§ 3.3 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill now be read a second time.
From tomorrow large-calibre handguns used for target shooting will become prohibited under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, except for certificate holders and dealers for whom the prohibition will come 10 into effect on 1st October. This Bill will go one step further and prohibit small-calibre pistols used for target shooting.
The Government considered and dismissed the case for retaining the licensed pistol club provisions in the 1997 Act. The 1997 Act envisages a complex system of pistol clubs, licensed by the Secretary of State, in which small-calibre pistols can be stored and used. But no level of security would guarantee that pistols could not be removed from licensed clubs. And nor is it possible to offer sufficient safeguards to the public when these pistols need to be removed, for example for servicing or repair, or participation in a competition elsewhere in the country or overseas.
It is worth recalling Lord Cullen's views on the difficulties of gun control. When he deals with the question of separating and storing gun components separately many of the issues also apply to the use of small-calibre pistols at licensed pistol clubs. Lord Cullen cited the views of the British Shooting Sports Council that,no matter what system of checks and paperwork is maintained in such circumstances, it would he a simple matter indeed for a shooter intent on recovering his guns to enter a competition, provide evidence to his club secretary that he had done so, recover possession of the complete gun together with ammunition for it, and perpetrate an outrage".I refer to paragraph 9.68 of the Cullen report.
The 1997 Act simply does not go far enough. It allows 40,000 lethal handguns to remain available for use. These guns are as lethal as a larger handgun. Some multi-shot versions are very quick firing as well as being easy to conceal.
Before putting forward the Bill the Government had considered whether there may have been a case for exempting single shot small-calibre pistols from a general ban. This was considered in another place and resoundingly rejected on the grounds that it would also create a dangerous loophole. Small-calibre single shot pistols are lethal, easily concealable and, according to evidence presented to Lord Cullen, can be reloaded within five seconds. I refer to paragraph 9.52. The Government's judgment is that we cannot afford to leave any loophole.
In the Labour Party's election manifesto we gave a commitment that there should be a free vote in another place on whether to extend the prohibition to all handguns. That other place voted by an overwhelming majority of 203 for the ban to be extended.
The Bill we have before us is very short; just three clauses. I shall attempt briefly to explain their scope.
Clause 1 extends to small-calibre pistols the ban instituted by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. It does this by putting small-calibre pistols in the same prohibited category of weapons as machine guns, semi-automatic rifles and, from 1st July, large-calibre handguns.
The ban leaves in place the narrow range of exemptions already contained in the 1997 Act for people such as vets, slaughterhouse workers, and race officials at athletic meetings.
11 Provided such people can convince their police force of a specific need to hold a large-calibre or small-calibre handgun for one of the stated purposes, then they may do so. In the majority of these cases, a firearm certificate will have to be held with the necessary conditions as specified by the police.
Clause 2 contains a number of consequential amendments to the 1997 Act. These have the effect of bringing the provisions for the surrender of small-calibre pistols into line with those for large-calibre handguns.
The clause also extends the compensation provisions of the 1997 Act to small-calibre pistols and ancillary equipment. The compensation scheme is not subject to parliamentary affirmative approval as the Government intend that it will be along the same lines as that for large-calibre handguns and ancillary equipment under the 1997 Act. A copy of the scheme has already been placed in the Library.
Under the 1997 Act, from 1st July of this year, owners of smaller-calibre pistols will be able to surrender pistols and ancillary equipment on a voluntary basis and to receive ex gratia payments for them.
Clause 2 also gives effect to the schedule containing consequential repeals.
Clause 3 deals with the short title, commencement provisions, and extent. The Bill applies to England and Wales and Scotland but not to Northern Ireland.
I spend a moment on the Commonwealth Games. I should like to make clear that the ban will not affect the ability of this country to host the Commonwealth Games in 2002, nor to stage in the future the Olympic or Paralympic Games. Under powers available to the Secretary of State special dispensation under Section 5 of the 1968 Firearms Act can be granted to the participants in the shooting events involving prohibited weapons.
The Government accept that British participants will not be able to train in this country for some shooting events. That is a direct consequence of the Bill and reflects the strength of feeling in this country for a complete ban on handguns. However not all shooting events involve handguns. Only three out of 15 shooting events in the Olympics will be affected, two out of 15 in the Paralympics, and seven out of 21 in the Commonwealth Games. British participation in the majority of the events involving airguns, rifles and shotguns can continue as before.
The ban will affect the position of some disabled shooters. We accept that there will be some events which will have to cease. But there will be many others that can continue. There will be a transitional period for some shooters, both disabled and able-bodied. Some will choose to switch to other firearm disciplines; some will no doubt give up shooting altogether.
During the debate on the main compensation scheme in this House on 9th June a question was raised about the imposition of a standard response time for processing compensation claims for large-calibre handguns and related ancillary equipment.
12 I gave an undertaking on that occasion that all claims will be dealt with as quickly as possible but explained that it would simply not be practicable to set a guaranteed response time. That will also apply to claims for ex gratia payments for small-calibre pistols. Those claims submitted under options A and B will be able to be processed very quickly, some very quickly indeed, but there will be more than 60,000 claimants whose forms will be forwarded by the police to the Firearms compensation section over the three-month surrender period. The more difficult option C claims will take longer on average to process. The Firearms compensation section has been set up to complete the processing of the claims within 18 months but the majority of claims will have been completed well within that timescale.
I regret that there are perfectly law-abiding shooters who will be disadvantaged by both the 1997 Act and this Bill. The Government's view, endorsed by this House, is that the right to life comes before the right to practise a sport.
This Bill therefore, if enacted into law, will bring into place even tighter controls on handguns than those introduced by the 1997 Act. It is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that the level of controls is commensurate with public safety. This Bill fulfils that commitment and will close a chapter on the worst shooting incident in Britain since Michael Ryan murdered and wounded at Hungerford. I hope that with the will of this House the Bill can be passed quickly so that the full ban can be in place by the end of the year. Accordingly, I commend it to the House.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Lord Williams of Mostyn.)
§ 3.12 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, following the dreadful massacre of young children and their teacher by Thomas Hamilton in a primary school in Dunblane, the then Conservative Government commissioned the Cullen Report. The Government then, with the support of the Labour Opposition, passed into statute the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. That Act set out a general prohibition on handguns above .22 calibre. It also required owners of weapons of .22 calibre and below to keep them in secure gun clubs. Any movement of weapons to, from or between gun clubs was to be strictly controlled. In addition, there was a tightening of the administration of licensing. Those measures represented the toughest gun laws in the world. It is also worth repeating that the Act went beyond the recommendations set out in the Cullen Report, much to the chagrin of Members on all sides of this House and in another place.
The arguments advanced on behalf of the many sportsmen and sportswomen, able-bodied and disabled, law-abiding citizens alike, were very powerful indeed. It was not an easy balance to strike. However, I believe that to address both public safety and to preserve the sport was important.
The ink is hardly dry on that piece of legislation. Implementation of the compensation scheme is ill-prepared—today's Question only served to highlight 13 that—and is causing anxiety to the police and considerable consternation to those who own weapons which are subject to the prohibition.
One example is the surrender of weapons procedure. The guidance was issued late and received late. There is an inconsistency between police forces, a point already addressed by my noble friend Lord Peel. Police forces therefore have difficulties in administering the scheme. One police force offers no flexibility whatsoever; names only one collecting point and only one date for handing in weapons; and the tone of its letter is curt and over-threatening. I understand that, such has been the response to the letter issued by that particular force, that another letter has been issued with the intention of being more user friendly—which we welcome—but the threat remains that on and after 1st July merely handling one such weapon becomes illegal. That is not the case. It is not until 30th September that that happens; there is a three-month period during which the surrender of weapons can take place.
Another police force, again mentioned by my noble friend Lord Peel, has named eight geographically spread collecting points, and has issued a helpful list of telephone contact numbers and most helpful guidance as to the availability of collecting points, listing opening times and suggesting an appointments system, to accommodate licensed gun holders.
The Minister's response today was very much on the side of autonomous police forces. We accept that and believe it to be right. But if they behave in a way that is inconsistent with the intentions of the Act, we expect the Minister to show some concern for those on the receiving end of that piece of legislation.
Legal advice calls into question the consistency of the surrender forms with the requirements of the Act, and in particular paragraph 7. I understand there is considerable difficulty in requiring people to sign away their rights, which will possibly affect at a later date their right to a proper level of compensation. What are the Government doing to clarify that point?
The very short period following the issuing of guidelines to police forces and the imposed date of 1st July is, as I said, causing anxiety. A very new piece of legislation is juxtaposed with yet another Act of Parliament to introduce a total ban on handguns.
It is incumbent upon all governments to justify legislation as it passes through Parliament. I have read the official records of debates in another place. I find it difficult to detect any intellectual justification for this Bill. This Government have prided themselves on being anti-discriminatory, whether in relation to race, gender, age, sexual orientation or many other areas that I could mention. This Bill is discriminatory. It overtly discriminates against those who engage in the sport of shooting.
It is true that as a result of the 1997 Act there was some curtailment of the range of sporting events by sportsmen and sportswomen. However, the 1997 Act, passed just weeks ago, made it possible for the sport of shooting to continue, albeit under more difficult and stringent circumstances.
14 Apart from enjoyment of the sport and the team and club spirit engendered by it, this country has been represented very successfully in national and international competition. The tally of medals won at the Commonwealth and Olympic Games is most impressive. I recently heard it said by a Member of the Labour Government that, in the event of a total ban on handguns, people can always find another sport or recreation to interest them. But this is where the Bill is mean-spirited and discriminatory, not merely against able-bodied shooters but against those who have disabilities, for whom the Bill will mean a complete end to their sporting activities, and for many an end to an activity that allows them to compete on absolutely equal terms with other men and women throughout the world. There has been no serious attempt by any Member of the present Government to justify that draconian step.
During the passage of the Bill there will be attempts to amend it. Compensation is just one such area of concern—not simply regarding the extra cost of compensating gun owners and dealers who hold stocks of prohibited weapons. Incidentally, it would be helpful if the Minister could tell the House where the extra money is to come from. If, as we are led to believe, the spending totals—not only overall government spending totals but those of individual departments—are to remain as set out by the previous Conservative Government, what will have to be sacrificed to meet the costs of the Bill? From my time in the Home Office, I know that officials were constantly paring away to make efficiency savings. Are we now to believe that millions of pounds, about £19 million or more, are sitting in the Home Office budget, unallocated? Perhaps the Minister will give us chapter and verse as to where it is to come from.
However, there is another aspect of compensation which is certain to feature in our debates. That is the losses incurred by the gun clubs which, as a result of the total ban, will not even have had an opportunity to conform—even though it might have been difficult—to the rigorous procedures set out in the 1997 Act, in order to allow the sport of shooting to continue. The scenario is rather different from that which resulted from the previous Act. Therefore, I believe that the Government should face up to the issue of a wider compensation scheme. We shall surely return to that at later stages of the Bill.
There was discussion in another place about the possibility of allowing for the establishment of centres of excellence where our most skilled sportsmen and women could continue to practise. It makes little sense if all other countries which will be competing in the forthcoming Commonwealth Games, and even the Olympic Games and any other international competitions which might be staged in the United Kingdom, involving the sport of shooting are allowed to have facilities for their competitors only for them to be denied to United Kingdom competitors.
A ban on .22 calibre pistols also presents real practical problems for the organisers of the Manchester Commonwealth Games in the year 2002. The United Kingdom is committed to hosting the .22 pistol events in the games. Indeed, Manchester finally won the bid 15 for the games because of that commitment. When lodging the original bid, the organisers omitted shooting events. That attempt to exclude shooting was fiercely opposed by other nations—50 out of the 63 countries indicated that they would vote for the inclusion of shooting. That is not surprising since shooting is the third most popular sport in the games and most nations compete in it.
The Bill may put Manchester's obligation in jeopardy. Suggestions were made in another place that the commitment could be met by making special arrangements for competitors from other countries, while simultaneously excluding shooters from the host nation. Not only would that result in complex and bureaucratic procedures but it is also an extremely insulting proposal. As a sporting spectacle, the pistol shooting events will be reduced to a farce. The British home countries, which boast the strongest teams in the Commonwealth, will be forced to watch shooters from other countries winning medals on British soil.
Is the Minister able to say how the Home Office will handle the problem? The law as it stands will require competitors to have a Section 5 licence, as the Minister said, to carry their guns in the country—a licence with requirements so stringent as not to be practicable. How do the Government intend to police foreign competitors who arrive from other countries with very different legal and control systems? By what authority will the police be able to permit handguns to be carried about the country during the competition?
Those and many other points have not been answered in another place, other than by saying that the Bill is in the interests of public safety. But no evidence has been set out to justify the Bill. It is not even possible to monitor the effects of the earlier 1997 Act because, as the House will appreciate, it has not yet come into operation.
Our guiding principle was to protect the public. We believed that it was possible to tighten controls, to take all handguns out of general circulation and for the clubs to be regulated in such a way as to offer protection to the public. We regarded the sport of law-abiding people, both able-bodied and with disabilities, as a serious issue and one of civil liberty. Under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, they could have continued to represent their country in .22 target pistol events. The Bill will make the United Kingdom virtually unique in the world.
