HC Deb 18 February 1997 vol 290 cc764-92

Lords amendment: No. 8, in page 3, line 6, at end insert ("unless the pistol complies with subsection (2A) below.")

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

I beg to move, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

In accordance with the allocation of time order just agreed by the House, Lords amendment No. 8 will be grouped with Lords amendment No. 12. We shall also discuss the Government motions to disagree with those amendments.

Mr. Howard

The question of disassembly of handguns has been thoroughly discussed during the passage of the Bill both in this House and in another place. The Government's position has been and remains that small-calibre pistols in their complete form should be stored in secure licensed clubs. Allowing members of licensed small-calibre pistol clubs to keep the main body of the pistol at home and remove only a small part for retention at their club cannot in our view provide sufficient safeguards for the protection of the public.

Sir Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Has my right hon. and learned Friend addressed the opposite proposition that the body of the pistol should be kept at the club and a small part only retained at home?

Mr. Howard

Yes. Indeed, it was canvassed as early as on Second Reading, when the point was put to me by—I think—the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). It is not the specific proposal contained in the amendment and I am rather doubtful about what purpose it would achieve. It would attract many of the disadvantages that the proposal specifically identified in the amendment would attract.

The Government entirely accept that members of pistol clubs licensed under the Bill would be overwhelmingly decent, law-abiding people, just as the members of pistol clubs that are allowed under the current law are overwhelmingly decent, law-abiding people. We have all, however, seen the appalling consequences that can ensue when a pistol owner is determined to perpetrate serious crime with his lawfully held gun.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

The gun was certainly lawfully held, but the process by which Hamilton obtained the certificate was ludicrously slack. Had that man's record been considered by the police in granting the certificate, he would never have had the licence.

Mr. Howard

I understand my hon. Friend's feelings. That was of course considered by the police, and Lord Cullen went into that aspect of the matter very carefully in his report. It is of course right that those matters should be addressed as well, but I do not believe that they would provide a complete answer to the problems with which we have to deal.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

Is not anybody who lies on an application form for a firearms certificate committing an offence? If a certificate is granted thereafter, is not that certificate, by definition, invalid? Was that not so with Hamilton? Is that not what Lord Cullen found? What did Lord Cullen recommend with regard to disassembly?

Mr. Howard

I do not know quite what conclusion my hon. Friend sought to reach on the basis of the first part of his question. The certificate held by Thomas Hamilton was not declared invalid and was therefore quite valid until it had been revoked. I shall come to Lord Cullen's recommendations on the question of disassembly.

In considering their response to Lord Cullen's very thorough inquiry into what happened in Dunblane, the Government took the view that it was right if at all possible to allow the sport of pistol shooting to continue in some form, and the Bill allows for small-calibre pistol clubs, operating under a very high degree of security, to be licensed by the Secretary of State. The question is what should be done with the small calibre .22 handguns that are used at such clubs.

The Government propose that such guns should be kept at secure club premises. Amendments to the Bill in another place would allow club members to keep their handgun at home as long as some part of it was always removed and kept at the club. Under the amendments, that part would be the slide of pistols, the cylinders of revolvers or some other part to be specified by the Secretary of State.

As has been said so many times in discussion of this issue, it would be possible for handguns to be kept in a disassembled form. It is said that most owners of most handguns would be capable in practice of removing the vital part to leave at the club and fitting it again when they returned. The Government do not dispute that, but that is not the real question. The question is whether such a procedure would give the public a sufficient assurance against misuse of a handgun by a club member. The Government's view is that it would not.

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

4.45 pm
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)


Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)


Mr. Howard

I will give way first to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory).

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that a shooter keeping illicit spares would be breaching the conditions of the firearms certificate? If someone is prepared to do that, they may easily do the same for an entire pistol. I am not entirely clear that my right hon. and learned Friend's objection to the disassembly option on those grounds is in fact valid.

Mr. Howard

I understand my right hon. Friend's point, which is serious and substantial. He is right that those who would be engaging in the kind of conduct that I am describing would be in breach of the law. I see the force of the argument that those who are prepared to break the law can obtain access to illegal guns. At the end of the day, my right hon. Friend—and no doubt some other of my hon. Friends—and I may simply have to disagree on the matter. The proposal would place a temptation before those who would be tempted to take advantage of what would rapidly become a loophole in the law. As I shall go on to explain, the difficulties of policing the proposed arrangement would be extreme. I believe that on those grounds we must reject my right hon. Friend's argument, although I see its force, and adhere to the proposals that the Government originally made.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howard

I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman allowed me to make some more progress and finish the point.

Furthermore, under a scheme of the kind contemplated under the amendments, it would be the responsibility of the club to ensure that the detached component parts were lodged safely and securely and that they were always handed in when the member left the club after shooting. The club would also have to check each time that what was handed in was the component part that was supposed to be handed in and not a duplicate of some kind.

Right hon. and hon. Members will recognise that the items that we are talking about are relatively small and easily concealable pieces of metal. Clubs would of course be under a legal responsibility, set out in the terms of their licences, to ensure that booking in and out was done properly. A club that did not meet that very important responsibility would be at risk of losing its licence. If a club were not meeting the necessary standards in that respect, it would however be difficult in practice for the police to detect it. In practice, it would be a matter of what happened at the club day after day and not just on the days when a police officer was there and able to see what was going on.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I am seriously trying very hard to follow the logic and make it stand up to scrutiny. The Home Secretary objects to keeping a component at home and the barrel or the chassis of the gun in a club. What is to stop a person who really wants to break the law having a legal gun at the club and an illegal one at home? The whole proposition is totally nonsensical.

Mr. Howard

I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman, as I did with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells, who put the same point. Some people may not want to procure an illegal gun, but may be tempted by the possibility of having an illegally held part.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)

How many?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend asks how many. The difficulty with that argument is that takes only one to engage in such activity, to procure a gun and to use it in the way in which it was used at Dunblane.

Mr. Carlisle

I confess that I can hardly believe what I am hearing from my right hon. and learned Friend. We have surely gone past the argument about legislating on the basis of whether people may be tempted to take a gun in one form or another. Either my right hon. and learned Friend believes in this legislation or he does not. I suspect that the force of argument from the Conservative Benches is beginning to get to him. Will he be tempted to think again about disassembly, and possibly to accept the Lords amendment?

Mr. Howard

I am sorry to have to disabuse my hon. Friend. I do not follow his argument that we should not legislate on the basis of temptations that may be put in people's way. We legislate on the basis of the view that we take of human behaviour: that is what all legislation is about. My hon. Friend and I may disagree about the precise aspect of human behaviour with which we are dealing, but such a judgment is the basis on which all legislation is passed in the House.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

The Home Secretary is right to detect an attempt to weaken his legislation. I am bound to say that, if he had decided to ban all handguns, he would not be in this difficulty. If it was the other way round, and disassembly involved the bulk of the gun being in the club and the component being outside the club, would that strengthen instead of weaken the legislation? I realise that that is not in the amendment, but has he considered that point?

Mr. Howard

I have considered that point, and I dealt with it a few moments ago when it was put to me by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells. When the hon. Gentleman got to his feet, I expected him to say that the legislation did not go far enough, and that we should have a total ban, and he duly fulfilled my expectation.

The difficulty is that however well the club carries out its responsibilities, there will be scope for an owner who has a mind to do so illicitly to take out the pistol slide, a revolver cylinder or some other small component. He may attempt to substitute it with something else, and he could do that in a variety of ways. There is no point endlessly speculating about how that could be done, but one possibility—it is only one possibility—has already been mentioned in a discussion of this issue. It could be substituted with the same component taken from a deactivated version of the same gun. The differences in appearance between a working and a deactivated component part are not necessarily large. Indeed, it is said to be one of the advantages of a deactivated gun, to those who like to possess them, that they look as much as possible like the real thing.

