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Questions to Ministers

3.31 pm

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I ask for your guidance, and I draw to the attention of the House what I believe to be the unreasonable withholding of information by the Government and contradictory parliamentary answers given in the Official Report.

Last week, I asked each Department for the numbers and percentages of documents passed to the Public Record Office in 1996. Some Departments replied that producing the information would incur "disproportionate cost". Other Departments, however, produced the information. The wording used in the questions--about what happened in particular cases and to particular documents--was identical to the form of question used by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) in the Official Report of 2 July 1990, at column 426. At the time, the Department of Trade and Industry answered each question to within one decimal point; yet the same Department--in the form, this time, of the Minister responsible for consumer affairs--tells us seven years later that to collect the information would incur disproportionate cost.

With the Government not pursuing a freedom of information Bill, many Members of the House are concerned about the withholding of information--and such contradictory answers merely serve to underline their concern. Can you, Madam Speaker, help the House by ensuring that information that is properly requested is provided?

Madam Speaker: I have no responsibility for ministerial answers. I advise the hon. Gentleman, in his own best interests, to pursue the point with the Minister concerned.

16 Jun 1997 : Column 22

Firearms (Amendment) Bill

Considered in Committee.

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey): On a point of order, Sir Alan. I should be grateful for clarification of the money resolution of the Bill, to which the House gave a Second Reading last week. A number of amendments have not been selected and it is not my task to question Madam Speaker's selection, nor would it be correct for me to do so.

However, it has been suggested that the money resolution is tightly drawn and that, as some of the amendments have implications for Government expenditure that go beyond the provisions of the money resolution, they are out of order. If amendments are approved which involve additional financial expenditure by the Government, how do we set about amending the money resolution? It is so tightly drawn that there seems to be no scope for additional expenditure, which is why many perfectly good amendments cannot be selected by Madam Speaker, and are therefore not before us to debate this afternoon.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst): All that I can say to the hon. Gentleman, which will not be to his pleasure, is that Ministers of the Crown have the initiative on expenditure matters, and it is therefore not possible to extend by amendments the expenditure implied by the Bill.

As a footnote on procedural matters, the Chairman of Ways and Means selects amendments for Committees of the whole House, not Madam Speaker.

Clause 1

Prohibition of small-calibre pistols

3.37 pm

Mr. Colvin: I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 1, line 8, leave out

'the words "a small calibre-pistol" shall cease to have effect.'

and insert

'after the words "a small-calibre pistol" the words "which is incapable of holding more than one cartridge and is not derived from a multi-shot design" shall be inserted.'

The amendment attempts to persuade the Government that the Bill should provide for the retention of .22 small- calibre pistols in special circumstances. The noble Lord Cullen's report does not suggest that single-shot weapons are a danger to the public. On the contrary, paragraph 9.59 of his report says:

Lord Cullen constructed his recommendations on that basic premise. He clearly distinguished between self-loading pistols and revolvers that are held for target shooting and "other types of firearms".

16 Jun 1997 : Column 23

The Bill is meant to deal with circumstances in which a system of control breaks down. In a tragedy like Dunblane, it is argued that too much damage can be done before control can be reimposed. That is not so, however, with a single-shot pistol, which is why Lord Cullen excluded it.

The speed of reloading of a pistol is relevant to the amendment. Most single-shot pistols require four or even five distinct movements to reload. The pistol must first be broken open, the spent cartridge removed, a new round picked up with the other hand and put into the breech, the breech closed and the trigger set. Only then is the pistol ready to be fired.

In competition precision shooting, it would take approximately a minute for the shooter to fire each shot. Sixty rounds in the hour is the recognised rate of fire by pistol shot in Olympic competitions.

Only about 5 per cent. of .22 pistols, and probably a smaller percentage of larger-calibre weapons, are single-shot. They are, however, useful at two ends of the sport--for the beginner, who uses a cheap gun for training, and for the expert, who has specially constructed guns for advanced competition.

On the question of convertibility from single-shot to multi-shot pistols or repeater, it was argued during the debates on the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 that existing multi-shot weapons could be converted to single- shot and then reconverted to multi-shot. In France, single-shot .22 pistols are subject to no controls of any kind. One can simply walk into a gun shop or even a supermarket and buy such a weapon, without any questions asked.

Many of those are revolvers which have had the revolving mechanism removed and the cylinder replaced by one with only a single chamber. Such single-shot pistols could be restored to multi-shot capacity if new parts, including a new cylinder, could be obtained, or if the single-shot cylinder were drilled out. In other cases, self-loading pistols are sold with the magazine removed and the magazine well blanked off.

The amendment takes account of that extreme scenario, as it does not permit pistols that are derived from a multi-shot design.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): I notice that the Minister of State is listening carefully, for which we are grateful. My hon. Friend noted that single-shot pistols are available in France. He may have noticed that I got rather a dusty answer from the Minister when I raised that point in the main debate. The Minister said:

Does my hon. Friend know of any regular checking of motor cars coming in, for example, at Dover, to see whether they carry a pistol?

Mr. Colvin: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that intervention. The question is best put to the Minister responsible for Customs and Excise. As far as I am aware--this is based only on anecdotal

16 Jun 1997 : Column 24

evidence--there are no such checks. The apprehension of someone importing such weapons would presumably occur by chance, and that import would merely add to the estimated 2,500 illegal weapons going into circulation in this country every week.

It must be recognised that most of the weapons about which we should be concerned in any debate about firearms are those in illegal circulation, not those that are legally held by perfectly law-abiding people taking part in a sport in which the United Kingdom is particularly successful.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): On a point of order, Sir Alan. It is my understanding that it is customary for the Department responsible for a Bill to ensure that priority notice questions are answered by 3.30, where they pertain to the debate in Committee on the Floor of the House that day. I have just been speaking to the Message Board staff, and I was told that the Home Office questions which I tabled--Nos. 173, 176, 181, 187, 194 and 205--have not yet even reached the Hallkeeper's Lodge, let alone the Members' Letter Board.

Can you, Sir Alan, make the necessary order to require that those questions, which were tabled at the first available opportunity, should be answered in time for this afternoon's debate? I remind the Chamber that the Home Secretary made several observations during the Second Reading debate last Wednesday, and today is the earliest opportunity to answer queries arising from those observations. I hope that those answers will be provided by 3.30 this afternoon.

The Chairman): The hon. Member will know, from his own ministerial experience, that plans sometimes can go awry. He will know also that it is not for the Chair to ensure that such things occur. However, the Ministers on the Treasury Bench have heard the hon. Gentleman's remarks, and I am sure that they will try to oblige him if they possibly can in order to assist the proceedings of the Committee.

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