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The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:
"The proposals which I am about to set out will apply to England, Wales and Scotland. My right honourable and learned friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is carrying out a review of firearms law in the Province and will be issuing a Statement this afternoon about the possible implications for gun control in Northern Ireland arising from Lord Cullen's report.
"Among all the words which have been written since Dunblane, there is one irrefutable fact. The dreadful crimes committed on 13th March were committed with a gun which was legally bought and legally possessed. Those facts place an onerous duty on the Government to consider what controls there should be on the ownership and possession of guns.
"Lord Cullen has made 23 recommendations for strengthening the regulatory controls on the ownership and licensing of all guns. We accept them all. The Government's detailed response has been placed in the Library.
"There are seven recommendations for improving the way in which the police handle all applications for firearms certificates. A further eight recommendations deal with the grounds for obtaining a firearms certificate. And there are seven recommendations about the suitability of individuals to hold firearms.
"I would draw particular attention to the following recommendations: in future anyone applying for a firearms certificate should be assessed against a checklist of criteria for suitability; a clear burden should be placed on the applicant to show that he is fit to have a gun; a new power should be created which would enable the police to revoke a certificate where there is no longer a good reason for having a firearm; and the grounds on which an appeal against the refusal of a certificate can be made should be significantly limited. Taken together these 23 recommendations add up to a drastic strengthening of controls on gun ownership.
"In addition to Lord Cullen's proposals there are four further measures which we intend to introduce. First, we will make it a requirement for all handgun shooters to obtain a certificate in order to fire a handgun at a gun club. Secondly, we shall make it an offence to fail to notify the police whenever a firearm or shotgun is sold, transferred, deactivated or destroyed.
"Fourthly, one of the most shocking and distressing features of the tragic events in Dunblane was the use of expanding ammunition, which is designed to cause the maximum injury. There is no possible justification at all for it to be available for people whose only authority is for target shooting. In future, therefore, it will be illegal to possess expanding ammunition except for the purposes of shooting deer, in accordance with the Deer Act 1991.
"I now turn to the question which I know will be of greatest concern to the House and to the nation--the controls on the ownership of handguns. Lord Cullen confines his suggestions to self-loading pistols and revolvers of all calibres. He does not consider that further restrictions are required for single-shot handguns, which he would allow to be kept in the home as at present.
"He suggests in paragraph 9.112 that owners of multi-shot guns should be required to disable them when keeping them at home. And he goes on to say in paragraph 9.113 that if, after consideration, these arrangements are found not to be practicable, there should instead be a ban on the possession of multi-shot handguns by individual owners. He envisages that it would still be possible for guns to be kept by a club secretary so that target shooting could continue to be carried on, using guns owned by the club.
"The Government have taken advice from the Forensic Science Service on the practicability of Lord Cullen's suggestions for disabling handguns. Lord Cullen himself recognised that there were considerably practical difficulties in removing key components from handguns. I refer to paragraph 9.86. The Forensic Science Service has confirmed that view. They are also not convinced that a barrel block could be made which someone with sufficient determination and access to metal-working tools could not remove. That was Lord Cullen's other suggestion.
"I therefore turn to Lord Cullen's alternative suggestion of banning multi-shot handguns from individual ownership. I propose to go considerably further than Lord Cullen has suggested in two respects. First, we will ban all handguns from people's homes. I do not agree with Lord Cullen that it would be safe to allow single shot handguns to remain in the home. I believe that they should be subject to the same controls which we impose on multi-shot handguns.
"Secondly, we will outlaw high calibre handguns of the kind used by Thomas Hamilton. Low calibre handguns--.22 rimfire--will have to be used and kept in licensed clubs. We believe that a distinction does need to be made between high calibre handguns, which are principally made for police and military use, and .22 rimfire handguns which are largely intended for target shooting. Although Lord Cullen decided against making such a distinction, he sets out in his report at paragraph 9.49 a table which demonstrates that a .22 handgun is some four to six times less powerful than higher calibre handguns.
"And at paragraph 9.44 of his report Lord Cullen points out that the expansion of the use of high calibre handguns has even led to many shooters being concerned about the use of those guns as symbols of personal power. In addition, target shooting with .22 handguns is an Olympic sport.
