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Cumbrian Shooting Incident

Volume 510: debated on Thursday 3 June 2010

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the shootings that took place yesterday in Cumbria. My right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Neville-Jones will make this statement in the other place.

I know that the whole House will want to join me in sending our heartfelt condolences to everybody touched by yesterday’s tragic events. In particular, our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those who were so senselessly killed and injured in the shootings. We also send our thoughts to the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed), who is in Cumbria today, in his constituency. He represents communities that have been touched by tragedy too many times in recent months—but they are strong communities and I know they will bear these sad events with dignity and fortitude.

I would also like to pay tribute to the police and emergency services. In my short time as Home Secretary I have been struck by the bravery, professionalism and sense of duty that police officers demonstrate every single day. Yesterday, the men and women of Cumbria constabulary—aided by the civil nuclear constabulary, neighbouring police forces and the other emergency services—showed these qualities in abundance. They have the support and admiration of the whole House as they go about rebuilding the lives of the people of Cumbria.

I spoke yesterday to Chief Constable Craig Mackey, and we talked again this morning. He has told me that his force is now conducting a full and thorough investigation to find out exactly what happened, how and why. More than 100 detectives have been assigned to the task. Their investigation will look into Derrick Bird’s history, his access to firearms and the motivations for his actions.

As I said yesterday, while the police investigation is ongoing, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on any details beyond what has been released by Cumbria constabulary, but I would like to tell the House what I can.

Twelve people were killed yesterday, in addition to Derrick Bird. There were 11 casualties who were being or have been treated in hospitals in Whitehaven, Carlisle and Newcastle. Of those, four are stable, four are comfortable and three have been discharged. The police are confirming the identity of those who died, and names are being released by Cumbria constabulary as and when formal identification is confirmed and immediate family have been informed. More than 30 family liaison officers have been working throughout the night to identify formally the 12 people who were killed and notify their relatives. The police investigation is being led by a major incident group from the police headquarters in Penrith, and there are 30 different crime scenes.

Derrick Bird’s body was located in woodland near Boot at around 1.40 pm yesterday. No shots were fired by police officers. At this stage, the police believe that he took his own life. Two weapons were recovered by police and are being examined by forensic experts. They are a shotgun and a .22 inch rifle fitted with a telescopic sight. Derrick Bird was a licensed firearms holder. He had held a shotgun licence since 1995 and a firearms licence for a .22 inch rifle since 2007. I can now tell the House that the police have confirmed to me that his licences covered the firearms seized yesterday.

I will visit Cumbria tomorrow, together with the Prime Minister, so that I can meet Chief Constable Mackey and other senior officers in person and make sure that they have all the support that they need to complete their important work. I can also announce today that I will, if necessary, provide additional funding for Cumbria constabulary through the police special grant facility.

I spoke this morning to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who has asked his Department’s emergencies management team to contact the local authorities involved to see what support and assistance they need. The Minister with responsibility for civil society, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), will talk to charities working in Cumbria and is looking at ways to provide them with extra support at a time when their work will be vital in helping the community to recover.

Undoubtedly, yesterday’s killings will prompt a debate about our country’s gun laws. That is understandable and, indeed, right and proper, but it would be wrong to react before we know the full facts. Today we must remember the innocent people who were taken from us as they went about their lives. Then we must allow the police time to complete their investigations. When the police have reported, the Government will enter into, and lead, that debate. We will engage with all interested parties and consider all the options, and we will make sure that hon. Members have the opportunity to contribute. I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about the best way to ensure that Members have such an opportunity before the summer recess.

Mass killings such as those that we saw yesterday are fortunately extremely rare in our country, but that does not make them any less painful, and it does not mean that we should not do everything that we can to stop them happening again, so where there are lessons to be learned, we will learn them, and where there are changes to be made, we will make them. But for now, let us wish the injured victims a speedy recovery, remember the 12 innocent lives that were taken, and pray for the families and friends left behind.

It seems perverse to welcome the Home Secretary to her first outing at the Dispatch Box, given the awful and tragic circumstances that have led to this unscheduled appearance, but we wish her well in her demanding job, and I thank her for providing me with a copy of her statement in advance. I join her in sending condolences to the families and friends of those killed yesterday, and we send our heartfelt hope that those who have been wounded recover from their injuries. As she says, the police and the emergency services have performed magnificently, and on behalf of those on the Labour Benches, I, too, pay tribute to the dedication and skill of those involved.

