Orders of the Day — Firearms (Amendment) Bill (Allocation of Time) – in the House of Commons at 3:39 pm on 18 February 1997.

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4.—(1) The Speaker shall put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for the appointment, nomination and quorum of a Committee to draw up Reasons and the appointment of its Chairman.
(2) A Committee appointed to draw up Reasons shall report before the conclusion of the sitting at which it is appointed.

5.—(1) In this paragraph "the proceedings" means proceedings on Consideration of Lords Amendments, on any further Message from the Lords on the Bill, on the appointment, nomination and quorum of a Committee to draw up Reasons and the appointment of its chairman and on the Report of such Committee.
(2) Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business) shall apply to the proceedings.
(3) No dilatory Motion with respect to, or in the course of, the proceedings shall be made except by a member of the Government, and the Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
(4) If the proceedings are interrupted by a Motion for the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 20 at any time (Adjournment on specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration) the bringing to a conclusion of any part of the proceedings which, under this Order, are to be brought to a conclusion after that time on that day shall be postponed for a period equal to the duration of the proceedings on that Motion.
The first anniversary of the dreadful tragedy at Dunblane will be in three weeks. In the year that has passed, the Government have established a public inquiry under Lord Cullen, responded to each of his recommendations, and prepared a major Bill which implements the tighter controls that he recommended. Those of his recommendations that can be introduced administratively will also be brought into effect.
The Bill itself was first published on 1 November 1996. In less than four months, it has passed through both Houses, to reach its final consideration stages this week. Both Houses have given the highest priority to the serious matters in it, and that priority must continue, to ensure that it reaches the statute book without delay. The allocation of time order allows the House five hours in total to consider this order and the amendments to the Bill that were tabled in another place.
The main amendments, on disassembly and compensation, have already been extensively debated in the House. Five hours have already been spent, either by the House or in Committee, discussing those two subjects. I am therefore confident that this order will enable hon. Members on both sides of the House to make their points today. Within the five-hour period—depending on the length of this debate, for which one hour is allowed, if necessary—the debate on disassembly will continue until 6.15 pm; on compensation until 7.30 pm; on starter shooters until 8.15 pm; and on the other amendments until 9.00 pm.
We have made that allocation because, if the amendment on disassembly were to be allowed, it would completely change the Bill's focus and undermine the case for licensed pistol clubs, which are the subject of part II of the Bill, and it would also weaken the general prohibition on handguns in part I. It is an important issue.

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North

Will my right hon. Friend also admit that, if disassembly were accepted by the House, it would also save the Government an enormous amount of money?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone

The merits of disassembly are properly to be debated in the first consideration of their Lordships' amendments. I therefore do not think that I should be drawn down the very tempting path offered by my hon. Friend. I understand that he feels strongly on the issue, and I look forward to hearing his comments later.

As I said, much debate has taken place on compensation, but I still believe that it is right that one hour should be set aside to deal with such an important topic.

We believe that the motion will permit sufficient opportunity to re-examine the concerns raised in another place, while ensuring that there is no undue delay in the Bill's passage. I therefore commend it to the House.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe , Kent Mid 3:42, 18 February 1997

The underlying premise of my right hon. Friend's speech was that no delay should be allowed to interfere in the Bill's passage. However, one development since the matter was first mooted is that the public have begun to consider the underlying issues much more seriously than they understandably did in the immediate aftermath of the appalling Dunblane tragedy. I am sure that I am not the only hon. Member who has met many people who are undoubtedly responsible in their use of firearms. I wonder whether it would not be a great deal better if the House were to spend rather longer before rushing the Bill on to the statute book.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook , Stockton North 3:43, 18 February 1997

We have been told that great urgency is required to pass this legislation. Apparently such great urgency is required that there has been more than a moderate degree of co-operation between Government and Opposition Front Benchers. Sadly, the observation that I must make on that co-operation—or should I say, collusion—is that, when the Government and the Opposition get together as of one mind, they usually make a mess of it, and they are doing so again on this occasion. We are told that we must get this Bill through in the shortest period and with the greatest haste, despite the fact that we are dealing with a complex set of circumstances.

I want to try to educate the House this afternoon—I do not use that term arrogantly—on aspects of legislation related to firearms that should have been considered, but which, frankly, have been neglected. Some hon. Members present this afternoon will recall that I was the Opposition Whip during debates on the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 following Hungerford, and they will realise that some of the remarks I make this afternoon will repeat some of the comments I made then.

