HC Deb 18 November 1996 vol 285 cc714-31

16. In this Order— allotted day" means any day (other than a Friday) on which the Bill is put down as first Government Order of the Day, provided that a Motion for allotting time to the proceedings on the Bill to be taken on that day either has been agreed on a previous day, or is set down for consideration on that day; Resolution of the Business Sub-Committee" means a Resolution of the Business Sub-Committee as agreed to by the Standing Committee; the Bill" means the Firearms (Amendment) Bill; Resolution of the Business Committee" means a Resolution of the Business Committee as agreed to by the House.

The Bill takes forward the Government's response to the dreadful events that took place eight months ago at Dunblane primary school. Last week, the House gave a Second Reading to the Bill. Later today, we will begin the detailed debate here on the Floor of the House of the first five clauses, concerning the banning of high-calibre handguns.

It is the duty of this House to give the highest priority to those matters that directly affect the safety and protection of the public. If ever there was such a matter, it is this Bill. Because of the importance of its subject matter, the House has agreed that its first five clauses should be considered by a Committee of the whole House. The allocation of time order allows two days for this, and provides that the proceedings shall be brought to a conclusion at 10 o'clock on the second day.

Hon. Members from all parties have an interest in these provisions, and the order that we are discussing allows a very full debate on them. The order allows six hours in total for the debates on clause 1. That is a substantial amount of time, and I am confident that it will enable hon. Members on both sides of the House to make their points effectively.

Within that period, the order allows three hours for discussion on any amendments which may be selected and which would leave out the words "a small calibre pistol" at line 16 of page 1 of the Bill. Such an amendment—in the name of a number of hon. Members—has been tabled, and is supported by Opposition Front Benchers.

If that amendment were accepted, it would amend the Bill so as to introduce an almost complete ban on handguns of all calibers, rather than confining the ban to handguns above .22 inch calibre, as the Government propose. This is an important matter. It is the central issue of the disagreement between the Government and Opposition Front Benchers, and it is right that it should be fully debated on the Floor of the House. We believe that it is right that a substantial time should be allowed for that part of the debate.

The order would thereafter allow one hour for any further amendments on clause 1, and an hour for the debate on the question as to whether the Clause should stand part of the Bill. The order goes on to propose that the Standing Committee considering the Bill should report the Bill not later than 28 November, or 29 November in the event that proceedings in Standing Committee continue on 28 November after the House has adjourned.

The order provides for the proceedings on Report to be completed in one day and brought to a conclusion at midnight. It similarly provides that the proceedings on Third Reading shall be completed in one day and brought to a conclusion after three hours. The Government believe that the order will provide the opportunity for a full and detailed scrutiny of this legislation, while ensuring that it is dealt with with the urgency that this important subject requires.

4.27 pm
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Between March 1974 and April 1979, 12 Bills were subject to guillotine motions, and I believe that each one was opposed by the then Conservative Opposition. Between May 1979 and the end of 1995, 59 Bills have been subject to guillotine motions, and each one, I believe, has been opposed by the Labour Opposition.

Last Tuesday, the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling)—who I am sorry is not in his place—stood up, admirably, for Back-Benchers' rights, and he was entirely correct to do so. Some of us remember that, between 1979 and 1983, the right hon. Gentleman was the Patronage Secretary and Chief Whip to the Government. During that period, he ensured the passage of 13 guillotine motions—one more than during the entire period of the previous Labour Government.

This motion is, as it were, the exception to the rule—for we support it. We gave clear undertakings that we would facilitate the passage through Parliament of firearms legislation, and we believe that this motion is necessary to ensure that the measure reaches the statute book by Christmas, or soon thereafter. If there is a Division, my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself will vote with the Government in the Aye Lobby. That vote, if it takes place, will be a whipped vote, not least because we think it essential that the House reaches a conclusion today on the key issue of a total or partial ban on handguns.

As far as the official Opposition are concerned, however, all the divisions on the merits of gun control will be free votes. I have listened with great care to Ministers trying to explain why a free vote on caning is justified, while a free vote on gun control is not. I must tell the Home Secretary and the Minister of State that the more I hear their arguments, the less I think of them. This is an issue that should be informed not by party belief or ideology but by the conscience and judgment of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The only serious argument for the Government's decision to impose a whipped vote is the one that they cannot deploy in public—they know that on a free vote a clear majority would be in favour of a total ban on the use of handguns. By insisting on a whipped vote, the Government display remarkably little confidence in their own arguments. We want to get the timetable motion through as quickly as possible, so that, whatever happens in the Lobbies tonight, the public will be able to see who has in practice won the argument about the case for a total ban.

