Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 161 - 179)




  161. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is the second evidence-taking session of our inquiry into the control of firearms. We are sorry we kept you waiting just a little. Mr Johnson, I wonder if you would be kind enough to introduce yourself and your colleagues for us.

  (Mr Johnson) I will, Chairman, and make a short, three paragraph, opening statement. My name is Patrick Johnson, and I am Secretary of the British Shooting Sports Council.
  (Lt Col Hoare) John Hoare. I am Secretary of the National Small-bore Rifle Association, and Chairman of the Great Britain Target Shooting Federation.
  (Mr Harriman) Bill Harriman, Head of Firearms, British Association for Shooting and Conservation.
  (Mr Gill) Ben Gill. I am President of the National Farmers' Union and a farmer in North Yorkshire.
  (Mr Oliver-Bellasis) Hugh Oliver-Bellasis, a farmer from Hampshire.

  162. Thank you very much. Mr Johnson?
  (Mr Johnson) We welcome this opportunity to contribute to the Committee's inquiry into firearms controls. The last time this Committee examined this issue it arrived at a conclusion which we believe is fundamental to this current exercise. The Committee concluded in 1996 that "... policy on firearms control appears to be formed without the benefit of statistical material which we believe to be highly relevant". Those currently calling for further restrictions on the sport fail this crucial test. Their proposals do not appear to be backed up by evidence but are based on varying degrees of uneasiness with shooting. We would argue that the sport is already heavily regulated, and that any further restrictions should only be imposed if they have a clear public safety benefit; that they do not unnecessarily restrict shooting; and that they are cost-effective. We believe that the current system does not pose a danger to public safety, and that attention should therefore be directed to better enforcement of existing law, including detection of illegal weapons, and better administration of the licensing system. We hope that our proposals, Chairman, will be helpful to your Committee in achieving these objectives.

  Chairman: Thank you. Just in case there is any doubt about this—this is an inquiry and we have come here with open minds, although not necessarily empty heads as it were. There is no hidden agenda.

Mr Cawsey

  163. Your written evidence calls for consolidation of the existing firearms legislation. Would you be happy if this consolidation was to maintain the present levels of controls over firearms?
  (Mr Johnson) We believe that consolidation is a minimum step that is necessary. We share the view of others who have given evidence that the legislation is complex and is spread about over five or six different Acts. It would be helpful if there was some consolidation on the existing terms.
  (Mr Oliver-Bellasis) Chairman, we would support consolidation. I think we would not agree that necessarily all the current laws/restrictions would be carried forward into that consolidation.

  164. This question is to BSSC and BASC. You both recommend a change in the procedure of appeals against the refusal or revocation of a firearms certificate by a Chief Officer of Police. Would such a change, in your opinion, lead to an increase in the number of appeals?
  (Mr Harriman) I do not know. It is difficult to say now exactly how many appeals are run at the moment. My instinct is that it is very few—probably under 20 or 30 a year. People simply cannot afford to do it, for the reason that it is heard before the Crown Court and will invariably need a solicitor to be instructed and counsel to be briefed. We estimate the average cost for an appeal to be between probably a minimum of £4,000 or £6,000 and double that in Scotland.
  (Mr Johnson) You will note that within our paper we highlight that the problem is costly for both sides in the appeals procedure; and have made a suggestion (not for the first time) that there should be some way of arbitrating these sorts of situations, and enabling Chief Officers collectively to gather a body of opinion and decisions in this area. That could be done by some sort of ad hoc committee or body working under the Firearms Consultative Committee. That would take out the confrontation in these issues and enable people with knowledge and experience to try and resolve some of these issues. We might complain about the expense to the individual member, which is a clear discouragement, but there is also a cost to public funds in a procedure which seems unnecessarily bureaucratic and overburdensome.

