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Firearms (Amendment) Bill Money (No 2)

Volume 128: debated on Tuesday 1 March 1988

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11.48 pm

Queen's Recommendation having been signified

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Douglas Hogg)

I beg to move,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of sums required by the Secretary of State for making payments in respect of property the possession of which becomes unlawful as a result of that Act.
The House will know that in Committee on 9 February I announced that the Government had decided on a buy-in scheme. The money resolution is an implementation of that commitment, and it is couched in very wide terms to enable hon. Members to raise any points that they think proper.

The Government's view is that payment under the scheme should be confined to weapons surrendered or otherwise disposed of by persons who lawfully held them on certificate immediately before 22 September 1987, and which will become prohibited by clause 1(2) of the Bill. For people who have already sold such weapons, we shall be ready to pay the difference between the price that they received and the level fixed under the buy-in scheme. It is not our view that the scheme should extend to dealers. Government amendments to the Bill, including an enabling clause, have already been tabled.

I am not yet in a position to give firm proposals on the details of the buy-in scheme. The Government's underlying aim is to introduce a scheme based on a fair price which bears a reasonable relationship to second-hand values in early September 1987.

It is likely that we shall operate a two-tier approach, inviting the choice by the claimant between a flat rate sum or individual claims, with evidence of purchase price or insurance value.

I must stress that a buy-in scheme has been agreed because of the unique circumstances involved; individuals are being prohibited from holding articles that they were expressly authorised to hold prior to the announcement.

11.50 pm

The Minister has been commendably brief, and uncharacteristically modest. I hope that the House will accept that this is a victory for the House of Commons and for Members of Parliament. The majority of the members of the Committee insisted on an opportunity, denied them by the earlier money resolution, to discuss possible compensation for those whose weapons now held legally would become illegal under the Bill. I marvel that the Minister did not acknowledge that. I am doing my best to resist the temptation to gloat at his embarrassment at this humiliating climbdown over payments to owners of weapons that will become illegal under the Bill.

The hon. Lady says that it is democracy. I do not argue with her, and I welcome it. However, it would have done the Minister more good if, in his brief introduction to the new money resolution, he had acknowledged that. I say, in no partisan sense and irrespective of the fact that we are in opposition at present, that the Standing Committee on this Bill has been one of the rare Committees to behave as I believe Committees on Bills should. The issues were debated, and the Minister was defeated. The Minister has now responded, and I make no complaint about that.

On Second Reading, the Minister and his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that they would listen. The Minister was on a steep learning curve in that debate, because every Conservative Back Bencher who spoke—perhaps bar one—got at his throat about the absence of a compensation scheme for weapons that are to be declared illegal. More important—this is my complaint to the Minister, who wound up the Second Reading debate—when I came to wind up for the Opposition and said that Labour was prepared to listen and think again about compensation, the Home Secretary intervened from a sedentary position to say, as reported in column 1180 of Hansard for 21 January 1988, "That is a change."

By the way, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I do not know whether you have any authority over this matter, but when I went to the Vote Office earlier tonight to get that copy of Hansard, I discovered that it is out of print. We have had enough trouble getting the reports of the proceedings of the Standing Committee. Quite apart from hon. Members, those outside who are trying to follow what we are doing and who go along to the HMSO to try to buy copies of Hansard are now denied them.

Under heavy pressure from his hon. Friends behind him, the Minister was needlessly rude at the end of the Second Reading debate. He refused to deal with the constructive points that we had put to him, and at one stage there were complaints that he was turning his hack on the Opposition Front Bench from the Dispatch Box. I hope that he has learnt from that, as surely as he is learning from—

Order. Let us not have a debate about a past debate. The motion is the one on the Order Paper. That is what we should be discussing.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It does not matter that I welcome the new money resolution; the whole House will welcome it, because it is a proper Government response to the views of members of the Committee. The Opposition have been arguing for more effective control of firearms, and we want it to happen. We claim no credit—the Minister said that we were trying to do so—because we share the view that the public are entitled to a proper assurance of public safety, alongside the rights of those who shoot as part of their jobs, or for leisure or sport.

I do not suggest for a moment that this is the right time of night to discuss the matter, but the buy-in scheme raises a number of questions. I understand that the Minister cannot go into the details tonight, and the second money resolution that he has now laid enables the Committee to debate the subject properly. I feel, however, that lie owes the House an explanation of the difference between a buy-in scheme and compensation. The money resolution talks about making payments. That is wide, and I do not complain about it. But on what basis will the payments be made? How will the value be decided, and by whom? Why has the date of 22 September 1987 been decided on?

