HC Deb 16 June 1997 vol 296 cc22-68 3.37 pm
Mr. Colvin

I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 1, line 8, leave out 'the words "a small calibre-pistol" shall cease to have effect.' and insert 'after the words "a small-calibre pistol" the words "which is incapable of holding more than one cartridge and is not derived from a multi-shot design" shall be inserted.' The amendment attempts to persuade the Government that the Bill should provide for the retention of .22 small-calibre pistols in special circumstances. The noble Lord Cullen' s report does not suggest that single-shot weapons are a danger to the public. On the contrary, paragraph 9.59 of his report says: While all firearms are by definition lethal an individual shot from a handgun, depending on the distance and calibre, may well be less lethal than a shot from a shot gun or a rifle. However, the multi-shot handgun, whether it is a self-loading pistol or a revolver, has the capacity by reason of its high rate of fire and speed of aim to kill or injure a greater number of people within a given short space of time than would be possible with any other type of firearm which is legally available". Lord Cullen constructed his recommendations on that basic premise. He clearly distinguished between self-loading pistols and revolvers that are held for target shooting and "other types of firearms".

The Bill is meant to deal with circumstances in which a system of control breaks down. In a tragedy like Dunblane, it is argued that too much damage can be done before control can be reimposed. That is not so, however, with a single-shot pistol, which is why Lord Cullen excluded it.

The speed of reloading of a pistol is relevant to the amendment. Most single-shot pistols require four or even five distinct movements to reload. The pistol must first be broken open, the spent cartridge removed, a new round picked up with the other hand and put into the breech, the breech closed and the trigger set. Only then is the pistol ready to be fired.

In competition precision shooting, it would take approximately a minute for the shooter to fire each shot. Sixty rounds in the hour is the recognised rate of fire by pistol shot in Olympic competitions.

Only about 5 per cent. of .22 pistols, and probably a smaller percentage of larger-calibre weapons, are single-shot. They are, however, useful at two ends of the sport—for the beginner, who uses a cheap gun for training, and for the expert, who has specially constructed guns for advanced competition.

On the question of convertibility from single-shot to multi-shot pistols or repeater, it was argued during the debates on the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 that existing multi-shot weapons could be converted to single-shot and then reconverted to multi-shot. In France, single-shot .22 pistols are subject to no controls of any kind. One can simply walk into a gun shop or even a supermarket and buy such a weapon, without any questions asked.

Many of those are revolvers which have had the revolving mechanism removed and the cylinder replaced by one with only a single chamber. Such single-shot pistols could be restored to multi-shot capacity if new parts, including a new cylinder, could be obtained, or if the single-shot cylinder were drilled out. In other cases, self-loading pistols are sold with the magazine removed and the magazine well blanked off.

The amendment takes account of that extreme scenario, as it does not permit pistols that are derived from a multi-shot design.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

1 notice that the Minister of State is listening carefully, for which we are grateful. My hon. Friend noted that single-shot pistols are available in France. He may have noticed that I got rather a dusty answer from the Minister when I raised that point in the main debate. The Minister said: The right hon. and learned Gentleman clearly has a total lack of faith in Customs or any controls on our borders. It is untrue to say that people can wander into this country with guns."—[Official Report, 11 June 1997; Vol. 295, c. 1242.] Does my hon. Friend know of any regular checking of motor cars coming in, for example, at Dover, to see whether they carry a pistol?

Mr. Colvin

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that intervention. The question is best put to the Minister responsible for Customs and Excise. As far as I am aware—this is based only on anecdotal evidence—there are no such checks. The apprehension of someone importing such weapons would presumably occur by chance, and that import would merely add to the estimated 2,500 illegal weapons going into circulation in this country every week.

It must be recognised that most of the weapons about which we should be concerned in any debate about firearms are those in illegal circulation, not those that are legally held by perfectly law-abiding people taking part in a sport in which the United Kingdom is particularly successful.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

On a point of order, Sir Alan. It is my understanding that it is customary for the Department responsible for a Bill to ensure that priority notice questions are answered by 3.30, where they pertain to the debate in Committee on the Floor of the House that day. I have just been speaking to the Message Board staff, and I was told that the Home Office questions which I tabled—Nos. 173, 176, 181, 187, 194 and 205—have not yet even reached the Hallkeeper's Lodge, let alone the Members' Letter Board.

Can you, Sir Alan, make the necessary order to require that those questions, which were tabled at the first available opportunity, should be answered in time for this afternoon's debate? I remind the Chamber that the Home Secretary made several observations during the Second Reading debate last Wednesday, and today is the earliest opportunity to answer queries arising from those observations. I hope that those answers will be provided by 3.30 this afternoon.

The Chairman)

The hon. Member will know, from his own ministerial experience, that plans sometimes can go awry. He will know also that it is not for the Chair to ensure that such things occur. However, the Ministers on the Treasury Bench have heard the hon. Gentleman's remarks, and I am sure that they will try to oblige him if they possibly can in order to assist the proceedings of the Committee.

Mr. Colvin

To bring the debate back on course—

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

Back on target.

Mr. Colvin


It might be worth while reminding the Committee of the remarks of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) about the existing legislation in the aftermath of the Cullen report. He said: We believe that a distinction needs to be made between high-calibre handguns, which are principally made for police and military use, and .22 rimfire handguns, which are largely intended for target shooting. Although Lord Cullen decided against making such a distinction, he sets out in paragraph 9.49 of his report a table that demonstrates that a .22 handgun is some four to six times less powerful than higher-calibre handguns. In paragraph 9.44, Lord Cullen points out that the expansion in the use of high-calibre handguns has even made many shooters concerned about the use of such guns as symbols of personal power. In addition, target shooting with .22 handguns has been an Olympic sport since 1896. There will be exceptions for the very few professionals, such as vets, who need handguns outside gun clubs for the humane destruction of animals."—[Official Report, 16 October 1996; Vol. 282, c. 832–33.] That quotation appears in the Library's brief, "Prohibiting Handguns: the Firearms (Amendment) Bill", dated 9 June 1997, which I recommend to those participating in the debate. It is a fair, broad and detailed summary of past and present legislation in that area.

The Government propose the Bill on the basis of their manifesto commitment to ban all handguns, including .22s. In view of the emotion generated in the aftermath of the Dunblane tragedy and the highly successful Snowdrop campaign, one can understand why Members of Parliament on the eve of a general election took extremely seriously the points raised during the campaign. I believe that a petition was presented to No. 10 Downing street and to the then Leader of the Opposition. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Labour party manifesto contains a commitment to ban all handguns, and that the present Prime Minister has backed the campaign.

However, I believe that the amendment standing in the name of my hon. Friends and myself lets the Government off the hook. I do not believe that they have really thought it through, that the Government have considered seriously the impact of a ban on all .22 calibre pistols. I do not think that they have given careful thought to the possibility of excluding single-fire .22 pistols for competition shooting.

The debate has been surrounded by much emotion—I think too much. Emotion has clouded many of the speeches in this place—although a majority have opposed not only this Government's proposals but the previous Government's approach to firearms legislation. Therefore, it is important to know what we are talking about when we come to these debates.

If ever we needed a reason for retaining the Palace of Westminster Shooting Range—which is located in the bowels of the earth, where Guy Fawkes left his gunpowder in hope of blowing the place sky high—it is that.

On many occasions, I have taken Members down to the Shooting Range. Many of them had never handled a rifle or pistol before. I took them to the range to explain what the sport was all about.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind something that is sometimes forgotten by hon. Members who refer to the Shooting Range. The range is a facility of the staff's social club. It is not a provision made for the benefit of Members. In effect, the range belongs to the staff of the House, many of whom participate in its use.

Mr. Colvin

The right hon. Gentleman is right. We must not digress, but the club has a wide membership. More of its members are staff than Members or Members of the other place. Some women are members, and it is used by the police.

My remarks so far can be summed up in one phrase: disasters produce bad law. The Bill is potentially bad law.

The Government's decision to support a ban was rooted in the highly emotional atmosphere post-Dunblane and before Lord Cullen reported. The general public experienced the same initial reaction. Since then, however, public support for a ban has fallen away. Public opinion now takes a more measured judgment based on Lord Cullen's recommendations. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) certainly put on record the evidence that stems from our post bags, which is heavily weighted by those who are opposed to the proposed legislation.

After a thorough inquiry, Lord Cullen stated in his report: I do not consider that the banning of handguns for target shooting or the banning of shooting clubs would be justified. I think that that says it all. A complete ban is a hangover from the immediate aftermath of the Dunblane tragedy. It would be unfortunate if it were introduced now, when calmer judgments prevail.

The 1997 Act has introduced draconian controls. The controls and regulations are more stringent than those that are in place anywhere else in the world. Nothing further will be gained in terms of public security by a complete ban. At the same time, retaining the Act may enable United Kingdom participation in an Olympic sport to survive. The Act should be given the chance to succeed before we go down the path that is set out in the Bill.

I do not think that there is any convincing evidence that the private and legal ownership of handguns is linked to crime. Almost everyone acknowledges that the proposed Act will do nothing to reduce the illegal ownership of guns that underpins criminal activity. To extend prohibition still further without giving time to assess whether it will have that effect would be an injustice to law-abiding people, in the absence of any compensating benefit to the public.

Participants in target shooting with handguns are a minority, but they are a minority within a very popular sport. These people are law-abiding, and cause no disturbance to others. The noise involved in the use of .22s is minimal. We are talking of some of the most security-conscious and pro-law-enforcement people.

There may be occasions when the rights of such people need to be overridden in the interests of security. At the same time, the onus is on the state to show that that is necessary. I believe that in this instance it has manifestly failed to meet that onus. Parliament's role in the defence of individual rights is never more crucial than when minority groups do not command popular and media favour.

One has also to take into account the fact that shooting is now the fastest growing participative sport in the United Kingdom. It is the second most popular sport after fishing. I should explain just what single-shot pistols do as far as competition shooting is concerned. I refer not to centrefire pistols, which, rightly, are now outlawed, but to rimfire pistols—.22 calibre pistols—which are the subject of the amendment.

Internationally and domestically, the only competition where a single-shot pistol is required is the 50 m free pistol event, a competition that is shot at Olympic, world, Commonwealth and European championships as well as at national and club level. Domestically, most .22 competitions at national and club level could be shot with .22 pistols without altering the rules, or with just a small variation in timings. Most shooting could be done with .22 single-shots—

The Chairman

Order. I have taken note of the scope of the hon. Gentleman's speech in introducing his amendment, and he seems to be straying into territory that I might have expected to be covered in the debate on new clauses 3 and 4. If excluding the hon. Gentleman from talking about new clauses 3 and 4 might unduly constrict him, and, indeed, other hon. Members who were hoping to contribute, it might be convenient for the Committee if I were to revise my provisional selection of amendments to include these new clauses in this debate so that the discussion is not inhibited. We seem to have already covered part of the ground that I would have expected under the other debate.

Mr. Colvin

Do I take it that that is your ruling, Sir Alan, or are you offering to extend the scope of the debate to include that, because—

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

It is a warning shot.

Mr. Colvin


I would far rather confine my remarks more specifically to amendment No. 7 rather than try to extend the scope of the debate. I am sure that other hon. Members, some of whom are not in the Chamber at the moment, will speak on the new clauses that you mentioned, Sir Alan. Could we discuss them later this afternoon?

The Chairman

It seems that my remarks may have found their target, so if the hon. Gentleman will speak very strictly to the terms of his amendment, my original selection can stand.

Mr. Colvin

Thank you, Sir Alan. I will confine my remarks to something that is more specific and somewhat more accurate.

In that connection, I should tell the Committee—this relates specifically to derivation from multi-shot designs to single-shot—that, in order to pass judgment on the amendment, it is important to have general information about what these pistols do, and to have some understanding of what the Olympic disciplines are.

Free pistol and rapid-fire pistol events require a very specialist pistol indeed. The free pistol is a single-shot pistol with a barrel in excess of 10 in. It has a large wooden grip that is usually made to encircle the shooter's hand. Prices of these pistols—a matter of some significance, because we may discuss compensation later on—vary quite considerably, from £750 for a single-hand free pistol to well over £1,200 for a new, top-of-the-line pistol, which would include the specialist grip.

These pistols are hardly appropriate for criminal use. They are quite impossible to get into someone's pocket, and they cannot be converted to multi-shot use. As this is the last type of weapon that any criminal would consider using to commit a crime, the national security argument falls.

To put the amendment into perspective, let us consider the number of shooters involved. The National Small-bore Rifle Association has no precise figures for participation in .22 shooting in competitions and leagues, but I believe that, in the Olympic disciplines, there are currently about 500 shooters in the country; but there are some 20,000 domestic and league shooters, and it is necessary to shoot at that level in order to be selected for international competitions.

4 pm

If all that is left is .22 pistol shooting, many centrefire shooters will convert to that type of shooting rather than give up the sport altogether. That is an important point, which has a direct bearing on the question of compensation.

It has been said many times that, following the ban on large-calibre pistols, shooters would convert to .22 pistols. Hopefully, the Government believe that, following the banning of .22 pistols, they will convert to rifles. There are not many specialist pistol clubs in the country. I believe that there are about 2,100 rifle clubs, and, according to the information that the Home Secretary gave me last week, there are 49 clubs exclusively for pistol shooters—a small percentage of the total.

