§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Debate on Second Reading resumed.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, I find myself in the extraordinary position of being not only the first speaker from the Back-Benches of the Labour Party, but also the only speaker from the Back-Benches of the Labour Party. In case there should be a scintilla of doubt about the matter, I should say that I shall be speaking only for myself. I should make it clear also that I am not a shooter, I do not shoot; I am not a member of any gun club; I do not represent any gun club or any other interest; I have never used a pistol at any time in my life and the only time I ever held a rifle was when I was in the Home Guard—and when the officer saw how I was holding it, he immediately ordered me off the range.
Everyone is desperately sorry for the bereaved of Dunblane. The hearts of the whole nation went out to parents, relatives and friends of those slaughtered by the 1313 madman, Thomas Hamilton, and to the people of Dunblane who are still coming to terms with the tragedy. Above all, everyone grieves for the 16 children whose lives were so cruelly snuffed out in a moment of one man's madness; for their teacher who died bravely trying to save them; and, of course, for the children who survived but who are still suffering the physical injuries and the mental and emotional trauma of that terrible day.
Having said that, I believe that the Government acted correctly in setting up the public inquiry under Lord Cullen. That had general agreement. There was huge support for the inquiry and I am sure everyone would agree that the inquiry was thoroughly carried out. In those circumstances, it is a great pity that the Government announced their own proposals before the publication of the report; indeed, on the morning of its publication. They pre-empted it; they devalued it by that announcement and that was most unfortunate.
Parliament had had no opportunity to see the report, let alone debate it, before the Government decided their policy. No time was allowed for mature reflection of the issues involved, nor for proper consultation with those who would be adversely affected by the proposals. The Bill before us today is not therefore the product of long and serious deliberation after consultation and time for mature reflection. It is a Bill cobbled together in haste, one suspects for party political purposes. I fear that Her Majesty's Opposition have also failed in their duty by co-operating with Her Majesty's Government to rush through ill-considered legislation instead of trying to stem the tide of hysteria which swept this premature Bill before Parliament. It is outrageous that such a Bill was rushed through the House of Commons on a guillotine. It is now the duty of the House of Lords to give it proper scrutiny in as much time as that takes; it should not be hurried.
We have seen time and again that ill-considered legislation produced in response to a supposed overwhelming public demand and rushed on to the statute book has ended up causing injustice, chaos and confusion. Such a piece of legislation was the Dangerous Dogs Act. How many of your Lordships would now defend that Act? I doubt that there is one—not even the noble Baroness who sits on the Front Bench.
The Child Support Act was introduced, and what a mess that has been! What problems it has produced; what injustices it has caused! There have been suicides as a result of that Act. Those who were supposed to be caught were not caught, and those who were paying their dues in fact had to pay more.
The Criminal Law Bill introduced unit fines and we ended up with the spectacle that burglars were being fined £40 for burgling and people who parked on double yellow lines were being fined £500. The War Crimes Bill was introduced, though one admits that that was an Act of the House of Commons rather than an Act of the full Parliament. We have not yet completed one prosecution. So we should beware of hastily cobbled together legislation.
1314 This Bill commits the ultimate injustice, for it imposes a collective punishment on 56,000 innocent people for the atrocious act of a single madman who was able to choose firearms as the instrument of his mad revenge, due to failures on the part of the police in relation to the granting of firearms' certificates. It is ironic indeed that the police and the Home Office, who have failed to enforce properly existing legislation, should bring forward and support this Bill which can only punish the innocent. I remind the House that collective punishment has a bad history and should never be used in a democracy. But that is what this Bill does.
The shooting community has already been punished by being lampooned and demonised in the press and, even worse, in the House of Commons. The characters and integrity of the members of that community have been impugned and labelled as oddballs to justify the provisions of this illiberal Bill. I can understand why people, particularly those directly affected, were impatient for action; but, far from guaranteeing that there will be no future Dunblanes or Hungerfords, this Bill will serve to penalise responsible shooters while ignoring the real problems of enforcement and the increase in illegally-held firearms.
On 7th November the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, asked a Question for Written Answer, which was answered at col. WA 68 of the Official Report. He asked how many homicides had occurred in Scotland between 1990 and 1995. He also asked how many involved the use of firearms and how many of those firearms were legally held. The number of homicides in Scotland between 1990 and 1995 was 669. In 44 of those cases, firearms were used. In only three of those cases did the accused hold a valid gun licence. Those figures are very interesting because most of the homicides were committed with unlicensed guns. There is nothing in the Bill to deal with that problem.
So far as I am concerned, I suspect the Government's motives, for the number of child deaths in the United Kingdom every year is large and unremarked. Every month 26 children are killed on the roads, some by drunken drivers. Five hundred a month are seriously injured. Yet we do not have a Bill about that.
Amendments are threatened which would completely outlaw handguns, causing even more injustice and loss of livelihood to the innocent people who will be punished and disadvantaged by the existing provisions of the Bill. I shall certainly not support any amendments which will make the Bill more onerous and unjust than it already is.
The best thing that could happen is that the Bill should be shelved. However, I understand that the amendment has been withdrawn, so there is no possibility of that. It would have been better if the Bill could have been shelved until after the next election, which cannot be long delayed. We could then have had a new Bill framed in calmer circumstances after proper consultation and mature consideration of the implications of its provisions and its effect on the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of decent, ordinary people.
1315 However, the Bill will not be shelved. It is therefore up to this House to bring forward amendments to mitigate its baleful effects. The least this House can do is to attempt to alter the Bill to conform to the reasonable and properly considered recommendations of the Cullen Commission and to ensure that no financial disadvantage is imposed on innocent citizens.
§ 5.43 p.m.
§ Lord Kimball
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, in his inimitable way, has done the job of opposition which the Official Opposition have singularly failed to do on many of the issues associated with the Bill.
I must declare an interest. I was chairman from 1989 to 1994 of the Firearms Consultative Committee, set up after Hungerford, before handing over to my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury. I am also, under my noble friend Lord Swansea, vice-president of the British Shooting Sports Council.
The fact that haunts me, with hindsight and in the light of the tragedy of Dunblane, is that we made two very bad mistakes after Hungerford. First, the emphasis was on listing and prohibiting the types of automatic and assault weapons used by Ryan. They were coming on sale legally to people in this country on an enormous scale. There was even one automatic smooth-bore Israeli pistol with an extending stock which was coming into this country under a shotgun licence. Those were the kind of weapons that occupied us and were our priority after Hungerford. There was the additional problem of large magazine pump action shotguns.
Secondly, in Chapter 4 of the first report of the Firearms Consultative Committee we dealt with the question of persons who could act as a counter-signature for a firearms certificate. Here again we made a mistake. There was too great an emphasis on the list of professions who should act, rather than asking that we should have a person of similar standing to the applicant. What is encouraging is that Lord Cullen has dealt with this problem in depth. His reference in Chapter 8.81 calls for two referees who have known the person for at least two years and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, with an ability to answer a police questionnaire to bring out the extent of their knowledge of the applicant. The Bill addresses this problem in so far as future applicants for firearms certificates are concerned. Quite correctly, there is no change in the provisions for shotgun certificates. But Lord Cullen's provision meets, alas too late, a great weakness in the present system.
There is one other recommendation in the third report of the Firearms Consultative Committee. Chapter 3.21 recommends that an appeals procedure should be established which is informal and inexpensive on the lines of the Employment Appeals Tribunal, which is chaired by a High Court judge. An applicant for a firearms certificate which is refused could appeal to the tribunal rather than to the Sheriff's Court in Scotland or the county court in England. One 1316 of the tragedies of Dunblane was the argument put forward by officers of the Central Scotland Police Force that it was cheaper to renew Hamilton's certificate than to have to fight him on appeal to the sheriff. I know that our present Home Secretary, as a learned lawyer, has a personal dislike of tribunals, but I hope that in Committee we can look at this proposal. There is more than sufficient distinguished legal expertise in this House to guide us in the right direction. I am relieved to hear that the Government are now consulting on this issue.
Knowledgeable counter-signatures and quick and efficient appeals are two of the Firearms Consultative Committee's recommendations that should have been implemented before the Dunblane tragedy. The Seventh Annual Report of the Firearms Consultative Committee lists in Appendix 1 all seven reports and their recommendations, giving the action the Government have taken. It is not correct to say that they have been ignored. Some primary legislation has been introduced and carried through both Houses of Parliament.
Every leisure activity in this country at the moment is meeting an increased demand. This is true of revolver and pistol shooting. There are some 2,118 pistol and rifle clubs and it is estimated that within those clubs the pistol shooters make up 40 per cent. of those wishing to shoot. The sport is "skill at arms" and competitive shooting at all levels up to Olympic standard. I have now been convinced that the Government are right to take the view that competitive shooting should be limited to .22 rim-fire pistols. The largest calibres, and other weapons, are for military purposes. I thank the Home Secretary for recognising that, and at least saving one growing aspect of the sport. We can argue in Committee about some of the other calibres—I do not think the arguments will prove to be very convincing—and even about centre-fire ammunition.
I do not want to pursue those points now because at Second Reading today I want to emphasise the demand there is for the .22 rim-fire sport and my real concern about the Bill—the need to keep open the facilities for using and holding individuals' cherished and precious weapons.
I would hope that before the Committee stage we may see guidance from the Government on their proposals in Clause 16(2) for the granting of a licence for a club and its premises. It is referred to by the shooting community as the fortification of the pistol ranges. The fear is that it will be too expensive for many of the really good clubs. The really good clubs in this sport are the very small ones where everybody knows each other and there is no danger whatsoever of an unreliable person being a member of that community.
There are problems of isolation and planning permission for many of these ranges. There is a case for looking at secure and safe storage away from the range with transportation between an armoury and the range in an authorised fashion. The Home Secretary's reply in the Official Report of another place on 4th December at col. 1150, gives me hope on that count. I must press 1317 the noble Baroness for an opportunity to explore this before the Committee stage. Any sympathetic comment that she can make tonight would go a long way to alleviate the fears of so many of these small and enthusiastic clubs.
Many noble Lords have mentioned, and others will mention, the point about compensation. It must be fair. It has been enlarged in another place in the broadest financial resolution that I have ever seen taken to any Bill. But many of us are concerned about people personally at risk by the closing of a function or facility—for instance, a pistol range for higher calibre weapons and semi-military targets may have no future in the .22 rim-fire Olympic shooting.
I am sorry to tell the House that after much research and help from the Government's forensic laboratory I can no longer support disassembly as a method of secure storage in the home. Barrel blocks were looked at in the fourth report of the Firearms Consultative Committee and rejected by it, as they were by the Cullen report. I believe that your Lordships must take note of the letter lying in the Library from Mr. Warlow, the head of the Government's forensic laboratory, who says, quite categorically, that disassembly is no safeguard for the general public.
In conclusion, I say thank you to the noble Baroness for saving a large and growing section of the handgun shooters' sport, but that is no good without sufficient safe and secure facilities. Can we examine this before Committee?
§ 5.52 p.m.
§ Lord Ackner
My Lords, like all your Lordships I feel the deepest sympathy for the parents, the families and the friends of the children who died in this shocking attack by a brutal psychopath. Of course, we are all anxious to take all relevant—I stress "relevant"—action to stop such a ghastly event ever happening again. But I doubt very much whether this Bill does achieve that.
The proposed legislation is yet another example of the unacceptable face of electoral politics. There is on the Order Paper a reference to the Police Bill, which is to reach its Report stage. As your Lordships may know, that Bill contains a startling clause which enables the police, on the say-so of a senior police officer, to enter not only the house of a suspect, but his lawyer or anyone who might be connected in any way with him, and without the support or authorisation of any judicial figure, to bug; to collect material and wholly to disregard what has hitherto been the rights of the individual to be protected from that sort of arbitrary behaviour.
An amendment had been put down by the Liberal Democrats supported very strongly by the judiciary. It received no support from the Opposition because it is suffering from this near-pathological anxiety of being thought soft on crime. No amendment has yet been produced by the Government. One would have thought that the provision might be modified by limiting it to an emergency or something of that kind.
1318 There is shortly to come before your Lordships' House—I believe after Christmas—the Crime (Sentences) Bill. That Bill abolishes parole and imposes automatic life sentences in certain cases and minimum sentences in others. It has been strongly criticised in this House on a number of occasions. But I have watched its passage in another place and I see little prospect of that criticism being renewed.
Just a year ago, on 20th November, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, in the debate on the Address, said at col. 215 of the Official Report:If the Home Secretary means what he said at Blackpool in early October, then he is in for a shock when he comes to this House. Those measures would not only be wrong in themselves but would be wildly expensive, would increase the prison population from its present 50,000 to at least 70,000 and probably more than that. I do not believe that such measures could get through this House. Even if a whipped majority in another place insisted on them, I do not believe that they would survive the considered view of your Lordships".I do not believe for one moment that he will be allowed by his Front Bench in another place to make observations of that kind. From what I have read in the debates in Committee in another place, I do not believe there will be any resistance to these major matters when the matter comes here.
Why? It is for the same anxiety: "We must not run the risk of it being thought, rightly or wrongly, that we are soft on crime". Is that not basically what has happened as regards this Bill? Why was not the Cullen report debated? There was material in it to show the public that what essentially went wrong was the failure of the senior police officer or officers to ensure that the licence which this evil man had was removed. The causative effect, if that had occurred, was remarked on in fairly strong terms by Lord Cullen in his report at Paragraph 6.69. He said:If Thomas Hamilton had been finally deprived of his firearm certificate and hence lost his firearms and ammunition, how far would this have altered the course of events? Would he have sought and obtained illegal possession of one or more other firearms and ammunition? Would he have resorted to other means of causing death? Or would the loss of his own firearms and ammunition forestalled the development of homicidal intentions? The Inquiry heard some evidence that it was unlikely that Thomas Hamilton would have been able to obtain a firearm from members of the criminal fraternity. Even without such evidence it seems to me to be highly improbable that he would have embarked upon, let alone been successful, in such an approach. However, by some means or other he might have purloined a firearm, whether legally or illegally held, from someone known to him. On the other hand it is difficult to envisage that he would have been able to amass a collection of firearms and ammunition similar to that with which he approached the school. This all presupposes that Thomas Hamilton would have had an intention to perpetrate a mass shooting which was independent of the non-availability of his own firearms and ammunition. It is clear that what he did on 13th March 1996 was planned in advance. However, it was planned in the context of the continuing availability of his own firearms and ammunition. Further, his attitude to his own firearms seems to me to be of some importance. They were his 'babies': and he gloated over them. He used them as a means of exercising power over his victims and their relatives. It does not appear to me to follow from the evidence that Thomas Hamilton would have sought in any event to perpetrate a mass shooting. It seems to me to be at least likely that the availability of his own firearms and ammunition influenced him in the way in which he proceeded. Now it is possible that he would have sought out some other means of causing death. In the light of the evidence of Dr. Baird it would require to have been a means 1319 which encompassed his own death. I am not able to reach any conclusion as to what he would have done in this direction as it is too much a matter of speculation".That is a good indication that one of the major issues that should have been the subject-matter of debate was the causative feature of the availability of the firearms which was due essentially to the failure of the police to carry out the appropriate procedures.
Lord Cullen then dealt with the extent to which there should have been a restriction on firearms. It is true that he made no distinct recommendation, but he proposed that consideration should be given to restricting the availability of self-loading pistols and revolvers of any calibre held by individuals for target shooting. He said that that should be done by their disablement while they were not in use either by removal of the slide assembly cylinder which would be kept securely on the premises of an approved club, of which the owner was a member, or by a club official, or by the fitting of a barrel block by a club official.
From the material that I have read I accept that there may be a number of pistols or revolvers where such disassembling cannot be done, but they should be outlawed. Those are the weapons that should be made unlawful. I understand that their numbers are relatively small. Lord Cullen points out in paragraph 9.107 on page 130 that,the appalling result of the actions of Thomas Hamilton should not obscure the fact that such outrages are comparatively rare; and that the number of crimes which are committed by means of firearms which are or have been in lawful ownership is relatively small, especially so in the case of handguns. A ban on multi-shot handguns would to a very large extent destroy the sport of target shooting and have significant effects on the economy".It is that kind of observation that should have been the subject matter of debate. The effect on the economy, which is apparent from the material that has been distributed to many noble Lords, is considerable. The scale of compensation is very high. All of this needed to be balanced out, instead of which emotion took over from reason because of the deep anxiety not to be thought for a moment to be soft in dealing with crime. I believe that this precipitate and ill-considered legislation is a matter that we shall learn to regret slowly but painfully.
§ 6.4 p.m.
§ Lord Sanderson of Bowden
My Lords, when I first came to your Lordships' House, my noble friend then on the Front Bench said that he did not mind slings and arrows being hurled at him from the front but when he got a dagger between his shoulder blades he really did object. I do not see much evidence of slings and arrows from the other side of this House this evening. I can assure my noble friend on the Front Bench that she has no fear that I shall point a pistol at her back.
I had no intention of speaking until I read the amendment tabled for debate at this stage of the Bill. I thought that it was a most unusual occurrence. I was pleased to hear the noble Earl, Lord Strafford, say that he had tabled his amendment to get a reaction both inside and outside this House. I believe that the response 1320 of Her Majesty's Government to the report of Lord Cullen is sensible. I agree with the terms of the statement issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers which was that the proposed ban on high calibre hand guns and the tightening up on firearms controls generally would provide significant improvements in the protection of the public. It is a measured statement that achieves the right balance. it also points to the fact that it is not a panacea that, ipso facto, prevents the actions of people as deranged as Hamilton. The association goes on to support the comprehensive measures to deal with the security of weapons and ammunition at gun clubs.
Those of us who live and work in Scotland have perhaps been closer to the horrific tragedy at Dunblane. I believe that that dastardly deed affected people in an extraordinary way in my part of the world. The report of Lord Cullen, some of whose recommendations are contained in the Bill, says in an introductory paragraph that it is right to regard a gun as dangerous and to treat some guns as more dangerous than others. Handguns are attractive in the ease at which they can be carried and concealed and in the speed at which they can be aimed. Surely, given these words and the views expressed by the Association of Chief Police Officers, to which I have referred, we must look sensibly at amendments to the Bill rather than take the extreme view as expressed in the amendment or by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon.
Two weeks ago, some of us were pleased to have a visit here from the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, accompanied by the Convenor of the Church and Nation Committee of the Kirk. That committee considers such matters as this Bill on behalf of the Kirk. Unlike the Church of England, whose right reverend Prelates adorn the Bishop's Benches—I do not see many of them here today, my Lords—the Kirk does not have official representation in this House. As a humble elder in my own kirk in Bowden, I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to our discussions and correspondence following that visit. The Kirk played a central role at Dunblane in the very difficult circumstances that followed the tragedy on 13th March. I believe that this House should take due notice of their views on these issues as expressed to me and others. I quote from a letter dated 4th December addressed to me from Dr. Alison Eliott, Convenor of the Church and Nation Committee:The Church's commitment to promoting a culture of peace rather than a culture of violence in our country is well established and was reaffirmed by the General Assembly of the Kirk this May. In this connection we are encouraged by the steps that the Government have taken in the Firearms Bill toward increasing the control of handguns".She goes on to say that in Scotland in particular 1996 has been a year when the Dunblane tragedy not only has caused people great grief but has opened their eyes to the extent of violence in our society. It is true that the committee wanted a complete ban on guns. I disagreed and said so. But the committee understood that any government had to make careful judgments about the pace and extent of change through legislation.
1321 Three other points arose in addition to the Kirk's basic point. First, legislation had a powerful and educational function as well as its more obvious instrumental function—that is that it expresses a society's values.
The second reason is that broad support across the political spectrum is important in such legislation; and, third, it is the Kirk's judgment that this measure would not be precipitate or out of line with the public will or the power of the public desire for significant change.
I have no doubt that subsequent stages of the Bill will produce detailed discussion on the measures proposed—compensation issues in particular. I share the concern about those. But I also see some of the difficult issues that my noble friend the Minister will have to address so far as lost business is concerned. I agree with my noble friend Lord Kimball in his remarks about small gun clubs and how they are so important to many, many communities; but I hope sincerely that the expansion in the use of higher calibre and higher capacity handguns, and their ammunition, will be stopped in its tracks in the UK and that the provisions of Clause 31 to 36, which strengthen the police powers to refuse to grant or to revoke firearm licences, will remain unaltered.
§ 6.12 p.m.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, as my noble and learned friend Lord Ackner has just implied, we can be confident that if the next general election were four-and-a-half years rather than four-and-a-half months away, we would not have this Bill before us in its present form. This is knee-jerk, panic driven and, above all, tabloid press driven legislation; although to be fair some tabloid comment—notably editorials in the Evening Standard and an article by Mary Kenny in the Express—has been extremely sensible and balanced. The role of the right honourable gentleman the Leader of the Opposition in all this last October also leaves much to be desired, as the Daily Telegraph points out in its leading article this morning.
If the Bill goes through without major amendments, it will adversely affect more than 100,000 people, many of them very seriously indeed, including 90 per cent. of pistol shooters—by whom I mean all those who shoot full bore pistols and at least half those who shoot with .22 pistols but whose clubs will not be able to afford expensive security systems—together with their families, many of whom are active or passive participants in the sport.
