HC Deb 18 November 1996 vol 285 cc735-807 5.35 pm
Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 1, line 15, after `weapon' insert '(including those powered by carbon dioxide)'.

This is a minor amendment which has long been recommended by the Firearms Consultative Committee. That committee was told some time ago that it could not have this modest concession until there was major legislation. I am very hopeful that my pleas will fall on receptive ears. It is ridiculous that a weapon powered by air pressure can be used without a certificate while an identical weapon powered by carbon dioxide will be confined to section 5. It is so clearly an historical breach of detail that I hope that the Government will accept the amendment.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Ann Widdecombe)

There is, indeed, a case for exempting low-powered carbon dioxide handguns from the general prohibition because they are no more dangerous than the low-powered airguns that are currently exempted. Not unnaturally, as the clause is concerned with handguns only, the amendment deals with carbon dioxide handguns and not long-barrelled guns. We intend to table an amendment to ensure that all forms of low-powered carbon dioxide weapons are treated in the same way as low-powered airguns. On the basis of that undertaking, I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw his amendment.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 1, line 16, after 'apply', insert `, a firearm which is incapable of holding more than one cartridge'.

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Janet Fookes)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 7, in page 2, line 6, after second `pistol', insert 'which is capable of holding more than one cartridge and'.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

Amendment No. 6 would exclude single-shot pistols from section 5. It covers both .22 and higher calibres. There are a number of different types, but the guns are few in number. Some would be banned because they fall outside other provisions of the Bill, such as the limitation on length. Among the higher-calibre, single-shot weapons there are perhaps a few hundred in use. These guns do not feature in the Olympic games, but are an important part of the Commonwealth games and all international matches. It is a sport at which Britain excels. We have won 19 medals at the last three Commonwealth games, including seven golds.

At no time did Lord Cullen suggest that a ban on single-shot guns was appropriate. He made a very clear distinction between multi-shot and single-shot guns and made no recommendation for the further control of single-shot guns. Of course, a single-shot gun is an infinitely less lethal weapon than an ordinary shotgun, for example.

Amendment No. 7 alters the definition of small-calibre pistols so that it will exclude only single-shot .22 calibre pistols from the Bill's provisions. I fully accept that if this amendment were to be acceptable, a new paving amendment in subsection 2 would be required at the Report stage.

Fewer than 5 per cent. of .22s are single shot pistols. They are used for Olympic discipline free-pistol shooting, which is the most prestigious—the crème de la crème—Olympic shooting event. The .22 single-shot pistol is used at both the top and the bottom ends of shooting. They are used by elite Olympic shooters, who use carefully honed and expensive guns, and by beginners, who often start out with a single-shot .22.

The question is clear: is a single-shot weapon really so lethal that it should be banned, or are not we going too far in our endeavour to make apparent concessions to public safety? I say "apparent concessions" because the matter was debated at considerable length last week.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Howard)

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare has summarised the effect of the amendments. They would exempt single-shot pistols from the general prohibition, effectively limiting the ban to multi-shot guns. They would particularly allow single-shot handguns to continue to be kept at home.

I cannot invite hon. Members to support the amendments. The Government believe that there is no place for handguns in the home. As is self-evident, even a single-shot handgun can be used to kill, and they are very easy to carry and to conceal.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

In framing his reply to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, will my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State go beyond the question of whether such guns should be kept at home to answer the burden of the point made by my hon. Friend—that we would like to keep the Commonwealth games in this country and our competitors to be able to take part in them? Will my right hon. and learned Friend suggest other amendments to the Bill that would enable that to happen in a safe manner?

Mr. Howard

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare was concentrating more on the Olympic than the Commonwealth games. We do not ban any of the weapons that are used in Olympic competition. In the Bill, we ban some of the weapons that are used in the Commonwealth games, but they are used in only one of the competitions in those games. All Olympic competitions use .22 calibre weapons, and all but one Commonwealth competition use .22 calibre weapons.

I made the Government's position clear on this matter last week. It is possible for the holder of my office to authorise that element of the Commonwealth games that is not a .22 calibre competition to take place at Manchester. It is true, however, that the Bill's effect would be that no British competitor would be able to practice in this country for that element—it is one element only—of the Commonwealth games. As I explained last week, it is true that that is a consequence of the Bill's provisions.

The purpose of amendment Nos 6 and 7 is to allow people to keep handguns in the home. We do not believe that the public can be given the protection they need and deserve if handguns continue to be kept at home. That is why I invite the Committee to reject them.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

In the spirit of this debate, I am pleased to agree with the comments made by the Secretary of State. I also agree that high-calibre single-shot pistols are extremely lethal—as has been demonstrated by evidence presented to many hon. Members over the past few weeks and months. I am sure that such evidence will continue to be produced during the remainder of this week. If one accepts that we must take action to outlaw pistol shooting in shooting clubs, it would be unacceptable to allow the type of exception provided for in amendment No. 6. The type of weapon we are talking about is particularly lethal. It may not be as lethal as the multi-shot pistol, but it has the ability to kill very quickly.

5.45 pm

There is another reason why I hope that the Committee will not accept amendment No. 6. I believe that he and his colleagues are trying to pick apart the Bill. If one examines amendment Nos 6 and 7, and subsequent amendments, one will notice an attempt to exclude various categories of weapons from the provisions of the Bill. The effect would be that the Bill would prohibit only Magnum pistols and perhaps some pistols smaller than .32, which are used for vermin control, and that all others would be acceptable. That would run a coach and horses through the Bill and would not accord with the will of the vast majority of hon. Members.

Although people have a right to enjoy their sport, we should weigh that privilege against the risk that guns will be used as they were in Dunblane. I take part in many sports and on most occasions I support the sporting world and some of its arguments, but I do not believe that one can argue that the rights and privileges of the sportsperson should take precedence over the very real risk to the population. That is why I do not believe that the House should accept amendment No. 6 or some of the other amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wigging).

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I do not intend to speak for long, and I do not intend to intervene regularly. I should, however, like to mention one matter. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) mentioned the wish of the overwhelming majority of hon. Members. It is quite true that all hon. Members are deeply saddened and appalled by what happened in Dunblane—there is not a cigarette paper of difference between any of us on that—but there is considerable unease, not only on the Conservative Benches but on both sides of the House, about the tone and content of this legislation. I should not like the debate to end without my right hon. and learned Friend being aware that I share that unease.

Rarely is panic legislation good legislation. Although Thomas Hamilton acted in an unspeakable manner with the weapons that he legally possessed, he is—as one of my correspondents said to me this morning—having his revenge in this legislation, which will penalise many law-abiding citizens who have never comtemplated and would never contemplate doing wrong.

Thomas Hamilton could have inflicted equal damage if he had run amok with a motor car. He could have inflicted damage with a variety of weapons and implements, as could any other evil man or madman—and I believe that Thomas Hamilton was the former. It is incumbent on all hon. Members, however great our sympathy for those who have suffered—I hope that no one's sympathy is greater than mine—to realise that we have a duty to try to distance ourselves and to be objective in what we are trying to do and in the legislation that we frame. I do not believe that this legislation will enhance Parliament's reputation, or that it is really serving our country's interests.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

I should like to share with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary a point made by one of my constituents who shoots regularly, who is an elderly and extremely responsible citizen. He said that the shooting club to which he belongs, which uses .22 weapons, uses the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve range in Gillingham to enjoy the sport. One of the problems that they foresee is that the TAVR range in Gillingham may not want to have secure storage for their weapons on the premises on which they shoot. That could be a problem across the country. I certainly agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary in his opposition to making exceptions to the secure storage provisions. If many of the shooters who would be allowed to continue their sport with their weapons find themselves precluded because the TAVR, for example, will not allow storage to be constructed, there will be a justifiable outcry. Such people will be deprived of their sport by default rather than by the Bill.

Amendment negatived.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I beg to move amendment No. 17,in page 1, line 16, after 'apply', insert 'a permitted centre-fire pistol'.

The Second Deputy Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following: Amendment No. 19, in page 2, line 7, at end add— `(1B) In this Act "permitted centre-fire pistol" means a pistol chambered for .32 or smaller centre-fire cartridges and suitable for participation in competitions shot in accordance with the rules of the Union Internationale de Tir.'.

Amendment No. 18, in page 2, line 7, at end add— (1B) In this Act "permitted centre-fire pistol" means a pistol chambered for .32 or smaller centre-fire cartridges'.

Amendment No. 30, in page 2, line 7, at end add— '(1B) In this Act "permitted centre-fire pistol" means a pistol chambered for .32 or .38 special or smaller centre-fire cartridges.'.

New clause 7—Centre-fire competition pistolsThe authority of the Secretary of State is not required by virtue of subsection (1) (aba) of section 5 of the 1968 Act for a person to have in his possession, or to purchase or acquire, or to sell or transfer a firearm if he is authorised by a firearm certificate to have in his possession, or to purchase or acquire a pistol chambered for .32 or smaller centre-fire cartridges for use in competitions shot in accordance with the rules of the Union Internationale de Tir.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

In response to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), I see the matter from his point of view in so far as later amendments are germane to this debate, and it would have been easier to talk about exceptions once the next question had been resolved. As long as the Labour party remains opposed to all handguns, I expect no sympathy from Opposition Members.

If we are to be allowed to keep any handguns—the reasons can be well argued, and will become apparent in the next debate—it is not unreasonable that we should seek to spread as widely as possible the range of handguns used for international competition purposes, which are very unlikely to be selected even by a maniac, because, being single-shot, they are quite unsuitable for death and destruction. They are suitable for shooting at targets, which is what they are designed to do and what they are used for. The single-shot .22, which we have just been debating, is the type of gun that an individual could manufacture. It is often a labour of love to put together such specialist and highly accurate single-shot guns.

I am sorry that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has seen fit to draw the line where he has. This group of amendments, Miss Fookes, seeks to extend the lower limit to .32 and smaller calibre pistols. Such guns do not use a conventional cartridge of the type that one would expect. They use what are known as wadcutter cartridges, and are generally known as the .32 wadcutters. The name derives from the fact that the cartridge is designed especially to be fired at cardboard. The blunt-nosed bullet does not expand on impact, and cuts a cleaner hole in a cardboard target—like a flying paper punch—making the measurement more accurate.

These pistols are used in the majority of Commonwealth games shooting events, as well as other international competitions. In the previous three Commonwealth games, British competitors won three medals, including one gold, in the .32 centre-fire event. A Briton also won a silver medal in the 1995 Commonwealth shooting championships. I should like to argue with my right hon. and learned Friend about the calibre, muzzle speed and impact of such guns, but, in some respects, that may be an argument against his position on a subsequent amendment.

The fact is that we are talking about low-power, target-shooting handguns that are not designed for killing. They are designed to fire 25 metres, and for competition.

Mr. Henderson

I had a meeting with representatives of the Metropolitan Police, who told me that any gun could kill anyone. Did the hon. Gentleman taken such background advice into account when framing his comments?

Sir Jerry Wiggin

Of course any gun can kill anyone, and so can any knife. If one pursued that argument, it would be logical to say that there should be no guns at all, but I do not think that the Opposition Front Benchers, even in their wildest moments, have said that.

The amendment is an attempt to define a line which we believe can be reasonably argued, which can be backed by Cullen's report, and which is in Britain's best national interests in shooting competitions. I commend it to the Committee.

I owe you a personal apology, Dame Janet, because I fear that I have been addressing you incorrectly. It was mere forgetfulness, and I hope that you will accept my apology at face value.

The Second Deputy Chairman

That is quite all right, Mr. Wiggin!

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

I was hoping to make an intervention, but the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) got a little hard of hearing and then sat down. I shall therefore make my point by way of a short speech.

The hon. Member may be surprised to know that I had some sympathy with his previous attempt to exempt single-shot weapons. Secure storage of single-shot handguns may be practicable, but the matter was not pressed to a vote.

The amendment that we are debating deals with exempting pistols that are meant purely for sport. There is a great difference between a pistol that is intended to be used for sporting purposes but which is still capable of rapid fire and which can cause a great deal of damage to or kill or maim many people one after the other, and a sporting pistol used purely for that purpose, which is capable only of a single shot. Certainly it can still kill, but the risk is less. If it were securely stored, it would raise different issues.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will later clarify whether this group of amendments would exempt only single-shot pistols, which is the type that he referred to, or whether it would also exempt multi-shot pistols for sporting purposes.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the Home Secretary clarify what he said about the Commonwealth games and competitive shooting? He made it clear that, under the Bill as drafted—without this or other amendments—no British competitor could practise for the Commonwealth games. However, unless I misheard him, he seemed to imply that the games could be held with this category of event included. I do not understand how he can base that argument on the Bill as drafted.

Sir Anthony Durant (Reading, West)

I am seriously worried about the effect that the Bill might have on our sporting chances at the Olympic and Commonwealth games. People who participate in shooting events take their sport seriously and are reasonable people. Anything we do that damages our chances in this sport should be examined. I am honoured to be taking over the southern region of the Sports Aid Foundation, which raises money to help young people to participate in sport. I am worried that, if the amendment is rejected, we shall be damaging our nation's sporting interests. I should be grateful if my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary would bear that in mind.

Mr. Rod Richards (Clwyd, North-West)

I support the amendment, for all the reasons outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin). I voted for the amendment that would have prevented Second Reading. I believe that, despite our feelings about what happened in Dunblane, the House is not capable of legislating against evil.

I want to exemplify my concern at the stance adopted by the Opposition to this group of amendments by drawing attention to on of the many letters that I have received from my constituents—and, indeed, from other people.

6 pm

With your permission, Dame Janet, I should like to quote a passage or two from a letter from my constituent, Gary Tomkins, exemplifying the fundamental conceptual flaw in the Bill. He says: In 1989 at the age of 22 I had a very severe industrial accident which left me with a damaged spine and a totally paralysed right arm and hand. Before my accident I had been a very active and fit person but could not continue my hobbies. I was a martial arts instructor and had taken part in competitions all over the country. My accident was in February 1989 and I was due to take part in the European championships in Belgium in the May of '89. I had trained hard and was expected to be very highly placed. I also could not continue my football or climbing. A close friend asked if I would like to go to Llandudno Pistol Club with him and I started to go as a probationary member. I became a full member in 1994. It is not an overstatement to say it changed my life. I go three times a week and it is a hobby I have pursued to a very high standard. I have recently been asked to shoot for my country. It is now my one and only hobby that my disability does not affect as it is not a contact sport. Myself and three other members of the pistol club travel all over Britain shooting at different competitions. I hold nine target pistols, five centrefire and four rimfire for shooting all the different disciplines I shoot.

My constituent then writes of his upset at the dreadful events in Dunblane. He says: After Dunblane I found it hard to shoot but thought 'why not, I have done nothing wrong.' Competition shooting is one of the safest sports and enjoyed by people from all walks of life and all sections of society. He concludes: The target shooters I have spoken to on the subject feel that we are being 'tarred with the same brush' as Thomas Hamilton. We do not understand why the sport of Target Shooting is to be practically wiped out because of the actions of one evil individual. It is not possible in any way to legislate against an unsound mind … I am just asking for the right to continue with the sport that I care so much about and which helped me to come to terms with the loss of my other activities. That letter puts it better than I could. The amendments are sound, and I shall support them.

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

I can well understand the viewpoint of the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards). Not long ago, one of my constituents was shot and murdered with a gun. As far as I am concerned, guns are made to kill people, and it is time we took them out of the system and out of society to ensure that folk can live in peace and harmony at home, without fear of someone possessing a gun.

I am unequivocally opposed to handguns being kept at home. Many innocent people such as me fear them. It is time that we put ourselves right and stopped these guns being used. I can understand the quest for sport. We all enjoy sport. However, after what we have seen in Dunblane and Hungerford, it is time for the House to act to ensure that no one—and I mean no one—in this country, except representatives of the law and our armed forces, has the right to own pistols. God forgive us if we allow this to continue.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

I had not intended to speak, but I cannot let what the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham) has just said go unchallenged. He should realise that a skean-dhu in the hands of a madman is a lethal weapon.

Weapons are lethal only if people intend to use them in an evil way. Our debates should concentrate on the problem. The problem at Dunblane was an evil individual. No amount of legislation will remove evil people from society.

Mr. Henderson

I do not want to labour my comments on these amendments, because I have little to add to what I said on the previous amendments. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) is again seeking to insert a long list of exemptions to make the provisions of the Bill inadequate.

The hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards) got to the point of the sports issue. He said that competition shooting was one of the safest sports. Hamilton was a member of two shooting clubs—one in Callender and one in Clyde valley. I am pretty sure that those clubs take part in competitive shooting. We cannot say that competition shooting was safe for the 17 people who died at Dunblane or for their environment. That is the central issue.

As I said on the previous amendments, it is a privilege to take part in sports. Other shooting sports opportunities are available to those who want to take part, including rifle shooting, shotgun shooting for game, and clay pigeon shooting with shotguns. Shooting sports based on pistols have been shown to be dangerous. That is why I hope that the House does not accept the amendments.

Mr. Howard

I begin by associating myself with the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin). I earlier fell into the same error as that into which he had fallen, and I apologise.

The amendments would exempt centre-fire handguns from the general prohibition, particularly those of .32 calibre or smaller, with amendment 30 also exempting those of .38 calibre. We have given a great deal of consideration to the distinction between the lower .22 rim-fire calibre and higher calibres, and I cannot invite the Committee to accept the amendments.

It is true that there are serious competitive target shooting events at higher calibres. However, .32 and .38 handguns take conventional centre-fire ammunition. Although, for competition shooting, they may use low-powered ammunition for the purposes of accuracy, they are equally capable of using much more powerful ammunition. There is no distinction between the power of those guns and that of other high-calibre handguns. Handguns such as pocket pistols chambered for .32 rounds are often used in crime.

In contrast, the power of a .22 calibre rim-fire handgun is limited by the nature of the ammunition that it uses. As the table in paragraph 9.49 of Lord Cullen's report shows, a .22 calibre round is four to six times less powerful than a high-calibre round.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) asked about the Commonwealth games. I should make it clear that the amendments would have no impact on the Olympic games, in which pistols of .22 calibre only are used. The amendments would permit exemptions for higher-calibre guns.

The right hon. Gentleman asked how it would be possible for the Commonwealth games to take place with a full complement of events. I understand that one of the five pistol shooting events in the Commonwealth games is for pistols of a higher calibre than .22. The other four events are for .22 calibre guns. I have authority under section 5 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1968 to enable that event to take place in Manchester in 2002 if the organisers of the Commonwealth games wish it. Nothing in the Bill would take away that authority.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

Will British sportsmen be able to participate in the Commonwealth games using that class of gun?

Mr. Howard

As I have indicated in the past, British competitors will not be able to practise in this country for that event. I believe that the authority I am able to give under section 5 of the 1968 Act would enable people to take part in the competition.

We all listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards), who read out a moving letter from one of his constituents, for whom target shooting was an important part of life. Many of us can sympathise with that constituent's views. Indeed, it is because we believe that it is possible to give the public the protection they need and deserve while allowing those in the position of my hon. Friend's constituent to continue some limited shooting, that the Government have taken their position, and will invite the Committee later this evening to reject amendment No.1.

I entirely accept that, as a result of the Bill, my hon. Friend's constituent will not be able to carry on with all the kinds of shooting in which he presently engages. That is true, but he will be able to continue to shoot .22 pistols. I very much hope that, in that way, he will continue to derive the satisfaction that he currently gets from shooting, which was fully explained in the letter my hon. Friend read out. I believe that the Bill will enable my hon. Friend's constituent and many others like him to continue with their legitimate activity, while giving the public the protection they need and deserve by dealing with higher-calibre guns.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I have a correspondent who is not dissimilar from the one quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards). Why would the public be at greater risk if the two people we are talking about and others like them were allowed to keep their weapons in secure and registered gun club premises? I have always felt that handguns should not be kept at home, but should be kept in clubs. Why would the public be at greater risk if those people, many of them handicapped and unable to use other weapons such as shotguns and rifles, kept their weapons in secure and licensed gun club premises?

Mr. Howard

We will deal with that precise point in due course, because some of the later amendments deal with the generality of higher-calibre weapons. The answer to my hon. Friend's point is that higher-calibre weapons are much more powerful.

I said that, if one looks at the very helpful table at paragraph 9.49 of Lord Cullen's report, one sees clearly that a .22 calibre round is four to six times less powerful than a high-calibre round. Higher-calibre guns are more attractive to criminals and are more often used by criminals. They would make the clubs a much more attractive target for criminals.

I accept that, at the end of the day, there is a difficult matter of judgment. However, there are a number of reasons why we have come to the conclusion that the appropriate place at which to draw the line is the .22 calibre. That enables .22 calibre shooting but not higher calibre shooting to continue.

Dr. John Gilbert (Dudley, East)

I have a lot of sympathy with the Home Secretary's point. However, I am not clear about his remarks on the Commonwealth games. If I understand him correctly, it would be in order for a British citizen to practise with a larger calibre pistol abroad, but not in this country, and to compete in the games. Will that citizen be allowed to bring the higher-calibre pistol into the country, and what will he do with it when the games are over?

