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Draft Antique Firearms (Amendment) Regulations 2021

Debated on Monday 8 November 2021

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: † James Gray

† Anderson, Lee (Ashfield) (Con)

† Baldwin, Harriett (West Worcestershire) (Con)

† Bonnar, Steven (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (SNP)

† Bradshaw, Mr Ben (Exeter) (Lab)

Harman, Ms Harriet (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab)

Johnson, Kim (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab)

† McGinn, Conor (St Helens North) (Lab)

McKinnell, Catherine (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)

† Malthouse, Kit (Minister for Crime and Policing)

† Mohindra, Mr Gagan (South West Hertfordshire) (Con)

† Mullan, Dr Kieran (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)

† Owatemi, Taiwo (Coventry North West) (Lab)

† Randall, Tom (Gedling) (Con)

Smith, Henry (Crawley) (Con)

† Sturdy, Julian (York Outer) (Con)

† Sunderland, James (Bracknell) (Con)

† Whittaker, Craig (Lord Commissioner of Her Majestys Treasury)

Dominic Stockbridge, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 8 November 2021

[James Gray in the Chair]

Draft Antique Firearms (Amendment) Regulations 2021

I am required by the House of Commons Commission to remind colleagues that you should wear masks, if at all possible, and maintain social distancing, but of course it is a matter for your own discretion whether you do so.

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Antique Firearms (Amendment) Regulations 2021.

The draft regulations were laid before the House on 14 September. Members will recall that the House debated the Antique Firearms Regulations 2021 on 14 December 2020. The regulations introduced the statutory definition of “antique firearm” to prevent criminals exploiting a lack of legal clarity to gain possession of old but functioning firearms for use in crime. The regulations came into effect on 22 March this year and were based closely on long-standing Home Office guidance. The regulations now define in law which firearms may safely be regarded as antique, and therefore exempt from control, and those that should be subject to licensing.

In light of concerns expressed by law enforcement, the new definition does not include seven types of cartridge that, together with their associated firearms, have featured most often in crimes involving antique firearms. Those particular firearms are therefore no longer regarded as antique. However, owners were able to retain them on a firearms certificate. A six-month transition period was included in the relevant commencement regulations to allow owners to licence, sell or otherwise lawfully dispose of their firearms. That transition period ended on 22 September.

During the transition period, however, it was brought to our attention that a category of cartridge that had previously been included in the Home Office guidance on antique firearms had been inadvertently omitted from the regulations. The cartridges are for vintage rifles, punt-guns and shotguns with bores greater than a 10 gauge. Members may recall that the regulations are unusually technical and lengthy. They list more than 450 old cartridge types and went through checks before being laid. Regrettably, however, the omission was not picked up.

Unless we correct the error, owners of the omitted firearms would have to obtain a licence for them, incurring unnecessary inconvenience and expense, with no benefit to public safety. Since antique firearms are not licensed, it is not known exactly how many firearms might be affected by the omission, but I understand that potentially 200 or 300 might be owned by perhaps 100 collectors. They are also the sort of old firearms that might be displayed on the walls of pubs or hotels, as I am sure many Members can attest.

The draft Antique Firearms (Amendment) Regulations 2021 will add that category of cartridges to the list in the schedule to the Antique Firearms Regulations 2021, as was always intended. In the meantime, I have made the Policing and Crime Act 2017 (Commencement No. 11 and Transitional Provisions) Regulations 2021, which extend the transition period in respect of the omitted firearms until 22 January 2022, to ensure that owners remain in lawful possession while the draft amendment regulations before us are considered by Parliament and, I hope, approved and brought into effect.

Although the owners of those firearms will not require a firearms certificate once the omission has been corrected, the way in which the transitional provisions were drafted in the commencement regulations means that owners should still lodge an application for a certificate with their local police force before the end of the extended transition period, otherwise they could technically commit an historical offence of unlawful possession. That is because owners who choose to retain their firearms may only benefit from the transitional provisions, including the temporary disapplication of unlawful possession offences, if they have applied for a certificate before the end of the transition period.

The Home Office has issued advice on the Government website to make owners aware of the omission and of the need to apply for a firearms certificate before 22 January next year. The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for firearms licensing has suggested to police forces that they simply hold on to any applications they receive and cancel them once the draft regulations come into effect. That will avoid owners having to pay unnecessary fees and avoid nugatory work for police forces.

I apologise to Members and to the House for the omission. The 2021 regulations have been checked by officials and external stakeholders for further omissions and errors. As a result, the draft regulations will also make a number of minor and typographical corrections to descriptions of other cartridges specified in the 2021 regulations. None of those additional corrections represents any significant flaw, but it is worth making them now to ensure that the 2021 regulations are completely accurate. I commend the draft regulations to the Committee.

Mr Gray, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, particularly because, as a senior Member of the House, you have always given me great encouragement since my election in 2015. I know we have a shared interest in defence and the armed forces, so it is appropriate, in some respects, that you are chairing this afternoon’s Committee.

First, as the Minister would expect, Labour does not oppose these largely technical regulations. However, I do have a few questions for him. He will know that our priority, like his, is to protect the public, so we strongly support the need for firearms legislation to be robust, clear and kept under constant review so—as in this case—it can adequately respond to any loopholes or challenges. Critical to that is reducing the number of dangerous weapons on our streets—no matter what the danger is—so we of course support the principal aim of these regulations.

