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Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. But before he continues perhaps I may point out that for 22 years I was a Member of Parliament in the area covered by Central Scotland Police. Will the noble Lord accept that Central Scotland Police twice reported Thomas Hamilton to the procurators fiscal for consideration of prosecution and that on both occasions the procurators fiscal declined to prosecute and ipso facto gave guidance to Central Scotland Police on the way in which it should conduct its firearms considerations? Finally, will the noble Lord accept that it is grossly unfair to make Central Scotland Police the scapegoat when it was acting under the guidance of the procurators fiscal?
Lord Kimball: My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord says, but if I read the Cullen report correctly, one of the problems was that from the point of view of Central Scotland Police it was cheaper to allow Mr. Hamilton to renew his certificate than to face an appeal in the procurators fiscal's court. If I remember the report correctly, that was one of the factors which influenced the police's decision.
The Act which was passed by the previous Parliament banning all handguns but rimfire .22 pistols was ill conceived. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, was absolutely right that all parties ought to be ashamed of our behaviour on that occasion. I know that I did not vote against the Second Reading of the main parts of that Bill, but that was because I felt that in the end that Bill would not kill off entirely the sport of pistol shooting. I agree that the skeleton that was left as a
The history of our shooting sports is one of the introduction of new weapons, always more accurate and always more expensive. The enthusiasts buy them and improve their sport. It is a history of new ammunition and of better sights. That is all part of the back-up of the sport which kept a large industry going. If one looks at the Bisley shootings in 1946 at the end of the war over the big ranges of 200, 500 and 600 yards, one sees that the scores achieved some 50 years later were not a great deal better but that everyone had spent a great deal of money and had a great deal more expensive new equipment.
I mention that only because I believe that that is what would have happened again with the restrictive form of pistol shooting that was left to us. We would have had a limited number of highly secure clubs which would have continued with specialised ranges. There is now no future for those clubs. I shall not repeat what my noble friend Lord Peel has said, but we are now faced with a bigger demand for compensation. On the previous Bill, we argued that there was a need for compensation to cover not only function but facilities. Those facilities are now obsolete. They have no future use. They cannot be used in another other form.
What are we to be left with in the way of handgun shooting? Air pistols are still Olympic weapons, so we shall still have Olympic air pistol shooting. For once, unbelievably, the Government have implemented one of the unimplemented recommendations of the Firearms Consultative Committee. My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury will remember that we published a list of some 20 recommendations, among which was the fact that we felt strongly that carbon dioxide-powered pistols should be treated in exactly the same way as air pistols. That has been met in this Bill. It is a considerable help to the really enthusiastic pistol shooter. If one shoots with a CO 2 -powered air pistol one finds that it has less recoil and a smoother action than an air pistol. That is something for which we must thank the Government.
I suppose that we should also thank the Government for dealing with heritage weapons under Section 7. That refers to pistols pre-1919. One is allowed to keep such a weapon in what is virtually a fortress museum. However, having agreed that people can keep these weapons, the Government then say that you cannot have a competition with them; you can use them only for a demonstration. Whether a demonstration can be turned into a limited form of competition remains to be seen. However, these are two minor points. I thank the Government for the CO 2 -powered air pistols and for allowing people to maintain their heritage weapons under Section 7. But we are left with a pretty miserable skeleton.
It is a sad day. We shall not vote against the Bill. We must accept it because it was in the election manifesto. However, in Committee we shall deploy a good many arguments on compensation and on the disabled. I hope that we shall win the argument even if we cannot win the vote.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, in view of his comments about the procedures of the Central Scotland Police Force prior to the Dunblane tragedy and the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, does he agree that central region has now changed its procedures and that Tayside Police Force, which also followed those procedures at the time, has done likewise? I believe that for the sake of public confidence it is important to have that on the record.
Lord Monson: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, is so soft spoken and reasonable sounding that it makes one regret all the more that the honeymoon period is clearly at an end. It was genuinely pleasant while it lasted. Everybody trod carefully, and compliments, most of which I believe were sincere, flew back and forth across the Chamber. But all good things come to an end, and this grossly unjust and unnecessary Bill marks that point.
I gladly concede that in the past six weeks the new Government have made a number of worthwhile and welcome moves. I refer to the lifting of the ban on trade unions at GCHQ Cheltenham, the reopening of the question whether servicemen executed for alleged cowardice in World War I were treated with unjustifiable harshness and a number of other matters. I mention this only to emphasise that my opposition to this Bill is not based on any knee-jerk political bias--far from it. How could it be so when some of the most powerful and trenchant attacks on the Bill in the other place have been launched from the Labour Benches, notably by Mr. Austin Mitchell and Mr. Frank Cook? As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, reminded us, his senior colleague, Mr. Alan Beith, was also highly critical of the Bill.
