Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown welcomes Government climbdown on proposed .50-calibre rifle ban

28th November 2018

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown welcomes the Government’s decision to remove proposals to ban .50-calibre weapons from the Offensive Weapons Bill and calls for a proper evidence-based consultation as to whether these weapons do or do not form a danger to the public.

I am very grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, to catch your eye in this debate on this important Bill, which contains necessary provisions on the use of corrosive substances and on knives. I think the whole House would applaud that. What the Government should be doing, as I will demonstrate in the few words that I have to say, is acting on the basis of real evidence.

As the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) said, this is the third time that the Government have listed for debate this Bill’s remaining stages. For me, as the lead signatory to amendments trying to remove .50 calibre weapons from the Bill, this is third time lucky. After extensive negotiations with the Government, I persuaded them that there was, as I will demonstrate, no real evidence to ban these weapons, and that they should remove them from the Bill and have a proper evidence-based consultation as to whether these weapons do or do not form a danger to the public.

My hon. Friend may have seen that I sought to intervene on the shadow Minister on this earlier. He may wish to confirm that it is also the case that there are legitimate reasons for wishing to possess these weapons.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. Of course, those who possess these weapons use them for entirely peaceful purposes. They are some of the most law-abiding people in this country. To ban these weapons on the basis of, as I will demonstrate, very little evidence, if any, is a completely illiberal thing for a Conservative, or indeed any, Government to do.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary very much indeed for reviewing the evidence on these rifles. He listened to everything that I and other colleagues had to say. My amendments attracted no fewer than 75 signatures from across the House. I thank every single one of my colleagues who signed them. I particularly thank and pay tribute to the Democratic Unionist party of Northern Ireland, all of whose Members signed them.

There is very little evidence for banning these weapons. The press seemed somehow to think that my amendments were all about Brexit and assumed that all those who had supported them did so to achieve Brexit. Nothing could be further from the truth. We were genuinely—I speak as chairman of the all-party shooting and conservation group—trying to do the right thing by a group of citizens who, as I indicated to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), are some of the most law-abiding in the country.

I just want to put it on the record that I support shooting and I supported getting rid of this clause, and I do not support Brexit.

Indeed. There will be lots of other colleagues who signed the amendments who are also of the remainer class. I do not agree with them, but I am nevertheless grateful to them for supporting my amendments.

Since the Bill was published, I have become aware that shooting associations have been concerned that the advice received by Ministers was not based on the facts but on a misrepresentation of target shooting. The consultation in advance of the Bill described .50 calibre single-shot target rifles as “materiel destruction” weapons. Nothing could be further from the truth. Civilian target rifles fire inert ammunition at paper targets. Only the military possess materiel destruction weapons that fire explosive and armour piercing rounds—all illegal in this country for civilian use.

Much of the evidence given to the Public Bill Committee continued on this theme. These target rifles were described by those who advised the Government as “extreme” and “military”, and inaccuracy, exaggeration and misrepresentation were given full play to support the ban. Much of this was refuted by the shooting organisations. They pointed out that the National Ballistics Intelligence Service was mistaken in declaring that the effective range of these .50 calibre rifles is 6,800 metres. The actual effective range is much less than a third of this.

I want to go on to the National Crime Agency’s letter, which the Government seem to place such reliance on and which was placed in the Library of this House.

The hon. Gentleman may well be coming on to this, but I thank him for giving way. I wonder what evidence he wants if evidence from one of the most senior counter-terrorist police officers in our country is not good enough for him. I wonder why he feels that he maybe knows more about these weapons than they do.

I greatly respect the hon. Lady, and if she will just be a little patient, I will give her exactly what she is asking me for.

The National Crime Agency wrote to the Home Secretary and the letter was circulated to MPs and placed in the Library. It was signed by Steve Rodhouse, the director general of operations at the National Crime Agency. The argument he used, essentially, is that these very powerful rifles might do serious damage. But the same could be said of most commonly used sporting rifles. Indeed, the most commonly used deer rifle in the UK is a .308 that could, and does, do lethal damage. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) pointed out, that is what it is designed to do. It is designed to kill vermin against which it is licensed to be used.