Mr. Howard

Clearly, if I or the holder of my office gives authority in 2002 for that event to take place—I repeat that that is one out of the five shooting events in the Commonwealth games, and that the other four events are .22 events—it will be necessary for arrangements to be made for the guns used in that event to be made available to the competitors. In the course of making those arrangements, which would have to be studied with considerable care in the context of the authority given, it would be possible for those weapons to be made available for the purpose of the competition to all the competitors in that event. That is the answer to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Dudley, East (Dr. Gilbert).

Mr. Leigh

I must press my right hon. and learned Friend on this point. There is a logical absurdity here. Surely my right hon. and learned Friend, with his inquiring and highly intelligent mind, can see that.

We are now saying to British sportsmen that they can use guns but not practise with them. It is like saying to my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) that he can run the 100 metres but that he cannot practise it. The whole thing is absurd, and it got even more absurd when my right hon. and learned Friend answered the right hon. Member for Dudley, East (Dr. Gilbert). Where will the guns be stored? World-class sportsmen will want to use their own guns. They cannot win at that level with somebody else's gun. The whole thing is absurd. I beg my right hon. and learned Friend to reconsider.

6.15 pm
Mr. Howard

I do not accept the premise behind my hon. Friend's question. We have justified our position on the grounds that I have explained. We think that the right place to draw the line is at .22 calibre. We do not think that higher-calibre weapons ought to be permitted in this country.

I have been asked whether, exceptionally, notwithstanding the general position in relation to higher-calibre weapons, if the holder of my office were asked by the organisers of the Manchester Commonwealth games to permit that one event to take place as part of those games in 2002, it would be possible to make arrangements for that. The answer is yes; it would be possible to make arrangements for that event to continue. Of course, that does not lie very easily with the generality of the Bill; I entirely accept that.

It is not the intention that, when the Bill is enacted, higher-calibre weapons should be used. But if it is the desire of the organisers of the Commonwealth games, on that one occasion and for that one event, for special arrangements to be made, special arrangements could be made, as I have explained to the right hon. Member for Dudley, East and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh).

I have sought to explain to the Committee the reasons why I do not believe that the amendments should be accepted. They would allow higher-calibre weapons to be available and to be used. Although, as I have said, it is true that higher-calibre weapons have a competitive use, they are capable of using much more powerful ammunition, and they are indistinguishable from .32 handguns, which are frequently used in crime. For those reasons, I invite the Committee to reject the amendments.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I am not an expert on the .32 wadcutter, but I understand that there are a number of competition weapons that are chambered precisely and only for a type of ammunition that is, in effect, a disc for marking a target. No criminal with any skill would contemplate the use of such a weapon or such a bullet—if I can call it that, because it is not a bullet—for criminal purposes.

The advice that my hon. and learned Friend has received on velocity and so on is incorrect. Many higher-calibre weapons have a smaller net power than some .22s. I should like to go into the matter in greater detail, perhaps in correspondence.

Mr. Graham

My sister-in-law has been held up in a shop five or six times in her life. What happened was that a guy came in and held a gun at her. Does the hon. Gentleman think that my sister-in-law asked, "Is that a .22?" Does he think that the criminal cared? For goodness' sake!

Sir Jerry Wiggin

The hon. Gentleman is making the mistake of confusing legally held guns with illegally held guns. There is nothing in favour of illegal weapons. We condemn illegal weapons as much as anyone. I doubt that the person who held up the hon. Gentleman's sister-in-law was carrying a legally held firearm.

I shall seek to put my right hon. and learned Friend right on the technical points. I shall not press the amendment to a vote tonight, in the hope that, if we can produce the necessary technical evidence, he will give the matter further consideration. We are talking only about target shooting, and I believe that we can allay many of his fears. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 16, leave out 'a small-calibre pistol'.

The Second Deputy Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following: No. 15, in page 1, line 16, leave out 'small-calibre pistol' and insert `firearm which can be dismantled'. No. 2, in page 2, line 4, leave out subsection (6).

No. 16, in page 2, line 6, leave out from 'Act' to end of line 7 and insert firearm which can be dismantled" means a firearm which may be readily dismantled into at least two separate components in such a way as to disable it from being fired.'.

Mr. Hughes

I greatly admire the way in which the issue has been handled. Ever since the Dunblane shooting, the Government and Opposition parties have worked together and treated the subject as a non-party matter on which the House of Commons could not legislate in a hurry. Lord Cullen did a remarkable job. One of his most important recommendations was to impose a timetable on the House that included time to reflect. As the debate progressed and the issues unfolded, the Government made the right decision to consider the recommendations in the Cullen report and propose what action the House should take. It is a matter for the House of Commons to decide public policy and not for a judge, no matter how eminent he may be.

The difference between myself, the Opposition and the Government is relatively small. The Government consider that it is safe to allow .22 or smaller calibre weapons to be kept in gun clubs and that all other handguns should be banned. What is the basis for that judgment? Why do the Government believe that there is a difference between .22 handguns and larger weapons?

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has advanced two arguments. First, he said that he did not wish to disrupt Olympic sport. That is a logical contention, but I wonder how much water it holds when we have been told by the shooting lobby that most of the sport will be destroyed, as will Britain's participation in some of the competitions in the Commonwealth games. If the Government are prepared to take the matter that far—and they are right to do so—the next logical step would be to ban .22 handguns as well.

Secondly, my right hon. and learned Friend claims that, if larger handguns are held in gun clubs under the new stringent conditions, gun clubs will become a more attractive target for criminals. If .22 handguns are the only guns being held in gun clubs, surely they will be a target for criminals. As the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham) said, when his sister-in-law was held up, she did not know what calibre of gun was being used.

I have also had a gun pointed at me in Beirut by a very insistent man who wanted me to hand over a videotape. I said, "Take as many videotapes as you like." I did not stop to ask him what calibre gun he was carrying. Therefore, those two arguments do not stand up.

There is a third possible argument: presumably, there is a significant difference between the effect of .22 pistols and that of larger handguns. I have taken advice from experts on guns. They do not necessarily agree with me, but agreed to assist the debate. They tell me that the shock of being hit by a bullet from a .22 gun is considerably less and that many more bullets would have to be pumped into someone to cause death. I understand that, but a .22 weapon can still be lethal, as the Cullen report tells us. The umbrella organisation for the shooters tells us that a .22 gun can be just as lethal as a larger weapon and that in some circumstances it can be more dangerous because it is quicker to change magazines on a smaller handgun.

The Government assert that their restrictions will be enough to ensure that .22 weapons never get into general circulation. However, in the Cullen report the umbrella organisation for the shooters stated its view that no system of certification or regulation can be foolproof. In other words, no system will stop someone saying that he is going to a target shooting competition, taking his guns out and doing whatever he wants with them.

Smaller handguns are used to commit many atrocities. They are the chosen weapon of Mossad, the Special Air Services and the professional assassins. Robert Kennedy and Yitzhak Rabin were killed with .22 weapons and Ronald Reagan was nearly killed with one. The Evening Standard reported that last night A mother found her four children shot dead in their beds in North Carolina with a .22-calibre handgun, the type of weapon that the Government is refusing to ban".

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

My hon. Friend has tried to apply logic to the Government's policy, and that was an error. Is it not true that the policy was cobbled together simply to keep the Cabinet intact? That is why it is so illogical and cannot be explained in a way that the average man in the street can understand.

Mr. Hughes

I am in favour of keeping the Cabinet together and I hope that it will continue to govern us after the general election. In good government, any decision is a matter of compromise. I was coming to my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. Richards

My hon. Friend makes great issue of the difference between the effectiveness of a .22 handgun and that of a higher-calibre weapon. If a Member on the Opposition Front Bench were to shoot at my hon. Friend with a .22 handgun, it would be something of a fluke were he to be killed. However, if a Member on the Opposition Front Bench were to fire at him with a 9 mm Browning, my hon. Friend would end up on the same Bench as me—much further back.

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I was referring to people who hone their skills in gun clubs and know the effect of the guns. Someone armed with a .22 weapon who is intent on committing an atrocity will know exactly how close he must be to his victims. Therefore, a tragedy such as Dunblane could happen again.

I have already stated my view that there should be a free vote on the issue, because of my stance and that of other hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friends. Otherwise, can there be any logic in the Government having taken a non-political approach to the issue?

Mr. Bill Walker

It was not the Government, but the Opposition, who made the issue political.

Mr. Hughes

I absolutely reject that contention. Those arguments are used merely to slur the good names of the people who run the Snowdrop campaign, who have not tried to make it a political issue.

The judgment on whether there should be a three-line Whip is wrong. I think that it is wrong because, plainly, from the beginning, all the signals from the Government were that the issue was non-party political. Members of Parliament were therefore entitled—indeed, in my judgment, had a duty—to find out the facts, talk to the shooting fraternity and those people who wanted to ban handguns, visit gun clubs, as I and I am sure many hon. Members did, and make up their own minds on how they should vote on the issue when it eventually came to the Floor of the House. That is what I did, and that is why I take the view that I do.

In this and other debates, it has become normal courtesy for people, whatever their view, especially those who do not want to ban any handguns, to say how much sympathy they have for the parents of the Dunblane children and the husband of Gwen Mayor. I do not believe that I have any more or any less sympathy than anybody else. In fact, I think that the words are used not to express sympathy but to excuse the way in which those people are thinking and say that the people who were involved in Dunblane and the people who lost relatives are perhaps over-emotional; although we should listen to what they say, we have to understand that perhaps they are not being as balanced as they should be.

I reject that view entirely. That is not the view of the people of Dunblane. They have looked at the issues. They do not think that their relatives can be brought back, but they recognise that if we leave handguns in the hands of private citizens, as, regrettably, the Government's proposals would, we run the risk that once again a tragedy could be caused by legally held weapons. I think that the House should recognise that that is so and not have a further atrocity or the possibility of one on its conscience.

6.30 pm
Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) on his speech, on his courage in following his judgment and his conscience and on resisting whatever strong-arm tactics have been used by his party managers. That stands well for him.

This debate involves a moment of critical decision for the House of Commons.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes

For the sake of clarity, I ought to say that there have been no strong-arm tactics employed by the Whips or by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench. They have been extremely courteous and logical in their approach to me.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) should withdraw his comment.

Mr. Robertson

Of course I withdraw the comment. The hon. Member for Harrow, West was a Whip, and if he says that there has been no pressure put on hon. Members, that is good. I hope, therefore, that what I am going to say will be all the more relevant for that.

In paragraph 1.13 of his report, Lord Cullen said: I point out that the ultimate decision raises a number of matters of policy which are peculiarly for the Government and Parliament to decide. For that reason I direct my recommendation to what should be considered. This evening, the House of Commons has to make its own decision; it has to come to its own judgment. I hope that if there is no restraint—that what the hon. Member for Harrow, West says, to which the Government Front-Bench team nods animatedly, is correct—Conservative Members will suffer no penalty if, having listened to the debate, they come to a different conclusion from the one that, as has been indicated to the press, the Government have drawn.

In many ways, Parliament itself is on trial tonight. If we were to leave a loophole in the firearms law big enough for another mass murderer, another Michael Ryan or Thomas Hamilton, to walk through, we would never be forgiven or deserve to be forgiven by the populace. Today, in another continent, another country, another culture—America—four children were shot dead by their father using a .22 weapon. The children died, and they make a horrifying point for us at the beginning of this debate.

I suggest that we should start by being brutally truthful with ourselves. I ask hon. Members this question: if a mad, crazed, suicidal gunman with 743 rounds of ammunition had come into the Chamber, killed 17 Members of Parliament and gravely injured 15 others and then shot himself within a matter of minutes, would we have waited eight months to discuss a partial ban on the very instrument that killed so many legislators of this land? No; whatever the Home Secretary says, the answer to that is known in the House of Commons and outside.

Sir Michael Marshall (Arundel)

I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, but he is realistic and must surely accept that there is no way in which we can close all loopholes. We would have to ban all guns. The sawn-off shotgun has been seen over the years as the criminal's friend. Surely the hon. Gentleman should give up the idea that we can close all loopholes against lunacy.

Mr. Robertson

I hesitate before calling the hon. Gentleman complacent, but I have to make the point to him that Thomas Hamilton and Michael Ryan were in a category of killers who took the lives of more people than the total of practically all other homicides in the country in a year, and did so using legally held handguns. If a 100 per cent. ban had been in place and the loophole closed, neither of them would have been able to de what they did. A balance of risks is involved. The Government have gone beyond the Cullen recommendation because they believe that the balance of risks determined it. I am suggesting that the Government's limit of 80 per cent. is not enough and that we should simply close the loophole by a 100 per cent. ban.

Mr. Howard

A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman made an absolutely outrageous suggestion, which demeans him and the House of Commons. I want to give him the opportunity to withdraw it. He alleged that, if what had happened at Dunblane had happened in this House, we would not have waited eight months before legislating. Did not the shadow Home Secretary, his hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), and the whole Labour party accept from the outset that the right course would be to set up the Cullen inquiry, wait for its report and then legislate speedily in response to that report, which is precisely what the Government have done? Will the hon. Gentleman now withdraw his outrageous remark?

Mr. Robertson

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman would listen to me, he would realise that I am not accusing him. I am taking responsibility for all of us. Yes, of course, we waited eight months; we waited for Cullen to respond. I am questioning whether, if such an incident had happened in Parliament, we would still be talking about a partial ban on the guns. What if the instrument of death used at Dunblane primary school on 13 March had been a .22 weapon? What if it had been a Revolter .22 with eight-shot magazines? Would we still be considering a partial ban on the weapon that caused that atrocity or could have caused an atrocity in this House? I think that we know the obvious answer.

Mr. Richards


Mr. Robertson

Many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-East (Mr. Richards), have asked whether, somehow, the .22 is different from the .32 or the Magnums that some people have at present. Eileen Harrild was the gym teacher at Dunblane primary school. She is in the House of Commons and what she has said today should be a salutary reminder to all of us. She did not know whether Thomas Hamilton had a 9 mm Browning or a .22 weapon in that gymnasium. All she knew was that he killed with it.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth)

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman meant to say what he did to the Committee, but it is quite important that he puts the position on the record. Surely he is not for a moment suggesting that the reaction of the House of Commons to the murder of 16 children and their teacher would be any different if a crime had been committed in the House involving 17 Members of Parliament. Surely the House would react to such an atrocity, wherever it happened, in the same way, by looking at the facts and forming a balanced and proper response. It is important that the hon. Gentleman should make that clear.

Mr. Robertson

The right hon. Gentleman and I have stood side by side during the whole episode and I do not regret that for a moment, but we have arrived at a different conclusion at this stage and that is the point that I make solemnly and seriously to the Committee. After all that time, all that consideration and all the evidence that has been collected, it is not right that we should concern ourselves with a partial ban on that sort of weapon. If the events had been closer to the House, the partialness of the ban would be the issue, as it is today.

The decision is a matter of judgment. We saw so much on that day and we have seen so much since then, but we see a difference of judgment before the Committee tonight. The amendment on which we will vote is not in the name of the Labour party; it is first in the name of three right hon. and hon. Conservative Members and it has support across the Committee. The point has been made repeatedly, but why will the Government not allow—

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have stood side by side on this issue, and I am grateful for the way in which he has done that, but it is important that he should make it clear that the House of Commons is not treating the events of Dunblane any less seriously than it would treat the events had they taken place in the House. That is what he appeared to say and it is important that he should make it clear that the House of Commons is treating the events of Dunblane as seriously as if they had happened anywhere else. We may disagree on the appropriate response, but it is wrong to suggest that the response would have been different if those events had happened here in Westminster and not in my constituency.

Mr. Robertson

I make the point to the right hon. Gentleman that the issue is a question of judgment, and I am not the only one who makes that suggestion. Yes, we decided collectively that the Cullen inquiry would be set up and that we would wait to see the results before we came to a considered conclusion, but there is now a serious difference between us. It is a small difference, but it is a fundamental. I do not personally believe that, had the events taken place here or had the gun that was used in Dunblane primary school been a .22 weapon, we would now be considering a partial ban that would continue to allow 20,000 .22 calibre pistols, half of them semi-automatic, to remain in legal circulation. That is my judgment and I believe it is shared by many other hon. Members.

Mr. Richards


Mr. Dicks


Mr. Robertson

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks).

Mr. Dicks

At the time the hon. Gentleman, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition went to Dunblane, soon after the tragedy, the implication was—I may be wrong—that everybody would do all that could be done to ensure that such events would not happen again. I am disappointed that that has not happened and that is why we have a partial ban and not the complete ban that the hon. Gentleman and I want.

Mr. Robertson

In the ideal world, we would all have followed the same route together and we would have come to exactly the same conclusions, but we do not live in an ideal world. The hon. Gentleman's party is not ideal, because his colleagues do not agree with his courageous view. There is an honest difference of opinion and the House of Commons has an opportunity to consider what action will be taken.

Mr. Richards


Mr. Robertson

This is a brief debate and I have to make some progress. I have given way generously up to now and I may come to the hon. Gentleman later.

The issue before us is that guns kill and handguns kill more easily, more quickly and with devastating effect. The .22 guns are as lethal as the higher-calibre guns that will be outlawed here tonight. I say in all seriousness—this is not a political point—that there is genuine dismay and concern in the country that there is a whipped vote on one side of the Committee but a free vote on the other. It is right to ask again and again how the Government can announce only some eight days ago that they will allow a free vote on an issue such as corporal punishment in English schools, but can maintain that it is unreasonable that Tory Members of Parliament should be allowed to follow their consciences this evening on this, of all important issues.

Over the past 17 years, the Government have allowed free votes on Sunday trading and abortion and will now allow one on caning. Of course, we always allow a free vote on Members' pay, but we are told—perhaps because the Government believe that the vote might go against them tonight—that Tory Members of Parliament are to bury their consciences and follow the considered line of the Government. It is a sad and dismal commentary on the Government's sense of priorities that they have chosen to give no discretion to Conservative Members, and I congratulate those who have chosen to break ranks.

6.45 pm

The President of the Board of Trade was on "Any Questions" last Friday night with my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell). The question why there would be no free vote was posed by a puzzled audience in Troon and the right hon. Gentleman said that it was traditional that free votes be allowed when great life issues were to be determined; he quoted abortion and capital punishment. If leaving a loophole in handgun law that allows 20,000 .22 pistols to be kept—half of which are semi-automatics—is not a great life issue, the right hon. Gentleman should go to the cemeteries of Dunblane and Hungerford and ask himself the question again.

I plead with Conservative Members and hon. Gentlemen in other parties to consider tonight the effectiveness and the security of the law that we are about to enact over the next couple of months. I hope that they will let their judgment, and not that of the Whips, determine the way in which they will vote. The debate is about more than just the technicalities of gun clubs, the disassembly of weapons, the transport regulations between clubs or even the quantum of compensation. It is a defining moment for what sort of society we want today. Is there a gun culture in this country? Should we be worried about a gun culture developing? Lord Cullen, in paragraph 9.44, said that high-calibre guns are not target guns in the true and original sense, but courses … have been evolved for them which make use of their greater power and other characteristics, as well as calling for agility and quick thinking on the part of the shooter. This has led to the growth of combat shooting. It has led some shooters to don the trappings of combat, such as holsters and camouflage clothing. It has caused others"— I emphasise this point— to feel uneasy about what appears to be the use of guns as symbols of personal power. Those are chilling words from Lord Cullen. He is not just talking about Magnums and 9 mm Brownings, but about the handgun culture that seems to be growing and that disturbs many people who are involved in legitimate shooting sports. Those words should resonate with all of us.

A gentleman from Elstree in Hertfordshire sent me a copy of a letter that he had sent to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington last week. Although the hon. Gentleman may not have noticed the letter, I took time to read what is an angry arid almost incoherent letter from Mr. David M. Proctor, the owner of the Elstree forge, which supplies quality forged ironwork to customer's requirements". Mr. Proctor is a member of the shooting lobby and his letter is filled with dots and exclamation marks. We all know about such letters. He says: However … we had to deal it and not take our spite and pity out on the rest of the nation or … a selected minority. If you are looking for blame … Thomas Hamilton is first in line … !! Second in line is the issuing authority for his gun license. Third in line are the people of Dunblane for not co-operating with the police to bring the 'bastard' to trial … before he went wild, instead of pelting him with eggs, flour etc, and taunting him.!!!!! Talk about kicking a dog and 'not' expecting it to bite!!. Mr. Proctor continues: You would like a 'TOTAL' ban on handguns (pistols) … ??? fair enough … this is your view and opinion. For my part … pistol shooting is now 'dead' in the water … so … to mess about with a .22 cal rimfire … is of no interest to me, although I do own a .22 cal pistol as well as 9 mm etc. to 'just' shoot .22 is to as 'just' eat carrots and peas and nothing else … !! sorry … not interested … But … why then are you going to allow me to keep at home my .22 cal self-loading multi-shot … rapid fire rifle … ??? I can kill you just as easily with that, indeed, I could set myself up and 'snipe' you from a safe distance with it … !!! That is a licensed holder of three handguns and one .22 rifle offering his considered view to a Member of Parliament who chooses to support the amendment.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman has treated the Committee to two quotations, the second from a letter that was based on the assumption that .22 guns could be kept at home. Does he realise that no .22 handgun—or any other handgun—can be kept at home under the Government's proposals?

