Violent Crime Reduction Bill

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Jim Sheridan: I ask colleagues on both sides to reject the amendments in the name of the Scottish Nationalist party on the basis that they are as totally irrelevant to the Committee as they are to the people of Scotland, who merely want safe, effective legislation, which is what the Government propose.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): We are not in favour of devolving these powers to Scotland. Nor are we in favour of a licensing scheme, which we believe would be impractical.

The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) spoke about a wide range of issues, many of which I shall address in the clause stand part debate, so, if he does not mind, he will have to wait until then. I want to put on the record the fact that we will not support the amendment.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I have often said in Committee and when discussing statutory instruments that what can be devolved should be devolved. In this instance, however, close examination suggests that the negative consequences of having a system in Scotland that is separate from that of the rest of the United Kingdom would not be helpful, so although I sympathise with the amendment's intention, we will resist it.

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Hazel Blears): Despite his imaginative use of a reverse-Sewel provision, I am afraid that the hon. Member for Dundee, East has found that the vast majority of Committee members are against him. I, too, urge the Committee to resist his amendments. Firearms are a reserved matter for a very good reason; we recognise the ease of movement across the border between England and Scotland. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Steve McCabe) made that very point. As he said, guns can easily be transferred between the countries, resulting in loopholes that can be exploited by people who want to misuse weapons. It is therefore right that we have a unified system.

Since the dreadful incident involving the young child Andrew Morton, I have been working extremely closely with Scottish Ministers to ensure that we toughen up the law not only in Scotland, but throughout Great Britain. Air weapon misuse is a problem for us. The vast majority of people use their guns responsibly, but air weapon misuse has been increasing, so it was important to table the new amendments that we discussed last week to provide that weapons can be sold only through a registered firearms dealer. That will mean that only responsible retailers will be able to sell air weapons, and it will stop
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the casual, anonymous purchases that lead to the vast majority of problems caused by air weapons.

Air weapons will need to be sold face to face rather than through mail order or the internet. The provisions will mean that we have the balance about right. Much of the Bill is about achieving a balance. The hon. Gentleman's suggestions would lead to huge bureaucracy and would not necessarily be effective in enforcing the responsible use of weapons, which we all want, or in bearing down on the mischief of irresponsible use. I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Stewart Hosie: The Minister suggested that guns could be transported between Scotland and England if the legislation was not uniform. Of course, that is true. I suggest most respectfully, however, that railways are also devolved, and that trains move between countries. It is not a particularly strong argument.

John Thurso: May I correct the hon. Gentleman, as I have had the Liberal Democrat party's transport brief? The railways are devolved only in as much as they are entirely within Scotland.

Stewart Hosie: The hon. Gentleman's point is well made.

The Minister suggested that non-uniform legislation might lead to a loophole and to guns being moved across borders, but we are suggesting tougher, not weaker, legislation in Scotland. I hope that all hon. Members recognise that. In light of what various hon. and right hon. Members have said, however, it would be foolish to press my amendment to a vote, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Djanogly: I reiterate that we strongly believe in the need to reduce violent crime and in taking all measures necessary to do that. Our concern is that much of the content of the clauses that relate to firearms will not reduce gun crime in practice. The effective way to reduce violent crime in communities and on the streets where gun crime and gun culture pose such a threat and airguns are misused is to enforce existing laws, not to introduce legislation that will complicate the law in ways more likely to affect the law-abiding majority than the criminals.

10.45 am

Will the clause's clamp-down on 17-year-olds owning air weapons combat the gun culture that we are all so concerned about? We do not think so. Being tough on crime means reducing crime in practice, not just talking tough on crime in Committee Rooms when discussing clauses that are not going to do their job. Since we last discussed the clause, the Minister has not explained how it is likely to reduce violent crime. Following our consultation on the issue, we believe that it should be removed from the Bill. That view has wide-ranging support from those who practise the sport, including the British Association for Shooting
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and Conservation, which has 123,000 members, and the British Shooting Sports Council, the umbrella organisation for the major shooting associations in the United Kingdom, which represents, through direct membership or as a result of affiliation to associations, the interests of some 750,000 certificate holders and an even greater number of other people.

Steve McCabe: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that he is hardly describing utterly independent and impartial organisations? He is describing people who have a vested interest in the sale, maintenance and use of weapons, so naturally it makes sense to them to allow the widest possible population of users.

Mr. Djanogly: I am describing people who love the sport of shooting, and I am sorry to have to tell the hon. Gentleman that they, too, have a right to be heard. Many hon. Members have made the point that the vast majority of those who own the 7 million airguns in this country are law-abiding people whose voice deserves to be heard.

There is no evidence to suggest that raising the age at which somebody may own or hire an airgun from 17 to 18 will have a material effect on violent crime. Where does the magical age of 18 come from? Where is the statistical evidence proving that 17-year-olds are not able to prevent themselves from committing gun crimes? Are 18-year-olds so much more responsible than 17-year-olds? Tightening restrictions penalises the shooting community with no evidence that that will result in any benefit such as reduced airgun misuse. Raising the age limit might make such weapons more desirable to delinquent teenagers while depriving others of the opportunity of being taught safely and responsibly to handle firearms. Training young people to shoot can be valuable in teaching them skills, discipline and responsibility. Introducing them to safe and responsible firearms use makes it far less likely that they will ever misuse guns.

