Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 10

Additional memorandum by Mr Colin Greenwood

FIREARMS CONTROLS IN BRITAIN: COMMENT ON THE PROPOSED FIREARMS DATABASE

  1.  In his oral evidence to the Committee on 7 December 1999, Assistant Commissioner Hart was unable to provide details of progress being made on the establishment of a national database as required by Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, and he undertook to write to the Committee. He has done so, providing information about what the database may include when it is available, but being unable to indicate when it may come into operation, though he suggests it might be in Summer 2001.

  2.  It is important to note that what is proposed in Section 39 is NOT a firearms database, but a database of those authorised to possess firearms with some additional details. Mr Hart makes clear the police view that a database of firearms and other certificate details is not practicable for the reasons given in paragraph 3 of the police user requirement.

  3.  I agree that an attempt to centrally record all firearms in circulation in this country would present too many difficulties to be practical. At present transactions between dealers including the movement of firearms from one dealer to another on approval, on sale or return, for repair or other reasons are recorded only in the dealers' registers of transactions which are subject to police inspection and checking. Movements of firearms from certificate holders to dealers for repair and for other similar reasons are not notified to the police. Sales and other permanent transfers must be reported to the police within seven days (1997 Act, Section 33). Movements of firearms are very frequent and police have details of only some such movements after a delay.

  4.  Problems in tracing firearms remain. A firearm may be found, or recovered after a crime, and police will wish to make every effort to trace the original owner. If the firearm was legally held and has been stolen or lost, the matter should have been reported to the police and will be recorded on the PNC. If no deails are found on the PNC, the only further enquiry at the present time is by publishing details with a request for information or by making direct enquiry from each individual police force or from those police forces most likely to be able to provide the answer.

  5.  Most firearms used in crime are illegally held and will not be recorded on any database but some firearms which have been stolen are used in crime and a theft may not have been discovered or reported. An investigating officer is likely to wish to explore all avenues by which a firearm might be traced.

  6.  Whilst it is unarguable that the most important feature of any database at national or local level is to be able to identify the very small number of people, whether applicants or existing certificate holders, who should not have certificates and there is also merit in making available details of firearms legally held in some instances. If local information could be networked, this need not confuse any national database.

  7.  It may be significant that the proposal which was eventually incorporated into Section 39 did not come from the police or the Home Office, but in an Amendment tabled at the Committee Stage in the House of Lords. (House of Lords Report, 21 January 1997, Col 609 etc). Lord Marlseford withdrew his Amendment at that time, but reinstated it at the Report Stage (House of Lords Report, 4 February 1997, Col 1636) when it was forced to a Division and carried. I enclose the relevant part of the Reports for ease of reference.[16] The statements of the then Home Office Minister in opposing the amendment contain some important information.

  8.  The then Minister referred to a Home Office Committee set up in 1991. That is "The Report of the Working Group on the Administration of the Firearms Licensing System" and is dated November 1991. It devotes just one paragraph to the problem. A copy of that is attached at "A" for convenience.[17] The comment is based on the Campbell Beattie Report which is dealt with at Part I, para 66 of my initial submission. In her comments in 1997, the Minister did not say that a further report by HM Inspector of Constabulary highlighted the same failure two years later (my submission, Part I Para 68 to 70).

  9.  She then gave firm assurances that, five years after the Home Office recognised the problem, work on a register of firearm certificate holders was "high on a list of priorities for development in the PHOENIX police computer system" (4 February 1997, Col 1641). The House did not feel able to accept her assurances, possibly understanding that this particular Phoenix was unlikely to rise from the ashes.

  10.  However, the Lord's Amendment was worded to require that a database "shall be established" without specifying who was responsible. In a Parliamentary Reply on 18 January 2000 (Col 270W), the present Minister indicated that no-one was actually responsible but that the work is still being progressed as part of PHOENIX, apparently just as it would have been if Section 39 had never existed.

  11.  The Reply of 18 January contains further information which indicates why police intelligence systems cannot operate effectively across police boundaries. In England and Wales, 24 police forces use a computer system called "ORBIS", 13 use one called SHOGUN and six use various other systems. It is understood that the various systems cannot communicate with each other and, in any event, few of them include any intelligence provision.

