HL Deb 09 June 1997 vol 580 cc765-79

3.1 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn) rose to move, That the draft scheme laid before the House on 3rd June be approved [1st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the draft compensation scheme which we are debating today has been laid under the terms of Section 18 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997.

The Government accept the need to pay compensation to those firearm certificate holders and registered dealers whose high-calibre handguns become prohibited by the 1997 Act. The draft scheme which we are debating today offers fair compensation for the weapons that will become prohibited and the ancillary equipment used only in connection with those weapons. Subject to parliamentary approval of this scheme, the hand-in period for the weapons can begin on 1st July, with the appropriate payments starting to be made from that date.

I shall briefly explain how the scheme is intended to operate. Before the hand-in period begins, certificate holders and dealers will receive full details of the final scheme, together with application forms and advice on where and when to surrender their weapons. They must complete the appropriate form in respect of their weapons and equipment and hand it to the police at the time of surrender. Individuals will have a choice of three options. They may choose to accept a flat rate of £150 for each weapon. Alternatively, they may choose a standard rate for their weapon from the list of published values at Annex A of the scheme, which contains the majority of the most commonly held large-calibre handguns. If they do not wish to accept the flat rate payment, and if their gun is either not on the list at Annex A or is markedly different from those that are on the list, they may choose the third option. That means submitting a claim supported by an independent valuation or other evidence corroborating the value of the items surrendered.

Similar arrangements will apply to dealers and they will be able to claim under any of the three options. However, they will be able to claim under the third option even though their stock may already be listed at Annex A. That is because the second option reflects second-hand values while dealers' stocks will either be new or second-hand and have a higher retail value. I shall say more about the details of the values in the lists in a moment.

The weapons must be handed over to a designated police station, as specified by the chief constable for the force area concerned. Special arrangements will be made with dealers because of the number of weapons they will have in stock.

Similar arrangements will apply to expanding ammunition and to ancillary equipment which can only be used in connection with firearms that become prohibited. The corresponding values are set out in Annexes B, C and D of the draft scheme. That is in accordance with the requirements of Section 17 of the 1997 Act and Section 16 in respect of expanding ammunition. The equipment will not itself become prohibited but the Government accept that where it cannot be put to any other use, such as for rifles or other legitimate uses, then compensation should be paid.

The claim forms will initially be checked by the police, who will then send them to the Firearms Compensation Section (FCS) of the Home Office, where they will be processed as quickly as possible. The FCS has been set up to handle claims for the 160,000 high-calibre handguns that will become prohibited and to deal with the claims for ancillary equipment. Fifty staff have been recruited and trained and the target is to deal with all claims within 18 months. The majority of the straightforward claims under options A and B will of course be dealt with quickly. A computer system has been introduced to ensure that each claim can be dealt with thoroughly and without delay and with the minimum of paperwork having to be created.

Once the claim has been settled and the claimant has no further interest in the guns or equipment, the FCS will issue disposal instructions to the police force storing the weapons and equipment and they will be destroyed in accordance with the local force practice. In a very few cases some weapons or equipment may be retained by police forces for training purposes or taken for public display in museums.

I now turn to the details. Sections 16 and 17 of the Act make clear that the weapons and ancillary equipment must have been in the claimants' possession on or immediately before 16th October 1996, the date of the previous Government's announcement of their response to Lord Cullen's report. The draft scheme uses the values of weapons and equipment in the period immediately before that date. The values listed in Annexes A, B and D reflect the advertised prices as new in the trade journals at that time minus 25 per cent. for normal depreciation. These are the notional prices that we believe individuals might have obtained had they sold their guns or equipment at that time.

For individuals who submit independent evidence of the retail values of their guns and equipment and claim under option C, the FCS will normally pay out the retail value less 25 per cent. to reflect normal depreciation.

For dealers who submit independent evidence of the value of their stock and claim under option C, the FCS will normally pay out the cost price plus 25 per cent., which is a fair reflection of the return which they could have expected had the stock items been sold on. My officials have had contact with a number of gun dealers whose views have been taken account of during the preparation of the draft scheme. However, we have used published or advertised values of guns and equipment as they appeared in trade journals and other sources rather than simply the values cited by one or more of the dealers consulted. I believe that that is the best way of obtaining fair values for both claimants and ultimately the taxpayer.

