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Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, I was not aware of that, but the point I wanted to make was that I could still be searched even if I were carrying my licensed firearm. Perhaps my example was inappropriate and I apologise for that.
Lord Waddington: My Lords, we are much indebted to my noble friend Lord Marlesford for having raised this issue. No one can doubt that there is great public concern about the growth in crime associated with and involving the use of firearms. It is certainly right for us to consider whether there is a case to be made for the police to be given powers which they do not have at present in order to deal with this menace.
I believe that there are two questions to be answered. First, is any new power required? Even if one responds to that by saying, "No", there is the second question, which is: would it be desirable, in order to seek to calm public fears, to restate the law in very plain terms?
It is worth recalling our almost interminable debates on whether it was necessary to give the police new powers under the road traffic Acts to stop vehicles in order to test whether people had taken alcohol. We debated whether there should be a power to set up road-blocks, and a power to stop people on a random basis and then to test them. I was always firmly against any new powers being taken. First, I did not think it was necessary. I was convinced that, under the road traffic Acts, the police already had the power to stop any car, at any time, for any reason; and, secondly, I certainly did not think that it would be good for relations between the police and the public if we were to write such a power into the statute book, thus encouraging the public to criticise the police because it might be used oppressively. It was far better to leave
The question we must address today is, first, whether there are sufficient powers. I am sure that the Minister will address most of her remarks to that point. If she were to reply that there are such powers, but that they are set out in this and that statute and some are rather difficult to explain to the public, then I would ask her to address my second question: would it not be wise to restate some of those powers in very plain terms so that the public may be assured that, under certain circumstances, it would be possible, in an emergency, for the police to set up a cordon and stop every person entering the area to check whether he was carrying a firearm? I should have thought that the police have those powers already, but I should like the Minister to explain the present law.
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, I join in the general welcome given to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for tabling this amendment. We must remind ourselves of the deep public concern over the growth of the criminal use of firearms. I should say, and here I chide my noble friend just a little, that part of that frustration is reflected in the long length of time it has taken the police to put into effect the National Firearms Certificate Holders Register, which passed into law in 1997. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has been active in ensuring that the database is taken seriously. In a sense it is beyond belief that it has taken so long, and that there is no up-to-date national record of those holding firearms, those who have applied for licence renewals and whether they have been granted or refused a licence. It is quite incredible and I simply remind my noble friend of the position along the route to what I really want to say.
After the tragic events at the start of this year involving the murders of the two sisters in Birmingham, I can attest to the enormous concern of everyone living in that part of the city about those wasted lives and those of others which, unhappily, have followed since. I am quite sure that it is the case that, in general, within the major cities of this country, the police have a fair idea of where illegal firearms are likely to be held. I am quite sure also that the police respond as best they can to public concerns over these issues.
However, we know from experience of dealing with crime that successful detection comes from two main sources. Firstalthough this may sound like a truism it cannot be stated often enoughit comes from community co-operation, a lack of which is perhaps the single biggest impediment to a better clear-up rate. I am not knocking the policethere are all kinds of reasons why these things happenbut any police officer will immediately attest to the fact that their success in the job that they are doing in policing the areas to which they are attached comes from the support given by the local community.
On the back of that community co-operation comes intelligence. It is well known in another contextand noble Lords will forgive me if they feel I am trying to teach them to suck eggs; I am notthat the regular patrolling of streets by large numbers of police officers is perhaps not the most effective way of dealing with crime. I remember being informed that a police officer would have to patrol a street for 30 years in order to witness a burglary taking place.
Policing is becoming much more intelligence led and much more targeted. We have now the benefits of automatic number plate recognitionand, with that, the photographing of those at the wheel of such vehicleswhich is being regularly used at all ports in this country. It is of immense use in the effort to combat a whole range of criminal activities.
The point I am making is that on the back of better community support and on the back of the technology that can aid the targeting, use and collection of intelligence, the police are likely to have a better chance of recovering illegally held firearms.
I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that we must be very careful in many areas because of their ethnic composition; we must ensure that these measures are not misunderstood. I hope that your Lordships will not misunderstand what I am sayingI am sure that you will notbecause a crime is a crime and I do not care about the ethnic background of whoever is proven to be responsible for it. But, having said that, we have to show some sensitivity and there is always a danger that a random sweep can do far more damage than good, although the ambition of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, is to be wholly commended.
As the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said, I hope that my noble friend will be able to assure the House that there are powers available to enable the police to deal with specific situations where they believe that in a particular house at a particular time there is likely to be a person or persons with firearms.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, I have some sympathy with the amendment but I agree with my noble friend Lord Bledisloe that it is far too widely drawn. Perhaps I may offer a couple of suggestions to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. It seems to me that he should specify a particular rank of police officer who could authorise such a proceeding and that he might pay some thought to the searching of premises as well as of people and vehicles. I accept that that may require an even higher degree of authorisation. I hope that the noble Lord will keep trying.
Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, it is of course possible to identify a superficial blemish or inadequacy here and there in my noble friend's amendment, but that is not really the point with which your Lordships will wish to be concerned.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Waddington that my noble friend Lord Marlesford has rendered a service to the House by drawing attention to an issue to which we could so readily become wearily resignedthat is, the proliferation on our streets of illegal weapons, illegal firearms. It would be easy to accept that this situation is with us and that it will get worse and worse and it is important that this proliferation should be drawn to our attention. That is what the amendment does.
We heard on a previous occasionwe have been reminded of it todaythat the Government's response has been, "Oh well, these powers are available. They are here and they are therenotably in the prevention of terrorism legislation". We are seeing what might be called "powers creep"that is, the use of powers under the prevention of terrorism legislation in circumstances for which they were never intended to be made available and in which, perhaps, they are unlawfully used. Not long ago, an incident where this was alleged to have happenedI believe in Londonelicited an apology from on high.
It is not enough to say that the Prevention of Terrorism Act will allow people in most circumstances to intervene in the way the amendment seeks to authorise. I hope that the Minister will be able to say that there is already a specific power readily discernible in a single Act which enables this action to be taken, or, alternatively, give a sympathetic response to a very helpful amendment.
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