Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)

TUESDAY 25 MARCH 2003

MR BOB AINSWORTH MP AND MS LOUISE CASEY

  40. Certainly, Minister, my postbag would support that statement. What is the timetable you are looking at in the year when fireworks would be permitted?
  (Mr Ainsworth) We have not worked up the detail of that. Obviously we do not want to restrict different communities who have different occasions which they celebrate. The obvious one that springs to mind is Diwali which usually falls fairly close to 5 November, so there is no problem there. We do not want to restrict different cultural activities, but what we do want to do is to relieve people from the constant noise 24 hours a day and throughout the year.

  41. Again, I think that is a move that will be welcomed. Minister, the current Fireworks Bill is a Private Member's Bill. Should that not proceed, is it the Government's intention to take on the measures that are contained in that Private Member's Bill?
  (Mr Ainsworth) We totally support the Private Member's Bill and will do everything that we can in order to put it on the statute book.

  42. Moving on to airguns, a subject on which the Chairman is particularly keen, as indeed I am and that has nothing to do with the fact that, a month ago, I had an airgun pellet fired through my constituency office windows, it is just one of those unfortunate coincidences that happen—
  (Mr Ainsworth) It sharpens the mind though, does it not?

  43. It does. Minister, you propose to ban ownership of airguns by people under the age of 17. Why not a total ban on airgun ownership or at least a licensing system for all airguns?
  (Mr Ainsworth) I do not think that a total ban is proportionate to the problem that we have. Overwhelmingly, the anti-social behaviour that is committed with airguns is committed by young people sadly. We are talking about overwhelmingly 14, 15 and 16 year olds and that is one of the reasons for us looking to raise the age limit from 14 to 17. One of the other reasons is just to try and simplify the regulations in this area. We have a situation where people are allowed to purchase an airgun at 17 and are allowed to own one at 14. I have yet to hear any kind of an argument that would convince me that somebody in their own right should be allowed to own what is potentially a lethal weapon at the age of 14. Nobody has put such an argument to me, so I think we can simplify the age range and lift the age at which someone can own an air rifle to 17. It is not the only measure we propose to take. We ruled out a licensing system on the recommendation overwhelmingly of the police. I know that there are police officers in localities who have campaigned such a registration/certification system for air rifles, but that is not the view of the police when you talk to them and I have talked extensively with ACPO over the late summer on this issue. They are hugely worried about the costs of an effective regulation system. If we had some kind of a light touch regulation system, what are we achieving? We are putting something in that gives us comfort politically that says we brought a registration scheme in but we are not effectively controlling who has an air rifle, in what circumstances they are keeping it and whether or not they are using it in the correct way. If we put the kind of regime into place that exists for firearms, shotguns and the like, then we are talking about a lot of police time and potentially a great deal of bureaucracy. We estimate that there are around four to six million air rifles in this country. So, the police pushed/encouraged us down the line of, let us try to deal with the abuse rather than the use, and that is what we are trying to do. At the moment, the police actually have to catch somebody in the act of firing an air rifle in order to be able to do anything about it. That discourages them from trying to do anything in this area and it is so difficult for them. So, by giving the police the power to take action against people who are in possession of an air rifle in a public place, by giving them a usable tool, they ought to be able to deal with some of the problems we see in our neighbourhoods.

  44. On the assumption that the misuse is more of an urban problem than a rural one—and you have just used the term "public place" and, as I understand it, the terminology is "without lawful authority or reasonable excuse"—first of all, what is the definition of a public place and how are you going to define reasonable excuse?
  (Mr Ainsworth) The reasonable excuse is, in the first instance, whether or not a constable can be persuaded that the person has an air rifle in the circumstances in which they have it with good reason. If they are on the way to a shooting event or if they have just bought the rifle from a shop up the road, then they have good reason to have it. If they are out in the neighbourhood and they are unable to explain where they are going or why they have a rifle with them, then clearly they have not. Subsequently, if the constable chooses to take action, it will be a matter for the courts to decide whether or not the confiscation and the arrest that took place was reasonable. It keeps on getting thrown up that we are dealing with an urban problem here. I do not believe that we are dealing with an urban problem here. I may represent an urban constituency, but I live on the edge of the city and let me tell you that problems with airguns in rural situations are pretty strong. People going round shooting wildlife, frightening the living daylights out of other people and often taking potshots at them as well are all too common, I am afraid. So, these occur in rural areas as well as urban areas. This is not simply an urban problem. Some of the most horrendous circumstances that have been highlighted in the press have been in urban situations.

  45. What would be the definition of a public place, in a farmer's field?
  (Mr Ainsworth) Private land is private land. A public place is anywhere which can be accessed by the public. So, public footpaths, public rights of way, canal towpaths, streets, common land, all of that is a public place.