The House should consider the amendment carefully. If the Government's proposal is enacted, Britain will be the only country to be banned from international pistol shooting competitions. The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, passed by the last Parliament, would at least have allowed our competitors to take part on the international stage in the three .22 calibre events in the Olympic and Commonwealth games.

This country has a long and honourable tradition in the sport of pistol shooting, a sport that Britain invented and has dominated for the past 100 years. It is a sporting success story for Britain. In the past 10 years of Commonwealth competition, our competitors have brought home 23 pistol shooting medals in the .22 calibre events alone.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the House of Commons passed this pernicious and unjust legislation, it would affect not just the people he has rightly mentioned—who have conferred great honour on their sport—but the generations to come who will hope to succeed them? They will have no opportunity to train, and Britain, which has dominated the sport for generations, will cease to play a part in it, to the great disadvantage of our sporting reputation.

Mr. Colvin

I take my hon. Friend's point. As a former Minister for the Armed Forces, he will know that, in the forces, everyone is trained to handle firearms. The draconian measures proposed by the Government to control firearms will mean that that will be the last time many of those people will handle a firearm, and all the talent that has been so successful in the past will be wasted—unless, of course, they travel abroad and train and shoot there.

A sport that is one of the original 12 Olympic disciplines deserves the same recognition as more visible sports. It should not be lightly destroyed. That is why I hope that my hon. Friends, and the Committee as a whole, will support the amendment.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I begin by registering my disappointment at not having received from the Minister the responses to points made during last Monday's debate, which I was promised I would receive by today. I remind the Committee that in 1940 Winston Churchill commented that we were not only without an Army, but bereft of people who were able to bear arms. History teaches us that we should not repeat our mistakes.

I remind my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that, in answer to a query from the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) about the ability of British competitors to train for and participate in the games, he said: I have not ruled that out altogether and if realistic representations are made to me, I shall think about the proposal. But I should require a high degree of convincing before going ahead with it."—[Official Report, 11 June 1997; Vol. 295, c. 1167.] The simple fact is that we have not heard much cold, clinical logic in the debate, except in my contribution. I say that with suitable modesty.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alun Michael)

What was that word?

Mr. Cook

It is spelt m-o-d-e-s-t-y.

One of the points made with some validity by the anti-gun school of thought was that Thomas Watt Hamilton in Dunblane and Michael Ryan before him created a good deal of mayhem not because of their marksmanship and the accuracy with which the rounds were dispensed, but because the guns were multi-shot, and because Hamilton was able to reload. If the guns had not been multi-shot, the damage would not have been as horrendous.

The amendment is perfectly reasonable, sensible and realistic, and I appeal to my right hon. Friend to heed its proposals with care. It refers to specialised, target weapons that are meant for no purpose other than for shooting on a range where the shooter stands 25 m to 50 m away from a piece of cardboard. They are .22 calibre and, as the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) said, they have an inordinately long barrel to give the accuracy that is required in target shooting. The stock by which they are held is complex: the hand must fit into it like a glove. They cannot be pulled out of one's pocket, and they are difficult to carry—some of them are almost as long as a billiard cue. They are highly specialised weapons.

The hon. Member for Romsey said that such weapons can cost up to £1,200. Some international competitors' weapons are worth well in excess of £3,000, because they are custom-designed and built and carry counter-weights according to the strength of the individual using them. That is not the sort of weapon that someone will pick up and use to assassinate people. As I said a few days ago, an assassin will not identify the quarry, select a vantage point, calculate the field of fire, estimate the time of arrival and when to loose off a shot, and then say, "Heavens, I cannot use this because it is a .22 and it is illegal." The whole idea is preposterous.

I appeal to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to keep faith with his undertaking last week to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed by considering this realistic proposal. It relates specifically to the group of people whose rights we choose to defend—the high-grade competitors. The measure would be a stop-gap, because it would cater only for the needs of those who are accustomed to competing. It would be exceedingly difficult for young competitors, or even old ones who are just entering the sport, to gain some recognition, because they would find it difficult to acquire the kind of weapons that we are debating. The amendment would enable competitors with an international reputation and who strike fear into only one class of people—those who compete for other nations—to stop those of other nationalities from gaining the prestigious awards that our people are capable of winning.

Once again, I appeal to the Home Secretary to appreciate the realistic nature of the proposal. I urge him to concede even at this late stage that the amendment is reasonable and rational; it threatens no one and would preserve a corner of this sport for this country.

Mr. Soames

I warmly endorse the words of the hon. Member for Stockton. North (Mr. Cook), whose stand on this matter the Committee should admire and respect. I especially endorse the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin). Perhaps the Home Secretary will detail his reasons for not accepting this simple change. I fear that his reasons will be unsatisfactory, not least because they will be advanced by officials on the ground that they were not invented here. The amendment is a sensible, careful, deliberate, pragmatic attempt to allow Great Britain to remain in her rightful place at the summit of an important sport.

Many years ago, some of us gave up trying to make Labour appreciate anything to do with the countryside or the importance of the cadet forces and their right to learn to bear arms and train under the most rigorous and strict conditions, in which safety and skill at arms play an important part. We know that the Home Secretary does not have a clue about that, that he does not understand it and that it means nothing to him.

Britain's shooting sports play a significant part in the life of the broad shooting community. It is quite wrong for pistol shooters to be marked out in this way. Even our sensible and realistic attempt to enable Britain to continue to compete and train people is not to be granted. These people are not madmen who have been granted gun licences simply because one police force failed to do its duty. They will be for ever denied the right to continue to take part in an honourable sport, which they love and which is part of the fabric of this country.

The Labour party cannot go round just banning things arbitrarily; I understand that a fox hunting Bill is to come before the House. There are endless examples of a high-handed, ignorant approach to such matters, and Conservative Members beg the Home Secretary to consider carefully what justice there is, what point there is in sacrificing something that many people do so well and which gives them such responsibility and respect.

4.15 pm
Mr. Colvin

The Committee must understand, and I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with this, that sacrifices are already being made by competition pistol shooters. The rapid-fire pistol competition for the Olympics has already been sacrificed—I do not think that anyone in his wildest dreams is going to try to make the case for retaining that—as has the Olympic sport pistol event for ladies, which involves an automatic .22 pistol, so two out of three .22 events are already being sacrificed to the dogma of the Labour party. We want to try to preserve only the last remaining one—the single-shot event.

Mr. Soames

I agree with my hon. Friend and am grateful to him for pointing that out so powerfully.

In my constituency, I am a keen shooter, and a number of gun clubs are deeply unhappy at what the Home Secretary is doing. Many Conservative Members had to swallow hard to support what my old Government did in going further than Cullen, but we did swallow it. However, this is a step too far and I beg the Home Secretary to consider with great care whether it is really worth while, having gone the distance already, to lock out from international sport something that confers great honour on this country's sporting achievement.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

I support the amendment, so ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin), and the comments of the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and—until he mentioned fox hunting—of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). I wonder whether the Labour party has completely lost sight of the original causes of the desire, which was felt by hon. Members on both sides of the House, to control the use of handguns. The massacre at Dunblane could not have been carried out with a single-shot .22 pistol—if such a massacre had been started using such a weapon, the murderer could have been stopped and overpowered. When the Labour party opposed our more modest measure, its rhetoric was that it wanted to stop Dunblane happening again so far as it was able to do so. Even Labour Members admitted that no measure was absolutely going to guarantee that there would not be another massacre.

It is odd, therefore, that the Labour party has not taken that logic into account in proposing its total ban. The extremely small concession that is being sought through the amendment—and it is extremely small—would make it possible to prevent, as far as it is possible ever to prevent, the sort of thing that happened at Dunblane. It would give the public much greater protection and, at the same time, preserve, to a very limited extent, but at least to some extent, a perfectly legitimate sport, which is not only for entertainment, but which tests ability, which maintains our international reputation and which does no harm when lawfully and responsibly practised.

The inclusion of the words:

and is not derived from a multi-shot design obviates the only real practical objection to the amendment, which is that it could be open to abuse. I cannot envisage someone going to such lengths as having a gun converted and then reconverted deliberately to evade the law. If such a person were wholly intent on evading the law, there would be no difficulty in his doing so illegally, rather than going to great lengths to get round a legal provision.

The amendment asks for only a small concession, but it would bring modest comfort to those who practise a perfectly legitimate sport. The Government's line is authoritarian, similar to their line in many of their other dealings since they came to power. They appear to take no account of law-abiding minorities. They certainly seem to take no account of public opinion, which has substantially shifted since the initial horror of Dunblane.

I ask the Home Secretary to consider accepting the amendment, even at this late hour. If he will not, will he explain to the Committee what on earth could be the danger of creating another Dunblane or Hungerford with a single-shot .22 weapon that cannot be derived from a multi-shot design? The amendment is so very carefully restricted and prescribed that I cannot imagine that any of the dangers that we are seeking to prevent would arise. I ask the right hon. Gentleman carefully to consider the amendment.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has, extremely succinctly, posed the key question in the debate, so I shall try not to labour it too much, but rather enhance it a little.

The Home Secretary has been perfectly straightforward in saying that he does not wish to interfere with the rights of minorities further than is necessary in the interests of public safety. We are conscious that we cannot win the votes. However, we can put forward arguments which—and I put this in a non-contentious way—we can share with the Government and hope to persuade them to accept. The amendments that have been tabled contain arguments that deserve the most careful consideration. I believe that the Government could feel able to accept them and so avoid the victory to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) referred—of which I am happy to acquit the Home Secretary, but which is a danger from some of those who sit behind him. I hope that he will not think that over-offensive to his party; I believe that it is a genuine danger.

The principle that we are discussing focuses on the question of the single-shot handgun. We have to be careful not to pick around in Lord Cullen's report. Indeed, one could argue almost anything from the report. I think that there was some support for that view in the winding-up arguments on Second Reading.

The single-shot pistol, which cannot be mechanically changed to become a multi-shot pistol, and which is used for highly specialised competitions, is about as unsuitable for use in a massacre as anything that one could devise. The question—and I am sure that the Secretary of State and the Minister will focus on this—is not whether a single-shot pistol is lethal, as any pistol, shotgun or rifle is lethal; it is whether there is sufficient danger to the public in permitting the use of single-shot pistols under confined circumstances that they must be banned together with all other pistols.

The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and my hon. Friends—including my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin), who tabled amendment No. 7 in a manner that has been carefully argued and proposed by the British Shooting Sports Council and those involved in Olympic and Commonwealth sports—made the case for allowing an exemption for the weapons that we are debating under the amendment. I appreciate, however, that Ministers may wish to consider more carefully one aspect of the amendment, which would allow single-shot pistols to be kept at home.

There is an argument for saying that such weapons should be confined to clubs, although Lord Cullen's report—which I mentioned earlier in my speech—states that keeping weapons in clubs will not provide absolute security. In this debate, however, we are not questioning whether we can provide absolute security, but considering how to strike a balance. Ministers would be doing everything that they could reasonably be expected to do in providing for public safety—I believe that they are going further than is necessary, but in this debate, we are focusing on a specific aspect of the issue—even if they were to permit use of single-shot pistols for purposes of competition and training before competition.

As my hon. Friends have already eloquently stated, many Olympic and Commonwealth competitions depend on the use of some type of pistol, and those competitions would be facilitated by allowing the use of specialised single-shot pistols. If we passed the amendment, at least .22 calibre competitions could continue, and that is a highly desirable objective. The Government should allow those competitions to continue.

In urging a balance of argument on the issue, I revert to the point about the ease with which such pistols can be brought into the United Kingdom, because we should not blind ourselves to that part of the argument. Conservative Members are urging that British citizens who are properly licensed and in very closely confined conditions should be able to hold and use specialised single-shot pistols.

The fact remains, however, that .22 single-shot pistols—which are not particularly suitable for competitions, but perfectly capable of killing people—can be bought across the counter in France. Anyone can drive in and out of the United Kingdom—whether at Dover, Folkestone, Le Havre or Portsmouth—on any of the ordinary sea ferries with such weapons.

It is no criticism of customs officers—I ask the Minister to prick up his ears—to say that they do not go through cars with a fine-toothed comb. Customs officers allow ordinary English citizens to pass through with nothing more than what was once described as a "Bangemann wave" of a passport. Consequently, if an evil-minded loner were minded to use a .22 pistol—which is unlikely; he would be much more likely to go for one of the many thousands of illegally held heavy-calibre pistols—he could bring it into the United Kingdom with absolute impunity and virtually no prospect of being caught.

There is a strong argument in principle for passing the amendment, and no significant danger to the public in practice. Conservative Members very much hope that Ministers will sympathetically examine the aspect of the issue dealt with in the amendment.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

I should like to reinforce some of the comments made by my hon. Friends and by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook). I should also like to draw attention to the specific consequences for the Olympic movement if the Bill is passed without amendment No. 7.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) rightly talked about the great significance of shooting in the Olympics. Today, however—like many other hon. Members—I received a letter from Mr. Simon Clegg, the general secretary of the British Olympic Association. It states: Whilst the British Olympic Association welcomes tighter firearms control which will ensure that tragedies such as Hungerford and Dunblane are never repeated we are concerned about the impact that the proposed legislation will have on competitive pistol shooting in this country. The legislation, as it stands, will effectively preclude representation by British athletes at future Olympic Games in the three Olympic shooting disciplines concerned. With 135 national federations competing for 20–30 places in each discipline there is a significant level of training and commitment necessary to achieve an Olympic quota place. Forcing competitive pistol shooting abroad will kill the sport and with it the necessary depth to ensure international representation at the highest level My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) rightly stressed the distinguished record of British competitors.

