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Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, I welcome the Statement almost without reservation. The country was in a deeply despairing mood after the events at Dunblane. Lord Cullen's report and the Government's response are in line with public opinion. I believe that there is now a clear and established public view that the public interest rather than the interests of the shooting community must now be our central responsibility.
I wish to raise a number of detailed points with the noble Baroness. I welcome what she said on compensation and would be grateful to be told what sum the Government estimate will be the cost of implementing their proposals.
There are two important issues which deserve a response. The first is the right of appeal by owners of firearms to the Crown Court. I am sure that the Government are aware of the increasing concern about the issue in the police service over many years. The problem is that in the appeal the onus is on the chief constable to prove why the person asking for the firearms certificate should not have it. I note what the Government's Statement said about that and I heard the noble Baroness's colleague at the Scottish Office say a few moments ago that the matter was going out to consultation. I am not clear what the timescale is. The noble Baroness indicated that the Home Secretary expected the Bill to be on the statute book by Christmas. If that is so, the period of consultation will be pretty abbreviated. Perhaps the Minister could tell us something about that.
Secondly, there is the question of hand guns of .22 calibre. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that here we are going close to total prohibition. That is the reality because the Government have made it clear that there must be stringent security in gun clubs if the .22 weapons are to be held there. As is recognised, very few clubs will probably meet those conditions. It is a matter of considerable importance which I suspect will be raised during the course of debates in this House, if not in the other place.
I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is with us because my only other point is this. We will support the general principles contained in what the Government said today. Their policy statement meets with our approval. However, we will certainly want to discuss the legislation in detail which means that we must have adequate time to consider it. We could all think of other examples of legislation which we have been encouraged to pass in an abbreviated timescale; and yet, within a relatively few months major issues have arisen which indicate that if Parliament had done its job more satisfactorily some of the problems flowing from the legislation would not have arisen. Therefore, I repeat in the presence of the noble Lord, Lord
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for the spirit in which they made their comments and the degree to which they have agreed with the Government on the issue. I accept the tributes which are now on record which both speakers paid to all concerned in this tragic affair.
The first point is about our analysis being overtaken by events. That is right, and it was right to have the benefit of the report to set out the scene in such detail, as well as all the points for consideration. There are a large number of clear-cut, unequivocal recommendations and clear guidance pointing us to the few suggestions made by Lord Cullen for consideration. We shall devote our energies to them.
Perhaps I may paraphrase the main question posed by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh: why not go for a complete ban? It is difficult. We believe that it is possible to give the public the protection they deserve and require without the complete prohibition of hand guns. That is possible and I believe we have a duty to do it. Perhaps we may consider the record of absolute prohibition. It usually drives the activity underground where there are no safeguards. We believe that the public are better protected if the activity can be seen to be, and is, protected under our proposals by regulatory conditions. No doubt that will be discussed at greater length.
I shall, of course, convey the messages that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, asked me to convey to the usual channels. He knows that we have had a meeting today and those points were put at the meeting and are now on the record.
On alternative clauses, perhaps I may give a personal, off-the-cuff reaction. The way in which this Chamber and the other place deal with alternative views to any legislation is by amendment. If we go down the road of alternative clauses, many people may have ideas about what the alternative clauses should be. With a Bill which we have promised will be brought before the House very soon, perhaps the way to deal with the legislation is by considering amendments. The most desirable outcome for the Bill would be to have no vote at all. On the matter of a free vote, I undertake to press that point. My right honourable friend in another place has undertaken to discuss the matter with the usual channels.
In reply to the first point made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, relating to right of appeal to the Crown Court, there will be consultation. The detail of how the legislation will work will flow from the Bill and there has to be consultation. The noble Lord made a pertinent point regarding making legislation in haste and perhaps getting it wrong. It may therefore be right that the detail that flows from the Bill and how it will work in practice is better discussed with those who will have to implement it; namely, chief constables and police forces on both sides of the Border.
I re-emphasise a point I made to which the noble Lord referred; namely, that we are shifting the burden onto the applicant. It is very important that an applicant should prove that he or she is a suitable person and that that onerous judgment is not left to chief constables.
The noble Lord raised the point about .22 calibre hand guns. Again, there will be a great deal more discussion of the details. I do not want to use this opportunity to go into them. We believe that at this stage there is a very good argument for considering protecting legitimate sporting activity using the hand guns which we have said will be permitted under the control of gun clubs.
Another point related to the security of gun clubs. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, suggested that in effect that means a total ban. We do not know that. We know that it will mean some 40,000 legitimately held guns. We know that some gun clubs will not be able to meet the criteria, and others will make a great deal of effort to meet the criteria. New gun clubs may well be established consistent with the criteria. We simply do not know that at the moment. This is a long-established sport; it has been going for well over 100 years at Olympics level. That is a consideration in our proposals.
Lord Renton: My Lords, I warmly welcome the Government's proposals. I suggest that the Government announce an amnesty for the handing in as soon as possible of all firearms at present illegally held and an offer to those who hold hand guns or automatic weapons for which they are at present licensed. I suggest that they should be encouraged to hand them in to the police as soon as possible.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments. I will take his suggestion away and it will form part of the discussions that will take place between now and the passing of the Bill.
Lord Sewel: My Lords, I ask the noble Baroness to reflect on the problem of mobility. It is likely that one of the weaknesses in the Government's proposals relates to the issue of booking guns out for competition purposes. If there is a weakness whereby someone can book out a gun under some degree of supervision for a competition, surely there is a danger that that opens a door for someone to book the weapon out spuriously for some ulterior motive. I ask the Minister to reflect deeply on that as a possible weakness in the proposals.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am not sure I accept it as a weakness. However, that is an extremely good point and will have to be thought through very carefully. We do not want a system whereby there will be a great deal of movement of individual guns in and out of gun clubs. We have to create a framework whereby the number of movements of guns will be relatively limited. Guns will of course need to be moved out for repair.
I return to a question put by my noble friend Lord Renton which I did not answer. My noble friend suggested an amnesty. He will know that there was a recent amnesty. In June, nearly 23,000 weapons were handed in. The Government will consider the need for a further amnesty and will make an announcement in due course.
The Earl of Bathurst: My Lords, I, too, warmly welcome all the measures described by the Minister. However, will she consult with her right honourable friend about the difficulties that are certain to arise in regard to humane killers? A humane killer, which is effective and necessary for certain people, will almost certainly qualify as a hand gun. I refer to hunt servants, gamekeepers who need to shoot deer, and vets. The legislation could present a very severe problem. I hope the noble Baroness and her right honourable friend will look to that point in the Bill that will come before us.
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