Firearms Control

Nick opens a debate on Firearms Control

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of firearms control.

I believe that I speak for the whole House when I say that as we start this debate on firearms control today, our thoughts remain with the family and friends of the victims and all those who had to deal with-and are still dealing with-the consequences of the shootings in Cumbria in June, and in Northumbria in July. Those events shocked the nation. Twelve men and women were murdered, and 11 were injured by Derrick Bird in Cumbria. One man was killed and two people were injured by Raoul Moat in Northumbria. Today's debate fulfils an earlier Government commitment to discuss firearms control in the House in the light of this summer's tragic events. Although I appreciate that there may be some concern that this debate has not been held until now, I am sure that hon. Members agree that one advantage in doing so is that we now have both the independent Association of Chief Police Officers review and the Select Committee on Home Affairs report on firearms control, which has been published only today, to inform us.

Mr Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): Given that the Home Affairs Committee report was published only this morning, given that we are on a one-line Whip, given that the Chamber is empty and given that Westminster itself is effectively empty, why have the Government deliberately chosen to debate this issue-an issue that I know the Minister is sincerely concerned about-on today of all days?

Nick Herbert: The hon. Gentleman knows that we were committed to holding this debate. We particularly wanted to hold it in Government time, even though there were a number of opportunities to hold it in other time. We wanted to wait for the outcome of the Home Affairs Committee's inquiry, which has reported only today, and we did not want to wait any longer, so there was a difficult balance to strike. However, I assure him that we will listen carefully to the views expressed on both sides in this debate as we consider the issues, including what he says and what his constituents say. I hope that he knows that we have made every attempt to listen carefully to the views of local people who were affected by those incidents, as well as the views of the wider public and of hon. Members.

Indeed, a number of Ministers have visited the communities affected by those events, and we fully appreciate the impact that they have had on the people who live and work in those areas. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary visited Cumbria in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. I was able to visit and meet some of those affected, along with the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed), in late August. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) made a similar visit last week, and he also visited Northumbria in the wake of those shootings. I want to express my admiration for the local communities who were forced to react to those horrific incidents, and who did so with such courage and dignity. Both the Under-Secretary and I have met PC David Rathbone on different occasions, the officer who was blinded after being shot by Raoul Moat. We were deeply impressed by his courage and his stoicism. Indeed, I am sure that the whole House wishes to pay tribute to the police officers in Cumbria and Northumbria who had to respond, in many cases unarmed, to the events as they unfolded.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does my right hon. Friend recognise that although plenty of people in Rothbury-where people were in fear for a long time because of the presence of the gunman-are astonished that he was able to be in possession of firearms, equally, there are many people who, while sharing that astonishment, believe that those who genuinely use firearms for sporting purposes, in a proper, licensed manner, should not be penalised for the behaviour of that terrifying man?

Nick Herbert: I agree with my right hon. Friend's sentiments. It appears that the weapons used by Raoul Moat were unlawfully obtained, unlike those used by Derrick Bird. Later, I shall underline the importance of ensuring a proportionate response to such incidents while nevertheless recognising that some areas might need a tightening up of controls, albeit one that recognises the legitimate needs and recreations of those living in the countryside or elsewhere who take part in such sporting activities.

Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): The Minister has quite rightly paid tribute to the police. Will he also join me in paying tribute to the civil nuclear police, who played such a sterling and difficult role in those terrible times that we all went through?

Nick Herbert: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to do that. One of the things that was impressed on me when I visited Cumbria and received a briefing from the chief constable of the Cumbrian constabulary and his team was the role that the police at Sellafield-the civil nuclear constabulary-played in helping to respond quickly to the events as they unfolded. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Copeland and my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who have admirably provided a voice to their constituents. I know that in tight-knit communities, the effects of such events have been all the greater. The hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend have shown great leadership in their communities, particularly in Cumbria, where so many people lost their lives.

