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Dunblane School Tragedy

Volume 570: debated on Thursday 14 March 1996

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3.34 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the Dunblane incident which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Statement is as follows:

"It is with profound sadness that I have to report on the tragic event that took place at Dunblane, which is within my constituency, yesterday. Honourable Members will understand the deep shock and distress afflicting the people of Dunblane. Our first thoughts must be with the families of those who have been killed and injured. Our deepest sympathies go out to them at this terrible time.

"The House will appreciate that police inquiries into the matter are continuing and therefore I shall confine my remarks to the facts surrounding the incident so far as they have been established. At approximately 9.15 a.m. on Wednesday, 13th March, an armed man, identified by police as Thomas Hamilton, entered Dunblane Primary School and opened fire on children and staff who were in the school gymnasium. Fifteen of the children who were shot and their teacher died within the school. One child died later in hospital. Three adults and 12 other children were wounded. The gunman shot himself and died within the school.

"As soon as I was informed of this dreadful event, accompanied by the honourable Member for Hamilton I went to Dunblane where we were joined by my honourable friend the Member for Aberdeen South. What we witnessed there encompassed both the worst and the best of which humanity is capable. In contrast to the stark evil of the crime, doctors, teachers, police, ambulance personnel and other caring professionals, Church leaders and volunteers worked unsparingly to save life and console the bereaved.

"In particular, I want to pay the highest possible tribute to Mr. Ron Taylor, headmaster of Dunblane Primary, for his heroic efforts to save the lives of his dying pupils in circumstances too harrowing to be recounted in detail. Honourable Members will wish to join me also in a tribute to Mrs. Gwen Mayor, the dedicated teacher who was gunned down in the midst of her charges. Mrs. Mayor was an exceptionally gifted teacher who had given 10 years' service to the school. Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to her husband Rodney and their two daughters. I would also like to extend the sympathy of the House to Aileen Harrild, the PE teacher, and to the teaching assistants, Mary Blake and Gwen Tweddle, who were all injured. Our teachers carry the immeasurable responsibility of moulding the character of the next generation. In this tragic case a teacher lost her life in the course of fulfilling that responsibility.

"I would also pay tribute to the Chief Constable of Central Scotland Police, William Wilson, and his officers, to the procurator fiscal at Stirling and to the medical teams supervised by Dr. Jack Beattie, as well as the staff in the hospitals at Stirling, Falkirk and Yorkhill who carried out their duties superbly in the most distressing circumstances. All the public services involved deserve the praise of the House and our recognition of the trauma that will continue to live with them.

"The Lord Advocate and I believe that this terrible tragedy should be fully investigated. We believe that it is desirable and necessary that an inquiry should be undertaken by a senator of the College of Justice, a senior Scottish judge. Lord Cullen, who conducted the public inquiry into the "Piper Alpha" disaster, has agreed to undertake this responsibility. The Lord Advocate plans to meet him and the Lord President of the Court of Session tomorrow to discuss the procedures the inquiry should follow.

"Her Majesty the Queen yesterday sent her condolences to all those affected by this unspeakable deed. The Queen and the Princess Royal have both expressed a wish to visit Dunblane as soon as circumstances make this appropriate and I can tell the House that they will be going there on Monday.

"Honourable Members will share my sense of the inadequacy of any attempt we in this House might make to offer consolation to the families devastated by this vile crime. The cold-blooded slaughter of tiny children is beyond atrocity. I know that I speak for the whole House when I say to the stricken families of Dunblane: our deepest sympathy and our prayers are with you and for you. You have the support of countless people around the world in your grief.

"Tomorrow night, the people of Dunblane will be holding a vigil for their dead, their injured, and their bereaved. I know I speak for the whole House when I say that the prayers and thoughts of all honourable Members will be with them. The whole nation mourns".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.39 p.m.

My Lords, the House will be aware that this is one of the saddest moments we have had in this House. I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement that was made in another place. We on these Benches and, I am sure, noble Lords on all sides of the House wish to endorse all that the Minister said in his words of sympathy to the people of Dunblane and in particular to the families bereaved by this appalling and evil event.