The right honourable Member for Putney was extremely disparaging, to put it mildly, about people who engage in the sport of pistol shooting. The truth is that nearly all of them are highly respectable individuals, many of them professional people, some serving or retired police officers, many of them ex-servicemen who have fought for this country in the Battle of Britain, on the Normandy beaches, in the western desert, or in the Korean or subsequent wars.
There are also many disabled shooters most of whom, for obvious reasons, particularly those in wheelchairs, can manage a pistol but not a rifle.
1322 It will also ruin dealers and the owners of pistol ranges, many of which are run by co-operatives. Indeed, a great many people stand to lose their mortgaged homes as a result of the Bill if it is not amended. It goes without saying that the Bill as it stands imposes heavy burdens upon the taxpayer. The hundreds of millions of pounds involved could surely be better spent elsewhere.
The Bill's provisions will also greatly handicap the United Kingdom in the Olympic and Commonwealth Games. Some may claim that this is not of earth-shaking importance, but I wonder if they have thought through what this says about Britain to the world at large. The French, German, Spanish, Swiss and Norwegian Governments trust the French, German, Spanish, Swiss and Norwegian people, as, indeed, most governments of civilised countries trust their people. But the British Government evidently does not trust the British people.
Incidentally, while we are talking about statistics, it may be of interest to your Lordships to know that there are 50 times as many licensed pistols in Switzerland as there are per capita in the United Kingdom and yet the incidence of armed robbery in Switzerland is 21 per cent. less than it is here. I invite your Lordships to ponder upon that.
§ Lord Howell
My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord for allowing me to make the point I would have made had I put my name down but was unable to do because I have had 'flu. We have been awarded the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. We seek the Olympic Games for London in the next century. In both cases we have to give clear undertakings—we have already done this for Manchester—that these shooting sports will be included. Does the noble Lord agree, therefore, that we need to know from the Government how they intend to honour those obligations and allow British shooters to take part in them?
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, of course the noble Lord, Lord Howell, makes an extremely good point. To claim that you will have virtually the strictest controls on legal gun ownership in the world is surely a matter for shame rather than a matter for self-congratulation.
It is true that in the Republic of Ireland legal gun ownership is very tightly circumscribed, but at the same time there are massive stockpiles of illegal weapons, some of them used by the IRA and the INLA in the north of Ireland, and some used by powerful Dublin gangsters. Indeed, a journalist, going about her lawful business, was recently gunned down with total impunity on a busy dual carriageway on the western outskirts of Dublin, so I do not think the Republic of Ireland is the best example to follow.
One of the problems is, of course, semantics. Pistols, in a more or less modern form, have been with us for 129 years, since 1867. For approximately 50 years, from 1870, the pistol called the British Bulldog could be bought without any licence at all for about a guinea—about two days' wages for a bank clerk or a skilled artisan. They were widely carried and, as I mentioned in my speech on this subject on 24th October, the police would occasionally borrow pistols from passers-by to pursue armed criminals—there are well-documented 1323 instances of this—and yet the overall armed crime rate at that time was extremely low. As I say, this was at a time when pistols could be bought without a licence.
The word "handgun" is synonymous with the word "pistol": in other words, there is no need to use the word "handgun" except as a form of psychological warfare designed to frighten gullible members of the public into imagining that a novel and alien species of weapon has been introduced into Britain.
How can we avoid the painful and unjust consequences of this Bill as presently drafted? The answer in a nutshell is disassembly, as recommended by Lord Cullen. I know that a couple of Home Office officials maintained initially that it would not work with most pistols but I am glad to see that the Government now concede that more than 90 per cent. of them can be disassembled.
In this way, well over 90 per cent. of those who now engage in pistol shooting would be able to continue doing so, rising to almost 100 per cent. if those few with the wrong sort of pistol switch to a type which can be disassembled. Dealers and shooting-range owners would not be bankrupted. There would no longer be any need for such extremely expensive security precautions, as a gun minus some of its vital parts is of very little value to a professional criminal given the widespread availability of illegal weapons. The Times of 17th March 1995 has some extremely interesting data on this point. My latest information is that illegal guns can be bought in most of our big cities for between £50 and £200. That is why the noble Baroness's contention that a really determined individual could get round disassembly falls down. Yes they could, but it might well be cheaper and easier to buy an illegal gun instead. There would be enormous savings for the taxpayer as compensation would only be payable for 5,000 pistols at most, those which could not be disassembled.
Above all, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, so eloquently reminded us, tens of thousands of innocent respectable individuals would not be punished for the sins of one evil man who, in most parts of the United Kingdom outside central Scotland, would never have been allowed the arms and ammunition that he, Hamilton, possessed.
If passing a bad law could bring back even one murdered child, one might seriously have to contemplate passing that bad law, but we know that it can do no such thing. The House of Commons did not have a fair crack of the whip at this Bill because of the guillotine and the heavily rigged Standing Committee. In this House we have both the right and the duty to do everything in our power at subsequent stages to make a bad Bill better.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ The Earl of Shrewsbury
My Lords, bearing in mind the large number of speakers in this debate and that Committee and Report stages of the Bill promise to be somewhat interesting, I intend to limit my comments to what I believe to be the minimum. I shall delay your Lordships no longer than is necessary.
1324 I must declare my interest. I am the current chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee, an independent advisory committee set up under the 1988 Firearms (Amendment) Act to advise the Home Secretary on matters concerning firearms and the workings of the firearms Acts. The committee is made up of representatives from the Association of Chief Police Officers, ACPO Scotland, the Forensic Science Service, the Crown Prosecution Service and experts from the shooting sports world. We produce an annual report to the Home Secretary, the reading of which I commend to the House.
In the past seven annual reports, the FCC has made a considerable number of sensible and well thought out recommendations. Sadly, to date only a handful have been actioned. Recently, the FCC has been scrutinising the Bill now before your Lordships, and I know that the committee would wish me to convey to your Lordships its considerable disappointment that some of its recommendations have not been included. Perhaps the situation will alter at Committee and Report stages. We in the FCC firmly believe that the inclusion of a number of our recommendations would make this a better Bill. I take this opportunity to thank the officials who look after my colleagues and I at the FCC. They have been under considerable pressure to produce this Bill, and as always they have looked after me with considerable courtesy and efficiency.
The news of the appalling atrocity at Dunblane on 13th March shook the FCC to the core. We had a scheduled meeting the following day, and the joint and several feelings of the members was one of complete horror and disgust at Hamilton's criminal actions. But we all agreed at that stage that a knee-jerk reaction would be disastrous. So when Her Majesty's Government announced the wise appointment of Lord Cullen to hold an inquiry, the FCC greeted the news with vigorous support. Indeed, we felt that the Cullen Inquiry would provide a window for a new efficient, workable firearms Act which would correct all the anomalies of both the 1968 and 1988 Acts and would last as an effective piece of legislation for the next 20 years.
No one was in any doubt that the shooter would have to pay for the privilege of taking part in his or her chosen sport. Many of us felt that such legislation should include the establishment of an independent firearms control board together with an independent appeals tribunal—both recommendations of the FCC.
Sadly, that was not to be. I have the greatest respect for my honourable friend the Member for Burton in another place, but I felt that it was not a wise move for the Home Affairs Select Committee in the other place to inquire into the subject of handguns, as it was always clear to me that those deliberations, whatever the conclusion reached, would always pre-empt Lord Cullen's findings. Of course, that is exactly what happened, and the media took the HAC's deliberations to be an inquiry into Dunblane. All of a sudden, the whole matter was thrown to the political wolves. I believe that Her Majesty's Government were then forced into an untenable position.
1325 I submit that the result is a Bill which will make absolutely no difference to the possibility of such a similar atrocity taking place in the future. I find it absolutely sickening to witness all the political parties doing their utmost to score points against one another over this tragic matter. I believe that the Labour Party behaved disgracefully when its leader pre-empted the results of Lord Cullen's inquiry by announcing at the Labour Party Conference:I believe we should ban the private ownership and possession of handguns".Also, I find it sickening to read and hear in the media persons such as the honourable Member for Putney accusing legitimate firearms licence holders of being "perverts". I submit that the sensible course of action would have been to implement all of Lord Cullen's recommendations; provide more powers and resources to the police to enable them to make very serious inroads into the vast stockpile of illegal weapons and ammunition; and to persuade our European partners to tighten their gun control laws and their border operations to restrict severely the inflow of illegal weapons from the former eastern bloc countries. That is a major problem. It seems to me quite ridiculous that some of our Euro-partners have gun laws which are at best weak when this country has some of the toughest firearms laws in the world. I hope that Brussels will look carefully at the lead being taken by this country in such matters.
I turn for a moment to the matter of compensation. Many people stand to lose their livelihood from the effects of this Bill. It is a disgrace in a civilised society that people can be so deprived of their ability to earn their living through absolutely no fault of their own, through what amounts to legalised theft, with no compensation for the loss of their businesses. I am fully aware that the amount of money available for compensation purposes has grown from an original £25 million to £50 million to some £150 million. I commend the Government on that, and for the fact that the scope of the compensation is now wider. But this is, to my mind, a monstrous injustice, unworthy of a country which has always believed in the virtues of fair play. I hope that the Government will make every possible effort to minimise the financial hardships which the Bill will most certainly cause and that your Lordships will amend the Bill to widen the scope of compensation, when we come to Committee and Report stages, to include the small number of specialist dealers and manufacturers—often small businesses and family based.
It is a very great pity that both Hamilton and Ryan committed their atrocities with legally held weapons. The problem does not lie with those who legally hold guns. The problem lies with the millions of illegally held weapons which are cheap and freely available. This is the area where tough and decisive action is needed, not the needless persecution of the legally held gun-owning community.
1326 The 1968 and 1988 Acts are full of anomalies but in essence they are readily workable. In the case of Hamilton, the systems were not used properly. The result was that Hamilton, who should never have been able to possess a certificate, became a certificate holder.
In conclusion, I trust in the enviable reputation which your Lordships' House has earned over very many years—a reputation for fairness and knowledge and for improving bad legislation. That is our primary function, and I fervently trust that on this occasion we shall not be found lacking in this area.
§ 6.28 p.m.
§ Viscount Slim
My Lords, I own two handguns (two pistols). They have been good friends of mine during my life. I am happy to give them up if that is what is required. I shall be a bit sad, but I have never kept them in my house. I do not believe that a pistol should be kept in anyone's house. They have always been kept in a secure place where I know that they can do no one any harm. I have also to say that I am not a director of anything pertaining to this debate; I do not belong to a gun club any more; I do not belong to a security company; and I do not consult for any.
I have seen and been to a number of gun clubs. As the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, and the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, said, some are outstanding, some are average, and some are below average. The areas in which they are below average occur also in those which are average; that is, the security of their arms and ammunition, right across the board.
After Hungerford, a great effort was made. Everyone woke up. The only people who have been to sleep since are the Government. The Government have been to sleep. They have said that Hungerford is all over and people have woken up. I am especially disappointed that while the Cullen inquiry was in being the Home Office did not take a good hard look at gun clubs. I believe that in many ways they have been given some confidence and could assert the law so as to improve the situation. After Hungerford people appeared to go to sleep in the belief that everyone was happy.
The members of the Association of Gun Clubs and the committees of the gun clubs must take their duties more seriously. The committees should act more like trustees so that they have overall control of their clubs. They must be much more fussy about who is allowed membership. Discipline as regards the ranges and the keeping of armaments must be further considered. Guns should be kept in a gun club.
Many of today's excellent police officers have not done National Service. Therefore, apart from those in the special armed units, their knowledge of guns is minimal. There is in this country a great wealth of experience of weapons and of their security and that pool should be made use of. We have been rather lax in doing so.
I wish to refer the Minister to two aspects in respect of which we should take care. Indeed, perhaps amendments can be made in Committee. First, she lightly brushed over the heritage pistol. It is not a muzzle loader but a pistol, as the noble Lord, Lord 1327 Monson, described. It is part of our heritage and is the admiration of world heritage, as are our suits of armour, sabres, pikes and so forth. As time passes such items become part of our heritage. If the collectors, learned bodies and societies which own and study such items were to turn them in we would lose part of our heritage.
Furthermore, if in the meantime the owners cared to get rid of them some people on the Continent and in America would pay through the nose for them. But, once more, we would be giving our heritage away. We are quite good at doing that with our pictures and so forth. I believe that the compensation figure of £150 million would not cover the cost of the heritage pistols which are owned throughout Britain. They are lovely weapons, if I may use that expression, and an art form.
I am no expert but I have been advised that the total cost will be £800 million to £900 million. The Government are not going to pay for that, so I urge them to do something about it in Committee. Of course such weapons are lethal—they are working—but there is no requirement for them to have ammunition. However, in my humble estimation, I believe that we do not want to lose this part of our heritage. Lancaster, Webley, Wilkinson, Bland, Farbery, Henry and so forth were great pistol makers and have provided us with some of that heritage. We should hold on to it.
I turn to the second matter which I ask the Minister to consider. The total remit of a few security companies is the protection of VIPs. They are able to provide that service. They are well run and are part of our export earnings. They work overseas; there is no requirement for them here but they are based here. They work against intense competition, mainly from French, Israeli and American competitors, and they bring money back to this country. It will look odd if we are unable to provide that service, which does not affect people in Britain. Employees of such companies must keep weapons, train and practise with them and maintain them. Furthermore, they must have ranges. Often, indoor ranges are sufficient—indeed, I have designed several—upon which one can play many of the necessary actions. With modern technology they can be made secure. I believe that under the Bill such companies will go out of the window and I urge the noble Baroness to do something about that. Let us be positive and not say that everything is rotten and bad. Let us see the worth of some aspects, whether it is shooting for the Olympic Games or whatever.
Like many speakers, I am amazed that there has been no debate on the Cullen Report. We are at the end of a parliamentary term, when I normally rise to debate defence. The business managers always put that debate on just before a Recess, but now we are taking this Bill rapidly just before the Christmas Recess. That shows a weakness on the part of the Government. They cannot spend time and energy to get the Bill right so it comes up at the end of the term to be passed quickly when everyone will flannel it through.
It is a pretty lousy Bill and I do not believe that it has much to do with stopping people being murdered by criminals. Most of the 50,000 or 60,000 members of gun 1328 clubs are extremely honourable, good citizens. There are bound to be a few macho men who join a club in order to wear a camouflage smock, which no member of any self-respecting club that I have attended wears. But there are a few who go for the beer. The committees and the Association of Gun Clubs should sort out such people and ensure that they attend clubs in order to improve their competitive marksmanship to a certain standard.
There could be something to be said for allying the gun club system to the Reserve Forces. It was done in Queen Victoria's time. We do not want members to be running up and down hills trying to be soldiers, sailors or airmen. However, we need the discipline of the military man with his weapon and we need his expertise in the security of his weapon. Above all, members of gun clubs would feel that they were part of something and were doing good for the nation in their competitive shooting role. Various standards of marksmanship could be instituted to which they would have to adhere if they wished to remain members. I have always found that if a club is difficult to join there are always a good few people who wish to become members. In that way, the best membership is achieved.
I am not sad about the Cullen Report because it is a good report. But I am very sad about the way in which politicians have pandered to an early election and have all leapt to their feet and made a great deal of noise. That is not a pretty sight to the average citizen of this country. We have a lot of work to do if we are to take on this Bill. It must be put right and I hope that noble Lords who are to speak and who have spoken will make certain that we make the best of what, frankly, is a fairly bad job.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Lord Marlesford
My Lords, I declare an interest as the holder of a firearm and shotgun certificate. Obviously I should like to be as supportive as I can of the Government and their Bill which we are now considering on Second Reading. However, the best that I can offer is to say that the alternatives proposed by the Labour Party would be significantly, and perhaps very significantly, worse than what the Government have put forward.
Why do I believe that this is a bad Bill? Partly it is for the reasons set out so lucidly by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. But essentially—and it is a bit of a cliché so I am surprised that nobody has yet said it in the debate—because it is not guns which kill people; it is people who kill people. This Bill is all about guns and not about people.
If I had a real point of criticism to make in relation to why the situation arose in Dunblane, it would be to condemn the Home Office for their longstanding incompetence in administering the licensing of firearms. That is an incompetence which, in my view, is matched only by its incompetence in administering the custody of prisoners. It may not be directly relevant, but I have been recently establishing some of the facts in relation to that matter. I find from a Parliamentary Answer that when people are sent to prison not only are their passports not removed but there is not even any attempt 1329 to inform the passport-issuing authorities that those people are in prison. I expect to discover shortly that prisoners can obtain new passports while in prison, just in case they should need them!
As we know, the tragedy in Dunblane happened on 13th March 1996. I had become very uneasy about the administrative system for both firearms and shotguns back in December 1995. I tabled a series of Questions for Written Answer to try to establish exactly what was wrong. I found that there was absolutely no proper co-ordination or cross-referencing of records on who possessed weapons. There was no linkage between police forces as to who had licensed weapons and nothing covering the sort of people who should and should not possess such weapons. Anybody who reads the Cullen Report will see that weapons were possessed by a wholly unsuitable person who was, as a result, able to commit that monstrous crime.
One obvious and easy measure to take would be to have a cross linked computerised record of the ownership of all such weapons, enabling the suitability of individuals to be checked. My noble friend Lady B latch—and I say this in criticism of the Home Office and not of my noble friend—had to report to me in a Written Answer of 24th January:The Government remain to be convinced that the substantial resource implications of establishing a central computer register for all firearms is justified".—[Official Report, 24/1/96; col. WA 76.]We are now considering a Bill providing for £150 million of taxpayers' money is to be spent on compensation. I suggest that might not have been necessary had there been such a proper register.
Indeed, by 30th January 1996, I had reached such a stage of frustration that I wrote a letter to my noble friend in which I said:The information you have supplied me with so far",this followed a whole series of Written Questions,shows two things. First that the present system is unbelievably bureaucratic and secondly that it is widely inefficient and inadequately used".I then went through some of the details in particular in relation to computerisation and the need to check on people's suitability. I continued:I hope that you can see why I feel that the present arrangements are thoroughly inadequate, unsatisfactory and unduly burdensome … 1 sense that the Home Office has put the shutters up against what it no doubt sees as the impertinence of a mere legislator questioning what it sees as its sole prerogative!The tragedy at Dunblane is merely an aspect of the failure of successive governments, but particularly, I am afraid, this Government, to realise that in dealing with citizens there are certain requirements. Those are: to protect society from those who are going to commit crimes; to protect society from those who are going to defraud society; and to protect society from those who are going to ill treat each other. Something that the state most needs is a proper computerised personal record system with a single identity number—I am not talking about cards which are a subsidiary issue—so that proper checks and records can be made on such matters as the holding of firearms. Sadly, none of that is included in 1330 the Bill. I shall try to amend the Bill in order to ensure that in future, through this Bill, we can focus more on the individuals rather than on the weapons.
It is always sad to see a government dancing to the tune—perhaps I should say the screech—of the tabloids and sad too to see the Opposition seeking to dance even more rapidly to the same tabloids. It would be very sad indeed if your Lordships' House were not to have sufficient confidence in its own future to subject this Bill to the criticism and amendment which may be necessary, regardless of superficial public opinion.
§ 6.49 p.m.
§ Baroness Wharton
My Lords, I was out of the country at the time of the Dunblane massacre. Every newspaper carried the story on its front page and the impact of that fateful day will never be forgotten by any of us. Of course, we all grieve for the parents of Dunblane.
I decided to speak in this debate because a member of my family has been a keen competitive shooter for years. He is invariably placed near the top in many of the competitions he enters. He shoots with a Smith and Wesson .38 revolver which has been especially modified for precision target shooting. The gun is probably worth in the region of £1,200 excluding accessories. This type of gun is adopted by the top competitive sportsmen for full-bore events, and will be among those to be handed in, so I believe that the sport will be destroyed. On numerous occasions my relative has represented England and club while competing both here and abroad. He is also treasurer of a pistol and rifle club in Surrey and is worried that his club will not survive the proposed measures.
I, like many noble Lords, have received a large number of letters from legitimate shooters and sportsmen. Most of them have read Lord Cullen's report and mention that the Government have chosen to ignore many of its recommendations. I believe the Bill will probably destroy all open competitions due to lack of participation, as most clubs will be unable to comply with the new measures. The letters reveal a great sense of injustice and betrayal. Many of my letters are from executive members of rifle and pistol associations. One writer even asks whether the 1689 Bill of Rights could be upheld. As already said by other noble Lords, it would seem that about 57,000 law-abiding gun owners are being found guilty for the crime of one deranged man.
At the end of the day, of course, it is up to the Government to take action to prevent another Dunblane, and this Bill is intended to do just that. But I have to say that like many others I have my doubts. It is easy to disarm the law-abiding citizens who are few in number, but how on earth are the police going to get to grips with the illegal guns around? I have been given one estimate of about 4 million. Some 96 per cent. of crimes involving guns are committed with unlicensed firearms. I would think it would be extremely difficult to trace those. The tragedy here is that Thomas Hamilton possessed four legally registered guns. Reading Lord Cullen's report I got the impression that perhaps the 1331 deputy chief constable had erred when reviewing Hamilton's firearm certificate. Surely there must have been doubts about the man's behaviour to make the deputy chief constable think again and refuse a certificate. I for one simply cannot believe that he did not have the power to do so.