I remind the House that there is not and will not be a central register of licence holders—no matter whether we pass the Bill as it stands today or not. Let me try to explain what I mean. If someone in London applies for a firearms certificate, the police do a number of checks on that individual and his background. They go to the domestic violence unit to see whether he or she has been in the habit of knocking anyone about. They go to the local intelligence officer to see whether that beat officer has any knowledge that might preclude the issue of such a licence. The police check with section SO18, the adult cautions section.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. May I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that we are debating an allocation of time motion? He is going into a great many details that he could possibly reserve for the debates on the amendments. We are at the moment debating only the allocation of time, and I should be glad if he will consider that and come to it when he resumes his speech.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook , Stockton North

I am deeply grateful for your guidance, Madam Speaker, but I have to point out that the case I am making is that we are talking about a limitation of time, but I am referring to aspects of the legislation which have not been covered and which cannot be covered because the following amendments are specific. These matters cannot be discussed, as anyone doing so would be ruled out of order.

Photo of Mr David Steel Mr David Steel , Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale

In support of the plea that the hon. Gentleman is making, can I point out that the guillotine motion allows us exactly 45 minutes to discuss the whole question of compensation? The Minister of State has just circulated a 14-page document on compensation, which I have just received. Are we seriously expected to deal with a complicated issue affecting so many people in 45 minutes flat?

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook , Stockton North

The right hon. Gentleman almost makes my case for me, but not in its entirety. I have received the same document, but I have not got around to reading it. Much that I want to refer to is impossible to cover in any way other than during the debate on the allocation of time. My complaint is that the length of time allocated by the Government is totally unreasonable and has nothing to do with democracy, rationality, a logical approach or even technical expertise. Frankly, I am gravely disappointed in the Government. I am even more disappointed in my own party.

My point is that the kind of cautious approach used in London is important. Adult cautions are checked—in other words, if a person has received a caution, it stays on the record. Strangely enough, we know that Mr. Hamilton had cautions aplenty, but that is another matter. The police in London check the police national computer to find out about convictions, and Infos, the intelligence pool. They check the general registry, a library of all surplus files of unfounded allegations. They do all those checks to find out whether Jack the lad is suitable for the issue of a firearms certificate. So Jack the lad simply needs to move out of London and down to Essex or up to Yorkshire—or even to Teesside. He can then start the process again, and if the local constabulary is not as diligent as the London police, the certificate can be issued. There is no central register to show up such a dangerous practice.

Section 7 permits allow a person to hold a shotgun or a firearm temporarily—usually if someone has died and the weapon is in their effects. A certain Member of this House died not a right long time ago and a huge German machine gun was found in his cellar, along with more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition. His heirs had to deal with it sensibly.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook , Stockton North

I am afraid that I cannot tell my hon. Friend, because he has a practice of disclosing names from the Dispatch Box. I would prefer to keep the name to myself. I shall tell my hon. Friend at a later date.

Section 7 permits give an inheritor time to get rid of the inheritance. Strangely, the police have no legal powers to make any enforcement on storage or notification of disposal. That is another area that has not been dealt with.

Different ages apply to different certificates. That is confusing, and the matter could have done with some attention. The House may be surprised to learn that a shotgun certificate can be granted at birth, whereas a firearms certificate cannot be granted before the age of 14. That is not dealt with in the Bill.

Someone with a firearms certificate can be given a firearm at the age of 14, when they get the certificate. Someone with a shotgun certificate cannot be given a shotgun until the age of 15. That is another strange anomaly that could have been dealt with if any real thought had been given to the Bill.

Someone without a firearms certificate cannot borrow a firearm, even if they are supervised by a certificate holder, until the age of 17. However, someone without a shotgun certificate can borrow a shotgun, if supervised, from birth. A two-year-old can run around legally with a borrowed shotgun. That is yet another issue that is not covered. I could go on with other examples of negligence.

There is almost no control over shotgun ammunition. Having purchased ammunition, I could give any hon. Member 1,000 rounds without breaking the law. However, I am not allowed to give anyone even one round of firearms ammunition—not even .22 ammunition. I can insist that firearms ammunition is stored securely, but no one can legally insist that shotgun ammunition is stored securely. That is yet another example of negligence by the Government and the Opposition.

The police cannot put additional conditions on shotgun certificates, so we cannot insist on where they are stored, whereas we can with firearms. We therefore do not know where shotguns will be if we have to look for them. The police cannot limit the number of shotguns on a shotgun certificate, so it is possible for one shotgun certificate holder to buy hundreds of shotguns with no check on where they go. Anyone can set up as a supplier to Jack the lad in the underworld.

