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House of Commons Hansard
09 October 2017
Volume 629

    Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Stephenson.)

  • As I am often moved to observe, and I observe again, if there are Members who, quite unaccountably, are leaving the Chamber because, for reasons of lack of taste or other considerations, they do not wish to be present to hear the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) on the Adjournment, I trust that they will do so speedily and quietly so that the rest of us can hear the hon. Lady.

  • Mr Speaker, thank you for allowing this debate on the use and control of air rifles. This is a subject that the House has debated in the past, but which continues to have serious consequences for many of those we represent. Too many lives have been unnecessarily lost and too many serious injuries have been inflicted upon innocent civilians. Sadly, a large proportion of these victims are children and young people. We cannot ignore the issue and we need to do something about it.

    Let me explain my interest in the issue. On 1 July 2016, my young constituent, Harry Studley—then just 18 months old—was shot in the head and critically injured with an air rifle. Thanks to the efforts of the local emergency services, including the swift intervention of the Great Western air ambulance and the clinical staff at Bristol Children’s Hospital, little Harry pulled through despite his injuries. Harry’s parents, Ed and Amy, have explained to me that he has been left partially sighted, suffers memory loss and has post-traumatic seizures as a result of the incident. A local man was convicted of causing Harry grievous bodily harm and jailed for two years.

    Many people living in Bristol and the west country will recall hearing about this devastating incident in the local media. Parents listening to the heart-breaking details of the case would understandably have asked, “Could this happen to my family? Could the incident have been prevented? What can be done to make these weapons safer? Should these weapons be banned?”. Those are all valid questions and there are more. In young Harry’s case, it was suggested that the weapon was being cleaned. Would legislation making trigger locks compulsory on these weapons have prevented this dreadful and life-changing incident? We will never know in this specific case, but we have a solemn duty as elected representatives to scrutinise, to keep asking questions on behalf of those we serve and to bring greater safety.

    As Harry continues to recover, I pay tribute to his family. They have shown great resilience in the face of adversity. Crucially, they have been tenacious and determined that we should all learn from the incident that transformed their futures. As part of this work, they have closely monitored further incidents with air weapons. They were encouraged by the debate held in Westminster Hall in September 2016 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson), whose long-standing interest in the issue dates from 1999 when a constituent of his, aged just 13, was killed. The 2016 debate called for the introduction of trigger locks, the safe storage of air weapons and a review of the impact of recent Scottish legislation, which I will come to later.

    In a written response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn, the then Home Office Minister responsible, indicated that the Government would

    “review the current air gun leaflet”

    and

    “keep a close eye on the introduction of air weapons licensing in Scotland”,

    an issue to which I now turn.

  • I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this topic to the House for consideration. She will know, after discussions I had with her earlier, that Northern Ireland has very strict legislation covering air rifles and, indeed, all weapons. I say kindly and carefully to her that the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance have laid out strict protocols and rules within the remit of the law. Does she feel that the law in England and the UK is sufficient to stop these things happening?

  • I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, for the information he has shared with me and for his expertise in this area. The point I will come on to is that we need to learn in England from what happens in Northern Ireland and Scotland and that children in Bristol South should be afforded the same level of security as children there, and I will return to that.

    Hon. Members will know that, following a series of tragic incidents involving air weapons, the Scottish Government acted to address the problem. Under the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015, it has been an offence since the start of this year to use, possess, purchase or acquire an air weapon without holding an air weapon certificate. It is a condition of that licence that weapons are securely stored in order that access and possession cannot be gained by a person who is not authorised. The licence application also requires the disclosure of criminal convictions, and the police must be satisfied that the applicant can possess an air weapon

    “without danger to the public safety or to the peace”

    before issuing an air weapon certificate. That is over and beyond section 21 of the Firearms Act 1968, under which a person who has been convicted of an offence may be prohibited from possessing firearms, including air weapons.

    In the run-up to the change in the law, 20,000 air weapons were surrendered to the authorities in Scotland and destroyed—20,000 fewer potentially lethal weapons were on the streets, and I think the House will agree that that makes Scotland safer. However, in England, just since the start of May 2017, there have been incidents involving air weapons and children in Carlisle, Bury, Chelmsford, Ipswich, Exeter and, most tragically, Loughborough, where, in August, a five-year-old boy was reportedly shot and killed with an air rifle—another tragic child death. In spring 2016, a 13-year-old boy was killed in Bury St Edmunds.

  • I thank the hon. Lady for bringing what I consider a very important issue to the House. I pay tribute to that young man, and to his family and friends, all of whom have come to see me, and we have discussed some of the items the hon. Lady is raising today. Does she also agree that guns that are not manufactured by licensed manufacturers cause a problem and need to be looked at? There are also issues around hair triggers, magazines that do not necessarily show that they have been discharged and ammunition being left in the chamber that is not known about. Does she agree that those are the sort of things we should be looking at?

  • I am grateful for that intervention, and I certainly want to learn from other hon. Members’ experience and work in this area. I assured the Studley family in my constituency that, on issues such as this, hon. Members will work together cross party to achieve the best legislation.