An owner determined upon mischief could disguise the deactivated component so that it looked on superficial inspection like the real one. It would not have to work like the real component, just look like it.

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

I must place on record the fact that I hardly ever disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend, but I simply cannot follow the force of his argument that we cannot proceed with legislation if some people may contravene it. That is what he is saying. We all know that it is possible for people to get hold of guns even if they have no right to have them. That will happen whatever my right hon. and learned Friend does in the Bill. I cannot follow the argument that, because some people may break the law, what my right hon. and hon. Friends have said is not reasonable. Whatever happens, some people will break the law.

Mr. Howard

I suspect that it pains me to disagree with my hon. Friend even more than it may pain her. Her point is not valid, because we have to make judgments about the effect of the laws that we pass on the behaviour of those with whom we are attempting to deal. If it is a consequence of one law rather than another that temptation is likely to be increased, and therefore likely to be succumbed to, and that that is likely to lead to more guns coming into the hands of people who might abuse them, we must take that into account. It is a matter of judgment, and my hon. Friend may legitimately arrive at a different judgment and disagree with me. It is a valid consideration, and it should be taken into account in framing the precise terms of the legislation.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

The force of my right hon. and learned Friend's argument is that it is more important to remove temptation from people who he and the Minister of State have said on many occasions are the least likely people to succumb to that temptation. A large group of people will be tempted: my right hon. and learned Friend has already admitted that such people regard the legislation as totally irrelevant. They will use illegal guns. Why is he aiming at the small group of people who are the least likely to succumb to temptation?

Mr. Howard

I hope that my hon. Friend is not suggesting that we are ignoring the enormous problems that undoubtedly exist as a consequence of the use of illegal guns. We recognise the dimension of that serious problem, and the police do their utmost to deal with it every working day of the year. The fact that they are not totally successful, for reasons which we all understand, does not relieve the House of the responsibility of dealing with another aspect of the problem, which is the circumstances under which firearms should be made lawfully available. It is not either/or: we have to deal with both problems as effectively as we can.

Mr. Barnes

What about the temptation of raiding a gun club? If a gun club that holds complete guns is raided, that is far more dangerous than taking away bits and pieces.

Mr. Howard

As the hon. Gentleman knows, stringent security will be put in place to deal with that problem. I am not sure that the temptation to raid a gun club for whole guns would be that much greater than the temptation to raid a gun club for the main body of the gun, which is what my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells suggested. But the hon. Gentleman is entitled to his opinion.

Sir Terence Higgins (Worthing)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Howard

I shall give way, but we are on a timetable motion. Many hon. Members want to speak, and I do not want to take up their time.

Sir Terence Higgins

It is not our fault that there is a timetable motion: it is my right hon. and learned Friend's fault. We had the ludicrous position just now of the Minister of State saying that she could not give an answer because she was about to be cut off by the guillotine motion. The whole thing is farcical.

If people have a criminal intent, why should they bother to raid a gun club for a .22 when they could perfectly well buy a .38 or a .44 illegally?

Mr. Howard

I have sought to answer that point. It is the same point as was put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells. I do not think that the world is divided quite as neatly as my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) suggests, into those who are prepared to engage in illegal conduct and who would undoubtedly take advantage of the fact that illegal guns are available, and those who behave lawfully and would not stray from the law at all. Others who do not fit neatly into that category would be tempted by the circumstances that I have sought to explain. I think that that justifies our approach.

There has been a good deal of discussion of the advice that the Government have received on this issue from the Forensic Science Service. It believes that it would be an extremely difficult task to police these procedures fully and effectively at club level. The procedures would not provide a guaranteed measure of assurance against the possible misuse of a pistol by a determined individual.

The Government have also taken advice from the Association of Chief Police Officers of England and Wales. It concludes that disassembly is incapable of being policed. It too has concerns about a club policing this policy and there would be little to stop a person having two slides, one at a club and one at home. The smallness of these parts makes them easily concealable. The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland has similar concerns about disassembly providing insufficient safeguards for the public. Thomas Hamilton and Michael Ryan both held their guns lawfully. Either could have been capable of obtaining or concealing component parts had the disassembly approach been enforced.

It has been argued that the Government have gone further than Lord Cullen proposed. In one sense, that is true: Lord Cullen would have permitted single-shot handguns to be kept in the home. In relation to multi-shot handguns, he said: in stating my own conclusions I should confine myself to what I recommend should be considered … I recommend that consideration should be given to restricting the availability of self-loading pistols and revolvers of any calibre … Preferably this should be done by their disablement while they are not in use … If for any reason that course is not to be followed, I see no alternative to considering the more draconian alternative of a ban on multi-shot handguns … directed to the possession of such handguns by individual owners. The Government have not gone as far as the alternative course that Cullen has envisaged. The Bill will permit the continued possession by individuals of .22 calibre handguns, provided that they are kept at licensed pistol clubs.

The Government have taken the view that the protection of the public should be the priority. The safest position must be to ensure that the entire gun is stored in secure licensed pistol clubs.

5 pm

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

The debate is about a judgment that the House must make between what exact form of legislation is likely to be the most effective and the rights of the shooting community, balanced against the protection of the public. It is true that the Government and Opposition Front Benchers take a similar approach with the amendment, as will be the case in relation to the next group of amendments. That does not in any way mean that the Government and the Opposition are at one in dealing with the legislation. We both recognise that legislation is necessary because of public demand for action, but there is a difference between our position, which is that there should be a complete ban on handguns, and the Government's position, which is that there should be a ban on guns above .22 calibre. However, we have accepted that the need for legislation on other aspects in the Bill takes priority over our particular position at this time, although we have made commitments in relation to the future. That is why we believe that it is necessary for the Bill to be given passage through Parliament so that it becomes law before the general election.

The Lords amendment would undermine the whole premise of the Bill. It takes the Bill in a different direction. The argument between the Government and the Opposition is on which guns should be banned and which should not. The amendment essentially bans no guns and suggests a different way in which to deal with the problem.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

Does my hon. Friend accept that, if the amendment on disassembly had been accepted in the first place, we would have had what the Opposition wanted: a total ban on all whole working guns outside gun clubs? It is the simplest, most straightforward way of achieving that. In failing to achieve the amendment, we have lost the main part of the argument, which is to ban all guns outside gun clubs.

Mr. Henderson

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, but I do not accept the logic of his argument. There would have been no guarantee that the Government would have accepted that position, even if Opposition Front Benchers had accepted some of the views that were expressed by Labour Members and indeed by Conservative Members, but, in any case, as the Home Secretary showed, such an amendment would not have led to the protection of the public from the use of assembled guns.

Whether we like it or not, vested interests have come into the debate at all stages. We all know that we are dealing with the amendment because of the vote of hereditary peers in another place. If the matter had been left to life peers and others who hold office ex officio there, the result would have been different, so the point that was made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) that the peers would have taken a different attitude if this had been about toff shooting rather than the common man shooting does not hold up to examination because, in that instance, the peers have tried to defend a vested interest against the rightful demands of the public.

The argument against disassembling is that it is too easy to obtain a working gun from the parts. It is too easy for someone who has a will to find parts that are interchangeable with the other parts to which they have access.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about the demands of the public, where does he stand on capital punishment, as it is clear that the demands of the public would bring that back?

Mr. Henderson

I am not sure that I would agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. If a full debate took place on that matter, the result would be different, but the point at debate here is that Parliament is focusing on the maximum agreement that can possibly be achieved to meet a public demand and to protect the public. What we are arguing about is the extent to which a judgment has to be passed by Parliament on different aspects—the rights of the shooters against the demands of the public and their right to be protected.

The great danger is that, if we do not get this right, the maniac or the person who is unstable and has access to the parts of a gun can assemble a gun and take the same action as we know was taken by the Dunblane murderer.