During the brief debate on the money resolution, some Conservative Members charged that today's debates were taking place in haste.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

They are.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman says that they are, but we would not have agreed to a timetable motion in these unusual circumstances, in which the Opposition have co-operated with the Government in tabling the motion, if we thought that the matter were being dealt with in haste. The parents of Dunblane and the public could rightly criticise the House, not for dealing with the issue in haste, but for dealing with it too slowly. The atrocity in Dunblane took place on 13 March 1996. Lord Cullen's inquiry was established on 21 March 1996 and sat for 26 days from 29 May until 10 July, giving full consideration to a great many of the issues before the House.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

We are not implementing Cullen.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman is right. As has been pointed out in previous debates, Lord Cullen said in the body of his report that he was making recommendations that should be considered by the House, and that it was exclusively for the Government and Parliament to decide what gun controls should be introduced. It was never suggested that the House would delegate its clear responsibilities for determining the laws of the land to an inquiry under Lord Cullen or any other distinguished or learned gentleman.

Sir Jim Spicer (West Dorset)

My recollection of the debate and discussion that took place when Lord Cullen was invited to set up the inquiry is that there was general agreement on both sides of the House that no one would move until the inquiry had reported. Somewhere along the line, someone—the Opposition parties in particular—lost sight of that agreement, and came out with a decision in advance of the proposals.

Mr. Straw

I dealt with that point at some length in the debate last Tuesday. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and I put our evidence to Lord Cullen as a result of our discussions with the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Home Secretary. We gave our evidence saying, for example, that there should be a total ban on handguns. We made that absolutely clear, but we also said that we would reserve our final judgment until we had seen the results of Lord Cullen's inquiry, which is exactly what we did.

The fact that such advice was not followed by the six Conservative Members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs remains a matter of the deepest regret to my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself. As the minutes made clear, they had before them a resolution moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)—a member of that Committee—to the effect that the Committee should not produce a report until after Lord Cullen had produced his report. I am sorry to say that, for their own reasons, the six Conservative members of the Select Committee decided to produce the report prematurely; partly as a result, a huge outcry arose against the recommendations, and the existing support for a total ban was increased.

Lord Cullen's inquiry reported to the Secretary of State for Scotland on 30 September. Since then, the report's recommendations and the issue of a total ban have been the subject of discussion in the House on three occasions—two statements on the inquiry on 16 October, the debate on the Loyal Address on 28 October and the debate on Second Reading on 7 November—and now there is today's debate. It could therefore not possibly be argued that the House has proceeded in haste on the issue.

Sometimes parallels are drawn, in a form of special pleading as to why the Government should not come to a conclusion, with the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Anyone who was in the House when that legislation was—it is true—pushed forward in panic, will know that there is no parallel whatever with the process of decision making that led to that Act and the process that led to the Bill and the alternative propositions that we are discussing today. The Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced in haste, without a proper inquiry, and we have all lived to rue the day.

Mr. Budgen

And with a guillotine.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West says, "And with unity." The one thing that is guaranteed, not least by his presence, is that there will not be unity on the issue, and there is no suggestion that there should be.

We are completely unapologetic for our support for the guillotine. We believe that, eight months after the atrocity in Dunblane on 13 March, we owe it to the victims and their relatives and friends to bring to a conclusion the crucial issue of whether there should be a total or a partial ban on handguns. If we do that this evening, it will not be a second too soon.

4.36 pm
Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

The whole House knows that this guillotine is bad and even disgraceful. The proper use of the guillotine occurs when there have been excessive speeches or filibustering and when the sense of the House is that the legitimate opposition to a measure has gone too far and has ceased to have any support from outside; we then reluctantly proceed to curtail the debate.

This is the worst sort of guillotine, because it is an agreed guillotine; the House runs the risk of banding together as some form of lynch mob, taking away without proper consideration the rights of a significant and honourable minority.

When hon. Members say that we must act for the sake of the parents of Dunblane, I am reminded of our discussions about capital punishment; all of us who are opposed to capital punishment have had from time to time to deal with people whose relatives have been killed and who say, with great force, "Oh, but if only we'd had capital punishment, my daughter's murderer would have been deterred."

On such occasions, our duty as legislators is to say, "Well, I'm sure you believe that, but as a matter of fact we don't think that the evidence about deterrence is as strong as you suggest." In the same way, we as a House are surely entitled to say to the parents of Dunblane, "We understand your feelings; we share your grief; but we wonder whether the solution that you put forward is going to have the effect that you so much hope for."

It is important, as we talk about doing something for the parents of Dunblane, to remember one central fact: 96 per cent. of the crimes committed with firearms are committed with unlicensed weapons, upon which the Bill will have no effect whatever.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

The logic of my hon. Friend's argument worries me. We will not stop trying to get rid of illegal weapons while we are getting rid of legal ones. The two go hand in hand. Crack cocaine is available only illegally; does he suggest that we should make that lawful?

