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Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend has a great deal of personal experience of these really devastating problems in her community. I am sure that Labour Members not only share her disappointment, but are shocked by the Opposition's position and the fact that they divided the House to vote against mandatory sentences, which was a great surprise.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the restrictions on airguns in the Bill are good news for one of my constituents, Andrew Ross, who was shot in the face three weeks ago? He needed six stitches and nearly lost an eye. Such restrictions are an important step forward. If, as I hope, the Bill is passed tonight, will she join my call to urge forces throughout the country to have an amnesty for airguns? If fewer such weapons are lying around in people's houses, it is logical that people such as my constituent will be safer.

Hazel Blears: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that the restrictions will help to ensure that air weapons are better regulated. As I said earlier, there were 156 serious injuries involving air weapons last year. He suggests an amnesty. If such weapons are no longer being used, they should be kept out of the hands of people who could misuse them, so his suggestion would be a positive way forward.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): I commend the Bill because in the smallest county in Scotland, of which my constituency is part, in the first seven months of the year, 41 of the 50 crimes involving firearms related to airguns. There was an incident similar to that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) when a 13 or 14-year-old boy was shot under the eye. Anything that can be done to tighten the registration of, and
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restriction on, such armaments must be a step in the right direction to make our society and communities much safer.

Hazel Blears: Yes. I know about my hon. Friend's personal commitment to the issue because I was delighted that he recently presented me with a petition through which many of his constituents expressed their worry about the misuse of air weapons.

Mr. Hollobone rose—

Hazel Blears: I give way to the hon. Gentleman with the striking tie.

Mr. Hollobone: I thank the right hon. Lady for her compliment. I raise a genuine constituent's concern. Mr. Cockayne from Kettering is a member of the Great War Society, which has a distinguished record of re-enacting scenes from the great war. The Governments of France and Belgium have invited the society to re-enact the battle of the Somme in July 2006—the right hon. Lady will know that that has special significance. Mr. Cockayne wants to know whether members of the society will be allowed to leave the country with their deactivated original weapons and then be allowed back into the country with those weapons when they return.

Hazel Blears: Yes. The Bill now provides an exemption for deactivated weapons, so they will not fall under the category of realistic imitation weapons, which will be banned from being manufactured and imported. If the weapons are deactivated, those people will be able to take part in their activity. I have been keen throughout the Bill's passage to try to ensure that we do not cast our net too wide and affect people who do extremely good work, especially with schoolchildren, by re-enacting and taking part in living history lessons to try to bring such history alive. I am conscious of the excellent work done by people in my constituency in that regard.

We had a good debate on air weapons and I think that we have dealt sufficiently with the matter. I was disappointed that we did not have the chance to debate primers because I was looking forward to telling hon. Members that I had learned about not only muzzle joule energy, but percussions caps for UN metallic-cased ammunition. Our chance has now disappeared, but those matters have added to the sum of my knowledge, if not to the sum of human knowledge.

We did not have the chance to discuss imitation firearms, but I am glad that we have been able to include in the Bill exemptions for television and theatrical productions, historical re-enactments and museums. We have struck a pragmatic and realistic balance between the mischief at which we are aiming, which is the misuse of realistic imitations—the use of which has increased by 66 per cent. in the past year, so we need to crack down on that—and protecting legitimate use.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I echo a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). How many such crimes were committed by children aged between 17 and 18? Although the Minister cited many other figures, she did not tell us that information.

Hazel Blears: No, I am afraid that I do not have to hand the figures on 17 to 18-year-olds. However, a
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strong case has been made about the danger of young people obtaining weapons that could be misused at the age of 18. As I have set out, there is a range of circumstances in which youngsters as young as 14 can continue to use air weapons provided that they do so under supervision. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes such provisions, which aim to achieve the right balance, so that people have the freedom to use their weapons, but certainly do not have the freedom to misuse them and harass good, decent, law-abiding citizens.

