§ Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [7 May], That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Mr. Eldon Griffiths.]9.34 am
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)
We resume the Third Reading debate, which was interrupted by the conclusion of our proceedings last Friday. At that time, I was saying a few words about the police service—with which I declare a connection—and its motives in supporting the Bill. The essential point is that the Bill was originally conceived to deal with two aspects of the mischief done by imitation weapons in the commission of crime. One aspect is the convertibility of replicas into real firearms and the other is the mischief done by the fact that they can look so similar to real firearms that a police officer or member of the public cannot distinguish between the two.
Therefore, in accordance with many a criminal's intentions, the replica weapon is sometimes seen a; a firearm. The bank teller or ordinary member of the public—who has no means of distinguishing between the real and the fake—finds the menace sufficient to conclude that he is being threatened. In those circumstances, he might hand over the money that the criminal sought to extract from him by menace. I have been unable to deal with that look-alike problem.
The Home Office gave the matter great consideration when it published a Green Paper several years ago. However, I freely confess, having discussed the matter in great detail, that it is not practicable in law to provide language to deal with the look-alike problem. At one stage I thought that it would be sufficient to make it unlawful to possess, import or manufacture any such objectionable device unless it was conspicuously dissimilar from the object it purported to resemble. I thought that at least intellectually that would go a long way towards meeting the problem. However, on advice, and after consideration, I came to the conclusion—with the benefit of advice from officials at the Home Office—that it would not be legally practicable to do that. Therefore, the Bill confines itself to the matter of convertibility.
I should like to give one or two assurances and explanations. When seeking the leave of the House to introduce the Bill—not on Second Reading, as I inadvertently said—I was anxious to give an assurance that it would not catch the toys, cowboy guns or water pistols that many of our children value and that we would not wish to deny them. It does not catch the genuine collector of antique firearms. A perfectly adequate defence has been provided for those who possess replica guns that might be convertible, but who did not know at the time of purchase that they could be converted. Clause 1(5) provides a perfectly satisfactory defence against any retrospection.
However, the gun trade has expressed anxiety. Its original reaction to the news that the House had given leave to introduce such a Bill was adverse. There were many aerated conversations between certain gunsmiths and myself. They believed that I was about to destroy their businesses. That has never been the intention. I am pleased 1073 to say that I have had useful discussions with gun trade representatives and with the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, a body which my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) and I would always wish to support.
I had visualised originally that some statutory code of practice should be introduced into the Bill to govern the technical aspects of convertibility. I concluded that it was not sensible to put in statutory guidelines, but I understand that it is the intention of the Home Office to draw up non-statutory guidelines comprising measures that could be taken to render an imitation firearm incapable of being readily converted. It must be right for the trade to know exactly what measures it should take—what additions or subtractions to a device it should provide—to ensure that it is not caught by this proposed legislation.
The guidelines are to be prepared by the Home Office in consultation with the trade and other interested parties. They will be designed to assist people to comply with this legislation. They will not be binding on a court, but it is difficult to imagine that a device that incorporates the suggested features within the non-statutory code that are designed to make the device inoperable as a firearm will be the subject of a prosecution.
The commencement provisions will allow the Home Secretary to bring this measure into force at such time as he thinks right. There will therefore be an ample period during which full discussion of the guidelines can take place with the trade. They will be capable of being revised from time to time to take account of any technological changes. I believe that this will go a long way to satisfying the trade's anxieties.
I had the opportunity only yesterday to speak to one of its representatives, who told me how much he had valued the interventions of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough. I was able to assure him that the period of consultation would be ample and that the Home Office would take fully into account the technical considerations. In any event, there is the opportunity in another place to pursue the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. I hope that with those assurances he will accept that the gun trade will not be put into an improper position.
Far from taking an entirely adverse view of the Bill, the legitimate trade has been extremely co-operative. Far from seeking to fight its own corner, it has recognised the need to meet the mischief that the Bill is intended to tackle and has co-operated well in seeking to do so. I congratulate it on its responsibility.
This is a small Bill that goes only a small step along the road towards more effective firearm controls. It has been made increasingly necessary by the events of this week in the House when the proposal that the capital sentence be brought back into our law was defeated by an overwhelming majority—one that must mean that for the rest of this Parliament the matter is behind us. In those circumstances, I have no doubt that the police service will be seeking more frequently to have firearms issued. Inevitably they will become more frequently used in dealing with criminals who appear to be armed.
