Select Committee on Home Affairs Second Report


ADMINISTERING THE LICENSING OF FIREARMS

189. Firearms licensing is administered by the police. With the exception of the Metropolitan Police, the firearms licensing divisions of each police force in England and Wales have civilian staff in whole or in part.[278] During our visit to Northamptonshire Police we gained an impression of the operation of one such department. Firearms licensing divisions operate in support of the chief constable who has the responsibility, under the Firearms Acts, for determining the grant, refusal or revocation of firearm and shotgun certificates.[279] While the law applies equally across the forty-three police force areas in England and Wales, and the six in Scotland, these areas vary widely in character. Individual chief constables exercise their responsibilities relating to firearms in their force areas as they see fit, with the assistance of guidance from the Home Office.

POLICE-LED ADMINISTRATION

  190. Licensing procedures across forces in England and Wales were the subject of a comparative inquiry into seven forces conducted by Devon and Cornwall Police in 1991 (the Campbell Beattie Inquiry) and of a thematic inquiry by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) in 1993.[280] Both inquiries discovered shortcomings and inconsistencies and made recommendations for improvement. In subsequent years HMIC annual inspections have paid "particular attention" to firearms licensing departments. The Minister believes that, following this regular scrutiny, "in general, HMIC was satisfied that most forces had taken those steps identified by the Inspectorate to improve their efficiency and effectiveness in this area".[281]

191. HM Chief Inspector noted in his Annual Report for 1994-95 that "most forces are now complying with the majority of recommendations made by the Inspectorate" in 1993, with increased cost recovery and greater use of computerised systems. Nevertheless, he believed that there was "considerable scope to improve information flows between forces".[282] This was the last year in which HM Chief Inspector published a substantive annual assessment of the process. HM Inspector wrote to the Committee in November 1999 to indicate that the new annual force inspection model, to be constructed on the basis of Best Value requirements and annual efficiency targets, would include protocols "which specifically address the administration and control of firearms".[283] These protocols are in part intended to address a general criticism which HMIC had of civilian licensing staff:

    "Whilst their procedural knowledge is often commendable, in some cases they have become increasingly isolated and, without adequate strategic direction and close monitoring by chief officers, they often operate to their own individual standards: this in turn leads to an inconsistency across forces".[284]

  Assistant Commissioner Hart, speaking for ACPO, believed that the complexity of licensing issues required a degree of discretion on the part of individual chief officers, based on their confidence in delegating decisions to their licensing divisions.[285]

  192. The BSSC was one of a number of witnesses to argue the case for a civilian-based national firearms control board. In replacing geographical force-based licensing divisions, it was argued, such a board would ensure nationwide consistency in licensing issues.[286] The Government considered such a proposal in the early 1990s, but had shelved it by 1995. The proposal was also considered, and rejected, by Lord Cullen in his 1996 report into the Dunblane tragedy: he believed that "the police are in the best position to collect and assess information bearing on the suitability of applicants or holders" of firearm or shotgun licences. Assistant Commissioner Hart, for ACPO, was prepared to contemplate the transfer of licensing responsibilities in their entirety to a civilian board, although he did not support the idea of a national board which would sub-contract its field inquiries to individual forces and licensing departments.[287] The Police Federation strongly opposed the idea of a national board separate from police control.[288]

  193. Although we recognise the shortcomings of the present geographically divided system, we believe that the access to intelligence within and between forces which the current system allows, if correctly managed, provides the best possible support for the fine judgments a locally-based firearms licensing officer is required to make. Indeed, the BSSC welcomed the progress towards greater "expertise and consistency" developed by civilian licensing teams.[289] The Scottish Countryside Alliance agreed with the Association of Chief Police Officers of Scotland that "local knowledge was vital in assessing an applicant for a shotgun or firearm certificate".[290] Licensing officers work on the basis of detailed and expert local knowledge, which is supplemented by intelligence information gathered at grass-roots level within forces but not automatically recorded on the Police National Computer.