Mr. Frank Cook

The irresponsible maniac my hon. Friend refers to surely would not have a firearms certificate to start with and would not be allowed membership of a club, so the justification that is being advanced applies not to gun club members but to illegal people who act outside the law. My hon. Friend is trying to justify one thing by quoting something that does not apply to it.

Mr. Henderson

I do not accept my hon. Friend's argument. The point about the maniac is that it is not obvious that someone is a maniac until he takes some mad action that causes great harm and injury to other members of the public. It is a matter of having regulations and rules that protect the public in between the point where a maniac or a mentally unstable person thinks of taking some action and actually takes that action.

Sir Anthony Grant (South-West Cambridgeshire)

The really determined maniac will not bother about assembling a gun. He will go to any pub in the east end and illegally buy a gun that has been imported from behind the iron curtain. Thousands are available illegally.

Mr. Henderson

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point and we need to take action to toughen up on the illegal holding of guns, but that matter is outside the scope of the debate.

Conservative Members made a point on the question of temptation. In his defence of the Government's position, the Home Secretary said that, where the main barrel was separated from the trigger mechanism, there would be a temptation for someone to break the law. Conservative Members said that it was not a sufficient position for the Home Secretary to defend and that that would not prevent temptation.

I think that the Home Secretary missed the real point, which is made in a submission by the Government's forensic scientist. In a letter to the Home Office dated 18 November 1996, which was made available by the Minister of State in a previous debate, he says: This procedure would not provide a guaranteed measure of assurance against the possible misuse of the pistol by a determined and motivated individual … Some individuals will possess more than one set of barrel and slide components for their pistol, or possess components which allow the calibre of the weapon to be converted by the simple substitution of components. It also says, and this is the key point: unless a club employs a qualified armourer to confirm the bona fide of items at the time of transfer for storage who is also fully aware of the extent of ownership of such accessories by their membership a person could still possess a complete weapon at home even after apparently complying with the regulations. If the system suggested in Lords amendment No. 8 is introduced, there will be complete confusion in gun clubs about who owns what and which part relates to which gun. Those involved will know about the confusion and that could tempt the person on the verge of taking action such as that in Dunblane into breaking the law. That is why we resisted the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) in previous debates, and it is the key argument against the Lords amendment.

Dame Jill Knight

The key argument, for those of us in favour of the Lords amendment, is that if whole guns are kept in one place, that place would be a magnet for the IRA and other gangs. If only a part of a gun is stored at a gun club, the criminals will not know where the other part is, because they will not know the members or who owns which gun. Would it not be more difficult to obtain guns from a gun club if they were split up? That is the crux of the argument.

Mr. Henderson

I accept the point that the hon. Lady is trying to establish, but she is wrong. The legislation is geared towards preventing the mentally unstable, the maniacs and freaks from abusing legally held guns. I accept that there is some risk that gun clubs will be a focus for criminals if whole guns are kept there, but I hope that the legislation will be tight enough to ensure that gun clubs have sufficient security to make them difficult to penetrate. The hon. Lady's point about the IRA is not relevant, because it can obtain guns, in this country and elsewhere, more easily than by raiding premises that are registered with the police and are heavily alarmed. Such a raid would be a high-profile exercise and dangerous for such an organisation. The hon. Lady's argument cannot be sustained.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)


Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)


Mr. Frank Cook


Mr. Henderson

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) and then I shall proceed.

Mr. Banks

The hon. Gentleman mentioned public safety. Would not those who live near gun clubs feel that their safety was jeopardised by the closeness of all those weapons, which were capable of being fired and which could fall into the hands of criminals?

5.15 pm
Mr. Henderson

As all hon. Members know, people are concerned when anything changes in their community, but the hon. Gentleman's argument is not valid. The chances that a maniac or unstable person could breach the security of a gun club and then use the gun in the immediate locale are low. The location of gun clubs is not significant.

Mr. Frank Cook

My hon. Friend made the point that there are many easier ways for the IRA to obtain firearms than by raiding a gun club. If that is so, can he tell me why the IRA saw fit to raid the armoury of the Parachute Regiment and loot it so effectively?

Mr. Henderson

That is a different situation. I cannot recall the detail of that event, but the judgment of the IRA must have been that the armoury was a relatively easy target, presumably because nobody expected that it would take such a risk. I do not believe that the IRA or similar organisations have a great need for .22 handguns. If they did want such weapons, there would be easier ways to obtain them.

I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, but I wish to emphasise that temptation would be caused by the chaos that would be created by a badly policed, bureaucratic system. People who wanted access to guns would know that the system did not work. That point was made by the British Shooting Sports Council in its evidence to the Cullen inquiry, and Lord Kimball, who was the chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee from 1989 to 1994, said on Second Reading in another place: I can no longer support disassembly as a method of secure storage in the home."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 December 1996; Vol. 576, c. 1317] In evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, a representative of the Association of Chief Police Officers also said that it did not believe that disassembly would be a safe way to protect the public.

The public demand to feel safe. When public concern is recognised by the House, we have a duty to take action and do our best, having weighed up the arguments, to provide legislation before the general election that will give the public some confidence that the likelihood of a repetition of the tragic events in Dunblane last year will be minimised. I hope that the House will approve the Bill tonight and that another place will accept our decision that action should be taken quickly.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary presented one of the worst cases for an amendment that I have heard in the House, but the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) made an even worse case. As the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said earlier, when those who sit on the Front Benches get together, let the citizens beware. That has never been more true than on this occasion.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North mentioned public opinion. Public opinion had not been measured much until the Duke of Edinburgh made a statement about the Bill just before Christmas, after which three polls were carried out. One had 2,780 callers, of whom 68 per cent. agreed with the Duke of Edinburgh. The GMTV poll had 10,000 callers, of whom 75 per cent. agreed with him, and the Sky news poll had 7,000 callers, with 72 per cent. agreeing with him. That is a convincing statement of public opinion. My postbag, which I accept is probably prejudiced, contains many letters that strongly criticise the Bill, and I am not dissatisfied that public opinion is strongly against the legislation.

Mr. Salmond

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that, in a response to those polls on the "Today" programme, it was pointed out that shooting lobby members were using the Internet to ask people to phone in repeatedly by pushing a button? Given that many hon. Members discounted the results of a phone-in television poll on the monarchy—which received more responses and was a much wider survey of opinion in Scotland—and the manipulation to which polls can be subject, is he seriously telling us that such polls are a reliable indicator of public opinion?

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I suppose that, remarkably, the Snowdrop poll was in no way organised. The truth is that the moment a poll is not agreed with, everyone rushes to a conclusion on why there should be some inaccuracy in it. On the hon. Gentleman's point about the "Today" programme, the e-mail message had been placed on the Internet a quarter of an hour after the poll closed. He may believe that shooters are so well organised that they can persuade 20,000 people to respond to a poll, but I must say—as fond as I am of them all—that they are not in that category.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

My hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary read out some information that was available yesterday on the web site of the Sportsmans Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in which threats were made to Conservative Members that revenge would be taken if they do not vote in a certain way. The message on that web site requests and expects that, in the next week, 80,000 letters will be sent on behalf of the shooting lobby. If the hon. Gentleman's postbag is anything like mine, he will know that a disproportionate number of letters can be generated by a very small number of self-interested people.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I am beginning to wonder if some of my colleagues in the debate have been in the House for only five minutes. Have hon. Members never received letters threatening not to vote for us? I should imagine that almost every day I receive a letter saying that someone will not vote for me for one reason or another. That has been going on for a good few years, and they still send such letters. Nevertheless, people threaten. I find nothing wrong in attempting to motivate a lobby—any more than the Snowdrop people deliberately went round and motivated their lobby.

