Clause 43 - Air weapons: age limits

Anti-social Behaviour Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:45 am ar 20 Mai 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:45, 20 Mai 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 124, in

clause 43, page 33, line 27, leave out paragraph (a).

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 249, in

clause 43, page 33, line 30, at end insert—

'(3A) In section 23(2) add

( ) he is using the weapon or ammunition on private property with the consent of the occupier in an activity which would be lawful other than by virtue of his age.'.

Amendment No. 250, in

clause 43, page 33, line 30, at end insert—

'(3A) In section 23(2)(b) after 'gallery', insert 'or on private property'.

Amendment No. 254, in

clause 43, page 33, line 30, at end insert—

'(3A) In section 23(2) add—

''(c) he is using the weapon on private premises or property with lawful authority but where a person has with him an air weapon on any premises or property in circumstances where he would be prohibited from having it with him but for this subsection it is an offence for him to use it for firing any missile beyond those premises or property.''.'.

p1Amendment No. 126, in

clause 43, page 33, leave out lines 31 to 34.

Amendment No. 127, in

clause 43, page 33, leave out lines 36 and 37.

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

This, as I said several times during the opening debates on part 6, is the clause that deals with the legal age at which somebody can use an air weapon without supervision from the moment when it is bought. At the moment someone must be over 14 to do so, and the Government want to raise the lower limit to 17. The amendments in the group fit into two categories. The aim of the first set is to retain the status quo at the age of 14. The second set, which I shall come to, are an attempt to find a way round the problem that the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) referred to—use on private land—which is the issue that causes the most concern.

I should like to spend a few moments reviewing current legislation on age restrictions, because there is a great deal of misunderstanding. I should have replied earlier to the hon. Member for Stockton, South. When I referred to the Teesside Evening Gazette having said that there was a Bill to ban air weapons, I was quoting from its website. If one is under 14, the law as I understand it says that one can use an air weapon only under the supervision of somebody who is over 21, or at a shooting club or gallery. One cannot buy or be given an air weapon, and it would be an offence for one to have an air weapon on anywhere at all on one's person. We have no dispute with that and the clause would not change it.

However, 14 to 17-year-olds can use an air weapon without supervision. They can be given one, although they cannot buy it, and they cannot have one in a public place unless it is, according to section 22(5) of the Firearms Act 1968:

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

I return to the concerns that I expressed earlier. By altering the age limit, the Minister is removing the opportunity for young people who are legitimately taking an air weapon from their home to a gun club or a shooting competition to move their weapons about. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) has raised the matter because of her involvement with the international sporting fraternity through the Olympic movement.

It is clearly an offence to fire an air weapon in a public place. One of the exceptions to an age bracket quoted in the Firearms Act 1968 is somebody who fires any missile beyond specified premises. To do so is an offence for that person and for the person under whose supervision he is acting.

A huge panoply of legislation exists to prevent abuse. In the context of handguns legislation, the Minister said a few moments ago that one cannot guarantee that nothing will go wrong. However, criminal damage is an offence punishable by a maximum of 10 years' imprisonment or a fine of £5,000. A person under the age of 14 in possession of an air weapon or ammunition would face a fine of £1,000, as would a person under the age of 17 having

an air weapon in a public place and an adult supervisor of a person under the age of 14 making improper use of an air gun.

Another interesting offence, bearing in mind what Labour Back Benchers said, is that of discharging a firearm within 50 ft of the centre of a highway and causing injury, interruption or danger; that would attract a fine of £1,000, as would causing damage in such circumstances. Ill treating or causing unnecessary suffering to any animal, or killing an injuring any wild animal under schedule 5 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, would result in fines of as much as £5,000 or six months' imprisonment. A range of provisions is available to deal with the abuse of air weapons.

I recognise that the situations to which hon. Members referred are caused in part by young people—I readily accept that it happens—but it is not caused entirely by them, otherwise there would be no need for clause 42, which changes the law only for those aged over 17. There is clearly a problem in respect of young people; the question is what to do about it. We therefore need to consider whether simply raising the age at which they can use such weapons without supervision will reduce or eliminate such abuse, bearing in mind the existing constraints on their use.

I believe that the law already deals adequately with such misuse, and we should not assume that everyone between the ages of 14 and 17 is more likely to misuse an air weapon than those who are over 17. Clause 42 clearly deals with the carriage of firearms in public places, and the prosecution rates are clear evidence that the problem does not lie with the law.