More important, the hon. Gentleman read out most of a paragraph from Lord Cullen's report, in which he talked about handgun shooting assuming the trappings of power. Does he concede that the first sentence of that paragraph reads as follows: Over the last 20 years there has been a considerable expansion in the use of larger calibre and high capacity handguns"? The paragraph that he read to the Committee was not about .22 handguns but about the handguns that the Government are proposing to ban. Why was he trying to mislead the Committee by quoting that paragraph?

Mr. Robertson

I do not know whether the Home Secretary breaches the rules of order, nor do I care, but I think that he underestimates the degree to which people are worried about the gun culture. Of course the rise of the high-calibre handgun has led to certain things, but is he telling us that he does not believe that people will trade down to other weapons of death? I have shown him a brochure that I received from the secretary of the Clyde Valley pistol club, who came to lobby me and spoke against the Bill. One weapon in that brochure can be used with an eight-shot magazine. The gun culture, if it exists, will not stop because we take out some of the larger-calibre weapons.

The Home Secretary said that I read out the letter in the context of weapons at home. The gentleman who wrote this amazing letter—the third piece of correspondence that I have received from him—will still have his .22 rifle at home, a weapon that he is using to make an almost explicit threat to a Conservative Member of Parliament. Until the Bill becomes law, that man will continue to have his two 9 mm Browning weapons and his .22 pistol in his home. I state that not as a debating point, but because we must deal with what is going on in this country.

Mr. Richards

In his remarks a few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman made the highly offensive comment that hon. Members might somehow regard themselves as being more important or worthy than the children killed at Dunblane. Will he withdraw that remark?

Mr. Robertson

I do not see why the hon. Gentleman wishes to get away from the issues to which other hon. Members want to move.

Handguns are special. The Government have conceded that, as has Lord Cullen. Because they accept that point, the Government have gone beyond Lord Cullen's recommendations. The critical issue today is whether we can make our society safer simply by banning the higher-calibre guns, or whether it remains unsafe, for exactly the same reasons that the Government have put forward, to leave 20,000 .22 guns—the figure at the moment, but there is a potential for even more if the compensation is used to trade down—in legal circulation.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robertson

No, I am coming to the end of my remarks. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman hopes to catch your eye, Sir Geoffrey.

Thomas Hamilton took 473 rounds to Dunblane primary school on 13 March. He shot 106 bullets, causing 58 wounds of which no less than 26 would have been individually fatal. He killed 17 human beings—16 of them tiny children, the other being their dedicated teacher—and he then killed himself. He did all that within three minutes of unimaginable horror. This was not a random slaughter; this was not a madman picking up for the first time a killing instrument and spraying out shots with it. This was a creature of real evil who used the skills that he gained at the gun clubs. He was the model of what Lord Cullen said was the unease that we now express about those in the combat and gun cultures.

Those children and Gwen Mayor were not killed or murdered, but were executed in an orgy of directed and precise violence by a suicidal maniac using the only instruments—rapid-fire pistols—that could have done the deed in that time, and simultaneously ended his own life. There could be no discrimination between the methods and the weapons that he used on that day, and we should not allow ourselves to place an artificial distinction between one set of these instruments of death and another set that we are prepared to continue in legitimate use.

A full ban on handguns will prevent another of these atrocities—which have happened twice within the last 10 years in our country—at the hands of maniacs using legally held guns. A full ban, as the Police Federation and the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales have said, will be the only administrative means of implementing a policy of minimised risk in this area. A full ban is what the Committee should be voting on if we are serious about minimising the risks that face us.

There were snowdrops growing in Dunblane on that awful day in March this year. That is why the grassroots campaign—with hardly any money, but with conviction and common-sense arguments on its side—set out to make sure that no similar tragedy could affect any other small community in this country. The snowdrops will be back in bloom in March next year and the memories, which are still so fresh to so many people, will flood back to remind us and the world of what happened so close to us.

We must make the balance between a sport and whether it continues to exist, and human life and public safety. If we leave loopholes that we could have closed, if we maintain a risk that we could have avoided, if we have not done all that we could have done to prevent another atrocity, if we make a mistake, if we compromise here in this Parliament, others will pay the price. Are we capable of living with that responsibility?

Mr. David Mellor (Putney)

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this important debate. During the Second Reading debate, I felt an emotion about my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary that I never thought I would feel in the context of this matter—I felt sorry for him, as he found himself assailed from both sides of the argument. Having regard to the strength of feeling among some of my hon. Friends that the measure that he proposes goes too far, it is only right, before I suggest that he should certainly go further, to recognise that if, as I hope, the measure proceeds to the statute book—with or without this amendment—largely unamended by others, it will be a significant step forward in enhancing public safety and ridding Britain of the danger of falling victim to a gun culture as part of our ready importation of American values into our way of life.

I deeply regret that, for the first time in 17 years—perhaps it shows what a craven, snivelling thing I have been for most of my career in the House—I shall vote against my party on a three-line Whip. It is fair to say that no Whip has approached me. I wish I could add for colour that some huge effort had been made to persuade me to change my mind, but the Whips Office has treated the matter as one of complete indifference. Nevertheless, I resent the fact that I am being offered a free vote in a couple of weeks on the vital question of whether little Johnny should be spanked for sticking his tongue out at teacher, while I am not being offered a free vote on what is literally a matter of life and death. I do not see the logic of that and, with the greatest of respect to those who decide these matters, I do not see the benefit to the Government. If they win tonight—maybe they will—it will be said that they did so only because they imposed a three-line Whip. They will be seen to have won the vote but lost the argument—a pyrrhic victory indeed.

7 pm

The outstanding and deeply moving occasion when the two party leaders, accompanied by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and his opposite number, the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), appeared at Dunblane was a proper sign of solidarity by the political system to mark what we all know will be a lasting stain on the history of this nation: the slaughter of 16 innocents and a teacher in Dunblane by someone whom we collectively—society—permitted to be the holder of licensed handguns. Before we hear too many other references to the unquestionably serious, but separate, issue of illegal firearms, I remind the House that Lord Cullen found as a fact that it was profoundly unlikely that Hamilton would have obtained a weapon from the illegal market had we prevented him from having a legal firearm.

Against that background, I do not understand what is so precious about the compromise that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, with his typical eloquence and attractive imperviousness to any contrary opinion—the latter is a great asset in a lawyer, but a more questionable one in a politician—is suggesting with his customary vigour. This is not a carefully considered decision by the Government, but a decision forced on them by legitimate debate within their ranks between those such as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who no doubt took one view, and those who took another. The compromise does not reflect the views of Lord Cullen.

At least I agree with the Government that, whatever the merits of asking Lord Cullen to do something, the policy on handguns is nothing to do with the judge. Indeed, there was no spectacle more ridiculous than the Government, having accused hon. Members such as me of knee-jerk reactions when we called for changes to be made, scuttling off to brief the press that they would not accept Lord Cullen's remarks unless they went in a certain direction, and before he had even delivered the report. If I were Lord Cullen, I would feel slightly ill used.

Sir Mark Lennox-Boyd (Morecambe and Lunesdale)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that it was wrong to appoint Lord Cullen to conduct the inquiry?

Mr. Mellor

Yes, and I have said so from day one, as my hon. Friend would have known had he been active in the debate. That is my view and it may be eccentric, but it is one that I hold strongly. Judges are there to deal with the law and politicians and Members of Parliament are there to make policy. Otherwise, why bother to have a Government at all? Let us have a standing committee of the judiciary to tell us how to deal with such complex issues. Sometimes I think that they could have it, and damn good riddance to them, frankly.

The Government compromise is not some carefully selected piece of ground, but a piece to which they have been dragged by the pressure of events. I find it difficult to know why they are so attached to a compromise that has no merit beyond the undoubted skill with which it has managed to alienate almost every party to the debate. It is extraordinary that the people who have said how unworkable and hopeless are the Government's propositions are the very people whom the Government are striving officiously to save from the ineptitude of their campaigning—the gun lobby. Why be more Catholic than the Pope on this issue? I am in some doubt as to why that should be the case.

I should have thought it self-evident that Lord Cullen—whose use in considering the evidence is in quite a different quarter from the question whether he can help us on issues of policy—points in paragraphs 9.42 and 9.43 to the deadly nature of the .22, particularly rapid-action .22s. I have seen the advertisements that the hon. Member for Hamilton cited. As a consequence of the Government's proposals, people will trade down to .22s and the evidence clearly shows that rapid-fire .22s are capable of inflicting just as much damage as Thomas Hamilton inflicted with an altogether more powerful pistol.

Mr. Leigh

My right hon. and learned Friend and I are on opposite sides on this question, but we may agree on this point. Does he accept that the compromise is rather disingenuous because it conveys the impression that sportsmen will continue to be able to use .22 pistols in large numbers, but by the Government's own admission most gun clubs will be closed down, so there will not be 20,000 guns in circulation anyway?

Mr. Mellor

I would be more reassured about the Government's proposals if I thought that that was likely to be the case, but I think it most unlikely. Some of the people who are engaged with such single-minded intensity in these activities, as some people are, will carry on. They will simply modify the weapons they use, and they will use the compensation, which I accept that they should be offered, to trade down. Before we know it, the 20 per cent. of handguns that remain will swell and we will not have struck a blow to the heart of handgun culture in our society, as I want us to do.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Is not the crux of the argument the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) about the balance of risk or risk assessment? I began by supporting the Government in the sense that I thought that retaining .22s would pose a low risk. The people in the gun lobby who have contacted me have persuaded me about the dangers of .22s. If the logic is that, for the public good, handguns should be banned, the same logic must apply to .22 handguns or to none at all.

Mr. Mellor

I agree. I cannot think why on earth the Government are so desperate to save some of these people from themselves.

The point that emerges with complete clarity from paragraph 9.44 of Lord Cullen's report, which the hon. Member for Hamilton quoted, is that the quiet British sport of target shooting has in recent years been infiltrated by people who shoot for reasons quite different from a desire to participate in the Olympic games. One of the lamentable side effects of the culture of violence spread by American entertainment in this country is some people's desire to play some part in the activities depicted on screen in their fantasies. Why else should people feel the need to dress up in combat clothing and, instead of shooting at a boring old circle on a target a long distance away, shoot at human forms using combat ammunition?

Of course the overwhelming majority of people who hold licences are to be trusted and would never do what Thomas Hamilton did, but we must ask ourselves how we are to weed out those who are playing a part in a traditional British sport and those who possess their guns as some sort of boost to a fragile ego and who are acting out some bizarre fantasy, whether at their gun club or in their home.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mellor

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will bear with me so that I can develop this point and then I will be finished. To my mind, although only perhaps to mine, this is the heart of the matter—others may not agree.

I was initially attracted to the idea, and I would be prepared to accept drawing a line at .22 weapons, if I thought that the system of vetting, which at present rejects 0.5 per cent. of applicants—when is a vetting system not a vetting system? When it lets 99.5 per cent. through—could ensure that the wrong 'uns were weeded out; but I doubt that.

The doctors have discovered the truth. The Home Affairs Select Committee, in a last desperate attempt to get the gun lobby off the hook, suggested that doctors should be wheeled in to certify people as fit; the doctors knew that they were being handed a poisoned chalice and would have none of it, so they voted against it. One of the principal mechanisms that, it was being suggested, would have obviated the need to ban a further category of weapons, went out of the window because professional people cannot be forced to do a job against their will.

I mentioned earlier the justice of the peace who hardly knew Hamilton but signed his certificate not once but twice. He gave a lengthy explanation to the Cullen inquiry, saying that he felt that it was his public duty to sign the application. Frankly, I am amazed that more attention has not focused on his role. If it was right for the assistant chief constable to resign, I can hardly feel reassured by the fact that that gentleman is still sitting on the Bench.

If we legislate to protect handguns, and if we accept that the number of handguns in the legitimate category will continue to increase, we must accept that the entire credibility of the legislation will turn on those such as that JP, who lack the moral courage to refuse to give a reference. The fact that we are introducing a positive vetting system, that people will have to establish their fitness and a reference will have to be provided is not, in my judgment, a sufficient safeguard to protect us against future Dunblanes.

What should most engage our attention is the fact that we muffed it after Hungerford, because the victims' relatives—I do not criticise them for it—did not campaign for Parliament to take a certain view, and the Government made tough proposals that, late at night, in our usual way, were watered down. Most of us—we are all guilty, as the psychiatrists say—were elsewhere when the various lobbies were doing their work. As a consequence, despite the fact that half Michael Ryan's victims were killed by a licensed handgun, we restricted the categories of weapon to be removed, so Thomas Hamilton was able to use just such a weapon to kill the youngsters of Dunblane.

Those who do not vote for a total ban tonight should ask themselves how Parliament will be able to look the electorate in the eye if someone else creeps out of the woodwork through the latest little loophole that we have left, and does something awful. It is a dreadful fact that, as far as the public are concerned, we have run out of road.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Mellor

If I may, I will first finish my point.

We have run out of road, and there is no doubt about how the public would vote on the issue tonight. If we leave a loophole and trust the very people who let us down before, we will not have made adequate redress for the ghastly tragedy that hit the community of Dunblane in March.

Sir Patrick Cormack

What happens if a farmer, who legitimately owns a shotgun, runs amok with it and kills six children in a school? Do we then ban all shotguns?

Mr. Mellor

We would have to consider that situation when we came to it—and I hope that we never will. If I were a licensed shotgun holder I would pray to every god that I recognised that that would never happen, because if it did the spotlight might shift. However, my concern is with the reality of today, in which, once again, we are creating a loophole that can be exploited.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

I accept that Dunblane and Hungerford were both carried out with licensed firearms, but would not the House be better served by concentrating on the Metropolitan police survey showing that 96 per cent. of all firearms crimes involved unlicensed weapons?

Mr. Mellor

I have two points to make in reply. First, that may be a spurious figure; the Cullen report shows that its provenance is dubious. Secondly, the fact that we have a problem with illegal firearms is not an escape route for those who do not want to be properly rigorous with the conditions that we—in a society that is not the United States and does not recognise any right to bear arms—impose to deal with our problem with legal firearms, now that it has been thrust in front of us in a way that even the most thick-headed and insensitive of us cannot ignore.

The tragedy of Dunblane will not go away; it is a continuing stain on our national conscience. I have done my best, with whatever logic is at my disposal, and drawing on my experience in the Home Office, to ask myself whether we can possibly justify the maintenance of legally held handguns in our society. The answer that I reach—at least in my version of logic—is that we cannot.

7.15 pm

I want to say something that might strike some people as emotional. I had never visited Dunblane before March; I knew nothing of it. Over the past months it has been a privilege for me to come to know some of the people of Dunblane, some of the bereaved parents and those who have worked with them in the Snowdrop campaign. I congratulate that campaign on the measured manner in which it has insisted that the issue will not go away and that the House will have to address it with both sides—not just the well-organised lobby, but the public interest—being represented.

I must tell my right hon. and hon. Friends that it was not our finest hour when we appeared to make an enemy of two women, both of whom—do not forget that we are talking Scotland here—voted Conservative in the general election. Ann Pearston made a wonderful speech at the Labour party conference; she would have made an equally wonderful speech at ours, had she been invited to do so, and it is not her fault that our rules do not allow such an event. There is no party political plot behind the Snowdrop campaign.

Anyone with any power of imagination must know how ghastly it must be to have a five-year-old child who goes off to school one day only to be blown away by a thing such as Hamilton that we, collectively, permitted to have a handgun. It cannot be easy for people with such an experience to come out from their vale of tears and appear on the media, exposing themselves and their families to all the scrutiny.

I have been deeply moved by my meetings with those people. I do not want those who take a more detached view to say that I am simply being emotional, but I want to tell the House what one bereaved father said to me. He said, "If I am able to secure a complete ban on handguns, I think I can put all this behind me, but if we do not achieve a complete ban, I do not think I shall ever be able to get over it."

That is not the only reason for making a change, but if we accept that we, collectively, bear responsibility for the state of the law and that we cannot merely say that it was a stupid policeman's fault that a known misfit such as Hamilton had a handgun certificate and could keep a small arsenal at home, we must acknowledge that we owe the victims and their families some redress.

I believe in logic, but let us never be embarrassed in a society such as ours to display emotion at such moments. Logic and emotion irresistibly build up to the fact that, after two massacres in less than 10 years—when 10 years ago we would have assumed that incidents like the Texas university massacre could not happen here—we are fully justified in saying, away with handguns. For heaven's sake, let us take that step tonight.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

We have heard three powerful speeches, all on the same side of the argument, on the amendment so ably moved by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes). I wish to add a fourth.

I disagree slightly with the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), who said that the Bill, even if the amendment were not made, would none the less be an improvement on the present law.

The Bill is unfinished business. If it is not amended, it will have to be revisited for the reason to which both the hon. Member for Harrow, West and the right hon. and learned Member for Putney alluded: that the compromise that has been struck is illogical and unsustainable. That has been compounded by the fact that the Government have not allowed a free vote. The Government should have used the now established machinery of allowing the House to consider several options with a free vote. That would have given us a much better chance of getting the real view of the Committee and securing legislation that would have stood the test of time. If the Bill passes unamended, it will not stand the test of time. If there is a change of Government in the next sixth months, I think that the House will be reconsidering the matter shortly after the next general election.

The Cullen report was a valuable and proper way for the Government to respond to what happened. It made a substantial contribution to informing the debate. Reading it opened a vista for me in respect of the background to and circumstances of the gun clubs and other interested groups. I was taken aback at the extent to which handguns are being used—and being used more and more. The hon. Member for Harrow, West mentioned the developing atmosphere and culture described in the Cullen report. That was something new and worrying to me. For that reason alone, the report was a useful contribution to the debate.

The decision facing the House is, as the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) said, a basic balance of judgment. As a Liberal with both a small "I" and a capital "L", I hate banning anything. We must have clear ideas and justifications before we ban something. In debating the money resolution, we mentioned an important part of the balance of the argument. I make no apology for returning to the importance of the necessary fairness of proper compensation for those who will be deprived of the ability to shoot handguns if the Bill is passed and the amendment accepted.

It is not only a question of the loss to individuals or of the ancillary and storage equipment or of the .22 guns that will be rendered virtually useless by the compromise that the Government have decided to recommend. I was surprised, nay amazed, that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) made it clear that Labour believes that companies, firms or clubs that lose money as a direct or indirect result of the legislation should not be considered for compensation. That is regrettable; indeed, it is incomprehensible. During the Bill's passage, we must give more attention to provisions on museum, research and other historically notable weapons.

Having listened to the argument and way in which the amendment was moved by the hon. Member for Harrow, West, I have concluded that we must take action to eradicate handgun culture. That does not mean only legally held weapons. Attempts to deal with illegally held weapons as well as legally held ones are not mutually exclusive. As part of the fairness to the people who are being deprived of the ability to use handguns by the legislation, we owe it to them to say that best endeavours and urgent action will be taken; that no stones will be left unturned in trying to deal with the unacceptably high number of illegally held weapons as part and parcel of this process. If we were able to tell those people that we had achieved some success in doing that, they would be more reconciled to the loss that they are being forced to sustain by the legislation. I do not know why the Government do not actively consider a permanent amnesty, whether or not a bounty is involved, for illegally held handguns. I am surprised that they have not used the debate to make sensible suggestions on that.

Having considered the balance of probabilities and examined the options available, a vital element in making me decide that the amendment should be passed is the size of the guns. Clause 1 talks about firearms with an overall length of less than 60 cm or with a barrel length of less than 30 cm. The uniqueness of such handguns is their concealability. It is impossible to make provisions to deal with outrages such as Dunblane if there are lethal weapons that small. Of course, there are difficulties with other sorts of firearms, and no doubt we shall discuss rifles and so on in the future.

The concealability of small weapons makes them difficult to guard against with proper security provisions in schools or elsewhere. The right hon. and learned Member for Putney mentioned the environment that gives people the ability to practise with such weapons to develop a skill that can be used with devastating results. We must consider those factors, together with the potential loopholes in the registration and certification process and those in respect of mental illness, about which no one can make secure and certain guarantees. The balance of risk, when one considers all those matters, must be against its remaining possible for people to use legally registered handguns.

The risk of a repetition of an incident with a legally held gun is an intolerable prospect. Even if, as an individual, I were willing to allow people to use handguns for sporting and other pursuits, as a legislator it is unconscionable to vote against the amendment. Who can say that another legally held handgun will not cause death? As a legislator, that is an impossible position for me and I cannot contemplate it. The only way in which we can guarantee that legally held handguns will never again be used in such incidents is to ban them. That is what I propose to vote for and what I recommend to the Committee.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) said that he was the fourth contributor in a row to take the same line. I shall be the first to take a rather different one. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) made a most powerful and eloquent speech. No one who heard it could fail to have been moved by it. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) spoke with fervour, eloquence and great persuasive power in moving the amendment. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) introduced some of the subjects that he did, but I realise that he must feel personally involved, living as he does in Dunblane. There is no reason why any hon. Member should ever have to apologise for being emotional when we debate such issues.

