HC Deb 16 October 1996 vol 282 cc823-32 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the publication of the report of Lord Cullen's inquiry and the Government's response.

On 21 March, following a resolution of both Houses, I appointed the Hon. Lord Cullen to inquire into the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the events at Dunblane Primary School, to consider the issues arising therefrom, to make such interim and final recommendations as may seem appropriate and to report as soon as practicable. Lord Cullen concluded that he should not make an interim report. He completed his report within the demanding timetable he set himself by the end of September. But I received a letter from the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) saying that it would be wrong for the Report to be published during any one of the party conferences". I discussed that request with him, and with the hon Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), and with their approval I requested Lord Cullen to delay submitting his report to me until Monday 14 October. It is being published today, together with the Government's response, as a Command Paper. I can also tell the House that the report will be available on the Internet, so that there will be access around the world for those who expressed support for the community of Dunblane.

I am also grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for your agreement that I should allow the families of the victims to receive copies of the report and the Government's response ahead of its presentation to Parliament.

I am enormously grateful to Lord Cullen for the dedicated, prompt and efficient way in which he has carried out the inquiry. I appointed him in the knowledge of the careful way in which he conducted the Piper Alpha inquiry and the rigour and the practicality of his conclusions on that occasion. He approached the present inquiry with sensitivity, courtesy and care. As the inquiry proceeded, he deservedly gained the wide respect of the parties to the inquiry, the media and the public. He has had to consider the most harrowing of circumstances, and to acquaint himself with a number of very complex issues—issues which are of great concern to the people of Dunblane and throughout Scotland.

It was right for there to be a full investigation of all the background to the events of that day and of the policy questions raised by them. And it was essential that the House had before it a full analysis and the facts before attempting to reach conclusions about further action.

I can tell the House that we are going to accept all Lord Cullen's recommendations, and in some respects intend to go further. Many of the recommendations relate to firearms legislation for which my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has lead policy responsibility. He will be making a statement about that immediately after mine.

Lord Cullen's report describes in detail the tragic events of Wednesday 13 March. The gunman, Thomas Hamilton, entered Dunblane primary school shortly after 9.30 am and made his way to the gymnasium armed with two 9 mm Browning self-loading pistols and two .357 Smith and Wesson revolvers, together with 743 rounds of ammunition—all of which he lawfully held, and which he legally kept at home, together with more than 1,000 further rounds of ammunition. Within three or four minutes, he fired 105 rounds with the 9 mm Browning, resulting in the deaths of Mrs. Gwen Mayor and 16 children, and injuring a further three teaching staff and 14 children. He then used the .357 Smith and Wesson to take his own life.

Of the head teacher and his staff, the report says that they did everything that they possibly could to assist, far beyond what might reasonably have been expected of them". Lord Cullen also commends the general quality of the work of Central Scotland police and, in particular, the individual officers involved. He records the gratitude of the relatives and the school authorities for the help, support and professionalism of the force. From my own experience on that day, and on the days that followed, I reinforce those tributes.

Lord Cullen is, however, critical of the delay in providing information to victims' families. Those criticisms were accepted by the chief constable of Central Scotland police, who made a written submission to Lord Cullen, identifying procedural inadequacies and suggesting improvements, which Lord Cullen has endorsed. The Government will ensure that those issues are discussed with police forces throughout the United Kingdom.

An ambulance and a team of doctors and nurses from the local health centre were quickly on the scene. The health service's major incident plan was implemented, and a number of expert teams from Stirling and Falkirk royal infirmaries went to the school. The report highlights the magnificent way in which all the health teams responded. The victims were taken to Stirling royal infirmary and Falkirk and District royal infirmary. The most seriously injured were later transferred to Yorkhill children's hospital. The professionalism of all concerned undoubtedly saved lives.

The report sets out the facts about Thomas Hamilton and his background, and Lord Cullen has considered, with expert advice from a psychologist and a psychiatrist, what may have prompted Hamilton's atrocious act. He concludes that the violence which he used would not have been predictable". Hon. Members will want to study the report for themselves, but I conclude that this was an act of calculated wickedness.

Lord Cullen's report considers in great detail the granting and renewal of the firearms licences that Thomas Hamilton had held since 1977. He points to the weaknesses in the system used by Central Scotland police for the carrying out of inquiries and the making of decisions about firearms applications.