There will be some concern about the position of dealers, gun clubs and others who will suffer losses as a result of the ban coming into effect. This was debated at length in this House during the passage of the Bill and it was decided at that time that such losses should not fall within the terms of the Act. The draft scheme therefore enables dealers and others to be compensated only for the weapons and certain ancillary equipment which they hand in; it does not extend to business losses, nor to equipment used in the manufacture of prohibited guns or ancillary equipment.

It may be helpful if I make clear the position on small-calibre pistols. These do not form part of the draft scheme because they are not prohibited by the Act. It is the Government's intention that there be a free vote in another place and, if the firearms Bill is eventually passed, then this category of handgun will also become prohibited.

In that expectation, certificate holders and dealers who own small-calibre pistols may hand in those weapons voluntarily to designated police stations at the same time as other handguns are surrendered. They will have to complete an application form, which will be processed by the FCS, and they will receive ex gratia payments for those weapons and related ancillary equipment. Details of these payments are available in the Library of the House and will be circulated to all claimants at the same time as the details of the compensation scheme itself. The values of these ex gratia payments have been calculated in exactly the same way as for the main lists—that is, on the basis of market values in the period immediately prior to last year's statement on 16th October. If the Bill is passed, the ex gratia list would become a formal scheme in its own right. That, however, is not the subject of today's debate but a matter for debate during the relevant stages of the Bill.

We believe that this draft scheme is fair and that it will properly compensate the legitimate owners of prohibited weapons and related equipment. On that basis, I commend it to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft scheme laid before the House on 3rd June be approved [1st Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

3.10 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I do not feel that there is an insurmountable difficulty with this compensation scheme. However, there are one or two points of concern and some assurances are required from the Minister.

We have debated the related primary legislation ad nauseam. I do not propose to repeat the arguments. However, the provisions of this legislation do not enjoy a favourable cost-benefit analysis. The Minister has already answered my written Parliamentary Question concerning records that will be kept of the compensation expenditure which will be incurred under the 1997 Act and the Bill currently going through another place. The Government may rest assured that in about 18 months' time we shall ask the Minister questions about crime with handguns and whether good value for money has been obtained for taxpayers' funds.

The scheme itself is obviously designed to ensure that the maximum number of shooters go for the A or B schemes, as so carefully described by the Minister. I am sure that, on reflection, most shooters will go for the B scheme, even if they feel the valuation to be slightly on the low side. However, they may be deterred if they think that their compensation payments will be a long time in coming. On the other hand, if they are confident that they can hand in their hardware and obtain compensation within 30 days, they will not want the anguish of the option C scheme, as it is fraught with unavoidable difficulties and delay. That will sit conveniently with the new Government's policy on late payment of invoices and the statutory right to interest. I understand that the provisions will apply equally to the Government themselves.

The Minister may claim that there may be questions of identification of weapons. He may be right. But he will be aware that a shooter who attempts to defraud the scheme will leave himself open to prosecution for serious offences and the authorities will have good quality evidence. Will the Minister give an undertaking that all option B compensation payments will be made within 30 days? If 30 days is not long enough, what will the period be?

The list of guns under the option B scheme is not so comprehensive as in the original scheme. Bearing in mind the desirability of having the maximum number of guns come under the option B scheme, why are there no Luger or Webley handguns listed in the option B scheme? They are extremely common makes. Why go to the trouble of valuing each one? I should have thought that they would have been included, since the Minister has just claimed that his list included the majority of handguns. It might be helpful to the House if the Minister could provide an explanation.

There is a problem with paragraph 10 of the scheme, which reads: However, individuals may only claim compensation under Option C for guns, expanding ammunition or equipment which arc not listed under Option B, or for guns which arc so listed but which have been adapted or customised"— I repeat, adapted or customised— in such a way as to significantly increase their value". What happens if a collector has a handgun which is on the option B list and is not adapted or customised in any way but still has great historical value, with very good provenance?

I come to my final concern. Shooters will reluctantly accept the need for the legislation, or at least its inevitability. However, they will be very unhappy with the thought that their handguns, which they bought for perfectly legal sport, could end up being issued to a third world army. Logic suggests that there may be well over 1.000 Browning 9mm pistols. I understand that they are generally known as the Browning Hi-Power. Personally, I shall continue to use one, but noble Lords will be relieved to know that it is currently safely locked up in the armoury at the TA centre and also belongs to the Secretary of State for Defence. But I digress. Such a large quantity of handguns would be quite attractive to export.