The police have no statutory right to enter and inspect the secure storage facilities of firearms or shotguns. A licence holder can legally refuse to let the police check whether he has a gun safe in which to store his weapons.

There are further examples of negligence. I am sorry if I am boring the House, but it is important that the catalogue of negligence should be known to the public. People think that we are going to protect them. I am trying to highlight the fact that we are doing anything but that.

Most of our European neighbours, who suffer much criticism here from time to time for all sorts of reasons, insist on the granting of a hunting licence before setting someone loose with a hunting weapon. To get a licence, people have to undergo a period of training and monitoring. A pistol licence holder must pass a similar six-month probation period at a pistol club here before the police will issue a licence, so we know that an applicant can handle firearms properly.

If someone applies for a shotgun or rifle licence, the police have no way of checking that the applicant knows which end of the gun is dangerous or even one end from the other, or whether he or she knows which species are protected and which can be exterminated.

I have mentioned a number of matters, and I could go on, but I know that other hon. Members want to speak on the limitation of time motion. Perhaps most important—I seem to have lost the papers, so I will have to speak from memory—is the fact that—

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook , Stockton North

It is not dissembling, and that is a fact—it could be disassembly.

Photo of Mr Andrew Faulds Mr Andrew Faulds , Warley East

I am finding my hon. Friend's contribution fascinating, as I am ignorant on these matters—[Interruption.] I know a great deal about more things than most of those sluggish lads on the Conservative Benches. I am finding my hon. Friend's speech fascinating, and I am prepared to wait until he finds the lost papers.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook , Stockton North

There is no need, Madam Speaker. I said that I would speak from memory, and I will do just that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) for his intervention, in so far as it shows his experience and knowledge of the theatrical and the voice from the wings.

Photo of Mr Andrew Faulds Mr Andrew Faulds , Warley East

Never from the wings—centre stage.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook , Stockton North

I am sure that, in another incarnation, my hon. Friend will acquire safe employment as the prompter.

I started my observations on negligence by commenting that there was no central register of licence holders—a grave weakness, as I pointed out, because Jack the lad can run about. What is probably even worse is the fact that there is no central register of the weapons. We have never had one, and it is not proposed that there should be one. Perhaps the Government's reluctance to accept that principle is born of their doctrinaire attitude towards deregulation.

We are told that there could be 4 million illegal weapons out there, and that there are perhaps 120,000 certificated weapons. Without a central register, we are making those 120,000 weapons illegal—adding them to the 4 million which are already illegal. We do not have an account of any of them, and we do not propose to have one. We are making a bad situation worse, and we are making it worse in a hurry. We are not allowing anyone to talk about it sensibly. When people try to put a sensible point, they get shakes of the head, as I am getting from my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench.

I appeal for common sense. For God's sake, people out there need protection, and it is our duty to give it. We are not doing so at the moment.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Budgen Mr Nicholas Budgen , Wolverhampton South West 3:58, 18 February 1997

I agree with every word that passed the lips of the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook). This is a bad Bill, which has been badly considered.

At least some of my hon. Friends will be concerned about the wider problem of creating an unnecessary confrontation between this House and the House of Lords. We who are anxious to preserve our constitution and its checks and balances should realise what a grave disservice we are doing with this guillotine motion.

When the House of Lords says that it is not sure that we have got something right, amends our legislation and sends it back to us, it is saying in the politest possible way, "Please think again; we think you might have got this wrong." Sometimes that is said especially insistently, as when the Bill or the amendments we have passed obviously do not have the support of a decision at a general election or of the people.

When we are in our most populist—and especially our agreed populist—mood, when we are at our worst and most tyrannical, the House of Lords says, "Hang on a moment. Think again, and please discuss the matter more carefully." Surely we as Tories should understand the importance of that request, yet we are giving the matter a cursory debate on a guillotine, after which we plan to have a short, truncated discussion on a few selected items, which, as the hon. Member for Stockton, North said, will be kept even shorter by the agreed discouragement that will be evinced from the Front Benches against every dissident voice; so 50,000 people will go unrepresented because of the gross tyranny of the House.

We who most of all represent the checks and balances of the constitution should draw back from an unnecessary confrontation.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the 50,000 people. I wonder what he would say to a couple I met in my constituency, near the hon. Gentleman's: Martyn and Barbara Dunn, who came to a ceremony to commemorate the massacre at Dunblane, in which they lost their five-year-old daughter Charlotte. They are very keen on what we intend to do, as are all the other parents who lost children. What would the hon. Gentleman say to those parents, who believe that what the House intends to do is right, and that, although there is no guarantee that such a massacre will never occur again, it is one way of trying to prevent events such as happened at Hungerford and at Dunblane?