I shall quote again the words of the British Paraplegic Shooting Association which said about shooting as a sport that it was,a rehabilitation means to help with balance and confidence, primarily in the use of a wheelchair and sport".The association went on to say that it provided disabled people,with a better quality of life and respect for themselves as disabled people in an able-bodied world".The amendments proposed in another place to allow for centres to train our top quality shooters and for a special exemption for disabled shooters were rejected. Allowing the clubs to continue under strict controls with a much 16 improved licensing system and removing all handguns from general circulation would have addressed the issue of risk to the public.
Dunblane will remain for ever in our memories, but this Bill will not enhance public safety. It is expensive, it goes way beyond anything recommended by Lord Cullen and the last Government, who had as central to their thinking the protection of the public. The Bill, as we all know, was flagged up during the election campaign and in the Labour Party manifesto. Therefore, I shall not oppose this Second Reading. But there has been a feeling of playing politics and opportunism about the issue, ever since my right honourable friend John Major readily agreed, following an approach by the Labour Party, that Dunblane should be kept out of the party conferences last year, ahead of the report on Dunblane by Lord Cullen. The Leader of the Labour Party, at his conference and in his own speech, pressed for a ban on all handguns. Anne Pearston, one of the organisers of the Snowdrop Campaign, was invited to address the conference in a very high profile way. Jack Straw, the Shadow Home Secretary, repeated yet again the words of his party leader at that conference. To his credit, and entirely characteristically, my right honourable friend John Major did not bring the issue into the Conservative Party Conference and at no time did he make it a party political issue.
I can only repeat the words of my right honourable friend Michael Howard, who said, following the publication of the Cullen Report:Mr. Straw's support for a total ban on handguns has the merit of simplicity and overwhelming popular support. But before any absolute ban is introduced. MPs should reflect on whether there is a last case for caution. The victims of Dunblane deserve hard thinking, as well as deep feeling",Subsequently, The Times editorial agreed that Mr. Howard was right to resist a blanket ban on handguns by saying that his approach demonstrated,a willingness to balance liberty and coercion, public pressure and policy detail".If we were only ever to do what is publicly popular, this House and another place would have voted in hanging and have reintroduced the death penalty for those who commit murder. But every now and then governments have to think very hard and balance popularity with what is right. We believed that preserving the sport for all people, able and disabled, was the right balance to be struck with protecting the public. Even at this late hour, I invite the Government to reflect again. This Bill adds to costs, it is unnecessary and deeply unfair to our law-abiding sportsmen and women and will not address public safety over and above the legislation passed only a matter of weeks ago.
§ 3.29 p.m.
§ Lord McNally
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is right to remind the House that this legislation comes hard on the heels of the 1997 Act which was passed by her Government. My claim for consistency this evening is that I voted for that Bill to go through the House and I shall vote for this Bill to do so as well.
17 As the noble Baroness rightly pointed out, this debate takes place against events which are both sombre and charged with emotion. I have a seven year-old son who is exactly the same age as the children killed at Dunblane. I go often to his primary school. I do not think there can be any more innocent place on earth than a primary school class. That is why the violation of that innocence at Dunblane shocked the world and made all parents draw their children a little closer to them. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, powerful emotions are not usually the best guide to making good laws. "Something must be done" cannot be the only justification for legislation.
We also know from the correspondence and lobbying prompted by the last government's Firearms Bill that proposed gun controls bring out a wide range of protest from people who do not see themselves as life-endangering or anywhere near the criminal classes. Indeed, as the noble Baroness pointed out, the recognition of pistol shooting as an Olympic sport is proof positive that gun ownership can be a perfectly normal pastime carried out by perfectly normal people.
Therefore, it would be pointless to argue that there is not some element of rough justice in this Bill, as there was in the last Bill so far as gun owners are concerned. I suppose that the only response one can make is that, although this may be rough justice for the gun owners, there was no justice at all for the children of Dunblane. The fact that the perpetrators at both Dunblane and Hungerford owned weapons legally and honed their deadly skills in gun clubs must, as the Minister suggested, tilt the balance away from a fair deal for gun owners towards the tougher gun control now proposed by this Bill.
As the Minister said, there is no doubt that there is a mandate for such legislation and there is no doubt that public opinion is behind the measure. I suspect that in this House, as in the other place, opinion is more divided. In my own party, my right honourable friend the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Mr. Alan Beith, said:My personal conclusion is that a total prohibition of .22 pistols kept in clubs would not make a significant contribution to public safety such as would justify or necessitate the severe limitations imposed on innocent citizens who want to pursue a perfectly legitimate sporting activity under strict regulation".—[Official Report, Commons. 11/6/97; col. 1190.]So, although great emotions are at play in this debate and behind this legislation, let me make clear that we who support the legislation in no way suggest that those who have criticisms of it are any less stricken by the tragedy of Dunblane than those who take a different point of view. But we do take a different point of view. The experience of Hungerford and Dunblane convinces me that tighter legislation would make a significant contribution to public safety, not only by making it less likely that the Ryans and the Hamiltons of this world could obtain the guns and the skills to commit atrocities but by expressing, in the most vivid way available to Parliament, our determination to reverse the rising tide of gun culture in this country.
A few days ago I read in the newspaper a report about life in our inner cities where, the article said, young men now feel "under-dressed" if they are not carrying a 18 handgun. The research paper prepared for these debates by the House of Commons Library points out that before the Firearms Act 1920:anyone, respectable citizen, criminal or lunatic, could walk into a gunshop and buy any firearm he wanted".Yet the Metropolitan Police Commissioner said that the use of guns in crime at that time was "very rare indeed". The three-quarters of a century since that Act have shown Parliament intervening time and again to try to stem the rising use of guns in crime.
Those who oppose gun control argue, as they always do, that legislation neither prevents the criminal from obtaining a gun nor deters him from using it. Certainly that is true. The determined criminal can obtain a gun if he wants to. But there is no doubt that we face a challenge in that more criminals and younger criminals are using guns. Even those who defend the right of "normal" people to own guns must concede that the loss of 500 guns a year through theft—and the Minister pointed out that 30,000 guns are in circulation—must raise concern about the interaction of the lack of gun control and the use of guns in criminal activity.
In its evidence to the Cullen inquiry, the Liberal Democratic Parliamentary Party stated that:the aim of gun control is to prohibit the use of guns by those who cannot use them safely".I must confess that I believe my colleagues in another place missed the crux of the debate. We must see gun control as a way of turning the tide of gun culture in our country.
I have said before that when the legislation put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, was going through the House I received dozens of letters, most of them from people holding guns as a hobby and for their definition of pleasure. But one letter stood out. It was from an old university chum who has now settled in California. It was a plea from the heart. He wrote that we in Britain still have a chance to stop the gun culture coming into our society. In the United States 35,000 deaths a year are caused by guns. Normal people now carry guns because of the threat that they feel from the gun culture itself. We still do not have that kind of society. We still have a public opinion which does not want to see the police force armed. We still have a public attitude which does not feel that one needs a Saturday night special to go out or a gun under the pillow to feel secure at home.
But the trends are there in our society. The statistics are there and the attitudes are there, particularly among the young. I have listened to the arguments on behalf of Olympic shooters, the disabled and the ordinary gun enthusiasts, but I submit that they do not add up to a convincing argument against the need for Parliament to start taking seriously the gun culture in our society. We have a chance to shut the stable door before the next tragedy.
As I indicated, I shall not be able to promise my party's vote in unity throughout the passage of the Bill. But, as I did with the Bill put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I can say with a rare determination that wherever there is an amendment which seeks to weaken or wreck this Bill, I shall be here 19 in the Bill's support. Beyond the issues that the noble Baroness quite rightly raised and the amendments that we shall all judge on merit, I believe there is a more fundamental principle. This is the drawing of a line in the sand. This is the piece of legislation which can say that as a country we are going to combat the gun culture. I wish the Bill well.
§ 3.38 p.m.
§ Viscount Slim
My Lords, it has been my duty and privilege to sit in your Lordships' House for over 25 years. During that period there have, of course, been disagreements between the major political parties and indeed individuals. That is one of the great traditions of your Lordships' House. However, I have never previously known a Bill which I hold in such contempt. The Bill is a stitch-up by the two major political parties to win Brownie points during the election. There has not been enough hard thinking about what is required and no real plan to try to satisfy those requirements. I feel that both major political parties are culpable. This measure is a travesty of justice and a persecution of 60,000 good people, people who are just as good as the 9,000 good people of the town of Dunblane.
The Bill will be passed in its present form and we must wait and see—it will take a couple of years—what effect, if any, it will have and whether or not it will reduce the number of killings. I wish to put a number of points to the Minister and perhaps I may also ask some questions. First, I feel for the constabulary in this country. An extra burden has been placed upon them and they will have much work to do. Also, I see some danger in that the places of security will pose a real problem. The Minister may not wish to say too much about that, for obvious security reasons, but is it fair that chief constables should be left responsible for safe areas throughout the country? Is it not possible that a small government team could advise and help to ensure that the places are secure?
As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, we do not want the police armed but they may have to be armed. Some attractive targets are being built up. They will be seen by criminals and terrorists as possible easy meat. That will be a grave problem.
In my wanderings around the country talking and listening to people, I find anxiety expressed that the word "disposal" appears throughout the Bill. It is a good political word and a good Civil Service word; it gives many options. But perhaps the Minister is not aware of the apprehension surrounding it. I do not see the words "destroy", "destruct" or "destruction" in the Bill.
There is a feeling that "disposal" means that the weapons will not necessarily be destroyed. There is also a feeling that the weapons may be sold so that the Government can claw back some of the £150 million they have to outlay. When good citizens hand in their weapons because of the Bill, they do so with the confidence—although there is not much of it at the moment—that the weapons will be destroyed. They believe that the weapons will not be put on various markets but that they will be crunched and destroyed.
20 Every person who hands in a gun should be entitled to a destruction certificate. He needs proof that his weapon or weapons have been destroyed. I suggest to the Minister that that can be done individually when the firearm certificate is returned; it could be stamped at the bottom indicating that the weapons have been destroyed. Alternatively, the Minister's right honourable friend the Secretary of State in another place can make a public statement to assure the 60,000 people involved that the weapons no longer exist. It is a delicate point but in my view the wording makes many people suspicious.
The compensation form states at paragraph 7(c) that those who hand in their guns will accept whatever money is paid to them. In other words, there is no argument. Again, that arouses great suspicion. If I were to hand in my two handguns, which are worth quite a lot of money and which, in my humble opinion, are in a more secure place at the moment than one of the so-called safe areas, I would receive a £150 cheque, £10, or whatever is being contemplated, for each, and there is no comeback. We need to be told that there will be no fooling and that we will receive the price that appears in the Bill. There is grave suspicion in that area. I ask the Minister to look at paragraph 7(c).
At the bottom of the form one finds a threat. Those who do not hand in their guns by 1st September are told that they could face a large fine or go to gaol for 10 years. I look around for support from noble and learned Lords but my memory is that people of the criminal classes who have been taken to court for possession of illegal weapons do not even receive 10 years. That may be a grave anomaly with regard to justice.
I do not know what the good people of Dunblane believe they have achieved. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, put his finger on the fact that, in this country, the problem is one of illegal guns. I have not heard any politician in the other place, from any party, talk, shout or rise to his feet to start a movement to obtain a measure of control in that area. The Minister could walk out of this Chamber now and buy a gun on the black market. If he does not know how to do it, with great respect I can give him some advice.
That is the battle. I was sad when Snowdrop collapsed itself; after persecuting the innocent it did not want to go into battle and persecute those who hold illegal weapons. We are in a dangerous area. Some of our streets today are ruled by the gun. Drugs, muggings and armed robberies—that is where the Government's and our efforts should be put. We must try to remove illegal weapons. My opinion, for what it is worth, is that there are far more illegal weapons in circulation than there are legal weapons owned by the 60,000 now being persecuted.
This whole issue poses grave problems. The Minister in another place has a preponderance of cannon fodder. I am amazed that a couple of working parties have not been formed from that vast number to look at the problem and work it out. It is not a party political issue; it is a national issue. I for one am very sad that that thinking has not taken place in the new Government. They talk about the new criminal Act and so forth, but 21 there is much to be done. We need new laws and tougher sentencing procedures for those in possession of illegal weapons.
What further can be said about the Bill? I said some rude words about it in an earlier debate; I shall not repeat them. But it is a sad business. There has been no long-term thinking. The issue became a gimmick for both major political parties before the election.
§ 3.49 p.m.
My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and start by stating my conviction which arises from one of his last points. Nothing in the Bill, when enacted, will stop evil people getting hold of guns and committing evil acts of murder. That should be the purpose of the Bill. However, that is not the main issue I want to talk about. As your Lordships might expect, I wish to talk about the effect of this measure on our future prospects of holding the Olympic Games or the Commonwealth Games.
If I may say so with some immodesty, very few people in this House or in Parliament have spent more time seeking to bring those events to this country than I have. I say that because, with all the affection I have for my noble friend on the Front Bench, which is very considerable, the Home Office brief which he read out amounts to total nonsense, as I shall try to illustrate in a moment or two.
My noble friend, like the Home Secretary in another place, told us without apparently any difficulty that there would be no ability to train for these events even if they were held in this country, so we could have the Commonwealth Games in Manchester but no British shooters being able to train for them. Perhaps I may say in passing that what they will do, as they will be doing this very weekend, is go to places like Guernsey, Jersey and France and train there at great expense to themselves.
