Committee (4th Day)
Relevant documents: 3rd and 4th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee and 3rd Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights
Clause 112: Firearms Act 1968: meaning of “antique firearm”
203A: Clause 112, page 128, line 40, leave out from beginning to end of line 2 on page 129 and insert—
“(a) either the conditions in subsection (2AA) are met or the condition in subsection (2AB) is met, and(b) if an additional condition is specified in regulations under subsection (2AC), that condition is also met.(2AA) The conditions in this subsection are that—(a) the firearm’s chamber or, if the firearm has more than one chamber, each of its chambers is either—(i) a chamber that the firearm had when it was manufactured, or(ii) a replacement for such a chamber that is identical to it in all material respects;(b) the firearm’s chamber or (as the case may be) each of the firearm’s chambers is designed for use with a cartridge of a description specified in regulations made by statutory instrument by the Secretary of State (whether or not it is also capable of being used with other cartridges).(2AB) The condition in this subsection is that the firearm’s ignition system is of a description specified in regulations made by statutory instrument by the Secretary of State.(2AC) The Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument specify either of the following conditions for the purposes of subsection (2A)(b)—(a) a condition that a number of years specified in the regulations has elapsed since the date on which the firearm was manufactured;(b) a condition that the firearm was manufactured before a date specified in the regulations.”
My Lords, Great Britain has some of the toughest gun control laws in the world. However, as matters stand, the Firearms Act 1968 exempts antique firearms held as a “curiosity or ornament” from the scope of firearms legislation, which means they can be held without a firearms certificate. The problem with the current situation is that “antique” is not defined and it is this ambiguity that Clause 112 is designed to address. The law as currently constituted places too much emphasis on how the firearm is possessed—as a curio or ornament—and not on the characteristics and definitions of what constitutes an antique firearm. To resolve these difficulties we propose to define an antique firearm by reference to functionality and will do this in two ways: first, if its chamber is capable of being used only with a cartridge of a specified description and, secondly, if its ignition system is of a specified description.
However, concerns have been raised that instead of bringing the desired certainty to this area of firearms legislation, our definition could create further uncertainty about the status of old firearms because it would be difficult, if not impossible, to rule out the possibility that some antique firearms may be capable of being used with cartridges other than those for which they were originally designed. This would mean that a significant proportion of antique firearms currently regarded as exempt would not be covered by the new definition and in consequence could become prohibited. The amendment therefore sets out that antique firearms should be defined by reference to the chamber they had when manufactured, or an identical replacement chamber, which will allow them to be subject to the exemption. If the chambering has been altered in any way to accommodate ammunition which would otherwise be a loose or imprecise fit, then the firearm will not be subject to the exemption. A firearm may still also achieve antique status based on its ignition system.
The amendment also creates a further regulation-making power to enable the Secretary of State to specify a number of years since the date of manufacture which must have elapsed for a firearm to be antique, or that the firearm must have been manufactured before a specified date. This will guard against modern reproductions benefiting from antique firearms’ exemption from the controls in the legislation. I beg to move.
Amendment 203A agreed.
Amendments 203B to 203E
203B: Clause 112, page 129, line 3, leave out “(2A)” and insert “(2AA), (2AB) or (2AC)”
203C: Clause 112, page 129, line 6, leave out “(2A)” and insert “(2AA), (2AB) or (2AC)”
203D: Clause 112, page 129, line 9, leave out “(2A)” and insert “(2AA) or (2AB)”
203E: Clause 112, page 129, line 20, leave out “58(2A)” and insert “58(2AA), (2AB) or (2AC)”
Amendments 203B to 203E agreed.
Clause 112, as amended, agreed.
Clause 113 agreed.
Clause 114: Controls on defectively deactivated weapons
203F: Clause 114, page 130, line 43, at end insert—
“(3A) Subsection (1)(b) does not apply if the weapon is transferred by means of inheritance.”
My Lords, I will also speak to Amendments 203G and 203H. The Committee is pressed for time so I shall try to avoid wearying it with too much detail. At Second Reading I raised the issue of deactivated firearms covered by Clause 114 and declared my interest as an owner of one deactivated firearm. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Vicky Ford MEP and our Home Office officials, the EU is understandably hell bent on a knee-jerk reaction to the tragic events in Paris. The EU proposals are technically weak and difficult to understand, partially because of the technical terms used. I understand that a significant proportion of the briefing against Ms Ford’s position has come from the Liege proof master. Apparently that official is now being investigated regarding serious criminal matters involving firearms. If these EU provisions come into effect they will have a very serious impact on collectors, the trade in deactivated firearms and the film industry throughout the EU, which could be badly affected because it will be harder to make action films safely.
The Minister has no shortage of expert advice available to her and I am grateful to her for making her officials available to brief me. She has an excellent lead technical official in the Home Office, to whom I pay tribute, as well as access to the London and Birmingham proof masters. As a result, for many years we have had an excellent regime for deactivating firearms.
My Amendment 203F is a probing amendment that looks at inheritance, while Amendment 203G is an anti-forestalling suggestion that looks at the possible use of companies to get around the Bill’s provisions. Perhaps the best way for the Minister to respond to these two issues is to write to me, copying in the rest of the Committee.
My Amendment 203H is designed to expose the weaknesses in the EU regulations if implemented without the current UK regulations being in place as well. However, it may be more profitable to suggest a solution to the problem rather than explore it in detail. Rather than the Bill directly referring to EU legislation, would it not be better for the Minister to take an order-making power to make regulations to replace the effect sought from new Section 8A(4)(c) of the 1988 Act? Initially the regulations might be based on the EU legislation in order to keep us compliant with our EU obligations. If and when Brexit happens, the regulations under the order can easily be changed so that we revert to solely the UK deactivation regime, which will still keep us completely safe.
Bearing in mind our time constraints, it may be for the convenience of the Committee if we allow the Minister to speak now to her amendments, which cover somewhat different issues, and then to comment on my suggestion about taking an order-making power under the Bill. I have a great deal of material to put before the Committee but I hope that will not be necessary at this stage of the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, Clause 114 concerns defectively deactivated weapons. As we have heard, we have some of the toughest firearms laws in the world, and I am very pleased about that.
In this grouping the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, has given notice of his intention to oppose Clause 114 standing part of the Bill, although he did not speak to that. However, I do not agree with his opposition to the clause. I think that we would want deactivated weapons to be sold or gifted to people only when they met the highest standards available. If people want to sell these weapons within the EU, they should be certified to the appropriate standard. That is the answer to the problem—not to delete the whole clause.
However, the noble Earl’s amendments raise important points that need to be considered carefully and responded to by the Government. My general position on firearms is that our legislation has had a positive effect and we should always keep matters under review, with a view to seeing where updates or amendments can be made, so that we never relax our tough approach. Having said that, I see the point the noble Earl is making—if you inherit a weapon, potentially an offence can be committed. We need to look at that, although I am not sure that we should do as he suggests.
