Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 340 -359)




  340. It is dangerous territory. There are a number of journalists on this Committee.
  (Mr Penn) No, I would not like to speculate because I really do not know where it came from.

Mr Linton

  341. I just wanted to follow that up. In your Ninth Report you observe that your recommendations have not always found favour with successive Secretaries of State. It must be of concern obviously to the Committee. You are talking mainly here about proposals for legislative change, are you?
  (Mr Penn) Yes, it is where legislative change is required that it is a significant problem. Anything that can be done by guidance or by Orders is much more straightforward.

  342. Did your Committee support either of the 1997 handgun bills?
  (Mr Penn) The Committee was not consulted about those bills as it would have wished and made no comment.

  343. What are the areas where your legislative advice has not been taken up?
  (Mr Penn) I would refer you back, they are listed in the Seventh Annual Report. I am afraid my memory is poor—I would have to consult. One would be clarification of the definition of a shotgun on a visitor's permit, awaiting amendment to the Firearms Rules. This would be best dealt with by a letter, if you would not mind.

  Chairman: We can circulate that round the Committee from the Report.

Mr Winnick

  344. You mentioned in reply to Mr Howarth the membership of the Gun Control Network. I am looking at Annex B of your useful paper of the membership of the FCC, the most up-to-date. I see there are in fact two people representing the Gun Control Network?
  (Mr Penn) There were two at the start of the year.

  345. Tony Hill and Gill Marshall-Andrews?
  (Mr Penn) Yes, that is right. Mr Hill subsequently resigned for health and business reasons.

  346. There is just one left from the Gun Control Network?
  (Mr Penn) There is just one left.

  347. You said that they come to your meetings with a desire to see further restrictions on guns. That is obvious from their very title. I am looking at this list, there are some from the Gun Trade Association who, presumably if anything, would be wishing to see less controls than at present. The National Rifle Association, if not quite its American counterpart, would have a mandate and views which would be familiar to us. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation, again I think along the lines I have just mentioned. National Small-Bore Rifle Association, and then the National Farmers Union who obviously have genuine concerns; maybe the others also have but the National Farmers Union's concerns are obvious to us in carrying out their duties. Would I not be right to come to the conclusion it is not only the Gun Control Network who are the only people who come to this meeting with very strong views on the position over firearms?
  (Mr Penn) I would say the majority of members come with strongly held views. That would also apply to people who are serving police officers; they have strong views as you will have seen from the evidence put before you by the various police associations. I would wish to re-emphasise that all these people come to the table in a spirit of wishing to discuss, move forward, and find a good way forward on the matters that are referred to us.

  348. That includes all—including the Gun Control Network?
  (Mr Penn) I would hope so, but their tendency is to stick to their party line. There are areas where we do agree, of course. Everyone agrees we must have more research on where illegal firearms come from. Everyone supports that.

  349. The party line you mentioned, of course the other organisations I have mentioned (leaving aside the police) do have a party line?
  (Mr Penn) That is true, but the people who are members of the Firearms Consultative Committee are there on an ad hominem basis; they are not there as delegates of their associations. While they obviously come in having discussed matters with their associations and will go back to their associations to discuss matters further, they are not bound to a party line. I think the fact we so generally do come to a consensus opinion demonstrates the flexibility of the people who are there prepared to try and make the system work.

  350. Could I put one final question to you, if I may. Bearing in mind (and I could be wrong) that all the indications are that public opinion was very much in favour of what was done by the previous government following the tragedy of Dunblane and then continued by the present Government, would you not be perhaps a more balanced Committee, if it is going to continue, if it had more of those people on it who do believe there should be further restrictions in firearms; rather than, at the moment, giving the impression (leaving aside the police) it is very much an in-built majority the other way?
  (Mr Penn) I assure you there is no in-built majority, depending on how you look at the Committee structure. At the most half the people on the Committee could be considered to be shooters, there defending the shooting interest. There are also people representing Customs and Excise, the Crown Prosecution Service, magistrates and so on who are there to represent other aspects of society. One of the difficulties is finding people who do have the strength of interest to represent of other interests who would be willing to sit on the Committee. There has been, for instance, no discernable interest from the Health and Safety Executive, the medical profession or any other likely concerned body to go on it. We have had in the past representatives of the Metropolitan Authorities because at one stage they were very interested in firearms issues, particularly air weapons, and they contributed very well to the Committee. For whatever reason the Home Secretary chose not to reappoint them.