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney on two things at least. Compromises are untidy and generally unsatisfactory. I agree also that free votes are desirable in situations such as this. Since I entered the House, I have tried to treat every vote as a free one, though it has not got me very far. There are occasions when the Whips should be off in every sense, and this is one of them.

I do not want to take up too much of the House's time, so I shall address some, but not all, of the points raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney in his fine speech. When he was courteous enough, as he always is, to allow me to intervene, I asked him a question about a farmer with a shotgun. He responded by saying, "Well, yes, perhaps we would have to look at that example." That revealed the irrefutable logic—[Interruption.]—I wish that the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) would be quiet—at the base of the campaign.

7.30 pm

Of course every firearm is potentially dangerous. Every weapon can be used to maim and, in most cases, to kill. I have a shotgun licence, and I have a shotgun. Many people in this country legitimately use shotguns and rifles for country sports. The vast majority of those who own such weapons are law-abiding, sensible and sober citizens. The same is true of most people who indulge in shooting with handguns as a sport. To draw upon the phrase used by my right hon. and learned Friend, we have to weed out others by deciding who should own and use such guns. He is quite right to say that there is shared guilt if anyone like a Ryan or a Hamilton is allowed to possess weapons.

I have long felt that there should be at least two signatures to countersign any application for any licence or certificate. I still believe that to be the case. I believe that it would be ideal if one of those signatures were that of a medical practitioner, although I take the point that my right hon. and learned Friend made in his speech.

As I understand the Bill, there will still be a requirement for one signature for an application for a shotgun licence. As the possessor of such a licence, I say to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary that there should be two, because there have been examples of farmers turning shotguns on members of their family and killing people. We can all think of such examples. There was a particularly terrible case in Wales about 18 months ago—I note that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) nods in agreement.

I believe strongly that there should be a closer vetting process. I also believe strongly, however, that our country would be the poorer if all legitimate country sports were outlawed. To treat those who engage in legitimate sports as though they were all potential criminals does no service to society.

As I said in an earlier brief intervention, I believe that there is a duty incumbent upon the Committee to seek to be objective. That is not to say that we cannot understand and share the emotions expressed, or feel the shame, distress and all the other emotions that we experienced on that terrible March day, which none of us will ever forget. When we are legislating, however, we must seek to be objective. Unless we are to say that because guns can kill no one shall ever legally own one again, we must look at what we intend to allow.

There should be a tighter vetting process for all firearms, including those used for legitimate country sporting purposes. I accept, of course, that handguns are easier to conceal and can be more devastating in their effect. I believe that all handguns should be held in legally registered, tightly secured premises. If those who wish to operate those premises cannot meet the stringent requirements that society has a right that Parliament should demand, well, tough luck—they should close those premises.

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney about certain other matters. For example, I believe that it is obscene to have targets of the human form. It is appalling for people to dress up in combat rig and behave Rambo-fashion. I would weed those people out. I would make everyone who currently holds a licence or a certificate reapply. I would be tough. I would not seek, however, to brand all legitimate sportsmen as potential criminals.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Who does?

Sir Patrick Cormack

Those who are in favour of a total ban on handguns, I fear.

I believe that it is extremely important that we do not brand all those engaged in country sports as potential criminals.

Mr. Winnick

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is usually the last hon. Member to distort the argument. Will he therefore accept that those who want a total ban on handguns, and who will vote accordingly, would not for one moment take the view of which he has just accused us? I believe that I speak for colleagues on both sides of the House on that. We do not believe that those who are engaged in such sporting activities are potential criminals. I believe nothing of the kind and it does not strengthen the hon. Gentleman's argument to accuse us of something of which we certainly are not guilty.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I was not accusing the hon. Gentleman or those who take that line. I am sure that that is not their intention, but that is the effect. That is the difference.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney and the four preceding contributors in the debate said that we cannot risk another Dunblane, and that we do not know who might commit such a crime. My solution is at least as logical as that of my right hon. and learned Friend. I call for the strongest vetting procedure and the most careful supervision. I would insist that every handgun be kept in secure and proper premises, but we should not outlaw a sport or penalise those who derive perfectly legitimate pleasure from it.

As has been said, one must recognise that many of those who engage in sports with handguns are themselves severely handicapped. It is the one thing that they can do, as was attested to in a moving letter that was read out earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards).

I believe that the Bill is an untidy compromise, but I will support the Government because it goes some way towards achieving a position of common sense and objectivity. Much as I admired the eloquence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney, and much as I found his speech compelling, I cannot agree with him, for one reason above all else, which was contained in his answer to my intervention: where do we stop if we have further examples of crimes committed in the way that I suggested?

As the Bill makes rapid progress through the House, which it rightly should, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will give some further thought and consideration to the points on vetting that I have raised. I appreciate that they are not appropriate for a full debate now, but they are not unimportant.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

I shall speak to amendments Nos. 15 and 16, but I recognise that we are currently debating amendment No. 1, which brings us to the nub of this highly emotive argument.

We have heard the paranoid reaction of gun clubs and the supporters of gun sports, who feel that they are a threatened and persecuted minority. We have heard powerful and emotive speeches from the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) and from my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). It is right that we should share the emotions of the people of Dunblane, but it is also right that we, as Members of Parliament, should approach this difficult legislation, not in an emotional state of mind, but in a rational one.

My argument is that the proposals in amendments Nos. 15 and 16, which further the principle of dismantling weapons as a means of control, are a far more rational and effective way of achieving our objective. After all, we began to approach the situation rationally by appointing Lord Cullen to conduct an inquiry. That is a proper way of proceeding, and we should have done it after Hungerford. The right hon. and learned Member for Putney might have criticised the appointment of a judge, but an inquiry is, in itself, a rational process.

Lord Cullen himself suggested dismantlement in his conclusions. He said: I am satisfied that of all the measures which stop short of a ban"— he did not propose a ban— the one which is open to the least objection on the ground of practicability is the temporary dismantling of self-loading pistols". That is Lord Cullen's suggestion, so it is right that we should consider it more seriously than we have done up to now. That is why I am proposing dismantling in my amendments, and why I shall continue to pursue the principle. It is also right that the Government should deal seriously with the proposal, which they have not done so far.

The Government's reply to Lord Cullen's suggestion was a little disingenuous—I hope that the Home Secretary will forgive me for saying so. It was an inadequate reply. I sensed that they were on weak ground from their approach to the same issue last week on Second Reading, especially when the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), refused to take any interventions on that point. She recognised that she was on weak ground.

In their reply, the Government dealt with a subsidiary part of Lord Cullen's argument. Lord Cullen said: In exceptional cases it"— dismantlement— would not be practicable for some pistols and some revolvers. The exact extent to which that would be the case is a matter of detail. The solution to it, short of banning such handguns, would be to require barrel blocks". The Government concentrated their reply on the practicability—or, in their view, impracticability—of barrel blocks and did not deal with the substantive issue.

Mr. Howard

indicated dissent.

Mr. Mitchell

The Secretary of State shakes his head, but all that was said on the substantive issue was that not all handguns could be dismantled. That is not exactly true. I am not a gun enthusiast and I know nothing about guns, but I want us to approach the issue rationally and calmly. In fact, 95 per cent. or more of handguns can be dismantled.

Mr. Howard

indicated dissent.

Mr. Mitchell

If the Secretary of State knows otherwise, why does he not tell us what proportion of handguns, and what specific makes, cannot be dismantled? If we can achieve the effective control we want through the principle of dismantling, we have a responsibility to do so. If the Government do not accept that method, I want to know why not. They must express, defend and justify their approach better than they have until now.

The Government rested their case on the fact certain handguns cannot be dismantled, but such weapons form a minute proportion of the range of handguns available. Amendment No. 15 covers that issue by proposing that any handgun that cannot be dismantled should be banned. If dismantling is to be the principle of control, it is easy and straightforward to ban those handguns that cannot be dismantled and so fit into that control system; having done that, we can then provide for the dismantling of all other handguns. It is an extremely simple, straightforward, effective and logical method of control.

The Government have not explained their case adequately, which makes me believe that they are acting according to some principle other than rational consideration in respect of the Bill. I still cannot understand why we cannot legislate to ensure that part of a gun should be kept at a gun club and part—inevitably the smaller part, which is the cylinder in a pistol and the slide in a revolver—should be taken home, so that the two parts can only be reunited and so make a working handgun in the club, under supervision and in licensed and controlled conditions. That would achieve all that we want to achieve. Our aim is to prevent access to and the use of handguns outside clubs—to prevent another Dunblane—and we would achieve that by legislating for the principle of dismantling.

7.45 pm
Sir Terence Higgins (Worthing)

Is it not true that that would be safer than having large accumulations of guns in one place? My right hon. and learned Friend argues that people would buy duplicate slides or cylinders to fit in their guns, but, if they are prepared to go to such lengths, they will probably buy illegal weapons anyway. Will the hon. Gentleman also bear in mind the fact that the pure solution put forward by Cullen is a great deal cheaper in terms of compensation?

Mr. Mitchell

I shall bear that point in mind—it certainly would be cheaper. The right hon. Gentleman makes the valid point that control by dismantling would prevent the storage of piles of whole weapons at gun clubs, which might be subject to burglary, ram-raiding or some other form of theft. If the dismantling proposal is accepted, any thief—whether stealing from the club or from the home of a gun owner—would find only useless parts of guns. If the argument is that owners will purchase duplicate parts, that can easily be prevented through an effective and properly administered licensing system. All the arguments point toward dismantling. If the principle of dismantling were embodied in legislation, to carry a complete gun outside would, in itself, be an offence; that would make it easier to control illegal guns—an issue that the Government have not addressed. Any gun that was outside in a whole and working condition would be illegal, and could be dealt with effectively and, I hope, powerfully.

Mr. Robert Banks

The hon. Gentleman must know that the Government took evidence from the Forensic Science Service to justify their criticism of Cullen's proposal of dismantling weapons as a means of solving the problem. The letter from the Forensic Science Service is in the Library. It says that the small screw that is the retaining part for the side plate of a common revolver could easily be lost or disfigured, and that a special screwdriver with an accurately ground tip would be required to remove or replace it.

Such problems can easily be overcome—anyone with any sense would keep a spare retaining screw and would have an appropriate screwdriver—but is not the real point that it would be perfectly feasible to allow weapons that can be dismantled to be licensed, and to permit them to be fired in clubs when the two parts are put together? It is as simple as that.

Mr. Mitchell

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. When I saw that point in the Government's reply, I thought that, if that was the level of argument that the Government were to use to put their case, it was pathetic—to cite the possible loss of small screws is to debase logical and rational debate.

What is proposed by dismantling is more effective, in that it prevents access to complete and working handguns outside clubs; and it is less draconian, in that it allows the sport to continue and guns to be used in controlled conditions. Although the right hon. and learned Member for Putney showed some distaste for gun clubs as the embodiment of the gun culture, I have to say to him that the gun culture is independent of gun clubs, and we cannot deal with it through legislation. We have to use education, effective control of violence on television, and other means of mobilising society against the gun culture.

Dismantling as a means of control would allow a legitimate sport to continue. If we can allow the sport to continue while preventing access to working guns outside, we should do so. The onus should be on allowing those people to continue enjoying their sport if possible while avoiding tragedies such as Dunblane.

As the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) said, the proposal is less expensive. I do not know what the compensation bill will be as a result of the measure. It could be as high as £100 million, and if we accept tonight the principle of banning all guns—.22 calibre and less—it will be even more substantial. We could avoid that huge and unknown expense by taking a much more rational approach. If we rush into legislation without considering it properly, it will be messy.

I have a problem, as amendment No. 1 appears before my amendment. We have tried to get round that problem, but have not succeeded, so we shall vote on amendment No. 1. What shall I do about amendment No. 1 when I want to vote for my amendment No. 15, to which we may well have to return?

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

It is a quandary.

Mr. Mitchell

Yes, it is.

I cannot avoid the cynical thought that the Government are hoping to limit the compensation bill by limiting the ban on handguns to weapons over .22 on the grounds that, if they do that, the .22 weapons and the gun clubs will wither on the vine.

I have talked to members of Grimsby gun and pistol club, who share my suspicion. Membership of that club has decreased, and it has had to take out large overdrafts. Like other gun clubs, it will have to meet stringent and extremely expensive safety requirements at a time when membership is falling, which will give it financial problems.

If the Government can get rid of most of the .22s and the gun clubs through the provisions outlined in the Bill, they will not have to pay compensation. That may be a cynical thought, but one has such thoughts about the Government from time to time. I hate having to say that, and it is cruel to the Government, but that will almost certainly be one of the consequences of the legislation. I am in a quandary over how to vote on amendment No. 1, particularly if I take a cynical view about what the Government are doing.

I do not wish to continue that argument now, as I shall make my own decision. But surely we should have looked longer and harder at the effective and rational way of achieving the objective we all want.

The method would be a little more difficult to administer than a complete ban, but, if we did not introduce a complete ban, but approached the problem via dismantling weapons, we could make huge financial savings. We can achieve our objective—an effective ban on working handguns outside gun clubs—through dismantling. The principle of dismantling allows us to achieve our aim more cheaply, effectively and rationally, while allowing the sport to continue more effectively. We should adopt that approach.

Sir Mark Lennox-Boyd (Morecambe and Lunesdale)

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), as I wish to support him. First, however, I shall say a few words about emotion.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) made a powerful argument, with great passion and eloquence. My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) correctly said that we must allow emotion to enter such debates—I fully understand that it would be an insult to those involved in the terrible tragedy that we are discussing were we not to allow emotion to enter our debates—but, ultimately, a rational decision has to be made.

The most powerful emotion must come from the bereaved parents, but we are dealing with another sort of emotion—with a minority interest that is severely threatened by the Government's proposals. Although the level of deprivation is ridiculously small in comparison with that of the parents of the Dunblane children, there is a level of deprivation involved. When I visited Morecambe rifle and pistol club in my constituency in July, one or two of its members were very near to tears at the tragedy of Dunblane and the horror of the experience that the nation had been through. One or two members were terribly emotional at the threat to what they rightly regarded as a perfectly legitimate sporting interest—they described to me the skills involved. It was not my first visit to the rifle club; I had made an earlier visit a few years before. I have been in contact with it for a number of years, as one of its members is articulate and keeps in touch with me.

I was frank with the club members, and told them that I would support Lord Cullen's recommendations, on which I thought the Government would base their legislative proposals. The members were reasonably accepting of my view; some of them felt that I should act in accordance with my conscience, but I said that we appointed judges of distinction to give us guidance, and that we should follow Lord Cullen's recommendations. The meeting ended on that note, and I believe that the people I saw were reluctantly willing to accept Lord Cullen's conclusions. However, they feel unhappy about the measures that the Government have decided to introduce following Lord Cullen's report.

One reason that they felt that what I was saying in July was probably good advice was that I had received from my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, a letter containing the magic words. It said that the Government would have to strike the right balance between the legitimate rights of shooters and public safety". We all know that that comment does not have a precise meaning, but it is slightly loaded: it talks about the legitimate rights of shooters when a large measure of their sporting activity would not be made illegal. My disappointment at the Government's proposals—I have so far been loyal to the Government when voting—is that, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, they did not accept Lord Cullen's recommendations.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney feels that Lord Cullen should never have been appointed, but he concedes that the report was right in evaluating the evidence—we both agree on that. Those who feel that Lord Cullen's report should have been limited to the evidence are stretching my imagination. I cannot believe that a man of Lord Cullen's distinction could be expected to evaluate the evidence and not come up with a conclusion.

In addition, when strong feelings are expressed by those who have suffered terrible tragedy, the purpose of appointing someone of Lord Cullen's distinction to make recommendations is to get behind the emotional pressure and try to see the arguments on which rational decisions will ultimately be based. I am sure that all those associated with the Dunblane inquiry would, as we do, pay the highest tribute to Lord Cullen for the way in which he has conducted the proceedings. The Government rightly appointed Lord Cullen to make recommendations in order to get behind the emotions. I am sad that those recommendations have not been followed.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby spoke about dismantlement of weapons. As he said, the Government's answer to his proposal is that it is feasible to dismantle some weapons but not a practical proposition for others. The first question that one must ask when that argument is deployed is, "What are the numbers? How many weapons is it feasible to dismantle, and how many weapons is it not?"

As it happens, I wrote to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary on the very day that he made his statement, to ask that question. I know that he has been burdened with work, and I have not yet received a reply—

Mr. Austin Mitchell

Nor have I.

8 pm

Sir Mark Lennox-Boyd

Nor has the hon. Member for Great Grimsby.

The House is entitled to a statistical explanation of that very important fact tonight, as are those of my constituents who attend the Morecambe rifle and pistol club. If the Government were to say, "Some weapons can be dismantled, so we shall allow their use under stringent controls in gun clubs, but we are afraid that the others, which cannot be dismantled, must be destroyed," at least that would be a rational position.

We must not allow the issue of dismantlement of weapons to be clouded by the issue of the barrel lock that does not really work. I am not pursuing that; I do not have enough technical knowledge of the subject. I do know, however, that, if one dismantles a weapon and puts one piece in one place and another piece in another, one cannot use it, unless—this is the Government's argument—one feels that the missing part, the slide assembly or the cylinder, could be manufactured or acquired.

The answer to that argument—I am entitled to a careful explanation if I am wrong—is, "Yes, but one would be breaking the law. If one had that part surreptitiously without disclosing it on one's licence or seeking permission to have it, one would be breaking the law." Once again we are back in a position where we are talking of people who would be already breaking the law, as it would be if it were as the hon. Member for Grimsby has advocated in amendment No. 15.

That is not a powerful argument against amendment No. 15; nor is it a powerful argument to say that people could, once again, legally manufacture weapon parts in their homes and go out and use them as horrible weapons of terror. First, it is very difficult to manufacture the parts of a weapon; one needs to be highly skilled. Secondly, there are many much easier methods of obtaining those horrible weapons of violence that may be used in such a way, if that is the intention of the perpetrator of such a crime.

Of course the Government are entitled to reject Lord Cullen's recommendations, but when a Government establish an inquiry by a such a distinguished man and experienced judge, it is essential, if the supporters of that Government are to be carried with consent, that the arguments for rejecting the recommendations advanced by that judge are completely sound, completely logical and impossible to doubt.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary must address those points very carefully when he replies, and he must convince those of us who have doubts—at least among Conservative Members, and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby—that we are wrong.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I am having some interesting new experiences this evening. First, I agreed with every word of the speech by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), and I applaud the manner in which he introduced amendment No. 1, which I am supporting tonight. Secondly, I almost supported a guillotine motion for the first time in my parliamentary career. I was saved from that by the fact that it was not pressed to a vote.

Although I can see the reason for time-saving this evening and support it, I am disappointed that the debate will not be extended because I believe that, as the debate is talked through, the fragility of the botched compromise at the heart of the Government's position is becoming increasingly clear.

I have sat through the debate. The kindest, friendliest thing that has been said about the Government's position is that it is a "weak compromise"—and those were the words of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), who intends to support the Government in the Lobby tonight.

There are two inherent contradictions at the heart of what the Government have to say. The first has been mentioned tonight, and that is the question of the distinction that the Government are seeking to make between .22 calibre handguns and higher-calibre weapons. That distinction in terms of deadly force of weapons is unsustainable, and the Government must know it.

The headline in tonight's Glasgow Evening Times reads: ".22 Maniac Kills Four Children"—the case that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). It reads: Today's shooting victims—a 16 year-old girl and her three brothers aged 10, 13 and 14 were found in their beds in Carolina. The PA copy continues: A .22 caliber handgun was found at the home, WYFF-TV in Greenville Carolina reported. On the very day that the Government are trying to sustain the difference in terms of deadly effect between .22 calibre handguns and higher-calibre handguns, we hear of an atrocity, the extent of which, even in a gun culture such as the United States of America, is unusual, committed by a .22 calibre weapon.

The Home Secretary is correct that a .22 weapon does not have the same force as a higher-calibre weapon, but it is accurate and deadly. The statistics prove it, and the evidence of cases such as today's tragedy in the United States proves it. The distinction is unsustainable, and the Home Secretary must know it.

The second troubling aspect of the Government's position is gun club storage. To me there are only two logical positions. Either one believes that a gun club can be totally secure, in which case any calibre of weapons could be used on gun club premises, or, like me, having seen the evidence presented to Lord Cullen—not least by the gun lobby—one believes that premises cannot be made secure, in which case no calibre of handgun should be used on those premises. It is one or the other. The Government are trying to have it both ways.

