issue and has supported my determination to persuade the Home Office that the action that I outlined earlier is appropriate.

I could say so much more, but will resist doing so because I have made my point. I have had one fatality of a 14-year-old boy, and one child who had a near miss when he lost his eye—a little higher and it might have been his brain, which would have been another loss of life. In Sunderland, there has been a number of near fatalities. Across the region, there is a catalogue of problems, and it is only humans who are at the end of air weapons. The number of letters that I have received on the dangers to animals and older people is staggering and unacceptable.

The argument has been factually proven that air weapons have lethal potential. They are serious and dangerous. A licensing regime is appropriate, and we should start one knowing that, although it be may difficult for the police to handle, ultimately there should be a statement of responsibility that someone who has bought an air weapon is responsible for its usage in any public or private place, and that there is a regime for its safekeeping. I want to bring those facts to the attention of the Committee and my hon. Friend the Minister, because, without doubt, the clause undermines the Bill.

As a final note, I should say that my concerns about air weapons are well known in my constituency. Last week, when the press announced that I would be making statements in Committee, my office window was shot at. It has bullet-proof glass, but damage was done nevertheless. These people will go to any length to frighten us to try to ensure that we do not change the law. A change in the law is well overdue, and I ask the Minister again to consider the concerns that I have brought to his attention.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I rise to support clause 42, but I shall also address the amendments. My concern is that clause 42 could go a little further.

I have been associated with campaigns on imitations guns and air weapons as a sponsor of two private Member's Bills introduced by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), who is a colleague of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire. I therefore want to be consistent. Although I do not represent an inner-city area, it is interesting that the matter is of huge concern in the Bournemouth-Poole conurbation. In my area, there has been target shooting at trains and cars, which can cause tremendous damage as well as injuries to animals and people.

The issue is important, and I would rather have belt and braces, even if it does duplicate what exists, so that we are seen to be doing something. We are talking about a minority of weapons, and a minority of offences, but the stress and upset that such accidents

cause—they are largely caused by young people who do not think everything through—injures everyone concerned. It is therefore important to take a stance. We should put something in the hands of the police so that they can go out and target the problem. At the moment, everyone is concerned about it, but not enough exists to have a blitz on it.

Amendment No. 180 would replace the words ''a loaded shot gun'' with

''a shot gun (whether loaded or not)''.

That is consistent with legislation. I note comments that that is not the fashion at the moment, but things change. If we cracked down on some of the replicas, we might see an upsurge, but from the way in which clause 42 is written, I am not even sure whether it covers an unloaded sawn-off shotgun.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 9:45, 20 Mai 2003

The hon. Lady will find, if she reads section 5 of the 1968 Act that sawn-off shotguns are totally banned. People cannot carry or possess them.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information, but I would rather have belt and braces, so that everybody is clear about what is being proposed. I do not have a problem with repetition on this important subject.

Amendment No. 180 has been tabled because not to use the phrase ''whether loaded or not'' in subsection (1)(a) appears to be inconsistent with the other paragraphs in that subsection. I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on that.

Amendment No. 181 refers to imitation guns. There have been problems in my local area, but I had my first real awakening about that subject when I went to a Metropolitan police presentation on Operation Trident. I was on a steep learning curve when I listened to that. They even showed a video of them being involved in conflict. They were chasing a group of young men when a gun was produced. There was the possibility that the police would shoot, but it was a replica gun. This is such a serious issue that—if anything—we should go further. I noted earlier comments that it is a difficult subject and that the measure might work, but other countries have done more. I want the Minister to assure us that we are looking at what is happening in places such as the Netherlands.

This is a very important matter. Ideally, production, manufacture, importation and sales on the internet would be addressed. I read the representation from the Mayor of London. He suggested that only a simple, transparent little toy which is clearly a toy should be allowed, and that everything else should be banned. That might be a view at one extreme, but more should be done about imitation guns. The increase in them is incredible. Operation Trident analysis revealed that 70 per cent. of the guns that were recovered were replica weapons. I want there to be more emphasis on those weapons.