Although the police investigation in Cumbria is ongoing, and inquests in both Cumbria and Northumbria are yet to be held, a review carried out by assistant chief constable Adrian Whiting, chair of the ACPO firearms and explosives working group, recently reported its findings. Mr Whiting has extensive knowledge of the subject matter, and we are grateful to him for his report. The review considered whether the decisions made and actions taken in granting and renewing the firearms and shotgun certificates issued to Derrick Bird were appropriate, or whether any actions could have been taken to prevent the tragedy from occurring. Mr Whiting found that the decisions made and actions taken by the constabulary on firearms licensing were reasonable. Mr Whiting did not identify any immediate changes to legislation that would have prevented those offences. However, he did suggest a number of general improvements that he thought might improve public safety. Those included a number of suggestions that have been taken up by the Home Affairs Committee, to which I shall refer later.

It is clear that, following two events of this scale, lessons must be learned to ensure that, wherever possible, action is taken to help prevent such crimes from occurring again. It is crucial that proper controls are placed on those individuals who seek to own a firearm. However, it is also important to acknowledge, when discussing this issue, that licensed firearms are only one side of the debate. It is generally acknowledged that the vast majority of guns used in crime are illegally held.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): My right hon. Friend raises an important aspect of the debate in mentioning the difference between weapons that are lawfully owned and those that are not. I want to quote page 10 of the Select Committee report, which states:

"There is a lack of data in the public domain showing the extent to which legally-owned firearms are used in gun crime, partly because it is difficult to collect accurate data"-

because the gun is not always left at the scene of the crime -

"and partly because the Home Office does not routinely publish the data that it does collect."

May I invite my right hon. Friend to reconsider this, and to put into the public domain more information about whether the firearms used in such events are legally or illegally held?

Nick Herbert: Of course we will consider all the recommendations in the Select Committee report carefully. We are also considering very carefully the question of what data the Home Office should collect. We need to strike the right balance between imposing ever more onerous conditions on local police forces and ensuring that the necessary data are collected centrally, and we will have more to say about that in due course. I certainly take my hon. Friend's point on board, however.

Much of the harm caused to our communities by firearms is caused by those who are not licensed to own a gun. The Government attach great importance to tackling the problem of illegal firearms, and we will continue to work to ensure that whatever measures necessary are taken to cut the use of illegal firearms in criminal activity. By setting up the national crime agency, we will be introducing a body that will build on the Serious Organised Crime Agency and that will be empowered, in partnerships with police forces, to target the types of serious crime that frequently involve illegal firearms and to eliminate them from our communities. Combining early intervention work with tough enforcement, and empowering local communities to prevent the spread of violence, will be crucial. This area of work will be informed by the Government's new crime strategy, which will be published shortly.

It is important, however, to emphasise that gun crime thankfully remains relatively rare in this country. Provisional data indicate that firearm offences accounted for just 0.2% of all recorded crime in 2009-10, and that figure has been going down. However, that still equates to nearly 8,000 recorded offences. Gun crime causes significant and lasting harm to individuals, families and communities, and, however small the number of incidents that occur in the context of the overall number of crimes, the impact of these incidents must never be underestimated. Thirty-nine lives were lost to gun crime last year, and there were 336 serious injuries. That is unacceptable, and we must work to bring the numbers down.

Mr Reed: Between 1997 and 2008-09, 742 people were murdered with firearms in this country. Given that it was the atrocities in Scotland in March 1996 that led to the last meaningful review of gun ownership legislation, and in the light of the events of this year, does the Minister agree that Parliament now needs to change and tighten the gun laws in this country?

Nick Herbert: I certainly agree that it is necessary to review the gun laws, as the Home Affairs Committee has done, and to consider whether sensible measures might be taken to improve them and, in specific areas, tighten them. I am not sure whether I agree with the hon. Gentleman's implication that there needs to be a wholesale change in our gun laws that would restrict the legitimate ownership of guns, because most incidents relate to illegal ownership, and I believe that that is where we need to focus our enforcement activity.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister knows that a review by the Select Committee is not the same as a Government review of this matter. What are the Government doing?

Nick Herbert: With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, we have said that we will take on board the Select Committee's recommendations, which were published only today, and that we are considering the matter very carefully. I will speak in a moment about a measure that has already been introduced, and I will give a broad indication of an early response to the Select Committee report. There has also been a review by the Association of Chief Police Officers. The Government have certainly responded to the incidents that have taken place in Cumbria and Northumbria, but I believe that we are doing so in a careful and considered manner.