The amendment—

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

On a point of order, Sir Alan. I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman's contribution and feel that he is debating new clause 3 or 4, not amendment No. 7.

The Chairman

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has been here for the whole debate. I have already tried to gauge the mood of the Committee on this particular matter. My provisional selection separated the two debates, but there appeared to be some element of overlap. I have tried to be as tolerant as I can, but I stress again that if it is convenient to have a separate debate on new clauses 3 and 4, we have to confine this debate as tightly as possible to amendment No. 7.

4.30 pm
Mr. Hawkins

I am grateful to you for your ruling, Sir Alan. Of course, I have been present for the whole debate and heard what you said earlier. I am seeking to reflect not only earlier contributions about the sporting significance of the legislation, but the fact that the amendment is designed to enable competition to continue.

The Government have to consider carefully the mischief that they are trying to prevent. If the mischief that they are trying to prevent is the repetition of what happened at Hungerford or Dunblane, they must reflect on whether it is necessary to ban single-shot weapons. There is a serious problem if the legislation does not in fact prevent the repetition of similar tragedies, but succeeds only in preventing sporting competition for many law-abiding citizens who present no real risk.

I draw the Government's attention to what the press has said. Last October, The Sunday Times said: We believe the argument for permitting sporting use of .22 handguns is a strong one". This is an extremely important matter in terms of the rights of the minority of citizens who enjoy their sport. Even at this very late stage, it is perfectly possible for the Government to reconsider and decide that in this case the balance comes down in favour of permitting single-shot handguns because they do not pose the same kind of threat. That would enable participants in sport to enjoy their pleasure.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

It is proper for me to declare an interest at the start of the proceedings. I am a consultant to the British Field Sports Society, but I make it clear that the use of handguns has a very limited application in country sports. Nevertheless, the British Field Sports Society is a member of the British Shooting Sports Council, which is an umbrella body representing those using handguns for target shooting.

It is the job of the House to look after the interests of minorities and I believe that the amendment will help to safeguard the interests of a small but nevertheless significant and law-abiding minority—those who practise target shooting to a high level of skill. All sorts of things are said during election campaigns and the parading of the Snowdrop petition at the Labour party conference was, no doubt, seen as a useful political stunt, although some of us found the sentimentality surrounsding it a little sickening. I suppose that the Labour party thought that "Ban all handguns" was a nice, simple message, but that "Ban all handguns except .22 single-shot handguns" would be off message and would therefore fall foul of its spin doctors.

I urge the Government to reconsider their position. The Home Secretary made it absolutely clear that the purpose of the extension of the prohibition of handguns to .22s was to prevent another Dunblane, but how will the Government's refusal to accept our amendment do anything to prevent another Dunblane?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) said, single-shot target pistols are singular weapons. Some time ago, I was shown one by a practitioner of the sport and it was a revelation to me. Like many people, I thought that a .22 handgun was a small weapon that could be easily concealed, but in fact the weapon is almost 18 in long—I am told that, if the barrel were a few millimetres longer, it would be categorised as a rifle. It is virtually impossible to hide such a weapon with any part of one's body. The other significant feature of the weapons is the way in which the stock is designed. The stock goes almost around the wrist so that, in a sense, the gun almost becomes part of the hand. The weapon that I saw has an electronic trigger—it is a highly sophisticated weapon—and the loading procedure is extremely complicated and slow. I am told that in Olympic contests the rate of fire is a maximum of 60 rounds in a two-hour period, which shows how slow and difficult loading those weapons is.

It is nonsense to suggest that someone like Thomas Hamilton would have used such a weapon, but if he had done so, he would have had to have gone into the school at Dunblane with the weapon practically attached to his wrist and with cartridges in his pocket, in which he would have had to scratch around in order to load the weapon between shots. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said, it would have been a slow process and he could have been easily overpowered at that point.

We are asking the Government to reconsider and to accept the amendment, which is especially important because it would allow the tradition of Olympic shooting to continue. We now spend millions of pounds of lottery money encouraging participation in sport and we want to do better in international team events. It is therefore perverse that we are going to destroy our ability to participate in one of the oldest Olympic disciplines. As those who read the Sunday newspapers will know, we are forcing people from gun clubs as far north as Aberdeen to go to France to practise. That is fine if one can afford the air fare and the time to go to Dieppe, where I understand some British shooters have registered at a local club, but it is nonsense to force people to do that to practise a skill and a sport that they love. It is illogical for our shooters to have to train with the French—I fear that the Duke of Wellington would be spinning in his grave if he knew.

The sport of shooting single-shot .22 pistols is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey said, the crème de la crème of the shooting disciplines and we should be able to continue to participate in it. I therefore urge the Government to consider the amendment carefully. It would not be a loss of face for the Government to move away from the position that they hold with almost dogmatic fervour. We have moved sufficiently far away from the tragedy of Dunblane to re-examine the issue in the cold light of day. I should welcome it if we could persuade the Government to row back on their absolute prohibition and allow this valuable sporting discipline to continue.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

We have come a long way from the position in law when the extremely tragic events of Dunblane took place. The previous Government's Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 outlawed high-calibre pistols. It did not take into account the recommendations contained in Lord Cullen's extremely detailed inquiry that high-calibre and much more dangerous pistols than those mentioned in the amendment should be banned, not only from people's private homes where they had previously been allowed, but from gun clubs. Some of us had strong views on Lord Cullen's recommendations and the amendments to the law proposed in the previous Act.

However, the Bill goes significantly further than the previous legislation. Under the current law, anyone may possess .22 pistols in his home if he has a firearms certificate. He does not have to hold them in a gun club or use them under supervision, but can use them provided that he has a firearms certificate. Without banning .22 rimfire pistols, we could perfectly reasonably ensure that they had to be held in a gun club—which would have to be properly licensed by the police—and used under proper supervision. We could ensure that someone could hold only one competition pistol. Such measures would enormously reduce the balance of risk.

Will the Minister of State tell us how many fatalities and how many serious injuries are caused by the relatively safe .22 rimfire single-shot pistols? I believe that the number of fatalities is incredibly small—I doubt whether there are more than a few every year. We should be making better use of our time if we considered that fact in the context of the fatalities caused by illegally held firearms and the part that they play in armed crime.

However, we have been placed on this ground by the Government through their introduction of the Bill. I appeal to the Minister of State to think carefully about the lethality of the guns under discussion. During the course of the previous Firearms (Amendment) Bill I entertained a senior police officer to lunch in the House. Our conversation turned to the lethality of such guns. He looked me straight in the eye and said, "I would rather that any of my officers were faced at short range by a high-calibre pistol—not just a .22 pistol—than by a double-barrelled shotgun." Everyone knows that, at short range, a double-barrelled shotgun puts a big hole through a body. A .22 pistol makes a hole of about a quarter of an inch and, unless the bullet happens to hit a vital vessel in the body, it will not kill.

Mr. Soames

I hope that my hon. Friend will not proceed too far down this road, otherwise we shall find the Labour party banning shotguns.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

The thought had occurred to me, but we must put the issues in context and speak out about the realities of life. The Bill's approach to the balance of risk is nonsense.

How many illegal weapons will be driven underground by the measure? We had that argument during our discussion of the previous Firearms (Amendment) Bill. My guess is that the weapons will flood in from the continent. It will not matter how well firearms are supervised, people will still want to use weapons illegally. Now we have banned high-calibre pistols, it would be far better to encourage this country's law-abiding citizens to switch to relatively low-risk weapons. In that way, those people could continue to enjoy themselves; they would be listed on proper police registers and their weapons would be kept on firearms certificates instead of being driven underground.

4.45 pm
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that, if the legislation is passed, those who legally own guns will be forced to hold the guns illegally in a subversive way? Where would they use the guns? Why would somebody who currently holds a legitimate gun licence and a .22 pistol for target and competition shooting want to hold that gun illegally? Where would he use it?

Mr. Clifton-Brown

The hon. Gentleman obviously does not live in the real world. If he considered what was happening in the United States and the number of illegally held firearms there, he would know that what I am saying is true. An element in this country would want to use the firearms illegally. Both the hon. Gentleman and I would deplore that, but we must acknowledge the realities of life.

I appeal to the Minister of State on two grounds. First, on the balance of risk, how lethal are those weapons? Secondly, what is the point of setting up a specialist inquiry only to have politicians second-guess its recommendations? How many more of the numerous inquiries that the Government are setting up will subsequently be second-guessed and their recommendations not accepted? We might as well choose a lord and tell him not to carry out an in-depth inquiry or take all the evidence, but to put a few points on the back of a fag packet: if we like the recommendations, we shall accept them and turn them into law; if we do not like them, we shall not accept them. That seems to be what is happening in the Bill.

Mr. Frank Cook

I should like to clarify a point that was raised a couple of minutes ago by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock). He asked whom the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) had in mind when he said that someone holding a legal firearms certificate now would want to go underground with his weapon. That will not happen: such a person is a law-abiding custodian of a firearm. The hon. Gentleman misses the point about the danger involved. Many people on the streets already illegally own the weapons to which he refers—they are not necessarily target weapons, but are multi-shot, small weapons that they can carry. The legislation will not touch such people. That is the point.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that intervention as it gives me the chance to clarify my remarks. If owning such a weapon remains legal, everyone who wishes to fire pistols in competitions and to keep weapons in a registered firearms armoury has the opportunity to do so. If the Bill makes that illegal, people will no longer have that opportunity. I can foresee circumstances—which will probably not involve current firearms certificate holders—in which some people, possibly younger people, will want to fire pistols illegally and will obtain their weapons on the black market.

I ask the Minister of State to consider what he is doing today and to see whether it would be possible, in the closely defined circumstances that I have described—using only one weapon in a registered gun club under proper supervision with a proper firearms licence from the police—to accept the amendment, even if it has to be redrawn

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I shall ask the Government three short questions, in the hope of bringing them round to a different way of thinking.

I trust that the Government have listened with care, not only to Conservative Members of Parliament, who have spoken with knowledge and passionate interest in the matter, but to the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), who is a consistent advocate of the arguments that he advanced this afternoon. I ask the Government to listen to him with all humility, because he has nothing to gain politically from what he says, and so can argue with the force of principle. I salute him for the stance that he has taken tonight and at other times. His arguments bear listening to. I hope that, by pointing him out, I have done him no damage.

I confess that, on Second Reading of the Conservative Government's Firearms (Amendment) Bill in November 1996, I refused to support the Government and absented myself so as not to support the Bill. I trust that my remarks will be viewed in that light—I say that breathing down the neck of my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Home Secretary.

First, I shall ask questions about the philosophy that underlies the Bill, clause 1 and the Government's opposition to amendment No. 7. I hope that I am not too pompous in describing it in those terms. Is it right that the Government's proposal should become law? We have been told about the innocent pastime of competition shooters. There is a shooting club in my constituency, in Kibworth, halfway between Market Harborough and Leicester. As a direct consequence of the Bill, members of that club will see an end to a pastime in which they have engaged for many years. Not one member of the club is the type of person who is likely to commit mayhem by running amok with a pistol—let alone a single-shot pistol, which the amendment is designed to retain in the sport of shooting.

The membership of clubs such as the one in my constituency is broadly composed of policemen, former policemen and ex-warrant officers from the armed forces—not the type of war comic strip cartoon heroes whom one would expect to run amok with a gun. It is important for the Government to realise that they are taking away from people in that respectable section of society a lawful pastime in which they have engaged innocently for very many years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) mentioned organisations such as the cadet forces. I believe that the type of people who, were the Bill not to become law in the currently proposed form, would have joined, for example, the Kibworth shooting club, would have undergone weapons training in the cadet force even if they did not later join the Regular armed forces. I urge the Government to bear in mind what they are doing and whom they are harming.

Mr. Soames

My hon. and learned Friend has raised an important point about safety. Does he agree—the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), does not have a clue about this—that, regardless of whether their members have been cadets or members of the armed forces, all those clubs adopt the highest, most rigorous standards of safety in the handling of weapons and ammunition that one could find anywhere, and that that sets the sport apart from almost any other sport that one may watch in this country?

Mr. Garnier

I agree whole-heartedly with my hon. Friend. I know that from my experience, having visited the club in my constituency. I was told several times by the president, the captain, the secretary, the treasurer and other members of the committee of that club the precise and detailed training and arms drill that all members of that club must undergo before they are even allowed on to the range, let alone allowed to handle a gun with a potentially lethal projectile in it.

Mr. Frank Cook

Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman would care to observe that they must behave in that manner and with that type of discipline because it is the only level of safety that they can apply to themselves, so it is in their own interest. The whole sport is one of imposing, inculcating, fostering and improving safety standards.

Mr. Garnier

The hon. Gentleman is right, and I wish that the Government would give credit to those people and allow them to use single-shot guns safely. As has been explained several times, a single-shot gun is not the weapon that a maniac will choose if he wants to kill huge numbers of people.

The second broad question that I want to ask the Government is a question of practice. Will the Bill—and clause 1, which we seek to amend—achieve the intended purpose of preventing the Dunblanes and the Hungerfords? The short answer is, "No, of course it will not." The Government know that it will not but, unfortunately yet understandably, they have become bound up in the emotion that flowed from the terrible events at Dunblane.