This happens to be a moment in time—all your Lordships should rejoice—when British sport is doing rather well. Wherever we look at the moment it is doing rather well. I do not put that down so much to new Labour as to superb training and preparation by our athletes. What my noble friend and the previous government have to a large extent done is to say that we shall have the Manchester Commonwealth Games but no British shooters can train for them. What nonsense! What a ludicrous proposition! How in international sport can you expect your best sports people to arrive at the sports ground ill equipped and ill trained for the competition that is to take place? We have no right to put British sportsmen and women in that ludicrous position. I protest about that aspect of it.
The evil act perpetrated at Dunblane was an obscenity too harsh for most of us to contemplate. But even that obscenity does not absolve Ministers from the duty to apply clarity of thought, and intellectual clarity in particular, to the process they are dealing with. There has been no intellectual clarity about the way in which Ministers have approached the question of sport.
My noble friend repeated what Mr. Jack Straw has said. The best thing I can say is that I hope my noble friend does not believe it. I do not believe that he does.
22 He said that this will not affect our prospects of bringing the Commonwealth Games or the Olympic Games to this country in the future. I am a betting man in a modest way and I am prepared to wager with my noble friend, Mr. Jack Straw or anyone else that the Bill, when enacted, will prevent the Commonwealth Games and the Olympic Games ever being awarded to this country. That is why I am making my speech today.
Like the noble Baroness, I shall not vote against the Bill. However, if an amendment is put forward at a later stage which sensibly gives the Home Secretary powers to take action to exempt Olympic or Commonwealth Games shooting from the provisions of the Bill, I shall support it. But I very much hope that we can at least persuade Ministers and my noble friend— I join the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on this point— to think again even at this late stage. In pursuance of an Act which is in every way commendable to stop illegal guns in this country, I do not want my party so to over-reach itself through a lack of intellectual clarity that it prevents this nation ever again seeing the Olympic Games or the Commonwealth Games. That is the purpose of my speech.
When I have gone round the world campaigning to bring the Olympic Games or Commonwealth Games here, particularly the Olympic Games, I have found that the lobbying process can be overwhelmingly difficult. All kinds of international crookery goes on. Arguments are used to prevent people voting for the Games to come to this country. That is a fact which no one can deny. No one has yet told us—I do not know whether my noble friend can tell us—what discussions Ministers have had with the International Olympic Committee on this matter. What is the view of the British Olympic Association? It is difficult to find what it is. If anyone should be speaking up, it is the British Olympic Association.
I tell the House that we shall be placing a weapon in the hands of our opponents whenever we put in a bid for the Olympic Games. The first thing they will say is "The British cannot comply with the regulations. An undertaking has to be given that every Olympic sport is held in the country. They cannot do that". Of course the Home Secretary might say, "You can have the shooting here if you like", but our foreign opponents would not think of voting for having the Olympic Games in the country but their shooters not being allowed to train for them. The overseas competitors taking part, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, again said quite rightly, would have such restrictions placed on them in the way they carried their weapons into the country when the competition was being held—that is for a period of at least six if not eight weeks when one takes account of the building up of the Olympic Village and so on—that British attempts to get people to vote to hold the Olympic Games in this country would be easily defeated. That is the logic of the situation.
I understand and agree with my noble friend's remarks about the right to live but I do not think that can be equated with what he said about the right to shoot legitimately under strictly controlled circumstances. We shall not get the Olympic or Commonwealth Games 23 here again—certainly not in my lifetime and I do not believe in anyone's lifetime. Because I passionately feel that based on my own experience, and because I do not really believe that deep in their hearts my noble friend and his colleagues want to achieve that lamentable result, I feel it necessary to ask them to think again, ask them to consult and ask them to protect Britain's sporting heritage which they have just as much an obligation to do as to protect anything else they are trying to protect in the Bill. They should consult, and possibly consult some of us who have experience of international lobbying on this scale; they should certainly consult the International Olympic Committee to find out what possibility there may be for holding the games here if this legislation is put into effect. I hold out a dismal prospect. I make this speech today because I believe that it is my duty to put that realistic proposal before this House and my friends in government.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, I am bound to say, "Well, here we go again". The only thing I can say is that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, looks much the same from this side of the House as he did from the other. I am sure that his arguments as regards this Bill will be just as hard and vociferous as they were about the last Bill.
I must declare an interest, as I did before, in that I am president of the Gun Trade Association. The fact that I hold that position is not the sole reason why I disliked the last Bill as much as I did. I disliked it because I regarded it as heavy handed, restrictive and penalising a small body of sportsmen who had their sport largely removed. I also disliked it because it largely ignored the recommendations of an extremely distinguished judge. If I were Lord Cullen today I would wonder what on earth did I do wasting my time producing such a report. Furthermore, that legislation involved some very considerable cost to quite a number of people. Like the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, I ask the House this question: is that legislation (or indeed this legislation) going to succeed in stopping the kind of tragedies that we all witnessed at Dunblane? The memories of Dunblane will always be with us regardless of any legislation; but until we tackle the question of illegal guns in this country we are never going to deal with the problem in hand.
But what the last Government's Bill created, as my noble friend Lady Blatch pointed out, is the most stringent gun control in Europe and probably in the world. But at least it provided something; it allowed the sport to continue, albeit in a fairly strangulated way. At least those people who participated in target shooting with pistols could continue to do so.
But we have in front of us today a very different scenario. I accept and acknowledge that the Bill was in the Government's manifesto and it is important that your Lordships' House respects that. However, that does not detract from my fiercest opposition to this latest attempt to curtail individual rights which, unfortunately, are being curtailed largely by the actions of a madman and I have to say with some distress, by the failure of the police to adhere to the procedures that prevailed at the 24 time. People are losing their sport because of that and people are losing their businesses. Furthermore—and I must ask this question—in view of the very considerable amount of compensation that is going to be paid under both pieces of legislation, would it not have been more sensible to have provided that money to local authorities, which are crying out for finance, to help with crime prevention schemes? Security cameras are now appearing all over the streets of Great Britain. There is a cry for more: they are doing a great deal to prevent crime. The money would have been much better spent if it had been pushed in that direction.
The other question I raise is that of legislating against minority interests. It is something that we need to be very wary of in this country, particularly through the efforts of what I describe as single issue pressure groups. I am disappointed that the party opposite— which I suspect has always traditionally seen itself as being particularly strong in this direction and even defiant—is in this case quite happy to waive the individual rights of the shooters in order to get its legislation through.
The Home Secretary made an interesting comment in the other place at Second Reading. He said,We all have to be very careful before we use our power to prohibit actions that were previously lawful and involved no criminal intent. Simple disapproval can never be a ground alone for prohibition".—[Official Report, Commons, 11/6/97; col. 1164.]Those are very wise words. I hope that the Government will look at them when they consider other pieces of legislation in the near future which may affect minority groups. Clearly, there is very little that we can do to change this legislation, though I am quite sure that there will be opportunities for careful consideration and for amendments.
This House gave such careful consideration to compensation during the passage of the last Bill about which I believe we were treated very badly by another place and without proper consideration. I cannot believe that it can go unchallenged. During the passage of the last Bill the Conservative Government, after considerable pressure, agreed to compensate owners and dealers for those weapons and their accessories which were deemed to be illegal. However, there remains the thorny question of the loss of business and debt which resulted from the Act. I believe that that issue remains as relevant to this Bill as it did to its predecessor.
Mr. Howard, the then Home Secretary, resolutely refused to give any help to those whose business or personal level of debt suffered as a result of his legislation. He argued his case, as I understood it, on the back of precedent. None existed and he did not wish to create one. I can only assume, having read Hansard at various stages of the Bill in another place, that Mr. Howard, perhaps in anticipation of his new appointment as Shadow Foreign Secretary, had slipped off for a quick and most successful and effective trip to Damascus. I was intrigued to discover that, suddenly, compensation has become the cause célèbre of the Opposition Front Bench in another place. I am delighted at the conversion, but it is a case of too little and too late.
25 My right honourable friend Mr. Howard argues that the situation is different as regards the new Bill as, for example, clubs will be deprived of all guns whereas under the previous legislation they could switch from outlawed heavy calibre hand guns to .22 pistols. Mr. Howard has a point. But as many of us now realise, there are great number of people, clubs and businesses that ceased to operate directly through his legislation. I believe that the compensation figure alone for the loss of business which clubs have incurred is something over £64 million. That does not include retail businesses and individuals who arranged mortgages to secure their businesses and who have been left with large debts. Therefore, whereas I welcome my party's conversion to compensation, I wish that it had considered these issues a little more carefully when it was in office.
This Bill is bound to further the need for compensation. Of course, I appreciate that a fair level of payment is likely to be made when .22 pistols are handed in, and so it should be. But that still leaves a further raft of financial casualties that will pile on the previous legislation. I ask the Government: what compensation will be considered for targeting and range equipment which will now become obsolete under this Bill? I am told that automatic target charges alone are valued at £850. Some clubs have quite a number, so what are the Government going to do to try to minimise those heavy levels of debt and to overcome what I can only describe as a "gross injustice"?
In a supplementary question earlier today, I asked the Minister about the irregularities that appear to be developing in the way in which the police are handling the compensation provisions in the previous legislation. The Minister asked me to provide him with evidence. I shall do so because I would be most grateful if he could deal with the matter as it raises a fundamental point that was aired during your Lordships' discussion of the previous legislation. It provides yet another example of the inconsistencies with regard to the way in which the various police forces in this country implement all Firearms legislation. I ask the Minister to look carefully into this question. I am not necessarily referring specifically to compensation under the previous Act or this Bill, but to the general malaise that exists with regard to this matter which I believe needs to be looked at very carefully.
A number of other issues arise which I am sure we shall debate at further stages. I was going to mention the whole question of our responsibilities with regard to international games and I had been going to refer to the disabled. However, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, dealt most eloquently with the problem of the Olympics and I concur entirely with what he said. Frankly, if we cannot overcome this problem it will make a mockery of the way in which this country is perceived internationally. I hope that the Government will address the matter seriously. My noble friend Lady Blatch dealt with the question of the disabled and I thoroughly concur with all the points that she made.
In conclusion, as I have already said, I am in total opposition to this second Firearms Bill, which shows scant regard for a collection of citizens of this country who in my opinion—I should add that this opinion is 26 shared by a growing number of others, once they have begun to understand the argument—have been sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. They have been very badly done by and I do not think that it serves well the democracy in which we live to witness what we witnessed previously and what we are witnessing now. Their sport has been removed. Many businesses have collapsed—businesses which have been built up over many years—and there has been no compensation. That does not read well. Of course, the horrors of Dunblane will never be forgotten and the pain undergone by so many will never go away. But I do not believe that either of these two pieces of legislation is the solution—and more importantly, neither did the learned judge, Lord Cullen, who has been conveniently ignored.
§ 4.13 p.m.
§ Lord Kimball
My Lords, I must declare an interest as a former chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee. As noble Lords have already said, this is a very sad day for pistol shooters in England, Wales and Scotland. This Bill is the final nail in the coffin of their sport. It is the end of law-abiding citizens being able to pursue a perfectly legitimate sport. It has happened as a result of political motives in response to a tragic incident which was allowed to develop because the existing system of safeguards was not properly implemented—a point made by my noble friend Lord Peel in relation to Central Scotland Police—
§ Lord Ewing of Kirkford
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. But before he continues perhaps I may point out that for 22 years I was a Member of Parliament in the area covered by Central Scotland Police. Will the noble Lord accept that Central Scotland Police twice reported Thomas Hamilton to the procurators fiscal for consideration of prosecution and that on both occasions the procurators fiscal declined to prosecute and ipso facto gave guidance to Central Scotland Police on the way in which it should conduct its Firearms considerations? Finally, will the noble Lord accept that it is grossly unfair to make Central Scotland Police the scapegoat when it was acting under the guidance of the procurators fiscal?
§ Lord Kimball
My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord says, but if I read the Cullen report correctly, one of the problems was that from the point of view of Central Scotland Police it was cheaper to allow Mr. Hamilton to renew his certificate than to face an appeal in the procurators fiscal's court. If I remember the report correctly, that was one of the factors which influenced the police's decision.
The Act which was passed by the previous Parliament banning all handguns but rimfire .22 pistols was ill conceived. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, was absolutely right that all parties ought to be ashamed of our behaviour on that occasion. I know that I did not vote against the Second Reading of the main parts of that Bill, but that was because I felt that in the end that Bill would not kill off entirely the sport of pistol shooting. I agree that the skeleton that was left as a 27 result of the previous Government's Bill was very small and that that Bill was grossly unfair, very restrictive and very expensive for small clubs. However, I believed that such was the spirit of the shooting community and the pistol shooters that they would have found a way around it and that, as the leading article in The Times of 16th October stated, the sport would have survived in a very restricted form.
The history of our shooting sports is one of the introduction of new weapons, always more accurate and always more expensive. The enthusiasts buy them and improve their sport. It is a history of new ammunition and of better sights. That is all part of the back-up of the sport which kept a large industry going. If one looks at the Bisley shootings in 1946 at the end of the war over the big ranges of 200, 500 and 600 yards, one sees that the scores achieved some 50 years later were not a great deal better but that everyone had spent a great deal of money and had a great deal more expensive new equipment.
I mention that only because I believe that that is what would have happened again with the restrictive form of pistol shooting that was left to us. We would have had a limited number of highly secure clubs which would have continued with specialised ranges. There is now no future for those clubs. I shall not repeat what my noble friend Lord Peel has said, but we are now faced with a bigger demand for compensation. On the previous Bill, we argued that there was a need for compensation to cover not only function but facilities. Those facilities are now obsolete. They have no future use. They cannot be used in another other form.
