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8.5 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I was hoping that, when talking about the Dunblane parents, the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) might have found it within himself to apologise for some of the remarks that he made several weeks ago. For his information, the Dunblane parents are not "hysterical"--given the circumstances, I have never meet a group of calmer and more rational people and their arguments have been commendable for their reasoned approach. The hon. Gentleman's remarks this evening were more moderate than those of a few weeks ago, but they were, none the less, offensive.

It was interesting that the hon. Gentleman started by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who made an emotional speech which touched many of us. I know the hon. Member for Spelthorne and he would never have expressed himself in the clumsy and offensive way that the hon. Member for Luton, North did a few weeks ago.

The impact of this debate will be felt strongly in Scotland and, indeed, in other parts of the country. People were, rightly, touched by the Dunblane tragedy and that feeling has hardened into a determination to try to prevent that sort of tragedy from happening again. Everyone who argues that case realises that there can be no absolute guarantees, but we can move the boundary somewhat and make it less likely that such a tragedy will happen again. That makes the case for a complete ban on handguns.

I have listened to Conservative Members relate in the debate some of the things that have been said to them. They should remember that a highly personalised campaign of slurs and innuendo was waged against the key Snowdrop campaigners by some elements in the gun lobby. There is no doubt about that--their actions and words are on the record. Equally, some members of the

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gun lobby have expressed themselves fairly while still putting their arguments with vigour--many of my constituents have done so. It does not help--especially when calm and reasoned debate is called for--to have those accusations flowing back and forth across the Chamber, instead of hon. Members trying to identify the case on its merits.

No system of checking, however rigorous, can prevent every unsuitable person from gaining access to guns. It has been said in the debate that the police made mistakes, as if that were an argument against a complete ban on the civilian use of handguns. The fact that the police make mistakes is one of the arguments for such a ban. No system of checking is foolproof and any system that depends on people is essentially flawed in that human beings, including the police, make mistakes.

Hon. Members have spoken about sports and I hope that alternatives can be devised so that people can continue to practise their sport. Some of my constituents have said that they could not understand why some pistol shooters have to use extremely powerful weapons--they ask why the same skill and precision cannot be expressed through new technology, perhaps laser technology. I hope that such possibilities will be investigated. At the end of the day, however, people's pursuit of a sport must be a lesser point than the issue of public safety.

Our job, as representatives of the people, is to square our actions with our conscience. That is why it would be wrong were the House to allow the substantial loophole in respect of handguns as proposed by the Government. We should start from the principle that no one should own a handgun and only then should we discuss the exceptions. The position adopted by the Japanese in this respect is enlightening. In that whole country, there are 58 handgun licences. Hon. Members will be aware of the Home Office statistics, which point to some correlation between the number of legal firearms in circulation and the incidence of firearm homicide.

The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith), in an interesting speech, made the reasonable point that one cannot prove anything absolutely through international comparisons. One comparison should, however, be introduced into the debate. In the United States, which has some of the most lax gun legislation, there are 27 times as many firearm killings per million than in the United Kingdom. In Japan, where the basic principle is no handguns, the killings number one eighth of the UK total. For all the differences in culture and experience in the international comparisons, those figures are very compelling.

I am angry that the Government have decided to whip their Back Benchers on this issue. It is fair to contrast their position on this issue with the decision to allow a free vote on corporal punishment in schools. It is an insult to the intelligence of voters to say that using the cane in England is a matter of conscience, but using a handgun is not.

This debate has shown up the real reason why the Government intend to whip Members through the Lobby during the next week. There have been many speeches--mainly from the Opposition Benches, but some from the Government side--arguing for the complete ban of handguns. Many Conservative Members have argued that the Government have gone too far. However, support for the Government position from the Back Benches has been

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noticeable by its absence. That is why the Government feel that they can sustain their position only by the use of the Whips on this, an issue that, above all others, should be one of conscience. The Government's position is a fraud--an uneasy compromise, which has been patched together with no intellectual coherence and which depends on the Whips Office to hold it together.

As has been said, the clearest evidence was presented to Cullen--in some cases, by the gun lobby itself--to show that the option of gun club storage was unsound and unsafe. The quotations are there for all to see in the Cullen report. I was convinced by those representations, because they were widespread and they were backed up by the police.

The logic of the Government's central proposals is impossible to fathom. They have drawn a line at .22 calibre weapons in the full knowledge that such an arbitrary decision and division have been generally discredited. As has been said, a .22 handgun is as deadly as a high-calibre weapon. In some cases, it is the weapon of choice for killers. It was the weapon used to assassinate Bobby Kennedy, it was used in the attempt on President Reagan's life and it is the weapon responsible for the largest number of killings in the United States. Indeed, it is favoured for its size, ease of carrying and concealment and efficiency. The common term for some .22s in the United States is the "Saturday night special". Lord Cullen emphasised that point in his report, saying:

People will not accept the continued existence of 40,000 legally held handguns or the bizarre decision to allow multi-fire handguns to continue to be in this legal group. Let the House be under no illusion: some .22 weapons can fire even more rapidly than the 9 mm Browning that Hamilton used. If any lesson is to be learnt from Thomas Hamilton's actions, it is surely that rapid-fire weapons are the most deadly. Hamilton fired a hail of 106 bullets in a matter of seconds--that damage from a handgun should surely never be allowed again. Of course hon. Members have a point when they say that a madman could take a machete or another weapon and try to inflict damage, but few other weapons can inflict the carnage of a rapid-fire handgun.