We see the differences between the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland. On the day that the Cullen report was released, we had a private meeting—I thank the Home Secretary for that, as I did at the time—in which the differences between those two Ministers were exposed. The Secretary of State for Scotland told us that, effectively, the measure would mean the end of gun clubs—that very few, if any, gun clubs could meet those strenuous conditions. A few seconds later, the Home Secretary said that new gun clubs could meet the conditions and come into existence. The Secretary of State for Scotland regards this legislation as a way to erase gun clubs and the Home Secretary openly says that new gun clubs meeting these stipulations could come into existence.

One cannot simultaneously argue for the eradication of gun clubs and the resuscitation of new gun clubs. The Government are trying to have it both ways in a botched compromise between the two lead Ministers supporting the legislation.

I believe that all right hon. and hon. Members are trying to do the right thing. They have thought about this issue for months. I claim no moral superiority over any other Members of the House; I believe that we are all trying to do the right thing.

Earlier, we were asked how we would respond if another tragedy were to take place. No one can give any guarantees, regardless of what we do; I accept that. We must all try to choose the least dangerous option. There are no guarantees. But let us suppose that the Government had their way, and afterwards an atrocity was committed using .22 weapons—either someone had taken them out of a gun club or someone had practised and gained expertise by using them in a gun club. In that context, how would hon. Members feel?

Some people on my side of the argument would argue, "We did our best," but even we would share in our collective responsibility as a legislature. We would feel that perhaps we had not done enough.

Looking at the record after Hungerford, I feel that I did not do enough to argue the case. I am sure that many other hon. Members, if they are honest, will share that opinion. There are those who genuinely and in principle believe that a ban on handguns is not the way forward. They might be able to live with their consciences because we all have to live with our mistakes, even if other people die through our mistakes. But what about those hon. Members who believe that a handgun ban is the right way forward, but will be dragooned, encouraged or helped into the Lobby by the imposition of a three-line Whip? If an atrocity were to happen, how could those people carry that burden? I do not think that they could. It underlines the argument why this issue, of all issues, should be openly one of conscience.

I want to say something about the position of Northern Ireland Members. I do not think that any two societies could have a closer relationship than Scotland and Northern Ireland—they are the "blood of our blood and the bone of our bone". I am certain that it is the settled position in Scotland that there should be a handgun ban. That settled position has come about not just from the emotion after Dunblane; it has hardened in the arguments over time.

We hope that Northern Ireland Members will find it in their hearts and consciences to vote with us. We would understand if, because this is not Northern Ireland legislation, they felt that it was not their place to intervene. However, feeling as we do in Scotland, we would take it ill if they were to vote against us, given the close relationship between our two societies. I want to make a final plea for a free vote. I understand that, at a private meeting with the Dunblane relatives last Thursday, the Prime Minister gave the impression that if he were to change his mind and allow a free vote there would be political embarrassment. I can assure the Prime Minister that we—and, I am sure, the Labour Front Bench—would not take advantage of any such change of mind. I accept that there would be a momentary political embarrassment for a Prime Minister and a Home Secretary who changed their minds on such an issue at such a time. However, that momentary embarrassment would be as nothing compared with the real political damage that will be done if the Government win the vote but people believe that they have won it unfairly.

The right hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) said that he had the great privilege of meeting the Dunblane parents, the Snowdrop petitioners and others during the past few weeks. I endorse his remarks. It has been a privilege for myself and other hon. Members to meet people of such calibre. They are decent people putting their arguments not with hype or emotion, but with enormous authority. Of course, we should not automatically do what they say because they have suffered a huge personal tragedy, no matter how much we feel for them, but their arguments do come with authority and clarity.

One of the Dunblane parents said something on television last Thursday that struck me and which I hope will strike other hon. Members. Les Morton said that if there was a free vote in this place, the relatives and the other campaigners would feel that they had placed their case before us and would accept a judgment made in good conscience—but what they would find impossible to accept would be the knowledge that there was a majority in this House in favour of a handgun ban, but that that majority view could not be expressed because of the imposition of a three-line Whip and the strictures of the Government.

I suggest to the Home Secretary that that is real political damage. If the Government win the vote tonight through the use of what will be seen as a disreputable and unfair tactic, this issue will haunt the Conservative party up to and through the general election campaign.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I am grateful to be called, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Because the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) were extremely comprehensive, I can be brief. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West for tabling the amendment.

I am also grateful to be called directly after the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who referred to the absence of a free vote. It is one of the most disturbing features of this debate. Perhaps I could be justifiably accused of being naive, but I remain very surprised that, having had time to reconsider, the Government's final decision is not for a free vote. I am sure that no one in the House would criticise the Government for a change of mind, which would be hugely and universally welcomed in this House, in the other place—which has been closely observing our debates—and in the whole country.

8.15 pm

Parliament is going through one of the periods in history when the esteem in which it is held is very low; when the public are increasingly mystified, frustrated and turned off by the antics at Question Time, especially Prime Minister's questions, with the massive trading of insults that masquerades as constructive party politics; and when all the parts of the syndrome of this place are going through a very bad patch indeed.

Yet, on the most primordial subject of all, the future safety of our national population, and in trying, in the limited way open to us, to make amends—it is the correct phrase when referring to the Dunblane tragedy—as we cannot make amends intrinsically for that dreadful, unspeakable, horrendous tragedy, we are not doing those things that we should do as a combined, united Parliament. I am sure that there would be an enormous majority in favour of doing them were it not for pressure from the Conservative Whips—and so we, as a House of Commons, are failing in our central duty. That is a solemn mistake, and I very much regret that the Government are making it.

The Government may be making this mistake for reasons that I can guess and understand. It is an automatic, characteristic response of our close and disciplined party system that matters must be tightly whipped. I guess that it was a hard-discussed, hard-fought Cabinet decision, with the bold prospect of going beyond some of the excellent recommendations in the Cullen report. I am not enthusiastic about some of the other recommendations in the report, but I will not go into detail on that now. I guess that, after that fierce and prolonged Cabinet discussion, the Secretary of State for Scotland took the Cabinet beyond the Cullen suggestions.

I applaud and congratulate the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland, other Ministers, members of the Cabinet and members of the Government, as well as the team in the Home Office, on what they have achieved and recommended. I hope that my colleagues in the Government do not misunderstand my remarks. They come from sadness and a certain amount of naivety, rather than a wilful hostility to what is being proposed. Anyone who said that this is not one of the most agonising decisions made by this place, in a long time, on human and social policy would be very mistaken.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Dykes

I will, but I am watching the clock so that others may speak.

Mr. Allason

If this is such an agonising decision, has my hon. Friend any evidence to support his apparent belief that hon. Members on either or both sides of the House are being bullied into voting against their consciences?

Mr. Dykes

I wish that I had not given way, as valuable minutes have been wasted. However, I must allow my hon. Friend the right to intervene. He misunderstands what I have been saying. I pay tribute to the Whips in this case for having left us alone. It is the totality of the effort coming from this place that really matters. As I said during the statement on the Government's response to Cullen, it is a primordial matter of human survival and the future of human society. There is an urgent, overwhelming need for this Government, this House of Commons and this Parliament to turn back the incipient, menacing gun culture that is beginning to get a grip on our society. I pay tribute to the sincerity of the arguments of many of my distinguished hon. Friends, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin). It is all very well when we receive deputations, delegations, letters and phone calls from extremely respectable members of the shooting fraternity—I would call them the shootocracy—but that is not the whole picture. There have been disturbing manifestations of what some of those other people are like, which have been mentioned in this debate.

There is not a fine line between very gentlemanly or gentlewomanly sporting clubs—in which very pristine, black and white targets are set up—and a United Kingdom in which the only manifestations of human behaviour are the national lottery, Nintendo and mugging. An alternative establishment is getting a grip on our society, some of which is related to underworld activity. I am sure that officials in the Home Office, the Metropolitan police and other organisations are closely watching those activities.

I think that I am entitled to be a constructive legislator on this issue because of a fear—I do not think that it is an irrational fear—that I developed before the Dunblane tragedy, although that is the provenance of this legislation. In 1980, I visited an open-air gun club in the hills of the Los Angeles forest, outside Los Angeles, where I saw the terrifying United States gun culture at work. Absolutely crazy people were members of it, and they were able to go into a shop in an ordinary way to buy a gun. We are a long way from that situation, but we know that people here are beginning to perceive that that establishment is getting a grip on our society. It is our job to turn it back.

One must therefore acknowledge that the Government are doing that which the House overwhelming welcomes. I supported the Bill with some constructive pleasure on Second Reading because the Government are going beyond Cullen. They are also reducing the legalistic and bureaucratic complexities of the Cullen recommendations. I recommend that course.

On 28 October 1996, the Gun Control Network sent a letter to hon. Members. I pay great tribute to the work done by the network, which was set up after the Dunblane tragedy, and all the people associated with it, particularly the component representing Dunblane parents and their friends and neighbours. Like other hon. Members, I can pay no finer tribute than to the way in which the parents have handled themselves since the tragedy by plunging in and producing some excellent suggestions. It would have been easy for them to switch off and say, "We want nothing to do with this now. The tragedy is so enormous and unspeakable that we disengage ourselves from it and leave it to other people."

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West for the way in which he has liaised with the Gun Control Network. The fact that two hon. Members from Harrow have tabled amendment No. 1 is entirely a coincidence—should anyone irrationally think that something peculiar is happening in Harrow or with Harrow gun clubs.

I sympathise with genuine, honest and decent shooters, particularly those of many years standing. It is very interesting, however, that the former military personnel with whom I have spoken are overwhelmingly in favour of a total ban. Elderly veterans who have been at the real, brutal front of the fighting in past wars are most fiercely in favour of a total ban. No proposals are perfect, and there will always be the dangers presented by exceptions. As we know, the Bill is not an attack on shotguns and rifles.

In its letter, the Gun Control Network stated: to allow .22 calibre weapons will inevitably offer shooters the prospect of further exceptions as time passes and the memory of Dunblane fades. Is it possible for us to contemplate the memory of that dreadful day fading? It is awful to think that we live in such a violent world—with such violence on television and in arcades, where youths play violent video games that violence becomes a routine part of our culture. I do not want to accept that that will happen.

The letter continues: The matter will be a constant source of conflict over technical and logistical detail. Manufacturers will be seeking fully to exploit the exceptions"— which they are very quick to do. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) mentioned in his speech the brochure on the convertibility of ordinary .22s.

The letter continues by stating that manufacturers may even design new models to bypass the ban. There will also be continual dispute over the transport of guns from club to club for competition purposes. I thank the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who is no longer in the Chamber, for not mentioning Europe in his speech—that was ingenious. His proposals for dismantling are immensely bureaucratic and complex, and they would be a nightmare to implement.

So the Government are going a great distance to please the overwhelming majority of hon. Members. But they are not going far enough if they do not offer a free vote—which would provide the combined authority of all hon. Members, so that people would have the true expression and know exactly where we stand.

With all due respect, I cannot agree with my 35 colleagues who, in their demarche, rebelled against the Government's proposals in the vote on the Bill's Second Reading. I cannot accept that pistol shooting is a conventional sport in the normal sense. I am sorry to sound like a spoil sport, but it is not a conventional sport as we understand the term, and I do not believe that it should be encouraged to be so. If people wish to switch to different types of firearms to get round the legislation, they can do so. Many people combine pistol shooting and rifle shooting, and no hon. Member is proposing a central attack on traditional rural shooting.

We have a solemn duty to perform today. Even at this late stage—although it may be too much to ask—the Government could relax their instructions so that we can obtain a stronger combined result. I think that this issue is the same as other matters of conscience, when there have been free votes on Government Bills. There are plenty of precedents for that, and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend and his colleagues will think again about it on this extremely important occasion.

Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

As the result of considered judgment over a considerable period I support the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes). Like the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), I think that that is the settled view and position of the Scottish people, and I find it inconceivable that it is not also the settled view in the rest of the country.

I considered the Government's view that perhaps we should make exemptions for .22 weapons. Before giving that view undue consideration, however, I was immediately dissuaded by the gun lobby from accepting it. In my meetings with representatives of the lobby, they told me that, for various reasons, it would be inconsistent and illogical to retain such provision in the legislation, and that we should therefore not entertain retaining it.

Arguments have been made by those who wish to retain guns in our society. The arguments are spurious, and they muddy the water. The first argument is that crime is committed by using illegally held guns, and we have been told that only 4 per cent. of crimes are committed by legally held handguns. There is no evidence to support that contention. The 4 per cent. figure came from a small study conducted by an inspector in London, which was based only on recovered guns. The conclusions go no further. The opinion of the Select Committee that investigated the matter was that there are no reliable statistics. The Government have no statistics, and nor does the Home Office. We should therefore not accept the statistic.

The case that crime is committed by illegally held handguns is not relevant to the matter that we are now debating. We are not talking about criminals using guns in a threatening manner to achieve some other purpose, such as to rob a bank. We are talking about a possible mass murder by a person who uses a legally held handgun to murder many people. That is the issue, and the statistic on illegally held handguns is not necessarily relevant.

We have heard about vetting as a possible means of dealing with the issue, rather than banning all handguns. Vetting will be carried out by humans, and humans are fallible. It is not possible to close the loophole through vetting. Thomas Hamilton would never have been diagnosed as unfit and unsuitable to own a handgun or as having anything wrong with him on medical or other grounds. He would easily have passed all the established criteria. That option is not open to us.

Sir Wyn Roberts (Conwy)

Surely the evidence of Cullen is that Hamilton was severely criticised, certainly by one police officer who recommended that his firearms certificate should not be renewed.

8.30 pm
Mr. Galbraith

Most of the observations about Hamilton and his mental state were made after the event. Taking the event into account, one could make judgments about what was wrong; they could not be made before, and that was the problem in the Hamilton case.

Another argument that is often advanced and which I have heard frequently today is, "Why bother? There are no guarantees. We cannot legislate against evil. We cannot guarantee that this will never happen again." However, no one is asking us to legislate against evil; that would be foolish. No one is asking us to give guarantees; it is not possible to do so. All that we are being asked to do is reduce the possibility of such an event happening again. The only way to do that is to ban all handguns.

The decision that we have to make is where to draw the line. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said that to take that argument to its logical conclusion means banning all rifles and handguns. Logic is an analytical process that deals in abstracts and can be taken to certain conclusions, but as human beings we make reasoned judgments that intervene in that logical process. Our reasoned judgments form various barriers—they might be physiological, physical or geographical—that we have to insert into the logical process. It is my reasoned judgment that we should ban all handguns and go further than the Secretary of State.

I say that for a number of reasons. What will happen if we continue to allow .22 handguns to be available? There are three possibilities. First, we could retain the status quo. That is unlikely, because we are undergoing such a seismic change. Secondly, the number of gun clubs could decrease as .22s are often used as a starting point—numbers would fall and we might get a de facto ban. If that is the hope, let us be honest and state that in the legislation. The third and most likely outcome, however, is that individuals will trade down and the number of .22s will increase. Members of the gun lobby tell me that the .22 is the assassin's weapon and that, if they wanted to kill someone, they would use one. If the number of .22s is to increase, we must ensure that we have a ban in place. It is our duty to consider that at this stage.

I conclude on an emotional note. I am not ashamed to say that emotion has a part to play. I have three young daughters aged seven, five and three, and when I look at pictures of primary 1 at Dunblane I see pictures of other folks' young daughters. I was present when the House debated the firearms legislation following the Hungerford massacre. We failed—I failed —because we did not take the interest in it that we should have. We saw what we regarded as an internal dispute between the gun lobby and what the Government were trying to do. We failed to push the matter further, and we cannot let that happen again. I do not wish to fail this time, and I therefore ask hon. Members to vote in favour of the amendment.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

So that no one is in any doubt, I should say that I shall vote for the Government's proposals, not because of the three-line Whip but because they strike the best balance in the circumstances. However, I am not claiming that I am completely happy, because I am very rarely entirely happy with the legislation we pass.

I put on record the fact that the parents of Dunblane and the people involved in the Snowdrop campaign who have been to the House and whom we met in Scotland have behaved with admirable restraint in the circumstances. While I was talking to them, I wondered whether I would be as balanced and restrained as they were if the same had happened to my children.

Earlier this evening we heard comments about people dressing and the type of targets used. It made me think that my generation never dressed up, and I wondered why. Then I realised —it was because we did not need to. After all, what with the second world war, Palestine, Korea, Malaya, Cyprus, Aden and Kenya millions of guns were available to national service men and, of course, the men were dressed up anyway. I thought that that may have been part of the reason-the fact that my generation dressed up for real. Then I thought again. I thought about my interests. My family have horses and would never dream of riding without being properly dressed up and equipped. My own interests are flying and gliding. Everyone I know who flies and glides—even those who fly the most modern light aircraft—seems to get dressed up in keeping with the activity being pursued. The modern fashion seems to be to get dressed up anyway.

When I was a young lad, I was a tennis player—I was not very good, only moderate —and I always thought that people who got dressed up and looked like tennis players could not play at all. Perhaps one should see the current fashion for dressing up in that light.

The worry that we are debating involves mainly illegally held guns and the fact that more people die because of such guns than was the case 20 or 30 years ago. I remind hon. Members of the days when there were literally millions of weapons available when service men took them home.

I have been convinced for many years that one cannot legislate to eliminate evil. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) spoke about 22 deaths in one of the Carolinas. I have been reading this week about children who have been stabbed to death in this country. Has anyone else read about them? I was reminded that the skean-dhu, if improperly used, is a lethal weapon. I am concerned that it should continue to be worn in public and would be worried if people were saying that it should be banned because, in the hands of an evil individual, it could be a lethal weapon.

This debate is much more important than many others. We are trying to strike a balance. I do not want United Kingdom competitors to be disadvantaged in an Olympic sport, whether or not that sport is one in which I indulge. We regularly win world championships in gliding. I know that hideous accidents and ghastly deaths occur in that sport. Of course I realise that there are differences between weapons that can be used for legal purposes and others such as aeroplanes, cars and gliders, which can be just as lethal in the wrong hands.

Mr. O'Neill

Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that, under the restrictions that will be imposed by the legislation that he is supporting, individuals who compete at the highest levels consider that it would be most unlikely that they could retain the capabilities that they have? He is arguing for the worst of all worlds, in which competitors would have the right to shoot but would not be capable of reaching the levels that they were previously able to achieve. That would be the height of frustration for those individuals. It would be much simpler to do away with all .22s on that basis if the hon. Gentleman is arguing from the point of view of sportsmen.

Mr. Walker

Was the hon. Gentleman present when I started my speech? He could not have been listening to what I said, or perhaps he did not hear what I said. Let me make my position clear. I said that I was not completely happy with the Bill. I would have settled for Lord Cullen's proposals. I do not believe that one should automatically ban all guns just because a judgment has been made that other guns should be removed and banned. I am trying to make a case—

Mr. O'Neill


Mr. Walker

Will the hon. Gentleman just listen?

I believe that banning should be the last resort for almost any activity. One has to live in a society of balance, in which individuals pursue the activities that they wish to pursue, provided society accepts those activities on balance.

Hon. Members have talked about the balance of opinion in Scotland. Views in my constituency are very divided and I am sure that the situation is the same in every other constituency. Opinion is not united. In fact, the balance of letters that I have received runs at about eight to one against a total ban. I understand that many of those who have written have been motivated by a feeling that they will be disadvantaged. I accept that that is a good reason for people to write. Equally, I accept that those who are not motivated may not write.

I do not understand how anyone can make the claims that we have heard about views in Scotland. I do not make such claims about my constituency, where views are very divided. I think that my constituency is probably typical of large rural constituencies.

We have to consider the lessons of Lord Cullen's report. I believe that his proposals would have been less expensive. Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that that appeals to me. I have always felt that we should watch public expenditure carefully. My personal view is that the compensation package will grow and grow.

I would prefer to give careful consideration to the failure of the weeding-out system. Everyone knows that Hamilton should have been found out. When the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) reads his speech, I think that he will regret some of his comments. I remind him that Lord Cullen recognised that some categories of people should not hold weapons. The letter that the hon. Member for Hamilton read out was a threatening letter. Anyone who writes threatening letters should not have a gun licence: it is as simple as that. If we approach the situation logically—as I hope we shall—we must conclude that that letter is evidence of why that man should not have his gun licence renewed. I think that the gun fraternity would agree.

I gather that my right hon. and learned Friend wants to speak. I shall therefore do what no other pressures have persuaded me to do and comply with the Government's wish for me to sit down.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I support the amendment. I am completely unapologetic about saying that my overwhelming reason for supporting a total ban on handguns is emotional. I am not ashamed of that. Emotion is a valuable human asset that differentiates us from lower species. Logic also dictates that it is rational to support a total ban. The simple truth is that the events of Hungerford and Dunblane would not have happened if a total ban had been in place.

As a parent and grandparent. I have tried many times to imagine the pain and anguish felt by the parents of the slaughtered children of Dunblane. I have failed, because even in my worst nightmares it is not possible for me to contemplate the pain that they must have gone through and must still be going through. I can say only that I felt any sympathy of mine to be inadequate. However, I can add my voice and my vote to support their aims. I can choose between a person's right to pursue a sport and a child's life. As the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) said in his eloquent speech, how will we all feel if it happens again? I do not think that I could live with it if I did not vote for a complete ban tonight.