Presumably, given that a firearms certificate is required for any pressure-bearing component of a firearm, a certificate is still required, even if the owner has sawn the handgun into two parts. If that action were taken, I do not think that any offence would have been committed. So the question is: will a shooter be able to render his handgun unusable but complete, hand it in and then receive full compensation under option B? If he could do so, it would be reassuring for the shooting community. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

3.16 p.m.

Lord Swansea

My Lords, I shall be fairly brief. This is the first time that I speak from these Benches, which I occupy as a direct result of the Bill which gave birth to this scheme. I am glad to see that the Government are offering what appear to be some sensible prices for many pistols and accessories in common use, plus some others which may not be popular for target shooting. However, although the list appears at first sight to be comprehensive, it is in fact confined to pistols in current production, including replicas of earlier models. I can find no reference to earlier models, such as Luger, Mauser, Walther, etc., except for a brief mention under "Miscellaneous" of the Walther PPK—one model only. However, under "Magazines", there is a comparatively large section devoted to only a limited number of Walther models and only one mention of magazines for the Luger pistol. Of other types of pistol or their magazines, there is no mention.

It may be that the list is based on the current manufacturers' prices for pistols in current production, which may be deemed to be in "as new" condition. It may be difficult to put an exact price on older pistols, as so much may depend on their condition, but it might be of help if some older models had a "bracket" of values which they might be presumed to have had.

Finally, before long we shall be faced with a further Firearms (Amendment) Bill relating to pistols of 22 calibre, which the present Government intend to prohibit altogether. Following the presumed passage of that Bill, we shall again he faced with a similar order, relating to pistols of that calibre. Your Lordships may be forgiven for thinking that that is a somewhat untidy way of doing things.

3.19 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, the two previous speakers from the Back Benches dealt with the detail of this scheme. They did so extremely well and therefore I do not need to expand on their remarks. But, unlike the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, who seems to believe that this matter has been discussed ad nauseam, I do not think that such is the case. I believe that every time the matter is raised the arguments against the legislation should be made, and I shall make them. In fact, the scheme does not give scope for increasing or altering the range of compensation. That is a great pity. But, as I said, it gives the opportunity to return to the sheer injustice of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997.

I find that the public have a more balanced view of legislation as the distance in time from the awful tragedy of Dunblane increases. The Government should take that into account. The public increasingly appreciate that the Act and now this order undermine every principle of justice as it is understood by reasonable people. The Act imposes a collective punishment on tens of thousands of innocent people, guilty of no crime, for the actions of a single madman who would not have been in possession of legal firearms if a senior policeman had not failed in his judgment and duty. If that is repeating something ad nauseam, then I shall repeat it ad nauseam. That is what happened and that is what caused this grave injustice.

The Act is unjust because it kills a sport and a pastime enjoyed by decent, respectable, law-abiding taxpayers from all walks of life. It imposes fines—I shall explain why—on thousands of people who have done no wrong. They are fined because the full market value of handguns will not be paid. The full market value of handguns is the market value before 16th October and not at or after it. Many people will therefore be fined because they will receive a lesser value for their firearms than they otherwise would.

The Act takes away the livelihood of many businesses without proper compensation for loss of trade and business. This House, shooters and the traders who will be disadvantaged by the order will be interested to know that the defeated Tory MPs who voted to refuse dealers and manufacturers proper compensation for loss of trade will themselves receive compensation for loss of office by means of a resettlement grant which will give them at least 50 per cent. of their final salary; indeed, many will receive 100 per cent. of their final salary of £43,000. People may care to take note of that and, indeed, that the former Secretary of State for Scotland will receive, in addition, 25 per cent. of his ministerial salary by way of severance pay.

Therefore, those who brought in this Act are receiving compensation for loss of trade, so to speak, which they denied to the people who sell and manufacture guns. The minimalist payment under this order cannot possibly compensate owners of handguns, clubs and businesses for their tangible losses, let alone for the mental anguish of being demonised and insulted. They will not easily forget the Goebbels-esque tactics used to cast them in the role of potential killers and to make them social pariahs in order to rush unjust legislation through Parliament.