The point that I was trying to make is that I remain satisfied that the vast majority of public opinion—nigh on two thirds or more—firmly believes that the Bill will not satisfy the first requirement: to stop the occurrence of another Dunblane. We should put our minds to that requirement and to that alone.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has quoted Cullen's recommendation. The fact is that Cullen was perfectly content with dismantlement if such action was practical. In the debate on the Bill's Second Reading, the Home Secretary said: The Government took advice from the Forensic Science Service on the practicability of disabling multi-shot handguns. It concluded that the way forward was unworkable."—[Official Report, 12 November 1996; Vol. 285, c. 175.] That conclusion rather surprised those who hold our view. We undertook some work on the matter, and we persuaded the Government. Lady Blatch said: We do not deny that many pistols can be disassembled by removing some essential component such as the slide assembly or cylinder."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 January 1997; Vol. 576, c. 337.] So the practicality argument went down the sink.

The new objection was that the disassembly 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.—[Official Report, 18 November 1996; Vol. 285, c. 784.] My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has made that argument again today. What he means is that it is somehow easier to break the law with a part than with a whole gun. However, buying a spare slide assembly or cylinder requires the consent of the local chief officer of police, as he has to grant a variation of the original certificate. There is absolutely no difference between buying another gun and buying a replacement slide or cylinder, as both are strictly controlled by the law.

The Home Secretary's statement also misses the point that the number of illegal guns in the United Kingdom exceeds the number of legal ones. It is easier for a criminal to buy an illegal whole pistol than to buy a legal slide assembly or cylinder.

The Government raised three objections on policing a disassembly system for clubs. The first was that a qualified armourer would have to check the bona fides of a component part. However, there is no great difficulty in identifying a bona fide component part. The extent of ownership will also be known because it will be declared on a firearms certificate.

The second objection was that an owner could deceive a club official by depositing a deactivated component. However, that is based on the highly contentious idea that deactivated weapons are not easily identified. Deactivated weapons undergo a stringent process to render them incapable of firing a missile. All component parts are deactivated by such means as cutting away two thirds of the slide rail, and all require a distinctive proof mark issued by the Birmingham proof house or the London proof house. Anyone accustomed to handling guns would easily be able to spot the difference.

The third objection was that there would be considerable bureaucracy in managing the system in clubs. I do not know why a disassembly system should entail any more bureaucracy than the system envisaged in the Bill; I think that the contrary is true. Depositing component parts would work in exactly the same way as depositing whole guns.

The argument has already been made, but I will make it again, that a cache—whether it is in a strong room, concrete container or steel box—is surely a greater target for a robber than a box with a few spare parts. If any hon. Member disagrees with that, they should examine the quarry industry and investigate the difficulties that it has had in keeping its explosive stores secure—particularly in remote places, where it has had great difficulty in stopping those with nefarious intent breaking into its stores.

Mr. Marlow

I should tell my hon. Friend that, when I was at Sandhurst—which I presume was a rather more secure place than many gun clubs would be—we were required to keep the working parts of guns in a completely different place from the weapons themselves, to stop robbers from getting at them.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

As the hon. Member for Stockton, North said, if the amendment were to be accepted, the weapon would never be whole except in a licensed rifle club.

Among the various bits and pieces that have been sent to me, I received a copy of a cutting from the News of the World. It claimed—perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend will tell me whether it is true—that 12 full-bore pistols had been taken from police in Luton, Bedfordshire, but that the matter had been hushed up and was under investigation. That may or may not be true although, as it came from the News of the World, I am perfectly prepared to accept that it is not.

It is quite clear that all the Government's objections to dismantlement simply do not stand up to scrutiny. I believe that dismantling has some benefits.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

One of the great advantages of disassembly is that it would considerably reduce the compensation bill. If, at some later stage, we finish up discovering that the European Court of Human Rights—particularly once the convention is incorporated into our domestic law, perhaps under a Labour Government—requires us to pay £500 million, which is eight times the cost of Britannia, for this little ill-considered measure, we shall all feel that this is a pretty bad evening's work.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

I hate to pick holes in my hon. Friend's argument, but we are talking only about .22s. Disassembly would indeed be cheaper for the taxpayer, because more shooters would be able to continue their sport and more clubs would remain open. Clubs will still require a good measure of security, but not the fortress approach that will be required to store arsenals of fully assembled working guns. He is right, but perhaps not on the figures that he mentioned.

I believe that disassembly would be safer for the public, and I have already mentioned the two alternatives on security. The shooting fraternity would also be able to practise its sport much more easily. Given that the Government have removed the .32 from legal possession, which will exclude us from many international competitions, we shall be very restricted in the competitions that we can enter. We owe it to our shooters—who have done very well in winning gold medals and other awards in all types of shooting—to help them as much as possible.

What really hurts and comes through in all the letters that I have received is that, fundamentally, the Bill expresses distrust in the honest, law-abiding shooter. The amendment expresses further distrust. It seems ridiculous, because we know in our heart of hearts that it was not the gun that was responsible but the man. This extension, this quibble and this argument seem quite unnecessary. I believe that we should accept Lords amendment No. 8, and be grateful for it.

5.30 pm
Mr. Salmond

In a parliamentary first earlier, I found myself in favour of a guillotine motion—something I have never experienced in my entire parliamentary career. I am now going to commit another first by saying that the Home Secretary said something rather important towards the end of his speech—something I am sure I have never said in my parliamentary career.

The Home Secretary identified a fallacy that has gained some currency, particularly among the ranks of Conservative Members. It is that Lord Cullen unambiguously recommended the disablement of handguns. Lord Cullen did no such thing. The Home Secretary referred to the recommendation in the Cullen report that multi-shot handguns should be dealt with preferably by their disablement … or, if such a system is not adopted, by the banning of the possession of such handguns by individual owners". The Home Secretary often claimed that Government were going further than Lord Cullen, but—as he accurately said today—they are not.

The Home Secretary is in some difficulty, because there are some aspects of logic that are difficult to defend in his proposals. His central difficulty is that he has made a distinction between weapons over .22 calibre and .22 weapons, despite the fact that many .22 weapons can be multi-shot and just as dangerous under certain circumstances as weapons of a higher calibre.

The intellectual difficulty that the Home Secretary is experiencing is identified by that dubious distinction. It would have been more sensible to bite the bullet and to grasp the logic of Lord Cullen's recommendation. Once the Home Secretary properly decided not to go for the disablement option, because of its weaknesses, the Government should have followed Lord Cullen's recommendation for all multi-shot weapons, and should not have allowed .22 weapons to continue to be used in licensed gun premises.

A recurrent argument in the debate has been the question of licensed premises becoming arsenals and attractive to terrorists or criminals. If that is a genuine concern on the part of some Conservative Members—let us assume that it is—the amendment that should have come from another place is not the one before us this evening. The amendment proposes to remove the exempt categories of weapons and to go for the disablement option.

If the genuine fear was that gun clubs would become arsenals and subject to raids by terrorists and other factions, the amendment that should have been tabled would have proposed the disablement of .22 multi-shot weapons and would not have allowed any weapons to be kept at home. In other words, we should have gone further than the Government's proposal.

Mr. Frank Cook

It may be that I am referring to a different set of documents, but I thought that that was exactly what we were discussing.

Mr. Salmond

The recommendation from the Lords is to remove the categories of banned weapons and to identify the disablement option, which would allow the bulk of the gun to be kept at home and the firing mechanism to be stored in a gun club.

Mr. Cook

That is for .22 weapons.

Mr. Salmond

I am trying to suggest to the hon. Gentleman that, for .22 weapons, if the major part of the gun was in a gun club and the firing mechanism was elsewhere, it could be considered a strengthening of the legislation. I am subject to correction by the Home Secretary, but the amendment proposes to allow the bulk of the gun to be retained at home, while the firing mechanism or other part is retained in a gun club. I am suggesting that if the amendment were the other way round—so that the bulk of the gun would be retained in the gun club while the mechanism was elsewhere—a valid argument could be made that that would strengthen rather than weaken the legislation.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

Such an amendment was tabled on Report.