8.45 pm

To be honest, I have never liked guns or any culture that supports them. I do not like anything that promotes guns. I believe that the growth in the popularity of gun clubs has supported that culture. I have never bought guns for my children or my grandchildren and shooting is the last sport that I would watch at any level. I associate guns with killing people.

Mr. Winnick

If we have any feeling of guilt—my hon. Friend should have no individual feelings of guilt—should it not be a collective guilt among all of us who were here in 1987? It was primarily the Government who did not act, but we did not put sufficient pressure on them after the massacre at Hungerford. That is all the more reason why so many of us are determined not to repeat the same weakness and the same mistake now.

Mrs. Mahon

I believe that nothing other than a total ban on handguns will move us away from the gun culture. It is a small step, and we have a long way to go.

The measure is no reflection on the integrity of the majority of people who engage in this so-called sport. Of course the majority of them have nothing to do with the likes of Thomas Hamilton, but they would not be deprived of anything much if we diverted the country from the gun culture. That in itself is sufficient reason to support a ban. A different kind of society would be an incredible prize to pass on to the next generation.

The majority of my constituents want a total ban. Together with a Labour councillor from Calder Valley, Councillor McCafferty, I have been collecting signatures for a petition since July. We have collected thousands of signatures from people who believe that there should be a total ban on handguns. I have had just a handful of letters putting the case for guns— that is the absolute truth.

I am asking hon. Members to look into their hearts and to look at the unbearable sadness reflected in the eyes of the Dunblane parents every time we see them on the television. I have not met them, but I have felt their sadness from the television screens. Hon. Members must ask themselves whether they have the right to refuse a total ban. Our feelings and sympathies are inadequate. Tonight we can bond in common humanity with those parents by supporting the ban and trying to ensure that such an event never happens again.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

I am pleased to be able to follow the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon). While I believe her speech to have been entirely sincere, I profoundly disagree with her because I believe that legislation should be made on the basis of logic and sound judgment.

The amendments are about what should and should not be included in the Bill. I accept that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has a difficult and delicate balance to strike. However, I have one or two points for him to consider.

In logic, if one is to ban high-calibre pistols, one should also ban low-calibre .22 rimfire single-shot pistols. However, having fired many calibres of pistol in my life, I can tell my right hon. and learned Friend that there is all the difference in the world between a higher-calibre, centrefire pistol and a smaller-calibre, rimfire .22 pistol. The lethality and the accuracy of aim make all the difference in the world. If we intend to act in a reasonable way, we should allow some people who wish to enjoy a perfectly legitimate and safe sport to continue to use lower power and far less lethal pistols.

I am glad that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has chosen the balance that he has, but I want to return to what I said last Tuesday. Can my right hon. and learned Friend clarify for us how the Government are justified in going beyond Lord Cullen's recommendations? Here I centre on the amendments. If the Government believe that it is not practical for pistols to be dismantled, please will they tell my constituents and all gun-using folk why? All the expert advice I have received states that most pistols can be dismantled relatively easily. If they cannot be, we should legislate on the basis that they must be dismantled and make the gun manufacturers manufacture pistols that can be dismantled easily.

For years, all the advice on shotguns and firearms has been that one should separate the bits of the guns. That applies even to shotguns and firearms that are held legitimately in people's homes. The police ask owners what arrangements are being made to separate the bits of their guns—the bolt, the fore-end of the shotgun or whatever. The advice is to separate the bits so that, if a burglar steals part of the gun, it is useless. That is a completely practical and sensible way in which to deal with the matter.

I am wholly in favour of banning handguns from private homes. That would be a sensible measure, and it is outlined in the Bill. Cullen comes up with lots of recommendations on how to tighten security at gun clubs and checks on those who go to them. If a criminal broke into a gun club, he would not know what make and calibre of pistol were there. The idea of his being able to come up with replica bits is far-fetched. To ban handguns from private homes would be a sensible way forward, but if my right hon. and learned Friend and the Government feel that that is not a sensible way forward, they have an obligation to my constituents to spell out in clear language why.

As I made clear in my speech last week, if we intend to ban 160,000 weapons, the cost, even on an average of £300 each, will be £48 million. On an average of £500 each, the cost will be £80 million, not including compensation for associated equipment and everything else. Under the money resolution, we are now making provision for other compensation. I take that to mean that gunsmiths and others will be compensated for loss of trade. Certain groups and gunsmiths who are well organised will be able to put in their claims with alacrity. I want to make sure that the individual who has one pistol that is banned will be adequately compensated. I believe that—

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I was just about to come to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). I believe that his remarks are entirely irrelevant. Who will do the valuation, on what basis will the valuation be done and how soon after the guns have been handed in will the compensation be paid?

Mr. Dalyell

I know nothing about the valuation of guns, but I suspect that the hon. Gentleman does. I am told that the value of some pistols is not £300, but £5,000 or £10,000.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has made that point; he is absolutely correct. Some of the very latest pistols, which are almost totally plastic, can have a value running into thousands of pounds. The keenest pistol shots have been rushing out to buy the latest pistols not because of a macho culture but simply because they are more accurate than the ordinary metal pistol. People have been rushing out to buy them to improve the accuracy of their sport.

We are making it illegal for individuals to hold a whole class of handguns. Sadly, that class of handguns will be legal in many countries of the European Union. Already, some of those weapons are finding their way to the European Union because of people's fear that they will not be adequately compensated. Although what is happening is perfectly legal at the moment, it would be perfectly illegal once the Bill has been enacted for those guns to come back into this country. However, mark my words, Dame Janet, it will happen. We are laying an impossible task on the Customs and Excise and the courts because it will not be possible to keep out all illegally held guns. That will represent an on-going expense and difficulty of which we must be aware if it legislates in that respect.

Mr. Howard

We have had a distinguished debate, marked by high-quality speeches on both sides of the Chamber. I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) that none of us should be embarrassed by emotion in approaching this topic. The emotions it has aroused have been deep and intense, and they have touched us all. None of us needs to make any apology for having opened up our minds and our hearts to those emotions, but at the end of the day, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Sir M. Lennox-Boyd) and by many other hon. Members, each of us has to come to a rational decision. We have to exercise our judgment; I entirely accept that, in the end, the attitude that one takes and where one draws the line are matters of judgment.

We have to exercise our judgment in a way that we can defend rationally. That is the consideration that has influenced the Government as they have sought to discharge this weighty responsibility. We have tried to put the protection of the public uppermost; that has been our first priority. However, it has always been my belief that, if it is possible to provide the public with the protection they need and deserve while allowing some limited legitimate shooting activity to continue, it is the Government's duty to take that course and to come to a conclusion that permits that result.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 would introduce a total ban. Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 would have a quite different effect, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). The amendments themselves, as has been the case with every contribution to the debate, have exemplified the difference in approach and view expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber.

Before turning to the amendments that encompass a total ban, I shall deal with amendments Nos. 15 and 16 and explain the Government's position on the dismantling of weapons. There are a number of reasons why we believe that such an approach would not be viable.

First, we accept that there are many varieties of handgun that can readily be dismantled, but there are others for which it is a much more difficult operation. Lord Cullen records at paragraph 9.89 of his report that the British Shooting Sports Council drew his attention to the difficulties of dismantling and the evidence given to the Home Affairs Committee, including by the police. That assessment is confirmed by the advice that we received from the Forensic Science Service that, if certain classes of highly tuned competition pistols were dismantled regularly, their accuracy would be significantly damaged.

As the amendments exempt from the ban only guns that can readily be dismantled, they would have the effect of banning many low-calibre, highly specialised competition pistols. Therefore, they would have the unfortunate effect of preventing much of the British participation in international shooting competitions that would remain possible under the Bill.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

The Home Secretary is over-egging the pudding somewhat, as he has not given us the numbers, the proportion or the class of weapon that should be in that category.

9 pm

Mr. Howard

It is difficult to be precise about proportions and I make no apology for that. Paragraph 9.89 of the Cullen report shows some of the considerable difficulties that arise.

Our second reservation concerns security. As I explained on Second Reading, Lord Cullen envisaged that the frame of the gun—the main part with the trigger mechanism, the butt and the barrel—would remain in the possession of the owner and that the club secretary would keep the part that had been removed—typically, the slide of a semi-automatic or the cylinder of a revolver. That approach has the fundamental flaw that, to put it mildly, 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. We cannot ignore that factor. It is true that we are envisaging illegal behaviour, whereas the main thrust of the Bill is to deal with the problems that have arisen in respect of the legal use of handguns, but we cannot adopt such a rigid approach to that distinction that we can afford to ignore a risk simply because that risk would arise from illicit, illegal activity.

Mr. Mitchell

I argued that such behaviour could be controlled by the licensing system. Even if the Home Secretary does not accept that, there is no need to do it in the way that Lord Cullen suggested. The heavier, more important part of the gun could be kept at the club and the cylinder or slide taken home. That would be much more sensible.

Mr. Howard

That was not the option recommended by Lord Cullen, who no doubt had a reason for making his recommendation. However, I do not believe for a moment that the variant on that option that the hon. Gentleman now advances would avoid the difficulty that I have identified. The hon. Gentleman has to face up to it, as we have sought to do, and that is the reason for our approach to Lord Cullen's proposals.

The essence of amendments Nos. 15 and 16 is to permit high-calibre handguns to be exempted from the ban. Many hon. Members have argued that, if gun clubs can be made safe for .22 guns, they can be made safe for higher-calibre weapons. The question of calibre is important and I should like to spend a few moments on it so that the Government's position is fully understood.

As Lord Cullen pointed out, high-calibre handguns are not target guns in the true and original sense. They have been developed from military and police models. Most of the competitions in which they are used are quite different from those of traditional target shooting: they are based around quasi-military and police scenarios, often using targets representing human figures. The power of the gun and the ammunition used are essential features of many of those competitions.

The huge growth in such shooting in recent years—to which Lord Cullen referred in paragraph 9.44 of his report— has led to the growth of combat shooting. It has led some shooters to don the trappings of combat, such as holsters and camouflage clothing. It has caused others to feel uneasy about what appears to be the use of guns as symbols of personal power. Contrary to the implication posed by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), Lord Cullen was not talking about .22 calibre pistols in that passage of his report. He was talking about the higher-calibre handguns, which the Government propose to ban. We share the unease described by Lord Cullen at that point in his report.

Mr. Mellor

It is obvious that, if someone is looking for a symbol of power, he will go for the biggest gun on the market. What basis, apart from mere surmise, does my right hon. and learned Friend have for saying that people will not, in the context of an arrangement where only .22 pistols are available, transfer their affections to such things?

Mr. Howard

One has to look at the stringent security arrangements that we intend to put in place. I think that that is the answer to my right hon. and learned Friend's question. One is able to distinguish—not solely for the reason that I have just been explaining, because as I said, there are other reasons too, to which I am about to come. The reason that I have given is one—but not the only—basis for a distinction, which the Government think it is important to maintain and which is at the heart of our approach.

Mr. George Robertson


Mr. Salmond


Mr. Howard

The hon. Member for Hamilton was wanting to get to his feet first, so I shall give way to him.

Mr. Robertson

The style, the shape and indeed the function of .22 semi-automatics—many people in the country and, I believe, in the House of Commons do not know that the Bill will legitimise semi-automatic .22 weapons—can be easily replicated for those who will be denied the larger-calibre guns. Has the Home Secretary's Department conducted any research since the announcement of the partial ban into what sort of trading is done? I was told by an eminent criminologist to whom I spoke this evening that the grey market trading of larger-calibre guns for .22 guns is already increasing at an alarming rate. The culture that Lord Cullen described in relation to higher-calibre guns is easily transferable to the new .22 weapons, which are featured in the publication that I showed the Home Secretary earlier.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman has made a completely unsupported assertion. Lord Cullen identified clearly in his report the trappings associated with the use of high-calibre weapons. The hon. Gentleman may make assertions about what might happen if some of those people—there may well be some—who use higher-calibre weapons wish to transfer to .22 weapons. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards) read out was a very moving letter from a disabled constituent of his, who described the part that legitimate shooting plays in his life. I very much hope that my hon. Friend's constituent will transfer to .22 calibre shooting if that is not the kind of shooting in which he engages at present—it was not clear from his letter—so that, as a disabled person who derives legitimate satisfaction from that activity, he is able to continue to engage in that legitimate activity. That is one of the reasons why the Government have approached this matter in the way we have.

Mr. Salmond

Can we be absolutely correct on this? The Home Secretary not only admitted that, under his proposals, it would be quite possible for people to take the compensation money and buy new .22 semi-automatic handguns, but seemed to suggest that, in some cases, he would welcome that process. Would he really welcome people taking compensation money to buy new handguns?

Mr. Howard

I am saying that it is perfectly possible that that will happen; if it does and people want to continue to participate in what, when the Bill becomes law, will be a perfectly legitimate activity, of course they should be perfectly entitled to do that. They will have to carry out that activity under strict and stringent secure arrangements, which will be set up under the provisions in the Bill. Those arrangements will put that activity on a completely different footing from that on which it takes place at the moment.

Two other reasons support the distinction that we make. First, high-calibre guns are particularly attractive to criminals and their storage in gun clubs in large numbers. whether dismantled or in one piece, would make gun clubs more attractive targets for theft. The second reason relates to the far greater power that those weapons have. The table in paragraph 9.49 of Lord Cullen's report, confirmed and corroborated a few moments ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) from his personal experience, shows that a high-calibre handgun is four to six times more powerful than a .22 pistol. It uses a much larger bullet that travels with greater momentum and, unlike a .22 rimfire cartridge, the power of a high-calibre cartridge can be boosted by people who make up their ammunition at home, as do the majority of handgun shooters.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

We have all read paragraph 9.49, which indeed shows that the higher-calibre weapons are more powerful than lower-calibre .22 weapons, but is not the Home Secretary confusing the issue of power with whether the weapons are lethal? In paragraph 9.49, Lord Cullen says: It should not be supposed that .22 rimfire cannot be as lethal as other ammunition … The BSSC pointed out ….22 cartridges would be as lethal as 9 mm. Is not the point that, although .22 weapons are less powerful than higher-calibre weapons, they are just as lethal as higher-calibre weapons?

Mr. Howard

They are not just as lethal, although of course they can kill. The difference in the power is a very important factor, and, for all those reasons, we believe that the distinction at the heart of the Bill is viable and tenable.

I now turn to amendments Nos. 1 and 2. As I said at the outset, the Government's first priority is public safety. We are committed to doing whatever is needed to give the public the greater protection that they need and deserve in the aftermath of the dreadful events at Dunblane. The question for Parliament is whether that protection can be provided while allowing some legitimate use of handguns to continue. If the answer is yes, as I believe it is, the Government have a duty to act accordingly.

There are several reasons why we take that view. First, if there were to be a complete ban, there is a real danger that target shooting would take place outside the law, completely unregulated and not subject to any supervision or security. That would lead to a lessening of the protection of the public and is not a state of affairs that we should lightly contemplate. That is a serious argument that cannot be dismissed.

To all those hon. Members who take a different view on the complete ban and who have said to those of us who do not share that view, "How could you look yourselves in the face if, on some future occasion, some other awful event were to take place?"—with the implicit assumption that such an event would be a consequence of our failure to impose a total ban in this legislation—I say, "How could they look themselves in the face if that dreadful event were the outcome of driving this activity beyond the bounds of the law?" That could happen, as was acknowledged by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw).

Mr. O'Neill


Mr. Howard

I do not have time to give way.

One cannot avoid or shrink from that serious point.

Secondly, we should recognise that the shooting of .22 pistols has had an honourable place in Olympic competition since the early days of the modern Olympic games. It is a legitimate activity that is enjoyed by tens of thousands of law-abiding citizens. If we can allow it to continue and still give the public the extra protection that they deserve, we should do so.

We intend that .22 rimfire pistols should be used only under the most stringent conditions in licensed gun clubs. No one would be able to shoot with a .22 pistol until he had been judged fit to do so and had obtained a firearms certificate. The clubs in which the pistols would be kept would have to meet rigorous security criteria and satisfy the police that they were run by people of good character. No gun would be allowed to removed from a club, except on a police permit. When outside the club, the guns would normally have to be transported by a third party who was authorised by the police as suitable for the task.

9.15 pm

Some people have questioned whether pistol clubs can be made properly secure. The answer is that they can, but I accept that it will cost money and it will take time. I acknowledge that the Government's proposals will bear heavily on many decent law-abiding citizens who own handguns and use them for the purpose of sport, and I very much regret that. But our proposals will allow continued British participation in four of the five international target shooting disciplines run under the rules of the International Shooting Union, which include the Commonwealth games. British target shooters will be able to participate also in all the disciplines in the Olympic games that involve only .22 pistols.

Before we finally vote on this issue, let us all remember the clear and unambiguous judgment of Lord Cullen on this central question, which can be found in paragraph 9.113 of his report. The paragraph states: I do not consider that the banning of handguns for target shooting or the banning of shooting clubs would be justified. As I said at the outset of my remarks, amendments Nos. 15 and 16 would increase the extent to which those who at present own and use handguns would be allowed to continue to do so. Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 would impose a complete ban. I believe that the right course is that set out in the Bill, which would provide this country with some of the toughest gun controls in the world. They would be likely to reduce the handguns held in this country by 80 per cent. but would allow some legitimate target shooting to continue. I urge the Committee to reject the amendment.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has made three assertions in replying to the debate. First, he asserted that the banning of all handguns would drive target shooting underground, but I have not heard any police officer suggest that that would happen anywhere in the country. I have heard no one other than my right hon. and learned Friend suggest that that would happen. Secondly, my right hon. and learned Friend asserted that .22 guns were less effective. I say that that is an assertion, because it is not backed up in Lord Cullen's report or by the BSSC members who spoke for the shooters and were quoted in the Cullen report. Nor is it backed up by other arms experts quoted in the report.

Thirdly, my right hon. and learned Friend asserted that the gun culture will not transfer. He is right in saying that, in paragraph 9.44, Lord Cullen was talking about the larger handguns and people who use them for macho purposes or as a demonstration of power. But the Gun Control Network has evidence from four police authorities and from the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales that this is precisely what is happening already. The people whom they describe as maverick handgunners, who are prone to the sort of behaviour about which Lord Cullen talks, are likely to transfer and are doing so already. I do not think that my right hon. and learned Friend has been able to knock down the points that I made in opening the debate.

I have evidence from my conversations with a number of Ministers and parliamentary private secretaries that, on a free vote tonight, they would vote for the banning of all handguns. How can the grieving parents of Dunblane leave the campaign here when they know that they would get their way on a free vote? One day, when the House is allowed a free vote on the matter, they will get their way.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 281, Noes 306.