The noble Earl also made the important point about transferrals to a body corporate, which can be used as a way of getting round legislation. I am not sure what effect the last amendment in the group would have, but he has raised some very important points and I look forward to hearing what the Minister says.
My Lords, when the Minister introduces Amendment 203K, which is about extending the period for considering an application for the renewal of a certificate, can she say whether this is being proposed because there are problems generally or in particular forces? In other words, are there just a few difficulties or is this a widespread issue, in that the police do not find eight weeks sufficient? I raise this because of the concern that 16 weeks might easily become the norm, given the opportunity to extend.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for outlining his amendments. As he suggests, I will first explain the government amendments in this group.
Amendments 203J and 203K respond to amendments tabled by Geoffrey Clifton-Brown at Commons Report stage. They seek to make two improvements in the operation of the licensing arrangements under the Firearms Act of 1968. Amendment 203J would remove some of the unnecessary administrative requirements that currently apply to the possession of expanding ammunition.
Expanding ammunition is designed to expand predictably on impact and was prohibited initially in relation to pistols in 1992. In 1997 the ban was extended to all such ammunition, even though it is in universal use for pest control and is required for deer-stalking under the Deer Act and Deer (Scotland) Act.
The current legislation does allow for expanding ammunition to be possessed, in order to carry out specific activities such as the lawful shooting of deer, estate management, the humane killing of animals or the shooting of animals for the protection of other animals or humans. However, the legislation also requires that the individual possess a suitably conditioned firearm certificate for these activities.
The amendment would allow for the possession, purchase, acquisition, sale or transfer of expanding ammunition for rifles where the individual is in possession of a valid firearm certificate or a visitors firearm permit. The effect is—and I hope this goes some way toward answering the noble Baroness’s question—that the police will no longer have to include additional conditions on a certificate or permit, thereby removing some of the administrative burden that the current regime places on them.
Amendment 203K is intended to address the issues that currently arise with an application for the renewal of a firearms certificate that has been made prior to the expiry of the certificate but has not been determined by the police in time. Police forces have developed two different approaches in these cases. The first is to allow the applicant to remain in possession of the firearm, shotgun or ammunition, which means the applicant is in breach of Section 1 or Section 2 of the 1968 Act until the application has been processed. The second is to issue a temporary permit using the power in Section 7 of the Act.
I am sure noble Lords will agree that it is not appropriate for certificate holders to be at risk of arrest and prosecution for an offence under Section 1 or Section 2 because the police have failed to process applications in time. Equally, it is not appropriate for the police to issue temporary permits to individuals whose substantive applications may subsequently be refused. The issuing of such permits also places an increased administrative burden on the police.
Amendment 203K will bring greater clarity in such circumstances by automatically extending the validity of firearm and shotgun certificates past their expiry date for a limited period of up to eight weeks. This will apply only where an application for renewal has been received by the police at least eight weeks prior to the date of expiry of the certificate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked whether the problems were widespread or localised to particular forces. There were different levels of performance across different forces, and performance varies across some forces, meaning that some are better that others—so this is force-led.
Amendments 234A and 234B are consequential amendments to the extent clause.
I trust the Committee will agree that the two new clauses make sensible changes to the firearms regime and in doing so reduce the administrative burdens on the police without compromising public safety.
As my noble friend explained, his amendments relate to Clause 114, which strengthens the controls on deactivated firearms and thereby enhances public protection. I was pleased to meet my noble friend to discuss his concerns about this clause and I know that he has had a useful follow-up meeting, as he explained, with officials and one of the proof houses.
My noble friend has pointed to some of the difficulties that have been identified with the EU deactivation standards. The UK has some of the toughest gun laws in the world and some of the most robust deactivation standards in Europe. The need for consistent, robust deactivation across member states has been the driving force for EU implementing regulation.
While the new EU deactivation specifications have been introduced, we have recognised that we need to strengthen deactivation measures for certain firearms. We now require additional measures that will align the EU standards with the exacting standards for deactivated weapons already in place in the UK. We have agreed this position with the European Commission. Moreover, the Commission has set up a small group of technical experts to help interpret and, if necessary, revise the standards, and the UK is represented on this group.
Some noble Lords may argue that, following the referendum result, we should drop this provision from the Bill. However, on leaving the EU we will still want to ensure that individuals comply with the relevant deactivation standards that we have in place. To that end, I am ready to explore future-proofing the definition of a defectively deactivated weapon as used in the clause.
I hope I have been able to reassure my noble friend that the offence in Clause 114 is necessary to strengthen our firearms controls, and that, having aired this important issue, he will be content to withdraw his amendment and support Clause 114 standing part of the Bill—and the Government’s amendments in this group.
I should have said in my earlier contribution that of course we fully support the government amendments in this group. However, I saw that they will cover only England, Scotland and Wales, and not Northern Ireland. Is that because Northern Ireland already has other provisions? The other parts of the Bill will of course cover all parts of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister’s response, and in particular for her final words, when she agreed to have a look at how we future-proof the arrangements. I hope that that will mean that in due course a Government will future-proof it, and then we will be able to do what we want. In the meantime, we can comply with our EU obligations, which of course we have to comply with. Although Brexit means Brexit, we have to comply at the moment. We will get a good solution—we are in a good place on this, and of course there is no question that I will oppose Clause 114. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 203F withdrawn.
Amendments 203G and 203H not moved.
Clause 114 agreed.
Amendments 203J and 203K
203J: After Clause 114, insert the following new Clause—
“Controls on ammunition which expands on impact
(1) The Firearms Act 1968 is amended in accordance with subsections (2) and (3).(2) In section 5 (weapons subject to general prohibition), in subsection (1A), for paragraph (f) substitute—“(f) any ammunition which is designed to be used with a pistol and incorporates a missile designed or adapted to expand on impact;”.(3) In section 5A (exemptions from requirement of authority under section 5), in subsection (8)(a), after “which”, in the first place it occurs, insert “is designed to be used with a pistol and”.(4) In consequence of the amendment made by subsection (2), omit section 9 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997.”
203K: After Clause 114, insert the following new Clause—
“Limited extension of firearm certificates etc
(1) After section 28A of the Firearms Act 1968 (certificates: supplementary) insert—“28B Certificates: limited extension(1) This section applies where—(a) an application is made for the renewal of a certificate on or before the day which falls 8 weeks before the day at the end of which the certificate is due to expire, but(b) the chief officer of police does not determine whether or not to grant the application before the certificate is due to expire.(2) The certificate continues in force by virtue of this subsection until whichever of the following events occurs first—(a) the chief officer determines whether or not to grant the application;(b) the extension period ends.(3) In subsection (2), “the extension period” means the period of 8 weeks beginning with the day after the day at the end of which the certificate was due to expire.(4) If the event mentioned in subsection (2)(a) occurs first, and the chief officer grants the application, any period for which the certificate continued in force under subsection (2) is to be treated for the purposes of section 28A(1) as part of the period for which the renewed certificate is in force.(5) This section does not apply in relation to the renewal of a certificate granted or last renewed in Northern Ireland.”(2) In consequence of the amendment made by subsection (1), in section 28A of that Act (certificates: supplementary), after subsection (1) insert—“(1A) Subsection (1) is subject to the provision made by section 28B for circumstances in which a certificate may continue in force after the period of five years from the date when it was granted or last renewed.””
