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Firearms (Amendment) Bill

3.22 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I beg to move that the Commons reasons be now considered.

Moved, That the Commons reasons be now considered.--(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

[The page and line refer to Bill (12) as first printed by the Lords]


After Clause 1, insert the following new clause:

Disabled persons: exemption

(".--(1) The authority of the Secretary of State is not required by virtue of section 5(1)(aba) of the 1968 Act for a person to whom subsection (2) applies to have in his possession or to purchase, acquire, sell or transfer a pistol chambered for .22 or smaller rim-fire cartridges if he is authorised under the Act to possess, purchase or acquire that weapon subject to a condition which complies with subsection (3) below.

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(2) A person to whom this section applies shall be a registered disabled person who has a physical disability and is approved by the Secretary of State.
(3) A certificate granted under subsection (2) above shall be subject to the condition that--
(a) the weapon is stored and used only at premises designated by the Secretary of State; and
(b) possession of the weapon outside such designated premises shall be permitted only for transfer to and use at premises at which a shooting competition is taking place on such conditions as the Secretary of State shall specify.")
The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason:

Because they do not consider it appropriate for the Bill to provide for any special exemptions to apply to the prohibition of small-calibre pistols.



Lord Stoddart of Swindon rose to move, That this House do insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1A.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I tabled the Motion to enable your Lordships to have a further debate on the issue of disabled pistol shooters following the rejection by the other place of our amendment passed on Report, and to enable this House, if it so wishes, to insist upon its amendment.

I should like to emphasise, once again, that the amendment does not undermine the central principle of the Bill. It will in no way lessen public safety. The amendment will enable disabled pistol shooters to continue with a sport which is therapeutic and will enable them to continue to compete in the sport, including major international competitions.

The debate in the other place on your Lordships' amendment was spirited, sensible and cross-party, although I am bound to say that the weight of vocal opinion was heavily in favour of our amendment. Both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokesmen on home affairs supported the amendment. I also have to point out that the balance of argument was, in my view, heavily in favour of our amendment. Moreover, I believe that, if all those who voted had listened to the debate, the outcome of the Division might have been different.

The arguments in favour of the amendment have been well rehearsed in both Houses, so I shall not repeat them in detail. However, in summary, they are as follows. Disabled people derive not only pleasure but also therapeutic value from target pistol shooting. They cannot possibly be considered a risk to public safety. That point was conceded by the Minister in reply to a Question tabled by Mr. Robin Corbett, when he said: "I did not suggest that disabled shooters were a threat to public safety." Therefore, we have it on the Minister's authority that disabled people constitute no threat. However, disabled people will be denied the opportunity to compete in paraplegic games and ordinary competitions where they can compete on equal terms. Pistol shooting is most appropriate for disabled people because they cannot handle shotguns and rifles. Finally, pistols would not be held at home but at safe, secure locations. Those were all the arguments that we

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considered on Report and which were found to be acceptable; indeed, your Lordships supported the amendment.

It is doubly galling for disabled people that provision is to be made at Manchester for pistol shooters from abroad to train and compete, whereas British competitors will be debarred. The Government have suggested that it is difficult to justify isolating one group such as disabled shooters. However, as the right honourable gentleman Mr. Alan Beith pointed out in another place, there are particular reasons for special treatment of disabled shooters because they cannot easily transfer to another sport.

Another relevant point made in the other place by my honourable friend Frank Cook was that public opinion has swung considerably since we started debating the issue of firearms. The latest public opinion poll shows 56 per cent. support for disabled pistol shooters being exempted from the ban on handguns. Indeed, my own experience confirms that result. I took part in a BBC 2 television "Close Up West" programme and later in a radio phone-in which revealed heavy support for this amendment.

Before I put the Motion to the House and, indeed, the next one on the Marshalled List, I should point out that I pondered long and hard on the matter but finally came to the conclusion that I owed it to the disabled shooters and to British international sportsmen to leave no stone unturned in my efforts to assist them. Some people say that we should not challenge a decision of the House of Commons, but I believe that we should. We should not run away from our responsibilities. I hope that we shall not do so this afternoon. Perhaps I may explain why.

First, there is a free vote on the issue. It is a free vote as was pointed out by the Opposition Front Bench on Report. Indeed, this free vote was included in the Labour Party manifesto. Therefore, if you like, it has the authority of the people. I repeat: it is a free vote, and we should keep that fact very much in mind. Secondly, under the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts, this House is entitled to insist upon its amendments. That is the law, that is the constitution. In any meaningful, bicameral system, both Chambers have rights and duties which they should exercise and discharge without fear or favour.

