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Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I take the noble Earl's point. There has been a general cry that the illegal possession of guns must be tackled and it is the illegal possession that is the problem. However, no one in the debate this afternoon has suggested how that should be done. I agree with my noble friend Lord McNally, who said that we must reverse the rising tide of the gun culture in this country and that gun control is the way to do it. If it requires the toughest gun laws in the world, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, so be it. Britain should lead on the issue and not follow. For example, we should not follow the United States where, as my noble friend pointed out, some 35,000 deaths from gunfire occur on an annual basis. We certainly do not want trigger-happy police officers. It would surprise your Lordships to know how many guns are issued on a daily basis in the London area to plain clothes policemen for carrying out their proper activities.
Dunblane was a terrible tragedy. It was even more terrifying because the perpetrator of the tragedy was a man who was a registered holder of guns and had been trained at a gun club. But the fact that the tragedy happened--and it was not an isolated event--must not conceal the fact that guns are used increasingly. When the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, opened the debate, he correctly pointed out that handguns are lethal and that even .22 guns and lower are quick-firing and easy to conceal.
The noble Lord, Lord Monson, referred to the assassination of Robert Kennedy and President Rabin. He said that we must distinguish between those cases because those men were assassinated at close range by people who came up to them and shot them at point blank range. From my own professional experience, I can think of a number of cases where precisely that happened.
The first example that came to mind when the noble Lord made that remark was not a case in this country but in our former colony of Hong Kong. At a goldsmith's shop in Nathan Road, a man walked up to the two armed guards who were carrying shotguns outside the shop. He produced from his belt a handgun and assassinated the two guards at point blank range.
Lest it be thought that that is something which only happens abroad, I can recall another case in Liverpool about 18 months ago. In a busy shopping centre at lunchtime on a Saturday in the Aintree area, a man walked up to someone sitting in a car and shot him through the head. A third example that comes to mind is more recent, within the past 12 months, in Birmingham, where the act of stepping on a man's toe led to a quarrel
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, that is the precise point I seek to make. One must start by reversing a rising tide of gun culture in this country. There are more armed police, more armed robbers, and more people who are ready to use guns, particularly in the large metropolises of the country. One must start somewhere to tackle the problem. Making the holding of guns altogether illegal is a first step which I commend to the House.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, that is the question that I seek to address. Although the point was made by a number of noble Lords in today's debate who are rightly concerned about the loss of their sport, no one has put forward any practical step to attack illegal possession of guns. What does one do?--search every house in the country to find out where arms are hidden? That is impractical. One has to say that guns must cease to be held in this country, handguns which are lethal--
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He made much of a rising gun culture in this country, as did his colleague. Does he agree with greater censorship? It is my view that a great deal of the cultural promotion of violence comes through video, television and film and not through law-abiding people going about a legal sport.
Further, given that the noble Lord made much of the point, and he cites evidence, does he have evidence that there has been an increase in crime with the use of legally held guns or even guns that were held legally which have been stolen to be used illegally?
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I cannot give the noble Baroness figures on that. I have to rely on my own experience over many years to inform your Lordships that there is a rising tide of gun culture, particularly fuelled by the drugs trade. But perhaps I may answer the noble Baroness. She--or at least her department--promoted in the previous Parliament a Bill for banning knives. Knives were thought to be something which had to be tackled, although they could be used for legitimate purposes--for diving purposes and for hunting purposes. Nevertheless, one of the last Acts of the previous government was to ban the possession of knives. One could say equally in relation to those knives that one has to start somewhere. One has to change the culture that carrying knives will produce with people.
When Parliament last looked at this matter, possible courses of action were constrained by public opinion being that "something had to be done"--that is clearly true--and that it had to be done before the anniversary of the Dunblane disaster. My right honourable friend in another place who was then Home Secretary had the unenviable task of striking a balance between the two interests while being under extremely effective political pressure from the Labour Party in the run-up to the general election. One was to satisfy the public's proper sense of outrage, which could not, of course, be vented upon the perpetrator; the other was to keep as much viable sport as possible. The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, pointed out that some sport was retained under the existing arrangements of the 1997 Act.
But, as a result, Parliament and in particular this House were not able to take a holistic view of the firearms legislation for which many had argued. Because of time constraints, your Lordships' House decided not to send the whole matter upstairs to committee. There is little point in doing so with this Bill because its Long Title, for good reason, is tightly drafted. Parliament also decided that disassembly was not the right solution, largely because of the judgment that public opinion would not be satisfied. It is interesting to recall that in your Lordships' House the then Opposition had some sympathy for one particular dismantling scheme.
Opening the debate, the Minister gave me some cause for hope. He claimed that a single shot pistol is too dangerous to permit. Perhaps he can explain why a single shot .22 pistol is more dangerous than a shotgun when it has been illegally modified to be a sawn-off shotgun.
The Minister will claim that the police are above all suspicion. I have to remind him of the article which appeared in the Evening Standard on 2nd February last. It concerned the case of a police constable who appeared in court charged with seven counts of stealing various guns. It took three years for the offences to come to light. What kind of checks and controls did the chief constable have in place?
