My Lords, I think we are all agreed that this is an important issue which needs to be debated. As my noble friend said, he is simply moving in his amendment what the Government put in their original legislation, so one would have thought that it would be uncontroversial. My noble friend has read out what the Home Secretary said in the debate at Second Reading in the other place. I think it is legitimate for us to ask the question and be given an answer as to why the Home Secretary has chosen to ignore the advice of the agencies concerned when he withdrew the amendment to the Bill. However, having said that, the Government have promised a consultation on this matter, which is an important statement on their part, and therefore it would be wise not to press the amendment to a vote today.
In the consultation that is to take place, I expect that the agencies quoted by the Home Secretary will want to tell Members of both Houses what their view is of the dangers of these weapons. As the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, has outlined, officials have given a view about these pretty dreadful weapons. A .50 calibre rifle sounds almost innocuous, but they are basically sniper rifles that can take out a vehicle and human beings at a mile’s distance. These are formidable weapons in war. They are highly prized and valued in conflict given their accuracy and lethality.
I recall as Defence Secretary going to Bosnia and watching Operation Harvest involving members of the Royal Highland Fusiliers in Banja Luka. One of them, with a broad Glasgow accent, came back from one of the houses in the village with a sniper rifle. Since he did not have an interpreter with him, I wondered how he had managed to persuade the individual in the house to hand over such a prized instrument of the conflict. I think it was the nature of his accent that persuaded the inhabitant of the house that he was not a friendly force and they should therefore hand it over. It was regarded as enormously significant that day that he had managed to persuade them to hand over what was regarded as one of the key instruments of the conflict there.
It is quite legitimate for Members of the House to listen to the words of the Home Secretary read out by my noble friend. The Home Secretary said that he based these measures on,
“evidence that we received from intelligence sources, police and other security experts”.—[
That is pretty all-embracing. This is not just a handful of individuals putting this forward. We are talking here about representatives of 43 police forces in the United Kingdom, the Secret Intelligence Service, the Security Service, GCHQ and the National Crime Agency. Their distilled view and wisdom was that if these weapons were to fall into the hands of criminals or others with malign intent, they would have particularly dangerous effects. The Home Secretary did not underestimate it. He said:
“According to the information that we have, weapons of this type have, sadly, been used in the troubles in Northern Ireland”— the noble Earl said they had never been used in the United Kingdom, but we are told by the Home Secretary that they have—
“and, according to intelligence provided by police and security services, have been possessed by criminals who have clearly intended to use them”.—[
We have had a discussion about knife crime, a huge issue affecting us at present. One can only imagine what would happen if the Home Secretary were right and criminal elements got their hands on .50 calibre rifles, and what damage they could do.
The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, poured scorn on advice given by officials. I was a Secretary of State and had officials who gave me advice in NATO as well. It is the role of Ministers to listen to advice and to make decisions, but the Home Secretary presumably would not come to Parliament not having given careful attention to the advice offered to him on that occasion. There must have been something pretty radical to change his mind—not just the assembled Members of Parliament who argued vociferously against it.
I went through the great debate about handguns in 1997-98, and I have heard all the arguments before. Yes, they will be safe if we have safeguards and the police are satisfied. I remember the number of people who had these handguns, some of them large numbers of handguns, and being assured that they were all safe—yet we saw the two major incidents in Hungerford and Dunblane caused by the private ownership of handguns.
I am not reassured by some of the statements that have been made. I would prefer to follow the course of action laid down by the Home Secretary in his opening speech at Second Reading. I hope that during the consultation we will be able to make that case and that the Home Secretary will return to his original view.