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Mr. Hawkins: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the impact of the proposals on disabled sport. Will he

11 Jun 1997 : Column 1191

confirm that powerful representations have been made to me and to many other hon. Members by the British paraplegic pistol shooters, who have been conspicuously successful at recent Paralympics?

Mr. Beith: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned them, because their representations are among those that I had in mind when I mentioned disabled shooters. The House should give consideration to that group of people.

I hope that all hon. Members will apply the test of whether they can be convinced that the restrictions in the Bill on those who legitimately engage in .22 pistol shooting are justified and necessary and will greatly increase public safety. My judgment is that they will not.

6.22 pm

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Before proceeding to the heart of this fundamental debate, I must, in my maiden speech, tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, about my wonderful constituency and my predecessors. I must also express my gratitude and acknowledge some debts.

I am privileged and proud to be here. I am the first Member of Parliament in my family; the first in the new constituency of Lancaster and Wyre; the first Labour Member ever in one part of my constituency; and only the second in the other. I am grateful to the people of what, from my accent, is clearly my adopted constituency, for returning me. I am determined to repay their faith, hope and trust with immense hard work. I aim to enable the voices of people from Lancaster and Wyre to be heard here and I aim to help to bring home to them the benefits of what I am confident will be a great reforming Government.

My constituency covers large parts of two districts, with two health authorities, and I have two immediate predecessors. Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman represented Lancaster for 27 years, and retired undefeated and unbowed at the Dissolution of Parliament this year. She was a remarkable Member of Parliament, with a strong following at home. She is a person of courage and principle. We disagreed on almost everything--on whether the sun was shining--but no one could doubt her tenacity, sincerity, strongly held commitment and work over those 27 years. I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in wishing her a long, healthy and happy retirement.

Lancaster joined with Wyre to make my constituency. Keith Mans was Member of Parliament for Wyre for 10 years, from 1987. He was my opponent at the general election. Again, there were many areas of disagreement between us, but I found him a decent, honourable and able man. Our personal relations were invariably cordial, and usually friendly. He served his constituency well and even though he has promised me that he will be back, I wish him and his family well in all that the future holds for them. I am sure that the House will echo that.

I have worked hard to get here. I have had such a feeling for Lancaster that I have thought for a long time that I would eventually arrive here. Perhaps uniquely on this occasion, I believe that I can say without fear of interruption that Lancaster is the finest historic city in the land. The Queen, after all, is the Duke of Lancaster, and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

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"Time-honoured Lancaster", in Shakespeare's words, has a Roman fort and a royal castle; it is the county town of the old county of Lancashire. Why should we not rise again as the administrative centre of regional government? We are significant. We have meaning. We stretch back over millennia. We have a moral tradition. We have a Roman Catholic cathedral, and an ancient priory church. We have a Quaker tradition. Our churches are ecumenical and alive.

We have a world-class university and a revered college of education. We have the oldest functioning prison in Europe and a model youth custody centre. It is unfortunate that the shadow Home Secretary is no longer here; Lancaster people could tell him how far prison works.

Lancaster is a beautiful city in lovely surroundings, a city of culture where music, literature, theatre, dance and the visual arts combine with our relatively small and compact size to make Lancaster the capital of cultural participation, offering more opportunities per head than anywhere else in the land.

Laurence Binyon--appropriately for this debate, the poet of remembrance--comes from my adopted city. I come from the east coast, from Northumberland, and I have loved Lancaster since the day that I arrived there. Seventeen years on, with one daughter born there and 10 years of hard work throughout Lancaster and Wyre, I love it all.

I love the market town of Garstang; the larger town of Poulton-Le-Fylde; Thornton; Preesall; Knott End; and the villages of Stalmine, Calder Vale, Cockerham, Winmarleigh, Pilling, Caton, Catterall, Brookhouse, Hambleton, Quernmore, Glasson Dock, Scorton, Forton, Bilsborrow and Barton--lovely names that roll off the tongue. We have lovely names and fine countryside: wild fells and river valleys, wild places, wildlife and cityscapes, rich farmland, marshes and the sea. My constituents include fine people who have lived there all their lives and those who have come to enjoy and benefit from the place. Every autumn, thousands of young people, full of creativity and vitality, come to learn there. It is exciting, it is fun, and the whole constituency is great.

Of course, we have problems galore. We have an animal rendering plant which blights the future and which must go. Our young people need jobs, and our pensioners need security and good care. Those fine rural towns and villages must provide affordable homes. We need heavy goods off the roads and on to rail. We need a good bus service restored.

