HC Deb 16 October 1996 vol 282 cc833-46

4.6 pm

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

I join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and other hon. Members in paying tribute to the community of Dunblane for their courage and dignity. I also join them in thanking Lord Cullen for the sensitive way in which he has undertaken his difficult inquiry and for the report that he has produced.

I hope that the House will forgive me for the length of the statement that I am about to make. I am sure that the House will understand that it deals with complex and important matters.

The proposals that I am about to set out will apply to England, Wales and Scotland. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is carrying out a review of firearms law in the Province and will be issuing a statement this afternoon about the possible implications for gun control in Northern Ireland arising from Lord Cullen's report.

Among all the words that have been written since that dreadful event at Dunblane, there is one irrefutable fact. The crimes that were committed on 13 March were committed with a gun that was legally bought and legally possessed. Those facts place an extremely onerous duty on the Government to consider what controls there should be on the ownership and possession of guns.

I agree with Lord Cullen that it is right that we should concentrate on handguns, although some of my proposals will affect all gun owners. Handguns are not used for shooting game and are easily carried and concealed. Many are weapons derived from military or police models or are intended for self-defence—a purpose that is not accepted in Great Britain as a reason for possessing a gun. I agree with Lord Cullen that there are compelling grounds for imposing stringent restrictions on their use and availability.

Lord Cullen has made 23 recommendations for strengthening the regulatory controls on the ownership and licensing of all guns. We accept them all. The Government's detailed response has been placed in the Library. There are seven recommendations for improving the way in which the police handle all applications for firearms certificates, a further eight recommendations deal with the grounds for obtaining a firearms certificate, and eight recommendations are about the suitability of individuals to hold firearms.

I draw particular attention to the following recommendations: in future, anyone applying for a firearms certificate should be assessed against a checklist of criteria for suitability, a clear burden should be placed on the applicant to show that he is fit to have a gun, a new power should be created to enable the police to revoke a certificate where there is no longer a "good reason" for having a firearm, and the grounds on which an appeal against the refusal of a certificate can be made should be significantly limited. Taken together, those 23 recommendations add up to a drastic strengthening of controls on gun ownership.

In addition to Lord Cullen's proposals, we intend to introduce four further measures. First, we shall make it a requirement for all handgun shooters to obtain a certificate in order to fire a handgun at a gun club. Secondly, we shall make it an offence to fail to notify the police whenever a firearm or shotgun is sold, transferred, deactivated or destroyed. Thirdly, we propose to ban the sales of guns through the post. In future, it will be unlawful to transfer a gun from one person to another, except in person.

Fourthly, one of the most shocking and distressing features of the tragic events in Dunblane was the use of expanding ammunition, which is designed to cause the maximum injury. There is no possible justification at all for it to be available for people whose only authority is for target shooting. In future, therefore, it will be illegal to possess expanding ammunition except for the purposes of shooting deer, in accordance with the Deer Act 1991.

I come to the question that I know will be of greatest concern to the House and the nation: the controls on the ownership of handguns. Lord Cullen confines his suggestions to self-loading pistols and revolvers of all calibres. He does not consider that further restrictions are required for single-shot handguns, which he would allow to be kept in the home, as at present. He suggests that owners of multi-shot guns should be required to disable them when keeping them at home, and goes on to say that, if after consideration those arrangements are found not to be practicable, there should instead be a ban on the possession of multi-shot handguns by individual owners. He envisages that it would still be possible for guns to be kept by a club secretary so that target shooting could continue, using guns owned by the club.

The Government have taken advice from the Forensic Science Service on the practicability of Lord Cullen's suggestions for disabling handguns. Lord Cullen himself recognised that there were considerable practical difficulties in removing key components from handguns. The Forensic Science Service has confirmed that view. It is also not convinced that a barrel block—Lord Cullen's other suggestion—could be made that someone with sufficient determination and access to metal-working tools could not remove. As a result, I have come to the conclusion that we cannot recommend that approach to the House.

