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The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham): We want to ensure that the skills and expertise of experienced police officers are retained by forces for as long as is practicable. The level of ill-health early retirement has fallen under the Government, but it is still important to ensure that we resort to it only where necessary. We therefore welcome the fact that the Police Negotiating Board has agreed in principle a fairer and more consistent approach towards early retirement due to ill health.
Miss McIntosh: Will the Minister join me in congratulating North Yorkshire police, especially the chief constable, on reducing the number of officers applying for early retirement through ill health? Does he agree, however, that a pensions timebomb is ticking? North Yorkshire police cannot be unique in having more retired officers being paid out of the police budget than active operational officers. Earlier this year, the Home
Mr. Denham: I hope that we shall introduce proposals on pensions, in line with those set out in the White Paper, as soon as possible. One of our aims was to try to ensure that police forces are more insulated from the fluctuating cost of ordinary retirements. However, it would probably be a step in the wrong direction to insulate police forces entirely from the costs of poor management or mismanagement of, for example, ill-health retirement. I welcome any moves to improve the situation in North Yorkshire, but it is a matter of fact that in the last full yearto 200158 per cent. of its officers retired due to ill health. That is a very high proportion indeed and one that has inevitably put a pensions cost on the people of North Yorkshire.
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): Does my right hon. Friend agree that many officers approaching retirement age, and indeed many women police officers, are exactly those most suited to community policing and to being bobbies on the beat? Will he therefore consider what has happened recently in the city of Nottingham? On 2 April, a community beat officers system was introduced, yet within seven weeks that decision was reversed. Will my right hon. Friend make some inquiries into why certain chief constables are not living up to the Government's rhetoric?
Mr. Denham: As my hon. Friend has raised the matter, I shall certainly familiarise myself with the situation in Nottingham, but I have to say that the decision about exactly how to deploy the rising number of police officers is an operational one for chief constables. My hon. Friend is right to say that we want to ensure that, as the number of police officers rises, one of the key roles that they fulfil is to be visible in local communities, identifying and solving problems and tackling and reducing the fear of crime, as well as tackling crime itself.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): In the year to the end of March 2002, 82 Sussex police officers retired at the normal retirement age, yet almost as many77resigned early, let alone those who retired early through ill health. Why does the Minister think that is?
Mr. Denham: The level of wastage from the police service in England and Wales has remained remarkably unchanged for a number of years at under 5 per cent. It is true that a small number of forces have shown a much higher rate of early retirement than the vast majority of police forces. That is why officials from our Department are working with those police forces to identify the reasons why and to make sure that everything is done to ensure that their performance on retention is in line with that of the rest of the police service.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): All aspects of firearms law are kept under continual review. We are determined to tackle the problems caused by the misuse of air weapons and believe that much can be done through the enforcement of existing legislation and public education. At present, we are considering advice from the Firearms Consultative Committee on how that might be taken forward. We shall also examine ways to tackle those who misuse air weapons, as we move forward with measures to combat antisocial behaviour and street crime.
Mr. Mullin: Scarcely a week goes by in Sunderland without an incident involving an out-of-control youth and an air weapon. May I put it to the Minister that, if the bureaucratic obstacles to some form of licensing are too great, we could at least significantly raise the age limit for using those weapons? Will he think about that, please?
Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is fully familiar with these issues. He knows that the Select Committee on Home Affairs reported on them not so long ago, and I am aware of the incidents that have been recently reported in his local press. As I have said, my response is not dogmatic; it is about being practical and proportionate to the problem. The issue is kept under review, and if we can find a way to be more effective, I am more than happy to consider it. Yes, of course I shall examine my hon. Friend's proposal, as we examined the Home Affairs Committee's proposals, but we need to be effective and to use resources as effectively as possible, and I ask him to consider the fact that those problems also need to be overcome.
David Burnside (South Antrim): Could not the Minister learn from the positive experience in Northern Ireland on the registration of air rifles? Air rifles are used by parents to train children in a disciplined, secure and safe way to shoot for sporting purposes. The legislation in Northern Ireland is simple: air rifles' serial numbers and the amount of ammunition bought are listed on firearms certificates. The system is well disciplined and well policed, and it causes no problem to sportsmen and women who want to see greater regulation and secure and safe shooting for young people as they make progress through life.
Mr. Ainsworth: I will be honest with the hon. Gentleman: I was not aware of the regulatory system as it exists in Northern Ireland. If there are lessons to be learned, we shall be more than happy to consider them. The issue has been debated a great deal, and we all understand that there is a very real problem, but we should consider how best to tackle it without unnecessarily wasting resources, while being as effective as we can in bearing down on the misuse of those weapons.
Ms Claire Ward (Watford): My constituents are becoming increasingly concerned about young people having access to firearms. A 13-year-old boy in my constituency was shot in the face just three weeks ago, and almost lost his sight. We have had at least two exclusions from school of children found carrying these weapons into school. An urgent review is needed. Will my hon. Friend consider what controls and enforcement mechanisms exist to stop local shopkeepers selling these
Mr. Ainsworth: In response to my hon. Friend and other Members who have raised this issue, I say that I shall consider it again and talk to the police about how we can be as effective as possible in bearing down on the misuse of these weapons. I give that guarantee; I do not dismiss the concern. Clearly, we want to be as effective as we can, and I assure her that I will consider again the issue of age. This is not the first time, however, that these issues have been examined. There are barriers, but we should give constant consideration to whether we can improve in this area, precisely because of the points that she raises about the distressing and dangerous circumstances that arise repeatedly up and down the country.
Bob Russell (Colchester): The Minister has just referred to instances up and down the country, and I urge him to follow the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee, which have been repeated today. These incidents do not happen only in Sunderland. On Friday, in Colchester, which has a relatively low crime rate and is normally a peaceful town, a 12-year-old boy was attacked in the street, robbed, and shot with an airgun. Will the Minister explain what possible justification there is for teenagers roaming streets in urban neighbourhoods with airguns?
Mr. Ainsworth: There cannot be a justification for teenagers roaming the streets with airguns. There is no justification, and it is illegal for them to do so. The hon. Gentleman should be aware of that. The main thrust of the Home Affairs Committee report was a desire to introduce a registration scheme. That is not opposed by Ministers, but there are questions about the practicalities, and the police have raised issues about the effective use of resources and the burden that running an effective registration scheme would place on them. I assure the House that those issues can be considered and that they ought to be kept under review. The hon. Gentleman should not pretend to the House or anyone else, however, that the kind of behaviour to which he has just referred is legal in this country, and that action should not and cannot be taken against people who behave in that way.
Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): May I support the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), and draw the Minister's attention to the case of my constituent, Nicola Diston, who has permanently lost the sight of one eye as a result of being attacked with an air weapon? I urge the Minister to consider the definition of weapons that should come under a licensing scheme. At the moment, many air weapons that are capable of causing permanent damage are outside controls, should not be outside controls, and should be brought under regulation as soon as possible.
Mr. Ainsworth: I am aware of the case. Indeed, my right hon. Friend has spoken to me, and seeks a meeting with me on this issue. She is not right to say that these weapons are outside controls, but she is absolutely right that they are outside the more stringent controls that are placed on more powerful weapons. We can consider and