Mr. Budgen

That is entirely different. My point is that this legislation is directed towards the 4 per cent. of offences that are committed with legally held handguns. We are proposing expensive, cumbersome legislation, which is said to be demanded by the Dunblane parents—

Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)

How will a guillotine motion prevent anyone from making such points?

Mr. Budgen

Hon. Members always believe that the whole nation must have been listening to our excellent speeches, especially if it is their own speech, and that it has heard the arguments. That is not so. Most people outside the House are uninterested in the great issues.

Mr. Garrett

How does the guillotine affect that?

Mr. Budgen

I shall explain. It is by repetition, by argument and by demonstrating that there are people who hold a contrary view with as much force as those who hold the other view that we begin to understand that, in our grief or anger, we may be mistaken. The legislation tries to reduce the 4 per cent. of crimes that are committed by people with legally held handguns. It is reasonable to carry out our survey of the matter slowly, not least because of the money.

Money is important. Somewhere, no doubt, a gentleman aged 85 with a defective heart will be visiting his general practitioner's surgery to ask for a heart transplant. He may have with him five relatives who also demand it for him. The doctor will have to tell the old man, politely and diplomatically, that the cost of a heart transplant is not justified for a man of 85. It will be difficult, but it is one of the jobs that a GP has sometimes to discharge. It is not unreasonable for the House sometimes to have to tell people such as the Dunblane parents that, while we understand their anguish, we wonder whether their proposal would have the excellent effect that they want it to have. The money is important, because everyone knows that the House feels uncomfortable about the legislation. That view is not held only by Conservative Members but by many Opposition Members who have in their urban areas patriotic people who have been encouraged by successive Governments to have gun clubs. They have regarded them as being like the Territorial Army.

Those people are suddenly being regarded as bad citizens—dangerous people or awful nutters, who might do something such as Thomas Hamilton did. They resent that. What is our collective will going to be? Unless we go slowly and try to restore our sense of balance, and that of the country, we will say, "Okay, we have done these people a frightful injustice, but let's throw a lot of taxpayers' money at it."

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The hon. Gentleman mentions the taxpayers' money. What does he think the volume of compensation that will be asked for is likely to be? I have heard the figure of £1.2 billion being thrown around. That may seem staggering, but, given the antique value of many of the guns, it is perhaps not an exaggeration. The Home Secretary was reluctant to name a figure, which I can understand. What is the hon. Gentleman's figure?

Mr. Budgen

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. I asked in the House some time ago how much the compensation would be. I had a document from one of the shooting organisations that put the figure at between £500 million and £1 billion. The hon. Gentleman will remember that the original money resolution suggested that the cost would be between £on and £n. The money resolution has now been widened enormously.

One has only to listen to this debate for five minutes to discover hon. Members who find that it is not convenient to tell the parents of Dunblane that what they want will not achieve their legitimate objectives; that it is uncomfortable and unpleasant to have to tell them that we disagree; and who therefore say, "Let's throw a bit of public money at this." I am not averse to throwing public money about in small quantities, but this case will involve very large quantities.

Paragraph 2(b) of the amended money resolution refers to any other loss which may be incurred as a result of that Act". That could easily be £ion; it could easily be more. Before we consider whether that is a sensible way to reduce the 4 per cent. of crimes that are committed with licensed weapons, we should ask how £million might be used elsewhere.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Not under this guillotine motion.

Mr. Budgen

These are all points that can be raised during the course of these agreed proceedings, which will be rushed through with the agreement of the House and of the Front-Bench spokesmen, and, most of all, with the Opposition abandoning their traditional role of ensuring proper debate.

In the unlikely event of there being a Labour Government after next May, the Opposition will find themselves in an extraordinary position. Labour has said that there will be no extra money for the national health service and not much extra for education. It is anxious to be the party of fierce controls on public expenditure, so that there is no risk that it might be accused of intending to stick up taxation on smart people from Islington or people who earn a hundred grand a year at the Bar, and so that the middle class can be reassured.

However, the Opposition are conniving at something that may cost £500 million. The Government have agreed to give £500 million extra funding to the health service to stave off crisis; £500 million on £64 billion is quite a bit of money. We will end up with an enormous bill for this legislation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, you might say that this is wide of the mark, but it is not. We need to discuss the Bill slowly, so that, when Ministers or the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner) are asked why Wolverhampton hospital cannot have another maternity unit, they can say that it is because we have allocated the money to reduce, possibly, the 4 per cent. incidence of firearms crimes that are committed with licensed guns. That is why we need to debate the issue slowly.

On this occasion, the Opposition have joined the lynch mob. They have abandoned their traditional role of ensuring proper debate and proper discussion. That is a disgrace. There is no doubt that there is nothing more tyrannical than an agreed House of Commons.