It is a regrettable fact that firearms are now used more and more frequently in the commission of crime. Inevitably the police are brought up against criminal gunmen. In these circumstances, any step that can be taken to make it less easy for criminals to get their hands on 1074 devices, whether real or fake, that can be used to shoot others must be the right one. The Bill has been made more important by the decision of the House in respect of the capital sentence.
I cannot conclude without saying that the Bill would not have been possible without the ready support of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, who has helped to conduct our proceedings with dispatch. It would not have been possible either without the immense and diligent assistance of my hon. and learned Friend's officials, who have helped me at every stage. The Bill could not have been brought forward without their help.
§ Mr. John Farr (Harborough)
I join all those who have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) on having reached this advanced stage with a useful little Bill. I am sure that it will not be long before it passes from here to another place.
I was relieved to have my hon. Friend's assurances about consultation. A number of bodies associated with firearms, especially the trade, are slightly worried about the contents of the Bill and exactly how consultation will take place.
My hon. Friend said that, in consultation with the Home Office, when drafting his Bill he considered whether it would be right to have what I would call a committee of scrutiny to examine dubious firearms to ascertain whether they could be convertible and, if so, whether they should be made available for sale to the general public. I was interested in his remark that, after careful consideration with the Home Office, he came to the conclusion that a committee of scrutiny would not work.
A few years ago, when I was given leave to introduce my replica firearms Bill, there was a provision in clause 3 to set up a committee of scrutiny. I share my hon. Friend's opinion that such a committee would be difficult to work. In my Bill I laid down guidelines for the composition of the committee. It would have consisted of users of firearms, dealers, representatives of the Home Office, police representatives and certain others. They would have met from time to time, as necessary, to consider whether certain imitation firearms should be available for sale to the public. My Bill was not proceeded with and it met a fate which will not befall this Bill. Grave doubts were expressed by the Home Office and the then Home Secretary about the workability of a committee of scrutiny.
We must not enact Bills for the sake of enacting them and because they look good on paper. We must have something that works. I confess that the scrutiny committee which I proposed would have had a difficult task, although I would have liked to see the attempt made. We are now faced with my hon. Friend's Bill, which has reached an advanced stage.
Although it is a very satisfactory Bill in many respects, I believe that it will be difficult for some shopkeepers and dealers to operate it. It will make a dealer or shopkeeper liable to penalties imposed under the Firearms Act 1968. Many shopkeepers who sell imitation firearms run toyshops and are not specialist gun dealers. They cannot be expected to have a specialist knowledge and the Bill is not easy for the layman to understand. I hope that in addition to the guidelines that will be drawn up after 1075 consultation with the trade my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State will consider the introduction of a layman's leaflet, so that the ordinary shopkeeper can appreciate the pitfalls.
Parliament has properly been criticised for passing incomprehensible legislation. I am not suggesting that my hon. Friend's Bill is in that category, but it is difficult for the layman to understand. During the passage of the Bill I tabled a number of amendments, some of which were selected. I am glad to have my hon. Friend's assurance that guidelines will be issued after consultation with the trade and that they will be non-statutory, and that implementation of the Bill will not take place until a reasonable interval has elapsed after consultation. In view of the changing state of the replica market, I am glad that the guidelines will be reviewed and kept up to date.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. The non-specialist shopkeeper poses a problem, but I hope that my hon. Friend is not suggesting that the duty should lie upon the Home Office to send out broadcasts to every toy shop, because that would place an unreasonable burden on the public purse. Any shopkeeper who sells what is plainly recognisable as an imitation firearm has a reasonable duty to find out what the law is. I agree that when he makes that inquiry he should be given the simplest and clearest assistance. I am sure that he will be. I do not believe that someone who is in the business of selling imitation guns for profit should pass on to the Government the responsibility of providing him with all the details of the legislation that might affect him.
§ Mr. Farr
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree that it is not the duty of the Home Office to produce such leaflets of instruction. I point out, however, that there are many technical difficulties. The legality of an imitation may entirely depend upon the composition of the metal with which its critical parts are made. It is not an easy matter to understand. It may be clarified when the guidelines are discussed with representatives of the trade.
A number of the amendments related to consultations with the trade, but in view of the assurances that my hon. Friend has given I am sure that the trade will be more than satisfied.