Amendment No. 181 is simple. It adds ''whether converted or not''. However, again, I can hear colleagues saying, ''It is unnecessary.'' It opens the whole subject of how easy it is to convert some

weapons. The major importers put a voluntary ban on that, but it is not enough. I want the Minister to say whether we can do more on that in this Bill. Our amendment is a first suggestion. It is intended to flag up the issue and what other countries are doing about it, because this is an international problem. Many other countries have reacted strongly to imitation firearms.

Several hon. Members rose—

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Llafur, Normanton

Order. Before we proceed, the discussion is becoming similar to what we might expect in a clause stand part debate. Because this is a small clause and the amendment is narrowly focused, I am allowing that to go on, but there will be no stand part debate.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

Thank you, Mr. O'Brien, for that clarification. My remarks might be very general, as have been those of other Committee members in this interesting debate.

The issues raised by the amendments relate to clarification of the intentions of the clause and, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) said, to whether it needs to be strengthened. I have brought a dossier with me from the Evening Post in Nottingham. That newspaper also covers the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Erewash (Liz Blackman) and for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell). It has been campaigning, along with many of us, for the law to be improved by tightening and strengthening it.

I have showed the dossier to the Minister, so he knows that it contains examples of fire crews who go out to tackle fires being shot at with pellets. Nobody is going to say anything other than that that is deplorable, but the question for the Committee is whether the clause, and the amendments to it, will help to tackle that problem. The honest answer is that it strengthens the law and sends out a stronger message that that will not be tolerated. However, the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire was right when he said that it is not about banning the weapons; it is about tightening the controls on them. Whether we accept the amendments or not, the issue hangs on whether the police, or those who are responsible, operate proactive policing in enforcing the law when they stop somebody who has an airgun or imitation gun. They have to demonstrate what ''lawful authority'' and ''reasonable excuse'' really mean. It is a difficult but fundamental issue. The police need to protect us by rigorously interpreting that power. Clause 42, for all its good intentions and its toughening of the law, will not achieve what we want unless it is accompanied by that rigorous enforcement and that proactive interpretation.

[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]

There is a new arrestable offence of carrying such a weapon in such circumstances without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, for which the maximum penalty is six months imprisonment. Is that a normal tariff for such an offence? I assume that there is a way of working such things out. Given the fact that enforcement and respect for the law are fundamental to the operability of the clause, is that a

strong enough penalty? We have said that the carrying of firearms will carry a statutory term of imprisonment of five years, so is six months an appropriate sentence? The amendments tabled by the hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole have enabled us to have an important debate.

I shall pass on the dossier from the Evening Post in Nottingham, which details problems not only with guns but with antisocial behaviour. My hon. Friends the Members for Erewash and for Nottingham, East will know many of the problems. The Evening Post has done an outstanding job in highlighting the issues and working with us to change the law. It will be pleased with today's debate about greater controls on air weapons and imitation weapons.

The fundamental issue drawn out by the amendments is whether the strengthening of the law will lead to an improvement for the fire crews mentioned in the dossier, who are being shot at with pellets and ball-bearing guns when they go to tackle fires. Will it make such a difference that they are not fired at in future? That is what we all want. The answer is that it depends on the law being enforced in such a way that people are deterred from doing that because they are frightened of being caught, or because the police are on hand to react in the way we would all want.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

It is, as always, a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who has, as he always does on such issues, made a sensible and balanced speech. He has concentrated on enforcement. I should declare a constituency interest because, as the Minister and some hon. Members are aware, the facilities of the National Rifle Association at Bisley straddle the boundary between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins). Those who were in the House last Thursday, when the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made her announcement about the 2012 Olympic bid, will have heard me say that that causes particular pleasure in my constituency because the only venue used in the 1948 Olympics that will be used again if our bid is successful, as we hope it will be, is Bisley. It must be at Bisley—the only venue that we already know about—because it is the only place in the country where target shooting can take place because of current firearms law. Bisley is partly in my constituency, as is the NRA. An awful lot of shooters have chosen to move to my constituency or surrounding constituencies because they are very keen on shooting.

Shooting is therefore a huge issue in my constituency. We are talking about the legal use of firearms by experts. All those involved with the NRA and the other shooting bodies are very concerned about proper standards. They want to support the work of the police in enforcing the sensible laws that we already have. I strongly support what my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire says and several of the remarks made by the hon.

Member for Gedling because the changes, especially those in the clause, do not make any difference.