I therefore come to Lord Cullen's alternative suggestion of banning multi-shot handguns from individual ownership. I propose to go considerably further than Lord Cullen has suggested in two respects. First, we shall ban all handguns from people's homes. I do not agree with Lord Cullen that it would be safe to allow single-shot handguns to remain in the home. I believe that they should be subject to the same controls as those imposed on multi-shot handguns.

Secondly, we shall outlaw high-calibre handguns of the kind used by Thomas Hamilton. Low-calibre handguns—.22 rimfire handguns—will have to be used and kept in licensed clubs. We believe that a distinction needs to be made between high-calibre handguns, which are principally made for police and military use, and .22 rimfire handguns, which are largely intended for target shooting. Although Lord Cullen decided against making such a distinction, he sets out in paragraph 9.49 of his report a table that demonstrates that a .22 handgun is some four to six times less powerful than higher-calibre handguns.

In paragraph 9.44, Lord Cullen points out that the expansion in the use of high-calibre handguns has even made many shooters concerned about the use of such guns as symbols of personal power. In addition, target shooting with .22 handguns has been an Olympic sport since 1896. There will be exceptions for the very few professionals, such as vets, who need handguns outside gun clubs for the humane destruction of animals.

The proposals will mean that at least 160,000 handguns—80 per cent. of those legally held at present—will be destroyed. Appropriate compensation will be paid.

The clubs in which it will still be possible to use .22 handguns will be subject to the most stringent security standards. We shall consult as a matter of urgency chief constables and other interested parties on the details of the standards, and we shall set them out clearly in guidance. In addition, every individual club will need to be approved by the chief constable of the area in which it is situated. Handguns will be able to be removed from a club only for strictly limited purposes, which will be specified in law, and under the most stringent controls.

Few, if any, existing gun clubs will be able to meet those requirements. When the powers become law, we shall therefore require any owner of a .22 rimfire handgun to hand his gun to the police for safekeeping until he is able to find a licensed club that he can join. We shall then provide a period for clubs to improve their security, and to be inspected and licensed. Some handgun clubs may never be able to achieve an adequate level of security. If so, they will have to close.

The Government consider that those are the minimum acceptable conditions for the continuation of handgun shooting in Great Britain.

Breaches of the conditions for the safekeeping of handguns will be criminal offences. In 1994, the penalty for possession of a prohibited weapon was increased from seven to 10 years' imprisonment. Illegal possession of a higher-calibre handgun will therefore carry a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment. We intend to create a new offence of possession of a .22 rimfire handgun outside club premises. The maximum penalty will also be 10 years.

The package of measures that I have announced today will give this country some of the toughest gun control laws in the world. We shall ban all handguns from the home. We shall outlaw completely higher-calibre handguns such as those owned and used by Thomas Hamilton. We shall require .22 rimfire handguns to be kept in gun clubs under conditions of the most stringent security. And we shall drastically strengthen the rules under which firearms certificates are granted. Those proposals will lead to the destruction of 160,000 handguns—80 per cent. of those legally held today.

I believe that the priority for Parliament should be to put the measures on the statute book at the earliest possible moment. So I intend this month to publish a Bill giving effect to them. I urge the Opposition parties to support that Bill. I am confident that if they do, it could have Royal Assent by Christmas. The country expects nothing less.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

I thank the Home Secretary for his statement, and for the arrangements that he made to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), myself and other Opposition Members to have sight of Lord Cullen's report and the Government's response this morning.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton said in his statement, we are all deeply grateful to Lord Cullen for the thorough way in which he carried out his inquiry. It was right to establish the inquiry and to seek Lord Cullen's advice. But as Lord Cullen states at the outset of his report, he makes only recommendations. The ultimate decisions on such crucial matters of public safety are for Parliament to determine.