What are we to be left with in the way of handgun shooting? Air pistols are still Olympic weapons, so we shall still have Olympic air pistol shooting. For once, unbelievably, the Government have implemented one of the unimplemented recommendations of the Firearms Consultative Committee. My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury will remember that we published a list of some 20 recommendations, among which was the fact that we felt strongly that carbon dioxide-powered pistols should be treated in exactly the same way as air pistols. That has been met in this Bill. It is a considerable help to the really enthusiastic pistol shooter. If one shoots with a CO2-powered air pistol one finds that it has less recoil and a smoother action than an air pistol. That is something for which we must thank the Government.
I suppose that we should also thank the Government for dealing with heritage weapons under Section 7. That refers to pistols pre-1919. One is allowed to keep such a weapon in what is virtually a fortress museum. However, having agreed that people can keep these weapons, the Government then say that you cannot have a competition with them; you can use them only for a demonstration. Whether a demonstration can be turned into a limited form of competition remains to be seen. However, these are two minor points. I thank the Government for the CO2-powered air pistols and for allowing people to maintain their heritage weapons under Section 7. But we are left with a pretty miserable skeleton.
28 It is a sad day. We shall not vote against the Bill. We must accept it because it was in the election manifesto. However, in Committee we shall deploy a good many arguments on compensation and on the disabled. I hope that we shall win the argument even if we cannot win the vote.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, in view of his comments about the procedures of the Central Scotland Police Force prior to the Dunblane tragedy and the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, does he agree that central region has now changed its procedures and that Tayside Police Force, which also followed those procedures at the time, has done likewise? I believe that for the sake of public confidence it is important to have that on the record.
§ 4.23 p.m.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, is so soft spoken and reasonable sounding that it makes one regret all the more that the honeymoon period is clearly at an end. It was genuinely pleasant while it lasted. Everybody trod carefully, and compliments, most of which I believe were sincere, flew back and forth across the Chamber. But all good things come to an end, and this grossly unjust and unnecessary Bill marks that point.
I gladly concede that in the past six weeks the new Government have made a number of worthwhile and welcome moves. I refer to the lifting of the ban on trade unions at GCHQ Cheltenham, the reopening of the question whether servicemen executed for alleged cowardice in World War I were treated with unjustifiable harshness and a number of other matters. I mention this only to emphasise that my opposition to this Bill is not based on any knee-jerk political bias— far from it. How could it be so when some of the most powerful and trenchant attacks on the Bill in the other place have been launched from the Labour Benches, notably by Mr. Austin Mitchell and Mr. Frank Cook? As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, reminded us, his senior colleague, Mr. Alan Beith, was also highly critical of the Bill.
In addition, the previous Government's hands were far from clean on this matter. It was a disgrace that neither House of Parliament was given an opportunity to debate the Cullen report and that instead excessively draconian panic legislation was rushed through by the use of the Guillotine in the House of Commons against the understandable objections of Conservative and other Back-Benchers. However, this Bill is even more draconian than the Conservative Act, as it now is. Indeed, it makes the Dangerous Dogs Act appear positively wise and statesmanlike. This is all the more strange when one reads that in August, September and early October 1996 prospective Labour MPs were being advised to reassure worried constituents who happened to be shooters that they (the prospective candidates) would be opposing a total ban on pistol shooting 29 provided adequate safeguards were put in place. It appears that a number have been elected on a false prospectus, given that in practice very few people have the time to read through a party's manifesto from one end to the other.
This Bill, if unamended, means humiliation for this country. I believe that the noble Baroness touched on this point. Far more important, it spells terrible hardship for individuals that is wholly disproportionate to the statistical risks, as opposed to the perceived risks, with which the Bill is intended to deal. Ministers have claimed that the Bill is necessary for the protection of the public, in particular children, but just how many children have been killed in Britain by legally owned .22 pistols over the past 100 years? I would be surprised if it is as many as a dozen; it may even be as few as half a dozen.
Of course, the death of any child for whatever reason is a terrible tragedy, but far, far more children are killed by arson attacks on the houses or flats of their parents or guardians. Only yesterday one read of two brothers aged 10 and 14 who were killed in such an attack. It is such a frequent occurrence that it hardly makes the headlines any longer, although it may be shocking to say so. Far more children are killed in that way, yet there is no restriction on the ability of anyone to buy a can of petrol that may be used for all kinds of nefarious purposes. Far more children are killed by falling accidentally into swimming pools, yet there is no obligation to fence them. I believe that in the past 100 years more than 40,000 children have been killed by motor vehicles—probably 5,000 times as many as have been killed by .22 pistols—yet there are no serious attempts to limit the use of these vehicles because too many votes would be lost.
With all due respect to the Home Secretary, Mr. Jack Straw, he was incorrect to claim, as he did in the other place, that .22 target pistols were overall as dangerous as .375 magnums. The Cullen report makes that perfectly clear to anyone who is not already aware of it. It is true that both Robert Kennedy and Yitzhak Rabin were assassinated with .22 pistols, but the assassins came up close to them. If an assassin manages to get close enough to his intended victim he can kill him with almost any kind of lethal weapon. Your Lordships will recall that Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City in August 1940 by a man wielding a mountaineer's ice axe—a tool that is quite small and probably easier to conceal than a single shot .22 target pistol. It is true that Mossad, the Israeli secret service, use .22 weapons to eliminate enemies of Israel. However, what is overlooked is that they use .22 machine pistols which have been illegal for civilians in this country for many years. A machine pistol is as different from a .22 single shot target pistol as is a Samurai sword from a potato peeler.
For that reason, the fear expressed by the Government that villains will target clubs where .22 pistols are to be safely stored is misplaced. Why should anyone take the risk of trying to steal a low-powered pistol from a secure gun club when, as Frank Cook said from the Labour Benches in the other place recently, he can obtain a much more powerful weapon in most of our large 30 conurbations for £60? As the Evening Standard revealed a month ago, for not very much more one can evidently obtain a machine pistol capable of firing 20 rounds a second, not 20 rounds a minute.
It is claimed that public opinion overwhelmingly supports this Bill. In his introductory remarks the noble Lord, Lord Williams, spoke of the strength of public feeling on this matter. I simply do not believe it. In October 1996 the Sunday Times found that 54 per cent. of the population were opposed to a total ban on pistols, which this Bill would bring in. A later Mori poll, which curiously received practically no press publicity, revealed that 55 per cent. of the population in both England and Scotland←Iet it be noted—believed that the less draconian Conservative Bill would penalise target-shooters unfairly. Only 40 per cent. disagreed with that proposition. So it is hardly likely that the public will judge this much more draconian Bill to be a fair one.
I spoke earlier of humiliation. It is humiliating for the rest of the world to observe that the British Government, almost uniquely, do not trust their own people to own and handle guns, subject to all reasonable safeguards. That contrasts with the situation on the Continent of Europe, in both EU and non-EU countries, where such guns can be held widely by all respectable citizens. One wonders who are now the little Englanders. Even worse, unnecessary hardship is being inflicted upon shooters, almost all of whom are solid, respectable citizens, and, as has been mentioned, upon paraplegics who derive tremendous self-esteem from pistol shooting, carrying off a considerable number of gold, silver, and bronze medals in the process.
Terrible financial hardship will be inflicted upon those gun clubs specialising uniquely in pistol shooting, and which will no longer be able to trade down, so to speak, to pistols of a smaller calibre as the Conservative legislation, bad though it was, at least made possible. Many individuals who borrowed money to enlarge or improve their clubs will be now left financially destitute. It was good to see that all six of the original contenders for the Conservative Party leadership voted against the Third Reading of the Bill in another place, as did the previous Prime Minister, Mr. John Major. Let us hope that an equally firm line will be taken in your Lordships' House.
§ 4.32 p.m.
The Earl of Stockton
My Lords, I must declare an interest as the chairman of the Campaign for Shooting. In common with many noble Lords, I accept that this is a government manifesto commitment, and that therefore there is little or nothing we can do to prevent the Bill becoming law. I hope that the Government are prepared to listen to suggestions from both sides of- the House as to how we might make it a trifle better law, because, as has been said by noble Lords, the Bill does nothing to solve the problem. As the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, my noble friend Lord Peel and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, we are not addressing the basic problem, which is illegal guns.
31 It was suggested during the passage of the previous Bill that we might approach the whole matter in a slightly different manner. The establishment of a national register, staffed partly by civilians and financed not by government but by shooters themselves, rather along the lines of the national set-up that we have for car and driving licences, was suggested. That was rejected by the previous government. When I heard of the present government's commitment to re-address the problem, I hoped that they might be prepared to come back to it.
I am also concerned that we have not yet heard the full agenda. There is some evidence that senior members of UK police forces are, in principle, opposed to the ownership of guns of whatever kind by private individuals. If that is the case, when the Minister replies will he give us an absolute assurance that that is not part of the Government's agenda?
When we come to the Committee stage, I hope that we shall be allowed to make improvements. I should like to see an improvement in compensation. As the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and my noble friend Lord Peel said, a number of clubs have been put out of business. I should like also to discuss whether we could not establish centres of excellence for pistol shooting. We have, as noble Lords have said, air pistols and CO2 pistols which allow people to enter the sport. Perhaps we could establish levels of competence which would allow people to make the transition to powdered ammunition for .22 target pistols only at certain centres of excellence. We shall have one such with the new Commonwealth games facility, and one exists already at Bisley. I dare say that it would be attractive to some noble Lords to have one in Scotland and another in Wales.
Those facilities could be made available to the disabled shooter. I imagine that it is relatively easy for the determined and enthusiastic shot to go to the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands or France, but it is difficult for disabled shots to do so. To establish four such centres of excellence would give them a chance and would enable us to bring forward the next generation of Olympic and Commonwealth games shots.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell, in an informed speech, told us of the problems that this country would face with major games in the future if we did not have shooting. It is worth adding that, after athletics, shooting outnumbers any of the other Olympic and Commonwealth games sports.
I hope that the Government will be prepared to keep the House informed about the number of crimes committed annually with the use of registered Firearms of all kinds, compared to the number of crimes committed annually with the use of illegal Firearms.
I wonder whether noble Lords have seen or handled an Olympic or Commonwealth games .22 target pistol. It is not a small piece of equipment. It has a long barrel, a complicated stock and a complex mechanism. It is not the sort of thing you could tuck under your mac and take into a bank or anywhere else. I wonder whether the Government are prepared to accept that certain 32 categories of .22 target pistols might be excluded under a Section 5 licence on the personal authority of the Secretary of State. I had hoped that a new, allegedly more libertarian, government would take a more libertarian approach. I fear that we have been disappointed. This is an opportunity that has been missed.
§ 4.37 p.m.
§ Lord Gisborough
My Lords, the arguments against the concept of the Bill were argued to exhaustion earlier in the year. I believe that everyone knows and agrees that Hamilton only obtained his licence through misrepresentation and inadequate policing; that the Bill goes far further than anything recommended by Lord Cullen; and that the Home Office decided in advance what it wanted. Evidence of the negative correlation of legally held guns to crime was ignored. The Home Office admitted last month that from 1992 to 1994 there were only two cases of homicide with legally held handguns, and both were domestic incidents in which a frozen leg of mutton would have been equally effective.
The ban will have no effect whatever on pistols held illegally. The Home Office has admitted that to eliminate target shooting would have no effect on crime. Everyone knows that the holders of pistol certificates are particularly careful and aware of their responsibilities and that they obtain their certificates in the first place only with great difficulty and following exhaustive inquiry. Certificate holders are demonstrably law-abiding citizens who are being scapegoated. No other group in modern times has been so gratuitously vilified as the 5 million members of the shooting community.
As the noble Lord, Lord Monson, said, not everyone realises that while the immediate reaction to Dunblane was that 75 per cent. felt that there should be a handgun ban, by the beginning of this year 70 per cent. of people believed that there should not be a complete ban. Even in Scotland, 39 per cent. of people felt that pistol shooters were being treated unfairly. Public opinion is no longer in favour of the ban.
The press, at first so hostile to all pistol shooters, has appeared increasingly to oppose an absolute ban. An article in the Independent on Sunday in October 1996 stated:There may be no reason to think that a political issue could be dealt with in the same way in the future; no reason to fear that another minority might find themselves so brusquely set aside … But something unusual and powerful has happened and it is as well that we should recognise that it is a bad model for policy-making in a democracy".An article in the Evening Standard stated:If such a measure is passed, Britain will have the most draconian gun laws in the world and will be obliged to renounce participation in the whole range of Olympic shooting sports, unless a British team is to be represented solely by policemen and criminals. It is the duty of government to keep its head, and a sense of proportion, even in the face of tragedy".An article in the Express stated:Why ban an Olympic discipline at which we have excelled for a century? … But let us not confuse it [a pistol ban] with just, considered and impartial law-making. That it is not".33 Therefore, there is no justification in logic for the withdrawal of pistols and this ban or, for that matter, for the Bill.
The sport of pistol shooting was invented in Britain. It has been dominated by Britain for more than 100 years. We have brought back 23 medals in the past 10 years. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, have covered the question of the Olympics very much better than I can. I hope, however, that the Minister will say just how the Home Office intends to administer the control of weapons brought in by foreign competitors. Should pistol shooting become impractical due to the draconian controls, that will undoubtedly have very severe consequences on any future bid for the games to be held in this country.