    In his speech last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn informed the House that 17 children had died as a result of air weapons in the last 27 years. Sadly, it appears that that number has risen again, and I repeat that we need to do something about that. I ask the Minister to reconsider the response given last year to my right hon. Friend; it is simply not good enough to review the text of a leaflet.

    In this House, on 20 April, the then Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), told me the Government have

    “no plans to ban or licence”—[Official Report, 20 April 2017; Vol. 624, c. 801.]

    air weapons, on the basis that misuse applies only to a small minority of people. Many of the people we represent would argue that many of the laws that currently protect them from all sorts of heinous acts are in place to protect them from a small minority, and even if only a small minority is affected, the consequences of their actions are grave and merit our attention, regardless of the numbers.

    Many hon. Members share an interest in animal welfare, and I would add that, since successfully securing this debate, I have been contacted by Cats Protection, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and others.

  • My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I became aware of this issue when cats in my constituency were shot and I looked into it. We now know that over 1,800 cats have been shot since 2012. Cats Protection has a live petition, which already has 72,000 signatures, calling for the licensing of airguns. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is time we updated our legislation in line with Scotland and Northern Ireland?

  • I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention and I know from my reading of previous debates that she has done a lot of work on this issue. I shall certainly be asking for more updates on the comparison with Scotland to identify whether that is the right way to go.

    Most of the law in England and Wales on air weapons dates from the 1960s and it is time properly to re-examine the legislation to see whether it is fit for the 21st century. When an issue has such a devastating effect on the lives of families with such regularity, I would expect the Government to be considering such action already. It is for the Minister to decide what any review should cover, but at the very least I would expect a detailed consideration of licensing in the light of the change to the law in Scotland; of whether the fitting of trigger locks should be mandatory for all new air weapons sold; and of whether the reasonable precautions requirement on all airgun owners for the safe storage of air weapons and ammunition is adequate. My constituents are also interested in laws governing the registration and transfer of these weapons and would be grateful for an explanation of the current position and any proposed changes.

    I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these questions and stress in closing that the purpose of my securing this debate is not to ban air weapons outright. It is about their safe use. I want children and young people in my constituency to be protected from future tragedies like those that have been all too common in recent years. Surely Bristol South’s children deserve the same protection as children living in Scotland.

  • I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) not just on securing the debate but on her persistence in pursuing an issue of great importance and on how she has framed tonight’s debate on safer use of airguns. I know that she has been concerned about the issue for some time following the appalling injury suffered by Harry Studley in her constituency. He was just 18 months old when he was shot with an air rifle in July of last year, and I join the hon. Lady in applauding the resilience of his family and the actions of the emergency services in saving his life.

    As will become clear in my speech, the Government are not remotely complacent on this issue, but it is important to make the point early on that we have strong firearms controls in this country. They are there for a purpose—to minimise the risk of harm to the public —and, within the general consensus about the importance of these controls, the regulation of air weapons has long been a matter of debate, with lawful users arguing that they should be allowed to enjoy their property without unnecessary restrictions, and others arguing for tougher regulation to improve public safety.

    As the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, the recent decision by the Scottish Government to introduce a licensing regime for lower-powered air weapons has quite rightly led to a renewed focus on the regulatory position in England and Wales. She will know as well as I do that a balance has to be struck, particularly regarding weapons that present a lower risk and weapons that are used in well-regulated environments such as shooting clubs.

    I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady’s remarks this evening, and I have also given careful consideration to the report presented by the coroner in relation to the tragic death of Benjamin Wragge, who was 13 when he was accidentally shot with an air weapon in 2016. I have recently written to the coroner and confirmed my intention to review the regulation of air weapons in England and Wales. I think that this is an appropriate time to take stock of the regulatory position and assess whether the current controls, which are already strong, continue to be appropriate and effective.

  • The contributions from Members who have personal knowledge of the matter have made this a difficult Adjournment debate. When it comes to looking further into legislative change, will the Minister assure hon. Members that consultation will take place with shooting organisations such as the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance?

  • There is no point in having a consultation if it does not include the opinions of those with a voice and an educated view, so I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I also provide the assurance that I will be meeting members of Benjamin Wragge’s family later this year. I will listen carefully to their views, as I will to those of their Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), who has written to me on the matter.

    I intend to look carefully at the existing controls on air weapons, including how best to ensure that such weapons are stored safely and securely, so that they do not get into the hands of children. The hon. Member for Bristol South suggested that features such as trigger locks should be used, or that air weapons should be required to be stored in a locked cabinet. Those issues need to be looked at in some detail.

    I should make it clear to the House that, although I think that a review of air weapon regulation is important and timely, we will do so against the background of existing controls that are, by all international comparisons, very robust and of a long-term decline in the number of crimes involving air weapons. For the record, I will set out some of the existing controls. First, the law recognises that some air weapons are more dangerous than others. In particular, only lower-powered air weapons can be held without a licence. More dangerous air weapons need to be licensed by the police. In addition, I believe that we have robust controls to prevent unauthorised access.

