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23 Jun 2010 : Column 107WH—continued

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Before I call the next speaker, I point out for the benefit of new Members that if they have not already made their maiden speech, they may speak here, but they then forgo their right to a traditional maiden speech in the Chamber. I am sorry,
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but that is the rule, and I thought that I ought to point it out. At least hon. Members are now aware of that and can keep it in mind.

2.48 pm

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed). All of us who represent rural communities-I represent one on the west coast of Wales-can only imagine how dreadful an experience the event that we are discussing must have been. Everyone in the House and elsewhere will be reflecting on the things that the hon. Gentleman put so eloquently, and on the measured response that he and other professionals in his area have so diligently delivered for the rest of us. I should declare a bit of an interest, in that before coming into the House I represented an organisation that had rural communities at its heart. I have been lucky enough to travel to many isolated areas, including the hon. Gentleman's.

It is sometimes quite difficult to articulate to the wider public exactly what a rural community is-what its strengths are and why we are so passionate about it. It is also sometimes difficult to articulate what a blow an event such as this can be. Of course, it would be a blow to any community, but purely because of where I have worked and where I live, I feel that I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. For that, I am extremely grateful.

The hon. Gentleman made his strongest point when he said that we should proceed from here on the basis of the facts. In the past, there have been occasions when the instant reaction to a dreadful event has been a little too knee-jerk, political and shy of the facts. That has meant that the problem has not been dealt with and that people who should not have been caught up in the aftermath have been punished or penalised. The hon. Gentleman's approach to this matter has been absolutely right, and has been generally endorsed across the House.

John Woodcock: I absolutely endorse the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman and echo his call for our response to be fact-driven, but may I ask him whether he has any examples of knee-jerk and political responses to tragedies and of when the right outcome has not followed on from events?

Simon Hart: Yes, I have. Responses such as the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and legislation passed by a Conservative Government in relation to handguns did not achieve the objectives that this place and the public wanted, which is why there has been an ongoing debate about their effectiveness. There are also plenty of examples of people who have been adversely affected by the passing of that legislation. People at whom the legislation was aimed have hardly been touched at all, which is why a private Member's Bill on dangerous dogs is starting its process in the House of Lords as we speak. There are probably more examples, but those are two with which I am familiar.

I want to cover just one area of the four that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Due to my previous interest in countryside activities, I should like to focus on the shooting community. I must be very careful about that because I do not want to underplay the seriousness of the situation or give any impression that those who
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shoot, either recreationally or as part of their daily lives, are not sympathetic to the points that the hon. Gentleman made. Moreover, those who shoot are not unrealistic about the fact that many things will need to be reconsidered in the near rather than the distant future by this House and the other place. There is a real awareness that these are important issues, and nobody I know who possesses a shotgun or firearm certificate-professional or otherwise-is in any doubt about the need to get right to the heart of the problem.

Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is in no one's interest to have a knee-jerk response? He is talking about the shooting fraternity, but it is not in the interests of the community of west Cumbria, or anywhere else, to have a knee-jerk reaction. What we need, and what my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) was asking for, is a thorough inquiry into the matter. I repeat: no one-but no one-wants a knee-jerk reaction.

Simon Hart: I absolutely agree. We cannot proceed without the facts. We cannot proceed sensibly until we have had the results of the inquiry by the Association of Chief Police Officers and of other investigations that may be associated with, or just on the fringes of, this particular incident. Yes, of course I endorse what the hon. Gentleman has said.

There is increasing evidence that, in many areas, gun crime is coming down while weapon ownership is going up, and interesting statistics on Scotland have recently been published on that score. Fewer than 0.5% of crimes involving weapons that have resulted in death or injury have involved licensed weapons-shotguns, in particular. As for the safety of the activity across the EU, target-shooting activities are among the safest for members of the public to take part in. If there is a lesson to be drawn from that, it is that any changes in legislation should be about the people who possess and use weapons rather than the weapons themselves. I mentioned the error that the Conservative Government made in relation to handguns. In that instance, they focused too much on the weapon, and not enough on the people who were ultimately going to be using it.

Moreover, there is not much evidence to suggest that shortening the certificate period for weapon ownership would have made much difference in these or other circumstances. Likewise, it is uncertain whether any evidence supports the theory that it is acceptable for people to keep no more than a certain number of guns.

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's comments about the media. The distinction in approach between the national and regional media resonates with rural communities. The idea that people would have to show a good reason for owning a weapon would be unlikely to make much difference, although I am not talking about this specific incident.