When my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary next has a row with the courts or finds that the House of Lords is cutting up rough with him, and we wonder in a detached way why it is that we have, as a nation, allowed ourselves to be subject to the indignity of the supervisory control of the European convention on human rights—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is experienced beyond belief on the European convention on human rights, but I do not believe that it has much to do with the guillotine.

Mr. Budgen

No, with the greatest respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is extremely relevant to the consideration of this agreed guillotine. Why is it that the British nation is prepared to deny the sovereignty of our Parliament? It is because, from time to time, our Parliament acts as a lynch mob. That is what we are doing today. Why is it that the courts are eroding our sovereignty? Why is it that the doctrine of judicial review has been so extended? It is because lawyers and judges say that Government after Government have eroded the power of the House of Commons, and with it the rights and dignities of those who send us to this place.

We deny ourselves our most important duty if we do not give this legislation the careful scrutiny that it certainly demands.

4.51 pm
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Unlike the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen), I believe that the House of Commons is carrying out its rightful duty, and I hope that it will come to a rightful conclusion at the end of our debate. I have no disagreement with those hon. Members who are opposed to the legislation and who obviously do not want the guillotine motion to be carried. Their opposition is a perfectly legitimate parliamentary weapon, because if one is not in favour of the principles of certain legislation, one is not likely to be in favour of the guillotine.

Those hon. Members, mainly on the Conservative Benches, who do not want to see a ban on handguns, be it according to the Government's proposals or what we would propose, will oppose the motion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said, they will act as I have done on most occasions, when I opposed guillotine motions for the simple reason that I opposed the relevant Government legislation.

I do not believe that the House is acting in haste—if anything, my criticism is that we have acted too slowly. I did not want an inquiry to be held after the terrible massacre of 16 children and their teacher on 13 March. I believed that the Government had a duty to act immediately after the tragedy at Dunblane.

That inquiry took place, and now, eight months and five days after one of the greatest tragedies to occur in our country—the deliberate killing of 16 young children and their teacher—the House of Commons is at long last debating the relevant legislation. I therefore cannot accept for one moment that we are legislating in haste, or that our approach is too hurried. I believe that we have a duty and a responsibility as the House of Commons to deal with a problem that should have been dealt with by legislation after the massacre at Hungerford in 1987.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West made much of compensation, and almost seemed to make a joking matter of the amount of money that might be paid out. I ask the House, what about compensation for those parents who lost their children and the husband and family of the teacher who was killed at Dunblane? It is not a matter of money. I accept that compensation might be paid to the gun owners, but, at the end of the clay, the question for the House is what action we can take to try to prevent another Dunblane.

Of course I must accept that, should the Government's proposals be accepted, or should a total ban on handguns be agreed, as I would like, there is no guarantee that another Dunblane will not occur, any more than there was a guarantee that another Hungerford would not take place. But I believe that there is less chance of such a tragedy occurring again if the desired legislation is passed. That legislation should be passed as quickly as possible, especially after all the delay that has already occurred.

The Government believe that a ban on 80 per cent. of handguns is sufficient, but I do not agree. If one is going to legislate, why not go the full hog? Why not take action along the lines that most people in the country want? Let there be no doubt that most people want a total ban on handguns, as shown in survey after survey. That is why I believe that action is necessary, and why the guillotine is quite justified.

Certain people are campaigning in favour of handguns. I can understand the anxiety of those who have been involved in a perfectly legitimate sporting activity. Shooting does not happen to be a hobby of mine, and I imagine that it is not a hobby for most of my right hon. and hon. Friends, but I accept that, up to now, it has been a perfectly legitimate one and within the law.

I certainly have no sympathy, however, with the smears that have been made, even of the parents who lost their children. I have referred to those tactics during previous Home Office questions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) quoted them today. How can those Conservative Members who support the views of the gun lobby possibly not find those tactics as offensive as I do? I believe that they do.

Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

The British Shooting Sports Council, which has briefed me and my hon. Friends, has absolutely nothing to do with the organisation that has recently sprung up, and for reasons that I do not understand. I am perfectly happy to dissociate the shooters who are represented by Conservative Members from that organisation.

I must tell the hon. Gentleman, however, that the law-abiding shooting fraternity, to which he has just referred, has been subject to a co-ordinated press campaign that has reviled the motives of those who enjoy shooting, as though there was something evil in the very possession of a gun. I hope that he will have some sympathy for the disquiet and injustice felt by law-abiding people who go about their law-abiding business.

Mr. Winnick

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says. I have never been involved in any smear campaign against those who have practised a legitimate sporting activity, but the massacre at Hungerford in 1987 changed my mind about guns. I confess that I had not thought a ban necessary before that. If I must indulge in some self-criticism, perhaps I should have been more active in asking questions then, although I am sure that it would not have resulted in anything along the lines that I would have liked. I did not continue the campaign that many of us started for all handguns to be banned. If we had done so, perhaps we could now speak with a clearer conscience.

