HC Deb 14 March 1996 vol 273 cc1107-16 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth)

It is with profound sadness that I have to report on the tragic event that took place at Dunblane, which is in my constituency, yesterday. Hon. Members will understand the deep shock and distress afflicting the people of Dunblane, and our first thoughts must be with the families of those who were killed and injured. Our deepest sympathies go out to them at this terrible time.

The House will appreciate that police inquiries into the matter are continuing; therefore, I shall confine my remarks to the facts surrounding the incident, so far as they have been established.

At approximately 9.15 am yesterday, an armed man, identified by the police as Thomas Hamilton, entered Dunblane primary school and opened fire on children and staff who were in the school gymnasium. Fifteen of the children who were shot and their teacher died within the school. One child died later in hospital. Three adults and 12 other children were wounded. The gunman shot himself and died within the school.

As soon as I was informed of this dreadful event, accompanied by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), I went to Dunblane, where we were joined by my hon. Friend the Scottish Education Minister, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson). What we witnessed there encompassed both the worst and the best of which humanity is capable. In contrast to the stark evil of the crime, doctors, teachers, police, ambulance personnel and other caring professions, Church leaders and volunteers worked unsparingly to save life and console the bereaved.

In particular, I want to pay the highest possible tribute to Mr. Ron Taylor, headmaster of Dunblane primary school, for his heroic efforts to save the lives of his dying pupils in circumstances too harrowing to be recounted in detail. Hon. Members will wish to join me also in a tribute to Mrs. Gwen Mayor, the dedicated teacher who was gunned down in the midst of her charges. Mrs. Mayor was an exceptionally gifted teacher, who had given 10 years' service to the school, and our heartfelt sympathy goes out to her husband Rodney and their two daughters.

I would also like to extend the sympathy of the House to Aileen Harild, the PE teacher, and to the teaching assistants, Mary Blake and Gwen Tweddle, who were all injured. Our teachers carry the immeasurable responsibility of moulding the character of the next generation. In this tragic case, a teacher lost her life in the course of fulfilling that responsibility.

I would also like to pay tribute to the chief constable of central Scotland, William Wilson, and his officers, to the procurator fiscal at Stirling, and to the medical teams supervised by Dr. Jack Beattie, as well as the staff in the hospitals at Stirling, Falkirk and Yorkhill, who carried out their duties superbly in the most distressing circumstances. All the public services involved deserve the praise of the House, and our recognition of the trauma that will continue to live with them.

The Lord Advocate and I believe that this terrible tragedy should be thoroughly and fully investigated. We believe that it is desirable and necessary that an inquiry should be undertaken by a Senator of the College of Justice—a senior Scottish judge. Lord Cullen, who conducted the public inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster, has agreed to undertake that responsibility. The Lord Advocate plans to meet him and the Lord President of the Court of Session tomorrow to discuss the procedures that the inquiry should follow.

Her Majesty the Queen yesterday sent her condolences to all those affected by this unspeakable deed. The Queen and the Princess Royal have both expressed a wish to visit Dunblane as soon as circumstances make that appropriate, and I can tell the House that they will be going there on Monday.

Hon. Members will share my sense of the inadequacy of any attempt we make in this House to offer consolation to the families devastated by this vile crime. The cold-blooded slaughter of tiny children is beyond atrocity. I know that I speak for the whole House when I say to the stricken families of Dunblane: "Our deepest sympathy and our prayers are with you and for you. You have the support of countless people around the world in your grief."

Tomorrow night, the people of Dunblane will be holding a vigil for their dead, their injured and their bereaved. I know that I speak for the whole House when I say that the prayers and thoughts of all hon. Members will be with them. The whole nation mourns.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement, and for his consideration and kindness in inviting me to join him in Dunblane yesterday. I agree with every word that the right hon. Gentleman said. I warmly welcome the fact that Her Majesty the Queen will visit the town next Monday.

There will not be a single person in this country who would not have wakened this morning hoping beyond hope that yesterday was just a bad dream; so there will be nobody today who will not experience huge sadness and dismay on realising that it did all happen.

One does not need to have lived in the town of Dunblane or to have seen three children go through Dunblane primary school to share the grief, horror and sheer desolation that our town feels today—one just has to be a fellow human being. It was that worst of all possible nightmares that any parent can think of—and for it to happen to so many of the littlest and most innocent makes the tragedy one of unspeakable misery.