Let us consider the impact that the change in the age restriction would have on those young people who use air weapons. First, it would affect the carrying of weapons to and from sporting events. Secondly, as I said earlier and as the Minister recognises, air weapons are the entry-level weapon for people who take the activity of shooting seriously. Target shooting can lead to international or even Olympic competition. Many people never go beyond air weapons, but continue to be proficient in target shooting with air rifles for the rest of their lives, whereas others progress to conventional firearms.

Photo of Laura Moffatt Laura Moffatt Llafur, Crawley

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that air weapons are often the entry-level weapon for those who choose to abuse them?

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

I am not aware of any evidence to that effect. I readily accept that some people abuse air weapons—of course they do—but as we discussed earlier, we have to decide what is the best way to deal with that. I am not convinced, and nor are the reputable shooting organisations, that raising the age limit to 17 will achieve our goal. My amendment is designed to deal with impact of the provision on young people—a problem that the Minister rightly seeks to address.

The third category is those people, mainly in the countryside, who use air weapons to control pests—rats, rabbits and the like. An air weapon is the entry-level weapon for learning about field craft, gun safety

and so on. For many young people who are training to be gamekeepers or general countryside managers, it is the only weapon that they can legally use for pest control at their age. However, under the proposals in clause 43, no one under the age of 17 will be allowed to carry and use any weapon—any type of firearm—without supervision. That will seriously jeopardise many young people who are learning the skills of their profession or trade.

As I have said, three of the amendments are directly aimed at returning us to the current position. Ideally, one would contend that the present age structure in the law is perfectly correct and it is not necessary to change it, but I recognise that the Government believe that there is a need to change the age limit. However, I strongly contend—I stand to be corrected, but I think that the hon. Member for Ludlow alluded to this point—that there are probably hundreds of thousands of young people, and certainly tens of thousands, who, as I did, use air weapons perfectly safely and responsibly on private land, which may or may not be farmland, and cause no problem to anyone else. Of course, if they shoot something that they should not shoot, they are guilty of one of the wildlife offences, but it is only right and proper that young people should be able to continue the activity that I have described.

The hon. Members for Cleethorpes and for Stockton, South referred, under an earlier amendment, to people firing from private property on to public property. I recognise that that issue needs to be addressed. Clearly, someone should not be immune from prosecution if they sit at their bedroom window and shoot at someone on a recreation ground. Logically, no one would argue that that should be legitimate. As I have said, there is an issue. That is why, in the course of proceedings on the Bill, I have tabled quite a lot of amendments, although I have withdrawn some. I have been trying to define a way around the problem and to table an amendment that addresses the issues but retains the ability of young people between 14 and 17 to use an air weapon safely on private property where they are not causing a problem, a nuisance or any other negative impact, which I readily accept may be caused in certain circumstances.

As I have said, there are three amendments in that vein. Amendment No. 249 is straightforward: using an air weapon on private property would remain an exception under section 23 of the Firearms Act 1968. Amendment No. 250 would achieve that in a different way, by inserting the words ''private property'' after the word ''gallery'' as an exception. Probably my favourite—the Minister may have different views—is amendment No. 254, in which I have sought to address the specific problems of it remaining legal for a young person between 14 and 17 to use an air weapon on private land.

Obviously, if the young person is doing something unlawful, such as using unlawful targets, that should remain unlawful. However, I have added that it should be an offence if the missile—the pellet—goes beyond the bounds of the private property. In other words, there is a double emphasis. The measure not only

emphasises the offence relating to the highways, to which I referred earlier, but makes it clear that if someone uses an air weapon on private property, they must make damned sure that the pellet does not stray beyond that property.

Clearly, ''private property'' does not just mean big farmland: it could mean somebody's back garden. I contend that using an air weapon to shoot at a target such as a tin can with a proper backstop is legitimate, but that people should not put the tin can on top of a fence, so that the pellet sails into the public yonder if they miss.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes 11:00, 20 Mai 2003

Listening to the hon. Gentleman's explanation about ''private property'' and gardens made me think that people need to have a large garden to pursue that activity. In many parts of my constituency, back gardens are very small. The hon. Gentleman is advocating that people in densely packed terraced houses could use air weapons, so long as they do not put the can on top of the fence.

