HL Deb 16 October 1996 vol 574 cc1711-21

4.44 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows: "Madam Speaker, I join my right honourable friend in paying tribute to the community of Dunblane for their courage and dignity. I also join him in thanking Lord Cullen for the sensitive way in which he has undertaken his difficult inquiry and for the report which he has produced.

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

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

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

"I agree with Lord Cullen that it is right that we should concentrate on handguns—mentioned at paragraph 9.50—although some of my proposals will affect all gun owners. Handguns are not used for shooting game and are easily carried and concealed. Many are weapons derived from military or police models or are intended for self-defence—a purpose which is not accepted in Great Britain as a reason for possessing a gun. I agree with Lord Cullen that there are compelling grounds for imposing stringent restrictions on their use and availability.

"Lord Cullen has made 23 recommendations for strengthening the regulatory controls on the ownership and licensing of all guns. We accept them all. The Government's detailed response has been placed in the Library.

"There are seven recommendations for improving the way in which the police handle all applications for firearms certificates. A further eight recommendations deal with the grounds for obtaining a firearms certificate. And there are seven recommendations about the suitability of individuals to hold firearms.

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

"In addition to Lord Cullen's proposals there are four further measures which we intend to introduce. First, we will make it a requirement for all handgun shooters to obtain a certificate in order to fire a handgun at a gun club. Secondly, we shall make it an offence to fail to notify the police whenever a firearm or shotgun is sold, transferred, deactivated or destroyed.

"Thirdly, we propose to ban the sales of guns through the post. In future it will be unlawful to transfer a gun from one person to another except in person.

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

"I now turn to the question which I know will be of greatest concern to the House and to the nation—the controls on the ownership of handguns. Lord Cullen confines his suggestions to self loading pistols and revolvers of all calibres. He does not consider that further restrictions are required for single shot handguns, which he would allow to be kept in the home as at present.

"He suggests in paragraph 9.112 that owners of multi-shot guns should be required to disable them when keeping them at home. And he goes on to say in paragraph 9.113 that if, after consideration, these arrangements are found not to be practicable, there should instead be a ban on the possession of multi-shot handguns by individual owners. He envisages that it would still be possible for guns to be kept by a club secretary so that target shooting could continue to be carried on, using guns owned by the club.

"The Government have taken advice from the Forensic Science Service on the practicability of Lord Cullen's suggestions for disabling handguns. Lord Cullen himself recognised that there were considerably practical difficulties in removing key components from handguns. I refer to paragraph 9.86. The Forensic Science Service has confirmed that view. They are also not convinced that a barrel block could be made which someone with sufficient determination and access to metal working tools could not remove. That was Lord Cullen's other suggestion.

"As a result I have come to the conclusion that we cannot recommend this approach to the House.

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

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

"And at paragraph 9.44 of his report Lord Cullen points out that the expansion of the use of high calibre handguns has even led to many shooters being concerned about the use of those guns as symbols of personal power. In addition, target shooting with 22 handguns is an Olympic sport.

"There will be exceptions for the very few professionals, like vets, who need handguns outside gun clubs for the humane destruction of animals.

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

"The clubs in which it will still be possible to use 22 handguns will be subject to the most stringent security standards. We will consult as a matter of urgency with chief constables and other interested parties on the details of these standards, and we shall set them out clearly in guidance. In addition every individual club will need to be approved by the chief constable of the area in which it is situated.

"Handguns would be able to be removed from a club only for strictly limited purposes, which would be specified in law, and under the most stringent controls.

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

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

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

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

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

My Lords, that concludes the text of the Statement.

4.58 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for repeating that necessarily lengthy Statement. I start by echoing the tributes which the Home Secretary and the Minister paid, first, to the people of Dunblane for their courage and dignity in adversity, and, secondly, to Lord Cullen for a well thought out and well argued report. We agree with a great deal of the analysis of the report as far as concerns the control of handguns. Like the Government, we disagree with the conclusions that Lord Cullen draws from his own analysis. We believe that the analysis leads to tougher controls, as the Government recognised in the Statement to which we have just listened.

It is an irony that the proposals which the Home Secretary announced today are very close to the evidence which Jack Straw and George Robertson put to the Cullen inquiry this summer on behalf of the Labour Party. They said that there should be a total ban on handguns, with the possible exception of 22 rimfire handguns. Is it not the case that events, and the analysis of the Cullen Report, have overtaken both the position of the Labour Party last summer and of the Government now? Does not the Cullen Report state that an exception for single shot 22 handguns—there are over 40,000 in this country—would be impracticable because of the possibility of their being reconverted to more deadly use? Therefore if we follow the argument of the analysis of Lord Cullen rather than his conclusions, are we not drawn to a conclusion that there should be a total ban on handguns?