Airguns are the entry-level guns for most new entrants to shooting sports and are crucial for the development of safe and competent gun use. Most people who shoot with a shotgun or rifle start their shooting careers as young people with airguns. If young people were prevented from having reasonable access to airguns, all shooting sports would suffer, with little or no effect on crime figures. This attack on airgun ownership constitutes a veiled attack on shooting and on entry to the sport of shooting. Scouts, cadets and schoolgoers all participate in air weapon shooting. They enjoy the sport safely and responsibly.

We have met the National Small-Bore Rifle Association, which estimates that some 300,000 young people regularly participate in sports involving air weapons. Indeed, 15 such sports are Olympic events: five shotgun events, six cartridge-firing events and four events involving air rifles or air pistols. Air weapon events now enjoy a greater standing than other rifle and shooting sports. It is important to realise the extent of the sports enjoyed by young people and the impact that the clause will have. The National Small-Bore Rifle Association represents more than 1,100 affiliated clubs throughout the UK and has more than 100,000 direct members, including
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some 5,000 young people aged 16 or 17 who stand to be affected by the legislation. In addition, 30,000 cadets and innumerable scouts and schoolchildren are regularly involved with air weapons. Only the weekend before last, the scout airgun championship took place, involving more than 600 competitors, all of whom were under 14.

Young people who are properly introduced to the sport are taught to handle weapons properly, safely and responsibly, to respect others on the range and to obey range officers. A prime example is Chris Lacey, who, through his membership of the scout movement, came to represent Great Britain at the age of just 17 at the European championships earlier this year, at which he beat the British senior record. Chris is an Olympic hopeful, if not certainty. The clause will put him, as a 17-year-old, in the absurd position of being able to drive his car lawfully to the rifle range or private farm where he practises shooting, but, arguably, of committing an offence if he takes his covered and locked air weapon with him. He certainly will not be able to purchase ammunition for it or buy a new air rifle.

The law will prevent young people from enjoying and perfecting some sports. Most world-class shooters of air weapons are in their late teens or early twenties. They did not just pick up an air weapon yesterday, but have been training for years; the sport is their passion. The clause attacks that. The BASC website says:

    ''the Home Office should produce evidence to show why excluding 17 year olds from owning an airgun will significantly reduce criminal misuse and improve public safety . . . To restrict their use given the low and declining figures for misuse in this age group is wholly disproportionate and will have little or no effect on airgun misuse.''

The Minister stated that

    ''the Government believe that much of this misuse is carried out by young people and that a further increase in the age limit will help prevent this.''[Official Report, 11 July 2005; Vol. 436, c. 767W.]

But belief is not evidence. Will the Government reassess their view if it is not corroborated by the evidence?

The proposed legislation creates some absurdities and anomalies. The Police Federation says that in recent years, it has noticed a

    ''steady increase in the number of incidents involving weapons such as crossbows and high-powered catapults, fuelled in part by Internet sales.''

It points out that the use of such weapons can have the same effect, if not a worse one, as the misuse of air weapons and that the Bill is an ideal opportunity for the Government

    ''to bring about greater consistency across the legal framework''

in relation to firearms and other weapons. They have now proposed an amendment to increase the age limit for crossbows, but that will still be a patchwork approach.

The Police Federation says that if the clause is enacted,

    ''the law in relation to air weapons will in effect 'leap-frog' that of other weapons.''

It goes on to say that supply and demand, and experience, dictate that the result could be a rise in the
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sale and use of weapons such as bows and arrows and high-powered catapults.

Like much of part 2, the clause fails because the Government have not taken a step back and put the provisions in context. It provides that a young person will be able to buy a shotgun or rifle at age 17, but not an airgun, for which they must be 18. One may need a licence or certificate to buy a shotgun or rifle, but not to buy a slingshot, catapult or bow and arrow, all of which can be bought at 17 and are more lethal than an airgun. The Government propose to change from 17 to 18 the age at which the acquisition, purchase or possession of a crossbow becomes legal, but not for catapults, which cause more damage. That is another example of the creation of further inconsistencies when the focus should be on enforcing existing legislation.

Obviously, there is understandable concern about the tragic shooting of Andrew Morton with an airgun in Glasgow. That was horrific, but, thankfully, such incidents are not common. There are more than 7 million airguns in the UK, the overwhelming majority of which are used safely and responsibly. The proposals in the Bill are the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Hon. Members should note that the offender in the tragic case of Andrew Morton was aged 27, not 14, 15, 16, 17 or even 18. That case is going through due process, so I will not comment on it further, except to say that we hope that justice will be done. We should be enforcing existing laws, not creating new ones. To say that millions of people should suffer because of what a single drug-addicted criminal does has moral legitimacy equivalent to that of a totalitarian state. Existing legislation is good enough to make the clause unnecessary.

At the last count 30 offences connected with the misuse of airguns existed, including having a loaded or unloaded airgun in a public place and deliberate damage being caused to property, or injury being caused to domestic pets or human beings. There is a requirement for an individual aged between 14 and 17 carrying an airgun over public land to be accompanied by an adult, and there are police powers to stop and search an individual if they have reasonable grounds to believe that he is carrying an offensive weapon.

The enforcement of existing legislation would be infinitely more productive than introducing the misguided provisions before us. It is obvious that all improper use of airguns should be an offence, whatever the age of the perpetrator. Tinkering with age limits does little but anger and upset people who use those guns safely and responsibly. Bizarrely, on page 11 of the Home Office consultation paper of May 2004, in relation specifically to age limits, the Home Office categorically recommended that there should be no further restrictions on the sale of airguns, because of the disproportionate enforcement effect. For those reasons, I recommend that the Committee vote against the clause.

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Prepared 25 October 2005