HC Deb 15 January 1997 vol 288 cc430-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Anthony Coombs.]

10.13 pm
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the matter of the tragic murder of one of my constituents, Thomas McIntyre. The subject of the debate—although the murder occurred seven years ago—is timeous. The debate comes relatively soon after our discussions in this House on handguns, and immediately prior to a discussion of the firearms legislation in another place.

Only two short months ago, I spent several hours, as did many other hon. Members, with the parents of the children tragically massacred at Dunblane. Those parents were in Parliament for the opening of the debate on handguns, and I, like many others, was deeply moved not only by their circumstances but by their dignity and courage in the face of so much suffering.

At that stage, I and many of my hon. Friends—along with some Government Members—strongly urged the Government to allow a free vote on the issue of handguns. The Government refused. They allowed a free vote on caning in schools, but not on handguns. I do not understand how the administering of a smack on the hand can be such a profound matter as to require a free vote of conscience, while the possibility of using a gun to take a life is less profound in the Government's eyes.

At that time, my constituents wrote to me in sackfuls to support the banning of handguns. However, that was partly influenced by the fact that many of them had shared in a tragedy of our own, long before Dunblane. Everyone has heard of the tragic events of last March in Dunblane, but not many will have heard of the death of Thomas McIntyre, a 19-year-old student teacher from my constituency who was brutally murdered after a night out with some friends, after he had gone to the assistance of a young woman who had been hit by a vehicle as she crossed a road in Glasgow.

My constituent, Thomas McIntyre, was shot and died in a Glasgow street at 1.40 am as a result of multiple gunshot wounds to the chest, at the hands of a gun owner, Alan Parkhill, with no history of mental illness, who was a gun club member, trained to shoot, with a legally held licence.

Thomas McIntyre and Alan Parkhill were two young men buried on the same day, one having been murdered and the murderer in turn having committed suicide with his own gun immediately afterwards: two tragedies; two families in grief; two communities in grief.

A public inquiry was held in Glasgow into both deaths, during six days in September and October 1990, before Sheriff Brian S. Lockhart. The findings of that inquiry hold no comfort for those who would have us believe that the potential misuse of widely available handguns can somehow be curbed—or, in the case of Dunblane, should have been curbed—by police action in searching criminal records, or by psychological profiling or other personal or personality searches.

That detailed report, nearly seven years ago, concluded that no reasonable precautions could have been taken by the chief officer of police or by the police themselves in terms of the then legislation, or by any other person or body, whereby the deaths might have been avoided. The actions of the gunman could not have been predicted, and they remain to this day unexplained.

The sheriff directed that the transcript of the evidence to the inquiry and its determination be remitted to the Secretary of State with the recommendation that he refer them to the Firearms Consultative Committee for consideration, and that the committee give particular attention to the age or ages at which persons should be permitted to hold a firearms certificate relating to weapons of different calibres; the number of firearms and the amount of ammunition that any member of the public should be entitled legally to possess; and all aspects of the storage of firearms and ammunition owned by members of the public. That was in 1990.

The families of both Thomas McIntyre and Alan Parkhill sat through the proceedings in court numb and unbelieving while the events of the tragedy unfolded. Both families—of the victim and of the murderer—were bewildered, precisely because the action of the gunman Alan Parkhill was apparently so out of character.

Alan Parkhill first obtained a shotgun certificate when he was only 16 years of age, and a firearms certificate when he was only 17. That certificate permitted him to acquire a .22 pistol, a .357 revolver and a .22 rimfire rifle. He made application for a firearm certificate under section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968.

In accordance with normal procedure, the police checked criminal records, special branch records and divisional intelligence. The report from the sergeant on the application said that the applicant had been a member of a pistol club for some time, that he seemed to be very knowledgeable about firearms, and, moreover, that he had gone to some considerable expense to ensure the security of the firearms that he intended to purchase. He was a responsible gun club member. He seemed to be a sensible young man, and had the full approval of his parents, which had been sought for his application.

Alan Parkhill and his family were of good character. They were not listed in divisional intelligence officers' files, and there were no local objections to the granting of the certificate. It had been ascertained that he was a member of the Glasgow and District pistol club and the Balornock rifle and pistol club, and that he would use only authorised ranges. After the necessary checks had been made, the applicant was granted his firearms certificate.

When Mr. Parkhill reached 18 years of age, the certificate was altered to allow him to possess one .357 Smith and Wesson revolver and to purchase or acquire one 3 mm pistol, one .357 revolver, one .223 rifle, one .22 pistol and one .22 rimfire rifle, with appropriate ammunition.

