HC Deb 04 December 1996 vol 286 cc1130-51
Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

I beg to move amendment No. 58, in page 3, line 18, at end insert 'or (d) the slide assembly or cylinder has been removed and stored according to the conditions specified in subsection (2A) below. (2A) Except as permitted by virtue of any provision of this Act, a small-calibre pistol shall be held under the following conditions —

  1. (a) the slide assembly or cylinder shall be held on the premises of a licensed pistol club, and
  2. (b) the remainder of the weapon shall he stored at different premises which shall be specified on the certificate granted for that pistol.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following amendments: Government amendments Nos. 84 to 86.

No. 62, in clause 12, page 6, line 13, after 'pistols', insert 'and such premises may include the premises of a registered firearms dealer which may be used for the purpose of storing small-calibre pistols;'. No. 63, in clause 15, page 7, line 25, at end insert— '(4A) In determining whether to grant a licence, the Secretary of State shall consider whether the requirements of this Part could be adequately met by proposals by the Club for the storage on its premises of parts of weapons belonging to members of the Club.'. No. 64, in clause 40, page 19, line 28, at end insert— '(3A) In determining which days to appoint, the Secretary of State shall have regard to the need to permit adequate time for licensed pistol clubs to make the necessary arrangements to conform with the provisions of the Act.'.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) asked me to add his name to the list of supporters of the amendments but, in all the excitement and in view of his many amendments on the Order Paper, I am afraid that I failed to do so. Nevertheless, I am glad that the amendments enjoy cross-party support.

The purpose of the amendments is to require guns to he stored in separate parts, so that the complete gun is not in the owner's hands except within the secure confines of the club. The amendment does not provide an alternative: the two parts of the gun must be stored separately. The reason is that, if some guns were stored whole, we would immediately lose the benefits of reduced security arrangements—which would have to remain in place for the few guns that were not disassembled.

The effect of the amendment is to force the surrender of those guns that cannot be disassembled. The amendment does not challenge the distinction between .22 and other calibre weapons, and it retains the Government cut-off point. It does not challenge the separation of the complete gun from its owner when outside a licensed club, which is the core of the Government's security assumption.

Lord Cullen said that the option which is open to the least objection on the ground of practicability is the temporary dismantling of self-loading pistols and revolvers by the removal of major components". That suggestion has several obvious advantages: it is quicker and easier to implement; it will save much expenditure, both to clubs and the Treasury, by way of compensation; and it will avoid the risk of terrorist attacks on arsenals of weapons. The recommendation continues to fulfil the Bill's central purpose: to separate the owner from his pistol or revolver, except within a club, as a safeguard against another amok killing.

The only objection raised against the proposal refers to its practicability. All firearms experts agree that the proposal is practicable, but the Government's response to Cullen says: While removal of key components is feasible for certain types of gun, it is not a practical proposition for others". Before considering the question of practicability, it is important to understand the present law regarding components. Buying spares without authority is already illegal. The two parts to which Lord Cullen referred—the slide assembly and cylinder—are already controlled by law. They are pressure-bearing component parts of the gun, which it is impossible to buy or possess without entering it on one's firearms certificate. Any additional slide assembly or cylinder requires the consent of the chief officer of police, who must grant a variation of the original certificate. From the point of view of the present law, there is no difference between buying another gun and buying a replacement slide assembly or cylinder.

The evidence on which the Government's statement relies consists of two letters from Mr. Warlow of the Forensic Science Service, which I shall not refer to in detail. The letters are in the Library—although the first was somewhat late—as those hon. Members who are interested will know.

I do not think that the Government were entirely fair to Mr. Warlow, as his first letter did not bear the interpretation that they sought to put upon it. Nowhere does he say that dismantling is "impracticable". It is perhaps a nuisance—unusual, because it was hitherto unnecessary—but, at worst, would result in the loss of a 10p screw or a scratch on the polish.

Everyone outside the Home Office knows that it is simply not true to say that the proposal is impracticable, as, in the words of Mr. Warlow: self-loading pistols are designed so as to allow them to be stripped down without the need for tools". The obvious inadequacy of Mr. Warlow's first letter was exposed during debate in the House on 18 November. The Government were forced to describe it as a summary of careful consideration by the service". They said that the letter was not meant to be a definitive answer to every point raised".— [Official Report, Standing Committee E, 20 November 1996; c. 7.] On the same day as the debate on the Floor of the House, Mr. Warlow wrote again to the Home Office. That letter was described by the Minister as offering as much advice as we are able to release". We must therefore regard it as the Government's definitive evidence.

Mr. Warlow, in his second letter, added the following: This procedure (ie dismantling)… would constitute a much resented and annoying imposition on the vast majority of club members. No club member has yet been able to interpret that extraordinary remark. The Government's new restrictions are extremely onerous and irksome and will annoy many—I dare say all—club members, but why is it more likely to produce annoyance if the storage is of part of a gun instead of the whole gun? It would be an extremely difficult task to police…effectively at club level, he said, especially in instances where the individual is a member of more than one club. 9.15 pm

The present Bill requires a shooter to deposit a gun that is identified on his certificate. The proposal requires the shooter to deposit a named part that is identified on his certificate. The Bill requires the gun to be stored at a single named club. If a shooter belongs to a second club, that condition still has to be complied with. The proposal would require the part to be stored at a single named club in the same way. Some will possess more than one set of barrel or slide components for their pistol", goes the criticism. Only if permitted by the police. The Home Office mysteriously failed to acknowledge that each slide assembly and cylinder is, for purposes of the law and police control, already treated as if it were a complete gun. At the commencement of the Act, all the guns and component parts of each legitimate shooter will be known to the police. Therefore, only those parts that conform to the requirements of the new Act and are approved by the police will be allowed to continue. The situation described by Mr. Warlow cannot arise unless the police permit it to arise.

Mr. Warlow then says that some will possess components which will allow the calibre of the weapon to be converted by simple substitution of components". It is possible for a .32 slide assembly to be substituted for a .22, but only if someone has one. For the same reasons that I have just given, a shooter cannot have both components unless the police permit him to do so. The Act will not permit the police to do so. A criminal member could obtain 'major components that would pass inspection' prior to storage." The only example of that given by Mr. Warlow is that a person could buy a deactivated gun of the same make and model for which no authorisation is necessary, and so deceive the club. That example smacks of desperation, and is a classic instance of arguing from extreme cases. Even so, it relies on the highly contentious assumption that deactivated parts are not easy to spot.

