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9.18 pm

Mr. Michael: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

My party's manifesto made a clear commitment to a free vote on a total ban on handguns. We have delivered on that commitment, and a free vote on Second Reading produced a resounding majority of 203 in favour of an extension to the ban. That is a crystal clear message from the House. We want the ban on small-calibre pistols to be introduced well before the end of the year and I hope that that will prove possible.

No point of principle or of detail on this short Bill has not been given a full airing on Second Reading and in subsequent debates on amendments and new clauses. We have made the case, we have won the argument and there can be no doubt of our intensions. We have dealt with the unfinished business that remained after the previous Government failed to allow a free vote on a complete ban on handguns. The Bill should now go to the other place for a swift passage into law. I believe that that is not only the will of the vast majority of hon. Members, but it has

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the public's support as shown in the general election and through expressions of public opinion before and since. I commend the Bill to the House.

9.20 pm

Mr. Howard: We made our attitude to the Bill clear on Second Reading, and nothing that the Government said then or in Committee has led us to revise it. The Bill is a petty and vindictive measure, and its proposals are unnecessary, unfair and expensive.

As I said on 11 June, we believe that the Government must always present a clear justification whenever they propose to intervene in the otherwise lawful habits of law-abiding citizens. The principle of individual liberties should dictate that Governments should always take into account the views of minorities and minority interests. As the Bill has gone through its stages in the House, the Government have done neither. Indeed, Ministers have applied a steamroller approach to any reasoned arguments or suggestions put by right hon. and hon. Members.

The case put by my right hon. and hon. Friends and others that provision should be made to enable Olympic and Commonwealth competitors to compete has gone unanswered. The case put by my right hon. and hon. Friends and others that due consideration should be given to disabled shooters has gone unanswered. The Government's only response has been that the Bill is in the interests of public safety, but they have not produced any conclusive evidence to justify that view.

The proposal to ban the controlled and limited use of .22 target pistols is unnecessary. The controls that we put in place earlier this year and which have yet to be implemented would have ensured that the public were protected. They would allow not unrestricted use of .22 calibre pistols but only limited use in clubs that police were satisfied met the highest security criteria. The owners of those weapons would even be prohibited from taking them out of a club. The police would have to be alerted as a matter of routine whenever a .22 pistol was removed from a club, be it for competition or repair.

The Government want to go further. They argue that a total ban is a logical extension of the 1997 Act. The Minister of State said that the difference is not one of principle. But the fact is that the principle and motivation for a total ban are different from our proposals. Our guiding principle was to protect the public. We felt that we could do that without obliterating a long-established sport invented by Britain, enjoyed by many and at which we do well. The Government do not share that principle. That is why the Bill is unfair.

The 1997 Act would have allowed British citizens to continue to represent their country on the international stage in .22 target pistol events recognised by the Olympic committee. Over the past 10 years, Britain has won 23 medals in Commonwealth .22 competitions. The Bill will make us virtually unique, as our citizens will no longer be able to take part in international competitions.

The 1997 Act would also have allowed disabled people to continue to participate in a sport which they not only enjoy, but which the British Paraplegic Shooting Association has said is useful as

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    It believes that it provides disabled people

    "with a better quality of life and respect for themselves as disabled people in an able-bodied world."

We tried to introduce an element of fairness into the Bill in new clauses 3 and 4. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) explained, the new clauses would have allowed national competition shooters recognised by the national bodies that select for international competitions to continue to train at centres designated by the Home Secretary. Our proposal for designated centres would have enabled Britain to continue to compete in a major Olympic sport.

We also proposed, in new clause 4, that physically disabled shooters be exempt from the total ban and be allowed to continue their sport at centres designated by the Home Secretary, and, indeed, to continue to represent their country at international competitions. The Government's decision to oppose the new clause will be greeted with much sadness by law-abiding disabled shooters who pose no threat to the public.

The Bill is also expensive. I said on Second Reading that Opposition Members would not begrudge the money if the consequences would really lead to increased protection for the public and if the Government could provide a clear justification for a total ban on handguns. They have not even begun to do so. They have calculated that the cost of compensating the owners of .22 handguns for the loss of their weapons and accessories would run to more than £30 million. Ministers have refused to tell us where the Government intend to find the money. Which Home Office budget will suffer? Will spending on closed circuit television or the police be sacrificed to compensate law-abiding owners of low-calibre handguns? Moreover, as we have heard today, the Government's estimates do not tell the whole story. The Bill goes much further than the 1997 Act: as has already been acknowledged, it would kill off pistol shooting.

During the passage of the Bill that became the 1997 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. Under this Bill, that option would be denied to them, and many gun clubs would be made unviable. Associations that are--in the main--non profit-making would have to close and their owners or trustees could be faced with heavy liabilities.

I give the example of the 10th battalion of the Suffolk Home Guard rifle and pistol club, founded when the Government stood the home guard down but instructed it to establish ranges to which the public were to be admitted. The battalion did so, on rented land. It built a clubhouse and raised money by its own efforts. In February 1996, just a few weeks before the tragedy of Dunblane, it bought the land. It managed that with the help of money from the Sports Council, the local district council and the National Rifle Association. The land is owned subject to covenant, so it can be used only as a shooting range. A £15,900 grant from the Sports Council is subject to the condition that the club should continue to function for 10 years. Then there is the matter of a loan of £6,000. None of that is under the control of the trustees of the club, yet each of the four trustees will be held personally liable for a quarter of any debts on the winding up of the club.

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The Opposition believe that, given the extent of the Bill and its departure from the principles of the 1997 Act, the issue of compensation should be revisited. Naturally, we hope that as many clubs as possible will be able to survive, but clubs that are forced to close as a result of the circumstances created by the total ban on handguns should be compensated.