The paraplegics are particularly upset. Disabled people go to Stoke Mandeville to see whether they are able to participate in certain sports. Pistol shooting is the one sport in which they can compete on equal terms with the able bodied. It takes a lot of hard training. We can boast to be the only shooters in the world to have won three gold medals in three consecutive Paralympics. In the 1994 world games, we won two gold, two silver and two bronze medals. In 1995, we won one gold, two silver and one bronze.
Pistol shooting helps the disabled with balance and confidence and provides them with a quality of life and respect for themselves as disabled people in an able-bodied world. The Bill is a disaster for the paraplegics. As a result of it, Britain will be the only country banned from pistol shooting competitions. We are always mouthing lip service about what we can do for the disabled. This Bill is not much of a contribution.
The question of compensation was covered extremely well by my noble friend Lord Peel. The prohibition of even .22 target pistols will increase the cost of compensation for ancillary equipment well beyond the figure of £150 million in the previous Bill. It seems extraordinary that a government trying to find money to carry out various schemes are prepared to double the amount of compensation to be paid in what is purely a cosmetic exercise. It is no more than that.
Most disastrous is the lack of compensation for the clubs. Seventy-one per cent. of all clubs would have been forced to close under the previous Act; now 100 per cent. will have to close. I should like to give some examples. The Derby Rifle and Pistol Club will lose £100,000 from its land and facilities; in Chesterfield, the club will lose £128,000. The club in Aberdeen has a rent for 21 years at £70,000 per year.
The 10th Battalion Suffolk Home Guard Rifle and Pistol Club was founded when the government stood down the Home Guard. The government gave instructions for ranges to be established to which the public should be admitted. The club rented the land, which it eventually bought, and built a club house. The land had a covenant so that it could be used for that purpose only. The club has a Sports Council grant and loans which will now have to be repaid personally by the trustees.
34 The owner of the Nottingham shooting centre has seen his personal investment drop from £400,000 to £1,000. There are many other cases. The situation is clearly unacceptable and compensation should be paid, as happened in Australia. The Australian government paid the difference between the value of the business premises before legislation—after the incident at Port Arthur—and the value afterwards.
The Government have a huge majority and there is no hope of stoping this legislation. But equally, it is not necessarily the case that all those people who voted for a Labour Government were necessarily voting for every detail, including this Bill.
The matter of handing in weapons was covered by my noble friend Lord Peel. I am extremely concerned about the demand of the Lincolnshire police as to exactly when and where the weapons are to be handed in. It ill behoves the police, whose incompetence led to this dismal Bill, now to treat pistol shooters as criminals and without consideration.
§ 4.46 p.m.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, as the noble Earl, Lord Peel, remarked, I have changed from one side of the House to the other. But my position has not changed. I opposed the government from that side of the House and I oppose the Government now from this side of the House in relation to legislation which I believe is odious and not becoming to a British administration.
I remind the noble Baroness, whose speech today was very welcome, that during debates on what became the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, she was warned, and the Government were warned, by people who are now behind her and by me that that legislation was the thin edge of a wedge. The noble Earl, Lord Stockton, raised the spectre that perhaps before very long, nobody, but nobody, will be able to hold legally any firearm at all in this country. I hope sincerely that the noble Baroness— and I sympathise with her—and the people who supported the previous Bill will now realise what sort of an awful road they embarked upon by introducing that ill-considered Bill.
I shall not reiterate the opposition which I expressed on 16th December and subsequently. That would take too long. I believe still that it was a bad Bill, as is the Bill before us today which punishes the innocent for the sins of the guilty. What is more, it imposes a system which is alien to this country, its institutions and heritage; that is, collective punishment on a group of people because of the sins of a single individual.
I fear, however, that it really is a bit of a waste of time speaking here. The Government refuse to listen; Ministers stick rigidly to their briefs. It seems to be a dialogue of the deaf. But, of course, things may change. We have had a change of government and therefore, it may very well be that Labour Ministers, new Ministers, will listen to what is being said, particularly by people who are expert like my noble friend Lord Howell who made an exceptional speech about the sport that is about to be destroyed completely.
I expected to see an Opposition amendment to the Second Reading of the Bill, the same sort of amendment which was tabled in the House of Commons; that is, that 35 there is no justification for the Bill and for a total ban on handguns. Unfortunately, it is not there apparently because the Opposition believe that they are bound by the so-called Salisbury convention. I was tempted to table the amendment myself, but I thought that I would not receive sufficient support to carry it. In any event, as we have heard today, some amendments will be moved and, I hope, carried. Certainly, I shall support them.
Even if an item appears in the manifesto, there is a duty of proper consideration and consultation before legislation is brought forward. There has been no such consideration and consultation. We had a Bill within four weeks of Parliament sitting after the election. It was rushed through the House of Commons in less than two-and-a-half days. It takes away the livelihoods of certain people and a sport which they have enjoyed for decades, if not centuries.
What about legislation which is not in the manifesto? We never hear about that, yet my Government—the Government which I support—without consultation and without even informing the electorate within a few days of taking office decided to hand over monetary policy to the Bank of England. What do we say about manifesto commitments under those circumstances? Perhaps we had better think more carefully when bringing manifesto commitments in defence of the Government's unwarranted action in such a short time.
There is a possibility of amendments being tabled to improve the Bill, including better compensation for gun owners and traders and, it is to be hoped, gun clubs, too. I sincerely hope that if I spend time with other Members in this House agreeing and voting for amendments the House will stick to them and that it will not be intimidated by the House of Commons. If Members believe that the amendments are right and proper and will improve the Bill in spite of threats from down the corridor I hope that they will say, "They are right and we are going to stick to them." That is their right and it is their duty to the people of this country who believe that we have a bicameral and not a unicameral system of government. Therefore, I hope that we will stick to our guns. I really did not mean that!
The Prime Minister says that we have a moral duty to the children of Dunblane. That is a very emotive statement. I say to him that we had a moral duty to the people and the children of Dunblane, but when the authorities failed properly to enforce the law that Parliament had passed to control the ownership of handguns the authorities failed in their moral duty. It was not Parliament which failed in its moral duty; it was the people who failed to carry out the role of Parliament. Those people have not been punished for their neglect and failure, but they have arranged for innocent people to be scapegoated, demonised and punished to assuage and misdirect public outrage about the Dunblane massacre.
There is no evidence that the Bill will prevent future Dunblanes. It gives no guarantee that there will not be future tragedies such as Dunblane and its predecessors. Indeed, it is highly probable that during the past decade 36 there have been more killings by the police than by people using .22 pistols. That should be taken into account and the police should remember it.
Like its predecessor, this is a disgraceful and odious Bill. It is the kind of Bill expected from corrupt and authoritarian governments. It is not the kind of Bill that I expect from my right honourable, honourable and noble friends in a Labour Government. I hope that they will reconsider its contents very seriously indeed. I cannot wish it anything but ill passage and failure.
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ The Earl of Shrewsbury
My Lords, I must declare an interest. I am the current chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee. It would indeed be strange if I were to welcome the Bill, having spoken strongly against its predecessor. However, I fully realise that the Bill is a manifesto commitment and therefore there is little we can do about it. Having said that, both the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, my noble friend Lord Peel and others have spoken about illegal weapons, which indeed are a sore on society. That is where government efforts should be channelled—to reducing the number of illegal weapons that are held throughout the United Kingdom. They are the real problem.
In my opinion, neither this Bill nor its predecessor will have any significant benefit for the safety of the public. All the arguments were addressed in the previous Session and I will dwell on them no longer. I urge the Government to make every possible effort to widen the scope of all compensation to address the dramatic and severe financial hardships which many small specialist manufacturers, individuals and clubs are experiencing through the effects of the previous Act, and which will be made considerably worse under this Bill. In many cases people, through no fault of their own, have had their livelihoods stripped away. That is a disgraceful situation in a country such as ours which is proud of its democratic history.
Many of those affected have substantial mortgages, loans and other borrowings which enabled them to run and expand their viable businesses and clubs when the threat of closure from legislation was never an issue. Now the threat of bankruptcy hangs heavily over them; indeed, many have already been bankrupted. Such people are suffering extreme hardship. Therefore, I put the strongest possible plea to the Minister for a widening of the Government's financial assistance to the genuine cases.
Perhaps I may ask the Minister what safeguards are to be exercised to prevent unscrupulous persons from benefiting from the compensation scheme. I have in mind an allegation made to me a few days ago that some people are purchasing handguns, often old and virtually unusable, for little more than scrap value prices in order to attempt to benefit from the fixed compensation figure. That would be wrong. The money, if it could be saved, could be used to assist people who really need it in compensation for the small businesses they have lost and for the clubs that are closing.
37 Finally, it would be difficult to let the moment pass without saying how pleased I was to read in the Official Report of the other place the words of my right honourable friend the former Home Secretary, when he said that the Bill was,unnecessary and unfair".—[Official Report, Commons, 11/6/97; col.1173.]Doubtless that breathtaking change of heart from Mr. Howard will provide much comfort to those outside Parliament who had their hobbies, their sports and perhaps their businesses taken away from them and have suffered grievous financial loss. One could say in response to Mr. Howard's statement, "Well, we tried to tell you at the time but you simply wouldn't listen". But being gracious in the great traditions of this noble Chamber, I put it down to the fact that I never have and never will understand the science of politics.
§ 5 p.m.
The Earl of Balfour
My Lords, I think this is the first time I have seen a Bill with a different heading to its Title, because its main heading is "Firearms (Amendment)" but its Title quoted in Clause 3 isthe Firearms (Amendment) (No.2) Act".All this Bill does is to prevent any British citizen having any handgun, and has removed any British citizen from taking part in any Olympic pistol shooting competition in Great Britain, which I feel is sad. No one in the United Kingdom will sponsor an Olympic sport which is illegal in this country.
Had Her Majesty's Government introduced legislation putting the offence of carrying an illegal gun in the same category as trafficking in drugs, it would have been most welcome. In Clause 2 the new addition of subsection (3) of Section 15 of the 1997 Act is almost incomprehensible. It states, as I read it,This section applies in relation to small-calibre pistols with the substitution",of Section 1 of the 1997 Act by making it read Clause 1 of this No. 2 Bill. However, Clause 1 only removes the words "a small-calibre pistol" from Section 5(1)(aba) of the 1968 Act but still allows muzzle loading pistols and air pistols. This paragraph (aba) was inserted by the 1997 Act. What has happened to Section 9 of the 1997 Act which deals with expanding ammunition?
In subsection (3), which adds a new subsection (4) to Section 16 of the 1997 Act, it seems to me that I can put off handing a gun into the police until 14th May 1997. But the trouble is that that date has passed and yet this Act has not yet come into force. How can the general public know what to do? I think that the Minister mentioned July and I believe that the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, mentioned 1st September. Therefore I feel that there is a little confusion here. In new subsection (4)(b) what happens to Section 9 of the 1997 Act which deals with expanding ammunition? If I use a rifle to kill a rabbit or a deer I want to be able to use expanding ammunition to be sure that I kill the animal. With solid ammunition the animal may escape and die slowly from its wounds, and that is the last thing I want.
38 In the schedule to the Bill a muzzle loading pistol appears to be permitted, because in Section 5(1)(aba)— inserted by the 1997 Act—the only words being omitted are "a small-calibre pistol" but a muzzle loading gun is included in the present legislation. Also in the schedule the repeal of Section 57(1A) of the 1968 Act and Section 1(9) of the 1997 Act—both meaning the same thing—seems to permit an air gun or pistol to be able to fire bullets larger than .22.
In the repeal of Schedule 1 to the 1997 Act by this No.2 Bill, I am concerned about paragraph 3(1) of this schedule which states,The delivery of the pistol into police custody does not affect the validity of any firearm certificate authorising the holder to have it in his possession".Let me assume I have a .22 pistol, an Army 45 pistol, a .243 rifle and a .270 rifle. Without the protection of Schedule 1 I may have to apply for a new firearm certificate to keep my rifles.
Finally, in assuming that muzzle loading pistols are permitted under the No.2 Bill, with the repeal of Part II of the 1997 Act (licensed pistol clubs)—in other words Sections 19 to 31—it appears to be possible for the owners of muzzle loading pistols to form themselves into a club without requiring any licence.
§ 5.6 p.m.
§ Lord Harmsworth
My Lords, I want to say very little on this Bill. It is a Bill that I like even less than I liked its predecessor. Many of your Lordships have expressed concerns on important counts. One of those, as has already been mentioned today, has been the rushed reaction to a problem which neither the 1997 Act nor this Bill can possibly resolve.
My involvement with the earlier Bill was confined to an attempt to allow serving police and military shooters to continue to practise in their spare time with large calibre weapons—usually of the kind they are used to being issued with while in service. It seemed, and still seems to me, that the public interest was in no way being served by disallowing practice by serving officers while off duty with such weapons. The next Dunblane, as I said, may be one in which the quality and accuracy of police and military shooting may be crucial to a successful outcome; in a hostage taking position, for instance. To place an unnecessary restriction on police or military willingness and ability to improve with practice in their spare time, and at no cost to the taxpayer, could be thoroughly deleterious.
