some default text...

Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am sure that is an interesting observation but I am not entirely sure how it incorporates itself into an answer to this Question. Of course all publicly administered schemes ought to be run efficiently, with due consideration for the interests of all concerned. I am confident that chief constables will do that.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am somewhat disturbed at what appears to be apparent disregard for the interests of individuals who are affected by the Act. What is worrying is that in one part of the country one can be threatened with revocation of a licence, which I suspect is beyond the law anyway, given that there is a full three-month period in which to conform with the Act. It seems that this is an imposed timetable and therefore it is incumbent upon police authorities--even accepting their autonomy--to administer it in a way that is consistent with the intentions of the Act itself.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I entirely agree that no chief constable should act ultra vires or

30 Jun 1997 : Column 9

outside his legal powers. I have no knowledge, or any direct evidence, that that has happened. Should the noble Earl, Lord Peel, wish to take the matter further, I shall consider anything specific he has in mind. I repeat that chief constables are simply citizens in uniform, to use the well-known phrase. They must discharge their duties according to the legislative scheme.

Lord Burton: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the difficulty which some police forces have as a result of the shortage of time? For instance, 10 days ago the northern constabulary, which has the largest number of weapons to collect and the largest land area to cover, had received hardly any papers from the Home Office. Surely that does not give it good time in which to prepare.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not know the specifics of that. If the noble Lord wishes to provide me with details, I shall look into that aspect as well. I should find it disappointing if documentary material had not gone out at a time at which the chief constable in question, or his designated officers, could deal with it appropriately.

Viscount Caldecote: My Lords, will the Government review the compensation provisions in the Act so that those whose businesses have been wrecked by the legislation will be fairly compensated, as well as those who hand in their firearms?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, compensation for those who may suffer loss of business is outwith the scheme of the present Act; and there is no proposal to review that.

Law Officers Bill [H.L.]

3.2 p.m.

The Solicitor-General (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Moved, That the order of commitment be discharged.--(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Firearms (Amendment) Bill

3.3 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill now be read a second time.

From tomorrow large-calibre handguns used for target shooting will become prohibited under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, except for certificate holders and dealers for whom the prohibition will come

30 Jun 1997 : Column 10

into effect on 1st October. This Bill will go one step further and prohibit small-calibre pistols used for target shooting.

The Government considered and dismissed the case for retaining the licensed pistol club provisions in the 1997 Act. The 1997 Act envisages a complex system of pistol clubs, licensed by the Secretary of State, in which small-calibre pistols can be stored and used. But no level of security would guarantee that pistols could not be removed from licensed clubs. And nor is it possible to offer sufficient safeguards to the public when these pistols need to be removed, for example for servicing or repair, or participation in a competition elsewhere in the country or overseas.

It is worth recalling Lord Cullen's views on the difficulties of gun control. When he deals with the question of separating and storing gun components separately many of the issues also apply to the use of small-calibre pistols at licensed pistol clubs. Lord Cullen cited the views of the British Shooting Sports Council that,

    "no matter what system of checks and paperwork is maintained in such circumstances, it would be a simple matter indeed for a shooter intent on recovering his guns to enter a competition, provide evidence to his club secretary that he had done so, recover possession of the complete gun together with ammunition for it, and perpetrate an outrage".

I refer to paragraph 9.68 of the Cullen report.

The 1997 Act simply does not go far enough. It allows 40,000 lethal handguns to remain available for use. These guns are as lethal as a larger handgun. Some multi-shot versions are very quick firing as well as being easy to conceal.

Before putting forward the Bill the Government had considered whether there may have been a case for exempting single shot small-calibre pistols from a general ban. This was considered in another place and resoundingly rejected on the grounds that it would also create a dangerous loophole. Small-calibre single shot pistols are lethal, easily concealable and, according to evidence presented to Lord Cullen, can be reloaded within five seconds. I refer to paragraph 9.52. The Government's judgment is that we cannot afford to leave any loophole.

In the Labour Party's election manifesto we gave a commitment that there should be a free vote in another place on whether to extend the prohibition to all handguns. That other place voted by an overwhelming majority of 203 for the ban to be extended.

The Bill we have before us is very short; just three clauses. I shall attempt briefly to explain their scope.

Clause 1 extends to small-calibre pistols the ban instituted by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. It does this by putting small-calibre pistols in the same prohibited category of weapons as machine guns, semi-automatic rifles and, from 1st July, large-calibre handguns.

The ban leaves in place the narrow range of exemptions already contained in the 1997 Act for people such as vets, slaughterhouse workers, and race officials at athletic meetings.

30 Jun 1997 : Column 11

Provided such people can convince their police force of a specific need to hold a large-calibre or small-calibre handgun for one of the stated purposes, then they may do so. In the majority of these cases, a firearm certificate will have to be held with the necessary conditions as specified by the police.

Clause 2 contains a number of consequential amendments to the 1997 Act. These have the effect of bringing the provisions for the surrender of small-calibre pistols into line with those for large-calibre handguns.

The clause also extends the compensation provisions of the 1997 Act to small-calibre pistols and ancillary equipment. The compensation scheme is not subject to parliamentary affirmative approval as the Government intend that it will be along the same lines as that for large-calibre handguns and ancillary equipment under the 1997 Act. A copy of the scheme has already been placed in the Library.