All of us have been profoundly moved by the grief and courage of the bereaved parents of Dunblane and their families and friends, and by the power and dignity of the Snowdrop campaign mounted in the wake of the atrocity. But is it not the case that often sympathy and concern are not enough by themselves? Thomas Hamilton was the man directly responsible for this appalling tragedy, but surely we all must accept our responsibility for permitting an environment of such lax gun control. Surely, too, we must acknowledge that we failed after Hungerford to put in place the controls necessary to reduce significantly the risk of such an event happening again.

Is it not the case that Dunblane and Hungerford were only the most extreme illustrations of the failure of the current system; that the number of licensed handguns has risen rapidly; that crimes involving handguns have more than doubled in the past 10 years; and that almost every day there are reports of licensed gun owners abusing the privilege that they have been granted?

As we heard from the Secretary of State for Scotland, Thomas Hamilton—one man—killed 16 children and one teacher, and injured 17 others, by discharging 105 rounds of ammunition from a single semi-automatic handgun in the space of three minutes. Handguns are small, portable, easy to hide and lethal. In the light of Lord Cullen's report—and especially his analysis—it is our considered judgment that handguns should be banned altogether from general civilian use.

May I make it clear to the Secretary of State that we shall of course co-operate fully to ensure that legislation is passed speedily through Parliament, to implement the will of this House and the other place for a root-and-branch reform of gun law? We welcome almost everything in the Secretary of State's statement, and especially the complete ban on all handguns from people's homes. But, with respect, we do not believe that his proposals go far enough. Let me briefly give our reasons.

In the evidence submitted to the Cullen inquiry on behalf of the Labour party by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton and me, we said that there was a strong case for banning all handguns, apart from some very limited occupational exceptions such as vets and casualty slaughterers. We then said that it was for the shooting fraternity to make a case for exceptions to that—for example, in respect of single-shot .22 pistols. But, in our judgment, the shooting fraternity has failed to do so.

Lord Cullen says that an exemption for single-shot .22 handguns would be both impractical and ineffective because they could easily be reconverted to multi-shot guns, and we accept that view. Partial bans, moreover, would create extra work for the police. As the Police Federation said in its evidence to Lord Cullen, .22 weapons may be just as lethal as higher-calibre weapons.

The problem with the compromise on clubs proposed by the Secretary of State is that there will still be 40,000 handguns, including many semi-automatics, remaining in private ownership—albeit for use in clubs. I am aware that the Secretary of State proposes tight new controls on the gun clubs that are allowed to remain. Is he not aware of a most compelling case made against the halfway house by the British Shooting Sports Council in its evidence to the inquiry, in paragraph 9.68 on page 121? Referring to the crucial issue of the booking out of weapons, even with tighter controls, the BSSC said: no matter what system of checks and paperwork is maintained in such circumstances, it would be a simple matter indeed for a shooter intent in recovering his guns to enter a competition, provide evidence to his club secretary that he had done so, recover possession of the complete gun together with ammunition for it, and perpetrate an outrage". In the light of that evidence not least, I ask the Secretary of State to think again about the proposal to allow the licensing of some gun clubs before the Bill is published.

The Government have made welcome proposals for the licensing and appeals systems in their statement. May I press on the Secretary of State the case for a blanket ban on all mail order sales of weapons, for a total ban on replica and deactivated guns, which the police have called for, for air weapons to be controlled within a licensing system and for the age limit for any sort of guns to be increased to 18?

On the radio this morning, the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) proposed that Ministers should produce alternative clauses to the proposed B ill to give effect to such a total ban and allow a free vote on it. Since such a vote would emphasise the non-partisan approach to the issue that we all seek and would not delay the legislation, may I endorse both calls that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made and ask the Secretary of State for his response to both?