There is another point. I am told that customs officials do not often check individual vehicles at ports since the borders became more lax. Bringing a gun into this country must be relatively easy as a result.
Compensation is going to be extremely costly. I was glad to read at col. 707 of Commons Hansard of 18th November that the Secretary of State has confirmed that compensation for clubs, retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers would be in order, and that he would accept an amendment to that effect. Do I now understand that that would not be the case? I thought I heard the Minister say something to that effect when she opened this debate. The tragedy of all this is that if you have enough money I suspect there is nothing on earth that you cannot buy, either in this country or any other for that matter. Purchasing an illegal firearm would be child's play for those who were desperate enough.
§ 6.52 p.m.
§ Lord Gisborough
My Lords, we all sympathise with the parents of Dunblane. But, however distraught people may be, emotion makes bad law. Thus British shooters have all been found guilty for another man's crime on the premise that if one goes berserk, the others must follow. Legal gun owners are found guilty without trial and must all be punished for no crime at all.
Dunblane hit the headlines but it was no more a tragedy for those families affected than for any other family losing a child. Indeed, tragedy is worse for individuals who suffer losses as they have no group comfort. There are scores of sudden tragedies, both individual and en masse in the air and on the roads. But, as one journalist wrote, Dunblane tapped a deep well of emotion. There is something frightening about a political system that responds to emotion and not to reason. It reminds us how close we are to lynch law.
Last year 43,700 children below the age of 16 were killed or seriously injured on the roads. Some 459 aged under 10 were killed and another 2,500 seriously injured. Each death was traumatic for the family concerned. Does that not put Dunblane into proportion? However, aircraft and cars are not to be banned. More children die each year from dangerous dogs and from the actions of drunk drivers than from gunshot wounds. The difference is that they die by ones and not by the mass and so do not attract the attention of the media.
There are some 57,000 target shooters in the country. They include ex-servicemen, policemen, firefighters, lawyers, doctors, teachers and—as has been mentioned—many wheelchair shooters who would have difficulty with a larger weapon. Those people are not Rambos. Many pistol shooters have fathers and grandfathers who fought in the wars. They see it as a personal insult that the rights for which they fought should now be taken away as a knee-jerk reaction.
1332 The Dunblane women have understandably wanted to see the end of private ownership of guns, but many other women have written to me to ask that their menfolk should be allowed to retain their sport. They compete in events leading up to the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics, but that will be no more, or, at best, they will have no chance of success without the weapons with which to practise. Banning .32 and .38 for UIT centre fire events will deny participation to the British in the 2002 Commonwealth Games event and will deny British competition in the Olympics in that sport. Will competitors from abroad receive an exemption to come to this country with their guns, or will the event itself be banned? Why should foreigners be trusted with weapons that the British cannot use?
It would be misleading to pretend that the streets will be safer as the threat from criminally held illegal guns, of which there are four to five to every gun with a licence, will remain the same. The Home Affairs Committee concluded that most gun related crimes involve illegally held guns. Of 657 weapons used in armed robberies in the Metropolitan area between 1988 to 1991, half were imitations and only one of the rest had been licensed. That is some 320 illegal weapons. In Glasgow firearms can be hired for £50 a day with a discount if the gun has not been fired, and they can be bought for just over double. Had Hamilton not had pistols, he could have either obtained them illegally, or used some other weapon. The logical outcome of the ban is to drive more guns underground.
Incidents such as Dunblane and Hungerford are so rare that they form a poor basis for legislation. There is no law that can be written that can stop homicide on whatever scale if a maniac intends to do it. If murder is in the heart of a "nutter", there are plenty of other ways for such people to commit murder. At Monkseaton in 1989 a shotgun was used to shoot 14 people; at Sullivan Upper School it was a home made flame thrower constructed from a fire extinguisher. In Tasmania it was rapid fire from a rifle and in Wolverhampton it was a machete. A petrol bomb can be used. A bus queue of children can be mowed down by a car. All are obvious possibilities. A baseball bat can kill many before the assailant is overcome. Is the ownership of petrol cans, baseball bats, fire extinguishers, machetes, and motor cars to be made illegal? Any object can be used. However, it is not the object itself that is dangerous but the "nutter" behind it with the access to the target. One simply cannot ban everything that a lunatic could use to cause damage.
As society becomes more centralised, and as control is increasingly exercised over doubtful characters such as Hamilton, they feel themselves to be more isolated and alienated than ever before. From time to time we shall see the consequences of those who perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they are discriminated against. They will burst out into mass killings. Having trained our population with constant exposure to violence, and fuelled their fantasies with pornography in the media, on film and on video, we cannot be surprised if we now reap the harvest of gratuitous violence, road rage and sexual deviation. We must expect a shift in the whole pattern of human behaviour leading to cases of ever 1333 more bizarre and aggressive behaviour. Therefore, more episodes such as Dunblane and Hungerford are highly probable. Removing handguns will only make the next "nutter" use something different. If he uses a rifle, will rifles then be taken from all legitimate owners? Will the same thing happen to shotguns? The decision to ban the guns as a result of the Cullen Report was taken before any reasoned debate, and before the tens of thousands of shooters were able to put their case. It was knee-jerk legislation without considered debate.
Few clubs will have the resources to meet the storage criteria. Members are likely to move to another sport. Storing the handguns in one place in a club presents a challenge to thieves to break in and get a worthwhile haul of a number of guns in one raid. Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that every natural and legal person shall be entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions and shall not be deprived of them except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law. It guarantees citizens full and generous compensation in respect of retrospective prohibitions of property.
Many people have their own ammunition and magazines, holsters, gun safes, and so on. I am glad that the Government will now include those in their compensation. One person's equipment was valued at £6,500. He believes that he will receive only £450 in compensation. If that is true, how can that be called fair for someone who has done nothing wrong?
Furthermore, when will the compensation be paid? After Hungerford, when self-loading guns were banned along with shotguns holding more than two cartridges, they were bought in by the Government. I am advised that some of those who handed their guns back 10 years ago are still waiting for compensation to be paid. To promise compensation and then not to pay is dishonest. I am so glad that the concession has been made for historic weapons. That is a great concession.
There are those who rely on gun sport for a living. Some 1,800 traders actively deal in firearms. For them, some 70 per cent. of their trade is reportedly derived from pistol shooting. They probably hold more pistols and accessories than the public and they alone could account for a demand for compensation of some £380 million. Some gunsmiths will go out of business, yet there is little likelihood of their receiving compensation.
The Bill will destroy some 2,000 businesses, wasting the talents of some 10,000 highly skilled and law-abiding people. Some have worked for years building up their target shooting businesses for them now to be taken from them through no fault of their own and for no legal misdemeanour, with no compensation for their businesses. One site owner spent £30,000 building his range. There is a 40-year lease that will cost the club a further £40,000. Another club spent £60,000 on improving facilities. That will be lost; there will be no income to meet the charges. One site owner has seen the withdrawal of a purchaser of his ranges when he wanted to retire after a figure of £200,000 had been agreed, which represented the retirement fund for the owner. Will he be compensated?
1334 Many ranges are purpose built, very professionally run, and with high investment. There is a total investment in property and buildings which could add up to something like £200 million. The livelihood and retirement finance of many of these people will be ruined. Will that bring satisfaction to the Dunblane parents as a quid pro quo for the loss of their children? Two wrongs never make a right.
The cost to many of the clubs of becoming secure enough to keep the .22 pistols will in most cases be quite beyond their ability to pay and the clubs will close. Even if the sums were available, and one is talking of sums of six figures. planning laws may prevent the building of, for example, security walls.
The whole value of compensation in the country could add up to £1 billion. Will the Government pay that? Alternatively, will they contravene human rights and confiscate without adequate compensation? If they did so, what would they do if the European Court were to find in favour of compensation for the gun and range owners?
I am surprised that the Opposition are so keen on the Bill. If they manage to win the next election it is they who will have to find the money, on top of all the other promises of largesse that they have made. Or would they rat on the Bill?
Then there is the cost of making some 10,000 people unemployed, many of an age at which they will not be conveniently retrainable or able to get a job if they were retrained. The cost of maintaining those people on social security could run to £91 million a year.
The answer to the problem of mass attack does not lie in banning from every law-abiding person every weapon that is or could be used by some nut case. That would end up with everything from the motor car to the rolling pin being made illegal. Nothing but a wooden spoon would be safe. The answer lies in protecting the public, and schools in particular, with security devices just as do many businesses and flats now with their electronic doors. It would be far more effective to spend the compensation budget on that aspect than on compensation for one weapon after another without the hope ever of stopping the determined mass murderer from finding an alternative for his act.
Hospitals must also be better protected. At the moment a madman could walk into many a hospital and pull out the tubes from a dozen patients before he would be stopped. It is quite frightening. With deranged people about there is nothing that might not happen, and most action results from ideas disseminated by the idiot box in the corner of the room.
If precautions are taken as a matter of routine, there is a chance of avoiding the next mass murder which will be either with an illegally held handgun or with any weapon that may be available—petrol can, machete, poison, or screwdriver—you name it. I cannot, therefore, support the wholesale destruction of pistols when it will not achieve any result. Such destruction will deprive 57,000 innocent people of their sport. It will debar the country from competitions. It will throw many people out of work. It will bankrupt businesses. It will contravene human rights and will be the vehicle for 1335 inadequate compensation for perfectly law-abiding citizens. If this bad Bill is passed, there must be fair compensation not only for the guns but also for the ancillary equipment and the businesses with a time limit for payment by a definite date.
The Bill is ill thought out, will cost a lot of money in compensation, and will not work any more than did the withdrawal of repeater guns 10 years ago. It is a waste of public money, an insult, and grossly unfair to shooters; and it will not prevent another tragedy.
§ 7.5 p.m.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, my noble friend was not exactly flattering about the Bill. However, I must remind him that the House of Commons has accepted the broad thrust and balance of what is contained in the Bill. It has done so by a large majority. In effect, it has agreed with the Government that the confidence of the public in its safety demands that Parliament should go somewhat further than Lord Cullen recommended. In fact, the other place gave the Bill a Second Reading by a majority of 384 votes to 35—no small majority.
I agree with other noble Lords who have said that in this particular circumstance it would be highly inappropriate for this unelected House to decline the Bill a Second Reading here, either on the ground that the Bill goes too far or that it does not go far enough. At the same time, the Bill needs careful examination in this House. The legal expertise which resides here, as well as local knowledge of city, town and countryside, and knowledge of the sport of target shooting and of firearms in general, are already revealing themselves in the debate. That will mean that we can have a detailed and, I hope, a very constructive Committee stage.
I do not regard myself as a pistol packing Annie—as a shooting lobbyist, as the media would have it—but I know very well, as did my noble friend Lord Sanderson, of the fears that Dunblane kindled in many a house across the whole of Scotland. In Committee your Lordships may be able to find practical and workable ways to achieve the thrust and the difficult balance that the Bill strikes and at the same time protecting, somewhat better, the freedom of people to pursue their leisure interests which are unavoidably affected.
I should like to suggest two particular aspects at which the Government might look. The first—I do not think that it has been mentioned—is the position of small handgun clubs in scattered rural areas. My noble and learned friend the Lord Advocate—he has been sitting throughout the debate beside my noble friend the Minister until a few moments ago—probably knows that in Angus and East Perthshire, where I live, a number of small clubs pursue their sport entirely in the open air. They have no premises. They simply bring their weapons to properly set up ranges in quarries, on hillsides or at outdoor military ranges—at the marine base of HMS "Condor" and the army camp at Barry Buddon. Clearly the tight rules proposed in the Bill will make the organising of shooting in that way virtually 1336 impossible even for .22 and below weapons. Creating a safe lock-up and transporting the guns to the ranges would be far too complicated and expensive.
I do not know whether there is a way round this problem. If not, one way forward might be for the Ministry of Defence to help by enabling clubs of that kind not just to use its open ranges but to have some secure storage on its premises so that members could keep their weapons there. Although the distances travelled by club members would be greater and probably clubs would have to amalgamate, at least they could survive if they wanted to. Perhaps my noble friend will indicate when she replies whether the Government have considered that possibility, or whether she might feel able to raise the matter with ministerial colleagues and ask them to discuss it with defence Ministers. There are a number of defence establishments across Scotland and it might be very helpful if that could be arranged.
The other point I want to raise is how appeals against police refusals to grant and police decisions to revoke firearms certificates are dealt with in Scotland. In paragraphs 8.114 and 8.115 Lord Cullen sets out the reason why there is uncertainty when an appeal goes to the sheriff in Scotland, whether it is the sheriffs duty simply to decide whether the police have exercised discretion capriciously or inappropriately, or whether it is his duty to look at the appeal afresh. I am advised that an analysis of the Home Office submission to Cullen shows that in Scotland under current arrangements only 3 per cent. of appeals to the sheriff are granted, and that it is felt by lawyers specialising in this matter that it is often difficult for Sheriffs to be able to draw on adequate expertise in order to make their decisions. The dubiety as to the nature of the decision must add to the dilemma.
This is likely to be even more of a problem in the future when the powers of the police will increase and they may, understandably, tend to en- even more than now on what they see as the safe side from their point of view. Appeals against their decisions may therefore be more numerous and a greater number may possibly be legitimate.
It was suggested to Lord Cullen that such appeals might be heard before a specialist panel or tribunal rather than before the sheriff. Lord Cullen rejected that and favoured retaining the present system, as I understand it, but with a limited list of grounds for appeal. I should be interested to learn whether the Government have looked carefully at the question of whether a tribunal or small panel would be a preferable approach. It would enable lawyers who have expertise in this area, and other citizens with specialist knowledge, to take part in the panel; and it might create more faith in the system. Those are two points among very many that have been raised. I greatly look forward to the Committee stage. In the meantime, I hope this House will give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 7.13 p.m.
§ Lord Addington
My Lords, I put my name down on the list of speakers for this debate because, about four years ago, I discussed with a variety of Members 1337 of this House the possibility of bringing forward a Bill to ban the ownership of handguns. I did not do so because I was reliably informed that it did not stand a chance of becoming law. If there was ever an occasion in relation to which I feel bad about not doing something and listening to the undoubtedly correct advice of my colleagues, it was that.
We have heard a great deal about how it is not handguns that kill people; it is people who kill people. I could hardly believe it when I heard that. When we talk of a handgun, we are talking about a mechanical device that is designed to kill people. Historically, handguns were always developed to fire at man-sized targets. Throughout history that is what they have existed for. We may have changed their use to that of a sporting device, but that is the history of the handgun. It is a close-range offensive weapon. It is also used as a defensive weapon, but inflicts death and damage on people from short range. It does not matter that its use has changed; that is its capacity.
The growth in popularity of the handgun as a personal weapon started in the days when such guns could be made efficiently; namely, when the wheel lock was introduced. Just to show that there is nothing new in the idea of handguns being dangerous, I refer the House to an Act of Henry VIII in 1542 forbidding the use of pistols. One of the reasons given against their use was that they enabled people to carry out "detestable murders, robberies, felonies, riots and routs". Even at that time you had something with an enclosed firing mechanism; you could take it out of your pocket, point it at somebody, squeeze the trigger, and you had a lethal discharge. That is the origin and history of what we are talking about. 1 suggest that we bear that in mind. There is already an historical precedent for banning these weapons.
It is also worth bearing in mind that handguns replaced swords as the weapon of choice when an accurate firing mechanism and multiple shots became available. People quite often miss when using pistols. I studied the history of duelling pistols as part of a military history course when I was preparing for a course in personal insight at university. I learnt that a gentleman undoubtedly hit a target when he was practising, but when it came to the real thing he invariably funked it and shot something else. Lots of rounds are needed to make these weapons effective. It is the magazine that enables somebody to carry on shooting. That is why Hamilton was so deadly. If he had had a .22 pistol he would probably have had to fire more shots at people in order to kill them because the smaller bullet displaces less tissue as it tears through somebody—that is, the holes are not quite so big. But if there is sufficient magazine capacity and there are enough bullets you can always put a few more holes in someone. The lethal capacity is still there.
Another small historical anecdote may put all this in context. Colonel Colt was called the great equaliser because of his six-shots handgun of the wild west. If I remember the expression correctly, it is: "God made men big, God made men small. Colonel Colt made them all equal"—because anybody could use a handgun. That is the history of what we are talking about.
1338 I leave the House to judge whether it is a greater violation of civil liberties to remove from a section of our society the right to use such guns as sporting implements (I do not say banning handguns altogether, or at least multi-shot handguns, which is what I hoped would be the result of this Bill) or whether it is a greater reflection on our civil liberties to allow people to carry on enjoying life, limb and happiness. However, if we are going to discuss this issue, let us be honest about what we are dealing with. We are talking about a weapon. It is not a sporting implement; it remains a weapon if it fires a metal projectile through the air so that it can pierce a target. The sword, which the handgun replaced as a personal weapon, is not a very easily used lethal weapon. The emphasis is on ease of use. Even with a full swinging Napoleonic cavalry sabre, one still had to get close enough to a person to hit him. The difference between using a bladed weapon to kill and using a handgun was displayed in the two attacks on children in playgrounds. In Wolverhampton, people were hurt but they did not die. It was a barbaric act, but people did not die. I suggest that if we bear that in mind, the true essence of what we are talking about becomes clearer to all concerned.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I do not know whether he has considered the damage that can be done by a sawn-off shotgun, loaded with buckshot. It is rather more than a .22 pistol.
I do not shoot with a pistol, so my only interest to declare with the Bill is perhaps as the father of a 12 year-old daughter. As such, my heart goes out to the children and families in the Dunblane atrocity. So it is for all of us. But I cannot support the Bill. Were it not for the conventions of your Lordships' House I should certainly support the noble Earl, Lord Strafford, in the Division Lobby. As it is, I can only congratulate him on the lucidity with which he introduced his amendment and on his courage in putting it on the Order Paper.
I have had more letters about this regrettably unjustifiable Bill than on any other Bill. They are nearly all well written and well reasoned letters from decent people who see their recreation and sometimes their livelihoods removed at the hasty and nervous stroke of the politician's pen. The Bill is therefore in the mould of the Dangerous Dogs Act and the Child Support Act, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, mentioned. It is also in the mould of the Activity Centres (Young Persons' Safety) Act of last year which was the politico-bureaucratic machine's knee-jerk reaction to those young people who died so tragically in a canoeing accident. On that sad occasion, as with the events leading up to Dunblane, the existing regulations had not been followed. I am told by friends in the Scout movement, for example, that that Act has made life very difficult for many scouting activities, without any discernible benefit whatever. In the Dunblane case, a senior police officer has resigned—honourably no doubt—because he did not make sure that the existing procedures were carried out.
1339 The large majority who voted in favour of the Bill in the other place does not make me think that it must be a good Bill. Instead, it makes me worried about the state of our democracy which is being devoured by bureaucracy and by misguided professional politicians.
In the interests of brevity, I shall take issue with only one specific point made by the Minister today. She said that disablement and/or taking the gun to pieces and perhaps keeping the pieces in separate places would, none of it, solve the problem. I think I heard her say that it would not deter the determined and motivated individual who would be able to acquire the spare parts illegally. But one of the policemen who has written to me points out that there are many more illegal firearms in this country than legal ones. He says:It has been suggested that owners would obtain illicit spares. But this would of course require the necessary criminal contacts, from whom it would be far simpler to obtain a complete illegal gun than a particular component part of a particular make and model of gun".He also points out that component parts are defined in existing legislation which covers major components such as frames, cylinders and barrels for revolvers to go with slides for self-loading pistols. These components are already subject to the same controls as a complete firearm. They require police authority to be acquired legally and may require fitting by a trained gunsmith. So I cannot follow the Minister down that particular route.
I also have to say that compensation is not the point. These people do not want compensation; they want to keep their livelihoods and their sport. So I regret to say that I agree with all those noble Lords who say that this is a bad Bill. It is unlikely to save a single life, but it will blight the enjoyment of thousands of honourable people. I hope very much that the Government will think again.
§ 7.24 p.m.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, if there is one fact that unites this whole House, it is that the origin of the Bill stems from one of the greatest tragedies to beset any community. I, like so many other noble Lords before me, express my deepest sympathy to all those who have suffered in any way because of this ghastly Dunblane tragedy.
We can quite understand the course of action that was taken by some as a result of the disaster. I think it is easy to sympathise with those whose initial instincts are to ban all handguns. But whether that call is wholly justified, fair, practical or would achieve its purpose is, as other noble Lords have said, highly debatable.
I wish to start by declaring an interest, as I am president of the Gun Trade Association. I am bound to say that there is a very strong sense of betrayal by members of that association and by many others besides, that those involved with handguns, in whatever legal form, have not been given a fair hearing. They feel that they have been badly let down, and I have to say that to a large extent I agree with them.
Noble Lords have mentioned a number of letters that they have received on the Bill. I have received over 200, from good, honest citizens who have participated in the 1340 sport and who feel that, largely because of political opportunism, their sport will be curtailed. I very much regret that the agreement which was made by all three main political parties with regard to Lord Cullen's Report was not adhered to.
