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Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I welcome the fact that the Conservatives have tabled new clauses 3 and 4. However, a form of exemption for both categories could have been included in the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, in which case I am not sure that the new Government would have been keen to overturn the exemptions in the Bill before us today.

As someone who is opposed to the ban, I have to say that the Bill, even with the new clauses, severely threatens British participation in shooting sports. I do not see where the new generation of people who are trained and experienced for many years will come from; that is an unhappy state of affairs. I wish to address the position of those who might be sympathetic to a ban, but who should consider what we will do with these two categories of people--those who might represent us at the Olympics or in the Commonwealth games, including those taking place in this country, and paraplegic and other disabled shooters.

I asked the Home Secretary on Second Reading whether he had completely ruled out using powers that he already has

the Manchester games--

    "and to have a period of training before doing so?"

He replied:

    "I have not ruled that out altogether and if realistic representations are made to me, I shall think about the proposal. But I should require a high degree of convincing before going ahead with it."--[Official Report, 11 June 1997; Vol. 295, c. 1167.]

I cannot understand the logic of holding games in Manchester with participants in .22 shooting from every country in the Commonwealth, who will have trained beforehand, yet not allowing British competitors--the pool from which they will be drawn can already be identified--to train for that contest, even for a few days, unless the Home Secretary exercises his power.

When the time comes, Ministers will find it difficult to defend their position. The press clamour will no longer be for a ban as it was after Dunblane; it will be about what the Government are doing to our British sportsmen. The very newspapers that made such a fuss of saying that the Bill was the answer to Dunblane; which is a controversial contention, will scream at Ministers and ask why they are not giving our boys a fair chance. Ministers should prepare themselves for that. Most ordinary people would think that there was something illogical about the Government's position, even if they were mostly sympathetic to a ban.

I hope that the Home Secretary will consider further what he said to me on Second Reading and consider the new clauses, which set out sensible conditions that would make it reasonable for him to accept them, and find a way for our competitors to prepare for that competition in Manchester. It will take place within a few miles of his constituency, so he must be aware of the feelings that it will arouse. Clearly it would be illogical to make some

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provision for British competitors taking part in other international competitions, whether held in this country or abroad. The illogicality will be so apparent when the Manchester games take place.

8.15 pm

I also hope that the Home Secretary will reconsider the position of disabled competitors, who may be covered by new clause 3 if they take part in paraplegic games such as the Paralympics. We have a superb record in those competitions. I quote from a letter that I have received from the British Paraplegic Shooting Association:

The letter requests that we consider

    "a special dispensation for our disabled pistol shooters to allow them to train at bona-fide clubs as unlike their able-bodied counterparts it is not simple . . . to go abroad for training purposes. The physical and financial difficulties which disabled people would encounter would 'sound the death knell' for shooters with a disability and end a long and highly successful tradition."

I ask the Home Secretary to consider that request.

I do not think that anyone seriously imagines that a disabled shooter in a wheelchair would be the cause of some future massacre. The arrangements would have to be secure enough to reassure everyone, including disabled shooters themselves, that provisions made for them were so well controlled that their facility could not be abused by someone else.

The Bill provides for exceptions and some people--in specific categories, such as veterinary surgeons and other people using guns for animal welfare--would be able to keep a handgun at home, so it would not be beyond the wit of Ministers and their advisers to find a way to help disabled people to continue to participate in a sport that does them so much good and brings this country so much honour.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in seeking to persuade the Home Secretary to accept our arguments. We have been round the course several times and the Home Secretary accepts that the only reason for a complete ban is public safety. Therefore, as we narrow the focus, it is incumbent on any Government who seek to impose such a ban to be satisfied at each point that the stringency of the ban remains necessary in the public interest.

The new clauses have focused the debate on two small and highly responsible groups under stringent conditions. The burden on the police to monitor handguns will be massively reduced by the 1997 Act and the blanket ban in the Bill. We are now down to suggestions that a small number of disabled shooters and our national competition shooters, including 100 in the national squad and 350 in the regional squads--let us say, 450 in all--who are all highly responsible people and traceable, should be able to use guns in designated areas.

I do not believe that the Home Secretary can claim that such a small number of handguns under such tightly controlled conditions represents a sufficient threat to

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justify extending the blanket ban to the categories in the new clauses. If he is still minded to make that argument, I shall expand my case. After the Bill is enacted, a few, comparatively wealthy, shooters will go to train in France or Ireland. They may go further afield, but they will probably cross the Channel or the Irish sea to train. The Government seek to make a virtue of the principle of assisting the many, not the few, but the Bill will go against that principle.

