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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I do not believe the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, can speak again unless we re-open the debate and the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, and I are permitted to reply to the questions which the noble Earl obviously wants to ask us.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I must take some blame for the situation that has arisen. I thought that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, asked whether, before the noble Lord sat down, he could pick up a point that had been made. My understanding has always been that one can intervene on a point if one prefaces the intervention with, "Before the noble Lord sits down".
Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, it is probably for the convenience of the House if I intervene at this point as the List of Speakers indicates, not perhaps to engage in the rather fiery exchanges which we have heard but to say that I understand the strong feelings which the Firearms (Amendment) Bill originally aroused. Although I do not intend to follow the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, in going
My colleagues and I were deeply concerned at all stages that there should be fair and adequate compensation of all those disadvantaged by what I think was exceptional legislation. Your Lordships will remember that my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill moved an amendment at Report stage on 4th February to provide a compensation scheme for firearms dealers. The amendment received a large measure of support from all sides of the House and was indeed carried by 121 votes to 110. That decision was ultimately reversed in another place but I want to put it on record again that we felt at that time and indeed feel now, although it is not a time when we can proceed on the issue of substance, that wider compensation should properly have been paid. That view was shared on all sides of the House, including what were then the Labour Benches in opposition.
I wish to ask the Minister two questions. It may be that I either missed what he said or in one case misunderstood what he said. I do not know whether he referred in the course of his remarks--if so I missed it--to the total cost of compensation now assumed under the scheme. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will recall, it was originally anticipated that the cost of the Bill in compensation would be £25 million to £50 million. But that figure was raised to £150 million in view of amendments which the Government made to the Bill in another place. Can the Minister say whether that is the present estimate of the cost of the legislation and the compensation scheme or whether some revised figure now applies?
With regard to my second point, I may have misheard what the Minister said. I do not believe for a moment that he can follow the practice sometimes followed by Ministers in the previous Government of reading out a speech prepared for another place. However, I understood him to say, in referring to the further Bill to deal with small calibre pistols, that there would be a free vote in another place. If the noble Lord did say that, are we to understand that there may not be a free vote on the Government Benches in your Lordships' House? It would be helpful to know exactly where matters stand. For our part, although this is anticipating a Bill which is not before your Lordships' House, we will propose on these Benches a free vote as we did on the previous occasion.
I very much hope that the compensation scheme, given its shortcomings in terms of breadth, will nevertheless do something to mitigate the consequences of the Bill. That having been said, I give it my blessing.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, as is the convention of the House, we will support the scheme. But there are, nevertheless, a number of questions which have already been posed in the course of the debate and I shall add my own. I look forward to the Minister's reply to them.
Perhaps I may first express disquiet about the compensation scheme that is before us today. The first tabling of the scheme was on 22nd May. On 3rd June that was withdrawn and another scheme was laid. There was no explanatory memorandum and no indication to the Front Benches, the Cross-Benches or others that that had happened. It was impossible to see why it had changed. In fact I spent many hours with one scheme in one hand and the other scheme in the other hand literally going through them line by line to find out what had changed and why. I followed that up with telephone calls to officials and was given an explanation. However, it was my right honourable friend in another place, David Maclean, who put down a Question for Written Answer. He received a detailed Answer, of which copies were circulated this morning. That gave a run-down which was inconsistent with the explanation which I had been given by telephone. This was not satisfactory. I even understand that the copy which I was assured on Saturday was the latest copy already has a correction to it. There were many mistakes in the first edition and there were mistakes in the second edition. I understand from many of my noble friends who have not spoken today but who came to see me this morning that there are significant omissions from the scheme. It is right that we should have an explanation of that. Indeed, some noble Lords arrived today with the original 22nd May copy because they were not aware that a substitute scheme had been tabled on 3rd June.
I understand and support the encouragement of claimants to use as much as possible option A, which is the flat rate, or option B, which has listed valuations. Like my noble friend Lord Attlee, I believe that as far as possible people should be encouraged to go for the option A or B scheme. My noble friend Lord Attlee pointed to some interesting anomalies. On option C, the conditions under which one can apply are narrow and restrictive. An interesting example was drawn to my attention. I refer to a modern-day well-known general who has added to the antecedents of the ownership of a gun and added to the interest of a gun and therefore to its value on the open market. But there is no accommodation for that additional value to be considered. If the gun has not been modified or customised in any way, option C is not available to take into account any enhancement which might arise as attached to the history and/or the ownership of the gun. It would be helpful to know whether there will be flexibility for claiming under option C.
Where are the guns to be handed in? There is an issue here of distance. With regard to rural Scotland, rural Wales and parts of rural England, if the chief constable writes to the individual who has a licence for the weapon and stipulates where the weapon must be handed in, for some people there will be considerable inconvenience as considerable distances may have to be travelled. I suspect that there is no compensation for
When will those who surrender their property be paid? This point was made by my noble friend Lord Attlee. It would be helpful if we could have from the Minister an assurance that there will be a defined period--30 days is probably a reasonable period--for those where there are no complications; either a flat rate application under option A or a list rate under option B. It would be helpful to know that the administration is such that people will receive compensation in good time, and if there is any delay, that it should be paid with interest.
There is an interesting and essential point on which we must be assured and that is disposal; the methodology for that and how long the weaponry is to remain at the collection points in police stations. Are police stations physically set up to accept these small arsenals which will build up as the weapons come in? It is important that there is no scope for theft. It is not far fetched to say that there must be no scope for selling these weapons overseas. I say that because I understand that there is a fairly recent case where a policeman in receipt of weapons has been selling them. So that is a point that needs to be addressed. That scope should be eliminated by whatever method of disposal.
