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Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it be in order to thank you very much for what you have just said, to express sympathy with you as a constituency Member, but most of all to thank you for upholding the impartiality of the Chair?

Mr. Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman.


Animal Health Bill

Secretary Margaret Beckett, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Blunkett, Mr. Secretary Milburn, Mr. Secretary Murphy, Mr. Michael Wills and Mr. Elliot Morley, presented a Bill to amend the Animal Health Act 1981: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 39].

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Firearms (Replica Weapons)

3.31 pm

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East): I beg to move,

Last year, two girl constituents of mine who are sisters aged 12 and 15 were hit by ball-bearings fired from a gun while out walking in a public place. The experience traumatised both of them, especially the younger, whose quality of life suffered mentally for many weeks after. Fortunately, only their legs were hit. It could have been their heads, or, even worse, their eyes.

Since then, I have read all too many reports of local people being similarly targeted in public places, including children. In August, the Bournemouth Daily Echo reported a seven-year-old boy covered in blood having been shot in the forehead by a bullet from a BB gun. Such reports are frequently accompanied by the repeated warnings of the police about the carrying and use of BB guns and similar replica weapons in public. They are all too often called out in response to reports of the use of real handguns that turn out to be toys or replicas.

Last July in Bournemouth, a Dorset police helicopter was called out to lead a ground patrol to respond to a situation where a member of the public saw a 15-year-old boy with what appeared to be a real firearm. It was a BB gun. Of course, the police have no choice but to take such reports seriously, assuming that real weapons are being used. It represents a time-consuming waste of scarce police manpower.

I have no doubt that many hon. Members have read of similar experiences in their constituencies. That is the position that my Bill seeks to address. The guns that I seek to restrict are exact replicas, many made under licences issued by the major gun manufacturers: Colt, Smith and Wesson, Beretta, Uzi, Walther and so forth. Some are so-called soft air guns that shoot plastic bullets. Others shoot pellets or ball-bearings. They are marketed for fun gunning, whatever that is. They are freely available in toy, camping and gun shops, in markets, by mail order and on the internet. There are almost no restrictions on their purchase and use. As a result, they are widely used by children and young people, and criminals.

There is no doubt that the 1997 ban on handguns has contributed to the sharp reduction in the use of handguns in armed robbery. However, the legislation is being undermined by the alarming growth in the market for replica guns, estimated at more than 50 per cent. in the last two years alone.

This growing interest by children and young people, as well as criminals, should be a major concern to the House. It is creating insecurity and fear in our local communities. As I have said, it puts the police under pressure in the deployment of armed response to reports of replica incidents, which undoubtedly put the users at risk because the police must assume that the guns are real—and that could spark a tragedy, as indeed it has. The House will recall last July's tragedy when Metropolitan police officers shot dead a man in Brixton after he threatened them with what looked like a pistol but was in fact a novelty lighter. That strengthens the arguments for the police to be routinely armed, and may make it more difficult to recruit and retain quality police officers.

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Dorset police regularly repeat warnings about BB guns and similar replica weapons ahead of school holidays, which see a rise in the number of such incidents. Officers talk to pupils at local schools and warn of the potential dangers. Regrettably, such warnings are proving unsuccessful in reducing such incidents. The fact is that some young people today want replica guns as fashion accessories to give them power and status. There are children who play with BB guns that shoot ball-bearings as if they are toys.

In response to this situation, countries such as France, Belgium and Japan have banned uncertified lookalikes and toys. Soft air weapons and other replicas are required to be brightly coloured and to look obviously different from real guns. My Bill could provide the vehicle for such a practical measure to be introduced here. It would not, however, deal with the firing of ball-bearings at people in public, which is the prime motivation behind my Bill.

The House will be aware that the Select Committee on Home Affairs gave detailed consideration to this issue last year. Its report "Controls over Firearms" was published in April 2000. The evidence given to the Committee by the Association of Chief Police Officers was very clear. I shall quote for the record what it said in support of my Bill. It stated:

In its report, the Committee recommended that the purchase or sale of any imitation firearm by or to persons under 18 by telephone, mail order or on the internet should be prohibited. The Government have accepted that and propose to extend it to include sales through any outlet, including face to face.