  46. Is there anything in the existing legislation or in your proposed legislation which deals with a person firing out of their back bedroom window in a terraced neighbourhood area?
  (Mr Ainsworth) That is already an offence. Anybody who fires an air rifle outside the curtilage of the private property commits an offence.

  47. But, if they are firing at cans at the bottom of their garden, that is within their own private property.
  (Mr Ainsworth) It is.

  48. So that would not be an offence.
  (Mr Ainsworth) Let me be honest with the Committee. This is the most difficult area where we find the interface between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. There are circumstances where people would be firing on private land where really we do not want to impose the law in those circumstances. It would be very good to be able to find some kind of way that we could bring nuisance and fear into that situation, but it is very difficult to do so. If people are endangering others and if they are intimidating others, then they are already committing an offence. Whether or not you want to bring that further to cover the situation where someone is firing at tin cans at the bottom of the garden, if it is entirely within their own private land and they are not causing a nuisance or frightening anyone else, then I would not want to take action. It is whether or not we could actually bring nuisance into that situation and that is the interface between what we want to effect and what we do not want to effect and to see how we could legislation that area is most difficult.

  49. I will leave it there, Minister, and ask that perhaps your colleagues look to see whether something could be looked at because I think that is where one of the major problems happens in an urban neighbourhood where the neighbourhood is rightly concerned even though the shooting is allegedly being confined within that person's back garden.
  (Mr Ainsworth) What we do not want to do or what I do not want to do—other people may well take a different view—is to stop people from using air rifles on private land where they are not creating a nuisance to anyone else. I do not want to do that.

  50. I will move on to my final question which is, why have you opted for a complete ban on the import, sale and manufacture of self-contained air cartridge systems rather than simply imposing an effective licensing regime?
  (Mr Ainsworth) We have not done this lightly. We have been working on this issue for some time now. We have been working with the manufacturers as well. I have no criticism to make of the manufacturers but the self-contained airgun system is of the kind of construction that is very easily convertible into a full-blown firearm and I am afraid all the evidence is that too often these weapons are converted. The manufacturers have been working and we have had the Forensic Science Service trying to find a way of rendering this system usable without being convertible and I am afraid that we have not been able to do that. With the manufacturers' assistance, we simply have not been able to do that. The incidence of problems that we have had are quite substantial. The converted Brococks have been used to commit between 50 and 60 unsolved murders and attempted murders since May 2001 and 10 solved murders and attempted murders where the Brococks was the weapon that had been used. So, overwhelmingly, conversions that were legal in their unconverted state are this system. There are other conversions around; they are illegal prior to conversion; they have been illegal imports. The legal import that is creating the most problem in terms of being converted and then used in crime is the Brococks and we simply have not been able to put, with the help of the Forensic Science Service, a technical fix into that.

Mr Singh

  51. Minister, you have mentioned the Fireworks Bill in very positive terms. I expect it to be a DTI measure or to come under the DTI and, in that context, what input is the Home Office having into that Bill and, secondly, are there any freestanding measures in this Bill in any case which would deal with the problem of nuisance caused by fireworks?
  (Mr Ainsworth) There are no proposals within the anti-social behaviour Bill to deal with fireworks. Obviously, if we ran into difficulties with the Private Member's Bill, then we would have to find ways of enacting the powers that there are within that. Yes, it was sponsored by the DTI but the anti-social behaviour White Paper makes it clear that we want to support the measures that are in the Bill and that we will give it our full support. Hopefully, it will be given passage through the House in its current form or some amended form in Committee that improves it. I think that it does have widespread support in the House on all benches, so hopefully we will not have to bring it within Government legislation and it will go through as a Private Member's Bill.

  52. Given the experience that the Home Office has of anti-social behaviour and the consultation that has been taking place on this, will we get the right measures in that Bill that are regulatory rather than specific?
  (Mr Ainsworth) If there are proposals for amendments, we will obviously be looking at them and having our input into them and try to assist in any way that we can.
  (Ms Casey) The whole topic of fireworks is a huge issue for us in the anti-social behaviour unit in that it is a cause of an enormous number of complaints and actually quite a lot of fear from the public, particularly people having fireworks thrown at them which is already a criminal offence. We have been promoting the use of FPNs, which is not new and therefore is not in the Bill but it is in the White Paper.

Chairman

  53. Just spell out what an FPN is.
  (Mr Ainsworth) A fixed penalty notice.
  (Ms Casey) A fixed penalty notice as an effective way for dealing with the low-level throwing of fireworks, but we are going to look at that again. Ministers were very, very clear, as Bob said, that we need to make sure that the Fireworks Bill goes through and, if it does not, we need to take action and make sure that we get what we need because it is going to be quite an important part of what certainly I feel responsible for in the next couple of years and we have to crack this whole fireworks topic. They are amazingly annoying to the public and people feel very frightened of them. They are 50 pence a shot to make a phenomenal amount of noise at the moment and we need to stop that now. So, we are absolutely clear that it is a major priority for us to get this sorted.