Photo of Mr Nicholas Budgen Mr Nicholas Budgen , Wolverhampton South West

I would try to be as sympathetic as I possibly could, and I would explain to them that I understood entirely their wish to have the use of all guns banned; but I would say that people who engaged in the lawful and honourable activity of target shooting were entitled to continue to do that. I would say at the end of the conversation, as quietly and as carefully as I could, that as a matter of fact I thought that their appalling tragedy probably did not make them better judges of legislation, and that it might indeed make them worse judges. I would say that, fortunately, we have in general a rather good system of considering legislation in a way that is somewhat detached from their raw emotions, and that the most important thing was to consider legislation carefully and not in a mood of deep emotion. I think that, on reflection, they would understand that.

If the hon. Gentleman says that that is not so, it might be of some interest to him to note that, after the Duke of Edinburgh had made some remarks about the legislation some time just before Christmas, it was obvious that the public as a whole took a more reflective attitude.

In our constitution, it is not only the newspapers, the royal family and others who have a right to comment; it is the legitimate interest of the other place to ask us to think again. If we pass this guillotine motion, we are palpably not thinking again.

The other place faces a difficult tactical question about which issues to disagree with us on, but I hope that it will not disagree with us about the Crime (Sentences) Bill, because the proviso in that case—the argument as between exceptional circumstances and circumstances that are unjust—is not a big issue. While great lawyers make great fortunes arguing the difference between such words, it perhaps does not affect many people.

Perhaps we could say respectfully to the other place that there is some presumption in its proposals for extra compensation. If £500 million of public expenditure is to be made, it should be authorised by this place, not the House of Lords. However, if we reject the Lords amendment on disassembly, I hope that their Lordships will persist with it.

Photo of Mr Michael Colvin Mr Michael Colvin , Romsey and Waterside

My hon. Friend suggested that 50,000 people were affected, a point that was picked up by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). The figure of 50,000 firearms certificate holders is merely the Home Office figure, not the real number of firearms certificate holders affected, which is more like 100,000. To those one must add the number of people who legitimately shoot with pistols in recognised and registered clubs, who do not need firearms certificates. The matter goes far wider than the 50,000 people my hon. Friend mentioned.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Budgen Mr Nicholas Budgen , Wolverhampton South West

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was trying to put my point as moderately as possible. When I mentioned figures, I wanted to quote the lower end of the scale.

I hope that their Lordships will recognise that, whether it is 50,000 or 100,000, it is not a fashionable section of the community. I hope that they will consider how they would feel if that many game shooters were being prevented from carrying on their lawful activity.

I do not want to put this offensively to their Lordships, but it would be sad if the suspicion arose that because, by and large, these are unfashionable people, their Lordships were not prepared to exercise their proper duty to prevent populist legislation, but that, in a future Parliament where hunting or game shooting was threatened, they would come bustling along to exercise their constitutional rights. The 50,000 involved are honourable people, who have been treated in a disgraceful, hurried and populist way. I hope that their Lordships will go very slowly in considering the measure.

On this point, I am able to join the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen), who, last Wednesday, in discussing the Police Bill—which had come from the Lords—sensibly asked why a Firearms (Amendment) Bill could not be introduced at the beginning of the next Parliament. I agree entirely. One could be introduced slowly and carefully. If their Lordships suggested that other measures could be brought forward in the interim, I would agree.

The House knows that the Home Office firearms consultative committee was not invited to give its opinion on the Cullen report. The proposals were rushed out. We could in the interim tighten the rules on the qualities and characters of people who own firearms certificates. There could be some extra surveillance of the membership of gun clubs. All those things have been suggested as sensible administrative measures by the committee.

I do not want it to be suggested for a moment that I am indifferent to the arguments of those who fear the repetition of a crime by one of the relatively small number of people who hold guns legally. We all know that the generality—96 per cent.—of crimes are committed by people who hold guns illegally.

There are small measures that could be taken between now and Christmas to introduce some discipline to those who hold guns lawfully. Most importantly, I suggest that Conservative Members should avoid an unnecessary confrontation with their Lordships. If their Lordships are exercising their proper constitutional duty, they will come to the aid of 50,000 people who have been treated very shabbily.

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke , City of London and Westminster South 4:09, 18 February 1997

As my right hon. Friend the Minister—it is a great pleasure to address her in that way—will recall, I was not called to speak on the original guillotine motion. I do not complain about that; I was sitting where the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), usually sits, and I understand completely why I was overlooked.