I have a suspicion, which I believe will be shared by some of the Minister's hon. Friends, that the real difference between compensation and the buy-in scheme is a silly obsession on the part of the Government, who wish to avoid acknowledging the will of the Committee. I do not say that lightly. The Committee came to a view, and the Government have had to respond. I see nothing wrong with the Government, in the shape of the Minister, acknowledging that.

Perhaps, if he is able to speak again, the Minister will let us know exactly what the buy-in scheme involves. Does it refer to the purchase price, and, if so, is that the price on the date when the weapon was bought? Does it refer to the insured value, or— as the Minister suggested— to the notional market value on 22 September 1987? In the interests of the House and Back Benchers, it is important that we agree the money resolution— I make no bones about it— so that our Committee can debate and decide this important issue.

Some very wide doors may be opened. The Minister has said that he has no idea at present what the buy-in scheme will cost. There is, I believe, a way of avoiding heavy payments to owners of firearms which are to be made illegal, without in any way weakening the Government's attempt — which we support — to introduce more effective control of guns. If the Minister will consider again restricting the capacity of self-loading rifles to carry more than three or perhaps five shots within the weapon without reloading, that will dispose of the argument about whether proper control is possible of the capacity of magazines and their interchangeability. I am advised that that is technically possible and it avoids the difficulties of trying to place restrictions on magazine box capacity.

We welcome this new, wider resolution, not in a narrow or party sense, but on behalf of all hon. Members, whatever their opinion about the Bill. The resolution will enable us to discuss this extremely important matter upstairs and to decide upon a matter upon which, earlier, the Government said we could not decide.

12 midnight

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak after the grudging and ungracious speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett).

I am grateful to the Minister for accepting the representations that were made to him by many hon. Members. I wrote to my hon. Friend about this matter when the Bill was introduced and I have discussed it with him many times. I am glad that my hon. Friend listened to people who put a case to him. It is extremely grudging of the Opposition not to accept the money resolution in that spirit.

There is only one matter that I wish to raise with my hon. Friend. He used the words, "not dealers". There are a number of genuine collectors who, to avoid having to change their licences every time they buy a weapon, have become part-time dealers. All sorts of people operate as part-time dealers and I hope that the Minister will consider their cases so that those dealers, who earn their livings in other ways, are not penalised and are able to take advantage of the scheme.

12.2 am

I do not wish to detain the House for long at this time, but I would like to welcome the money resolution and the Minister's explanation.

I do not consider the resolution to be the humiliating climbdown to which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) referred. It is a sensible recognition of the considerable body of opinion, inside and outside the House, that greeted the publication of the Government's proposals. On Second Reading I believe that virtually every hon. Member who contributed made reference to the issue of compensation. In the Minister's defence—if he needs me to defend him—it should be noted that, throughout that debate, he made it clear, as did the Home Secretary, that the Government were willing to reconsider the matter of compensation. For that reason I believe that it would be rather grudging to do other than welcome the resolution now before the House.

The resolution is a recognition of the legitimacy of those who held weapons under the law as it stood. Special circumstances attach to the changes to the law now proposed by the Government and under those special circumstances compensation is a proper thing for the Government to consider and to implement. For those reasons, I believe that the resolution should be warmly accepted by the House.

12.3 am

I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Minister for introducing the money resolution. In fairness it should be said that, despite all the comments that were made when the Government introduced the White Paper and on Second Reading, it seemed most unlikely that we would achieve a money resolution and compensation. It is only in the face of a failed sittings motion that we now have the money resolution and the possibility of debating in Committee either amendments to clauses or new clauses that will introduce the essential compensation. I am somewhat mystified about the difference between buy-in and compensation. There must be some subtle reason for the Government to have changed the wording from compensation to buy-in during the past week or two. I suspect there may be some Treasury small print that no doubt will be elucidated later.

The only point that I wish to make—I have hated having to say this innumerable times—is that all this could have been saved had there been proper consultation during September, October and November with the British Shooting Sports Council. Perhaps in future there will be such contact with the equivalent of an expert committee that can advise the Minister of the hazards that the Government will face if they proceed with such legislation. That is why there have been so many subsequent changes.

I am glad that the Minister accepted so many amendments. I hope that there are more to come. I welcome what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) said about a compromise on self-loading rifles with perhaps a magazine of three or five rounds so that—

Order. We cannot anticipate the debate that may take place in Committee. We have to deal with the motion on the Order Paper and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will address himself to that.

The point is that it will substantially reduce the amount of money required in the money resolution if the Minister is able to accept my proposals. There would be savings for the Government and for many frustrated riflemen throughout the country if that were to happen.

I reiterate that I welcome the fact that the Government have moved the money resolution and look forward to debating the subsequent amendments to the Bill in Committee.

