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Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): The Bill goes much further than the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997: it will kill off pistol shooting and make many gun clubs unviable. The 1997 Act would have allowed pistol shooters to continue with their sport on condition that they used only lower-calibre handguns. During the passage of that Act, we decided against compensating gun clubs for the impact of the ban on higher-calibre guns. An important justification for that view was the fact that shooters of high-calibre pistols could convert to .22s and continue to enjoy their sport. It was difficult to argue that clubs could not continue as venues for pistol shooting while .22 pistols remained lawful.

A total ban will force some clubs to close, and that fundamentally alters the previous position on compensation. The majority of the 2,118 approved gun clubs throughout Great Britain are non profit making: they were set up and are run by volunteers. It is true that clubs whose members shoot rifles and pistols could survive a total ban on handguns, but that would very much depend on the proportion of pistol shooters to rifle shooters. However, clubs that are almost entirely pistol clubs will, in all probability, face certain closure as a result of the Bill.

Hon. Members should bear in mind the fact that the majority of gun clubs are non profit making and do not have vast financial reserves to enable them to weather the storm of a total ban. Given that those clubs have mortgages or leases, their members or owners could face significant personal liabilities and loss as a result of closure.

It is the Opposition's view that, given the extent of the Bill and its departure from the principles of the 1997 Act, which did not bring pistol shooting to an end in this country, the issue of compensation must be revisited. Naturally, we hope that as many clubs as possible will survive, but those clubs that are forced to close as a result of the circumstances created by the total ban on handguns introduced by the Bill should be compensated.

On Second Reading, we argued that the Bill as it currently stands is unfair. At column 1163, the Home Secretary gave an entirely reasonable response. He said that if the Government had departed from the principles that we had followed, he would consider the point that we had made. I regret to say that the Minister was a good deal less reasonable when he wound up the debate. He dismissed our questions by referring to the debate that had taken place at the beginning of the last week on the compensation arrangements under the 1997 Act, but we

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were not objecting to those arrangements. Our argument is that the total ban introduced by this legislation fundamentally alters the position. That is why we believe that the arrangements proposed by the Government are unfair, and why we do not believe that clause 2 should stand part of the Bill.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) on compensation. It would not involve a large number of clubs. Some of them are small businesses. However, a significant number will go out of business. People who are not rich will be left with burdens of debt for which they have no possibility of compensation unless the Government are prepared to reconsider the matter along the lines that the Home Secretary seemed to accept but to which the Minister offered blanket opposition.

What we are asking for is entirely reasonable. When pistol clubs were denied the use of a heavier grade of pistol, they could have set up afresh or reconstituted themselves as clubs using .22 handguns. There would have been support for that, for reasons connected with the Olympic games and for the more specialised reasons connected with disabled people, which we shall debate in a moment.

It follows inexorably from the Government's determination to take all pistols out of private ownership and to stop clubs holding pistols that gun clubs that are confined to pistols must close. If they have debts or mortgages, they will be left uncompensated. All I ask of the Minister is that he listens carefully to our argument. If he is not capable, by reason of the instructions that he has been given, to give us the answer that we seek now, I hope that he will he go away and think about it.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): There is a distinction between higher-calibre handguns, such as were used by Thomas Hamilton and which were outlawed under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, and the .22 calibre weapon that we are debating. When decisions were made under the previous Government, one factor that was taken into account was that a higher-calibre handgun is not specifically designed for sport. Many of those weapons have been developed for use in self-defence and by police forces and the military.

The higher-calibre handgun, which tends to be used against individuals, should be seen in a different context from the .22 handgun, which is used in international sport. Target shooting with .22 guns is accepted as an international sport throughout the world, and recognised as such by the Olympic movement. No doubt there are reasons for that. The .22 is used mainly for sport, and lacks some of the features of higher-calibre handguns to which I have referred.

7.30 pm

Against that background, the Committee should view the compensation issue differently. It is one thing to get rid of certain handguns because they are higher-calibre weapons; it is different to say that there shall be no target shooting in Britain when the wisdom throughout the world is that target shooting may occur in particular conditions--and the 1997 Act laid down the strictest possible security conditions. I think that the last Government were right to say, "We are not outlawing the

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sport altogether; if you wish to follow the conditions laid down in the Act, you may continue. You have that option." What is now being said is "There shall be no sport of this kind: every club in the country must close." That is relevant to the question of compensation.

Apart from being a very authoritarian measure, the proposal should prompt new Labour to think about the fact that every other country, and every international sporting body, is prepared to permit the sport to continue. Is it right for Britain to be the one country which is standing out against it? It is in that context that the considerations relating to compensation in this Bill are so different from those in the 1997 Act.

All the gun clubs will have to close, and many of their owners--some in my constituency--will be in financial difficulty. Could not the Government meet the Opposition at least half way--perhaps a little further--and make compensation available to clubs?

Mr. Michael: I have listened carefully to what has been said, but I can respond briefly, because nothing new has been contributed. All the points that have been made have been answered comprehensively, convincingly and repeatedly, on Second Reading and before and since then.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the shadow Home Secretary, says that the Bill will kill off pistol shooting and close many gun clubs. Let me remind him that precisely the same argument was advanced by Conservative Members when he introduced the Bill that is now the 1997 Act. There is nothing new in it, and he rejected it then. He should read the speeches that he made when he was in government, because they deal comprehensively with the speeches that he is making in opposition.

Mr. Heald: Surely even the hon. Gentleman accepts the difference between stopping all target shooting--and therefore closing every gun club in the country--and leaving the option available.

Mr. Michael: The hon. Gentleman should heed the arguments that have been advanced by his hon. Friends on other occasions. It is nice of him to join us for a while, but he is making precisely the points that they have made previously. We have been through those arguments time and again; we debated them on Second Reading. We will reject the extension of compensation suggested by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe, for precisely the reasons that he gave in government. He was not willing to extend compensation to businesses, and nor are we.

It comes down to a simple point of disagreement: we simply disagree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He could have dealt with the proposals in the Bill much earlier in the year if he had allowed a free vote when he was piloting his Bill through the House, but he was not willing to listen then, and we are therefore having to deal with the issue now.

Sir Nicholas Lyell rose--

Mr. Michael: Perhaps what the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe gave us was a spare

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speech left over from Second Reading. He does not agree with the Bill; he does not agree with the banning of .22 guns. We feel that it is necessary to ban them, and that his decisions in rejecting that proposition--

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire(Sir N. Lyell) must not remain standing when an hon. Member is addressing the Committee.

Mr. Michael: I am making a very brief point--

Sir Nicholas Lyell rose--

Mr. Michael: I give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

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