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The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): First, I say to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and to other right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken this evening that I take this matter very seriously indeed. It may be that we have come to different conclusions--I shall try to explain why that may be inevitable in this case--but I do not regard what we are doing here as a light matter. On Second Reading, I said that the House has

I have repeated that statement, because it is applicable to today's debate and will be applicable to future debates. It is a principle to which I and the Government of which I am a member seek to work whenever we address the difficult questions of balancing the personal liberty of law-abiding people against wider issues of public safety.

My second preliminary remark is in answer to the intervention by the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) about the European convention on human rights, which is a matter that we have considered both in opposition and in government. It was raised initially--and somewhat ironically--by the former hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, Nicholas Budgen, who could not normally get the word "European" out of his mouth without spitting about it. He had worked out that the European convention on human rights had a different--and in his view far more honourable--provenance than the treaty of Rome. It was, after all, a convention which had been developed by distinguished British lawyers, including the distinguished British lawyer who went on to become a Conservative Lord Chancellor. Mr. Budgen kept asking me during the course of the last Parliament whether shooters would be able to exercise their rights under the convention. The best advice that I have received is that neither the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 nor the Bill in any way conflicts with individuals' rights under the convention, but it is open to any British citizen to petition the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Later this year, we shall introduce a Bill to incorporate the European convention

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into British law and I look forward to receiving support for that measure, not least from those who have spoken today about their rights under that convention.

I have thought carefully about this matter and I shall explain why I am not persuaded to grant the exception that is asked for. While listening to the arguments, I was struck by the fact that the main argument in favour of the exception--which would extend a right to carry on practising to the existing national squad and the 13 regional squads mentioned by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean)--was based on another exception that I have already granted. That is my difficulty. I have listened carefully to the arguments and it is for that reason that I announced on Second Reading that we would be ready to use the section 5 powers under the Firearms Act 1968 to ensure that the shooting competitions at the Commonwealth games could go ahead. I believe that we were right to do so, even though it creates a patent anomaly, as was said on Second Reading. It is an anomaly, but we should be able to arrive at conditions which assure public safety and ensure that those games can go ahead.

That exception having been made, it is now suggested that I must make another exception--that British shooters should be allowed to train before that competition so that they can compete. The problem with new clause 3 is that it does not properly define which members would be members of national squads.

The competition will be in five years' time. If there were to be a real prospect of British shooters being able to participate in that competition, the next argument would be, logically, that we should ensure that there is a through-put of people who would be available in five years' time to compete. The next question would be why we are excluding some people and not others. That is one reason why I am not persuaded of the case for the new clause.

8.45 pm

Given the shooting competitions that will take place at the Commonwealth games and under the aegis of the Olympic games and the Paralympic games, it is striking--and I think not properly appreciated by hon. Members or the public--that, even after the Bill is passed, British residents will be able to train and compete in the vast majority of Commonwealth games and Olympic shooting disciplines.

To listen to the debate and the remarks of, for example, the right hon. Member for Penrith and the Border, one might be forgiven for believing that, in his words, the sport "will be destroyed." Yes, the sport of target shooting with pistols will end as a result of the Bill's passage. If that is what the right hon. Gentleman meant, he is right, but the implication of some of the less precise remarks that have been made is that shooting as a sport will be destroyed by the Bill. It will not.

Quite a lot of British people, and many Labour Members, are worried about public safety. The Bill and the 1997 Act will have the effect of removing 200,000 handguns from circulation, but that will leave at least another 200,000 rifles and high-powered air weapons. Some of my right hon. and hon. Friends may say that that means that there remains a public safety issue.

In any case, those 200,000 rifles and high-powered air weapons will exist and most of them are held not to carry out any occupational function, such as in agriculture,

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but for sporting purposes. I well understand that some weapons are held for occupational reasons, but most are held for sporting purposes. In addition, there are certificates relating to 1.3 million shotguns. So although the Bill will eliminate the holding of pistols in general civilian use, it will not eliminate firearms.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman is really addressing the argument, but it must be apparent to--or at least dawning on--him that the argument is a question not of an anomaly, but of a judgment. It is a question of deciding where to draw the line and what is necessary for the protection of public safety.

We are discussing a very small number of pistols. We had a debate about single-shot pistols, which I invite the right hon. Gentleman to keep in mind, because one appreciates that a multi-shot pistol is more dangerous, but we are trying to find a way of keeping open a sport practised by legitimate sportsmen under highly controlled conditions. He is making the case against his existing judgment, by pointing out that there are 200,000 rifles and 1.3 million shotguns, which are as lethal as--probably rather more lethal than--these pistols, quite apart from the ease of getting them from France and the existence of illegal ones. I am fascinated to know how the right hon. Gentleman convinces himself.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that it comes down to a judgment of where to draw the line. A rifle may be more powerful than a pistol. Lord Cullen and the former Government were of the view that a pistol is more dangerous because it is more easily concealed; and a multi-shot pistol can be fired more rapidly than the rifles which, these days, are lawfully certified. To those who say that we have some sort of ideological fixation against the use of firearms, I say: look at the facts. There will still be 1.5 million lawfully licensed firearms in this country after the passage of the Bill. Some of my hon. Friends might want to criticise me for allowing that to continue, but it hardly argues for a fixation on our part.

I want to set out the facts about the number of competitions in which British residents will still be able to compete even after the passage of the Bill. There are 15 shooting competitions in the Olympics. British participation will be adversely affected by the Bill in respect of just three of them. British sportsmen and women will still be able to compete in 12 competitions, involving air rifles and pistols, ordinary rifles and shotguns for clay pigeon shooting.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border referred to the fact that shooting was one of the original disciplines in the Olympics, and he was right about that. But it is also interesting to note that of all the Olympic sports, shooting is the only one for which the number of events that have been discontinued greatly outnumbers the ones currently held. The history of these events is a history of changing perceptions of public safety.

There was a time when there was a competition in the Olympics with duelling pistols. I suspect that as duelling went out of fashion so it was felt by the organisers of the Olympics that such a competition might offend some more sensitive members of the public. There was also a

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competition for miniature rifles--highly dangerous weapons. I know that animal rights are much on the minds of my hon. Friends at the moment. There used to be a competition of live pigeon shooting. That, too, has been abandoned by the Olympics. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border may have some experience of trying to shoot live pigeons; he suggests that trying to obtain a score at all may have been problematic.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): One of the themes of this interesting debate has been that it is not about the moral high ground: it is about the practical consequences for public safety. Yet here is the right hon. Gentleman lecturing the Committee--I fully understand his point--on the very moral issues which we have been told time and again are not the motivating force behind the legislation. Is there not some confusion here?

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