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Mr. Greg Knight: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm that if, as now appears likely, there is no debate on the final group of amendments, which begins with amendment No. 112, that absence is not through lack of interest or importance but would relate solely to the terms of the Government's guillotine motion?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman is right. We are proceeding in the way in which the House has already agreed. The time spent on each group of amendments is entirely a matter for those taking part.
I am belatedly pleased that the Government have tabled amendments to deal with some matters that we raised in Committee. However, many thousands of people continue to be worried by the uncertainty that has been caused by the manner in which the Bill has progressed. We wholeheartedly support measures that will have a genuine, practical effect on reducing gun crime in the UK and making our systems safer. However, we do not support clauses that create laws for the sake of being seen to be tough on gun crime, but whose effect will be felt almost exclusively by legitimate users of weapons, not the criminals on whom we intend to crack down.
The root of the remaining problems with part 2 is that we do not believe that sufficient consultation has been held with affected as well as expert bodies. Where is the firearms advisory committee, which should have been
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the proper body to consult about the Bill? The Government said that they would form that committee before abolishing their previous consulting committee, but they failed to do that.
The Government have yet to publish anything that relates to the 4,000-odd responses to the May 2004 consultation paper on controls on firearms. I submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but it elicited the entirely unsatisfactory response that the information would still not be released. This adds further weight to our grave concerns about the fundamental basis of this part of the Bill.
On amendment No. 108, our position remains that the impact of the changes to the law two years ago should be assessed fully before yet further laws penalising legitimate users of air weapons are introduced. Clause 27 requires anyone who sells air weapons by way of trade or business to register with the police as a firearms dealer. The Minister said in Committee that the registration fee was likely to be £150 per establishment. Will she please confirm that that is the case?
In Committee, the Minister undertook to provide information on how the licensing regime was to work. On Thursday night last week, we received a letter which hardly explained the situation. Perhaps she could now explain, for example, what a fishing store would have to do in order to continue to be able to sell air weapons, and how long it would take to do it. Clause 27 would prohibit any person other than a registered dealer from selling or transferring air weapons. Where is the evidence that airguns are misused through being obtained through trade sources rather than private sales? It is hard enough to accept these changes to the Bill so late in the day, but to do so without being given anything to support, explain or justify the clauses relating to air weapons is quite another matter. As I said in Committee, clauses 27 and 28, when taken together with clause 29, will have a serious and unjustifiably adverse effect on legitimate users of airguns and on persons carrying on the business of selling them.
Amendment No. 108 seeks to remove the burdensome, impractical and pointless requirement to keep a register of air weapons. I want to address the amendment in the context of clause 27 as a whole, because they are inextricably linked. I raised this issue in Committee, but the Minister did not address it at the time. There are an estimated 7 million air weapons in circulation in this country. I do not think that the Government are proposing that those 7 million weapons should be registered; I believe that only future sales will be affected. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that. If that is the case, how would the measure work in practice? If clause 27 does not propose to register the existing 7 million air weapons, will not subsection (2)which would require a register of transactionsbe futile? There will be 7 million unregistered air weapons in circulation, and this proposal would merely impose a disproportionate administrative burden on registered firearms dealers. The requirement to maintain full records of air weapons sales in a firearms register would simply be unnecessary red tape.
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Fewer than 50 per cent. of airguns are sold by registered firearms dealers. The majority are sold by sports shops, fishing shops and similar outlets. No evidence has been produced to show that airguns sold through registered firearms dealers are more or less likely to be misused than those sold through other retail outlets. There is no evidence that retailers who are not registered firearms dealers are irresponsible in selling airguns to the public. Nor is there evidence to suggest that the proposed restrictions will improve public safety.
A simpler system would involve creating a lawful check on the sale of firearms, but without the need for registration. One such system could involve ensuring that any person who wished to sell air weapons should apply in writing to the police for written authority to do so. This would essentially be a much simpler system of licensing. If the police believed that the applicant was not a fit person to sell airguns, they could refuse to give their authority. The applicant could then be given the right of appeal. As we said in Committee, a modified form of licensing would be more acceptable, but no changes have been forthcoming from the Government since then. Rather than requiring full registration, regulation could be achieved by using simpler, less restrictive regimes. What I continue to find most bizarre is that the Home Office consultation paper of May 2004 stated that
Banning the sale of air weapons except through registered firearms dealers approved by the police is an impractical, draconian, burdensome and disproportionate measure, and the Government have failed to provide any evidence that it will have any effect on violent crime. It will serve only to penalise business people and sports persons involved in shooting.
In the Home Office regulatory impact assessment, the Home Office recognises that licensing all air weapons would result in a significant decrease in sales of air weapons and a significant impact on business. The assessment stated:
It remains unclear exactly how many small sellers would actually convert to getting a firearms licence. The cost and inconvenience could be disproportionate, and again, business as well as sport could suffer.
The more important point for the Minister to show is exactly how that will reduce violent crime involving air weapons. While the clause will make it more difficult for lawful users to acquire air weapons, there is no evidence that that will affect the level of misuse.
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