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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates
Violent Crime Reduction Bill

Violent Crime Reduction Bill




 
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Standing Committee B

Tuesday 25 October 2005

(Morning)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Joe Benton

†Abbott, Ms Diane (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)

†Blears, Hazel (Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety)

†Brennan, Kevin (Cardiff, West) (Lab)

†Butler, Ms Dawn (Brent, South) (Lab)

Clappison, Mr. James (Hertsmere) (Con)

†Cooper, Rosie (West Lancashire) (Lab)

†Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)

†Featherstone, Lynne (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD)

†Hosie, Stewart (Dundee, East) (SNP)

Jones, Mr. Kevan (North Durham) (Lab)

†Keeble, Ms Sally (Northampton, North) (Lab)

Malins, Mr. Humfrey (Woking) (Con)

†McCabe, Steve (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)

†Pound, Stephen (Ealing, North) (Lab)

†Prisk, Mr. Mark (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)

†Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)

†Sheridan, Jim (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab)

†Thurso, John (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)

†Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)

†Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)

†Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)

Geoffrey Farrar, Sarah Hartwell-Naguib, Committee Clerks

†attended the Committee

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Violent Crime Reduction Bill

Clause 26

Age limits for purchase etc. of air weapons

10.30 am

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I beg to move amendment No. 2, in clause 26, page 28, line 33, at end insert 'in England and Wales'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 3, in clause 26, page 28, line 37, at end insert—

    '(2A) After section 22(1) insert—-

    ''(1A) It is an offence in Scotland—

    (a) for a person under the age of 18 to purchase or hire an air weapon or ammunition for an air weapon;

    (b) for a person over the age of 18 to purchase or hire an air weapon or ammunition for an air weapon except from a person or place licensed as set out in (1B) below.

    (1B) The conditions for licensing a person or place to sell or hire an air weapon or ammunition for an air weapon are to be set by the Scottish Parliament.''.'.

New clause 1—Provisions relating to the Scottish Parliament—

    'The 1968 Act can be amended by the Scottish Parliament to introduce—

    (a) a licensing scheme for the sale or hire of air weapons or ammunition for air weapons;

    (b) a licensing scheme for the purchase or possession of air weapons or ammunition for air weapons;

    (c) a ban or restriction on the sale, hire, purchase or possession of air weapons or ammunition for air weapons.'.

New clause 2—Matters relating to Scotland—

    '(1) Section 26 and 27 so far as they extend to Scotland shall be regarded as within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.

    (2) The Scotland Act 1998 shall be amended as follows—

    (3) In Schedule 5, Head B4, after ''1997'', insert—

    ''Exception

    Regulation or control of the sale, possession or purchase of air weapons, or ammunition for air weapons.''.'.

Stewart Hosie: Amendment No. 2 would restrict the provisions of current airgun legislation to England and Wales and open the way for alternatives to be introduced in the Scottish Parliament. Amendment No. 3 would create a licensing scheme in the Scottish Parliament, similar to that proposed by the Government last week, insofar as it would license the vendors rather than the purchasers. The intention is that the licensing scheme introduced in the Scottish Parliament would allow more checking of purchasers by making it one of the conditions necessary for obtaining a vendor's licence. It would therefore affect the check on those owning air weapons, as we heard last week.
 
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New clause 1 is effectively a reverse Sewel motion. For the constitutionally minded, authority would remain at Westminster, but responsibility for this provision would transfer to the Scottish Parliament at this time. New clause 2 would devolve responsibility for air weapons for all time.

The amendments and new clauses are not constitutional meanderings. They would implement the correct air weapon licensing scheme in Scotland. England has a profound problem with firearm crime, and the Government are right to address it. We heard from the hon. Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Brent, South (Ms Butler) last week that handgun culture is growing in their constituencies and in many other parts of England. I shall come to that in due course.

Let us consider the differences in gun crime between Scotland and England. The last year for which we have information is 2003–04. In England, there were 68 firearm murders, 1,195 attempted murders and more than 10,000 firearm offences. If my memory serves me correctly, the police say that about 8,900 of those offences involved real firearms. In Scotland, there was one murder, four attempted murders and fewer than 200 firearm crimes, and real firearms were identified in 194 cases.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be extremely accurate with the figures; he should remember that some 55 million people live in England, and only 5 million in Scotland. That is proportionate with the figures that he has given.

