Lords inflict triple defeat on Tories over guns ban

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Indy Politics
The Government suffered a triple defeat in the Lords last night over its plans to crack down on handgun ownership after the Dunblane massacre.

First, the pro-shooting lobby succeeded by 153 votes to 139 in forcing through an amendment to the Firearms (Amendment) Bill allowing handgun owners to keep their weapons at home, provided the working parts are kept separately at secure gun clubs.

Later, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, suffered another rebuff to his plans when a Liberal Democrat bid to compensate gun-dealers hit by the ban on high-calibre handguns was carried by 121 votes to 110. According to official sources, this could increase the compensation bill from pounds 150m to pounds 500m.

The Government was again defeated when peers insisted by 57 votes to 53 that the Bill should provide for a centralised police register of licensed fire-arms holders. The third defeat came despite an assurance from ministers that the Government intended to set up a register.

The Government was, however, successful in defeating by 56 votes a Tory backbench move to increase the maximum calibre of permitted handguns from .22 to .32.

The Bill, which has already cleared the Commons, proposes to ban all high-calibre handguns and to restrict lower calibre .22 pistols to secure gun clubs. Ministers will try to reverse both report-stage defeats when the measure returns to the Commons, and they seem certain to get Labour support.

Mr Howard had already suffered one setback for the Bill before last night's triple-whammy. Last month, at the Bill's committee stage, peers voted by 158 to 135 for compensation to be paid to gun clubs forced to close by the Bill. On that occasion, 86 Tories voted against the Government and only 79 for.

Tonight's first defeat came despite insistence from Home Office minister Baroness Blatch that the proposed "disassembly" of weapons would be unworkable - and support for the Government from 40 Labour peers.

Labour, which officially had a free vote, had a two-line whip on peers to attend on the basis that whatever was decided would later be reversed by Government and Opposition MPs in the Commons.

Lord Graham, Opposition chief whip in the Lords, said: "We support the Government in resisting these changes in the Bill. There were about 40 Labour peers in the Government lobby on each occasion.

A Home Office spokesman said after the first defeat: "The Government is going to seek to reverse this amendment in the Commons. It is one of the main principles of the Bill that higher calibre handguns should be prohibited and that no handguns should be kept at home."

Michael Yardley, spokesman for the Sportsman's Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, welcomed the defeat, insisting it would be cheaper and safer to allow people to store disassembled weapons in their own homes. "I would like to see it extended to all pistols. The Government's Firearms Bill was predicated on false information that disassembly was not practical," he said.

"Disassembly in 99 per cent of cases is both practical and quick. The Lords have taken notice of the experts' evidence and highlighted the error in the Government's case."

However, Jacqueline Walsh of the Snowdrop Petition, campaigning for a total ban on handguns, said the Lords' first amendment was "unacceptable" and must be reversed.

She said last night: "We had been led to believe by information from various gun organisations that a lot of the bits which you remove are easily replaced and easily obtainable. This isn't going to protect public safety."