The Government, perhaps understandably for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), want to be seen and heard to be doing something. They want headlines like, ''The Government is toughening up the law''. The current Home Secretary in particular is so keen on that message. We have also heard that from the Prime Minister. They are always looking for ''eye-catching initiatives''—the phrase in the infamous memorandum from 10 Downing street that was leaked to the public.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

I will, but first let me say that we all have great sympathy for all MPs who have to deal with the problems of firearms in their constituencies. We do not seek to belittle that. I am sad to hear that people have been shooting at the hon. Lady's constituency office windows. However, I must ask what the police in her area are doing if they know that the hon. Lady is making a big point about shooting and banning air weapons and that her office is a potential target. Why on earth are police officers not patrolling the streets of Stockton near her office to catch the people responsible? I do not want to criticise unfairly any police officer or police force, but the law is very tough.

The Conservatives introduced incredibly tough laws when we were in Government, especially after the atrocity at Dunblane. However, they are not being enforced, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, despite the fact that the problem is getting worse, as the hon. Member for Stockton, South said. We know that the problem is getting worse, but that the number of convictions is going down because there are not enough police officers, and the police officers that we do have are not enforcing the very tough laws that we have. However, it is not a substitute for enforcement to produce laws that can be publicised as if something massive is happening when it is not.

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Llafur, Stockton South

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take my words in the sincere spirit in which they are meant. My police officers do a valiant job, but in the dead of night these people can do whatever they choose to do, and it is impossible for police officers to cover all ground, however many of them there are. I hope that he will also note that I object to his cynicism about eye-catching initiatives and headlines. There are no headlines to be made when one has met a family whose child has died. Instead, one meets with serious distress and a determination that something better should be done. I ask the hon. Gentleman to acknowledge that.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Llafur, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. That was quite a lengthy intervention. I ask hon. Members to refocus on the amendments.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

Of course, Mr. Stevenson, but before I do so, I entirely acknowledge what the hon. Lady is saying. I am not cynical about her or about the passion with which she speaks. I have had a similar experience of talking to distressed families and have received letters from families whose pets have been shot. I

understand the distress that that causes. I do not seek to minimise the problem, but am cynical about whether the Government are entitled to tell the British public that the clause will achieve anything. If the hon. Lady is brutally honest and thinks about what the Government are doing, she will realise that there is no substantive change, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said. That is the problem, and that is why I am cynical.

The law is already incredibly tough, but is not being enforced. It would be one thing if the Government said that they were going to instruct chief constables to enforce the law and that each chief constable had a ring-fenced budget, and a certain number of officers had to be dedicated to going out and enforcing the current law. In that case, the Government would be able to say that they were taking action. However, producing a clause that improves the law only to the extent that makes it an offence to fire a weapon inside a sealed gun case will not achieve anything.

There are two very important points to be made. First, the issue is enforcement, or lack of it, as the hon. Member for Gedling has said. Unless the law is enforced, whatever this clause does or does not do, it will not have any effect. Secondly, we need to be aware that there is a responsible shooting community that supports the current law and its enforcement. If we are going to deal with those who are irresponsible, it is a matter only of enforcement, not of eye-catching initiatives.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes 10:00, 20 Mai 2003

I rise to echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South, who spoke very wisely. She mentioned some dreadful news stories and the loss of life that has occurred in her constituency. In my constituency, there are similar stories. We are not talking about isolated incidents—they are all too prevalent up and down the country, in urban and rural areas. The area that I represent is a combination of both urban and rural areas, and people in small villages are as concerned about the misuse of air weapons and imitation firearms as everyone else.

My local newspaper, the Grimsby Telegraph, ran a story on 30 April about a weapons arsenal that was handed in during a guns amnesty. The comments of the police officers involved were particularly telling. They said that they hoped that the amnesty would help to combat air rifle misuse—a serious problem in north-east Lincolnshire. The police said:

''We are particularly focused on targeting the nuisance factor caused by air weapons. This is an area of particular risk.''