I have to say that Dunblane today is worse than yesterday in its mourning, and tomorrow will probably be worse still, as the enormity of the massacre comes home in the shape of real children gone, real families afflicted, and a whole community scarred and tortured.

I join the Secretary of State's tributes to headmaster Ron Taylor, whose composure and self-control—which we witnessed yesterday—in the face of the most traumatic events was an inspiration. To act with speed and calmness as tiny pupils die in one's arms cannot be described as ordinary professionalism—it was heroism. The staff of the school also deserve great praise and thanks. We deeply mourn Gwen Mayor, the truly dedicated teacher who died with her charges in the gymnasium.

The Secretary and I met, spoke to and thanked—and I do so again—members of the emergency services, police, ambulance staff and medical teams from a supremely dedicated health service, who acted with superlative dedication and skill, even when their own emotions were tested to the limit. We must be so grateful for the caring services of the local councils, Church leaders and members of the whole community, who poured in to help.

Naturally, there are questions to be asked—with the nation, let alone the local community, needing answers. The worst service that we can do to the infant victims is to rush to instant judgment. Therefore, I strongly welcome the decision to appoint a High Court judge of the calibre of Lord Cullen to investigate all the circumstances of yesterday.

Those of us who met and distrusted Thomas Hamilton—I argued with him in my own home—in truth could have had no inkling to guide us to his final act of wantonness. Of course, we expect a thorough examination of and any necessary action on the present gun laws, which enabled such a man to own such a lethal armoury. School security, too, will need looking at, but we should not pretend to ourselves that even a fortress would have kept an armed, crazed, suicidal killer at bay. That is not for today.

Today, the nation stands beside and with a community devastated by a unique and terrible act of evil. We here, and all of us who would root out the sickness that spawns such an awful act, stand together in mourning and sympathy with those whose loss today is beyond repair.

Mr. Forsyth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the inquiry to be headed by Lord Cullen. I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's comments about Thomas Hamilton. I, too, had some contact with him, as his constituency Member of Parliament, and I agree that there could have been no inkling that he would be capable of such a terrible act.

I entirely endorse the hon. Gentleman's point about not rushing to judgment, and of course he is right to highlight questions such as gun law and the security of schools, which will need to be considered in the context of the findings of the inquiry. I will ensure that the Lord Advocate does everything possible to ensure that the inquiry is conducted speedily, so that those matters can be quickly laid to rest.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

The whole House shares the grief of the people of Dunblane at this horrible massacre. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Dumfries and Galloway regional council has considerable expertise in counselling and support, following the Lockerbie air disaster, and is very anxious to help in any way if it can?

Will my right hon. Friend accept that I am glad that he has set up an inquiry by Lord Cullen? I hope that it reports as soon as possible, so that action can be taken subsequently.

Mr. Forsyth

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for the offer of assistance, May I use this opportunity to thank all the local authorities which offered help and support, including Strathclyde, which provided tremendous support through the police, and the many authorities which have offered expert support with counselling, which has been taken up by the community? I will certainly try to ensure that my right hon. Friend's request is met.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

The Secretary of State will be aware of my long association with the district in which the community of Dunblane lies. When I spoke to my friends in Dunblane about attempting to make a statement here, they said, "How can one put into words the silent scream that went through the community of Dunblane yesterday?" Like the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), I have often shared in the joys of that dynamic community in the past. I am certain that I speak for everyone in the House when I say that we attempt to reach out to the people of Dunblane to offer to share some of the burden that has now been laid upon them.

In particular, I ask the House to send our condolences to families who have lost children and grandchildren, to the family and colleagues of the teacher who was murdered yesterday, and to the community which, as one of my friends from Dunblane said, has had the heart and soul torn from it in this terrible and violent tragedy.

I have been in constant contact with my friends and former colleagues in Dunblane yesterday and today, and they are already deeply touched by the messages sent by many people from all round the country, including those in Aberfan who have faxed messages to them.

Will the Secretary of State pass on to the Prime Minister the community's thanks that he will visit the town tomorrow, in a non-political, all-party manner, to carry the wishes of the House to them for a speedy recovery from this terrible tragedy?

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman and I are sparring partners of old, but today we are united in our grief. I am sure that the people of Dunblane will appreciate his words today. In the Scottish Office, we have received telegrams and messages from all over the world. This is a tragedy that has struck a chord with parents everywhere, and the hon. Gentleman's remarks will be much appreciated by the people of Dunblane.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)

Will my right hon. Friend accept the great concern and good wishes of my constituents, from whom, over the past 24 hours, I have taken a number of calls? One of them, Mrs. Ray of Ayr, has asked me to suggest to the House that we stand for one minute's silence. Whether that is possible under the rules of the House, I am not sure; if not, perhaps what the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) suggested might be considered at a later date.