  165. You mentioned the Firearms Consultative Committee and I note you support the continued operation of that Committee; but are you happy with its current composition and functioning and do you believe it is effective?
  (Mr Johnson) The Committee is effective in arriving at conclusions about issues which are referred to it. If we have a criticism of the work of the Committee, it seems to die on the minister's desk. There are many things waiting in previous reports to be attended to, we are told, when parliamentary time is available. The composition of the Committee has changed somewhat recently. We are happy with any contributor to the Committee who brings experience and knowledge with them; who seeks to play a part in the advancement of the arguments which are there and does not seek to merely use the Committee as an avenue for propounding theories which are not supported.
  (Mr Harriman) I think the Committee's strength is its statutory basis and the fact that its members are there ad hominem rather than ex officio. As a new member of it this year I have always been struck by the fact that people leave their hats and baggage in the cloakroom, as it were, and come to the table with open minds. I think that the quality of debate is very good. I think perhaps its greatest strength is its report (and we have seen one published last week) which forms a very good interpretative body (very sensible, very pragmatic) of useful material that I, as a practitioner, find very useful; and I also know my colleagues in police licensing departments will often look at that. Mr Johnson said the shame of it is that much of that useful advice is gathering dust on the minister's desk.

  166. Let me address a couple of questions to the National Farmers' Union. What systems are in place for the self-regulation of those who shoot occupationally?
  (Mr Oliver-Bellasis) The answer is that people undergo voluntary training, and there are training mechanisms set up by organisations. Certainly within farms and within communities it is largely done by the individuals who form part of those communities.

  167. I do not want to get too anecdotal but yesterday I was talking to a MAFF Minister who was telling me a tale which is on his desk at the moment about a couple who were walking their jack russell down a public right of way and came to a stile which was covered in barbed wire but, nevertheless, was a right of way; they clambered over it holding their jack russell, which then saw a rabbit, jumped out of their arms and ended up in a hedgerow trying to find the rabbit; but as they were running after it, because they were aware of livestock nearby, the farmer came along on a moonbike, past the running owners of the dog, went straight to the dog and just shot it. They have written a complaint to MAFF about that, as I am sure you can understand. How does the NFU seek to promote safe and responsible shooting among its membership?
  (Mr Oliver-Bellasis) Taking the individual incident, I would not wish to comment on that because I was not there and did not see what happened. It should be brought to notice that farmers who believe that livestock are being worried by dogs are entitled to shoot those animals, and that is fact. So far as the NFU and encouraging people to use guns safely is concerned, all our documents which we put out related to shotguns, rifles or air rifles encourage the safe use of those weapons.

  168. I accept entirely the right of a farmer in the circumstances you have outlined, but in the situation I have outlined, if a complaint came to the National Farmers' Union and it was one of your members, is there something you would do to give advice?
  (Mr Gill) We cannot control the individual decisions our members make. We are a voluntary organisation but, at all times, we seek to ensure that the law is upheld. In the correct circumstances the right to shoot a dog is particularly important. We would want to ensure it is properly used and not abused in anyway. Obviously I cannot comment on a particular case without having further details.

  169. Let us move on to something for all of you. Would you welcome a system of firearms licensing which concentrated principally on the fitness of an individual to possess firearms?
  (Mr Johnson) Without doubt, Mr Cawsey, we were actually speaking with the Home Office and our colleagues from the Association of Chief Police Officers prior to Dunblane about focussing attention on licensing the individual instead of the focus on the weapon, as it is at the moment. We believe we were well down that path towards developing a system that focussed on the fitness of individuals to possess various types of weapons at various stages of their lives and their shooting experience. Yes, we were happy with that, provided that one can come up with a sensible way of examining what is fittedness and if that can be achieved. We believe that can be achieved by discussion, by consultation and by speaking with our colleagues in ACPO, the Police Federation and the Shooting Association, by discussing these issues in the round.