Under the 1997 Act, from 1st July of this year, owners of smaller-calibre pistols will be able to surrender pistols and ancillary equipment on a voluntary basis and to receive ex gratia payments for them.

Clause 2 also gives effect to the schedule containing consequential repeals.

Clause 3 deals with the short title, commencement provisions, and extent. The Bill applies to England and Wales and Scotland but not to Northern Ireland.

I spend a moment on the Commonwealth Games. I should like to make clear that the ban will not affect the ability of this country to host the Commonwealth Games in 2002, nor to stage in the future the Olympic or Paralympic Games. Under powers available to the Secretary of State special dispensation under Section 5 of the 1968 Firearms Act can be granted to the participants in the shooting events involving prohibited weapons.

The Government accept that British participants will not be able to train in this country for some shooting events. That is a direct consequence of the Bill and reflects the strength of feeling in this country for a complete ban on handguns. However not all shooting events involve handguns. Only three out of 15 shooting events in the Olympics will be affected, two out of 15 in the Paralympics, and seven out of 21 in the Commonwealth Games. British participation in the majority of the events involving airguns, rifles and shotguns can continue as before.

The ban will affect the position of some disabled shooters. We accept that there will be some events which will have to cease. But there will be many others that can continue. There will be a transitional period for some shooters, both disabled and able-bodied. Some will choose to switch to other firearm disciplines; some will no doubt give up shooting altogether.

During the debate on the main compensation scheme in this House on 9th June a question was raised about the imposition of a standard response time for processing compensation claims for large-calibre handguns and related ancillary equipment.

30 Jun 1997 : Column 12

I gave an undertaking on that occasion that all claims will be dealt with as quickly as possible but explained that it would simply not be practicable to set a guaranteed response time. That will also apply to claims for ex gratia payments for small-calibre pistols. Those claims submitted under options A and B will be able to be processed very quickly, some very quickly indeed, but there will be more than 60,000 claimants whose forms will be forwarded by the police to the firearms compensation section over the three-month surrender period. The more difficult option C claims will take longer on average to process. The firearms compensation section has been set up to complete the processing of the claims within 18 months but the majority of claims will have been completed well within that timescale.

I regret that there are perfectly law-abiding shooters who will be disadvantaged by both the 1997 Act and this Bill. The Government's view, endorsed by this House, is that the right to life comes before the right to practise a sport.

This Bill therefore, if enacted into law, will bring into place even tighter controls on handguns than those introduced by the 1997 Act. It is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that the level of controls is commensurate with public safety. This Bill fulfils that commitment and will close a chapter on the worst shooting incident in Britain since Michael Ryan murdered and wounded at Hungerford. I hope that with the will of this House the Bill can be passed quickly so that the full ban can be in place by the end of the year. Accordingly, I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

3.12 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, following the dreadful massacre of young children and their teacher by Thomas Hamilton in a primary school in Dunblane, the then Conservative Government commissioned the Cullen Report. The Government then, with the support of the Labour Opposition, passed into statute the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. That Act set out a general prohibition on handguns above .22 calibre. It also required owners of weapons of .22 calibre and below to keep them in secure gun clubs. Any movement of weapons to, from or between gun clubs was to be strictly controlled. In addition, there was a tightening of the administration of licensing. Those measures represented the toughest gun laws in the world. It is also worth repeating that the Act went beyond the recommendations set out in the Cullen Report, much to the chagrin of Members on all sides of this House and in another place.

The arguments advanced on behalf of the many sportsmen and sportswomen, able-bodied and disabled, law-abiding citizens alike, were very powerful indeed. It was not an easy balance to strike. However, I believe that to address both public safety and to preserve the sport was important.

The ink is hardly dry on that piece of legislation. Implementation of the compensation scheme is ill-prepared--today's Question only served to highlight

30 Jun 1997 : Column 13

that--and is causing anxiety to the police and considerable consternation to those who own weapons which are subject to the prohibition.

One example is the surrender of weapons procedure. The guidance was issued late and received late. There is an inconsistency between police forces, a point already addressed by my noble friend Lord Peel. Police forces therefore have difficulties in administering the scheme. One police force offers no flexibility whatsoever; names only one collecting point and only one date for handing in weapons; and the tone of its letter is curt and over-threatening. I understand that, such has been the response to the letter issued by that particular force, that another letter has been issued with the intention of being more user friendly--which we welcome--but the threat remains that on and after 1st July merely handling one such weapon becomes illegal. That is not the case. It is not until 30th September that that happens; there is a three-month period during which the surrender of weapons can take place.

Another police force, again mentioned by my noble friend Lord Peel, has named eight geographically spread collecting points, and has issued a helpful list of telephone contact numbers and most helpful guidance as to the availability of collecting points, listing opening times and suggesting an appointments system, to accommodate licensed gun holders.

The Minister's response today was very much on the side of autonomous police forces. We accept that and believe it to be right. But if they behave in a way that is inconsistent with the intentions of the Act, we expect the Minister to show some concern for those on the receiving end of that piece of legislation.