I have nothing further to add save to commend the Bill to the House. As I said, violent crime has been reduced by 34 per cent. since the Government came to power, which is an excellent record. There is always more that we can do, however, to try to make sure that the people of this country have the right to live in safe and secure communities. The Government will try to achieve that with every measure that we introduce to try to ensure that the criminal justice system and the police service are on the side of the decent, law-abiding majority. I commend the Bill to the House.

9.30 pm

Mr. Malins: I should like to begin in the same way as the Minister by telling the House that all the members of the Committee have good reason to be grateful to our Chairmen, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Benton), and to the Clerk of the Committee, who looked after us very well during the course of our deliberations.

I particularly thank the Minister, because throughout the Committee, she, like the rest of us, ensured that our debate was reasoned and measured. Although there were disagreements, as is always the case, there were also points on which we agreed, and we approached everything in a constructive manner. I should like to thank my hon. Friends who contributed a great deal in Committee. My hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) and for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) were particularly helpful, but I should like to give special mention to my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) for taking on his shoulders the heavy burden of dealing with firearms matters. I am grateful to him for that work.

The majority of correspondence that hon. Members received before the Bill went into Committee was sent by people who were interested for personal reasons—they often had relevant hobbies—in the provisions on firearms. We all received many letters from concerned constituents. I thank the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) for her contributions in Committee. We had some useful exchanges with Government Back Benchers, including the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble). Although I rarely agreed with her, and she rarely agreed with me, that does not alter the fact that such exchanges are worth while.

The Bill has completed its Committee and Report stages, and it will shortly proceed to the other place. Earlier, the Minister said that one or two of our amendments may find favour with her, given what they set out to achieve, although not necessarily as drafted. That shows the House of Commons at its best. From
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time to time—I wish it happened more often—Governments accept Opposition amendments if they think that there is merit in them. I therefore look forward very much to hearing the Government's proposals on those amendments, sooner rather than later. We have been talking for weeks about the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which draws our attention to three areas that are of great concern to everyone in the House of Commons and in Parliament generally. First, drink-fuelled crime and alcohol-related disorder are a huge concern. The Minister properly said that the figures are too high, and there is concern about the problem on both sides of the House, particularly among Members who represent urban areas. I understand and respect that concern, because sometimes people from urban areas see things differently. They are not always correct, but they see things differently from people who come from areas that are not so urban. I understand the difference, and accept that there is a balance to be struck.

Hon. Members have expressed throughout our debates—this is a non-party point—their great concern about the increase in binge drinking and alcohol-related violence on our streets. Earlier today, I remarked that all of us are concerned about binge drinking among very young people. Something must be done about it. I hope that hon. Members will accept in the spirit in which it is intended my comment that a number of us may have drunk too much when we were 18, 19 or 20, but in our day it was most unusual to see binge drinking and heavy drunkenness among much younger children such as 13, 14 or 15-year-olds. The fact that we see that quite a lot now is troubling, not least because of the health implications. Setting aside for the moment the obvious public and criminal costs, I fear that there is a generation growing up now who have become used to heavy doses of alcohol in their mid or early teens. We should all worry about that very much.

Tackling drink-fuelled crime is important and the Government's approach in the Bill is to introduce two new measures: drinking banning orders and alcohol disorder zones. I have said throughout our debates that I feel that the existing law is in many respects sufficient to cover the mischief with which we are attempting to deal. There is a variety of offences in the criminal law relating to alcohol-fuelled disorder and violence, as well as the range of penalties and criminal offences that—I repeat—the Home Affairs Committee has said are underused by the police. What is important is to enforce existing law, rather than consistently to give in to the apparent need to make new law, which is the Government's answer to everything. If existing law were seriously enforced, we might not be having this debate now. It is a great worry that current law is not being enforced. During his remarks on guns, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) referred to 30-odd offences on the statute book the proper enforcement and policing of which would ensure that we did not need to debate much of what we have debated today.

I hope to goodness that the drinking banning order proves successful. I have my doubts, but I wish it well. We have expressed our concerns about alcohol disorder zones and argued throughout—we voted on it—that
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those premises that are not to blame should not be in the same position as those premises that are clearly to blame.