We must bear that in mind during the debate. Much of our debate has focused on crimes, but we are discussing the Anti-social Behaviour Bill; we must focus on the nuisance factor caused by weapons as well on as the tragedies.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

First, let me make it clear that there is nothing to divide us on the problems. They exist. The issue is what is to be done about them. She is right to say that we are discussing the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, but could she go through every one of the incidents that have been referred to and say whether

any of them is not already illegal under existing legislation? The point is that the law is already adequate; it is enforcement that matters. She will find that the actions referred to are illegal anyway.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes

Not being a legal expert, I will not attempt to interpret the law. That is better left to those who are better briefed. I am attempting to demonstrate the serious problem that we face. After listening to the Opposition speeches, I do not see how the deletion of parts of clause 42 would address the serious problems in my constituency.

By chance, another news story echoes the story that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South mentioned. The incident happened a couple of weeks ago, in my constituency. The headline was, ''Air rifle girl could have been blinded''. A 12-year-old travelling in an open-top car with her mother was shot at, probably from private property, as they were travelling along a road in the direction of Waltham in my constituency. She was hit by the pellet, which grazed her forehead and she bled quite a bit. Obviously, the injury was not fatal, but that brought home to me that misuse of air weapons is particularly serious. There was another case last year in my constituency, in the Humberside police area. For certain reasons, I will not name the person concerned. A woman died after being shot with an air pistol. A life was lost and others were ruined because of the nature of the problem that we are dealing with.

Doctors in St. James's university hospital in Leeds say that the problem is serious. They are treating a large number of patients with airgun injuries, half of whom are under 18. Some of the children injured are as young as four. Let us not underestimate what we are dealing with. Perhaps I am getting a little emotional about the issue, but—and I have declared this as an interest—a while back I was shot with an air weapon. The shot was from a private place into a public place. I probably am getting emotional about the subject, because I understand what my constituents are going through. [Interruption.] I hear Opposition Members say that air weapons are still illegal; I repeat that I do not understand how their amendments to clause 42 will make the situation better. I simply do not believe that they will.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

How does the hon. Lady think that clause 42 as it stands will make the situation better, when the current incredibly tough law is not enforced? Clause 42 does not do anything.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes

As I said—and I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South—we could perhaps do a little more. With our police forces, we have to deal with the issue of enforcement. As I have said in relation to antisocial behaviour orders, we must ask whether the issue is a priority and whether the police are willing to deal with those issues. From the quotes that appeared in the Grimsby Telegraph, it is clear that Humberside police and A division, which covers Grimsby and Cleethorpes, believe that air weapons are a serious issue. They believe that the nuisance caused by misuse of air weapons has to be addressed, and they are enforcing the law.

I am curious to hear the Minister's comments on the clause and the amendments. We all have to be clear that we have to deal with the issue, and I have no hesitation in saying that we should get tough. I am not saying that to grab a headline or because of some sort of initiative. I am saying it because too many of my constituents have been injured, some people have died, and I have been a target myself. We should toughen up.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

As most hon. Members have already gone over what I wanted to say, I shall be brief—but not that brief.

I have an urban constituency and I cannot understand either why anyone would want air weapons, or what pleasure they derive from them. However, I understand that there are people who use these weapons legitimately and who enjoy target shooting and so forth. I have to say that I am concerned about what such weapons look like and about their level of sophistication. I used to think that an air gun was a relatively unsophisticated bit of equipment, but I have seen adverts for some incredible things that look as if they come out of ''Rambo''. Perhaps we should give attention to their availability.

I understand the views on both sides of the argument. I am not entirely sure that our amendments will advance the case, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) said, the clause does very little. If there were a headline that said the Government are getting tough on airguns, that would send a message to a few people that they had better watch out, which would be great. However, I do not think that legislation is the way to do things if the provisions already exist. All the incidents about which we have talked are illegal, with the possible exception of accidents at home, which are not dealt with by Bill. Perhaps Government Members—maybe even all hon. Members—might consider tabling an amendment on Report to take things further. It is one thing to talk, but hon. Members should, if they feel strongly enough about it, table an amendment to toughen up the Bill.

I am concerned that some of my constituents will not see any change. I suppose that most hon. Members have constituents whose lives are being made miserable or worse by the illegal use of such weapons. The Minister is a powerful speaker; I always listen intently to him. If he can persuade me, I am ready to be persuaded. Indeed, I want to be persuaded, because I want something to work. It is about time something was done. The trouble is that it is difficult to legislate to give people a responsible attitude. That is true of the whole Bill. It is difficult for parents to be responsible for their children. It is also difficult for legislation to stop young tearaways doing terrible things that they think are great fun, but that cause untold misery to other people.

