Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)|
TUESDAY 25 MARCH 2003
AINSWORTH MP AND
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
(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
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 oneand 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 doother people may well take a different
viewis 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.
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.
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.
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 officerI think it is an inspectorwho
has reasonable grounds to suspect that there is dealing in Class
55. So he does not have to have proof, he has
to have reasonable grounds to suspect and he can then close it
(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 circumstancesand,
by the sound of things, you are aware of circumstances as wellwhere
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 withand
you are rightoften 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 timesyou are right,
it is police intensive but it is worth it at the end of itand,
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.