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Column 94Wood, Timothy
Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Andrew MacKay and
Mr. Michael Brown.
Question accordingly negatived.
(1) The offences of possessing a firearm or shotgun or ammunition contrary to Section 1 (as amended by Section 2 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988) and Section 2 of the Firearms Act 1968, shall be punishable
(a) upon conviction on indictment by a term of imprisonment not exceeding ten years ;
(b) on summary conviction by six months imprisonment or a fine of £1,000 or both.
(2) The offence of trading in firearms without being registered as a firearms dealer contrary to Section 3(1) of the Firearms Act 1968 shall be punishable upon conviction on indictment by a sentence of imprisonment not exceeding ten years.
(3) The offence of selling a firearm to a person without a certificate, contrary to Section 3(2) of the Firearms Act 1968, shall be punishable as at subsection (2) above.
(4) The offence of possessing or distributing prohibited weapons or ammunition contrary to Section 5(1) of the Firearms Act 1968 shall be punishable as at subsection (2) above.
(5) Notwithstanding that a person shall otherwise be guilty of an offence contrary to Section 1 or Section 2 of the Firearms Act 1968, it shall be an offence for a person to possess a firearm (including shotguns and ammunition) without the appropriate certificate or permit authorising such possession, if that person has previously been the holder of a certificate or permit to possess such firearm within the previous six months, and is not a prohibited person under Section 21 of the Firearms Act 1968, and a person guilty of an offence under this subsection is liable
(a) on conviction on indictment
(i) where the offfence is committed in an aggravatged form within the meaning of section 4(4) of the Firearms Act 1968 to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or a fine ; or both
(ii) in any other case to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or a fine ; or both.
(b) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine of £1,000 or both.'.-- [Mr. Michael.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
-In section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 (Prohibition of the carrying of offensive weapons in public places without lawful authority or reasonable excuse)
(a) subsection (a) shall be omitted.
(b) the words after the word "exceeding" in subsection (b) shall be omitted and shall be substituted by the words "30 years".'. New Clause 58-- Dangerous weapons (penalties)-- --
-In section 1 of the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959 (Penalties for offences in connection with dangerous weapons) (a) the words from "liable on" to "fine" shall be omitted and substituted by the words "conviction on indictment to imprisonment for 20 years".'.
New Clause 59 -- Having article with blade or point (penalties)-- -- .-In Part IX of the Criminal Justice Act 1988
(a) In section 139 (Offence of having article with blade or point in public place) subsection (6), the words after the words "liable on" shall be omitted and substituted by the words "conviction on indictment to imprisonment for 30 years",
Column 95(b) In section 141 (Offensive weapons) subsection (1), the words after "liable on" shall be omitted and substituted by the words "conviction on indictment to imprisonment for 30 years".'. Government amendment No. 349.
Mr. Michael : I am grateful for the opportunity to propose new clause 17, which seeks to increase penalties for the possession of firearms --contrary to existing legislation--and to give greater flexibility to the courts in dealing with firearm issues. The new clause sets out a series of amendments to the current legislation and I hope that they will be commended to the House.
As with a number of other issues that Opposition Members have raised during the passage of the Bill, the new clause highlights the need for fast and firm action. In this case, it is to curb the increasing use of guns and other weapons on the streets of Britain. The new clause would increase the maximum penalty, thus giving wider discretion to the courts to act firmly in cases where it is required.
I want to make it clear that that does not make penalties more onerous at the lower end of the scale of offences. Understandably, people who possess weapons for legitimate purposes, such as for sport or in connection with their work, are concerned that an increase in offences can, perhaps through an oversight in reviewing a licence, lead them to face greater penalties. There is no need for that to occur because, obviously, we are not targeting circumstances of that sort and it remains open for the courts to leave penalties for such offences as they stand.
The purpose of tabling amendments in Committee was to highlight the problem of firearms. As with other matters, we are entitled to point out that it is only when Opposition Members demand action that changes in penalties are introduced. That happened with drugs and drug-related offences when the Government amended the clause dealing with the Sea Fisheries (Shellfish) Act 1967.
The Government have tabled an amendment, too, and I am pleased that they have responded in that way to our initiative. However, their amendment is narrower than our new clause. The urgent need for action on the issue is shown by the fact that since 1982 there has been an 83 per cent. increase in offences of wounding, which is the statistical category that includes possession of firearms and other offensive weapons. In view of the seriousness of offences of that nature, that is a frightening increase. Within that category, the more serious offences of wounding or endangering life have increased by 128 per cent.
