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9.50 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I welcome the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), who has been elected to the House with a hard act to follow, because Doug Hoyle was a very effective and popular hon. Member. He was also the winner of a celebrated by-election, in which Lord Jenkins had difficulties not only of pronunciation but with Doug Hoyle. She obviously follows very much in the Doug Hoyle tradition.

The hon. Lady also has courage, because she told a joke about the Millbank computer. She was fortunate that the Minister without Portfolio had left the Chamber by that time. None the less, I applaud her courage in telling such a joke. More to the point, she spoke very effectively and with great knowledge and commitment to her constituency. She also spoke without notes. In our own maiden speeches, many hon. Members probably relied on the notes that we had copiously copied down. She had the poise and confidence not to do so. It was a very effective speech, and I look forward to hearing many more speeches by her.

The shadow Home Secretary described the Bill as petty and vindictive, and he said that it had been steamrollered through the House. He was wrong on all counts. The Bill is not petty, because it deals with a subject of great and substantial importance. It is also not vindictive, and I do not think that anyone could argue that it has been proposed in a vindictive manner. The attitude of Ministers has been one of more in sorrow than in anger, and one of deep responsibility and regret that such action must be taken. They have shown public responsibility in the manner in which the Bill was introduced.

As for steamrollering the Bill through the House, the shadow Home Secretary seems to be suffering from a short memory as well as a deficiency of votes in the Tory leadership contest. He was well known for steamrollering

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legislation, particularly earlier in the year, when he imposed a three-line Whip on the previous Government's Bill dealing with the very same issue and refused to allow a free vote--a vote of conscience--on a total ban on handguns. He now seems to be in a particularly poor position to complain about anyone else steamrollering.

As hon. Members have said, the time allowed for debate has been adequate. I do not think that any hon. Member has felt constrained in their remarks, and the shadow Home Secretary's charge is unfair. Given that I do not have many complimentary remarks to make about the Government's entire range of legislation, I should say that I very much welcome their move to fulfil an election commitment that was shared both by the new Labour party and by the Scottish National party.

The Bill is much more logical and complete than the earlier legislation proposed by the Conservative Administration. The loophole, illogicality and irrationality of allowing .22 weapons to continue to be used, albeit in gun clubs, but banning every other type of handgun was never satisfactorily dealt with. As hon. Members have said, on many occasions .22 weapons have proved themselves as dangerous and deadly as handguns of a higher calibre. That was the type of weapon used to kill Bobby Kennedy and in the attempt on the life of President Reagan. In the United States, such weapons are often referred to as "Saturday night specials".

The Cullen report stated:

Lord Cullen could not see the case for separating the .22 from higher-calibre weapons; nor has anyone effectively made that case throughout the controversy surrounding the banning of handguns. It was on that illogicality that the previous legislation failed the test and failed the challenge of Dunblane and, indeed, of Hungerford.

I remind the House of the gun lobby's own judgment on the weaknesses of the storage proposal in the previous legislation. In its evidence to Lord Cullen, the British Shooting Sports Council said:

The BSSC was arguing against club storage at that stage. It felt that that was what it had to resist because it believed that Cullen would move to club storage. However, the logic of the argument does not depend on the circumstances in which it is being argued, and the argument against building caches of guns in gun clubs is the same, regardless of the legislation before us. That is the reason why we should move forward and should ask the many decent, law-abiding gun owners to sacrifice one part of their leisure time activities for the greater good of society as a whole.

We have heard a great deal about the Commonwealth and Olympic games. I know that the Home Secretary has in all good faith said that those games can still take place

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in the United Kingdom, but I would rather see deployed the argument that it is perhaps time--or past time--that we should be telling the Olympic Games Committee and the Commonwealth Games Federation that handgun competitions do not have a place in an international athletic and sporting competition, that many tens of millions of children across the world look to these competitions and their participants, and that such competitions perhaps reinforce the gun culture about which many of complain so often. Perhaps the argument against such events taking place at the Commonwealth and Olympic games should now be articulated--we should move on.

I will be supporting the Bill, as will the Scottish National party. I wish it well in the remainder of its proceedings in another place. It would be incredible if it were ambushed and bushwhacked there. That would be a rank defiance of the clearly expressed public opinion. To use a phrase from another debate, it is the "settled will" of the people that effective action should be taken against handguns. A popular decision has been taken to move against the gun culture. While neither this nor the previous legislation can be said to render impossible another outrage like Hungerford or Dunblane, I think that the Bill reduces the chances of another outrage and represents a move in favour of public safety. For that reason, the Bill should certainly be supported.

The Bill deserves the support of all parties. It might not get it, but I am sure that it will receive a Third Reading with a substantial majority. I hope that it proceeds quickly onto the statute book.