No one would seek to diminish, devalue or denigrate the sincerity of the concern expressed by Ministers and supporters of the Government—and Opposition Members—for the parents and relations of the children who were brutally killed by that madman in Dunblane last summer. However, having studied the Cullen report, having considered the facts of that case, we now know the reasons why Hamilton committed those murders and, regrettably, a repeat of that situation would not be dealt with by this, albeit well-intentioned, clause.

There were huge numbers of failures, by the police and by the licensing authorities, regarding the culprit in that case. Regrettably, the Bill produced by the Government will have no effect on a future Dunblane. It may make the Government feel better, it may make other members of the public who support the general thrust of the Bill feel better, but it will not afford the children of equivalent primary schools throughout the United Kingdom, and parents of those children, any better protection. I suggest to the Committee, therefore, that the Bill and clause 1 will not achieve the intended purpose.

My final argument to the Government is encapsulated in the question, "Will the clause cause harm?" I hope that I have argued successfully that it will do no good, but will it cause harm? That comes back—

The Chairman

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. and learned Gentleman, but he appears to have moved on to making a speech that would be more suited to the clause stand part debate. I would remind him that we are debating the specific points made in amendment No. 7.

Mr. Garnier

I understand, Sir Alan, the feeling that you have about the half-completed sentence that I was uttering, but if I complete the sentence, I hope that I may persuade you that I am in order. I do not wish to be impertinent, but those of us who support the amendment are arguing for the retention within the law of single-shot .22 weapons, and I am asking the Government to justify the removal of single-shot .22 pistols from lawful ownership in certain prescribed situations.

It seems to me—I hope that the Government will answer this in due course—that the question, "Will the Bill, and will this clause, cause harm?" can be answered only in the affirmative unless the clause is amended by means of the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin).

I mentioned at the outset of my remarks the innocent, law-abiding, responsible gun owners who are about to see a long-practised pastime brought to an end if the Bill passes as the Government propose. That is a harm that the Government should not allow. It is a harm that cannot be compensated for even in money—and no doubt we shall have further discussions later in the Bill's passage about the level of compensation. I would suggest that, on all three of the grounds that I have presented, amendment No. 7 should be considered quietly and calmly by the Government, because I have yet to hear a reasonable, rational response to the points that I have put forward.

I urge the Government, despite their huge majority, to think a little more calmly and carefully about the effects of what they are doing, and to ask themselves, "Is it right? Will it do good or harm?" I believe that, if they think about those questions, they can reach only one answer in line with their responsibilities as the Government of the whole country, not just of some of its people. If they do that, there is only one conclusion to which they can come which will be in line with their responsibilities as the Government of the whole of this country, not just part of it.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I was happy to hear on Second Reading the Government's assurances that this matter would be considered on its merits. At one point in that debate, when I suggested that there was a philosophical divide between our party and the Government, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) stood up and assured me that there was no question of adopting a high moral stance: it was a question of examining the issues in a practical way.

Similarly, this moderate and well-reasoned amendment should be considered on the basis of its practical effects. I should be interested to hear the Minister of State explain in due course how the clause can be said to contribute to the safety of anyone, bearing it in mind that those who wish to act unlawfully and violently will still find ways of laying their hands on the necessary instruments.

5 pm

Accepting the amendment, on the other hand, would demonstrate Ministers' recognition of the fact that in certain strictly controlled circumstances it should still be possible to conduct a lawful sport. I therefore hope to hear that the Government are prepared to acknowledge that and to consider this practical issue on its merits.

I have heard it said during the debate that if all .22 weapons were banned, people would still act illegally. It is often maintained in the House that anyone who advances such an argument is condoning illegality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those of us who try to lead law-abiding lives must often obey laws that we think may be wrong. I am sorry that the Home Secretary is not present to hear me say this, but I am sure he can remember times when he was in opposition when he told the House that certain measures introduced by the Conservative Government were wrong because they risked criminalising otherwise law-abiding people. That, surely, is the point.

The clause reduces the risks to such an absurdly low level—here I agree with everything the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said—that those who regard the legislation as crass and idiotic will continue to practise their sport in the quarry behind the village. Such people will still be able to purchase .22 single-shot pistols on the black market. Such is the corrupting influence of badly thought out legislation, which criminalises a practice that ought to be kept lawful.

I for one have always maintained that if a law is passed people must obey it; but we should also consider the consequences of passing the law in the first place. This law will bring about corruption. Some people—not those who currently hold licences—will continue to use these weapons for recreational purposes. They will then be rightly prosecuted and criminalised.

Mr. Connarty

The hon. Gentleman was not here when the previous legislation was debated, but I wonder whether he would have used the same argument—that multi-shot weapons should not be banned because of the certainty that some people would get hold of them illegally and fire them off in quarries behind their homes. On the hon. Gentleman's logic, it was surely wrong to interfere with handgun possession of any kind.

Mr. Grieve

That is a perfectly fair point. Had I been here before the election I would have supported Lord Cullen's proposals in toto, but I would have voted against the proposals that came before the House. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says and repeat my point about absurdity. My impression is that those who are likely to handle .22 pistols of the single-shot variety will do so exclusively for sporting purposes, not for pernicious Rambo-like reasons. If those people think the law absurd, they will continue to practise their sport—that is the corrupting element. It is what the House, when considering legislation, should try to avoid.

I note that the Home Secretary has returned to his place. Two onerous aspects of the job of Home Office Ministers are balancing common sense against the desires of their Back Benchers, and protecting those who would otherwise be oppressed. This evening I hope to hear some good news from the Government, but my hopes are not high. Meanwhile I suggest that it is irrational to object to the amendment.

Mr. Chope

I hope that the Government will take the amendment seriously. It is an acid test of their attitude to liberty and the freedom of the individual.

Are the Government trying to accommodate, as far as possible, the legitimate interests of law-abiding sportsmen within the need for public safety, or are they using public safety as a catch-all justification for an absolutist, populist approach which appeals to the worst elements of the ignorant among our citizens? We know that 80 per cent. of all handguns are already banned. Paragraph 9.101 of the Cullen report says that single-shot pistols probably comprise about 5 per cent. of the total number of licensed weapons. So even with the amendment in place, 95 per cent. of all handguns would be banned.

The issue is one of assessing the risk. That should involve an examination of two elements in combination: as Cullen said, the chances of harm occurring, and the nature and extent of that harm.

I am rather alarmed by the Government's emerging attitude. Earlier today, I was waiting for an answer to a written question that I needed at 3.30 pm. I got the answer sooner rather than later as a direct result of the Home Secretary's intervention. I believe that answers are delivered by Departments to the House as early as 3.15 pm; the Home Secretary had confirmation from the Department that the answers were delivered here by that time today, but they did not reach the board until after 4.20 pm. Had it not been for the good offices of the Home Secretary, who had his staff fax copies of my answer to me—for which I am grateful—I would not have had access to it until that time.

Mr. Michael

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's acknowledgement of the fact that we made arrangements to have his answers faxed to him by the target time. I would gently remind him, however, that some of us who asked the former Government questions over the past 10 years often did not receive our answers until the following day—never mind 3.30 pm.

Mr. Chope

I am not sure whether two wrongs make a right, but I must make it clear that I can take no responsibility for anything that happened during the last Parliament. One aspect of this matter that has been raised with me is that up to 10 staff in the Messengers Office used to deal with questions and correspondence when they arrived in the afternoon. There are now only two members of staff, which may be one explanation why answers now take much longer to reach Members.

In written question 194, I asked the Home Secretary whether it was his policy to outlaw the possession and use of black powder pistols. The Minister of State answered that black powder pistols were synonymous with a muzzle-loading gun as defined in the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. The Government have no plans at present to prohibit the possession of such weapons. The Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, which is presently before Parliament, deals only with the prohibition of small-calibre pistols. However, we shall keep under close review all controls on firearms to ensure maximum public safety. I find the expression "maximum public safety" difficult because to ensure maximum public safety the Government would have to ban all shotguns and rifles, the sport of motor racing and air displays. It is impossible to ensure maximum public safety. What can be ensured is maximum public safety commensurate with individual liberty. I am sorry that the Minister of State did not respond in that way.

Mr. Michael

I am sorry that it is necessary to spell things out in such detail. I should have thought maximum safety clearly means maximum practical safety and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not understand that.

There is no suggestion of widening the scope of the discussion. We were dealing with the fact that the police raised concerns about the availability of black powder pistols. That exclusion was introduced to the 1997 Act during its passage through Parliament—I believe that that amendment was introduced in another place. The police are concerned about the loophole, so it is right that we should keep it under review. Does the hon. Gentleman think that we should not keep safety under review?

Mr. Chope

I make no such suggestion. I had the opportunity during the last Parliament to serve on the Health and Safety Commission, a body committed to ensuring public safety as far as reasonably practicable. In the light of the Minister of State's intervention, perhaps I should table a pursuant question to ensure that we get on the record the fact that he did not intend "ensure maximum public safety" to mean anything other than to ensure maximum practical public safety. Those are two separate propositions. The Minister of State must be deemed to have had responsibility for his answers to those questions. He decided not to qualify the answer in its written form, but I welcome the qualification that he has just given.

As for single-shot muzzle-loading guns, I have information from the Christchurch gun club in my constituency, which has 500 members and is one of the most successful gun clubs in the country, that someone firing a black powder pistol at a 25 yd range has half an hour in which to make 13 shots and the three worst shots are disallowed. That is another example of pistol shooting where tremendously high skill is involved. It is akin to the sport of pistol shooting with a single-shot pistol. That is why I hope the Government will take the amendment seriously.

The Government have already earned among some people a reputation for being a little spoilsport. They have an opportunity this afternoon to accept the amendment and demonstrate that they are willing to accommodate the legitimate interests of the sporting fraternity. I therefore hope that they accept the amendment.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

My right hon. and hon. Friends have spoken in support of the amendment with notable moderation. The arguments that they have advanced deserve to be treated with proper respect and I hope that they will receive such a response from the Minister of State.

I hope that the Minister of State will take particular note of the tributes paid to the standards of safety observed in gun clubs. The mischief of the problem that we have been debating arises out of the fact that the Government now propose entirely to ban pistol shooting, particularly in gun clubs. During the passage of the earlier legislation, the Front Benches agreed that handguns should be banned from the home. That agreement, however, was reached and abided by in the context in which the ban was embodied in quite different legislation. That legislation enabled Olympic shooting to continue and .22 calibre pistol shooting, both single and multi-shot, to continue in gun clubs—not in people's homes. The Bill would put an end to pistol shooting in gun clubs, which is why the matter now needs to be reconsidered.

The effect on single-shot .22 calibre pistols is one of the most conspicuous and unfortunate consequences of the Bill. The force that lies behind the arguments that have been advanced by my right hon. and hon. Friends, and by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook)—I am sorry, I should have mentioned him earlier when I referred to the cogency of contributions to this debate—derives entirely from the difference in the context of this legislation.

5.15 pm

My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and I will not resile from our earlier position that there should be a complete ban on the possession and use of pistols in the home. For that reason, and because the amendment would appear to allow pistols to be kept in the home, we shall not vote for it. Nevertheless, the arguments that have been put forward in this different context have considerable force and I hope that they will be treated in that way by the Minister of State when he replies.

Mr. Michael

I am pleased to confirm that we ensured that answers to questions were provided properly this afternoon and we shall seek to continue to do that. I mention that to reinforce the point that I made in interventions. I owe my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) an apology. I promised to provide him with a reply by today, but my reply has been delayed because I wanted it to be fuller and more accurate. He was right to say that I failed to achieve what I sought to do, but he will have that answer as quickly as possible.

I thank the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) for his helpful comments. I am happy to follow him in paying tribute to the standards of safety operated in the generality of gun clubs and by the generality of shooters. A number of Conservative Members showed a good deal less respect for shooters in suggesting that, on the passage of this Bill, they will immediately go underground or use guns elsewhere. The right hon. and learned Gentleman made no such suggestion. Those suggestions were unhelpful and misleading because, in general, shooters are law-abiding citizens who, while they would not wish us to pass this legislation, will obey it once it becomes law.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Michael

I shall give way first to one of those who appeared to make just such an implication.

Mr. Grieve

Does the Minister agree that if it were possible to provide a legitimate and lawful way for the sport of shooting with handguns to be maintained, if only with single-shot handguns for those wishing to engage in the sport recreationally, that would minimise the risk that people might act illegally in using handguns for recreational purposes?

Mr. Michael

I shall return to the point. We considered carefully whether it would be possible to protect the activities of shooters and members of gun clubs and, after examining Lord Cullen's report and the evidence presented to him, we came to the conclusion that it would not. Furthermore, the amendment would entail an unacceptable degree of inconsistency.

Mr. Frank Cook

Being a simple fellow, I always try to see things clearly. Is the Minister saying that evidence given to Cullen was inaccurate, or that Lord Cullen's recommendations were misleading? The comments that have just been made confuse me.

Mr. Michael

That goes a little wider than the debate, but it is clear that Lord Cullen's findings were based sincerely on the evidence that he heard during the inquiry. Many people gave a great deal of thought to the matter and we came to the conclusion, as did the representatives of police officers, that a complete ban on handguns was the right way forward.

That in no way denigrates Lord Cullen or his inquiry, or suggests that his findings were misleading. At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the House, led by the Government, to reach conclusions. It is fair to say that when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe was Home Secretary, he came to conclusions that went beyond Lord Cullen's recommendations. That was the exercise of proper judgment on the report and the evidence that was provided to the inquiry.

