HL Deb 11 November 1997 vol 583 cc92-108

1BLord Stoddart of Swindon rose to move, That this House do insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1A.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I tabled the Motion to enable your Lordships to have a further debate on the issue of disabled pistol shooters following the rejection by the other place of our amendment passed on Report, and to enable this House, if it so wishes, to insist upon its amendment.

I should like to emphasise, once again, that the amendment does not undermine the central principle of the Bill. It will in no way lessen public safety. The amendment will enable disabled pistol shooters to continue with a sport which is therapeutic and will enable them to continue to compete in the sport, including major international competitions.

The debate in the other place on your Lordships' amendment was spirited, sensible and cross-party, although I am bound to say that the weight of vocal opinion was heavily in favour of our amendment. Both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokesmen on home affairs supported the amendment. I also have to point out that the balance of argument was, in my view, heavily in favour of our amendment. Moreover, believe that, if all those who voted had listened to the debate, the outcome of the Division might have been different.

The arguments in favour of the amendment have been well rehearsed in both Houses, so I shall not repeat them in detail. However, in summary, they are as follows. Disabled people derive not only pleasure but also therapeutic value from target pistol shooting. They cannot possibly be considered a risk to public safety. That point was conceded by the Minister in reply to a Question tabled by Mr. Robin Corbett, when he said: "I did not suggest that disabled shooters were a threat to public safety." Therefore, we have it on the Minister's authority that disabled people constitute no threat. However, disabled people will be denied the opportunity to compete in paraplegic games and ordinary competitions where they can compete on equal terms. Pistol shooting is most appropriate for disabled people because they cannot handle shotguns and rifles. Finally, pistols would not be held at home but at safe, secure locations. Those were all the arguments that we considered on Report and which were found to be acceptable; indeed, your Lordships supported the amendment.

It is doubly galling for disabled people that provision is to be made at Manchester for pistol shooters from abroad to train and compete, whereas British competitors will be debarred. The Government have suggested that it is difficult to justify isolating one group such as disabled shooters. However, as the right honourable gentleman Mr. Alan Beith pointed out in another place, there are particular reasons for special treatment of disabled shooters because they cannot easily transfer to another sport.

Another relevant point made in the other place by my honourable friend Frank Cook was that public opinion has swung considerably since we started debating the issue of firearms. The latest public opinion poll shows 56 per cent. support for disabled pistol shooters being exempted from the ban on handguns. Indeed, my own experience confirms that result. I took part in a BBC 2 television "Close Up West" programme and later in a radio phone-in which revealed heavy support for this amendment.

Before I put the Motion to the House and, indeed, the next one on the Marshalled List, I should point out that I pondered long and hard on the matter but finally came to the conclusion that I owed it to the disabled shooters and to British international sportsmen to leave no stone unturned in my efforts to assist them. Some people say that we should not challenge a decision of the House of Commons, but I believe that we should. We should not run away from our responsibilities. I hope that we shall not do so this afternoon. Perhaps I may explain why.

First, there is a free vote on the issue. It is a free vote as was pointed out by the Opposition Front Bench on Report. Indeed, this free vote was included in the Labour Party manifesto. Therefore, if you like, it has the authority of the people. I repeat: it is a free vote, and we should keep that fact very much in mind. Secondly, under the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts, this House is entitled to insist upon its amendments. That is the law, that is the constitution. In any meaningful, bicameral system, both Chambers have rights and duties which they should exercise and discharge without fear or favour.

Neither Chamber should be subjected to threats of retaliation, nor should such threats be given in to if they are made. However flawed the present composition of the House of Lords may be thought to be, the House of Lords is the only second Chamber we have. There is no other. It is this Chamber which can make the bicameral system work. If it does not make it work, this is not a proper bicameral system. This House is therefore duty bound to ensure that the bicameral system works, especially when the interests of ordinary people, and especially those of disadvantaged people, are not properly considered and rights long enjoyed are trampled underfoot. I hope that that is what this House is about.

If noble Lords are not prepared to insist on legal and constitutionally proper amendments on appropriate occasions, the House of Lords ceases to be a second Chamber of Parliament and relegates itself to a mere consultative council. For the reasons I have stated, I believe that this amendment should be insisted upon and I hope I shall have the support of your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1A.—(Lord Stoddart of Swindon.)

