HC Deb 04 December 1996 vol 286 cc1161-76

Amendments made: No. 83, in page 22, line 27, after '23(2) insert32(2)'.

No. 111, in page 23, line 26, at end insert— '6A. In section 44(1) (appeals from police decisions under Part II), for the words "section 26, 29, 30" there shall be substituted the words "section 28A, 29, 30A, 30B, 30C". 6B. In section 54(1) (application of Parts I and II to the Crown) for the words "26 to 32" there shall be substituted the words "26A to 32".'.—[Mr. Ottaway.]

Order for Third Reading read.

11.1 pm

Mr. Howard

The Bill is a complicated one. It deals with a vital public issue, and right hon. and hon. Members have given voice to a number of important concerns. I pay especial tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin), who has moved the many amendments in his name with considerable persistence and skill.

I shall not go over again the background to the Bill. It has always been the Government's intention to recognise the priority that has to be given to achieving the protection of the public while allowing a limited amount of competitive pistol shooting to continue, so long as that could be combined with the protection of the public.

We have accepted, as I said earlier, all 23 of Lord Cullen's recommendations, and we have sought to achieve the objectives that he set out in his suggestions for the control of the ownership and possession of pistols in a different way. We have also sought to make reasonable exclusions from the scope of the Bill, when consistent with those objectives, and we have made a number of concessions on the question of compensation.

The exceptions include the exclusion of muzzle-loading firearms from the general prohibition, which will allow their continued use by historical enactment societies and their holding by collectors. There will be no changes to the existing arrangements for antique pistols.

I announced on Second Reading that we would introduce an amendment to deal with historic handguns made before 1939. We have taken the views of the Firearms Consultative Committee and others, but we are not quite ready to table an amendment on that point. We shall do so when the Bill is in another place. We also intend to table amendments in another place to extend the scope of museum licences to ensure that regimental and other museums that are not publicly funded will be able to apply to keep weapons of historical importance.

In response to concerns expressed in Committee and earlier today, we have asked the Firearms Consultative Committee to look afresh at controls on air weapons and on age limits in general. If there is a case for putting forward changes, and if time allows, we shall do so in another place.

The Bill is an important measure to protect and reassure the public by banning the majority of handguns from the home and public places. It imposes rigorous controls over the procurement, ownership, storage, use and disposal of the smaller calibre pistols that may continue to be used for the sport of target shooting.

The dreadful tragedy of Dunblane placed on the Government an inescapable duty to consider what controls there should be on the ownership and possession of guns. We have not shirked that duty. The Bill sets out the way in which the Government believe that the objective of strict control of access to handguns can most effectively be achieved. It will provide the public with the protection they need and deserve, while allowing a limited amount of pistol shooting to continue in secure conditions. I commend it to the House.

11.4 pm

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

We support Third Reading, as we have supported the Bill throughout its passage. During today's debates, many hon. Members on both sides of the House who have spoken in favour of amendments intended to reduce the degree of gun control in the Bill have understandably claimed that most or even all of the speakers in debates on particular amendments, apart from the people on the Front Benches, have supported that liberalisation of control.

One understands why those hon. Members make that point, but I must tell the House, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), that it is important to bear in mind the fact that, on Second Reading, the Bill was endorsed by an overwhelming vote. That was well demonstrated when only 35 Members voted in favour of the reasoned amendment, while 384 voted against it.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

The Bill may have gone through on an overwhelming vote, but it also provoked the biggest revolt in the Government party that I can remember in the 17 years during which I have been a Member of Parliament. More than 100 Conservative Members want to have nothing to do with the Bill, and they are right.

Mr. Straw

It is a bit difficult to divine whether there has been a Government revolt, judging by the number of abstentions—[Interruption.]

Mr. Frank Cook

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I suffer badly from partial hearing loss, and I am anxious to hear every syllable of my hon. Friend's speech. There is much discussion taking place inside the Chamber but beyond the Bar. May I ask you to draw the attention of the House to that fact?

Madam Deputy Speaker

I think that the point has been made, because all those hon. Members have now left the Chamber.

Mr. Cook

And it was all done without a handgun.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend obviously has a future ahead of him in clearing rooms.

