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9 Jun 1997 : Column 897

Firearms (Compensation Scheme)

10.35 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alun Michael): I beg to move,

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. As you will know, the draft scheme was laid before the House last Tuesday. I understand from the Vote Office that the papers were not available until very late on Tuesday night. I have a large number of shooters in my constituency, none of whom has had the chance to let me know what he or she thinks of the measure. I wonder whether you could guide the House as to how long a draft scheme of this nature should be available before it is debated, so that our constituents can make representations to us and we can do our job in this place, rather than having the measure pushed through at short notice.

Madam Speaker: There are no guidelines as to when draft schemes should be published and when they should be debated. However, the hon. Gentleman and his constituents will understand and appreciate that the matter has been debated over a long period of time, not only in the House, but throughout the country.

Mr. Michael: I welcome the opportunity to open the debate on the Government's draft compensation scheme, which has been laid before the House under the terms of section 18 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997.

Perhaps I can help the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) by saying that changes were made to take into account representations from shooters and those in the trade. The fact that the changes were requested by the very people to whom the hon. Gentleman referred demonstrates the lengths to which we have gone in listening to the people involved.

Mr. Ian Bruce: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so early in his speech. Surely that is the point of publishing the Government's proposals. We should have given people at least a fortnight to make representations.

Mr. Michael: The hon. Gentleman must realise that there has been a great deal of consultation on the implementation of the scheme, just as there was an enormous amount of debate about the Act. Our priority is to implement the Act as quickly as possible. That requires the compensation scheme to be in place. Meeting the 1 July deadline and giving people three months to hand in their weapons and ancillary equipment requires us to proceed as quickly as possible. There was a general view in the House and among the public that the Act should be implemented as quickly as possible, so that the protection afforded to the public as a result of banning the weapons should be in place without delay.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North): Is my hon. Friend saying that the schedule to the Act cannot be changed at this stage or afterwards by addition, deletion or amendment?

Mr. Michael: I am not inviting such changes. I am simply stating that right up to the last moment, a great

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deal of consultation has gone into preparing the schedule and the information in the scheme. That is why the details have been made available. Indeed, I made them available to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who will be dealing with these matters for the official Opposition, and to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, to ensure that they had the information as early as possible. We have gone to as much trouble as possible to ensure that the information is available, as well as trying to ensure that the scheme is as fair as possible to all interests concerned.

I had been tempted to say that the matter was not controversial as the Government are implementing a compensation scheme that, in effect, fulfils the promises made by the previous Government during the passage of the 1997 Act.

Compensation will be paid to firearms certificate holders and registered dealers whose high-calibre handguns become prohibited by the 1997 Act. The draft scheme offers fair compensation--and, in at least some cases, generous compensation--for the weapons that will become prohibited and the ancillary equipment used only in connection with those weapons. Subject to parliamentary approval of the scheme, the hand-in period for weapons can begin on 1 July, with appropriate payments starting to be made from that date.

I shall briefly explain how we intend the scheme to operate. Before the hand-in period begins, certificate holders and dealers will receive full details of the final scheme, together with application forms and advice on where and when to surrender their weapons. They must complete the appropriate form in respect of their weapons and equipment and hand it to the police at the time of surrender.

Individuals will have a choice of three options. They may choose to accept a flat rate of £150 for their weapon. Instead, they may choose a standard rate for their weapon from the list of published values at annex A of the scheme. That contains the majority of the most commonly held large-calibre handguns. If they do not wish to accept the flat rate payment and if their gun is either not on the list at annex A, or is markedly different from those on the list, they can choose a third option. That means submitting their claim supported by an independent valuation or other evidence corroborating the value of the items surrendered. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) will realise that the flexibility provided by those three options is considerable.

Similar arrangements will apply to dealers, and they will be able to claim under any of the three options for items that they surrender. However, they will be able to claim under the third option even though their stock may already be listed at annex A. That is because the second option reflects second-hand values, while the other stocks will be either new or second-hand and have a higher retail value. I shall say more about the detail of values in the list in a moment.

The weapons must be handed over to a designated police station, as specified by the chief constable for the force area concerned. Special arrangements will be made with dealers because of the number of weapons that they will have in stock. Similar arrangements will apply to expanding ammunition and ancillary equipment that can be used only in connection with firearms that become prohibited. The corresponding values are set out in

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annexes B, C and D of the draft scheme. That is in accordance with the requirements of section 17 of the 1997 Act--and section 16 in respect of expanding ammunition. Although, of course, the equipment will not itself become prohibited, the Government accept that where it cannot be put to any other use, such as for rifles or other legitimate purposes, compensation should be paid.

The claim forms will initially be checked by the police, who will then send them to the firearms compensation section--the FCS, as it is imaginatively named--of the Home Office, where they will be processed as quickly as possible. The FCS has been set up to handle claims for the 160,000 high-calibre handguns that will become prohibited and to deal with the accompanying claims for ancillary equipment. Fifty staff have been recruited and trained, and the target is to deal with all the claims in 18 months.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) rose--

Mr. Michael: The majority of straightforward claims under options A and B will of course be dealt with quickly. A computer system has been introduced to ensure that each claim can be dealt with thoroughly, without delay and with the minimum of paperwork.

Mr. Lansley: In respect of options A and B, under which flat payments or payments according to the schedule will be made, there is no reason why compensation should not be paid quickly. Will the Minister give an undertaking that compensation will be paid within 30 days in those cases?

Mr. Michael: I will not tie us to a specific period of days, because we do not know what decisions the House will make on other issues that might affect the speed and volume of the surrenders. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that payments will be made as quickly as possible and, as I suggested shortly after he sought to intervene, the majority of the straightforward claims under options A and B will be dealt with quickly for the reasons that he suggests. However, it would not be sensible to tie the time down to a specific period of days.

Once the claim has been settled and the claimant has no further interest in the guns or equipment, the FCS will issue disposal instructions to the police force storing the weapons and equipment, and those will then be destroyed in accordance with the local force's practice. In a few cases, some weapons or equipment may be retained by police forces for training purposes or may be taken for public display in museums.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): Before the Minister leaves the subject of surrenders at police stations, will he tell us what will happen to the weapons and ammunition that are surrendered? Will they be kept at local police stations or will big depots be created? What will the security arrangements be for those weapons, to prevent large armouries, which would be obvious targets, from being created?

Mr. Michael: The weapons will be destroyed under arrangements made locally. That procedure follows consultation with the police about the best and most

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secure way to deal with the issue. We have had sensible discussion and agreement on the most secure way to deal with the items.

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