The Home Secretary said: it would not be difficult for a gun owner to keep an illicit spare at home. That would enable him to reactivate the gun at any time. It is perfectly true that, in doing so, he would be breaking the law, but he would be unlikely to be discovered until it was too late." — [Official Report, 18 November 1996: Vol. 285, c. 784.] We all know that the number of illegal guns in this country quite probably exceeds, by a substantial proportion, the number of legal guns, but that does not prevent the Government from maintaining a system of legal gun ownership. I think that all hon. Members would support that.

The Government have now added a further offence—to have a .22 pistol outside licensed premises—but that does nothing to alter the distinction between legal and illegal guns. Nor would it make any difference if the new offence were limited to having a complete .22 pistol outside licensed premises, leaving the carrying of a part lawful.

The legal control of the part is as strong as that of the whole: a legal spare part cannot be obtained without police permission. Getting the system off to a secure start will rely on exactly the same information—current certificates—whether we are dealing with dismantled or whole guns. All components, as well as whole guns, that do not conform to the Bill's requirements will have to be surrendered. Illegal components are more difficult to obtain than illegal guns, and probably more expensive. It is difficult to see why anyone willing and able to buy an illegal gun should want to buy an illegal part.

All the objections of the Forensic Science Service are met once it is recognised that, at the commencement of the Act, all pistols will be subject to assessment by the police. A complete inventory of pistols and component parts exists today on firearm certificates. All pistols not conforming to the Act will have to be surrendered and removed from the certificate. That applies in exactly the same way to components. Thereafter, all that is required is for the police to notify the club of any changes in a member's certificate.

The House may wonder why we are making a fuss about this point. First, we are concerned that the keeping of many guns in the same place, possibly on a remote range, will require such high security provisions that very few clubs will be able to afford them. Secondly, the concentration of such guns in complete form may be attractive to a robber. The proposition that carriage should be of complete guns—we shall debate that on the next amendment—is surely far less secure than the contemplation of parts being carried about.

A gun will not work until the part that is kept at home and the part that is at the club are put together. Shooters who continue to use .22 calibre guns see many practical objections to the current proposals. Although dismantling is onerous and tiresome, it is what Lord Cullen recommended, and what I think the shooting fraternity would, with reluctance, accept. I do not think that the Home Secretary has received full enough advice on this matter. The amendment asks him to think seriously again, either now or during the Bill's passage through the other place, before finally rejecting this alternative.

Mr. Frank Cook

The Home Secretary repeated today the statement that he has made many times, that the prime consideration is the safety of the population. No hon. Member would disagree: the question is how we ensure the preservation and protection of the population. For the purpose of the debate, I shall leave aside my disagreements with what I consider to be bad law. I do not have a vested interest, because I do not own a gun and I have never held one other than during my time in the forces. My only vested interest is as honorary pistol captain of the Palace of Westminster rifle club.

If the measure becomes law, and the odds are that it will, the consequences are already beyond dispute. There will be fewer clubs, because at the moment many clubs use municipal premises or Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve premises. They do not have their own establishments within which to pursue their sport. Those members of clubs that close who wish to continue participating in the sport with .22 calibre only will gravitate towards the clubs that remain.

Therefore, there will not only be fewer clubs but they will have larger memberships, and those members will have to store their weapons in club armouries. That means enlarged armouries. As we have heard, a Stockholm gun club with state-of-the-art security—the most secure provision that could be made, according to the Stockholm police—was raided.

We are creating a ram raider's dream, an Aladdin's cave of firearms from which Jack the lad can help himself. In the past, members of terrorist organisations within these isles of ours have done that at military establishments, and I am certain that others could do it at gun clubs. We are not only penalising a law-abiding section of the community and making it difficult for them, but creating a danger for the population that the Home Secretary has repeatedly said he wants to protect.

The answer to the problem is disassembly. If a set of "half pieces"—the trade term—is left in the club's armoury and each member takes home the other components with him or her, no one will have a working firearm. I ask hon. Members to think about whether that proposal makes sense. It not only makes sense, but, if one extended it to the .32 wadcutter—which is purely a target gun, that is used for no other purpose—it could well reduce compensation costs, and that might be advantageous for the Government.

One of the objections that has been made to the proposal is that not every weapon is amenable to easy dismantling. I have asked experts about that point, and they say that it is true. But they also said that there are very few such weapons, because they are going out of fashion. Walthers, which are impossible to disassemble, probably account for less than 2 per cent. of handguns in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, it would be reasonable to ask those who participate in shooting sports to stop using such increasingly outdated weapons—which, again, would reduce the amount of compensation that must be paid—and to rely instead on weapons that are amenable to dismantling.

Yesterday evening, there was a demonstration of many weapons in the House. Every model was, within seconds, easily dismantled—as they must be for cleaning. I ask the Home Secretary please to realise that mandatory disassembly will increase public safety.

Overall, three basic requirements must be met in the legislation. First, it must be comprehensive; secondly, it must be properly enforced; and, thirdly, violations must incur an appropriate penalty. To ensure all those requirements, however, we must have a properly resourced, properly trained and well-motivated police force.

We know from our pre-Cullen and post-Cullen experiences and from the evidence that has emerged about Thomas Hamilton that those elements were not in place. How else can we explain the fact that gun clubs that cancelled Hamilton's membership have had their membership records confiscated by the police, and the police now refuse to relinquish them?

Many questions that must be answered depend on that type of evidence, but we are not yet able to obtain it. Nevertheless, we are pressing ahead with this legislation, under a guillotine. This Bill is bad law, because it is ill-conceived and impetuous. I passionately believe that, ultimately, the House and the country will eventually regret its enactment.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for selecting my amendments Nos 63 and 64, although they are supported only by me. I thought that the selection was based on your traditional kindness, but I now think that the real reason is that you appreciate that, when you have a messy Bill, it is crucial to look for a solution. Although, understandably, you have no views on the Bill, I think that you must have seen that my proposal in amendment No. 63 is the sensible answer to a difficult situation.