  194. It is important for the safe and effective administration of the firearms licensing system that licensing divisions are able to form as accurate an assessment as possible of an individual's fitness to possess firearms. In our view, this cannot be achieved without access to all the information necessary for such an assessment to be made. We recommend that the administration of firearms licensing, and the decision on the fitness of individuals to possess firearms, should remain the responsibility of chief constables and their firearms licensing divisions.

  195. We are, however, not satisfied with the overall operation of the system at present. A number of submissions have alleged serious inconsistencies in the licensing system which lead us to fear that public confidence in, and respect for, the licensing system may be eroding.[291] We would regard this as a most unwelcome development. For instance, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation noted that:

    "issues of quality of service (consistency and expertise) and value for money are still live, and, in [our] experience, appear to be getting worse, rather than better".[292]

  196. Consistency in the implementation of controls over firearms across England, Scotland and Wales is vital to the maintenance of public confidence in the operation of the licensing system. A number of witnesses noted that the volume of Home Office guidance to police forces on the interpretation and implementation of the Firearms Acts has not been thoroughly reviewed and re-issued since 1989, although Government guidance on firearms law has periodically been reviewed by means of updating circulars. The Police Superintendents' Association and the Police Federation were both in favour of greater standardisation of firearms licensing structures and guidance.[293] However, Mr Hart, for ACPO, indicated that there was room for variance between forces.

    "There is certainly room for [differences of interpretation] to happen, and the reason [is] . . . that there is much that the legislation does not cover and prescribe, and it is a matter for individual decision-making; in that decision-making, one is often very dependent on the expert advice of firearms licensing officers, and, clearly, their ability, skill and knowledge will vary from post to post and from force to force".[294]

197. We accept that chief constables should have overall operational responsibility for the operation of the Firearms Acts within their force area. It is, however, in the interests of the licensing system overall, and in the interests of all licensees, that clear and up-to-date guidelines, centrally prepared, regularly updated and nationally circulated, should be readily available and regularly used by firearms licensing sections and their operational superiors. We recommend that clear Home Office guidance to the police on the operation of the Firearms Acts should be regularly updated and promulgated to all forces, and that chief constables should make it a priority to ensure that the guidance is consistently followed.

THE NATIONAL FIREARM CERTIFICATE REGISTER

198. Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 provided for the establishment of a national database of firearms certificate holders and applications made for such certificates. By July 1998 the work to establish the database had been entrusted to a working group first set up in August 1996 under the ACPO Sub-committee on the Administration of Firearms and Explosive Licensing. This was to draw up a user requirement for submission to the ACPO Police National Computer (PNC) Steering Committee and the Police Information Technology Organisation (PITO) before the end of 1998. ACPO and PITO would then assess the "operational priority" of the database in view of the competition for applications to be run on the Police and Home Office Extended Name Index (PHOENIX).[295] The user requirement had not been finalised by February 1999, when the full cost of establishing the register was estimated at £300,000-£500,000: no sum had by then been set aside to fund the project.[296] The user requirement was finally submitted to the ACPO PNC Steering Committee at the end of March 1999.[297] The PNC Steering Committee accepted the requirement, but was only able to submit it to a "full technical impact assessment" in September 1999.[298] PITO scheduled its own impact assessment to take place in February of this year, and expects it to be completed by April.[299] We find it unacceptable that no firm date can be given for the implementation of a key provision of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. We expect the Police Information Technology Organisation (PITO) and the Government to ensure the swift establishment of the national firearms certificate database, and we intend to pay close attention to the progress of this development.

199. We are appalled that the national database of certificate holders and applications is not yet in immediate prospect, over two years after the implementation of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. We regard this system, which will allow the swift and effective exchange of information on applications made for certificates between all police forces, as absolutely central to the safe and effective operation of the firearms licensing system. We are particularly concerned to note that no user requirement was agreed at the start of the process, and that a technical impact assessment has been similarly neglected.