There is now the prospect—we heard about it again from my noble friend, who is a decent, quiet man—of a new firearms Bill being introduced and that will compound what the existing Act has already done. There can only be anger and cynicism when we see a situation where the only men and women who can possess guns are those in blue uniforms and criminals. Who can blame law-abiding gun owners and traders for feeling embittered. I understand their feelings even if others do not. They know that they have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency and personal political survival—which did not come off; I call that poetic justice. They also know that there is no guarantee that further massacres will not take place by whatever means and that gun criminality will not increase rather than decrease.

We have to vote for the order because it provides some sort of compensation. But I repeat: I believe that the Bill was a bad Bill; it was an unjust Bill; it was an outrageous Bill; and I look forward at some time, even in the distant future, to its repeal.

3.26 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I echo totally what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. My noble friends on the Front Bench have absolutely nothing to be proud of over this issue. They penalised a large and legitimate section of the community because they panicked and hoped to get back into office. But they panicked and failed to get back into office.

The Front Bench opposite, having got into office, should have shown some magnanimity and said, "We do not have to follow the same form of panic". But they have gone down the same road and made the matter even worse. Some of us are in the minority; some of us feel that we should stick up for minorities to enable them to follow their lawful pursuits and hobbies. There is something cloying and unattractive about the whole of the firearms Act, which was the Act of a man who attempted to despoil English habits to be sure that he was re-elected as Secretary of State for Scotland. He failed to appease; he only panicked.

The Bill was bad. However, I suppose we have to vote for compensation, though none of us should be anything other than ashamed of the way that Parliament behaved in its panic over minorities.

3.27 p.m.

Lord Burton

My Lords, perhaps I can ask the Minister three short questions in the light of what he said. First, he said that 50 staff had already been trained to help the police in regard to the handing in of weapons. Are those the people who will also carry out the valuations? It would be remarkable if that were so and they could be trained in such a short time. The revised list only appeared on 3rd June. If those are the people carrying out valuations of pistols, will there be any appeal? And, if so, what form will it take?

Secondly, are the police satisfied that they can implement the instructions that Parliament are about to give them in the required time? I have considerable doubts and the police themselves may have apprehensions.

Thirdly, how will those who live some distance from a central police station comply, particularly under option C? For instance, the owner of a weapon may live in the western or northern isles and it may take two or three days to reach the central police station in Inverness.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I listened to the contributions of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, and the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, with some interest and I agree with their feelings.

Noble Lords


Earl Attlee

My Lords, I must ask them, if we had kicked the ball into touch in the last Session—

Noble Lords


Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I do not believe the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, can speak again unless we re-open the debate and the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, and I are permitted to reply to the questions which the noble Earl obviously wants to ask us.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I must take some blame for the situation that has arisen. I thought that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, asked whether, before the noble Lord sat down, he could pick up a point that had been made. My understanding has always been that one can intervene on a point if one prefaces the intervention with, "Before the noble Lord sits down".

3.30 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, it is probably for the convenience of the House if I intervene at this point as the List of Speakers indicates, not perhaps to engage in the rather fiery exchanges which we have heard but to say that I understand the strong feelings which the Firearms (Amendment) Bill originally aroused. Although I do not intend to follow the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, in going through the Second Reading debate, I want to make some passing remarks about the Bill's progress through its various stages. Although I and most of my colleagues on these Benches supported the Bill and took the view that it should go further, we did so on a free vote. Experience suggests that it would have been better if the previous Government had chosen to proceed first with a White Paper and widespread consultation before publishing the Bill. But that is part of history and I would not wish to go further with that today.

My colleagues and I were deeply concerned at all stages that there should be fair and adequate compensation of all those disadvantaged by what I think was exceptional legislation. Your Lordships will remember that my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill moved an amendment at Report stage on 4th February to provide a compensation scheme for firearms dealers. The amendment received a large measure of support from all sides of the House and was indeed carried by 121 votes to 110. That decision was ultimately reversed in another place but I want to put it on record again that we felt at that time and indeed feel now, although it is not a time when we can proceed on the issue of substance, that wider compensation should properly have been paid. That view was shared on all sides of the House, including what were then the Labour Benches in opposition.

