Clause 43 - Air weapons: age limits

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

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Amendment moved [this day]: No. 124, in

clause 43, page 33, line 27, leave out paragraph (a).-[Mr. Paice.]

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness 2:30, 20 Mai 2003

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing 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.''.'.

Amendment 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 Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

When we adjourned for lunch, I was on the point of concluding my speech with the thought that we must ensure that when tackling the problem of antisocial use of air weapons we do not prevent activities that in many parts of the country are regarded as legitimate. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to the suggestions that have been made, or that he will at least consider some alternatives.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

I start by apologising to the Minister. In the debate on clause 42, I caused him high frustration by saying that I did not think that the clause would do anything. I say that because I have such great respect for him as an ex-Whip. I believe that ex-Whips in whatever form can provide great expertise to Committees. He has persuaded me of their merits.

As I listened to the contributions on clause 43 before lunch, I was tempted, because of the tragedy that was outlined, to think that there was some merit in upping the age limit. I confess that I am not entirely au fait with the ways of the countryside and how the farming community trains up its youngsters to shoot

rats and so forth, but I am not entirely convinced that the provisions would do the right thing. I trust the Minister implicitly, but perhaps this would be a good moment for him to reconsider the matter. Perhaps the age limit is too high. I understand that there are compelling reasons in favour of change, but I think the Government should reconsider the question of private land.

As I said, I have no problem with the measures, but there is a question whether the responsible use of airguns on private land should be allowed. The trouble with this, as with all the proposed legislation, is that most of the people involved are completely law abiding and go about their pursuit perfectly reasonably, but the activities of a handful might mean that those lawful and pleasurable activities will be curtailed. There will be time to re-examine some of the issues-perhaps not in Committee, but there is always Report, Third Reading and the other place-so that we can see whether we are punishing a huge majority because of the misdeeds of a few.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

Order. Before I call the Minister, may I make it clear that, alas, the consumption of coffee is not allowed in the Committee Room? I ask you, Caroline Flint, to take your coffee outside with you.

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

First, let me say that, as an ex-Whip, the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) was one of the least frustrating contributors to the previous debate. I say that knowing that no one would dare to bear down on me in the present company.

I shall try to respond to the debate, but I cannot remember some of the points that were made this morning on the more general issues. The amendments are designed to retain the existing age limit on owning or possessing an air weapon, or to mitigate the effects on legitimate shooters of the increase in the age limit. The intention behind clause 43 is to tackle the misuse of air weapons by young people by ensuring that they do not have unsupervised access to such weapons.

There has been a steady rise in the misuse of air weapons in recent years. In 2001-02 there was a 21 per cent. increase in such offences. Such misuse can cause serious nuisance, crime and injury, and most instances of misuse involve young people. The Government are determined to curb that trend and we believe that raising the age limit from 14 to 17 is an important part of achieving that. I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) and for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) that maturity is an issue.

Much of the nuisance occurs in rural as well as in urban communities. There is an annoying notion being peddled around that an MP's understanding the countryside is dependent on the constituency that he or she represents or on the party that he or she belongs to. I am the proud representative of the very urban constituency of Coventry, North-East, where I was born and raised. However, I have never considered myself a townie, and as a youngster I spent most of my time and recreation in the countryside. That notion ought to be knocked on the head.

I thank the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) for the thought that he has given to the issue of raising the age limit and the attempt that he has made to reach a conclusion on how to mitigate some of the consequences of doing so. I am mindful that there are many legitimate uses for air weapons and many responsible young shooters. I am also aware of the concerns expressed by shooting organisations and other bodies such as the Countryside Alliance. As I said earlier, I consulted the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, whose representatives I thank for their careful and thoughtful input to attempts to draw the line in the right place and to determine how we could raise the age limit without harming activities, such as pest control, that we do not necessarily want to prevent but that can involve young people using air weapons on farms. We do not wish to interfere with such activities.

I know that when it first saw the Bill the British Association for Shooting and Conservation was slightly concerned about shooting on private land, because although we had discussed that issued with the association and other organisations, we had not accurately got down our thoughts when drafting the Bill. In dealing with the hon. Gentleman's amendments, I think that we have still not quite got there. It is a drafting problem. There was no intention to impinge on that area. In drafting the Bill we could either rule out the private land issue, or include it with a view to amending it at a later date, but let me make it clear that there was no attempt to row back on some of the intentions that we had right from the start.