  12.  The situation was (and still is) that most police forces have no system in place for conveying to their firearms department the fact that a certificate holder has been arrested for, or convicted of, a serious criminal offence. Possibly more importantly, they have no means of conveying information about incidents such as domestic disputes.

  13.  In Part IV of my submission para 82 to 87, I deal with the fact that police (and particularly the Police Federation at Para 2.2 of their submission) wish to compensate for the absence of any intelligence system by reducing the life of firearm certificates from five to three years. Campbell Beattie reports that in 1991 the annual cost of administering the firearms licensing system with a three year renewal cycle was £8.5 million. A change to five yearly renewals must have reduced that cost significantly, not perhaps by two fifths, but by something of the order of £1.5 million per year. The cost of the computer system is said to be £500,000 and annual running costs are not shown, though they must be low and are probably less than current reactive enquiry systems. On economical grounds alone, the intelligence system is more effective.

  14.  The economics of the case are, however, the least significant part. The point was well made by Campbell Beattie that discovering that a person had become unsuitable to possess firearms only at the time of a renewal is like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. I was asked in oral evidence whether I supported the increased use of a police intelligence system (question 92). I replied that I was in favour of introducing such a system. In fact, no effective system has ever existed and it does not appear that such a system is to be created in the foreseeable future.

  15.  The complete absence of an efficient intelligence system is highlighted in the form now used by police to report on applications for the grant or renewal of certificates (copy of the relevant part attached at "B"[18]) in which the enquiring officer is required to check out no less than six sets of records. Whilst such checks are essential prior to the grant of a new certificate, the fact that they have to be made on renewal indicates that, in the vast majority of cases no system exists even at force level for information from these departments to be routinely passed to the firearms department when the holder of a certificate is involved. It is this type of check at local level which might identify a potential problem. To wait until the certificate is due for renewal before attempting to identify a potential problem is, indeed, closing the stable door...

  16.  It should be noted, however, that high profile tragedies like that at Dunblane would have been prevented by the simple application of standard procedures without any recourse to police intelligence. Hamilton did not qualify to be granted his first certificate, nor did he qualify for the many later renewals. All relevant information was readily available to police and the only failing was within the police force concerned.

  17.  The proposed national database will have value in only a tiny number of cases and, as proposed, it will be pro-active only in the case of an arrest or summons for a recordable offence. It will not be pro-active in respect of incidents such as domestic disputes which in rare instances could lead to domestic homicide (the only class of homicide in which legally held firearms are used to any extent). It does not appear to be pre-active in matters such as drink driving, possession of drugs etc which are also relevant. Further, at 4.3, it is made clear that there will be a delay of one week in notifying forces of an arrest for a serious recordable crime.

  18.  The proposed scheme may come into operation in Summer 2001, but if details are fed in at renewal time, a further five years will elapse before it is fully operational. This means that 10 to 15 years will have elapsed since the glaringly obvious problem was first formally identified. Even then, the system will serve only part of the need for intelligence leading to the identification of those who should not be granted a certificate or whose certificate should be revoked.

  19.  Planning was supposedly active for many years before the 1997 Act came into effect and the predicted commencement date seems, even now, to be more of a hope than an expectation.

  20.  In the short term the most significant advance in the use of intelligence could be made by requiring each police force to ensure that systems are created to automatically advise the firearms department when any certificate holder is arrested for any crime or involved a range of incidents which would need to be specified. Criminal intelligence requirements should demand that such information concerning a person residing in another police area is automatically passed to that police force where it would be similarly processed.

  21.  The tracing of recovered firearms which originated in another force area would be enhanced if police forces were required to adopt compatible computer systems and network them between firearms departments.

  22.  Failure to take positive action at Home Office level is usually excused by saying that this is an operational matter about which the Home Secretary can do no more than issue guidance. In fact, this is an administrative matter and Sections 53 and 55 of the 1968 Act, continuing a power which has existed since 1920, allow the Secretary of State to make Rules "generally for carrying the Act into effect" and "to regulate the manner in which chief officers of police are to carry out their duties under this Act."

23 January 2000


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