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Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015 (Consequential Provisions) Order 2017

Volume 779: debated on Thursday 9 March 2017

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015 (Consequential Provisions) Order 2017.

My Lords, it may be helpful at the outset to remind the Committee of the context of this order. Its origins can be found in the tragic death in 2005 of two year-old Andrew Morton after he was shot in the head with an air rifle. His parents campaigned for “Andrew’s law” to ban air weapons in Scotland.

Such deaths are mercifully rare but attacks continue to happen. Air weapons accounted for almost half—158—of all offences allegedly involving a firearm in Scotland in 2015-16. The all-party Calman commission examined the regulation of bearing weapons as part of its wide-ranging review of the Scotland Act 1998. When the commission reported in 2009, one of its recommendations was that the regulation of certain air weapons be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. This recommendation was included in the Scotland Act 2012, which made amendments to the Scotland Act 1998. Provision to devolve the regulation of certain air weapons was set out in Section 10 of the 2012 Act.

In addition to the scrutiny that the 2012 Act had in the House, the Committee may recall that a number of noble Lords were members of the Calman commission: my noble friends Lord Selkirk and Lord Lindsay, the noble and learned Lords, Lord Boyd of Duncansby and Lord Wallace of Tankerness, and the noble Lord, Lord Elder.

The Scottish Parliament used its new powers in this area to enact the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015, which I shall refer to as the 2015 Act. It received Royal Assent on 4 August 2015, having been passed by the Scottish Parliament on 25 June 2015. Andrew Morton’s parents welcomed this new legislation. The 2015 Act introduces a new licensing regime for air weapons to maintain controls over the use, possession, purchase and acquisition of such weapons in Scotland. It broadly follows the principles and practices of existing firearms legislation that apply across Great Britain by setting out the air weapons which need to be licensed; allowing a fit person to obtain and use an air weapon in a regulated way, without compromising public safety; and setting out appropriate and proportionate enforcement powers and penalties to deal with any person who contravenes the new regime.

It is notable that, in advance of the new regime coming into force on 31 December 2016, almost 19,000 unwanted air weapons were surrendered to Police Scotland for secure destruction.

The order I present to your Lordships today is made under Section 104 of the Scotland Act 1998, which allows for necessary or expedient legislative provision in consequence of an Act of the Scottish Parliament. The order will enable Part 1 of the 2015 Act to be implemented in full by making the following consequential amendments to reserved legislation which extends across Great Britain, namely the Firearms Act 1968. It will make it an offence for a pawnbroker in Scotland to take an air weapon in pawn and it will impose penalties for this offence. It will allow a court in England and Wales to cancel, in certain circumstances, any air weapon certificate granted to a person under the 2015 Act. This extends the court’s existing powers to cancel a firearm certificate or shotgun certificate held by a person appearing before it. It will also allow a court in Scotland to order the forfeiture or disposal of any firearm—other than an air weapon—or ammunition found in the possession of a person convicted of an air weapon offence.

The UK and Scottish Governments, Ministers and officials have worked together to ensure that this order makes the necessary amendments to the Firearms Act 1968 in consequence of Part 1 of the 2015 Act. It represents the final step in the implementation of the new Scottish licensing regime for air weapons that will tighten controls over the use, possession, purchase and acquisition of such weapons in Scotland. I commend the order to the Committee.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his customary logic and clarity in telling us about the proposed statutory instrument. I declare an interest: I have a firearm certificate from Police Scotland and I own an air gun. It is relevant to later in my short remarks that I bought it second-hand for £25. Living as I do in rural Scotland, I can tell the Committee that probably most homes in my area either own an air gun or have done so at some point.

I should make clear that everything I shall say in no way challenges the fact of the devolution of powers, or the fact that the licensing regime has been introduced. However, some people have expressed to me the opinion that the licensing regime is disproportionate, badly cast and impractical, and, having looked into, it I have some concerns.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation has 144,000 members; I am not one of them. Around 12,000 members are Scottish. The BASC has given a briefing paper to all its members, from which I will read the concluding paragraph. I preface that by saying that at the start of this process there were an estimated 500,000 air guns in Scotland: that puts the figure of 19,000 into context. The report, Air Gun Licensing in Scotland a Costly and Bureaucratic Mistake, states:

“Currently, 60,000 people in Scotland already hold firearms licences. Increasing the licensing requirement to cover hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland plus visitors will place existing Police Scotland licensing staff under a massive administrative burden when offences have fallen significantly and the police are subject to pressure on both budgets and staffing”.

As the Minister pointed out, version 1.0 of the Guide to Air Weapon Licensing in Scotland of June 2016 states that the whole thing will broadly follow the principles and practices of existing firearms legislation. That is pretty onerous. There are seven different forms that you can fill out but the main form is number one; it is 12 pages long and includes lots of questions about health and about security in the home.