I have to say that, while I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman said in disassociating himself and those of his hon. Friends who share his views from the sort of smear attack that I mentioned, those attacks were nevertheless deeply offensive—especially those directed against the very people who lost their loved ones on 13 March. The debate will be much better if such smears and innuendoes are avoided.

After the guillotine motion is out of the way, I hope that my hon. Friends' amendment will be carried; even if it is not, however, we shall at least have made some substantial progress. Banning 80 per cent. of handguns is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. It will be welcomed in the country, even though there is an overwhelming majority, which extends far beyond Scotland, for a total ban on handguns. That is why it is so necessary that the legislation is debated and the House of Commons reaches a conclusion as quickly as possible.

5.1 pm

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)

I am—stemporarily, I hope—ambivalent about the motion. I am certain that the time allocated to debate the money resolution, which finished at about 4.30 pm, was inadequate to provide opportunities to debate the compensation aspect of the Bill. I hope that I shall be able to stay in order by telling my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary that there is a possible conundrum relating to compensation that might be so difficult for the clever chaps at the Home Office to work out that we will need to use all the time allocated for consideration of the Bill to understand it. That is why I shall make brief reference to the compensation problem that I would have raised, had there been time during the debate on the money resolution.

The problem relates to a firm in my constituency run by Mr. Tim Hannam, which is an important manufacturer and retailer of small arms and weapons. Among other things, it acts as a storage facility for the local police forces in West and North Yorkshire. It is also a manufacturing firm that is engaged in export, retail, wholesale and imports and it has a turnover of about £1.2 million a year.

One of the firm's problems is that it suffers from a substantial debtors' liability: bad debts have begun to accumulate because debts to the firm are chiefly owed by the sorts of gun shops and ranges that specialise in handguns, and their cash flow has suddenly seized up as a result of the Dunblane disaster and the Bill. My constituent's business therefore faces a growing volume of bad debts.

My point for the Home Secretary—one that I might have to make over an extended period, although I hope that that will not be necessary—sis that, in considering amendments to the money resolution or to clause 11, I hope that he will be sensitive to the fact that bad debts become a liability in need of compensation for companies with a big turnover, such as my constituent's. Does the compensation have to be paid to the businesses that owe money to my constituent, which debts my constituent then has to claim from them, or does the fact of the bad debt on my constituent's annual accounts itself justify his being—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but it seems to me that he is straying into areas where he should not stray. We are considering the timetable motion and he must relate his remarks more closely to that.

Mr. Alison

I feared precisely that rebuke, Madam Deputy Speaker, which is why I was trying to tell my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary that the conundrum of whether compensation for debts will be given directly to the firm that is owed the bad debt or to the business that owes the debt is the sort that could be debated interminably. That is why I am raising the matter in connection with the timetable motion. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will recognise that that feature will require considerable consideration when we debate clause I, and that he will allow me to put my concern on the record at this point in the proceedings.

5.5 pm

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

Like the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), my memory of guillotine debates goes back only to 1979. I am not sure whether I have even spoken in one—I have certainly never spoken in favour of a guillotine motion, nor have I voted in favour of one, as I shall do this evening.

There is always some dubiety about whether guillotines are desirable. Speaking as one who has opposed legislation in Committee, I know that there is always the danger that, under a guillotine, one will have to give up time on matters on which one would like to speak and that Opposition Members will end up having surrendered to the Government the only weapon available to them—the weapon of time—because people filibuster too long on the early parts of a Bill. In some respects, this guillotine is perhaps too generous in some respects, but we have a fair amount of time to consider clause 1, which is the significant part of the Bill.

In response to remarks about panicking and rushing, it must be admitted that there was perhaps a degree of panic after 13 March, but it cannot be said that there was a sense of rushing following Hungerford, which occurred some 10 years ago. It is clear that, had we done our job better in the 1980s and had we been bold and effective enough in our consideration of licensing procedures, we might not have had to debate this Bill today.

It is rich for the opposition to the guillotine to take refuge in their opposition to judicial review. If we look at the sad story of Deputy Chief Constable McMurdo, we find that one of his major concerns was that any appeal or attempt at some form of judicial review would have failed. I speak as a Member of Parliament whose constituency is covered by Central Scotland police and who knows Douglas McMurdo. I feel that he has been made a scapegoat, because he worked within a structure that was not adequate to the requirements of the time.

The Bill is not only about guns but about the licensing of those who hold guns.

Mr. David Mellor (Putney)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Neill

Let me take my speech a little further and then I shall give way.

The Bill is about the licensing procedures for the holding of guns. Current legislation is defective and requires our attention.

Mr. Mellor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to raise a matter that has puzzled me. Although it was undoubtedly right for Mr. McMurdo to do what he did, why did the matter stop there? Why has the justice of the peace, who, according to Lord Cullen, barely knew Thomas Hamilton, apparently escaped any blame and not felt the necessity to resign from any post?

