Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Supplementary note by Mr Charles Clarke MP, Minister of State, Home Office



  Further to our discussions on 11 January, I undertook to write to you about a number of issues relating to the control of firearms. I have also received your letter of 21 January[125] seeking further information on a number of points. It may be helpful if I seek to answer these points in turn.

  Firstly, you asked for a fuller explanation of the changes to the counting rules as they apply to the recording of criminal offices.

  Back in the late 1980s, Sir Stanley Bailey in his capacity as Chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) Crime Committee was instrumental in setting up a Working Party reporting to the Criminal Statistics Committee. The working party consisted of Home Office officials, police statistics officers and ACPO representatives. A report listing a set of measures was produced in 1991. At the time the estimate was that these measures would result in a 20 per cent increase in recorded crime.

  The present Government recognised that there was a need for changes, particularly in the light of the HMIC review of recording practices which suggested a complete overhaul of the counting rule instructions. Given the go-ahead by the Home Secretary, a Steering Group was set up consisting of the Home Office, police force statistics officers, ACPO representatives and operational officers. The package which was produced was largely based on the recommendations of the original working party. The Royal Statistical Society and leading academics in the field of criminology were consulted concerning the changes in the counting rules.

  The change in counting rules was announced by the Home Secretary on 1 October 1997. The changes were described by Alun Michael MP in written answers to parliamentary questions on 20 January 1998 and 23 March 1998.

  The rules adopted from 1April 1998 include an extension of coverage of notifiable offences, which means that all indictable and triable either way offences, plus those summary offences closely related to an existing indictable offence or triable either way offence are included. The increase in coverage includes firearms offences, common assault, assault on a constable and certain Public Order offences. All offences of criminal damage are recorded irrespective of the value of the property damaged.

  The revisions to the counting rules incorporated the basic principle of one crime per victim. Thus, the collective protection rule was abolished. Under this rule, if 20 vehicles in a secure car park were broken into, then only one offence was counted. Under the new rules there are 20 offences and therefore 20 victims.

  The introduction of these measures also gave the opportunity to move to a financial year basis, which is in line with how forces present their data in terms of the Chief Constables' annual reports. This reduces the problems caused by police forces having to produce figures for two different time periods. Also, we were able to cut some of the burden to forces by collecting data on a quarterly basis rather than monthly.

  In order to be able to make some comparisons on recorded crime before and after the change in counting rules, a linking exercise was undertaken. This showed that there was an overall increase of 14 per cent in recorded crime figures due to the change in counting rules. The change impacted differently on different offence groups, with those recording violence against the person, fraud and forgery, drugs offences and "other" offences being most affected in percentage terms.

  Ideally, the Home Office wished for a full double count of recorded crime in each police force area under both the old and new counting rules for a year. We would then have been able to assess exactly the effect of the change in counting rules. However, after discussion with ACPO, it was decided that this was not possible. The 14 per cent figure mentioned above therefore included sample-based estimates. It was not feasible to set up a sampling exercise to ascertain the effect of the change on firearms offences.

  You also asked for a full list of the controls that apply to low-powered air weapons. Low-powered in this context means weapons that are capable of inflicting a lethal injury if they strike a vulnerable area, (roughly one foot-pound of muzzle energy) but do not exceed the limits set by the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969. These are set at muzzle energies of six foot pounds for pistols and 12 foot pounds for other air weapons (ie air rifles). More powerful airguns are subject to licensing and in the case of powerful air pistols, prohibited as with other handguns.

  When these levels were set in 1969, I understand that they were intended to include those types of air weapons in common circulation at that time. These in turn were based, for air rifles, around the muzzle energy needed for shooting small vermin such as rats or rabbits. The limit for air pistols was intended to reduce the likely harm these might cause if misused to a minimum.

  These muzzle energies are considerably lower than those of conventional firearms in the same calibre. The muzzle energy of a .22 rimfire rifle, for example, the least powerful common conventional rifle used for vermin shooting, has a muzzle energy of some 60 foot pounds.

  A summary of the main controls on the possession and use of air weapons are set out in our leaflet "Air Weapons: Be Safe". It may be helpful if I quote the relevant sections of that leaflet which may be clearer than reference to the detailed provisions of the Firearms Acts and other legislation.


  It is illegal to:

    —  carry a loaded air weapon in a public place—Sentence—up to six months in prison, or a fine of up to £5,000, or both;

    —  trespass (enter property without the owner's consent) in a building with an air weapon—Sentence—up to three months in prison, or a fine of up to £2,500, or both;

    —  trespass on private land with an air weapon—Sentence—up to three months in prison, or a fine of up to £2,500, or both;

    —  possess or use an air weapon or ammunition if you have been sentenced to three months or more in custody. If the sentence was up to three years, you are banned from using any air weapon or other firearm, for five years from the date you were released. If the sentence was more than three years you are banned for life—Sentence—up to three years in prison, or a fine of up to £5,000, or both;

    —  kill or injure any bird or protected animal unless you are authorised to do so under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981—Sentence—a fine of up to £5,000;

    —  fire an air weapon within 15 metres (50 feet) of a road or street—Sentence—a fine of up to £1,000;

    —  sell or hire an air weapon or ammunition to a person under 17—Sentence—up to six months in prison, or a fine of up to £5,000, or both; and

    —  make a gift of an air weapon or ammunition to a person under 14—Sentence—a fine of up to £1,000.