Unfortunately, I see too much of one thing: handguns. They are illegal and people should not have them. Going a few miles down the road from Uxbridge into Brent is horrific. If people outside those areas knew what was going on with gun crime, they

would be appalled. I am sure that that is true of lots of inner-city areas throughout the country. People see a little bit about that on television; they may hear something about it every day. Gun crime, however, is illegal—the guns are banned. We face the problem of trying to legislate to stop something that is already illegal. It is, of course, right that there should be something about responsibility—parents should not let children, even 14-year-olds, play with guns. Then again, I do not know whether that can be legislated against.

Perhaps the issue should be considered differently, but I have now exceeded my brief to be brief, so I shall sit down.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

I shall try to be brief. I was not inclined to speak, but because there will be no clause stand part debate I shall quickly make my point.

None of the amendments work in themselves—that was not their point. They have, however, resulted in a general debate. I have a lot of sympathy with virtually everyone who has spoken. I suspect that the one really important part of the new clause is the adding of the words ''an imitation firearm''. That is a clear step forward, but very little of the rest of it takes us forward at all. Expectations about what the clause will deliver might be too high, but I am happy about banning the carrying of imitation firearms. That is a step forward, although a modest one about which we should not get too excited.

I am pleased to see that some steps are being taken in respect of the carrying of all sorts of firearms in public places. I have a different view about private land, which we shall discuss under the next clause. I am at one with the Government in trying to introduce tighter legislation on the carrying and use of weapons in public, which is where the problem of antisocial behaviour lies—that is, after all, what we are tackling. However, we shall soon part company when we come to discuss private land.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 10:15, 20 Mai 2003

I have been a Member of Parliament for nearly 11 years now. For a large part of that time I was a Whip and had to sit silently through a number of debates. However, I have rarely been as frustrated as I have been in this debate.

Some important issues are being raised, but misrepresentation and ignorance have been thrown into what has been said as well. The general demand from many parts of the Committee—possibly all parts—is to go much further. I understand that and do not deny that we are discussing a serious problem that must be dealt with. However, that frustration over how we should go further is reinforced—this is a little surprising—by the claim of the Conservative Front-Bench team that what we are proposing does absolutely nothing. The hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire and for Surrey Heath suggest that we are not making any changes whatever. They imply that we woke up one morning and thought that we would grab a headline, and that that is what we are doing now.

Let me put what we are doing in context. The Home Secretary has already said that we need a far wider review of the firearms regulations. That needs to encompass the make-up of the Firearms Consultative Committee. Issues to do with complications have come out clearly in the debate this morning. However, if we are to make changes and simplify things—we are not talking about airguns only, but the whole of firearms legislation—we need good thought and good advice to ensure that we legislate not from a position of ignorance but from a position of fact. We must introduce a legislative framework that is more understandable not only to members of the public but to the police who must enforce that legislation. I ask hon. Members to accept that achieving that is not a simple undertaking, but a major task with many aspects. The Home Secretary is committed to achieving that goal. Questions about how much further we need to go so that we can deal with gun crime, airgun abuse and imitation weapons must be thought of in the context of that wider review.

In the meantime, are we trying to achieve anything? Does the clause do anything? The Conservative Front-Bench team seeks to reinforce the line that the clause does nothing at all and that we woke up one morning and decided to pretend to do something. We did not do that at all. I have personally been involved with the matter since this time last year. A considerable number of questions have been raised and answered in Parliament and delegations have been met. We consulted the Association of Chief Police Officers on what the police wanted. There are police officers who believe that we should do this, that and the other—any two police officers will hold differing views on a range of subjects. The FCC has also made recommendations concerning the clause. I have met the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Gun Trade Association, as well as delegations of Members of Parliament who have problems of the type that both my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South and newspapers the length and breadth of the country have highlighted over the past year.