3.30 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I will, if I may, in no spirit of discourtesy to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, speak only once on the two amendments that he has put before us. I do not propose to discuss the merits of either of these issues because that was done during the Report stage of this Bill in this House only a few days ago. The issue before us today is a simple one; namely, whether we are prepared, as a non-elected House, to reject the views of the elected House on an issue which clearly appeared in the Labour Party's general election manifesto. The view of the House of Commons on this question is absolutely clear; the Lords' amendments were rejected on a free vote by majorities of 132 and 136. In my view it would be entirely wrong for this House to give any support to the proposition put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. The House should be absolutely clear that the effect of either of these amendments being carried will be to kill this Bill. Are we seriously contemplating killing a Bill of this sort—

Noble Lords


Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I hope I may continue the argument. Are we seriously contemplating killing a Bill of this sort which appeared in the election manifesto of the present Government? In my view that would be wholly wrong in principle. My noble friends and I, and indeed my colleagues in the House of Commons, on free votes, voted in different Lobbies. I think that in all the circumstances that was entirely right. However, it is the clear view of my colleagues today that it would be wrong for this House under any circumstances whatever to support the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, in the Lobby. Accordingly, we shall vote against these amendments if they are pressed.

Lord Windlesham

My Lords, it is hard to think of any ground less well suited to potential confrontation between the two Houses than a Bill which prohibits the private possession and use of handguns and does so in the interests of public safety. Like the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, I wish to address my remarks to both the amendments and to speak only once as a result because they raise the same fundamental issue which the House must decide this afternoon.

The starting point is that all handguns, irrespective of their calibre and irrespective of their ownership, are highly dangerous instruments. They are portable; they are lethal; they are easily concealed. Moreover, they can be stolen, and they are stolen. On the statistics available to the Home Office for the most recent 12 month period, nearly 400 recorded incidents of theft of legally held handguns were reported to the police. That is almost certainly an underestimate because we know that by no means all criminal acts come to the notice of the police. On those figures alone, in more than one incident per day, sometimes involving more than one weapon, handguns were transferred from legal to illegal possession.

A further point that I suggest we should keep in our minds is a fundamental one; namely, that it is a fallacy to believe that certification procedures—certificates issued after inquiries often made by the police—render it possible to exclude those people who are not fit to have access to firearms or to ammunition. One of the most telling of all Lord Cullen's findings in his report on the Dunblane shooting was that,

no certain means of ruling out the onset of a mental illness that gives rise to danger, nor of identifying those whose personalities harbour dangerous propensities has been found. He continued,

On this ground alone it is insufficient protection for the public" — mark those words—

merely to tackle the individual rather than the gun". I greatly regret that on an issue of this sort, with unwhipped votes, Divisions in both Houses have been conducted largely on party lines. As one of the few on this side of the House who voted against the exemption for competition pistols at Report stage on 16th October, I urge the House now to accept the Commons' reasons for disagreeing both with that decision and the amendment which is now before us concerning the disabled

I hope I may add a further comment on a personal note. The only reason I abstained in the vote at Report stage on the exemption for the disabled was the moving speech by Lord Crawshaw. We had had a long, almost a lifetime's friendship dating from the time of the accident—when we were both undergraduates—which led to his lifelong disability. It is tragic that Lord Crawshaw died over this past weekend and therefore we shall not hear his modest, persuasive and entirely honest voice in this debate today.

Lord Howell

My Lords, I wish to take up that final point and pay my tribute to Lord Crawshaw and to the contribution he so movingly made during our considerations of the Bill. Like the two previous speakers, I intend to speak once. As I have other Committee duties I must attend to later, I trust that I shall be excused if the discussion on these amendments lasts longer than I anticipate.

The first amendment we are discussing was one that I was privileged to move when it was accepted by this House. I make no complaint at all about my noble fiend Lord Stoddart taking it over, as it were, because once an amendment is accepted it becomes the property of the House. In considering the decision of the House to overturn the Lords' amendments, we must acknowledge the full debate which took place on our amendments in another place, which lasted for more than three hours. There can be no complaint about the attention which the Commons gave to the Lords amendments.

Regretfully, I have found the Government's arguments totally misplaced and unconvincing. They have not moved one iota since taking a decision on coming into office to impose a blanket ban on all gun shops. However, that is not a consideration before us today. The merits of the amendment passed by your Lordships' House remain unassailable. I shall shortly comment on two aspects, although I think that it would be totally wrong to go over all the ground again.

