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5.35 pm

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North): I have in my hand some correspondence to a constituent from a Member of the House who knows of my intention to refer to it and who sits on the Opposition Benches. It might be an appropriate starting point for our discussions tonight, which I am hoping will be sensible and sober and will have a bit of logic about them, which has been in short supply in the past.

The letter, which is dated 17 February, says:

A handwritten postscript says:

    "P.S. I was saddened to learn that you will not be supporting me in the General Election. I am a Conservative but have reflected in my vote and my contacts with Ministers the view that we share on this issue. It seems strange to me that I should be "punished" for so doing!"

The constituent replied:

    "Let me stress please that I do appreciate"

what you have done.

    "Further, I fully agree that it is unfair that you should be 'punished' for the actions of others with whom you do not agree.

    However, you must forgive me if I say that I feel great empathy with you. I too, along with thousands of others involved in shooting

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    are being punished in a very real sense for the actions of one lunatic and the failings of one senior policeman. We too think such retribution very unfair".

We feel

    "totally betrayed by this spiteful and vengeful legislation. To be so punished without adequate compensation is iniquitous."

I shall make plain my interest in this legislation. I am a qualified schoolteacher; I taught for many years. I am a grandfather. I have seven grandchildren and one adopted grandchild. I am also a trustee and director of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. Lucy Faithfull--Baroness Faithfull--formed a foundation, with my help and that of a number of others, to care for children's welfare and to counter child abuse of a sexual and physical kind, a matter that is close to my heart. Lucy died the day that Dunblane happened. Some say that she had been called early to greet the children at the gates of heaven. That is a terribly emotional statement, but there might be some truth in it.

I have become involved in this because of media focus on the fact that I also happen to be, for my sins, honorary pistol captain of the Palace of Westminster Rifle Club. I am not a shooter. With a rifle, I am a little above average. With a pistol or revolver--I do not like the term handgun, as it is an American expression--I am moderately safe. Notice that I say "safe", because one of the things about gun clubs is that they train people to handle firearms safely: not to point them, whether loaded or not, at other people. They must conform to range discipline. They must obey the qualified range officer. They must undergo a period of probation and be subject to approval by qualified club officers.

By reason of my being honorary pistol captain--incidentally I have never owned or wanted to own a firearm and I have never sought a firearms certificate--the media concentrated their attention on me.

Another of my qualifications is that I acted as Opposition Whip on what I choose to call the Hungerford Bill. I remember the times and the arguments that we had on that Bill. I see that other Members who took part in those proceedings with me are present and they will remember them just as clearly. We appealed to the Government of the day to listen to a range of anomalies related to firearms legislation generally. The strange thing about the Hungerford Bill was that it did not touch the subject of handguns--there, I have used the term. More than half the killings at Hungerford were conducted with a 9 mm Beretta automatic. That Bill never touched 9 mm Berettas.

Those shortfalls were pointed out to the Government of the day. The Bill was guillotined by the Government and 67 clauses were not debated, not because of the Labour opposition but because of the opposition of Conservative Members. There were objections and, by one means or another, an arrangement was made that if we could not debate those clauses we would express our opinion by going through the Division Lobby. That evening, 18 Opposition Members--I was one of them--kept 140 Conservative Members in the House until about 9 o'clock the next morning.

Many of the Members who have been present in the House since 1987 and are now expressing grave concerns about circumstances and incidents that have taken place since, were not here that night. That is how much concern they showed about Hungerford in those days--but not me, and not some of my colleagues, so I want no one to question my qualifications to talk on this topic.

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I have every sympathy with the parents of Dunblane, for God's sake. It was a horrendous experience. If I seriously thought for one second that by enacting this legislation we would obviate another incident of that kind, I would have signed the Snowdrop petition months ago. If I thought that that could be achieved by banning handguns, by completely removing guns from Britain, by God, I would be leading the charge to do that. But, frankly, that is not happening.

What is happening is a great diversion of attention away from the serious issues behind the circumstances. The relationship between Thomas Watt Hamilton and the police in central Scotland was a distinctly unhealthy one, and I want to say why. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary stated today that the guns held by Thomas Watt Hamilton were lawfully held. We know for a fact that Michael Ryan at Hungerford held illegal weapons. The police knew but did not act.