In considering the Bill, the Firearms Act 1968 should also be taken into account. When my hon. and learned Friend replies to the debate, will he say something about the review of the working of that Act, which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced in 1980? There is a great deal of interest in how far the review has advanced. The House would like to know whether it is nearly completed and whether the conclusions will be debated.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting the feel of the House in introducing the Bill. Everyone was horrified by the incident in The Mall. I do not believe that the Bill will make much physical difference to any unfortunate repetition, but the trouble that we have taken will be more than worth while if it makes that possibility a little less likely.
The Bill refers to the Firearms Act 1968 and we must assume that the same level of penalties will apply, although the Bill does not specify which sections. As my hon. Friends are well aware, the 1968 Act lays down no fewer than 63 different forms of prosecution. I assume that it will relate to section 4(3), which provides for conversion as follows: 1076It is an offence for a person other than a registered firearms dealer to convert into a firearm anything which, though having the appearance of being a firearm, is so constructed as to be incapable of discharging any missile through its barrel.Prosecutions can range from the purely technical relating to the failure to renew a firearms certificate and other minor matters to serious offences. Section 4(1) relates to the shortening of the barrel of a shotgun, and section 16 to the possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life or cause serious injury to property. Section 19 makes it an offence to carry a loaded firearm in a public place, and section 20(1) deals with trespassing with a firearm in a building. Those are serious offences, the penalties for which are shown in the right-hand columns.
A scrutiny of successful prosecutions under the Firearms Act 1968 shows that the level of punishment is much lower than the maximum that Parliament laid down. I had the opportunity to use official channels in the House, which are now closed to me, to compare actual sentences with maximum sentences. It caused me considerable concern when I found that the level of sentencing was only about 7 to 8 par cent. of the maximum.
I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will consider whether Parliament can do anything to have a more vigorous interpretation of its wishes carried out by the courts. If my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary or my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State were to send out a reminder of the maximum penalty to magistrates clerks, to ensure that the judiciary were reminded of the wishes of Parliament, it would be of some help, because, from an analysis of statistics for 1973 to 1976, it is transparent that the wishes of Parliament have been ignored. That is an important point. Each of the 63 offences in the Firearms Act should be prosecuted with vigour. Existing law is adequate, but the courts have failed to implement the penalties that Parliament has laid down, which encourages firearms crime.
I wish my hon. Friend well with his Bill. I hope that it has a speedy passage and that it will soon be on the statute book. It will be generally welcomed throughout Britain.
§ 10.3 am
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)
I apologise to my hon. Friends the Members for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) and Harborough (Mr. Farr) for not having heard all of their speeches, but I had the good fortune to hear the start of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds on Third Reading last Friday.
I expressed some reservations about the Bill in last week's debate. Perhaps the most significant were that the Bill was unnecessary because the position was adequately governed by the judicial interpretation of the existing legislation—the Firearms Act 1968. Judges had in practice construed as firearms many of the imitation weapons that are referred to in the Bill. I made the further point that the curious and bizarre effect of the Bill, if passed, would be to reduce the scope of the weaponry to which the provisions of the Firearms Act 1968 apply, because the effect of clause 1(6) was to narrow the range of imitation firearms. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds and my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State objected to that suggestion. They said that I was wrong and that the point was largely without merit. I agree with them. I have considered the matter further and, on balance, the objections that they raised to my argument are 1077 correct. I was mistaken to believe that it would narrow the class of weaponry, and I withdraw the points that I made in opposition to the Bill on a previous occasion.
However, I have a further reservation. It does not go to the passage of the Bill, but I am sure that later we shall have consolidation legislation and the matter may be considered then. I have reservations about applying the entirety of firearms legislation to imitation weapons. The reason is that it is not easy, within the meaning of the Bill, to say what is an imitation weapon. There will be much judicial and factual argument before the courts as to whether an imitation firearm can be regarded as readily convertible within the context of clause 1(6). There will be much dispute in relation to individual weapons or class of weapons.
That point is of greater concern when one remembers that imitation firearms have been sold for many years. It is true that they have become increasingly sophisticated, but there are millions on the market. Much could be said for imposing a restriction at the point of sale or the point of acquisition and not on general possession of imitation firearms. That would cut the number of cases that can come before the courts. The mischief to which the Bill is directed, although not minor, is not substantial, and in time it can be met 'by imposing restrictions at the point of sale or acquisition. That would mean that the person who has acquired an imitation weapon in good faith need not contemplate prosecution.
