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House of Lords

Monday, 18th November 1996.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

Firearms: Homicides

Lord Burnham asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many separate incidents of killing or malicious wounding by legally held larger calibre handguns have taken place in the last five years.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, information is not available precisely in the form requested. In England and Wales in the three years from 1992 to 1994, 22 homicides are known to have been committed with legally held firearms of which four were handguns of a calibre larger than .22. In Scotland no legally held handgun is known to have been used in crimes of homicide, attempted murder or assault between 1991 and 1995. Information for Northern Ireland is not available. Information about the calibre of guns used in woundings is not collected centrally.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. In the light of the action which is being taken in another place and also here, is that not a very important statistic? Is it not the case that however horrible the events of Dunblane, ill thought out action is being taken on the basis of incomplete information?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, a great deal of thought has been given to this matter. I remind the House what the Home Secretary said in another place. He said that for all the analysis and comment that there has been about what happened in Dunblane primary school on 13th March, the fact remains that these awful crimes were committed with a handgun which was legally bought and legally possessed. That places a heavy duty on the Government to consider what controls there should be on the ownership and possession of handguns. Lord Cullen concluded that there are compelling grounds for stringently restricting their use and availability. We agree with his conclusion and have taken the measures which we believe to be right and in the interests of the public.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, I understand that there is to be a debate today in another place on the subject of privately owned guns, and a very important vote is to take place. After that, the Bill will be considered in Committee in another place and will eventually find its way to this House. Would it not be better to leave the subject until the Bill comes here for a Second Reading when noble Lords can express various points of view on the use of all types of guns? That

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would be a more suitable time at which to discuss the matter rather than during a Question at your Lordships' Question Time.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I have enormous sympathy for what has just been said by the noble Lord. It is not an easy time, and it is a particularly sensitive time. Of course, we do not know the nature and shape of the Bill which is to come from the Commons and we cannot possibly pre-empt that. Therefore, it is a difficult matter. However, I have a duty to answer Questions on the Order Paper. The Question has been tabled and I am answering it.

Lord Monson: My Lords, does the noble Baroness not agree that the figures which she gave to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, prove that less than 1 per cent. of homicides in England and Wales in 1992, 1993 and 1994 involved legally held firearms of whatever description?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, that statistic is not quite right. It is 14 per cent. of those which involved shooting. If we are talking about those three years, there were under 3,000 homicides, of which 196 were shootings. Of those, 22 involved legally held guns.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we accept and understand the Minister's caution in answering questions. I agree with her that it would be wise for the wider issues to be debated on another occasion. But in response to the specific and very limited question of the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, does she not agree that the statistics appear to show that it is not the calibre of the legally held handguns which matters most in homicide shootings?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, this is a matter for debate at another time. The Government have thought very carefully about this issue. They have taken the view that there is a body of people within the community who have engaged in a legal sport for more than 100 years and that their right to sport shooting should be protected. That is what has given rise to today's debate. We have taken seriously what Lord Cullen said: that those matters should be rigorously controlled. We have balanced rigorous control with the freedom to engage in a sport which is legal.

Afghanistan: UN Conference

2.42 p.m.

Viscount Waverley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will use today's international conference on Afghanistan at the United Nations to call for, or support, an immediate and total arms embargo by all states in the region.

Lord Chesham: My Lords, we urge all states to comply with the UN Security Council resolution adopted on 22nd October which called inter alia for an

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end to the supply of arms and ammunition and which the UK was instrumental in drafting. We shall also continue to urge all parties and states to co-operate fully with the UN special mission to Afghanistan.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, does the Minister agree with me as regards the need for the international community to become serious about Afghanistan? Will he recognise that mandatory action, rather than resolutions, to halt the flow of weapons is overdue and is prolonging the civil war?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, when the resolution was tabled on 22nd October we opposed the inclusion of language which would amount to the imposition of a mandatory arms embargo. We do not consider that an embargo would be enforceable and we are concerned that the Security Council would lose credibility if it passed a legally binding resolution which it could not enforce.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, what is the position of Her Majesty's Government regarding the demand, reported in some of today's newspapers, by the Taliban to take over representation of Afghanistan at the United Nations? Further, and more generally, can the Minister say what criteria have to be satisfied in a civil war situation for a particular party to assume control of the UN delegation for that country?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, we recognise states, not governments. We have contact at official level with a wide range of the factions involved in the civil war. I would prefer not to go further with the matter at this stage.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, does not history afford caution against mandatory action in Afghanistan?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, we do not believe that mandatory action anywhere, unless it is enforceable, should be brought into account.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, can the Minister comment on the statement by Mr. Portillo on a radio programme this morning that the UK has one of the tightest systems for regulating arms sales? Moreover, in the light of arms sales to Afghanistan, and the recent revelation that a British company has been exporting arms via Albania to Rwanda, can the Minister say whether or not those regulations should now be tightened further?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, we consider all export licence applications for defence equipment on a case-by-case basis in the light of established criteria and international guidelines to which we are committed through the UN, EU, OSCE and so on. These take into account inter alia whether a proposed transfer would

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prolong or aggravate an existing arms conflict. We have not received an ELA for defence equipment for Afghanistan since 1992.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether there are any representatives of Afghanistan at today's conference?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, I believe that the noble Viscount is referring to a conference taking place in New York today. As I understand it, there is no Afghanistan representation at the conference as it is a wide-ranging UN conference which aims to try to get the international community's strong support for the UN special mission to Afghanistan.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, does the Minister agree that arms exporters are very ingenious? Have the Government evolved any means whereby they can interfere or stop the process whereby a British firm which itself exports arms can and does export to an embargoed country by ordering through companies of another country, for example, in Mexico? Those arms are then exported to the embargoed country without passing through this country at all. Is that a position which escapes government control?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, it is a situation which it is almost impossible for the Government to control. I can also say that where America has tried to utilise the Helms-Burton legislation so far as concerns outside countries--for example, Cuba--it seems to have attracted, and indeed still attracts, great distaste throughout the world. That may be a parallel to what is being requested in this situation.

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