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Lord Howell: My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord. My special remark on Northern Ireland is to this effect. How on earth can we proceed down this path? If we pass the amendment, perfectly legitimate shooters would be subject to the most stringent restrictions which are totally in the hands of the Secretary of State who can say, "That cannot happen". For many years guns in Northern Ireland have been declared unlawful but with devastating effects, as we know, where we have been unable to control the situation.
I believe that the case is overwhelming. I support the amendment. As with disabled sports, I have spent a lifetime furthering the interests of the British Olympic Association. Perhaps I should decare an interest since I am a life member of that body. We support our Olympians around the world. I want the Olympic Games to come in this country. They are the greatest show on earth. I do not wish us to do anything which prevents the games from coming here. Although I shall probably not be here to enjoy them, I like to think that in the next century others who have supported sport in all its aspects will have that opportunity.
At this late stage, I beg the Government to consider the matter again and to say that they do not wish to harm the Olympic Games movement and the possibility of having the games here; that they do not want to confront the British Olympic Association; and that they do not want to make a farce out of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002. If that requires them to have a little more wisdom than perhaps they have shown and to consult people who have practical knowledge of the situation, I hope that they will do so. I have no high hopes that that will occur but I still urge it upon my noble friend.
I wish to make one point, and address it to the noble friends of those two noble Lords. Much has been made of the Labour manifesto. I gained the impression from the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that he did not pay quite as much attention to his own party's general election manifesto as I am sure the Chief Whip and others within his party would recommend.
Lord Henley: My Lords, that is a good point. I suspect that it would be true to say that we all pay little attention to what goes into manifestos and in particular those parts which are of no great concern to us.
However, I asked one of my noble friends to take the trouble to obtain the relevant part of the manifesto. I should remind the noble Lord and his noble friends of what the manifesto says on gun control. It makes it clear that there will be legislation to allow individual Members of Parliament--I presume that that means Members of this House as well; we are Members of Parliament, after all--a free vote for a complete ban on handguns. Therefore those noble Lords in the party opposite who feel that they are under the iron hand of their Chief Whip can rest assured that they have it on good authority, from the Labour Party manifesto itself, that they can vote according to their consciences on this matter. I hope that they will do so and will consider following the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, myself and others into the Division Lobby on the amendment.
Lord Swansea: My Lords, the issue will have a serious effect on British participation in international competition. If representatives of Great Britain are not allowed to take part in British competitions, it would be a serious blow to our international standing. Even if they have the money and facilities to train overseas, it would be extremely expensive to travel backwards and forwards to train regularly.
The Commonwealth Games will come to Manchester in 2002. We have been told that competitors from other countries will be able to bring their pistols into this country but that our own nationals will be unable to take part in those competitions. The same will apply to the Olympic Games if we ever have them again in this country, which is now doubtful. We shall be made the laughing stock of the whole world. I support the amendment.
As my noble friend Lord Howell said, I have discussed these matters with him during the Recess and I have not been persuaded by any arguments put forward. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, assisted my noble friend on the Northern Ireland point. It was a point raised earlier. I make the same rejoinder, if I may. Northern Ireland has always had separate firearms legislation and considers--I dare say it will further consider--firearms control separately.
My noble friend Lord Howell correctly cited my letter. But it was not a case of the Government coming slowly, reluctantly and lately to that conclusion. At col. 960 of Hansard of 15th July, I made it quite plain in your Lordships' House that the Government accepted that the introduction of the Bill into law would effectively mean the end of cartridge pistol shooting in this country. The Home Secretary has said that time without number. It is not, therefore, right to suggest that the Government have come late to this understanding. We have always said that that was the inevitable consequence. It may well be a regrettable consequence, but the Government's view unambiguously is that a total ban on handguns is necessary in the interests of public safety. The exceptions to the ban, which are already in the 1997 Act, introduced as a Bill by the previous government, are largely occupational; and they should remain. We do not accept that any other group of shooters should be exempt from the ban.
There is room for argument. The arguments have been rehearsed until there is little left to rehearse. Some noble Lords take the view that this measure is too draconian; we take the view that it is appropriate in the interests of public safety. It is quite plain that there will never be a bridge between us.
Perhaps I may deal briefly with the Commonwealth Games and any future Olympic or Paralympic Games. It is important not to be alarmist. The contract is already signed for the games in 2002 in Manchester. The contractual arrangements can be broken only if there is a natural disaster or lack of proper organisation. The Home Secretary can use his powers under Section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968, and they are important powers. They entitle him to grant special dispensation to competitors to take part in shooting competitions here. The Home Secretary has indicated that he will view with the utmost favour any application for a dispensation for Manchester; and I respectfully remind the Committee that it is understood that the Greater Manchester Police are content and satisfied that suitable arrangements can
We know already that the Home Secretary has used his authority under Section 5 of the 1968 Act. He was faced with an application relating to the 14th European police and pistol championships at Bisley. Overseas competitors needed the authority under Section 5. The Home Secretary, after appropriate consultation, granted that authority. It was not necessary at that time to grant authority to British competitors as the competition occurred in September, before the 1997 Act came fully into force.
It is not right to suggest that Britain can never again host an Olympic Games. There are various events in the Olympic Games in which this country does not compete. It has never been suggested that the fact that we do not compete in baseball, basketball, handball and softball will be a disincentive to a successful application for the Olympic Games in future.
We need to bear in mind that of the 28 Commonwealth shooting competitions the Bill affects only six; of the 15 Olympic shooting competitions the Bill affects three; and of the 15 Paralympic shooting competitions it affects only two.
Lord Monson: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will he explain why this country is considered by the Government to be the only one in Europe where it is necessary to ban pistols for reasons of public safety? Are we more vicious than people in other parts of Europe?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, we are not more vicious than people in other parts of Europe. We have had a recent experience in a small Scottish town which may be different from experiences in other parts of Europe. We have come to the conclusion--I do not mean "we" as a Government, but overwhelmingly "we" as a nation--despite what others elsewhere may choose to do, whether on the continent of Europe, North America, South America or wherever, that this is the way in which we wish to protect the public safety.
When a similar amendment was considered in another place, the voting was 328 to 159--a majority of 169. It is not a case of suggesting that the British temperament is unduly vicious. It is a case of coming to the conclusion that this is the proper way to safeguard public safety. I readily accept that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and I will never agree on that matter, any more than the noble Lords, Lord Pearson of Rannoch and the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and I will agree--although in some ways we start from similar premises. But we come to different conclusions. I respect the libertarian basis from which they begin. But the Government reach the conclusion that sometimes, when liberties clash, the liberties of some must give way.
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