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Mr. Michael: I am sorry that it is necessary to spell things out in such detail. I should have thought maximum safety clearly means maximum practical safety and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not understand that.

There is no suggestion of widening the scope of the discussion. We were dealing with the fact that the police raised concerns about the availability of black powder pistols. That exclusion was introduced to the 1997 Act during its passage through Parliament--I believe that that amendment was introduced in another place. The police are concerned about the loophole, so it is right that we should keep it under review. Does the hon. Gentleman think that we should not keep safety under review?

Mr. Chope: I make no such suggestion. I had the opportunity during the last Parliament to serve on the Health and Safety Commission, a body committed to ensuring public safety as far as reasonably practicable. In the light of the Minister of State's intervention, perhaps I should table a pursuant question to ensure that we get on the record the fact that he did not intend "ensure maximum public safety" to mean anything other than to ensure maximum practical public safety. Those are two separate propositions. The Minister of State must be deemed to have had responsibility for his answers to those questions. He decided not to qualify the answer in its written form, but I welcome the qualification that he has just given.

As for single-shot muzzle-loading guns, I have information from the Christchurch gun club in my constituency, which has 500 members and is one of the most successful gun clubs in the country, that someone firing a black powder pistol at a 25 yd range has half an hour in which to make 13 shots and the three worst shots are disallowed. That is another example of pistol shooting where tremendously high skill is involved. It is akin to the sport of pistol shooting with a single-shot pistol. That is why I hope the Government will take the amendment seriously.

The Government have already earned among some people a reputation for being a little spoilsport. They have an opportunity this afternoon to accept the amendment and demonstrate that they are willing to accommodate the legitimate interests of the sporting fraternity. I therefore hope that they accept the amendment.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): My right hon. and hon. Friends have spoken in support of the amendment with notable moderation. The arguments that they have advanced deserve to be treated with proper respect and I hope that they will receive such a response from the Minister of State.

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I hope that the Minister of State will take particular note of the tributes paid to the standards of safety observed in gun clubs. The mischief of the problem that we have been debating arises out of the fact that the Government now propose entirely to ban pistol shooting, particularly in gun clubs. During the passage of the earlier legislation, the Front Benches agreed that handguns should be banned from the home. That agreement, however, was reached and abided by in the context in which the ban was embodied in quite different legislation. That legislation enabled Olympic shooting to continue and .22 calibre pistol shooting, both single and multi-shot, to continue in gun clubs--not in people's homes. The Bill would put an end to pistol shooting in gun clubs, which is why the matter now needs to be reconsidered.

The effect on single-shot .22 calibre pistols is one of the most conspicuous and unfortunate consequences of the Bill. The force that lies behind the arguments that have been advanced by my right hon. and hon. Friends, and by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook)--I am sorry, I should have mentioned him earlier when I referred to the cogency of contributions to this debate--derives entirely from the difference in the context of this legislation.

5.15 pm

My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and I will not resile from our earlier position that there should be a complete ban on the possession and use of pistols in the home. For that reason, and because the amendment would appear to allow pistols to be kept in the home, we shall not vote for it. Nevertheless, the arguments that have been put forward in this different context have considerable force and I hope that they will be treated in that way by the Minister of State when he replies.

Mr. Michael: I am pleased to confirm that we ensured that answers to questions were provided properly this afternoon and we shall seek to continue to do that. I mention that to reinforce the point that I made in interventions. I owe my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) an apology. I promised to provide him with a reply by today, but my reply has been delayed because I wanted it to be fuller and more accurate. He was right to say that I failed to achieve what I sought to do, but he will have that answer as quickly as possible.

I thank the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) for his helpful comments. I am happy to follow him in paying tribute to the standards of safety operated in the generality of gun clubs and by the generality of shooters. A number of Conservative Members showed a good deal less respect for shooters in suggesting that, on the passage of this Bill, they will immediately go underground or use guns elsewhere. The right hon. and learned Gentleman made no such suggestion. Those suggestions were unhelpful and misleading because, in general, shooters are law-abiding citizens who, while they would not wish us to pass this legislation, will obey it once it becomes law.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Michael: I shall give way first to one of those who appeared to make just such an implication.

Mr. Grieve: Does the Minister agree that if it were possible to provide a legitimate and lawful way for the

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sport of shooting with handguns to be maintained, if only with single-shot handguns for those wishing to engage in the sport recreationally, that would minimise the risk that people might act illegally in using handguns for recreational purposes?

Mr. Michael: I shall return to the point. We considered carefully whether it would be possible to protect the activities of shooters and members of gun clubs and, after examining Lord Cullen's report and the evidence presented to him, we came to the conclusion that it would not. Furthermore, the amendment would entail an unacceptable degree of inconsistency.

Mr. Frank Cook: Being a simple fellow, I always try to see things clearly. Is the Minister saying that evidence given to Cullen was inaccurate, or that Lord Cullen's recommendations were misleading? The comments that have just been made confuse me.

Mr. Michael: That goes a little wider than the debate, but it is clear that Lord Cullen's findings were based sincerely on the evidence that he heard during the inquiry. Many people gave a great deal of thought to the matter and we came to the conclusion, as did the representatives of police officers, that a complete ban on handguns was the right way forward.

That in no way denigrates Lord Cullen or his inquiry, or suggests that his findings were misleading. At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the House, led by the Government, to reach conclusions. It is fair to say that when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe was Home Secretary, he came to conclusions that went beyond Lord Cullen's recommendations. That was the exercise of proper judgment on the report and the evidence that was provided to the inquiry.

Several of the contributions to the debate require comment. The shadow Home Secretary said that the Bill would mean the end of pistol shooting in gun clubs. That was extensively debated on Second Reading.

The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) said that we should consider the chances of harm. However, we must also consider consistency and the ease of enforcement of legislation, which is what led chief police officers to express alarm at the idea that there would be only a limited ban on some handguns, rather than a consistent ban on handguns as a whole.

I appreciate that many hon. Members who have contributed to the debate disagree with the Bill as a whole. Some of the points that were made were Second Reading points, albeit addressed to the amendment. I do not think that a case has been made by the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) or other speakers, for single-shot small-calibre pistols to be exempted from the general prohibition on handguns. That, of course, is what the debate is about. I want to make it clear that we are not prepared to allow such an exemption.

Mr. Howard: The Minister referred--I may have misunderstood his reference--to the spokesman for chief police officers and the concerns that they had raised. In fact, the position of the Association of Chief Police Officers was as I set it out in my speech on Second Reading last week. ACPO supported the proposals of the previous Government. I know that certain other police

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associations took a different view, but the chief police officers supported not a total ban, but the position taken and enshrined in legislation by the previous Government.

Mr. Michael: Both the Police Superintendents Association and the Police Federation formally welcomed the stance that we took. The discussions that I have had with representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers in recent weeks have focused more on remaining loopholes than on concern about our proposals. That has come clearly--

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