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

I am sorry that the hon. Lady should seek to make such a pathetic point. I recognise that many people do not have gardens of any size, let alone large gardens, but I do not think that people who have large gardens should be penalised for having them, which seems to be what she is saying. I am simply suggesting that people who have an air weapon should be able to use it on private property, so long as they do so safely and the missile does not go beyond the boundaries of the property.

It does not matter how big the property is. An adequate backstop, such as a concrete block wall, will prevent the pellet from going beyond the private property. However, if there is a thin wooden fence, fresh air, or wire netting, that will not stop the pellet, so an offence will have been committed. That is the simple position that I am adopting.

I am trying to help the Minister, who has been pressed from all sides in this debate. There is a widespread belief in the general shooting community and beyond that it should be legitimate for a young person to continue to be able to use an air weapon on private property, so long as it is done safely. I share that view, and the purpose of amendment No. 254 is to cover all the eventualities with regard to where it might not be safe to use an air weapon on private property.

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

Perhaps I can give my hon. Friend an example that I hope that he, the Minister and the hon. Member for Cleethorpes will find helpful. When my younger brother and I were growing up in an ordinary house on an ordinary housing estate, my father, who was a responsible shot who had done a lot of shooting in the Navy, converted a side passage in what was a relatively small back garden into a totally safe shooting range. A lot of people who grow up in ordinary small houses will be able to use relatively small pieces of land to practise safe airgun target shooting, if their parents are responsible shots. Therefore, my hon. Friend is right.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have made my case to the best of my ability. I do not believe that the abuse of air weapons, which all Committee members accept exists, will decrease if we simply say that young people aged between 14 and 17 should not be able to use them without supervision. However, if the Government are committed to the view that abuse will decrease—only time will tell if they are right—it is reasonable that there should be an exception to allow young people to continue to use air weapons as they have in the past, purely on private property where there is no threat to anybody on public property, because the missile cannot go outside the private property.

For those of us who believe that people who wish to use firearms safely should be able to continue to do so, while at the same time accepting that there is a need to combat misuse, that is a reasonable position to adopt. I would support Government measures that did that. I am not convinced that the change in the clause will do that, but if the Government are convinced, I hope that they will agree to the exception for the use of such weapons on private land.

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Llafur, Stockton South

I want to make a quick comment. I support clause 43. I would like to point out to the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire that if the clause had been in place two years ago, Matthew Sheffield would still be alive. I would like to make that statement loud and clear. Supervision, age, maturity and sensible usage go together quite neatly. Clause 43 is useful, and I support it. I heard the integrity in everything the hon. Gentleman said, but he underestimates the immaturity of a 14-year-old and how easily fun and games get out of control, as they did in the case that I mentioned. I ask him to think again and to consider the value of changing from 14 to 17 the age of use, ownership and ability to travel around my constituency. I ask the Committee to support the clause.

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

I rise to speak in support of the exception proposed by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire. I have taken on board the representations that we have heard from the British Association for Conservation and Shooting, among other groups. It is supportive of clause 42, which we have just discussed, but raises legitimate concerns about clause 43. We have to come back to the fact that we are discussing a Bill about antisocial behaviour; it is not about tackling the fundamentals of shooting. That is a different debate, but it is easy to get carried along that line if one is not careful.

It is obvious that the use of air weapons has always been an activity on farmland and the like for young people, and the clause would take a gainful activity away from them. Obviously, we need every protection that we can get, but the BACS merely requests that clause 43 be

''amended to allow young people between the ages of 14 and 17 to use an airgun''—

I am sure that it would add ''lawfully''—

''on private land without supervision''.

The association would also like the clause to make it absolutely clear that it is

''an offence for anyone of any age to use an air weapon to fire a missile beyond the boundary of . . . private property.''

When I saw the mass of amendments before us, I found it difficult to decide which one I wanted to support, which is why I thought I would simply say what I wish for the clause. Amendment No. 254 is almost right, but I would be very interested in what the Minister has to say. Hon. Members on both sides of the House were concerned that the provision would go over the top, and everyone knows that there has to be something in the way of an amendment, but I am not expert enough to propose the precise words.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes

Again, I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South. I am concerned about the unsupervised use of airguns by young people between the ages of 14 and 17. That concern is based on evidence from my constituency. A large proportion of abuse and misuse of air weapons is caused by young people who use airguns unsupervised. Both the police and local RSPCA inspectors say that during school holidays, particularly in the summer, the number of incidents soar, and that there is a direct correlation to age. The RSPCA thinks that less wildlife and fewer pets, including cats and dogs, will be shot and that there will be less criminal damage if we make sure that use of air weapons is supervised. It is unsupervised use that can lead to the antisocial behaviour that people are complaining about.