How much more satisfactory it would have been, as was originally proposed, to have delayed the report until after the party conferences and then to have engaged in rational, sensible debate, based on this fully researched and learned deliberation. The consequences of such a move would, I am sure, have been legislation founded on fact and devoid of excessive emotion which, as we all know, invariably leads to bad law.
Unfortunately, a combination of timing, a small parliamentary majority for the Government and political opportunism all got in the way and we have this compromise before us today. I was hoping to avoid making any party political points; but I must take issue with a remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. I think he said it was the Government's fault that this compromise to which I referred earlier broke down. That is not my recollection of what happened. I believe that it was his party who took the opportunity of exploiting—and I use the word carefully—the Snowdrop Campaign at their party conference. It was that, combined with the quick decision made by the other Opposition party, that forced the Government into this position and forced us into having the Bill before us today. But at least we have something to offer those
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, will the noble Earl give way? I am obliged to him. The point I was making was that the Government announced their intention in advance of the publication of the Cullen Report. That was the criticism I made of them. But of course it is always the responsibility of the Government to act responsibly because they are the Government.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend will allow me to intervene because it is important to deal with the point here and now. The Government did not announce anything before the Cullen report was made available to them. There may have been interesting speculation on what the Government would say; but they did not anticipate the report. They received it and then responded. I hope that that will be noted for the record.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her remarks. I think it would be best if we rested on that. We have before us now a Bill which will offer some refuge to those people who wish to continue their sport. It is not perhaps what they would have liked, but at least it is a reasonable compromise.
The truth behind this whole ghastly affair is that it could and should have been avoided, as other noble Lords have already said. I believe it begs this question: whether we would not be more sensible to consider yet again, as we did in 1988 after the Hungerford case, the question of whether it would not be prudent to consider 1341 the introduction of an independent licensing authority, similar to the DVLC, which operates in Swansea, dealing with all motor vehicle licences.
I am bound to say that most organisations and individuals with whom I have spoken on the matter, who clearly know a great deal on the subject, are in favour of such a scheme. I know that the idea is very much supported by the Firearms Consultative Committee, which is chaired by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury. The obvious advantages would be that we would have real specialists dealing with the problem; it is true to say that not all the police involved are real specialists. We would have consistency, which we certainly do not have at the moment, throughout all the regions. I believe that it would he more efficient and it would certainly save police time.
As I understand it, it is the cost that has been regarded as the major obstacle to such a suggestion, but I would have thought that if one were to introduce a higher initial cost for licensing fees, making sure that the licensing fee lasted over a longer period, this could overcome the high establishment costs of such an institution. I would be grateful for an indication from my noble friend the Minister whether the Government would consider this seriously. It very much goes along the lines my noble friend Lord Marlesford was suggesting in his speech. I thoroughly agree with what he said on that matter.
Moving on to the question of compensation, I accept and welcome the fact that the Government have moved some way on this very thorny matter. There is no doubt that other noble Lords have quite clearly stated that there will be businesses which are likely to suffer considerably. I do feel that more will have to be done to help them. As Sir Jerry Wiggin put it in another place (at col. 1069 of Hansard for 4th December):the Bill will … deprive many dealers, manufacturers, agents, transport companies, suppliers and others [of] their livelihoods".He goes on to say that it could ruin individuals who are liable for long term leases and mortgages for clubs and ranges and that:it is a matter of morality",that those interests are protected.
I should like to pick up on "morality". I believe that Sir Jerry is absolutely right on this.
In my capacity as president of the Gun Trade Association Ltd, I attended an open meeting in Birmingham quite recently to discuss this Bill, and I witnessed at first hand cases where people's livelihoods will be seriously affected by this Bill. I heard their frustrations, I listened to their concerns and their utter disbelief that, after years of building up a business, it could be destroyed or curtailed at a stroke—just as we are witnessing at the moment—and through absolutely no fault of their own.
This is something we must give time to. There is not the opportunity now to discuss it; but when we come to Committee stage, I am sure that we are going to hear a lot more on this particular subject.
My noble friend Lord Kimball rejected the question of disassembly. I am no expert in these matters. All I am told, (and I have to believe it to be the case) is 1342 that certainly up to 95 per cent. of weapons can be disassembled effectively; whether that is going to answer the question from a security point of view, I am not at the moment in a position to judge. However, I am told by experts in the British Shooting Sports Council that this remains a very real option and a very sensible option, one which would save money and would be easy to put into effect. I reserve judgment on that and again, I believe that this is something we must consider very seriously when we discuss this Bill in Committee.
The Government have made improvements to the Bill in another place, and I welcome them; but I am particularly pleased that the Government have accepted that small calibre pistols may be stored with a registered firearms dealer in addition to a pistol club. This could save small clubs very considerable cost. However, I ask my noble friend to confirm that I have interpreted the speeches made in another place correctly and that this is exactly what the Government are hoping to achieve.
With the number of illegal handguns circulating throughout this country, there will clearly always be the danger of further tragedies and, despite tighter controls on legally held weapons, the opportunity of acquiring illegal ones will always be there—and far too easily, I fear. Surely, that is where the real effort should be directed.
The question we need to ask ourselves is this: are we right to remove the privileges afforded to a very small minority of people simply because a system failed through no fault of their own? Of one thing I am quite certain: had the number of individuals participating in sports involving handguns been significant, we would not now be discussing the abolition of a large part of that sport. Instead, we would be concentrating our efforts solely on considering ways of tightening up the security of such weapons, and that is exactly the conclusions that were reached by Lord Cullen. The removal of the privileges of a minority who have done no wrong but who have been let down by a system is a dangerous one to operate within a democracy. I believe we do ourselves no favours.
However, as I have said earlier, I accept the position that the Government find themselves in, and I support this Bill. There will be much to do in Committee, of that there is no question of doubt, but I believe the Bill is worthy of support, although I give my support with rather a heavy heart.
§ 7.37 p.m.
The Earl of Balfour
My Lords, I may have an advantage over many of your Lordships in that I followed through the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988. I was convinced then that the possession of shotguns and firearms had been made as restrictive as the law should make it. That 1988 Act was the panic result of the Hungerford massacre, which was very similar to the Dunblane tragedy. Unfortunately, this Bill before us today is another news media inspired panic Bill. I regret I do not know the background to the principal Act, the Firearms Act 1968, because that was a year before I took my seat in this House.
1343 As I understand the position, we in Great Britain already have the strictest gun laws of any European country. However, there is nothing in our legislation requiring any person to have had any practical experience or safety instructions before being licensed to have a shotgun or firearm certificate. This is where our legislation has gone wrong, but I cannot and should not support the noble Earl, Lord Strafford, in his Motion.
When I took my seat in your Lordships' House, my wife said to me, "Criticise whatever you like but make certain that your criticism is always constructive and never destructive." That is a principle that I have always tried to follow in your Lordships' House.
When I was a teenager, I was put through the strictest gun training, under the estate gamekeeper, on the handling of all guns, as was the custom in those days. All the safety procedure was drilled into me and particularly that you never ever allowed a gun to be pointed at anybody, even when unloaded. I, and I think most of your Lordships who went through a similar gun training, could never, even in anger—except in war against an enemy—point a gun at anybody, because that etiquette was so drilled into us.
A number of European countries require a shooter to have some authorised instructions before being granted a gun licence. We require nothing. That is where the legislation before us is wrong and will do nothing to prevent another Hungerford or Dunblane.
Under the Bill compensation has to be considered. Many firearm certificate holders have bitter memories over the 1988 Act, when semi-automatic full-bore guns and rifles were banned. Many owners of such firearms received only a fraction of their gun's true market value and, I am told, many are still waiting for their cheque to arrive. No compensation was allowed for accessories, such as security lockers, which often cost as much as the gun, as my noble friend Lord Gisborough said.
The provisional estimate under this draconian Bill of doing away with all centre-fire pistols and other handguns is about £150 million. There are about 160,000 such legally held guns in circulation, which means that the compensation would be of a value of £937. I do not know whether or not that is a fair figure. However, Mr. Brian Carter of the Gun Trade Association, who is a member of the Government's Firearms Consultative Committee, as well as Mr. Graham Downing of the British Shooting Sports Council, estimate that a reasonable compensation payout is likely to be £1 billion. That figure includes accessories and allows some compensation to the many firearms dealers and manufacturers who will be forced out of business. I am pleased that my noble friend Lady Blatch said that she was considering compensation for accessories in respect of individuals. I am equally grateful for what the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, said about the manufacturers of these guns.
By successive legislation, reducing the variety of guns that can lawfully be held, this Government are strangling our very important gun, rifle and pistol 1344 manufacturers. I ask your Lordships to remember that many of the best guns are virtually hand made. It would be a tragedy if this trade went overseas to, say, Spain.
So, not only will this emotive, panic Bill that is before us cost the taxpayer a lot of money, but it is also bound to increase the number of unemployed. Has the Government's Firearms Consultative Committee considered that? Furthermore, I ask the Government to bear in mind that, if we lose the manufacture of fine quality guns, we may lose other industries, such as the skilled spring manufacturers—and we use springs, almost all hand made, in a hundred household items. We all know that it is through education that we become fit and proper members of society. Around this country there are a number of shooting schools and gun clubs, where qualified instructors can and do teach people to shoot carefully and accurately. The instructors that I have met are competent and dedicated to their job.
It should not be difficult for the Government to introduce legislation requiring every prospective gun or firearms owner to go to a shooting school and for that school to grant a certificate of competency to those persons who have reached the required standard or discipline, as mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim. That standard could be checked by the police. But any person who fails to obtain a certificate of competency should not be permitted by the police to hold a shotgun licence or firearm certificate. The police should also be allowed to refuse a licence to anybody about whom they are suspicious, unless that person has obtained a certificate of competency from an authorised shooting school.
Any person who at present holds a gun or firearms licence from the police for a period of, say, 10 years, should be required to obtain a shooting certificate of competency from an authorised shooting school before being able to renew such licence. In future, persons who hold a shooting certificate of competency should, at the end of, say, 10 years, be required to go back to a shooting school on a refresher course and obtain an endorsement of competency.
While we cannot legislate against the maniac behind a gun or behind the wheel of a car, at least the driver of a car should have passed a driving test, which now includes a written test. No such test is required for guns. Unfortunately, the gamekeepers of yesteryear have almost disappeared. But had Thomas Hamilton been required to obtain a shooting certificate, I think the police at Dunblane would have weeded him out or at least would have had greater powers to take action on suspicion. Those of us who have been properly taught about guns look after them most carefully and guard them with our lives. Properly taught and responsible people do not abuse privileges.
Let me take one other example, that of explosives. No legislation is being considered to control the availability of fireworks. Public records show that there were over 1,500 firework injuries in the years 1994 and 1995; and this year there have been three deaths. If the Government introduce legislation requiring gun owners to go through a proper training it would cost the 1345 taxpayer nothing, but would go a very long way towards only responsible persons being able to hold the guns that they wish to hold.
§ 7.50 p.m.
My Lords, like many noble Lords I have an interest to declare as, from time to time, I fire full bore handguns at the Palace of Westminster Rifle Club. I also train with the TA, but I do not hold a firearm or shotgun certificate. Incidentally, the Palace of Westminster Rifle Club is not packed with "gun-ho" Members of another place as suggested in the media. They are far too busy representing their constituents. In fact, on my last visit the two previous firers were both young ladies, presumably employees of one or other of our Houses.
I shall never forget the atmosphere in your Lordships' House on that fateful day in March when we received the dreadful news from Dunblane. We could not make any sense of it then and we cannot make sense of it now. My heart goes out to all those affected in Dunblane. I am sure that in similar circumstances I would feel the same as they do and take the same course of action.
It is interesting to compare the number of speakers today with those for the Second Reading debate of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1994, to which I contributed. Other contributors included the noble Lords, Lord Renton, Lord Kimball, Lord Monson, Lord Swansea, Lord Williams of Mostyn and Lord Annaly. While recognising that it was a Private Member's Bill and not amenable to amendment, I do not recall anyone, including the Opposition, saying that we must ban all handguns as a matter of extreme urgency. After Hungerford I cannot see how the events of Dunblane can be said to be unimaginable or unforeseeable. Having said that, all contributions to the debate are welcome.
I sometimes wonder, when discussing this matter with the other parties, whether they have actually read all of the report of Lord Cullen.
I listened with interest to the Minister when she repeated almost word for word the concerns of her right honourable friend the Secretary of State in another place involving shooters who,don the trappings of combat".Has the noble Baroness or her right honourable friend referred that problem to the FCC? Was it a problem that suddenly appeared just before Dunblane?
There is no need for me to discuss the general merits and background of the Bill. I could not possibly improve on the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, and indeed many others. But I am worried about the lax controls on shotguns. Certain noble Lords seem to think that their shotgun and field sports are safe. But if Dunblane had been perpetrated with a shotgun I am sure the Minister would now be explaining how dangerous a shotgun was; that it was used to kill living things while a handgun was only used for target practice. No doubt she would say that a handgun was safer as it could be moved discreetly and could be 1346 locked away in a floor safe. She might also describe the power and the size of a shotgun cartridge compared with that of a handgun.
Shotguns are extremely dangerous weapons and it is pointless to have Draconian rules for firearms while treating shotguns as toys. I shall be considering tabling or supporting amendments to address that problem. I do not believe that we have a problem with a specific type of weapon; rather we have a problem with control and administration, as many other noble Lords have said.
Shortly after the Dunblane tragedy I contacted a relative who had been a firearms officer in a West Country city. He had received no training; he was not an authorised shot; and he had no special knowledge of firearms. I was not perturbed or surprised because he was "in the chair" well before Hungerford and I thought things would be different now. So I was not a little surprised when I read Lord Cullen's report at paragraph 6.46 where he discussed the part played by the firearms inquiry officer and said,It was her one and only firearms enquiry".Matters do not seem to have progressed very far. There is one criticism of the police that I do not believe to be fair and that concerns their handling of the events of that fateful day. My heart goes out not only to the victims and their families, but also to those who had to try and manage an incident that was infinitely worse than anything they could possibly have planned for or imagined.
The noble Earls, Lord Shrewsbury and Lord Peel, and others touched on the concept of a firearms control board. I support that suggestion but there is an obstacle. The noble Earl, Lord Peel, mentioned the cost. The Home Secretary's reply to a Written Question in another place makes it clear (at col. 287 on 20th July 1994) that a civilian firearms control board would be beneficial to all. He then went on to say that it had been discovered that it was not economic. I find that extremely interesting. I am president of the Heavy Transport Association and we appear to have a similar situation with regard to the private escorting of abnormal loads on motorways and linked dual carriageways. I suspect that the reason in both cases is that ACPO and its Scottish equivalent are following a fundamental rule of public administration; that is, not to voluntarily reduce the size of your train set!
The noble Earl, Lord Balfour, rightly mentioned training and experience. The control board would be able to ensure that shooters had the right level of experience for their authorisation. Time is marching on, so I will not trouble your Lordships with any more detail in regard to control except to say that I would expect it to reduce unnecessary ownership considerably and in particular inappropriate types of weapon. It might also have a role with regard to knives.
On glancing through the Bill there are some commonsense exemptions to the ban on handguns. However, Clause 4 is a little alarming. Its effect would allow the use of a working handgun to start races at an athletics meeting and presumably in schools as well. That is incredible. It is hard to believe that it was drafted after the events of Dunblane. Is the Minister aware that 1347 it is easy to kill someone by firing a blank if the muzzle of the revolver is pressed against the victim's head? Is she aware that safe blank firing guns are available that make it unnecessary to use a firearm for that purpose. They can probably also be connected to timing mechanisms. If the Minister thinks that this is a well thought-out Bill, I would hate to see a bad one. This clause will require attention in Committee, as will Section 11(2) of the 1968 Act.
My last observation concerns the confusion over who needs certificates and for what; it is a complicated area. Perhaps we should consider a number of different classes, each one allowing greater access to guns. There could also be different age limits for each class which would allow for early tutoring. No doubt age limits will be discussed during the Committee stage.
We certainly require legislation in this area and the FCC reports identify many important points. We need a regime whereby shooters can carry out their legitimate sport while at the same time providing proper protection for the public.
§ 7.58 p.m.
§ Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
My Lords, I share with other noble Lords the deep sense of grief over the Dunblane massacre. It confirms in my mind the belief that there is no place in our society for guns other than those for which there is a legitimate use and by persons with a legitimate reason to use them.
The spectre of a gun society such as that in the United States being forced upon us unless a total ban of all guns, particularly handguns, is enforced is probably somewhat overdrawn. As noble Lords will know, there are constitutional reasons that make it difficult to improve the gun control situation in the United States.
There is no doubt that in America there are horrendous statistics of gun-related deaths; for instance, 35,000 people each year are killed, many completely accidentally, due to loaded weapons being made available to children, individuals using them without knowing the working of a gun, or the fatal conclusion of the family tiff. Fortunately, our present firearms control legislation, one of the strictest in the world, prevents that situation.
The proposed extension of the legislation to ban certain calibre handguns will make the legislation even more rigorous. I believe that this House would wish to see rigorous regulation of firearms but that that regulation should not be so rigid as seriously to disadvantage groups which hitherto have had a perfectly legitimate right to own and use certain calibre handguns. One such group with a legitimate right are those whose task it is humanely to kill or slaughter animals, such as veterinary surgeons, hunt officials and knackermen. As my noble friend the Minister said earlier, the exemption is provided under Clauses 2 and 3 of the Bill. In that case the calibre of weapon is either .32 or .35, the .22 calibre being insufficient to dispatch a horse efficiently and humanely.
At this point, perhaps I may take the opportunity to correct an impression created at the Committee stage of the Bill in another place when the Minister of State, 1348 Miss Ann Widdecombe, implied that the British Veterinary Association did not agree to the proposed exemption in Clause 3. That is reported at col. 860 of Hansard of 19th November. I should like to state that both the British Veterinary Association and the British Equine Veterinary Association are emphatically in favour of those exemptions. As a member of the veterinary profession, I may be one of the few people in your Lordships' House who is legally entitled to have a high calibre pistol in his possession.
I hope your Lordships will agree that veterinary surgeons and others are responsible and trustworthy people to hold handguns of a higher calibre than .22. The restriction placed on them is rigorous—I know that—but people who have these guns for that purpose live with the regulations and by the regulations. I would submit also that there are other responsible and trustworthy individuals who at present are able to hold handguns of various calibres and who would be deprived of this ability by the new legislation with the exemption of holding .22 calibre weapons; in other words, members of gun clubs, competition marksmen and the like. One is very much aware of the strong feeling on the part of those individuals who point out in letters and lobbying documentation that their firearms are prized, that they look after them with great care and that their firearms are not in any way akin to what is called the "Saturday night special", which is common in the United States and which inflicts the majority of the damage that we hear about. Their guns are not the ones that cause the problem.
As we can learn what not to do from the United States, perhaps we can learn what we might possibly do on the positive side to modify what members of gun clubs see as an unfair situation by an examination of what happens in Australia. In Tasmania there was a comparable tragedy of many people being killed by the use of a repeating rifle. It was not a handgun, but it had the same disastrous effect.
In Australia the possession of handguns has always been strictly controlled. They are owned only by members of shooting clubs approved by a licensing board. Individuals are licensed by that board. A member of a club must participate in club functions at least four times a year. He does not need to go to the gun club simply for a social reason. Individuals not conforming to those conditions may lose their licence and have it revoked for an extended period of time. Guns may be kept at home but in a reinforced concrete facility—a storage room—with double locks and often a timelock too. Ammunition is kept separately.
I have seen facilities in Australia and I have been greatly impressed by the extremely responsible attitude taken by members of gun sports clubs there. Something similar to that in this country, with the same rigour of control, would be a response to the proposal for a total ban on handguns other than the .22 calibre and would not negate the overall aim of tightening gun control so that the possession of illegal firearms was greatly reduced and, one might hope eventually, eliminated altogether. It is not the legal guns that are the problem; 1349 it is the illegal guns that define the problem. I support the Bill in the hope that it will eventually lead to a marked reduction in illegal guns.
§ 8.7 p.m.
§ Lord Burton
My Lords, on entering my car three or four days ago, I turned on the wireless and heard a very senior Government Minister's voice stating, "We must not hurry these matters. It is important to get them right". It transpired that he was talking about something else, but how right he would have been if he had applied it to this Bill.
One consolation so far as we are concerned is that the Government have rushed the Bill through the other place at such a speed that the Bill has had totally inadequate consideration. There can therefore be no complaint from the other place if your Lordships, whether hereditary or life Peers, returned the Bill with substantial amendments.
I am quite confident that the desire of everyone in this House will be to secure, as far as possible, the safety of the public. We have not heard that said this evening. As has already been stated, the Bill will do little or nothing to achieve that safety. Just like the 1988 legislation, it is being rushed through when what we need—and the country really needs—is fully considered firearms legislation. I am confident that we can produce a number of amendments which will vastly improve the security of firearms and thereby the safety of the public.
We really must not forget that legally-held firearms certificates should be given only to law-abiding citizens and, provided the police do their duty, the current laws should ensure that that is the case.
