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The Earl of Lytton: Before the noble Lord sits down, I understand that it is possible for someone in France to have a European firearms pass which enables them to travel through any two other countries in order to get to a competition. While I recognise the strength of his feeling on the matter, will the noble Lord accept that there is an anomaly in what is proposed in the Bill, given that the facility, as I understand it, already exists? In other words, it will be possible for a French pistol shooter to come to this country perfectly legally with a European firearms pass, and with the pistol, in order to travel on to Stockholm or somewhere else.
We are part of the European Community and it worries me very much, for the reasons I gave earlier, that we are putting ourselves out of sync, if I may use the vernacular, with what is happening elsewhere in Europe. That is both in terms of legally and illegally held guns. I wonder whether the noble Lord would care to comment.
Lord McNally: With the utmost respect to the noble Earl, I am not dodging the question, but those are precisely the kind of details with which he and his noble friends have been bombarding the Minister all afternoon. I am sure that, with his usual skill, the Minister will now respond.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: The integrity of the Bill is important to us. I have listened with great care to the differing arguments put forward, by and large with a common theme, indeed, almost without exception. I have to say that I am not persuaded. Before introducing the Bill, the Government were well aware of the effect that it would have. The Home Secretary, in another place, made it absolutely clear that he knew what the consequences would be in terms of competitive shooting. It is a responsibility to prohibit actions that were formerly lawful. The decision to ban all handguns was not taken lightly.
On Second Reading on 30th June, at col. 11 of Hansard, it was made clear that powers available to the Secretary of State, under Section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968, allow special dispensation to be granted to allow competitors to take part in shooting competitions in the Commonwealth Games in 2002 and in any future Olympic or Paralympic Games which may be held here.
There is the consequence, which has been recognised by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State from the early stages, that for a few events involving small-calibre pistols British competitors could compete in the Games but could not train for them beforehand. I entirely take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, that if you cannot train it is virtually impossible to compete. That is not something we have dodged. The Secretary of State has made that plain throughout.
If an exception is made for international competition shooting, the next argument will be to ensure that there is a pool of people from whom the top shooters will be chosen. We will then increase the number of people who are exempt from the ban and it becomes increasingly difficult and, I believe, wrong to try to justify why some people are subject to the ban and others are not. May I make one or two points which I sought to make at Second Reading before your Lordships? The ban will not affect the ability of this country to host the Commonwealth Games in 2002, nor to stage any future Olympic or Paralympic Games. I shall come to the views of my noble friend Lord Howell about what the Olympic Association has told him, because it entirely supports the observation I made. The contract for the 2002 Games at Manchester has been signed and can only be broken because of a natural disaster or lack of proper organisation. The Home Secretary would be prepared to use his Section 5 powers to allow the shooting competitions, although any decision would have to be one for the Secretary of State of the day.
I turn to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Howell. At Second Reading he raised a question and therefore, consistent with my undertaking, I asked officials to confirm with the British Olympic Association whether any British bid would be affected by the ban on small-calibre pistols. I understand, and my understanding is fortified by the extract which my noble friend read out, that provided that all the sports could be held--and I repeat and emphasise that with the Secretary of State's special authority they could so be held--then any bid would be unaffected by the ban. Indeed, the letter read out by my noble friend Lord Howell said exactly that, if one listened carefully.
It is not true to say that Britain will be unable to participate in the shooting events because of the ban. Of 28 competitions in the Commonwealth Games, British competitors can participate in 21 disciplines for rifles, air pistols and rifles and shotguns. It is five years before the Commonwealth Games take place. I hope that some competitors will change their discipline. It is noteworthy that the .32 centre-fire event in effect has already been banned by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. I hope that competitors in that discipline will at least consider going elsewhere. I want to stress that I do not say that
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: While we are on the subject of people's legitimate feelings, does the Minister agree that the vast majority of pistol shooters who reach international level are specialist pistol competition shooters and pistol shooters only? Very few, if any, will have an interest in other disciplines. It is not true to suggest that a competition pistol shooter would convert to rifle shooting, as the Minister's recent remarks suggest. There is no pistol shooter who represents the British team in pistol and rifle events. They are completely different disciplines. The analogy which the Minister seeks to make is that perhaps a 100-yard sprinter can easily turn into a marathon runner. It is not a defence of the Bill or a reason to refuse the amendment to suggest that people can go on shooting with an entirely different weapon.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: I understand that point entirely. I was not putting it forward as a defence of the Bill. I was putting it forward as possibly an alternative for individuals to consider and to come to their own conclusions. I use my word again, it is not for me to prescribe what others do, it is simply an alternative which they may find agreeable or practical or they may not. I entirely take the noble Lord's point. I do not claim that these are matters without difficulty. They are not. But sometimes a balance has to be struck between individual desires which may be entirely legitimate to certain individuals and the wider requirements of society. I know that noble Lords think that the Government have got it all wrong. What the Government are saying is that they have made their judgment, having put it plainly in the manifesto that this is what they were about.
I continue. Of the 15 Olympic shooting competitions the Bill will adversely affect just three. British sportsmen and women will still be able to compete in the 12 competitions which remain.In the Paralympic Games--which of course one ought not to overlook--out of a total of 15 events, British teams will be ruled out of just two events.
The new clause proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, indicates that if someone obtains a permit from the Secretary of State he can hold a small calibre pistol without having a certificate. However, if the Bill is passed into law, small-calibre pistols will be prohibited and cannot be held without the Secretary of State's authority, so that the new clause would require someone to have both a permit and authority from the Secretary of State. It does not seem to require the involvement of the local chief officer of police who, in many ways, is best placed to make those important decisions.
I have listened carefully to the arguments. A number of noble Lords indicated that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said that he had an open mind. This matter was reasonably fully discussed elsewhere on a similar new clause and was significantly defeated by, I believe, a majority of 169 or so.
Baroness Blatch: Before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may ask him to address the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, who referred to the European system of being allowed to travel through two countries en route to an international competition. Does the Secretary of State have the power to override that permission which might be given to European nationals travelling through two countries, one of them Britain?
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