Storage will be important and we would like to be assured on that. I believe that my noble friend Lord Burton raised a point about administration. We are talking about 21 days' time when letters will go out and people will begin to bring in their weapons. Are we entirely satisfied that all the administration, record keeping and verification systems and everything else are in place? It would help us to know that the police are ready, happy and entirely satisfied with the arrangements that have been put in place. Can the Minister tell us what is the reaction of the police to the fact that in 21 days' time this scheme will be implemented?
I was posed an interesting technical question. I understand that some people may well have de-activated their weapons by simply slicing them in two, making sure that they cannot be fired, either for the purpose of their own conscience or to assure other people that the weapons will not be used. Can we be assured that if the weapons were de-activated for good reason and the certification and everything else are in order they will be compensated for those weapons?
I repeat the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, about costs. Is it the Government's intention to confirm the costs that were estimated by the previous Government or do they have revised estimated costs? Perhaps I may add to that by asking the Minister for his estimation of the costs of the proposed extension to this Act of Parliament when it includes a total ban on handguns.
This is an interesting question: are police stations exempt from health and safety requirements, especially in regard to the disposal of powder, primers etc.? If not, do they each hold licences for such purposes? It is my
As regards the Bill to outlaw all handguns referred to by the Minister, I accept absolutely that this is water under the bridge and that it was a manifesto pledge for a Bill to be put before Parliament. My understanding is the same as that of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank--that there will be a free vote--and I assume that that will be the case in both Houses of Parliament. It would be helpful to have that clarified.
Even at this late stage, and especially because there is to be a free vote as opposed to a whipped vote, I ask that serious consideration be given--here I am four square with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon--to a large number of law-abiding citizens, both able and disabled people, who have been seriously disadvantaged already by the Act of Parliament. These people will be very much disadvantaged by any extension of the ban on handguns. Disabled people particularly will have no sport to pursue at all and for many of them there is no substitute sport. Able-bodied people can pursue all kinds of other leisure activities; but many disabled people for whom shooting is a lifeline will be totally denied that sport. If the noble Lord, Lord Howell, were here, I know that he would want to make this point; namely, that in this area, as far as I can recall from the record, we achieve in this country more medals at the Commonwealth and Olympic Games than other people do in many other sports all put together. It is a serious consideration that these people, as a result of the Bill which is being brought forward by the Government, will be denied that sport.
If the questions posed in this debate cannot be answered satisfactorily, it must be for the Minister and the Government themselves to consider withdrawing the scheme for correction and/or modification. But if assurances can be given--that is what we are looking for--which will ensure a fair deal (which is what the previous Government promised) for all those who are affected by the passing of the Firearms Act, I shall invite my noble friends to support the scheme.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am grateful for the detail which has been put before your Lordships in examining this draft scheme. The draft is complicated and detailed because it covers payment out of public funds of something of the order of £150 million. As I observed in opening, we need to look for fair values for the guns and other items surrendered. There must be safeguards that the hand-in arrangements work smoothly. We need to make all payments legitimately as soon as possible and we have to dispose of items carefully in the interests of public safety. We believe that this scheme, properly operated by sensible people, can meet those criteria.
I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, for his courtesy in giving me notice of his questions. He promised me that he will be returning to this matter in 18 months' time and I have no doubt at all that he will make good his promise. I cannot assure the noble Earl that all payments will be made in 30 days. The training programme has been undertaken--I shall return to the detail in a moment or two--on the basis that payment shall be made as soon as reasonably possible. It is simply not possible to give an undertaking, and I do not, on the basis of 30 days because we simply do not know the rate of take-up of the scheme and one cannot possibly say that all arrangements will be in order and all payments made within 30 days.
The noble Earl raised the question of historical weapons. There is possibly an exception there that he might like to consider with those whom I know are as well informed as he relating to historical weapons under Section 7 of the Act. Both the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, raised the question of specific weapons, in particular Lugers and Webleys. As I believe they both hinted, the scheme has been drawn up on the basis that it relates to modern guns. Lugers, Webleys and the others mentioned are no longer manufactured, and they were deliberately omitted. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, pointed out that the condition of such guns is critical. In fairness to the owners of the weapons, it is only right that such guns should be separately valued and claimed under option C. I hope that the noble Earl will consider that to be a prudent step, bearing in mind the difficulty of valuation of weapons that are not currently in production. That is the reason for the distinction in the scheme. That means that a claimant who owns a Luger, Webley or a similar weapon is allowed to get an appropriate payment for the gun that he or she is surrendering.
The noble Lord, Lord Swansea, also inquired about delay. Since they are the lawful entitlement of those who surrender weapons under the regime introduced by Parliament, the payments should be made as soon as it is sensibly possible. The earlier part of the scheme should be relatively easy to operate, and one hopes that payments can be made within a reasonable time.
As they recognised, both the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, addressed not the scheme but the principle behind the Act. Your Lordships will forgive me if I do not respond to them, except on this basis: they approach the matter--neither of them may thank me for this--perhaps on the basis of the libertarian Left and the libertarian Right. I recognise that there are arguments of principle here, but those arguments of principle have long since been disposed of in your Lordships' House. I do not take away from the value of the argument; I simply observe that what we are doing now in response to the passage of a Bill under a predecessor government is to give effect, by way of a technical scheme, to the will of both Houses.
The noble Lord, Lord Burton, raised the question of appeals. We would not expect there to be an appeals procedure. We would expect police officers to be as sensibly flexible as they can be in dealing with arrangements for those who may have to travel long distances. We know, from even the quickest scrutiny of
I dealt with one question which the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, put to me, but he then popped a fly over my nose which was so infinitely seductive that I feel obliged to answer it. The Government's present intention is to have a free vote in your Lordships' House.
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