I do not wish to overemphasise the difference between us on this matter. I agree with what Mr. Jack Straw said in response to the Statement this afternoon: we can welcome almost everything in this Statement. When we examine in detail the Government's recommendations, we can see that they go very close—it is far closer than the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs would have wished—to a total ban on handguns. The restrictions which will be required, first, in banning lower calibre handguns from homes, and, secondly, as regards the security arrangements which will be necessary in gun clubs, mean that a large number of those 40,000 guns which will not be immediately destroyed will be unable to be used. The conditions which the Government propose in their printed response are so severe that they include, for example, a specific permit from the police every time a gun is removed from a licensed club. The problems of enforcement of such a partial ban will be great.

I can confirm that my party will give every support to the kind of legislation which the Government propose. However, as I have indicated, we disagree about 1 to 5 per cent. of the subject matter of the proposed legislation. We shall seek to make amendments to it, but it will not be at the expense of the passage of the essential legislation through this House.

In order to ensure that we have speedy legislation which achieves the bipartisan consensus which we all want, first, I ask the Minister to convey to the usual channels my party's view that there should be alternative clauses. That would allow for the possibility of a complete ban on hand guns produced by the Government rather than it being brought up by anyone else in Opposition. Secondly, we on this side expect there to be a free vote on the matter. We ask the Government to make the same facility available to their supporters. If that is the case and the result is that there can be cross-party, universal agreement in the House on almost all the recommendations which the Government put forward, I believe that we can move speedily to a satisfactory solution.

As Lord Cullen said, it is for Parliament to decide. We failed to take the necessary action after Hungerford; we cannot afford to do the same after Dunblane.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, I welcome the Statement almost without reservation. The country was in a deeply despairing mood after the events at Dunblane. Lord Cullen's report and the Government's response are in line with public opinion. I believe that there is now a clear and established public view that the public interest rather than the interests of the shooting community must now be our central responsibility.

I wish to raise a number of detailed points with the noble Baroness. I welcome what she said on compensation and would be grateful to be told what sum the Government estimate will be the cost of implementing their proposals.

There are two important issues which deserve a response. The first is the right of appeal by owners of firearms to the Crown Court. I am sure that the Government are aware of the increasing concern about the issue in the police service over many years. The problem is that in the appeal the onus is on the chief constable to prove why the person asking for the firearms certificate should not have it. I note what the Government's Statement said about that and I heard the noble Baroness's colleague at the Scottish Office say a few moments ago that the matter was going out to consultation. I am not clear what the timescale is. The noble Baroness indicated that the Home Secretary expected the Bill to be on the statute book by Christmas. If that is so, the period of consultation will be pretty abbreviated. Perhaps the Minister could tell us something about that.

Secondly, there is the question of hand guns of 22 calibre. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that here we are going close to total prohibition. That is the reality because the Government have made it clear that there must be stringent security in gun clubs if the 22 weapons are to be held there. As is recognised, very few clubs will probably meet those conditions. It is a matter of considerable importance which I suspect will be raised during the course of debates in this House, if not in the other place.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is with us because my only other point is this. We will support the general principles contained in what the Government said today. Their policy statement meets with our approval. However, we will certainly want to discuss the legislation in detail which means that we must have adequate time to consider it. We could all think of other examples of legislation which we have been encouraged to pass in an abbreviated timescale; and yet, within a relatively few months major issues have arisen which indicate that if Parliament had done its job more satisfactorily some of the problems flowing from the legislation would not have arisen. Therefore, I repeat in the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that we expect adequate time to discuss the legislation in this House. Subject to that, we will support the general principles behind the Government's Statement.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for the spirit in which they made their comments and the degree to which they have agreed with the Government on the issue. I accept the tributes which are now on record which both speakers paid to all concerned in this tragic affair.

The first point is about our analysis being overtaken by events. That is right, and it was right to have the benefit of the report to set out the scene in such detail, as well as all the points for consideration. There are a large number of clear-cut, unequivocal recommendations and clear guidance pointing us to the few suggestions made by Lord Cullen for consideration. We shall devote our energies to them.

Perhaps I may paraphrase the main question posed by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh: why not go for a complete ban? It is difficult. We believe that it is possible to give the public the protection they deserve and require without the complete prohibition of hand guns. That is possible and I believe we have a duty to do it. Perhaps we may consider the record of absolute prohibition. It usually drives the activity underground where there are no safeguards. We believe that the public are better protected if the activity can be seen to be, and is, protected under our proposals by regulatory conditions. No doubt that will be discussed at greater length.

