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Lord Howell: My Lords, I wish to take up that final point and pay my tribute to Lord Crawshaw and to the contribution he so movingly made during our considerations of the Bill. Like the two previous speakers, I intend to speak once. As I have other Committee duties I must attend to later, I trust that I shall be excused if the discussion on these amendments lasts longer than I anticipate.
The first amendment we are discussing was one that I was privileged to move when it was accepted by this House. I make no complaint at all about my noble fiend Lord Stoddart taking it over, as it were, because once an amendment is accepted it becomes the property of the House. In considering the decision of the House to overturn the Lords' amendments, we must acknowledge the full debate which took place on our amendments in another place, which lasted for more than three hours. There can be no complaint about the attention which the Commons gave to the Lords amendments.
Regretfully, I have found the Government's arguments totally misplaced and unconvincing. They have not moved one iota since taking a decision on coming into office to impose a blanket ban on all gun shops. However, that is not a consideration before us today. The merits of the amendment passed by your Lordships' House remain unassailable. I shall shortly comment on two aspects, although I think that it would be totally wrong to go over all the ground again.
We have provided the Commons with the opportunity to consider our thoughts and our amendments and to think again. It has done so. I do not believe that it would now be right constitutionally or in terms of practicality to challenge the Commons further. I would not seek to divide the House today. Apart from the constitutional position--it was well stated by the noble Lord, Lord Harris--there is another practical consideration which I commend as a politician, if I may say so, to my noble friend Lord Stoddart. My noble friend asks us to vote again today and to take the serious risk of defeating two amendments which we have previously carried. I cannot believe that that would advance the cause which he and I have in mind. I prefer that our previous victories stand alone so that they can be referred to in due course. As I believe we must, we can ask the Government to come back to these matters, for example, as we approach the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, when undoubtedly there will be matters for further consideration.
I agree, too, that although the Government have not moved, public opinion has moved. I endorse totally the figures given by my noble friend Lord Stoddart that in a Mori poll held in the past three or four weeks 56 per cent. are shown to believe that shooters for the disabled should be exempt from this ban. Sixty-one per cent. thought that supervised training sessions with .22 calibre pistols should be allowed to qualify Britons to take part in the Commonwealth Games and the Olympic Games. That proves that at the end of the day common sense and logic eventually surmount blanket emotionalism, however much that emotionalism can be understood. We have seen recently other examples of that. It is my regret that such common sense and logic have not yet overtaken the Government, to the detriment of disabled shooting clubs and considering the severe damage that will be done to our Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games prospects.
I have a few comments on issues arising from what the Minister said in another place in resisting the amendments. There have been exemptions. It is wrong to say that there will be no exemptions granted; that this is blanket legislation. Exemptions were granted for the 14th European Pistol Championships. As we know, they are proposed for the Commonwealth Games in Manchester.
It is not the case that exemptions have not been granted. We would all agree that our police force has to have pistols, as do the Armed Forces and similar security organisations. Exemptions are properly guaranteed for them. We are told by Ministers that the weapons would have to be stored in one place and would become a difficult security risk. That is true whether they are stored in police stations or at security
Finally, since the Government give exemptions for gun events to take place at the Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games, those events will not be prejudiced. We have argued that before. I shall not go over the ground again except to say that I am sorry the Government do not accept the wisdom of the British Olympic Association and people such as myself. We know perfectly well that if we put our gun shooters in this position it will be to the detriment of any future attempt to hold the Olympic Games in this country. Those arguments still stand. Nevertheless, despite my firm belief that the arguments remain unassailable, there are new considerations today. I think that the wisdom of this House would be best met by accepting the decisions of the Commons on these two amendments.
Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, the Bill is put forward in the interests of public safety. Having listened to most moving addresses at an earlier stage--and again today--by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, your Lordships made an exception. It is not claimed that that exception derogates from the purpose of the Bill; namely, public safety. That was expressly disclaimed by the Minister in another place.