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): A resident of Northampton to whom I am particularly devoted is my aunt, Diana Ellis, and she has always said, "If it is not broken, don't fix it." Will my right hon. Friend reassure her, and many hundreds of thousands of other people in this country, that Her Majesty's Government will not act in a knee-jerk fashion on this matter and further increase the legislative burden?

Nick Herbert: Yes, I will reassure my hon. Friend of that. We will carefully consider the recommendations put forward by the Select Committee and others, and we will take action where we judge it necessary and proportionate, and where it will help to secure public safety. We will not, however, produce a knee-jerk response to these events. Indeed, the fact that the Government have not done so, and that we are nevertheless considering the issues carefully and with an open mind, has been generally welcomed throughout the country.

Mr Reed: Can we please now dispense with the notion of a knee-jerk response? It is six months since the events in my constituency, and we have now had the very thorough and considered report from the Association of Chief Police Officers and the excellent work of the Home Affairs Select Committee. The notion of a knee-jerk response now is just not applicable.

Nick Herbert: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees, however, that it is fair for the Government to look at the Home Affairs Committee's report, which was published only today, and to consider it carefully. When I referred to a knee-jerk response, what I meant was that it would be wrong to rule in or out without further consideration anything that the Select Committee has recommended. It is right that we should consider these issues carefully, and he will see that there are areas in which we believe action should be taken.

Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to take the time to review all the reports, including today's report from the Home Affairs Committee, carefully and to ensure that any formal response by the Government does not criminalise, either by implication or in reality, the hundreds of thousands of people who use firearms totally legally for sporting purposes and the industries that feed off them? Does he agree that we must not run the risk of those people and those industries being criminalised, even by implication, and that we must focus of the illegal use of firearms?

Nick Herbert: Again, I accept my hon. Friend's counsel. We intend to strike a proper and proportionate balance here, and we will respond in a timely fashion to the Select Committee's report. We will then come forward with any specific proposals.

It is frequently said that we have some of the toughest gun controls in the world. Firearms control in this country has a long history and has evolved gradually, with frequent tightening of the legislation by Parliament. The first British firearms controls were introduced by the Vagrancy Act 1824. Firearms certificates have been required since 1920, and shotguns have required a certificate since 1967. There have since been amendments to the Firearms Act 1968, which sets out the framework for today's legislation, in response to the shootings in Hungerford in 1987 and in Dunblane in 1996, banning semi-automatic weapons and handguns respectively. I think that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides would agree that the system has been made progressively tougher. In its current state, it places tight restrictions on individuals who wish to own a gun. Guns are used legitimately for pest-control and sporting purposes, and the Government certainly do not believe that such activities should be curtailed provided that there are proper controls, but it is of course right to keep those controls under review and, in particular, to reconsider them in the light of recent incidents.

Mr Ellwood: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way.

The debate is entitled "Firearms Control". It deals with a wide variety of guns and their use. I invite my right hon. Friend to consider the use and legality of handguns As he has said, they were made illegal following a disaster, but given that we are to host the Olympic games, we are in the embarrassing position of having to send a British Olympic shooting team abroad to train. I have been in touch with my right hon. Friend about the issue, and I feel that it should be examined. We need cognitive legislation, such as the new Bill, rather than an outright ban.

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend has illustrated the importance of striking the right balance. We all understand why the action was taken in response to the dreadful Dunblane incident in 1997. However, the issue of competitive shooting at the Olympics has been raised with the Minister for Sport and the Olympics, who I am sure would be happy to discuss it with my hon. Friend.

The Government welcome the timely report on firearms control that was published today by the Home Affairs Committee. I thank the Committee, under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), for its work on the issue. As I have said, we will consider its recommendations carefully, not least in the light of today's debate. The House will understand that it would not be right for me to respond in detail today, but I want deal with three key points.

First, the Committee recommended that the Government should codify and simplify the laws relating to firearm ownership. As I made clear when I mentioned the history of firearms legislation, those laws are widely dispersed across different Acts of Parliament. Furthermore, they are very complex. I believe that the issue would benefit from further attention, and we will therefore consider that recommendation carefully.