All of us who watched the coverage on television and who have read the reports in the newspapers would also wish to pay very special tribute to the emergency services—that is, the police, the ambulance service, the doctors and nurses—from all over central Scotland and beyond, and, indeed, to the people of Dunblane themselves and the staff at the school. It is appropriate that the Secretary of State should mention in particular the work of the headmaster of the school, Mr. Ron Taylor, in directing the efforts of the teachers.

All Scotland will await the outcome of the inquiry announced in the Statement. There will be general approval of the choice of Lord Cullen who has a very good reputation in such matters. We shall await the result with the devout hope that something can be learned from the horror of yesterday morning which will make it less likely that such a senseless and wickedly irrational massacre will ever he repeated.

My Lords, we on these Benches thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement. We share all the deeply sincere feelings expressed in it. It is always a sad matter when people are killed in such a manner; indeed, it is a sad moment when any child dies. The horror felt throughout the United Kingdom is very clear.

The facts of this terrible event are not yet fully known. It would therefore be inappropriate to speculate before a full inquiry has taken place. However, we do know that Dunblane is an area in which people seek to live. It is not generally a dangerous or inner city area with noted problems, so even greater is the shock of such a terrible event.

We know that those who are mourning today will find it even more difficult to carry through the normal processes of grief because, as has happened on other occasions where someone has killed a number of people, the person concerned turned the gun upon himself. Therefore the normal grieving process is made more difficult. I say that because when, for example, a child is knocked over by a lorry or a truck it is natural for people to feel resentment against the person responsible. In this case, the parents are deprived of that, and that further complicates the mourning process.

We know so little about crime, especially about this kind of awful event and what triggers people who are fragile in their personalities and who are driven to commit such awful crimes. All I can do is say again that we share in the terrible sorrow that follows the crime. When we know more about the event, we hope that we shall he able to concentrate on some of the things which become clear—for example, where guns are widely held in our society and where security is often lacking in places, not only where children gather but also in hospitals and so on. However, it would be inappropriate for me to follow that path now. It is a sorry day. Not only the people of Dunblane but also the people of the United Kingdom will be sad and grieving for many weeks to come.

My Lords, I thank both speakers for the thoughts they have expressed. I should like especially to thank the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, for the attention that he drew, like myself, to the many different emergency and caring services involved. I reiterate the point that I made in the Statement. When events such as this bring out the worst in humanity, we also see, at the other end of the scale, some of the most superb acts of consideration and humanity.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, also for his welcome of the appointment of Lord Cullen, the High Court judge who will lead the inquiry. He is of undoubted calibre and has a proven track record in delivering decisions and conclusions on awkward issues; so we have faith in him.

Both the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, suggested that lessons could well be learned. We agree. It would be fatal for those of us in this House or those beyond to jump to conclusions based on speculation and on unconfirmed evidence. But, through the good and skilled hands of Lord Cullen, we hope that what lessons there are to be taken on board will be identified as quickly as is sensible and that we will thus gain from them in that sense.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, described some of the complicated human emotions which are left behind by such an event. Indeed, even in the 24 hours since the event there has been ample evidence of the emotional carnage which can follow. The devastation to that community, and to all those who are left behind and who have either been helping or who have felt helpless, is really quite considerable.

It may be of some comfort to noble Lords if I stress that the social work department and the police have set up teams to support and counsel each family individually and that a crisis centre has been established for the community as a whole. Moreover, social work and psychology staff will be available for anyone in the town, or connected with the event. I should also point out that the Churches in Dunblane enjoy a healthy and energetic following. There is an overt faith which runs through the Dunblane community which is not seen in all communities. We hope that that will also provide the people of Dunblane with some of the strength that they will need.

3.47 p.m.

My Lords. I should, first, declare an interest as I am chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee. With the leave of the House, it may be of further assistance to your Lordships if I repeat a statement which my committee released at lunch time today. The statement reads:

"Our first thoughts today are for the bereaved parents and families in Dunblane and for all those who have been injured in this awful incident. We offer them our profound sympathy and support. We understand that the Crown Office in Scotland has instructed that a fatal accident inquiry should take place into the whole circumstances surrounding this incident. It would be inappropriate for the Firearms Consultative Committee (FCC) to express any views on these events in advance of the determination of that inquiry.