Most of your Lordships will have received large numbers of letters from pistol shooters. It is clear from those the anguish which the proposals in the Bill have caused; the feelings of injustice that they are being punished for something that was nothing to do with them. I am sure many noble Lords will remember being punished at school for something one had not done. That punishment always hurt more than those that were justified. I can say that from experience.
But if people are to lose their livelihoods—a business built up over the years; perhaps a job as a skilled tradesman, possibly going bankrupt as several businesses have done at the threat of this legislation—then one must look for some justification for rendering pistols illegal. When one looks at this matter it is very difficult to find any justification. So it is more than possible to understand the bitterness not only of 50,000 pistol shooters but of many more ancillaries, families and friends and, indeed, many rifle target shooters who will have to close down. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, mentioned a figure of 100,000 plus. To my mind, that is a substantial number.
Many of the shooters have said that they would hurry to dispose of their pistols if there was any prospect of that saving life, but this legislation does not do that. If the police had carried out proper procedures at Hungerford and Dunblane, the fact that the answers on 1350 the firearms applications were not correct would have come to light and no certificates would have been issued.
The police were to blame for both these disasters and not the law-abiding shooters, who are now being victimised. It was not the fault of the Acts passed in 1968, 1988, 1992 and 1994. The blame was entirely due to the maladministration of the police. For instance, Hamilton applied for a certificate to use a full-bore pistol with the Clyde Valley Club in 1979–80. That pistol club used the range underneath Hamilton police station. It was only licensed for the use of small bore weapons and yet Hamilton applied for a full-bore weapon. In addition, the police never made a check to see whether or not Hamilton was in fact a member of the club. A mere telephone call to the secretary would have quickly put that matter right. The police removed that club's documentation and records, ostensibly for the Cullen inquiry and for the fatal accident inquiry. In fact, the club has had no records since last March. The police left neither a receipt nor, I believe, did they have a warrant. The club could not even secure copies of their records. Noble Lords will appreciate that that makes it rather difficult for a secretary to run the club.
I understand that another club member from the central area applied for the renewal of his certificate for shooting with the Clyde Valley Club, after Lord Cullen had reported. This was granted by central police and in spite of all that had just transpired, this force never consulted the Clyde Valley Club secretary to ascertain whether the applicant was a member.
This club has made a number of applications for the return of its documents and even though the fatal accident inquiry took place on 28th of last month—and I know that the Minister has tried to help to get these documents or copies thereof sent to the club—nothing has yet arrived. A lawyer has also been taken on to try to get recovery of the documents.
Why is there all this secrecy? Why will the police not return these documents? Could it be that the documents show that in fact there were further inadequacies and maladministration by the central police? It seems that instead of taking the advice in 1987 of my noble friend Lord Marlesford, and a number of other people, that further supervision was required—I believe that the Government have had similar advice from their Firearms Consultative Committee—that has been constantly refused. Indeed, a recent conference of police superintendents called for a central weapons database. But why was Deputy Chief Constable McMurdo, whom your Lordships will remember was one of the senior police officers who resigned immediately after the closing of the Cullen inquiry, appointed as an Assistant Chief Inspector of Constabulary for Scotland? He was given that appointment on 13th March. Here is a man who was forced to resign being put in a position to advise all the other constabularies in Scotland on how to run their firearms procedures.
I believe that the English police do not yet have consolidated procedures to issue to their officers when making inquiries over firearms' applications. It is only in the past week or so that the Scottish forces have 1351 managed to produce draft procedures. It may be of interest to note that the proposals submitted by the Central Force to this committee were rejected out of hand and I believe that something similar—because of their complication and draconian views—applied to Tayside. It is necessary to see the ACPO minutes and documents which they had been considering. If these are not available to individual Peers then a Select Committee of this House should be set up to examine these matters.
There is a lot that has not come to light over this matter. Surely what is required is an inspectorate with proper firearms' expertise to advise the police forces. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, referred to that. Such a body would indeed lift a lot of the burden from the various chief constables and their firearms officers as they would be in a position to advise, quite apart from also being in a position to ensure, that the right procedures were being undertaken. This sort of operation should have been adopted immediately after Hungerford, but the lesson was not taken. Now we have another disaster and it is absolutely paramount for the safety of firearms management that these procedures are adopted. This is of vastly greater importance than the "ban", "ban", "ban" we have been hearing. Indeed, the current proposals to ban may have the reverse effect, according to Lord Cullen, and this, I am certain, would also be the view of a considerable number of your Lordships.
Are there not justifiable reasons for believing that there has been a big cover up over this horrid disaster at Dunblane? The biggest mistake has been to throw the blame upon the pistol and the pistol shooters, as it was thrown upon the firearms' fraternity at Hungerford. This is, therefore, the second time that the blame has been diverted from the police, where it should justly lie, on to innocent people.
Lord Cullen did a magnificent job on a very complicated matter, but there are serious matters which were never openly brought out at the inquiry. Unfortunately, the three pistol clubs involved, which could have revealed some of these matters, could not afford to be properly legally represented; and finance, which could have been made available to them, was withheld until it was too late for the inquiry.
Certain quarters have tried to attribute blame to Freemasonry. As the present Grand Master Mason in Scotland I can assure noble Lords that extensive searches of the records of Scottish Freemasonry have been carried out and no trace of Thomas Hamilton nor DCC McMurdo can be found as ever having been members of the Craft. The press have harassed the secretary of a Lodge called Garrowhill and considerably upset his wife, who is about to have a baby. This is iniquitous when Grand Lodge have been only too ready to reveal that there are two Thomas Hamiltons in this Lodge, but they are both alive and kicking—at least as far as the older of the two brothers are concerned, because he is over 90. There are a lot of "Hamiltons" living in the central belt of Scotland. The information 1352 given to Mr. Frank Cook was inaccurate in many respects and I gather that his parliamentary researchers may have received misinformation.
However, what was the cause of contact between Hamilton and DCC McMurdo who were reported to be meeting each other? There have inevitably been a number of rumours; talk of local politicians (not, I think, the Secretary of State) putting pressure on the police and there have been suggestions of blackmail. But unless there is an inquiry, presumably we will never know the real answers. There is certainly something very far wrong. It is a great pity that these matters never came out in public in the Cullen Inquiry. What is quite clear is that we now had two instances where the police have been seriously at fault over firearms. Are we to wait for a third disaster before action is taken, as is certain, unless proper steps are initiated? For instance, the Inspectorate of Constabularies in Scotland produced a thematic report on the administration of firearms in Scotland, with particular reference to the Central Force. This was published last March. A report on Hamilton was also produced by Chief Superintendent Paul Hughes for Lord Cullen, but in spite of repeated requests these papers have not been released.
The proposal to keep firearms in a central armoury would inevitably lead to trouble and, however secure, determined individuals could break in. For instance, the keyholder could be held up by somebody outside and threatened or his family could be threatened. It would be quite easy for someone to go into a central armoury. I understand that recently about 40 weapons were stolen from a police armoury in Bedfordshire. It appears that in recent weeks weapons have been stolen from a police station in Dumfriesshire. Police officers are the culprits in each case. The police say that they are the only ones who can be sufficiently responsible to take in the weapons. Does this mean that they do not trust the dealers to whom they have granted permits?
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will forgive my interruption. I very much hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will deal with these extremely wide-ranging allegations concerning the police both in Scotland and the Thames Valley. Some of the statements that have been made by the noble Lord are quite disgraceful. He has tried to put forward a very convoluted conspiracy theory, believing that there have been cover-ups and all the rest of it. On the direct issues, particularly that concerning the Deputy Chief Constable of Central Scotland who has resigned from the police service, I very much hope that the noble Baroness will deal with these allegations when she replies.
§ Lord Burton
My Lords, your Lordships may be interested to know that one of the Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament for the Highlands was president of a local pistol club. I am told that he greatly enjoyed being wined and dined by that club. No doubt he was encouraging it to give him its vote. When this legislation appeared he spoke out openly that all handguns should be banned. I understand that the club suggested that he 1353 might resign his presidency. At the initial stages he refused. I believe that he has now done so but it took a considerable amount of pressure.
Both the Labour and Liberal Front Benches have advocated the banning of all weapons, including .22s. Can my noble friend on the Front Bench tell noble Lords whether that will greatly increase the amount of compensation? At the moment .22s are not the subject of compensation. If dealers are to be compensated the amount of compensation required will increase enormously. One wonders how much compensation the Treasury is able to stand. Necessary compensation to meet existing promises could well be greater than the £150 million proposed in the Bill. My noble friends Lord Gisborough and Lord Balfour drew attention to this matter. One wonders from where such a frighteningly large sum of money will come.
I understand that almost every clause of the Bill runs contrary to European Union rules. I never expected that one day the European Union might be able to help this country, but I understand that legal opinion from eminent QCs, is that there is every prospect of success in an appeal to the European Court for the overthrow of many of the proposals in the Bill.
Anyone who listened to the Cenotaph service on the wireless last month would have heard the commentator say that it was written "in memory of those who gave their all for justice and freedom". This Bill is grossly unjust and will impose a severe restriction on the freedom of a considerable number of our citizens. Many alternatives have been suggested today to alleviate the situation and at the same time provide the protection that is sought; indeed, give much greater protection. Most of the Bill should be changed. Let it not be said that in 1996 politicians of all parties, their advisers and the media betrayed those who gave their all. As 1996 rolls to a close let there be reflection, and when we return in 1997 let there be a new light shining.
§ 8.23 p.m.
§ The Earl of Shannon
My Lords, from all that has been said at great length, your Lordships are definitely in a no-win position. Even its supporters say that this is not exactly a good Bill. Whatever we do with it, we are bound to be wrong. At this stage in the debate on the Bill it is difficult to avoid making reference to points already made. However, I shall try to follow as a theme some points made by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough. Understandably a great wave of emotion followed the deplorable tragedy of Dunblane. But is it right to produce this knee-jerk reaction at immense cost that penalises an innocent section of the population and the taxpayer generally? One understands that politicians must be seen to be doing something. Senior speakers from all parties have vied with each other, I suspect mostly to attract votes. This may be understandable. Perhaps it is their business. But why are all of them barking up the wrong tree?
Let us consider for a moment the incident at Hungerford. Here one had a known nutcase. I suggest that he was irregularly, illegally and irresponsibly issued with a licence to purchase types of weapons which his 1354 gun club—membership of which he gave as the reason for acquiring the certificate—was not licensed to use. Clearly, it was a simple breakdown in administration that had nothing to do with the then gun laws. Then one witnessed the "to be seen to be doing something" syndrome and a similar reaction set in. There was an attempt to tinker with the gun laws and avoid the real problem. What was done then did not cure the problem. Dunblane provides the proof that what was done following Hungerford was not the solution. There appears to have been a similar breakdown in administration, in that the gun laws were not properly administered in Dunblane as they had not been in Hungerford.
All of us have heard the analogy of the man who flings a brick through the window of a jeweller's shop in the high street, grabs a diamond bracelet and dashes off. The authorities arrive and, because the man has gone, decide that they really must do something about the brick. That is exactly what is happening now. But it is even worse than that. We are discussing the size of the brick—for example, a .22 brick. It is rather a childish exercise. It is rather like a number of eminent physicians standing round a patient's bedside and saying that they do not understand the disease and they will not bother to find out but they will treat the symptoms. The problem is not how but why. To address that problem is not simple, nor is it dramatic or evidently publicised as something being done. We return to the same old mantra chanted by politicians. When they become bemused and befuddled and do not know what to do they simply suggest that the gun laws should be tightened up, but they do not get to the root problem. If we did the wrong thing last time at Hungerford why are we trying to repeat it.
I do not have the resources, facilities or necessary research to investigate the real problem of why such tragedies occur. As a starting point I make the following suggestion. It is now almost impossible to turn on one's television set without seeing on any channel somebody pointing a gun at somebody else and possibly firing it. In the past we all played cowboys and indians. We would say, "Bang, you're dead". We believed that we were in a faraway mythical place known as the wild west—a thought much engendered by Hollywood. Now such actions are depicted in everyday life and surroundings. Is that not conducive to making people believe that such action is normal in everyday life? As a result, the myth that we live in a safe society and a safe country ought to be debunked. Any glance at the newspapers daily will show that that is absolute rot.
Here I must declare a somewhat antiquated interest of over 30 years ago. My firearms certificate covered some of the most lethal handguns. I had them for a specific purpose: my company used to make nice bronze screens for banks. In the early 1960s the banks started to get "matey" with their customers and they said "Take these screens away", and so the screens were taken away. It happened to be at that time that guns started to be used across bank counters and my company and I decided to manufacture efficient, bullet resistant glass. I therefore had .45s, .44s, .38s, .38 specials and, what I considered to be the most lethal weapon of the lot at the time, the 1355 357 magnum firing the Winchester metal-piercing cartridge. We were able eventually to design a sandwich of glass only 21.5 mm thick which would keep that out. We also introduced the louvred glass window—now very much outdated—which said, "Speak here". Nobody wanted to speak there at all, they wanted to speak through the hole underneath, but nevertheless those would keep out the 357 magnum with that special Winchester cartridge.
But I must tell you that the most dangerous weapon of all was not that Ruger with that special cartridge, which was almost an armour-piercing cartridge, it was the shotgun—the shotgun at short range, even sawn-off. The police would not allow me to have a sawn-off shotgun but they very kindly sent an inspector down to the range at my works and we tried it out. It was infinitely more lethal. So had Ryan and Hamilton not had a licence, there is very little doubt they would have found some other means of a "how".
In the 1930s one was told that certain areas of the country were so dangerous—around Docklands I think it was—that the police had to go in twos. They go in twos around Westminster now and armed police, totally unknown in the 1930s, are available more or less on request when a serious situation arises. So we do not live in a very safe society. Something has gone wrong. Incidentally, there are no party points to be made out of this because most of the time when I was making my bullet resisting glass it was under a Labour Government.
I suggest that this is a bad Bill addressing the wrong problem. It may satisfy those who appear to feel that somebody must be made to pay for Dunblane, no matter who, and politicians seem to be currying favour in pandering to this. But I suggest that it is very cruel to induce people to believe that this Bill will stop another Dunblane. Tightening up the gun laws is just a diversionary political tactic.
We all know, and we have heard it said, that in the United Kingdom and the British Isles, Ireland has had the tightest gun laws for decades. I can speak for quite a long time ago—in 1946 I was a military attaché in Dublin and I used to go to the North quite a lot. One could see even then that the place was awash with weapons. So illegal weapons abound despite tight gun laws.
The futility of this Bill was illustrated by the BBC announcer the day the Bill was published. He said it will result apparently in the destruction of some 160,000 weapons but many times that number of illegal weapons are in circulation. Some figures have been given to us, but in fact, the main effect of this Bill will probably be to enhance the price of illegal weapons for criminal activities.
Surely it is not beyond the wit of our "oh so clever politicians" to find a way not to penalise an innocent section of the community and the taxpayer in order to be seen to be doing something. But could they please spend their time, effort and resources in facing up to the real underlying problem; try to do something about "the why" of these events and not just think about the bricks and the symptoms.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Lord Swansea
My Lords, I must first declare an interest as a life-long shooter, a member of the Council of the National Rifle Association, and a founder member and former chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council. I must express my deepest sympathy with the parents and families of those children so tragically done to death at Dunblane. This caused shock and horror all over the country and throughout the world. The Government's response was out of all proportion, fuelled by public opinion and the tabloid press.
The Government were right to set up a public inquiry chaired by the honourable Lord Cullen, a wise and distinguished judge. His report was very sensible and well balanced. The Government chose to ignore it and to go way beyond his recommendations. One might well ask why they decided to hold an inquiry at all. They could have saved the country a great deal of money by not having it. They chose to ignore it. One would have thought that Parliament would be given the opportunity to debate the report but no, the Government were in too much of a hurry to get the Bill through Parliament before Christmas. It is up to your Lordships to lick it into a more acceptable shape, however long it takes.
The Bill can only be described as an abomination aimed at stamping out a harmless sport enjoyed by thousands throughout the country. I have received about 200 letters from pistol shooters, all expressing the same theme: why have we been made scapegoats for the sins of one madman when we have committed no crime and are never likely to do so? A couple of letters came from disabled women in wheelchairs for whom pistol shooting is the only competitive sport they are able to practise. Such people do not like being labelled as potential criminals and murderers.
Possession of a firearms certificate is evidence that the holder is a responsible citizen who has been judged trustworthy to have lethal firearms in his possession, yet the Government are now saying that the same people cannot be trusted to hold firearms. That is palpably absurd—you cannot have it both ways.
The massacre at Dunblane claimed 16 young lives and brought grief to many sorrowing families. This Bill aims to create up to 57,000 more victims who have done no wrong and who will be prevented from carrying on a harmless recreation. For generations British shooters have won their share of awards in international competition whether in the Olympic or Commonwealth Games or in other world events. If the Bill goes through in its present form these people will be deprived of the opportunity to develop their ability to the full. A pistol shooter in the top rank of his or her sport needs to have daily access to his pistol for actual firing on a range, for dry firing without ammunition or for tuning and adjustment. All that is essential for keeping the firer and his pistol up to top trim.
The proposals in the Bill for storage of pistols are beyond belief and are beyond the capabilities of most clubs. Many clubs have no premises of their own and may not even have a range of their own. Their only premises may be the secretary's own house. To expect such clubs to go to the expense of building a secure 1357 store for the housing of the members' pistols would be asking the impossible and might well force the closure of the club. Perhaps that is what the Government want.
A system of storage, such as that envisaged in the Bill, with police permits for a pistol to be taken out for any purpose, would place an impossible burden on the police and lead to a further increase in bureaucracy. I can foresee an inevitable result—yet another increase in firearms fees for firearms certificates.
A concentration of fully assembled working pistols in one place would be an open invitation to any terrorist organisation to mount a raid on the place. Surely the better solution would be to allow the owners to keep them at home. A person judged suitable to hold a firearm certificate must be presumed to be sufficiently responsible to be aware of the lethal potentialities of his pistol or pistols to exercise proper care over their storage. If that were to be combined with the practice of "disassembly", or the removal of certain essential components, and their separate storage elsewhere, so as to render the pistol inoperable, total security would be achieved. I follow that principle myself with my own rifles, which are put away with the bolts removed and stored elsewhere. The result is that a thief is faced with a useless chunk of metal which is quite harmless. The same principle should of course be followed with the ammunition, so that the weapon, its firing mechanism and the ammunition can never be brought together except when the owner is going to shoot on a range. Lord Cullen and ACPO have expressed their preference for that method.
The objection has been made that the owner might provide himself with a spare of the component to be removed so that he could re-activate the pistol at will. However, to obtain such a spare would involve a variation of his firearm certificate, which the police would be unlikely to grant. The purchase of a spare barrel or cylinder for a revolver counts as a variation of a firearm certificate. So the police would have that control over it.
I should like now to say a brief word about what I shall call heritage arms. At the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, this country was in the forefront of the development of new designs. Models such as the Webley-Fosbery, the only true semi-automatic revolver, and the Gabbett-Fairfax "Mars" pistols, probably the most powerful pistols ever invented, come to mind and are highly sought after by collectors. To condemn such pistols to total destruction would be vandalism of the worst kind, and I hope that the Government will recognise the need to preserve such milestones in museums for posterity. Many of them are superb examples of the gunsmith's art.
I shall not dwell at length on the question of compensation to be paid to owners of pistols which are to be surrendered other than to say that the sums which have been mentioned are niggardly in the extreme and do not reflect the true value of the pistols. That is nothing less than legalised theft. Doubtless other noble Lords will have something to say about that and about other aspects of this abominable Bill.
1358 The Government, in introducing the Bill, have brought upon their heads the wrath of some 57,000 law-abiding users in a harmless recreation. Doubtless they have been panicked into legislating, not only by pressure from the public and the uninformed popular press but also by the imminence of a general election. They cannot be unaware that in so doing they will lose a large number of votes which they can ill afford. On the other hand, the shooting community cannot be unaware of the declared intentions of the party opposite should it form a government. In that case the shooters will be out of the frying pan into the fire, and their last state will be worse than their first.
I want to assist the Government and help them to salvage something from this mess. They have chosen the line of least resistance in attacking an innocent body (the legitimate shooters) as a soft target and one that is readily identifiable. Much of the blame for what happened at Dunblane lies, not with any deficiency in the present law, but with the way in which it was not administered properly by the police. Lord Cullen makes that clear in his report.
The setting up of a central firearms control board, which has long been advocated by the BSSC, would go a long way towards eliminating the wide differences in the administration of the firearms Acts as between different police forces. Moreover, even if all pistols above .22 calibre are to be banned, we cannot lose sight of the fact that there is a vast pool of illegally held firearms in the country which are used in crime. No one knows how many there are. We can only guess. Some estimates put it as high as 4 million, far outnumbering the legally held pistols. If the Government were to concentrate their efforts on tracing and eliminating that enormous pool instead of hounding the innocent legitimate shooters they would be able to gain some credibility in the eyes of the shooting public.
It is not too late even now for the Government to withdraw this terrible Bill and replace it with another on the lines recommended by Lord Cullen. I urge the Government to do just that, and I leave this thought with your Lordships. It comes from America:When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns".
