Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is the first session of oral evidence in the Committee's Inquiry into Controls Over Firearms. Today we are going to be hearing from the law enforcement officers and firearms researchers. On 14 December we will be taking evidence from representatives of shooting organisations, the RSPCA and the Gun Control Network, and on 11 January we will hear from the Chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee and the Minister of State at the Home Office. The Inquiry received widespread publicity when we announced it in mid July; so far we have had over 160 written submissions, the majority of which have come from individual members of the public. We are most grateful for the time people have taken to express their views. We also appreciate the time that our witnesses have given to appear before us today. Perhaps you would like to introduce yourselves, please?

  (Mr Hart) Good morning, Chairman. My name is James Hart, Assistant Commissioner with the City of London Police, here today representing the Association of Chief Police Officers, as Chairman of the Firearms and Explosives Licensing Sub-Committee.
  (Mr Gammon) Chairman, I am Chief Superintendent Peter Gammon and I am President of the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales.
  (Mr Morris) Kevin Morris. I am a Divisional Commander with Surrey Police and I am the Vice-President of the Superintendents' Association.
  (Mr Broughton) Fred Broughton. I am Chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales.
  (Mr O'Brien) Paul O'Brien. I am its Deputy General Secretary.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

Mr Winnick

  2. I will address my questions principally to the Assistant Commissioner, though, obviously, as the Chair would point out, other witnesses are perfectly entitled to contribute in answering such questions from me and other Members around the table. There has been very tight legislation, as some would describe it, over gun control. Would I be right in saying that the police, in the main, are not satisfied, even now, with the position over firearms in private hands?
  (Mr Hart) The position is a difficult one, because the existing firearms legislation is exceedingly complex. We do not have a difficulty with the mainstream shooting, sporting, hunting and working use of firearms, the difficulties seem to arise from the fringe aspects of firearms legislation, particularly in relation to those anomalies that are drawn to your attention in our paper, where the legislation perhaps allows for some unforeseen abuses of what Parliament perhaps intended. Secondly, to make sure that we do all we can to ensure public safety, and again you will see in our submission some references to the difficulties that are caused around air weapons and replicas. And, thirdly, of course, perhaps to suggest that the police would like to see some easing of the difficulty of enforcement of the current legislation, brought about perhaps by the necessary complexity but perhaps presenting now an opportunity to refine some of the legislation. So I think it is a fairly broad and a fairly complex answer to your question.

  3. Thank you. The Home Office give figures for firearm and shotgun certificates on issue in 1998 which indicate that some 1,343,000 shotguns and 295,000 other firearms were held on valid certificates at the end of that particular year, 1998. Would you consider those figures to be excessive?
  (Mr Hart) I do not think I have a view on the excess of those numbers. If shooting is a well-regulated and controlled activity, whether for sporting or working purposes, the numbers of certificates will fit that demand. Whether or not that is excessive, I do not think the Chief Police Officers would have a view on that.

  4. I ask, you see, because the Police Superintendents' Association and the Police Federation, in written evidence to us, both support the introduction of a new Firearms Act, as they describe it, "to rationalise and standardise the current state of firearms law." Would that be your view as well?
  (Mr Hart) Yes; as I mentioned a moment ago, I think the complexity of enforcement would lead us to suggest that perhaps new legislation could be slightly more elegant, from an enforcement perspective. And, again, in our submission to you, there are some charts and tables that demonstrate the complexity around just, for instance, the ages for possession of different weapons, and that, for instance, I think could be made much more straightforward. So I would agree with the Superintendents' Association entirely, and I think, again, my colleagues from the Police Federation, I am not wishing to speak for Fred Broughton, but I am sure that that would be his view also.

  5. Mr Broughton is not usually hesitant to come forward with his views?
  (Mr Broughton) I associate ourselves with what has been said so far, and also the evidence from ACPO, I think, we can absolutely accept as well. We go slightly further in the written evidence, as you quite rightly said. We believe a mere consolidation of the existing legislation will only be cosmetic. There are, we think, about 13 different regulations and rules and Acts which administer firearms and shotguns, and we believe it is time for a completely new and comprehensive Firearms Act, dealing with the fundamental issues of definition, the scope of the legislation to be widened, we believe, to look at alternative weapons, like crossbows. There are all the difficulties at the moment, for instance, a long-barrelled pistol of 30mm in length, short-barrelled carbines, there are a number of issues that we think should be included within that new concept of firearms legislation. And I think there is little difference between any of us in the Police Service about that view.
  (Mr Gammon) Can I just say, Sir, that our request for a rationalisation of legislation is not a value judgement on the number of certificates in being, it is a consequence of tightening of the legislation; if some people find themselves outside the legislation and can no longer possess then so be it. The whole basis of our proposal is to make it safer for people in the public arena, and to make sure that we have proper controls over firearms.

  6. Yes, I appreciate that; but, despite what Mr Hart has told us, I get the feeling, particularly from the Police Federation, Mr Broughton, that the number of shotguns and other firearms, the figures which I have already mentioned, are rather excessive being held by private individuals. Would that be or not be your view?
  (Mr Broughton) I would probably take the view that Mr Hart has given, that they are the numbers. We believe the whole administration of the system is not as effective as it should be. We make the point about the five-year certificate moved from three years and the way that is being administered at the moment; we do believe that the system is not robust in the way it is managed at the moment. And so whether there is an excessive number of weapons within the system or not really is a matter of anecdote.