Photo of Laura Moffatt Laura Moffatt Llafur, Crawley

Does my hon. Friend agree that the supervision order will not only have an impact and prevent abuse, but will also protect young people? Supervision will protect many young people from those who may want to get the weapons off them. It allows young people who legitimately enjoy using air weapons for target practice to be protected, because they will always be supervised and there will be no opportunity for people to attack them and get hold of the weapons.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I concur with what was said earlier, that sometimes the possession of air weapons is an entry into illegal use of guns at an older age. Some teachers in London have stated that it is mainly 13 and 14-year-olds who like to carry air weapons, and once they get older they want real guns. That is a serious problem.

On the issue of animals, one local vet in my constituency said that treating cats, dogs and other animals that have had air pellets lodged in their skull or wherever was common. He said, ''It's just youngsters messing about,'' but they are messing about with airguns, and that is the result of unsupervised use. If supervision instils responsibility, it is a good thing. Not all 14-year-olds are responsible: if they were, we would not have the level of misuse that we see during the school summer holidays and other breaks. I hope that the change will go through to increase the age limit from 14 to 17. It will have a dramatic impact on the misuse of air weapons.

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

I rise not only to support my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, but to say that I was glad that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole mentioned the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.

I wish to specifically mention another organisation, because it includes in its membership the National Rifle Association—in the previous debate, I mentioned my constituency link with the NRA. Before joining the Front Bench, I was for a relatively short time the unpaid parliamentary adviser to the British Shooting Sports Council. I took over from the former Member for Weston-super-Mare, whose son is now my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin).

The British Shooting Sports Council incorporates a large number of other organisations. For the record, in addition to the National Rifle Association, it has in its membership the Association of Professional Clay Target Shooting Grounds, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association, the Countryside Alliance, the Gun Trade Association, the Muzzle Loaders Association—some of the members of that organisation live in my constituency and send me letters—the National Smallbore Rifle Association, the Shooting Sports Trust, the Sportsman's Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom Practical Shooting Association, the Association of Professional Shooting Instructors and the Institute of Clay Shooting Instructors. The very fact that all those organisations exist reinforces the point that shooting is a hugely popular sport.

One of the difficulties I find when we debate issues such as this is that Labour Members' experience of the countryside is limited. That is not their fault, but they should recognise that those of us who spend an enormous amount of time in the countryside—

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

I will in a minute, but I want to finish my point. Those of us who had the good fortune to spend a lot of time on farms while we were growing up know that responsible shooting on private land has been a feature of country life in this country for a couple of hundred years. I do not want to minimise the extent of the urban problem, and I recognise the legitimacy of the points that have been made by the hon. Members for Stockton, South and for Cleethorpes, but they should recognise that responsible shooting by young people has been part of country life for more than a century.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes 11:15, 20 Mai 2003

The hon. Gentleman may have been a little misled when I spoke about densely packed terrace houses. If target shooting had been taking place in such an area, it certainly would be antisocial because of the noise. However, the constituencies that that I and some of my hon. Friends represent also include vast rural areas. I ask him to acknowledge that the problem is as acute in the villages and small towns in the rural areas as in the urban areas. I get more complaints—

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

Order. I was in the hon. Lady's constituency with my grandchildren at the weekend to watch the kite festival, and very nice it was too, but her intervention was just a little too long.

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

The hon. Lady reveals her ignorance of the matter when she talks about noise from air

weapons. Small air rifles do not make any noise, as she would realise if she knew anything about shooting.

I stress why the Bill will be so damaging, particularly in rural areas and especially to a sport in which this country has a proud reputation. I am sure that Labour Members are always delighted to support British sporting competitors when they win medals at the Olympics or other international competitions. The British Shooting Sports Council says:

''Not only are these proposals''—

especially clause 43—

''highly unlikely to have any impact on those who misuse air weapons, they would on the contrary target the vast majority of young people who use their air guns responsibly, and would cause further long term damage to all shooting sports by reducing the number of new entrants.''

I entirely agree with that. The clause would be vastly improved if the amendments were to be accepted, but if it remains unamended, it will have a major detrimental effect on the legitimate use of air weapons by young people.