More specifically, the draft regulations before us work to correct an error in the more substantial ones approved by Parliament back in January, as the Minister said, in which a certain category of cartridge had been omitted. I understand that our law enforcement and the heritage firearms owning community welcome this clarification, and I appreciate the Minister’s apology and explanation. The mistake was largely a technical one in a list of over 450 cartridges. However, as well as checking, can the Minister assure the Committee that additional procedural safeguards are now in place to prevent any similar errors happening again—perhaps in more serious situations, such as during firearm list reviews or updates?

Antique firearms found in the wrong hands are a serious part of violent crime. They have caused many fatalities, and we have recently seen a rise in the number of such weapons retrieved from crime scenes. What further steps can the Minister take to monitor the firearms still able to be possessed without a licence, so they are not deemed a violent risk?

On the need to inform those antique firearms owners affected by this oversight of the need to apply for a certificate with local police forces before January 2022, can he say when he hopes to issue the advice? I hope it will be soon, because people will need to plan.

Finally, I take the opportunity to say that we welcome the changes the Minister announced last week on the new statutory guidance to chief police officers on firearms licensing coming into force, particularly the requirement for information to be provided about relevant medical conditions, including mental health conditions, as well as the requirements that applicants may be subject to open-source social media checks as part of the process. I know it has only been a week, so not even I would ask the Minister to update us on its early implementation, but I am sure he will commit to doing that in due course. Will he perhaps comment on how regularly that guidance will be kept under review by the Home Office, alongside law enforcement and other key partners?

To conclude, the Opposition support these regulations. Our priority—a shared priority, I think—is to keep people safe, and we are happy to find common ground with the Government on occasions like this to do just that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. From the outset, I welcome the apology from the Minister, at least in relation to the omission from the previous legislation. We take that in the faith it has been given. The Scottish Government, of course, welcome the new legislation on antique firearm regulation under the Firearms Act 1968.

Two decades ago, the UK witnesses its worst incident of gun-related violence, which prompted the Government to enact the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997. That, of course, stopped Britain from heading down an American-style route of gun ownership and availability.

In Scotland, we again went one step further by introducing the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015, which makes it a criminal offence to have any air weapon without a licence or permit, and can see perpetrators fined or facing up to two years in prison. The tightening of those gun laws in Scotland has undoubtedly made Scotland a safer place for us all to live.

Public safety is and should be paramount for this Government and any Government, and we must question whether they are doing all they can to protect communities from gun crime. The role of police officers keeps expanding, yet numbers of police on the beat are reducing. Has enough thought been paid to whether police forces are getting the resources they require to process extra gun licences?

An individual may not possess, purchase or acquire a shotgun or rifle without a shotgun or rifle firearms certificate. The application process requires an applicant to provide personal information including medical data and contact information for their general practitioner. An applicant must detail their firearm storage arrangements, which are subject to inspection. The applicant must also justify possessing a shotgun or rifle and provide two character references.

The Scottish Government are always hard at work looking for new ways to protect public safety. That is why we introduced tougher measures on air gun control, as I said. In England, a firearms certificate is not required to possess or purchase an air gun. We therefore call on the Government to set their sights further on air gun control—

Order. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is deviating substantially away from the statutory instrument that we are considering, which is a very narrowly defined correction to a previous instrument. He might like to return to the actual matter under discussion.

I take your points on board, Mr Gray. The UK Government’s approach to reducing violent crime and knife crime has been inadequate, and that is important to what we are saying—

Order. The statutory instrument that we are considering is on a particular matter to do with the size of cartridges and a previously made error. Matters relating to knife crime, as mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, and others are important; none the less, they are not remotely in order. He might like to return to the statutory instrument that we are considering.

I believe that they are in order in terms of the pressures on police, but I will move on, Mr Gray.

Finally, has the Home Office made any assessment of the potential merits of mandating that a person in possession of an antique firearm hold a certificate of technical obsolescence or proof of the firearm’s irreversibility?

First, on procedural safeguards to prevent a similar error, I think it is safe to say that this has been a chastening experience for all of us, and not least the brilliant firearms team who are technically adept in normal circumstances. I assure the hon. Member for St Helens North that they take such things seriously and I am hopeful that there will not be a reoccurrence.

The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill asked about monitoring the use of antique firearms in crime. The National Ballistics Intelligence Service, based in the west midlands, monitors the use of firearms across the piece and looks for patterns of behaviour. It saw a rise in the use of antique firearms between 2008 and 2016, with 95 uses in 2016, and recoveries have decreased slightly. It also looks at fatalities in particular—I think there have been six since 2006 due to such firearms—and, critically, monitors the types of firearms used to look for patterns. I visited the service pre-covid and, even though I am a shotgun certificate holder—I declare an interest on that—I was surprised at the type of firearms that had previously been agreed to be antique. Some were quite muscular and capable in their intent, should anyone wish to use them in such a way.

Given the requirement to apply for a licence, I understand that we have already issued advice for there to be an application for a licence—at least before 22 January—highlighting the omission to collectors and owners of such items in the hope that, as the regulations come into force, such licence applications can broadly be torn up.

On the extremely important point about updates on implementation, an annual review will take into account all the intelligence that we have, and there will also be a full review of the guidelines every three years. That is not to say that we will not necessarily learn lessons in between. Following the terrible tragedy in Keyham, we issued guidance in advance about lessons that may be learned from those investigations and inquiries. If there are such lessons to be learned, we will have to issue interim guidance to police forces in particular.

On the wider point about implementation made by the hon. Member for St Helens North, the police have been in possession of the new guidelines for some weeks in the hope that they can operationalise them quickly. I will be more than happy to report back to the House in the future on the bedding in of the regulations and how they are working. With that, I am grateful to you, Mr Gray, for your charming presiding over our affairs, and I hope that the Committee will agree to the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.