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Lords amendment: No. 33

Mr. McNulty: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 34 to 66 and 75to 77.

Mr. McNulty: Although these amendments are gathered under the general heading of “Weapons etc.”, they have some important separate dimensions. I will therefore spend a little time discussing the distinct groups of amendments covered by the heading.

Amendments Nos. 33 to 38 relate to the new offence of using someone to mind a weapon. They extend the definition of a “dangerous weapon”, as stated in the Bill, to cover all specified offensive weapons. As currently drafted, the definition is more limited. We agreed to consider such an extension to the definition for the new offence, and subsequently amended the Bill in the other place to make the legislation as useful as possible. Amendment No. 37 confirms that the sentence for those aged under 21 for this offence is detention. Amendment No. 38 is a technical amendment to clarify the section to which the provision will refer.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab): The Minister knows full well that he has considerable support for this part of the Bill, with which I entirely agree. In dealing with amendments to clauses 32 to 34, will he let the House know what undertakings, if any, have been given to those representing airsoft activities that the Government will provide them with a defence to the manufacture, sale or transfer of imitation firearms under clause 32?

Mr. McNulty: I will happily do so. Both I and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), have met those from the airsoft sector—if that is an appropriate phrase—and have assured them that any such exemptions, rather than
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being necessary in the Bill, would be provided in regulations. We said that we were minded to move in that direction, given that the activity was relatively harmless, but that the regulations would have to be laid in the proper fashion, consulted on and then agreed or otherwise with a range of stakeholders. That is the position as of now. I have also told those representatives—and, more generally, individuals and organisations affected by this part of the Bill—that I consider it to be in everyone’s broad interest for the regulations to be under way, and duly consulted on, at the earliest opportunity. If representatives of other organisations wish to meet me or my hon. Friend, or indeed both of us, we will certainly consider meeting them in due course as the regulations are consulted on.

John Bercow: I welcome the Minister’s reference to the draft regulations and to consultation on them at the earliest possible opportunity. May I take it from what he has said that he is at least minded to seek to ensure that the regulations are issued before the Bill’s final passage in the other place—a point on which I have focused in respect of several pieces of legislation? It seems to me that sight of such regulations in draft before the House is invited to give final approval to a Bill is of the essence.

Mr. McNulty: I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman in spirit and in principle. I have sought to ensure that Bills that are in my charge from start to finish deliver in that fashion, and that there is—for want of a better phrase—a road map showing what regulations and guidance are likely to follow, with as much information as possible provided during a Bill’s parliamentary passage. As the hon. Gentleman will know, this Bill has not been in my charge from start to finish, but whatever remains in dispute between us and the other place will be passed up to the other place for due consideration tomorrow. Try as I might, I fear that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he wants: I cannot ensure publication of and due consultation on the regulations by this time tomorrow.

John Bercow: Might I extract from the hon. Gentleman a confirmation that in pursuit of that objective he will be at least deploying one of his usual charm offensives?

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): And he has plenty!

Mr. McNulty: Someone else once said in this place that when he and a colleague undertook a charm offensive, he was the charm and our colleague was the offensive. I should probably leave it at that, but I take the procedural point about the need to provide Committee members, and indeed Members of both Houses, with at least a framework or outline of any regulation, guidance and elements of legislation following Royal Assent as early as possible.

Lords amendments Nos. 39 to 47, 61 to 65 and 77 all deal with the issue of imitation firearms and air weapons. I am happy to support Lords amendments Nos. 39 to 47 and 62 to 65, which relate to controls on firearms. Let me briefly explain the most significant controls.

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Lords amendment No. 40 removes a clause providing for controls on the sale of ammunition loading presses—devices that perform the full range of mechanical operations required to reload cartridges. The Government have accepted arguments that such operations can be carried out without specialist equipment through the use of simple tools that are available from any DIY shop. We have already included controls on the sale of primers, and given that it is not possible to reload ammunition without primers, we accept that clause 31 is no longer necessary.

Lords amendments Nos. 41 and 47 give Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs powers to seize imitation firearms imported in contravention of the controls in the Bill. Although clause 32 makes it an offence to bring a realistic imitation firearm into Great Britain, it does not specifically contain a prohibition against their importation. Amendments Nos. 41 and 47 address that situation by establishing that the goods are liable to forfeiture under the customs and excise Acts. A case in which that was appropriate might concern youngsters returning from a school trip abroad with banned items.

Amendments Nos. 42 to 44 relate to defences to the ban on sale, manufacture and importation of realistic imitation firearms. Defences are provided for museums and galleries, both public and private, in relation to sales and so on to Crown servants, and for businesses to import realistic imitations solely for the purpose of modifying them to make them non-realistic—for example, for race-starting or dog training.

