HL Deb 24 February 1997 vol 578 cc902-4

3 P.m.

Lord Monson asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that legally-held pistols constitute a statistically serious threat to the safety of British subjects travelling to, or living and working in, continental Europe.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, we do not have sufficient statistical information on which to base such a judgment.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. Will she concede that the Government's case and, for that matter, the case of the Opposition Front Bench for the Firearms (Amendment) Bill must logically rest on one of two assumptions? Either the British people are inherently more irresponsible and prone to violence than their continental counterparts—which fact would justify gun controls being much stricter here than over there—or, alternatively, the British are essentially little different from the continentals, in which case Her Majesty's Government must feel that the continental gun laws are dangerously lax and liberal. If that is the case, should not the Foreign Office advise British subjects of the risks of travelling to the Continent?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, this is a sovereign Parliament and the issue before this Government concerned what was appropriate for this country in response to the Dunblane and Hungerford massacres, and also in response to a comprehensive report from Lord Cullen. That is what Parliament considered. It came to the conclusion that there were compelling grounds for stringently restricting the use and availability of handguns. It is not uncommon for the Foreign Office to take the view that British subjects leaving this country to travel abroad need to be warned of specific dangers. However, to produce for people leaving this country a general advertising campaign about the dangers of guns in other countries is not something we are contemplating.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, does not the noble Baroness agree that there are tens of thousands of accidents in this country and on the Continent which cause death and which can in no way be contained or examined by those who own official pistols? I wish that all those who drive cars, lorries and trucks would behave in the same responsible way as those who own pistols. They should not be condemned because of the behaviour of one maniac a few months ago.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I understand the point that the noble Lord is making. However, this was the subject under discussion at all stages of the Firearms (Amendment) Bill. This House came to a conclusion, as did the other place. We are only hours away from having Royal Assent for a Bill that has been properly debated in Parliament as a real response to the report of Lord Cullen.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that, at a rally of 15,000 people in Trafalgar Square last Sunday, grave disappointment was expressed that this House did not insist on the amendments that it had made to the Bill? Is she further aware that they are disappointed also that, instead of following and implementing the recommendations in the Cullen Report, the Government virtually ignored the report? They introduced into the Bill their own recommendations, which were completely unsatisfactory, unfair and obnoxious in a democratic society.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am aware of the demonstration that took place on Sunday. As I admitted at a number of stages of the Bill, I am conscious of the disappointment of those people who shoot for pleasure and for sport in relation to the impact of the Bill. But again I must remind the House that Parliament considered the matter seriously and took the view that it did. The noble Lord is an assiduous and consistent fighter against the Bill and was present at its final stages.

We considered all the recommendations of the Cullen Report; we accepted all of them and, in relation to recommendation 24—to which I believe the noble Lord specifically refers—concerning disassembly, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, will know that, while that was a preferred option of Lord Cullen, he nevertheless suggested that it might well pose practical problems. We considered that view. On balance—it was a finely balanced argument—we considered that we could give a better assurance of public safety if we took the view that guns could be owned, but only used in the secure circumstances of a properly controlled gun club.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, does not the Minister find it curious, as I do, that noble Lords such as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and my noble friend Lord Stoddart, who are, to use the euphemism, long-established Euro-sceptics, should be asking questions whose only conceivable outcome could be harmonisation of gun control legislation in Europe?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I do not want to be dragged into that argument. This is a remarkable House and what I find so remarkable about it is that everybody has the right to pose these questions and we, as Ministers, have a duty to respond to them.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, bearing in mind that members of the British public are comfortable with an unarmed police force and that when travelling to the Continent they can be seriously disturbed to see police forces in those countries armed with side arms, have the Government taken any steps to persuade our continental partners that they should have unarmed rather than armed police forces?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I may make the point again. The whole issue of gun control in any country, given that we are all sovereign nations, must be a matter for each government. We have taken the view that we needed to respond to the recommendations of Lord Cullen. We considered them in the light of gun controls in this country. It is not for us to decide what those controls should be in any of our European neighbour countries.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does not the noble Baroness agree that I referred to continental Europe and not the EU? In other words, I included Norway and Switzerland. Norway, Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Belgium and Holland all allow people to own full bore pistols and to keep them at their homes.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, what the noble Lord says is a matter of fact.