There now seems to be some acceptance of the argument for taking action to prevent weapons from reaching the streets. Our new clause deals with that aspect too. As was demonstrated by some of the new clauses that we tabled in Committee, it is important to prevent weapons from reaching the streets. If they are not carried, if they do not become part of the normal dress of some people in some communities, they cannot be used. The best approach to the problem is to prevent the recurrence of the worrying incidents that have taken place recently by tackling the availability of weapons and the possibility of their being carried, and thus restoring some of the safety that has been lost to our streets.
It is important that Parliament understands and responds to the message now coming from police officers. People
Column 96will have taken note of the comments of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis after yet another worrying and frightening incident of violent assault on a police officer. Because the Commissioner referred to being driven by events, his remarks could have been taken to mean that it was inevitable that before long all police officers would be armed, and that we could change the tradition of policing in the community and policing by consent. However, it is important for Parliament to ensure that we are driven not by events but by decisions made in the House. We must be driven by the law and by the success of the law in curbing violence on our streets.
In conversations with representatives of the various police associations it becomes clear that all three of them view with distaste and alarm the possibility of armed police becoming standard on the streets of this country. That would bring about a change in the nature of the relationship between the police and the community that it is frightening to imagine. The House should not consider that idea lightly.
The remarks by the Commissioner and by other police officers who have had to deal with some of the results of the availability of weapons should be taken seriously, not as a description of the inevitable but as a warning of the path down which the country will go unless Ministers and all other hon. Members succeed in introducing measures to curb the availability of weapons on our streets. Clearly that cannot be done by legislation alone. The way in which policing is carried out, and the way that we tackle the environment in which crime flourishes, are important too. As the Opposition have repeatedly said, we must be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. That applies as much to violence and the possession of weapons as to any other element of crime that we need to tackle.
The amendment that the Government have tabled in response to new clause 17 suggests that they recognise the need to amend the law, but the amendment is narrower than the new clause, so I hope that on reflection the Minister will feel able to accept the wider provisions of our new clause, which I hope will have the support of the whole House. The important issues involved should have been dealt with when the Bill was first drafted, or on Second Reading, so that they could have been considered in greater detail in Committee. But that did not happen, so the Opposition have sought to remedy the omission. On those grounds, I commend the new clause to the House.
Mr. Maclean : I fully agree that the courts must have at their disposal suitable penalties for the unlawful possession of offensive weapons and for unlawful dealing in and purchase of firearms. But we must ensure that we retain a differential between such offences and offences involving actual harm. We have tabled amendment No. 349 to increase the maximum penalty for the unauthorised possession and distribution of prohibited weapons from five to 10 years' imprisonment, as proposed in subsection (4) of new clause 17. 8.15 pm
However, we believe that the new clause as a whole is not on the right lines. Penalties for the use of firearms in crime are already severe. Possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life or with intent to commit an indictable
Column 97offence, and using a firearm with intent to prevent arrest, already carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment--and quite right too. With reference to new clauses 57, 58 and 59, trial on indictment only is reserved for offences considered too serious for magistrates courts. Existing maximum penalties for possession of offensive weapons are substantial, and in the Government's view they adequately reflect the seriousness of such offences.
I have pleasure in recommending Government amendment No. 349. Weapons prohibited by the Firearms Acts include machine guns, machine pistols, many kinds of self-loading and pump-action rifles and shotguns, and noxious substance weapons, such as CS gas sprays. Those are of especial concern to hon. Members, to the Government, to the police and to the public. The prohibited category also includes disguised firearms, as well as mortars, rocket launchers and other heavy military weaponry.
I see no justification for the possession of such machine guns and machine pistols ; there is no justifiable excuse for their simple possession. That is why we believe that the present penalties for possession of such items-- from two to five years' imprisonment--should be increased to a maximum of 10 years. Of course, if anyone endeavours to use such weapons in any way, or has intent to commit a crime, the life imprisonment maximum will apply, and rightly so. At present the maximum penalty on summary conviction for unauthorised possession or distribution of a prohibited weapon is three or six months, depending on the weapon. Amendment No. 349 would ensure a common maximum of six months. I commend it to the House, and I submit that the other amendments are not necessary.
Mr. Mike O'Brien : Again I remind the House of my position as adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales. I welcome the Government's conversion to supporting the changes, but their amendment does not go far enough. We need to send a clear message not only to those who use guns in the commission of offences but to those who possess them and may well subsequently commit offences, that it is unacceptable to possess such weapons unlawfully.
Over recent years there have been all too many cases of the use of firearms in serious criminal offences. Not only have police officers been shot--16 officers have been shot or stabbed in the past 10 years--but on the television and in our newspapers we have seen and read about many other tragic cases.
