Select Committee on Public Accounts Twentieth Report


On the surrender and destruction of handguns and ammunition

      (i)  Most of the police forces visited by the National Audit Office had taken initiatives to ensure that handgun owners and dealers understood the surrender arrangements. They secured the co-operation of the majority of handgun owners, and the surrenders went smoothly with no major incidents (paragraph 21).

      (ii)  Most forces' estimates of the numbers of handguns legally held before the surrender began were not reliable - actual surrendered handguns came within ten per cent of estimate in only 16 out of the 51 police forces. Sixteen of the 26 police forces visited by the National Audit Office considered that all relevant handguns had been surrendered and the remainder were following up cases with 35 owners, three-quarters of which had been resolved by September 1998. The Home Office told us that it was confident that individual forces had accounted for all the handguns held by certificate-holders in their area, although it seemed to have drawn its assurance largely from the work of the National Audit Office. We consider that the Home Office should have explored with forces the scope for reconciling their estimates with actual handguns surrendered as the surrenders progressed in order to show whether all legally held handguns had been surrendered or otherwise accounted for (paragraph 22).

      (iii)  The same records that gave unreliable estimates of handguns are still being used for recording firearms that remain legal. We are concerned about the slow progress on the central register of firearm and shotgun certificates, which was proposed in the 1997 Firearms (Amendment) Act. Whilst we understand the need to set the priority for the register against other developments of the Police National Computer, we are disappointed that the work on implementing the register is not more advanced. We note that the development of the computer application to support the register will only be starting during this financial year. The Home Office should ensure that this work is undertaken in parallel with other developments where possible, rather than waiting until they are complete (paragraph 23).

      (iv)  The Home Office did not develop a timely strategy for the receipt, storage and disposal of ammunition. The Home Office told us that serious work on the scheme was restarted after the General Election and it then consulted with the Health and Safety Executive about the disposal of ammunition. We do not agree that work need have been inhibited by the General Election, since the broad policy had cross-party support (paragraph 24).

      (v)  The police had expected most ammunition to be used up, but close to the start of the surrender it became clear that substantial quantities would be handed in. We consider that the Home Office should have had contingency plans which would have avoided the need for police forces to employ contractors at short notice to dispose of the large quantities of ammunition building up. Although the National Audit Office found no evidence that surrendered ammunition had been resubmitted for compensation or sold on, they were unable to gain assurance that forces' arrangements for disposal would ensure the destruction of all ammunition. For example, few of the forces visited had arranged formal contracts and they had only specified orally the means of destruction to be used (paragraph 25).

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