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Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): We will have a Conservative Government by then.

Mr. Cook: I did not come here this evening to listen to third-rate comics from the back of the Gallery.

Jim Fox won the gold medal for the pentathlon, returned to the capital a hero and was feted. If we pass this legislation, the youngsters of tomorrow will have no opportunity to emulate him, because we will have banned all our young people from participating in the pentathlon at any time in the future. I repeat what I have said many times in the House: the Bill is unnecessary, it is irrational, it is unenforceable and I am frankly surprised that we should be pressing it with the same indecent haste that the Tory regime showed in respect of higher-calibre weapons.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, I emphasise that this debate is about compensation, which is a very narrow subject.

11.23 pm

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey): I shall certainly take your advice to heart, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because although the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 which has led to this draft compensation scheme was not one of the finer pieces of legislation passed by the House, we will have the opportunity to rerun some of the arguments advanced against it on Wednesday, when we consider the next Firearms (Amendment) Bill.

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The draft Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 compensation scheme raises almost as many questions as it answers. My first question, of which someone on the Treasury Bench might like to take note so that the Minister can answer it when he makes his winding-up speech, concerns the draft compensation scheme that was laid before Parliament on 25 May and then withdrawn. What changes have been made in the scheme since then? Why was it necessary to withdraw it? Was it just badly spelt, written or drafted, or were specific changes made in the compensation terms, which made it necessary for it to be redrafted and relaid before Parliament?

My second question concerns the scope of the scheme, which is set out on page 2 of the draft compensation document. Paragraph 4 states that the scheme

I believe that, at the moment, under the provisions of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, ex gratia payments are available to those who voluntarily choose to surrender small-calibre pistols. It would make much more sense if a proper compensation scheme for small-calibre pistols were included at this stage, because people who own such pistols may want to surrender them. They may receive compensation that is not nearly as fair as it might be in a later scheme.

If the Firearms (Amendment) Bill that we shall debate on Wednesday is eventually enacted, we shall be re-running all these arguments in a few months' time and drawing up a further draft Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 compensation scheme for small-calibre pistols. Surely the time to agree a proper scheme for small-calibre pistols is now.

Mr. Michael: Several contributions tempt immediate responses, but this one especially. It is proposed that we give ex gratia payments so that shooters who use high-calibre and low-calibre weapons can hand in their weapons in one fell swoop and we can get the weapons out of the way. Many shooters now think, "Let us get it over and done with; let us know where we stand." The lines of the ex gratia scheme will follow the lines of the compensation scheme that is being debated tonight as a measure consequent on the 1997 Act.

Mr. Colvin: I am grateful to the Minister for responding then--it will enable him to cut short his winding-up speech--but he has already run through the options for compensation for large-calibre handguns, setting out the details of the three different options. Is he now saying that the ex gratia payments that will be available to small-calibre pistol owners who choose to surrender them will be based on the three options that are set out in the draft document? If so, I have a further question regarding option C, which is for

Will that valuation be firm, or will arbitration be permitted if the owner of the firearm is not satisfied with the decision that has been taken on its value?

The Minister's intervention raises another issue--the total cost of the scheme. Interestingly, the draft, which is the result of many discussions since the original estimate

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was made when the Bill went to the other place on 5 December 1996, introduces a figure of £150 million as the total cost of compensation mooted under the scheme. In my submission, that estimate is based on very shaky ground.

I appreciate that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already been obliged to postpone his Budget, which was initially proposed for tomorrow, because of the gaping black hole in his finances and the fact that he is about £10,000 million short and the money must come from somewhere--he does not know where. Several measures that have come before the House in the past couple of weeks have shown that there are serious deficiencies in the funding arrangements that the Government propose for some of the measures that they are introducing.

Mr. Michael: If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a serious contribution to this debate about compensation, he might bear in mind the thought that the need to pay compensation is our inheritance from the previous Government, as is any black hole anywhere in the economy.

Mr. Colvin: I am not going to be tempted down that path, but the black hole exists because there is a gaping difference between the promises made by the Labour party during the general election campaign and its inheritance from the previous Government in terms of spending commitments that it has already said it will honour.

