HC Deb 04 December 1996 vol 286 cc1151-6
Sir Jerry Wiggin

I beg to move amendment No. 59, in page 4, line 15, after 'exceptional', insert 'or subsection (2A) below applies.'.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following amendments: No. 60, in page 4, line 19, at end insert— '(2A) A person who is certified by the recognised governing body of the sport to be a person who has been invited to be a member of the group from which national competitors at international competitions will be selected may be granted a permit under subsection 1 to which subsection 2 shall not apply; and such permit shall be granted for one year and be renewable while membership of the group continues to be certified'. Government amendment No. 115.

No. 61, in schedule 2, page 23, line 26, at end insert— '(6A) In section 53 (rules for implementing this Act), after paragraph (a), there shall be inserted the following paragraph— (aa) recognising specified bodies as recognised governing bodies for the purposes of section 8(2A) of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997.".'.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I shall be brief, as the amendment is self-explanatory.

The three amendments would permit the chief officer of police to grant a year's permit to people chosen to be members of the national squad, and who live in his area, to represent the country in international competition. The permit would be granted only while they were members of the squad, and the squad is a closely defined body of people established by the national authority. My right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), under the guise of the last amendment, made a substantial plea that we try to allow our finest marksmen the opportunity to continue to represent the country internationally. Indeed, the Prime Minister said, in the foreword to "Raising the Game": I want to help our best sports men and women make the very best of their talents. I take as much pride as anyone in seeing them lead the world. I do not want to see them having to go abroad to learn how to exploit their talents". I shall not go into great detail on the matter, except to say that to qualify for the national squad is an extremely arduous process. Most competitors will have been shooting for at least eight years. Some enter the sport as young as 14 and work their way up through the junior ranks to the adult national team. These top-class sports men and women represent the United Kingdom and home nations at Olympic, Commonwealth and world championship level. Places are not always filled, as the standards required are so high, so there are occasions when there are vacancies. Competitors will usually have worked up to the level through the regional squads based on Sports Council regions, consisting of the 10 English regions plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

If those individuals can achieve that standard under the conditions that will be imposed on sporting shooters in future, they will be pretty exceptional men and women. Given that they are under the closest scrutiny, that they will be shooting to the highest possible standards and that they will be well known before admission to the squads, the Government might consider making a concession and allowing them to have custody of their firearms, under the special permits issued by the chief officers, for the simple and only reason that they are seeking to maintain Britain's position as one of the foremost competition shooting countries in the world.

Mrs. Helen Liddell (Monklands, East)

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) must be congratulated on the diligence with which he has pursued his case throughout the Bill's consideration. On a number of occasions he has used various routes to make his point. Indeed, in this group of amendments, we are again debating areas that are broadly similar to those that we discussed at some length in Committee. As we come to the closing stages of the Bill, the hon. Gentleman can certainly go back to those whom he represents and say that he has prosecuted his case very well.

One point that must be borne in mind is that, on every vote in the House, the view of the vast majority of hon. Members has been absolutely clear: they want the tightest possible restriction on handguns. The Labour party has supported the Government to an extent, and our view, and that of several Conservative Members, was that there should be a total ban on handguns. The amendments contain yet another opportunity for loopholes, and in such serious legislation it does no one any service to create loopholes.

As I have said, the view of the House is clear. As we approach the end of our debates on the legislation no one can be in any doubt that although there may be differences between us on some aspects of the Bill, the vast majority of hon. Members hold the clear view that there must be a tightening of the legislation on handguns. If we go down the route that was suggested by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare, we shall have to define the meaning of "exceptional".

I would mislead the House if I said that I was a great sports enthusiast. In times long past I was an undergraduate with my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), who is an enthusiastic sportsman. Perhaps it was his enthusiasm for sport that made me go in the opposite direction.

In Committee, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare argued convincingly about the difficulty of defining the level of sportsmanship and of what constitutes a national competition. That takes us into a difficult area. In addition, if we allow the loophole that would be permitted by the amendment to be opened up, handgun enthusiasts would make a pressing case for increasing the number of national competitions.

The next argument would be that if we wished marksmen and markswomen to be exceptional, they would have to have more training opportunities. The amendment provides a year's remission to such people in terms of applying to remove their pistols from shooting clubs.

These are substantial and disturbing loopholes. Thomas Hamilton was a good marksman, but he did not devote himself to competition. He was such a good marksman that, when he fired his gun 109 times, 38 lethal wounds were inflicted. That was the action that led to us considering this legislation.

I regret that the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor)is not in his place. He deprecated the stand of my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) on a "Scotland only" ban. It is important for the House to recognise the extent to which the people of Dunblane are watching us prosecute the case for the legislation. As a consequence of an earlier vote, some young men and women in Dunblane high school started a hunger strike, and it was only through the intervention of relatives of those who were bereaved that they were persuaded to end it. If they see further loopholes in the legislation, they will take the view that the House is not listening to them and to public opinion in general. We have a duty to represent public opinion.

Notwithstanding the energetic and sometimes rather unpleasant moves by those who have sought to influence views in the House, it is clear that the vast majority of people in this country, and not just in Scotland, favour the adoption of the maximum means of restricting the use of handguns. In a sense, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare contradicts the lobby that he seeks to support. On page 121, paragraph 9.68, the Cullen report quotes the British Shooting Sports Council as stating: no matter what system of checks and paperwork is maintained in such circumstances, it would be a simple matter indeed for a shooter intent on recovering his guns"— I ask the hon. Member for Southend, East to listen closely— to enter a competition, provide evidence to his club secretary that he had done so, recover possession of the complete gun together with ammunition for it, and perpetrate an outrage". That was said not by people who agree with my position on the issue but from those who are on his side in the debate. If we were to support these amendments, we would be allowing guns to be outside controlled premises for up to a year.