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, our debate has highlighted some of the practical concerns felt by Members of this House and by the wider public outside. The proposals contained in the Bill will bring changes to the ownership and care of handguns and the way in which they are kept and used. I shall restrict my comments to four points: first, the Government's prime responsibility in protecting the public; secondly, an overall reduction in legally held handguns; thirdly, the compensation given; and, fourthly, exemptions to the Bill.
Whether we are participants in the sport of rifle shooting, or merely, as I am, a member of the public, we must be aware of the concerns expressed about the increase in violence, whether perceived or actual. Some of my noble friends have referred to the fact that that is 1359 probably being accentuated with the coming election, but I do not agree with them. It is a genuine fear of many members of the public.
The tragic death of Philip Lawrence and the Dunblane shooting brought the whole issue to the fore. A tightening up of the ownership of handguns and the use of knives had to be reconsidered. Lord Cullen's excellent report gives us practical ways of how that can be tackled.
The Government's proposals that all high calibre guns should be removed should be welcomed. The removal from circulation of 180,000 guns is a good move. That, together with other proposed measures on the authorisation of ownership and the keeping of small calibre handguns, should help in the fight against crime. As ACPO says:The proposed ban on high calibre guns and the tightening up of firearm controls generally will provide a significant improvement in public protection".My second point is to ensure that where individuals or businesses hold guns which will be banned by the new regulations, adequate compensation is given. The market value of such guns, before 16th October 1996, will be paid to the owners whether individuals or gunshops. Compensation for kit which can only be used with such guns is also to be included. I welcome the £150 million already put on one side to help.
Individuals may be most helped, but perhaps we might further consider gun clubs. They have not been directly included. I know that this may sound flippant—although that is not my intention—but I ask my noble friend the Minister whether an application by small clubs for lottery money might be considered. After all, money is given to sporting clubs. I wonder whether that point has been considered. Again, the question is not meant flippantly.
My third point relates to exemptions to the Bill. The Bill rightly says that professionals, such as vets, huntsmen and slaughterhouses will be allowed to hold high calibre handguns to enable them to do their normal daily work. The Bill will also ban expanding ammunition except where it is necessary for the culling of vermin and wildlife in the context of estate management. There are exemptions which will allow people to continue their normal working commitments.
Fourthly, I turn to the use of handguns for sporting purposes. The proposals in the Bill will affect them directly with the requirement that handguns should no longer be held at an individual's home but at a secure, authorised gun club. In her letter to The Times today Mrs. Sarah Cooper says that the Bill will destroy pistol shooting. That is not strictly true, but there will be greater requirements as to how the sport is carried on. She asks that the Government exempt the small and highly defined group of competitors who make up the national squad. But to reach the top, one needs to start at the grassroots. If one does that, how would one come through the system? How would we define them?
In the middle of her letter, Mrs. Cooper compares the position of other high profile sporting people: Steve Redgrave, sitting on the towpath, or the English football 1360 team being precluded from taking part in this year's European championship. That is ridiculous. It is not a comparison. Guns in the wrong hands kill people. Surely, footballs and boats are not lethal.
I appreciate that the proposed regulations will add to the difficulties of those pursuing their legal sport, but in the wrong hands guns are dangerous. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, says that he keeps his guns in a central place, but some people have expressed doubts about doing so. The thought is that criminals would know exactly where to find the weapons. But that is true of both the police and our Armed Services today. Anyone reading of the recent death of Kenneth Speakman would have been moved. He was a sportsman who died about a month ago when his home was burgled and his handguns stolen. Interestingly, his rifles were not stolen. People will appreciate that however careful, and I understand that he was, one is still vulnerable.
The debate gives us the opportunity to express detailed suggestions to make sure that this Firearms (Amendment) Bill will work. I return to where I began. The Government's responsibility is to the public. They expect us to provide as safe an environment as possible. We cannot alter the awful events of the past in Hungerford and Dunblane, but we can and should make every effort to ensure the safety and wellbeing of future generations.
§ 8.51 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of High Cross
My Lords, as a regrettably infrequent attender to your Lordships' House, I must say how impressive I have found tonight's array of speakers. I was astonished to discover that a great majority were critical of, and some strongly opposed to, the Bill. I confess at the outset that I approached the matter in a state of sublime innocence. I had no interest, knowledge or awareness of pistol shooting as a hobby or sport. The attraction of firing bullets at bull's-eyes is to me as unfathomable as the obsession I detect in otherwise rational human beings for hitting balls into small holes in the ground. What I have found most impressive during the past two weeks is the evidence from correspondence, mostly hand written and individual rather than from organisations, that pistol clubs claim an allegiance and affection of their members which is in no whit inferior to that of golf clubs to their members.
Most of the arguments and facts that I had carefully prepared have been laid before the House and I shall pursue the unusual course of not repeating them. I say simply that whatever one's initial reaction to the horrific events in Dunblane, the persuasive report of Lord Cullen, if people will only read it, can hardly leave undisturbed the raw views fashioned in the heat of that outrage. Before tonight's illuminating debate I was most affected by the letters I received from ordinary men and women about the devotion to their strange sport and its competitions and activities.
Lord Cullen's report offers far-reaching safeguards which are well short of a draconian ban on the private ownership of multi-shot handguns. He offers a detailed change in the law, in its application, to bar people 1361
unfitted to hold gun licences in the future. He proposes membership of clubs and participation in competitions as necessary proof of the bona fides of the interests of the applicants in target shooting. Above all, in place of the crude ban the report offers the lifeline to shooters of dismantling self-loading pistols and revolvers so that key components are kept separate and secure in gun clubs. That appears to me an eminently ingenious and sensible suggestion.
The Government deserve some credit for withstanding the intense emotional and political pressure to impose full prohibition. But by restricting the calibre and requiring the remaining guns to be kept intact at reinforced club armouries the Bill simultaneously makes pistol shooting less attractive and far more expensive to an extent that must wipe out the sport except for the super-rich.
The only case for the Government to go beyond Lord Cullen's recommendations is that public opinion has spoken and public opinion must be heeded. Such a view has a natural appeal to Members of the Lower House with an election coming over the horizon. But its superficial ring of democracy should have less resonance in this Assembly. Indeed, the strength of this House, which we may shortly be urging in our own defence against a Labour Government, is precisely that it provides a pause for mature reflection.
Like the great philosophers of individual freedom through the ages, I absolutely acknowledge that proven danger to third parties provides sufficient warrant to contemplate the abridgment and, in the last resort, the abolition of most prized freedoms. However, the rival danger against which this House especially must be equally vigilant is that the legitimate concern for health and safety should precipitate hasty action that inflicts lasting damage on freedom without any offsetting benefit. Responsible experts have satisfied me that Lord Cullen's dismantling option could achieve more safety at far less cost in freedom, composition, compensation and unemployment. When amendments are tabled in Committee to achieve such multiple advantages, I hope that this House will not shrink from accepting them.
§ 8.57 p.m.
The Earl of Stockton
My Lords, I must declare a number of interests in this Bill. First, I have been shooting with a shotgun and a rifle since I was eight years old. Secondly, I am the chairman of the Campaign for Shooting, run jointly by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the British Field Sports Society and the Game Conservancy Trust. Thirdly, I am a director of the British Field Sports Society and chairman of its shooting committee and, fourthly, I am also a life member of the Deer Society of Great Britain. It has been suggested to me that those facts should bar me from taking part in the debates on this Bill. I venture to suggest that the opposite is the case.
This is not a bad Bill; it is a sad one. Sad because it fails for the second time to address the basic issue of firearms control, and sad because, while discriminating against a significant group of law-abiding citizens, it 1362 fails to afford protection to the people of this country against a repetition of the ghastly events of Hungerford and Dunblane.
I am sympathetic to the points raised by many noble Lords in this debate who have reminded the House that rushed law is usually bad law. I understand that honourable Members in another place are under a great deal of pressure to be seen to do something quickly, and that the great tide of emotion and revulsion that rightly swept the country after the Dunblane tragedy has found its reflection in the proceedings in another place. But I trust that in your Lordships' House we will be more informed, more dispassionate and less emotional. It is the duty and the role of the Upper House to take a more detached and careful view of the Bill. I trust that in Committee the Government will listen to the suggestions from all parts of the House and judge them on their merits, and not simply on whether any changes we propose will be acceptable to another place.
We must recognise that, while the majority of your Lordships are familiar with guns either through the use of sporting weapons or through military and national service, the majority of the people of this country, especially those under 55, are not. They have a healthy respect for, and often an understandable fear of, all guns.
In common with other noble Lords who have spoken already in this debate, I believe that we are once again failing to address the basic issue: that it is the individual, not the weapon, that should be controlled. It is clear from the report by Lord Cullen that he shared that view, although he did not go as far as I and other noble Lords would go in setting up an independent and professionally staffed firearms licensing board. It may be that I and other noble Lords will put this forward as an amendment to the Bill at a later stage. I trust that the considerable sums of money flowing into the coffers of the constabulary will not be the deciding factor.
I must ask my noble friend the Minister to give the House an assurance that this Bill was produced in the light of the Cullen report, and after the appropriate consultations, as promised by her right honourable friend the Secretary of State in another place. There is a widespread view that the first drafts of the Bill, and the consultations with other departments, were prepared in the second half of September, before the Cullen report was published. I am sure that my noble friend will be able to reassure the House on this point.
However, I feel that the Minister will find it more difficult to persuade this House of the necessity of going so much further than the measures suggested by Lord Cullen. I understand that she has received a large number of submissions from a wide variety of interested individuals and groups, and I hope she will agree that the concerns they have expressed are genuine and not, as some members of another place and the tabloid press would have us believe, the rantings of an extremist group.
While I have every sympathy with the concerns that lie behind the amendment proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Strafford, I fear that this is not the time to provoke a dispute between your Lordships and another place. Whether I shall find myself forced to support such an 1363 amendment when the House votes on whether this Bill do pass will depend in large measure on the assurances that my noble friend the Minister can give the House that she is going to listen and act on the suggestions put forward by your Lordships in Committee.
§ 9.3 p.m.
§ Lord Annaly
My Lords, I have no interest to declare regarding the measures in this Bill. I do not possess a pistol and am not a member of any pistol shooting club. However, I do possess a shotgun, and I shoot a rifle when I go stalking but I do not actually own a rifle myself. As I said in the debate on the gracious Speech, I have three small children and I can well relate to the feelings of the parents following the dreadful Dunblane tragedy.
We now have before us a Bill which was born in that tragedy. As I am No. 30 on the list of speakers, most of the points that I wanted to make have already been made and I shall not repeat them all. I shall merely mention one or two.
I feel that the Government were in a very difficult position. I am afraid that, as has already been said, politics became involved too early before it was possible to debate Lord Cullen's report in this House or the other place. I believe that that was a mistake. I should have been much happier if we now had before us a Bill much more in line with Lord Cullen's proposals.
I do not know whether I have received 200 letters, as some noble Lords have, but I have received a great many letters. They vary somewhat but I believe that they are all from decent law-abiding people, who all have different concerns. The main concern is that great injustice may be caused. I believe that it is wrong that we should now be legislating against what is quite a small minority of people. My noble friend Lord Peel made that point in his speech. For example, it is not a sport to drive a motor car but if a maniac, either with or without alcohol, had driven into a group of children and killed them on purpose, we would not be bringing in legislation to ban motor cars. Motor cars are just as lethal as pistols. Therefore, I feel that we are in danger of sweeping under the carpet the interests of law-abiding people and I am not at all happy about that.
I support and admire the amendment tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Strafford. He put his case very succinctly and well. But I am glad that he does not wish to press the amendment because, as other noble Lords have said, I do not believe that it would be right to cause a problem between your Lordships' House and the other place.
Perhaps I may comment on a few points that I should like to see dealt with at a later stage. There is the question of dismantlement. I have not seen the letter in the Library to which my noble friend Lord Kimball referred but I am advised that in 95 per cent. of cases it is possible to have an effective system of dismantlement and, obviously, the other 5 per cent. of weapons would have to go. That seems to me to be quite reasonable.
As regards compensation, it is a question of morality and justice, straight and simple. A great many firearms dealers, manufacturers and those running clubs and 1364 ranges have all built up their livelihoods in connection with guns and are now faced with losing those livelihoods through no fault of their own. They will not receive proper compensation and that is unacceptable.
As has already been mentioned, there are sporting exemptions—and here perhaps I differ with my noble friend Lady Byford as regards the national squad. Over the past 100 years this country has led the olympic sport of pistol shooting. I wonder what the rest of the world would say if we suddenly said that we could no longer compete. There are 40 to 48 people in the national squad. Those people are well known. Special rules ought to come into play to allow those people to continue with their sport. My main concern is one of justice. I am sad for all the law abiding people who will suffer if this legislation is enacted.
§ 9.8 p.m.
§ Viscount Thurso
My Lords, I must declare an interest as I am the holder of a firearms certificate which includes a weapon which would be covered by this legislation.
When I considered speaking today I was well aware that many other noble Lords would speak in the debate. Therefore I asked to speak late in the debate as I was sure that most of the points which I might wish to make would have been covered far better by previous speakers. That has indeed been the case. Therefore at this late hour I do not propose to go over them again.
However, I wish to refer to one point which was made eloquently by my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank; namely, the question of compensation. Although I welcome the extension that the Government have allowed, it seems to me quite wrong that one effect of this tragedy that led to this legislation should be the bankruptcy, or potential bankruptcy, of legitimate traders. Certainly it is Parliament's sovereign privilege to take such action if it wishes, but, if compensation is not to be paid it will be seen as unwarranted vindictiveness and would be both unreasonable and unworthy of both Houses.
We are considering this legislation for only one reason. There are occasions—mercifully rare—of such devastating impact that for the rest of our lives we remember their horror and our feelings. As with the assassination of President Kennedy, most of us will remember where we were when we heard the news.
In my case, I had just flown south from a happy visit to Scotland. I was driving around the M.25 as the news of the Dunblane tragedy came over the radio. I honestly could not believe my ears. As I began to take in what was being said, a picture of my youngest son, still in primary school, came into my mind. For a brief moment I had a glimpse of understanding of the heartache of the parents involved. As I drove around that motorway I wept. Even today, each time I read the measured description in the Cullen report I cannot do so without feeling an anguish that brings tears to my eyes. As I listened to those radio reports, I was also struck by the calm dignity of those at the centre of the tragedy. In particular, one interviewee—I do not remember who it was—when asked whom to blame by the interviewer, calmly refused to indict, focusing instead on the tragedy.
1365 Yet already by the following morning the whole tone of the news coverage had changed. The blame culture, now so common in our news media, had fully asserted itself and trial by interview was in full sway. Anyone listening to the "Today" programme as I did must have been struck by the imbalance between those who rapidly established a call for blaming the gun on the one hand, and on the other hand the rather inarticulate and bemused secretaries of gun clubs who were suddenly called on to defend themselves. To all intents, this debate was fought and lost long before the Cullen inquiry or Parliament debated the outcome.
It is of course absolutely right that Parliament should take account of public sentiment but in this modern age of spin doctoring and aggressive journalism it has perhaps never been more important that individual Members of both Houses rely on their own intellects and judgments. This Bill owes much more to the media than to reasoned thought. I therefore ask your Lordships to reflect on the actual merits of the arguments rather than on the electoral value of this Bill. Again I felt that my noble friend Lord Rodgers put those arguments particularly cogently, irrespective of the side one is on.
I believe the media campaign has in this instance done us a disservice as it has forced the debate to concentrate entirely on the weapon rather than on the human who actually perpetrated this outrage. Here I have to disagree with my noble friend Lord Addington. I believe that it is important to look at the human being as well as the instrument. It seems to me that Dunblane is not an isolated incident; rather, it is part of a pattern of increasingly senseless and amoral violence which pervades our society. Taken in the wider context of other equally appalling though less devastating incidents, I am forced to consider the forces in our society that create this urge for senseless violence. Until we are prepared to take on the root causes, then those who are driven to these acts will continue to find weapons, whatever they may be, whether legal or illegal, to execute their foul fantasies. If we really want the answers to Dunblane, I do not think that we shall find them in gun clubs. We should be looking for the forces which created Thomas Hamilton and which propelled him to act as he did.
I enjoy a good action movie; but, increasingly, I find the use of gratuitous violence in such films unacceptable. We have reached the stage where for profit films are produced which feature violence for the sake of violence. It is a thin line between action which portrays violence for the sake of the plot and films which portray violence simply to titillate. But more and more the videos which I have seen seem to produce and glorify violence for no other reason. The entertainment media are not the only ones who must answer questions. The news media produce ever more horrendous pictures and one cannot help wondering, as one watches the six o'clock news about the effect on our children of watching endless bloodshed in Palestine, Bosnia, Africa and all the other flashpoints of the world.
Tonight we choose to blame a lump of steel for Dunblane. But I believe that we should be looking for a greater explanation for this catastrophe. As part of that greater explanation, we should not shy away from 1366 looking at all our media, both entertainment and news. The power of communications, in particular with television, has never been stronger and the effect on our society never more pervasive. Yet those who control what is probably the most potent force in our society today do so with only one regard; and that is to make profit. Our future society and culture is being moulded entirely on the basis of what sells papers or achieves high ratings. I do not blame the media for Dunblane any more than I blame Browning or Smith and Wesson. However, I believe that the influence of the media in our society, and the constant denigration of moral values coupled with the glorification of gratuitous violence, have conspired to create a climate where Dunblane can take place. For that I hold the media culpable.
This is not a good Bill. For all the reasons which we have heard already from so many noble Lords, I doubt that it will achieve its objectives. It will cost many law-abiding citizens a great deal of money, and in all probability will have no impact whatsoever on the availability of illegal weapons. However, had we been asked to vote tonight I would have voted against the amendment, and for a Second Reading of the Bill. I believe that, above all, this House, as regards a Bill of this nature, must respect the will of another place. I put that constitutional belief above everything and even above my unease on the failings of this legislation. However, I believe that in this Bill we have formulated the wrong charge and put the wrong prisoner in the dock.
§ 9.17 p.m.
§ Lord Lyell
My Lords, first, I declare an interest. I have a shotgun certificate from Angus police; I also have rifles. However, I do not have, and never have had, anything to do with handguns or pistols as described in the Bill. That is apart from June 1958 when I was a young soldier in the Scots Guards and was told to take a weapons training course at Hythe. I was not particularly accurate with a pistol.
Secondly, the Bill and the events following Dunblane afforded me a unique amount of mail. Between 65 and 70 letters on the subject were addressed to me, all cogent and fairly well written. I have attempted to reply to almost all of them.
Thirdly, I have noted a great deal of fairly effective lobbying. In many cases I was reminded of what one of my honourable friends, when he went to Northern Ireland, said in another place about bees looking for bonnets in which to settle. The letters and lobbying over the past two months reminded me of that saying.
However, perhaps I may concentrate on the Bill and the Cullen Report. I was grateful to my noble friend Lady Carnegy for her opening remarks which have shortened my speech by at least two minutes. She referred to the pistol clubs in Angus. Until Dunblane and the Bill, I was not aware of the number of pistol clubs in Angus. I hope that the Minister will be able to take on board the points made by my noble friend about the facilities for practice and the storage available for the permitted weapons and as regards possible surrender and compensation. I hope that the terms for compensation will be both adequate and generous.
1367 I found it interesting that when my noble friend spoke there were present no fewer than five Peers from the county of Angus. One of my noble friends and neighbours has been here throughout the debate. It shows that there is considerable interest in the Bill. I stress the serious point, made by my noble friend and neighbour, that in Angus there is enormous emotion. Unlike Dunblane, which is fairly near the big cities, the area is very rural. Shotguns and rifles are a particular part of its life. I hope that the emotion that is felt in Angus will be perceived as part of the contribution to this discussion.
I direct the attention of my noble friend the Minister to Part III of the Bill, to Clause 26(4)(b) on page 12 and to line 31 which refers to expanding ammunition. The only time I have heard of expanding ammunition is its use in the control of vermin or deer where it is to be permitted. I have received one or two communications about that. I am very pleased to see that it is included in this part of the Bill.
Perhaps my noble friend can give some guidance in relation to Clause 31(2) and applications for firearms certificates. She will see the reference to,two persons who have agreed to act as referees".Presumably that refers to firearms. Am I right in thinking that it refers to rifles? I have certainly not been aware, as perhaps I should have been, when filling in my application that two people had vouched to the Tayside or Angus police that I might be a suitable person. If the reference is shotguns I hope that we shall be able to cope at a later stage, considering all the bureaucracy involved in filling in the applications. We shall come to the matter in Committee. I beg my noble friend to make any instructions or amendments as simple and straightforward as possible. Otherwise I think there will be complications and difficulties—and bureaucracy, which figures very largely throughout the Cullen Report.
When we come to examine Clause 33, perhaps my noble friend will be able to give some help on revocation and the two incredible words, "good reason". I believe the Bill is reasonably clear. However, I am a little worried that a reference to "good reason" in relation to having a shotgun or rifle could become slightly entangled with a similar line in the construction and use regulations on my motorcar. I am on occasions rather scared when I go out on the road that there might be a screw loose in the car and the constabulary will say, "Tut, tut, there is something out of order." I hope that that will not be the case in relation to Clause 33. We can examine that point in Committee.