Legal advice calls into question the consistency of the surrender forms with the requirements of the Act, and in particular paragraph 7. I understand there is considerable difficulty in requiring people to sign away their rights, which will possibly affect at a later date their right to a proper level of compensation. What are the Government doing to clarify that point?

The very short period following the issuing of guidelines to police forces and the imposed date of 1st July is, as I said, causing anxiety. A very new piece of legislation is juxtaposed with yet another Act of Parliament to introduce a total ban on handguns.

It is incumbent upon all governments to justify legislation as it passes through Parliament. I have read the official records of debates in another place. I find it difficult to detect any intellectual justification for this Bill. This Government have prided themselves on being anti-discriminatory, whether in relation to race, gender, age, sexual orientation or many other areas that I could mention. This Bill is discriminatory. It overtly discriminates against those who engage in the sport of shooting.

It is true that as a result of the 1997 Act there was some curtailment of the range of sporting events by sportsmen and sportswomen. However, the 1997 Act, passed just weeks ago, made it possible for the sport of shooting to continue, albeit under more difficult and stringent circumstances.

30 Jun 1997 : Column 14

Apart from enjoyment of the sport and the team and club spirit engendered by it, this country has been represented very successfully in national and international competition. The tally of medals won at the Commonwealth and Olympic Games is most impressive. I recently heard it said by a Member of the Labour Government that, in the event of a total ban on handguns, people can always find another sport or recreation to interest them. But this is where the Bill is mean-spirited and discriminatory, not merely against able-bodied shooters but against those who have disabilities, for whom the Bill will mean a complete end to their sporting activities, and for many an end to an activity that allows them to compete on absolutely equal terms with other men and women throughout the world. There has been no serious attempt by any Member of the present Government to justify that draconian step.

During the passage of the Bill there will be attempts to amend it. Compensation is just one such area of concern--not simply regarding the extra cost of compensating gun owners and dealers who hold stocks of prohibited weapons. Incidentally, it would be helpful if the Minister could tell the House where the extra money is to come from. If, as we are led to believe, the spending totals--not only overall government spending totals but those of individual departments--are to remain as set out by the previous Conservative Government, what will have to be sacrificed to meet the costs of the Bill? From my time in the Home Office, I know that officials were constantly paring away to make efficiency savings. Are we now to believe that millions of pounds, about £19 million or more, are sitting in the Home Office budget, unallocated? Perhaps the Minister will give us chapter and verse as to where it is to come from.

However, there is another aspect of compensation which is certain to feature in our debates. That is the losses incurred by the gun clubs which, as a result of the total ban, will not even have had an opportunity to conform--even though it might have been difficult--to the rigorous procedures set out in the 1997 Act, in order to allow the sport of shooting to continue. The scenario is rather different from that which resulted from the previous Act. Therefore, I believe that the Government should face up to the issue of a wider compensation scheme. We shall surely return to that at later stages of the Bill.

There was discussion in another place about the possibility of allowing for the establishment of centres of excellence where our most skilled sportsmen and women could continue to practise. It makes little sense if all other countries which will be competing in the forthcoming Commonwealth Games, and even the Olympic Games and any other international competitions which might be staged in the United Kingdom, involving the sport of shooting are allowed to have facilities for their competitors only for them to be denied to United Kingdom competitors.

A ban on .22 calibre pistols also presents real practical problems for the organisers of the Manchester Commonwealth Games in the year 2002. The United Kingdom is committed to hosting the .22 pistol events in the games. Indeed, Manchester finally won the bid

30 Jun 1997 : Column 15

for the games because of that commitment. When lodging the original bid, the organisers omitted shooting events. That attempt to exclude shooting was fiercely opposed by other nations--50 out of the 63 countries indicated that they would vote for the inclusion of shooting. That is not surprising since shooting is the third most popular sport in the games and most nations compete in it.

The Bill may put Manchester's obligation in jeopardy. Suggestions were made in another place that the commitment could be met by making special arrangements for competitors from other countries, while simultaneously excluding shooters from the host nation. Not only would that result in complex and bureaucratic procedures but it is also an extremely insulting proposal. As a sporting spectacle, the pistol shooting events will be reduced to a farce. The British home countries, which boast the strongest teams in the Commonwealth, will be forced to watch shooters from other countries winning medals on British soil.

Is the Minister able to say how the Home Office will handle the problem? The law as it stands will require competitors to have a Section 5 licence, as the Minister said, to carry their guns in the country--a licence with requirements so stringent as not to be practicable. How do the Government intend to police foreign competitors who arrive from other countries with very different legal and control systems? By what authority will the police be able to permit handguns to be carried about the country during the competition?

Those and many other points have not been answered in another place, other than by saying that the Bill is in the interests of public safety. But no evidence has been set out to justify the Bill. It is not even possible to monitor the effects of the earlier 1997 Act because, as the House will appreciate, it has not yet come into operation.

Our guiding principle was to protect the public. We believed that it was possible to tighten controls, to take all handguns out of general circulation and for the clubs to be regulated in such a way as to offer protection to the public. We regarded the sport of law-abiding people, both able-bodied and with disabilities, as a serious issue and one of civil liberty. Under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, they could have continued to represent their country in .22 target pistol events. The Bill will make the United Kingdom virtually unique in the world.