If the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) judges Government revolts by the numbers of Conservative Members who abstain, he should know that the number who abstained on Second Reading of the Crime (Sentences) Bill was rather larger than the number who abstained on Second Reading of the Bill before us. [Interruption.] That happens to be a matter of fact. I do not pretend that it is a sign of an extensive revolt in the governing party.

In an intervention during the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) in an earlier debate, a Conservative Member—I think, but am not certain, that it was the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill)—asked when, before the tragedy in Dunblane, anyone in the House had talked about stricter gun control.

The answer is that, over several years, many hon. Members have raised that issue. My hon. Friends the Members for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) both did so in 1987, before Hungerford. My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) has done so assiduously and repeatedly over the years, and he introduced a detailed Adjournment debate on the subject in May 1995.

The Conservative Government led by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) also examined the matter, with the publication in 1972 of a commendable Green Paper on firearms control, which, sadly, was never followed through into legislation.

The answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Ludlow is very much in the affirmative, but there is a related question that he might have asked, to which there is a profoundly depressing and negative answer. That question is: what notice was taken of those who called for gun control before Dunblane? The dismal answer is that, despite the persuasiveness of their arguments, in practice little notice was taken of those who had the foresight to call for greater gun control. I admit that that applies to both sides of the House.

The victims of Dunblane—indeed, the victims of Hungerford—might have been saved had notice been taken, but it was not. With the benefit of hindsight on both sides of the House, we can now see that this Bill should have been on the statute book years ago. We must all share in the responsibility for the dismal truth that it will have taken the dreadful massacre at Dunblane to get it on to the statute book.

It is said that, as a result of this Bill, we will have among the toughest gun controls laws in the world. Personally, I am very glad of that. The more that I have listened to the arguments of the gun lobby as they have supported the privilege of their members to hold handguns, the more I have been convinced of the necessity to ensure that there is a complete ban on the ownership and possession of handguns in general civilian use. The gun lobby has, in my judgment, done its case no good at all.

The Bill goes a significant way towards achieving our aim of a complete ban on handguns in general civilian use, but it does not, in our view, go far enough. If, as I expect, we win the forthcoming general election, we shall introduce legislation to provide for that complete ban, and we shall invite the House to support it on a free vote.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)

In the very unlikely event of Labour taking power, what will its attitude be to shotguns? I know that the hon. Gentleman's personal opinion, as expressed on the Floor of the House, is that he does not foresee any further restrictions, but there has been pressure from Opposition Back Benchers, as some of the amendments tabled to the Bill have shown. Can he give us an absolute assurance that a Labour Government—should there be one—will not restrict shotguns under any circumstances?

Mr. Straw

I can give the hon. Gentleman almost all the assurances he seeks. We made it clear in the evidence that we gave to Lord Cullen's inquiry that we saw a clear distinction between shotguns and other firearms.

Mr. Budgen

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

I will in a moment, but I would like to answer the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) first, if that is acceptable. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) is a man of great politeness, and he will wish to show some consideration to his hon. Friend.

We said in our evidence that there is a case for distinguishing—as the law currently does—between shotguns and other firearms. Shotguns are in widespread use in rural areas by farmers in keeping down vermin, and by those involved in game shooting. We also said that we thought that there should be a tightening of the system for applying for and being issued with a certificate. We have no proposals, and I anticipate none, for introducing general bans on the use of shotguns. I make that absolutely clear.

Mr. Budgen

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that this measure has come as a result of popular pressure acceded to by both the Government and the Opposition Front Benches. One of the most important and persuasive advocates of that motive for legislation has been my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor). He was asked, "If somebody went mad and killed a lot of people with a shotgun, would you be in favour of a ban on shotguns, provided there was a sufficient public clamour?"

He made it plain that, as far as he was concerned, the cry of the mob was what activated him most of all in the introduction of legislation. If that is the view of one of the most persuasive and eloquent Tory advocates of a general ban, how can we sure that the Labour party will not be similarly persuaded?

Mr. Straw

Because members of the mob are to be found only on the Conservative Benches—that is the simple answer. We exercise our judgment on these matters.[Interruption.] I shall ignore the sedentary intervention about the number of mobsters at Stamford Bridge from my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), as this is a serious debate. We have reached our view, and the right hon. and learned Member for Putney has come to a different view.

