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Antique Firearms (Amendment) Regulations 2021

Volume 816: debated on Tuesday 23 November 2021

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

My Lords, the draft regulations were laid before the House on 14 September. The Committee will recall that it debated the Antique Firearms Regulations on 6 January this year. The regulations introduced a statutory definition of antique firearms to prevent criminals from exploiting a lack of legal clarity to obtain old but functioning firearms for use in crime. The regulations came into effect on 22 March this year and were based closely on long-standing Home Office guidance. They now define in law which firearms can safely be regarded as antique and therefore exempt from control, and those that must be subject to licensing.

Here, I have to issue an apology. Following concerns raised by law enforcement, the new definition does not include seven types of cartridge, which, together with their associated firearms, have featured most often in crimes involving antique firearms. This means that these particular firearms can no longer be regarded as antique. However, owners were able to retain them on a firearms certificate and a six-month transition period was included in the relevant commencement regulations to allow owners to license, sell or otherwise lawfully dispose of their firearms. That transition period ended on 22 September this year.

During the transition period, it was brought to the Government’s attention that a category of cartridges that had previously been included in the Home Office guidance had been inadvertently omitted from the regulations. These cartridges are for vintage rifles, punt guns and shotguns with bores greater than 10. The regulations, which this Committee may recall are unusually technical and lengthy, listing over 450 old cartridge types, went through checks prior to being laid. Regrettably, however, this omission was not picked up. Unless we correct the error, owners of the omitted firearms would have to license them, incurring unnecessary inconvenience and expense, with no benefit to public safety.

Since antique firearms are not licensed, I cannot say exactly how many firearms might be affected by this omission, but I understand that there could be 200 to 300 owned by around 100 collectors. They are also the sort of old firearm that can be found displayed on the walls of pubs. The Antique Firearms (Amendment) Regulations 2021 will correct this omission by adding this category of cartridges to the list in the schedule to the 2021 regulations, as was always intended.

In the meantime, the Government have made the Policing and Crime Act 2017 (Commencement No. 11 and Transitional Provisions) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, which extended the transition period in respect of the omitted firearms until 22 January next year. That will ensure that owners remain in lawful possession while the amendment regulations before us today can be considered by Parliament and, I hope, approved and brought into effect.

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

The Home Office has issued advice on the government website to make owners aware of this omission and the need to apply for a firearm certificate before 22 January next year. The NPCC lead for firearms licensing has suggested to police forces that they simply hold on to any applications that they receive and then cancel them once the amendment regulations come into effect. This will avoid owners having to pay unnecessary fees and will avoid nugatory work for police forces.

I again apologise to the Committee for having to take up more of its time to correct this omission. The 2021 regulations have been checked by officials and external stakeholders for any further omissions or errors. As a result, the amendment regulations will also make a number of minor and typographical corrections to the descriptions of other cartridges specified in the 2021 regulations. Although none of these corrections represents any significant flaw, it is worth making them now to ensure that the 2021 regulations are accurate. I commend these regulations to the Committee.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for explaining the reasons behind this amendment, which follows rather rapidly on the original document. I declare an interest as an owner of a 200 year-old gun, which is a muzzleloader, but I think it was excused in the earlier legislation.

The Minister mentioned various classes of gun that would be excepted. I guess that her list was the existing one, because I cannot see that this amendment includes any new classes; it merely corrects the spelling of “ammunition”. Was this corrected along with the external advice of people who own these guns? I would be grateful to hear from her.

My Lords, when the Government recognise their mistake, cock-up, call it what you like, and put their hand up quickly, one should applaud, because that way we end up with fewer mistakes down the road, so I thank the Government for addressing this.

I remember doing the other regulations. There was a long and complicated list, as the noble Baroness said. One point I tried to make at that time but could not was why World War I guns of exactly the calibre as World War II guns were not included in the list, but that has gone.

Exactly what criteria are being used to determine what makes a firearm antique? There have been comments about black powder. It is technically possible to reproduce everything, so what are the criteria for how difficult it has to be? Hearing them again might help to clarify why we are doing this, so that anybody who is listening in—I am sure there is rapt attention outside—will know exactly why we are categorising certain weapons as antique.