Amendments 203J and 203K agreed.
Clause 115: Applications under the Firearms Acts: fees
204: Clause 115, page 131, line 33, leave out from “specify” to end of line 34 and insert “that the fee charged must be equal to the full cost to the public purse of issuing the certificate.”
My Lords, I will at least attempt to be concise. The Bill deals with relatively narrow issues around Home Office licensing fees for firearms, but I will also talk about police licence fees for guns. These amendments seek to ensure that the full costs of licensing are recovered. In the previous Parliament we argued for full cost recovery in the light of a current taxpayer subsidy for gun ownership of some £17 million a year. The police have estimated that the cost of licensing a firearm is nearly four times the fee charged. A higher fee was introduced just prior to the last general election following negotiations with the British Association for Shooting and Conservation—rather than following an independent review—but it was still less than half the cost of licensing a firearm based on the police figures. These amendments require the Secretary of State to set the cost of a licence fee for prohibited weapons, pistol clubs and museums at full cost to the taxpayer, but we expect the Government to extend this requirement of full cost recovery to Section 1 firearms and the police.
When this matter was debated in the Commons, the Government said that once the new police online system, e-commerce, was introduced, fees would recover the full cost of licensing. Can they say when the new online system will be introduced, whether the full costs of licensing will be charged from the day it comes in, and what they consider the fees for police licences will have to be increased to in order to cover the full costs? Can they also say why it is necessary to await the introduction of the new online system? The fees were increased in April last year but still left a significant taxpayer subsidiary; why can they not be increased now to cover the full cost of licensing, and, if necessary, subsequently reduced accordingly if the new online system does reduce the cost of licensing a firearm? Why should scarce police financial resources have to be spent on subsidising gun ownership rather than on fighting crime?
In respect of the Home Office licence fees, the Government said in the Commons that,
“the authorisation and licensing of prohibited weapons, shooting clubs and museums costs the taxpayer an estimated £700,000 a year”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/4/16; col. 259.]
However, the Government then said that the Bill,
“will create a consistent set of charging powers across all Home Office firearms licences and authorities. The Government’s intention is that licence holders, and not the taxpayer, should pay the full cost”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/4/16; col. 259.]
When do the Government intend that Home Office licence holders will start to pay the full costs of licensing, and by how much do they estimate fees will have to be increased to cover these costs? Why is there is a need for any extended delay in raising Home Office licence fees to a level which eliminates any taxpayer subsidy. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, to which my noble friend Lady Hamwee and I have added our names. My argument is quite simple: when we were discussing the Immigration Act, the Government proposed a philosophy of full cost recovery for visa applications and the Immigration Service generally. On 18 March this year, they increased the fees for visa applications, in some cases by 25%. Family and spouse visas are now £1,195, adult dependent relative visas are £2,676, and settlement applications have increased to £1,875. British citizen naturalisation certificates are now £1,156 for adults and £936 for children.
There is currently a government consultation on immigration appeal fees, which proposes an even greater increase to ensure full cost recovery. The consultation suggests a fee for an appeal on the papers to the First-tier Tribunal should increase from £80 to £490, and from £140 to £800 for an oral hearing. If the Minister is not going to agree with these amendments to ensure full cost recovery for the issuing of firearms certificates, will she explain why a different approach is being taken to the principle of full cost recovery when it comes to immigration? In particular, can she refute the obvious allegation that the Government are discriminating against foreign nationals as set against those who go hunting with guns for sport?
My Lords, I have some sympathy for the position articulated by noble Lords opposite. However, it needs to be remembered that shooters have to buy their guns, ammunition and facilities and that they pay value added tax at 20%. There is actually huge government revenue from the shooting fraternity, as 20% of everything they spend on shooting comes back to the Government. I can see the noble Lord, Lord Harris, getting very excited. It must be a very powerful argument. I have expressed sympathy for the noble Lords’ position but I give a note of caution: we should not forget the tax revenues from shooting.
My Lords, the noble Earl has goaded me into intervening in this debate, which I would otherwise not have done. It is a specious argument to say that because gun owners have to pay VAT, which we all have to pay on most goods and services except that very narrow range which is specifically exempted, they are therefore making their contribution to the costs. My noble friend Lord Rosser and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, have pulled their punches on this issue. What is actually happening is that the Government have selected one hobby and decided to subsidise it. I would like the Government to explain what other hobbies they intend to subsidise in exactly the same way. If noble Lords opposite, or anybody else, choose to argue that gun ownership is not a hobby then presumably they intend to use the guns for some perhaps less than satisfactory purpose. Again, I wonder why the Government choose to subsidise that activity as opposed to any other.
My Lords, I can give the noble Lord an example. I collect classic military and commercial vehicles but there is no road fund tax on them. They are zero rated; that is a subsidy from the Government to people who collect such vehicles. My point is that owners and shooters of firearms pay tax like everyone else. If they did not have their guns, they would not be paying any value added tax on them. It is a simple little point that we should not forget.
My Lords, the Government agree that fees for firearms licences should be set on a cost-recovery basis. We have already increased the fees for civilian firearms and shotgun certificates issued by the police in line with this objective. Clause 115 addresses firearms licences issued by the Home Office and the Scottish Government. They therefore concern fees for licences to possess non-civilian prohibited weapons, and for shooting clubs and museums. Currently, most of these types of licence do not attract a fee. Where a fee is charged, it is set at a level well below the cost of administering an application.
Amendments 204 to 206 would require the Government to set all fees at a level that would achieve full cost recovery. The administration of these licences, including assistance from the police, costs the taxpayer an estimated £700,000 a year. The Government agree that licence holders, not the taxpayer, should pay for this service. Clause 115 therefore provides a power for the Home Secretary to set fees for these licences. As the then policing Minister, Mike Penning, explained when similar amendments were debated in the House of Commons, we intend that the fees should be set at a level that will achieve full cost recovery. We will then set out the proposed fees in a public consultation, which we intend to publish shortly.
The consultation will invite views on the implementation of these measures and we welcome responses. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked when the Section 5 fees are planned to be introduced. It will be in April 2017, subject to the planned consultation. I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation. However, there might be good reasons not to set fees at full cost recovery levels, either for a transitional period or for certain categories of licence holder. We will consider the responses to the consultation on these matters before deciding on the level that should be set. In doing so, we will be guided by the principle to which I referred above: that the costs of licensing should fall to the licence holder rather than to the taxpayer.