We have provided the Commons with the opportunity to consider our thoughts and our amendments and to think again. It has done so. I do not believe that it would now be right constitutionally or in terms of practicality to challenge the Commons further. I would not seek to divide the House today. Apart from the constitutional position—it was well stated by the noble Lord, Lord Harris—there is another practical consideration which I commend as a politician, if I may say so, to my noble friend Lord Stoddart. My noble friend asks us to vote again today and to take the serious risk of defeating two amendments which we have previously carried. I cannot believe that that would advance the cause which he and I have in mind. I prefer that our previous victories stand alone so that they can be referred to in due course. As I believe we must, we can ask the Government to come back to these matters, for example, as we approach the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, when undoubtedly there will be matters for further consideration.

I agree, too, that although the Government have not moved, public opinion has moved. I endorse totally the figures given by my noble friend Lord Stoddart that in a Mori poll held in the past three or four weeks 56 per cent. are shown to believe that shooters for the disabled should be exempt from this ban. Sixty-one per cent. thought that supervised training sessions with 22 calibre pistols should be allowed to qualify Britons to take part in the Commonwealth Games and the Olympic Games. That proves that at the end of the day common sense and logic eventually surmount blanket emotionalism, however much that emotionalism can be understood. We have seen recently other examples of that. It is my regret that such common sense and logic have not yet overtaken the Government, to the detriment of disabled shooting clubs and considering the severe damage that will be done to our Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games prospects.

I have a few comments on issues arising from what the Minister said in another place in resisting the amendments. There have been exemptions. It is wrong to say that there will be no exemptions granted; that this is blanket legislation. Exemptions were granted for the 14th European Pistol Championships. As we know, they are proposed for the Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

It is not the case that exemptions have not been granted. We would all agree that our police force has to have pistols, as do the Armed Forces and similar security organisations. Exemptions are properly guaranteed for them. We are told by Ministers that the weapons would have to be stored in one place and would become a difficult security risk. That is true whether they are stored in police stations or at security headquarters. The same arguments could apply as regards the disabled and the Commonwealth Games and Olympic centres of excellence. The same secure arrangements could be made as are made in the other places mentioned.

Finally, since the Government give exemptions for gun events to take place at the Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games, those events will not be prejudiced. We have argued that before. I shall not go over the ground again except to say that I am sorry the Government do not accept the wisdom of the British Olympic Association and people such as myself. We know perfectly well that if we put our gun shooters in this position it will be to the detriment of any future attempt to hold the Olympic Games in this country. Those arguments still stand. Nevertheless, despite my firm belief that the arguments remain unassailable, there are new considerations today. I think that the wisdom of this House would be best met by accepting the decisions of the Commons on these two amendments.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, the Bill is put forward in the interests of public safety. Having listened to most moving addresses at an earlier stage—and again today—by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, your Lordships made an exception. It is not claimed that that exception derogates from the purpose of the Bill; namely, public safety. That was expressly disclaimed by the Minister in another place.

It is said that these weapons might be stolen. Presumably the Minister took that into account. In any case, the amendment makes provision for safe custody of the weapons of these unfortunates in whose interests your Lordships passed the amendments.

I respectfully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that there is no constitutional reason why your Lordships should not insist on the amendment which commended itself to your Lordships understandably at the earlier stage. It is said that the Commons is the elected Chamber. So it is, but election is not the sole source of political legitimacy. In any case, the Commons was not elected in order to deprive a disabled person of the only sport in which he can compete with his hale fellows.

It is said that if your Lordships insist, the Bill will be lost. That is not so. There is an alternative: that since it is a government Bill the other place in the interests of saving the Bill does not go on insisting against your Lordships' view. That happened once before. Your Lordships may remember the Further and Higher Education Act. It was notable because the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, then the Leader of the House, took charge of it in your Lordships' House and gave a most notable parliamentary performance. It was only at the very last stage, by an amendment at Third Reading, that your Lordships managed finally to carry the amendment which vindicated academic freedom. The Government were then faced with a choice. They resisted up to the last moment and went on resisting in the Division Lobby. But rather than lose the Bill, rightly, they accepted your Lordships' view. That could well happen and, in my respectful submission, should happen on this amendment.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords. with respect to the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken, I do not believe that it is conceivable in these circumstances that the Government will think again or accept our amendments in order to save the Bill. It is simply not conceivable. The doing away with all handguns was a Labour manifesto commitment. It was subject to a free vote, which was taken.

