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Lord Addington: My Lords, I speak entirely for myself on this subject. Listening to the debate I have found a tone which I have not liked of special pleading for the disabled and not equal rights. Most of the legislation we have before us and most of the debates on it have concerned giving those with disabilities of various descriptions the chance to compete on a level playing field, even if it means that they need a little help getting there.
I have always been upset at the thought of an Olympic sport being banned, but probably the pros outweigh the cons on this. Handguns of any description have their origin in being a man-killing weapon. That is an historical and unarguable fact. That they are not the most efficient of weapons does not mean that they do not have that capacity. The decision is not one which I have come to lightly. When noble Lords consider the matter I hope they will bear in mind that the disabled
Lord Murray of Epping Forest: My Lords, first I must apologise for not having been present at the beginning of the debate. I was detained. I rise partly in response to what has just been said. If I dare use the phrase, it seems to me to have been an astonishingly totalitarian attitude coming from the enlightened Benches of the Liberal Democrats. Here we are balancing responsibilities. Yes, we are asking for an exception to be made to a general rule. But surely the mark of a civilised society is that where a need is shown and where justice needs to be shown, the means by which we achieve that justice and meet that need should be provided.
What is certain is that the amendment meets the two targets: first, of being limited in its scope. It is not setting a precedent for any other extension of the right to use weapons. Secondly, there is the need not to cultivate any real or serious threat which would mean a serious breach of the aim of the legislation with which I agree as a whole. I hope that my noble friend, like me, will appeal to and remind all on these Benches who have fought so passionately and vigorously for disabled people in the past, to add their voices to those who have spoken in support of this amendment.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, every speech in favour of this amendment has been both courteous and moderate, and those are historically the most difficult speeches to respond to. I am sorry that earlier in the week, when the noble Lord, Lord Henley, made contributions on home affairs matters, I had not realised that he had been translated in portfolio. I have made good my apparent discourtesy by subsequently writing to him privately. In welcoming him, perhaps I may say how fruitful the co-operation was that I always had with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. We did not always agree, but I do not believe that we ever parted bad friends.
All the speeches made this afternoon have been much shorter than on the last occasion for reasons that are proper and which I hope to follow. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw, on the last occasion was a moving one and I hoped to have responded to it by saying that the Government would give further reasonable consideration to the matter over the summer. I am grateful for the courteous way in which the noble Lord, Lord Howell, responded, both in correspondence and personally, and also for having the great scruple to say that he has had conversations with me and with the Home Secretary about this matter.
We are not able to accommodate what I recognise is a strong feeling in your Lordships' House. It is not because the Home Office is a juggernaut which cannot be altered. The merest scrutiny of the amendments marshalled for later this afternoon demonstrates that. In response to the reasoned arguments put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on the last occasion, I have put forward a government amendment to meet exactly the point that she was making. I am not saying that as a partisan point, but that when I undertook on behalf of the Government, and particularly the Home Office, that we would think about things through the summer, that was not simply the usual palliative which is sometimes doled out on these occasions.
We have reconsidered the position with care over the summer. Our conclusions remain the same. We do not wish to allow a situation of exemptions to the general prohibition on handguns proposed by the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, who spoke from the Liberal Democrat Benches, made courageous points because he knew perfectly well that the stream in which he was about to swim was not one which others viewed with favour. I respectfully suggest that he made legitimate points despite the fact that they are unpopular. I am not unsympathetic to the points which are being put forward. I believe that I understand as well as I can the thrust of the points made.
We have looked at the matter with great care. I have to disappoint many of your Lordships. We looked to see whether there was an exemption that could be accepted consistent with the policy that we have stood for, which is to do away, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, with small calibre handguns. We came to the conclusion that we could not do it.
Perhaps I may make this one point which is one of objective fact. There is no attempt to disadvantage disabled shooters in this Bill; there is no attempt to discriminate against disabled shooters. The fact is that they will be treated in exactly the same way as any other target shooter. It is not discriminatory, but treatment of equality under the law. Any disabled shooter--
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Will he accept that the aspect of discrimination is that able-bodied people who are to be denied the sport are able to go away and seek another sport? In the case of disabled people they have no alternative. It has been a sport which they have perfected over the years and they have built up their skills. They have nowhere else to go for a leisure activity which is, in effect, a right arm to them.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not accept that. I was developing my point. I shall reflect with infinite respect on what the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw, said both this afternoon and at greater length on an earlier occasion. The fact is that if the law stands unamended disabled shooters will still be able to compete in open competition using air weapons; they will still be able to use shotguns in open competition; they will still be able to use rifles in open, equal competition. The reason I referred to the contributions
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, before the noble Lord moves on to the next part of his speech, I believe I heard him suggest that disabled shooters could find an alternative in air pistol shooting. That is not a practical solution at all because the Bill will close all pistol clubs in this country so it is impossible to see where disabled shooters will be able to take up air pistol shooting. In case the noble Lord is going to advance another suggestion that is going the rounds, which is that the disabled and other shooters could simply practise their sport in clubs which accommodate rifle and pistol shooting, that will not be so either. I have been given the very good example of the Ham and Petersham Rifle and Pistol Club in Surrey where, of its 800 members, only 24 are rifle shooters. So that club, like all others of its kind, will not exist in the future because its viability depends on pistol shooting. So I do not see how there will be any opportunity for disabled shooters to switch to air pistols.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not accept that those are necessary consequences in practice. I repeat, with great respect--because facts are important particularly when legitimate emotion is rightly in the background--that disabled shooters will continue to be able to shoot air weapons, shotguns or rifles.
We ought not to allow one group an exemption bearing in mind the over-arching principle of this Bill, which is a development of the Bill brought forward by the previous government in relation to larger calibre weapons. We have determined our policy and I hope to put that scrupulously. It is not intended to be dictatorial and I know that your Lordships will not take it as such. We have considered with infinite care all the arguments that have been put forward and we have to say, as governments sometimes do, that we are in the position where honourable people will honourably have to disagree. I know that will disappoint your Lordships and that in particular it will disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who has spent a good deal of care and time throughout the summer on this matter. I was going to ask my noble friends to withdraw their amendment, but I believe that that is probably unrealistic in all the circumstances. All I can do is say that for my part, bearing in mind that I know that this will cause hurt and distress, and may cause some disabled shooters to feel that the Government have been unthinking, we have been unable to agree.
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