This Bill may well put the lid on any realistic possibility of improving that balance. I deplore it. However, there is another aspect which now needs highlighting—and some of your Lordships have done just that—that is, what I hope is not the start of a trend: the prevention of law-abiding minority groups from pursuing a diversity of activities which may nevertheless not be to the public taste. I neither fox hunt nor shoot with pistols, but I strongly deplore any oppressive majority use of its undoubted power to stifle such minorities. I hope we will see no more of this vindictive kind of legislation. I feel particularly helpless. It seems to me that one of the functions that your Lordships' 39 House should be vigorously pursuing—the defence of minority groups—is not a course open to it in present circumstances. And that I regret.
May I finally say that this unsatisfactory state of affairs, brought very much to the forefront by this Bill and its enacted predecessor, has triggered a display of political courage from some of your Lordships in a House I very much admire, not least because of such displays. I particularly have in mind the lone stance taken by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. His courage in taking the line that he did on firearms has been, and is, self-evident. That he should stick up for minority interests and for fairness and reason in the way that he has stands him very high, if I may humbly say so, in my own regard and, I am sure, that of others.
I very much hope that his example and that of others will remind noble Lords of one of the reasons why your Lordships' House stands so high in the public esteem— fair consideration of the subject matter; and that regardless of the risk of unpopularity.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ The Earl of Lytton
My Lords, I recall that the noble Lord, Lord Harmsworth, occupies at present a seat which is roughly equivalent to that from which the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, gave many memorable deliveries. There must be something special about that Bench. However, joking apart, I have no interest to declare other than as a user of a shotgun. I do not use or own a handgun. My views are entirely my own and not those of any group.
Clearly the Government have a majority in another place; and they are fulfilling a manifesto commitment for a free vote. Therefore, although I question how free that might be in the light of comments made by senior politicians before the election, there is no point in obstructing the Bill. The chief effects have already been put in place under the terms of the 1997 Act. I should like to see the matter put behind us.
However, like the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart—to whom I add my tribute—I, too, wrote to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, when the previous Bill was going through this House, and warned her that the rot starts here—or words to that effect. But with that feeling of déjà vu, I have to say that neither the size of majorities nor the strength of manifesto commitments makes this Bill right or good law. While a promise of zero taxation and improved benefits will no doubt attract many votes, it might also be economic suicide. So good government must at least equate with the ability to distinguish between public opinion on the one hand and legitimate public interest on the other, and the two are not the same.
However, political reality apart, I believe that, taken with the 1997 Act, this Bill is unreasonable, disproportionate and the subject of unproven and almost certainly false claims about public safety. We have heard much this afternoon about the number of illegal guns. There also seems to be a good measure of political opportunism if not spite. I refer to the words of the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, on that point.
40 A wave of understandable public concern has resulted in a measure of what I can only describe as self-righteous indignation being used to pillory an admittedly law-abiding, innocent and regulated minority. What I feel is so palpably unjust is the inadequacy of compensation for those who have been peaceably conducting their businesses and who have taken part in running and organising clubs. Two wrongs do not make a right. Those people will feel cheated and bitter, and the principle underlying the Bill will be as unpalatable to them as infanticide is to others. That may seem an awkward analogy but I believe that it is a fair one.
The inference is that justice does have a price tag; and I very much regret that inference. Justice has to be done and to be seen to be done as regards compensation. I hope that in later stages of the Bill those points will be pressed because I see great social danger in the implicit assumptions that lie behind the current approach.
I could query further the question of public safety. All I say is this. I do not believe that the public safety benefits claimed are quantifiable. I am the father of three children, the youngest being five. I am not clear that I would feel any more comfortable about that youngest child going through the Channel Tunnel than being in a primary school perhaps without the benefit of this legislation. There are many more pressing matters concerning public safety. What about mountaineering, tobacco, alcohol, or people smoking while driving down the M.25, and so on? I could mention many more.
In common with many other noble Lords, I have a number of minority interests. As have other noble Lords, I ask myself what is to stop the Government of the day seeking to eliminate one or more of those activities at the behest of a pressure group. Is this perhaps the modern version of the witch hunt or the auto-da-fé?
In his opening remarks, the Minister confirmed what his right honourable friend said about the possibility of issuing special dispensations to foreign competitors, for instance to the Commonwealth Games. I heard his right honourable friend making those comments on, I think, the BBC's Radio 4. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, put his finger on what I agree is an absurd situation. The message is that Britons are less reliable, more prone to gun abuse and cannot be trusted within a free democratic society under a system of regulation; but overseas visitors carry no such stigma. That is not sticking up for Britain; it is discriminatory and prejudicial to national interests. It is very unfair. Apart from anything else, it looks bad.
The Minister will need to explain how it is that public safety and reassurance of the nation is served by this rather unequal, if not partial, approach. I again refer to the comments of the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, in that respect.
What we have before us is a collective failure of Parliament to put head before heart. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, referred to this point. It applies to both Conservative and Labour Parties. From these Benches I believe that I can comment without fear or favour. In opposition, the Labour Party advocated reference of many issues to a royal commission or a formal 41 commission of inquiry. I believe that there is now a case for removing the ability of short-term political reaction to govern the legislative process by a system of referral to an expert committee on the appropriate legislative response which can be debated in both Houses of Parliament. In the light of his party's previous contentions while in opposition, I wonder whether the Minister will care to comment.
In his opening remarks, the Minister also referred to the right to life coming before the right to a sport. With respect, that is comparing apples with tintacks; and I do not mean to demean or reduce the gravity of what he said. Life, risk, expectation and fulfilment are not susceptible to being rendered down to comparisons of that nature. If we are not to leave a durable and bitter taste of lasting nastiness and division in society, we in Parliament and in the governance of the nation in general need to be much more proficient in the handling of a response to irrational, violent behaviour against members of our community and in particular the young. A tit for tat response, rather like the biblical eye for an eye, is no answer. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, referred to the indecent haste of all this legislation, both as regards the 1997 Act and this Bill. I agree with him. It does not look good.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to the culture of guns. That has worried me for a considerable time. But when I see computer games advertised as the "Ultimate shoot 'em up experience" I know that the rot within society is a good deal larger than the matter of licensed versus unlicensed guns; and our international role and trade mean that the problem is larger than the United Kingdom and indeed Europe. In that context this Bill and the preceding Act amount to gesture legislation. I would support them both if I thought that they would procure the objectives claimed for them. But I fear that they will not, and I feel it my duty from these Benches to stand up and say so.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Lord Burton
My Lords, several noble Lords referred to the number of illegal weapons in circulation. It is vital that police management of firearms is addressed. The noble Lord, Lord Ewing, sought to cast the blame for Dunblane upon the Procurator Fiscal. But why did a very senior police officer resign if the police were not to blame?
The drafts of the thematic reports on the management of firearms by the Scottish police were submitted to Lord Cullen. That valuable piece of evidence was requested by a number of Members of Parliament, both in this House and in the Commons. The Scottish Office Ministers at that time, so I am informed by the former Lord Advocate, chose not to publish the drafts. The thematic reports for England were available. Please can the Scottish reports now be provided in the Library of the House?
I and others have raised this matter before, and we were fobbed off with various excuses. But with this further legislation we should be given the information that is in the reports. We should then be able to give an answer to the noble Lord. Lord Ewing, as to the 42 competence of the Central Police, who after all for 11 years had a chief constable who never set up proper procedures in Central and who has since then prepared a draft firearms Bill. This legislation, and the Conservative law that preceded it, seem to contain many identical phrases to those prepared by that chief constable. I therefore wonder how much Home Office officials have taken out of that draft Bill.
A small but quite important detail of compensation has come to my attention. Speedloaders and spare parts not on a certificate are not covered by the compensation regulations. Will the Minister confirm that the Government have agreed to make compensation available for those items? If other anomalies come to light, will these be covered by compensation?
The Minister will remember that during our debate in this House on 9th June I asked whether the police were satisfied that they could implement the instructions being debated in the order before the House, and I expressed doubt as to the feasibility of that. My noble friend Lady Blatch later expressed the same doubt.
Were there not requests from the police for a six- to eight-week extension on the time allowed for taking in the weapons? Was not the reply that the Government were content that the scheme could be up and running on the date specified and that it would run with reasonable efficiency? In view of the chaos that is already evident in relation to the distribution of documentation required by the police, does the Minister still believe that that answer was correct? Will he please now consider giving additional time to the police to collect the weapons?
§ 5.23 p.m.
The Earl of Haddington
My Lords, I shall he brief, as the Government have a clear mandate to do as they like—although I hope that they will do what is just. The Bill before us has been cobbled together with undue haste. The police evidently agree with that point since in some forces they complain that the forms for compensation were received by them only 10 days ago. Does the Minister agree that the time limit for handing in weapons should be extended, as requested by those police forces? There are those who possess a firearms certificate but do not possess a driving licence. How are they to deliver their equipment—by bus? The form that shooters have been asked to sign is unsuitable; by signing it, a gun owner not only signs away ownership of the weapon before any compensation has been made to him, but also agrees to accept any compensation that the Government choose to offer. That could be nil if they so desire.
I also hope that disposal of the weapons by the police will come under some form of independent supervision in order either to make sure that the guns are thrown into a furnace and are all accounted for, or that they are disposed of in some other appropriate way.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Peel, who pointed out the gross hypocrisy and insulting attitude of the Government towards shooters in allowing foreigners permits to compete in the Olympic Games and Commonwealth sports but denying our own shooters the 43 right to compete in these competitions. Even the disabled are so denied. Shooting is one of the few sports in which people in wheelchairs and those who cannot get about like the rest of us can compete, and do so extremely well. We heard earlier that three gold medals were recently won at the Paraplegic Olympic Games. Setting aside how many or how few competitions are denied to these people, the fact is that this is an insult to our competitive shooters.
The Act does not increase public safety one jot and has damaged many small businesses and clubs, which are now having to close. The compensation that they are being offered is, frankly, derisory. This whole business is a step down the road towards taking away freedom and personal responsibility from our citizens through legislation. This legislation is inappropriate and very sad.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Lord Cottesloe
My Lords, first, I must declare an interest, as I did previously. I am a life member of the National Rifle Association, president of the Bucks county rifle association and the holder of a firearms certificate. Many of the points I had intended to make this afternoon have already been made more eloquently and in a better informed way than I could have made them. Therefore I shall merely touch on two aspects.
The first is the suggestion by the Government that British competitors should travel overseas to train. That is practical only for those living near the Channel—let us say, those living in the south and those who are comparatively wealthy. That seems a curious effect for a Bill sponsored by a Labour Government.
Secondly, I wish to elaborate briefly on one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Harmsworth, on the effect of the Bill in another direction. In another place Ministers made much of the policies of the Police Federation and the Police Superintendents' Association being in favour of a total prohibition on pistols. They even went on to allege that the Association of Chief Police Officers is either moving, or has moved, to a similar view. However, that was not the case only a few weeks ago.
One might be excused for thinking that that means that police officers who use pistols, and know a good deal about them, hold the same view. In fact, they do not. A good police shot is one who is interested in pistols. Such people often privately possess a number of such arms and frequently practise in civilian clubs. They, too, are to lose their private pistols; and they, individually, are as upset and disillusioned about what is happening as are many servicemen in a similar position. Police shots who so suffer under this legislation are puzzled that their views are not listened to. Their efficiency cannot but be impaired by the legislation.
The Government may say that chief officers are satisfied that the deficiency can be made good. They omit to say at what extra expense to taxpayers and ratepayers. It is, however, the view of many serving officers who use firearms that there will be a reduction in efficiency; and, all too often, that means a greater risk 44 to public safety. Reflecting what many noble Lords have already said, it is ironic that legislation intended to enhance public safety may, in certain aspects, reduce it. As we have often heard this afternoon, it does nothing to reduce or check the inflow of illegal pistols to this country, estimated by the police at over 2,000 a week.
Our family motto is nec prece nec pretio, neither by entreaty nor bribery. Nevertheless, I entreat those in another place to have another think about the Bill.
Finally, I have already been properly reprimanded for breaching the conventions of the House once this afternoon and I am afraid I shall do so again. When I put my name down to speak I understood that the debate would be limited to two hours, and it was initially. I said that I would host a reception in the Attlee Room at 6 o'clock, therefore I ask the indulgence of the House if, having spoken, I do not remain as I normally would until the end of the debate.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Lord Thomas of Gresford
My Lords, this afternoon your Lordships have demonstrated serious and deeply held convictions which demand the utmost respect. Arguments have been advanced as to the effect of a complete ban on handguns for sport and for the innocent sportsmen who practise the sport. Your Lordships have also been concerned about the knock-on effect for our position in international games. As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, said, it may make a mockery of us in the eyes of other countries. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, stated, with some seriousness, that banning handguns may by dint of international "crookery"—I think was the expression he used—deny us the Olympic Games in the future.
I also understand your Lordships' concerns about the disabled, for whom shooting is clearly a useful activity. Skills are involved with hand and eye co-ordination, which I must confess I do not possess. The test of those skills under the stress of competition is no doubt what it is all about. But there is no legitimate purpose other than sport for the possession of handguns.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, said that the legislation was the thin end of the wedge and that nobody would be able legally to hold a firearm in this country. However, there is a distinction between handguns which are used only for sport, rifles which are used for the purposes of culling and shotguns which are just a tool in the hands of the farmer or landowner. Perhaps the noble Lord will forgive me for saying that his statement was a little extreme.