Mr. O'Neill

I think that the justice of the peace considered that his position differed somewhat from Mr. McMurdo's. There are often occasions on which we, as Members of Parliament, are asked to sign pieces of paper—for example, for people who want passports or documents witnessed—and we do so on the basis that the individual concerned is a constituent with whom we have a nodding acquaintance. We do not always know such people as well as perhaps we should.

That was not the case with Mr. McMurdo, who knew about Hamilton and did not feel confident that the law would back him if he chose to refuse the licence. One can consider that issue, as we shall do in Committee. I hope that the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) will be able to take time from his broadcasting duties to participate in the Committee and discuss the subject at length. We got it wrong after Hungerford and we now have a chance to make some reparation. I speak unashamedly about the Dunblane connection; a matter of days after the tragedy, the woman who launched the Snowdrop campaign, came to my office asking me how to organise a petition. I said that she should ensure that the words were correct, as Parliament would refuse the petition if they were not, and we got it sorted out. We thought that the petition might attract 5,000 or 10,000 signatures; in the event, it attracted three quarters of a million signatures. It was a simple expression of the country's feeling. People say that it was emotional and that it was done in the heat of the moment, but even in June and July, after the petition had been presented, copies were still being signed. There is still a feeling in the country that something has to be done.

The gun lobby says that, in the main, its members are law-abiding citizens—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I fear that the hon. Gentleman is falling into the same trap as the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison). He must relate his remarks to the allocation of time, not the issues, important though they are.

Mr. O'Neill

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I accepted an intervention and was diverted from my course. I accept that speed is of the essence.

Great emphasis has been placed on the international sporting dimension. Future competitors in the Commonwealth games in New Zealand in 1998 are beginning their rigorous and lengthy preparations. The House would not be fair to the sport if it did not make the position crystal clear on opportunities for training and preparation—the individuals involved have to make the correct arrangements. 1 have heard that the measure may stymie competitive handgun shooting—if so, it is a risk that we must take.

Speed is of the essence; we have delayed for too long. It is important that we sort out the arrangements, in relation not just to the type of guns, but—I stress the importance of time in this context—to licensing. As we speak, the police are having to process licences under what we now consider to be defective arrangements. It is essential that we ensure that the police are able to do their job, that sportsmen understand the limitations that the legislation will impose on their activities, that the level of compensation is understood and that people can make the appropriate security arrangements. Those matters must be dealt with urgently, which is why the Opposition are prepared to support the guillotine motion and why there has been a fair degree of consensus nationally that something must be done.

Although the measures do not go as far as the Opposition would have liked, we recognise that the Government are offering us the opportunity to correct something that we should have got right after Hungerford—it is now more than 10 years later and we cannot delay any longer. I therefore support the guillotine motion.

5.13 pm
Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

I find myself in a dilemma over the motion, as I have consistently voted in favour of guillotine motions. I feel strongly that guillotine motions should be passed automatically as, in my experience, the guillotine process often results in endless wasted hours on both sides of the House in debating clause 1, followed by far too rapid consideration of the Bill's details. I once promoted a guillotine motion on a private Member's Bill, which was unusual.

The Firearms (Amendment) Bill has been introduced in haste. The Firearms Consultative Committee, which was established under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 to give expert advice to the Home Office, was not consulted until after the Bill had been published—a negation of the intention behind establishing that committee. There has been no time for consultation with the various interests as represented by the British Shooting Sports Council, of which I have declared my interest as a vice-chairman and former chairman.

I am sad that it is necessary to produce such complex legislation. Even today, we shall learn of the intricacies of the firearms laws, which I fully confess I shall never fully understand. It is better to introduce such measures in consultation with experts, and I am sorry that we will not do so on this occasion. Under the timetable motion, we shall, however, give full consideration to clause 1 today and to other clauses tomorrow. The Bill's Standing Committee stage will be rapid, and I prefer to begin to discuss the matters that concern us.

We are having today's debate because the Government, doubtless with the connivance of the usual channels—I cannot believe that the motion would have appeared on the Order Paper without such connivance—tabled a new sort of guillotine motion. That motion had escaped the eagle gaze of my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). I am sure that he would prefer to be here today, but he is abroad on NATO business on behalf of the nation and the House. He spotted that the new procedure was to be nodded through and felt that we should not adopt such rules without a proper debate. He therefore, correctly, shouted, "Object," which is why we are now discussing a full guillotine motion.

I am torn between my defence of the opposition to the Bill and my desire to see it properly debated—I would certainly not wish to oppose the motion. My message to those on the Front Benches is not to try that trick again. Other hon. Members should beware when those on both Front Benches connive, as it is usually to the nation's disadvantage.

