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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the approach of my noble friend Lord Stoddart to this matter is that of the purist. He did not like the previous Bill introduced by the previous government and he does not like this one. I have acknowledged that I recognise his stance.
The fact is that we are dealing now with two amendments and not, as some speeches seemed to indicate this afternoon, with the principle of either Bill. When this Bill came to this House in June from another place, we were all well aware of the enormous strength of feeling for a complete ban on handguns. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, pointed out only this afternoon, as did other noble Lords, on a free vote held on 11th June in another place there was a majority of 203 votes in favour of such a ban. Both the amendments today are utterly at odds with the strength of views of the other place. I shall be obliged to speak twice, but some of the remarks I make on this first amendment may be relevant to both.
I venture to suggest that this is a matter of serious constitutional importance. The Government have never intended deliberately to disadvantage disabled shooters by this Bill. Our intention is that of consistency. I am told that there are around 374,000 registered disabled people, all of whom under this amendment would be eligible to apply for a firearms certificate. It is impossible to say how many would wish so to apply, but our position is plain--as plain as the position adopted by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart.
Our position is that we do not wish to see exemptions for any groups of target shooters. Those who have previously legally used target pistols must change to other firearms if they wish to continue to practise the sport. I appreciate that there are differences between the different disciplines. I pay tribute to the contribution made by Lord Crawshaw on another occasion, and I indignantly repudiate that I treated him with any disrespect; quite the opposite. I am happy to say, as I did then, that his contribution was moving and informed. Nevertheless, it did not persuade my mind.
As I have said on earlier occasions, I appreciate that some disabled shooters may have difficulty in switching to long barrel firearms; not everyone will enjoy shooting with air pistols or muzzle loading pistols. I do not accept that any therapeutic value that handguns may bring to some disabled shooters, or the sense of well-being, which I recognise, that success in international target pistol shooting competitions may bring to both disabled and able bodied competitors, can outweigh the enormous benefits of removing handguns from our society. We believe that the benefits of this ban to public safety cannot be overestimated. The lessons from Dunblane and Hungerford must never be forgotten.
Of course the Government will keep under review this Bill, should it become law, as well as the earlier Act which our predecessor government introduced, and indeed firearms legislation in general. It is the Government's duty to ensure that all new and existing controls are necessary. If they are not, we shall need to bring back to this House in due course further legislative proposals for change.
As far as concerns this amendment, I believe that the right step for this House is not to insist upon it. When the House divided on the amendment at the Report stage, there was a majority of only 19 votes in favour of its addition to the Bill. This amendment was rejected by another place last week by 136 votes, on, I respectfully remind your Lordships, a free vote. It is a very clear message from the elected Members of the other place on this issue. Given that strength of view, and expressing as I do the regard I have for this place, though I have been here for fewer years than many of your Lordships, I respectfully suggest that this unelected House might now agree with the elected Members of that other place.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I fear that I must take a few minutes to reply to the debate. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in it, on whichever side of the argument they may have been. It has been a good debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked whether we are prepared to set aside the view of the Commons in a matter which has been put before the electorate at a general election. As I explained--and I repeat--the manifesto states clearly that there will be a free vote;
With regard to the constitutional side of the argument, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, put the matter absolutely right. He said that there was no constitutional reason why we should not insist on amendments. Indeed, he cited the precedent of your Lordships insisting on academic freedom. Your Lordships were right to insist on academic freedom. Why, then, are we taking away the freedom of disabled pistol shooters to continue with the sport they have enjoyed for a long period of time? If it is right to insist on an amendment for one freedom, it must be right for another freedom.
I very much appreciated the tribute of the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, to Lord Crawshaw. We are extremely sorry that he has passed away. The noble Lord mentioned 386 handguns that had been stolen. That is very small beer. I have to tell him that those handguns were stolen from individuals, not from secure accommodation, where the pistols of disabled people would be held. Furthermore, he must take into account that Lord Cullen, who heard all the evidence, did not recommend a total ban on handguns. If we are citing Cullen, let us take account of what he said. He did not want a total ban on handguns.
My noble friend Lord Ewing made an interesting speech. He gave a moving review of what happened in Dunblane and of Hamilton's background. In fact, he confirmed more than anyone else has done, because of his close knowledge of the situation, that the massacre at Dunblane was the result of the warped mind of a single individual and not because of handguns generally held. He confirmed in one short speech everything that those of us who have been opposed to the legislation have been saying--that is, Dunblane was the act of a madman and handgun owners should not therefore be collectively punished because of him. I thank my noble friend Lord Ewing for confirming that, although I regret that I shall not be having his support.
The noble Lord, Lord Henley, is ducking out of it. That sums up what is wrong with the Opposition. They have no guts. That is what is wrong. I hope they will soon recover their guts. The British constitution depends on strong government and on a decent and strong Opposition. I am sorry that the noble Lord has not seen fit to recommend to his noble friends that they support the Motion.
The noble Earl, Lord Stockton, asked my noble friend the Minister, who is a decent and gentle man, how many illegally held handguns there are. It was noticeable that my noble friend did not reply. He could not reply because he does not know. There are tens if not
My noble friend says that I am a purist. What is wrong with being a purist? Does anyone find anything wrong in that? He says that he is a purist, too. That makes two of us. I did not expect that he would support my Motion, although people are sometimes converted on the road to Damascus or elsewhere. However, I fear that he was not.
When, under the previous Tory Government, we were dealing with the Firearms (Amendment) Bill and I was on the other side of the House I said that noble Lords should insist on their amendments. It would be seen as hypocritical if I did not do the same now with a Labour Government--my own Government--in office. There is too much hypocrisy around at the present time and I am not prepared to add to it. I ask the House to insist on their amendment to which the Commons have disagreed.
Resolved in the negative, and Motion disagreed to accordingly.