But we must balance the use of handguns for sporting purposes against the danger to the public of handguns in the wrong hands. There is no other sport in the Olympic Games where an implement is used which has featured in criminal activity. I do not recall a javelin being used for that purpose, nor anything in archery or other implements of that nature. The general cry has beenߞ
§ The Earl of Shrewsbury
My Lords, will the noble Lord give way for a moment? Perhaps I may correct him 45 on the last point. Bows and arrows are used seriously in the countryside for the poaching of deer. It is a criminal activity, especially using cross-bows.
§ Lord Thomas of Gresford
My Lords, I take the noble Earl's point. There has been a general cry that the illegal possession of guns must be tackled and it is the illegal possession that is the problem. However, no one in the debate this afternoon has suggested how that should be done. I agree with my noble friend Lord McNally, who said that we must reverse the rising tide of the gun culture in this country and that gun control is the way to do it. If it requires the toughest gun laws in the world, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, so be it. Britain should lead on the issue and not follow. For example, we should not follow the United States where, as my noble friend pointed out, some 35,000 deaths from gunfire occur on an annual basis. We certainly do not want trigger-happy police officers. It would surprise your Lordships to know how many guns are issued on a daily basis in the London area to plain clothes policemen for carrying out their proper activities.
Dunblane was a terrible tragedy. It was even more terrifying because the perpetrator of the tragedy was a man who was a registered holder of guns and had been trained at a gun club. But the fact that the tragedy happened—and it was not an isolated event—must not conceal the fact that guns are used increasingly. When the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, opened the debate, he correctly pointed out that handguns are lethal and that even .22 guns and lower are quick-firing and easy to conceal.
The noble Lord, Lord Monson, referred to the assassination of Robert Kennedy and President Rabin. He said that we must distinguish between those cases because those men were assassinated at close range by people who came up to them and shot them at point blank range. From my own professional experience, I can think of a number of cases where precisely that happened.
The first example that came to mind when the noble Lord made that remark was not a case in this country but in our former colony of Hong Kong. At a goldsmith's shop in Nathan Road, a man walked up to the two armed guards who were carrying shotguns outside the shop. He produced from his belt a handgun and assassinated the two guards at point blank range.
Lest it be thought that that is something which only happens abroad, I can recall another case in Liverpool about 18 months ago. In a busy shopping centre at lunchtime on a Saturday in the Aintree area, a man walked up to someone sitting in a car and shot him through the head. A third example that comes to mind is more recent, within the past 12 months, in Birmingham, where the act of stepping on a man's toe led to a quarrel 46 where the people concerned went outside. One man produced a handgun and shot at the other, fortunately not killing him.
The Earl of Stockton
My Lords, on those three occasions, can the noble Lord tell the House whether the guns were legally or illegally owned?
§ Lord Thomas of Gresford
My Lords, that is the precise point I seek to make. One must start by reversing a rising tide of gun culture in this country. There are more armed police, more armed robbers, and more people who are ready to use guns, particularly in the large metropolises of the country. One must start somewhere to tackle the problem. Making the holding of guns altogether illegal is a first step which I commend to the House.
The Earl of Haddington
My Lords, I am sorry to intervene, but I suggest that the proper place to start is with the illegal gun trade, not with legally held guns.
§ Lord Thomas of Gresford
My Lords, that is the question that I seek to address. Although the point was made by a number of noble Lords in today's debate who are rightly concerned about the loss of their sport, no one has put forward any practical step to attack illegal possession of guns. What does one do?—search every house in the country to find out where arms are hidden? That is impractical. One has to say that guns must cease to be held in this country, handguns which are lethal—
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He made much of a rising gun culture in this country, as did his colleague. Does he agree with greater censorship? It is my view that a great deal of the cultural promotion of violence comes through video, television and film and not through law-abiding people going about a legal sport.
Further, given that the noble Lord made much of the point, and he cites evidence, does he have evidence that there has been an increase in crime with the use of legally held guns or even guns that were held legally which have been stolen to be used illegally?
§ Lord Thomas of Gresford
My Lords, I cannot give the noble Baroness figures on that. I have to rely on my own experience over many years to inform your Lordships that there is a rising tide of gun culture, particularly fuelled by the drugs trade. But perhaps I may answer the noble Baroness. She—or at least her department—promoted in the previous Parliament a Bill for banning knives. Knives were thought to be something which had to be tackled, although they could be used for legitimate purposes—for diving purposes and for hunting purposes. Nevertheless, one of the last Acts of the previous government was to ban the possession of knives. One could say equally in relation to those knives that one has to start somewhere. One has to change the culture that carrying knives will produce with people.
If the problem is approached from that angle and not from the sporting angle, which I entirely respect—I respect the views that have been put forward—the 47 balance firmly comes down against sport and in favour of the safety of the public. That is the public perception. I entirely agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, who said, in the course of the debate—at least it was the view that he expressed—that it was a stitch-up by the political parties to gain Brownie points with the electorate. Maybe the parties were joined together, because the public perception was that guns must be banned, weighing the sporting element against the need to deal with the gun culture that is rising. I also say that the noble Viscount's suggestion of a destruction certificate which would not result in the creation of armouries was an excellent one, which I hope the Government will consider.
This is not a party matter. As my noble friend pointed out, the Liberal Democrats have not advanced a particular party position on it. But I, for my part, fully support the Bill.
§ 5.42 p.m.
My Lords, before making any comments on the Bill, I should like to say that my heart still goes out to the families in Dunblane. What worse disaster could befall a small town.
When Parliament last looked at this matter, possible courses of action were constrained by public opinion being that "something had to be done"—that is clearly true—and that it had to be done before the anniversary of the Dunblane disaster. My right honourable friend in another place who was then Home Secretary had the unenviable task of striking a balance between the two interests while being under extremely effective political pressure from the Labour Party in the run-up to the general election. One was to satisfy the public's proper sense of outrage, which could not, of course, be vented upon the perpetrator; the other was to keep as much viable sport as possible. The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, pointed out that some sport was retained under the existing arrangements of the 1997 Act.
But, as a result, Parliament and in particular this House were not able to take a holistic view of the firearms legislation for which many had argued. Because of time constraints, your Lordships' House decided not to send the whole matter upstairs to committee. There is little point in doing so with this Bill because its Long Title, for good reason, is tightly drafted. Parliament also decided that disassembly was not the right solution, largely because of the judgment that public opinion would not be satisfied. It is interesting to recall that in your Lordships' House the then Opposition had some sympathy for one particular dismantling scheme.
Opening the debate, the Minister gave me some cause for hope. He claimed that a single shot pistol is too dangerous to permit. Perhaps he can explain why a single shot .22 pistol is more dangerous than a shotgun when it has been illegally modified to be a sawn-off shotgun.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell, in his interesting speech, pointed out with characteristic vigour the difficulties facing the organisers of the Olympics and 48 Commonwealth Games. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, amplified those difficulties in his excellent speech. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, made the point concerning the destruction of handguns.
The Minister will claim that the police are above all suspicion. I have to remind him of the article which appeared in the Evening Standard on 2nd February last. It concerned the case of a police constable who appeared in court charged with seven counts of stealing various guns. It took three years for the offences to come to light. What kind of checks and controls did the chief constable have in place?
Given the concerns of the noble Viscount and others, perhaps the Minister can be tempted to agree to allowing partial destruction before guns are handed in. At present, the Minister claims (in correspondence) that that would be illegal. What guarantee can the Minister give that surrendered guns will not be exported, other than in very small quantities to museums?
Given that the Bill now before us honours an important manifesto commitment and is supposed to be popular and wise, it is a little surprising to note how few noble Lords from the Government Back Benches have spoken in support of the Bill. In fact there has been none. It reminds me of the time when the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, in winding up at Second Reading, was extolling the virtues of the 1997 Act. If my memory serves me aright, he had only the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, for company. Thankfully, the Minister enjoys a little more support today, but it is not from his own Benches.
After all this legislation has been implemented, Parliament will want to measure its success or otherwise. We shall ask questions to measure the dramatic falls in gun crime and injuries that many supporters of the Bill claim will ensue. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will look forward with interest to the figures, as will my noble friend Lord Stockton.
Throughout the passage of the 1997 Act, the Labour Party was remarkably consistent in demanding even tougher legislation, including a complete ban on handguns. It was in its election manifesto as a specific commitment and is trumpeted as the Labour Party's answer to the problem of illegal use and possession of firearms. Its position, as I understand it, is that if legal handguns are banned, then in some miraculous way, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, illegal ones will disappear. If that is not enough, public opinion, at least for the moment, clearly believes the Government's claims for the Bill. In these circumstances, the Salisbury convention will click in. Consequently, we on these Benches will not oppose the question that the Bill be read a second time, despite the fact that we believe it is a rotten measure.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, suggested that these Benches should oppose the Second Reading, as was done in another place. He also complained that the debate in another place was truncated. He makes a very important point. But although we cannot attempt to stop the Bill, we can debate it properly, as we did with the 49 1997 measure. There is even the possibility of the House agreeing amendments, which is also rather unlikely in another place.
These Benches will not table wrecking amendments. However, my noble friend Lady Blatch outlined our very serious concerns regarding the compensation amendments. From what we have heard today it seems that the Government will have to reconsider the whole matter of compensation, as so many businesses and clubs will have to close. If this measure is a moral imperative, it would seem to be immoral to drive its blameless victims into bankruptcy.
Not only do we have the problem of bankruptcy; we also have one in the surrender scheme. The Minister's response to the Starred Question from my noble friend Lady Blatch was far from reassuring. We are told that the scheme will work well and on time. The reality is that the Home Office keeps changing the paperwork which is making it difficult for the police to ensure that they will be able to implement the scheme properly. For instance, documents from one force invite certificate holders to sign away their rights when there is no obligation to do so, as so well described by my noble friend Lord Haddington. If police forces had been given more time to consult and implement, they might have been able to avoid those pitfalls.
Although the various police forces are independent, as is the nature of our policing system and as was pointed out by the Minister at Question Time, one would expect some consistency in approach. However, impressions are mixed. One police force appears to be abusing Section 29(1) of the 1968 Act to impose a blanket condition on certificates by means of a letter that the holder attends with his hardware at a specific time— which happens to be within working hours—at the police headquarters only. That specific police force covers one of the largest counties in the land.
The attitude of the letter was extremely hard and authoritarian and not user friendly. There was no suggestion that alternative arrangements could be made. That contrasts with the pleasant letter from another force which explains the background, draws attention to the compensation scheme and asks the certificate holder to attend at a reasonably local police station. Furthermore, the letter makes it clear that alternative arrangements could be made.
Sadly, I am told that the chief constable of that force is abusing his position by refusing to grant variations to certificates which only relate to handguns. That means that the certificate holder will have to outlay another £75 or so if he would like to move to rifle instead of pistol shooting—a point picked up by my noble friend Lord Balfour. That does not sound either fair or efficient. Bearing in mind the Minister's comments at Question Time, does he feel that it is reasonable not to grant variations to a certificate?
The reason for the difficulties is that the Minister is attempting to impose the surrender scheme before it is properly developed and tested. Quite why officials have not devised a satisfactory scheme in the time available is a mystery. At Question Time the Minister pointed out that officials have had since February to perfect the scheme.
50 Not only are we faced with those problems; there is also a cash flow problem that goes to the heart of the Government's ethos on business standards. When we discussed the compensation order two weeks ago, the Minister was not as helpful as perhaps he would have liked to have been. I should like the Minister to commit himself to paying all claims within 30 days from receipt of the hardware, complete with valid claims, under both the 1997 Act and this Bill. That would fit in well with the Government's policy on business ethics. However, he may not be able to do that and I therefore ask this question, of which I have given notice. Will he pay all valid claims within 60 days of the end of the handing-in period or will it be by the end of the calendar year or perhaps the financial year?
My noble friend Lord Stockton mentioned the possibility of further firearms legislation. I hope that this is the last piece of firearms legislation that we see in this Parliament, for two reasons: first, it ignores the need for the holistic approach to which I referred earlier; secondly, I understand that there is no manifesto commitment to make further changes. In conclusion, we think this Bill a rotten one but will not oppose the principle.
§ 5.54 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions that have been made which have been full, detailed and often informed. I gather from the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, that he now supports the 1997 Firearms (Amendment) Act.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. I carefully described the difficulties the then Home Secretary experienced in devising legislation that would meet the aspirations of the public and the shooting world. I do not accept the view that the Minister put forward.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I take it that the noble Earl, speaking for the Opposition, therefore does not support the former government's production of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. It must be one or the other. Do I take it that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, says that the compensation scheme which the former government—the present Opposition—brought in under the 1997 Act was appropriate or not appropriate?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, how is it different? It is allegedly an integral part of the scheme. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, spent some time in his winding-up remarks complaining that the Government had been derelict in setting up the compensation scheme in practice. What is his attitude?
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, perhaps I may come back on the point in relation to the compensation scheme. The compensation scheme is now set in a very different scenario. Under that Act there was at least an opportunity for gun clubs to survive, albeit in different 51 circumstances. However, there was at least an opportunity for the sport to continue and the clubs to survive. Under this Bill those clubs have no opportunity whatever and there is no survival opportunity for the sport. Therefore, the compensation arrangements have to be seen in that new scenario.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, the one principle on which the Government stood firm was that there would be no compensation in any circumstance for loss of business for traders or clubs.
