Clause 44 - Prohibition of certain air weapons

Anti-social Behaviour Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:45 pm ar 20 Mai 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 2:45, 20 Mai 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 239, in

clause 44, page 34, line 4, at end insert-

'(2A) In section 5 (weapons subject to general prohibition) after subsection (1)(ae) insert-

''(af) any air rifle, air gun or air pistol which uses, or is designed or adapted for use with, a selfcontained gas cartridge system (whether powered by air or carbon dioxide);''.

(2B) If at the time when subsection (2A) comes into force a person has in his possession an air rifle, air gun or air pistol of the kind described in section 5(1)(af) of the Firearms Act 1968 (c.27) (inserted by subsection (2A) above)-

(a) section 5(1) of that Act shall not prevent the person's continued possession of the air rifle, air gun or air pistol,

(b) section 1 of that Act shall apply, and

(c) a chief officer of police may not refuse to grant or renew, and may not revoke or partially revoke, a firearm certificate under Part II of that Act on the ground that the person does not have a good reason for having the air rifle, air gun or air pistol in his possession.

(2C) But subsection (2B)(a) to (c) shall not apply to possession in the circumstances described in section 8 of that Act (authorised dealing).'.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 257, in

clause 44, page 34, line 5, leave out subsection (3).

Amendment No. 258, in

clause 44, page 34, line 10, after 'dangerous', insert

'by virtue of the fact that it can be readily converted to be capable of discharging a missile by the force of gunpowder or other like propellant'.

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

We have tabled amendment No. 239 to make specific provision for banning the sale, transfer, import and manufacture of certain airguns using the self-contained air cartridge system as announced earlier this year. Existing owners will be allowed to retain them on a firearms certificate. This action has become necessary because of the problems that have arisen in relation to certain air pistols that are powered by this self-contained air cartridge system. They can be converted in several relatively straightforward ways to take conventional ammunition. Consequently, weapons using the system have been used in an increasing number of criminal acts.

A significant number of these conversions have been submitted to the Forensic Science Service, which is aware of their use in at least 80 serious offences, including murders, attempted murders and serious woundings, in England and Wales since the beginning of 2001. Proposed new subsection (2A) adds a new paragraph to section 5(1) the Firearms Act 1968 that means that any person who has in his possession or purchases, acquires, manufactures, sells or transfers one of these guns without first obtaining the Secretary of State's authority commits an offence.

We recognise that the majority of existing owners use their guns in a wholly proper and legal way and have no wish to convert them. That is why we have given a special dispensation to existing owners that will allow them to retain possession under the authority of a firearms certificate in accordance with section 1 of the 1968 Act. In the circumstances, we do not think that it is necessary for existing owners to show good reason for owning the gun. However, we think that it is important when issuing the certificate to existing owners of these weapons to retain the elements relating to fitness and not representing a danger to public safety or to the peace.

In all other respects the normal procedures will apply for obtaining a certificate. Proposed new subsection (2C) is intended to put dealers on the same footing as any person who deals in prohibited weapons. We have made it clear that we do not want any future sales of that type of air weapon to take place, or existing stocks to be sold on to others. Anyone wishing to sell such guns will in future need to

obtain a section 5 authority to possess them as well as to sell them abroad.

Let me comment on the other amendments in the group. Amendments No. 257 and 258 would do away altogether with the order-making power, or would narrow it so that the only weapons covered would be those that can be converted to discharge a missile by the force of gunpowder or other like propellant.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:00, 20 Mai 2003

Before the Minister goes too far in attacking my amendments, I draw his attention to the fact that they were tabled after his amendment and should therefore be considered in light of the assumption that his amendment has already been accepted. I realise that on their own they are not necessary, but I believe that when linked to the Government amendment, they are.

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

I was not in the mood to attack the hon. Gentleman's amendments.

Although we now propose a specific control in relation to self-contained gas cartridge systems, that cannot be the end of our efforts to stop criminals getting hold of firearms. It is just as important that any safeguards that we introduce should be capable of being applied against new designs that might come on to the market. We therefore think it prudent to have an order-making power that will enable the Secretary of State to make provision in respect of any air weapons that appear to be ''specially dangerous''.

I know that concerns have been expressed that the power could be used to ban a wide range of air weapons, to the extent that we could end up with even more stringent controls on such weapons than on other firearms. That is what we are aiming to achieve. I remind the Committee that any air weapon would first have to be regarded as ''specially dangerous''. Secondly, any order would have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament. In the light of those assurances, I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendments and to support Government amendment No. 239.

We must remember that the guns are already classified as firearms, so it is not possible to use section 1 of the Firearms Act 1982, which makes special provision for controlling imitation firearms that are readily convertible to firearms. Although we could have dealt with that without using primary legislation, through the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969, it would have resulted in rifles becoming subject to certification, whereas revolvers, because of their length, would have become prohibited weapons.

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

As I said, our amendments were tabled after having seen the Government amendment. First, I share the Minister's view that we have a serious problem with the Brocock brand of air pistol, although others that may be as easily converted may be developed. Like the Minister, I have had discussions about whether there was another way of dealing with them, because I do not like banning things on principle. I would have preferred it if another way could have been found, but I have come

to the same conclusion as the Minister: there is no alternative. The air pistols are so easily converted that he probably has no choice but to take the power to ban them and anything like them.