There is incontrovertible evidence, which I will provide to anyone who wishes to hear it, that Thomas Watt Hamilton's first firearms certificate was illegal. The statements on it were incorrect, inaccurate and unchecked by the police. The first purchase of a firearm was illegal, so any renewal and change of weapon was, by definition, illegal, because the renewals are based on the veracity and validity of the first purchase.

We also know that Thomas Watt Hamilton had threatened a woman with a loaded firearm through the open window of his stationary vehicle and that he was admonished by the police. My God, can hon. Members imagine that--admonished? Why on earth was he not dragged in and his certificate and weapons removed? Everyone knew that he was a danger and a liar. There was unforgivable negligence and we must recognise that.

We also know that Sergeant Hughes, the firearms inquiry officer, had made inquiries about Hamilton's character, personality and conduct. He pleaded with his senior officers to authorise the removal of the weapons and certificates and he was ignored--ignored because, he said, the senior police officer was afraid that if he was taken to a court of law on appeal he would not be able to make the case stick. That is a problem for the Scottish Office. It is a problem which the Scottish Office and Scottish police ignored, which resulted in Dunblane.

Now, sadly, there has been a combination of cosmetic electoral competition, which has obfuscated the real issue. The Labour party said, understandably, that it wanted to ban .38s. The Home Secretary of the day said that the Government would do that. That was an equation. An election was coming up and it was not going to be enough, so we had to go one better and we did, and we have never stopped competing since. That is the wrong way to implement legislation.

The statutory requirements of United Kingdom law with regard to firearms were not applied in Hungerford and have not been applied in Dunblane. The Cullen inquiry was misled on those facts. The evidence is there to be checked. I ask in all seriousness: if the police can fail to such an extent in Hungerford and Dunblane, how can we trust them to implement to the letter the legislation that the House seeks to enact today?

I come now to a document that has been supplied to every hon. Member by the Gun Control Network. I do not know a great deal about the GCN. I understand that one hon. Member is linked with its organisers and I should

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like seriously to discuss with that hon. Member some of its activities. However, I want to comment on the document, and some of what I say will relate to points that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made this afternoon.

Point one concerns the logic. It is said that .22 weapons are well known to be the favoured assassins' gun and are the preferred weapon of many secret services around the world. The Home Secretary made a similar point this afternoon. I invite hon. Members to put themselves in the position of the Jackal going out to do the job. Can anyone imagine him checking the place where the person will be, the time that he will arrive and the point and field of fire, and then saying, "Oh heavens, I can't use this because its illegal"? Can anyone seriously put that forward as being logical? It devalues the case that we are trying to make.

The second point says that shooters and manufacturers seek to exploit loopholes. I have news for the House. The shooters and traders whom I know are the most law-abiding people one could encounter. The Palace of Westminster Rifle Club is the only club in the Palace of Westminster to abide by the law as it exists outside in the country. We can drink here to our hearts' content rather than be thrown out of a pub. We can do virtually what we like, but not on the rifle range. On the rifle range, we do as we are bloody well told and according to the qualified range officer.

There are 4 million illegal guns out there. Anyone can obtain an illegal gun in under 60 minutes and for less than 60 quid. They may not be very accurate or of any use to a target shooter, and they are certainly no good in a gun club, but they are every bit as lethal, and they are obtainable in far less time than it takes to manufacture pistol components and barrels of revolvers. The arguments used against dismantlement are farcical. People can obtain illegal guns and the ammunition to go with them as easy as that. Furthermore, those illegal guns are not registered. If they are found, they cannot be traced back, whereas a legal gun can be.

On security, transport and identification, the document says that there is a real difficulty in distinguishing .22s from other handguns. The Home Secretary also made that point. He referred to the distinction between .38s and .22s, and said that such a distinction would be unenforceable. He did not want to accept it because it would be unenforceable. Please tell me how enforceable this legislation will be, given that there are 4 million illegal weapons on the streets. Sloppy logic is being used. Hon. Members should consider their duty to enact legislation that is enforceable and achievable. We are in danger of failing to do that.

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