My Lords, under the previous Bill, as the Minister knows full well, .22 shooting could continue—in difficult circumstances, but it could continue—and therefore there would be a viable role for a shooting club. Under this Bill there will be no role whatever for any shooting club that has a range shorter than around 25 metres. The circumstances therefore are completely different.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, the circumstances are not completely different. Earlier this afternoon noble Lords said that businesses have gone bankrupt; clubs have had to close down and people have had to take out mortgages because they were unable to fulfil their financial obligations. All that happened before the Second Reading of this No. 2 Bill and therefore it is entirely attributable to the legislation brought in by the former Government—the present Opposition. If I have not misremembered, I understood that the noble Earl was hotly against that. But time goes past and the memory dims.
My noble friend Lord Stoddart of Swindon maintained his principled objection. He is a purist upon that. I recognise his stance. He does not deviate. He does not blow with the wind and he does not change his mind as governments change. He has been consistent throughout. I admire him for that, though I happen to disagree with his approach on the principle. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is right when she said that it is a matter of balance, and that was the approach put forward by noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Thomas of Gresford. It is a conclusion about which people can disagree.
A large number of detailed questions have been asked. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, inquired about the difference in lethality between a .22 rimfire handgun and a sawn-off shotgun. The answer is plain, so I shall offer it. A sawn-off shotgun is a prohibited weapon already. The maximum penalty for possession is 10 years' imprisonment. The mere act of shortening a shotgun is itself an offence which carries a maximum penalty of seven years' imprisonment. Anyone who has had anything to do with practising in the courts knows perfectly well that if such a weapon is used—for 52 instance, in a burglary or a bank robbery—the mere fact of possession is always treated by judges, rightly I suggest, as a severely aggravating feature.
Other questions were asked, some of which were detailed and others of which were rather more panoramic. The noble Lord, Lord Burton, asked why the inspectorate report for Scotland on Firearms licensing has not been made public. My understanding, subject to further research and correction, is that the report was in draft form at the time the events in Dunblane occurred. It was thought thereafter that the Dunblane inquiry had overtaken the report.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, it is not an excuse. It is an answer to a question. I have answered that question as courteously and fully as I can.
I was asked how those who possess handguns will be able to deliver their weapons to police stations if they do not have driving licences. I would guess that most people involved in target shooting travel to their clubs to shoot. I imagine that they have to transport their weapons to the clubs. In fact, I know that to be the case from personal experience. One should have thought that the problem of travel would not be insuperable.
Related questions were asked about the police and the time given for collection. As I said to your Lordships on the last occasion, we have agreed with ACPO and ACPO (Scotland) that three months is sufficient. We do not think it appropriate to change the arrangements at this very late stage. It ought to be possible. given goodwill, for all owners and possessors of handguns to be able to find a convenient time to hand in their weapons. It has been said that chief constables have differed. I hope that no chief constable has sent out an aggressive, harsh or impolite letter. I entirely agree with noble Lords that the tone of letters is important, particularly bearing in mind that former legal owners of property are to be dispossessed if the Bill becomes an Act.
The noble Lord, Lord Burton, asked a specific question relating to speed loaders and spare parts. I confirm, as he asked me to, that although not covered by the compensation scheme the Government have agreed to make ex gratia payments for speed loaders and speed loader pouches surrendered by certificate holders and dealers. Ex gratia payments will be made to dealers who surrender quantities of spare parts for handguns.
The noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, asked a specific question relating to the device, which is what it would be, of buying old, virtually unusable guns. I am happy to deal with his question. The compensation is payable only for handguns possessed lawfully on 16th October of last year. That will be evidenced on the individual's firearm certificate. I well understand the noble Earl's question and I hope that I have been able to reassure him on that point.
The noble Earl, Lord Peel, asked about range and target equipment compensation. There are no plans to compensate clubs for range and target equipment. The 53 full list of items which will be compensated for was debated in the House on 9th June. Details have been circulated.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred to a police force which I think she was suggesting had behaved unlawfully. The advice given, as I understand it, is that from 1st July it will be illegal to possess a large calibre handgun unless the person in possession is a firearm certificate holder or registered dealer. In those cases the period for surrender continues until 30th September. On the best of our information, although I am always grateful to have further detailed corrections, police forces and their chief constables understand that.
A number of noble Lords said that unnamed police officers or police forces do this, that or the other. I cannot conceivably reply to assertions of that kind. However, I stress, as I said to the noble Earl, Lord Peel, earlier today, that if there are specific questions I am more than happy to have correspondence and to deal with matters as fully as I can.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Perhaps I may help by giving him the actual words from the letter from one police authority. The letter states:In order to ensure the orderly hand in of Firearms and ammunition which will become unlawful from the 1st July 1997".I believe that to be wrong.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, if I can have the full letter then I repeat my assurance to the noble Earl, Lord Peel, that I shall do the best I can, as appropriate, to chase up that matter.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, as I said to the Minister earlier, shooters who are having their guns taken away from them as a result of these various pieces of legislation have already been greatly inconvenienced. I am sure the noble Lord will accept that point. Therefore, it seems to me essential that he and his department instruct the officers of police in their various areas to make this whole process as easy as possible for the shooters to hand in their guns. I gave one example of there being only one point in south Wales where guns could be disposed of. In another instance the local police were insisting that the shooters hand in their guns on a specific day at a specific time. I do not think that is acceptable. We must make every effort to ensure that people can hand in their guns at their convenience as well as that of the police. That is all I am saying. I have received too many examples where the police have been far too stringent. Some consideration must be given to those people who have been greatly inconvenienced already by these two pieces of legislation.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I agree with the thrust of what the noble Earl has said. As I tried to say earlier this afternoon, if people are to be dispossessed as a judgment of Parliament, they ought to be treated with decent consideration as all people should be who have to come into contact with public administration in any circumstance. I repeat that if I am given chapter and verse I shall do my best to take what 54 steps are appropriate within the relationship that there is between central control at the Home Office and independent, autonomous operational decisions by chief constables.
I do not think there is anything between the noble Earl and myself about what the proper approach should be. I entirely sympathise with the feelings shooters have that they have been dispossessed unfairly. I do not agree with them but I fully understand their views. I am familiar with people who enjoy handgun practice. I am familiar with police gun ranges. I know how involved people become within their sports. That is a judgment which Parliament has made on an earlier occasion and may make again on this occasion.
The noble Baroness asked me where the money would come from. At Second Reading in another place on 11th June (at col. 1164 of the Official Report) my right honourable friend the Home Secretary indicated that the additional sums would be met from within the Home Office budget. The additional sum is a relatively small amount compared with the total compensation that was to be provided by the present Shadow Foreign Secretary when he was Home Secretary.
The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, asked a number of questions relating to security. The police have the necessary expertise in dealing with security. They have the present task of vetting existing clubs. They have to make decisions about how clubs, dealers and individuals store their weapons. Where a chief officer of police may need extra advice he is perfectly entitled to look for it either from the Armed Forces or from the Health and Safety Executive.
The noble Viscount also asked about the destruction of weapons. There is no question that weapons handed in for compensation will be sold abroad in the generality. All weapons will be destroyed by police under local arrangements. A few guns will be retained by chief officers of police for training purposes or they may be taken by museums for public display. For destruction certificates to be handed out by the thousand to individuals would place a wholly intolerable burden on police forces and add unnecessarily to bureaucracy.
The question regarding the claim form has led to certain misunderstandings. I shall read the declarations on the claim form,(a) I hereby declare that by surrendering to the police on … (date) the item or items described in Part C of this form, I have relinquished any entitlement to the ownership or use of the said items.(b) I will accept any payment made in relation to any items claimed for under Options (A) or (B) as a settlement of my claim in relation to those items.Nothing could be simpler and it is perfectly plain. It means that the declaration, if it is read and understood, applies only to claims made under Option (A) and Option (B). It does not apply to Option (C) claims. Therefore, the declaration in paragraph (B) simply makes implicit in the choice of Option (A) or (B) that the individual is prepared to accept payment either at the relevant flat rate or the listed value for the items. It is as simple as that. If there have been concerns I am glad to put them right and I hope that I have done so.
55 Questions were raised about the power of .22 rim-fire weapons. In particular the noble Lord, Lord Monson, mentioned that. Lord Cullen dealt with that at paragraph 9.42 of his report in referring to the evidence of Mr. David Penn. He is a member of the Firearms Consultative Committee and I believe that at the time he gave evidence he was a member of the BSSC. Lord Cullen's citation from that evidence was,Mr. Penn added that in terms of pure precision the .22 calibre was capable of levels of inherent accuracy beyond the skill of the shooter".Perhaps I may deal with the powerful contribution of my noble friend—we still are!—Lord Howell. A certain amount of misunderstanding has crept in and it is very important that I make the position as plain as I can. There is no doubt that the games will take place in Manchester in the year 2002. The contract can only be breached for two reasons—that is to say, natural disaster or lack of proper organisation. I mention this because it may be useful. Manchester's original bid for the games did not include shooting events. They were included only after representations by New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and the Falklands. The hosting of the Olympic Games is not dependent on the games containing specific events. The inclusion of individual events is a matter between the host nation and the Olympic committee. It is clearly important to bear in mind—
My Lords, I am obliged to my noble friend for giving way. Perhaps I may assure him, having done this myself, that one has to give a clear undertaking to the International Olympic Committee that all the events outlined in the programme will be held in the host city. That obligation cannot be escaped. I shall be grateful if my noble friend can check on the source of his statement about that matter.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, of course I shall check. If I am wrong I shall write to my noble friend immediately. I repeat, that my information is that Manchester's original bid did not include shooting events.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, again I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I said that in my remarks. I made it clear that the original bid did not include shooting. I also went on to say that 53 out of 60 countries made representations that shooting should be included. It was quite clear that Manchester would have been looked on very unfavourably—there may well have been some boycotting—if it had not eventually succumbed to including shooting in the games. As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, has said, it is clear that we shall be put in serious jeopardy in future in bidding for international competitions if we exclude shooting as one of the sports.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, shooting does not have to be excluded. Seven pistol events out of 28 shooting events in the games will be affected, but 21 will not.
56 The position is the same with the Paralympics and the Olympic Games in general terms. More activities will be allowed than will be disallowed.
The noble Baroness asked me specifically about the Section 5 arrangements. The Secretary of State can issue an authority in writing to any person and any such authority can be subject to any conditions specified in it. We do not believe that from our consultations with the affected police force, that there will be any difficulty provided it has the opportunity to put its organisation in hand as soon as reasonably practicable.
The question of legal and illegal guns has been discussed by a number of your Lordships. Lord Cullen said at paragraph 9.98 of his report,Given that lawfully held handguns are identified in firearm certificates, the opportunity for them to 'disappear' is much less than if they were not identified at all".I agree with the thrust of what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, and which was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. It is a multi-faceted question. No single remedy will produce the result. There is a rather macho culture that guns are somehow acceptable in our community. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, pointed out, a gun crime related to drugs is extremely serious. No one on this side claims or pretends that this is a complete answer. We say that there is very significant public support for the stand that we have taken. It was a clear manifesto commitment. There was a significant majority for the present Government. As recently as 6th June— according to the poll in Daily Telegraph, for instance— 83 per cent. of those polled supported the Government's announcement of a ban on all handguns. That is the fact.
Particular questions were raised by the noble Earl, Lord Balfour, about muzzle-loading pistols and air weapons. The exemptions as regards those weapons remain and they are not affected by this Bill. The prohibition on expanding ammunition, together with the exemptions for the lawful shooting of deer, vermin and other animals, are not affected by this Bill. If handguns and rifles are both held on a certificate, the handguns will be deleted and the certificate will then continue relative to the appropriate weapons.
A specific question was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Harmsworth, about the effect on the training of military and police personnel. ACPO, its Scottish equivalent and the MoD, were consulted on this point, most recently in February of this year. They did not come to the conclusion that legislation would have a damaging effect on training.
I hope that I have dealt with every question that has been put to me. If I have not, I shall he happy to write. I repeat, that if there has been graceless correspondence on anyone's part I am more than happy to review it. The truth is—and we return to where the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, began—that we have to set a balance of judgment. We hope that such a balance of judgment for which we contend will he supported by your Lordships' House. It was supported by the public in the general election and in another place. That does not determine your Lordships' judgment in the slightest way and neither should it. We simply believe that it is 57 necessary; that it is required and our public duty to go further than the present Act and that is what we aim to do by placing this Bill before your Lordships.
I do not believe that it is right—
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, before the noble Lord concludes perhaps I may get one point absolutely certain. The noble Lord made reference to a reduction in the gun culture in this country, and reference has been made to that by a number of noble Lords in their speeches. The noble Lord also referred to the macho image. Is he telling the House that by depriving 40,000 people with licences to conduct themselves as pistol shooters, that he is going to have any effect at all on the gun culture and the macho image of shooters in this country?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, the noble Lord says "pathetic", but I am not quite sure what he was referring to.
I am saying that we need to attend to serious dangers which affect significant parts of our country; in particular, small children at school. We need to attend to other people who in the course of their everyday employment are threatened by people who are sophisticated criminals who find it easy to get access to guns. Part of that, we believe, is to deal with this particular question in this particular way. I do not suggest for one moment—it would be absurdly simplistic or, to coin a phrase, "pathetic" to do so—that it is a total answer. What we are doing is placing this Bill before your Lordships in the context of what we know: that it was fully discussed and debated at the general election and that the other House has discussed it and come to its conclusion.
I should like one last word: it is wrong to say—I hope that at some stage it may be withdrawn—that the parents of the children of Dunblane and those in the Snowdrop group could in any sense be properly claimed to be persecuting the innocent.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.