12.6 am

I merely want to point out that the money resolution exists because of a deficiency in the debate on 21 January. I well recall the horrified looks on the faces of the Minister and other Conservative Members when I stood up to debate the money resolution. As I said then, and as I say frequently, money resolutions should not go through on the nod.

As the debate on 21 January proceeded, it became transparent that the original money resolution was insufficient for the compensation scheme that the Minister said he would introduce. We said so on many occasions. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) also said so, but (did not think too much about it as he voted for the money resolution on 21 January.

The Opposition opposed that resolution as a gesture. As I recall, we did not intend to do so, but we said that the money resolution was inadequate, and that it reflected hasty legislation and inadequate consultation and that if the Government were to withdraw the money resolution and think again, we would be prepared to support a proper money resolution which covered a compensation or buy-in scheme—whatever the term. We knew what we were talking about, but the Minister, far from readily acknowledging the error of his position, refused to concede that there was any deficiency and, as I recall, attempted to bluster his way through, with a few sneers thrown in for those of us who were intent on helping the House by drawing attention to the deficiencies of the money resolution.

I am sure that the Minister will not begrudge me the opportunity to say "I told you so on 21 January". It is a case of the biter bit. I hope that the House will take money resolutions seriously. The House very often shoves through money in great quantities on the nod.

On 21 January, I was asking about the extent of the Government's expected revenue from the increase in fees, for the cost of administration which they were preparing with legislation. The Minister was not able to answer me, because the Government had not thought enough about the expenditure involved, and that is why we are here tonight.

I am pleased that the Minister has taken note of the representations, principally of Opposition Members, and of the subsequent representations in Committee. I think that he now recognises that he was a bit quick-tempered on that occasion. Further contemplation of the matter has led him to introduce the money resolution that we said on 21 January was necessary.

12.9 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on what he said. Unfortunately, I did not speak in the Second Reading debate. I did not think then and I do not think now that compensation is necessary. The reason why I am sure that what my hon. Friend has said is correct is that there has been a big public outcry and a demand for compensation, largely stirred up by many hon. Members on both sides of the House who have had representations made to them by organisations that are financed by the trade.

The arms market is international. My hon. Friend has announced that from the relevant date there is to be a floor for such transactions. It should be no more than a floor; it should not be a costly exercise. The order should not prevent dealers from offering the full market value for surrendered weapons. There are ready buyers overseas for weapons that are surrendered here, but can still be used legally abroad. What my hon. Friend has done is circumspect and correct, but I trust that it will not cost a great deal of money.

12.11 am

It is regrettable that under our system it is difficult for the Government to adopt a new view once they have drafted their legislation. Whether by choice or under duress, the Government have very wisely changed their mind. I welcome the new clause.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Minister was unable to spell out in more detail the terms of payment. That is crucial to the support that he can look for in Committee from some of his hon. Friends. In its wisdom the Committee removed clause 7 from the Bill. That considerably reduces the cost, because weapons that have been altered will not now return to their original category and need not be purchased by the Government. I hope that when new clause 1 is debated we shall be able still further to reduce the cost to the public purse. I am sure that my hon. Friend will listen with care to our arguments during that debate.

The Bill was a knee-jerk reaction to the sad and tragic events at Hungerford. Compensation will be paid for rifles that are hardly ever used in criminal activities. Out of 9,500 crimes in 1986 that involved weapons, fewer than 60 involved rifles of any sort—0.6 per cent. The idea that this legislation will reduce the use of firearms in crime is erroneous. My hon. Friend did not persuade me or anybody else who listened to the Committee proceedings of the rightness of his case.

The legislation was hasty and ill thought out and will not carry out the Government's perfectly reasonable objective of reducing crimes of any description.

12.15 am

Like many other hon. Members, I do not wish to prolong the debate unduly, but I hope that the money resolution will be endorsed. I think that it is rather unfair of hon. Members, on whichever Benches they may sit, to beat my hon. Friend the Minister about the head over this matter, because he made the position quite clear on 21 January, when he said:

"my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are not so arrogant as to assume that the Bill is necessarily perfect."— [Official Report, 21 January 1988; Vol. 125, c. 1182.]
Throughout the Committee proceedings, and indeed before the Committee even sat, my hon. Friend made it clear that the Bill would not necessarily pass through the Committee intact. So those who feel that they are brandishing great swords on behalf of whatever lobby are perhaps deluding themselves, if not deluding the lobby they seek to represent.

I do not think that the money resolution need be seen by my hon. Friend as a climbdown but he might perhaps wish to spell out to the House in terms of the new clause that will follow the money resolution exactly what the difference will be between weapons that are surrendered and those that are otherwise disposed of. I think that many hon. Members would be happy to see the taxpayer pay justified compensation for the surrender of firearms, but they might be less enthusiastic about seeing that money simply paid out on the basis of "otherwise disposed of" firearms, which is the term used in the Government new clause that was tabled today.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to make that clear to the House.