Mr. Salmond

The hon. Gentleman must allow me to discuss the amendment before us, as opposed to previous amendments tabled on Report. My proposition, as he well knows, is to ban all .22 weapons and all other calibres of handgun. I have identified that as the right way forward, and it is a proposition that I continue to defend. I was trying first to examine the Home Secretary's position, and then the position of hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). He has come to my aid and agreed with me during many fishing debates, but unfortunately we are bound to disagree on this subject.

If there was a genuine concern not to weaken the legislation and not to emerge with further loopholes, the amendment before us would have been the other way round. It is possible to argue that such an amendment would have strengthened the legislation, but—as the Home Secretary rightly said—the amendment undoubtedly weakens it. Therefore, I will be happy to commit another parliamentary first by joining the Home Secretary in the Lobby this evening.

Sir Patrick Cormack

It seems to me that the amendment imparts a little clarity into the most muddled piece of legislation that this House has had to consider for many a long year. I would like to make some brief points.

No one for a moment doubts the sincerity of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) but, quite honestly, his was a very confused speech. When I intervened to ask him whether he would support the return of the death penalty if public opinion demanded it, he skated around the subject. The fact is that the House sometimes has to stand out against public opinion. It is the job of the House to legislate fairly and decently, and in the interests of our constituents. We can then answer to them at the subsequent general election. To try to follow public opinion—determining what it is by all sorts of inexact science—is not the function of a mature Parliament or of responsible parliamentarians.

Who are we seeking to catch with this legislation? We are seeking to make it more difficult for criminals—or to use the phrase of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North, "maniacs and lunatics"—to run amok with weapons. It has been said in this and other debates here and in another place that criminals will find ways of purchasing weapons, and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant) referred to east end pubs and elsewhere. They will continue to commit diabolical crimes, and it is important that we have a police system that can seek to anticipate those criminal actions, and a criminal justice system that can seek to deal with those who perpetrate crimes when they have been caught. No one could dissent from either of these propositions.

What of the maniac or the lunatic? There is no legislation that we or any other assembly can devise that can deal adequately with the maniac. What if a maniac runs amok with a shotgun, rather than a handgun? An interesting article by Matthew Parris in The Times the other day suggested that, within a few years, the hidden agenda would become all too apparent and we would be banning shotguns. During a previous debate, I intervened on my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor)—I am sorry he is not here now—and asked him what his attitude would have been had the crime been committed with a shotgun. I asked whether he would be looking to ban them. Honestly, immediately and instinctively, he replied that perhaps he would.

The House cannot go down that road, yet we are. In doing so, we are punishing for the sins and crimes of an individual a group of the most law-abiding and responsible people in this country. It is disgraceful that we should even contemplate doing that.

Of course one has to react to a crime as horrible and terrible as that at Dunblane, and of course one has to look at what should be done to make it more and more difficult for the Thomas Hamiltons of this world to possess weapons. However, the blame lies not with the law, but with the careless action of those who did not listen when they were warned that the man was a trifle odd, to put it mildly, and allowed him to have his certificate and his weapons. Our reaction does a grave injustice to many law-abiding people who have been following a legitimate sport, in some cases for many years.

It is too late to go back over the debates that we had before Christmas. We should concentrate on making the Bill a little tidier, a little clearer and a little less unfair. The Lords amendments would do that. We should approve the amendments that impart tidiness and we should endorse those that bring in a little fairness. In so doing, we would redress a balance that we are guilty of getting grossly wrong.

Mr. Frank Cook

If we accepted all the amendments this evening, we would not make good law; we would just make a law less bad than it was. The case for dismantling is plain. I have made it before in the Chamber. I do not want to repeat everything that I have said on the subject. The consequence of not accepting dismantling will be fewer and fewer gun clubs. Clubs will be more widely dispersed and they will have arsenals in them. That must be so if the Bill goes through as it stands.

It is iniquitous that people with an interest in target shooting should be penalised. I have every sympathy with the residents of Dunblane and residents of Hungerford. Nobody has a monopoly on that distress. Sometimes, people talk as though they have—they have not.

The Home Secretary has responsibility throughout the United Kingdom for the efficiency and expertise of the police. I care about target shooters. Theirs is a bona fide, international sport. Our sportsmen and women have brought credit to this country.

What about the men and women on the beat who are entrusted with a firearms responsibility? They have to practise that expertise and hone it to proficiency standard. What time do they get, and where can they go? They cannot practise on official ranges, they cannot use official weapons and they cannot do it in official time. None of that is permitted. Of their own dedication, they acquire weapons, join a club and practise in their own time to maintain their skills.

What is the Home Secretary going to do about that? There will be fewer clubs to go to, and those people will not be able to hold legally the weapons that they are required to be able to use proficiently. Defeating the Lords amendment on dismantling will mean that there will be fewer clubs. The Home Secretary has a direct responsibility. I hope that he is taking it seriously.

5.45 pm
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

I very much regret being at odds with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. I shall vote for the Lords amendment on disassembly because it would implement Lord Cullen's original recommendations. I am rather shocked and dismayed that the Government ignored the original recommendation.

As the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) has pointed out, no one has a monopoly on sympathy for those who have suffered so appallingly as a result of the actions of Thomas Hamilton. Like everybody else, I was deeply shocked and appalled at what happened. However, I must ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether he thinks it sensible to be at odds with so many of his Back Benchers—his supporters in his party.

I do not appreciate the fact that my party was bounced into the Bill by a few members of the Cabinet. We had no opportunity to consider the Cullen report and our response to its recommendations. I have never voted for the Bill. One reason for that is that the shooting community has been betrayed. While Cullen was conducting his inquiry, members of that community were told not to rock the boat. They demonstrated a great deal of self-restraint. They were told that they would have an opportunity to put their case to the politicians. They did not have that opportunity, because we were all bounced into the Bill. The House of Lords has merely injected some balance into it.

We have heard from hon. Members on both sides that the refusal to follow Cullen's recommendations on disassembly is a response to public opinion. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) referred to the three polls, conducted after the Duke of Edinburgh's comments, that showed that public opinion was not as polarised as has been suggested. People recognise that the shooting community is being discriminated against. I am sorry that the Government have not taken that into consideration. The Government's preferred option will put most gun clubs out of business, because of the massive cost of implementing the security measures.

The Bill already stops many shooters carrying out their legitimate pastimes. The amendment is a moderate attempt to inject some fairness. It would be much safer for unusable parts of a gun to be stored in separate places, rather than arsenals of working guns being held in clubs. That point has been made several times; surely the House should take note of it.

The taxpayer could also be saved considerable sums, because the compensation bills would not be as high. We have not heard many people talking on behalf of the shooters. If the Lords amendment is accepted, more people will be able to continue their sport, because more clubs will be able to remain open.

This morning, I received a letter from the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), in response to a letter that I wrote to her in October. I am grateful for her response. She replied to several points that I had raised. She said: A determined or motivated individual could find it easy to obtain an illicit spare part. A determined or motivated individual could find it easy to obtain a handgun. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant) has said, someone so motivated could go to many pubs in London and buy a handgun.

The Bill ignores that reality. It discriminates against a group of people who enjoy a legitimate pastime. The House of Commons and the Conservative party will rue the day that the Bill was forced through Parliament.

Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)

I shall keep my remarks short because of the guillotine. In his opening remarks, the Home Secretary was squirming in his efforts to deal with the points raised by Conservative Members and one or two Labour Members. I heard him recognising the logic of the point advanced by the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and he failed to deal with the problem raised by the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman). I could not help but reflect that he would not have found himself in that uncomfortable position, had we found time to discuss the Cullen report before the headlong rush into legislation. If even so trained a legal mind as his is unable to deal with those points now, I cannot help but reflect that we would have done far better to have considered the practical and technical arguments and even tested public opinion on the proposal advanced by Lord Cullen before we embarked on this ill-considered legislation.