I do not believe that shotguns are in the same category as handguns. Shotguns are not manufactured to kill human beings, although I know that they can do so. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) wants to tell me that they are manufactured for that purpose, I will readily give way to him.

Shotguns are used for what I regard as legitimate sports, and we have no proposals to change the current regime on them except in respect of certification procedures. Those changes would be widely accepted by those who legitimately and lawfully use shotguns.

The parents of the 16 children killed at Dunblane have grieved for their sons and daughters every day since 13 March, and they will do so every day for the rest of their lives. Anniversaries are particularly hard to bear, especially when children have died. While most of us will be celebrating Christmas this year, the pain at their loss will be all the more intense for the parents of Dunblane and their relatives and friends.

We have actively co-operated with the Government to get the legislation on the statute book. It was a widely shared hope that it would pass through both Houses and be law by Christmas. That has not, in the event, proved possible, but the fact that the Bill has proceeded through all its stages in the Commons before Christmas may serve as a testament to all the parents of Dunblane and their relatives and friends of our determination to ensure, as far as humanly possible, that such a senseless waste of life never happens again.

11.15 pm
Mr. Budgen

This is a had Bill, badly made. It has been badly made partly because the Opposition agree to it in principle and partly because the Government have been so unwise as to impose not a justified guillotine, after proper discussion or the suspicion of filibustering, but a scandalous and precautionary guillotine at the very beginning. I call it scandalous because the parents of Dunblane and the whole nation deserve to have legislation that is properly made.

One of the conditions of having legislation properly made is that those who feel strongly about something should listen carefully to those who feel equally strongly, so that they can be persuaded at least to understand that others share their passion, albeit from a different point of view.

The legislation has also been scandalously badly made because of the way in which we have brought together Report and Third Reading. When the already scandalous proposal for a precautionary guillotine was introduced, it was at first proposed that there should be a gap between Report and Third Reading, which would have allowed a period of consultation between those who are affected and those who are making the law.

There is no way in which the gun clubs can say whether they believe, for instance, that the proposals for compensation will be fair to them, and no way in which the lawyers can examine the hastily made amendments and say whether the legislation is sound.

We hear many speeches about the impertinence of the judges, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary often jokes about the way in which he is so often in conflict with the judiciary. In three or four years' time, the House of Lords in its judicial capacity will have to examine one of the amendments that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, helped the Government to nod through in the last five minutes before 11 o'clock, and the Home Secretary and a vast number of lawyers, at great expense to the public, will have to weigh up with agonising care the meaning of some phrase that has not even been considered in our proceedings.

Can we wonder that the judges say that Parliament is not doing its job, and that it acts as a vote-catching machine, not a proper legislature? Can we complain when they regard themselves as operating in some way as subsidiary Back Benchers? Can we wonder that they extend the doctrine of judicial review when we behave so badly as we have in the course of these proceedings?

I want to introduce a word that Lord Cullen used in his report, because it seemed to me to be a new word: proportionality. The Home Secretary—and I, rather inadequately—learned our law at about the same time at Cambridge. I remember that the word in those days was "reasonableness", but "proportionality" seems to be the word that is used now, especially by lawyers who know something about European law.

It is not a bad word, especially when everyone is always talking about the necessity for public safety. However, public safety is not an absolute good to be pursued at all costs and in all circumstances. The public must accept some risks in their lives, as we all do. We cannot obliterate risk all the time at the greatest cost in terms both of freedom and public expenditure.

In our disgracefully truncated proceedings today, we have arbitrarily extended the recommendations made by Lord Cullen. Before anybody says that this is only the voice of a mixture of muddled libertarianism and aggressive gun club rhetoric—

Mr. Straw

It is.

Mr. Budgen

I hope that it is not.

I accept that firearms were inadequately controlled before the Cullen report. I have a little experience of that because, as an occasional hack provincial barrister, it has been my job over the years to appear on behalf of people who wanted to get firearms certificates. I accept that the procedure was too lax. It was necessarily too lax, because it is drummed into everyone who has anything to do with our system of criminal law that we are all presumed innocent until proved guilty. There is no doubt that, from time to time, rather odd and potentially dangerous people got firearms certificates. I am glad that Lord Cullen suggested a way to make that first barrier more stringent, and it should be adopted.