Everyone says that this is an important issue, which is true to an extent, but my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling said clearly that we must give the police a tool that they can use ahead of the more general review of firearms legislation. That is what we are seeking to do with the clause and what I, ACPO and the FCC think that we are achieving.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire slipped the word ''loaded'' into the conversation as if we did not notice it. He said that it is already illegal to carry a loaded air weapon. If we expect the police to enforce the provisions in the way that we need to, it is no good saying that they should have a permanent guard outside MPs' offices. That is the nonsense we have heard from the other side. We must give them a useable tool.

Let me describe the current situation. If a police constable seeks to deal with the misuse of air weapons, what does he have to do? The scenario I have used on a number of occasions with people I have met is that if people are shooting birds on a canal towpath, the constable must be prepared to spend his time walking

along the canal towpath in the hope that he can do one of two things: catch someone discharging the weapon or catch them with the weapon loaded. If he does neither of those things, there is nothing that he can do.

So why does the constable bother to go along the towpath when he stands very little chance of catching the miscreants in the clear misuse that I would hope every member of the Committee wants to see him stop? We are trying to give him the ability to challenge the person who has already discharged the weapon—who does not have the weapon loaded at the time—and to ask, ''What are you doing with that weapon?'' and, if they do not have a good reason for having it in that place at that time, if necessary to arrest them and to confiscate the weapon. We are trying to do exactly what hon. Members want us to do: give the police a tool to make them able to enforce the legislation. Then we must hope that they will enforce it.

We are not doing nothing. To recognise that there is a problem, to allege that we are doing nothing and then to put nothing forward is an extraordinary position for the main Opposition party to take. The legislation will make a difference. The police want the provision. They do not want a registration system for reasons that I know my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South has problems with. A registration system would be very bureaucratic. I am sure that many members of the police force do not understand that and recognise the problem in their communities and want us to do the things that my hon. Friend advocates. That is true in Coventry, Stockton and other parts of the country.

However, the thought-out position of the police is, ''Please, do not impose this on us. We have other things that we need to do. We do not need to be policing a bureaucratic registration system. Give us a weapon that we can actually use: give us this clause so that we can confiscate these weapons without having to catch people in the act of discharging them or with them loaded with a barrelful at the time''. I wanted to put that in context and tell my hon. Friends and other members of the Committee that we have properly consulted on provisions that we think will make a difference, but we may need to look at some of the wider issues.

I turn to lower-level misuse, which is a huge problem, with animals, wildlife and so on. Over the past year or so, we have tried to encourage more organisations to become involved with the Firearms Consultative Committee, and I am surprised that more are not coming forward and doing so. I am a keen ornithologist, and I do not know why the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has not been prepared to become involved with it. I am grateful for the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, which represents some little organisations in the general pursuit of animal welfare.

Perhaps we need to change the qualifications that are required to sit on the Firearms Consultative Committee in order to make it easier for those organisations to become involved. They have a responsibility to become involved in the detail of legislation in a forum that is there to advise us on firearms legislation, and not just jump ahead and make

proposals when the Bill is in Committee. If they were to get involved in that more detailed, longer-term work, that would give us a better framework of legislation—not a more tight or less tight framework, but one that works and assists the police.

I hope that those general comments put what we are doing here in context. Perhaps it is an interim measure. We need a thought-out wider review further down the line that is not a reaction to problems that we know exist in our constituencies. We are doing something that will give the police a real, useable tool.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

My hon. Friend is giving an excellent response to the debate. The clause extends powers to the police relating to imitation and unlawful air weapons. That would be an effective measure. Where powers are extended in the Bill, how can we ensure that ordinary police officers on the beat know that they have those powers? People often do not know what powers are available to them when dealing with air weapons, unruly kids or whatever—not only police officers but councils and so on. What can we do to ensure that they know that they have those new powers, in order to do something about those problems that have been experienced?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

That issue has been raised in other debates—the balance that Government, Members of Parliament, local government and the rest need to find in ensuring that the laws that we pass are enforced. There is a particular problem relating to firearms regulations. They are enormously complicated. People can buy items at a particular age, own them at another and handle them at yet another. It is not easy for every police constable the length and breadth of the country to be fully aware of all the different powers that they possess in that area. That is one of the issues that we should address in the wider review of firearms legislation. Not only does it have to be enforceable and lead to improvements in the law, but it must be far more understandable if we are to be able legitimately to put pressure on the police to do the job that the law enables them to do. We cannot do that if we give them over-complex pieces of legislation.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

