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The Chairman: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. and learned Gentleman, but he appears to have moved on to making a speech that would be more suited to the clause stand part debate. I would remind him that we are debating the specific points made in amendment No. 7.

Mr. Garnier: I understand, Sir Alan, the feeling that you have about the half-completed sentence that I was uttering, but if I complete the sentence, I hope that I may persuade you that I am in order. I do not wish to be impertinent, but those of us who support the amendment are arguing for the retention within the law of single-shot .22 weapons, and I am asking the Government to justify the removal of single-shot .22 pistols from lawful ownership in certain prescribed situations.

It seems to me--I hope that the Government will answer this in due course--that the question, "Will the Bill, and will this clause, cause harm?" can be answered only in the affirmative unless the clause is amended by means of the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin).

I mentioned at the outset of my remarks the innocent, law-abiding, responsible gun owners who are about to see a long-practised pastime brought to an end if the Bill passes as the Government propose. That is a harm that the Government should not allow. It is a harm that cannot be compensated for even in money--and no doubt we shall have further discussions later in the Bill's passage about the level of compensation. I would suggest that, on all three of the grounds that I have presented, amendment No. 7 should be considered quietly and calmly by the Government, because I have yet to hear a reasonable, rational response to the points that I have put forward.

I urge the Government, despite their huge majority, to think a little more calmly and carefully about the effects of what they are doing, and to ask themselves, "Is it right? Will it do good or harm?" I believe that, if they think about those questions, they can reach only one answer in line with their responsibilities as the Government of the whole country, not just of some of its people. If they do that, there is only one conclusion to which they can come which will be in line with their responsibilities as the Government of the whole of this country, not just part of it.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I was happy to hear on Second Reading the Government's assurances that this matter would be considered on its merits. At one point in that debate, when I suggested that there was a philosophical divide between our party and the Government, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) stood up and assured me that there was no question of adopting a high moral stance: it was a question of examining the issues in a practical way.

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Similarly, this moderate and well-reasoned amendment should be considered on the basis of its practical effects. I should be interested to hear the Minister of State explain in due course how the clause can be said to contribute to the safety of anyone, bearing it in mind that those who wish to act unlawfully and violently will still find ways of laying their hands on the necessary instruments.

5 pm

Accepting the amendment, on the other hand, would demonstrate Ministers' recognition of the fact that in certain strictly controlled circumstances it should still be possible to conduct a lawful sport. I therefore hope to hear that the Government are prepared to acknowledge that and to consider this practical issue on its merits.

I have heard it said during the debate that if all .22 weapons were banned, people would still act illegally. It is often maintained in the House that anyone who advances such an argument is condoning illegality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those of us who try to lead law-abiding lives must often obey laws that we think may be wrong. I am sorry that the Home Secretary is not present to hear me say this, but I am sure he can remember times when he was in opposition when he told the House that certain measures introduced by the Conservative Government were wrong because they risked criminalising otherwise law-abiding people. That, surely, is the point.

The clause reduces the risks to such an absurdly low level--here I agree with everything the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said--that those who regard the legislation as crass and idiotic will continue to practise their sport in the quarry behind the village. Such people will still be able to purchase .22 single-shot pistols on the black market. Such is the corrupting influence of badly thought out legislation, which criminalises a practice that ought to be kept lawful.

I for one have always maintained that if a law is passed people must obey it; but we should also consider the consequences of passing the law in the first place. This law will bring about corruption. Some people--not those who currently hold licences--will continue to use these weapons for recreational purposes. They will then be rightly prosecuted and criminalised.

Mr. Connarty: The hon. Gentleman was not here when the previous legislation was debated, but I wonder whether he would have used the same argument--that multi-shot weapons should not be banned because of the certainty that some people would get hold of them illegally and fire them off in quarries behind their homes. On the hon. Gentleman's logic, it was surely wrong to interfere with handgun possession of any kind.

Mr. Grieve: That is a perfectly fair point. Had I been here before the election I would have supported Lord Cullen's proposals in toto, but I would have voted against the proposals that came before the House. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says and repeat my point about absurdity. My impression is that those who are likely to handle .22 pistols of the single-shot variety will do so exclusively for sporting purposes, not for pernicious Rambo-like reasons. If those people think the law absurd, they will continue to practise their sport--that is the corrupting element. It is what the House, when considering legislation, should try to avoid.

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I note that the Home Secretary has returned to his place. Two onerous aspects of the job of Home Office Ministers are balancing common sense against the desires of their Back Benchers, and protecting those who would otherwise be oppressed. This evening I hope to hear some good news from the Government, but my hopes are not high. Meanwhile I suggest that it is irrational to object to the amendment.

Mr. Chope: I hope that the Government will take the amendment seriously. It is an acid test of their attitude to liberty and the freedom of the individual.

Are the Government trying to accommodate, as far as possible, the legitimate interests of law-abiding sportsmen within the need for public safety, or are they using public safety as a catch-all justification for an absolutist, populist approach which appeals to the worst elements of the ignorant among our citizens? We know that 80 per cent. of all handguns are already banned. Paragraph 9.l01 of the Cullen report says that single-shot pistols probably comprise about 5 per cent. of the total number of licensed weapons. So even with the amendment in place, 95 per cent. of all handguns would be banned.

The issue is one of assessing the risk. That should involve an examination of two elements in combination: as Cullen said, the chances of harm occurring, and the nature and extent of that harm.

I am rather alarmed by the Government's emerging attitude. Earlier today, I was waiting for an answer to a written question that I needed at 3.30 pm. I got the answer sooner rather than later as a direct result of the Home Secretary's intervention. I believe that answers are delivered by Departments to the House as early as 3.15 pm; the Home Secretary had confirmation from the Department that the answers were delivered here by that time today, but they did not reach the board until after 4.20 pm. Had it not been for the good offices of the Home Secretary, who had his staff fax copies of my answer to me--for which I am grateful--I would not have had access to it until that time.

Mr. Michael: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's acknowledgement of the fact that we made arrangements to have his answers faxed to him by the target time. I would gently remind him, however, that some of us who asked the former Government questions over the past 10 years often did not receive our answers until the following day--never mind 3.30 pm.

Mr. Chope: I am not sure whether two wrongs make a right, but I must make it clear that I can take no responsibility for anything that happened during the last Parliament. One aspect of this matter that has been raised with me is that up to 10 staff in the Messengers Office used to deal with questions and correspondence when they arrived in the afternoon. There are now only two members of staff, which may be one explanation why answers now take much longer to reach Members.

In written question 194, I asked the Home Secretary whether it was his policy to outlaw the possession and use of black powder pistols. The Minister of State answered that black powder pistols were

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    (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, which is presently before Parliament, deals only with the prohibition of small-calibre pistols. However, we shall keep under close review all controls on firearms to ensure maximum public safety."

I find the expression "maximum public safety" difficult because to ensure maximum public safety the Government would have to ban all shotguns and rifles, the sport of motor racing and air displays. It is impossible to ensure maximum public safety. What can be ensured is maximum public safety commensurate with individual liberty. I am sorry that the Minister of State did not respond in that way.

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