Hon. Members have been speaking and voting on the Bill according to varying perspectives, because of the Bill's unusual features. I am sure that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) will be well aware that, in the previous Division, for the first time in my life, I went into a Lobby different from that chosen by my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker), for whom I have great respect.

I did so simply because I was sincerely and utterly appalled by the speech made by the Labour party Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). He said that he did not want to support the new clause simply because it might not pass. Even if that were a valid argument, it was not true. The figures from the Division show that, had the Opposition turned up in strength, they could have won on that new clause.

I have a horrible feeling—although I do not like to cast aspersions loosely—that probably the reason why they did support it was that it was moved by the Scottish National party. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan made a super speech—though I am afraid that I disagreed with it—but I voted for his proposal as a protest against the dreadful speech of the hon. Member for Hamilton and the dreadful principle behind it.

Many of us have been voting for measures that we think are daft and saying things that we think are daft, because, through no fault of our splendid Home Secretary—who is a giant in the Cabinet—the Bill is a bit of a mess.

Mr. Salmond

If we keep making super speeches, will the hon. Gentleman be tempted into the Lobby with us again?

9.30 pm
Sir Teddy Taylor

If we hear more speeches like that made by the hon. Member for Hamilton, I shall do all kinds of crazy things, and vote for measures that I think are nuts.

Those of us who believe in things—the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and I believe in totally different things—should speak for them and vote for them in the House, and try to build up support for what we believe. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), who is sitting beside me, is a perfect example. He has been arguing strenuously for years about the dangers of the European Community. He has been laughed at and scorned and people have said that he was talking a load of rubbish, but now most of the Tory party agrees with him because he kept trying.

Unless we are prepared to argue for what we believe in, and to keep fighting and voting for it, we will get nowhere. If we accept the advice of the hon. Member for Hamilton, we might as well not bother to come here, because it will all be a waste of time. Everything he said was bogus because, if Labour Members had turned up, they could have won the vote, and Scotland would have had a ban. That might have made life slightly easier for those south of the border affected by the Bill.

The Government have a big problem. They wanted to reach a compromise. I am sure that there was a violent discussion about it in the Cabinet, in which no doubt my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary was on the right side and some others may have been on the wrong side. With a partial ban, gun clubs will find it impossible to continue, and the public will be put at risk.

The Southend pistol and gun club, of which I have never been a member, is in my constituency. I called to see the members for the first time recently. They are delightful people. There are not many of them, and they have to pay quite a bit for the sport they are engaged in. How on earth will they pay for the storage that will be needed for all the weapons? It will be virtually impossible.

Although I do not blame my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, he must be aware that the Cabinet's unusual decision will mean that guns will be available only to the very wealthy, perhaps in exclusive clubs such as the House of Commons—we have a club here, of course, and all these wealthy people. The sport will be denied to everyone else.

Ministers should listen to sensible people such as my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside. As I have said, the last vote was the first time in my life that I had gone into a different Lobby from him, simply because of my outrage at what the hon. Member for Hamilton said. We must look for a solution.

We must also remember public safety. I am sure that the Cabinet tried to get the right answer when arriving at their unusual decision, but they do not appreciate that they are creating a major public safety problem. Unless we dig a hole 60 ft down with steel 6 ft thick all round it, we cannot have real security for the weapons, because there are so many rascals these days.

Although crime is going down for the first time in living memory because of the splendid and active policies of my right hon. and learned Friend, the plain fact is that we still have a lot of criminals. From the contacts that he must have, my right hon. and learned Friend must be well aware that criminals are becoming cleverer and more able, finding different ways to do things that criminals in the old days did not even think of. They will find a way round a big lock or a security system that does not work. I am scared that the system of storage at clubs will be a real security danger. It will require massive expenditure that average clubs will not be able to afford.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin), who has argued well for his amendments, suggested that we should go for partial storage. He pointed out that the arguments against that were bogus. I have suggested a compromise. Accepting amendment No. 63 would leave the way open for my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to consider whether there might be a case for partial storage, and a way of overcoming the arguments that have been put forward against it. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary should be free to consider partial storage if he thinks that it is right.

Can partial storage work? We all know it can. What are the arguments against it? One seems to be that a clever chap with a gun could have two parts of the gun instead of one to take away—he could have another one at home. That is not a very sensible argument, because I think that we are aware that, if that were so, he would have two guns—one in the club and one at home. Such an argument applies to illegal weapons and illegal possession at the present time. I do not think that that is a very strong argument.

I therefore think that, if my right hon. and learned Friend wishes to allow clubs to continue and to protect the public against the danger of theft of guns from clubs, he should consider very carefully amendment No. 63, which would give him the opportunity, if he thought it appropriate and sensible, to allow for partial storage.

Having looked at amendment No. 63 and found chat it is the right answer, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will also consider the principle of amendment No. 64. Under the Bill, he has power to name separate dates for the implementation of different purposes and different areas of the legislation. In so doing, the Government should bear in mind the importance of allowing time for clubs to do what is necessary under the law. There is no point in rushing such requirements through if the clubs simply cannot meet them. In fixing the dates, my right hon. and learned Friend should bear in mind the importance of a practical answer.

Speaking as a huge admirer—as I think everyone knows—of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and his works, I feel rather sorry for him in these debates. Most of the time when we hear him speak, whether at the conferences or in Parliament, he does so firmly, decisively and with conviction about something in which he believes. The problem tonight is that he is supporting a Bill that is a bit of a mess.

We must therefore help him, the country and the Government by accepting amendments Nos. 63 and 64, and trying to ensure that this messy Bill is made more sensible. That is the right way forward. They do not commit him to going in a particular direction; they simply leave the way open for him. Would that not be the right thing to do after a day of confused debate and voting, during which the majority of Members of Parliament have been unhappy, confused and distressed over what has been proposed? Let us try to sort something out.

We spend so much time in the House shouting at one another. Terrible Labour Members shout at the Conservatives—even during Prime Minister's Question Time. My constituents are getting sick of it all. They say, "You don't know who to believe, because everyone is shouting propaganda at each other." They basically say that they cannot believe anyone at all.

We were sent to the House to try to solve problems for the people. Instead of parties shouting at each other over this legislation, we should acknowledge that it is a bit of a mess, and try to make it better. That is why the answer is to support amendments Nos. 63 and 64. No one could object to them, because they are sensible. They suggest a way out of a bit of a mess.