To what purpose do we insist? Having supported the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, on amendments throughout the Bill's passage, I am in a very different position to that of my noble friend Lord Windlesham. However, come to the same conclusion, for the reasons given by other noble Lords. There is no point in confrontation on this matter.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, in relation to the bicameral system: it is our duty to make it work. To support this amendment, and to insist, as the noble Lord suggests, is to throw a proverbial spanner into the works.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and myself have been on the same side on many issues during my time in this House. There are issues that torture politicians. Two that have tortured me during 27 years in both Houses of Parliament have been war—that in the Falklands, followed by the Gulf War—and the firearms Bill with its origin in the massacre at Dunblane. I have kept my counsel on the firearms Bill. I came to the firm conclusion early on that nothing I could say would bring comfort to the parents of the children who were butchered in that massacre. I have always acted on the principle that if you cannot say anything to help, for God's sake do not say anything to hinder.

I have deliberately abstained on every vote taken on the firearms legislation. For 12 years I was Thomas Hamilton's Member of Parliament. Stirling was part of my parliamentary constituency before the boundary commission changed the boundaries in 1983. Every Saturday morning when I held a surgery in Stirling, the first person to turn up was Thomas Hamilton. So no one knows, understands or tries to understand Thomas Hamilton more than I do. It is against that background that I address the House today and crave your Lordships' indulgence for the few thoughts that I want to share.

I remember Thomas Hamilton in 1971 as a youth and community worker in Dunblane, which was not part of Central Region at that time but part of Perthshire. It had its own town council. A horrendous argument broke out in the town, one half of the community wanting to be rid of Thomas Hamilton and the other half wanting to retain his services. The half that wanted to retain Hamilton's services won the argument. That was the origin of the whole problem that we are discussing today. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, a late revered Member of this House, was then the Member of Parliament representing Dunblane. Hamilton came to see me, complaining about his perceived problems there. I sent him to see Sir Alec, who explained to him that he did not become involved in disputes between two factions in a community for the simple reason that one could not win. I learnt a great lesson from that experience.

As time went on, Dunblane was brought into Central Region. Central Region took the decision not to allow Hamilton to use its schools. He appealed to the ombudsman, who ruled in his favour. Central Region had no alternative but to give Hamilton the use of schools in Dunblane for his youth clubs.

My reason for explaining all this is that in my humble opinion, honestly and sincerely expressed—I am in a minority of one—the Dunblane situation has been completely misread. Hamilton's perceived problems were all based in Dunblane. They were not firearms problems at all. They were perceived as related to the town; everything that happened to Hamilton had the Dunblane background to it.

On that tragic morning in March, 20 months ago, Hamilton could have got out of bed, left his house in Stirling, walked two minutes round the corner and seen one of the largest primary schools in Central Region. He could have butchered 600 or 700 children. He did not. He got into his car and drove seven miles to Dunblane. If those children had been standing at a bus stop that morning, he would have mown them down in his car. What should we have done then? Banned all cars? Of course we should not.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

Just sit down!

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, wish that the former Lord Chancellor would control his emotions.I am just as entitled to express my views in this House as he is. I have kept my counsel on this issue for 20 months now. I deeply resent the interventions from a seated position of a legal luminary who should know much better than to interrupt in that way. I knew this man well; I knew many of the parents of those children well. It ill becomes the noble and learned Lord to interrupt in such an ill-mannered way. I am emotionally involved in this issue.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

So I see.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, what position does that bring me to in the debate? I am naturally tempted to support my noble friend Lord Stoddart. However. I have seen all the publicity; I have listened to the parents; I have watched the agony through which those parents, grandparents and all the relatives have gone. I have come to the firm conclusion that, despite my own deeply held personal views, it would be a major mistake if this House were to divide on the proposition put by my noble friend. Despite what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, said, I do not believe that we should run the risk of losing the Bill.

The people of Dunblane and the gun clubs in Callander and around Dunblane believe that the Bill is the answer to the Dunblane massacre. I am not sure about that. I recall the comment of Benjamin Jowett that Parliament by legislation cannot make men moral. I am not sure that legislation makes men moral. I am sure that it would be an unmitigated mistake if the House were to divide today, the Government were to be defeated and the Bill lost. My initial reaction was to abstain. As is my wont, I have changed my mind. I appeal to my noble friend not to divide the House; but, if there is a Division, I shall support the Government.

4 p.m.

Lord Henley

My Lords,I intend to be brief and, like other noble Lords, I shall speak to both amendments together.

I thought that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, was commendable and I find myself in considerable agreement with much, if not all, of it. It is one that will bear close study and I recommend that noble Lords should read it in Hansard tomorrow.