5.16 pm
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I can understand why the legislation is now before the House. After the searing, desperate, mind-numbing events of Dunblane, anyone would feel that something should be done urgently and that a solution was vital. But the legislation is no solution: it will not stop a future Hamilton. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) said, the vast majority of crimes carried out with firearms involve firearms that the measure will not ban or illegally held firearms. A potential Thomas Hamilton will continue to acquire weapons—the difference is that, in future, he will acquire them illegally and without the knowledge of—or giving notice to—the authorities.

In my limited experience, there are two circumstances in which the House is asked to introduce a guillotine: either there has been a manifesto commitment on a measure that is supremely controversial in the House and the Opposition seek to overturn the will of the people as expressed in an election; or the Government are embarrassed. I have never known a Government to be as embarrassed over a measure that they have introduced in the House as this Government are over the Bill.

There are 321 Conservative Members of Parliament. Last week, 215 Conservative Members of Parliament voted for the Bill's Second Reading, which means that 106 Conservative Members voted against Second Reading, abstained or were paired—that would have been a small minority. There was a three-line Whip on a measure that the Government said was urgent and had to be dealt with quickly. In my 17 years in the House, I have not known a rebellion of such strength in the Government party—and the vast majority of Conservatives going through the Lobby on this supremely un-Conservative measure went through holding their political noses.

This is rushed legislation, and if one rushes legislation one is in grave danger of introducing mistaken legislation. This is mistaken legislation. As far as the House is concerned, we are here because we are here because we are here. What should we do? Delay is the enemy of bad legislation, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the only way to delay this legislation is to vote against the guillotine.

I should like to say to my hon. Friends who are Conservatives that we have heard from the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) that, in all his time in Parliament, this uniquely is the only time that the Opposition have sought to support a guillotine motion. Surely that should give them some cause for thought. Those of my right hon. Friends and hon. Friends who support this Government, this wise Government—in most circumstances, quite rightly—should give them the opportunity to think again, to withdraw this legislation, to go out to consultation, to introduce proper legislation, properly digested, that may well achieve some of the ambitions and objectives that the Government seek to achieve through this measure.

We are all privileged to be members of this House, members of this legislature of the United Kingdom. We should be very jealous in our regard as to what this legislature does. We should not pass bad legislation, and the first thing we can do is to block this guillotine and block this measure.

We may or may not do that, but what we do in this House is reflected in the other place, and if we start the struggle on behalf of the Government, on behalf of the House, on behalf of Parliament, against bad legislation, I can assure the House that the other place will follow our example.

5.21 pm
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I will not detain the House for more than a minute or two, because I am conscious that it wants to get on to the substance of the debate.

I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) a distrust of guillotines that have cross-party support. I believe them to be deeply damaging to parliamentary democracy, and I see a very big difference between an opposed guillotine and an unopposed guillotine. I am very nervous of the principle of what we are about to do.

I should far rather have dealt with the main business without a guillotine, waited to see whether there was a filibuster and dealt with it as and when it happened, because I do not believe that there would have been one, and it would have been a better sign to the country that we could dispose of the business without having to use these procedures.

I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West that there is more than one way of responding positively to the bereaved parents. As I said on Second Reading, I believe that backing Lord Cullen and his proposals is the right way to proceed. But—and it is a big but—drawing on my experience as a bereaved parent, I believe that taking a speedy final decision one way or the other will be part of the healing process, even if that decision is not the one that the parents want.

I hope very much, therefore, that I shall not damage the reputation of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) when I say that I agree with what he said. He was right when he said, "Let's take a decision tonight." I wish only that it was without a guillotine, especially one that has the Labour party's support.

5.23 pm
Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

I shall be extremely brief.

I am of the school of people who believe that guillotines are usually satisfactory for Bills and debates because they ensure greater focus, and on this occasion I believe that the time that is being made available for us is reasonably generous, but I wish to speak because I hope that, under the provisions of the timetable, we shall have the opportunity to debate one or two very important side issues that crucially affect the livelihoods of many people.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), I wanted to raise my point on the money resolution, but there was not time for many hon. Members to speak on that. I hope that there will be time to discuss the largest civilian shooting range in the United Kingdom—Wedgnock range at Warwick. Hon. Members probably suppose that the largest shooting range is Bisley, but that is a forces range.

I hope that time will be available during our proceedings, although perhaps not today or tomorrow, to take into account the fact that there is a real danger that that range will have to close because it is extremely reliant on small arms usage by clubs, individuals and organisations. It is part of this country's shooting heritage. It is used by the police and other people. I am advised that there is a very real danger that, once the Bill becomes law, it will go out of existence. I hope that I can leave that point with Ministers.

