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Clause 2

Consequential amendments and repeals

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, leave out lines 11 to 21. The amendment would ensure that the compensation arrangements were brought back to the House after the Bill was enacted, as under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. It is essential because the Bill proposes a qualitative change from the 1997 Act that the Government themselves recognise in their business compliance cost assessment, which claims that gun clubs that cater solely or mainly for target pistol shooting will probably have to close. Given that admission, that qualitative change requires further debate. I am sure that the Government's response will be that they want to enact the Bill quickly and effectively and that the scheme already exists as an ex-gratia scheme, but further debate is necessary because of that step change and because of its impact on business. I have not heard any significant and serious arguments why that impact should not be recognised in the Bill, and further debate would ensure that Opposition Members can have their say.

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We must be allowed to advance the consistent and coherent argument in favour of recognition being given to the costs to business, especially to those that have incurred debts to set up shooting clubs and shooting associations and will now be left with those debts. Because of the total ban on pistol shooting, no reasonable person could envisage being able to carry on in business if pistol shooting is their sole business. Recognition must also be given to businesses that have lost sales of guns and ancillary equipment. They were going to be harmed by the previous legislation and we felt then that they should be compensated, but that harm will now be compounded in that they cannot pick up compensatory business in .22 sales to replace lost sales of higher-calibre weapons.

Those are serious issues and we do not feel that our arguments have been responded to seriously. The Government have argued that we might be setting a precedent, but we are confident that precedents exist for compensating businesses, such as those arising from the channel tunnel discussions. Issues of compensation and precedent have been raised, but the Government have given us no coherent and consistent intellectual statement on how issues of fairness and justice--the true issues involved in compensating business--can be addressed under the current ex-gratia scheme.

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The Bill would simply enshrine in law the ex-gratia scheme and go forward with that. The amendment would require the issue of compensation to be brought back to the House and I urge the Committee to accept the amendment so that we get that further debate.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I strongly agree with the general comments made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). I particularly endorse his adoption of the phrase "a step change"--the use of which is not unique to me--to describe the implications of the Bill.

I want to focus the Minister's attention on a specific part of the .22 compensation arrangements. If I do not raise it now, it might not be raised at all. The Government have tried to be helpful, but, in doing so, they have created both the potential for a difficulty of principle and a potential rather than a real inequity. It is right to raise the issue now so that the Minister can consider it. It relates to the fact that with the best motives, as was made clear on Second Reading, the trigger date for compensation for .22s will be October 1996, rather than the date of the announcement in May 1997.

Let me first deal with the point of principle.

Mr. Michael: I might be able to help the hon. Gentleman. This is an important point, but it is one that I have already clarified and I may be able to prevent him from going down a long road.

We have chosen the date of October 1996 because that is the fairest point at which to set the level of compensation. It is fairest to shooters and probably means that they will be better compensated than if we had chosen the May date, which was when the decision was taken and entered in the Queen's Speech.

Mr. Boswell: I am most grateful to the Minister for his clarification. I concede that the Government have proceeded with the best of motives, but I want to draw out two potential problems arising from that.

The first point is one of principle. I hasten to say that I am not a lawyer, but I know a little about the law of compulsory purchase. The normal way in which compulsory purchase operates is from the date of entry, or of taking possession, or possibly of notice to treat--for example, if one is required to give up one's land for a bypass, the compensation code takes effect with the valuation set at the time at which one's land passes from one's possession or thereabouts. Similarly, the normal practice when tax codes change, although I am sure that counter examples can be cited, is that the law changes with announcements made on Budget day or thereabouts. Any change is not normally applicable to events that occurred before the Budget, although sometimes it has to be.

My point of principle is that it is an unfortunate departure from a more normal practice of Government that we are not basing compensation on the date when any reasonable person who was the owner of a .22 would have realised that he or she might have to surrender that weapon. That troubles me.

However, there is a further point--

Mr. Michael: I am trying to be helpful because the hon. Gentleman is trying to deal with a serious point.

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After October 1996, although the Government at that time intended to ban only the largest-calibre handguns, it must have been obvious that it was increasingly likely that, following the general election, there would be a change of Government, that we would move to a full ban--as we are doing--and that, therefore, values would drop.

If, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, we used the May date to calculate compensation, it would disadvantage shooters. He should appreciate that we have tried to act in the best interests of the shooters who stand to be compensated.

Mr. Boswell: Let us not go into whether a specific elector or owner of a gun did or did not believe that there would be a Labour Government in four or five months' time; let us confine ourselves to the reality. The Minister rightly notes--the point was made on Second Reading--that the majority of those pistols will have dropped in value between October 1996 and May 1997. I believe that the Government have proceeded with good intentions, even though there is a technical breach of the usual attitude to compulsory purchase, which I have explained to the Committee. I accept their good intentions, but I want to pause on a couple of points.

First, I want to mention something that I discovered by accident the other day when reading a short item about the compulsory purchase of land in a journal that came into my hands. In a recent case, Wickham Growers Ltd. v. Southern Water 1997, which I believed is reported in the Estates Gazette,

although it may well apply to other matters as well--

    "may have regard to events which occur after the date of entry, even where those events could not be predicted at the time."

That might help in relation to setting an earlier valuation, and Ministers should at least consider that point.

Secondly, I want to express my substantive concern for a specific group of shooters in relation to the compensation statement. I am not an expert on the proposals even of the previous Government, but they consist of the ex-gratia scheme, the specified code under which smaller-calibre weapons as well as larger-calibre ones can be surrendered from 1 July onwards, and option C for specific cases.

It would have been perfectly open, and not perverse or irrational, to a shooter with a .22 weapon to have enhanced the value of that weapon--to have customised it or for another reason to have increased its value--between the date in October 1996 and 14 May 1997, the date of the Queen's Speech. It is unfortunate and unfair if that cannot be taken into account in the compensation arrangements.

We appear to be breaching the usual rules under which compulsory purchase is determined. I am sure that the Government seek to do so for the best of motives: they wish to give owners of .22 weapons a better deal than if the literal date of the Queen's Speech were used. I wonder whether it would be more sensible in principle to use the later date, perhaps even to raise the figure, because the further one gets from the date, the more difficult valuation is. However, I am saying that there may be cases where, quite legitimately and properly, a shooter might have enhanced the value of his weapon before the possession

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of that weapon became illegal or became questioned by a firm Government decision, in which case a small inequity might arise. I make the point only to say--

Mr. Michael: In that circumstance, the shooter would of course be able to go through the alternative route proposed in the Bill, by seeking a valuation. The specific circumstances are covered in the arrangements that we have proposed.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the Minister for seeking to clarify that, but may I have further clarification? In that case, would the valuation be at the date in October or would it be at the last possible date, in May, if the value had been enhanced by then? If that is not so--

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