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Mr. Clarke: There is a case for that and I am prepared to consider amendments to that effect in Committee. It is important to get this matter right and the Committee will look into it in detail. Overall, it is right for the offences to be introduced in the way that I said.

Airgun safety and incidents of misuse are matters of real public concern and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will have had such concerns put to them by their constituents. In 2003–04, air weapons were used in 13,756 crimes—a fall of 0.5 per cent. from the previous year, but a 59 per cent. increase from 1998–99. Most offences were criminal damage, but even so there were 2,238 slight injuries and 157 serious injuries. We would all have read with horror the details of the tragic deaths of two-year-old Andrew Morton in Glasgow and 12-year-old Alex Cole in Doncaster. They underline the concerns expressed, and arouse—universally in the House, I am sure—a feeling of deep sympathy for the families and friends.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The Home Secretary refers to the tragic case of Andrew Morton, which has excited considerable press comment and, indeed, political comment in Scotland. Has he discussed the provisions of clause 26 with the First Minister or the Minister for Justice in Scotland and, if so, have they pronounced themselves content?

Mr. Clarke: I have discussed that specific clause and the issue with both the First Minister and the Minister for Justice. We are still working to see whether any
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further amendment could usefully be made to deal with circumstances in Scotland. Both parties held a press conference during the election campaign and subsequently there were ministerial discussions and my officials and those of the Scottish Executive are discussing all the time how best to make progress in these areas. As to whether they are content, that is a difficult word to use in this context and I shall explain why.

The call was made for a licensing regime for all airguns. I did not go down that path because there were substantial representations from the police—including the police in Scotland—to the effect that expressly licensing airguns in the same way as firearms would lead to a bureaucratic and ineffective system that would not deliver the result that people wanted. There are still those who believe that we should nevertheless go down that route and I have no doubt that it will still be debated as the Bill proceeds and perhaps also in the Scottish Parliament. It remains important to reflect carefully on it.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP) rose—

Mr. Clarke: I shall give way to both hon. Members in a few moments, but I want first to set out what we intend to do about airguns.

There is already a wide range of controls on air weapons, but in view of the high number of offences, we need to tighten up on certain aspects. Much of the misuse is attributed to young people, which is why we will be raising from 17 to 18 the minimum age for possessing or acquiring air weapons. We also propose to make it an offence for any person to fire an air weapon beyond the boundary of premises. We view that as particularly important, as weapons discharged from premises generally are a real danger around and about, so the new offence is right. It is already an offence for a person under 17 and adults who misuse air weapons can be prosecuted for other offences, but that measure has not always been effective. I am mindful of a case where two men fired shots from their balcony and hit a woman. Although the men admitted firing the guns, the police could not prove intent or who fired the crucial shot. The new offence will close that loophole.

Mark Lazarowicz: Although the measures that my right hon. Friend has outlined are welcome, will he think again about a licensing scheme or indeed a ban on airguns? Although some police officers are against such a scheme, many senior figures in the police are in favour of a licensing scheme. Even if there were discussions to introduce such a scheme or a ban in Scotland, which I would welcome, the issue applies throughout the UK. I do not want people to be able to buy guns in Berwick-upon-Tweed or Carlisle and use them in Edinburgh where there may be a different regime.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is right about the need for a similar regime throughout the UK. I can assure him and other Members that I will listen carefully to debate on these matters and to the points of argument that are put. All my instincts—I know this is true of my
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hon. Friend, too—would be against those who used airguns in such ways and we need effective regulation. We have carefully considered the best way to do that, but I shall certainly listen carefully to debates in the House, in Committee and elsewhere about how best to address the problem in a way that works. I am sure that my hon. Friend and I share the view that we should act only in a way that is actually effective and that is the key test that we have to establish.

Mr. Weir: Given the points made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), the Home Secretary can see that there is cross-party consensus in Scotland on the matter. There may indeed be a desire to go further than the provisions in the Bill. The Home Secretary said that he prefers a UK-wide system, but if it were demonstrated that there was cross-party consensus in Scotland to go further, would he look into transferring to the Scottish Parliament the power to consider setting up a stronger system in Scotland?