I have let the Minister respond to his hon. Friend the Member for Gedling, but I would like to intervene on him regarding a point that he made earlier. I hope that he will correct his suggestion that I was advocating a permanent guard outside the office of the hon. Member for Stockton, South. I did not say ''permanently''. I said that the hon. Lady has a reputation for speaking out—perfectly properly—against the misuse of airguns, and where she has just done so the local police in her area might expect a revenge attack. That would have been a good night for them to be patrolling the streets of Stockton, to try to catch those who misuse the weapons.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman says that there is absolutely no need for any change here whatsoever. ''You are not making a change; you are pretending to do so. It is all about police numbers.'' We cannot go down that road. We would go far wide of the debate. We know the record of the previous Government. We know our record on police

numbers. Of course there are issues of enforcement, but giving people appropriate tools is exactly what we are trying to do.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:30, 20 Mai 2003

I echo the hon. Member for Gedling's comments about the sincerity of the Minister's response. I am sorry if I was the cause of frustration. Can he explain why there has been such a dramatic reduction in the successful prosecution rate for carrying a loaded air weapon? He confirmed that it is currently illegal to carry a loaded air weapon in public. Why is he making it illegal to carry any air weapon in public without reasonable excuse, but in the subsequent clause making it especially illegal for young people, bearing in mind that the law already requires the weapon to be in a secure case?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I do not know whether to deal with that on this clause. Detection rates are not what they ought to be across the whole range of crime. We all know that. Part of the problem is that if we do not give a constable a useable weapon he will not enforce the law. At present it is extremely difficult for the police. They must catch the person in the act of discharging the weapon or with a loaded weapon to be able to take any action. Many young people in our communities know their rights in detail. They will challenge police officers and know how to walk right up to the line but not beyond it.

We have not yet provided the police with a useable tool. That is the aim of clause 42. It will enable the police to challenge an individual who is carrying a weapon in a public place, to confiscate the weapon and to arrest them if necessary. It will allow the person to go on their legal way, if they can convince a constable in the first instance, and a court in the final analysis if the constable gets it wrong, that they had good reason for carrying that weapon in that place. We want to clamp down on the misuse.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's explanation of the clause. I am now even more convinced that the Opposition's amendments will not assist the police, so I shall support the clause unamended.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank my hon. Friend. I have one or two general points to make before coming on to the amendments. I am sorry about how long this is taking. It is part of something that we need to deal with. It is repeatedly said by certain sections of the gun lobby, not the more responsible sections, that as handgun crime has massively increased since the ban on handguns it was all a complete waste of time and we should not legislate in this area. I answer letters arguing that all the time. The handgun ban was never meant to deal with illegal handguns. It was introduced because the massacre at Dunblane and the previous massacre at Hungerford were committed with legally held weapons. Those were the kinds of incident that it was trying to make less possible. They can never be prevented entirely.

It is quite cynical to argue that the increase in handgun crime shows that the handgun ban was a complete waste of time. Everyone knows that the handgun ban's raison d'être was not to combat gun

crime, but to stop people with legally held weapons committing atrocities. It is a difficult area to deal with. We do not wish unreasonably to clamp down on people who are involved in gun sports or who are using weapons in a reasonable way. However, we need to take the necessary steps to enable the police to take action against the unreasonable use of weapons of all descriptions.

On the face of it, amendments Nos. 122 and 123 are not unreasonable. They could be said to simplify what we are trying to achieve. They would make it an offence to have any sort of firearm, whether loaded or not, in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, if the person has with them ammunition suitable for use in that firearm. In the case of the Liberal Democrats' amendment No. 180, the possession of an unloaded shotgun would not be conditional on having suitable ammunition available.

So what is wrong with the amendments? First, we should remind ourselves that what we are trying to deal with in this clause is the misuse of air weapons and imitation firearms. We are not attempting to add restrictions in relation to shotguns, which is what the first three amendments would do. We should remember that anyone who has a shotgun is required to obtain a certificate from the police, who will not grant one if they are satisfied that the applicant does not have a good reason, or would be a danger to public safety or to the peace. Anybody who subsequently uses their shotgun in a dangerous manner is liable to have their certificate revoked.