I wish to ask the Minister two questions. It may be that I either missed what he said or in one case misunderstood what he said. I do not know whether he referred in the course of his remarks—if so I missed it—to the total cost of compensation now assumed under the scheme. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will recall, it was originally anticipated that the cost of the Bill in compensation would be £25 million to £50 million. But that figure was raised to £150 million in view of amendments which the Government made to the Bill in another place. Can the Minister say whether that is the present estimate of the cost of the legislation and the compensation scheme or whether some revised figure now applies?

With regard to my second point, I may have misheard what the Minister said. I do not believe for a moment that he can follow the practice sometimes followed by Ministers in the previous Government of reading out a speech prepared for another place. However, I understood him to say, in referring to the further Bill to deal with small calibre pistols, that there would be a free vote in another place. If the noble Lord did say that, are we to understand that there may not be a free vote on the Government Benches in your Lordships' House? It would be helpful to know exactly where matters stand. For our part, although this is anticipating a Bill which is not before your Lordships' House, we will propose on these Benches a free vote as we did on the previous occasion.

I very much hope that the compensation scheme, given its shortcomings in terms of breadth, will nevertheless do something to mitigate the consequences of the Bill. That having been said, I give it my blessing.

3.34 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, as is the convention of the House, we will support the scheme. But there are, nevertheless, a number of questions which have already been posed in the course of the debate and I shall add my own. I look forward to the Minister's reply to them.

Perhaps I may first express disquiet about the compensation scheme that is before us today. The first tabling of the scheme was on 22nd May. On 3rd June that was withdrawn and another scheme was laid. There was no explanatory memorandum and no indication to the Front Benches, the Cross-Benches or others that that had happened. It was impossible to see why it had changed. In fact I spent many hours with one scheme in one hand and the other scheme in the other hand literally going through them line by line to find out what had changed and why. I followed that up with telephone calls to officials and was given an explanation. However, it was my right honourable friend in another place, David Maclean, who put down a Question for Written Answer. He received a detailed Answer, of which copies were circulated this morning. That gave a run-down which was inconsistent with the explanation which I had been given by telephone. This was not satisfactory. I even understand that the copy which I was assured on Saturday was the latest copy already has a correction to it. There were many mistakes in the first edition and there were mistakes in the second edition. I understand from many of my noble friends who have not spoken today but who came to see me this morning that there are significant omissions from the scheme. It is right that we should have an explanation of that. Indeed, some noble Lords arrived today with the original 22nd May copy because they were not aware that a substitute scheme had been tabled on 3rd June.

I understand and support the encouragement of claimants to use as much as possible option A, which is the flat rate, or option B, which has listed valuations. Like my noble friend Lord Attlee, I believe that as far as possible people should be encouraged to go for the option A or B scheme. My noble friend Lord Attlee pointed to some interesting anomalies. On option C, the conditions under which one can apply are narrow and restrictive. An interesting example was drawn to my attention. I refer to a modern-day well-known general who has added to the antecedents of the ownership of a gun and added to the interest of a gun and therefore to its value on the open market. But there is no accommodation for that additional value to be considered. If the gun has not been modified or customised in any way, option C is not available to take into account any enhancement which might arise as attached to the history and/or the ownership of the gun. It would be helpful to know whether there will be flexibility for claiming under option C.

Where are the guns to be handed in? There is an issue here of distance. With regard to rural Scotland, rural Wales and parts of rural England, if the chief constable writes to the individual who has a licence for the weapon and stipulates where the weapon must be handed in, for some people there will be considerable inconvenience as considerable distances may have to be travelled. I suspect that there is no compensation for that. Will there be any flexibility or will any effort be made to make it easy for people who will have to hand in their weapons?

When will those who surrender their property be paid? This point was made by my noble friend Lord Attlee. It would be helpful if we could have from the Minister an assurance that there will be a defined period—30 days is probably a reasonable period—for those where there are no complications; either a flat rate application under option A or a list rate under option B. It would be helpful to know that the administration is such that people will receive compensation in good time, and if there is any delay, that it should be paid with interest.

There is an interesting and essential point on which we must be assured and that is disposal; the methodology for that and how long the weaponry is to remain at the collection points in police stations. Are police stations physically set up to accept these small arsenals which will build up as the weapons come in? It is important that there is no scope for theft. It is not far fetched to say that there must be no scope for selling these weapons overseas. I say that because I understand that there is a fairly recent case where a policeman in receipt of weapons has been selling them. So that is a point that needs to be addressed. That scope should be eliminated by whatever method of disposal.

