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Lord Marlesford moved Amendment No. 2:

If a police constable has reason to believe that a person or persons in a particular area may be carrying firearms, he may arrange—
(a) for the area to be sealed off; and

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(b) for the searching for firearms of any people or vehicles in that area, by whatever means he considers appropriate."

The noble Lord said: I originally moved the amendment in March last year, when we were discussing the Police Reform Bill. I shall not apologise to the House for moving a similar amendment to this Bill. The purpose of the amendment is unchanged: it is to assist the police to detect guns and remove them from the street before they are used and to demonstrate to an increasingly scared urban population that they are doing so.

The need for the amendment is more acute than it was a year and a half ago. Guns are pouring into the underworld and on to the streets. Many, we now learn, come from political criminals in Northern Ireland. Gun crime over here is becoming an ever-greater threat. On average, every day, there are 28 firearms offences in England and Wales. That does not include airguns, which, in general, have a less serious effect. Thirty years ago, the figure was 15 offences a week.

That total of more than 10,000 firearm offences in 2002–03 is double that of 1998–99, which is the first year that the Government could be regarded as having any responsibility. On average, two people are murdered each week with guns. The great bulk of firearm crimes—some 60 per cent—are committed with handguns. So much for the value of the highly controversial legislation requiring all licensed handguns to be handed in.

The Government were right to try the two-month amnesty for guns earlier this year, which netted the hand-in of 44,000 guns, which, to me, is an astonishing figure. But I doubt whether more than the tiniest fraction of those guns were handed in by criminals. The time has come for the police to go out and seek illegal guns. My amendment would help them do so. The greatest part of gun crime—68 per cent—is committed in three police areas; that is, London, Manchester and the West Midlands. In each of those areas, gun crime is increasing at a rate of more than 40 per cent per year.

Last year, the Minister who replied was the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton. I see that he is here. Perhaps he has come to reply again. I hope that he has a different brief to the one he had last year. He said that there were sufficient powers to stop and search and that my amendment was unnecessary. I found his argument unconvincing. He quoted no less than five Acts of Parliament which, in certain circumstances, might allow the police to search people for weapons, stolen property or other prohibitive articles. I am sure that there are twiddly bits of the law which, in many cases, could justify the police searching when they suspect that there are guns. Of course, there are powers to stop and search if a police officer thinks that someone is carrying a firearm. But that is not what my amendment is about.

One of the Acts that the Minister quoted was the Terrorism Act 2000. The amendment has nothing to do with terrorism. It is to do with gun crime, which is escalating at an ever-increasing rate. I am no lawyer, but I believe that it is inappropriate—to put it mildly—to use legislation enacted for one purpose for

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something that is quite different. I want the police to have a clear, unambiguous legal mandate to act. The Minister said last year that the police have not asked for that power; more is the pity. Eighteen months later, they may take a different view.

In passing, one might note that a few years ago the police did not favour the introduction of identity cards. Now, the present Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is frequently quoted publicly as asking for them. The Government are in the process of discussing the matter, but, as I understand it, have not yet convinced the entire Cabinet.

My amendment would do two things. First, it would send out a message that the Government are deadly serious about the criminal use of firearms and that they are determined to take any action that will reduce such crime by making the possession of a gun—real or replica—on the streets a very risky undertaking. Publicity would be given to these new powers; the high-profile use of the powers would send a fresh message to those carrying guns that it has become more risky to do so. When I say, "risky", I mean, "risky": there would be both a greater probability of being caught and the penalties would be much higher.

In Clause 265, the Government have inserted a five-year mandatory sentence for the illegal possession of firearms. Whatever one's view of the Government laying down mandatory minimum sentences, people with guns—especially if they are caught carrying them on the street—will face very unpleasant consequences. It is no slight argument that my amendment would reassure a public who have become more and more sceptical of the practical protection that they are receiving from this Government's much vaunted, but now rather tired, slogan: "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime". The toughness is becoming almost cosmetic. It is rather like those television shows of all-in wrestling where the actors always survive to fight another day.

Secondly, when there is reason to suspect that someone in a particular area may be carrying a firearm, the police could seal off that area and make a rapid scan. In the case of pedestrians, the use of hand-held metal detectors, with which everyone is immensely familiar at airports and so forth, is obviously a largely foolproof and non-invasive method. I agree that searching cars would be more difficult. There would be different problems.

I recognise that sometimes when those carrying guns—perhaps in a club—become aware of a police operation, they might seek to dump the guns. That should enable the police to recover the guns, which is a primary objective of the exercise. The use of the powers would take time to develop, but police forces have the initiative, intelligence and local knowledge to develop techniques for using those powers effectively.

Last year, I quoted from a powerful speech made by the Labour Member of Parliament for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Diane Abbott, in which she said:

    "gun crime is casting a terrible shadow over my constituents".—[Official Report, Commons, 28/2/02; col. 939.]