Lastly, let me turn to the thorny issue of mental health checks for people who wish to acquire and use weapons. The shooting community is particularly conscious of the matter and is inclined to investigate it further. Those checks have to find a way of safely predicting dangerousness, and that will be a very complicated medical judgment. GPs, who could be the final arbiters in applications, might be put in a very tricky position as far as potential liability is concerned if it emerged that
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someone they certified as safe to own and use a weapon subsequently turned out not to be. There may also be GPs who have a fundamental dislike of weapon ownership and shooting-related activities; that might put them and the applicant in a difficult position.

From the perspective of both a rural community and an urban community that has access to and enjoys weapons for whatever purpose, there is a real willingness to engage in the debate that has emerged from this tragic event. I do not think that anybody is under any illusion about the changes, but what I hope we can do is strike a proper balance between the safety of the public and proportionality as far as our freedom to own and use weapons is concerned. If we can achieve that balance as a consequence of the hon. Gentleman's efforts, we will have made sensible progress.

2.57 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to be in a debate under your chairmanship, Mr Benton; I think that this is the first such occasion for me. I am pleased to be following the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart). One of the great values of this House is that Members come from so many different backgrounds. They are able to give the House their experience and expertise in areas of policy of which some of us have absolutely no experience. I represent an urban constituency, which does not have anything like the open space and rural background of the constituencies of many hon. Members here this afternoon.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) for the way in which he has conducted himself as Member of Parliament for the area where the event that we are discussing took place. It must have been a 24/7 experience, the like of which none of us would ever want to be involved in. Of course, we are always there to represent our constituents every moment we are in the House, but what he had to go through was exceptional. He conducted himself with enormous dignity, and he is a credit to his constituency and to this House.

Tony Cunningham: I just want to endorse what my right hon. Friend has said about my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland. However, there is one word that he did not use that I should like to add-it is "leadership". That is what communities would always want to see in their MP in such difficult circumstances. Throughout this entire tragedy, my hon. Friend has shown real leadership and he is to be commended for that.

Keith Vaz: Indeed; my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say so. As we are in the business of acknowledging hon. Members, I should say that all the other Members with Cumbrian constituencies who are here today also played their parts in responding to this tragedy-the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and my hon. Friends the Members for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) and for Workington (Tony Cunningham). Those constituencies were just names to me until I went to Whitehaven on Monday. As I went down the motorway, I saw all those constituency names; I am sorry that I did not have a chance to notify the Members that I was driving past, as is the convention, but I tried my very best.

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I will speak very briefly as I know that other hon. Members who represent Cumbria wish to be involved in the debate. I was in Whitehaven in Copeland on Monday, at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland, as I had expressed the view that it was important that we not only looked at the overall area of policy that is paramount in this particular case, but recognised, following statements made by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, that it was important that Parliament itself should look at the events that had occurred in this tragic set of circumstances.

Of course, those of us who live outside Cumbria send our condolences to the families of those who have died; it must be an awful experience for those families. On Monday, I met the vicar of Egremont and he told me about the funerals that he had conducted and the fact that it is a very close-knit community-everyone knows everyone else. The tragedy is taken very personally.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland are absolutely right: the reaction of politicians, including the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, was spot on. There was no rush to judgment. There was a careful and measured approach, as was demonstrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland here in Westminster Hall today. That approach was also reflected in the statement of the Prime Minister when he went to Cumbria and by the Home Secretary in her statement to the House, which she made very soon after this tragedy.

It was right to say that we have to wait and see. There must not be a rush to judgment. Let us look at the facts, see exactly what happened and consider, in a careful and measured way, how to proceed. I think that that is what will happen in this particular case.

Nevertheless, I feel that it is important that there should be an urgency about getting to the facts. My hon. Friend and I had a meeting with the deputy chief constable of Cumbria, Stuart Hyde, who talked about a series of inquiries that were taking place. Clearly, the police do not want to leave things in a position where people have any further questions to ask, so there are a series of inquiries. There is the inquiry into the issuing of the gun licence, the inquiry into the circumstances of the day itself and another internal inquiry that the police are conducting. Those inquiries are all very important and very relevant.

At the end of the day, however, judging from the limited time that I spent in Cumbria, the interests of the constituents of my hon. Friend and other Cumbrian MPs will not be served until all the facts of the case come out, so that people know precisely what happened. That is important, although not so much for us to guard against this tragedy happening again-because, although we do not know the full facts yet, we think that this tragedy could have happened anywhere in the country at any time; this was not a premeditated series of events. It is important because it is right that the public should know about the full sequence of events. So I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, he will tell us something about the timetable that has been placed on the local police force in Cumbria.