In the letter, Mr Rodhouse uses the words “military” and “extreme”. Nearly all calibres of commonly used civilian rifles originated as military rounds. He also quotes the MOD requirement for immobilising a truck at 1,800 metres. What he does not say is the round used, as I have said, is a high-explosive, incendiary and armour-piercing projectile. That is illegal for civilian use in the UK, where these rifles are used for punching holes in paper targets. It is as illogical to say that a civilian .50 calibre rifle should be banned because the Army uses it to fire at trucks as it would be to ban a .308 deer rifle because the Army uses the same calibre to fire at men. Equally, the residual strike of a .50 calibre bullet and the strike of a .308 bullet are both going to achieve the same end.

With regard to security, which was the basis of my original amendments, and to which I urged the Government to pay very close attention in their consultation, every firearms dealer in this country has to adhere to a level 3 security requirement, and the chief police officer of every police force that licenses every firearms dealer has to be satisfied that those requirements are in place. Some firearms dealers carry weapons that are far more lethal than a .50 calibre weapon because they store them on behalf of the Army. I would suggest that level 3 security would have prevented at least one of these crimes because there would have been the necessary security involved to do that.

I have been very upset to hear the nature of this debate, because the worst thing for any police officer must be to knock on someone’s front door to tell them that their loved one is a victim of crime. This is not a moment to play party politics at all. All guns are dangerous; all guns are for killing. These things are lethal; they require proper protections. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: what we all want to do is to make it as difficult as possible for these accidents to happen, and a ban is not the right way to achieve that.

Can I just say to Sir Geoffrey that hopefully he will recognise that we have six more Members and the Minister to get in?

I am grateful for your advice, Mr Deputy Speaker, but it is important, in view of what the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) had to say, that I refute some of the facts that have been put about.

The figures for stolen firearms should be put into context, which Mr Rodhouse does not do. There are 2 million firearms in civilian hands. Up to July this year, only 204—I accept that that is 204 too many—had been stolen, and the vast majority were shotguns, not rifles. Only 1% of non-airgun firearms crime is committed with rifles, and none of those has ever been from a .50 calibre legal weapon.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley might be interested to know that Mr Rodhouse did not give the whole story regarding the case of the stolen .50 calibre weapon. The police dealing with the theft considered it opportunistic and that the .50 calibre was stolen with other firearms and not specifically targeted—[Interruption.] She should just listen for a minute. The .50 calibre was rapidly abandoned, and there is a suggestion that the police were told where to find it. All this points at the criminals finding the .50 calibre unsuitable for their purposes, and one can understand why—a single-shot rifle, requiring hand-loaded ammunition, weighing 30 lb and around 5 feet long, is very difficult to carry, let alone use in a criminal or terrorist incident.

The second case mentioned is the Surdar case. The whole point is that Surdar did not sell his legally held .50 calibre rifle to criminals; they did not want it. In the first case, level 3 security would have prevented a crime, and in the second case, it was a dealer who was not entirely above board.

Mr Rodhouse goes on to talk about the threat of illegal importations. That will not be cured by banning legally held guns. How many .50 calibre weapons have been seized as illegal imports? The answer is none. It is true that most UK firearms law is the product of outrage in the wake of atrocities such as Dunblane or Hungerford. At least legislators in those cases were seeking to improve the law with clear evidence. Mr Rodhouse, on the other hand, is seeking to persuade Parliament to change the law in relation to .50 calibre weapons without any significant evidence whatsoever.

The Government’s original proposal was not supported by the evidence. We in this House have a duty to protect minorities and to ensure that we do not act illiberally by banning things when there is no evidence. I submit that the Government have done the right thing in withdrawing these weapons from the Bill and are right to have a properly evidence-based consultation, to which all experts, including the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, can give evidence. If, at the end of it, the Government conclude that there is an issue of public safety, we will need to debate that further in the House. I rest my case.

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