Several of the contributions to the debate require comment. The shadow Home Secretary said that the Bill would mean the end of pistol shooting in gun clubs. That was extensively debated on Second Reading.

The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) said that we should consider the chances of harm. However, we must also consider consistency and the ease of enforcement of legislation, which is what led chief police officers to express alarm at the idea that there would be only a limited ban on some handguns, rather than a consistent ban on handguns as a whole.

I appreciate that many hon. Members who have contributed to the debate disagree with the Bill as a whole. Some of the points that were made were Second Reading points, albeit addressed to the amendment. I do not think that a case has been made by the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) or other speakers, for single-shot small-calibre pistols to be exempted from the general prohibition on handguns. That, of course, is what the debate is about. I want to make it clear that we are not prepared to allow such an exemption.

Mr. Howard

The Minister referred—I may have misunderstood his reference—to the spokesman for chief police officers and the concerns that they had raised. In fact, the position of the Association of Chief Police Officers was as I set it out in my speech on Second Reading last week. ACPO supported the proposals of the previous Government. I know that certain other police associations took a different view, but the chief police officers supported not a total ban, but the position taken and enshrined in legislation by the previous Government.

Mr. Michael

Both the Police Superintendents Association and the Police Federation formally welcomed the stance that we took. The discussions that I have had with representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers in recent weeks have focused more on remaining loopholes than on concern about our proposals. That has come clearly—

Mr. Howard

indicated dissent.

Mr. Michael

The right hon. and learned Gentleman can shake his head as much as he likes. I am referring to the conversations and discussions that have informed our preparation for these debates and the introduction of the Bill.

Mr. Howard

I know nothing of private conversations or discussions that the Minister may have had. ACPO placed its view firmly on the record. I referred to that view in the debate last week. It was not challenged at the time, either by the hon. Gentleman or by the Home Secretary. It is firmly on the record. ACPO's on-the-record position, as set out by me in the debate last week, is in support of the legislation put on the statute book by the previous Government.

Mr. Michael

The Police Federation considered our proposals a victory for common sense. I say again to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the comments that I have received from ACPO have been entirely about remaining loopholes—for instance, the one involving black powder guns to which I referred earlier. ACPO is anxious that there should be no loopholes in the availability of handguns. Our position is clear. Perhaps matters have moved on since the right hon. and learned Gentleman introduced his Bill.

Mr. Chope

Does the Minister think that it is the responsibility of the police to decide the law of this country, or will he, on behalf of the Government, accept responsibility for deciding the law?

Mr. Michael

The hon. Gentleman did not raise that point when the shadow Home Secretary was quoting the Police Federation in support of anything that he did. It is reasonable for Members on either side to quote the views of police officers, particularly the representative bodies, when legislation which has implications for the police—in relation to enforcement or to their safety, as well as public safety—is under consideration in the House.

We have concluded that it was neither practical nor safe to allow the exemption suggested in the amendment. That is the answer to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), whose contribution was thoughtful and considered until she accused the Government of being authoritarian. We are trying to ensure consistency to bring about the protection of the public.

The number of small-calibre pistols in current ownership is small—perhaps only several hundred—but an exemption would mean an increase in that number. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North, I say that it could well mean an increase in the number of single-shot pistols of a quite different type from the specialist guns to which several hon. Members referred in the debate.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

As I recall, several Conservative Members pressed the Minister to explain how he thinks that not accepting the amendment would prevent another tragedy similar to that at Dunblane. So far, the only answer that he has given is about consistency. When we are dealing with the individual liberties of law-abiding citizens, surely we need a better excuse than that.

Mr. Michael

I am sorry—I was not addressing that point, and I am not sure that that is a good question. It is clear that the impact of single-shot pistols is not the same as that of multi-shot pistols. The question is whether we should ban all handguns, which is what the Bill seeks to do and on which there is considerable agreement, not least because of the view of the police that that is much easier to enforce and also makes it easier to distinguish when illegal guns are being carried. If pistols are not legal, it is clear that if one is being carried, it is illegal.

Mr. Soames

I am sorry to push the Minister. Will he define for us exactly the safety argument in the matter? Will he also say why the exemption cannot be made, when there is a perfectly satisfactory licensing system that works when the police do their job properly? It is plain that the existing system would allow the exemption to be monitored adequately.

Mr. Michael

The hon. Gentleman missed the Second Reading debate, when he should have made that point. We are dealing now with a very specific exclusion—which is what I am trying to address.

Mr. Soames

Answer the question.

Mr. Michael

The hon. Gentleman mutters grumpily, as he has done throughout the debate. If he had mentioned his point on the Second Reading, it might have been worthy of debate. Perhaps he should read the transcript of that debate again.

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. We shall not have a debate across the Floor of the Chamber.

5.30 pm
Mr. Howard

On a point of order, Mr. Martin. Is it not highly relevant to an amendment that seeks to exempt from the provisions of the Bill a particular weapon in particular circumstances that questions be raised as to the safety argument for not exempting that weapon? Is that matter not highly germane to the amendment at present under discussion in Committee?

The First Deputy Chairman

Hon. Members can raise any matter in Committee so long as it relates to the amendment. Amendment No. 7 is very narrow, and we cannot have a Second Reading debate on it. Comments must be confined to the amendment before the Committee.

Mr. Soames

Further to that point of order, Mr. Martin. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), my hon. Friends the Members for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) and for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and I addressed clearly the question of safety within the narrow context of the clause. Is it not intolerable that a junior Minister replying on behalf of the Government should not answer a perfectly sensible question about the safety argument advanced by the Government, which is key to the debate?

The First Deputy Chairman

The amendment does not relate to safety: it deals with another matter entirely. The hon. Gentleman referred to "the clause", but this is not a clause stand part debate. We are debating amendment No. 7.

Mr. Soames

Further to that point of order, Mr. Martin. The proposed clause relates to—

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. We are not debating the clause; we are debating an amendment to the clause.

Mr. Soames

The amendment to the clause framed by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey clearly states: which is incapable of holding more than one cartridge and is not derived from a multi-shot design". The burden of the debate hinges on safety. Is it not intolerable that the Minister should refuse to answer my question?

The First Deputy Chairman

The Minister may express himself in any way he chooses. If he is out of order, I shall be the first to remind him of that fact.

Mr. Michael

I am very grateful, Mr. Martin. We are hearing some bluster from Opposition Members. The debate is not about safety but about whether there should be exemptions and whether those exemptions would be safe. The point raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) was a matter for the Second Reading debate. The claim of this group of shooters is no better than that made by many other groups who will be disadvantaged by the Bill. We accept that people will be disadvantaged by the legislation—that is an inevitable consequence of passing it into law. We cannot impose a general ban on handguns and then make exceptions that undermine the ban. The fact is that a single-shot pistol is capable of being lethal, portable and easy to conceal. The only difference is that it can be fired a single time, rather than several times, within a short period.

Mr. Frank Cook

The Minister is making a powerful case for consistency. He has referred to that point many times. However, he has not answered the questions that I posed on Monday or Wednesday, or the nine points that I raised with the Home Secretary on Second Reading. I received no answer to other questions that I raised earlier this year. There are many things wrong with firearms legislation in this country. The Government are pleading consistency, but patently ignoring it.

Mr. Michael

I am sorry that my hon. Friend is not satisfied with the answers that he has received. This Bill is very narrow: it says simply that we will move from banning 80 per cent. of handguns to banning all handguns. That is all the legislation does; it does not address a wide range of issues. Amendment No. 7 tries to reintroduce an exemption for one specific category of handguns: .22 single-shot weapons. My point—I am glad that my hon. Friend believes that I am making it powerfully—is that such an exemption would make nonsense of the Bill. It would treat one group of shooters in a way that is inconsistent with the general approach that is written into the Bill.

I referred to the evidence given to Lord Cullen because several hon. Members mentioned the speed of shooting using a single-shot handgun, which they claimed was one shot per minute. However, evidence to Cullen suggests otherwise. Mr. David Penn, a member of the Firearms Consultative Committee, stated: With reasonable practice, a shooter could get the reloading time down to about five seconds. I am content to accept that this could be achieved. That is the evidence that a firearms expert gave to the Cullen inquiry, and it appears at paragraph 9.52 of the report.

Mr. Soames


Mr. Michael

I think that I have had enough of the hon. Gentleman's interventions: they do not contribute much to the debate.

Mr. Soames

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He talks about consistency. If a man is sufficiently skilled to be able to reload a single-shot handgun in five seconds, why does that not apply also to an ordinary single-shot .22 rifle? Where is the consistency in that regard?

Mr. Michael

I do not see the hon. Gentleman's point. We are discussing a Bill that deals entirely with banning handguns. The amendment proposes an exemption in relation to single-shot .22 calibre handguns. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is not used to taking part in general debate in this place since transferring to the other side. We are addressing very specific points about a very specific amendment to a very narrow Bill.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

I thank the Minister for giving way again. The Bill does not ban 100 per cent. of handguns, as it already makes exceptions for trophies of war, black powder weapons and other antique weapons. We are asking that one further category be exempted: the weapons used by Olympic shooters.

Mr. Michael

The exemptions that the hon. Gentleman mentioned were made by the 1997 Act, which is already in place. We seek not to address all gun licensing deficiencies, but to deal with only one element: the exemption of 20 per cent. of handguns allowed by the 1997 Act. That is what this legislation deals with; it is attempting to exempt a narrower group than was exempted by the 1997 Act.

I point out once again that, if we introduce the exemption proposed by amendment No. 7, legally held weapons may still be used illegally. We cited the figures last week: one incident of gun theft—which may involve the theft of several weapons—occurs in England and Wales every day. That may pose a danger to the public. The exemption proposed by amendment No. 7 would undermine the principle embodied in the Act that there should be a complete ban on handguns.

Mr. Chope

Will the hon. Gentleman warn all people contemplating travelling to France for their holidays that they will face a grave risk in so doing as it is possible to purchase a single-shot .22 handgun over the counter in that country?

Mr. Michael

There is a high incidence of accidents involving firearms in France. The point is that we deal with legislation for this country—I thought Opposition Members were generally in favour of that. We are trying to ensure public safety through a total ban on handguns rather than a partial ban, which would be difficult to enforce. However, that is a Second Reading point. We are now considering the narrow proposition that single-shot .22 weapons should be exempt from the ban. I would like to respond in detail to several smaller points raised by hon. Members, but that is the big picture. If we were to accept this amendment, it would undermine the consistency of our legislation, which aims to deal consistently with banning handguns. We believe that the 1997 Act, which is already in place, is defective. The Bill will put matters right. Acceptance of the amendment would undermine the consistency that we are trying to introduce.

Mr. Colvin

With the leave of the Committee, if that is necessary, I shall respond to some of the remarks that have been made during the debate. I am not satisfied with the Minister's summing up and, at the end of my response, I shall press my amendment to a Division.

We heard a powerful speech, as we are accustomed to in this place, from the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook). The hon. Gentleman always speaks robustly on whatever subject is before us. He speaks with immense knowledge of shooting, especially pistol shooting, and he is always sincere. That being so, it is significant that he failed to win any proper answers from the Minister of State. Nor did he receive any satisfactory answers on Second Reading.

I am pleased that so many Conservative Members have been able to participate in the debate and to have been in their places throughout it, especially as a beauty contest is taking place in Committee Room 10 for the leadership of the Tory party. I was pleased that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) found time to enter the Chamber and join us in the debate. I have no doubt that he will give us his robust support. I hope that that does not mean that he has already been eliminated from the beauty contest. Perhaps the contest is one reason why more hon. Members have not been present. However, Conservative Members have consistently outnumbered Labour Members throughout the afternoon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) made, as one would expect, a powerful response in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), on legislation that might be pending to strengthen control of shotguns. I put the same question to the Minister of State on Second Reading. I asked him then how many draft Bills were in preparation, including those bringing shotguns and air rifles within section 1 certification. I did not receive an answer on Second Reading and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex did not receive one this afternoon.

Mr. Michael

If we followed every rabbit that the hon. Gentleman seeks to set running round the field, we would be denying things left, right and centre. There are no draft Bills.

Mr. Colvin

I am pleased to hear that. That is the response that we could well have heard on Second Reading.

5.45 pm

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made the important point that neither the Hungerford massacre nor the Dunblane massacre could have taken place if the Bill, as it would be if the amendment were accepted, were enacted. Such a massacre could not be carried out with a single-shot .22. It is wrong to suggest that the public will be endangered if the amendment is incorporated in the Bill.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) made a significant point, which was echoed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the shadow Home Secretary. My amendment, as drafted, implies that single-shot .22 pistols could be kept at home, and that is intentional. If the argument is accepted that such pistols pose no danger to the general public because they are specifically constructed match pistols and impractical for use in crime or, indeed, for any other illegal purpose, there is no reason why they should not be kept at home.

If we had sought to exclude .22 pistols from the home and had insisted in the amendment that they should be retained in gun clubs in secure conditions, would the Minister have accepted such an amendment? It is a matter to which he might give further thought between the debates in this place and those in another place that are to follow it.

Mr. Connarty

The amendment refers to single-shot pistols, not specifically designed Olympic single-shot specially crafted pistols. If everyone who now holds a .22 pistol wishes to transfer to ownership of a single-shot .22, 40,000 .22 pistols will still be in circulation. That is the worry. What would happen if someone such as Hamilton were to have two or three single-shot guns? Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that three deaths are just as bad as 16? At the beginning of the day of Dunblane, we were told that only one child had been killed. Does the hon. Gentleman not remember the shock of the nation?

