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Those provisions are wholly compatible with a measured response to public outrage at the perception that the courts have been fettered in their ability to deal with people who commit very serious offences. Some of those people clearly pose a serious risk to other members
The second issue relates to firearms offences. At the risk of repeating myself, I can only express pleasure that the provision on firearms offences that has finally come out of the Home Office seems to be extremely sensible. I am bound to say that, when it was first floated, it looked as though common sense had disappeared, because there were suggestions of mandatory five-year sentences, and no suggestion of exceptions. When the earliest announcements were made, there was no suggestion that the measure would not apply to every type of firearm. Somewhere, however, common sense has prevailed, even if the Prime Minister himself seems to have been suffering from a certain cognitive dysfunction, in that he was unable to realise what was going on. He has repeated on many occasions an entirely contrary story on what this legislation was going to be about. Anyway, I am glad that even the occupant of No. 10 Downing street has finally cottoned on to the fact that a sensible and measured response might not be the one that he has been proclaiming to the public. The provision before us seems to be a sensible one.
Mr. Grieve: I have to say that I think the hon. Gentleman is right. [Interruption.] I hear the Home Secretary say, "In time." Of course, we cannot create something that does not currently exist, but in the later stages of our debate today we might go some way towards achieving that. In the meantime, I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
These measures seem sensible, and I am also pleased that the Home Secretary has provided a mechanism by which they might be suspended for those under 18 if the rate of gun crime were to decrease. At the moment, that would probably be difficult to do because there is a lot of evidence that many under-18s seem to have got into the habit of carrying handguns. That is a serious problem.
Mr. Hogg: I am sorry to keep on nagging my hon. Friend. He welcomes the provision on firearms offences, but does he recognise that the mandatory minimum sentence of five years would apply to the possession of a revolver that happened to be a souvenir from the second world war, and that the only way in which a veteran could escape being sentenced to five years would be by pleading exceptional circumstances? Whether exceptional circumstances applied would be a matter for the courts, so, prima facie, the veteran would get five years.
Mr. Grieve: My right hon. and learned Friend raises an important point. It is one that I was about to come to, so he pre-empts me, but he does so very properly. I have seen the amendment that he has tabled. He clearly has an anxiety, which I fully understand, that although
In a letter written to me by a Minister in the Home Officeit might even have been by the Home Secretary himself; I am afraid I cannot remember nowit was specifically pointed out that the sorts of person whom the Government would expect to be spared from the mandatory sentence would include someone who found a handgun among the personal effects of their late father, the day before the police turned up. I see that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) is already nodding in recognition. Perhaps such a handgun belonged to his father. The point that my right hon. and learned Friend has most pertinently raised is this: should the provision have applied to the hon. Gentleman's father, or should the hon. Gentleman have gone to prison for the period in question because he had held on to the souvenir?
My right hon. and learned Friend raises an important point, and I seek clarification from the Home Secretary as to whether the scope of exceptional circumstances would extend to a person in such a position. There is a clear difference between finding in somebody else's personal effects a revolver that is a leftover from the second world war and not declaring it for several weeks, during which time the police come to visit and make an arrest, and a septuagenarian holding on to a second world war revolver and then being visited by the police. If that septuagenarian, or octogenarian, would be subject to the mandatory minimum sentence, my right hon. and learned Friend is right, but I do not want such a circumstance to occur.
This is where the devil lies in the detail, and I certainly hope that we may hear from the Home Secretaryif not today, then at some later stagehow he sees the provision operating. I have to say that my reading suggests that the exceptional circumstances measure would provide for the example of the father of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, but if I am wrong I shall be exceptionally grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for bringing the matter to the House's attention.
Mr. Hogg: The truth is that it is not for any of us to determine whether the exceptional circumstance applies. We must determine whether the language of the statute obliges the court to impose a five-year sentence. The truth is that the language of the statute obliges the court to do precisely that, unless there are exceptional reasons. How can we say that a person who has chosen to keep a handgun for more than 40 years is an exceptional circumstance?
Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend, and I hope that the Government will look at the issue. I hope also, and intend, that if it remains unsatisfactory, it will be rectified in the other place, and I give him an assurance that we shall participate in seeking to achieve that. One of the problems that we face is that, the measure having been published only in the past few days, it is difficult to work out in detail how it would operate in practice. However, I certainly take the view that there has to be some flexibility for those people
Mr. Allen: Under the proposed structure for examining sentencing guidelines, there is a preliminary body called the Sentencing Advisory Panel, which already exists. That gathering of boffins, officials and academics would take away a proposal on sentencing guidelines, look at it thoroughly, commission research if necessary, and, after many months, produce a report for the Sentencing Guidelines Council. The council would then take several months, or as long as it needed, to issue new and appropriate guidelines.
We should not legislate according to reflex, although we are all desperately anxious about situations such as the one that arose when two young ladies were shot dead in Birmingham. Going through a cool, protracted, double-barrelled period of consideration would produce sentencing guidelines that involved an examination of the very questions that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. It would also have saved my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston from perhaps being arrested when he went to collect his father's belongings.
Mr. Grieve: I shall be careful to avoid abusing parliamentary privilege by joining in as aspersions are cast towards the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. I shall restrain myself wholly in that. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) is rightof course he is. The difficulty here is that we have had only a few months to consider proposals, and I am sure that the Home Office had not even thought about them until the events of Christmas and of January this year.
Mr. Blunkett: I have enjoyed the entertainment, particularly at the expense of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, but we ought to put the record straight. It was very clear indeed that the growth in gun crime and associated violence exercised all Members of the House during the autumn. We said in December that we would take action. That was a response not to the crimes committed on new year's eve but to growing concerns: we published the material, called the round-table talks, and made it absolutely clear in the first week of January that that was the case. I do not want myths to get their boots on around the world again.
Mr. Grieve: I apologise to the Home Secretary. Indeed, I realise that, as there was a great deal of publicity last year surrounding the arrest of a singer who had a firearm in his car. The sentence passed on him, whether it was correct or whether it should have been much greater, was the subject of considerable public debate. I accept that.
It is important that we provide for exceptions. We have said throughout that there has to be a mechanism by which the force of the law can be moderated in cases where it is clear to the court that it is not dealing with a person bent on criminality or using that firearm. Clearly, he may be either innocuous or a little foolish
I say to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham that it is far too early to say, on what is effectively the Bill's Second Reading, whether there are sufficient proper mechanismsI should perhaps not say loopholesby which the court may temper the rigour of the law. They must be there. If they are not, the provision will be rapidly brought into disrepute, and it will not have the intended virtue that is sought by the Home Secretary.
As I said to the Home Secretary, we do not intend to vote against the proposal, but we will certainly give it the most detailed scrutiny in another place and it may be amended. If it is, I hope that he considers that pragmatically and that, if he thinks that there has been an improvement, he accepts those amendments. I do not intend to take up more of the House's time. I am grateful to the Home Secretary for the way in which he presented these matters.