200. Mr Clarke made the point that a national firearms register was central to attempts to tackle the problem of illegally held firearms: "the central element . . . is the establishment of a strong, clear and accurate database which can then be used to track down and identify what is not held within the law".[300] However, the final user requirement for the national register, supplied to us by Mr Hart, makes it clear that the content of the database is to be restricted to an index of all those holding or applying for a certificate: indeed, these were the provisions laid down in the 1997 Act. Details of firearms held and conditions applied are not to be maintained centrally, in part because the information is believed to be "too volatile to maintain accurately".[301] In a subsequent letter Mr Greenwood pointed out the practical difficulties in keeping a database of the recorded ownership and movements of firearms fully up-to-date.[302]

201. We are pleased to note that all but six of the police forces of England and Wales have computerised their records on the ORBIS or the SHOGUN system.[303] However, the work to link these databases to the nationwide PHOENIX system has not yet been completed. Assistant Commissioner Hart wrote to us in December to explain the reasons for the delay in implementing the system and to outline the user requirement which had been developed. Mr Clarke also wrote to tell us that ACPO's steering committee for the Police National Computer will treat the establishment of the database "as the highest priority, once current commitments have been completed", and that it will be included in the PITO business plan for 2000-01.

202. We believe it is equally important for a national firearms certificate database to record the registration details of legally-held firearms. This is an essential requirement if the problems of firearm theft and the illegal pool of firearms are to be addressed effectively. We welcome the Minister's strong commitment to the delivery of this database, and look forward to its implementation.

RENEWALS

203. In 1995 the licensing cycle was altered, and the period of validity of all firearm and shotgun certificates was lengthened from three to five years. While the two-year moratorium on renewals which this extension effectively provided in 1998 and 1999 has enabled firearms licensing divisions to manage their workloads more effectively, the Police Federation deplored the significant lengthening of the period between assessments of fitness. Of equal concern to the Federation was the introduction of the practice of postal renewals in some forces, which substantially diminished the level of personal contact between licensing department and certificate holder.[304] The Scottish police associations stated that "changes . . . invariably take place [between renewals] and on many occasions do not come to attention until renewal inquiries are instigated".[305]

204. Mr Greenwood did not believe that reducing the renewal period of a licence would be particularly effective in determining whether a certificate holder had become unfit to possess firearms: a greater use of intelligence and cross-checking between police departments could be more effective.[306] The British Association for Shooting and Conservation believed that the period of certificate validity should remain at five years, as chief constables had the power to review "good reason" requirements during the period of validity of the certificate.[307] Nevertheless, we note that it is now possible that ten years or more may pass without direct and personal contact between a certificate holder and his licensing authority. This cannot be beneficial to the safe and effective administration of a process intended to assess an individual's fitness to possess firearms. We believe that periodic personal contact between the licensing authority and the certificate holder is vital for the safe and effective administration of the firearms licensing system.

205. We recommend that renewals of firearm and shotgun certificates should be maintained on a five-yearly basis, but that a home visit by a firearms inquiry officer should be an integral part of the renewal process for firearm and shotgun certificates; and that the practice of postal renewals of certificates should be discontinued.

FEES

206. The levels at which fees are presently set have been criticised by several individual shooters, and the BSSC called for greater transparency in the development of the fee structure. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation stated that certificate fees have since 1968 "consistently outstripped inflation", and alleged that the 1991 Campbell Beattie survey had found that the actual cost of issuing certificates was on average two-thirds of the issue fee.[308] A BASC-commissioned survey conducted at the same time had estimated that the fees charges were over double the estimated processing costs. The BASC recommended that no new scale of fees be introduced until "a properly constituted working group has been set up to examine core costs".[309]

207. Assistant Commissioner Hart confirmed to us that all licensing divisions were now run on a full cost recovery basis. The Minister provided us with the present scale of licensing fees, made under the Firearms (Variation of Fees) Order 1994: we set out the main fees in Table 3. A new scale of fees is presently awaiting approval by the ACPO Council and will then be submitted to Ministers for consideration. Mr Clarke supported the setting of fees on a full cost recovery basis, and believed that amendments to the fee levels were justified in the light of the impact of the 1997 legislation and the development of good practice in firearms licensing departments.

