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Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: I thank the Minister for that reply. I am not entirely sure that I am totally convinced, but I shall read it with interest in Hansard. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Earl said: This amendment concerns air weapons and age limits in that regard. At present someone can use an air weapon without supervision from the moment it is bought but he or she must be over 14. The Bill would raise that age to 17. Our amendments seek to retain the status quo of 14. Amendment No. 180 would ensure that private property would remain an exception under Section 23 of the Firearms Act 1968. I beg to move.
Lord Moynihan: Finally, I rise to speak to the amendment standing in my name regarding Clause 44. Clause 44 of the Bill contains a subsection which, if passed, will make it illegal for young responsible shooters between the ages of 14 and 17 to carry air guns in public places without supervision. This removes a paragraph from the Firearms Act 1968 which allows young people to do this provided the gun is held in a securely fastened case. The sporting shooting community is opposing the clause because as it stands it will result in the exclusion of young people from shooting sports. Although what I have heard of the Bill this evening contains an important social remit and its intention to prevent the misuse of air guns is thoroughly laudable, this particular issue is of extreme concern to the entire sporting shooting community. If the clause is passed unamended, it will pose a significant impediment to the participation of young people in a range of shooting sports from informal target practice to competition shooting. It will bear down disproportionately on any young responsible sportsman or woman who has permission to shoot on local farmland. This is particularly the case with air guns as they are the gun of choice for the majority of young people taking up the sport.
The clause is also inherently self-contradictory. Following pressure from the sporting shooting community, the Government amended the Anti-social Behaviour Bill to allow young sporting shooters to use air guns on private land without supervision. If the Bill does not receive further amendment, young shooters will be allowed to use their guns on private land without supervision, but will be in the conflicting position of having to be supervised when carrying those same guns in public.
Under current law young people considered responsible enough to shoot on private land unsupervised are also considered responsible enough to carry their air guns in public places, provided they are unloaded and in a securely fastened gun case. The British Shooting Sports Council would like to see that situation continue. Those involved in the sport of shooting from our Olympians to the Bisley champions of tomorrow and colleagues on these Benches share that view. The clause runs contrary to Labour's sports policy. Air guns are the gateway to responsible shooting sports for young people, from those for whom it is a weekend hobby to professional competitors such as 16 year-old Commonwealth Gold medallist, Charlotte Kerwood.
Shooting sports often require significant physical exertion and provide a wide variety of health benefits for those who participate in them. By restricting young people's ability to practise these sports, the clause will also work against the DCMS target, as set out in Game Plan, to initiate,
The clause contradicts Labour's manifesto commitment not to place further restrictions on the sport of shooting. The clause undermines the Government's policy on grassroots sports participation as it creates a disincentive to young people who are thinking of taking up the sport.
I am not the first to raise this issue in Parliament. The concern was raised at the Bill's Second Reading that an amendment to Clause 44 to deal with this issue could water down the Bill's provisions to combat the misuse of air weapons. In order to reassure the Committee that this is not the case I seek to outline briefly our response to three concerns. The first is the misuse of air guns. I quote the Minister in another place:
I would argue that a provision in Clause 43 would require everyone carrying a gun in public to provide good cause for their journey to law enforcement authorities. Under the terms of the amended clause, whether the gun is or is not in a securely fastened case, and whether a policeman or member of the public has witnessed any actual abuse or not, the police will be able to challenge anyone carrying any firearm, loaded or unloaded, covered or uncovered, and take immediate on-the-spot action to deal with that. Clause 43 creates an arrestable offence.
In cases where airguns have been misused in public places, there is no evidencenot a single caseto show that the people who perpetrate the crime use the current exemption as a loophole to avoid prosecution. Finally, as responsible members of the community, sporting shooters of all ages always carry their guns in a securely fastened case, and are therefore easily distinguishable from those who misuse airguns.
That response does not take into account the practicalities of shooting sports; moreover, it indicates that the Government's approach bears down disproportionately on young sportsmen and women from socially excluded backgrounds.
Shooting sports are often practised in rural areas where it is possible and preferable for young people to walk or cycle on their own to land where they have permission to shootfor example, local woodlandoften on an informal, solitary basis. Shooting sports are also often undertaken at unsociable hours. For example, a young person might be meeting a group of adults to go shooting at dawn. Not all training is carried out through organised sporting shooting events.
Moreover, it is not a legal requirement for adults to accompany young people to practice sessions in other sporting disciplines. As with other sports, therefore, it should be left to parents to judge when it is appropriate to allow young people to travel unsupervised to the location where they practise their sport. As a matter of principle, we believe that young sporting shooters should not be subjected to such a disadvantage, nor their activities unnecessarily restricted.
The third concern is about levels of police bureaucracy. It has been suggested that such an amendment would create further bureaucracy for law enforcement authorities. The highly respected British Shooting Sports Council would assert that, with correct and unambiguous guidance on the issue, the police would face no further bureaucracy than is suggested by the clause as it stands.
Lord Addington: The case that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, has made is one in which a type of sport that we are encouraging is worried about its recruitment base. On certain occasions, I have incurred the wrath of the group of people under discussion by supporting the Government and previous governments on restrictions on firearms. They feel rather persecuted, but both this Government and the previous government said that people could be part of the airgun fraternity. Airguns are safer, with the man-killing potential of the weapons dramatically lower than the ones that they replaced.
Surely addressing some of the issues raised overall by the noble Lord's amendment would not hurt the Government terribly and not up the risk. Do the Government have any coherent thinking on the issue? Will they address the problem of how to get people involved in the sport at a young age? If people are to reach a highly competitive level, they have to start early. We are very wary of the idea of firearms of any description. However, unless we are to say that they cannot be used at all, people have to have a way in. What is the Government's thinking on the issue?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I thank Members of the Committee for raising the issue. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, introduced it very succinctly, but it could not have been more elegantly or compellingly put on behalf of the fraternity than it was by the noble Lord,
There is no conflict in the Government's stance. As the noble Lord rightly said, the Government are four square behind the sportsmen and women of this country and have done much to support them and to enable them to participate and achieve at the highest level. I speak to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that the Government have listened keenly to what the sporting lobby has said. For that reason, there is a change in the proposals now put forward by the Government. They enable shooting to take place on private land. But there is no conflict, as the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, sought to indicate, between the stance we have taken in relation to what happens in the private and public arenas. The two are quite separate and distinct.
Amendments Nos. 179, 181 and 182 go to the heart of Clause 44. They would retain the existing age limit of 14 for the possession of an air weapon. The Government believe that that it is important to raise the age limit to 17. Regrettably, there has been a steady rise in the instance of misuse of air weapons in recent years. In 2001-02, there were 12,340 offences involving the misuse of air weapons. That is a rise of 21 per cent. The new offence contained in Clause 43 will help to tackle this misuse by allowing the police to arrest people who are found to be carrying an air gun in public without good reason. But that is not the whole solution. Much anti-social behaviour relating to air weapons is caused by unsupervised young people
Lord Dixon-Smith: I hear the statistics with interest. Is it possible to divide the category "air weapons" between air weapons/handguns and air weapons/air rifles? I suspect that the problem is with handguns rather than air rifles, although I admit that there are some cases involving air rifles.
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