I shall quote again the words of the British Paraplegic Shooting Association which said about shooting as a sport that it was,

    "a rehabilitation means to help with balance and confidence, primarily in the use of a wheelchair and sport".

The association went on to say that it provided disabled people,

    "with a better quality of life and respect for themselves as disabled people in an able-bodied world".

The amendments proposed in another place to allow for centres to train our top quality shooters and for a special exemption for disabled shooters were rejected. Allowing the clubs to continue under strict controls with a much

30 Jun 1997 : Column 16

improved licensing system and removing all handguns from general circulation would have addressed the issue of risk to the public.

Dunblane will remain for ever in our memories, but this Bill will not enhance public safety. It is expensive, it goes way beyond anything recommended by Lord Cullen and the last Government, who had as central to their thinking the protection of the public. The Bill, as we all know, was flagged up during the election campaign and in the Labour Party manifesto. Therefore, I shall not oppose this Second Reading. But there has been a feeling of playing politics and opportunism about the issue, ever since my right honourable friend John Major readily agreed, following an approach by the Labour Party, that Dunblane should be kept out of the party conferences last year, ahead of the report on Dunblane by Lord Cullen. The Leader of the Labour Party, at his conference and in his own speech, pressed for a ban on all handguns. Anne Pearston, one of the organisers of the Snowdrop Campaign, was invited to address the conference in a very high profile way. Jack Straw, the Shadow Home Secretary, repeated yet again the words of his party leader at that conference. To his credit, and entirely characteristically, my right honourable friend John Major did not bring the issue into the Conservative Party Conference and at no time did he make it a party political issue.

I can only repeat the words of my right honourable friend Michael Howard, who said, following the publication of the Cullen Report:

    "Mr. Straw's support for a total ban on handguns has the merit of simplicity and overwhelming popular support. But before any absolute ban is introduced, MPs should reflect on whether there is a last case for caution. The victims of Dunblane deserve hard thinking, as well as deep feeling",

Subsequently, The Times editorial agreed that Mr. Howard was right to resist a blanket ban on handguns by saying that his approach demonstrated,

    "a willingness to balance liberty and coercion, public pressure and policy detail".

If we were only ever to do what is publicly popular, this House and another place would have voted in hanging and have reintroduced the death penalty for those who commit murder. But every now and then governments have to think very hard and balance popularity with what is right. We believed that preserving the sport for all people, able and disabled, was the right balance to be struck with protecting the public. Even at this late hour, I invite the Government to reflect again. This Bill adds to costs, it is unnecessary and deeply unfair to our law-abiding sportsmen and women and will not address public safety over and above the legislation passed only a matter of weeks ago.

3.29 p.m.

Lord McNally: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is right to remind the House that this legislation comes hard on the heels of the 1997 Act which was passed by her Government. My claim for consistency this evening is that I voted for that Bill to go through the House and I shall vote for this Bill to do so as well.

30 Jun 1997 : Column 17

As the noble Baroness rightly pointed out, this debate takes place against events which are both sombre and charged with emotion. I have a seven year-old son who is exactly the same age as the children killed at Dunblane. I go often to his primary school. I do not think there can be any more innocent place on earth than a primary school class. That is why the violation of that innocence at Dunblane shocked the world and made all parents draw their children a little closer to them. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, powerful emotions are not usually the best guide to making good laws. "Something must be done" cannot be the only justification for legislation.

We also know from the correspondence and lobbying prompted by the last government's firearms Bill that proposed gun controls bring out a wide range of protest from people who do not see themselves as life-endangering or anywhere near the criminal classes. Indeed, as the noble Baroness pointed out, the recognition of pistol shooting as an Olympic sport is proof positive that gun ownership can be a perfectly normal pastime carried out by perfectly normal people.

Therefore, it would be pointless to argue that there is not some element of rough justice in this Bill, as there was in the last Bill so far as gun owners are concerned. I suppose that the only response one can make is that, although this may be rough justice for the gun owners, there was no justice at all for the children of Dunblane. The fact that the perpetrators at both Dunblane and Hungerford owned weapons legally and honed their deadly skills in gun clubs must, as the Minister suggested, tilt the balance away from a fair deal for gun owners towards the tougher gun control now proposed by this Bill.

As the Minister said, there is no doubt that there is a mandate for such legislation and there is no doubt that public opinion is behind the measure. I suspect that in this House, as in the other place, opinion is more divided. In my own party, my right honourable friend the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Mr. Alan Beith, said:

    "My personal conclusion is that a total prohibition of .22 pistols kept in clubs would not make a significant contribution to public safety such as would justify or necessitate the severe limitations imposed on innocent citizens who want to pursue a perfectly legitimate sporting activity under strict regulation".--[Official Report, Commons, 11/6/97; col. 1190.]

So, although great emotions are at play in this debate and behind this legislation, let me make clear that we who support the legislation in no way suggest that those who have criticisms of it are any less stricken by the tragedy of Dunblane than those who take a different point of view. But we do take a different point of view. The experience of Hungerford and Dunblane convinces me that tighter legislation would make a significant contribution to public safety, not only by making it less likely that the Ryans and the Hamiltons of this world could obtain the guns and the skills to commit atrocities but by expressing, in the most vivid way available to Parliament, our determination to reverse the rising tide of gun culture in this country.

