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Lord Goodhart: The use and carrying of unlawful guns is clearly a rapidly growing problem which, in recent months, has become increasingly serious in many of our cities and across the country. I therefore certainly welcome and support Amendment No. 139A. The Government must plainly see that effective international co-operation is an important step. Although there is, unfortunately, a very large supply of weapons already in the United Kingdom, there is every possibility that those dealing in these awful things may seek to import them from abroad as well. I, too, certainly hope that the Minister will be able to tell us more about the Government's plans for co-operation in preventing the inward trade of weapons from foreign countries into the United Kingdom.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I shall be very interested in the reply to this timely and useful amendment. If the Committee does not mind, I should like to go back to 1997, when there were two firearms Bills, which subsequently became two firearms Acts. Some of us who opposed those Bills, which penalised decent innocent people, pointed to the fact that the real danger was from smuggled arms. We urged both governments at the timea Conservative government followed by a Labour governmentto concentrate on stopping the importation of illegal arms rather than penalising the decent, honest citizens who wished to have pistols for their sport of shooting.
Now the innocent have been punished, but the guns are still coming in and will continue to come in from all over the world. They are being smuggled not only from places such as Russia, where virtually everybody seems to own a gun, but from France and Switzerland, where gun laws are much more lenient than here. It is essential that the Government turn their attention to the issue. Let us not make any mistake about the fact that this will need additional staff. We will need more Customs officers and more police on the streets. However, it is essential to deal with the real problem and to catch the guilty rather than punish the innocent, which I fear is what will be done in response to the recent shocking shootings in a couple of communities. We are not going to deal with the importation problem. Instead, we are going to stop the manufacture of replica weapons and the carrying of toy water pistols. Please forgive me for using the Committee to get this off my chest. The amendment gives an opportunity to remind the Committee and Parliament of the mistakes that have been made in the past and to put those mistakes right now, to ensure that these awful weapons are not imported into this country, where they can be used illegally.
When we banned pistols, they were held legally by decent people. I hope we are not going to go along the same path. One way of ensuring that we do not is to take note of the amendment. I am sure that it will not
Lord Lloyd of Berwick: I suppose I should declare an interest, although it seems rather remote, as president of the Sussex Rifle Club. For reasons given by other noble Lords, I fully support the amendment.
Lord Filkin: I am glad of the opportunity to respond to the amendment, which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, gives the Government an opportunity to put on the record what they are doing about this issue and to trail some of the wider measures that she indicated an interest in as potential elements of the Criminal Justice Bill when it comes before this House. I shall do so.
Clearly, we are utterly committed to working with our international partners to prevent the unlawful importation of arms and to minimise the use of the many weapons already in this country. We would be foolish if that were not so. I know the former from my direct role as the Home Office's EU Minister. A regular topic of conversation is how we can better work with our international partners and other member states to try to address our domestic challenges. That is the central thrust of our thinking in Europe. We want to use Europe to address our domestic problems rather than some more utopian objectives.
We already have some of the toughest gun controls in the world. We have been working with the police to ensure good security of legally held weapons to prevent them being stolen. We are looking at the need to establish stricter controls on deactivation standards. We want the same standards to apply throughout Europe. We have been working closely with the European Commission to that end.
UK law enforcement agencies represent us on the United Nations panel of experts for small arms and light weapons tracing and marking. The UN protocol resulting from this work is expected to lead to tighter controls. We also sit on the EU small arms policy committee.
The National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service are playing a key role in the intelligence-led approach to gun crime in London as elsewhere. NCIS has a national firearms tracing service that provides intelligence on the source and use of guns used in crime. This will be complemented by a new national computerised forensic firearms intelligence database, set up with funding from the Home Office. This is to be run within the Forensic Science Service. It will help to track the provenance of guns and ammunition used in crime and will be able to identify any links with a gun that may have been used in a number of crimes.
More specifically, in addition to the collaborative work with our partner law enforcement agencies, NCIS and NCS and intelligence agencies in-country work to improve our knowledge and understanding of the many complex issues that result in what has increasingly been happening on our streets. We are also working collaboratively in the international context. That includes actively seeking out examples of best practice all over the world from those who face or have faced similar issues. Promulgating and sharing intelligence is frequently the best way of targeting law enforcement resources. It also includes shared operations with international partners.
The FCO, HMCE, DfID and other agencies are assisting governments and law enforcement agencies in those countries that are at the head of the chain and are the source of many of the problems that we are experiencing on our streets, and those that are the major transit areas through which the criminal commodities pass on their way to markets in the UK and western Europe. For example, assistance to countries such as Jamaica, Turkey, the Balkan states, Columbia and Pakistan comprises training; funding for necessary equipment; and help in drawing up appropriate legislation and seeking to reduce the supply at source and taking out of play the major players, disrupting their activities at all stages of the chain. Those are all major objectives, as, especially, is seizing the illegally gained assets. They are being actively pursued directly and through bilateral agreements with other EU member states, the various UN bodies or other countries.
The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, asked some other questions about what else has been done or will be done. She will know that the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 introduced the toughest gun laws in any democracy. That was followed by a 10 per cent drop in the number of homicides. Unfortunately, since then a new pattern of gun crime and gang wars has emerged, usually highly related to extensive patterns of drug abuse in our society. Many of us are especially concerned about that. Some 60 per cent of gun crimes are related to gang feuds in our cities.
To give one example of how that is being tackled, the Metropolitan Police's Operation Trident is a major initiative to crack down on London's black communities where there has been extensive gun crime activity. I shall not give full details, but as of January 2002, 200 suspects had been arrested and charged, 130 guns seized and 500 kilos of class A drugs seized. Operation Trident has increased the detection rate of gun crimes to 80 per cent in those areas, which has been extremely encouraging.
The Criminal Justice Bill will introduce a mandatory minimum sentence for possession of illegal firearms. We are introducing a ban on the import, manufacture, sale and unlicensed possession of tandem cartridge systems. We are tightening the law on air guns. Going outside the Bill for a minute, following the gun crime summit Her Majesty's Customs and Excise are to undertake a major mapping of supply of weapons and are to be given new powers to prevent the illegal import of banned weapons. We are also working closely with the police to ensure better enforcement of existing legislation. A comprehensive review of all firearms legislation is also being implemented. That will examine whether there is more primary legislation than necessary. Lastly, the National Criminal Intelligence Service is expanding its firearms section significantly in the light of these threats.
No one pretends that the scale of these threats means that we can be certain that these measures alone will do everything that can be done. We shall return to those issues when the Criminal Justice Bill comes before the House. The only point that I want to mark is that, while we fully respect the probing amendment giving an opportunity almost for a preliminary Second Reading debate on some of these issues before we come back to them later, the duties that it would impose already exist in practice in the operational forces that are challenged with dealing with the issues. The Government could not be more committed to using international efforts to reinforce our domestic efforts to grip the problem. For these reasons, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.
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