It should be emphasised that the mess was not made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. I have never been a member of the Cabinet—it is a shame for the country that I have not—but from what I am told, discussions are in a bit of a mess. Everyone shouts something, someone produces what they think is a compromise, and they find out half an hour later that the supposed compromise is impractical.

That is what has happened with the European business. All the mess that we are in on that is because some in the Cabinet are for it, some are against it and what emerges is a measured solution from which everyone suffers. They suffer more in Europe. I do not know whether the House is aware, but figures were published this morning revealing that an additional 5 million people across the rest of the European Community have become unemployed over the past five years. What is happening is terrible.

I am sure that, if my right hon. and learned Friend thinks about the matter with determination, honesty, integrity and vision, as he does with every other matter, he will appreciate that the right answer lies in amendments Nos. 63 and 64. If they are accepted, we can make a messy Bill better, help the public, preserve security and all walk home tonight a little happier than when we arrived today.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

I rise, as an invisible signatory to amendment No. 58, to support it. I do so faute de mieux, because unfortunately, through some strange aberration or oversight, my own much more subtle and effective amendments were not selected for discussion. Although I have managed to fill the amendment paper with amendments, we have seen a massacre of the innocents. My pauvre bonnes pensées have all disappeared.

The purpose of my amendments—in common with amendment No. 59, although it is much more limited—was to ban all weapons that could not be dismantled, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said, is only a small number of handguns, and to require all other weapons to be dismantled, the weightier part—although I found that concept difficult to put in legislative terms—to be stored at the gun club and the other part taken home. That would give us what we have been arguing for all along—a total ban on assembled, working weapons outside gun clubs.

Thomas Hamilton's actions in Dunblane would have been impossible, because no working, assembled weapons would have been allowed outside gun clubs. If assembled weapons were seen outside, they would be ipso facto—automatically—illegal and illicit and could be dealt with as such. That is a clear, simple, straightforward proposition and its rationality appealed to me, as it appealed to Lord Cullen.

Unfortunately, our judges are too diffident. They do not realise that they must be tougher and more direct with politicians and say what they are going to say, say it and then tell us what they have said. If they approached the task in that way, they might have some hope of getting through to us. But the judge is this case was too subtle. The approach in the amendment was his preferred approach, but he did not take it any further.

The civil servants in the Box know that the amendment embodies a more effective approach. Everybody knows it is a much more effective approach, but the Government wanted a grand gesture. Why? They wanted it because of the tide of feeling in Scotland and because of the threat to the seat of the Secretary of State for Scotland. They wanted a big, simple gesture in the face of that tide of opinion in Scotland. The virtue of achieving their aim in a more direct, rational, effective, cheap and less pernicious way never seemed to occur to the Government. The Labour party wanted an even grander gesture.

The tide of opinion in Scotland has been the motivating force and the dynamic behind the legislation, and was the reason why I voted for new clause 1. If Scotland wants a total ban, Scotland should have a total ban. But the general principle that we must emphasise in connection with these dismantling proposals is simple. Legislation made under strong emotional pressure and backed by a highly emotional campaign—which is understandable I do not criticise it for that—is in danger of being bad legislation or a bit of a mess, as the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) told us several times. Legislation made in such a situation is bound to be a bit of a mess.

Dismantling would give us all that those on both sides of the House want, simply and straightforwardly, and allow the sport of handgun shooting to continue. I do not see why people who enjoy that sport should not be allowed to continue it if they can do so in licensed, controlled premises, safely and without the guns going outside. Dismantling would allow that and it would also avoid the horrendous problem of compensation.

I have heard the amount mentioned for compensation rise from a starting point of £25 million to £300 million today. I know of no other issue on which the Government, with gay abandon, would sling around millions of quid like that. The parsimonious, Scrooge-like Government who hate to spend a bawbee or a groat are prepared to sling away, unnecessarily, £300 million in compensation. It may well be more, of course—the Home Secretary is right to nod in that warning fashion. It is true. I agree with him, because we do not know the size of the bill that we are taking on.

There would be no need to take it on at all if my proposal were accepted. Why should we pay that massive bill for compensation, while the security problem remains? When the Government legislation is passed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North said, more guns will be stored in fewer premises—a concentration that will inevitably attract raids.

The art of ram raiding, which is spreading down the country from the north-east, where its most skilled practitioners have taken it to a fine art, will be a threat to gun clubs in which whole weapons are stored. They need not be stored in that fashion; they could simply be dismantled, and all that the ram raiders would get in return for what I hope would be extensive damage to their vehicle—their tank, their milk-float, or whatever—would be parts of weapons.

9.45 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

My hon. Friend gave the tentative figure of £300 million. Does he accept that the figure that I have been given by someone who really knows about guns and valuation is at least £1,200 million?

Mr. Howard

indicated dissent.

Mr. Dalyell

The Home Secretary shakes his head, but when my hon. Friend has finished his speech it will be interesting to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman's figure.

Mr. Mitchell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because he is right to say that the bill will escalate in that fashion. When we embark on legislation, we should know what the bill will be at the end of it. If we had known the scale of the bill, perhaps we would have been more enthusiastic and concerned about the dismantling proposal, which would not have required the bill to be paid.

If the Home Secretary had been able to give us a realistic calculation, it would have strengthened the arguments for the kind of dismantling that Lord Cullen, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) and I have proposed. We would not then be fighting a last-ditch rearguard action in the hope that the House of Lords will come to the rescue of the beleaguered advocates of common sense in the Chamber. That is an unusual situation, but there we are.

My proposal for dismantling all weapons, as an alternative to a total ban, was not agreed. I must tell the Home Secretary that I had not intended to go as deeply into the issue as I have done. I do not like guns or shooting. Several years ago, when we were discussing the post-Hungerford legislation, I went down to the pistol and gun club for the one and only time. I was terrified to hold one of those things and point it at a target. It was a worse ordeal than speaking in the House, and that in itself is pretty awful. I do not like the whole business, and I did not intend to get involved in it; but, having seen that we were going down what I think is the wrong path, I believe that it is essential, even at this late stage, to put the argument for rationality.