We had some very constructive engagement with organisations that were concerned about the issue. To address those concerns, I have already agreed to look at the options for allowing some unsupervised shooting on private land, but we must be careful to ensure that any such shooting does not cause a nuisance to neighbours. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes said, that will be a particular issue where the private land is in an urban area with neighbours close by. Amendment Nos. 249 and 250 do not go far enough in addressing that point.

I am far more encouraged by amendment No. 254. I do not want to argue with the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, because he is trying to achieve exactly what we want to achieve, but it is not clear why he included both ''private premises'' and ''property'' in the amendment. I think that he is just taking a belt-and-braces approach, but the legislation already defines premises as including any land, so there is no reason to go further, unless he was thinking about something else when he framed the amendment. I would need to look closely at the concept of lawful authority, which implies something wider than just the consent of the owner.

Furthermore, none of the amendments includes a lower age limit, so they would theoretically allow a five-year-old to shoot unsupervised, which I am sure is not the hon. Gentleman's objective.

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

I am grateful for the way in which the Minister is addressing the amendments, and for his kind remarks about my efforts. He is right: I certainly did not intend a five-year-old to be able to walk round with an air weapon; that is a lacuna in my proposal. As for premises and property, I was simply taking a belt-and-braces approach, as he suggested.

I intervened to point out something that I should perhaps have said earlier. I tabled an amendment, which unfortunately has not been selected, to deal with the issue of the adult who provided the weapon. Under that amendment, which is to the next clause, anyone who gave or lent an air weapon to someone under 17 who misused it would have been liable for the offence along with the young person. That would go a long way towards meeting some of the concerns of Government Back Benchers. As I said, the amendment has not been selected, so we shall not debate it, but I hope that the Minister will bear it in mind as a possible way of finding the way forward that he talks about.

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

I welcome what the hon. Gentleman is trying to do and I am sure that we can find a solution. I say to any members of the Committee who might be concerned about our trying to deal with this issue that we need to think about two points. One was raised by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green). If we wanted to take action in this respect, we would potentially be putting in place a measure that was unenforceable in many parts of the country and bringing the law into disrepute by so doing. Even if we wanted to go there, the point made by the hon. Gentleman is valid.

The second point concerns the interpretation of the terms ''private land'' and ''public land''. Public land is land to which the public has access by payment or otherwise, so a canal towpath, public rights of way and so on could be covered. We need not fear that we are necessarily creating a problem in that regard. There are issues about proximity to residences. I am not sure that we can deal with them in greater detail than amendment No. 254 and the comments that have just been made by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire deal with them. However, if we genuinely want to deal with misuse and not prevent what most people think is the appropriate use of weapons, we are close to reaching an accommodation that will do that.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment in the light of the comments that I have made and our continuing work to bring into being something that is close to amendment No. 254.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:45, 20 Mai 2003

I am grateful to the Minister and I will come back to him on that point, but will he address the other issue that I raised about young persons, perhaps those who compete in target shooting, being able to transport their weapons? I know that that issue has been raised with the Minister in a number of quarters.

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

I will deal with that. The amendment to which the hon. Gentleman referred was not selected, but it deals with an important issue

that we need to consider. I am not so sympathetic to the arguments being advanced, but I will listen. I fully acknowledge that there is an issue of private land; we must deal with that and we will, as I have said. I am more than happy to continue to listen to arguments about the carriage of weapons, but we are talking about 14, 15 or 16-year-olds who are involved in gun sports carrying weapons in public places without any parental or other adult supervision. I am not certain that the clause would create the problem that others envisage, but I would like to hear from people who think that there will be a problem.

Many responsible parents and young people who are involved in gun sports keep their rifles in gun clubs. Parents certainly ferry around young people who are involved in various activities. I am not convinced that we need to have very young people carrying weapons around the streets, even if those weapons are wrapped and buckled in cases. I am not opposed to people being able to go about their activities, but I do not wish to create a big loophole in the powers that we wish to give to the police to prevent misuse. I am not as convinced on that issue as I am on the private land issue.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that one of the concerns is that those young people could become victims of crime and the weapons could be stolen? Surely supervision is preferable to offer protection to those young people from the loutish elements in our community.

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

I am not sure how significant that is as a contributory issue, but I certainly take on board my hon. Friend's comments.

I do not wish to close the door entirely, and if people wish to convince me that there is a problem, I am prepared to continue to give it consideration. The private land issue certainly needs to be dealt with. I am trying to deal with the other issue clearly and honestly. I am not certain that there is a need for 14-year-olds to be carrying guns around the streets without any supervision, even if those weapons are covered and buckled.