Amendments Nos. 48 and 66 increase the maximum penalty for having a blade or a point in a public place or a school without good reason from two years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both, to four years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both. That forms part of our wider package of measures to reduce knife crime, in line with our manifesto commitment

Amendments Nos. 49 to 60, 75 and 76 amend in various ways the power to search individuals for weapons in schools, further education institutions and attendance centres. They prevent a head teacher from requiring a member of school staff to carry out such a search unless they are security staff and provide transparent definitions of school staff for the purposes of this Bill. They require that the other person present when a search is conducted is another member of staff of the school, FE college or attendance centre respectively. We propose that, because it is better for the second person present to be someone with a formal duty of care towards those being searched, which increases safeguards for both those being searched and the staff. They change the grounds for a search from “reasonable grounds for believing” to “reasonable grounds for suspecting”. That will enable the scope for searches to include a wider range of people. A head teacher who suspects a knife is in their school, but whose information is not strong enough for believing a particular pupil has it, will still be able to search. However, it is important to note that, before searching any pupil, they must always have a suspicion that the pupil may have a knife.

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The amendments enable the National Assembly for Wales to order when powers for FE colleges in Wales come into force. They also reduce the threshold for a constable to exercise his or her powers of entry to a school and search for weapons in section 139B of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. By revising that threshold to one of reasonable grounds for suspecting, we ensure that the police power to search in schools is consistent with that of school staff. That will also apply in Northern Ireland.

I commend the amendments to the House, because by accepting them we will improve the Bill’s efficacy and effectiveness.

Nick Herbert: The amendments fall broadly into two parts: those that relate to the carrying of knives and those that relate to firearms. I shall start with those relating to knives, particularly amendment No. 48.

The Bill’s provisions on knives are undoubtedly necessary. Fatal stabbings are up by nearly a fifth under this Government. Last year, 236 people were recorded as having been killed by a sharp instrument—an increase of more than 17 per cent. on the figure for 1998-99. The most common method of killing last year, representing nearly a third of all offences recorded as “homicide”, related to fatal stabbings. Knives are used in 7 per cent. of violent crime. According to the British crime survey, that means that knives are used in 169,000 crimes a year, and there are three fatal stabbings for every fatal shooting.

Almost a third of pupils have carried a knife, according to a poll conducted in 2004 for the Youth Justice Board, which says that 28 per cent. of young people in mainstream schools had carried a knife in the past year. The problem is serious and growing. It was therefore right to say, from the beginning of the Bill’s passage, that the maximum penalty for carrying a knife in a public place, which is currently only two years, should be increased. We believed that it was important for Parliament to send a signal, especially to younger people, that carrying knives was unacceptable.

5.15 pm

It is surprising that the Government opposed us for so long because our proposal featured in their election manifesto. Page 47 states that


Why were the proposals to increase sentences for those involved in serious knife crimes or tougher sentences for carrying a knife not included in the Bill? It is extraordinary that, only six months after the election, the Government voted against the amendment tabled on Report by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) to increase the maximum penalty to five years. The current Home Secretary and the Minister voted against it.

The Home Secretary is fond of accusing his opponents of talking tough, voting soft and hoping that no one will notice. If the Government talk tough by promising tougher sentences for knife crime in their manifesto and then vote against that policy only months later, that looks like talking tough and voting soft to me. It is hardly surprising that people noticed.

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Nevertheless, we welcome the change of Home Secretary and, manifestly, of heart. For whatever reason, the Government eventually conceded in another place that tougher sentences were necessary. Lords amendment No. 48 would achieve that, and we were happy to support it in the other place as we support it now. U-turns appear fashionable in the Home Office. They have happened on mergers, the control of immigrant workers from Romania and Bulgaria, the purchase of a prison ship, which was cancelled only a few months ago, and now—unnecessarily—on the important subject that we are discussing.

The story on firearms is similar and not happy for the Government. Gun crime has doubled since they came to power. In the year when they were first elected, there were nearly 5,000 recorded firearms offences involving firearms other than air weapons. In 2005-06, the figure more than doubled to 10,000 offences. Air weapons, which the Bill covers, account for more than 1,500 injuries a year and imitation firearms are used in more than 3,000 crimes a year. We were therefore happy to support the provisions that tackled carrying such weapons, especially clause 28, which increased from 17 to 18 the minimum age at which an individual can purchase or hire an air weapon or ammunition for an air weapon.

Nevertheless, we set out several concerns. They revolved around legitimate use of such weapons, first through historical re-enactment. Secondly, the Minister mentioned airsoft. Many of us found in our constituencies that people enjoy a legitimate recreation through that, and there was concern that the Bill could have an impact on it. I am therefore grateful for the reassurances that the Minister offered today. I understand that representatives of the Association of British Airsoft are due to meet the Minister within the next couple of weeks to discuss the matter further and I hope that their concerns will be allayed.

Concerns were raised in this House and in the other place about pistol shooting and the potential impact on legislation of competitive target shooting and the wish to train in this country ahead of major competitions, particularly the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. I understand that the Government and various lobby groups are now in discussion on how best to use the Home Secretary’s powers under section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968to authorise competitors and officials to possess competition pistols for the duration of the games and special warm-up events. I hope that a satisfactory solution can be found so that our competitive teams can participate in the Olympics. It is important for legislation to recognise the interests of legitimate users.