Applications were received from the applicant for renewal of his certificate every three years. The same investigations were carried out by the police at the time of each application for renewal as had been carried out when the application was first presented.

In 1989, after normal checks had been carried out by the police, a certificate was issued that allowed Mr. Parkhill to possess—I apologise for going through the list, but it is illustrative—one .357 Smith and Wesson revolver, one .22 Winchester rifle, one .45 Colt pistol, one .22 Colt revolver, one 9 mm Browning pistol and one .223 Remington rifle, as well as 600 rounds of .223 ammunition, 600 rounds of 9 mm ammunition, 500 rounds of .44 ammunition, 500 rounds of .45 ammunition, 400 rounds of .38/.357 ammunition and 1,200 rounds of .22 ammunition. He was also given authority to acquire a further .44 pistol.

At the time of Parkhill's death, the police accounted for all those weapons, with the exception of the .45 colt pistol, which could not be traced. A Crossman pistol, for which no certificate had been obtained, was found in his possession. The ammunition found at Alan Parkhill's house at the time of his death—apart from six rounds—was within permitted limits. Once again, it was perfectly legal. In view of that list, it may surprise some hon. Members to know that Strathclyde police considered the firearms held by Alan Parkhill at the time of his death to be normal for an average gun enthusiast.

Mr. Parkhill was described by witnesses at the inquiry—people who knew him—as friendly, unaggressive, calm, shy, even-tempered, quiet, well-mannered, respectful, easy-going, level-headed, funny, humorous, a nice guy and a normal bloke. He was described as a diligent and conscientious worker, keen to better himself, a very competent shooter and extremely safety conscious.

After the Hungerford shootings, Mr. Parkhill wrote to the secretary of the Shooters' Rights Association applying for membership. He said: I realise that now is the time to safeguard shooting in Britain so I offer my full support to the case and hopefully my Club. On the evening of 17 March 1990, Mr. Parkhill, the easy-going boy of good character, fully responsible, shy and retiring, set out to celebrate a friend's birthday. To celebrate a birthday, he took with him a 9 mm Browning pistol, two magazines of ammunition, some loose live rounds and a sheath knife. He then consumed from 5.30 pm onwards a minimum of four cans of Budweiser, six pints of lager and two gin and tonics. Unsurprisingly, he could not remember where he had parked his Land Rover. However, he did go behind the wheel that fateful evening.

A young girl, Tracey Patrick, and her friend, David Carracher, had been walking in Sauchiehall street, Glasgow, and had decided to cross Renfield street in the early hours of the morning. They stepped from between parked vehicles and walked into the path of the Land Rover driven by Parkhill, who braked and swerved. Young David was able to jump clear, but the Land Rover struck Tracey Patrick. As she lay unconscious in front of the van, my young constituent Thomas McIntyre, a good Samaritan, ran to her assistance.

As Thomas approached to assist Tracey, Alan Parkhill got out of the Land Rover and drew a 9 mm Browning pistol. As Thomas McIntyre ran across the road to help Tracey Patrick, the gunman of almost impeccable character stood with both arms stretched in front of him and with his feet apart fired his pistol at Thomas. The first shot struck Thomas above the right wrist. As Thomas turned to run from the gunman, Parkhill fired four further shots into his back. He died immediately. One bullet went through his body and struck a taxi driver. Parkhill fired further shots, injuring several others, before placing the pistol close to his right temple, firing the gun and penetrating his brain.

Alan Parkhill was 24 years old when he committed murder and then killed himself. He was said to have been, as I hinted, an able young man, capable of conversing on a range of subjects and interests with a wide variety of people. He was not grossly affected by the fascination of weapons. Thomas McIntyre was murdered for being a good Samaritan. He was a bright young man of 19, with a great future as a teacher in front of him. The sudden death of one so young brings not only grief but numbness and bewilderment. Why such a waste of life and talent? My sympathy, and that of the constituency, went out, and still goes out, to the family of young Thomas McIntyre, in particular.

That was seven years ago, in 1990, so why am I raising the matter after all this time? Why did I decide that it might be of use to the House? Why did Thomas McIntyre's family allow—indeed, encourage—me to raise it? Does it matter after all those years? I raise it because it is a fulcrum of one of the major arguments about handguns. It gives a timely reminder of the danger of widespread availability of handguns. Perhaps above all, it brings home to us the tragic effects.