I believe the noble Lord was right to refer to the balance of argument in another place, where even one of those who spoke against the amendments described himself as being in a very small minority. Most of the argument in another place, from both sides of the House, was in favour of the amendments.

Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that it would kill the Bill if this House were to agree to the amendments. That would obviously not be the case: it would give the other place a chance to think again. There is any amount of time between now and the end of the Session.

Nevertheless, I do not think that this is an occasion on which this House should press its views on another place. There was a debate in another place. Despite what I feel about the balance of argument, there was a free vote and it was decided by fairly large majorities—quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Harris—not to agree with this House. I do not believe it would serve any purpose for us to ask the other place to consider these matters yet again, even though we are still not satisfied with the arguments that have been put before us. I shall recommend to those on these Benches that we should not support the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, should he press the amendments to a Division.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I believe it is time that a contrary view was heard. Perhaps I may try to answer some of the critics of this Motion, which I fully support.

To the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, may I point out that the second amendment covers only 300 to 400 highly talented sportsmen and sportswomen who would have to go through the most rigorous selection procedure before they were allowed to handle pistols. I therefore do not believe that Lord Cullen's cautionary words apply to them.

May I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, that, excluding Ministers, 83 per cent. of honourable Members knowledgeable and interested enough to speak in the debate in another place supported your Lordships' amendments. They included Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat honourable Members. It can safely be assumed that many of those who voted against the amendments had heard scarcely a word of the arguments.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, it is not the case that the Government propose to ban all 22 pistols. There are already many exemptions, so the amendments do not introduce a new principle into the argument.

I am sure that all noble Lords would agree that people should not be deprived of freedoms which they have enjoyed for 150 years or more unless there are solid, practical reasons—as opposed to emotional reasons—for doing so. Bearing in mind the cast-iron safeguards incorporated into the amendments, I submit that there is no solid, practical case for a ban where these two limited and deserving categories are concerned. I therefore fully support the Motion.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

My Lords, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to listen to some balanced speeches in your Lordships' House. On 16th October this year the late Lord Crawshaw, who has already been mentioned, spoke of his ability to use a shotgun or a rifle. He said that there was a problem in doing so when wheelchair bound; it was all a question of balance. I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, was somewhat dismissive and almost derisory when he said that even Lord Crawshaw admitted that he could use a rifle and a shotgun. He failed to tell the House that Lord Crawshaw had said that there was an imbalance to the extent that the rifle or shotgun nosedived. That is very uncomfortable and awkward for someone in a wheelchair. It is a dangerous situation which is not experienced with a pistol. With a pistol, the wheelchair-bound and the able-bodied can compete on equal terms, which is not the case with a rifle or a shotgun.

I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, on being an honest man. At Third Reading he said that, if the other place refused to accept our amendments, he would present them once again to this House. I fear that there are certain people in a senior position in the other place who are not as honest as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, who sits on the Labour Benches.

Noble Lords may recall that another sport has been in the newspapers recently: Formula One racing. That sport is associated with smoking cigarettes. As far as the Government are concerned, cigarette advertising is legally acceptable, in the best interests of the public. I wonder how many Formula One racing drivers there are-10, 50? No, there are four in this country. I wonder how many people die from smoking cigarettes each year? According to the Department of Health 121,000 people died in 1995-1996. I admire the Government for sticking up for the minority. but what about the 5,000 disabled pistol-shooters who, as we have heard before, have won many medals? We should bear in mind that cigarettes kill: disabled people do not.

The Labour Party Manifesto promised a free vote on the Bill. In common decency, and in the light of our belief that we represent a civilised society which cares for minorities and their feelings, let us not give the disabled the opportunity to name Westminster not the Houses of Parliament but the Houses of hypocrisy. I support the Motion.

The Earl of Stockton

My Lords, I wonder whether this Chamber has seen a more abject group of hypocrites than the two Front Benches of your Lordships' House for many a year? It is well known, as was said by the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart and Lord Howell, that the pistol shooters of this country are responsible people. That is why those noble Lords tabled the amendments they did at an earlier stage of the passage of this Bill in your Lordships' House. Those shooters are responsible people, taking part in a responsible sport, to which they address themselves responsibly and, I might add, represent this country. How is it therefore that suddenly they are billed as the villains of the piece?