Mr. Forsyth

I am sure that all of us will find our own ways of recognising this tragedy—some in prayer, some by keeping silences, some by contemplating what has happened. I believe that the message from this House could not be clearer to the people of this country: we all share the grief that the parents who have lost children in Dunblane feel, and in their grieving we stand as one with them.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

The moving expressions of tribute by the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) could not be bettered. They have spoken for the whole House, and I will not elaborate on them. I merely hope that what cannot be said will itself speak volumes. Many of us cannot put into words what we actually feel.

I welcome the appointment of such a distinguished judge as Lord Cullen. Can the Secretary of State confirm that his inquiry will have a wider remit than a fatal accident inquiry would? Obviously, we want the investigation to be as thorough as possible. Will it be possible to commence the inquiry in the not too distant future?

The Secretary of State has said that anything we say will be inadequate, but will he relay to his constituents on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends and of the people of the United Kingdom the thought that, although our words may be inadequate, we shall give the people of Dunblane what we can in terms of our love, support and prayers?

Mr. Forsyth

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's last sentiment. The hon. Gentleman is a lawyer, and as such he has the advantage of me, but he will know that, under Scots law, there has to be a fatal accident inquiry, usually led by the sheriff in the area concerned. The Lord Advocate and I felt that the circumstances surrounding this tragedy were so serious that it was right to have a senior and distinguished judge of Lord Cullen's rank to carry out the inquiry. We were extremely grateful to him for agreeing to do it so promptly.

If the House will permit me to, I should like to make a further statement on how the inquiry will be carried out once the Lord Advocate has had an opportunity to discuss with Lord Cullen his views on the matter, which are an important aspect of any consideration.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

Great grief is never great at talking; it is not words, but tears and a sob and a heartbreak. This House has today reflected that more than I have ever seen in the many years I have sat in it. When I heard about the tragedy, I thought of the text of scripture that says: Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted … because they were not. Today I think of those who weep for their children and cannot be comforted because they are not. That text comes from Old Testament prophecy and it holds out a great hope.

Over against the wickedness of this crime I hear the words of the Saviour, who said: Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the Kingdom of God. I trust that that faith and that hope will cast a beautiful rainbow over this terrible valley of tears.

I would associate the people of Northern Ireland in sympathy with the people of Dunblane. We have walked our valleys; we too have known the anguish; we too have felt the pain. Deep today calls unto deep from Northern Ireland to those who sorrow in Scotland.

Mr. Forsyth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. If there is one hope for the future, it lies in the nature of the community of Dunblane. It is a strong, God-fearing community, well served by voluntary organisations. I am sure that they will rally round to meet this tragedy; but nothing we can say or do, or they can do in Dunblane, can remove what was done yesterday. I hope that there will never be another day when this House has to contemplate such an act.

Sir James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

As one who had the privilege of visiting Dunblane only a few months ago, may I associate my hon. Friends with what has been said already? As the Prime Minister rightly said, at such a time words can be extremely inadequate. But we would all want the grieving families and all who have suffered to know that they will be very much in our thoughts and prayers in the coming days and weeks.

Mr. Forsyth

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Hamilton and I found that we could not find adequate words. We could only show solidarity with the community by being there and showing the people that we felt for them, as the hon. Gentleman and the House have done this afternoon.

Mr. Allan Stewart (Eastwood)

My right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) have told the House that it and the country have united in horror and grief at what happened. On a practical point, is my right hon. Friend able to assure the House that he will tell us as soon as possible what the approximate timetable will be for the welcome inquiry by Lord Cullen?

Mr. Forsyth

Yes, I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. I am sure that he will understand that it is necessary for us to consult Lord Cullen before being in a position to do what my hon. Friend asks.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

May I convey the deep sorrow of the Scottish all-party children's group for the families and people of Dunblane? It is not that long since all the parties in this place co-operated in legislating for children in Scotland. The group very much welcomes the Secretary of State's promptness in instigating an inquiry, and Lord Cullen's acceptance of the task. I can only say now that I am sure that we shall all co-operate in any necessary future legislation or action that seems to be helpful following any of Lord Cullen's recommendations.