Order. The House cannot substitute itself for the Committee. The House must address itself to the motion on the Order Paper.

12.16 am

I just want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister one question, as I understand that he may catch your eye again, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The buy-back scheme will apply to firearms. What about the equipment on the firearms? My hon. Friend will know that there are certain types of guns for which sights are expensive accoutrements intrinsic to the design and cost those who own them a good deal of money. I have had representations from various people, not least very senior shooters in the police service, who are anxious to know whether the compensation scheme covers the additional pieces of equipment that are integral to the firearm and have no value if they are removed from the weapon.

This is the time to look forward, and not back, but I would like to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset and Frome (Mr. Boscawen), the Government Whip on the Standing Committee, how grateful I am that he has obviously conveyed to the Chief Whip and the others who run the machinery of government in this place the importance of the money resolution having come to the House in time for the Committee to be able to complete its work in the knowledge that the Government have taken this difficult decision. I am grateful to those who have made it possible for the Committee to complete its work more effectively than would otherwise have been the case.

12.17 am

I am very grateful to hon. Members who have spoken in this debate for the unanimous support which I have received. It is rather refreshing, and a bit of a change. I am particularly grateful for the support that I have received on this occasion from my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin). That was refreshing too, and a bit of a change.

I found myself in very considerable agreement with what my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Conway) had to say about this matter, and I am grateful to him for his support. This is not a humiliating climbdown at all. In the course of the Second Reading debate, the Home Secretary and I made it perfectly plain to those who had ears to hear that we were reconsidering our attitude. The money resolution that we have laid before the House now is a reflection of that position. So I do not regard it as a humiliating climbdown. I am a realist, but I am not humiliated on this occasion—perhaps on other occasions, but not on this one.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) asked about dealers. It is not our intention, at least at the moment, to make any payments to dealers, basically because dealers are in a position to export and the international market price remains sound. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to make a sensible distinction, either in law or in logic, between those who are whole-time dealers and those who choose to make themselves dealers in law but are not whole-time. That was their choice, and it is very difficult to make a distinction between them.

I am following the logic carefully. Will the Minister not agree that, while it is their choice, it was their choice at the time when possession of those weapons was perfectly legal in this country, and that dealers, be they full-time, part-time or whatever, are just as much caught in the web as the individual who owns one weapon? If we pass the legislation, dealers, especially part-time dealers, will be caught with the weapons in their hands and they will not be able easily to dispose of them.

That is a fair debating point. It is one of the reasons why we have drawn the money resolution in such wide terms. We have not by its nature excluded any argument or proposition that hon. Members choose to debate. The money resolution is widely drawn, so precisely the kind of point advanced by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) can be advanced.

But it seems to me that there is a difference between an individual who holds weapons in his individual capacity and a person who holds them in the capacity of a dealer. A dealer is in business, and there are always trades and hazards associated with being in business.

Furthermore, as I think the hon. Gentleman will accept, there remains a strong international market. Those who are in trade as gun dealers are in a much better position to dispose of weapons on the international market than are individuals who hold guns in their capacity as individuals. So, although I expect to debate such issues, I say to the House that the Government's present intention is not to extend the scheme to cover dealers, whether whole-time or part-time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) asked about equipment. This is a very difficult question, because some items of equipment are attached to the gun itself, whereas others, which might very well have been purchased to be used with that weapon, are not attached to the gun itself. Again I find it difficult to make a distinction either in law or in logic between the two classes of equipment. My present view is that the buy-in policy should extend to the gun. I suppose that it is possible that one could in logic extend that also to the bits which are fixed permanently to a gun. One could argue that they became the gun, but these are the kind of questions that we will have to consider in the context of what has been said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham understandably asked what we mean by "otherwise disposed of". To him I give this answer: for people who have already sold weapons, we shall be ready to pay the difference between the price they received and the level that will be fixed under the buy-in scheme.

Hon. Members have asked what the difference is between compensation and a buy-in policy. I am not sure that there is a difference. What we are doing is buying in guns. That is why we have called it a buy-in scheme. In one sense that is compensation; in another sense it is not. Compensation could be said to extend to compensation for loss of use, for example. We do not intend to do that. What we intend to do is to buy in guns. If there be a distinction of importance, I rely on the phrase "buy in" rather than on the phrase "compensation".

This has been a happy debate, because I have received such support. I commend the money resolution to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of sums required by the Secretary of State for making payments in respect of property the possesson of which becomes unlawful as a result of that Act.