Mr. John Carlisle

If that was the case, why did the Liberal Democrat party jump the gun, if I may use that phrase, by saying that it would ban all handguns, before the Cullen report was even published?

Mr. Harvey

In all truth, uniquely among the parties in this case, our party took the time to read the Cullen report before arriving at any conclusions. We then advanced on the basis of a free vote. Many such as myself who fundamentally disagree with the principle of the legislation because of the way that it is framed, none the less voted for the option of an all-out ban, because we realised that that was more logical than the muddle that forms the basis of the legislation.

The amendment under consideration would be a better option than either and I shall continue to consider disassembly, which has been proven in our debate to be the best option available. The so-called experts who initially said that it was impractical have largely been answered. Some of the more recent arguments against the disassembly option also seem largely to have been dealt with.

We are being asked to consider the suggestion that law-abiding, respectable citizens, who are members of gun clubs, will resort to the most bizarre steps imaginable to conceal various pieces of equipment, pretend that they are other things, substitute one for another and do all sorts of other things. Why on earth would anyone bother to go to the trouble of doing all those things when, as has been said time and again, it would be far easier simply to go to the continent and get hold of a gun, or to go to any of the innumerable establishments in the underworld to procure one? It seems far more likely that someone who was determined to have a weapon would resort to one of those easier and less complex ways, to get one.

It has been suggested that the arrangement for disassembly would be bureaucratic and hard to administer. I do not see why it would be any more so than the proposed legislation. The bureaucracy, such as it is, would provide useful safeguards, which would enable the police to check properly and would mean that we knew who had got what, where and for what purpose.

The practical arguments against disassembly simply do not hold water. Disassembled pistols would be far safer than the arsenals of complete guns that we are proposing. If clubs are a target, arsenals would be a much more attractive target than somewhere that had only half the item stored in it. The disassembly option would allow thousands of clubs to continue to operate. would save a sport for thousands of people—both able-bodied people and the many disabled people who find that this is a sport in which they are uniquely able to participate—and would save the taxpayer a huge amount of money. Also, it would meet the central purpose of the Bill, which is to separate the owner of a gun from that gun, except within licensed premises, and to do everything possible to avoid another terrible tragedy along the lines of Dunblane. As drafted, the Bill would practically eliminate the sporting use of pistols and would provide only a negligible increase in public safety.

Mr. John Carlisle

I apologise to the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) if I embarrassed him in some way about the stance that he honourably took against that taken by his colleagues in the Liberal Democrat party. Let it be put on the record that they talked about banning all handguns before the Cullen report was published. As far as embarrassment is concerned, I am with him, on the basis that I have been acutely embarrassed by this legislation and will continue to be so.

Mr. Howard

Characteristically, my hon. Friend is being far too generous to the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey), who did not disagree with his party, but voted with his colleagues for a total ban. I understand the views of those of my hon. Friends and of the few Opposition Members who objected to a total ban and are in favour of the amendment, but does my hon. Friend agree that there is no case whatever for the view taken by the hon. Member for North Devon, who voted for a total ban and now seeks to represent all sides of the argument by apparently voting for disassembly?

Mr. Carlisle

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. However, at a time when we who disagreed with both Front-Bench spokesmen are looking for every friend we can get, a voice in the wilderness that may translate into a vote in the Lobby in a few moments is to be welcomed.

Sir Anthony Grant

I think that my hon. Friend and, probably, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, will want to be completely fair to the Liberal Democrat party. It should be pointed out that the one member of that party who knows something about this subject—the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel)—actually voted against.

Mr. Carlisle

My hon. Friend has put the matter succinctly—may the Liberal Democrats be keepers of their own conscience.

This has been an extraordinary debate, particularly the performances from the Front Bench. I am interested in the new thesis of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, that temptation must now be a basis for law. I have often been tempted in my short political career in this place—sadly, about to end—to think that I might sit where he does. Obviously, I know that I have his protection and that of the other law makers in this place, should such a wayward thought ever cross my mind. Perhaps that gives him and the Opposition Front-Bench team an idea of the fact that they are totally wrong and unfair to reject the reasonable Lords amendment. After all, it is only a tiny amendment compared to that which many of us would have wished their Lordships to put forward—disassembly of all handguns, including .33s, which would have put a coach and horses through the Bill and made it totally unworkable, in my right hon. and learned Friend's mind.

The Lords amendment is a modest measure, but it would give enormous comfort to the few supporters we have left who still trust us on this legislation, on the basis that we would at least be giving them some form of succour, in what has been a thoroughly bad, ill-thought-out and ill-prepared Bill.

Other colleagues have mentioned cost. In my constituency, the leading gun club is in the heart of the town. That is not exactly the leafy suburbs of my constituency—I do not think that there are any trees to have leaves on in that part. It is mainly a council area, where people are struggling to make ends meet. That club will undoubtedly have to close if we do not accept the Lords amendments. It seems logical that, by disassembling the guns in the way proposed, we shall not only put a stop to the arsenal of weapons that exists now, which is necessary, but avoid the enormous costs of the fortresses that will have to be built.

As the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said, gun clubs will necessarily be fewer and fewer. The British Shooting Sports Council has estimated that nearly 67 per cent. of clubs will go out of business if this amendment is not accepted. It must weigh on the conscience of all hon. Members that we are taking from those honest and reasonable constituents, many of whom are our supporters but who are sadly disillusioned by the legislation, that chance to keep their sport.

To conclude, as I know that time is short, the situation that we now face with disassembly, particularly with the Commonwealth games, is ludicrous. Because of the legislation, competitors from abroad at the Manchester games will be able to bring in a calibre of gun that is far greater than that which we have discussed this evening and which will be illegal, except if special exemption is made. Our own sportsmen and sportswomen, who have enormous prowess in the sport, will not be able to practise with those guns in this country and will have to go abroad; that is totally ludicrous.

Even at this stage, a special exception could be made for the sportsmen and sportswomen who want to represent their country, as they have done in the past with such dignity and success, and who will now have to jump on an aeroplane or a ship and go abroad to practise so that they can compete in the Commonwealth games. What a farce—and what a farce, frankly, the whole Bill has become.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary must listen to the voices from the Government Benches—and the brave voices from the Opposition—if we are not to face an electoral disaster. I warn him that that could easily happen in many marginal seats if we passed the legislation.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Carlisle

No, I must conclude because others wish to speak.

I ask my right hon. and learned Friend even at this late stage to consider accepting the amendment.

6 pm

Mr. Barnes

It is quite unbelievable that in supporting the amendment I find myself aligned with the hon. Members for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) and for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle), the Duke of Edinburgh, hereditary peers and the shooting community. Those are not people whom I would regard as my natural political allies, but I believe that the logic of dismantling is overwhelming.

I should have preferred the amendment to be the other way round, so that the slide assembly or cylinder were held at home, but it is the best proposal that we have, and it is in line with the general principle that dismantling has always been a sensible provision. That idea was put to us by Cullen, and we should have had a chance to discuss it in the House and to sort out our ideas before legislation was rushed through.

The Dunblane parents wrote to me, as they probably did to every Member of Parliament. I met them in what was probably my most harrowing experience as a Member of Parliament, having to defend a position that they opposed, when all my sympathy went with them rather than with the individuals whom I mentioned earlier as being associated with me on the matter. In the end, I replied to the letter in considerable detail, explaining my position.

I believe that dismantling is the best possible solution to the problem that confronts us, given that the Government have insisted on their position about .22 calibre weapons. The logic operated throughout, and is back with us in the amendment. I am pleased that the gun lobby is on board in arguing for dismantling, because I thought that once it had lost the argument on general principle, it might fall back to the position of .22s being placed in gun clubs. There are, however, other arguments, such as that concerning the difficulty of establishing sufficiently secure gun clubs, which affect the interests of the gun lobby.