Anyway, it is no use crying over spilt amendments. They are gone, more's the pity. We now have amendment No. 58, which is much more limited in scale. It offers an alternative method of storage and says to the Government, "You have got what you want. You have got your grand gesture—your ban on all weapons bigger than .22. Now let us approach the last remaining step—a sensible proposal for storing the weapons safely, by requiring them to be dismantled."

The amendment does not offer the grandiose prospect that I held out, of dealing with the problem in a more simple and straightforward way. It is simply a sensible storage suggestion for the Government, and I cannot understand why they will not accept it. Perhaps it undermines the validity of the gesture that they made in the first place, by attempting to ban weapons bigger than .22.

Let me not venture off into abnormal psychology. I shall never hope to understand this Government, or the rationality of Ministers. None the less, I would like them to consider the more limited proposal for safe storage of weapons, because it would avoid the obvious danger. Perhaps it could serve as a beachhead to build on, and to push the process of developing common sense, which we should have pushed earlier.

I hope, therefore, that the Government—[Interruption.] The Home Secretary looks as if he is longing to leap to his feet to accept my argument. If he wants to do so now, in the middle of my speech, I shall give him the opportunity. I hope that he will consider the dismantling issue more seriously than he has done up to now.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare moved the amendment in a sensible, cautious, moderate, sound, well-argued and well-advocated manner, and I hope that he pushes it to a vote. I think that the House should be allowed to vote on the issue of dismantling, as numerous people have come up to me and said, "That is not a bad idea. Why didn't we think of it?" They had not read the Cullen report. People are beginning to come around to the idea of dismantling weapons. It would be useful if the Lords could discuss the Bill in the knowledge that this House was slowly coming around to sense but that, because of the rush of legislation, we had not got there yet.

Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South)

I shall be extremely brief, because of the Procrustean nature of the guillotine under which we are operating. A guillotine is a good way of preventing a filibuster—which nobody has threatened during debates on this Bill—but it frankly gets in the way of constructive debate. I am not sure whether I am supposed to declare an interest but, in effect, my only shooting has been done with a .22 as an Army cadet and with a .303 in the Army, where, thanks to tuition rather to any innate skill of my own, I became a first-class shot. On only three other occasions have I shot at all, twice with pistols.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) has spoken of the technicalities of the amendment, and I do not propose to use up the time of the House in reiterating those. My preoccupation, as evidenced by my interventions during the debate in Committee on the Floor of the House, is with those who shoot at county, regional, national and international level. The amendments that could be beneficial to them have a potentially wider application among other pursuers of target shooting.

The restrictions on particular pistols contained in the Bill are supported by the argument that they will allow our nation to continue to compete in Olympic shooting.

However, that is an empty argument if those who would represent us cannot have the opportunity to train at international levels. We heard earlier this evening about how going beyond Cullen enlarged the need for compensation, and the amendment returns indirectly to that issue.

I have written to my hon. Friend the Minister of State—in line with my comments in Committee on the Floor of the House—about the training regime that those who shoot at international level have to pursue. Through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, I thank her for the promptness of her reply, although she gave me little comfort on the main issue. Given the rest of the Bill, a key consideration as to whether our international competitors can continue to train will be how many clubs are able to remain open—as the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said—when they have to meet the capital upgrading costs required in the Bill.

If the clubs shrink in number, the time involved in getting to one's club will become more of an obstacle to training. One cannot tell a competitor simply to move, for his or her job may not allow him or her to do so. Thus, the potential solution to the problem of the need to keep one's pistol at an upgraded club, which was offered by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, becomes a matter of great importance.

There is a further dimension. In my letter to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, I alluded—as I did in Committee—to that element of training which at the highest level is technically called kinaesthetic, which represents 80 per cent. of the training at the highest level. It is done without shooting and can be conducted at home, thus hugely simplifying training if it has to be done daily and if the individual's club is open only twice a week. Although one cannot do all the kinaesthetic training without the missing part to which the amendment refers, one could do part of it in that manner. This solution, if viable, would go a long way towards solving a crucial problem at national and international level. That is a further argument in support of the amendment.

I must tell my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and his Treasury Bench colleagues that, if we do not find a way around these critical training problems, they run the risk of dancing on the grave of British performance in international shooting.

Mr. Beith

I very much agree with the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) about the need to find a way in which those who are engaged in, and those who will in future want to engage in, competitive shooting sports can continue to do so. The amendment provides one route, but there are others.

I am one of those who did not vote either for the total ban or for the Government's alternative solution, because I took the view that neither provided a reasonable basis for compromise between an acceptable system for increasing public security and the reasonable rights of those who use guns responsibly. I felt that Lord Cullen's proposals provided that route, and I do not know how we are to continue inviting judges to conduct inquiries if we ignore them as comprehensively as we have done since the Scott inquiry.

Lord Cullen's proposals have not been debated as seriously as they should have been, except to the extent that the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) and others have drawn the attention of the House back to them from time to time. I welcome their efforts, because I believe that the proposals provide an acceptable basis for legislation.

When the Government considered the proposals, they felt that they should go further, and we as a party said in our original statement that we would assist in ensuring that a Bill could be introduced and dealt with expeditiously on that basis, although we believed that the central issue of the banning of handguns—if at all, and to what extent—should be a matter for a free vote. My party has done what it said, but some problems remain.

The Government have made some valuable moves on compensation, and we welcome that, but they have made no sensible provision for people who could legitimately engage in international shooting sports. The amendment represents one of the ways in which that could be done. As has been said, the Cullen method—the disassembly method—has significant public safety advantages over the retention of guns in one piece, whether in a gun club or elsewhere.

As I listened to the parents bereaved by the terrible disaster that prompted this legislation, I often asked myself whether I should vote for what they strongly believe that the House should vote for as the solution to the problem. The answer to that rhetorical question must be no, because neither I nor any other hon. Member can suspend judgment on what would be the most effective way of preventing such a tragedy from happening again simply because those closest to it feel that a total ban is the only way.

The legislation is not a matter of paying the greatest tribute that we can to the children who lost their lives on that murderous day; it is a matter of how we can best ensure that such an event is less likely to happen again, while protecting the reasonable rights of those people who are legitimately engaged in sport, in so far as those rights do not promote or assist the committing of such terrible acts.