The Government have completely failed to justify the need for the Bill, which clearly interferes with the liberty of thousands of law-abiding individuals. In their attempts to give reasons for the Bill, Ministers have rarely ventured beyond soundbites. The Bill is an example of the Government's weakness for gesture politics. It is unnecessary and unfair, and that is why we will oppose it.

9.28 pm

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech in this important debate.

It is a tradition of the House that maiden speeches should be fairly uncontroversial, and I respect that tradition, although I am not sure that it is possible to abide by it completely in a debate such as this. Not only is the tradition of argument and debate in the House honourable in itself, but I follow a long line of Warrington Members who were certainly not afraid to speak their minds.

The House will know that I have the honour of succeeding Doug Hoyle. Doug was an excellent Member of Parliament, first for Warrington and then for the new seat of Warrington, North. He was extremely active, extremely able and very well liked by his constituents, to whom he was universally known by his first name long before such things became fashionable at Cabinet level. He was also a great supporter of Warrington rugby league football club and ended his career with the supporters singing "There is only one Dougie Hoyle" around the ground.

Doug Hoyle was robust in the defence of his constituency. In his first speech in the House as the Member for Warrington, North, he was involved in what I think in these days of uncontroversial politics would be described as an interesting exchange of views with the then Secretary of State for Employment, now Lord Tebbit. No doubt they will continue the conversation elsewhere.

As I have said, Doug Hoyle followed a long Warrington tradition. I have looked at the maiden speeches of my predecessors and they make it clear that they certainly did not shy away from saying what they thought. My predecessors included Tom Williams and, of course, Edith Summerskill who was the first woman to represent a Warrington constituency and whom no one could describe as a shrinking violet.

To read those speeches is to realise how much has changed--and how little. The language may be different, but the preoccupations of my predecessors are shared by many of us today. They spoke of a need for better housing, for more national health service beds and, in one case, even of the need to preserve water supplies. Perhaps that is a salutary reminder to us all and especially to my hon. Friends of how much work still needs to be done. What comes through most of all from those speeches is a burning hatred of injustice and a desire to represent the constituency well. It is a privilege to follow in their footsteps.

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I confess that I speak with some relief because for my first few weeks in the House I became uncertain about whether I would ever be able to speak in the House at all. I did not receive copies of the Labour whip and I began to wonder what dreadful breach of the disciplinary code I had managed to commit before I got here. I carefully scrutinised my election address and reviewed my whole campaign, and I can honestly say, unlike some hon. Members, that the word "socialism" did not get past my agent's eagle eye.

After consulting the Millbank computer, I think that it was probably a mistake to allow in my office a poster that stated, "Join dangly earrings for Labour" after a certain dress code appeared in The Guardian. My most heinous offence was probably committed on a very wet day in Warrington when my campaign team, having been soaked to the skin four times, ended the evening completely drenched and with their umbrellas turned inside out, walking along a Warrington street and singing, "Always look on the bright side of life." Therefore, I plead guilty to enjoying the election campaign. I can only say in mitigation that what seems to outsiders to be frivolity is to Warringtonians a demonstration of resistance.

In my constituency, people have demonstrated time and again their ability to bounce back and even to recover from tragedy. The people of Warrington are among the friendliest, most welcoming people that one could encounter. We brew excellent beer at Burtonwood, and people take part in a wide range of charitable and leisure pursuits, which include the little-known feat of recently breaking the world line dancing record.

Although many of our traditional industries have disappeared, people have fought back to attract new jobs based on the excellent skills of our work force, our superb industrial sites and our communications facilities, which are second to none. Most of all, when Warrington was visited by the appalling tragedy of the Warrington bombing its people responded not with hatred and bitterness but with a movement to promote peace and reconciliation. There is no better measure of the character of my constituents than that. They are people whom any hon. Member would be proud to represent.

Pride in one's constituency is not enough. The people of Warrington, North sent me here not just to say nice things about them, pleasurable though that may be, but to make changes. Time and again during the election campaign, people said to me that one of the things that most worried them was the gun culture and the private ownership of handguns. I appreciate the points that have been made by hon. Members who say that, in passing the Bill, we are restricting the rights of many law-abiding gun owners and are interfering with their liberty to practise their sport. Of course we are, but we restrict people's individual liberties on many occasions when we believe that it is for the greater public good. We do not allow people to drive on whichever side of the road they like or to build wherever they like. How much more important, then, is it to consider that possibility when we deal with guns?

I am convinced by the arguments, particularly that relating to .22 pistols, because those weapons are small, lethal and deadly. They are the weapons that killed Robert Kennedy and Yitzhak Rabin. I am convinced also because no system of regulation and control, however draconian, can ever be 100 per cent. foolproof and if we allow these weapons to remain in private hands, it will be only a

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matter of time before somehow, somewhere they fall into the wrong hands. As has been said many times in the House, but it bears repeating, the massacres at Hungerford and at Dunblane were carried out with legally held weapons. I am convinced, too, by the correlation shown in the Home Office statistics between the legal ownership of handguns and the number of firearm homicides. That has led me to believe sincerely that the more of these weapons we take out of circulation, the better it will be.

I said earlier that I represent a constituency which knows about senseless and random violence. It is because of that that we sympathise with the people who have suffered elsewhere from our failure to control firearms. The time has come to take another step. The onus is on the people who would keep these weapons to make their case. I do not believe that I have heard that case made convincingly tonight because the right to practise a sport always has to come second to the right to protect life. I say that sincerely not just as an hon. Member, but as the mother of a young child, and I believe that I speak for many more mothers of young children. My son was eight years old this week. The best present that we could give him and his generation is to start to control the gun culture in which they are growing up. The Bill is a step on the road to that and I commend it to the House.

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