I turn to paragraph 4.67 on page 42 of Lord Cullen's report. We see that Mr. Thomas Hamilton was said not to be a very frequent attender of the meetings of the Stirling Rifle and Pistol Club. We find that,When the command at twenty metres distance was to fire six rounds … he would 'blast off twelve".In paragraph 5.16 on page 50 we see that Mr. Crawford had one or two things to say. In paragraph 5.17 he describes Mr. Hamilton at the pistol and rifle club as firing "a fusillade of shots". At paragraph 5.18 we see 1368 that Hamilton said there was "a bit of a hold up" about obtaining his certificate. If we consider paragraph 5.21, on page 51, we see that Mr. Gillespie was more than startled by the conduct of Mr. Hamilton with his pistol.
I have some small experience of attending clay pigeon shoots. All around Angus one finds country folk, gamekeepers and those who are interested in sport sometimes skeet and trap shooting. I am sure that all my noble friends and everyone who has spoken in the debate today would consider that anyone who behaved in such a way at a rifle club or with a shotgun should be drummed out straightaway and sent off the premises. If that were to happen, there would be no need for putative bureaucratic written material. There would merely be one or two simple questions to the police describing the adequacy or otherwise, good reason or whatever it was, for the individual having any type of firearms certificate.
I reiterate what was said by my noble friends Lady Carnegy and Lady Byford that nothing we could do would ever restore the Dunblane victims. The notable speech by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, reiterated that.
On page 78 of Lord Cullen's report, noble Lords will read the observations on the system. To add a slight note of levity, it seems to me similar to what is thought to be a well oiled rugby three-quarter line: the responsibility seems to be passed from one police officer or one person to another until either the ball is dropped or someone makes a mistake.
I hope that we shall be able to examine the system and consider the points I have mentioned, particularly from Clauses 31 and 33 and onwards when we reach the Committee stage. Whoever takes responsibility for firearms legislation—and in a small part we do—it cannot be left entirely to the police or individuals who participate in the sport. I hope that we shall all learn and apply the lessons. As my noble friend Lord Annaly said, we must seek to remove some of the worst unfairness of the Bill. I look forward to the next stage.
§ 9.26 p.m.
§ Viscount Massereene and Ferrard
My Lords, first I should like to declare an interest: I am chairman of Atkin, Grant and Lang, a maker of best English shotguns; I also served for a number of years as a director of John Rigby and Company, a maker of best English sporting rifles. I am currently a member of the livery of the Gunmakers Company who run and have run the Proof House for some 300 years. I personally have no interest in handguns and have never made them or sold them.
I should like today to try to put the Dunblane and Hungerford tragedies into some kind of perspective. I hoped that after Dunblane there would be a reasoned and sober reaction by the Government and the Opposition to the horrors perpetrated by both Ryan and Hamilton. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Both the main parties have been trying to outdo each other in attacking the legitimate owners of handguns.
To ban all handguns over .22 calibre completely is, to my mind, quite futile. It is a fact that for every legally held handgun there are at least two illegally held guns. 1369 It has been said that there are some 6 million unlicensed firearms in the country, compared with 2 million legally held ones. There is a limitless supply of firearms coming over from eastern Europe since the break-up of the USSR and I am told that they can be purchased for as little as £50 each, with ammunition. In 1954, there were 200,000 firearm certificate holders and four armed robberies per annum in this country. Today, there are 150,000 certificate holders and several armed robberies per day. So much for firearms control.
To give an up-to-date example of the futility of the proposed ban, in Washington DC, USA, handguns were banned in 1976 when the homicide rate was 45 per 100,000 people per annum. Today the hand gun related homicide rate is 78 per 100,000 per annum.
I would compare this Bill with the Dangerous Dogs Act which, as your Lordships know, has caused great distress to numerous quite innocent dogs and owners. However, that Act, for all its imperfections, has at least gone some way to alleviate that particular problem.
I have received well over 50 letters from handgun owners and pistol shooting clubs and they all say that the root of the problem is the fact that in the case of both Ryan and Hamilton the police did not apply the law. In both cases they were warned about these individuals and failed to act. I do not want to use this opportunity to attack the police; they have a difficult and demanding job to do, enforcing the laws passed by Parliament. However, in the Hungerford and Dunblane incidents the police failed to spot these two psychopaths and they slipped through the net with disastrous consequences.
In my opinion, the law as it currently stands with regard to firearms is quite adequate. It merely has to be applied vigorously to make sure that madmen and guns are kept apart. I suggest that the vetting process is looked into carefully. Perhaps the police are not the best body for the job. I know from experience that the various firearms departments are under constant pressure and are usually short of staff. I suggest that this is what the Government should be looking at.
Putting a blanket ban on all handguns over .22 calibre is, in my opinion, an admission of failure. It will not do the slightest good. It will cost the taxpayer dear. On page 25 of your Lordships' Library notes it is reckoned that the whole thing could cost £455 million. It seems a lot of money to me. It is in the Library notes, so perhaps it might be worth having a look at those. It will ruin a number of people and take their livelihood away.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, perhaps the noble Viscount will allow me to say that he ought to recognise that the table on page 25 of the Library notes gives as its source the Sportsmen's Association; it is not an independent valuation by your Lordships' Library.
§ Viscount Massereene and Ferrard
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. Yes, I agree that could be the case, but it gives some idea of the possible costs of this ban.
1370 In conclusion, currently only one male in 220 is skilled in the handling of firearms. We are all set to reduce this number further. Have the Government thought about the possible implications for national security?
§ 9.33 p.m.
§ Lord Craig of Radley
My Lords, many claim that this Bill has been drafted by the heart and not by the head. Certainly, no reasonable person can have been other than moved to the depths of their being by the horrors of the massacre at Dunblane. All who survived the hail of bullets, all the bereaved, all who knew Hamilton, all who had dealings with him, all the police involved in checking on him and in the issue of his firearm certificates, all must have been dreadfully shocked by the event, including the Secretary of State for Scotland and other Scottish MPs who had personally met and knew Hamilton.
Of course, all these people and many, many more are determined that steps must be taken to prevent such agony and suffering and heartbreak ever happening again. Their concern is wholly understandable, admirable and worthy.
Lord Cullen was asked to look into the tragedy and to make recommendations. It seemed that the head was beginning to take over from the heart. A thorough and full inquiry by Lord Cullen would give us all a chance to take stock of all the evidence, to consider the best ways of proceeding with legislation if that were required, and to identify what to do to safeguard schoolchildren and protect the public from the actions of an armed maniac. Lord Cullen's report deals with all the issues in a clear and admirable way. It was also completed with commendable speed. Within eight months we had the report and a considered government response to the public inquiry.
But despite the passage of time and the clarity of Lord Cullen's recommendations, I am left with the feeling that the Bill before us is still drafted by the heart and not by the head. Emotion is not a good foundation for legislation. We are in danger of passing into law provisions which are not reasonable or fair to many law abiding citizens in this country. Once more we are finding the Weatherill law of unintended consequences stalking the passage of a Bill. Your Lordships will recall—certainly the noble Baroness the Minister will recall—that the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill made reference to this point a fortnight ago when we debated the cost to charities of a provision in the Police Bill.
My mailbag and indeed those of many noble Lords and others have given us all an understanding of what it is like to have your business, maybe your house and your whole way of life, liquidated and removed at a legal stroke by the passage of a Bill. Of course, the revolvers and ammunition which Hamilton used killed most horribly. But mass murder on a similar scale is conceivable with smaller calibre weapons, with .22 rim-fire ammunition, with shotguns, machetes, flamethrowers, kitchen knives, and axes or even a screwdriver. It might take a killer a minute or two longer than it did at Dunblane to massacre a room full of helpless children.
1371 It is heart, not head, which argues that removing large calibre handguns is essential to ensure that a tragedy such as Dunblane does not strike again. Large calibre guns are no more or no less likely to be the tools of a future massacre. The mind and actions of the killer will be responsible, not the weapon used.
But maybe even at the expense of poor law and all the downstream consequences and costs of poor law, and even if it comes to dealing with the ramifications of unintended consequences, the heart and, dare I say, politics on this occasion will have their way. But law is far better if based on good reason. How often have we heard of the need to consider the actions of a reasonable man?
I am sorry that we are faced with such a gut-reaction Bill. It penalises far too many law abiding citizens for a crime in which they had no part, a crime which could not have happened as it did if the police guidance on the issue of firearm certificates had been followed. It will destroy the livelihoods and lifestyles of far too many innocent, law abiding citizens.
In two world wars the country has had good reason to be thankful for the many conscripts to National Service who could shoot straight. We shall not find their like again. How many may be driven to despair, even suicide, because they will lose all? It is horrifying even to contemplate. But the parallel with cattle farmers who took such a step because they had lost all due to the BSE scare is too close to ignore.
We are now targeting a low risk event of another Dunblane with a blunderbuss. We are trying to "nannycoddle" ourselves with restrictive legislation. It is legislation which adds insult to injury by failing to deal adequately with compensation. It will not help to uphold respect for the laws of this land. It will cost the taxpayer dear. It will never be possible to prove that it has forestalled another Dunblane. I doubt whether that intended consequence will flow from what we have before us today.
What Parliament passes in a mood of hasty emotion may return to haunt us. But pass it will, if time allows. I hope that in this House we shall succeed in Committee in putting a far better Bill onto the statute book.
§ 9.40 p.m.
The Earl of Haddington
My Lords, I declare an interest in that I am a member of a gun club and have been for several years. What happened at Dunblane came as the most appalling shock to me and my family. We have three small children ourselves and it was unthinkable that something like that could ever happen in this country.
When I was taught to use a gun by my father's gamekeeper, he stressed the aspects of safety in no uncertain manner—my noble friend Lord Balfour had the same experience. I am sure that it stood us in good stead all our lives. People who are granted firearms certificates today are given them with no instruction whatever. It is expected that they will find a tutor to show them how to use a gun. The police seem to 1372 presume that if one applies for a firearms certificate one knows how to use a gun already, perhaps an air gun, and one is buying a more up-market weapon.
When I first joined the Cumsliehill Joint Services Pistol Club as a probationary member I was given instructions by the secretary to make sure that I understood the safety regulations of the club; that is, that one always pointed the gun down the range; one never swung a gun around and, if it was a revolver, one always carried it with the chamber unlocked and one's fingers through the top of the pistol so that everybody could see that the chamber was empty and that one was carrying the pistol so that it would not go off. All those aspects are taught at gun clubs and one is expected to behave in a rigorously safe manner. Perhaps the Dunblane club did not have such regulations; I do not know because I have never been there.
If I thought for one moment that the Bill would serve the purpose of preventing another horrific incident such as that in Dunblane I would be in favour of it. I am definitely in favour of this House discussing it in a Second Reading debate. We must have the opportunity to air our views and table amendments to the Bill.
It was suggested that after the centre-fire weapons have been removed from the possession of members, they could shoot with a .22 pistol and those pistols could be kept in highly secure safes either at the club secretary's home or on gun club premises. I doubt whether any club secretary would go along with those proposals. He would be the sole key carrier of a fairly large arsenal of weapons, albeit .22, and would be open to attack by gangsters or terrorists who wished to get their hands on a supply of guns. "No thank you" he would say.
Perhaps the police should hold the weapons or somebody else who is allowed to shoot at people. The club secretary would not be allowed to shoot at gangsters who came to his home to relieve him of his large arsenal of weapons. He would be in breach of the law himself if he did that. I do not think many clubs could afford to take on the expense of putting in such high security. My club shoots at a small quarry up in the hills above Lauder. Even with a fully alarmed safe it would take at least a quarter of an hour for the police to arrive, and by that time the fox would have left the scene.
There is the whole question of hollow-pointed .22 ammunition being banned. Hollow-pointed .22 ammunition is never supposed to be used with a pistol, but using it is the only humane way to shoot vermin such as rabbits. If we are not allowed to use dum-dum ammunition of that kind the vermin will suffer horribly. They will crawl away and die in agony.
The Bill says that an estate owner may shoot a marauding dog which is disturbing sheep on his farm. Does the term "estate manager" or "estate owner" also 1373 include farmers and other people such as gamekeepers who would be going about their duties? Is my noble friend the Minister replying in the negative?
The Earl of Haddington
My Lords, there is also the question of the forms which the police issue to candidates who wish to apply for a firearm certificate. A standardised form or an ISO 9000 would restore a degree of confidence in all European countries that the police administration procedures were being fully followed in respect of the use of rifles, pistols and shotguns for sporting and land management purposes. I wonder whether the Minister would agree that in the case of Dunblane and possibly Hungerford the inspectors of constabulary failed to ensure that good practice was adopted throughout forces in England and Wales and especially in Scotland. If they had so ensured, neither of these incidents would have occurred involving weapons held on certificates.
I should also like to know what provisions have or are being made to allow certificate holders to be able to sell their weapons abroad. Contrary to Ministers' statements, currently there is not a market for centre-fire weapons in this country, and we cannot dispose of these things. The idea that clubs can be reformed as .22 pistol users only with a high security lock up is, as I have said before, totally impractical. I believe that it will probably be in January that we reach the Committee stage of this Bill and I look forward to that. I hope that many sensible amendments will be tabled and that we shall show the Europeans that we have made some sense of a very tragic situation.
§ 9.51 p.m.
§ Lord Torphichen
My Lords, before the Front Benches wind up perhaps I may make one point that has been missed in this debate. Even after this Bill becomes law there will still be many people in the police, the Army and civilian life who will carry these heavier categories of weapons for self-protection. If this Bill becomes law in anything like its current form they will be very limited in their opportunities to practise with those weapons. I cannot see that they will be able to maintain sufficient familiarity in the limited opportunities that will be left to them to practise when all the .22 gun clubs have disappeared from the land and to use those weapons in the way that they should. I believe that in understanding only partly the hurt that the parents of Dunblane feel we are unable to deny them their request for action, but can we pass this Bill and deny the people who must use these weapons the necessary practice on which their lives may depend?
Perhaps I may bring the matter slightly closer to home than that. For example, I recall the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, was cornered by a mob in his house some years ago and he used his personal protection weapon to very good effect without firing a shot. But if one is not familiar with the weapon and not practised with it, one is unable to use it effectively.
§ 9.53 p.m.
§ The Earl of Mar and Kellie
My Lords. I am very impressed by the admiration of the House for the report of Lord Cullen. The amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Strafford, gave us the not unreasonable analysis that we should concentrate on the person and not the weapon. My noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank gave a systematic analysis of what was required, starting with the idea that we might tighten the regulations and move on to disassemble weapons; introduce the Bill or, as we would prefer it on these Benches, include the exclusion of .22 pistols. He went on to discuss compensation which he argued must be extended to business. It is not good enough just to rely on market forces and to pretend that the gunsmiths are suffering a collapse in the market. As to whether the result would be a safer place, he answered the question by saying that the elimination of 160,000 pistols would certainly achieve that. I have a question for the Government. On these Benches we shall be having a free vote. We shall be pleased to know if the Government will allow a free vote on their side of the House.
I ask all noble Lords who have criticised the Central Scotland Police if they are satisfied that their police authority were all using subjective criteria and that the Central Scotland force was the only one still using objective criteria. Some noble Lords have tried to find where the blame lies for Dunblane. My suggestion is that it lies in the social and self-marginalisation of Thomas Hamilton. I thank my noble friend Lord Addington for his passionate attack on the pistol on account of its history and its characteristics. I also thank my noble friend Lord Thurso who spoke up for compensation for the businesses which may go under or have possibly already gone under. He also analysed the origins of the Dunblane tragedy.
We on these Benches continue to support a ban on all handguns. We join other noble Lords who seek to persuade the Government to go further than the Bill allows. I held a range management qualification and ran ranges while serving with the Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment. I live 11 miles from Dunblane and am a signatory of the Dunblane Snowdrop petition. I am also an acquaintance of some of the organisers of the petition.
The mood in central Scotland is in favour of the removal of these weapons on the grounds that they have only a lethal or quasi-lethal purpose. Whatever else is claimed for the undoubtedly sociable sport of pistol shooting, no one can deny that a pistol emits a small piece of metal at high velocity with considerable penetrating power, and the risk of ricochet and subsequent unintended consequences.
In the 48 hours following the shootings at Dunblane Primary School the mood of those to whom I spoke was characterised by a car sales executive. He told me that when he went home that evening and looked at his young family he reconsidered what was important to him. Suddenly, he found himself discarding much of what he had regarded as important. I approve of the prohibition in Clause 1 of all handguns and regret the exemption of .22 pistols. I welcome the restriction of 1375 permitted pistols to properly constructed armouries at strictly regulated gun clubs. Standards must be set at a very high level. One wonders whether any recommendation for or against is being made about application to the Lottery Sports and Arts Foundation for the funding of armoury construction. I believe that on this subject there would be considerable resentment if lottery funds were diverted to a sport which currently engendered a good deal of criticism.
As to compensation, the rights of pistol shooters are probably being trampled upon, certainly in the short term. I believe that the case for compensation is just. The compensation for state organised loss must extend to pistol owners for their pistols and the equipment that goes with them, to manufacturers and dealers and to commercial pistol range operators and pistol clubs that have taken out long leases or purchased property.
Part II sets out the requirement for the licensing of pistol clubs. I note that in Clause 17 the grant period of a licence is to be six years. I hope to be reassured that inspection and supervision will be ongoing and that the provision in Clauses 18 and 19 for revocation will be used in exemplary fashion. I believe that the guidance concerning range control to be issued should advocate the current Armed Forces model. The arrangements for club registers of stored weapons in Clause 21 should, when tied to the requirements for notification in Clauses 27 to 29, allow a complete record of the whereabouts of all licensed pistols to be made. Like the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and other noble Lords, I ask the Government whether an active UK database will be maintained by the Home Office and the Scottish Office. I believe that that would help to keep track of these weapons.
In Part III the regulations for the holding of firearms and shotguns are to be amended. I approve of the stricter approach to be taken. The new role for referees will need to be well explained. Clearly, it is not just a matter of agreeing to the likeness of the photograph. The potential punishment of referees who sign applications for unfit persons should be highlighted. In Clause 31, like the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, I fail to understand why shotgun applicants will not require two referees. The scatter effect of these weapons is just as lethal, if not more so, than a rifle.
In Clauses 32 and 33 I return to the duty of the police to decide on the fitness of the applicant and the quality of the reason for holding a weapon. This duty will move the decision-making process from objective standards to more subjective standards. I can see an increase in appeals to the sheriff court with increased difficulty in justifying a refusal. After reading Clause 38 I am left wondering why we are not registering all carbon dioxide and air guns. I see no harm and only good from knowing the location of all these weapons.
In Schedule 1 I believe that it may take longer to achieve the building standards required for the new armouries. I am glad that the interim or transitional period may be extended as I believe that that will be necessary.
1376 To conclude, the Government have been subject to criticism that the Bill goes both too far and—from these Benches at least—not far enough. We have had a lively debate from both angles, though I note more from one than the other. I persist in hoping that the outcome will be an extension of the powers sought.
§ 10.02 p.m.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, if I may immediately follow the noble Earl, I would say that like the Liberal Democrat party we shall have a free vote at all stages on this Bill.
This has been a very one-sided debate, and I respect the views of those who have been on that one side which I do not share. It has been presented as an issue of civil liberty. The implication of that is that we are supposed to think of it as being an issue of civil liberty against public safety. I would like to suggest to your Lordships that it is by no means as simple as that as an issue.
Civil liberties we can very well define as protecting the rights not only of those people with whom we agree but of those with whom we disagree. I have no difficulty in saying straight away that I have no sympathy whatsoever with shooting of any kind, whether it is shooting with concealed weapons or shooting with large, very visible weapons: the distinction, as I understand it, between handguns and other guns. I have no aesthetic sympathy with it, I have no cultural sympathy with it, and it is not something I have ever in any way been tempted to do. Indeed, in two years as a National Serviceman, as a quarter-master's clerk in the Royal Artillery, the nearest I ever came to dealing with a gun was to have other people sign them out from my stores. That certainly was as close as I would ever wish to come to them.
But I should like to suggest that some of the high-minded talk we have been hearing today about civil liberty is also about the balance between certain kinds of liberty and very important kinds of public safety, because the issue here is the civil liberties of a very small number of people—perhaps six figures but hardly more than that—to pursue what they have described as being a sport (it is not my term) against the right to life of children and the right to life of other innocent people in our society.
Almost every speaker who has spoken about the need to protect this civil liberty has expressed horror at what happened at Dunblane. But they have then gone on to say that we are undergoing an instant hasty reaction to the events of Dunblane. I suggest to your Lordships that that is far from true. What happened at Dunblane was a repeat, with certain changes, of what happened in Hungerford nine years ago. What is happening now is that we are belatedly responding to the possibility of a massacre of the kind that happened both in Hungerford and in Dunblane and we are responding nine years late rather than possibly six months too early. In a moderate speech in support of the amendment, the noble Earl, Lord Strafford, talked about only two such gun massacres. Is not "only two" too many?
