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Mr. Colvin: There is a good example of what my hon. Friend refers to quite close to hand. The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and I took possession, on behalf of the House, of two presentation pistols at Bisley following the annual shoot against their lordships. Those pistols are in the possession of the House and they are now collectors' pieces. Under the present compensation arrangements, they will get the ordinary market value while their real value in the market at large is very much higher.

Mr. Atkinson: I agree. My hon. Friend illustrates well the problems to which I am alluding and which the Minister will, I hope, deal with in his winding-up speech.

I shall make just one further point, because we want the Minister to have an opportunity to respond fully to our questions. What compensation will there be for electronic security devices? Under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, gun clubs had responsibility to enhance their security, which meant not just gun safes, which are mentioned in the compensation scheme, but a lot of complex electronic equipment, some of which has already been installed. Once again, clubs whose future now looks extremely uncertain because of the debate we shall have in less than 48 hours' time face substantial bills for electronic security and surveillance equipment which will be of no value if the next stage of legislation goes through.

11.52 pm

Mr. Michael: I have taken careful note of the variety of concerns that have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I assure them that where time prevents me from responding fully, I shall write to them. Many questions were very general and some hon. Members questioned the Act rather than the compensation scheme. There were a number of short questions that would require a long answer. That would be not only unpopular, but impossible within the time available.

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There were, for example, concerns about the date of base values. Any date is arbitrary to some extent, but we believe that the October date for the basic valuation is fair and reasonable because it is the date when the previous Government took the decision to legislate.

I listened to the pleas of several hon. Members who asked for compensation for business, including a specific suggestion, which included what could be a large figure, from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). That would involve finding extra money over and above what the previous Government allowed for in the Act. We would also be setting a precedent in compensating for loss of business and that would not be right.

Hon. Members referred to a number of wider issues that fall outside the scope of the scheme. The voluntary surrender of .22 weapons is a practical proposition, as I made clear in my opening remarks. It is only sensible to make it possible for people to hand in .22 weapons and be compensated for them, as well as any larger-calibre weapons, in order to meet the objective of getting as many handguns as possible out of circulation. That is what the scheme is all about.

The merit of implementing the scheme as quickly as possible and giving the new Bill a Second Reading without delay is that before people hand in guns voluntarily, consequent on the decisions that we are taking tonight, they will know the intention and the will of the House of Commons following the general election. By 1 July, when the Act comes into force, they will have had time to consider its implications.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) referred to the impact of the new legislation on the police as further weapons will have to be handed in. We have tried to spread the load through the voluntary scheme so that we do not suddenly switch to the handing in of .22 weapons when the new Bill is passed by both Houses.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) talked about our forcing through a vote to ban .22 weapons because of the Government's vast majority. I am always glad to refer to our large majority, but it seems to have escaped the hon. Gentleman's notice that we have promised a free vote on the issue. I believe that the vast majority of my right hon. and hon. Friends will support our proposals, as they share the public's belief that a complete ban on handguns is right. That belief will determine the decisions later this week.

Today, we are dealing only with compensation under the existing Act, but making clear the arrangements that we are putting in place for expediting the voluntary surrender of lower calibre weapons.

It is clear that my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Mr. Graham) spoke for the silent majority in the House and elsewhere. Like the previous Government, we are in the business of getting rid of dangerous weapons. That is why we have produced a compensation scheme that meets the commitments that they made during the passage of the 1997 Act. We want to be fair to those who are losing the opportunity to take part in a sport that they have engaged in quite legitimately up to now, but we have no intention of going beyond providing the compensation for guns and ancillary equipment that was promised at the time.

I, too, dismiss the idea that shooters will go underground. I was surprised that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) should raise

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such an issue. Time and again, it has been stressed that those taking part in shooting are law-abiding citizens. In that case, they will not go underground; they will obey the law. We need to ensure that the law is clear and reflects the will of the public and the House, and that we are as fair as is reasonable in compensating people for the value of their weapons and ancillary equipment. That is why we are introducing the scheme which will provide reasonable, if not generous, compensation.

Like the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald wanted more information about the disposal of weapons. There is no secret about the general storage of weapons. Arrangements are simply best left to local police discretion. Some forces will store weapons at several locations in force areas--some forces cover a much bigger area than others--others are making facilities available under central force arrangements. Security is paramount in police planning. We discussed the issue with the police in advance of presenting the arrangements. We discussed, for example, the option of centralised arrangements rather than disposal on a more local basis. After listening to advice from the police, the general view was that it was greatly preferable and more secure to deal with disposal on a local basis.

It is impossible to say how long weapons will be stored--another question that was raised--because that will depend on how quickly the claims can be processed. Weapons and equipment can be disposed of only when the claims have been dealt with. I can, however, assure the House that the weapons will be destroyed as soon as is practicable.

There were suggestions that immense difficulties will be created for the police and that they have no precedent for such an exercise. In the 1996 amnesty, 23,000 guns were disposed of; in 1988, 48,000 guns were stored and then destroyed by the police service. To answer another question, there is no compensation for deactivated weapons, which are not covered by the Act and will not therefore be surrendered.

There was a reference to weapons that have some special value as a result of, for instance, being owned by General Sir Peter de la Billiere. Presumably they would be of additional value if he had owned them when he served as general officer commanding in Wales. There are arrangements for such weapons in the proposals. The weapons would fall under option C, under which individuals can come forward with specific valuations. They could seek exemption from prohibition under section 7 of the Act concerning firearms of historic interest if the interest in them was considerable enough to justify such exemption.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin), who wanted to spend an awful lot of public money, seemed to want to limit the police's power to lay down details of the arrangements for when people can hand in weapons. Making such arrangements will of course take police time

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and it is sensible and logical for the police to make them in relation to time and place, and for the people who are to hand in weapons to be notified. The exercise cannot simply be carried out on a total open door basis. That is especially true of rural areas, where distance as well as security may be of particular significance.

The hon. Member for Romsey asked some questions about the estimates and figures that have been bandied around. The original 200,000 estimate was based on returns from a survey of all police forces conducted in the summer of 1996. Subsequently, a sample of a limited number of forces was undertaken to identify the total. About 40,000 of those identified were small-calibre pistols.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) made a powerful speech. I understand his passion on the issue and that he is opposed to the Act altogether. We are discussing not the Act but levels of compensation. He talked about disassembling ammunition. At the beginning of the debate, I referred to the arrangements that we propose that will apply to expanding ammunition and ancillary equipment that can be used only in connection with firearms that become prohibited.

My hon. Friend referred to the possibility of claiming for components of expanding ammunition. That is not part of our proposal. That was a suggestion from the gun trade which the Home Office undertook to consider. It was not advice that the Home Office gave to the trade. My hon. Friend based his remarks on a misunderstanding of the consultation that has taken place.

We have tried to be open and clear about how we want to deal with the issues. There will be an impact on those who have legitimately taken part in a sport that will now be banned. That will affect the Commonwealth games and the bid for the Olympics, but the Secretary of State has power, under the existing firearms laws, to give special authority to allow competitions to take place involving prohibited weapons. That dispensation can be used for Commonwealth and Olympic pistol-shooting competitions. British participation in such competitions is, however, unlikely to continue, because of the impact of the bans. That is sad for those who have taken part and wish to continue to take part in those sports, but that is part of the price that has to be paid for determining that the protection of the public must come first.

The business before us tonight is agreeing to make reasonable compensation to those who will no longer be able to use--

It being one and half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Community documents).

Question agreed to.


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