We are talking only about a small number of disabled people and people who wish to train for high-quality, international competition. Those who wish to become really expert will be banished from our shores. The risk of their continuing to use handguns under highly restrictive conditions has to be balanced against the risks of an evilly intentioned person obtaining a handgun--we are only talking about .22 pistols--from some other source.

Earlier, I mentioned France because, as I have said in earlier debates, .22 pistols are freely available there. When I spoke in Monday's debate, I was aware that such weapons were generally freely available, but I had not yet spoken to someone who had walked around Calais or Le Touquet and seen just how remarkably easy it is to buy them.

I have been reprimanded by the Minister of State--who is rather apt to reprimand Conservative Members when we do not agree with him--although I hasten to add that I have not been reprimanded by the Home Secretary, who is always courteous and charming. Conservative Members are attempting to penetrate the Home Secretary's charm and get to his mind, thereby persuading him of our case. I must not go on too long, however, or I shall be counter-productive in that exercise.

The fact, however, is that an evilly intentioned person can obtain a .22 pistol by going to France and bringing one back. The Home Secretary cannot tell me that such a person is likely to be caught by customs at Folkestone, Portsmouth or any other port of entry, because it is not likely.

We are balancing a risk that we cannot protect against--because we have no power over the French, not that I should like to exercise power over the French on this matter, because I believe that the Bill goes too far--against a very minute risk in allowing highly responsible national competitors and disabled people, for whom the sport is very important, not only for their sense of sport but for their rehabilitation, to have limited access to .22 pistols.

I want simply to reinforce the argument that was carefully and cogently made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, and invite the Home Secretary to think again carefully on the subject.

Mr. Colvin: I, too, should like to support new clause 3 and--like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell)--I am also guilty of having been reprimanded by the Minister of State.

I was reprimanded for criticising the cynicism of the Home Secretary in applauding Manchester's winning the Commonwealth games. I said that it seemed a bit unfair to applaud that victory, because, whereas overseas shooting teams will be welcomed in Manchester, our own shooters will be denied an opportunity to participate. I refused to withdraw that specific criticism of the Home Secretary.

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I am glad to say, however, that the right hon. Gentleman has an opportunity today to enable me to withdraw that criticism unreservedly--simply by agreeing to new clause 3.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire has pointed out that new clause 3 is narrow and would be a minor change to the Bill. It is even more narrow, however, than hon. Members--other than the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)--have described. He asked where shooters will come from to qualify for the 13 regional squads--comprising 350 pistol shooters--from which the national squad of 100 members is drawn. His question puts into much sharper focus the difficulty in which United Kingdom pistol shooters will find themselves.

As the Home Secretary has already admitted, the Bill will sound the death knell of a sport in which the United Kingdom excels and has been very successful. We may as well draw down the curtains on it. New clause 3 would merely provide a stay of sentence for people who have already qualified for the national squad and for those who are in the qualification pipeline.

It is worth noting that people who qualify for the national squad have already been in competition shooting for a very long time. Some of them entered the sport as young as 14 years old and worked their way up through the junior ranks of pistol shooters, to age 21, and eventually on to the national team.

New clause 3 would merely give the Home Secretary the power to enable such people to continue the progress that they are already making towards the national squad and, eventually and hopefully, continue the noble tradition of winning for the United Kingdom more gold, silver and bronze medals in competition shooting. I hope that the Home Secretary will give me a reason to withdraw my remarks about his cynicism.

New clause 4 applies all the arguments that we have already heard to an even narrower bunch of shooters: disabled shooters. I take very much to heart--as I hope the Committee will--the remarks made on behalf of British Paraplegic Shooting Association.

There is no doubt that pistol shooting is one of the very few sports in which everyone competes on equal terms--young and old, male and female, the able-bodied and the disabled. Disabled shooters often beat able-bodied shooters because they frequently shoot from a wheelchair, which gives them a degree of stability that may be denied to someone shooting from a standing position. The British Paraplegic Shooting Association has explained very clearly to the Secretary of State why their shooting should be preserved.

As hon. Members have already said, the sport commences at grassroots level and proceeds to Paralympic level. Paralympians train extremely hard at least four times a week, and every day in the run-up to the Paralympics, and shooting is very much their special sport. After the 1996 Paralympics, in Atlanta, the Paralympic committee removed two air weapons events and increased the number of live ammunition events, because competition in air weapons has reached such a high standard, and more competitive participants are needed.

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Ministers would be very wise to grant special dispensation to that group of people. Moreover, even if Ministers are minded to refuse new clause 3, I hope that they will accept new clause 4.

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