I am sure that the police authorities will be sensible in the way that they enforce the Bill, but if it comes into law many millions of people who possess an imitation weapon that they purchased in good faith when it was not subject to legislation could, in some circumstances, be contravening the Firearms Act 1968. I question the wisdom of that both in terms of justice and expediency.
Although I do not wish to stand in the way of the Bill, perhaps my hon. and learned Friend could consider that, in a consolidation measure or a recasting of the existing legislation, he should confine the application of the Bill to the point of acquisition or point of sale, and not general possession.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
I have been listening carefully to everything that my hon. Friend has said. I appreciate his remarks. If the Bill becomes an Act, will it not bite most of all on manufacture, so that the problem will be prevented at that level? In clause 1(5), is there not a sufficient defence against retrospection?
§ Mr. Hogg
To the first question the answer is "Yes". The Bill will apply to manufacture. That may stop the future manufacture of objectionable weapons as contemplated by the Bill. To the second question the answer is "No". I do not believe that clause 1(5) deals with the question of retrospection because weapons that are now in existence and readily convertible within the meaning of the Bill will, if it becomes law, become unlawful, subject to the statutory defence. The fact that they were not unlawful when they were a aquired is not a defence. If in five years' time I possess an imitation firearm as defined by the Bill which I purchased 10 years ago and I possess it in circumstances that contravene the principal Act, I am committing an offence. I do not believe that clause 1(5) has the effect of protecting me simply because the weapon was not unlawful when I purchased it in the early 1970s.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
I always hesitate to disagree with my hon. Friend on matters of law. Clause 1(5) states:In any proceedings brought by virtue of this section for an offence under the 1968 Act involving an imitation firearm to which this Act applies, it shall be a defence for the accused to show that he did not know and had no reason to suspect that the imitation firearm was so constructed or adapted as to be readily convertible into a firearm to which section 1 of that Act applies.I should have thought that that was a sufficient protection.
§ Mr. Hogg
It is good of my hon. Friend to put it like that, but it is not a sufficient defence. The defence that would be sufficient would be to provide in statute that the provisions of the Bill, if enacted, should not apply to an imitation weapon acquired by the possessor before the Bill came into law. That would be an absolute defence if established.
Clause 1(5) provides a defence dependent on knowledge. It is true that the clause 1(5) defence will, in many cases, avail a person who acquired the weapon some time before the passage of the Bill into law. However, it does not automatically or necessarily do so. It is not an absolute defence. It raises the question of what lawyers call mens rea. It is a defence, but it is not an absolute defence. That is the distinction between my point and that of my hon. Friend.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) on bringing forward the Bill and on getting it to such an advanced stage of its passage through the House, which is by no means easy. Many hazards are met on the way. My hon. Friend has displayed all the skill and experience that we associate with him in this endeavour.
I was grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous remarks about the help that we have been able to give him in the Home Office, especially the help that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's officials have been able to give him. What he was kind enough to say today will be received with much appreciation in that quarter.
Particularly in the light of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), it might be helpful if I went over, not, I hope, in too great detail, the way in which the provisions of the Bill are addressed to the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds has described.
As my hon. Friend has explained, the Bill embraces imitation firearms which have the appearance of a firearm to which section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968 applies, and which are so constructed or adapted as to be readily convertible into a firearm to which that section applies. The Bill makes it clear that such imitations are subject to the same licensing controls as actual firearms.
In practice that means that, subject to any exemption under the 1968 Act, it would be an offence under section 1 of that Act for a person to have in his possession or to purchase or acquire such an imitation firearm without holding a firearms certificate in force at the time, or otherwise than as authorised by such a certificate. The House will be aware that firearm certificates are granted only to persons who meet the requirements of the 1968 Act. Applications have to be made to the chief officer of police for the area in which the applicant resides, and have to be made in the prescribed form stating such particulars as are required by the form.