On that occasion, I would have followed my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) in the debate, and I would have spoken about the effect on people who are following the proceedings on the Bill of the speed with which a series of guillotine motions have obliged us to consider it.

I remonstrated thereafter with an hon. Friend—whom I shall anonymously call a representative of the business managers—that we had insufficient time in which to debate the matters properly. He said that no one else had made that complaint. Our conversation occurred before Third Reading, when I know for certain that several hon. Members—including me, incidentally—were kept out of the debate.

More seriously, I recall the debate on compensation. I mentioned the matter on Report, and I do so again now because of the debate that we shall have this evening. About 10 minutes before the end of the debate on Report, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary—I do not accuse him of having orchestrated the scenario deliberately—declined to give way to an hon. Friend who sought to intervene, on the ground that he did not have sufficient time. It is ironic that the guillotine motion should have the effect of saving my right hon. and learned Friend from the obligation of replying properly to the debate.

We shall have the compensation debate this evening. I do not share the advantage of the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) or of the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) in having seen the 14-page document. The good news is that I calculate that we will have an hour and a quarter for the compensation debate rather than 45 minutes, so we shall have slightly more time in which to absorb the details.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the document, which was courteously sent to some hon. Members who participated in the debate, opens Pandora's box.

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke , City of London and Westminster South

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that comment, and I anticipate reading the document all the more. I simply repeat that, given the interest that the public have expressed in these matters, it is unfortunate that we should give the impression that we are rushing them through without proper consideration.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow 4:12, 18 February 1997

The Minister very courteously sent this letter to me today. It states: I am enclosing for your information a copy of a consultation document which sets out our proposals for the detailed arrangements for the firearms compensation scheme to be introduced under the Firearms (Amendment) Bill. The document will be used as a basis for consultation by the Home Office with the police and shooting organisations. I am sending copies to all those who participated when the issue of compensation was debated on the Floor of the House. A copy is also being placed in the Library". Why did that letter arrive after lunch on 18 February—the day that we are debating the matter? Even at first glance, there are all sorts of questions to he asked. It would be improper to abuse a debate on the timetable by asking too many detailed questions. However, before we limit ourselves to three quarters of an hour of debating time, I refer to options B and C. Option B is payment based on a price contained in a published list of values and option C is payment based on individual valuation.

We have received no clear answer—at least I have not heard it—to a question posed by the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and many others as to who would do that evaluation. There is cheerful talk about evaluation, but precisely who will do it? The idea that it will be agreed easily and automatically is fairyland.

What about paragraph 14, on ex gratia payments? The letter states: He could either choose to lodge his pistol with the police pending its retrieval for use in an approved club, or he could choose to surrender ownership straight away and seek an ex gratia payment for it at the same time as any claim for compensation in respect of higher calibre guns is made. Who will decide that ex gratia payment? We are talking about a great deal of money.

The list that accompanies the letter purports to give valuations on a range of guns—for example, the Astra 3 in barrel, the Colt new service and the Colt diamond back 6 in. I was told off the cuff today, just after receiving the document, that the figures given for valuation are totally unrealistic. For example, the Cold diamond back 6 in is valued at £235, but I have been told that we are talking about thousands if the owner's perceived valuation is to be gone along with. Owners will challenge the valuations.

I do not know whether all those matters should be confined to three quarters of an hour. As I make these points, I have a suspicion that someone else might properly be called during that period and most of us will not have time to make such points. Given that she has written to us in that way, I ask the Minister whether it is sensible to limit the highly controversial issue of compensation to three quarters of an hour.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale , North Thanet 4:15, 18 February 1997

I have not spoken in these debates before, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I hope that you will allow me a few minutes in which to explain why I am so deeply concerned about the manner in which the debate on an extremely important piece of legislation is about to be truncated, if the House wills it so. Clearly, there will not be time for the consideration of amendments that might mitigate what will become an appalling piece of legislation if it goes through unamended.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) sought an answer to the question, "How would we feel if …?" and then related the experience of two of his constituents and their appalling loss. I am the parent of three children; I have had the pleasure of watching them grow to maturity and I freely concede that I cannot begin to comprehend the anguish of the parents of Dunblane. Most of those who say, "I know how you feel," are, in my view, guilty of uttering an obscene platitude. Thank God, there are few hon. Members who have suffered anything like that sort of experience and can therefore begin to understand how others feel.

