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23 Jun 2010 : Column 120WH—continued

We have one of the strictest gun control regimes in the world, but if there are lessons to be learned we must learn them, and if changes need to be made we must make them. We should await the outcome of the Association of Chief Police Officers peer review of what happened in Cumbria, but there are already existing concerns. I do not want to prejudge that inquiry in any way, but as the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) said, questions must be asked, and in the fullness of time we should try to answer them. He and I may have slightly different views, although I am by no means against people using guns as part of their jobs or sporting activities, but was it right, with hindsight, to move from three-year to five-year licences? Is there not a danger that when applying for a licence by post or, heaven forbid, by iPhone, as a media report suggested this week, the police will not make a visit? Such visits are not a statutory obligation, but might keep gun owners on their toes and allow their families to raise any concerns.

Reference was made to health care professionals, but if data protection concerns can be overcome, it would be sensible for health care professionals to be able to flag up any concerns. I accept that such issues might have had little bearing on what happened in west Cumbria, where police checks are carried out, but those concerns are legitimate, and we should discuss every aspect of them. I have looked back at earlier debates on gun control, and much was said about the cost of the bureaucracy that checks might bring, but we must keep people and communities as safe as possible, so we must have a balanced approach.

We await the outcome of the peer review, and I welcome the Government's commitment to a debate in Parliament. However, I ask, as have many contributors
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to the debate, that the Government do not close the door to a wider, independent debate and a review of the events in west Cumbria and of gun laws generally. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire referred to balance and proportionality, which is subjective in this context, so from time to time we need learned and wise but, most importantly, independent voices to bring their views to bear.

I want to hear what the Minister has to say, so I shall finish by saying that in the months and years ahead, the people and communities affected will want to get on with their lives-that is probably happening already-and as far as possible not to be constantly reminded of what happened on 2 June. I represent an urban constituency where there was a gun rampage 20 years ago, albeit with fewer deaths than in Cumbria. Constituents ask me why, when events such as that in Cumbria occur and on their anniversary, the press continue to return to the tragedy that affected their community. The answer, I am sorry to say, is that while we have lazy and easy journalism, we cannot give guarantees that that will not happen, whatever we feel about it. It is incumbent on us, in Government and in Parliament, to stand by those communities, not just now, but in the years ahead.

3.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): At around this time three weeks ago, we were all feeling a real sense of shock as the full horror of events in Cumbria became apparent. The last funerals took place on Friday, and I join other hon. Members this afternoon in expressing condolences to the families and friends of all those who were killed or injured. Our thoughts are also with all those who were caught up in some other way in the tragic events. We should remember in particular the police and emergency services, who had to deal with the immediate consequences of the shootings, and who did so with professionalism.

I also want to join the many others who have praised the resilience of the people of Cumbria, who, with true community spirit, have pulled together in their efforts to come to terms with this and other recent tragedies. They are surely an example to all of us.

I thank the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) for providing this opportunity to debate the lessons that might be learned from the tragic shootings in his constituency on 2 June, and particularly for the sensitive, considered, measured and moving way in which he opened the debate. I would like to add my tribute to those paid by many others, both this afternoon and in recent weeks, for the way in which he dealt with the immediate aftermath of that shocking tragedy, and the way in which he has conducted himself since then.

I fully recognise the depth and range of feeling on the matter and the need for a broad debate. We have started that process today. A range of issues were touched on and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, many fall outside my specific ministerial responsibility, but I know that my ministerial colleagues outside this Chamber will read the debate and reflect on the comments that he and others have made this afternoon, particularly about West Cumberland hospital and its funding. I will draw them to the attention of my colleagues in the Department of Health.

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An issue that came through strongly is the sense of community among the people of Cumbria. It was made clear in many speeches, including the measured contribution from the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who may not have been in the House long, but has shown clearly how he seeks to represent his constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) also referred to the strength of the community and emphasised its sense of purpose. The hon. Member for Copeland talked strongly about solemnity, dignity and purpose, and his comments will resonate clearly.

I pay tribute to the maiden speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). It was considered and eloquent, but also passionate. I got a sense of my hon. Friend's constituency and of his priorities as a Member of this House, and that is what new Members of Parliament seek to give in their maiden speeches. He made his extremely well, and I well understand why he chose this debate in which to make his first contribution to the House. In doing so, and in his actions as an MP, he demonstrated why he will be a fine champion for his constituents and those whom he serves. The way he conducted himself during his maiden speech demonstrated the values that he spoke about.

I have been particularly struck by the perception of many people that it is difficult to have in place proportionate controls to deal with those rare occasions when, for no apparent reason, someone suddenly embarks on a series of horrific killings. There has been ready recognition, both this afternoon and earlier, that a knee-jerk response is unlikely to provide a lasting solution, or the one that people seek, and that has been reflected in the contributions this afternoon.