Mr. Colvin

The hon. Gentleman is obviously the Minister of State's messenger boy as his parliamentary private secretary. He has displayed his ignorance of what the sport of shooting is all about. We are talking about single-shot sporting .22s that cannot be adapted for any other purpose.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) made the sort of intervention that would be expected from an hon. Member with a strong constituency interest, in that he has Bisley, the home of the National Rifle Association, in his constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) argued that .22 pistol shooting was the crème de la crème of competition shooting. He expressed the hope that, in accepting the amendment, the Government would save face. We on the Conservative Benches are not normally in the business of suggesting ways in which the Government might save face, but in this instance they have it wrong and we have it right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold asked specifically how many fatalities there have been as a result of crimes involving 22 rimfire handguns. We have not had an answer to that question.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) asked three specific questions. He wanted to know whether the amendment would help, whether it is right and whether it could cause harm. We have not had satisfactory answers.

Mr. Chope

Is my hon. Friend able to surmise why we have not had answers to the pertinent questions to which he has referred, when the Prime Minister has said that he wants there to be maximum public scrutiny of all proposed legislation passing through the House of Commons? Why have Ministers not been prepared to answer pertinent questions?

Mr. Colvin

I thank my hon. Friend—

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. It is best that we do not go too wide of the amendment. It is not for the hon. Gentleman to speculate why an hon. Member expressed himself in a certain way.

Mr. Colvin

I acknowledge your wisdom, Mr. Martin. I shall keep myself strictly to order.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) raised some other interesting issues earlier in the debate. He was told by the Minister of State in an intervention in his speech that the Government were carrying out a review on safety. My hon. Friend had raised the important issue of single-shot .22 handguns. We were told that this is subject to yet another review. One of these days I shall table a question asking just how many reviews the Government have in being and how many civil servants are involved. Setting up a review seems to be the answer to every question on policy.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, with whom I was in complete agreement—unlike the previous debate in which I took part on this matter, when he was on the Government Benches and I gave him a rather rough ride—made the point that the official Opposition line does not enable them to support the amendment because it enables single-fire .22 pistols to be retained in the home. Would the Minister look again at the provision if an amendment were tabled in another place prohibiting the storage of these pistols in the home and insisting that they are stored in designated, official rifle clubs?

Mr. Michael

The hon. Gentleman is starting to back-track from his amendment because it is deficient in a number of ways. He really should look at the evidence that was given to Lord Cullen by firearms experts about the ease of obtaining guns and extracting them from gun clubs. It is not as simple as the hon. Gentleman suggests, and he should not hope for further consideration of his amendment.

Mr. Colvin

That displays a certain amount of dictatorial inflexibility on the part of the Government.

Mr. Soames

Can my hon. Friend help me, in view of the woefully inadequate summing up by the Minister of State? Everyone—including the Minister, although he does not understand it—acknowledges the extraordinarily high standards of safety, competence and skill of gun clubs, yet the Minister will not accept the amendment, presumably on the ground of safety. What is it that is so unsafe about this?

Mr. Colvin

The simple answer is that .22 single-shot handguns are remarkably safe. They are probably the safest firearms there are. We have heard from a few hon. Members how dangerous some other firearms, such as shotguns, are. Perhaps an air rifle is one degree safer, but it is very little different from a .22. I think that the Minister has got the message. I very much hope that he will have second thoughts about what is proposed in the amendment and his reluctance to look at the matter between now and when the Bill is considered in another place.

The Government are being very inflexible and dictatorial. They are also displaying ignorance of the sport of competition shooting. It is quite wrong to suggest that an exception for this type of handgun would drive a coach and horses through the Bill. That just is not so. We are in this place to defend the rights of minorities, and that is what Opposition Members have been doing with vigour, with stalwart help from the hon. Member for Stockton, North.

This is yet one more occasion when the proposers and supporters of the amendment have won the argument, and having done so, it is fair that on this occasion we should see whether we can also win the vote. I shall press my amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 123, Noes 333.

Division No. 29] [5.53 pm
Amess, David Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Clifton—Brown, Geoffrey
Baker, Norman Collins, Tim
Beith, Rt Hon A J Colvin, Michael
Bercow, John Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Beresford, Sir Paul Cormack, Sir Patrick
Blunt, Crispin Cotter, Brian
Body, Sir Richard Cran, James
Boswell, Tim Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Davies, Quentin (Grantham &Stamford)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia
Brady, Graham Duncan, Alan
Brazier, Julian Duncan Smith, Iain
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Browning, Mrs Angela Evans, Nigel
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Faber, David
Butterfill, John Fabricant, Michael
Cable, Dr Vincent Flight, Howard
Cann, Jamie Foster, Don (Bath)
Cash, William Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Fraser, Christopher
Gale, Roger
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington) Garnier, Edward
Gibb, Nick Prior, David
Gill, Christopher Redwood, Rt Hon John
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Robathan, Andrew
Gray, James Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Green, Damian Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Greenway, John Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Grieve, Dominic Ruffley, David
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Hammond, Philip St Aubyn, Nick
Hawkins, Nick Sanders, Adrian
Hayes, John Sayeed, Jonathan
Heathcoat—Amory, Rt Hon David Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Horam, John Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Soames, Nicholas
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Hunter, Andrew Spicer, Sir Michael
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Spring, Richard
Jenkin, Bernard (N Essex) Steen, Anthony
Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Swayne, Desmond
Syms, Robert
Key, Robert Tapsell, Sir Peter
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Taylor, Matthew (Truro & St Austell)
Lansley, Andrew
Leigh, Edward Townend, John
Letwin, Oliver Tredinnick, David
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Tyrie, Andrew
Lidington, David Walter, Robert
Loughton, Tim Wardle, Charles
Luff, Peter Whitney, Sir Raymond
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Malins, Humfrey Wilkinson, John
Maples, John Willetts, David
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Wilshire, David
May, Mrs Theresa Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Mitchell, Austin Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Nicholls, Patrick Woodward, Shaun
Opik, Lembit Yeo, Tim
Page, Richard
Paice, James Tellers for the Ayes:
Paterson, Owen Mr. Peter Atkinson and
Mr. Christopher Chope.
Abbott, Ms Diane Browne, Desmond (Kilmarnock)
Ainger, Nick Buck, Ms Karen
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Butler, Christine
Allan, Richard (Shef'ld Hallam) Byers, Stephen
Allen, Graham (Nottingham N) Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)
Ashton, Joe Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Atherton, Ms Candy Canavan, Dennis
Atkins, Ms Charlotte Caplin, Ivor
Austin, John Casale, Roger
Barron, Kevin Caton, Martin
Battle, John Cawsey, Ian
Bayley, Hugh Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Beard, Nigel Chaytor, David
Begg, Miss Anne (Aberd'n S) Clapham, Michael
Bennett, Andrew F Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Benton, Joe Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Bermingham, Gerald
Berry, Roger Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Best, Harold Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Betts, Clive Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Blackman, Mrs Liz Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Blears, Ms Hazel Clelland, David
Blizzard, Robert Coaker, Vernon
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Coffey, Ms Ann
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Cohen, Harry
Bradshaw, Ben Coleman, Iain (Hammersmith & Fulham)
Brinton, Mrs Helen
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E & Wallsend) Colman, Anthony (Putney)
Connarty, Michael
Cooper. Ms Yvette Hoon, Geoffrey
Corbett, Robin Hope, Philip
Corbyn, Jeremy Hopkins, Kelvin
Cousins, Jim Howells, Dr Kim
Cox, Tom Hoyle, Lindsay
Cranston, Ross Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford & Urmston)
Crausby, David
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Humble, Mrs Joan
Cummings, John Hurst, Alan
Cunliffe, Lawrence Hutton, John
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Iddon, Brian
Curtis-Thomas, Ms Clare Illsley, Eric
Dalyell, Tam Jackson, Mrs Helen (Hillsborough)
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Jamieson, David
Darvill, Keith Jenkins, Brian (Tarnworth)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Johnson, Alan (Hull W)
Davidson, Ian Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Jones, Ms Fiona (Newark)
Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly) Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)
Dean, Ms Janet
Denham, John Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Dismore, Andrew Jowell, Ms Tessa
Dobbin, Jim Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank Keeble, Ms Sally
Donohoe, Brian H Keen, Alan (Feltham)
Doran, Frank Keen, Mrs Ann (Brentford)
Dowd, Jim Kemp, Fraser
Drew, David Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Drown, Ms Julia Khabra, Piara S
Eagle, Ms Maria (L'pool Garston) Kidney, David
Edwards, Huw Kilfoyle, Peter
Efford, Clive King, Andy (Rugby)
Ellman, Ms Louise King, Miss Oona (Bethnal Green)
Ennis, Jeff Kingham, Tessa
Etherington, Bill Kirkwood, Archy
Fitzpatrick, Jim Kumar, Dr Ashok
Fitzsimons, Ms Lorna Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Flint, Ms Caroline Lawrence, Ms Jackie
Flynn, Paul Laxton, Bob
Follett, Ms Barbara Lepper, David
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Leslie, Christopher
Foster, Michael John (Worcester) Levitt, Tom
Foulkes, George Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Fyfe, Maria Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Gardiner, Barry Linton, Martin
George, Bruce (Walsall S) Livingstone, Ken
Gerrard, Neil Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Gibson, Dr Ian Lock, David
Godman, Dr Norman A Love, Andy
Godsiff, Roger McAllion, John
Goggins, Paul McAvoy, Thomas
Golding, Mrs Llin McCabe, Stephen
Gordon, Mrs Eileen McCafferty, Ms Chris
Graham, Thomas McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
Grant, Bernie McDonagh, Ms Siobhain
Griffiths, Ms Jane (Reading E) Macdonald, Calum
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) McDonnell, John
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) McGuire, Mrs Anne
Grogan, John McIsaac, Ms Shona
Gunnell, John McKenna, Ms Rosemary
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Mackinlay, Andrew
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) McLeish, Henry
Hancock, Mike McMaster, Gordon
Hanson, David McNamara, Kevin
Heal, Mrs Sylvia McNulty, Tony
Healey, John MacShane, Denis
Hepburn, Stephen Mc Walter, Tony
Heppell, John McWilliam, John
Hesford, Stephen Mahon, Mrs Alice
Hill, Keith Mallaber, Ms Judy
Hinchliffe, David Mandelson, Peter
Hodge, Ms Margaret Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Home Robertson, John Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Hood, Jimmy Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Martlew, Eric Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Maxton, John Shipley, Ms Debra
Meale, Alan Singh, Marsha
Merron, Ms Gillian Skinner, Dennis
Michael, Alun Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
Milburn, Alan Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Miller, Andrew
Moffatt, Laura Smith, Ms Jacqui (Redditch)
Moonie, Dr Lewis Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Moran, Ms Margaret Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Soley, Clive
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W) Spellar, John
Morley, Elliot Squire, Ms Rachel
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon) Stevenson, George
Mountford, Ms Kali Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Mudie, George Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Mullin, Chris Stinchcombe, Paul
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Stott, Roger
Naysmith, Dr Doug Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Norris, Dan Stuart, Mrs Gisela (Edgbaston)
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Stunell, Andrew
O'Brien, William (Normanton) Sutcliffe, Gerry
O'Hara, Edward Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Olner, Bill
O'Neill, Martin Taylor, Ms Dan (Stockton S)
Osborne, Mrs Sandra Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Palmer, Dr Nick Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Pearson, Ian Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Pendry, Tom Timms, Stephen
Perham, Ms Linda Tipping, Paddy
Pike, Peter L Todd, Mark
Plaskitt, James Touhig, Don
Pollard, Kerry Trickett, Jon
Pond, Chris Truswell, Paul
Pope, Greg Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Pound, Stephen Turner, Desmond (Kemptown)
Powell, Sir Raymond Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Primarolo, Dawn Vis, Dr Rudi
Prosser, Gwyn Ward, Ms Claire
Purchase, Ken Wareing, Robert N
Quin, Ms Joyce Watts, David
Quinn, Lawrie Webb, Steven
Radice, Giles White, Brian
Rammell, Bill Whitehead, Alan
Rapson, Syd Wicks, Malcolm
Raynsford, Nick Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Reid, Dr John (Hamilton N) Williams, Dr Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Robertson, Rt Hon George (Hamilton S)
Rogers, Allan Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Rooker, Jeff Wills, Michael
Rooney, Terry Winnick, David
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Rowlands, Ted Wise, Audrey
Roy, Frank Wood, Mike
Ruane, Chris Woolas, Phil
Ruddock, Ms Joan Wray, James
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Ryan, Ms Joan Wright, Tony (Gt Yarmouth)
Savidge, Malcolm Wyatt, Derek
Sawford, Phil
Shaw, Jonathan Tellers for the Noes:
Janet Anderson and
Mr. John McFall.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Clause I should not stand part of the Bill, because the Government have not been able to justify it. That was clear from the Minister's inadequate response to the previous debate. Despite being pressed numerous times, he was unable to give specific safety reasons why single-shot .22 handguns should not be added to the exemptions for certain closely defined categories of firearms holder.