Nine years ago, our nation was similarly repulsed by the consequences of the slaughter of innocent people in Hungerford by a lawfully licensed gunman. Our actions then failed to match what was needed. Is it not the case that today we owe it to the victims of both Hungerford and Dunblane not to fail again?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the remarks with which he began his observations. He identified with some precision the difference that lies between us. We believe that it is possible to give the public the protection that they rightly require and deserve without going so far as to put in place a complete prohibition on the ownership and possession of handguns for which the hon. Gentleman called. We believe that if it is possible to provide that protection without a complete ban, it is the Government's duty to take that course.

I ask the hon. Gentleman and those sitting behind him to reflect on the unhappy history of the complete prohibition of activities hitherto regarded as lawful. It would not be in anyone's interests, least of all the protection of the public, to drive underground an activity that could then be conducted without any safeguards for security, whereas if it remains possible to carry out that activity legitimately, under extremely secure safeguards, the public's protection might be greater. I ask him to reflect on that.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of other matters. I do not think that there is anything between us on mail order sales. The position on replica guns is that it is extremely difficult to find a satisfactory definition for such weapons. We have said more than once that if such a definition could be provided, we would be more than content to consider that possibility.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, a free vote is not a matter for me; his observations will have been heard by those whose responsibility that is. I do not think that it would be appropriate for the Government to publish a two-clause Bill—a Bill with alternatives—as he has suggested and as was suggested on the radio this morning by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor). I believe that it is for the Government to come to their considered conclusion as to the right way forward and to put that in the Bill to be placed before Parliament. It will of course be open to any hon. Member to table an amendment to its provisions.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Every reasonable person in the land will want to congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on seeking, with the support of everyone in the House, to tighten the procedures by which people can lawfully get possession of guns of any kind. Will he also bear it in mind that the Home Affairs Committee identified the fact that one of the worst problems is the flooding into this country of hundreds of thousands of illegal weapons and, particularly, that nearly every crime committed with guns is committed with a gun that no one has ever lawfully possessed? Will he bear it in mind when he considers legislation that further action will need to be taken not only on lawfully held handguns, but on the hundreds of unlawful guns that come into people's possession through our ports, if incidents such as that at Dunblane are to be avoided?

Mr. Howard

My hon. and learned Friend is entirely right to identify the dangers that we all face from illegally held weapons. It would be an utter delusion to suppose that we are affording the community complete protection by putting in place more stringent safeguards on the use of lawfully held weapons. The problems posed by illegally held weapons are considerable and we are, and will continue to be, extremely vigilant and do all that we can, especially to prevent the importation of such weapons.

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

Does the Home Secretary accept the following proposition, the importance of which was underlined by the slaughter at Dunblane? In this country, we regard the possession of guns not as a right, but as a privilege that has to be carefully controlled and safeguarded to protect public safety and public confidence. As the Government's proposals have much common ground with our proposals to the Cullen inquiry, will the Home Secretary note that we are prepared to support and facilitate legislation based on those proposals, as long as the House has an opportunity to consider on a free vote whether a ban on 80 per cent. of handguns is adequate and workable or whether it is necessary to go further?

Under the Government's proposals, who would be allowed to transport guns between one gun club and another or from a gun club to a competition? Does the Home Secretary agree that it would be wrong to pretend that either the proposals or a total ban provided any guarantee against the misuse of guns leading to a slaughter such as that at Dunblane, so vigilance and effective and well-resourced policing remain essential?

Mr. Howard

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's first proposition, that there is no right to hold a gun under our laws and that it is a privilege. I agree with that approach and I note what he said about his party's approach to the legislation.

On the transportation of guns from one club to another under the proposed arrangements, we intend to have consultations with chief constables and others about the details but, as I said in my statement, we envisage that it should be permitted only in the most limited circumstances and under the most stringent controls. For example, the transportation should be effected not by the owner of the gun, but by a third party specifically authorised for that purpose.

I entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about illegally held weapons and about the need for continued vigilance to deal with that very considerable problem.