  7. It really brings me to the obvious next question, Mr Hart and your colleagues, whether the overall level of legal firearms possessed in England and Wales poses in any way a threat to public safety?
  (Mr Hart) No, I do not think the numbers of weapons held are a threat to public safety, because, of course, the vast majority of people that have weapons, firearms licences and shotgun certificates, are mature, responsible people who pursue whatever activity they have for their firearm in a lawful way, and the lawful use of a lawfully-held firearm does not pose a threat to public safety. What does pose a threat to public safety is the misuse of firearms, the criminal use of firearms, the reactivation of weapons that have been deactivated and the criminal use of weapons that, perhaps if I can use the expression, fall in the margins, are starting to give us. And you see again in our submissions our evidence concerning air weapons and replicas; here there are distinct threats to public safety, and those are the areas that we would seek to curb. But, in terms of the numbers of weapons held and the numbers of certificate holders, where those certificate holders behave according to the existing law, store their weapons in places that are properly approved and conduct their business with their weapons according to the existing law, my evidence would be that there is no threat to public safety.

  8. I wonder, Mr Hart, if you would have said much the same about handguns prior to the tragedy of Dunblane?
  (Mr Hart) With respect, Chairman, I was not asked the question prior to Dunblane.

  9. No; but if you had been? Perhaps this is an unfair question to put to you.
  (Mr Hart) I can only offer you a personal opinion on that question; if that answer would satisfy you then you are welcome to it. I cannot speak on behalf of the Association.

  10. Can we touch on the question of the fitness of an individual to possess firearms; are you satisfied that the criteria are strict enough, when it comes to such an assessment of fitness?
  (Mr Hart) I think the weakness with any assessment of fitness is that it is only made at a single point in time, and that assessment, of course, would dramatically change in several years' time. As far as the particular type of assessment that is made at the moment, it is adequate, it could, of course, be tighter but it is adequate.

  11. It could be tighter; in what way could it be tighter?
  (Mr Hart) There could be a great deal more information garnered about lifestyle and medical evidence, and this type of thing. I really think though that cost-effectiveness might start to enter the equation very, very quickly and diminishing returns set in on how much extra information would add value to an assessment of fitness in the future.

  12. Bearing in mind that Hamilton, the murderer at Dunblane, had his application for a certificate accepted by the police, are there any lessons to be learned when it comes to fitness to hold firearms?
  (Mr Hart) Chairman, I decline to answer that, really. I am not fully briefed on the Dunblane incident, and I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment on behalf of the Association on my suppositions of that case. I really would prefer not to comment on the Dunblane issue specifically.

  13. Do any of your colleagues wish to comment?
  (Mr Hart) They may well wish to, Chairman.
  (Mr Broughton) I think our concern about fitness, and certainly about renewal of firearms certificates, is about the process, and we feel the process has weakened in recent years; in other words, the three-year cycle with visits and with examination of fitness has been weakened by the system. And that, I think, is our concern, in relation to fitness. We want to see a robust examination of fitness in relation particularly to renewal.

  14. Along what lines?
  (Mr Broughton) I think it needs a home visit, it needs a conversation, it needs an assessment of people, to make sure that people storing firearms in their homes are `fit', and we have certainly seen that weakened in recent years.

  15. Have you, as a Federation, put that view to the Home Office?
  (Mr O'Brien) It is certainly a subject that has been discussed within the Committee that Mr Hart is Chairman of. And I do not think I take anything away from him in saying that that Committee is agreed that the best interests of everyone would be served by doing away with the postal renewals of certificates, that that Committee would wish to see renewals conducted, simply and solely, by personal visits on each and every occasion. That is a view that the Police Federation endorses, we are happy with it, we think it is absolutely correct. We are aware that there are other parts of the Association of Chief Police Officers that have yet to make that decision.

  16. Yes; it makes, I must say, much sense to me. As the most senior police officer giving evidence today, Assistant Commissioner, do you have any comments about home visits?
  (Mr Hart) My chairmanship of that Committee led me to put forward a paper which recommended that home visits for renewals would be appropriate in every case, and that is the paper that is currently being considered by the ACPO Crime Committee; that will then go forward to the ACPO Council for resolution of national policy. I think it is fair to say, Chairman, at this stage, that that view, that I have expressed in that paper that has gone forward, is not a unanimous view across the 43 police forces, and there are very good, practical and operational reasons why that should not be the case. So the issue is not clear-cut, as far as the Service is concerned.

  17. So it is not unanimous as far as the police forces in England and Wales are concerned?
  (Mr Hart) May I say, Chairman, at this point, is that the issue just does turn on the ability of individual police forces to carry out that function, in terms of officer numbers and the demand that they see that it would put on their resources. So there are some very real arguments around this point.

  18. So the argument, to a large extent, is not over the need to do so, but the fact that it may not be possible because of shortages of police officers and time?
  (Mr Hart) Exactly so; not only a shortage of police officers and time but a shortage of officers with the right skill and aptitude going through the relicensing process. As I made comment in my opening remarks, both the legislation and the issues are complex and it really is necessary to send either an experienced firearms licensing officer, a member of police civil staff, or a police officer who has been trained to do this work, to undertake these renewal visits, otherwise, the process is not satisfactory.

  19. I hesitate, obviously, to put any words into your mouth or your colleagues', but would I be right in saying that you would be far more satisfied over public safety if it would be possible for such home visits to be made to check up on certificates?
  (Mr Hart) Undoubtedly, yes.
  (Mr Broughton) Yes, and we would, too.
  (Mr Gammon) And we do not think that resourcing issues should determine whether we carry out those checks or not. We understand that constraints are placed on the Police Service, we acknowledge that, but we believe that this is a very important issue, and therefore that checks should be made at renewal.

  Mr Winnick: I am sure the Committee will take that, Mr Chairman, very much into consideration when we make our recommendations. Thank you very much.

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