Mr. Forsyth

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I am aware of the interest that she takes in matters involving children's policy. I must say that it is hard to think of legislation that we could pass that would in its implementation act against the sort of irrational act of madness which we saw carried out yesterday.

Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

I have three young daughters of primary school age, and my heart goes out to those who have been devastated by what happened yesterday. The Secretary of State will probably not be aware that that man Thomas Hamilton was running a youth club for primary children in Bishopbriggs in my constituency. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State were to ensure that Lord Cullen's inquiry will examine Hamilton's activities in my constituency.

Mr. Forsyth

I am sure that all Members, including me, will want to make available to the inquiry any information they have. I am sure that the proper place or stage at which these matters should he examined is during Lord Cullen's inquiry. I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing the matter to my attention.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Although my constituency is a long way away from Dunblane, the loss of my 12-year-old daughter 15 years ago makes me feel extremely close. May I ask my right hon. Friend to convey yet another message to his bereaved constituents? It is simply this: "Although you will feel utterly alone, you are not. All of us who have been through a similar hell are willing you on and praying for you. There is hope—really, there is. Although, as the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) said, it will go on getting worse every day and you, the people of Dunblane, will never get over it, please believe me that it really is just possible to rebuild a life of some sort."

Mr. Forsyth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those words of comfort, which are based on his own tragic experience. The Leader of the Opposition said that every family with children must have had such thoughts last night; such thoughts went through my mind. I am sure that my hon. Friend's experience will provide some comfort. It is difficult for people with children to imagine what it must be like to have to cope with the loss of a child.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)

May I ask the Secretary of State to convey our heartfelt condolences to the people of Dunblane; their sorrow is shared by all of us. Will he, please, thank the emergency services, teachers, police and the health and other organisations for the outstanding work they have done? I welcome the inquiry, and I ask that it also examines the general issues of gun legislation and school security. I hope that the inquiry will be able to get to the truth of the matter. I thank the Secretary of State personally for the way in which he has conveyed the feelings of the House to the people in his constituency.

Mr. Forsyth

Clearly, it will be a matter for Lord Cullen to decide which issues he will want to examine in the context of this incident, but I am sure that the points made by the hon. Gentleman about the rules governing gun control and the issue of school security will feature among them. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has pointed out, those matters are kept under constant review, and the Firearms Consultative Committee, which has been established for that purpose, has said today that it will want to take full account of any issues arising from the inquiry, and any recommendations following from it.

I do not wish in any way to pre-empt any of the inquiry's conclusions, but, having been to the school yesterday, I think that it is very hard to see how it would have been possible to have security around the school that would have prevented a man armed with four guns from being able to carry out that terrible deed, which we now know he did.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

Will the Secretary of State convey to the people of Dunblane the sincere condolences of the people in Dundee? Some years ago, an armed gunman broke into St. John's high school in my constituency, and Mrs. Nanette Hanson, a teacher there, lost her life protecting her pupils. So—in a small way compared with the horrifying scale of what happened yesterday in Dunblane—the people of Dundee have experienced the actions of a deranged gunman. In that experience, we are with the people of Dunblane in their hour of sorrow.

Mr. Forsyth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The loss of a teacher's life yesterday in protecting the children in her charge, as in the case of the hon. Gentleman's constituent, perhaps underlines very graphically the debt we owe to the teaching profession, which serves us so well throughout the United Kingdom.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

May I tell the Secretary of State that some of my constituents have told me that this is a moment for commiseration and deep condolences for the families in Dunblane; hence, my constituents appreciate the decision to postpone tomorrow's meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee. May I tell him how much I welcome his promise of a statement to the House on the terms of reference of Lord Cullen's inquiry? Will he give serious thought to the idea of giving a statement to the next meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee on the licensing of firearms, and the criteria by which they are issued?

Mr. Forsyth

I said that I would inform the House. I am not sure whether it is necessary to make a statement to the House about the terms, but I shall certainly be happy to discuss that matter with the hon. Gentleman.

As for making a statement to the next Scottish Grand Committee on the issue of firearms, it might be more appropriate to allow the inquiry to get under way—I hope that it will be conducted speedily. Once we have the inquiry's conclusions, we will be in a position to decide what, if any, action should be taken. I think that the hon. Member for Hamilton's words—that we should not rush too quickly to judgment at this time, of all times—are very wise, and I am sure that all hon. Members will think them worthy of being heeded.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

May I thank the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) for speaking so sympathetically and eloquently for all of us in the House and in Scotland? I add my voice to those of my colleagues and others who would welcome Lord Cullen examining the question of firearms and their use. If he is not to do so, we would welcome some other examination of the issue.

