Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 380 - 399)



  380. The question I want to ask is, when you say "We do not intend to make radical changes in its broad composition", and I have heard what you have said to the Chairman a moment ago, but do you feel, at the moment, it is somewhat too much composed of the shooting lobby (to use a broad terms) rather than those who have different viewpoints?
  (Mr Clarke) I think that is a fair point, and that is one of the reasons why the Home Secretary, when he nominated additional people to this earlier in its life, did try and bring in a wider range. I think there is some weight in what you say. That said, I think it is important to involve the shooting lobby very fully in it because they do have very good relationships with those who are preoccupied with shooting and are active in shooting. That is one of the reasons why I responded as I did to the Chairman when he asked the question, because I think a slightly broader remit would be positive. The choice that we face, at the moment, is do we before 31 January extend the existence of the statutory committee or not? That is why I have taken the view, subject to what you have to say, that we should continue the arrangements until we are clear what would be the best form of replacement. I said two years in what I said to the Chairman a moment ago, but there were arguments, fairly well-balanced, on whether we should do it for just a year, do it for eighteen months, or do it for two years, or whatever. It seemed to me, before deciding what the new form was, that two years was the right period of time.

  381. Of course the shooting lobby should be included, as you say, otherwise it would be unbalanced, it is just a question of how far it would be possible to have a more representative body reflecting, to some extent at least, public opinion in the country.
  (Mr Clarke) What I am very keen to achieve is a body which has all interests there, and what I do not think is helpful is for it to become a quasi ideological division between those who are pro-shooting and those who are against shooting. I think the kinds of suggestions made by the Chairman about interests such as the National Trust, or, as I say, local government, or other groups or health and safety interests, or whatever, is the right way to seek to broaden, but that is precisely one of the issues we want to consider very carefully when looking at a long-term replacement for this, and on which we will very much welcome yours and others' views.

Mr Linton

  382. Just a supplementary on that. I was rather concerned to hear Mr Penn say just now that the FCC was neither consulted, nor, indeed, offered any comment on either of the two handgun laws in 1997. It did strike me rather, what is the purpose of a Firearms Consultative Committee if it either does not want to or is not considered appropriate to give evidence when there is firearms legislation?
  (Mr Clarke) I cannot speak for what did or did not happen in 1997, but what I said when I met the British Shooting Sports Council after I was appointed to this job was that I believed it was important that the committee was consulted on future legislation as it moves forward. Indeed, as I think you will probably be aware they have expressed views about the future of legislation in this particular area, to which I have assured them—and through you, perhaps, I can offer the same assurance—that we will listen very carefully before formulating the form of legislation desirable, following your report on the various issues brought forward. The intention of keeping the committee, and the assurance I have given them, is to listen seriously to what their thoughts and views are on the various options which are open to us.

Mr Howarth

  383. Minister, the Chairman of the FCC has told us that they do work together very well and many of their recommendations are unanimous. Is there not a risk that if you seek to broaden the basis of the membership of the FCC too broadly all you will end up with is either platitudinous recommendations or, worse still, a recipe for paralysis?
  (Mr Clarke) I certainly do not think either is true. I agree that the key issue is the efficiency and effectiveness of the committee as a working body. The implication of your question, from that point of view, I accept. However, I think it is also important that the committee should be seen to have a genuine purchase on the various range of issues which is of concern for the future development of shooting and, indeed, the regulation of firearms in this country. I think there are important bodies and interests in that which it would be beneficial to have involved in the discussion. I have to say from the dialogue I have had with organisations about this—and, as I said to Mr Linton, I come as a newcomer to this—I see no sense of people wanting to work in an obstructive way; on the contrary, I have felt that all organisations around want to be positive in the way that they work together on the issues. The concession I would make to your point is that if it were the case that paralysis, in some sense, was setting in, by the inability to get agreement, then it would be necessary to look at the situation again. Certainly I do not see any evidence of that at this stage.

  Chairman: Can we turn now to public safety issues.