Division No. 15] [9.19 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Callaghan, Jim
Adams, Mrs Irene Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Ainger, Nick Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Allen, Graham Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Alton, David Campbell-Savours, D N
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Canavan, Dennis
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Cann, Jamie
Ashdown, Paddy Carlile, Alex (Montgomery)
Ashton, Joseph Chisholm, Malcolm
Austin-Walker, John Church, Ms Judith
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Clapham, Michael
Barnes, Harry Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Barron, Kevin Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Battle, John Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Bayley, Hugh Clelland, David
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Bell, Stuart Coffey, Ms Ann
Benn, Tony Cohen, Harry
Bennett, Andrew F Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Benton, Joe Corbett, Robin
Bermingham, Gerald Corbyn, Jeremy
Berry, Roger Corston, Ms Jean
Betts, Clive Cousins, Jim
Blair, Tony Cox, Tom
Blunkett, David Cummings, John
Boateng, Paul Cunliffe, Lawrence
Bradley, Keith Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try SE)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Cunningham, Ms R (Perth Kinross)
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E) Dafis, Cynog
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E) Dalyell, Tam
Burden, Richard Darling, Alistair
Byers, Stephen Davidson, Ian
Caborn, Richard Davies, Bryan (Oldham C)
Davies, Chris (Littleborough) Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Davies, Denzil (Llanelli) Jowell, Ms Tessa
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Kaufman, Gerald
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Keen, Alan
Denham, John Kennedy, Charles (Ross C & S)
Dewar, Donald Kennedy, Mrs Jane (Broadgreen)
Dicks, Terry Khabra, Piara S
Dixon, Don Kiffoyle, Peter
Dobson, Frank Kirkwood, Archy
Donohoe, Brian H Lestor, Miss Joan (Eccles)
Dowd, Jim Lewis, Terry
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Liddell, Mrs Helen
Dykes, Hugh Litherland, Robert
Eagle, Ms Angela Livingstone, Ken
Eastham, Ken Lloyd, Tony (Stretfd)
Etherington, Bill Llwyd, Elfyn
Evans, John (St Helens N) Loyden, Eddie
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Lynne, Ms Liz
Fatchett, Derek McAllion, John
Faulds, Andrew McAvoy, Thomas
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) McCartney, Ian (Makerfld)
Flynn, Paul Macdonald, Calum
Foster, Derek McFall, John
Foster, Don (Bath) McKelvey, William
Foulkes, George Mackinlay, Andrew
Fraser, John McLeish, Henry
Fyfe, Mrs Maria McMaster, Gordon
Galbraith, Sam McNamara, Kevin
Galloway, George MacShane, Denis
Garrett, John McWilliam, John
Gerrard, Neil Madden, Max
Godman, Dr Norman A Maddock, Mrs Diana
Godsiff, Roger Mahon, Mrs Alice
Golding, Mrs Llin Mallon, Seamus
Gordon, Ms Mildred Mandelson, Peter
Graham, Thomas Marek, Dr John
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Martin, Michael J (Springburn)
Grocott, Bruce Martlew, Eric
Gunnell, John Maxton, John
Hain, Peter Meacher, Michael
Hall, Mike Meale, Alan
Hanson, David Mellor, David
Hardy, Peter Michael, Alun
Harman, Ms Harriet Michie, Bill (Shefld Heeley)
Harvey, Nick Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)
Hattersley, Roy Milburn, Alan
Henderson, Doug Miller, Andrew
Hendron, Dr Joe Moonie, Dr Lewis
Heppell, John Morgan, Rhodri
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Morley, Elliot
Hinchliffe, David Morris, Alfred (Wy'nshawe)
Hodge, Ms Margaret Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Home Robertson, John Morris, John (Aberavon)
Hood, Jimmy Mowlam, Ms Marjorie
Hoon, Geoffrey Mudie, George
Howarth, Alan (Stratfd-on-A) Mullin, Chris
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Murphy, Paul
Howells, Dr Kim Oakes, Gordon
Hoyle, Doug O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Hughes, Robert (Ab'd'n N) O'Hara, Edward
Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W) Olner, Bill
Hughes, Roy (Newport E) O'Neill, Martin
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Orme, Stanley
Hume, John Pearson, Ian
Hutton, John Pendry, Tom
Ingram, Adam Pickthall, Colin
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampst'd) Pike, Peter L
Jackson, Mrs Helen (Hillsborough) Powell, Sir Raymond (Ogmore)
Jamieson, David Prentice, Mrs B (Lewisham E)
Jenkins, Brian D (SE Staffs) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Jones, Barry (Alyn & D'side) Prescott, John
Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn) Primarolo, Ms Dawn
Jones, Dr L (B'ham Selly Oak) Purchase, Ken
Quin, Ms Joyce Stott, Roger
Radice, Giles Strang, Dr Gavin
Randall, Stuart Straw, Jack
Raynsford, Nick Sutcliffe, Gerry
Reid, Dr John Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Rendel, David Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Robertson, George (Hamilton) Thurnham, Peter
Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW) Timms, Stephen
Roche, Mrs Barbara Tipping, Paddy
Rogers, Allan Touhig, Don
Rooker, Jeff Trickett, Jon
Rooney, Terry Turner, Dennis
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Tyler, Paul
Rowlands, Ted Vaz, Keith
Ruddock, Ms Joan Wallace, James
Salmond, Alex Walley, Ms Joan
Sedgemore, Brian Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Sheerman, Barry Wareing, Robert N
Sheldon, Robert Watson, Mike
Shore, Peter Welsh, Andrew
Simpson, Alan Wicks, Malcolm
Skinner, Dennis Wigley, Dafydd
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E) Williams, Alan (Swansea W)
Smith, Chris (Islington S) Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Wilson, Brian
Snape, Peter Winnick, David
Soley, Clive Wise, Mrs Audrey
Spearing, Nigel Worthington, Tony
Spellar, John Wray, Jimmy
Squire, Ms R (Dunfermline W) Wright, Dr Tony
Steel, Sir David Tellers for the Ayes:
Steinberg, Gerry Mr. Robert Ainsworth and
Stevenson, George Mr. Greg Pope.
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Burt, Alistair
Alexander, Richard Butcher, John
Alison, Michael (Selby) Butler, Peter
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Butterfill, John
Arness, David Carlisle, John (Luton N)
Ancram, Michael Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Linc'n)
Arbuthnot, James Carrington, Matthew
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Carttiss, Michael
Atkins, Robert Channon, Paul
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Chapman, Sir Sydney
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Clappison, James
Baker, Kenneth (Mole V) Clark, Dr Michael (Rochf'd)
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
Baldry, Tony Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Coe, Sebastian
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Colvin, Michael
Batiste, Spencer Congdon, David
Bellingham, Hanry Conway, Derek
Bendall, Vivian Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F)
Beresford, Sir Paul Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Biffen, John Cope, Sir John
Body, Sir Richard Corrnack, Sir Patrick
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Couchman, James
Booth, Hartley Cran, James
Boswell, Tom Currie, Mrs Edwina
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Curry, David
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Davies,Quentin (Stamf'd)
Bowden, Sir Andrew Davis, David (Boothferry)
Bowis, John Day, Stephen
Boyson, Sir Rhodes Deva, Nirj Joseph
Brandreth, Gyles Devlin, Tim
Brazier, Julian Dorrell, Stephen
Bright, Sir Graham Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Brooke, Peter Dover, Den
Brown, Michael (Brigg Cl'thorpes) Duncan Smith, Iain
Browning, Mrs Angela Dunn, Bob
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Durant, Sir Anthony
Budgen, Nicholas Eggar, Tim
Burns, Simon Elletson, Harold
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Evans, Nigel (Ribble V) Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Kynoch, George
Evennett, David Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Faber, David Lamont, Norman
Fabricant, Michael Lang, Ian
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Fishburn, Dudley Legg, Barry
Forman, Nigel Leigh, Edward
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark
Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim) Lester, Sir Jim (Broxtowe)
Forth, Eric Lidington, David
Fowler, Sir Norman Lilley, Peter
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Lloyd, Sir Peter (Fareham)
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley) Lord, Michael
Freeman, Roger Luff, Peter
French, Douglas Lyell, Sir Nicholas
Fry, Sir Peter McCrea, Rev William
Gale, Roger MacGregor, John
Gallie, Phil MacKay, Andrew
Gardiner, Sir George Maclean, David
Garel-Jones, Tristan McLoughlin, Patrick
Garnier, Edward McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Gill, Christopher Madel, Sir David
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Maitland, Lady Olga
Goodlad, Alastair Major, John
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Malone, Gerald
Gorman, Mrs Teresa. Mans, Keith
Gorst, Sir John Marland, Paul
Grant, Sir Anthony (SW Cambs) Marlow, Tony
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Grylls, Sir Michael Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Gummer, John Mayhew, Sir Patrick
Hague, William Merchant, Piers
Hamilton, Sir Archibald Mills, lain
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Hampson, Dr Keith Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)
Hanley, Jeremy Moate, Sir Roger
Hannam, Sir John Molyneaux, Sir James
Hargreaves, Andrew Monro, Sir Hector
Harris, David Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Haselhurst, Sir Alan Moss, Malcolm
Hawkins, Nick Needham, Richard
Hawksley, Warren Nelson, Anthony
Hayes, Jerry Neubert, Sir Michael
Heald, Oliver Newton, Tony
Heath, Sir Edward Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Heathcoat-Amory, David Norris, Steve
Hendry, Charles Onslow, Sir Cranley
Heseltine, Michael Oppenheim, Phillip
Hicks, Sir Robert Ottaway, Richard
Higgins, Sir Terence Page, Richard
Hill, Sir James (Southampton Test) Paice, James
Horam, John Paisley, Rev Ian
Hordern, Sir Peter Patnick, Sir Irvine
Howard, Michael Patten, John
Howell, David (Guildf'd) Pattie, Sir Geoffrey
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk) Pawsey, James
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensb'ne) Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hunter, Andrew Pickles, Eric
Hurd, Douglas Porter, David
Jack, Michael Portillo, Michael
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Powell, William (Corby)
Jenkin, Bernard (Colchester N) Rathbone, Tim
Jessel, Toby Redwood, John
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Renton, Tim
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Richards, Rod
Jones, Robert B (W Herts) Riddick, Graham
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine Rifkind, Malcolm
Key, Robert Robathan, Andrew
King, Tom Roberts, Sir Wyn
Kirkhope, Timothy Robertson, Raymond S (Ab'd'n S)
Knapman, Roger Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash) Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Roe, Mrs Marion Temple-Morris, Peter
Ross, William (E Lond'y) Thomason, Roy
Rowe, Andrew Thompson, Sir Donald (Calder V)
Rumbold, Dame Angela Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Ryder, Richard Thomton, Sir Malcolm
Sackville, Tom Townend, John (Bridlington)
Sainsbury, Sir Timothy Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)
Scott, Sir Nicholas Tracey, Richard
Shaw, David (Dover) Tredinnick, David
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Trend, Michael
Shephard, Mrs Gillian Trotter, Neville
Shepherd, Sir Colin (Heref'd) Twinn, Dr lan
Shersby, Sir Michael Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Sims, Sir Roger Waldegrave, William
Skeet, Sir Trevor Walden, George
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick) Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfld) Waller, Gary
Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S) Ward, John
Soames, Nicholas Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Speed, Sir Keith Waterson, Nigel
Spencer, Sir Derek Watts, John
Spicer, Sir Jim (W Dorset) Wells, Bowen
Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs) Wheeler, Sir John
Spink, Dr Robert Whitney, Ray
Spring, Richard Whittingdale, John
Sproat, lain Widdecombe, Miss Ann
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch) Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Stanley, Sir John Wilkinson, John
Steen, Anthony Willetts, David
Stephen, Michael Wilshire, David
Stern, Michael Winterton, Mrs Ann (Gongleton)
Stewart, Allan Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfld)
Streeter, Gary Wolfson, Mark
Sumberg, David Yeo, Tim
Sweeney, Walter Young, Sir George
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, Ian (Esher) Tellers for the Noes:
Taylor, John M (Solihull) Mr. Timothy Wood and
Taylor, Sir Teddy Mr. Michael Bates.

Question accordingly negatived.

Miss Widdecombe

I beg to move amendment No. 20, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, after 'pistol', insert a muzzle-loading gun'.

The Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following: Government amendments Nos. 21 to 23.

New clause 1—Muzzle-loaders— `.The authority of the Secretary of State is not required by virtue of subsection (1)(aba) of section 5 of the 1968 Act for a person to have in his possession, or to purchase or acquire, or to sell or transfer, a firearm if he is authorised by a firearm certificate to have in his possession, or to purchase or acquire, a firearm and it is a firearm which can only be loaded from the muzzle end.'. New clause 2—Exemption of muzzle-loaders`.The authority of the Secretary of State is not required by virtue of subsection (1) (aba) of section 5 of the 1968 Act for a person to have in his possession, or to purchase or acquire, or to sell or transfer, a firearm if he is authorised by a firearm certificate to have in his possession, or to purchase or acquire a firearm which is loaded at the muzzle end of each chamber or of the barrel and is designed to be used with black powder.'.

Miss Widdecombe


The Chairman

Order. I ask hon. Members to leave quietly if they are going, or to sit quietly if they intend to listen.

Miss Widdecombe

The intention of the amendments is to ensure that muzzle-loading pistols are not caught by the general prohibition that we are proposing.

Sir Michael Spicer (South Worcestershire)

Will my hon. Friend specify whether the terms of the amendment will include reproduction muzzle-loaders, because the date of manufacture seems less important than the type of weapon? A tremendous number of people are engaged in the sport of muzzle-loading gun competitions, and reproduction muzzle-loaders are just as important as originals to them.

Miss Widdecombe

I assure my hon. Friend that I shall give the definition of such weapons, including replicas, in due course.

As I said, the intention of the amendments is to ensure that muzzle-loading pistols are not caught by the general prohibition that we are proposing. I should explain to the Committee precisely what is meant by a muzzle-loader and why we believe that they can be safely excluded from the ban. The definition of a muzzle-loader is given in our amendment No. 23, which states it is any gun which is designed to be loaded at the muzzle end"— that is the end from which the bullet is fired "with a loose charge" and a ball "or other missile".

Those guns are invariably either designs of guns that date from the 18th century or modern replicas of such guns. If they are genuinely old and are not fired they will be exempt anyway from all control by virtue of the general exemption for antiques, which is not changed by the Bill. If they are fired under the present law, they require a firearms certificate and our amendment would not change that.

The example of a muzzle-loader that will be familiar to most people is a flintlock. Like all muzzle-loaders, it is prepared for firing by pouring loose gunpowder into the barrel, tamping it down and then dropping down a lead ball, which is held in place by a wad. That process may take as long as half a minute or more, and even then it is quite uncertain as to whether the gun will fire first time. Those guns, either originals dating from the Napoleonic wars or earlier, or replicas, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer), are fired by enthusiasts, who may fire their guns at targets or use blanks when firing them in historical re-enactments.

Muzzle-loading weapons are not a danger to public safety. They take a long time to reload and they are hardly ever used in crime. We believe that they can safely be exempted from the general ban on handguns and from the requirement to keep them in clubs. People will still need a firearms certificate for those weapons, and the tighter regime for issuing firearms certificates, proposals for which are included in the Bill, such as requiring two referees, will apply to individuals who wish to hold a firearms certificate for muzzle-loading firearms.

I urge the Committee to support the amendment. I also urge my hon. Friends who have proposed new clauses 1 and 2 to withdraw them on the basis that our amendments achieve the same objective. Indeed, the new clauses would keep muzzle-loaders within the general prohibition.

Mr. Couchman

I should be grateful if my hon. Friend said something about the storage of muzzle-loaders. Will they be caught up in the exacting and onerous regulations that will apply to .22 pistols, for example?

Miss Widdecombe

No. As my hon. Friend knows, .22 pistols are to be confined to secure clubs; those rules will not apply to muzzle-loaders. Although my hon. Friend's new clauses seek to achieve the same ends, in fact they would not exempt muzzle-loaders from the prohibition—the new clauses would keep them within it, but allow them to be held on certificate. I hope that we have managed to demonstrate that muzzle-loaders are not a menace to public safety and that their exemption may safely be proposed.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

I should like to make some brief remarks. First, I am sorry that the wording of new clause 1 is not quite right, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for accepting the principle behind it.

I have one simple point. We had an impassioned debate on the issue of a general ban and a decision was made a few minutes ago. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee will now concentrate on making the legislation workable and sensible. Amendment. No. 20 is certainly an important contribution to that objective. On the other hand, my hon. Friend the Minister will realise that there are two other points relating to the amendment that we shall discuss shortly and that must be faced up to in the same way.

The Government are anxious that guns should not be kept at home, but I hope that they realise that that objective could be secured by having the partial storage of weapons in clubs. That would save a great deal of unnecessary expenditure and would also remove a major security risk, which many of feel would arise if guns were to be stored in clubs.

The next issue to be addressed is a sensible timetable. Whatever Act of Parliament we pass, we want to ensure that the timetable is sensible and appropriate in the circumstances.

Finally, bearing in mind what the Government said about competitors, I hope that they realise that the present arrangements for notifying chief constables about the removal of guns for competition will be difficult to work out, especially in the case of individuals who engage in many competitions. In the Southend area, we have a splendid shot, Brent Smith, who has won two silver medals and a bronze medal at the Commonwealth games. He attends many competitive events and it seems rather ridiculous that he will have to go through the whole process of putting in an application to the police every time he wants to take part in a competition.

In the circumstances, I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for accepting the principle of new clause 1. That is a major step forward. I hope that, in the same way, she will consider my other points to make sure that the Bill is a sensible and workable piece of legislation that will achieve the Government's objective without causing unnecessary distress and inconvenience.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I add my gratitude to that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor). I accept that the Government draftsman is likely to draft a better amendment than we are, but it says something about the speed with which the Bill was prepared that anyone should have included muzzle-loaders in the first place.

The exemption will assist a large number of people who enjoy the hobby of muzzle-loader shooting. The weapons are extremely unlikely to be used in crime and many thousands of people use blanks for re-enactments. People are having the guns manufactured for their own entertainment.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State and am happy not to press my new clause.

9.45 pm
Mr. Couchman

I am delighted to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister of State that muzzle-loaders will be exempt from the bans promulgated in the Bill. It will be important to my constituents who, almost every Sunday, re-enact Napoleonic battles at Fort Amherst. There are several historic spots within the Medway towns, including Fort Amherst, Upnor castle, the historic dockyard and Rochester castle, where there are regular re-enactments.

The muzzle-loading guns have no potential for crime: they take a long time to load and most of the people who fire them use blanks and do not load the lead ball. Even if someone has a licence to own a muzzle-loader, they cannot buy ammunition for it. Muzzle-loaders are mostly used in public displays, for education and entertainment.

I welcome the exemption, particularly as it includes replicas of historic guns, which were already exempt under the antique guns rule. The people of the Medway towns do not lie awake at night worrying that they are going to be taken apart by the flintlock pistols, horse pistols or cannons of the Medway re-enactment societies. The Chatham and Gillingham Volunteer Artillery', the Chasseurs de Cevennes, the 42nd Highlanders and the First Foot Guards will be eternally grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State.

Mr. Dalyell

May we take it from the gist of the amendment that the Sealed Knot has nothing to worry about?

Miss Widdecombe


Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

Will my hon. Friend the Minister of State accept the gratitude of those who use muzzle-loading firearms for sport, usually under the general title of black powder shooting? Will she also accept my personal gratitude for showing evidence of the Government's willingness to be flexible when sound cases were put to them during their discussions on this difficult subject? Strong emotions have been aroused and it has not always been recognised that the Government have been willing to listen. They have the gratitude of those serious shooters who have benefited from the amendments.

Mr. Henderson

The hon. Member for Portsmouth. North (Mr. Griffiths) will be able to judge whether the Government have listened to hon. Members and others when we see the final report to the House after 28 November. The Opposition support the Government's amendments; we support the exemption of muzzle-loading guns, subject to the endorsement of the local consumer standards officers. The most likely danger from a muzzle-loading gun is that one might blow oneself up rather than anyone else. If the consumer standards officers are satisfied, I think that the Committee will be satisfied.

Amendment agreed to. Amendments made: No. 21, in page 1, line 20, at end insert— `(3A) In paragraph (ad) (smooth-bore revolver guns), for the words from "loaded" to the end there shall be substituted the words "a muzzle-loading gun".' No. 22, in page 1, line 21, leave out second 'subsection' and insert 'subsections'.— [Miss Widdecombe.]

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 1, line 22, after 'any', insert 'readily'.

Some .22 rifles have detachable butt-stocks—there is one very popular one—and they could be regarded as short weapons if measured when the stock is detached. It is apparently impossible to use them when the butt is detached except in a test rig, and by inserting the word "readily" we feel that we would obtain our point. I hope that the Government will be able to accept this modest amendment.

Miss Widdecombe

I am afraid that I must urge the Committee to resist the amendment. The effect of the amendment would be to clarify that butt-stocks should be disregarded in measuring length only if they are readily detachable. I regret that, after much thought, we have concluded that we cannot accept that definition. Adding a butt-stock to a handgun can change its essential characteristic and in some cases, in terms of aim, make it more closely resemble a rifle.

The amendment gives rise to the further problem of what is meant by "detachable". Is it intended that it should include only butt-stocks which can be removed without the use of tools? Should it also include those which require a screwdriver to remove? It is true that some butt-stocks can be easily detached while others require more effort, but the point remains that, if a butt-stock can be removed at all, it should be disregarded for the purposes of measuring the overall length of the weapon.

I regret that I must invite the Committee to reject the amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made: No. 23, in clause 1, page 1, line 24, at end insert— '(9) Any reference in this section to a muzzle-loading gun is a reference to a gun which is designed to be loaded at the muzzle end of the barrel or chamber with a loose charge and a separate ball (or other missile):.—[Miss Widdecombe.] Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Brooke

I shall be brief. The harbinger of my concerns was contained in my intervention in the speech of my hon. Friend the Minister of State earlier. My remarks were addressed, through you, Mr. Morris, to my hon. Friend, because the Government have indicated that part of their support for the .22 concession is to allow our participation in the Olympic games to continue.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary answered my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) wholly properly, but he did not give a complete answer to the question whether the Home Secretary realised that people had to practise with their own pistols. He was asked whether he understood that, to compete at county or national level—one is necessary for the other—one needed to be able to train and practise with one's own pistol. He did not specifically answer that question, so I return to it.

Do the Government realise that, at the highest level—county level leading to national —about 80 per cent. of one's training and practice occurs away from the club where one may do one's shooting, generally in one's home, on what the professionals call the kinasthetic element of the preparation? That will involve, at the highest level, at least two evenings a week in one's home.

There are serious separate concerns about training weekends. At the highest level, one must attend a training weekend three weekends out of four. Those are not competitions allowed for in the Bill; they are a separate condition. Although I shall not press my hon. Friend for specific answers on those subjects tonight, I want to say that, in addition to the ones that I have mentioned, there are concerns about batch ammunition tested for one's own pistol, and about the movement of the pistol, especially travelling to international championships, which my hon. Friend will realise are a necessary qualification for the Olympics.

There are six international championships between Olympics, and one must attend every one. It necessarily becomes a matter of concern how one is going to transport one's pistol to them.

