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4.45 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that, if the legislation is passed, those who legally own guns will be forced to hold the guns illegally in a subversive way? Where would they use the guns? Why would somebody who currently holds a legitimate gun licence and a .22 pistol for target and competition shooting want to hold that gun illegally? Where would he use it?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman obviously does not live in the real world. If he considered what was happening in the United States and the number of illegally held firearms there, he would know that what I am saying is true. An element in this country would want to use the firearms illegally. Both the hon. Gentleman and I would deplore that, but we must acknowledge the realities of life.

I appeal to the Minister of State on two grounds. First, on the balance of risk, how lethal are those weapons? Secondly, what is the point of setting up a specialist inquiry only to have politicians second-guess its recommendations? How many more of the numerous inquiries that the Government are setting up will subsequently be second-guessed and their recommendations not accepted? We might as well choose a lord and tell him not to carry out an in-depth inquiry or take all the evidence, but to put a few points on the back of a fag packet: if we like the recommendations, we shall accept them and turn them into law; if we do not like them, we shall not accept them. That seems to be what is happening in the Bill.

Mr. Frank Cook: I should like to clarify a point that was raised a couple of minutes ago by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock). He asked whom the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) had in mind when he said that someone holding a legal firearms certificate now would want to go underground with his weapon. That will not happen: such a person is a law-abiding custodian of a firearm. The hon. Gentleman misses the point about the danger involved. Many people on the streets already illegally own the weapons to which he refers--they are not necessarily target weapons, but are multi-shot, small weapons that they can carry. The legislation will not touch such people. That is the point.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that intervention as it gives me the

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chance to clarify my remarks. If owning such a weapon remains legal, everyone who wishes to fire pistols in competitions and to keep weapons in a registered firearms armoury has the opportunity to do so. If the Bill makes that illegal, people will no longer have that opportunity. I can foresee circumstances--which will probably not involve current firearms certificate holders--in which some people, possibly younger people, will want to fire pistols illegally and will obtain their weapons on the black market.

I ask the Minister of State to consider what he is doing today and to see whether it would be possible, in the closely defined circumstances that I have described--using only one weapon in a registered gun club under proper supervision with a proper firearms licence from the police--to accept the amendment, even if it has to be redrawn.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I shall ask the Government three short questions, in the hope of bringing them round to a different way of thinking.

I trust that the Government have listened with care, not only to Conservative Members of Parliament, who have spoken with knowledge and passionate interest in the matter, but to the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), who is a consistent advocate of the arguments that he advanced this afternoon. I ask the Government to listen to him with all humility, because he has nothing to gain politically from what he says, and so can argue with the force of principle. I salute him for the stance that he has taken tonight and at other times. His arguments bear listening to. I hope that, by pointing him out, I have done him no damage.

I confess that, on Second Reading of the Conservative Government's Firearms (Amendment) Bill in November 1996, I refused to support the Government and absented myself so as not to support the Bill. I trust that my remarks will be viewed in that light--I say that breathing down the neck of my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Home Secretary.

First, I shall ask questions about the philosophy that underlies the Bill, clause 1 and the Government's opposition to amendment No. 7. I hope that I am not too pompous in describing it in those terms. Is it right that the Government's proposal should become law? We have been told about the innocent pastime of competition shooters. There is a shooting club in my constituency, in Kibworth, halfway between Market Harborough and Leicester. As a direct consequence of the Bill, members of that club will see an end to a pastime in which they have engaged for many years. Not one member of the club is the type of person who is likely to commit mayhem by running amok with a pistol--let alone a single-shot pistol, which the amendment is designed to retain in the sport of shooting.

The membership of clubs such as the one in my constituency is broadly composed of policemen, former policemen and ex-warrant officers from the armed forces--not the type of war comic strip cartoon heroes whom one would expect to run amok with a gun. It is important for the Government to realise that they are taking away from people in that respectable section of society a lawful pastime in which they have engaged innocently for very many years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) mentioned organisations such as the cadet forces. I believe that the type of people who, were the Bill

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not to become law in the currently proposed form, would have joined, for example, the Kibworth shooting club, would have undergone weapons training in the cadet force even if they did not later join the Regular armed forces. I urge the Government to bear in mind what they are doing and whom they are harming.

Mr. Soames: My hon. and learned Friend has raised an important point about safety. Does he agree--the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), does not have a clue about this--that, regardless of whether their members have been cadets or members of the armed forces, all those clubs adopt the highest, most rigorous standards of safety in the handling of weapons and ammunition that one could find anywhere, and that that sets the sport apart from almost any other sport that one may watch in this country?

Mr. Garnier: I agree whole-heartedly with my hon. Friend. I know that from my experience, having visited the club in my constituency. I was told several times by the president, the captain, the secretary, the treasurer and other members of the committee of that club the precise and detailed training and arms drill that all members of that club must undergo before they are even allowed on to the range, let alone allowed to handle a gun with a potentially lethal projectile in it.

Mr. Frank Cook: Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman would care to observe that they must behave in that manner and with that type of discipline because it is the only level of safety that they can apply to themselves, so it is in their own interest. The whole sport is one of imposing, inculcating, fostering and improving safety standards.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman is right, and I wish that the Government would give credit to those people and allow them to use single-shot guns safely. As has been explained several times, a single-shot gun is not the weapon that a maniac will choose if he wants to kill huge numbers of people.

The second broad question that I want to ask the Government is a question of practice. Will the Bill--and clause 1, which we seek to amend--achieve the intended purpose of preventing the Dunblanes and the Hungerfords? The short answer is, "No, of course it will not." The Government know that it will not but, unfortunately yet understandably, they have become bound up in the emotion that flowed from the terrible events at Dunblane.

No one would seek to diminish, devalue or denigrate the sincerity of the concern expressed by Ministers and supporters of the Government--and Opposition Members--for the parents and relations of the children who were brutally killed by that madman in Dunblane last summer. However, having studied the Cullen report, having considered the facts of that case, we now know the reasons why Hamilton committed those murders and, regrettably, a repeat of that situation would not be dealt with by this, albeit well-intentioned, clause.

There were huge numbers of failures, by the police and by the licensing authorities, regarding the culprit in that case. Regrettably, the Bill produced by the Government

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will have no effect on a future Dunblane. It may make the Government feel better, it may make other members of the public who support the general thrust of the Bill feel better, but it will not afford the children of equivalent primary schools throughout the United Kingdom, and parents of those children, any better protection. I suggest to the Committee, therefore, that the Bill and clause 1 will not achieve the intended purpose.

My final argument to the Government is encapsulated in the question, "Will the clause cause harm?" I hope that I have argued successfully that it will do no good, but will it cause harm? That comes back--

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