Mr. Clarke: The view taken at the time of the original devolution legislation was that the distribution of guns was rightly a UK issue, for precisely the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz)—that people could buy guns on one side of the border and take them to the other. There should be UK resolution of that issue, so I do not have in mind the prospect of devolving that aspect of legislation to the Scottish Parliament. With respect, I know that the focus of the hon. Gentleman's party is on where the devolution line falls—or does not fall—but he would be on stronger ground if he talked to his colleagues in other parties about the best means for dealing with air weapons across the UK.

In relation to ammunition, we shall be unrelenting in our efforts to ensure that police and local communities are successful in tackling gun crime. As I have already indicated, there have been successes, but although it is an offence to possess full rounds of ammunition without a certificate the current law does not apply to component parts. That has given rise to police concern that some criminals try to escape prosecution by holding ammunition in its component form and we intend to make that illegal.

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): May I return briefly to an earlier point? Recently, an air weapon was fired into a school playground in my constituency and I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would consider making that an aggravated offence.

Mr. Clarke: I certainly shall consider that proposal, which is a fair point to raise. Indeed, making it illegal to discharge an airgun from any premise would bear directly on the incident that my hon. Friend described. The offence of aggravation for discharging a weapon—for example, into a school playground—could be properly considered in Committee.

The third measure on weapons relates to imitation firearms.

Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend give any assurance to my constituent,
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Mr. Peter Dyson, who has written to me expressing concern that plans to limit the use of replica guns will affect him and others who enjoy the sport of airsofting in a responsible and law-abiding manner?

Mr. Clarke: I, too, have received correspondence on that matter and if my hon. Friend will allow me, I shall respond on airsoft and one or two of the other lobbies in a second, when I have outlined our overall approach.

The overall approach set out in the Bill on imitation firearms acknowledges the fact that in 2003–04 such weapons were used in 2,146 crimes, an increase of 18 per cent., on top of a 46 per cent. increase in the previous year. That accounts for 21 per cent.—more than a fifth—of firearms crime if we exclude offences committed with air weapons. Some 75 per cent. of offences involving imitation weapons constituted violence against the person. That is wholly unacceptable, and the whole House would agree that it is necessary for us to legislate on those issues.

It is true that a range of existing controls governs the misuse of imitation weapons. Those controls will remain in place and continue to be enforced, but they have been proved insufficient to halt the upward trend, which seems to be fuelled in part by the success of measures to tackle the misuse of real firearms, such as the five-year minimum sentence for possessing a prohibited firearm.

Of course, defining an imitation weapon has always been difficult. At present, the law refers to anything that has the appearance of a firearm whether or not it is capable of discharging any shot, bullet or other missile. That definition works in practice by virtue of the fact that it is subject to a qualifier relating either to the weapon's design: whether it is readily convertible; or to its misuse: whether it is possessed to cause fear of unlawful violence. However, it is a wide-ranging definition, and we want to bear down most of all on those weapons that closely resemble real firearms, which are being increasingly used to threaten, intimidate or rob.

If most of us saw one of the imitation weapons that I am talking about lying on a table alongside a real gun, we would not be able to tell the difference between them without picking them up. We will therefore make it an offence to manufacture, import or sell a realistic imitation. Under the definition that we use, an imitation will be caught by the new offence if it is indistinguishable from a certain make or model, or is sufficiently similar to a generic type of firearm.

We know only too well about the problems for the police when armed units are called out in response to reports of people seen with guns. Often, the person is a youngster, brandishing an imitation that they are misusing deliberately, recklessly or with little appreciation of the consequences. A restriction on the age at which any imitation can be sold or purchased will help to reduce the incidence of misuse, and we propose a minimum age of 18.

We have accepted that a total ban on the possession of imitation firearms is impractical for a variety of reasons, which is why we propose to double the penalty for possessing an imitation firearm in a public place without reasonable excuse. We are saying, loud and clear, that messing around in public with anything that resembles a gun is simply not acceptable, and unless people heed that message, they could go to prison for up to 12 months.
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The point about airsoft made by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) also applies to paintballing, re-enactment societies and use in television and film, where a legitimate case may be made for a certain use—I emphasise the word "may"—so we set out in clause 32 the power for the Secretary of State to regulate exemptions in such circumstances. I will listen to such representations, but those representations would have to make a very powerful case for a certain exemption. That is the criteria that I would use.

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