Mr. David Mellor (Putney)

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his statement, which contains many valuable insights. I should like to put two points to him. First, as he has concluded that there is a case for permitting single-shot .22 pistols only under rigorous conditions, which will take an enormous amount of time, effort, trouble and expense to enforce in order to keep the so-called sport going, is it not time to conclude that literally and metaphorically the game is up for handguns now, and that that is the public will?

Secondly, I am glad that my right hon. and learned Friend attaches importance to as far as possible keeping all Members of the House together in the effort to provide an effective solution. Will he consider again the merits of putting forward alternative proposals, as has often been done on contentious and difficult pieces of social legislation in the past, given that he knows that the real issue is whether to go 80 or 90 per cent. of the way, as he proposes, or 100 per cent. of the way? He should lay alternatives before the House and the matter should be dealt with on a free vote. With the greatest of respect to my right hon. and learned Friend, I do not believe that some of his loyal supporters should have their loyalties tested by the imposition of a Whip on the matter.

Mr. Howard

My right hon. and learned Friend has made his views on the subject known in his usual forceful manner from an early stage. He has put two particular points to me, to which I have already given a response. I do not follow him on the first, for the reasons that I gave in answer to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). I do not follow him on his second point, because it is for the Government to come to a conclusion as to the right way forward and to incorporate their decision in a Bill. As for the question of a free vote, that is not a matter for me.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

I thank the Home Secretary for endorsing the main plank of the minority report from the Home Affairs Committee on the issue. It is not every day that a minority report is endorsed so swiftly by the Home Office. I have one or two others that he might like to reconsider.

Did the Home Secretary hear the comments this morning by Mr. Michael Yardley, a firearms expert, that it was pointless to ban handguns if something was not also done about shotguns? Is it not about time that we made a start on collecting some of the 2 million shotguns in circulation, starting in urban areas? Everyone acknowledges that farmers need shotguns, for reasons that we all know about, but it is hard to understand why licences should be granted to shotgun owners in urban areas.

Does the Home Secretary have any plans to do anything about the misuse of air weapons, which, as many of our colleagues will know, are responsible for a great deal of mayhem in urban areas?

Mr. Howard

I note the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks. I am sure that he does not expect me to give any undertaking on my reaction to minority reports from the Home Affairs Committee in future. I do not follow the hon. Gentleman in his observations about shotguns. Shotguns have many wider applications than do handguns, which are restricted to target shooting. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has made a case for the restriction on shotguns to which he has referred. Similar observations apply to air rifles.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

I realise that what I am about to say may be unfashionable, but after we pass all this legislation, surely criminals and madmen will still get hold of guns. Surely we as a Conservative Government are about protecting the rights of law-abiding minorities, even if we do not agree with them, and about protecting the rights of private ownership. What we have heard today is extremely worrying. It is worrying to appoint a judge and then go much further than he suggests, after he has given such exhaustive consideration to the issues. It is worrying to store so many more guns in arsenals. Above all, it is worrying that we are accepting the view that wickedness lies not in the individual's heart but in a group of people who are in the main highly law-abiding and simply want to pursue their sport. It is a worrying situation.

Mr. Howard

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that a considerable problem arises out of illegally held guns. I have said on a number of occasions this afternoon that that is something in respect of which we must be extremely vigilant. I hope that my hon. Friend will reflect on the contents of the Cullen report and on my statement today, as well as on the way forward which the Government believe to be right in the circumstances. I look forward to discussing those matters with him and I hope that, on reflection, he will reconsider his position.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

As one who can empathise and sympathise with the families who have lost children and who replaced a Member of the House who was shot by a handgun, I understand the emotion surrounding the issue. I welcome the Home Secretary's statement, but I suggest that the emphasis of the previous statement is the most important because it is placed on the human element. If I read the proposals correctly, I understand that the suggested changes might improve the legislation here and bring it more into line with legislation in Northern Ireland, but there is another problem, that of illegal weapons. It does not seem right to curtail law-abiding people's ability to use something properly under licence, when, at the same time, we miss the point that illegal weapons will be used by people for their own purposes.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman's remarks, which are based on his particularly unhappy experience, command considerable respect, and we shall pay them that respect. I hope that I have already made it abundantly clear today that we do not in any way overlook or belittle the seriousness of the damage that can be done through the use of illegal weapons.