Amendment 207 relates to the fees charged by the police for shotgun and civilian firearms certificates and for registered firearms dealer licences. In 2015, we increased fees for those certificates substantially. This was the first increase in the licence fee since 2001. The increase reflected the fact that the cost of the licences had fallen far below the cost to the police of their administration. Fees increased between 23% and 76%, depending on the type of certificate.
When we consulted on the fee levels for certificates issued by the police, we were clear that the cost of licences should reflect the full cost of licensing once a new online licensing system was in place. Work is under way to secure that system. In the meantime we are committed to undertaking an annual review of the fees. There will be a comprehensive review of police licensing fees in five years’ time. I hope that the noble Lord will be reassured that it is indeed this Government’s intention that firearms fees should reflect the full cost of licensing and that on this basis he will be content to withdraw his amendment.
I seek clarification of one or two points. Did the Minister say that as far as Home Office licence holders are concerned, they will be paying the full cost of licensing from April of next year? As far as the police are concerned, there was no real commitment at all. I asked when the new online system would be introduced. I do not think that I got an answer. I asked whether the full costs of licensing would be charged from the day the new online system came in. I do not think that I got an answer. I also asked by how much the Government considered the fees for police licences would have to be increased to cover the full costs of licensing. I believe that the Minister referred to a review of police licences and costs in five years’ time. Is this suggesting that the new online system will not be coming in for five years? If the Minister is unable to give me a firm date as to when that online system will be operational, can she give a commitment that in the meantime those fees will be raised to cover the full costs and that we shall not be in a situation in which the police, who are already short of money, are in fact subsidising gun ownership in this country with money desperately needed for main police activities? Could I please have some answers? If they are not available now, I shall as always accept a subsequent letter responding to these questions.
My Lords, in terms of the online system, the current fees are intended to cover the cost of the licencing once the online system is introduced. The police, supported by the Government, are currently developing the online system. An implementation date has not yet been determined. We plan to introduce the Section 5 fees and the increased fees for museums and clubs in April 2017, subject to the planned consultation. The level of fees will therefore be determined subject to that consultation. There is no suggestion that the new online system will take five years to implement. There will be an annual review of licence fees. I hope that I have not completely confused the noble Lord.
I do not know that the Minister has completely confused me. She has said that we do not know when the new online system is coming in, which presumably means that it has not reached the testing stage at which the Government know that it will actually deliver, yet the Government are adamant that it will not take five years. If the Government know that it will not take five years, they must be in a position to say now when they expect the system to come in. They can also say why in the meantime they will not increase the fees as far as the police licences are concerned to cover the full cost to the police. Not doing so means that the police, who are short of financial resources, are subsidising gun ownership.
My Lords, the noble Lord is right in that the taxpayer should not subsidise gun ownership. The new fees will be subject to consultation, although that was not the question he asked. He asked whether it will take five years to implement the online system. I will write to him on how long we think implementation of the online system will take, if that is okay.
I thank the Minister for her response and other noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and my noble friend Lord Harris, who participated in this short debate. I am grateful to the Minister for saying that she will write to me on this, because the question of when the Government are gearing up to introduce the online system is crucial. I sense it will not be within the next few months—to put it bluntly, the Government do not know when it is coming in. They are not even prepared to give an estimate of the timescale, unless that will be in the letter that is to be sent. We will need to reflect further on this in the face, apparently, of a government stance that means they are quite happy, if the online system does not come in very shortly, to see the police subsidising gun ownership in this country, at a time when the police themselves are desperately short of financial resources. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 204 withdrawn.
Amendments 205 and 206 not moved.
Clause 115 agreed.
Amendment 207 not moved.
208: After Clause 115, insert the following new Clause—
“Firearms: revocation of firearms certificate
(1) The Firearms Act 1968 is amended as follows.(2) After section 4 (conversion of weapons) insert—“4A Revocation of firearms certificateAny person who has through negligence lost a firearm or through negligence enabled a firearm to be stolen shall have all firearms certificates in their name revoked and shall be banned from holding a firearms certificate for the rest of their life.””
My Lords, this amendment in my name raises the issue of people who, through negligence, have allowed their firearm to be lost or stolen. This seems to me something that should be taken much more seriously than it is at present. I do not want to bore the House with too many statistics, but roughly half of all recent terrorist plots that have been disrupted have involved situations in which those alleged to be the perpetrators have sought to obtain firearms.
In an average year, 800 registered firearms are lost or stolen. That means there is a seepage of firearms, most likely into the illegal economy. Whether those firearms are obtained by criminals or terrorists seems almost irrelevant. These are firearms that in many instances could kill or harm people, and certainly terrify them. In those circumstances, if an owner has negligently allowed their firearm to be lost or stolen, it seems there should be significant consequences. That is why this amendment proposes not only that they should they have all firearms certificates in their name revoked but that they should be banned from holding a firearms certificate for the rest of their life.
Those who might argue that that is a draconian penalty just need to think about what an unlicensed, stolen firearm in the hands of a criminal or a terrorist might do to somebody else’s life. This seems a punishment that fits the crime. I hope the Minister will accept that this is a serious matter and agree to take this away and tidy up whatever inadequacies there are in my drafting of the amendment, because it seems a no-brainer that we should take firm action against those who, through their negligence, allow dangerous firearms to get into the illegal economy. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, although perhaps not quite in the terms he suggested. This is a very serious problem. Any firearm that is lost or stolen will almost inevitably find its way into the hands of criminals, whether terrorists or not. It is an extremely serious problem. Because we have world-class controls on firearms, stealing firearms is one of the few ways in which criminals or terrorists can arm themselves. Clearly, there would have to be some investigation to establish whether negligence was involved or not. I understand that, at the moment, when a firearms licence is up for renewal the police will consider what the security arrangements are to store firearms and, indeed, whether any firearms have been lost or stolen by that certificate holder. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that this is not taken seriously enough at the moment, that there are very serious potential consequences and that this definitely needs further consideration.
My Lords, while I am grateful to the noble Lord for moving this amendment, I am curious about what he means by “negligence”. He talked about the problem of firearms being stolen. If a gun owner has properly kept his firearms in the storage facilities that have already been approved by the police and a burglar comes in and successfully and quite quickly gets into the gun cabinet and steals the firearms, has the firearms owner been negligent or not?