9.57 pm

Mr. Colvin: I join those hon. Members who have congratulated the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on her maiden speech which she made with great confidence and fluency and, as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) said, without notes. That is always impressive, and I look forward to hearing many more contributions from her in due course.

I also strongly endorse what the hon. Lady said about her predecessor, Mr. Doug Hoyle. On my arrival in this place, I had been told that, as a new Member, the first thing that I should do was find myself a pair. I approached three hon. Members who to me looked and sounded like Labour Members, only to discover that they were Tories. I then tried two more people who turned out to be members of the press lobby. It was only at the sixth attempt that I discovered Mr. Hoyle. On looking him up in the good book which contains hon. Members' curricula vitae, I discovered that he was the president of the trade union to which I then belonged and which was known as the Association of Secretarial, Technical and Managerial Staffs. It was a vain attempt to get the president of my union to pair with a lowly Member of Parliament, because he was already paired with someone else. I nevertheless endorse the hon. Lady's remarks about Doug, who is a great loss to the House. We always enjoyed his company and listened attentively to anything he had to say.

When the Minister of State in moving Third Reading said that the Government have won the argument and the vote, he was half right. The Government have certainly won the vote, but they have again lost the argument. There were many sensible points advanced by opponents of the Bill that should have been more carefully considered.

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I would endorse what the-- It being Ten o'clock, further consideration of the Bill stood adjourned.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),

Question agreed to. Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Mr. Colvin: As I was saying, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan drew attention to the remarks of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) about the Government steamrollering this Bill through. I agree entirely with my right hon. and learned Friend, but he is the last person who should accuse the Government of steamrollering a Bill, because when sitting on the Government Benches during the passage of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, he was equally guilty of steamrollering through his measure. At that time, he, too, was opposed with similar vigour by some of us who knew something about shooting.

I fully understand the passion with which the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Mr. Graham) made his speech and the sentiments he expressed. Those feelings were shared by a great many people following the tragedy of Dunblane, which is entirely understandable. The Snowdrop campaign, which reinforced that feeling and did so much to galvanise public opinion, was certainly responsible for the way in which the public reacted to the issue of handguns.

However, the initial hostility to handguns was then tempered by the common sense of Lord Cullen's report into the tragedy. It was significant that after the report had been made public, the press had commented on it and there had been debate in both Houses of Parliament about firearms legislation, some of the opinion polls and press comments started to be tempered by a modicum of common sense. For example, in October 1996, a poll in The Sunday Times, while supporting the proposals in what became the 1997 Act, showed only 54 per cent. in favour of a complete ban on all handguns. By December 1996, polls conducted in response to remarks by the Duke of Edinburgh showed that a majority of the public felt that a complete ban was an overreaction which unfairly penalised law-abiding citizens. Three telephone polls published at that time showed that between 68 and 75 per cent. of people were against a complete ban. By February this year, even in Scotland, where the tragedy took place, Market Research Scotland found that 39 per cent. of Scots believed that responsible gun users were being treated unfairly because of the action of one man. We, too, must temper our passionate feelings about Dunblane with an element of common sense.

The Home Secretary has said clearly that, although he will use his section 5 powers to enable the Commonwealth games to go ahead in Manchester, one exception is enough. However, I would point out that there are already other exceptions. Athletics clubs use .32 and .38 calibre guns for starting races. Vets use such guns, as do slaughterhouses.

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It was not unreasonable, therefore, to expect special exception to be made for single-shot .22 guns to be used for competition purposes. They cannot be concealed on a person, as .22s were concealed in the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy.

I believe that the House was especially interested to hear the remarks of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) about dismantling firearms so that they may be kept in the home, avoiding the imposition of an enormous burden of financial investment on gun club security. If and when the Bill reaches the other place, the whole issue of dismantling .22 calibre weapons should be considered once more.

If the Government want suggestions as to amendments that they might introduce in the other place, I suggest that they consider including in the Bill a clause requiring that, after three years, a review be held of its provisions, including a review of the impact that they might have had on international competition shooting.

The other great injustice of the Bill, on which much has been said, is the issue of compensation. I very much hope that the Home Secretary will reconsider that matter, because, although there are provisions in the Bill for compensating people for loss of their handguns and loss of equipment, the clubs, many of which are heavily in debt as a result of the investment that they have made, and the people who have lost their busines, should be compensated as well.

There are plenty of precedents in this country for such compensation, but the Home Secretary should also consider the precedent of the Australian experience--which teaches us that, although draconian measures may be necessary, people should not be deprived of their livelihood, investment, money and jobs as a result. The Government should seriously reconsider that before proceeding with the Bill.

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