  170. Do you agree with that?
  (Mr Oliver-Bellasis) We would certainly support that, but I think it is important to recognise that, whilst the person is very important, the whole of the administration of the licensing system is about a number of issues that actually are important to the individual. Therefore, one has to take it as a complete system, rather than necessarily focussing, in a sense, laser-like on to the person without taking in the other things that go together within the licensing system.
  (Lt Col Hoare) There is one difficulty within the legislation and within the firearms administration which relates to data protection. It is very much a one-way street. We try to work very hard with the police and vice-versa. The rigours of the Data Protection Act make it impossible for the police to share information with us if they find a potential club member or a shooter to be not suitable. That is a major drawback, and if that could be addressed at some stage in the future both the police and ourselves, I am sure, would be very appreciative of that.

  171. Generally you would welcome the move towards the individual?
  (Lt Col Hoare) Yes.

  172. If you do accept that, in the interests of public safety, it may be that the frequency and thoroughness of the checks made upon the individual to hold firearms would have to increase. Would you accept that as a trade-off?
  (Mr Johnson) I think there is a notion which crops up from time to time that we need to examine an individual at specific intervals. In fact, that merely creates a false illusion about that individual. We need a constant programme of an interchange of information about people between ourselves, the police and other organisations. Rather than picking a particular date for an MOT and then finding my car breaks down the next day, there needs to be a constant relationship between officials and the police. That is the way we would be able to feed into the police intelligence, which they tell us is the basis of how they operate. Picking a date out in any given period does not serve much of a useful purpose: a) I know you are coming; and b) it does nothing about what happens to me the next day.
  (Lt Col Hoare) I think if you look at the way in which we regulate the safe use of firearms, particularly in target shooting, once a person is deemed to be safe and proficient that is not the end of it. That person's usage is monitored on every occasion he or she is on the range. If at any time there is any suspicion that person is unsafe then action is taken accordingly.
  (Mr Gill) What we need to do is look at this in the route not of an MOT where a car will deteriorate every year and needs a regular update, but on the basis of a proper assessment of the risk, the character, the stability and integrity of the person who is licensed. It should be perfectly possible to assess that against some sort of risk basis that goes ahead. The presumption should be, not as with an MOT but related perhaps more to a car licence, where the person is licensed until a specific age but that is reviewed if there are medical conditions which arise and come forward, or if observations are made in the operation of that licence by the person concerned that he or she is not behaving in an appropriate manner.
  (Mr Harriman) I think it is absolutely critical that the criticism levelled against firearms licensing departments by the Inspectorate in 1993 about information and intelligence management is sorted out, and that people who are offenders before the courts are notified to licensing departments. That is a major and fundamental thing that needs dealing with if you are to have this flow of information to alert the licensing authority to somebody who may be a potential risk.

  173. One final question to the BSSC. In written evidence we have received from the Gun Control Network on the issue of "practical shooting", they say "there is understandable public revulsion in an activity which so clearly encourages participants to develop their killing skills in realistic situations and which may feed the fantasies of socially inadequate or unstable people". What is the value of the discipline of practical shooting? Should we be concerned that people treat the realistic simulation of the killing of other human beings as a sport?
  (Mr Johnson) My understanding of the practical shooters as an international organisation is that they do not go for simulating the killing of actual people. They practise those skills which exist in target shooting, in being able to be accurate and to meet the criteria of whatever discipline they are working within. The lurid picture that is present of people pursuing some shoot-up game is totally alien. It cannot occur within the safety criteria of ranges. I am aware that the international organisation does its best to ensure that it does not encourage any of that sort of behaviour. It must be fairly successful at it, Chairman, in that my understanding is that the international organisation will be presenting the sport as an Olympic demonstration at the next Olympics.
  (Lt Col Hoare) It is an extension of current Olympic disciplines already, where different skills are used in some of the 36 disciplines we cover. Some require people to be extremely accurate at static targets, others at running targets, moving targets; none of these are humanoid. There are already Olympic disciplines in that type of skill, as indeed there is in clay target shooting. It is a different type of skill: it is fast, accurate shooting, as opposed to precision shooting at a fixed distance.

Mr Winnick

  174. When my colleague asked whether you welcomed a system whereby there would be a tightening up on the fitness of an individual to possess firearms the answer was, yes.
  (Mr Johnson) I am not sure the words "tightening up" were used by Mr Cawsey; he talked about a system that focussed on the individual.