The House must do all it can to pass legislation that seeks to mitigate the possibility of a tragedy like Dunblane happening again, but we all know that in a world of madmen, whatever we do in this House cannot prevent that. Like many other hon. Members, I started out with high hopes that we would achieve something positive with the Bill, but I am concerned that the Bill will do nothing to prevent a similar recurrence and that it will do that nothing at vast expense and at great cost to an enormous number of respectable and responsible people.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), during the months that the Bill has been passing through Parliament, I have had time to realise that it is knee-jerk legislation that will go down in the annals of the House of Commons as second only to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 in its appalling misconception and haste. As before, we have seen the House at its worst—when it combines to take a cross-party "I care more than you do" approach and rushes a measure through as a sop to an appalling event.

I am not a shooter—I have only ever handled a gun on military service and on the rare occasions when I have missed clay pigeons for the benefit of charity—so I have no personal vested interest in the subject. However, I have spoken to some of my constituents who are members of Swalecliffe gun club, which is located in Herne Bay in my constituency. Following a meeting with them at the end of October 1996, I wrote to the Home Secretary on 2 November 1996, asking a series of questions related directly to the compensation issues that we are about to timetable.

The Minister of State replied to me yesterday. Let me make it plain that I am grateful to her, first for the courteous nature of her reply and, secondly, for turning that reply round within about 12 hours of the letter landing on her desk. However, it has taken some months for me to receive these replies.

I raised the specific issue of what would happen to .22 pistols belonging to members of gun clubs that would go out of existence, and who would therefore have nowhere to go with them, and I asked what compensation those people would receive. I was told—hon. Members who know more about the subject than I do may be aware of this already: As most clubs will be unable to comply with the security requirements, initially, it is intended that the police will retain the .22 pistols in safe storage for those who are seeking a club. The time these will be retained has yet to be set, but we expect it to be a matter of years rather than months in order to give clubs time to adapt to the new requirements. However, my right hon. Friend continues: In most cases, this will require the construction of a purpose-built secure range rather than the adaptation of existing ranges. Rather than a number of local ranges and small clubs, it is expected that ranges, and probably clubs, will be organised at a county or regional level. The cost of security arrangements for each club would thus be shared among a more substantial number of shooters. Members of such clubs may have to travel considerable distances to shoot, but in this respect .22 shooting will be similar to ice-skating and other sports where appropriate facilities are rare and concentrated in large towns. If amendment No. 27 is passed tonight, the members of Swalecliffe gun club, and no doubt others represented by hon. Members on both sides of the House, will lose their facilities, and the fruits of the hard work that they have put in, without compensation—and because that amendment is one of a group of four, we shall not have more than about 45 minutes in which to raise those issues.

I was under the impression that acquisition without compensation was something that even the Opposition had eschewed as a form of political combat. Acquisition without compensation is being done in the name of a piece of legislation that will not have the effect that we intended. The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) rightly said that this piece of legislation will not establish registers. It will not do what the Metropolitan police would like. It will not prevent the circulation of illegal firearms. It will not prevent lunatics from going across the channel, for heaven's sake, buying a gun and bringing it back through the ports in my constituency, or the port in the Home Secretary's constituency, with the greatest possible ease, and making mayhem with it.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins , Blackpool South

I agree with many of the points that my hon. Friend has raised. He may have received correspondence from constituents—as I have from many of mine, especially sporting shooters who compete for the United Kingdom, who shoot not only at Bisley, but elsewhere—who are especially anxious about difficulties that would be caused to them by rejection of the disassembly option. Does my hon. Friend agree that we shall not have time to discuss that issue properly if the motion is passed?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale , North Thanet

I do; and if the motion is passed, we shall not have the opportunity to discuss further the matter of single-shot guns.

I shall not detain the House, but I am very worried that, if we choose to truncate our discussion, we shall end up with another Dangerous Dogs Act piece of legislation—an appalling mess, which will achieve absolutely nothing.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office) 4:23, 18 February 1997

Since the Conservatives entered government in 1979, 60 Bills have been guillotined. On 59 of them, Conservative Members have remained silent during the debate except in support of the guillotine, and have trooped through the Government Lobby in support of those measures. It speaks volumes for the sense of value of the Conservative party that they remained silent on one measure after another to cut benefits for 16 to 18-year-olds; silent on one measure after another to restrict the rights of innocent seekers of immigration into this country; wholly silent on the Scottish poll tax measure in 1986; and completely silent on the English and Welsh poll tax measure in 1987.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

Indeed, Conservative Members were almost silent—there were one or two honourable exceptions—on the Single European Act. In 1986, the Home Secretary, among others, forced the Act through the House, notwithstanding predictions from Opposition Members—including, in an eloquent winding-up speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). Then there was the Maastricht Bill, the Bill that became the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993. All Conservative Members voted for the guillotine motion, thus truncating debate on a critical constitutional measure. [Interruption.] Nearly all of them voted for it.