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It is to deal with that disturbing statement, made by someone who knows all too well what they are talking about, that my amendment seeks to make a contribution. Anyone who saw, as I did, the brilliant, but chilling play, "Fallout" by Roy Williams, about crime subculture in some parts of London, will realise the crucial role of handguns in that culture.

I spoke to Diane Abbott yesterday. She said that next week a Back Bench committee on gun crime, which she chairs, will be publishing its report. It will indicate that the Government need to do much more to deal with gun crime. Therefore, if my amendment is accepted, I hope that it will receive a reasonably favourable reception when it goes back to the other place.

We must also learn from the USA where, sadly, due to a misplaced phrase in the Constitution, gun law still rules in many areas. I am thinking of the success of the tough regime of the former mayor of New York, Rudolf Giuliani. Since 1994, more than 90,000 guns have been seized from the streets. Shootings have plummeted by more than 74 per cent. Those who visit New York know that it has changed from being the murder capital of the world to being the safest large city in the United States. Thank God, we have nothing like that level of gun crime here. But, in Britain's cities, it is moving in the wrong direction.

The Minister ended his reply last year saying that the Government are always happy to take another look at such proposals and that these matters should be kept under review. Nineteen months later, I believe that the time has come for action. That is why, if the Home Office, through the Government, continues to resist the acceptance of my suggestion, I may wish to test the opinion of the House. I beg to move.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has raised the important issue of gun crime, which is so prevalent in the inner-city areas of our country. He rightly described areas such as Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and London. We see repeated headlines about ordinary citizens being victims of gun crime, gun crime related to drugs and a gun culture which has destroyed the lives of so many young people.

The newly emergent culture of black-on-black gun crime has followed the pattern of what happened in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Gun crime is obviously on the increase. The fear among ordinary people is now greater than ever before. Despite the number of guns handed in at the time of the gun amnesty, it did little to improve the situation. Even though we have high-profile policing, people now feel unsafe on our streets. I therefore believe that the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has done a public duty by focusing attention on the issue.

One has only to move among the communities of our inner cities to see that black people are as often the victims as anyone else in those areas. Many ordinary citizens, lawfully resident here, have asked how many times they will have to attend the funerals of their young people before the carnage that is destroying innocent lives is controlled.

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However, I have some serious concerns about the wider implications of the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. Its impact on some sections of our community could be counter-productive. Let us imagine sealing off an area such as Brixton, Broadwater Farm or Handsworth. The police would have the power to search anyone in those areas for firearms using any "appropriate means". A large number of people in certain racial groups will be affected. I do not doubt that innocent people have nothing to fear, but I suspect that caution is necessary.

The use of stop and search powers has blighted good relations between the police and ethnic minority communities. Even if there was a clear-cut link between the use of stop and search powers and crime rates, there could be no argument. The statistics show that black people are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched than are white people, a disparity which has created a worsening relationship between the police and the black community. It is difficult to exaggerate the damage which such a proposal may cause. It would further alienate young black and Asian people from the police and the criminal justice process.

The way forward must be to draw on the experience of the police towards a fairer and more effective use of police powers. We should make better-targeted use of the stop and search powers, more use of intelligence rather than a blanket approach to incidents which in the past has resulted in serious disturbances. Black and Asian people are as ready as white people to endorse police action if it is properly applied; such action would find public consent. However, the amendment would revert to the old practices. We have already thrown out the baby with the bath water; I do not believe that we need to throw the bath water back in.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, will reflect on these points. Let me say that existing legislation already gives police constables very wide powers. If the suspicion relates to terrorism, powers are already set out in the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. However, those powers do not seem to have helped to solve the problem.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gun Crime is just about to publish its report. If at all possible, we should await the recommendations of that report and then decide on the appropriate course of action. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for raising this issue, but I hope he will understand that we shall not be able to support this amendment.

5 p.m.

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, I am in no position to comment on the extent of the problem to which the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has spoken, but surely this amendment is ridiculously far too wide-ranging to deal with it. First, it applies whenever a constable has reason to believe that a person is carrying a firearm, even when he is carrying it legally. If I am carrying my shotgun, perfectly legally, to my car, that would trigger this clause.

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Secondly, no definition is made of the size of the areas which could be sealed off. Perhaps, in a somewhat Freudian fashion, the noble Lord referred to the "areas" of London and Manchester. Is he suggesting that the whole of London is to be sealed? The noble Lord shakes his head, but what is a particular area? Would Westminster be one of those areas? No limit is put on the size and scope of a place that may be sealed off.

Thirdly, once an area has been sealed off, a police constable may search any person or any vehicle, regardless of whether the people or the vehicles are those which he had reason to believe might be carrying the gun. I know that textual criticisms are perhaps not that favourably received in this House, but before one confers a power such as this, one must have some regard to the practicalities and to reasonableness.

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