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11.36 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I shall be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you have made me aware that several hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate.

I shall raise two points. The first is on the issue of security, which I raised in an earlier intervention. It is true that, as the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said, when we as a Government were asked about that issue, we said that due measures would be taken. That was reasonable then, when the scheme had yet to be worked out in detail.

Now that the scheme has been worked out in detail, it is reasonable to ask for a little more than the rather bland assurances that we were given. It is reasonable also to ask that a little more assurance is given openly in the House, although I understand well enough that an offer was made to give rather more information to my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) outside the Chamber. Some more assurances need to be given in the House tonight.

Secondly, I would not dream of detaining the House by discussing the merits of a proposal that has yet to come before it, but it is inconceivable that the very existence of that proposal will not have an impact on the compensation scheme.

We had already agreed--the present Government are following in our footsteps--that if people were surrendering their .22s as a result of the restrictions that we had introduced, they would receive ex gratia payments, even though we were not strictly at that time obliged to pay, because we had not proposed to ban .22s. Indeed, I hope that the Government will yet see sense.

It is extremely likely that more people will wish to surrender their .22s in anticipation of the ban. It must also surely be the case that more clubs will close sooner, because they will not wish to upgrade their security in the knowledge that the sport will not continue. The proposals that have yet to come before us must therefore impact on the scheme in terms of not only the total value of compensation paid--to which my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) referred--but the administrative load placed on the police and other authorities by people seeking compensation. Has the Minister gauged the impact of his proposals on the scheme in terms of both amounts and additional administrative burdens? Those are important points, and I ask the hon. Gentleman either to address them when he responds to the debate or to write to me subsequently.

11.39 pm

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): The view of the Liberal Democrats, even with our new high-calibre post-election format, remains as it was during the passage of the Firearms (Amendment) Bill earlier this year. We believe that the compensation scheme is okay as far as it goes. The issue is not what anyone might think about the guns themselves, but fairness and justice--concepts to which the Labour party refers constantly.

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Two areas of compensation must be addressed, and the Minister has not convinced me that that has been done satisfactorily. The first concerns debts incurred by clubs and associations--people who quite properly and innocently took on debts to establish gun clubs several years ago and who, in a few months, may be bankrupt or seriously out of pocket through no fault of their own. The legislation should not leave people with unreasonable liabilities because of Government action.

The second issue involves compensating the gun dealers, who will remain in business after the legislation is passed and the scheme is introduced, for their reduced turnover. We have suggested reasonably that the payment of a year's profit in the affected areas of their business would compensate them for any loss of business. We believe that both the changes would be fair and just and, whatever the decision tonight, we urge the Government to consider them now before gun clubs, associations and businesses face ruinous financial consequences as a result of arbitrary Government legislation.

11.41 pm

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): I have several questions to which I seek replies from the Minister. The compensation scheme derives directly from the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. Those who opposed that legislation were told during its passage that the people who would lose their weapons would continue to be able to pursue their sport because they would be compensated for the loss of their high calibre weapons and could use the money to transfer to weapons of .22 calibre and below. That compensation may be fair for people who could make that change, but it is not fair for those who are being denied the main sporting pursuit of their lives. We must remember that many shooters are devoted to their sport.

We must also consider additional legislation that will affect compensation for high calibre weapons--particularly compensation to gun dealers. Dealers could argue that they would have been compensated for the loss of their high-calibre weapons and would then have sold many smaller-calibre weapons. We must ensure that we compensate properly those gun dealers who will be badly affected by the Government's follow-on legislation. I hope that the Minister is taking careful note of these points.

I challenged the Minister earlier to reveal Labour's position regarding rifles and shotguns. Will Labour salami-slice until it has done away with all shooting? If the Government decree that a type of handgun is too dangerous to own because it may lead to the sort of massacre that occurred in Dunblane, it is logical to assume that they will ban rifles and shotguns also. We cannot expect the owners of rifle ranges to alter their business operations now if there is a chance that the Government might do something different 12 months later. They need to know now about any new proposals. We want some assurances from the Minister that the Labour party will not take action on that.

11.44 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I hope that the Minister took careful note of the speech made by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), because he

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articulated many of my concerns and those of my constituents and many others throughout the country. It is important to bear in mind the fact that the compensation scheme arises from a most draconian Act, which hit at law-abiding people, depriving them of their sport and almost rendering them criminal--indeed, the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Mr. Graham) almost suggested that they were. The Act does nothing to deal with people who hold weapons illegally.

We shall deal with the principle of banning weapons another time. In the meantime, we have to deal with the legislation that is already on the statute book. It has been passed by Parliament, but those who supported it must accept that due compensation should be paid to those who have been engaged in a lawful activity that Parliament has now suddenly rendered unlawful. That is the minimum that those people can expect.

We shall find that the bill is very large. My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) said that the current figures may well be an underestimate of the amount that will have to be paid out. How much discussion will there be on the figures in the annexes? I have not had an opportunity to see the annexes or to discuss the issue with my constituents before tonight. It would be only fair to consider further whether the figures there represent adequate compensation for depriving people of a lawful activity.

Has the Minister addressed the valuation date of 16 October? Many people in the shooting fraternity believe that that was not a reasonable date to use to arrive at a fair market value. A fair market value should properly be based on a date before the Dunblane tragedy. I should like the Minister to address that.

The Minister was kind enough to give way earlier when I raised the question of weapons that may be held by the police and others which may be placed in museums. He suggested that the issue was dealt with in the Act. I have had a quick look through the Act and I cannot find the information. The issue may be of concern to people who hold historic weapons that they are going to hand in. If they see them on display at their local museum without having been told anything, they may feel offended. The Minister should address that. I should be grateful if he could be more specific.

11.47 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): I should declare an interest first, because I am a consultant to the British Field Sports Society. However, handguns play no significant part in any country activity, except for the humane destruction of livestock.

I should like the Minister to expand on the issues put to him by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) about what will happen to gun clubs that will no doubt be destroyed by the Bill that we shall consider within 48 hours. There is a sense of unreality about tonight's debate, because we know perfectly well that, on Wednesday, with their large majority, the Government will force through their measure to ban all handguns, leaving many gun clubs exposed to serious financial loss.

The hon. Member for Hallam asked what would happen if a member of a club had taken bank loans or mortgages to provide facilities for the club. What would happen to the equipment that the club had bought? Annex C lists the equipment that will be compensated for at the moment,

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but if the next stage of this sad progress goes through, the costs of equipment will be much greater. An automatic target changer can cost between £800 and £900. A club that can exist under the previous Government's proposals, by being able to use .22s, can still survive, but when further legislation is introduced it will go out of existence. The National Small-bore Rifle Association club, for example, has 10 target changers which represent a considerable sum. We need some clarification about the Minister's thinking on compensation for such people.

Two other points have not been touched on tonight. The first is appeals. It is a moot point whether a weapon has been customised or raised above the level of the standard for sale weapon. Who will determine that? Under the scheme, the chief constable can appoint an outside assessor, but the choice of outside assessor will be solely at the discretion of the chief constable. Can the person who wishes to appeal bring in his own expert? That is a significant point.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) spoke about trophies of war. One can imagine an enormous debate about the value of a weapon that may be a trophy of war. It is wrong that the chief constable should have sole discretion to appoint an expert to determine the value of a weapon. What appeal would there be against the original valuation?


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