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10.6 pm

Mr. Grieve: This has been an interesting debate and I have tried to listen carefully to the Ministers' arguments. In a way, I am grateful to the Home Secretary for saying at the outset that the Bill was introduced on its merits because it dealt with the practical. I believe that he explained that the only morality in the issue was that of trying to ensure that people were not harmed by handguns.

As we have examined more and more minute applications of the rule to individual instances, it has been interesting to note how woefully deficient the Government have been in coming up with a concrete explanation or reason justifying the outlawing--if I may use that word--of categories of handgun use. Most notably, a strange ambiguity has crept in. Ministers have argued that these are practical considerations, whereas Labour Back Benchers have come up with far more powerful arguments, on a much higher moral plane, saying why handguns must go.

The extremely powerful maiden speech by the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) introduced reasons for handgun legislation, and its specific application to .22 rounds, that have been wholly absent from the reasons that the Home Secretary and the Minister of State have advanced.

The Home Secretary has made a series of repetitions, maintaining that the .22 would introduce loopholes that might lead to risks. It has never been explained to the

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House how the restricted categories that we have discussed would produce those loopholes, when the mere fact that we shall also allow handguns into the country at the time of the Olympic games and Commonwealth games shows that exceptions can be created and tolerated. In that regard, the contribution of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) to tonight's debate was far more philosophically and intellectually coherent than those of Ministers.

Instead, we have heard a whole series of arguments being wheeled out, dealing mainly with emotion--one of which, from the Home Secretary on Second Reading, greatly surprised me. We were to go along with his suggestion, he said, because it was endorsed by the Police Federation. I have spent time as a barrister prosecuting for the police, as a lay visitor to police stations, and as chairman of committees of police community consultative groups, and my admiration for the police is great. But if the Home Secretary is going to spend his time telling us to go along with things because the Police Federation want them, he will be the first Home Secretary gently to preside over leading us inexorably into a police state.

The issue before the House may ultimately be the moral issue for which the hon. Member for Warrington, North argued, but in the meantime I should point out that we live in a pluralist society--an idea to which the Home Secretary, in his civil liberties days, would often have adhered. It is certainly the view to which I adhere. Removing people's rights without good reason or cogent arguments makes for bad law--

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a child's right to life is far more important than any adult's right to use a gun, even for so-called sporting purposes?

Mr. Grieve: If the hon. Gentleman could persuade me of any linkage between the two, I would respect his argument--but I have heard nothing to persuade me of it. Instead, throughout the debate Ministers have obfuscated, trying to conceal the fact that shooters in gun clubs are a law-abiding group indulging in a recreational pursuit. Labour Back Benchers, meanwhile, tell us that for moral reasons guns must go. These are the foundations of bad law, and I am sorry that the Minister of State does not see it that way.

10.11 pm

Mr. Maclean: The House has been privileged over the week between Second and Third Readings to hear a number of excellent maiden speeches. I heartily congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on her fluent and confident speech. It was made, as my hon. Friends have pointed out, without notes--very impressive for a maiden speaker. We look forward to more, valuable contributions from her in due course.

I hope that one day the hon. Lady will develop the splendid accent of her predecessor, whom we all thought of with great affection. The story that comes to mind about him concerns the hapless Conservative candidate from the southern counties who, a few years ago, thought he would try his hand as a candidate in Warrington.

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Unfortunately, he had not done all his homework. When asked by the local Conservative chairman, "What do you know about 'oyle?", he went on to give a wonderful dissertation on the benefits of North sea oil, and wondered afterwards why he was not selected for the seat. If his successor picks up his accent in due course, that will be a bonus.

We approached the Bill with deep scepticism and we are still sceptical about it. We felt that it was unnecessary, unfair and costly. As the Bill has gone through all its stages, our initial attitudes have been confirmed and hardened.

Not only is the Bill unnecessary: it is petty and vindictive. Whenever the state considers limiting the activities of its law-abiding citizens, it must have a compelling justification. The Government have come up with no such justification at any stage of the Bill's progress. They claim that a total ban on handguns would increase public safety. If that were true, we would vote for it--just as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and many other colleagues voted for the 1997 Act. That was the Act which brought about public safety and dealt with the Hamilton-Dunblane evil.

We challenged the Government to come up with evidence or valid research to back up their view that this Bill adds something in terms of public safety to what the 1997 Act achieved. They have not done so and they will not, because they cannot come up with evidence that the Bill is essential for additional public safety, following the draconian provisions in the 1997 Act.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) rose--

Mr. Maclean: No, I want to conclude. I know that the Home Secretary wants to speak and the whole House is waiting. The hon. Gentleman can make his own speech.

