Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 420 - 439)



Mr Howarth

  420. I am sorry. The Minister is actively looking at it?
  (Mr Clarke) Yes, we are and just to say, Mr Chairman, on Mr Howarth's first point, I take inflation as a valid point, and £20 is an issue as to what that means. However, I do want to place on record that any government would have to be concerned even if it was small amounts of damage caused by guns being shot, of whatever kind. That is a matter of concern and something we would want to bear down on, and I am sure all Members of the Committee would agree with that.

Mrs Dean

  421. Can I clarify one thing? Does the figure of 7,506 recorded incidents of air weapons in 1997 equate exactly to the 4,813 in 1988? In other words, was there a change of the basis—
  (Mr Clarke) As I understand it they are on the same basis.

  422. So the change is since 1997 and, therefore, there was a dramatic rise between 1988 and 1997 on the same basis.
  (Mr Clarke) As I understand it, that is right.


  423. Mr Clarke, can I ask you, as far as illegal weapons are concerned, whether the Department has made any assessment of the use at ports of entry of low X-ray equipment, for the purposes of detecting weapons, drugs and people?
  (Mr Clarke) I cannot tell you that actually.

  424. Would you like to give us a note on that?
  (Mr Clarke) I am very happy to give you a note about it.

  425. Thank you very much indeed. Can we turn now please to the existing controls and procedures. You will be aware that one of the findings of the Cullen inquiry was that had the police fully and properly applied the regulations in place at the time that Thomas Hamilton would not have had his licence renewed. You will also probably remember that something similar was said in the case of the tragedy at Hungerford. Can you say in which way the Home Office is able to monitor the consistency with which police forces apply the controls or is this left in practice almost entirely to the Inspectorate of Constabulary?
  (Mr Clarke) This is a very important and powerful point. The way in which monitoring takes place is, as you say, through Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary. In this case it is reinforced by the ACPO guidelines which police authorities have to follow in relation to the operation of these areas and it is the job of the Inspectorate to report on how effectively controls are being carried through. We believe that a central element in the approach is the national register which I mentioned earlier and we are not in a position to monitor properly because we do not have a national register. There is no doubt whatsoever that there have been different practices operating in different police forces throughout the country in ways which can be very damaging to our ability to understand exactly what is happening and to monitor properly what is taking place. Fundamentally the weapon for this, as you imply in your question, is the Inspectorate of Constabulary rather than any separate monitoring arrangements.

  426. You mentioned the ACPO guidelines. We have been told that the Home Office guidelines are out-of-date and they have been added to rather like extending a greenhouse at the back of a garden. Would it concern you if the ACPO guidelines were out of kilter with those issued by the Home Office? Do you have any plans to update the Home Office guidelines?
  (Mr Clarke) Our publication is called Firearms Law Guidance and the police and we are currently updating that. The document sets out legal and policy issues for the police in the interests of national consistency and that work is taking place. It is taking more time than we would like but the purpose is to make sure that the guidance is as useful as possible. ACPO has been holding meetings at both national and regional level to ensure that individual licensing officers in forces share information and adopt common strategies. HMIC has expressed a concern that licensing should not be detached from the work of the Police Service for the reasons we were talking about earlier and it is proper that licensing officers should build up a good level of professional knowledge and specialised experience. HMIC are currently working on improving their procedures for inspecting firearms licensing departments within constabularies. So there is a series of initiatives at Home Office and HMIC level and through ACPO which are designed to dovetail together and be consistent in the way you are implying but I think the thrust of your question that it would be beneficial if that were accelerated is a correct thrust and one which I accept. We do need to accelerate the work that we do in that area.

  427. Just so I have not misunderstood you at all, you take the point that the Home Office guidelines and ACPO guidelines ought to fit together?
  (Mr Clarke) Absolutely.

  428. You mentioned, Mr Clarke, the vexed matter of the register. We have a note from Assistant Commissioner Hart this morning (he promised to write to us after an earlier evidence session) saying that at best it would be up and running by the summer of 2001. You will obviously be aware of the long number of years that this proposal has been under discussion by ACPO. It was first raised by ACPO as long ago as August 1996. For some reason they reconstituted that Committee in March 1998 although I understand that they did not meet until September 1998. Do you get the impression that ACPO is dragging its feet over this?
  (Mr Clarke) I accept the phrase "dragging its feet" but I do not accept the phrase "ACPO is dragging its feet". What I believe is the case is that we the Home Office and the Police Service as a whole have been less effective than we need to be in developing the use of databases across a wide range of different approaches. If you look at the introduction of information and communication technology into the police force in a variety of different ways, of which the firearms register is only one, the fact that we have had a negotiated process between the 43 police authorities and police forces on the one hand, the Home Office on the other and also the collective organisations of ACPO, APA and HMIC has led to a process of introducing technology into the police which in my opinion has been less rapid than it needed to be. That problem and weakness in our system that we are currently taking very active steps to address has had its impact on this particular issue of the database for the register of firearms certificates. So I do not think the implication of your question that ACPO are in a sense holding back and dragging their feet because they do not think this is desirable is right, but the criticism that the system has not been as fast as it needs to be in this area (and others) to develop proper use of information and communications technology including this database is a fair criticism but that is because the system has not been effective in the way that it has taken decisions in those areas.