  • On a point of clarification, if a lower-velocity weapon is adapted to give it a higher velocity—I think that is, if not simple to do, quite easily achievable—how do we regulate for that, if there is no form of checking of how air rifles have been adapted?

  • My hon. Friend predictably makes a very good point. That is exactly the kind of circumstance that the review needs to look at, to make sure that regulation and controls are on top of existing practice in the market.

    The point that I am trying to make to the House is that existing controls, particularly in relation to preventing unauthorised access, seem robust, on the face of it. The sale of air weapons to those aged under 18 is prohibited, and except in special circumstances under-18s cannot possess them. Air weapons can be sold only by registered firearms dealers. These dealers must keep records of all sales, including details of the purchaser, and they must complete the sale in person. In respect of online sales, although advertising on the internet and collecting payment via websites is permitted, the final transfer of the air weapon must be completed face to face and not through the post. That is an important safeguard against under-18s accessing such weapons online.

    Those restrictions help us to reduce the risk of misuse. Alongside that, we know that accidents involving air weapons can occur, and that when they do, the consequences can be tragic and absolutely devastating. This is why it is vital that all who are in lawful possession of air weapons store them and handle them securely and safely.

  • The hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) mentioned the case that occurred in Loughborough over the summer, although I am not going to talk about it because it is still subject to investigation and potentially other proceedings. She highlighted that a number of incidents have, tragically, involved young children. Will the Minister consider—perhaps this is something that we might write to him about in a review—whether there is an argument for saying that when air rifles are handled while children are around, there should be extra requirements on the behaviour of adults, if I may put it like that? That might provide an additional safeguard.

  • I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention. I have a huge amount of sympathy for that instinct, and I encourage her to write in along those lines, as she suggests.

    The Home Office provides guidance on the practical steps that owners can take to secure air weapons and on how to handle them. We will shortly—genuinely shortly—be publishing a revised edition of the guidance, which will be available online and to new purchasers as a leaflet to help reinforce the important safety messages. We will also promote the messages in magazines that are aimed at air weapon users. It is an offence for a person to fail to take reasonable steps to prevent unauthorised access to their airguns by those under the age of 18. That measure was introduced to help prevent more tragic accidents, following a number of deaths involving young people under the age of 18 playing with air weapons.

    When I look at what is in place to avoid the misuse of air weapons, I see a robust set of regulations. It is an offence for any person

    “to use an air weapon for firing a pellet beyond the boundaries of the premises. It is an offence for a supervising adult to allow a person under the age of 18 to use an air weapon for firing a pellet beyond the boundaries of premises. It is an offence… to have an air weapon in a public place without a reasonable excuse… It is an offence to trespass with an air weapon… It is an offence to have an air weapon if you are prohibited from possessing a firearm… It is an offence to fire an air weapon without lawful authority or excuse within 50 feet… of the centre of a public road in such a way as to cause a road user to be injured, interrupted or endangered. It is an offence to intentionally or recklessly kill certain wild animals and birds… It is an offence to knowingly cause a pet animal to suffer unnecessarily, which could be committed by shooting at a pet animal. It is an offence to have an air weapon with intent to damage or to destroy property. It is also an offence to have air weapons and be reckless as to whether property would be damaged or destroyed. It is an offence to have an air weapon with intent to endanger life.”

    Looking at the statistics, it is clear that most offences involving air weapons—around two-thirds—relate to criminal damage. As for death or serious injury relating to air weapon offences, there were around 30 serious injuries relating to air weapons or their misuse in 2015-16. Although the number of air weapon offences has decreased significantly, reducing by 77% between 2003 and 2016, there was a rise last year, so it is clear that we cannot be complacent, which is why I have instructed the review that I have mentioned this evening. I hope that it has the support of the hon. Member for Bristol South.

  • I am encouraged by the Minister’s remarks. I made a point about the comparison with Scotland, so will his review of the regulation look at and learn from the evidence from Scotland and, indeed, from Northern Ireland?

  • The short answer is yes. There has been a significant intervention in Scotland and it would be quite wrong for us not to consider the evidence. The scale and circumstances are obviously different, but it would be wrong for us to ignore it completely, as my predecessors have indicated.

    In conclusion, if I have not already been clear already, let me be quite clear that the Government recognise that there are legitimate uses for air weapons such as shooting sports, which the hon. Lady also confirmed in her remarks, and that a balance needs to be struck between the freedom to pursue such interests and regulation or control. The existing controls on air weapons are helping to reduce their misuse and the occurrence of tragic accidents involving these weapons, but whenever accidents do occur—I have looked back on the roll call of tragic incidents, which often involve children—it is right to look again at the controls to see whether further changes are required or justified. As I said earlier, I intend to undertake a review of the regulation of air weapons in England and Wales to assess whether any further measures may be necessary to protect the public.

    Let me close by again thanking the hon. Lady for securing this debate and for how she framed it. I hope that my remarks have satisfied her that the Government take this issue very seriously indeed.

    Question put and agreed to.

  • House adjourned.