  Mr Winnick: If this Committee is going to continue some of us may take the view that is a matter the Home Office should look into and we shall see that in the future.

Mrs Dean

  351. Mr Penn, the FCC chose as the underlying theme of its work in 1998-99 the issue of illegal possession of firearms by criminals. What are likely to be the most effective ways of preventing criminals from obtaining weapons from legitimate sources?
  (Mr Penn) We have indicated there is research needed on where firearms come from. Such evidence as we have to date indicates that a relatively small proportion are stolen in modern times—in that they cannot be traced back to a certificate holder. There has been some indication, although only a very small number were involved, that there has been diversion from dealers; but there are other areas of quite major dispute as to how firearms are obtained. I personally have to say I am not satisfied we have settled the question of illegal imports. Your Committee, I know, is very well versed in the matter of illegal drugs. Traditionally arms have gone with drugs. It is neither more difficult nor less difficult to import firearms illegally than it is to import drugs illegally. If there is a market for them they will be brought in. I suspect you have probably seen the recent press cuttings about the man from Mexborough who was arrested not only with £2 million worth of drugs but with 35 firearms, one of them a submachine gun. If the Committee has not seen this cutting I have a copy here which I will pass on. That is one example. We also heard from Kent Police who wrote to us during the course of the year's work indicating it was their experience with the Channel ports that in fact there was illegal importation of firearms. The Government is at the moment addressing, via the United Nations and the European Community, possibilities of better control of international trade, which would stop arms dropping out through that route. One has to say, the best one can achieve where illegal arms are concerned is a basket of measures attacking specific problems. Because ultimately people can make firearms if they want them; they are not special technology; they have been made in tribal areas of Pakistan; they have been made in the Philippines where there is one town where about 15,000 people make guns, only two of the factories are licensed, and that area is the main supplier for the Japanese Yakuza gangsters. We have seen the possibility of making improvised firearms in Northern Ireland. Again I can provide some details of those if you wish. Ultimately, it is probably impossible for people to be stopped from obtaining firearms if they really want them. The best we can do is to make it difficult. The most successful move to stop serious criminal use of firearms was not by targeting firearms but by targeting their use—to wit, what the Metropolitan Police achieved with armed robbery in the Metropolitan area. By targeting through intelligence and very firm action professional armed robbery gangs they reduced armed robbery significantly. Criminals went off to do other things.

  352. Turning to air weapons, in your view is a campaign of "education and enforcement" really the most effective way of tackling the present problem of air weapon abuse?
  (Mr Penn) Yes, most certainly. We already have quite wide ranging legislation dealing with air weapons, so there are plenty of offences people may be prosecuted under. We were also interested to hear from the Crown Prosecution Service that very frequently when hooligans with air weapons are prosecuted, they are not prosecuted under the Firearms Act; they may be prosecuted for common assault, or cruelty to animals under the 1911 Cruelty to Animals Act, or for various possible offences of actual or grievous bodily harm. This is a terrible thing to say to legislators but one has to accept that very few citizens ever read any laws at all. We all know when we learn to drive we do so without having to read our way through road traffic legislation. We are taught to drive, and with a combination of goodwill to our fellow citizen, common sense and what amounts to instructional texts such as the Highway Code, we all get along pretty well as drivers. What we have to do is have a stage beyond legislation which is in some sense educational. At the moment for organised shooting, be it target shooting or game shooting, this works in the nature of things. It is required for target shooting that probational members have to be instructed. The way we conduct sporting shooting in this country also effectively ensures that people are well trained in the proper skills for using firearms. The area where there is no structure to do this at the moment is casual use of air weapons. We have to find ways of getting to youngsters. Speaking entirely personally, I believe that all educational ways forward are the ways to go. Education ought to be for life. That is something this Government is interested in. It has talked about training for parents; it has got a citizenship initiative. So practical training on practical issues is a way to go, through the school system if necessary because at least you can get at every child through the school system.