A few days ago I read in the newspaper a report about life in our inner cities where, the article said, young men now feel "under-dressed" if they are not carrying a

30 Jun 1997 : Column 18

handgun. The research paper prepared for these debates by the House of Commons Library points out that before the Firearms Act 1920:

    "anyone, respectable citizen, criminal or lunatic, could walk into a gunshop and buy any firearm he wanted".

Yet the Metropolitan Police Commissioner said that the use of guns in crime at that time was "very rare indeed". The three-quarters of a century since that Act have shown Parliament intervening time and again to try to stem the rising use of guns in crime.

Those who oppose gun control argue, as they always do, that legislation neither prevents the criminal from obtaining a gun nor deters him from using it. Certainly that is true. The determined criminal can obtain a gun if he wants to. But there is no doubt that we face a challenge in that more criminals and younger criminals are using guns. Even those who defend the right of "normal" people to own guns must concede that the loss of 500 guns a year through theft--and the Minister pointed out that 30,000 guns are in circulation--must raise concern about the interaction of the lack of gun control and the use of guns in criminal activity.

In its evidence to the Cullen inquiry, the Liberal Democratic Parliamentary Party stated that:

    "the aim of gun control is to prohibit the use of guns by those who cannot use them safely".

I must confess that I believe my colleagues in another place missed the crux of the debate. We must see gun control as a way of turning the tide of gun culture in our country.

I have said before that when the legislation put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, was going through the House I received dozens of letters, most of them from people holding guns as a hobby and for their definition of pleasure. But one letter stood out. It was from an old university chum who has now settled in California. It was a plea from the heart. He wrote that we in Britain still have a chance to stop the gun culture coming into our society. In the United States 35,000 deaths a year are caused by guns. Normal people now carry guns because of the threat that they feel from the gun culture itself. We still do not have that kind of society. We still have a public opinion which does not want to see the police force armed. We still have a public attitude which does not feel that one needs a Saturday night special to go out or a gun under the pillow to feel secure at home.

But the trends are there in our society. The statistics are there and the attitudes are there, particularly among the young. I have listened to the arguments on behalf of Olympic shooters, the disabled and the ordinary gun enthusiasts, but I submit that they do not add up to a convincing argument against the need for Parliament to start taking seriously the gun culture in our society. We have a chance to shut the stable door before the next tragedy.

As I indicated, I shall not be able to promise my party's vote in unity throughout the passage of the Bill. But, as I did with the Bill put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I can say with a rare determination that wherever there is an amendment which seeks to weaken or wreck this Bill, I shall be here

30 Jun 1997 : Column 19

in the Bill's support. Beyond the issues that the noble Baroness quite rightly raised and the amendments that we shall all judge on merit, I believe there is a more fundamental principle. This is the drawing of a line in the sand. This is the piece of legislation which can say that as a country we are going to combat the gun culture. I wish the Bill well.

3.38 p.m.

Viscount Slim: My Lords, it has been my duty and privilege to sit in your Lordships' House for over 25 years. During that period there have, of course, been disagreements between the major political parties and indeed individuals. That is one of the great traditions of your Lordships' House. However, I have never previously known a Bill which I hold in such contempt. The Bill is a stitch-up by the two major political parties to win Brownie points during the election. There has not been enough hard thinking about what is required and no real plan to try to satisfy those requirements. I feel that both major political parties are culpable. This measure is a travesty of justice and a persecution of 60,000 good people, people who are just as good as the 9,000 good people of the town of Dunblane.

The Bill will be passed in its present form and we must wait and see--it will take a couple of years--what effect, if any, it will have and whether or not it will reduce the number of killings. I wish to put a number of points to the Minister and perhaps I may also ask some questions. First, I feel for the constabulary in this country. An extra burden has been placed upon them and they will have much work to do. Also, I see some danger in that the places of security will pose a real problem. The Minister may not wish to say too much about that, for obvious security reasons, but is it fair that chief constables should be left responsible for safe areas throughout the country? Is it not possible that a small government team could advise and help to ensure that the places are secure?

As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, we do not want the police armed but they may have to be armed. Some attractive targets are being built up. They will be seen by criminals and terrorists as possible easy meat. That will be a grave problem.

In my wanderings around the country talking and listening to people, I find anxiety expressed that the word "disposal" appears throughout the Bill. It is a good political word and a good Civil Service word; it gives many options. But perhaps the Minister is not aware of the apprehension surrounding it. I do not see the words "destroy", "destruct" or "destruction" in the Bill.

There is a feeling that "disposal" means that the weapons will not necessarily be destroyed. There is also a feeling that the weapons may be sold so that the Government can claw back some of the £150 million they have to outlay. When good citizens hand in their weapons because of the Bill, they do so with the confidence--although there is not much of it at the moment--that the weapons will be destroyed. They believe that the weapons will not be put on various markets but that they will be crunched and destroyed.