Given the concerns of the noble Viscount and others, perhaps the Minister can be tempted to agree to allowing partial destruction before guns are handed in. At present, the Minister claims (in correspondence) that that would be illegal. What guarantee can the Minister give that surrendered guns will not be exported, other than in very small quantities to museums?
Given that the Bill now before us honours an important manifesto commitment and is supposed to be popular and wise, it is a little surprising to note how few noble Lords from the Government Back Benches have spoken in support of the Bill. In fact there has been none. It reminds me of the time when the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, in winding up at Second Reading, was extolling the virtues of the 1997 Act. If my memory serves me aright, he had only the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, for company. Thankfully, the Minister enjoys a little more support today, but it is not from his own Benches.
After all this legislation has been implemented, Parliament will want to measure its success or otherwise. We shall ask questions to measure the dramatic falls in gun crime and injuries that many supporters of the Bill claim will ensue. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will look forward with interest to the figures, as will my noble friend Lord Stockton.
Throughout the passage of the 1997 Act, the Labour Party was remarkably consistent in demanding even tougher legislation, including a complete ban on handguns. It was in its election manifesto as a specific commitment and is trumpeted as the Labour Party's answer to the problem of illegal use and possession of firearms. Its position, as I understand it, is that if legal handguns are banned, then in some miraculous way, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, illegal ones will disappear. If that is not enough, public opinion, at least for the moment, clearly believes the Government's claims for the Bill. In these circumstances, the Salisbury convention will click in. Consequently, we on these Benches will not oppose the question that the Bill be read a second time, despite the fact that we believe it is a rotten measure.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, suggested that these Benches should oppose the Second Reading, as was done in another place. He also complained that the debate in another place was truncated. He makes a very important point. But although we cannot attempt to stop the Bill, we can debate it properly, as we did with the
These Benches will not table wrecking amendments. However, my noble friend Lady Blatch outlined our very serious concerns regarding the compensation amendments. From what we have heard today it seems that the Government will have to reconsider the whole matter of compensation, as so many businesses and clubs will have to close. If this measure is a moral imperative, it would seem to be immoral to drive its blameless victims into bankruptcy.
Not only do we have the problem of bankruptcy; we also have one in the surrender scheme. The Minister's response to the Starred Question from my noble friend Lady Blatch was far from reassuring. We are told that the scheme will work well and on time. The reality is that the Home Office keeps changing the paperwork which is making it difficult for the police to ensure that they will be able to implement the scheme properly. For instance, documents from one force invite certificate holders to sign away their rights when there is no obligation to do so, as so well described by my noble friend Lord Haddington. If police forces had been given more time to consult and implement, they might have been able to avoid those pitfalls.
Although the various police forces are independent, as is the nature of our policing system and as was pointed out by the Minister at Question Time, one would expect some consistency in approach. However, impressions are mixed. One police force appears to be abusing Section 29(1) of the 1968 Act to impose a blanket condition on certificates by means of a letter that the holder attends with his hardware at a specific time--which happens to be within working hours--at the police headquarters only. That specific police force covers one of the largest counties in the land.
The attitude of the letter was extremely hard and authoritarian and not user friendly. There was no suggestion that alternative arrangements could be made. That contrasts with the pleasant letter from another force which explains the background, draws attention to the compensation scheme and asks the certificate holder to attend at a reasonably local police station. Furthermore, the letter makes it clear that alternative arrangements could be made.
Sadly, I am told that the chief constable of that force is abusing his position by refusing to grant variations to certificates which only relate to handguns. That means that the certificate holder will have to outlay another £75 or so if he would like to move to rifle instead of pistol shooting--a point picked up by my noble friend Lord Balfour. That does not sound either fair or efficient. Bearing in mind the Minister's comments at Question Time, does he feel that it is reasonable not to grant variations to a certificate?
The reason for the difficulties is that the Minister is attempting to impose the surrender scheme before it is properly developed and tested. Quite why officials have not devised a satisfactory scheme in the time available is a mystery. At Question Time the Minister pointed out that officials have had since February to perfect the scheme.
Not only are we faced with those problems; there is also a cash flow problem that goes to the heart of the Government's ethos on business standards. When we discussed the compensation order two weeks ago, the Minister was not as helpful as perhaps he would have liked to have been. I should like the Minister to commit himself to paying all claims within 30 days from receipt of the hardware, complete with valid claims, under both the 1997 Act and this Bill. That would fit in well with the Government's policy on business ethics. However, he may not be able to do that and I therefore ask this question, of which I have given notice. Will he pay all valid claims within 60 days of the end of the handing-in period or will it be by the end of the calendar year or perhaps the financial year?
My noble friend Lord Stockton mentioned the possibility of further firearms legislation. I hope that this is the last piece of firearms legislation that we see in this Parliament, for two reasons: first, it ignores the need for the holistic approach to which I referred earlier; secondly, I understand that there is no manifesto commitment to make further changes. In conclusion, we think this Bill a rotten one but will not oppose the principle.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions that have been made which have been full, detailed and often informed. I gather from the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, that he now supports the 1997 Firearms (Amendment) Act.
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