The question of the cost of the scheme is, however, very relevant. The scheme will clock up still further sums which will have to be found somewhere. It should be borne in mind that the base figure of 160,000 large-calibre pistols that will be surrendered is a Home Office estimate. I do not think that the House, which is now agreeing the terms of the scheme, has any means of assessing how accurate that figure is, and therefore I do not see any way in which we can agree that the total cost of compensation under the scheme will be the round figure of £150 million.

There is a further point that is worth making about cost which relates to the Bill that we shall discuss on Thursday. It concerns small-calibre pistols. According to a figure published by the Home Office, 40,000 such pistols will have to be surrendered. The Minister has said that ex gratia payments will be--or could be--made under the scheme, and that that cost will have to be taken into account and added to the £150 million that we believe it may already cost. How has he arrived at the number of 40,000 small-calibre pistols, and has he any idea what the additional cost of all that will be? There is an estimate of £12 million in the Bill that we are to discuss on Wednesday; once more, I suggest that that figure is hopelessly inadequate.

Paragraph 7 of the scheme gives the impression that the police will be able to lay down where and when the shooter must surrender his or her gun. The Act requires surrender at a designated place within the three-month period, but not at a specified time. The Home Office guidance to police is likely to be that the date of surrender will be by negotiation, but that should be made clear this evening; if it is not, a major question mark will remain over that aspect of surrender.

The Act says that someone who retains a prohibited gun after three months commits an offence. What happens if a person tries to surrender his or her weapon, but is

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frustrated by the police? Surely the difficulty would be made still worse if some constabularies did not have adequate surrendering points. I would welcome further information from the Minister.

I was pleased that the Minister raised a question that I asked at Home Office questions this afternoon--on compensation for pistol clubs, apart from compensation for the value of their firearms, ammunition and ancillary equipment. A serious case can be made for compensation for the loss of their premises, business and fee income, and for all the other financial costs on top of the loss of their weapons.

I have not seen the official record, but I believe that, in replying to my question this afternoon, the Minister said that, of the 1,440 shooting clubs in England and Wales, only 49 were exclusively pistol--that is 4 per cent. of the total. I think that, by implication, the Minister was saying, "That is not very important; many of these clubs may be able to convert to rifle shooting, and may therefore be able to survive." The fact is, however, that if one club is forced out of business by the Government, that is unfair enough and should be dealt with as a problem; if 49 have to go out of business, with all their membership, the Minister should take the matter seriously, rather than brushing it to one side in the cavalier manner with which he approached my question this afternoon.

11.34 pm

Mr. Thomas Graham (West Renfrewshire): I support the Government, although I believe that they have been over-generous. Some of us might have argued that the compensation should be reduced, but I shall support the Government tonight because it is a move in the right direction.

I listened to the comments of the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) on compensation. I remember the debates in the House about the BSE disaster, which cost the country billions of pounds. Conservative Members rushed to support the farmers, as did I, to see that farmers received adequate compensation for the savage and tragic problems suffered by their industry. However, I did not hear many Conservative Members arguing for compensation for the workers in meat and leather factories, who survived only because they worked in the meat industry. They have lost their jobs, but they have received no compensation apart from redundancy pay. That was tragic, and the Tory Government were wrong not to compensate the workers who lost their jobs.

I will support the Tory--the Government action to give compensation [Interruption.] Sometimes the House gets like the playhouse--the comedy. It is not a comic show when one considers those in the meat industry who lost their job through no fault of their own. The Tory Government could have taken action a long time ago on mad cow disease. It finally affected the previous Government and was one of the reasons why they were rejected by such large numbers at the general election.

On a more serious note, I will support the Government with great reluctance, as I believe that £150 is far too much compensation for surrendering a weapon. Conservative Members suggested tonight that the measure would drive some shooters underground. Those folk should never have had a licence if they were prepared to break the law. We changed the law in the House of Commons and it is a serious matter to suggest that folk

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might go underground. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will punish them as hard as he can. As a Scotsman, I remember the Dunblane disaster, which forced the measure on us tonight.

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