Mr Winnick

  384. Minister, in the useful memorandum that you were kind enough to send to us it does say, on page 31 in the fourth paragraph, which I read: "Nor would the Government wish to encourage any notion that a perceived `right to bear arms' (which you rightly put in quotes) overrules the duties of gun owners towards the safety of their fellow citizens and the wider public interest." The question I want to put to you is, is there any right to bear arms in this country?
  (Mr Clarke) I do not think there is so much a right to bear arms as I think that the state needs a very, very powerful reason to inhibit people pursuing leisure pursuits in a variety of ways which may be seen to be distasteful or difficult in relation to society as a whole. For the state to say "You shall not do this because we, the state, decide that you, an individual group, shall not do it" requires a very powerful reason. Obviously, in the case of firearms that powerful reason could be the issue of safety that may arise. That is why I think the state is entirely justified in assuring itself that firearms are used only in a safe way. I think that is what led to the legislation we had in the past. However, I do not think it is desirable to say that because we do not think this is a nice thing the state should simply say you cannot do this, unless there are, as I say, very powerful arguments against it. I do not think that a powerful argument has been adduced in the case of many of the aspects of shooting as a recreation with which we are familiar, including the aspects of shooting as a necessity of life in the rural community in some circumstances.

  385. One of the witnesses who gave evidence to us (who was very informative, however one may disagree with his views) said, in fact, that the right to bear arms, to a large extent, started to be undermined in 1920 for reasons which are in the Home Office paper. That is a fact, is it not, Minister?
  (Mr Clarke) Yes, it is. I think the key test, as I said before, is safety, and that is the issue. Unless there is a clear safety argument which is adduced to prevent people, as I say, engaging in either shooting as a sport or shooting in the way of their business—for example, in agriculture—then I myself do not think the state should say "We simply rule this out".

  386. As regards air weapons, which you will be asked questions about later on, can I just ask about statistics? There does seem to be a steady, year-on-year, increase from 4,813 recorded offences in 1988 to 7,506 in 1997, which amounts to an increase of some 56 per cent. Does that worry you?
  (Mr Clarke) I do not think it is a healthy development, but does it worry me? No, unless, as I say, there is a clear indication that there are safety implications emerging as a result of that increase which are dangerous to society or communities more generally, and I do not believe that such evidence exists. If you ask me my prejudice, my prejudice is—not speaking as a Home Office Minister—that I think it is a shame that use has increased in these weapons. I think it would be desirable for it to go down. Do I think the state should play that role, other than through a general education programme in these areas? No, I do not, unless, as I say, safety were clearly demonstrated to be at risk.

  387. That is your view as a Minister?
  (Mr Clarke) The first part of my view is as an individual—ie, it is undesirable for that increase to take place which you have described. My second view was that of a Minister, that the state should not take the power to stop that happening unless there were clear safety issues which were identified and which needed to be addressed.

  388. What risk do you believe is posed to public safety by legally held firearms following the legislation passed by the previous government and by the present one?
  (Mr Clarke) I believe the fundamental risk to public safety in relation to firearms arises from illegally held rather than legally held firearms. I think that is the issue upon which we need to focus. I do not think there is significant evidence that legally held firearms in this country provide a significant risk to public safety.

  389. Are you concerned that recorded crimes with handguns appears not to have fallen in the past two years, despite the ban which took place in 1998?
  (Mr Clarke) I am only concerned in the general sense that I welcome all crime reductions, including reductions in crime with handguns. The legislation following Dunblane was not intended to attack that particular problem, and in that sense I do not feel there was a target of the legislation—ie, to reduce the use of handguns in crime—which was not being fulfilled. In general, of course, I think it is desirable that all the lines of use of weapons in crime should be going down rather than be static or going up.

  390. There is some merit, is there not, in the argument of those who were opposed to what was done following Dunblane, who say, in effect, that a lot of illegal guns have always been held and there has been no change, and that the greatest danger to the public is precisely those firearms held by criminals who obviously are intent to use them for reasons which are perfectly clear to us.
  (Mr Clarke) I think that the illegal issue is the central issue in the thrust of your questions, Mr Winnick, around crime, and I think it is appropriate to say "How effectively are we dealing with illegally held weapons?" That is an issue which certainly preoccupies me—how well we are dealing with that and whether we could do better with it. I do not think I feel the same level of concern about legally held firearms as I do about illegally held firearms.

  391. Which leads to the obvious question: what is the Government's position in trying to deal with this clearly very serious problem, which has faced all governments, namely illegally held firearms?
  (Mr Clarke) I believe the central issue is the establishment of the register, which we have talked about before and about which your Committee has asked questions before. I think the central element (and indeed I think this applies to other areas of crime) is the establishment of a strong, clear and accurate database which can then be used to track down and identify what is not held within the law. I give a great priority—and from the reports I read of your Committee before Christmas I believe your Committee does too—to establishing a proper database of weapons, because I believe that that will be the key weapon to reduced levels of possession of illegally held firearms.