I am disappointed with the position being taken by Labour Front Benchers, because they have stood on their head to some extent on the matter of gun clubs. They now tell us that gun clubs are more or less safe, whereas on Second Reading their argument for the total ban on handguns was based on the premise that the Government's proposal of placing .22s in gun clubs was not acceptable and that all sorts of dangers were associated with it. They have decided to agree with the Government, and have not followed through the logic of their original position.

The argument is solidly established, even for people such as myself, who have never been associated in any way with gun club culture or activity, but have all along considered dismantling to be the answer to an extremely difficult problem. We have a chance to do something about that tonight.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I support the amendment. I believe that we are dealing with an entirely legitimate sport, pursued by responsible individuals, which teaches discipline and self-control. Through the legislation, the House is removing or curtailing an activity that has previously been lawful, and removing private property that up to now has been lawfully held. The House should be extremely cautious about doing that.

I have visited gun clubs in my constituency and I am convinced that the disassembly option is safe and feasible and would save a considerable quantity of public money. After taking a considerable amount of evidence about disassembly, Lord Cullen concluded: I am satisfied that the dismantling of self-loading pistols and revolvers would in general be practicable. In response, the Government produced only one objection. They said: While removal of key components is feasible for certain types of guns, it is not a practical proposition for others. I agree with that. The measure would not apply for the 5 or 10 per cent. of pistols for which it is not practicable, but for the other 95 per cent. it is a practicable option, as found by Cullen and as admitted, by implication, in the Government's initial response.

In an intervention on my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, I pointed out that the argument that a pistol owner could obtain illegally another slide assembly, and therefore a complete pistol, was pretty thin: someone driven to do that would find it much easier to obtain an entire pistol, most likely from the very large reservoir of entirely illegally held weapons, which are unaffected by the legislation. He said, very fairly, that he saw the force in that argument, so I would ask him to follow that through and accept the amendment.

Surely the House stands up for minorities. Does not liberty, which we defend in the House, entail supporting at times unpopular causes? I think that the legislation is in parts mistaken and that we have an opportunity this evening to go one small step towards meeting the legitimate aspirations of the majority of legitimate sportsmen who use guns, by accepting the disassembly option.

Mr. Howard

I agree strongly with my right hon. and hon. Friends who have said that those who currently engage in the activity of shooting are overwhelmingly law-abiding, decent people. I entirely understand the concerns that have been expressed at the extent to which they are likely to be affected by the legislation.

I entirely reject the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) that a majority of those who voted for the amendment in another place, or my hon. Friends, were merely seeking to defend vested interests. That is very far from the case, and the allegation was unworthy.

I also reject the hon. Gentleman's argument that we should be motivated in placing this or any other legislation on the statute book primarily by a consideration of where the balance of popular opinion lies. That is certainly a factor to be taken into account, but it should not be the only factor. I thought that the intervention on him by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) had much force. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman gave my hon. Friend a satisfactory response.

Mr. Henderson

Perhaps I can give a more satisfactory response now. That was not what I was saying. I argued that the House must do what is right and practical, but that in this instance, public opinion demands that we take action quickly, which is why it is important that we proceed with the Bill now.

Mr. Howard

As the hon. Gentleman says, we have to do what is right and practical. Therefore, the argument turns on the difference between the point of view expressed in questions put to me by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory)—on which he expanded in his speech—and by other hon. Members, and my response to them. My right hon. Friend mentioned my response to this point in the debate, I think, on Second Reading, but he did not read on. Had he done so, he would have found that, at that early stage, I dealt with the essential argument that if disassembly were accepted, there would be no satisfactory way of controlling the illicit use of parts of guns to make a whole gun. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) suggested that the Government had introduced that argument at a later stage. That is not the case; it was part of our argument from the very beginning.

The point is perhaps most explicitly and succinctly expressed by the Association of Chief Police Officers of England and Wales, which stated that disassembly is incapable of being policed. Coming from that source, that opinion is not lightly to be set aside. I fully accept that the balance of the argument on the amendments is a difficult judgment. I fully accept that it is possible for others to reach a legitimate judgment on the question that differs from that of the Government, which I commend to the House. However, it would be difficult for someone with the ultimate responsibility for recommending to the House the decision that it should take to put aside the careful judgment of ACPO, reached in such unequivocal terms. I ask hon. Members to take careful note of that judgment and give it proper and full weight when they decide how to vote.

Mr. Marlow

What do the chief constables mean when they say that disassembly cannot be policed? Does it mean that some people might not abide by the law and would therefore break it? If they broke the law on disassembly, they could break it by holding guns that they were not entitled to have. Where does that take us?

Mr. Howard

I do not think that my hon. Friend was present for the whole debate. That point was made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells and others. As I sought to explain in answer to their interventions, my belief, which is shared by ACPO, is that there are those who will be tempted by the ease of fitting spare parts into another part of a gun who would not necessarily buy illegal guns. That is the judgment on which the amendments turn.

Mr. Frank Cook


Mr. Howard

I accept that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells may take a different view on where the balance of judgment lies. I have put before the House the basis on which I have reached mine.

Before I conclude, I want to reply to the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), who asked a specific question about police training, which was dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State in another place. She said quite unequivocally that both the Ministry of Defence and ACPO agreed with the Government's assessment that training for the requisite standards of proficiency would continue to be provided for police and the personnel of the armed services when they are on duty. That is what happens.

Mr. Cook

It is insufficient.

Mr. Howard

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's view that it is insufficient, nor did ACPO.

I have attempted to identify the judgment which lies at the heart of the decision that the House must take on the amendment. I invite lion. Members to pay particular attention to the judgment of ACPO, that disassembly is incapable of being policed. I invite hon. Members to disagree with the two amendments that were passed in another place.

Question put, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 394, Noes 115.