It is legitimate and sensible to permit the 7,000 veterinary officers in this country to handle a handgun safely in certain conditions: not all them work in large animal practices that require a heavier calibre or repeat-shot weapon to dispose of casualty animals humanely. If it is sensible for them to be allowed to use handguns, what specific extra safety danger would be posed by permitting a group of people involved in target shooting competitions or in Olympic sports to fire .22 weapons with single-shot capacity? Largely for that reason, the Opposition will vote against the clause. The Government have also failed to answer the questions posed by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook).

Make no mistake, if the clause is accepted, Britain will be the only country banned from international pistol shooting competitions. The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 at least allowed competitors from this country to take part on the international stage in the three .22 calibre events in the Olympic and Commonwealth games.

We have a long, noble and honourable tradition in the sport of pistol shooting, which Britain invented and has dominated for more than 100 years. It is a sporting success story for Britain. In the past 10 years of Commonwealth competition, our competitors have brought home 23 pistol shooting medals in the .22 calibre events alone. As one of the original 12 modern Olympic disciplines, the sport deserves the same recognition as other more visible sports. It should not be lightly destroyed for no practical gain.

Pistol shooting is one of those sports in which everyone—young, old, male, female, able-bodied or disabled—competes on equal terms. They are all valued in the sport. Indeed, pistol shooting offers positive incentives for disabled people, but we shall come to that later, so I shall not stray down that avenue now.

It is legitimate to point out, however, that the British Paraplegic Shooting Association says that shooting is a form of rehabilitation that helps many disabled people with balance and confidence, primarily in the use of a wheelchair and for sport. It provides them with a better quality of life, and encourages them to respect themselves as disabled people in an able-bodied world. If the clause is accepted, disabled people and others will be disqualified from firing pistols in safe conditions.

Whether able-bodied or disabled, pistol shooters are honourable sports people. They cannot be lumped into the same category as the madman of Dunblane. He was granted a gun licence when, according to the Cullen report, the law was not applied as rigorously as Parliament intended when the firearms Acts were passed—I shall leave the hon. Member for Stockton, North to be more specific on that.

The clause bans all sporting pistol shooting. The Opposition would happily go along with that if it provided a sensible gain. If the Government were telling us that there would be a grave danger, a significant loophole and serious risks if we allowed such shooting to continue, every hon. Member would say, "That's it, I agree entirely." No matter how honourable the sport, no matter how long the tradition, no matter the circumstances in which it is conducted, no matter that many disabled people can participate, we would be happy to let the sport be destroyed if the clause added measurable safety precautions to the existing controls, but it does not. The clause is nonsense.

6.15 pm

Rigorous safety controls to protect the public are already provided by the 1997 Act. Let me remind the Committee of those controls. The only pistol that the law still permits under the 1997 Act is a .22 pistol. The pistol is not to be left in secure gun cabinets in people's homes: it must be left only in those gun clubs that can show that they meet strict security criteria, that they satisfy the police that their premises have adequate security, and that appropriate procedures are in place to avoid any unauthorised removal of firearms from the premises.

Under the 1997 Act, pistols have to be held in those strictly limited, highly controlled and regulated circumstances. When the Act was going through, many hon. Members and people outside the House said that those conditions were so restrictive that many clubs would be destroyed, because they would not be able to meet such strict criteria. The previous Government hoped that that would not happen, but strict security controls had to apply to protect the public before shooting could be conducted safely.

Under the 1997 Act, .22 pistols can be moved from a club only if they have to be repaired or if the owner is competing in a national target shooting competition at a different club. Before a gun can be removed from a club, a permit from the police is required, and the gun has to be carried by a third party whom the police are satisfied is a fit and proper person to discharge that responsibility.

Those measures to protect the public are in the existing law. The only excuse that the Government have offered for the clause is that it is consistent with the 1997 Act. That argument is nonsense. Of course one hopes that, somewhere along the line, legislation is consistent with existing law, but that is not a good enough reason for abolishing a sport and for abolishing .22 shooting, when, to use the phrase that the Minister used earlier, there would be no practical safety gain.

When pressed further, the Minister said that, when the Government talk about maximum safety, what they really mean is maximum practical safety. That is a considerable explanation—I was going to say "loophole"—and the Minister has perhaps given a considerable hostage to fortune.

I agree with the Minister that we should ensure maximum practical safety, but it adds not one iota of practical safety to go further than the rigorous controls in the 1997 Act—which permits .22 shooting only at gun clubs in strict conditions—and to abolish the sport altogether.

The clause has a practical effect. We take the Home Secretary at his word, because he is an honourable man. He intends to use section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968 to exempt foreign competitors who come to this country to participate in the Commonwealth games or for the Olympic games if we win the chance to hold them here in the future. I know that that can be done. Special certificates will be issued under section 5 to allow those competitors to shoot here.

There will be competitors from 50 to 60 countries, because shooting is one of the most important sports in those countries that were pressing Manchester to include shooting in its Commonwealth games application. No doubt arrangements can be put in place for those competitors, and we may later press the Government about them. It will be difficult, and much time will be spent by people at Queen Anne's gate and among police forces working it out, but arrangements can be put in place to allow such people to shoot in this country.

What nonsense. No doubt the media will wish to cover shooting events at the next Commonwealth games, and will find interesting the spectacle of people from other countries coming with weapons and firing them in strictly controlled conditions. They will fire those guns safely at sporting events, and the only people not able to take part will be potential British competitors in their own country, because clause 1 forbids it.

That is the nonsense that the Government advocate on the ground of consistency with the 1997 Act. It is not consistent, because that Act allows some exceptions. We have heard about the black powder case, and about the exception for veterinary officers who use weapons to kill injured animals humanely.

We suggested in an earlier debate that an exception on single-shot weapons could have been added. We lost that argument, and we naturally accept the overwhelming majority against us. Although we lost the vote, I do not think that my hon. Friends and I lost the argument, because the Government did not have a legitimate answer.

I should like to share with the Committee a letter from the British Olympic Association, which I think all hon. Members have received. The letter states: Whilst the British Olympic Association welcomes tighter firearms control which will ensure that tragedies such as Hungerford and Dunblane are never repeated we are concerned about the impact that the proposed legislation will have on competitive pistol shooting in this country. The legislation, as it stands, will effectively preclude representation by British athletes at future Olympic Games in the three Olympic shooting disciplines concerned. With 135 national federations competing for 20-30 places in each discipline there is a significant level of training and commitment necessary to achieve an Olympic quota place. Forcing competitive pistol shooting abroad will kill the sport and with it the necessary depth to ensure international representation at the highest level. We therefore strongly support any reasonable amendments which will allow competitive pistol shooting in the Olympic discipline to continue. I may wish to refer to that letter when we debate the new clauses. I mention it now because the Government have been quite dictatorial in driving through their opposition to amendment No. 7, which was perfectly reasonable, and they can easily win all the votes.

If the Government will not pay attention to the British Olympic Association, the British Shooting Sports Council, and the many honest sportsmen and sportswomen, some of whom have been or may still be police officers or who have served in the military, and who have handled handguns perfectly safely over the years and are members of shooting teams, I urge them at least to listen to Back Benchers such as the hon. Member for Stockton, North, who spoke with considerable authority on the subject.

If the Government see a chance of introducing even more tightly controlled conditions than those in the 1997 Act to permit sporting shooting in some form or other to survive, why will they not co-operate with us on that? If the single-shot amendment was flawed, or if, in the Government's view, it is too dangerous, is there nothing at all that they would be tempted to accept in the new clauses that would permit, under extraordinarily tight conditions—perhaps in one centre in the country—sporting shooting of some description to continue?

If it is the Government's view that it is wrong per se to allow such shooting to continue, they should say so. It is perfectly legitimate for them to say, "We do not want such shooting to take place at all. We do not want anyone who does not wear Her Majesty's uniform to fire a pistol under any conditions." If that is the Government's view, they should not hide behind a bogus safety argument that they have not made out to justify clause 1. Nor should they hide behind the argument of consistency, because their response to the debate on amendment No. 7 was clearly inconsistent with the exceptions in the 1997 Act.

If the Government say, "We want to reduce the number of people handling guns because of the gun culture," let them tackle television and the influence of films that promote the gun culture. They should not tackle the Commonwealth games team and the British Olympic team, and those who legitimately handle firearms safely in gun clubs.

There is a tremendous obligation on the Government to explain why they are determined to shoot down, if I may use that phrase, any amendment that would permit shooting in any circumstances. By their actions, they seem to be saying, "We have taken a decision on principle. All guns will be banned, and we do not care what arguments you or anyone else present, whether on safety, sporting, Olympic or disablement grounds. That is our argument in principle, and we are not bending from it." If that is their view, let them say so.

Unless the Government give some hope that it will be possible to protect in some narrow way the glorious tradition of .22 British pistol shooting at sporting events such as the Olympic games, the Opposition will have no option but to vote against clause 1 standing part of the Bill.

Mr. Michael

I shall be brief, because I do not want to go over the ground that was covered on Second Reading. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I explained the case for the Bill in Wednesday's debate. That case was clearly made, and it commanded the overwhelming support of hon. Members.

I do not intend to enter into debate about the Commonwealth or Olympic games, because new clauses deal with those issues. In his opening speech, the Home Secretary accepted and set out the Bill's impact, and he was congratulated by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee on being open and honest about that rather than trying to hide it. Our stall and the reasons for the Bill have been clearly set out.

Clause 1 contains the Bill's key element, and that is why it must stand part of the Bill. That key element is the prohibition of small-calibre pistols, which was accepted so overwhelmingly on Second Reading. The clause extends to small-calibre pistols the ban that was instituted by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. That Act prohibited 80 per cent. of handguns from general civilian ownership, and clause 1 prohibits the remainder.

The points in the speech by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) were made by some of his hon. Friends when he was the Minister responsible for these matters. He was not convinced then, and I am not convinced now. I assure the right hon. Gentleman and the Committee that we did not introduce a measure which we know will affect the sport of shooting lightly or without thought.

As I said earlier, in our original evidence to Lord Cullen, we said that we would look at the possibility of protecting the sporting use of handguns, although we felt that there was a strong case for a general ban. Our conclusion, which was thoughtful and reasoned, was that a complete ban was the right way forward. In opposition, we supported the 1997 Act, because we saw it as a vast improvement on earlier law. However, we also said, and have always said, that we did not think that it went far enough.

I am glad that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border accepts the principle that public safety should override the interests of sport. We think that a total ban on handguns will help public safety, but from his speech it is clear that the right hon. Gentleman does not. It is a matter of judgment, but I am glad that, unlike some of his hon. Friends, the right hon. Gentleman accepts the principle on which we have based the legislation. We believe that it will have the practical effect of increasing public safety, and, as I have said, we did not come to that conclusion without careful thought. We did not believe that the 1997 Act went far enough, or that the pistol clubs system proposed under the Act would guarantee the public's safety. The only way in which to do that is to remove the weapons from general circulation.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border cannot have it both ways. He says that we are not willing to listen and to allow exceptions, and then refers to the fact that we have indeed allowed and supported exceptions for veterinary purposes and for dealing with large mammals. Those are public interest exceptions rather than pure sporting exceptions, so we have been consistent, and have driven for the best possible outcome in legislation for the public's protection.

As I have said, the only way in which to achieve maximum public safety is to remove handguns from general circulation. That is the effect of the clause, and I hope that it can now stand part of the Bill.

6.30 pm
Mr. Soames

In the spirit of the speech made by the Minister of State, I shall not delay the House long.

I support my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). For many reasons, clause 1 should not stand part of the Bill. There is no sensible, pragmatic reason why the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) should not have been accepted. The safety arguments were not answered properly. The consistency case has been lamentably badly made. It has not in any way altered the balance of feelings of any Conservative Member who opposes the clause.

The other extraordinary thing is the Home Secretary's remarkably high-handed, arrogant and cheeky response to the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), who knows a lot about all this, and whose views on this matter are fortified and sustained by a considerable knowledge of sporting shooting. It is a pity that his views have not been more carefully listened to.

One of the purposes of the House is to safeguard faithfully the interests of minorities. It is unfortunate that, among other things, the Olympians, who have in such a distinguished manner represented this country for so long, will no longer be able to do so. That is a sad and unhappy state of affairs, which the House should not countenance or allow to happen.

Mr. Frank Cook

I do not know whether I shall delay the Committee uselessly this evening. Certainly, it is not my intention, but the simple truth is that I have raised numerous questions and made many points of logic, and none of them has received a sensible response. The only point that has been made in response to the case that I make, which I hope is based on common sense, is that I have been against the legislation from the outset and that I have been a passionate advocate, but that I am wrong anyway. That is not the way in which to counter logic.

I was against the previous legislation that was introduced by the Conservative regime and, as Opposition Whip on the Hungerford Bill, I was against aspects of that legislation. Incidentally, that was the first time that a Government lost their sittings motion. I am pleased to see the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who was a Minister at the time, sitting on the Opposition Front Bench. I am proud to say that I was responsible for the then Government losing the motion. I suppose that that is one way in which to get into "Erskine May". I was happy to do it.

That is a measure of the honesty that I have applied, or sought to apply, to proposals such as this all along, because all long they have been inadequate. Clause 1 is equally inadequate, because it does not recognise the simple truths of the matter. The whole morass of firearms legislation is full of anachronisms and anomalies. Clause 1 is symptomatic of that and one example of those anomalies.