30 Jun 1997 : Column 20

Every person who hands in a gun should be entitled to a destruction certificate. He needs proof that his weapon or weapons have been destroyed. I suggest to the Minister that that can be done individually when the firearm certificate is returned; it could be stamped at the bottom indicating that the weapons have been destroyed. Alternatively, the Minister's right honourable friend the Secretary of State in another place can make a public statement to assure the 60,000 people involved that the weapons no longer exist. It is a delicate point but in my view the wording makes many people suspicious.

The compensation form states at paragraph 7(c) that those who hand in their guns will accept whatever money is paid to them. In other words, there is no argument. Again, that arouses great suspicion. If I were to hand in my two handguns, which are worth quite a lot of money and which, in my humble opinion, are in a more secure place at the moment than one of the so-called safe areas, I would receive a £150 cheque, £10, or whatever is being contemplated, for each, and there is no comeback. We need to be told that there will be no fooling and that we will receive the price that appears in the Bill. There is grave suspicion in that area. I ask the Minister to look at paragraph 7(c).

At the bottom of the form one finds a threat. Those who do not hand in their guns by 1st September are told that they could face a large fine or go to gaol for 10 years. I look around for support from noble and learned Lords but my memory is that people of the criminal classes who have been taken to court for possession of illegal weapons do not even receive 10 years. That may be a grave anomaly with regard to justice.

I do not know what the good people of Dunblane believe they have achieved. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, put his finger on the fact that, in this country, the problem is one of illegal guns. I have not heard any politician in the other place, from any party, talk, shout or rise to his feet to start a movement to obtain a measure of control in that area. The Minister could walk out of this Chamber now and buy a gun on the black market. If he does not know how to do it, with great respect I can give him some advice.

That is the battle. I was sad when Snowdrop collapsed itself; after persecuting the innocent it did not want to go into battle and persecute those who hold illegal weapons. We are in a dangerous area. Some of our streets today are ruled by the gun. Drugs, muggings and armed robberies--that is where the Government's and our efforts should be put. We must try to remove illegal weapons. My opinion, for what it is worth, is that there are far more illegal weapons in circulation than there are legal weapons owned by the 60,000 now being persecuted.

This whole issue poses grave problems. The Minister in another place has a preponderance of cannon fodder. I am amazed that a couple of working parties have not been formed from that vast number to look at the problem and work it out. It is not a party political issue; it is a national issue. I for one am very sad that that thinking has not taken place in the new Government. They talk about the new criminal Act and so forth, but

30 Jun 1997 : Column 21

there is much to be done. We need new laws and tougher sentencing procedures for those in possession of illegal weapons.

What further can be said about the Bill? I said some rude words about it in an earlier debate; I shall not repeat them. But it is a sad business. There has been no long-term thinking. The issue became a gimmick for both major political parties before the election.

3.49 p.m.

Lord Howell: My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and start by stating my conviction which arises from one of his last points. Nothing in the Bill, when enacted, will stop evil people getting hold of guns and committing evil acts of murder. That should be the purpose of the Bill. However, that is not the main issue I want to talk about. As your Lordships might expect, I wish to talk about the effect of this measure on our future prospects of holding the Olympic Games or the Commonwealth Games.

If I may say so with some immodesty, very few people in this House or in Parliament have spent more time seeking to bring those events to this country than I have. I say that because, with all the affection I have for my noble friend on the Front Bench, which is very considerable, the Home Office brief which he read out amounts to total nonsense, as I shall try to illustrate in a moment or two.

My noble friend, like the Home Secretary in another place, told us without apparently any difficulty that there would be no ability to train for these events even if they were held in this country, so we could have the Commonwealth Games in Manchester but no British shooters being able to train for them. Perhaps I may say in passing that what they will do, as they will be doing this very weekend, is go to places like Guernsey, Jersey and France and train there at great expense to themselves.

This happens to be a moment in time--all your Lordships should rejoice--when British sport is doing rather well. Wherever we look at the moment it is doing rather well. I do not put that down so much to new Labour as to superb training and preparation by our athletes. What my noble friend and the previous government have to a large extent done is to say that we shall have the Manchester Commonwealth Games but no British shooters can train for them. What nonsense! What a ludicrous proposition! How in international sport can you expect your best sports people to arrive at the sports ground ill equipped and ill trained for the competition that is to take place? We have no right to put British sportsmen and women in that ludicrous position. I protest about that aspect of it.

The evil act perpetrated at Dunblane was an obscenity too harsh for most of us to contemplate. But even that obscenity does not absolve Ministers from the duty to apply clarity of thought, and intellectual clarity in particular, to the process they are dealing with. There has been no intellectual clarity about the way in which Ministers have approached the question of sport.

My noble friend repeated what Mr. Jack Straw has said. The best thing I can say is that I hope my noble friend does not believe it. I do not believe that he does.

30 Jun 1997 : Column 22

He said that this will not affect our prospects of bringing the Commonwealth Games or the Olympic Games to this country in the future. I am a betting man in a modest way and I am prepared to wager with my noble friend, Mr. Jack Straw or anyone else that the Bill, when enacted, will prevent the Commonwealth Games and the Olympic Games ever being awarded to this country. That is why I am making my speech today.