In addition, the previous Government's hands were far from clean on this matter. It was a disgrace that neither House of Parliament was given an opportunity to debate the Cullen report and that instead excessively draconian panic legislation was rushed through by the use of the Guillotine in the House of Commons against the understandable objections of Conservative and other Back-Benchers. However, this Bill is even more draconian than the Conservative Act, as it now is. Indeed, it makes the Dangerous Dogs Act appear positively wise and statesmanlike. This is all the more strange when one reads that in August, September and early October 1996 prospective Labour MPs were being advised to reassure worried constituents who happened to be shooters that they (the prospective candidates) would be opposing a total ban on pistol shooting
This Bill, if unamended, means humiliation for this country. I believe that the noble Baroness touched on this point. Far more important, it spells terrible hardship for individuals that is wholly disproportionate to the statistical risks, as opposed to the perceived risks, with which the Bill is intended to deal. Ministers have claimed that the Bill is necessary for the protection of the public, in particular children, but just how many children have been killed in Britain by legally owned .22 pistols over the past 100 years? I would be surprised if it is as many as a dozen; it may even be as few as half a dozen.
Of course, the death of any child for whatever reason is a terrible tragedy, but far, far more children are killed by arson attacks on the houses or flats of their parents or guardians. Only yesterday one read of two brothers aged 10 and 14 who were killed in such an attack. It is such a frequent occurrence that it hardly makes the headlines any longer, although it may be shocking to say so. Far more children are killed in that way, yet there is no restriction on the ability of anyone to buy a can of petrol that may be used for all kinds of nefarious purposes. Far more children are killed by falling accidentally into swimming pools, yet there is no obligation to fence them. I believe that in the past 100 years more than 40,000 children have been killed by motor vehicles--probably 5,000 times as many as have been killed by .22 pistols--yet there are no serious attempts to limit the use of these vehicles because too many votes would be lost.
With all due respect to the Home Secretary, Mr. Jack Straw, he was incorrect to claim, as he did in the other place, that .22 target pistols were overall as dangerous as .375 magnums. The Cullen report makes that perfectly clear to anyone who is not already aware of it. It is true that both Robert Kennedy and Yitzhak Rabin were assassinated with .22 pistols, but the assassins came up close to them. If an assassin manages to get close enough to his intended victim he can kill him with almost any kind of lethal weapon. Your Lordships will recall that Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City in August 1940 by a man wielding a mountaineer's ice axe--a tool that is quite small and probably easier to conceal than a single shot .22 target pistol. It is true that Mossad, the Israeli secret service, use .22 weapons to eliminate enemies of Israel. However, what is overlooked is that they use .22 machine pistols which have been illegal for civilians in this country for many years. A machine pistol is as different from a .22 single shot target pistol as is a Samurai sword from a potato peeler.
For that reason, the fear expressed by the Government that villains will target clubs where .22 pistols are to be safely stored is misplaced. Why should anyone take the risk of trying to steal a low-powered pistol from a secure gun club when, as Frank Cook said from the Labour Benches in the other place recently, he can obtain a much more powerful weapon in most of our large
It is claimed that public opinion overwhelmingly supports this Bill. In his introductory remarks the noble Lord, Lord Williams, spoke of the strength of public feeling on this matter. I simply do not believe it. In October 1996 the Sunday Times found that 54 per cent. of the population were opposed to a total ban on pistols, which this Bill would bring in. A later Mori poll, which curiously received practically no press publicity, revealed that 55 per cent. of the population in both England and Scotland--let it be noted--believed that the less draconian Conservative Bill would penalise target-shooters unfairly. Only 40 per cent. disagreed with that proposition. So it is hardly likely that the public will judge this much more draconian Bill to be a fair one.
I spoke earlier of humiliation. It is humiliating for the rest of the world to observe that the British Government, almost uniquely, do not trust their own people to own and handle guns, subject to all reasonable safeguards. That contrasts with the situation on the Continent of Europe, in both EU and non-EU countries, where such guns can be held widely by all respectable citizens. One wonders who are now the little Englanders. Even worse, unnecessary hardship is being inflicted upon shooters, almost all of whom are solid, respectable citizens, and, as has been mentioned, upon paraplegics who derive tremendous self-esteem from pistol shooting, carrying off a considerable number of gold, silver, and bronze medals in the process.
Terrible financial hardship will be inflicted upon those gun clubs specialising uniquely in pistol shooting, and which will no longer be able to trade down, so to speak, to pistols of a smaller calibre as the Conservative legislation, bad though it was, at least made possible. Many individuals who borrowed money to enlarge or improve their clubs will be now left financially destitute. It was good to see that all six of the original contenders for the Conservative Party leadership voted against the Third Reading of the Bill in another place, as did the previous Prime Minister, Mr. John Major. Let us hope that an equally firm line will be taken in your Lordships' House.