  175. I did not want to mislead you in any way, but clearly one can put it in different terms. I am asking that particular question again because one of the papers which was circulated to us was from the Gun Trade Association which, as I understand it, is a member of the umbrella organisation the British Shooting Sports Council—one of your members. In their evidence to us they say: "Lawful possession of firearms, shot guns and air guns, are not the problem". Then it goes on to say the following: "Tightening the law still further will not prevent nor curtail the use of firearms by criminals". Clearly they are against any form of tightening up of control?
  (Mr Johnson) I am afraid I do not read it that way at all. I do not think their statement is incompatible with ours. Before there are any changes in the law it needs to be demonstrated that the changes will be effective in terms of public safety and in terms of cost. That is why I did not use the word "tightening" when we were talking about fittedness. It requires a proper examination of the individual for fittedness; that is a different issue from tightening the law. I think the GTA there are speaking in a general sense, that merely seeking to impose further restrictions on shooting without proof that they will be cost effective and effective in terms of public safety will be wasting the lawmakers' time.

  176. If there was greater emphasis on the fitness of the individual to possess firearms some would say there is a tightening of the law, but I do not want to engage in semantics because no purpose would be served. Therefore I would be right, and you will tell me otherwise, that your organisation, the British Shooting Sports Council, is in fact an organisation which has never advocated further controls on the possession of firearms?
  (Mr Johnson) You are going back some way in history with ours but I would say, yes, my experience over the last ten years is that we have seen attempts (in your words) to "tighten" the law which have proved not so to do; and it is not unnatural, therefore, we would say that at some stage somebody has got to call a halt and say, "What are the appropriate firearms laws for this country?"; not the ad hoc building on of little pieces here and there that our friends in the police have complained about, and which we complain about similarly. There has never been a proper assessment of the value of the firearms laws in this country. If there is anything to be taken from the Scarman Institute it is the simple statement that "everything requires further research".
  (Lt Col Hoare) Further to that, it is fair to say that any tightening or restrictions in firearms law is likely to affect only those legitimate users, and will not affect those who use firearms illegally and possess them illegally now.

  177. When I look at the evidence you have submitted from the British Shooting Sports Council, a very informative paper, you do say on page 12, paragraph 9.1 "... that events such as Hungerford and Dunblane, which involved the use of legally held weapons, will produce such a powerful public reaction that emotion rather than rational and factual analysis should become for the time being the basis of policy development". Do I take it from that you do believe that the reaction over those two tragedies was simply an emotional one, and therefore there was no need for the previous government and this present one to act as it did?
  (Mr Johnson) It is a difficult situation, and it is perfectly understandable—

  178. Difficult for whom?
  (Mr Johnson) For everybody. For the shooting community; for the community at large in these areas; and for politicians especially. Politicians are faced with having to react to situations and, one hopes, come up with sensible suggestions and proposals which will meet the fears of the public, meet the concerns of the family and, at the same time, have regard to the greater mass of, in this case, the shooting community. The only landmark I can see amongst all of that was that the government appointed a committee of inquiry under Lord Cullen, and it seems to be lost in the debate about the affairs of Dunblane that Cullen actually said there was no need to recommend a ban on handguns. You have heard evidence from other witnesses as to an interpretation of what the effect of that handgun ban has been. The situation at the time is perfectly understandable, but it is the duty of government to look at what needs to be done in the public interest and to take steps as it seems appropriate. I personally have a feeling that, in a sense, Dunblane occurred at a pivotal period in British history, in terms certainly of this century, and was influenced by the wider considerations that were going on at that time. I think appointing an inquiry was a sensible way to go; it is a shame political decisions were made before the inquiry published its reported.

  179. The government of the day has a duty to act as it believes is necessary in public safety. Clearly the previous government and the present government, as I have said, did so. Do you support what the previous government and the present government did over guns?
  (Mr Johnson) I have to say I take the line Lord Cullen suggested, that there was no need for a handgun ban.

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