  Chairman: There was a major fireworks display in my street just after midnight on Saturday.

Miss Widdecombe

  54. Can I turn now to crack houses and your proposal to close down crack houses within 48 hours and then indeed to seal the premises for six months. I am delighted to see that the police are at long last going to be able to do with crack houses what they have been able to do with opium dens for some years. Nevertheless, there are obviously very practical considerations. The first is how you are going to identify those houses and the second is, what are the grounds of proof that you are going to require that Class A drugs have actually been sold or used there?
  (Mr Ainsworth) I think it is reasonable grounds to suspect by a senior police officer, not by a constable. It is a senior police officer—I think it is an inspector—who has reasonable grounds to suspect that there is dealing in Class A drugs.

  55. So he does not have to have proof, he has to have reasonable grounds to suspect and he can then close it down.
  (Mr Ainsworth) He has to have reasonable grounds to suspect to issue the notice in the first place. Obviously, he has to go before the court within 48 hours and justify it.

  56. You are then going to seal it up for six months. If you consider what very often happens with crack houses, which is that vulnerable people find their premises taken over and they are intimidated into going along with it, sealing up those premises is obviously going to have very grave consequences for them. Secondly, we know that an awful lot of this dealing, certainly not exclusively but an awful lot of it, takes place in council estates and you would effectively be sealing up a local authority home for six months which I do not think would go down terribly well. Can you just comment on that?
  (Mr Ainsworth) I think it is going to be a problem but nothing like the problem that is caused by the existence of these premises in the first place. I have seen circumstances—and, by the sound of things, you are aware of circumstances as well—where the existence of a crack house can cause total mayhem in practically empty half the street or a large part of a block of flats because of the nuisance and the mayhem that emits from it. What is needed is swift, effective measures. We can take measures against crack houses but they take far too long to enact. Substantial amounts of money can be made in these endeavours over relatively short periods of time and what the police have been after for a long time is quick, effective measures to take over premises, to close them down, to prevent the dealing and to prevent the profit making that is going on. So, yes, there are consequences and we will have to be able to pick up circumstances of homelessness that may arise as a result of that, but the benefit to the immediate neighbourhood that would result from swift measures will far outweigh the problems that will arise as a result of having to deal with—and you are right—often vulnerable people who have sometimes been driven out of their house by the people who are making money.

  57. Sealing up premises for a certain period of time I do not disagree with. I just wonder whether six months is a sensible period in some circumstances.
  (Mr Ainsworth) It is up to six months; we can always review it. If people can be satisfied that it is not going to reopen . . . Half of the problem of what we have at the moment is that people take effective measures and, a couple of days later, the same activities are going on in the same premises.

  58. That was the point I wanted to come to. Would it not be better to concentrate on dealing with the users and the sellers rather than dealing specifically just with the premises because, you are quite right, if you take action against premises and then you move out, another lot of dealers and users come in, but that would give you your opportunity to tackle them as well. What is going to happen if you simply close off the premises is that those dealers and users will go somewhere else. I am really trying to ask you if you are focusing on the dealers and users or just on the premises.
  (Mr Ainsworth) We have no desire to let up on the dealers at all, but practical policing difficulties in actually shutting down crack houses are quite severe. They dispose of evidence. There are security measures that are taken on the premises themselves and, by the time the police manage to gain access, it is impossible to identify who is the user and who is the dealer. This is not seen as an alternative to getting the addicts into treatment, it has to be denying the market to the dealers and taking effective action against the suppliers of the drug. It seems complementary to those and I do not want anybody to believe that we ought to be letting up in any way in taking action against the dealers or getting the users into treatment.

  59. The way they tackle this in New York, if I may be so bold as to mention New York, is that they take out the dealers and the users. They know that they will be replaced in very short order. They take out the replacements and they take out those replacements five or six times—you are right, it is police intensive but it is worth it at the end of it—and, in the end, the message goes out that that area is too hot to deal with. So, not only then do those very specific premises get left alone but the area actually tends to get left alone. What I am really trying to press you on is, do you not think that might be a better way to tackle this?
  (Mr Ainsworth) I think that is a highly appropriate way of tackling it and that is what we tried to do over last summer with a high degree of success in the Lambeth area in London where the police really got their act together and shut a large number of crack houses in that immediate vicinity over a period of some months and sent the very clear message out to the dealers, "Do not come into this area if you want to deal in crack cocaine." I do not want to discourage that kind of operation at all. That in itself is not a solution because there can be a tendency to displace, so we need to work across boundaries and we need to try to identify the layers of traffickers who are supplying the frontline dealers as well, but we do need to have effective measures that bring relief and quick relief to people who are suffering the kind of mayhem that these establishments can bring to their locality. So, I want it to be complementary. I do not want it to be an alternative to the kind of effective policing that you are encouraging us to stay engaged in.


 
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