Select Committee on Public Accounts Twentieth Report


The Committee of Public Accounts has agreed to the following Report:—



1. Between July 1997 and February 1998 the biggest ever compulsory surrender of legally held firearms in Great Britain, designed to improve public safety, took place. Over 162,000 handguns were handed into police stations throughout England, Scotland and Wales during two surrender periods. Large-calibre handguns had to be surrendered between 1 July and 30 September 1997. Small-calibre handguns could be handed in voluntarily from 1 July 1997, but otherwise had to be surrendered to the police during February 1998.[1]

2. Compensation was payable on eligible handguns, ancillary equipment and ammunition. The total expected cost of the scheme is £95 million, comprising £87 million in compensation payments, and administrative costs of £8 million, including special grants to police forces.[2]

3. On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Committee took evidence from the Home Office on the management by the Home Office and the police of the surrender and compensation, with particular reference to:

  • the arrangements for surrender and destruction of handguns and the associated ancillary equipment including ammunition; and

  • the design of the schemes and the payment of compensation.

4. Police forces throughout Great Britain succeeded in collecting over 162,000 handguns and 700 tonnes of ammunition within the three-month and one-month surrender periods with no major incidents, and to that extent the implementation of the policy was a success. We drew three main conclusions from the National Audit Office's work and our further examination.

  • We consider that the Home Office should have obtained a better idea of the total number of handguns due to be surrendered, and should have ensured that forces maintained records to show whether all legally held handguns had been surrendered or otherwise accounted for. We note that in March 1997 the Home Office and police forces had estimated that 187,000 handguns were held legally, and that in the event the number collected was about 162,000.

  • We are concerned that many claimants have had to wait a long time for payment - many more than a year. Better planning and quicker action could have reduced the delays. For example, better design of the schemes could have helped to decrease the proportion of more complex claims requiring owners to have their handguns valued rather than be compensated at a prescribed rate. The lower than expected throughput of claims became apparent soon after the Home Office's firearms compensation section began to process them, and the Home Office should not have waited until 15 months after the start of schemes to increase the numbers of staff employed on processing claims.

  • We recognise that the Home Office needed to strike an appropriate balance between its accountability for the schemes and the operational role of the local police forces in helping to implement them. We consider, however, that the Home Office had an overriding responsibility for ensuring the regularity and propriety of the schemes' operation. Although the forces visited by the National Audit Office had taken steps to reduce the risk of irregularities and fraud, irregularities have been under investigation in another force. We are concerned that the Home Office issued no guidance to forces on controls over the risk of errors and fraud.

5. Our more specific conclusions and recommendations are set out below.

1  C&AG's Report, (HC 225 of Session 1998-99), paras 1.1, 1.3 Back

2  ibid, 1.4-1.5 and Figure 2 Back

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