Sir Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend amplify his proposals for compensating the individuals who currently own weapons that are legally held? How will that compensation be calculated? Has he made any estimate of the cost to the taxpayer of the compensation package?

Mr. Howard

It is very difficult to make any accurate estimate of the total cost of the bill. We intend to compensate those who hold guns that will be unlawful as a consequence of the measures announced—higher-calibre handguns—on the basis of the market value of those guns before I made my statement this afternoon.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

The Home Secretary will recall that on 3 May last year I introduced an Adjournment debate to control specifically the use of handguns. It sickens me to the pit of my stomach that it has taken the death of 16 children and a brave teacher to bring us to today's decision. Having said that, I welcome some of the moves that the Home Secretary has made, but I implore him to go that extra mile, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw).

Mr. Howard

I understand the strength of the hon. Gentleman's feelings and I know that they are shared by many. I have endeavoured to explain the reasons for the position that I have advanced to the House and I have no doubt that it is something we shall debate in the weeks ahead.

Sir Michael Spicer (South Worcestershire)

My right hon. and learned Friend and his colleagues in Cabinet have had to strike a difficult balance on this matter. I particularly welcome what he said two minutes ago, about compensation for those who have perfectly legally bought expensive items and who find them now taken away from them. I also particularly welcome what he said about giving compensation based on the market value. Would he include items that were not included the last time the matter arose—expensive accessories such as safes, unspent ammunition and various other things?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks. I shall certainly consider the points that he made. His second point is important, and I hope that he will forgive me if I do not give him any kind of assurance now, but it falls for consideration.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

The Home Secretary has announced a stringent package of controls, but however rigorously controls are enforced, they always leak. A great deal therefore turns upon the perhaps exceptional occasions when a gun finds itself in the hands of someone whose purposes are malign. That being so, so much turns upon the actual characteristics of the weapon.

One of the horrific features of Dunblane and the other event that occurred years before was that it was not just murder; it was a massacre. That massacre was possible only because of the rapid-firing nature of the guns that were in the possession of those who committed those crimes. If the .22 were a weapon that could be fired only with a single shot and not rapidly fired, the Home Secretary's case would be stronger. If, as we heard earlier, it cannot be turned into a single-firing weapon but is a weapon that fires rapidly, so that in the hands of wicked and evilly disposed people it can be used to commit mass killings, the Home Secretary should think again and go for a total ban.

Mr. Howard

The right hon. Gentleman draws attention to the implications of the distinction that I made, and to other distinctions that may be made. I believe that, in the end, it is a matter of judgment. Earlier, I explained the judgment that caused me to advance the proposals that I placed before the House, and I believe it to be the right judgment. I do not believe that the factors that the right hon. Gentleman has drawn to the House's attention represent the whole picture. It is necessary to look at other aspects and other implications, and to take seriously the dangers that would arise from total prohibition if the activity were driven underground.

It is a matter of judgment. I believe that the judgment that I put before the House this afternoon is the right one, but I have no doubt that we shall continue to debate this matter.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)

It is not the guns that are the problem; it is the people who use those guns illegally. Regrettably, the Home Secretary's statement means that the sins of this awful, deranged individual will be paid for by the many thousands of legitimate, decent and honest people who enjoy not a so-called sport, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) put it, but a leisure activity that has great historic traditions and which they enjoy. The measures that he announced will be received with great dismay. He has got it completely the wrong way round. He is affecting many, many innocent people because of the awful, awful acts of one awful, awful madman. I think that he is wrong, and that his legislation will not be accepted by the majority of decent, honourable people in this country.