1079 Under the firearms rules 1969, the form of application for the grant of a firearm certificate requires the applicant to give personal details as well as stating the reasons why he wants the firearm. Although we shall need to consider, in the period before the new legislation comes into effect, what changes might be required to the prescribed form to take account of applications for certificates for readily convertible imitation firearms, the information needed will be essentially the same. This is because, before granting a certificate, the chief officer is required by the Act to satisfy himself that the applicant has a good reason for having in his possession the firearm in respect of which the application is made, and can be permitted to have it in his possession without danger to the public safety or to the peace. Moreover, the Act provides that a firearm certificate shall not be granted to a person whom the chief officer has reason to believe to be prohibited by the Act from possessing a firearm.
In this context, persons who have been sentenced to preventive detention, or to imprisonment or to corrective training for three years or more, or who have been sentenced to be detained for such a term in a young offenders institution in Scotland, are prohibited from having a firearm in their possession at any time. Similarly, a person who has been sentenced to borstal training, corrective training for less than three years or to imprisonment for three months or more but less than three years, or who has been sentenced to be detained for such a term in a detention centre or in a young offenders institution in Scotland, is prohibited from possessing a firearm at any time before the expiration of five years from the date of his release. The Bill makes it clear that these prohibitions will apply equally to readily convertible imitations.
Returning to the certification provisions, the Act also provides that a firearm certificate shall not be granted to a person whom the chief officer of police has reason to believe to be of what are described as intemperate habits or unsound mind, or to be for any reason unfitted to be entrusted with such a firearm.
The Act provides for a firearm certificate to be in the form prescribed and to specify the conditions subject to which it is held. Under the firearms rules 1969, to which I have already referred, all firearm certificates are subject to certain prescribed conditions. These are that the holder must, on receipt of the certificate, sign it; the firearms and ammunition to which the certificate relates must at all times when not in actual use be kept in a secure place with a view to preventing access to them by unauthorised persons; the holder must inform at once the chief officer of police by whom the certificate was granted of the theft or loss in Great Britain of any firearm to which it relates; and the holder must, without undue delay, inform the chief officer of police by whom the certificate was granted of any change in his permanent address. In addition to the prescribed conditions, the chief officer may impose any other conditions which he considers to be appropriate.
I mention these perhaps somewhat detailed restrictions to draw to the attention of the House the very tight control that will be applied to readily convertible imitation weapons to which the Bill applies when the legislation takes effect. It is absolutely right that all the restrictions contained in the Fireams Act should apply to the readily convertible replicas to which the Bill applies.
I am sure that the House will agree that these provisions enable a close control to be maintained over the possession 1080 and use of firearms. Imitation firearms which are readily convertible will clearly be subject to the same controls. I must, however, tell the House that, in practice, we would not expect many certificates to be granted in respect of readily convertible imitation firearms. This is because it will be difficult for applicants to show that they have good reasons for possessing such imitations, rather than imitations which cannot be readily converted.
It is absolutely right, as my hon. Friend came to appreciate and accept, that an overall ban on replicas or a requirement for certification of all replicas and look-alike weaponry would catch hundreds of thousands if not millions of toys used by children in practically every household in the land. As he generously acknowledged today, therefore, he came to accept that that was impracticable and I am sure that that is right.
On the question of showing good cause why one wishes to have in one's possession a replica firearm which by not very extensive conversion can be turned into a weapon capable of discharging ammunition, it is not easy to see how many cases could arise in which such an application could meet the requirements of the legislation.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for saying that. Could he add to it by saying that it would be very difficult to understand the motive of a person who wished to have an imitation that could: be converted into a weapon?
§ Mr. Mayhew
I accept my hon. Friend's point, but one comes to learn that the variety of human motives and circumstances is almost infinite. It is therefore right that there should not be an absolute ban, as there may be circumstances in which it would be acceptable to a chief constable applying the criteria of the 1968 Act to license or certificate such an application.
The point must be made, however, that we take a very serious view of the possession of weapons or replicas that can by a not very extensive process be converted into weapons in the full sense of the word, capable of discharging ammunition. It is with knowledge and understanding of the very tight conditions imposed by the Bill that I am sure that the House will give it a Third Reading today.
It will be difficult for applicants to show that they have good reasons for possessing such imitations rather than imitations which cannot be readily converted. However, there may be cases involving collectors' items, where a particular imitation firearm falls within the scope of this Bill, but where the incorporation of features to render it incapable of ready conversion would not be appropriate. In any event, however, it will be for the chief officer of police to decide, in the light of the circumstances of each application which is made in respect of a readily convertible imitation firearm, whether a certificate should be granted.