5.25 pm
Mr. Straw

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish to make some closing remarks.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) said that there was nothing more tyrannical than an agreed House of Commons, as though that were something that happened almost every day. Whatever other accusation may be made against the Secretary of State, the one that he is a pushover when it comes to agreeing with the Opposition is not one that lies against him—or, I suggest to him, the reverse. I do not believe that there is anything tyrannical about a House of Commons agreeing on an issue on which it is agreed. The public expect us to agree about a measure such as this. I am glad that there is a substantial measure of agreement between the parties on the need to bring the Bill before the House today and resolve some of its principal parts, and on the need for there to be much increased control of guns, even if there is disagreement about the extent of that control.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West made what I considered to be a very intemperate and misplaced remark, comparing the House of Commons to a lynch mob. There may be occasions when that type of metaphor could appropriately be used, but I do not believe that such language is acceptable in a serious debate on gun control in the wake of the terrible circumstances of 13 March.

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

Some Conservative Members spoke about delaying tactics. We should emphasise the fact that this is a matter of considerable urgency. I remind my hon. Friend that when the Dublin Parliament, the Dail, enacted the Firearms Act 1971 in response to the increasing troubles in the Six Counties, it did so with similar urgency. That Firearms Act is not altogether unlike the Bill before us.

Mr. Straw

I know that to be true. In the south of Ireland there remains a substantial problem of illegal firearms, but the Dail enacted legislation on legal firearms very swiftly, and no compensation was paid. There was a total ban on all handguns.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West asserted that the European convention on human rights challenged our sovereignty. We, as a Parliament, voluntarily agreed to sign the European convention on human rights in, I believe, 1951. The Conservative Government have extended the rights of individuals to petition before the European Court, and at any stage Parliament can decide to withdraw from that convention.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) would have preferred to discuss this business without a guillotine—a widely shared view—but it became clear to both sides of the House that that was unlikely to be possible. We would have had a very disorderly debate on a key issue without a guillotine.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)


Mr. Straw

I am always delighted to give way to the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman).

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

I am two paragraphs behind the hon. Gentleman. I wonder whether he agrees that the European convention on human rights, which was merely signed and never went through the House, would have gone through in quite the way that it did if it had been thoroughly debated. It would have been a little less woolly.

Mr. Straw

I am afraid that I was not in the House in 1951, although the hon. Lady may have been— [Interruption.] The hon. Lady and I have a special relationship. I bow to her superior knowledge on all occasions. I believe that the convention was debated—

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman


Mr. Straw

If the hon. Lady says that it was not, I accept that. However, it would have been open to her or any other hon. Member, at any stage during the past 17 years, to raise the issue of the convention if it was as dreadful an instrument as has been suggested. It would have been open to the Government to propose withdrawal from it: neither circumstance has arisen.

The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) said that he had never seen a rebellion of such magnitude as apparently occurred on Second Reading of this Bill. On his count, on a three-line Whip 214 Conservative Members voted in favour of Second Reading. His memory must be very short. He may like to know that on Second Reading of the Crime (Sentences) Bill only a week previously, the Home Secretary could muster less than half of the parliamentary Conservative party—just 149 Members—to support his Bill.

Mr. Marlow


Mr. Straw

I know that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about that, but he should take it up with the Home Secretary.

It is not unheard of—although it is unusual—for the Opposition to support a guillotine motion. We believe that it is appropriate in this case because it is important that the House should now proceed to debate the key issue of whether there should be a total or a partial ban on handguns.

5.31 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Ann Widdecombe)

In accordance with the spirit of the motion, I will make an extremely short speech.

Many important issues were raised that will fall to be addressed when we consider the issues substantively during further stages of the Bill. I want to respond to only two points. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) suggested that the Firearms Consultative Committee did not have an opportunity to consider our proposals before the Bill was published. In fact, it considered its response to our proposed response on 23 October, before the Bill was published. It gave us advice on that basis. Since then, the committee has considered the Bill on two occasions and we have accepted a number of its suggestions.

Secondly, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) that it is not true that guillotines are applied only when there has already been substantial or excessive debate. There is nothing unique about proposing a timetable motion before discussion of various stages of a Bill.

We have allocated a generous amount of time. I reject the Opposition's contention that we have acted too slowly.

Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South)

Having failed to catch the Chair's eye, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way. Will she give me an assurance that during the Standing Committee—which will have only a limited amount of time—adequate time will be made available to consider the interests of those who shoot competitively at county and national level and are anxious about the wording of the Bill beyond clause 5?

Miss Widdecombe

Within the time constraints available to us, we will consider all matters that are raised and selected by the Chairman of the Committee for debate. I very much hope that, during the various stages of the Bill, there will be an opportunity to consider the interests of all those who are affected by the Bill, in whatever way.

Before the very helpful intervention by my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), I rejected the Opposition's contention that we have moved too slowly. This is an important issue that required coherent, sensible and balanced responses from us. I believe that we have now brought those together in this Bill. I recommend the timetable motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the following provisions shall apply to the remaining proceedings on the Bill:—