  429. Thank you for that, Minister, but what that national database is going to show up among other things, is it not, is evidence that may support accusations or suspicions of inconsistency of application for the certificates. The 43 separate police forces would not be human if they did not put their hands in the air to volunteer for that.
  (Mr Clarke) But that point, Mr Corbett, as you know from your much better experience of this whole area than I, is a comment which could be made legitimately about a whole range of areas of consistency across the different police forces in different areas. It is certainly true in this area of the firearms certificates. It is also true in relation to the number of other areas related to technology and databases. What I was trying to do, perhaps illegitimately but I think legitimately, was to say that it is wrong to state in my view that ACPO is trying to hold back work in relation to firearms certificates. It is more accurate to say that there is a real problem in getting a common technological means of common databases across the whole country right across the field including the area of firearms.

  430. I think you have been refreshingly frank about that. Just finally on this particular point, are you minded to agree a deadline for the staged introduction of this database?
  (Mr Clarke) You correctly said that summer 2001 is what we currently expect. I am not prepared to commit myself to that deadline absolutely here but I could well understand if the Committee sought a deadline that was moving forward.

  431. Are you prepared to ask ACPO to commit themselves to a deadline?
  (Mr Clarke) It is not so much ACPO as the whole of the Police Service and ACPO and the forces.

  432. They speak for the Police Service.
  (Mr Clarke) One of the difficulties in the whole of the ICT point—I was discussing this yesterday with colleagues—is we have no deadlines so things have slipped all the way down the line in many of these different areas including this and what we have to do is establish a system of getting deadlines that can be respected. I well understand the point you are making that it would be very good to have a deadline in this area but I am not prepared to say to you today, "Yes, I commit myself to this deadline." I am saying I can understand why you would think it reasonable that there should be a deadline.

  433. We have had a lot of evidence suggesting at the very least that there should be a rationalisation of the firearms law which in many instances is a hotch-potch. Are you sympathetic to that point to tidy it up?
  (Mr Clarke) I am very sympathetic to it. There is a whole series of issues about ages and styles and systems where some consolidation would be very beneficial. The ideal way of doing that in my view would be through a new Firearms Act but that is of course subject to all the issues of parliamentary time and all the rest of it and where it finds its place in the priorities. Failing that, consolidating the existing law with the help of the Law Commission might be an attractive option in the case of some different areas. Obviously the superior option would be to get some primary legislation which would be consistent right across the range.

  434. You told us, Minister, that the firearms rules of 1998 are aimed at identifying the suitability of a person to hold firearms rather than licensing the firearms themselves. Are you able to say how that is working?
  (Mr Clarke) I think that goes back to your initial question about the effectiveness of the process. I do not consider that we yet have enough data to say to you it is working well or not well in relation to particular geographical parts of the country or particular forces. I do think the whole process has been highlighted by the actions taken by this Government since it came to office and by the processes I describe. Would I feel confident in saying to you, "This is my assessment?" No, I would not at this stage because I think that we need a more systematic approach through the Inspectorate and ACPO and the Home Office before being able say to you hand on heart, "This is my full assessment of what has been happening."

  435. Do you have any thoughts on the suggestion that the licensing system should be shifted by having matching provisions for both firearms and shotguns on a single licence?
  (Mr Clarke) I think there is a case for that in the general context we have talked about but, as I described in my responses to Mr Linton, I think there are really quite serious practical issues to be addressed before being able to say one can do that. There is a case in terms of the logic of bringing that together but the practical issues are genuinely substantial.

  436. When you and I were much younger there were proposals knocking about for a civilian firearms licensing authority. Is that something that is still under consideration or has it been rejected?
  (Mr Clarke) It is under consideration in the context that everything is. I certainly do not feel that we are sympathetic to that approach at the moment because I think it is very important that the police's direct responsibility for this is retained with the degree of local knowledge and so on that exists for the situation, provided that we have a proper regulatory system in the way we have talked about through ACPO and Home Office guidelines and with the Inspectorate producing a proper approach. You will obviously be considering whether you want to make recommendations in this area but the reason why I certainly am prejudiced (and I would say it is the Government's position at the moment) towards keeping the responsibility with the police is that we think that that local input and knowledge is very important to the effective operation of the system provided that we can be confident that it is being done properly and inspected properly by the devices that we have established here. I am not convinced that establishing an entirely separate organisation to do that nationally which would need to have all the local orientations that are necessary would be as cost efficient or as effective as a properly regulated system through the police.

  437. I think it is the case that the charges involved for both firearms and shotguns are meant to make that system self-financing?
  (Mr Clarke) They are, yes.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Mr Russell on air weapons.

Bob Russell

  438. Minister, you have acknowledged today that the amount of misuse of air weapons has increased and of course we are referring here not just to criminal damage but also attacks on people, pets and wild animals. Did I detect from your answer, though, a degree of complacency within the Home Office and perhaps this is also reflected in the police forces in tackling this issue?
  (Mr Clarke) I hope you did not. If you did, I think you are wrong. I do not think it is a trivial issue, I think it is a very serious issue. As I say, I have never been part of any organisation or approach to shooters in a way that is at all sympathetic but the questioning started from the point of view did I see this as a significant threat to crime and that is where I was saying no I did not think that was the case. But do I think there are social and other issues related to it which are important? Yes I do.

  439. We have been given evidence that it is relatively easy for young people particularly to obtain these weapons in the first place. Do you think there should be legislation or restrictions placed on how these weapons can be acquired in the first place?
  (Mr Clarke) Particularly for young people there is a genuine case for looking at how we might better regulate access to them. I say again the reason why I perhaps appeared complacent to you, which I would hate to do, is the fact that I do not think this is a serious issue in terms of the general crime issues that have been going around. There are other issues which are important of the type Mr Linton raised in the questions he was putting which I take extremely seriously but from the straight crime point of view I do not think the issue is so significant.

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