Mr. Howard

I agree with my hon. Friend. A great many decent and honest citizens take part in target shooting. I do not, on behalf of the Government, advance these proposals lightly. Much of what my hon. Friend said is right. But the Government have a responsibility to consider all aspects of the matter, and to decide to what extent it is sensible to take measures that restrict the ability of those decent and honest citizens to engage in activities that they regard as perfectly reasonable, so as to increase the protection to which the public, as a whole, are entitled. That is the basis on which I approached this difficult decision. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend said, but for those reasons I reach a different conclusion.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

Does the Secretary of State agree that a child's right to life is far more important than any adult's so-called right to carry a handgun, even for so-called sporting purposes? How many more Hungerfords and Dunblanes must there be, and how many more children must die, before the Government implement a complete ban on all handguns along the lines of early-day motion 1238, which is supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House?

Mr. Howard

Of course, I agree with the hon. Gentleman's first question—I imagine that not one single hon. Member would disagree with that—but it does not follow that we agree with his conclusion. I believe that we can provide the public with the protection to which they are entitled without going as far as introducing a complete ban. That is the point at issue between us, and no doubt we shall argue about it in the weeks ahead.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

In his report at paragraph 9.55, Lord Cullen speaks about the assessment of risk, and I want to ask my right hon. and learned Friend about two points regarding the "chances of harm".

During the summer, I had the opportunity to visit several clubs and to talk to members, and it became clear to me that procedures, standards and security vary enormously among clubs.

First, will my right hon. and learned Friend give an assurance that, before someone who holds a target pistol can rely on the basis of being a member of one of those clubs, the security that my right hon. and learned Friend outlined in his statement will be in place, so that all clubs reach a high standard? Secondly, an integral part of target shooting is entering into competition. Those competitions are known and well established. Will my right hon. and learned Friend be laying down the particular competitions that count?

Mr. Howard

I can certainly give my hon. Friend the assurance that he sought in the first part of his question. The security standards of clubs where shooting will continue to be permitted will be extremely stringent. We shall consult chief constables about those standards and lay down those standards in guidance. Not only will clubs have to comply with the guidance, but they will have to satisfy the chief constable for the area in which the club is situated that the standards that will apply in the club will be adequate.

As for the second part of my hon. Friend's question, we intend to prescribe in order those competitions that will enable guns to be transferred from one club to another, under the very stringent controls to which I referred earlier. We envisage that that should be restricted to national and international competitions, but we shall consult on the details.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I have read every paragraph of the Cullen report, and I thank the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland for their courtesy in making it available to me and my colleague earlier today. Can the Home Secretary confirm 40,000 as the number of handguns that potentially will still be available for use under the proposals that he announced today—not only single-shot weapons, but rapid-fire weapons and multi-shot weapons? I understand that the Japanese Government licensed 58 handguns for sporting purposes last year. Is it not possible that the Japanese Government have it right and the British Government have it wrong?

Finally, will the Home Secretary reflect again on the call that has been made from all parts of the House to allow a free vote on the issue—a vote that is about public safety, and which must be a matter of individual conscience because it could involve life and death? Perhaps, in his reply, the Home Secretary will say that he will do the right thing on the free vote and allow every Member of Parliament to vote according to his or her conscience.

Mr. Howard

The estimate of the number of guns that the hon. Gentleman gave may be broadly right, but I anticipate that many people who use such guns at present will not do so in future, as a result of the stringent security standards that we shall insist on putting in place for the clubs where that activity will continue to be legal. The other points that the hon. Gentleman raised were not new, and I have no new answers to give him.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Is the Home Secretary aware that the vast majority of the shooting community, including hundreds of people in my constituency, are very conscious of grave public concern about this subject? Is he aware that they obviously expect, as he says, a drastic tightening of controls? Is he further aware that they probably also expect, and will go along with, the toughening of security at gun clubs, even though in my constituency it will probably lead to the closure of one or two of those clubs?