In the passage of this Bill through your Lordships' House and another place how much have we heard about the illegal firearms that are in the possession of people in this country? The most conservative figure that I have come up with, presented to me by the Superintendents' Association, is that there are 2.5 million illegally owned firearms in this country, of which 600,000 are automatic or semi-automatic weapons. Why therefore do the present Government and the past government spend their time chasing responsible, sensible people who use pistols—no doubt in due time they will chase responsible people who use rifles and shotguns—while accepting that they can do nothing to stem the tide of illegal firearms and automatic weapons? Can the Minister say how many people were killed in London in the past six months by the use of legally owned firearms and how many by the use of illegally owned firearms? Your Lordships will find his answer a very convincing reply.

Lord Swansea

My Lords, I shall be brief. I want to support the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. The Government are trying to work a colossal con-trick with this Bill. They are trying to make out that they are improving public safety, but they are doing nothing of the kind, as the noble Earl, Lord Stockton, pointed out.

The Bill is an insult to the integrity of legitimate shooters; it is an insult to the intelligence of Parliament and of the British press; it is an insult to the intelligence of the British people. The Government are deluding themselves, Parliament and the British people that they are improving public safety. They are not. Legitimate shooters pose no threat. They indulge themselves in a harmless recreation of punching holes in paper targets. But there is a vast, unknown number of weapons held illegally by the criminal classes. If the Government really want to improve public safety, they should go after them and not penalise legitimate shooters.

We heard only yesterday about a murder committed in north London, no doubt by an illegally held pistol. That will continue, so the sooner this abominable Bill is repealed, along with its equally abominable predecessor, the better.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, of course I support the amendments moved so lucidly by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. I should like to press the Government on one point that they made at the last stage of our debate on this unfortunate Bill. They said that their legislation for the disabled is designed only to allow the disabled to draw level with those of us who are fortunate enough not to be disabled. That is one of the reasons they gave for not allowing this amendment when we last debated it.

I feel that that philosophy is at the least a little shaky. However much we wish it were otherwise, and however much we legislate to make it otherwise, the disabled can never enjoy all the activities which we take for granted. The new, caring Labour Government therefore are guilty of a degree of hypocrisy in not allowing your Lordships' amendments to stand when instead they remove from the disabled one of the few activities which allows them to compete equally with the rest of us and in fact "draw level with us" in the broadest sense of that expression.

Nor can the amendment be called a wrecking amendment. Both this Bill and its predecessor from the previous government were supposed to be about improving public safety. But as other noble Lords have said, we have it on the word of the Minister himself in the other place—I quote again because it is important—

I did not suggest that disabled shooters were a threat to public safety". All the Government have to do to meet the spirit of their Bill and their commitment to disabled people generally is to accept the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the approach of my noble friend Lord Stoddart to this matter is that of the purist. He did not like the previous Bill introduced by the previous government and he does not like this one. I have acknowledged that I recognise his stance.

The fact is that we are dealing now with two amendments and not, as some speeches seemed to indicate this afternoon, with the principle of either Bill. When this Bill came to this House in June from another place, we were all well aware of the enormous strength of feeling for a complete ban on handguns. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, pointed out only this afternoon, as did other noble Lords, on a free vote held on 11th June in another place there was a majority of 203 votes in favour of such a ban. Both the amendments today are utterly at odds with the strength of views of the other place. I shall be obliged to speak twice, but some of the remarks I make on this first amendment may be relevant to both.

I venture to suggest that this is a matter of serious constitutional importance. The Government have never intended deliberately to disadvantage disabled shooters by this Bill. Our intention is that of consistency. I am told that there are around 374,000 registered disabled people, all of whom under this amendment would be eligible to apply for a firearms certificate. It is impossible to say how many would wish so to apply, but our position is plain—as plain as the position adopted by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart.

Our position is that we do not wish to see exemptions for any groups of target shooters. Those who have previously legally used target pistols must change to other firearms if they wish to continue to practise the sport. I appreciate that there are differences between the different disciplines. I pay tribute to the contribution made by Lord Crawshaw on another occasion, and I indignantly repudiate that I treated him with any disrespect; quite the opposite. I am happy to say, as I did then, that his contribution was moving and informed. Nevertheless, it did not persuade my mind.

As I have said on earlier occasions, I appreciate that some disabled shooters may have difficulty in switching to long barrel firearms; not everyone will enjoy shooting with air pistols or muzzle loading pistols. I do not accept that any therapeutic value that handguns may bring to some disabled shooters, or the sense of well-being, which I recognise, that success in international target pistol shooting competitions may bring to both disabled and able bodied competitors, can outweigh the enormous benefits of removing handguns from our society. We believe that the benefits of this ban to public safety cannot be overestimated. The lessons from Dunblane and Hungerford must never be forgotten.