10.45 pm

Amendment No. 115 addresses an issue that we discussed in Committee, and significant points about it were raised during that debate by the Minister of State. The amendment generally deals with the issues raised in Committee, although there is a real need for the guidance to the police that will accompany the legislation, to ensure that due caution is taken in assessing whether all reasonable action has been taken in ensuring compliance with the legislation.

Therefore, it will come as no surprise that Government amendment No. 115 is attractive to the Opposition. However, amendment Nos. 59 to 61 create a loophole which I think that the public would regard as unnecessary. Ultimately, the legislation's purpose is to ensure public safety. That must come before every other consideration.

Mr. Brooke

I rise again in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin), in the context of his amendment affecting those who compete at international level. During the Bill's Committee stage on the Floor of the House, on November 18, I spoke about the training that international competitors are required to follow. I followed up on that with a letter to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, to which, as I said in an earlier debate, she has replied with admirable promptness. I appreciate that.

My hon. Friend concluded her letter with the paragraph: Inevitably there will be sportsmen and women who will be disadvantaged by these measures. However the Government must make its first priority the protection of the public. We are determined that target shooting may continue but only under the very strictest of conditions. I understand the principle inherent in the paragraph, which underlines the overall principle of the Bill. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I say that, in the context of the national squad, it is insulting. The hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) has just reinforced that belief, in a not notably well-informed speech. My hon. Friend the Minister of State said in Committee that there might be occasions on which pistol owners require to have their pistols outside a club, but envisaged that those occasions would be rare, and thus exceptional. The would be covered by the Bill. I alluded in my letter to her to a constituent of mine, who has since sent me the details of the required training programme at national and international level. It involves 45 different episodes arid events a year away from the home club. I do not know whether that is what my hon. Friend calls "rare" or "exceptional".

The virtue of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare is that they meet not only the requirements of that programme comprising 45 episodes, with all its attendant third-party carriage, but they meet the kinaesthetic element of training in one's own home, which, as I said on November 18 and earlier in this debate, represents 80 per cent. of the training that I described in detail in my letter to my hon. Friend the Minister.

Mr. Frank Cook

I speak in support of sound logic, and I have been a bit concerned about some of the arguments that have been made in this debate. The raison d'être of this legislation originates in an incident involving a mentally deranged person who had a firearms certificate and membership in several gun clubs—the membership records of which have disappeared, because the police have confiscated them and now refuse to release them, so that they can be examined properly.

On the basis of that deranged behaviour, we are being told that our national sportsmen and sportswomen, whom we formerly hailed as heroes when they returned with gold medals—which were in very short supply in any other sport—cannot be trusted. That is tantamount to saying that Fatima Whitbread should not have been allowed to hold a javelin in case she thrust it into the chest of a policeman on traffic duty. It is preposterous to use one extreme to try to prove an argument at the other end of the spectrum. It is unfair. It is unwarranted. It is unjustifiable. It is inexcusable.

I am sick of hearing about loopholes. We hear loophole, loophole, loophole all the time. Some people estimate that there are 250,000 illegally held weapons in the country, but other authorities tell us that there may be 4 million. That is a large loophole. The police tell me that 2,500 handguns are crossing the channel from the continent. That is another large loophole. I have heard very little about closing those loopholes. We should spend more time thinking about that than trying to stop law-abiding people following a perfectly justifiable and respectable pastime.

Miss Widdecombe

I appreciate the sentiments behind amendments Nos. 59, 60 and 61, but I cannot imagine any justification for treating members of national or international squads differently from other small-calibre pistol owners.

We considered carefully whether a pistol outside a club on permit should be conveyed by its owner or by a third party. We concluded that unless there were exceptional circumstances, transport should be by a third party. We consider it essential that, in all but the most exceptional cases, pistol and owner should be quite separate when they are both in public. There may be occasions on which pistol owners need to have their pistol outside a club, but we envisage that they will be as I have said—exceptional.

I also do not think that permits should be granted for a year at a time. The chief officer needs to decide in each case that he is granting a permit for a proper purpose, as listed in clause 8(3). It is unlikely that any purpose would justify a permit of a year's duration. Granting a blanket permit would not allow him to do that and may mean that individuals had their pistols outside club premises for other reasons.

Government amendment No. 115 has been tabled in response to the amendment tabled in Committee by my hon Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). It allows a person a defence of having taken all reasonable steps to avoid commission of the offence in clause 8(5) of failing to comply with the conditions on a permit. It will, for example, guard against a third party carrier failing, solely through his own fault, to deliver a pistol in accordance with the permit conditions. The certificate holder would then be able to prove that the fault lay with the carrier rather than with him.

Amendment negatived.

Amendments made: No. 84, in page 4, line 21, leave out 'of a licensed pistol club' and insert 'at which it is required to be kept'. No. 85, in page 4, line 22, at beginning insert— '() conveying the pistol to those premises following—

  1. (i) the release of the pistol from a police station at which it has been kept under Schedule 1 to this Act;
  2. (ii) the purchase or acquisition of the pistol; or
  3. (iii) a change in the licensed premises at which the pistol is required to be kept;'.
No. 86, in page 4, leave out lines 24 and 25.

No. 115, in page 5, line 3, at end insert— '(5A) In proceedings against any person for an offence under subsection (5)(a) above, it shall be a defence for him to prove that he took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to avoid the commission of the offence.'.—[Mr. Ottaway.]

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