If there are concerns in relation to shotguns, hon. Members will be aware that we are undertaking a comprehensive review of firearms controls, and I suggest that those concerns will be best addressed by that comprehensive examination. My mail concerns the increase in gun crime and the increase in the nuisance of airguns, but not the misuse of shotguns. As the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, sawn-off shotguns are lethal weapons and are banned. That should not come into the debate.

Secondly, the first two amendments would mean that somebody could carry an air weapon without any justification whatsoever, provided he did not have any pellets with him at the time. While that might address any problems caused by the malicious discharge of air weapons, it does nothing to address the nuisance where the intention is to use the gun to intimidate in the same way as with an imitation firearm. A police officer would not have to catch suspects with a loaded weapon, or firing the weapon, but he would have to catch them with the pellets. That would deprive police of the useful tool that we are trying the give them in clause 42.

Amendment No. 181 would make it an offence to have an imitation firearm without reasonable excuse in a public place, whether it has been converted or not. I understand the concerns that lie behind that amendment—much work is being done with manufacturers to ensure that certain types of blank-firing imitation firearms cannot be converted—but it is wholly unnecessary. Imitation firearms that are readily convertible into a real firearm are already dealt with by section 1 of the Firearms Act 1982. Anyone converting

an imitation pistol would effectively be in possession of a prohibited weapon. That is a much more serious offence, and, under our proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill, someone in illegal possession of a prohibited firearm would be liable to a minimum sentence of five years in prison. I ask hon. Members to accept that clause 42 provides the police with a useful tool, and I ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank the Minister for his response. There is no doubt that he has clarified why the Government believe the clause to be a step forward. I repeat what I said about imitation weapons. I wholly support what the Government are doing. They are doing the right thing, so we obviously do not want the clause to be destroyed.

I was brought up using various firearms from airguns upwards from a very early age. I am one of countless thousands of my fellow citizens of this country who shoot and have done so responsibly and safely. Like them, I deplore and wholly condemn anyone who uses an air weapon or any other sort of weapon irresponsibly or unsafely.

Members of the Committee have given examples of weapons used to injure animals or people and even, in the worst cases, to kill. We do not dispute that such incidents are despicable and need to be resolved. They are wrong and, equally serious, bring the shooting fraternity into disrepute. I entirely condemn any such use of guns, as I know every responsible gun owner does, whether they are used against people, property or wildlife.

Handguns are not directly relevant to the clause, but the Minister rightly referred to them. They are, of course, a banned weapon, and I wholly support the new clause that will be debated on the Floor of the House this afternoon to increase the penalties for possession of banned weapons. That is a welcome step.

The clause, however, relates to air weapons, as does the next clause. I believe that plenty of offences are already available to the police. I understand what the Minister is saying, although I do not entirely understand the logic of having a clause to change the age limits and to remove the ability of a person under 17 to carry an unloaded air weapon in a secure container, while making it illegal for anyone to carry any unloaded weapon.

I agree with the Minister that the police need to be given the right weapons—his word—to deal with the problems, but he did not answer my question about why we have seen such a dramatic reduction in the number of successful prosecutions. The police already have that weapon, which, five years ago, was much more successful than it is today. The Minister needs to reflect on the reasons for that significant downward trend in successful prosecutions.

When we come to the next clause, I shall talk about a range of different offences that exist for the misuse of air weapons. I am aware that what the Government propose has the support, or at least the acquiescence, depending on whom one talks to, of virtually every shooting organisation and the police, as the Minister says. I am not speaking against the clause. My amendments, as he rightly said, are intended to be a

tidying-up exercise. Despite what the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) said, they do not reduce the power of the clause, which the Minister accepted.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I was just about to mention that. The Minister said that the juxtaposition of the firearm with ammunition in subsection (1)(c) was important. That was a new one on me. He explained the point for me, and I am grateful to him. On that basis, I understand why he opposes the amendments. I certainly share his view that there is no need to change the law on shotguns.

As the hon. Member for Gedling said, the amendment was purely exploratory. It enabled us to have the debate that we have had, and to try to understand the thinking behind the clause. It was never my intention to press the amendment, as I declared at the beginning. I hope that the Minister is right that he is giving the police an extra weapon to use in the fight against the misuse of airguns. Time will tell. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.