I shall write to my hon. Friend on these matters. All I ask for tonight is a stated recognition that a competitor at that level must practise and train with his own pistol, and that no other pistol would be any good for that purpose. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary did not answer the question when it was put to him earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle, but it is important that everyone is clear that the Government realises that that is the case.

Mr. Dalyell

There have been frequent references to the costs of compensation during the past five hours, and I think that clause 1 stand part is the appropriate occasion to repeat that reference.

Although various assertions have been made, the Government have said little or nothing. I ask for the Minister's attention, as I want to ask her a direct question. The Home Office must have some idea, in round figures, what compensation will be involved. I refuse to believe that the Treasury has not asked some questions. The figures vary from my estimate of £ 1.2 billion to £500 million from some Conservative Members to between £ 25 million and £50 million. What are the rough estimates of the Home Office?

The question asked by the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and repeated several times since is, who will do the valuing? Valuers can have vastly different ideas of what guns might fetch. Is it to be a market value or an antique value? In other areas, the discrepancies in valuations by the great auction houses are mind-boggling.

Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green)

I would declare an interest if that were appropriate, having worked as a fine arts auctioneer. I am sure that the Government would be only too happy to avail themselves of the services, for nothing, of such experts, so that a proper value can be put on the firearms. In any case, the Government could recoup some of the costs by auctioning some of the finer firearms, which otherwise would have to be destroyed, in those countries where there are no restrictions.

Mr. Dalyell

If the hon. Gentleman is right, it is enormously significant that valuers are prepared to give their services free. In my experience, valuers do not come cheap. If they are prepared to give their services free—[Interruption.] Some of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues are shaking their knowledgeable heads. I suspect that it is highly unlikely that valuers would volunteer their services free.

I want to put my question as succinctly as possible. What is Home Office thinking on the whole question of valuation? Are we talking about £1 billion-plus or £100 million-minus?

Mr. Allason

I am grateful for being able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During the last few hours, several assertions have been made that I want to correct. The first and most damaging is that Thomas Hamilton had legally held handguns. It is perfectly clear to anyone who has read Lord Cullen's report that he duped the police over 20 years—in respect not only of the firearms he held, but of the ammunition.

Lord Cullen is extremely critical of the way that the police supervised the issuing of firearms. Plenty of people—at least three—in Central Scotland police were perfectly aware of Hamilton's character, and they wrote reports showing that. Detective Sergeant Hughes analysed the man's personality as unstable and untrustworthy. The recommendation that he should not ever be granted a firearms certificate is there to be seen.

The real problem is that those reports did not get into the criminal intelligence file. We now know that the officer in 1995 who was responsible for issuing the last renewal was wholly unaware of the existence of those documents, which are absolutely damning.

My heart goes out to the Dunblane parents. It also goes out to the police officers who had to investigate Hamilton, who had very well-founded doubts about his stability and who wrote about those doubts—which were then completely overlooked by their more senior colleagues. I am not surprised that one senior officer resigned from that force. There should have been other resignations.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

My hon. Friend will have noticed that Mr. Hamilton's membership of a gun club has been mentioned several times. Does he agree that Hamilton's membership was exceedingly tenuous? He may, nominally, have been a member of the local gun club, but he never attended it or took part in any of its activities.

10 pm

Mr. Allason

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The police were consistently duped by Hamilton. He claimed to have participated in many competitions when he was challenged about the amount of ammunition that he was accumulating, but no checks were made. The fact is that he had not participated in any of the competitions.

Mr. O'Neill

I have spoken to some of the people who were members of the gun clubs to which Hamilton belonged, and one or two of them thought that he was the type of man who was sufficiently devious to be able to con most authorities. They would not claim to be either hostile or amicable to Hamilton, because they realised that he was a loner. They said that, because of his personality traits, he would be capable of misleading officers.

I have much sympathy for the police who were involved at all levels in the case. I spoke at length with senior members of Central Scotland police, and I was convinced that dealing with Hamilton was a dreadful job. In Committee, we must try to establish a better method of licensing, so that we can ensure that such a tragedy never again occurs. Hamilton was a most devious and effective quasi-litigant, and I shall put it no more strongly than that.

Mr. Allason

Although I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that Hamilton was devious, Detective Sergeant Hughes realised that fact, and his report was absolutely damning. Hamilton may have been able to dupe very many people, but he did not fool Detective Sergeant Hughes.

Revocation is one of the key issues and difficulties—I am not judging the police after the event, because this is precisely what Lord Cullen's report states—that is perpetually at the back of police officers' minds. It had to be assumed that, if an applicant appealed and obtained a judicial review, the weight of evidence would be in his favour. One of the conclusions to which anyone reading the Cullen report would come is that there could be a straightforward way in which to amend the law to clarify the issue of revoking a firearms certificate and to make the judge's role crystal clear—whether it is administrative or judicial.

There was confusion not only in English but in Scots law, and in the precedents. The situation was confusing, and I readily accept that the police felt that their hands were tied. They believed that, unless they had good, strong evidence that could be presented in court—the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) is right—a devious man such as Hamilton had everything going for him.

My fear is that by, rejecting Lord Cullen's report—that is what the Government have done by rejecting its recommendations and going much further—we shall have disadvantaged many people who have been wholly legitimate firearms holders. I greatly regret the slurs made against legitimate firearms holders, who have made legitimate applications to the police and who have been able to demonstrate that they are fit and proper people to own a firearm.

One constituent has had a firearms certificate for 27 years. He is not a strange man dressing up in combat uniform or firing at human figures. He and many friends have participated in a legitimate sport for 27 years, and he had every expectation of being able to continue doing so for a further 27 years.

The House has persuaded the Government that there should be proper compensation for such an individual, but he pointed out to me that the ancillary equipment is sometimes more expensive than the weapon itself. I am glad that the Government have extended compensation to cover ancillary equipment. My constituent has £3,000-worth of loading equipment to make ammunition. That is clearly a substantial investment, but what are we to say to the firearms dealer who has £9,000, £10,000 or £15,000-worth of security equipment in his house?

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is drifting in and out of clause 1. There are many clauses on compensation and licensing. The hon. Gentleman must address his remarks exclusively to clause 1 stand part.

Mr. Allason

I am grateful, Mr. Morris, for your guidance, forbearance and patience. I did not wish to repeat what I said on Second Reading.

I think that the House made a terrible mistake shortly after the Hungerford incident. I urge the Committee not to allow clause 1 to stand part.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

I have some sympathy with the remarks of the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason).

The right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) rightly said that one did not have to come from Dunblane to empathise with the parents of the tragic victims of Thomas Hamilton. As I said on another occasion, I was married in Dunblane cathedral, and I empathise with the people of Dunblane for that reason.

I have no doubt that public and press opinion, especially in Scotland, is very much in favour of the complete ban on handguns that was narrowly voted down a few moments ago. Yet, like the hon. Member for Torbay, I have a considerable sense of unease about the way in which we are legislating in haste in the wake of this tragedy. Let us be clear about this: we are denying a lawful sport to a significant but perhaps not substantial minority of our population. That is always a dangerous and difficult road to trail.

The right hon. and learned Member for Putney failed to answer one question put to him in an intervention: what would have happened if, instead of using a handgun, Thomas Hamilton had sawn off the barrels of a shotgun, cut down the butt, concealed it about his person, and then fired on the children? He could have caused just about the same damage. Would the House now solemnly be deciding to ban the possession of shotguns? That would be an unthinkable proposition for the management of the countryside. The passage of the Bill gives us something to be uneasy about.

I was amazed that so many people took up stances before they could possibly have read the Cullen report. I did not come to my conclusions until I had taken the trouble to study it carefully over the weekend after publication. I have also met representatives of the shooting club in my constituency. You have rightly pointed out that compensation is an issue for later, Sir Michael, but I should like to say in passing that, in the past year, the club has spent £40,000—including £8,000 of public money from the Sports Council —on a legitimate sport.

There is no way in which the club will qualify to be able to continue under the provisions of clause 1. There is no question of it being able to create the secure premises that the legislation will require. A club with 140 members, that has raised a lot of money for its attractive site north of Galashiels, is to go out of business.

I think also of the man in Peebles whom I have visited. He has a national—indeed, international—reputation as a repairer of all types of gun. His livelihood will cease. What about his children as Christmas approaches? That is what he asked me.

We should be strongly aware, as the Bill passes through this House and the other place, that we are taking away people's livelihoods and people's pastimes—activities that have been legitimate hitherto.

I voted for a complete ban, on the reasoning given by many pistol shooters in my constituency —it is not a universal view, but one expressed by many—that the Government scheme set out in clause 1 is expensive and unworkable. A total ban on handguns is a more honest and workable approach than trying to make a distinction between one type of handgun and another, which will leave the sport in such a situation that it will be possible only for the very rich to participate legally in future, I imagine.

Like the hon. Member for Torbay, my gut feeling is that the Government would have done better to rest on the Cullen report, and then by all means put other alternatives to the House on a free vote, as my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) argued. Hon. Members would then have had the opportunity that many wished for, to vote for a ban or some form of partial ban.

By the way in which the Bill has been divided in two, we are giving the public the impression that the important issue in the Cullen report was the banning of a certain type of handgun. It was not. The important parts of the report were about certification. Those issues have been sent upstairs to a Committee because they are not considered important enough for us to debate on the Floor of the House, but those issues are crucial.

To pick up on what the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) said, a careful reading of the Cullen report leaves me with no doubt that Thomas Hamilton should never have had a firearms certificate. Though the deputy chief constable who was ultimately responsible and who did not follow up Sergeant Hughes's report has honourably resigned, Lord Cullen makes the important point that, under the law as it stands in Scotland—I assume that the same is true in England—he could have won his certificate back on appeal even if his application had been refused.

We should be concentrating on aspects of the certification laws rather than on the mechanics of who owns a handgun. I do not want to stray out of order, but I am concerned that the Bill fails to improve even the laws on shotgun certification. As a Member of Parliament, I have great anxiety about signing shotgun certificates as though they were passport applications —they are treated in the same way. If we stuck more closely to Cullen's recommendations, we would not vote for the clause.

This is a difficult issue. I suppose that clause 1 will be passed. I do not know whether we are allowed to come back to it on Report, but I believe that the other place should have another careful look at it.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

I had not intended to speak in this debate, but I listened carefully to the earlier debate and I did not vote in the Division. I want to explain my position. I felt unhappy because an option was put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on which, unfortunately, as a result of our procedures, it was not possible to vote. In those circumstances—

The Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. It was perfectly possible to have a vote. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) chose not to move his amendment.

10.15 pm
Mr. Gapes

That is true, Mr. Morris. However, it was not my amendment.

The way in which the whole issue has been handled in the past few months is symptomatic of the way in which politics generally are dealt with. The mass media seize on an issue, which then becomes an issue of prominence to which politicians are expected to have instant solutions. They are expected to do something immediately to deal with the problem. The next week, the media seize on another issue and their attention switches somewhere else.

The media attention today—this is also true of the debate last week—is far less than it was during the frenzy over the summer. The same is true of so many different issues. One of the difficulties when we take decisions that will have implications for the future is that if the Government decide to have a three-line Whip and if, as has just been suggested by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel), they do not then put forward the inquiry's recommendations as the basis on which amendments can be tabled and decided on by a free vote, they taint and distort the way in which the debate is conducted. That makes it difficult for those of us who might have had a slightly different position within any party to take an attitude that is slightly at variance. The way in which we structure the debates makes it difficult.

I hope that we shall vote against clause stand part. I shall do so if I get the opportunity because I have had discussions with members of gun clubs in my constituency. The secretary of one gun club has said to me exactly what other hon. Members have said: "I would rather have a total ban with proper compensation than the Government's proposals." He feels that the Government are proposing a device to save themselves money and that it is likely that many of the clubs will be driven out of existence. A man said to me this morning: "I pay £65 a year to belong to a club. Once we have all the insurance, all the paraphernalia and all the extra resources, the membership fees will go up, so ordinary people like me will not be able to practise our sport. Only very wealthy people will be able to continue." Parliament needs to think about those ordinary people. They feel aggrieved that, although they are law-abiding, decent people, they are being labelled as mass murderers.

Parliament has a duty when dealing with these matters to give people the decent compensation that they require for what they will have to give up. If the Bill is enacted as the Government wish, we should at least allow people to continue with their sport in a properly regulated way, without the stigma that many of them feel they have today.

Mr. Dalyell

My hon. Friend talks about decent compensation. Decent compensation is a huge sum that may approach £1 billion.

Mr. Gapes

If so, Parliament will vote for it. Perhaps we should have given more consideration to the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby, which presumably would have required less compensation.

Earlier today I spoke to a man who feels bitterly aggrieved and worried that a minority of people who belong to gun clubs will feel that society has singled them out. I hope that will not produce unpleasant consequences. We shall have to be extremely careful to ensure that the legislation is monitored vigilantly so that those in possession of a legal weapon hand it in and that there is no underground conduit into the illegal arms market.

We also have to address the gun culture by restricting violence on television—even in cartoons—and the war toys that popularise the Rambo mentality. That has nothing to do with individuals who practise their sport in a decent way, but it has a great deal to do with the society that creates such people as Thomas Hamilton.

Mr. Leigh

Sadly, the vote that took place exactly an hour ago was a sham. It will be talked up by the popular press as a great historic vote, but it was nothing of the sort. It is in the interests of the Government to argue that we are preserving a sport and it is in the interests of the Opposition to argue that it is a disgraceful outcome that will result in 20,000 guns remaining in circulation. Neither is true. The 20,000 guns will have to be held under such strict supervision that most clubs—certainly all those in Lincolnshire —will have to close and people who wish to participate in the sport will have to travel at least 50 or 60 miles.

It is a back-door prohibition of what was previously a legitimate and popular sport. It would have been far more honest if we had accepted that in the first place. Therefore, I deeply regret that we proceeded in that way. However, there is a chance to make some amends.

I have just expressed a view that is popular among people in the shooting community, many of whom feel deeply aggrieved. I hope that in her reply my hon. Friend the Minister of State will reiterate that the Government do not intend to drive the sport out of business altogether and that, in framing the regulations, the Government will allow the maximum number of gun clubs to survive so that people who wish to pursue the sport with lower-calibre weapons can continue to do so.

Mr. Henderson

I do not wish to prolong the debate unnecessarily. We had a useful three-hour debate on the substance of clause 1 so I do not propose to reiterate any of the arguments or respond to any points that were raised.

Several hon. Members mentioned compensation. I know that you called them to order, Mr. Morris, and that you would call me to order if I were to dwell on it now, so I shall not do so. However, we shall discuss the issue in detail in Standing Committee and we may also return to it on Report, when it may be appropriate to address some of the points that have been raised tonight.

Sir David Steel

The hon. Gentleman is technically correct, but all the parts of the Bill that deal with compensation are to be discussed in Standing Committee. He may have the advantage of being a member of that Committee, but I do not.

Mr. Henderson

That is true, but the right hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to comment on Report, and, if not then, perhaps on Third Reading.

Mr. Dalyell

If my hon. Friend is a member of the Government after May—indeed, this applies to whoever is in power—it will be rather more than a matter of detail to discover that, with all the pressures for extra spending on education, on the health service and on training, there is apparently a commitment to pay a huge sum in compensation. That is why I am nagging for the fifth time this evening about the general nature of the compensation. I do not think that the figure of £1 billion would be very far out if it is to be decent compensation.

Mr. Henderson

I had recognised a Linlithgow nag before my hon. Friend's most recent intervention. I know that he will press the Committee on that matter; we will have to deal with it Committee. As far as I am aware, the Government are not yet able to say what the sums will be, and I understand why that is so. There has to be a wide discussion on what has to be included in any compensation claims, and until the principles are established it would be very difficult to put a figure on the amount.

If the Committee divides after this debate, Opposition Front Benchers will support clause 1, as amended. Clause 1 does not have the content that we would have wished and for many reasons, some of which have been mentioned in the debate, the Government's position has many contradictions that will be exposed. Indeed, the shooting lobby itself is saying that the Government's position is untenable. The Opposition's position was that the clean-cut way to deal with the matter was to ban all hand pistols except for the agreed exemptions for those used in slaughterhouses, for vets and so on.

I believe that, overwhelmingly, the public want a total ban. Parliament is here not only to look at issues logically and objectively but—we hope—to recognise the strength of feeling in the country. I am in no doubt that people in Britain want fewer guns, so that the likelihood of them falling into the hands of maniacs or others is reduced. People in Britain believe that, in most circumstances, pistols should be banned. Having said that, there will be an expectation that we should proceed with the Bill in order to have further discussion. For that reason, Opposition Front Benchers will support what remains of clause 1.

Miss Widdecombe

Once again, the Committee would probably welcome some brevity. I should, however, like to address one or two of the specific points that have been made, especially those made by my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), which concerned the need of people to train and practise.

My right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South asked me to give an assurance that I recognised that people engaging in competitions needed to train and practise. Our provisions are very clear. There will be a complete ban on handguns of a higher calibre than. 22 rimfire. People who wish to continue to use those higher-calibre guns in competitions will not be able to do so in this country under the Bill's provisions. Those who are, for example, practising for the Olympics and four of the five Commonwealth games events for which .22 guns are used will be able to do so. My right hon. Friend is quite right that such people compete best—indeed, at the highest level it is essential—with their own weapons. That is why there is provision in the Bill for the movement of weapons from clubs for certain recognised purposes, which will of course include competition. We envisage that that movement would be effected by third parties.

I am sure that further consideration will be given to the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South, but I wanted to address one or two of them because I am aware that he tried, without success, to speak in previous debates.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

On the question of transport and third parties, I understand that it is envisaged that the third party will collect the pistols from point A to carry them to point B. We will have a ludicrous situation because a vehicle containing 50 or 60 such items will be more vulnerable than if licensed shooters were allowed to look after their own pistols.

10.30 pm
Miss Widdecombe

I understand that point and that is the sort of detail that will be discussed in Committee.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

It is important.

Miss Widdecombe

Yes, it is an important detail. There is much detail in the Bill, to which due attention will be paid during its various stages.

I greatly admire the persistence of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). He should not have thought for one moment that I was not paying him attention, because I was faithfully writing down every question he asked. It is impossible to put a figure on compensation at present, for the simple reason that the figure that is estimated as being likely to be paid will depend on what we will compensate for. The position that we have taken is that we must compensate for any gun that is banned, whether it be held legally by an individual or by gun dealers as part of stocks.

We will have to compensate at the market value on the day before the Home Secretary's statement. It is clear that if guns are part of collections, as I have said previously, that will have some effect on the market value of the individual guns concerned. To get to the horrendous figures that the hon. Gentleman quoted, one would have to do a lot more than compensate for banned guns, and that is where the problem arises. When people say that we must compensate for all loss, not just for the guns but for all associated accessories —whether interchangeable with other guns or not—and loss of business, then the figures for compensation are larger. When the precise proposals are put in Committee, it will be possible to give figures, although they will not be precise because this is not an exact science.

Mr. Dalyell

I thank the Minister for the courtesy and, indeed, candour of her answer, but I must ask why the Government will pay compensation for stocks. If the stocks of every gun dealer in the country will be the subject of compensation, we will be into astronomical figures.

Miss Widdecombe

No, the hon. Gentleman misunderstands. We are talking only about only banned guns. We are not talking about stocks of guns that gun dealers may hold in which it will still be legal to trade. Compensation will be paid specifically for banned guns, and we made that clear earlier. There is nothing unusual about my candour, as the hon. Gentleman called it.

I turn now to the speech of the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel), who again said tonight that we were legislating in haste. During earlier stages of the Bill, I tried to repel suggestion after suggestion from other Opposition Members that we had been too slow. We had to give careful consideration to the measures so that we introduced balanced and coherent legislation. The right hon. Gentleman asked what would have happened had the weapon used been a sawn-off shotgun. Sawn-off shotguns are already illegal. He also made his own case when he pointed out that shotguns have a use, outside sport and leisure, for control in the countryside. That is why handguns that have direct uses—those used by vets, for example—have been exempted from our provisions in the same spirit.

You have been very patient, Mr. Morris, and I am aware that I too have probably trespassed on issues that I should not have commented on directly, but they have been raised in the debate.

Mr. Leigh

Before my hon. Friend finishes, will she deal briefly with my important point about the shooting community? Central Government, local government and the police authorities will have considerable latitude in how they implement the new regulations on the safety of gun clubs. Will she make it clear on behalf of the Government that their view is that the new law should be implemented in such a way that the maximum number of clubs are kept open so that people can pursue the sport of .22 calibre shooting?

Miss Widdecombe

We will specify the conditions under which we require such guns to be kept and the security measures to be taken, and we will expect those to be enforced. We are not aiming to shut clubs or to keep clubs open. We are aiming to get the right conditions under which clubs may operate and to have them enforced. I support the clause, and I am grateful for the Opposition's support.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

To report progress and ask leave to sit again.— [Mr.Coe]

Committee report progress; to sit again tomorrow.

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