I shall, of course, convey the messages that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, asked me to convey to the usual channels. He knows that we have had a meeting today and those points were put at the meeting and are now on the record.

On alternative clauses, perhaps I may give a personal, off-the-cuff reaction. The way in which this Chamber and the other place deal with alternative views to any legislation is by amendment. If we go down the road of alternative clauses, many people may have ideas about what the alternative clauses should be. With a Bill which we have promised will be brought before the House very soon, perhaps the way to deal with the legislation is by considering amendments. The most desirable outcome for the Bill would be to have no vote at all. On the matter of a free vote, I undertake to press that point. My right honourable friend in another place has undertaken to discuss the matter with the usual channels.

In reply to the first point made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, relating to right of appeal to the Crown Court, there will be consultation. The detail of how the legislation will work will flow from the Bill and there has to be consultation. The noble Lord made a pertinent point regarding making legislation in haste and perhaps getting it wrong. It may therefore be right that the detail that flows from the Bill and how it will work in practice is better discussed with those who will have to implement it; namely, chief constables and police forces on both sides of the Border.

I re-emphasise a point I made to which the noble Lord referred; namely, that we are shifting the burden onto the applicant. It is very important that an applicant should prove that he or she is a suitable person and that that onerous judgment is not left to chief constables.

The noble Lord raised the point about 22 calibre hand guns. Again, there will be a great deal more discussion of the details. I do not want to use this opportunity to go into them. We believe that at this stage there is a very good argument for considering protecting legitimate sporting activity using the hand guns which we have said will be permitted under the control of gun clubs.

Another point related to the security of gun clubs. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, suggested that in effect that means a total ban. We do not know that. We know that it will mean some 40,000 legitimately held guns. We know that some gun clubs will not be able to meet the criteria, and others will make a great deal of effort to meet the criteria. New gun clubs may well be established consistent with the criteria. We simply do not know that at the moment. This is a long-established sport; it has been going for well over 100 years at Olympics level. That is a consideration in our proposals.

Finally, regarding the amount to be paid in compensation, we will announce our proposals for a compensation scheme as soon as possible.

5.12 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I warmly welcome the Government's proposals. I suggest that the Government announce an amnesty for the handing in as soon as possible of all firearms at present illegally held and an offer to those who hold hand guns or automatic weapons for which they are at present licensed. I suggest that they should be encouraged to hand them in to the police as soon as possible.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments. I will take his suggestion away and it will form part of the discussions that will take place between now and the passing of the Bill.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I ask the noble Baroness to reflect on the problem of mobility. It is likely that one of the weaknesses in the Government's proposals relates to the issue of booking guns out for competition purposes. If there is a weakness whereby someone can book out a gun under some degree of supervision for a competition, surely there is a danger that that opens a door for someone to book the weapon out spuriously for some ulterior motive. I ask the Minister to reflect deeply on that as a possible weakness in the proposals.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am not sure I accept it as a weakness. However, that is an extremely good point and will have to be thought through very carefully. We do not want a system whereby there will be a great deal of movement of individual guns in and out of gun clubs. We have to create a framework whereby the number of movements of guns will be relatively limited. Guns will of course need to be moved out for repair.

Even someone legitimately purchasing a gun will have to make secure arrangements for receiving the gun from an authorised dealer and for that gun then to be transported to a gun club. These are important points. I suspect that the forthcoming legislation will allow the sport to continue but without the to-ing and fro-ing that would invalidate the effectiveness of the policy that we want to put in place for sensible reasons.

I return to a question put by my noble friend Lord Renton which I did not answer. My noble friend suggested an amnesty. He will know that there was a recent amnesty. In June, nearly 23,000 weapons were handed in. The Government will consider the need for a further amnesty and will make an announcement in due course.