The case illustrates the massacres of Dunblane and Hungerford in microcosm, in a quieter but no less tragic way. However, the case of Thomas McIntyre and the character of Alan Parkhill, to the eternal bewilderment of everyone involved, also remind us that no amount of character checking, psychological analysis, searching of records or personalty probing can guarantee that tragedies such as this, in which handguns are used to maim and kill, will not happen if handguns are widely available. It gives the lie to those who say that Hungerford or Dunblane would not have happened had the police done their job correctly, or that it should be possible to predict that this or that man may turn out to be a mass murderer.

As the sheriff in the report of the case seven years ago quite specifically stated, the actions of young Alan Parkhill could not have been predicted—indeed, to this day, they remain unexplained.

I have heard it said that, in the hands of a mad man or a drunk, a car or a knife could also maim or kill. It is sometimes said that that possession is also unpredictable. That is to miss one central point. A handgun is not a car, a knife or a rifle. Of course all can be used to kill. But unlike a car, a handgun was not designed for the utility of transporting, or of any other utility. It was designed to be an anti-personnel weapon. Unlike a knife, it has no social utility in essence in its beginning, other than an anti-personnel weapon.

The case reminds us that it is so easy to ignore lessons. I trust that the Minister will concentrate on the difficulty of predictability. The sheriff's report specified directly that his determinations be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State for Scotland, and recommended that he in turn should refer them to the Firearms Consultative Committee, to give particular regard to various matters that I have mentioned. He, the Secretary of State, was to refer the report to that committee, and he did so. The report was read and noted. As far as I am aware, no action was taken.

The issue has relevance to the debate on handguns, and I have raised it in honour of the parents of the two young men who tragically died. Both their families have encountered tragedy, grievous losses and bewilderment. Both families realise, to their eternal regret, how it is not possible to predict the actions of anyone who holds handguns. We owe it to the two families not to forget the horror and the implications of such a tragic event. Perhaps, in discharging that debt, we serve a wider purpose in alerting the public once more to the dangers of handguns.

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

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) on raising such an important issue. I note that interest has been shown in the hon. Gentleman's concerns by the presence of other hon. Members, especially that of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton). Throughout the debate, the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) has been in her place. The same must be said of the hon. Members for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) and for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram). Other hon. Members are present, but they have not been in their places throughout the debate.

The hon. Member for Motherwell, North has clearly raised a matter of importance when at this hour of the night, after all the business that has been dealt with, there should still be sufficient concern for Members to be present.

Seven years have passed since the extremely tragic incident to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. However, I express deep sympathy to all the victims and to the relatives of everybody involved. Having seen the very thorough report of the fatal accident inquiry, chaired by Sheriff Lockhart, I agree that what happened on that tragic night in March 1990 raises issues which remain of great significance as we consider further changes to the law on the possession of firearms in the wake of the tragic incident in Dunblane.

I wholly share the view about unpredictability. Time and again, both I and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State have said that there is no measure that any Government could take that would guarantee that there would never be another tragic incident. We can only do our best and endeavour to learn lessons from past events.

I want to concentrate on the three issues to which the hon. Gentleman specifically alluded and which the sheriff picked out for detailed consideration by the Firearms Consultative Committee. The Firearms (Amendment) Bill is currently under consideration in another place, and, if I have time, I want also to discuss the way in which our proposals in that Bill will affect the specific concerns mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. I believe that they will make an important difference.

Before doing so, I believe that it would help the House if I briefly described the circumstances in which Alan Parkhill came to be in possession of the pistol and ammunition that he used to shoot Mr. McIntyre and wound others. As we have heard, and as the inquiry report makes quite clear—and as the hon. Gentleman emphasised forcefully tonight—Mr. Parkhill was perfectly legally entitled to own those weapons. He had a firearms certificate for them that was issued, perfectly properly, by the police.

Under section 19 of the Firearms Act 1968, it is an offence for anybody to be in possession of a firearm and ammunition in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. In having the pistol and the ammunition with him in his car on that night, Mr. Parkhill was committing just such an offence. I thoroughly concur with the great question mark introduced by the hon. Gentleman as to what that sort of equipment had to do with celebrating a friend's birthday.

The police certificate authorised him to purchase the pistol and ammunition, and, indeed, to keep them at home. As the inquiry report says, his certificate also allowed him to own one other pistol, two revolvers, two rifles, and a total of 3,800 rounds of ammunition of different types and calibre, depending on their suitability for use with the particular weapons involved. On the night of the shooting, Mr. Parkhill had with him one of his pistols—a Browning 9 mm—two magazines of ammunition for it and some loose rounds.