Neither Chamber should be subjected to threats of retaliation, nor should such threats be given in to if they are made. However flawed the present composition of the House of Lords may be thought to be, the House of Lords is the only second Chamber we have. There is no other. It is this Chamber which can make the bicameral system work. If it does not make it work, this is not a proper bicameral system. This House is therefore duty bound to ensure that the bicameral system works, especially when the interests of ordinary people, and especially those of disadvantaged people, are not properly considered and rights long enjoyed are trampled underfoot. I hope that that is what this House is about.

If noble Lords are not prepared to insist on legal and constitutionally proper amendments on appropriate occasions, the House of Lords ceases to be a second

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Chamber of Parliament and relegates itself to a mere consultative council. For the reasons I have stated, I believe that this amendment should be insisted upon and I hope I shall have the support of your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1A.--(Lord Stoddart of Swindon.)

3.30 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I will, if I may, in no spirit of discourtesy to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, speak only once on the two amendments that he has put before us. I do not propose to discuss the merits of either of these issues because that was done during the Report stage of this Bill in this House only a few days ago. The issue before us today is a simple one; namely, whether we are prepared, as a non-elected House, to reject the views of the elected House on an issue which clearly appeared in the Labour Party's general election manifesto. The view of the House of Commons on this question is absolutely clear; the Lords' amendments were rejected on a free vote by majorities of 132 and 136. In my view it would be entirely wrong for this House to give any support to the proposition put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. The House should be absolutely clear that the effect of either of these amendments being carried will be to kill this Bill. Are we seriously contemplating killing a Bill of this sort--

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I hope I may continue the argument. Are we seriously contemplating killing a Bill of this sort which appeared in the election manifesto of the present Government? In my view that would be wholly wrong in principle. My noble friends and I, and indeed my colleagues in the House of Commons, on free votes, voted in different Lobbies. I think that in all the circumstances that was entirely right. However, it is the clear view of my colleagues today that it would be wrong for this House under any circumstances whatever to support the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, in the Lobby. Accordingly, we shall vote against these amendments if they are pressed.

Lord Windlesham: My Lords, it is hard to think of any ground less well suited to potential confrontation between the two Houses than a Bill which prohibits the private possession and use of handguns and does so in the interests of public safety. Like the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, I wish to address my remarks to both the amendments and to speak only once as a result because they raise the same fundamental issue which the House must decide this afternoon.

The starting point is that all handguns, irrespective of their calibre and irrespective of their ownership, are highly dangerous instruments. They are portable; they are lethal; they are easily concealed. Moreover, they can be stolen, and they are stolen. On the statistics available to the Home Office for the most recent 12 month period, nearly 400 recorded incidents of theft of legally held

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handguns were reported to the police. That is almost certainly an underestimate because we know that by no means all criminal acts come to the notice of the police. On those figures alone, in more than one incident per day, sometimes involving more than one weapon, handguns were transferred from legal to illegal possession.

A further point that I suggest we should keep in our minds is a fundamental one; namely, that it is a fallacy to believe that certification procedures--certificates issued after inquiries often made by the police--render it possible to exclude those people who are not fit to have access to firearms or to ammunition. One of the most telling of all Lord Cullen's findings in his report on the Dunblane shooting was that,

    "no certain means of ruling out the onset of a mental illness that gives rise to danger, nor of identifying those whose personalities harbour dangerous propensities"

has been found. He continued,

    "On this ground alone it is insufficient protection for the public"--

mark those words--

    "merely to tackle the individual rather than the gun".

I greatly regret that on an issue of this sort, with unwhipped votes, Divisions in both Houses have been conducted largely on party lines. As one of the few on this side of the House who voted against the exemption for competition pistols at Report stage on 16th October, I urge the House now to accept the Commons' reasons for disagreeing both with that decision and the amendment which is now before us concerning the disabled.

I hope I may add a further comment on a personal note. The only reason I abstained in the vote at Report stage on the exemption for the disabled was the moving speech by Lord Crawshaw. We had had a long, almost a lifetime's friendship dating from the time of the accident--when we were both undergraduates--which led to his lifelong disability. It is tragic that Lord Crawshaw died over this past weekend and therefore we shall not hear his modest, persuasive and entirely honest voice in this debate today.

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