Secondly, the Committee recommended tighter restrictions on the granting of firearms licences to individuals who have engaged in criminal activity. That concern clearly arose from the shootings in Cumbria, and I raised it with the chief constable myself when I visited the area in August. There may be an opportunity for careful adjustment, but that will depend on the nature of the offence. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), will listen carefully to what is said in the debate and will use it to inform any future decisions. However, we welcome the Committee's recommendation.

Thirdly, the Committee raised the issue of the age at which an individual is permitted to shoot. I understand why that issue has been raised, but I think it important to appreciate that many young people enjoy shooting in a safe and responsible manner. Assistant Chief Constable Adrian Whiting told the Committee:

"The evidence in relation to young people shooting does not give any cause for concern".

We will of course consider the Committee's response in full, but it is important for legislative changes to be proportionate.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Nick Herbert: Of course I give way to the Chairman of the Select Committee.

Keith Vaz: We published our report only 18 hours ago, so I do not expect the Minister to respond to each and every one of its 22 recommendations, but the fact that he has picked up those three points makes it clear that the Government understand the nature of the inquiry and the need for further consideration of the recommendations. Can he give me an idea-without necessarily specifying a month-of the approximate time within which the Government will respond to the report?

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary tells me that he is going to say "two months" in his winding-up speech. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman considers that a suitable period within which to respond to such a sensitive issue.

The issue of the mental health of applicants for firearm and shotgun certificates has also been raised. As the Committee has noted, it has now been agreed between the British Medical Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers that the police will notify a GP of the grant and renewal of a firearm and/or shotgun certificate. The implementation of that arrangement is being sought within the next six months. In essence, the process will involve a system of notification by way of a standard letter, which means that GPs will be in a position to alert the police if they have any concerns. The police will then be able to request a medical report under the procedures mentioned at the start of the debate. I believe that that is a welcome move. There will be further discussions in due course about the possibility of placing a marker on computerised medical records to create a more enduring record of which patients own a firearm.

I believe that that development indicates that the authorities have been able to take sensible steps to improve the operation of firearms laws in the light of public concern. However, I agree with the Select Committee's suggestion that requiring firearms applicants to undergo a compulsory medical check would be costly and would be regarded as disproportionate.

Overall, the Committee's contribution to an ongoing subject of consideration is very useful, and we will consider it fully before deciding on our final course of action. As we consider our response, it will be important to provide an opportunity for wider engagement with the issues, and we will announce shortly how we will ensure that it is provided.

Mike Weatherley (Hove) (Con): Will the Minister also consider instances where sentencing may have been too lenient? I understand that the sentence for illegal handling of firearms is five years' imprisonment and that the sentence for an aggravated offence is seven years, but that that is rarely upheld in the courts. Will the Minister consider whether we can strengthen the position by increasing the sentence, if it does not constitute a sufficient deterrent?

Nick Herbert: I think that I am right in saying that such sentences have been toughened considerably in recent years. As my hon. Friend knows, we recently published a Green Paper on sentencing. There will be an opportunity to respond to it, and he will be welcome to do so. We will, of course, consider further representations about the levels of offences, but I think that this is a question of enforcement as much as penalties.

Sir Alan Beith: Is the Minister satisfied that the arrangements that have been discussed with the BMA will extend to encouraging GPs to report cases in which a personality disorder of some kind is apparent? Such a disorder might not be a treatable mental illness, but it might be a pretty clear indicator that someone should not be in possession of firearms.

Nick Herbert: I agree. It is important for GPs, who will be in the best position to raise concerns, to use the system of notification in a way that ensures that such issues can be taken into account by the police.

It is absolutely right, in the wake of such major incidents as were experienced in Cumbria and Northumbria, to reconsider the legislation that controls firearm ownership in this country, but we must also ensure that our response is considered, proportionate and evidence-led. As the Prime Minister said shortly after the shootings:

"we should not leap to knee-jerk conclusions on what should be done on the regulatory front... You can't legislate to stop a switch flicking in someone's head and this sort of dreadful action taking place."

Public safety will always be our watchword, and if there is a clear need to make specific changes to legislation, we will not hesitate to present proposals. We remain committed to considering the present range of firearms controls in a measured way.

I look forward to what I am sure will be a thoughtful and constructive debate on this important and sensitive subject. We will listen carefully to points raised by all Members this evening, and we will use them to in shaping our response to such incidents.

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20 December 2010

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