We have one of the largest concentrations of park home residents in the country and the law needs to be reformed to give them security and tranquillity in their quiet years. Our excellent schools can be improved, our quality health service can develop and grow, and our environment needs to be sustained. The people must be listened to, their experience valued, their expertise utilised and their views solidly reflected in debate, including the debate today.

The greatest joy of my life has been to see our children grow up. They are 19 and 16 now. I have worked with families and children for more than 15 years and I can think of nothing more heinous, wicked or evil than the murder of all those bairns and their teacher in Dunblane. We must never allow that to happen again. We have taken action and banned weapons. We have reformed procedures, strengthened security at schools and increased vigilance. We must be ever vigilant and alert, and we must do all we can.

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Yet today, we are tempted to go too far and to miss the point. Like everyone here, I have talked to people about this subject for months and heard differing views. Indeed, I sat in my office this morning and held a phone-in for my constituents. I was there for 19 hours--I am sorry, I mean two hours, it just seemed like 19--and 19 people rang in. As soon as I put the phone down, it rang again.

I have also searched my soul and my conscience on this issue. I do not doubt the obvious sincerity of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and everyone who has taken part in the debate. However, I cannot believe that the extreme circumstances that occurred at Dunblane can lead to good law. I profoundly believe that the House of Commons is here to protect the freedom of law-abiding individuals to go about their business and to explore their talents.

Target shooting as a sport is something at which elderly people and people with disabilities can excel. It is an outlet for their skills and they often have few others. I am worried about civil liberties and the quality of our democracy when patently decent people feel that their sport and their livelihoods are being sacrificed and their views ignored to no avail. Those involved in target shooting feel that the Bill will not address the real problems caused by illegal guns in our society.

I hold no brief for shooting. It does not interest me as a sport and I miss by miles at fairgrounds. I am concerned about the increase in illegal guns, in violent crime, in drug-related criminal behaviour and the use of firearms by vicious criminals. We must tackle those problems--I am sure that every hon. Member wants to tackle them--but they have nothing to do with adding further restrictions to the lives of thoroughly decent and utterly law-abiding ordinary people.

We must take time to reflect. The memory of those tragically murdered 16 bairns and their teacher could be better honoured by developing a culture in this country that puts children's rights and needs at the forefront of our concern. We must make some real progress in helping children and their families out of poverty, and in radically improving the lot of children in public care, which is an issue close to my heart. By providing quality services for all children, we could start putting children first in all policy areas. That is an issue for another debate.

It is a tribute to the good grace, sense and wisdom of the Government that a free vote will be held on this issue. It is a fundamental matter of civil liberties and of conscience. I intend to take full advantage of the free vote and, for once, I will not vote with the Government. I cannot vote for the Bill, because I am not convinced that it will provide overwhelming benefits for public safety.

6.35 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on an eloquent contribution. I look forward to the many contributions that he will make in the four and a half years that he has ahead of him in this place, before my former hon. Friends return to the Government Benches with the rest of my party.

I rise for the first time in a debate with some trepidation, following as I do a long tradition of distinguished Conservative Members of Parliament for

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North Wiltshire. My constituency can claim a record for continuity and longevity, because all my three predecessors--stretching back to 1941--are still alive. I challenge other hon. Members to equal that record if they can. David Eccles won a by-election in 1941, when he took over from Captain Cazalet, who was killed piloting General Sikorski in the war. David Eccles served for nearly 20 years and was replaced by one of the great gentlemen of the House, Daniel Awdry, who served from 1962 until he handed the baton to Richard Needham in 1979. Richard made a huge contribution to the nation in the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Trade and Industry. His wit and his particular brand of directness will be much missed by the House. I hope that I am able to follow in that worthy tradition--if not as a lookalike, at least as well as I can.

I am honoured and fortunate to have been elected for such a beautiful constituency as North Wiltshire. It represents, in the words of the English prayer book, the "unchanging changelessness" of rural England, and straddles the industrial prosperity of the M4 corridor. The constituency contains the most beautiful villages in England, including Lacock and Castle Combe, and pleasant market towns, including Malmesbury, Chippenham, Corsham and Wootton Bassett. Those four towns house some of the finest businesses in England. The fastest growing business in Europe, I am told, is Dyson, which manufactures bagless vacuum cleaners in Malmesbury. They are first-class.