The issues in the Bill that we are debating today have, on any relative basis, been subjected to far more discussion than the issues in the Bills that I have just listed. It raises the crucial question of the control of handguns and the safety of the public. And what do we find? We find that suddenly, out of the Lobbies and the Smoking Room creep Conservative Members who want to stand up for what they see as a fundamental liberty: the right of Englishmen, and indeed Scotsmen and Welshmen, to hold guns. They did not believe that any fundamental rights were affected by the Maastricht Bill, the Single European Act, the Bills introducing the poll tax in England and Scotland or any of the immigration Bills.

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North

The hon. Gentleman was pointing at me; he obviously wished to give way to me, and I am grateful to him for doing so.

Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the fact that we are debating the Bill unusually soon after a report? As I said earlier, the Cullen report came out at 3.30 pm, and the legislation was presented to the House at 3.31 on the same afternoon. Might it not have been better if we had had a period in which to consider the report before the legislation was framed? That, of course, is why we are rushing it through now.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

If the hon. Gentleman has a quarrel, it is with his own party, but if he thinks about the time scale that is involved, he will see that the argument that the House is rushing the legislation through is nonsense. That appalling tragedy happened on 13 March last year; the Cullen inquiry was then rightly established very quickly, but did not take evidence until the end of May. I understand that it then took evidence until the end of July. Lord Cullen finalised his report in September and delivered it in October, and on 16 October both the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland made statements in the House. I think that the Government were quite right to give their response to the report on that occasion: the same would be expected of any Government.

The legislation was presaged in the Queen's Speech two weeks later, and was introduced two weeks after that. It was debated in Committee on the Floor of the House for a day and a half, and then went into Standing Committee. It was further considered on the Floor of the House, and was then discussed in the other place for four days: that debate fills four full parts of Hansard. Now the Bill has come back to the Floor of the House of Commons. Given its importance, I feel that our proceedings should be concluded in the next week or so, but plenty of other measures of even more breadth and significance have not been given the same consideration during a guillotined set of debates.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook , Stockton North

If that is true, may I ask my hon. Friend for his reaction to the nine areas of negligence that I identified earlier? Those matters could have been considered properly, and could have formed legislation much more sensible than the Bill that we are considering. Those weaknesses are apparent, although I could dig others out of the legislation if my hon. Friend wished me to. The nine areas have not been covered, and will not be covered. If the coverage of the legislation was as comprehensive as my hon. Friend makes out, why were they not attended to?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I listened to my hon. Friend's speech very carefully, but I did not follow his argument. No legislation with which I have ever been familiar has been perfect, and I am sure that this Bill could be improved. It may well be that my hon. Friend could have tabled amendments to extend control in some areas, but I do not think that that is an argument for the extra control that is at the heart of the Bill. If my hon. Friend believes that there ought to be improvements in certification, that is a matter for him, and one that could have been dealt with much earlier.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) said, correctly, that we must make a judgment about the views of the other place in coming to decisions on the Commons' consideration of Lords amendments. That is entirely right, but let me reassure him about one matter. His point—I paraphrase, but only slightly—was that the toffs in the other place had not properly represented the common people: they had approved of control of handguns, which are used in general by common people, but they had protected the owners of shotguns, which are used by the more elevated classes in our society.

The only reason for the amendments coming before the House today is the action of the hereditary peers in pushing the amendments through. Often, amendments passed in the other place against the Government are passed by a majority of life peers and, as happened in the case of the poll tax, it is usually the hereditary peers who are dragooned into the Not Content Lobby in support of the Government. On this Bill, the reverse is the case.

On the first Division, that to allow the disassembly of .22-calibre firearms, 153 peers voted Content, and 139 voted Not Content, but of those 153, 105 were hereditary peers. If the hereditary peers are stripped out, it is clear that the first amendment on disassembly—to diminish the control in the Bill—was actually defeated by some 90 votes, a reversal of the position if the hereditary peers are included.

The same applies to the other key amendment that was passed in the other place, on extending compensation for loss of profit and loss of business. It was passed by 121 votes to 110, but 90 of those 121 were hereditary peers; only 31 were life peers. On the life peer measure alone, the vote was 31 to 77.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Budgen Mr Nicholas Budgen , Wolverhampton South West

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the advantages of the hereditary peerage is that hereditary peers are not full-time professional politicians, as are, unfortunately, the bulk of the present Members of this House? Hereditary peers probably know a great deal more about the practicalities of using weapons than do any of us, and their view is likely to be helpful to the protection of what the hon. Gentleman calls the common man.