Mr. Maclean : I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but does he accept that in cases where weapons have been used against the police the maximum penalty is life imprisonment ? I do not know how to make that maximum any greater.
Mr. O'Brien : I entirely accept that. Indeed, if the Minister had been listening carefully, I suggested that there was a distinction between possession and use. I readily accept that, and I certainly do not quarrel with it.
On this occasion, there needs to be a clear message from the Government that the unlawful possession of weapons is not acceptable. No one is seeking to restrict the shooting lobby or the hunting lobby in the measure. The aim of it is to deal with those who possess weapons for criminal purposes ; at that stage, they may not be using them. One
Column 98of the concerns expressed to me in the past hour is that officers often find that they have arrested a person who possesses a gun, whom they believe was in the process of committing an offence. That person will argue and seek to suggest that he was not intent on committing an offence and there will be various plea bargains with regard to the seriousness of the matter. Usually, the lesser offence will be accepted in those circumstances, so it results in a reduced sentence.
We need to ensure that where there is possession of weapons, and it is shown that a person does not have a lawful right or reason to have those weapons, that person is punished adequately. At present, it seems that the powers that the courts have to deal with the most serious cases of possession, not only armourers, for example--we had recent cases where automatic weapons were possessed by someone who was alleged to be an armourer renting guns to criminals, who then used those guns to commit offences--but criminals who think that they have a right to carry guns perhaps for the purposes of drug dealings. The courts should be able adequately to deal with such criminals. At present, it seems that the Government are trying to be restrictive and to hedge about. They talk continuously about being tougher on crime. However, when the Labour party-- as it does now--proposes stiffer penalties to deal with the unlawful possession of guns by criminals, the Government seem to back off from doing something about it. That is an entirely inadequate response and sends the entirely wrong message, especially to young people who may be considering getting involved in the drugs trade, that the possession of guns, if they are caught, will not merit the most severe penalties.
The Minister will be familiar with the catalogue of cases that I set out in the Standing Committee--I will not rehearse them again now--where the Police Federation in particular was concerned that circumstances had arisen where criminals were allowed to plead to lesser charges in order to receive lesser sentences. It seems that we are not dealing with the issue of deterrence, although it may be important to deter. We must ensure that the courts have adequate powers to deal with the most serious cases of possession. The new clause is not targeted at the bottom range of possession offences--those who simply happen to be caught without their licence--but at the most serious cases of possession. The Government are not responding adequately or strongly enough to send a clear message to those people that they should not be found in possession of weapons.
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : I rise to address new clause 17. Of course, I shall be paying particular attention to new clauses 57, 58 and 59 which stand in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw). I shall also make observations about new clause 43, which I withdrew earlier this evening, because it also relates to weapons offences against individuals.
I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that I find myself agreeing with what the hon. Member for Warwickshire, North (Mr. O'Brien) said. For years, I have felt that deterrence was an important element in the whole criminal justice system. Whatever excuse people who carry a weapon may give, and whatever device they use in court to try to mitigate against any penalty, the plain truth is that it is the carrying that is the problem. The carrying of weapons leads to use. Unless one addresses the whole question of
Column 99carrying, whether it is a gun or a sharp weapon, inevitably in some circumstances the risk of the weapon being used is real, especially to the police. If we think ahead and recognise that if the police stop and search individuals who may be considered to be in the act of committing, or about to commit, a felony of some sort, if the individual is in possession of an offensive weapon, the risk of use is considerably increased simply because they have been stopped. In London alone in 1992, there were 7,700 recorded acts of robbery and violence with sharp instruments. That is almost one act every hour of the night and day. It is interesting to note that 36 per cent. of all homicides in the United Kingdom in 1992 were caused by sharp instruments--that is, 226 out of a total of 622--and blunt instruments accounted for 8 per cent. or 51 out of 622. That is a 50 per cent. increase over 1983. We cannot ignore that continuing increase.
The age of drugs and guns has spawned an avalanche of crime. I am not simply saying that the problem is only in the United Kingdom--the plain fact is that it is a worldwide problem. However, the one area that we can help and deal with is in this country and that is why it is important for Parliament to address the situation here. In 1939, there were 304,000 recorded criminal offences of all types. In 1965, the number had risen to more than 1 million--a trebling in 25 years. By 1992, it had risen to 5.5 million--a fivefold increase in 27 years. Will we continue to think that we can do little about the problem ? I hope not. In 1974, there were 2,828 firearm offences ; in 1992, there were 13,305. That is a 500 per cent. increase in 18 years. I suggest that 1993 and 1994 will continue to follow the trend of previous years. Is it America today and the United Kingdom tomorrow ? As we know, violent crime is out of control in Florida and is dramatically affecting its £20 billion tourist industry. That is simply because of the relentless flow of killings, rapes and robberies.