North Wiltshire is no longer the rural idyll that some hon. Members might imagine. More than half my constituents live in towns. None the less, the whole character of the place derives from the fact that it is in the countryside. Even people who live on modern estates in Chippenham believe that they are countrymen, and their way of life is heavily influenced by the countryside.

Many of us are deeply concerned by two or three aspects of life in the countryside at the moment. Farmers have faced the most desperate 18 months in the history of modern agriculture thanks to the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis. I very much hope that the Government, who are so proud of their close links and great power in the European Union, will be able to lift the EU beef ban as soon as they can. I have yet to hear any promises or aspirations from the Government on that front, but they must take urgent action to lift the ban.

I very much welcome the announcement that the Government made last week about banning the import of beef from possibly dodgy abattoirs on the continent of Europe. I shall make just two comments on that. The Government might consider bringing that ban forward to today's date on the ground that if they leave it until the end of July, there is a risk that those dodgy abattoirs, as I like to call them, will choose to pour beef into this country in the interim.

The Government might also consider using the excellent vets from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who tour British abattoirs and ensure that our beef is of the highest quality. They might be asked to go to the continent to inspect the abattoirs whence we shall be importing beef. I suspect that imports of beef into the United Kingdom would go down quite considerably and that even huge users such as McDonald's, which I believe is the largest user of beef in this country, might think twice about their determination to import everything that

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they use from the continent. Many hon. Members know that British beef is best, and it is high time that McDonald's and others realised the same.

Another threat to an area such as North Wiltshire arises from the possibly controversial activity of field sports. The economy of my constituency would be deeply damaged by any ban on field sports as a whole, but particularly damaged by a fox hunting ban. About £4 billion is contributed to the British economy thanks to field sports, about 50,000 horses are kept purely for the purpose of fox hunting and about 15,500 foxhounds would have to be destroyed if fox hunting were banned--incidentally, vastly greater than the number of foxes that are killed in any one year.

The immediate threat as I understand it from the Labour party's recent comments is to hunting on Ministry of Defence land. That would especially affect my constituency, because Salisbury plain is slightly to the south of it. We have some experience of such a ban there as, five years ago, hunting across the impact area was banned for safety reasons. After only a few years, farmers petitioned the MOD once again to allow hunting on the impact area because their land and poultry were suffering such appalling depredations. That case study would be repeated across the United Kingdom in the event of fox hunting being banned.

My particular concern with today's debate is that the political correctness of extending the stringent Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, which my right hon. and learned Friend the former Home Secretary brought in last year, will stretch ultimately to field sports. Before commenting on the Bill, I should declare an interest.

I was brought up in Dunblane, my father was the minister of Dunblane cathedral and my mother was one of the doctors who took part in the counselling in the aftermath of the tragedy. More than perhaps many hon. Members, I was therefore deeply, deeply affected by the tragedy last year. Indeed, my younger brother attended Dunblane primary school.

Despite the fact that I lived in a field sports area all last year, I went to some length to justify the 1997 Act. I came under considerable pressure from the shooting lobby in North Wiltshire, which felt that I was not doing the right thing. I am conscious that, in opposing the Government's Bill, I shall come under equal pressure from my friends and relations who still live in the town of Dunblane. I therefore oppose the Bill intentionally and thoughtfully, while feeling deeply about the issue of Dunblane, simply because I believe that it will go no way at all towards preventing another such incident. I have a horrible feeling that the Bill has a taint of self-righteousness about it, of trying to appear to put something right rather than putting it right.

We made sure during the passage of the previous Government's Bill last year that Dunblane could never again occur. Today's Bill does not achieve that. It merely attempts to demonstrate to the public that the Labour party is as concerned now about the aftermath of Dunblane as we were last year. For that reason I find the Bill--speaking as a Dunblane boy--somewhat distasteful.

As I said, I came under huge pressure from the gun lobby. I bore that pressure and spoke up strongly in favour of the Bill of my right hon. and learned Friend the former Home Secretary. I know that I shall come under some pressure from my friends and relations in Dunblane as a

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result of making my comments, but I feel terribly strongly about the right of shooters to take part in Olympic sports, which the Bill would ban. I also feel strongly for people who work in gun factories--many of whom are represented by Labour Members--and who would be fundamentally affected by the Bill. It is for that reason that I have overcome my natural emotional inclination to support the Bill, and I very much hope that Labour Members will join me in the No Lobby.

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