My Lords, part of the process of enacting this would be to make quite clear what qualifies as negligence. In my view, this should not apply if the gun owner has followed all the prescribed procedures, which should be quite onerous. In my understanding, gun owners are extremely careful, particularly about the storage of their weapons. I am concerned about guns that are left in the boot of a car, not necessarily in very adequate containers, or even on the back seat of a car or in circumstances where the gun owner has not locked them away in the approved fashion. Those are certainly cases where this should apply, and I hope that the threat of this action being taken would mean that all gun owners became much more responsible and acted in the way the noble Earl has suggested.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has explained, Amendment 208 would provide that:
“Any person who has through negligence lost a firearm or through negligence enabled a firearm to be stolen shall have all firearms certificates in their name revoked and shall be banned from holding a firearms certificate for the rest of their life”.
As the noble Lord indicated, this was one of the recommendations in his report for the Mayor of London on London’s preparedness to respond to a major terrorist incident, which was published last week.
It is clear that the loss or theft of firearms presents a potential risk to public safety. However, the number of firearms and shotguns that are lost remains extremely small. Any loss or theft is, of course, a cause for concern and it is right that we must take appropriate action in the case of owners who lose or enable the theft of a firearm or shotgun through negligence. I therefore considered carefully the noble Lord’s proposed amendment to the Firearms Act 1968.
When a firearm or shotgun certificate is issued, conditions are automatically included requiring the certificate holder to store their firearms securely to prevent, so far as reasonably practicable, access to the firearms by an unauthorised person. The condition also applies in circumstances where the firearm or shotgun has been removed from secure storage for cleaning, repair or testing or during transit. In these circumstances, all reasonable precautions must be taken to ensure the safe custody of the firearm. A condition is also placed on the certificate requiring the holder to notify the police within seven days of the theft, loss or destruction of a firearm or shotgun. It is an offence not to comply with these conditions, and the maximum penalty for that offence can be up to six months in prison, a fine or both.
Section 38 of the 1968 Act provides for a firearm certificate to be revoked if the chief officer of police is satisfied that the holder is,
“otherwise unfitted to be entrusted with a firearm”,
or can no longer be permitted to have a firearm in their possession without danger to the public’s safety or to the peace. Section 30C makes similar provision for the revocation of shotgun certificates. In the year ending March 2016, the police revoked just under 400 firearms certificates and almost 1,350 shotgun certificates. I assure the noble Lord that when the loss or theft of a firearm or shotgun is reported to the police, the matter is taken very seriously. In such cases the chief officer should consider whether to prosecute the certificate holder for breach of a condition on their certificate, and whether the certificate should be revoked under Sections 30A or 30C of the 1968 Act.
Noble Lords may also be reassured to know that the police intend to set minimum standards in respect of the investigation of lost or stolen firearms. This will provide a consistent national approach to the call-taking, initial response, investigation, assessment of risk and consideration of firearms licensing issues such as revocation. If a person whose certificate has been revoked applies for a new certificate at a later date, the chief officer will consider all the circumstances of the application and, if the reasons for the previous revocation can be determined, in some circumstances a user certificate might be granted. In cases where a firearms offence has been committed, the courts will consider the sentencing options available under the 1968 Act. Depending on the sentence handed down by a court, a lifetime ban may automatically be imposed on a certificate holder. Generally, persons who are sentenced to three years or more are never allowed to possess a firearm again.
The 1968 Act provides for a five-year ban where someone has been sentenced to a period of imprisonment of three months or more but less than three years. Persons who are subject to a suspended sentence of three months or more are also not allowed to possess firearms, including antique firearms, for five years. The amendment could therefore lead to a situation whereby an individual who has been imprisoned for less than three years does not receive a lifetime ban while an individual whose firearm has been lost or stolen receives a ban for life. While I fully agree that we must have robust firearms laws to preserve and maintain public safety, including safeguards to help to prevent their misuse, I am sure noble Lords will agree that our laws must be proportionate.
The inclusion on certificates of conditions governing safe storage means that firearms and shotgun certificate holders understand their responsibilities in respect of keeping their weapons secure. I am also satisfied that police forces already have the powers they need to revoke firearms or shotgun certificates in cases where the owner has lost or enabled the theft of a weapon through negligence. I hope that, having aired this important issue, the noble Lord will feel that he can withdraw his amendment.
He does look satisfied; he always does. If he chose to come back with this at a later stage, and I hope he does not, he would need to consider disassembly. In the case of a bolt-action hunting rifle for taking deer, for example, if someone lost the rifle but kept the bolt then the rifle would not be much use. He will have to pay a bit of attention to that issue if he wants to bring this back.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who contributed to this debate, and in particular to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, for raising complications about bolt-action and dealing with deer and so on—which, as he knows, are way beyond my understanding and experience of firearms matters.
I am particularly grateful to the Minister for her response, but I was concerned—and no doubt it was just a slip in the way she responded, and I might have misheard her—when she said that it was a very small number of firearms that disappear and go missing each year. In my view, 800 firearms going missing or being stolen each year is a significant number and a significant problem.
I am grateful to her also for outlining the various options available to deal with breaches of conditions and so on. I am partially reassured, but it would be interesting to know how robust and satisfactory the systems are for ensuring that, if a firearms certificate were revoked in one police force area and the same individual were to apply for a certificate in another firearms area, the information would automatically be available to the chief constable when they considered it. I rather suspect, given my experience of the way in which these matters are communicated, that there is no guarantee that the information would be available. I would be interested if the Minister would look into this matter—perhaps not today—and respond to it. I will consider very carefully what she said in her response, but, certainly for today, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 208 withdrawn.
Clause 116 agreed.
209: After Clause 116, insert the following new Clause—
“Possession of pyrotechnic articles at musical events
(1) It is an offence for a person to have a pyrotechnic article in his or her possession at any time when the person is—(a) at a place in England where a qualifying musical event is being held, or(b) at any other place in England that is being used by a person responsible for the organisation of a qualifying musical event for the purpose of—(i) regulating entry to, or departure from, the event, or(ii) providing sleeping or other facilities for those attending the event.(2) Subsection (1) does not apply—(a) to a person who is responsible for the organisation of the event, or(b) to a person who has the article in his or her possession with the consent of a person responsible for the organisation of the event.(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 51 weeks (or, in relation to offences committed before section 281(5) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 comes into force, 3 months), or to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale, or to both.(4) In this section, “pyrotechnic article” means an article that contains explosive substances, or an explosive mixture of substances, designed to produce heat, light, sound, gas or smoke, or a combination of such effects, through self-sustained exothermic chemical reactions, other than—(a) a match, or(b) an article specified, or of a description specified, in regulations made by statutory instrument by the Secretary of State.(5) In this section, “qualifying musical event” means an event at which one or more live musical performances take place and which is specified, or of a description specified, in regulations made by statutory instrument by the Secretary of State.(6) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”
My Lords, Amendment 209 provides for a new offence of possession of pyrotechnic articles at live musical events in England. The amendment is in response to one tabled by Nigel Adams on Report in the House of Commons. The misuse of fireworks, flares and smoke bombs at festivals and other live musical events by members of the public is an increasing and deeply concerning problem. Fireworks and other pyrotechnic articles covered by the amendment are dangerous when misused. Fireworks can burn at in excess of 2,200 degrees centigrade; flares can reach temperatures of 1,600 degrees centigrade and can burn for as long as an hour. Smoke bombs also burn at high temperatures, and in enclosed or crowded spaces the thick smoke that they release can cause breathing difficulties, particularly for asthma sufferers.