Mr. Parkhill first obtained a gun licence at the age of 16, when he applied to Strathclyde police for a shotgun certificate. He applied for and obtained a firearms certificate the following year, at the age of 17—the youngest age at which, by law, a person may purchase a firearm. In applying for that certificate, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, in renewing it subsequently every three years as he was required to do, Mr. Parkhill told the police that he wanted firearms for target shooting. That was true. Mr. Parkhill was a member of local shooting clubs—the Glasgow and District rifle and pistol club, and the Balornock rifle and pistol club—which were approved by the Secretary of State for Scotland under the Firearms Acts, which were run perfectly properly, and about which the police had no reason to feel any concern.

The law requires that anybody who wants a firearms certificate should have a good reason for being in possession of a firearm and ammunition. Home Office guidance to the police on administering firearms controls makes it clear that target shooting is a good reason, and it has been recognised as such ever since systematic firearms controls were first introduced in this country in 1920.

The sheriff's report describes two other occasions before the night of the shootings when Mr. Parkhill had a gun with him in public; and it also emerged after the shootings that one of his guns was missing. I want to make it clear that none of those matters had been reported to the police. As far as they knew, Mr. Parkhill was punctilious in adhering to all the rules and regulations relating to his possession of firearms and ammunition and they had no reason to be concerned that he posed a danger to anybody.

Sheriff Lockhart concluded in his report: there were no reasonable precautions which could have been taken by the chief officer of police in terms of the current legislation"— that is, the legislation then in force— whereby the deaths might have been averted". I fully agree with that assessment.

The police investigation of the shootings was unable to uncover why Mr. Parkhill acted as he did. The sheriff could not shed any new light on the matter. He also concluded that Mr. Parkhill had not taken advantage of any loophole in the law to obtain guns or ammunition.

The sheriff went on to conclude that the Secretary of State for Scotland should refer three specific topics to the Firearms Consultative Committee: the age or ages at which persons should be permitted to hold a firearms certificate; the number of firearms and the amount of ammunition which any member of the public should be entitled to possess; and all aspects of the storage of firearms and ammunition owned by members of the public.

We shared the sheriffs concern, and the Government asked the committee to discuss these three points. It did that in some detail, and the hon. Gentleman is aware that it concluded that there should be no change to the current arrangements. I hope I misinterpreted the hon. Gentleman; he appeared at one point to be saying that the report was not acted on. In fact, the report recommended no change, so there were no changes recommended on which to act.

Dr. Reid

I said that the report was considered and noted, and that no further action was taken.

Miss Widdecombe

Indeed. The committee published these conclusions in 1992 in chapter 5 of its third annual report. There is, of course, a copy of the report in the Library of the House.

On age limits, there are, as the Committee said, very detailed provisions in the Firearms Acts. The minimum age for purchasing or hiring a firearm of any kind is 17. The law does provide for people of less than that age to be in possession of firearms and ammunition without having bought them, but it imposes significant restrictions. I gave the Standing Committee a detailed description of age limits, which it would not be profitable to repeat tonight in the limited time available.

On the quantities of firearms and ammunition which people should be allowed to own, the Firearms Consultative Committee concluded that the present arrangements are adequate. I agree with that conclusion. In addition, the greater controls imposed by the Firearms (Amendment) Bill will place important new restrictions upon the ownership of legally held firearms.

As far as security is concerned, the Committee correctly pointed out that the law imposes a requirement on all owners of firearms and shotguns to keep them secure from theft at all times.

It is tempting to draw parallels between this case and that of Thomas Hamilton. Both involved the tragic shooting of innocent people by men who were perfectly legally entitled to possess large calibre handguns. There are, however, some differences. There was nothing to indicate that Mr. Parkhill was not fit to be entrusted with a firearm. There was no evidence that he had planned his crime. There was, as the hon. Gentleman kept saying tonight, no apparent motive. There were no grounds to refuse the granting of a firearm certificate to him. All these concerns, however, were identified by Lord Cullen as applying to Thomas Hamilton.

I therefore accept the hon. Gentleman's basic premise: that there is no easy method of predicting who may act out of character, and no easy method of preventing a tragedy such as Dunblane. But there is a major responsibility on Government to do their best to make sure that these things do not happen. Lessons have been learnt from Dunblane. We have had an independent examination, the vast majority of whose conclusions we have accepted.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising his concerns so eloquently tonight, and I apologise to at least one of his hon. Friends who was indeed present throughout the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Eleven o'clock.