In particular, the report is critical of the former deputy chief constable of Central Scotland police, Mr. Douglas McMurdo, who was appointed earlier this year to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary for Scotland. I thought it right that Mr. McMurdo should have sight of the relevant paragraphs in the report, and he has today offered his resignation, which I have accepted. He has informed the Scottish Office that he also intends to resign from Central Scotland police. The House will respect his decision.

The report makes two recommendations, which I have accepted, concerning improvements in school security. I will be introducing a specific grant to assist authorities to improve the security of school pupils and staff, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment will be doing likewise in England. All authorities will benefit, and I intend that councils should have as much discretion as possible on the measures to be taken.

I expect such measures to be in line with the action plans that Lord Cullen encourages individual schools to draw up. They will add to the measures that the Government announced in May in response to the recommendations of the working group on school security.

Two further recommendations, which I have accepted, concern the vetting and supervising of adults working with children and young people. One concerns the development of a Scottish vocational qualification in respect of work with children, including the organisation of clubs and child development and protection. The other involves accreditation, by a national body, of clubs and groups involved with young people. That body would ensure that there are adequate checks on the suitability of leaders and workers with unsupervised access to children and young people.

I also intend to introduce legislation at the earliest opportunity to allow all youth organisations access to criminal records, and to certain other information that does not relate directly to criminal convictions and is held by the police. I appreciate that that may cause concern in some quarters, but I believe that the safety and protection of our children must come first.

The whole country has been struck by the courage and dignity with which the community of Dunblane has worked together in the aftermath of this terrible atrocity. That community now looks to the House for rapid and united action.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and join him in thanking Lord Cullen for his report, and for the patient, thorough and painstaking way in which he conducted this important and sensitive exercise. The wide-ranging issues that he has examined and has made recommendations on emphasise the wisdom of holding this sort of inquiry, and I look forward, with my colleagues, with more time available, to examining in detail what he says.

I also express my personal gratitude and thanks to the Secretary of State for Scotland for the genuine kindness and consideration that he has shown to myself and to my wife during and after the tragedy—a tragedy that took place in the small town of Dunblane, which he represents and where I and my family have lived for over 20 years.

On 13 March, we were two rival politicians with politics utterly forgotten in the shadow of unspeakable evil and tragedy; two fathers united in total grief at the horror that we were to witness, and perhaps recall for ever, in a school that we both knew so well; two men, members of the human family, united then and now in an overriding conviction that this massacre, involving 16 tiny children and their brave, dedicated teacher, or anything like it, must never, ever, happen again.

That must, of course, remain the starting point for approaching any of the recommendations in Lord Cullen's report today and in the days ahead. Let me make it clear that I fully appreciate the feelings that the Secretary of State for Scotland must have experienced in these past seven months as he tried, as indeed I had to do myself, to reconcile strong personal feelings with an obligation to make the right decisions on changes to the law of the land.

I now turn to the detailed recommendations in the report. As the Secretary of State has said, Lord Cullen deals in some detail with the handling of the incident on the day, and, as he acknowledges, there was here an incident of unprecedented scale, involving such horrifying carnage that no one could have been fully prepared to deal with it, still less one of Britain's smallest police forces.

Mistakes were clearly made, the most serious one of which was the treatment on the day of the parents of the dead and of the injured. Lord Cullen says that this was unacceptable. Central Scotland police and the chief constable have acknowledged the fault, and have apologised to those who were concerned, but it is a lesson in human handling which must never be lost.

Is the Secretary of State aware, though, that what comes through from the harrowing description in this report of the events of 13 March is the remarkable, indeed inspirational, performance of the school staff—especially the head teacher, Ron Taylor—and the whole range of medical services, emergency services, and indeed individual police officers, all of them local, all of them traumatised and all of them emotionally connected to the victims? Their heroism and professionalism in the face of the most terrible events imaginable should never be forgotten by us.

Lord Cullen deals in his report with the circumstances whereby Thomas Hamilton continued, in the face of rising concern about him, to get his gun licences renewed; this is a matter of real importance to those, like myself and the Secretary of State and many others, who long campaigned against Thomas Hamilton. Lord Cullen makes the point: On balance … there was a case for revocation which should have been acted upon", but he goes on, pointing up the need for serious reform in this area, to say that the eventual outcome would have depended on the outcome of the appeal to the sheriff, which he had no doubt that Thomas Hamilton would have taken. Lord Cullen's conclusion, setting aside the great wisdom of hindsight, is: It is not certain that an appeal would have been unsuccessful. Certification changes are now being proposed, and the means by which Thomas Hamilton got his gun licences and continued to hold them must not be used again. Deputy Chief Constable McMurdo, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, has today taken responsibility for what he did. His resignation is an example of honour, but the system has to change.