I appreciate that the Home Secretary’s ability to answer questions at this stage will be limited, given the ongoing police inquiries, so I will limit my remarks to a few areas on which I believe it may be fruitful to concentrate attention. As the Home Secretary said, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) is quite rightly with his constituents and cannot be with us in the House. I spoke to him yesterday and again this morning, and he makes the point that while we should not rush to change firearm laws, we should at least review them in the light of this case. Does the Home Secretary agree?

In particular, we may need to focus on the question of follow-up checks. Does the Home Secretary think that they are adequate, and does she agree that there may be a need for a greater role for GPs and the NHS? She will know that while there is a role for the applicant’s family doctor before a firearms certificate is issued, there seems to be little involvement thereafter to ensure that the certificate holder’s mental health, in particular, is not deteriorating.

Cumbria constabulary is, I know, an excellent force achieving excellent results. I am sure that it will be examining the whole question of response times and whether there was anything more that it could have done in the dreadful circumstances with which it was presented yesterday. As the Home Secretary says, such incidents are thankfully rare, but she will know that since the Mumbai massacre, our counter-terrorism capability has put in place strategies to deal with such an eventuality. Is she happy that the expertise and knowledge being assembled in this area is being disseminated across all forces, so that it can apply equally in a non-terrorist related incident, which is what the incident in west Cumbria appears to be? Does she think that a small, rural force such as Cumbria is properly equipped to deal with events that are more often predicted to happen in urban areas?

I was pleased to hear the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday about doing anything that he could to help Cumbria police, who have had to deal with a series of tragic events. The House will recall the death of PC Bill Barker last year in the dreadful floods that badly hit the area. I am pleased to hear about the help that the Home Secretary will provide through the special grant facility; that is indeed good news. Presumably, she is confident that it will cover all that Cumbria police need for the ongoing investigations, and indeed what they may need for counselling for those officers directly affected.

The Prime Minister also rightly praised the work of the NHS, and in particular West Cumberland hospital. My hon. Friends the Members for Copeland and for Workington (Tony Cunningham) have today written to the Secretary of State for Health—who, I am pleased to see, is present—about the uncertainty over future funding for that hospital. That needs to be resolved quickly; the hospital’s work is difficult enough at this time without those continuing problems.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland has asked me to express his thanks, on behalf of the community that he represents, for all the expressions of support that he has received from across the House. These are dark times for a strong and close-knit community, renowned for the beauty of its surroundings and the warmth and friendliness of its people. They will recover from these recent tragedies, but the help and support of everyone in this House and of those whom we represent will be essential to that process. The Home Secretary can certainly be assured of our support as she seeks to find answers to the questions raised by these tragic events.

May I first thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words of welcome to me in my new position, and for his closing remarks about the willingness of the Opposition to provide support as we take these difficult matters through the House? We will all be searching for answers that will help to ensure that such incidents cannot happen again, but as I said, and as he acknowledged, in the current circumstances there is a limit to the extent to which I can answer questions, and the extent to which any of us should jump to conclusions about what is necessary. However, as I said, that does not mean that once the full facts are available to us, we should not look at them and see what action can be taken. That covers a number of the issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised.

The right hon. Gentleman asked specifically about follow-up checks. As he acknowledged, there is involvement of GPs and, further, there is the issue of individuals who have particular medical conditions applying for a firearms licence. He raised a number of other issues, and asked about ensuring that police forces learn from the expertise that is being built up in the centre as a result of counter-terrorism work. Of course, there is always room for ensuring that good practice is spread across our police forces and for ensuring that they learn from experiences elsewhere.

As regards the proper equipment for the Cumbria force, I spoke to the chief constable on a number of occasions yesterday and this morning, and he has assured me that although there were issues with the force not having equipment available—it did not have a helicopter, for example—it was able to use a helicopter from the Lancashire force that was made available to it. It had offers of help from a number of forces, including Lancashire, Northumbria, North Yorkshire, and Dumfries and Galloway, and from the civil nuclear constabulary, to which I referred in my statement, and which is based at Sellafield. From what I have heard from the chief constable, I am confident that the force has had resources available to it, and indeed other forces are continuing to make resources available to it for the ongoing investigation.

This is, of course, an event the like of which Cumbria force has never seen before. The force has very low levels of crime and, obviously, a largely rural area to police, but I am confident that support has been provided by neighbouring forces, where they are able to help, and that will be ongoing.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned West Cumberland hospital, and my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary, who is present, has heard the points that were made, and is indeed aware of that hospital, having visited it himself.