Storage will be important and we would like to be assured on that. I believe that my noble friend Lord Burton raised a point about administration. We are talking about 21 days' time when letters will go out and people will begin to bring in their weapons. Are we entirely satisfied that all the administration, record keeping and verification systems and everything else are in place? It would help us to know that the police are ready, happy and entirely satisfied with the arrangements that have been put in place. Can the Minister tell us what is the reaction of the police to the fact that in 21 days' time this scheme will be implemented?

I was posed an interesting technical question. I understand that some people may well have de-activated their weapons by simply slicing them in two, making sure that they cannot be fired, either for the purpose of their own conscience or to assure other people that the weapons will not be used. Can we be assured that if the weapons were de-activated for good reason and the certification and everything else are in order they will be compensated for those weapons?

I repeat the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, about costs. Is it the Government's intention to confirm the costs that were estimated by the previous Government or do they have revised estimated costs? Perhaps I may add to that by asking the Minister for his estimation of the costs of the proposed extension to this Act of Parliament when it includes a total ban on handguns.

This is an interesting question: are police stations exempt from health and safety requirements, especially in regard to the disposal of powder, primers etc.? If not, do they each hold licences for such purposes? It is my understanding that health and safety regulations require that premises are licensed as a magazine. Police stations will need to issue a recipient competent authority document to each person who surrenders powder, primers or mixed explosives. Another question was posed to me, and I put it to the Minister. Why is it that 38 special round nose head lead has disappeared from the third draft that we see before us? There are no clearance kits and no pistol rests.

As regards the Bill to outlaw all handguns referred to by the Minister, I accept absolutely that this is water under the bridge and that it was a manifesto pledge for a Bill to be put before Parliament. My understanding is the same as that of the noble Lord. Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank—that there will be a free vote—and I assume that that will be the case in both Houses of Parliament. It would be helpful to have that clarified.

Even at this late stage, and especially because there is to be a free vote as opposed to a whipped vote, I ask that serious consideration be given—here I am four square with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon—to a large number of law-abiding citizens, both able and disabled people, who have been seriously disadvantaged already by the Act of Parliament. These people will be very much disadvantaged by any extension of the ban on handguns. Disabled people particularly will have no sport to pursue at all and for many of them there is no substitute sport. Able-bodied people can pursue all kinds of other leisure activities; but many disabled people for whom shooting is a lifeline will be totally denied that sport. If the noble Lord, Lord Howell, were here, I know that he would want to make this point; namely, that in this area, as far as I can recall from the record, we achieve in this country more medals at the Commonwealth and Olympic Games than other people do in many other sports all put together. It is a serious consideration that these people, as a result of the Bill which is being brought forward by the Government, will be denied that sport.

If the questions posed in this debate cannot be answered satisfactorily, it must be for the Minister and the Government themselves to consider withdrawing the scheme for correction and/or modification. But if assurances can be given—that is what we are looking for—which will ensure a fair deal (which is what the previous Government promised) for all those who are affected by the passing of the Firearms Act, I shall invite my noble friends to support the scheme.

3.46 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful for the detail which has been put before your Lordships in examining this draft scheme. The draft is complicated and detailed because it covers payment out of public funds of something of the order of £150 million. As I observed in opening, we need to look for fair values for the guns and other items surrendered. There must be safeguards that the hand-in arrangements work smoothly. We need to make all payments legitimately as soon as possible and we have to dispose of items carefully in the interests of public safety. We believe that this scheme, properly operated by sensible people, can meet those criteria.

I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, for his courtesy in giving me notice of his questions. He promised me that he will be returning to this matter in 18 months' time and I have no doubt at all that he will make good his promise. I cannot assure the noble Earl that all payments will be made in 30 days. The training programme has been undertaken—I shall return to the detail in a moment or two—on the basis that payment shall be made as soon as reasonably possible. It is simply not possible to give an undertaking, and I do not, on the basis of 30 days because we simply do not know the rate of take-up of the scheme and one cannot possibly say that all arrangements will be in order and all payments made within 30 days.