Lord Cullen also suggested a second and very helpful barrier. He said that people should be obliged to be members of gun clubs. That would result in constant surveillance by gun club members, because they would be anxious to keep their own certificates so that they could continue their lawful—and some would say, patriotic—sport. I think that that was enough.

Then there is the doctrine of proportionality. What are we doing in this Bill?

Mr. William Ross

Does the hon. Gentleman, like me, find it passing strange that Lord Cullen did not examine the granting and refusal of firearms certificates in Northern Ireland, where it is an executive rather than a legal matter?

Mr. Budgen

I do not know that I think it should be only an executive matter.

Mr. Ross

It works.

Mr. Budgen

Let me explain. The hon. Gentleman may think that I am too much of a libertarian, but I think that, when police refuse a citizen a firearms certificate, that citizen should have a right of appeal to the Crown court. However, I think that the criteria by which such certificates are granted should be tightened.

I am sorry that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) is not with us, because I have been privileged to discuss the matters publicly with him. He speaks in a manner which I am sure he finds extremely persuasive, because he repeats it so many times. He says that he does not want there to be any gun culture as in America, and that there is no right to bear arms. As far as I know, with the exception of the European Union, we do not have a written constitution, anyway. There is no right to bear arms.

I think that the first barrier I mentioned should be made more difficult to climb. I am glad that Lord Cullen made those suggestions. It was also entirely sensible for him to erect a further barrier—the membership of those clubs. Here we come to the doctrine of proportionality. Of course, I repeat, we are not dealing with the literally millions of handguns and firearms that are held illegally. We are dealing with the problem that arises as a result of the 4 per cent. of crimes in which firearms are used which are held legally.

I should have thought that Lord Cullen's two new barriers would have eroded that 4 per cent. quite a lot. If, for the sake of argument, his two new barriers reduced the 4 per cent. to 2 per cent., is it reasonable to extend the Cullen recommendations to reduce that remaining 2 per cent. at such enormous cost?

What is the cost? First, we are depriving 55,000 people of their lawful activity, an activity that has been regarded in the past as a patriotic one, not unlike the Territorial Army. [Interruption.] Oh yes, that is so. I concede that, in the past, odd, deranged and unstable people have engaged in target shooting, as no doubt there have been such people in the Territorial Army. I maintain that the two Cullen barriers deal with that possibility.

We are depriving 55,000 people of their lawful pleasure. We are also bankrupting—yes, bankrupting—a lot of people. I had intended to vote for the wider element of compensation, and I was, and remain, very angry on behalf of those who are to be bankrupted. I did think, however, that my right hon. and learned Friend made a distinguished and, to me, persuasive speech as to why compensation should not be extended.

If we, the legislature, say that the fire regulations that we impose upon an hotel must be made stringent, we should not then compensate the owner when he goes out of business. That is analogous to tonight's argument on compensation. But that means that a large number of people will, in aggregate, bear losses amounting to about £300 million as a result of our attempt to reduce that 2 per cent. of crime that is committed with legally held weapons.

Call it the doctrine of proportionality, call it reasonableness, call it better legislation, call it what one will, this is a grossly arbitrary, unjust and unreasonable Bill. It is has been bashed through the House in a way of which we ought to be very ashamed. It is bad legislation, badly made.

11.28 pm
Mr. Frank Cook

It was my fortune—good or otherwise—to act as Whip on what became the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988. I see on both sides of the House tonight several of my colleagues in the Committee on that Bill—indeed, the Minister who led is sitting on the Treasury Bench at this moment. I remind the House that the limitation of time was also applied on that occasion and we were left with 67 clauses that had not even been thought about, let alone discussed. The legislation was ill thought out, ill conceived and badly enacted and, as we now know, it was also ineffective. We are in danger of repeating that nonsense tonight.

I have already pointed out to the House, and I am prepared to stand by my statements, that it is easier to buy a gun on the illegal market that it is to buy it from a gun dealer. It costs less to buy a gun on the illegal market than it costs to buy it from a gun dealer. The Bill will not affect that fact.

Mr. John Carlisle

It will make it worse.