When we are striking the balance between civil liberties and public safety, let us consider what is in the balance and whether it might not be a small price to pay 1377 to deny a limited number of people their support in favour of the protection of a much larger number of people. It is not as though this were an extreme Bill. It does not seek to ban all guns. It seeks to ban only handguns which are, of their essence, guns that can be concealed about the person and fired with one hand. Those who wish to indulge in the sport of shooting guns can do so with all other kinds of guns. Their liberties are being restricted to a limited extent only.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that disabled people in wheelchairs cannot shoot rifles?
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, I have no idea. I have no difficulty in accepting it, but I have great difficulty in accepting that that is in any way relevant to my argument. Disabled people are restricted from all sorts of activities. It is not the job of the law to make exceptions for them except as provided by law in order for them to lead decent lives and to have the opportunity to have jobs and to be protected from discrimination. It is not the purpose of law to ensure that, for example, disabled people should be able to hang glide or ski or do other things which would be physically difficult for them.
As I say, the Bill is not about guns; it is about a particular kind of gun. It leaves the vast majority of guns which are used for "sporting purposes" entirely untouched. Our disagreement with the Bill—I say "our disagreement" and by that I mean my noble friends who agree with me on this, because my noble friend Lord Stoddart is of course free to vote as he wishes and will undoubtedly do so—that is, those of us who think as Jack Straw, George Robertson, and I think, wish to put before your Lordships the case for a total ban on handguns. It is not that we think that this is a matter of fundamental principle. We applaud the Government for going as far as they have done towards a ban. We believe that the Bill, as drafted, will not only eliminate 160,000 guns, which the Government estimate, but will probably eliminate a good deal more, because the conditions which are laid down in Part II for licensed gun clubs are pretty severe, and they will eliminate many guns.
§ The Earl of Shrewsbury
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. How will his party eliminate illegally held guns in this country, which are a major problem? They are a far bigger problem than legally held handguns.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, those who break the law constitute a problem which goes beyond my party or that of the noble Earl. It is a problem for all society, and it applies to all crimes. None of us is saying that we have a unique, simple solution to that problem. What we are saying is that the availability of legal guns will not make it any easier to have illegal guns. If every gun seen in this country is an illegal gun, action is then that much more simple and straightforward and can be dealt with. We are not saying that by eliminating legal guns we shall automatically eliminate illegal guns. That would be a foolish claim. 1378 I accept that the difference between us and the Government on a total ban is at the margin rather than one of fundamental principle. We believe that a total ban is sensible because the kind of loopholes which will emerge in the definition of guns which the Government wish to preserve will increase. The amount of regulation will be increasingly complex and the cost of enforcement will be that much greater. There is always the danger of slack security in gun clubs and that even with good security gun clubs will increasingly be terrorist targets if they hold a wider variety of handguns.
Having listened carefully to the argument about disabling guns and the disassembly of guns, we agree that disabling and disassembly are not suitable solutions. We are glad to see that the Government accept that point. Returning to the argument of the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, we are told that a ban on handguns will drive them underground. I have read the many letters which have been sent to me. They are intelligent, well written, well argued, moderate letters from those who support the sport of shooting handguns. It is an insult to believe that either the availability or the banning of handguns will drive them underground and that if such people were denied handguns they would be contributing to illegal guns—
§ Lord Burton
My Lords, has the noble Lord read Lord Cullen's report? He will find that Lord Cullen said that it may well drive weapons underground.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, yes, of course I have read Lord Cullen's report. I read it very carefully in closed conditions in the Home Office when it was first produced. Lord Cullen is entitled to his opinion that it may drive guns underground. I do not think so ill of the shooting fraternity to believe that it would turn to illegal weapons if it was denied the legal right to weapons.
§ The Earl of Shrewsbury
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will forgive me again. I am sorry to be difficult about the matter. The shooting fraternity has nothing to do with illegally held guns. It is quite straightforward that if guns are taken away from the legally held fraternity they will go underground. They are already underground and they are easily and freely available.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, the guns which are to be taken away will not be sold in the open market or in the clubs and the streets. The guns which will be taken away under this legislation will be destroyed. There is no question of them becoming available. Again, the confusion between the guns and the shooters is causing difficulty. I must be doing something well if I am attracting this degree of interruption!
I turn to the more difficult issue of compensation. I do not need to say a great deal because I am sure that the Minister will be firm about the matter—at least, I hope that she will. We accept that there must be compensation for individual losses but we are quite convinced that the Government are right to restrict the 1379 amount of public expenditure which will be involved in compensation for loss of business. After all, increasing regulation and legislation for the sake of public safety—whether it is in the environmental area, public health or, as in this case, physical public safety—always involves losses by those in the businesses which will be affected. However, it would be disastrous for social progress if compensation were granted to those who lose businesses which become out of date and impossible to sustain because of the increased concern for public safety or public health. Therefore, those of my noble friends who agree with me—and it will be the vast majority—will support the Government in any Division where the opponents of the Government seek to weaken the terms of the Bill; seek to increase public expenditure on compensation; or seek in any way to diminish the effectiveness of the Bill as it is now presented before your Lordships' House.
Above all, we shall oppose anybody who would be foolish enough to try to deny the noble Earl, Lord Strafford, the right to withdraw his amendment and to seek to press for a Division this evening. I warn such people that a vote against the Second Reading now would make it possible to invoke the Parliament Act because the Act provides specifically that that may be done whether in the same Parliament or the next. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Stockton, that that would be true whether the Bill were defeated on Second Reading or on the Question whether the Bill do now pass, to which the noble Earl referred as a possible alternative. It would be quite extraordinarily foolish of anybody who is opposed to this Bill to seek to deny it a Second Reading or a sympathetic and careful hearing in Committee and, above all, to seek to deny it the right to pass and be returned to the Commons.
§ 10.16 p.m.
My Lords, this has been a Second Reading in true characteristic style for this House. We have had a full and frank discussion of the Bill and its provisions. The horror and depth of feeling expressed about the tragedy at Dunblane has been the one unifying aspect of the Bill. As a mother who lost a son of school age, albeit in different circumstances, I can only say that I do understand the unrelenting ache in the hearts of the families and relatives of the children, Mrs. Mayor and their teacher.
However, the debate has raised many issues: some about means to ends; others that the Government should not have responded at all or in such haste; and some have accepted that the Bill before the House is a proper and considered response to address the issue of public safety.
I should like to turn to some of the points raised in the course of the debate. My noble friend Lord Kimball asked whether guidance on the criteria of pistol clubs, set out in Clause 16, would be available before the Committee stage. We are drawing up criteria for licensed pistol clubs in consultation with the police. We shall let the House see them as soon as possible. I cannot be precise about that but it is our intention to do so.
1380 My noble friend Lord Kimball asked also about counter-signatories. The Firearms Consultative Committee recommendation on counter-signatories was implemented and police forces use flexibility in the interpretation of who can be a counter-signatory. We are implementing Lord Cullen's recommendations on referees.
My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury said in his emotional speech that recommendations of the FCC had been ignored. First, I am grateful to my noble friend for his wise counsel as chairman of the FCC—and, indeed, I congratulate him on his very recent reappointment to that post. I am sure that he will agree with me that a number of the committee's suggestions have been included in the Bill. Those include a number of sensible exemptions. But this is not the occasion for a wholesale implementation of past FCC recommendations. The Bill is already long and it is important that it concentrates on the key issues arising from the events in Dunblane.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, quoted from Lord Cullen's report in support of his view that the answer to Dunblane is stricter licensing controls. However, I must say to the noble and learned Lord that that was not Lord Cullen's view. Lord Cullen specifically concluded that stronger conditions were required onthe availability of self-loading pistols and revolvers of any calibre".That is recommendation 24.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Kimball for his broad support of the Government's approach. He referred to .22 pistols. I understand my noble friend's concerns to see the survival of small pistol clubs; but we must put public safety first. That means that club security must be strict and opportunities to remove guns from club premises highly restricted. It is inevitable that some clubs will have some difficulties, and some may close or even amalgamate with other clubs, as has been mentioned by one or two speakers in the course of this debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell, asked an interesting question concerning the Manchester Commonwealth Games. Four of the five pistol events at the Commonwealth Games use .22 guns and therefore British participation will be able to continue. In the fifth event, .32 centre-fire pistols are used. That gun will become illegal, as noble Lords know; but it will be open to a future Home Secretary to provide authority to British and Commonwealth shooters to use the gun at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002. Therefore the power to enable a Secretary of State to act in that way is safeguarded.
The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, referred to training for bodyguards. It has never been government policy to authorise firearm certificates for that kind of training. It is not a proper reason under existing guidance to the police for granting a certificate, and the Bill will not affect that one way or the other.
My noble friend Lady Carnegy asked a couple of questions. First, she referred to the possibility of using local defence establishments for providing secure club facilities. There would be no objection to pistol clubs 1381 operating from local Ministry of Defence establishments, provided of course the clubs were situated adjacent to or within the Ministry of Defence establishments, and that they met the strict criteria that will be set. We do not want large numbers of guns to be transported to and fro on public roads. My noble friend Lady Carnegy also referred to tribunals. That point was also mentioned by other noble Lords. At paragraph 8.118 of his report Lord Cullen specifically rejected the proposal of the BSSC that the appeal function should be transferred to a specialist tribunal. We are exploring Lord Cullen's suggestion for narrowing the grounds of appeal to the courts in discussion with the police and other interested parties. If it can be made to work, we believe there is some merit in Lord Cullen's preferred approach.
I believe that the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, said that the Home Office should have improved gun clubs after Hungerford. The criteria for gun clubs were reviewed and were tightened in 1990, and again in 1995, with extensive consultation with the British Shooting Sports Council, the Firearms Consultative Committee and the police. But clearly we need to revisit that yet again.
Reference was made to illegally held weapons. There has just been an interesting exchange of views about that. The proposals in the Bill which tighten up the requirements for certificate holders to notify the police when they buy, sell, transfer, deactivate or destroy a weapon should severely restrict the opportunities for legitimately held weapons to pass to the illegitimate user. However, no one pretends that the Bill is about controlling illegal weapons. As my noble friend has said, that is a matter for police enforcement, and it is a responsibility which the police take seriously.
My noble friend Lord Gisborough and, I believe, my noble friend Lord Balfour, said that people were still waiting for compensation after Hungerford. I am afraid my noble friends have been misinformed. Every person eligible for compensation after Hungerford was offered compensation long ago. However, there are two or three people who are not eligible because they still have use of their guns abroad. However, they believe themselves to be eligible and continue to submit claims.
My noble friend Lord Marlesford referred—as he has done a number of times in correspondence and in person to me—to the benefits of having a national database, and not merely those connected with controlling firearms. Lord Cullen noted with approval the steps that the police were already taking to exchange information about firearm certificate holders. That is to be welcomed and we know that it is improving all the time.
It has been suggested to me that, however sophisticated the database, it would not have helped in this particular instance. This was a man who had a bona fide licence and was a member of a gun club. Information that could have been available with hindsight probably was known about Mr. Hamilton.
My noble friend Lord Marlesford referred to Home Office incompetence in administering the licensing system. Perhaps I may defend my department on this occasion by saying to my noble friend that it is the 1382 police and not the Home Office who administer the firearms licensing system and who grant or refuse licences.
§ Lord Marlesford
My Lords, if my noble friend will allow me to intervene, the Home Office is responsible for advising Ministers as to what the law should be which the police have to enforce.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, my noble friend is right about that. We set the framework in which the police operate. However, I thought that when he spoke my noble friend was referring to the administration of the scheme. Perhaps he is now telling me that it is the scheme that he criticises.
My noble friend Lord Peel asked whether .22 guns could be stored at dealers' premises. Where a dealer runs a shooting range, as a number do, the pistols can be stored on the dealers' premises if they meet the necessary security standards. However, if the gun would have to leave the dealers' premises in order to reach the gun club, that would not be acceptable. That point was clearly made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary at Report stage in another place, reported in Hansard of 4th December at col. 1150.
In an interesting speech, my noble friend Lord Burton first referred to compensation for .22 guns. In my opening speech, I said that owners of .22 pistols who do not join licensed pistol clubs and surrender them instead at police stations will receive a payment based on the market value of that pistol. I am pleased to assure my noble friend on that point.
My noble friend Lord Burton also made reference to Thomas Hamilton and the possibility of his involvement with the Masons. In his report at paragraph 5.6, Lord Cullen said:I am satisfied that he [Hamilton] was not a member of the masons".But I should put it on record that Mr. McMurdo has made it clear that he is not and has never been a member of a masonic lodge and I understand that the allegations have caused him a good deal of personal distress. Therefore the warning is that we should be very careful when making allegations that we have some evidence to make them rather than impugn unnecessarily someone's character.
My noble friend Lord Burton also criticised the Central Scotland Police. Lord Cullen's inquiry examined thoroughly Central Scotland Police's action. The deputy chief constable, Mr. McMurdo, resigned from the force and from his post in Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland. Of course there are lessons to be learned from Lord Cullen's findings. Police forces throughout Britain are learning them, and those as well as the other factors identified by Lord Cullen will enable Home Office guidance to the police to be comprehensive when it is finally agreed and issued.
Perhaps I may say this to my noble friend Lord Burton. Talk of a cover up is nonsense. The procurator fiscal and the Lord Advocate made it clear to the public that anybody, but anybody, with any information should 1383 disclose it to the procurator fiscal who would then arrange for it to be placed before the Cullen Inquiry. There have been two inquiries. These allegations are outrageous. They imply that my noble and learned friend the Lord Advocate, who has sat with me throughout the debate, and Lord Cullen deliberately concealed relevant lines of inquiry from public scrutiny. They did not, my Lords. My noble friend really must provide evidence if he continues to make those kinds of allegations.
My noble friend Lord Burton also referred to the seizure of gun clubs' records. He will know that when he first brought this point to me I expressed some sympathy with the points he made. Records were taken possession of by the police in accordance with recognised Scottish procedures. Acting on the instructions of the procurator fiscal, the police seized the records of all the gun clubs with whom Hamilton was known to have been associated. No receipts were issued by the police. It is not normal for such receipts to be issued in Scotland. The records were required for the Cullen inquiry and for the fatal accident inquiry into the death of Mrs. Mayor, the class teacher. That inquiry took place last month.
The Clyde Valley Sports Club first asked for its records back before the fatal accident inquiry. That was not possible at that time. The club asked again last week, and the procurator fiscal has now instructed that they be returned. The other club's records will be returned shortly. Any inconvenience caused to the clubs is much regretted. However, I trust the House will appreciate the importance of the procurator fiscal thoroughly investigating Hamilton's involvement with guns.
I welcome the support that my noble friend Lady Byford gave to the Bill. I can tell her that in principle lottery money will be available to clubs for improvements. They qualify, as indeed does any other sport.
My noble friend Lord Stockton asked for an assurance that the Bill, drawn up in response to Cullen, was not in fact produced in advance of Cullen. I assure him that no work was done on the Bill and no decisions were reached on the policy until Lord Cullen's report was received on 14th October. We did not stop thinking about this whole issue in the meantime, but work on the Bill did not anticipate the Cullen report.
My noble friend Lord Lye11 referred to the issue of two referees. This requirement applies to firearm certificate applications only. Shotgun applications will continue to require one counter-signatory.
My noble friend Lord Torphichen intervened in the gap with a comment or two and a question. Those who have been exempted from the prohibition of weapons in the Bill—the police and the military were examples given by my noble friend—have their own facilities. They will continue to have their own facilities and will continue to practise, as is consistent with the proficiency needed in having to use those weapons. My noble friend Lord Peel and other noble Lords asked why the Government do not set up a central firearms control board to issue certificates. I believe the 1384 question posed was: would that not be more efficient than relying on an overstretched police force? I understand that to be the Labour and the Liberal Democrat position. Lord Cullen does not favour the removal from the police of any of the functions concerned with the operation of the present system—(I refer to paragraph 8.5). We agree with that view.
I was also asked: was the proposal to establish a firearms control board rejected on grounds of cost and, if so, why not set a higher licence fee? The Government did not reject the proposed control board on cost alone. It was also rejected because such a board would create duplication of effort due to the need for continued police involvement.
The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, made reference in his opening remarks to a free vote in support of comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie. I found his point interesting. The most significant feature of this debate is the signal absence of speakers from the Labour Benches. As I understand it, the Labour Party advocate publicly a response which goes much further than Cullen, and even further than the Government. Yet its Members have not turned up today to argue the case. As I understand the noble Lord's remarks, the Labour Party has no intention of Whipping its Members in this House in support of what is being trumpeted as a public stand on this issue.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, perhaps the Minister will allow me to intervene. She is being less than generous. I said that there would be a free vote at all stages; that is quite correct. However, I also said that, within the limits of the persuasion that I can exercise in relation to a free vote, I should seek to encourage my noble friends, if there is any question of amendments weakening the thrust of the Bill or increasing the cost of compensation, to join the government Lobby and to ensure that the Bill is no less strong than it is now and does not cost any more than it does now. I thought that represented a good deal of support for the Government's position and it would be nice if the Minister recognised it.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, if the noble Lord is a little more patient, he will hear me do exactly that. I was not being less generous, I was making the observation that there is an interesting absence of Members who feel strongly about the issue. I believe that they should have been here today arguing the case which the Labour Party is making much of outside this Chamber and putting a different view from the Government on the issue of the response to the Cullen Report. I find it odd.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, in face of the support which I have given her, I think the Minister should be a little more careful in her comments. It is true that my noble friends, with the exception of my noble friend, Lord Stoddart, appear to have confidence in my judgment and not to wish to hear me on the subject. But there are differences about what matters are of the greatest importance. In order to remain here until this point of the debate, my noble friends would have had to sit through nearly 40 speeches advocating the 1385 views of a small minority of the people of this country who have a personal interest in shooting handguns. That is a great deal to demand. Perhaps the Minister will allow me to finish. If that criticism is to be taken, then let us see how many Conservative Members of this House remain for debates about housing benefit, homelessness, or many of the much more pressing social problems which face this country.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, the point I make is that I believe that the House would have benefited from the views of noble Lords opposite. We do not yet know officially whether we shall have to vote on the measure. It was possible that the Second Reading of the Bill was at risk and it would have been helpful to the Government if noble Lords opposite, even if they did not speak, had attended tonight in order to help the Government ensure the Second Reading and had responded to my plea at the beginning of the debate that the Bill should have a Second Reading.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, I am sorry but the Minister is determined to turn this into an issue between the two Front Benches, which is not the way that I saw it in my speech. I had prepared my colleagues for the possibility that they would have to come back and support the Government against the amendment moved by the noble Earl, Lord Strafford. I accepted his assurance that he had no intention of carrying the amendment to a vote and I told my colleagues that they need not stay. I believe that my acceptance of his honourable intentions are right, but in case there was any doubt about it I warned any noble Lords who might be tempted to deny the noble Earl the right to withdraw his amendment that they would get themselves into enormous difficulty potentially with the Parliament Act. Indeed, if the House will forgive me, they would be shooting themselves in the foot.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, the noble Lord said, "We believe in a total ban". Again, I have to refer to the fact that this is a free vote. We would like to think that the Labour Party would at least use the Whip to bring its members in and also do what the noble Lord said. He is not in a position to say "we, the Labour Party" because he has said officially that the Labour Party has a free vote.
Nevertheless, I wrote down in my own hand, before the noble Lord provoked me, that we welcome the support of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, limited though it is to those people who take part in a free vote. I would have found it more convincing if noble Lords on that side had been present, especially as there might have been a vote on whether the Bill should receive a Second Reading.
1386 A number of criticisms have been made during the debate to the effect that proposals contained in the Bill do nothing for public safety. The real issue before us today is public safety and I strongly disagree with the view expressed. The Government's overriding priority in putting forward this Bill is to do all we can to improve public safety; nor in doing this do the Government cast blame, as has been said by many noble Lords, on the bona fide law-abiding shooters. The banning of handguns from the home, the removal of 160,000 high calibre guns from the scene altogether and allowing the remaining small calibre pistols to be stored and used in strictly licensed pistol clubs are measures not to be dismissed lightly as having no implications for public protection. Taken together with continued tough action by the police and customs officers to tackle the problem of illegally held handguns, these measures will do much to improve public safety.
Lord Cullen himself said in paragraph 9.98:I am satisfied that a ban on the possession of multi-shot handguns would have some effect on the incidence of serious crime".Further stages of this Bill promise to be lively, and we shall return to these measures in some detail. Meanwhile, I will, as always, reflect on all that has been said today. I now ask the House to give this Bill a Second Reading.
§ 10.42 p.m.
§ The Earl of Strafford
My Lords, my hopes in tabling this amendment have been fully realised. This evening we have had a very wide ranging debate, and I have to take issue with the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh that the debate has been one-sided. When he reads Hansard he will realise that there was a strong theme running through a lot of the speeches; namely, that in the Commons the politicians have been putting on their party hats on this issue and have rushed this through. That is a very important theme. We have given this issue very careful consideration. We have probably helped to give the country an idea of just how complex are the issues involved in this and perhaps we have helped the Government to create fair and workable legislation. Obviously, we are going to have to work very hard in Committee to enable them to see the light.
I will not detain the House any longer, because it is getting late. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
§ Amendment to the Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.