The important point is that, as these are the last weeks of this Parliament, we cannot exercise our powers under the Parliament Act 1911. If the peers decide to go slow and not to accept our attitude towards their amendments, the legislation will fall.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I do not believe that that will happen.

The debate has revealed a high degree of anxiety on the part of Conservative Members about what they believe to be the extent of public opinion. I do not share the view of the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) that public opinion has shifted. I do believe, however, that the shooting lobby has become more organised and more frenetic in its letter writing.

I have a letter which, I gather, is to be found on the Internet site of the Sportsmans Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The letter goes into detail about the way in which those reading it should lobby Conservative Members of Parliament. It states that it is important for its members to write to Conservative Members of Parliament, and continues: We can only do that through a massive effort over the next five days. The Conservative Central Office do not believe that we have the numbers or the commitment to vote them out. Further on in the letter, these chilling words appear: Be polite but do not leave them"— that is, Conservative Members of Parliament— in doubt. Spell out exactly how you will be taking revenge if they"— Conservative Members of Parliament— put this Bill on the books.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I am sorry; I do not have time to give way.

I do not believe that the use of the word "revenge" against Conservative Members of Parliament is an acceptable tactic. It exposes some of the motives and the hysteria of the shooting lobby.

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps it would help the hon. Gentleman if I informed him that the words "revenge at the polls" were—

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

Order. That was an attempt to intervene after the hon. Gentleman had refused to give way.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

It is good to know that the hon. Gentleman claims part authorship or knowledge of the letter, but what is on the record at the Internet site is not "revenge at the polls", just "revenge". [Interruption.] I gather that it has changed, no doubt because the association realised the error in its drafting.

In the hysterical reaction from some—not all—members of the shooting lobby, there has been a huge amount of disinformation about the likely position of the Government and the Labour party on the wider issue of the control of guns in our society. The Government must speak for themselves, but I believe that what is in the Bill, with the exception of the control of .22 calibre handguns, is proportionate to the problem.

The Labour party has never believed that such bans on the use of guns should be extended to shotguns. I make that absolutely clear. We respect the right of those who own shotguns for the control of vermin and for the enjoyment of country sports. We have no proposals to change that regime.

In three weeks' time, we shall see the first anniversary of the terrible shooting at Dunblane. We owe it to the memory of those who were gunned down there, and to their relatives and the community of Dunblane, to have this measure on the statute book before then. We support the guillotine motion.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone 4:36, 18 February 1997

As I have only four minutes left to reply, I regret that it will not be possible for me to address every single point that was raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) suggested that there should be further delay because of growing public interest since the Bill was introduced. It has been a year since the tragedy at Dunblane, and it is quite right that the public should expect us to come forward with proposals to try, as far as possible, to avert any similar tragedy in the future, although it must be clear that that could never be absolutely guaranteed.

I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend said about the responsible nature of those who have interests in shooting. I have no doubt at all—nor have the Government—that the vast majority of people who shoot are law-abiding, decent citizens who can be utterly trusted and are utterly responsible. The fact remains that the problems at Dunblane arose through somebody misusing a gun that was lawfully owned and possessed outside a secure club.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone

As the hon. Gentleman interrupts from a sedentary position, perhaps I can now come to his speech.

The hon. Gentleman recited a long list of matters that he said that we had neglected, but in today's debate, in Lords amendment No. 71, we shall address the issue of a central register. If he reads the Official Report of the Committee proceedings, he will see that we covered the issue of age limits. It is not true that a long list of matters have been ignored in the debate. Therefore, I reject his proposition that we need more time to discuss them, as many of them have already been discussed in some detail in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) raised a point about the transitional period for the holding of .22s by the police. The current schedule 1 to the Bill sets out a transitional period of a year for the holding of .22s, although that could be varied by order of the Secretary of State if necessary. I hope that that clarifies the matter.

Several hon. Members said that they wished to have longer to discuss compensation. That issue has been thoroughly rehearsed.

Two hon. Members mentioned the consultation document that we issued today. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) lamented the fact that there was not time to debate the document or to absorb it in any detail in time for today's debate. The document is, of course, intended for a much wider audience. It is not about what we are to implement or what the law should say, but is about how the implementation is to take place—

It being one hour after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Order [18 November].

Question agreed to.