Mr. Cook

Indeed, I fancy that it will. The Home Office is now advising that the larger calibre guns should be transported to the continent to be sold to gun dealers there, who are waiting for the prohibition to come into force so that they can buy them at a cheaper price. They can then send the guns back across the channel among the 2,500 that come here every week anyway. There will be more guns available; there will be more of them more available; and there will be more of them more available at less cost. It is nonsense.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said that, as and when the Labour party is elected to power—I firmly believe that it will be—legislation will be introduced to prohibit all handguns. There was a country that did that some time ago. One of its statesmen said: At last a civilised nation has complete firearms restriction. Our streets will be safer, our police more effective and the world will follow our lead into the future. That was said in 1935 by Adolf Hitler.

The Swiss have a proverb—they say that, if the Government cannot trust the people, the people cannot trust the Government. Hon. Members might be surprised to learn that 6 million legal handguns are held in Switzerland, a country whose population is much smaller than ours, yet there are far fewer murders in that country. That suggests that the problem lies not in gun ownership, but in law enforcement. If law enforcement had been executed properly in respect of Thomas Hamilton and, before that, in respect of Michael Ryan at Hungerford, perhaps those incidents might not have occurred.

What is certain is that we would not have had to listen to Front Benchers saying that those incidents were committed with legally held weapons. In my view, they were not legally held. Those certificates should not have been granted. If due diligence had been exercised by the police, as it should have been, our debate today would have been quite different and the people who have conducted themselves so properly while following a respectable sport would not be the process of being penalised for something that none of them ever did.

11.33 pm
Sir Jerry Wiggin

The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) gave a welcome assurance to the House on the subject of shotguns, but, as I recall, his reason for so doing was that shotguns are not designed for killing people. Nor are .22 handguns, .32 wadcutters or .38 wadcutters. For reasons that I nevertheless understand, the Labour party has decided that all handguns are to be banned—it has been carried away by public opinion, about which we have heard so much during this debate.

During the debates on the Bill, I have been constantly asked about public opinion, not only by politicians, but by the media. My assessment is that it is not public opinion that has carried us into this extraordinary position, but press opinion.

It would be intriguing to learn the weight of Members' mailbags from throughout the country. Earlier, there was an exchange on that subject. Before the recent debate started, my mailbag on banning guns was very small, but the newspapers were raging away, day in, day out, and holding competitions to discover who could call for the most draconian measures—newspapers that subsequently refused to take advertisements from those of us who were on the side of the shooters.

Emotion has been turned on full flow. Anyone who heard the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) speak earlier will acknowledge that he earned an Oscar for emotion, and it is ridiculous to suggest that he was not using the situation.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) has materially changed his earlier views on the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, as he was entitled to do. He is a supporter of football. Since the war, 289 people have been killed at major football matches; we do not hear much about that. By contrast, the so-called shooting lobby, the respectable, law-abiding citizens whom I have had the honour to represent throughout the Bill's passage, have been subject to denigration and vituperation, as though they were evil.

We do not approve of some people. The gentleman who was arrested this morning falls into that category. The so-called Shooters' Rights Association and the Sportsmen's Association are not members of the British Shooting Sports Council. We have sought to stick together as respectable, respected, self-disciplined, proper organisations, and I hope that we have behaved as such.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary for his kind comments. I thank very much those in the BSSC who worked hard, under great duress, to prepare the amendments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) said many times that the Bill was a bit of a mess. That is the understatement of the evening—it is a shambles. The Times said that the largest revolt by Conservative Back Benchers this Parliament occurred on Second Reading, and I suspect that tonight's vote on compensation will have been even greater.

The Government never learn. The mistakes that were made, were also made in 1987. To rush through a Bill based on perceived public opinion, without careful consultation, leads to the mess that we are in today. The tragedy is that nothing that we have done will prevent another madman finding an illegal weapon and committing a similar or worse crime. I said that in 1988, as did many of my colleagues, during the passage of the 1988 Act.

The simple solution, to say, "We shall reduce legally held firearms," does not bear inspection. Year after year, the number of legally held firearms has decreased and the number of crimes committed with firearms has increased. I share the Government's objective, but the Bill is no way to attain it.

11.37 pm
Mr. Beith

Notwithstanding the criticisms that have been made of the Bill and the way in which it has been proceeded with, it has been improved in its progress through the House, and the effort of several hon. Members has been worth while. The compensation provisions, although still far from satisfactory in some respects, have been improved. We are grateful for that.