It is said that these weapons might be stolen. Presumably the Minister took that into account. In any case, the amendment makes provision for safe custody of the weapons of these unfortunates in whose interests your Lordships passed the amendments.
I respectfully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that there is no constitutional reason why your Lordships should not insist on the amendment which commended itself to your Lordships understandably at the earlier stage. It is said that the Commons is the elected Chamber. So it is, but election is not the sole source of political legitimacy. In any case, the Commons was not elected in order to deprive a disabled person of the only sport in which he can compete with his hale fellows.
It is said that if your Lordships insist, the Bill will be lost. That is not so. There is an alternative: that since it is a government Bill the other place in the interests of saving the Bill does not go on insisting against your Lordships' view. That happened once before. Your Lordships may remember the Further and Higher Education Act. It was notable because the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, then the Leader of the House, took charge of it in your Lordships' House and gave a most notable parliamentary performance. It was only at the very last stage, by an amendment at Third Reading, that your Lordships managed finally to carry the amendment which vindicated academic freedom. The Government were then faced with a choice. They resisted up to the last moment and went on resisting in the Division Lobby. But rather than lose the Bill, rightly, they
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, with respect to the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken, I do not believe that it is conceivable in these circumstances that the Government will think again or accept our amendments in order to save the Bill. It is simply not conceivable. The doing away with all handguns was a Labour manifesto commitment. It was subject to a free vote, which was taken.
To what purpose do we insist? Having supported the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, on amendments throughout the Bill's passage, I am in a very different position to that of my noble friend Lord Windlesham. However, I come to the same conclusion, for the reasons given by other noble Lords. There is no point in confrontation on this matter.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, in relation to the bicameral system: it is our duty to make it work. To support this amendment, and to insist, as the noble Lord suggests, is to throw a proverbial spanner into the works.
Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and myself have been on the same side on many issues during my time in this House. There are issues that torture politicians. Two that have tortured me during 27 years in both Houses of Parliament have been war--that in the Falklands, followed by the Gulf War--and the firearms Bill with its origin in the massacre at Dunblane. I have kept my counsel on the firearms Bill. I came to the firm conclusion early on that nothing I could say would bring comfort to the parents of the children who were butchered in that massacre. I have always acted on the principle that if you cannot say anything to help, for God's sake do not say anything to hinder.
I have deliberately abstained on every vote taken on the firearms legislation. For 12 years I was Thomas Hamilton's Member of Parliament. Stirling was part of my parliamentary constituency before the boundary commission changed the boundaries in 1983. Every Saturday morning when I held a surgery in Stirling, the first person to turn up was Thomas Hamilton. So no one knows, understands or tries to understand Thomas Hamilton more than I do. It is against that background that I address the House today and crave your Lordships' indulgence for the few thoughts that I want to share.
I remember Thomas Hamilton in 1971 as a youth and community worker in Dunblane, which was not part of Central Region at that time but part of Perthshire. It had its own town council. A horrendous argument broke out in the town, one half of the community wanting to be rid of Thomas Hamilton and the other half wanting to retain his services. The half that wanted to retain Hamilton's services won the argument. That was the origin of the whole problem that we are discussing
As time went on, Dunblane was brought into Central Region. Central Region took the decision not to allow Hamilton to use its schools. He appealed to the ombudsman, who ruled in his favour. Central Region had no alternative but to give Hamilton the use of schools in Dunblane for his youth clubs.
My reason for explaining all this is that in my humble opinion, honestly and sincerely expressed--I am in a minority of one--the Dunblane situation has been completely misread. Hamilton's perceived problems were all based in Dunblane. They were not firearms problems at all. They were perceived as related to the town; everything that happened to Hamilton had the Dunblane background to it.
On that tragic morning in March, 20 months ago, Hamilton could have got out of bed, left his house in Stirling, walked two minutes round the corner and seen one of the largest primary schools in Central Region. He could have butchered 600 or 700 children. He did not. He got into his car and drove seven miles to Dunblane. If those children had been standing at a bus stop that morning, he would have mown them down in his car. What should we have done then? Banned all cars? Of course we should not.
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