The Lords shoot themselves in the foot

In their debate on gun control, hereditary peers inadvertently provided lethal ammunition for their own abolition
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Once again Tory peers are starting to make trouble for Michael Howard. Hurray, perhaps you think. Haven't the Lords repeatedly softened some of the sharper and most illiberal edges of Howard's law and order reforms? Not this time. Last Monday's second reading debate on the Firearms (Amendments) Bill, introduced in the aftermath of Dunblane, exposed the backwoods strength of the hereditary peerage in all its naked splendour. The Earl of Strafford withdrew his hostile amendment on the Bill - but only on the clear understanding that he and his colleagues will press for detailed changes to it in the new year. Those doubting that House of Lords reform is worth the fuss could do worse than have a look at Monday's Hansard.

There were 31 speakers in all. Of these, eight, including the Home Office minister Baroness Blatch and the two opposition frontbench spokesmen Lord McIntosh and Lord Rodgers (all three are life peers) spoke either in favour of the Bill or of an even tougher ban. Five were equivocal, and 18 were outright critics of the Bill, almost entirely on the grounds that it tampered with the legitimate rights of recreational shooters. Of those 18, one was Labour, the Euro-sceptic scourge of his own front bench, Lord Stoddart; one, Lord Thurso, was the only Liberal Democrat to attack the basis of the Bill; and two, Lord Craig of Radley and the former Law Lord, Lord Ackner, were crossbenchers. The other 14 were all Conservatives. And of these, all but one, the landowner and former journalist Lord Marlesford, were hereditary peers. (Of these, nine - like Lord Marlesford - went to Eton.)

The Government's legislation went further than Lord Cullen's report, in proposing a total ban on all handguns of over .22 calibre - though not as far as Labour and the Liberal Democrats wanted. It is perfectly legitimate for peers to question whether it would have been better for the Government to stick to Lord Cullen's recommendations. It is equally reasonable to argue that laws passed on a wave of emotion aren't always the best laws.

But faith in the Lords as a cool-headed revising chamber is scarcely reinforced by a reading of the arguments deployed in Monday's debate. Here, for example, is the Earl of Shrewsbury, Tory chairman, no less, of the Firearms Consultative Committee, the independent body set up in 1988 to advise the Home Secretary of the day on firearms legislation: "It is a very great pity that both [Thomas] Hamilton and [Michael] Ryan [the Hungerford killer] committed the atrocities with legally-held weapons. The problem does not lie with those who legally hold weapons. The problem lies with the millions of illegally-held weapons ..." The logic of this argument is genuinely baffling. What exactly is "the problem" that the noble Earl is talking about here? What about "the problem" of the massacres perpetrated by Ryan and Hamilton? Nobody knows for sure that they wouldn't have carried out some dreadful crime if they hadn't been able to get weapons legally. But no one knows for sure that they would, either.

Here, too, is the Earl of Haddington, gun-club member. Like many of the speakers he talks touchingly of his "appalling shock" as the father of three small children at the horror of Dunblane. But he goes on to describe affectionately how his father's gamekeeper "stressed the aspects of safety in no uncertain manner" when he taught him to shoot as a boy and then proceeds to question the planned ban on the use of dumdum bullets for .22 handguns on the grounds that rabbits will suffer "agony" when they are shot with inferior ammunition. Lord Balfour, who also rails against this "emotive, panic Bill", shares with their Lordships his youthful apprenticeship with the "estate gamekeeper" - as if the main danger from handguns was carelessness by poor peasants who aren't properly taught to use them - and quotes approvingly the estimate by Brian Carter of the Gun Trade Association that a "reasonable compensation pay-out" would be pounds 1bn rather than the pounds 150m currently on offer from the Government. Lord Gisborough describes the Bill as a "waste of public money" and holds the mass media, rather than lethal weapons, to blame for the current "harvest of gratuitous violence, road rage and sexual deviation". And Lord Swansea, with all the deep aristocratic disdain for a popular cause that he can muster, says that the Government has been panicked into introducing this "terrible Bill" by "pressure from the public and the uninformed popular press but also [horror of horrors] by the imminence of a general election".

It was left (mainly) to life peers of all three main parties to point out that the Association of Chief Police Officers approved the ban, and that while it might not prevent every similar tragedy in the future it was worth doing for its own sake. And it was the Tory life peer Lord Sanderson of Bowden, a kirk elder, who affectingly quoted a senior churchwoman saying the ban accorded with the Church of Scotland's commitment to "promoting a culture of peace rather than of violence in our country". It is just that point which most of the landed hereditary peers don't get.

Ministers are apprehensive. The Lords could seriously delay the Bill in the new year, and that would only strengthen Labour's case for depriving hereditary peers of the vote. It's true that the Straffords and the Shrewsburys are only saying aloud what a lot of Tory Commons backbenchers think - that there should be no ban. Quite senior Tories are now saying privately that Mr Howard has severely damaged his leadership chances as a candidate from the right by introducing what one ex-minister this week called "profoundly un-Tory legislation" on handguns. But the MPs are much more reluctant to say so openly in the run-up to an election. The blue bloods have no such scruples. Wasn't it Bagehot who said that the "cure for admiring the House of Lords was to go and look at it"?