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Mr. Howard indicated dissent.

Mr. Michael: The right hon. and learned Gentleman can shake his head as much as he likes. I am referring to the conversations and discussions that have informed our preparation for these debates and the introduction of the Bill.

Mr. Howard: I know nothing of private conversations or discussions that the Minister may have had. ACPO placed its view firmly on the record. I referred to that view in the debate last week. It was not challenged at the time, either by the hon. Gentleman or by the Home Secretary. It is firmly on the record. ACPO's on-the-record position, as set out by me in the debate last week, is in support of the legislation put on the statute book by the previous Government.

Mr. Michael: The Police Federation considered our proposals a victory for common sense. I say again to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the comments that I have received from ACPO have been entirely about remaining loopholes--for instance, the one involving black powder guns to which I referred earlier. ACPO is anxious that there should be no loopholes in the availability of handguns. Our position is clear. Perhaps matters have moved on since the right hon. and learned Gentleman introduced his Bill.

Mr. Chope: Does the Minister think that it is the responsibility of the police to decide the law of this country, or will he, on behalf of the Government, accept responsibility for deciding the law?

Mr. Michael: The hon. Gentleman did not raise that point when the shadow Home Secretary was quoting the Police Federation in support of anything that he did. It is reasonable for Members on either side to quote the views of police officers, particularly the representative bodies, when legislation which has implications for the police--in relation to enforcement or to their safety, as well as public safety--is under consideration in the House.

We have concluded that it was neither practical nor safe to allow the exemption suggested in the amendment. That is the answer to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), whose contribution was thoughtful and considered until she accused the Government of being authoritarian. We are trying to ensure consistency to bring about the protection of the public.

The number of small-calibre pistols in current ownership is small--perhaps only several hundred--but an exemption would mean an increase in that number.

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In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North, I say that it could well mean an increase in the number of single-shot pistols of a quite different type from the specialist guns to which several hon. Members referred in the debate.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: As I recall, several Conservative Members pressed the Minister to explain how he thinks that not accepting the amendment would prevent another tragedy similar to that at Dunblane. So far, the only answer that he has given is about consistency. When we are dealing with the individual liberties of law-abiding citizens, surely we need a better excuse than that.

Mr. Michael: I am sorry--I was not addressing that point, and I am not sure that that is a good question. It is clear that the impact of single-shot pistols is not the same as that of multi-shot pistols. The question is whether we should ban all handguns, which is what the Bill seeks to do and on which there is considerable agreement, not least because of the view of the police that that is much easier to enforce and also makes it easier to distinguish when illegal guns are being carried. If pistols are not legal, it is clear that if one is being carried, it is illegal.

Mr. Soames: I am sorry to push the Minister. Will he define for us exactly the safety argument in the matter? Will he also say why the exemption cannot be made, when there is a perfectly satisfactory licensing system that works when the police do their job properly? It is plain that the existing system would allow the exemption to be monitored adequately.

Mr. Michael: The hon. Gentleman missed the Second Reading debate, when he should have made that point. We are dealing now with a very specific exclusion--which is what I am trying to address.

Mr. Soames: Answer the question.

Mr. Michael: The hon. Gentleman mutters grumpily, as he has done throughout the debate. If he had mentioned his point on the Second Reading, it might have been worthy of debate. Perhaps he should read the transcript of that debate again.

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. We shall not have a debate across the Floor of the Chamber.

5.30 pm

Mr. Howard: On a point of order, Mr. Martin. Is it not highly relevant to an amendment that seeks to exempt from the provisions of the Bill a particular weapon in particular circumstances that questions be raised as to the safety argument for not exempting that weapon? Is that matter not highly germane to the amendment at present under discussion in Committee?

The First Deputy Chairman: Hon. Members can raise any matter in Committee so long as it relates to the amendment. Amendment No. 7 is very narrow, and we

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cannot have a Second Reading debate on it. Comments must be confined to the amendment before the Committee.

Mr. Soames: Further to that point of order, Mr. Martin. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), my hon. Friends the Members for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) and for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and I addressed clearly the question of safety within the narrow context of the clause. Is it not intolerable that a junior Minister replying on behalf of the Government should not answer a perfectly sensible question about the safety argument advanced by the Government, which is key to the debate?

The First Deputy Chairman: The amendment does not relate to safety: it deals with another matter entirely. The hon. Gentleman referred to "the clause", but this is not a clause stand part debate. We are debating amendment No. 7.

Mr. Soames: Further to that point of order, Mr. Martin. The proposed clause relates to--

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. We are not debating the clause; we are debating an amendment to the clause.

Mr. Soames: The amendment to the clause framed by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey clearly states:

The burden of the debate hinges on safety. Is it not intolerable that the Minister should refuse to answer my question?

The First Deputy Chairman: The Minister may express himself in any way he chooses. If he is out of order, I shall be the first to remind him of that fact.

Mr. Michael: I am very grateful, Mr. Martin. We are hearing some bluster from Opposition Members. The debate is not about safety but about whether there should be exemptions and whether those exemptions would be safe. The point raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) was a matter for the Second Reading debate. The claim of this group of shooters is no better than that made by many other groups who will be disadvantaged by the Bill. We accept that people will be disadvantaged by the legislation--that is an inevitable consequence of passing it into law. We cannot impose a general ban on handguns and then make exceptions that undermine the ban. The fact is that a single-shot pistol is capable of being lethal, portable and easy to conceal. The only difference is that it can be fired a single time, rather than several times, within a short period.

Mr. Frank Cook: The Minister is making a powerful case for consistency. He has referred to that point many times. However, he has not answered the questions that I posed on Monday or Wednesday, or the nine points that I raised with the Home Secretary on Second Reading. I received no answer to other questions that I raised earlier this year. There are many things wrong with firearms legislation in this country. The Government are pleading consistency, but patently ignoring it.

Mr. Michael: I am sorry that my hon. Friend is not satisfied with the answers that he has received. This Bill

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is very narrow: it says simply that we will move from banning 80 per cent. of handguns to banning all handguns. That is all the legislation does; it does not address a wide range of issues. Amendment No. 7 tries to reintroduce an exemption for one specific category of handguns: .22 single-shot weapons. My point--I am glad that my hon. Friend believes that I am making it powerfully--is that such an exemption would make nonsense of the Bill. It would treat one group of shooters in a way that is inconsistent with the general approach that is written into the Bill.

I referred to the evidence given to Lord Cullen because several hon. Members mentioned the speed of shooting using a single-shot handgun, which they claimed was one shot per minute. However, evidence to Cullen suggests otherwise. Mr. David Penn, a member of the Firearms Consultative Committee, stated:

That is the evidence that a firearms expert gave to the Cullen inquiry, and it appears at paragraph 9.52 of the report.

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