On school security, Lord Cullen makes the valid point: It would be unacceptable to carry measures to the point where schools were turned into fortresses. We agree with that, and with the point that varied school layouts and geography do not easily lend themselves to a simple formula. The recommendation of an action plan for each school on the points that Lord Cullen identifies is right. I commend the right hon. Gentleman's announcement, both on its speed and on the promise of funding for that recommendation.

On the vetting and supervision of young people, I welcome Lord Cullen's recommendations and the Government's acceptance of them. Lord Cullen underlines the sadly deficient present situation when he says: There was no system in general use for the vetting of persons who operated such clubs or for monitoring their conduct. The establishment of a new registration body will be a major step in the direction of placing hurdles in the way of future Thomas Hamiltons, without deterring genuinely motivated people from helping with youth clubs. The Secretary of State has our support for the new qualification in that area and for the procedures on police information.

Decisions about how we deal with the lessons of Dunblane are helped immeasurably by Lord Cullen's wise analysis and recommendations—but the buck stops here, with the lawmakers of this country. It is up to us to make the final judgment, and then to be judged on that. We have to act decisively and urgently, and the Opposition will co-operate fully in what needs to be done.

I know that firearms are to be the subject of a separate statement, but I feel it necessary to make one point. I warmly welcome the shift by the Government to an almost complete ban on handguns. They were right to listen with care to the force of public opinion.

Given that they have already come that far, I urge the Secretary of State and the Government to take that final but fundamental step towards the eradication of handguns in our country. There is no place in any decent civilised society for handguns of any sort. Let us therefore resolve that the lasting legacy of the evil that visited Dunblane on 13 March will be the complete outlawing of handguns, so that that sort of atrocity can never, ever, happen again.

Mr. Forsyth

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) for his kind words. I echo the tribute that he paid to the performance on that day of the emergency services and—although there have been criticisms of the police—of individual police officers, which was inspiring.

I agree that there are issues relating to the appeal to the sheriff for refusal of licence certificates. Those issues are addressed in the Cullen report, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will respond on that.

I also agree that we must do what we can to make schools secure, but we must not turn them into fortresses. They are schools—they are places where our children should be safe, but they should feel as open as possible to the wider community.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a shift in the Government's position. I have been determined that the Government's position should be decided only when we had the Cullen report. The Government's position was decided yesterday at a meeting of colleagues, where a paper was presented jointly by me and by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. There has been no shift in our position—which represents our considered view, having considered Lord Cullen's recommendations. It is important that the House should be aware of that.

I agree that it is important that we should be seen to act speedily, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support.

I believe that the package of measures that will be presented to the House today represents the right answer. The package represents a proper, balanced response, and I very much hope that all hon. Members will be able to deal with it quickly and with as much unity as possible.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that he has gained tremendous respect and praise across Scotland—as has the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson)—for his handling of this tragedy since that fatal day last March? I warmly accept Lord Cullen's recommendations—although, obviously, we have not had a chance to examine them in detail.

From the evidence and from what my right hon. Friend said, it seems likely that, had the proper procedures been carried out, Hamilton would never have had a firearms certificate. Will my right hon. Friend tell us how he hopes to improve co-ordination between the police, the procurator fiscal, social workers and others, so that doubtful cases can be vetted and this type of incident never happens again?

Mr. Forsyth

I agree with my right hon. Friend. The report details the shortcomings in how the licence application was granted and renewed. It also points out, as the hon. Member for Hamilton said, the difficulties that arose because of the uncertainty surrounding the possibility of a refusal being overturned on appeal to the sheriff.

The report contains specific recommendations dealing with the presentation of information and the tests that should be applied on appeal, which go a long way towards meeting my right hon. Friend's concerns. As I have already said, we have accepted all of the recommendations, including those relating to the matters about which my right hon. Friend is concerned.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I join the Secretary of State in acknowledging the task fulfilled by Lord Cullen, and the meticulous and sensitive way in which he conducted the inquiry and prepared this important report on a most awful and tragic event. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute again to staff and the emergency services, many of whom acted well beyond the call of duty.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that Lord Cullen's report should be studied with great care, not only by hon. Members but by the public.