The Earl of Stockton: My Lords, I must declare an interest as the chairman of the Campaign for Shooting. In common with many noble Lords, I accept that this is a government manifesto commitment, and that therefore there is little or nothing we can do to prevent the Bill becoming law. I hope that the Government are prepared to listen to suggestions from both sides of the House as to how we might make it a trifle better law, because, as has been said by noble Lords, the Bill does nothing to solve the problem. As the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, my noble friend Lord Peel and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, we are not addressing the basic problem, which is illegal guns.
It was suggested during the passage of the previous Bill that we might approach the whole matter in a slightly different manner. The establishment of a national register, staffed partly by civilians and financed not by government but by shooters themselves, rather along the lines of the national set-up that we have for car and driving licences, was suggested. That was rejected by the previous government. When I heard of the present government's commitment to re-address the problem, I hoped that they might be prepared to come back to it.
I am also concerned that we have not yet heard the full agenda. There is some evidence that senior members of UK police forces are, in principle, opposed to the ownership of guns of whatever kind by private individuals. If that is the case, when the Minister replies will he give us an absolute assurance that that is not part of the Government's agenda?
When we come to the Committee stage, I hope that we shall be allowed to make improvements. I should like to see an improvement in compensation. As the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and my noble friend Lord Peel said, a number of clubs have been put out of business. I should like also to discuss whether we could not establish centres of excellence for pistol shooting. We have, as noble Lords have said, air pistols and CO 2 pistols which allow people to enter the sport. Perhaps we could establish levels of competence which would allow people to make the transition to powdered ammunition for .22 target pistols only at certain centres of excellence. We shall have one such with the new Commonwealth games facility, and one exists already at Bisley. I dare say that it would be attractive to some noble Lords to have one in Scotland and another in Wales.
Those facilities could be made available to the disabled shooter. I imagine that it is relatively easy for the determined and enthusiastic shot to go to the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands or France, but it is difficult for disabled shots to do so. To establish four such centres of excellence would give them a chance and would enable us to bring forward the next generation of Olympic and Commonwealth games shots.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell, in an informed speech, told us of the problems that this country would face with major games in the future if we did not have shooting. It is worth adding that, after athletics, shooting outnumbers any of the other Olympic and Commonwealth games sports.
I hope that the Government will be prepared to keep the House informed about the number of crimes committed annually with the use of registered firearms of all kinds, compared to the number of crimes committed annually with the use of illegal firearms.
I wonder whether noble Lords have seen or handled an Olympic or Commonwealth games .22 target pistol. It is not a small piece of equipment. It has a long barrel, a complicated stock and a complex mechanism. It is not the sort of thing you could tuck under your mac and take into a bank or anywhere else. I wonder whether the Government are prepared to accept that certain
Lord Gisborough: My Lords, the arguments against the concept of the Bill were argued to exhaustion earlier in the year. I believe that everyone knows and agrees that Hamilton only obtained his licence through misrepresentation and inadequate policing; that the Bill goes far further than anything recommended by Lord Cullen; and that the Home Office decided in advance what it wanted. Evidence of the negative correlation of legally held guns to crime was ignored. The Home Office admitted last month that from 1992 to 1994 there were only two cases of homicide with legally held handguns, and both were domestic incidents in which a frozen leg of mutton would have been equally effective.
The ban will have no effect whatever on pistols held illegally. The Home Office has admitted that to eliminate target shooting would have no effect on crime. Everyone knows that the holders of pistol certificates are particularly careful and aware of their responsibilities and that they obtain their certificates in the first place only with great difficulty and following exhaustive inquiry. Certificate holders are demonstrably law-abiding citizens who are being scapegoated. No other group in modern times has been so gratuitously vilified as the 5 million members of the shooting community.
As the noble Lord, Lord Monson, said, not everyone realises that while the immediate reaction to Dunblane was that 75 per cent. felt that there should be a handgun ban, by the beginning of this year 70 per cent. of people believed that there should not be a complete ban. Even in Scotland, 39 per cent. of people felt that pistol shooters were being treated unfairly. Public opinion is no longer in favour of the ban.
The sport of pistol shooting was invented in Britain. It has been dominated by Britain for more than 100 years. We have brought back 23 medals in the past 10 years. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, have covered the question of the Olympics very much better than I can. I hope, however, that the Minister will say just how the Home Office intends to administer the control of weapons brought in by foreign competitors. Should pistol shooting become impractical due to the draconian controls, that will undoubtedly have very severe consequences on any future bid for the games to be held in this country.
The paraplegics are particularly upset. Disabled people go to Stoke Mandeville to see whether they are able to participate in certain sports. Pistol shooting is the one sport in which they can compete on equal terms with the able bodied. It takes a lot of hard training. We can boast to be the only shooters in the world to have won three gold medals in three consecutive Paralympics. In the 1994 world games, we won two gold, two silver and two bronze medals. In 1995, we won one gold, two silver and one bronze.