The Secretary of State for Scotland suggests that the measures in the Bill amount to a virtual ban and that gun clubs will be forced out of existence. If that is so, would it not be better to face the issue honestly, rather than by back door prohibition? The Home Secretary is singing a different tune. He has spoken of the possibility of new gun clubs coming into existence to meet the new regulations. We are entitled to ask, what is the Government view--is it effective prohibition, or the rejuvenation of gun clubs?

There is to be compensation and, like many hon. Members, I accept that point on principle. There should be compensation, but I would think it ill if compensation were used so that people could trade into new .22 weapons. The Government cannot have it both ways. The only effective handgun control is a handgun ban and

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they should know that public opinion will not tolerate money being used to bring new .22 handguns into people's possession.

I hope that hon. Members will find the strength to do what is right by their constituents and by the people of Dunblane.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. Time is up. Mr. Rupert Allason.

8.15 pm

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay): After the appalling tragedy of Hungerford, the House was determined to rush to legislate. I regret having supported that legislation at the behest of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), who was then the Home Secretary. I did support it, however, and it banned a type of weapon. That was what I believed that I was legislating for. The reality was that that legislation placed an enormous and expensive burden on entirely legitimate shotgun certificate holders.

This is another occasion on which the House is being invited to rush through ill-prepared legislation. The fact that the money resolution was withdrawn this afternoon, shows the lack of proper preparation and consultation. This is not a choice between the right to life and the right to sport; it is a measure that penalises and stigmatises a wholly law-abiding section of the community.

I must now turn to the horrendous tragedy of Dunblane. My criticism of the present law is the built-in bias in favour of the applicant, to which hon. Members have referred, and the weight against revocation on appeal to the court. That crucial issue is key to the administration of a proper and effective control regime, which is what all responsible shooters desire.

The description given by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) of the police procedures examined by Lord Cullen is comprehensively contradicted by the report. I must remind the House of precisely what Lord Cullen said. Thomas Hamilton was regarded as

It is true that Hamilton first acquired a firearms certificate in 1977, but he had deliberately and consistently deceived the police since then, as is clear from paragraph 6.30 of the report. As for ammunition, Lord Cullen considered it "strange" that Hamilton was ever allowed to buy large quantities of bullets or, indeed, additional weapons of the same calibre. Lord Cullen said that that

    "does not inspire me with confidence".

If anyone believes that the Cullen report absolves the police, let him take another look. The report is a damning indictment. In paragraph 6.42, the author refers to the Holden memorandum, saying that it

    "should have been placed in the firearms file . . . but this was not done."

Detective Sergeant Hughes said that Hamilton was

    "an unsavoury character and unstable personality",

that he had

    "an extremely unhealthy interest in young boys",

and that he was

    "an unsuitable person to possess a firearm certificate".

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Paragraph 6.45 of the report states:

    "Detective Constable Taylor believed that Thomas Hamilton had been guilty of criminal conduct",

but that did not give him any

    "concern about his fitness to hold a firearm certificate."

Paragraph 6.47, relating to the 1995 renewal signed by the deputy chief constable, states that the latter, in his evidence to Lord Cullen, said that he spent "only a few moments" on the renewal:

    "Only the certificate was before him. He said he did not apply his mind to the question of whether Hamilton was a fit and proper person".

No wonder he resigned!

Consider the criticism in paragraph 6.62 of the way in which the deputy chief constable gave evidence, which differed over two days, on whether Hamilton was fit to hold a firearms certificate.

The entire system administered by Scottish Central police was flawed. Lord Cullen talks of

that is found in paragraph 6.72. In paragraph 6.73, Lord Cullen refers to the criminal intelligence check that should have been conducted in February 1992 on the renewal--it was never executed. In paragraph 6.78, he cites

    "a disturbing picture of the operation of the decision-making process. The senior officer who had the responsibility of determining the outcome of Thomas Hamilton's application had nothing put before him but the new firearms certificate to be signed. In the absence of any indication to the contrary he assumed that it was appropriate for him to sign."

The left hand clearly did not know what the right hand was doing.

The whole report is a damning indictment of the way in which the police exercise their powers under current legislation. I recognise that there was confusion about how the law operated in Scotland. I recognise, too, that there was great anxiety about the benefit of the doubt always being given to the applicant. The solution is to reverse the balance, leaving it in favour of any police objection.

In paragraph 7.17, Lord Cullen concluded:

I tend to agree.

I welcome the Home Secretary's concession this afternoon to extending compensation to auxiliary equipment. Over the weekend, I met more of my constituents who are firearms certificate holders. They certainly do not conform to the image portrayed in the smears that have been aimed at the gun lobby. Those people have held certificates for 20 or 30 years and have been obliged to show responsible police officers that they are indeed fit and proper persons.

What am I to say to one of my constituents who has £3,000 worth of reloading equipment for making the ammunition for his weapons? There is also a gun dealer in my constituency, operating from home, who has invested thousands of pounds in security precautions for his house. Will he be compensated? Absolutely not.

The only equitable approach, if we are to legislate on this issue, is to make certain that everyone adversely affected, including the clubs, is compensated in full. No

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such proposals are in the Bill, nor are they in prospect. In my judgment, therefore, the Bill is unjust; furthermore, it is un-Conservative. Accordingly, I commend the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) to the House.

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