There are some exemptions in the 1997 Act to allow handguns to continue to be held. They are all for professional, humane or other narrowly defined purposes. Not one is for target pistol shooting.

Of course the Government will keep under review this Bill, should it become law, as well as the earlier Act which our predecessor government introduced, and indeed firearms legislation in general. It is the Government's duty to ensure that all new and existing controls are necessary. If they are not, we shall need to bring back to this House in due course further legislative proposals for change.

As far as concerns this amendment, I believe that the right step for this House is not to insist upon it. When the House divided on the amendment at the Report stage, there was a majority of only 19 votes in favour of its addition to the Bill. This amendment was rejected by another place last week by 136 votes, on, I respectfully remind your Lordships, a free vote. It is a very clear message from the elected Members of the other place on this issue. Given that strength of view, and expressing as I do the regard I have for this place, though I have been here for fewer years than many of your Lordships, I respectfully suggest that this unelected House might now agree with the elected Members of that other place.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I fear that I must take a few minutes to reply to the debate. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in it, on whichever side of the argument they may have been. It has been a good debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked whether we are prepared to set aside the view of the Commons in a matter which has been put before the electorate at a general election. As I explained—and I repeat--the manifesto states clearly that there will be a free vote; that is, a free vote of Parliament, not just the House of Commons. Therefore, this House is just as entitled to have a free vote as the House of Commons.

With regard to the constitutional side of the argument, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, put the matter absolutely right. He said that there was no constitutional reason why we should not insist on amendments. Indeed, he cited the precedent of your Lordships insisting on academic freedom. Your Lordships were right to insist on academic freedom. Why. then, are we taking away the freedom of disabled pistol shooters to continue with the sport they have enjoyed for a long period of time? If it is right to insist on an amendment for one freedom, it must be right for another freedom.

I very much appreciated the tribute of the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, to Lord Crawshaw. We are extremely sorry that he has passed away. The noble Lord mentioned 386 handguns that had been stolen. That is very small beer. I have to tell him that those handguns were stolen from individuals, not from secure accommodation, where the pistols of disabled people would be held. Furthermore, he must take into account that Lord Cullen, who heard all the evidence, did not recommend a total ban on handguns. If we are citing Cullen, let us take account of what he said. He did not want a total ban on handguns.

My noble friend Lord Howell criticised the Government's stance on this matter. I agree with him. I am only sorry that he cannot support the Motion. I hope that he will reconsider his attitude.

My noble friend Lord Ewing made an interesting speech. He gave a moving review of what happened in Dunblane and of Hamilton's background. In fact, he confirmed more than anyone else has done, because of his close knowledge of the situation, that the massacre at Dunblane was the result of the warped mind of a single individual and not because of handguns generally held. He confirmed in one short speech everything that those of us who have been opposed to the legislation have been saying—that is, Dunblane was the act of a madman and handgun owners should not therefore be collectively punished because of him. I thank my noble friend Lord Ewing for confirming that, although I regret that I shall not be having his support.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, is ducking out of it. That sums up what is wrong with the Opposition. They have no guts. That is what is wrong. I hope they will soon recover their guts. The British constitution depends on strong government and on a decent and strong Opposition. I am sorry that the noble Lord has not seen fit to recommend to his noble friends that they support the Motion.

The noble Earl, Lord Stockton, asked my noble friend the Minister, who is a decent and gentle man, how many illegally held handguns there are. It was noticeable that my noble friend did not reply. He could not reply because he does not know. There are tens if not hundreds of thousands of illegally held handguns. Yet here we are, dealing with a few disabled people and taking away their sport, while leaving tens if not hundreds of thousands of illegally held handguns in the hands of criminals. That is one reason why noble Lords, in spite of the advice they have received from their Front Benches, should support the Motion.

My noble friend says that I am a purist. What is wrong with being a purist? Does anyone find anything wrong in that? He says that he is a purist, too. That makes two of us. I did not expect that he would support my Motion, although people are sometimes converted on the road to Damascus or elsewhere. However, I fear that he was not.

When, under the previous Tory Government, we were dealing with the Firearms (Amendment) Bill and I was on the other side of the House I said that noble Lords should insist on their amendments. It would be seen as hypocritical if I did not do the same now with a Labour Government—my own Government—in office. There is too much hypocrisy around at the present time and I am not prepared to add to it. I ask the House to insist on their amendment to which the Commons have disagreed.

4.30 p.m.

On Question, That the House do insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1 A?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 36; Not-Contents, 161.