We have a fantastically successful record in shooting sports, including some of our most successful Olympic medal hauls, and I am glad to see the hon. Member for Stockton, South nodding. Almost all new entrants to shooting sports start their careers with air guns, and many young apprentice agricultural workers and gamekeepers rely on the use of air guns for pest control to earn their livelihoods. The Bill will therefore also affect low-paid agricultural workers, something that I would have expected Labour Members to understand.

A new requirement for supervision would be not only a burden to young people in that age group but a positive disincentive. The removal of the exemption allowing a young person to carry an air rifle that is properly covered in a public place could also impact on those, mentioned earlier, travelling from their homes to the places where they shoot competitively. It would target the many young target shooters, many of whom I see coming to Bisley in my constituency, who often compete at international level, because they would be unable to travel to the range for practice or to airports for travel to international competitions, up to and including European and world championships, unless accompanied by an adult.

It is a serious matter. The main body that represents shooting sports and the large membership of the other representative organisations say that if the clause remains unamended, it will cause serious damage to a sport in which we have been fantastically successful. From my experience of farming in Norfolk, it will also completely change the way in which young people between the ages of 14 and 17 are taught to shoot responsibly.

I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole that shooting on private land is not a problem, particularly not on farm land. I recognise the legitimate constituency concerns raised by Labour Back Benchers, but the best way to deal with them would be for the Government to accept the

amendments; they would massively improve the clause. If the Government cannot accept them, I suspect that they will have major problems in another place, because many Members there have experience of shooting sport.

I cannot stress too strongly that I want to see our shooting sports and our rural life continue. The way in which the Government are approaching the problem is not right.

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

I support the general tone of the remarks that have been made from the Opposition Benches, although I would not go so far as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath in suggesting that Labour Members do not understand rural issues because they represent urban constituencies. It is dangerous to suggest that people do not have certain knowledge because they happen to represent one constituency or another.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes

Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge the fact that more rural constituencies are represented by Labour MPs than by members of any other party?

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

Order. The political topography of the country is not at issue.

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

In which case, I shall stay off that, because I had a retort ready. I was, for once, in some sort of agreement with the hon. Lady, so she has not done her cause any good. There is clearly a problem with air weapons and antisocial behaviour in parts of the country, and we must find a way to deal with it. However, I do not believe that a blanket increase in the age limit is that way.

The Government are right to make suggestions, but the clause does not substantially tackle the problem; it affects what has rightly been described as the lawful activity of thousands—possibly hundreds of thousands—of young people, who will not be able to carry it out again. There are probably tens of thousands of air weapons in my area. I have not had a single letter, phone call or visit about the misuse of air weapons in my constituency, which is one of the most rural constituencies; it is the size of Greater London, but with only 63,000 inhabitants. Those tens of thousands of air weapons are used almost exclusively—certainly predominantly—by 14 to 17-year-olds, because they cannot use other firearms. They use them on farms for pest control. That is how they learn to use firearms responsibly. The clause would have a dramatic effect on the legitimate use of weapons by many young people throughout my constituency.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he is saying. Will he accept that the same is true for me and for my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire? Neither of us has ever had a complaint from a constituent, either.

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that useful intervention. The amendments might not be entirely satisfactory, but I hope that the Minister—if he is listening to me—will agree to consider a way of tackling the problem that the Bill is creating. Something that is not a problem in large parts of the

country will be stopped by it. I do not think that the Minister intends to do that; he is trying to deal with a problem that does exist in parts of the country where weapons are abused.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Llafur, Don Valley

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify for me and for my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling the direction of his argument? Is he suggesting that the increase in the age limits should not apply where there is usage on private land with the permission of the owner, as opposed to public areas?

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

That is exactly what I am suggesting—the use on private land with the proviso of not firing the projectile beyond the edge of the land. I suspect that the amendments are not the perfect way of achieving that. However, I hope that the Government will consider the issue. We all want to

tackle the problem without penalising the vast numbers of young people who use weapons in entirely legitimate activities.

May I ask the Minister how, if the clause becomes law, it will be enforced? My constituency has some 80 police officers to cover an area the size of Greater London, only about one quarter of whom are on duty at a time. There are thousands of air weapons that could be used over vast areas. I suspect that in rural areas the reality is that we shall have a law to which the police turn a blind eye.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.