I tabled the amendments and the Minister asked me to withdraw them, but I have not moved them. I tabled them because I wanted to challenge him. The amendment that he has tabled, which gives a fairly wide-ranging set of powers, rightly addresses the issue of air weapons that can be converted. Given that, why does he then think that it is still necessary to have clause 44(3)? The Minister is effectively saying, ''We've got a set of specific powers, but we're also going to have a range of general powers.'' It is worth making the point that subsection (3) will amend the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988. It would have been perfectly simple to remove the exclusion of air weapons from that, rather than have all the paraphernalia in clause 44. Section 1(4) of the 1988 Act provides powers

''If it appears to the Secretary of State that the provisions of the principal Act relating to prohibited weapons or ammunition should apply to . . . any firearm (not being an air weapon)''

and so on. I therefore do not see why the Minister could not remove the exclusion of air weapons, which would give the Home Secretary all the powers that he needed.

The purpose of tabling the amendment was to challenge the Minister to explain why the general power and the specific power are needed. The general power in the clause would have allowed him to ban Brococks and similar weapons, but he has now decided to include detail about self-contained gas cartridge systems. That is fine and I understand that, but why does the Minister still want the general power? As he rightly accepts, that provision raises the suspicion that the power may be used more widely in future by someone who has perhaps taken less of a genuine interest than the Minister has.

The Minister is familiar with my other point, which is that my hon. Friends and I are generally suspicious when Secretaries of State are given wide-ranging powers to do things in future that do not require primary legislation. The intention behind amendment No. 258 was to get some detail on the dangerousness of a weapon that can be converted to be

''capable of discharging a missile by the force of gunpowder or other like propellant''.

I conclude by asking the Minister to explain why he has put the words

''whether powered by air or carbon dioxide''

at the end of proposed new section 5(1)(af) of the 1968 Act. I would have thought that reference to a self-contained gas cartridge system would be perfectly adequate and self-explanatory. I am concerned that that wording might restrict the application of the provisions-somebody could develop a weapon powered by nitrogen, for example. Specifying air or carbon dioxide seems to exclude other gases, which is unnecessary, so I would be grateful if the Minister considered that.

From what I have said it is obvious that we shall not oppose the clause. It is regrettable that it is necessary, given that the criminal fraternity has found

it so easy to convert such weapons to fire proper bullets. Very reluctantly, I accept that the Government's proposals are necessary, although I would be grateful if the Minister explained why he needs to introduce the specific powers that are detailed in the amendment, in addition to the general powers that were already in the clause.

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

Like my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, I understand entirely where the Government are coming from, so I do not plan to dissent from their thinking in the way that I did on some earlier clauses. I simply want to mention the concerns that the British Shooting Sports Council has raised with me. Before I do, however, I echo what my hon. Friend said about how the Conservative party recognises the extent of the problem and accepts the reason for the Government's motivation to take the powers that they propose to take on the misuse of weapons that are easily converted and that have been such a criminal menace. This debate is therefore of a different kind from that which we had on the last two clauses.

As the BSSC makes clear, the Government have stated publicly that they want to ban the importation, transfer, sale and manufacture of all such air cartridge weapons. The Minister made it clear this morning that while they are proposing certain amendments to the Bill, the Government are also undertaking a more far-reaching review of all firearms legislation. I anticipate that the Minister will say that they are looking again at the question of importation in that review.

The Government's proposal in clause 44 does not, in the view of the BSSC, fully take into account the fact that many legitimate sporting shooters own airguns because they do not have to obtain a firearms certificate, which would at least double the cost of the weapon. The BSSC has said that the Government might ban air cartridge system guns outright and then provide compensation-has happened under the scheme started by the previous Government after Dunblane and carried on under the present Government. That would be an alternative approach. I would be grateful if the Minister dealt with the BSSC's serious concern about the issue. The fact that it is suggesting a ban reinforces the fact that it is a responsible body. I hope that the Minister will accept the spirit in which I am making the suggestion. It is important to have his reply on the record.

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

Let me say to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire that we put in ''by air or carbon dioxide'' in order to avoid doubt and to cover future developments. We did it having taken advice on the drafting of the legislation as well as on what was potentially available. However, the hon. Gentleman's point seems reasonable. Perhaps we should think about it, given that something that is different again may well be around the corner. I shall be happy to think about the point and to consider whether we are creating a potential problem rather than avoiding doubt.

The wording of the clause is complex. We are trying to cope with future developments in technology or

fashion and we need a new power. The existing power in the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 requires the weapons not to have been generally available before 1988, and operates as a total ban. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman-and will copy the letter to the rest of the Committee-to spell out why subsection (3) is necessary, so that we are clear before Report about what is intended and what is not. I want to allay his fears about the provision being wider than we want it to be.

On the issue of compensation, I can tell the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) that the firearms in question have been used for criminal purposes on a significant number of occasions. It is incumbent on the Government to take action to prevent their further misuse, and we believe that we have struck a fair balance between the interests of the individuals who own the guns and the wider public interest. Existing owners will be able to retain the weapons for their own use, and retailers will be able to run down stocks and obtain authority to sell any surplus overseas if they wish, as will manufacturers. We do not believe that compensation is payable in those circumstances.

It may well be that there are those who wish to continue to own those weapons. Many owners, as I have said, own them responsibly and use them responsibly. However, it is undeniable that the weapons are being widely misused. I have no criticism of the manufacturers, who at our request have put in place a voluntary import control and have co-operated with the Forensic Science Service in trying to find a technical fix. I agree with the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire: if a technical fix had been possible-if we had been able to render the weapons unconvertible, or very difficult to convert-that would have been far and away the best solution. The manufacturers tried to help us to achieve that, but it has defeated them and the Forensic Science Service.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 44, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.