I hope that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire will withdraw his amendment, but I thank the Opposition and the organisations that have been following our procedures for their constructive input. We must find a way forward that maximises the effectiveness of the tools that we wish to give to the police to deal with misuse while minimising the impact on people who are taking part in sports or other legitimate activities. We do not wish to inconvenience them to any degree greater than is necessary.

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

It is a great shame that you were not with us this morning, Mr. Cran. You would have been very interested in what I believe was one of the best debates that we have had in this Committee. We were able to address a serious issue with a considerable amount of unanimity on the desire to resolve it, even if hon. Members did not entirely agree on all of the issues.

On the issue of carriage, I heard what the Minister said. I will draw it to the attention of the various shooting organisations that he still remains to be

persuaded on that matter, and no doubt they will produce the evidence that they believe is appropriate. On the point raised by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes, I hope it has become obvious during this morning's proceedings that I have a little more knowledge of this issue than many, having studied a lot of work on it over the years. I am not aware of any evidence to the effect that young people carrying airguns are more likely to have them stolen. I am not saying that it could not happen, but bearing in mind that the law has stood for 30 years, I am not aware of any evidence that that has been a regular feature. We must be careful to have a sense of proportion about what may or may not happen.

I am grateful to the Minister for his comments about private land. He will not be surprised to hear me say that I do not think that changing the age limit is either necessary or right. That is the view of the Firearms Consultative Committee that he quoted earlier, and I have seen its representations to him. I recognise that the Government take a different view. Although the discussion has inevitably centred on the countryside and farmland, I do not consider this a purely rural issue. For many people who live in urban areas, the nuisance use of air weapons is a significant urban issue that needs to be addressed. As the Minister has said, I have tried to come forward with proposals that will help to address it.

It is perfectly reasonable for an adult take responsibility. I take as an example my own situation. When I was in my early teens-a long time ago-my father gave me an air rifle. It would have been perfectly reasonable to hold him responsible if I had misused it-I do not suggest that I did misuse it. If someone makes an air weapon available to a young person, it is reasonable that they should then be responsible for ensuring that it is used safely and properly. I do not know why the amendment I tabled was not selected-no doubt you know why that is so, Mr. Cran, but I do not. It is an important part of the mix that the Minister is seeking to address what we all agree is a problem.

The hon. Member for Stockton, South, who is not here this afternoon, has a tragic constituency record and I recognise and understand the sincerity of her views. An objective person would agree that the idea of licensing all these weapons is a perfectly intellectual argument, but I share the Minister's view-as does the Association of Chief Police Officers-that it is wholly impractical and out of proportion. I recognise her strength of feeling on that matter, and I hope that she does not misunderstand my reasons for taking a different view.

There are those in the sporting world who take the view that we should fight to the last ditch on the issue of the age limit and to keep it where it is. My hon. Friends and I want to find a way forward that will allow young people to continue to use air weapons on private property in the way that they traditionally have done. As long as they do not use them unlawfully, that is the way forward that we should try to find.

I am grateful to the Minister for his kind words. He questioned my use of the word ''lawfully''. That is the only section of the amendment on which I took advice.

Someone asked me earlier where the wording of the amendments came from, which I took as a mortal insult as I had drafted them all myself. Someone suggested that I should use ''with the consent of the occupier'', but I was advised that ''lawful authority'' is a traditional legal phrase that covers not only the occupier but the person who holds the shooting rights, who may be a different person. It also ensures that the weapon is being used lawfully on the land and not for shooting something should not be shot at. The Minister will look at that.

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

If I table an amendment that includes the term ''lawful authority'', the hon. Gentleman will be nothing other than pleased. I am not saying that he is wrong-we just need to look at it and understand it.

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

I appreciate that point. If the Minister comes forward with such an amendment I will not say, ''I told you so''.

The issue is serious. I think that the Minister understands that the activities of tens of thousands of young people stand to be seriously affected by the clause. I understand why he thought he should start with a ban and rein back with amendments rather than proposed something about private land that he then must change. I am simply concerned that we get the provision right before the Bill receives Royal Assent. I accept that the Minister will genuinely seek a way forward. If my amendments help him in that, I am content. I do not know when the Report stage will be, but it would be helpful if the measure could be put right before we send the Bill to the other place. In the light of this debate, which I thoroughly appreciate, and the Minister's sincere response, 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 amendment 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 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.