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Earl Peel: I support the amendments tabled in the name of my noble friend Lord Shrewsburythat is, Amendments Nos. 183, 189, 191 and 193. I must declare an interest as vice-chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council.
Before I address the amendments, it is important that I should reiterate the view of all responsible shooters that the misuse of firearms must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. Nevertheless, it is very important, I hope the Minister
It is my view and that of the British Shooting Sports Council that Clause 45, which aims to address the real problems of firearms misuse, deals indiscriminately with sporting shooters, who are responsible members of the community, and those who would indulge in anti-social behaviour. It is for that reason that I support my noble friend's amendments, which will be moved today by my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith.
In so doing, it is appropriate that I should acknowledge the work of the British Shooting Sports Council, which, I am sure the Minister will agree, has worked tirelessly to resolve these issues in as comprehensive a way as possible.
Amendment No. 183 is specifically designed to reduce the order-making powers set out in Clause 45, which, as I have said, are far too wide-ranging and give the Secretary of State too much power. I am convinced that these powers could be used to ban a wide range of air weapons, perversely leading to a situation where controls on air guns could end up being tighter than the controls on other and more dangerous weapons.
Surely the correct and equitable way of dealing with such problems is to identify where the abuses are taking place and to introduce specific legislation to deal with the problem. To introduce these wide-ranging powers in a catch-all fashion shows, I suggest, a disrespect for responsible members of the shooting community. It would lead to discrimination against them and, as I have already said, go against what the Government have pledged that they would not doto introduce legislation that would impinge on shooters.
With regard to Amendment No. 189, our laws should, in my view, reflect what is appropriate to the realities of shooting today. As well as ensuring firearms controls are designed appropriately, it is equally important to consider balancing ministerial powers to allow the Government to relax controls that serve no purpose. Amendment No. 192, which I did not specifically mention, also covers this point.
Amendment No. 191 would limit the wide-ranging power the Government are proposing to bestow on the Secretary of State to ban any air gun he or she deems to be specifically dangerous, a point that I have already raised. The amendment would limit the Government's power to deal with an identified problem.
Finally, Amendment No. 193 would replace the proposed licensing scheme for Brococks, to which my noble friend referred. I agree with him; I am not an expert in these matters and, to the best of my knowledge, have never seen or indeed handled a Brocock, but I acknowledge that they are causing the Government considerable difficulties.
It is generally accepted among holders of these weaponsand the British Shooting Sports Council feels very strongly about thisthat it would be more appropriate to ban their use and offer compensation
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I thank the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, for raising these issues. I appreciate the nature of their concerns and would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge what has just been said by the noble Earl, Lord Peel, that the shooting community very much agrees with us that the misuse of firearms is abhorrent. That is our starting point. The noble Earl was right to point out that there is a need for proportionality and balance. I join him in congratulating the council on its approach in working very hard to make sure that we have a system which is robust.
We have listened with great care and attention to what has been proposed, but there is the issue of balance. The Government believe that in relation to these issues, we have the balance about right. I appreciate that the amendments would restrict the proposed ban on air weapons which use the self-contained gas cartridge system to handguns only. Furthermore, I appreciate that the ban would apply only in respect of handguns which can be readily converted to fire ammunition using the force of gunpowder or other explosive material to discharge a missile. I understand the way in which they are put. But as your Lordships will be aware, the controls we propose are needed because certain types of weapons are being converted. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, says that they should not be converted, but we know that they are being converted and used, regrettably, in an increasing number of violent criminal acts, including murder and attempted murder.
I accept that at the moment these conversions are carried out on various types of handgun and the ammunition involved uses some kind of explosive charge. But unfortunately, we know that criminals are very resourceful; if they cannot get one type of weapon, they cast around for something else which they would find of equal utility.
We considered very carefully whether the ban on self-contained cartridge systems should be confined to hand guns only, but regrettably, the problem is with the system itself and the ease with which it can be used to fire conventional bullets. How long would it be before a rifle is used in a shooting if all other types of these guns are banned?
The same applies to confining any powers to weapons which can be converted to discharge a missile by the force of gunpowder. It simply does not make sense to restrict ourselves to what is presently known to be the problem, only to find ourselves unable to act quickly when a new weapon finds favour with criminals.
I suspect that Amendment No. 192 relates principally to the availability of expanding ammunition, rather than anything involving anti-social behaviour and the issues that we are discussing today. I am aware that the present restrictions have caused some difficulties, but we shall shortly undertake a review of firearms legislation generally and we shall consider the issue then. We know that the current legislation in that area is about 35 years old, and a fresh eye is merited.
Amendment No. 193 would introduce provision for a compensation scheme. We are not seeking to use the order-making powers unless a particular problem arises in respect of an air weapon that is considered to be especially dangerous. As with the prohibition on the air cartridge system, we shall seek to strike a fair balance between the interests of individuals who own the guns and the wider public interest. Existing owners will, on obtaining a certificate, be able to retain them for their own use, and retailers and manufacturers will be able to run down existing stock and obtain authority to sell overseas if they so wish.
In those circumstances, we do not believe that compensation is payable in relation to the proposed ban on guns using the air cartridge system, and we would certainly not wish to commit ourselves to making a compensation scheme in future. However, I assure noble Lords opposite that in Clause 45 we intend only to act proportionately in relation to the problems associated with the criminal misuse of the air weapons. Therefore, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Earl Peel: I should like to address the Minister on the points she made about Amendment No. 193. The British Shooting Sports Council, on behalf of people who own such weapons, is actually prepared to give them up in exchange for compensation because it acknowledges the difficulties to which the Minister has referred. Would it not be cheaper, simpler and altogether more satisfactory to decide that we should not have any more of those weapons and to pay compensation accordingly? The alternative is to have a complicated and cumbersome licensing system, which I should have thought the Government would be only too willing to dispose of in favour of our alternative suggestion. It seems common sense to go along with that.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I am tempted to say, "If only it were so". We do not have any indication that would cause us to believe that it would be the cheaper option. Noble Lords will know, too, that there is an issue as to the payment of compensation generally and more broadly. We do not believe that it would be an appropriate use of funds or that it is justified as the provisions are made. We believe that the proposals for obtaining a certificate are appropriate, as they would allow those who already have the weapons to retain
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