Stewart Hosie: The hon. Gentleman makes the valid point that proportionality should be taken into account, but England had 1,195 attempted murders and Scotland nowhere near 10 per cent. of that number over the same period, and England had 68 firearm murders but Scotland only one. Proportionality does not enter either equation. England has a specific difficulty with real firearm crime, and the Government are right to address it. Scotland's problem is primarily air weapon crime, and I shall explain why in a few moments.

I shall put the figures into context. There have been fewer firearm murders in Scotland in 10 years than there were in England in a single year. The statistics for crimes involving handguns, mentioned last week, are even more startling. England had 5,123 handgun crimes, including 35 murders, compared with 29 handgun crimes and no murders in Scotland over the same period. However, although Scotland had fewer than 200 crimes associated with identified firearms, it had 415 air weapon crimes—200 per cent. more.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): I want to put a simple point to the hon. Gentleman. I understand clearly the case that he makes, but how concerned would he be if we were to restrict the legislation so that it applied only to England and Wales, and Scotland suffered a displacement effect as criminals moved north to enjoy protection that they would not have in England and Wales?

Stewart Hosie: There would be no displacement effect thanks to weaker legislation; we are proposing
 
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tougher legislation. I suspect that if there were displacement, and I doubt there will be, it would go the other way. Such crimes tend to be geographically specific; one would not travel from Dundee to Coventry to fire an air weapon. One would fire it where one had it.

The proposals would effectively devolve airgun legislation to the Scottish Parliament so that an effective licensing scheme can be introduced. When the initial legislation was published, we felt that the provisions for air weapons did not go far enough. The Government amendments last week made some progress but cover only vendors, not purchasers. If any of the options that we have proposed were accepted by the Government and the Committee, they would allow the Scottish Parliament to put in place a licensing scheme directed more at the purchaser than the vendor. We believe that that is vitally important.

Secondly, the devolution of the airgun legislation would offer an appropriate licensing scheme. Again, some concession was made last week but there was concern that the Bill was a catch-all piece of legislation and that sports clubs, target shooters, airsoft members, and those who used their weapons for vermin control and so on might be caught. We are convinced that if an appropriate licensing scheme were put in place in Scotland to take the Scottish circumstances into consideration, it would be a sensitive licensing scheme that would allow those entitled to hold, buy or hire air weapons or ammunition to do so, and restrict only those who were not entitled to have them.

Two issues were raised last week that are related to this matter. In the final sitting, the Minister suggested in answer to a question that I put that, and I paraphrase, she sought a balance between utility and cost within the practicality of introducing a licensing scheme and the bureaucracy and cost associated with it. One of the Tory Members—I believe that it was the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly)—mentioned the number of air weapons in circulation. I think that the figure given was 7 million, with perhaps 650,000 in Scotland.

My recollection of being a child is that a large number of air weapons, air rifles and pistols were in people's garages and garden sheds with bent barrels, dismantled bits and rusted barrels, and they were utterly unserviceable. I suspect that the number of serviceable weapons is rather less than the 7 million suggested and that the large majority of those are in the hands of responsible people who would volunteer anyway to enter into a licensing system or scheme. The licensing scheme would also open up the opportunity for a voluntary disposal system for old and non-functional weapons that people no longer require or wish to have in their possession. For all those reasons, we believe that the introduction of a licensing scheme in Scotland is appropriate.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) raised a point a while ago about the difference between Scotland and England. I have spoken to a number of serving police officers, including some senior ones, and they tell me that their concern over real gun crime is negligible in some
 
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force areas. They are concerned about imitations, knives and air weapons. We believe in the devolution of airgun legislation to Scotland to introduce an appropriate licensing system for Scotland and to toughen up the legislation so that it is not merely the vendor who is licensed. A licence on the purchaser, holder or owner would be the most appropriate course of action, and I hope that the Committee will accept those recommendations.

 
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Prepared 25 October 2005