  353. How do you ensure that those purchasing air weapons actually see that education if there is no licensing regime?
  (Mr Penn) That is a problem. That is one of the reasons why it may not be a bad thing to expose all school children to the risks involved with firearms, including air weapons, in the same way as they are exposed to the risks involved in crossing the road, and good road manners, and that they are taught to swim. There are various strategies for a safer and better life that are taught in schools, and one of these could be very basic instruction about how to react to firearms. I am not suggesting we teach every child shooting. I am saying that every child should be told some basic facts about firearms. That could be also used to reinforce the fact that air weapons are dangerous, and that the hooligan misuse of them can cause injury to persons or animals. I personally think a lot of the hooliganism problem is not particularly evil, but is thoughtlessness. That is something that probably can be got at.

  354. Does the FCC have any suggestions as to a reasonable rationalisation of the present "over-complex" age restrictions on the handling of firearms?
  (Mr Penn) That is a matter the FCC has started to look at. We believe there is a good reason for rationalisation and simplification but we have not come up with the answer yet. As you will know, with the existing law the vital break dates are 14, 15 and 17. I would certainly think there could be some rationalisation. What is absolutely clear, however, is that a substantial case has been put forward for some possibility of unsupervised use of firearms by those between the ages of approximately 14 and 18, because this is important for the agricultural industry, among others. From my own experience, any normal child of the age of 12 or 13 can be instructed to use a firearm perfectly safely; they are not difficult machines to control safely; they are far easier to control than a car or a motorcycle.

  355. Turning to the issue of shotgun controls, which I believe the FCC has not reached a conclusion on, does the FCC believe that some rationalisation of the present firearms licensing regime is necessary?
  (Mr Penn) It is highly desirable. We have to accept that we get along with the existing law, which is one of the reasons perhaps why it has not been changed because it has not broken down nationwide as a system. There is an opportunity obviously to reconsider whether shotguns should be treated in any different way from firearms; because you could come up with a simpler administrative system if it was on the same basis. One argument which has considerable validity is that it may not be necessary to have the present system of control we have on section 1 firearms—rifles, muzzle-loading revolvers, flare weapons and certain sorts of shotgun—because they have very little track record of misuse in crime. It would be possible to come up with a system which is easier for the police to administer, from the shooter's point of view better, and which showed absolutely no loss of control.


  356. Could I ask you about the Annual Report, who actually drafts it?
  (Mr Penn) The drafting is done by the secretariat—in other words, the Home Office—but the drafts are circulated and there are meetings at which people can discuss the fine details.

  357. When you say "circulated", is that to the members of the FCC?
  (Mr Penn) Yes.

  358. Do you have either formal or informal consultations over the draft with bodies such as ACPO?
  (Mr Penn) They, in a sense, are represented on the body anyway. As I have said, everyone sits on the Committee ad hominem, but obviously they can take it back.

  359. Can I take you to page 24 of the current Annual Report, please, to section 5.4. It says there, "The growth of crime involving shotguns in the 1960s led to a system of licensing being introduced in 1968". Are you sure about that? Is there evidence to sustain that the use of shotguns in crime had increased at that time? They are not figures of which I am aware?
  (Mr Penn) It has been disputed. I have received a letter from Mr Colin Greenwood putting a different view which, should the Committee be reformed, we would wish to consider. If we were in error then we would publish a statement to that effect. Mr Greenwood's line is that, no, this is not sustainable. I would say that, having re-read this section last night, I am not entirely happy with sections 5.3-5.5. There was another major change in the legislation in 1988 which is not really picked up on here.

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