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'(3B) Payments made under this scheme relating to small-calibre pistols or equipment designed or adapted for use in connection with such pistols, shall be received within 30 days of agreement of the valuation.'.

This is a straightforward amendment. The Opposition believe that the Bill is unnecessary and unfair. Thousands of target pistol shooters up and down the country will be deprived of the sport that they may have enjoyed for many years. Under the legislation as it is currently drafted, Britain's shooters will no longer be able to compete on an international level. Therefore, it is right that the owners of lower-calibre handguns that are banned by this

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legislation should be compensated speedily with a minimum of delay. The amendment will ensure that that occurs.

We believe that Governments should set an example by paying their bills and debts swiftly. The last Conservative Administration developed a British standard of prompt payment to which all Government Departments and their agencies signed up. As a result, league tables of Government Departments' payment performances are now published. However, the Labour party apparently wishes to go further than that. The Prime Minister has pledged:

"We will introduce a requirement . . . for government departments and public agencies to pay their bills within 30 days".

That is what the then Leader of the Opposition said on 16 September 1996 in a speech to the City of London Corporation.

Much was said during the election campaign about trust. Quite simply, the Government have the opportunity tonight to support the amendment to show that they honour the promise made by the Prime Minister on 16 September 1996. They have the opportunity to demonstrate that they can be trusted to fulfil that promise.

We look forward to receiving the Government's support so that the payments of compensation authorised under the Bill can be made within 30 days, thus honouring the Prime Minister's promise.

Mr. Boswell: To follow on from the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), and given the spirit of our discussions, I invite the Government to consider whether they would be prepared to pay interest should it prove impossible for payment to be made within 30 days in a particular case.

Mr. Michael: It is intriguing to listen to this debate. I am beginning to enjoy the contributions from the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) from the Opposition Benches because I am starting to contrast them with the contributions he made about the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, which he steered through the House.

Some of the right hon. Gentleman's thought processes are becoming quite convoluted. For instance, if the Opposition are now so keen to specify a time limit on the payment of compensation, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can explain to us why the then Government did not include such a 30-day time limit in the 1997 Act. After all, he was personally responsible for steering that legislation through the House.

What is good for the goose is good for the gander. If a 30-day limit is reasonable for small-bore handguns and their ancillary equipment, it is similarly reasonable for large-bore handguns and their ancillary equipment. The right hon. Gentleman did not include such a provision in the 1997 Act, but, suddenly tonight, we have a convert to the rapid payment of bills.

Mr. Boswell: The new Government have set themselves up as the proud possessor of higher standards than their predecessor. The Opposition are merely seeking to help and encourage them to impose on themselves the obligation to meet their own high standards.

Mr. Michael: It is very nice of the hon. Gentleman, who was a Minister in the previous Government, to feel

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that he has learnt so much during those depressing days that he can now contribute to the quality of the legislation brought forward by the new Government.

I put it to the hon. Gentleman that there is an inconsistency in the Opposition's argument. If they felt that a time limit of 30 days was reasonable, they had the opportunity to set one in the 1997 Act. If they had done so, that would have been mirrored in our compensation arrangements, because, as I made clear in the debates a week ago, the arrangements that we are making for smaller-calibre guns mirror those in the statutory instrument governing the compensation scheme for larger-calibre guns. The Opposition stand condemned out of their own mouths for not even considering what they now, belatedly, argue is an important provision.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): The hon. Gentleman is under some confusion. He is in government and, therefore, he should be making the decisions. We would like the money to be paid in 30 days.

Mr. Michael: In an earlier debate, the hon. Gentleman complained that the Government were being too decisive about getting things done by introducing legislation to get rid of .22 handguns, which he is so keen to keep on our streets and in our homes. We are getting on, fairly and reasonably, with that job.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border said that we are a Government who believe in paying bills on time. He is right, but the amendment does not attempt to ensure that bills are paid on time. Instead, it would guarantee a short period of time after the agreement on a valuation within which all the money would be received. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could clarify whether he intends to target the amendment only at those claims made under option C, which include individual valuations. If disputed, that might mean that an independent valuation is made.

I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman has thought that through and whether the Opposition's proposal applies only to such cases, or to other options as well. Perhaps he will illuminate the House, now or later, as to his intention in the amendment.

I am afraid that I cannot accept the amendment, although I appreciate its sentiments. As I made clear in debates last week on the compensation scheme under the 1997 Act, payments will be made as quickly as possible. I can assure the House that that assurance applies equally to small-calibre pistols--we wish to deal with the compensation as quickly and as expeditiously as possible.

As we made clear last week, however, the pressures on police forces and the arrangements made by chief constables will vary. Different arrangements will be needed in urban as opposed to rural areas. Those arrangements and the decisions of chief constables must be respected. Those variations will exert different types of pressure on respective police forces. We, too, will put pressure on those forces. I have discussed the matter with representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers and I am certain that they will try to deal with compensation as quickly as possible. It would therefore be unreasonable to include in primary legislation the requirement sought by the amendment.

The majority of straightforward claims, which will be made under options A and B, will be dealt with quickly. Claims under option C, which will be based on individual

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valuations, will take longer to process because they will need to be considered individually. It is reasonable that that should be done and that proper consideration should be given in each case.

I am sure that the Opposition, who have argued for the interest of shooters as they see them, would not want us to introduce measures that exerted excessive pressure on the police and others connected with the scheme to rush those arrangements. I stress that adequate time must be given for the scheme to be operated, but, even so, payments will be made as quickly as possible.

Mr. Richard Allan: Do we take it that the time it will take for people to receive compensation will depend on the efficiency of individual police officers, and the burden placed on them? Does the Minister agree that it is therefore likely to be case that, depending on where one lives, the time taken for compensation to be paid could be dramatically different?

Mr. Michael: It could depend on a number of factors. The police are endeavouring to introduce arrangements to ensure that everyone can be compensated as quickly as possible so that the receipt of handguns and their ancillary equipment can be completed as expeditiously as possible.

It is impossible to be sure where a rush might occur. All the members of a shooting fraternity in an area may decide to hand in all their guns quickly. It is quite likely that all members of a gun club would agree on when to hand in their guns and seek compensation. Some of the pressures are unpredictable and that is what makes it unsafe to try to specify a constrained period of days, as proposed in the amendment.

Mr. Boswell: Will the Minister confirm that the amendment at least seeks to tie prompt payment to the agreed date of valuation, rather than to the date when weapons are handed in? We obviously accept that there is a problem in that regard with option C weapons. We are concerned simply with the administrative delay that might arise after a valuation. No one wishes to put valuers under unreasonable pressure so that they reach a quick, bad decision. Clearly, they must have time to make the right decision.

Mr. Michael: I accept that. I have spoken to the chief constables and others who will be involved in the exercise, so I understand the pressures to which it will subject them. They accept that it is in the public interest that the necessary arrangements should be made and that they should be implemented as expeditiously as possible. Likewise, we accept that we want the payments to be made as expeditiously as possible. The purpose behind the amendment is to introduce a straitjacket. Conservative Members should accept that the Government will do all that they can--we shall have discussions with the police and everyone else involved about the arrangements that we seek to make--to ensure that, as far as possible, we meet the requirements that are being sought within the terms of the amendment. However, to introduce such a straitjacket in primary legislation is inappropriate.

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