That is a difficult decision to make, and I do not attack the Government for devising the complicated further compromise that has formed the basis of the Bill, but I feel that we have not given sufficient weight to Lord Cullen's sensible proposals.

Mr. Gill

I support amendment No. 58. In an earlier debate, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary relied heavily on a letter from the Forensic Science Service that right hon. and hon. Members had not had the opportunity to read. When we read it, many of us were disappointed at how thin the evidence was. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) has demonstrated this evening that almost everything in the letter could be proved to be misleading, inaccurate or incapable of being substantiated.

According to the information that I have received, 95 per cent. of pistols and revolvers are multi-shot and only 5 per cent. are single-shot, but of the multi-shot weapons only 5 or 10 per cent. are not capable of being dismantled. The vast majority, then, can be dismantled.

It is simple common sense that dismantling weapons, and keeping their separate parts in different places, is a far more secure means of keeping them out of harm's way than concentrating them in clubs, where it is known that there will be a concentration of weapons. That will create enormous security problems for clubs. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary knows of the concern expressed this evening about the cost to the sport of the measures. He will recognise that 113 hon. Members voted for an amendment that would have obliged the Government to introduce compensation for consequential loss.

Mr. Dalyell

The hon. Gentleman is knowledgeable on these matters. Would he care to hazard a guess at an overall figure for compensation?

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Mr. Gill

I have no idea. I sense that the figure that is most commonly used is an underestimate, but I have no means of judging the correct figure. I suspect that it will be higher than the £300 million that has been mentioned in the debate.

The cost of compliance with the regulations could be substantially reduced if we were prepared to countenance an amendment that allowed disassembly. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary accepts that the physical security required to protect such weapons if they were kept in separate parts in separate places would be much less than that required by keeping them all in the same place, quite apart from the greater risk run by concentrating so many weapons in one place.

The cost of keeping weapons in one piece in clubs will be substantial and will severely reduce the number of clubs. If the Government intend to have a severe reduction in the number of clubs, they should be up front about it and say so. Inevitably, the number of clubs will be reduced by dint of the fact that many clubs meet on an ad hoc basis in rented accommodation and have no premises of their own to make secure. The opportunities for people to enjoy the sport will be severely restricted.

I hope that the issue of disassembly will be considered by their Lordships in due course and improvements made.

Sir Teddy Taylor

Will their Lordships not find it strange that every hon. Member who has spoken has supported the principle of considering disassembly carefully, as I am sure the Home Secretary would like to do?

Mr. Gill

Not only do I think that their Lordships will be interested in that point, which is right, but the other thing that gives hope for the future is that they will recognise the common sense of tackling the problem in this way rather than through the draconian measures proposed in the Bill.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The idea of dismantling is winning the argument, although the votes may not be there in the end. I support amendment No. 58 and, as a fallback, amendment No. 63, although it places much faith in the Secretary of State. I do not know whether I have such faith either in the current Secretary of State or in his successor on this matter.

I believe that the dismantling of guns is the solution to an extremely difficult problem. It would also resolve many of the other difficulties described. If the Government's position is held on the availability of .22s in gun clubs, it would be necessary for the Government to introduce an amendment on dismantling. The dismantling argument is a genuine one and should apply in all circumstances. In fact, it has been pointed out that it is quite likely that the argument about .22s relates to a de facto ban on handguns. Ideally, I would like all guns to be dismantled for safety.

I met the parents of Dunblane for about 25 minutes before the Second Reading of the Bill. It was probably the most emotionally draining experience that I have had as a Member of Parliament, especially because I had to put my case, which was different from their own. All my fellow feelings went to out those parents as I imagined the terrible things that they had been through and what their children had suffered. In general, I am to be found on the side of humanitarian feelings when matters are discussed in the House, so it may be surprising that on this occasion I seem to have taken a different stand.

I received letters of support from gun clubs because of positions that I adopted previously and a speech that I made on Second Reading. I do not, however, identify with gun clubs. I do not have any experience of them or of guns. The last time I came near a rifle was 40 years ago, when I completed my national service. I do not like the gun club culture, and I am concerned about the willingness of people to belong to such clubs.

Mr. Frank Cook

I am bit worried about the use of the term "gun club culture." As I know it, the gun club culture has at the top of its agenda safety, safety and safety. Every member of every gun club I know is indoctrinated in a strict regime which ensures that no one can possibly come into any danger from a weapon. Even if a weapon is empty, one is taught to point it down range and not to fool around with it. Anyone who transgresses is quickly rebuked either by the range officer or by fellow members of the club.

Mr. Barnes

I do not deny that. That intervention was useful because it illustrates the different stance taken by me and by my hon. Friend, although we support the same measure.

I do not like the circumstances in which such a willingness to indulge in the sport of shooting has grown up. I grant that safety measures are taken, and we must take that into account. Some people enjoy different sports as their pastime from those with which I am familiar. I am extremely conscious that certain rights are involved, and I would not wish to lay down my own code of practice.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin), who moved amendment No.58, said that members of gun clubs have reluctantly accepted that dismantling is the answer. They have opted for the tactical dismantling position, whereas I am a genuine dismantler. I am not claiming that that is not a genuine belief, but it comes from assessing the alternatives and practicalities involved, as I shall seek to show.

To some extent, I wish to argue with those who do not accept dismantling because they want a complete ban on handguns. That body of opinion is still around and there is still a possibility that a ban will be proposed at some point in the future. I do not believe, however, that we can get rid of handguns in one fell swoop. There are tremendous dangers in moving in that direction. Much as I might wish for a magical act whereby people's values and attitudes would change, that will not occur in reality. If we try to force that on people, there is a grave danger of the proliferation of illegally held guns and ammunition, and even of the operation of illegal gun clubs.

The Home Secretary uses that sort of argument and claims that we should keep .22 weapons in clubs because a complete ban would lead to that dangerous situation. I accept some of the logic of that argument, but I do not believe that the Secretary of State has given the reasons for his policy fully enough.

If he gave the reasons, they would tell in favour of dismantling because of the possibility of guns being held illegally on a much wider basis. It is better to regulate and control—especially where we have a method by which that can be done—than it is to ban and fail. There is a great danger of failure in these circumstances. The Government's position whereby .22 pistols will be held in clubs seems to me to pose all the dangers that other hon. Members have described so well, such as clubs being raided or unsafe.