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Although the deputy chief constable of Cumbria did not ask for additional resources, there may be a resources issue. As a second point of clarification, I seek an assurance from the Minister that, if those additional resources are necessary, they will be provided.

The deputy chief constable spoke intelligently about the fact that Cumbria does not own a helicopter, for example. He also said that, in his view, Cumbria does not need one. A deal had been done with another force-the Greater Manchester force, or perhaps the Merseyside force-to provide a helicopter when it was required. Obviously, not all police forces can have their own helicopters, but there may well be resource implications that need to be examined in the cold light of day.

I hope that in the meantime, before we get to the conclusion of the inquiries, whatever Cumbria's police ask for and whatever hon. Members feel is appropriate is provided. I know that the Prime Minister has said to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland that he is keen to know the views of local people; I know that, because my hon. Friend told me so on Monday. If the local people ask for something, I hope that it will be granted.

As we all know, we are in something of a limbo situation. As we speak, there are elections for the membership of the Home Affairs Committee, so that Committee has not yet been formed. However, at our first meeting I will certainly recommend to members of the Committee that we should look at this area, because I think that it is important that Parliament itself should examine the wider issues. We should not necessarily examine the detail of what happened, although of course we will need to take evidence from those involved, but we should examine the wider area of the policy issues that emanate from what has happened.

As I am sure the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire will remind us, we have some of the tightest and strictest gun laws in the world and people will find it amazing that anyone should have been able to do what this person did to the citizens of Cumbria and then to himself. However, the fact is that we will have to look at the issue of gun law in the round. It would be very odd if we did not look at it.

I think that that is what my hon. Friend is talking about; he is not saying that there should be an instant revision of firearms legislation, but that we need to look at firearms legislation in context. The Home Affairs Committee last looked at this issue 10 years ago, when we made certain recommendations about having people on the national register. Immediately, the issue of data sharing is important too. When a gun licence is applied for and the data about that application are held locally, what happens to them? Are they available to others?

So broad issues need to be raised, without our getting into the finer detail of this case, because that is what the people will require. Of course, it is up to the Committee to decide on the inquiries that it carries out. It is not up to the Chairman, even in these days of electing Chairmen and having independence and accountability to Parliament. But I very much hope that this is an issue that we will look at when we have the opportunity to do so.

My hon. Friend mentioned a number of other issues concerning the media and his local hospital. On the media, I think that he has made some very valid points. It is important that we look at how these matters are
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reported and he is absolutely right to want to write to broadcasters and the Press Complaints Commission asking them to look at the overall handling of this situation.

My hon. Friend is also right to praise his local media, as we all do, because they have a better feel for local people. They are unwilling to trample on the lives of people, either the living or the deceased, because they know that they will be meeting them again. For the national media, it is something of a visit; they may be there 24/7 during the rolling period of a crisis, but they then go away quite swiftly to the next story. My hon. Friend's concern is about how the story was reported at the time and I was certainly told about examples of cheque-book journalism and other issues of that kind, which really ought to be explored. He is right to raise this whole issue of the media; it is one of the lessons of Cumbria and one of the points that we need to remember.

As for my hon. Friend's local hospital, I am sure that he makes his case more powerfully than anyone else here can, and I am sure that that case has been heard by Ministers. I wish him well in what he seeks to achieve.

In conclusion, the people of Whitehaven, its local Member of Parliament and the other Members of Parliament who represent the region desperately want to return to normality. I had never been to Whitehaven before Monday. It sounds odd, but I think that the furthest north that I had travelled in England previously was to Carlisle; of course I had been to Scotland before, including to the western isles many years ago on parliamentary business.

On my visit to Whitehaven, I saw a very beautiful place; it was absolutely stunningly beautiful. Local people, including the excellent leader of the local Labour group, Elaine Woodburn, and the local vicar, Richard Lee, wanted to return to normality. They want Whitehaven and Cumbria to be remembered for the beautiful places that they are, rather than for any other reason. We have a duty to ensure that they are able to return to that position. We also have a duty to ensure that all the facts come out. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the Government are also keen that that should happen.

3.9 pm

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I was not intending to make a maiden speech today, but I can think of no better example of what Parliament is about than the issue that the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) has brought us. There is a precision, a compassion and a sense of dialogue and openness in this room that I wish was more present on the Floor of the House, so I am proud to be making my maiden speech. The hon. Gentleman's contribution was immensely deeply felt and measured. He balanced the kind words of Tony Parsons with the horror of cheque-book journalism. His commitment to the West Cumberland hospital really came across, and I very much hope that our Government will be able to sustain the hospital. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Prime Minister was very impressed by his visit.

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