I was especially worried that those who own the smaller guns that would remain legal would find themselves with an unmarketable gun, whose value would be virtually destroyed, and no access to the compensation scheme. The Government have sought to change that provision, and I welcome that change on their part.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) argued strongly that there should be some form of independent valuation. The Government conceded today that, when disputes arise, some form of valuation should be available, even if not in the form proposed in our amendment. I very much welcome that.

There has also been some improvement in clarifying the exemptions from the Bill, which Labour Front-Bench spokesmen would call loopholes. Even Labour's ban would have made provision for vets, as well as those involved in slaughtering animals, to hold guns. One man's loophole is another man's legitimate exception for the purposes of his profession or, as some would argue, of his sport. There is a legitimate discussion to be had about what exceptions should be allowed under whatever ban in ultimately enforced.

There have been—quite properly—discussions of antiques, muzzle-loading weapons, re-enactment societies and so on; and some improvements have been secured. In another place, more work will have to be done on those issues.

There have been differences within all three parties over the central issue of handguns. Most of my right hon. and hon. Friends felt that they should support the idea of a virtually total ban, as proposed by the Labour party. Others did not, and we exercised our right to a free vote accordingly, but on three points there should, I feel, be widespread agreement. First, the method of proceeding in this matter has been far from satisfactory. After so dreadful an incident as Dunblane, it was reasonable that the public should expect a fairly quick response from the Government and the legislature. However, that does not really justify the way in which it was done.

I particularly draw attention to what took place on the day that the Cullen report was published. The Government prepared their own position, to announce at the same time as the report was published. A handful of us were able to spend the morning reading the report and another half hour looking at the Government's view. In almost any other democratic country, and in many other circumstances in this country, the route would be: publish the report, have some public discussion of it, then reach a conclusion. The Government simply announced their conclusion, which differed from the report, before anybody else could read it—least of all those whose professions or sporting activities were in this area—and that was certainly not a sensible way to proceed.

The Government were committed before they could hear anyone else's views on what Lord Cullen had said. I do not regard that as a sensible way to proceed; it has led to many of the difficulties that the legislation presents.

The second point on which there ought to be general agreement concerns the value of the provisions in part III, which arise directly from the Cullen recommendations that the licensing system should be tightened up. For instance, anyone seeking to renew a licence should be open to as much scrutiny and prospect of refusal as when first taking out the licence. Lord Cullen regarded these and related provisions as important. I hope that all hon. Members do, too. They lead me to believe that I would be wrong, despite my criticisms of the Bill, to oppose the Bill as a whole. I want those part III provisions brought into force.

There is one more point on which we ought to try to secure general agreement. At times, that has not been apparent, when there have been emotional speeches about how we should respond to the understandable concerns of the Dunblane families and the press. It would be quite wrong to create false expectations about what the legislation can achieve. The most promising part of the Bill is to be found in part III and in the signal that it will give to police forces to be much more effective in implementation than the Central Scotland constabulary were in the case of Hamilton. It is to be hoped that there will be a general tightening up of procedures.

Leading people to believe that, because of a further restriction on the legal holding of guns, the country will be a safer place would falsify the picture and create quite false expectations. Vigilance of all kinds will continue to be required, especially on the part of those enforcing the legislation, and it does legislation and the work of Parliament no good to suggest that we can achieve miracles when we cannot.

11.43 pm
Mr. John Carlisle

I apologise for my absence from the proceedings earlier this afternoon. It was, as reported in The Daily Telegraph, because I was shooting at home with five or six colleagues and 15 or 16 beaters. They were not gun-crazed madmen out to destroy everything in their path; they were reasonable, honest people—some of them taking a day's holiday to enjoy a day's beating. They were typical of those who are seriously affected by this Bill. They are ordinary people who are devastated by the effect it will have on their sport. That is why I have totally opposed the progress of the Bill through this place.

I shall make three brief points, each related to a myth. The first, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) said, is the myth that the Bill may be passed tonight on the basis that public opinion demands it. That is nonsense, as those of us who have had enormous postbags can demonstrate. The Bill is a concession to the lobby mounted partly by the Labour party and partly by the Snowdrop campaign, purely on the basis of emotion. It is always difficult to argue against emotion, which overtook rational thinking. The Government regrettably abandoned reason and took emotion on board, as did the Labour party, especially at its conference. That myth has now been exploded.