In the 1980s, it was recognised that the misuse of pyrotechnic articles in crowded football stadia posed a specific public order risk. As a result, the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985 provides for an offence of possession of fireworks and flares at a football match. However, current firework and explosives legislation does not provide the police or prosecutors with an appropriate offence to tackle the possession of pyrotechnic articles at music festivals. While the majority of festival organisers have their own rules banning festivalgoers from bringing fireworks and other pyrotechnic articles on to festival premises, no statutory regulation exists. There is no offence for the use of a firework, flare or smoke bomb in a crowd on private property unless it can be proved that it was used with the intent to cause injury or that its use was likely to endanger life or seriously damage property.
Amendment 209 therefore makes it an offence for a person to be in possession of a pyrotechnic article at a qualifying musical event in England. The offence has been so constructed as to apply also where a person is in possession of such articles at a point of entry into, or exit from, the place where a qualifying musical event is taking place, or at a campsite provided for those who are attending the event.
A qualifying musical event will be defined in regulations, subject to the negative procedure. The amendment itself provides that such musical events must involve live musical performances and, in defining a qualifying event, we will want to further target the offence at those events where there is evidence of harm being caused by the misuse of fireworks, flares or smoke bombs. The maximum penalty for the offence is three months’ imprisonment, which is the same as that applicable to the existing football-related offence.
The effect of Amendment 234 is that the offence extends to England and Wales. As I indicated, it applies to England only. However, we are considering further its territorial application in consultation with the Welsh Government. Amendment 245 makes a consequential amendment to the Long Title.
This offence will help prevent the harm that can come from the misuse of such dangerous articles and allow everyone to enjoy live music events safely. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to officials for explaining the origin of the amendment to me. They commented that the Government’s view is that we should not extend the criminal law unless there is a well-founded case for doing so. I agree with that, but I have instinctive concerns about this proposal. First, what consultation has there been with the entertainment industry? This must be a matter of widespread interest. I cannot say that I go to musical events usually held in the open air—I go to rather staider events—but a lot of people will feel that they are being targeted by the measure. What consideration has been given to, first, whether there should not be a focus on the venue organiser rather than the individual, as this seems to be a matter of crowd control? Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is there no other way than creating a new specific offence? If fireworks and flares are dangerous—I accept that they are—is this not about the misuse of fireworks rather than the place or event where they may be misused? As for it being a musical event, which is to be determined by regulations, that seems to raise all sorts of problems.
I appreciate that this comes from legislation about football matches, although the 1985 Act cited by the Minister seems a little narrower, unless I have misunderstood it, because the places where the person is found to be in possession are very closely defined, including an area,
“from which the event may be directly viewed”.
When looking up that section, I came across a petition to Parliament to legalise the use of pyrotechnics at football grounds. I could not find its date, but it was rejected on the basis that it was,
“a matter for individual Local Authorities”.
That confused me even more, but I wonder what relation that point has to the amendment.
I am sorry to throw a number of questions at the Minister, but I am sure that the Government considered them before proposing the amendment.
As ever, it was a quest for information. I also have a quest for information. It seems to me unduly restrictive to apply the clause simply to musical events. What about theatrical or other events which draw large crowds? The danger of either panic or direct harm from fireworks or similar things in such large, crowded places seems quite high. There is this careful definition of,
“sleeping or other facilities for those attending”,
a musical event. Surely concerns about someone possessing a pyrotechnic article in a general campsite or some other facility are just as great.
It would therefore be helpful to understand. The purpose is clear and valuable in terms of musical events and festivals but I wonder why similar consideration has not been given to other events where there will be large gatherings of people.
My Lords, this new clause is in general most welcome and I am happy to support it from these Benches. It seeks to ban the possession of fireworks, smoke bombs and flares by those attending live musical events. As we have heard, these are extremely dangerous and can burn at more than 2,000 degrees, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, outlined. There have been a number of injuries, and perhaps we may hear more about that when she responds.
I was surprised to learn that while these items are banned at football matches, it is not the case at musical events. A valid point has been made about widening the ban to other events. That should be considered, too, rather than just picking one area of a problem that may be more widespread. If I am correct, the amendment does not stop the organisers of the event using these articles but just protects the people attending, and prevents people putting them in their bags and setting them off recklessly in the crowd.
The other amendments are consequential. I am generally supportive of them but the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, made valid points that require a response from the Government.
I thank noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate and hope that I can answer their questions.
On the point regarding consultation, the proposed new offence is supported by the music industry. The national policing lead for festivals, Assistant Chief Constable Andy Battle of West Yorkshire Police, who is in charge of dealing with these sorts of events countrywide, has also welcomed the proposed legislation. Therefore, we have indeed consulted. In fact, organisers have already made it clear that fireworks should not be brought into festivals but feel that an offence is needed to provide better and greater deference to this understanding and to concentrate people’s minds.
Why does this apply only to music events? The data gathered by the crowd management organisation Showsec on behalf of Live Nation recorded 255 incidents involving pyrotechnic articles at live music events in 2014. This covered seven music festivals and other, smaller venues. This new offence is being created to target the specific problem of pyrotechnics at live music events. There is no evidence to suggest that pyrotechnic articles are a problem at other kinds of events, with the exception of football stadiums, which are covered under sporting events control.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, also asked about extending the ban outside the event. Extending the offence to include travel to a music event or festival would not only widen the scope of the offence considerably but put it at odds with current legislation on the possession of fireworks and flares. There are also practical considerations regarding how such an extension could be enforced. Police officers would need reasonable grounds to believe that individuals were travelling to a musical event with pyrotechnic articles in order to search them. In our view, this would be an onerous demand on police time. The national policing lead for music festivals, Andy Battle of West Yorkshire Police, agreed that any provision around travel would not be helpful and be problematic to enforce.
A noble Lord asked why fireworks could be included in the general celebration of the event by the organisers. We accept that pyrotechnic articles are often used as part of a performance, and we would not want to restrict that. The new offence will maintain the distinction between pyrotechnics authorised for use as part of a festival or event and those misused by the public. I hope that that has covered everything.
I did not express myself very well. I was not concerned about travel to the event. I was comparing the amendment with Section 2A of the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985, under which the offence applies when a person,
“is in any area of a designated sports ground from which the event may be directly viewed”.
I was comparing the two matters. That probably highlights the fact that musical events are different.