Pistol shooting helps the disabled with balance and confidence and provides them with a quality of life and respect for themselves as disabled people in an able-bodied world. The Bill is a disaster for the paraplegics. As a result of it, Britain will be the only country banned from pistol shooting competitions. We are always mouthing lip service about what we can do for the disabled. This Bill is not much of a contribution.
The question of compensation was covered extremely well by my noble friend Lord Peel. The prohibition of even .22 target pistols will increase the cost of compensation for ancillary equipment well beyond the figure of £150 million in the previous Bill. It seems extraordinary that a government trying to find money to carry out various schemes are prepared to double the amount of compensation to be paid in what is purely a cosmetic exercise. It is no more than that.
Most disastrous is the lack of compensation for the clubs. Seventy-one per cent. of all clubs would have been forced to close under the previous Act; now 100 per cent. will have to close. I should like to give some examples. The Derby Rifle and Pistol Club will lose £100,000 from its land and facilities; in Chesterfield, the club will lose £128,000. The club in Aberdeen has a rent for 21 years at £70,000 per year.
The 10th Battalion Suffolk Home Guard Rifle and Pistol Club was founded when the government stood down the Home Guard. The government gave instructions for ranges to be established to which the public should be admitted. The club rented the land, which it eventually bought, and built a club house. The land had a covenant so that it could be used for that purpose only. The club has a Sports Council grant and loans which will now have to be repaid personally by the trustees.
The owner of the Nottingham shooting centre has seen his personal investment drop from £400,000 to £1,000. There are many other cases. The situation is clearly unacceptable and compensation should be paid, as happened in Australia. The Australian government paid the difference between the value of the business premises before legislation--after the incident at Port Arthur--and the value afterwards.
The Government have a huge majority and there is no hope of stoping this legislation. But equally, it is not necessarily the case that all those people who voted for a Labour Government were necessarily voting for every detail, including this Bill.
The matter of handing in weapons was covered by my noble friend Lord Peel. I am extremely concerned about the demand of the Lincolnshire police as to exactly when and where the weapons are to be handed in. It ill behoves the police, whose incompetence led to this dismal Bill, now to treat pistol shooters as criminals and without consideration.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, as the noble Earl, Lord Peel, remarked, I have changed from one side of the House to the other. But my position has not changed. I opposed the government from that side of the House and I oppose the Government now from this side of the House in relation to legislation which I believe is odious and not becoming to a British administration.
I remind the noble Baroness, whose speech today was very welcome, that during debates on what became the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, she was warned, and the Government were warned, by people who are now behind her and by me that that legislation was the thin edge of a wedge. The noble Earl, Lord Stockton, raised the spectre that perhaps before very long, nobody, but nobody, will be able to hold legally any firearm at all in this country. I hope sincerely that the noble Baroness--and I sympathise with her--and the people who supported the previous Bill will now realise what sort of an awful road they embarked upon by introducing that ill-considered Bill.
I shall not reiterate the opposition which I expressed on 16th December and subsequently. That would take too long. I believe still that it was a bad Bill, as is the Bill before us today which punishes the innocent for the sins of the guilty. What is more, it imposes a system which is alien to this country, its institutions and heritage; that is, collective punishment on a group of people because of the sins of a single individual.
I fear, however, that it really is a bit of a waste of time speaking here. The Government refuse to listen; Ministers stick rigidly to their briefs. It seems to be a dialogue of the deaf. But, of course, things may change. We have had a change of government and therefore, it may very well be that Labour Ministers, new Ministers, will listen to what is being said, particularly by people who are expert like my noble friend Lord Howell who made an exceptional speech about the sport that is about to be destroyed completely.
Even if an item appears in the manifesto, there is a duty of proper consideration and consultation before legislation is brought forward. There has been no such consideration and consultation. We had a Bill within four weeks of Parliament sitting after the election. It was rushed through the House of Commons in less than two-and-a-half days. It takes away the livelihoods of certain people and a sport which they have enjoyed for decades, if not centuries.
What about legislation which is not in the manifesto? We never hear about that, yet my Government--the Government which I support--without consultation and without even informing the electorate within a few days of taking office decided to hand over monetary policy to the Bank of England. What do we say about manifesto commitments under those circumstances? Perhaps we had better think more carefully when bringing manifesto commitments in defence of the Government's unwarranted action in such a short time.
There is a possibility of amendments being tabled to improve the Bill, including better compensation for gun owners and traders and, it is to be hoped, gun clubs, too. I sincerely hope that if I spend time with other Members in this House agreeing and voting for amendments the House will stick to them and that it will not be intimidated by the House of Commons. If Members believe that the amendments are right and proper and will improve the Bill in spite of threats from down the corridor I hope that they will say, "They are right and we are going to stick to them." That is their right and it is their duty to the people of this country who believe that we have a bicameral and not a unicameral system of government. Therefore, I hope that we will stick to our guns. I really did not mean that!