Division No. 78] [6.14 pm
Adams, Mrs Irene Bray, Dr Jeremy
Ainger, Nick Brazier, Julian
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Bright, Sir Graham
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Brown, Michael (Brigg Cl'thorpes)
Alton, David Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Amess, David Browning, Mrs Angela
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Burns, Simon
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Burt, Alistair
Arbuthnot, James Butler, Peter
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Butterfill, John
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Callaghan, Jim
Ashby, David Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Ashton, Joseph Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Campbell-Savours, D N
Austin-Walker, John Canavan, Dennis
Baker, Rt Hon Kenneth (Mole V) Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Linc'n)
Baldry, Tony Carttiss, Michael
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Chisholm, Malcolm
Barron, Kevin Clapham, Michael
Bates, Michael Clappison, James
Battle, John Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Bayley, Hugh Clark, Dr Michael (Rochf'd)
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Bell, Stuart Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F Clelland, David
Beresford, Sir Paul Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Berry, Roger Coe, Sebastian
Betts, Clive Coffey, Ms Ann
Blunkett, David Cohen, Harry
Boateng, Paul Congdon, David
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Connarty, Michael
Booth, Hartley Conway, Derek
Boswell, Tim Cook, Rt Hon Robin (Livingston)
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Corbyn, Jeremy
Bowis, John Corston, Ms Jean
Bradley, Keith Couchman, James
Brandreth, Gyles Cousins, Jim
Cox, Tom Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy
Cran, James Hardy, Peter
Cunliffe, Lawrence Hawkins, Nick
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try SE) Heald, Oliver
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward
Cunningham, Ms Roseanna (Perth Kinross) Henderson, Doug
Hendry, Charles
Currie, Mrs Edwina Heppell, John
Curry, Rt Hon David Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Darling, Alistair Hill, Sir James (Southampton Test)
Davidson, Ian Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C) Hinchliffe, David
Davies, Chris (Littleborough) Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (Grantham)
Davis, Rt Hon David (Boothferry) Home Robertson, John
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Horam, John
Day, Stephen Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Deva, Nirj Joseph Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Dewar, Rt Hon Donald Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Dixon, Rt Hon Don Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Donohoe, Brian H Hughes, Robert (Ab'd'n N)
Douglas-Hamilton, Rt Hon Lord James Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)
Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Dowd, Jim Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)
Duncan, Alan Hunt, Sir John (Ravensb'ne)
Dunn, Bob Hutton, John
Durant, Sir Anthony Illsley, Eric
Dykes, Hugh Ingram, Adam
Eagle, Ms Angela Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Eastham, Ken Jackson, Mrs Helen (Hillsborough)
Eggar, Rt Hon Tim Jamieson, David
Elletson, Harold Jenkin, Bernard (Colchester N)
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Jenkins, Brian D (SE Staffs)
Ennis, Jeff Jones, Barry (Alyn & D'side)
Etherington, Bill Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Evans, John (St Helens N) Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Evans, Nigel (Ribble V) Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Jones, Robert B (W Herts)
Evennett, David Jowell, Ms Tessa
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Faber, David Keen, Alan
Fabricant, Michael Kennedy, Charles (Ross C & S)
Faulds, Andrew Kennedy, Mrs Jane (Broadgreen)
Fenner, Dame Peggy Khabra, Piara S
Fisher, Mark Kilfoyle, Peter
Flynn, Paul Kirkhope, Timothy
Forman, Nigel Knapman, Roger
Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling) Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)
Foster, Don (Bath) Kynoch, George
Foulkes, George Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Legg, Barry
Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley) Lewis, Terry
Fraser, John Liddell, Mrs Helen
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Lidington, David
French, Douglas Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Fyfe, Mrs Maria Litherland, Robert
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan Lloyd, Tony (Stretf'd)
Garnier, Edward Llwyd, Elfyn
George, Bruce Lord, Michael
Gerrard, Neil Loyden, Eddie
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Luff, Peter
Godman, Dr Norman A Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Golding, Mrs Llin Lynne, Ms Liz
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair McAllion, John
Gordon, Ms Mildred McAvoy, Thomas
Graham, Thomas Macdonald, Calum
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) McFall, John
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) MacKay, Andrew
Grocott, Bruce McKelvey, William
Gummer, Rt Hon John Maclean, Rt Hon David
Gunnell, John McLeish, Henry
Hague, Rt Hon William Maclennan, Robert
Hain, Peter McLoughlin, Patrick
Hampson, Dr Keith McMaster, Gordon
McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick Robertson, Raymond S (Ab'd'n S)
McNamara, Kevin Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
MacShane, Denis Roche, Mrs Barbara
Madden, Max Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Maddock, Mrs Diana Rowe, Andrew
Madel, Sir David Ruddock, Ms Joan
Mahon, Mrs Alice Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela
Maitland, Lady Olga Sackville, Tom
Malone, Gerald Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy
Mandelson, Peter Salmond, Alex
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Marshall, John (Hendon S) Sedgemore, Brian
Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel) Sheerman, Barry
Martin, Michael J (Springburn) Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Martlew, Eric Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Mates, Michael Simpson, Alan
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian Smith, Chris (Islington S)
Maxton, John Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Meacher, Michael Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Meale, Alan Smith, Tim (Beaconsf'ld)
Mellor, Rt Hon David Soames, Nicholas
Merchant, Piers Soley, Clive
Michael, Alun Speed, Sir Keith
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Spellar, John
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute) Spencer, Sir Derek
Milburn, Alan Spicer, Sir Jim (W Dorset)
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs)
Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants) Spink, Dr Robert
Moonie, Dr Lewis Spring, Richard
Morgan, Rhodri Sproat, Iain
Morley, Elliot Squire, Ms Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon) Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Moss, Malcolm Steen, Anthony
Mudie, George Steinberg, Gerry
Mullin, Chris Stephen, Michael
Murphy, Paul Stewart, Allan
Needham, Rt Hon Richard Strang, Dr Gavin
Nelson, Anthony Straw, Jack
Neubert, Sir Michael Streeter, Gary
Newton, Rt Hon Tony Sutcliffe, Gerry
Nicholson, Miss Emma (W Devon) Sykes, John
Norris, Steve Tapsell, Sir Peter
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Taylor, Ian (Esher)
O'Brien, William (Normanton) Taylor, John M (Solihull)
O'Hara, Edward Temple-Morris, Peter
Olner, Bill Thomason, Roy
O'Neill, Martin Thompson, Sir Donald (Calder V)
Oppenheim, Phillip Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Page, Richard Timms, Stephen
Paice, James Tipping, Paddy
Patnick, Sir Irvine Touhig, Don
Patten, Rt Hon John Townsend, Sir Cyril (Bexl'yh'th)
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Tracey, Richard
Pearson, Ian Tredinnick, David
Pickles, Eric Trend, Michael
Pike, Peter L Trickett, Jon
Pope, Greg Trotter, Neville
Portillo, Rt Hon Michael Turner, Dennis
Powell, Sir Raymond (Ogmore) Vaz, Keith
Prentice, Mrs Bridget (Lewisham E) Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Walden, George
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Wallace, James
Prescott, Rt Hon John Ward, John
Primarolo, Ms Dawn Wareing, Robert N
Purchase, Ken Waterson, Nigel
Quin, Ms Joyce Watson, Mike
Raynsford, Nick Watts, John
Reid, Dr John Wells, Bowen
Rendel, David Welsh, Andrew
Renton, Rt Hon Tim Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm Wicks, Malcolm
Robathan, Andrew Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn Wigley, Dafydd
Robertson, George (Hamilton) Wilkinson, John
Willetts, David Worthington, Tony
Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W) Wray, Jimmy
Wright, Dr Tony
Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Winnick, David
Wise, Mrs Audrey Tellers for the Ayes:
Wolfson, Mark Mr. Richard Ottaway and
Wood, Timothy Mr. Matthew Carrington.
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan Johnston, Sir Russell
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Atkins, Rt Hon Robert Key, Robert
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) King, Rt Hon Tom
Barnes, Harry Kirkwood, Archy
Batiste, Spencer Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Beggs, Roy Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Bendall, Vivian Lester, Sir Jim (Broxtowe)
Biffen, Rt Hon John Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Body, Sir Richard MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Bowden, Sir Andrew Mans, Keith
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Marek, Dr John
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Marland, Paul
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Budgen, Nicholas Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Butcher, John Moate, Sir Roger
Cann, Jamie Molyneaux, Rt Hon Sir James
Carlisle, John (Luton N) Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector
Cash, William Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Churchill, Mr Nicholls, Patrick
Colvin, Michael Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Cormack, Sir Patrick Pawsey, James
Dalyell, Tam Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Duncan Smith, Iain Porter, David
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'ld) Rathbone, Tim
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Redwood, Rt Hon John
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Richards, Rod
Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim) Riddick, Graham
Fry, Sir Peter Roe, Mrs Marion
Gale, Roger Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Gallie, Phil Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Gapes, Mike Shepherd, Sir Colin (Heref'd)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Shersby, Sir Michael
Gill, Christopher Sims, Sir Roger
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Skeet, Sir Trevor
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Skinner, Dennis
Gorst, Sir John Spearing, Nigel
Grant, Sir Anthony (SW Cambs) Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Sumberg, David
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Sweeney, Walter
Grylls, Sir Michael Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald Taylor, Sir Teddy
Hannam, Sir John Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Harris, David Townend, John (Bridlington)
Harvey, Nick Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Haselhurst, Sir Alan Viggers, Peter
Hayes, Jerry Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Waller, Gary
Hicks, Sir Robert Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence Whitney, Sir Raymond
Hoey, Kate Whittingdale, John
Howell, Rt Hon David (Guildf'd) Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk) Wilshire, David
Hunter, Andrew Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesf'ld)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Jessel, Toby Tellers for the Noes:
Johnson Smith, Mr. Tony Marlow and
Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Mr. Den Dover.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment accordingly disagreed to.

It being after fifteen minutes past Six o'clock, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER put the remaining Question to be decided at that hour, pursuant to the Order this day.

Lords amendment No. 12 disagreed to.

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