I do not believe that we can stand here and say that we can do little about the matter. I happen to believe in deterrence. That is why I put a simple question to my hon. Friend the Minister during the previous speech that I made on this matter. I asked my hon. Friend about the Government's view on deterrence ; he accepted that deterrence had a part to play. That is why the Government have increased the penalty from five years to 10 years, and I welcome that. However, that is only one example of movement.
It was devastating to learn from the recently leaked report which was commissioned by five London police divisions that they can no longer cope with gun crime and that a totally new strategy is required. I understand that there are an estimated 4 million illegal firearms in this country and goodness knows how many knives that are used to impose the will of all of those involved in crime, especially the drug barons in their £2.5 billion business. The only way to cope with those criminals, their fire power, and their wanton disregard for human life, is to have draconian penalties. The existing and potential explosion of drug and gun crimes, and the increased use of weapons, especially knives, are the evils of our modern society. If something is to be done we shall have to make it quite clear to those involved that they will be dealt with summarily by the courts.
Column 1008.30 pm
It takes some £9,000 million per annum to run the criminal justice system. The Metropolitan police alone costs £1.8 billion. I am convinced that my new clauses would help to stamp out violent crime and would produce considerable savings for the police and the court system--not to mention hospital treatment and the millions of man hours that are lost to the economy through the suffering of victims. The savings would be enormous--more than compensating, I believe, for the cost of imprisonment. This is why my new clauses, which my hon. Friend the Minister spent about 10 seconds addressing, are important.
I commend my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary for his valiant efforts to come up with new ideas, but it is an inescapable fact that traditional policing methods are as out of date today as the Keystone Kops ever were. In this situation we must look comprehensively at how the problem of rising crime, particularly violent crime, should be addressed. I believe that in the absence of the real deterent--capital punishment--we must incarcerate people on such a scale as to deter.
Deterrence is the ability of the courts to inflict upon individuals an unacceptable period of incarceration. This is what we must address. Nuclear deterrence is the ability to inflict an unacceptable level of damage on a would-be aggressor. The ability of courts to sentence individuals to unacceptably lengthy periods of imprisonment would have the same effect. If it is credible for my hon. colleagues to argue that we must retain nuclear weapons because of their deterrent effect--I believe that such weapons do deter, and I have no hesitation in expressing my support for them--they must accept that deterrence in other fields has to be acknowledged and recognised. If what I am suggesting deterred some people it would be worth while. People outside, including girls and young women, must be given confidence that they can walk around our cities unmolested. Within the past 24 hours we have heard reports of the hideous attack on two elderly people, resulting in their death, and I understand that teenagers have been raped. We read every day about such behaviour. It is becoming commonplace. Who can remember the names of the policemen who were recently killed while on duty ? We have reached the stage at which names escape individuals.
When I was a boy, murder was an incident that kept the community alert and aware and was talked about not for weeks or months but for years. I remember the murder of "the man with the staring eyes" on the Buckey braes, not far from Dundee. That murder was the talk of the city for years. Today it would be forgotten within hours because such events are commonplace. We must not allow ourselves to become so conditioned to such evil, ghastly, hideous deeds as to think that we can do nothing or very little about them. I believe that we can. Deterrence alone is not the answer, but it has a role to play. It must be part of a package. It ought to be incorporated into our system. I hope that the Minister, who normally has robust views about these matters, realises that I am not someone who thinks that we should do things just because they are good. I have never pursued that policy. Indeed, I have always stood up and stated my belief in the context of the circumstances, and I have voted accordingly, sometimes with difficulty. Some of my suggested
Column 101provisions are very lengthy and detailed as they address each offence and deal with it in turn. I am addressing the need for a deterrence capability.
If my hon. Friend were to tell me that the new clauses were technically flawed I should understand. It is the whole principle with which I am dealing. That is why the speech of the hon. Member for Warwickshire, North was very interesting and worthy of a very careful hearing.
Deterrence does work. People can walk unmolested around the streets of Singapore at any hour of the day or night. I am not suggesting that we should have a regime like Singapore's, but the deterrence element of sentencing policy there does work. It is something that we should try to emulate.
Question put , That the clause be read a Second time :
The House divided : Ayes 252, Noes 288.
Division No. 195] [8.35 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F.
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry)
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Corston, Ms Jean
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Donohoe, Brian H.
Eagle, Ms Angela
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Golding, Mrs Llin
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Hendron, Dr Joe
Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)
Home Robertson, John