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many people in the countryside, including farmers, wildfowlers and gamekeepers, who will now rightly fear for their sport, expected the Government to implement Cullen, and will need a lot of persuasion that the Government are right to go beyond Cullen? Can he confirm that he will carry out the widest possible consultation with those interest groups?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the qualified support that he gave to some of the measures that I proposed. I understand the anxieties that he expressed, many of which I believe to be misplaced having regard to the details of the proposals that I have made, but I would always be ready to meet delegations of the people whom my hon. Friend mentioned, to do my utmost to allay their fears.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

I thank the Home Secretary for his positive proposals on the licensing of guns. Does he accept that they have come far too late for the children of Dunblane and for Douglas McMurdo, the deputy chief constable, who was only reacting to the signals that he received from the Government after Hungerford and from the courts—especially the ombudsman who gave Hamilton permission to continue to run his youth clubs? If the right signals had come out after Hungerford, we might not have had the Dunblane incident.

I have some sympathy, which I have already expressed, with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's view on Olympic shooting, but it appears to me that the Japanese Government have the numbers right. The Government are talking about having 40,000 guns in the possession of individuals—even if the guns are kept in clubs—just so that we can have a sport. I suggest that for many of those 40,000, shooting is not a sport, but thrill seeking. That is what gun possession is about to them; it is not about trying to reach the highest attainment in an Olympic discipline.

How many guns can each individual hold, even if they are kept at a gun club? I suggest that the proposals put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) were the start of the march away from the gun culture—a march that must end with asking why people hold shotguns for occasional shooting. The Government's proposals are simply a march up a blind alley for the people of Britain.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman's question about the former deputy chief constable of Central Scotland police is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, not for me. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment.

I have answered the hon. Gentleman's other comments during my contributions to this afternoon's proceedings. The important thing is the stringent security under which guns will be kept in the clubs—that is the key.

Mr. Connarty

How many guns?

Mr. Howard

As long as the conditions in which they are kept are of the utmost security, the number of guns owned by any individual is a secondary matter. The important thing is the security of the conditions in which they are kept—that is what I regard as being of supreme importance and that is what will be set out in the guidance that we provide.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

While expressing every sympathy for the agonising decision that my right hon. and learned Friend and other Cabinet colleagues have had to make on these difficult matters and not yet having seen the Cullen report myself, I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to consider—not least because of this afternoon's debate—allowing a free vote. This is not a conventional piece of party political legislation—it is a primordial matter of humanitarian, social and family concern for the whole country. The more they think about it, the more the Government will be obliged to consider the real importance of a free vote on the relevant clauses that we have been discussing this afternoon. Will my right hon. and learned Friend, through the usual channels and with Government colleagues, ensure that we act in the only way that will satisfy public requirements?

Mr. Howard

As I have said several times this afternoon, that is not a matter for me. It is the responsibility of Government to come to a conclusion on matters such as this and to enshrine that conclusion in a Bill that they place before Parliament. It is then for Parliament to express its view.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

I welcome the Home Secretary's statement as far as it goes, although—like many of my right hon. and hon. Friends and my Labour colleagues on the Home Affairs Committee—I do not think that it goes far enough. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that there is a shooting range and a gun club here in the House of Commons, despite there being no creche and no provision for children. That shows that this House has its priorities wrong. Is the effect of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement that members of that gun club will store guns on these premises? If so, does he consider that to be unacceptable? Should not the House set an example by banning all guns from the House of Commons?

Mr. Howard

Whether, as a matter of law, it will be possible for guns to be stored on the premises of the House of Commons gun club will depend on whether the club complies with the security requirements that we have yet to put in place. Whether, as a matter of practice, the House decides that that should continue to be the position is not a matter for me.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. As the statement has taken almost an hour, we shall now move on to the ten-minute Bill.