Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 332 - 339)



  Chairman: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is the third evidence session of our inquiry into controls of firearms. You will recall that when we announced this inquiry in July we said we were principally concerned with: firstly, problems caused by, and the control of, air weapons; secondly, shotguns—any inadequacies in the existing controls designed to prevent their misuse; and, thirdly, the extent to which the bans introduced in 1997 have been effective in removing handguns from circulation. Good morning, Mr Penn, Chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee.

Mr Howarth

  332. Good morning, welcome to the Committee. Do you feel the Firearms Consultative Committee, which has been in existence since 1988, has made a constructive and valuable contribution to the development of firearms legislation?
  (Mr Penn) Yes, I do. If you have the opportunity to look at our Seventh Annual Report there is a summary of the work done to that date with the actions taken in relation to those proposals. In broad terms, those proposals that could be implemented through guidance or through Orders in Council were very frequently taken. The problem with our work is the proposals regarding primary legislation have not been taken up in the way that the Committee would have hoped—even when, of course, there were two major opportunities in the recent past to do so. The other way in which the Committee has, we hope, proved of benefit to the Home Secretary is that it allows the testing of proposals and ideas before they reach him. Without a Firearms Consultative Committee the Home Office sits at the centre of lines of communication from all directions—the police, shooters and other interested bodies; but there is no easy mechanism whereby the police can test their ideas against the shooters and vice-versa before they reach the Home Secretary if you do not have the Firearms Consultative Committee. It acts as a refining and a polishing procedure for proposals coming from different quarters.

  333. You say in your evidence to us that you seek to avoid having minority reports. Despite the fact you have quite a disparate range of interests represented, you do appear to come up with a degree of unanimity which is perhaps rather surprising. Do you agree?
  (Mr Penn) No, I would not agree really, because the intention one hopes of all those people contributing to the Committee is not to take a fixed position which is not going to succeed. What people are looking for is to find a way forward that all parties can accept. Parties may not get everything they want as a result of this, but it would seem to be the best way forward in the circumstances of the time. One has to say also of course that a lot of the Committee's work is discussing the implementation of existing legislation, what it actually means in practice, and there you have the legislation—that is immoveable—and you have to decide what it actually means in practice. Therefore, consensus is likely where people are of goodwill.

  334. Is it therefore not disappointing that successive governments have failed to take into account the recommendations you have made for legislation, and can you perhaps single out one or two key areas where your disappointment is at its greatest?
  (Mr Penn) Yes, it is disappointing. I would just say that we have been going for ten years now, and I would not say that every proposal made would be one we would wish to push forward. One area which we were concerned about and remain concerned about is the question of the operation of the law in relation to dealers' registers—that we got a success on. After a long while we were able to get dealers' registers put on a computer. That is a sensible and a worthwhile way forward. We have managed also to get some success in other areas; but the one thing we wanted and have not seen (in my view) a satisfactory resolution of is whether there should be a Firearms Licensing Board, which would act as a licensing authority on a national basis.

  335. That is for section 1 firearms?
  (Mr Penn) And section 2.

  336. For everything?
  (Mr Penn) Yes. The Board exists as three words, as a proposal; no-one has yet come up with details of how that Board would operate. The way the Board would operate would be very much in relation to whatever legislation was in place at the time—the legislation might change. If primary legislation was attempted to set the Board it could also change the law in other areas.

  337. Going back to the membership of your Committee, perhaps the odd one out in a certain sense is the Gun Control Network. Can you tell us, from your position as Chairman looking at it impartially, have they made a valuable contribution to the discussions of the FCC?
  (Mr Penn) Obviously they come with a fairly set position. They have a set of aims generally working towards the reduction to the bare minimum of the number of firearms in use in civil society. Obviously those proposals enable us to test our ideas against theirs and possibly to modify our ideas when we hear what they say. The problem is, as I say, much of our discussion is related to the implementation of the law as it exists. The other people on the Committee tend to be practitioners—police, lawyers, Customs and Excise and shooters—and they are concerned with making the law as it stands work better. The Gun Control Network is primarily concerned with changing law in the direction they want. Therefore, the Gun Control Network is less likely to agree with the sort of proposals that tend to come out of the discussion among the practitioners.

  338. The term of your office expires on 31 January. Would you wish that the Firearms Consultative Committee continue? Do you regard it as a valuable forum for practitioners in shooting matters? If it is to continue, on what basis would you like it to continue, on the current statutory basis or on a non-statutory basis?
  (Mr Penn) I would prefer to see the Firearms Consultative Committee continue on approximately the same basis as it is now. Obviously the Home Secretary may vary the membership—it is his decision. The way it works at the moment is, I think, a satisfactory one in the circumstances. It is most useful, I would hope, as a testing ground for ideas. If he did not have a Firearms Consultative Committee he would have to have another body of that sort whenever major legislative changes were to be considered. Whether it should be a non-statutory body or not is an interesting question. I think certainly from my personal point of view and I think most of the people on the Committee who are shooters (indeed all of them who are shooters or representing a shooting organisation through their presence) it should be statutory. We feel it should be statutory because this has two main points in its favour: one is, we produce a report, and that report is a public document—it shows our work done and it enables us to get our ideas across to others than the Home Secretary; and the other advantage of the statutory nature of the Committee is that I think it makes it easier for the Committee to get evidence.

  339. Finally, could I draw your attention to the letter which you had published in the Daily Telegraph before Christmas in which you repudiated a suggestion which was made in the Sunday Times on 19 December that a report from your Committee suggested making shotguns Class 1 firearms, the same category as rifles and handguns. The report was also carried in the Daily Telegraph the following day. Why was that report published by those newspapers in the first place when it was so totally at variance with the truth?
  (Mr Penn) I simply do not know.

  Mr Howarth: Would you like to speculate?

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