There is a warning that if you answer a health question with a problem, your GP will be contacted. The security questions at home are, of course, very similar to those in the firearms questionnaires that I fill out, which result quite rightly in visits to homes. With hundreds of thousands of people needing to apply for these licences, with warnings that GPs may be contacted and security may need to be checked in homes, and with a 12-page form that needs to be processed, my concerns reach not just to the BASC’s worries about the pressure on Police Scotland but to needless pressures on the National Health Service. GPs will not know everything and will have look in their files, as they will—I presume—have to write a report to say that a person is suitable for a licence. The cost of the licence is also quite a lot; it is £72 for someone aged over 18. Admittedly it is only £50 for a 14 year-old, but I put that against my original purchase of a £25 air gun.

The function of this House is scrutiny and the weapon we have is to ask the Government to think again. Of course, in recent days we have seen ourselves do that in a very public way. My question is: where we see something like this in the underlying legislation—something that I feel to be impractical and, in the round, bad news for the people of Scotland and disproportionate—should we just wave through a statutory instrument or should we ask the devolved Administration to think again? I have carefully reviewed the underlying Act—I have it here on my iPad—and I think it would be possible with the Act to have a much simpler system, which would be cheaper and would not use up the resources of Police Scotland or of the National Health Service in Scotland, and yet would give some element of comfort to make sure that the horrible crimes that can occur with these things are lessons. I would be very grateful for the Minister’s comments on this underlying constitutional issue.

My Lords, I have never owned an air weapon, although when I was younger I did fire one once or twice, but it was a very long time ago. I have come along to welcome this measure—not in any way to take away from the points that the noble Earl has raised—but I do so against a background for which I should declare an interest as a member of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club.

I have been concerned for many years about the misuse of air weapons by young people, particularly in the countryside, who are tempted when they see, for example, a swan on a pond or a loch to shoot at it. I dare say it is a very tempting target for a young boy with an air gun. Of course, the injury that can be caused to these wild animals can be very disabling—not fatal, but it can considerably disable the individual bird and, if it is nesting, affect the lives of the cygnets or young birds that are being looked after.

Anything that can be done to restrict the availability of air weapons—excepting those such as the noble Earl and his family, who can no doubt be trusted to use them properly—should be done. I must confess that it never occurred to me as a little boy, or even today, to go to a pawnshop to buy one. I am quite interested as to why pawnshops have been singled out, but it may be that an example has been found of a pawnshop that had air weapons available which were of course not subject to the usual scrutiny that one would get from the reputable dealers. Closing off a loophole of that kind is welcome and I therefore applaud the instrument in that respect.

However, one question puzzles me—purely because the Explanatory Memorandum does not explain enough —which is the exclusion from new subsection (1ZB) of an air weapon. This is in the forfeiture clause, which provides for the forfeiture or disposal of any firearm, other than an air weapon, in Section 1 of the Act. I am not quite sure why that should be. If an air weapon is found, for example, in a pawnshop and the owner of the pawnshop is convicted of the offence, I would have thought that the sensible thing would be to take the air weapon into possession because the only person who has a claim to its ownership is the pawnshop owner; it has not yet been disposed of. It may be that I am missing bits of legislation elsewhere which would cover that but it would be helpful if the Minister was able to explain why air weapons are being excluded. I would be comforted if there was some other provision which enabled that forfeiture to be resorted to. But subject to that, and with very grateful thanks to the Minister for his helpful explanation of the tragic background to all these measures, I support the order.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for his usual clear and, as has been said, logical exposition of what is entailed in this SI. It allows the Scottish Government to more effectively regulate the possession, purchase and acquisition of air weapons in Scotland, as set out in Part 1 of the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015. The tragic background to this initiative—how it all started—is well known in Scotland. Government as a whole must take credit for responding to public concern and campaigns, because when we stop reflecting public opinion, we end up in trouble.

I do not have an interest to declare now but my first job when I left school was in a pawnshop. Pawnshops were a necessary part of the economic life and survival of the working class in the west of Scotland. I enjoyed my time there but unfortunately it entailed working all day Saturday. As the pawnshop was within three-quarters of a mile of Celtic Park, I could hear every goal getting cheered while I was working away in the shop, unable to witness them. After a year and a half I left the pawnshop and went to work in a place where I could get Saturday afternoons off to go and see my favourite football team.

The order makes it an offence,

“for a pawnbroker to take in pawn an air weapon”,

and will ensure that pawnbrokers are held accountable to the law by imposing penalties of up to three months’ imprisonment, or a level 3 fine, on those who break it. When I worked in the pawnshop, we had regular visits from the police checking up on jewellery and other items that might not have been honestly acquired before being pawned. There was pressure on the manager of the pawnshop to comply with this. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, mentioned administrative burdens, but my question is: has any work been done with the National Pawnbrokers Association to ensure that the new offence is widely communicated to those who will be affected? There are still pawnbrokers around and it will mean administration for them.