We had a long debate on knives. All of us on both sides of the House accept that knife crime—in particular, the offence under section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 of carrying a bladed article—is increasing dramatically. That is a great worry, yet the only reference to that crime in the Bill is in the fairly narrow, perhaps relevant in their own way but not generally applicable, clauses that deal with knives in schools—a growing problem, with up to 60,000 children aged between 11 and 16 carrying knives in school, which is a terrifying statistic—and the offence of using someone to mind a weapon. The offence of carrying a bladed article in public is one that we must address much more strongly, so I was disappointed by the Government's response to our new clause in which we proposed a new maximum—not minimum—penalty for that offence, increasing it from two years to five years. The Government did not take our arguments on board and made no conciliatory comments in that respect.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon carried on his own shoulders a great deal of the burden of our debates on firearms. Tonight, he spoke on the clauses that deal with air weapons, and we were able to force a Division. However, the time ran out, although I do not blame the Minister because it was one of those things. I wish that we had had more time to debate the amendments covering ammunition and realistic imitation firearms and re-enactments, but I repeat that no blame attaches to the Minister.

On firearms, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon has made it clear, and I shall make it clear, too, that today's position is different from that a couple of weeks ago. Conservative Members thank the Minister for her reasonable and responsive approach to many of the matters that we raised in Committee, and we are pleased that the Government have tabled amendments that go some way to assuaging our concerns and those of the millions of law-abiding weapon users who stand to be affected by the legislation. However, many thousands of people are still concerned about the uncertainty surrounding the Bill's progress—we know that from our correspondence.

I repeat our support for the intent behind the clauses on weapons, because we support wholeheartedly measures that will have a practical effect on reducing gun crime in the UK and making our citizens safer. However, we do not support creating laws for the sake of being seen to be tough on gun crime, the effect of which will be felt almost exclusively by legitimate users of weapons and not by the criminals on whom we intend to crack down. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon and I take the view that clause 32 is one of most inherently flawed clauses in the entire Bill. It stands to penalise collectors and create a further unnecessary administrative burden while doing virtually nothing to combat violent crime.

Thousands of sportsmen use ammunition loading presses and dies for a number of reasons, including to save money, to help the environment and to improve accuracy. The ability to reload can save up to 50 per cent. of the cost of factory ammunition, allowing clay pigeon shooters who use a significant number of
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shotgun cartridges to save money. I have made those points because we were unable to debate these important matters on Report, Mr. Speaker.

Finally, realistic imitation firearms were thoroughly debated in Committee, but sadly we have not debated them today, so some concerns have still not been fully addressed. It is good news that the Government realise the serious unintended potential of clause 35 for groups such as re-enactors and museums, but serious concerns linger that it provides only such groups with a defence against a criminal offence.

We must stand up for utterly law-abiding citizens, whom we should not seek to penalise with any of our legislation, and I hope that the other place returns to that point. I was sad and sorry when I received hundreds of letters from those who indulge in the harmless and in many ways laudable sport of airsoft. Their letters—they wrote to many other hon. Members, too—asked why they, who are innocent, must pay the price.

I have three points for the Minister. First, I wish the Bill good fortune in the other place. Secondly, it is vital that we focus on what works: I hope that the Government demonstrate a real need for the particular measures in the Bill and explain why current legislation has been deemed ineffective. Thirdly, I hope that the general principle, with which surely all hon. Members agree, that there is no point in punishing the innocent in the vain belief that it will help to punish the guilty is raised in the other place. That principle goes across the Bill, and it will affect premises that serve alcohol and law-abiding people who are involved in the gun trade. One of my great fears is that we are rapidly moving towards a situation that has arisen under previous Governments whereby we tend far too much to penalise those who are innocent, honest and genuine in the belief that we will affect the mindset of those who are wicked and criminal. The truth is that we will not. It is very important to take that on board.

I say a final word of thanks to the Minister for her courtesy. Conservative Members look forward to seeing the progress of the Bill in the other House. We are united in our belief, as are the Government, that there are vital issues that need to be tackled. Although we disagree with their approach to many of those issues, we share a common purpose and will always work towards that end.

9.45 pm

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