The second myth is that this is the Firearms (Amendment) Bill. It is not; it is the Firearms (Confiscation) Bill. It takes firearms from honest people who, through their own efforts, have pursued a sport that they thoroughly enjoy, a noble sport that, as hon. Members on both sides have said, has brought our country great prestige. The Bill will take away weapons that people use legitimately. Those are ordinary folk who vote for us when we look for their support at general elections.

The third myth is that the Bill will do anything to prevent another Dunblane. It will not prevent another Hamilton. As the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said in an eloquent and sensible speech, the Bill will have no effect other than to increase the number of illegal guns. That will be an important issue, come the general election. Sadly, I will not contest the election, but great men are trying to persuade electors in various directions. I hope that electors will consider their candidates' attitude to the Bill, as well as to other issues.

This is a confiscation Bill which takes away the freedom of the individual. It shames the House and the Government that we should think of introducing it in the form in which it has been presented to us this evening.


Mr. Salmond

It would be irrelevant whether the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) contested the election or not—either way, he certainly would not be here afterwards. One of the great consolations offered by the Bill is the hon. Gentleman's agitation. He was so agitated a few moments ago that he stuck his tongue out at me across the Chamber. That was one of his more elevated contributions to the debate. One of his hon. Friends told me at an earlier stage of the proceedings that he thought that the hon. Gentleman had a hide like a rhinoceros. I think that that was an underestimate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. We are on the Third Reading of the Bill.

Mr. Salmond

I was being mild about the hon. Member for Luton, North, given his behaviour during the entire proceedings, and many people in Scotland will know what I am talking about.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) who, by contrast, has made some intelligent contributions to the debate, said earlier that this was a bad Bill. I do not think that it is a bad Bill, but it is a deficient Bill because at its heart there is a contradiction—an uneasy compromise between the ambitions of the Secretary of State for Scotland who, it is widely supposed, wanted to eliminate handguns, and the Home Secretary, who wanted to protect some elements of handgun use.

That uneasy compromise is shown up in three aspects of the Bill. First, there is a distinction between handguns of .22 calibre and those of higher calibre. That distinction is impossible to defend in terms of intelligence or logic. Secondly, the Bill allows and creates arsenals at handgun clubs, which will continue to store .22 weapons. Those are deadly weapons and the stores will be arsenals for criminals and others. That argument, which was advanced by the gun lobby itself during the Cullen inquiry, has not been effectively answered by the Bill.

I hope that, if the Secretary of State sums up, he will address the third issue. Many of us are concerned about the loophole in the Bill that would allow the number of .22 weapons to grow rather than diminish over time, as people trade down from higher calibre weapons. There are areas of concern and deficiencies in the Bill, but it is an improvement on the current position. As I can say that about little of the Government's legislative programme, if the issue is forced to a Division, my hon. Friends and I shall support it on Third Reading as we did on Second Reading.

Issues such as this generate much emotion, and it would be a very strange person who did not feel emotional about the tragic massacre at Dunblane. However, I do not believe that the arguments for a total handgun ban were put on purely emotional grounds. I think that they were argued on sensible, logical grounds, and that that argument is much superior to the uneasy compromise that the Government have reached. When the proceedings are concluded, all hon. Members should be able to say that they have squared their actions with their consciences. Many hon. Members on both sides of the argument can make that assertion, but all cannot.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) said that the issue will go to the election. That is true, but I assure him that some people in Scotland will look at the proceedings in this place and at the lack of action this evening and will think ill of those who were not prepared to pursue their arguments into the Division Lobby. People want to see hon. Members square their actions with their consciences.

I pay tribute to the conduct and the campaign of the Dunblane relatives and to the Snowdrop petition, which was attacked by the hon. Member for Luton, North. Throughout the debate, they have behaved with enormous dignity and advanced their arguments with enormous dignity. Any hon. Member with the sense to listen to those arguments owes them an enormous debt of gratitude.

11.51 pm
Sir Terence Higgins

This is a bad Bill, which has been inadequately debated. We did not need a guillotine, and I think that the House of Commons should have had the opportunity to examine the matter in detail. When the issue was last debated on the Floor of the House, we needed more debating time between each chop of the guillotine. This evening, the Home Secretary said that he did not have time to reply to an important debate on compensation, even though he was cut off by his own guillotine.