If an application is refused, or the chief officer imposes conditions, other than those which are prescribed, which are not acceptable to the certificate holder, the rig ht of appeal which exists under the 1968 Act can be exercised in a case involving a readily convertible imitation firearm, in the same way as for an actual firearm. The Act provides for such appeals to be made to the Crown court in England and Wales, or to the sheriff court in Scotland.
Perhaps I should also say a few words about business transactions involving readily convertible imitation 1081 firearms. Under the Firearms Act 1968 a person commits an offence if, by way of trade or business, he manufactures, sells, transfers, or repairs any firearm or exposes for sale or transfer, or has in his possession for sale, transfer or repair, any firearm, without being registered under the Act as a firearms dealer. The Bill makes it clear that these requirements will also apply to such transactions involving readily convertible imitation firearms.
For the purposes of he Act, the chief officer of police for every area is required to keep in the prescribed form a register of firearms dealers. In order to be registered as a dealer, an applicant has to furnish certain particulars. The chief officer may refuse to register an applicant if he is satisfied that the applicant cannot be permitted to carry on business as a firearms dealer without danger to the public safety or to the peace. The chief officer may at any time impose conditions subject to which the registration of a person as a firearms dealer is to have effect. This enables the police to ensure, in particular, that the security provisions are adequate.
Imitation firearms which are not readily convertible to fire live ammunition will still be able to be sold by retailers who are not registered firearms dealers. To help the trade and manufacturing interests to comply with the law, the Government will be preparing guidelines of measures which can be applied to render an imitation firearm incapable of being readily converted. These guidelines will be drawn up in consultation with representatives of the gun trade and other interested parties. They will be made available before the legislation is brought into force by means of the commencement order provision.
Some people have suggested that the Bill should provide for a statutory code of practice on the question of convertibility. Hon. Members may like to know that this proposal has been given the most careful consideration, but it was concluded that it would not be right to seek to impinge upon the role of the courts in this area. In any event, it is difficult to imagine that a device which incorporated suggested features designed to render it incapable of being readily converted would become the subject of a prosecution.
I hope that this explanation has given some idea of how readily convertible imitation firearms can be incorporated into the existing system of controls with little difficulty. If the effect of the Bill is to prevent even one imitation firearm capable of being so converted from falling into the wrong hands and eventually being converted to fire live ammunition and be used for criminal purposes, my hon. Friend's efforts will have been more than justified.
I listened with interest to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham that, as there may be some injustice to people who already have in their possession weaponry that falls within provisions of the Bill, in subsequent consolidation legislation the Government should apply the provisions of the Bill to the point of sale rather than general possession. Although we shall naturally consider this, together with any other points that he makes, our first impression is that that would too greatly cut down the impact and ambit of the Bill. We believe that it is important that the Bill should apply to possession. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds was right to draw attention to clause 1(5), showing that the defence there provided is very wide, and 1082 it is probable that we shall confirm our view that the Bill as drafted is correct. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) asked whether we might consider issuing what he called a layman's leaflet on the provisions of the Bill. We would like to consider that. I hope, however, that the guidelines to which I have referred will go most of the way towards providing a sensible explanation of the Bill. But we shall bear my hon. Friend's suggestion in mind.
My hon. Friend also asked about the progress of the review that my right hon. Friend has been conducting. The outcome of his review will be discussed with the British Shooting Sports Council. My hon. Friend asked whether some indication could be given that the Government are looking for a more vigorous interpretation—I think that that was his phrase—by the courts of Parliament's intention regarding prosecutions for offences under the Firearms Act 1968.
I note my hon. Friend's view, which he has expressed previously, that sentences should be more stern for proven offences under the Act. But it is not the province of the Government, the Home Secretary or anyone else under our constitution and our arrangements to tell the courts how they should interpret the discretion given them by Acts of Parliament. Parliament lays down the maximum sentence that is available where an offence is committed. It controls to a greater or lesser degree the circumstances in which the discretion of the judiciary shall be exercised. But it is important, I believe, to hold to the separation of powers under our constitution. We must rely upon expressions of public opinion to bring about any changes that the public may wish to see in relation to these matters. I note my hon. Friend's view, but it is not for the Home Secretary to instruct the courts in their attitude towards each individual offence.