After hearing the response, I cannot help thinking that this is a matter of how people may use or misuse fireworks and flares in a much more general way. Does the noble Baroness know whether the regulations will address the definition of a qualifying musical event, or will they actually list particular events? She referred to the national policing lead for musical events; I had not realised there was such a post. By definition, that officer will not have given comments about events that are not musical events. If the noble Baroness has no further information—I appreciate that she may not, as we are becoming quite detailed—perhaps it is a matter for another day. But they are not invalid questions.
Amendment 209 agreed.
Clause 117: Meaning of “alcohol”: inclusion of alcohol in any state
Debate on whether Clause 117 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I beg to move that the clause do not stand part of the Bill and, in short, that it be deleted. If carried, the clause means that the definition of alcohol will be extended to cover all forms in which it might be presented. Specifically, it will cover powdered alcohol and vaporised alcohol, and it follows that they will then become regulated for sale in the UK under the Licensing Act 2003.
Yesterday we had a short debate on the action the Government are taking to address reports of increasing violence in prisons. The Minister replying referred to the White Paper, Prison Safety and Reform, in which there is a section on reducing the supply of and demand for illicit items. If I had been able to get into the debate yesterday, I would have asked the Minister to explain to the House how permitting for the first time in the UK the sale of powdered and vaporised alcohol will help to reduce the problems in prisons. I would be grateful if the Minister endeavoured to respond to that point. How can this change be justified against the background of the Government’s announcement last week that no-fly zones are to be imposed over jails in England and Wales to stop drones being used to smuggle drugs into prison grounds? It is against a background of numerous initiatives costing £1.3 billion that we are trying to tackle rising violence, drug use and other problems in prisons.
The Home Office may have consulted the drinks industry on this change, but did it consult its own Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for prisons, and the health authorities on how they view the proposals? I have tabled a whole range of Written Questions asking the Government about this topic and they have answered a fair number recently. I particularly asked if they would define the benefits of this change to the public. I have had no reply, so I should be grateful if the Minister told the House today what benefit the Government see from authorising the sale of powdered and vaporised alcohol.
Powdered alcohol has been around in some countries for quite a while—not vaping alcohol, which is a new development to which I will come back shortly. The production and marketing of powdered alcohol started to take off in the USA about two years ago—March 2015—when its sale was authorised by the federal bureau on drugs and drinks. This has been controversial in the States. Powdered alcohol can be consumed with fruit juices, water and other soft drinks. It can be mixed with other alcoholic drinks to double or treble their strength. It can be taken to and consumed in places where ordinary liquid alcoholic drinks cannot because they are prohibited, such as sporting and musical events, public places and on public transport. Powdered alcohol can be taken there because it cannot be detected. It can be baked, put into ice cream, and so on. A whole range of things can be done with it.
There has been an outcry in the States about the attempt to market and sell it. Opposition has grown over the months, and I understand that 27 states have banned its sale. The opposition has been such that there have been disputes about its legality, and the main producer of the main powdered alcohol—Palcohol—is having to take a different stance entirely to the one it adopted previously. It is interesting to note, too, that this year, Russia is banning the sale of powdered alcohol. Yet here we are in the UK contemplating legitimising its sale. It is true that it is not yet on sale here but as I pointed out to the Home Office, websites are already set up waiting to sell it online as soon as it is legalised for sale.
As the Home Office has conceded, alcohol in vaping form is already here. It is true that it is being presented as a novelty item, but how long will it remain as such? Indeed, is it being used as a novelty item? I do not think it will stay like that for long. The cigarette manufacturers are already moving big time into vaping. The CEO of Philip Morris, which has the big selling brand, Marlboro, and commands 30% of the market outside the USA, selling 847 billion cigarettes last year alone, said that he is on a mission to get millions more people vaping. He says he can see the day when Philip Morris stops selling cigarettes entirely, and will be totally into vaping.
So a big change is taking place—we will have a vaping future. Of course, it will not just be nicotine. Last week, I went to one of my local vaping shops in Battersea, which has 50 different vaping items on sale. As yet, they do not have alcohol, but when I talked to them about the possibility, they said, “Yes please, could you tell us when we can get our hands on it?”. The items they are already selling come from all different parts of the world, in all different concoctions. There must be a question from a health point of view about what people will be vaping and the effect over time on their health—even from what is currently available for sale.
Make no mistake: when we look at the future of vaping, what we are seeing is just the start of a major development and we should be aware of it—if indeed the Government intend to proceed with this measure. I hope they are prepared to think again. The truth is that powdered ethyl alcohol and vaping alcohol are mind and mood-altering substances little different to class C prohibited drugs, while those classified in the recently passed Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 will in due course cause the same kind of problems as the substances which have been previously been banned, if not more, particularly if vaping takes off on a big scale.
The Government should withdraw Clause 117 and to help them, I oppose its standing part of the Bill. To help them clarify the legal position—which is ostensibly their concern and why they are taking this action—I suggest they have a look at class C prohibited drugs and the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 to see whether these substances should be so classified. If not, they should simply and straightforwardly be banned.
My Lords, I rise to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, and his persistent campaign against powdered alcohol and vaping. I accept what he says about these things being mind-altering substances, but surely that is because they contain alcohol, which is an accepted mind-altering substance—no more, no less than that. I understand the concern about the way you take the alcohol. Vaping, I understand, gives a very instant hit, unlike drinking alcohol, where you get a delayed reaction. However, have we not learned lessons from the past about prohibition and, in particular, prohibition of alcohol, not being an effective way of dealing with these issues? On these Benches, we would say it is far better to regulate, license and control the use of these new substances, rather than trying to ban them.
My Lords, my name is on this amendment and we are coming on to a whole series of amendments relating to alcohol. With all due respect, I do not agree that alcohol in these alternative forms should be looked at in the same way as alcoholic drinks consumed in a social context.
The great difficulty for us and the country already is the size of the problem. In 2014 there were 8,697 alcohol-related deaths. That was an increase on the previous year and alcohol-related harms are already estimated to cost the country £21 billion a year. We know that around 9% of adult men and 4% of adult women are not taking alcohol for social consumption, but because they have alcohol dependence. Sadly, only around 7% of them are accessing any kind of treatment, so we have a huge problem. When we look at the amount of alcohol-fuelled crime and at what victims have said, over half of all victims of violence felt that the offender was under the influence of alcohol, and that is without ways of boosting the potency of the alcohol that they might be taking.
When we look at young people in particular and alcohol-related harms among those aged under 25 from 2002 to 2010, alcohol-related hospital admissions increased by 57% in young men and by 76% in girls and young women. We have a massive, looming problem of alcohol addiction and harms. The consequences of that may be handed down to the next generation, given that we know that among 15 and 16 year-olds, 11% had sex under the influence of alcohol and almost one in 10 boys and one in eight girls had unsafe sex while under the influence of alcohol. Of course, unsafe sex leads to pregnancy.