There have been a number of other incidents and, although they were not as serious and tragic as this one, firearms are a cause for concern. I hope that the Secretary of State will include their use in the terms of reference of Lord Cullen's inquiry, or give rapid further consideration to how the law can be changed. I know that this incident might not have been prevented, but it might make similar situations less likely in future.

Mr. Forsyth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The Firearms Consultative Committee keeps the legislation under review. I shall certainly ensure that the hon. Gentleman's comments are drawn to its attention. As I said, it has said that it will wish to examine such matters in the light of the inquiry's findings, but I shall certainly make sure that the committee is aware of what the hon. Gentleman has just said.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

As the Member of Parliament representing a neighbouring constituency, may I join in the expression of sympathy for the parents, relatives and friends of the victims of this horrific massacre? As a former teacher in Central region, may I also pay tribute to the heroism of the class teacher, Mrs. Gwen Mayor, and the head teacher, Mr. Ron Taylor?

Without prejudging the findings of Lord Cullen's inquiry, could the Secretary of State please tell the House at this stage whether the perpetrator of this evil crime did in fact have a firearms certificate? If so, will he ensure that Lord Cullen's inquiry will be a full investigation of how on earth an infamous character such as Thomas Hamilton could apparently obtain a firearms certificate that apparently enabled him to carry four lethal handguns and how, according to some reports, he was apparently running a gun club at some stage?

Mr. Forsyth

I confirm that it is my understanding that Mr. Hamilton had a firearms licence for the weapons concerned. It is also my understanding that he had no criminal convictions, and that he had had licences for many years. The hon. Gentleman began his question by asking me not to prejudge the findings of Lord Cullen's inquiry; he will therefore forgive me if I do not draw conclusions, which I felt that he was beginning to do.

Lord Cullen was responsible for the inquiry following the Piper Alpha disaster, and I think it is common ground that he did a thorough and excellent job in inquiring into the circumstances of that disaster and making recommendations. I am sure that the same skills and abilities will be deployed in considering all the issues that concern the hon. Gentleman. I think that we would do well to wait until he has produced his findings before reaching any conclusions.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

I think that we should come to a close. But I believe that we have not heard from anyone representing Wales.

Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)

The reason I waited until the end was that I thought Scottish Members and others should have preference. Some of the constituencies of Wales were directly involved with the disaster at Aberfan, so perhaps we can share even more closely the feelings that have been expressed this afternoon.

Given our experience with parents who suffered the loss of their children, and in view of the remarks expressed this afternoon about the reaction of parents, might I ask the Government to ensure that there is adequate finance for counselling, because many people in the area will need a great deal? I plead with the Government to ensure that ready money is available immediately, so that counselling can start straight away.

The experience that the Government could gain from people who were or who still are involved in counselling in Aberfan could give the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State a great deal of assistance in helping the grieving parents.

Mr. Forsyth

Not just the parents, but the children in the school as well, who will have been traumatised by this experience.

Of course resources will be made available. Yesterday, when the hon. Member for Hamilton and I were in Dunblane, we had an opportunity to discuss these matters with the local authorities and others. They have been overwhelmed by offers of support and help, and of course we shall ensure that the resources are available for that.

All the evidence is that the counselling has already begun, and people are doing everything they can to lend help and support. But, if I may say so, I think that it is a mistake to believe that counselling can wipe things away or undo the harm that has been done. It is an important prop. It is an aid. When we visited the school yesterday, people were already very much involved in that.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his offer of Celtic support from Wales. We Scots and the Welsh have much in common and the hon. Gentleman's words will be very much appreciated in Scotland.

Madam Speaker

I wish to call one more hon. Member. Mr. Martyn Jones.

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South-West)

As a lay member of the Firearms Consultative Committee, which by pure chance met this morning, I wish to convey its great concern over this incredibly evil act. We have heard so many hon. Members in the Chamber expressing views that, in truth, are inexpressible.

I am pleased, as I know is the Firearms Consultative Committee, that a full inquiry is being instituted. If there is any chance that something has gone wrong in administration, or if the committee could suggest further legislation, will Government time be given for that at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Forsyth

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I cannot commit legislation without having a specific proposal, and without the support and agreement of my right hon. Friends. But what I can say is that the committee is there in order to keep the firearms legislation under review, and I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I would consider carefully any proposals that are put forward in the light of consideration of the circumstances and any recommendations which might come from the inquiry.