  392. Is not one of the problems—perhaps going wider than our present inquiry but which is very much linked—that amongst a certain number of criminal elements there is a status in carrying guns as previously there was in carrying knives? This is a very disturbing trend, is it not?
  (Mr Clarke) I do not know—and perhaps you can put me straight on this—of evidence that that is an increasing trend.

  393. There is a trend, however.
  (Mr Clarke) I do not know of evidence to that effect, but perhaps you can put me straight on that if that is the case. This question of status that you are referring to, of people feeling "big" by possessing a gun in the same way as a knife, I am not aware that that is an increasing trend as such. If that were so I would be concerned, but I believe the way to address the general issue of guns in our society is through educational means. I think that any parent will be aware of the extent to which guns play a more and more important part in the culture of the society, for young people in particular, and I think contesting that is important.

  394. I am wondering how far education could overcome the feeling of some criminal, and, clearly, potentially criminal, elements who believe that holding a gun of one kind or another is a status symbol of, as you say, how "big" they are amongst their peers.
  (Mr Clarke) I am certainly ready to look at that point, but, as I say, I am not myself aware—though maybe I should be—of evidence that that is an increasing rather than a stable or decreasing trend.

  395. The memorandum which you circulated, Minister, expresses concern about the growth of the gun culture in the country and states a wish to curb any such development. Do you feel that the shooting community in any way has some responsibility of fostering the gun culture in society?
  (Mr Clarke) I think it has a major responsibility (which, actually, I think it acknowledges) to inhibit the development of the gun culture in society. I think the main way in which they have to do that is to demonstrate that the use of guns can only be legitimate in a regulated way which reflects all the various safety issues which have been set down. My experience is, and I emphasise it is short-term, that I believe that the shooting community, as a whole, does take this responsibility seriously and does seek to inhibit and attack those who try and promote a culture of use of guns without those controls and regulations. I believe that they positively recognise that it is damaging to the sport of shooting, in the case of sport, or to the use of guns in the case of livelihoods in rural areas, if any idea that a gun culture was about grew, and I think they positively try and inhibit that as organisations.

  396. It would be true to say, would it not, that the shooting lobby (again, using the broad term rather than in a derogatory sense, in any way) very much vigorously opposed the legislation following Dunblane introduced at the time, and then even more so what the present Government did?
  (Mr Clarke) I believe that is indeed the case, though, again, I think, within what you call the shooting lobby there was a variety of opinions about this issue and the fundamental issue which was around about the concern of the government legislation at the time (which I, personally, very strongly supported and voted for) was the idea that the state ought not get involved in this area, plus a doubt about the effectiveness of the legislation in terms of the safety issues which have been talked about. I do not think that the opposition, which you rightly referred to, came from the view that it was desirable in the UK society to stimulate a gun culture. What I am trying to say, Mr Winnick, is that I see the thrust of your questions and I understand where they are coming from, and I, myself, am not a shooter nor have ever shot a gun, nor do I have friends who are shooters—it is not a part of my culture, as it were, in that it is not something that I find particularly attractive—but I do not think the charge against the shooting lobby that they are about promoting gun culture is correct. I do not think that is the correct description of the vast majority of them. There may be individuals in that area but I do not think that is a fair description of where they are as organisations.

  397. You have also agreed, have you not, that the shooting lobby, at large, did oppose the restrictions which have occurred following Dunblane?
  (Mr Clarke) That is my understanding, yes.


  398. Minister, you will be aware that the Firearms Consultative Committee made a proposal that there should be a year-long, centrally funded study of all illegal weapons which come into the possession of the police, Customs and Excise, or whoever. They think that that would be a very worthwhile exercise, perhaps done on a regional basis but, importantly, done by a dedicated team so they bring the same judgments to bear across the country. Are you able to react to that?
  (Mr Clarke) My only reaction is that I think it is a very good idea, it has a lot to commend it and we are actively looking at it.

  Chairman: Splendid.

Mr Malins

  399. Minister, statistics—which can mislead as well as inform. We are led to believe that crime committed with air weapons has been increasing over the years, but you told Parliament, I think, in December that recorded violent crime in which air weapons were reported to have been used dropped steadily from 1989 right the way through to 1998. Is that right?
  (Mr Clarke) I believe that is correct, yes.

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