What do we have in terms of facts? We know that Thomas Watt Hamilton acquired his original handgun illegally; that is a proven fact, provable with documentation. We know that his certification was inappropriate because the police did not check the false statements that he made; that is also a proven fact and checkable. We know that he was rejected by and indeed ejected from some of the gun clubs that he sought to join. We know that he engaged in illegal gun purchases and trading and that he threatened a lady with a loaded weapon through the open window of his stationary vehicle.

If that does not constitute grounds for the removal of all certificates and of all weapons, and indeed the throwing into custody of an individual, frankly, I do not know what the law means. The police had all those opportunities and, despite Sergeant Hughes pleading with his senior officers to take that course of action, a senior officer in the shape of a deputy chief constable refused to take action on the ground that he was afraid to go to a court of law on appeal. If they were as indolent and as dilatory in that instance, how do we know that they will be any more conscientious in the light of the Bill?

I have outlined the case in relation to Thomas Watt Hamilton. There is a similar history in the case of Michael Ryan and Hungerford. He, too, did not have lawfully held weapons, as those weapons are frequently described by both Downing street and the Home Office. Frankly, I do not know whether I do any good by raising those points, which I have raised so many times before. The Bill is based on a false premise. We are taking punitive action against people who are law-abiding, who have conformed in every respect to this country's legal requirements, as laid down by the House, and we intend to punish them and indeed to make them pay a considerable sum; no one will convince me that the draft compensation scheme is adequate to provide for the stocks that people hold, certainly the dealers. Therefore, there seems to be a deeply entrenched determination to expunge the sport of pistol and revolver target shooting from people's leisure opportunities, regardless of whether they be young or old, black or white, able or disabled.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is a supporter of Blackburn Rovers, who I am told have been known on occasion to play football. He will have attended those meetings and will have seen at the front, by the pitch side, disabled people watching the game, which I hope was entertaining—although it rarely was when Blackburn Rovers came to Middlesbrough. I wonder whether he has thought about whether the people sitting in those wheelchairs, or people with prostheses or arthritic callipers, take part in target shooting for the sake of a sense of sporting achievement, because many of them do. It might not have gained the attention of the Home Secretary on those occasions—[Interruption.]—and it certainly is not getting his attention today. Those people, whether they support Blackburn Rovers, any other football team or, indeed, any other sport, can, in the sport of target shooting, actively engage in the activity and compete on equal terms. We shall stop that if we go ahead with the Bill.

I want to put a question to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Is it his intention to do away with the sport altogether? If the answer is yes, and I fully expect it to be so, what will he do about policemen who are part of an armed team? I have news for the Home Secretary, as I had news for the previous incumbent of that post: any police officer undertaking firearms duty has an opportunity to use a shooting range, but the time on that range is limited. He has the opportunity to make several shots from a service weapon, but the number of rounds is limited. He has to stand square on at the range and shoot at a piece of cardboard, but that discipline is limited. To expect a policeman to go on active service with limited training time, limited experience loosing off rounds and with limited positional disciplines puts that officer at risk.

When I raised the matter previously, although perhaps not as comprehensively as I am doing today, the Home Secretary of the day said that police training was adequate. That is not so, but I would have great difficulty persuading a policeman to say so publicly. Why is that? It is because of questions of career development, of protection of pension rights and, sadly, because we live in a society in which the whistleblower virtually puts himself as the bull on the target at 25 m range, and has just as much chance of survival. It is indicative of the sort of nonsense surrounding the issue.

Many steps should be taken to make more stringent the legislation that applies to firearms of every sort, not just pistols and revolvers, but the Government are ignoring the anomalies. They are turning a blind eye, yet at the same time they are pretending to be consistent and logical. Frankly, they are neither.

This evening will not exhaust my will and my wish to continue preaching common sense, because I believe that legislation should be based on common sense and be practicable and enforceable. However, I can give my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary some comfort, because I regret that after this evening's proceedings I shall not be able to continue with my arguments because of parliamentary duties elsewhere. I want to be sure that my arguments are clearly understood tonight. All reasonable proposals, for which my right hon. Friend pleaded, have been ignored without any response or justification—[Interruption.]—indeed, they are being ignored at this very minute.

Mr. Colvin

I support the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) that clause 1 should not stand part. The Minister referred to clause 1 as the key element in the Bill, as it bans all .22 weapons. During the earlier debate on my amendment No. 7, which failed, the hon. Gentleman said that it was not the Government's business—and, indeed, it would be quite wrong—to talk about exemptions. However, as he admitted, there are already exemptions and exclusions. For example, he said that vets would be allowed to retain handguns. I would add the starters for athletic and swimming races. Slaughterhouse men are also entitled to retain handguns—.38 revolvers, which are much more dangerous than single-shot .22s used for competition purposes. There is also the question of black powder pistols. Exemptions and exclusions are already permitted and I see absolutely no reason to accept the Minister's argument against my amendment No. 7—that it would mean special exemptions. They exist in previous legislation and they exist in the Bill.

6.45 pm

There has been some discussion about the dangers of shooters going underground. Accepting amendment No. 7 or rejecting this clause would reduce that risk. If shooting with .22s is prohibited, there is a danger that some shooting might go underground. Of course, as other hon. Members have said, it is unlikely that any of the law-abiding community of sportsmen or women would go down that path.

I agree with the Minister on one matter—that the Conservative Members who have spoken today are generally opposed to the Bill. We have been doing our level best to try to salvage a sport at which Britain excels and which poses no security risk to the public. The Minister's arguments about safety were inadequate. As the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said, it defies all logic.

Perhaps we should draw a comparison between .22 shooting and archery. I happen to be an honorary member of the Romsey Archers. I know that someone with a bow and arrow can fire more accurate shots, over a longer range, at greater speed and with a more lethal effect than could ever be the case with a .22 single-shot pistol. I am not trying to make a case for banning archery—[Interruption.] Obviously, the Minister does not understand the logic of my case. I am pointing out the illogicality of the Bill.

My amendment was a narrow one and the Bill is also narrow, but nothing is as narrow as the minds of the Minister and of the Government in what they are trying to do in the Bill. That is why I have no hesitation in supporting my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border in asking the Committee to reject clause 1.

Mr. Garnier

I shall be brief, as many hon. Members want to speak. I remind the Government of the two central questions that I asked during the debate on the amendment. First, is the Bill right, and secondly, will it achieve what it is intended to achieve? The answer to both questions is no.

I also remind the Government that they are destroying an innocent pastime and I ask them to think about the sort of people who engage in it. They are nothing other than respectable, law-abiding citizens and their sport brings this country great credit. The Government are also removing from the disabled an opportunity for enjoyment and competition. I invite the Home Secretary, the Minister of State and even the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien)—with whom I shared a happy time on the armed forces parliamentary scheme—to come to the gun club in my constituency and persuade those in wheelchairs who compete at pistol shooting that it is for the benefit of the public that they should have their pistols and their opportunity for enjoyment taken away from them.

The Bill tackles the horrors of Dunblane and Hungerford by asking the wrong questions. Guns, whether automatic or multi-shot pistols, are obtainable on the black market throughout the country. We could go to any number of inner-city pubs and buy a pistol, be it single-shot or multi-shot, on the black market.

If the Government want to do something useful, they should increase the police resources dedicated to tackling the problem of unlawfully purchased or stolen weapons. As the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) suggested, Ministers could also increase resources dedicated to allowing police to fire more often and for longer periods within police time.

The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997—which I did not vote for—went too far. This Bill and clause 1 go further, and to no good effect. I invite my hon. Friends to reject clause 1.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

In the debate on clause 1 stand part, it is appropriate to focus again on the key issue and to try to persuade Ministers—as persuasion is the only weapon that we have—to give some thought to our arguments. I realise that I shall perhaps again make some points that 1 have already made, in the debate on amendment No. 7.

I apologise that I could not be in the Chamber to hear the Minister's reply to the debate on amendment No. 7, but I have been told that he did not give any ground—although he said something to the effect that the Government would consider conducting some type of review. If such a review means that the Government might seriously reconsider their position before the Bill goes to another place—I should be grateful to have the Minister of State's ear on this point—and offer a possibility of modifying the Bill, it will have been a proper exercise of legislative function.

The case made by Conservative Members is that the only ground for passing such a stringent Bill is that the public interest and public safety require doing so, and that the passage of such a Bill is necessary only if the single-shot pistol—which cannot be adapted and must be reloaded individually between shots—is seriously likely to be used in massacres such as Hungerford or Dunblane, which rightly horrified the House and the public. However, I have not heard either the Home Secretary or the Minister of State make that specific argument. I have also not heard them say that there is a real danger that someone who was minded to carry out such a massacre—who would be an oddball, and a dangerous loner—would attempt to use a single-shot .22 pistol.

Hon. Members know that it is only too easy to obtain other types of handguns, and we stand four-square with the Government in passing proper measures to prevent the illegal holding of any type of handgun. Conservative Members believe, however, that we have made a serious argument that the type of specialised sporting weapon used for the Olympic games, for the Commonwealth games and for other bona fide sporting activities represents no real threat of causing that type of massacre.

Mr. Michael

Amendment No. 7 was not as narrow as the point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is making. We are now debating clause stand part, and the Bill in its generality.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I am grateful to the Minister of State for his comment, which I take not so much as a rebuke as an invitation to think that Ministers may still have an open mind on the matter. I think that I am right in believing that a clause stand part debate is exactly the moment at which to attempt to put some slightly wider ideas into the minds of Ministers, so that, before they force through the clause, they may either reflect further on those ideas or have the chance to indicate that there will be an opportunity—perhaps at a later stage in the Bill's passage, such as Report or in another place—to make sensible and perhaps tightly focused amendments.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

I am sorry to disappoint my right hon. and learned Friend, but I suspect that the review mentioned by the Minister of State will be an attempt to make the law even tougher. The Minister was concerned that black powder replica pistols, for example, might be used in a massacre similar to Dunblane. He said that Ministers were sufficiently concerned—in such an idiotic way—about such weapons that they might apply the ban to them.

Sir Nicholas Lye11

I am sorry to hear my hon. Friend's comments, and I can hope only that they are incorrect.

Mr. Michael

The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) did not listen to what I said. I said that the exemption introduced in another place to the 1997 Act had caused considerable concern to the police.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Such a matter can be fairly considered in a review. However, I am inviting the Minister to consider carefully focused amendments to the Bill, which will allow legitimate sporting activities to continue in tightly controlled circumstances, so that British citizens who are held to be responsible can train for and compete in the Commonwealth and Olympic games.

Such people will be few in number, because the sport is comparatively focused and involves a comparatively small number of highly responsible people. Moreover—as I have already made perfectly clear—they will be members of clubs. I suggest that they should keep their weapons at their clubs, as that would provide as much safety as any hon. Member could reasonably propose. I say that with all the more force—at the risk of boring the Committee—because, as we know, a person can go across the channel, buy a single-shot .22 weapon without any licensing requirement, bring it back to the UK in the glove box of his car and know that no one is remotely likely to stop him. It would require tight intelligence—of a type that there is no reason to believe there is or should be—to prevent such activities.

We are dealing with massacres committed by people who are unbalanced, criminally minded and extremely devious. Such people are likely—because they have done so in the past—to get hold of far more dangerous weapons, and they have evaded an already complex licensing system. Conservative Members are simply asking for tightly focused exemptions so that honest people can participate in an honest sporting activity that is of real importance to the United Kingdom and to sport. I ask the Home Secretary and the Home Office to think again.

Mr. Boswell

I invite the Home Secretary to think again. The passage of clause 1 will represent a step change in legislation, and the sport of pistol shooting, rather than being confined, will effectively be eliminated. It will be a change in quality and character and not simply in numbers, and it will entail all the consequences mentioned by my hon. Friends and other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook).

Simultaneously, in introducing a blanket and indiscriminate ban, Ministers are forcing themselves to be discriminatory. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) said, the Government cannot control what happens outside the United Kingdom, because the Bill is confined to Great Britain. Not even the Government, with their majority, can control what happens outside the UK, and the consequences will be remarkable.

The first consequence will affect Olympic and other competitions, about which we shall hear more later in the debate. Ministers will have to enforce exceptions in the system—although I am pleased that even limited exceptions are being considered—to enable activities that are regarded as perfectly acceptable and normal abroad to be pursued in the UK. The question remains, however—the Home Secretary has not clarified the matter—whether such exceptions will include the participation of British shooters alongside their continental counterparts, or whether British shooters will be uniquely discriminated against, in a manner that may well attract the attention of the European Court of Human Rights.

We shall require further clarification also on the issue of police certification for persons entering the UK, who are participating in shooting competitions. I raise that matter only to emphasise the difficulties that will require further thought.

Another matter must be considered. There is an issue not only of importation of illegal firearms—which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire mentioned—but of discrimination in regard to the type of people who will be able to continue shooting. Someone who lives in Kent near the channel ports or who happens to be affluent can carry on shooting as much as he likes, because he can go to France or anywhere else where that activity is perfectly legitimate. It will be members of ordinary pistol clubs—probably those from less affluent backgrounds—who will be precluded. There will thus be a weird social inversion as an unintended but very real consequence of the Government's misguided policies.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I shall be brief. On Second Reading, I said that the Bill was small-minded, mean and profoundly bad, and clause 1 encapsulates that fact. Also on Second Reading, the Home Secretary said that the Bill was designed to protect the public, but can anyone really believe that small-calibre pistols—

It being Seven o'clock, and there being private business set down by direction of THE CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS under Standing Order No. 20 (Time for taking private business), further proceedings stood postponed.)

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