Violent Crime Reduction Bill

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John Thurso: I have a simple question that arises from Thursday afternoon's debate on the clause, in which I made it clear that I was

    ''not convinced that any weapon of any kind should be available by mail order or over the internet.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 20 October 2005; c. 199.]

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That remains my view. However, at the weekend I did some research and a point was put to me that I should like the Minister to consider: for those resident in the northern isles, and, I suspect, also for those resident in the western isles, there is only one registered dealer who—I shall try to put this tactfully—has difficulty in fulfilling orders in a timeous fashion. At the moment, those who purchase either air weapons or air ammunition may do so by mail order, which will be denied to them. They are concerned that that will have a negative impact.

There is clearly very low—if any—relevant crime in the areas that I am concerned about. I do not expect an answer today, but will the Minister reflect on the matter to see whether the problem can be alleviated?

Hazel Blears: The clause is just one of a number of measures aimed at addressing the mischief of the misuse of air weapons. We do not say that increasing the age from 17 to 18 will of itself solve the problem, but it is important. I am sure that the hon. Member for Huntingdon would acknowledge the need for the law to encompass a range of measures and police powers to make our communities as safe as they can be.

The misuse of air weapons is a significant problem. It causes huge distress to the public. In an earlier discussion about equivalence I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South who talked about the fact that people who misuse air weapons could terrify people, particularly older people, in their properties and that it was not equivalent to being gently reprimanded with a cricket bat—I think that was what she said—or a slingshot, or anything analogous.

In 2003–04 air weapons were used in 13,756 crimes, so the problem is not one of low-level behaviour. Those figures show an increase of 59 per cent. over the last seven or eight years. There were 2,400 cases of injury, including 156 cases of serious injury. Hon. Members must be aware that we are trying to deal with a significant and serious problem.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon is right. We do need to enforce existing laws, but, as a responsible Government, we must also identify problems and determine what measures are appropriate to deal with them.

11 am

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Given the statistics, the Minister must have some idea of the age of the people engaged in those crimes or the number of cases in which there were injuries. We need that information in order to ascertain whether raising the age limit from 17 to 18 is likely to reduce the number of crimes or the number of injuries. The clause will have no effect if crimes are committed and injuries caused by people over 18. Nor will the clause make any difference to the statistics if the people involved are under 17 and possess the guns legally—

The Chairman: Order. This is becoming quite a lengthy intervention.
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Hazel Blears: I do not have a breakdown of the statistics; the figures are not available to me. Most hon. Members accept, however, that there is a problem with the misuse of air weapons, particularly among some young people in some areas of our country. I entirely take the point made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). There might well be little of this sort of problem in the western isles and the northern isles, but it is a significant issue for many constituents in some of our cities and towns.

Young people will still be able to use air weapons in controlled conditions. Committee members will see from the matrix that I circulated, as I promised I would, that young people will be able to use air weapons if they belong to a rife or pistol club or a cadet corps, if they are shooting on a miniature rifle range, if they are supervised by someone of 21 years of age or more, or if they are on private premises with the consent of the occupier. This is not a draconian measure that says that responsible young people should never have access to air weapons. As my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North said, we want practical and effective legislation that works, which is exactly what the legislation is intended to be.

Much of the Bill is about trying to reduce violent crime and to change behaviour. The hon. Member for Huntingdon asked whether we would keep behaviour under review and see where problems could emerge. Of course we will. We are implementing measures that attack the mischief of people who want to act irresponsibly, but keep the situation under review if they change their behaviour.

Mr. Djanogly: The Minister said that she had no figures for the numbers of crimes committed with air rifles by people under the age of 18. Two years ago, the Government increased the age limit to 17. If she has no figures for what has happened in the meantime, on what basis is she increasing the age limit now? That is what we are trying to get at.

Hazel Blears: There is an age limit of 18 for the purchase of knives, as hon. Members will see when we come to the debate on knives. Again, there may well be responsible young people who want to purchase knives. We are trying to ensure that the legislation governing the possession of weapons that could be misused is coherent while also providing that the people who want to use them responsibly are perfectly entitled to do so.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the BASC and responsible shooters have a right to have their voices heard. The Bill is about trying to strike a balance between not bearing down too heavily on the legitimate and responsible use of weapons and acknowledging that the misuse of air weapons causes huge distress, injury and damage to families in many of our communities.

Mr. Djanogly: I do not deny that.

Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman says that he does not deny that. This is one of a range of measures to try to ensure that we address the very real and significant problems of misuse that affect our communities. The
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clause will help us to do that. It will not achieve our policy directive on its own, but, taken with the other provisions, I genuinely believe that it will help us to bear down on the problem that I described.

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross talked about an issue that has practical implications. I do not know whether any other premises in his area could become registered firearms dealers, but I believe that the licence fee will be £150. It may well be possible for someone else to become a registered firearms dealer, but I will see whether there are any other provisions that we might be able to consider. I understand his point, but, as I said to the hon. Member for Dundee, East, if there were a series of exceptions, we might end up with loopholes in the law. I am not suggesting that people go up to the western isles to make illegitimate purchases of air weapons—I am sure that there are many more pleasant reasons for visiting the area—but I shall look into the issue.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 13, Noes 4.

Division No. 5]

Abbott, Ms Diane Blears, Hazel Brennan, Kevin Butler, Ms Dawn Cooper, Rosie Featherstone, Lynne Hosie, Stewart
Keeble, Ms Sally McCabe, Steve Pound, Stephen Ruane, Chris Sheridan, Jim Waltho, Lynda

Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan Prisk, Mr. Mark
Wilson, Sammy Wright, Jeremy

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 27

Firing an air weapon beyond premises

John Thurso: I beg to move amendment No. 153, in clause 27, page 29, line 19, after 'it', insert ', intentionally or recklessly,'.

I seek again to ask a question of the Government. The clause as a whole, I entirely agree with, and I have no question about its intention. However, I want to ask the Minister whether all points have been considered. Is it possible to discharge an air weapon from a premises unintentionally in a manner that is not reckless? If that is case, should the words intentionally or recklessly be added in order to strengthen the definition? In some very limited circumstances it is possible. I hope that we shall not have a rural versus urban split when discussing this, because the example that I would give would be of a crofter. I am sure that the Committee is aware that a croft is made up of the crofter's own land—the in by land—and common grazing, which is owned either by the estate or by the crofter.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Or you?

John Thurso: Actually, as far as I am aware, although some crofters are tenants on my estate, I made an offer to all who wished to buy that they could do so, and the majority have bought their crofts. I am
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extremely pleased about that. I suspect that if I give a further answer along those lines I shall be out of order, so let me press on.

The first point of training for anybody who is responsibly using a firearm is safety. I well remember the first time that my father handed a shotgun to me. I lifted it, and he immediately took it back and gave me the sternest possible dressing down because I did not have it pointed either at the floor or the ceiling, which is the safe way to do it. There is an old maxim: ''Never never let your gun pointed be at anyone''. I learnt that lesson at a tender age, and it is one that I have also imparted to my own children.

One of the problems that can happen with a number of firearms—not so much with shotguns but with firearms and air weapons—is an accidental discharge. One therefore holds the weapon in such a manner that should such an occurrence happen, the discharge is safe: one either points it to the ground or the sky.

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