The Prime Minister says that we have a moral duty to the children of Dunblane. That is a very emotive statement. I say to him that we had a moral duty to the people and the children of Dunblane, but when the authorities failed properly to enforce the law that Parliament had passed to control the ownership of handguns the authorities failed in their moral duty. It was not Parliament which failed in its moral duty; it was the people who failed to carry out the role of Parliament. Those people have not been punished for their neglect and failure, but they have arranged for innocent people to be scapegoated, demonised and punished to assuage and misdirect public outrage about the Dunblane massacre.
There is no evidence that the Bill will prevent future Dunblanes. It gives no guarantee that there will not be future tragedies such as Dunblane and its predecessors. Indeed, it is highly probable that during the past decade
Like its predecessor, this is a disgraceful and odious Bill. It is the kind of Bill expected from corrupt and authoritarian governments. It is not the kind of Bill that I expect from my right honourable, honourable and noble friends in a Labour Government. I hope that they will reconsider its contents very seriously indeed. I cannot wish it anything but ill passage and failure.
The Earl of Shrewsbury: My Lords, I must declare an interest. I am the current chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee. It would indeed be strange if I were to welcome the Bill, having spoken strongly against its predecessor. However, I fully realise that the Bill is a manifesto commitment and therefore there is little we can do about it. Having said that, both the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, my noble friend Lord Peel and others have spoken about illegal weapons, which indeed are a sore on society. That is where government efforts should be channelled--to reducing the number of illegal weapons that are held throughout the United Kingdom. They are the real problem.
In my opinion, neither this Bill nor its predecessor will have any significant benefit for the safety of the public. All the arguments were addressed in the previous Session and I will dwell on them no longer. I urge the Government to make every possible effort to widen the scope of all compensation to address the dramatic and severe financial hardships which many small specialist manufacturers, individuals and clubs are experiencing through the effects of the previous Act, and which will be made considerably worse under this Bill. In many cases people, through no fault of their own, have had their livelihoods stripped away. That is a disgraceful situation in a country such as ours which is proud of its democratic history.
Many of those affected have substantial mortgages, loans and other borrowings which enabled them to run and expand their viable businesses and clubs when the threat of closure from legislation was never an issue. Now the threat of bankruptcy hangs heavily over them; indeed, many have already been bankrupted. Such people are suffering extreme hardship. Therefore, I put the strongest possible plea to the Minister for a widening of the Government's financial assistance to the genuine cases.
Perhaps I may ask the Minister what safeguards are to be exercised to prevent unscrupulous persons from benefiting from the compensation scheme. I have in mind an allegation made to me a few days ago that some people are purchasing handguns, often old and virtually unusable, for little more than scrap value prices in order to attempt to benefit from the fixed compensation figure. That would be wrong. The money, if it could be saved, could be used to assist people who really need it in compensation for the small businesses they have lost and for the clubs that are closing.
Finally, it would be difficult to let the moment pass without saying how pleased I was to read in the Official Report of the other place the words of my right honourable friend the former Home Secretary, when he said that the Bill was,
Doubtless that breathtaking change of heart from Mr. Howard will provide much comfort to those outside Parliament who had their hobbies, their sports and perhaps their businesses taken away from them and have suffered grievous financial loss. One could say in response to Mr. Howard's statement, "Well, we tried to tell you at the time but you simply wouldn't listen". But being gracious in the great traditions of this noble Chamber, I put it down to the fact that I never have and never will understand the science of politics.
The Earl of Balfour: My Lords, I think this is the first time I have seen a Bill with a different heading to its Title, because its main heading is "Firearms (Amendment)" but its Title quoted in Clause 3 is
All this Bill does is to prevent any British citizen having any handgun, and has removed any British citizen from taking part in any Olympic pistol shooting competition in Great Britain, which I feel is sad. No one in the United Kingdom will sponsor an Olympic sport which is illegal in this country.
Had Her Majesty's Government introduced legislation putting the offence of carrying an illegal gun in the same category as trafficking in drugs, it would have been most welcome. In Clause 2 the new addition of subsection (3) of Section 15 of the 1997 Act is almost incomprehensible. It states, as I read it,
of Section 1 of the 1997 Act by making it read Clause 1 of this No. 2 Bill. However, Clause 1 only removes the words "a small-calibre pistol" from Section 5(1)(aba) of the 1968 Act but still allows muzzle loading pistols and air pistols. This paragraph (aba) was inserted by the 1997 Act. What has happened to Section 9 of the 1997 Act which deals with expanding ammunition?