The noble Earl raised the question of historical weapons. There is possibly an exception there that he might like to consider with those whom I know are as well informed as he relating to historical weapons under Section 7 of the Act. Both the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, raised the question of specific weapons, in particular Lugers and Webleys. As I believe they both hinted, the scheme has been drawn up on the basis that it relates to modern guns. Lugers, Webleys and the others mentioned are no longer manufactured, and they were deliberately omitted. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, pointed out that the condition of such guns is critical. In fairness to the owners of the weapons, it is only right that such guns should be separately valued and claimed under option C. I hope that the noble Earl will consider that to be a prudent step, bearing in mind the difficulty of valuation of weapons that are not currently in production. That is the reason for the distinction in the scheme. That means that a claimant who owns a Luger, Webley or a similar weapon is allowed to get an appropriate payment for the gun that he or she is surrendering.

The noble Lord, Lord Swansea, also inquired about delay. Since they are the lawful entitlement of those who surrender weapons under the regime introduced by Parliament, the payments should be made as soon as it is sensibly possible. The earlier part of the scheme should be relatively easy to operate, and one hopes that payments can be made within a reasonable time.

As they recognised, both the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, addressed not the scheme but the principle behind the Act. Your Lordships will forgive me if I do not respond to them, except on this basis: they approach the matter—neither of them may thank me for this—perhaps on the basis of the libertarian Left and the libertarian Right. I recognise that there are arguments of principle here, but those arguments of principle have long since been disposed of in your Lordships' House. I do not take away from the value of the argument; I simply observe that what we are doing now in response to the passage of a Bill under a predecessor government is to give effect, by way of a technical scheme, to the will of both Houses.

The noble Lord, Lord Burton, raised the question of appeals. We would not expect there to be an appeals procedure. We would expect police officers to be as sensibly flexible as they can be in dealing with arrangements for those who may have to travel long distances. We know, from even the quickest scrutiny of the Act, that it is a requirement of law that the mechanism of handing in weapons should take place at designated police stations. Again, I have every faith that chief officers of police will be as reasonable as they can be in meeting reasonable requests for flexibility.

I dealt with one question which the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, put to me, but he then popped a fly over my nose which was so infinitely seductive that I feel obliged to answer it. The Government's present intention is to have a free vote in your Lordships' House.

The Earl of Balfour

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister one question. Some years ago my keeper died. His rifles were not on my certificate. The police themselves took those rifles into a firearms dealer. I was not allowed to carry them the seven miles to the firearms dealer. Will the Minister consider the point that in certain circumstances it might be better for the police to uplift the guns rather than for the person involved perhaps to have to drive a considerable distance, possibly without the right transport facilities?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am most grateful for that intervention which reaffirms and underlines a point that I made earlier—that police officers try to be of assistance to members of the public. I am sure that the noble Earl's observation and suggestion will be borne in mind by senior police officers who will see what they can reasonably do to help.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked a number of questions, some of which were overtaken by my earlier answers, as she acknowledged. She was particularly concerned about the scheme and how it might work in practice. As the noble Baroness will know, training for the scheme was put in hand a long time ago, in the earlier months of this year. Some parts of the scheme ought to be easy to operate, for reasons that noble Lords have indicated. The rest of the scheme depends on expert assessment. We are content that sufficient progress has been made: first, that the scheme can be up and running on the date specified and, secondly, that it will run with reasonable efficiency.

The noble Baroness specifically asked whether there had been consultations with ACPO and ACPO(S). I can reassure her that there have been full consultations and that, to the best of my knowledge, police officers in the senior ranks are content with the liaison that has been carried out between the Home Office and those senior ranks.

Lord Burton

My Lords, the Minister referred to ACPO. Does what he said relate to ACPO (Scotland) also?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord must have misheard me. As I was referring to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I looked at her as I spoke and I must have dropped my voice. I said "ACPO and ACPO(S)". I am afraid that we fall into jargon too often and that I am as guilty as some. I ought to have referred to ACPO (Scotland).

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked me a distinct question about whether police stations would have to be licensed as magazines. She asked me further distinct questions, not all of the details of which I managed to catch so perhaps she will forgive me if I write to her on those detailed questions. They are not details that I am putting to one side, but your Lordships may think that those questions are of quite a fine detail of which I should be certain before giving a categorical response.

We believe that this is a fair and balanced scheme. It will not satisfy everyone. It ought to be acceptable to taxpayers, for whom we are the custodians of public funds, and it ought to be acceptable, we believe, to the majority of claimants—that is, acceptable on the financial basis, not on the basis of principle for which the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, so valiantly contends. I commend the scheme for the approval of this House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.