The Earl of Bathurst

My Lords, I, too, warmly welcome all the measures described by the Minister. However, will she consult with her right honourable friend about the difficulties that are certain to arise in regard to humane killers? A humane killer, which is effective and necessary for certain people, will almost certainly qualify as a hand gun. I refer to hunt servants, gamekeepers who need to shoot deer, and vets. The legislation could present a very severe problem. I hope the noble Baroness and her right honourable friend will look to that point in the Bill that will come before us.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I give my noble friend an assurance that the point will be given very serious consideration. He will have noticed that I made reference to a category of person who would be included; namely, somebody licensed to carry out humane killing.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, most of the points in the Statement will end in legislation. We must await that and discussion will then take place. I wish to raise one issue which does not require legislation. It is mentioned in section 25 of the Government's response on recommendations relating to school security. It states that: Those who have the legal responsibility for the health and safety of the teaching staff and pupils … should prepare a safety strategy…the Government will continue to take every opportunity to reinforce the importance of reviewing security and safety in this manner". Who will do that? Most local education authorities have no expertise at all in this field. Is it a matter of consulting the local police force? Will local police be geared to giving advice to individual schools? This does not require legislation but it requires swift action. What have the Government in mind?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend referred to school security in his Statement for Scotland and I shall not tread on his territory. At this moment there is a great deal of activity on the issue of security in schools. In the recent round of bidding for CCTV, money was specifically set aside and ring—fenced to help certain schools install CCTV as part of their security measures. As the noble Lord will know, every school is different. The requirements for security arrangements are also different. A great deal of guidance comes from the Department for Education and Employment. There is a great deal of discussion with school governors and with schools themselves. The local authorities are involved in those discussions. I do not believe that there has been more positive action and concern in relation to making our schools as secure as possible. The Dunblane incident is not the only recent incident. There have been some tragic incidents in our English schools. I am the sponsor Minister for Teesside. It is not so long ago that a man ran amok with a knife in a school in Middlesbrough. The matter is very close to the heart of the Government. We will continue to pursue security in our schools.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, my noble friend may remember that between December 1995 and February 1996, through a series of Written Questions, I exposed, and in correspondence with her I discussed, what I saw as the uneven, inadequate and indeed shambolic administration of the present firearm and shotgun certificate arrangements.

In particular, I proposed that one of the things needed was a national computer-held register of all those who hold either firearms or shotguns through certificates. I note that Lord Cullen in his Recommendation No. 7 goes very much in that direction. I note also that in response to that recommendation the Government use the word "support" rather than "accept". Recognising, as I am afraid I do, that in the past the Home Office has tended to be a somewhat constipated department so far as actually getting things changed is concerned, I hope that my noble friend will be able to assure me that there will be a proper, central computer-held register of individuals who hold all these weapons so that police forces can exchange information and we can be sure that unsuitable people do not hold them.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend reminds me of the correspondence that went between himself and my department and I am acutely aware of that particular point. He will also know that Lord Cullen addressed himself to many criticisms consistent with the ones made by my noble friend. Therefore, we give a positive commitment to addressing all those concerns. We more than support it; we shall be implementing it. Where we believe it is important to consult first, we shall do so.

On the point of using the computer, I genuinely believe that the technology is now in place to arrive at a registration scheme such as the one mentioned by my noble friend. I can assure him that that will be part of our discussions about this issue.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and declare an interest as a responsible gun owner. The Government suggest that they propose only a minor toughening up of Lord Cullen's recommendations on the private possession of pistols. Unfortunately, that is not so at all. The toughening up of Lord Cullen's proposals that they propose is extremely draconian and stands to deprive perhaps 150,000 law abiding and respectable citizens of their cherished pistols, many of which are of historical interest.

The Government argue on page 6 of their response that these requirements are necessary to protect the public, without advancing any solid evidence for that claim. Let us remember that effective semi-automatic pistols of various calibres have been available for at least 125 years and until 1920 pistols could be bought by anybody without any licence at all. Yet, this is the first time—thank God!—that such a terrible event of such magnitude has occurred.

If the extensive yet less draconian changes recommended by Lord Cullen were adopted, there is no reason to suppose that a similar atrocity would occur for at least a further 225 years, if not longer. What would happen, after all, if 16 elderly and disabled people were murdered by a maniac armed with a pair of legally held shotguns, as is theoretically quite possible? Would the Government not then feel obliged by the logic of their present argument to ban all shotguns?

One paradox is that over the past five years almost certainly more people have been killed by decorative bull bars on the front of vehicles than have been killed by legally held pistols. Yet the Government have resolutely set their face against banning bull bars.

Yes, there is a great deal to welcome in the proposals, not least the banning of expanding ammunition and obtaining guns and ammunition by mail order. But I suggest the Government are going too far and it would have been better if they had stuck to the carefully thought out recommendations made by Lord Cullen.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord puts his personal point of view very strongly. One of the difficult aspects of being in government is doing what one believes is right. When all things have been considered, a judgment has to be made. I believe that the right judgment has been made. But, at the end of the day, it will be for Parliament to decide. I have no doubt that the points made by the noble Lord and others will be discussed during the passage of the Bill through Parliament.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, perhaps I may put a final question to the noble Baroness on consultation about the appeals procedure. She said that it is manifestly right to have consultation, and I agree with her. I should be grateful if she would write to me—I do not press for a response now—and tell me when the consultation period ends so far as that very important provision in the Government's proposals is concerned.

Baroness Blatch

Yes, my Lords.