I spoke during the debate around the Firearms Bill, see my full speech above.
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Bromwich West on this important Bill and thank the hon. Member for Clwyd South for presenting it and speaking on his behalf so eloquently.
It is frequently said that the UK has one of the toughest systems in the world for regulating the ownership of firearms. Members on both sides of the House will undoubtedly be thankful that that is the case but will also share the belief that we must never lose sight of the need to ensure that our laws and regulations remain fit for purpose. The licensing system currently in force dates back more than 50 years, having been established by the landmark Firearms Act 1968. While that groundbreaking law was a vital first step, we must never allow ourselves to fall into the trap of complacency. Despite the importance of the 1968 Act, it took the unspeakable tragedies of mass shootings in Hungerford and Dunblane to prompt further action to tighten up our laws in the 1980s and 1990s.
Today, the memories of five people—Maxine Davison, Stephen Washington, Kate Shepherd, Lee Martyn and Lee’s three-year-old daughter Sophie, who were shot dead in Plymouth in August 2021—cast a long shadow over this debate. We must not wait for another equally horrific event before we take the steps needed to bring the law up to date. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport for his passionate advocacy of measures to further restrict the ownership of dangerous weapons and to counter online radicalisation, and to the hon. Member for West Bromwich West for promoting the Bill.
The Bill’s intent is to:
“Make provision about the regulation of certain rifle ranges and shooting galleries; to make provision for an offence in relation to the possession of component parts of ammunition; and for connected purposes.”
I will take each point in turn. Clause 1 would make limited changes to the scope of provisions in the Firearms Act on the use of weapons at shooting ranges and galleries. It is not clear that the changes go far enough. For instance, the Government’s response to a consultation published last July announced plans to introduce a new requirement for operators of miniature rifle ranges to be issued with a firearms certificate. The response noted that that would require changes to primary legislation, but did not give a timescale. Perhaps the Minister could update the House on that point.
Clause 2 would introduce a new offence of possessing component parts of ammunition with intent to manufacture. That is an important step that reflects the widespread recognition that the law as it stands has not kept pace with changes in technology over recent years. Again, the changes do not appear to have gone as far as they could have. For instance, the offence created by clause 2 would apply to ownership of four primary components: bullets, cartridge cases, primers and propellants. Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether he is confident that even with those changes, the law would adequately reflect the application of recent technological developments such as 3D printing and other evolving technologies that make access to deadlier weapons significantly easier for those who seek them.
It is important to note that the new offence envisaged by clause 2 would require evidence of an intent to use components to manufacture ammunition. What can the Minister, or any hon. Member who supports the changes, tell us about the standard of proof that will apply when determining intent? How might attempts to evade detection be addressed as part of efforts to tackle such offences?
Finally, we should give consideration to the many important issues the Bill does not address. Do the Government plan to establish a new independent regulator for firearms licensing? Can we have an update on progress towards implementing the Government’s commitment to a national accredited training scheme for firearms enquiry officers? When will the new curriculum be introduced? What changes, if any, do the Government plan to make to the licensing process at national level? Will changes be made to the application fees for firearms certifications, which are currently £70 and £80, in order to more accurately reflect the actual cost of processing the applications, which can exceed £500? What steps will be taken to address the apparent surge in the number of temporary permits, which, according to recent reports, is a direct consequence of backlogs in the system, in order to fully ensure that weapons do not get into the wrong hands?
Finally, how will wider policy challenges, such as the urgent need for more effective action to tackle online radicalisation, be addressed in the weeks ahead? Will the Minister consider changes to the Online Safety Bill to strengthen the law in that area? All too often in the past, loopholes and weaknesses in our firearms laws were not addressed until it was too late. If there is one thing that Members of all political persuasions can agree on, it is that gun violence must be eradicated. I look forward to hearing more detail on the Government’s plans to achieve that objective.