TABLE 4: FIREARM LICENSING FEES IN FORCE

Firearm certificate: grant
 renewal
 variation to raise number of firearms
 replacement of lost or destroyed certificate
£56
£46
£26
£9
Shotgun certificate: grant
 renewal
 replacement of lost or destroyed certificate
£43
£18
£8
Firearms dealer: registration
 temporary transfer of place of business (e.g. to a weekend fair)
 renewal of registration
£118
£18
£50
Shooting club: approval by Home Departments £84
Museum firearm licence: grant*
 extension to additional premises
up to £200
£ 75
British Visitors Firearm or Shotgun Permit: individual grant
 group grant (up to 20 persons)
£12
£60

†Firearms (Variation of Fees) Order 1994: set out in Appendix 60
*A typical overall charge is made up of a Home Office fee of £75, plus police security inspection costs (depending on the size and nature of premises) of up to £125.

208. We welcome the Minister's stated intention of consulting the British Shooting Sports Council on the new scale of firearms administration fees before laying any amending Order before Parliament. We intend to examine the Order once it is laid.[310] We understand that the improvements in the licensing system which we recommend and support have to be paid for. We therefore welcome the Minister's assurance to us that the cost of the national firearms database will not be subject to any form of cost recovery via the fee structure in the future.[311]

209. A system of firearms licensing which is fair and effective is not cost-free. We believe that shooters will recognise this and be prepared to bear their part of the burden. The present levels of fee payable for the grant or renewal of a firearm or a shotgun certificate do not seem to us to be prohibitive, compared with the outlay a shooter may make for club memberships, ammunition and the like. We believe that the fees for the licensing of firearms should continue to be set at levels which enable full recovery of costs. However, we also expect a licensing system which is funded on this basis to provide fair and equal treatment to all certificate holders.

210. We have made a number of recommendations for changes in the licensing system. In particular we have recommended the effective consolidation of the licensing regime for shotguns and section 1 firearms in respect of

  • fitness to possess firearms
  • good reason to possess firearms
  • referees supporting an application.

We expect that the consolidations and simplifications to the firearms licensing system which we have recommended will contain licensing costs, and may even reduce them in the long term.


278   The Metropolitan Police firearms inquiry units are all staffed by serving officers. Strengths of police and civilian staff of firearms licensing sections in five police forces were recently published in a written answer: HC Deb, 3 April 2000, col. 382w. Back

279   Firearms Act 1968, s. 55. Back

280   The Administration of Firearms Licensing, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, 1993. Back

281   HC Deb, 9 February 2000, col. 169w.  Back

282   HC 756 (1994-95), p. 37. Back

283   Appendix 7. Back

284   Ibid. Back

285   QQ 27-28. Back

286   Appendix 12, s. 10. Back

287   Q 22. Back

288   Q 22. Back

289   Appendix 12, para. 10.5. Back

290   Appendix 34. Back

291   For instance, the British Shooting Sports Council, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Sportsman's Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Appendix 27), the Country Landowners Association (Appendix 31) and the Bath Historical Breechloading and Muzzleloading Club (Appendix 45). Back

292   Appendix 20, para 9.2. Back

293   Q 29 (Mr Gammon (PSA) and Mr Broughton (Police Federation)). Back

294   Q 28. Back

295   HL Deb, 3 September 1998, col. 16w, 22 July 1998, col. 118w, and 16 November 1998, cols. 135-36w. Back

296   HL Deb, 4 February 1999, col. 228w. Back

297   HL Deb, 31 March 1999, col. 79w. Back

298   HL Deb, 11 October 1999, col. 15w. Back

299   HL Deb, 10 November 1999, col. 174w. Back

300   Q 391. Back

301   Letter from Assistant Commissioner Hart (Appendix 3), enclosing the user requirement for a National Firearms Certificate Register on PNC Names (not printed). Back

302   Appendix 10. Back

303   HL Deb, 10 November 1999, cols. 177-178w. Back

304   QQ 13-15. Back

305   Appendix 4. Back

306   Q 93. Back

307   Appendix 20, para 6.7. Back

308   Appendix 20, section 6. Back

309   Ibid., para 6.6. Back

310   HC Deb, 9 February 2000, cols. 168-69w. Orders made under s. 43 of the Firearms Act 1968 are subject to the negative procedure. The Order currently in force is the Firearms (Variation of Fees) Order 1994 (S.I., 1994, No. 2615). Back

311   Appendix 60. Back


 
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