In subsection (3), which adds a new subsection (4) to Section 16 of the 1997 Act, it seems to me that I can put off handing a gun into the police until 14th May 1997. But the trouble is that that date has passed and yet this Act has not yet come into force. How can the general public know what to do? I think that the Minister mentioned July and I believe that the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, mentioned 1st September. Therefore I feel that there is a little confusion here. In new subsection (4)(b) what happens to Section 9 of the 1997 Act which deals with expanding ammunition? If I use a rifle to kill a rabbit or a deer I want to be able to use expanding ammunition to be sure that I kill the animal. With solid ammunition the animal may escape and die slowly from its wounds, and that is the last thing I want.
In the schedule to the Bill a muzzle loading pistol appears to be permitted, because in Section 5(1)(aba)--inserted by the 1997 Act--the only words being omitted are "a small-calibre pistol" but a muzzle loading gun is included in the present legislation. Also in the schedule the repeal of Section 57(1A) of the 1968 Act and Section 1(9) of the 1997 Act--both meaning the same thing--seems to permit an air gun or pistol to be able to fire bullets larger than .22.
Finally, in assuming that muzzle loading pistols are permitted under the No.2 Bill, with the repeal of Part II of the 1997 Act (licensed pistol clubs)--in other words Sections 19 to 31--it appears to be possible for the owners of muzzle loading pistols to form themselves into a club without requiring any licence.
Lord Harmsworth: My Lords, I want to say very little on this Bill. It is a Bill that I like even less than I liked its predecessor. Many of your Lordships have expressed concerns on important counts. One of those, as has already been mentioned today, has been the rushed reaction to a problem which neither the 1997 Act nor this Bill can possibly resolve.
My involvement with the earlier Bill was confined to an attempt to allow serving police and military shooters to continue to practise in their spare time with large calibre weapons--usually of the kind they are used to being issued with while in service. It seemed, and still seems to me, that the public interest was in no way being served by disallowing practice by serving officers while off duty with such weapons. The next Dunblane, as I said, may be one in which the quality and accuracy of police and military shooting may be crucial to a successful outcome; in a hostage taking position, for instance. To place an unnecessary restriction on police or military willingness and ability to improve with practice in their spare time, and at no cost to the taxpayer, could be thoroughly deleterious.
This Bill may well put the lid on any realistic possibility of improving that balance. I deplore it. However, there is another aspect which now needs highlighting--and some of your Lordships have done just that--that is, what I hope is not the start of a trend: the prevention of law-abiding minority groups from pursuing a diversity of activities which may nevertheless not be to the public taste. I neither fox hunt nor shoot with pistols, but I strongly deplore any oppressive majority use of its undoubted power to stifle such minorities. I hope we will see no more of this vindictive kind of legislation. I feel particularly helpless. It seems to me that one of the functions that your Lordships'
May I finally say that this unsatisfactory state of affairs, brought very much to the forefront by this Bill and its enacted predecessor, has triggered a display of political courage from some of your Lordships in a House I very much admire, not least because of such displays. I particularly have in mind the lone stance taken by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. His courage in taking the line that he did on firearms has been, and is, self-evident. That he should stick up for minority interests and for fairness and reason in the way that he has stands him very high, if I may humbly say so, in my own regard and, I am sure, that of others.
I very much hope that his example and that of others will remind noble Lords of one of the reasons why your Lordships' House stands so high in the public esteem--fair consideration of the subject matter; and that regardless of the risk of unpopularity.
The Earl of Lytton: My Lords, I recall that the noble Lord, Lord Harmsworth, occupies at present a seat which is roughly equivalent to that from which the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, gave many memorable deliveries. There must be something special about that Bench. However, joking apart, I have no interest to declare other than as a user of a shotgun. I do not use or own a handgun. My views are entirely my own and not those of any group.
Clearly the Government have a majority in another place; and they are fulfilling a manifesto commitment for a free vote. Therefore, although I question how free that might be in the light of comments made by senior politicians before the election, there is no point in obstructing the Bill. The chief effects have already been put in place under the terms of the 1997 Act. I should like to see the matter put behind us.
However, like the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart--to whom I add my tribute--I, too, wrote to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, when the previous Bill was going through this House, and warned her that the rot starts here--or words to that effect. But with that feeling of deja vu, I have to say that neither the size of majorities nor the strength of manifesto commitments makes this Bill right or good law. While a promise of zero taxation and improved benefits will no doubt attract many votes, it might also be economic suicide. So good government must at least equate with the ability to distinguish between public opinion on the one hand and legitimate public interest on the other, and the two are not the same.
However, political reality apart, I believe that, taken with the 1997 Act, this Bill is unreasonable, disproportionate and the subject of unproven and almost certainly false claims about public safety. We have heard much this afternoon about the number of illegal guns. There also seems to be a good measure of political opportunism if not spite. I refer to the words of the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, on that point.