  Having an air weapon or ammunition which you intend to use to damage property is a serious offence—Sentence—up to 10 years in prison. If you have an air weapon which you intend to use to endanger life, or you use one to resist or prevent arrest, the offence is even more serious—Sentence—life imprisonment, or a fine, or both. Threatening other people with an air weapon (even if it is not loaded) in such a way as to cause them to believe that unlawful violence may be used against them is another serious offence—Sentence—up to 10 years imprisonment or a fine or both.


  If you are between 14 and 17, you can be given or lent an air weapon or ammunition but you can't buy or hire them yourself. You can:

    —  carry an air rifle (but not an air pistol) in a public place as long as it is covered with a securely fastened gun cover that prevents it from being fired;

    —  use an air weapon for target practice at an approved club if you are a member of that club; and

    —  use an air weapon at a shooting gallery for air weapons or miniature rifles.


  You need a firearm certificate if you want to acquire, possess or use an air rifle that is described as being specially dangerous by the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969. You may not possess an air pistol described as being especially dangerous by those Rules unless you have the written authority of the Secretary of State. Ask the police if you're not sure.


  If you are under 14 you cannot buy, hire, be given or own an air weapon or ammunition. You can only use one if:

    —  you are supervised by someone over 21 and you do not shoot beyond the boundaries of the place where you are using it; or

    —  you are a member of an approved club and you are using the weapon for target practice at that club; or

    —  you are using an air weapon at a shooting gallery for air weapons or miniature rifles.

  The leaflet also includes information on shooting clubs and in particular on the safe handling of air weapons. Most fatalities and serious injuries caused by air weapons appear to be the result of accident or mischance rather than a serious attempt to kill or injure another persons.

  You also asked about the use of "low x-ray machines" by HM Customs for the detection of smuggled firearms. I understand that HM Customs and Excise currently operate over 100 x-ray systems, including some mobile units, at ports, airports and inland clearance sites. These units are typically in the 140-160 KeV power range, capable of examining baggage, packages and palletised cargo loads.

  They have been invaluable tools since their introduction in the mid-1980s, and according to the Department's technical advisers (DERA) will not be superseded in the foreseeable future. This type of equipment provides an image showing any anomaly or discrepancy and thus supports the Department's broad range of responsibilities in maintaining controls for fiscal or protecting society purposes. The equipment is, however, not specifically used for detecting people, as most of the units do not scan packages of sufficient size.

  The Chancellor announced in the PBR the allocation of CMF monies to provide large scale, high power units capable of scanning lorries and containers. The procurement process for these systems has already begun. Whilst the provision is aimed at the disruption of revenue evasion, they will also assist the detection of weapons and drugs and would reveal any people concealed within the load.

  As regards to the four issues raised in your letter of 21 January, I shall again address them in turn.

  You asked about the division of responsibilities between the Secretary of State and Scottish Ministers in respect of the operations of the Firearms Acts 1968 to 1997 and the administration of firearms licensing by police forces.

  Although firearms policy and legislation are reserved to the Westminster Parliament, three of the licensing functions previously conferred on the Secretary of State by the Firearms Acts and exercised by the Secretary of State in relation to Scotland were transferred to Scottish Ministers as a matter of executive devolution on 1 July 1999.

  The functions that have been transferred to the Scottish Ministers by virtue of the Scotland Act 1998 (Transfer of Functions to the Scottish Ministers etc) Order 1999 are those under Section 5 (prohibited weapons) of the Firearms Act 1968, Section 15 (approval of rifle and muzzle loading pistol clubs) and the schedule (museum firearm licences) to the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 (as amended by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997). The issue of these authorities is the responsibility of the Scottish Executive Justice Department.

  The administration of firearms licensing and the issue of firearm, shotgun, dealers certificates, permits etc is carried out by police forces. The Home and Justice Departments issue guidance to the police in England, Wales and Scotland on how they should apply the law in the interests of consistency. However, the final decision as to whether a certificate should be granted rests with the Chief Constable.

  To ensure uniformity of practice on all firearms matters north and south of the border, officials of the Scottish Executive Justice Department, the Scotland Office and the Home Office are in constant close contact. In addition, Mr Ian Sneddon, Head of Police Division at the Justice Department and Mr Graham Bennet, Deputy Chief Constable of Fife Constabulary are members of the Firearms Consultative Committee.