Alongside that, however, there is a strong wish to ensure that we do all we can to learn lessons about both how we respond to future incidents and what we might reasonably do to prevent them, which is what we all fervently wish to do. That approach has been characterised today, and the debate has raised much for us to reflect on. Above all, we should listen carefully to what the local communities are saying. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who has responsibility for policing and criminal justice, will return to Cumbria in the near future to talk to local groups about what happened, and to hear more about any concerns that persist.

Cumbria police are busy conducting a huge, complex investigation involving 30 crime scenes, 12 deceased victims, one offender and 11 seriously injured victims. Each incident requires a major investigation of its own-Cumbria is running more than 20 at same time. In the initial phase of the investigation, 100 detectives were working on the case and they searched 225 sq km of the country from land and air. Witnesses are still coming forward and the investigation will take many months to complete. I recognise the desire for answers and the points made by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who I understand was not able to stay for the wind-ups-I pass my congratulations to him on being elected Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs-but it is important that the investigation takes its proper course. The Association of Chief Police Officers peer reviews-I will talk more about them in due course-are anticipated to report by this autumn.

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We all recognise what a huge amount of work the investigation is for Cumbria police, but I have spoken to chief constable Craig Mackey and he has assured me that the force has the necessary resources and expertise to cope with the task. However, if it becomes necessary, the Government will support any bid from Cumbria police for a special grant to help meet exceptional costs on the force budget. Cumbria police have already received some specialist support from neighbouring forces, including police helicopters and scenes of crime officers. I would like to take this opportunity to formally thank Dumfries and Galloway, Lancashire and the civil nuclear constabulary for all the help that they have provided so far-a point made by the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham). Local forces stand ready to help should further assistance be required as the investigation progresses.

Tony Cunningham: May I ask for an assurance that there will be proper collaboration between the two relevant Departments? Obviously the police are the responsibility of the Home Office, but the civil nuclear constabulary is the responsibility of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. I would like to make sure that the connection is there and that, when the inquiry takes place, there will be collaboration.

James Brokenshire: Certainly there is a wider point of discussion on policing and cross-border assistance, and the hon. Gentleman has made an important point about the need for any consideration of the issues to take into account other police forces. He has rightly highlighted the case of the civil nuclear constabulary, and other forces, such as the British transport police, sit within the Department for Transport. When considering policing issues, we need to factor in services that might sit within other Departments, too. He makes his point very effectively.

The hon. Member for Copeland has made a significant contribution to the learning process by securing and leading the debate today. There are, as we know, other reviews in hand that will add to our knowledge. I refer to the peer reviews that ACPO has set up at the request of the chief constable of Cumbria, Craig Mackey. Those reviews will cover firearms licensing procedures, the tactical and strategic police firearms response, and any aspect of the incident that may require further national or local guidance.

The ACPO lead on firearms licensing, Assistant Chief Constable Adrian Whiting, will review the file and the procedures adopted in relation to the award of a firearms licence and shotgun certificate to Mr Bird. He will also consider whether there are any significant gaps or risks in the licensing process. The question of the armed police response and the resources that were available for deployment to the scene will be addressed by the ACPO lead on the police use of firearms, Assistant Chief Constable Simon Chesterman.

Following the conclusion of the first two reviews, there will be an examination of firearms tactics and the ACPO manual to see whether any accumulated learning should lead to changes. I should confirm at this point that the firearms response review will cover the issues previously raised by the shadow Home Secretary about the possible need to absorb lessons from counter-terrorism policing. In picking up the lessons from Stockwell, the
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police service has already put in place systems to ensure that any tactics developed to deal with counter-terrorism are not developed in isolation, but are picked up by authorised firearms officers across the country. The peer reviews are being led by senior police officers who take the professional lead in their areas of expertise and who are therefore uniquely placed to identify the issues. We expect the findings of both reviews to be published in the autumn.

On firearms licensing, the shootings in Cumbria bring home all too starkly just how dangerous firearms can be in the wrong hands, and it is inevitable that questions will be asked about the UK's firearms licensing laws. It is widely acknowledged that we already have some of tightest legislative controls in the world when it comes to civilian access to, and possession and use of, firearms. Any firearms held must be accompanied by a certificate that is issued following extensive checks by local police, who must satisfy themselves that an applicant is fit to be entrusted with a firearm and will not present a danger to public safety. Local police must be satisfied that an applicant has a legitimate reason for wanting a firearm-for example, target shooting or deerstalking. The police will visit applicants at home to interview them about their application and to check security. They can seek a medical report from the applicant's GP if they have concerns about any medical condition.