"Once the whole facts have been established they will be scrutinised by the FCC to determine if and where there is a need for amendment to firearms legislation or practice. The FCC was established by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 and its statutory function is to review the provisions of the Firearms Act and to make recommendations for improving their working. Some of the committee's recommendations have been enacted as legislation and other recommendations have been able to be put into effect without legislation".

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury for repeating that statement. Indeed, I believe that we are all grateful for the work that the Firearms Consultative Committee carries out in advising the Government on the progress of firearms legislation and any proposals for change that might be relevant.

My Lords, we have all been profoundly affected by the horrifying and tragic event at Dunblane. Our first thoughts of deep compassion must be for the families who have been bereaved; for the children who have been wounded and their families; for the school and its staff who have suffered in this grievous way; and, indeed, for the whole community of Dunblane. The whole nation shares in a sense of profound shock. Throughout the Churches we will be praying for the families and the community of Dunblane.

Many vivid images stay in our minds from this event. I try to imagine what it must have been like for the headmaster to come into a gymnasium and to find his primary class scattered, dead or dying. What an incredibly horrifying moment that must have been for him. Or, again, I think of the young mother outside the gate of the school crying out her daughter's name, not knowing at that time that her daughter was to be among those who had died. Those are searing and terrible images that will remain with us. We are left with a sense of young lives suddenly cut short, of the unexpectedness of death for those children and for their community, and a sense of waste. We are left struggling with questions of why, and the mystery of evil at the heart of our lives and our society. In the end all we can do is to pray that the God of infinite compassion and mercy will be with, and among, the people of Dunblane in their tragedy and grief. Will the Minister be willing to convey the profound sympathy of all Members of this House to the community of Dunblane and to the families who have suffered so grievously?

My Lords, indeed I shall convey that message, as expressed by the right reverend Prelate. I thank him for the way he articulated the emotions of all of us. He mentioned the profound shock that we all feel. I can only reiterate that the slaughter of innocent children, as in Dunblane yesterday, is a brutal tragedy.

My Lords, we on the Cross Benches ally ourselves with the sentiments expressed by the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and the right reverend Prelate. We, too, wish to convey our unbounded sympathy to the families of the children and the teachers who lost their lives or were wounded in this terrible incident. Particularly those of us who have children and grandchildren identify ourselves very much with them in their distress. We also convey our deep appreciation to all the public services whose members have risen so gallantly to the occasion at this sad time.

My Lords, I am grateful for the sympathy and appreciation expressed by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun. I agree that for those with children and grandchildren there is an especial pain in such an event, but I suggest that there are few, either within or beyond this House, who, if not parents or grandparents, are not uncles or aunts, or are not in some way connected with children.

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that all of us welcome the fact that there is to be a judicial inquiry into the circumstances of this incident? Is he also aware that none of us would take the view that it is sensible to reach any quick decisions on what changes of policy there should be consequent upon this tragic situation? Following what the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, said, is the Minister aware that there have been discussions between the Home Office—I am glad to see the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, here—and the Association of Chief Police Officers on the question of psychologically damaged people who possess firearms? Is the Minister aware that all of us hope that the discussions which have been taking place will proceed with the utmost speed?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for underlining the most important message of all, namely, that we do not rush into instant judgments until all the details and facts are known. As regards the second point, the Government are well aware of the discussions regarding the holding of firearms by those who may have a record of either psychological weakness or some criminal event in their lives which is not unconnected with that. This is a difficult and complicated area but the Home Office and other departments, and those with whom they are consulting, are seeking a solution to it.

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether or not the firearms used by Hamilton were legally registered on a firearms certificate? On the assumption that they were, given that Hamilton had been refused membership of a gun club, why, then, was he issued with a firearms certificate?

My Lords, the best course for all such detailed questions is to forward them to Lord Cullen who will consider them with the patience and the time that is required.