Like the noble Baroness, I shall not vote against the Bill. However, if an amendment is put forward at a later stage which sensibly gives the Home Secretary powers to take action to exempt Olympic or Commonwealth Games shooting from the provisions of the Bill, I shall support it. But I very much hope that we can at least persuade Ministers and my noble friend-- I join the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on this point--to think again even at this late stage. In pursuance of an Act which is in every way commendable to stop illegal guns in this country, I do not want my party so to over-reach itself through a lack of intellectual clarity that it prevents this nation ever again seeing the Olympic Games or the Commonwealth Games. That is the purpose of my speech.

When I have gone round the world campaigning to bring the Olympic Games or Commonwealth Games here, particularly the Olympic Games, I have found that the lobbying process can be overwhelmingly difficult. All kinds of international crookery goes on. Arguments are used to prevent people voting for the Games to come to this country. That is a fact which no one can deny. No one has yet told us--I do not know whether my noble friend can tell us--what discussions Ministers have had with the International Olympic Committee on this matter. What is the view of the British Olympic Association? It is difficult to find what it is. If anyone should be speaking up, it is the British Olympic Association.

I tell the House that we shall be placing a weapon in the hands of our opponents whenever we put in a bid for the Olympic Games. The first thing they will say is "The British cannot comply with the regulations. An undertaking has to be given that every Olympic sport is held in the country. They cannot do that". Of course the Home Secretary might say, "You can have the shooting here if you like", but our foreign opponents would not think of voting for having the Olympic Games in the country but their shooters not being allowed to train for them. The overseas competitors taking part, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, again said quite rightly, would have such restrictions placed on them in the way they carried their weapons into the country when the competition was being held--that is for a period of at least six if not eight weeks when one takes account of the building up of the Olympic Village and so on--that British attempts to get people to vote to hold the Olympic Games in this country would be easily defeated. That is the logic of the situation.

I understand and agree with my noble friend's remarks about the right to live but I do not think that can be equated with what he said about the right to shoot legitimately under strictly controlled circumstances. We shall not get the Olympic or Commonwealth Games

30 Jun 1997 : Column 23

here again--certainly not in my lifetime and I do not believe in anyone's lifetime. Because I passionately feel that based on my own experience, and because I do not really believe that deep in their hearts my noble friend and his colleagues want to achieve that lamentable result, I feel it necessary to ask them to think again, ask them to consult and ask them to protect Britain's sporting heritage which they have just as much an obligation to do as to protect anything else they are trying to protect in the Bill. They should consult, and possibly consult some of us who have experience of international lobbying on this scale; they should certainly consult the International Olympic Committee to find out what possibility there may be for holding the games here if this legislation is put into effect. I hold out a dismal prospect. I make this speech today because I believe that it is my duty to put that realistic proposal before this House and my friends in government.

4 p.m.

Earl Peel: My Lords, I am bound to say, "Well, here we go again". The only thing I can say is that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, looks much the same from this side of the House as he did from the other. I am sure that his arguments as regards this Bill will be just as hard and vociferous as they were about the last Bill.

I must declare an interest, as I did before, in that I am president of the Gun Trade Association. The fact that I hold that position is not the sole reason why I disliked the last Bill as much as I did. I disliked it because I regarded it as heavy handed, restrictive and penalising a small body of sportsmen who had their sport largely removed. I also disliked it because it largely ignored the recommendations of an extremely distinguished judge. If I were Lord Cullen today I would wonder what on earth did I do wasting my time producing such a report. Furthermore, that legislation involved some very considerable cost to quite a number of people. Like the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, I ask the House this question: is that legislation (or indeed this legislation) going to succeed in stopping the kind of tragedies that we all witnessed at Dunblane? The memories of Dunblane will always be with us regardless of any legislation; but until we tackle the question of illegal guns in this country we are never going to deal with the problem in hand.

But what the last Government's Bill created, as my noble friend Lady Blatch pointed out, is the most stringent gun control in Europe and probably in the world. But at least it provided something; it allowed the sport to continue, albeit in a fairly strangulated way. At least those people who participated in target shooting with pistols could continue to do so.

But we have in front of us today a very different scenario. I accept and acknowledge that the Bill was in the Government's manifesto and it is important that your Lordships' House respects that. However, that does not detract from my fiercest opposition to this latest attempt to curtail individual rights which, unfortunately, are being curtailed largely by the actions of a madman and I have to say with some distress, by the failure of the police to adhere to the procedures that prevailed at the

30 Jun 1997 : Column 24

time. People are losing their sport because of that and people are losing their businesses. Furthermore--and I must ask this question--in view of the very considerable amount of compensation that is going to be paid under both pieces of legislation, would it not have been more sensible to have provided that money to local authorities, which are crying out for finance, to help with crime prevention schemes? Security cameras are now appearing all over the streets of Great Britain. There is a cry for more: they are doing a great deal to prevent crime. The money would have been much better spent if it had been pushed in that direction.

The other question I raise is that of legislating against minority interests. It is something that we need to be very wary of in this country, particularly through the efforts of what I describe as single issue pressure groups. I am disappointed that the party opposite--which I suspect has always traditionally seen itself as being particularly strong in this direction and even defiant--is in this case quite happy to waive the individual rights of the shooters in order to get its legislation through.