A wave of understandable public concern has resulted in a measure of what I can only describe as self-righteous indignation being used to pillory an admittedly law-abiding, innocent and regulated minority. What I feel is so palpably unjust is the inadequacy of compensation for those who have been peaceably conducting their businesses and who have taken part in running and organising clubs. Two wrongs do not make a right. Those people will feel cheated and bitter, and the principle underlying the Bill will be as unpalatable to them as infanticide is to others. That may seem an awkward analogy but I believe that it is a fair one.
The inference is that justice does have a price tag; and I very much regret that inference. Justice has to be done and to be seen to be done as regards compensation. I hope that in later stages of the Bill those points will be pressed because I see great social danger in the implicit assumptions that lie behind the current approach.
I could query further the question of public safety. All I say is this. I do not believe that the public safety benefits claimed are quantifiable. I am the father of three children, the youngest being five. I am not clear that I would feel any more comfortable about that youngest child going through the Channel Tunnel than being in a primary school perhaps without the benefit of this legislation. There are many more pressing matters concerning public safety. What about mountaineering, tobacco, alcohol, or people smoking while driving down the M.25, and so on? I could mention many more.
In common with many other noble Lords, I have a number of minority interests. As have other noble Lords, I ask myself what is to stop the Government of the day seeking to eliminate one or more of those activities at the behest of a pressure group. Is this perhaps the modern version of the witch hunt or the auto-da-fe?
In his opening remarks, the Minister confirmed what his right honourable friend said about the possibility of issuing special dispensations to foreign competitors, for instance to the Commonwealth Games. I heard his right honourable friend making those comments on, I think, the BBC's Radio 4. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, put his finger on what I agree is an absurd situation. The message is that Britons are less reliable, more prone to gun abuse and cannot be trusted within a free democratic society under a system of regulation; but overseas visitors carry no such stigma. That is not sticking up for Britain; it is discriminatory and prejudicial to national interests. It is very unfair. Apart from anything else, it looks bad.
The Minister will need to explain how it is that public safety and reassurance of the nation is served by this rather unequal, if not partial, approach. I again refer to the comments of the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, in that respect.
What we have before us is a collective failure of Parliament to put head before heart. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, referred to this point. It applies to both Conservative and Labour Parties. From these Benches I believe that I can comment without fear or favour. In opposition, the Labour Party advocated reference of many issues to a royal commission or a formal
In his opening remarks, the Minister also referred to the right to life coming before the right to a sport. With respect, that is comparing apples with tintacks; and I do not mean to demean or reduce the gravity of what he said. Life, risk, expectation and fulfilment are not susceptible to being rendered down to comparisons of that nature. If we are not to leave a durable and bitter taste of lasting nastiness and division in society, we in Parliament and in the governance of the nation in general need to be much more proficient in the handling of a response to irrational, violent behaviour against members of our community and in particular the young. A tit for tat response, rather like the biblical eye for an eye, is no answer. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, referred to the indecent haste of all this legislation, both as regards the 1997 Act and this Bill. I agree with him. It does not look good.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to the culture of guns. That has worried me for a considerable time. But when I see computer games advertised as the "Ultimate shoot 'em up experience" I know that the rot within society is a good deal larger than the matter of licensed versus unlicensed guns; and our international role and trade mean that the problem is larger than the United Kingdom and indeed Europe. In that context this Bill and the preceding Act amount to gesture legislation. I would support them both if I thought that they would procure the objectives claimed for them. But I fear that they will not, and I feel it my duty from these Benches to stand up and say so.
Lord Burton: My Lords, several noble Lords referred to the number of illegal weapons in circulation. It is vital that police management of firearms is addressed. The noble Lord, Lord Ewing, sought to cast the blame for Dunblane upon the Procurator Fiscal. But why did a very senior police officer resign if the police were not to blame?
The drafts of the thematic reports on the management of firearms by the Scottish police were submitted to Lord Cullen. That valuable piece of evidence was requested by a number of Members of Parliament, both in this House and in the Commons. The Scottish Office Ministers at that time, so I am informed by the former Lord Advocate, chose not to publish the drafts. The thematic reports for England were available. Please can the Scottish reports now be provided in the Library of the House?
I and others have raised this matter before, and we were fobbed off with various excuses. But with this further legislation we should be given the information that is in the reports. We should then be able to give an answer to the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, as to the
A small but quite important detail of compensation has come to my attention. Speedloaders and spare parts not on a certificate are not covered by the compensation regulations. Will the Minister confirm that the Government have agreed to make compensation available for those items? If other anomalies come to light, will these be covered by compensation?
The Minister will remember that during our debate in this House on 9th June I asked whether the police were satisfied that they could implement the instructions being debated in the order before the House, and I expressed doubt as to the feasibility of that. My noble friend Lady Blatch later expressed the same doubt.