I am greatly concerned that we have not had the courtesy to consider and discuss Lord Cullen's report. We have been bounced straight into a White Paper and legislation. We were asked to consider only two views, but we have not done so. Lord Cullen did not even put those views forward as strong recommendations—he said that we had to make up our own minds. He wanted us to consider those two possibilities and I have heard nothing to make me deviate from his position.

The first possibility that Cullen put forward was dismantling, of which I am in favour. He said that if there were impracticalities connected with that—I do not think that there are—he would then be in favour of banning. He would not have been in favour of this halfway house of keeping .22 pistols. I adhere to that opinion.

In the previous Division, I supported banning, but only because I did not have a prior opportunity to vote in favour of dismantling. In fact, I tabled an amendment which sought to sneak in front of the one on banning, but it was not selected. I wanted to be able to vote in favour of dismantling, but I could not do so and—very reluctantly—I joined those in favour of banning, although I thought then and I still think that it is fraught with difficulty.

I do not think that the impracticalities of dismantling claimed by the Home Office and the Police Federation and set out in the letters that many of us have obtained are anything like so great as the problems that will be encountered in searching for and finding the banned guns, because many will pass quickly into illegal ownership.

Mr. Beith

I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's very good speech but, for the record, perhaps it should be made clear tha,t when Lord Cullen said that the alternative to dismantling was banning, he was talking about banning the individual possession of handguns, not necessarily excluding their use in clubs.

Mr. Barnes

I grant that point. There are different methods by which banning can be engaged, and the end position, which is still compatible with what Lord Cullen says, would be a total ban.

We have there a position which meets all the needs of the situation. We have an opportunity to debate and discuss those matters. Many people outside this place believe that we should have considered them thoroughly, and feel affronted by the procedures that we have engaged in the House. They feel affronted by the way in which we have dismissed the Cullen report and moved rapidly into legislation. We have acted fast, often for very honourable reasons and as a result of strong emotion. As has been said, however, we must use our judgment about such situations, and that judgment should be in line with amendment No. 58.

10.15 pm
Mr. Dalyell

A minute ago, the figure of the Chancellor of the Exchequer swooped into the Chamber.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)


Mr. Dalyell

My hon. Friend says "waddled", but I am sure that "swooped" is a better description of the movement of a Chancellor of the Exchequer.

That prompts me to ask a question, because I am exceedingly curious. In the past few weeks, has no Treasury official visited the Home Office and said, "Look here, your Home Secretary is introducing a Bill. We wonder what the costs of all this will be"? During times of Labour government at least, any movement by another Department that would lead to substantial—or insubstantial—costs immediately attracts the attention of the all-seeing Treasury.

I ask the Home Secretary this question. When the Treasury officials have descended on the Home Office or summoned his officials and said, "Look here, Mr. Secretary of State, exactly what are you involving us in? What are the likely costs, and when, of the measures you propose?" I should like to know what answer was given, because some answer may have been given.

I am in a similar position to the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill)—I do not know. A figure of £300 million has been given. The figure that I was given by a noble Lord—not of my political persuasion, but one who knows about guns—is vastly more than £300 million. What has the Home Secretary said to the Treasury?

Mr. Henderson

I do not wish to detain the House more than necessary, as it appears capable of detaining itself tonight, but I must respond to points that have been made from both sides of the House.

I am firmly of the view, and have been since my mind became concentrated on the issue of pistols after the horror of Dunblane, that it would be almost impossible to prevent leakage, given the ingenuity of evil people and criminals, if one allowed pistols to be in circulation.

When presenting its evidence to Cullen, the Labour party said that its collective instinct was, broadly, the instinct that I expressed as an individual, but there was a caveat to the effect that, if a safe method could be found of continuing to allow the ownership and use of pistols, that option should be examined and might lead to a separate conclusion. I was prepared to consider possible alternatives. As a keen sportsmen, I do not like people not to take part in a sport that they want to participate in, but in Committee I added a proviso: provided that that sport does not endanger other people.

There have been arguments in favour of another way of protecting the sport and, at the same time, of meeting the fears of the public and of the vast majority of Members of this House who support either the Government's position or our position. Can these guns be dismantled so as to render them safe? I have looked into that. Regardless of what the experts say, it seems only common sense to me that keeping track of which bit of which gun was in which location in what circumstances—and who was looking after it—would present a bureaucratic nightmare and would stretch the abilities of even the most intelligent drafter of legislation to breaking point.

We do, however, have expert opinion as well. The Minister of State in Committee and the Home Secretary on his Second Reading both intimated that the Government's forensic experts have stated that there are severe problems with dismantling. The guns would be damaged and would thus be useless for sport; moreover, because of the damage, they might be rendered more dangerous and unpredictable. Lord Cullen recognised that. The British Shooting Sports Council drew Cullen's attention, on page 125 of the report, to the evidence given to the Home Affairs Committee by Jim Sharples, chief constable of Merseyside and president of the Association of Chief Police Officers. He said that he believed that there could be problems with dismantling guns. He said: They could be damaged very easily". and went on to outline other problems that could arise.

The BSSC has in a way undermined its own arguments. Having lost the argument on pistol use, it now argues that dismantling can be effective—

Mr. Frank Cook

If my hon. Friend had attended the demonstration to which I understand that he was invited yesterday evening, he would have seen a range of .22 weapons of various types dismantled in seconds, as they regularly are for cleaning, and reassembled in seconds without any problems at all. So my hon. Friend's argument is spurious. What is more, illegal guns can be obtained more easily than legal ones, and can be bought more cheaply. So these arguments do not stand up when it comes to protecting the population and avoiding a repetition of Dunblane.

Mr. Henderson

I do not know a lot about guns, but I have seen them being dismantled. I took the trouble to ask the Metropolitan police to show me guns used by the military, the police and gun clubs. They showed me the extent to which they can be dismantled, the extent to which parts are interchangeable, and how a clever engineer can easily adapt one piece of equipment to another—especially if he is criminally minded. The Metropolitan police armourers regularly make replacement parts for guns, and they are of the view that dismantling is not a practical solution.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for intervening and giving me the chance to tell the House what I have seen for myself. If nothing else, what I have seen has convinced me of the hopelessness of the dismantling solution.