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Paragraph 54 of the Committee's report said:

It is that recommendation that the Government have accepted in principle. They want to consider whether it is possible to devise a clear distinction between imitation guns that might be properly sold as toys and the more realistic replica guns of the kind suitable for film and theatrical work.

That is where the matter rests. However, the then Home Office Minister, now the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), confirmed the Government's continuing commitment to banning replica weapons on Budget day in March this year when he opened an exhibition in the House by the Gun Control Network. It is now clear that the Home Office is concentrating on even more serious issues in response to international terrorism. It is unlikely to produce any such legislation for some time to come, so my Bill provides the House with the opportunity to demonstrate its concern that legislation be introduced to address the irresponsible use of BB guns and other replica weapons. Should the House allow my Bill to proceed, it could also provide a vehicle for the Government's intended legislation, should they be so minded.

My Bill to restrict the availability and use of ball-bearing guns and similar replica weapons has all-party support and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Atkinson, Mr. David Amess, Mrs. Annette L. Brooke, Sir Sydney Chapman, Mr. Tom Cox, Mrs. Ann Cryer, Mr. Bill Etherington, Mr. Mike Hancock, Rev. Martin Smyth, Bob Spink, Adam Price and Mr. John Wilkinson.

Firearms (Replica Weapons)

Mr. David Atkinson accordingly presented a Bill to restrict the availability and use of ball bearing guns and similar replica weapons: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 30 November, and to be printed [Bill 41].

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Proceeds of Crime Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

3.41 pm

The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The last Bill that I introduced on Second Reading, the Football Disorder (Amendment) Bill, completed its Committee stage in less than one full Committee sitting. I very much doubt that we shall have so much good fortune with this Bill, which has more than 400 clauses, but it is a very important measure.

The Bill is about taking the profit out of crime. The proceeds of crime have a corrosive effect on society and our economy. The wealth is flaunted and the message seems to be that crime pays. Such wealth is offensive to our hard-working and law-abiding constituents and establishes harmful role models for our young people. Moreover, businesses whose profits are inflated by criminal proceeds can gain an unfair advantage over honest competitors. The proceeds of crime also provide the working capital for future criminal enterprise. Recovering the money is therefore essential for crime reduction.

Traditionally, however, the criminal justice system has been much better at convicting criminals than at depriving them of their wealth. Far too many defendants pass through the criminal justice system with little or no effort being made to deprive them of the benefit that they have derived from their crimes. The Bill says that people should not be able to enjoy the proceeds of criminal activity. They should not enjoy the trappings of wealth when that wealth is built on the misery of victims or activities that damage and exploit society.

Organised crime is big business and the sums involved are huge. The value of drugs seized last year exceeded £735 million, and the value of illegal drugs transactions has been estimated at up to £1.5 billion annually. Cigarette smuggling annually costs the Exchequer almost £3 billion and loose tobacco smuggling about £900 million. The assets derived from organised crime represent about 2 per cent. of the United Kingdom's gross domestic product. Globally, the profits of some drug cartels are comparable to those of some of the world's major companies.

Like legitimate business, organised crime sets out to maximise profits and minimise risk. It forms strategic alliances. It continually diversifies into different commodities and services, depending on the market. The criminals concerned are cash-rich, and it is easier for them to dispose of the proceeds of their crime by investing in other criminal enterprises than to invest them in the conventional way. None the less, some of them use dirty money to buy and run legitimate businesses. They employ bankers, lawyers and accountants and they operate across international borders.

I believe that with this Bill, we shall be able to cut into the profits that are made from crime and increase the risk to those who indulge in criminal activities. We have to follow the commodity, as we do when we set out to seize drugs. We need to target people, as we do when we go after persistent offenders in the criminal community. We also need, however, to follow the money. The police and customs experts believe that following the money is an

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effective route in identifying major criminals, disrupting criminal organisations and, of course, relieving crooks of the proceeds of their crimes.

Money laundering is consistently given prominence in the annual threat assessment of the National Criminal Intelligence Service. That is why customs and the National Crime Squad now consider the financial aspects in every criminal investigation and why the detention and seizure of drug-related cash at the border is now a top enforcement activity for customs.

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