Lords amendments Nos. 33 to 38 are technical and we are happy to support them. Amendment No. 39 is also technical and will ensure that an entry in the table of punishments in the Firearms Act reflects the correct age limit for possessing an air weapon. We are happy to support that, too.

Amendment No. 40 strikes out clause 31, which restricted the sale and purchase of ammunition loading presses. It was deleted in Committee only to be further amended by the Government on Report. The Minister has explained some of the reasons behind the change on loading presses.

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Amendments Nos. 41 and 47 were tabled in May in Committee on the advice of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which stated that the absence of a prohibition would leave it unable to seize a realistic imitation firearm if discovered while it was being brought into the country. The amendments establish that such goods are liable to forfeiture under customs and excise Acts and that a customs officer will be able to use his discretion in deciding whether it is necessary to seize particular goods. Those amendments seem entirely sensible.

Amendments Nos. 42 to 45 are aimed at clarifying the defence for museums and galleries using realistic imitation weapons as outlined in clause 33. As drafted, the exemption applies only to public museums and galleries that do not distribute any profits. Amendment No. 42 removes those words, ensuring that private museums can also benefit from the exemption, and amendment No. 43 aims to iron out further deficiencies in the drafting of specific defences in the clause. As drafted, anyone selling a realistic imitation firearm to a member of the police or the armed forces would be found guilty under clause 32. By extending the defences in clause 33, the amendment would ensure that that does not happen.

Amendments Nos. 44 and 45 deal with the problems faced by the airsoft industry and other users of imitation firearms such as dog trainers and race starters. Once again, we welcome them. Indeed, we are happy with all the amendments in the group and gladly support the Government on them.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: I shall make only a short intervention in the debate. I earnestly ask the Minister to reflect on the path of an excellent Bill, for which the Government are responsible, as a result of long campaigning and long negotiation with those who have fought for control of the curse of imitation firearms. It is a good Bill containing some excellent parts.

One problem now manifest is the concern of many hon. Members that the Bill may be amended by regulation, bringing into play thousands of imitation firearms that accurately resemble real firearms that would otherwise be banned under the Act. I ask the Minister to reflect on the extreme difficulties stemming from a legitimisation of airsoft weapons that, in every way, resemble lethal firearms.

The Minister says that this is an unobjectionable and harmless activity. It might be so. Some of us might find a game that involves the tracking and “killing” of other people by adult men to be a strange pastime, but if they wish to do it and if it assists them—I see that it might assist Opposition Members—with whatever problems they have, let them do it. The problem is not what they do; the problem is what they use.

Sales of airsoft machines are predicated on the machines being exact replicas of deadly firearms. The website of the main organisation involved suggests that it now has 22,000 members. If exemptions are going to be made to allow a group of that size to trade in imitation firearms on the internet or otherwise, a huge part of this Bill will be wrecked before it is enacted. If that happens, hundreds of thousands of people—perhaps millions—who have campaigned or supported campaigns will have to return to the campaigning ground, and an enormous advantage for this Government, which they thoroughly deserve,
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will be lost. In congratulating the Minister and the Department on the Bill, I ask my hon. Friend to take on board, as I know he will, the real concerns that exist throughout the country about these potential exemptions.

Lynne Featherstone: The amendments on increasing the sentence for carrying a knife or a bladed article in a public place are extremely significant. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who is no longer in his place, pointed out that, while carrying a gun carries a tariff of seven years, carrying a knife carries a tariff of only two years, yet both items kill people. He asked the then Home Secretary to consider increasing the maximum sentence for carrying a knife. The former Home Secretary agreed to examine specific measures to do so, and I am glad, therefore, that such measures have been introduced at this stage of the Bill.

It would be strange if I did not mention in passing that the Liberal Democrats tabled an amendment on Report to test the Government on the issue of knives having parity with guns. As we heard, the Conservatives tabled an amendment, which was voted on, introducing a tariff of five years for carrying a knife in a public place. Sadly, the Government voted against it, but I am glad that their view has now changed.

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that a longer sentence can be passed for stealing a bike than for being caught in possession of a knife in a public place, so there is something still fundamentally wrong with the Government’s priorities? Does she further agree that more needs to be done to ensure that our schools are a safe and secure place of learning for youngsters? Given recent evidence and the number of knife incidents since schools returned in September, far more still needs to be done.

Lynne Featherstone: My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I will come to later. It is a shame that the Government could not bring themselves to vote positively on Opposition amendments at an earlier stage, but I am glad that the strengthened sentence for such a serious and prevalent criminal offence is now being introduced. It is important not just to have an appropriate maximum sentence but to put an end to the notion that carrying a knife is less serious, or does not compare with carrying a gun. Now that the House is moving towards agreement on the issue, perhaps we can agree that it is not really about what is tough and what is soft—it is what is effective that is important.

The way in which the judiciary apply the maximum sentence will decide what is effective. Rehabilitation and education must be part of any prison sentence for carrying knives because the objective of the new measures must be to change behaviour. We must also understand the difference that a lengthened sentence will make.

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