I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I was able to catch your eye, but I must reluctantly conclude that I cannot support the amendments.

Mr. Howard

The debate has been wide ranging and has covered various aspects of dismantling. We heard, as we have heard throughout the day, a series of cogent speeches. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) accused us of ignoring the recommendations in Lord Cullen's report. The report contained 23 recommendations, and we have accepted every one of them. Lord Cullen also made suggestions—not recommendations—concerning the possession and ownership of handguns. In relation to those suggestions, the Government have taken the view that we can meet his objectives through a different route. As we have accepted all 23 of Lord Cullen's recommendations, I do not think that it can seriously be contended that we have ignored his report.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Does the Home Secretary accept that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, many people who use guns felt that they had been unfairly treated? Although the Government may have accepted the recommendations, they were not debated. The Government presented their conclusions before any of us had a chance to read the report and before the people who were affected by them had the chance to contribute to the debate. That is the source of most of the irritation: people feel that the debate has not been fairly and responsibly handled.

Mr. Howard

That complaint comes ill from a party which supported a complete ban on handguns. It is all very well for individual Members to say that they did not vote for it, but their party did and their complaint does not lie well against that background.

The subject of amendments Nos. 58 and 63—the dismantling of guns—was explored during the Second Reading debate and by the Committee of the whole House. I will repeat why the Government have not felt able to go down that route. I accept at the outset that it is a matter of judgment and that it is not possible to prove conclusively that one argument is right and one argument is wrong, and I understand why some of my right hon. and hon. Friends and some Opposition Members reach a different judgment from that reached by the Government.

Many handguns, it is true, could be dismantled in some way, but there are practical problems with that approach. They have been identified by the Forensic Science Service, reinforced by the police, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) said in his contribution, and they must be taken seriously. In the light of those practical objections, and taking into account the advice of the Forensic Science Service, we do not believe that disassembly would provide guaranteed assurance against the possible misuse of a pistol by a determined individual.

For example, some people will possess more than one set of barrel and slide components for their pistol, or will possess components that will allow the calibre of the weapon to be converted by the simple substitution of components. It would be impossible to be certain that a person could not still possess a complete weapon at home by keeping such an illicit spare. Indeed, the frames of some pistols are specially made so that the owner can purchase a comprehensive range of barrels of different lengths and cartridge chamberings, which can be simply substituted and fitted at the will of the user. That could again lead to the situation where a person would be in possession of a complete firearm although appearing to comply with club regulations.

Of course, it could be argued that a way of combating the risk of people keeping illicit spares would be to require them to lodge with the club secretary the frame of the gun, rather than some small component such as the slide or the cylinder—a point made on Second Reading by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), if I remember correctly. However, it would not be acceptable for the club secretary to keep at home several hundred gun frames, each one of which would require only a small component to reactivate it. It would therefore be necessary for the frames to be stored under secure conditions in a gun club. I do not see that that proposal has any significant advantage over the Government's proposals, and it would create even greater difficulties for those who engage in competitive shooting.

Amendment No. 62 is intended to allow registered firearms dealers' premises to be used for storing small-calibre pistols as part of a licensed pistol club. The amendment is unnecessary. The definition of "licensed premises" in clause 12 does not prevent a registered firearms dealer's premises being specified in a pistol club's licence as the place where small-calibre pistols may be stored. Whether or not they are stored there will depend on the individual circumstances of the pistol club that wishes to be licensed. Some existing pistol clubs are run by gun dealers and are situated on the dealer's premises.

10.30 pm

The chief officer of police for the area in which the pistol club premises will be situated will advise me whether a registered firearms dealer's premises is a suitable place for small-calibre pistols to be stored in any particular case. The key requirement would be that it met the levels of security necessary to ensure that guns could not be stolen or removed illicitly from the premises.

Amendment No. 64, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor)—who made a most engaging speech—is intended to allow new licensed pistol clubs time to make arrangements to comply with the Bill's provisions. That is unnecessary as paragraph 10(2) of schedule 1 already allows the Secretary of State to define the transitional period. It will be possible to extend the period if it is considered that pistol clubs have not had enough time to obtain a licence.

An important consideration is that, as soon as reasonably possible after the commencement of the Act, we should have removed all handguns from people's homes with the exception of those—such as vets—with special authority to have them. Therefore, .22 handgun owners will be required to store their small-calibre firearms with the police until they can find a club in which to store their guns.

Mr. Dalyell

Is it conceivable that the Treasury officials have failed in their duty to get in touch with the Home Office to ask about cost estimates? If they have not failed in their duty, what on earth did the Home Office officials say?

Mr. Howard

I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is inconceivable. The Treasury has, of course, been fully consulted, and I am happy to lay the hon. Gentleman's anxieties to rest.

Mr. Dalyell

If the Home Secretary will tell me the figure, I shall sleep well tonight.

Mr. Howard

Our best estimate—I am not sure whether it will help the hon. Gentleman to sleep well—is that our compensation proposals will lead to a total bill of up to £150 million. We think that the Opposition's estimates are considerable exaggerations. That is my answer to the hon. Gentleman's question.

Finally, I turn to Government amendment No. 85, which provides that buying or acquiring a pistol should be a proper purpose for the police to issue a permit allowing a pistol to be outside licensed club premises. That follows the Government's undertaking, given by my hon. Friend the Minister of State in the Standing Committee, and a corresponding amendment tabled originally by my hon Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson).

Amendments Nos. 84 and 86 are minor consequential amendments to that amendment.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

With the leave of the House, I must admit that I am more than somewhat disappointed by the Government's response to a debate in which every Member who spoke advanced very plausible reasons for investigating further the dismantling of firearms as a security measure. The proposal has come about not as a result of the shooters' wish to see their firearms dismantled, but as a means of trying to improve the practicalities of the situation and to allow the sport—which will be totally decimated by the Bill—to survive in very difficult circumstances.

The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of a small item—it need not be a large item, but it must be the same item, preferably the butt or the frame—being kept in one place and the other item taken home. I do not believe that the Government have advanced a logical argument to sustain their position. I believe that it would be better if this matter were gone over in much greater detail in the other place.

I have no desire to press my amendment today, on condition that the Home Office bears in mind the very strong weight of technical feeling on the subject and the speeches that it will have heard this evening. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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