Liberal Democrat Members welcome the fact that the Government have accepted the recommendations. I am sure that the Secretary of State would acknowledge that, in instances in which the Government want to exceed Lord Cullen's recommendations, they are more in line with the submissions made by Liberal Democrat Members to Lord Cullen. I assure the Secretary of State that he will have our co-operation in the necessary legislation.

While the Secretary of State acknowledges that there may be concern in some quarters about legislation on making available access to information on criminals, and perhaps on those who have not been prosecuted, will he consult on the detail of that legislation? We share his view that schools should not become fortresses, and that fortresses are not suitable places for the upbringing and education of children. We welcome the fact that resources will be made available to help schools to implement action plans.

Although Lord Cullen identifies weaknesses in Central Scotland police in how they processed firearms applications, does the Secretary of State accept that the current law, even without further legislation, allows for a much more rigorous approach to the consideration and granting of firearms applications? Will he tell us what action has already been taken to bring that to the attention of police forces across Scotland?

Mr. Forsyth

On the latter point made by the hon. Gentleman, I am sure that there is not a chief constable in Scotland who has not examined this issue very carefully after the event. I agree with the hon. Gentleman in his analysis of the state of the law. Far be it from me as an ordinary mortal to disagree with a lawyer on Scots law.

I agree with the more general observations by the hon. Gentleman. He asked whether I would consult on the specific issue of making available to youth organisations information that the police hold that is other than about criminal records. I realise that this is, of course, a sensitive issue, but in situations in which we are dealing with the protection of children, the balance lies with tilting away from the civil liberties of the individual. I should be happy to discuss with him the criteria that will be applied and how that will operate.

One matter that comes out very clearly from the report and the analysis of Thomas Hamilton's background is that information was not communicated because he had never had a criminal conviction, although there had been several instances in which a prosecution was considered but did not proceed because of a lack of evidence.

That information would be of value to organisations thinking of employing people who would be acting in an unsupervised capacity with young children. I am certainly happy to discuss that with the hon. Gentleman. I greatly welcome his positive approach to the matter and his saying that he will support the Government's proposals for legislation when they are brought before the House.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that every hon. Member is with him on this difficult day, as he has to make a statement on the appalling event in his constituency? Will he confirm that, when considering the laws affecting the supervision of young people and children, account will be taken of the fact that bodies such as the Scouts, the Boys Brigade and the cadet forces will probably fall within the scope of organisations dealing with children, as they recruit at quite a young age? Will their position and structures and the way in which they do things be taken into account when the law is being formed?

Mr. Forsyth

We shall, of course, consult on the proposals; indeed, the Government's response gives a commitment to do so. It is important that all youth organisations can have access to a database that provides information about individuals across the United Kingdom. That is what we mean to achieve. Of course, if my hon. Friend has any particular suggestions, I should be very pleased to take account of them.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

On behalf of the Scottish all-party group on children, I should like to welcome what the Secretary of State said about the regulation of voluntary bodies and the vetting of volunteers. Can he say anything about the regulation of summertime play schemes which tend to be of shorter duration than those of usual bodies? If he cannot comment now, is it something that he will be sure to consider when drawing up his plans?

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Lady follows these matters in detail. She will confirm that we said that we would defer further consideration of that matter until we had studied Lord Cullen's report. I have had an opportunity to raise the issue with officials, and we hope to be able to reach a final conclusion, but, in the light of the Cullen report, it is very unlikely that we shall take the deregulatory road that we originally intended.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) on the dignified way in which they have proceeded, especially as this must have been so harrowing for both of them. It was entirely right to set up the Cullen inquiry and that it should have the blessing of the whole House. It was also right that we await the outcome of that inquiry before making judgments. I welcome the attention that my right hon. Friend has given to school security and the vetting of youth workers, but may I express regret that, to an extent, in the run-up to the publication of the report, the wider arguments have been lost to the issue of gun control?

Mr. Forsyth

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that one or two people have questioned whether Lord Cullen's report was necessary; once people have had an opportunity to study it, I think that they will know the answer to that question. Lord Cullen sets out in great detail the facts and the background, and I think that that is the best basis on which to take decisions about the variety of policy issues that have arisen.

Of course gun control is an important aspect of that, but there are other, wider issues that matter to thousands of organisations and literally hundreds of thousands of people across the country. It is right that we approach the matter with a clear and critical analysis of the facts carried out by a man of Lord Cullen's quality. At the end of the day, my hon. Friend is right: it is for the Government to take a decision about what is required, but it is best to do so with the type of report that Lord Cullen has presented.

Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that hon. Members representing constituencies far from Scotland are equally grateful to him for his speedy response to the report placed before us today, and that we are also grateful for the fact that we have had so succinct a report? I have not had a chance to read it in detail.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the essential now is that energy is given to the establishment of clearly defined security procedures for each school and educational institution in Scotland and in the rest of the United Kingdom to provide for the safety and protection of children and of staff, which is a matter of everyday interest and concern?

Mr. Forsyth

I agree with my hon. Friend, but I think that Lord Cullen is right to emphasise the importance of individual schools looking at their own circumstances and working out what is required. It is difficult centrally to prescribe particular standards that will apply to every school. Every school, like every child, is different, and the remedies that need to be applied need to be looked at on a school level.

The remedies also need to be proportionate if we are to maintain the quality of schools, and it is for local authorities to work with the schools to achieve that task, and for grant-maintained schools and others to address the matter directly. The specific grant that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and I propose will assist local authorities in that task.

I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that Lord Cullen has addressed the issues in a sensible way, and that he has been greatly assisted by the work done by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the earlier part of this year, much of which is already being implemented.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth and Kinross)

I join the Secretary of State in expressing admiration for Lord Cullen, and for all his work over the summer in respect of the inquiry. There are a great many recommendations which will undoubtedly gain widespread support. Notwithstanding the Secretary of State's statement, I must ask whether he personally agrees that the case for a total handgun ban has been made over the summer, and that to fall short of that and to exempt any number of handguns would leave far too many of those weapons in use.

Mr. Forsyth

As the hon. Lady knows, the firearms issues will be dealt with by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. On the hon. Lady's direct question, she will know that my personal position has been that we should have the Cullen report and should consider the recommendations in that report, and that we should then decide what the way forward was.

I draw the hon. Lady's attention to the section of the report that suggests how we should consider the issues in terms of what is proportionate, where the balance of interests lies and how we address the issues of safety. My right hon. and learned Friend will shortly set out the Government's conclusions, which I fully support and which I presented to my colleagues with him.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

With regard to the penultimate paragraph of the Secretary of State's statement, on the vetting and supervising of adults who care for children, will he confirm that that would embrace adults who are representatives of Church bodies and local authorities and who are in loco parentis for children, many of whom are vulnerable and far removed from their parents?

Mr. Forsyth

Yes, I think that I can confirm that point, although I did not quite catch the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question. The general purpose is to provide a means whereby people can obtain information as to the bona fide nature of organisations. Clearly, if people are in loco parentis, others are entitled to information about them. I think that that was the hon. Gentleman's question. I apologise if I have not got it right, and I am happy to have a word with him afterwards about it.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Having myself lost a child aged five—although it was in a motorway crash, which is not quite the same—I know that no one who has not been through such a tragedy can quite understand what it is like. Perhaps that gives me some right to sympathise not only with what the Dunblane parents have suffered, but with their need to campaign for a change in the law, as I felt I had to do over seat belts in cars.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, despite some people's entirely understandable impatience, nothing whatever has been lost by the fact that it was bound to take some months for Lord Cullen to report? We now need to pause, hesitate and study, and to make quite sure that we get the change in the law absolutely right.

Mr. Forsyth

It is certainly true that the summer recess has enabled Lord Cullen to produce his report. Of course we all sympathise with my hon. Friend. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose a child, and we all sympathise with the parents. There are also wider issues involved, concerning the protection of our community and our attitude towards firearms, which my right hon. and learned Friend will address. I believe that the country will look to the House to take the necessary steps to provide legislation so that our communities are safer as quickly as can be achieved. We can achieve that if we have a united response throughout the House of Commons.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Is not the dreadful truth that such a tragedy was bound to happen, given the total inadequacy of the Government's response to a similar shocking event in Hungerford? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I do not believe that the people of Dunblane will forgive us for being mealy-mouthed about this. Is the Secretary of State aware that, since 1983, the Government have resisted suggestions that all police forces in the United Kingdom should use a standard inquiry form when people apply for shotgun certificates or licences? Will he now give the House an undertaking that he will raise the issue in the course of his consultation with the police throughout the United Kingdom?

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman has not had an opportunity to read Lord Cullen's report. He will find that Lord Cullen concludes that the actions of Thomas Hamilton were unpredictable. I recommend to the hon. Gentleman that he reads the report and looks at the considered arguments. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will be happy to discuss his concerns with him.