Division No. 1
Allenby of Megiddo, V. Milverton, L.
Blake, L. Monson, L.
Broadbridge, L. Mottistone, L.
Brookeborough, V. Mountgarret, V.
Clanwilliam, E. Munster, E.
Clifford of Chudleigh, L. Park of Monmouth, B.
Congleton, L. Pearson of Rannoch, L.
Craig of Radley, L. Rennell, L.
Cross, V. Renton of Mount Harry, L.
Donegall, M. Sharples, B.
Exmouth, V. Simon of Glaisdale, L.
Grantley, L. Stallard, L.
Harmar-Nicholls, L. Stewartby, L.
Ilchester, E. Stockton, E.
Incheape, E. Stodart of Leaston, L.
Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Stoddart of Swindon, L. [Teller.]
Liverpool, E. Swansea, L. [Teller.]
Massereene and Ferrard, V. Swinfen, L.
Acton, L. Blackstone, B.
Addington, L. Blyth, L.
Aldington, L. Borrie, L.
Ampthill, L. Boyd-Carpenter, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Bridges, L.
Ashley of Stoke, L. Burlison, L.
Avebury, L. Callaghan of Cardiff, L.
Barnett, L. Calverley, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Carlisle, E.
Berkeley, L. Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L.
Carter, L. [Teller.] McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Chandos, V. [Teller.]
Charteris of Amisfield, L. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. McNair, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. McNally, L.
Coleridge, L. Mar and Kellie, E.
Currie of Marylebone, L. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Dahrendorf, L. Merlyn-Rees, L.
David, B. Milner of Leeds, L.
Davies of Coity, L. Mishcon, L.
Davies of Oldham, L. Molloy, L.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B. Montague of Oxford, L.
Desai, L. Morris of Castle Morris, L.
Dholakia, L. Morris of Manchester, L.
Diamond, L. Nelson, E.
Dixon, L. Nicol, B.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Northbourne, L.
Donoughue, L. Northfield, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Ogmore, L.
Dubs, L. Orme, L.
Elis-Thomas, L. Paul, L.
Evans of Parkside, L. Peyton of Yeovil, L.
Ewing of Kirkford, L. Pitkeathley, B.
Ezra, L. Plant of Highfield, L.
Falconer of Thornton, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Falkland, V. Prys-Davies
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Puttnam, L.
Fitt, L. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Gallacher, L. Randall of St. Budeaux, L.
Geraint, L. Razzall, L.
Gordon of Strathblane, L. Rea, L.
Gould of Potternewton, B. Redesdale, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Rendell of Babergh, B.
Gregson, L. Richard, L. [Lord Privy Seal.]
Grenfell, L. Ritchie of Dundee, L.
Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. Robson of Kiddington, B.
Hamwee, B. Rochester, L.
Hanworth, V. Rogers of Riverside, L.
Hardie, L. Roll of Ipsden, L.
Hardy of Wath, L. Sainsbury of Turville, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Serota, B.
Haskel, L. Sewel, L.
Hayman, B. Shepherd, L
Hayter, L. Simon, V.
Henderson of Brompton, L. Simon of Highbury, L.
Hilton of Eggardon, B. Smith of Gilmorehill, B.
Hogg of Cumbernauld, L. Steel of Aikwood, L.
Hollick, L. Strabolgi, L.
Strafford, E.
Hollis of Heigharn, B. Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Hooson, L. Taverne, L.
Hoyle, L. Taylor of Blackburrn, L.
Hughes, L. Taylor of Gryfe, L.
Hunt of Kings Heath, L. Tenby, V.
Hutchinson of Lullington, L. Thomson of Monifieth, L.
Irvine of Lairg, L. [Lord] Tope, L.
[Chancellor.] Tordoff, L.
Jacobs, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Janner of Braunstone, L. Varley, L.
Jay of Paddington, B. Walker of Doncaster, L.
Jeger, B. Walker of Worcester, L.
Jenkins of Putney, L. Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Judd, L. Walpole, L.
Kennedy of The Shaws, B. Westbury, L.
Kirkhill, L. Whitelaw, V.
Lester of Herne Hill, L. Whitty, L.
Lestor of Eccles, B. Wigoder, L.
Levy, L. Williams of Crosby, B.
Lockwood, B. Williams of Elvel, L.
Longford, E. Williams of Mostyn, L.
Ludford, B. Windlesham, L.
McCarthy, L. Winston, L.

Resolved in the negative, and Motion disagreed to accordingly.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 1A.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1A.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.