The provisions also allow for courts in Scotland,

“to order the forfeiture or disposal of any firearm or ammunition found in the possession”,

of a person convicted of an air weapon offence. Again, this is very welcome as it will ensure that persons convicted of air weapon offences will be covered by further measures protecting public safety. I know that the noble Earl has specific concerns about rural areas. My experience and my concerns relate to some of the abuses that were mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. I witnessed many of these when I was a boy and I always wondered why air weapons were allowed to be so easily acquired.

We commend the consequential provisions that will allow for the smooth further operation of the Scottish air weapon-licensing regime and contribute to a safer, more consistent firearms policy in Scotland. We welcome this measure.

I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate for their general support for the order. Perhaps I could take some time to address specifically the substantive points that the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has raised. He essentially raised two main points: the first relates to whether the regime is proportionate and the second to whether the Section 104 process could be used to ask the Scottish Parliament to think again about this or any other measure.

On the first point, we need to accept that responsibility for the regulation of certain air weapons in Scotland is now a matter for the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Ministers. The Scottish Government carried out detailed consultation on the main air weapon licensing proposals before the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Bill was introduced. The issue of air weapons licensing has been fully debated in the Scottish Parliament, and it is absolutely right that Scottish Ministers are held to account for the decisions they take by the elected representatives in that Parliament. Of course, UK government departments with responsibility for the relevant reserved legislation, notably the Home Office, which this order affects, were consulted during its drafting and it was approved by them.

The appropriateness of the new regime is an important issue. I understand that the Scottish Government worked closely with the Police Service of Scotland and, notwithstanding what the noble Earl said, with representatives of the main shooting organisations to ensure that the new licensing processes are as familiar as possible and appropriate to the lethality of the weapons affected. For example, there are currently more than 51,000 firearm or shotgun certificate holders in Scotland and it is expected that the majority of them, like the noble Earl, will also hold air weapons. So checks on existing firearm or shotgun certificate holders are not duplicated if they also apply for an air weapons certificate. Existing certificate holders can apply for a coterminous air weapons certificate to align with their existing licence.

The noble Earl mentioned the £72 fee for the full five-year air weapons certificate. There is also a reduced fee of £5 for firearm or shotgun holders who want to align their certificates to expire at the same time. Home visits to applicants will be required in only a small number of cases. Similarly, there will not be an automatic requirement for background medical reports on air weapons applicants; these will be required only in a small number of cases. As a result, the impact on NHS resources should be minimal. While the licensing regime is founded on the pre-existing firearms legislation, I hope that the examples I have given demonstrate the efforts that have been made to ensure the provisions are appropriate.

Turning to the noble Earl’s second point, it would not be an appropriate use of the Section 104 process to force the Scottish Parliament to think again about legislation it has passed in an area of its own competence, and which is now in force. We are today merely looking at consequential amendments to reserved legislation and were we to decline to pass this order, it would lead to gaps in the law. It would also set a very unhelpful precedent for managing intergovernmental relations—a subject in which I know the noble Earl takes a close interest—where mutual co-operation is so important, not least when it comes to reserved legislation that impacts on the devolved settlements or the devolved competence of Scottish Ministers.

The issue of pawnshops was raised. The licensing regime regulates trade in air weapons and to trade in those weapons, you must be a registered firearms dealer. Pawnshops are not registered firearms dealers, so this matches the existing Firearms Act 1968 position.

I was interested to hear the history of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, in relation to pawnshops. Consultation and making pawnshops aware of this legislation and their duties under it are obviously a matter for the Scottish Government. I do not have at my fingertips what work has been done to make them aware of it, but I am happy to follow up on that.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, mentioned an exclusion. I am not sure I have the detail on this, but if I do not have it to hand I will be happy to write to him. I think it mirrors the position of other firearms in the 1968 Act, but I am happy to clarify that further.

If I may return to the point I raised earlier, if the offence is committed by the owner of the pawnshop, it seems odd that the authorities have no means of taking possession of the weapon. I would have thought it would be very sensible if they could. However, I quite understand that I am asking a question that may not be capable of being answered immediately. If the Minister could write to me later, I would be very happy with that.

I think that issue came up when this order was debated in the House of Commons. If I have got this wrong, I will clarify it, but if the courts find that the weapon is wrongly in someone’s possession then clearly it is a matter for them to confiscate that weapon. It would be normal practice for the court to order the forfeiture or confiscation of a weapon, which would be securely destroyed by the authorities in a way that would put the weapon out of use. However, I am not sure that that is the circumstance the noble and learned Lord is referring to, so I will be happy to write to him to clarify the point.

Motion agreed.