"The clubs in which it will still be possible to use .22 handguns will be subject to the most stringent security standards. We will consult as a matter of urgency with chief constables and other interested parties on the details of these standards, and we shall set them out clearly in guidance. In addition every individual club will need to be approved by the chief constable of the area in which it is situated.
"Few, if any, existing gun clubs will be able to meet these requirements. When the powers become law we will therefore require any owner of a .22 rimfire handgun to hand his gun to the police for safekeeping until he is able to find a licensed club which he can join. We will then provide a period for clubs to improve their security, and to be inspected and licensed. Some handgun clubs may never be able to achieve an adequate level of security. If so they will have to close.
"Breaches of the conditions for the safekeeping of handguns will be criminal offences. The penalty for possession of a prohibited weapon was increased from seven to 10 years in 1994. Illegal possession of a higher calibre handgun will therefore carry a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment. We intend to create a new offence of possession of a .22 rimfire handgun outside club premises. The maximum penalty will also be 10 years.
"The package of measures I have announced today will give this country some of the toughest gun control laws in the world. We will ban all handguns from the home. We will outlaw completely higher calibre handguns such as those owned by Thomas Hamilton. We will require .22 rimfire handguns to be kept in gun clubs under conditions of the most stringent security. And we will drastically strengthen the rules under which firearms certificates are granted. These proposals will lead to the destruction of 160,000 handguns: 80 per cent. of those legally held today.
"I believe that the priority for Parliament should be to put these measures on the statute book at the earliest possible moment. So I intend this month to publish a Bill giving effect to them. I urge the parties opposite to support that Bill. If they do I am confident that it could have Royal Assent by Christmas. The country expects nothing less".
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for repeating that necessarily lengthy Statement. I start by echoing the tributes which the Home Secretary and the Minister paid, first, to the people of Dunblane for their courage and dignity in adversity, and, secondly, to Lord Cullen for a well thought out and well argued report. We agree
It is an irony that the proposals which the Home Secretary announced today are very close to the evidence which Jack Straw and George Robertson put to the Cullen inquiry this summer on behalf of the Labour Party. They said that there should be a total ban on handguns, with the possible exception of .22 rimfire handguns. Is it not the case that events, and the analysis of the Cullen Report, have overtaken both the position of the Labour Party last summer and of the Government now? Does not the Cullen Report state that an exception for single shot .22 handguns--there are over 40,000 in this country--would be impracticable because of the possibility of their being reconverted to more deadly use? Therefore if we follow the argument of the analysis of Lord Cullen rather than his conclusions, are we not drawn to a conclusion that there should be a total ban on handguns?
I do not wish to overemphasise the difference between us on this matter. I agree with what Mr. Jack Straw said in response to the Statement this afternoon: we can welcome almost everything in this Statement. When we examine in detail the Government's recommendations, we can see that they go very close--it is far closer than the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs would have wished--to a total ban on handguns. The restrictions which will be required, first, in banning lower calibre handguns from homes, and, secondly, as regards the security arrangements which will be necessary in gun clubs, mean that a large number of those 40,000 guns which will not be immediately destroyed will be unable to be used. The conditions which the Government propose in their printed response are so severe that they include, for example, a specific permit from the police every time a gun is removed from a licensed club. The problems of enforcement of such a partial ban will be great.
I can confirm that my party will give every support to the kind of legislation which the Government propose. However, as I have indicated, we disagree about 1 to 5 per cent. of the subject matter of the proposed legislation. We shall seek to make amendments to it, but it will not be at the expense of the passage of the essential legislation through this House.
In order to ensure that we have speedy legislation which achieves the bipartisan consensus which we all want, first, I ask the Minister to convey to the usual channels my party's view that there should be alternative clauses. That would allow for the possibility of a complete ban on hand guns produced by the Government rather than it being brought up by anyone else in Opposition. Secondly, we on this side expect there to be a free vote on the matter. We ask the Government to make the same facility available to their supporters. If that is the case and the result is that there can be cross-party, universal agreement in the House on
As Lord Cullen said, it is for Parliament to decide. We failed to take the necessary action after Hungerford; we cannot afford to do the same after Dunblane.
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