Both on Second Reading and in Committee, reasoned proposals to introduce an element of fairness--by allowing our top national competitors to continue to train and compete, or by allowing the disabled to be exempted from the ban--have been dismissed by Ministers, admittedly graciously dismissed by the Home Secretary, but dismissed all the same. The Government have closed their ears to positive suggestions that try to introduce an element of fairness. They are confident that they can deploy their army of Back-Bench Lobby fodder to ram through any proposals.

The Bill is unnecessary. The controls that we recently put in place are rigorous. Indeed, the provisions of the 1997 Act were regarded by many people as excessive when they went through. However, they would still have allowed British sportsmen to represent their country in international .22 target pistol competitions and they would still have allowed controlled and limited use of .22 handguns in clubs that met the highest security criteria.

The hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Mr. Graham), whom I respect immensely for a variety of reasons with which I shall not burden the House, made a wonderful, impassioned speech tonight. All his remarks were relevant to the 1997 Act. That is why we put the 1997 Act through: we did not put medals in front of children's lives. If the Bill were a matter of choice between medals and children's lives, the medals would never come into the equation. Children's lives come first.

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However, we believe that the 1997 Act has ensured that the likes of Hamilton and Dunblane will not happen again. The Bill does not add to the public safety imperative that we enshrined in the 1997 Act. [Interruption.] When the hon. Members for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) spoke on Second Reading or on Monday this week, they exposed the sham of the Labour free vote. It was a free vote in the Lobbies, but a three-line Whip on attendance. As the hon. Member for Stockton, North said, we could all read the semaphore signals by the Whips on the door, so we will take no lessons from the Government on bogus free votes in the House for them.

Regardless of the fact that the 1997 Act has not yet been implemented, the Government are determined to institute a total ban. We acknowledge that. For that reason, we tabled two new clauses in Committee. They were designed to introduce an element of fairness into an otherwise draconian and unjust Bill.

As my right hon. and learned Friend said, a total ban will kill off .22 target pistol shooting as a sport. The Government should not say that it is all right for the disabled--they can move on to other forms of shooting instead. Most of them will not be able to do so. They are able to use pistols; in many cases, they would not be able to use rifles.

We believe that it is still possible to allow our national competitors to continue to train and compete, and to ensure the highest standards of public safety. Indeed, the Home Secretary believes that it is possible to allow people to shoot pistols in this country and he believes that in future they will be able to do so safely and securely. He told the House that he will use his powers under section 5 to allow pistol shooting in this country. The only trouble is that British sportsmen will not be doing it, unless they go abroad for a few years to keep up the practice. Then they can come back and benefit from the powers that the Secretary of State will use to allow such competitions in the Commonwealth games.

All that we have suggested in the new clauses is allowing the Home Secretary to use the same powers to permit British sportsmen, in the same tightly controlled conditions, to have the same rights to shoot pistols as he will allow those foreign competitors, but the Government rule that out. There was no logic behind their argument.

The Government have refused to contemplate the reasonable new clauses that we tabled. That is another reason why we will vote against the Third Reading of the Bill tonight.

The Government have been hazy about compensation. Where will they find the £30 million-plus? My right hon. and learned Friend asked whether it would come out of the CCTV camera scheme. I have a deep suspicion that it will. Will the Government find that sum in the police budget or will it come from some other source? If the Home Secretary is not prepared to cut any other Home Office budget, he will have to go cap in hand to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which will add another £30 million to the Government's £12 billion expenditure black hole.

The Government have also dodged the question of compensating gun clubs as a result of the total ban on handguns. The total ban will force some clubs to close. The vast majority of gun clubs are non-profit making and pay for facilities with members' subscriptions.

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Club trustees will face enormous liabilities when those clubs are forced to close. As my right hon. and learned Friend pointed out, we opted against compensating gun clubs during the passage of the 1997 legislation because clubs could remain open for shooters with lower-calibre pistols. Although it would be harder for them, the clubs could still survive.

The blanket ban imposed by the Bill will force gun clubs to close immediately--they cannot do anything else. Many clubs that cater to rifle and pistol shooting could follow suit. The Government's refusal to revisit the compensation issue is a further sign that they are hell bent on pushing ahead with a fundamentally unfair and harsh measure. That is why we oppose it. If this is the way in which Labour intends to govern, countless lawful groups and legitimate minorities will be the new victims of new Labour.

People's rights will be protected if they are flavour of the month in the opinion polls or the focus groups, but I send a warning to the country tonight: unless people fit the image created by our politically correct masters of new Labour, they will not have rights in future. It will not matter if their cause is just, because new Labour is not interested in that. Government policy is now driven by appealing to the gallery. We will oppose the Bill not just because it is unnecessary and unjust, but because it is the first in a potentially long list of measures on which the Government will not listen to reasonable arguments and will be determined to get their way, even when there is not the slightest justification for them.

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