It is often not possible for the media to report in full all the circumstances that are before the court in any particular case. A misleading impression is sometimes given in a necessarily brief report of a criminal trial and sentence because it has not been possible for all the factors in the evidence that were before the court and that will have influenced the sentence to be included in the report.
The House will know from the reply that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave to a question before the Easter Recess that the Government have recently completed an exhaustive review of possible ways of tackling the misuse of imitation firearms of all kinds. We found a concern that has been expressed on this subject, but we have concluded reluctantly that there are no practicable steps that can be taken to bring all "look-alike" firearms under further control. But it is clearly right that those imitation firearms that could be readily converted to fire live ammunition should be subject to the same controls as actual firearms. That is why my hon. Friend's Bill has had the full support of the Government.
During the useful debate last Friday on amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough, concern was expressed about the adequacy for the purposes of this Bill of the definition of "imitation firearm" contained in the Firearms Act 1968. Doubts were also raised about the drafting of clause 1(6) of the Bill, which sets out the circumstances in which an imitation firearm should be regarded as readily convertible. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham is 1083 satisfied that the intitial response that I made to his suggestions last week and the response made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds are persuasive.
We do not at present believe that any change is necessary in the drafting of the Bill, but if, after further consideration, it is concluded that the Bill is unsatisfactory in any of these respects and can be amended, there will be an opportunity for amendments in the other place. We shall continue to give any advice to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds and his associates in the other place that we think may be helpful.
Following my right hon. Friend's announcement of the findings of the review to which I have referred, some have expressed disappointment over the rejection of a total ban on replica firearms. While we sympathise with the intentions of those who seek such a ban, it is doubtful whether they have been made fully aware of the implications of the suggestion. It may be helpful if I could restate the problems, although I have touched on them already.
There are already millions of toys in circulation and many of them are modelled on real firearms. It would therefore be impossible to exclude these in their existing form from a total ban of the kind which has been proposed. Measures to deal with conspicuous dissimilarity could easily be got round by a determined criminal. Even if the manufacture, sale and possession of all replicas including toys were to be outlawed, it would still be possible for criminals to fashion guns out of pieces of wood which, under the conditions of stress in which they might be used, would easily pass for the real thing. I hope therefore that the House will agree with the Government's conclusions on this aspect.
Another point which has recurred following my right hon. Friend's announcement is that it is foreseeable if not probable that a police officer who is confronted by an apparently armed criminal will shoot him on that supposition even though it eventually turns out that the weapon was an imitation incapable of being fired. Last week my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds reminded the House that such incidents have already occurred, and he particularly mentioned the shooting some years ago at India House.
The Government recognise that, but they certainly do not regard it as decisive of the issue. The law already 1084 recognises the gravity of carrying an imitation firearm for criminal purposes by providing the same maximum penalties for that offence as if the firearm was real. A criminal will only carry an imitation firearm on a criminal expedition if it is his intention to give the impression that it is the real thing. If he becomes the victim of his own deception, that, too, will be a consequence that he should have foreseen. It is not one that I believe that many people would regard as unjust.
I can perhaps also take this opportunity to comment on the argument advanced by some people, and repeated in the House last week by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham, that, in any event, it might not be a good idea to restrict the availability of replica firearms on the ground that, if criminals were to go armed, it would be preferable for them to carry replicas rather than real firearms. I appreciate the motives of those who subscribe to that point of view. However, it is important to remember that the criminal misuse of an imitation firearm is almost as odious as the criminal misuse of a real firearm, since it is intended to engender the fear of imminent murder. This is reflected in the penalties available to the courts.
I should like, in conclusion, to renew my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds. The Bill is the result of a most fruitful partnership between the experience of my hon. Friend, who represents the interests of the Police Federation in the House with such diligence and knowledge, and of his initiative in bringing forward the measure. Perhaps with the help of the technical experience and knowledge available to us through Home Office officials, the Bill is a fruitful example of the partnership that can exist under our procedures in the House. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend. I commend the Bill to the House and on behalf of the Government hope that it reaches the statute book as soon as possible.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)
I call the attention of the House to the inadvertant omission from the Order Paper of a Private Member's Bill—the Salmon Fisheries (Protection) (Scotland) Bill [Lords]—which should be item No. 15. I regret the omission and have had a revised Order Paper placed in the Vote Office.