Were there not requests from the police for a six- to eight-week extension on the time allowed for taking in the weapons? Was not the reply that the Government were content that the scheme could be up and running on the date specified and that it would run with reasonable efficiency? In view of the chaos that is already evident in relation to the distribution of documentation required by the police, does the Minister still believe that that answer was correct? Will he please now consider giving additional time to the police to collect the weapons?
The Earl of Haddington: My Lords, I shall be brief, as the Government have a clear mandate to do as they like--although I hope that they will do what is just. The Bill before us has been cobbled together with undue haste. The police evidently agree with that point since in some forces they complain that the forms for compensation were received by them only 10 days ago. Does the Minister agree that the time limit for handing in weapons should be extended, as requested by those police forces? There are those who possess a firearms certificate but do not possess a driving licence. How are they to deliver their equipment--by bus? The form that shooters have been asked to sign is unsuitable; by signing it, a gun owner not only signs away ownership of the weapon before any compensation has been made to him, but also agrees to accept any compensation that the Government choose to offer. That could be nil if they so desire.
I also hope that disposal of the weapons by the police will come under some form of independent supervision in order either to make sure that the guns are thrown into a furnace and are all accounted for, or that they are disposed of in some other appropriate way.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Peel, who pointed out the gross hypocrisy and insulting attitude of the Government towards shooters in allowing foreigners permits to compete in the Olympic Games and Commonwealth sports but denying our own shooters the
The Act does not increase public safety one jot and has damaged many small businesses and clubs, which are now having to close. The compensation that they are being offered is, frankly, derisory. This whole business is a step down the road towards taking away freedom and personal responsibility from our citizens through legislation. This legislation is inappropriate and very sad.
Lord Cottesloe: My Lords, first, I must declare an interest, as I did previously. I am a life member of the National Rifle Association, president of the Bucks county rifle association and the holder of a firearms certificate. Many of the points I had intended to make this afternoon have already been made more eloquently and in a better informed way than I could have made them. Therefore I shall merely touch on two aspects.
The first is the suggestion by the Government that British competitors should travel overseas to train. That is practical only for those living near the Channel--let us say, those living in the south and those who are comparatively wealthy. That seems a curious effect for a Bill sponsored by a Labour Government.
Secondly, I wish to elaborate briefly on one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Harmsworth, on the effect of the Bill in another direction. In another place Ministers made much of the policies of the Police Federation and the Police Superintendents' Association being in favour of a total prohibition on pistols. They even went on to allege that the Association of Chief Police Officers is either moving, or has moved, to a similar view. However, that was not the case only a few weeks ago.
One might be excused for thinking that that means that police officers who use pistols, and know a good deal about them, hold the same view. In fact, they do not. A good police shot is one who is interested in pistols. Such people often privately possess a number of such arms and frequently practise in civilian clubs. They, too, are to lose their private pistols; and they, individually, are as upset and disillusioned about what is happening as are many servicemen in a similar position. Police shots who so suffer under this legislation are puzzled that their views are not listened to. Their efficiency cannot but be impaired by the legislation.
The Government may say that chief officers are satisfied that the deficiency can be made good. They omit to say at what extra expense to taxpayers and ratepayers. It is, however, the view of many serving officers who use firearms that there will be a reduction in efficiency; and, all too often, that means a greater risk
Finally, I have already been properly reprimanded for breaching the conventions of the House once this afternoon and I am afraid I shall do so again. When I put my name down to speak I understood that the debate would be limited to two hours, and it was initially. I said that I would host a reception in the Attlee Room at 6 o'clock, therefore I ask the indulgence of the House if, having spoken, I do not remain as I normally would until the end of the debate.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, this afternoon your Lordships have demonstrated serious and deeply held convictions which demand the utmost respect. Arguments have been advanced as to the effect of a complete ban on handguns for sport and for the innocent sportsmen who practise the sport. Your Lordships have also been concerned about the knock-on effect for our position in international games. As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, said, it may make a mockery of us in the eyes of other countries. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, stated, with some seriousness, that banning handguns may by dint of international "crookery"--I think was the expression he used--deny us the Olympic Games in the future.
I also understand your Lordships' concerns about the disabled, for whom shooting is clearly a useful activity. Skills are involved with hand and eye co-ordination, which I must confess I do not possess. The test of those skills under the stress of competition is no doubt what it is all about. But there is no legitimate purpose other than sport for the possession of handguns.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, said that the legislation was the thin end of the wedge and that nobody would be able legally to hold a firearm in this country. However, there is a distinction between handguns which are used only for sport, rifles which are used for the purposes of culling and shotguns which are just a tool in the hands of the farmer or landowner. Perhaps the noble Lord will forgive me for saying that his statement was a little extreme.
But we must balance the use of handguns for sporting purposes against the danger to the public of handguns in the wrong hands. There is no other sport in the Olympic Games where an implement is used which has featured in criminal activity. I do not recall a javelin being used for that purpose, nor anything in archery or other implements of that nature. The general cry has been--
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