I spoke to the hon. Member for Copeland yesterday. He has obviously been considerably shaken by the events in his constituency, as any Member would be, particularly in a tight-knit rural community such as he represents—and we should all pay tribute to the calm and measured way in which he has dealt with the incidents in interviews and in the other remarks that he has made.

The hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed), with whom I have been in touch, is of course in his constituency, but speaking on behalf of a neighbouring Cumbrian constituency, may I tell my right hon. Friend that we here in the House and elsewhere quite rightly express shock, but that in Cumbria this is something that touches every life? I also thank my right hon. Friend for the steps that she is taking. She speaks and acts for all of us.

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. That part of the country has been sorely hit by incidents in the past few months, but its people are people of fortitude who will, I am sure, come through, with their strength. However, they will need support, and we stand ready, through various Departments, to provide that support. Our thoughts are with all the people of Cumbria, who will have been deeply touched by those events.

After what has been described as the blackest day in Cumbria’s history, now is the time for people to grieve. However, will the Home Secretary assure me that everything that can be done will be done to help and support those communities affected, and that in time there will be the fullest inquiry?

The hon. Gentleman is correct about the impact on Cumbria. As I indicated in my statement, a number of Departments stand ready to provide extra support to Cumbria constabulary, local authorities and local charities, because the police investigation is not the only necessary process in this incident; many people who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) said, have been touched by the incident will require and look for support and help. We are making every effort to ensure that that is available through local authorities and other bodies that can be of genuine assistance to people.

The Labour Government in 2005 rather clumsily tried to force police forces together. However, Lancashire and Cumbria constabularies were willing to work together, in particular because of the difficulties in delivering protective services throughout the vast spaces of Cumbria and north Lancashire. Will the Home Secretary look again at merging protective services, or offer some support to allow that to happen, so that in future Cumbria and Lancashire can ensure that they get the best value and deliver the right policing to the right parts of the country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I am currently looking into those matters, and there is considerable benefit in greater collaboration between forces on protective services. As I said earlier, forces have been willing to support Cumbria constabulary, but there is a longer-term issue concerning protective services. My hon. Friend spoke of force mergers, and we were quite clear about opposing the attempts to merge forces. Some forces might look for voluntary mergers, and I would be willing to look at that, provided that it is the will of the local community. That is absolutely crucial.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her tribute to the Cumbrian people. Speaking as a new Cumbrian MP, and as a constituency neighbour of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed), I must say that her words will be very much appreciated up there. I also associate myself with her tribute, and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), to the work of emergency services.

At a time like this, and after seeing the tragedy that unfolded, we in the House feel the acute limitations of government, and the right hon. Lady is absolutely right that there must be a period of reflection, and indeed grief. However, will she assure us that in the Government’s consideration of the issue they will look not only at firearms legislation but at the capacity, such as there is, to review community mental health services in order to understand how an apparently reserved member of the community suddenly snapped and became capable of such evil deeds?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. The issue of mental health capacity might come out more fully as a result of the investigation, but as yet we cannot say exactly what caused that individual to undertake those actions. We must ensure that we know the full facts before we jump to conclusions. All I would say is that all parts of the House have for some time recognised the necessity for a wider debate about mental health in our society. As for the actions that could or should be taken as a result of what has happened, when we know the full facts we will genuinely look at this issue with a view to taking what action is necessary.

May I, on behalf of my party and all elected representatives from the north-west, associate myself with all the condolences and expressions of support for all those affected by these tragic events? That beautiful part of the country has been disfigured by inexplicable, senseless and horrible violence. Death has rarely seemed so arbitrary. I welcome the assurances and positive help from the Secretary of State, and I praise the actions of the emergency services and the many formal and informal networks that will surely be needed—but will the Secretary of State explain how a simple taxi driver could possibly justify the apparently lawful possession of such a formidable and devastating arsenal for such a time? What, if anything, can prevent such things from happening again?

I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that he invites me to go into details, and down a road, that at this stage I do not feel able to embark on. Indeed, it would not be right for me to do so. He raises a question that will doubtlessly be in the minds of many people who look at those events, but it is right for us to wait for the police investigation and for their presentation of the full facts. Then it will be possible for us to debate the issues that he raised in his question.