  Turning to the scale of fees and charges applicable under the Firearms Acts 1968 to 1997, these may be varied by Order and were set by the Firearms (Variation of Fees) Order 1994 as follows:

    —  for the grant of a firearm certificate, a fee of £56;

    —  for the renewal of a firearm certificate, a fee of £46;

    —  for any variation of a firearm certificate (otherwise than when it is renewed at the same time) so as to increase the number of firearms to which the certificate relates, a fee of £26;

    —  for the replacement of a firearm certificate that has been lost or destroyed, a fee of £9;

    —  on the grant of a shotgun certificate a fee of £43;

    —  on the renewal of a shotgun certificate a fee of £18;

    —  on the replacement of a shotgun certificate that has been lost or destroyed, a fee of £8;

    —  on the registration of a person as a firearms dealer, a fee of £118;

    —  on the temporary registration of a place of business in another area (for example at a game fair or trade fair), a fee of £18;

    —  for the renewal of a certificate of registration as a firearms dealer; a fee of £50;

    —  for the approval of a target shooting club by the Home Departments, a fee of £84;

    —  for the grant of a British Visitors Firearms Permit or British Visitors Shotgun Permit (BVP), the fee of £12;

    —  for the grant of a British Visitors Group Firearms Permit or British Visitors Group Shotgun Permit, which may include up to twenty people, the fee of £60;

    —  for the grant of a museum firearms licence, a fee of £200 or such lesser amount as the Secretary of State may determine. In practice, the Home Office will charge a fee of £75 plus police security inspection costs of up to £125, depending on the size and nature of the premises;

    —  for the extension of a museum firearms licence to additional premises, a fee of £75.

  The Government is conscious that these fees were set before the tragic events at Dunblane and the subsequent changes to both legislation and good practice amongst police licensing departments. For this reason, we are considering amending the level of fees as currently set. Our aim has always been to set fees at a level that achieves Full Cost Recovery for the issue of the certificate concerned. This is in accord with the wider policies of successive governments on setting the level of fees and charges for public services of this kind.

  You also asked what assessment we have made of the effectiveness of the National Crime Squad (NCS) and the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NICS) in tackling the illegal importation, possession and use of firearms. You will appreciate that both organisations were set up relatively recently which means that we do not have the medium to long term information needed to assess their effectiveness in statistical terms.

  NCIS is focussed on criminals at the top end of organised crime and not on the crimes committed. Serious professional criminals will often be involved in a range of criminal enterprises, depending on the risks involved and potential profits to be made, rather than specialising in a particular type of crime. NCIS only becomes involved operationally in investigations to counter the criminal use of firearms when intelligence identifies that individuals of interest to NCIS are involved in such activities.

  NCIS has an interest in illicit firearms trafficking from a strategic perspective through analysis of the international criminal market and its potential impact on the country as part of the UK threat assessment. Other than when firearms become a feature of an intelligence-led operation, they do not feature as a high priority for NCIS. If organised and professional criminals were seeking to import firearms on a large scale we are confident that this would be identified as such.

  The National Crime Squad is mandated to tackle serious and organised national and transnational crime. In that capacity it will investigate criminal offences where firearms are being unlawfully trafficked or used. Operations are directed against the most serious criminal conspiracies and have included several successful seizures and prosecutions as well as disruptive activity which has prevented unlawful firearms from reaching the UK.

  Operations have been conducted against brokers who have arranged for firearms and explosive devices including land mines and anti-armour weapons to be imported to criminal groups in the UK. Other operations have been conducted against individuals who have unlawfully reactivated firearms which had been deactivated. Several significant cases have been prosecuted.

  Between April and December 1999, some 88 firearms and 1,160 rounds of ammunition were seized in cases involving the National Crime Squad. In the preceding year (April 1998 to March 1999) some 54 firearms and 2,677 rounds of ammunition were seized.

  While we will of course keep the work of the NCIS and NCS under review, we are confident that these are a major asset in dealing with armed crime, both in conjunction with HM Inspectorate of Constabulary specifically and in providing an overview of wider criminal activities that might attract the use of firearms.

  Finally, you asked how the national firearms database to be set up under Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 is to be funded. The police have taken the view that this database is best established as part of the development of PHOENIX. This is an acronym for the Police/Home Office Extended Names Index and is part of the Police National Computer. Clearly, given the statutory requirement for a computer system with on-line access to all police forces, it would not make sense to create a separate network outside of the PNC. Furthermore, the PHOENIX system as a whole when fully developed will contain a wide range of other information which will be of use to forces in determining whether an applicant is a fit person to have a certificate.

  The PNC and associated databases are maintained by the Police Information Technology Organisation who receive police funding for computer technology in general. There have been many competing modules in the past for PHOENIX of which the firearms database is but one. Since the PNC is an operational computer system it would not have made sense to look at the firearms application in isolation and without regard to the impact on the whole of PNC.

  The PITO work programme for any given year is decided by the board, taking into account the wide range of other projects which need to be maintained or developed and the operational requirements of the police as set by the ACPO PNC Steering Committee. I understand that the Steering Committee have agreed to treat the section 39 database as the highest priority once current commitments have been completed and that it will feature in PITO's business plan for 2000-01. The cost will not be recovered in any direct way through any sort of levy on fees for firearm and shotgun certificates although the use police make of the system in the future will be reflected in the usual way when fees are set.

  I hope that this is helpful. If the Government can be of any further assistance to your inquiry please do not hesitate to contact us. I look forward with great interest to reading your report in due course.

3 February 2000

125   Letter from the Clerk of the Committee. Back

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