It is extraordinary that some hon. Members seem to think that it is possible to legislate, and that they must do so in haste, to prevent maniacs going berserk and committing atrocities. Tonight's 10 o'clock news carried the story of an individual who went berserk with a machete in a children's playground, allegedly because he felt the same way about society as those who committed the atrocities in Hunger-ford and Dunblane. In such circumstances, the futility of trying to legislate in this manner becomes obvious.

It is equally clear that one must take due account of the interests of those who engage in the sport of shooting. I hope that the other place will, first, consider properly the question of compensation; and, secondly, examine Lord Cullen's proposals carefully. I agree with the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) who said that it was wrong for the Government to differ from Lord Cullen's report without giving hon. Members the opportunity to discuss the matter. I hope that the other place will also examine the dismantling proposals.

The Home Secretary says that gun owners can keep spare parts all over the place. However, before someone would be willing to go to such lengths, he would probably buy an illegal weapon—which is much easier to obtain. That is a totally false point. Although the other place is not normally concerned with financial matters, I hope that it will examine the cost of the Government's compensation proposals compared with Lord Cullen's recommendations. If one is to spend£150 million—a sum vastly in excess of what appeared in the Bill's explanatory memorandum on Second Reading—spending it on law enforcement is far more likely to avoid the problems that we have faced than the proposals in the Bill. Therefore, I hope very much that their Lordships will consider the Bill in an appropriate way and deal in particular with the three important issues that we have not had time adequately to discuss.

11.55 pm
Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South-West)

I have not spoken this evening until now because I felt that I had been steamrollered, like many other hon. Members, by the emotion of the subject. The people who suffered in Dunblane—the parents—have every right to demand everything that they feel will do something to justify the loss of their children. We have a different responsibility in the House. We have to take a view that is weighed. We have to make judgments.

I believe that the Bill is totally flawed. There was an investigation by a noble Lord, who went into every part of the subject, and one of his recommendations was the dismantling of weapons—the keeping of weapons in separate places. We discussed that earlier this evening, but if we are talking about increasing public safety—we are not talking about the emotional issue of what we can do to help to solve the hurt of the parents of Dunblane—we have to look at how we can make the public safe, and one way to do that is by dismantling weapons and keeping them in separate places.

Lord Cullen made 23 other recommendations that are right to be put into law, but we are turning our faces against his recommendation for dismantling, and on the most spurious grounds that I can possibly imagine. I know a little about the subject and it is possible to dismantle weapons and keep them in different parts quite safely and in a way that would genuinely protect the public.

We had the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, which is also flawed. It did not prevent Dunblane. I said at the time that we should make it more difficult for people to appeal against a police decision, and the shootists did not support that, but that is now one of Lord Cullen's 23 recommendations. That alone will make it much safer for the public in future. Had that been done after Hungerford, we would not be discussing tonight how to increase public safety.

We are in grave danger of not increasing public safety if we ignore dismantling. I hope fervently that their Lordships will table such an amendment, that it will be carried and that it will be accepted by the Government, for the sake of public safety.

11.57 pm
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Like the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), I have not contributed to any debate on the Bill so far, but I feel moved to do so because I have been following it closely, both on the Floor of the House and in Committee, through the columns of Hansard.

I have received dozens of letters from my constituents—all but one are opposed to the proposed legislation. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) made wise, constructive and considered comments. We heard from the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook). He also made wise, forceful but sensible comments, because he represents the real world of pistol shooting, revolver shooting and gun clubs. I must therefore tell my right hon. and learned Friend that the Bill is misguided. It is ill considered and unfair, and we shall rue the day that the House passed it. I hope that the Bill will be carefully scrutinised in the other place and that their lordships' views on compensation will reflect the loss that more than 50,000 people will sustain.

The House has not been treated well by the Government. I agree with the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. Why did we not have a discussion on the Cullen report and a considered debate following that so that before legislation was drafted the House could have suggested in a considered, sensible and responsible way the best way to proceed? I think that I pick up the words of the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West when I say that any violent death— It being 12 midnight, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to the Order [18 November and this day], to put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair. Bill read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

Mr. Budgen

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm that when you lowered the guillotine on Third Reading, at least six hon. Members who wished to speak were prevented from doing so?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It is not for the Chair to judge how many hon. Members subsequently wished to speak.

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