My Lords, the Labour Party supports these regulations. They are largely technical in nature. This instrument corrects an error in the Antique Firearms Regulations 2021. In his summing-up of the brief debate in the other place on 8 November, the Minister, Kit Malthouse, described the whole experience of correcting this error as a “chastening experience” for him and the firearms team at the Home Office, and he expressed the hope that there would not be a recurrence of a similar error in future. I thank him for that candour, and I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the apology.

In 2017, the Government legislated through the Police and Crime Act to provide a statutory definition of an antique firearm. The Home Office consulted on what the cut-off date for manufacture should be, the propulsion systems and the cartridges. This information informed the 2021 regulations. It is these regulations that are being updated. The instrument corrects an omission from the regulations. It amends the schedule to the 2021 regulations by adding cartridges for vintage rifles, punt guns and shotguns with bores greater than 10. It also makes minor corrections to the descriptions of some other types of cartridges in the schedule.

From reading the short debate in the other place and the Library note, I have a few questions for the Minister. First, the territorial extent of this instrument is England, Wales and Scotland. What is the position in Northern Ireland on similar issues with antique firearms? I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on that. Secondly, the Library note explains that the ongoing approach to monitoring and reviewing this legislation is twofold. The first is to establish a non-statutory group of experts who will meet annually to consider the latest developments in the criminal use of antique firearms. Secondly, the Home Office is to carry out a three-year review of the 2021 regulations. Can the Minister say whether these groups have been established and when they are next due to meet?

In his response to the debate on 8 November in the other place, the Minister spoke of the prevalence of the use of antique firearms in criminal activity. He said that the National Ballistics Intelligence Service

“saw a rise in the use of antique firearms between 2008 and 2016, with 95 uses in 2016, and recoveries have decreased slightly.”—[Official Report, Commons, Delegated Legislation Committee, 8/11/21; col. 7.]

He also said that there had been six fatalities since 2006 from the use of these weapons. This data seems very out of date. When would the Minister reasonably expect to have a more up-to-date analysis of the extent of the problem of the use of antique weapons in criminal activity?

Finally, in the other place, my honourable friend Conor McGinn asked the Minister about the new statutory guidance to chief police officers on firearms licensing coming into force. He asked about the information to be provided about any medical conditions, particularly mental health conditions, of people applying for licences. I understand that this is outside the scope of this statutory instrument, but can the Minister say whether the twofold monitoring approach, which I mentioned earlier, will cover developments in mental capacity assessments of those who currently hold firearm licences?

We support these regulations. Our priority, like the Government’s, is to protect the public, and we agree that a systematic, ongoing review of regulations is the best way to achieve this.

I thank the noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. My noble friend the Duke of Montrose asked whether there is a new type of gun. The answer is no. The classes of vintage rifles, punts and shotguns with bores greater than 10, which were omitted, are now being inserted. Nothing new is being inserted—these should have been inserted in the first place, hence my apology.

As to the definition of antique firearms, that is specified in the Antique Firearms Regulations 2021. They must have been manufactured before 1 September 1939.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, asked about the territorial extent. It is a devolved approach. They have a similar approach to Great Britain. Shooting in Scotland is covered by the same legislation as England and Wales, apart from air rifles.

I will consult the department on the data when I go back. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, thinks that this data seems to be a bit out of date. The data I have is that the antiques firearms recovered per year in criminal circumstances increased from eight in 2008 to 95 in 2016. The number of recoveries has decreased slightly since 2016, down to 80 in 2020. I will see if I have any more up-to-date information for him. I will also find out for him when the non-statutory groups of experts in the three-year review are due to meet, because I am not sure at this stage.

I hope I have answered all the questions.

I have one additional question. Will the review groups also look at the mental capacity and that other aspect of the licensing process?

I raised the point that the rifles used by the British Army in 1917 are effectively the same as the rifles used in 1940. The same is true of the German and American armies. Why is there this artificial cut-off? The rifles fire the same bullets. They are using the same calibre of bullets, the same propulsion, the same white powder for the same lethal intent. Some clarification of that would help. If it is about killing capacity, it is there in these slightly older weapons.

I get the point the noble Lord is making. Clearly, there has to be a cut-off somewhere, but I will find that out for him.

Motion agreed.