The Home Secretary made an interesting comment in the other place at Second Reading. He said,

    "We all have to be very careful before we use our power to prohibit actions that were previously lawful and involved no criminal intent. Simple disapproval can never be a ground alone for prohibition".--[Official Report, Commons, 11/6/97; col. 1164.]

Those are very wise words. I hope that the Government will look at them when they consider other pieces of legislation in the near future which may affect minority groups. Clearly, there is very little that we can do to change this legislation, though I am quite sure that there will be opportunities for careful consideration and for amendments.

This House gave such careful consideration to compensation during the passage of the last Bill about which I believe we were treated very badly by another place and without proper consideration. I cannot believe that it can go unchallenged. During the passage of the last Bill the Conservative Government, after considerable pressure, agreed to compensate owners and dealers for those weapons and their accessories which were deemed to be illegal. However, there remains the thorny question of the loss of business and debt which resulted from the Act. I believe that that issue remains as relevant to this Bill as it did to its predecessor.

Mr. Howard, the then Home Secretary, resolutely refused to give any help to those whose business or personal level of debt suffered as a result of his legislation. He argued his case, as I understood it, on the back of precedent. None existed and he did not wish to create one. I can only assume, having read Hansard at various stages of the Bill in another place, that Mr. Howard, perhaps in anticipation of his new appointment as Shadow Foreign Secretary, had slipped off for a quick and most successful and effective trip to Damascus. I was intrigued to discover that, suddenly, compensation has become the cause celebre of the Opposition Front Bench in another place. I am delighted at the conversion, but it is a case of too little and too late.

30 Jun 1997 : Column 25

My right honourable friend Mr. Howard argues that the situation is different as regards the new Bill as, for example, clubs will be deprived of all guns whereas under the previous legislation they could switch from outlawed heavy calibre hand guns to .22 pistols. Mr. Howard has a point. But as many of us now realise, there are great number of people, clubs and businesses that ceased to operate directly through his legislation. I believe that the compensation figure alone for the loss of business which clubs have incurred is something over £64 million. That does not include retail businesses and individuals who arranged mortgages to secure their businesses and who have been left with large debts. Therefore, whereas I welcome my party's conversion to compensation, I wish that it had considered these issues a little more carefully when it was in office.

This Bill is bound to further the need for compensation. Of course, I appreciate that a fair level of payment is likely to be made when .22 pistols are handed in, and so it should be. But that still leaves a further raft of financial casualties that will pile on the previous legislation. I ask the Government: what compensation will be considered for targeting and range equipment which will now become obsolete under this Bill? I am told that automatic target charges alone are valued at £850. Some clubs have quite a number, so what are the Government going to do to try to minimise those heavy levels of debt and to overcome what I can only describe as a "gross injustice"?

In a supplementary question earlier today, I asked the Minister about the irregularities that appear to be developing in the way in which the police are handling the compensation provisions in the previous legislation. The Minister asked me to provide him with evidence. I shall do so because I would be most grateful if he could deal with the matter as it raises a fundamental point that was aired during your Lordships' discussion of the previous legislation. It provides yet another example of the inconsistencies with regard to the way in which the various police forces in this country implement all firearms legislation. I ask the Minister to look carefully into this question. I am not necessarily referring specifically to compensation under the previous Act or this Bill, but to the general malaise that exists with regard to this matter which I believe needs to be looked at very carefully.

A number of other issues arise which I am sure we shall debate at further stages. I was going to mention the whole question of our responsibilities with regard to international games and I had been going to refer to the disabled. However, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, dealt most eloquently with the problem of the Olympics and I concur entirely with what he said. Frankly, if we cannot overcome this problem it will make a mockery of the way in which this country is perceived internationally. I hope that the Government will address the matter seriously. My noble friend Lady Blatch dealt with the question of the disabled and I thoroughly concur with all the points that she made.

In conclusion, as I have already said, I am in total opposition to this second firearms Bill, which shows scant regard for a collection of citizens of this country who in my opinion--I should add that this opinion is

30 Jun 1997 : Column 26

shared by a growing number of others, once they have begun to understand the argument--have been sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. They have been very badly done by and I do not think that it serves well the democracy in which we live to witness what we witnessed previously and what we are witnessing now. Their sport has been removed. Many businesses have collapsed--businesses which have been built up over many years--and there has been no compensation. That does not read well. Of course, the horrors of Dunblane will never be forgotten and the pain undergone by so many will never go away. But I do not believe that either of these two pieces of legislation is the solution--and more importantly, neither did the learned judge, Lord Cullen, who has been conveniently ignored.

4.13 p.m.

Lord Kimball: My Lords, I must declare an interest as a former chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee. As noble Lords have already said, this is a very sad day for pistol shooters in England, Wales and Scotland. This Bill is the final nail in the coffin of their sport. It is the end of law-abiding citizens being able to pursue a perfectly legitimate sport. It has happened as a result of political motives in response to a tragic incident which was allowed to develop because the existing system of safeguards was not properly implemented--a point made by my noble friend Lord Peel in relation to Central Scotland Police--

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page