I thank the Home Secretary for coming to the House so soon to give us her statement, and I, like the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), other local MPs and the right hon. Lady, acknowledge how vital it is to establish the facts before we rush to judgment. However, while the police investigation is ongoing, will she look at one particular aspect of the matter, which may be unrelated to the circumstances but is related to firearms—the recommendation by the Home Affairs Committee in the previous Parliament on minimum sentences for those who possess firearms? I am sure that she will look at all the legislation and review everything, but in the meantime can she assure us that when we have the full facts she will return to the House with a full statement?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and I do intend to keep the House informed as further information becomes available and we have the full facts. As part of the coalition agreement, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice will undertake a review of sentencing policy, and I am sure that in that review the Committee’s report will be brought to his attention.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, should lessons need to be learned from this terrible tragedy about the adequate response times of armed rapid-reaction forces, they will be learned and implemented forthwith, not only in Cumbria but throughout the country?

I assure my right hon. Friend that when we have had an opportunity to look at the full facts of this case, we intend to learn any lessons that come out of it. On the issue to which he alludes, I have spoken to the chief constable about the reaction times that were available. My right hon. Friend, and others, will be aware that there are particular circumstances in Cumbria involving its geography, and the knowledge of the local area of the individual concerned in this incident, Derrick Bird. Of course operational matters are for the police, but I assure my right hon. Friend that if there are any lessons to be learned, they will be.

I thank the Home Secretary for her very measured statement. I do not think that words can really describe the horror of what happened yesterday. Does she agree that we already have the most stringent gun control laws in Europe, and that before making any changes, or doing anything that she thinks may be done, we should consider this in the widest and most measured way possible so that we do not stop people who legitimately use weapons for sport and in other legitimate ways, and do not have an automatic knee-jerk response? I very much welcome the fact that she wants to see all the facts before we make any decisions or even start to discuss this.

The hon. Lady is right that we have among the most stringent gun regulations in Europe. We must not respond immediately by taking a decision as to what is necessary, but wait until we know the full facts and then take the opportunity to look at the results of the police investigation, to consider what has happened in this incident and to ask ourselves whether there are lessons to be learned and whether we need to take further action. I am very clear that we must not have a knee-jerk reaction to this incident, but it is right to look at it properly in due course and take any decisions that are necessary. As I say, it would be my intention, subject to others, to provide an opportunity for Members of this House to debate these issues before the summer recess.

Does the Home Secretary accept that the vast majority of those in this country who enjoy shooting will share her dismay at the events in Cumbria and will want to send their condolences, too? I very much welcome her statement that she will resist calls for a knee-jerk response to these incidents and will bear in mind the interests of the many thoroughly responsible shooters who wish to continue to enjoy their sport.

I do indeed accept that, as my hon. Friend says, there are many responsible shooters in the UK who will have been as appalled by these events in Cumbria yesterday as everybody else was. As I indicated in my previous answer, it is right that we should have an opportunity to consider these issues, but we should do so only when we have the full facts—when the police have been able to investigate and we know as much as we can about the events that took place in Cumbria. We must not leap to conclusions before we have those facts.

The Home Secretary is absolutely right to say that today is a day for remembering the innocent victims. May I, on behalf of my party colleagues, extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those who have been murdered, and to the wider community in Cumbria as well? May I support the remarks of the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham), and other local Members, about the need for continuing help for the area to assist the police, statutory agencies and charities as they continue with their important work in helping the communities through this awful time?

Indeed. I think we all recognise in this House that there are two jobs to be done: one is the police investigation, but the other is the need to provide support to the local communities in Cumbria so that they can recover from the terrible tragedy that has occurred. It is right that we recognise that there is a role for central Government and for local government in that, but there is also a role for others, including charities, many of which will be best positioned and best able to offer the sort of support, counselling, advice and practical help that people will need.

Notwithstanding the strong legislation surrounding firearms at the moment, will the Home Secretary give an undertaking that she will not rule out the possibility of the complete prohibition of the private ownership of firearms as the best way of preventing such atrocities in future?

The hon. Gentleman is inviting me to do precisely what I have said that I will not do, and leap to conclusions. As I said, we will aim to give the House an opportunity to debate these issues, and I am sure that when that time comes the hon. Gentleman will want to make his views known to the House in rather fuller detail. At the moment, however, it is right, before we jump to conclusions, to wait until we know the full facts and can learn from what has happened.