It is also important to look at children who were excluded from school, because almost half of those were regular drinkers. This is nothing to do with people’s freedom to consume alcohol socially. This is pure alcohol harm. I do not see how a school will be able to differentiate powdered alcohol from sugar or any other substance, such as sherbet that a child has in their pocket. I do not see how prison services or others will be able to differentiate alcohol vaping devices from the other types of nicotine-related vaping devices or how they will be able to have any control over the consumption of these. I have a real concern, and the reason I put my name to this amendment is that these kinds of products fuel alcohol addiction and do nothing to enhance social interaction within our society; they specifically fuel dependence and all the harms that go along with dependence. I have yet to be convinced of any benefit whatever, given that other countries that have major problems with alcohol consumption have decided that these products are too dangerous. I suggest that we should follow their lead and not risk taking these substances which we will be unable to detect or police. By allowing them for sale, they can be used to spike drinks and increase the cost to the country of alcohol-induced harms.
My Lords, Clause 117 amends the definition of alcohol in Section 191 of the Licensing Act 2003. The current definition of alcohol covers:
“Spirits, wine, beer, cider or any other fermented, distilled or spirituous liquor.”
The clause adds the words “in any state” to this definition. The purpose of this is to ensure that all alcohol, no matter in which form it is sold, is covered by the requirements of the 2003 Act.
In recent years novel products have appeared for sale in licensed premises, such as vaporised alcohol, which is designed to be inhaled either directly from the air or via an inhalation device. To our knowledge, those who have sold this form of alcohol have done so under a premises licence and there have not been problems.
However, in America there is a suggestion that a new product—powdered alcohol— may come on to the market in the near future. We wish to put it beyond doubt that alcohol, whatever form it takes, may be sold only in accordance with a licence under the 2003 Act. It is important that we make this legislative change before powdered alcohol comes on to the market. This clause will ensure that any form of alcohol sold to the public is properly regulated with relevant safeguards in place.
The current system of alcohol licensing, as provided for in the 2003 Act, seeks to promote four licensing objectives. These are: the prevention of crime and disorder; public safety; the prevention of public nuisance; and the protection of children from harm. The 2003 Act also contains a number of criminal offences, including selling alcohol to a child under the age of 18 and selling alcohol without a licence.
This amendment to the definition of alcohol will ensure that the four licensing objectives continue to be met despite innovations in alcohol products, and that the public, especially children, continue to be protected from irresponsible sales of alcohol. The clause will mean that there is no legal ambiguity over whether new forms of alcohol are covered by the Act and need an alcohol licence to be sold.
I recognise the concerns of the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. All we know about powdered alcohol is that it is alcohol in a powdered form. There is no evidence on whether it is more harmful than liquid alcohol, and we do not know whether it could be used in more harmful ways. The Government share the noble Lord’s concern that children may be attracted to this product. These are legitimate concerns. However, removing this clause from the Bill will expose an ambiguity in the law that could be exploited by those who seek to argue that these novel forms of alcohol may be sold without a licence. The Government have not sought to ban powdered alcohol because the licensing system contains safeguards to prevent the sale of alcohol to children and to protect the public from irresponsible sales of alcohol.
Powdered alcohol was authorised for sale in the USA in March 2015, although as far as the Government are aware, it is not yet on sale in the USA or elsewhere, including online. A number of states in the USA have banned powdered alcohol amid concerns about underage drinking. If powdered alcohol does come on to the market, the Government will monitor what happens in the USA and the UK, and keep our position under review. We are currently aware of only one company developing this product. It is designed to be mixed with water or a mixer such as orange juice or Coke to make a drink of the normal strength, for example, a single shot of vodka. While the licensed trade and licensing authorities are currently treating vaporised alcohol in the same way as liquid alcohol, the Government wish to ensure that there is no doubt about the legal position.
In considering this change to the definition of alcohol, the Home Office consulted key partners at two workshops held last summer. One included representatives from the Local Government Association, the Institute of Licensing, the police and PCCs, as well as licensing officers from seven licensing authorities. The second workshop included industry partners such as the British Beer and Pub Association, the Association of Convenience Stores, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association and the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers. In these workshops there was agreement that the legal position of new forms of alcohol should be put beyond doubt. The police and local authorities were keen that licensing and enforcement decisions should be clear, while the industry representatives were keen to see clarity in the law so that alcohol licences continue to operate effectively and efficiently. In conclusion, removing the clause from the Bill would have the opposite effect to the one the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, seeks.
He asked about prisons. It may be helpful to mention that the legislative change does not affect the use of alcohol in prisons, which is prohibited. He asked what consultation we have carried out with health authorities. Home Office officials have discussed powdered alcohol with the Department of Health and Public Health England. No one has raised specific concerns about the potential harm of powdered alcohol and there is no evidence to suggest that this form of alcohol is more harmful than liquid alcohol. However, we will keep this under review if the product enters the market.
Does the noble Baroness agree that the question is not whether the form of alcohol—that is, powder or liquid—is more dangerous; it is the quantity of the chemical C2H5OH that is the problem? The higher the concentration, the greater the harm, so an ordinary drink spiked with powdered alcohol will be much more harmful than the drink itself because it is a question of dose-related harms.
I cannot disagree with the noble Baroness’s comments about the powdered form of alcohol. However, this obviously depends on what one compares the powder to. Some fairly lethal drinks are available. I am thinking of things such as absinthe, which was banned for years in this country. Every form of alcohol has the potential to do harm. As the relevant product is not yet on the market in this country, we will keep the situation under review.
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for her support. As noble Lords might expect, I am disappointed with the Minister’s response. Alcohol in its present form is very badly regulated in a number of areas. A Health Minister is present who knows about the major problems we experience with alcohol. We need to look constantly at the Licensing Act 2003 to try to improve the situation.
Alcohol will be presented in quite a different form from anything we have experienced previously. Make no mistake—it will come. The Home Office seems to be way behind on this all the time. There is a manufacturer of this form of alcohol in Japan, where it is available, and a Dutch producer. I believe that some has been produced in Germany as well, so it is coming on to the market. The existing Licensing Act will not be able to hinder this product’s portability. That is what has changed. You can hide it and move it anywhere, whereas beer in a bottle or glass is visible. That is the distinction and that is why this new form of alcohol is so different. When we see the difficulties in places such as prisons, and the steps we are taking to reduce violence in them and stop illicit drugs going into prisons, to say that the Government will meet what is primarily the drinks industry’s requirement to have the legal position clarified, in which it has a vested interest, is the wrong way to go.
There is a solution to this problem. My proposal would not legalise this product. We could ban it. We could also for the first time consider classifying it as a class C drug. That would frighten the drinks industry to death. We could also classify alcohol in this form under the Psychoactive Substances Act. I suggest that the Minister takes the measure away and reconsiders it in those terms.
Clause 117 agreed.
Clause 118 agreed.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 2.10 pm.