On that point, I would like to come on to an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart). Applicants for firearms certificates must give details of their GP, from whom the police can seek a medical report. That is not limited by time, and the police can approach the GP at any time during the life of a certificate. It is also open to a GP to approach the police at any time to pass on information or possible concerns. However, ACPO is working with medical associations to ensure that any medical concerns are not missed. It is discussing the possibility of placing a marker on NHS patient records, so that a GP will know whether a patient has access to firearms and can notify the police of any concerns about the suitability of that. We are following this process closely and we will feed the outcomes into subsequent work on gun controls as required.

It is only right that we should reflect on whether more might be done in that context to ensure public safety. In doing so, we have to look carefully at the balance between the maintenance of public safety and the legitimate expectations of the vast majority of firearm owners who use their guns safely and responsibly, and who totally condemn those who misuse them. The control of firearms is a complex area that requires careful consideration, a point rightly made by the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell). I thank him for his kind comments and assure him that we will consider all the issues extremely carefully. As he pointed out, we plan to hold a full debate on the issue of firearms before the summer recess, which will provide an opportunity to air in greater depth some of the issues raised today about existing controls.

As I said at the outset, this is the start of a process, and the debate that I just mentioned will provide an opportunity for people who wish to make more detailed comments about firearms legislation to do so. Even then, we should not draw conclusions precipitately. It is important to wait until we have the results of the police
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investigation and the peer reviews before we decide whether we need to take specific further action, either by issuing further guidance, introducing new procedures or, potentially, changing the law. I reassure the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness that we go into this process with an open mind.

We will also consider at that stage whether there is need for any further inquiry. The Government are committed to supporting the affected communities in this terrible situation, and we want to find out from them how we can best help them. The Department for Communities and Local Government has already asked its emergencies management team, which offers support to local authorities that have suffered disasters and emergencies, to contact the local authorities involved to see what support they require and what assistance they may need. The local authorities were confident that they had the resources available to cope, and that no further assistance was required.

I understand that the Government office for the north-west has contacted Cumbria county council and Copeland district council to offer assistance. Again, no further assistance has been requested at this point in time. We are confident that the local authorities will make immediate contact with the Government office for the north-west should any further assistance be required at a later date. The Government office stands ready to broker mutual aid support with the voluntary sector, should that be necessary.

Copeland and Cumbria councils are working to understand the needs of the families and communities affected, and have put in place arrangements to provide counselling and personal support. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), the Minister with responsibility for Civil Society, will be visiting Cumbria tomorrow to meet the local authorities and the council for voluntary service to see what extra support or assistance they need.

In conclusion, this is the start of considering the issues that we have debated this afternoon. We have heard much about the spirit of the people of Cumbria and how they have been supporting each other. Such community spirit is truly priceless. For our part, we shall continue to liaise with the Cumbria constabulary to follow up any areas that require further or wider consultation. The learning from the reviews, which is expected in the autumn, will be shared with the public, the wider police service and, of course, the House.

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Tolls (Severn Bridges)

4 pm

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity early in the new Parliament to raise the long-standing issue of the tolls on the Severn bridges and their impact on my constituents and businesses generally in south Wales. I welcome the Minister to his new role. I had a very constructive relationship in the last Parliament with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), who was then the Minister of State in the Department for Transport. I look forward to continuing such a relationship with this Minister. I am very grateful for the cross-party interest in the issue, which is shown by the turnout at this debate, despite the football. I apologise for the fact that the debate is taking place during the match. It was looking encouraging before I came into the Chamber, but I apologise to those hon. Members who are missing it.

The Severn bridge tolls are expensive, inconvenient and inflexible; we know we are in trouble when we are the butt of jokes on "Gavin and Stacey". In one famous episode, Smithy nearly missed the birth of his child because he was 10p short when crossing the Severn bridges. People cannot pay by credit card, debit card or online. They cannot travel off peak and there are no concessions for those who live locally. However, the tolls continue to rise year on year, even though the service is outdated.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She mentioned the cross-party nature of the issue. I am sure that I can agree with what I anticipate she is going to say. She will agree that the issue does not affect just her constituents and the M4 corridor; some geographic spread from west Wales is involved as well, reinforcing the point that this is an all-Wales issue, affecting, particularly at this time of year, the tourism sector and, more generally, the business sector. It does not affect just south Wales, but the whole of Wales. It is a totemic issue affecting the whole Welsh economy.

Jessica Morden: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and agree that this is an issue for the whole of Wales. In particular, first-time visitors to Wales are an example of that. The issue does have that impact. I receive a bulging postbag on the issue from constituents and businesses and I want to highlight some of the points that they raise with me.

First, will the Minister examine the cost of the tolls? Every year on 1 January, the tolls go up in accordance with the Severn Bridges Act 1992. Under the agreement with Severn River Crossing plc, the company is permitted to collect tolls from both bridges for a concessions period until the project's target real revenue level is reached or the time limit is up. I understand that at that point, the bridges revert to the Secretary of State's control.

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